Spread out a map of southern Scotland, and you’ll notice something quite subtle, but amazing. You might not see it straight away, but gaze at it with your eyes half closed, you’ll begin to see a dizzying number of cairns, standing stones and cup and ring marked rocks. These sentinel reminders of life thousands of years ago weave into a vast landscape of time, ritual upon ritual, eclipse on eclipse. In some ways, we have such a better grasp of space than we do of the expanse of time. But maybe in places like this, they become intertwined.
No where is this clearer than in the prehistoric landscape around Kilmartin at the end of Loch Awe. The terrain here is fairly typical of southern Scotland-hellishly lumpy and scrubby, yet fertile. What sets this place apart is that here, burial sites, astronomically arranged standing stones and circles are spread over the valley floor. Laid out in a vast sacred space, the effect today is dramatic and evocative. This landscape is probably no more special than any other in the area, but having lain under a protective layer of peat for hundreds of years until the 1800’s, the preservation is exceptional.
From Kilmartin, the glen spreads out like a heavy carpet, rucked here and there by ancient hill forts like Dunadd, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Dalriada. A landscape where time is as important as space.
Over the years, we've drifted out of the kayaks into lochside church grounds, and almost by accident found an uncanny number of ancient, beautiful carved stone grave slabs. These at Kilmartin church are some of the oldest in Scotland. Walking into the simple stone building was to feel a strong sense of gravity.
Later, I went for a run past cup and ring-marked stone slabs, their edges fringed with lurid green moss. Beyond, I turned right onto a singletrack mountainbike trail, then side-stepped back onto forestry roads. More track junctions came and went, and by this time I was turning mostly at random. On the right was a steep hillside recently felled of trees. In this wasteland there was a steep, rutted path roughly cut out with a digger and I took it. By the time I got to the top of the hill, it was about time to turn back. But as I did so, something caught my eye. About 30 metres away, a pointed gable end of a grey rock bent out of the wasted stubble.
I had stumbled upon another ancient site. It was part of a stone circle, surrounding a solitary chambered cairn, floating in a sea of flayed ground.
There's probably no magic or mystery to this. But maybe, just under the surface, there is a thin line that leads us.
Round the back of Mosedale, the River Caldew slices through the bog and bracken on its way to the flatlands to the north, draining Skiddaw in the process. In spate, it is fast-running and broad. During the dry spells, it is flat, glittery and littered with stones like the true Highland rivers of the north.
Anticipating a gentle shuffle up along the path to Skiddaw House, I got swept along on a rather more purposeful journey: to find The Broxap Boulder. Known to a select few (or perhaps everyone but me..), Andy Sharples offered to point out the whereabouts of a boulder that allowed you to cross the Caldew 'without getting your feet wet', a secret imparted to Andy by Jon Broxap.
This stepping stone on Leg 1 of the Bob Graham Round took a bit of finding. Launching into tussock, then whipping heather stalks, we aimed roughly at the river. After some slewing back and forth, and with, it has to be said, dripping feet, we found the boulders. We bounced back and forth across them to prove, rather forlornly, that we could cross the river without getting our feet wet, then trudged back out along the little swathe through the heather carved by the feet of the few.
Back at the cars, I threw myself into a roaring plunge pool in the River Caldew.
Thursday morning: a recce of Leg 1 of the Bob Graham Round
The first leg of the Bob Graham Round, for those who don't know, takes a U-shaped course over first Skiddaw, then Great Calva and up the great broad back of Blencathra. These three immense climbs make up the 5 or 6000 foot or so of ascent on this leg.
The July monsoon season had started again. Thick blankets of cloud held Skiddaw’s grey top as the first rains thundered in on the wind. I scooted down the back side of Skiddaw into the cloud and got out the compass. There is a wonderful mathematical simplicity about moving on a compass bearing. A complex life form being guided by a few spinning atoms of iron. Distance, speed and time in a white darkness of clouds.
Moving up Great Calva's vast flank, a poem by Rumi on the iPod made me jump:
"...Keep walking Till there is no place to get to. Don't try to see through the distances That is not for human beings.
Move within, But don't move the way fear makes you move. Move within..."
With these longish runs, you can slowly prise back the tightly bound leaves of what the brain thinks the body can withstand. It's a good thing to do.
Friday night: light support of Cathy Gill's Bob Graham Round
At the age of 17, Cathy Gill was attempting to be the youngest woman to complete the Bob Graham Round. I'd offered to help by running into the notch between Skiddaw and Great Calva with some soup with her mum and sister, Dawn and Jane.
