Duncan’s piece amused me as I used to share a flat with him and afew other friends (the flat featured in the photograph below) and it’s very characteristic! It was also really lovely to see Richard Demarco, now in his 90’s and looking as energetic as ever.
Obviously my favourite dapper gentleman of the evening was my partner Adam Brewster, looking as though he’d stepped out of a James Bond film in his black tie!
For contrast to the poshness of the event we dropped into a Pizza hut afterwards with our good friend Giles Sutherland. It was an unusually misty evening in Edinburgh, the Haar from the sea making the night lights of Edinburgh look very mysterious!
Place-names can tell you so much about the history of a place. If you find an old enough map of the Isle of Iona you can see that, tiny though the island is (three by one and a half miles) it has been inhabited by people for thousands of years.
Cnoc an Oran, for example – ‘hill of song’ in Scottish Gaelic, or Sìthean Mòr – ‘hill of the angels’ as it’s translated, though Sìthean also translates as ‘fairies’. Back in about 500AD when an exiled Irish prince, St. Columba (or Collum Cille as he was known) arrived here to set up a religious community, he would have encountered the ancient remains of previous dwellers going back to the iron and bronze ages. Iona has always been a an important spiritual place.
Map of Hy (Iona) 1874
Known as ‘The Dove’ Collum Cille seems to have been anything but! (Maybe this was an early example of sarcasm). He banned women from the island, saying; wherever there are cows there are women and wherever there are women there’s trouble, or words to that effect. He was known as a powerful political negotiator across Scotland. ‘You wouldnae mess wi him’ as Scots might say!
He did set up a Benedictine Monastery though, and an Abbot of the abbey, named Adomnán, wrote of the miracles conducted by Collum Cille, which included facing down a sea monster (it’s since been speculated that it was in fact Nessie).
I first visited Iona in my early twenties seeking, I suppose, spiritual understanding. I did find it a deeply affecting place, which is why I’ve returned so many times since then. On that first trip, I visited the craggy south end of the island, where the rusting machinery remains of an 18th century marble quarry still exist.
The beautiful lucent white marble is streaked with deep grass-green serpentine and it made the perfect material for the alter that was created for the abbey in the early 1900’s when the abbey was restored. For hundreds of years, children of the island have sold little pebbles of the sea-washed marble to visitors for luck, they still do today.
On my first visit though, I decided to take a slightly larger piece, about 4×5 inches – a large chip from the marble quarry cuttings. It has travelled everywhere with me, you could say it’s been ‘my rock’! Though I think it’s time for me to return it to its home on Iona by way of a ‘thank you’ for everything the island has given me.
It sounds trite or contrived in the usual way of island sayings, when you read that ‘Iona always gives you what you need’, but I’ve found that to be true. There was the sense of spiritual discovery and wonderment in landscape in the first place- an inspiration for me to paint landscape – as well as the more difficult times when I’ve been struggling with life and visited the island to contemplate.
Contemplation sounds peaceful but those visits were turbulent in a variety of ways. For example the time I spent 21 days in a tent by myself, feeling that I needed a break from noise and people. In fact it made me deeply appreciate people since my main companions for those 21 days were spiders, a drove of slugs crawling over my tent, midges, a corncrake whose harsh mating call kept me awake half the night, and a team of baa-ing sheep who decided that my airing sleeping bag was a good place to urinate. (That’s a stench that never washes out, the sleeping bag was indeed a wash-out after that!)
Luckily the campsite owner had a stash of beautiful wool-lined sleeping bags and didn’t bat an eye when I told him of my predicament, lending me one of these for the rest of my stay.
Two tents, one to live in and one for paintings
There was also the time I stayed there in the wintry months, as part of an artist’s residency project. During that fortnight I shared a dwelling space with some very troubled people. Iona attracts pilgrims from across the world who desperately seek healing for emotional or physical wounds. It’s not easy to deal with that sometimes and I found that the atmosphere, combined with a few of the demons of my past, haunted me for months to come.
‘North Beach,Twilight. Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 6×6″ wood block. Rose Strang 2018. Sold.
