Memories – Misty, Water-Coloured and Unreliable

THE night is dark, though I see stars twinkling and the summits of mountains at my feet. Stob a’ Choire Odhair, Stob Ghabhar, Clach Leathad and Meall a’ Bhùridh form a great crescent in the west, with snow clinging to their ridges. As dawn approaches I become aware – between fleeting bouts of sleep – of the sky growing pale in the east. It is cold, so cold, and my sleeping bag is damp with dew. My breath steams and hangs in the hollow where I lie, in the wilds of Rannoch Moor where the old military road spans the river gorge at Bà Bridge.

I extend cold hands from the sleeping bag and light the petrol stove. Soon I am sipping hot tea from a billycan. The stove is still roaring. I toss some bacon in a pan and raise myself onto an elbow to gaze out across the moor. Away in the east is a mountain shaped like a perfect pyramid. Its name, I learn later, is Schiehallion – a magical name for a magical mountain. Last night I took a bearing of the sun sinking behind the snow-capped ridges to the west, and worked out that it would rise above this perfect pyramid. And there, in the still air of dawn, is the golden sun hovering on Schiehallion’s summit . . .

I can’t remember the exact date I slept beneath the stars on Rannoch Moor. It was sometime in May 2000 while I was walking the West Highland Way. I refer to it now for several reasons. First, as a lesson never to sleep out beneath the stars in unsuitable gear, because it is always far colder than you expect and your sleeping bag gets wet. Second, because it is a vivid memory, and vivid memories tend to mutate alarmingly over the years. Third, because it is one of the experiences that spurred me into setting up this website.

Some time ago I was leafing through a diary I kept during the 1980s and was astonished to stumble upon incidents and events that had been completely erased from my memory – there were even people I had completely forgotten. There were also expeditions onto the Lakeland fells that had been filed away in the depths of consciousness and would have remained there had I not revisited this hand-written record.

It became apparent that there must have been more events, and people, and memories that had slipped irretrievably away because they had not been recorded. So I decided I would compile a journal of my future expeditions – and the journal evolved into Because They’re There.

I mention this now because I have just had an unsettling reminder of how fickle and fallible memory can be. Reading an account of an ascent of A’ Chailleach and Sgurr Breac in Scott Blair’s entertaining mountain blog Splendid Isolation, it occurred to me that I must have climbed these mountains because they form part of a range of hills called the Fannaichs – and I reckon I’ve climbed them all. But I have absolutely no recollection of these two hills.

This is probably what people call a senior moment. Like when you go upstairs to fetch something but when you’re up there you’ve forgotten what it is you went for. So you traipse down again and put the kettle on. Then you realise you’ve left your favourite mug in the bedroom and that’s what you went for in the first place.

I consult my guidebook, The Munros – Scottish Mountaineering Club Hillwalkers’ Guide, to check the route I would have followed; and it fails to ring a single bell. Have I missed two big mountains at the side of the main road between Inverness and Ullapool? That’s a bit reckless. Self doubt creeps in.

I skip through Munro’s Tables to see if I’ve ticked off A’ Chailleach and Sgurr Breac – and, sure enough, according to my records they were climbed on July 29, 2003. This does little to ease the self doubt, because I still do not recall the faintest detail about the ascent.

I summon Google Earth and descend from space onto A’ Chailleach and Sgurr Breac, which might as well be two lumpy things in the Gobi Desert for the paucity of brain cells they electrify. Even the track from the main road, a short stretch of path through a forest and a footbridge over a river fail to entice the slightest flicker of recognition from the dark wormholes that riddle the mind. Incidentally, Scott also had a senior moment-type experience up there, only his was a directional thing.

Then the faintest of sparks. Beneath the slopes of A’ Chailleach, at the head of Loch a’ Braoin, the satellite image shows a boathouse and a roofless ruin. A brain cell glows, and it says in a voice not unlike that of an alien from Dr Who: “You once took a picture of a ruin like that, a ruin somewhere in the Highlands, with the loch framed in a glassless window and flowers among the stones. There’ll be a 35mm slide somewhere with a date stamped on it. You can spend half a day seeking it out instead of laying that carpet you promised to lay.”

Memories, misty water-coloured memories, as Barbra Streisand so accurately sang. They cannot be trusted. They twist and dive, leading the unwary down avenues that might not have existed. Occasionally they sink without trace. And that is why it’s so important to keep a written account and a photographic record of where your feet have wandered – and to commit those memories to the permanence of cyberspace.

