A High and Lonely Place
It’s the title of a book: a good one, by a good writer (Jim Crumley); first published in 1990 and it’s as relevant now as the day it was written, possibly more so. I re-read it a few weeks back, just before a visit to the highlands (although those two things had no deliberate connection) and much of it reads like a present day commentary; you have to remind yourself that it was written a quarter of a century ago, raising concerns which went largely unheeded, much as they still do today.
The high and lonely place of the book’s title is the Cairngorms – the mountains of course, but also the forests and valleys, rivers and marshes, which feed, drain, shelter and, in innumerable other ways, enhance each other and the whole. Some will say, and with valid arguments, that we have better hills and more evocative landscapes. In the end it’s all about opinions: there’s no definitive best mountain, or most magnificent glen, particularly when none of them are the same from one day to the next.
As early in the book as page 22, I came across this passage, where Jim is expressing his anxieties over the future of the remaining forests of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy: “Stand in them, and know that when you do, these same trees were brushed by wolf and Jacobite. Stand in them, feel the past and fear for the future. [Man] has long since passed the day when he could say with any honesty that he never knew”.
All of this was written before the the funicular; before the re-branding of the mountain; before the proliferation of onshore wind; before the ‘need’ never to be without a mobile phone signal.
On one of our outings we crossed the summit plateau of Cairngorm; partly to take in the outlook to the south and also with a view to some reconnaissance for future outings. Scanning around and taking in the views of Derry Cairngorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul, Braeriach (and that’s just a few to be going on with), we were immediately struck by the difference between looking into the heart of the mountains and what you see when you stand near the summit cairns and look outwards. The difference bestowed by national park protection; let’s hope that holds firm when it (inevitably) comes under pressure from speculators and developers.
It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow. Of course there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive. The difference on Cairngorm is how quickly, if you choose your path well, you can leave behind the crowds and their debris.