Sally Toms reports on the isolation, history, and variety of this unique Scottish landscape.
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One reason may be that it is difficult to reach. Sutherland in Scotland was the “southern land”of the Vikings but is one of the country’s most northerly counties. It has no airport and is hours from Wick and Inverness. It is the only region in Scotland without a town and has the lowest population density in western Europe.
And, being so far north, it does not attract the tourist “through trade” like some of Scotland’s more southern counties.
This is a place that is genuinely off the beaten track. Most villages have populations of only 100 or so. There is no industry. The number of A-roads can be counted on one hand and there are few cars. There are no swanky hotels or chain restaurants, either. This is definitely the place to go to get away from it all.
The first thing that strikes you about Sutherland is the sheer diversity in its landscape, which can be divided into three main areas: the coastal regions; the inland glens and heather covered moorland; and the flow country, a marshy peatland that is the oldest and largest single ecosystem in Britain.
Uniquely, this county has three coastlines: on the north, east and west. There you will find sheer cliff faces and rock stacks, mile after mile of empty white sand beaches and bottle-green seas.
Around the coast, too, are the majority of Sutherland’s beautiful sea-front villages. The largest of these is Dornoch, on the east coast, where you will find the most activity, but each village has something special to offer.
Inland, Sutherland is even more sparsely populated. There is a haunting beauty to its mountains, heather-covered moors, lochs, rivers and empty glens. It is scattered with relics from the past; iron age brochs (two story towers), burial sites, hill forts, castles, standing stones, and ruins.
This is an area steeped in history. Sutherland suffered badly in the notorious Highland clearances of the 19th century, where many residents were driven from their ancestral crofts to make way for sheep (a legacy that seems to have endured, as sheep still outnumber Sutherlanders 20-1). In the deserted glens you will find traces of the ruined blackhouses and lazybeds which would have formed thriving local communities before the clearances destroyed them.
A poignant reminder exists in the glass of Croick church’s east window, where the villagers of Glencalvie scratched their names and recorded their plight before they were forcibly evicted from the land in 1845.
Yet further inland you will find an area that to the untrained eye may look like a monotonous expanse of bogs and pools (or dubs lochans), but what is in fact an 8,000 year old rich and important ecosystem.
The flow country is the name given to the “blanket bog” that covers over 400,000 hectares of Sutherland and Caithness. The word comes from the old Norse òfloi meaning marshy ground. When the sphagnum moss that grows in this peatland dies, it does not decompose because the organisms which usually cause decomposition cannot survive in the saturated, airless and acidic environment beneath the living surface.
As the moss keeps growing at the tips, it eventually builds up into peat. In some places it can be as much as seven metres deep. It is spongy, and if you were to walk upon it would spring beneath your feet.
This is Britain’s last prehistoric habitat, and is rich in all kinds of flora and fauna. But it is delicately balanced, and as much as 60 per cent has already been damaged, largely by forestry which lowers the water table and dries out the peat. Some of it may even be too degraded for it to be restored. It is well worth visiting now; in future parts of it may be lost forever.
Sutherland has more than its fair share of wildlife. You will find otter, stoat, fox, deer, badger, Highland cow and sheep without much difficulty. Many species of rare bird can also be found in the area, such as eagle, osprey, red and black throated diver, peregrine falcon, merlin, and snipe to name a few.
There are salmon leaping in the rivers, trout in the lochs; and seal, whale, porpoise and basking shark can all to be found off the coasts. This is Scotland at its most picture-perfect.
It may not offer many “attractions” in the theme-park, tour bus, sense of the word, but you will find that Sutherland is enough of an attraction in itself. It is a paradise for all walkers, climbers, bird-watchers, historians, naturalists, and Scotland-lovers of every kind. Visit Sutherland and you may very well feel as though you have gone back in time. The empty lochs, vast skies and sprawling moorland have not changed in centuries.
You could be standing in Crosick church, reading the scratchings on the glass as though they were engraved yesterday. Or walking through the spongy bogs of the flow, which have not changed their appearance for thousands of years. Looking out from Cape Wrath at the expanse of ocean between you and Iceland, you are seeing the same view you would have seen possibly millions of years ago. It is timeless. And definitely a secret worth keeping.
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