Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Walking with animals

My article below has recently appeared in The Geographer, the newsletter of the very wonderful Royal Scottish Geographical Society who helped organise this July 2012 journey in partnership with Speygrian. Any observations on walking with animals very welcome.
A Love Affair and a Dirty Right Arm       

 ‘If this is Montana,’ Vyv said, ‘What I want to know is, where’s Robert Redford?’
We were in the southern reaches of the Cairngorms, at Kirkmichael, and our two and four-legged cavalcade had just carved its way through the hills from Newtonmore via Blair Atholl, taking five days to cover 60 miles. The journey itself over rivers, through forests and valleys sculpted by ice, had seemed so much longer, made us feel so much smaller than the miles implied. Obviously, we were in Montana.
Our group – a sort of mobile conference of teachers, artists, writers, ecologists, pony enthusiasts, geographers – grew and shrank, transforming across the week. At our communal heart was a fascination with journey, as well as individual motivations such as a wish to walk with animals, explore and draw inspiration from the landscape, follow old ways and keep traditions alive.
Through glens and over passes we followed routes which had once forged lively connections between places. On the second day, we climbed high out of Glen Feshie, into smirr, onto Meall an Uilt Chreagaich. From there, a steep and slippery traverse south west over Leathad an Tobhair, would join us to the Minigaig Pass, the summit of a once important north-south road, and a possible route for drovers from Speyside to the cattle sales in Crieff or Falkirk. After Wade built the military road over Drumochter in 1729, it was used by many more drovers to avoid paying tolls.
The difficult, trackless section had challenged us, unsettled our steady progress. Laughter had hushed. Then, processing across a high plateau with banks of cloud rolling at our side, and perhaps in one of the remotest places in Britain, a large lump of white quartz gleamed against the dark heather, out of mist.
‘Here we are,’ said Ruaridh.
A further glint of white ahead, and another, more mistily beyond that, confirmed we were re-treading an ancient way as hooves and boots struck into soft peat on our gradual descent into Glen Bruar. As the first party to take animals this way for 100 years, we drew confidence from our forebears.
We only had cattle with us on the first day, but our Highland ponies, provided by Newtonmore Riding Centre, came all the way. They were sturdy and yet spirited, descended from mares owned in the early nineteenth century by a famous Lochaber drover. I’m sure those of us who had not travelled with pack animals before anticipated an easier hike without the burden of a heavy rucksack.
However, handling the ponies needed constant communication and concentration, not least in an effort to keep our feet from under theirs. With one hand on the rein we sought a trusting connection. Too long and she might trip on it or sense a lack of guidance; too short and her freedom to jump obstacles on rough ground or find the surest way was compromised. All other tasks – sandwich eating, rearrangements of pannier or rucksack – had to be carried out with one hand. The clothing of our leading arms was gradually rubbed dark against sweaty necks, grassy mouths.
Our steps soon rhymed with theirs. With their heads nodding, breathing softly next to us, they clip-clopped their way into our hearts. Their names rang in our mouths like a poem: Torr, Zino, Bean, Blue, Breagh, Alice, Ailsa, Micky, Mack, and Marigold. The rhythms of any camping journey – pitching tents; cooking; sleeping; were extended by looking after the ponies’ needs – untacking; turning them out; finding water. At night they grazed close to our tents, their snorts oddly comforting; hooves drumming through our dreams. In the mornings they gathered at the fence, watching us, apparently curious.
Despite our often remote location, and the sense at times of a haunted, abandoned landscape, each night we had extra company of some sort; folk joining us with songs or stories, or hosting us in their fields and steadings. At Bruar Lodge, three girls welcomed our tetchy arrival with smiles, and carrots for the ponies. At Newtonmore and Blair Atholl, ‘Meet the Drovers’ events gathered local people and tourists to pat the ponies and ask about the journey. We drew local families after us in a carnivalesque wake for the sunny miles down Glen Fearnate and into Kirkmichael before our final event there. It was clear a nerve had been tingled by our quirky procession; a way of life suggested; a landscape looked at in a new light.
For this drover at least, my walk across Montana was enriched by rekindling a teenage love affair. I never did see anyone resembling Robert Redford. But, ah, the ponies and their dear sweet ears...