These four walls

The other day a man knocked at the door. His great grandfather had been born here in the cottage back in 1846. He told me what he knew about the place and its history. Apparently, many years ago, a body lay on top of the woodpile to the left of fire where my desk now sits. Local fisherman had found the drowned soul in the sea and brought him to the nearest dwelling. It was fascinating to hear the tales and find out about the people who, like me, called this cottage home. Lives lived and lives lost. In a strange way, they’re still here in each carefully placed stone and worn floorboard. I imagine how on a stormy night they too must have listened to the wind howling outside, safe and protected by these four walls.

The cottage before we took it back to the original stone.

The cottage before we took it back to the original stone.

These four walls. When I’m away I miss the cottage. The weight of its stone around me, the murmurs from its rafters, the stories that it shares. We breathe together. I lie at night in the quiet and the dark and hear the walls inhale and exhale, gently drawing in the evening air. There’s a line in Dominic Cooper’s novel, The Dead of Winter, where Alasdair Mor feels such a warmth and closeness for the place where he lives that ‘every now and again the deepest quarters of his soul would erupt in a quiet passion’. I love that line

I’ve no idea how old the cottage is – two hundred years perhaps?  When we repointed the walls this summer we chipped away the years and caught a glimpse of the folk who built it. The cornerstones – great hulks of rock – glittered in the sunshine, no different from the day they were hauled from the shore and placed here by someone strong and skilled and determined to make a home. And still this cottage stands.

We repointed with lime mortar and dug a 'French drain' around the walls.

The whitewash is blasted off, the walls are repointed and a ‘French drain’ is dug… the work begins.

But it does need some work. It’s cold in the winter before the fire gets going. Damp yellows the walls and creeps into the bedding. And there’s a baby on the way, so I need to make things a little more modern. The architect has come up with a plan. The original cottage is going to be renovated and a wood-clad extension built on the back. I can’t wait.

I’m also slightly nervous. I want to be true to the building and its people. It’s been handed into my keeping and will be passed on again, no doubt. We’re starting from the right place, I think. Rather than trying to apply modern standards we’ve been looking at how the cottage was designed to work. So we’ve repointed with lime mortar. Instead of damp-proof course we’re looking at drainage. There will be change but the essence of the cottage will remain. Memories are woven into its fabric and we’re just threading a few more.

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Camping on the edge of the world

I had the camping gene injected into me by my family pretty much at birth. Mum and dad would pack the tent every summer, rain or shine, however hard I argued for a package holiday. And so, at this time of the year when the weather warms and the evenings lengthen, I long for nights under canvas. I dream of unzipping the tent on a still dew-damp morning and tip-toeing barefoot through the damp grass to an empty beach. I want to wake up to the sound of the cuckoo. Cook sausages on a fire. Make coffee on my stove. Fall asleep to the whisper of the wind. Camping calls.

Sanna sands

The sparkling blues and secret sands of Sanna.

I live in a fairly out-of-the-way place, but I felt the need for something wilder. The Ardnamurchan peninsula was just the place. It’s an inspiring land; remote and breathtakingly beautiful. We found a magical little campsite clinging to the coast near the village of Kilchoan, and pitched by the sea surrounded by thrift and bluebells. The blossom in the trees hummed with insects. I caught the rich ripe smell of seaweed on the breeze. As the sun sank into the sea and the evening slowly softened, we wrapped up warm and cooked and drank and chatted. The familiar sounds – the clatter of tin plates, the strike of matches, the hiss of gas, the low murmur of other campers – enfolded me in a glow of happiness. The next morning I woke to birdsong, sunrise warming the tent and the smell of bacon frying. Someone was up early.

View of sea from the campsite

The lovely view from the campsite.

The jaggedy tip of Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of the British mainland, is just around the coast. Stand here with the salty Atlantic wind in your face and you could be at the edge of the world. Beyond the blue and the scatter of Hebridean islands that float on the horizon, there’s nothing but ocean, vast and swelling, for thousands of miles. This expanse, this almost incomprehensible immensity, fires my heart. The emerald waves roll in, surging through narrows and rushing up the sand. They pound the rocks, angry and unforgiving. Loch Fyne seems meek in comparison. There waters are untamed and they rage through my blood. My mind soars across the waves, the cold green deep, to faraway lands.