Only things weren't quite as they should have been. First and foremost, the weather was unbelievably bad. So bad that nobody really knew whether it was sensible to even start. And Dawn was so ill with the 'flu that she should really have been in bed, not standing in the middle of Keswick in the thundering rain.
Cathy Gill and Stuart Hurst on Leg 1
Dawn was wearing the accumulated anxiety of a mother about to watch her daughter set out on a 70 mile run across the mountains along with a bout of flu in the time of an epidemic. She handed me an enormous tub of soup, then a few bottles of water.
We set off, not quite sure whether we'd get there in time.
'I wonder if we'll make it in time' Dawn whispered, in concerned tones. A little later, she suggested that we start running while she walked behind...
Janey bounced off, unencumbered by the burdens of either age or soup. I thought about mentioning that I couldn't run with this much weight, but started shuffling anyway. It seemed to work, so I kept going. Soon, I was running with eyeballs out, stupidly trying to catch up with Jane. The path had become a river, and plodging through it, I remembered that I had gulped down too much tea in the anxious moments before Cathy's start, and now needed to go to the loo. Still, there was no time for that if the soup was to arrive.
We did indeed get to the crossing point just in time. Cathy, Adam and their pacers were as wet and slick as seals, while the rest of us sherpas just looked drowned. After a few gulps of soup, they were off into the mist, and we traced our steps back over the Caldew, one more time.
The pacers taking a breather
Running back to the car, the Glenderaterra River was spewing for its entire length at angry fire hydrant strength. The Caldew would be an immense, brown torrent by now, and even the Broxap Boulder would be engulfed.
In the conditions, Cathy and Adam did amazingly well. Cathy had to retire at Dunmail as the wind and rain on the Helvellyn range had worn them down. Adam continued on to Leg 3 but also had to give in to the weather eventually. Cathy has already started planning another attempt in August.
The relief is palpable- coming in to land Photos by Stu Mair
Sometimes it's quite good to do something that you're thoroughly unprepared for: and the one and a bit mile swim at the Day in the Lakes Triathlon fitted the bill there quite nicely. With the number of serious open water swims stretching onto two fingers of one hand, I really was wondering whether it would be sink or swim.
As the swim wore on, though, there was a massive sense of relief to realise that it was going to be ok. I'd survived a fairly decisive clip round the head and one quite impressive headlock from other swimmers, but other than that, it was plain sailing.
There are those times when it's wet and windy outside, and there's nothing for it but to wheel out the mountainbike. It's a fill in for us. A way to walk out the door past the beckoning vacuum cleaner and make the most of a marginal day.
Here and there, we've visited all of the 7 Stanes of Scotland, and a smattering of other mountain bike trail centres besides. Each of the 7 Stanes though, have a unique identity. In amongst the miles of tracks, somewhere, there's a stone. Doesn't sound much, and to most of the mountainbikers there, it probably means very little.
At the Scottish border with England, the sculpted stone at Newcastleton is inscribed with Rabbie Burns' Auld Lang Syne to the north and Jerusalem to the south. Some of the other Stanes are perhaps more subtle, esoteric even. There's one shaped like a Pictish arrow head and carved with runes. Another inscribed in Klingon.
Perhaps the symbolism of this stone is fairly obvious. But for some reason, I really like it.
Going in search of that magical blend of beauty, melancholy and wilder-than-fiction myth that jumps out at you on the Scottish Isles, we ended up on Seil and Luing recently.
Tip-toeing through first mist and then thunder and lightning, we made it to the deserted quarry township of Belnahua. A tiny dot of land, half corroded and eaten by years of slate quarrying, it is surrounded by a tidal mash of currents slewing through tight narrows of land and scattered islands.
It is a surprising place. This is all old slate quarry, but it is like walking on pillows. A deep machair has evolved over the 100 years of human absence, and as you walk over its unexpectedly uneven man-made surface, it is deeply plush as thick down. Things appear out of the grass. A winding mechanism. A mechanical pump. A series of channels for water to escape into the ocean.
Nature is slowly reclaiming the hard slate back into a soft island again.
Cormorants on misty skerries
Sometimes, it's easier to piece together the history of a place by visiting a graveyard than it is any museum. And Luing's ruined chapel at Kilchattan is no exception. There, in the stillness, we found the slate quarriers, founders of Presbyterian splinter groups and the Latvian sailors shipwrecked off Belnahua in 1936.
Only there for a day or two, we sank a little into this place. In the village shop, it took moments for us to find out that someone we knew lived in the village. Later, we asked for some water at a nearby house. 'Oh, you'll be the kayakers then. My husband's been watching you with the binoculars all day. He said you must know what you're doing because you hit the tide just right...'