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Holiday 2012 – The Light and The Land

4 September, 2012 (00:12) | Holidays | By: Ian Burdon

The shock of the old

One of my habits in recent years has been to keep a longhand journal while on holiday for posting here. I’m happy to say that I continued in that tradition this year.

Sunday 26 August

it is remarkable how quickly I settle back into the rhythms of a Highland holiday. Maybe it is the degree of familiarity – this is neither the first time we’ve been in this area nor even the first time we’ve been at this very location.

My prejudices come very quickly to the surface. I don’t watch much television at the best of times but on holiday my preference is for it to be off as much as possible. Failing that I like to have a place of safety to which I can retreat with a book.

The silence here at night, while not total, is profound. The wind around the eaves and the occasional distant dog barking are about the most we can hear and there is minimum light pollution, although the sky last night was modestly veiling her glories in cloud.

Sutherland Skyline

We took a trip today to Dunnet Head which is the most northerly point on mainland Britain. Unbelievably the sky was blue and the sun was warm as we watched birds swirling around the seacliffs and looked across the Pentland Firth to Hoy and the Orkneys.  We came back the long way – across to Tongue and then down through Lairg to Dornoch.

Although there was some cloud, the weather held and we were treated to spectacular views of the Sutherland skyline from Ben Loyal round to Eribol and made it home in time for a lively sunset.

Ben Loyal

I have finished my first holiday book: Deborah Harkness’ “A Discovery of Witches” which I found to be a page turner and enjoyable from beginning to end, although the prose could be more economical.  It is her first novel and I expect her to improve from an already impressive first base. With all due respect to Ms Harkness, however, the book was a starter for the succulent main course: Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” which I have had since the day it was published, put aside for holiday reading.

Monday 27 August

A very different day weather-wise today, cloudy, windy and damp. That meant a lazy-ish breakfast then a trip down to Dornoch for a wee wander in the drizzle.  I had high hopes of finding something interesting in one of the antique shops but my hopes were dashed. One of the shops is a proper antique dealers and beyond my price range while the other didn’t have anything that particularly caught my eye.

At Loch Fleet

I enjoy checking in local second-hand  shops wherever I am, whether antique shops or charity shops, because you never know quite what you might find.  Most times it is a book or a cassette (rarely vinyl or cd) that tickles the “buy me” nerve. Often there is nothing to see but I enjoy looking, just in case.

In any event, after a leisurely lunch we went across to the Golspie side of Loch Fleet for some vigourous “fresh” air and wandered for a while on the shore picking up a bag full of particularly photogenic whelk shells for later use, with nothing for it after that but an urgent need to take a nap!

Golspie is an unprepossessing place, fading somewhat in common with most north-east coastal towns. It always sticks in my mind as a place my dad visited for the Mod in 1977 with East Kilbride Gaelic Choir. I recall my dad had such a good time that I am always disappointed by the somewhat dull reality.

I don’t mean to pick on Golspie in isolation: the sad truth is that many such towns around Scotland are in a state of decline.

If I have an early disappointment in the holiday it is that, despite the many excellent microbreweries in the Highlands, I haven’t seen much of their produce on sale. I enjoyed a bottle of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord with my tea tonight and very good it was too. I have had many a good night out on Timothy Taylor’s beers, some so memorable that I couldn’t remember them in the morning, only to recall them with a start some months later. But Timothy Taylor’s is brewed in Keighley near Bradford.

The nearest breweries I know of around here are Black Isle and Cromarty but as yet none of their fine beers are to be found. I had a pleasant draught “Three Sisters” from Orkney with my lunch yesterday which I enjoyed, but it wasn’t “local”.

And that is a shame.

Sunset from the cottage

Lindsay and I spent quite a while this evening photographing the sunset. It wasn’t a spectacular “fire in the sky” but I do think that I got some decent shots. Although I have a number of cameras with me I have used digital almost exclusively and all of the sunset shots were taken on my Leica on my trusty old tripod that I’ve had since, I think, the early nineteen eighties.

