There are times the cloud seems to drag along the braes, catching in the birches so that I half expect fluffy white deposits like sheepswool on barbed wire.
Other times the hilltops are axed flat, bandaged in dense vapour like fabric, impenetrable and mysterious: a time to avoid walking the high tops for fear of disorientation, however familiar the terrain.
On a good day with a breeze and broken sun, the patterns of shadow pass over hillsides and pastures like fast moving geology, picking out grey rock, a flash of green upland pasture, a blaze of bracken, the gleam of water.
Today the wind has turned from the north (where the weather lurks unseen behind the dark mass of Creag Dhubh) to south east: warm but threatening the unaccustomed.
I haul the mountain bike from the pick-up and drop it over the gate to the hill-road on Catlodge. A Blue-Grey heifer is watching, head-up, ears pricked. As I wobble off down the rocky track the rest of the herd take flight and stampede down the track ahead of me, as if on a strange new steamrailway with me the monstrous locomotive. I curse under my breath, ashamed at the disruption as if a dog was running loose
Finally, the animals turn up the hill and slow, watching me pass.
When the road turns to grass, I prop the bike against the derelict fence of some forgotten environmental scheme, pull my whistlestick from the bungey holding it to my pack, and start the foot climb. I follow the half seen road used by the old peat cutters toward the green saddle that gives onto the far valley with long views to the west.
The first drops hit smartly, and turning I see cloud lowering over Drumochter Hills. Testing the wind I am forced to acknowledge the bank of rain heading for me like vengeance.
I look for the bright broken elements that presage showers, and the chance of drying off between downpours.
This I have learned to be comfortable with. but there is no relief in prospect.
I climb on-
as I walk the wild-
my mind calls up an image of bedsheets left on the line.
That does it!
The Nog obediently turns with me as I head for home –
and a world of duty.
Yellow is being worn today.
Slow draining rivulets along the margins of the farm sport finery.
Peaty and filled with black mud that has clarted my boots many times on my way up the hill, these semi stagnant waterways obstruct hard paths around the farm.
I think sometimes there must have been stone bridges- there are old roads after all, winding their way around and between the townships that dotted the drier slopes above the river’s floodplain.
Today’s road shortcircuits the connecting loops that wander between habitations – at walking pace, at cart pace. The routes describe the journeys, mostly short and where longer, diversionary, topographic – one had to keep one’s boots dry after all.
The new road is far from arrow straight; the cliffs of Creag Dhubh are as unyielding as ever, the low ground as liable to flood as at any time, but the cars fly past on their way to somewhere else.
Watching them as I walk parallel to the road, I am looking not just from these woods separated by a few metres from the facilitating ribbon, but from an old time as if through an opening in a rotting stump.
Here hanged felons swing beside the highway as a warning,
and kingcups blaze above the slow movement of dark water.
The drama is in the day.
Mild and easy when I put out the feed this morning, the wind starts up mid morning, It is strong but not a storm – a sailors wind, sending vessels scudding.
I have no vessel to scud – so this squall is merely inconvenient, blowing the cement from my shovel before I can fill the mixer-
but not threatening like so many that shake the buildings of a winter night like some nordic ogre.
I am inside when the rain hits the window sliding down half melted. It puts paid to the long walk I have promised the Nog today.
When it stops we leave the house.
At the entrance to the yard, two hundred yards away, the starving half -calf stops on the road and looks back at us as if beckoning. I feed him as efficiently as I can and pen him for the night with mother. She is laden with milk, inaccessible to him through some esoteric interdict of his own choosing.
Colours are clear in the water laden air, distance inviting. On the small summit I watch broken cloud driven across blue sky. To the west the sun is splintered by ragged cloud profiles sending shafts of light earthwards. There is rain coming in, lit with diffused radiance that conceals the shapes of the hills as much as illuminates so that they appear in silhoutte like two dimensional cut outs arranged in series, receding towards unseen summits.
A bird of prey holds itself up in the wind- a crisp profile like a keyhole in space. I run up the brace to stand on the fencepost squinting into the wind in an attempt to identify the bird. My eyes are watering so that I can’t see the ground and have to guess the distance to jump down.
From here I can see that the pasture of the farm is greening slightly, that Alice has not yet calved, that the weekend guests have departed.
A rainbow strikes the far ridge and curves over towards Creag Dubh, spanning the farm.
Old roads, half hidden, carry ghost traffic up the hill.
Carts hauled by small horses coaxed up the zigzags eased over the years by a stone placed here to support a slope, an incline there dug level. At one point where two drains meet in a small gully at the base of the climb to the ridge, tumbled stones mark the remains of a handbuilt dam protecting a ford where the vehicles might cross. I take a moment to study the contours to check the extent of the lagoon that would be created by such a barrier: but it’s too long gone.
The Nog is waiting above, I turn to follow.
