Beyond the Black Ditch

Beyond the Black Ditch

Unknowingly following in his father's footsteps, the author keeps returning to a peninsula as isolated as any in Britain. Inhabited since Viking times, it reveals layer upon layer of knowledge of the people who once lived there. But for this curious traveller, however intimate his connection with the ruins of this place, his question is still: What does it have to do with me?

Looking west along the Soay Sound from the dun.

RAMSGATE, KENT — I inherited my love of landscape from my parents. My father in particular engaged with landscape on a level beyond a passive admiration of the scenery. Dad was already middle-aged by the time I came along, and he had already hiked, climbed and sailed all over the country. He possessed a sedate, gentle character and was never one to talk about himself much, so I was surprised when I first saw photographs of him on top of a snow-capped peak, ice-axe in hand, wearing a thick woollen jumper and stout boots. He had been a slightly distant character when I was a child — though in fairness to him, when I was a child, I was a slightly distant character, too. Many of the memories I have of him from those days revolve around the places we visited on day-trips and longer holidays, and these were the times we connected most. I’m certain that my interest in exploring remote sites comes from him, though I’m less of an adventurer. Rather than conquering peaks, I collect places.

The places that fascinate me aren’t usually glamourous, important, or even what most people would call interesting. For a long time I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to certain sites. It was Rubha an Dùnain, a craggy little peninsular on the Isle of Skye, that first helped me to understand.

Viking inhabitants turned the stream that joins the loch to the sea into a canal . . . lining its sides with beautifully made stone walls. 

It is a place of extraordinary beauty, yet it is also an unkind landscape, broken by tiny lochans and low lying crags, and in bad weather its sense of desolation is all but overwhelming. Inevitably with a place like this there is a seductive visual quality and the element of romance that goes with it, but I’m drawn by something less tangible than that. I’m interested in places where things seem to converge: layers of history, topography and architecture. For me, Rubha an Dùnain also has a sense of convergence with my father’s life.

The first time I visited this remote spot, I had no idea of its history. Nor did I realise that, forty years earlier, my father had trodden the same boggy path. We each discovered this place independently of the other, standing in the same place but separated by four decades.

Rubha an Dùnain projects into the waves of the Atlantic from the end of Glen Brittle on Skye’s west coast. To its north are the waters of Loch Brittle and to the south the Soay Sound. Beyond the moorland that surrounds it on its landward side the Black Cuillins rise steeply, dominating this part of the island. The peninsular is overlooked by Sgùrr Alasdair — the highest peak on the Isle of Skye — and its close neighbour, Sgùrr Dearg, topped by the infamous Inaccessible Pinnacle. This is a landscape where you can feel the gravity of the place.

There is no road to the end of the headland, but a rough trail stretches along its northern side crossing boulders and bogs along the rocky coastline. The path is slow going. In bad weather it’s almost impassable; the rivers that bleed from the mountains and the slopes of the low, dark hills, Ceann na Beinne and An Sguman, cut through the soft earth and strip bald the rock. The largest of these rivers is Allt Coire Lagan. Its waters run down from a lochan (a small loch) high on the slopes of the Cuillins and pour through its rocky banks in glassy curls and noisy foam before crashing down the short cliffs of Loch Brittle. It was on the banks of this sometimes ferocious little river that my father once stayed during a climbing trip to the Cuillins. Years later, a long time after my own first visit, I found a photograph of his camp; an old fashioned canvas tent pitched beside the stream. By the time I found the tiny black and white picture my father had taken, he had died.

Map of the region and a closer look at the red-circled area: the ruins of Rubha an Dùnain.

He loved the bones of places like Skye: the bare stone projecting through the skin of the world, showing its age; the slow layering of rock and sediment; the valleys ground out by ice and the mountain tops rounded off by the steady working of the elements. I, on the other hand, have always been fond of the traces left in a landscape by the people who inhabited it. To me it is a backdrop to a human drama.

The headland itself is cut off by an ancient stone wall that follows the natural physical barrier of Slochd Dubh (The Black Ditch). It is architecture conspiring with the terrain, sometimes merging with the rocky escarpment above the Ditch or vanishing into the marshy ground of the hollows between outcrops. This scar in the landscape and its ancient stone wall are easily negotiated but there is a sense of a threshold here: passing beyond it, the headland opens up around the shores of Camas a' Mhùrain (The Bay of the Marram Grass). The low, rocky outcrops give no shelter from the sea breeze, and the grass that gives the little bay its name is usually bent flat by the wind. The peninsula is uninhabited now, wild and isolated, overflown by hooded crows and haunted by the quiet twittering of meadow pipets, though this was not always so. Around the bay remnants of buildings begin to emerge like ghosts from the heather and bracken.

Chambered cairn on the banks of Loch na h-Airde.

Walking west, with your back to civilisation, the first signs of human habitation encountered are the ruins of a crofting community. The shells of blackhouses — so called because of their lack of windows and smoky interiors — are clustered along the shallow valley and shoreline. The outlines of long disused tracks can just been traced under the heather. The township was once the home of the MacAskills, followers of Clan MacLeod. For hundreds of years, they were Skye’s ‘coast watchers’, guarding the island and the valuable seaways of the west coast.

The settlement was gradually depopulated by war, famine, economic migration and the highland clearances. The men and women who had lived there started new lives in Nova Scotia, New Zealand and the Carolinas. The last farm was abandoned in 1854. The remains of their houses are reduced to stone shells or turf mounds and around them the outlines of their fields and kale yards are still visible in the sodden ground.

