Marks on the Landscape

Inukshuk stone sculptures on Skye

Some walks are a blur by the following day. Others stay with you in every dramatic detail. Don Currie describes one of the latter – and would love to hear your views on the questions it raises

There are two sides to every story. And this was brought home to me following a visit to beautiful Neist Point, the most westerly place on Skye, this summer.

It was a glorious evening, and for me there were two highlights. One was the sight of a minke whale making its unhurried progress round the headland. The contrast between its calm and the frenzy of the gulls wheeling overhead was striking.

Highlight number two was when we reached the rocky shore and found it dotted with scores, possibly hundreds, of simple sculptures. Some were merely columns of half a dozen stones, others were more elaborate, with upright stones resembling legs, long horizontal ones that suggested arms, and roundish top stones clearly representing heads.

All of them gazed out to sea as if they had done so for centuries – though, given their loose construction, this was clearly impossible. They looked faintly familiar, and had an air of ancient civilisations about them. I found the sight quite moving and spent some time taking pictures and following these figures’ westward gaze.

Too numerous and carefully placed to be the work of playful kids, the figures seemed to have a certain dignity – complementing that of the whale, which could still be seen moving slowly southwards in the distance.

Anyway, googling later revealed that these peculiar objects were very similar to traditional stone figures constructed by Inuit people across the Arctic region as waymarkers, memorials or indicators for food caches.

How lovely, I thought. But I wanted to know more – particularly whether these were the work of an artist, which I felt they could well have been, or merely signs of passage left behind by score of visitors such as myself.

I contacted a man living nearby, to ask him about the scene, and my feeling of intrigue and delight was roundly dashed. This is what he told me: “It’s environmental vandalism caused by tourists. It is akin to the habit people have of building small cairns at the summits of mountains. The basalt pavement is ripped up and people use the stones to write their names and build cairns.

“The actions damage the environment, where there are numerous rare plants such as saxifrages, and disturb habitat for invertebrates. The behaviour started about five years ago and since then it is repeated annually by disrespectful visitors. Luckily, each winter the action of the weather levels the rocks again.”

Well, that was me told. Clearly the opinions of someone living in the area count for a great deal, particularly when weighed against those of a here today, gone tomorrow holidaymaker such as myself.

skye stone sculptures

None the less, I do care deeply about the natural world, and would never advocate needlessly ripping up rocks and disturbing habitats for plants or animals, whatever their size or rarity value.

But were the people who placed these stones really guilty of disrespect? I’m not so sure. They may not have known about the rare plants – I certainly did not. And I noticed no carved names – which is not to say there were none, as it’s a large area of shoreline.

And the man I consulted went further, likening the building of the figures to “carving your name on a tree or spray painting graffiti in a subway”. Now these, for me, are two very different activities. No tree was ever improved by name-carving (though if a few centuries have passed, and the carver is a notable historical figure…) but for my money many a colourless subway has been improved by a spot of skilled street art.

I digress. Many rocks at Neist seemed to be lying about loosely. Merely moving them a few feet would not be damaging them. And is moving stones from the position in which you find them inherently bad? If so, shame on the constructors of Callanish. Boo to those who built the Ring of Brodgar.

I have to say, also, that though Neist Point is spectacular, it is far from pristine. The lighthouse is handsome enough, but the attached cottages are in poor shape and there is a rusting metalwork and concrete here and there.

Are hill cairns, I wonder, necessarily a blot on the landscape? Many’s the time I’ve patted the topmost stone on one, beaming with satisfaction at having reached the summit. And sometimes, unsure of myself in the cloud, I’ve been very grateful for the confirmation they have given of my location, particularly on hills with broad, flattish summits. I dislike long strings of small cairns along a route, and I would not welcome waymarkers all over the hills, as is found in some countries.

But for me, in making our mark we are sometimes simply being human – provided we do so sensitively.

The British landscape itself, after all, is in part human creation. Were it not for us it would be pretty much covered in trees. But who would now welcome a Scots Pine thrusting up through the floor of their front room? Michelangelo made some beautiful sculptures – but was he out of order chipping away at all that perfectly natural and rather nice marble?

I’m getting carried away now, I know – and none of these remarks are meant to disparage the sincere and reasonable concerns of the man who objects to the sight that impressed me. Weeks after my visit, I’m still thinking about it – proof of the power that special places like Neist Point can have, inukshuks or no.

What do you think? Should we leave things as we find them? Is it ever OK to leave a trace? 

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