By Linda Cracknell, from Womankind #17: Unicorn.
Among the fraternity of walking writers, I find myself falling into step with Robert Louis Stevenson, who opens his essay Walking Tours by dismantling the idea of their purpose as principally to see landscape. Instead, he highlights the sweet dialogue between the “march” and the evening’s rest; the rhythmic chain created during a walk taken over several days. Coming to rest is for him an active element to be appreciated, savoured all the more for the walking itself being relatively short. For Stevenson, the “overwalker” misses out on the very happiness sought, evoking the proverb of the person who “goes further and fares worse”.
Although I sometimes choose to walk a long, footsore day in the Scottish hills, or take a week or fortnight on the trail of former walkers, in the last couple of years my habit, especially when time is tight, has become to walk somewhere special for just one night with a tent and food on my back. Using my body to reach a place where I lie down in direct contact with the earth and then turning back towards my everyday life sings of simplicity and purpose. To move, expose myself drunkenly to fresh air and the elements, and to step into a rhythm which offers a particular kind of creative thinking marvellously detaches me from responsibilities and brings a sense of well-being. It becomes a pilgrimage of sorts in which I both lose and find myself; a good walk that offers an opportunity for transformation.
So it was that in late May this year I found myself on one of Scotland’s greatest short walks in Glen Coe, a walk that my fellow mountain-lover and I had last taken, separately, in the 1980s. Perhaps I had not returned for the very reason of its lure, reached from a place where the roadside car park commonly teems with people disgorged from tour buses with cameras. Rocky pillars and buttresses tower on each side of the narrow glen, which twists seaward with its burden of white water and snaking vehicles. Glen Coe’s drama is highlighted by a tiny number of human settlements amidst the austere architecture wrought by volcano, ice and water. There are lofted birds, mountaineers wrinkled into high crevices, and the place remains haunted by the story of a massacre.
The ‘Lost Valley’, little more than an hour’s walk from the car park, was once secret enough for the cattle belonging to (or stolen by) the local MacDonald clan to be hidden there. It’s also said to be where some of the fleeing clan took refuge on the infamous wintry night of 13 February 1692, while their fellow clan members were killed. The entrance cleft is invisible from below, concealed behind a steep wall of rock reached by a climb to 300 metres. The Valley has become less ‘lost’ or secret since the National Trust for Scotland built a footbridge over the gorge of the Coe and signposted tourists towards it. Its popularity can be gauged by the polished stone underfoot, burnished like kitchen quarry-tiles by family groups and mountaineers drawn upwards. In all seasons those seeking the most expansive views skirt between the triple spurs branching from Bidean Nam Bian before climbing to the summit, at 1150 metres the highest peak in Argyll.
We set off in sticky heat uncharacteristic of a Highland evening and followed the path and its narrow steps through welcome shade. Slant light cast the towering buttresses of the Three Sisters into slate-blue shadow while illuminating spangled birch leaves below them. Up we went through twisted silvery trunks and tangles of lush foliage, patches of bluebell and violet scattered alongside the steeply-falling burn. Behind us, when we turned, the V-shaped cleft, tangled with spring leaf, visually caught a segment of the main road and above it the wall of weathered rock on the north side of the Glen. There, other skyline climbs were revealed. Am Bodach, the “old man” stood as the eastern outrider of the famous Aonach Eagach ridge which convulses towards the coast, partnered just to the east in a separate massif, by the wrinkled face of A’ Chailleach, the “old woman”.
Sweating under our packs loaded with necessities (and non-necessities such as cool bottles of beer) we longed to dip in the deep pools that we passed but pressed on up the steep gorge until emerging into a boulder field that spread narrowly around us. We sensed the threshold of our quest, and soon after came the heightened moment of any pilgrimage when the destination is glimpsed. Despite all our foreknowledge, it remained for us a revelation.
Lying a little below us, a perfectly flat and expansive valley floor opened, scattered with shingle and at this near end, with boulders the size of houses – the largest single rockfall feature in the whole of Great Britain. On three sides rose sheer mountain walls, building a high, undulating ridge way above, its most accessible point for mountaineers distant but directly ahead of us, its penultimate steps still covered with large patches of shadowed snow.
If you look up the Lost Valley on the internet, it is this moment of surprise that many people comment on, the large ice-flattened valley suddenly coming into view and earning the name and the enigma. We shared it as equals with the many parties who were now heading back to their cars – all pilgrims, all strangers, exchanging greetings and remarks on the marvellous weather and the extraordinary place.
The valley floor was quietening as we descended to it, except for the echoing croaks of circling ravens. We found a grassy bank on which to pitch our tent close to where the river had once run through shingle, then was forced underground by the blockage of the fallen rocks. There was sufficient breeze to ward off the thousands of midges a party of Belgian mountaineers had warned us of.
We drank the beers and spread around us the treats we had carried, including sweet Scottish strawberries, and oatcakes with Manchego cheese. We made tea and later sampled the smoky taste of Macallan and Highland Park whiskies. And we revelled in the space, found bedtime reading in the wrinkled face of the stone and counted time only in the gullies etched by ice at least 12,000 years ago and by sunlight pinkly illuminating the west-facing ridge. Our bodies were still fresh enough to stroll along the rock-strewn valley for water, to stretch towards climbing moves on a boulder, and then with the dropping of the breeze, and the arrival of midge-squadrons, were persuaded towards horizontal.
No dusk was due any time soon in this northern summer, and it was not long before first light and the clamour of waking birds penetrated the fly-sheet, calling us outside to brew more tea. The dawn sunlight was now serenading the west-facing wall of our vast, roofless room. There were no appointments, no news except for what the birds brought and what the new light sang of. We were just ourselves, in bodily connection with land and sky. Then we gathered ourselves towards an onward climb after breakfast, up to the skyline and the snow, in a place just as lost and lonely as we wished it to be.
Later, against the tide of upcoming day-trippers from France and Connecticut, from a local outdoor centre for schools, we returned, down beside the icy plunge pools. This time we didn’t resist them. I had no idea of the day of the week, nor cared. If the valley had hidden anything, it was myself, my own everyday routines and responsibilities. Anything I’d been worrying about before setting off was now thoroughly concealed from me.
As we reached the car, sweltering amidst the roar of tour buses still arriving and departing, we found that our long, languorous, energetic spell in the mountains had taken less than 24 hours. To follow in Stevenson’s footsteps by taking to our feet and sleeping as part of the journey, agreeing like him to “throw our clocks and watches over the housetop”, is to be convinced that on a long summer’s day, “you will feel almost free”.