At the start of this year, I decided to embrace my term as Writer in Residence for the Cairngorms National Park as a kind of pilgrimage. Certainly, I would be covering a lot of ground delivering the project, and that has proved true, and fascinating. More significantly, I knew I would be on a personal journey, discovering new thinking about this distinctive landscape and its people, new territory as a writer, and new learning – I hoped – about myself.
Feeling, by mid-year, a bit lost and run down, I realised it was time to undertake a physical pilgrimage. Sometimes it is only through moving the body that we shift the spirit. In my last post I wrote about my place of inner and outer chaos and needing – quite literally – to walk away; about the dream to climb Angel’s Peak in the Cairngorms and about why that mountain, of all mountains, was important.
Here is the story.
We leave the car near the ruins and rambling crofts of Tullochgrue above Aviemore, rope up Sileas, the golden retriever, and shoulder our packs. I haven’t done a camping trek in two years and it feels heavy. The afternoon sky is patchy sun and cloud as the trail takes us through the Caledonian forest of Rothiemurchus; it is deep with Scots pine and mixed with the many greens of silver birch, aspen, and rowan. Blaeberry and heather carpet the woodland floor and the Allt Dhruidh burn chortles swift and shallow through the dappled light. I could lie down here and know peace.
As the trees thin and the path rises, we emerge onto rocky moor with the dark chasm of the Lairig Ghru up ahead, cloud massing on its tops. ‘Lairig’ is Gaelic for pass, but the origins of ‘Ghru’ are debated. Formed some 400 million years ago, this triangular cleft through the middle of the highest Cairngorms was once a route for cattle drovers and smugglers. Today we meet only walkers coming the opposite direction from Deeside and a mountain biker bombing down the track. With his long red hair and beard streaming from under his helmet he looks like an indomitable Gaul. I feel anything but, my heavy pack and boots making my gait clumsy and causing a sharp twang in the hip. Growing up in the Himalayas, I used to be a mountain goat; can I regain my hill feet as well as my head?
The rocky trail is lined with grasses, mosses, bog cotton and wildflowers, from buttercup yellow to the zingy purples of heather and vetch. Meadow pipits rise from the banks with their swift wing beat and bouncy flight, cheeping urgently and we keep Sileas on her lead. Gradually, the path reveals the red shades of the Cairngorm granite: dusky roses, peaches and wines. Though the rock turns grey with exposure, any fresh cut reveals its blood and it’s no wonder the Gaelic name for this range is Am Monadh Ruadh, the russet-coloured hills. The water spilling down from the mountain is so clear it makes the stream bed shine like polished copper, though higher up, it disappears and reappears among the rocks. Further in, the Lairig Ghru dims with mist, the steep scree giving way to the jagged cliffs of Lurcher’s Crag.
It’s nearly 7 when we arrive at the high point of the pass where the Pools of Dee are ice cold and give no sign of their waters flowing in or out. The bank of stones above the second pool and the swirling cloud give a sense of the world vanishing beyond. We pitch camp and cook in a blowing smirr, crawling early into our thermals and down bags. Unfamiliarity has made Sileas hyper-vigilant and she lies out for hours in the rain, staring around, until Alistair eventually tugs her under the bell. All night my sleep is routed by the scant darkness, the tent rattling, and the aching of my hips on the hard ground. I breathe wet dog and socks.
We wait out the rain and it is mid-morning when we pick our way down the boulder fall, the valley unfurling below in the gathering sunshine. The view stretches beyond the buttress of Devil’s Point to the smoky hills south of the Dee. To the west, the twin summits of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak are still wreathed in cloud, challenging me to reach them.
As the Garbh Choire opens to our right, we ford the burn that becomes the Dee and strike out across the bog. Small green frogs leap in front of us and the way is dotted with flowers, delicate and exquisite in this wind-battered place. The peaks gradually clear and we can see the rim of the high bowl between them that holds An Lochain Uaine – the green pool – and the waterfall that threads down from it, over dark rock. But we can see no path, for there is none.
We ford Allt a’ Garbh-Choire and push up the slope, finding a way among the stones, sometimes needing hands. Despite that, it’s easier going than yesterday as I don’t have a pack and my body is slowly remembering the footholds of youth. Cresting the rim I go even faster, almost running now across the boulder field until I see the lochan.
Yes. It’s here. It’s real.
My novel and my characters are imagined, but something about being in the actual place that is pivotal for them makes them seem real, too, as if they are not just in my mind, but alive and present. It’s almost as though I might meet them here and I feel like crying. I also feel silly. And elated. The pool keeps changing colour with the clouds, one moment blue, another gun metal grey, rarely, the green for which it is named. In my book, Sorley swims, and though I love outdoor swimming and harboured a fantasy of taking a dip, the cold wind and my cowardice soon snuff that notion.
Over our lunch of oatcakes and soup, we scan the north ridge of Angel’s Peak through binoculars. It was our planned route – because Sorley takes it – but we decide the steep scramble is unsafe for the dog and start up Cairn Toul instead, traversing above the lochan to an easier route. From there it’s still a hard, slow slog and my body’s memory of youth fades. I hear a text ping. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, arriving at the geographic and emotional climax of my novel, I get the news of a publisher? I laugh even before I check. I know it won’t be, and it isn’t.
And, right now, that’s okay. By the time we get to the top of Angel’s Peak, the sun has conquered the sky and the world is falling away below us. Though the wind almost throws me off my feet, I am overjoyed because I am here. Stretching in every direction, the Cairngorms are billowing round tents of stone, rising in waves and walls of granite, falling in cliffs and corries, bathing in light. Snow clings in deep crevices; burns are seams of silver in the grey and green; cloud shadows glide like sea galleons and mythical beasts across the slopes. Right below us, An Lochan Uaine lies dark and fathomless.
I don’t know if I will return to swim there just as I don’t know what will happen with the book, but I do know I am changed. In these mountains I have been washed by rain, shot through with light, blown to bits by wind and hung out to dry. The mountain has shaken me hard enough to make my bones rattle and my head break its locks; it has beaten me like a rug and cast the devils to the dust; it has seared its image on the wall of my mind.
But like Jacob wrestling with the Angel and wounded at the hip, I demand my blessing. As I walk the many hours home, I am remade. The mountain returns the pieces of me one by one in the ptarmigan’s croak and the taste of a clear burn; it restores me in the petals of a wild orchid and the gaze of deer; it reveals my lost path in ancient rock and lights my way in sun.
It restores my soul.