Finding Home at the Rainbow’s End at Balnakeil in Scotland

To be rooted
is perhaps the most important but least understood need
of the human soul.
—Simone Weil, 1909–1943

Durness, Scotland

Durness, Scotland

At what some have called the very edge of the world, in the Glen of the Stranger, this wanderer was introduced to a destination elusive to many, that mysterious place known as home. The encounter was unexpected, and announced with a silent but stunning fanfare.

As a purplish dusk descended, my companions and I rounded another bend in the single lane road we had been following through the otherworldly beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Ahead, gorse bushes blanketed the rolling hillsides, their yellow blooms waving wildly in the wind. We crossed an old narrow stone bridge that spanned a mountain stream, its waters rushing toward the glittering green sea that lay off to the right.

Cresting the next hill, the three of us gave a collective gasp at seeing the sienna-colored moors backlit by a twilight spectacle. In the distance, the most northwesterly corner of mainland Britain that I had travelled so far to see was magically illuminated in a soft glow. Slicing through the diffused light that separates day from night, the rays of a shimmering rainbow descended to Durness.

It is only fitting that a place so enchanting be graced with such poetic names. Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh is Gaelic for “Country of Mackay,” a reference to the most powerful clan in an area that encompasses the parishes of Eddrachilles, Durness, Tongue and Farr.

My home for the night was the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast — its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or “Glen of the Stranger,” made famous by the local bard Rob Donn in the 18th century. His own name means “brown haired Rob” and he was himself a Mackay. A cowherder before distinguishing himself as a poet, Rob never learned to speak English or read or write.

Martin Mackay is the proprietor of Glengolly B & B, as well as a full-time crofter. The property is a modernized croft house that dates to the 1890s. A croft is a small agricultural unit, most of which are situated in the north of Scotland. Many crofts are on estates, with rent paid by the tenant crofter, usually for only the bare land of the croft; any house and agricultural buildings, roads and fences are provided by the crofter himself. Since 1976 it has become more common for a croft to be owner-occupied.

Glengolly is a working croft where Martin raises North Country Cheviot sheep. The dawn-til-dusk labor is made easier with the help of an energetic army of Border Collies. The next morning after a hearty “full Scottish breakfast,” I had the chance to see Martin and his team in action.

Across the road from the plain white home, the horizon line came alive as a herd of sheep appeared at the crest of the small green hill. Martin barked a command and a trio of border collies sprang into action, each a blur as he raced toward the sheep. Over the next half hour, I was enthralled with an elaborately choreographed production.

Martin directed the dogs with low exhortations and blows on his whistle. The border collies crouched, circled, and herded, clearly working in unison and toward a common goal. The various moving parts came together and then parted, and then came together again and moved apart again, moving as a loose unit across the field and up and down the hill. It was hard to know who was having more fun, Martin, the dogs, or me.

Martin explained the Border Collies are used for many tasks. They gather in the sheep from the many acres of hill ground where they are put out to graze. The dogs also assist as the sheep are then sorted at fanks, or holding pens, and moved to their grazing destination. The collies contribute to this work by pushing the sheep and guiding them into trailers. Some of the livestock are walked to their respective crofts, and this can be dangerous as the roads are very busy during the summer months. The dogs are also a necessity at other times of the year such as lambing, shearing, and dipping.

“There are currently eight Border Collies on the croft,” Martin said. “Sweep, Flash, Spot, Mirk, Ben and the youngest member Cap. Glen and Bob are semi-retired. Sadly Mac passed away last year at the age of 16. The dogs all have their own character–none more so than Spot who enjoys nothing better than watching dog trials on TV!”

Martin likes to train his pups himself and they are either bred by him or bought at around eight weeks old. Training begins when the pups are a few months old, although this can vary from dog to dog, depending on their ability. When time permits Martin competes in local sheepdog trials with varying degrees of success.

“It’s not all work and no play for the collies,” Martin said. “They enjoy long walks in the hill or on the beach, and playing with the grandchildren who are a big help in walking the pups and getting them used to people.”

While Martin’s vocations as a crofter and B & B proprietor are demanding ones, he clearly is in his element.

“Peace and tranquility are abundant here,” said Martin. “The fauna of the area is diverse and fishing and bird watching are popular pastimes – you can listen for the corncrake or walk to Faraid Head to see puffins. The beaches with their golden sand are second to none, the sunsets are spectacular, and in midsummer it never grows dark. ”

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