1. To Torridon, BGC (before the “Great Confinement”)
Diary excerpt, Wednesday February 12th.
I watched the river plunging through our lower fields from the attic window. It was black and foam flecked; periodically wavelets slushed out across the field. The winter meadow-motley is grey and sodden, everything on the croft seems subdued, but for a short time out west, beyond the river valley and across the sea, the Trotternish (on Skye) was arrayed in hot molten gold, lit by the setting sun. A single thunderhead built quickly overhead and looked just like a textbook diagram. The uppermost ‘overshoot’ clouds were cauliflower shaped and rose in time with every in-taken breath. (Ha! I could have been blowing them up myself!) The ‘flanking line’ was a deep-purple swift-moving mass and crossed the Inner Sound swiftly. Underneath the crisply outlined, gold-rimmed anvil a shower cascaded onto the Old Man of Storr. I immediately thought of the visitors who would be scurrying down the steep path back to their cars and wondered how many managed to beat the cloud-burst? In between us the sea glowed, a vibrant turquoise green, its deep waters holding as much energy as the livid sky.
That pulsing mass of cloud was the last vestige of one of several storms, large and disruptive enough to be named by the Met Office but for us just one more in the relentless rush of smaller storms over winter. I have watched the weather from my attic cocoon for a large part of winter and it has often matched my mood. For a long time I have been hamstrung by a strange repeating painful attack on my immune system, reduced to relying on medicine and to walking with a stick. To go from mountain readiness to a state of reduced confinement has been tough. The crisped and bleached tufts of grass, brittle grey husks of heather and feeble strands of smoky sunlight that riddled the winter riverbanks describe me perfectly.
All of January bubbled and fretted with wet windy grimness and intermittent fleeting brightness. We were coldly, bitterly, noisily bar-coded by light and dark, and here by the sea, relentlessly flayed by cold salted gusts and icy gales. Yet even through the worst weather the birds sang. Over the shrillest, loudest 60 mph squalls sparrow gangs maintained a crescendo of noise from hedge to hedge, out-singing the wind-songs. But by mid-February the days grew noticeably longer, light reaching meaningfully into the darkness, wriggling into the cold and wet, working its magic.
One of the earliest sign of spring in this hyperboreal high country is often seen in the high glens and hills rather than in the sheltered spots: boulders covered by micro-forests of mosses, bleached and bound throughout the winter, begin to green. They show up on hill slopes looking pert and confident, like bright new buttons on an old woolly jumper. In the huddled patches of woodland birch trees begin to blush, their outer branches, purple in the depths of winter, turning rusty as life begins to course through sapwood underneath the bark.
In between the storms and before news of the global pandemic really began to bite we went on a trip to Torridon. Although we can see the Torridon mountains every day from home, a trip to this familiar and much-loved walking and climbing territory in the heart of high mountain country is special. For the first time in months I laced my boots and with two sticks shuffled up Coire Mhic Nobuill. We were lucky; I was helped along by a gentling wind, crisp air and bright light. Oxygen sang in my blood vessels. I felt like a newly awakened silver birch.
The path winds beside the river and up through Scots pine woodland. Holly is regenerating here, and in the dappled light was Christmassy and shiny. Great slabs of rock also glowed pea-green, their mossy coats chlorophyll rich and soaking up the sunlight. Each deep breath was filled with the rich scent of pine, moss and peat. I sent my husband on. He and dog galloped away, glad to be running freely in the pristine air
As the trees thin the valley opens out. A rock gorge runs straight and deep where the river has cut along a geological fault zone. The river itself was invisible but a mist filled with water-song sluiced up over the heather. Over millennia the river has sought out weaknesses in the Torridonian sandstone. Its route is almost straight apart from a few right angled turns where ancient faults shifted and split in the remote past. But in places, through enormous slabs of rock, jointed and bedded in distinctive near-horizontal layers, the river has carved some small but beautiful waterfalls. Here and there lone birch and holly trees have found protection from grazers in the steep cliffs, rock-crevices and tumbling cascades.
