Friday 22 May 2015

Westward Ho! : Simon Armitage's 'Walking Away...reviewed

Poet Simon Armitage follows up his hugely successful ‘Walking Home’ –an account of his ‘back to front’ long distance trod down The Pennine Way to finish close to his Yorkshire home- with an account of a 2013 expedition he undertook following the northern South West Coast path which winds its way from Somerset to Land’s End. In Simon’s case the plan was to finish on the tiny Scillies island of Samson. As an undertaking this 250 mile walk matches just about anything in the UK, for despite its lack of soaring hills and mountains, anyone who has even walked a section of it will be familiar with the undulating peaks and troughs as the trail falls into hidden green valleys before rising steeply up out of the shadowy abyss in a repeating cycle which goes on for miles. Particularly in the section on the Culm Coast twixt Devon and Cornwall. By the time you have walked five miles you will have gained a couple of Welsh mountains in elevation!

For those not familiar with the concept employed by the poet, Basically, Simon offers himself as a wandering troubadour; walking the trail in bite size sections-usually between 10 to 15 miles although the average seems to be about 12. In return for board, accommodation and the portering of his suitcase  between gigs and digs, he performs poetry readings at the end of most legs. The venues vary from pubs to bookshops, living rooms to yurts. At the end of each gig the poet passes around a sock- why a sock and not his expensive cattle driver's hat I don’t know?- but nevertheless, apart from fishing out the odd boiled sweet, betting slip and chewed pencil-he generally rakes in enough to make each section of the walk a profitable enterprise.

I must say, if you are engaging in an long distance walk like this and you can end each leg with a shower, hot meal and fall into clean sheets and a soft bed then why not? It might not fit in with the traditional Rufty-Tufty approach- backpacking for weeks on end with the equivalent of a small car on your back - but I know which approach I’d rather employ if I had a legion of admiring Guardian readers falling over themselves to service my every need! And by and large it does indeed seem to be the nice middle class, Posy Simmonds-esque liberal Guardianistas who are at the forefront when it comes to servicing the poet’s enterprise or indeed, who actually know who Simon Armitage is. After all, in X Factor UK 2015, poets are generally as well known as Edwardian spiritualists or Inuit whale-catchers.  I’m sure, despite the predominance of the aforementioned culturally endowed, a lot of people who turn up for his readings have just been told , ‘we’ve got a bloke, Simon Something, coming to the village hall whose been on telly and written books and stuff’.

Starting out at Minehead, Simon stays in the Butlins Holiday Camp although, by his own admission, he chickens out at giving a reading to an audience where replica football shirts and spray tans are much in evidence, and hi tails it off to give a reading in some rustic hostelry where freshly pressed Denim and Laura Ashley is the preferred dress code. ‘How could I compete with an Olly Murs tribute act’ he later offered as an excuse for this act of cultural cowardice!

Wandering through ‘Zummerzet’ with a different entourage picked up at each leg, he encounters a bountiful harvest of humanity whose quirks,charms and indiscretions provide a rich source of material. From the Country squire complaining about ‘The Ravens ruining his land’-Simon later realises he means ‘ the ravers’- to the tramp bearing the legend ‘Fuck off Toffs’!  With his keen observational eye and descriptive talents, he brings to life this endless parade of characters and sets them into a landscape which even to the unfamiliar is imbued with familiarity. The sun dew on wet grass, the diamond backed sea, the shadows which speckle the dense copses and the owl haunted country graveyards falling into night.

Jane Darke's beach side garden at Porthcothan: Photo-Helen-Kernow Education Arts Partnership

I’ve seen Simon described as ‘saturnine’ in some quarters...Never! What I love about his writing is his wry laconic humour and like most Northern folk, he’s not averse to using self deprecation to keep his boots firmly on the ground. Drawing the reader in to a world where stages are completed with the aid of ibuprofen and a muttered prayer to St Christopher; where cloudbursts wash away optimism and fellow travellers peel away like flotsam on a Devon tide as the sea fret becomes a sea squall.  This style fits the pace of the book perfectly. Whether he’s describing the characters, the land, the sea or his mood and physical condition, it’s hard not to engage with a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve and who isn’t afraid to puncture the overall mellow vibe with the occasional dark thought and reveal doubts about the validity of the entire enterprise.

