Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Haunted Look of Desolation

The landscapes of the Isle of Mull conceal the happiness and despair of passing time. This is nowhere more apparent nor the feelings more palpable than in the many hill glens on the island that were once home to hundreds of people prior to ‘The Clearances’ of the early nineteenth century. These everyday folk of Mull were often thrown to the wolves of society in favour of a new-found fortune with a black face: sheep. Our recent walk to the head of Loch Ba and the little-known graveyard near Gortenbuie, set in the foothills of Glen Cannel, proved to be a hauntingly emotive experience. An experience where the eyes of the past follow one's every tread on the sodden ground and the voice of despair cries out from the ruins of a landscape, 200 years on, that has, ironically, been cleansed of sheep.

Glen Cannel is a quiet and rather forbidding place in Winter, devoid of the stirring sight and sound of a variety of breeding waders that make their home there in the Spring. The early signs that Winter may be relinquishing its grip on the Isle of Mull can be seen when the first of these birds return to the upland glens during late February. The marshes at the head of Loch Ba are particularly favourable for Curlews, Lapwings and Oystercatchers, the vanguard of which had already arrived in prospect of another nesting season. The Oystercatcher is a noisy and argumentative character, which is afforded iconic status among a few discerning birdwatchers. It is, after all, the emblem of the Isle of Mull Bird Club, an organisation that celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year.

The steep-sided mountains that surround the Loch Ba trench are flanked by ancient woodlands of Downy Birch and Hazel that have survived generations of wind blast, which has resulted in their characteristic appearance and often stunted shape and form. These trees are host to a myriad of mosses, lichens and fungi. Indeed, the lichen communities present in these woodlands are of particular importance. Being an island, Mull is afforded the benefit of a cool, maritime climate. The pure air and humid conditions provide the ideal conditions for a number of important lichens to thrive. Very few fungi, however, are noticeable at this time of year, but the Many-Zoned Polypore is a type of bracket fungi that may be seen all-year-round. The concentric rings of colour make them an attractive subject to photograph on a fallen or decayed log.

It is hard to imagine the sodden former sheep pasture, marshland and moorland fringe to be anything other than the waterlogged environment that it represents for much of the year today. However, the soil around the Glencannel river previously yielded good crops and it is estimated that as many as 800 people worked the land and resided in settlements along Glen Cannel and adjacent Glen Forsa prior to the de-populating Clearances. The time of more recent inhabitants at Gortenbuie has also come and gone, depicting the hardship of life that must have been prevalent. The glen has now been left for the Golden and White-tailed Sea Eagles to roam and to govern.

Our main purpose was to ford the fast-flowing Glencannel river and access the ancient burial ground that lies within striking distance of Ben Talaidh, the island’s third highest mountain. The site of a former chapel, the graveyard contains five uninscribed and largely displaced slabs of unknown date that, along with the ruinous buildings, offer a solemn glimpse of a once healthy community that formerly lived there. The walls of the sheep fank and an assortment of trees helped disguise the wrong-doings of a landlord bitten by the greed of human failing. On a grey Winter’s day, Loch Ba can be an austere and desolate place to be. At other times, it is this haunting desolation that colours a perceived sense of injustice, born of an eerie silence and carried forward on the mists of time.

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