“Assynt is a land without equal, an expanse of mountain and moor that takes time with foot-on-earth and eyes-on-hill to begin to understand. Assynt is simply not like other landscapes. It is not grander. It is not wilder. It is not bigger. Assynt is its own place, and one needs to see the sun rise over Suilven or hear the gulls cry near the Split Rock of Clachtoll to understand.
Assynt is where I would live if I did not live in Montana.”
Stories of Stone manuscript, 2013
Assynt lies along the northwest coast of the Scottish Highlands; among other things, it is known for the stunning mountain of Suilven.
When Suilven rose above the sky line on my second trip to Assynt, there was an intense feeling of homecoming. I’ve always had tight connections to Montana, so this seemed odd. Now, having returned again and again, I do not question that emotion, but simply embrace Assynt and what emerges from spending time in that landscape with its community. It is a place that will remain a part of my life.
I’ve spent much time in Assynt, in part for graduate studies in environmental history, information that has gone into my book manuscript, Stories of Stone. More recently, I wrote a manuscript on Assynt for a Mountain Regions course through the University of Highlands Centre for Mountain Studies: Assynt-Coigach: Environment and Socio-economics
“Taynish is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is also a National Nature Reserve and an internationally designated Special Area of Conservation. To add to the list, Taynish lies within the Knapdale National Scenic Area. Taynish is well-protected and intensively managed to preserve biodiversity and maintain ecosystem integrity.
But the oaks seem to have a mind of their own.
A native woodland has stood on the knaps and dales of Taynish for around 7000 years, a forest that is now composed primarily of oak. The oaks’ craggy branches reach to the sky along the Reserve’s trails, gnarled and knotted, draped with lichen and moss as if those very trees had stood on this spot since the last ice age, blessed by druids and home for green spirits and goat-horned gods.”
Stories of Stone, manuscript, 2013
A parish along the coast of western Argyll, Knapdale holds many places of natural value, cultural history, and scenic beauty. In Knapdale, I’ve enjoyed walks along quiet lochs and stood in the centre of Iron Age duns looking out over the sea. I’ve watched reintroduced beavers build dams and wandered through the ancient forests. Taynish, a small peninusula within Knapdale, holds a unique attraction. Taynish has its craggy oak woods with a magic in and of themselves. Taynish also has the otters. At the far end of the Taynish peninsula, the otters come to fish where the narrow channel between peninsula and island concentrates the bounty of the sea as the tide moves in and out. Many afternoons I’ve watched the otters, swept into a different world by their presence.
I’ve had the chance to get to know Knapdale well, due to the lucky circumstance that Scottish friends enjoy downhill skiing in Montana every winter, and are generous enough to let me stay in their house while they are enjoying the deep winter snow of my own homeland.
“Sun spread across the great cairns, a diffuse light that seemed to illuminate nothing but mystery. Standing by the burial mounds, peering into the exposed and empty chambers, I am left wondering what those who lived here 4000, maybe 5000 years ago, would have felt to know their burial mounds are now empty… I move on to the Nether Largie Standing Stones, stand precisely at their head, and walk through the five standing stones, carefully keeping them aligned just so. Just so — making all five completely visible. Walking up the center, I traverse the pattern of the stones … to reach the far side still in this world, not transported into some other realm. And I feel I have missed something.”
Journal Entry from Kilmartin Glen, amidst the Neolithic and Bronze Age structures, Jan. 26, 2013
Kilmartin Glen has a special quality that captures anyone who spends time with the ancient ruins, making it seem not too inconceivable that the standing stones might just take you to another … Well, you might have to walk through them on your own to understand.
Outside of such fantastical musings, Kilmartin Glen is an exceptional landscape, with ruins, monuments, and other remnants left by people of all ages, from the Neolithic on through the Victorian age, up to the present. The region holds an abundance of prehistoric stone carvings, standing stones, and stone circles. The “Linear Cemetary” lies in the heart of the Glen, a line of five burial mounds, the last resting place for the Bronze Age elite. Kilmartin became a ceremonial center for those Bronze Age people, and it was this Bronze Age explosion of monuments and artifacts that in part makes the place unique.
Yet more than ancient ruins set Kilmartin Glen apart. The region is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Scotland, as it was the focal center of the kingdom of Dalriada. The kingdom stretched from Argyll to Ireland and lasted from about 500-1000AD, the beginnings of the country we know as Scotland.
Dalriada’s kings were crowned on the hill of Dunadd within Kilmartin, planting their foot within the stone carved print near the summit.
Adacent to Knapdale in Argyll, Kilmartin is a place I frequent, always astounded by the ancient remains of past people and even transported by the standing stones — at least to new ways of thinking. The historic remnants of people from Neolithic onward provide insights into the dynamic relationship between the human communities and the natural environment, connections that created this complex cultural landscape.
“Yesterday, once again, I walked to Columba’s Bay, out to the rocky outcrop. I thought for a moment that I saw a seal — but no. It was mid-afternoon, and so the gulls were not perched where they sit in the evening, nor were the shags lined up on their cliff perches where they sit and watch the sunset. I walked across the moors out to the Bay, out to that beach of rolling stones. I thought of how I am just now getting to the point of knowing this island, its spirit. Just now — and it is only a glimpse, an initial foray into the complexity of this place.”
Journal Entry, October 26, 2010, after seven weeks volunteering on the Isle of Iona
The Isle of Iona lies off the western coast of the larger island of Mull, which in turn lies off the western coast of mainland Scotland, which really isn’t a mainland at all, but part of the larger island of Great Britain that lies off the west coast of the European continent. Geographically then, Iona is set apart, out on the edge where its low hills and moors stand exposed to waves and gales that sweep in from across the vast Atlantic. The island is barely a dot on the map, hard to discern among the other island-dots sprinkled across the waters west of Mull. But there is more to Iona than a dot can represent; the island might be distant and difficult to reach, but it is not isolated, and events have made this small mass of sea-surrounded land the center of many lives, along with all their hopes and dreams.
Early on, events captured the historical trajectory of Iona, pulling it out of any seclusion its location may have provided. In the year 563AD, the Christian priest Columba and twelve companions arrived from Ireland, pulling their boats up onto a beach in what is now Columba’s Bay on the southern edge of the island. They established a monastery that took hold and flourished, and as Christianity spread outwards from Iona, the island became known for its religious connections.
Columba died on Iona in 597AD, thirty three years after landing on the bit of land. He died before the Vikings attacked and before Iona became the final resting place for the great kings of Scotland – MacAlpin, Macbeth, Lulach. He died not knowing that the small monastery established on the island would carry forward, that the Benedictine monks and Augustinian nuns would build a great Abbey and nunnery on Iona, more than six hundred years later. And would Columba have ever expected that centuries later, in 1938, Reverend George F. MacLeod would unite ministers, craftsmen, and laborers in a project to not only restore the Abbey which had fallen into ruin, but to create a community that joined people together in “a common life?” Thus, The Iona Community commenced and survives into the 21st century.
I spent nine weeks volunteering on the Isle of Iona. Before I went, a friend who had volunteered in previous years told me, “you won’t really understand the meaning of your time until later.” She was right. My time on Iona still resonates in ways that I would never have guessed, with life lessons unfolding over time.