However, his spirits are never beaten into submission for too long and aided and abetted by his moveable feast of fellow walkers, The Marsden Pied Piper, each night, leads his assembled troupe into the welcoming arms of his hosts, where, refreshed and with batteries recharged he can regale the local communities with anecdotes and poetry before Morpheus takes him on a well earned journey into the land of nod.

Along the way, various characters weave in and out of his orbit. Margaret Drabble describing how she offered to put up Salman Rushdie at the height of the Santanic Verses brouhaha. Not expecting him to take up the offer, she was rather taken aback when he turned up with a team of bodyguards and security goons! Artist and filmmaker Jane Darke feeds him figs and black pudding at her beautiful gaff above the beach at Porthcothan near Padstow. As someone who has partaken tea and cake here with Jane, I can confirm the generosity of mine hostess and the aesthetic delights which abound hereabouts within a home and beach top garden which is  decorated with the colourful bounty collected through the tireless ‘wrecking’ of the Atlantic shore.

Towards the end of the journey, Simon’s body is starting to resemble his boots. Falling apart at the seams and held together with spit and hope! His keen descriptive eye never loses its perspective though and people and places remain as vivid and well observed as the day he took his first steps in Minehead. I’m not sure if he has a photographic memory, walks along jotting into a notebook or constantly addresses a Dictaphone??? Whatever device he uses he certainly captures the essence of the journey throughout and the pace of the narration never lets up for a moment.

Will this be the poet’s final epic long distance walk? After all, he is a fifty something academic more used to frequenting the libraries and lecture rooms of our metropolitan centres of learning than battling the elements in remote climes. It wouldn’t be a terrible spoiler to hint that this may be the case although I detected a weakening of resolve as, back home in Yorkshire, he gazes at some new walking boots still wrapped in tissue paper in the box they came in.

Man at Sea and Hay. Simon Armitage photo: The Telegraph

I certainly hope so for Walking Home and Walking Away have both been excellent and although outdoor zealots might snort at this outsider bringing long distance walking into the Sunday Times Best Seller domain and somehow sullying its Spartan tradition of grim suffering and mortification through the adoption of  a  ‘walking for softies’ approach, well...tough! It's Long distance walking Jim, but not as we know it and you'll never think of a Galapagos Tortoise  in the same way again either! 

John Appleby:2015

Rating on the Krab-o-meter

Friday 15 May 2015

Clean Climbing

Any old Iron?:Pete Livesey circa mid seventies.Photo John Cleare

There used to be so few climbers that it didn't matter where one drove a piton,there wasn't the worry about demolishing the rock. Now things are different.There are so many of us and there will be more. a simple equation exists between freedom and numbers; the more people the less freedom.If we are to retain the beauties of the sport,the fine edge, the challenge,we must consider our style of climbing; and if we are not to destroy and mutilate the routes,we must eliminate the heavy handed use of pitons and bolts

Royal Robbins 

Ten years ago I gazed in awe at one of Britain's tigers at work on Malham Cove's Right Wing Girdle. From a basking stone I watched in admiration as Dennis Gray rested on a sling before a difficult move. Perhaps I marveled more at his skill in placing a sling good enough to rest on than at his ability on the climb. I could only dream of the day when I too would have the skill and daring to place a sling and rest on it. Here was rock-climbing at it finest, the most modern and ultimate of challenges — or so I thought! It is almost a contradiction to talk about the ethics of such a wonderfully anarchistic pastime as rock-climbing. Ethics, someone will reasonably point out, are entirely personal and are nobody else's business. True, but everyone must have some historical background on which to base his personal ideas on rock-climbing behavior.

