Requiem in Sutherland

Across the rolling moorland, close to horizon, runs a thin man made line. On this narrow strip of tarmac, sits my car, a little black shape of manufactured steel in this Sutherland wilderness. The car looks tantalisingly close now. I imagine my tired legs carrying me the last few feet, I visualise myself lowering my rucksack for the final time this day and siting, at last, in the luxury of my patient, reliable vehicle.
I see all this in the same way a man in the desert holds, in his mind’s eye, a cool glass of clear water. Driven by thirst the arid traveller watches the light dance in the liquid, feels the smooth, cold of the glass in his hand, but all this is a dream, a mirage, an illusion. I realise now that, just as the desert traveller may perish before he presses that cool glass to his lips, I may never reach the road. You see, I’m trapped.

I haven’t written many blogs this year. I’ve been distracted by finishing my book, performing my plays. This year has been full of long train journeys down to his home in Merseyside to sit with my father while he grew weaker and age slowly gathered him in. He was 90 when the end came at last, in a hospital bed in Birkenhead and that kind, gentle man, the giant of my childhood, slipped from this world like a leaf falling from a tree in Autumn.
When he was too frail to walk abroad himself I would tell my father of my travels, the places I had been, things I had seen and the folk I met. He loved to see my pictures and liked, best of all, to see the images of bothy fires, imagining that he accompanied me on my remote wanderings, felt the warmth of the flames and breathed in the unsullied air.
It’s been a while now since I picked up my rucksack and headed for open country. Far too long since I stood and watched the light fade on the hillside with no one but the whispering wind for company. This morning, as I stand beside the sea loch and watch the languid, unstoppable sea collide endlessly against the timeless cliffs the peace of this place overwhelms me.

I have spent too long with my feet planted on man made floors and my eyes have grown tired of the world of straight lines and superimposed order. Too many hours in antiseptic hospital corridors, amongst beeping instruments. Hours full of waiting, helplessness, hopelessness, and finally, a gnawing, empty sadness.
As I stand on the shore amongst the chaos of boulders, the debris of long forgotten storms, my eyes roam the ragged landscape and revel in the natural disorder. The hand of man is absent here. There are no roads or houses, this place has been much as it is on this September day for millennia.
I need this place. I need to feel the wind against my skin and the sounds of the waves breaking and sea birds calling. The gentle wind tugs at the landscape and does something else to me, it blows away the tainted dust of the last few months, cleanses me of anguish.
I walk back to the simple stone shelter of the Bothy. Cleansed now and at ease with my surroundings. A simple meal of soup, bread and cheese seems like a feast, as only food can taste when eaten outdoors. It’s as I begin the return journey back to my car I realise that I have walked into a trap.

Usually it works like this. You walk into a Bothy laden with coal, food, whisky an other consumables. The heavy pack makes the walk in slow and tiring but on the way out, coal burnt, food eaten and whisky drunk, the pack is light and the going easy. This Bothy is different. I left my car on the high road across the moors and descended, over 600ft, to the small Bothy by the coast. Now I have to regain that height.
It’s on the climb back to my car that the landscape of Sutherland reveals its secret weapon, bog. Here, at the northern fringe of Britain, there are miles and miles of trackless wastes of the stuff. Your feet sink in and every footfall has to be retrieved from the wet, sucking peat with a Herculean effort. The walk through the ooze feels endless. My legs are moving, I am sure of that, but I don’t know if I am making any progress through the landscape. I stumble, lurch, fall and stagger but the car doesn’t get any closer.
I try not to look up in case the lack of progress I see is too dispiriting but sometimes I give in to temptation. Sometimes it seems the vehicle is no closer, at other times it even seems to have moved further away. At last, my legs quaking and lungs bursting my boots hit the tarmac and suddenly I am able to move with a renewed freedom.
On the drive back to Inverness I realise that this trip has been different from all the others I have made; this time I will not show my photos to my father and tell him of my travels. I’ll miss our times together but one thing consoles me. Last night, as I watched the flames flicker and the embers glow in the Bothy fire, I felt as though he came and sat beside me and we enjoyed the dancing light together.


As a postscript, I am performing my play about George Mallory, Beyond Everest at KENDAL Mountain Festival at 2.00 pm on the 18th of November.  Come if you can.



7 responses to “Requiem in Sutherland

  1. Sorry to hear about your Dad – 90 is a good age though and at least you kept him enjoying life with your tales and photos – that’s pretty invaluable!

    I know what you mean about the approach to the car bit – I’ve sometimes been having leg (or recently lung) problems and the car does seem to get further away sometimes. And yes, you do try not to look!

  2. Eloquent and heart-felt writing. We all need to escape the mad world in which we spend so much time and be re-energized by the natural world. A few weeks ago I was in Zermatt, my favourite summer retreat and walked 6,000ft up to the highest point accesible to ‘walkers’. It was a grind and I felt the difference between this visit and the last one of eight years ago. The summit snowfield was slushy and each foot pot-holed to the knee, and after that there was a steep final rocky climb predominantly on slippery grit. It was a summit hard won but I was determined and the pleasure of sitting on the final rocky point was immense. It’s the silence that is so profound. I doubt I shall sit on that same spot again but it is something I will treasure and the experience will be re-visited through the images taken.

  3. Thanks for such a kind response. I have no doubt that nature has a way of healing us, it’s where we came from after all. I’m glad you have shared such an experience.

  4. I liked this too – my father is fading too and I’m very happy to hear that you shared all your travels with him. I am doing the same with mine as often as I can.

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