Tuesday, 27 July 2010

(31) Beinn Dorain

By Colin Will

31 Beinn Dorain (I)
Colin Will, 2010

Our Shitomae is Beinn Dorain

Gaelic: Hill of the otter
Pronunciation: byn doa-ran

I rise at six, breakfast, and arrive at the Bridge of Orchy car park before eight, in a heavy shower of rain, the only rain I felt the whole day. I walk up the road to the station, entered by an underpass, which crosses the rail line and leads to the West Highland Way, and the path to Beinn Dorain.

31 Bridge of Orchy Railway Station
Colin Will, 2010

Eck & Ken have identified this entrance as the cognate of Basho’s Shitomae Barrier. By coincidence, a train arrives and stops at the station, above my head. So now I have my opening verse:

starting gate with
iron horse overhead
and new midge bites

31 hokku-label, Beinn Dorain
Colin Will, 2010

I do not expect to encounter bandits on this journey, but I see no need to employ “a strong young man” to lead the way and to act as bodyguard. Besides, I have my walking poles, and these will serve to ward off any unruly elements.

31 Beinn Dorain, bog asphodel
Colin Will, 2010

The meadow is a mass of yellow spikes, each tipped with bright yellow starry flowers. This is bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum), one of my favourite Highland plants. There is also a lot of bell heather (Erica carnea) in flower. The path rises steadily toward the mountain.

Seen from the main road Beinn Dorain appears as a perfect cone – a green Fuji-san. However, from the climber’s side it’s a broad ridge, a double mountain mass, with Beinn an Dothaidh (byn an daw-ee) on the left, and Dorain on the right, linked by a col, or bealach, which is flanked by vertical cliffs on both sides. The walk will take me up to the bealach, before following the right-hand path to the summit. The route rises steadily, and I notice how badly eroded the path has become. In places it’s more like a wet scree slope, with loose and unstable gravel. This would trouble me on the descent, and going up it was, in places, like walking up a stream bed.

waterfalls left and right
the way up shows no sign
of getting shorter

The village behind me appears to shrink as I walk higher, and the views of the surrounding hills become better and better. A gully on a mountain opposite shows as a white streak of tumbling water, which at first I mistake for a quartz vein. An hour into the walk I stop briefly for a cup of tea, and the midges immediately start biting. They obviously haven’t read the instruction label on my anti-midge spray. The tea – a wonderful ‘Iron Buddha’ oolong – refreshes immediately.

monkey picked tea
lifts the climber
up Beinn Dorain

The Beinn Dorain frogs described by Norman MacCaig in ‘One of the Many Days’ are numerous and very colourful – green, yellow, russet, brown. They’re active too, hopping and leaping through the wet grass by the path. I don’t know if they’re ‘tinily considering/ the huge concept of Ben Dorain’, but I am.

coloured frogs
leap in the wet grass
as high as Beinn Dorain

31 Beinn Dorain, frogs
Colin Will, 2010

The last stretch up to the bealach is quite steep, and then I emerge onto the broad saddle, marked by a cairn. From here the views of distant Glen Lyon and its loch are spectacular, and the hills on both sides are glorious. I see the path leading to Beinn an Dothaidh, but I take the right-hand fork. I’m soon walking up boiler-plate slabs of very good rock, up the next steep stretch. A family of ravens flies overhead, checking out this intruder. I’m the only human in the landscape – no climbers above or below me.

