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Caithness and Sutherland

IN NEARLY ALL THE POPULAR guides to Scotland, Caithness is ignored or referred to as a place of little or no interest. I have beside me one of the best of them, Scotland for Everyman, where the author in his otherwise excellent and exact survey proceeds to warn the reader, as follows:

East of Tongue the scenery rapidly decreases in grandeur as one gradually returns to civilization and tarred roads. Caithness is really rather a dull county, not Highland at all but rather Norse, at least near the coast – as the place-names show. Consequently the traveller will not be ill-advised if he decides to cut short this tour by making Lairg direct. If he does so, he will miss the kudos of having reached John o’ Groats, but not very much else.

This ‘return to civilization’ (after wandering in Sutherland) may have its points for a Caithness man, as there has always existed a certain rivalry – and raillery – between the two remotest counties of our mainland. But plainly he is not to be comforted by very much else. And as civilisation is a vague word and quite different in its implications from that other overworked word, culture, it might be said that the Sutherland man scores – particularly as some of his roads (including the famous old rocky highway to the Ord) have recently been tarred to perfection.

But the inwardness of this matter really centres in the use of that word grandeur. It is a legacy of Sir Walter Scott and all the Highland romanticism to which that noble name must plead guilty. Byron caught the note and sang it ‘wild and majestic’.

Oh, for the crags that are wild and majestic!
The steep-frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.

To see patriotic Scots roused by this gorgeous stuff is to realise in some measure the religious intensity of the old wife who would not believe that Jerusalem is on this earth. There is a magniloquence about it all, a lack of reality, of exact description, that flatters our vague emotions at the expense of our sight and insight. It is admirably reflected in those pictures for sale in stationers’ shops where gigantic crags, their tops swathed in Celtic mist, form a background to smooth purple slopes and the wan water of a loch on whose near shores long-haired Highland cattle for ever stand and dream.

From all this, the curious reader may conclude that I am a Caithness man – preparing the way. He is right. The mind must be prepared for the reception of beauty in its more exquisite forms. The old man of the ceilidh-house realised this, and, before beginning one of the ancient classic poems of the Gael, he tuned the listening minds by telling of the poem itself and of its heroes. But he always followed with the poem. And now I am prepared to follow with two.

But as the Eastern sage has it, ‘Haste is an attribute of devils’. Let us see one thing well; let us, then, as we turn east from Tongue, keep our eyes on Sutherland’s own mountain – Ben Laoghal. Ben Hope comes before for contrast. And moors and sea-inlets and skylines keep us company. Around is all the grandeur of all the fabled West – with Ben Laoghal added. Watch Ben Laoghal play with its four granite peaks on the legendary stuff of history, or is it of the mind? Sometimes they are the battlemented towers of a distant Mediaeval Age; in the smoke-blue drift of the half-light they are the ramparts to the high hills of faery; a turn in the road or in the mood, and they have become perfectly normal again, unobtrusive and strong as the native character. Let me add that once going down towards bleak Kildonan, I unthinkingly glanced over my shoulder and saw them crowned with snow. I have never forgotten the unearthly fright I got then.

From that background, or as it were from that door, you walk out upon Caithness, and at once experience an austerity in the flat clean wind-swept lands that affects the mind almost with a sense of shock. There is something more in it than contrast. It is a movement of the spirit that finds in the austerity, because strength is there also, a final serenity. I know of no other landscape in Scotland that achieves this harmony, that, in the very moment of purging the mind of its dramatic grandeur, leaves it free and ennobled. The Pentland Firth, outreaching on the left, is of a blueness that I, at least, failed to find in the Mediterranean; a living blueness, cold-glittering in the sun and smashed to gleaming snowdrift on the bows of the great rock-battleships of the Orkneys, bare and austere also. The wind of time has searched out even the flaws here and cleansed them.

