For probably as long as anyone can remember this part of the world, Assynt, is referred to regularly as “remote” or “inaccessible” or “far away” or worse still “empty”. The first time these descriptive words hit home was some years ago was when I picked up the book “The Empty Lands”, written by Tom Atkinson. In the introduction to the book (first published in 1986, just a few short years before I first visited Assynt), Atkinson writes:
“To me, a book title must be both evocative and true, and so far as possible, encapsulate the whole book. This is so with The Empty Lands, for the area covered by this book is indeed empty”
Tom Atkinson, The Empty Lands
He does continue by saying that perhaps a better title would have been “The Emptied Lands”, as a reference to the Clearances, but he chose not to use that title, instead continuing to say:
“Of course, there are towns and villages by the score, but the essence of Scotland’s far north and west is its emptiness. Emptiness of people, that is, but of nothing else that brings delight to any tired soul”
Tom Atkinson, The Empty Lands
Then the other day I read what essentially was a well meaning tweet by someone trying to express the magnificence of Assynt, but which used the word “desolate” to describe the landscape and I have to admit that something in me snapped …. just a little. There followed a few tweets from a few folk who live in less populated parts of the country (including myself) who said desolate was perhaps a poor choice of word but that only elicited a very annoyed response from the original author of the tweet, and immediate blocking, preventing me from seeing the tweet again. However a quick search of twitter confirmed it was not an isolated case of this description being used for Assynt – here are a couple more examples:
Tweets with positive intention, both of them. But that word …. desolate. Is that really how they see Assynt? An area that I see as stunningly beautiful and vibrant, an area which has a string of small communities running alongside the coast and as far inland as Elphin and Inchnadamph, an area from which grew the ground breaking Assynt Crofters Trust – the group responsible for the very first land buy out in Scotland, and an area where we live and make a living and which inspires so much of my work. How could anyone who visited here and looked, and I mean really looked, at the landscape and saw those living and working in it still use the word “desolate” to describe it? And the idea that a land can be both desolate and outstandingly beautiful seems so foreign to me.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word as:
“late Middle English: from Latin desolatus ‘abandoned’, past participle of desolare, from de- ‘thoroughly’ + solus ‘alone’.“
and the definition of the word is given as:
“(of a place) empty and without people”
I know that the nature of social media means people scribble tweets perhaps without much thought – instant, quick. But sometimes words really strike in a way you didn’t mean them to, and that original tweet struck me.
But …… it got me thinking in a positive light about a project for the new year. A project of words rather than of yarn (although I may well find a way of incorporating yarn too!). The idea is still forming in my head, so I’ll not expand on it just yet, but if it comes to pass it will involve people, and people of Assynt. And probably mostly women of Assynt.
Assynt is so much more than simply beautiful and stunning landscapes, although it has that in abundance too. It is Assynt because of the people that live in that landscape. And yes, there used to be many, many more living in Assynt, but if it were not for the people here today, Stevan and I would certainly not be living and working here now. Assynt is not empty, Assynt is very much alive with people and each and every person has a story to tell.