It was a day when the stags roared.
We walked along routes used in ages past. Along tarmacked roads, past machair and grey-blue sea. Then inland. Green grazed fields, golden moor and heather, sheep, geese and buzzard, onto earth and grass track.
We stopped to look at abandoned, ruined blackhouses, sitting squat either side of the track. Overgrown and roofless, the first we passed had been roofed within living (my) memory. It sparked remembrance of my father’s photographs of the last inhabitant of that cottage. An elderly lady, my father had known and visited. He had taken photos of the newspaper lined walls of that house, and a nesting bird sharing the shelter of the cottage. By the time I had known the house, it was empty. Though the last inhabitant was long gone, the dilapidated thatch of the roof remained in my earliest memory. Now that thatch was gone too and the house stood stark, abandoned and old.
We stood for a while in remembrance of that place, discussing memories that were not our own. This was a place changed in a little more than a lifetime. Altered in a relatively short space of time. Yet few will remember it as an occupied, peopled place. Most who pass by will consider it ancient and people-less. But human hands are visible everywhere still, not just in those abandoned houses, or in re-remembered memories. But in vegetation and moor, in the shape of the landscape, the track that we followed. This place is full of people still.
And the stags began to roar, their sound embracing that human-made place.
We turned and followed the track through moorland scattered with stone ruins, following in the footsteps of those who had walked this path before us, those who had gone before. The track led us into a scrubby, coppiced woodland, where modified trees held physical memory of past human actions. And out onto golden-brown moor.
The air filled again with the sound of the stags. They roared their presence, their place, and their status. Primordial and earthy, their bellows echoed across the landscape. Echoing across and through heather-clad hillside, scrubby coppiced trees, tumbled stone ruins, modern houses, us. We watched as distant shapes moved, stood and roared. Following ancestral footsteps, obeying biological rhythm, bold from lack of predators. Yes, altered too through human influence.
We carried on walking, following the track until we reached modern croft houses with their surrounding green, sheep grazed, fields. Passing one house, we descended slightly to another green field in which a tall stone stood. The grey and brown of the stone echoed the muted colours of the autumn landscape, as the roar of the stags echoed around.
Breaking off from my companions, I approached this ancient standing stone to pay greeting to it. Tall and rooted, rooted as firmly as the nearby houses, it leaned slightly to one side.
I laid my hand on it in greeting.
I had no borrowed memories with which the assail it. Just one of my own, of the time I visited with my father more than 20 years ago. I was following in footsteps of my own. I had been working on my undergraduate dissertation. This stone was one of my subjects. I had considered it fascinating yet inert. Something to be explained.
Now I saw life, human action, and change. Not change in the sense that the nature of the stone itself had altered. It was much as I remembered. But change of seasons, of vitality and meaning and of myself. I saw vitality in the plant and animal life entwined on the surface of this human erected stone and in its active presence in this place. Part of this place for millennia, it is rooted in the past but alive, attentive and active in the present. It is here. Now. Part of people’s lives and landscapes. Today. As it was yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that.
I saw, too, echoes of past beliefs, of changing values and human expression. Echoes of past peoples. Not just those who put up this stone so long ago, those who understood its first purpose and meaning, but those too who have passed by, interacted with it, lived with it over generations. Those whose actions mean that it still stands.
To many this stone will seem old, abandoned and alone. It is anything but. It is a part of a peopled landscape.
Over the millennia, that stone will have witnessed the multitude of those who walked this track before us, those who have left their mark on this landscape and on the more-than-human lives. Those whose memories have been lost but whose actions, presence and very lives still haunt this place. Those, like the last occupant of the blackhouse, whose memories are second hand now, but whose lives still echo in place and landscape, shape and ruin.
I turned to walk away and return to the track. The roar of the stags was fainter, more distant. But still audible. Still declaring their present life. Their place within this landscape, alongside the silent stone. Human and animal intertwined in a living, alive landscape, full of memory, full of presence and full of future.
The walk described here is the Pottie loop, a circular route on the Isle of Mull that takes in Fionnophort, Fidden, Pottie and Loch Poit na h-I. The blackhouse mentioned is recorded here, along with a wonderful image taken in 1975 and the Canmore record for the Poit na h-I standing stone can be viewed here. We walked the loop in mid-October when the roar of stags in rut can be heard across Mull.