Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity.
While buying books for my mum for Mother’s Day a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally also bought two for myself. One of them was Landskipping, and the other was this, The Living Mountain. I’ve looked at it a bunch of times, and seen it written about, and mentioned, and discussed, and it finally became time to read it.
I read some of it on my way to work in the school holidays, left it with my friend for a bit to soothe her hangover (it worked), then read it in bits and pieces in the garden over the next few days. The way she writes about the mountains made me want to be there, to be the only person in a big space and feel small amongst them. Shepherd writes about the geology of the mountain alongside its human history, the people who have lived there alongside the plants and animals that do, too. She doesn’t give anything greater importance because it is so clear that everything works together. She doesn’t ascribe unnecessary sentiment to it, but neither is the book devoid of emotion. On the contrary, it’s full of it. It’s absolutely beautiful.
It made me think, wistfully, of Bleaklow in the Peaks, where we did a walk a couple of years ago, and where mum and I went back to, briefly, in October: we’d been visiting my cousin in Lancashire and, given the option by Google of driving home via the Peak District, got carried away, which is how we ended up parking along the A57, walking along the Pennine Way, and having to keep an eye on the clock so we weren’t out too long. We walked half an hour along the path before turning, reluctantly, to head back. We stopped to listen to the silence, and then, once acclimatised, to hear the other sounds that surface once the absence of human sounds is less deafening: the insects, the birds, the wind in the heather. We watched the grouse, some other small birds, one hare. We had to drag ourselves away. The Living Mountain made me think of this, not just because of the familiar feeling of getting to know a place that seems so wild, not only because Bleaklow was the first place that really changed my navigation skills and frightened my with the weather, but because of how averse Shepherd is to the idea that the only way to walk on mountains is to climb to the summit and leave. On Bleaklow, our aim was not a summit, but the site of a plane crash and, even then, it was only part of it: we got as much pleasure and interest from the rest of the walk.
I’m taking myself to Inverness in May half term, to be alone with the sea and the mountains, and to look at birds. Most of my friends and family know about and are accepting, encouraging, of my love of birds, but that doesn’t mean any of them want to spend four days in Scotland looking at them. So I’m going alone, happily, by choice, to a B&B, hiring a car, to have a little adventure to do as I please.
The Living Mountain made me rethink how I approach mountains. I still want to climb them: I love the feeling of being at the top, of the sky being all around me, of looking down on everything. But it made me think about all the other ways that walking on mountains can be wonderful, that the slog to the summit is not the only way. I knew it, deep down, but now I know it nearer the surface.