I chose the autumn equinox when everything is held in balance; when light and dark are of equal length. I thought of this walk as a deep breath before the winter: a good time to look back, then accept the receding light and look forward without foreboding.
Walking the track upstream along the Almond from Newton Bridge, I was at first between some of my familiar, round Perthshire hills, climbing gradually west towards Loch Tay. But then at the head of the valley I planned to leave familiar territory and turn south over the westerly flanks of Ben Chonzie to go down to Comrie the next morning.
I took my time, paused to watch a dipper bobbing on a rock in the river, its white bib switching on and off, on and off; a tiny lighthouse flashing. Then I detoured to an 18th-century graveyard whose stones peeked out from golden wind-whipped grasses, especially enjoying a slab across which trotted a carved ewe and lamb. Back on the path white shards of quartz glinted in the sunlight, and I collected one up so that later it would recall this particular passage of light and dark.
The broad flat-bottomed valley had been almost visibly ground and gouged by a glacier, the dumped solo boulders standing as testimony. I climbed the crest of one of many grassy drumlins to get a better view onto a circular sheep stell below. This ice-formed architecture has been overlayed with human interventions – 4000 years ago a chambered cairn; a medieval village formed close to a holy place at the head of a burn associated with St Beoan, and named Stuck Chapel (Stuc a’ Chaibeil, or Rock of the Chapel) where a war memorial now stands.
Humans were mostly absent from the valley that day after I’d passed a few houses in the lower reaches, the postie’s van had rattled by, and later a cheery shepherd passed with a trailer full of sheep. I was soon alone. A red kite circled above me and the wind was a brisk northerly, tossing the silk heads of spent thistles over my head. This wasn’t a walk with any kind of target to it, or energetic challenge. Walking itself fills me with a complete sense of purpose – each step in front of another contributing to a line through time and space and occupying my mind. I would trust a simple journey on foot to rescue me from quite serious despondency; or to simply ‘re-boot’ my feelings (forgive the pun). If civilisation is the human body taken out of the landscape, then this walk was about reversing that; embodying the place by walking it, breathing its airs, lying down for a night upon it. And so marking the passing of time and season.
Alongside the river, a pipeline had been laid at a precise angle for water to flow to a turbine downstream. Further up, I came to a dam and fish ladder. This engineering made me think of the ingenious systems of ancient irrigation canals called acequias in the mountains of Spain and my mind jumped onwards to their Arab origins, seeming to explain why a particular song had been haunting my steps: Yasmine Hamdan’s ‘Beirut’ of which I understand not one word and yet hear in the singer’s passion a longing for a particular place.
Walking alone always loosens my mind and unlocks my imagination, especially on a long, straightforward track such as this. As I moved upstream, I seemed to hear occasional voices – a trick of the wind as the burn gurgle grew in volume and then was suddenly cut by a topographical chance, emulating a break in conversation. As I passed Dalriech cottage I imagined what life must have been like there before it lost its roof. And I started to play games: tried reading the sign ‘Connachan March’ as an instruction rather than the name of a stretch of river bank. Perhaps it would require the extraordinary gait of the Greek parliament guards who, in their white tunics, stockings and pom-pommed shoes, parade in a style so reminiscent of Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ of the 1970s. I talked back to the sheep grazing either side of the track when they glared at me and bleated disapprovingly.
Further on another song insisted its way into my mind: Baloo’s ‘Bare Necessities’. Its rhythm suggested a steady march, a cheery encouragement to ‘forget about your worries and your strife’, but it also seemed to allude to the weight on my back. I’d tried hard to strip back to essentials. I was only away for one night, and I didn’t want to spoil the walk by feeling over-burdened. In my kitchen 30 minutes before departure I’d gathered meths, matches, stove, noodles. I’d remembered to remember a spoon, or at least one item of cutlery, but about halfway up Glen Almond I realised that by remembering to remember it, I had relaxed and not actually packed it. I walked on, pondering how to fashion something or improvise with what I had. After an hour or so I had the answer: I could use my mug to scoop the food into my mouth. That was when I realised that whilst I had noted the need for a mug, I had also failed to pack that. I was clearly out of practice for overnight backpacking.
