THE sun rises from the sea as I wipe condensation from the inside of the windscreen. A few seconds of confusion elapse. Where am I? Ah yes, the Beauly Firth, just north of Inverness. And I’ve slept in the car. That’s why I am in my sleeping bag.
Two hours later I’m waiting for the gate to open in Glen Strathfarrar when a big bloke in a Land-Rover pulls up. Glen Strathfarrar is in a private estate. Only 25 cars belonging to the lower orders are allowed access at any one time during the summer months – none in winter. I am first in the queue, the same position I was in when they handed out the Mr Awkward heads, apparently.
The big bloke has his own key. He grunts at me as he undoes the lock, but only after I say hello to him first. He is dressed very sharply – tweed cap, stalking boots, waistcoat, red tie, crisp white shirt. I’m wearing sort of crumpled sack cloth and look like I’ve slept in an allotment shed. He drives his vehicle through, parks, walks back to the gate and locks it again.
Hmmmm . . . A verse from the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful springs to mind, a verse you don’t often hear sung these days.
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
He made them, high or lowly
And ordered their estate
(Research reveals the hymn was written by Cecil F Alexander in 1848 at Markree Castle near Sligo, Ireland. Well, we know what happened to many of the rich men in their castles in Ireland in the ensuing years, especially the English ones – and I don’t think God had much to do with it. And 1848? Hey, that’s right at the height of the potato famine, the Great Hunger in which a million Irish people perished. All Things Bright and Beautiful? What was Cecil on, for heaven’s sake?)
A few minutes later, just before the Radio 2 pips go for 9am, out comes the gatekeeper from her cottage, hands me a pass for the glen and opens the gate with a cheery smile. Off I go to the purple-headed mountains.
I park near near Loch a’ Mhuillidh and have a brew while a handful of fellow walkers pull on their boots. Above me and to the north rises the Strathfarrar ridge, a chain of four Munros that zigzags west towards the foot of Loch Monar. This is all new ground to me. There’s a huge expanse of wild country out there, a lot of peaks I haven’t climbed and a lot of uninhabited glens I have yet to set eyes upon – never mind set foot in.
Sgurr na Ruaidhe is my first target. Then come Carn nan Gobhar, Sgur a’ Choire Ghlais and Sgurr Fhaur-thuill. If that’s not enough, there’s an ungainly lump of ground of Munro stature but not in the classification that has to be climbed, Creag Ghorm a’ Bhealaich, and another at the end of the ridge, Sgurr na Fearstaig.
I have always had a great deal of trouble pronouncing Scottish mountain names. Sgurr Fhaur-thuill is pronounced Skoor Ooer hily, would you believe. I started to learn Polish once and found it quite straightforward – got well past the “piwo prosze” stage. This Gaelic stuff, though, leaves me baffled.
It is extremely cold and windy on the ridge, with the peaks occasionally disappearing behind streaming banks of mist. I cross the rocky summit of Carn nan Goghar then slog up the main peak, Sgur a’ Choire Ghlais, to rest behind one of the two cairns. On then to the next peak.
But what is this approaching from Creag Ghorm a’ Bhealaich? Another party of walkers doing the ridge in the opposite direction? No, it’s a stalking party.
The chap with the red tie – who opened the gate then locked it again while I loitered like a pauper – is leading the group. As they draw near I see his face matches the colour of his tie. He looks livid. He looks absolutely beside himself with rage. Something has really got his back up.
Let us briefly digress into those “word association” exercises psychologists use on the criminally insane. You’ve seen them on the telly. The psychologist utters a word and the patient responds with the first word that comes into their head. For instance, the psychologist says apple and the patient says crossbow. The psychologist says knife and the patient says peas. I see this guy’s red face and the first thing that comes into my head is the Prague Spring.
Yes, the Prague Spring – Alexander Dubcek’s brief period of popular reform that caught the imagination of the world but brought the might of the soviet empire crashing down on his beautiful city.
