For the summer and autumn of 1814, Sir Walter Scott joined a party of Commissioners for the Northern Lighthouse Service on a voyage around the coast of Scotland. Their main aim was to check the condition of the many lighthouses in their charge.
It seems to have been an agreeable trip and the company got along very well. On Orkney, Sir Walter Scott ‘learned the history of Gow the pirate from an old sibyl’ and for much of the rest of the voyage, he was left alone on deck, pacing and muttering to himself as he plotted a new novel.
From Orkney, they sailed on to the Shetland Islands where Scott became acquainted with the Roost of Sumburgh – tides ‘running with force only inferior to the Pentland Firth,’ as he describes in the introduction to his tale, The Pirate.
As well as fierce currents, Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of the mainland of Shetland, has a craggy coastline that is deeply indented with sandy bays. Of a once impressive building at the head of one of these inlets, Scott wrote, ‘Yarlshof (his spelling) seemed to imply an ancient Earl of the Orkneys had selected this neck of land as the place for establishing a mansion house. It has long been deserted and the vestiges only can be discerned with difficulty. But at the end of the 17th century a part of the Earl’s mansion was still entire and habitable.’
At the time Sir Walter Scott gave the building the name ‘Yarlshof’, sand had filled the rooms to a depth of three feet and the township’s few cottages were ‘wretched’.
On the surrounding land, ‘it was hardly possible,’ he said, ‘to raise the most culinary vegetables. As for shrubs or trees, they are entirely out of the question such is the force of the sweeping sea – blast.’
If the cottages reminded Scott of a Scottish ‘ferm toun’ that is less than surprising. In 1469 Shetland came under the control of the Scottish king, James 111, and many Scots moved there.
In the sixteenth century the lordship of Shetland passed into the hands of Earl Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of James V. His ‘Palace at Dunrossness’ as he called it, in which the local magistrate held his court, was the New Hall, the building nearest to the ancient Norse settlement of Jarlshof (as the site has come to be known).
In 1592, William Bruce Symbister leased the house from Earl Robert. From 1604 to 1605, Earl Patrick, Robert’s son, had possession and he built another house that came to be known as the ‘Old house of Sumburgh.’ This was the building that Sir Walter Scott later named ‘Yarlshof’ and set in his novel, The Pirate.
Unbeknown to Scott, there was far more to Jarlshof than a sand-filled ruin and a few sad looking houses.
At the end of the 19th century violent storms broke into the low cliffs at Jarlshof. The landowner, Mr. Bruce dug into the sand and discovered structures that were still in place from the day they had been built during the Iron Age. In 1925, he placed the site in the care of the State. Archaeological excavations have since revealed many more exciting finds.
When a plane is due to arrive or take off from Sumburgh Airport vehicles must stop and wait at the roadway barriers. As soon as the runway is clear, the roadside warning lights stop flashing, the barriers lift, and drivers can then carry on their way across the runway. After hardly any distance, a turn off leads to the car park of the Sumburgh Hotel and the start of the short path which ends at Jarlshof. From the trappings of the 21st century you can wander into the stone outline of a building where a blacksmith wielded a hammer some 2800 years ago.
The entrance fee to Jarlshof includes headphones and an audio cassette which gives information on what lies beneath your feet as you make your way round the site.
Near the first stopping place, three middens (rubbish dumps) were found separate from each other by layers of wind-blown sand. The lowest, or earliest midden, was piled beside hearths and much-damaged walls. Pottery found here has been dated to before 2500 BC but nothing is known about the people.
In one house the remains of four freshly made steatite (soapstone) bowls were found and among the many stone tools were ploughshares and cleavers. Bone chisels and awls suggest that leather working was common and leather clothing may have been worn.
The middle midden revealed that the inhabitants grew grain, kept cattle and sheep and fished the sea. It’s not known what happened after the visible house, (associated with the middle midden) was abandoned, but it is likely that the occupants moved to other nearby sites.
The latest (topmost) midden is of roughly the same date as the Bronze Age village nearby.
From there, a few steps takes you forward in time to the remains of a large Iron Age roundhouse standing in the courtyard of a Broch built about 2000 years ago. The houses here have distinctive cells formed by thick buttresses extending into the living space and are of a type that can be traced back well before 2000BC in Shetland.