‘North Beach, Twilight II. Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 6×6″ wood block. Rose Strang 2018. Sold.
‘Pisces Moon, Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018. Sold.
On the other hand, each day brought blessings: the endless beauty and colours of the landscape, the turbulent energy and colours of the tide changing at twilight, which inspired a series of paintings titled October Tide, then there were fellow creatives who arrived with songs, music and ideas, and new friendships …
Mary McCormick, a grounded and unassuming women in her 70’s from the American mid west, was someone who observed without judgement or drama. She loved to collect small pebbles from her daily walks, pour them into a little dish and invite us to admire them, sharing her photos of the day with residents around the kitchen table. If the conversation veered into turbulent waters, she’d succinctly say her piece with calming compassion and just leave it there, resonating with understated wisdom.
One day we walked to SìtheanMor, ‘The Hill of Angels/Fairies’ and she said that she’d heard in a book that you had to listen here for nature, or God, or for whatever beliefs you had, to give you an important message. I stood for a while, watching a wash of slate grey cloud blowing across a dazzling blue sky – it looked like a painting in progress – and the phrase ‘You are meant to enjoy it’ came to mind.
Mary at the north beach
Rainbows and clouds over the north beach
Afterwards we dropped in to the Columba Hotel and I told Mary about the troubled thoughts that had been stirred up by time spent on the island this time and the company, or demands as I felt, of emotionally troubled people. I’d felt so upset I’d taken to hiding in my room in the evenings, worried that I’d affect others with my mood, that I was ‘losing it’. Mary immediately exclaimed ‘Oh, no Rose! ..’ jumping up from her place next to the log fire and coming over to hug me, ‘You’re the most grounded person here, you’ve been a friend during my time here’. My worries felt washed away. We’ve stayed friends since then of course, though Mary is now back in the US, writing, exploring grasslands of the Midwest and finding opportunities to be involved in her main occupation of landscape gardening.
During the residency I’d been reading the poems of Virgil, and on my return I began to explore Medieval philosophy, which led to a new series of paintings about the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology. It was an incredibly enriching time when I read Planet Narniaby the author Michael Ward, which explores the planetary influence in the works of C.S. Lewis.
Sketch. Iona 2018
Sketch. Iona 2018
I found that contemplating the influence of each planet changed me. Working through the ideas connected with Saturn for example – winter, introspection, hard lessons, death … (my dad had died just two years before) during the months of December and January 2018, led to a new understanding of how to live life – you’re meant to enjoy it.
Spring arrived at the same time that I was painting Jupiter, which alligns with the change from winter to spring – winter passed, guilt forgiven as C.S. Lewis writes in his Planets poem on the subject of Jupiter – and with it a new relationship.
Last year my partner Adam presented me with an engagement ring that he’d designed himself, made with a small piece of the Ionian marble (my rock, that I’d found on my first trip to Iona in the early 90s!) After celebrating, we discussed where we’d like to get married, but each idea was fraught with planning troubles – we wanted to get married in the countryside, but how would we bring all our relatives from different parts of Britain to the celebration?
In the end, it made most sense for just the two of us to go away to get married, what’s known these days as ‘an elopement wedding’. It was Adam who suggested the obvious – ‘how about Iona?’ I was struck by the fact that I was surprised (and delighted) by the idea. Back in my twenties I’d thought to myself ‘I’d like to get married here, if I ever get married’. Somehow that dream had been buried in the back of my mind until Adam took the idea out, gave it a dust and – there it was!
And so we’ll be in Iona this May (the green, fertile month of love, art and expression, as understood in Medieval cosmology). Inspiration for my next series of paintings. I’m going to take my Iona rock back to the south end of the island and leave it there as a thank you to Iona.
I hope someone else discovers it, and that it brings them enjoyment … C.S Lewis says it better than I can:
“Meditation in a Toolshed” By C. S. Lewis.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
And from ‘Surprised by Joy’, C.S.Lewis:
In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself. (…) The surest way of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction. But if so, it followed that all introspection is in one respect misleading. In introspection, we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately, this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment for the activities themselves.
