Tag Archives: Portavadie

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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A blast from the past

Calm Loch Fyne

Yesterday the loch was calm, the only trace left by Hurricane Bawbag was a smattering of snow on the hills.

All’s quiet in the west today, but on Thursday Portavadie was pummelled to within an inch of its life by Hurricane Bawbag. It screamed its arrival, roaring and howling, unleashed and wild. Mighty gusts brought belts of rain and hail that hammered at the door. I watched from the window, jumping as gravel, whipped up and hurled at the cottage, smacked the glass. Telephone wires swung in giant loops, shuddering and straining to break free from their poles. One lone tree stood in the field, brittle branches waving, crazed, to the skies. Two small firs, just babies, seemed less bothered. They were pliant in the onslaught, supple limbs bowing until their tips touched the ground. Bits of plastic – a dustbin lid and a couple of plants pots – clattered up the lane, hurtling along like they were heading into town for the night.

And the sea. I’ve never seen it so furious. Giant waves, row upon row, pushed onshore, relentless, crashing over the pier and smashing onto the rocks.  Birch Isle was being sucked under. A low mist whirled and danced over the surf. As the sky darkened and the sun set, this mad, boiling loch turned a menacing pink.

View of the cottage

The cottage is small and squat – perfect for the wild and windy west coast.

Later that evening the electricity went off, so I went to bed. I lay in the dark as the hurricane raged on and thought of the people who’d lived here over the years. They too must have listened to the winds howling outside, safe and protected by these four walls. Then, as suddenly as it came, the hurricane went. But it left behind (along with a smashed back fence and two bemused chickens) a sense of how enduring the cottage is; just what it’s stood up to over time. This squat little home (close to the ground like all proper Highland things are) with its thick walls, is so perfectly formed for this weather-beaten place, this wind-battered land.

In the silence after the storm all I could hear was the creak of a floorboard and the sigh of a beam – the cottage settling, relaxing its flexed muscles. I almost caught it mutter under its breath ‘another one taken care of’. Hurricane Bawbag was, after all, just an awful lot of wind, and there’s nothing new about that around here.

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