The Highlands have more than their fair share of empty glens and crumbling ruins. The traditional view of this is to blame the ‘clearances’, a well-chronicled but poorly understood wound on our national psyche.
The catechism goes like this. Massacre of Glencoe, Bonnie Prince Charlie, disaster at Culloden, tartan is banned (personally) by Butcher Cumberland, collapse of the clans, evil English landlords, black faced sheep, Patrick Sellar, letters from America, Battle of the Braes, gunboats, Consider the Lilies, empty glens.
However, a short walk on the south shore of Loch Moidart this weekend has opened my eyes to a more complex reality of abandonment and renewal that continues to the present.
We took the silver walk from Kinlochmoidart along the south shore to Port a Bhata – the village of the boats – where the remains of a crofting village are settling into the heather and bracken. We sat in the sun on the step of a substantial ruin; its lintels were intact and some of the walls still had mortar. It did not feel ancient especially the field system in front which seemed only recently abandoned. The whole place hung heavy with human memory and from its state of collapse I guessed that it had been empty for a century or so giving the lie to the tag of clearance village which is applied locally to Port a Bhata and to the nearby ruins at Braigh. It was easy to compare this place to our own village a few miles around the scalloped coast in Ardnamurchan. It also has its old ruins mouldering into the peat but there also new builds, extensions to old crofts and all the signs of regeneration. However, this renaissance is a recent phenomenum - the previous few decades saw serious and sustained decline as crofting became more marginal and families moved away to the cities. This slow decline is beautifully recorded for the ages in Alistair MacLean’s ‘Night falls on Ardnamurchan.’ However, a mix of dogged, determined locals, incomers with wealth and returning exiles have made the place live again. A new primary school and health centre give it a future.
So what went wrong in Bhata and Braigh? A brilliant article in the local history website records the decline. No callous landlords but a tale of determined and innovative highlanders trying everything to rest a living from the margins. Lazy beds, tatties, kelp, milling, sheep, distilling and even boat building were all tried over the 19th century before they gave into the inevitable not so long ago in 1915. Perhaps the date hints at the final straw. The last resident was an elderly batchelor shepherd and it’s easy to see him amongst the ruins – a collarless shirt and waistcoat, moleskin breeks held up with string and big, clarty boots. It is easy because these characters still existed round the coast in living memory.
These thoughts do not seek to minimise the clearances. A little known postscript to the crimes of Strathnaver and the failed trial of Patrick Sellar was his retirement to Morvern where he cheerfully cleared a few communities onto the boats.
What a story these glens tell. So keep an eye out for the ghosts while you are in the hills – you will find them by the odd ring of stones, the leaning gable or the ancient crooked rowan.