Take the road less travelled
Author Patrick Baker on five of Scotland’s most evocative wild places
THERE are certain places that exist at the edge of our collective memory. Ruins and relics which are scattered across Scotland’s landscape, forgotten, overlooked and often hidden by dint of sheer geographical remoteness. I have come to think of them best described as wild histories.
Wild, certainly, in that they are located in wilderness areas, but wild also in an almost anthropomorphic sense: feral, uncared for, mostly unknown or nameless, and outside the boundaries of public consciousness.
When thought of in this way, the landscape of Scotland becomes a vast diorama: the setting for countless narrative scenes, lives and stories overlaid, some more vivid than others. These wild but often unseen histories define us more than any iconic building or national monument, for they are records of things inconsequential and commonplace.
It is this compelling and contradictory mixture of secrecy and significance that over the years some has led me to become fascinated with some particular wild places.
THE GLEN LOIN CAVES, SUCCOTH Although I cannot say when or how I first became aware of the Glen Loin Caves, it feels like they have always been there, hardwired into my imagination. Most people will never have heard of them, but I have come to think of them in near-mythical terms – a place of refuge for drovers, brigands, outlaws and even royalty.
Among other claims, they were most famously the supposed resting point for Robert the Bruce and his routed army in 1306 after his defeat at the Battle of Methven. More recently, the maze of fallen rocks on this Argyll mountainside was the focal point of a unique, sporting counterculture.
It was here for almost two decades from the 1920s that groups of working-class young people, mainly from the povertystricken tenements of Glasgow and shipyards of Clydebank, congregated to climb the huge rock walls of the Arrochar Alps.
They created an almost permanent weekend residence in the caves. Small groups arrived at first, each with its own particular rules and hierarchies, then more established affiliations evolved. Clubs formed here whose names still resonate with modern mountaineers: the Ptarmigan Club and the infamous Creagh Dhu.
The influence of these pioneering climbers was immense, providing a surge in climbing standards and techniques that was unequalled anywhere else at the time. They also redefined the sport, dismantling existing class barriers and creating a makeshift society in the Glen Loin Caves whose values and ethics became imprinted on generations of climbers that were to
follow. Yet the caves and their whereabouts have managed to remain largely unknown for decades. Hidden partly by the obscurity of the landscape, but also by an unwritten code of fraternal discretion.
‘The lad with the clinker-nailed boots and the rope in his rucksack who told me how to find the cave made me promise to keep the secret,’ wrote Alastair Borthwick in 1939, in one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the caves.
‘I was to follow a track to a forester’s cottage, pass through a gate . . . and there search for an old sheep fank. Behind it I should find a faint track leading up the hillside; and if I followed the scratches on the rock it led to, I should find the cave and good company.’
Even at close proximity, however, the caves are frustratingly hard to locate. In 1996 it took the writer Rennie McOwan, an accomplished outdoorsman, several attempts to pinpoint the exact position of Borthwick’s earlier description. ‘You can trace these historic caves if you know where to look’, McOwan advised matter-of-factly, ‘but it can be both time-consuming, and exasperating if you do not.’
THE NAVVIES’ GRAVEYARD, NEAR KINLOCHLEVEN
At the start of the 20th century, in a remote glen in the West Highlands, thousands of navvies were at work on a huge hydroelectric scheme: a massive civilengineering project near Kinlochleven, which included the construction of the reservoir, a six-kilometre aqueduct and an aluminium-smelting plant.
For some of the men that worked there all the inherent danger of their job would suddenly coalesce in a single instant. With a sudden evaporation of luck – the misplaced sledgehammer blow, a moment’s loss of balance or the abrupt death-strike of unseen rock-fall – lives were ended in the wind-torn reaches of the moor.
They were laid to rest near where they fell, in a small, improvised burial ground situated below the steep walls of the reservoir. This was the place that the author Patrick MacGill described in his radical (but now largely forgotten) semi-autobiographical novel Children of the Dead End – the navvies’ graveyard. It is still bleakly visible in the middle of the vast moor: three rows of headstones sectioned off by a low picket fence, the wood weathered to bone-grey.
Even at a distance, its appearance is surreal. It has a strangely filmic quality: dramatic and out of place, like a set design ready to be used in a High Plains western. The gravestones, which were made with concrete from the dam, sit low in the ground, blotched with lichen and listing at angles in the soil.
A few have been etched with simple decorative borders, and some carry names – all either Irish or Scottish. One in particular stands out, the grave of a woman, buried alongside the men. It challenges perceptions of the place as an exclusively male working environment. The thought of both men and women working here suggests perhaps something more civilised, than the lawless encampment described in MacGill’s book – a settlement or even a community.
Despite the lack of embellishments, the inscriptions on the headstones are exact: neat letterings carved with considerable care. The same effort has been applied to all of them, including one – an anonymous grave – which, in the absence of a name, simply has the words ‘not known’ traced delicately across its centre. The gesture is touching. The stonemasons’ precise work, their attention to
look out over the slate quarry which has long since flooded to form a deep, stilled lagoon. I journeyed there by sea-kayak across some of Scotland’s fastest tidal races, making landfall in front of hollow-eyed buildings with window and door spaces showing light-filled interiors.