(Above: Among Elementals. The Living Mountain Series. Oil on 60x42cm wood. Rose Strang 2020.)
“A stunning series of images – a symphony of subtle essences, distilled experiences, fleeting memory fragments and deep, heart-felt lingering impressions.” *****
Giles Sutherland, the Times, 21st February 2023
It was an absolute delight to read Giles Sutherland’s sensitive, insightful review (link below) in The Times today. Not simply the understanding of intention and inspiration behind the paintings, but because it so succinctly gets to the core of why Nan Shepherd’s beautiful book The Living Mountain inspires artists and creative thinkers everywhere, especially in our contemporary times.
Here’s a link to the article (if you can’t access the article the text is copied in full below):
Not that long ago, in the mid 80s, in response to a question from a brave, young, female north American student, my Scottish literature lecturer opined that the reason there were no women writers on the syllabus was there that there were ‘no Scottish women writers of substance’.
How shocking that such nonsense was then so deeply imbedded in academe. The hapless lecturer had clearly not heard of Nan Shepherd, born in 1893, a native of Deeside and contemporary of literary luminaries such as Neil Gunn, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Marion Angus, Helen B. Cruickshank, and Agnes Mure Mackenzie.
Shepherd – whose literary ability was at least equal to that of her male peers – is currently undergoing a reappraisal and revival, supported by such talents as the writer Robert Macfarlane, and the artist Rose Strang. Strang’s paintings, which form the basis of this show, were commissioned to illustrate a new edition of Shepherd’s classic of nature writing, The Living Mountain, first published in 1977.
Following in Shepherd’s footsteps, Strang travelled to the Cairngorms, to places such as Càrn Bàn Mòr. Her journey provided inspiration for a series of nine oil paintings, inspired by the mountains’ genus loci and the fluid poeticism of Shepherd’s prose.
The result is a stunning series of images – a symphony of subtle essences, distilled experiences, fleeting memory fragments and deep, heart-felt lingering impressions.
Strang’s painting makes us ask deep questions about what painting is, how it functions and gives us answers to its ultimate purpose. Like Shepherd’s words, and indeed the Cairngorms themselves, these paintings work slowly, generatively taking hold of our senses and our imagination, striking deeply at our core or, if you like, our souls.
‘One cannot know the rivers till one has seen them in their sources but this journey…is not to be undertaken lightly. One walks among elementals and elementals are not governable…’ wrote Shepherd in the first chapter.
Strang’s ‘Among elementals’ deals with the idea of seeking the source of things, for like Gunn, Shepherd’s thinking was infused with the power of symbolism, so important in Eastern and Celtic culture. Here, as in the other paintings, there is a sense of wonder and the fragility of the human presence among the mountains’ deep geological time.
A wonderful film by Strang, with atmospheric music by Atzi Muramatsu, provides yet another accompaniment to Strang’s imagery and Shepherd’s words.
See this small but perfectly formed show if you can.
*The exhibition runs at the Heriot Gallery, Edinburgh, 17-23 April.
Just four days now to the exhibition launch of The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response, at The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.
The panel discussion on the 17th February has now sold out, but the exhibition continues until the 31st March, before going on exhibition at The Heriot Gallery Dundas Street, Edinburgh. All details Here
Coming up early next year are two exhibitions featuring the Living Mountain paintings, commissioned by The Folio Society to illustrate their 2021 publication of The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd.
As well as paintings, a couple of videos are in the works and I’m very excited about these! I’ve commissioned Atzi Muramatsu (a friend and collaborator since 2013) to create a new piece of music to accompany the videos, which will be released in late January/early February 2023.
Painting has taken a bit more of a back seat while everything gets organised, but happily dates and venues are now confirmed and the series will be on show next year, firstly at The Scottish Poetry Library then at The Heriot Gallery, all details below…
Above: Scottish Highlands – “…with rain on your eyelashes”. Oil on 48×48 inch canvas. Rose Strang 2022.
