on the train

20 September, on the train from Inverness to Edinburgh

on the hill going out of Diabaig I reversed a little, as we were two cars caught between Passing Places, and into the ditch I went. I might have been fooled and confused by having observed again that on moors and in boggy places cattle and sheep often congregate by the edge of the road because there there is often a slightly raised and free draining bank where the grass grows more sweetly and in an emergency a vehicle may safely pull over. A hard shoulder, in fact. In this case though the road was bordered by a soft belly. But what lovely people, what a nice little mishap to allow us all to be at our best. The charming young brother and sister, who told me that they had also been caught up in the previous day’s altogether grander show, to which we were only spectators: the artic (like a dying beached whale) which, when it couldn’t get up the hill to Diabaig, reversed and then got stuck in a roadside scoop, like a tiny quarry, where it tried to turn round. Luckily Scottish Water were on hand with yellow jackets, shovels and authority. Jo at the shop in Torridon told me this morning that the lorry was supposed to be going to Kishorn, it was miles off its route on a no-through road. And the couple from Orpington in their hired camper van. The four of them pushed me out of the ditch.

I thought that, once on the train, it would just be me and eternity in the carriage. (different from just he or her with their smart phone.)

‘The carriage held / but just ourselves / and immortality.’ But death would not be present.

Then as I drove out of Kinlochewe I remembered that I had forgotten to buy petrol. I didn’t turn back. Achnasheen, I thought. But the filling station in Achnasheen looked as if it had already endured a few winters since it closed. Garve, I thought, and nursed the car along past the grey lochs.

Now this train is creeping past yellowing birches like a man pushing a wheelbarrow. Now it has stopped. Pine, willow, alder making themselves at home on the border, the embankment between railway line and bog.

No filling station in Garve. Finally Contin. I don’t know how we held out. I was sure I was going to have to thumb a ride to the next filling station.

Yesterday as we came back down my back began to ache.

I did what I was told – I tore across and down, and the UHT milk shot up my sleeve.

My back began to ache, the rucksack wasn’t right, and it was a long way down. I had taken my boots off to ford the stream. This time I’d picked a narrower, deeper spot and the brown water surged around my knees and my feet wobbled over the slippery stones. Ann had picked a spot to cross with her boots on, and said that her feet got only a little wet (my pen is bouncing and wobbling between heather on the left and pine forest.) I found that hard to believe because I thought I could see the water surging up over her ankles. On the way up she had said firmly, “I’m not taking my boots off!” And then too I found it hard to believe that she got over with dry feet, though her speed and agility must have helped. As I was drying my feet I said, “you go on, I’ll catch you up,” but I couldn’t. She took me at my word and by the time I’d got my boots on she was a dot in the

Carrbridge Drochaid Charr

distance. and we only met up again just before the road and the car, when she must have finally slowed. I seemed to have developed a lean to the left. I can’t remember the last time I walked so far so fast and so awkwardly. I couldn’t seem to go straight. I couldn’t get my rucksack comfortable. I couldn’t catch up. it was about seven miles I saw from the map later. I had foolishly said we’d be back in about an hour and a half.

Just above the horizon the old grey bunches of cloud give way to a cold blue sky.

And my head seemed to want to hang to the left.

A yellow man with a mower and another with a blower in a very small bungalow back garden on the edge of Aviemore, just beyond the sheds.

Aviemore An Aghaidh More

But I was surprised to learn that the walk back from the head of the Loch of the Night (d’hoidche, pronounced like German ‘eiche’) had taken 2½ hours – at least – we argued a little over what time we had left poca buidhe (that ‘dh’ seems to be silent, at least to my leaning ears)

Diffuse sunshine like ghosts in the trees, and away to the east the Cairngorms have taken the veil.

But I would say there had been tension all day.

Model allotments at Kingussie.

Kingussie Ceann a’ Ghiuthsaich

I was silly with speculation and information – we call it the Scots pine! But its distribution stretches from here to the Caucasus!

A big calf suckling still.

I talked about waymarking, about the absence of signs and splashes of paint on mountain routes in Britain, and how useful it was in the Alps, and particularly consoling in bad weather though sometimes overdone.

And I had to talk about refuges, how good it was in the Alps not to have to make the long descent but to stay high up in a refuge where you could get a meal and a beer and a bed, to enjoy a peaceful evening and see the sunset – Ann didn’t think they’d be able to get people to work in them, but I think she saw the idea as a threat to the wilderness, as waymarking would be. People should find their way without that sort of help, she said, with a map and a compass.

