TAC 43 Index
I must be bleeding mad, I thought. It's half seven at night, I'm tired, I'm hungry and I should be taking to my bed. Instead, I'm about to go up the hill. One month before, midsummer's night, I had been on Hallival - at 1am the hills of Harris stood clear, the Cuillin were etched black against the glow where the sun was on its short trip below the horizon and the full moon shimmered over the Minch. I had wanted more and this was to be the night.
The plan had formed quickly - I would go to Kintail, take in the sunset from Carnan Cruithneachd then head west over the tops towards Airgid while the moon rose. I would sleep on the hill and come down into the dawn. I left work, dashed home, packed, grabbed the dog Breac and set off.
In Strath Croe a gentle sea breeze rustled the leaves and a couple shot me a funny look as we got ready. The walk through the forestry was pleasant enough but the steep climb beyond turned into a sweaty and midgy slog and I was glad to reach the boggy flats. But the evening transformed as we wandered towards the wee 610m bump - the hills became bathed in that special light, the finest of mists formed round Ceathreamhnan's shoulders, the midges fell away and I slowly became aware that the only sound was the breeze brushing softly past me. Occasionally it would die and then there was silence - a pure, profound, wonderful silence.
We plunged back into shadow for the climb to the summit. A Miró sun greeted us, pulsing above the Applecross hills. The Elchaig, far below, ran red as an artery. Tropical sunsets are often accompanied by great, roiling banks of cumulus burning with inner fire. This evening, a few feathery cirrus provided the canvas - those above were still as bright as goose down while to the north-west they were already as gaudy as a parrot. Between lay countless, and nameless, shades of pink. I watched, silently, until all had turned dove-grey. Being no aesthete, Breac rootled about and ate sheep shit.
We picked our way down the steep western slopes in the afterglow. I would have missed most of the wildlife but for the dog's alert gaze - a family of goats, some ptarmigan, a frog. The gloom descended as we splashed up Beinn Bhreac. I kept glancing round to look for the moon but no sign. For the first time it dawned on me that I was wandering about on my own, on the top of a hill in near darkness. A plover piped mournfully, silhouetted against a sky of the softest peach. Suddenly, I knew that I had never felt as small and insignificant and alone in my life.
We paused at the cairn and there was the moon, peeking over the horn of A'Ghlas-bheinn - as red as the sun at first. We wandered on. A wisp of cloud blew across dimming its eye like a cataract. Deer started off, no longer seen. I called Breac in, close. She didn't come - or rather she did but never near enough for me to get her on her lead. Sometimes I would hear the tinkle, tinkle of her name tag against her collar or spot the white tip to her tail dancing by like a firefly but then she would range off after more adventures and the silence would return. Sometimes I would sit on a rock and watch for her, sometimes I walked on hoping she would follow. I couldn't tell how long this went on but I knew it might be a fraction of what it could be. The similarity between the hill and her name didn't escape me. Maybe some other poor beggar had lost their dog up here before. I was well up the slopes of Bhuide before she returned - one moment black despair, the next there she was beside me looking up waiting to be patted as if nothing had happened.
Who knows which cairn marked the top of the hill, but we took them all in. Cruithneachd looked a satisfyingly long way off. The lochan-studded moorland to the north mirrored the night sky. The moon, bloated as a tick, beamed down washing the hills in silver. There was also silence - pure, profound, crushing silence.
'Come on Breac, we're off', I said and surprised myself at how reassuring I found the sound of a human voice. We scuttled off down to the path. Breac followed its twists and turns unerringly and pulled me along - fine in the upper reaches but the forest of bracken below hid a beachful of boulders slippery as seaweed.
Firm ground at last as we stole by Lienassie. Not a cloud in the sky and the moon at its brightest. A shadow trotted alongside Breac in perfect step - a grotesque with the legs of a giraffe, the snout of an anteater, the arse of the Elephant Man. We tried to outrun it but couldn't shake it off - I told myself not to look but it was as hard to ignore as an eclipse. It was only when we got between the taller trees that it disappeared, skulking off back to its bestiary.
