Aberdeenshire Walks: A Primer
by Gwyneth Findlay
When the daylight first hits your face – it may be directly from the sun, or it may be sunlight through clouds, but it’s light, and it’s day, and it’s jubilant – you can take your first relaxed breath. A bluster of wind may accompany the light, or a splatter of precipitation, but this is your air; these are your lungs. Breathe gentle, breathe whole.
Walk where the wandering takes you. Walk with purpose, shoulders back, head high, as if you have a place to go. You do. Every place is a destination; every sight a public record; every step a flush of freedom. Walk on this land that welcomes you, waits for you, undulates beneath your toes in soft rhythms and ancient echoes.
Let your breath catch. From exertion, at first: these inclines are subtle, unsuspecting, but they demand your capacity. You mount them fast, and they demand quick air in return. But soon, if you’re lucky, your breath might falter instead from wonder at the distant terrain. The long stretch of lazy fields and pockets of trees expands, far away, into a hill. The hill gives way to another, and another beyond, and soon they are no longer hills but mountains, low, rolling, absent magnificent peaks but reliable in their age, the wisdom of their eroded slopes. It’s hill before hill before mountain, stretching back until they are indistinguishable from the clouds.
The view is ethereal, displacing. Somehow you have come unstuck from the road, untethered from the present. Fear not; you will be brought back. A bleating, or a baaing, or a silent stare: these creatures that live here – that belong here more than you do – might notice you pass, or you might first observe them. They are gentle, utilitarian. If you stop nearby, look upon them a little longer, they may flee – but wouldn’t you do the same? They have young to protect, grass to eat, shade in which to slumber. Who are you to disturb them?
As you draw air, try to inhale. Capture each molecule. Let it percolate in your nostrils, the rich aroma of gorse and heather and sap mingling around hay bales and pared pastures and, on the edge, a hint of farmyard stench, so slight that you relish rather than revile it. The swirling scents from one field to the next rival a perfumery in their layers and luxuries.
Something about this land is organic, even among suburban homes and speeding cars and the corona of wind turbines on a distant hilltop. Dry stone walls divide the sprawling farmland, crawling up hills and snaking between fields of barley and fields for pasture. Some buildings, too, seem earthen, as if they have sprung organically and there aged. These works of human hands may well be the eldest of your surroundings: the trees here are not old, nor the shrubs, nor the blossoms. Perhaps if you ventured elsewhere, to the right place – but isn’t this place right? Why demand more than we have?
Happen upon possibilities. Narrow paths, tread lightly or by few feet, wind down beside creeks and up along craggy ridges and deep into the shadows between trees. You can follow them, you know: balance on the log bridge, clamber over the wooden stile, unlatch the iron gate and release yourself into the beyond. You might find a family of regal swans gracing the outer ripples of a sun-bending lake. Or perhaps a dense bush, so thick it dares to entrap you. You might startle a herd of grazing Angus cattle or become the curious object of attention for a black-faced sheep. Let the land guide you; let the earth keep you.
Pause, when you can, and admire. The curve of the road stretching beyond your scope. The brilliant yellows against undemanding greens. The tunnel of trees guiding your way, or the expanse of hillside spilling promises of more beyond. These nearby hills align just so; this field gate frames that distant lake; the setting sun illuminates this horse’s evening repast. Capture the moments you can; treasure those you cannot.
When you see the magnificent hill in the distance – seemingly remarkable in its nearness and shape, though not especially formidable in size – you must stop. How else can you respond? It’s unspeakable, untenable, unimaginable. You feel in that moment that you are four thousand years old; that you must reach it, must strive for it, because it is safety; it is home. You feel a rumble beneath your feet, caused by nothing but your heart, that organ so tied to the souls of the past. Did they have horses, cattle, companions? Who tread this path, the land that once grew where you now stand, in their mission to serve – or to conquer – that summit?
The peak will follow you, too; you’ll think you’ve walked beyond its reach, and there it will appear, welcoming you. Yet when you expect to see it upon a winding road, you will find it obscured by the crest of a nearer slope. That hill will feel like it has become part of you, like a phantom limb, like a lost coin.
The journey cannot outlast you. You must turn around, or turn a corner, or find yourself at the right crossroads, and you must keep walking until you are home. Your legs may begin to tire; your skin, sweltered by the sun or battered by the wind, may resign from its duties as a comfort and protection. You may not understand others on the road; not remember that their lack of gravitas is not a reflection on the landscape but on the regularity of these sights, the everyday facts of their being. Forgive them. Forgive yourself. You have left the wondrous views and delightful aromas and comforting companionship of unsuspecting flocks. You have left the peak that you desire, and so you have left a piece of your heart. The way home is not joyful, is not freeing, but it is necessary; how else will you experience it all anew?
You will remember these meanderings long after their days have faded. You will mark time by places walked, fields discovered, hillsides admired. You will understand this land as your own, though it is not. And you will crave it always.