So back to now, and here and this remote coastline that blue sky led me to…and the carcasses of old crofts perched amongst the rocks above the road to which the occasional new house clings.
I first noticed the ruins in the shadow — it’s late October and the cottages have their shoulders hunched against the southwesterly wind, leaning into the lea of mountain — they won’t feel sun on their stones ’til March now. As I hop the fence to get closer, my feet find an old trackway, firmer than the surrounding squidge of red and green moss and I follow its steep rise. Turning to catch my breath, I see the old strip field walls that radiate from the small bay at Sangobeg …I imagine the women, walking up from a heavy cold day kelping (burning seaweed to make soda ash for the estate to sell ) or working those fields of potatoes, bere and kale . They are heading home to the tiny crofts.
I go inside the roofless walls and gravitate to the fireplace. There is the iron bar from which hangs the chain and hook that held the cast iron pot warming the day’s meagre food. For I know their lives were harsh — that these crofts were the crumbs thrown down from the big table of the wealthy to the highlanders cleared from the more fertile inland glens when farming humans made less money than farming sheep.
I imagine the cold-reddened hands of the woman who blew the banked up fire back into flame, added peat and stirred the pot; I see her staring into the coals, casting her mind over the things yet to do, moving to the door to call to her bairns and frowning at the cloud-laden sky over grey wave-broken sea, wondering whether the men will be back from fishing before dusk.
Fresh water has always seemed to me to be the one that sent out the sacred invitation for humans to settle somewhere . Without the nearness of sweet water, humans cannot live well for long. I can hear the burn near by and find the dry path that takes me to the small bridge that spans it. My eye follows its course and sees a pool. Now it has bracken and gorse around it, but parting them, I find the small wall that was built to deepen the pool, and flatter stones around it where once the woman knelt to wash clothes...I see the worn linen underlayers and wool shawls drying on the gorse.
Reading later about how the crofts were allocated to the displaced folk of the glen– the lacky of the Tacksman taking the best plot for himself whilst the widow of George Mackay was allocated a croft who’s land was “mostly a thick layer of moss overlaying rocks and shingle” and “beyond improvement”; How between 30 and 40 years later, after the highly profitable kelp industry collapsed, the Tacksman Anderson waited until the men were away cutting thatch 4 miles away to send his bailiff to deliver the eviction notice that gave 48 hours to pack up and leave…who knows to where? One woman ran up Ceanna Beinne to call the men home. Whether they heard her with the ears on their heads or those of their hearts, who knows, but the call for aid was heard. They arrived back to find that the women had seized the bailiff and made him burn his notice so it could not be seen as served. A few days later he tried again and was sent packing in a skirl of bagpipe , so the story goes.
And those people continued to resist the ongoing injustices until the day of the Durness Riots, one of the first serious uprisings against the Highland Clearances. These people with so very little to lose, fighting for the lives they’d scraped from a place that thirty years before, had been a stranger to them…learning to fish sea they’d never met, and build houses and grow food with land they’d never known.
Right here, right now, I’m caught in that painful tension I know many of us feel in the spectrum of what it is to be human — between the shame of it and the honour of being a Homo Sapien…On one hand, here’s the kind of men who can order clearances that destroy places and people, casts families and communities of more-than-humans adrift time and again. On the other hand, there are these people who, despite what is confronting them, keep leaning towards protecting life . There is the gorse, trying to rehabilitate the robbed soils with its nitrogen fixing abilities and to protect young trees from the over grazing with its thorns.
In some intuited re-membering, I take the path of the woman who called the men home, follow the gorse-edged burn up to its source at the base of the rocky top of Ceannabeinne.It is silent amongst the black pools where the waters rise, save for wind hissing through the cotton grass. I feel sure wind carried the voice of the woman calling in service of life on that day in 1841. I too am calling home the brave in service of life, as we too are now on the edge of an eviction, as we tumble into the abyss of mass extinction. We need to show up, fast.
I follow the waters down as they gather themselves, to where they start to sing and tumble, past rowans growing out of rocks, who’s trunks bow outwards like crescent moons to evade nibbling teeth of sheep and deer as they lean over the waters…and down further to the deep, quiet channel of the burn as it passes through the old fields of the crofts and then journeys down, further, through the spurs of pink quartzy cliff to where the waters braid across the
crystalline sand of beach. Here I listen until sunset as they add their sweet note to the salty song of sea — the original song that holds all the sounds of life on earth; that holds within this harmony the oldest song of all — the song of the stars who are the source of everything we call home.
NB Thanks to the old farmer I met at the ruins who told me some of the harshness of the lives lived in the crofts. He told me to pronounce Ceanna Beinne as che-arna bay-na _- I hope I’m doing it justice.