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Approaching the Peak of the Hound Keepers

 

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Its gaelic name is Sgurr nan Conbhairean and it’s a high, elegant hill that’s hidden amidst the ravaged peaks of Kintail, a wild land that I thought would be far beyond  my “caution” (i.e. terror!) of exposure to huge drops.

The summit, behind the rounded top in the foreground, peaks at 1011m at the top of a steep slope and this picture’s taken from another high top, Carn Ghluasaid, the Hill of Movement. And yes, fortified by my patient pal, I endured a (scary by my standards) ridge walk and climbed them both. It was exhilarating to be so high, absorbing wave after dusky wave of the mountain ranges that stretch across Scotland, from the jagged Cuillin of Skye and Rum, south to the imposing lump of Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart and far beyond.

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We saw red deer and ptarmigan, or snow grouse,  at around 1000m. These chubby little birds don’t venture much below this height and a funny family of seven allowed us to watch them potter around on their rocks before they flew away in a covey of crisp white underbellies.

And now I’m back down at sea level and hungry again for the crunch of my beloved new boots on stony tracks, the scent of rocky streams in spate and the wind whirling my hair on the high tops.

I could do without this morning’s unbendable legs, but even that discomfort brings a certain gratification; I’ve earned it.

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Too sweet to eat?

“I simply must touch it’s curly wool and give it a cuddle,” the woman cooed, pushing past me. “They’re sooooo beautiful.” Her wide-eyed husband appeared equally besotted. “Like teddy bears,” he murmured, as he joined the stampede. “Adorable.”

And that appeared to be the universal reaction to the sheep breed dubbed the “cutest in the world” when I went to record radio interviews at an agricultural show  yesterday. Even the dyed-in-the-wood (no pun IMG_2205intended) Scottish farmer who’d imported them from Switzerland admitted that he’d fallen in love with them. And if the attention at the show  was an example of the public’s reaction to his new enterprise, he’s on to a real winner. But for sale as pets, not pies.

They’re called Valais Blacknoses, they look like giant cuddly toys, they wear giant tinkling bells round their curly necks  and the spectators who hung around desperate for a cuddle (with the lambs, not me) were so carried away they made fabulous interviewees.

Never work with children or animals, they say, but the latter sure works for me. And yeah, I can’t deny it, they are pretty cute.

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Hitting the road with a mic

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The cattle corpse was still warm, but skinless, when it whacked the back of my head. I quickly moved before the next swinging carcase emerged from the horror around the corner.

Ten minutes later the door of a chill room clunked shut and I shivered in the company of 120 rapidly cooling animals and a man in a white coat.

They’re not the opening sentences of my new novel; just a recent day in the life of a rural broadcaster.

I’ll spare you pictorial evidence of my outing to the abattoir. It wasn’t my first one, and certainly not the goriest. That was in Brazil where our cameraman got lost in the “slaughter room” and reappeared a few minutes later dripping blood from head to foot. At least it wasn’t his own.

But the last few weeks haven’t all been about meat plants. There have been gentler commissions which saw me strolling through colourful wildflower meadows, interviewing a farmer about harvesting the seeds of 200 different flowers and grasses. I learned that the random wildflowers we see on roadside verges and roundabouts aren’t there by chance after all; they’re grown commercially then packed and sown in specific variety mixes. On another day I crawled around a harvest field getting sounds of a combine, and on Monday I’m meeting the animals dubbed the “cutest sheep in the world”.

We “media people” lead such terribly glamorous lives.

Beautiful barefoot summer

I’ve spent most of the last three months barefoot. And the simplicity of not wearing shoes feels like the ultimate freedom. Invariably I park up near beaches and work then spend my downtime in the water, wading through the waves, paddling and swimming.

My doubts about my lifestyle only surface on days like today when I waken in a city to the sounds of a helicopter and traffic rather than the murmur of waves or wind. That’s when nothing feels right and I start to question the decisions I’ve made and directions I’ve taken.

A run through the sea on St Andrews’ fine sands this evening restored my equilibrium and reassured me that the conversion to nomad is almost complete. Time will tell if my iphone’s unscheduled salty dip has an equally happy outcome.

 

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Van with a View (2)

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A taste of the Kyle of Tongue

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Like escapees from an unruly chess board, the march of death climbs up and over the hill. They’re grandiose tombstones in an elemental place ; oversized queens, bishops and knights heading for the shallow, sandy waters of Tongue Bay.  Next stop the Atlantic Ocean.

Our day was long and unhurried. We’d no heavy packs on our backs and no transport south until tomorrow. Misty views to the hills beyond the Kyle meant walking across the long causeway was slow, and I pitied the cars and vans their flashes of scenery while we paused every few steps to breathe in ever changing Ben Loyal. Ahead of us all the time was the stark cemetery on the hill.

No insects pestered us today but still I itched. New red blotches had burst into life. And just above my knee this morning I discovered a tick already swelling, its jaws firmly clamped in my flesh. I wielded  my new tick-tweezers and twisted then squashed the parasite, watching my blood seep out and wondering if this one carried Lyme’s Disease.

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The graveyard was a haven of heather and mosses, wild flowers and a strong rusty lichen that was stark against the cool grey stone; Caloplaca marina, I think. Calos in Greek means nice, placa  is shield, so Caloplaca ‘beautiful patches’. And so they are.

Slowly the tide emptied, leaving vast sandy flats, exposing acres of seaweed and racks of farmed mussel beds. Tractors and trailers crept over the soft sand, seagulls called on them for scraps  and the clear northern light bounced against the beach.

I had just a few hours of wandering, watching and listening while, up on the hill, the tombstones maintained a much longer vigil. A hundred years, and counting…

The thin line between adventure … and a forced march

 

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue. We didn’t see another soul all day.

The next eight hours looked grim.

I  had a splitting headache, nausea and 15 miles to walk across boggy, inhospitable ground and empty roads before there was any prospect of a hostel bed. An overdose of cleg poison was the only explanation for the alien symptoms.

Ill as I felt, there was no alternative to walking. No cars. No houses. No people. But hey, this was an adventure, wasn’t it? I popped some pills, heaved on my pack and we set off.

I figured we could do the most isolated bit in four hours if I just kept my head down and followed Noreen’s relentless red socks all the way across the bog. And we almost did.

The first 10 miles were the worst, up and over the 1000 year old Moine Path (henceforth remembered as the Vomit Path – too much information?) a raised track across tussocky moorland between the great rocky strongholds of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. After nine miles I lay down on a stone and slept, spontaneously, and woke after 20 minutes, feeling decidedly better.

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

By the time we reached the village of Tongue on the far north coast I’d made a full recovery and we celebrated the end of the trail with an ice cream at the small shop.

And life got even better when Julia, the fantastic warden of the Youth Hostel spotted our rucksacks outside the Post Office and popped in to see if we wanted a lift to our beds. We knocked her down in the rush.

I bought shampoo and had a long, blissful shower which was only marred by the revelation of considerable insect damage. We doctored our bites with antihistamine and hydrocortisone  then drank cup after cup of tea while we laughed and relived our adventure from the comfort of a soft armchair.

Finally I picked up a thriller from the hostel shelves and lost myself in someone else’s drama; so much less stressful than one’s own.

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We walked towards Ben Loyal, a beacon across the moor, and were finally rewarded with a view from a different perspective

 

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