In the beginning it was the Alpine Club, then the Climbers Club and the Fell and Rock who, by suitably caustic ethical comment in their universally read journals, moulded the axioms on which the individual based his ethics. How the cutting comments on pitons in the Fell & Rock Journal shaped the ethics of Lakeland climbers for years to come! In later years, when news of the doings of Brown and Whillans had filtered through to the climbing world in general — perhaps three or four years after the events — people realised that aid had been used on many routes. But Joe and Don were the best, their routes were much harder than any before, and the new ethic was accepted.

Unencumbered by the restrictions of a patriarchal establishment the Rock & Ice had created new rules for themselves, and as established folk heroes their rules were rapidly mimicked — as one might expect. Lesser climbers adopted codes allowing themselves one or two points of aid per route; the difference now however was that Brown, Whillans and their colleagues could have climbed these routes entirely free. As early as 1939 Colin Kirkus had written . . nobody has the right to climb with pitons a route which is conceivably possible without . .

Colin Kirkus: Ethically as pure as the driven snow!

Another decline in the traditionally clear division between artificial and free climbing came from that forcing-ground of British aid-climbing- Derbyshire Limestone. Fiercely steep routes, sometimes old aid climbs, were being attempted and it became acceptable to rest on-piton-or nut runners so long as height was not gained through their use. A smug complacency settled in — we could always compare ourselves to the peg-packing, etriered continentals and claim our climbing ethically pure — the real rock-climbing. But had we known it, six thousand miles away Americans were rock-climbing with such ethical simplicity that even Brown might have thought again about his routes; had we known it, the rot in Britain may not have penetrated so deeply.

Cenotaph Corner would still carry a HVS A1 rating while Vector would be XS A1 under a purist grading system of the type much used in America. In fact any climb employing a point of aid would incorporate an artificial component in its grading. Hopefully; But I'm back where I came in — and resting on runners and suchlike, all acceptable! Had anyone bothered to step back and take a look it would have been obvious that under this system even the most extremes of routes would be climbed by the many. That is the point in any sport when the sociological factors governing the existence of the game, no matter how anarchistic, begin to modify the ethics. A ball game becomes dull if it is too easy or too difficult to score; governing bodies regularly adjust rules in the light of modern performance and equipment to avoid this very danger. And so in the last few years leading British rock-climbers have gradually rejected more and more of the aid-climbers devices.

We are leaving routes which would require a point of aid now, for better climbers later. We will fail on already established climbs if it seems likely that we need to rest on a nut. I talk of leading climbers in this context because it is they who set the ethics in our game at present. Either by their example of by their writings they are hopefully and continually improving our ethical standards. This is where many readers will grab for their pens and start writing . . . . . but I saw you using a tied-off an ivy frond on the Fang — what kind of example is that? . .' Well, yes, I did — but it saved my life. It was ethical foul but I'm still here. What kind of example is it best to pass on, an example of the worst of one's own ethics — or the best?

Why go into print to publicise one's own ethics? If ethics are a personal code then why not just leave it to teaching by example — and make sure that example is good?  There are two reasons: the first is that today's leading climber is no longer a folk hero as he was in the Rock and Ice era, he is much more of a fly-by-night character. His example, no matter how good, may be forgotten in his wake were it not for the posterity of the printed word. Secondly, the climbing publications do much damage to climbing ethics by their image and content. A climber's own ethical comment is needed to redress the balance. I am frequently driven to despair by such advertisments as... You too can go right up the wall with ease' (with our gear) or You need the best equipment available and . . . takes you! to extremes. Worst of all to my mind was one recent advertisement-Bring Everest down to size!  If those are not blatant ethical fouls then I don't know what is, and to suggest that one can buy one's way up a mountain (despite recent attempts) is surely foreign to any spirit that may remain in climbing.

What then are my ethics, and how did they develop? At first they derived from the example of other climbers, and then my own ideas started to predominate. It is astonishing how quickly they change. Three years ago I would have top-roped a new route anywhere had I thought it necessary. Now I would confine that particular foul only to the boldest of local gritstone problems. Today I would not use aid to force a new route, unless, even with a point of aid, it was making possible a route harder than any before. The excuse for a foul creeps in again! I call these 'tricks' fouls, but when I analyse the situation it strikes me that everything beyond a man climbing a mountain alone and naked is a foul: we must keep our tally as low as possible for our own era in history. All fouls are born equal, it is only local accent, at this point in time, that decrees the use of chalk a worse foul than nut protection.

