Beinn Dearg

It was a long walk in to the mountain, the red mountain so-called, though the stone was mostly weathered a silvery grey. Dark shadowed cliffs loomed up beside me as I wound my way up the glen, a bonny brown burn running beneath them, rushing over boulders and dropping off ledges in frothy white streams. At the foot of the steepest cliff, cradled in a corrie, lay a shallow lochan, its floor half-covered in soft weed which shone a gentle green in the sunlight.

I walked on, zigzagging up to the bealach below the summit, veering off the path halfway up to investigate a huge white stripe in the hillside – a hefty vein of quartz. There had been lumps and flakes of quartz dotting the path, and chunks and slim veins embedded in occasional boulders – not an unfamiliar sight in the north-west – but this was a whole slab of quartz, a huge shelf of it. Big chunks lay broken loose beneath it, their edges razor-sharp as if freshly splintered. Indeed the whole mass of it looked newly formed, brittle and bright and clean. Although its texture was slightly to the touch, it was shiny, like congealed snow when the layer of ice on its surface gives it a glassy glaze.

I looked up at the cliffs beneath the summit ridge, close now. Another short stripe of quartz cut high up across them and on the grassy slopes slung above lay a couple of swathes of snow. Eager for coolness on this hot day, I scrambled upwards, following the improbable stone wall which climbed from a lochan on the bealach straight up the side of the hill almost to the summit before turning neatly to the right to run above the cliffs. As I ascended, the mountain reddened, the grey rock underfoot giving way to a peachy-orange tint where the stones had been disturbed or the ground worn by footfall. I understood its name now but it was the whiteness which most compelled me and after resting at the summit cairn, I headed back to the wall, clambering over a gap to take a handful and mouthful of snow.

Refreshed, I continued alongside the wall. Well-weathered and evidently old, it was in remarkably good shape, six foot high in stretches and running for several miles with only occasional collapsed sections. I marvelled at it as I followed its seemingly endless length down the westward spine of the mountain: a single skin construction of large heavy slabs stacked mostly vertically; huge slabs, although they wouldn’t have had to carry them far given the boulderfield the wall ran through. I held onto the wall frequently for physical and moral support as I picked my down the horizontal maze of prone stone until finally it ended at a rusted iron fence post, and I scrambled and slid down the steep heathery slopes to join the path again.

Covered in sweat and mud and presumably ticks, as I looked for a place to cross the burn, I came upon a little scooped pool where the water settled before tipping over a smooth lip. Sheltered from almost every angle, I stripped off and slipped in, letting the water lap over me, cooling and soothing my heated, scratched skin as the evening sun slid slowly down the sky.

I watched the white froth of the water entering the pool and felt with my foot the small vein of quartz that flowed through the pool’s floor, and I thought of the snow, cold on my tongue. What height, what whiteness! And yet it was when ambling back down the path and re-entering the forestry plantation at the foot of the glen that I was most utterly enthralled.

To my right, amid the tall conifers, was a walled enclosure. Small ruined buildings edged its southern side but the wall itself was mostly intact and held a small field almost entirely carpeted in bluebells. I walked in and stood in a small grassy clearing in the centre. The sun was leaving and in the cool shadow, the colour seemed to hover, scented, in the air.

I stood there for some time, a contentment settling upon me, and such a sense of peace; of deep blue peace. I could have stood there forever. All the glories of the day gathered there in the evening light, in the frilly blue haze, punctuated here and there with small patches of white. I wondered what this other flower was but on looking closer discovered it was bluebells, clutches of pure white bluebells, the tender curls of their living flesh breathing in the field with me, the softest and finest of all the day’s treasures.

close-up of vertically stacked stone wall with the pale blue sky shining through its gaps

Beinn Dearg, Loch Broom, Wester Ross, Scotland
15th May 2024


I’ve been corrupted.

