Who owns this landscape?-/The millionaire who bought it or/the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning/with a deer on his back?/Who possesses this landscape?-/The man who bought it or/I who am possessed by it? NORMAN MACCAIG A Man In Assynt
Just north of Ullapool is the National Nature Reserve at Knochan Crag. I drove there on the Monday I returned from Lewis, and idled round the short nature trail which winds across this geologically famous cliff. Every now and then you stumble upon minimalist rock sculptures and fragments of Noman MacCaig's poetry set in stone. From the top of the crag you look out over an extensive, glaciated, grey-blue, grey-green world of scoured valleys, bare, rugged mountains and tiny lochans. This ancient, deserted landscape - it's the parish of Assynt in the Scottish region of west Sutherland - contains some of the oldest rocks to be found anywhere. And, in nearby caves, the bones of extinct bears, wolves and reindeer have been discovered.
Deserted. Or, more accurately, cleared. For, in 18th and 19th century Highland Scotland, a forced evacuation of the peasant population took place with even more devastating effect than that produced by the English Enclosure Acts (which I've written about before). Scottish landowners - in a bid to improve profitability by turning huge areas of land over to sheep farming - ran roughshod over the old, cottage-economy, crofting culture of the Highlands. Whole communities were broken up and scattered to lowland and coastal areas. Entire populations of hills and valleys emigrated westwards (which is why one meets so many people of Scottish descent in the Americas - from Canada to Patagonia). Poverty, economic forces, the process of clearance and other self-interested acts by a relatively small number of rich, private landowners - these are the reasons why this part of Scotland is so depopulated. Although some landowners were comparatively benign, and tried to create a sustainable life for their tenants under the new farming system, others were notoriously cruel - such as the 19th century Countess of Sutherland, who quite literally burned crofters out of their homes, and whose name, even today, is mentioned only in hushed, shocked tones by present-day Sutherlanders.
I continued through this vast, humbling landscape, in the shadow of the Ben More massif, to the castle of Ardvreck, romantically situated on the northern shore of Loch Assynt (see pic). I paused a while and explored its ruined tower. It's beautiful there, with the rocky fortress of Quinag to the north, and the distinctive peaks and ridges of Canisp and Suilven to the south. At the end of the glen is the little fishing village of Lochinver, and just to the south of Lochinver, on the road to Inverpolly Lodge and Altandhu, lies Inverkirkaig, at the head of Loch Kirkaig - a sheltered sea inlet into which the lively river Kirkaig flows. It was here the poet Norman MacCaig spent his summers fishing in the lochs and lochans, and no doubt honing his fine, pithy poems - full of verve and wit - as he cast his line.
I pressed on round the rocky, indented coast of Assynt, through Clachtoll, Clashnessie and Drumbeg - along a narrow track of infinite bends and endless ups-and-downs - until I finally joined the A894, which took me to Scourie and Laxford Bridge. When I reached Kinlochverbie it was already late afternoon. A minor road led from here northwards, past tiny, cliff-top settlements, to Sheigra, my day's destination. I drove slowly down a bumpy track and parked on the machair overlooking a small sandy beach and the sea. Here I wildcamped. It was very peaceful. There was only a handful of other tents dotted discretely about the bay. Later I climbed the bay's northern headland - its firm gneiss rock was comfortingly grippy - and gazed out over the wind-chopped Atlantic. Some climbers appeared from nowhere at my feet - they'd been bouldering and free climbing out of sight on the sea-cliffs below. It was the most wonderful place, and only 12 miles from Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point on the British mainland...
(Richard Baker's picture of Ardvreck Castle is available from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License.)