The Scottish Highlands could be described as northern rainforest with an average of 182 inches of rain falling each year! Dreich! You might say, but it’s all about perspective …
The commissioner of the painting above, is Jamie Johnston, who lives in Colorado where she runs a wonderful organic bee farm that’s been in the family since 1908 – The Beekeeper’s Honey Boutique.
Jamie decided to get married in Scotland back in 2016 – ‘It rained the whole time’ she said, ‘but I loved it!’ She got in touch with me because she’d ordered a copy of the Folio Society’s publication of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. (I’d been commissioned to provide paintngs for the book). Jamie described her enjoyment of the paintings while reading the book, which led to her contacting the Limetree Gallerywho represent most of my work.
She particularly loved the rainy dark ones which I love painting – they reminded her of the rainy weather during her romantic holiday and wedding in the Scottish Highlands.
Jamie decided that what she’d really like was a large version for the walls of her new home. The remit was just to paint whatever I liked, as long as it captured something of the Scottish Highlands drenched in rain. As any artist knows, it’s such a pleasure to be given a free rein to experiment, so I immediately began to visualise how it might look and how I’d create the right feel and atmosphere.
Jamie had sent a few photos of her time in the Highlands, which were really lovely as photos, but she explained these were just to give a sense of the sort of thing that had caught her eye – she didn’t intend for me to copy them. I did use one of them as a starting point, for composition and because I liked the waterfall and cloudy skies. Once the basic composition was sketched in though, I just built up layers of paint, drips and splodges until it had what I thought was the right feel. I wanted to get the sense of the Highlands – that pelting rain can quickly turn to sunshine then back again in the course of a few minutes!
Also giving a true sense of how water forms the landscape in Scotland, cutting swathes through rock and landscape over time – and further back in time – the retreating glacial action that gave those hump-backed whale-like shapes to the mountains.
You never know if you’ve managed to capture what a person has in mind, so I was swithering a bit on whether to add more, or change the painting. In the end I decided to send the image to Jamie by email to see what she thought. Painting it was a pleasure, but how someone reacts is what makes the commission a success.
I opened the email with some trepidation, so you can imagine what a huge smile Jamie’s reply put on my face for the rest of the day! …
I am dying!!! WOW!!! It is soooo incredibly beautiful…even more so than I imagined possible!!! Like I literally cannot stop staring at it!!! Those clouds…the colors on the mountain…those colors of that mountain valley down below…SERIOUSLY…how do you do that?! That is incredible!!! The talent that you have contributed to this world literally blows me away!!! I’ve never used this many exclamation marks in my life but I am on such a high right now!!!
It is beautiful. I love it immensely. Thank you for sharing your talent with me. It makes me very happy knowing I get to hang this (the first picture we will hang in our new home) & I can have a coffee or glass of whiskey & just stare at it & get lost in my memories through your beautiful painting. THANK YOU!!! Love, love, love. You captured EVERYTHING I had hoped for & then some”.
This blew me away as a response – music to my ears indeed!! Jamie also gave me the go-ahead to title the painting and so I began to think of romantic poems by Scottish poets (I too find the rainy Highlands romantic!) my favourite was this little gem, by Edwin Morgan:
Kiss me with rain on your eyelashes, come on, let us sway together, under the trees, and to hell with thunder.
Hence the title! Scottish Highlands – “…with rain on your eyelashes”. And here’s another photo to show scale ..
The painting in situ
A HUGE thank you to Jamie for this really lovely commission – Jamie and partner can always expect a warm welcome here in Edinburgh should they return at some point. In the meantime, I too shall enjoy a wee whisky in front of it before it wings its way through the clouds to Colorado!
Above, Sanna Bay 2. Ardnamurchan. Oil on 47×47 inch canvas. Rose Strang 2022. One of four works still available at The Resipole Gallery (please contact the gallery for queries).
