It’s misty and moody and I just can’t stay away.
Scotland’s west coast has been calling me this summer and I’m no sooner away than I’m back. I’ve walked through showers and downpours then wakened in the tent to pools of water in the “porch” and a wee cowerin’ beastie (not a rat or mouse or vole – so what was it?) nestling under my rucksack. That was a surprise; for both of us.
I follow hill tracks and paths with a head full of Bonny Prince Charlie, clan battles and Highlanders, between mountains and alongside rivers in spate; near Glencoe, Black Mount and onwards to Kingshouse below the Buachaille Etive Mor.
And I’m going back again today. Stob Binnean and Ben More are the big hills that beckon my old walking pal and I. There’s rain forecast, of course, but we’re undaunted.
The West Highland Way is Scotland’s best known long distance path, but nobody seems to have informed the cattle that it’s a right-of-way. Or maybe they were just a bit weary of the endless hikers on a May holiday weekend and decided to stage a protest.
I’m not frightened of cattle (although these girls had a definite glint in their eyes) but I spotted a few folk who preferred to take a huge detour rather than run the gauntlet. Pamplona’s Bull Run would be the Camino’s equivalent, I suppose – although I don’t remember any pilgrims signing up for that either!
The mossy carpets of ruined homes, turf-topped walls and ragged church gables tell the story of Tusdale, the Skye village that died with the Clearances two hundred years ago. It’s far off the tourist trail, quiet and alone with its memories, and I sense a poignant, unfinished business in the lands of the evicted.
I’d wanted to see Loch Coruisk for years. It’s buried deep in the Isle of Skye, a six hour walk from Sligachan into the shadows of the Cuillin mountains. I’d longed to camp there and explore, to gaze up at those imposing hills and feel the peace of the place I’d read about and imagined. Last weekend I finally reached it.
Uist’s burial grounds stretch over ancient sites, raised up on green mounds with long horizons out to sea.
The kirks at Kilmuir and Clachan Sands that once shared the space are in ruins now, or gone completely, and it’s been a long time since a new grave was dug.
There are no names or inscriptions on many of the stones; no maudlin sentiment. They’re just rough field rocks entwined in shrubby grey lichen.
Their simplicity is their charm; that, and the mystery of the long gone lives they mark.
Down in the damp hollows of disused railway tracks, where trees have quietly colonised the banks over 50 years of neglect, the pussy willows are in fragile blossom.
Spring has arrived.
It happened on a day of doubts and indecision.
I found myself wandering along an unfamiliar dirt track through farmland in north east Scotland, toying with plans for the summer and searching for solutions to some big questions. And after I’d walked through the predictable mud and gravel, I stopped, stunned, as the dreary path gradually gave way to the glorious ridges, pinks and peaches of the symbol I’d followed for a month across Spain; I’d stumbled across a Scallop Shell Road.
Some shells were crushed and broken by vehicles and feet, others were still entire and enticing me forward in the way I followed them for 500 miles on walls, on pavements, through woods and streets and swinging from the packs of fellow pilgrims all the way to Santiago. Filling potholes may be practical but it seems such a mundane finale for the fine shapes and colours of the Coquilles St Jacques and I wonder if they’re used like this elsewhere.
So was it coincidence – or an omen? Chance, or a clear sign that I should set off again to follow the mark of the scallop shell?