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The seasonal snooze

It’s been a beautiful autumn. The forest’s on fire, rich and glowing against the bruised purple of the hills. The rowan berries are bursting on the trees, pillar-box red, signalling, so people say, a harsh winter ahead. Worn out by its steady summer march, the bracken’s crumpled, rusted and turned in for the year. It slumps everywhere. This comes as a relief. From July onwards, nature can be overwhelming here on the west. Fuelled by the warmth and the wet, the undergrowth takes over – twisting, swelling and spreading. As it dies back, you can move freely through the woods and hills again. The countryside is laid bare and the signs of the past reveal themselves.

View of stone wall

One of the ruined cottages at Glenan. I wonder who lived here?

Last week I wandered up to the deserted village on the hillside behind Glenan. During the summer it’s engulfed by green, but now the stone walls stand clear. It’s a haunting place, an old settlement set deep in the woods. The remains of the cottages – the last one abandoned about a hundred years ago – are dotted among the trees. When my mum was little, they still had their roofs. They’re long gone now, but the walls still stand.

I perched on a rock and thought about the people who’d made their lives up here. Whose hands had built these cottages stone by carefully placed stone in this harsh place? What must they have felt at this time of the year with the cold and the dark and the scarcity of winter just around the corner?  Like the bracken, perhaps they just gave into the cycle of nature, hunkered down and hid away until the soil warmed once again.

One cottage drew me in. Its thick walls, the stones patched with paint-splats of lichen, had held strong over the years. A rowan stood in one corner, bare branches hanging with puffs of moss that were as silvery as the wintry sky. As I stood there, the sun went behind a cloud and the landscape darkened by a notch. The bracken rustled in an easy breeze. ‘Hush,’ it seemed to say. ‘It’s winter.’ And I pictured myself lighting a fire, curling up in this cottage in the woods and sleeping until spring.

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Midnight ramblings

The darkness is beginning to linger. I remember how short the days were in the depths of last winter; the blanket of black that hung around until late in the morning and returned, it seemed, just a few hours later. Sometimes it was hard to leave the warmth of the cottage. Inside these thick walls, where the lamps and fire glowed, all was comfortable and safe. Outside, in the after-dark landscape, familiar places, the woods, the lanes, the fields, became strange and, in my mind, out of bounds.

But recently I read Chris Yates’ Nightwalk, and his tales of moonlit rambles inspired me to try and reclaim my winter nights. He describes – beautifully – this secret world that comes alive in the undisturbed dark. If you sit quietly in the woods when everyone else is tucked up in bed you’ll glimpse it – the badger going about its business, the owl passing overhead, the cold stare of a hare. As I turned the last page, I decided it was time to drag myself away from the hearth, ignore the stab of primeval fear and enter the night.

A cool breeze swished through the leaves. The stars showered and pulsed in the velvet dome of a sky, and to the west the last of the twilight slipped behind the hills. Ahead of me the lane was a pitch-black tunnel. Then almost imperceptibly, things began to take shape and reveal themselves – shadows and traces and suggestions of forms I recognised. I walked slowly, gingerly, towards the woods, the only sound the steady flop flop of my wellies.

In among the trees the darkness closed in, becoming deeper and denser. I found my way through to a clearing and stood still. The ancient oaks crouched in a circle around me. Timber creaked, something shuffled its way through the undergrowth, and, far away, the waves lapped the shore. Each noise was magnified by the silence and my sharpened senses.

I heard the snap of a branch on the hill just above me. It was most likely a deer. Still, my heart raced at the prospect of a face-to-face encounter with a beast out here in the dead of night. I was beginning to lose my nerve.  Just as I left the edge of the woods and began to cross the field, I heard a horrifying screech from the trees. The sound strangled and then swept out over the loch. I hurried home.