Slowly those pieces of the A’ Chailleach and Sgurr Breac jigsaw are slipping back into place. I saw my first large herd of red deer streaming over a ridge on those mountains. I even have a blurry picture to remind me.

On the summit of Sgurr Breac, July 29, 2003 . . . I think . . .

That account about a night beneath the stars on Rannoch Moor has been written from memory more than 12 years after the event. Other than the fact I slept in the open at the side of Bà Bridge, I wouldn’t trust a word of it (the Schiehallion pictures were taken through telephoto lens from Sgòr Gaibhre a couple of years ago). Memories are far from reliable. Can Schiehallion be seen from Bà Bridge? I wouldn’t put a fiver on it. And I’m certainly not going back to find out.

FOOTNOTE:
I’VE taken the trouble to buy a slide converter to provide illustrations for this article, so to maximise value for money I’ve included a couple of shots of An Teallach, which I traversed two days after A’ Chailleach and Sgurr Breac. There would have been more shots only the mist came down at the crucial point – just before I set off along the ridge. There’s even a shot of some very greasy slabs where I slipped and gashed my head open. Or did I just scrape my chin? I’m not sure because that’s a dodgy memory too.

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist (recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job and the jobs of my colleagues were transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages), former shipyard electrician, former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Camping, Climbing, Environment, Glencoe, Hiking, Life, Mountains, Quarrying, Slate quarries, Walking, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Memories – Misty, Water-Coloured and Unreliable

  1. Jill Boulton says:

    Fabulous post, Alen, if a bit disturbing! Amazing pics too – thanks!

  2. rthepotter says:

    Very disturbing when you can’t trust your own head. Or anyone else’s. One of my PARENTS edited me out of a significant event altogether – and I’ve got the letters and photo to prove it! Filial wounded expression (i.e. sulk) still ongoing.

    • McEff says:

      That’s astonishing. I read somewhere that a memory is a snapshot of the last time you brought that certain subject to mind. So a childhood memory might indeed have originated in childhood, but every time it’s recalled it’s the most recent version that’s brought to mind. And so are events and people edited out. Hmmm.
      Cheers, Alen

  3. It`s that bad with me that I forget that I have forgotten so it doesn`t really bother me anymore.Something for you to look forward to :)
    It may just be possible to see the tip of the summit cone of Schiehallion from Ba Bridge but I can`t remember alas….

  4. Jo Woolf says:

    Love your old pics, especially the window in the ruined bothy. Schiehallion looks like a mountain from Lord of the Rings. It’s a feat in itself to have climbed so many mountains that you can’t remember them all!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Jo. I climbed Schiehallion soon after that episode, one crisp September morning – and it really is a magical mountain. Your Lord of the Rings description fits it perfectly. To sit on the summit in the sunshine and gaze across the moors to the western Highlands is a magnificent feeling.
      Cheers, Alen

  5. these pictures are amazing… and man sleeping under the star in the cold unprepared sounds horrible but i definitely wants to do it sometimes in the future!

  6. David says:

    An interesting trip down “lack of” memory lane Alen. It also reminds me I have loads of slides from years ago that I must get around to scanning sometime.

    • McEff says:

      I wish I’d thought of “Lack of memory lane” David – it would have made a great title. I’ve got masses of slides too. One of these cold wet days I’ll make a start.
      Cheers, Alen

  7. Hanna says:

    Great nature that surrounds you. Love to see those mountains from a chopper. Not much point in climbing those as a senior:-)
    I laughed aloud while reading your story
    The psychology operates with a concept called procrastinate? We’ll do anything to perform one action, hoping to avoid another. My advise to you, Alen, go on doing so. It’s a lot more fun. Or else you may find that the rest of your carpets need to be changed too.
    Happy Sunday!
    Cheers, Hanna

    • McEff says:

      Ha ha. You make me laugh, Hanna. Thank you for your advice. It is sound, and I shall adhere to it with determination.
      Happy Sunday to you too.
      All the best, Alen

  8. Paul says:

    Fabulous as ever Alen, very nostalgic & love the old photos. If ever I do make it to Scotland again I’ve promised myself Schiehallion will be the first mountain I set foot on, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Paul. Thanks for that. Schiehallion is a great mountain. It’s one of those that looks like a mountain should look and it was a pleasure to climb. I must climb it again sometime because on my first and only visit I didn’t have a camera with me. Pick a good day because the views are panoramic.
      Cheers, Alen

  9. fromtheden says:

    Lovely post & pictures. You might be interested in Pieces of Light, by Charles Fernyhough :)
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/31/pieces-of-light-charles-fernyhough-review

    • McEff says:

      Hi Fromtheden. I’m glad I’m not alone in the world on this one.

