For many years I’ve liked to tell people that I have an ‘up and down’ relationship with Scotland’s hills. Partly I say this because I love a good pun, but behind that also lies the fact that people can take that saying and interpret it how they like. It’s a way for me to say something without having to say too much – a way of offering the other person the opportunity to take it as nothing more than a lighthearted play on words, and avoid going too deep.
But the people who know me best can see beyond that. The people with whom I have shared hill days, to whom I’ve told the stories, who have seen me change and been the agents of change in me; they know I mean more. Because no-one spends a life in love with hills and mountains and comes away without being changed. Every relationship in our lives has highs and lows. A relationship with mountains has more than most, and I’m by no means referring just to the literal ones.
I really want to tell the story of the mountains and me. Not just the good bits, and not just the bad. Not just a ‘walk report’ but a journey.
When I was growing up we lived in the countryside in the west of Scotland. Helensburgh is a town that sits at one end of the Highland Boundary fault line – the geological demarkation between ‘Highland’ and ‘Lowland’ that runs across Scotland from coast to coast. So our house, up on its hillside overlooking the river Clyde, was at a kind of geological crossroads. We lived with one foot in the Highlands and one in the Lowlands. Across ‘the water’ (the River Clyde) were the towns of Greenock and Gourock, with low hills and rolling country beyond. Glasgow and the rest of the central belt lay to the east. But to our west and north were the hills. My bedroom window looked that way, onto wooded fields and a high horizon. It’s all changed now thanks to forestry and property development, but I can still close my eyes and see it as it was, with the brown crest of Ben Bouie rearing up in the distance. Its summit stands at a humble 313m, but to me it was as high as the Himalaya. The mountain on the edge of the world.
I hope that kids today still enjoy the kind of freedom we had then. We knew the countryside around our house better than rats. Every tree was known for its climbing potential, every gap in a hedge or wire fence exploited for its short-cut utility, and every bush for its effectiveness as camoflage from the kitchen window. Everywhere had a name. Close beside the house were the Back Garden, the Play Area, the Front Lawn, the Drive. Further out lay the Doocot, the Walled Garden, the Paddock, and beyond them all was Snowdrop Wood.
It all sounds like something out of a Victorian children’s tale, and in a way it was. I should try to explain this, because I still don’t think I’ve really grasped how lucky we were to live there. The house was a huge mansion – the one time residence and estate of one of Glasgow’s wealthiest merchant families. Parts of the building were as old as 500 years. But over the decades and centuries, as tends to happen to such places, it was sold and put through its paces in various uses. During the war it was taken over as a hospital and army camp. Later on it was developed into flats. Flats in an incredible setting, yes, but flats that regular people could afford and live in. Like us. So that’s how we came to live in a setting of Victorian grandeur that as kids we were blind to. It was simply home. Camis Eskan – the Bay of Water. Looking back now, I see it for the extraordinary privilege it was.
Our flat was at the very top, like a huge loft conversion in the old building. It was full of sloping ceilings and odd angles in every room, which I loved. It had character. Our front door was at the top of a flight of stairs accessed from the top of another flight stairs. The views on the surrounding fields were incredible. We had windows on every side of the house, and the sun always came in no matter where from. We used to play a game whenever we heard a jet approaching. The RAF would come roaring over at low level in Tornado and Hawk jets, so we would always try to spot it from the window on one side of the house and then race it to the opposite window to watch it fly away again. When the Scottish Parliament was opened Concorde flew over us, escorted by the Red Arrows, on their way through Scotland from the flypast in Edinburgh.
I think that my brother and I, growing up there, felt like princes living in a castle. Lords of all we surveyed, with every passing year we ventured further and with more imagination. Sometimes we had grand days out with Mum and Dad, walking further than our imaginations had ever taken us; across fields and through woods into seemingly foreign lands miles from home. But most of the exploring we did ourselves, and I can still savour the delicious sense of naughtiness and conspiracy we enjoyed by occasionally venturing beyond the boundaries our parents had set. The thrill of being somewhere you aren’t supposed to be makes the place that much more interesting, and the fear of Mum’s wrath if she caught us sharpened our talent for sneakiness.