Ten past one, the car. A cool wind fell from the summits and chilled me as I changed.
I was in work a few hours later.
'Get up to much last night, Stuart?'
'I went hillwalking with Breac.'
'That's nice, where?'
'Kintail!! What time did you get home?'
'Half two! You must be bleeding mad.'
'I wasn't always like this', Warbeck confided to his trusty sidekick, OJ, as he reclined on the urodynamics couch and artfully fended off the approach of Dirty Dolan with a suprapubic needle. 'This douce denizen of the South Side once stalked the bars and student flats of the West End'. OJ knew his mentor had a past but this revelation was unprecedented. 'And at the top of the ziggurat of carousing, looking down, was Wintergill's; a discreet road house where many a convivial evening was spent with the West End chums. They lived communally in a flat known as 'Bohemia' on account of the predisposition of its residents. Phil Stacey might be there howling Van Morrison numbers, while always presiding imperiously was the eponymous Queen of Bohemia herself, with consort, the Archbohemian'.
Perkin noticed OJ's eyes glazing over and hastened somewhat reluctantly towards his point. 'We were speaking of moonlight ascents of the Scottish hills, were we not? Well one night at chucking-out time in Wintergill's, the cries of the stiletto-bludgeoned drifted as usual through the aether from the nearby far from restful Captain's Rest and I put it to the assembled bohemians that, it being almost midsummer, a moonlight ascent of Ben Lomond was in order. The yellow Metro was lying outside like a killer in the moon and I was sober enough to pilot it.'
Along the way, the destination became the Cobbler, the Ed of this blat threw up in fear at the magnitude of the problem, and my list of companions was reduced from almost everyone to just the Archbohemian. The excuses were as convincing as Ally McLeod's 'if only Derek Johnstone had been fit'. The Queen of Bohemia herself claimed that her dancing pumps (usual walking attire) were okay but she couldn't find any poly bags with which to line them. The Archbohemian was an ideal companion for such a singular walk and although I had been imagining a peloton of bohemians following me up the hill, I was still happy to have only him. This was a man who had once gazed at the assembled boots drying in the fireplace at Onich one New Year and had mused on why they all had round toes. It should also be mentioned that he and the Ed managed to share a single bed that holiday without ever coinciding. One arose desperate for the summits as the other staggered towards him bleary- eyed from carousing the night away.
It therefore came as no great surprise when the Arch's provisions for the walk turned out to be a loaf of bread and three packets of crisps. The latter were shoved between slices of the former, but they were left in the car anyway and the Arch ate my sandwiches. He had recently heard a ghost story from a bass player involving hill climbing and a claymore. This was duly told as we meandered torchlit through the trees. I am not normally over-sensitive to such, but the shadows dancing in the Petzl colluded with the Arch's sepulchral tones to produce significant pilo- erection. (That's more information than we really need to know - Ed.)
One thing about moonlit ascents - you ought to make sure that summiting coincides reasonably well with the dawn. As our start had been dictated by last orders as called by the Grand Vizier of Wintergill's, rather than any cunning plan, we had a long wait; but eventually the first rays dappled the Arch's razor-sharp quiff. As shafts of gold pierced the eye of the needle I felt there really ought to be some sort of ritualistic behaviour such as the slaughtering of roosters or virgins. But we had brought neither.
The hardest task remained - staying awake on the drive home. We stopped in every lay-by from Arrochar to Glasgow for me to sprint up and down. Each of these would buy me five miles before the Metro would zigzag across the cat's eyes and wake me again. This, despite Arch having instructions to keep me awake at all costs. His experience of keeping awake was obviously dulled by too many visits to Bohemia from a certain notorious singer songwriter.
The Arch's next engagement was with yards and yards of duvet until arduous congress with a bottle of Grolsch that evening. Mine, diametrically, was in an hour with the bladders and urethras of the south of Glasgow. We both made it.
TAC 43 Index