The Assynt Festival gets under way

Well, it would appear that the Assynt Festival has not only got off to a flying start, but will probably go down as a great success! It was, as far as I know, initially envisaged as a celebration of the history of the area, building on the archaeological work which had gone on up here in recent years, but in the way of such things, the plans grew into something larger and more inclusive of what goes on in this area – now it is happening…

Glencanisp Lodge - now owned by the local community - in its attractive spotThere is so much going on all at once that it would be impossible for anyone to get to everything – and I have had to choose rather carefully as I can’t take that much time away from the normal things of life. There are two aspects to the Festival – the Fire and Water Programme which is to do with the archaeology and history of the area, and the Festival Programme which is all the rest. All of this, plus the names of the various sponsors, can be found on the Festival website. There has been something on every day and as I said, I have had to be a bit selective although, in spite of earlier reservations, I now find I would have liked to go to more than I have…

The Festival is running from Wednesday the 3rd through to Wednesday the 10th, and my first choice of event was a Heritage Trail up Cnoc nan Each, which is a lumpy sort of a hill which runs down one side of Glen Canisp. Quick Gaelic note here – Cnoc nan Each means “Hill of the Horses (or Ponies)” The word “cnoc” is the hill bit and is pronounced with a really heavy, nasal “Kr” sound, not an easy sound for a non-Gaelic speaker to make! The local Gaelic dialect makes the word “each” sound like “yak” i.e. a big, hairy, Tibetan bovine – but my Gaelic is more the Gaelic of South Uist or north Skye (my first teacher was from South Uist, and they reckon that your first teacher is the biggest influence on your pronunciation wherever your later tutors may come from) – so I pronounce “each” more as “Ay-ugh” and not infrequently get into trouble for it! Although, “each” is the nominative singular, by a leap of grammar, it is also the genitive plural – the nominative plural being “eich”. Such are the wonders of the Gaelic language…

Anyway, this walk up Cnoc nan Each was to discover the bronze age “hut circles” which are up there – it isn’t a long walk, just a couple of hours in the afternoon. We foregathered in Glen Canisp at the newly extended car park for walkers down there. There were nine of us all told divided nicely into locals and visitors with Claire and Sharon leading the group. We set off across the bridge where Claire stopped for a few minutes to tell the group about the name – the reason for which is not very apparent – and also said a bit about the recent history of the land surrounding us which is now part of the community owned Assynt Foundation Estate. She also warned us that the path would eventually become rather slippery and wet in places, but we were all in good wet weather gear, so were not a bit concerned about mud:-) We walked on up the made path, at first through native woodland and we talked about the uses such trees would have been put to in the past – the trees there had obviously been well used over time, but were now home to mosses and lichens, and I’m sure a good diversity of small creatures and insects. On walking on up the path, we soon came to what you might term “the last homely house” – sadly falling down with the rusting remains of a generator indicating relatively recent occupation. It used to be a shepherd’s house and was lived in until the 1980s – the last occupants still live in Lochinver, which gives a certain continuity. But whereas the ex-shepherd’s house at the bottom of our Brae has been restored and is in use albeit as a holiday home, this one is too remote and has just been abandoned.

After the house, the path rather ceases to exist, and we were reliant on our guides to take us on up the hill, and indeed it did become pretty wet and slippery in places – I think most of us ended up on our backsides at one point or another during this walk! We scrambled on up Cnoc nan Each until we suddenly found ourselves standing in one of the “hut circles” and here I really did miss my camera because although the circles are not very dramatic in themselves, the views are!! There followed a lively discussion on the whys and wherefores of the circles of stone – which do undeniably look like round house footings – what animals they might have kept; the crops people in the bronze age might have grown up here and what the differences in the climate might have been. I was thinking about the availability of water which wasn’t obvious, but of course springs and wells can become very quickly overgrown when they cease to be used. Claire told us that it is reckoned that as many as 50 people probably lived in this glen. As yet, there has been no archaeological digging done on these circles, and I for one am reserving judgement until they dig down and find the heath-stones, etc. which would show that people did indeed live in them all those years ago… I am not saying that the theories are wrong – just that I am someone who likes to see the evidence before I feel completely comfortable with the theory!

The area here around the Lodge was busy with people on the first day of the Festival - including the yurtWe went on and saw several more circles, and also higher up one obviously later structure, somewhat reminiscent of the house at Glenlerig, the site of which commanded a lovely view over Loch Druim Suardalain. Time was getting on now, so we headed back down to the road. I wanted to pop quickly down to Glencanisp Lodge as I had seen a yurt advertised and I wanted to go an investigate before having to get back home to cook supper.

Colourful yurt set up in the grounds of the LodgeI found that there was indeed a lovely, colourful yurt set up in the grounds of the Lodge! It wasn’t a felt one – something which I experienced many years ago – but was made of canvas over some really attractive trellis and lattice work – probably more practical in our damp climate than wool would be! One of the owners, Bill, told me that he and his partner, Natasha, stay in a bigger one at home in Crathie Ballater and in the winter they line the inside with duvets and thus remain as snug as bugs. They and their friends have a business now, run as a workers cooperative, selling handmade herbal soaps and cosmetics, and this is their “travel yurt” to take their wares around the country. As I have recently started making my own cosmetics, I would have loved to be able to stop and chat, and investigate the goods and the posters giving information about the various herbs used in the preparations – but time was running out on me… They will have a website up shortly, at www.plantideas.org and when it is fully up and running, I will put a link from here – they seem to have a very worthwhile life plan going on!

As I was leaving, Adam turned up and said that he had spent the day slicing strips of venison and putting them in buns. Claire had told me earlier that the evening before a pit had been dug and a deer carcass had been placed therein on a thick mat of bay leaves collected from a tree at the lodge. This had then been covered with foil and hot stones, and left to cook for 13 hours. When they opened the pit in the morning, the meat was totally tender – although Claire reckoned it wasn’t as moist as it could have been. This was but one of the things which had gone on at the Lodge during the day which had fallen under the general heading of “A Taste of Assynt”, and which had included workshops on pottery, art and sculpture and a guided tour around the Lodge. It had been well attended during the day and I for one felt that the Festival had got off to a good start…

Closer view of the yurt


[Photos of yurt by Bill Boggia; other photos by Clarinda]

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