Here Royal Robbins has something to say: he has the.. concept of climbs as not just lines but as creations containing line and style. To this I would add my own more important concept of creative quality in a new route — that of the aesthetic enjoyment possible from the physical movement involved in the climb — the exhilaration felt after ascending a series of continuously demanding moves. A climb must have this quality to be a worthy creation. On a new climb at Ilkley recently I had a choice: should I take a bold and beautiful little arete that required a piton for a handhold and protection half-way? Or should I scrape out a nearby scoop of soft rock to construct a useable hand-hold and then top-rope the route as it would be protectionless? I chose the latter alternative — the scraped hold and the top-rope — not because pitons are nasty at Ilkley but because the finished product is as fine a series of moves as you'll find anywhere. To have used a peg would have been to break the flow and spoil the prolonged physical sensations.

The tension would have been broken by the escape point in the middle. Again the letter writers reach for their pens: ' . . how can you justify any environmental ethics when you use chalk and scrape holds? Why rid the crags of defacing pitons on the one hand and paint them a different colour with the other?  Well, I have no ethical qualms about the environment; I have never rid a route of its pegs or its aid because it makes the route/crag/national park/ country- a cleaner and more natural place. I just consider that the removal of aid can turn many of the fine aided lines into tremendous climbing experiences as well. How can the climber complain of environmental damage to his climbs when he drives as close as possible to them in his noisy noxious gas-spewing car?

How can the guide-book writer professional hero complain when he condones the building of a modern rescue box as close as possible to the crags? How can the National Park Warden complain as he roams the countryside in his Landrover with his yapping dogs planting obscene signs and turning all available land into expensive camping-car-park complexes? These are my views today. But as I have said, they may change tomorrow, and they do frequently modify but always I hope to permit less fouls than before. Messner has something to say, something that we might consider a pointer for the future: It is impossible, or pointless, to grade a move when you are within ten feet of your last piton - (or nut!)

Pete Livesey: First Published in Mountain Life-June 1975

Friday 8 May 2015

The Edge of the World

Sandwood Bay: Photo JMT
I was not interested in those cliffs until the trawler drove straight into them. I was above Patey's Buachaille, contemplating the channel that, in the absence of ladders, must be swum; I was considering killer whales in that channel when the trawler disappeared halfway between me and Cape Wrath. Until that moment my interest stopped at Sandwood Bay, that would become Scamadale in Miss Pink at the Edge of the World. It was the trawler that aroused my interest in the country called the Parph.

The boat had not foundered but gone into Kescaig Bay; one fixed point at the edge of a hundred square miles of wilderness that, except for the lighthouse road across its northern fringe, is untracked. The terrain is moorland swelling into low hills, but fronting the Atlantic to west and north, there are over twelve miles of cliffs, and this is the Parph: the last land seen by the wild geese before they touch down in the Arctic, the ultimate sanctuary for the last wolf in Britain. Seal-women and mermaids have been seen in its coves, and on dark nights a drowned Dutch sailor can be heard scrunching the strand of Sandwood Bay.

I went there once, in late spring, with an anti-cyclone stationary over the north-west corner of Scotland so that I could travel light, without tent or stove. I went in from the road between Durness and Rhiconich, heading in a northerly direction for Creag Riabhach, which, at 1592ft, is the highest point of the Parph.

My route was line-of-sight and followed burns, upstream and down, over miniature water-sheds. And out there, in the middle of wastes of heather, I came on a squat round cairn of sandstone flags — just one, very old and with not the slightest indication of how or why it came to be there. If it was a grave, who died here, from what cause, miles from any road? Creag Riabhach was wild and dark, facing north-east, with late primroses glowing in its shadow. Below was a clear blue lochan fringed by pale sand marked with the tracks of fox and heron. Sitting between crag and water, eating lunch, I looked at the contents of my pack and reflected that for four days those few possessions represented security.

