These are my stories of mountains. Every hill-goer, hill-looker or hill-knower will have their own. I used to think to love them you had to climb them but now I think that was wrong. You don't need to climb a mountain or even look at a mountain to love it. Just to know it's there can be enough.
I have chosen the hills of the Scottish Highlands and Islands for these stories because I miss them. This will be the first year in over two decades I have not spent time amongst them, exploring them, looking at them, feeling their grandeur and beauty. In drawing and writing of them I am using memories to return to them. Not the same as being there but reassuring nonetheless.
It was the Scottish Highlands where I properly learned hill-craft - the ability to take care of myself in the mountains. How to navigate, to read the hills, to know when in poor conditions to retreat to the valley and wait for another day and when to keep going. I have been lost so many times, cold, hungry and tired, wishing I was somewhere else. I think you have to experience these hard times in order to truly appreciate the days of wonders, sunny days, snowy days, days when you see all the seasons and the light on the mountains is something else. These mixed-up kind of days are some of the best for painting. When the light is changing constantly, the sky a mixture of blue, white and dark grey cloud, the sun shining its rays of different parts of the landscape, casting deep shadows in places and exploding colour in others.
Some of the hills I write of are Munros, many are not. While I have probably climbed around 200 of the 282 Munros, I am not counting. My partner is however, over the years through mountain journeys with him, I have explored many parts of the Highlands in pursuit of their summits. That is the good thing about Munros - bagging them takes you all over the Highlands to explore their varying terrain and landscape. The reason I am not counting them is because I don't want my own journeys into the Scottish hills to be reduced to a list of summits. I have enough lists in my life. Ticking them off can lead to tunnel vision; I want to visit places in the Highlands and Islands because of their beauty, challenge and culture, not because they have the highest peaks. Arran, the Uists, Moidart, Rhum, Ardnamurchan, Harris and many other places spring to mind. Merits measured by height alone fall short.
I love it that regions of the Highlands and the Islands have their own personal character, things that differentiate them from one another. Look to the Cairngorm Plateau and the jagged peaks of Skye's Black Cuillin and this variation is clear. Assynt, the Flow Country of the Far North, the machair, bogland and smaller peaks of the Uists, the ridges of Kintail, the Rough Bounds of Knoydart. These are just a few of them. I could spend the rest of my life in any one of these places and be content. That there are so many different mountain characters so close to each other blows my mind when I stop to think about it. And writing is leading me to stop and think, to get my feelings, memories, my real and imagined journeys down in words.
Alongside painting and sketching, writing takes me back to the mountains and reading the words of others does the same. Nan Shepherd, Norman MacCaig, Andrew Grieg, Neil Gunn and more. Writers on and of the Highlands whose own words, whether in poetry or prose, evoke the characters of the high places that they so clearly loved. There are so many mountain stories.
Maybe it's fitting to start with one of the furthest away hills, Ben Hope. A translation of its original Gaelic Beinn Hòb - meaning Hill of the Bay - this mountain rises up from the bog-lands surrounding it - the Flow Country.
This Flow Country is a special place, the likely largest area of blanket bog-land in the world. An acidic mix of peat, moss, heather and the wildlife that lives within and on it, it covers much of Caithness and Sutherland, the two most northern and remote regions of mainland Scotland. In low light this bog-land can seem dull and unwelcoming but, with a little sun, it can feel different altogether, a thousand tinges of brown, yellow, ochre and gold.
The hills of these regions rise from this tundra, their ridges and folds pushing up through the flatlands, upsetters of the equilibrium as all peaks are. While Ben Hope is well-known to Scottish hill-goers as the most northerly Munro, close to it are Ben Loyal, Arkle and Foinaven. These mountains are not as high yet they look to have at least as much character and are mysteries to me, I have not yet stepped foot on any of them. Foinaven in particular appeals. Casting its shape in my head from looking at maps and remembering my last view of it - snow-topped with cloud blowing fast eastwards over its summit plateau set against a dark-grey sky - sets me off dreaming about trips back north.
