Monday, 3 November 2014

November on a Rugged Coast: Reading Time and Thinking Space.

Somehow, two months have passed since the last trip. As summer ended, book deadlines had to be met. Then a new university year began. With lectures and seminars to write and deliver, mountains and sea were not just out of sight but out of mind. During the intense opening weeks of term I also discovered that from April I'll be involved in a year-long project, taking me to Brazil and Japan, thinking about Time and its conceptualisation. This is a fantastic prospect, but one I need to start thinking through immediately. 

Halfway through term the University holds a reading week. Rather than being half-term-like, this gives students and lectures space for the deeper, more reflective reading that's difficult in hectic teaching weeks. This was a chance to bury myself in books about the philosophy of time. It was also an opportunity to relocate to a more atmospheric corner of Britain. An area of spectacular geology...
...currently being crossed by huge autumn migrations...
...seemed like a good place to contemplate the meanings of Time. 

There are good reasons to relocate like this. Most significantly, ideas acquired in distinctive atmospheres embed themselves in the mind and develop differently from those read-up-on in familiar surroundings. There's an important function for imagination in historical writing (as Christine Stansell showed in a great article called 'Historic Passion: Dreams') and places like Coigach & Assynt bring it out. So the first priority for this trip was to augment the atmosphere. I chose spacious music (mostly made under the magical guidance of Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug). This included two albums by Sinikka Langeland (The Land That is Not & Starflowers), Arve Henriksen's, The Nature of Connections, Pierre Favre's Fleuve,  & Nils Okland's, Homage to Ole Bull. Instead of the usual reams of fiction and poetry I chose three slim poetic collections: Louise Gluck, Faithful and Virtuous Night, W.S. Merwin, The Moon Before Morning & Niall Campbell, Moontide. The only prose would be tomes on the Philosophy of Time (and a couple of dissertation chapters from UoB 3rd years). 

November itself would add to the atmosphere. Autumn skies can be the best of the year as low sun cuts through layers of broken cloud the Atlantic winds bring scudding in. What little green remains is swathed in warm velvet brown: richer and redder than the browns of winter or spring. There aren't long technicolour sunsets as in July; instead, the whole day can feel like the 'golden hour' at dawn or sunset. 

For the first day I packed my waterproof sleeping bag, Niall Campbell's poetry and a book on time by Adrian Bardon, so that I could wander Coigach's miniature mountains from before dawn till after dusk. This was a fiercely windy day (and night), but with the benefits of changing light that brings.  

Between watching dawn hit Suilven...
...and seeing the sun dissolve into cloudbanks beyond the summer isles...
...I wandered up more than half a dozen peaks (the multiple tops of Ben More Coigach & Beinn an Eoin, followed by Stac Pollaidh) and read for hours. From some airy spots, distant mountains could be seen slip in and out of dense, textured cloud, the middleground lit by racing sunbursts: 
This was a fine high spot from which to watch the layered formations change:
But half an hour reading was all I could afford and there were dramatic spots further on.

I was mostly out of cloud but there was lots of it around; twice it engulfed the tops I was on, but often just swept along below:  
Occasionally I'd look up from my reading to find I wasn't alone:
When they wander almost close enough to reach I do wonder what roast Ptarmigan tastes like (don't worry, I'll never find out). Each time, I eventually had to get up and scare them off if I was to get round the day's peaks. I kept walking till the sun had set...
...and I mean really set. By the last top, there was only one thing that could be photographed:
Being here after dark was a great reminder of the lay of this land. Looking over scores of miles of coastline just one small clutch of distant streetlights could be seen. The only other things that attested to human activity were five lighthouses, stretching from Scoraig in the S, via Soyea in the mouth of Lochinver, to Stoer in the N and the Outer Hebrides in the W. There's something indescribably atmospheric about watching lighthouses from mountain tops: nothing draws the bleakness of mountain and sea closer together. But the main, mundane reason I'd extended the walk into the night was to test my new headtorch-on-steroids (a Petzl Nao I'd found on sale). This made easy going of the descent to the road. Then it was back to the Achiltibuie salmon fisher's bothy, my base for the rest of the week (it was great to spend a couple of quiet evenings in the pub with the bothy's owner, Peter, and one or two of the good folk of Achiltibuie). Someone staying in the bothy last month took some great pics that capture its character; you'll find my take on its charms in several posts, here, here and in the one called Back to the Bothy (which features a coastal skiff regatta on the bothy's doorstep). Let's just say it's a building worth photographing/writing about...

