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Walking through time

Though it was late forenoon when I turned west off the A9, just south of Wick in the far north of Scotland, the remains of a morning mist still hugged the coast. But it was warm, the sun was breaking through, and I reckoned the haar was bound to burn off.

And so it proved. By the time I had negotiated the single track road, given way to a few sheep, and reached the small, isolated car park, the haar had become merely a haze. I had arrived at the start of the Yarrows Archaeological Trail. The Trail is managed by Highland Council, and I picked up an excellent guide leaflet from the dispenser by the gate. I knew this was going to be three hours or more of rough walking, and the sun was getting warmer by the minute, so I packed some drinks and a sandwich along with the camera.

My companion was a bit miffed to read the sign saying big bouncy dogs should be kept on a lead, but he accepted his responsibilities without protest. He was just glad to be out of the car.

The Trail follows a fairly informal route – very little path as such, just waymarkers and stiles taking you through some fields and much hill and heather. The securely-attached big bouncy dog displayed only mild curiosity as we passed some happy, grazing lambs, then a few lazy ducks enjoying the sunshine by the shore of Yarrows loch. He’s well used to these encounters by now.

At the loch edge was our first stop. The South Yarrows Broch is a late Iron Age structure, probably built between 200BC and 200AD. The foundations are clearly visible, and you can see the narrow entrance on the east side. The double walls had internal stairs, to allow access to the upper levels and the roof. The purpose of a broch was to give a secure refuge to the people during the frequent attacks by neighbours, which generally arose from the shortage of productive agricultural and grazing land. The remains of later Pictish buildings surround the broch, and although the site seems perilously close to the water, the Loch of Yarrows is a reservoir these days. When it was inhabited, the Broch would have been on dry land.

It wasn’t too difficult to imagine the structure as it would have been, timber roof and all, with the members of an extended Iron Age family going about their daily lives.

We moved on, though, crossing a couple of stiles, and very soon we had entered a different age. Compared to the tangible remains of the broch, there is relatively little evidence of the hut circles, and a wee bit more imagination is needed. The Trail leaflet helps greatly, though. All that remains of this prehistoric settlement is a number of low circular banks. These are the foundations of Round Houses, built somewhere between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago. These were the dwellings of a farming people, who kept livestock and grew crops. The reason only these circular banks remain is that the houses were built of timber – a circular timber wall on a very low stone foundation, topped by a conical timber roof.

From here we hardly needed the waymarkers to get to our next stop. The Cairns of Warehouse were clearly visible ahead of us on top the hill, backlit by the sun. It looked a rough old climb, but the big bouncy dog was full of energy, so I allowed him go first and let him pull me up the steep bits!

The Cairns of Warehouse are the oldest relics on the Trail, being Neolithic and dating from around 3800BC. They were excavated over a century ago, and burial remains were found. The small cairns on top are later additions, and it has been suggested that these were navigational aids for the sailing ships and fishermen, before the advent of lighthouses. On top of the next rise is a standing stone erected in the early 1800s by estate workers, to mark the highest point on the boundary of the Thrumster Estate.

The views from here on top of the hill are vast – or at least they would be on a day when the haar wasn’t still hugging the coast. Never the less, we could see for miles. But the heat of the sun and the climb up the hill had taken their toll. My furry friend drank a few gallons from a peaty burn, then we sat a while on the shady side of the largest cairn. I watched a kestrel hover overhead, as I too quenched my thirst.

As we followed the markers north from here, we passed through what are assumed to be the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort, although it has never been excavated. The path now runs along a long ridge, and although we were little more than halfway around the trail, we could look down over where we had been. The hut circles seemed clearer from this vantage point, and the loch sparkled behind the broch.

Eventually we reached the first of the two Long Cairns. These are probably about a thousand years younger than the Warehouse Cairns. The South Cairn appears originally to have been a Round Cairn, which was then extended. The entrance passage, which can be seen clearly at the eastern end, would have been blocked up, and only opened on the occasion of a burial. A little further on is the North Cairn. Excavations here revealed a burial cist and Bronze Age pottery, confirming that these cairns were used continuously for burial rituals over many centuries.

Looking down the hill from here to the broch, a thought struck me. The broch’s inhabitants, all those years ago, must have looked up this hill and, like me, wondered about these cairns, for by then they were already 3,000 years old!

We dropped down the short, steep slope to the car park, and as we prepared to leave, I asked the big bouncy dog when was the last time he’d walked through 5,000 years of history in the space of a mere three hours.

He didn’t reply, of course. He was already in a deep, contented sleep.

© Mike Clark 2005

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