The hill divides as we arrive at the crest where a fence separates sheep pasture from genuine moorland. The Nog finds the low section and jumps over, follows the peat road crossways, runs forward and then halts – winding something.
I come up to the near edge of the plateau to find him intent on the near horizon.
A herd of fifty red deer enjoy the calm of late afternoon. Hinds and calves graze with their heads down in the dead ground below. The breeze at their backs gives them no warning: they are unaware of our presence. The ridge above is lined with stags, mature beasts with full antlers. They have seen us but at this time of the year are not too alarmed – just enough to lift their heads to face us full on. Some are standing, showing the full mass of their powerful bodies silhouetted. Others remain prone, swivelling their necks, heads outlined against the distant snowy slopes of the Monadhliath foothills.
The antlers rise towards the hazy blue of the sky in a symmetrical bow like a prayer: alert ears extend along horn reinforcing the base of cupped void like petals against a stem.
As I move forward, they gather and turn. Arrived at the position they have abandoned I find them strung out to the far horizon, watching but unconcerned.
The lead stag, a royal, waits down the hil, alone – assessing when to rejoin the herd.
Standing here I have a view round three quarters of the snowfields bounding the horizon. A chill breeze breathes from the north east but the sun is warm mitigated by a storm haze that sends windwracked clouds floating overhead like aquatic mammals.
Down at the farm a small red calf is waiting to be let in to the night pen.
I call in the Nog as I turn to descend.
With luck he ‘ll be able to run further tomorrow.
There is nothing up the hill behind the farm. Nothing to excite or entertain. No homes, people, vehicles, livestock, few trees.
This time of year the grass is yellow and flat, water lies softening the peat, the heather is dark and low.
Today uniform grey cloud slices the tops from the hills; the wind drives hard across the open hill, snow lies in pockets like hoofmarks, clings in stubborn banks on north faces.
I force myself from the shelter of the farm. The wind hits as I leave the path circling Sarah Justina’s memorial, the last outpost.
I cut straight up the hill to reach the ridge at its lowest point, heading for the high ground, the Nog ambushing me on steeper inclines.
And we’re not alone. A shape slides behind the border of ancient pines as we reach the watershed – and then reveals itself – the outspread arc of a monitoring eagle. The eyrie is back in the trees – perhaps the henbird is sitting in the untidy stack of twigs lodged in a fork. I have seen her before, but this is another bird, smaller, probably male.
I watch the near horizon carefully as the Nog ranges. He is the colour and size of a roe calf: eagles eat roe calves. I call him closer- the dynamic has changed.
We are now the hunted.
I relax as we progress toward the back hills.
The Nog ranges backwards and forwards as generations of his ancestors have done.
I catch up with my father and grandfather- who walked here before me.
Coming back down the hill, we do not return.
Today the cows are peaceful, the two bull calves are stotting in the sun– and I didn’t walk up the hill with the Nog as intended.
Sunday morning is for housework – fair enough – Sunday afternoon was for walking , skirting by Sarah Justina’s monument standing on the apron of Creag Dhubh, and straight up to the ridge that forms my northern horizon. Beyond there lies the back country.
As one walks, the present day recedes – to be replaced by something immediate.
With one’s back to the farm, the road and the river, one crosses the first waste, where the ‘dry loch’ tells a story of caught glacial water released when the barrier at the lower end gave way, leaving a horseshoe of upland bog.
Down to the old road in Dalbhalloch- now used by hikers and hunters only – ending at the lost village of Dal-na- sealg (Dalnashallach) where one house is maintained as a bothy.
Then further out and up to the Monadhliath plateau – kind to neither man nor beast – the first landmass – and realm of the great god Pan.-
-but I wasn’t there today.
Instead I was facing towards the future.
The two buildings on the farm, roundhouse and bunkhouse, are all electric – with a ground sourced heatpump for heating and hotwater, with the plan to become self-sufficient in power. As technology changes , this closing of the sustainability loop has been getting closer. Most solutions, however, involve laborious administration and big outlays to meet the demands of government incentives.
Zeno and Celine, with a company involved in generating by windpower, put shape to my intentions; confirming the option of self-installation without official intervention or incentive.
A day of progress therefore if not forward motion of the kind the Nog and I enjoy.
Pregnant ladies still need checking over, little Alice and Holly need more hay; Demi-Og and the lad are happy now to donder up to the shed to be shut in for the night..
-and, in the bottom paddock, Moira stands and shifts her weight, patiently preparing to calve- maybe tonight.
There are two worlds here: high and low.
The farm is low, as is all present day human habitation. The river, the roads, bridges, pasture – all low.
The tops, the ridges, the plateaus are high – with deer and grouse and eagles, berries and mosses.
At the current time the difference between the two is very clear: the one variegated, the other pure white. There is a line strung across the landscape, slightly diffused but surprisingly consistent across separate hillsides – almost like the watermargin of an invisible lake, with everything familiar submerged while the pristine summits rise clear from the confused blend of colours, habitats, contrivances.
