Gleann Leireag/ Glenleraig: Continuum

Time and wilderness.
There would’ve been a time before people. The place existed before it was affected by the earliest inhabitants. Wilderness.
What did it look like?
No records, no books, no photos. Only guesses.
Who and when? No idea.
Then a thriving community; maybe for thousands of years.
Yes, they, and their livestock, would have left a significant mark: not just the buildings.
Over 200 years since.
Now we need archaeologists to tell us the story.
Is it wilderness again?
Will it ever be wilderness again?

Sixth day of May; it should be spring. I left home in cool sunshine with a lazy north wind blowing; about 15 minutes later, I’m at Glenleraig and reluctant to get out of my vehicle. I can see what’s coming. Then it goes very dark and slams it down with hail and sleet. One hot drink later, it starts to clear, and I get the camera out. Suddenly, I’m scampering up the roadside verge: that cloud is now on the nearby mountain of Quinag, and creates a fabulous background for my first shot of the day. Just look at that!

And I know it will be there and gone so very quickly. Over in an instant. The absolute and complete opposite of most of what I’m looking at, a landscape brim full of time. The vast bulk of Quinag is primarily sandstone that’s about 1000 million years old; the rocks under my feet are probably three times as old. Mind boggling. And in the foreground of my photograph are the remains of a building, which is likely to be from a settlement that was thriving here until it became victim of the Clearances about 200 years ago. There are quite a few like this, and, in fact, this was one of the largest settlements around before that time; quite important then.

I wander about in the intermittent sunshine with willow warblers belting out their song from nearby trees, and two separate cuckoos are, well, cuckooing. Like they do. If I was a meadow pipit now, I’d be keeping my head down, or risking an unwelcome extra egg in my nest. At the corner of an old ruined wall, a wren disappears into a hole in the stones and doesn’t come out again. People used to live and work here. After the bedrock itself, their ruined houses are probably some of the oldest things I can see. The trees are mainly birch, and are nowhere near as old.

Maybe the lichen on the stones is. There’s a lot of it, and it is very slow growing.

Perhaps it was even on these stones before they were used to make homes for people and byres for animals.

The ruins are gradually being absorbed back into the ground and overgrown with vegetation. I walk further up the glen. There is a path; it’s a bit boggy to begin with, but runs for about 4 miles towards the shores of Loch Assynt.

It’s very scenic and I know it well: I have a rowan tree up here that I visit regularly to photograph the changing seasons.

Winding through the still-dormant heather, the birdsong has petered out, and I can hear the breeze and my own footsteps crunching on dead bracken. No traffic, no people. Up by the remains of an old tree erupting from rocks, pointing at the sky like a magic wand, a lightning conductor, I look down at a grassy plateau. There’s a circular shape in the turf. It’s likely to be much older than the ruined buildings I saw earlier, and perhaps 2000 years old. Iron age? Yes, this landscape has been inhabited for a long time, and might be emptier now than it has been for thousands of years. Maybe we’ll never know.

Below me, the burn bubbles its way down to the sea. I can see a little waterfall upstream, and wonder if I can get a shot with Quinag in the background.

The middle of nowhere. No signs of the human race just here. A mountain, a stream, open moorland, and a big, big sky. Like it’s been this way for ever? I think about the meaning of “wilderness” and also “wild land”, and wonder where those interpretations start and finish. The sort of places I might expect to see “wildlife”? All using the word “wild”. So not “tamed”, then. Clearly they’re not cultivated, farmed, or gardened. But maybe it’s also about personal comfort zones and familiarity. I’m out here in places like this regularly. I don’t think about labels or definitions myself. I’d guess those previous inhabitants, whether they be 200 or 2000 years ago, didn’t either.

And I’m not “in the middle of nowhere” at all. This is definitely “somewhere” for me.

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