They looked madly incongruous and served only to emphasize the solitude. Suddenly this shining world, soft, balmy and beautiful, became animate, implacable. I was aware, first, of my own arrogance in coming here, then of my vulnerability . I thought of turning back, but I looked at the shimmering horizon and knew I should continue to the coast and find shelter for the night.
Providing the weather is holding the traveller may concentrate on his immediate surroundings. All I had to be wary of was a sprained ankle, and one man at least has crawled home with a fractured pelvis. As I approached the coast the land became more dramatic and the weather changed.

Not much but sufficient to make a difference. Untracked heather and bog is tiring, and the psychological strain is a heavy factor. I was happy on sandstone pavements among sculpted rocks, delighted with a prospect of Sandwood Bay, but the breeze was freshening, already driving white horses across the lochs. By the time I reached the cliffs water was slopping out of pools before a dry gale and I was uneasy. I had one glimpse of jumbled cliffs before I turned my back on wind and brilliant sun to stagger the last mile to Kescaig Bay. There was no thought of stopping because there would be no shelter until I could get down to the shore.

Appalled by this sudden violence I applied myself grimly to the task of trying to keep my balance, of putting one foot in front of the other until I reached a lip and looked down on a tiny stone shelter roofed with turf which I hadn't known was here. I turned in at 7pm, snug in my bag on a bed of bracken. The gale raged outside but my mind retreated like an animal in its den: warm dry, safe. I slept. I woke to stillness. I could tell by the light between the chinks in the stones that the sun was on the bothy. A wren was singing; A gull called. The bay was calm and only the occasional breaker bloomed against the southern headland. Eider duck were talking softly in the kelp, fulmar regarded me with dark eyes from their nests among the thrift. I bathed and ate at my leisure, and strolled back for a mile to see what I'd missed last night.

There were orchids everywhere (I'd not seen one), the Fulmars floated beside me, a Skua came in for a closer look but dismissed me. I was harmless. The lighthouse at Cape Wrath was visible as soon as I climbed out of Kescaig Bay: a black dome a little over three miles away but twice that distance as I was forced to trace the coastline, rounding its innumerable inlets. Depressions were full of flowers, the clifftop was scattered with cushions of moss, campion and thrift in deserts of red stones. A Ringed Plover's nest was framed by crystals of rose quartz. Seals tossed in the foam below the cliffs, Skuas patrolled, handing me to the next pair at the boundary of their territory.

As I approached the corner of the land, the sea boiled under stacks at the end of the of the reef: tall pinnacles, a cubist tower, carmine rock cleft by pink dykes. The sea was green and purple, the foam dazzling. The lighthouse was built above a reef that ended in an arched pinnacle covered with birds. The keepers gave me coffee ("We put the kettle on when saw you coming"), and told me about the man camping at Kearvaig, where I proposed to spend the night. It had happened last year: the police and coastguards had found his tent empty, the food  going mouldy, and nothing had been seen or heard of him since: a Liverpool man with spectacles.

The keepers and I regarded each other silently. My mind raced. At the Bay of Kearvaig the corner had been turned; Cape Wrath was now behind me, the arch below the lighthouse forming the bay's western headland, a huge horned stack to the east. Two men were camping on the strand and we sat round a fire of driftwood and talked until midnight, when I went way to sleep among the plovers in the dunes, the sunset colours still lingering in the sky. From Kearvaig eastward, the cliffs of Clo Mor rise sharply. Facing north they are shadowed and speckled with the white of birds and clumps of scurvy grass.

They are 900ft high, and vertical where they don't overhang. The sea whispers softly at their feet, the swell crawls landward in slow motion, seals bask on skerries: grey, black and silver, and sometimes, very faintly, their song rises to the watcher on the cliff. I spent the third night in the heather above the Kyle of Durness and the fog rolled in so that any dreams were threaded by sound: the fog horn, seals, the howl of the last wolf. I woke to space, to spiders' webs spangled with moisture against the cloud, to a new awareness as civilisation loomed on the other side of the Kyle.

