CROSSING a wide and windy bealach to the northern slopes of Cairn of Claise. A Land-Rover heaves into view carrying stalkers. They cannot see me because I’ve dropped to the ground, but I catch the glint of cold sunlight on their guns. The vehicle has climbed from Loch Callater to the bealach, and is now lurching away from me towards the summit. I do not want to be seen because, again, I have forgotten to ring the Hill Phones hotline for a stalking update. So I crouch in the grass as the Land-Rover rattles and clunks up the slope, feeling rather like John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, in that scene where our gallant Tommies spot the German armoured half-track in the sand-dunes and think they haven’t been seen.
It’s a cold and blustery day. The plan is this: climb Carn an Tuirc, Cairn of Claise, Tolmount and Tom Buidhe – that’s four Munros – while trying my best not to get shot, either by a stalker or the Afrika Korps, it doesn’t matter which.
Already this morning I’ve climbed Carn an Tuirc (peak of the wild boar, but didn’t see any). Like an eternal though optimistic fool I ignored the guidebook’s advice to “avoid the unpleasant boulder slopes of the north-west face”, and headed straight up the unpleasant boulder slopes of the north-west face. They were steep, seemingly endless, and certainly unpleasant.
Five minutes later, while trudging along without a care in the world, the Land-Rover heaves out of the heather with a belch of diesel fumes, taking me completely by surprise. I have no option but to surrender. Even Harry Andrews couldn’t help me now. I stand at the side of the track and wait for the driver to shout “handy hock” or whatever it is they shout.
Behind the wheel is a rather roly-poly Scottish chap with a flat cap and pencil moustache. In the passenger seat is a teenage girl. Both are wearing smart wax jackets. In the most polite and softest of voices he inquires where I am heading, because he has just dropped off some stalkers and they are descending into a corrie to the east of us. I tell him my plans and he says: “That’s fine then, so long as you keep to the high ground you should be all right.”
I bid him a polite cheerio, pack away my class prejudices for the time being at least, and am on the summit of Cairn of Claise within a couple of minutes.
The most interesting thing about the next Munro, Tolmount, which I reach about an hour later, is that the summit is swarming with hares. As I approach the cairn, two or three amble off in a northerly direction. I drop my pack and follow with my camera, only to find 15 or 16 of the buggers flitting off down the slope. There is one big black brute that hangs back and doesn’t move until the others have lolloped away. Actually, lollop is a bit of a rabbity term. These move more like kangaroos.
After a deviation to the summit of Tom Buidhe, I bump into a Belgian chap. What do you say to a chap from Belgium once you’ve exhausted the preliminaries – bearing in mind that in your rucksack is a sandwich stuffed with Ardenne pate and you just know that, no matter how hard you try, you’re going to bring this up in the conversation? Like: “Oh, you’re from Belgium, are you? I’ve got an Ardenne pate sandwich in my bag. Whaddya think of that then?”
Dangerously, our conversation veers towards walking in the Ardenne. I can feel the sandwich’s presence. I know that if I mention it I will be really angry with myself. Because if I told him I was from the Lake District and he said he had some Kendal Mint Cake in his pocket, I would want to tell him to stick it up his arse. The moment passes. And like the German half-track, he continues on his way and I on mine.
Minutes later, I witness the most impressive of sights. A massive herd of red deer streams over the ridge of Druim Mòr, half a mile to my south, fleeing from one glen to another. There must be three or four hundred of them in a long line – great antlered stags among them. These are red deer as I have never seen them before, a huge wild herd on the move across the high tops.
After a long though pleasant descent down the ridge of Sròn na Gaoithe, I drive the old rattly Wagon into Braemar for a pint in the Fife Arms. Luckily, Anthony Quayle and Silvia Syms have got the drinks in. Harry Andrews is having a smoke outside with a gang of stalkers in grey uniforms and jackboots. That’s what I like about Braemar. Always full of interesting people.