In Search of BrigadoonWritten by John Macpherson
I went in search of Brigadoon last week. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about this link might enlighten you.
Where exactly I wandered I’m not revealing lest it spoil your own search for the mythic; going without expectation allows chance to prosper. It’s something I heartily recommend you do if you get the chance. To be perfectly honest I went to places that are easy to find, but I think it matters ‘how’ you go, and ‘why’. It was also an escape from current news, the unrelenting awfulness in the Middle East and the increasingly dramatic stories of climate change. I’m fortunate enough to be able to make these small local escapes from time to time, and never take this luxury for granted.
My route took me north up a couple of glens, one small and overlooked with a road no better in places than a goat track with suspension-bursting potholes, the other glen long and broad; I made a little detour at the top along the coast, before returning south down another very different glen. It was quiet. How quiet? Well in 2 days on one particularly ‘distant’ piece of moor I met just 3 vehicles on its only road. On another 35 mile stretch I met no vehicles at all.
The weather however was not quiet. Apart from a few brighter intervals, unpredictable in their arrival and all tbe more welcome for it, it was mostly grey, windy and wet. So wet in fact that the wee, and not-so-wee burns quickly overflowed their hillside confines to flood their surroundings, rushing down to the floor of the glens through heather and grass to jostle for space in the rivers.
Rivers which in turn grew muscular and thuggish, peat-stained and angry, in some places pulling up trees and carrying them off towards the ocean. In a few corners the bankbursts inundated fields, creating temporary lochs, forcing farmers and crofters to drive their livestock to higher ground for safety.
Each evening I found a corner to park up my ancient Land Rover, hopeful for some shelter, and crawled into the back as bully winds elbowed it to and fro throughout the night. But I was dry and warm enough inside it.
In some places between the howls of the gale, in those moments when it just has to stop and take a breath, the roar of rutting stags echoed across the moors only to be drowned out by the sudden exhalation of the easterly as it picked up speed again, throwing grass and twigs before it that pattered against my van.
I could tell when dawn dragged itself over the hills most mornings as the dark grey turned lighter, not quite reaching anything resembling ‘bright’, but bright enough to see and photograph the deer along the roadside. Out of the vehicle I would be soaked in no time, so lens-out-the-window was the more prudent plan, on the sheltered side only of course. But staying as much as possible in the vehicle also meant I’d not spook the stags, whose precious energy was required not only to combat the cold wind, rain and occasional sleet, but to bash their antlers against those of their neighbours if they felt there was some ground to be gained. The last thing they needed was a clumsy biped blundering about in some futile attempt to get closer which would only force them further away.
As I bowled along into the first wee glen, chucking puddlesplash left and right, I spotted something higher on the hill above the road I’d not noticed before and through a longer lens could see it was a standing stone, no doubt concealed in summer by the vigorous bracken which now, in its final golden autumn glory, was wilting. This is Clearance country, from whence a whole generation of Highlanders were cleared from their homes, and land, to make way for sheep, and a few miles along the glen was that story written in wool and ruins.
Further on a more recent ruin, slate-roofed and obviously once a fine home, caught my eye so I wandered across the moor to inspect it. The usual scene of dereliction and decay, the floor inside a mess of bird ‘splash’ and sheep droppings from wily woolies wanting shelter from some storm or other. But sadly, doors that easily open inwards when gently nudged often deny exit and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, there on the floor lay the evidence. An almost mummified sheep, and further over in another crumbling room the still-fleece-clad skulls of other unfortunates, denied access to food and water and suffering a long slow miserable starvation.
But then, by some quirk of nature intended to brighten the scene, and my mood, the cloud broke briefly between weather fronts, and through a small circular hole in a boarded over window weak sunshine spilled into the room, enough to create a camera-obscura, light painting subtle strokes across the wall opposite. I spent a night nearby, the wind hissing around the van until dawn, though the rocking to and fro soon had me nodding off. However as I drifted into sleep and the wind rose and died I could hear musical notes. Higher then lower, repeated over and over…
Fortunately, unlike the sheep, I was able to open my door in the morning…and on closer inspection the source of the music revealed itself: a newly built deer fence, the stout open-topped galvanised tubes of its access gate acting like flutes each humming a different note, an unintended metalworker’s symphony.
