#0036: The People Of The Forest
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Golden light spills through the branches of gnarled and twisted birch trees, onto the damp, mossy, forest floor where the bracken, only a few weeks ago a bright, emerald green, is now the colour of copper.
It’s a perfect day to visit Stronafian community forest.
Leaves crunch underfoot as the path leads me up into the woods, following the burn which tumbles down a deep, jade scar slashed into the hillside. The path forks to reveal a hand-carved wooden bench in a small hollow by the burn. I sit and take in my surroundings, listening to the falling water splash over rocks in the stream.
The community made this place.
They planted the trees.
They blazed trails through the woods.
They laid the path I'm following, and they carved its steps into the hillside.
Emerging from the deciduous woodland, I enter a clearing. A carpet of heather, its dark pink flowers shining like jewels in the afternoon sun, is studded with tree stumps bleached bone white by the elements.
Beyond the clearing, higher up the hillside, the conifers of forestry plantations stand tall and dark under an azure sky. Beneath them, the ground rises into a rough, rocky knoll strewn with heather. The Lephinkill chambered cairn.
Built over four thousand years ago, by the forbears of those who laid the path I've been following, the cairn was used as a burial monument for the local population. In more recent history, the cairn become referred to as Saint Modan’s Chapel, bearing the same name as the modern day church in the glen below.
The centuries haven't been kind to the chambered cairn. It has become overgrown with grasses and scrub, and has been raided for stone to build walls and sheep pens, so that it's difficult now to imagine what it once looked like. In fact, you could be forgiven for not realising that it's a man made structure at all.
But none of that takes away from the magic of this spot.
Up here, in the still air, it’s difficult not to imagine that I'm on top of the world.
Over a hundred metres below me, the River Ruel gently meanders through the glen, shimmering silver in the autumn light. The bleats of sheep, grazing on its banks, are carried to me on warm currents rising up the side of the valley. They climb beyond me, into the afternoon sky, where they pick up a bird of prey, shrieking as it catches the thermal and soars across the sun.
Not a bad spot for a final resting place.
On previous visits to the cairn, this is where I would turn back, retracing my steps back down through the birch wood. Today though, I decide to go a little further, to see what I can find.
And, as I follow a dragonfly zig-zagging low to the ground, its wings stirring up the smell of cut grass, damp earth and warm tree sap, I discover that the forest has more surprises waiting for me.
When they bought this land in 2013, the community chose to focus on the chambered cairn as the centre of its regeneration. They built a network of paths which converge upon the cairn, effectively making it a meeting place once more. And they lined those paths with sculptures, to accompany the works of neolithic stone art to be found throughout the forest, dating back to when the cairn was first built.
Trails have been cut through young conifer plantations, leading to small clearings with heart stopping views across the glen.
At every turn, there's something new to discover.
A standing stone.
A small bridge built over the burn.
A gallery's worth of ornate wood carvings, showcasing the talents of a population whose history is deeply entwined both with forestry and with this place.
The forest is beautiful in its own right but, together, the community has turned it into something so much more than that. Something truly magical.
People didn't just make the forest.
People make the Secret Coast.