So the Nog and I visit the second, the high world. Our transportation is ploddery – well, his is more gallivantery, but mine is ploddery for sure: first through the heather stems and ploutery peat cuttings, and increasingly through webs of damp snow caught in dishes and drains; into a new terrain where every footstep is placed on unseen ground, and carries a small burden of snow when lifted. Every step tells – and there are many to the far corner of the ground where three estates march.
Over the ridge, the going levels out. Here snow covers the high hags – deep, black peat where little grows, that now host wormlike white ridges gleaming icily in the winter sun with powder dusted flanks. The Nog is entranced by the glamour of this new world, I place one foot in front of the other. The wind blows a dense front toward us from the west, there is a purple yellow glow to the belly of dark cloud presaging snow. These hags are not a place to be caught out: there is no shelter, and if the snow drops over us in a whiteout – it will fool me. However well I know this ground – I will struggle to guide us out without risk.
For the time being the storm stays on the far side of the valley so we climb to our intended vantage. The weather comes in as we turn – if I can just make it to the corner of the deer fence, slip down the gulley, traverse towards the spy stone. My landmarks are still in view: I am not lost- tired, but not lost.
One foot in front of another will take me there – aiming for the watershed. I talk, ostensibly to the dog, as we trudge the last slope ‘Good boy, good boy – almost there. We’re going to make it – yes we’ll make it, just a bit further.’
And now we’re over the ridge, heading downhill. The snow is thinning. The final half mile sees us crossing clear ground – for the first time I stride out rhythmically.
It is still light as I open the truck door and call the Nog in – but not by much. The day is done, drained.
Heading home, I know how the wind blows across infinite white wastes – in the high world.
Sarah Justina’s monument disappears below the rocks forming the near horizon at my back, to be replaced by a new one, a Nogument. The dog sits neatly at the highest point, tapering from his hunkered rear to his alert ears. He waits as I play a game of my own: approaching the angled stob braced against a post set as a turner interrupting the fenceline, I step onto it ready to walk up it and over. The frost has melted but the wood holds moisture causing my boot to slip – not today then. On a good dry day I walk up the narrow bar without breaking stride, perch on the flat post-top and jump down the far side. Each time achieved is a small triumph of resolve and fluency. Unwilling to adopt an ungainly scramble over the line wire, I place my stick with my right hand, my left on the post and swing my legs over with my weight on my arms.
The Nog watches this manoeuvre impassively, as if dissociating himself from my antics: he has his own agenda. I stretch the top wires apart and call to him- once- twice, at the third call the stone dog melts and charges down the hill, suddenly recalled to vibrant life. He pauses, gathers and launches between the separated wires, turning immediately on landing to receive the expected congratulations.
Thus primed with a warming glow of joint achievement we step briskly down the hill with early stars starting out while the light wind cools from brilliant white summits.
I am kitted up for walking the Nog at the end of the day: stalking jacket, gaiters,hiking boots, stick. The Nog knows the form and is through the door as soon as it’s cracked.
20 paces on and everything changes. A shot claps from the far side of the river – sounds flat like a rifle, possibly connected to the herd of red deer on the riverbank a few hours earlier. For the Nog this is the end- hopelessly gunshy, he turns back to the house, turns again, sits at the end of the bridge looking at me. For all his excitement at running the hill, this fear dominates. He follows meekly as I return to the door and let him through to curl thankfully into his basket.
This lesson derives from the time we were halfway up the old quarry path through the birches, and a guest started to zero his heavy bore rifle on the farm, the sound of his ranging shots booming back off the hard granite faces. I ushered the Nog ahead of me upwards for a few hundred metres, until his resolve shattered and he turned and ran. Following him downwards, I failed to find him at the deer fence bordering the road and only caught up with him at the front door, set like a concrete ornament.
He must have wormed his way under the deer fence and crossed the main road in his desperation.
Alone now I take the same route, intrigued at how much less invasive I am without my hyperactive shadow. A roe and calf trot uphill to the side of the path, turn and look back at me from fifty foot as I walk quietly forward. Three goats, white with large black patches, one heavily pregnant, pause from stripping the bark from a fallen birch to watch without moving from their basket of denuded branches, briefly bright in raw orange.
I am more inclined to listen to the southeasterly and the water windcombed from the crags. I share the landscape surveyed by Sarah Justina from her granite, cross-topped obelisk. The strata of colour and contour are layered from the dull marsh grass with the black coils of the slow river fringed with dark birch, up through brighter pasture to the rolling frieze of conifers with snowfields behind grading from scattery to solid white where the eye moves into the wild. Broken cloud rolls across the peaks, seeming to snag.
At the foot of the hill I walk parallel to the road before crossing to the yard – cars roar in passing, headlights revealing the road ahead.
I move unseen through the darkening wood as invisible ravens call to roost.