I took the first tumble of the year in this morning’s long shadows.
January’s low, cool sun accompanied me for seven miles along an empty coastal path. It was time and space enough to reflect at last on the year that has just ended. The year of words.
I’ve been absent here because work words took priority. They also took their toll. The day job on a newspaper; editing of broadcast interviews; tweaking the novel; updating Twitter; and checking in on Facebook . It left my eyes screen-saturated and begging for darkness.
There were a few short adventures in the hills I would have shared: a remote summer camp beside a Highland loch and autumn days spent climbing high for views above Scotland. But they were too few. My whole focus last year was on work. On not stumbling.
And now I’m faced with an enforced break. I have annual leave I need to use or lose, so tentative planning has begun for three weeks in New Zealand, a mix of catching up with family, wilderness walking and work.
When I tumbled this morning (to a soft landing), my head was somewhere along the Kepler Track, the high ridge route I walked with my son last time I visited. I was mentally packing my rucksack, locating my tent , boots, head torch and sleeping mat. Scotland’s mud and ice were 12,000 miles away. And then, quite spectacularly, they weren’t.
Happy New Year.
We walked in single file, upwards through a maze of trees, strung out like pilgrims on the road to Santiago. Music whispered from the branches , light played on ruins and, once inside up crumbling steps, candles Read more
Cappuccinos at 3500ft? Oh, yes please.
The frothy powder was the propellent that spurred my wearying legs up the fourth mountain peak of the day. We sheltered behind peak three’s cairn to munch doorstep sandwiches and chocolate while the chill wind blustered, numbing our hands and cooling the drinks.
By evening the day had mellowed to sun and long autumnal shadows when whole hillsides moved with herds of red deer and bounding mountain hares. Occasionally a ptarmigan dodged between the rocks while, high above us, skeins of early geese wheeled in from Scandinavia.
Spot-on map reading was provided by my son (who didn’t inherit his navigational skills from his mother).
For sure, a day to remember.
The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only 612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.
It was a steep but short ascent and once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more
Wild squalls blustered down to batter us at an exposed 3400ft and swathes of swirling mist chose that moment to lock down all the views. But at the first glimpse of the white stuff in the corries to the north I knew snowball fights were inevitable. Equally predictable, once the missiles were fired, was my role as a human shield. Mothers know their place even when the “kids” are nearing 30.
Solitary Ben Wyvis lies midway on the road to Scotland’s west coast from Inverness. It’s not a magnificent hill; it can’t boast fine lines or soaring crags, but (on a fine day) it’s renowned for the extensive vistas to east and west. I’ve driven past it for 35 years and yesterday we climbed it on a day of rain, mist, gale-force wind and the very occasional blink of weak sunshine.
So it’s not for a fine panorama of Highland scenery that I’ll cherish the day, but the rare company of both my boys. The younger one is home from New Zealand for a brief visit and the three of us were on a long-promised Highland hike. Tents, sleeping bags, food, stoves, rucksacks and three full-sized adults were stuffed into my Mini and we headed north to a soundtrack of atrocious weather forecasts.
The tents remained unpacked and instead we retreated to climbers’ hostels with their accompanying pubs, pool tables, wifi and big industrial kitchens. Yet the hills still beckoned even when we couldn’t see them for the torrential rain or misted-up windows. We reviewed our ambitions and instead of aiming for long multi-mountain circuits we chose Ben Wyvis. We strolled gently through dripping birch woods; followed tumbling Highland streams to lower slopes then climbed steep stone steps as views teased and then evaporated.
Mist soared upwards in spins and wisps then closed in to hide everything but the few feet in front of us. Then suddenly we were up on the broad high ridge that stretches for a couple of kilometres along to the peak of Glas Leathad Mor. A rocky outcrop gave shelter to munch sandwiches and chocolate then we piled on every last piece of warm clothing to reach the cairn at the far end of the ridge. The thick snow that lay clumped and accessible in the corries was an entertaining distraction from the cold and wet. A solitary ptarmigan disguised as a rock made a dash from his hiding hole then sat stock still as we watched and took pictures. Pints in the bar and fish and chips were our reward then card games and drams from a hip flask entertained us. I was in my bunk long before the boys (ok, men) but wakened to the sight of their sleeping heads on nearby pillows. It has been a while so yes, I know it’s soppy and I’m biased, but it was the best view of the week.