That is the first picture. Before we come to the second we follow the road by stone-flagged fences and broad fields to Thurso, a charming old town with a fishing-quarter of rather intricate design and a piling of roofs that, seen from the beach, has a certain attraction. From Thurso, like all good tourists we proceed to John o’ Groats, so that we may sing about the end of the road. Picture postcards are here, and an hotel, and the legend of the house with the eight walls, the eight doors, and the eight-sided table, so that the eight men might enter and be seated without raising questions of precedence or prestige. But while listening to this local lore and, with luck, sampling the country’s whisky – and old Pulteney, well matured, does no dishonour to its birthplace – we find our eyes attracted by that long lovely beach of white sand.

Not the poet’s ‘dove-grey sand’, but the crushed shells of whiteness from which all the sticky humours have been withdrawn. It is in its way as typical of this clean-swept county as that first picture I have tried to describe. Hours may be spent on this strand looking for those lovely little shells, the John o’ Groat buckies. In the process, too, the native spirit enters and quietens the soul.

But the leisureliness of an older age is gone. A look and a rush and we say we have seen it! The evening is upon us. Yet we have hardly got under way when from the low ridge of the Warth Hill, Caithness suddenly spreads her whole body before us to the blue distant ridges of Morven and the Scarabens.

This, my second picture, is impossible even to suggest, for the effect is entirely one of light. It is not that the quality of this light is magical or glamorous, tenuous or thin. There are few places in Scotland where level light from the sinking sun can come across such a great area; but it is not altogether that. Robert Louis Stevenson, who knew Wick well, may here have first found his ‘wine-red moor’, but I have seen it of a paler gold than amontillado. The mind does not debate: it gets caught up into that timelessness where beauty is no longer majestic or grand but something more intimate than life or death. Across the moor, the sun gone, the colour darkening, the far blue turning to deep purple, shadow and more shadow, until the peewits cry in the dark of night.

There is a third picture of Caithness but it is a composite one: the sea-cliffs that form its coast. In a sense, these cliffs are more typical of Caithness than all else for they have entered so much – and so violently – into the life of its people. As sheer rock-scenery, too, they are often magnificent, while the flatness of the coastlands permits of tremendous perspectives.

On entering the county from the Ord one may from almost anywhere near the cliffs get a view of the rock-wall all the way to Clyth Head. There are ‘flaws’ in this structure – fortunately, because they mean so much to the inhabitants, for here they have their harbours or creeks from which they fish with such skill and daring, or, should I say, have fished, for the decline in the sea industry has left an air of sadness and decay along the whole Caithness coast. In small places like Dunbeath or Lybster, where today only four or five motor-boats pursue the old calling, little more than a generation ago anything up to two hundred boats fished in the season from each harbour. What activity was there then! Every creek round the coast swarmed with life, while Wick, now going derelict, was a fishing-centre of European importance. Folk worked hard in those days, played hard, and drank hard, too. To live and prosper on such a coast required unusual intrepidity and endurance in the seamen. Few of the mean ‘safe’ qualities found time to sprout, and as the money came so did it go, with that element of careless generosity that is ever present in the greater games of chance. And sea-fishing is the master game of chance, for not only does a man risk all he possesses, with every grain of skill and strength added, but also he stakes down the hazard with his life. The fishcurers’ stations employed as gutters nearly all the available women of the surrounding districts, whose gay tongues were as nimble as their fingers. Shopkeepers prospered. The produce of the land was needed. If there was never great wealth, there was all the living warmth of a healthy communal life.

When we look at the boarded windows of the ruinous curing buildings, we may naturally wonder what cataclysm or what blight descended here. The use of steam, the big drifter, the concentration of the industry in great ports like Wick, were the reasons given. But what of these reasons now? The drifter is in debt to more than a critical extent, and Wick is proportionately as derelict as Lybster.

