Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 34 June 13, 2022
Weather remained dismal so I met my fishermen friends for breakfast in Kylesku and later went with them to Rhiconish. In our conversation it became clear they had a deep understanding of the history of the area derived from their on-the-ground (or in-the-river) experiences of place. As a result, they knew the breeding habits of fish, the botany of riverine environments, a lot of geology and hydrology, the human history of land occupation (and de-occupation), and the current class-related sociopolitical circumstances of the strange economy that is the Northwestern Highlands today. I got a similar lesson from the crew back in the bothy near Laggan as one was government policy advisor, another a forester, and another a gamekeeper. All good friends but often on different places in the conversation. In my rather desultory preparation for this journey— I had originally planned this trek for 2020 before Covid intervened— I devoured contemporary Scottish nature writers and dug into early 20th and late 19th century books as well. It’s a hard history to learn, as the various traumas are often alluded to without specific context.
The history of the lands where American trails lead is often actively suppressed as those trails try to offer a “truly wild” experience without the taint of human presence— strangely chimeric attitude. I wrote a bit about that in a longer essay on a different topic regarding the lands where the Benton Mackaye and Appalachian Trail overlap:
Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement. The whole essay is here:
In part because of the sheer depth of the time of human occupation in the Highlands landscape, the persistence of the past here is not so much suppressed as it is, for naive eyes at least, made puzzling. (I don’t mean to imply the lands of, for example, the Appalachian Trail don’t have a comparable history of human occupation, just that the more obvious marks one encounters when walking there are, at least for me, almost impossible to discern). I’ve spent days here struggling slowly up watersheds to some high bealach— out in the raw wilds of brute nature— only to encounter unmistakable signs of human occupation and industry. The position in the landscape seems to indicate subsistence farming as probable primary occupation, but, for me, those signs— stone walls, dwelling foundations, etc.— always prompted a halt to just look around and try to imagine what day to day life in such circumstances and seeming isolation would have been like. And of course the follow-on question of what became of the people who lived there.
These landscapes have gone through radical transformations— deforestation, subsistence agriculture, the clearances coupled with introduction of sheep and game production, to today’s parcelling up of huge tracts of land amongst incredibly wealthy landowners (often multinationals) and various activist environmental agencies (within and outside government). For all its deep time sensibilities, these spaces seem to be a constantly shifting, fluid occupation. Like the bogs I keep trekking through, getting a sense of history, of some foundation of the land, keeps sliding under foot.
T. Hugh Crawford