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National Parks of the Mind: In Praise of Hill-walking

A few weeks ago, I walked Foinaven, which — apart from being John Lennon’s childhood holiday destination, is Sutherland’s greatest claim to fame. A hill narrowly missing out on Munro status (3,000 feet), it is a cherry on top of the proverbial cake of the North West Highlands. After a ten hour expedition of pathless terrain, Boulder Fields, scree, and narrow ridges, the reward is a view of the entire north west seaboard, and the rather ungainly yet impressive Ben Hope. There is barely a house to be seen across the whole 50 mile radius.

So what’s so good about being up a mound in the middle of nowhere? I could pen a verse here on the fairies and roe deer living in harmony and drinking from the bonny burn. But I won’t.

I love this landscape for the opposite reason. Its beauty is its barren neutrality. No farmer has cultivated it to within an inch of its life. No empty packets of Walkers Salt and Vinegar crown its summit. The remoteness means there is barely a whiff of human or animal life. But beyond that, when I stand on the steep hill-face, a little breathless and with a sunburnt nose, I feel its vast sublime. I feel like the blink in eternity that I am.

12th Century Japanese recluse Kamo no Chōmei, standing on a mountain above Kyoto, wrote “the view has no owner and nothing can interfere with my enjoyment.”

The hill has no agenda, no opening and closing time, no critical guide to read to access its secret. This is bigger than the national park scheme or Scotland’s right to roam. This is a question of man experiencing, undisturbed, an intense landscape, a place of nothing more than heather, quartzite, and brown burn water.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity, too, of the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other routine. Chomei again: “I divide my body and make two uses of it: my hands are my servants, my feet my vehicle, and they suit me well.”

Amongst the corries and the scree all you have is your labour and your labour is all yours. With no cable car to hoist you up, the ascent belongs unmistakably to you. Alongside this, to narrow your focus on the square metre of the next foothold is to disintegrate the rest of your mind’s irrelevant chatter. The simplicity of the physical task quietens it to the level of a soft hum. In the case of Foinaven, with the terrain being so demanding, your mind has virtually no opportunity to increase its decibels.

Scotland has 282 Munros and 222 Corbetts (2,500-3,000ft). Of these, many are well-pathed circuits — motorways in hill-walking terms. For me, the fulfilment is in the difficulty; the remoteness, the long walk-in before the ascent, the boggy terrain. As a man in his eighties who has ‘bagged’ over a hundred Munros said to me, “Don’t do Ben Nevis, it’s bloody dull.” Scotland’s real beauties are climbs and scrambles rather than walks; affairs that exhaust all four limbs. The ones that have you passed out in your bed at 8pm with every muscle MIA.

Going back down the hill, as the slope lessens, I pick up a canter and dance down the uneven turf, throwing my weight into each ankle on every stride, hoping my joints don’t collapse into a hidden stream; carelessly gliding through the highland breeze. This is a different experience to the route up — it is an infant joy. A keyhole glimpse into an early game of tag, or being on holiday and running away from my mother with a giggle as she tries to force-feed me yet another ham sandwich.

Finally standing at the foot of the hill I am struck not with a sense of possession — ‘I’ve bagged that’ — nor a simple appreciation of its beauty. Perhaps it is the sense of mystery, the knowledge that if I could paint or turn a verse, the essence of this hill would evade the grip of artistic expression. Perhaps I know, too, that if I did it all again the next day, I would feel exactly the same — resigned to a feeling of being inconsequential in the face of this mountain’s faithful permanence.

Photo by George Dring

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