by Kirsty Gunn
There are ways of doing things, and other ways. There are ways of going somewhere, having a plan about it, discussing in advance how long it might take to walk a path, the kind of route we might follow, how we might manage certain passages... And there are other ways. These other ways are never planned. They rise up around us. They come upon us and all at once and often in the midst of weather. They take us beyond the known, always, and set us loose there; make of us people who are strange to ourselves; they are rogue, unpredictable and dangerous. We swear, each time of our going out into this kind of walking that we’ll never do it again. “That was close” we say afterwards, when we are home again and safe. “That was really close.”
For sure, the sentence, in Sutherland: “Let’s go for a walk”, can mean a number of different kinds of walks. As I am writing, when we say that we are going for a walk we mean that we are planning to stay out for several days. That’s how long we think it will take. This is because we want to follow the river at the bottom of our hill, a tributary of the famous Brora, all the way up to its source somewhere in the hills over to the west. Quite often a Sutherland walk is like this - a day out to a hut we know where we can stay over at Loch Choire, or to the stables on the Ben Armine estate, or to an inn up towards Strath Naver where they have rooms for the night. But always these walks come with a discussion and expectation. Even when we are organising a walk that’s no more than going out to a picnic spot we’ve discovered, with great flat rocks for sunbathing and a miniature mighty waterfall that acts like a sort of spa - is how we describe it to friends – still, we plan, we know.
These walks then are not “close” – to that other sort. The other kind, that outsider way, is of another order.
Such a walk occurred earlier this year, in Spring, when our second daughter had friends staying, girls who did not know the Highlands, though one had come for a visit the year before who had forgotten her boots and said that those we had didn’t fit or were uncomfortable... Either way, then there had been very little in the way of going out, but this time the weather was benign – a high, pale blue sky most days and though the light wind was chill, minted with the snow that lay on the high hills, the sun was warm.
We’d decided on a walk two nights before, my husband and I going over the map that hangs on the sitting room wall, a dram in our hands, to plan it – and then looking closer at the area on the ordnance survey. It would take about eight hours or so, we figured, starting with a route we knew well, up through the hills of the Balnacoil estate, mercifully saved, due to action on the part of a protest group we have established, from yet another of the wind turbine developments that have been allowed to proliferate across Sutherland and Caithness. The way we’d planned was straightforward: an estate track would take us alongside the Blackwater, a river that begins in the north, near the Caithness Sutherland border and splits in two, a couple of miles north of the Balnacoil gates, leading into the Blackwater and Brora. Then we would veer off to the left, crossing the water and coming up through an abandoned strath – there was an old schoolhouse there we had long wanted to visit – and after that we would be connecting up to and returning home for the last couple of miles down the Sciberscross to Rogart road. The whole gorgeous day, but for the awful gigantic tips of turbine arms showing over the edges of the hills from the Kilbraur industry at the last phase, when we joined the road, free of any spoil.*
So the morning began and all was well, wet weather gear packed away with the picnic; we were in shirtsleeves by the time we were up on the hill at Balnacoil. In the clear, still air it was easy to hear the rush of the water in the ravine below us, and to mark out, after a couple of hours of walking, by the sound of the water alone, another favourite swimming pool, deep and black and edged with slabs of boulders that slant into it like trays.... And sure enough, Katherine had told her friends about it and they decided they would take a break in the walk for a quick plunge and down the hill they went, leaving us, sitting in the sunshine. We lay back on the heather and dozed.
Some time later we woke and the weather had changed, overcast, and no sign of the girls – but then here they came, up through the straggly birch and hazel that clings to the hillside there, and all of them chattering with cold. One had got stuck on the other side of the river, they said, had lost her nerve and not been able to swim back – and it had taken them a while to “rescue her” was my daughter’s phrase... Whatever, they’d all been in the water too long for a day that early in Spring.
That is not the part I want to write about though – though in a sense one might say that the walk began to change at that point, in the sense that the character of the walk changed, its intent. For at that point, the party split, just as the same river we were walking along had split from itself, and where we had started out as one, we were now two. The girls had done no more than head down the hill for a swim but by the time we reached the place later in the woods where they would leave us, the walk had changed, danger set in place like a stone dropped in a deep pool. I gave them juice and chocolate and made sure they had plenty of extra clothes on, and we started up on our way again, going down the other side of the hill and along the river’s edge for some time before finding a place we could cross. Once over the other side, we made towards a stand of trees and stopped there for lunch. By now we ‘d been out for about six hours.
