Buchaille Etive Mor

We took the sleeper from Euston, for a long weekend in the Highlands. As well as some hillwalking, there was a serious task at hand; the scattering of some ashes of a young woman who earlier this year, had taken her own life.

Our journey north was enlivened by about four fingers each of Glenlivet. We arrived at Glasgow Central after an adequate nights sleep, perhaps disturbed in my case by some rather odd whisky dreams. After a quick breakfast in the Gordon Street Cafe next to the station, we nipped off through the chill city streets to get our rental car. By 10 a.m we were parking up at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside, in light rain.

Ben Vorlich

Past the rather impressive hydro-electric power station, you go under the West Highland Line, turn uphill keeping some rapids in a gorge on the left, and up a private road into the brown valley. Up ahead, there is a black industrial-looking dam.

Power lines march off into the distance. Dodging some maternal cattle who were monopolising the road, we broke right straight up into the hills, a long slog. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a draughty cleft in the rocks, and pushed on to the summit. As we did so, the weather broke with a vengeance. Another half an hour later in starting, and we’d have been forced to turn back from the summit. In a howling, lashing storm, we bagged the summit and retreated as fast as possible. Fortunately there’s a clear path, even in thick clag. We were off the hill before 2pm, meaning that we’d bagged a Munro in less than four hours. Rather pleased with ourselves, we got in the car and drove north to the Clachaig.

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In Glencoe, we pitched our tents, not without some wind-related challenges, and retreated through the storm to the warmth of the pub:

“The evening shadows on the dry stone walls
The night draws in and the ale house calls”

(Chris Rea, “Chisel Hill“)

Buchaille Etive Mor

Around 10.30a.m, a party of eight of us set off up the Lairig Gartain. On the walk up the glen we had twice to ford streams that were running quite full and needed crossing with care. This was the largest group of people I’ve been on the hill with for twenty years. Six of the people present were university students less than half my age, and a handful of those young people were experienced hillwalkers. Everyone was quite fit, but the collective pace of such a group is slower than that of a smaller party. The route lay zig-zag up into Coire Altrium, negotiating through a band of cliffs and broken ground up onto the col between Stob Coire Altrium and Stob na Doire. We did not reach the ridge until after noon, and we paused there for refreshment. The day was wide open; whilst it was cold and windy, the weather seemed to be clearing.

The delicate light and remarkable visibility improved as the afternoon wore on.

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Along the ridge, things seemed further away than they really were. We met two parties as we continued north-west. The first was two guys, one of them with a rope over his shoulders. He reassured us in a strong Italian accent that the summit of Stob Dearg was by no means too far away. The second party was formed of more members of the university hiking club.

As we moved up towards the main summit of Stob Dearg, we were visited by a very tame raven.

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Strange, very strange, was this, to my eyes. I only found out later that this bird is a regular denizen of this summit. I should have known my local history better: A mountain with a route up it called Raven’s Gully might well have such birds lurking at the summit. The raven afforded some remarkable wildlife photography, with Ben Nevis prominent thirty miles away in the background.

At the summit of Stob Dearg – the shapely triangular mountain commonly referred to as “Buchaille Etive Mor”, the party paused for a moment of reflection. Earlier in the year, someone known and loved by members of the party had taken her own life whilst suffering from depression. Ashes were scattered. It was fitting that such an event should take place on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.

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And then onwards and down. First, down to the col, and then, the steep descent into Coire na Tuliach. Until the party went down into the gully, the light remained absolutely remarkable. One might go on the hill for two years and not see conditions like it. Tired now, the party descended to Lagangarbh, and crossed the river. Only as we approached the road on the long tramp back to the car, did we reach for our torches. Our timing was perfect – in more ways than one, for the following day was rainy too. We were lucky enough to do our hike in all too brief weather window as Autumn slowly turned to Winter.

Stand up, hold my hand
I hope you understand
Here where time is still, I walk the hill

Stand here, close to me
Here for all eternity
I wait as others will, I walk the hill

(Stuart Adamson)

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A visit to Rum

I made a short stop at Bellabeg, to the west of Aberdeen, and with eager anticipation, bought a “locally sourced” Scotch Egg. I thought, that’ll do me. I chatted with the affable English shopkeeper, who waxed lyrical about his local Scotch Eggs. But then he ruined the moment by telling me that his Alford-based local butcher had sent him a Scotch Egg with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg inside. “FFS” is the politest response to that!

