The Mermaid of Loch Assynt at Ardvreck Castle

Legend says that the MacLeods procured the help of Clootie (the Scottish name for the Devil) to build Ardvreck Castle. In return Eimhir, the daughter of the MacLeod chieftain, was betrothed to Clootie as payment. In despair, the girl threw herself from one of the castle towers.

After that, locals whispered tales of MacLeod’s lost daughter Eimhir and her continued presence at Loch Assynt. Instead of jumping to her death, they say Eimhir plunged into the caverns of the Loch, hiding from the Devil to whom she was betrothed. There she made a new home beneath the water’s surface, becoming the elusive Mermaid of Assynt.

Historically, the locals also used this legend to account for natural changes in the landscape. When the loch’s water rose above normal levels, legend saus that these are Eimhir’s tears mourning her life lost at Ardvreck. Some even claim to have seen her weeping on the rocks, her body now transformed into half woman, half sea creature. Some contest her form, instead calling her Selkie,  a mythological figure of the sea, who must first shed tears into the water in order to become visible again to the human eye.

Back in the day, the legend was a great way to account for the geology of Inchnadamph. Clootie, infuriated by the broken promise of marriage, summoned meteoric rocks from Chaos to obliterate Inchnadamph and MacLeod’s kingdom. It is thought that this legend bears some relationship with the scientific findings that indicate northwest Scotland was struck by an object from space around 1.2 billion years ago. Geologists from Aberdeen University described the event;

"a massive impact would have melted rocks and thrown up an enormous cloud of vapour that scattered material over a large part of the region around Ullapool. The crater was rapidly buried by sandstone which helped to preserve the evidence."

These legends are invoked to offer some mythical explanation for the unique geological and topographical character of Inchnadamph. Another version of the tale of the mermaid of Assynt relates to the creation of the Moine Thrust belt. Some believe Clootie’s rage produced a tectonic rumbling from the earths core, resulting in the thrust westwards of the European plate, which is understood by geologists to account for the Moine Thrust belt.

(Ardvreck Castle was constructed around 1590 by the Clan MacLeod family who owned Assynt and the surrounding area from the 13th century onwards.)

The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, Assynt, Scotland - August 2014

Hidden in a limestone valley about 20 minutes from Ullapool are a series of remarkable, prehistoric caves. The openings are part way up one side of a partially, hidden and steep heather covered hillside. They can be easily seen and reached by following the well-worn, rough track that begins at a car park on the A837 and gradually weaves its way along the banks of the River of the Caves. 

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It’s hard to imagine it now but valleys like this used to be far more lush and fertile and were well able to keep a family fed and watered. Deer roamed the forest, berries flourished on the hills and salmon and trout swam in the rivers.

The arrival of sheep just over 150 years ago destroyed much of the original natural habitat as they nibbled any young tree saplings before they had barely taken a foothold in the peaty soil. The landowners, convinced that sheep would bring in more income than the crofters, cleared the land - both of people and much of the native woodland. While what remains is beautiful, the land has never recovered from the onslaught of sheep.

In the river valley there is evidence of an ruined shielding (where crofters lived during the summer months tending their cattle) as well as a old water powered flour mill by the riverside. That reveals that crops of barley and oats were once grown locally - hard now to visualise in such a dramatic and sparsely populated landscape where not much now grows except bracken, heather, deer grass and rowan.

This area was once also home to wild creatures that are now extinct in this part of the world: bear, wolf, lemming, reindeer and lynx all prowled these hills. These animals were common across what used to be the landmass of Laurentia, a continental plate that also included North America  and Greenland. The reason we know that is that the caves found in the valley contained large numbers of the bones of these animals and more. Amazing how massive geological shifts influence not only the geology but also the ecology of an area.

The Bone Caves are here because during the wetter and warmer periods of the ice age, groundwater dissolved away the limestone that dominates the hills of this part of the world to create a system of underground caves and narrow passages. Some of these now dry caves may have provided a refuge for animals and possibly even humans. Huge numbers of bones of a wide variety of animals and birds have been discovered in the deeper recesses of some of these caves including brown bear, arctic fox, Northern lynx, arctic lemming, otter and wolf.

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By far the most numerous bones are from reindeer which have been dated to between 9,000 and 44,000 years before the present. There are two theories as to why so many reindeer antlers ended up in the caves: the first is that this was due to human’s hunting them and then discarding the antlers or using them as tools.  The other (and seemingly more plausible) is that the antlers were washed down and through the underground passages after being discarded by female deer using the nearby calving grounds (these are still popular with red deer in the local area showing how such places endure). Female deer drop their antlers shortly after bearing a calf and also nibble the ends to absorb much needed calcium which would explain why so many of those found looked to have worn tips.

