Cnocnaneach Heritage Trail
From the Glencanisp Road walkers’ car park(1), take the path south down to and over the bridge and follow it into the woods along the side of Loch Druim Suardhalain. To the east are the mountains of Canisp and Suilven. On the north side of the loch hidden among trees is Glencanisp Lodge, which, along with 44,000 acres of land, belongs to the local community charity, Assynt Foundation, since the community buyout in 2005.
Not surprisingly this landscape is often represented in art, including poetry. Norman MacCaig, celebrated 20th century poet, captured it in many poems such as Looking Down on Glencanisp. Here’s another relevant poem by a local poet.
Suilven squats like an elephant,
like that pachydermous-snouted Hindu god Ganesh.
Ravens offer themselves up.
Basmati sheep are scattered on Cnocnaneach.
Saffron gorse simmers in sun, smelling spicy.
Cloud mahouts congregate,
cooking up a storm.
Walk 400m through the woods on the south of the loch and the settlement beyond are called Cnocnaneach, meaning Hill (cnoc) of the (nan) Horses (each). What may appear at first sight like wild land is in fact common grazings, and the woods show clear signs of having been productive in the not-too-distant past. Look particularly for multi-stemmed ‘bundle-of-sticks’ hazels which will have been coppiced to produce material for hurdles and creels. The paint spots on trees and rocks mark off-road cycle trails and show that the wood is an important recreational site for local young folk.
From the edge of the woods, carry on along the track for another 400m to the ruins of a settlement. The remains of a building are clear to the left of the path and over the burn there are several remnants of houses – the stones of which are mossy and partly hidden by bracken. You will get a clearer view of them later.
Carry on to the shepherd’s house (3) ahead, built in 1870 and abandoned in the 1970s and now inhabited only by sheep.Take care, it is in a state of collapse and shouldn’t be approached too closely. Notice the larder out the back, with its stone shelves.
Keep walking past the house and through the fence, and continue going in the same southwesterly direction, a little uphill, where a faint track runs along the right hand side of the flat boggy area. Several thousand years ago this was probably a small loch with good pasture along its shores. It could also have served as a water meadow if, during the winter months the stream was dammed to flood the loch margins to encourage earlier spring growth of grass, reducing the winter feed needed for livestock. The path from this point on is poor and very wet underfoot. Take note of where it passes an old water tank (4), and get your bearings here. You can see Suilven to the east.
About 100 metres south of the water tank the path branches. Do not take the right hand fork, which veers west. Follow the left hand path that swings south east and off up towards the large brackeny patch of ground on the hill to the south. You can see ruins quite clearly enclosed by a large circular stone and turf dyke.
Head for the green platform within this enclosure, which may once have been a bronze age round house (5). This would have probably had a single doorway within low walls of stone, and a low conical or trilby hat-shaped roof of heather thatch and turf. If the enclosure originated at the same time as the house then it may have seasonally excluded animals from a crop area, or brought them nearby to the house for easier winter feeding and protection from predators.
From the round house, there is a splendid view north across the water meadow to Quinag in the north. Canisp pokes its head over the north east brow. Imagine the smell of woodsmoke (the landscape would have been much more wooded in the past) and the sounds of several families and their cattle, pigs, ducks and geese.
Keep heading south along the top side of the mounded enclosure. This path was once the main route to the next habitation, Bad na Muireachan. On the left there is a small square shelter, probably a barn, and a strange short bit of fence, perhaps for hanging hay. What do you think this was used for?
Continue on up, across the little burn to another ruined building (6). It has a fairly large compartment to the south, perhaps for cattle and horses. It is much too substantial to be a summer shieling hut and was therefore likely to have been dwelt in year round. It may well be a 19th century house associated with the enclosure and barn, but may also have served as an inn, giving hospitality to passing travellers on the road. It certainly has magnificent views.
Retrace your steps back past the round house all the way to the water tank, then turn left and climb up the steep brackeny slope between the whins (gorse bushes). The path is weak. It passes through a short stretch of wall and near the top of the hill on the right there is the footing of a small shieling hut or barn, probably used up until the clearances. From here you can look down on the shepherd’s house.
Follow the contour along the edge of the hill through the whins to the ruins of two more pre-clearance houses (7). From here you overlook the barely visible ruins of the pre-clearance settlement we saw earlier on the far side of the burn opposite and a little to the left of the Shepherd’s house. Its also possible to make out several roughly circular enclosures, some of which may have started life as bronze age houses, re-used as kale yards (vegetable patches), or stock enclosures more recently .
Walk down to cross the fence and either continue down the brackeny slope to the shepherd’s house to rejoin the path, or, if you are keen, follow the contour to discover other enigmatic stone structures and platforms, including some that are likely to be other bronze age round houses. It is clear that this has been a substantially inhabited landscape, despite its current vacant state, and for many centuries, the Hill of the Horses was someone’s home.