Yesterday I walked up a hill, as I often do, following a burbling burn with pretty pools and falls, and up onto a rounded top covered in boulders of shattered blue-grey quartzite. Behind me the western mountains rose from the sea like petrified waves and ahead of me eastern Sutherland spread out in all its low and dappled brown glory. Everything was gleaming in the clear summer sun – the rocks, the lochs, the distant sea – but all I could see were good builders (large and squareish with clean faces), fine pins (long and slender) and some excellent (tapered and triangular) wedges.

The summit itself was covered in hefty slabs, perfect for making cheek-ends, and previous hillwalkers had used some of them to make a bench, a sound construction, far better built than the low stone wall around the trig point which looked distinctly shoogly. I secured one end of the wall with a handy wedge, sat on it and ate my lunch, then slept heavily for a while on the stone bench in the sun.

“Have you started dreaming of stones yet?,” the waller who is training me asked recently. I had. And now even my waking thoughts are stone-shaped: sometimes rough, sometimes smooth but substantial and with a satisfying heft. Even the little thoughts have their uses, like the hearting in a wall, supporting and securing those of larger dimensions. Nothing is wasted.

I think about this as the mountain carries me along, this heightened attunement to rock. It’s not only in my mind but my hands too. I can almost feel the stones that I think about: their grain and texture, their corners and edges, their linear or complex forms (the even grain of Torridonian sandstone, the sheer faces of Cambrian quartzite, the lumpy curves of Lewissian gneiss).

I’m being changed by them, and it’s disorientating, as change often is. But as I recover from the fragility of a brain injury, I sense that working with stone is good for me, that it’s therapeutic in some way. In lifting the stones, handling the stones, placing the stones, I’m being consolidated. I’m being built up. I’m being heartened.

long slender pale stone embedded in dry grass pointing towards distant blue lochs and hills

Ben Hee, Sutherland, Scotland
4th June 2023

Sàil Ghorm

a maniacal butterfly
and a bee bombing about
and my limbs aching in their driving desire

in the drenching blue sun
in the scouring white wind

on the stones
on the bones
on the bare back of Scotland

close rough grey textured stone with mountains in the blue distance

Quinag / A’ Chuinneag, Assynt, Scotland
5th May 2015


slim vertical grey stone with small heap of slate-like stones atop it, and a grey fissured limestone pavement stretching away behind

Walls, walls. This place is all walls. Row after row of walls, running to the cliff edge, running along it, in line after line, parallel, perpendicular, everywhere. Even the ground is walls, cracked stacks and slabs of rigid grey stone; and the cliff itself, a great smooth wall falling straight into the sea, huge broken chunks at the foot of it.

The walls are in all shapes – stones slatted horizontally, vertically, on a diagonal – sloping or straight but all sharp. This stone does not weather kindly. Even the name for this landscape is harsh: karst – limestone eroded by acidic water into breaking flaking pavements, as far as the eye can see. Walls, and fields of stone, and slabs of rock jammed upright into the crevices like tombstones. It’s like walking in a graveyard: an epic plateau of a cemetery, held up against the flat wall of the blank Atlantic, falling into the hollow booms of the sea.

It’s a relief to finally reach the Black Fort, Dún Dúchathair. The outer wall is several feet thick, a rampart which closes off its own private finger of cliff, but it is curved – curved up to meet the sky and curved out to cup the small eroding point. And behind it, hidden beside the high horizon, are more curves – looped walls of stone folding back on themselves, almost sinuously. It’s profoundly welcoming after all the relentless linearity. Even the floor is covered in downy green grass.

I settle myself down to sit for a while but – boom! – the ground echoes beneath me as the sea slams into the undercut cliffs, and the sky turns grey as a wall of rain approaches. Time to escape, but only as far as the harbour because the stiff bulwarks of wind which surround us mean there’s no easy sail away.

Inishmore, Aran Islands, Ireland / Inis Mór, Oileáin Árann, Éire
17th September 2015