I remember watching the ITN news as a child. It was 1968. Russian tanks were chugging through the rubble of Wenceslas Square. And it was hot, so bloody hot the soldiers were frying eggs on the armour plating of their tanks. I can see one soldier even now, a smiling face with a cigarette nipped between his teeth, cracking an egg onto the metal.
And I see this stalker marching towards me in the wind with his wax coat flapping, his face vivid red. And I think: “You could fry an egg on that face; ITN news clip; Russian soldier; Prague Spring.” Isn’t the mind a wonderful thing? It’s thought processes like these that elevate us above the rest of the animal world.
Another thought occurs to me. Responsible walkers should, during the stalking season, ring the Hill Phones service provided by the local estates for details of where stalking activity is taking place. I have failed to carry out this basic and incredibly simple exercise.
A third thought pops up as the second thought disappears like a mountain hare. When I was tying my boot laces down by the road, a Dutch hiker and two couples set off up the mountain in front of me. They are no longer on the ridge. They obviously knew that stalking is taking place on Sgurr a Choire Ghlais and, like decent citizens who don’t want a bullet up the arse, have tailored their walk accordingly.
The stalker’s getting near. He has a gun case over his shoulder and other things dangling from him. I sense a confrontation looming. I have three options. 1) I can apologise profusely and hope my intrusion has not had any significant detrimental effect on the estate’s financial activities. 2) I can argue the toss over the morality of land ownership and if necessary roll my sleeves up. 3) I can pretend I’m a hapless foreign visitor and speak to him in Polish. “Dzien Dobry, pan. Jak sie masz? Zgubilem sie. Prosze mnie zawiezc Darlington.”
The stalker draws level. I say good afternoon politely. He grunts, like he did at the gate this morning, and passes by. No confrontation. But I can feel the heat from his cheeks.
Behind him are two other fellows in similar attire. They manage to utter an uncomfortable greeting. Following on are four or five bright young chaps in snappy stalking gear that is obviously top of the range – matching camouflaged coats that drop to the knee and have razor-sharp creases along the arms. They all say hello, and very politely too. Tagging on the end is a young woman who appears to be struggling a bit and looks like she would rather be sipping something turquoise in a bar several hundred miles to the south. She sees me and giggles and waves. I don’t know why she does this.
On Sgurr Fhaur-thuill I sit in the windswept grass and dwell on the incident. I really should have checked the Hill Phones hotline, I tell myself. I really should learn to act more responsibly. These people have estates to manage. They have targets to hit – financial as well as animal.
Then I gaze out across a panorama of mountains and valleys, across an unspoilt landscape that stretches beyond the horizon – brown hills, blue hills, grey hills – then back along the rocky Strathfarrah ridge to the forests and lochs below. And I think to myself: just a minute, I’m an ordinary bloke who does an ordinary job for an ordinary wage. I don’t own much except the roof over my head and an upright piano. I don’t expect a great deal from life, just to pull on my boots every once in a while, breathe some fresh air and climb a few mountains. Some of these estates are owned by multi-million pound foreign corporations that think nothing of bulldozing a track up virgin mountainside to extend their profit margins. Some have been dragged screaming from the realms of feudalism to allow access at all. One I can name bars the public completely during stalking season – a bloody backwoods, one-eyed, mediaeval state operating in a major European country.
And here we are in the 21st Century, our armed forces fighting around the world in the name of freedom and democracy – and I’m sitting in my own country, on a mountain where only the rich and the privileged enjoy a true sense of liberty. And I’m fretting I might have inconvenienced a few wealthy Hoorays who want to shoot animals that can’t shoot back. Sod the bloody lot of them.
Land and Serfdom
SO, just out of interest, who owns Glen Strathfarrar? The bit I walked through belongs to the Braulen estate. And who owns the Braulen estate? Well, for a start, it’s not some avuncular Richard Briers-type Laird of Glenbogle in tight tartan trews and a tam o’ shanter. Click on the link and cursor down to the section titled Tycoon Mr X – 71,000 acres.