I’m in North Wales right now, and was planning to head up to Anglesey tonight, with the specific aim of paddling around. With the forecast only showing strong cold winds for the rest of the week, I’m wussing out and going walking instead.
The pics show Cadair Berwyn, a not very high Welsh mountain, yesterday…on the day that British Summer Time began.
Walking the local cliffs with my little girl for company, yesterday.
This weekend, I’ll be trying to run two trail marathons in two days along this coast.
The picture above was taken from the highest point of Exmoor, Dunkery Beacon. It was freezing cold and a raw wind was ripping through, so apologies for the quality. The indistinct blur seen top right is Steep Holm Island, where we’d both been paddling just a few weeks before. My friend and I had just explored a fairly obscure river on Exmoor, and afterwards waded through the snow to the summit.
And that…was pretty much all of my activity for the past fortnight. I then went down with flu which wiped out all of my energy, leading to four days straight laid out on the couch and also missing the big race I’d been training for – expensive and irritating. I’m still coughing, a week later.
A waterfall in north Wales, somewhere in the Berwyn Mountains. We spent New Year with friends; paddling steep ditches, walking and getting soaked by constant rain. All good.
In other news…
…my New Year’s Resolution is to try and clock up two thousand and thirteen miles by human-powered means in 2013; in my case, that will mean hill running, mountain biking, kayaking and swimming. First challenge to get me motivated is a double-ultramarathon I’ve entered in one months’ time…oops, guess I’d better actually leave the house and do some running, seeing as I haven’t done any at all since last autumn.
…research and writing for the new edition of the guidebook English White Water continues; I’ve been motivated to seek out and discover a few new whitewater runs in Devon; great to know that there is still new whitewater waiting to be explored.
…the new edition of Canoe Kayak UK magazine (published on Jan 6th?) includes an article and photos by myself about the awesome Land’s End peninsula. Hope it’s of interest.
The following draft notes are a small part of a *much* larger essay I wrote a couple of years back, on interpreting the human impact on Britain’s coastal landscape. Hope it is of some interest…to someone? Feedback welcome, ideally of a non-sectarian hue…
Coastal depopulation and clearance
Vast areas of Britain’s coast and islands which are now sparsely populated or even regarded as ‘wild’ only became so as a consequence of planned ‘clearances’, carried out in the name of economic progress. Perversely enough, these thousands of depopulated or abandoned coastal settlements can be seen as ‘economic landscapes’. These are predominantly found around Scotland, but comparable landscapes can also be found on islands off the south-west of both Wales and England.
The Highland Clearances
The infamous ‘Highland Clearances’ took place in Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tens of thousands* of people were moved from their homes, usually to facilitate planned ‘improvements’ by landlords. ‘Clearances’ took many forms, from a single family leaving home voluntarily due to economic hardship, to the forced clearing of entire regions of Scotland.
In 1826-7, the entire 450 residents of the island of Rhum were given notice by landlord Dr Lachlan Maclean and herded onto ships for Nova Scotia; in the words of one victim, “carried off in one mass, forever, from the sea-girt spot where they were born and bred”. When the MacDonells of Glengarry cleared the 400 residents of Knoydart in 1852-3, the sixteen households who refused the offered voyage to Canada were forcibly evicted and their houses burned. Many clearances were more gradual. Arthur Nicholson emptied the island of Fetlar in Shetland in stages from 1822-56. He had his tenants sub-divide the island with walls, successively replacing the residents of each parcel with sheep. During the ‘potato famine’ of 1846-7, Nicholson charitably supplied porridge in return for wall work.
*Estimates vary wildly.
Landscapes of the Clearances
Practically every cleared landscape has its own story of inhumanity and injustice. Whilst anger is a justifiable response to these events, dispassionately considering the wider context in which they occurred is helpful in grasping their significance and in understanding why so much of Scotland’s coast looks as it does today.
A walk or paddle along any sparsely inhabited shores around Western and Northern Scotland should provide insights into the past harshness of rural life on the coastal margins. Deep and wide parallel drainage ditches (‘runs’) and ridges (‘rigs’) will be seen on now-overgrown land; these were ‘lazybeds’. They were used to cultivate crops such as potatoes on infertile and damp soil, with seaweed dug into the rigs for fertiliser. The ruins of the ‘run-rig’ farmers’ homes will be close by, often in clustered communities known as ‘clachans’. These cottages consisted of rectangular low-lying stone walls, previously thatched but now open to the elements. They rarely featured more than one sub-divided room, and would usually have been shared with livestock, due to limited grazing land. In the Hebrides, you will see ‘blackhouses’ with earth-filled double walls and rounded corners, possibly derived from Viking longhouses.
