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Reflections from a Scottish mountain

The wind came from the north, gusting at speeds of fifty to sixty miles an hour. The force buffeted my frame, compelling me to brace my legs wide, in an attempt to remain upright, as I grasped my knees and vomited onto the giants’ pebbles that paved my way to the summit. Strangely, despite the wind, the cloud obscuring my objective did not whip across my eyes in strands of condensed, moist grey; instead, it settled gently, but resolutely, upon the exposed rock and this forlorn explorer. I felt like a baffled mouse caught beneath the voluminous petticoats of some Victorian matron. Ignoring the roaring in my ears, a concert of weather and rasping, abused, lungs, I was suddenly convinced that all was quiet and that I was also very much alone. Fat chance. Just then, four figures took shape from the cloud. The two foremost shapes strode purposely forward, legs preceded by rapier-like walking sticks repeatedly thrust into the peat in front. Behind them, two small forms skipped from rock to rock, their agility silently mocking my crouched and heaving form. “Carry on mate,” cried one, “it’s just like the Caribbean at the top!”  Bastard, I thought as I spat onto my boots, little bastard.

After spending the past two years working in various parts of Africa, I had returned to the green of Hertfordshire, my home county and a landscape so soft and bountiful it, for some reason, always reminds me of plumped pillows. However, little time elapsed before I was once again yearning for something a bit more dramatic. So, when my friend Graeme, with whom I had chased elephants in South Africa, invited me up to his place in the Highlands of Scotland, I accepted with alacrity and flew swiftly to another land of sharp edges.

Ever since I was a child, the Highlands have held a strong grasp over my imagination. I bear a Highland name and so, if I was really scrabbling for my roots, I might claim some long suppressed genetic memory, but I do not. Instead, I blame a childhood diet of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rabbie Burns, and (quietly) Braveheart. Then, two years ago, I climbed to the saddle of Beinn a Braigadh, a mountain to the north of Loch Fleet, on the Northeast coast of Scotland. That winter the nights were filled with falling snow and the days dazzled in the light of a pale sun caught in the prisms of countless ice crystals. Buried to my knees in the snowdrift, I gazed spell bound down the white rift of the Great Glen. I suspect it was then that my heart joined my imagination.

However, I do not fully ascribe to the romantic evocations propagated by the old Jacobite poets and the distorted memories of the dispersed Diaspora. The highlands is a harsh land where the north wind is just as likely to take your breath away as is a stunning view. In Britain, the Highlands were the last refuge of the mediaeval feudal system, which kept the people in thrall to their clan and to their chief, and was only shattered by the bloodletting of Culloden Moor, the last battle to take place on British soil. The land is generally poor and so for centuries was unable to provide produce of enough quantity to support its inhabitants through the dark winters. This forced men to embark upon raids on neighbouring clans, to secure cattle and grain, and therefore the survival of another year. So a cycle of violence was born, which made battle a central tenet of a demanding culture and the sword as common as the ploughshare. When the clan system was eventually broken, many chiefs found it was more profitable to stock their land with the cheviot sheep and so the people were evicted. They went to America.

The people of the Highlands are, like the English, derived from a diverse genetic heritage. They are Gaels, Picts, Norse and Norman French and, these days, there is also a considerable percentage of English and Poles. Some still follow the crofter’s life, farming a smallholding of livestock or grain, whilst also engaged in other activities to supplement their income. Many work in the tourist trade, staffing the castles and golf courses, or other aspects of the 21st century economy. Yet, though modernity has reached almost every glen, stories of the turbulent past remain strong and some aspects of life remain the same, a fact to gladden the spectral heart of any wandering, ancient ghost.

