Cairngorms Women Contributions


A visitor

I have been there in spring, summer and autumn.

I have been camping (in campsites) and hillwalking in the area, in spring, summer and autumn.

I have enjoyed hillwalking over the years, and I enjoy going to the Cairngorms for that reason. More recently I have become seriously interested in poetry and its connections to walking; and also photography, all of which also draw me to the outdoors in Scotland, including the Cairngorms.

I went camping with my (now ex) husband and we walked up Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm (on the same day), in July 1995. I remember aspects of the walk very clearly, via ‘impression’ more than detailed memory. I loved walking up Ben Macdui, found it very striking. From memory, the top of it is quite ‘tundra-ish’ and it was very windy and I remember feeling very cold, although it was July. I recall many cairns and sheltering places that previous climbers had built with stones at the top. We hunkered well down in one of these as we drank our tea and ate our sandwiches. We then set off for Derry Cairngorm, which felt like a very long way away; I kept having the sensation that we were going the wrong way, that we would never reach it – but we did. Our way down from there was tiring, over boulder after boulder after boulder, and yet, in part because I’d felt so apprehensive as we walked from Ben Macdui to Derry Cairngorm, I enjoyed the descent and the feeling of rocks underneath my feet.

I would recommend the walk up Ben Macdui; and Derry Cairngorm too. Spectacular, challenging, interesting, inspiring. It is these two hills I connect most strongly to my memory of the distinctive experience of being in the Cairngorms in particular, although I have walked up four other hills in the area too.

It was the sense of such vast expanses, the ‘tundra’ nature of it; the ‘windswept’ nature of it; of feeling quite ‘small’ yet also part of the landscape, as if it drew us into it, made us part of it, as we walked and walked and ascended and descended and rested and sheltered from the wind; walked and walked again, rested again, felt such different terrain under our feet, resounding through us.

I’m not sure if it’s of interest in your research or not, but in order to answer these questions I needed to do some research into my own past. For several years when I travelled into the Highlands for hillwalking, I went with my (then) husband, who did all the planning and leading, partly because that was just what he was like and the way our relationship worked; but also partly because his map-reading/navigating skills were better than mine. He also was the one who kept records of all our walking – he had a Munros book and put the details of the dates into that. He also often suggested that we carry just one large rucksack between us, trading back and forth carrying it. I disliked that; it always struck me as a bad idea and I wanted us each to carry our own rucksacks, with our own gear – both easier to carry the contents of just one pack at a time, rather than a pack that’s big enough for two; and also because one never knows if people in the same walking party might accidentally become separated for one reason or another. My (now ex) husband and I split up in 2006 (I left him); and for several years I just left all the records with him. However, in order to be able to complete this survey in the way I wished to, I needed to go back to records, for I could not remember exactly when I’d been in the Cairngorms; nor could I be sure to remember all the hills I’d walked up there. So, my ex-husband and I met recently so that I could take down the details of his Munros book into the Munros book I now own a copy of for myself; and he has been making copies of photographs for me too (he had always been the one to take photos and put them into albums). So, there is a large extent to which your survey asking about women’s experience of the Cairngorms has gifted me my own history and memories of the area – a history of ‘myself’ and the landscape, as a unique individual, as a woman, separate from my previous experience of experiencing the area as something of an ‘add-on,’ as an ‘extra’ to my (then) husband.  So: thank you.

Yes, Nan Shepherd’s.

To date in my life, I have visited the Cairgorms with my (now ex) husband; but I could now imagine visiting on my own; and/or with others.