And I had to talk about the importance of bridges, structures we take for granted but without which it would be impossible or at least very difficult to travel any distance in the Highlands, or anywhere, anywhere there are rivers. I said that she, Ann had said the previous day that until recently it was easier to transport goods to the north west from Glasgow by sea than by road. Until the 1960’s, she thought, a boat would call – at Diabaig? or Gairloch? – with supplies. I said that until the 18th century only one bridge crossed the Thames at London. Which bridge was that, she asked. Why, London Bridge, of course. This conversation was prompted by my precarious paddle over slippery stones through the fast running Abhainn Loch na h’Oidhche.

She affirmed her love of her own company. She tolerated my ignorant efforts to name the views. Corrected me on “buidhe”, from which I was sure our word bothy must be derived.

Newtonmore Baile Ur an t-Sleibh

The bothy is called poca buidhe, buidhe means red and poca something like a hollow. But we could exclaim together over a great mound of wrinkled gneiss, and the little green stones on one section of the path which later lost their colour even though they had been dry when I picked them up. And she named the peaks. I knew saw teeth An Teallach far off, and Slioch with its cluster of broad spears on the north western cliffs above Loch Maree. But she showed me Ben Eoin and told me how to pronounce it, and Baos Beinn and Beinn a Charcail. We got as far as the bothy at the far end of the Loch of the Night, with its announcement that because the bothy code had not been followed by all the Gairloch Estate had reluctantly closed it to all comers. It was now only available to private parties, fishermen mostly. And it was in a lovely spot, securely placed among huge guardian erratics, with a new roof. I could see white duvets and bunk beds through a narrow window. She sorted out my confusion over Beinn Dearg (Jerrack.) From the north the land lies differently.

Heather drizzles in spoonfuls and humps as we pick up speed on the descent to Blair Atholl. Down there is the River Tummel. The friendly old lady from Nairn on the way up couldn’t remember its name – she googled ‘river at Pitlochry’ and got the name. With the times, she had only moved for the day to see old friends in Glasgow. She was growing old in Nairn. the timetable gave her seven hours on trains and 1½ hours in Glasgow.

It was well dark by the time we drove down to Gairloch. Was Ann anxious about finding a place to eat? We got to the Myrtle Hotel by the waterfront just in time, We had a table by the big black window and I had to say, “a view of the car park”, though I imagined the sea lay beyond.

Blair Atholl Blar Atholl

The waiters seemed to be well meaning sixth formers. Ann wanted a starter called cullen skink, a creamy fish soup from eastern Scotland which she later blamed for making her too full to finish her main course.

Not quite a gorge but a steep wooded valley of beech trees with the river below rushing over rocks. Again, at the entrance to a big house, trophy trees, pairs of wellingtonias from the late 19th century, contenders, hoping to be Europe’s tallest trees by the end of the century.

Pitlochry Baile Chloichridh

someone just sat opposite me. stuck his elbow against my other glasses and didn’t nod or even look up at me when I looked at him. Watching a video on his smart phone already. Green on the phone is definitely greener today.

Then I made the mistake of asking my question. The story of the clearances has people removed from their lovely glens to the harsh shore when they didn’t even know how to fish.

He’s sort of squashed into the corner uncomfortably and I see that he hasn’t even taken off his little rucksack. Under the table, bare knees. Plenty of grazing among the brown stalks of dead dock teeming with fertile seed in the now flat and wide valley of the Tummel. He’s got that intimate i-phone smile now, which seems as it spreads to double his chin. Now it’s lol! Go on, have a proper laugh!

What was it really like in the glens, in the old homesteads? (What is the proper word?) Was there sweet grass? How did they grow grain? Now it’s all dismal bog, hungry heather or swarming bracken.