The forecast this week is for alternate days of stillness and raging gales. This seems tailor made for alternating between kayak and walking boots. I decided to spend the next day visiting an island to the NW of Tanera Beg that I'd never landed on before. By the time the sun came up I was past the first few of the chain of islands on the way to the day's target. Looking back to the mainland:
and, during the first pit stop, looking out to the next island in the chain...
...and down through the archipelago, the wonderful little Rockhopper just in shot:
As I left the main archipelago behind, crossing from the large islands (Tanera Mor and Tanera Beg) to the small outliers, the southern sky remained resolutely dark.The wind was unpredictable, leading to the wide range of sea conditions seen across the next few photos.
This bit was exciting. I almost got dragged into these breakers in the rolling mess that was beating the NW edges of the island group.
But by far the best thing about this trip was the wildlife. On these western extremities of Scotland, hundreds of barnacle geese were making their slow way south. These formations were stunning. I should've taken more photos rather than sitting and watching (I didn't get any that do justice to the birds' sweep across the sky) but here are close-ups of the groups that came nearest:

As a historian, it's difficult to see these and not recall earlier beliefs about barnacle geese: that they grow on trees (here's a manuscript from medieval Lincoln)... 
...or that, rather than migrating, they spend the winter hibernating at the bottom of lakes as goose barnacles:
While the day wore on I spent more time sitting around on the water reading. As usual, this provided far more bird/animal encounters than movement would've done. Every so often a loon or awk would pop up next to the boat. These late-autumn birds look remarkably different from their familiar summer selves. For instance, there's no guillemot less black than a black guillemot in winter...
...and the loons become difficult to tell apart. This one's a Great Northern Diver (but in winter, the throats of black-throated divers are also as pristine white as this). It's easy to forget how impressively large these creatures are until one rears up out of the water and you find its eye at your eye level:
Better even than the loons were the otters. The next pic is of an otter that surfaced several metres from the boat while I was moving. This happens relatively regularly, but otters are fast and clever. Usually you hear one surface, but in the fraction of a second it takes to turn, the otter has spotted you and dived: the most common otter-related sight from a kayak is just the flick of a long brown tail. There must be at least a dozen sightings to every successful photo. What's needed is a distraction - something to absorb the otter's attention. Today, this task was performed by a seal. When kayaking round here a seal often dawdles behind the boat. When the otter surfaced, it completely failed to notice the kayak: it had stopped dead on seeing the seal that had been following me. The two just floated while they stared each other down, each totally absorbed in the other's gaze. Meanwhile, as I stopped paddling and got the camera out, the kayak drifted slowly in the otter's direction. By the time it turned towards me I was little more than a metre away. The seal dived and it was time for me and the otter to stare each other down instead:  
After a few magical, suspended seconds (exactly what was needed to help consider the nature of time perception!) the otter arched its long body and, with barely a splash, was gone, with a much more familiar sight:
Alongside otters and run-ins with the odd porpoise, the day's other strange mammal encounter came while I was reading on a small skerry just a few feet from the water. Suddenly, a huge seal came slounging out of the sea, noisily shedding heaps of water as it arrived. Only once entirely landed did it spot me. This was the point at which each of us wondered what move the other would make next. Must admit that for a moment I did wonder whether I was about to get attacked. You can see from the tension in those braced front flippers just how confrontational this moment was...
But after a moment's indecision, the seal turned back on itself and, with a doggish yelp, plunged headlong into the sea (showing all the grace of a very fat, over-excited labrador tripping over its feet to turn and chase a stick). Not much later, rain heading in, I turned back, past more seal colonies, with an evening of reading ahead.  
After the miniature mountains of day 1, and the sea-level touring of day 2, I decided to head high. Because the days are short and I wanted to stay on the peak after dark, I chose the biggest nearby mountain that doesn't require a long walk in. This is a mountain so legendary that Prince sang a song about it on his 2013 Live Out Loud tour (?!?).

