We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot
Leonardo Da Vinci

Two roe deer, a doe and her fawn, watched me from the edge of the wood as I pedaled up the Cromlix track from the Auchinlay Road. They waited until we could look into one another’s eyes – theirs dark and alert, mine obscured behind sunglasses – then turned and trotted away. It seemed that even a middle-aged man on a bike spelled danger, or maybe they preferred the cool of the trees to the growing warmth of the day. I kept pedaling. I’d been meaning to cycle to Hill House for years, and now I’d finally got round to it, didn’t want to dawdle. 

The track steepened, became rougher. More potholes, more stones. The trees gave way, briefly, to pasture. A few sheep and cattle lifted their heads as I passed. Most didn’t bother. Even the crows that wandered the grass barely threw me a glance. Then came more trees, plantation conifers, dense with shadows. But the track knew the way, twisting and climbing until commercial forestry gave way to groves of Scots Pines and the summit of the hill. A farm gate blocked my way, and a hundred yards further on stood Hill House.

I unlatched the gate, let it swing shut behind me and cycled on. I’d imagined some Brontë-esque ruin sitting windswept and lonely on the high moor, and the house was, undeniably, abandoned. Doors and windows had been boarded up with planks of old wood and rusty sheets of corrugated iron, roof tiles were cracked or missing, the grey pebbledash facing had crumbled to reveal brown stonework. But it wasn’t all that old – mid twentieth century I guessed. And nothing about it aspired to anything beyond the pragmatic and utilitarian. Not the least hint of gothic glamour.

The landscape, however, seemed to want me to gaze. Behind me, below the trees, stretched Strathallan. Beyond the river’s dark glimmer, the Ochil Hills traced the eastern horizon in a series of green waves, brightening in the sun. Ahead, the track continued beyond the house and onto the moor, where the land rose again towards the Highland Fault Line. Clumps of heather and the occasional birch or rowan studded the slopes. The blades of wind turbines spun on the ridge. Here and there, the sky was hazed in cloud; otherwise, it lay above the moor, blue and vast.

I chided myself for dismissing Hill House out of hand. Maybe it provided exactly what its inhabitants, a farming family no doubt, had needed: warmth and shelter, somewhere to eat and talk, work and rest. Why spend money on showy architecture when the land gave its beauty so freely?

I pedaled on, for a little way at least. The stones of the track became boulders, the potholes deepened to craters. When I reached another gate, the track disappeared entirely. To go any further, I’d have to heave, drag and carry the bike, and I’d spent enough days rambling across Scottish moors to know just how treacherous the going could get. What looks like solid ground can give way to bog at any moment. If the heather doesn’t trip you up, the earth will do its best to suck you in. 

But that Sunday, on the moor overlooking Hill House, progress was relatively, almost unnaturally easy. The land had been so starved of rain over the last few weeks, the usually luminous grasses and mosses were parched and pale. Surely, this couldn’t last – if anything in Scotland could be counted on, it was rain. But the weather lately had been telling a different story. Since late May, wildfires had flared up from The Campsie Fells to the Northern Highlands. At Cannich, west of Inverness, fire had been burning through 30 square miles of wood and scrub, making it one of the largest wildfires the UK has witnessed. Ground-nesting birds had lost eggs and chicks; hundreds of recently planted trees, part of a habitat regeneration programme, had been destroyed. Attributing specific, local weather events to deeper shifts in the climate is, say meteorologists, unwise, but parts of the country had seen barely two thirds of their expected spring rainfall. Water scarcity alerts had proved not only to be a thing in Scotland, they were on the rise. I reckoned a bit of finger-pointing at climate-change was in order. At least my local moor hadn’t caught light, but I wanted it to look and feel how it was supposed to look and feel: wet and wild.

