Golspie, Sutherland, Scotland
My itinerary as a visitor in most Scottish towns is pretty typical:
• Find the castle
• Hit up the pub for a pint and some wifi
• Seriously, where is the castle.
I’m not the only one. People visit Scotland for its castles, which always have intriguing tales to tell. Centuries-old portraits of monarchs and aristocrats fill the walls of elaborate drawing rooms where historic events unfolded and petty dramas played out. The lives of the noble class are presented in as much detail as any visitor could possibly absorb without qualifying for a PhD in British history.
But the spaces occupied by the common people who once farmed the land and lived in close-knit clans—those spaces are empty now. People walk the sweeping glens and rolling hills of Scotland’s countryside and the landscapes seem wild; eternally untouched. But the small farms that used to operate here are at least as important to Scottish history as any signed treaty or disputed heir to the throne. You just need to know where to look.
In the town of Golspie, a coastal community in Scotland’s extreme north, there is no castle. Instead the outline of Ben Bhraggie, a small but steep mountain, looms over the rooftops. Ben Bhraggie is more than it seems: A history lesson disguised as a pleasantly strenuous uphill hike. The trail winds its way up to the summit with stunning views of the coastline and countryside, and at its peak is a statue of the First Duke of Sutherland. His pedestal is worn down from years of vandalism. He is the symbol of a class war.
The duke’s monument atop the mountain commemorates his role in the Highland Clearances. Nationally, the Highland Clearances were a century’s worth of mass evictions that decimated Gaelic culture and caused a diaspora of peasants out of Scotland.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, landowners were realizing that raising sheep was hugely profitable but required a lot of space. Land that had previously been treated as communal was bought up and consolidated, giving the buyers legal rights to evict farming families. The result was large-scale “clearances” where entire communities were banished from their homes to make room for more livestock.
This was effectively the end of the clan system in Scotland. Traditional chiefs ceased to be leaders of men and became modern landlords tasked with generating income. The squalid conditions of early European capitalism closed over the Highlands like an angry fist.
The Duke’s place in all this? He oversaw some of the most notorious clearances of the period. The Sutherland Clearances were contentious, occasionally violent affairs that earned the Duke a lasting reputation. His defenders argue that the relocations were necessary given the increasing difficulty of tenant farming in Sutherland at the time. But the Duke’s motivations as a person are mostly irrelevant. The statue could be any hereditary landowning aristocrat. At this point it’s just a symbol.
It is a symbol of the rich dominating and dictating the lives of the poor; Of the demise of Celtic culture in Scotland; Of the crippling heartlessness of a world that runs on profit. Local campaigns to remove the statue have waxed and waned for decades as Golspie residents reflect on their history. But whether it stays or goes, it has given rise to important discussions around class and cultural identity, and the process by which history’s winners and losers are commemorated.
Feeling political? After a hike up and down Ben Bhraggie, stop into Golspie for some lunch and ask about the statue on the hill. You’ll get an education in Scottish history that no audio guided castle tour can give.
Hiking Ben Bhraggie
Walk Highlands gives a detailed description of the trail, which is well marked and easy to follow throughout. Start at Fountain Road in Golspie and walk toward the mountain (away from the coast) to meet the trailhead. The loop is 5.75 miles (9 km) total and becomes strenuous towards the top. I did it in 4 hours with lots of dawdling and a long rest at the summit.