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Of Mosses and Meadows

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that we inhabit spaces. This pandemic has changed everything. I haven’t left Scotland in almost a year, but every day I speak to people around the world. I’ve gotten to know my home really well, and I’ve been to my office maybe 10 times. Lines are blurred, and we're frequently called to consider the functions of the spaces we inhabit, to push their possibilities.

Up a hill above a bend in the road deep inside the Knapdale Forest in Argyll lies the remains of a farmstead that used to be the village of Arichonan. You can make out the distinct frame of the main house, with its stone chimney and moss-covered walls. There is a prominent fire place against the far side, and a large south-facing window with sweeping views down to Loch Sween. You can walk into the adjoining rooms, with their fire places and crumbling ruins.

Just down the hill is a sheep fank, a stone structure with different walled enclosures used for organizing sheep. Up the back is the barn, with its traditional triangular windows used for channeling winds to separate the grains. The rest of the hillside is covered with buildings, animal enclosures and the remaining stones of what once would have been a thriving farming colony.

The people of Arichonan were fierce. A sign at the entrance tells the story of how when, in 1848, the landlord's attempts to vacate the land during the Highland Clearances were met with riots, and the police had to be brought in to enforce their removal. But in the end, these farming families were sent away to Canada, and the structures of their lives were left to crumble on a hilltop in Argyll.

All throughout my journey I saw remnants of the Highlands Clearances. Walking the historic pathway along Loch Morar on the west coast I passed a ruined church, which used to serve the communities scattered along the Loch side. Worshippers would arrive by boat, cutting through Britain’s deepest freshwater Loch to arrive by the picturesque spot.

Further on I visited the crumbled remains of a farmhouse, with a spectacular view across the Loch to one side and to the high hills of Morar on the other, covered in the golds and browns of deep winter. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like for those people, standing in the doorways where I now stood, looking out at those views for the last time, before setting out for their new homes across the oceans.

I romanticize. I sat with my picnic lunch, photographing the picturesque remains, before hiking back to my car. Life wasn’t easy in these highland villages. The weather is intense, the soil difficult, and the distances remote. What for me was a full day hike over rocks, mud, ice and a river, for these people was the distance that needed to be travelled to reach the outside world.

Today, the ruins of Arichonan and Loch Morar are not totally uninhabited. Sheep roam the hillsides, but what really caught my eye was the plant life. Each stone was covered in thick layers of mosses and grasses, a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. Each shade of green drew me in closer to the microcosms of life growing on each little surface of rock. It was like entire worlds existed on these surfaces which used to be homes.

From Arichonan I headed North to visit the remains of a very different type of history. The Glen of Kilmartin is considered to be the richest concentration of prehistoric sights in Scotland. Burial cairns and standing stones dating back between 3000 and 5600 years litter the valley.

These structures are also made of rocks. A burial cairn is essentially a chamber made of stone slabs, where a body would have been placed in a fetal position. The chamber was then covered in another stone slab, and this box covered over with hundreds of smaller rocks to create a sort of stone mound. These were for very important people - 5000 years ago the movement of such large volumes of rock was a difficult task. But this was an area with lots of important people - at the time, this was the capital of the Kingdom of Dalriada, one of the precursors of modern Scotland.

There are also the standing stones and stone circles, monuments that must have been difficult to construct, but whose purpose we’re not entirely clear of. They were certainly used for some sort of ritual purpose, celebrating sunrises and moonrises, solstices and the passing of seasons. They were the centre of ritual life at the time.

Today the sites of Kilmartin Glen have fallen the way of the Clearance villages - piles of rocks no longer used for their intended purpose. But Kilmartin Glen hosts a very different type of life today than the ruins of Arichonan. The modern village of Kilmartin sits on the ridge overlooking the ruins, a stones throw from a row of burial cairns. The walking path which brings visitors to visit the sights closest to the village is also a designated school route, bringing children to the local primary school, which sits in a beautiful farm house nestled amongst the standing stones.

As I stood admiring the Nether Largie South Cairn, a 5500-year-old communal chamber which had different areas for multiple burials, a farmer was driving his tractor past, fertilizing his fields. The squawk of seagulls that follow a tractor mingled with the sheep calls of the neighbouring pasture. Even though it may be a very different community than that of the Neolithic people who used to worship in this valley, Kilmartin Glen today is very much alive.

From Kilmartin I headed North again, past the impressive ruins of Carnasserie Castle and up the silent southern bank of Loch Awe. Through forests and meadows and into the mountains that surround Dalmally, another Highland village, sporting its share of ruins, but also the abundance of life which is that farm / train station / wool studio / home that I’ve come to love so much.

Come New Years Eve, we were sat around the bonfire, sipping mulled wine and sharing in the light, and I was very grateful for all of these different communities, ancient, old and new, that I get to experience.


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