Am Bratach No. 241
A history in stone
Before the Highland Clearances, when the glens and straths of the North West Highlands were vibrant with communities, the young men tested their mettle in many aspects of physical strength which formed the basis of the modern Highland games. One aspect of this culture, the stone of strength or "clach neart" (stone of force) became a focal point for competitions or just simply having fun. Lifting the heavy stone was popular all over the Highlands and Islands of Scotland with many different styles of lifting and different types of stone used depending on the local geology.
Some of these traditional lifting stones were lifted onto high stone plinths such as the Puterach at Balquhidder, some were lifted by both men and women as a form of marriage ritual such as the Clach a' Bhoisgean in Cowal or the lost stone at Glenelg. Some stones were lifted by young males between twelve and fourteen years to prove manhood and other stones were lifted during funeral processions with some large stones still extant near to coffin stops on many coffin roads.
Whatever the reason, these stones suffered along with the demise of Gaelic culture after the 1745 uprising and following the subsequent clearances, knowledge of the existence of these stones soon began to diminish.
Peter Martin, an amateur historian from Ayrshire, has been researching the existence of these stones for many years, painfully tracking down the history while travelling extensively throughout the country. As Peter states, "Scotland and in particular the Highlands is recognised by many strength athletes worldwide, as the centre of the Stone Lifting world. Many travel to visit and test their mettle against the more famous of testing stones such as the Inver Stone near Braemar".
Recently Peter discovered a reference to a long lost lifting stone in Strathmore, in the parish of Durness. "There still lies in Strathmore of Durness, close to the ruins of the birthplace of Rob Donn, the Reay Country bard, a clach neart of enormous size and weight, which only an exceptionally strong man can lift. There are two distinct grooves or grips on this stone worn by generations of strong hands seeking to raise it from the ground."
This single reference, taken from "An Old Highland Fencible Corps" by Captain IH Scobie and published in 1914 by William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, was sufficient information to excite Peter in making the long drive northwards in an attempt to find the stone.
"I travelled up to Sutherland on Thursday September 15 staying overnight at "The Bed & Breakfast" in Altnaharra. Having previously booked my stay and explaining the purpose of my visit, Mandy and Lyndsay Smith assisted me greatly by seeking local knowledge of the stone and in general they gave me great assistance in my search"
Obviously, the most important clue in the search for the stone is the mention of the grips. In Scottish Stones of Strength this is an extremely unusual facet as most stones are oval with a tendency to make grip difficult. The following day, armed with some local advice, Peter made an extensive search of Strathmore.
Travelling into Strathmore, Peter found a curious stone sitting by the roadside just opposite the start of the Moine path. As Peter explains, "I was a trifle fortunate to stumble upon the stone, but on examination the grips as mentioned in the text are quite obvious with one particular side showing clear evidence of being cut or chiselled by the hands of man.
Whether this is the actual stone would be open to debate but clearly this stone has some formal link to the long lost community of Strathmore"
Peter explained that the stone, which weighs approximately 240 lbs, sits upon a platform of smaller stones and this was quite common with some boundary stones to prevent the stone sinking into the ground. Clearly overjoyed at finding a traditional stone of strength, Peter went to great pains to stress that the location of the stone, as with most other lifting stones is situated close to a path or track which would have been used by the local community, but as Peter further explains, "the stone and the associated history will require further examination. I am well aware that living conditions before the Clearances would have been extremely hard and in no way would I intend to paint a romantic notion of Highland life, but the fact remains that stone lifting was indeed part of the culture that has long been forgotten. Finding these stones provides a tangible and physical link to our history".
It is self-evident that the stone will require further exploration and with this, as Peter stresses, the present community is vital as is the owner of Strathmore Estate. "In trying to ascertain the true history of the testing stone, it may well be the case that someone will recall a relative mentioning it or being able to recall a story regarding it. The stone is more about community and it will be the community that pieces together the stone's history"
One day, again the stone will be lifted and for the remembrance of the long lost community of Strathmore, it would be appropriate that a man from the parish of Durness should do so.
Peter is interested to hear of any story or receive any information regarding the Clach Neart of Strathmore or of any other stone of strength in the North West. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or indeed telephoned at 01292 475128.