Liathach rockets straight up from the one-track road in Glen Torridon; although it looks from below like a bare monolithic slab, the top edge of its torridonian sandstone and quartzite has been sculpted by ice and wind into an intricate ridge. Since I approached and left the mountain by dark I took no photos from below, but here are two from a previous trip. The first looks up from the road...
...the second from the slopes of Beinn Dearg:
This ridge is 7km long, sometimes razor thin, and interrupted by a series of pinnacles, known as Am Fasarinen (the teeth); these demand tricky 'hands on' negotiation. Once you're on the ridge, it's wilderness in all directions (even on a day as nice as today I didn't see a single person from dawn to dusk). The views take in the Skye Cuillin to the SW, An Teallach to the NE and the whole span of the Outer Hebrides as well as almost every other mountain range in northern Scotland. The more immediate vistas are pretty good too. The peaks on the left of the pic below are the westernmost summits of Liathach itself, including the notorious Meall Dearg. Surprisingly, this has been described by Irvine Butterfield as 'the most difficult top in the British Isles, challenged only by the Inaccessible Pinnacle of Sgurr Dearg' in the cuillin. Peering over the shoulder of Meall Dearg is Beinn Alligin, with Beinn Dearg on the right (another of my favourite mountains, with some great scrambles, but one that demands a long walk in). The second picture, looking in the opposite direction, shows glorious Beinn Eighe (yet another of the most exciting mountain days in Britain; involving less scrambling than Liathach it's a spectacular option for when there's fresh thick snow on the ground).
But Eighe's most characteristic aspects are seen from the East end of Liathach:
I'd forgotten how long it takes to negotiate this traverse with its dozens of boulderfields. This wasn't aided today by the dusting of snow that made the boulders treacherous. Given that I was the only person on the mountain all day and temperatures were below zero I'd hate to think what would have happened had I slipped and hurt something...
In the pic above, the land on the horizon is the N end of Skye. As I made my way East to West (the next pic looks back from 2/3 of the way along) there was plenty of time to stop for a read/watch. Like some kind of mountain Gok Wan, I'd inadvertently picked a book that fitted the day's colour scheme - and Merwin's thinking about time, place and memory was exactly right for this trip (I'm really, really impressed with this collection). On the right are the famous 'teeth' - the most entertaining scrambling except the mighty Meall Dearg itself. 
There were a surprising number of creatures up here, but because most of them appeared while I had the camera stowed away (for scrambling) I failed to photograph almost everything - snow buntings and kestrel included. Here are wren and raven:  
A sea eagle passed twice. The first time (in the distance) it was on its way out from Loch Maree past Beinn Alligin, the second time (much closer) it was being harried by the raven pictured above as it made the return journey (a single pair of ravens were around for much of the day, traversing the ridge back and forth just as I was). With the camera in the rucksack, and the wrong lens on anyway, I just stopped and watched. Only once it was far, far away did I fumble in the bag to get a shot:
The wind picked up at sunset (unusual given the general truthfulness of the adage 'still of the evening, roar of the dawn'). This made the temperature of -2 feel far lower.  Everything suddenly seemed bleak and eerie:
The jagged edge of An Teallach is on the right in the above pic. A stunning blood-red moon, rising as the sun disappeared, completed the scene (unfortunately impossible to do justice to in photos, at least for me). There was now something distinctly other-worldly to the feel of this vast, empty place.This was my third time on Liathach and easily the most I've enjoyed it, partly because I covered more of the ridge than ever before, but also because the mountain feels so much wilder in November than it ever has in summer.
At this stage, I really began to think about the consequences of anything going wrong with my headtorch. If it had turned itself on in my bag and run its battery down I'd be in serious trouble: I had no spare batteries/torch, only the clothes I was wearing, no-one would know I was here, and a storm with 90mph winds was forecast to arrive during the night. Fortunately, bar a brief confrontation with a startled stag (scary, given that autumn is their fighting season), all went smoothly. Having spent every minute of daylight exploring the Liathach ridge, I thought a curry in Ullapool had been earned...

Unfortunately, there's now likely to be a few months of silence on this blog. Looking forward to resuming in May 2015, but the only hill I'm likely to see much of before then is the sugarloaf mountain in Guanabara Bay...


  1. Another wonderful post David. Brings back my memories of a three week trip to Assynt in Sept/Oct 2013. Thinking of returning and finding these posts quite helpful in potentially planning for places I didn't previously visit. Would you say a waterproof sleeping bag is sufficient cover by itself for spending nights on the mountains in either Spring or Autumn?

    1. Thanks Jay. I used to think of early spring or May/June as the best times to be in Assynt, so was surprised by just how many interesting things were around in November. The waterproof sleeping bag is great for staying warm and provides plenty of shelter in short showers, snow or just heavy dew. But if there's any chance of hard, sustained rain I'd consider using something else too: in heavy rain water will roll in round neck and shoulders. Even when intending to use just the sleeping bag I always make sure there's a bivy bag in the car, just in case I change my mind before setting out. I hope you get chance to make it back to Assynt soon!

  2. Thanks David, that's helpful. I will be keeping an eye on your adventures!

    PS. your book mentions are also interesting. I had recently bought The Living Mountain and am about to start reading it and after coming here I have just ordered And Our John Berger (the last one of his I read was Ways of Seeing almost thirty years ago!)

  3. The Living Mountain is a wonderful book, although Shepherd's poetry is surprisingly disappointing. Berger doesn't write about mountains/sea but I think his ideas about time/place in And Our Faces... are perfect for isolated outdoor spaces. I hope you enjoy them! I recently showed some students the first part of the Ways of Seeing documentary - brilliant, brilliant stuff, but amazing how odd 1972 TV now looks...

  4. Green sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir
    Will celebrate the Mountain Mother
    And every song-bird shout awhile for her;
    But I am gifted, even in November
    Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
    Of her nakedly worn magnificence
    We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
    Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall.