When we went to Skye I had a vague expectation of finding somewhere wild and beautiful. And there was certainly plenty of beauty, especially in the water, the way the lochs are constantly changing their colour and texture, from pearl grey one minute to granite the next and then to millions of diamonds as the sun breaks through.
About the wildness, though, I was wrong. I am sure it exists in the magnificent Cuillin mountains, but the north-west peninsula where we were staying has a different nature altogether. When I went for my first walk around our cottage, the word that kept coming to mind was inhospitable. The grass is short and tough, ranging from ochre to a yellowy green in colour, and almost entirely devoid of trees. Houses are sprinkled across it, rather than gathered round obvious centres.It did not take me long to discover why. And when I found out, I began to see how important it is to learn to read a landscape in order to understand something of the past stories that have shaped it.
From James Hunter’s book Skye: The Island, I discovered that this bleak outlook is the direct result of one of the most appalling and shameful episodes in British history: the Highland clearances. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes in order that the land might be turned over to the increasingly profitable business of sheep farming.
A blog post is not the place to tell this story. Hunter’s book, and John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances, both provide a clear account. What I learnt though, was how a story can come to permeate the landscape.
Once I knew about the clearances, there was evidence everywhere. Take this view from our cottage, for example. Those ripples of green in the background are in fact evidence of ‘lazybeds’.
Picture by Julian Dobson
Hunter describes how the inaptly named lazybeds were painstakingly dug out by crofters who heaped up earth in a bid to improve drainage and grow food on land that would otherwise have been barren. As the landlords cleared more and more villages, they forced the crofters into smaller and smaller spaces and it is probable that these little flattened ridges kept many families alive.
Then there are the sheep, which are everywhere. Personally I am rather fond of them – I am a knitter after all – but they are the reason for the lack of trees. Once, Skye was densely wooded but since the clearances any tree shoot has been devoured by the endless munching of innumerable ovine teeth.
It was the kind of walk that makes your heart sing, with stunning views across the island and out to sea. It finished, however, in Ramasaig, once a thriving settlement but cleared in the nineteenth century. For miles around there is the bleak, treeless landscape broken only by heaps of stones that were once the homes and farms of people who kept cattle and horses as well as sheep, and grew enough produce to enable them to live off the land. Like thousands of others they were forced from their homes, and a way of life that had endured for centuries was abruptly ended in the name of profit and progress.
I had hoped to find wildness in Skye but this was not it. Without a knowledge of the story behind this landscape, I might have imagined it was. But wildness seems to me to carry the idea of somewhere being unspoiled, and this is far from the case in Ramasaig. Robert Macfarlane sums it up in his fascinating book The Wild Places – it is not an empty landscape but an emptied one.