An Exploration of Highlands, Scotland – Part 2

17 06 2007

9-17 June 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8

The Great Wilderness

Into the Great Wilderness

Into the Great Wilderness

For three days I have walked across this wilderness. It has been an experience of a unique nature. Nature here is in her purest elements: untamed and free. The isolation is complete. The shapes and forms are spectacular. The silence is penetrating.

There is something greater than a thinking mind – a thoughtless mind. In these days in the wilderness I did not make any notes. I had few thoughts and no words. The scenes were all spectacular but these gave only human sensory experiences that didn’t need to be interpreted and understood. The meaning, and truth if you will, penetrates directly to the soul. We do not ask why, what for or for whom. The very existence of these mountains and the lakes seeks to explain itself. If there is anything that’s strange, it is human presence. I did not belong here.

Part of the reason why I had not made any notes was that I had traversed this wilderness almost like an animal. The foreboding concern was survival. Mind you, there are no wild animals here. There are no obvious dangers. Yet it was a new experience for me. I had to be self-sufficient. I had to find a clean source of water. I had to take great care in crossing the mountains. Even the slightest injury could have meant a great delay, with my food supply running out.

In a strict sense, this is not a true wilderness. There are few native trees here. Much of the terrain is taken up by forests in the medieval sense. In other words, these are forests with a capital “F”: Letterewe Forest, Dundonnell Forest, Kinlochewe Forest, Fisherfield Forest, Strathnashellag Forest. Deer are allowed to breed and roam freely on these estates which are a combination of peat bogs, barren hills and rugged mountains. Seasonal stalking is carried out for a few months from August onwards. Although there are not many walking paths here, the few that exist have been created by stalkers. These paths are clear and well-maintained. We must therefore ask “What’s a true wilderness?”

Is it one that has virtually no paths, a place where the walker is challenged to make his own? Is it a place where man has never trodden before, where nature has been left to herself with little help and no intervention? Is it a place farthest from any road or village by distance? This would appear to be the measure by which this part of Wester Ross is considered by many to be the last great wilderness in Britain. Is it perhaps a place most inaccessible? In other words, it may be quite close to civilisation by distance, but to traverse the natural barriers that define such a wilderness may be a mighty task. Or should we define a wilderness not by the landscape or its location, but by the isolated experience it is able to create? Should the focus be on the visitor rather than the place visited? By this measure, a wilderness could be a place where one is not likely to meet another human soul for days, where one is abandoned to the sole comfort of solitude.

On the bus from Inverness to Dundonnell, I met a fellow hiker, Brian from Lancaster. We both alighted at Corrie Hallie and walked together to Shenavall Bothy where we stayed for the night. A bothy is nothing more than a basic shelter. It has no toilets, no water, no electricity and no heating. At Shenavall, there were many hikers and climbers. Some slept in the bothy. Others slept in their tents which they had pitched some distance away from the bothy. As we entered the bothy, I noted a group of five sitting around a table drinking beer or tea along with their dinner. So from the very first moment, this was no wilderness for me. As I walked through the forests in the subsequent days, often I was alone but every few hours a party of hikers would pass me by. The feeling of isolation that I had expected of a wilderness was never complete.

The inside of Carnmore bothy

The inside of Carnmore bothy

For the second night, I stayed at Carnmore bothy where I was alone. Behind me, the mountains towered to a great height. In front of me and across a lake, the mountains looked down upon my miniscule form from the heights of floating clouds. To my left, the mountains rose ominously to dangerous heights and age-crafted pinnacles. To my right, the light of an orange sunset sky flickered from behind a secretive hill.

The next day I ventured towards this secretive hill. I started late for what was meant to be a short walk. When I reached the high pass between two moderate peaks in Fisherfield Forest, a new view opened to the northeast. This revealed some stunning pointed pinnacles that rose to the peak of Beinn Dearg Bheag. Here was a true wilderness. I met no one the entire morning on my ascent to this peak. There were no marked paths to the peak. I made a path for myself by reading the contours on the map and studying the terrain before me. I had been fortunate with good weather. It had not rained for many days. The bogs were dry. The streams were easily fordable. The sunshine was splendid.