I crossed Lecht, did not stop in Tomintoul, and went on through Nethy Bridge, and onto the long, long pull through the central Highlands to Spean Bridge. Lovely motoring; the weather was kind, not a cloud in the sky. I refueled opposite the Ben Nevis Distillery, with the snow-spattered majesty of Nevis behind, against the blue sky of late afternoon. I say late afternoon: it was 8.30pm. At this latitude, in late May, it doesn’t get dark until almost midnight.

I camped wild not far from the shore of Loch Eilt. Apart from midges, which were, to be honest, a bit out of order, it was all I could have wished for. Dry, quiet, beautiful scenery. A lovely gloaming. At one point, a train clattered along the Mallaig Extension, which ran along the other side of the Loch. As soon as my tent was up, I lit a fire, and also got my trusty 35 year old Trangia stove going. Camping, whether wild or no, should not mean roughing it. I had Fillet steak, mushrooms, courgettes and fried potatoes, with tomato and avacado. A bottle of Badger beer to wash away the dust of the road, and a bottle of Malbec with dinner. I sat outside until 11.30pm and even then it wasn’t fully dark. It was a moonlit night. As I prepared for bed, I was casting a shadow in the silent, silvery moonlight.

In the morning, the midges were biting. I flung the tent into the back of the car, and made a swift, itchy escape. I arrived in Mallaig before 8am, and had a full cooked breakfast in the Seaman’s Mission, served by a cheery Polish lady. The Mission here in Mallaig has a remarkable second-hand bookshop. I picked up a little book of photographs of Derbyshire railways (I was brought up in Derby) and Jeremy Bowen’s account of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Later, I sat with coffee as the terrace of the Tea Garden Café. A very expensive latte at £3.40, but worth it to be able to sit outside in this glorious sunshine. Sitting watching the people go by, it was interesting to be able to spot the tourists. Generally older, thinner, English, German. And the songbirds here are tame.

MacBrayne’s ferry “Loch Nevis” sailed at 12.30p.m. Crossing to Rum and Canna, my fellow passengers were young families on holiday, older and younger sea-canoeists, mountaineers, and quite a few hard-drinking holidaymakers.

On the first evening, we took a stroll and walked into a First Response drama. A lady hillwalker had fallen ill, and advice was sought from the mainland. Modern mobile telephony can make these outlying islands much less remote and difficult to access than they formerly were.

The Air Ambulance was dispatched from Inverness. From far-off Inverness, realistically almost a day’s journey from here by ferry and road, in 45 minutes. The chopper swooped in and took the poorly lady off to hospital. It later transpired that she had a brain aneurysm. Whilst this drama was unfolding, we got talking with a gentleman I’d seen on the ferry – one of the hard-drinking holidaymakers. Turned out my sister knew him; a local electrician who had helped build the Rum Bunkhouse. A very friendly and helpful fellow with a strong Skye accent.

Next day, by Jeep over mountain roads to a beautiful and deserted beach, for a picnic. Pale sand, blue sky, hot sunshine. In the distance, the Black Cuillin of Skye could be seen. The sea listlessly gathered itself into miniscule ripples. Even in a full wetsuit, the water temperature could best be described as “Baltic”.

Someone noted of “island life” here, that there was not a glimpse of reality in any direction. Just this morning for a run out through the woods on the south side of the bay. There, for all to see, is a hidden village. Here is a complete village, concealed from view by trees planted some time during the 1950’s. The village is deserted, I’m thinking, since the Highland Clearances. People once lived here: hidden in the woods, are derelict houses, even a complete street facing the shore. Long overgrown, they are a testimony to an almost unwritten history of sadness and pain.

Rum was never a wilderness, even if it is a “national nature reserve”. As someone with strong ideological views myself, the hidden village acts as a reminder how far from reality, how far from the needs of real people, you can drift when you have the means to put your ideas before reality.