The best view comes from climbing up a prism-shaped knoll in the middle of the island. From up high you can see the structures that housed the community. As well as the terraced workers’ cottages, there are a scattering of other buildings: pump houses and engine rooms, coal sheds and outhouses. On the eastern side are two more substantial-looking buildings – a two-storey house and a bothy.
What is most remarkable though is the slate mine itself; now a single flooded quarry of dark water that fills the centre of the island like an ink well. The gouged area is so large that in places only a narrow boundary of land has been left to buffer against the sea.
EL ALAMEIN REFUGE, THE CAIRNGORMS
No other mountain area in the British Isles can claim to have had such a large proliferation of bothies and high-level shelters as the Cairngorms. By the mid-1970s, a constellation of these refuges existed across the range, providing a basic form shelter for climbers and mountaineers to overnight on their expeditions in and around the plateau.
The names of the old Cairngorm shelters (the Curran, St Valery, Jean’s Hut, Bob Scott’s Bothy, the Sinclair Hut, to name but a few) have always held an undeniable mystique for me. They seem redolent of a bygone, pioneering era of mountaineering. A time, it seemed, when enthusiasm and exuberance appeared to outweigh adversity and a lack of proper equipment.
Most of the shelters
have long since disappeared: Bob Scott’s Bothy destroyed by fire, Jean’s Hut, and the Sinclair Hut run into dereliction or dismantled; the Curran and the St Valery demolished. There is one, however, that has for the most part been largely forgotten about. Situated at over 3,000 feet somewhere on the steep western flank of Strath Nethy, the El Alamein hut is difficult to find, it walls constructed entirely from rocks barely visible amid a hillside of boulders.
The positioning of the El Alamein refuge was a mistake. It was never intended to be built on the northern spur of Cairn Gorm Mountain, tucked literally out of sight and notionally out of mind in a rarely ventured-to part of the Cairngorms. The story goes that its placement was a navigational error. Built by members of 51st Highland Division and named after one their most famous battles, a mix-up in grid references lead to its construction not on the high plateau, like its sister hut the St Valery, but on an incidental ridgeline.
In 1971, the El Alamein and the other two high-level shelters of the Cairngorm plateau became implicated in the Feith Buidhe disaster – to this day, the worst, single tragedy in British mountaineering history. Following recommendations of the subsequent fatal accident enquiry, a decision was made to remove of all three of the shelters.
Their presence on the plateau was deemed an unacceptable risk. Notoriously hard to locate, it was thought they created a false sense of security, inviting the inexperienced and unprepared to rely
The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories by Patrick Baker is out now (Birlinn, £14.99 hard back)
As Scotland’s wild places become accessible again, enthusiasm to discover wild histories should always be accompanied by the principle of ‘leaving no trace’: please tread lightly, leave no litter, do not disturb historical relics and respect Scotland’s natural environment. unrealistically on finding their protection – an often impossible task in winter.
After several years of highly publicised and emotive debate, two of the shelters were pulled down. But for whatever reason, the El Alamein never followed suit. Its obscurity and lack of purpose perhaps became the reason for its survival: a barely known mountain refuge, located high on a quiet ridgeline, where it remains to this day.
INCHKEITH ISLAND, FIRTH OF FORTH Black and brooding in the Firth of Forth, Inchkeith Island is easily seen, but often overlooked. I have flown over it many times. On homeward-bound planes which bank low over the coast, you get a gull’s eye view of the island.
It gives you the chance to survey its complex, post-apocalyptic townscape: deserted roads and decaying buildings, greenery threading through concrete, shrubs emerging from the rubble. It’s a contradictory but compelling mix. A strange scene of urban dereliction in an elemental and unconnected place.
That the architecture and edifices of different times could still exist so forgotten and untouched, yet so geographically close to Scotland’s capital, seems paradoxical, but also makes perfect sense. For centuries, Inchkeith’s wild form and isolated position – a craggy, kilometre-long, hill-topped rock in the wide, storm-blasted waters of the Forth – has both alternatingly defined its importance and rendered it a landscape that can easily be cast aside.
Over the centuries it has served a multitude of purposes. Fortress, garrison, farm, lazaretto, prison, religious settlement and even the venue for a bizarre linguistic experiment. As backstories go, it can claim an eventful and troubled past, and more than conforms to the writer Patrick Barkham’s contention that ‘a few square miles of island loom far larger than the equivalent pocket of land on the mainland’.
The same is also true for the other islands scattered in the Forth, the ‘emeralds chased in gold’ of Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion. Each, I have found out, have rich narratives, outsized stories that are much bigger than their contained landmasses. They are tales of human and natural history – warfare and piracy, extinction and regeneration – that are intimately entwined with the lives of people far beyond their immediate watery domains.
One of Inchkeith’s most interesting histories involves its role as a staging post for an attempted invasion of Leith. On 16 September, a flotilla of privateer warships had reached Inchkeith Island and lay anchored off its shores waiting to attack the port. The small fleet was led by the infamous naval commander John Paul Jones, a Scot by birth who had joined the Continental Navy of the American
Colonies and was wreaking havoc around Britain’s coastline.
Jones was about to mount his offensive when he was suddenly stopped by an unexpected and ferocious storm. Leith was spared by the skin of its teeth, marking a curious historic footnote –perhaps the only time Scotland has ever been close to invasion by a military force of what would become the United States.
The Glen Loin caves were a place of refuge for drovers, brigands, outlaws and even Robert the Bruce