Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Desire Line

The ‘desire line’ is the line of least resistance taken by walkers’ feet – where they will naturally go. It is dictated by the lie of the land, the most direct route, or the lure of following previous marks in the ground. In mountain areas, perhaps the access to a particular view will also be a factor. A worn path is often the marker of a desire line and obstructions and cunning have to be used to keep people where path-planners want them to go to avoid erosion. In urban areas, some planners will allow desire lines to form before finalizing the construction of paved pathways. Paths across Central Park in New York were determined in this way.

Last week I walked again the route taken by the servants from Kinloch Castle to the laundry at Kilmory. I thought about these expressions of human desire, natural purpose, and wondered whether the road the servants took, improved by the Marquis of Salisbury in the mid 19th century, was based upon a desire line. It certainly has a steady incline, and takes the lowest pass between the two glens.

It also got connected in my mind to another piece of new-found knowledge. The maid based at Kilmory for the ‘season’ when the Bulloughs were in residence at Kinloch, and the man-servant who delivered the laundry to her and returned it to the castle each day, were rumoured to be sweethearts. And so the land itself started to tell me a story.

Let’s say it was near the end of the season, late October. Let’s say the man had been recruited from the next island, from Eigg, to transport with a pony the wine-stained table linen, corsets and shirts from the household of 16 family and guests, and return it each day whiter-than-white. He will soon be returning to Eigg. Emma will be returning to Lancashire with the family entourage. And so, the man decides to make the journey on his final day off, not this time for the laundry shuttle. As the roars of the stags die out at Kilmory, and they begin to return to the hills to recover their strength for the winter ahead, his passion will take him across the hills, five miles there and five miles back.

Emma will lose her job if their liaison is discovered and so he must take a hidden, occult way, find his own ‘desire line’. But has he not studied the soft flanks of Rum’s north-east corner many times as he’s plodded the road from one coast to the other? He has traced with his eye an older path on the north side of Kinloch Glen which is guided by a low dyke out onto the open hill. It might have been a coffin path at one time to the ancient burial ground at Kilmory, or the route by which livestock was gathered and driven to Kinloch to be taken to the mainland.

Once on the open hill, he fixes his eye on the lowest ground between the Black Hill and Sgaorishal to keep him right. Lungs heaving and heart racing, he pauses at a high point on the nose of the hill between the two glens. From there he can look down at the little bridge over the Kilmory burn, where he would normally allow the pony to rest and drink, the highest point reached. But where the path would have him descend into the glen only to re-ascend to the road, he resists. His heart and feet call him to hug the contour line he has established.

He turns the nose of the hill and takes the most direct line – the natural slope of the sandstone terrace, buttressed on one side by crags and marked for him by deer’s hooves. He is light-footed, a dancer of some repute, so the bogs that suck at his boots and the snarls of darkening heather that snatch at his laces don’t slow him. Snipe burst up from the tussocks under his feet, their calls making him jump and then laugh aloud as they flee with their grass-patterned wings twisting them one way and the other. A glint of sunlight ignites the fire still held in the autumn grassland, rippling it across the hill before it returns to dullness. The shores of Skye across the sound are golden, the dark mass of mountain above merging with cloud. He crosses the nests of sleeping deer, their splayed lines of grasses abandoned. They make him think of the ground under his overcoat when he and Emma rise from the machair, how they turn and look with something like pride at the floor and walls they have laid, that just needs a thatch roof to make it into their own wee house.

And then below, he sees the welcoming arms of land that hold Kilmory Bay, the breakers glittering onto pink sand, a sight that always skips in his heart. As he gets nearer, he sees the linen drying on the greens in blank white messages to the gods.

He is on the cropped grass of the valley bottom, having taken the quickest line, the tightest corner between the two shores. He is down near the burn and the beach, amidst the stags marking their hinds, their coats beginning to turn winter drab. The cacophony of their last roars seems to rise up within him. On the beach, he turns right, away from the laundry, sees the lines the deer have made in the sand, walking up and down the dunes. And then he sees that one of the lines has been made by small human feet, leading towards ‘their’ place. As he follows them, he breaks into a run.

1 comment:

cbb said...

This is simply a wonderful concept, in an exquisitely written (and photographed) blog. I've just discovered it, and want to thank you for the pleasure reading it has brought me tonight!