Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Scotland Would Have Looked Like This Once

A platoon of dust devils are marching across the sandy plain, line abreast.  Marking time with the tall, elegant steel ladies who’ve been tasked with carrying, by their dainty finger tips, a few high tension cables. These ephemeral ghosts of dust are retreating before an advancing storm, collapsing and reforming, falling back in an orderly retreat. Whilst the ‘pyloneñas’ are the civilian stalwarts who will have to withstand the advance, accept the thunder’s bolts and frights, whilst singing patriotic songs, to the thrum in their cables.

To windward, an ominous mob of thunderheads have coalesced into a crenulated rampart, a wall of boiling trouble, advancing on us, advancing on a Cuillin Ridge. Away to leeward a single mega head has started to dump its payload from a swollen, distorted mushroom cloud. Trailing successive curtains of hail across a Ben Hope and a Quinag. It’s up this glen that we are racing for the innocence of blue quietness and puffy white clouds, across an exposed plain that, if we’re captured can offer no quarter, no surrender; there’s simply no shelter. Our attention and concern is for the trouble coming out of the airts of Skye, whilst the Assynt
granite wastes are off radar, offering up some safe, stunning cloudscapes. Despite the distance, it’s this storm cell that’s been brewing up it’s own armament of gravelled ice shot, that is now so engorged, that it won’t fit  into the camera’s lens, neither in portrait nor in landscape. Whilst those proto-twisters are now sand bright, etched against the lead slate of storm, drawn by the lowering evening sunlight. It’s this mega cell that has accumulated such a surfeit of energy that it can now mount a pincer movement, advancing contra windward, circling around behind us, and heading down the Inner Hebrides. The Lords of the nor’west are off for a wee contretemps, maybe a wee skirmish. 
We need to find shelter soon. In the distance, the land rises to some low hills that could offer some shelter, some concealment. There’s a stone walled ‘corales’ that might suffice, if it’s not already occupied by donkeys or llamas. It does and it’s not, so we move in. Pitched, and the herder finds us, to wish us a peaceful night. To move or to stay, it’s that difficult conundrum. Any shift will still be in the exposed, wide open visible space, so we stay, for a grandstand viewing of an approaching conflict.

The charge commences, but for once we’re safe spectators, out of the firing line. We’re like the Victorian aristocracy viewing from a Crimean hilltop the sporting spectacle, The Battle of Balaclava. I count the flash to crump ratio from the bombardment and calculate that the fallout of melting hail, the fertilising rain, will be that patch of maize corn beside the truck stop where we had lunch. Not even a near miss. I find distances and perspectives near impossible sums to determine in this vast, wide open scape.

Later in the night we’ll take a spot of collateral damage, catching a trailing edge of a shower thrown by another sneak ‘storm lord’. this one emanating out from Perthshire. Well, as every Scots Magazine subscriber and Munro bagging ticker knows, if it’s triangular and on the horizon, then it must be Schiehallion. Here, that county’s iconic hill are ‘Ten ‘a Bolivar’, not entirely surprising as they all have a similar volcanic ancestry. 

In a small way, I’ve succumbed to that travellers sin; of comparing places abroad with those from home territory. Yet it’s a piece of simple fun, and can be justified on the grounds of geological enquiry. Scotland would have looked like this once. The second transgression is to
Did Iceland ever go for this design?
anthropomorphise the animate out of the inanimate. Cycling slowly through these vast open places, pushing against the potential of mind numbing emptiness, mind numbing distance, where the asphalt and the pylons are man’s sole imprint, vivifying cold galvanised steel  becomes a pleasurable mind game. Pylons have always intrigued me, both for their resemblance to their alter egos, and their ability to fade from view, the way a wind farm can’t.

I’ve started a collection of photos, a montage that might make for an interesting quiz: ‘Name that Scottish Hill’. I’ve nearly got a complete cast for Arran, even an Holy Isle, tethered to a hillside rather than it’s Lamlash Bay, and a Goat Fell, but taken from the Rosa Burn, when it needs to be from Brodick’s pier head.  However, you can be reassured that there will be no rounded, indistinct blobs named Geal Charn. There’s plenty of examples with that profile along our route, but they are easily overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic array of colours, the contortions of shape, the convolutions and striations, of ziggurats and Neapolitan confections, that mix to make an Andean chain.  All incomparable and irrelevant to a home country comparison.

It’s only in the quiet innocence of early morning, as we climb out of our coral and rise above the low sheltering hills, that we see the result of last night’s action. The Black Cuillin of yesterday, has morphed into a sleet rimed mount, steep buttresses naked black against the sun-glazed, snow-choked gullies. But with the definition of a low morning light, it’s less of a Skye black gabbro ridge and more a multiple plane of flat topped mesas and red rock tors, of lobster claws and phallic glyphs. To westward, the Assynt wastes retain their singular, individual presences, cold and smudged in iron grey snow, turn to nor’ward and a rank of triangles are ranged out, marching along the horizon.

Man’s modern imposition has receded in it’s intent, yesterday’s gradients are still the same gradients of today, only their not lactated by fatigue and storm angst. Yesterday’s thunder heads have withered, yesterday’s pylons have wandered off down another valley. This benign morning I can travel with some new ghosts. contemplate on a humans ability to survive in this apparently austere environment. Speculate, unsuccessfully, for I don’t have the cultural memory, on the thought that the heard you tend today will be the same herd you tender to, two generations from now. The mud walls that you raised out of, and constructed from the earth, will in time meld back to it again, your stone shelter will dissolve to rickle of stones. Measured in generations, a lucid reminder of man’s determination to survive, measured in eons, a morbid reminder of man’s eventual release.

The ‘Lords of the Spheres’ have all moved away to the north-east, out over the lowland Amazonian jungle, gathering up a new armament of grapeshot hail, a new clutch of thunderbolts, a new supply of fork lightning, fanning up a new tempestuous rage, preparing to pump, yet again, the spinning tops of those poor, haunted dust devils. Hoping to hunt down, what they missed yesterday, to catch some unprotected cyclists before they can make the sanctuary of town and an hosteria.