hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, wildlife

Soaring- with an eagle even.

None of us is wholly attached to this earth.
This is true of humans too.
Moira’s baby is barely resident on this plane – a half calf.
The old folks, especially the women gathered by the flanks of the milk cows every morning, would tell stories of milk supped by fairies at night.
Moira is losing no milk this way, but the lad still part resides in the palaces under the hill, where the night is spent dancing and spinning, where he is free to soar and where to breathe is to eat, so rich the air.
All that retains him here is the russet mass of his lumbering mother, and a strange bare forked animal that throws him to the ground to invade his mouth, holds him tight while half suffocating him with a tube in his throat, and locks him to the earth with the shackles of his will.
Passing by the field later on the quad, I see Billy on his feet. The little lad is transfixed by this gigantic apparition (his father), staring stock still, as if in disbelief that this might be his adult pattern. Billy sheepishly shakes his head and looks away.

It is Sunday: I have promised the Nog a longer walk.

We cross the road from the farm and work our way up though the old quarry, the birches loud with the memory of descending slipes, horsedrawn sledges used to cart granite block down to the road.
At the top of the burnside path, I catch up to the shadows of peat carts, hook my stick to a backboard as they wind slowly up the hill road and then cut across country to the spot where Nog and I surprised the deer last night.
We move out across the plateau, leaving the old drowned cuttings behind: picking up the ghosts of my father and grandfather who walked this same ground.

We cross to the far edge where the ground drops away before rising again to the arctic waste of the Monadhliath range, still heavy with snow.
The mountains are grouped around the Dalbhallach flats as if encicling a lagoon, an inundated crater. They are roundtopped; the connecting valleys swag like fabric, swathing the hills as if storing furniture. In spite of the upflift to the view of the mountains, I have a strong sense that to progress into this wilderness is to plunge, not rise.

I watch the hills across the valley, my eyes climbing the air towards them as I approach the lip. Before the ground falls away, perhaps disturbed by my approach, from a vantage directly in front but below me, and as if carrying my volition, the outspread wings of the eagle launch the giant bird effortlessly outward from the face. Within seconds she is slowly spooling arcs in the still air at the centre of the cooling lagoon.

‘Oh My..’
The sound of my voice breaks the stillness, unbidden.

Words surface in my memory:
‘Come to the edge!’
‘I cannot. It is too steep.’
‘Come to the edge!’
‘I am scared. I will fall.’
So he came-
and he fell-
and he flew.


Clan Macpherson, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized

I see you, Sarah Justina

The Nog is a shooting dog – a Hingarian Vizla dual-purpose point and retrieve.
A shooting dog who is terrified of shooting.
An airline pilot afraid of flying, a mountaineer with vertigo, claustrophic lift attendant – could not be worse.
As we head round the back of the gallows mound towards the old travellers stance bordered by bare larch trees, he hangs back – and then squats. We reached this point a couple of weeks ago, when some distant sportsmen loosed a volley of shots. To me they were barely audible but to the Nog meant imminent destruction demanding instant refuge in the roundhouse. This time I do not intend to to humour him like a Victorian lady with the vapours, so I bark at him to get over himself and come for a walk –

because we are indeed making our customary evening visit to a Victorian lady.

Sarah Justina is waiting. She is patient enough these days, sat on granite on the hill above the farm.
A ten minute climb takes me to the foot of her memorial obelisk – accompanied by a newly resolute Nog.
Her inscription incised in stone is set on the side of the obeslisk facing across the wide river valley towards her husband’s memorial. It is at eye-level –
‘Dedicated to the memory of Sarah Justina Macpherson – wife of Ewan chief of Clan Chattan – She lived at Cluny Castle for upwards of fifty years. She died March 1886 . Much beloved and deeply mourned’
There is some more but this, from memory, is close – I see it several times most weeks.
Today our companionship altered. I received, from the USA, a book commemorating their Golden Wedding three and a half years earlier- with a photo and hand-written inscription- her hand. Reading the plaque I see, behind the words, a plump litle lady seated with a book open, prayer book maybe but more likely a laundry list or other reminder of a life spent maintaining a household.
She is dressed exactly as we are used to seeing Queen Victoria – hair bunched under white lace, otherwise decked in black. Of course, the old queen was still on the throne then – in fact, the coronation was in the same year as Sarah Justina’s wedding. She herself had a coronation of sorts at Dalwhinnie where landowners and tenants turned out to cheer the young couple home, assisted by copious toasts in whisky and mountain dew.
It would be no suprise if she modelled herself on her more elevated sister as they both struggled with the privileges and duties of empire; responsibilities that for one spanned half the globe and-for the other- most of Laggan parish.
I imagine you did your duty Sarah Justina- and your reward?
A fine view shared -looking southward.

highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized, village life

Old voices whispering as we bring in the greater world

Al & I quad up  the south slope of the Monadhlaith plateau, with equipment and tools for the wind turbine halfway up looking over the village and the roads that lead in and out.

