I’m going to start posting some prose pieces I’ve recently retrieved from notebooks. Maybe because I haven’t read them for years, they seem quite fresh to me. I hope readers like them. This first one is a reflection.
This one, we agreed, would be all about loneliness. You said you’d been lonely at times. I said I had too, but actually I was lying so I could appear to share your feelings. It wasn’t true. I’ve been alone often, even in company, but I’ve never felt loneliness.
Say I’m climbing a mountain, maybe in the Perthshire hills. I could tell you which one I’m remembering, but it wouldn’t mean anything to you. I get up early, make my breakfast, make up my lunch, pack the day-sack, and drive. It’s about a hundred miles from home. I have the radio on – Classic FM, or Radio Two until I feel guilty about listening to crap and switch back. I park the car in the public car park outside the village, and set off up the single-track road that leads to a farm set in the hills. That beautiful river that I told you about flows among the boulders about 100 yards below the farmhouse. A great spot for a picnic in the summer – sit on the hot rocks and dangle your feet in the pools – but I’m not here for that today. This is serious – I’m here to bag a Munro.
Once I get past the farmhouse, with its chained dog too bored to bark, I’m on a rough track. Over a cattle grid, and I’m right in among the beasts. Most of them are milling round the silage hopper, churning up the glaur. It’s early spring, and the grass isn’t yet lush enough at this altitude. They’re mostly young winterers, nosy in the way young animals are. A couple of the braver wee stirks try to intimidate me, puffing at the air and stotting their delicate hooves on the ground. I laugh and shake my stick at them, sending them running round behind the others.
Nothing yet about loneliness, you’re saying. True, so far I’ve been among my fellow creatures, close to human habitation, and walking on a metalled road. Let me walk on a bit further then.
I’m at the point where the path heads diagonally up the face of a substantial hill. I look along the track as far as I can see, and there’s nobody there; I am truly alone. Except for the sheep, and they don’t count. Sheep never count.
I trudge along, gaining height all the time, passing nobody, being passed by nobody, until I reach the shoulder of the hill. I find myself on a long wide ridge that trends upwards over several miles. I see the summit crags a long way off, and much higher. I’m the only human being in the landscape. Far below me, on the lower slopes of the next valley, a group of brown boulders resolves into a stag herd, munching on a new green flush. Their heads are down, but I can see their antlers, not yet dropped. The track winds its way along the whaleback, in and out of eroded peat hags. Meadow pipits flit about in the blow-outs, looking for insects.
Nearly two hours later I’m picking my way through the rock field at the top, heading for the trig point – which I slap – it’s my tradition. Knocked the bastard off. I hunker down in the shelter of a house-sized boulder, and eat the sandwiches and fruit I’ve brought with me. Do I feel lonely? No, I do not. I have spoken to no-one, not even myself, but at no point on the ascent have I felt the slightest twinge of loneliness. On the contrary, I have relished my solitude, my time alone in the mountains. I have never felt the slightest shred of desire to have anyone else with me on these big walks – that would spoil it for me.
So I go back to the point I made at the beginning: I don’t know what loneliness is like, because I’ve never experienced it and I can’t imagine it.
So what’s your story? Are you lonesome tonight?
Copyright © Colin Will, 2003