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Capturing a moment in time on walk into the past at Knockan Crag national nature reserve in north-west Sutherland

By John Davidson

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A full rainbow brightens the scene over Cul Mor.
A full rainbow brightens the scene over Cul Mor.

Time can be a difficult concept to get your head around, especially when the scales are measuring billions of years. It’s no wonder the discoveries unearthed here at Knockan Crag in the 19th century were controversial at the time.

Geologists John Horne and Ben Peach were sent here around 1897 to settle an academic dispute between the established science and new theories about the ancient rocks here. Arguments had been going on for 60 years after it was suggested the rocks exposed here showed older rocks lying on top of younger ones.

The idea was, of course, shown to be accurate. Continents move and collide, creating massive mountain ranges and, in the process, melting and metamorphosising rocks. The Moine Thrust is a fault line here in the north-west that has forced these older rocks to be ‘thrust’ above younger ones.

Matthew strides ahead beside the ancient rocks of Knockan Crag.
Matthew strides ahead beside the ancient rocks of Knockan Crag.

The exposed crag at Knockan made it the best place to study the rocks, and today the national nature reserve is part of the North West Highlands Geopark, a globally recognised Unesco site, due to its worldwide significance.

Even if the thought of seeing some of the oldest rocks in the world doesn’t excite you – and it will after a visit here – this is still a special place. A few trails from the car park offer spectacular views, works of art inspired by the landscape and a range of wildlife supported by the underlying soils.

We met up with family at the reserve to tackle the longer Crag Top Trail, which climbs past the exposed rock of the Moine Thrust and up above the crag to enjoy the panoramic views. Peter and Katie were up on holiday with their children Daisy and Chloe, so we’d arranged a day out.

Unfortunately, as we arrived the rain was bouncing off the ground, so we all donned the full waterproofs for what could prove a challenging walk with five children, the youngest just three years old, to keep happy.

The trail starts with a short, accessible walk to the unmanned visitor centre, which offered some shelter as we studied the well-presented information while hiding from the rain. A couple of the interactive displays were out of order but there was plenty else to see, as well as hear – statues of Horne and Peach themselves provide an audio interpretation in multiple languages.

Some of the children pose by the Globe sculpture.
Some of the children pose by the Globe sculpture.

As it started to dry up a little, we decided to make a move. The trail continues on a narrower path on the other side of the visitor centre, and we followed it as it dropped left at a junction then up to the Globe, a planet-like rock sculpture which the children were fascinated by.

There are various ‘points of interest’ along the way, with information panels as well as poetry inscribed into rocks, all of which helps to enhance the trail. At one point, you are invited to touch the two rocks either side of the Moine Thrust – layers which originated 500 million years apart.

The time is barely conceivable. Some of the exposed rocks at the surface are over a billion years old, while whitish coloured rocks at some points were formed from sand in tropical seas when Scotland – as we know it today – was south of the Equator.

We clambered up a series of steps, with Matthew, the youngest of the children, showing determination to climb all the way himself, while the older ones had already marched on ahead. Once above the crag, there’s a detour left to a viewpoint, which we followed as the rain came down again.

The view from the top of the crag over Lochan an Ais to Cul Beag. Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor.
The view from the top of the crag over Lochan an Ais to Cul Beag. Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor.

Even in these conditions, the view was pretty impressive. After a quick snack, we turned and braced ourselves for the blustery head wind as we followed the well-made path above the crag. In places it runs fairly close to the edge but there were only a couple of short stretches where we insisted Matthew held hands with us to make sure he stayed safe.

We soon came to another artwork – a sort of dry-stone wall built on a curved piece of metal, which in these conditions offered the perfect shelter from the wind to enjoy our lunch behind. Called Thrust, the sculpture was designed by Frances Pelly and built by Joe Smith and Max Nowell.

Our stop couldn’t have been timed better, as the sun came out and we were treated to the sight of a perfect rainbow stretching high above this land of lochs and rocks.

Suitably refreshed, in body and spirit, we continued on the trail as it started to descend, then took a very short detour to a second viewpoint – though the views are not bad from most points on this walk!

All that was left was a series of zigzag steps that led down to the car park, with Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor in our gaze across Lochan an Ais as they had been for much of the route.

Coffee and cake at the excellent Elphin Tearooms a couple of miles north of here was a great way to round off the day – as well as to dry off after a short but satisfying outing.

Peter and Katie at the wall.
Peter and Katie at the wall.

Route details

Knockan Crag – Crag Top Trail

Distance 1.5 miles / 2.5km

Terrain Well-made path, steep in places with steps and drops

Start/finish Knockan Crag NNR car park, off A835 south of Elphin

Map OS Landranger 15; OS Explorer 439; Leaflet with map available at car park and online

A short route taking you back in time and exposing the truth about Scotland’s past

Matthew enjoys the crag top path.
Matthew enjoys the crag top path.

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