A Journey into Scotland … Part 47
The shores of Loch Assynt are undoubtedly beautiful, but this must be a tough place to live in anything other than the mildest weather. There is no visitor centre to destroy the lonely atmosphere of Ardvreck Castle. Just a sign to tell you to beware falling masonry. Plenty has fallen. The castle is a focal point for the glen but it hardly dominates it. Even close up it feels like a tiny place in a huge world. It’s built on a promontory that takes you out into the loch itself. When the rains come and the waters of the loch rise, it can become an island. I imagine that that would make it feel even more remote and desolate.
Once these lands were fought over. The very presence of the castle tells this story. It isn’t as old as it looks. Shakespeare was already in London writing plays when this was built. And it didn’t last all that long. This is MacLeod country and the castle was originally their assertion of ownership. The castle played its part in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (that we in England, with characteristic insularity, tend to think of as The English Civil War). In 1672 the castle was seized by the clan MacKenzie. It continued for a while in a less than warlike state. The MacKenzies had seen that the future lay in living in houses rather than castles and built the first classical house in Sutherland. Calda House was rather more comfortable against the strength of a Sutherland winter. But, it too was short lived.
Local folklore tells of the house and the castle rather better than the recorded history. Both buildings are ruins now. The castle was damaged in capture but rather left for the elements to destroy. The house burned down in 1737 in mysterious circumstances. Some suggest arson while a story is told of a lightening strike in the early hours of a Sunday morning. This being a place where religious fervour meets the supernatural, the story was one of punishment for failing to observe the Sabbath Day. The MacKenzies had been partying on a Saturday but continued with the feasting, the music, the drinking and the dancing long after midnight. The sole survivor was a piper who had refused to play on once Saturday night became Sunday morning.
A story is also told of the devil coming to Loch Assynt to wreak vengeance. He had helped to build the castle in return of a promise of the MacLeod’s daughter in marriage. The daughter, Eimhir chose rather to throw herself into the lake rather than become the devil’s bride. Eimhir was transformed into a silkie, or mermaid, and still lives in caverns under the water. When she cries over her fate the waters rise, cutting the castle off from the mainland. The devil took his revenge by hurling meteors into Sutherland. The stories are good ones and fit in with genuine phenomena: the waters do rise, there are caves beneath the waters and a large meteor did hit the region. The dates cause a bit of a problem. The castle was only built in 1590 and the meteor landed around 1.2 billion years earlier.
The lowering cloud casts shadows even on a sunless day. The surface of the water changes shade and colour every minute as the sky overhead changes. I see neither devil nor mermaid but neither would have surprised me. It is an enchanting place. But the chill wind brings my impromptu picnic to a close.
I thought I’d be wanting to push on. After all I was now within a day or so of my destination, but this land of mountains is having the opposite effect. Happiness and hurry don’t go hand in hand. My whole being has slowed down and I’m more than contented. The road forks: one road heading for the west coast and Lochinver and the other heads into the most magnificent mountains yet. Here the geology is revealed as moorland and munros. On my left the dark peaks and on my right the white. I find a hundred different ways of expressing amazement. Britain is a small island, so how can it be so vast? And I practically have it to myself.
I’m told that in the summer these roads can be bumper to bumper caravans driven by resolute couples (always the man driving) who have very carefully attached special extending mirrors to their vehicles and never seen the need to look in them. I’d originally planned on making this journey in the summer. It made more sense. Longer days. Warmer days. But I’d had to shelve those plans. At the time I’d felt that September and October were very much the second choice. I had actually hit the jackpot. The autumn weather was fierce at times. It was certainly ever-changing. But it was inspiring and invigorating. You felt you’d been out in it and you felt better for having been so. The real bonus was having the roads to myself. For much of my journey, the asphalt ribbon was just about the only man made thing I could see. The rest was silence. Slow, solitary cycling at the back end of the year was the way I saw this splendour and it would be the way I would choose to see it again. Except next time I’d take longer. I’d park the bicycle more often and I’d get myself a mile or two away from the tarmacadam and up onto those peaks.
The road never runs straight for long in Sutherland. It bends and winds between the slabs of rock, past lochans and peat bog. Every so often a boulder the size of several busses shows that ice has played its part in shaping this magnificence. I pedal along emitting a different way of saying “wow” every minute.
Sometimes the clouds lift and sometimes they descend. The aspect is changed completely. All landscapes look different is sunshine or rain. This landscape became different places. With a hint of brightness it welcomes you. With a hint of rain it becomes very forbidding indeed. Under heavy cloud all the rocks were dark. When the sun broke through it brought with it a range of colours that had been hidden. The white uplands and the dark peaks would be joined by scars of pink and ridges of yellow and rust and gold.
Where the cliffs were next to the road the falling rocks road sign would blaze out its warning. It is the most eye catching, the most comical and the scariest of the British road signs. Boulders falling off a mountainside are eye catching. Depicting them with such a literal picture is both scary and a gift to humour. It may also be the most useless of the road signs. It’s very nice that the road engineers have drawn your attention to the fact that half that hillside may suddenly fall on top of you, or that a half ton rock is about to bean you out of the saddle. The question remains as to just what precautions you are supposed to take. I don’t take any. Leaving my well-being in the hands of the mountains I plough on slowly and steadily through beauty that, to my mind, is the very best that Scotland has to offer. For ten days it had been getting better day by day. It had finally arrived at perfection.