A Journey into Scotland … Part 25
It continues. I thought I’d seen the most beautiful scenery already but it’s about to get a whole lot better. And just when I thought it was getting close to perfection it goes and gets a whole lot better again.
If you like your air clean, then a cycle over Rannoch Moor will fill your lungs with the best that Britain has to offer. I’d made this journey because I’d just qualified as a teacher and didn’t know if I wanted to commit to a teaching career. I needed time and space to think. Short of free-fall parachute jumping there are few places that give you more space. The landscape is huge, the horizons are massive and there is twice as much sky as anywhere else.
I thought I was going to cross an empty stretch of map between two places of interest. Behind me lay the north end of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. In front of me lie the glories and legends of Glencoe. I had no idea what came in between. I was in for a surprise and one of the greatest days cycling I have ever had.
It was already pretty wonderful as I head up through Tyndrum. It had been uphill all the way from Crianlarich and I was nicely warmed up. The weather could be referred to as “sailor’s trousers’ in that there was usually just enough blue in the sky to patch a hole in a pair of sailor’s trousers. It was largely free of traffic. I actually saw more hikers doing the West Highland Way than I saw tourist cars. There were a few locals who seemed to be in more of a hurry. I think I’d have to live up here for a long time before I started to be in a hurry to get anywhere.
There’s another climb and then one of the longest stretches of downhill that I have experienced to Bridge of Orchy. So long that I had to turn the pedals just to keep my legs warm.
At Bridge of Orchy there is the inevitable hotel. That sounds negative. It shouldn’t. These hotel are invariably very attractive and most welcoming. They are also invariably named after the location. The hotel at Tyndrum was The Tyndrum Hotel, this was The Bridge of Orchy Hotel. You knew where you stood.
There was a railway station. The West Highland Line runs parallel to the A82 to just north of the town. After this it heads off alone over the moor along the loneliest and most windswept tracks in the country. The next station up the line is Corrour Station which is about as remote as stations come. You cannot get there by road. In fact the nearest road is ten miles away and going in the wrong direction. You may have seen it. When the lads go for a day out to get some fresh air and clear their heads in Trainspotting (movie) they alight at Corrour Station.
Sick Boy says “This is not natural man!”
“It’s the great outdoors!” says Spud.
There’s a heck of a lot of ‘outdoors’ on Rannoch Moor.
On my journey I’d encountered plenty of people who were discovering Scotland. I hadn’t yet met another cyclist to talk to but had talked to several who were doing it by train. It can be dangerous to enter a conversation with a railway enthusiast without an exit strategy. I’d been regaled with more engine types and sizes, more description of companies, liveries and logos. More timetable errors and ways of getting cheaper fares by taking a forty mile detour. Amongst all the fascinating detail of the data collector, that is the railway enthusiast, I picked up one gem of a story which I want to be true. It had been told to me over breakfast by a fellow who’s enthusiasm caused an awful lot of spittle to descend on my side of the table.
When the line was built across the moor, a raft of trees and roots and brushwood earth and ashes had to be laid over the top of the peat. The railway literally floats on this raft. Thousands of branches were needed, probably millions. Where the peat was particularly apt to water logging hundreds of thousands of tons of sand were used. Each week an engine was brought along the line to test the stability and load bearing strength. One day the engine went too far. The driver jumped clear but the engine came off the end of the line and ended up in the peat. By the time another engine was brought to the scene, in order to pull it back onto the tracks, the first had already disappeared up to the base of its funnel. My interlocutor told me that it was still there. “They reckon it’s still sinking. About fifty feet down now with a long way to go before it reaches solid rock. I sat entranced and engaged, with a hand protecting my food, and I didn’t believe a word of it.
After Bridge of Orchy the road points up the sky and twists through some hairpins and there I am in the middle of a world as different from the one I live in as downtown Dallas is from the surface of Mars. Glorious flatlands of rust coloured grasses and heathers and all around are peaks of mountains that would look down on anything in the Lake District. This truly is an ancient landscape though it is not in every way a totally natural one. The area, like much of the Highlands, was once populated by crofters. Before 1746 these were clans people who eked out a meagre living by farming, droving and the processing of kelp. What happened to these people was one of the greatest crimes committed by the rich on the poor of mainland Britain.
The Highland Clearances took place in waves with different motivations. Families were evicted from their cottages and crofts. Their few possessions unceremoniously dumped outside and the cottages burnt to the ground. At one point it was intended to destroy the clans and was, in effect, ethnic cleansing. At other times it was to allow rich landowners to claim what had been common land or land belonging to the clan and to use it for either sheep farming (which was hugely profitable) or for introducing deer for the purpose of hunting them. The profits and sport of the few justify the misery of the many. There was more direct ethnic cleansing. There was bogus scientific opinion that the Celtic peoples were inferior to the Anglo Saxon and their forced emigration would be good for Britain. The arguments were foul and dishonest and not too dis-similar from the barely disguised racism of some political parties of today. The present day spoutings of Nigel Farage have a great deal in common with the thoughts and words of George Combs and Robert Knox in the nineteenth century. All promote fear and hatred and distrust through pseudo scientific findings and distortion of opinions for facts. Combs and Knox are largely forgotten. When they are remembered it is with contempt and distaste. I expect Farage to find a similar place in the history books.
The forced clearances are a shameful episode. The evictions were just the start of the misery that extended throughout the world and affected huge numbers of people who had never seen the Highlands. Hatred can breed hatred and cruelty often gets passed along the line. The haunting peace of the windswept moor hides a terrible period in our history.
*The title of this piece is borrowed from the play by Timberlake Wertenbaker.