MIGHT we wake up one day and find that the Conservative Party has disappeared, and the only thing left are the ruins of its empire? And all the people who voted for Conservative candidates are left wondering what it really was they were supporting? And all the Conservative MPs and MSPs are now out of a job and looking for work?

In “Prelude to Moon Music” from his first book of poems, Sangschaw (1925), Hugh MacDiarmid wrote this:

Earth’s littered wi’ larochs o’ Empires.

Muckle nations are dust.

Time ’ll meissle it awa’, it seems,

An’ smell nae must.

A laroch is a ruin, from the Gaelic: làrach. To “meissle” something away is to crumble it to nothingness, which is what time does to just about everything. But not everything. Some things remain, across millennia: good writing, great art. If we ever do discover that the bad beliefs and the politicised and media-led endorsement of greed above wellbeing has finally imploded and come to a state of self-obliteration, such art will still be there to tell us of how it’s all happened before.

And Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s sketch of what remains of a land that the ancestors of greedy conservatives of all parties laid waste to and cleared of people is still worth paying attention to. Land ownership is as vital a question today as it was in Graham’s time. Through the second half of the 18th century and the 19th century and through the 20th and even now in the 21st century, the Clearances are never really over and done with.

Bringing them to public attention, and what larochs they have left behind, is one of the prerogatives of art, as we discovered when we looked at the work of Will Maclean a few weeks ago (‘A window on the Clearances’, The National, 26 September).

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Many thousands of people were forced to leave their homes for overseas or and other homes and industrial cities. The lonely beauty of the land remains, but what does that mean?

Here’s Graham’s piercingly memorable depiction of Glen Shiel in the western Highlands, cleared in 1842, 10 years before Graham was born. It was first published in The Saturday Review, September 19, 1903, and collected in his book Progress (London: Duckworth, 1905). If Conservatism goes the same way – here’s hoping! – one thing is assured. It will never generate such an eloquent and haunting elegy as this.

But even that is not enough.


BY RB Cunninghame Graham

THE grass-grown-over “founds” and the grey crumbling dry stone wall of what had been a house, stood in an island of bright, close-grown grass.

About the walls sprang nettles and burdocks and in chinks tall mulleins stood out like torches, veritable hag-tapers to light the desolation of the scene. Herb robin, and wild pelargonium with pink mallows, straggled about the ruined garden walls. A currant bush all run to wood with grozets and wild rasps still strove against neglect.

In the deserted long kail patch, heather and bilberries had resumed their sway. Under the stunted ash, a broken quern and a corn-beetling stone grown green with moss, spoke of a time of life and animation, simple and primitive, but fitting to the place.

ON every side the stone-strewn moor stretched to the waters of the loch, leaving a ridge of shingle on the edge. The hills were capped with mist, that lifted rarely, and only in the summer evenings, or in the winter frosts, were clear and visible. Firs, remnants of the Caledonian forest, sprang from the rocky soil and stood out stark, retiring sentinels of the old world,

a world in which they, the white cattle, the wild boar and wolf, were fellow-travellers; and from which they lingered, to remind one of the others who had disappeared.

The birch trees rustled their laments, sadder than those of earthly chanters, or of the strains of a scarce heard strathspey coming down through the glens with a west wind. The rowans on the little stony tumuli showed reddening berries, as they turned their silvery leaves towards Loch Shiel.

All was sad, wild and desolate, the soft warm rain drawing up from the ground a mist, which met the mist descending from the sky, and hung a curtain over the rocks, the strath, the loch and everything, and glistened greyly on the wet leaves of trees.

A leaden sky, seen vaguely through the rain, and broken to the west by “windows”, seemed to shut out the narrow glen from all the world, confining it in plates of lead; lead in the skies, and in the waters of the sullen loch.

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Desolation reigned, where once was life, and where along the loch smoke had ascended, curling to heaven humbly from the shielings thatched with reeds, with heather and with whins, the thatch kept down with birchen poles, fastened with stones, and on whose roofs the corydalis and the house leek sprang from the flauchter feals.

But now no acrid peat reak made the eyes water, or pervaded heart and soul, with the nostalgia of the North, that North ungrateful, hard, and whimsical, but loveable and leal; where man grows like the sapucaya nut, hard rinded, rough and angular, but tender at the core.