The wilderness was inanimate but alive. It could not be intrinsically hostile but could well be a reflection of man's hostility, and his love. How many explorers have gone into the desert and found a soul out there beyond the sand and rocks? I had not heard the last wolf but my first.

Gwen Moffat: First published in High-Dec 1985

Friday 1 May 2015

The Haunting

Some winters ago Eric Langmuir, John Disley, John Cleare and I stayed at Ben Alder Cottage, en route for Fort William to Dalwhinnie. This is one of the finest bothies in the Highlands. And Eric, jokingly, warned us that it was haunted. He told us the story of a visit which his sister Marjorie, then a medical student, had made to the cottage with a party from Glasgow University Mountaineering Club. During the evening they heard footsteps outside. They went to the door and looked outside. No one there. And then it happened again. Still no one there. Some months later I told this story to a very eminent Scotsman. A strange look came over his face and he told me the story of his visit to Ben Alder Cottage, before the war, when he was a boy. That story has remained forever in my mind. Recently I persuaded him to tell it again — the most astonishing story I have ever heard. The only fact that is concealed is the name of this eminent Scotsman because he is fed up with having his leg pulled. I can, however, assure readers that this is no leg-pull.

It was in about 1937. A great friend of mine who had walked with me the whole way from Glasgow to Skye in 1930 and with whom I had climbed in the Cuillins, those most delectable of all mountains, told me that he had heard two of the tougher anglers, who fished the more difficult places in the Highlands, talking about the Loch of the Buich Pass. The name entranced us and we wondered where this place was where these marvellous trout could be caught — up to 3/4lb at 2,400ft. Where was this Loch? Tom- my friend- worked in another Department of the Corporation of Glasgow, but in the same building as I did and one day he came up the stairs into the drawing office where I stood as a young apprentice civil engineer and said: "Bob, I've got it. I've been looking at the one inch maps and it's Loch Bhealaich Bheithe — Loch of the Buich Pass in the Gaelic. A mountain pass between Beinn Behoil and Ben Alder. Let's go there".

So we did, in 1938, and we came up on his old motor bike with me on the pillion and we left it at Bridge of Gaur on Loch Rannoch. From there an old stalking track went for, I suppose, six or seven miles across this wild moorland through a dying forest — a stark, white-bleached remnant of an old Scots pine woodland area. The track stopped as though it had been cut by a knife in the moorland and after that only rough moorland for a mile. And we came over this rise. Tom had a little pocket telescope which had been given to him for some occasion. We lay there on the ridge and looked at the hut we had been told about or had heard about: Ben Alder Cottage, this old Butt'n Ben.

No smoke came from the chimney, no curtains were in the window. We reckoned it was a good house, the kind that we enjoyed living in. So with some circumspection, we made down the hill,that long beat down through the dying remnants of this old pine forest, and forded the River Alder — which can be very dangerous when it is in spate. But was quite easy that day,and walked up with great care — because we were old hands at reconnoitering howffs. Here was Ben Alder Cottage, But'n Ben, a room and kitchen and we made it our headquarters for nearly a week. A little porch giving access to a minute six foot square hall: to the right a door into the kitchen and to the left a door into THE ROOM and straight ahead, one little bedroom without a window — a standard highland butt'n ben, tongued and grooved lined with wood for warmth, the ancient equivalent of a highly insulated house. And attached to it was a barn, in line with the cottage, which once had had two compartments with a wooden partition between the two and two doors but which a generation or two of stalkers had broken down to use for fire wood when they were caught in bad weather.

This place was eight or nine miles from Bridge of Gaur and fifteen miles from Dalwhinnie, most of it on a rather difficult track each way. It must have been one of the most isolated cottages in all the highlands, lying at the foot of Ben Alder with a great number of Munros lying around it which we wanted to climb and hadn't climbed. Now in those days, we found that we could only carry in about three days of food in a 45lb pack when we included our stove and sleeping bag and a tent in case we could not find a howff. So we were limited to three days. After that you had to live on the land and the land meant the water. So we both carried American three foot section steel spinning rods with a primitive spinning reel, gold and silver Devons to fish these unsophisticated hill Lochs because we knew we could catch them, three or four to the pound, sometimes a half pounder, on a rare occasion a three quarter pounder.

