August and the first half of September saw an extraordinary outdoor arts event take place on the Trotternish peninsula at the north end of Skye. Billed as "a challenging but unforgettable night", "a heightened sensory experience" and "a night transformation of one of Europe's greatest geological sites", The Storr - Unfolding Landscape was the latest production by nva, the company whose CV (or should that be cv?) also includes The Path, an acclaimed illumination event in Glen Lyon in 2000. The Storr was clearly a must-see for hillgoers and arty types alike, and both Calum Hind and Perkin Warbeck went along for TAC.
I HAD WALKED UP to see Storr's codgery auld daud before, but this was different. It was at night - from 11pm until about 2am - and in the company of over 200 others. Walkers are often gregarious, but not usually to this extent; they can also be intermittently nocturnal, but tend not to swarm at night. We were being stripped of our normal hillwalking instincts because nva's "environmental arts" event was out of our normal experience, and we were happily setting off under circumstances I suspect none of us would usually tolerate.
But on this occasion - the night of 27/28 August - an all-too-familiar Skye walking experience intruded: halfway up we were turned back because of philistinely thick cloud. Nobody demurred. Invading clagginess was something we recognised all too well, and we retreated under conditions we all have to resign ourselves to at times: mist again.
A week later however saw me and another 200 devout acolytes back at the shrine of, um, whatever it was going to turn out to be. As before, we were all bussed in large groups at intervals along the Staffin-Portree single-track. The buses meant that scores of cars were not squeezing and cluttering the road, and parking was no problem. Ecologically and logistically sound, but also increasing the gathering sense of mission about the expedition as my group checked in at the An Tuireann arts centre in Portree. We were given dog-tags to dangle from our necks, and Petzl headtorches. On the bus the guides gave instructional and safety advice. Despite the uniformly hillwalker style of everyone there, it started to feel like we were going down a pit, or into catacombs or crypts, rather than up to spires and buttresses.
Once debussed, we were soon heading up the hill, many of us wielding the quaint rustically barked poles issued from bins at the start. The well-furbished path showed itself by having little reflective bobbins spaced out along each side, and the string of headtorched walkers soon looked somewhat gorgeous, appearing as a gently bobbing chain of lilac-white points streaming back, if you turned to look.
We turned to look a lot. We were first treated to a range of sights and sounds as we plodded through the forested part of the walk. There was something of the cryptic. The forestry revealed lit-up trees, vibrating trees, lights lurking in foliage. Along with these were various sounds. The late Sorley MacLean's voice could be heard, in its sonorous chunter, in both Gaelic and English. The effect was quite ghostly in a lightly humorous way.
Soon the atmosphere changed as the path markings became continuous greenly-lit tubing snaking up through the dark on each side of this stretch of track, along which we walked with our headlamps off. This enabled us better to see phenomena such as a number of ghostie men floating peacefully amongst the trees to our left. There was a "How'd they do that, then?" element to watching these large-looking bluish-white ghostie people proceeding contentedly along accompanied by the various sounds offered. They seemed so at home there that it felt as if it could easily have been us haunting them rather than the other way round.
Out of the woods after this last section, we saw for the first time the Old Man himself, and some of his crony neighbouring peaks and pinnacley pals. They were all blinged up in light, and seemed to hover above us. In the dark space between us and them were winding and wending chains of lights, as the other large groups threaded their different routes to and from the corrie below the peaks. With the darkness removing perspective, there was an Escher-like quality to these sights. The night was filled too with profuse strains of lark-like live Gaelic singing. The singer appeared on an adjacent skyline, theatrically lit. She continued regaeling us mightily.
Our group went on with its petzled procession. The path started to steepen and zigzag and to our right the islands of Rona and Raasay sported constellations of scattered lights - all part of the environmental artwork. When we reached the corrie we all sat down, along the raised side of the path, on seatpads below the Old Man himself. Gold lights and beams crossed the corrie and brazened up the various peaks. A white-clad dancer appeared in the fragmented corrie bottom, in a little arena made by lighting, and did a routine, and another one, in case we ran out of something to inspire contemplation. There were more sounds, too: effects nearly as sonorous as Sorley, some sounding like geological groans, some consisting of craggy lines of German poetry. We ourselves tended towards silence, and to having a gaze and a ponder.
There was plenty to ask oneself. I wondered if I was supposed to be realising things about some kind of relationship between art and geology, or being moved by the juxtaposed images of the evanescent and the eternal. A touch more prosaically, I did also wonder how the event was proofed against incursion. Those others who by strange quirks of coincidence happened to be using the same route at the same time as the rest of us, were they freeloading bastards or free spirits?
It was easy to wonder if I should be making up phrases like ineffable effulgence or ineluctable luminosity. Or to ask myself how much did the range of artistic input matter in the face of the basic experiences of nocturnal walking, gazing on lit-up peaks, and admiring the old basalt himself, looking portly and aldermanic in his suit of lumens and photons and such?