These coastal communities give clues to both causes and effects of the Clearances. Sometimes, they existed because their inhabitants had been transplanted to the coast by landlords wishing to ‘improve’ their spacious inland estates through introducing more profitable forms of farming; sheep replacing families. These displaced tenants were often expected to pay their rents through the gruelling shore industry of kelp burning. At other times, the impoverished coastal communities were themselves seen as the problem, requiring ‘clearing’ elsewhere again. ‘Elsewhere’ could mean anywhere from more marginal land further along the coast, to across the Atlantic Ocean.
Causes of the Clearances
It is important to acknowledge that many tenants participated voluntarily in clearances, disillusioned by the hardships of subsistence farming and perhaps tempted by opportunities in the new cities.
A justification consistently given for carrying out clearances was that islands and coastal regions were over-populated and hence unable to sustain themselves. This was disingenuous, as the same landlords had artificially over-populated these areas to profit from kelp until demand collapsed post-1815. However, the population of these meagrely resourced regions continued to grow until the 1860s; the coastal fringes were over-populated, to a barely sustainable extent. The potato blight which caused famine in the mid-1840s increased hardships further.
The landowners’ perspective?
The bottom line for the landowning nobility was that ‘their’ lands were not economical; tenants’ rents were regularly in arrears and farming output limited, even more so in coastal regions. Owning an estate was practically an altruistic exercise, yet a sense of social obligation seemed outmoded at a time when Britain was embracing aggressive capitalism. Many of the Highland clan chiefs had become disconnected from their clans in the decades since the 1745 rising, preferring to live among Edinburgh or London society. Touring the Hebrides in 1773, Samuel Johnson noted that they were, “gradually degenerating from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords”. Ancestral lands became commodities with which to fund lavish lifestyles, to be sold off as convenience necessitated.
In the landowners’ defence, many tolerated loss-making tenants for years, before eventually being forced to sell, rather than evict. However, the incoming new owner would show less sentiment in wishing to turn a profit; hence for example the clearances on Rhum, described above. Many clearances were carried out with reforming zeal, in the sincere belief that ‘improvements’ would benefit all; ‘improvements’ had indeed doubled farming productivity in the Lowlands from 1750-1825. Not all landlords washed their hands of cleared tenants; even the much vilified Earl of Sutherland went to considerable trouble to create alternative employment, building new fishing harbours such as Helmsdale (1814) in Caithness.
Interpreting the Clearances
The Highland Clearances continue to be a highly emotive topic, their legacy of dispossession bitterly recalled overseas by descendants of exiles. The Clearances have even been interpreted by some nationalists as a deliberate ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Gaelic population and culture, somehow linked to English perfidy. Whilst the human consequences were certainly appalling and inexcusable, the reality was perhaps more mundane. The ruined cottages and overgrown lazybeds to be found all along the shores of Scotland’s west and north coast and islands are arguably best interpreted as economic landscapes. It might seem harsh to view the evictions of entire communities as just another facet of Britain’s transformation to capitalism, but this was largely what the Clearances represented; in the Industrial Revolution, there were both winners and losers.
The end of the Clearances
The Highland Clearances came to an end for a number of reasons. The desire to ‘improve’ estates waned, as few such efforts actually proved profitable. From the 1850s onwards, attempts to evict often encountered brave defiance such as that shown in the 1852 ‘Coigach Rising’, where tenants prevented the Sheriff’s boat from landing and burned the legal summons that he bore. The national media were increasingly sympathetic to such causes, and landowners risked public vilification if they embarked upon clearances. Such publicity also helped lead to legal reform; the 1886 Crofters Act granted security of tenure for tenants and created the Crofter’s Commission to arbitrate in disputes.
The retreat from extremities
Improved rights for Scottish crofters did not stem the ebbing tide of depopulation in coastal areas and islands. Through the twentieth century, numerous islands in particular saw abandonment. The reasons for this were partly economic, but also social; island life was decreasingly appealing in the modern age.
