Tuesday, October 23, 2007


I mentioned a while back that, following our visit to the reconstructed iron-age crannog on Loch Tay, I was inspired to begin a simple story – the first, I think, since my school days! To begin with, I wanted just to describe life in a crannog, but in a livelier, more immediate way than straight, objectively descriptive discourse. It seemed like a good idea to describe it through the eyes of a teenager, and to illustrate the scale of the construction works by centring the story on the building of a new crannog.

However, in looking through a child’s eyes, and seeing only a very simple view, I overlooked something fundamental. A crannog would have been home for a large extended family – up to 30, they say; it would have been inconceivable for a family of five, as in my story, to have set out on a journey to construct a new home of this scale for themselves. Such a major civil engineering undertaking as building a crannog would surely have been a communal activity. But that would entail a much more complex social context. To be realistic, the scale of my story and its world would have to expand considerably.

Now that I know that in order to make anything of this I have to pull it apart and start again, it seems okay to post it here. It’s flawed; not so fundamentally as to be irretrievable, but the base assumption is unrealistic.

There; I’ve distanced myself from it sufficiently now that it can see the light of day. I’m still keen to do something with this idea, but it needs more work. This fragment will grow no further, but it may yet spawn a new creation.

These are the words of a teenager looking back to the time when his family set out to build a new home of their own, in the Scottish highlands of 2,500 years ago.

As soon as the worst of the winter was over, we moved out. The snow was still thick on the ground which meant we could build sledges to haul our possessions. We didn’t have a lot, but too much to carry on our backs in one go and we didn’t reckon we’d get back anything we left behind with that thieving uncle of mine. He even tried to stop Pa taking a bit of fire in a pot; he said he’d made it and that meant it was his fire and we couldn’t have any of it; we’d have to make our own. As if it made any difference to him! Pa had had enough of him by this time though. My uncle may be bigger, but me Pa’s got a different kind of strength; he just stared at his brother straight in the eyes with a look like granite and continued staring, taking his eyes off him only for the slightest instant, as he stooped to scoop some embers into a pot. There’s a special magic fungus in the bottom of the pot which keeps the fire going; it’ll glow for days and you can light tinder from it with just a few puffs of breath to start it off. After the goats, it’s the most valuable thing my Pa’s got.

So there we were. No home, our few possessions – furs, skins, tools, plus the poles and skins of our tent, and of course the fire jar, all strapped onto two sledges, with a third carrying food supplies and our cooking pots, together with feed for our few goats who huddled miserably together on the shore.

Me Pa, me Mam and me big brother set the sledge harnesses on their shoulders; me and my sister were in charge of the animals. I’d been looking forward to this moment all winter; stuck in the smelly, smoky crannog nearly every day I’d grown sick of their arguing. It was always just short of an all-out fight – they wanted to I’ll bet, but there are some unspoken rules about what you can and can’t do in a crannog. At the centre stands a hearth, made of stones and clay, and a fire burns there day and night, every day of the year.

Now a crannog is built of timber and roofed with thatch; it takes many men many months to build; fire stand at its heart and we both love and fear the fire – as my Pa says, it both gives us its warmth and protection and has the power to take both of those away.

To fight would be to risk kicking fire around the dry bracken on the floor and destroying everything we have. We keep a pot of water to throw on any sparks that might light the bracken, but the rule is absolute - you don’t fight in a crannog. So once or twice they’d gone to the shore to settle their argument in the traditional way, battling with timber stakes as thick as your forearm and taller than themselves. I remember one stormy afternoon; I think their tempers had risen to match the howl of the wind outside. It turned out though that the storm was a bigger enemy to both of them than either was to the other; they returned after a while bedraggled and shivering and it seemed to me that maybe their battle against the elements and given both an opportunity to rid themselves of their anger; they returned side by side and for one rare moment you could see a flicker of a bond of brotherhood between them.