Ben Hope is a triangular lug of a hill, most sheer on its western side, its main ridge running from its steep and highest northern end to the far lower south. Its craggy north-west face is steep enough to have noted winter climbs. The north-east face descends less steeply but surely down to four large lochans and then more open ground towards Ben Loyal.
With my partner, Aidan, I climbed Ben Hope in the spring of 2011. Early in May, we were staying for a week near Stoer in Assynt, part of a three-week trip to the Highlands. We were lucky with the weather for the whole of those three weeks. High pressure settled over the north, giving us the conditions we'd hoped for.
This trip marked the end of one part of our lives and the beginnings of another - ten months later our first daughter was born. Something that we wanted but that didn't mean we would not miss the freedoms that to a degree were set to leave us, at least for a while. We binged on the north-west Highlands. Along with Assynt and the Far North, we went into the Fisherfields, traversed the great ridges of Torridon, explored the Glen Carron hills and, finally, those of Glencoe as we headed back home.
In Assynt we stayed in a small cottage close to coastal road that runs from Lochinver, through the small townships of Stoer and Drumbeg the join the main road north underneath Quinaig, one of the striking, isolated mountains for which Assynt is so renowned. It was a short, boggy run from the back garden to the Old Man of Stoer, the sandstone sea-stack sitting close to the Stoer Lighthouse. Early one morning I saw dolphins playing in the water close to the Old Man, skimming through the swell as it rolled and eventually broke against the rocks at the base of the cliffs.
Stoer is a base for the Assynt Crofter's Trust. Its surrounding land is community owned by the Trust, one of the rare progressions back to local land ownership after the forced evictions of the Clearances through the 19th century. Throughout whole regions of the Highlands people were removed from their homes and land to make way for sheep farming. A crime of humanity and a ramping up of the agricultural that was then expanding into the industrial revolution. Here we are today, trying to cope with the climate crisis that is the outcome of such changes. In returning to local ownership and crofting - the practice of small-scale community farming and food production - the Trust has closed the circle. Reflecting the modern era they have built and run a small hydro-electric power station on the North Assynt Estate at Loch Poll.
It was a bright, cold and clear morning in Stoer when we left to drive further north. From the front door of the cottage was the superlative sight of the hills of Assynt across the horizon. I froze five of those hills in an oil painting later that year, back home and three-months pregnant, inspired by the scene that morning and the words of Norman MacCaig:
'Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out
these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
and left, on the hard rock below - the
ruffled foreland -
this frieze of mountains, filed
on the blue air - Stac Polly,
Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven,
Canisp - a frieze and
The above lines are an extract from A Man In Assynt, MacCaig's most political poem, in which he is lyrical about the beauty of Assynt and critical of its history of depopulation and mis-management by distant wealthy landowners.
'Who owns this landscape? -
The millionaire who brought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Who possesses this landscape? -
The man who brought it or I who am possessed by it?
False questions, for
this landscape is
and intractable in any terms
that are human.'
While MacCaig was certainly on the side of the Crofters, the above lines question the right for anyone to own Assynt. MacCaig and his poem became emblematic for the Crofters and their objective of regaining the land. He died in 1996 and so did not live to see the community land buy-out by the Trust in 2003. He will always be associated with it.
We drove towards Ben Hope, along the main road from Ullapool, over the bridge at Kylesku, past Scourie and left at the junction over the Laxford Bridge, with such fine views of Foinaven I wondered why we were not going there.
A sea fret - what do they call them up there? - started to close down the sunshine, the mist becoming thicker as we approached the hills of the Far North. A quick stop to climb Ben Klibreck (this was one of those Munro-bagging days I tiraded against earlier) and we were back in the car to continue to the foot of Ben Hope.
