A World up There

I asked my neighbour’s son ‘so, have you been to the top?’ indicating the hill behind our houses.

‘Yeah’ he answered with all the certainty of a 14 year old, ‘but there was nothing up there’. I didn’t answer, the conversation not worth pursuing.

The first few hundred feet is heart breaking, lung stretching toil. Your mind can think of little but the heave of your chest and flexing of your ankles…and then it becomes a little steeper. The grass gives way to a jumble of rocks interspersed with tortured, stunted birch trees. Small streams cut through, making steps in the rock, although steep, the going here is slightly easier, just watch for the loose rocks, their coating of algae making them all the more treacherous.

With surprising suddenness you are though and on to a more level patch, although level is a relative term up here. A small flat area with a patch of dead bracken, red gold in the early light provides a place to take a breather. The dog however is still keen so you press on. As you turn a woodcock flushes from beneath your feet, the only sound the sharp flit of its wings as it falls over the edge of the hill into the safety of the birches. Before long another ridge rears before you, not so steep but covered in rank, knee deep heather and tussocks of moor grass. From a distance the high lifting gait you adopt must appear comical, but there is no one to see you. Another hundred feet sees you to the top of this bank, as soon as you hit the crest, there is the heartbreaking sight of yet another ridge blocking your way. This one is unassailable without some climbing, not being in the mood for this you stroll along the foot of the ridge until it starts to come down to meet you. Here at the foot of the ridge the vegetation is more sparse, huge rocks emerge like the backs of fossilised whales, complete with a crusting of lichen barnacles.

Some call this landscape colourless; to you it’s a blazing cacophony of shades and hues. Every tone of brown, grey, green, yellow and red is here. From a lichen so improbably lime green to a pure white lump of quartz. From the black, black peaty pools to the violet hues of the moor grass in the distance…and that’s before the sun has come out to gild the tops of the nearby mountains with a rich orange glow.

You are nearing the place where the ridge has dropped to meet your level, you can take a step up and then walk back along the top, parallel to the path you just walked but higher. Another five minutes walk up the steady incline of this hogs-back ridge and you come to a perfect view point. Face east, the direction you came from and the ground drops away sharply, a voice in your head asks ‘did I really just come up there?’ The view is simply stunning. You can see most of the loch from here, all the way to the open sea some five miles away to the south. A fishing boat is carving the water, getting out to his grounds before the weather turns. Look north and you may see the post bus in the distance making its way around the head of the loch, just a small red smudge against the huge conical hills beyond the road. Look to the west and try not to feel daunted by the sheer cliffs rising behind you, their outcrops of icicles looking like something from another world. Above the cliffs you can just see the peaks of the mountains beyond, a dusting of snow contrasting sharply with the elephant grey of the ancient weather riven rock.

As you stand and stare an odd ‘cronk’ sounds from the distance, a pair of ravens are dancing, the sky their ballroom. Their intricate moves cement the bonds of the pair, another clutch of eggs will soon follow. A shape moves into view beyond them, massive, dwarfing even the ravens. A little shiver of anticipation runs through you. Is it a golden? No. The wing shape is not quite right, the neck too short, the build too massive. Yes! It is! Your first Sea Eagle. You watch its perfect mastery of the air for fully five minutes until it dwindles to speck in the distance.

The dog is becoming impatient so you walk on, day dreaming a little, perhaps about the ancient Gaels whose land this was, perhaps saying a quiet word of greeting as you pass a small circle of jumbled stones, all that remains of one of their hill shelters. You cannot help but marvel at their hardiness, no Goretex or fleece then, no central heating or hot water. A commotion ahead stops you dead…a red deer hind with last year’s calf at foot has been dosing behind a rock. They gallop off, hooves beating a tattoo on the peaty soil, pausing to look back before they cross a ridge and vanish into the vastness of the hill. The dog stays at heel, she knows not to chase them.

Coffee is calling so you turn for home, descending quickly, much more quickly than the walk up. As you go down, the sounds of the sea begin to reach you, half a dozen oystercatchers bicker over ownership of a small section of beach, an outboard motor whirrs. The ground becomes a little less steep, less heathery. You think back to the autumn when this area was covered with the perfect white flowers of grass of parnasus. Each a perfect miniature bell.

The dog noses a wisp of snipe into the air as we pass the rushy field, their sharp ‘scaarp’ giving them away.

You’ve only been out for half an hour, not nearly long enough to experience everything the hill can offer to the keen observer but certainly long enough to feel justified in taking that last muffin.

No, there is nothing up there, at least, nothing that matters to that young boy. But for you, a world is there.

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