Our aim in developing the heritage trails is to create a multi-layered approach to interpreting the landscape, not only combining different bodies of knowledge, like geology, archaeology and ecology, but really exploring the connections between rocks, climate, soils, plants, animals and people. We want to understand how the social history of Assynt’s land use by people emerges out of, indeed is part of, the natural history of this land.
The Neolithic heritage trail focuses on the people who were living here 5 or 6 thousand years ago, and who built the many chambered cairns along the T-shaped corridor from Loch Borralan to Loch Assynt, and down to Knockan. This is the greatest concentration of chambered cairns in mainland Scotland, and this trail explores how its location is no mere accident, but is intimately connected to the rocks on which they stand, and out of which they are built.
To bring this story alive, we had Bill Ritchie and Gordon Sleight, both passionate and knowledgeable about their fields. Bill tells the story of the land from the rocks up. Gordon starts from the archaeological monuments and works out from them into the landscape. Together they conjured the world of the neolithic cairn builders, the choices they had to make and the decisions they settled on.
With a lively bunch of 22 people, we spent five hours looking intently at four cairns, two beside Loch Borralan and two behind Ledbeg house. We noticed the choices of stones and imagined their forms, newly built, standing out in the landscape, and how they would have glittered and sparkled by lamp-light inside. We learned how the syanite, limestone, quartzite, sandstone and gneiss from which they were built formed, and how these different rocks have influenced how the land looks and has functioned ever since.
From time to time we fell to speculating on what beliefs the people who built the cairns might have had – whether such wondering is geo-archeo-theology or whether it’s just fiction, coming up with stories about what the neolithic people got up to in their cairns is a pleasing way to spend a Sunday.
What’s in no doubt is that those stone age people are well-named. They sure knew their stones.