A few lines of verse lured me to Raasay; haunting Highland words by a renowned Gael about the passing of time and the mass clearance of island people from their land and heritage. “Time, the deer, is in Hallaig wood…” it begins.
I walked along the ancient bracken path, through Hallaig’s thicket of birch trees to the soft greenness of the township’s terraced landscape, a raised beach with a still sea below and the crags of volcanic Dun Caan high above. It was a September day in any year in the last century and in the sunlight I ached for the Highland diaspora transported by ships from this homeland to a new, unknown world. Reports of the time say some were forced aboard vessels clutching grass from their ancestors graves, a fraying thread to their history and a land they knew they’d never see again.
I found stones. Moss on stones. Stone built high, still forming the outline of a home. Fallen gables and gaping holes. And lines of stones harvested from village houses to make a holding for sheep, the new inhabitants of Hallaig and Screapadal and all the other cleared villages across the Highlands.
The sun shone, casting shadows on the rough edges of grey and pink. Clouds scudded over and fattening lambs snoozed in the lee of tumbledown lintels. And I sat too and read Sorley MacLean’s words among gentle ghosts, the faint imaginings of children playing in the burn and phrases of gaelic whispered on the breeze.
There will always be an emptiness here but moss, the marker of time, now smothers the sharpest of grief. And after only a few hours in Hallaig it’s not easy to turn and walk away.
Wild squalls blustered down to batter us at an exposed 3400ft and swathes of swirling mist chose that moment to lock down all the views. But at the first glimpse of the white stuff in the corries to the north I knew snowball fights were inevitable. Equally predictable, once the missiles were fired, was my role as a human shield. Mothers know their place even when the “kids” are nearing 30.
Solitary Ben Wyvis lies midway on the road to Scotland’s west coast from Inverness. It’s not a magnificent hill; it can’t boast fine lines or soaring crags, but (on a fine day) it’s renowned for the extensive vistas to east and west. I’ve driven past it for 35 years and yesterday we climbed it on a day of rain, mist, gale-force wind and the very occasional blink of weak sunshine.
So it’s not for a fine panorama of Highland scenery that I’ll cherish the day, but the rare company of both my boys. The younger one is home from New Zealand for a brief visit and the three of us were on a long-promised Highland hike. Tents, sleeping bags, food, stoves, rucksacks and three full-sized adults were stuffed into my Mini and we headed north to a soundtrack of atrocious weather forecasts.
The tents remained unpacked and instead we retreated to climbers’ hostels with their accompanying pubs, pool tables, wifi and big industrial kitchens. Yet the hills still beckoned even when we couldn’t see them for the torrential rain or misted-up windows. We reviewed our ambitions and instead of aiming for long multi-mountain circuits we chose Ben Wyvis. We strolled gently through dripping birch woods; followed tumbling Highland streams to lower slopes then climbed steep stone steps as views teased and then evaporated.
Mist soared upwards in spins and wisps then closed in to hide everything but the few feet in front of us. Then suddenly we were up on the broad high ridge that stretches for a couple of kilometres along to the peak of Glas Leathad Mor. A rocky outcrop gave shelter to munch sandwiches and chocolate then we piled on every last piece of warm clothing to reach the cairn at the far end of the ridge. The thick snow that lay clumped and accessible in the corries was an entertaining distraction from the cold and wet. A solitary ptarmigan disguised as a rock made a dash from his hiding hole then sat stock still as we watched and took pictures. Pints in the bar and fish and chips were our reward then card games and drams from a hip flask entertained us. I was in my bunk long before the boys (ok, men) but wakened to the sight of their sleeping heads on nearby pillows. It has been a while so yes, I know it’s soppy and I’m biased, but it was the best view of the week.
There’s a popular Scottish song that tells of the travelling people who leave their stationary winter quarters to set off on the road “when the yellow’s on the broom” at this time of year.
“We’ll meet up wi’ oor kinfolk
From a’ the country roon’
When the ganaboot folk tak’ the road
And the yellow’s on the broom”
I didn’t walk past any broom today, but for mile after dazzling mile the yellow was thick and heavily scented on the gorse; weak lemony pale on the daffodils; and the dandelions shone brightly, luring in the bees and butterflies from miles around. It was one long Mellow Yellow Scottish spring day.
I should have been working, of course. Or packing for The Big Move later in the week. Or cleaning. Or researching. But the sun was forcing its brightness around the black-out blinds when I opened my eyes this morning, and I couldn’t resist. I’ve been following Trepidatious Traveller Maggie’s adventures (http://magwood.me ) on her latest Spanish Camino these last few days and have been itching to get on the road myself, so on a whim I abandoned the world of work and set off on the first 12 miles of the long-distance West Highland Way.
And it all came rushing back: the satisfying crunch of boots on gravel; a pack strapped to my back; the adventure of the open road; sun shadows, random encounters and conversations with strangers. I hummed the Yellow on the Broom tune as I walked towards the hills and reflected on my own nomadic experiences these past three years.
The rootless chapter of my recent life will close this week when I get the keys for my little fisherman’s house by the sea. The wandering years opened my eyes but I need a home again. Even when the countryside is yellow.
A storm of solar dust; the glorious Northern Lights; an almost total eclipse of the sun; and then the equinox and some of the highest tides in a century. It has been a heady week of spacey stuff.
I wasn’t prepared for the disruption it would bring. Any yet I should have known there would be repercussions, after the way Hale-Bopp streaked across the sky and wreaked wonder and havoc in my life back in the Nineties. I remember first catching sight of the Great Comet ploughing through the stars above my hill and knowing at once that it signalled something momentous.
This time the disruption began just as the eclipse cast its shadow then returned the world to daylight. Impulsively I decided to view a property that’s for sale in the village, just as a distraction from work – or so I thought.
And while it may be back to business as usual in the Heavens, my world is still in disarray. Will I? Won’t I? Should I make my (tiny) home by the edge of the sea in a holiday village that’s a ghost town in winter and a heaving mass of tourism in summer? I need a handhold on stability after three nomadic years so the promise of sea views and a fire for the winter has a strong appeal.
I took a long walk along the coast as the high tide flooded the path and white froth crashed over fences and gates, blurring the line between grass and the green deep. The world sparkled around me and the path meandered through the streets, right past the door of the cottage. Eclipse Karma.
… and hitch an effortless ride on the swings.
You’re never too old for a play park or climbing trees. Right?
I suspect there will be yet more tricky twists and turns to negotiate in 2015. But for now the sun is shining in Aberdeenshire’s wintry woods. Happy New Year.
…but just like so much of this beautiful land, the underlying decay and centuries of wasted opportunity becomes clear when you look a little closer. Just 432 families own half of Scotland, few are Scots and many are absentee aristocrats, bankers or oligarchs who visit their Highland playgrounds for just a week or two a year. Or, in some cases, never.
Our history of land ownership has been so wrong for so long we’d almost given up hope of change. But this week the Scottish Government finally announced plans for radical land reform. Legislation is on the cards to improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership. And there will be new Government powers to intervene where a landowner acts as a barrier to development.
There are plans to establish a Scottish Land Reform Commission. New taxes will require to be paid by shooting estates and used to pay for an increase in the fund that supports community land ownership.
It won’t be enough to change everything that’s wrong with land ownership in Scotland overnight. It won’t break up the vast estates that are in the hands of foreign investors or give young farmers access to land and the opportunities they need. But for future generations there is now a chink of hope that Scotland’s land will eventually be returned to its people. And that is something to celebrate.