Saturday, September 15, 2007

true north

Had an intrepid day today. Screwed courage up to the sticking point and set off, map and compass in hand, to go to Northmavine and beyond, to the point of Fethaland. This was sparked off by having finished ( at least I think I've finished, but hey - we've been here before a few times before, she said without the faintest hint of bitterness) the copyedit/rewrite of Witch Baby v. 48.93.00. Let's move swiftly on, shall we?

So. I'd spent waaaaay too long staring at a  Mac screen and wanted to blow some cobwebs away (plus somehow lose the pungent aroma of curry which had enveloped my good goretex ever since I unwisely took it with me to dinner at Gurkha's Kitchen). I made a flask of tea, grabbed oatcakes and an apple, the relevant o.s. sheets and headed out into the grey. 

Drove and drove and drove like a geriatric version of a boy racer with Afro-Celt Sound System throbbing inside the car. Drove past Mavis Grind ( pronounced 'grinned') a famously narrow neck of land separating the Atlantic from the North Sea, carried on and on, across moorland, into a wilderness of grasses, heathers, lochins and convoluted coastlines. Sadly, the best views out to sea had their full complement of fish farms, but hey. The road ran out at Isbister where it was time to boot up and get out there. 

Gulp. Map in hand, off I went uphill only to find a gate barring my path. No problem, except the gate bore a BEWARE OF THE BULL sign. 
I have to explain that phobia no. 2 in the Debi list of things-that-freak-me-out is cows, bulls and other bovine lifeforms which have to be passed on walks. Phobia no. 1 is mountain ridges with what to me looks like lethal exposure on either side. This said, I would walk back up a Munro with evil ridges that I'd just descended rather than cross a field of cows to my car. I am petrified of cows. Look. Don't sneer like that. I had at least one of my children without any pain relief whatsoever, so I'm allowed the odd irrational fear, okay?

So. I turned round and found an alternative pathless route, skirting chasms, crossing squoggy marshes, tacking back and forward from coast to hill and going up and down and up and down needless ascents and descents until I finally hauled out my compass and realised what direction I should be heading in. All became clear ( ish) .The landmass across the sea on my right was the island of Yell. The sea frothed and crashed against the coastline and I imagined being wrecked off those unforgiving sheer cliffs, and how you'd not be able to escape the sea, and other cheerful thoughts. This was to overwrite my even more cheery thoughts about the BULL which probably hadn't read the notice on his gate and was undoubtedly ambling happily on the rocks and hills over my head, just waiting for a ditz in blue goretex to climb up and Make His Day.

Then I saw the path ahead, and the map fell into place in the way that maps have never done for me before, and I began to feel like the Intrepid Brave Pathfinder instead of the Lost Lady Writer. Picked up my pace and headed north to where the path ahead dropped spectacularly to a view of seas, and a green island (Fethaland) joined to the mainland by the thinnest neck of rocks and grass. Met an Irish couple at the last but one gate, clambering into waterproof trousers and hats. They'd heard the weather forecast and were dressing accordingly. They also had seen the BULL, a highlander with big horns. Gulp. I'd been trying to convince myself that rumours of his life were greatly exaggerated, but here was proof that he LIVES. 

Onwards. Down to the sea, where I saw an otter loping across a meadow, and then to a pile of vast rocks flung along a sand spit, which form the neck of land joining the island to the mainland. The Atlantic beachside was dramatic and magnificent, windswept and forbidding at the same time. There were poignant reminders of human frailty in the path of Time's great entropic eraser: collapsing dykes and cottages standing as the last evidence of there having once been a thriving human settlement there - apparently the ruins are those of the  summer-houses of deepsea fishermen, abandoned in the nineteen forties when, presumably they had better things to do than catch fish. Took loads of photographs, climbed up to an unmanned lighthouse, carried on a bit beyond onto grassy clifftops where the faint path petered out completely. Being a wuss, I felt sick with vertigo looking over the edge to the rocks below and the stacks jagging out of the sea ahead, so I turned back south. 

Back down at the ruined settlement, I stopped, sat down, drank two cups of Lapsang, ate two oatcakes and felt complete. There was the possibility of BULL out there, but at that moment, the now, the ever-present perfection of that instant in time was as good as it was going to get. 

The rain rained, the wind blew, the BULL lurked, but I found my way back along an almost invisible path which leapt out at me because I was mapreading. Yee-haw. Compasses rock. The mist descended, just enough to make me almost weep with terror when shapes of beasts reared out of the distance, but in the skewing of scale that occurs at twilight, they turned out to be sheeps not BULLS. Thank the lord.

The apple I ate in the shelter of my car, the apple of victory over map co-ordinates, northings, eastings, boggy bits and BULLS, was the best apple I've eaten all year.

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