While ascending the slopes of Beinn Dearg Bheag I passed groups of deer. They watched cautiously my every move. Their instinct tells them that humans are a threat. Their next move depended on my next step. While I had taken more than half an hour to cross a rocky slope, the deer negotiated the same in a matter of minutes. They are born for this wilderness. This is their natural terrain where man is at best a strange visitor.

Beinn Dearg Bheag towers to a height of 820m. At 600m, one of the best views is across the valley to the other side. We see the lake Lochan na Bearta high up on the cliff, trapped at a secure distance from the cliff’s edge. A little stream escapes quietly from the lake and plunges steeply down the rocky cliff. The beauty is that we can see the lake, the stream and the waterfall seamlessly connected within the same picture. It is as if someone should take a pitcher of water and tip it a little. But in this scene, the lake remains full so long as it is fed by mountain streams that gather their waters from the high and wide areas of Fisherfield Forest.

Mountains to frame the vision; lakes to wash the feet.

Mountains to frame the vision; lakes to wash the feet.

I stopped at 600m without making it to the actual peak. I was tired. I had never meant to come this far. I had been away from the bothy for six hours. It would take me another three hours to return. I had not brought any food with me, which I had left at the bothy. So I descended to the shores of Loch Beinn Dearg where, bounded by mountains into complete seclusion, I removed my boots and socks. I dipped my feet in the lukewarm water. A cool evening breeze made little waves lap at my feet. Thin stalks of grass floated across the water and stuck to my feet as green anklets. I sat mesmerized by the lapping waves. The sandy shore to my left bore the footprints of deer who had been here earlier in the afternoon for a drink.

All these are precious little details in a landscape dominated by mountains and their peaks. At any point, we are always in view of at least one of them. More often, we are surrounded by mountains in all directions. In the land of mountains, there is no claustrophobia. Mountains may wrap us in a space without windows but it is a space of no human scale.

The landscape in the Great Wilderness abounds with stunning views and perspectives that are too numerous to describe. There is danger in every rocky pinnacle of An Teallach. A’ Mhaighdean is a formidable barrier of rock formed so casually without deliberation by some hasty movements of the earth’s crust or by the retreat of melting sheets of ice. Yet it is perfect in its defence that exhibits no weakness. Cliff after cliff stand vertically in close proximity, forming a defensive shield that perhaps only the warrior Ashwathama can break; but even he cannot possibly come out of it. Some of these cliffs by a combination of rigid mass, rugged texture and heady verticals, invoke in us a little of what may be called sublime by Edmund Burke’s definition. I viewed A’ Mhaighdean at different angles, from different directions and distances. I viewed it on an overcast day when white clouds, so soft, smooth and light, floated amongst the rocky pinnacles and craggy slopes. I viewed it again the next day when the sun side-lit the cliffs to bring out in splendid contrast the sculpted details of high relief. I viewed its profile from the north. I looked up to see its rocky peaks from the southern slopes by Gorm Loch Mor. A landscape with such sublime spectacles makes us feel small. To live in such a landscape would make us nothing.

I finally left the wilderness this Tuesday afternoon. I had entered it on Saturday evening. For three days I had not seen a village or a road. My life had been set free from the noise of traffic and the fast pace that characterizes modern life. I had been enfolded in the arms of nature and what comforting arms! As I approached the village of Poolewe, the first signs of civilization brought me back to reality. Looking back from Poolewe, I saw the wilderness stretched across the horizon. The peaks peeped from amongst the clouds. The peaks stood with a magnetic charm. The peaks seemed to call out to me, to share once more their silence.

Soon after entering Poolewe, perhaps in a few minutes, the reality of everyday life came back more starkly than ever before. The radio blared out the news of the world: that there had been a grisly crime committed in London, that fresh fighting had started in Gaza, that revellers at the Rock Ness Festival had left mountains of rubbish and abandoned camping gear. I am not sure if the world in which we live is not the real wilderness.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8




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