On Dornoch Links there stands a stone to mark the point where the brother of the Bishop of Caithness beat to death with the leg of a horse the leader of a group of raiding Danes. An overgrown mound at the rear of a farmer’s field marks the grave of Sigurdh, Early of Orkney. He died of septicaemia after a tooth protruding from the severed head of a defeated Pictish leader punctured his leg; the head had been tied by its pigtails to Sigurdh’s saddle and struck the fatal blow as the horse struggled to negotiate a rough patch of ground. My August visit coincided with the season of the Highland Gatherings. Once a festive gathering where the men of the clan came to demonstrate their strength, the Games now serve to allow Highlanders both to display and to reaffirm their cultural heritage. Well, that is what the social anthropologists would say, but, to my untutored eye, it was just a fine old time.

Men of intimidating size, wearing kilts of tartan over shining lycra shorts, hurled various weights and shapes as high or as far as they could. Cabers, trunks of pine 20 feet long and shorn of protruding branches, were tossed high into the grey sky. The crowd held its breath, waiting to see if the projected log would turn end over length and so score the maximum of three points. Lusty cheers, underlain by polite applause greeted achievement. Cyclists passed in doughty competition dangerously close to flung hammers and a succession of girls danced a fling under the implacable gaze of this year’s judge. All the while, pipers made their evocative contribution to the murmur of a happy crowd and the disco beats of the neighbouring fair ground. The winner of the ‘Heavies’ section of this year’s Dornoch gathering was, incidentally, an American named Larry.

This then is the human story of a land still largely untamed; a story rich in emotion, conflict, loss and perseverance, but thin and fragile, like lichen on a rock face, when considered against the region’s topographical magnificence. Mankind has left its mark: small hamlets cluster in protection against the wind, or line roads cut originally to allow access to suppressing armies; cattle graze in fields which carpet the valley bottoms; geometric plantations of conifers clad the lower slopes of the rolling braes. However, it was the wild and the untamed that I sought. Therefore, Graeme and I drove further north, away from Dornoch, through Lairg, past Altnaharra (officially the coldest place in mainland Britain) and onto Ben Hope; a place so far north the waves that lap the near coast roll in uninterrupted from Iceland.

We parked the vehicle at the base of the mountain, next to a shallow river, or strath, which in its repetitive meanders seemed to betray a reluctance to join the small sea loch and the oceans beyond. The mountain rose above us from gentle green foothills to a rock-strewn summit increasingly obscured by cloud. The overall effect was reminiscent of some gigantic, petrified, reclining sphinx slowly being claimed by the green growth of summer. Neighbouring vehicles told of fellow climbers, but as my eyes scanned the lower slopes, no other figures were visible.

The path followed the side of small burn, which tumbled down the slope from a waterfall above us. A thin layer of topsoil, muddied and broken by passing feet, made the going treacherous and I rued my decision to stick with my old boots and their battered, flattened, soles. Rocks jutted out from the earth, some smoothed by the passage of seasonal floods, others sharp and angular, like placed steps or broken teeth. The distance between the rocks was irregular and so I found myself alternately stretching or limiting my pace in order to progress along the path. One of the many athletic attributes I have always lacked is a good sense of balance and so soon my arms were waving, creating an image reminiscent more of drunken hopscotch than skilful mountaineering. Depressingly quickly, this exertion soon began to take its toll. Lactic acid massed in my muscles with a familiar burning heaviness and my lungs protested at the increased demand for oxygen.

I told myself that this was what I had wanted: challenge, graft, pain and eventual, tangible, achievement, wrapped in natural beauty. So I kept my eyes on the path in front and concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other. The waterfall, with its brown, peat-strained waters, frothing white in delighted collision, fell behind me as I climbed steadily in pursuit of the increasingly distant Graeme. He had spent recent weeks working in the equally challenging environment of the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa and so was hardened to the demands of walking in the hills. I was happy for him to go ahead, confident that he would wait for me at any point that possessed the potential to send me hurtling back down to the bottom, like an unfortunate play on a rather large game of snakes and ladders.