By this time, the introduction of iron had probably eased some tasks involving cutting and piercing. Spindle whorls show that thread was made from fibres, implying woollen cloth was now in use for clothes and coverings.
The villagers farmed in much the same way as their forebears. They bred sheep, including Soay and other breeds similar to modern day Shetland sheep. They kept short-horned cattle, a few pigs, and ponies the size of modern Shetland breeds. They were active fishermen and also hunted grey seals and walruses on the beaches of offshore islands.
In the fields around the village, cereal crops like bere (an early form of barley) and emmer (a kind of wheat) were grown. Stone querns were used to grind the grain. Seeing the actual hollowed out querns and heavy stones used in the grinding process is proof that making a loaf of bread would not have been a quick or easy job.
It’s difficult for visitors to disentangle the Jarlshof Broch from later structures since there are cells in its wall thickness, a courtyard attached to it, and a roundhouse with an outhouse in the courtyard. How tall this broch stood when it was complete is not accurately known. The surviving solid base is 2.4m high but many great stones found nearby during excavation had probably fallen from the upper storeys.
The tallest broch known in Shetland, and the best preserved in Scotland, is found on the Island of Mousa, about 15 miles from Jarlshof. Mousa Broch stands 13m high but many others were probably no more than 5 to 6m tall. Brochs may have served as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area and as watchtowers to guard the shores. It’s thought that inside the towers there could have been several wooden floors where people lived.
Jarlshof is 48 hours by sailing boat from the coast of Norway. In the 9th century AD, Shetland became an important link in the raiding and migration routes ‘west over sea’ to Britain, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. There are indications that the Norse settlement at Jarlshof expanded and contracted over several centuries, perhaps some twelve to sixteen generations. After its first phase, it seems by comparison, with sites in Norway and Greenland, to have been more than a simple farm.
The first Norse dwelling house was a bow-sided building about 75ft long and built of drystone and turves, except for its east gable which was of timber. It was divided into two rooms, the hall or living room, and a much smaller kitchen or pantry. The hall was provided with a characteristic long hearth down its centre, with raised platforms on either side for both sitting and sleeping. Outbuildings consisted of a byre for wintering animals, a barn for storing their fodder, stables and a small smithy. Another building of similar size to the smithy may have been a bath house where water could have been thrown over hot stones to make a steamy sauna.
Amongst many changes over the years, new buildings and extensions were added when necessary to the original farm complex. Barns and byres were built. Houses were lengthened and the inhabitants continued to exploit both the land and the sea.
There must also have been some leisure time. Beautifully carved bone pins have been found that were used as cloak fasteners. Various types show thistle - head, axe -head, or cross-head designs. The high quality animal – head pins are similar to those found alongside 11th century remains in Dublin. Clearly, Jarlshof stayed in touch with other parts of the Norse world.
From Jarlshof, it’s only a short drive north to another site known as Old Scatness. Here again there are remains of a broch, an Iron Age village and evidence of a Viking settlement. But since the overall site is an ongoing ‘dig’ in progress, visitors are given a guided tour.
“As you can see from the stone work on the face of the Broch, it’s very well built,” said the guide. “We believe it stood around 15m high and was at least as tall as the Broch on the Isle of Mousa which is missing 1m in height of stone. The internal staircase runs clockwise up the structure which seems to have been of some significance to these early people.”
In the remains of a building close by, thought to be Pictish from around the time of the late Iron Age, part of a slab of stone was found that shows the outline of a bear. Since it is a very fine depiction, complete with teeth and claws, this is another mystery. Who was the artist? Where did he usually work? How did he come by his knowledge of such an animal?
“We think an artist, an extremely good one, has been brought here to create this symbol for a chief,” said the guide. “The bear was an emblem of power and strength.”
Since Scatness Broch is central amongst several other brochs, the guide suggested that this site might have been some sort of administration centre or even the site of a parliament. Geophysical research revealed the whole site to be fairly extensive, and potentially, archaeologists could be kept working there for a very long time.
Another unusual feature at Scatness is that two replicas of dwellings from Pictish times have been built to give the researchers more practical information on daily living conditions within such structures. As well, over the summer, members of a living history group try and recreate some of the everyday skills of the period such as metal working, spinning, baking, beer making and carving local soapstone to make replica artefacts.
