Clachtoll Heritage Trail
From the Clachtoll beach car park (1) head towards the split rock (3), which is one of the possible sources of the township’s name, clach being stone in Gaelic, toll meaning hole. Walk down the board walk from the signboard, across the beach, over the stream, and up the other side. The easiest route is through the gate, along the fence and back over the stile. Keeping to the seaward side of the croft, across the blown sand, follow as best you can the old dyke running southwest.
The dyke is not only an old croft boundary. It stands on the boundary between some of the oldest rocks in the world, the grey 3 billion year-old Lewissian gneiss that dominates the land to the east, and the red Torridonian sandstone, a mere billion years old, lying to the west. Can you spot both of these stones in the wall?
Look across to the east and just above the shoreline notice the big semi-circular slab of red gritty-looking rock among the grey. This is a billion-year old beach. When it formed, what is now north America was still connected to this land; all this sandstone was formed from erosion of a huge mountain range, called the Granville mountains, just to the west of here. Imagine, instead of the sea, peaks and crags, steep gullies and ravines carrying snowmelt and sediment into great lakes and, over millions of years, laying down the sand that hardened into these rocks.
At the end of the dyke at the southern cliff top, to the right of the big boulder there is a hole (2) through which you can sometimes hear the roar of waves and feel the air gusting from a cave below. Perhaps this is the real clachtoll?
Walk to the west and you can clearly see, to the north of the split rock, the bedding planes that were once lake beds and notice how, since they were laid down, the land has tilted to quite a steep angle. Look north and you can see clearly how different the smooth sandstone landscape is from the rough gneiss to the south.
The split rock (3) is dangerous, especially in windy and wet conditions, so do not go up there unless you are very confident on exposed rock faces. There are traces on the top of vitrified stone walling. This is stone that has been heated to extremely high temperatures, partially melted and fused. Archaeologists are uncertain what might have been going on up there. A beacon? A lookout? A defended farmstead? A funeral pyre? Your guess is as good as ours. By analogy with other vitrified stone sites, is likely to date back to somewhere between 3000 and 1500 years ago.
During this Iron Age period the people who lived in Assynt had a strongly maritime culture and they have left many substantially built structures around the coast. Right up until the present day the sea has been an important part of life, providing fish for food and trade and a whole range of other sea products, from seal blubber for oil to walrus and whale bone for tools. But in the Iron Age and the early Middle Ages approaching boats could also mean raiders and this might partially explain part the need for such strongly defended buildings. Boats were the primary form of transport here for thousands of years, the inland road connections being a very modern development.
Head back to the car park (1), noticing the corrugated cultivation ridges, known most inappropriately as lazy beds. These particular beds were in use up until a century or so, but they are just the most recent manifestation of centuries, even millennia of hard agricultural labour. Again the ocean is important, with the soil being sweetened by shell sand and fertilised by countless thousands of baskets of seaweed.
As you cross the beach, notice the white cottage to the north west. This is the salmon bothy (4), formerly used by fishermen and now a small museum, open in the summer season. Stop there for some more insights into how local livelihoods have been anchored in the sea.
From the bothy head north to the walled croft. To the seaward side of the wall is a marble stone commemorating Norman Macleod (5), whose congregation sailed to new lives in the antipodes in the cruel years of the early nineteenth century. You can find out more about them in Stoer Village Hall.
On top of the ridge is a dragon-tooth wall(6), which may date back as far as the Bronze Age (4000-3000 years ago). Keeping the wall a bit on your left, down towards the lochan is a cluster of flat-lying stones. This could be a burial cist, probably also from the Bronze Age. Up until this period, people were buried in collective tombs (such as the Neolithic chambered cairns at Ledbeg, Borralan and other inland areas). The cist is a grave of a single person and archaeologists suggest that this makes this period the start of the ‘cult of the individual’.
Skirt the boggy pool to the seaward side and head along the shore towards the houses on the skyline. The profile of a huge mound of stones will gradually reveal itself to the north. This is a broch (7). Notice the various dykes marking out relatively modern fields. The easiest approach to the broch is to landward. On the north side there is a triangular stone over the entrance.
The broch was once a double-walled cooling-tower shaped building. From the amount of rubble left inside we know it was up to 14 metres (40 feet) tall, and it must have been hugely impressive both on land and to anyone approaching by sea. There are similar buildings on the Outer Hebrides, (which you may be able to see to the west across the Minch), along the north coast and up through Orkney and Shetland, so we know that the broch builders were part of an interconnected maritime society.
You can explore the broch, but take care! The ruin is fragile. Within the entrance passage, on each side there are small chambers between the walls. Although the inside of the broch is full of rubble, you can get a sense of what it may have been like by going to the seaward side of the broch and climbing into the interior. A scarcement ledge runs west from the entrance passage, which would have run right around the inner circumference of the broch supporting the first floor or possibly a kind of mezzanine.
The broch has been investigated by archaeologists, who found remains of an interior hazel wood ceiling or floor, which has been dated to around 2000 years ago, so we know that the broch is at least that old. We also know from the way the rubble is lying that it must have fallen in a catastrophic collapse, and from charcoal remains, mostly likely involving fire. Imagine marauders from across the Minch perhaps? Or a gang of Iron Age rioters coming to raid the house of the richest family in the area! Or perhaps the inhabitants decided to move on and burnt their house to leave nothing for those who came after them. Sadly the most likely explanation is unstable foundations built on steeply sloping bedrock which gave way and brought the whole Broch tower crashing down. We don’t know what lies under the rubble but, as it has not been disturbed since the Iron Age, if it were excavated it could reveal fascinating secrets of the lives of the broch-dwellers, and the full story of the building’s dramatic end.
Looking north you can see Stoer, its clustered houses reflecting a pre-clearance pattern of rural settlement when everyone lived close together and worked together in the township’s surrounding fields. Clachtoll is more typical of a later crofting township – the old common fields divided into individual – narrow strips of land down to the shore, hence all the fences. Each croft had its own house. Stoer too has crofts, but its people never quite got round to moving their homes – in spite of being ordered to do so by the Sutherland estate!
Return southwards, noticing some of the other animals who share this land. Look out for otter spraint posts: bright green mounds often with recent scat or bones on top. This is an excellent birdwatching spot, so keep your eyes peeled. The lochan and boggy area in Clachtoll is an important nesting site for birds including lapwings. Grey lag and pink footed geese graze among the sheep and in the winter Golden Plover move here from the mountains. You may well also see a range of sea birds including gannets, divers and eider ducks.
On the way back, go to the seaward side of the dragon tooth wall, to a big ice-carried gneiss boulder, where there is a good bird-watching spot with a very dramatic view of the bedding planes. To complete the trail, walk back through the croft to the car park.