Making our way up the steep hillside to An Cabar, it’s not difficult to hear the passion in Mike Cawthorne’s voice as he shares his views on the state of our wild places.
I’m climbing Ben Wyvis with the Inverness-based author, whose latest book Walking Through Shadows has some personal connections for me, not just in the places he visits across the Highlands but in the person who is ever-present throughout the journey.
Before our heads poke into the low-hanging cloud that is clinging to the mountain’s slopes today, we look back over the landscape. The view takes in the massive dammed lochs of Luichart and Glascarnoch, the Lochluichart wind farm and – partially hidden in the cloud – countless hills stretching from nearby Strath Vaich to the Fannichs and Strathfarrar. On a clear day we would see much more.
Inevitably our discussion turns to the use of land in the Highlands, from those seeking power from the glens and moors to those who want to return it to a more natural state, the concept wrapped up in the current buzzword, ‘rewilding’.
Mike tells me the idea behind his book was to see if he could find a ribbon of wildness stretching through the Highlands. “Reindeer in the wild will avoid all contact with humans, so I wanted to discover if we could follow such a wild corridor through the Highlands, avoiding roads, wind farms and so on,” he said. “The hope is that it could be rewilded and form a corridor for wildlife to move and spread.”
His approach to walking in the Highlands is unusual these days. He is not interested in speed or summits, for Mike it’s just about being in these wild places, being part of the environment.
The route which the book follows started in Mike’s mind with the end point – the place where his good friend Clive’s body was found.
Clive Dennier, a close colleague of ours who worked mostly on the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, went missing in March 2013. Nobody knew where he had gone on a weekend of atrocious weather, but Clive loved getting out in the hills and wild corners of the Highlands.
A search was begun after he failed to turn up for work on the Monday morning and it took until the Friday to even locate his car. Eventually, after months of searching, his body was found near Kinloch Hourn, a remote spot on the west coast.
As Mike and I plodded through the cloud along the long ridge that makes up Ben Wyvis, we talked over the old lingering questions: why did he go out in such brutal conditions; why did he only take his jacket with him and not even his water bottle; what happened at that fateful moment?
Reading Walking Through Shadows, Clive’s character is brought back into the present through Mike’s eloquent and perceptive description of him. It was an emotional read for me, especially reliving some of the events after that Monday morning as Mike interweaves his own memories of the time with the story of his journey from Whitten Head on the north Sutherland coast to Kinloch Hourn.
The route is no contender for the next long-distance trail; there are few paths and little in the way of comfort as he and his companion Nick Crutchley stagger through the winter snow of 2015, making slow progress between wild camps, bothies and buried food parcels. It’s not a travelogue of the trip but a story of the challenge, combining Mike’s own love of the wild with his companion’s ongoing struggle with mental health and the fragility of mind and matter.
When I ask if he was ever tempted to cut it short and hitch to home comforts during the six-week-long trip, Mike acknowledges to me that he is ‘not normal’ in the fact he loves being in wild places and in what most people would probably consider terrible weather conditions. The effort and the endurance aren’t something he puts up with, they are something he truly loves and embraces.
“There’s nothing better than the sound of rain or hail on the flysheet of a tent,” he says.
However, he does admit there are points on the journey where he might make different decisions, such as the dangerous steep descent of an unchartered snow slope into Glen Shiel in ferocious wind. But he insists six weeks in the wild with a companion who is struggling mentally and physically is not a heroic thing.
“People looking after others with dementia, looking after sick children and caring for relatives – they are heroes. A journey like this is easy, really,” he suggests.
For Nick, Mike’s companion on the long walk, the journey seemed anything but easy, though. The book portrays his daily struggle with even simple things such as packing his rucksack, the minutiae of decision-making a barrier for a man battling with the everyday norms of life.
On top of this, his feet are constantly in pain but he battles on, showing a determination and resolve I’m not sure I would have in those circumstances. Nick having the strength to complete the journey each day, never mind the whole thing, is truly remarkable.
Mike tells me on the way down that Nick hasn’t read the book yet – except one small section that references plant diseases, a subject the botanist has a PhD in, which Mike wanted to check was accurate before publication. He’s a little nervous about him reading the rest, though he says Nick is keen to make mental health more of a talking point rather than a taboo.
We look at the flowers on our way through the lower ground on Ben Wyvis, a national nature reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage.
The rich diversity of plants is welcome and evidence of young native trees growing without the aid of a fence shows that deer numbers here are being controlled for nature rather than profit.
Mike is a gardener by trade and we stop along the way to talk about the various flowers we see, including the beautiful eyebright, bog asphodel, vetches, orchids and so many more.
The hills are a delight at this time of year as they seem to burst into life – at least where nature is allowed to flourish. Mike takes this love of nature and sustainability into his work, encouraging the use of natural materials and recycling or reusing, even giving me a few handy hints for my own small green space.
As we look over the vast landscape spread out below us once more, he looks to the future and suggests that in 100 years this could all be so different. The dams will have gone, he reckons, the rivers allowed to flow at their own rate again; the turbines decommissioned and gone; native woodland spreading up to the natural treeline rather than in artificial fenced-off blocks; predators such as wolves and lynx back roaming the wilds and vast quantities of salmon leaping up the river – the natural order of things restored.
We picture what it might have looked like here in the Bronze Age, our modern-day perception of the beautiful Highland hills replaced with something even more sublime.
It’s about allowing the natural world to flourish for its own benefit, Mike says, not just for its benefit to humans or its financial worth; that is a false judgment. We need to see the value in nature for what it is, for life on Earth in all its forms. Humans have no special right to be here, he argues.
It’s a sentiment I think Clive – with his love of wild places as they are and the pleasure he got from spending time in them – would probably have agreed with.
- Walking Through Shadows: A Journey of Loss and Renewal by Mike Cawthorne, published by Birlinn, is available now. Price £12.99.