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Sunday, 18 March 2018

What Better Place to Write About Nature? A Month's Retreat in the Scottish Highlands.

The view from our garden, of Ben Resipol.

The plan was to spend four weeks in the middle of nowhere. My partner, Alyson, wanted to paint; I planned to start a new book, about my many attempts, over a lifetime, to find and embrace natural surroundings. We could not have found a better place for the task than this little hideaway in the Scottish Highlands.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. It was a remote spot, six miles down the shore of the loch, along a rough track pitted with deep holes, most of them full of water which hid submerged rocks. But we seemed to be off to a good start. The weather was kind for mid-February, and the scenery spectacular.

The house was tucked away at the end of a muddy track, well sheltered from the north winds

It was after we’d located the key that the excitement started. The place had mostly been empty since the autumn. Empty of humans, that is. So the mice – cute little brown field mice who wouldn’t hurt a soul – had moved in. As far as we could see, they had then spent the winter months chewing. They’d chewed the plastic box that contained the candles. They’d chewed the candles. They’d chewed the foam rubber seating of the settee. They’d chewed the kitchen sponges. And, of course, they had left their droppings on every surface.

We rolled up our sleeves, lit a fire and cleaned up. I put on my ex-rat-catcher face and declared war. It was a long-drawn-out affair, lasting all but a few days of the four weeks we were there, but, although I burned the bodies and have no evidence, I am claiming victory. Those last few days we neither saw nor heard them once.

The mice were a passing irritant compared to what followed. The gas lights didn’t work – or rather, some did, but had a disturbing habit of triggering the carbon monoxide alarm. We decided to stick with candles. Romantic, cosy, but you can’t read without a lot of squinting – and the light was still fading around six most days. So we played Scrabble, nightly.
The solar power didn’t work, so neither could I. I can write a journal long-hand, which I did, but cannot compose that way. I've just been using a pc for way too long. We’d been there nine days before we located the source of the problem – defunct storage batteries – and managed to replace them. Then, at last, I could fire up my laptop and write. Which you can bet I did. 26,000 words - good words, if you want my opinion - in 16 days.

We managed too to get out hiking every day, and that was a great joy. Around us were mountains, woods, burns and lochs. The walking was never easy, but rarely impossible. The vegetation was mostly grass, which grew in tussocks, along with bracken, reeds and mosses – which meant that, although the ground was very wet at times, there was almost always somewhere to take your next step that wasn’t a foot deep in water.
This lovely stretch of water was less than half an hour's walk away, but note the coarse vegetation

As the days went by our early fair weather gave way to bitter cold. Our water supply, which came direct from a mountain stream, froze solid. We carried buckets up to the nearest pool to collect what we needed for washing, further up to fill bottles for drinking. After two or three such days the sound of gurgling in the sink was an unbelievable thrill.

For our first few days the house was icy cold. It had been empty for months. I regularly slept in a full set of long merino wool underwear, occasionally with a hat on – and that was under two duvets. One night I got into a sleeping-bag too. But slowly, with the fire on all day every day, the stone walls warmed up. That was the first great comfort of the place, the cast-iron stove. Regularly stoked with coal, it heated gallons of scalding water and gave us our second great pleasure, a nightly hot bath.

Gradually we settled to our respective rhythms - Alyson painting while I wrote. Suddenly the days were flying by. We were equally productive, equally frustrated when our time came to an end. We will return. Of that we are sure. Looking out on scenes like this on a daily basis is addictive.

A peaceful evening view across Loch Shiel to Ben Resipol


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