Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Daytripping the Monadhliath

The signs weren't good but I couldn't help feeling good. I was hurtling north through clag and drizzle on the A9, early on Saturday morning. A short notice work trip to Scotland, an evening visiting parents in Fife, then north for a dose of solitude and space in the anti-London, the beleaguered beauty of the Monadh Liath. Crossing Drumochter a veil was drawn back, the glen unwound ahead and a great rent of blue appeared in the clouds above.

From Kingussie I walked up by the Gynack Burn. A stream of cars was arriving at the local golf course - different strokes for different folks. I was heading straight for the rough. Beyond the manicured greens the glen narrows and the road winds though hoary trees bearded with lichen. On the left the Gynack rumbles and chatters through it's wide rocky bed. It's still, gloomy, mild.

Climbing gradually over sombre moors, the cloud softening then obliterating.

A golden glow persists all day over Strathspey.

There's an edge to things on the top of Carn an Fhreiceadain, the watcher's hill: drizzle and a cold breeze. It's a walk, a shlep, not a climb. The track goes right over the summit and back down to the glen.

Down by the Allt Mor, it's all changed since I was last here a few years ago. A mini hydro scheme has almost been completed, another little nibble at the edges of the wilderness. There are at least two concrete dams like the one below. Tracks have been widened and spurs built to service the dams. Further downhill, the Loch Gynack dam is being rebuilt. It's all scarred and a little bit industrial.

The development will generate electricity for the local community energy scheme, and will help to control the flow of the burn through Kingussie. This is no trivial matter, as the Gynack and Allt Mor are wild and forceful mountain rivers. Sandbags in gardens by the burn, washed-out bridges, collapsed banks and tree trunks in the watercourse spoke of recent havoc. How do you weigh these things up? If in doubt, have a brew.

The talk over the past few days in Scotland has been of a new, tough approach to landowners, an exciting reminder of where the power and the ownership really lies (or a 'Mugabe-style land grab' depending on your politics). Those who stand in the way of sustainable development will be challenged, their land holdings possibly broken up. Hang on - 'sustainable development'. What does that mean here? Everyone wants to be sustainable these days, even the fossil fuel extractors with their renewable fig leaves. Will it mean more industrial-scale wind farms on wild land, more hydro schemes, more roads and pylons; or more National Parks, more community ownership, more opportunities for rewilding through challenging environmentally harmful practices related to grouse shooting and deer stalking? Politics never ends, and nature will need a voice more than ever to ensure the small, the precious, the voiceless isn't trampled in the excitement. The environment and wild land did not feature in the recent referendum, after all.

That golden glow over Strathspey persisted as the afternoon wore on.

Maybe hinting a better things to come tomorrow.

I didn't camp out that night, sadly. A mad rush to tie up things at work and a maelstrom of feeding, bathing and entertaining children left little time to dig out and organise my kit. I stepped out of Newtonmore hostel at dawn into near-frosty air. Peach puff clouds stippled a blue sky. It's been twenty-four years since I last walked the round of Monadhliath Munros.

At the road end a local man was returning to his pick-up after a morning walk with his dog. He'd moved to the Highlands as a central belt refugee, and did some part-time work for the estates. As we chatted, a kestrel hovered, over towards the river, then dropped like a polished stone into the grass. That's where the peregrines nest, he gestured across to where crags rose above steep birch-covered slopes. If you get on the hill early enough you might see eagles; that's when they like to hunt. Yes peregrines and eagles will take grouse, he said, but I've no sympathy with those who persecute birds of prey, though all estates often get tarred with the same brush. Then he was off to see if he could get "that lot out of their bloody beds" for a trip over to the west coast, and I was off to A'Chailleach, flanks glowing rich and rusty in the early sun.

Behind me the light seemed to build then pour into Strathspey. John Lister-Kaye writes a fine description of dawn in the hills at higher latitudes in his autobiographical Song of the Rolling Earth:
 Dawn doesn't flood serenely in, as in a low country or on a great plain; here it gathers behind the mountain like the clans themselves, building force and energy, a presence luminous and kinetic, waiting to happen like a war. Then it comes tipping in, molten and clean, as a lake overflows its dam.

High on the hillside is the Red Bothy, an open shelter. Inside there's a table, chairs, an empty brandy bottle.

Not much had changed up here, except there's a bit more of a path now.

It feels very warm, toiling uphill in the sun, but on A'Chailleach's summit there's a chill and a bite to the wind that nips at nose and ears.

Blue skies and mist rolling, drifting, overflowing. An eerily benign day for the end of November.

Ptarmigan had shed summer plumage and gathered in large flocks, awaiting the end of the phoney winter.

I didn't make it around all the Munros after all. It was a day for lingering, stopping to stare and take photos, trying to take it all in.

To the north east, the curiously snowless Cairngorms under blue skies looked more like a mesa than a mountain range.

Slowly the twilight started to edge out the day. As the moon rose to the left, so the sun slid down to the right. Time to drop down off the plateau.

Behind, feathery mist gently pursued me off the plateau...

...and down to the Allt Fionndrigh, cutting ever deeper into the moors. One day this will be a canyon.

Dawn, and now dusk, with precious little in between.

Across the floor of Glen Banchor in the last light and a reassuring track by the River Calder. I was back in trail shoes today for the first time in months (for hillwalking at least), since the tendon injury last April. The Monadhliath are perfect trail shoe terrain, where you can move fast and light over the rolling plateau, eyes on the horizon rather than your feet or the rock in front of your face. A land made for journeys.

A magical, almost surreal day.