The mainland of Scotland ends where the Pentland Firth turns into the North Minch. On some maps this uninhabited land is called The Paph – a silly sounding name. I prefer to call the whole area after the famous rocky headland and lighthouse, Cape Wrath. The name comes, not from the Old Testament, but from the Old Norse hvarf (turning point). If you are sailing from Birsay to Dublin, here is where you turn your longship south.
“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.”
All Cape Wrath is also divided into three parts. Think of a flag with red, white and green horizontal stripes (Hungary).
The red stripe at the top is owned by the MOD and used as a military training area. When the range is active the Range Wardens hoist these red flags. Twice yearly, NATO hold a multi-national training exercise called Operation Joint Warrior involving land, sea, submarine and air forces. I took this clandestine photo one November when a special exercise called Operation Unmanned Warrior was about to begin. It involved drones, unmanned submarines and all things dark and digital.
The white stripe is 30,000 acres of hill grazing for 4000 sheep tended by the Keoldale Sheepstock Club – a crofters’ cooperative.
The job of these dogs is to gather the sheep and bring them down to the big handling shed at Grudie. Let me introduce them.
Lass is an ‘orphan’ in that her previous owner, Sandy, was tragically killed in a quad bike accident.
Daisy is half New Zealand Huntaway. That’s what she does best, working way up the side of the strath by herself. It’s just as well, for she’s getting a bit deaf and doesn’t always do what she’s told – just like me.
Betty is the new pup putting her best foot forward.
Misty always has a smiley face. She’s also known as Ms T which makes me laugh because, when I was a teacher on Stronsay, my nickname was Mr T – which was also a bit of a laugh.
Scout is the acrobat. She ‘flows through fences like black wind’. She is named after the tomboy story-teller in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’.
The green stripe is owned by the wild land charity The John Muir Trust. Sandwood Bay attracts a lot of visitors and good publicity.
Am Buchail means ‘The Herdsman’.
John Muir, the 19th-century conservationist and visionary, emigrated from Scotland to the USA. There he founded the first National Park at Yosemite in California.
While gentlemen in Scotland and buffalo hunters in the Wild West were out shooting everything that moved, Muir was seeing the wilderness as a place to refresh the spirit. Nature was a complex system, an ancient mother to inspire awe and to cherish. Muir was a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time.
Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”
At the head of Strathchailleach is Beallach Corie na Con (Pass of the Corrie of the Dogs). ‘Dogs’ is a euphemism for wolves.
Below the prison wall of Craig Riabhach (the grizzled crag) is a boulder field of crevices, caves and shelter stones. What better hideaway for a lonely wolf than among those massive blocks?
The last wolf has gone, but there are still savage beasts after your blood! Weeks of itching, inflammation, and infection from cleg bites makes people, deer and sheep wish for a quick death in the jaws of a wolf.
Primula scotica (the Scottish Primrose) is an Orkney icon but can also be found on the Sutherland side of the Pentland Firth. This one is on Durness Golf Course but it can also be found on the cliffs of Cape Wrath.
The sun came out as I pressed the shutter button.
Apart from a few rowans in gullies and on sheltered crags there are no trees in Cape Wrath. Juniper is common on higher gravelly patches, but not as a tree. On these wind-raked hills it keeps its head down, like a soldier in a live-fire exercise. The scientific classification is Juniperus communis sub-species alpina. Its common name – prostrate juniper.
“Drunk for a penny, prostrate for twopence.”
Cape Wrath’s centre of gravity is marked by the cone of An Grianan above Loch a Phuill Bhuidhe (the Golden Pool). MacLennan’s Gaelic Dictionary translates grianan as ‘a sunny spot, a resort for lovers’.
Looking North from the summit of An Grianan. Everything today is white, including the golden pool.
In June there is a blizzard of bog cotton across Cape Wrath. It clothes the straths, bogs, peat and lochans.
There are no paths. As I wander the moors in my serviceable yellow wellies I sometimes think of Margaret Mackay, the ‘Woman of Great Faith’ (Bean a Chreidimh Mhoir). She was a crofter living in Sheigra in the 19th century. Her other nickname was ‘Peggy o’ the Yellow Ribbons’ – a dash of colour in a monochrome, Presbyterian land. When a particularly well regarded minister was preaching in Durness she would stride the 20 miles across those bogs, rocks and moors in her bare feet. She had shoes, but carried them to save soiling. When Peggy was within a hundred yards of the kirk, she put on her shoes. After the service she took off her shoes and walked the 20 miles back to Sheigra.
