Take the road less trav­elled

Au­thor Patrick Baker on five of Scot­land’s most evoca­tive wild places

The Herald - The Herald Magazine - - Scotland Reopens -

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.’


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.


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)

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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

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