A Journey into Scotland … Part 38
With Sgurr Mor rising into the stratus on my left and Bein Derg towering up on my right I’m pedalling down a long and lovely road towards Loch Broom. I have seldom felt such a weight of anticipation, never known this depth of nostalgia. I’m going back to Ullapool. A place where I was absurdly happy. A place where we came twice for family holidays. In the great blur and vacuum, that is my memory, of my first four years, I remember this as clearly and fondly as any. I’ve recently been given photographs of these holidays. There was never any question of them revealing a different truth. They show a bunch of children on the shores of a loch gathering stones, playing ducks and drakes and being filled with the spirit of sharing and togetherness. To this day when I think of good holidays, I think of Ullapool.
The road drops gently through first fir, then broadleaf trees as I ride from The Falls of Measach. As the valley begins to level out and broaden, houses appear, sheep are in the winter pasture and the little raging River Droma has become the wider, grander River Broom. Riding along in 1987 I couldn’t quite work out why the river had changed names and how a mountain stream had become a lowland river. The extra volume of water is easy to explain. It’s an area of exceptionally high rainfall and there are tributary streams joining every few hundred yards. The nominal capture of the Droma by the Broom remains a mystery to me.
Don’t become too complacent about Caledonian loveliness though. Not all of the land around here is in the astonishingly beautiful category; some is merely very, very beautiful. And, there are indeed, some patches where beauty is the last word you would reach for. Today is the first day where I come face to face with one of the real ambiguities of Scotland: the Forestry Commission.
At one time all of Britain was forested and, left to its own devices, would become so again within a couple of generations. Ours is a largely man-made environment. Obviously the mountains and lakes and rivers are mostly natural, but what we see, and how we see it, has been controlled by people.
From earliest times we have chopped down trees for fuel and to make tools. Later it was for building with and in order to clear areas of ground for planting. We’ve been a proud island nation for as long as we have had the poets to name us as such. We’ve prided ourselves on our naval power and, whether in patriotic song or in military fact, Britain has ruled the waves through long periods of history. From Drake to Nelson we have built ships to win key sea battles from Gravelines to Trafalgar. You can visit the flagship of the victorious British fleet at Portsmouth. The Victory is a splendid sight, though many comment on how small she is compared to the ferries that sail into the nearby port. Six thousand massive oak trees were cut down to build this one ship. Britain has always found a way of using up the timber that grows so well in our soil. (Not wishing to cast aspersions onto the integrity of the carpenters and shipwrights but it is estimated that over a quarter of the timber that was brought into the naval shipyards was actually used to make staircases, windows and doors for houses in the town.)
After the first world war timber supplies were severely depleted and, relatively speaking, trees were becoming rare. The Forestry Commission and a separate body called the Forestry Commission for Scotland, were set up with a view to replenishing the national stock of timber. They have been very successful but they haven’t always been very popular; especially among those who like their countryside to look green and lovely and be home to a wide range of flora and fauna.
Over time The Forestry Commission has become Britain’s largest landowner. And for the most part they have done a good job in returning vast areas of the country to forest and woodland. They produce quality timber, have been involved in important conservation schemes and have even provided many areas of high recreational value.
The big problems with the Forestry Commission has been in its management of the land. Huge areas have been planted with fast growing firs and pines that can give off a nice resinny smell, but which are poor habitats for plants and insects and birds. They have improved considerably, and bio-diversity is now built into their planning. However, there is still a long way to go and the ugly side of the fir planting policy is the brutal mass felling of trees. It makes economic sense to grow millions of fast growing, pole straight trees and to fell them all at the same time and use massive earth moving machinery to drag them to lorries and off to the sawmill. The visual cost is great with large swathes of land de-nuded of trees. Many hillsides look as though a terrible chemical war has been fought. It takes years before the new trees begin to cover this devastation. This is not how we want our countryside to look.
A memory of the long car journey from Thurso to Barrow in 1964 or 5 is of lorries laden with tree trunks. These lorries continue to pass me. Despite my reservation I always find them an impressive sight. And of all the glorious smells in the world, that of newly cut timber is perhaps my favourite.
The stony bedded river remains in attendance for a few more miles and then becomes the light dappled expanse of water that is Loch Broom. This lake puts on two faces to the world. At this upper end it is narrower and seems to end where it doglegs to the left. It feels very much like an inland loch. As I pedal along, at good pace now, and turn round the curve of the shore, it becomes unmistakably a sea loch. It’s a fine looking body of water and familiar. Once again the proximity to the place, the almost being there, triggers those long discarded memories. The shape of the hills the colour of the rocks the shape of the bay. I’ve seen them all in an earlier life and as the memories come flooding back, so tears tumble down my cheeks.
I chose to face an important stage of my life by cycling to all the places that made up that life. I was in the second half of my twenties and had responsibilities towards a wife and two children. I was on the verge of giving up the spontaneous ways of making a living and of pursuing my arts to become a paid up and superannuated member of the responsible classes. I had to tie things together and complete the weave. As I rode these memories in 1987 I think I may have been saying a final goodbye to childhood. As I write this record of the journey in 2014 I think I may be trying to re-capture it. There was something magical in the face of the little boy on the beach at Ullapool in 1963 that has gone missing. Writing this is helping to bring it back to me.
If the loch and the hills were stirring memories then nostalgia went haywire as I entered the town itself. This is a pretty town. The low whitewashed buildings, the way the houses bow-bend towards the harbour are as perfect as anywhere in Britain. The harbour is magical as harbours always are. The big island ferry is in and off-loading cars. Smaller craft bob at anchor on the deep grey waters of the loch. Going back to Barrow and Ulverston had been dramatic and emotional. But I knew those towns with the benefit of experience. This was a town that I had only known through innocence. My memories were delicate and dreamlike; I knew I must tread gently.
* In the 1963 photograph. I am the little chap on the left, nearest to the camera.