Upstream I strode into sunshine and sparkle and a roughening track. The light lowered and hardened so that each sheep gained a glowing penumbra, a kind of halo. As I turned upwards and south to struggle across rough heather and in and out of gullies, sunlight stroked the grasses to silken, and autumn’s tawny hue began to show as behind me the Lawers range was sculpted into blue silhouettes. My shadow was projected across the hills. A long, stretched, solo figure heading into the evening and towards a new bealach: I was intent on camping high, and of witnessing a dusk and then a dawn.
By the time I pitched my tent, high in the Invergeldie Valley, on a grassy island in a loop of the burn, the temperature was dropping, the sky was wintry to the south and there was a bank of cloud over the bealach to the north. The burn hissed below me and rumbled above; murmured somewhere else. A string of deer scaled the shaded east-facing slope, almost invisible against the bronzed bracken until they crested the hill high above me, their silhouettes briefly sharp as they ran back into the sunlight and then vanished. As the day darkened, the wind dropped. I was left in the quiet to what I wanted – a night in a tent in the wilds under a half moon waxing and a sharp sky banded with lilac clouds.
There was a long stretch of twilight when the moon grew stark and bright in the midst of a swirl of cloud, yet something golden flashed high on the southern horizon. Eventually I realised it was the rotating blades of a wind turbine near Glen Ogle catching the last westerly rays. Then it was extinguished and I committed myself to night as if practising for winter’s dark months.
I lay down in the tent. Dozed a little. Woke at about 10 to find the end of the tent a screen of moonlight; looked out to a clear sky prickled with stars. The night was bright enough that I could easily have walked the next part of my journey down to Comrie. Had I done so I would have been able to think of myself as a figure from a bygone age planning by the phases of the moon; journeys or harvests around the bright phases, nefarious deeds around the dark ones.
I took the opportunity instead to think back over the last six months, their span suspended between the two equinoxes. I packed away some of the things that had been difficult but had been survived, celebrated some others, formed some resolutions for the next phase. Then I watched the half moon sail towards the steep dark edge of Creag Tharsuinn and disappear behind it, taking my last six months with it. The next time I would see the moon would be after the equinox: a fresh start following a milestone in the year. A stag roared high in the glen, unseen, and I slept again. Later in the night I woke to fragments of music passing slowly overhead; a noise that I hadn’t heard for so long it seemed unfamiliar although exciting a particular feeling. Geese migrating, confirming the season.
Our bodies mark out time, with no need for a calendar or a watch. We are animals and we sense transitions. We associate rituals and observations with each season – the fruit we gather, a particular quality of light, the sound of the returning oyster catchers peeping by the river, the scent of woodsmoke. The overlaying of such rituals year-on-year provides a sense of continuity. Perhaps like migrating animals we also respond to subtler prompts to get outside and move – scent, sun, the stars, reflected light, the Earth’s magnetic field. One third of an hour was apparently once known as a ’mileway’, because that is the distance that can be walked in it. Moving at walking pace perhaps determines our human sense of time more than we now realise. We live by patterns and rhythms: heartbeat, footstep, eye-blink, breath. And so does the Earth: a daily rotation, an orbit of the sun, and these two days a year when Earth does not tilt. Milestones, human and earthly. All in a rhyme with each other.
In throwing off indoor worries, the desk and artificial light, I found myself an animal guided on the surface of the land by my senses, by the height of the sun and passage of the moon. Sleeping soon after dusk and being about in the world with the deer streaming across the hills in the first lilac hints of dawn, it seemed that this day off was better described as a day on.
Clamped still in a shaded valley with a wet tent, I watched the morning sky change, the sun promised in apricot curtains behind the black hulk of Ben Chonzie. It was already kissing into relief the knobbly crags to the south in Glen Lednock. Pheasants cackled and the stove hissed (I was easily managing without a mug and spoon in case you wondered). I was hungry and stiff, but I had slept and was soon walking down the valley towards Comrie with a belief in my body, my legs and feet; a belief in fresh starts. Down into a valley that seemed expansive and fertile and warm; gardens blooming with geraniums. Cows staring at me. Striped harvest fields. Back down to ‘civilisation’, feeling streamlined by the simplicity of being out for a night alone with my bare necessities. High as a kite, and probably about to talk jibberish to the first stranger I met.
This is my seasonal recipe. It will perhaps sound too easy for the hardened walker or mountaineer, but it could be an invitation to pause more and forget the summit. Or to go alone for those who rarely do. Call it a retreat, a secular prayer, a seasonal reflection. Call it what you will, but for me it’s a way of realising how earthbound and animal I truly am.