All around, great mountains loom like prehistoric beasts; fittingly, the rock that forms them is 3000 million years old, making it the oldest in Britain. The same rock, known as Lewisian Gneiss, can be found in North America and Greenland as it once formed part of the Laurentia continent.
Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out these valleys,
rasping the brown sandstone, and left, on the hard rock below —
the ruffled foreland — this frieze of mountains, filed on the blue air —
Stac Polly, Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp —
a frieze and a litany.
Who owns this landscape?
has owning anything to do with love?
For it and I have a love-affair, so nearly human
we even have quarrels. —
These verses describe one of my favourite corners of the world, Sutherland, which lies on the northwest peak of Scotland. They are written by Norman MacCaig, a man who spent much of his life wandering the rugged, vertiginous plains of this lonely county. MacCaig’s relationship with the west coast began during his childhood when he visited his extended family on the Hebridean Isle of Harris. His memories of skipping along Harris’s peatscrapes and windswept beaches laid the seeds for a lifelong captivation with the area, which eventually bore fruit in the form of many poems. His works do not display Wordsworthian romanticism, but a fisherman’s love of the mountain lochs and a reverence for the local people who are quietly eulogised in poems like ‘Aunt Julia’.
Like MacCaig, I first visited the Scottish west coast when I was a young boy on family holidays. In these early years, we took trips a little south of Sutherland to a peninsula of timeworn granite where small indented bays play host to bothies and local pubs. My memories of Ardnambuth are visceral. I clearly recollect morning walks on dunes of pure white sand and the smell of burning bracken drifting through the dense trees that surrounded our cottage.
It was not until my teenage years that I travelled to Sutherland. The drive to the small crofting village of Drumbeg follows the undulating line of the coast. All around, great mountains loom like prehistoric beasts; fittingly, the rock that forms them is 3000 million years old, making it the oldest in Britain. The same rock, known as Lewisian Gneiss, can be found in North America and Greenland as it once formed part of the Laurentia continent. Over time, glacial erosion has carved deep rivulets into the sandstone that is layered above the Gneiss, forming the landscape that exists today.
When my family and I took this road in March, we arrived at dusk as the setting sun cast filmy rays through dense black clouds. The murky light rendered the vista beautiful, yet solemn, and the few buildings dispersed among the undulating slopes stood lonely. The dearth of houses in this vast wilderness is a reminder of Sutherland’s saddest memory: the 18th century eviction of local populations by Southern landowners to make way for sheep farms. The community was decimated and scattered across the globe. Those who remained were pushed to coastal margins to make way for the commonly termed ‘white tide’. Today, Sutherland’s population remains noticeably sparse.
- Words & Photos: Robbie Lawrence