beginnings

Thu, Jan 29, 2015

Quite often, reading someone’s autobiography, especially if it has an outdoors theme, it makes you think back to your own beginnings. Where you started and where you’ve ended up, so far. So it was with me as I sampled Ray Mear’s tales of early wanderings and thought back to a particular day, thirty years ago this year.

Standing on the platform at Bridge of Orchy station, looking to a black cloud banked west crammed with rugged mountains, rushing torrents and wild moorland, a scraggy seventeen year old with his head full of the Gaelic language, highland romance and mountaineering exploits prepared for a walk into the wilds.

For me, the journey had started five or six years earlier while on a scout camp to Crianlarich. I was a year too young for the scouts but had wangled in for the trip and on a sunny morning, porridged up and heavy booted, headed up Ben More with lots of ‘grown ups’. Just before the bealach with Stobinnian, they told two or three of us to wait by a huge boulder while they went to the summits and we settled down as they became dots on the skyline.

The only thing I remember about the long wait was watching cloud shadows race across the hillside below us. Elegant white fluffy clouds calmly sailing in a blue sky while their shadows raced on the rough ground. Clambering over rocks, falling down cliffs, dragging themselves across pools and lochans in a frantic effort to keep up. I can still see those clouds.

A diet of books followed. The Life and Times of Rob Roy MacGregor by W.H Murray for Higher English. I chose this myself as I didn’t want to do the House with the Green Shutters and my English teacher, who didn’t hold out much hope for me, agreed. What the hell, he’ll fail no matter what! It was only much later I realised the significance of the author and the book was one of my earliest brushes with the Gaelic language. Then I read The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster, one of the Jacobite Trilogy and inspired by Rob Roy I read, from cover to cover, Teach Yourself Gaelic. Then followed Chris Bonnington’s classic tale of adventure, Everest The Hard Way and The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer. The landscape so beautifully described by W.H. Murray led me deeper into the culture, language and life of the highlands. Both the people and the mountains. My direction was set.

Two years later, at fourteen, I went on a solo cycle tour from Glasgow, round the Trossachs just as the youth hostels were closing for the winter. The highlight was an early morning ride beside Loch Venacher when a stag ran across the road a few feet in front of me on its way to the shore. Ice on the Duke’s Pass, stag with steaming breath, mountain cloud shadows. It was all building up.

And so, stood at Bridge of Orchy in jeans, cheap walking boots, a quilted anorak and bright orange rucksack, my first adventure into the hills was about to start. I’d got the rucksack from the SYHA shop in Union Street in Glasgow and it was only about 15 litres or so and had an equally orange metal frame but given the size of the borrowed tent and ‘flysheet’, it was full. That was why I was carrying a poly bag twice the size with everything else in it. Sleeping bag, stove, gas, tins of soup, tins of beans, a flask. My waterproof jacket was a railway worker’s bright orange, ankle length high visibility storm jacket that the wildlife could see me coming in for miles. It had a black stain on the side where my soot blackened pot banged against it, suspended from the outside of the ‘sac.

The first spits of rain landed on my unkempt head as I walked down the road, across the A82 and the hump backed bridge and headed up the West Highland Way into a stiff wind. Over the top with a pause at the cairn to survey the wilds then down to Inveroran and out along the landrover track to Clashgour. I missed the path and ended up at the farm, sneaking down another track to the river, climbing several deer fences on the way. Little did I know I’d become friends with Rab and Jean at Clashgour not far in the future, sitting in their cosy living room in the depths of winter, watching their telly picture go all sorts of colours, shapes and orientations as the old generator struggled to supply a feed. Outside a blizzard howled and the snows closed most of the roads across the country. Rab’s sheepdog had rarely seen another human and lay in his basket at the door, while we sat round the fire and drank fine drams.

I rejoined the Glen Kinglass path once I’d negotiated a rickety bridge and I stopped at the grim bothy on the shore of Loch Dochard. It was pelting with rain, the tops were clagged in and the wind was rising to a westerly gale. Two walkers with real kit were there, ‘doing the Taynuilt peaks’ and we had a chat before I headed off into the storm. Quite what they thought of my poly bag/highviz combo is anyone’s guess. They had ice axes and crampons and big rucksacks that looked comfy. By now my wee one was creaking ominously and the bits of metal holding the straps to the frame were starting to straighten and looked like popping off.

By the time I got down to Innseag na h-Iuraiche (little island of the yew tree) at the head of Glen Kinglass it was blowing a full scale storm and I had a real struggle to get the tent up next to the ancient wooden bridge. The tent was a borrowed affair, more wide than long with the usual ’T’ zips arrangement. The zips along the bottom were fine but the one in the middle had long given up the ghost and the two doors were secured down the length of the pole with safety pins. So it was nice and breezy inside.

The ‘flysheet’ was a handcrafted transparent tarpaulin, skillfully cut to shape, the various panels stuck with heavy black tape. Once over the top of the wriggling tent, it came about half way down the outside but gave some protection from the wild gusts and torrential rain. There was nowhere to cook as there wasn’t a porch, so I crouched under the bridge, a foot or so from the torrent and boiled up soup for the flask and gorged on several tins of beans before scurrying inside for the night.

As it darkened and the storm intensified, I saw the two walkers’ mountain tent a quarter of a mile away, secure and safe under the black cliffs of Beinn nan Aighenan. ‘Some day I would like a tent like that’, I thought to myself. But not tonight, as I crawled into my dancing wind tunnel.

I don’t think I slept a wink as the blasts came up the glen and threatened to uproot my hovel. I held on to the flimsy poles as they bent and flexed alarmingly with each gust and the rain found several routes past the wildly flapping ‘flysheet’ and line of straining safety pins.

By four in the morning I’d had enough. The storm had abated but everything was soaking. The ‘flysheet’ had gone for a burton, the black tape no match for a higland storm and as I crawled out into the calm light of dawn, the tent looked like it had a seriously bad hangover.

Packed up, the sac was twice as heavy with the soaked tent and my poor poly bag was straining to cope with the sodden sleeping bag and various other bits of wrecked gear.

The walk out was beautiful though, not a breath of wind and herds of deer running across the path and up into the shifting grey mists. It was everything I recognised from The Flight of the Heron. The landscape, the history, the deer. It was fantastic to be there. I stopped several times to brew up and soak in the atmosphere.

I stuck to the path this time, crossing two fords along the way, one of which filled my boot with water and humphed my lot back over the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy. As I sat on the platform, soaked, cold but happy, the “millionnaires’ train” pulled in and men with big cigars craned their necks to see the waif on the platform, hunched over a faltering stove stirring a blackend pot of bubbling beans.

It was the tail end of winter, the sky was darkening again and as I packed up my stuff the big diesel engine roared into the station. The lights of the carriages looked cosy, their backdrop the cloud hugged slopes of Beinn Dorain. As I boarded, the warm fug felt welcoming and the hubbub of conversation like that of a library. I sat at the window and looked across to the white tops of the Blackmount, slowly dissolving into the gathering dusk. I was bound for Corrour and a wander on Rannoch Moor.

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