I’ve been to Scotland precisely three times. I’m a beginner with the burns, a newcomer at the hills, a novice on Ben Nevis: which I walked in glorious sunshine on my first trip, 2010. That’s me above, on the summit, at seven in the evening. I went back to Glen Shiel and Skye in 2011 in a wonderful hot April, and I was there again a month ago camping at Loch Tay and Tyndrum. Some people, even when they don’t live in Scotland, have a good a knowledge of the highlands like I do of Wales and the Lake District. And yet like a good curry I’ve eaten enough of it to know it has a very fine taste, and there’s more to look forward to.
Actually I’ve been to Scotland five times but the first two don’t count. Once when I was a small boy on a family holiday, and again about ten years ago when I attended an Edinburgh conference. It was called Understanding Creativity about which I wrote a report for my employer, Salford University. A few of us walked the city after I’d had a sleepless night, shaken by the charms of a flirtatious Californian blonde. She was attending with a boyfriend chap from Winchester who was undertaking an American PhD; she later attempted but never completed a PhD in Art History.
What I remember of that visit, like a samosa first course, was part of the car ride through low level hills. They had a soft misty light and the air had a cold peaty freshness, such as I’d never experienced before. I had the same impressions a month ago when I climbed Ben Lui and Ben Lawers, went for a drive across Rannoch Moor and down to the Blackmount area which leads, across mountains, over to Glen Etive. I want more of it. I’m pining for Scotland and its unique taste. Like here, on part of the Ring of Steall walk in the Mamores:
I write this as another contingent of walkers are preparing for the annual TGO Challenge, the walk across Scotland taking about two weeks organised by TGO magazine. Their excitement and happiness is palpable. Jokes are flying, internet banter is exchanged, rucksacks are packed. See you in the pub, the curry house, or on the hills. The TGOC attracts repeat walkers and novices, from across the UK and beyond. I must admit, it’s not for me. I like as much freedom as possible in my walking, which means not being tied to routes and itineraries. I’m more of a solitary walker, enjoying quiet immersion in the hills rather than camaraderie and craic. And more than anything I don’t like the idea of successive days of rain, cold, and gloom. Long distance walks with wild camping are the best but Scotland is not the most favourable place for it. Call me a wuss walker, if you like. Just as I favour jazz and you probably don’t we all have different tastes and preferences; mine are Thelonious Monk, a hot Madras, and sunshine.
But I want more of Scotland, when circumstances and the weather allow it. I want to explore the Glen Etive hills, Glen Affric, and perhaps most poignant of all, Torridon. I want to return again to Glen Shiel to walk the Forcan Ridge which I missed last year; it’s a fabulous area with a high concentration of excellent hills. One day I might take a train to Corrour and undertake a three or four day trek, taking the train back to Manchester. The freedom of a car in Scotland is a great joy: you can explore, travel to other areas, cross vast lonely places you may not wish to walk but still want to see. It’s like having a hire car in another country, but for certain plans and places public transport options are worth considering. A coach trip for example, for which Aviemore and the Cairngorms seem a good idea.
It’s raining today in Manchester and bad wet weather is forecast for the entire UK. As I wandered in some shopping mall drizzle I reflected on the softness of this wet. Scotland, because it is so wet, is a soft place – when it’s not cold, which makes the hills forbidding and harsh. There’s a scene in the movie Braveheart when Mel Gibson, in kilt and shirt sleeves, calls the rain “good Sco-ish weather”. He doesn’t mind getting wet and he’s not cold. In the highlands, on a day like today, it would be soft. Not concrete but grassy, muddy, or pleasingly rocky. Not buildings and shops and the pressures of their buy me presence, but hills and lochs. Not agitating noise, but quiet. Not people (in this particular mall) where you are alerted to the possibility of unpleasant exchange on the basis of the demeanour of strangers. Same as yesterday: on another Manchester high street my guard was suddenly up when a rough looking youth looked into my eyes for several seconds. His friend, on one of those silly BMX bikes, came peddling down the road on the wrong side shouting F, F, F, at something or other. Cities are harsh places. Horrible places. I’ve seen more than enough of that kind of behaviour from school days, in my workplace, and in the news. Today in Glen Etive, in pattering rain, the air will be peaty and cold and it will be soft.