I’m about to leave the house when the letterbox flaps open and a grey package lands on the mat. I take it to the kitchen and rip open the plastic to find an old book inside. Poems of the Scottish Hills, compiled by Hamish Brown in 1982.
My bag is packed and waiting; I’m about to head for the hills myself. It’s been so long since I felt I could walk on the Scottish hills, that this sunny day in Autumn is not to be wasted; not now that I am finding at least some of my old strength. Over the garden fence, behind the railway and the cherry trees, the Cairngorms are waiting. They should be more than a mere background to life.
I don’t have time to fully satisfy my curiosity with the book right now, so I glance through the contents and flick to a page near the end. I read a poem through once and begin to close the book. Something tells me stop. Wait. Read that again. I open the old pages once more and read more slowly, carefully. I give the words the attention they deserve.
After a third and a fourth reading I set the book down on the kitchen table for later. My heart is both lingering in the words and calling for the hills themselves. Scout, our retriever (batshit does not do justice) is looping the living room and dancing at the door.
In twenty minutes we are parking at the ski centre on Cairngorm. The sky is blue, but the wind has a bite in it and makes the trees sing. The hills themselves look bronzed by autumn.
I’ve drawn many lines across these hills with my body, and most of them begin here. It’s like the origin point of a river-delta that flows out and spreads into many strands, or the mirror of the mountain streams that flow down and gather together. The vascular system of a tree has the same shape too, and so do our own bodies. It’s in everything that flows.
Today I have no specific path, thread or flow in mind. I’ll wander where I please, but I do want to get up high if I can. So with Scout tugging me forward on his lead, we head up the track beside the (broken) funicular railway. My first thoughts of the walk are how stiff and heavy my body feels. I swear this used to be easier.
But I push on, looking for that second wind to blow in as soon as possible. We take the small path that branches off the track which leads up to 1141. ‘1141’ is a curiosity. There can’t be many places in Scotland which are named purely with numbers that are so well known. In case you are not familiar, 1141 is the top of a ridge that leads up onto the Cairngorm plateau and the rim of Coire an-t Sneachda. It is marked with a huge rock cairn built on a boulder, and gets its name because it stands at 1141m in altitude, and is thus marked on the OS map.
I had thought I’d make 1141 the goal of my walk. It’s up high and gives a great view. But the thing is, I hate going up this ridge. Always have. It’s just so… long. Sufficiently high, and at just that wrong angle of inclination that I can rarely be bothered ascending by this route. So I break off the path almost at once, and instead go to the little cairn that stands just above the ski tows where the ridge flattens out. From a certain angle, you could easily fool someone into thinking it was a summit in its own right. The view from here is already wonderful, and it’s the first chance I give myself to stop and really take in the day.
From this point the sight of Cairngorm’s northern coires was nothing less than epic. It always is – this is a good place – but today it seemed extra special. The slanting sunlight threw the many buttresses of Coire an-t Sneachda into deep black shadow. The wind crossed the bronze ridge with force, and the yellow gold grass flowers shimmered as they fluttered and pointed in unison downhill. Across the mountainside from where I stood, long ridges sloped down from the plateau; framing to a canvas of gold chased shadows that the clouds are carelessly tossing onto the ground as if they were nothing.
Just a little further up the ridge is an interesting place, so I carry on up. The ridge is all dressed in weathered round stones and soft angles, but here it seems broken open by the ten foot knuckles of a half closed fist. To cast an eye across the buckled lines of morphing and twisting gives me a sense of wonder and dread at the slow, irresistable forces of time. This description of course does nothing to convey its reality. The roughness of each indomitable ruggard of granite. The colour, the shade, the hardness, the frosting of grey green lichens. Its scrape under the boot, its coldness to the skin. These things are mine, in that moment right there and then. You must go yourself if you want to know.
Of course, while I am sinking into deep thoughts about stone and time, Scout is meanwhile throwing himself madly into the joy of life – the here and now. He runs along the skyline, leaping from boulder to boulder, then stops to take in the view. Or maybe just to pose like a character from The Lion King. I envy him sometimes. He completely embraces every sensory experience of the world with an enthusiasm that is never less than total. Every loch is for swimming, every smell for sniffing and every inch of the mountain for running. He never knows where we’re going, but he loves the journey. He is a lesson on four legs.
I feel the great space of Coire an-t Sneachda beckoning today. There is a nearly forgotten path from here to there that is calling to my feet. It’s years since I last went that way. Actually, I was coming from the coire last time, on one of the most wonderful short walks I’d ever enjoyed in these hills. That was a thread worth picking up again for a while.
So down we went to the coire, while Scout danced with the wind, the grass fluttered in the breeze, and the sun poured onto the grass the colour of whisky gold. I drank in a rich spirit of memories. Walking up into hills that were green and pink with the colours of a summer sunset. Water as clear as ether, trickling in an endless song beside me, listening to just a snatch. Thoughts of time, the great illusion. Even on that remembered day I had been remembering; thinking about the first time I ever came to these hills. Walking in winter through leaden snow and ferocious gales to unfamiliar places. Grey spirits among dark stones. And if any two of those days could bump up against each other – if all the Mes from all those days could meet at the branching of the path – then each would say to every other. ‘You’ve got a journey ahead of you, mate.’ But I wouldn’t be able to tell any of them the way.