The weather had returned fine, but patchy. There was no longer the glorious still open sky of Spring that we’d started with; the sun came and went with squalls of rain, patches of blue shadowed quickly with grey. Lunch was a hasty affair in these conditions; the girls still felt cold, they said, and one – the one who had come with no boots the year before – said she wanted to turn back. “Oh, no” we replied. “That’s not the way of things at all. It will be fun, you’ll see”, and my daughter comforted her with the idea that this walk would make the Duke of Edinburgh expedition that their school had organised for the following term, “like nothing”. On we went.
The route took us into woods soon after, and we started to climb – all was as marked on the survey map until there was a split in the path – that word again, split - division, confusion, change - and we havered for a while, not sure which way to go. Robert Frost’s poem always comes out at a time like this – “And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveller” - though strangely no one felt like speaking it out now, and we decided on a track and carried on up. According to our instructions we should have been coming out on the edge of the abandoned settlement any moment, the schoolhouse and a scattering of crofts - there were the little squares marked on the paper alongside the cross hatching that stood for the trees – but there was no sign of them. Then just when we had crested the path and were coming down the other side we saw a roof across through the tops of the trees.
We stopped. There was still no path taking us out there, to where the houses were. We weren’t out of the woods yet, so to speak – though the girls were excited to think we might be. Coming to the edge of the strath meant the beginning of the walk turning homewards as far as they were concerned and I felt their turning, though I kept telling them there was nothing marked on the map, no way of knowing, still there was something about that ill-timed swim that had chilled them, in ways I couldn’t yet define.
“But there is no path there” I said again. Though the roof looked very close, there was no way of getting to the house itself. The woodland was dense. Broken trees and great branches cluttered the forest floor and the ground we could see was dark and wet looking. Clearly we had taken the wrong turn further back, when the path divided. “We’ll have to go back the way we came and connect up to it that way” my husband said.
It was then that the division that I’d sensed earlier became palpable, it sounded in the girls’ reaction. “Oh no!” they cried out. “Please, no!” One of them looked as though she might cry. Then they started whispering amongst themselves, a terrible thing to have happen on a walk, urgent, unpleasant whispering behind others’ backs, and my daughter knew better but she had to be loyal to her friends. “Please can’t we just cut through right here?” she said to me. “It’s easy. Look. It’s close.” But no, I said, we said. We were adamant. That we must find the path, that going off route was a bad idea. Adamant, we were insistent – but the girls continued talking amongst themselves and I heard one mutter “Adults are always like that” and another “I say we just do it” and at that point something in me, this time, split, like all the other splittings of that day only this time it was my will, my own intention, and I felt myself divided. Why shouldn’t they just cut through the woods? I thought, one part of me. I heard myself say it, heard it coming up quietly to nag gently at me below the reasoned surface of my sense, why not? It would take no more than a couple of minutes for the girls to make their way there to the house and rest. For look, I thought, surely, there was the red roof of the abandoned house right in front of us – we could practically touch it. So why not? What harm? “Why shouldn’t they?” I said to my husband then.
That word, you see: split. Division. An opening up in a second to another route alongside the one you are walking - seductive, easy-looking perhaps - but letting darkness in. My husband shook his head, but by now the girls were cheering “Yay!”, “Thanks, Kirsty!” and starting down into the trees. “The minute you get there, stay by the house. Don t move” I cautioned. “We’ll go back and come round and meet you.”
Of course, you don’t need to read it, we never saw them there. They never arrived at the house. They never even got near. And from that second of our parting, the lurking feeling that had been there since the time of their swim rose up and devoured me in a river of cold. For as we started back down the path, I knew, I was responsible for, the terrible thing we had done; it was as certain as the sound of the water charging in the ravine below us in which the girls had been swimming while we, my husband and I and I had slept. But there was nothing for it now. No going back. The girls had disappeared out of our sight the second we had watched them dive down into the trees.
What I should have known and said – what anyone would have known - is that a roof looked down at through trees from a height is a landmark clear enough that one might see but that the moment one has descended that same roof is no longer in view. By the time David and I had retraced our steps, gone all the way back down to the path, come out at the edge of the wood and walked around its perimeter, what felt like hours and hours and hours had passed, and when we finally saw the little settlement in the distance and approached it, the girls were nowhere to be seen.
