June. Steel-coloured falls adorn the glen, cascading down into the river below, then on to the great big sea. The trail is a creek, collecting water from the sky, the swollen burns and lochans. The peaks fail to contain the water, but this glen will not burst. It’s all moving, this water, colouring the bogs, polishing stones, feeding the soil, the flora and fauna, illuminating everything. Birds fly in pairs. Deer pronk up the hillside. I am not alone here. We are all parts of this living cycle, for we too are water.
‘Rain, rain, rain.’
So begins every entry in my journal for two weeks while walking the Affric Kintail Way from Drumnadrochit to Shiel Bridge, then from Broadford to Rubha Hunish on the Skye Trail. Thumbing through these pages by my bedroom window, I remember the boundless sea, the rivers and burns, running water.
‘Who had the great idea to walk 200+ kilometres with only clouds, precipitation and ghastly winds forecast?’
Amidst Scotland’s current heatwave and the chlorosis yellowing Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and the green grass here in Edinburgh, I not only feel the absence of Glen Affric’s looming mountains and Skye’s seascapes, but that of moving water, in all its forms. To miss a certain element of the landscape is contingent on how you’ve interacted with it—physically, sensorially, mentally—and stitched it into your spatial patchwork. Water was central to every decision and musing on the trail, and now, its absence pulls with the force of a magnet.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t welcome Edinburgh’s sunshine after fourteen days of perpetual downpour, for I was able to embark on a short ‘climbing bender’ and resume my intimate relationship with rock. However, when the rain came at last and ended the climb, I felt relief. My friends and I sought refuge beneath a limestone roof where they stood and I sat on the dirt, letting the petrichor fill my lungs. With the rain the sea seemed to carbonate, the ferns expanded their fronds and small birds hopped from branch to branch. I smiled then, for despite not seeing the Cuillin, the Sisters of Kintail or the Trotternish Ridge in their full glory while hiking, I was instead privy to the profundity of water, its sounds and cold snaps, cycles and movements—it being responsible for Scotland’s greenery.
Early one morning in Camasunary Bothy, on Skye, I sat by the window with Saunder, a Dutchman I had walked with the previous day from Elgol, and a Scotsman, whose name I never got. An endless drape of rain unspooled from the west. Rùm was somewhere out at sea, Blà Bheinn cloaked head-to-toe behind us, and like a black potion boiling in a cauldron, clouds were trapped between the gabbro peaks above Loch Coruisk.
‘How can these clouds possibly contain so much water?’ Saunder asked, slicing a piece of cheese. ‘Surely, they must empty themselves soon?’
We stood in silence. Three deer walked toward the shore and the rain slanted some more. Flat streaks of light filtered through overhead, while the dark sheets threatened. Eventually, raising his mug and gesturing outside, the Scotsman answered: ‘Aye, well, you know what they say: “If a Scot were to wait for clear weather to do anything outside, he’d wait 364 days!”’
We all laughed, welcoming the comradeship in the shelter and the knowledge that we were not alone walking in this little hell. Swirling the last of my tea I remembered, 24 hours earlier, slogging through a wet bog toward Elgol and cursing, wishing for the Spanish sun. I’d initially planned to walk across the country’s north coast for four weeks, no wind or rain—just sunshine. However, due to various commitments, I opted to remain in Scotland.
That morning, I regretted every bit of that decision, but now, writing in this heatwave, the trail beckons and I want to return.
When I finally arrived in Elgol I found refuge in a general store, where another hiker sipped coffee by a dripping rucksack. I took off my waterproofs, nearly collapsed on the floor beside him, and without a word we started laughing hysterically, the dreich morning and its Spanish reveries washing away from me. I used to think that seeking solitude and a deeper understanding of both myself and the landscape was achieved by plodding alone on the trail—perhaps an egotistical self-reliance would yield epiphanies from the soil or I’d have them atop summits, staring into a setting sun. But as I peruse the pages of my journal and recall the trail, I realise it is the interactions with others amidst the downpour that reveal the most.
Saunder and I left the store and walked along Loch Scavaig to Camasunary Bothy. The thin footpath hugged the cliff edge, the sea crashing far below. It’d been a while since I walked with someone, but I welcomed the change. We spoke of the various smells, sounds and textures; music and books; love and grief; where we’d been and how we were going to cross the river debouching into the sea. None of it was forced, and when there was silence the conversation continued. We listened to the voices of the sea, the birds and the sooch. His presence somehow enhanced the grandeur and silence of Skye, though it also gave me a strong sense of belonging, as if I were one of the island’s elementals.
Eventually, we arrived at the bothy and spent the night in good company.
I left Saunder and the Scotsman shortly after finishing my tea. The path, submerged below water, flowed ahead of me. Hundreds of steel-coloured falls adorned the walls of the glen. Deer pronked uphill effortlessly; wheatears flew from bushes in pairs whenever I passed by. Walking, as opposed to climbing, offers a special kind of insight into the landscape. Your concentration isn’t wholly fixed on the rock directly in front of you; your eyes and mind can wander from stone to sky, tree to corrie, beetle to pebble, and all the while your feet keep plodding—‘[o]ne sees where one is and where one is going at the same time.’ (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain)
But that isn’t to say walking is free from heart-thumping challenges, especially in rainy Scotland, where a moment of comfort is almost always immediately met with a sting in the tail.