All, all were gone, gone to far Canada, or to the swamps and the pine-barrens of the Carolinas, to Georgia, to New Zealand, nothing but Prionsa Tearleach’s [Prince Charles’s] monument, set like a lighthouse on the shores of a dead sea, the sea of failure, seemed to remind one that the pibroch had once resounded through the glens.

Heather and tormentil, with cotton grass, that seemed to have preserved the feather of some bird extinct for ages, eye-bright and knapweed, hare-bells and golden rod, prunella, meadowsweet, with bog asphodel on the yellow springy turf near swamps, and foxgloves in the woods, all blossomed, and thought not on the departed children who had plucked them when the strath held men.

It may be that the plants regretted the lost children’s hands that gathered them, and were their only mourners, for thought must linger somewhere, if only amongst flowers. In the old plough-marked ridges of the forsaken crofts, the matted ragweed grew, to show the land had once been cultivated.

Nature smiled through the middle mist, which shrouded loch and hill as in derision of the changes which mankind had suffered, and looked as tolerantly upon the tourists, waterproofed to the ears, as she had gazed upon the clansmen, who must have seemed as much a part of her as the roe, who peeped out timidly from the birch thickets, to watch the steamboat puffing on the lake.

Yet still about the laroch a hum of voices hung, or seemed to hang to anyone who listened with ears undeadened by the steamhooter’s bray; voices whose guttural accents seemed more attuned to the long swish of waves and moaning of the wind, than those which, in their throaty tone, mingle with nothing but the jangle of a street.

Voices there were that spoke of a dead past, when laughter echoed through the glens – the low-tuned laughter of a silent race. Voices that last had sounded in their grief and tears, as the rough roof tree fell, or worse, was left intact, as the owners of the house turned for a last look at their shielings on the solitary strath.

An air of sadness and of failure, as if the very power, which placed the ancient owners on the soil, had not proved powerful enough to keep them there, hung on the hills, and brooded on the lake.

A KELTIC sadness, bred in the bones of an old race, which could not hope to strive with new surroundings, and which the stranger has supplanted, just as the Hanoverian rat drove out his British cousin and usurped his place. Land, sky and loch spoke of a vanished people and their last enterprise; their first and last, when far Lochaber almost imposed a king on England, pushed on his fortunes, shed its blood for him, and when beaten and desperate he fled for life, sheltered him in the greyness of its mists.

But in the soul-pervading futile beauty which hung over all, the laroch gave as it were a key-note, as the tired vapour-ridden sun at times blinked on it, and shone upon its ruined walls. It seemed to speak of mournful happiness and of the humble joys of those who felt the storm, the sunshine, the rain, as their own trees and rocks had felt them, dumbly but cheerfully, and who, departing, had left no record of themselves, but the poor rickle of grey stones, or the faint echo of their hearts, heard in the notes of a strathspey quavering down the glens, and mingling with the south-east gale.

The silence of an empty land, from which the people had been driven sore against their will, and had departed to make their fortunes, and to mourn their stony pastures to the third generation and the fourth, oppressed one, whilst the winds echoed through the corries, as if seeking someone to talk with about days gone by.

On the peat hags the struggling sunbeams glistened, lighting them up for a brief moment, as the flaming chimney of an ironwork, in a manufacturing town, breaks through the vapour of the slums, and lights the waters of some dark canal, giving an air as of an opening of the mouth of hell, black and unfathomable.

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The stunted willow and dwarf alder fringed the margin of the rushy streams, which gurgled in deep channels, forming small linns, on which the white foam flecked the tawny peat water, or breaking into little rapids, brattled amongst round pebbles, or again sank out of sight amongst the sedge of flags.

Their tinkling music was unheard, except perhaps in ears which had grown blunted with the roar of cabs. Perchance it was remembered as a legend heard in childhood is remembered faintly in old age. Straggling across the hills, the footpaths, long disused, lay white amongst the heather, the stones retaining still a smoothness made by the feet of those who, in their deer-skin moccasins, had journeyed in the past from the lone laroch to other larochs, which once had been homesteads dear to the dwellers in them, and to-day were silent and forgotten as the half-subterranean dwellings of the Picts.

Still the sweet gale gave out its aromatic scent, the feathery bracken waved, the hills towered up to the sky, flecked here and there with snow, and nature seemed to call to the departed clans, telling them to return and find their land unchanged. She called to ears long dead, or rendered unresponsive in their new homes, for nothing broke the silence of the glens, but the harsh cry of the wild geese, flying unseen amongst the middle region of the mist, calling on high the coronach of the departed and the dead.