Wild History – Journeys into Lost Scotland

Acclaimed author and presenter of BBC’s ‘Scotland from the Sky James Crawford introduces his favourite abandoned or ruined sites across Scotland, many of which can be visited as part of a walking exploration.

Today, we live almost entirely among the physical impression and presence of the past. Often it emerges in the shapes of our towns and cities; in the ways our fields look; in the bare reaches of our sheep-wandered hills and moorlands. Some ancient or historical sites have even been afforded special status, segregated from the present to be offered up as preserved, curated ruins and tourist attractions; even adopted as national icons. A handful receive millions of visitors each year.

But the majority do not. Rather, they exist in a state of continually fading obscurity, spread out across those parts of the landscape which people once knew, but now, largely, don’t. They are what I wanted to capture in my book Wild History. The un-curated and the ignored, the unfiltered and the abandoned. Those places that are not wilderness, but rather feel post-human: the shadows of people’s lives in the landscape, sometimes growing faint, but still persisting. They are what I mean by wild history. History set adrift, let loose, let go. History, in some sense, set free. Just there: overgrown, overlooked – and increasingly untamed.

What follows are 10 of my favourite ‘wild history’ sites, from all across Scotland.

Dun Deardail, Glen Nevis

Go back some 2,500 years ago and Dun Deardail was a hill fort boasting one of the most extreme – and spectacular – vantage points in the whole country. At a height of some 1,000 feet up the slopes of Glen Nevis, a tiny path runs off the well-trodden track of the West Highland Way to pass around the edge of a spruce plantation. Beyond the trees the fort appears in silhouette as two steep lines leading to a horizontal top, like a giant’s thumb has pushed against the summit of a triangular hill. An unbroken ring of stones still circles this summit – stones that have been fused together, or ‘vitrifired’, as a result of being superheated to over 1,000 °C, when the timber frame of the outer wall of the fort was set alight. The reason for the fire remains unknown – arson, or a grand ritual of departure? Whether prompted by violence or catharsis, it must have been an awe-inspiring sight. By contrast, Dun Deardail today is a lonely, peaceful place. Those vitrified rocks still surround its perimeter, but now they lie mostly covered by grass and soil. You can walk around this two-millennia-old ring of fire today and try to imagine putting a torch to your home and watching it burn.

Walkhighlands route to Dun Deardail

Callanish XI, Isle of Lewis

Callanish (number I) is one of the most iconic Neolithic sites in the world, receiving over 30,000 visitors a year. Its pull is so strong that many don’t realise that it is just one part of a whole ritual landscape, a series of at least 11 standing stones, burial cairns and stone circles all constructed in this same small area some 5,000 years ago. Callanish XI, for instance, is so ignored that the passage of feet has not even worn a path up to its high vantage point. Such obscurity does not, however, necessarily equate to significance. This is the only site to offer uninterrupted views to every other location in the Callanish landscape. While only one stone stands here today, new archaeological research reveals this was not always the case – geomagnetic surveys have revealed the ‘signatures’ of possibly toppled stones now covered by peat: evidence of a lost stone circle. Even more than that, they have detected the traces of the electrical impact of a lightning strike at what would have been this circle’s centre – a strike that must have been at least 3,000 years old to have hit bare rock, and leave a signature, before the arrival of the peat. Which offers up an intriguing new theory for the existence of these monuments. That they were built to either commemorate, or even call down, great bolts of electricity. Stone circles as ancient lightning rods…

Walkhighlands route at Callanish

Hermit’s Castle, Achmelvich

Sometime in the spring of 1955, a young man arrived at Achmelvich Beach, and continued up on to the headland. He met with a local crofter, explained to him that he wanted to build something there. A bothy, of a kind. Part hut, part hermit’s cell. He would craft it by hand, he said. Not with wood or stone, but with concrete. The crofter agreed to let him try. The young man’s name was David Scott. He was in his early twenties and had just qualified as an architect. It wasn’t clear why he had come here – he had travelled all the way from the north- east of England to this spot on the Assynt peninsula in the far north-west of Scotland. The locals didn’t ask too many questions. For some six months, he worked day and night on his building. He mixed the sand, the pebbles and the cement to make his concrete, doing it by hand, then poured it into the makeshift moulds of packing crates given to him by a local fisherman. Once the shell of the building was complete, Scott added glass panes to a series of tiny square windows and fitted a door to the entrance. The interior had been shaped to offer a seat, shelves and a single berth for bedding down. There was a hearth and a chimney for a fire. The story goes that, after finishing the building, Scott spent just one weekend living inside it before leaving it behind and never returning. Over time, it became known as Hermit’s Castle.