The plateau is a piece of old Scotland, pre Scotland, preglacial – very old, in fact. There are signs of human intervention up there. The long march fence sunk with molten lead into sockets painstakingly drilled into the granite: it lasted two winters before the wind in the wires drummed the labour to gaptoothed irrelevance. The old shooting box on the march lying open to the weather where men and ponies could overnight to wait on the deer crossing the high passes. There are signs of summer shielings from the middle period of occupation, and before that round houses and even, on one hillside, a small stone circle.

These are the signs from many centuries- but they don’t belong. People are visitors here: as I do when the evenings lengthen.
Al and I are working on a rock platform where the broadband is relayed to the houses on the far side of the strath. The face of the plateau rises behind us: I know the snow grouse will be scratching among the stones scattered on the snowclad upper slopes.  The patches of white start just above our position and grow rapidly as the eye is drawn to the higher snowbanks.
This harsh proffer of the land is not simply geographic, not just beckoning to the higher ground and adventure beyond the horizon; it also summons from a timeworn reality shadowing all human activity such as that undertaken today.
I huddle into my collar against the mountain’s chill breath: focus on the task in hand.

Farm Life, History of the Highlands, Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

We walk on the heels of others’ workboots

I follow the Nog uphill on a mild overcast evening.. The snow picks out paths that are barely discernible relics worn by footfall, carts sledges even. Our route takes us up to Sarah Justina Macpherson’s monument behind and above the farm. We skirt the cliffs beneath the rusting enclosure, through birchwoods containing uncanny quiet here in the lee of the westerlies. It is a place of mounds and small valleys, sphagnum moss and blaberry plants with banks of golden chanterelle mushrooms in a moist late summer.
It is also an industrial landscape.
Many of the great houses of the area were built with Creag Dhubh granite. The place would have rung with the sounds of work and activity bouncing from bare granite faces.
So Romanian Mike, come to pick up a site saw that I have no need of, straightens in surprise at the sound of a military jet hammering low down the strath-

‘That’s not what the Highlands is about’-
Maybe not, not now – but sometimes I prefer the noise.

History of the Highlands, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

The Drowned Land

New Year’s day is almost balmy- I have worse barbeque nights at the height of summer. I feed the animals first thing wearing neither hat nor gloves. The cattle feel a spring lightness: Holly and Alice are cavorting round the yard, playing tag like month old calves.
I take a holiday, walking the Nog up the hill in the middle of the day. The sky has patches of blue with drifts of cloud blowing in on a faint easterly. My neighbour is taking advantage of the calm to tidy some windblown trees, burning the brash. The smoke rises in a thick pungent column, turning gently to glide towards us. It catches in the throat even at the top of the monument mound where I stand to look down on the farm.
Water is in the air, gleams from low fields and ditches. Badenoch is starting to justify its name – the Drowned Land. The valley floor was drained and improved with ditches and banks. Many acres of barley were harvested when I was a lad. There is no arable now within the parish: the grey partridge has gone with the grain, and the trout have left the silting river. The land is reverting to its natural state, one of browns more than greens.
Uvie is different. My soil is light and stony, combed by granite teeth from the glaciers grinding over them. Only the Aspens has the heavier waterlogged soil dominating this view, the other fields look green and dry from where I stand beside the obelisk. I have come calling on Sarah Justina Macpherson, whose stone proclaims her residence here ‘upwards of fifty years’ ending with her death in 1883. I look over the houses to the wooded ridge that borders my view on the farm. Larger horizons open as the mountains appear behind this ridge, first patched with snow and then rising to unbroken white that merges into cloud.
Later this winter the slope will run with water filling the wells and burns for the summers ahead, but not today. The Nog and I feel something of a heifer’s lightness as we drop down to our familiar habitat.