A Journey into Scotland … Part 48
This road has taken some building. Transport communications this far north don’t come easy. Railway lines have to be floated on rafts of tree roots and heather across the vast moorlands. Roads here in the north west have to be blasted through tons of rock. The geology is revealed and anyone wishing to start a collection of rocks and minerals could fill their first shelf from the chippings from lay-bys.
At one time travel was slower. The great sea lochs add hundreds of miles to the Scottish coastline. At one time ferries or thirty mile detours were the only way across or round the tongues of water. This slowed the journey and caused bottlenecks even at quiet times of year. One of the worst bottlenecks was at Kylesku where a ferry transported cars and lorries across 150 yards of salt water.
In 1984 a bridge was opened that not only shortened the journey, but which brought a little piece of human beauty to the highlands. This is the sort of construction that gives concrete a good name. A deal of thought and one of the more respectable architectural firms (Arup) crossed Loch à Chairn Bhain with a bridge that fits in with the landscape around. I’m so impressed that I forget my poor head for heights (It isn’t a scary bridge) and stop in the middle to get a bird’s eye view. It doesn’t disappoint.
A short rise and fall on the other side brings you flush to the coast and views that send the spirits soaring once more. The massive bulk of Quinag stands with its three peaks in the shape of the milking pail that gave the mountain its Gaelic name. In England this would be a sight to see. Here it is just one more of those mountains that fail to meet the 3000 feet required to be a Munro. Each peak stands out differently. Even in the overcast swirl of a Scottish day in October, this mountain twinkles with different colours. Once you’ve collected your pile of stones from the Sutherland car parks, head up this bulk of a mountain and see for yourself the massive outcrops of Torridonian sandstones in their sedimentary layers, the Cambrian quartzites in their glittering array and the old as time Lewisian Gneiss that underlays the region.
Gorse and heather and boulders mark out the next few miles. Past lochans that make you feel like a swim but which would just about freeze the skin off you if you tried. Loch Creag an Eich looks no bigger than an ornamental lake with water lilies. My ankle is doing fine. I’ve got into the rhythm of the day and feel I could keep going til dusk. I have no plans for where I’m going to stop and as long as the weather holds and the world keeps looking as wild and rugged as this I don’t bother making any. The biggest hills are behind me. There are even long stretches of flat road which, with the wind behind my back, are as good as stopping for a rest.
The first trees for a while are Scot’s pine and they look just right in this wilderness. All too soon they change to Sitka spruce. There is little that is attractive about this tree other than its fast growing, straight trunks; and they only appeal to the sawmill.
At one time most of this land would have been a natural forest of scot’s pine and native species. I’d always thought that it was the action of people that had cleared away the trees. And certainly people have de-forested much of Scotland. The biggest cause of deforestation in Scotland though is climate change. Four thousand years ago it became colder and wetter. Scottish trees are well suited to surviving the cold, but the wet raised the water table and turned ground to bog. Trees are renowned as the lungs of the world. They seemingly create oxygen from carbon dioxide through that life giving process called photosynthesis. But trees need oxygen themselves. They take it up through their roots. But not when the ground becomes permanently water logged. Four thousand years ago most of Scotland’s trees literally drowned.
Huge efforts have been made in the last three hundred years to re-forest the hills and moors but these have been driven by market forces rather than with an eye to needs of the countryside. Eighteenth century planters saw a huge fortune waiting in supplying spruce for the British navy. Thousands of acres were planted. But even these fast growing trees didn’t grow fast enough. By the time they had reached maturity people like Brunel had shown the world how to build ships out of iron.
Throughout the twentieth century the Forestry Commission became obsessed with planting more and more Sitka spruce. Landowners, with some famous name pop stars among them, were given huge tax incentives to cover the world with this abomination of a tree. Even the positive and enthusiastic professor Iain Stewart described the plantations (they were not forests) as, “Square, dark, dingy, ugly, silent, unappealing, unattractive, lacking in wildlife… Frankenstein forests”.
Happily its time is passing. The felling of the last Sitka spruce should be declared a public holiday.
And then a first for me. Just past Loch Bad Nan Gad the main road, an official A road; one of the main arterial highways of the nation, narrows and crosses a cattle grid. These are common enough on farm roads or country lanes but to find one on a main route comes as something of a surprise. Beyond is untamed land where sheep and deer graze. The two look so peaceful and at home on the sides of the fell, yet the two are responsible for the lack of a human population up here. Thousands of families were forcibly removed because it made more money for the landowners to populate the north with a source of wool and an opportunity for the idle rich to come up once a year to maim stags in the name of sport.
At Scourie I’m taken by an outward bound adventure centre run by Tom McLean. He found a certain fame rowing the Atlantic and then sitting on Rockall, the lump of granite that sticks out of the North Atlantic as a perch for gannets and a gift to comedy, in order to claim it for her Britannic Majesty. McLean is Irish born so any claim by means of possession would itself be open to dispute. I went to one of these adventure centres run by someone who had made a name making canoes on children’s television. The outward bound course was no better than you could devise for yourself and the whole thing was just another way of exploiting wilderness to make money and satisfy ego.
In my father’s letter he said that John Lennon had crashed his Rolls Royce at Laxford Bridge in 1965. Other reports say that he got the car crash and the driver right but that the accident actually happened in Golspie in 1969 and that the car was an Austin Maxi. The incident hospitalised both Lennon and Yoko Ono and delayed the recording of the Abbey Road album by several days.
I keep going and going. There is a magnet that switches onto a particular destination after you’ve cycled a certain number of miles. This destination was Durness and the northern coast of Britain. I wanted to pedal out to Cape Wrath and stand on the corner of the country but neither time nor ferries would allow this. There is no road that goes right up the west coast to the cape. But even as I approach the Kyle of Durness, with the northern seas ahead of me, I find time for a last picnic stop on the high ground that commands the most inspiring view. I’m contemplating a night in the youth hostel and want to have a little bit of quiet time on the tops with a mug of tea before returning to the populated world.