It didn’t last though. Within days they were bickering like old women, and growling at each other like bears hungry after winter. So now that we were finally on our way, it was a relief to be putting all that anger behind us. All the same, there was also the matter of a warm, dry, comfortable crannog we putting behind us as well. There’d be weeks, months maybe, of roughing it in the open before we’d have a proper dwelling place of our own. (How little did I know then! In reality it was nearly two years). As the younger of the two brothers, it was my Pa who had to move out, once it was clear they couldn’t live peaceably together; there’s never been any argument about that. The rights of the first-born are absolute. You have to have rules, you have to have set ways to live otherwise everyone would spend their lives arguing and fighting and we’d starve because no-one would be out getting any food. So – being second-born – I learned that one very early on. Course, my sister was born before me, but she doesn’t count; she doesn’t get anything. Maybe her man would join us too; another pair of strong hands would make a big difference. But I reckoned he didn’t want to take third place in someone else’s crannog – he wanted to be big chief himself, he did. We’d see. The nights curled up in his furs all by himself were going to seem cold and lonely.

Anyway, like I was saying, I’d been looking forward to the adventure – no more arguments, a new home, a chance to prove I was as good as the men – but as we trudged along the bleak, dark shoreline I suddenly felt very small, very alone, very aware that there were just five of us and out there in the woods would be wolves who’d love to make a meal of our goats – or even of us. That’s why we had to have the fire – we’d be camped out several nights before we got to the next loch and couldn’t risk not being able to get a fire going, even though my brother’s an expert fire-maker.

If this was a hunting trip, it would only have been a couple of days journey to the next loch. We’d have gone up through the forest, across the moors and over the pass between the mountains. But that would’ve been impossible with the sledges, so we had to take the long way round, following first the edge of our old loch, then alongside the river, until it met up with the river coming down out of the next valley, and up that valley until we came to the loch. It took longer, too, because the days were still short; we were only just at the tail end of winter. And although one person could just about haul a sledge over easy ground, there were places where it took three to manage one sledge and we had to take them one at a time.

It was on our very first night out that we lost one of the goats to the wolves. Looking back now, I can see that my Pa didn’t really know as much as I - or he – thought he did about this kind of travelling. When I was a kid, I though he knew everything about everything; I thought he was the greatest hunter, the greatest fire-maker, the greatest fighter there’d ever been. Even though he was a second-born. But looking back to that first night with all of us in the open, I can see now that a lot of it was bluff. We’d never undertaken anything like this before, and he was making up a lot of it as we went along. So when we camped for the night, we set out the poles for the tent, spread the skins over them, took the fire inside but left the goats outside, tethered to stakes set between the tent and the shore. Maybe Pa wasn’t thinking straight; it had been a big day for him and I daresay he was feeling the pressure of being truly the head of his own household for the first time. Me Mam told him he was stupid, the goats ought to be in with us, but once he’d set the stakes there was no going back on his plan; he’d lose face.

They might have been alright if one hadn’t got loose. It couldn’t have been long after we’d fallen asleep – the howling of the wolves woke us, and it had disturbed the goats too. The ground by the shore was stony; the stakes couldn’t have been set properly and one must have worked loose as the goats tried to get away from the howling. Stupid animal must have run straight into the wolf’s jaws. We brought the others in the tent with us after that. At least they helped keep it warm. Pa wasn’t too happy though; kept muttering about wolves having full bellies whilst ours would be going empty. It was she-goat that got taken; meant we’d loose milk as well as more baby goats.