We learned to eat them in various ways. We mashed up the fish with'oatmeal and made fishcakes of them, we broiled them, we boiled them, we fried them. We did all kinds of things with them. By the end, when we were drawing in these fish in the spinning reels from the hill lochs we had to turn our faces away from them as they came weaving in through the brown shallowing waters. We couldn't face it — the thought that we had to eat the bloody things! Now this loch was the one that we'd heard of you see and it was a marvellous loch. We actually caught up to three pounders on it, which was a very big fish for a loch which was something like 2,300 ft above sea level. This was the pass over which Prince Charles Edward Stuart had walked when he was escaping from the post-Culloden situation and he had come down to an old hut or crofters house known as "Dooms Smokey Place" which had stood on the site of Benaider Cottage — we could trace the old foundations.

Now according to the records Prince Charlie had slept one night in this "Dooms Smokey Place" before going up to Cluny's Cage where he had spent some time with Cluny MacPherson and his clansmen and they hid him and fed him there in the days after Culloden — before he eventually escaped in a French Man o'War and ended his rather inglorious life in France, on brandy. This was the spot on which we slept. For some reason which I can't remember now, we used to sleep in the kitchen where we could build a big fire of the wood we carried across from the dying forest near the side of the Alder Burn. One day we did the ridge that lay along the glen that ran down to Loch Ossian and when we came down to it, we produced as always from our rucksacks our spinning rods and we caught a few little fish, so unsophisticated that they were trying three at a time to get on to the hook. We caught a number of them and brought them down and unwillingly, as always by that time, mashed them up and made a meal. There was only one article of furniture in that house, a table. 

We put it against the window in the kitchen — to the right of the front door — and in the corner of that room, away from the fire, which used to blaze at night flickering in the tongued and grooved brown varnished lining. We made a bed of heather and there we slept at night in our sleeping bags. Now we sat at the table with a paraffin primus stove between us, roaring away, and we made our meal, our tea. And as we sat there doing that, I thought I heard someone coming in through the little porch past the door which was only two or three feet from my left elbow and he went into the room on the left! I said to Tom: "That sounds like someone, d'ye hear him?" And we both sat there in the dusk and he said: "Well I can't hear anyone". And we thought nothing more and we had our meal. We built up the fire and in the warmth of the fire we lay in our sleeping bags on the heather. We lit our pipes — we were both great pipe-smokers.

Now before heard this sound, I had gone through to get Meta Mitre fuel to prime the stove and after the meal was over, Tom said: "Damn it I've run out of tobacco but I've got another tin, away through and get it". And he went through to the other room where we kept our rucksacks. I was in that marvellous state after a wonderful mountain day — lying back in a sleeping bag smoking my pipe, a feeling of great luxury. | was aware that Tom was standing at my feet and I looked up sleepily. He had a very curious expression on his face and I said: "What's wrong, Tom?" And Tom said: "Did you see this on your rucksack when you went through to get the meta fuel earlier on?" And he gave me a piece of paper. This piece of paper had written on it: "You must leave this house immediately — you are not permitted to stay here". 

And there was a name, I think it was Macintosh, Head Stalker. Tom said: "You must have heard someone after all. But why didn't he come in? We would have given him a cup of tea and argued him out of it. We can't leave here at this time, 10 miles from the nearest road". Well that was that. We lay down again in our sleeping bags, smoked our pipes and thought about it but not too much. Well, by this time it would be about midnight and dark and suddenly it was Tom who heard something and he said: "There is someone through next door". And we heard this sound of a man going, bwmm, bwmm, like someone walking and then a great whrrr like a big heavy piece of furniture being pushed and then, bwmm, bwmm, and then, whrrrr. And we lay there and listened to this and we were really quite frightened.

