Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, landowners forced thousands of people off their land to make way for sheep grazing. In 1845, a group of people in Glen Calvie were evicted and ended up staying their first night in the yard of Croick Kirk. They carved their names and messages in one of the church windows.
The hostel’s manager printed out a set of directions for a few different trips, including the ride to Croick Kirk. He took me downstairs, gave me a ten-speed and helmet. I packed a lunch and a book and took the bike for a quick spin around the grounds. No problems – it was just like falling off a log, as they say. So by 9:00, I was sailing down the driveway to the main road.
I wondered if hand-signals were the same in Britain, only reversed. I didn’t figure it would matter, as I assumed I wouldn’t see very much traffic. My assumption was correct – the only traffic I came across was the occasional startled sheep.
I loved speeding along on my ten-speed. (Five-speed actually – the front gear didn’t change. Not that I needed it.) I was only on the main road for a mile, before I turned onto the little back road. I have to explain though; even the main road was just one lane wide. At every half mile or so, there would be a little widening in the road with a sign that said “Passing Place”. When cars met, the one closest to the passing place would pull over and wait for the second car to pass. This side road was a narrow little patch of pavement winding around alongside the River Carron. The whole area was open sheep grazing land. Most of the sheep were relatively confined behind low stone fences. But sheep would find their way outside the fence and would hang out in the road and when I came riding by these sheep would panic and run up alongside a fence.
Each sheep had a little spot of spray paint on its backside. Since most of the land was open to public grazing, the different herds would mix and each farmer would use his own color of spray paint, so he could tell which sheep belonged to him.
So I cruised through the glen, past the sheep, the stone fences, and the rare houses. I stopped a couple of times to rest by the river and read. And at around 11:00 the road changed from pavement to gravel. I arrived at the church shortly after that.
It was a tiny white church. There was a plaque across the road, describing the situation with the clearances. The plaque explained that the evictees had been concerned that sleeping inside the church might be sacrilegious; so they slept in the yard instead. Someone had apparently objected to this; next to where it said, “They were concerned that it might be sacrilegious,” they’d scratched out, “Not true! They were locked out!”
I crossed over, opened the gate, and entered the kirkyard. There was a small graveyard and I browsed the tombstones. The gravestones were worn down, most of the writing illegible. Some of them had clearly been carved by amateur craftsmen. One said in rough uneven letters, “1898 Thomas and Mary Ross/ in memery of ther/ of their friends/ Margreat McGregor – Granmother.” It was exactly like that, with the misspellings and the repeated “of their”.
I found the window and read the faint scratchings. “Glencalvie people. The wicked generation.” “Below sleep that no to the hersay of the landowners of Glen Calvie.” Inside, it was a basic church setup.
Next door to the kirk were the ruins of an ancient Pictish building. If I hadn’t read about it, I wouldn’t have noticed. The stones had long since crumbled and scattered. Walking up to it, I had to look closely at the pile of rocks to recognize some sense of a pattern in the way the stones had fallen. Though the stones had been weathered by the elements for hundreds of years (thousands maybe?) I could see that they were different than those that lay in natural piles. Some hand had intentionally worked the stones into edges and flat sides; the elements had long since worn away anything but the vaguest intentional shape from them. Entropy – things fall apart.
I walked into the middle of it and sat down with my lunch. I watched the sheep farmer across the river. He was the only person I’d seen since leaving the hostel. There was a small herd of twenty or thirty sheep. He came strolling out of a small house accompanied by a pair of black dogs. The dogs quickly herded the sheep into a tight group and the shepherd opened a wide gate. The sheep filed out, away from me, into a gap formed by two hills joining. The dogs ran up and down beside them and all the animals disappeared. The farmer closed his gate and followed behind them.
I became aware that I had more company. A small rodent poked its head out from a gap in the rocks and studied me. Whenever I made a move for another part of my lunch it would lunge away and disappear. Then it would poke its head out from somewhere else. The rodent was shaped the way I imagine a weasel is shaped, squirrel sized with no neck. It was brown on top, with a white stripe down it’s front. It’s tail was fuzzy like a toilet brush. The tip of the tail was black. We studied each other for about fifteen minutes. I offered it some small morsels of food, which it declined.
I watched the farmer return with his dogs, one of them lagging behind. There was no sign of the sheep. The farmer went back inside the house with the first dog and called back to the second dog. The dog sped up and followed the farmer inside.
On the trip back to the hostel, I crossed the river at the first bridge and followed the road on the other side. There was a small community at the junction with the main road and I waved to the couple of people that I saw walking around. I turned toward the hostel. When I crossed the river and rejoined the part of the road that I’d already traveled, I started to feel the miles. I felt nice and refreshed, but would be sore the next day.