Steep way, but shortest

Hill Companion

Hill Companion

The Mackintosh burn is a small mountain stream making its way down the hill the shortest way.
It is also, therefore, the shortest way up: a known route, having a name but remembered by few.
Even if any wanted go this way.
The shooting parties follow the road snaking along DalBhallach valley floor,
as do the intrepid hikers following the East Highland way to Dal Na Seilg bothy
and on down the river Calder into Newtonmore.
I learned this route as a child keen to walk the high tops
above the grass
where the snow grouse live
and the old preglacial land level spreads to the view
as far as the coast and even offshore to the Cuillins of Skye.

I work on the studio refurbishment, the ring main, all day til my head burns.
The Nog needs no calling when I strap up my boots, fill a flask of sweet black coffee,
pick up my hill pack and finally, sure signal to the canine mind, the whistle stick
with its single spur of red deer antler set on a straight hazel stem.

It is late afternoon, but the days are long and I need to be on the tops.
I walk across the road and start to climb at once.
I steer for the horizon, the highest point bordering my world to the north: I will walk til I stand there.
The journey involves climbing, and dropping into the valley before climbing again (a double effort that takes greater toll on the return).
Round the end of the first ridge, saving my energy for the bigger climb,I pick my way through the old pines of Slaney’s Wood (Bad Feannaig in the Gaelic- perch of the hooded crow) but universally known by the name of the Newfoundlander who contracted
too cheap and broke himself on the job near a century past.

The resinous pine branches gleam with relected sunlight between the dark green clustered needles. Buttercups, harebells, bog cotton, other small bright acid loving flowers soak up this indulgence while damp remains to nurse their roots. Thin brown drifts of needles build on the warm granite gripped by sinewy pine roots clawed into crevices, while aromatic resin vapour fills the air.

The wood edge is home to black grouse but on this occcasion the only bird disturbed is a hen pheasant shedding her artificial breeding to nest in this transition ground. She understands to defend her young like all ground nesters by fluttering seductively away from the nest site, barely out of reach of the Nog’s muzzle.

Over the open ground, I welcome the memory-cast figure of my grandfather standing stiff armed on the road, waving me into the valley to find the watercourse, my chosen waymarker.

The burn is down to a trickle these hot days, but over centuries and winters it has carved a clean stone course over which the water now splashes musically.
I zigzag upwards, stopping often, monitoring my elevation, but not anticipating height gained.
The sun is clear and hot in the sky, my t-shirt, moistened with sweat and peaty water is wrapped round my head.
Step by step, tussock by tussock, zig by zag the valley falls away to the constant tune of falling water.
The burn divides near its top, passing down either side of a steep green bar that forms the horizon – it offers an archetypal choice: right or left, west or east.
I keep on straight up the face.
Until I walk the rounded slope of the top, my footsteps supported by springy moss, arctic hares abounding to be chased by the Nog, white ptarmigan feathers on the turf and all around, not close but stretching far off, the olympian companionship of ridge and peak.
I check the time: it has taken just two hours from the farm to enter this other world on this shining day.
Better yet – not a single other solitary soul has chosen likewise.


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