Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey


New beginnings

by Glen MacGregor

Where's your special place? They say everyone has at least one. One such place of my own is the Brough of Birsay on the west mainland of Orkney. The Brough is a tidal jislet with 150 foot high cliffs on its north face that is accessed by the mainland by a narrow causeway at low tide. The Brough is home to a small museum and ruins of a Romanesque church and several Norse long houses. It is a strange place that envokes visions of a way of life long gone.

Six years ago when my family were still infants we took a summer vacation to Orkney. The first and only time any of us had been that far north. One of the principal reasons for choosing Orkney as our destination was that my mother-in-law was born in Noup Head Lighthouse in Westry, one of the Orkney Isles, in the 1930's. So for my wife Louise it was a bit of a pilgrimage to a part of Scotland that is also part of her heritage.

The day that we visited the Brough of Birsey was one of those rare sunny, warm, clear days that we do occasionally get in Scotland. We picnicked on the cliffs above the shore where the waves from the Atlantic Ocean ebb and flow in their eternal quest for supremacy over the land. Next stop , literally is the North American continent. From our vantage point we managed to see quite clearly , through binoculars, the lighthouse at Noup Head. We listened to my mother-in-law relate experiences of lighthouse life. It was a rare, magical day that in our hetic modern lives is too few. My wife, Louise whose grandparents were lighthouse keepers all their days, in places such as Calf of Man, Chicken Rock, Flannan Isle, Bell Rock. Ailsa Craig, Holy Isle and more. They finally left the service of the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1967 retiring from their last charge at Argour on the Arnamurchan Peninsula.

Life was hard for the lighthouse families. Left on the shore for long periods while their husbands and fathers went off shore for weeks at a time. Spouses and families were not allowed to go offshore, instead remaining landward in Lighthouse Board accommodation. Nowadays none of the Northern Lights have resident keepers, modern technology having replaced the need for keepers of the light. Indeed a way of life lasting almost two centuries has passed away.

The road north to Orkney requires you to take the busy A9 road passing Inverness, Dornocch, over the Flow Country eventually to the post of Scabster from where you catch the ferry to Stromness on Orkney. Stromness itself was at one time home to "the Haven" the recruiting headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company in Orkney. Whilst being the principal road through this part of Scotland it is still full of twists and turns. It passes through the Flow Country , which is a huge expanse of almost level, gently contoured bog land. This bog covers such a large area that it is given the name "blanket bog".

The "blanket bog" of northern Scotland is internationally significant, having a unique ecosystem, which is almost certainly the single largest expanse of blanket bog anywhere in the world. To some it would be a fairly monotonous expanse occasionally broken by small lochs or pool. However, if you care to stop the car for a few minutes and walk into it, feel its springy structure beneath your feet, you could be forgiven for feeling that you have entered a landscape with a primeval beauty , unique in the world. The Flow Country has been proposed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites, which, if granted would join the likes of the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.

The one thing that I could not help but notice on this first trip to this area was the sheer remoteness of the place. Yet you do not have to look far to see signs of once thriving crofts and farms that have lay derelict for over two hundred years. The aftermath of Culloden, the break up of the clan system in Scotland took it's toll on the population of Caithness and Sutherland, as it did in so many other areas of the country. Again another way of life was lost. Now the Flow Country and the Brough of Birsay are places of spectacular beauty in my eyes. Probably among the best in the world- again in my eyes.

You see beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there are no two of us that will ever see in one area that which others may see. It is very subjective. Similarly the same can be said for many aspects of life including Highland Dance.

The result of the clearances was mass emigration to new worlds that were opening up North America, Australia and so on. These children of Scotland took many skills and traditions that helped carve out and shape these new lands. Some of these traditions , such as dance, developed into slightly different styles to those of others in different parts where other Scots settled.That does not make any of these traditions any less valid than the next. They all have aplace on the world stage. Such is the globalisation of the of the Scottish culture.

Crofting is part of the Scottish heritage and is once again on the increase as more and more people seek to escape the urban culture of which so many of us are part. Land laws in Scotland can be complex, however new laws are in the process of working their way through the Scottish Parliament that will change the face of land tenure in Scotland for good. Why because two hundred years on, "it is the right thing to do.

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.