A long but interesting day out (continued…)

We left the group of interested souls busy taking their lunch either sitting around the house at Ledbeg or in their cars – as Gwen and I did as we had no waterproof mat with us. After lunch, we set off across the fields towards the next destination – which was Badger’s Stone. The fields here are what most people would think of as just that – fenced in areas covered with grass – and the reason for that is that we were now on limestone rather than the granite type bedrock which encourages the acid soil which gives rise to heathery moorland and which comprises most of Assynt. The going of course is a lot easier on grass! We stopped at one point while Bill pointed out to us that we were standing on what had been the main road 200 and more years ago, and you could in fact see the track running around the small hill and off in the direction of Lochinver. The “lie of the land” so to speak 200 years ago is well known as one John Home published a “Survey of Assynt” in 1774 which gave paths, woodlands, houses etc in great detail – but unfortunately didn’t give any information about the people who inhabited the houses! However, we are jolly lucky to have what we have…

Cùl Mòr seen from Elphin. From here the paps look as they should!It was but a short walk up a gentle slope to the site of Badger’s Stone. Bill Badger is a naturalist and resident of Elphin – and one day when out surveying the cairns with a group of others, literally fell over a lump of rock in a very odd place. I don’t really know what prompted them to dig there, but just under the surface and lying in the middle of a field, there is an undeniably quarried and shaped rock – rather resembling a standing stone lying on its side. There is also a rather defined female shape to it – too much so, I think, for it to have been an accident of nature! The stone has been locally named after Bill, and is a real find as there is no other stone of this nature to be seen in this area – at least not yet! I had heard stories of Badger’s Stone but had had no idea what form it might take – well now I know and so do you – although what it actually is can of course be only wondered about! The most sensible theory is that it was intended to be a religious symbol of some sort – or maybe just a statue! – but that it took a tumble having been quarried at the top of an adjacent hill and there it lay, eventually getting covered over by a layer of turf which protected it for these last millennia. Unfortunately and rather frustratingly, we will never know the true story behind Badger’s Stone…

Having spent a while looking at and discussing the possibilities of the stone, we moved on up to the cairns. Mandy took over here with the rather interesting observation that this pair of cairns seem to reflect the peaks of Cùl Mòr which rises above them. Here the right-hand and more pointed of the “Paps” looks bigger than the left, which is something which is apparent until you get closer to the cairns when the peaks disappear behind the hill. Was this intentional? Again, who knows… It is an optical illusion that the right-hand peak is higher seen from this angle – Cnoc an Leathaid Bhuidhe (pronunced krock n lehach vooya) or Hill of the Yellow Slope or Hillside, is in fact 11 metres shorter than its sister – Cnoc an Leathaid Bhig (vic) or Hill of the Small Slope. The name of the mountain is normally given as Cùl Mòr – and of course there is Cùl Beag as well – but not on the OS map sitting here by my elbow, which is a Landranger 15 and which only gives the names of the two peaks. I find that a rather interesting little detail!! According to the information board up at Knocken Crag, the name Cùl is a shortened form of something else – but I am afraid that I can’t remember what it is! But I do remember that the name was supposed to be a word meaning “cattle fold” and that it indicated that the mountain was the place where the MacKenzies hid either their cattle, or cattle which they had stolen, in the bad old days of such practices! I am not terribly convinced of this mostly because although I have done my best to research the word, I cannot find any trace of it – not in Dwelly’s or anywhere else. Also, from what I remember, the word is not very Gaelic – but I need to go up to Knocken and check on this, so please watch this space if you are at all interested in Gaelic place names… The daft thing is that although we have been here 10 years now, it took a visitor to the area – one Anne Lorne Gilles who is a well-known Gaelic singer – to point out to me that these two peaks actually form what we tend to refer to as “paps”. In all the 100s if not 1,000s of times I had looked at the mountain, I had never noticed this most obvious feature of it!

Anyway, back to the cairns. These had been investigated but not excavated – they looked much as the first one we visited, with a broken ring of stones on the top and signs of the outer rings and entrance passageways. Home’s map indicates that there used to be very much more woodland in this area – where now there is none beyond Forestry Commission plantation. Again, everything points to the stone having been quarried from the adjacent hill top where there had been a quarry until the 18th century. Given that quite a good number of houses had been built within a stone’s throw of these cairns, we were wondering why the stone hadn’t been plundered for the newer buildings, but I did speak up and give my opinion that the cairns may have been treated with the form of respect that comes from the fear of the unknown, and that such cairns may even have given rise to the local tales of “fairy hills”. The folk may have been too afraid of these strange structures – which were probably more obvious as such then than now – to do other than give them a wide berth!

The original plan for this day had included another cairn which was quite a walk away, but time was running out on us yet again, so we curtailed the walk by just going up to view the remains of some 18th century dwellings which were now only visible as footings. These would have been the homes of some of the 3,000 inhabitants of Assynt at the time – 3 times the number of people who live here now – and would have been the tenants of crofts overseen by the factor who lived in Ledbeg house. While we were there, Bill Richie was telling us of the remains of huge pens sited up the hill and again a lively discussion ensued as to why they were there. It is known that oxen were used to take away the marble quarried from the Ledmore quarry – which is still working, but now they use lorries! – but we couldn’t really see why the beasts would have been penned quite so far away from the quarry which is about half a mile away on the other side of the modern road. Again, several sensible theories were put forward, and again there is no real answer to be had!

Well, the tale of the Assynt Festival seems to be going on a bit as I seem to be finding such a lot to say! If you can bear with me, next week’s post will be the last on this subject – I promise…

[Photo by Clarinda]

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