On the way back from visiting the woods, I passed the new wooden bunkhouse. A man was sat outside at the morning sunshine. He was nursing a beer. It was not yet 7.30a.m. We finish where we started: not a glimpse of reality in any direction.

A ride on a mountain bike, over a mountain pass, through rocky countryside oddly reminiscent of the macabre fiction of H.P Lovecraft.

Everything seems to be arid and brown, yet this is no desert – there’s plenty of water around. I went to a place called Harris, to see the “mausoleum” built by the previous owners of the island.

Deer appear everywhere, even in the garden, and particularly at night and in the early morning. These are huge creatures, not at all like the tiny Muntjac and Roe deer seen in Surrey. In recent years, the deer fence surrounding the village of Kinloch has fallen into disrepair. It is a big deal, and would be expensive to repair. It is pointless to keep any kind of garden here. Any growing fruit or veg they will consume. Once resplendent bluebell woods have been eaten up. On the plus side, there are no foxes on Rum: the chickens roam free. They can safely go where they please. It makes for tasty egg yolks – if you can find where they were laid.

I visited my sister Fliss Fraser, who runs Ivy Cottage guesthouse on the Isle of Rum.

The Glenavon Hotel, Tomintoul

My third burger in a row is long gone.  This one was average, though the chips were splendid.  I’m halfway down a bottle of “Trade Winds”, that fine ale from Cairngorm Brewery which has brought me such pleasure the last two nights.  I didn’t know they had it – I had a false start of a pint of some form of horse-piss from Tennants, thinking it was all they had.

It is Halloween Rock Night. Eighties rock music at about 7 or 8 out of 10 on the volume scale – Guns n Roses, later Whitesnake, that kind of thing.  Even a little Bon Jovi.  The locals are in Halloween costume.  The bar is brown; all pine woodwork the colour of a sauna.  It may have been cleaned since smoking indoors was banned, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Here is a corner, like someone’s living room, with a flat-screen TV, a fireplace with a lit and nicely crackling fire, and the skull of a deer on the wall. Sofas are drawn up around the fire.  The rest of the bar is a tad linoleum rough – my kind of place – and the music only adds to the atmosphere.

Some ladies dressed as nuns have just walked in.  The eighties MTV rock has been replaced by Queen’s “Fat bottomed girls” at high volume as a band starts to set up.  As Paul Hogan said in the Fosters’ advert, “looks like it’s going to be a good night”.

Later, out into the night air to once again appreciate the holy silence. Nearly full moon and it is very cold tonight at this highest village in Scotland.  Me and Tomintoul go back a long way.  I first came here in 1996, stopping for tea after crossing Lecht for the first time, on the way to visit my sister on the West coast.  Now, as then, I was in Aberdeen at my employer’s expense and took time off for a short break.

I am drawn to Tomintoul, though as a work colleague from Aberdeen notes, somewhat unkindly, “there’s nothing there”.  It does not matter.  This place is woven into the fabric of times of leisure in my life this last twenty years, that have meant much to me.

 

Holy silence

How long can you be alone, and remain happy? A few days? Weeks? or maybe only hours.  I’ve known people who were uncomfortable with their own company for only hours.  Yet, the great hunters and explorers of North America must have spent months alone – think of John Muir, who was a six month in the Yosemite Valley with only a new testament for company.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.

More Scottish travels

At the Duke of Gordon Hotel in Kingussie, a brassy and friendly Scots lady presides over the buffet breakfast. She is the queen of ’em all, having a nice word for all comers and a likeable banter. She is everybody’s friend.

Later, I drive past the ruins of Ruthen Barracks, built on a commanding ancient mound much used for castles over the centuries. John Comyn was here in the time of the Wars of Independence. But these barracks remind us of a much more recent conflict. Here in the Highlands, a blunt and brutal reminder of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 does not sit well to this day.

Past the Insh Marshes, which to my eye as someone who studied geology, is the bed of a huge dried up ribbon lake. Only Loch Insh remains, and the Spey meandering through, rather like the ruined barracks, a misfit in this landscape.

