They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.
William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.
Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.
But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.
Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.
The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.
With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!