Thank you to the buyers who bought the following paintings, I hope they bring pleasure for many years to come! This has absolutely been one of my favourite series to paint, created while I was up north in Ardnamurchan with my partner Adam in May this year, it was such a beautiful time…
Sold. ‘Pine Trees, Silver Walk. Ardnamurchan. Oil on 47×47 inch canvas. Rose Strang 2022
Sold. ‘Tioram, Silver Walk. Ardnamurchan’. Oil on 31×31″ canvas. Rose Strang 2022
Sold. ‘Silver Walk. Ardnamurchan. Oil on 34×24″ wood. Rose Strang 2022
The following paintings are still available from the Resipole, please contact the gallery with any queries. Thank you – Resipole Gallery
‘Sand Dunes, Sanna Bay. Ardnamurchan’. Oil on 31×31″ canvas. Rose Strang 2022
‘Birches, Silver Walk. Ardnamurchan’. Oil on 31×31″ canvas. Rose Strang 2022
‘Sanna Bay 2. Ardnamurchan’. Oil on 47×47 inch canvas. Rose Strang 2022
‘Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan. Oil on 34 by 24″ wood. Rose Strang 2022
And for those who might not have seen it yet, our arrangement of a beautiful song first created by songwriter Donald McColl (from Acharacle, Ardnamurchan) in the 1970s. The video features wonderful footage of Ardamurchan from our trip there this year, and some paintings in progress.
Above – Silver Walk, Ardnamurchan. Oil on 34 by 24 inch wood. Rose Strang 2022.
This painting is the first in a series I’m creating for an exhibition which launches 12th June at the Resipole Gallery in Ardnamurchan. The show will feature work by myself and landscape artist Jim Wright.
It’s such a pleasure to create a series for the Resipole as it means I get the chance to travel up to Ardnamurchan for inspiration. It’s a beautuful part of Scotland, quite remote and unspoiled, though these days there are more visitors than when I first came, in 1992.
I was entranced by the ancient forest of birch and oak growing all the way down to the sea, and of course Castle Tioram, which featured in my Planet Narnia paintings inspired by the book Planet Narnia, and the cosmos as understood in the Medieval imagination.
I wrote about the forests of Ardnamurch in 2018, exploring the idea of a community of trees and the discovery by scientist Suzanne Simmard that trees ‘talk’ or communicate as an eco-system, through mycelium – a complex root system of fungus that sends ‘signals’ from tree to tree.
Wandering through the forests of Ardnamurchan, you really feel the alive-ness of the forests here, many of which have been left untouched for hundreds of years. In the case of Ariundel oak forest in east Ardnamurchan, thousands of years!
So in this new series, I’m tackling a subject I’ve long wanted to paint – the Silver Walk near Castle Tioram. We went there a couple of weeks ago in early May, a time at which the forest is at its most vibrant I think. It was shimmeringly beautiful, luminous in fresh green leaves and the seas reflecting cerulean blue skies. Sometimes when I’m in a place like this I feel almost overwhelmed – my mind, emotions and senses being flooded with luminous colour. It felt idyllic too that it was warm enough to sit there in a T-shirt and paint some sketches!
I think my painting above is a good start, I want to keep it loose and light in feel to express the feeling of Ardnamurchan in May.
I’ll be posting the paintings as they’re created every couple of days. In the meantime, here are a few photos of us in Ardnamurchan this May! ..
Ardnamurchan 2022 (photo Rose Strang
Ariundle woods, Ardnamurchan 2022 (photo Rose Strang)
Adam painting, Ardnamurchan 2022 (photo Rose Strang)
I’m delighted to see that my large painting ‘Through Kintail 2’ (above) has sold in the latest Limetree Gallery exhibition From the Mountains to the Sea. I think it looks considerably better in real life than from a photo, so I was very pleased to see it exhibited ‘in real life’ since most exhibitions during lockdown have been online.
Two of my paintings remain in the exhibition; ‘Through Kintail 3’ and ‘Through Kintail 4’, images below. You can browse these, and the other beautiful works in the exhibition on the gallery website Here
‘Through Kintail 4’. Oil on 19×19″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
‘Through Kintail 3’ Oil on 14×11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
This series was created as part of a wonderful journey to Ardban in Applecross. Getting there takes you through the mountains of Kintail which looked so classicly Highland-y in their autumn colours and misty weather. I love road paintings which always give the sense of a journey.