At one side of the path leading in to the Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village there is a relatively recent, fine stone built house. This was where Betty Mouat lived - Scatness’ most famous resident. In January 1886, this sixty year old lady boarded the smack (a small sailing boat) Columbine at Scatness to sail to Lerwick. However, during the storm, the crew were lost and she spent nine days and nights alone on board existing only on milk she had brought with her. Eventually the smack was driven ashore at Lepsoy, Norway. She became a celebrity and her story was told in many newspapers. Subscription funds were opened and even Queen Victoria contributed.
Little could Betty Mouat have imagined that her home would in time be refurbished, renamed, ‘Betty Mouat’s Bod’ and given a new purpose. The hostel now offers simple accommodation to visitors from around the world.
The history of Scatness is slowly being uncovered and archaeologists are learning about Betty Mouat’s predecessors.
I wonder what she would have made of the fact that she was living on top of one of the most important archaeological sites in Shetland.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
The road from Kilmarnock to Dumfries is often busy with trucks, coaches, caravans and cars. Yet, if you turn down a side road, some six miles west of Dumfries, where a signpost points to Ellisland Farm, you can leave the traffic and most of the rackety 21st century behind, for a while at least.
In the quiet, you might even be tempted to try your hand at writing poetry. Robert Burns did. He had travelled the same route a few times, on horseback, from the family farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in Ayrshire, before taking up the tenancy of Ellisland Farm in 1788.
When he finally flitted, he took the best part of four days. Burns could only travel at the speed of his few cows. With a horse pulling a cart stuffed with farm implements, household goods and cooped chickens, he might even have walked much of the way.
The actual farmhouse we see today wasn’t yet ready for him, so he had to stay with the outgoing tenant couple about half a mile away. It seems Robert wasn’t impressed.
‘This hovel that I shelter in is pervious to every blast that blows, and every shower that falls, and I am only preserved from being chilled to death by being suffocated with smoke,’ he wrote.
Eventually he moved into the single story L- shaped farmhouse. Many of his possessions are still there. Adding to the ambience, ‘smoked hams’ hang from the meat hooks fixed in the ceiling above the kitchen range where Robert’s wife, Jean Armour would have cooked numerous meals.
From his front door, Robbie need walk only a few steps to be on the banks of the River Nith. Thickly tree-lined and sweet-smelling with wild flowers, he found its nearness and beauty inspiring. This was the poet’s reason for choosing this particular farm and not either of the others on offer. Let’s stroll there in Rabbie’s footsteps.
The caretaker of Ellisland has created a grass pathway now named Tam O’ Shanter Walk. It runs parallel to the river alongside an old, stone wall. The story goes that hereabouts, Jean Armour Burns heard her husband talking excitedly to himself as he made his way homewards of an evening. It seems he was absorbed in the process of composing his famous narrative poem, Tam O’ Shanter, a tale of drink being taken, ghosts, a certain ‘winsome wench’ and advice ignored.
“O Tam, had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum…”
At the end of the path, a barred gate allows wide views down the River Nith and across the field where the poet was moved to compose his famous poem, ‘On seeing a wounded hare limp by which a fellow had just shot.’ Here’s the last verse,
“Oft as by winding Nith I musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate”.
Robert Burns struggled here as a farmer, sold up, and moved with his family to a rented, first floor flat in a tenement in Bank Street, Dumfries. They were still close to the River Nith but their surroundings were far less picturesque. The cow that was brought along with their other possessions from Ellisland Farm had to be sold since there was nowhere for the beast to graze.
A plaque high up on the wall of the building states, ‘here in the Sanghoose o’ Scotland between November 1791 and May 1793, Robert Burns completed over sixty songs including, Ae fond Kiss, Bonnie Wee Thing, The Lea Rig, Duncan Gray and The Dei’ls Awa Wi’ the Excise Man.’
I wonder what he would have made of the present day businesses at street level that make use of his name - a café, a newsagents and a barber shop.
It’s no distance to Burns’ favourite howff, The Globe Inn, up a narrow alley off the High Street. Farmers would gather there for refreshment, but also to do business, so it was natural for Burns to call in on market days from his farm at Ellisland. His move into Dumfries, to a job as an exciseman, meant even more opportunities for convivial nights.
