I’d always heard about the forgotten glen round the back of Newtonmore, in the south-west corner of the Cairngorms National Park. There are ruins there and old, old stories. Someone said you could see eagles, and one of the Wildcat Trails goes that way. A long time ago, everyone went that way.
The locals pronounce it ‘Banachar’ but on the map it’s spelled Glen Banchor and arcs round the back of Creag Dhubh – Black Rock – the hump-backed hill that rises between the villages of Newtonmore and Laggan. Standing at the summit one freezing December, we looked down into the Glen, a span of silence with not a breath stirring the snow.
“Down there,” I said to my husband. “That’s where all the people lived.”
The following February we take mountain bikes into the Glen on a cold, breezy day. The sky is brooding and the Monadhliath mountains to the north form a dark wall. But where the sun breaks through, the fields glow and the raindrops in the bare trees turn to diamonds. Below us, the Calder makes the deep curve for which the glen is named: in Gaelic, a beannachar is a horn-shaped bend in the river. In the early days of Celtic Christianity, there was a monastic cell here dedicated to St Bridget of Kildare, and though nothing remains of the cell, the church in the village is called St Brides.
We cross Allt a’ Chaorainn burn at Shepherd’s Bridge and then Allt Fionndrigh, where we find the first of the abandoned dwellings. An old wooden barn and two stone houses, they were vacated recently enough to still look wounded and waiting. Like so many glens in the Highlands, this is a landscape of loss. At its peak in the late 18th century, between 300 and 400 people lived here in 14 ‘townships’, the cluster of dwellings that shared grazing. There was no bridge over the Spey then – the bigger, faster river in the wide strath on the other side of Creag Dhubh – so Glen Banchor was the major highway north for cattle, goods and travellers.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that now, as the trail rapidly dwindles into muddy grass, leaving us to churn through bog. Much of the time we have to get off and push, or even carry, the bikes. Occasionally a path resurfaces, but then vanishes again or forks into sheep tracks that head in unpromising directions. We keep scouring the map and the landscape for the route we’ve missed, but conclude it has gradually disappeared, like the people.
This is the ghost story that haunts much of Scotland, where glens that were once populated – even in remote places – are now empty. There were usually several intersecting reasons for the departures: poverty, hardship and poor harvests; emigration to the cities and new colonies; changes in agriculture. But the most significant, and the most shameful, was the Clearances, where landowners removed subsistence farming peasants to make way for large flocks of sheep. A history well-known in Scotland, but very little beyond, it reached its peak in the early 19th century, and then gave way to the Victorian era and the rise of the Highland sporting estate when sheep were side-lined in favour of deer and game birds. But the people never came back.
If you know what to look for, you can see the ruins of their dwellings across the glen, most little more than stone foundations, others with bits of wall, or even a roof. High in the mountains, there are circles of overgrown rocks, the remains of the shieling huts where the women and children lived every summer, grazing their cattle and making cheese. And under the flooded ground and the blowing grasses you might detect the outlines of the old corn-lands and the ‘run rigs’, the raised crop beds that lie in dark ridges like the ribs of a buried giant.
It’s not just human life that is missing; north of the Calder there is barely a tree. This kind of barren sweep is so common in Scotland that many people see it as natural. Even beautiful. True, in certain lights there is a harsh beauty about these open reaches and the contours of heath and mountain. But it’s certainly not wilderness. Every inch of this landscape has been shaped by people for thousands of years and the reality is that most of it is damaged, with only a fraction of the plant and animal life it once had. It creates an environment that continues to degrade – the banks of the Calder are painfully eroded – and offers little livelihood for human or beast.
This impoverished state developed over time, influenced by climate change, timber extraction, agricultural shifts and the extinction of Scotland’s major predators – lynx, wolf and bear. But the major driver in the past two hundred years has been over-grazing by sheep and deer and the routine burning of heather to support grouse. Sheep numbers have dropped dramatically (as they are barely profitable, even with subsidies) but deer and grouse are maintained at artificially high numbers for field sports across large swathes of Scotland. These are hotly contested issues in a country struggling with multiple land challenges, not least the most unequal ownership pattern in Europe.
There’s no bridge or stepping stones over Allt a Bhallach, so we carry our bikes, ankle deep in freezing water, to a bothy on the far side. Desolate, its slate roof is giving way, its door and windows black; the sole room is full of sheep droppings and the back wall gapes onto the dark hills, half hidden in cloud.
We have muffins and a flask of coffee to warm us, then push on through the watery world. Within the great quiet there is the sustained rushing of the Calder and its tributaries, and the occasional gurgling of a startled grouse. Though only a few ragged patches of snow cling to the hills, the mountain hare bounding away over the moor is still pure white in its winter livery. I feel a shot of joy. Despite rare human traffic, wildlife here is scant. We don’t see an eagle and I doubt anyone would see a wildcat.
The clouds shift, one moment casting the whole glen in forbidding greys, then pouring sunlight through a gap and turning everything to gold. It reflects my feelings about this place: sad, yet also thankful for its solitude. Barely a crow-flying couple of miles from the A9, Scotland’s main arterial north, this is a valley of wind and wide spaces that opens the head.
We ford another two burns, the last one churning up to our shins, and by the time I heave my bike up the bank, my feet are stumps of ice. We are now at Dalnashallag bothy, a stone hut with rusting corrugated roof used as resting place for wanderers. The main room smells ashy and damp, the fireplace wall smeared with soot, the couches sagging; an incongruous strip of floral wallpaper runs faded and peeling round the window bay. But spare as it is, the bothy book gives testament to its welcome shelter.
“Cycled from Balgowan with Andy and Islay the collie. Lovely evening for it. Just in time for tea.” Louise and Andy from Lancaster.
“It is beautiful,” write Molly & Sue.
“Talifa from Samoa island and Kallo from the Netherlands. Just passing by this warm house after a good walk in the hard lands.”
Yes, Glen Banchor is beautiful, but these are hard lands, and just as I hope its story is never lost under the grass, so too do I hope its story is not ended, but can be written in a new chapter, teeming with life.
This article first appeared on Elsewhere: A Journal of Place