Some of the fencing on our croft needs attention. It really ought to be replaced but for now a repair job will do. In autumn’s late afternoon sun the strands of wire are shining in silver and bright orange. There is a lot of post and wire fencing here because all crofts in the South Erradale ‘township’ have square fields, laid out in a grid pattern more than 150 years ago during the last phases of clearances. Rather like a map of Manhattan, the straight-line pattern of boundary fences overly much older and, in some cases, ancient route ways. Here and there it also cuts across natural features including small burns, and marches over the tumbled remnants of several buildings whose stories are lost in the mists of time.
The field boundaries seem stark and harsh for they appear to have no relationship with the natural contours of the land, differential drainage, vegetation and soil types or the gently rounded shapes of this coastal moorland landscape. But they do serve a purpose. The consequences of their imposition is that many of the older routes taken by cattle and crofters fell into disuse a long time ago and only remain as references in the family stories of a few crofting dynasties.
Migrating geese pay no attention to the fences of course. Today they are flying in large, noisy chevrons of black, pink and grey, selecting the greenest, dampest squares of the Erradale valley chess board to settle, feed and squabble. Neither do the deer pay any heed. When hunger and exhaustion drive them from the rutting grounds on the hills above the fields they dash in groups of 40 or more diagonally across the squares, leaping fences as they go, in a wild thundering dash to the shore.
But underneath all the goosey-gaggling and antler-crashing, and unaffected by the mesh-wire barriers or wooden post sentries, are routeways and paths of an ‘underworld’. There are tiny trails made by voles and mice, passageways for otters, alleyways for pine martens, and byways for foxes. And smaller, almost microscopic lanes for beetles, spiders, frogs and toads, slugs, snails, slow worms and grass snakes. The whole landscape is criss-crossed by myriad trails and if I close my eyes I can imagine the whole place rippling and moving as if alive, filled almost to bursting with the motion of creatures, large and small, making their way back and forth from feeding ground to resting place, from to stem to leaf, spider’s web to mouse hole, or shore to hilltop.
In these lovely calm days of October transport and motion studies are easy. The lush, thick growth of summer meadowlands has been flattened and dampened down into a dull beige and dun matted carpet. And yet in early morning coolness dew coats everything with glistening sequins and flashing rhinestones. At times the dazzle is so fierce that cobwebs become diamond tiaras and necklaces of sapphires, while grasslands are drapes of silver filigreed lacework.
Entrances to the under-vegetation by-ways appear as if by magic: tiny rounded holes in a swirl of grasses, black hollows in the accumulating leaves and wavy lines cutting through the dew. The most enchanting new trail, and one I had not seen before, was not in the machair or fields but in the beach sands at low tide: a narrow channel almost two metres long and thumb-width wide was being slowly but steadily moulded by a hard-working periwinkle who still had a small pile of sand on his shell. I had to laugh at such endeavour and determination in so small a creature. I could not figure out why he had started out his journey nor how far he intended to go.
And there are other tracks too. Ghost roads where once crofters lived and worked and walked, driving kine or bringing sheep up to and down from the common grazings of summer. Some of the trails now are little more than compressed peat-paths amongst the clumps of heather while others, broad and paved with cobbles, sail up to hillcrests only to vanish under peat-bog. These route-ways are very old and pre-date the modern single track roads here, and once they must have been important connections from crofting townships to the outside world beyond the mountains.
Across the valley are tumbled ruins of small cottages and byres, old walls, a raised walkway, springs and border stones. Walking along or through these jumbled lichen covered stones and moss covered wood is to travel in time. As early morning mist wafts between ruined doorways, over bleached woodwork and through the heaped stones, lintels and various ironmongery voices from the past whisper in my ears and caress my face. And it is not hard to imagine a shawled crofter’s wife standing with her children at an open door, smoke seeping through the turf or heather covered roof, or to see a dog and master gathering sheep ready to ford the river.
The whole valley is filled with memory and song held in place by fallen stonework and by the names of surrounding hills: Creag Uamhach Chliabh, Creagan na Feannaig, Lon Odhar, Cnoc an Fhuarain, Cobhan Molach. And if, as some would have us believe, stones retain memories of past events and the essences of those long-gone, then this place is alive with ghosts.
A stravaig along the river from Red River Croft then becomes a walk through lives lived over hundreds of years, and although the land itself seems to be dying down as we approach Samhain, the golden air is filled with their voices and faces. And mingling with ghosts are the otters, deer and other creatures, unmoved by stories of the past or peoples that once lived here. Or maybe they understand more than we do; perhaps they sing along to the tunes playing in the hills.