Starting mileage: 22452
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 18:00
We are now going through the most remote part of British mainland. A region with population of 1 person per square kilometre – and that only confined to the coastal areas; a region so far away from anywhere else, that the nearest people to give it a name lived on Orkneys; Sutherland: the land of the South.
We weren’t sure what exactly it is you do in Sutherland, other than drive through it to get to Orkney ferries. Turns out, you watch rocks – which, as you probably could tell by now, is perfectly fine with us. This part of Scotland is dedicated to geology – and its history – and is covered by a vast geopark, stretching from Ullapool in the south, to beyond Durness in the north.
A neatly presented visitor centre at the Knockan Crag explains the story behind the geopark, and the importance of the rock formations within. It was through researching the strata here that Victorian scientists proved once and for all that the continent foundations move, collide, and had once been one. From the centre you can climb up the cliff to see where the two layers of rock 500-million years apart meet each other, in the special way which made the geologists first scratch their heads: the older one is right on top of the younger. This is the Moine Thrust Belt, the first thrust fault – a place where the order of rock layers is reversed due to tectonic plate movement – ever discovered.
The landscape of Sutherland came from a meeting of two major geological forces: the upheavals of the archaic past, which raised the incredibly old rocks from the bottoms of the oceans, and the icebergs of the ice age, which tore deep canyons through them; the resulting mountains rise straight up from the bottoms of the deep carved valleys like chimney stacks. The Norse legend says that this is where the Gods came to learn how to make mountains, and judging by the results their early efforts must have been confined mostly to making giant sand castles and piling boulders on top of each other.
We are headed north, towards the seaside village of Scourie – more precisely, to a beach on its outskirts. We are searching for the oldest rocks in Britain – and one of the oldest in the world; the Lewisian Gneiss – at 3 billions years of age, not much younger than the Earth itself – outcrops here in scattered boulders, a beautifully striped and veined through with red and pink granite. There are more rocks here on the beach – including silvery quartzite which forms the cores of the mountains here and makes them look from a distance like giant piles of anthracite, and marble-white chert, which due to its flint-like qualities was used to start fires by the Stone Age inhabitants of this inhospitable land. There’s also a staggering multitude of sea shells of all shapes, sizes and colours, and an RSPB booth from which to hide and observe the wading birds which swarm the beach in calm weather.
The thin veins of red granite and black basalt striking through the gneiss boulders on Scourie is just a small taste of what’s still before us: the Laxford Bridge and the northern approach to it, cut right through the rock outcrop, leaving open the mighty canvas on which nature painted its expressionist masterpiece. Here the veins of igneous rock thrust through the gneiss backdrop show clearly how Earth is very much a living thing: the invading granites and dolerites spread through the older rock like wildfire, except on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. It’s a humbling experience to stand in front of this nature’s painting, which is still being created – at a leisurely pace of fingernail’s growth per year.
As the trunk road trundles on towards the deepest north, the ubiquitous white-on-brown signs point to the sides, to settlements that the highway bypasses. On each is listed a number of amenities provided in each village – “food”, boasts one, “b&b, pub, phone, post office”, lists another. “Fuel” is missing on most of them: lack of competition drives the price of petrol to heights unheard of further south – 157p per litre is what one of the stations charges.
In the parish of Assynt a ruined remnant of a tower over a loch attracts our attention, before a mighty gabled wall looms out from behind a turn. This is “historic Assynt”, as the sign board calls it, a group of buildings from various ages of local history, preserved by chance in one place. The tower is one of the northernmost castles on the mainland, and the gabled walls are what’s left of a grand house built by the laird for his wife who didn’t appreciate the lake-side location (and presumably the accompanying midges). There’s also a ruined mill and kiln of the sort we’ve seen on Hebrides, and a few other things which we didn’t explore further as the wind and rain of the previous days were finally beginning to catch on to us.
We drive around Kyle of Durness hoping to outrun descending mist – one of the several fjord-like inlets of the Atlantic along this coast – and as we enter the village, a bright orange sign points us to something we certainly weren’t expecting, but are very glad to see in this cold and damp place: a chocolate factory! Needless to say, if our tires could screech that’s what they would do.
It turns out the Cocoa Mountain is not even the most surprising thing we find in this remotest of villages; it’s merely one of some twenty craft and art establishments in what looks like a set of darb military barracks on the very edge of the world: and indeed, that’s what it is. The Balnakeil Craft Village, to give the place its full name, started out as a nuclear attack watch station in the 1950’s. Decomissioned a decade later, in an initiative called “Project Far North” it was taken over by a community of artists, craftsmen and all around hippie types, and thanks to the foresight of the local council, it remained so to this day. This is probably the closest we’ve yet seen to a succesful Christiania-style venture in Britain, although the hardest “drug” you can find here is a cup of delicious hot mocha, and a stunning example of what a bunch of creative people can do if they are only given some land, a few empty walls (the buildings had originally no plumbing or electricity) and peace of doing what they want.
The Sango Sands campsite is another of the string of perfect little gems strewn along this cold, wind-swept coast. With a golden beach on either side, and a view all the way towards Orkneys in good weather, the location is as good as you may wish for. Two sets of utility blocks provide each camper with close access to facilities, including campers kitchen in which to hide from the omnipresent wind.
The wind is back, by the way, and with a vengeance; that means another night of anxious sleep. I do wish for it to go away one day…