Walkhighlands route at Achmelvich (includes the castle)

Culbin Sands Poles

The Culbin Sand poles run for some nine kilometres along and across the beach. There are more than 2,000 of them – although no one has ever actually counted every single one – and they are spaced out in irregular rows, each set fifteen to twenty metres apart. The poles themselves are made from the thin trunks of Scots pine, their branches whittled away to leave slender totems, some still standing four metres tall, others broken down to stumps that only reach up to your waist. Once, they were part of a defensive ‘crust’ along the whole eastern coast of the UK, created by General Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-chief of Britain’s Home Forces during the Second World War. The great extent of Culbin’s beach was seen as a strategic weakness and potential site of invasion. Rather than an obstacle for tanks or ground troops, however, the specific purpose of the poles was to prevent an aerial invasion. They were spaced out according to the anticipated wingspans of enemy gliders. They may even have been joined together by long strings of steel wire, creating a giant labyrinth of wood and metal. Today the wires have gone. Walk out among the poles now – particularly when the sun is low in the sky and the uprights cast long shadows – and they become far less a relic of strategic military infrastructure, and far more a giant piece of land art. As if they had been designed, quite deliberately, to impose a strange and beautiful geometry on a wide and empty stretch of coastline.

Walkhighlands route to the poles at Culbin

Viking Boat Burial, Swordle Bay

Sometime around the tenth century, a group of Vikings landed on one of the beaches on the northern coast of the Ardnamurchan peninsula – at a place known as Swordle Bay. (The name itself is derived from the Old Norse for ‘green valley’.) Once there, they dragged a boat up to a grassy shelf set just above the shoreline and began to dig a long channel, big enough to fit the boat. Then within the boat, they placed the dead body of one of their crew, with the head facing west. Then they arranged possessions all around – a sword with a silver pommel and a hilt fashioned from bone, a drinking horn, pottery from the Hebrides, a bronze ring pin from Ireland, a whetsone from Norway. Stones were laid over the body, and on top of those were placed a shield and a spear. Finally, more stones and earth sealed the grave. A millennia later, and all that could be seen was a patch of rough stones in a field of buttercups. When archaeologists came to explore the site in 2011, they first thought it was debris deposited by a farmer, until they looked closer and began to see the fragments of hundreds of metal rivets all laid out in that oval pattern. What they had discovered was the first complete Viking boat burial ever found in the British Isles.

There is no formal public access. Nearest Walkhighlands route is Ockle to the Singing Sands.

Peanmeanach, Ardnish

Ardnish Peninsula is a widening fan of rocky land, shaped like an oyster’s shell, with the high, mountainous shimmer of Loch Doire a’ Gherrain as the pearl at its centre. View it on a map and you can see quite clearly how the track of the West Highland Line slices the peninsula from the mainland at the root. This was an incision that had material consequences for the people who lived here. Completed in the first year of the twentieth century, the railway effectively cut Ardnish off from the modern world. At the very tip of the peninsula is Peanmeanach. Occupied from at least as early as the Iron Age, this sheltered bay became a home to Norse settlers a millennium ago and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, was a busy fishing and crofting community of forty-eight people. A hundred years later, however, and there was only one person left. One by one, the families had packed up and gone, seeking new work and new homes as the railway bypassed Ardnish to focus the fishing trade on the harbour at Mallaig, the terminus of the West Highland Line. By 1943, Peanmeanach stood completely empty.

Walkhighlands route to Peanmeanach

Salisbury’s Dam, Isle of Rum

There is no real road on the Isle of Rum. What starts as a stretch of dusty ground, leading away from the large concrete slipway on the southern shore of Loch Scresort, deteriorates, after just a few hundred metres, to a narrow, rocky, potholed track. This track continues on to the interior of the island, winding slowly upwards along the valley of the Kinloch River. Near the headwaters of the Kinloch River, just a little off the track down a slope of dense heather and wild grass, you can find a huge curving wall, easily six metres in height, formed of solid blocks of pinkish sandstone. It runs out, tall and imposing, straight across the river valley. Until, that is, it comes to an abrupt and rather dramatic halt. Only around half of the wall remains: thirty metres of it, bending out from the eastern bank of the river. The final stretch, joining it to the western bank, has gone completely. This wall was the brainchild of Viscount Cranborne, the son of the mid-19th century owner of Rum, the Marquis of Salisbury. Having bought the island to turn it into a sporting estate, the family needed to engineer a river deep enough for salmon. The viscount’s plan was to block and divert one river to increase the size of the other. And it worked. For two days that is. Until the entire western side of the dam collapsed, leaving the shattered ruin that remains today.

