Modest Ullapool Hill or Meall Mor (270 metres) beckoned on an early August day. I normally just have to open pink OS sheet 15, see the tightly packed contours of deep salmon pink contrasting against the pale spread of broken peninsulas, to be excited towards the pitch of the Coigach and Assynt Hills. Or looking the other way, sheet 20 with its expanse of roadless land, makes me want to pack a rucksack and to twist and turn through that interior that fastens in Beinn Dearg and Seana Bhraigh, and walk right through to the east coast. There is no doubt of the magic of this part of the north-west Highlands for walking, and it nearly always turns out to be worth climbing a hill.
With low cloud and squally showers keeping us from the higher tops on this particular day, my friend Caroline and I zigzagged up the brae from Ullapool through a corridor of gorse and rowan trees bright with berries. We were buffeted by gusts, alternating hot and cold. Soon the logic of the town spread below us – the streets laid out in a grid by Thomas Telford when Ullapool was developed for the herring trade boom in the late 18th century; the harbour, school and Tesco’s all monumental against low cottages. It fell away into a neat triangle with the campsite at its point, skirted by white horses. On the far side of Loch Broom the glowering silhouette of the Scoraig peninsula ran west with the top of Beinn Ghobhlach lopped off by cloud; the white, former ferry house crouching on its shore. And there were the Summer Isles to our west hung with visible curtains of approaching weather, and to the north as we gained height we began to name the decapitated peaks of Cul Beag and Cul Mor beyond.
Pausing on the plateau and breathing hard, we turned through 360° to appreciate our surroundings, and to follow with our eyes the stretch of Loch Broom tapering amongst those grand, remote hills to the east. The heather in its first bright bloom shocked pink against a slate sky. We wound along a silvery path to the prominent nobble which constitutes the summit, ascending steeply, but briefly, again.
Meall Mor is an excellent walk for a couple of spare hours on a poor-weather day or for giving the young or less fit a taste of hill walking. The steep ascent is soon over and quickly rewards. The elevation is surprisingly dramatic and yet the well-constructed path boasts good signposting. As with all hills, the walker may feel in a slightly different world to the one left below and is able to connect up geography and places experienced differently from the valley floor, transforming them in shape or meaning.
As we approached the summit and the cloud level rose, the hills to the north announced their great thrusts and lumpy curves. Caroline and I had both been up here many times, but this time we climbed with a greater sense of mission. In recent years various initiatives have incentivised walking to the reluctant with opportunities to find geo-caches or other kinds of ‘treasure’. This was different, but we knew that secreted somewhere near the summit were 29 small stones painted by local artist Peter White. “It’s as if you have to creep up on them,” Caroline said, as we parted for the search. Childlike and excitable, it wasn’t long before one or other of us whooped the other over to share a discovery.
Tiny tablets of stone painted with a simple image of a chair or an open book or a flower had been placed within natural frames in a rocky nook or amidst heather and grass. As well as delivering a palpable thrill of discovery, they were pleasing to hold in the palm of the hand and beautiful to look at. But these stones are not intended to be taken away; not treasure to be hoarded. When we turned them over, we found names inscribed on the reverse – William or Stanislaw or Margaret. They brought a sense of solemnity, touching in the same way as a list on a war memorial or a gravestone, even when the named are unknown to us. These small painted objects are part of a project Peter White has developed over the last three years in which walking and associated creative work are acts of memorial. Collecting stones from his local hills, he has painted on them and then discreetly returned some in memory of those either named by himself or by others.
Although the wider exhibition ‘MEMORIAL’ can be seen at An Talla Solais Gallery (until 8th September), I found it visually exquisite and highly moving to come across these tiny memorials as ravens stalled above and the wind thrashed in my hair. They are ephemeral: with exposure to time and elements they will fade and crumble. Part-natural, part-cultural, I found the artistic intent and the concept intrinsically appealing (whilst acknowledging debate and mixed feelings around mountain memorials in general).
I trust in the power of walking and what the landscape reveals to us of the human and non-human world; I think our experiences in the hills can be multifaceted, sometimes extraordinary and often, for me at least, evoke memory. Here this was made explicit. The landscape is scattered with remnants of past lives and this artist’s work can be seen as a memorial to some.
Back in the town we visited the exhibition which includes larger works as well as some of these small stones. Learning that it was possible to loan one, I chose a painted pen nib. Later I’ll return it to Peter White who will replace it in its original landscape. He’s collected and painted about 250 stones, and 70 or so have been secreted amongst the Scottish hills which he regularly walks. However, I chose one which he’d collected whilst walking recently in Palestine. The place name was written on the reverse and I was able to look it up on a map, view it from a satellite, read about it. The village of Yabroud, at 790 meters, sits at over twice the elevation that I had just been to and lies north-east of the city of Ramallah. I could see that it’s built on a naturally steep-sided hill fortress. It was 29° and sunny there that day.
A photo showing the village at a distance revealed rocky outcrops piercing the soil, resembling coral rag. There were dark cypresses, brown grass and terraces of olive trees. Square houses spread low by contrast with a towering minaret. I began to imagine ‘my’ stone once lying on the rough stony track leading towards the village. Before its journey to the Highlands of Scotland it would have lain under the feet of people and mules travelling with their goods. And then I imagined it returning to Palestine in due course, given more meaning by the painting and its cargo of a name.
The short walk we enjoyed that day not only stretched my sense of geography beyond the eastern end of Loch Broom and its fortress summits, but further east and east, and further east still, to a place to which I now feel a connection. One ‘highlands’ now links in my mind with another. And perhaps one day a curious person on foot in Palestine will pick up this stone with a pen nib painted onto it, attracted by the decoration, see a name written on the reverse and understand that it is about remembering.