It had been a hot summer. The hottest in forever. Sweating in London, I was impatient for the mountains. Rescue came via email. A stranger replied to my website newsletter: “I like your newsletter. Would you like to stay in our family’s little bothy in the Highlands for a few days?”
I folded myself into a tiny hire car. Beside me on the seat, last minute supplies: four cans of dog food for the lobster pots, and a packet of fizzy Haribos for me. The tiny engine whined at my impatience as we dashed into the darkness, twitchy for deer running onto the narrow, dark road, kept awake by sugar, anticipation, and whatever the radio could provide.
“Donald Trump… Brexit…” I clicked away from that radio station, and eventually through all the others as reception dwindled until I was left with Gaelic music, and then static, and then finally silence as I drove into the glens. The mountains were black under the gloaming sky which never really darkens this far north in the summertime.
The days became fuller, easier, and slower as the silence became a warm duvet rather than a challenge demanding to be filled. Hour after hour I hiked, or swam, or slurped tea, or sat and stared. Each night before going to bed I cast for trout in the late evening light, the only person in these mountains.
I slept in the car for a couple of hours, waiting for dawn. Then I was off, heaving on my pack in the silence. Three deer watched me from down the road. A light drizzle fell, a rare novelty in this strange summer of 2018. I liked it. I shoved the dog food in my pack and the final few sweets into my mouth and began to walk. My pack was heavy with days of supplies and gear and cameras but I was too excited to mind—I was back in the Highlands. It had been too long.
Minutes into the 4 am trek into the bothy my trousers were sopping wet from swishing through bracken. I paused on the climb to look back. The sea loch was smooth grey, and at the foot of a green mountain a cluster of small fisherman’s cottages slept quietly. Over the rise was a small loch tucked in a glen. I peered through the drizzle and the midges for signs of rising trout. I kept back from the edge, just in case. I would return later with a rod and unrealistic expectations.
I remembered from the directions to follow the little burn that exited the loch down past a series of jostling waterfalls. It was a useful instruction for I would never have spotted the bothy. It was not marked on a map, but there it was! Perched between the hill and the water. I hurried down through purple heather and dropped my pack on the porch. I found the hidden key and unlocked the faded green door, then stepped inside my new home for the next few days.
I was perturbed by the silence.
London had been so busy but now my day was empty. There was no noise. No people. There was nothing I had to do. But I found it, as I always do when escaping, absolutely impossible to do nothing, to relax, to be still.
I was thrilled to be here, and kiddy-excited, but most of my movement was simply from the habit of being wound tight, a clockwork soldier marching on autopilot to the rhythms and conventions and expectations that to be successful you should always be busy.
Yesterday, I gave a talk in the high-tech auditorium of a successful company in central London. I stepped from the office on to the noisy, humid street in a canyon of glass towers and a torrent of red buses, taxis, and people. This morning, I took a cup of tea and an apple out onto the porch of this bothy and looked at the motionless sea loch just a few feet away. I turned off my phone.
I stabbed holes in my cans of dog food, jab, jabbing all the way round, then baited a pair of heavy lobster pots with them. I carried the pots down to a rocky headland, tied on a bright orange buoy with a long, blue, scratchy rope, and tossed them off the rocks. I watched them sink slowly past the shallow turquoise shelf and down into the black depths. I crossed my fingers.
I spent the afternoon fishing unsuccessfully but happily from the rocks. Deciding my luck was elsewhere, I climbed back up to the loch in the glen to cast some flies and fish for trout. Some hours later I was forced by clouds of infuriating midges back down to the gentle shore breeze. I entered the water then dived, swimming down to the very limits of my lungs in a failed search for scallops. No scallops, no crabs, no pollock, no trout, no luck. But what I did have was a beer chilling in the burn and all the long evening hours to myself in this beautiful, secluded bothy. I had all the luck in the world. I lit a small fire in the wood burner, an unnecessary luxury on a July evening. But I was chilled from my diving and a hot fire makes a snug bothy and a cold beer and a good book even more perfect.
As the days passed my mind slowed, noticeably unwinding. I drank my morning tea on an old armchair on the porch, watching wrens dashing about their business in the branches of a small pine tree. I was settling in to this new environment, back in the open spaces and simple life I love so much. The distant mountains looked appealing, as did the yacht that passed, raising its white mainsail as it puttered towards the open sea. Appealing, yes, but I did not feel bound to dash to the mountain, to bag it, to wish I was up a mountain or out on a boat. Rather I appreciated that I was happy to be here and to be still.
Nothing had changed. Nothing but me. Not the view of the loch, nor the mountains made from some of the planet’s most ancient rock. Not my empty crab pots nor my continued failure to catch dinner from the cold sea that brimmed with life, or from the warm, peaty loch whose trout gleefully ringed the water wherever I was not. They seemed to delight in leaping mockery.
No, all that had changed was that I was once again able to sit still, for minutes at a time, and just be. No great thoughts, no nirvana, but just a gentle subsiding of the noise in my mind. The whoosh of silence in my head. When I focussed I could – just – hear the burn. That was all. Everything else, every other sound, was internal.
The days became fuller, easier, and slower as the silence became a warm duvet rather than a challenge demanding to be filled. Hour after hour I hiked, or swam, or slurped tea, or sat and stared. Each night before going to bed I cast for trout in the late evening light, the only person in these mountains. The loch lay absolutely still reflecting the rocky crags, the clouds in the blue sky, the sliver of sunshine, the thoughts in my mind. The reed beds miraculously, doubled by their reflection. All was peaceful, except for the back and forth swoosh of my little rod, and the piss-taking, leaping trout. I gave up and went to bed, smiling.
See more from Alastair Humphreys here.