I SINK a few whiskies in the ruin of a blackhouse and watch the sun disappear behind a spur of Driesh called The Scorrie. A damp wind billows along the length of Glen Clova and shadows lengthen. It’s going to be a blustery night . . .
Gloom gathering and bottle in hand, I retreat to the car and spread my sleeping bag on the passenger seat as the first curtain of rain drags itself across the mountain landscape. Welcome to Scotland. After a long drive and a pleasant afternoon wandering the streets of Dundee, the night – and the weather – is closing in fast.
The night sky turns from light grey to dark grey and back to light grey as the hours pass. And all this time my mind is filled with the human drama that almost certainly unfolded in the ruined blackhouse a few feet from the car.
No matter how hard, how wet, how cold or how exhausting my climb to the summits of Driesh and Mayar might be in the morning, I’ll wager the last drams of my Matthew Gloag and Son’s famous tipple that my temporary discomfort would fade into insignificance compared with the pain its occupants suffered when they abandoned their home.
I have no way of knowing whether the ruin is related to the Highland Clearances or its occupants merely deserted their blackhouse for a better or worse life elsewhere. What I do know is that in the 1750s, prior to the Clearances, the glen’s population was 1,230 – more than three times greater than it is today. That’s a lot of people unaccounted for. Perhaps they just drifted away.
It’s still raining when I emerge from the car into the dawn. Mist clings to crags above the forest as I climb the impressively-named Shank of Drumfollow to the bealach between the two Munros. A ferocious wind blasts banks of dense cloud from the west – but this ancient pass is well-trodden and easy to follow, and I am soon on the col. From the crest, some basic compass work gets me over Little Driesh to the summit shelter on Driesh itself.
According to the Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook The Munros, the word Driesh means “thorn bush”. As I huddle behind the stones and sip tea, I gaze across the lifeless plateau into the streaming mist searching for the bush. But nothing grows up here and never will. A few blobs of lichen and springy moss, perhaps. Thorn bushes, no.
I retrace my steps to the col, and while following an old boundary fence towards the summit of Mayar, the wind tears apart the clouds to reveal black, orange and dun mountains rolling to the west.
This is more like it. Welcome to Scotland again. Here it is at last. And from the summit of the second Munro I gaze north towards higher mountains. If the weather holds I might just get among them before the week is out.
I descend Mayar along a track that drops steeply into Corrie Fee, pass a waterfall and emerge in a basin surrounded by glacial hollows gouged from the crags and banks of moraines. The sky is blue and the sun is bringing the land to life. This is more like it.
Back in Glen Clova I revisit the ruin and brew a can of tea among the stones. Blackhouses were low-walled structures with a thatched roof and central fireplace. Smoke escaped through the most convenient hole. Apparently, during the Clearances, a common practice was for the landlord’s agents to set fire to the thatch to render these hovels uninhabitable – usually as the dispossessed were struggling away with what few possessions they owned or could carry.
Many blackhouses were abandoned when economic circumstances forced their occupants to seek work on the coast or in towns and cities – or when the lure of prosperity in the New World became too compelling to resist.
An ash tree grows among the walls of this ruin. A few yards to the south, a small enclosure built from boulders stands empty and overgrown. These ruins would have seen sadness and a depth of poverty we cannot begin to contemplate. But the sadness is long gone.
And, incidentally, so is the rain. Welcome to Scotland yet again. It’s good to be back. Where’s that whisky?
FURTHER READING: For an interesting history of Glen Clova, click here.