The first heat of the morning sun swept a light frost from the path as I approached the shore of the bailiff’s loch, Loch a’Bhaillidh, from the shade of the surrounding forest. My thoughts were far away, in the mountains, imagining the same rays transforming neve to granular spring snow and the swish of skis. But now, at the loch side, I knew I would rather be here than in some faraway coire. The jagged horizon of conifers and hummocky moraines reflected perfectly in the loch, a waveform visualising some unheard sound. I stopped running and paused to drink in the scene. Two ducks slid effortlessly across the surface, like tiny spiders descending wires of silk. Birdsong chattered from the treetops beyond the reed-fringed remnants of a crannog. As the sun warmed its surface a faint mist began to spread across the loch, prompting memories of having observed the same phenomenon on a grander scale in the Canadian Rockies. It is easy to associate these moments with faraway places and expensive trips when in truth they can be more easily found close to home.
Abruptly, the loch’s mirror finish switched to burnished metal. The moment was over, another beginning. This is the point of going for a run, not for exercise or for training, but as a means of putting oneself in the right places at the right times.
The crannog prompted me to reflect on the changing land use in this area. Crannogs are enigmatic, few having been studied in detail. The earliest date back up to 5,000 years, though some remained in use until the 17th century. When crannogs were established, back in the neolithic, the climate of Scotland was much more favourable than today’s, being both warmer and drier. The landscape was probably one of productive farmland in woodland clearings. By the time the next prominent evidence of man’s impact, the stone walls of abandoned sheilings (summer dairies used when transhumance agriculture was still practised), came into being, the climate was wet and the land substantially deforested and boggy. This way of life ended around the time of the Clearances, to make way for sheep which the landowners hoped would provide a more profitable option. However it was subsequently realised that the upland owed much of its fertility to the grazing habits of cattle, which will indiscriminately tear off mouthfuls of grass and flowers to the benefit of both. Sheep by contrast will nibble their preferred fodder right to the ground, allowing less palatable plants such as deer grass to dominate. The land is then said to be ‘sheep-sick’, and this is the present condition of much of Scotland’s upland, an impoverished and pale imitation of what it was in the shelling days, which in turn was a poor state compared to its condition in the prehistoric world of the early crannog dwellers.
Even sheep-sick boggy upland seems a paradise in contrast to the claustrophobic environs of a conifer plantation. In the afternoon I cycled round the coast to Creer, drawn by a hill track that led more or less to the 473 m summit of Cnoc a’Bharaille (knoll of the barrel?). Despite it being a sunny bank holiday I saw no-one else after I left the tarmac. Further changes in land use were evident in the shape of part-constructed access roads to aid the construction of wind power stations. The ride was a long one, but the reward was to stand on the very spine of the Mull of Kintyre and enjoy the vistas either side to the mountains of Jura and Arran. Islands such as Jura are nowadays attractive because of their isolation from what is commonly regarded as the heart of things. But not that long ago, in the time of the crannogs, the sea was not a barrier, but a line of communication, allowing ideas and culture to spread and flourish while elsewhere progress was contained and stifled by oceans of land.
A great positive of both forestry and wind farms is that they create roads through rough, boggy country, making it accessible for mountain biking. The bad thing is that these roads don’t generally link up to provide useful through routes. Given the inevitability that such development will continue and even accelerate in years to come, the optimist in me hopes that in a future, independent Scotland we will be able to reform land ownership and place a far greater emphasis on improving both the habitat value and the recreational utility of our remote and our not so remote country.