Politics entered into it, and in a sense with far more drama than is usually found in the interactions of any ‘economic law’. The export of cured herrings to the Baltic was lost when Russia began her social experiment. Not that Russia no longer required herrings, but that the British Government kept changing its mind about dealing with her. The herring is immensely more important to Scotland than to England. But Scotland could not deal separately in this matter. Norway, however, could and did. The Norwegian Government guaranteed Russian payments to the Norwegian fishermen to the extent of many millions of pounds. The Norwegian Government never lost a penny and the Norwegian fishermen got the market. It is interesting to reflect how the attitude of some politician seven hundred miles away may affect a seaboard and its people. Mr. Winston Churchill, let us say, decides on a little affair in Russia, and our northern coasts come under the grip of a grisly hand that slowly closes. They were such a fine breed of men, too, these Caithness fishermen, daring, self-reliant, rarely hypocritical or sanctimonious, game for whatever life offered in the sea-storm or in the public-house, and God-fearing over all.

Their qualities have been inherited, normal qualities of a healthy stock against an environment demanding courage and faith. Hospitality was the social gift, and the old need for quickness of wits may perhaps today find more or less a natural outlet in education. But whether the change from being skipper of a sailing vessel to being a school teacher, minister of the Gospel, clerk, professor, Civil Servant, or what-not, is a change for the better in the human story, may hardly be debated here. Personally, I am inclined to do more than doubt it.

All the coast is studded with castles mostly now in ruins and indicating an older age of tribal rule and self-sufficiency. Sinclairs, Keiths, Gunns; with Mackays, Sutherlands, and the ever land-hungry Campbells, impinging upon them from the outside. The tale of their deeds and depredations is as stormy and bloody and treacherous and heroic as tales from anywhere else in the Highlands. As a good-going example, may I be forgiven for recalling the ancient feud between the Keiths and the Gunns. The chiefs of these two clans agreed to settle their differences by a fight to the death of twelve men against twelve. The Gunn, with his chosen dozen, several of whom were his sons, was first at the lonely moorland rendezvous, and had barely ceased asking the Creator for His blessing, when the horses of the Keiths were seen to be approaching. Twelve horses behind the Keith, yes – but what is this? ... Each horse carries two riders! ... The Gunn puts it to his men. There is plenty of time to fly. But the Keith strategy, for some obscure reason, merely fires them to encounter any odds, and the battle is joined. It was a long and bloody affair, in which the Keiths claimed victory, but in the end three of the Gunns, albeit sorely wounded, were able to leave the field on their own feet.

A certain delicacy of feeling might well make a Gunn hesitate to tell the traditional story, were he not sadly aware that the clan did not know then – and certainly none of them has ever learned since – the technique of acquiring land or indeed notable material wealth of any kind. Nor from this story is any particular moral intended for our age, though I cannot help being conscious of a certain diffused light! We are landless! cried the Macgregors. And not only in the small clan of the Gunns, but in the large clan of the common people of Scotland, the cry has an intimate ring to this day.

These counties of Caithness and Sutherland may be said to have a pre-history of enthralling conjecture. Those interested in the archaeological aspect of things may here dream and dispute to their heart’s content. Who built the brochs? – those round dwellings whose walls may still be seen from twelve to fifteen feet thick and whose original height must have been anything from fifty to sixty feet. They are structures of unique interest, crammed with novel features. The ruins of a great many of them are to be found in Caithness; rather less in Sutherland; and they diminish in number as we go south, until they become rare in the Lowlands. And perhaps the most remarkable fact about them is that they are to be found only in Scotland. Not a single example in Scandinavia, or Ireland, or England – those countries from which at one time or other Scotland is supposed to have got all she may be said to have! What race built them then? Was the seat of their power actually in the extreme north? Long ago Columba had to travel to Inverness to meet the high king of our country. Had the governing centre shifted south to Inverness by Columba’s time, much as it later shifted to Edinburgh; and still later to London?

It is all a game of questions. But clearly in the courses of time these northern counties have had their day.