Paying so much attention to the placement of my feet meant that I surveyed the ground with an intense scrutiny. So, while my appreciation of sky and view was confined to resting points, I was constantly absorbing the detail of the ground over which I stumbled. A part of me was still able to delight in the minute perfection of the blooms of the hardy heather, which, in its combined mass, leant a sheen of imperial purple to the vibrant green of summer grass. I could both hear and see the persistent oozing of the peat as the sodden surface grudgingly bore my passing weight. Black earth contrasted with startling white quartz; crusts of lichen revelled in shades of yellow, green and silver, creeping across other darker, older stone. Impressions in that same earth recorded previous passage, signs of rubber-soled wheezing and woolly scrambles.

At certain points of gasping rest was I able to raise my face to the sky and to look back from where we had come. I only looked up to where we must go when departure was imminent and there was no other choice. We were climbing quickly; already the stretching cloud seemed closer to us than the river below, which shone in the sun, molten silver draining from some mythological forge. We took pictures and laughed at my lack of condition, Graeme kindly mentioning how tired he was and me ruing the suspected, and now confirmed, insufficient activity of the previous months.

However, we could not afford to loiter for long, the cloud was building and rain was falling in the valley opposite, smudging the view and warning of a wet future. We continued climbing up, always up, the soft peat draining what little reserves of energy remained, with further obstruction provided by the bountiful harvest of scattered rock. I plodded on, singing to myself: a tuneless resilience. All the while, I remembered the stories of the people from centuries past compelled to exist on these high tops, threatened by arrest or retribution, and I marvelled at their fortitude.

Now, the incline had taken us above the shoulders of the surrounding hills and the wind gleefully claimed us as its plaything. The buffeting gusts dragged in more cloud and I watched resignedly as the highlands disappeared from view, removing my glorious backdrop as I struggled into additional layers of clothing. Once again, I concentrated on placing one foot after the other, repeatedly counting to one hundred, taking comfort from the numerical predictability. False summit followed false summit, disappointment compounded by the grey cloud that seemed to isolate me from all existence. I had long ago forgotten what it was like to breath without gasping and viewed the creeping nausea with a sense of disinterest more than any thing else. I was aware that not far to my left the mountain fell in granite cliffs hundreds of feet to the hills below. I had no desire to disappear into insubstantial cloud; therefore I paused, before bending slowly to firmly grasp my knees and vomit my cares away.

With that, I felt enormously better and though it would be an exaggeration to claim that I happily bounded off up the hill to the trig point and success, I certainly got there with a renewed vigour. And yes, maybe the shame of being observed in my moment of distress may have had something to do with it. We did not linger at the summit, for the wind declined to abate, nor did the cloud lift. However, we did rest briefly, my hands eagerly fumbling to open a Tupperware container of chocolate, my eyes as hungry as my very empty stomach.

The time for reflection was enjoyed twenty metres below the summit when the drooping skirts of cloud lifted to reveal the world I had always suspected was there. The afternoon sun burnt away the morning gloom, illuminating an old and harsh land. Mountains reared in peculiar succession as far as the eye could see. Dark valleys offered winding rivers to the sea lochs, which, from three and a half thousand feet, appeared to be like so many chips chiselled into the woodblock of Britain. Graeme and I sat quietly on the edge of the cliff, eating our sandwiches. Here, where once Britain, Ireland and America met, before being torn apart in cataclysmic divorce, history seems so much closer. Two thousand years of development are represented only by the human images that hover on the edge of my mind’s eye. I see the Victorian crofter’s wife, anxious that her stocks of barley will last the winter. I see the pipe-clayed crossbelt and red jacket of the soldier, who, far from home, is in pursuit of the elusive clansman. He fades to be replaced in turn by the whiskered Norseman, fearsome in helmet and rusted armour. Then comes the tonsured druid, collecting floral cuttings in some sacred grove and, finally, the ancient man who, two thousand years ago, constructed the intricate broch made of dressed stone, which stands today a mile behind the recently parked vehicles.

I wander who will see me and what will I finally look like?

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