The weather’s glorious, the days shift towards mid-summer, and although the first stage of lifting lockdown has begun, most of those who love to walk and climb in the Scottish mountains are still unable to do so. There are, of course, more important concerns, but the ongoing lack of access to the hills is keenly felt. The following is an extract from a book-in-progress about a month-long walk in October in the North West Highlands. It’s offered here in solidarity with all those who are looking out windows and poring over maps, tracing routes they’ll be glad to one day walk.
Many of Scotland’s bothies are maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association. They are free to use and open year-round, though the MBA is a registered charity and welcomes donations. All bothies are currently closed due to Coronavirus.
I was sitting on a chair by a table at a window, drinking tea from my tin cup. The table was stained and blistered with candle wax and the sun above the ridge was warm through the window. A grey wagtail fluttered at the glass, as though it was trying to find a way in. Three times it flew to the glass, before being cast aside by the wind. Its breast was pale yellow, like primroses. Earlier, I’d opened the front door and all the internal doors, to let the bothy breathe. They had to be wedged with old roof slates to stop the wind from banging them shut. When I opened the doors, the space inside the bothy seemed to expand like a lung, stirring ash in the hearth and swirling dust that sparkled in the let-in light.
The evening before, I’d crossed the Bealach Horn, the high pass between the mountains of Arkle, Foinaven, and Meall Horn. It was dark by the time I scrambled down into Strath Coille na Feàrna, ‘the strath of the alder wood’, using the line of a deer fence as guide and clutching the fence wire in places to lower myself. There was no moon and few stars and it took a long time to walk the last two miles to the bothy.
Strabeg Bothy was once a shepherd’s cottage, with upstairs bedrooms and a bathroom with a toilet that flushes into a septic tank. There’s no running water, but there are buckets to fill from the river. The cottage sits on a knoll at the bend where Strath Coille na Feàrna opens out into Strath Beag, ‘the little strath’. From my chair at the window, I could see a silver birch growing out of a ruined stone byre. The sun was full on my face. It was a dazzling day, a high-energy day, but too windy to go anywhere exposed, despite the attraction of the stony ridge of Cranstackie to my west. Up there today I’d be beaten by the wind, cast aside by it; so I went out to wash my socks in the river instead and gathered dead branches for firewood. The wind pummelled the reeds on the slope that led down to the river, so that the slope was alive with their movement. It looked like an attack, as though the reeds were sweeping up against the solidity of the bothy.
The wind increased through the day, toppling my stack of drying firewood and flailing the alder trees by the river, snapping branches. I was impressed that the bothy kept its roof on. At sunset, I watched clouds moving fast across the summit of Cranstackie, while the wind bellowed in my ears like the stags I’d heard earlier in the strath. The mountain glinted like gun metal. Inside, the walls muffled the sound of the wind, but at times the force of it shook the ceiling and it felt again like an attack – one that the bothy was only just withstanding. I sat by the fire, the storm amplifying the pleasure of small treats: dry socks, two chocolate digestives, a candle on the mantle above the hearth, whisky in my cup; and I thought about the people who’d lived here before, without electricity or telephone, with no road in and their nearest neighbour two miles away. When I went outside to pee before bed, the sky was clear of clouds and bands of pale green light were rippling across it, fading then strong, then fading again: Aurora Borealis; Na Fir Chlis in Gaelic, ‘the Nimble Men’.
Next morning, I walked up the strath in the wind and rain, following the tree-line below Creag Shomhairle, ‘Sorley’s crag’. The woodedness of Strath Coille na Feàrna is a delight. A note in the bothy explains that the deer fence is in place to protect the trees that are there and to encourage regeneration, with the eventual aim of extending the woodland further. The path dodged its way amongst the trees and between boulders that had split and fallen from the crag above. Across the river, Cranstackie rose in armoured plates of stone. I disturbed a heron ahead of me on the bank of the river and it flew upstream, landed, then flew again. I found myself involved in the strath, as though I wasn’t just passing through, as though the chores of gathering firewood and scooping buckets of water from the river were a form of participation. In the morning, when I woke and rekindled the fire in the hearth, it was in communion with all those who’d done so before.
My plan was to wander up the wooded side of the river and gather enough firewood so there’d be a dry stack for whoever next visited the bothy. Towards the head of the strath, there’s a bealach that leads over and down into Strath Dionard, below Foinaven. It’s called Bealach a’ Chonnaidh, ‘the pass of the firewood’. Early maps show that Strath Dionard has long been treeless, so the people who lived there, at Carrachandubh, would’ve crossed the bealach to Strath Coille na Feàrna to collect firewood. The name evokes the act, and I thought of gathering a bundle of fallen branches, packing them in my emptied rucksack, and carrying them over the bealach. It would be a way of honouring the name, but it would be a wasted journey: there are no longer people who’d welcome the wood at Carrachandubh.
