Aug 252012

The biggest bottle of whisky in the world with its owner, Irene

This morning I woke stiff around the joints, having slept in the car at Tomintoul, a small village in the heart of the Cairngorms that boasts the biggest bottle of whisky in the world . . . that is to say, it will until the bottle Bell’s commissioned last week emerges from the big whisky bottle factory.

I never did quite get the knees straight last night, back seat, front seat – a fold out stool in the driver’s seat would have been good.

I drove through misted rain in the early light around to White Bridge, looking for the start of a trail through the Glenlivet Crown Estate; pulled in, threw snow peas and goats cheese into the pack and a bottle of water into each pocket; checked out the trail on the signpost, hoisted the pack onto my back and walked into my morning.

It’s at this point in a walk, any walk into the unknown, that a little smile of excitement bursts through me, reminding me as it does of my hunting days in New Zealand, trailing the wild boar and deer through the forests.

I’m confident in the trail; it looked clear on the toy map and the old woman in the Tomintoul information centre had looked at me like I was stupid yesterday when I quizzed her about the markings on the trail, assuring me it was ‘waymarked’ all the way. I wasn’t that confident in her response at the time, as I’d walked in at 30 seconds to five and she wasn’t remotely interested in my questions.

Besides, she looked at me like I was doubly stupid when I asked her if she’d walked the trail herself.

The track was easy and wide, soon narrowing to a small mossy trail that climbed gently around a pine forest. It was raining, softly, a beautiful day for a walk. Across the glen I could see the Victorian Sporting Lodge, one of the features of the walk listed on the back of the signpost at the start of the track.

The hills were rolling green in the grey day, now purple with the heather, now grass for swollen sheep; small pockets of straggly forest bruising the landscape deepest darkest green.

It was early, the sun a watery glow behind the clouds. I climbed over stile after stile, now on soft mud, now following a brown trail of dead leaves through a mossy beech forest. The light dimmed; mushrooms glowed orange from the forest floor.

It was easy walking, small bright blue circles nailed to posts guiding me at forks in the path. The track widened, wound past a farmhouse, over a stile – and there, on the edge of a wide watery track, my day wheeled about. A tall sign pointed clearly in three directions. I stared: Dorback was 6 kms away, and I was confident that wasn’t me because my circle track was only 7 kms long and I’d come a hellova lot further than a kilometre; Bridge of Brown was 2 kms away – that could be me, but it was the wrong colour bridge; Tomintoul was 4 kms and that really wasn’t me.

I decided to follow Bridge of Brown, partly because it was only 2 kms and wouldn’t be a complete disaster if I had to turn back, and besides, mathematically it made the most sense.

The trail to Bridge of Brown followed a fenceline beside a scraggly pocket of trees, uphill. The ground was boggy; two black sheep stood in my way but scattered soon enough as I climbed the hill; a cow burst through the wire fence, sending a hum into the morning; she stood firm on the track, staring staring staring, right at my face. I looked away, lest she be head cow, and moved closer to the fenceline.

The track was steep, pockmarked with muddy clods of earth. A nagging sense that I was on the wrong track set in, fuelled by three things:

1. the note on the back of the signpost said there were small steep fragments on the trail but none were hard going; this was seriously steep and would not be easy going for the less than surefooted;

2. when the cow had stopped me I had looked back down the hill – there was a farmhouse ruin nearer the trail, which had been noted on the list of features on the back of the signpost;

3. two sheep and a cow had tried to stop me.

I kept going, up, up, up, thinking to make the top of the hill and get my bearings from there. Naturally, as is the way with hills, the top is only the beginning of the next hill. At the crest of the third ‘top’ common sense kicked in. This was not my path.

I rolled back down the way I came, soaked to my knees with the wet grass, and stared at the rogue signpost all over again; settled on Dorback and startled the sheep near the farmhouse ruin. Five minutes later, I crossed a stile and the track disappeared, all together; just like that I faced a sea of heather, a hundred sheep and another staring cow.

Wherever Dorback was, I wasn’t going there. I backtracked to a fork in the wide farm track and followed the fenceline – up up up . . . until I met the boggy track I’d abandoned in the first place.

I walked on. And on. And on. Up, up, up. Over one crest then another, and another. On and on, using the fenceline as my guide, until it was about to tip me over the top of the day towards a long steep stretch of road in the distance that I knew I had not driven that morning from Tomintoul.


The track forks and I turn towards the sun, walking into the pockmarked purple sea now unfurling all around. Utterly, hopelessly lost, at the top of the world, I stop to take a breath.


I become conscious of the word and my world turns.

Lost is always an opportunity.

For courage, if nothing else.

I stop in my tracks, double over, my arms hanging low while I catch my breath and give my back a break from the pack.


The moment I straighten up the mental fuzz of lost clears: the light shifts, colours in miniature brighten, small flowers shine, my senses sharpen.

I smile, wide and full, cradled by the top of the world.

And walk on.

The track peters out and tall posts mark small horizons. The tall posts disappear and then I really am on my own. I plough on through the heather, my feet seeking high clods of grass, unsure how deep the puddles that lurk beneath the grasses might be. In the distance I can see Tomintoul, a river, a farmhouse. I tramp on into the morning, thankful for the cool rain – on a walk like this I’d take the wind and driving rain any day over the merciless heat of sunshine.

