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Mountain of the corrie and the red deer March 9, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking in Scotland, Munros, travel.
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Click on pictures for larger view.

Beinn Eighe was one of the two “Munros” that Bob and I climbed on a trip to Scotland in early summer 1998.  It was a beautiful mountain.

Bob climbs out of the corrie

Bob climbs out of the corrie

Beinn Eighe is located near Loch Torridon, on the northwest coast of Scotland across from the Isle of Skye.  It lies in that part of the map that always sparks my imagination.  Any place on the map that suggests vast empty northern spaces does that, for reasons I find hard to explain.  It must be that the direction north in and of itself transfixes my imagination, the same way it transfixes the compass needle.  I seem to be enthralled, whether we are talking about limitless forests of white spruce in Canada or the treeless horizon of the Scottish highlands.

At our latitude of 57 degrees in early July, light completely dominated over darkness.  The light didn’t give up ownership of the sky until after 11:00 at night, and then it reclaimed it before 4:00 in the morning.  We stayed at a small B & B on a bare, stony hill overlooking the loch.  No need to get an early start for our 11-milescotland-15, 3000′ vertical outing, so we had a comfortable breakfast before driving up the road through Glen Torridon.  We passed the stark mass of Liathach with its razor’s-edge ridge of crumbling sandstone and then started our hike alongside a rushing stream.

Fog swaddled the mountaintops, but down in the rough moor where we walked, we were bathed in warm sunlight.  The valley seemed alive with running streams.  We circled around the western end of the wide Beinn Eighe massif and then curled back southward to climb into a high tucked-away ravine, called in Scotland a corrie.  The name of this one is Coire Mhic Fhearchair.  At the center of the corrie resided a beautiful loch of cold, clear water, deep green in color when you looked at it up close, shifting magically to luminous blue when you moved further away.  Bob tried fishing for a few minutes, but the fish were not cooperating.

Coire Mhic Fhearchair

Coire Mhic Fhearchair

We continued toward the southeast corner of the corrie, following a rough herd path between pools and waterfalls toward a steep scree slope, then climbed up the scree into a deep couloir.  The rocks to the side of the gravel chute made for good scrambling up to the top of a broad ridge.

The high mists were just starting to drift away when we saw a red deer standing on the ridge.  It seemed to me like something in a dream, an apparition.  We watched for a moment as the deer disappeared over the far side of the ridge.  We climbed over easy open tundra a half mile to the summit.  The point we reached is called Ruadh-stac-Mor (3100′), the highest of Beinn Eighe’s subpeaks.  The view was the kind that demonstrates the uselessness of those threadbare superlatives like “breathtaking,” “stunning,” “spectacular.”  Bob made a good stab at it in his hiking journal: “The horizon was defined by endless waves of high mountains over mists.”

scotland-22

No roads, no fences, just mountains

The craggiest of the Torridon peaks stood to our west, but oddly enough I found the rolling open spaces directly to the north to be even more fascinating.  It struck me that nowhere in that vastness did I see any roads, houses, telephone poles, or even any fences.  I felt the strange pang that comes in the face of the limitless.

Another hiker joined us on the summit, telling us he’d spotted two deer and a ptarmigan on the ridge.  We rested for a long time before we made our way back through the distinct stages of the journey—ridge, couloir, scree, corrie, loch, moor—that seemed like chapters in an engrossing book.

On the ridge as it was clearing

On the ridge as it was clearing

John Buchan and the Black Cuillin of Skye November 11, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking in Scotland, literature, Munros.
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Am Basteir in the Black Cuillin

Am Basteir in the Black Cuillin

The Black Cuillin, the Black Coolin—every place on the Isle of Skye seems to have more than one spelling and more than one name.  “Am Basteir” in the photo is also known by climbers as “The Executioner.”  We can safely say that these mountains are fierce.  The Scottish Mountaineering Club’s guide to the Munros warns of steep precipices, airy ridges, persistent mists, and “local magnetic anomalies.”

And how does John Buchan come into this?  (We’ll get there.)  He is best known as author of “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” the novel on which three film adaptations have been based.  That was the first of several books to feature the character of Richard Hannay, who always seemed to be enmeshed in international espionage.  Hannay was generally to be found running, in hiding, moving desperately across complex terrain, pursued by a demonic foe.  As Robin Winks has written, the winner in this game “will be the person with the resourcefulness to use the environment to his advantage, to go to ground with rather than against the landscape.  Thus the locale is of the greatest importance, not simply because it may be exotic, or vaguely threatening, but because it is in reality the third player in the game, a great, neutral (and therefore, to the harried, apparently malevolent) landscape.”*

It is in the third Hannay novel, “Mr. Standfast,” that the hero finds himself in “on the skirts of the Coolin.”  It is during the First World War, and Hannay is on the track of a traitor who has been feeding intelligence to the German military establishment.  Hannay follows the traitor’s spoor from Glasgow to a small freighter nosing its way among the islands of the Inner Hebrides, then goes ashore and across hills and valleys of the West Highlands, and then over to Skye.  On the island occurs one of those twists of good spy yarns in which an enemy is suddenly revealed to be a friend, but the real enemy is watching from the shadows, and who knows whether the next revelation will be for the good or the bad.  Hannay is on the slopes of Sgurr Vhicconich (Sgurr Mhic Choinnich) and looks over to Sgurr Dearg (also Inaccessible Pinnacle, also “the In Pinn”) and Sgurr Alasdair.  He has some good scrambles up gullies and chimneys and across boiler-plate slabs.

Buchan, born in Scotland, was a man of vast energies.  As well as turning out more than a hundred works of fiction and military history over the course of his life, he went to South Africa in 1902 as a staffer for Lord Milner after the Treaty of Vereeniging that ended the Boer War.  He was a journalist in France in 1911 and Director of Intelligence in Britain’s Ministry of Information in 1918.  After the war he eventually went into politics and in 1935 became Governor-General of Canada.  He died in 1940.  His works of fiction lack the universality that seems to define great literature, but it is partly their quality of being period pieces that makes them appeal to me.  In “Mr. Standfast,” the reader enters certain worlds within Britain in 1917 with complete confidence in the depiction of manner, dress, social class, social attitude, the pacifists in the Cotswolds and the soldiers from the Royal Scots Fusiliers on leave.

But for me the best draw is the chase, the pursuit across terrain that is both real and dreamlike, the lone person running at midnight beneath the black sharp-edged crags.

*Introduction to Buchan, “The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay,” David Godine, 1988.