Pastures new

Remembering all the things I yearned to do at the beginning of this trip when the vast, blank slate was mine to fill, I spend the first fortnight at Incheoch attempting to cram them all in.

Advertisements

It’s our final month in Scotland. Edging closer to a return to reality, we decide that we need somewhere less isolated than our previous locations in order to re-familiarise ourselves with things like, er, other people, cars, towns and places that boast more than one shop.

We head for Perthshire (or more correctly, the County of Perth) in central Scotland at the start of a snowy January.

IMG_4484

With an expectation of spending more time indoors, we prioritise comfort and cosiness over wild surroundings when we choose the farm cottage at Incheoch as our base. It’s a working farm, and although our next-door neighbours (pictured below) are generally quiet they do occasionally like to lick our windows.

But in a repeat of our experience on Luing, a place that first appeared to be relatively limited in terms of inspiring walking and running routes turns out to be an unexpected gem. From nearby Alyth Hill there are 360-degree views over moors and farmland; the broad valley floors filled with a patchwork of fields in muted shades of green and yellow.

img_4596.jpg

Our cottage is just a stone’s throw from the Cateran Trail, a 64-mile circular walking route that connects up the trails used by cattle drovers – and cattle thieves – in the 17th century; immediately opening up route possibilities in two directions. A couple of miles away, a precarious path through woodland leads to the waterfall at Reekie Linn – modest in drop, but thunderous in power.

The hills may be lower, the lochs fewer and the forests smaller but gradually, on foot and by bike, we discover the beautifully bleak moorland north of Kilry, the wooded Bamff Estate, where beavers have been reintroduced (we didn’t see any but there is plenty of evidence of their presence – including gnawed tree trunks and impressive dams), and the riverside trails in the Den O’ Alyth.

Although our intention is to continue with the daily routine that’s served us so well up until now, it feels harder to settle. There’s a slight shift in the atmosphere. We know we’re going home soon and that creates a mix of excitement and anxiety. Are we ready?

Remembering all the things I yearned to do at the beginning of this trip when the vast, blank slate was mine to fill, I spend the first fortnight at Incheoch attempting to cram them all in. One minute I’m on acoustic guitar lesson one, the next I’m mastering some new core stability moves, taking part in a creative writing webinar or updating myself on the latest running coaching science. It’s quite exhausting and unsurprisingly, stressful. One evening I’m lying on the floor, foam rolling my calves when I spot the set of acrylic paints I got for Christmas eyeing me reproachfully from the shelf: you haven’t used us yet, they whisper. Enough already, I scold myself. I make a concerted effort after that to remind myself that I am not going back to a 9-5 job – I still have time, I still have freedom and opportunity. It’s not over.

Perthshire is the most populated place we’ve stayed in Scotland (apart from Edinburgh, of course). So, as part of our ‘unwilding’, we do stuff like drink beer at craft breweries and go for coffee. We go to look at the newly built V&A museum in Dundee, run the Parkrun in Perth a couple of times, go training with Perth Road Runners one evening and do our weekly food shop in the nearby town of Blairgowrie.

One day, we walk into Alyth on the Cateran Trail and, finding no cafe that allows dogs, take a punt on the grand mansion that is the Lands of Loyal Hotel, on the outskirts of town. We end up sitting in our scruffy walking gear in the magnificent ‘Great Hall’ drinking coffee in front of a roaring fire.

Tomorrow, we are packing up. We’ll go for one last dog walk, one last run, and then load up the van with the crates and boxes that have been our mobile wardrobes, pantry, bathroom cabinet and library since we moved out of our house back in July.

We’ll put the kayaks on the roof rack, cram the bikes in, along with Jeff’s snowboard (used once) and my guitar (I’m up to lesson four). On that walk, I’ll keep my eyes open for the hare that crouches in the field at the foot of the hill until we get too close and then bounds away, making speed look effortless. And when I run, I’ll head up to the top of the hill to marvel at the vastness of land and sky in every direction.

IMG_4644IMG_4600

 

 

 

A cabin in the woods

We’re sitting on the balcony of our log cabin, Silver Birch, surveying what will be our view for the next month. There’s an expanse of trees set among heathland, with snow-dusted hills beyond. This will do nicely.

IMG_4175

The cluster of dwellings that make up the hamlet of Ault-na-Goire lies on the south side of mighty Loch Ness, which carves a path so deep through the Great Glen that the body of fresh water it contains is greater than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. The south is considered the ‘quiet’ side of the loch – and being 600 feet above sea level  means we’re even further off the beaten track of hikers and tourists.

Behind the cabin, bracken-covered moorland slopes steeply down to a burn, beyond which there are acres of forest to explore. It’s dark and quiet among the trees – there’s little birdsong and the carpet of pine needles softens our footfalls enough to surprise Sika deer, which bound away emitting short high-pitched barks that send Morris into a frenzy of excitement.

DSC_0211

DSC_0214

With few distinguishing features on the various trails through the trees, I find it hard to get a sense of where I am on our first few walks and runs, or how one trail links up with another. To compound the issue, many of the trails lead on to rough roads created for logging, and these all look the same. So it’s no surprise that on a long run one Sunday, I get truly lost. I’ve already been out for more than two hours when I emerge onto a 4×4 track and have no idea which way to go. I turn left and go for around a mile before deciding it doesn’t feel right. As I make my way back, I see a man heading my way. Thank God, I think, I can ask him where I am. Not only does he know where I am, he knows where I am going, too; it’s Alex, husband of Janet, who rented us Silver Birch, and who lives next door. He just so happens to be the Scottish cross-country and 5K champion in his age group. He ‘runs’ me home (the opposite direction to which I was going, oops), and although he’s nearing 70, I struggle to keep up with the fleet-footed veteran. To add irony to insult and injury, Jeff’s been away all day on a course learning how to teach navigation…

DSC_0221

DSC_0229

I discover a new method of finding my way around the area shortly after, on a walk with Morris. Spotting a piece of bright orange tape hanging from a tree, I walk towards it; from there, I can see another, and then another. The tapes take me down a previously undiscovered-by-us trail that is all but grown-over in places. It passes through a magical dingly dell, which wouldn’t look out of place on a Tolkien film set. I keep expecting Bilbo Baggins to come bumbling down the path with a reel of orange tape, but it turns out that it’s Alex we have to thank – he puts the tapes out to mark his trickier running routes.

IMG_4183

Our days take on a similar shape at Silver Birch as on Luing. The only difference is that packing in two good walks, creative hour and a run or cycle before the daylight runs out is a race against time. December evenings set in at four o’clock. After so much time on our own, it’s nice to have the occasional company of Alex and Janet. Whenever we pop over to theirs to ask a question or pick up fresh bed linen, we end up sitting beside their Aga, chatting over tea and cake. It’s a bit like having a surrogate mum and dad to look after you.

The cabin itself is small but perfectly formed. There’s one main living area with a cathedral ceiling and windows on three sides – then a bedroom just big enough for a double bed, a single room, in which we keep all our stuff, and a tiny bathroom. It’s warm and cosy (it was imported from Finland, Janet tells us), which is just as well, because a week and a half into our stay we wake up to snow.

It’s dry and powdery – issuing faint squeaks when compressed by our feet and coating everything like elaborate icing. It looks beautiful and, in such an isolated place, remains unsullied for days. On most tracks, our footprints are the only ones, save for those of deer and pheasants (and occasionally, our landlord).

As on Luing, we don’t have a shop or pub on our doorstep up here in Ault-na-Goire – the closest is four miles away, in the village of Foyers. We stay put for a couple of days when the snow comes, but when we do venture down to Foyers for supplies, we’re amazed to find it snow-free at the lower altitude. But on the way home, the now-hard-packed snow and steep gradient prove too much for the van, and we end up stuck in a ditch – blocking the single-track road. We trudge home and sheepishly knock on Alex and Janet’s door. They inform the police and local council that the road is impassable and help us organise a rescue truck for the following day. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Janet, pouring more tea. ‘We once had a lady staying at the cabin who got her car stuck in a ditch twice in a week!’ I’ve had more than my fill of the white stuff after all this. And frankly it isn’t doing my running any favours – my forward progress hampered by my battle to stay upright.

Once the snow melts away, we’re rewarded with some unseasonably warm weather (read: 5 degrees instead of -2). We manage to get in a couple of bike rides – the roads are great for cycling; smooth tarmac, sweeping vistas and barely any traffic.

While Silver Birch is a match for Luing when it comes to setting and views, there hasn’t been much in the way of bird life. But, one morning I look out the window and see a large bird of prey soaring above the heathland. I’m resigned to it being a buzzard (the ‘default’ bird of prey) until I notice the forked tail. Grabbing the binoculars, I can clearly see the rusty underside and long-fingered wings that define the much-rarer red kite. I watch its aerobatics with awe. The only other birds we have a close encounter with are Alex and Janet’s chickens. They go away for the weekend, leaving us in charge of the brood; a responsibility we take very seriously. I’m constantly terrified that a marauding pine marten will get in and leave a blood bath but thankfully there are still seven birds when they return on the Sunday.

On the night of the full moon in December, we take the tent out to the forest and camp overnight. We get a fire going, cook on the stove and drink whisky and hot chocolate. Before bed, we walk out into a clearing and marvel at the giant, gleaming moon. It’s the kind of evening when you say to yourself ‘remember this.’

After a week’s respite, the snow returns and this time, it means business, laying six inches through the night, with no sign of stopping. There’s no chance of getting the van down the hill in this, so when we need groceries, we wrap up warm and hike down to Foyers, treating ourselves to coffee and cake at the Cameron Tea Rooms.

It’s really hard work walking in such deep snow (nine inches now, in places) not least if your legs are barely longer than six inches each. But the wonderland the snow has created is well worth witnessing.

IMG_4322

IMG_4342

IMG_4339

Given that we don’t have a Christmas tree to decorate at home this year, we decide to dress one of the thousands of trees in the forest and use a photograph of it as our Christmas card. The end result looks good, but the process isn’t as fun and romantic as you might imagine: we bicker in an un-festive manner about which tree to pick and Jeff manages to step in a deep, icy hole while trying to administer the tinsel. Snigger.

 

When it’s time to leave Silver Birch, shortly before Christmas, I’ve finished writing my story (it’s too short to be described as a novel) and learned to run a little better on snow. But I still haven’t got my guitar out of its case, nor read half a dozen of the books I brought away. The end of the year is fast approaching, sending me into a panic about how much I’ve yet to explore, experience and learn and reminding me how precious this time is. We’re going to see our families in Edinburgh and London over the Christmas period and, given that our tenants move out at the end of the year, we debate whether we should call The Crazy Thing a day, and head home to start the New Year. But, we decide – not yet.

IMG_4350