I’ve been back several times since my first visit. Each time, I have accumulated a little more knowledge of the peninsula’s past and, each time, that knowledge reminds me that none of the history of this landscape or its people is mine. I am a visitor; an outsider observing the traces they have left behind.

The Viking canal and Loch na h-Airde.

The bleak grandeur of the surrounding landscape contrasts with the intimacy of the ruins. A hundred and fifty years after their abandonment, there are only a few traces of humanity remaining in the empty shells; a cold hearthside or a doorstep worn smooth with use. Everything else has been taken or lost to the elements. That said, when I’m walking on the lost paths between the ruined blackhouses, watched by the tumbled outlines of empty windows, it is difficult not to sense the community that once clung on there; the people who lived and worked there, and who knew every wall and field.

Most of the crofts are clustered around a small tidal lochan, Loch na h-Airde. Its shoreline is strewn with flotsam accrued over years of stormy weather — alien, bright coloured plastics and other modern detritus: bottles, broken fishing floats and crates swept from boats and beaches — dislocated artefacts trapped in the shallow waters of the loch, reminders of the world that exists back on the other side of the Black Ditch.

It’s difficult to imagine a more isolated place now, at least in Britain, but this site was important once — maybe not in the sense of great events happening here, but important to the hundreds of generations that lived and built here. Before the MacAskills, the peninsula’s Viking inhabitants turned the stream that joins the loch to the sea into a canal, broadening and clearing it, and lining its sides with beautifully made stone walls. They also made a stone quay and a system to maintain a constant water level in the loch, making it possible for their little ships, clinker-built ‘birlinns’, to use the loch as a refuge.

The author's father’s campsite overlooking Loch Brittle, c.1957.

I know that my father too made his way down to this end of the peninsular. Like me, he would have found the marks on the map indicating ‘Ruin’ and ‘Dun’ irresistible. Another photograph taken by him provided evidence. A snap of the Viking canal, taken from the same vantage point I would use decades later. This would have been a stop-off for him: a jaunt before the main event of climbing in the Cuillins. But, the engineering would have impressed him as much as the melting of architecture back into nature impressed me.

The stone walls of the canal are remarkably well preserved, but you gradually realise that there are other older secrets to be found. Rubha an Dùnain means ‘headland of the fort’ and, seemingly growing out of the stone above the canal, is the wall of an Iron Age ‘dun’. Its craftsmanship is no less impressive than the Viking remains it watches over. The wall would have been longer once but it has been defeated by the slow beating of time. Fifteen hundred years’ worth of storms tearing at the cliffs beneath it has left only a crescent of black stone and, where the interior structure once stood, a patch of scrub earth overlooks a precipitous drop to the waves below.

The erosion that has gradually undermined this ancient fort, gives a sense of the great age of this site as a place of human habitation, but across the waters of the lochan is something older still. On the embankment that separates the lagoon from the bay are the ancient humps of a Neolithic chambered cairn and a passage grave. When the dun was constructed in the Iron Age, these tombs were already thousands of years old. Like the crofts and the Iron Age ruins, they are left now only as marks on the landscape — reminders of the lives that have moved through it.

The last remnant of the Iron Age dun.

In amongst the crash and bustle of our lives, the environment we shape around us seems to be an enduring and indestructible fact. The people who lived here must have thought that once, too. But the fragments of architecture scattered here serve as a reminder that nothing is permanent. People die, places change; buildings are rebuilt or re-absorbed. We move on. But the act of building — the labour of piling stone and working timber into a structure — gives a place significance, and this sense of significance lingers long after a place has been abandoned. It turns a ‘place’ into a ‘site’ and the act of visiting it into an act of remembrance.

Humble as they are, ruins such as Rubha an Dùnain’s crofts mark a changing point when people’s destinies were bent, or a life suddenly altered and a future lost. I inherited my father’s reluctance to believe in anything that wasn’t based in observable fact, but when I encounter a place like this I find myself wondering if trauma can impress itself on a landscape in the same way genetic memory can affect unborn generations, leaving some sense of a haunting.

Geography was important for both my father and me. While our lives overlapped, the landscape was as a meeting place for us, literally and spiritually. He was fascinated by geology and the science of the landscape; the physical forces that shaped it and, by extension, the people who lived in it. Whereas he loved to think in terms of millennia, I tend to think in terms of generations. The things that draw me are always the fragments and remains of human endeavour — the marks left by people. In a landscape that reorganises itself over thousands of years, the tiny scars of buildings left by long-forgotten communities are only a flicker that rise and sink back into the ground. But for me it is their brevity that gives them meaning. Their presence in the landscape gives it a sense of scale — not just physically but in time — and in Rubha an Dùnain time is as much an element as the wind, earth and water. ≈©

The headland of Rubha an Dùnain with the islands of Canna and Rum in the distance.

 

 

DAVID FRANKEL is a writer and artist. His short stories and poems have been published in anthologies and magazines. He also writes nonfiction exploring memory and landscape. He is currently using these themes as the starting point for a larger autobiographical project combining prose, nonfiction and drawing. He lives in Kent.

Map and photographs by the author, except photo with tent by his father.

 

 

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Excellent, really enjoyed the overlap between father and son's experience of the same place from differing perspectives.
Joe Earley

An evocative piece. I found myself slipping into another world, one made of rock, sky and stone but what I experienced on a deeper level was a sense of expansiveness, of space and a certain kind of wildness that resonates with deep ecology. Thank you David.
Raine Geoghegan