No writer can now refer to Caithness without using the word Norse. ‘Not Highland at all but rather Norse.’ A hundred odd years ago a traveller from the south would have had to penetrate into the county as far as Clyth before he could hear a word of English, no other tongue than Gaelic being spoken. True, you will find Norse coastal names; but you will also find them in the Outer Isles, where the Norse held sway just as long as they held it in Caithness. But they were conquerors, with the conqueror’s technique of spoil-getting and land-grabbing. Their exploits are fabulous, and the only adventurers who can be compared with them are the Spanish Conquistadores. They were, however, few in numbers, were not of the soil they held, and in time the native folk of Caithness’s hinterland, through their women, largely bred them out. That is not to say that Caithness folk are mostly Gaelic, any more than are other parts of the Highlands. There is an older more predominant strain in the Highlands than either Gaelic or Norse. What folk composed this strain I do not know, just as I do not know who built the brochs; but I have the uneasy idea that they rode one man to a horse.

All of which has brought us a little distance from the rock scenery. Not that the rock scenery is to blame, for it has beauty quite apart from its human associations. The geos and stacks and contorted strata, the colouring of caves and seaweed, the bird life, are elements of ever-varying allure. Memorable days maybe passed haunting this world that swings between life and death. Great care should be taken, too, for on a windless sea where no waves are breaking there is always some degree of a swell that may all in a moment lift a small boat on to a sloping ledge and, receding, leave her to turn turtle.

For the rest, Caithness is said to be a flat treeless plain, and perhaps that impression may have been confirmed here; yet like so many general impressions it is only partially true. For Caithness has many shallow straths of delicate beauty, that penetrate inland from the coast and fade into the moor with an air of still, listening surprise. The Strath of Dunbeath is considered to be about the finest example, though I have found Berriedale and Langwell of inexhaustible attraction. There are others, many of them not at all impressive to the casual eye, that yet achieve for the lover an intimacy and charm that may be comparable only to the fragrance of the finer wines.

Possibly I am prejudiced in favour of Caithness, knowing, as I do, that it possesses qualities which, like the qualities of its people, are not readily paraded. Yet let me say immediately that had Caithness denied me, I should have desired, over any other place on the earth’s surface (including the vineyard countries), to have been born in Sutherland!

Caithness and Sutherland are, in a way not easily made plain, a mating of the two great elements of sea and land. You can get lost in Sutherland, in its mountain masses, its great glens, its hidden lochs, its peat hags, its woods, its barren moors. It is shaggy and tough and often terrifying. The eye reaches over great vistas where no human being lives or moves. And on the west the traveller finds himself for ever playing a game of hide and seek with the sea. Narrow inlets meet him round corners, sudden flashes of colour drawing his eyes away. The memory of a trip from Scourie northward is curiously jewelled. The greenness of mountains where one had expected to find heather, the land between mountain and sea assuming every shape, fantastic, ancient, grey, brooding in peat black, glistening in loch blue, unexpected in goblin green, dreaming in brown, the wind touching it, passing over it, carrying away its loneliness to some place still more deeply withdrawn. To think of the Caithness coast now is to think of something simple, elemental, masculine. Here is the beauty of ceaseless change, full of a wild charm, alluring, beckoning, heedless, feminine.

Sutherland has always been a pastoral crofting county and the tragedy it suffered in the beginning of last century may best be realised if from Caithness we go ‘over the Ord’ by the south coast road and come down upon the fishing town of Helmsdale.

Helmsdale, like the Caithness creeks, has fallen on evil times these latter years. But its story is interesting in that it was a direct creation of what is known to history as the ‘Sutherland Clearances’. These clearances consisted in the evictions of thousands of crofters from their homes in the glens by a landlord who desired, for his greater profit, to rent his land to sheep farmers. It was the era throughout the whole Highlands of the creation of the large sheep farm, and of the dispossession of the people, frequently by means so ruthless and brutal that they may not bear retelling easily, and always with a sorrow and hopelessness that finally broke the Gaelic spirit. What the disaster of 1745 and the penal enactments of 1747 began, the clearances finished.

