This week sees the publication of Wild Winter, the latest book from John Burns, bestselling author of The Last Hillwalker. In Wild Winter, John sets out to rediscover Scotland’s mountains, remote places and wildlife in the darkest and stormiest months. He traverses the country from the mouth of the River Ness to the Isle of Mull, from remote Sutherland to the Cairngorms, in search of rutting red deer, minke whales, beavers, pine martens, mountain hares and otters. In the midst of the fierce weather, John’s travels reveal a habitat in crisis, and many of these wild creatures prove elusive as they cling on to life in the challenging Highland landscape. In our exclusive extract, John tells of his journey to a remote section of the coast to witness a magical spectacle.
Every few hundred metres, I come to a stream. Some I can ford by stepping on convenient stones; others are not so easy. I am teetering on the brink of a fast-running mini-river. I hop on to a few small boulders and then reach the middle, where I must leap for the bank. My mind says leap, but my body does a semi-controlled stumble into the water and on to the steep bank on the far side. I land face down and the peat bank I fall on to decides, after years of waiting, that this is the moment to collapse. I am thrown back into the water. I scramble and kick, arms flailing, boots splashing. To the casual observer, I look like a tortoise having a fit. Somehow, I end up vertical once again, grass in my mouth and my rucksack soaked and hanging off me at an odd angle. I’m gasping from the exertion and swearing at the same time. You would think that in all my years of hillwalking I’d have mastered stream crossings. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case, but I have learnt to accept that once in a while I will end up flat on my face. Such zen-like acceptance takes years of practice.
The bothy sits on the coast a few hundred metres from the sea. It is stone-built, windproof and watertight, and has changed little since I was last here the previous summer. Because of its environmental sensitivity, I am not going to name it. With a little detective work and an OS map, it is probably fairly easy to deduce where I am, but it is not maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association and therefore not public, so I am not going to reveal its exact whereabouts. I hope you will forgive my reluctance to share such places, but they are rare and precious. The casual wanderer is unlikely to stumble across it, but if you are determined, you will get there.
The bothy is a simple stone house sitting among the heather with its face turned towards the sea. Inside, it is crammed with artefacts gathered from the shoreline by previous occupants. There are pieces of weirdly shaped driftwood, creel floats and a multitude of shells. To my amazement, I find it supplied with tins of food. A note in the bothy book tells me that a party of men picking winkles on the shore had used the bothy for several days prior to my arrival. They had come in by boat and took pride in writing in the book how they had tidied the bothy before leaving. The place was very tidy, but I was further amazed to find a large bin bag full of bottles and tins that they had left behind. Since they had a boat, it would have been so easy to take it out – unless, of course, their rubbish bag was capable of sprouting legs and walking out of its own accord. Perhaps they thought it would be taken away at the next bin collection day, which is, of course, never. I set up my stove, light the coal I carried across the miles of moor and settle in to my bothy night.
The following morning, a cold wind sweeps past the door, carrying with it a suggestion of rain. Below the bothy, the land stretches for a quarter of a mile or so before it tumbles into the sea. Some two miles to the north, there are great cliffs that hold within them sea caves the size of cathedrals, the mark of thousands of years of rain trickling down through the limestone and the passage of a million tides. Here and there are small, boulder-strewn beaches and it is these that I have come to this northern shore to visit. Here I might find the prize I seek. Between the bothy and the sea, for a distance of 200 metres, the earth shows a series of man-made ridges. These are about 2 metres across, 150 metres long and 30 centimetres high. These ridges, known as runrigs, are a clear sign that the bothy was once a home to a family who farmed the land, for at least a few generations. Runrigs came about because the depth of Highland soil is frequently so shallow that it would struggle to support crops. By piling up the earth in rows, enough soil depth could be created to grow potatoes and other vegetables. Higher on the hill, I had passed several distinct lines in the peat bog where the people who lived here had cut rectangles of peat a little larger than a man’s hand and stacked them to dry so they could be used as fuel for the fire.
It must have been a harsh life. Lashed by endless wind and rain, almost literally clinging to life on the edge of the Atlantic. This place feels so empty now, yet children were born here, folk grew old and passed away their years. Perhaps if I had stood here 150 years ago, a red-haired girl would have come running barefoot down the hill laughing, with her collie dog at her heels. Surely these hills remember a time when the chimney of the house always smoked, when hands dug into the dirt and brought forth life. There is a memory in this place that speaks to me through the sky and the stones.
I reach the first shingle beach where the waves sweep in. There are small pools here, protected from the full force of the winter storms by a wall of rock. Ideal shelter, one would think, but the beach is deserted, with only two dark cormorants drying their wings in the sun high on the rocky cliff. I search two more beaches and they are deserted as well. There is only one beach left to try. Perhaps I have come all this way for nothing.
Round the next headland, I follow a small stream into a narrow ravine where it meets the sea. I turn a corner and a rock moves. I back away quickly, not wanting to disturb anything. I crawl to the cliff edge that overlooks the beach and find myself face down in a pile of sheep poo. I wonder if David Attenborough ever lay face down in sheep shit.
Peering through my binoculars, I see other rocks moving on the beach, more and more coming into focus. These are seals nurturing their young.
They are so well camouflaged that they appear to be boulders. I can see around twenty of them lying on the beach with their young pups beside them. This is what I have walked all this way to see. For just a few weeks in November, seals have their pups on these rugged shores. There is a small sandy beach here, no bigger than a football pitch. Protected from the sea by bands of rock are small pools where the young seals can gain their first experience of the water in safety. The grey dappled skin of the adult seals perfectly matches the boulders they are sitting beside. The pups are lighter, almost white in their juvenile fur.
Wild Winter by John D. Burns is published on 1st April by Vertebrate Press at £9.99. It can be ordered from our Bookshop.org storefront below; 10% of your money is distributed to independent UK bookshops.