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

I too enjoyed that human link in this descriptive piece. From the beginning the author tells the reader that this essay is more than a travelogue: "I inherited my love of landscape from my parents." Then come the two poetic phrases which sketch the connection between the natural world and human influence in that world, "the bones of places like Skye" and "bare stone projecting through the skin of the world" — a personification of the wilds. The concluding paragraph seemed perfect to me in this sense: David Frankel manages to tie his philosophy of the ephemeral character of life into the timelessness of the natural world that his father so admired. The human ingredient in this piece gives it spice and personality.
Marit Quist Corbett

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

Tremendous detail and thoroughly researched regarding names of places. Your story put me there. As I'm now 70, the essay brought back memories of 50 years ago when I hitchhiked through Britain, including parts of Scotland. While there, on the opposite side of Scotland, east from your location, I stood at the edge of the little town of Bo'ness in the Central Lowlands and looked out over the Firth of Forth. On the same trip, I visited ruins of castles and churches, some with only the foundation remaining. Standing beside one of those ruins I could feel the high winds blowing across my face that must have buffeted earlier generations. Thanks for a remarkable story — of father and son, and the human experience that creates history as we know it.
Arthur Williams

I like the way he communes with his father by visiting and interacting with the abandoned landscape, without having visited these places with him. Yet by doing it alone, and ruminating on the place's history and former inhabitants, he establishes an intimacy with his father.
Schneck Lucia

Finely constructed. Solid, succinct imagery. I was transported on the journey with you.
Andrea Ottley

What a beautiful place! You and your father each found connection by way of your shared love for the island, his more perhaps from a scientific point of view, and yours, sociological. Yet I'm convinced that — since he chose to camp in the wilds of this environment — he absorbed much that could not, or would not, transfer into the deepest part of his feelings. Thank you for sharing this experience.
Betty Jamison

What a strong quilted account of the author's connection with his father and the place; it makes me feel the rough of the landscape and life itself. Thank you.
Marina Vaysberg

Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece. I have not read anything that moved me in some time, and am grateful for a writer that is able to share a little bit of themselves. I wish I could meet this writer someday, as art is just a reflection of the artist. A completive soul is rare these days.
Liv

A poignant piece about ‘meeting and knowing’ one’s father more intimately, at a desolate place across time and emotional distance. The different ways of engaging with a stark, natural landscape — and remnants of a built environment — revealed two distinct, inter-generational perspectives of the same site.
Noor Badarudin

It is pure torture to read white words against a dark background in Arial, when you can’t enlarge the text that won’t justify to the page width so you have to continually scroll back and forth for each line. Hard to build continuity. Let alone get lost in the text. * BTW, Skye has been inhabited a lot longer than since Viking times. Why lead into the article with that faux statement? Yes, that channel may be of Viking vintage, or not, but the Hebrides and Shetlands have been inhabited since, at least, Neolithic times. The place names are of Irish, or Scots Gaelic derivation — which is significant in that the Viking impact was not as strong as one might think, as the place names survived. * It’s a pity you glossed over the accomplishments of the Iron Age Celts in preference to the Vikings (the enduring marks of other peoples); perhaps a little more research is in order? * All grumbling aside, Skye’s been on my bucket list, that pinnacle, the Old Man of Storr, especially. I’m impressed that your old man climbed the Cullins, and that you were able to align the old and the new stories via the photos. Sweet touch. When I was on the back side of Iona, I had a similar experience, the abandonment of place juxtaposed against the jarring artifacts of the 20th c., the plastic flotsam and jetsam that threatens to engulf the pristine coastlines of the soul.
Maureen Hurley

If you want to have dark type on a white background (which is actually harder for the eye to read than white on dark), go to the top right corner of our site and click the LIGHT box. Also, you can increase the size of the font by accessing that function on your browser. Also, for the justified complaint, that might be solved by using another browser. Thanks, The Editor

I loved the descriptions and could see everything in my mind (even though there were pictures) and loved the comparison of what this place meant to father and son.
Glen

I could smell the weather, reading this. The damp soil, the salt spray. It took me to a place where my father and I too may have met, and I searched around to find an equivalent in my own life. There wasn't one. Thank you for casting me back through the layers of human endeavour, architecture, entropy and hope — and deep into the swells of nature.
Guy Lieberman

