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Sunday, 19 October 2014

On The Hillpaths

Ah yes, the hillpaths. Not any old hillpaths - these specific ones. I have walked them eight or ten times, and never met another person on them (save my own companion, on the few times I have not gone out alone). They don't climb up the hills as such (though they do reach a height of 1500 feet above sea level) but more lead right into the hills. To the heart of things; into the belly of the beast, even. As such, they enter land more lonely, wild and mysterious than many-a path that leads to a giddy summit.

The track sets off from behind the tiny village as one, before bifurcating a few minutes' walk up the hillside. The paths were originally deerstalkers' ways into the wild places, built during the Victorians' craze for such pursuits. Nowadays, from what I have seen, stalkers travel mainly in swanky modern dark-green all-terrain vehicles across marshland and moor; on a good day, they probably don't need to get off their bum in order to bag a stag. In truth, these old deerstalkers' paths have seen better days, and some are in danger of falling into total disrepair. The hillpath I chose last week alternated between stretches of clear stony terrain and deep puddles, before occasionally getting lost altogether in bog and temporary baby lochs. The west coast of Scotland had clearly experienced a little precipitation over recent days.....

I hadn't walk this particular hillpath for several years. While some of it was familiar enough, other sections seemed new to me; and the hills can be unrecognisable from season to season. At one point, the pencil-thin track through the heather took a sharp turn to the right, and began to climb steeply above a deep, narrow gorge accommodating a rapidly-flowing mountain stream. This didn't seem right at all, but I continued anyway, just to see where it actually led. Ten minutes later, it became clear that this was indeed the path, as I emerged onto flatter ground that my memory banks recognised from five years past.

As I climbed further, landscapes opened up around me. Behind me, the unmistakeable jagged outline of the Cuillin of Skye appeared. While sunshine was in short supply all around me, the Cuillin were bathed in the low ethereal glow of mid-autumn sun. It does happen from time to time.

A pregnant, almost disturbing, silence had accompanied me all the way. The hills hereabouts have the ability to unnerve and unsettle the individual, particularly in certain weather conditions. Around now, though, the silence began to be punctuated by a distant piercing bellow, followed by another spine-chilling roar. Stags were out on the hills, and not too far away. I scanned the hillsides, then scanned again, but nothing. Maybe they were really close, but their coats would merge seamlessly into the colours of the autumn around. Then I heard the sound of scree moving down a slope to my right: two deer were crossing the hillside, but females. I continued to walk quietly and attentively. The roars continued to ring through the air. Then, halfway up the hillside to my right, I saw one. He stood still, as is the way of deer on the hill, and looked. I too stood still and looked. He was a magnificent specimen, and I pondered how, should there be a fight between stag and human, there would be only one victor. Then, as if fatigued by this mutual gazing, he turned his back and moved away. Swiftly yet silently, with grace and dignity, and without the slightest sign of anxiety or panic.

I reached the top of the pass. The afternoon sun was already beginning to set over the Cuillin skyline. I looked into the glens and mountains below and beyond me: some of the most isolated peaks in Scotland, normally requiring an overnight camp to be visited properly. I climbed to a small nearby peak before retracing my steps out of the wildness. Several deer peered down at me from a ridge above, a bit like cowboys out for an ambush in a 1960s spaghetti western. Twilight was descending as I rounded a corner and saw the familiar and somewhat comforting outlines of the few dwelling places of the village. I gave thanks, crossed the little river by the haphazard collection of rocks loosely arranged as stepping stones, shed a final glance hillwards, then was gone.