This blog is a relaxation of discipline on a beautiful Sunday morning, when the clocks have gone back overnight to start Scottish winter time, providing extra light in the mornings at the expense of afternoons when light vanishes around 4-30pm. We perceive what we call time in a huge variety of ways through our culture, so much so that we might say we have invented “time” were it not for the undeniable fact that we and our environment continually change, in our case at any rate bringing us always nearer our extinction. Well that’s a cheery start.
Yesterday was also a beautiful day, which I spent on my latest project, namely, to climb all the hills in the County of Angus. I have refused to define “hill” too closely, so that it means “anything I see as a hill.” So far it has meant, “any significant summit over 500 metres.” The project has already involved detailed research, firstly to discover the bounds of the modern county which has also been known as Forfarshire, and then to decide some plan of action. I decided to start with the so-called Angus Glens which mainly run west or north west into the high plateau of the Mounth. Some of these such as Glen Esk, Glen Isla and Glen Clova are well known to tourists and walkers, others are scarcely known at all other than to their inhabitants and small groups of afficionados. I chose to begin with Glen Lethnot where I climbed all the summits on both sides of the Glen, and have now moved to Glen Prosen where I’m doing the same.
Yesterday, I walked some lowish hills at a height of around 500 metres, in bright sunshine in a brisk wind, with sharp views to the neighbouring Glen Clova with its higher and better-known hills. Ahead of me I could see the two Munroes ( 915 metres plus) of this Glen, Dreish and The Mayar, and on the horizon the higher summits of the White Mounth, capped with snow. Much of the landscape was familiar to me – some of the high hills I’ve climbed many times- but not from the viewpoint of this ground which my feet have never touched before. This is a very mild sort of exploration, there’s no risk and very little chance of getting lost, especially as these summits are covered by 4×4 tracks, cut so that the clients of shooting estates do not need to move their arses too much in order to kill birds or animals in wild country.
The pleasures of this sort of walking in Scotland are quietness, smells and views.
You quickly realise how noisy your usual life is, wherever you live, with the persistent hum of traffic. Here, at first, you notice an absence of noise, a strange peace, but then a growing clarity of the ear, in which you realise the many sounds of the hills, the whistle of meadow pipits, the crying of buzzards, the squelch of damp peat under your feet, the trickle of water near and far, the bark of a distant dog.
And the smells! The peat has a smell of its own, acid, sweet, funky. Still at the end of October there are traces in the air of heather and other heath flowers. Pine plantations supply their powerful smells. Every now and then, there is the hot stink of fox, or the scent of deer.
As for the views, this walk offers me a side – on perspective of the Glen Clova hills where I have often walked. From here I can see the shape of the escarpment, its steep rise from valley to high plateau, its corries carved by glaciers, the lovely lines of its descending watercourses. I can see continuities of form which were invisible when I was part of them.
Why does all this delight me? Because like them I am a product of the earth, an animal who has changed a great deal over my 77 years; because, perhaps, I have an innate love of my environment shared with trees, heathers, foxes and buzzards; a biophilia which is not the same as my environmental ethics, because it is given and not chosen. Perhaps it has a tinge of sadness because I will soon be dead, while this landscape will remain. Yes, I’d be lying if I denied that, but of course it’s just a conventional contrast. There are creatures here, the beetle, the pipit, the buzzard, which may die before me, and others, the peat, the trees, the heath, which will outlast me, but eventually perish. And the hills, which seem to outlast everything?
They were once Himalayan-sized monsters, thrown up by vast movements of the inner earth, then worn down over millennia to these poor stumps. One day, they will have vanished, and there will be no glens here.
Tennyson recognised this in his elegy for a dead friend, In Memoriam.
And the earth itself? Yes, it too will go and become part of the detritus of an ever-changing cosmos.
So yesterday I could walk happily in the loyal companionship of all things that change and cease to be. They are my partners whose hands I hold as we dance to the music of time. Amongst them are altered friends, some diminished by illness, others by death, but in this dance we gladly accept our limitations, because they are inseparable from our love and our identity. I am not an outside observer of this changing world, but an appreciative part of it.
I am a Christian believer, who trusts in the promise of resurrection, but I could not celebrate it, if I did not first of all celebrate my shared mortality.