I won’t bore you with the technical details except that I deliberately under exposed slightly to saturate the colour and strengthen the silhouettes.

Tuesday 28th August

We enjoyed a leisurely morning before heading over to Dunrobin Castle with the main aim of seeing the 11.30 falconry display.

Dunrobin is a place about which I have distinctly mixed feelings, mainly because it is the home of the Sutherlands remembered in vernacular history for the ferocity of the Sutherland Clearances. That is a historical stain which no amount of scrubbing will remove. These days the Castle is one of the main tourist attractions around these parts providing local employment where it is needed.

The falconry was good and the falconer, Andy Hughes, was funny and informative. He was flying a Harris Hawk, an Eagle Owl and a Peregrine Falcon with enough low-level passes over the heads of the crowd to keep everyone happy while making some telling points about the importance of apex predators as ecological indicators.

The interior of the Castle interested me more than I expected. I was last there a good quarter of a century ago and didn’t remember it particularly fondly. This time I spent a lot more time looking at the paintings collected there and, since they include Landseer, Tintoretto and Joshua Reynolds, there was plenty to see.  That being said, Lindsay and I agreed that a surprising number of portraitists seem incapable of doing hands right!

No photography was allowed inside and for the most part they kept an eye on you to make sure that you didn’t transgress (old habits clearly die hard). I should have liked to have a snap of one of the C18th paintings if I could. It was of a girl (Wilhimina?) playing a stringed instrument of 10 strings grouped in 5 courses which makes it a cittern I think. I noted 4 tuning pegs on the lower side of the headstock, 6 above.

Loch Fleet

From Dunrobin we dropped south slightly to be sandblasted on the vast expanse of Dornoch Beach where Little Terns were diving just offshore.On the way back we stopped off to watch the seals basking on the exposed sandbanks of Loch Fleet at low tide.

The early evening light cast random random shafts of dramatic effects on the wheatfield outside our window across which swallows and the occasional pipistrelle were swooping.  After 10 I went out with my binoculars to look at the stars before the cloud cover finally drew in. There was a lot of light pollution from, ironically enough, the Moon but from the lee of the house the sky was clear enough.

While stargazing I had a flashback to a conversation from nearly 30 years ago. We were looking at a perfectly clear night sky from Torvaig on Skye. I commented that it was looking at the stars and the immensity of the visible  universe that had convinced me that there is no God. My interlocutor responded that it was contemplating that immensity which suggested to him that there probably is a God.

It is always the hidden premises that count the most, not the surface ones.

Wednesday 29th August

The evening closes.  As I write this the Paralympics opening ceremony is on and I am sipping an interesting but not entirely convincing 24 yr. old Tomatin.

Tarbat Discovery Centre

It wraps up a damp day. After another leisurely breakfast we took a run down to the Tarbat Discovery Centre at Portmahomack, the site of a C6th Pictish monastery. There is a museum there housed in a former church which itself stands upon an ancient site.

The museum is nicely done and well worth a trip should you find yourself in the neighbourhood.

I find the Picts interesting. In the popular mind there is a notion that not much is known about them although -relative to their contemporaries- that isn’t entirely correct. Part of this comes from the absence of a written record from the time – all that we have are the wonderful, enigmatic stone carvings.

In these circumstances we find fertile soil in which to sprout speculation and fantasy. I suspect that the truth would have been simultaneously more mundane and more interesting than the fantasies. The surviving art points to a sophisticated culture fully in tune (by sea) with their contemporaries in Northern Europe. The importance of waterways and sea routes was brought home to me in Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways” which spends time on the subject.  Once looked at from the perspective of seagoing peoples with navigational skills, the map of Europe looks different.

rock and a hard place

One of the things that irritates me about Nationalism in all its manifestations is the urge to stress a separate identity and history, the attempt to erect or at least crystallise a set of boundaries and marker stones. It is an emotional message disguised as a historical analysis within a political narrative. And it is quite wrong I think. Everything that I have seen and read in Scottish history  is as much about interconnectivity and continuity as it is about separateness and change.

