On New Year’s morning, on the Wester Ross seaboard, the sun was up, burnishing the hills. On impulse, we decided to drive north from Ullapool to Knockan Crag and give our dog a Ne’erday treat. A circuit of the ridge trail around the Crag and the Moine Thrust, where some of the oldest, deepest rocks on the planet, countless millennia ago, burst through to open view.
I’ve had a scientific education but know little of geology. Yet the western panorama that assails the visitor just across the A835 has been enough to draw me back to this place, in sheer wonder, again and again. From the Coigach ridge to the south, by Cul Beag and the limestone pinnacles of Stac Pollaidh, to snow-dusted Cul Mor and the sugar-loaf face of Suilven, it’s a wondrous array.
And on Wednesday morning we had it all to ourselves. Down in the car park, a couple in a camper van were trying to replace its burnt-out clutch. In another lay-by, just along the road, several parked cars signified climbers, already tackling the highest of these hills opposite, Cul Mor. But, for a couple of hours, the Crag and its timeless treasures were ours alone.
The various sponsors and funders of the Knockan Crag project have used a subtle mix of stone sculpture, poetry and interactive panels to tell its story. Our whippet looked confused when, at the push of a button, the statues of Cornishman Ben Peach and Scotsman John Horne, the geologists who, in the late 19th century, first understood the scientific significance of this place, started telling us theirs.
Then it was our turn to be astounded. Near the start of the climb, we came upon a teasing series of carved stone panels. The first read: “600 million years ago Scotland is near the South Pole”. The next declares: “Scotland is part of North America 500 million years ago”. At the next we learn “400 million years ago Scotland collides with England”.
There is no indication whether that collision left us fused together, geologically speaking, right up till the present day. Or whether that impact was merely a glancing blow, after which our separate land masses resumed their distinctive trajectories, until we conjoined again at a later date. However, conscious we were there on the first day of the year Scotland finally decides its constitutional destiny, we were anxious to learn more.
Well, “300 million years ago Scotland is near the Equator”, with or without England in tow. Another hundred million years on, the fifth panel tells us, “Dinosaurs rule Scotland”. Finally “100 million years ago Scotland is under a shallow sea”, just like parts of Ben Peach’s native Cornwall were yesterday. There is one final, teasing panel. “End of the journey?” it challenges. “Welcome to Knockan Crag”.
In terms of geological time, the entire timespan of human civilization is vanishingly small. The schist from the Moine Thrust was formed around a thousand million years ago. The Durness limestone it flowed over and smothered is around half its age. Compare these to the puny timespans over which politicians have wrangled over Scotland’s political destiny. Even the current union is a mere 307 years old.
In the days since our visit to Knockan, 30-year-old official papers have been released showing – surprise, surprise – that the UK government in 1984, led by Margaret Thatcher, wanted significant cuts in Scotland’s assigned budget. Its Treasury was demanding up to £900 million from a £6 billion block grant. A spokesman for the first minister called this latest release “astonishing revelations”.
But wrangling over the Barnett Formula and its implications for Scottish spending have been ever-present since the formula was first devised in the 1970s. The real surprise from the newly released files is that Mrs Thatcher, when urged at the height of her powers to take an axe to Scottish spending, chose instead to wield a pair of fine tweezers, extracting £5m here, £20m there.
Astonishing? Far from it. Numbers as mundane as those the SNP government, in its minority phase, would come up with to win Tory support in the devolved Holyrood parliament for its own budget plans. For instance some of us have good reason to remember the £60m Town Centre Regeneration Fund, conjured out of thin air in 2009, to be spent in very short order across Scotland, almost regardless of impact. Just so another Scottish budget could be approved.
Up till now Scotland’s protracted constitutional debate ha simply failed to ignite. The principal proponents of a yes vote, the SNP, seem determined to offer blanket reassurance that, come independence, nothing much in everyday life will really change.
That comfort blanket gets an occasional sprinkling of glitter, as when Alex Salmond, in his latest New Year message, promised an independent Scotland would, magically, “become the best place anywhere in the world to bring up a family”.
But the blanket still feels like a blanket. And a lot of people are left wondering: Why bother? There are much more radical visions of what independence might mean.
But they are coming from parties that are struggling to out-poll Ukip in recent Scottish elections. The big question now is whether, in the months that remain until September’s poll, that vital spark can be found somewhere to turn things round.
Back on Knockan Crag there’s another stone pavement sculpted with some fine words by Norman MacCaig. Taken from one of his longer poems, A man in Assynt, the same extract is to be found carved into the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament building. It reads: “Who possesses this landscape? /The man who bought it or/ I who am possessed by it?/False questions for/ this landscape is/ masterless/ and intractable in any terms/ that are human.”
MacCaig was thinking of that same span of mountains we surveyed on New Year’s morning. “A frieze and a litany” he called it. Given its intractability to human love and affection, MacCaig’s poem concludes that this Scotland of age-old stone “is docile only to the weather/ and its indefatigable lieutenants –/ wind, water and frost”.
He has falling rain and gushing springs carrying tons of sour soil as far as the Minch, “making bald the bony scalp of Cul Mor”. As frost “thrusts his hand in cracks and, clenching his fist,/ bursts open the sandstone plates,/ the armour of Suilven.”
The great unanswered question in 2014 is which human hand, if any, can burst open the slumbering plates of our constitutional debate and make politics really matter to the mass of disengaged Scots again.