The champagne bottles had been drained by the time we sprang out of the taxi and in to the exhibition on the outskirts of Lyon. We were late and the party was clearly winding down.
It was Easyjet’s fault: the flight from Edinburgh had been delayed by four hours so we’d missed the speeches, the unveiling of the work and an “auld alliance”get together that had spilled outside to enjoy a warm, convivial French evening.
But I hadn’t reckoned on us being V.I.P’s. (By association, only) That resulted in below-the-counter corks being discretely popped and an exclusive viewing of the work by the artist (My Boy) himself.
The venue – a cave-room in an ancient French fort – echoed and magnified the hissing, haunting, sound-light-movement installation. My photos don’t do it justice. It’s a powerful work and it made me reflect on the all-out turbinisation of our irreplaceable Scottish wilderness. There will soon be no view from any hilltop that isn’t sullied by windmills, pylons, dams or roads. I hope Robbie’s work can help influence a wider audience when it is on show in Glasgow in October.
There was more to explore in Lyon too. Flights of aerobic steps led forever upwards to the white basilica on the hill, while sculptures, graffiti and the new metallic monster museum graced the banks of the Rhōne and the Saōne. All of it art.
Jessie’s a remarkably stoical old lady who has had to tolerate some terrible blows in recent years, yet time after time she grits her teeth and picks herself up.
I brought her some new clothes yesterday. It took just ten minutes to run round the shops and choose the cardigans and blouses I guessed she’d like then take them to the care home where she’s staying. I thought she’d smile and be pleased but could never have imagined her pleasure in the prettiness of the patterns or her sheer delight in trying on new clothes.
It usually takes a lot of concentration for her to heave herself up to a standing position then slowly shuffle behind her “zimmer” to the communal areas, but yesterday she was up and out of her room in a shot, looking for people coming down the corridor, smiling and desperate to show off her favourite new outfit to the other old ladies and carers, then basking in their compliments.
Never believe that fashion doesn’t matter.
It took two years of deliberation, but finally the van is On The Road.
And the first camper adventure may have been brief but it was shared with my sons.
So on this momentous occasion my view from the back seat of the two co-drivers is the one I’ll treasure.
There’s deep snow underfoot and fluffy flurries falling as I walk in late afternoon light. It’s Ontario in the midst of a freezing Canadian winter, and I’m shovelling to clear the driveway, playing on skates, skis and snowshoes, taking endless photographs and piling on layer after layer to stay warm. I grab wool, down, boots, fleeces, gloves, hat, more down and sunglasses and am rewarded with whiteness, shadows, a glowing body, aching muscles and a warm dram at night. There’s no guilt.
Guilt? For enjoying winter?
We had snow too when I was little, growing up on a Scottish dairy farm which was perched at the top of a steep slippery brae. There was only one focus every snowy morning; the long farm track had to be ploughed and sanded for the daily visit of the milk tanker. The pot-bellied lorry had to power its way up the hill and manoeuvre round the bends to reverse into position outside the dairy, unhook its long pipe and suck the bulk tank dry because a herd of cows was already gearing up to fill it all over again . And they couldn’t wait.
It seemed the jeopardy was with us every morning. Would this be the day the snow and ice would prove to be too much and we’d have to pour the hard-earned milk down the drain? We kids had the family farm work ethic; we knew it mattered.
My father and the men would spend the morning scraping and sanding the road then hook a tractor to pull the tanker up and up, climbing round the dangerous slippery drops which fell to the river far below. We’d listen for the sound, willing the engine noise to slowly draw closer and roar outside the farmhouse window. Not until it was safely back down the hill could we children make slides and throw snowballs, knowing that all was well with the world. Until the next day.
It’s a lifetime ago but carefree snow is still a novelty. This week I’m embracing it.
Near my grandfather’s grave a swirl of moss on stone outlines a neighbour’s life.