Yes, although I have written little about my experience of hillwalking itself (so far). Perhaps I can explain the ‘heightened senses by being outdoors’ best by a poem I wrote once:

Like tears the blossom petals flow
Like tears the blossom petals flow
from cherry trees that line the way
each step our aching feet must go

The seeds on flowered breezes sow
themselves in fragile hearts of clay
like tears the blossom petals flow

The branches of the wind then blow
as if with burnished-brush of day
each step our aching feet must go

Beside the path the pansies grow
in hidden-fluttered purple play
like tears the blossom petals flow

The sun defiant in clouded glow
returns the sweat of yesterday
each step our aching feet must go

Our weighted legs begin to slow
as sobbing breaks us down to stay
like tears the blossom petals flow
each step our aching feet must go

Touch – of the wind; the rain; the sun; of breath and its rhythms when walking flat or climbing;of the sense of the land through my feet on different types of terrain; of my legs and body, early in the day and still fresh; late in the day when tired; and the sense of the pull and push upon steep ascents and descents on the thigh muscles, the knees, the ankles.

Sight – of the terrain, the colours; the contours; the water; the sky; the mountains; the views; the weather; the shadows; of poring over maps and routes; compasses; of meeting other folks along the way; of expressions.

Sound – of the wind; the rain (including on the tent); the wildlife; the silence that is not silence.

Smell – of the land; the weathers especially when snow is in the air; of mud and dirt and moss and rocks and socks and boots and bodies after long days and camping.

Taste – of hot tea; flattened sandwiches; of bananas and chocolate and ribena; of water from our bottles so cold from the cold at height; of cooking porridge and making coffee in the mornings on the camping stoves

It took a few years of walking up Munros before I had the muscles in place to be able to cope with it well; and to develop stable endurance. Before doing that kind of hillwalking I had never experienced the need to be outdoors for long in all kinds of weather; of being so close to the land; of being fully in the elements; of the sheer physicality and effort of walking and walking and walking up and up and up and up (and down and then up, and down again, and up and false summits – and actual summits, experienced each time in their own way, according to the weather, the people one is walking with; my own body; my own emotions.

Vital. They are how I experience such exploring’s. The senses are inseparable for me from my experience and exploring all things – both outdoors and indoors.

All of my memories of the Cairngorms relate to my body.

To date, I have never done those things deliberately in the Cairngorms, although I have done some of those things in other places. For example, I’ve been on retreats in Northumberland and gone on slow walks, paying attention to whatever I was drawn to, touching tree bark; rocks, grass. I saw my first Dipper that way, in a burn in Northumberland.

To date, mostly through physical awareness, because I don’t think of myself as having much skill or practical knowledge in relation to outdoor pursuits, even hillwalking, which I have done quite a lot of. I think I know more, implicitly, than I think I do, about aspects of mountain safety. But map-reading and navigating. I need to work on those.

I have not slept on mountains at night except inside bothies. I have occasionally been descending hills in the dark using a head torch, which I find very unsettling, as the head torch gives such a limited view of ‘what’s ahead’ compared with daylight. It’s not something I would usually choose; it feels dangerous to me in a way (at least so far) that I have not liked. Sleeping outside in the mountains appeals to me as an idea, though – with proper gear. I have been camping in Scotland in March (in campsites), inside a sleeping bag, wearing several layers including a hat and hooded sweatshirt, and feeling all night as if I would never get warm again. And if sleeping outside in summer, I’d want to be wearing a midge net. I also have strong sensory memories of not being able to escape midges and of burning mosquito coils inside the ‘porch’ portion of our tent, even though knowing we shouldn’t.

I have not been particularly aware of the time of year or weather affecting my body independently of other things associated with the time of year or weather, such as extreme conditions heightening my senses (rain pelting in heavy wind; carrying extra layers in my rucksack to put on at the top of hills because of getting so hot while walking, yet all that heat being whisked away by the wind at the tops of mountains and by sitting still long enough to have a drink and bite to eat; or indeed, of warm sunshine and stretching out to bask on the rocks at the hilltop having walked in shorts and t-shirts. Glorious.

A strong sense of being anchored in time, space and landscape, and to others who have gone before, are there alongside, or will come after me walking and experiencing the same natural environments. The sense of ‘being-in-the-world,’ fully alive.

I love Kathleen Jamie’s writing and often recommend her poetry and essays to others.