THE tiny west Highland township of Elphin, north of Ullapool, stands out from the moorland landscape as a patchwork of bright green. Its rare fertility derives from a seam of limestone beneath the soil. Rank heath surrounds it as far as the eye can see and beyond that lie slabs of Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rocks in Europe, three billion years old. Home to about 60 souls, many of them crofting families, Elphin straddles the A835, until recently a road unremarkable for much other than the lonely beauty of the hills either side and the fish lorries from Lochinver that thunder southwards late at night.
In 2014, the road’s fortunes changed. A group of Highland businessmen conceived the North Coast 500, a looped tourist route that travels most of the coastal Highlands, passing Elphin and other crofting communities. Essentially a marketing exercise, NC500 has been an extraordinary success, repackaging a 516-mile circuit of existing tarmac into a version of Route 66 in the US.
Traffic and visitors have increased yearly. Some locals complain of bumper-to-bumper Porsches blocking the 200 miles of potholed single-track roads and the antics of campervan drivers who can’t reverse without sliding into a ditch. For contributors to the Facebook page ‘NC500 The Land Weeps’, the route has become a curse. For many others, however, it’s a commercial lifesaver.
At the end of the gathering day, fellow crofters share a dram and a blether.
As visitors traverse the rugged landscape, in many places, they can see the pretty little stone cottages and regular field patterns of crofts, a form of landholding unique to the Highlands and Islands. If they look hard, they may discern, behind the beauty, that the terrain is a palimpsest of centuries of struggle to scratch sustenance from an unforgiving environment. A low sun shadows the ridges and furrows of past runrig and lazy-bed cultivation, the last a misleading name for a back-breaking form of tillage. Piles of stones show where there was once a rude black house, a damp rubble dwelling with no windows or chimney, a thatched straw roof and trampled mud floor, where family and cattle shared the same living space.
Visiting Skye in 1877, a correspondent to The Scotsman noted, emerging from an almost ruinous cottage, children that were ‘puny, uncombed, blear-eyed, shivering little objects… This sorrowful index to the condition of the crofter forces itself very strongly on a stranger’s notice’.
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