A’ Mhòine

Putting one foot in front of the other has been a theme in Dark Mountain ever since the manifesto invited a group of travellers to turn their backs on civilisation and scale the foothills of the unknown – both in order to look back at the terrain we have travelled so far, and to look forward at what is to come. To continue our online series about walking, Dougie Strang shares an extract from a book-in-progress about a month-long walk in October in the North West Highlands of Scotland.
is a writer, performer, and storyteller. He sits on the Dark Mountain Steering Group and has co-created and directed many of Dark Mountain’s on site performances, including Liminal (at Uncivilisation Festival) and The Night Breathes Us In (Festival of the Dark, Reading). He lives in South West Scotland by the River Ae.
A large stone marks the start of the Moine Path. It sits like a squat, uneven pyramid, two feet high, with its point chipped off to form a narrow plinth. The path is an old drove road that links Strathmore in Sutherland with Kinloch at the head of the Kyle of Tongue. Nowadays, a single-track road, with patches of turf colonising a strip down the middle of the tarmac, takes what traffic there is, joining the A838 and bisecting A’ Mhòine, ‘the peat moss’, a few miles to the north. Opposite the start of the path there’s another stone, the size of a smallish suitcase, lying next to a willow tree. According to tradition, this is Strathmore’s clach neart, its ‘strength stone’, that was used as a trial of manhood – the challenge being to pick it up and balance it on the plinth of the marker stone. Rough handholds have been shaped at each end for lifting. 

It was mid-afternoon and three days of fierce wind had eased at last. I’d left Strabeg Bothy that morning and climbed the bealach over the ridge between it and Strathmore, and then down to the river, crossing at Caiseal Dubh, ‘the dark ford’. Ben Hope rose in front of me, the name an anglicisation of Beinn an Òba, ‘mountain of the bay’. It’s Scotland’s most northerly Munro, but is often dismissed as a rounded lump and compared unfavourably with Foinaven, its smaller but more dramatic neighbour. From where I stood, it was impressive, the broad west face wrinkled with gullies and with buttresses that caught the light; a singular mountain, none the worse for being un-peaked. The way it loomed up out of Strathmore reminded me of photos I’d seen of Uluru in Australia.

With both hands I could budge one end of the clach neart, prising it a few inches off the ground, but there was no way I’d lift the whole thing, never mind carry it across the road and set it on the plinth of the marker stone. When I let go, it sank back firmly into the turf. As I walked by, I touched the unburdened plinth, offering my respect to the mighty folk of Strathmore’s past. 

The Moine Path is seven miles long and wide enough for a horse and cart. I followed it up through spent bracken. A young birch wood, protected by deer fencing, thickened the hillside to my right. The path curves around the lower slopes of Ben Hope and then out onto the moor, skirting small lochs and knolls and banked up where the ground is boggy. Its upkeep has long been neglected. In deep ruts, water gathers and colonies of moss expand, while elsewhere the heather has overtaken it. The only prints I found on the path were from deer. The moor gives its name to a geological fault zone whose features baffled 19th century science. The Moine Thrust Belt contains old layers of rock overlying younger layers, a pattern that undermined a basic assumption of geology at that time: that the youngest rock always lay closest to the earth’s surface. Based on their field studies in the region, Victorian geologists Ben Peach and John Horne proposed that the older rock had been forced, or thrust, over the younger. Several decades before the theory of plate tectonics was formalised and accepted, they concluded that this was due to the intense pressure of what their contemporary, the German geologist Alfred Wegener, called ‘continental drift’.

None of the turmoil in the rock beneath me was apparent on the surface of the moor. Moss, heather, and deer grass stretched to the coast and the sea, the land rolling gently like the sea itself, or like a steppe, a wet Scottish steppe. After days of wind, the quiet was thick around me, with just the occasional tseep tseep of pipits and, once, a raven, who craaked at me as it slouched over Creag Riabhach, ‘the brindled crag’. I settled into the rhythm of walking, pleased to be on a path that knew where it was going, but that curved with the land since it had nothing to prove. I was far north, deep in Sutherland, there are no straight Roman roads here. 

Half a dozen deer were ahead of me, following the lead hind, elegantly alive, threading a timeless line over the moor. I was glad to see them – according to one local tradition, they shouldn’t be here at all.


MacIntyre of Clunamacre, known as ‘An Dròbhair Bàn, ‘the fair-haired drover’, is on the moor. It’s late in the 18th Century and change is being forced on Sutherland. Lord Reay has brought sheep farming to the region, and out on A’ Mhòine, An Dròbhair Bàn encounters a marvel: a column of deer are crossing the moor, a thousand strong. They’ve gathered from all the straths and hills of Sutherland and are migrating to the mountains in the far west, leaving the land in protest at the coming of the sheep and their shepherds and dogs. The drover stands in silent witness as they pass him on the path.


