Wild moment: Paul HespPublished: 23rd February 2016
Spiderman beats the peat hags...
Over four decades, I have covered the Highlands with a spider of linked-up walks. To the spider’s body - a rough circle touching Inverness and Rannoch Station - I’ve added eight legs. This is what happened while I was working on the Garve-Lochinver stage of the Sandwood Bay leg.
A man comes down the steep zigzag track from Freevater Forest to Gleann Beg, wet to the knees. I am going where he comes from; heavy cloud is heading my way. He tells me there’s quite a bit of snow on top, but ‘it’s no dangerous’. Fine.
Around the 500 m contour the slope eases off and the track peters out; the knee-high heather is beginning to disappear under snow. A new zigzag starts, from one half-visible clump to the next.
A bit further up I hit a maze of peat hags and the wind hits me. I haven’t brought my poles and soon I’m lurching like a drunk, with some undignified falls into treacherous, snow-filled gullies. Mother Nature turns the thumbscrews a bit further with a hailstorm. There is no shelter – man, sheep and deer have long reduced Freevater Forest, like most other forests on my walks, to pieces of bogwood sticking out of gullies like bleached bones.
Suddenly Bessie Smith joins me all the way from 1927 with the dragging beat of Mama’s got the blues:
“I’ve got a man in Atlanta,
Two in Alabama,
Three in Chattanooga,
Four in Cincinnati,
Five in Mississippi,
Six in Memphis, Tennessee…”
Atlanta… Alabama… Chattanooga… Cincinnati... One name, one step, on and on. Atlanta… Alabama… Chattanooga… Cincinnati… Bang! - on my face.
‘It’s no dangerous’, I mutter, ‘it’s no dangerous.’ Up and off again. Atlanta… Alabama... And then the snow is barely ankle deep, my feet hit firm ground. I’m on the plateau just under Carn Bàn.
^ Beinn Dearg from Carn Bàn
As if on cue the clouds are ripped apart, from Seana Bhraigh to Beinn Dearg the whole range is floodlit. Suddenly I’m jumping up and down like a madman; tears flow down my cheeks. The clouds roll back again, never mind. I sit down on a boulder, munch a Mars bar and calmly study the view.
^ Creag an Duine from Carn Bàn, with Coigach and Stac Polly on the horizon
Two hours later I dump my pack in the Coiremor bothy. I cook my dinner, snuggle down in my sleeping bag and study the map: what’s tomorrow’s menu? More bleak moorland. I’ll treat myself to B&B in the regional metropolis Ullapool.
After a dull slog from Ullapool to Elphin and a night on the sodden moors under Suilven, where the tent actually sinks an inch under my modest weight, I reach Lochinver.
The green, white and yellow of birch and whin are a feast for the eye after days of grey-brown moor. And in the Visitor Centre I first learn about the Assynt community initiatives. My thoughts automatically go to South Norway, just across the water, where I’ve walked through remote rural areas which have seen massive emigration and yet look prosperous; forests provide shelter up to Carn Bàn height.
The geography is similar; what who does to the land makes all the difference. And people in Assynt are making a difference.