      “Every act of remembering is an act of creation, a confabulation stitched together from an array of different cues. We know this, really, when we get into a muddle over whether we actually recall an incident from childhood or whether we’ve simply been told about it or seen a photo.
      “What is harder to accept is that all our memories are equally provisional, created not out of a stable if sometimes cloudy past, but from the urgent needs of the present. We remember what we remember because it helps us negotiate who we are today and what we might become tomorrow. But that’s not all. Each act of remembering, and especially each act of retelling, subtly changes the memory itself. What we end up with is a smudgy copy of a copy of a copy, over which the officious present has drawn a sharp new outline and now dares us to disagree.”

      That’s a fascinating review. The memory is indeed a curious and untrustworthy beast. Thanks very much for that.
      Cheers, Alen

  10. alan.sloman says:

    My first real hill walking memory is from the summer of 1965 when I was on top of Cadair idris as a ten year old boy with a group of older boys. I recall, somewhat vividly bracing myself for ten minutes to step over the edge for a huge scree run down to a lake. For the life of me, I have looked at maps of the hill and I cannot work out where I went.
    I’m just going to have to go back and have a look.

    • McEff says:

      You’ve been at this lark nearly ten years longer than me Alan, so potentially you’ve got more stuff to forget and have already forgotten more. There again it might just be me. Good luck in your hunt. I expect an entertaining report.
      Cheers, Alen

  11. beatingthebounds says:

    Schiehallion was my first Munro – back in 1978. And I sort of remember it – the many false summits anyway. Since then there have been many more days on the hill, many of which I have no recollection of at all. That was my motivation to start blogging too – what keeps me going is a little more complex, but having a record is still the most compelling reason.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Mark. I’d forgotten about the false summits. When you look at Schiehallion from the west it forms the perfect pyramid. But from the east, which is the way most people, including myself, climb it, the hill just goes on and on and on.
      Having a record is my most important reason. And sharing it with like-minded people on the internet makes it all worthwhile.
      Cheers, Alen

  12. I’ll NEVER forget all the false summits on Schiehallion! I found them the pits! I won’t forget An Teallach either as I got abandoned by the group I was with and didn’t have a map – picking a descent was fun without sufficient knowledge of the routes!

    Great post but, although I’m getting pretty old myself and forget most things, I don’t seem to forget my times in the hills. Maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to sit there in the old biddies home seeing my times in the mountains again and not noticing anything else? ;-)

    • McEff says:

      I bet that was an ordeal – getting off An Teallach without a map. I had a map and still had trouble. I got down pretty safely but not in the place I had intended to get down, which was a bit mystifying at the time. Mind you, it was a very misty day. That’s my excuse anyway.
      Don’t think about the old biddies home thing. I hope I’ve lost my marbles before I get that far! Or perhaps someone should open a home for ageing outdoor types – like a big bothy with beer instead of milky tea. Now there’s an idea.
      Cheers, Alen

      • A home for ex-outdoor folks could be a great thing! :-)

        I actually found a long, but really pleasant way down off An Teallach (also on my blog – I’m not advertising honest ;-) ) – it was down a valley to the north from the most northerly top and was fine but a bit pathless in places.

  13. pendantry says:

    I have this idea that somewhere, there’s a big book containing all the detailed life histories of everyone who’s ever lived. What reading that would make! You have a knack for descriptive narrative; your purpose in recording your own memories is a worthwhile endeavour.

    I’m not as convinced as you, though, about the ‘permanence of cyberspace.’ Though it’s comforting to think that what we create here may remain, I’ve seen too many technology changes wreck old systems to believe that what you create here will be as accessible in a couple of centuries’ time as Wordsworth’s are, give or take some language hiccups, to us now (via them old-fashioned ‘book’ thingummyjigs). WordPress support talks tongue-in-cheek about what would happen in the event of a meteor impact on its data center — but reality is often so much stranger than fiction.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Pedantry.
      Yes. When I typed those words “the permanence of cyberspace” exactly the same thing crossed my mind. Perhaps I should have inserted a “seemingly” or “apparent” or something similar.
      Thanks for your comments. If you ever come across that big book I wouldn’t mind having a look at it.
      Cheers now, Alen

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