A cascade of memories falls upon me as I think back, and I can’t pull them apart. I remember a sunny summer where it seemed we spent all day every day outside, playing in the garden. Mum took us ‘beyond’ one time – past the back fence and into the woods beside the fields, where we discovered a vast and raging waterfall at the head of a mighty river, then picnicked on the banks before a swim in its pool. I recall Dad taking us through the ruins of the walled garden, and being scared because there was a dragon that lived in one corner – somewhere behind the creeping ivy and crumbling mortar. Mustn’t get too close. I remember when I was tiny, losing a welly to the sucking mud of a puddle and Grandma saving it. I remember scooping frogspawn from the same puddle in spring, and tawny owls hooting in the dark; ghost hunting with friends; sledging in winter; carving sticks into the sharpest point a penknife could achieve.
Sometimes our school friends would come up to the house and we would play endless hours of manhunt through the woods until inevitable boredom would set in because someone could not be found. Then we’d get on our bikes and race up and down the driveway, turning off onto the muddy trails among the trees, full of sweeping bends and jumps. The woods were also perfect for building dens – just little places to experiment with the notion of a place that was completely your own. Without even realising it, we learned a raft of outdoor skills – how to camp, to navigate, to improvise shelter, to find clean water and make fire.
The Garden was playground and classroom to us, but at some point my relationship with that place began to evolve. It became more than simply a place to play games and learn in; more than a tapestry of imagination filled with dragons and fortresses and ‘bad guys’ for me to gun down with a plastic six-shooter. As teenage years began and progressed I started to understand that it was somewhere I had a connection with. I was at that gangly, awkward phase of life; beginning to grow into yourself, trying to figure things out like who you are, what you want to do, and more importantly how do girls work? For those questions (not so much the latter, admittedly), outside was the place to start figuring them out.
There was one summer day in my mid teens where I walked out into the garden and started down the back path. I passed by the ponds where we used to scoop frogspawn, and the horizontal tree where I would pretend for Grandma that I was walking the high wire, before she got old. I was following a slightly intangible memory of a place somewhere nearby – somewhere Dad had taken me many years ago. Beside an old chestnut tree I climbed over a metal gate into the hilly sheep fields, and began following a stone wall up the hillside. After a while the wall vanished into the grasses, and a steep slope reared up above, crowned with a copse of ash trees. The top of the hill was guarded by dense gorse bushes, but I found a way following a sheep trail that threaded through them, and discovered the place I had been looking for.
Within the trees was a clearing, strewn with dead branches, bits of sheep wool and wildflowers. It was a soft place, where leafy green light and warm sunshine spilled onto the cropped grass through a swaying canopy. The trees receded into a green and brown mystery in the distance that I felt calling me on, and I would explore those avenues as time went on. But it was looking back that the real magic lay. Just at the edge of the hillside a gap in the foliage made a kind of window in the wood. You could look through it – out and down across the fields stretching out toward Helensburgh’s many church spires rising in the distance. Our school was just there in the foreground, as were friend’s houses, and the river Clyde. In the far distance rose the hills beyond Loch Long and the Gare Loch. I could see my whole world from that spot.
It became my Place, and I started to go there often. There was a sense of security in that spot, surrounded and held by the trees, but also an outlook. It was a place where you could shrink the whole world down to just a view from a window, and put everything in perspective. A place of solitude and private reflection, but where you also wouldn’t lose sight of ‘out there.’ And when the view was flipped – reversed – I used to sit at the other end of it in afternoon French classes, looking out of the window at the tiny gap in the trees up on the hill, dreaming about getting up there ‘under the branches’ again.
I spent many afternoons there reading, daydreaming, snoozing in the sun. But the woods that lay beyond also called to be walked in. There were many trails through the woods that strung together like unravelled wool. You never knew when you’d reach the end. Sometimes I would follow a thread to the edge of the trees, where I found myself at the foot of the open hillside beneath Ben Bouie. And so that spot became more than a destination. It became a gateway – a place to pass through, to ritually pass from one place to another. Despite the fact that you could go to the hill by many ways, for me all ways began from there.
As I walked further and further out I was knocking down the childhood boundaries my parents had put in place, and they were encouraging me to do so. I’m not sure what other kids my age were doing to discover the new possibilities that impending adulthood offered, but I suspect it involved rather less walking in the country and rather more alcohol. But I wouldn’t have swapped for anything. At school I was the smart but awkward kid, who did pretty well in class but didn’t have that many real friends. So I was perfectly happy to broaden my horizons by literally broadening my horizons, spending that time either alone or in the company of the few close friends I did have.