From the car park at the bottom of the Allt a' Mhuiseil burn and a large sign reading 'Footpath up Ben Hope' we began to climb. Steeply for the first mile or so to gain the ridge, then gentler climbing to the summit. It was disappointing not to get a view but aside from the mist the weather was benign, there was little wind to speak of, it had turned into a warm May day. As we climbed I quietly hoped we would pull clear of the clag but that did not happen. We did get something approaching ethereal light at the summit, the late afternoon sun kept threatening to burn through but never quite made it.
We climbed Ben Hope before the establishment of the North Coast 500, the long distance route around the northern highlands that has been far more successful than surely was originally envisioned in pulling people further up the country for their holidays and road trips. It's busier up there now, at least during certain parts of the year.
As I write I'm imagining a quieter time and the landscape in the short and low light of winter. I'm re-climbing Ben Hope alone, a pack on my back contains crampons and strapped to it is an ice-axe. Although it's unlikely I'll need them today it pays to be prepared in the Scottish hills, particularly in winter. The weather is a mixture of sunshine and cold sleet showers that cross the mountain in bands, one minute you have a clear view out over the Flow Country, Cape Wrath and the sea beyond, the next you're squinting to be able to see as heavy wet droplets of sleet are blown hard against your face. It feels quite oppressive but perversely it's welcome, these feelings of discomfort are part of what hill-going in Scotland is all about.
Other parts of the same experience include looking out across the surrounding flat ground from high on the hillside when the sun breaks through the cloud and lights the land, its brown heather, lochans and moss a glow of colour - mostly browns, greens and gold are in there too, interspaced with the fleeting blue of the clearing sky reflected on pools of water. I imagine this light, can almost feel the sleet against my face, a stray drop blows straight into one of my ears so I pull down my buff down from the top of my head to cover them both.
Aside from the procession of camper vans and motorbikes along with the odd cyclist along the winding coast road, many cruising the North Coast 500, the land is empty. What must it have been like in the old crofting communities before the Clearances? The ruined shielings here and there on lower ground are signs of them, scatterings of the remnants of stone buildings - no roofs as the turf they were made of would have been the first thing of the building to fall back into the land.
In my mind I continue to the summit of Ben Hope. The sleet has turned into the damp kind of snow that settles on the ground enough for your feet to sink into, my fell-running shoes become soaking wet. I wonder whether I should stop to put on extra clothes or just keep moving fast enough to stay warm, deciding on the latter.
As I approach the summit cairn the weather closes in further. I pull out a waterproof cap from my pocket, fleece-lined with flaps I can pull over my ears, quickly putting it on as I turn into the wind to reverse my route up the hill. Lowering my head into the wind, the peak will offer my eyes some protection against the now driving snow. Finding I can lean into the gusts, I make slow but steady progress down the hill until eventually the snow recedes, becoming rain. I plod on, the studs of my shoes making the familiar tracks of a fell-runner in the mud of the path.
While my imagined climbing of Ben Hope in winter sleet may seem a morose experience, it is anything but. I love the Far North and Assynt. Although I have seen them on clear, warm, sunny days, this is not how I remember them. It's the moody times I love the most in these strange isolated hills. Rarely linked by ridges, their age and geology mean they stand alone, stark shapes on the skyline, their bases brown with tundra, higher parts dusted white with snow.
Ben Hope is one of these isolated mountains. From where I'm writing it's the last and furthest hill, a pinnacle of remoteness. But what must it have meant to those approaching the sanctuary of the bay from the north, from the open sea? The fishermen and other sailors. For them it would have marked the hope found in calmer waters and the promise of company.
The polymath Tim Robinson died on 3rd April this year. Aged 85 and in ill-health, he contracted coronavirus and passed away shortly after his life-partner, Máiréad.
Robinson spent many years of his life on the west coast of Ireland. It was here he found much of the source material for his work. This brought together art, mathematics and creative non-fiction, his maps alone are incredible things - detailed, intricate and beautiful studies of land and place.
