A Moorland Storm, Sutherland

John Crawford Wintour, A Moorland Storm, Sutherland, 1853​, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow​. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

The pioneer historian of Scottish art James Caw wrote in 1908 that ‘with J. C. Wintour (1825-82) we pass into regions of romance’. Wintour’s work, he felt, showed an ‘intimate and personal feeling’ for nature that reflected knowledge of the British Romantic painter John Constable, and thus broke with the more ‘descriptive’ approach of earlier painters of Scottish landscape.[1] A native of Scotland, Winter nonetheless painted from direct observation, and in this early example of his landscape work, he captures the drama of a storm passing across an upland peat moor, above a prehistoric stone circle. A sudden flash of sunlight breaks the dark clouds to illuminate two standing stones on the moor, whilst a tiny figure with a dog, presumably a shepherd, looks intently towards a flock of sheep, caught in the same quick brightness.  The tallest standing stone seems to point like a finger to the glimpse of blue sky overhead, a note of hope amid the stormy vortex. Wintour seems to invite us to balance the long slow time of history against the fleeting time of weather and the seasons; poles between which man, beast, and peat play out their individual histories.

The Sutherland setting, and the narrow width and angled position of the tall standing stone, suggest the prehistoric stone circle known as Aberscross (Figure 1), that lies on the Golspie-Lairg Road about 10km north of Dornoch, and 6km west of Golspie; the far distant water with a sailboat may be Loch Fleet, a tidal loch reclaimed in the nineteenth century that is now Alder Carr wetland, a site of considerable nature conservation interest. Just off the Fleet glen road, the Aberscross circle  would have been relatively accessible for Wintour in his quest to paint from life.[2] In 1867, it was excavated, revealing cremated remains, and a cist,[3] but when Wintour captured its confrontation with a storm, these secrets of its peatland were as yet untold. 

Figure 1: Aberscross stone circle, Sutherland. HES copyright, with permission.

The Aberscross stone circle is a scheduled ancient monument that is part of a nationally important, historic landscape rich in archaeological remains. Upland blanket peatlands frequently preserve the remnants of prehistoric landscapes, and this is a good example of its type. There were likely 5 or 6 upright stones forming the stone circle, according to the excavator L. Tait (1870)3. The inclusion of cremated remains and a cist indicates that it was also used as a funerary monument. Stone circles are frequently associated with upland locations and are typically dated to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Here, the presence of cremated bone and a cist burial suggests usage of the site extended at least into the Early Bronze Age. Later prehistoric hut circles, field systems, lynchets (landscape features formed by cultivation) and cairns can be found in close vicinity, many likely of at least Bronze age date, although some could also be Neolithic.  Other visible remains likely date from 18th and 19th century, representing the tenant townships of Wester and Easter Aberscross. These were cleared by the infamous factor Patrick Sellar, due to a policy of replacing traditional farms and joint farmed townships with sheep farms, sometime between 1828 and 1841. 15 named tenants are listed in Wester Aberscross in 18084.

Thus, despite its tranquillity, this is the scene of the brutal removal of two Highland communities, perhaps just a decade before this was painted, transforming traditional social systems and agricultural practices into the unsustainable, over-grazed landscapes, that displaced many Highland communities. Livestock farming, of course, is an important contributor to contemporary livelihoods as well as a major contributor to global climate change, responsible for about 16.5% of direct and indirect anthropogenically derived green-house gas emissions annually.  

Consequently, by the time Wintour visited this landscape, the area had likely already been dramatically transformed compared with just a couple of decades before, and the traditional farming replaced by the grazing sheep that Wintour includes.

Around 14 km NW of the Aberscross stone circle lie the remains of Dail na Feusaig township, one of the infamous Sutherland clearance sites. In 1819 the family was burned out of their home, leading to the death William Mathieson’s pregnant wife, who was inside when it was set alight. In contrast to this turbulent social history, the pollen record from peatlands adjacent to the township (shown in Figures 2 and 3, below) shows no radical changes around this time. Instead, mixed farming continued through the 18th and early 19thcenturies, leading to a sustained decline in diversity from 1870, before being abandoned in the first half of the 20th century due to changes in labour and markets.

Figure 2: Simplified pollen diagram showing main patterns in vegetation and land-use from 1220-2004 AD at Dail na Feusaig. Clear curves represent a x10 exaggeration for clarity and the main transitions in land cover around 1930 and 1990 are shown by the horizonal lines. 
Pollen diagram: Althea Davies
Figure 3: Strath Brora peatland landscape from which the pollen record was recovered. Photo: Alistair Hamilton.

Further information on the archaeology of this fascinating landscape may be found here:


Clare A.P. Willsdon, Nicki Whitehouse and Althea Davies

[1] James L. Caw, Scottish Painting Past and Present, 1620-1908, Edinburgh: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1908, p. 149ff.

[2] We are grateful to Dr. Tom Gardner, Ancient Monuments Officer, Historic Environment Scotland, for identifying the circle and its topography. 

[3] See https://her.highland.gov.uk/monument/MHG11621 (accessed 25.7.21).

4 J. Wordsworth,  A walkover archaeological survey on Morvich Estate in advance of a woodland grant scheme application. 2002. Unpublished report produced for Historic Scotland, p. 1-14. https://highland.esdm.co.uk/api/LibraryLinkWebServiceProxy/FetchResource/9417/full_9417.PDF