Dunkeld and Birnam Dun Chaillean & Braonan

How much constant work did it take to farm there? Were they forever digging drainage ditches? And where were they? The sites of English villages which disappeared in the 14th century after the plague are still marked in that gothic script which the Ordnance Survey keeps for Heritage and Ancient Monuments. But the much more recently emptied townships (an Irish word?) of the Highlands have disappeared even from the map. Ann seemed puzzled by my question. Or at least she didn’t take it up. Some of the ruined shielings, which are summer settlements, are marked. Because they were abandoned more recently? Ann had told me before that those shown on the map at Araid, across the bay from Diabaig, were not shielings at all but permanent dwellings, given up as recently as the 1950’s when the last inhabitants moved to Diabaig. Strange to think of little Diabaig as a place which people once moved into rather than away from. People also came there from Craig, along the coast towards Red Point. As if Diabaig grew a little, then faded. My faith is the authority of the Ordnance Survey is shaken. It takes great are over the detail of English history from the bronze age burial tumuli of Salisbury plain to the nineteenth century tin mines of Cornwall but up in the Highlands of Scotland all those little heaps of stones are just ‘shielings’. Somehow I moved on to James Hunter, historian and political activist. Ann didn’t know that according to him the impoverished people of the Highlands were at first encouraged to remain, kept as indentured labour almost, to cut the kelp which fetched a good price until after the Napoleonic Wars for its industrial uses. The landlords actually made it difficult for them to emigrate. Hypocritical health and safety laws were passed which limited the number of passengers on ships and made it the passage too expensive. All that changed when the price of kelp collapsed. When I said that the Free Presbyterians had become popular with the people because the ministers took their side (like the down to earth, in a sense, methodists from the same period of history in England,) when those of the established church supported, naturally, the establishment, she denied that such a thing could have taken place in Scotland. “In England, maybe…” And she said that the wee frees only came into existence in 1895. So I said that it must have been their predecessors. I couldn’t remember the book clearly, of course. Religious parties, like political churches, loved schism. It purifies. Because I had forgotten James Hunter’s name she supplied it by suggestion, and it turned out that she knew him – through “academia”. And I told her she would have to have the argument with him. I was aware that I had upset her. I told her I would send her the book. Casey has it. 1

He’s getting up, with his bright green rucksack, bottle of lucozade peeping out, twin poles, well cut hair with golden highlights.

Perth no Gaelic name

Tattoo in the darkness of the stone fort of Perth station. Girders almost denuded of paint holding up murky roof of corrugated plastic.

She couldn’t even finish her glass of wine. As we drove home I tried to pass the time and lighten the mood by telling her of my hilarious and ridiculous adventures in the mountains.

Now a polite grey-bearded man with a little notebook opposite.

how I threw my boots to the far bank of a stream in Switzerland while paddling across and they hit the bank and fell back into the fast flowing water and floated on a long journey to the river Rhone and the mediterranean. How Sheila and I feared for our lives in a terrible thunderstorm in Slovenia. We split up as we crossed the summit plateau of Vogel so that Rosie wouldn’t lose both parents to the same bolt of lightning. That kind of thing, which probably made her feel that I was dangerous and unreliable. And somehow I still kept leaning to the left. Lurched into road-side stones. Twice. She said, be careful.

Markinch Marc-Innis

Only this morning, driving to Inverness and coasting downhill with the engine turned off did I realise that I had been driving too fast, though only at about 30.

through Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, I left off. At Edinburgh, though laden and heavy with stones, I ran and managed to jump on the 4 30 (only 3 hours and 37 minutes after leaving Inverness) just as the doors were closing, a train leaving half and hour earlier than the one I was booked on. Now I’m on the wrong side (starboard, inland though that’s ok) of the train in a carriage with an annoying intermittent hum. Might look for a different seat.

Ann still gets around by boat. She goes out in a little rowing boat to check on her lobster pots, and she gathers and sells cockles. She doesn’t wear a life jacket. She doesn’t have a car or a computer. She’s written two booklets on the history of Diabaig. And no, she wouldn’t take anybody out in it, it’s too small.

By the time we got back last night it was getting on for 11, we were both tired ( I was knackered), I had been driving badly without even realising it, which is worrying, and which probably increased the tension between us. She told me, a little abruptly, that she was busy the next day and I couldn’t have breakfast later than 8 30. I said 8 would be fine and I would set the alarm.

This morning she was quite sunny again. I asked her about the lilies in her garden. She calls them tiger lilies, they’re yellow apparently and she got them from her parents’ garden and planted them when they moved to the bungalow at the beginning of the 90’s. I asked about the Loch Ness Production photos on the wall, her daughter Chloe with an actor. Yes, she was in the film! I hope she was well paid, I said. Diabaig stood in for Loch Ness, I don’t know why.

I think I have now stopped drifting to the left.

Between writing I’ve been looking at my photos. I think I have a few good ones. And when was it that I realised that the charming young couple, brother and sister, who helped me out of the ditch,were actually in a photo I took the previous day of the beached lorry?

She hoped I would be able to carry all my rocks and grit, and I have. I told Jo in the Torridon shop that I had a heavy load, and as I left she said, send us a picture of your rock garden! She had 100 people in the cafe yesterday! I said her gamble had paid off. She said at the time there were places for sale in Gairloch, but she wouldn’t want to live in Gairloch. No, I said, I don’t care for Gairloch. Or Kinlochewe. She wouldn’t want to live there. Or Kishorn. Or even Shieldaig. No, I said, Torridon is the place to be.

This might be Peterborough.

with additions in December, and February

1I sent her the book, I don’t know how she got on with it

This entry was posted in diary, history, politics, mountains, flowers, landscapes, walks and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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