Ben Bouie was the place for that. The tonsured slopes had been peering over my shoulders for my whole life – an outline that unlocks my memories like the edge of a key. I remember one day of high adventure with Mum when we were young, driving to the far side of the hill beside Loch Lomond, and walking back to the house over the hill. It seemed like a vast mountain, a great journey, an undertaking to be proud of.
Those slopes called again and often. Out beyond the lushness and chaos of the woods where space and sky opened up to meet you. There was an old rock wall at the boundary of the trees, and here I would climb through a gap, turn left on the farm track and follow it to the burn. Then turn right and follow it up into the hillside, until it vanished to just a trickle in the grass. Footsteps through bog grass and bog reeds and bog myrtles brought you out onto the higher, drier ground. Huge splashes of bracken covered the hillside, but you would follow the sheep and deer trails higher, out onto the crest of the hill. From here there was only short brown deer grass (though I called it fire grass then) growing over the rolling hilltops, and you would finally begin to see over the hill, to the waves of hills and mountains rolling endlessly north into the Highlands.
One of the things I remember most of all from those slopes was the west coast sky. Near the top of the hill I would turn, drop my bag in the grass and stretch out in the sun. The nearby Atlantic meant those airs rained hard and often, but when the sun shone it was from a sky endlessly filled with the fluff of cotton and constant sunbursts. I could spend an hour simply watching the clouds change, and watching buzzards circle endlessly through the afternoon light. To this day it still seems to me that I’ve never seen a sky as blue as that one, even if the past is rose tinted. When the sun set over the Clyde in winter or over the mountains in summer, it often did so in fire.
If there is a specific day on that hill worthy of special remembrance, it’s one of the last. It was Christmas time, during my final months of school. My brother Alex was home from university for the first time, bringing a pair of ice axes he had borrowed from the mountaineering club. He being slightly older, was already taking the chance to explore more widely, and his absurd, hilarious and exciting stories were only whetting my appetite more. We were both desperate for a snowy adventure in the hills.
I must say that I had never even seen an ice axe at this point, much less used one, and truth be told there is really not much call for one on Ben Bouie, even in the snow. But, when you’re young and male, and someone puts a pointy tool in your hand, you don’t need much encouragement or instruction. Naturally, we swung them mightily, fearlessly embeddeding those axes in just about anything we could swing them at. Heroically we scaled obstacles of pitiful challenge (peat hags and the side of drainage ditches) as if we were climbing the Eiger in the style of some terrible action movie.
If nothing else it was a day of total hilarity, especially once I had been introduced to bivvy bag sledging. For the uninformed, this is where you sit on one of those orange plastic survival bags, and go hurtling down a snowy slope at great speed. When you need to stop you simply roll over and perform an ice axe arrest. What I was unaware of though, is that when you use an ice axe to stop a slide you have to do so gradually. So, when I rolled over and embedded the pick with all my might in the soggy snow, my eyes widened with alarm as it was wheeked out of my grip and became a distant and vanishing speck above me. I hurtled on, my gangly limbs spread wide like a spider on rollerskates. When I finally came to a halt in a bundle of limbs with snow in every part of my clothing it was to an eerie silence, broken only by the gales of laughter from somewhere far above. Despite this loss of dignity it was a useful lesson, and only whetted my appetite for more.
After eradicating as much snow from up my jumper as possible we walked on up to the summit, and I wished for the first time that I owned a camera. Behind us the hillside sloped away to the woods and fields of childhood, the windows of the house distant and tiny, peeking out from between the trees. Ahead of us was Loch Lomond, island dotted, stretching across the face of the earth. In the north we could see the summit of Ben Lomond, dark and snowy, making a higher horizon. In a great sweep of air to our left the hills and glens of much of the west coast could be seen, glowing white in the afternoon sun. Increasingly, those summits felt like places for adventures of the imagination. It was time to start making those dreams real. They were places that were waiting. In a thrill of adolescent possibility, I threw my arms wide to it all. Our cheeks were red, our hair tossing in the breeze. Not quite children any longer, not yet men, but with Scotland before our feet.