Fortunately my way, right then, led to a big rock and the destiny of cheese sandwiches. Among mountains, this is a good fate (or maybe a good feta?) Anyway, there we were among it all satisfying the needs of hunger. Too long since I had a good lunch on a hill. With the exception of cold porridge, everything tastes better once you’ve carried it up a mountain. Chefs should try this. Rucksack squashed onion gratin with diced apple and Parmigiano Reggiano would be sensational in the restaurants of Claridge’s and the Savoy. Waiter, can you recommend a drink to go with this ruined pack of digestive biscuits?
Yes I can, actually. Try the water. It’s not like anything you’ve ever tasted. Nan Shepherd called the water of the Cairngorms elemental transparency. That gets close, but its taste is nothing less than liquid vitality. It does not have purity. It is purity itself. It’s with a certain amount of joy then that we reached the floor of the coire, among the towering buttresses that I used to climb, and found the lochans of Coire an-t Sneachda brimming with fresh water. Last time I was here these lochans were dry. Weird hollow bowls of stone filled with a weird quiet emptiness. Now they brimmed once more, but presented no barrier at all to vision. Every stone of the bottom was clear and sharp, but tinted with hues of blue and green that reached depths of beauty far beyond the deepness of the water.
Scout cavorted by the edge of the water as the sun glittered upon the rippling blue. I held my hand over the water and a web of filamental light flashed and danced in the palm of my hand. I knew I could close my fist, but that was something I could never hold. As if to illustrate this point, a little bit of the universe that was being a bird at that particular moment suddenly took to the air with a clear call. It flew up into the sunshine glare, every translucent feather brilliantly illuminated as if it were no more than a dragonfly or a mote of dust. Against the sheer vertical blackness of the cliff faces it traced a line in my eyes like a sparkler on bonfire night. A looping set of figure-eights, another for sheer joy, and then gone. Vanished like a phoenix.
Now that was a thing worth seeing. I thought that we had already enjoyed such rare sights, such a day as you never want to forget, that I considered returning directly to the car from there. But the high ground was calling. My legs, though stiff and tired, wanted more to do. So I called Scout and we turned together to the ‘goat track’ that snakes – even writhes – its way up the coire wall to the plateau.
I took it steady. There was no rush. No point knackering myself or working up such a sweat that would chill me in the wind at the top. One at a time. Turns and twists in the path that became familiar as I saw them again. The satisfied memory of descending this route while being told I had passed my mountain leader assessment. A shadowy memory of ominous threat that still lingered from years ago, when descending this same way when it was banked out in deep, hard snow drifts.
The sense of magnetic void space – exposure – opened beside and behind me as we went higher. I kept my attention on the solid ground ahead. Strange how my confidence on steep terrain had lessened. To my left and right were cliff faces I had scaled in years past. More memories – of fingers wrapped on cold stone, of air beneath my heels and the smooth, dynamic transition of balance from hand to foot to hand to foot as you put absolute trust in your own natural power. And then one last recollection that brought a smile as I reached the top, and found the big square rock where my friends and I took a group photo. The last time I remember us all being together.
The vista of the Cairngorms stretched out before me. Vast. Majestic. Noumenal. I had missed them. The sweeping plateau of bog moss and stone. The plunging trench and rearing cliff faces of Loch Avon. Loch Etchachan; how glad I felt to put eyes on it again instead of mere imagination. The granite torrs of Beinn Mheadhoin (I’ll wait here while you google how to pronounce that one).
I had considered going further than this onto the plateau. I wanted to. The waters of the Feith Buidhe were calling, and the summit of Carn Etchachan… like Narnia they whispered ‘Come further up, come further in!’ But they would have to wait for another day. There was a reason it was two years since I had last been up here, and that reason was now telling me decisively that I’d better use what remained of my energy levels to take me home. The mountains aren’t going anywhere.
We turned to the left and finished ascending up the rim of the coire. The wind cut with real cold up here, but if I kept on moving it would be ok. It was nothing compared to that day many winters ago, when it had flattened us to the ground, blasted us with gravel and spindrift. Another memory flitting by. And there’s a few more of them waiting for me as I pass the top of Aladdin’s Couloir and Jacob’s Ladder, picking my way from stone to stone to stone.
All these memories and threads. Lines that cross and cross and cross through the locus of place. I might have wondered if all I had were memories of it, if I were not actually here again, at last. But those lines only lie in places that matter to us. Pick one up, and another. Weave them together. Add another strand. Make a tapestry. Flip it over and look at the back, see the new patterns. The warp and the woof of life. Home.
The afternoon sun is slanting lower now, as Scout (who I will now always think of as the woof of life) and I traverse the edge of the sky and gaze down into the coire. Far below, the waters of the lochans are still blue and beautiful in the light. I can see where our new line of memory is now written invisibly into the hill. Scout falls into my footsteps and walks as quietly as a ghost on the last gentle ascent of the day, and we reach our inevitable destination.
1141. It turns out I was going here all along, today. But the most direct route is not always the best. From 1141 a long leg-jellying descent lies ahead of us. So here we pause for a moment and take a last look around at the high tops and the low places. The distant hills in the west are shadows on the horizon. The soft curves and broken ridges of the Cairngorms recede into the distance under white clouds. Today was a good day.
Some time later, we walk back through the door of the house. Scout tucks into his dinner with gusto, I sag onto the sofa. When I go through to cook dinner, I find the poetry book open on the kitchen table where I left it.
LOOKING DOWN A HILL
From here, boulders are pebbles,
the ground a painted map
and the route
Bright tiny figures
sprawl at binocular speed
up some new route.
When they have added to this cairn
their stone, my sun
will have set coldly, over there
No use shouting down help;
describing my route
we make our mountains as we climb.
A. R Thompson