That was the worst night; after that things seemed to settle down into a routine. We heard the wolves, but we kept camped out of the trees, either by the loch – it goes on for miles – or by the river. In any case, we had to stick close to the water as that was the only place we could get the sledges through. It would have been bad enough in amongst the trees trying to thread our way through the maze of trunks and fallen branches, but in the thickest parts of the forest there was hardly any snow on the ground; at least by the shore there was enough snow to give good running for the sledges. Nearing the end of the winter, as we were, there hadn’t been fresh snow for a while and what there was had been well compacted by alternate thawing and freezing. It was still tough going though. Trouble was, snowshoes are best on soft snow and sledges are best on hard ice. What’s good for one is not so good for the other. We’re not really travelling folk, you see; we set up home and stay there for generations. Mind you, we see plenty of travellers coming through – we trade with them; that’s how I got my sealskin boots, in exchange for an iron hunting knife – but we generally only go for short hunting trips, little more than a day’s journey away. The real travellers would probably have laughed at us, struggling along with our odd assortment of gear.

Anyhow, struggle though it was, eventually we reached the place where the two rivers meet. There’s a crossing place there, and we needed to get onto the far bank. Our old crannog had been on the North side of the loch, so that we got the benefit of as much sunshine as possible, and Pa wanted to build our new one with that same advantage –and somehow, I think he thought it would feel more like home that way, seeing the sun rise and set over the loch in the same way as it always used to. But that meant getting us and our possessions across the water.

There was a small settlement here – just three huts, and a coral for the animals. The huts were like our crannogs, but built on the land. After our experiences with the wolves, I didn’t fancy that idea. Crannogs built out over the water feel a lot safer. Not once has a wolf ever tried crossing our causeway. Pa says he’s heard tell of bears that’ve tried it – they don’t seem to mind the idea of water so much, nor of being off the ground. But there’s not many bears round these parts – here it’s mostly open moorland and they prefer the forests further east

And I don’t know what those land dwellers do in the summer when the midges arrive – they must get eaten alive. At least with a crannog you’ve got somewhere to go away from the midges – they don’t go further than a short way out over the loch, so we build the crannogs further out, where they don’t come. The only way those land-dweller can keep the midges at bay must be to fill their huts with smoke.

The river crossing is just a place where the river runs wide and shallow – over the years, the folk that live there have dropped stones into the deepest parts so that the water barely comes past your knees. Our sledges were a problem though – the water may be shallow but it’s fast; the sledges would half float and we couldn’t risk everything we owned getting washed away downstream. Thankfully the thaw hadn’t really set in yet – that was another reason for setting out when we did. For the few weeks of the thaw, the river would be impassable. In the end, to get across, we took all the baggage off the sledges and Pa and my brother carried it over on their backs, taking several trips back and forth to get it all across. The sledges on their own were light enough that we could still hold them on ropes in the current – just. We live around water all the time so I’m not scared of it, but the water in our loch doesn’t try and drag you away like this did. Pa wouldn’t let me help carry anything, and although I might have sulked a bit I didn’t mind really. My feet and legs turned blue just from one crossing. Pa was so cold he just sat and shivered; it was Ma who got the tent organised, got the fire going and almost had to drag him and my brother inside to dry out and get some feeling back in their frozen limbs.

Even though the rest of our journey was uphill, it seemed easier; or if not easier, than at least more rewarding. The land was more open, and we knew we were only a few days from our destination. We were only just in time – the thaw was beginning, and the snow soft and thin in places where the strengthening sun could begin its work of the season. There were places where it took two or three of us to drag the sledges one at a time over bare shingle at the river’s edge.

Then late one afternoon, after a hard struggle up a steeper section of the river valley, we realised the hills ahead were drawing apart; steep slopes, their lower flanks covered in pine trees, rose to left and right, but between them the horizon, now only a short distance ahead, broadened out. We reached the top just as the sun was sinking; the view that met us was breathtaking. The river wound away from us, still upstream, but over a broad plain - and there, only a short walk away, was the end of the loch, stretching ahead of us as far as we could see, with a blood-red sun just touching the horizon, turning the surface of the water shimmering gold. Silhouetted over on the right, northern shore we could see one crannog near to this end of the loch, and away in the distance the tiny dot of another far away. And somewhere between those two we’d build our new home.

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