I took a deer foray, stinging rain angled across the moor, a dreich scene if ever I saw one. A group of stags paced purposefully, one pair angled off and strutted towards each other. With a sudden rush their antlers collided in a loud clatter of testosterone and bravado. Several times they peeled apart and resumed the tussle until one gave up and sauntered away, conceding defeat. For now at least.
I watched the spectacle for several hours then resumed my amble northwards.
Out of phone signal I was unsure of the forecast, so made a minor detour to visit a Dun (hill fort) that perches on a hill above the coast from which I could probably get reception. The dun is iron age and probably a defensive structure offering views down the coast and across into the mountains opposite. Today however the wind was the dun’s only adversary, desperately hammering against its age-worn walls and in the process threatening to bowl me over and down the steep cliff to the west side. I sought shelter beneath the fine stout masonry and gained brief respite. The patch of clear sky that had lured me upwards, was now being painted over by storm. The phone pinged into life and the forecast confirmed my visual estimation: it would be very windy, and likely very wet.
As the wind was forecast to intensify I decided to forego my usual high evening camp spots with expansive views over the ocean and instead sought shelter down a forest track, concealed amongst stout trees. The wind rattled their tops to and fro, and I was glad I was low and protected from the battering. After dark when the rain eased a bit I ventured out to stretch my legs up a nearby track, a loop of sorts according to the map. As I rounded a bend the briefly thinning cloud allowed weak moonlight to filter through to reveal a figure looming beyond some tall grasses. I’m a Highlander, I take these things seriously, so politely wished whatever it was a good night and retraced my steps carefully, but with haste….
My detour, before the return south down a different glen, was to a site where fossil fish can sometimes be found. If you’re lucky that is. I’ve learned that luck comes from effort, so I trudged against the wind up the hill through peaty water in a headlong rush down the track on its passage to the river. I had my hammer, and safety glasses, so gamely whacked at slabs, splitting sedimentary layers to let the first drops of water roll across their surfaces since they were a lake bed some 380 million years ago.
Despite my best efforts and considerable hammer action I found no fossil fish. I did find, to my surprise, lying amongst the grass a section of undamaged and perfectly usable fishing rod. Perhaps a hammer was the wrong tool for this particular ‘fishing expedition’ I mused as I descended the sodden hill, the rain howling in once again.
Part way down, after a minor follow-my-nose -for-no-particular-reason detour, as an intensely violent squall broke over me I sought shelter in a dense conifer plantation. One of many on the north coast planted for reasons which deserve a deeper explanation than I shall offer here, and in truth could never explain as well as award-winning Highland author Cal Flyn does in her excellent piece The Tree Farm. Cal also explains about ‘deer forests’ – a term that puzzles many. But this was no deer forest I was immersed in, and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I glimpsed something not-brown amongst the…well…all-very-brown. It was a little piece of magic. A fairy ring, heart-shaped and glowing in the monochromatic gloom. No other sparkle to be seen in this grimly barren understorey.
Later that day I stopped to speak with a young man, his van broken down. The only vehicle in a lonely hilltop car park. He was enjoying his first foray to Scotland from his home in London in a newly acquired self-built campervan, a trip sadly curtailed in this high parking spot in a gale. He was upbeat, but astonished by the scale of everything, the scarcity of people, and the wildness. “If I’m going to be stuck for a day until the parts arrive I can think of worse places to be!” he grinned as he waved his arms at the expanse of empty moorland and ocean beyond.
I peeked beneath his van’s bonnet and the fault seemed fairly obvious. It looked as if his master cylinder had failed, fluid was leaking down on to the chassis rendering the clutch inoperable. To make matters worse it looked like it was one of these vehicles with a combined brake/clutch system, both systems sharing the same fluid reservoir and servo, athough internally separated. As the only direction I could tow him was downhill I decided that with a non-functioning clutch AND potentially duff braking system that was a risk too many. As he had a breakdown truck pickup arranged for the following day, he was content to sit tight and enjoy the spectacular views, in between the waves of rain and sleet.