I am not making a party political point here: I just prefer it when the political narrative is not based on an emotional appeal to a mythologised identity. Fat chance!!

We had lunch in Tain where the food was good but the Guinness poor before taking a scenic trip up to the Falls of Shin where, at last, there was bottled local ale to be bought.

Thursday 30th August

I thoroughly enjoyed today.

Kyle of Durness looking south

We visited my favourite part of the UK which is northwest Sutherland. The late summer/autumnal light was bright from a warm sun as we travelled across to Lairg, on to Laxford Bridge and then north to Durness. I remember not that long ago that you could buy picture postcards of Highland scenes in which the water was always unfeasibly blue and the heather an unlikely purple, as though unstable dyes had been badly balanced at the printers. Perhaps you can still buy them.

Today the water really was an unfeasible blue and the heather an unlikely purple. We could have been in a pre-Dr Beeching world of branchlines, trippers and charabancs in some eternal summer.

Balnakeil Bay from ruined churchyard

Balnakeil Bay, just west of Durness, has been added to my internal list of favourite places. It is one of those places which has me mentally calculating my assets to figure out whether I have the wherewithal to stick two fingers up to the world and relocate. I can imagine me happily walking along the dunes there everyday in all weathers.

Of course this is the traditional tourist reverie and I know the problems that can arise for incomers to remote areas who do not have a local family or social infrastructure in place. Nonetheless, as I said to Kirstin last night, one of my few regrets in life is that I have not generated enough capital to fund a bolt-hole somewhere in Scotland in sight of the sea – most likely up here. The older I get the more frequently my mind turns to this notion. As they say, if wishes were fishes we’d all have nets in the sea.

Balnakeil Bay

From Balnakeil it was a quick trip round the coast to another favourite beach of ours although this time only Lindsay was brave enough to chance a quick paddle in the North Atlantic.

When we first found this beach, just after Kirstin and I were married, it was deserted. Now there is a carpark 🙁

Northwest Sutherland is strange and beautiful with roads that have a mind of their own. Frequently one does not know where – or perhaps even when- the road is going as it crests the brow of a hill while turning away to one side. It is a veritable Schroedinger’s cat of a road. There is an ‘otherness’ about north west Sutherland, a disconnection from the workaday cares of urban Britain. I think that sometimes it is that otherness and disconnection which so attracts me. It is a place where you can put behind you the stuff and nonsense of living and get on with the task of being.

Friday 31 August

On Wednesday, as we came back east from Invershin and over Bonar Bridge, I spotted the familiar pagoda of a traditional distillery nestling low in the woodlands by the village of Edderton. That distillery was Balblair, a whisky of which I had heard but had never tasted.


Today was a wee bitty dreich so after lunch Kirstin and I went along for a tour and a sampling. I had just the best time!

The distillery itself is pleasingly traditional, using water from the original source as in C18th, fermenting in deep Oregon pine vessels and warehousing in traditional low buildings with earth floors.

The end product is glorious. I sampled a 2002 (bottled this year) which was light and gossamer spun as a pale honey; a 1989 with more depth but still a freshness and purity in the mouth; and a 1975 sherry casked which stunned me with its match of complexity and purity.

From never having tasted it, over the course of half an hour Balblair pushed itself to the fron of my mental list of “special” distilleries.

And I bought a bottle of the 1989 as an early birthday present to myself!.

Meanwhile Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” is on cracking form, with prose that slips and snaps and skitters away like spitballs of blood on a hot skillet.

Saturday 1st September

And so the last day dawned, functionally, with a pack up and tidy and early start back for Edinburgh.As we came down the A9 it seemed to get murkier and our passage into Edinburgh was a jarring reinsertion into the urban.

My abiding memory of the journey, though, is of seals basking at low tide in the quicksilver light of the Cromarty Firth as skeins of greylag geese overhead began their hesitant preparations for their own long journey southwards.


Comment from Neil Weedon
Time September 11, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Ian, what a joyful read this has been for
me. Thanks do much for sharing your thoughts.

Comment from Ian Burdon
Time September 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Thanks Neil