‘Asphodel’ sounds exotic and classical, doesn’t it? Is it something to do with sleep or Greek literature? Anyway, this is Scotland and our version is the bog version. It looks glamorous, but it kills lambs.
Every year I see the results of lambs eating bog asphodel. In summer I stand in as 5th reserve on the big Keoldale sheep farm while one of the shepherds takes her holiday. One task is feeding the sick lambs which have been brought in off the hill. Bog asphodel contains a chemical which causes photo-sensitization of the skin. In bright sunshine this causes serious damage to their eyes, ears and mouth. They are in a sorry state – some of them are blind. All we can do for them is put them in a dark shed and try to keep them alive by persuading them to nibble a few sheep nuts and drink fresh water.
The good news is that some of them live. I meet them again over the Xmas holidays. The survivors are a ragged bunch – under-grown, some with only one eye and some with no ears at all. But they are amiable because by now they are used to human company. In the next pen are 50 of that year’s best tup lambs. They will knock you off your feet to get to the feeding trough. Fettes boys next to the Bash Street Kids.
Strathchailleach (valley of the old crone) was built as a shepherd’s cottage. It was abandoned by the estate and later became the home of James MacRory Smith who survived here, all alone, for thirty-two years. He asked for no one’s permission but his own. He was that kind of man. He died in 1998.
The building is now a bothy – a shelter for stravaigers. It’s popular with walkers doing The Cape Wrath Trail. Entries in the Bothy Book show that this respite from bogs, clegs, blisters and blizzards is often the last before the end of their month’s journey.
As the MO (Maintenance Organiser) I have spent many candle-lit nights at Strathchailleach round a peat fire with good company and a dram of malt whisky.
Much of Cape Wrath is peat bog.
Nothing is more traditional in the Highlands and Islands than the cutting of peat. If you doubt me, try it for yourself. You will probably be working a bank, on a peat hill, that has been the source of fuel for generations. The few other folks who still cut peat today will be very friendly. They will be very helpful. They will tell you that you are doing it wrong! There is only one right way of doing things. What is the right way in Orkney is not the right way in Sutherland or the right way in Lewis.
You can’t buy the tools in B&Q, they are home-made. Neither do they have common names. The tool for removing the grass and heather from the top of the bank sounds like ‘flutter spade’. The Gaelic is flaughter (flaying tool). The tool for cutting out the peats is called a ‘tusker’ which is a version of the Gaelic tairsgeir. This in turn comes from the Norse turf-sgeir turf blade.
‘Sheiling’ is the name for a temporary home. It was somewhere for the family to stay while tending their cattle on the summer grazing – a happy place. This one, on the green shores of Loch Carn Mharasaid (I do not know the meaning of this name) cleverly utilises a boulder as a back wall. Try to imagine the heather thatch and maybe an old sail to cover that doorway. Try to imagine the wife churning butter, the cry of a baby, the bark of a dog, a girl dipping her wooden pail into the cool burn, secret lovers on the warm hillside above, the distant laughter of men on the peat banks, the smell of tobacco from a dark corner where the chailleach smokes her pipe and hums sad Gaelic airs.
This all vanished with the coming of the great white sheep and the Highland Clearances.
But what right have I to feel nostalgic? I was born in Rotherham. “No man can lose what he never had.”
Further Reading of greater or lesser relevance, but all worth a read.
De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars): Julius Caesar To Kill a Mocking Bird: Harper Lee Journeys in the Wilderness: John Muir In Praise of a Collie: Norman MacCaig The Woman of Great Faith: Alexander Macrae (out of print but in Inverness Library) Kidnapped: Robert Louis Stevenson (one of Margaret Mackay’s grandfathers was Colin Campbell the infamous ‘Red Fox’) Beer Street and Gin Lane: William Hogarth His Bloody Project: Graeme McRae Burnet (for an alternative use of the flaughter) The Compleat Angler: Izaak Walton (on ‘loosing’ a fish)