A thousand strong. I tried to imagine so many deer filing past: their raised heads and dun-coloured haunches merging into a flow of bodies, the churn and drum of their hooves, their brown eyes seeing beyond me; and then the silence and amplified emptiness they’d leave behind. 

The deer and the people are intertwined. Hearing the tale, it’s impossible not to think of the families cleared from the land during that same terrible period of ‘agricultural improvement’: columns of them, walking with their belongings on their backs to the coast and to the transportation ships. Ewen Robertson, carpenter and composer of songs and poetry, who lived on the shores of the Kyle of Tongue in the the 19th century, and who’s known as the Bard of the Clearances, was unequivocal:

 

Mo mhallachd aig na caoraich mhòr,
Càit bheil clann nan daoine còir
Dhealaich rium nuair bha mi òg,
Man robh Dùthaich ‘ic Aoidh na fàsach?

My curse upon the great sheep,
Where now are the children of the kindly folk
Who parted from me when I was young,
Before MacKay’s Country became a desert?


The deer and the people are intertwined. Hearing the tale, it’s impossible not to think of the families cleared from the land during that same terrible period of ‘agricultural improvement’

Some of the most notorious clearances took place in ‘Mackay’s Country’, the Gaelic name for Sutherland, with people burned out of their houses in Strath Naver, Strath Halladale, and the Strath of Kildonan. Nowadays, we don’t need to imagine what that might be like, because we see it happening on the newsfeed of our phones and on our TV screens: different circumstances, but the same desperate families, adults clutching children and carrier bags of belongings, forced from their homes in places like Idlib and Taiz and Rakhine; the same smoke billowing from the houses, the same timeless line of the dispossessed.

The deer are still on the moor, too many of them, though the people aren’t. I camped next to a stream, pitching my tent on a flat bank above the path, mid-way across A’Mhòine. It was a cloudy night and there were no lights or signs of human habitation. I cooked supper on my Trangia then climbed into the tent and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, glad to be under canvas again after three nights in the bothy. Stags were bellowing at each other in the corrie below Creag Riabhach.

Some consider Sutherland to be a last, great ‘wilderness’, others would fill it with windfarms, others still would build a spaceport. The current owners of A’ Mhòine have recently agreed to lease part of it to a consortium of businesses, headed by Lockheed Martin, who want to build the UK’s first launch site for satellites. A’ Mhòine is deemed ideal because of its emptiness. Planning permission is currently being sought, and challenged. 

Lying in my tent in the dark, I thought about the difference between ‘empty’ and ‘absent’, about the settlements and homes that the Moine Path once linked and how the landscape has been depopulated and depleted. I also thought about how loss is carried forward, is inter-generational, like a weight on the cultural consciousness, pressing down on us whether acknowledged or not. 

Rain on the flysheet of the tent woke me in the morning. It soon cleared and by the time I’d eaten breakfast, packed, and started walking, the sun was shining. The Kyle of Tongue opened before me. The view was tremendous: curved sands and shallow water; shifting patterns of silver and blue, and the purple haze of birch on the far shore. At the head of the kyle, Ben Loyal was a lop-sided jaw, jutting out of the moor; the great spiked mountain around which my month’s walk would turn. As I walked down into Kinloch a curlew flew above me, its long beak like an insect’s proboscis. The rising whirl of its call was answered by other curlews on the shores of the kyle, and I heard oystercatchers and, nearer, amongst trees, the chink chink of chaffinches. It was a joy to see woodland thriving here: a protected planting of young oaks, holding their spent leaves, and thickets of birch and willow and alder.    

The issue of who owns the land, and how it might best be stewarded, is as important today as it was in the time of the Clearances. Back then, economic restructuring led to the displacement of thousands of families in Sutherland alone, many of them violently forced from land that they’d inhabited ancestrally. More recently, in Assynt, to the west of A’ Mhòine, in the early 1990s, the local crofters set up a trust to buy their land when the North Assynt Estate was put on the market. It was a revolutionary moment, a culture-shift in the history of land ownership in Scotland. 

The success of the Assynt Crofters’ Trust has been followed elsewhere, in places like Knoydart, Eigg, Lewis, and Skye. Each community buy-out marks more than just a change of ownership: each is an act of redress, shifting the weight of loss, like a clach neart, a ‘strength stone’, being slowly, and collectively, lifted. 

I walked towards the village of Tongue, past the derelict farm at Ribigill, looking for the memorial to Ewen Robertson. I found it by the side of the road: a simple granite pillar, like a grave stone, five feet high, with his name and dates carved on it, and a prophetic, hopeful quote from one of his verses:

 

‘N àit nan caorach
bithidh tuath.
Crodh-laoigh air air’gh’n
‘n àit damh ruadh.

In place of the sheep
there will be people.
Cattle at the sheilings
in place of stags.

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

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