The hitching posts for visitors’ horses are long gone and other properties have since been built round about, yet the Globe Inn, a three-storey building, is still pretty much as it was in Burns’ day. The ‘howff’ proper, the room the poet mostly frequented, is a little snuggery on the ground floor. Let’s go in through the dining room. The poet’s favourite chair is still there. Could you resist a chance to sit in it? Well, be warned. Should you get comfortably settled and be unable to recite a Burns’ poem or sing one of his songs when asked, you’ll be expected to pay for a round of drinks for the company.
Upstairs, visitors can look around a small bedroom with a fireplace and writing desk. On two of the window - panes there are poems Burns scratched on the glass using a diamond tipped pen, not a diamond ring as is sometimes thought. One of the poems – no surprise there - praises a young lady.
‘O lovely Polly Stewart
O charming Polly Stewart
There’s not a flower that blooms in May
That’s half so fair as thou art.’
Like locals and visiting Burns enthusiasts from all over the world, I felt it would be remiss to leave The Globe without sampling haggis, praised by the poet, as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin-race’. With neeps and tatties, the dish was well worthy, as the great man said, ‘of a grace as lang’s my arm.’
In May 1793, Burns flitted for the last time to Millbrae Vennel. He would still recognise the house today. In one of the upstairs rooms you can see his writing desk. The box bed looks very small.
An opening at the side of the house leads to the entrance of an adult learning centre. There is a small garden off to the side. This would have been Mrs Jean Armour Burns’s plot. Seemingly she grew all sorts of unusual plants. Not far away, the River Nith flows past Dock Park, so-called since the time when sailing ships reached there to tie up. Jean Armour would walk down to the riverside to meet returning sailors who brought her plant seeds from distant lands.
A few years ago a statue was erected to her about midway between the Burns’ house and St Michael’s Church where the family came to worship. Some people think this commemoration to Jean Armour Burns was long overdue after her trials and tribulations of life with Robert.
In the south – east corner of the cemetery in St. Michael’s churchyard stands the elaborate Burns mausoleum, erected by public subscription 18 years after the poet’s death. His remains were taken from the original grave in another corner of the graveyard and re-interred in the mausoleum with great ceremony. The inscription on the gravestone from his first grave reads, “In memory of Robert Burns, who died the 21st July, 1796 in the 37th year of his age.”
Scotland’s National Bard is remembered throughout the world as a man of exceptional abilities as well as everyday human failings. He penned works of genius, but I also like to think of him deliberating over another of his verses,
‘To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife
That’s the true pathos and sublime
of human life’. First published in The People’s Friend
TheNorth Sea can be bitterly cold, a dark, heaving, hostile world where huge waves, whipped up by storm force winds, will batter everything in their path. At such times, even sizeable ships might be at the mercy of the elements. In December 1799, a gale lasting three days destroyed over seventy vessels around the Scottish coast. HMS York ran aground on the Bell Rock. Caught off guard, the warship sank with the loss of all on board.
The Bell Rock, a sharp sandstone reef the size of five football pitches lies in the North Sea, twenty seven miles east of Dundee and eleven miles south of Arbroath. For hundreds of years, this natural hazard caused the deaths of numerous seafarers who were attempting to negotiate a way past it in foul weather. At high tide the rock could not be seen when it was under a few feet of water. At low tide, rugged projections jut just above the surface. Except for the occasional gleam of spray and tell tale break of white water there was not much to give away its presence – until the 1st February 1811. Then the Bell Rock Lighthouse shone out into the darkness sending a clear beam over the sea, ‘like a star of the first magnitude’.
Constructing the lighthouse, probably Robert Stevenson’s greatest legacy had not been a straightforward engineering project. In fact, such was the fearsome reputation of the Bell Rock as a wrecker of ships it was thought that building a lighthouse on the site could not be done. And ever since the Northern Lighthouse Board had been established in 1786, the Commissioners had given umpteen reasons for ignoring the pleas of ship owners, sea captains, sheriffs and land owners to have a light built on the Bell Rock.
However, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) had visited and studied the work of John Smeaton, the Yorkshire man who had built the Eddystone Lighhouse on a terrifying, ship-wrecking reef fourteen miles south-west off Plymouth. Smeaton’s lighthouse was strong and flexible, shaped, as he visualised it, ‘like an oak tree.’ It was ‘broad at its base, curved inwards at its waist, becoming narrower towards the top.’