The wind had dropped a little in the night; it was still too strong for the heights, but I’d taken waterproofs and oatcakes just in case. The further up the strath I went, the more I was drawn to Cranstackie. Despite the weather, I wanted to walk on the glinting stone of its ridge, and I could trace with my eye the route I’d take to climb it. When I crossed the river, I gave up the pretense of looking for wood, and before long I was following the course of a stream up onto the mountain. On the lower slopes, in the gully of the stream, there was a single holly tree with tattered leaves and berries that were desiccated by the wind.
I was walking on a large patch of unbroken rock: dark grey gneiss, almost black, like the flank of a giant whale that had breached through the crust of the earth. Veins of white quartz rippled through the gneiss. The rock was so smooth, each step had to be measured, like walking on ice, even with the traction of the Vibram soles of my boots. Nothing had changed here since glaciers scoured the rock. Such scales of time were beyond my grip.
I’d set out to gather firewood and found myself on the ridge of Cranstackie. The wind made the skin of my face ripple against the bone of my skull, and to move forwards I had to lean into it, walking at an angle to myself. There were no detached stances up here: it was too real, too risky, too hypothermic. With my hood pulled low and chin tucked into my fleece, I looked directly across at the northern peaks of Foinaven. I’ve never been so intimidated by a mountain. This wasn’t a rounded, grassy-sloped sleeping giant. It was furious, spiked, a prehistoric-monster mountain, with twisted seams of gneiss and quartzite. Around its summits, clouds fumed.
Confronted by so much stone, life seems more obviously precarious. I thought of the poet Hugh MacDairmid, and the time he spent in another stony landscape. For nearly a decade, through the 1930s, MacDairmid lived with his second wife Valda and their young son on the island of Whalsay in the Shetland Isles. They lived in poverty in a cottage with a peat fire and wooden crates for furniture, surviving their first winter there on a diet of fish and potatoes gifted to them by neighbours. It was a difficult time, physically and psychologically. MacDiarmid writes in a letter that he was a man “brooding in uninhabited islands.” From that brooding he wrote On a Raised Beach, a long poem that contemplates the stones of West Linga, a small island off Whalsay. MacDiarmid faced the hard stuff of material reality, the ‘lithogenesis’ of creation, and sought to articulate his faith in an eternal creative force at the essence of things. I find the poem’s language alienating: it reads at the start like a glossary of geological terms; but there are also lines of great beauty and insight. MacDiarmid writes of the stones: “Their sole concern is that what can be shaken/Shall be shaken and disappear/And only the unshakable be left.”
The ridge was pathless. I picked my way along it, amongst a jumble of broken quartzite slabs, jarred by the wind but aware of how present I was: what can be shaken/Shall be shaken and disappear. Unexpectedly, I found life on the ridge: there was no soil or turf, but there were trees, extraordinary trees. They were an Alpine form of juniper, a prostrate variety, with tight, flat growth, spreading horizontally, rooted in cracks and crevices in the rock. The largest trees were only the length of an arm, but their branches were vibrant with evergreen needles, each clutching a handful of small blue-black berries. Once I had an eye for it, I began to see a sparse forest on the ridge. Some of the trees had trunks that were as thick as my wrist, representing decades of growth, maybe hundreds of years; stunted but surviving, thriving even, on their terms.
The weather closed in as I approached the top of Cranstackie, with thick cloud and whipping rain. I turned back before reaching the summit cairn, spooked, aware that all around me, invisible in the mist, there were steep crags dropping away. I was grateful to climb down below the cloud and feel the wind lessen in the lee of the ridge. Sitting in the quiet of a gully, I tried to figure out some kind of coherence between the mountain and its shattered stones and the green world of the strath below. I’d picked a sprig of juniper from the ridge, with three berries on it. I took it out of my pocket and put one of the berries in my mouth. The taste was bitter, resinous, intense.
Cranstackie is nowadays translated as ‘the rugged hill’, but older references clearly state the name as Crann Stacach, where crann is ‘tree’, and stacach can mean ‘rugged, peaked, or rocky’. It seems the name might actually refer to the presence of the juniper trees. Either way, having climbed up into the stone world of the mountain, I was glad to find them there. Hugh MacDairmid, brooding on Whalsay, self-absorbed and intellectually isolated, admired the indifference and “barren but beautiful reality” of the stones. I preferred the juniper trees, their vulnerability and tenacity, their intense, compact aliveness; and I wondered about Valda, MacDairmid’s wife, how she’d managed, bringing up their child in poverty, coping with her husband’s solipsism.
Back down in the strath, I took off my boots and socks to ford the river, and kept them off to keep them dry, crossing the bog and moor barefoot, with my trousers rolled to my knees. A snipe rose two yards in front of me and twisted away. It was well dressed for the moor, its feathers striped pale and darker brown like patterned tweed.
I stopped and filled my water bottle from a stream fringed with bright green water-cress. The cress tasted mild, earthy. With my knife, I carefully harvested a bunch – it would go well with oatcakes and cheese – and thought of the words attributed to Suibhne Geilt, the medieval bush-mystic of Celtic folklore. Remembering his time wandering in the wilderness, he says: “Though you like the fat and meat which are eaten in the drinking-halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow.” The wind was at my back as I crossed the strath, bending the grass and reeds in great waves so that it seemed as though I was surfing back to the bothy.