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JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Suilven

JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Suilven


Postby Paul Webster » Wed Mar 11, 2009 12:30 pm

Route description: Suilven

Fionas included on this walk: Suilven

Date walked: 11/03/2009

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The John Muir Trust has announced the winners of the 2009 Wild Writing Competition as part of this week’s Fort William Mountain Festival. Tom Bryan from Kelso won the first prize from more than a hundred entries. See the news story for details about the competition.

Tom Bryan's piece, Seven Ways of Looking at Suilven, follows below:

Tom Bryan wrote:Words may not be enough. The great poet Norman MacCaig tried. The Gaels tried. The Vikings tried. "Sul-fjall", the Pillar Mountain. Suilven, the "sugar loaf". Edwin Muir said Suilven did not appear to belong to our world at all. Wainwright, the often dour and crusty mountain chronicler, nearly gets poetic: "Suilven never fails to shock and surprise the beholder."

I first saw Suilven the first year I saw Scotland, as primroses still lay like bits of broken moon on the Sutherland hillside. I had hitched a ride with an elderly English couple. As we approached the mountain having come via the old ferry at Kylesku, they pulled into the lay-by and just stared. They had been shocked and surprised, as Wainwright said they would. As I was.

The summer passed and a hard winter passed. Ireland. Germany. Holland. My Wanderjahr. However, I was back in Scotland in April, with winter refusing to budge whilst colliding with an impatient Spring. My wife-to-be and I went up Suilven on Easter Day. We weren't able to buy food but we had water a' plenty. Suilven crouched like King Kong over sleeping Lochinver. We hiked in via Glencanisp, quicker but much harder on the walker where Suilven is always in sight, teasing, beckoning. It was a cold day and we were barely dressed for it. Like many another starving pilgrims, we would need to balance between reverence and practicality. We had to get up and down the mountain before dark. Clouds rolled in, skies darkened, the sun shot down its Biblical rays. Lochs looked like tar pools in the fickle light, but the cloud lifted and we saw the Outer Hebrides. We got down just before dark, just before snow, starving yet exhilarated. We had a pint and a Kit Kat in the Culag bar just before closing time. The pilgrims had done it the hard way.

I late moved to the Highlands and was privileged to view Suilven every day in all its guises. In snow and bracken, in golden broom and primrose. My next hikes up Suilven took me via the Falls of Kirkaig, where great salmon must fail the impossible leap before falling back into quieter spawning pools. It is a long walk round Fionn Loch, dappled by lovely brown trout rising to the surface. Then Suilven finally presents a saddle to you and you accept.

I've taken folk up Suilven who have perhaps missed the point. Most times, it is best to forget that sugar loaf, that pillar, that strange saddled creature changing from purple to grey, from black to green. Study the slow worm, the buzzard, the eagle, the primrose, and the ptarmigan. And MacCaig was right; Suilven's myriad frogs are golden.

One hot day, I sat by one of Suilven's many pools. I took off my rucksack, stuck my face in, cupped my hands for a drink... and not more than an arm's length away, a lumpy adder was doing more or less the same thing. We were both hot, craving a drink. You will never drink alone up there. Meadow pipits, greenshank, the eerie sound of the stonechat, like a ghost mocking our footsteps on the slipping stones. Suilven in fact burbles with life. Butterwort, tormentil, saxifrage. Insects are being eaten by both plant and animal, whilst frogs gorge themselves on clegs and midges, which gorge themselves on our blood, and so it goes. So if you're going into Suilven, you'll probably go via Glencanisp from Lochinver, or via the Falls of Kirkaig and Fionn Loch. But there are other ways.

I was born at La Fourche, Winnipeg, where French Voyageurs and Hudson's Bay fur trappers learned how to navigate the fur trapping routes where the Red River meets the Assiniboine, before opening up the waters of Lake Winnipeg or the great streams of the western prairies and Rocky Mountain foothills. These early Canadians, learning from its aboriginal peoples, canoed the wilderness and the continent. This being in my blood, I portaged my Canadian canoe past the old graveyard at Elphin, the Gaelic letters on the weathered stones telling other indigenous tales. I paddled past the Garlic island, following the line of that most crooked Loch whose Gaelic name itself means "crooked", Cam. I camped at the end of Cam Loch, then walked into Suilven through clouds of clegs and midges, until a breeze mid morning blew them away. I stayed on the mountain until dark, descending by the light of the full moon, in a near freezing wind.

Later, I carried my light canoe around the fish farm at Veyatie and canoed down that narrow sliver, until it eases into the Fionn Loch. I caught a few lovely brown trout, frying and eating them from my billy can, with my Swiss army knife, followed by a quaff from a clear burn. Suilven was shoved right up against the tent. Adders lined my approach to it.

I've been up Suilven five times. The sixth was in a long meditative poem, yet unpublished, about a man of fifty who spends the night before the Millennium on the mountain, pondering his death and its death, for we forget that Suilven is wasting away in a cosmic geological anorexia. It was once ten times the size it is now, dwarfing all the mountains of the world. Yet it will one day be eroded into the very lochs where I caught my morning trout. We forget that mountains die too, only not on our terms.

Seven is of course a totemic number. The Stages of Man. The Pillars of Wisdon. The Seven Year Itch. I look at my bloated middle agead body with much dismay. I probably couldn't make it even a third the way up the mountain without huffing and puffing, without an inhaler, or perhaps a stroke or heart attack.

But perhaps there is a seventh way. According to Hindu thought, a man must grow, raise a family, work in his community and then finally take the road in the final seventh stage of his life as a mendicant, a wise man. Having trained physically and mentally, I dream I would take what little I need and walk in my own time. I would approach the mountain like a penitent. I would perhaps truly see the adder for the first time, in its struggle for food, for mating, for life itself. I would watch the cleg feed on my own blood, the frog eat the cleg, the adder eat the frog. I would also remember that Ewan MacColl had his ashes scattered here.

Then, like the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, I must tell my life's tale to a mythical gatekeeper before he will allow me that final passage into a hidden valley. According to legend, the traveller Lao Tzu simply disappeared, leaving all his precious Taoist writings with the border guard. But disappearance is not extinction, for to vanish is to elude time itself, which is what mountains teach us.
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Paul Webster
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Re: JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Suilven

Postby maddjock » Wed Mar 11, 2009 2:27 pm

wow...


wow...

speechless...
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Re: JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Suilven

Postby mountain coward » Thu Mar 12, 2009 2:02 am

Did you go to it? I submitted my photo (the one that's my 'avatar') - did you see it at all? It probably got binned though... I really wanted to go this year but I'm working again and all my holidays are already booked :(
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Re: JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Suilven

Postby Paul Webster » Thu Mar 12, 2009 8:17 am

No, I'm afraid I couldn't make it - though I hope to one year as it sounds a good event. Your profile pic looks good to me :D where is it?
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Re: JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Suilven

Postby kevsbald » Thu Mar 12, 2009 8:10 pm

Lovely piece and a real way with words. Deserving of the award, I'm sure.
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Re: JMT Writing Competition Winner: Seven Ways of Seeing Sui

Postby Sabbathstevie » Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:46 pm

Brilliant writing. I saw Suilven's strange silhouette on a a rare clear day from Tolsta Head in Lewis and it did indeed call to me...one day! :)
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