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Recalling the Past In A Spirit of Place

A SPIRIT of place. I came across this term in the writings of an old friend of mine, the Welsh/English essayist Jim Perrin. He defined the phenomenon as a profound interplay of consciousness:

“On the coast of Llyn I know a set of steps cut once into the rock and smoothed by centuries of feet. They lead down to the wave margin and to a well. If you listen, the clamour of voices here, of wave-sound, tide race, the stilled pre-Cambrian magma - a drowned girl’s scream, a pilgrim’s prayer, slap of a launched coracle, the crack and hiss of cooling rock - are co-existent along the flicker of time. It happened here, and so much else besides. The distillation of these events is the spirit of the place.”

It’s a lovely thought, that past events create an atmosphere that we can tap into given the right conditions, a concept that will be familiar to many of us who seek solitude in the wild places but I would respectfully suggest that a spirit of place can be a bit more personal than that, and perhaps simpler to understand.

Last Christmas week I took myself off for a wee afternoon stroll into the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. Every time I take the narrow path that gently climbs its way into the clench of Coire an t-Sneachda I’m filled with memory and a vivid sense of nostalgia, especially in winter.

During the late seventies and early eighties this was my workplace, teaching cross country ski-ing with Highland Guides and SYHA, running winter hillcraft courses during a spell when I ran the activities at Craigower Lodge Outdoor Centre in Newtonmore and introducing the area to my own sons on sporadic wild camping trips.

It didn’t take long to reach the rocky basin of the corrie, immediately below the steep, gullied crags. Where else can you find such superb quality of winter climbing an hour from a road?

I snuggled down behind a great pink granite boulder, opened and poured hot tea from my flask and visually traced the lines of various climbs I had enjoyed in the past with people like Jeff Faulkner, Brian Revill, Steve Spalding and my old friend John Lyall, now one of the finest mountain guides in the country.

I had been with John just two nights previous when he and mountaineer Sandy Allan came round for dinner. Sandy was justifiably excited because he had just completed the writing of his book about his bold traverse of the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, a phenomenal achievement from a Scots climber I first met here in Coire an t-Sneachda many years ago.

As the gloaming began to make its presence felt, the pale dimness temporarily brightened by snow flurries, I shifted myself and began the slippery slope back to the car park. Almost by chance I stumbled across a couple of lads pitching their tent in the middle of the big boulder field.

Despite the fact they were struggling to tie it down in the increasingly blustery wind I felt a genuine pang of envy. What a beautiful place to spend a winter night, such a magnificent setting to wake up in and begin a fresh, new day…

The day was dying now as I made my way downhill, although Loch Morlich was still visible, lying like pool of molten lead below me in Glenmore. I wondered idly how many times I’d walked down this hillside at the end of a good hill-day – was it dozens, or could it be hundreds? I’m still very fond of it.

Just before I took the bend that would bring the car park into view I stopped and sat on a boulder and saw the first stars appear. No Christmas star to guide me home, but the comfort and familiarity of a winter evening sky shining on a place I love deeply.

All day I had been troubled by Glasgow’s George Square tragedy (when an out of control bin lorry killed several people). I’m aware it’s a pretty pointless exercise asking why such things happen. Accidents occur, it’s a fact of life, and that such an accident occurred at what should be a joyous time of year is surely no more than coincidence. But we’re only human, and the faith that many of us were brought up with is so often not yet completely dead in us.

At times like this we find ourselves asking 'why', even though we realise we’ll never know the answer. I don’t claim any flash of insight as I wandered into Coire an t-Sneachda but I do know that as I left that boulder and made my way back into the other world to which I also belong is that I did so with a somewhat more peaceful spirit than I had earlier. I was thankful for loved ones, for friends, and for all those precious moments in the hills that had made me the person I am, for better or worse.

But best of all, I felt the insignificance I always feel when I compare my existence with the much more lasting reality of those crags, the distant hills and those stars that broke the anonymity of the vast skies above. Certainly insignificant, and for the moment at least, I was content to let the greater mysteries be. The spirit of place had weaved its magic once again.

There’s another place where I’ve often lingered and allowed my mind free reign, another spot where I’ve experienced this sense of place. It’s an old howff in Glen Coe.

I like howffs. Not bothies which tend to attract too many people, but hidden howffs, secretive shelters made from stone and rock; maybe a bit of turf, with a dirt floor and room enough for a single, solitude seeking soul.

