Fieldnotes from the Scottish Highlands

31 May

I’m on fieldwork at the moment, with intermittent data reception. I joined the Hillwalking Society for a weekend on the Isle of Arran and have now been based in Kinlochleven for a few days (leaving tomorrow). My fieldwork consists of joining hillwalkers to observe how they perceive Scottish landscapes as sites of health and danger. Basically, it means I get to hike all day! I then sit in my little tent and type up from memory everything they said.

Since I therefore don’t have much time or space in my head for normal blogging, I thought I’d share some of the fieldnotes I just typed up from yesterday’s hiking adventure. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to share fieldnotes in the future, but in this case there is no ethical issue as the photos are my own and I have permission to recount the stories I was told. The following piece has not been edited into academic writing and is more a stream of consciousness. I am also including more (personal) photos that have not gone into my research notes, just to give you a taste of hiking in the Highlands and perhaps of my work… I hope you enjoy!

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I wasn’t thinking of doing a massive walk in Glen Coe today. My plan formed spontaneously during breakfast, as I decided to try to find the Lost Valley. I hadn’t informed myself enough on the munro route, but I packed enough for the day to be flexible. I drove Rumi and myself out to the Three Sisters because the Lost Valley had been on my list since I had heard about it. The WalkHighlands website advised to reach the carpark early as it would fill up quickly throughout the day. It also mentioned the bagpiper who was regularly there. He was.

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It took a while to find properly, so when I bumped into a Dutch father and son who said they were going there too, I hung around them for a while until they told me their plan was the munro circuit. I followed my own path and found the Lost Valley. It was an impressive expanse between towering munros, and I contemplated on the tragic irony of Clan Macdonald hiding cattle there only to one day hide there themselves. I thought about the Highland Clearances and recent reports of archaeological findings of human remains. I saw pitched tents – probably some folk had camped overnight in the valley – and a group of school children rock climbing with helmets. I felt this was an excellent celebration of this spectacular thought. I also thought about how Highlanders had been portrayed as lazy and greedy thieves, and how the walk up had been nothing for a lazy person. If anything, the beauty and industry of the walk could be a testament to the dedication and pride behind those living there and walking it.

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Thistle growing in the Lost Valley

Following half an hour looking down at the Lost Valley and walking around in it, I was just about to head back to the car when I bumped into the Dutch father and son again: George and Brahm. Their route had taken them to the Lost Valley after all. They confirmed that they were still planning on bagging the two munros and I spontaneously asked if we could join them. They accepted.

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The walk was fairly straightforward until the ascent began between fields of snow. It was an incredibly hot day so standing beside snow in shorts and shirts was bizarre, almost unnerving.

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I wrapped up just because I felt it may be bad luck to enter snow in summer clothes. The first ascent was almost vertical, with deep footprints for us to follow and walk in, but nonetheless somewhat frightening as the slope was at more than a 45 degree angle and the view back was giving me vertigo. I focused instead on the task and tried not to worry too much about Rumi dancing on the snow. She seemed (and was) in control.

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At the top of the snow were some muddy rocks. I had been excited about the rocks because they signalled more security than the soft snow on a mountain slope, but with the mud, the rocks felt unsteady, and both foot and hand grip didn’t feel secure. I was beginning to worry, especially as we couldn’t see footprints to follow in the next snow field. I suggested that the path up must therefore be over the rocks. We could see the ridge quite close, so it was only a matter of choosing to go left or right. We chose left.

What seemed like a straightforward scramble turned out to be an almost vertical rock climb. I don’t know how Rumi got as far as she did. I was terrified for her and for myself. I had constant moments of Fear and the greatest battles were to not look down and to not give in to the fear. I had to press forward. What encouraged me was that a 17 year old was leading the way, Rumi was managing (struggling slightly, but managing), and no one was expressing fear. However, I swore that if we got out of this, I would never, ever put Rumi in such a situation again. The climb must have taken about 5 minutes, not much longer, but it involved applying grips I had practised in bouldering, and moments of little grip, using the feet to push myself upwards. Brahm reached the top first and shouted, exhaling loudly, which greatly encouraged me to push forward. We really should not have done that rock face without a belay. Brahm later said: “I have never shit my pants so much,” to which his father laughed appreciatively. He later posed for us beside a block of snow under which he believed the original path to be.

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In a way, this climb became the bonding moment for us. We sat on the pass for a while, looking back, expressing disbelief, and trying to understand where the actual path was.  Following this moment, George and Brahm began asking me more questions. A camaraderie developed such as I had felt on the Isle of Arran. We began to share stories, speak carefree and laugh a lot. We shared coffee and cookies.

Father and son told me that they loved hiking. Brahm hated city tourism and prefered to travel to hike because in hiking in the Netherlands wasn’t possible. Brahm later said, “Here I have to think about where to put my feet. There, I just walk.” He also said: “The views are the reward. This is so much more rewarding.” Father and son had flown into Edinburgh the day before – “Yesterday we were still in the Netherlands, and on Monday I have to go back to work! But now, we are in this hot weather in Scotland enjoying the views!” George said – but they hadn’t visited Edinburgh city. George hoped to see it at least once, if briefly. They had immediately rented a car and driven out to Ben A’an. After Bidean nam Bian, they planned to drive to Skye to do the Old Man of Storr, and then to the Cairngorms. It amused me that they had no interest in visiting the cities of Scotland and had only come for hiking. 