The Eddystone was constructed of close fitting blocks of stone fastened together with trenails (small oak pins). Its design and construction was far superior to the earlier efforts that had burnt down, or had been washed away. But to bring Smeaton’s pattern to perfection, it needed an inspired designer. Robert Stevenson was convinced he was that man. His test would be the construction of a lighthouse on the Bell Rock.
From 1800s onwards, he pressed the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board for the chance to design and build a suitable lighthouse. When his initial estimate came to £42,685, he admitted constructing the Bell Rock Lighthouse would be expensive but, he argued, it would be counterproductive to try to cut costs in such a ‘matter of importance to the whole mercantile interest of Great Britain.’
Stevenson’s report left the Commissioners unmoved. However, since there were others making a case for this particular lighthouse, the Commissioners unbent enough to allow a Bill to be presented in Parliament in 1803. It was thrown out by the House of Lords.
Despite this setback, the Board went on to seek advice from other more experienced engineers. Thomas Telford, famed architect of Highland roads and bridges supplied an estimate which was much lower than Stevenson’s. However, Telford pled overwork and left to concentrate on his own projects.
The Board’s next choice was John Rennie. Born and raised in East Lothian, he had trained first as a millwright then worked as a jobbing engineer on bridges, canals and steam power. Rennie had designed and built the Crinan Canal in Argyll and had been jointly responsible for widening the River Clyde to allow deeper- hulled vessels to reach the Glasgow ports. As yet, he had no experience of building lighthouses but to the Board he appeared to be the perfect candidate. Stevenson, of course, was deeply disappointed at getting passed over.
But armed with a definitive opinion from Rennie in favour of a stone lighthouse, as well as Stevenson’s earlier report, the Board began making preparations for a second Bill. It was eventually passed.
On the 3rd December 1806, the Commissioners announced that ‘the building to be erected for the purpose of a light house on the Bell or Cape Rock shall be of stone and the work shall be vested under the direction of John Rennie Esq, Civil Engineer, whom they hereby appoint Chief Engineer for conducting the work.’
Robert Stevenson was authorised to proceed along with Mr Rennie and should ‘endeavour to procure a yard and the necessary accommodation.’
Though he was upset by the Commissioners’ indifference to his efforts, Stevenson persisted in adapting and refining his designs, making allowances for the different conditions on the rock and his knowledge of local materials. He bombarded Rennie with reports and queries about the stone to be used, measurements, tools, the workmen’s accommodation and much more besides.
As Rennie was often away on other widely scattered projects it became more and more difficult for him to keep up with the vast amounts of correspondence covering proposed changes and amendments which Stevenson sent him. As it was, Stevenson felt justified in ignoring many of his chief engineer’s suggestions and blithely went his own way. As well, over time, he managed to persuade the Board that his designs were better fitting than those offered by Rennie. He gave up his other engineering jobs and for the next two years concentrated on organising his workforce and the necessary materials for an undertaking worthy of his abilities.
Over a hundred men, many of whom had worked on previous light house projects had to be appointed and trained. A work yard was established at Arbroath and a vessel, named the Smeaton, was commissioned to ferry the builders, joiners, smiths and mortar men to and from the rock.
Stevenson was keenly interested in every detail of the ongoing work and expected the highest of standards. He was meticulous in his planning.
The work place established in Arbroath lay a short distance from the harbour. Stevenson had intended the whole of the lighthouse to be granite built but such a hard-to-work stone could not be cut and shaped quickly enough to keep up with the demand. Granite from Aberdeenshire was used for the outer surface of the lower part of the lighthouse. For the rest of the tower, sandstone was brought from Milnfield Quarry in Dundee and from Craigleith Quarry, Edinburgh.
Each block of stone for the base of the lighthouse weighed more than a ton. The blocks were not rectangular but were cut into unusual shapes with acute angles, dovetailing together to form a sort of three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Each block was tested to ensure a good fit on a 14.5m (44 feet) platform in the Arbroath yard before being numbered and transported to the building site on the rock. The road way to the harbour was rough. Great care was necessary. This difficult job was made easier with a working horse called Bassey who hauled all 2835 stones the short distance.
