In Search of Silence
Thu, Oct 12, 2017
The end of an indifferent summer on Skye. The rowans in late July getting ready for winter, berries massing, ready for the arrival of the redwings. Leaves rattling like old hollow bones after the youthful swishing and dancing in summer storms. But this day is warm, sunny, humid. And strangely quiet.
I dumped the car in a deserted layby above the Slig. At this time of year it should have been heaving but it was empty. The east wind brought the occasional roar of a vehicle on the main road to Portree but although it diminshed as I walked, it was still audible at Alltdearg House where the path heads up towards the mountains but before long, I was cocooned in gentle silence. The wind pushed me up the path as it must in this landscape where the hills speak of its presence, Beinn na Gaoithe, hill of the wind rising to my right, reminding me this is a windy place, out of the edge of the world.
I headed up towards Fionn Choire, its grassy bowl an oasis of green calm below the maelstrom of rock, the giant crashing wave of gabbro suspended as if by spell above the narrow head of the coire. Poised never to break but drip black boulders in an aeons long slow motion dissipation.
I squinted into the sun, to the bottom of the Meall Odhar ridge, rising vertically in a dazzling sheen of wet light into the blue sky. I longed for an unknown scramble, unguided by book or hearsay, following my nose, acting out scenes from adventure, the drop into Fionn Choire a thousand feet deeper than it was. Life without rules. But the rocks were soaking and I entered the chaos of the lower reaches of the coire instead. I was in search of something different. Something that’s increasingly difficult to find.
Fionn Choire is an amazing place, where a channel has been gouged by rockfall created by rain and frost, a broken and blasted landscape that speaks of terror, noise, crashing mountainsides and dust clouds of destruction but today it was peace and quiet from wall to crag girt wall.
The higher I climbed the rockier and rougher it became, passing a wonderfully green, mossy damp pool bowl before the final teetering ascent on giant gabbro boulders towards the raven circling in the wind above the ridge. As I topped out a curious feeling overcame me.
You accumulate experiences, feelings, intuitions over a life in mountains but they rarely reappear close to their original form. You mostly encounter them changed in some way. A view might pull some vague memory up or remind you of someone you knew but now and then they come back as if they had existed all along, waiting for you to find them.
They say if you go back to places you walked when you were young, hill tracks, summits you haven’t visited in a long long time, there’s a part of you that’s stored in the landscape like a virtual reality avatar. It’s like walking with a ghost, not visible like an augmented reality view on your phone but vivid in your memory of who you were back then. Your values, your worldview, what you wanted from life, how you lived your life. It can be a jarring contrast to be reminded of how you saw the world back then, more innocent, less cynical, more able to be awed by experiences, compared with how you now live. Silence is one of those things that come back to me in moments like that. There was more of it around back then.
As I sat on a rock, buffeted by the cooling wind, a day almost thirty years ago burst back into my life. The sun faded colours of the ridge, the sensuous snaking line over towers, down gullies, up chimneys, disappearing into distant haze were the exact conditions on the day I first traversed the Aonach Eagach. The same light, the same haze, the same weather. I was suddenly thirty years younger. The feeling was intensly, hair risingly, spine tinglingly real. I had to check I wasn’t wearing tweed breeches as that youngster had, all those years ago. Memories came flooding back, of the people I’d been with, the merry night in the pub afterwards, the start of my rock climbing life but most of all, the attitudes I’d had to the organised outdoors. It had never been for me. Gear, guides, rules. Ten years before, I’d headed off into the Blackmount hills with a poly bag, tiny day-glo orange framed rucsack and ancient borrowed tent with a transparent, heavy plastic sheet to keep the rain off and the tent door fastened with safety pins. It almost blew down in a wild black night of storm and torrential rain but the walk out early the next morning was sublimely quiet and peaceful. There it is again, silence. There was more of it back then.
At the summit of Bruach na Frithe I lazed and gazed, photographed, wrote and wandered around, enjoying the day. A doughty lady appeared, having run up from Glen Brittle and ran back down the NW ridge. She said it was hell down there.
I looked through the telephoto lens at the long line of cars blocking the mouth of the glen. Multi-coloured dots jostlingly teetering their way from road, through mud, swamp and erosion to another bucket list item. The devastated Fairy Pools. Quick selfie, no signal no share, move on to the next. The rescue team couldn’t get down the glen due to the social media crush. The police were moving them on, now the cooncil wants to expand the car park and build toilets. It’s hell down there.
At the north end it’s worse by all accounts. Drive-by tourists on minibus runs from Inverness, spilling onto the single track road at the Quiraing, joining the fighting, swearing masses. Pushing, shoving, pulling cars out of muddy flooded ditches, queueing for selfies on bare ground where once there was grass. Where their film heroes spent a day. The Tripadvised.
The highlands have become one great film set. As each flick is released so the hoardes arrive. Gangs of photography workshoppers tear up plants, young trees, stamp down grass at the Buachaille to get that perfect composition. Throw stones at each other. Glencoe was “closed” last week as I write this in early October. All the car parks up the glen were cordoned off, full of articulated lorries, marquees, food tents, people, noise. The footpath through the glen appeared to be closed. Up on the moor, horses waited in the rain to be filmed. Scotland has just been voted the most beautiful country in the world. It’s hell now.
Back on the Bruach I returned to the top and just relaxed and enjoyed the silence. There was no-one around. No-one at all, in July, on Skye, in the Cuillin. What was going on? Have the hills fallen out of favour? I hoped they had. Young people these days, they say, are cash rich and time poor. The opposite of my youth. They flit from site to site, bagging social media spots, moving on, no time to stop and stare, let alone spend a day on a mountain. I really couldn’t believe how deserted it was up here at the height of the season.
As it colded up and the wind grew stronger I decided to plod down into Coire a’Bhasteir which I thought would be fairly sheltered. I got a bit more than shelter. At a turn in the scree path I went up the slope towards the vertiginous wall of Am Basteir, to a small opening in the rock.
I sat on a small shelf for ages, listening to the complete and utter silence. Now and then a water drop fell from the overhangs and splatted on the scree, accentuating the silence as the sound faded. Each one was a tiny bomb of silence. Exploding as it landed, it released calm. Black dripping silence. I felt it flow through me. I dissolved with each drop, became the rock, could only see the distant mountains and hear nothing. I left my body and entered the mountain. There is still silence when you look for it.