31 Beinn Dorain (II)
Colin Will, 2010

a brown thread
stitches the walk
to Glen Lyon

coal black birds
fly from crag to crag

I like walking alone in the hills. It gives me the freedom to make my own pace – much slower than when I was young – and gives me the opportunity to notice little things as I walk. At this height – over 3000 ft. by now - I see the first signs of Scotland’s Arctic-Alpine flora. Alpine Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla alpina) is common here, with leaves like small green hands, and topped by clusters of greenish flowers. I also see Starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris), and, more rarely, a true mountain flower, Sibbaldia procumbens (which has no common name). Small and delicate, this flower is the botanical emblem of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the place I worked for fourteen years. It is named for Sir Robert Sibbald, a co-founder of the Garden in 1670, whose book Scotia Illustrata first described some of Scotland’s distinctive plants, animals, birds and fishes in 1684, illustrated with some remarkable engravings. It’s not just for the pace that I like climbing alone, however; it’s for the peace. Just I am here, with my senses and my thoughts, no distractions.

bell heather

There are sheep on the summit ridge, which is broad and grassy. They graze in pairs, ewe and lamb, and if the lamb should stray too far, the mother bleats until adventurous daughter comes back. It’s hard not to feel sorry for sheep, out in all weathers, driven high in summer, driven low in winter to have the fat lambs taken for the table. It’s hard to feel sorry for sheep, seeing the amount of habitat change they have caused, eating all tree shoots that emerge from hidden seeds, so that only grasses, sedges, woodrush and small herbs cover the ground. And the Clearances too were caused by human greed for the income the sheep could provide.

high in the hills
with old poets
in my head

The steep sections of climb are beginning to catch up with my aging body. I get severe cramps in my upper thigh muscles, which force me to sit on boulders and massage my legs until the pain eases. I’ve never had this before, and I reflect that I really should climb more often, so that my muscles and tendons will strengthen.

Just below the final ridge I look up and see, silhouetted against the skyline, a mountain hare, the two long ears raised. He turns to look at me, unafraid. His only enemy at this great height would be golden eagle, but I have not seen one today. Nor have I seen any deer, so I cannot reflect on Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s epic Gaelic poem ‘Beinn Dorain’, which I have read in a fine translation by Iain Crichton Smith, another of Scotland’s fine bards. What I do see now, and it’s a lovely sight too, are small clumps of Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia). It’s a gorgeous wee flower.

hare on the hill
long ears swivel –
wind sounds

31 Beinn Dorain (III)
Colin Will, 2010

I climb out onto the summit plateau, pass the cairn and walk on to reach the true summit. The view from here is breathtaking. A large part of Scotland’s mountain landscape is laid out before me – Ben Nevis to the north-west, Cruachan to the west, the Lawers group and the rest of the Breadalbane Hills to the east and south, the Crianlarich group, most of which I climbed in years past. I can see dark grey mists in some distant glens, signs of rainstorms. I stop here, back to the wind, for my lunch, and more tea from my flask, before beginning the long walk back.

grey smirr of rain
in distant glen –
someone’s getting wet

The descent is fine as far as the bealach, but after that it becomes tricky because of the loose gravel in the path. It’s at the bealach that I have my first human encounter of the day, with a family of foreign tourists, who ignore my greeting. I slip and slide, overbalance when stones tip and wobble, and jar my knees when I take a step too long. Feet and ankles are painful too, with the constant twisting and flexing. At times I curse myself, feeling that I’ve taken on too much at my age. Slowly and inexorably the Bridge of Orchy houses get nearer.

a foot placed
on stones
twists round

At the end of the walk I drive back to Comrie through a torrential downpour. I reach my mother’s house. Time for a glass of Nikka All Malt whisky, a hot bath, a meal, and bed.

31 Beinn Dorain, wish
Colin Will, 2010




Park at the Bridge of Orchy (56°31'2.98"N) (4°45'55.02"W). Then head east, crossing the railway line to join the West Highland Way which leads to the summit of Beinn Dorain.

the completed journey will be realised as an audio-visual word-map, published online and in print, May 16, 2011. If you would like more information about the project email info@theroadnorth.co.uk


Colin Will is a poet, botanist and geologist based in Dunbar. He runs the ever-growing small publishers Calder Wood Press.

Colin's most recent collection of poetry, The Floorshow at the Mad Yak Cafe, is available now from Red Squirrel Press.

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