Country diary: following in the footsteps of Nan Shepherd
Creag Dubh is the first hill that the Scottish nature writer Nan Shepherd climbed on her journey into the Cairngorms, described in her 1977 book The Living Mountain. It means “black crag” but, on the day we walk, its slopes are lost in white cloud. Captivated by these mountains from childhood, Shepherd made this approach as a young woman in the 1940s, alone and excited by her own daring. It was “blue cold and brilliant after heavy snow”. For us, there is also cold and snow, but the earth is sodden and the skies are heavy.
Nevertheless, it is exciting. I have been up the Cairngorms often, but this is my first time following Shepherd on this route via Creag Fhiaclach, one of the last remaining stands of montane scrub in this fragment of ancient Caledonian forest. We take what she calls the “unpath”, across humpy, heathery ground. Here are spiky, fragrant junipers, Scots pines with red bark and needles of unfailing green, and birch, their lichened trunks rising through a haze of purple branches, beaded with water droplets.
Like Shepherd, we toil up the slope, slower with each snow-sinking step. But we do not reach the breath-catching view of Glen Einich down the other side. Instead, we walk deeper and deeper into mist. By the time we reach the scrub, the dwarf trees are like the ghosts of departed bonsai. We hear red grouse gurgling but see only their prints and two drifting feathers. Checking map, compass and aspect of slope, we climb higher, till even the rocks disappear and there is nothing but white.
No seam now between sky and snow, up or down, here or there. Tiny brown tendrils flicker across my vision and disappear like smoke. I am dizzy. For a moment we believe that the cloud might dissolve to a singing blue sky, but a hard stare renders only blankness. When Shepherd gained the top, she “jumped up and down … laughed and shouted”. We save that for another day. It has taken too long to get this far already and we must turn home before the short day turns dark. As we plough slowly back, knee deep and led by the voice of a buried stream, the lightest motes of snow begin to fall.