Finding Home at the Rainbow’s End at Balnakeil in Scotland

Finding Home at the Rainbow’s End at Balnakeil in Scotland

To be rooted
is perhaps the most important but least understood need
of the human soul.
—Simone Weil, 1909–1943

Durness, Sutherland, Scottish Highlands.

Durness, Sutherland, Scottish Highlands.

 

Durness, Scotland

At what some have called the very edge of the world, in the Glen of the Stranger, this wanderer was introduced to a destination elusive to many, that mysterious place known as home. The encounter was unexpected, and announced with a silent but stunning fanfare.

As a purplish dusk descended, my companions and I rounded another bend in the single lane road we had been following through the otherworldly beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Ahead, gorse bushes blanketed the rolling hillsides, their yellow blooms waving wildly in the wind. We crossed an old narrow stone bridge that spanned a mountain stream, its waters rushing toward the glittering green sea that lay off to the right.

Cresting the next hill, the three of us gave a collective gasp at seeing the sienna-colored moors backlit by a twilight spectacle. In the distance, the most northwesterly corner of mainland Britain that I had travelled so far to see was magically illuminated in a soft glow. Slicing through the diffused light that separates day from night, the rays of a shimmering rainbow descended to Durness.

It is only fitting that a place so enchanting be graced with such poetic names. Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh is Gaelic for "Country of Mackay," a reference to the most powerful clan in an area that encompasses the parishes of Eddrachilles, Durness, Tongue and Farr.

My home for the night was the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast -- its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or "Glen of the Stranger," made famous by the local bard Rob Donn in the 18th century. His own name means "brown haired Rob" and he was himself a Mackay. A cowherder before distinguishing himself as a poet, Rob never learned to speak English or read or write.

Martin Mackay is the proprietor of Glengolly B & B, as well as a full-time crofter. The property is a modernized croft house that dates to the 1890s. A croft is a small agricultural unit, most of which are situated in the north of Scotland. Many crofts are on estates, with rent paid by the tenant crofter, usually for only the bare land of the croft; any house and agricultural buildings, roads and fences are provided by the crofter himself. Since 1976 it has become more common for a croft to be owner-occupied.

Glengolly is a working croft where Martin raises North Country Cheviot sheep. The dawn-til-dusk labor is made easier with the help of an energetic army of Border Collies. The next morning after a hearty "full Scottish breakfast," I had the chance to see Martin and his team in action.

Across the road from the plain white home, the horizon line came alive as a herd of sheep appeared at the crest of the small green hill. Martin barked a command and a trio of border collies sprang into action, each a blur as he raced toward the sheep. Over the next half hour, I was enthralled with an elaborately choreographed production.

Martin directed the dogs with low exhortations and blows on his whistle. The border collies crouched, circled, and herded, clearly working in unison and toward a common goal. The various moving parts came together and then parted, and then came together again and moved apart again, moving as a loose unit across the field and up and down the hill. It was hard to know who was having more fun, Martin, the dogs, or me.

Martin explained the Border Collies are used for many tasks. They gather in the sheep from the many acres of hill ground where they are put out to graze. The dogs also assist as the sheep are then sorted at fanks, or holding pens, and moved to their grazing destination. The collies contribute to this work by pushing the sheep and guiding them into trailers. Some of the livestock are walked to their respective crofts, and this can be dangerous as the roads are very busy during the summer months. The dogs are also a necessity at other times of the year such as lambing, shearing, and dipping.

"There are currently eight Border Collies on the croft," Martin said. "Sweep, Flash, Spot, Mirk, Ben and the youngest member Cap. Glen and Bob are semi-retired. Sadly Mac passed away last year at the age of 16. The dogs all have their own character--none more so than Spot who enjoys nothing better than watching dog trials on TV!"

Martin likes to train his pups himself and they are either bred by him or bought at around eight weeks old. Training begins when the pups are a few months old, although this can vary from dog to dog, depending on their ability. When time permits Martin competes in local sheepdog trials with varying degrees of success.