I personally only discovered his writing, art and maps a few years ago. In reading and looking at them, through their great insight and the thinking they generated in me, I found and am continuing to find an incredible inspiration. I used to think that finding inspiration in this way to be a kind of copying, something I shouldn't do, that I needed to always find my own way. Over the years however I have come to realise that this is one of the most (if not the most) important sources of creativity. The phrase standing on the shoulders of giants exists for a reason. In sharing their work people like Robinson offer up gifts for us all to enjoy and learn from.
Robinson's Connemara trilogy is recognised as a masterpiece of place writing. Three books that go deep into the land, life, history and culture of the many peninsulas of Connemara. His words evoke the natural beauty of the west coast of Ireland and explore its history and science in ways that blend it all together to make something wondrous. Was it his polymath ways that enabled him to do this? The way he could see and understand with many different intellectual disciplines, and could bring them together with beautiful writing was perhaps unique to his genius.
Shortly after his passing I re-read Connemara - listening to the wind, the first of this trilogy. While I have spent time in Northern Ireland, around Belfast, Antrim and the Mourne Mountains, I have not visited the west of Ireland. At home in Yorkshire now, a few months into a pandemic second-wave and a lock-down that is becoming increasingly strict, my mind is wandering even more than usual. I am lucky to live in a place with open countryside, woodland, moor and nature close-by. While I really miss them, I can wait to spend time in the mountains again. I know they have a habit of not going anywhere fast, that they'll still be there when I can next get to them. All that said, over the past decade or so, I have found ways of getting to the mountains and other wild land other than physically. Writing of them, painting, reading about them takes me there. I have been mining memories - my own and those of others - of places I have travelled to and spent time wandering across.
In Connemara Tim Robinson writes of the wonders of the bog-lands above and around his home in Roundstone, describing them in terms of their geology, natural history and beauty:
"There are a hundred or more lakes in the twenty-five or thirty square miles of Roundstone Bog, most of them lying in rock-basins, the work of the glaciers that come out of the mountains to the north and pushed across the region, dragging away most of the soil and loose stone, in the last Ice Age. This is what the geologists call knock-and-lochan topography, from the Irish words cnoc, hill, and lochán, lakelet. Hillocks of bare rock stand out among acres of sodden sedgy ground; even the more walkable stretches are a mosaic of heathery hummocks and wet holes."
If Robinson was writing to make the Roundstone Bog seem enticing in a perverse kind of way, I completely understand it. While I have not set foot on the Roundstone Bog, over the years I have explored the bog-lands of the Outer Hebrides many times. A place Robinson recognises as sharing much of the characteristics of the Connemaran terrain, the bog and hills of South Uist in particular are a landscape that I have spent many happy hours exploring, running over hills, skirting intricate lochans, not moving all that fast and getting my feet continuously soaked through in this wet ground.
While I was reading Connemara I spotted Jenny MacClaren's painting of the Three Peaks of South Uist on Instagram. I love the way she works, painting landscape and the birdlife found within it on old maps of the places and nature she is painting. When I saw that she had painted the hills onto Ceirinish Bay and Loch Schioport - places on South Uist I know and love - well, that was it really. It is now hung close to where I am writing these words, I can look to it, remember and dream.
Along with Robinson's words and MacClaren's paintings, I have been thinking of my Auntie Louise, for health reasons now spending her last, pandemic-extended year in her beloved croft on South Uist. She has lived on the eastern side of South Uist for over 40 years, first in a small croft on Loch Charnan, 15 years ago moving to a larger croft on Loch Eynort in the shadow of Beinn Mor, the highest hill of the island.
Louise first showed me the beauties of the islands when I was 18, at the end of a long summer between A-levels and my first year at University. 25 years ago, at the time I had been running regularly for less than a year, only just beginning to explore moorlands and mountains for myself through climbing, walking and running. She was a good guide, during my first visit she showed me many parts of the islands, their expansive beaches, the machair, the rough bog-lland that forms much of the terrain and a few of their small but perfectly formed hills. I became smitten with it all, and have since kept returning, revisiting places I have come to know well, increasingly exploring more of the archipelago that forms the Western Isles.
