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25 Mar 2024

Field Notes: Connections

Quinag Conservation Officer Kat Martin shares a personal tribute to a very special person and mountain.

Quinag by Iain Brownlie Roy

My mum was afraid of heights and so couldn’t face climbing a mountain. At some point in 2018, eager for her to experience that indescribable feeling of looking out on a landscape from the perspective of a mountain top, I suggested Quinag.

Anyone familiar with this beautiful mountain, knows that she offers a relatively gentle amble up to the saddle that feels like a gradual (for the most part) incline in a vast area of moorland, overlooked by two of the mountain’s summits; Spidean Coinich and Sail Gharbh.

After a slightly steeper final incline, followed by levelling out amongst some impressive boulders – and without expecting it – you pop up over the brow to be faced with the most incredible view out across the west of Assynt. If you’re lucky, a croaking raven or searching eagle will soar by. It offers a mountain-view experience without facing the fear of narrow ridges or feeling like you are up too high (if the view out from the saddle becomes too much, it’s easy enough to turn around and face the undulating east!). In short, Quinag is a mountain where you don’t have to reach a summit to enjoy a summit-like experience.*

This is something along the lines of the description I offered to Mum. She liked the sound of that and was game. But life and priorities and distractions meant 2018 came and went, as did 2019. 2020 saw lockdown and a lack of in person contact. With the frustrations around being housebound and increasing desperation for being outdoors, we became more set on getting that walk in when we could.

July arrived and Mum began complaining of intense sciatica. She was due to visit me in Assynt when the restrictions briefly eased in late summer, but had to cancel as she was in too much pain.

In October, with lockdown back on, a doctor told her the cancer had returned and spread, and she was given three months.

We never made the walk up to the saddle of Quinag together.

The mountain, already a prominent figure in the Assynt landscape, became a beacon of my grief. I see Quinag every day, and every day a little reminder with a small pang of regret that has slowly eased, alongside the grieving process, with time, regular visits, and birthday walks up to the saddle in Mum’s honour.

And then, in November 2022, a job was advertised: Quinag Conservation Officer with the John Muir Trust. An application submitted, and interview later, I found myself being offered the position.

We form connections and relationships to and with others, human or not, by interactions, familiarity and an intertwining of our narrative with the other. My connections with Quinag began long before my Conservation Officer role; they were already strong the day I suggested a walk up to her saddle in conversation with Mum, in the hope of sharing something of my relationship with the mountain; and they will continue to evolve and strengthen as long as I reach out and offer my attention.

I realise that my job role, without having really thought about it, is being a kind of ambassador for Quinag and the wider land and environment she represents. It is largely about giving time, space and support for others to embellish their own respective stories with threads of nature connection, to nurture a relationship that the conditions of our modern ways of living threaten to forget. Invisible yet tangible in the way we view the world around us, my hope being increasingly with respect and a sense camaraderie with our fellow earth dwellers, over the hedonistic values that our consumer culture encourages. We are up against a lot, and it takes time, but it is essential and important. 

Sitting here writing, I find myself reflecting that with the absence of love there cannot be grief. So I can at least be comforted in my capacity to feel and my capacity to care. Just as I loved my mum. I am grateful for that.

* Despite the relative ease of reaching Quinag’s saddle, it still requires a good level of fitness, appropriate clothing and planning with reference to a mountain weather forecast to ensure safety in an environment where conditions can change very quickly.

Image of Quinag by Iain Brownlie Roy

Hand with flowers - David Lintern

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