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Seven sweet scallops

Scallops in a row

A fine forage – seven fat scallops

Last week I had my most successful forage yet. Scallops. Yes, seven fat scallops plucked from the bottom of the sea with my very own hands. These succulent sweet beasties have always been at the top of my foraging list. Not only because they’re utterly delicious, but because I love the notion of diving down through the crystal clear water of the loch to nab them. I’d tried last year, but without a wetsuit those crystal clear waters are unbearably icy. I tried again later in the year with some friends. We ploughed backward and forward across the bay, scanning the seabed. But it was bare, the only signs of life the bulging red jellyfish trailing feathery manes of tentacles. They loomed from the shadows like fleshy ghouls and soon scared us off.

My neighbour’s as keen as me to catch a scallop. We’ve often discussed tactics and hatched plans over a cup of tea. He remembers diving in the bay in front as a lad and scooping them up by the dozen. He’d used scuba gear back then, but he reckoned we’d be able to freedive for them – particularly at low tide. So on a glorious morning, we squeezed into our wetsuits and set off round the coast. The loch twinkled, the sky was blue and the grumble and splutter of the outboard was the only sound in the sleepy sunny calm.

We were heading to a tiny cove that my family have always called – rather unimaginatively – Wee Bay. It’s a fine spot, protected at one side by a rocky peninsula and fringed on the other by a lovely old oak wood. The shoreline is scruffy with flotsam and jetsam and bits of blue rope, but the bottom is sandy and the water translucent. I floated on the surface. Sunlight streamed into the watery world. Hermit crabs scuttled, shadows of tiny fish flickered and a few lone sea laces waved in the ebb and flow. I listened to the burbling breath, steady and loud in my underwater ears.

My neighbour was the first to bag a scallop. I got to work and soon spotted my first victim – a small sandy coloured mound about three metres below. The shell was slightly open and I’m sure I could see its string of beady eyes.  I dived down, ears popping as I neared my quarry, fighting the pull upwards to reach out and grab it. I shot to the surface, and emerged, triumphant, holding my booty aloft, slightly deaf and cackling with joy in the sunshine. It was a huge, heavy King scallop. I was ridiculously elated and ready to catch more.

Scallops and chorizo

A slightly fuzzy shot, but we were keen to start eating…

As we ambled back in the boat, I lay the scallops in a row in order of size. They were all pretty enormous. They sneezed and exhaled and, every now and again, opened their shells for a peek. Preparing them was slightly more challenging than I’d imagined – it took an effort to ease the shells open and there are bits and bobs you need to remove. It was, of course, more than worth it. Seared with chorizo, parsley and lemon juice they were, quite possibly, the freshest, tastiest and most tender thing I’ve ever eaten.

There’s a good video about cleaning live scallops on the BBC’s website.

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The forgotten path

‘Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk, signs of passage.’

I’ve just finished reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, a beautiful book, almost a meditation, on the ancient paths – tracks, drove roads and ways – that criss-cross the British landscape. He talks about paths not just as connecters of places, but as keepers of the past, as rights of way – ‘a slender network of common land that threads through our privatised world’ – and as acts of consensual making.  He also describes how they offer a way of feeling, being and knowing; they lead backward in history and inwards to the self.

The old path, overgrown but I can see it clearly in mind’s eye.

It made me think about a path that starts at the end of my lane. We walked it daily when we were young. It cut a safe passage through the hinterland that lay between our row of cottages and the other side. I remember the shade and the mulch and the way it wound its way through a maze of scrubby gorse where sheep hid in thorny hollows. The path, once the main route into Portavadie, fell into disuse a few years back when a better way, a shorter cut, came with the marina development. Everyone followed it instead. How easily, I realised, we’ve let this right of way, this passage of history that holds the tracks of generations, slip from use, sight and mind.

So I went to have a look. I stood at the gate that appeared to lead to nowhere. Grasses shimmered silver, copper and purple. Spiky reeds pushed through the mint-green moss. Small white flowers laced the ground. Rhododendrons, exotic beasts, loomed large and shiny. Everything was oversized, pumped up with all the rain. And the place hummed with beasties. Flies buzzed overhead, hazy and lazy in the afternoon sunshine. Bees disappeared up the big pink foxglove bells. Butterflies rested on bristling purple thistles, then rose, like scraps of tissue, whirling up and off into the sky.