I said: "But why doesn't he come and tell us we've got to go. We'll give him a cup of tea and talk him out of it?" And then it became intolerable. I suppose we lay there and listened to it for many minutes — ten minutes, a quarter of an hour, in a kind of increasing state of fear and uneasiness, and then we got out of our bags and we took hold of our torches, opened the door of the kitchen, went through a little hall and listened at the door and we heard this man, this thing, this whatever it was, walking quite definitely: bwmm, bwmm, bwmm then whrrrr as though it were some great heavy piece of furniture in the room. We threw the door open and shone the torches in — it was dark, it was midnight. But there was nothing, not a thing, and we walked into that room and we were really terrified. 

And then we thought it must be next door in the byre which was now one great compartment paved with stones, great flat stones as far as I remember. As we stood there we heard the sound in the byre,through the wall, only this time it was as though someone with tackity boots, nailed boots, walking on the stone floor, clink, clink, clink and then whrrrrr. A heavy thing being pushed. That was how it presented itself to us, to our imagination. We really were terribly frightened and I remember looking at Tom and if his face looked like my face than it was really a study: pale, frightened with great round eyes. We went back out of the door into the porch, out the front door and this black, velvety, starless night fell upon us. We moved up the side of the house and there were two doors which led into the one compartment because the old partition between the two sections of the byre had obviousiy been torn down over the last decade or so for fires by people benighted.

We knew it was one compartment so we opened the two doors simultaneously and before we did so I said: "It may be a stag or something that's got in". But we knew it was lunatic idea. We threw the doors open simultaneously each one of us. There was nothing, not a thing. We went in. We went right round it, there was nothing and the sound had stopped. The next morning, we climbed the walls of the cottage onto the roof and we dropped stones down both chimneys to see whether there was anything hanging from the chimneys. Nothing. I may say that we wasted no time getting back to Bridge of Gaur the next day. Years after that, having told this story to another great friend of mine, a keen photographer, hill-walker and fisherman, we made the same journey. This time we didn't sleep in the kitchen, we slept in the room where in the original incident, our rucksacks had been. And we lay there with our heads to the back wall and our feet to the window which was nailed up. In the middle of the night I woke up in blackness, dense blackness, and I heard a man walking on the pavement — there are flat stones along the side of the wall if I can remember correctly.

I was aware, as though in a nightmare, that he had stopped and was looking in through the black window on both of us. In a state of terror, absolutely stupefying horror which I cannot explain in words, I woke McCallum up, I remember his second name, and he heard the end of the footsteps and then everything stopped again. Two years after that, McCallum went with another friend and he woke up in the same room, feet to the window and was aware that there was a great light shining through the window. It was as though the sun — and this was in the middle of the night — were at the back of the window pouring a flood of light into the room and he was afflicted with this same overpowering sense of horror as I had felt.

And then it cut like that and went off and that was the end of that. Now this original friend of mine with whom I had had the first experience, Tom, had married in the interim, and he and his wife with whom I was very friendly, and I went up there to fish and climb and we met another couple who'd come down from Dalwhinnie. Tom & Jessie slept in the room in their sleeping bags and I slept with the other couple in the kitchen and we made tea, me and this young couple, and we blethered and talked away for a time. When we went to our bags we couldnt get to sleep for the noise of Tom and Jessie wandering about in the next room. They disturbed us and the next morning when we were all having breakfast together in the kitchen, we said to them: "What were you up to last night? You seemed to be moving about a lot". And that said: "Moving about? We didn't move about. We got down right away into our bags. We could hardly sleep for you moving about". Well, that is the story. We never could equate that material and physical piece of paper which must have been written by a real man with the other things that happened. Of course many of my friends have given all kinds of debunking explanations for it. But none of them fit — no, we didn't have any alcohol with us. I simply record what happened. I know of no explanation. 

Anonymous: First published in Mountain life-Dec 74.

See 'The Truth about McCook's Cottage' which relates further haunting experiences at the bothy.