Essay: Up a bonnie, bonnie hill by Loch Lomond
It was a day calculated to turn anyone into a hiker.
I didn't think it would happen – although the Electricity Man and I had talked about doing it for, oh, three or four years.
We'd bump into each other as we were exercising our dogs on our semiurban streets. His house is 10 minutes from ours. When we'd meet, I'd turn around to go his way or he mine for chat. But one part of our chat almost became a refrain.
"So, when are we going to do our hill walk?" he'd say. Then add: "We'd better wait until the weather improves, though."
I would invariably agree ... and then, somehow, even if the weather did improve, we went on thinking about it but never settled on a day.
In the end, I decided that we would probably never get around to it.
I should admit that I am not what you'd call a frequent hill walker. Living in rural Yorkshire, England, in the 1970s, guests once or twice inveigled me up the nearest hill, Ingleborough by name. You could see its flatly rounded silhouette from my studio, across the valley. I liked it. It wasn't formidable, and going up it was a sort of pleasantness between lunch and tea.
My next hill walk took place in the 1980s. By then I was (and still am) living in Scotland, a part of the world with a hill or two to its name.
But the friend who agreed to show me the delights of walking up and down a Scottish hill kindly took me to one of this country's lesser geological humps. So it wasn't too demanding a day. Nevertheless, for that occasion, I made a gesture toward the possibility of doing this sort of energetic thing more than once or twice a decade: I bought a modest pair of hiking boots.
I have never used them since.
Then quite suddenly, the Electricity Man's wife was to be away from home for a few days.
The forecast was good. Wednesday was more or less free for both of us. Determination was in the air.
The morning started out a touch frosty and quite foggy. By 10, however, the low winter sun had come through. By 11, it was actually warm, a bonus not to be taken for granted in Scotland so early in the year.
We call him the "Electricity Man" (behind his back) because the little we know about him includes the fact that he was very high in the managerial echelons of Scottish Power (the supplier of our lighting and such) until he opted for home life a decade or so ago.
I know that, like me, he'd been to Cambridge, though rather earlier and on the engineering side of things, while I studied English and then fine arts. And I know he comes originally from Lancashire. But I suppose that's not his fault.
As we pulled into the parking space in the village of Balmaha on the "bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond," he pointed up to the vast rounded hummock we were to climb.
I then realized that he was more used to hill walking than I am.
"That's what we are going up," he announced with surprising certainty. "I thought we'd start with an easy one."
To me Conic Hill loomed gigantic against the blue sky.
"Ah, right," I said.
"Do you want to start straightaway?" he asked, handing me a lightweight telescopic walking stick. "Or should we have scones first? They do really good scones at the restaurant just over there."
I opted for scones. They were good ones with cream and jam, eaten in front of a large log fire. And then, delay tactics over, we set out.
The first part was through trees – larches and pine, the ground under them virtually a moss garden. The path had been much used. It reminded me of wooded parts of Switzerland, and a group of keen ramblers humming, "I love to go a-wandering/ along the mountain track...." might not have been totally unexpected. They would undoubtedly, however, have made me feel inappropriately dressed.
My boots were OK (if a couple of decades out of fashion), but otherwise I might as well have been dressed for walking the dogs. And instead of the requisite knapsack on my back, I had slung a camera bag over my head to carry sandwiches, and as the path grew steeper and stonier – at one point, requiring the use of my hands as well as my feet – this single-strap bag swung round in front of me discombobulatingly.
"If I ever do this again," I thought, "I will visit an outdoor pursuits kind of shop first."
Once above the trees, we paused now and then to turn and gaze at the extraordinary sight developing below us.
"You will never have a day better than this." The Electricity Man was definite, and I suspect he knew what he was talking about.
Gradually, as we moved higher, the loch spread out widely to our view. Its surface was immaculately still.
Left over from the early morning was just enough mist to soften shapes, and the luminous islands, completely united with their reflections, were like clouds floating in the intangible light, as if loch was transmuted into sky.
Some Japanese artists have caught a hint of such a view – such a space – in their paintings. But the real thing, here and now, was beyond art.
I think it was probably beyond photography, too, though we will never know, as I forgot my digital camera, and the Electricity Man's old-school contrivance turned out to have no film in it. We stored it as an intense memory.
If anything was calculated to turn me into an enthusiastic hill walker, that day was. It was breathtaking in the best way. And when we managed to come down the right side of that beguiling hillock and walk back to the car along the loch side, I didn't feel remotely weary.
Energized would be the right word, I think. Battery recharged.