Thoughtful sense of a son learning more with each visit about a particular landscape and its history. Plus, a lovely tribute to his father. It reminded me of my father, using his annual two-week vacation to put the family in the car and drive west. He and my mother enjoyed leaving their home in flatland Midwest to camp in wild places. Those annual experiences was what tuned my love of nature.
Mardur

I really liked how much detail there was in your piece, and how you linked this with your father's love for nature and landscape — as well as the link across times and generations.
Faiza

I was most interested in the sense of the 'fragments' and 'marks' people leave in a location. To see ancient Aboriginal rock paintings, or an abandoned sheep shearing shed, now empty, but once the main work point on a Outback station, it all brings a sense of then and now. How interesting if we could time travel for one day in the past!
Mardur

Voice. '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.' This is very appealing and engaging; as a reader, I felt that the writer was someone with whom it would be enjoyable to spend some time. • 'He loved the bones of places like Skye: the bare stone projecting through the skin of the world, . . . . 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 two different perspectives make the description of the place richer, which helps explore the relationship between the writer and his father. So a whole lot is going on! Great value for the money, or for reading time. Really intriguing piece.
meredith jelbart

The imagery is so sharp here that it made me think of the ruins I have visited afresh, and made me realize that I must open my eyes more. It also made me think of the people; the father and son story line added complexity, but even without it the piece was compelling. So evocative was the writing I don't think it needed the photographs. Anyone read his fiction?
anita manuel

Thank you so much for bringing me to travel to so beautiful a place with the old abandoned landscapes.
Lucky

When reading the first line, I immediately remembered a book I had recently read: Amy Liptrot's The Outrun. It takes place in an area quite close to this one, on the Orkney Islands. Her main merit is to marry the barren landscape with her feelings; Frankel similarly describes how his father ignited the interest in landscapes within him. His description of the landscape is very tangible though imagery: you close your eyes, put on your hiking boots, stroll over rocks and hidden tracks, around walls and ruins. I especially liked the expression "the rivers that bleed from the mountains". The author's switch to history, so visibly connected with the place visited, leads him to think about the former settlers' achievements; but he must admit to remain an outsider, though we still feel a unity between writer and scenery. It's a bit as if architecture and nature melt into each other, no unlike his memories of his father with his own visit. Thus, the landscape becomes a spiritual and emotional meeting place. Simply superb!
René Kissling

All writing is place based. I have heard this so often that I can no longer be certain of an attribution. The statement is certainly part of the culture here in the South (southeastern United States for those of you outside the US). From William Styron's Virginia tidewater to Wendell Berry's Kentucky landscapes (including his lovely depiction of the Red River country in The Unexpected Wilderness), the land is a character rather than a mere setting. This is certainly true of Barbara Kingsolver's Appalachian novels as well. You certainly demonstrated that this can be true of the British Isles as well.
Ray Zimmerman

I really like how this piece merges memories with factual and historical insights so seamlessly. Could feel your love for this place; thank you for sharing.
Audrey

I have read this peace only a week after my father rested. Such a beautiful read I am certain he would have enjoyed it. Thank you for the rich diction and powerful description. You made the rocks talk. Your eye for detail and level of observation is admirable.
Florence

Beautiful! A wonderful commentary on the interconnectedness of all things. The world's effect on itself, on us . . . and our effect on it. And finally, how all of this impacts our interactions with one another.
Regina MacIntyre

I very much like the concept of the writer walking in his father's footsteps and being able to know a different side of his father through the landscapes enjoyed separately and years apart. To me, the writing reads very much like someone exploring details on a map. I think maybe some more first person details would bring the reader more fully into the landscape: physical feelings, the colour and detail of the landscape, the feeling of the ground underfoot, the sounds and smells. I happen to live in a landscape such as this and I can picture it very well; maybe that is why I feel the lack of grounding in the location.
Eithne O Halloran

I was at once intrigued and inspired by this writing. The strongest impression of this piece for me was the writer's connection with his father over time, in place. I currently live very close to the location of my father's early life, and frequently experience the deja vu of my grandmother's life in this region, 100 years ago, through my eyes today. I imagine this area as it was, the trip by stage coach she made to Wyoming at the turn of the century.
Julie A Kortidis

This is beautiful work. I'm captivated by the concept of using place as a convergence point of events that occurred decades apart.
Kevin Kawana

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