I have always come back to the Uists to visit Louise and because of the spell they cast on me. When she soon very reluctantly leaves the islands I will keep returning with my family. As my children grow older we will explore in ways new to them. When we visited last summer my elder daughter paddled a kayak by herself for the first time in the sheltered waters of the loch outside Louise's croft. A warm sunny day, sunlight glistening on the sea, she was thrilled that a few of the seals of the loch came to see us, bobbing alongside our boats, their noses out of the water as they checked us out: "what are the humans doing now?".
When I was 21, just after finishing my final exams, Aidan and I arrived at Loch Boisdale on the ferry from Oban, our bikes laden with camping and climbing kit. Spending three weeks touring the islands, exploring the beaches, hills and sea-cliffs, we camped outside Louise's croft for a week or so. In the morning we would unzip the tent door to look out over Loch Charnain and to the hills rising up from the bog to the south. A chain of three hills each around 600 metres high. While not tall compared to the mountains of the Highlands, they are grand in their place and beautifully formed. Hecla, Beinn Corradail and Beinn Mor, the Three Peaks of South Uist.
We had each done a couple of fell races and were nominally training to run our first mountain marathon together the following October. On hearing this, Louise told us that traversing the Three Peaks would be perfect training, that she'd be happy to drop us at one end of the hills and meet us later in the day at the other.
I remember a trip out of around 12 miles that felt like 20, the going was so hard underfoot. I got a big blister on my heel somewhere around the Beinn Corradail and was very uncomfortable moving for the rest of the time. If there had been an easy escape route I would have taken it, as it was the easiest route was the full traverse of the three hills. I didn't appreciate that very much at the time.
Thinking back, this was my first experience of running over the rough terrain underfoot you get on the remoter ground of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Few paths, the occasional thin line of a deer trod, more often than not bog-trotting and high-stepping over tussock and heather. While it was a rude-awakening and may seem strange given my first experience, over the years this kind of running has come to be my most favourite. I don't really think this is due to its difficulty, more the fact that, when I am running across such terrain, I can pretty much guarantee I am somewhere I love to be.
Each time I have since come to the Uists I have further explored the chain of hills that form the eastern spine of South Uist. One claggy day Louise dropped Aidan and I at Loch Boisdale, from where we ran north, following the chain to finish at her croft in Loch Eynort. An atmospheric journey, one of those with poor visibility on and around the tops, making the navigation on that intricate ground of bog, little crags, false summits and lochans all the more challenging.
After the trig point marking the summit of the remote hill Stulabhal appeared from the gloom, we descended north-west down a spur towards Loch Shurabhat. The ground was rough and craggy, as we lost height we continually veered here and there, following lines of least resistance until lower, when the rocks diminished and we also dropped out of the clag. Despite its dampness the day was warm. With the brown ochre of the bog-land under our feet and the greyness of the clag above us, I could not see much else. It felt a long way from anywhere, we had not seen a trod or any other kind of path for a couple of miles or so.
We gently ran along the flatter ground. Suddenly near by to my left, a large brown thing moved. It took me a few moments to register what it was. A golden eagle. As it flew off its colour, size and finger-tipped wings made this obvious. This place was clearly its domain, it can't have been expecting humans to drop out of the cloud like we did.
After watching the bird leave we carried on, climbing up and over two more hills - Airneabhal and Tinneabhal - before we descended a particularly rough stretch of heathery ground as we approached Loch Eynort.
A few days later, this time in clear sunny weather with a light breeze, we climbed Eaval, a pearl of a hill that rises in isolation from the bog on the south-east of North Uist. At just under 350 metres, this hill for me exemplifies why those who gauge the merit of mountains by their height can be so wrong. A rounded peak, it sits imposing on the skyline, anything but diminutive and the view from the top is something else. The otherwise flatlands of southern North Uist are made up of a multitude of lochans set amongst the bog. From Eaval's summit you can gaze out over them and wonder whether the scene before you is more land or water, if your thoughts are not lost in the contrast of sparkling blue lochans and the brown land revealing its deeper colours in the sunlight.
