Monday, September 3, 2007

Setting off after the dogs: Drove Road

‘We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends.’ ‘In Praise of Walking’, Thomas A Clark.

The ancient purposefulness of a drove road seems at odds with its contemporary silence. The sense of a throng each September, of people, dogs and cattle, chattering and lowing their way from Skye to Crieff for the ‘Tryst’, is still palpable. Stories told, beer drunk, hooves scuttling and splashing mud. After the sales, whilst the men stayed drinking in the Inns of Crieff, or went further south to return to Scotland by boat, the dogs went home ahead of them, stopping to rest at the same inns or ‘stances’ where they had stopped and been fed on the way down. They had a curious discipline.

Partly to be contrary, and partly to follow an impulse which lures me west, I will take the drove road in the ‘wrong’ direction, following the dogs home. The route links two territories for me. The starting point is the place I have called home for the last twelve years - Highland Perthshire, with its statuesque mountains sedately separated by wide valleys. I have seen the architecture of the land from many angles - I have walked and run, cycled, paddled canoes, swum in pools, laughed amidst it, cried, got sunburnt, learnt its names and tales. At the other end of the route, the last point on the mainland, is where I might have made my home, had I chosen a different life a few years ago.

My walk will traverse these two territories, build a bridge between them perhaps, make sense of the emotional residues still caught between the seams of schist, or apparently forgotten between the leaves of a book.

Each time I get in a car, on a motorbike or bicycle and head west from home, I recognise the same exhilaration. My usual route goes high above Loch Tay. To my left the low hills roll towards Crieff. In Spring time, the steep green fields that drop to the loch are decorated with new lambs and calves, the dance of sheets on washing lines. At my right shoulder, the Ben Lawers range marks the start of the ‘real’ Highlands, and ahead the rise of Ben More and Stob Binnien, the alpine shape of Ben Lui spell excitement and anticipation. Somewhere before Killin, I cross an invisible line into the irreverent wild west.

There have been many times I’ve made this transition on wheels, but never, in earnest, on foot. The true start of this walk would be Crieff, but it feels right to start the walk this week from my own front door and join the dogs at Kenmore as they make their way up Glen Lyon. I will walk out of tame Perthshire into the west where the peaks are corrugated, the pubs loud with joke and tale and music, and eccentric off-beam lives are nurtured and accepted.

There will be time for careful observation, a gradual leaving of the familiar, to feel the rhythm of walking and how this effects thought and mood and words. It will take me two or even three days to reach places like Bridge of Balgie which might be a stop for tea and cake on a normal day trip from home. Then I will leave the comfort of the recognisable, head out along Loch Lyon, linking my mental map on a new route to Bridge of Orchy and beyond. From there a cross country route will take me to the Kingshouse Inn – site of countless pints and nights with midges before or after adventures in Glencoe.

From Kingshouse, a long stretch of ‘wilderness’ east of the Mamores and skirting Fort William, takes me through to the Grey Corries – where I did a glorious circuit in Alpine conditions one Easter weekend long ago – and on to Spean Bridge. This stretch will challenge my mental geography of the landscape or land-shape, which has been formed by the few iconic roads. This may be adjusted, reoriented, by straying into the hinterland between the A82 and A86.

In my map collection, the two most scuffed are the one on which I will start this journey – Landranger 51, ‘Loch Tay and surrounding area’ - and the one with Kinloch Hourn at its centre – Landranger 33, ‘Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel and surrounding area’. From Spean Bridge I cross into this ‘other’ territory. Here is the gateway into the craggy paradise of Knoydart which I have in the past traversed from all possible directions, using where possible the slow pony-paths that gentle you over passes with views to the crenulated summits, loch and islands.

This time I will stick to the north side of Loch Hourn, climbing the steep hill behind the ‘big hoose’ accompanied by the hum of its ancient turbine, towards Glenbeag, from where I used to walk the old paths and valleys, becoming familiar with hills and their names – Beinn Sgitheall and Ladhar Bheinn – guided by a map with its dense brown collections of contour lines showing the ferocious upward exuberance of this land, wearing at its folds till the paper hung in barely attached strips. I used to know which set of pylons marked which pass, where to ford the rivers, exactly how long it would take to shoulder Coire Chorsalain to reach Sheena’s tea room, the corrugated shack at Corran with a spectacular view of the Cuilin of Skye across the mouth of Loch Hourn. I hope that this soft tread around parallel possibilities, past lives, can bring a kind of joy in rediscovery, that my path will draw a line of healing.

From there, I will go a little further west - onto Glenelg to cross the ferocious narrow tidal strait at Kylerhea where the cattle were swum across in the slack of the high tide. And so to Skye.
The route has been well tested by streams of cattle over perhaps four centuries, and devised by drovers with their special qualities of head, heart and body. Their love of movement and adventure, their dipping into gossip and talk in different stopping places, I hope to share along my way.

My journey in a way still culminates in Crieff in early October as it would have done the drovers. The Tryst at Crieff was the great centre of the Highland cattle trade till the mid eighteenth century. Now transformed into a festival of walking, the Drovers’ Tryst is where I will run a workshop for walkers with an interest in writing, writers with an interest in walking, at the first lending library in Scotland, Innerpeffray Library, a place of history, books, words and gentle landscape on Wednesday 10th October.

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