But simple gratification at what we were seeing outweighed introspection, before we all began to file back down again. The descent seemed to go quite quickly. The effects seen on the way up were adjusted, with lights and sounds moved around, or changed. Down is definitely not a reversed version of up, in environmental arts. Just above the forested section we gathered to listen to the singer, in a respectful group, before desultorily setting off again.
As we neared the end and the buses, conversation and group-noise began to return, marking a change in the atmosphere of the walk. We handed in our ID tags and headtorches and were each handed a book, called simply the Storr. The writings in this turned out to deal with nearly all the questions raised, and supplied exegesis and disquisition and related literary effusions to the walk, to Skye, and to mountains and cultures and ideas in general. A range of stimuli: a gallimaufry to go with a gallivant.
The gallivanting up to see the geological gaffer remains for me the main point, however. And the path remains behind, brilliantly refurbished, for others to use, even during the day, which makes up for quite a few of the access-type doubts, I would suggest.
There would be time, perhaps even spent perusing the Storr book, to mull over questions and ideas, to decide what we had learned, and what might become considered opinion. The most immediate question for me was as to how much of an experience it had been. As much as many a great time on hill or mountain, but entirely different in kind, and entirely memorable.
Disclaimer: Perkin Warbeck hereby gives notice that his sister-in-law works for nva, the company in charge of The Storr - Unfolding Landscape. He was originally lined up to write the main review, but the instant interests became vested he was relegated to this bottom-of-the-bill slot by the hardline-on-such-matters Ed.
IT WAS THE Corrie's own Chris Tyler who first told me about the Storr event, back in 2004. He was quite vibed-up about it, and it sounded like something worth seeing. Time and tide then ensured that I had virtually no choice anyway - once the aforementioned sister-in-law Elspeth got the job at nva, she talked about nothing else for nine months.
The main thing Chris had told me was that no rock, clump of moss, butterfly or slug would be disturbed. The 1000W lamps, the miles of cable, the entrance turnstile would come and go and the Storr would be unchanged - except that it would be better, as a new path would be among the benefits. Yet I understand that the Storr chose to be changed utterly anyway and dumped a massive rockfall on the Sanctuary shortly before the event started its run. This reduced the planned itinerary from a circular to a linear route.
The naysayers of course scoffed at the poetic justice of the avalanche: The Storr - Unfolding Landscape gets a pile of rock unfolded on top of it. Other maybe-sayers could apparently be glimpsed most nights sneaking into the event on the basis of the access laws. You obviously can't go charging folk 25 quid any more to walk Don Whillans' highway.
I don't know what it would have been like in drizzle, because the night we did it, 24/25 August, we had the moon and stars and Raasay twinkling. Since I almost certainly wouldn't have been there to see all that without the extravaganza, it was well worth the money. (I thought you said you got in on a freebie? - Ed.) Drizzle might have been an issue, because our well-mannered local guides were evidently under strict instruction that the set-piece events - the heuchter-teuchter singer, the brooding Celtic lightshow with brooding Celtic mime artist - should be viewed to their conclusion, sometimes in seated repose.
Unpredictably, the most memorable visual images among the pyrotechnics were simple and to some extent unintentional. When the lightshow ended, silence returned and the floodlit Old Man resumed visual dominance. This was as evocative as anything the whole night. Likewise, the chaotically bobbing peloton of headtorches stimulated the cortex more than any computerised lightshow ever could. Of course Neil Young worked this out years ago with Rust Never Sleeps.
In the opposing camp one encountered the opinion that "the hills are the hills are the hills", and they don't need a lightshow. One could also muse on the sense in taking several hundred ordinary pedestrians up a rough path in the dark every night for three months - although I understand no ankles were broken or hearts attacked during the entire run.
So what sort of person went to The Storr - Unfolding Landscape? Well, nva obviously had their doubts at some point because we were told to expect a kit inspection by our guide 15 minutes prior to boarding the bus. Smugly, Sheila and I surveyed ourselves in Paramo, Gore-Tex and Salomon and laughed at the idea. It transpired that the audience included a high proportion of what Rennie McOwan would call "hill gangrels". Undoubtedly, however, it was evident from nosily eavesdropped conversations that people were also present for whom bagging is something done in Prada and Luis Vuitton shops. But who are we to deny the uniqueness of such an event to anyone? - unless its success led to the Bransons, Sugars and C J Taylors of this world butting in. Even then, though, the midges, weather and remoteness would probably see them off.
So should such events be allowed on our sacred summits? nva has impeccable credentials in the slug-sparing department, but a higher level of policing might be required should some other troupe want to get in on the act. However, if access is unimpeded, the habitat protected and loads of locals get jobs, then one has to go with an unqualified "yes".
In a Gaelic TV program I saw Angus Farquhar of nva saying he thought people's lives would be changed by the Storr. I suspect most of TAC's readership would advise a reality check. But it was a great evening's entertainment nonetheless, and one looks forward to Angus doing something to a sea stack soon.
TAC 66 Index