It was a pilgrimage to clear my head. Not only in the usual way of gaining height and perspective, but in a physical way too—or at least that’s what I hoped. It had been six months since I’d slipped on wet rocks by the shore near Lochinver where I live, giving myself a concussion and damaging my inner ear, and my recovery from both injuries was slow. This was therefore a homeopathic pilgrimage, an attempt to cure like with like: if rock had hurt my head, perhaps rock could heal it.
I parked my little white Suzuki van at the back of Quinag and set off.
I did a mountain pilgrimage once before, when I climbed the sacred volcanic cone of Nantai-san in Japan, the ‘local Fuji’ of the Nikko area, about 75 miles north of Tokyo. Walking through the shrine gates and up the mountain path, I’d noticed that several of the people passing me on their way down were dressed all in white, a colour which in the Shinto religion denotes purity. The path itself was also intermittently marked with white signs: folded strips of paper hanging from small wayside shrines and branches, twists of plastic tied to trees and, here and there on the ground, carefully placed curls of white birch bark.
Today, I’m wearing brown and green rather than white—the colours of the land around me, of the living world rather than the spirit—but to my surprise, my way is again marked with whiteness. Tiny white feathers are snagged in the heather at my feet, white-arsed wheatears flit across the moor ahead of me as I walk and, when I stop at a shallow lochan for a long rest, there’s the conspicuous white throat of a ring ouzel perched on a boulder nearby.
These white glimpses encourage me and bid me on, through the fears and doubts and the slow swells of nausea and fatigue. But the whiteness of this mountain isn’t just these fleeting flashes—it is bedded into the body of the mountain itself. The man-made path I follow across the initial stretch of boggy moorland is lined with local limestone gravel, shining bright white in the morning sun. Then, when I step onto the mountain proper, onto the long bare flank which leads to the southern summit of Spidean Coinich, I am walking on solid whiteness: the greyish-white of Cambrian quartzite. A huge tilted plain of it overlies the red sandstone that forms the rest of the mountain’s ridge (with the exception of the top of Sàil Gharbh which is a pile of shattered quartzite), and its great slabs and boulders gleam against the dull brown patches of peat and heather that creep over it. It’s technically not true quartzite, which is a metamorphic rock, but a kind of quartz sandstone. This becomes evident as I walk beyond the shallow lochan to begin the final ascent to the summit, whereupon I find a worn trail winding through the boulders of creamy-white sand. I pick up some pinches of it and decant it into my palm: the grains are small and fine and crystalline, and it’s startling to witness how this hard and durable mountain can weather down to something as simple and tiny as sand.
Before long I see a cairn and realise I’m almost on the top. I won’t make the other summits—Sàil Ghorm and Sàil Gharbh—but getting to this point is more than I thought I could manage; is more than enough for my health and my hope. I scramble up to the cairn and gaze gratefully around me. To the north rises the long undulating wave of Foinaven, accompanied by the upward heave of Arkle, their pale quartzite ridges glowing ghost-like in the sun. To the east, the lumpy heft of Glas Bheinn runs over to Ben More and Conival, all quartzite-topped and dappled with small patches of snow. To the south, the myriad peaks of Wester Ross are almost completely blanketed with snow, while to the west, the Minch and the islands stretch out in a wide blue spread, hanging in the air like a different season, a hazy summerlands just out of reach.
I’m always exhilarated by height and expanse, by the sight of great distances and by imagining what lies further out. On this mountain there’s the allure of looking over to Harris and Lewis, and in visualising the sea roads beyond—to the Faroes, to Shetland, to northern Norway. But more and more, I’m drawn to the mountains not only for the elevation they offer but by the brute magnetism of their bodies. There’s something about the girth and gravity of the rock itself which appeases me, and I notice that acutely today.
It’s certainly a change. Years ago, when I lived on land, I was always seeking the shore, always clambering out to the furthest headland or spit of sand, trying to get as close to the sea as possible. Then I began sailing and it was the opposite: I loved being on the water, but the constant motion was wearing and disorientating. The more I sailed, the more I craved land—the bigger and denser the better—and after long spells at sea I would take every opportunity to go ashore and climb the nearest hill or mountain.
Now, I don’t sail, and live aboard the boat in a sheltered harbour, securely attached to a dock. Yet, since my fall, I feel more adrift than ever. Not only has the concussion knocked out much of my short-term memory, but it’s also affected my ability to gather and organise my thoughts. I can still remember and think to some extent but my experiences are evanescent, dissolving almost as soon as they form. As such, it’s hard to get a grip. It’s like being at sea in mist, the outlines of my life receding before my eyes like a coastline fading into fog. Everything feels unreal and slightly insubstantial. The inner ear damage also means that moving my eyes independently of my head, such as when scanning the ground I’m walking on, brings on nausea, so that now I feel seasick even when navigating on land.
With all this inner instability, it’s no surprise I should be drawn to the mountains just now. And not just to the mountains in general but to this mountain, the beautiful Quinag, whose scooped and sculpted ridge I observe every day from the boat. It’s the first thing I look at when I stick my head out of the hatch in the morning and the last thing I see through the starboard port lights at night: a fixed mark in a fluid landscape, a petrified wave that doesn’t break, but carries me indefinitely, faithfully on.
I must be moving my gaze too much as I’m starting to feel sick, so I bring my attention carefully back to what’s beneath my feet. I find a big flat slab and sit on it, then lie on it, laying out my back along its heavy length and gently resting my head. I don’t know if my brain is being restored by this or if my inner ear is repairing its tiny damage, but I feel the solidity and mass of the mountain and I feel it come into me, strengthening my molecules, raising and sharpening my spirit.
I remain on my back for some time, enjoying the cool touch of the stone against my skull and spine. I feel I am being subtly but surely consolidated. Not only that, but I feel desire seeping back into me: into my skin, my tissues, my bones, fusing as it builds into a firm sense of will. For the first time since my fall I feel focused and forceful, and, precipitating out from this, a steep sense of joy.
I could lie here all day but worry my brain will wear out, so I get up reluctantly and pick my way down the seaward side of the summit. I can’t see the harbour from here, but can see where the loch opens into the broader arms of Enard Bay, and I pick out the familiar headlands I’ve sailed past so many times. I think about the boat, the shapely vessel which has carried my partner and I on so many journeys, and I consider my body which, despite its internal damage, can still carry me up mountains. I may not be able to sail again, but I’m immensely thankful to be back on these solitary hills.
I descend slowly. The pale quartzite of the summit quickly gives way to reddish sandstone and I assume that’s the end of the whiteness, but there’s one last gift: a small patch of snow in a north-facing hollow, over a foot deep in its centre and as clean and clear as my thirsty mouth could wish for. And so it goes on: feathers, rock, sand crystals, snow crystals; a litany of whiteness in the ringing blue sky.