Abhainn Dearg: the Red River of South Erradale

Pulsing and rushing through Red River Croft is the River Erradale. On old maps is a prettier name, one which conjures up sounds and sights more truly reflective of its nature: the Abhainn Dearg or Red River.

Clear waters of the Abhainn Dearg flowing through the croft

Clear waters of the Abhainn Dearg flowing through the croft

Our croft is actually two, numbers 16 and 17, bisected along their full length by the twists and turns, and bubbling, gabbling, noisy turbulence of clear, cold water. The river breathes life into the landscape; it is constantly changing, rising and falling quickly in response to rainfall in the hills. It pulses with energy, light and sound and, when the winds calm down, its singing bathes the fields and surrounding hills in joyous melodies. Abhainn Dearg is alive with the sound of music!

Rising to the west of the Torridon mountains, the river is only just over 5 miles long (as the hooded crow flies), so it is a short river by Scottish standards. It busily collects waters from innumerable small, steep burns which tumble down gentle hills with magical, misty names: Meall na h-Uamha, Maol Ruadh, Glac Gheal, Maol Bhadan an lochdair, and Cnoc an Fhuarain. Singing, ringing names of rock and heather, peat and pool, crag and crevice, fairy and sprite, and the language of memory, people and their strong bond with, and love of, landscape.

Within its waters the Abhain Dearg carries sediments, milled and ground by water and motion, scoured from mountain slope and the captured remnants of remote glacial times, rock flour, grit, gravel and boulder, scooped out from ancient mounds of debris, a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours.

Rock and sandy treasures lie within the clear waters

Rock and sandy treasures lie within the clear waters

Most of the treasures so transported are red in hue, derived from mountain sandstones. Rocks, polished and varnished by river waters and fine sands, are shaped and reorganised, then moved along again and emplaced; Abhainn Dearg the jeweller, carefully selecting and sorting gems on velvet-covered trays, ready for sale. Colours are enhanced, shining cheerfully and brightly; pink, purple, ochre, orange, ruby, crimson, vermillion, maroon, scarlet, coral-pink, salmon-pink, blood red. And when sun’s light is low, early or late, the river seems deeper, richer somehow, as the colours of rock jewels glow and radiate, a treasure trove, a secret hoard.

At day's end, the last rainbow colours of sunset are captured across the river surface

At day’s end, the last rainbow colours of sunset are captured across the river surface

 

The Red River is an organic being, a breathing, moving, growing, living creature. Abhainn Dearg swells and recedes in tune with atmospheric, solar, lunar and planetary motions. In summer’s dense and hazy heat, waters trickle slowly and gently, capturing rippling flares and glitterings of sun and sending shootings and piercings of light across field and fence. Sudden summer downpours, grown in Atlantic Ocean nurseries, however, can raise river levels by more than a metre for hours at a time, so that gentle rivulets become raging, shouting, flashing turbulences, which cover fields in bright red sediment and fling stones and boulders about as if in temper. Winter weather systems do the same, but these floods soak croft fields for longer, and the once benign shining waters, change colour becoming angry, loud and challenging, with waves of sable, jet and lustrous antimony. But this vitriolic outpouring brings gifts; new, clean, bright, fine and deliciously nutritious sediments are spread out across the lower fields, enhancing life and plant growth.

Summer river levels are low showing peach and red sandy deposits

Summer river levels are low, showing peach and red sandy deposits

The same river in winter flood, rising by more than a metre

The same river in winter flood, rising by more than a metre and starting to flood across the fields

Bankside vegetation is overwhelmed by flood waters

Bankside vegetation is overwhelmed by flood waters

Water tumbles black and churning, eroding river bank material and carrying it down river

Black and churning water erodes river bank material and carries it down river

The river banks on the croft are decorated in various places by gorse, hazel, bog myrtle, willow and birch while higher up in the hills, the river passes through heathered peatlands, here and there exposing the preserved tree stumps of the ancient forests of Caledon. But this is a river of some history itself, of floods and course changes which affected people living and working in the South Erradale “township”. Our nature as humans is to exert control and 140 years ago, in order to help passage of livestock, families and goods, a bridge was built. It is impressive; a fourteen arch edifice through which the river cascades, but it helps to control the direction of flow and protects the now tarmacadamed road north to Gairloch and south to Red Point.

The flood waters of Abhainn Dearg are 'guided' through the 14 arches of the bridge, built in 1974

The flood waters of Abhainn Dearg are ‘guided’ through the 14 arches of the bridge, built in 1874

On our croftland, history is evident here too: past ministrations of rope, metalwork, carefully placed boulders, fishing nets, wood and fencing to protect river banks and pasture from erosion and collapse.

At low water, ropes, netting, metal work and stonework can be seen: evidence of past efforts to guide the route of the river and protect croftland

At low water, ropes, netting, metal work and stonework can be seen: evidence of past efforts to guide the river

This is a fascinating meld of people and place, of physical environment and human endeavour, a grand storytelling, a heritage and a legacy of enterprise and continuance. And I love it so! All the stories! In each and every stone, leaf, branch and remnant of rope, post and wire.

Red River Croft is near the end of the river’s journey from mountain to sea, and just beyond the croft boundary, waters splash and twist gleefully down a small waterfall to meet the rocks, boulders and cobbles of Port na Sgotha.

Abhainn Dearg meets the sea at Port na Sgotha

Abhainn Dearg meets the sea at Port na Sgotha

 

This little ‘port’, once used by crofter-fisher folk, and flanked by rocky outcrops, is a storm beach whose large rounded stones and boulders get piled high in giant’s steps when the powerful, winter storm waves come a-calling. But where fresh river waters meet salty waves it can also be calm and quiet. When the sun shines and winds are somnolent, this is a magical place. As little cascades merrily tumble downhill they trill in harmony to the gentle chorus of brine sloshing across beach cobbles; one calls out to the other, poems and ditties, shanties and choruses. No single anthem overrides the others. And as the music plays and as the waters sparkle, ears ring, cheeks tingle, eyes water and laughter bubbles; this is elemental magic of the purest kind. And how the soul responds; rejoicing, elated, euphoric. The sense of well-being, peace and joy is overwhelming.

 

 

 

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About Annie O'G Worsley

I'm a mum of four, gran, writer, crofter & Professor of 'Environmental Change'. I now live on a small farm (known as a croft) by the sea in a place surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the Scottish NW Highlands. I was a full-time academic, a geographer, but I decided to go feral and follow my dream of living a smaller, simpler, wilder life. I have always loved wild places. As a child I was inspired by tales of Trader Horn (my great-great-great uncle Alfred Aloysius Smith) told to me by my mother. Trader Horn spent his life wandering, mostly in Africa. I too, love stravaiging (Gaelic for wandering) and spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea as a young researcher, living with tribes there. Although I spent years researching and teaching university students about environments, processes and habitats, I am discovering much, much more exploring the wilds around me. In moving away from scientific writing, I have rediscovered my wilder self and have a much deeper, truer understanding of nature than I ever had before. My work is published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place. I continue to write academic papers with my research colleagues but I am developing new skills including landscape photography and painting. And of course, I still love to wander.
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One Response to Abhainn Dearg: the Red River of South Erradale

  1. beatingthebounds says:

    Lovely, evocative writing. Thanks for that!

    Like

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