The archipelago at the southern extremity of the Western Isles was voluntarily evacuated; Berneray (1910), Pabbay and Sandray (1911), Mingulay (1912). Mingulay had suffered from a lack of quay or harbour, making it difficult for the population to land supplies or participate in modern fishing. The isles also experienced neglect by the authorities; e.g. Mingulay’s teacher left in 1910. The island of St Kilda was evacuated for comparable reasons; many young men had emigrated to the mainland, and the 1930 death of a young woman from appendicitis (there was no doctor) proved the final straw persuading the 36 remaining residents to request evacuation. Most of the Pembrokeshire islands in Wales were abandoned, being sold or donated as wildlife reserves; Ramsey Island’s last tenant farmer left in 1950. Depopulation is still occurring in many island areas, such as the North Isles of Orkney; e.g. North Ronaldsay has seen its population fall to around 60. However, improved communications and better recognition of the value of remote communities augers well for the future; for example, Orkney island flights are heavily subsidised.
My daughter, completely underwhelmed by the spectacular scenery at Durdle Door. Below, taken a week before, she is snoozing through the glories of Chapman’s Pool.
Yesterday we walked to Durdle Door whilst Mummy completed the Dorset round of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series. I have survived a few of these great challenging events over the last year, now it was her turn. I was more than happy to enjoy a lazy stroll whilst she ran along the hilly coast. That said, lugging the equivalent of a breeze block on my back didn’t feel completely lazy…
Yesterday a few friends, my dad and I took part in the Dorset Doddle, a 32 mile walk along the Purbeck coast from Weymouth to Wareham. It was organised by the Long Distance Walker’s Association, which sounded to me like some harmless bunch of beardy ramblers. Thus, I was slightly horrified when we showed up at the start and turned out to be pretty much the only folk (out of 300) not wearing lycra. They all instantly rushed off and left us plodding along far in the rear…
Unfortunately it was the hottest day of the year, and we had about 5000 feet to ascend along the route. My dad isn’t unfit (some years back, he celebrated his 60th birthday by walking 60 miles) but halfway through this epic slog, he was finding the ridiculously steep uphill and downhill sections heavy going in the heat. We both fell far enough behind to be timed out (i.e. disqualified!) and dad decided to call it a day. I threw a few things out of my rucksack, drank a gallon of water and ran for the next 90 minutes until I caught up with my friends. We managed to finish inside the twelve hours allowed. But a small lifetime behind all the lycra-clad LDWA types…
Perhaps my favourite local spot is the hill of Swyre Head, located a lungbursting 3.5 mile crosscountry run/ cycle from my house. I’ve been seeing a lot of it recently, due to training for next month.
However, I only recently noticed that it isn’t the only spot named Swyre Head in Dorset; the pictures here show another Swyre Head, located just a few more miles down the road near Lulworth Cove. The photos were taken on a wet and windy Christmas walk. The coastal path hereabouts is ridiculously steep, going up and down repeatedly; I’m particularly familiar with this, as it was also the route of the muddy 14.5 mile coastal trail race I recently survived.
The tide race off St Alban’s Head, this morning. A great Christmas Day walk (taking in the Square and Compass pub at Worth Matravers!) but I would rather have been out on the water…
Returning to the campsite at Tràigh na Beirigh near Valtos on the Isle of Lewis, after a morning spent exploring the local isles and coast.
After getting some work done, in the evening we decided to view the beach from above…
An 8 mile walk from Seaton (Devon) to Lyme Regis (Dorset) through the Undercliffs National Nature Reserve, on this muggy hazy March day. This remarkable and forbidding landscape was created by a series of major landslips, most famously the Bindon landslip of 1839; a huge chasm formed within the Undercliff, with a corresponding (and shortlived) wall of rock appearing out to sea. The Undercliffs have since become heavily overgrown and are effectively a wilderness ecosystem, with only one narrow path running through the 300 hectare reserve.
Evening dinner of Thai green curry, using fresh Lyme Bay prawns. All good.
Right at the very top of the Shetland Isles is the island of Unst, the most far northerly bit of the UK. Just north of that is the lighthouse of Muckle Flugga and just north of that is Out Stack, a rather unimpressive rock. Nothing else to be found, north of there. That’s it.