By then we were fully outside our walk. Everything about every second slowed down and became full of dread, quiet and still, even in the midst of a wind that had started. Up and down the treeline we went. Calling and calling – “Are you there?’ “Are you there?” - but there was no sound of their voices. Everywhere we wanted the girls to be, was nothing. Time passed, the light darkened. It was getting colder. Once, a bird cried that we thought was a girl calling – but again, there was nothing. What’s more, in the midst of all their absence, we knew, too, that to go into the woods after them would be to be lost ourselves and then never able to find them, and we were starting to gauge by then how long it would take to get out to some kind of road, get a signal for a phone, so that we could call for help.
Minutes went into hours, is how it seemed. Hours into evening, spring into autumn, and the wind by now was very cold, that cold river of fear running along beside us as we went, two people, specks on the ground in wide open country under a sky going dark. It would be night soon and the children in our care lost somewhere in deep woods and out of sight, out of hearing. What had I allowed myself in all this, what had I done? I still ask myself that question – though we found them in the end, or they found us. After having walked up and down, calling and yelling and screaming until my voice was hoarse and David and I had stopped speaking to each other, stopped asking, should we do this, do that, and were existing only in the heart-sick silence of the present tense, there was the fantastical, wondrous moment when they emerged out of the dark to the edge of treeline, at the deer fence, all four of them dazed looking, confused – then their voices erupting into a chatter of relief and celebration. “What an adventure!” “We couldn’t see the house anywhere!” “Look, mum, we made a film of how terrified we were!” and showing me their phones. “We thought we were going to have to spend the night in the woods!”, “We had nothing to eat!” and so on and so on, and we adults called it an adventure, too, for in many ways it was, it might have been...
But I ask myself still, what I had let take place that afternoon. When really what had happened was outside adventure, outside anything that could be so easily named. Mountaineers talk about the feeling of it all the time, and know what it is, this occurrence of the incoming event, the unplanned and the shock of it, and yet how it is also something willingly invited. And those in small boats at sea know it, and those who work with tracking animals, and miners who go down into the earth, and explorers... But we who go out in the morning to be home for tea, or take a walk in the afternoon and decide on another path home, or set out in advance of a party with small children to avoid the weather... We don’t expect danger to come then. Yet I have found myself to be an outsider at these times, perverted by my own decisions and so turned out upon that other path that is always there. Finding myself crossing a river at spate by a wire – two thin lines stretched from one bank to another – one to walk on, one to hold onto – with babies strapped to my back. Going back, one by one, to bring them across to the other side and back to a lodge in blinding wind and rain, and only after getting them into baths, with hot orange juice and biscuits, feel myself begin to tremble and be racked by the relief of the shocking thing I had done, leaving the party in the way I had, to be so foolhardy as to take the children with me. I have come down an unknown path through woods to the house where we were living at the time, further south now, in Perthshire this was, and to have been so disoriented by how lost I was that I did not recognise our own home. I have been up, too, on the high western rise of Sutherland, looking down on an eagle’s nest and the flats and flow country all spread below me, and with the setting sun at my back have not known the way to where I left the others, and it was only the keen eyesight of my eldest daughter who was able to see the smudge that was an Argocat moving across the landscape way off in the distance that meant we were able to make our way to the track that our family had gone down hours ago.
The girls I have been writing about in this essay came back, we found them. We return. We come back upon our way. Yet this event that has occurred in our walking – a kind of catabasis that willfully encourages us to go down down deep into something terrible – changes us. The walk has changed us. We will go back there sometime, I know, and finish the route we started that day – and we will take the right turn this time, find the way out that will bring us to the schoolhouse and explore that little lost settlement as we had intended. And we will talk, too, then, of that other day, no doubt, and remember it, the feeling of it, the new walk shadowed by the past. So, we say to ourselves, we will take more care. Our daughter won’t leave us, is what we hope. Her friends, the friends she brought with her on the walk that day, are not the friends she sees now.
*Author’s note: “The Eastern and Northern Highlands are becoming spoiled by the terrible multiplication and activity of wind turbine development in the region, encouraged by the wealth of big multinational conglomerates who stand to make billions in tax incentives and income from energy charges and rebates. These turbines threaten to permanently deform some of the most wild and beautiful places in the British Isles – land deemed ‘empty’ and ‘with no other usefulness’ by bureaucrats and politicians and absent landlords who do not live there but own vast tracts of land, a situation that affects north east Sutherland and Caithness in particular.”