We know rather exactly and vividly what happened in the glens of Sutherland because of the accounts of eye-witnesses and the explanations of contemporaries. Donald Macleod, whose wife and family were evicted into a night of storm when he himself was absent, with no neighbour they dare go to without bringing immediate doom to that neighbour’s house, described the lurid scenes of burning and destruction in a series of letters to an Edinburgh newspaper, afterwards printed in book form under the title The Gloomy Memories. These letters make terrible reading. The Rev Donald Sage, in his Memorabilia Domestica, tells of the hundreds of homes that were burned around him and of how, when he came to preach his last sermon, he broke down and all his people wept with him. For untold generations they and their forebears had inhabited these glens, a courteous people, hospitable, full of the ancient lore and music and ways of life of the Gael and the pre-Gael. No army of invading barbarians ever left behind it desolation so complete as did that ruthless handful of the chief ’s servants. And Sutherland to this day is haunted by that ‘gloomy memory’.

The folk gathered on the seashores, eating shellfish or whatever they could find, while they dug small plots of coastal land and tackled the sea. Helmsdale gradually became a fishing port of consequence. Then Helmsdale declined, as the sheep farms declined, and the great experiment in Progress had its mask torn from it.

From Helmsdale the traveller should take the road that goes up Kildonan strath, over the Heights, and down Strath Halladale to Melvich on the north coast, both for the scenery and to experience, as I think he may, a still lingering intimation of that gloom. For this is the area that, with Strath Naver farther west, suffered most cruelly.

And the first reaction may well be one of surprise that a land so barren and wild could ever have harboured townships of people. How did they manage to live? ... Until finally he may wonder if the ‘clearances’ would not have happened sometime anyway.

The further north he goes the bleaker it gets until crossing the high lands he observes little but endless desolation. Then all at once he comes on Dalhalvaig.

In Dalhalvaig there is a public school, a post office, substantial houses on the surrounding crofts, white-washed walls, an air of comfort, of material well-being, of everything, in fact, except that which suggests poverty and misery. Yet half-close the eyes, let the houses disappear, let the heather creep up to the hearthstones, let all sign of human habitation vanish, and the present Dalhalvaig becomes a place more desolate than any to be found in Kildonan.

How do we account, then, for the Dalhalvaig of today? On no other grounds that I can think of than that Strath Halladale was not ‘cleared’. It escaped the horrors of 1813-19 because the greater part of it was at that time under the Mackays, and when it did fall into other hands (in 1829, by purchase) public feeling against the evictions had got so inflamed that the new owners found it more advantageous to pursue the intriguing ways of Parliamentary influence than to continue making deserts.

Down the Strath from Forsinard to the sea the descendants of the old crofters remained. Many of them caught the emigration fever as the nineteenth century advanced and went abroad meaning to return, but few of them ever returned to settle, though they sent home money regularly and in other ways exhibited the passion of the Gael for his homeland and his kindred.

In talk and correspondence with the present scholarly parish minister of Kildonan I have been given a glimpse of the kind of men and women Dalhalvaig has produced not only in the past but in living memory. ‘Some of the finest types of Northern Highlander, physically and mentally, have come out of this area from Kirkton to Forsinain on both sides of the Halladale river’, Dr Scott maintains, And he proves his case with fascinating instances of versatility, strong personality, and occasional genius.

I was interested in this contrast between Kildonan and Halladale, and pursued my inquiries quite dispassionately. I think there is here an underlying significance of real importance. A great human stock cannot be planted in a day. What was uprooted so swiftly may not all at once be given root and permanence by a decision of any individual or any Board. But the glens are there. And the final – and representative – opinion was given me in these words: ‘All the northern glens might have been like Halladale, if the people had been treated as human beings.’

But this is a depressing subject and for all that may have been written to the contrary, the Highlander loves news and gaiety. As Kenneth Macleod reports of the island schoolmaster, ‘My curse on gloom!’ Only it is necessary to get some understanding of the forces, human and economic, that have been doing him down in the past in order to appreciate even the scenery amid which he lives now. For not only does environment affect human development, but human development in its turn affects environment. In a happy thriving community the very land, to our senses, takes on a certain pleasant friendliness. Children feel this particularly, and in after life have an enhanced memory of sunlight and of flowering growths. On the other hand, in Kildonan there is today a shadow, a chill, of which any sensitive mind would, I am convinced, be vaguely aware, though possessing no knowledge of the clearances. We are affected strangely by any place from which the tide of life has ebbed.