For the first month on the rock, some men chipped out the foundation for the tower while others began erecting the iron pillars for the workmen’s barracks and constructing the temporary beacon. The sooner the beacon could be lit, the sooner charges could be levied on passing ships to help pay for the lighthouse.
The men could only work between tides and in the early days had to get off the slippery rock and board an unsteady boat until work could restart.
The first squad was contracted to stay for four weeks without returning ashore. Some men were often seasick and took to eating a seaweed called dulse (Fucus palmatus) to cure the sickness. Being dictated to by the tides sometimes meant having to work in the dark by torchlight, staying until the tide was creeping up to thigh level.
Stevenson employed blacksmiths at the rock to sharpen and repair the tools. ‘While his feet were immersed in water,’ he wrote of one smith, ‘his face was not only scorched but continually exposed to volumes of smoke accompanied with sparks from the fire.’
Conditions were grim for much of the time. However, in calm weather, at least when the men were fed and resting aboard The Smeaton, moored a short distance from the rock, they enjoyed an occasional carefree evening. ‘For according to practice,’ noted Stevenson, ‘every man must play a tune, sing a song, or tell a story. In this manner, Saturday nights in particular passed away in a very happy manner with much boisterous mirth and loud peals of laughter.’
From the hold of the Smeaton stones were winched onto the praam, the decked boat built for the purpose, before being towed to a floating buoy. The praam was then made fast until the proper time of tide for taking her into one of the creeks of the rock.
On one heart stopping occasion, when there were thirty two men on the rock, the Smeaton drifted away from her moorings. There was not a lot of time before the rock would be covered by the incoming tide. Fortunately, the workmen, busy at various tasks, didn’t notice the imminent danger – but Stevenson did. Struck dumb with fright, now with his men looking to him for instructions (there were two smaller boats left that were normally only used to transport provisions) it was more than fortunate that the supply boat happened to be arriving with a consignment of letters. The frightened men boarded hurriedly, realising some of them would surely have drowned if they had stayed much longer.
Although afterwards he was outwardly calm about the close call, Stevenson remained haunted by the experience for the rest of his life. The near disaster was a constant reminder of his responsibilities. James Spink, captain of the supply boat, was rewarded later with a lifelong pension and a full lighthouse uniform.
After the first winter when Stevenson was sure of its safety, he allowed some men to stay in a hut built on the beacon tower so they did not have to board the ship at high tide. There were four small rooms for eating, sleeping and washing above a working area for the blacksmith and another for mixing mortar. An iron walkway was built later connecting to a lower section of the tower.
Getting the blocks of stone from the cargo boat to where they were intended in the building process was troublesome, a very dangerous procedure. Stevenson tried various solutions and eventually had a cast iron railway constructed around the site of the lighthouse. The tracks had to be supported at varying heights from the rock to be kept level. Now, loaded wagons could be wheeled from several landing places.
Work stopped in late September or October before the worst of the winter gales were expected. John Rennie, prone to seasickness, made only three visits to the Bell Rock during the four years of the Lighthouse construction.
As well as being able to work on a grand scale, Robert Stevenson took great care over the smallest details of his many innovative engineering projects. He also shared his workers’ difficult workplaces and was ahead of his time in his consideration of safe working practices. He made sure his men were well fed and was aware of the benefits of small, frequent celebrations, when they toasted the completion of each stage of their important task.
To Stevenson’s credit, only two lives were lost during the building of the lighthouse. One man was crushed when a jack gave way in the Arbroath work yard. Another man drowned after falling from the rope bridge between the lighthouse and the beacon.
The Bell Rock lighthouse is testimony to Robert Stevenson’s methods. After two hundred years withstanding the poundings of the North Sea, it still shines a warning.First published in The Scots Magazine February 2011
Occasionally there are days of shimmering heat across Scotland’s West Highlands when the sunlight seems to be brilliantly luminous. On such days the countryside appears to radiate colour.
There are countless shades of green, of grass and leaves. The blue of the sky is mirrored in sparkling lochs while the gold of gorse and yellow on the broom looks to be lit from within.
Gleaming white patches of snow still linger in distant mountain corries.
For some wild creatures, this may be the perfect time to relax, to doze in the warmth, out of sight of potential predators.