The caves were originally explored by two Victorian geologists - Benjamin Peach and John Horne - who were more interested in the geological story they could tell than the archaeological. It’s still remarkable that such things were found at all. 

The other astonishing thing about this valley is the river and the natural springs that exist along its route. Natural springs are a result of the underground caves and passages. There are a series of sink holes along the banks of the river that come to life after heavy rains. Given the recent immense storms there has been an incredible amount of water running off the hills. At parts this overran the usual river banks and flowed onto the surrounding grass. In one particular sink hole, gravel was being bubbled up as water percolated upwards. In another, bubbles could be seen ever gently rising to the surface.

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As we climbed up the valley, the full, fast and furiously running river suddenly disappeared leaving a dry riverbed of rocks. This part of the river only runs in winter as the rest is diverted into the underground passages. After seeing so much water further down it was rather eerie for it suddenly to stop. The valley was silent.

We made our way up the steep track to the first cave where we stopped for lunch. Between two of the caves was a hole just big enough for a child or small adult to wriggle through. Water dripped from the peat banks above each cave entrance creating a curtain of rain during wet weather. You could imagine ancient ancestors taking shelter in these caves and huddling together to keep dry and warm.   

After visiting all four caves we headed back down the track watching dippers flit between boulders and rocks. The three hours we had spent visiting the caves had actually allowed us to travel through time thousands if not millions of years. Amazing.  

(With thanks to Roz Summers, a Highland Council Ranger, for a great tour of the caves.)

Conival

Day 3 of GWC S3 Projects 2008

Taking a breather looking up at Conival We awoke to another stunning, bright sunny day in Achininver… 3 days in a row… wow!

The plan today was to attempt Conival and perhaps Ben More Assynt. We had an early breakfast and set off in the van for Inchnadamph. After the high temperatures yesterday, we gave the kids strict instructions to sun cream it up today, as a couple of them were sporting ‘Scottish Tans’! As we waited in the car park for some of the group (last chance for a toilet stop!), one of the girls managed to sit down right in the middle of a tick nest… brilliant… After a few moments privacy with a pair of tweezers, all was well and we set off following the track eastward into Gleann Dubh.

Crew The going was good along the track and I really longed for my bike. After a couple of kilometres, the track branched left to a path that continued to follow the river Traligill. This stretch felt loooong in the sweltering heat, as the path seemed to rise and fall relentlessly. Needless to say, the kids were less than impressed by this. I tried to take their minds off the slog by getting them to watch out for the limestone pavements… but I don’t think it made any difference :-S

Na Tuadhan

We stopped for a breather at the foot of the Allt a Choinne Mhill burn and took time to gaze up at the quartzite scree slopes of Conival. We knew that the next leg up to the bealach between Na Tuadhan and the summit ride would really test the group. As we climbed up following the burn, there was plenty evidance of recent path building. Again, I tried to take their minds of things by explaining the method of building the path an the use of one tonne bags brought in by helicopter. Not much of a response, as I expected. Eventually, we reached the col and took another breather. Undetered by my earlier failures to capture their attention with geology, I attempted to explain and point out the Moine Thrust Belt. Thankfully, a little more enthuthiasm this time, but I got the feeling they were merely humouring me!

Looking along the ridge to the summit of Conival

The summit of Ben More Assynt from Conival A few more zig zags up the scree led us to the summit ridge and we were treated to magnificent and clear views of Sutherland in every direction. The kids quickly spotted the patches of snow that still remained on the northeast face, and they found it hard to believe that it was still there with such high temperatures over the last few days. An univentful 500m took us to the summit of Conival and its large circular shelter. There was no need for shelter however, as the air was perfectly still. We ordered all to be quiet for a moment and take in the surroundings and the silence. A few minutes later while we were snacking, a fighter jet flew through the valley below us with a great rumble. The kids thought this was amazing; to be above the flying fighter! Great to see the enjoyment in their faces, especially after a tough walk in and a steep climb. We decided not to push on to Ben More Assynt, as we hadn’t moved as fast as we had hoped and time was getting on. Instead, we headed back down via the route of ascent. The heat was still sweltering and relentless. This made the walk out, back towards Inchnadamph, a neverending slog for the group. A great deal of energy was expended by the staff in trying to keep the kids positive, eventhough the staff were feeling the same! Arriving at the van with weary legs, we reflected for a few moments with the group on another very successful quality day in the hills. I explained to the kids that you don’t get many days like that in Scotland, and we had been lucky enough to get two in a row!

Deer!

We drove back into the sunset towards Achiltibuie to cap off another fantastic day of Projects.

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