Walkhighlands route to Hallival via the dam

John Randolph, Torrisdale Bay

A narrow road from the tiny hamlet of Borgie leads to a path down to Torrisdale Bay – a wide, lonely expanse of pinkish sands. At the tideline, you can spot a broken triangle of metal, like the lower part of a giant jaw: the wreck of John Randolph. What is buried here is the prow – deceptively small for a ship that was actually 400-feet-long. Born in the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore in 1941, she originally weighed over 7,000 tons – a Liberty-class cargo ship built by women shipyard workers to help win what was known as the ‘tonnage war’. In simple terms, the aim was for one side in WWII to sink more ships than the other was capable of building. In July 1942 John Randolph was part of a convoy that sailed by accident into the Northern Barrage minefield in the seas to the north of Iceland. She hit a mine, exploded, and split in two. The aft sank, but the forepart washed up on Iceland’s coast, and was salvaged by the US Navy – brought to the port at Reykjavik so that her still working crane could be used for cargo-handling. She stayed there for a decade, until the summer of 1952, when the decision was taken to tow her remains to a shipbreaking yard at Bo’ness. On 1 September, a tugboat began to pull her south through the Atlantic. Four days later, however, caught in high winds and rough seas off the north coast of Scotland, she broke free. The forepart was seen drifting steadily inland. Later that night, she became imbedded in the sands of Torrisdale Bay. She has never moved again.

Walkhighlands route at Torrisdale Bay

Square Cairn Graves, Isle of Eigg

At the southern end of the great, wide, C-curve beach of Traigh Chlithe on the Isle of Eigg, the shoreline rises in terraces. Heaps of sand and soil have been blown into steps that lift the earth higher every few metres inland, like a series of petrified waves. It is here that you can find the cairn cemetery. Or what is left of it. The bodies were buried close together, in three rows. Each grave was lined with dressed stones, then sealed above with a large slab of rock. On top of the slab, and laid out in a perfect square, came cobbles that built up into a cairn. Eight of the graves were on the lowest terrace, five on the next level, and a further two – which were the largest, at nearly five metres square – were positioned above them. Now, in place of the cairns, are hollows. The fifteen graves are still visible but all have depressions at their centres: at some point, they were dismantled and opened up. Was it robbery? Removal of the bodies to take them to some other site, or removal of the stones for building work? Even their age is a mystery. Similar square-cairn graves are thought to date from Pictish times, around a millennium and a half ago – although almost all have been found in northern and eastern Scotland. Apart from a single similar grave that was discovered in South Uist in 1998, these are the only examples of their kind on the west coast and the islands. A sign, perhaps, of a Pictish presence far beyond what has normally been considered as the limits of their kingdom? Or the evidence of a small community who came here in exile, or fled from the east – yet still buried their number according to the old ways, following the only traditions that they knew?

Walkhighlands route to Traigh Chlithe (Bay of Laig)

Shiaba, Isle of Mull

When the eviction notice was served on the community of Shiaba on the ROss of Mull in 1845, it was the most prosperous township in the district. It had never missed a rental payment and had, as one resident put it, been occupied by the tenants and their forefathers ‘since time immemorial’. This was a large settlement on rich, fertile land. It included kailyards, byres, a shop and a schoolhouse. They grew vegetables, potatoes, corn and barley – drying the grain in purpose-built kilns and grinding it in two watermills. They kept horses, sheep and herds of cattle. The name Shiaba itself came from the cattle – from the Gaelic nan sia ba, meaning ‘of the six cows’. Down on the shoreline were two fishermen’s cottages. The clearance began in the summer of 1847. Some twenty-three households dwindled down to four and then, finally, just one – the family left behind to look after the land’s new occupants, a flock of sheep. Most travelled to Canada, boarding a boat that picked them up from the beach below the fishermen’s cottages. Today, Shiaba is reduced to a crumbling footprint. Not surprisingly, the most intact building is the former shepherd’s cottage – occupied until 1937, when its entire roof was torn off in a storm. Of course, the family who lived there would already have seen all the other roofs of Shiaba blow off, until it was only their own that was left. They would have witnessed, in real time, exactly what happens when you break a very long chain of occupation on a piece of land.

Walkhighlands route to Shiaba

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