And Sutherland, as I have suggested, is a land of endless variety. There are no big towns, nothing at all like Wick, which in the height of the herring season in the old days used to double its population and present a scene of human interest continuously dramatic. The county town of Dornoch is best known for its golf course. Golspie and Brora also have good golf courses. Here a tourist industry is developing. And as this part of the county is also the seat of landlord power, there is a certain residential feeling in the atmosphere. Surrounding the castle are fields with trees like English parks, while on a high hill dominating all this part of the coast is a tall monument to that Duke of Sutherland under whose reign the clearances took place.

Let us go inland to Lairg, which is the proper centre for the exploration of the real Sutherland. Anything in the nature of motor-car or bus service may be had at the Sutherland Transport garage, where a genial manager, in Gaelic or English, will tell you what you want to know and what you had not thought of. Three main roads radiate from Lairg to the west. The first up the quietly beautiful strath of the Oykel to Lochinver; the second by the long barren stretches of Loch Shin to Scourie; and the third northward across the moors, passing the Clibric Hills on the right, to Tongue. All three roads run into the road of the west which winds from Lochinver to Tongue, and is, to me at least, literally the most surprising and magical road in Britain. Not that speedmen would call it a road at all, unless indeed certain parts might be selected for ‘observing’.

Through Strath Oykell, by Altnagealgach, and on towards Loch Assynt, where great mountains all at once crowd around: Ben More Assynt (3,273 ft.) on our right; Canisp and the remarkable Suilven on our left; Glasven and the Quinag in front. This is the happy hunting-ground of geologists, archaeologists, and botanists. Historians, too, will look at the ruins of Ardvreck Castle on the edge of Loch Assynt and think of Montrose and what happened there of ‘deathless shame’.

From Lochinver, a pleasant place, there is a coast road by Clashnessie and Drumbeg to Kylescue Ferry (for Scourie) that no summer traveller should miss. It is not much frequented, but I have always found a great fascination in the wooded inlets that give on Eddrachillis Bay, with its many islands.

Islands, indeed, accompany one along this western seaboard, and exercise their power on the romantic imagination in diverse ways. Some look upon them quiescently, others dreamily with vague thoughts of Tir nan Og, while not a few feel an impulse to own one doubtless out of some innate urge for security and over-lordship. All hopes – or illusions – may be indulged on this road. Life is short, but eternity may be dreamed in a minute.

From Scourie to Laxford Bridge, where the Loch Shin road ends or begins. All this is sporting country. The Laxford River has patrol paths on both sides, and I have heard of young men who strike a match in the dark of night by this lonely water and then wait to see how long it will take keepers to come out of the void upon them! A remarkably short time, I am told. Whether or not it has its point as a game, it certainly illustrates with some irony the whole subject of sporting rights on which I have not touched here. It is really difficult to write of the Highlands without appearing to deal in that accursed gloom. When the sheep did not pay, the deer took their place. I may leave it at that. As for getting a rod on the Laxford, you would first have to buy out the wealthiest duke in England. So you may leave it at that also!

The hotels have, of course, some loch-fishing attached to them. It is the custom, I know, to deplore the heavy charges – six to eight guineas a week – of most of them. But their season is short, their rent and expenses heavy, and they desire profit as naturally as a duke or a grocer. For the rest, they know their business. The Highlands, of course, may yet become a popular tourist playground dependent on tourists and nothing else. After sheep, deer; and after deer, tourists. It is the ascending order of our age of progress. For those who know the deep humanism of a past age, there will be regret at the gradual passing of the human stock that was bred of it.

But by the time a man has footed the track to Cape Wrath, where there is no habitation other than the lighthouse, and looked down upon the rocks that take the Arctic on their bows, he may feel that men’s faiths or creeds, economic or religious, change with the centuries, that his wants and desires change with the days, but that certain deep racial forces persist with extra-ordinary strength, and that the end of this great country is not yet.