IT’S 9.26am and the sky has descended to smother the land. I’m lying in a very damp tent with thin rain streaming in from the west and dark mist on the mountains. There is nothing quite so miserable as huddling in damp clothes in a damp tent on a damp day . . .
Above me, unseen but not unknown, is the whale-backed bulk of Beinn na Lap, from whence I have just returned. I would be lying if I said it was the most enjoyable or memorable of experiences.
I was up at 4.30am and on top of the mountain for 7.30am after traversing several false summits, all of which held out the tantalising expectation of the real thing. One even had a stone shelter, which surely falls foul of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and subsequent legislation. But the true summit is unmistakeable – a fine cairn standing on sloping slabs. Couldn’t see a thing, mind – only rain and mist, and the ground beneath my feet.
I had toyed with the notion of setting my camera on a rock and taking some pictures of me doing a jig around the summit cairn, purely so I could use a Beinn na Lap Dancing headline on this post, but once up in the dampness it seemed like a pretty stupid idea. Actually, it seems like a pretty stupid idea now as well.
On the way down the ridge I overshot my route and ended up on the Loch Treig track about half a mile beyond my tent. But nobody saw my cock-up so that’s all right. Good morning though, even if it was very damp.
And now I’ve just had a pan of tea, a billy of couscous, and I’m about to pack my belongings and head for the station. Train at 12.31pm . . .
CREAGH DHU SPIRIT
TWO pots of tea later in Corrour Station House – the only building at Corrour Halt bar a generator shed and a redundant signal box – and I’m getting fidgety. I’m aware that I smell pretty strongly. Two-and-a-half days in the wilderness and three Munros has that effect on people. A wet morning on Beinn na Lap doesn’t help the situation, in fact it adds extra odours.
You notice these things when you blunder into a sanitised environment. All of a sudden the scents that hitherto blended with bogland, peat gullies and wild animals rise from your clothes and body and fill your nostrils. Not only that, but after my second pot of tea I wander into the gents to discover – in the mirror – that my face is streaked with soot from my petrol stove. I look like a negative image of a sunburnt England cricketer with his war paint on.
Corrour Station House cafe is quite busy considering it is in the middle of an absolute nothingness. There’s a party of hard-edged, midge-bitten Glaswegian anglers who spent the night in a clump of tents overlooking the loch; three English walkers in their late thirties wearing the latest gear and speaking in those neutral accents that suggest designer glasses and middle management; and an oriental woman, possibly Japanese, in walking gear and carrying a modest pack, who must have spent the night in the hostel.
After sniffing myself again, I wander out into the drizzle to take pictures of the station and the magnificent emptiness. I notice two or three figures hurrying along the railway line from the north. The next time I look there are six or seven of them, blowing south like leaves on the tracks. Five minutes later they are stumbling along the platform bearing fishing tackle and camping equipment. It’s another gang of hard-edged, midge-bitten Glaswegian anglers.
Let me tell you about Glaswegian anglers. I’m not an expert, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Glaswegian anglers come in all ages and sizes, early 20s to late 60s, thin and wiry to big and beefy. Some wear boots, some wear wellies, some wear the latest trainers. Nearly all are more appropriately clad for an afternoon in town than a night in the wilderness; nearly all of them smoke; and nearly all speak with an accent so strong that an interpreter is needed. Being half Scottish, I am at a particular advantage in situations like these.
I am reminded of an article I read many, many years ago about the early days of the Creagh Dhu, a mountaineering club established from working-class roots for the shipbuilders of Glasgow and Dundee. During the dark years of the 1930s, in a recession where people actually starved and homeless families were forced to live in cattle trucks, men would cycle into the hills at the weekend and live as best they could on what they could find, climb their mountains and cycle back on Sunday night.
And here are these anglers doing the same thing. They’ve come out on the train, spent their weekend in the wilderness huddled under canvas, caught a few trout and smoked a few tabs, and now they’re drifting back to a station in the middle of nowhere in their dribs and drabs from Loch Ossian, Loch Treig, and God knows where else. They haven’t got the best equipment. Their baseball caps, hoodies and denim jeans are not the most suitable clothing. But what they do possess is spirit, enthusiasm, comradeship and the will to get out there and grab something special. Like the pioneers of the Creagh Dhu, they have looked beyond the street lamps and the welding fumes, seen a different country and claimed it for themselves.
At 12.25pm, Corrour Station House disgorges its clientele and all assemble on the platform waiting for the train – two large parties of anglers and a scattering of walkers. The train is late. The anglers smoke, spit and chuckle among themselves. The walkers shuffle quietly as rain streams in from behind Cairn Leum Uilleim.
Fifteen minutes later, the train has still not appeared. We all gaze forlornly to the north, to where the tracks merge at vanishing point. And in this silent, empty land, this great, wide, limitless expanse of bog, loch and rock, one of the anglers takes his cigarette from his mouth and says: “Fer fachs sake. I’ll gie it five mair minutes and then ah’m awa hame.”