On the River Cassley, in the Highland county of Sutherland, there is a beautiful set of waterfalls. The river is turned by shelving layers of granite and then descends through a cataract in a crochet of channels. The rocks between are car-sized lumps, steely black, and on some bonsai-like pine trees grow, roots showing in the cracks.
In between the two main falls is a large pool — the “falls pool” — which is 30 yards across. Neil Graesser, a renowned angler who owned this stretch of the river, used to claim it was at least 100 feet deep, that someone had once dropped in a weighted line in the manner of an old sailing ship’s leadsman, and not found bottom.
Perhaps he was just trying to keep his son and me from the water. If so, it was with limited success. One summer Sunday, back when Margaret Thatcher was in power and Wham! was on the radio, we swam — for want of a better word — down the second set of falls. I recall pure terror and that I lost my watch.
Wish I were there . . .
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It’s never been a crowded spot. The river runs across map 440 in Ordnance Survey’s Explorer series, a sheet which, in 2018, was identified as the poorest selling of all its maps. Dave Robertson, the agency’s Highland surveyor, told the Observer newspaper that “essentially we are dealing with the least populated place in Britain . . . there are a few dozen houses.” I grew up in one of them.
The river regroups in a dark gorge, and then drifts into a forest-fringed corner pool where the foam, whipped up and tinged yellow by peat, gathers at the furthest edge. On the inside, the water turns around an ancient cemetery, in the gate of which, the last spare space, Neil is buried.
From where I am sitting now I can see the Gulf Stream. Depending on the day, this current, vaster than all the world’s rivers combined, flows nearer or further from the Malecon, the famed corniche that runs along Havana’s waterfront. I travelled to Cuba two years ago to work on a book and now find myself holed up here, one of the useless without the skills to help on the virus front line. I won’t tell you it’s hell.
The Stream, when it chooses, is calming. Fishing boats work the seam, rich blue below, pale above. It can be terrifying though, driving into the shore and sending spumes as high as the buildings. On occasions — when a hurricane passes — it “comes in”, flooding basements and the lives of those who live there.
There is a line between those who were raised beside the sea and those who were not. My girlfriend, whose apartment this is, gets restless if she’s too far from the salt. I ask about this and she points me to a poem by the Barbadian Frank Collymore: “Like all who live on small islands I must always be remembering the sea.”
Not me. Like the Gulf Stream outside the window, my thoughts are heading for Scotland. In my mind, I’m chasing waterfalls.
I always know I’m back where I began when I crest the Struie hill in Easter Ross, 30 miles north of Inverness. There’s a moment when the view opens up over the Kyle of Sutherland, its waters glinting like a blade in the dark, rich landscape of Scotland’s far north.
The Kyle (an estuary in English) empties four main rivers into the North Sea: the Carron, the Shin, the Oykel and the Cassley. The first you meet heading north is the Carron, in a strath heavy with troubled history.
Up there stands Croick church. In 1845, crofters sheltered in its graveyard, having been forcibly cleared from their homes by a landlord making room for sheep. Taught by their Calvinist ministers to blame themselves for every misfortune, they etched their misery into the glass of the kirk windows: “Glencalvie people the wicked generation.”
It’s a landscape that can scour the soul. On the nearby Alladale Wilderness Reserve, efforts are being made to “rewild” the moors, bringing back, among other creatures, wolves (a concern for the crofters whose forebears escaped the clearances). Paul Lister, the owner, will tell guests, rightly, that this is a landscape that man has denuded of trees and animals.
I like to fly-fish downstream, at Braelangwall, where a childhood friend is the ghillie, or riverkeeper. Days by the water can be Arcadian — with birch leaves falling through buttery light — but there are others when the snow squalls blot out the hills, catch my line and throw the heavy hook back into my face. At those moments, I hear William Blake: “You throw the sand against the wind, and the wind blows it back again.”
Not far from the river mouth, the road continues across the Kyle and here I’ll turn west, following the tide as it reaches into the interior. A castle appears as if from a fable on the opposite bank. Carbisdale stands on an escarpment, close to a battlefield from the war of the three kingdoms. It’s a suitably bellicose structure of 365 windows, topped by a clock tower with only three faces.
