Photo: The vitrified walls of the Iron-Age fort at Knockfarril in the Highlands


‘Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 

And spills the upper boulders in the sun, 

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast . . .'

(from ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost)


Lying northwest of Inverness and just east of the village of Strathpeffer, almost in the shadow of the great Ben Wyvis, the stunningly scenic hill of Knockfarril houses the remains of an Iron-Age fort, which itself probably replaced a Pictish fortress. The Iron-Age fort must once have been an impressive structure, with huge fortified walls of stone, which still remain – but mostly under grass, and vitrified. 

‘Vitrified’ means that the walls were deliberately destroyed in fires of such intense heat that individual stones melted and flowed into one another before cooling again into a tumbled mass of fused rubble. It’s quite intriguing, even unsettling, to see how the stones have melted and run, and especially as no-one seems to know quite why the fort was destroyed in such a labour-intensive way. The inferno would have required thousands of logs to be carried up very steep slopes before being laid against the walls to stoke the blaze that burnt the fort. Ah, the number of trees that would have had to be felled to burn down the walls . . . it’s enough to make a Rewilder weep.

The site of the Knockfarril fort, on the ‘Cat’s Back’ hill, is at the head of two valleys, making it strategically vital to the defence of the region in ancient times. Standing on top of the Cat’s Back amidst the fused stones of the destroyed walls just before sunset, in icy winter weather at the tail end of January, the light of the air around us changed quickly to that russet glow of Highland evening. In the ruddy sunset, the trunks of several old Scots Pines on the slopes of the hill stood out a glorious burnt red, like the warm colour of clay brick or terra cotta roof tiles – but too few bricks, too few roof tiles to be anything but token trees on the steep landscape. 

I thought of how the Iron-Age garrison of the fort must have looked out over hills and valleys thickly covered with Scots pines of the great Caledonian forest, dense woodland as far as the eye could see in all directions. Those pines remaining are beautiful, and filled with a strange energy. If you are quiet enough, and receptive enough, and you place the palm of your hand on their trunks and just feel, you experience a vital buzz of energy or vitality emanating from the tree into your skin, and into your physical self. How wonderful it would be to see the hills of the Highlands thick with broadleaf and Scots pine once more, and to feel the rich energy of the land restored.

I pondered the Iron-Age tribes who would have depended on this fort to secure the boundaries of their territory, and what it would have meant when the walls came tumbling down. I thought then of the destroyed walls themselves, their solidity broken even while their component stones lie fused into great lumps of rock, and I mused on the the psychological and emotional boundaries we erect as individuals, when we are still children. I reflected on how we either build impassable walls around our sense of self, or we allow our sense of self to be too fluid, too malleable, too bound up with the psyche of someone else. These are musings and reflections very pertinent to my rewilding journey, just as they would be to anyone beginning to explore who they are at their core, who and what they see when they clearly acknowledge their inner self. To rewild yourself, to undo the fetters with which you may have bound yourself, it is necessary to know yourself, to know what thoughts and beliefs and actions are yours, from the core of you, and which are imposed upon you, or adopted from people around you because you have not built good boundaries around your Self. 

I considered how necessary the right kind of boundaries are for the health of our self-worth, or even to our sense of self. Too rigid, too inflexible a boundary and we isolate ourselves from others emotionally and in our beliefs. Too porous, too permeable a boundary and we may as well not have a boundary in the first place – we forget who we are, and what we need, because we become so fused with someone else that we regard their needs or their security as more important than our own. How can we be certain of who we are if we always take the needs or the views of someone else as being more important than our own? How can we be true to ourselves if we don’t even know where their psyche, their inner self ends and where ours begins? We may end up tolerating being treated very badly by someone close to us, or treating ourselves shabbily, because we let them in emotionally or psychologically even when it’s to our detriment. Or we can be so strong, so rigid in the boundaries we put up between ourselves and someone else that we don’t feel them at all, let alone any subtleties of their emotional needs. 

Healthy boundaries need to be rather like Robert Frost’s wall – in place and laying out clearly the territory of your inner self, but low enough for a neighbour to be seen and felt, and heard. 

‘. . . Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 

      What I was walling in or walling out . . .’

Not a Trumpian palisade then, but not a line of straw on the ground either. Not a twelve-foot wall of rocks, but also not a fused mess of rubble in the grass of your sense of Self. 

I am discovering that this Rewilding Path I am on is not only about planting trees, or bringing back the wolf. It also concerns figuring out whether I have an inner wolf – and what experiences walled it in or walled it out. Then it involves assessment – deciding which traits I like, to keep those and strengthen them. And it also involves a weeding out of beliefs and habitual actions that I no longer desire in my new, rewilded sense of who I am and who I mean to be.