A striking feature of the various moors and little glens that unfolded beyond my window was the absence. The absence of people. The weather of course kept folks indoors save a few hardy dog walkers on the edge of the very few small villages I passed. But this absence is not ‘nothing’, it has a presence: here a line of boulders that mark a low wall, part of a house now tumbled. There, a jumble of seemingly random rocks which the untrained eye might think natural but is a village that is no more. ‘Empty’ landscapes, I long ago realised, may conceal nothing; but ’emptied’ landscapes, such as those before me, when considered more carefully in the light of the stories of the Clearances, are brim full of shadows.
The road was eerily quiet, no cars. Then, rounding a corner, as the wet tarmac glistened in a brief glimpse of sun, I saw two people standing arms up and legs open blocking the road. I slowed, and on closer inspection could see a flock of sheep being herded towards the open gate of another field. Sheep bleats and hearty shouts echoed through the drizzle and the unmistakeable waft of lanolin filled the air as I drove on by, a pleasant reminder of lives still being wrought from these old landscapes.
On one stretch of lochside the sky brightened, a brief splash of light roamed across the autumnal moorland and picked out a patch of vibrant green. The OS map revealed the story of this Clearance Village, only one of many similar sites scattered through the glen, comprising 24 buildings with associated enclosures. Beyond that other faint lines on the hillside marked where peat was once cut, and lazy beds tended for growing food. Closer scrutiny of the map revealed an even deeper history than those ‘Old Shielings’ dotted here and there, a myriad of other far more ancient sites: ‘Hut Circle’, ‘Burnt Mound’, ‘Marked Rock’, Cup-Marked Rock’, Cup-and-Ring Marked Rock’, Standing Stones’, ‘Incised Cross’. All across the landscape subtle features marked a human presence over thousands of years. I sat and contemplated the story before me. Layers of history, layers of stories, a rich tapestry of loss.
I took another turn into deer territory for a few hours, and found a group of stags with several hinds. One of them was a ‘switch’, a stag whose antlers have no tines, instead they sport a pair of what are essentially lances. I’ve heard them referred to by stalker friends I’ve been on the hill with as ‘murder stags’ because their lack of a normal tined antler means in battle during the rut their opponent’s antlers have nothing with which to ‘mesh’ allowing the switch’s lances to simply slide through their opponents defences and pierce them, sometimes fatally.
The stags were on the move, intent on crossing the river, and one by one gamely waded to the far bank. Further up the hillside a hind with two calves in tow watched them, and watched me. The light briefly sparkled and the drizzle shone silver on the grass, before it was swallowed by another wall of scudding cloud. I watched two of the stags wander further and further into the rain-softened distance, almost disappering in the autumnal gloom until, as I’d hoped they might, they crested a distant ridge and briefly stood out against the lighter hills behind.
I’d come back into phone signal range again so checked the weather predictions – it foretold more, and even heavier, rain. Sigh. The wind was set to strengthen too, and violent easterly gusts were already hammering the coast. My friends whom I was intending visiting texted me to say their road was flooded and impassable, if I wanted to stop by it might be best to take a different route. I could see the cause – I was higher inland on the moors behind their house and already the river was growling, and the lower down the glen I went the more dramatic it became as the torrent fed off numerous burns that were rampaging through the heather.
And then a lull. Only 15 minutes of semi-bright drizzle in a quirky wind-free corner of the glen, but enough time for me to venture out and appreciate the wild and impressive woodland, and further along the road a vibrant postbox proudly proclaiming its presence.
I wasn’t far from home, would be there before dark. And what of Brigadoon? Well, I know its there, I saw fragments of it, smelled it in the lanolin of herded sheep, listened to it’s music welded to the wind, but it was only fleeting, its presence marked more often in absentia on maps in the italicised remnants of other’s past lives.
And despite my best efforts to escape to some place free of struggle, I had simply slid deeper into our reality. Human clearances, whether here in wild corners of the Highlands or in the Middle East, will persist, but combining as they do now with wild life-altering weather, we face a perfect storm of change and dispossession.
But I’m no pessimist, I’m hopeful that maybe, just maybe in another 100 years…