The wind was undeniable: blustery, swirling, changing directions on a whim without ever abating. Sometimes such weather makes the cattle edgy, but they moved obligingly enough from the far field around the corner of the farm road and into the steading. The wind, however, worked its perverse magic on me. I was edgy: a distorted emotional geometry in which normally round surfaces become pointed and small things sting and stick and pile up and threaten to take over. I needed to get out from under the effect of the wind and the inward spiraling consciousness. I needed to reconnect to something larger than my own peevishness.
I grabbed a few things and drove into town where I sat anonymously in the middle of a cafe with a cappucino. The background noise of public places is soothing to me. I could not hear the wind above the hum of conversation, and the froth on the cappucino was thick enough to dive into it. I felt myself beginning to round out again. I pulled out Seahenge
, a book I bought at Maes Howe in the thrall of that neolithic environment. In the cold light of the farm, I thought it could not live up to the cover art of embossed bronze age swords and a subtitle promising a tale of "quest for life and death in Bronze Age Britain," but the book intrigues me with the connections the archaeologist author makes with his life and his career and the links between individuals and place.
With the last of my cappucino came the awareness that I needed to walk through the very landscapes I was reading about and think about people and lives that have come and gone and left only the faintest trace of their passing. My new neighborhood is the broch capital of the world, a center for Pictish relics, and a long time haven for vikings who left behind place names and burial cairns. And it is all here just for the taking. I have spent some time exploring cairns and brochs but I wanted to find a site that I had only heard about--Yarrows Archeological Trail-- where I could actually walk in the midst of a site much like the ones I was reading about, a ritual landscape.
My enthusiasm was almost swamped by my anxiety over my ability to find it on my own. My navigational skills are limited at best and they go right out the window when I start worrying about what I don't know. It took me 6 months to be sure I knew how to get to Thurso, which is only 10 miles away on a road with no turnings. All I knew about getting to Yarrows was that there was a roadsign marker to it on the road to Wick. I was reasonably confident I could find the road to Wick, so I set out with confidence enough for the first leg, which is usually enough for an adventure.
I found the road to Wick easily enough, but the wind had not diminished either its intensity or its whimsy. Thick-skinned, shaggy Shetland ponies in a pasture by the road have backed into the lea of the prickly gorse bush to take what shelter they can from the wind. As I passed by the road to Camster cairns, I decided I can console myself with those reconstructed neolithic chambers in the middle of bog cotton and grazing sheep if I cannot find Yarrows. Realizing I have choices is one of the signs of a returning perspective, but now I am determined to find Yarrows.
The road seems longer than I recall, and the anxiety nibbles at my confidence. I know if I get to Wick I will have gone too far. As I near the outskirts of Wick and my heart begins to sink, I see a cluster of road signs, including:
"Yarrows Archeaological Trail"
and beneath it,
"Not suitable for buses"
British understatement often vies with full disclosure in road signage: the road is not suitable for buses or large cars or one and a half small cars or one small car and a tractor, even a small tractor. And any vehicle will have to play dodgem with sheep. The road to Yarrows is that hallmark of the highlands, a single track road. I find this somehow very comforting. I don't want the road to Yarrows to be broadly paved and well sign posted.
I am awarded with a quintessential single track road: very few laybys--aneurysms in the tarmac that allow one car to move over far enough that another can ease by--and few driveways or hard shoulders. Fortunately, there are as few cars as there are laybys, so I wander up and down soft hills, around bends, including two nearly 90 degree angles where only a gate across the road differentiates the main road from the farm road. I easily elude sheep on the road because by now I have much practice at it. I pass only one other traveller on the road, a bicyclist. Suddenly I come unequivocally to the end of the road, but I see no archaeological sites. Undaunted, I make a K turn on the narrow end of the road and prepare to go to Camster cairns when I see the pillar of stones with a signpost announcing Yarrows.