It was built by a duchess furious with her former in-laws, the Sutherlands, lairds of their eponymous county to the north. That is why she left the north face of the clocktower plain, preferring not to give her estranged family the time of day. From 1945 until 2011, Carbisdale was the most majestic youth hostel in Scotland. Now, sadly, it’s been taken into private hands.
I’ll stop further on, where the river Shin enters the Kyle, by a turning that I won’t take. It leads to another good waterfall, the Falls of Shin, and a café-cum-shop and visitor centre on a spot once overseen by a life-sized statue of a kilt-wearing Mohamed Al-Fayed. The businessman owned a previous incarnation of the café, along with several nearby estates, and supplied it through his other shop, Harrods. It burnt down in 2013 to be replaced by what’s said to be a very good community-owned operation.
Instead I’ll walk down to a graveyard above the river. Thirty years after leaving the family home, there are now more dead to visit than living. I’ll feel self-consciousness though — I always do — because these plots seem empty places, my friends long gone. Highland cemeteries are set within the sound of running water so souls can be carried away.
Continuing west, the Kyle is now lazy in its floodplain. Crofts sparkle on the hillside opposite. Surnames don’t vary much here (Ross, Sutherland, Morrison) so Highlanders often take the names of their homes — Hughie Duchally, say — or their profession: Donald the Tup. Donald was a sheep drover. Or perhaps that was just what they told me to preserve my childhood innocence.
David Houston, a mentor to me when I was young and whose grave was one I visit by the Shin, liked to tell the story of a winter burial on that hillside. Rain was slanting in as the minister foretold, at length, the damnation facing the mourners. Noticing water running off the life-worn nose of the man standing next to him, David had muttered, “This is interminable.” The crofter hadn’t shifted, only replied, very quietly: “Aye, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth my while going home.”
The road, now single track, finally rises away from the Kyle, pushed aside by the walls of Rosehall House. A large mansion, it was redecorated by Coco Chanel during a long affair with Hugh “Bendor” Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster and Nazi sympathiser.
The house has fallen derelict (despite many false dawns — there was a report of it becoming a luxury hotel as recently as January). In front of its cobwebbed windows is the furthest reach of the saltwater, where the Kyle is created in a meeting of the Oykel and Cassley.
As the road above drops down a brae to a crossroads, it passes on to what was Britain’s least favoured map. And it’s here that the Achness Hotel stands, where I learnt many bad habits. White-fronted and cushioned by a conifer plantation, it’s an inn that has, for as long as I’ve known it, felt like it’s struggling to catch up.
The public bar, with its fire and whisky, is full of ghosts — I hear Neil Graesser’s voice every time I enter. The residents’ lounge is not much better, the visiting fly-fishers more ancient with every passing year. New innkeepers took over the lease in March — their online enthusiasm startling even from Cuba — but sadly, for the moment, the virus has delayed their plans.
It is a few hundred yards from the hotel to the Achness Falls — the torrents where I lost my watch — and I tend towards a path that is barely an indentation in the moss and pine needles. The roar of the river slowly fills the air and then comes the falling water, incandescent white against the dark rock.
At this time of year the temperature rises enough for salmon to try jumping the falls. I like to sit and watch the big silver fish, hatched upstream but having travelled the Atlantic since, as they leap.
They choose their line and take their shot, emerging into the cool Highland air before crashing into the tumult, using all their vitality and strength to swim up falling water. Many are spun back, but some inch over the lip, on their way to a place they left long before. They seem so alive. I follow them; I too was raised upstream.
Travel restrictions remain in force in Scotland, with the government advising the public to stay in their local area and hotels unlikely to reopen before July 15. When it reopens, the Achness Hotel has doubles from £130. Staying at Alladale Wilderness Reserve costs from £247 per person per night, all inclusive and based on a group of 12 staying for a minimum three nights. For details of the café at the Falls of Shin see macandwild.com. Other recommendations in the region include Links House in Dornoch, the Kylesku Hotel and the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool.
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