The mountain tips towards the valley below. I look around, certain I do not want to walk into the forest ahead of me – which is where I discover, over the barbed wire fence to my left, a large conical cairn beaming brightly from the mountainside. I scramble over, there is a seat beside it – and far in the valley below is the Victorian Sporting Lodge.

I dig deep into my pockets for the small white pyramid shaped rock I’d picked up from the steep incline above the farmhouse ruin, token of confusion, touchstone of lost, and tuck it neatly into the cairn.

And walk on, confident now with the wide trail beneath my feet . . . until it disappears all together.

I plough on and on through the heather, meet a watercourse and slide with it down the mountainside, until I meet a muddy puddle with a boot print – I test it and find it’s my own.

I peek around a small wooden post to see the blue circle with an arrow, pointing me up the way I have come, backtracking now until two hours later than I ought to be I see her, Hi Ho Silver, sweet chariot waiting faithfully beside the signpost at White Bridge: my transport, my home.


 August 25, 2012  Tagged with: , , , ,  1 Response »
Aug 152012

O flo’er o’ Scotland, when will we see your likes again
Who fought and died for, each wee bit hill and glenn
And stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.

Of all the songs I have sung to my grandchildren over the years, as they lie in their beds and I sing them to sleep, this one – the Scottish national anthem – is my grandson’s favourite. He is 13; it still is, perhaps in part, but only in part, because of the broad Scottish brogue I summon to my throat for the occasion.

Go’orn, you think I googled the words? I didn’t even look them up. If there are any mistakes, they’re my own. I can roll those rrrr’s with the best of ’em and I could even give you the other verses, but I’ll spare you – okaaay, they’re at the bottom.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Surprises me too. Och aye, I can hear you noo, wondering how I came to know all the words to the Scottish national anthem.

Actually, I’m really not sure.

Except to say it was one of the quirkier legacies of the year I lived in Scotland with my family when I was 16.

1975. One of the funniest years of my life.

And here I am again! In the highlands at Inverness, heading further north and east tomorrow to Hopeman, the small fishing village that was my home almost 40 years ago.

I caught the train up from London on Monday, Inverness being as far from Edinburgh as Edinburgh is from London. The first thing I noticed is that north of Edinburgh, the signs at the train stations are these days bilingual. And where the Welsh use lots of Ps, Ws and Ds, the Gaelic of the Highlanders is more gutteral, loaded with Gs, Hs and Ms. No wonder I couldn’t understand Hilary Jack’s father in 1975!

In both cases, if you close your eyes to linguistic common sense, you can hear English tongues wrapped around the strange words and find the old word in the new. Or the new in the old.

That year among the Scots taught me something incredibly important about the English language that I have never forgotten – and that is an explanation for the strange spelling of English, words like night and taught and two, for example.

The Scots pronounce every letter – English is actually phonetic.

They don’t say nite – but n-i-g-h-t. Not tort – but t-a-u-g-h-t. Not too but tw-o. Even ing on the ending of words – i-n-g.

I remember Inverness in 1975 as being a grey, wet city of small shops with bells that tinkled when you walked in. Inverness today is bright with the intermittent sunshine. Then it begins to rain and the old city looks just as it always did, only today’s streets are filled with meandering tourists rather than women in scarves scuttling by for their daily bread. And I’m not so sure the hand-knitted woollen shop that is my mother’s sharpest memory still sells hand-knitted jumpers . . . certainly the gloves are not wool, but synthetic fleece.

I wander along the River Ness, gentle and wide – and yes, Loch Ness is down the road; I spy the castle peeping out from behind new developments on the main street and wander up the road towards the keep, past old churches heralding a parade of Christian fashion, and there, outside the castle door, I find Flora MacDonald, large and bronzey green.

Flora! Flora is extraordinary because she is an 18th century woman with a sensible dog, both enshrined in statue. Flora is strong and she is clearly a woman on a mission. Flora is her own person. And the fact I am making such a fuss about Flora indicates how often I see my own reflection, and the reflection of women I know, in public art. Such women have always existed; rarely are they exalted as fine examples of womanhood. Flora is today’s s/hero.

I google Flora: hers is the honour of acceptance by men for her courage in helping princes escape and standing tall in the face of privateers’ demands. I didn’t look very hard, but even so found no mention of the dog.

The castle, the current version of which was built in the 18th century, is the last in a long line of castle forts that have held Inverness for various invaders stretching back to the 12th century. Mary Queen of Scots was here, so too Robert the Bruce.

I hear bagpipes filling the air with the ancient call to life that has sounded in these hills forever, and follow my heart down the hill.

Scotland. As the train rattled north the other night I was surprised to find tears welling in my eyes for the hills of heather outside the window, for misted mountains, for anticipation of what I will find in a small village that is as much home to a wanderer as anywhere; a highland homecoming that has been nigh on 40 years in the advent.

The hills are bare now, and autumn leaves lie thick and still
O land that is lost now, which those so dearly held
And stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.

Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now, and be the nation again
That stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.