The writer and broadcaster Ian Mackenzie, who died 10 years ago, was for many years a regular SR contributor. In the third part of this Scottish journey, first published in our Christmas 1998 edition, Mackenzie concludes his journey to the far north
Part III: To Achnasheen
My mother, for reasons I know not of, was reticent about the past. My whole experience of her was that she believed life was meant to be lived forwards not backwards. She was a woman of actions, not a player with words.
Her youngest sister was different. Auntie Jean was a distiller of history. A dozen years ago I had a cautious conversation with her.
'It’s odd', I said, 'that whereas my genetic ancestry is rooted in Wester Ross, I feel this psychic pull to Sutherland, where I have no roots'.
She lasered me with a look. It was as if she was seeing in me a ghost.
'Are you telling me', she intoned, 'that your mother has let you live out your adult life without any idea...?'
She spoke flatly. 'Your ancestors came from Sutherland. During the
Clearances, they were victims of economic genocide. To make room for sheep, their croft was set on fire. They fled to Braemore, south of Ullapool, and settled there for a while. Then they moved to Easter Ross where eventually your grandfather was born, and then in Achnasheen your mother...'
Put to the torch, were they? Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo. What's new? Now
I know why Sutherland scares me. It’s not God, it’s not mountains, it's man. It’s the genes of ancestors scared by cruel men, and fire, and homelessness, and some Calvinist ministers who stood around in
transcendent landscapes accepting human brutality as the predestined
will of God.
I hope Holyrood will do something economically rather better for the
Highlands. And I hope that the ecclesiastical successors of those ministers will one day cease polluting the infinite landscape of the heart with the limiting logic of dogma.
But now I turned west for the ghost I had promised myself to visit. She would be at Achnasheen.
The Skye train swerves left off the far north line at Dingwall and
immediately tackles rising ground. Owing to the bloody-mindedness of the then landowner Sir William Mackenzie, this railway manages to bypass the only town on the route. Owing to the equal bloody-mindedness of the railway entrepreneurs, the engineers cocked a snook at Strathpeffer and climbed a four-mile 1 in 50 gradient to Raven Rock, making a hole in it, before rattling down to Garve, a hamlet.
There was once to be a railway branching off at Garve to Ullapool, but
money failed so now passengers who fancy pitting their stomachs against the Minch have to pollute Loch Broom with carbon monoxide. Whereas we, being a train, are about to pollute the way to Kyle of Lochalsh merely with diesel fumes.
One prefers to forget that the age of steam, in all its glory, was an age of dirt and smoke. One prefers to forget a lot of things. I’m here to find out if I can forget Achnasheen.
Achnasheen is where two ancient routes meet: the north one by Loch Maree from Gairloch, where my father was born, and the west one from Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye. The railway only goes west, but the mail buses from the north meet here. My great grandfather ran the Achnasheen mails, and he owned and ran the hotel which stood solidly on the actual platform.
It was a famous hotel in its day. Queen Victoria patronised it – or tried to: he wouldn’t allow her to change her horses on the Sabbath. So many ministers were up fishing and shooting that Lloyd George once held a cabinet meeting in its dining room. More recently Kenneth Roy ate dinner there (and wrote about it in a book). But three years ago it was burned down. I had to see for myself if even a ruin remained.
It didn’t. Not a wrack behind. Only a Railtrack shelter standing forlornly on the platform, the wind moaning down the strath.
Why did I have to see this? For the most intimate of reasons. My mother was born in that hotel. When she died aged 95, I scattered her ashes across the nearby loch. But also, unknown to anyone, I left some ashes in the hotel, to complete her life cycle in peace.
Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. Now she had been twice put to the fire. Not her, you say; ash to ash.
I waited in the shelter pounded by sleet for the train which would return me to the safety of the familial fort I have built with my life against the chaos that is never far away. How can one be comfortable with one's history? Because it is history, and the clock ticks on.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But it can be dust to life. From the ashes of a burned croft my grandfather was born to look at the Sutherland hills across water from a more fruitful land. From his youth came my mother, and from her came me. They’re all ashes now. But my daughter has this year given birth to a boy. The human torch is lifted again and again for good or ill.
And when the earth finally incinerates...well, there’s a big universe out there.
Part I: To Tain
Part II: To Forsinard