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.
There’s the view from my windows …. and the compensation when darkness falls. Home, at last.
There’s a popular Scottish song that tells of the travelling people who leave their stationary winter quarters to set off on the road “when the yellow’s on the broom” at this time of year.
“We’ll meet up wi’ oor kinfolk
From a’ the country roon’
When the ganaboot folk tak’ the road
And the yellow’s on the broom”
I didn’t walk past any broom today, but for mile after dazzling mile the yellow was thick and heavily scented on the gorse; weak lemony pale on the daffodils; and the dandelions shone brightly, luring in the bees and butterflies from miles around. It was one long Mellow Yellow Scottish spring day.
I should have been working, of course. Or packing for The Big Move later in the week. Or cleaning. Or researching. But the sun was forcing its brightness around the black-out blinds when I opened my eyes this morning, and I couldn’t resist. I’ve been following Trepidatious Traveller Maggie’s adventures (http://magwood.me ) on her latest Spanish Camino these last few days and have been itching to get on the road myself, so on a whim I abandoned the world of work and set off on the first 12 miles of the long-distance West Highland Way.
And it all came rushing back: the satisfying crunch of boots on gravel; a pack strapped to my back; the adventure of the open road; sun shadows, random encounters and conversations with strangers. I hummed the Yellow on the Broom tune as I walked towards the hills and reflected on my own nomadic experiences these past three years.
The rootless chapter of my recent life will close this week when I get the keys for my little fisherman’s house by the sea. The wandering years opened my eyes but I need a home again. Even when the countryside is yellow.
A storm of solar dust; the glorious Northern Lights; an almost total eclipse of the sun; and then the equinox and some of the highest tides in a century. It has been a heady week of spacey stuff.
I wasn’t prepared for the disruption it would bring. Any yet I should have known there would be repercussions, after the way Hale-Bopp streaked across the sky and wreaked wonder and havoc in my life back in the Nineties. I remember first catching sight of the Great Comet ploughing through the stars above my hill and knowing at once that it signalled something momentous.
This time the disruption began just as the eclipse cast its shadow then returned the world to daylight. Impulsively I decided to view a property that’s for sale in the village, just as a distraction from work – or so I thought.
And while it may be back to business as usual in the Heavens, my world is still in disarray. Will I? Won’t I? Should I make my (tiny) home by the edge of the sea in a holiday village that’s a ghost town in winter and a heaving mass of tourism in summer? I need a handhold on stability after three nomadic years so the promise of sea views and a fire for the winter has a strong appeal.
I took a long walk along the coast as the high tide flooded the path and white froth crashed over fences and gates, blurring the line between grass and the green deep. The world sparkled around me and the path meandered through the streets, right past the door of the cottage. Eclipse Karma.
My mission this week involved driving 150 miles through some of Scotland’s most glorious scenery to interview salmon farmers on the far west coast. I’ve been deprived of snow all winter in my frost-free, east-coast cottage, removed from mountains and the spectacular raw wildness of the west. I jumped at the chance.
I saw snow alright, on the tortured hills of Glencoe, the mighty Buachaille Etive Mor guarding the entrance to the notorious narrow pass. Late afternoon sun broke through the snow clouds to create lighting effects that accentuated the drama – if that’s possible in such a place. I followed labouring lorries loaded with straw bales bound for livestock farmers on the islands. And I stopped to get close to ducks looking longingly for food.
And the work? A ride on a boat; questions about how salmon farmers handle protected predators like seals (scare them, deter them or shoot them). And finally a sea loch-side hotel and a sleep within hearing distance of the tide.
Chain links zig-zagged up, across and over the top of the rough cliff face, pristine steel glinting and signing the way. I tugged hard: the bolts didn’t budge. So no excuse.
“Suitable for children aged 9 and over,” the internet had reassured. But the sign low down on the path was less gung-ho: “Beware of being trapped by the incoming tide; of being struck by falling rocks and stones; and of falling from steep rock on hazardous coastal terrain.”
And this was just the short recce ahead of the full-scale birthday adventure planned for later in the month. So many thrills still in store. Eeeek.
… and hitch an effortless ride on the swings.
You’re never too old for a play park or climbing trees. Right?
I suspect there will be yet more tricky twists and turns to negotiate in 2015. But for now the sun is shining in Aberdeenshire’s wintry woods. Happy New Year.