Overgrown path

Without common use and care paths soon disapear.

I pushed my way through the undergrowth, forging a path where I remembered the path to be. The further I walked the more impenetrable it became and about half way through nature began to close in around me. I was hot and itchy and this place – part bog, part scrub, part wood – without its path was unwelcoming, uncivilised, unknown.  I imagined ticks and adders lurking. Then I hit a wall – higher than me – of bracken, furling and fierce. As I stood facing it, something barked from the undergrowth – a low, raspy, rough sound. It barked again, nearer and more insistent. I heard a sharp cry from a circling bird of prey. I felt a nip on my arm and looked down to see a cleg squatting, flat and dark, sucking.

Just a few hundred metres from the road I’d passed into a different world. It filled me with unease, pitched sharp and strange. The bark was surely a deer, yet in this landscape my mind raced, my hairs rose. Suddenly I wanted to get out. I understood what MacFarlane meant when he said that we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move; when he asked: ‘What does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?’

I passed the gate to the path today. I looked down through the trees and the grass and the ferns, remembering the wild world in there. I thought about retracing my steps, about making tracks and bringing the old path back to life. But I decided to leave it as it is, bound and swathed, but not erased, by vegetation, by the tangle of trees and time. I know it’s there. It carves it ways through my mind and memory and perhaps that is enough.

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Bitten by the bothy bug

Bothies have always fascinated me. I stayed in a few when I was little, but I’ve vague memories of the experience. It’s other people’s stories that have shaped my concept, my slightly romantic notion, of these shelters in the Scottish hills. Mum and dad and their friends would talk about Shenavall, Camasunary, Suileag – beautiful names that spoke of exploits in wild lonely places, of mountain days and bothy nights, of blazing fires, whisky and camaraderie.

The Rough Bounds of Knoydart

The Rough Bounds of Knoydart.

But the time comes when you have to shape your own story. And so it was that a few weekends ago my friend Morven and I stood at the tip of Loch Arkaig, rucksacks on, taking in the moorland and mountains that lay ahead. We were about to enter the Rough Bounds of Knoydart for our very own bothy adventure.

Morven and I have known each other for years. Our parents were best friends and hill-walking pals, so we share the same tales; the same memories. Indeed, our initial plan was to recreate an epic four-day bothy trip that our mums made into Knoydart many moons ago when we were toddlers. Too epic, we decided, and plumped for something a bit gentler: park at Strathan, walk to Kinbreak bothy in Glen Kingie, on to A’Chuil bothy in Glendessarry and then head back to the car. Two nights, no big hills and fairly short walks in and out.

Outside Kinbreak

Outside Kinbreak – my first (sort of) bothy.

I say no big hills, but as soon as we set off we were climbing. My thighs burned as we worked our way up, gravel crunching underfoot. The path was dented with deer tracks and dotted with indigo-blue flowers. Little spiders with fat bodies scuttered across the ground, disappearing down holes. Morven and I chatted, stopping every now and again to catch our breath and look back at the view that was opening up as we gained height – a mass of bare hillside, marked only by the craggy fingers of mountain burns. The call of a cuckoo, its cry for a mate, echoed across the loch. The sun beat on my back. I felt a few snow flakes, as dry and light as a feather, land on my nose. I looked up, searching for a cloud in the empty blue sky.

We headed for the beleach, the pass through the mountains. As we reached the top, a vast, new landscape revealed itself. Glen Kingie, a great curve of a glacial glen, swept below us, a river carving and snaking its way along the bottom. I stopped to feel the size of the space and the size of the silence.

Kinbreak bothy

Kinbreak in Glen Kingie.

