Ardvreck Castle and Calder House are amongst Assynt’s most popular tourist stops, and the car park where we met for this trail almost always has visitor cars or buses parked in it. But this trail turned its back on the iconic ruins and set off to explore inland, and the 23 participants in the walk were invited to discover some of the nearby heritage that they might not otherwise notice.
Stevan Lockhart and Nigel Goldie were the guides for this walk into the unknown. The walk began with a quick summary of the basic geology – the ancient rocks on the far side of Loch Assynt on Beinn Garbh give one of the best views of the contrast between the 3 billion year old Lewisian Gneiss and the Torridonian sandstone layed down on it a billion year ago. Under our feet it was all much newer limestone and Stevan did a good job of explaining why this underlying rock has affected everything that has happened there since. The alkali rock has led to a distinctive flora, in particular the best grazing land in the parish, which explains why everyone from neolithic and bronze age people, to mediaeval clan leaders and eighteenth century tacksman, have wanted to live there.
The signs of all of those people lie, half-smothered in grass – a succession of ruined buildings reflecting the styles and status of different periods. This landscape, as the guides pointed out, represents the entire social history of the Highlands, in miniature. People have come and settled, they have been usurped by newly powerful arrivals, the land was cleared of its indigenous inhabitants to make way for sheep ranching, which in turn failed, and was replaced by the management of sporting landowners.
Natural processes flow on, underpinning and responding to the human changes. The recent reductions in grazing by sheep and deer mean that trees are starting to sprout in the margins of the river gully woods.Who knows what this landscape will look like in future? And what will future generations look for in the land?
One of the clearest things revealed by this fascinating trail is the way what we see in the land depends utterly on what we look for. Seek romantic views, and you shall find them. Seek the traces of geology, and they are everywhere. Seek social and historic trauma, that’s there too.
This walk completed our five heritage trail pilots. But this is just the beginning of a process of development of these trails, so watch this space.