For wild life spotters, the chances of spotting this same wild life may be thought to be less. However, should they join knowledgeable guide Ian MacLeod on one of his Wild West Safaris, they are guaranteed, whatever the weather, to catch sight of the Big Five – Scotland’s iconic wild life species - and all in the one day!
Ian’s safari tours start from Fort William. After collecting participants from various points he drives his smart mini-bus out of town along the A830, the road to Mallaig, to the jetty on Loch Shiel.
On the way, we learn a little about the geology of the area, of the unimaginably powerful forces within the earth’s crust which formed the surrounding mountains. Millions of years of weathering and the weight of enormous glaciers reduced the height of these mountains and scraped out Scotland’s lochs and glens.
At the jetty on Loch Shiel we leave the mini-bus and board the cruise boat the MV Sileas and are now in the capable hands of Jim Michie. Some passengers opt to sit in a covered area while others choose to sit in the open, at the prow or along the sides of the boat. After a last look back to the head of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter film, ‘The Chamber of Secrets’, we are sailing, awed by the surrounding beauty.
Loch Shiel is relatively narrow and hemmed in at the north end by high mountains. As the boat chugs along, Jim uses a microphone to tell us about people who had lived along this loch.
Small parties of hunter gatherers arrived here some 8000 years ago. The hillsides were heavily wooded then with oak, Scots pine and birch trees. There are still fragments of the ancient Caledonian forest but large coverings of Forestry Commission conifers dominate the lower hillsides. Higher up, sheep and deer have left the slopes bare.
Our first wild life sightings are not too exciting. Common gulls, though they’re not so common nowadays despite the name, crowd on to a small island of rock.
But then, all eyes and binoculars are trained on a black speck in the blue sky above a mountain ridge. A golden eagle it’s agreed! All aboard are wishing this dot in the sky would come much closer, be more convincing, show its impressive wingspan and curved beak – but it doesn’t happen.
However, further along the loch, there is a definite sighting – this pair of birds are arguably even more magnificent. Jim stops the boat. There are two White Tailed Eagles in a nest near the top of a tree. The male flies off, doesn’t reappear but is probably still close by, perched on another tree. The female looks to be hunched over. Is she sheltering chicks?
The birds are relatively safe here as the loch sides are almost empty of people. There’s only one full time resident now. One other cottage belongs to author Mike Tomkies who left a very different life behind to come here to study the wildlife, particularly wildcats.
We leave the boat at the southern end of the loch at Acharacle, a small village that manages to support a bakery and a general store.
When we are seated in the mini-bus again we are driven the few miles to Loch Sunart, a fiord - like sea loch with numerous bays which otters are known to inhabit.
We look for signs of these elusive creatures - but here on this beautiful day, for us, there’s no show!
Our next stop is the Forestry Commission Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide. It’s a well - appointed wooden building with an approach ramp suitable for wheelchair users, wall mounted benches, information boards and windows overlooking an island in Loch Sunart . Here the wild life watchers talk in whispers.
Some way below us seals are easily spotted. There’s much splashing in the water as pairs rise and cavort before disappearing into the depths.
As we continue motoring along Loch Sunart, passing trees that may be three hundred years old, our guide draws our attention to the striking rock falls and formations, the birdlife and two small herds of red deer.
One grouping is moving slowly, mere specks of dark brown on the hillside. Another group of stags and hinds is closer to the single track road. They appear unperturbed by the sight of humans. They watch us watching them – then carry on grazing.
At each stop, as well as pointing out the wildlife including dragonflies, Ian tells us about the importance of some of the flowers at our feet. These plants may now be dismissed as weeds, but were important to local people who could make use of them.
Silverweed is a hairy, silvery creeping perennial with yellow flowers which is plentiful, common and was cultivated from late prehistoric times. The roots were boiled, baked or even eaten raw. During the famine in these parts, Silverweed was used as a substitute for potatoes.
Our last stop is at another wildlife hide. It’s really a high, sturdy wooden fence with holes cut out to accommodate viewers’ different eye levels. We look through into the forest. On a tree not far away, a red squirrel is safely ensconced in a little wooden shelter attached to a feeder with a plentiful supply of food.
Here’s another definite sighting.
Ian leaves us with details of where we might still spot otters on the shore in Fort William.
On this safari we’ve not managed to see all of Scotland’s Big Five. But the searching has been splendid on a glorious day and there’s still time.