"It's not all work and no play for the collies," Martin said. "They enjoy long walks in the hill or on the beach, and playing with the grandchildren who are a big help in walking the pups and getting them used to people."

While Martin's vocations as a crofter and B & B proprietor are demanding ones, he clearly is in his element.

"Peace and tranquility are abundant here," said Martin. "The fauna of the area is diverse and fishing and bird watching are popular pastimes - you can listen for the corncrake or walk to Faraid Head to see puffins. The beaches with their golden sand are second to none, the sunsets are spectacular, and in midsummer it never grows dark. "

 

"Mackay Country is an area steeped in history and lends itself to the creative artist or photographer, and lovers of the natural world," Martin said. "This is the area where John Lennon spent a lot of his time in his youth, and the surroundings inspired him to write 'In My Life.' "

Later, I wandered around in Balnakeil Cemetery, where I searched for the headstones of Rob Donn and Lennon's aunt who are both buried there. It was hard to imagine a more peaceful resting place in any century. The emerald grounds are perched above the aquamarine waters of Balnakeil Bay, and sprawl out around the evocative ruins of a church founded in 722 by St. Maelrubha.

Under clear sunny skies, I scrutinized ancient mossy inscriptions that told of hard, short lives and, in many cases, deep bonds. Humming Lennon's ode to his adolescent sanctuary, I realized the words were a fitting soundtrack for my solitary stroll through the headstones.

There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all

Lennon returned to Durness in the late 1960s with wife Yoko Ono and their son Julian. At that time, the biggest change in the landscape had been wrought by other artists who had also felt the pull of the place and converted a former military base to a craft village.

As someone who is drawn to human artistry as well as divine dramatic landscapes, I was eager to experience Balnakeil Craft Village. Housed in low-slung concrete buildings, I found a collection of workshops that cover handmade soaps, paintings, pottery, basketry, woodwork, screen printing, leatherwork, wool work and enamelwork.

I found my way to the studio of Ishbel MacDonald and was captivated by her art and story.

"I came to Balnakeil Craft Village in 1982, exactly thirty years ago," Ishbel said. "I can hardly believe it's been thirty years!"

She and her husband at the time and were looking for somewhere to live and bring up children--community was important to them. They knew of the village through friends who had a well-established pottery, so they made the journey north to give the place a try.

"We arrived in March and my earliest memories are of what seemed like constant wind with occasional horizontal sleet and snow," she recalled. "The Craft Village is in fact an ex-RAF early warning station built during the Cold War. The village was abandoned by the military in the 1960's, and gradually reoccupied by artists and craftspeople."

"In those days, there were several families with young children," she said. "My own son was born the following July and my daughter two years later. By the time they could toddle, they had joined the gang of kids who could enjoy a freedom probably unusual in most places."

"The layout of the village where a variety of workshops are also part of the living accommodations, meant the children were able to visit Alan the woodworker where he had a small bench specially for them, or Liz the leatherworker to mess about with scraps of leather," she continued. "The village is also within sight of magnificent Balnakeil Bay with it's great sweep of white sand fringed by sand dunes, so when they were a bit older, the children would generally disappear with picnics for several hours at a time."

"When my son started school, I was able to concentrate on making art," she told me. "I studied painting at Glasgow School of Art, though when I first opened my gallery, I concentrated on making screen prints. This meant I was able to make editions of up to thirty at a time, so I could build up a stock of work while still having time for the children. Later I returned to painting, though I still like to incorporate some print making techniques into my work."

"People often say that my work is very diverse," she said. "This is because I dislike the idea that I should have a recognizable "style." I try to interpret the ideas I see in my head in whatever way seems right to me at the time. Sometimes a landscape may demand watercolor, sometimes textured acrylic with drips and splashes of overlayed ink. What is important to me is that the work has energy and movement."

"The subject matter I return to over and over are the sea, the mountains and the birds which I see all around me, Ishbel said. "This place for me is a place of great energy--the relentless movement of the sea, the great contained power of the rocks."

"The birds are for me restless emissaries from other lands," she said. "Great white whooper swans, "The Snow Bringers" are said to bring the snow when they return from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Every year I watch for the Barnacle Geese as in April, finally, after weeks of restlessness, they head out over Balnakeil Bay and keep on going north to Greenland."