To my disbelief, the rain fell harder and increased to the thickness of spaghetti, so I buckled down and simply put one foot in front of the other until I was forced to stop. Cutting perpendicular to my path, a seven-metre-wide river cascaded in full spate. I looked up from my toes across the river to meet the wee trail on the other side. How was I meant to get there? I walked up and down the river for 50 metres looking for a way across, but where rocks were visible there was only the ferocious pounding of incessant water.
I was well prepared to navigate in poor visibility, but I hadn’t considered running water to be the real challenge of the trail. I had no hiking poles to stabilise myself nor anyone to help if I got swept away, and the sound was deafening. I felt small and weak, with no way to measure water’s strength. Would I be able to withstand the force?
I took one step in, sought a stable placement, then moved my other foot. I was now shin-deep. A third step. Pad, stabilise. Four. Five. Six. I’ve never tried to resist such power. When I’m surfing the water carries me to the shore, but here I was fighting against the current. Seven. Eight. Nine. I reached the middle, waist-deep now, and stopped to look upstream. The tops of the falls on the mountainside were hidden in clouds, but I followed their trajectory to where they merged somewhere out of sight to run down this narrow passage, then down until my eyes met the water at my waist.
‘WHOOO-WEEEE!’ I suddenly yelled. I felt the full power of the mountain, but the water didn’t stop to acknowledge me; it simply moved around me, on and on, running its course.
Ten. Eleven. Twelve. I was knee-deep again, then ankle-deep, and soon I stood on the other bank looking back across. My shoes, socks, trousers, underwear—everything was wet, but that didn’t matter, for I felt gratitude and relief, adrenaline and a certain calm I didn’t know existed, and even as I write this now in balmy Edinburgh, that feeling is vivid. The life of water, soft, freezing, deafening—this is what I’d been unconsciously seeking since I left Drumnadrochit more than a week ago. I laughed and clapped, then started on the trail again, the sound of the river growing faint and a newfound energy manifesting into a slow jog . . .
But my relief was short-lived. More rushing water, though this time, gorge-like. I came to a halt. This cleft was wider than the other and the water was so loud I struggled to even think. I searched up and downstream for a viable crossing. Nothing. I returned to the trailhead, grabbed a branch and stepped in, nearly getting swept away. The bottom was much deeper than it first appeared and the force of the water was crippling. I climbed back out, sat on the bank and sighed, despondent and cold.
Although it was gurgling white for the most part, this cleft was comprised of red stones and boulders, shining beneath the water like polished bowling balls. The rocks strewn around the glen and forming these mountains were black and grey, as if sullied by oxygen, moisture and heat; but in the water, it seemed the rock was behind a glass case, always being cleaned. I couldn’t help but think of the title of Malachy Tallack’s new novel, Illuminated by Water, for despite the bleak weather, light seemed to emanate from this river, the flora bright green.
As I prepared to try another crossing, two heads popped up from behind the hillside across the river. I sprung to my feet. People. They yelled across, but I couldn’t hear a sound. They gestured downstream with their hiking poles and I followed. We went much further down than I’d gone initially to where the river bifurcated. Here, it seemed one could cross in a ‘V’. They crossed together, stabilising themselves with their poles, and when they reached me I had to pull them both out. I was on the deeper side, then.
‘How did you know to come downstream?’ I asked.
‘A group of four just crossed in one long formation . . . uh, linked by hiking poles. They tell us to look for river split.’
‘J’imagine que vous êtes contents de la belle pluie?’ I asked, hearing their French accents.
‘Un Québécois! Ah, bien oui. La belle souffrance Écossaise, hein?’
We spoke for a few minutes and laughed at our predicament, then they reassured me there were only ‘small’ crossings left—this was the crux. I still had to cross though, and unlike them or the party of four, I had to do so alone.
I slipped into the water and bent my knees for stability.
Belly-button deep. Step by step I walked at an angle, the undercurrent threatening to swoop my ankles while the top pushed at my waist. I paid no heed. Step. Stabilise. Step. Waist-deep now, I reached the splitting point, where blue and white lines in the red boulders resembled veins. Then I started at an opposite angle, the home stretch. The weight of my rucksack threatened to topple me, but I inched across until at last I was only knee-deep and climbed onto the bank. When I turned around, the French couple had all four poles up in the air with wide smiles. The magic of the trail.
We waved goodbye and I continued onward, the rain showing no signs of abating. There were more streams to cross for the next four kilometres, but when I saw the Sligachan Hotel shining like a lighthouse at the end of the glen I broke into another light jog and did not stop until I reached the infamous old bridge, where I was met by a load of tourists bracing themselves against the brick to take photos of . . . the clouds. I laughed, not out of spite for these folk but simply at the contrast between this scene and that in the glen, and knowing that incredible mountains lay somewhere out there.
I remembered David Deamer’s wonderful painting Sligachan Sunlight, but knew that the only warmth I was going to get was from a few drams and a hot meal at the pub. I dropped my wet rucksack in the entrance beside another, and soon found myself talking to its owner, Véronica: a French-Canadian meteorologist walking North to South.
But on goes the tale—of people and rain, rivers, red stone and flora, the sky, and the never-ending magic found between those polarities of a life outdoors. After a few libations and what must have been an hour’s talk of our rain-sodden travels, Véronica said something that would become my motto for the next four days as I walked to Rubha Hunish.
‘Well, it’s not so bad out there,’ she began. ‘All weather is fair weather when you’re outside instead of sitting at a desk from 9-17h. We have it good.’
‘That we do . . . Suppose there’s no use waiting around 364 days for one day of sunlight, eh?’
We finished our drams and headed back out into the rain to pitch our tents by the river.
For the next four days, it would still be raining.