The Scottish Highlands are a man-made landscape with a troubled history

“Don’t they want to know what happened and why it looks like this?” Emma, ​​10, asks as we stand in a rocky Jacobite position in Glen Shiel, watching the cavalcade of motorhomes, motorcycles and sports cars rushing towards Skye.

I’m struggling to find an answer: many Scots don’t even know parts of the Highlands are man-made wilderness.

Until I delved into my own clan heritage, I didn’t either. Digging – even a little – brings this cinematic landscape to life, stirring a flaming, synaptic backbone in the Highlands.

In a nation where history is very much alive, politics creeps into even grassroots conversations.

What is undisputed is that from the 18th century to the end of the 19th century, the Highlands were stripped of thousands of their inhabitants following the brutal Battle of Culloden in 1746, when the Highland clans fought widely for the defeated Jacobites.

Never again could the Highland clans be allowed to rise. The kilt and the bagpipe were banned, but the seismic change was the dismantling of the clan system as the dùthchas (the inalienable right to lease land in clan territory) were dissolved.

This paved the way for the famous Highland Clearances – from desperation in search of new life to entire families burned in their homes in winter – to literally pave the way for the vast country estates that dominate today, while countless villages were wiped off the map.

Many residents have sailed for the New World; never to come back. The Clearances aren’t just the dusty stuff of the history books – they make up the Highlands you see today.

In addition to the ubiquitous hunting and fishing grounds, you can set off in search of ruined villages, tracing vital waterways and trekking ancient clan trails.

We are doing our tracing further north; I am determined that my daughters are at least exposed to the past. From our base at the Altnaharra Hotel in Sutherland, we are in the midst of some of the most disastrous clearances.

The lost souls of the Highlands are rarely remembered, but here families are immortalized on the Strathnaver Trail.

We climb through a hollow of lifeless villages – Grummore, Grumbeg and Rosal. In one of Rosal’s old black houses, where families lived with their cattle, we crouch down and read the work of Donald Macleod, a Rosal resident turned author-activist.

After detailing his experience with the permits, he and his family were again deported. Heading southwest towards Lochaber, it becomes personal. We are the Cameron clan. Over 2,500 clan members lived in the pre-clearances of Morvern, but today only a few hundred people inhabit this ghostly peninsula.

I spend a morning alone wandering through this vast void high in the hills. Morvern is infallibly beautiful. The massive massifs of the Highlands sweep all around; the nervous fingers of the sea lochs move towards the Hebrides; shimmering on the horizon as moving as Mendelssohn’s opening to the Hebrides.

An unshakeable sadness persists, however. I never found an English word for it. Neither Scottish nor Gaelic. Only in Portuguese: saudade, a deep yearning for something lost. My spirits are encouraged by an enlightened initiative of the Forestry Commission in Morvern. We walk to the cleared village of Aoineadh Mòr.

After the Forestry Commission “discovered” the village in 1994, they felled the trees around the crumbling black houses and added audio information. We meet Mary Cameron on a bench. She tells us that she only had a few minutes to pack when the police arrived.

Mary escaped with her husband lifting his mother onto his back as their village suffocated behind them. “The hiss of fire on the fire pit flag as they drowned it, reached my heart. We couldn’t even get a Bothy; so we had nothing else to do than confront the land of strangers, ”recounted Marie after her expulsion in 1824.

People travel for many reasons, but depressing their children is usually not one of them. So I took my children to oases where community land buybacks reveal what can happen when residents literally and metaphorically take ownership.

Twenty years after its takeover, the Isle of Eigg is famous for being the first island in the world to produce 100% of its own electricity from renewable sources.

A new community center is on the way, alongside a cooperative brewery. In Knoydart, the community bought tracts of land, planted hundreds of thousands of trees and installed a hydroelectric power station. This year, they hope to make the most remote pub on the continent their own.

As we follow the welcome holiday hordes on Skye Bridge, news of an initiative returns to Strathnaver. Rosal can resurrect. Tentative plans have been announced to create homes around this planned monument via a community buyout.

No more flickering light as local communities seek to buy back land through Scottish Government supported programs. Campaigners argue this is essential – only 500 people still own half of all private land in Scotland, much of it in the Highlands.

This journey ends as it began: back and forth in time, the lines blurring. At Kinloch Lodge, the former hunting lodge of the Macdonalds of Sleat on Skye, now a luxury hotel, I meet Isabella, daughter of the chieftain. We’re talking about the past and the future, with the community-owned Knoydart Mountains shining in the background.

When I mention Culloden, Isabella points to the next room and says, “This is where we decided if we were going to fight in Culloden. If you’ve opened your heart to the historic backbone of the Highlands, scenes like this become pivotal, setting your mind on fire and shattering those synapses. Even as I write this, the hairs on my neck are standing on end.

Travel essentials

Where to stay The Altnaharra Hotel in Sutherland offers bed and breakfasts from £ 150, altnaharra.com. Kinloch Lodge on Skye has Doubles from £ 280, kinloch-lodge.co.uk

More information

Aoineadh Mor, Morvern, forestandland.gov.scot. Strathnaver Trail, strathnavermuseum.org.ukvisitscotland.com

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About Elaine Morales

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