This year I’ll be exhibiting in an exciting new two-person exhibition at the Resipole Gallery in Ardnamurchan, more details to follow! …
Cainrgorm Ridge from Loch Morlich. (Photo Rose Strang 2021).
It wasn’t until March 11th 2021 that Adam and I finally arrived the Cairngorms. There had been numerous setbacks with most places closed due to lockdown. We finally found and booked a self-catering hut at Glentruim Lodge on the south west side of the Cairngorms (off the road that runs north to Aviemore).
The roads from Edinburgh to Glentruim were almost empty, which made for easier driving, and luckily no snow. On arriving we explored the area – a river valley surrounded by low hills with a view of the snowy peaks beyond. Tall beech trees towered over our hut and a family of red squirrels darted around the trunks – disappearing as soon as a camera emerged. I found the grace of these beeches compelling and thought of including them in the painting series, though I’d heard they weren’t considered native to Scotland. Later though, I discovered that they are in fact most likely native to Britain, having naturally spread north to Scotland following the end of the last ice-age.
Glentruim Cabin, Cairngorms. (Photo Rose Strang 2021)
Perhaps it was the marked contrast to being confined to the city throughout most of lockdown, but these trees and the general atmosphere of the valley felt more exuberantly alive to me than usual. The beeches looked almost as if they were throwing their branches into the bright blue sky. My painting takes me all over Scotland, to places more remote than where we were staying in the Cairngorms – Ardnamurchan, Sutherland or Torridon for example are beautiful, remote places near the sea.
Maybe it was the sheer scale of the Cairngorms though – the sense of larger than life mountains, trees and weather. I was reminded again of passages from MacDonald’s or Lewis’s descriptions of nature – trees on the verge of dancing, squirrels on the verge of speaking.
It was also the sense of uninterrupted nature – a stark contrast to trees in the city, because however lovely individual city trees can be – they’re not an eco-system or a community of trees interacting with each other. In 2018 when I’d been painting my series in response to C.S. Lewis’s Narniad, I’d learned (through reading Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia) that Prince Caspian is inspired by the Medieval concept of Mars. Not just the God of War, as more commonly understood, but the concept of valour or courage – an ‘iron will’, and also ‘Mars Sylvanus’ – the vigorous energy of early spring. Mar-ch, with leaves shooting from the branches of trees. Birches in March become purplish-red just before they produce their first leaves, as Nan Shepherd observes in The Quarry Wood – their branches coloured like blood-veins.
While painting and researching Prince Caspian/Mars, I’d also learned something of the nature of a forest. A scientist called Suzanne Simard had discovered that trees send nutrients to each other, they are all interdependent. At the time of writing this journal, I’m also reading Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, which contains one chapter with an absolutely fascinating account of Simard’s discoveries of the complex root systems of forests.
The trees outside our cabin in the Cairngorms ‘felt’ exuberantly alive because they were exactly that – they communicated a sense of energy – not simply through the visual indicators of fresh air in the lichen that festooned the trees, the restless red squirrels, numerous birds or the scent of crystal clean air, it was the energy of uninterrupted growth and health.
Beech trees, Glentruim. (Photo Rose Strang 2021).
The next morning when we stepped out of our cabin to look at the weather we were greeted with a beautiful snow and frost covered landscape. Our ‘wows’ were quickly superseded by ‘oh sh*ts’ however, as this made it seem less likely we’d be able to get in to the mountains. On checking our phones we discovered that Emma (our mountain guide) had already contacted us to say ‘Looks like winter has returned!’ She seemed sure we’d find a way in though.
We’d already had the disappointing news that we’d not be able to enter the Cairngorms through the northerly route and areas Nan explored so often. This was because the ski road leading most of the way into the Cairngorms had been closed for the season. ‘The best ski-ing weather we’ve seen in years – and no-one can enjoy it!’ Liam and Emma had commented.
