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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.