AN adder is sunning itself on the track above the shores of Loch Muick. It’s just lying there dozing – a snake in the grit. Then it catches the scent of human, and in the flicker of a shadow senses danger. It slithers into the verge – a snake in the grass. Unhurried, though not wishing to tarry, it slips silently into the base of a stone wall – a snake in the grike.
This is the second time I have seen an adder. I nearly stood on one while walking the Cleveland Way above Osmotherley a few years back. That was sunning itself, too. And, like its Scottish cousin, it slithered into the base of a wall. The walls must be full of them.
At the head of Loch Muick – an impressive stretch of water in the Mounth, the range of mountains to the south of the Cairngorms – I meet an old boy who has cycled from the car park at Spittal of Glenmuick. He’s knocking on. Possibly mid to late sixties, perhaps early seventies. He intends to climb the two Munros which are on my agenda – Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn – only in the opposite direction to the one I’m taking.
I mention the adder, and he says they like to sun themselves at this time of year. Then he tells me that when they are ready to die, they slither away into the shadows and wait for sunset. He has a couple of gold teeth, this old boy, and they flash in the sunlight as he’s telling me his tales. I don’t know whether to believe him or not.
In fact, I think he is the snake. I think he slithered into the wall, watched me pass, changed his shape like Odin the shape-shifter, and followed me on his bicycle. Now he’s playing mind-games with me, because adders are very wise, apparently.
Adders also represent resurrection and the rebirth of mankind, he tells me. This probably alludes to the shedding of their skin and the renewal, therefore, of the snake. This fits with my theory he has left his old skin in the wall. His gold teeth flash again and I try my damndest, without being rude, to catch a glimpse of his tongue. But he manages to conceal it.
Should you ever be bitten by an adder, he adds, you should hold a dead pigeon to the wound to draw out the venom. This is a bit worrying. I haven’t seen a pigeon since supping coffee in a pavement cafe in Dundee yesterday afternoon. Would a duck do, I wonder? There are loads of them on the campsite at Braemar and they could do with thinning out.
Time is passing. We say our goodbyes, and the old boy wanders off towards Corrie Chash as wind hisses in the heather. At least, I think it’s the wind.
I climb up the glen and follow the river Allt an Dubh-loch, the waters of which tipple down broad steps of granite – a staircase of rock slabs. And Dubh Loch itself – what a jewel of a mountain tarn set beneath great rock buttresses. There is also a waterfall to the right of the glen, cascading from crags below Eagle Rock. The sky is clear and blue; the wind freezing and ferocious. The glen is like a wind tunnel, blasting into my face and making progress strenuous though fulfilling.
On the top of Cairn Bannoch I meet a couple of guys from Aberdeen who are doing a circuit of five Munros, which includes Lochnagar and the peaks I climbed recently from Glen Callatar: Carn an Sagairt Mor and Carn a’ Chore Bhoidheach. Sounds like a hard day. I tell them to watch out for snakes and Norse gods. They smile at me pleasantly.
Between Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn I bump into the old boy again, Odin the shape-shifter, and we pass a couple of minutes in conversation while the wind tears at our clothes. Now that the sun is full in his face, his eyes glitter like beads of jet. He tells me the wind is so ferocious on the summit of Broad Cairn that I will struggle to walk upright. Keep low to the ground, he says. Seek out the shelter of warm rocks and nurture the soul.
He is right. On the summit of Broad Cairn the wind roars in from the south-west and I am forced to stoop. I seek out the shelter of warm rocks to eat a scotch pie.
It’s a long though extremely pleasant hike along the windy ridge that skirts the southern shores of Loch Muick. Dropping down to the glen, my dusty boots crunch along a track that takes me back to Spittal of Glenmuick. I don’t see the old boy again, or any more snakes. But a great, dusky raven with black beady eyes is perching on the fence behind my car.
Ravens. Now what have they got to do with snakes, Odin the shape-shifter or the price of scotch pies?