I was about to push the bike through another patch of rain-thirsty moss, when my ears pricked up. A different music had woven itself into the calls of meadow pipits and curlews. Something cool and urgent. I turned in the direction of the sound and could just make out a thin ribbon of water flowing through the heather. This had to be the Smuggler’s Burn, a name I had noticed on local maps, though I could only imagine what contraband had been smuggled so far from any town or village. Whisky or sheep presumably. As for the burn itself, it wasn’t much – I could bridge it with my shoe. But it moved. It made a noise that spoke of life, and, sure enough, the ground hereabouts was blacker, wetter. And out of this peaty darkness a wee dazzle of flowers rose into the June day. Tormentil.

Tormentil are as irrepressibly yellow as buttercups. Their petals are fewer in number (four instead of five) but on the dry, washed-out face of the moor they bloomed bright and bold. The name stems from the ancient and still plausible belief that, if prepared in the right way, tormentil gives relief from minor ‘torments’ such as sore throat and stomachache. I felt fine on both counts, but I wasn’t going to refuse the spiritual cheer they offered. The previous evening I’d watched Professor Brian Cox on TV. He looked intently into the camera, and a few million living rooms, and explained, in a voice that mixed the awe-struck with the coolly scientific, that the galaxies are flying away from one another so fast that, in the far future, as the distances involved become unimaginably huge, nothing at all, not even light, will be able to pass between them. Let the universe roll on for God knows how many more trillions of years and, thanks to entropy, there won’t even be any stars to shine, nor matter of any kind. Just ‘a sea of photons’, cold and shapeless.

At first, I felt a sense of wonder at the sheer scale of this universal dislocation, the unfathomable light years and countless billions of stars, but this soon gave way to a strange anxiety, verging on nausea. The eventual absolute nowhereness of space and time wasn’t just difficult to contemplate; it was appalling; nothing for the imagination to cherish, nothing for the soul to cling to. Thank goodness for this little, local somewhereness of tormentil, emerging from the rich, black peat. 

To describe a peat bog as a ‘carbon sink’ may be ecologically accurate, but it feels grudging. Peat is deep stuff: immense swathes of dead and decaying vegetation, the first layers of which formed after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. That’s 10,000 years of moss and grass, flowers and trees, rotting away to form the ground in which new life can take root. Wars are lost and won, empires come and go, we’ve even sent a telescope a million miles into space to study the first light of the universe, and still the peat keeps building. At a rate of one metre per millennium, the process may seem slow, but compared to the cosmological abyss described by Brian Cox, it feels intimate. Earthy. You can’t probe a peat bog with a telescope, but you can feel the spongy ground give and ripple beneath your feet as you pick a path around a clutch of tormentil.

I recalled the poet Ian Humphreys’ description of tormentil as ‘splashes of sun’, little stars in their own right, and straight away came the thought that I could cycle here some cloudless summer twilight, bed myself down in the heather, wait for dusk to fade into the very dead of night, and watch the stars appear – except there’s no way the night would be dead. It would be quick with owl cries, the shuffling of sheep and deer hooves, the flicker of moth wings. The blades of moonlit wind turbines would spin electric in the cool air, and there’d be innumerable stars blazing away like there’s no tomorrow.

I smiled at the phrase; it’s so marvelously wrong. There are always tomorrows, thousands of them. If we get serious about climate change there’ll be more than enough for me, and others like me, to lie on a moor and watch the pock-marked, neighbourly moon, and the planets and stars – Venus, Mars, Antares, Vega – light up the somewhereness of these local heavens, this local earth. 

But such a night would have to wait. I picked up the bike to make sure I didn’t crush any tormentil and made my way across the moor. A meadow pipit fluttered up from the heather. The Smuggler’s Burn sang as it ran, slender and swift. It was a good day to yearn for rain and, in the meantime, to keep walking and riding, keep pushing on.



Comments (2)

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  1. Louise Scullion says:

    All power to your leg muscles and your perceptive mind!

  2. James Robertson says:

    Just a great piece of writing. Thanks.

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