While bothies evoke images of man in the landscape, howffs feel as though they are part of the landscape, integral to the mountain - born of the same blood and bone, the progeny of fire and frost, ice and wind - only partially shaped by man’s hand, but sharing the soul of the hill.

Created from the mountain, and in the mountain - in a niche below an overhanging crag, or in a crack between great rocks; a small cave hewn from the cliff, or a crevice hidden by bracken fronds, birch and rowan. Hidden from whom, you may ask? Anyone other than the builder, I may answer.

The best howffs are rarely obvious - because the builder wasn’t creating a public shelter, but a private bower, a covert construction concealed from passing eyes, a place to escape to, a place where re-creation can minister the wonder of the green world by its sounds, smells and sensations. And the best howffs of all are old, cloaked in their own mystery.

The particular howff I’m thinking of is of some antiquity. The floor is packed hard and firm, polished by age and there is a density in the structure which cries out its impunity to the elements. I’ve often mused on the identity of the builders and come up with clues, not certainties but suggestions, whiffs and taints as opposed to definites. Across the corrie, beyond the roar of the burn, a black, steep rock wall rears up almost vertically. I know that crag well, almost as intimately as I know any portion of stone in this rocky land for it was on that crag that I learned to climb. It was over four decades ago. I was spotty faced and skinny, nervous and out of my depth and I was literally shown the ropes by cockily confident gangrels. There was little difference in age between us, I recall, but light years in experience, in attitude as well as proficiency. I learned much from them but more importantly, in climb after climb, I learned to love this place, its crag and its burn, and its little howff.

We never climbed new routes on that big porphyr crag, but were happy enough to follow the lines of earlier masters, mountain men of an earlier era who left their legacy in some dozen or so rock routes varying in difficulty from easy scrambles to severe test-pieces that would even stretch the hard-men of today. Some of them, I know, never returned from the war and I wondered how many of them lay in foreign fields, in billets or prison camps, and thought of their climbs on this old crag, and their nights spent in this rude shelter in the hills? I suspect it was those pioneering climbers who created the howff that I now enjoy so much.

I rarely pass by this place without diverting to it, just to sit within its damp walls and enjoy a cup of coffee while I slide into a dwam of nostalgia, and now and then I’ll sleep here, alone in the heart of the mountain with the ghosts of a bygone time.

The observant will notice I’ve used the term ‘nostalgia’ a couple of time, and I believe that’s what helps create a personal spirit of place, but occasionally, just occasionally, I’ve found myself in a situation where I’ve experienced a strong sense of place in the way Jim Perrin described it.

A number of years ago wife Gina and I had been backpacking on the Southern Upland Way and had just crossed over Penistone Rig and down to St. Mary’s Loch beside the Selkirk to Moffat Road. She wanted to stop at the historic Inn, a place formerly patronised by James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd and Sir Walter Scott, but I didn't want to stop, for my mind was still at Riskinhope Hope.

We had passed this place earlier in the morning, a lonely and deserted ruin with an indefinable air of melancholy. It’s an old farmhouse of which only a few crumbling walls remain. Drystone wall boundaries still mark out the in-by fields, tilting up steep slopes on both sides of the old steading. The ubiquitous nettles clustered around the crooked portals of the door were the only real evidence of the living. Hope, in this part of Scotland, means a valley with a meandering burn, and has nothing at all to do with expectation or optimism.

Curiously, despite the dereliction I could sense a tangible spirit of the past: a little spot among the folds in the hills where people were born and died, laughed and cried, rejoiced and were saddened, worked and made play. Could there be something of these human emotions that are forever bound up in the ether of a place? I’ve experienced this same sense of the past in deserted Himalayan villages close to the Tibetan border, in ancient settlements in Jordan and Morocco, and in countless locations throughout the highlands of Scotland. Could it be that the strength and power of human emotion, like intense joy or sadness, can be channelled into something that is bound up forever in such ruins. Is there some kind of presence that can pervade the ambience of a place for years, for centuries, to come? A spirit of place?

The Roman term for spirit of place was genius loci, which tends to a belief in guardian angels, or faery folk, or ghosts while the Japanese feng shui celebrates something very similar. In our own Celtic culture our ancestors had a much stronger sense of place than we do and were much more aware of the importance of ‘place’ than we do today, so perhaps it’s not beyond the pale that such senses still linger in our psyche, awaiting the right conditions to allow it to bubble to the surface and surprise us. For me it’s an essential and welcome element in the whole outdoors experience, one that brings me considerably closer to the land itself, and to those who inhabited these wild places long before me.

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