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Brahm posing for his father on the way down

George was very excited to reach the summit of Bidean nam Bian. It was to be both their first munro and at each cairn they wondered if this was finally the summit. When we made it, George looked to me for confirmation then bellowed: “Yes! My first munro!” An elderly Scottish man with an excellent moustache who had been there before us and was just leaving, turned in delight as he heard this and said: “Oh well done! And hopefully it’s the first of many!” 

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George asked me what I did and I told him about my research project. He nodded appreciatively: “I had Lyme.” He told me he had been bitten by a tick in the Netherlands and had developed not the bull’s eye but an entire rash on his leg. At A&E he was put immediately on antibiotics. I mused to myself about how everyone had expressed they had “had” Lyme disease even when they had been put on immediate antibiotics and the disease had therefore not had the opportunity to spread. How long before someone has something? Do you have to suffer from it for a longer period of time before you can say you have had an illness? How do people who actually live with Lyme disease understand “having” a disease, and what do they make of people who say they “had” it when it was immediately tackled by antibiotics?

Brahm told me a story from boys’ scouts. They were at a camping retreat playing hide and seek, and he was always been found. Fed up, he decided to go a different way and lay down in the grass. He wasn’t found, but later his back was covered in “a hundred ticks!” Usually, he told me, when a tick is removed, a circle is drawn around where it was and the ticks are carefully numbered so that if the rash develops, the infected tick can be identified. In this case, the group leader just drew one big circle over the whole of his back. Both Brahm and George laughed uproariously at this story.

On our descent, we spied the elderly Scotsman with the excellent moustache again and again. His bright red backpack became a guide for the path we should follow, especially since the path down wasn’t marked for the first 600m. It was a tedious scramble down and I had several moments when I felt fed up, wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and just wanted to get off the mountain. I thought I would give munro-bagging a break. I asked Brahm how he felt about munros and he laughed, “It’s doable!”

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On the descent, we passed by a river and saw the Scotsman just getting up from where he had been sitting on the riverbank. He came up to me and said, “Drink from that river. You won’t taste anything better this side of heaven”. I told George and Brahm this and we filled up our water bottles. Indeed, it tasted otherworldly. I had filled my bottle with tap water from the campsite and was now drinking glacial water, fresh from tumbling over mossy rocks. The difference was astonishing. We enjoyed the drink as much as we enjoyed the description that had come with it.

The descent was long, if beautiful alongside a waterfall that tumbled over steps of red rock.

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We took occasional breaks sitting down, and Brahm and George measured our altitude, the distance we had walked, and how many calories we had burnt. We discussed with walking with poles would be beneficial. And we kept returning to the vertical wall we had climbed, and laughed in disbelief. We stood atop Stob Coire nan Lochan and tried to make out where the rock climb had happened.

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Barely visible: The footprints in the snow and the scramble upward.

Once down, we walked in a haze in the car park. We kept looking up at the hills before Bidean nam Bian and making sounds of disbelief. Our legs were exhausted. George praised Rumi, impressed by her fierce attitude at tackling two munros.

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My fierce puppy. Photo taken by Brahm.

I stared in disbelief at where the route to the Lost Valley had begun, all those hours ago, and as my eyes wandered across, I relived the route we had walked that had led us up a munro, behind the hill, up another munro, and down the other side of the hill. It seemed such a large arc.


At the car park, we sat down and looked up at the mountains again. Brahm and George changed shoes and we shared some bags of crisps. Brahm spoke in disbelief of the many tourists who arrived, took photos of the Three Sisters, and then got back into their cars and drove off. Considering the hike we had just completed, such an attitude seemed incredible to the three of us. I mentioned that that was the good thing about the car park: even though it filled up quickly, no one stayed for long, so the car park was in a constant state of flux and finding a parking spot was only a matter of time when the next tourist car pulled out. The things those tourists were missing… The incredible hike we had had… The walk had been more than a walk; it had been an adventure.

And one we had shared. I gave George my contact details and wished them both fun and luck on the continuation of their journey. Getting into my car and driving off, I felt a sense of sudden… emptiness? It felt so strange to just drive off, knowing I won’t see them again, after having shared such intense hours together. In the end, we were still strangers to one another, who knew nothing about one another beyond what those 8-9 hours of walking could reveal. But leaving them made me aware of the intense connection I had felt with them. Like on Arran, we had a collective experience that we had shared with one another, and memories of that munro would always be linked with the people. I was reminded of my backpacking days, where shared journeys became more than the kilometers we covered, but a deep connection we would always have to one another. But backpacking, I thought then, was more self-centered. After all, many people go backpacking in order to find themselves, and the journey is less about what you see and more about who you are and how you develop. Hillwalking and hiking seemed just as intense a time, with the focus very much directed outwards towards tackling the mountain. The companions may not be paid much attention to in the beginning, but by the end so many stories are shared that they become intricately woven into the mountains we climbed. I thought back to Frazer’s delighted grin at saying, “But it’s exciting” when there was a sign of danger. The only positive thought I have about that vertical climb is that we made it, but in reality, we were afterwards especially bound to one another because of it. We remembered it all the way down to the carpark and laughed like old friends about it.

 

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Brahm and George with the peak of Bidean nam Bian behind them

Back at my campsite, I met two men walking the West Highland Way who told me what they enjoyed the most about the experience. “It’s the people you meet,” they said. Even though I know nothing about them off the mountain, our shared experience made me believe they were good people, and I hope Brahm and George stay in touch. 

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