Lucy Wallace feels all her senses heightened on an emotional return to the hills.
Granite has it’s own smell. I think I’ve always known this. I’ve travelled the world and there is always something familiar, intangible and yet homely, in a granitic landscape. Today, in the brisk, dry air, the acrid scent of decaying minerals is distinctive. It’s a sharp, metallic odour, but not unpleasant.
I’ve missed it.
There are other smells. As soon as we step out of the car, we pick up the earthy flavours of damp soil. We set off through thick birch wood that gives way to scrub, engulfing us in the herbal punch of bog myrtle. There is leafy bracken, the sap of pine, and woody heather, here too, a heady cocktail for the nostrils.
Wally and I are walking through a fenced enclosure dotted with saplings on the hill path from the village of Corrie, on Arran’s east coast. It has rained heavily all weekend, and although it is now Monday and the sun is shining, the burns are roaring in spate. We will be skipping the crowds on Goatfell and heading for quieter summits, whilst at the same time avoiding river crossings. North Goatfell, Mullach Buidhe and a descent of Am Binnein are in our sights. It’s not a long day, but will take us in to some wild terrain and give us the big views we crave.
To the left of the track, the Corrie Burn is a torrent of sparkling white water that rushes endlessly over granite slabs into the wooded gorge below. It roars, sings, and rumbles through tight squeezes and batters against boulders. The sounds are complex and musical. I’m hearing them as if for the first time.
Is this how visitors to Arran feel when I bring them here? Or is this music all the more sweet for being a familiar song?
Higher up, we crest a bouldery lip, into Coire Lan. The music of the river changes to something gentler, with the happy plink-plonk of water dropping into pools. We decide to stop for a bit and I deliberately choose a point where a side stream crosses the path, so I can listen to the sound of the water playing over rocks as I eat my sandwich. I’m tired already. It’s a good tired, but my calves are tight with the constant climbing.
Once we are moving again, the terrain eases for a while, until we hit the headwall. It’s a built path of rocks and gravel for most of the way, with earthy steps in the final few metres up to a bealach between North Goatfell and Mullach Buidhe. As we get closer to the ridge crest, I smile to myself. I always smile here. It’s a slog, but I know what is coming next, and it will be spectacular.
I see the crown of Cir Mhor first, rockier than I remember. With the final steps on to the ridge the vista expands and my eyes have to widen too. The rollercoaster of Arran’s Northern Hills is a lot to take in. I’m on a stony cliff edge and the ground is dropping steeply towards Glen Sannox. There is the plunging depth of The Saddle, Cir Mhor with its improbable shape, the bow of Hunter’s Ridge and the tors of Caisteal Abhail. The gentler Three Beinns Horseshoe looks restrained compared to these arrogant beauties, but I dutifully take photos of it all. Over the years, I have collected so many versions of this view, in every season.
I put my camera away and just listen. I’m in an eddy, and the wind is still, but I can hear it hissing like bullets around the buttresses below. If I take one step nearer to the lip, the wind rises up and pushes me backwards. The closer to the edge, the wilder it becomes.
The two of us make our way up towards North Goatfell in a loop that will give us good views in to Glen Rosa and also some mild scrambling on the southern side. It is incredibly windy on top, in a gusty, alarming, way. We slither down over gravelly slabs, and traverse back to the first bealach in the lee of the summit. From here, we scramble easily to the top of Mullach Buidhe, the “Yellow Mountain”, and a comfortable perch on the apex of the hill, with our backs to the wind.
Although I am sat upon a heavy boulder of cold granite, I feel like I am at sea. The whole world is in motion. Clouds are scudding through the skies, and leaving shadows that race across the dappled slopes of Goatfell. High meadows sway like ocean waves in the breeze, the grasses rippling, first silver, then green. The wind is jostling us, and even my head is swaying with a little mild vertigo, which I note, with a thrill.
Nothing is still.
I feel completely taken over by the sensations of this day.
Eventually, the wind over-imposes itself, and slightly stiff, we uncurl back to our feet to begin our descent. The ridge of Am Binnein is broad but beautifully defined in the upper part, with a faint grassy path leading through granite boulders and craggy outcrops. It’s leisurely, barely losing height for over a kilometre, like a highway between the two corries of Lan and Larach. We ignore the path, enjoying the action of stepping from rock to rock, all friction of rubber sole on quartz crystals. Occasionally putting a hand out to steady ourselves, the rock is sharp and gritty, leaving an imprint on the skin.
Lower down, the ridge culminates in a small peak that gives the hill its Gaelic name, topped with an enigmatic iron cross. The ground then drops into a mess of boulders and small crags. It’s the sting in the tail of an otherwise perfect day.
The wind had eased off for a while, but as the gradient changes, I can feel the gusts starting to gather pace again. The wind marshals itself in Coire nan Larach on our left flank, and then, when enough momentum is reached, barrels downslope until it finds us, tottering between boulders on the shoulder of the hill. The wind has taken on the character of a bully, and I had forgotten until this moment, how mean it can be. I’m relearning how to ignore the taunts, bear the gusts, and brace myself to dodge sideways with each battering ram. I try to banish thoughts of tumbles and consequences on this awkward ground. We have to lose a lot of height before the bully gives up.
The ground is complicated, and doesn’t relent as we begin a pathless traverse under crags, and through tussocky purple moor grass and rank heather, back to the main track from Corrie. It’s a tough finish to a stunning walk, but as my feet hit the built path I reflect on how wonderfully, bone-achingly, deeply tired I am. Tired in limb, and in mind, but with a happy paradox, because I feel refreshed in a way that has eluded me for months. I know that I’m going to sleep deeply tonight.
Getting back to the mountains has been a full-body, sensory experience. Every part of me has been involved. From the scent of the damp earth, to the fizz of the wind over rock, it’s all felt mysterious, and comfortingly familiar. The last few months have been difficult, but for every question, the outdoors seems to have an answer. It is good to be back.