Yarrows must be like Avalon or Brigadoon I tell myself as I park beside the signpost because now I can see silhouetted on a hilltop the familiar signs of remnants of a broch, a round, tower-house that was popular in this part of the world a couple thousand years ago. The wind rocks the car a bit just to remind me that it still reigns over this day, so I pile on layers upon layers of clothes retrieved from the backseat and the trunk. I remember wistfully when the wind in Caithness was a travel anecdote shared with my brother in the comfort of his living room back in Carmel, Indiana. When he first visited Caithness in April he wore all the clothes he had brought with him and needed his heavy camera case as as anchor against the wind. I never dreamed then laughing at the story that the wind would be anything other than an anecdote about far away places.
A handful of sturdy red cattle sit contentedly in the field chewing the cud. They watch me with only a little curiosity. Just beyond them is a large loch, empty except for the chop from the wind that animates the surface with white waves. The steading at the end of the road also seems empty, so other than the cattle, this whole scene stretches out for me alone.
I climb over the fence to walk the aracheological trail--"allow about two hours" the sign says "over ground that may be wet or slippery." It also promises a broch, a cairn, a burial site, and an ancient probably Pictish dwelling: the archaelogical equivalent of a full meal deal. The broch is not as well preserved as others I have seen because, as with many things in Caithness, the treasures are not as well endowed as they might be in an area where the population density is greater than 8 people per square kilometer. The tradeoff, of course, is that in a populous area I would have to share it.
Today I cherish my sole posession. I imagine a conversation with a former resident teleported back and able to speak contemporary (contemporary with me that is) Amer-English. "What the hell have you done to my broch?" he asks indignantly looking at the rubble that once was his home.
Taken aback by his unexpected assault, I hastily reply, "Not me. It's been like that for a thousand years or so."
And then I wonder would he understand what a thousand years meant--not the words, but the import. I quickly realize that I don't really understand a thousand years and then I remember that is why I am walking here today. I need to get a thousand year perspective on this day.
The sites that comprise yarrows Archaeological trail are linked by a tiny path created by sheep and then enhanced a bit by the local archaeologist. I know her and I know she does a good job with too many treasures and too little time. When I tell her I came here, she will smile because she likes this place, too, and then a cloud will come over her face and she will say how she wishes it were better signposted or so on, but the raw, heathered windiness of the site is so beautiful that any changes could only diminish it.
The hills bloom with lavender, dark purple, white, and the red-tipped heather I have dubbed lipstick heather. I try to get a photo of the sweep of the hills in the subtle shadings of lavender purple gray green as some heathers begin to bloom and others bud and the older ones kick up their grey stems as they dance in the wind, but it is too much for a single image and soon I put my camera away and just enjoy taking it all in.
After nearly an hour of walking along the narrow paths, I stop for a moment on one of the wooden stair steps over a barbed wire fence to catch my breath and sit absolutely still. My car, the lone steading, the sturdy red cattle, and grazing sheep are all out of sight as I sit under a wide, grey, birdless, wind-tossed sky. In that exquisite emptiness the waves lap on the loch below, the fenceline wires hum in the wind, and the long grass dances among a chorus of heather. I might have stayed there forever like the fool on the hill watching the heather grow, but a gust of wind nearly bowled me over, so I moved on to the next site.
As I climbed up the hill, the first sight of the single, abbreviated stack of rock remaining from the once round 40-foot tower cast a formidable gaze downward. The argument about whether it was built for defense or for status symbol reminds me of Swift's Big and Little Endians disputing how best to open a boiled egg. From the top of the hill I stood next to the stack and looked out at the wide ocean below. Vikings came in an annual migration with the westerly winds. The height of the tower could catch an early glimpse of the dragon boats and the thick walls would be sturdy defense, but it would be even better if the size and the thickness persuaded the vikings to go somewhere else--to find a softer target. My friend Amy told me a story about a tiny kitten puffing itself up as much as possible when it saw an enemy. "You make the best of what you have," her husband had quipped. And so with brochs.
As I head back to where I left my car, I discover that I have been here longer than the two hours the signpost said it would take. But I have lost all sense of time, which was the intention. I have moved back through time--walking against the clock. As I get closer to the car, I see ahead of me a murder of crows and above me a small bird tries his luck flying into the wind and abruptly makes a U turn and disappears from my sight as I move back into time. I peel off the layers, climb into the car and I am surprised that the way back seems to take much less time.