To the top of Cairn Gorm, Britain’s second highest mountain. The little funicular train discounted to £5 return during November. Cheap at three times the price. It is a spectacular mountain railway, but I found it oddly saddening to go be able to go so easily to the summit of a 1200m mountain. All I have written only yesterday about the wild, pure heart of the Cairngorms is arguably undone, at least to a degree, by this development. Yet, it is not crass, not evil, not insensitive. Or at least not too insensitive.

At the top, a sprinkling of early Autumn snow can be seen in the distance. Grey squalls are chasing across the mountains, splashing rain and hail. Far below, Loch Morlich changes in an instant from welcoming cobalt blue to a menacing slate grey, as the rain clouds sweep in. A violently coloured rainbow stops everyone, and everyone peers out, phones ready for that picture. We ought not under-estimate the capricious nature of the weather in these mountains.

Reflections on old coaching inns – II

Southward over the brown hills, under grey skies, to Pitlochry, where there was light drizzle, and picturesque clouds drifting across the mountainsides.  After lunch in a little cafe, onwards again along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.  Why? Because I can.

Brown and gold, red and orange, the leaves of Autumn.  Mountain and lake vista, and the peace of the empty road through the woods.  The changing scenery: woods of birch and glorious splash of autumn colour, then avenues of oak trees on either side of the road, then English-looking farm land with cows and farmhouses.  Still more lakeside and rolling hills and then still later on, the land rises.  There’s that beautiful, sooth, deep and rich brown of late Autumn, lovely under blue skies or grey.  The winding road climbs up onto the Moor of Rannoch.  I arrived at Rannoch Station in drizzle. Worth the journey just to see this most remote of British railway stations. Here, Fort William is barely 35 miles away by rail – but by road,  more than a hundred.

On the run back I stopped by a B&B whose website said “www.middleofnowhere.com”. I wanted to stay but there were no vacancies. Seems everyone wants to be in the middle of nowhere. I popped into the Kinloch Rannoch Hotel, a grandiose spa hotel, but they wanted £213 for a room.  I left, giggling.  If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford it – never a truer word.

Tiring now, I motored back to the A9 and joined the treadmill at 57mph over the Pass of Drumochter.  Pedestrian motoring; no fun at all.  A twenty mile passage more tiring than all the country lane driving of the day so far. And on to Kingussie, another one of those compact Scottish small towns with a neat grey high street.  And I stopped in the first place I went into – the Duke of Gordon Hotel.  A lady called Fran sold me a single room for £40.

So I’ve journeyed along the silver ribbon of highways through the fading glory of Autumn gold.  But it’s not the road that has been important this time:  this November, it is the silence, the holy silence.

 

Reflections from old coaching inns – I

Last night I stayed at the Invercauld Arms Hotel in Braemar.  Driving there, in the gathering darkness of afternoon in late autumn, I found the “passing place” signs to be like bright oases against the encroaching night.

The Invercauld is one of those ancient, fading coaching inns, a giant hotel speaking of a bygone age of glory.  This one has reinvented itself as a holiday destination for English pensioners – the “grey pound”, so to speak.  The bar fills with grey-headed English folk, some walking very slowly; none under 60.  A range of Northern English accents can be heard, with perhaps the harsh vowels of the East Riding of Yorkshire, predominant.  Strangely enough I am not ired by the presence of this parade of Daily Mail readers, but  somehow oddly endeared to them.

The place is clean and does not smell of decay – always a start in a hotel of this sort.  The woodwork is thick with old paint.  The staff are polite and upright foreigners, as was ever likely in a place as small and remote as Braemar.   From my room there is a view of the road and the mountains you could look at for hours, even on a misty day, and learn much about the nature of God and man.

Breakfast was served in a ballroom with a dance floor, and a bay window larger than most people’s living rooms. The room is deserted, almost.  The dozens of pensioners of last night have all set off somewhere.  Three people come in; hikers.  A youth with the longest hair I’ve seen on a man in years, all down his back.  His hipster buddy with a neatly trimmed but very full beard, and a dark-haired woman with quiet in her face.

The views from the windows are stunning.  Fan heaters rumble to keep the place warm.  In the ceiling, there is modern lighting fitted – a subtle indicator that this hotel is successful in it’s quest to be more than just another old inn.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.