Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Ring of Rannoch

It was the weather of a West Coast exile's dream. Cool, damp, and dull. We looked across the wastes of Rannoch Moor and I breathed deep the fresh air. What a place!

"It looks like the set of a 1970s horror film," said my companion. "Screw this, I'm going to the pub."

We were at the Kingshouse for a reunion and it seemed that only I wanted a walk. Just as well I like my own company.

On Rannoch Moor:

The walk I had planned would take me a long way along estate tracks towards the heart of the moor, up to the superlative viewpoint of Stob na Cruaiche, down towards Tigh na Cruaiche, and back across a track marked on the map. The first stage was a quick march along the Black Corries Lodge's well-made estate road, the Etive brawling alongside. I know from experience that this is a fine spot for sunbathing or swimming on rare days of midge-free warmth. The lochans in the wedge of moor between the A82 and the lodge are full of sporting brown trout.

The infant Etive:

Fifteen minutes after I began, the rain stopped and the sun even shone briefly. Ha ha! That would teach my companion. A few minutes later the rain returned for the rest of the day. On leaving the track to take a photo I was instantly lost in a wilderness of serpentine standing water, dank oozy drains patterning the tweed-coloured landscape. The estate track makes for easy going, but this is not a landscape to mess about with.

Rannoch Moor: bleak as fuck

At the lodge I was surprised by birdsong. The lodge is surrounded by trees and the wide moor briefly relented to an oasis of feathered chatter. Ducks flew from a lochan and I saw deer, surprised grouse, and even spotted a newt in a pool of black water. Peat blackened stumps of ancient pines glimpsed amongst the hags tell the tale of the forest that covered this land before the dampness and the peat won over.

Peat-preserved pine roots:

So far, so enjoyable. But after leaving the track I was on my own. My target was Stob na Cruaiche, the top of the Black Corries, but the angle of the moor makes for hard going - neither steep enough to gain altitude quickly, nor flat enough for rapid progress. Soon I was in the cloud, views gone, legs aching with the effort of lifting them over tussocky peat hags as I slowly soaked in the increasing wind and rain. "This is shite," I said to myself.

Last view:

I walked amongst frozen turf, sodden fescue, ice on the lochans and sudden vivid mossy greens amongst the browns and blacks of the moor. Where exposed the bedrock was startlingly white, a beautiful speckled granite. But it was a hard darg, and I was wet and not particularly enjoying myself when I finally reached the summit, a viewless pillar of concrete in the pissing rain and mist.

The re-entrant:

But then something magical happened. On descent I found myself in a small fold in the hill, a secret flat area halfway down a steep hillside. A river I could not cross forced me to pause and take stock. I was still soaking and cold, but a single moment of beauty was taking my breath away. We are sensitive to our environment after sustained periods of grind and misery and a different perspective had suddenly opened up. The river running through tunnels of snow, twisting where it will. A place so utterly without human value that the land does nothing except be itself. Just be itself. I stood and absorbed this place, as indifferent to me as only a truly wild place can be. Standing here in the mist and rain, this seemed profound.

The Rannoch Amazon:

I followed the smoothly flowing river, impassable, as deep as it is broad, a collection of elements, of earth, water, wind, gravity and light. The land steepened, and the river roared downhill as I finally broke out of the cloud.

Loch Laidon at the heart of the moor:

I had a rude shock on arriving at Tigh na Cruaiche. There was still a long way back, I'd forgotten that the path marked on the map didn't exist, and it would soon be dark. I was glad I hadn't done the full 'Ring of Rannoch' all the way to Rannoch Station. It was a hard forced march back to the lights of the Kingshouse, where my friends had been wondering where I had gone.

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