Reading the Landscape

Gleann Beag, Highland
Gleann Beag, Highland

If you live on an island a journey almost inevitably includes a ferry crossing. After a while it becomes a bit like catching a bus, but with the frisson of anticipation as to whether you will actually depart as scheduled or when you might get back home. However, I still enjoy this aspect of the journey and when away on an off-island jaunt I’m always pleased if we can find a new ferry to try.
We had been contemplating a trip to Glenelg for a while, a sort of hommage to Gavin Maxwell who wrote his classic otter trilogy, Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother, at Sandaig (called Camusfeàrna in the books) which is to the south of Glenelg. I have to admit that part of the attraction, apart from the iconic landscapes, was the prospect of a trip on the Kylerhea (Skye) to Glenelg  ferry, the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland.  This has been a traditional crossing point from Skye to the mainland for centuries and there has been a car ferry service across the Kylerhea straits since 1934. However, the ferry only runs from Easter to October, so it was along drive from Skye, across the bridge to the mainland, down to Shiel Bridge and along the Old Military Road to Glenelg. The road from Shiel Bridege to Glenelg was built in 1815 to service the military barracks at Glenelg and follows an old drovers track. The road was rebuilt in the 19th century by Thomas Telford, but it remains a single track, and although the views are stupendous, it is not a route for the faint hearted!
In early Spring it was quiet and although fine and calm, the sun was shrouded by high cloud and opalescent light softened rugged contours. Inevitably there are the dark green and slightly claustrophobic sections of conifer plantations, but some of the slopes of the narrower glens are still clothed in native woodland, the bare branches adding a soft smoky haze-like quality to the vista. This is still a remote area, and when seen through urban eyes it can appear to be an empty wilderness. This is illusory, it is a complex landscape where the natural environment has been shaped by man over millennia. The recent history is easy to read – conifer plantations, grassland maintained by grazing, roads and wire stock fences, overlaying a mosaic of drovers tracks, dry stone dykes (walls), coppiced woodland and abandoned croft houses. For those who can read the landscape there are the footprints from a more distant past, and for those of us without the skill there are plenty of clues.

The signposts to our ancient past sometimes occurs in unexpected places and during our exploration of Glenelg encountering the Dun Telve broch in the solitude of Gleann Beag was a revelation. Broch towers, are a form of roundhouse found exclusively in north and west Scotland and date from around 200 BC.

Dun Telve is more than 20m in diameter, and part of it still stands 10m high. It consists of two concentric drystone walls tied together by large horizontal slabs, which also form the floors of narrow galleries between the inner and outer walls. A winding stone stair leads to the top of the tower, with openings giving access to upper floors. The top floor would have been about 9m above ground level.

This dry factual account (Historic Environment Scotland) does nothing to convey the precision and beauty of the stonework, which has survived for over 2000 years. It is thought that Dun Telve stood to its full height until the early 1700s,  when allegedly stone was removed to be used in the building of Bernera Barracks in Glenelg. Despite this depredation, this is an imposing monument which still guards the upper reaches of the glen, engendering both amazement and admiration for the skill of its architects and stone masions.

It appears that a considerable number of Neolithic communities had the technical ability and organisational capacity to build substantial structures from roundhouses to stone circles and chambered tombs. These megalithic structures are the backbone of Neolithic and Iron Age landscapes and offer clues to how the change from hunter-gathering societies to settled agricultural and trading economies began to shape our modern environment. Understanding the impact of human activites on our natural environment is as important as being able to recognise the component species and ecology of natural habitats in interpreting a landscape. This does not diminish the aesthetic appreciation of our surroundings, but it can add perceptual layers to how we see the world around us.

11 thoughts on “Reading the Landscape

  1. A really fascinating piece, and amazing that such complex and large stone structures were built in that part of the world, all those years ago …. and still survive to highlight their skills,
    best wishes

    • We were astounded by the skill of builders and also by the sophisticated structural engineering. The austerity of the landscape in this part of the world really empasises the ancient nature of our environment. It has added another layer of insight to the appreciation of my surroundings.

  2. That is amazing! I love dry stone walls, but seeing structures on this scale and that are so old is impressive.
    Are conifer plantations still being managed? Are new conifers planted, or are they being replaced by native species?

    • In the NW Highlands there is a considerable amount of felling in progress, which I think reflects the fact that most of the plantations created by the last set of government bribes (sorry I meant tax incentives) are now reaching maturity. There is some replanting of conifers (another government incentive), but there is also some planting of native species, mainly by organisations such as the Woodlands Trust.

  3. Luffy

    Isn’t it remarkable that these incredible structures still exist, and yet we still don’t really know what they were used for and why, for what must have represented such effort for a society at that time, they were built. Remarkable structures. I spent many of my younger years studying the Neolithic and Bronze Age and I am always taken aback at the skill and craftsmanship that they have left us, however few the remains

    • We’ve just come back from a trip to North Yorkshire and have been admiring the stone barns and walls built by earlier generations. Sadly the modern standards of workmanship rarely bear comparison!

  4. I remember we visited one of these brochs in Lewis – as you suggest, it is the sophistication of the engineering involved in building these brochs and all the chambered tombs that amazed us. And yes, you put it so well, the ancient nature of the environment does seem to be augmenteded by the austerity of the landscape. Thanks for sharing your trip

    • We’ve just got back from a trip to the “north country” and have been looking at some of the Victorian modifications to the landscape. Alittle easier to read, but nonetheless often impressive engineeering skills.

      • And the Romans did their bit too! Hope you enjoyed your trip – and how far north is your ‘north country?

        • “North country” is the bit beyond Hadrian’s wall (Romans again, but probably the indigenous natives who hefted the stones) and includes Westmorland, Cumbria and North Yorkshire (God’s own). Local (i.e. Scottish) north country is “Highlands and Islands” (Wester and Easter Ross, Sutherland, Caithness). Excellent trip, although in this part of the world spring has yet to arrive.

          • I knew you would have a distinct definition!

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