Nature Notes

Walking off a Mountain

The Glen Orchy Mountains filled the windows of the white croft that was to be our home for the next week, where crossbills with brick-red breasts teased open pine cones in a fir by the porch. On our first evening, we climb above Loch Awe to Duncan Ban McIntyre’s monument. Gamekeeper-forester-poet (1724–1812) he could teach me much about his beloved mountains. For I am awestruck and finding it hard to ‘get my eye in’.

Midweek, we climb Beinn na Sroine, behind our house, leaving in warm sunshine where small, dark-velvet Scotch argus butterflies and a late mountain ringlet bask. The path is laced with small burns, one is imprinted by the feet of high-altitude Scottish black water voles. It’s a wonder I can move at all. Everywhere I look there’s something new; the sticky-green leaves of carnivorous butterwort and the tall white blooms of grass of Parnassus. Wildcat and pine marten live here, and I thrill to think of it.

Above the treeline, a corrie lake sparkles brilliance. Our cottage is far, far below and the River Orchy snakes past with the hairpin bends and blackness of a race track, splitting and converging around shingle spits and islands.

On the open mountain, we strike out on a compass bearing to the summit as the expected weather closes in, experiencing Duncan Ban’s ‘radiance of the moor’ as the glow from yellow bog asphodel lights the children’s faces. Whinchat flit among the highest swallows I’ve ever seen. Thinking I’d spotted the triangulation point, I lift my binoculars, but what I focus on takes off on broad wings and disappears into cloud. Had I glimpsed a golden eagle?

We reach the summit cairn, with views of Loch Tulla and towering Ben Lui, feeling elated. By now, cloud mist rises like smoke out of the Caledonian pine and it begins to rain. Walls appear and vanish like the magic trick that conjured the eagle; granite boulders became sheep. I find ptarmigan droppings on a rock.
We start descending straight down the mountain. Until now, I’d been content (and probably lazy) to simply follow, but half-remembered advice from long-ago nags at me: ‘you cannot just walk off a mountain’. Purple moor grass gives way to bilberry and crowberry. Visibility is still good, but it is raining hard and the going is increasingly steep and difficult. Yet when we grasp handfuls of myrtle, it holds, releasing its wonderful scent and the purple heather is soft, yielding and bouncy, like walking on sponges.

The burns and their chasms deepen and as the bracken thickens treacherously, our slips became frequent and more alarming. We are forced to stop, rethink, and ultimately, scramble back up on all fours to a point where we could angle our descent less steeply. We finally reach the soft, dry hush of pinewood with some relief and a humble sense of achievement, six hours after starting out.

That evening we light a fire in the shingle crescent held in the ox-bow of a cola-coloured river. There are otter holts across the bank and the wet marks of something having crossed the stones just before we got here.
Behind the lit cottage, Beinn na Sroine, ‘The Offended Mountain’, towers majestically, indifferent. I feel, a little coyly, better acquainted. You cannot flirt with a mountain range.

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