ONE wet day eleven years ago I found a perfectly preserved child’s clog in a bog near a ruined farmstead at Steall, where the Allt Coire Ghiuthsachan cascades into Glen Nevis. It must have been lost – perhaps sucked off a child’s foot by the mud – in the pre-Clearance days when Steall was inhabited. I wiped it and placed it on a stone, which was probably the wrong thing to do, and left it there for others to see. To this day I regret not slipping it in my sack and taking it to the museum in Fort William. But there you go . . .
An event like that brings the past into the present with a jolt. Today, which is another wet morning, the glen is empty except for a couple of blokes a few hundred yards ahead of me on the track that follows the Water of Nevis as it skirts the flank of Aonach Beag. But go back about 170 years and people lived here, as they did in nearly all the remote glens. They farmed the poor land, they grazed cattle, they sang songs, they fell in love, they had children, and they survived.
Then in one of the most devastating and indefensible examples of ethnic cleansing the civilised world has ever witnessed, they were driven from their crofts by a handful of excessively rich and breathtakingly callous megalomaniacs who had more respect for sheep and turnips than they had for the native Gaelic-speaking population.
I’ve no doubt those fine landed lords – and their equally ruthless landed ladies – went to church every Sunday and gave thanks to their benign god. That didn’t stop them evicting families at a rate of 2,000 a day at the height of the Clearances.
And so were the Highlands transformed – “improved” was the preferred term – showering more wealth on the wealthy and handing more tragedy to the tragic. Nothing remains at Steall except a tumble of stones, a patch of green grass and a great deal of bog. Even the clog’s gone.
Frame of mind firmly set, I crunch along the track as a sudden squall envelopes the mountains and sends a wet and angry wind along the glen from the direction of the Ben. I catch up the two walkers with a friendly hello and the squall nearly whips our words away. The walkers are from Glasgow; two chaps in their forties. One is thin and fit. The other is rather porkier and resting at the side of the track. He’s red in the face and “peching”, as they might say in Auchentogle. It transpires we are all heading for the same mountain – Sgurr Choinnich Mor. I give them a cheery “see you later”, and walk on.
Sgurr Choinnich Mor is a slog. The valley approach is a couple of miles longer than I had anticipated and the climb to the ridge is weary, but soon I am on the summit of Sgurr Choinnich Beag – the neighbouring Munro Top – with fine views of the Aonachs and the Mamores. From here it’s another slog along the ridge to Sgurr Choinnich Mor, but nothing to complain about.
I’m still thinking about that clog. It had once been worn by a child. Not a two-dimensional sepia image of a child staring out from a book about Scottish heritage – but a living, breathing, running, dancing child with warm blood in its veins and sun in its eyes.
What happened to it, I wonder? What fortune befell it after the rich and godly hounded its family from the glen? Where are its bones? In a Clydeside cemetery, perhaps? Beneath a headstone on a windswept hill in Nova Scotia? Or under the turf at the side of a Highland track where so many starved or froze to death?
We British are good at piling grief on the less-fortunate. I was going to say English, but British applies in this case – the good old British landed classes; our respected British establishment. Their voices continue to echo even now. Power, wealth, privilege – must keep it all in safe hands, old chap, or goodness knows what might prevail. It’s dashed unfortunate if a million Irish peasants starve to death because of a few potatoes – but does it matter an awful lot? What if the Highlands are depopulated so long as the Treasury’s happy and the lawns are cut? And crikey, do we really give a hoot, old chap, if an entire, modern, deep mining industry is destroyed and communities, marriages and families wrecked so long as a sense of order is maintained? All together now: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, he made them high or lowly, he ordered their estate*. That’s how it was and that’s how it is. Don’t forget it, old chap. Pass the brandy.
In the lee of the rocky summit, in a patch of glorious sunshine, I sit in the grass and have my bait. I am joined by one of the Glasgow blokes – the fitter of the two. His mate is still slogging up from the bealach between Sgurr Choinnich Beag and Sgurr Choinnich Mor. “He’s struggling,” the chap says. “But it won’t beat him. He won’t give up.”
And I watch this little round bloke labour slowly up the ridge, panting and sweating, towards the summit. And I think: Don’t give up, pal. Keep going. Too many people give up. It’s easy to give up. They rely on us giving up.
And he doesn’t. Five minutes later he collapses breathlessly in the grass and stretches out beneath the sun, as happy as Larry.
I leave the pair at the cairn and drop down Sgurr Choinnich Mor in wintry showers and sunshine, then more showers on the lower slopes, and stop for a brew in the ruin at Steall, where an unknown but thoughtful person has left a plank on which to sit.
And like an optimistic fool I spend a few fruitless minutes paddling about in the peat bog looking for the clog. But like the child whose foot it protected all those years ago, it is long gone.
* From that famous hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, which was written by Cecil F Alexander (daughter of a major and wife of an Anglican clergyman who went on to become the Archbishop of Armagh) while visiting Markree Castle, near Sligo, Ireland, in 1848. That a song like that could be written at the height of the Great Famine, in which a million Irish people perished and a million more were forced to emigrate, illustrates the attitude of the comfortably-off towards the uncomfortably-off that prevailed at the time.