Emma’s advice was to walk up to the plateau from the southwest, from Glen Feshie up to Carn Ban Mor (from Gaelic, meaning ‘The big pale cairn’). Since Emma seemed optimistic we could still climb, we got in our little car and headed north along the motorway to meet Emma at Auchlean carpark. The carpark was off the motorway and a few miles into the mountain valley and we soon realised the snow-covered roads would be an issue.
I rang Emma, who asked; ‘Are you in a four-wheel drive?’. I managed not to snort as I explained ‘no it’s just an ordinary car’. We agreed to meet as far along the road as our un-Cairngormworthy car would take us. We spotted Emma at the road to the carpark and stopped. A quick discussion ensued; ‘Do you think you have Covid?’ ‘No’. ‘Well, it’s a short drive, just two minutes and I’ll keep the window open’.
Before leaving Emma’s car she quickly fitted us with crash helmets and ice picks; “Just in case we encounter slippy ice further up the paths” Emma explained cheerfully. I began to picture accounts I’d read of climbers hanging on to the edge of ice chasms on the slopes of Everest, hands immobilised by frostbite. Then I reassured myself with the thought that at least we wouldn’t run out of oxygen. That situation, described as the death zone, only happens at 8000 metres and Carn Ban Mor is only 1052 metres high! What were the crash helmets for? ‘There’s almost zero chance of an avalanche, it’s just a safety measure’ Emma replied reassuringly.
As we walked up the lower slopes through a forest of pines sparkling with fresh snow, I asked Emma about how she became a mountain guide. She explained that she’d grown up in the Cairngorms and that she’d always climbed, and that training really took that to a different level; ‘The difference is – you know and can say exactly where you at any moment, not just have the ability to get out of tricky situations or a sudden change in weather’. (Being able to give 100% accurate GPS coordinates would of course be the difference between life and death, if a climber breaks a leg on a mist-covered mountain).
Walking through trees. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
Walking through trees. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
This made sense in the light of the haunting descriptions I’d read in The Living Mountain (or heard about from friends or family) of the utterly disconcerting experience of navigating a way out of white mist in which you can’t see beyond a foot. In previous years, I’d climbed several mountains with an ex-partner, Tim. He’d learned how to navigate well, but wasn’t so foolhardy he’d walk into a blizzard given a choice. I remember one day we’d walked up into the Trossachs (a mountain region in Central Scotland) and were just about to climb onto the plateau towards the summit when a white-out blizzard descended. It was lucky we were standing next to a cliff. We simply stood there till it passed, then when the air cleared took the opportunity to walk quickly to the summit where we enjoyed blue skies and a view of Loch Katrine far below.
My mum (Gillian) had been the more intrepid mountain climber though. Her partner at the time, Des, was a geologist by training and had extensive mountain climbing experience. I’ll never forget her description of a sudden blizzard as they navigated via map and compass down to a bothy and safety. She said that all she could actually see was the front of her anorak, which became encrusted with a growing hillock of icy snow crystals. I can well imagine her relief on reaching the bothy, warmth and safety.
It’s in conditions such as these that Nan would doubtless have found herself on occasions. Alone too. I think her imaginative descriptions, visionary insights and musings might lead the inexperienced to imagine her as floating elf-like along the mountain paths in a continual reverie! It’s clear that as well as excellent navigation skills, she must have had muscles (and nerves) of steel!
Our guide Emma pointed out the tracks and marks left by various animals as we walked through the snowy wood. She wasn’t what I’d expected as guide (I suppose Adam and I had somehow imagined a tough militaristic sort) Emma looked quite arty, with a mane of light red hair and green eyes; very Scottish! We chatted about Nan, and she agreed that she must have been an incredibly experienced climber – absolutely in her element in this arctic landscape.
As Emma explained, the Cairngorms are in fact a micro-climate, a ‘mini – Arctic’ in effect, with all the temperatures, weather conditions, flora and fauna associated with the Arctic. We were by now emerging from the woodland and as the trees thinned out we were able to look back at the astonishing views behind us of the snow-covered Monadliath mountains to the west of the Cairngorms.