"Sutherland is a vast empty land, treeless and made of ancient stone and peat," she observed. "The rocks here are some of the oldest in the world. The lack of trees and sometimes even grass, mean that the bones of the landscape are left bare. The cliffs at the beach show how the rock has been folded and forced from the horizontal to the vertical over millennia. At Balnakeil Beach, the Durness limestone shows the traces of the very earliest sea life."

"Layer upon layer of history makes up this place," she said. "Dotted around Durness are Iron Age chambered cairns and the remains of Neolithic hut circles. There are the ramparts of an early medieval fort perched on the cliffs facing the north Atlantic. The Norsemen who came over the sea from Iceland and Norway to raid, eventually settled and there are the remains of a Norse longhouse within sight of my living room window."

 

"The place names around are a mixture of Icelandic and Gaelic," Ishbel explained. "Eventually Norsemen became Sutherland men--they called it Sutherland because of course to them in was "the land in the south." Gaelic became their language and another layer of history and culture was laid down."

"Now, I am part of a new layer" she said. "The Craft Village was built in the Cold War when people were again looking out over the north Atlantic with fears of an enemy coming from over the sea, this time the Russians. And so this rather ugly place with its military buildings is as important in the history of Sutherland as the ancient Iron Age forts or the medieval castle."

"However, the site did not remain as a military place for long, and I have always felt great satisfaction to know that I and others have created something positive and creative from something designed for war," she told me. "In the Craft Village we have many nationalities: Scottish, English, South African, Austrian, Belgian and German, all of whom have settled here because like me they feel this is a very special place."

"Things have changed since we first came," she said. "There are no families with young children at the moment. But a new house is being built and new people come to give the place a try with hopes and dreams just as we did thirty years ago."

I next visited the Wee Gallery, meeting proprietor Ludo Van Muysen. He and his wife are both resident artists and shared their story of coming to call Durness home.

"I left Belgium in 1980 to explore Scotland with a backpack and I ended up in Durness in the craft village at Balnakeil, working for a potter and assorted jobs," Ludo explained. "The space and freedom and remoteness of the area attracted me, after the bustle of Belgium. I felt very accepted by the people who lived here. I settled in the craft village and had a family--this is an ideal place to bring up children."

"When my first marriage ended I went to Edinburgh to study musical instrument repair, then decided to come back to be near my children and the place I felt was home," he said. "Later, traveling to India on a meditation course, I met Nicola, and we made a home together back in Balnakeil."

"What attracts me most is the contrast in the seasons, although after 30 years of living here, I find the winters can affect my mood, and I long for the sun," he told me. "The landscape is very barren, although green. The sea is the most inspiring thing for me, its changing nature and storms. There is an energy in the weather here that I never encountered elsewhere. There is an interesting mix of people coming and going in the Craft Village which brings a diversity of ideas and personalities together, and adds spice to the remoteness."

Ludo's wife Nicola Poole is a more recent arrival to Durness, but no less enamored of her adopted home.

"As I set foot in Scotland, I burst into tears, as I felt 'at home' for the first time in my life," Nicola said. "Perhaps this was some deep ancestral connection or simply the impact of the surging landscape--the balance of towering hills, expanses of water and green misty valleys is maybe a recipe for strong emotions."

"Although living here for 11 years has dulled the impact, I am still constantly surprised at the changing moods and the lights and shadows created on a daily basis," she continued. "There is no lack of artistic inspiration here--simply a question of keeping up with the fast changing light show going on in your back yard."

"There is something elemental here, in the land and the people, which feels authentic," she said. "Perhaps it is that which reaches back into memories of deep time when our connection with nature was vital to life. The weather here actively enfolds you, throwing handfuls of wind and rain at you, then relenting and smiling in a patch of glorious sunshine. You can't help falling in love."

Nicola is right. I too fell under the spell of Durness and find myself day dreaming of when I will return. For all those other souls in search of their place in the world, here's a suggestion: Follow the rainbow to its end.