Monday, August 20, 2007

Atomics, Incomers and a Dog Named Maximus

If you waited for a lovely golden day here, you would spend more time waiting than doing. So despite a steady rain, I am on my way to a walk around Dunbeath. I have been to Dunbeath several times and enjoyed it very much. I have wandered along the stream bed with a group of tree-loving people to learn how aspens clone themselves or to see the remnants of a hazel wood that had been coppiced at some time in its history.

Today I am with a book club that is exploring some of the sites mentioned in a Neil Gunn book, High Tide. The leader is a former "atomic"--one of the people who came here to work on the experimental reactor. The neighbors with whom I rode are also atomics although after 37 years in Caithness, they might pass for locals except that they still have the tell tale accent of the south. The other three walkers are Americans, or, in my case, half and half. I am permanent; the others are just passing through or temporarily resident here, but we all share an affection for this part of the world in which we have landed.

Neil Gunn is a good storyteller whose writing is imbued with a love and understanding of Dunbeath and the surrounding area. He dubbed the area that "place of excellent light". On a clear day the light is transfixing in its clarity; on a dull day like today, the subdued tones make the greens and the budding pinks of the heather richer and deeper, and the light underside of the bracken leaves glows with a lemony luminescence. A grey day in Indiana could not offer such a palette, so I bundle up against the rain and trundle along slippery rocks, muddy paths, a rickety wooden-slatted bridge that sways unnervingly above a peat-brown stream in spate--full flow--to recreate the world in which Neil Gunn created his stories.

We start with the story behind the statue in the parking lot--a young boy struggling with a salmon nearly as big as he is. The statue and the story in the book are based on a real episode in which the author's brother finds a salmon in a pool and takes it home--all quite illegal because the fishing rights are sold or let as an asset of the estate. Gunn's brother compounded his offence by taking part of the salmon to the nearby store for sale. The poached salmon was an open secret in the neighborhood, and the money from its sale was used to buy him a new pair of boots--probably a particularly special treat for a younger brother.

From the parking lot and the statue along the harbor, we drove to the old mill house. One of the walkers pointed out as the old mill race what I might otherwise have taken for just another stone wall. Two kilns remain in the remnants of the now roofless old mill building. No one knows now why there were two kilns side by side: perhaps different kinds of grain were roasted there and each was kept separate. Barley and oats are the two most common now, but whin seed was sometimes ground as feed for horses and some farmers have tried growing wheat in this area, but so much of the everyday running of the world of that time is lost that we may never know how they worked.

From the mill house we traveled along the rocky remnants of a carriageway alongside the stream created by the Victorians in their "Balmoralization" of the area so that the ladies might take the air in the afternoon without having to get too close to nature. The rocks are slick with the persistent rain and jut out now at odd angles that make the walking slow. Each footfall needs to be placed carefully because the grass on the verge of the path is hardly less slick than the stones, so my focus is on my feet as I move along the stream and into the pasture where the sheep and a few goats--relics of an experiment by an American with an idea to save the highlands--graze with little regard for the rain or our passing or the carefully dug trench in the middle of their field.

The trench, with the soil carefully piled on a tarp, looks like an archaeologist's test dig. Long before Neil Gunn or the goats or the sheep were here, people lived here--not just the people who were cleared but long before that a Pictish site, and a broch--a neotlithic round house unique to this part of the world (including the nearby islands). A very small part of the history of Dunbeath has been revealed; this trench may be the start of more research to confirm old legends or to add to the stories. The trench is near the so called hill of peace, so named for an alleged early Pictish Christian site. The story of the site was much discounted until an archaeologist unearthed a stone with a Pictish Christian cross in a test dig of the hill.

Maximus, a great Dane, wants to lead and we are happy to use his bulk to blaze the trail as we swim through a mass of bracken that has taken over a field that once held white roses; we climb single file over a muddy, slip-slide narrow incline and pass through a hazel woods with a convention of lichens in fancy dress. I recognize some from a walk in another woods with a world famous lichenologist. I admire the variety of their colors and textures draped over hazel branches and fence posts as we wind up and around a hill on a sheep-carved path not well suited for feet.

Because I mind each step carefully as I huff and puff up the hill I have not noticed the panorama behind me. When I stop to catch my breath, I am stunned to see the peat brown water is now so far below that it seems to be moving in slow motion, and the silence is complete. No birds, no sheep, no sound of rushing water reaches us on the hill. With the pale grey sky filtering Neil Gunn's excellent light, the mounded, heathered hill stands out like an applique on the foreshortened horizon. The pale green of the grass contrasts with the rich dark green roundels of the heather punctutated by the quieted pink of the blooms shyly asserting themselves.

That moment alone more than compensated for aching legs and the threat that that my Gore Tex boots might succumb to the persistent dampness and ensure that no part of me remained dry before we made it back.


At 6:22 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...

This is a wonderful description.

I guess sometimes you have to have the sense not to come in out of the rain....

At 7:44 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, Cur, that is a wonderful way of thinking about it: "the sense not to come in out of the rain.." Yup.

At 12:15 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

This is one of your best posts. I think I'll read the book(s) about Dunbeath. Once again, I wish the colors in Hoosierdom were as varied as the ones in Caithness. Once I had the sense not to come in out of the rain: when I ran for an hour in Broad Ripple and regions south of there (seven 9-minute miles) when training for the Minimarathon, on a warm Saturday when it was barely drizzling.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

I like thinking about a warm rain in Broad Ripple. I am feeling homesick again/still or at least feeling it more acutely today.


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