On either side of the valley, and rearing up, are some of Scotland’s most fearsome and beautiful mountains: to the right (north) Liathach, topped by one of the most daunting and spectacular ridge scrambles in the country; to the left the long massif of Beinn Alligin whose summits include Tom na Gruigaich, Sgurr Mor and the ‘Horns’ of Alligin; and ahead of me as I walked, the runnelled bulwark of Beinn Dearg.
The sweet cold air was both salve and soother. High light cloud, as delicate as antique needle lace, shifted above us. All the peaks were smothered in grey tulle. Now and then gusts of wind ran over the ridges and the mist billowed like a wedding veil revealing glimpses of buttresses. For a few minutes an optimistic band of blue appeared, shiny bright as if polished, and then high thin pale grey gauze once again began to filter the sunlight.
I stopped by a large rock close to the river and looked back along my route. It has been so long since I walked uphill. The view blurred but in that minute of almost-wallowing dog hurtled into me and denied the tears.
Hugging dog in this cold, rich peace I thought of our small croft away on the other side of these great rock ramparts. Beside me Allt Mhic Nobuill ran clear and diamond-bright, a sharp contrast to Abhain Dearg (the Red River) which for weeks has churned darkly through the croft fields. It will be a long recovery from the squelch and mud. Winter water levels in the Erradale Valley can flux quite dramatically and quickly; meadows flood then drain, on a repeating cycle every few days throughout the winter. But the Red River’s waters will clear and light will dance again on the surface as the days lengthen.
Abhain Dearg spills down from the western fringes of the Torridon hills. Throughout the winter, the great peaks gaze at us from beneath their mantles of snow or halos of cloud. They are deeply connected to our croft by both geology and hydrology. They are omni-present, and I feel a profound sense of belonging; they are my companions along with the sea, sky, river and meadows.
Dog and I sat by the river for a little longer savouring the hard embrace of high mountains, breathing in deeply, supping their energy and drinking in the light, finding solace in the scent of rock and water, until it was time to head back. Walking down was more difficult than walking up. It should have been easier, right? I concentrated on pacing: step, look forwards at the view, step, look down at the rocks (so many geological treasures), step, pause to look at the mosses; step, listen to the river. Repeat. Back among the trees the light had changed again, a coppery tint hinted at the change of weather to come but said nothing of the coming storm.
2. Cocooning. Into the Great Confinement
Since that walk the world has changed. Countries across the globe fight the COVID-19 pandemic and desperately try to save lives. Optimism about my own state of health that had grown and blossomed in the gentle quiet of Coire Mhic Nobuill, under the calm embrace of the great mountain peaks, fragmented. But although immunocompromised, and at greater risk than many, I am lucky. I can walk freely on the croft (there are many jobs to do), along the riverbank and our short stretch of wild coast. We have grand open views from both attic and fields and they bring such joy and solace in times of grief and pain.
My family are all dispersed, safe but locked down in Paris, London and Manchester, each with their clutch of small children. I wish I could have them all here, keep them all safe, wrap them up. It is hard to accept that I cannot do the mothering, the cocooning and caring, and cannot reassure them that all will be well because I don’t know what will happen and don’t have any answers. But technology will keep us connected, sifting the love from the fear, enabling us to share our worries and our laughter. The mountains have taught me to be patient, the sea how to be joyful, the sky how to bring light into the day, and our small croft teaches me again and again that life will find a way in spite of everything.
In the coming months I hope little whispers of calm and light from this relatively remote place will help the children. Spring is coming at last to the Highlands though winter lingers in pockets here and there. Birdsong is louder and brighter than ever. Skylarks rise up and almost burst open with song. There is frogspawn in the bog pools, flies dance over the ditches, there are catkins on the riverbank trees and green shoots are appearing in the meadows like needles, stitching the fabric of ground together.
Although I cannot walk in the hills, I know they are watching me, just as I watch them. They send us tales of the high places down the burns and streams and into our Red River. I wait on the riverbank and listen for news. Hope blooms with the coming spring and soon the myrtle will be in flower and the whole landscape here will be filled with incense, and prayers.
I hope you can find joy and strength in Spring too, listening to the birdsong from your window or watching clouds scud by. And perhaps, like my children, you might find a tiny bit of extra solace in images and words from Wester Ross.