I’m late, an hour late arriving on the ridge that overlooks Bearnais bothy. An hour shouldn’t matter much, but this hour does because this hour makes the difference between arriving in day light and looking for the bothy in moonlight. My pack weighs heavily on my back, it’s full of wonderful things, like coal to keep me warm, tins of curry, baked beans and a chili con carne I cooked myself in a plastic box. I’ve even got a little tablet so I can watch a movie and some whisky that will warm me from the inside while the coal does its work from the other direction. I’ll soon be glad of all these things, things I’ve carried for miles over the hills and through the snow or at least I will as long as I can do one thing…find the bothy.
The darkness brings with it a colder wind, little snow devils swirl about me and I am suddenly aware, staring down into the empty glen, of how alone I am. I fix a compass bearing and look along it to where the bothy should be, half a mile away. My eyes scan the snow, and the ghostly outlines of stream beds, for something angular, something man made that will give away the presence of the little shelter but nothing appears. Perhaps, I think to myself, I should have bought a GPS after all, for then all I’d need to do is switch it on and a little screen would link with satellites above the earth and I know exactly where I was, there would be no prospect of a cold bothyless night.
With no alternative I head on down into the glen, following the trembling compass needle, guided by an unseen force into the darkness. The moonlight flattens perspective, changes the appearance of the hills and I realise that there could be a cathedral in the glen and I wouldn’t be able to see it. Somehow there is always a small cloud covering the face of the moon, the cloud appears to be moving but it never goes anywhere. I need that moonlight now and look belligerently at the little wisp of star brightened cloud that taunts me from far above. Suddenly Loch an Laoigh appears, grey and sparkling, like steel hammered flat, down in the glen. Now at least I know I’m in the right glen and I’ll have a fixed point to work from if my compass bearing proves inadequate.
I stare again into the growing darkness but no bothy appears. Our urban lives have banished the night. In towns and cities it never really gets dark but here, in this wild place, darkness gets off the lead and runs about unfettered. I remembered, many years ago, when I came to the Highlands for the first time with Joe and Mr Jones, we left the pub in Torridon, at closing time, for the mile or so walk back to our tent. Then, for the first time, I encountered real wild darkness, no street lights or car headlights and as low cloud covered the moon and stars, we were blind. We stumbled about unable to see each other or even the tarmac of the road, afraid of falling into the roadside ditch.. A drunken local in his land rover rescued us, without him we might have had to crawl home. I never forgot to take a torch after that.
Ahead of me in the black I see a dark shape, it’s there for a moment then gone. I few yards closer and my head torch picks out something solid and heavy but perhaps not the bothy. I stumble on until a gable end appears. I still daren’t hope, this could be a ruin. Only when I can see the blue painted door of the bothy, and know I have found my home for the next two nights, do I relax. Inside the bothy there is even a sign telling you where you are. I’ve found it for sure. That night was one of the coldest I’ve ever experienced in a bothy. The meagre fire made little impression on the frost monster prowling about outside. I was forced to wear two hats whilst I watched Clint Eastwood tough it out, on my little tablet, though clouds of my own breath. “Do you feel lucky punk? Well do ya?”
The following day was bitterly cold and I explored the glen wandering beside the loch and watching two swans on the water. It was too cold for the tops and I was actually quite glad as it gave me time to spend and enjoy such an isolated place. It’s an old business, sitting alone beside the semi frozen water just watching the swans drift about. I wanted to get a sense of the silent glen and felt at peace just listening to the silence in that frozen place.
Walking along the water’s edge I decided I wouldn’t buy a GPS. I’d risk another night in the cold if I couldn’t find a bothy again. I’m not sure why I don’t want one but it seems to me that if you use a map and compass you are in a much more intimate relationship with the landscape than if you use a location device. It’s true, of course, that even a map and compass are a kind of technology, just a little older than an electronic device, that’s all. There does seem to be something that separates you from where you are when you stare at a screen, and we spend so much of our lives these days looking at a representation of the world on a screen. I’m no technophobe, after all I watched a movie in the bothy, ten years ago that would have been all but impossible. I’m not against technology, I just think we have to get the balance right. The balance between the new and the old, between technology and nature. I’d be safer if I used a GPS and I’d always get where I was going, but I think I’d have lost something from the journey and it’s the journey that counts.
So, if one day when you are walking Scotland’s hills, you see a cave man, club in hand, dressed in fur chasing a deer, don’t panic. It’s only me, close to nature, making lunch.