The old ruin house, roofless, came into sight first. Kinbreak bothy, probably the old byre, sat next to it at the bottom of the hill. I pushed the front door open to see a damp cobbled floor, a collection of saws and a ladder leading up to a trap door. A penthouse. I scanned the room upstairs. Wooden floor boards, a big stone fireplace, an empty bottle of Aberlour with a well-melted candle stuck in it, some coal, a bit of kindling, a table covered in blobs of wax, two benches, a pack of cards, a tube of toothpaste and a bothy visitor book. Partly for safety, partly for memoir, everyone who passes through is meant to leave a comment: where they’ve been, where they’re going, what state the bothy was in, drinks drunk, hills climbed, dry days, wet days. One intrepid man describes arriving at 2.30am after walking here under a canopy of stars. Another came for solitude on New Year’s Eve.

Washing dishes in the burn

Washing the dishes in the river as the light fades.

We made our beds on the floor (bivvy bag, mat, sleeping bag), hung everything else up from various hooks and nails (there might be mice and other critters about) and then went out to collect some wood. The land is bare, but we pulled a good lot of damp logs and sticks from the peat, trees, I guess, that had once stood here. We’d brought a ‘sparkle log’ with us and a bit of kindling, but it’s good to stock up the woodpile for others who might arrive in need. These hills are unforgiving places.

Inside Kinbreak

Roaring fire inside Kinbreak.

After some dinner (couscous and chunks of chorizo), we popped out to wash the dishes in the burn. A herd of deer stood silently watching. The mountains softened as the light began to fade and glow. It felt truly, immensely, peaceful. Back inside, the flames whipped up the chimney and the whisky rattled into my tin mug. We sat by the fire, snug and warm, far from the rest of the world. The night, however, was long and cold – my sleeping bag wasn’t up to the job. About 5am the door rattled, hard and insistent. A deer, we hoped. I woke up muggy and smelling of smoke, so, after a trip up the hill with a spade, I cleared my head with a quick flinty-cold wash in the burn. Fuelled with coffee and syrupy oats, we were ready for day two.

The path was tricky to spot, so we followed the trails of an argocat – the all-terrain, off-roader that taxies deer stalkers though this wild country. It was boggy and slow going. We passed a pool, deep and perfect for a swim, and climbed until we reached a wide plateau. After tripping around peat bogs and peat hags, we picked up a neat little path that followed the burn through the col. Glendessary lay below, and we could just make out the clearing at the edge of the wood where A’Chuil, our bothy for the night, sat. After munching on babybel and oatcakes, we pressed on.

Watching the sunset outside A'Chuil

Watching the sun set outside A’Chuil.

As we got closer, we saw figures. This bothy wasn’t empty. We’d be sharing our night with two German blokes, an English couple and a pair of Scottish old timers. Three others were in the middle of packing up and shipping out. We all sat outside in the evening sunshine cooking up our food and passing the time. There was talk of the best freeze-dried food, journeys made and journeys ahead, wild pigs, the weather, sporks, how tampons make good kindling. On the hillside in front of us, the twilight picked out the ridges and furrows of run rig farming, an old sheep enclosure and the remains of a stone cottage, reminding us that people had once drawn life from this land; that this wasn’t a pristine playground.

A'Chuil bothy

Leaving A’Chuil in the morning.

There are two rooms at A’Chuil, both with sleeping platforms and open fires. Morven and I were in with the Germans. We sat by the fire, chatting, laughing, drinking whisky and enjoying the company before climbing into our sleeping bags. It was another long night. There were two snorers, and the windows rattled with each inhale, each exhale. An extra strong coffee was needed to kick-start the day. It was a beautiful spring morning as we said goodbye to our new friends and made the walk out along the forest track. We reached the car and, with perfect timing, the cuckoo, called, still, seemingly, searching for his mate.

Driving back along the side of Loch Arkaig, I caught sight of myself in the rear-view mirror. My face was dirty and my hair was a mess, but there was a sparkle in my eye. I looked refreshed, revived. I’d been bitten by the bothy bug. Morven and I pencilled in a date for the next trip. I mentally made a note to order a new down sleeping bag and buy some earplugs.

A big, big thank you to Morven for sharing this trip with me.  Experienced bothier, expert map reader,  snack  provider, much-better-than-me photographer and patient friend (even when I do accidently pocket the pot grip). The Mountain Bothy Association‘s website has loads of information about bothying.

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