All this and I have not more than mentioned beach-combing on the wild white beaches of the islands' western coasts, the beauty and nature of the machair (the rare grassland set in from the sea on the western side of the islands), the wonder found in gazing out to the Atlantic. I once sat outside the pub in sunshine on the southern tip of South Uist, watching a pod of dolphins leap and play together in the Sound of Barra with a pint in my hand. Another time we were wowed by a huge sea-eagle as it flew from the machair towards the mountains. Short-eared owls hunt during the day on the flat boglands of North Uist, I've seen them hovering over the ground, intently looking for prey, deep, all-knowing eyes set into an intense round face. I could keep writing for a long time - otters, sand pipers, corncrakes, orca whales and more, each doing their own thing in their own wild place. But when I think of the Uists the first thing I see in my mind's eye is the landscape. Times spent on lonely Shenaval, the Three Peaks and Eaval.
I last climbed the Three Peaks on my 38th birthday. Aidan and our then three year-old daughter Alanna dropped me at Loch Sgioport. I left them at the road-end, immediately running on to the bog, heading towards the first peak Hecla.
To begin with I moved across relatively flat ground, heading more or less due south, passing between a network of lochans before the ground began to rise. Steadily at first, the steepness increased with the height until I left the bog behind, the ground turning to rocky outcrops interspaced with turf, faster going underfoot but maybe not quite so character full.
Getting closer to Hecla, its shape steepened as I climbed. The summit is capped by a flat rock tor, giving the impression of a volcano. As I approached the summit cairn I pulled out my compass and played around with it a little. I had read that there is a magnetic anomaly that meant you couldn't trust a bearing at the top of Hecla and I wanted to try it out. The compass did seem to do weird things or it might just have been my imagination. Either way it didn't much matter, it was a clear day and I could see where I was heading next, south-west to a bealach, from where I would climb up to Beinn Corradail.
The descent was good running, mostly short grass where I could get up some speed. Soon enough I found myself in the saddle between the hills, crossing flat ground for a short while before it rose again, my pace slowing with the gradient. As I climbed I looked out east, over a blue Loch Coradail to the wilder side of the island. No people or habitation to speak of, a lonely lighthouse that I had previously walked out to with Louise.
Like Hecla, the topmost parts of Beinn Corradail are steep and craggy, in places sheer, the easier approach to its summit is on its south or eastern sides. When I reached the cairn I sat down for a while and ate a few jelly babies. Enjoying the time back amongst the hills of South Uist, this was a true birthday treat. Still to come was another fast and steep descent followed by a final climb up to the summit ridge of Beinn Mor. I was looking forward to the ridge. Unlike the other two peaks Beinn Mor is formed fin-like, a ridge running north-west to south-east for a mile or so. I traversed it all in perfect sunlight but for a light mist clinging to some of the higher parts of the hill, mainly below me. The Cuillin of Rhum formed a claw-like shape on the horizon, as I looked to them I remembered time spent on these other mountains. Late afternoon, the air still, sun warm. As I stood at the summit surrounded by the beauty of the Hebrides a perfect feeling filled me, that of gratitude for the day and the place I was in. The moment was mine and fleeting, I was soon descending rough ground off the southern side of Beinn Mor to Loch Eynort, looking forward to meeting my family for a party tea.
The Three Peaks of South Uist are a perfect miniature of Scotland's mountains. I find that when amongst them their scale tricks me into thinking they are much larger hills. They have a stature that belies their height, it feels funny because I seem to move much quicker than normal across them. Or is it me that is the giant? Either way, once you gain height and leave the bog the grass is short, the going fast.
But in this place what's the hurry.
Apart from those quoted and referenced, all words and images © copyright Heather Dawe 2020