A Race Against Time on the Coulin Hills

© Norman Hadley

In a story of age and guile versus youth and innocence, Norman Hadley revisits two fantastic hills in the under-sung Coulin Forest, taking on an unusual adversary.

The only person you should try to beat is who you were yesterday. You will have heard this from your PE teacher, your mother and probably seen a similar sentiment printed on a fridge magnet. It was what the man kept telling himself as he tightened his laces at the foot of Coire Lair in the premature brightness of a Highland midsummer morning.

An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Cheann-Dearg from Sgorr Ruadh  © Norman Hadley
An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Cheann-Dearg from Sgorr Ruadh
© Norman Hadley

Thirty-three years earlier, almost to the day, a starstruck teenager had alighted here at Achnashellach Station, about to experience Scotland for the first time. He had travelled overnight by coach and train all the way from Lincoln, too excited to sleep. A third of a century later, he was back.

Red deer raised their heads, bemused by the middle-aged man racing the invisible boy

The youth had set off alone in a fierce heatwave, despite his early start. "Scotland hotter than Madrid," the Kyle of Lochalsh newsstand had proclaimed. He had laboured under a heavy backpacker's rucksack and, between his ears, he was armed with a comprehensive understanding of the layout and scale of…the Lake District fells. He had been walking those fells since he'd been able to walk at all and, as a consequence, knew everything there was to know. As only a seventeen-year-old can.

In fact, it was Wainwright himself that had lured the boy so far north from the familiar heights of Blencathra and Helvellyn. A copy of the great man's Northern Highlands Sketchbook had been discovered on his father's bookshelf and there, on the cover, an outrageous drawing of a mountain called Sgorr Ruadh. It loomed large in his dreams. Even the sound, 'roo-er' ,was like an incantation: its phonetic softness belying the jagged reality of the mountain itself.  He had had to climb it.

Portrait of the contributor as a young man  © Norman Hadley
Portrait of the contributor as a young man
© Norman Hadley

What happens when you don't moisturise  © Norman Hadley
What happens when you don't moisturise
© Norman Hadley

He was about to discover that Scotland requires a fundamental re-calibration of scale. Things that he believed were solid and reliable were soon exposed as absurdities. For example, he believed a mile was a mile was a mile. Well, it may be a mile between the summits of Fairfield and Great Rigg, and this journey may reasonably be sauntered in fifteen to twenty minutes. But a mile of Torridon, the Cuillin ridge or the Aonach Eagach, is on a whole other astral plane.

The boy knew none of this and, guided by an optimistic interpretation of the map, set off to bag Fuar Tholl as a "warm-up" summit before the main event. He quietly believed he was already asserting his discernment, nipping up a Corbett before the Munro. Because everyone just does Munros. But he was about to learn.

Meanwhile, in the Twenty-first Century

The older man may have given the youth a thirty-three-year head-start, but he meant business. Considerably greyer around the muzzle and substantially creakier in the knees, he had nevertheless taken steps to slow down the attrition of time, having kept up his hill-going all these years. He had other things in his favour, such as the modern ubiquity of GPS, and much lighter kit. The boy had carried a 65-litre rucksack; the man had just a bum bag and running shoes. And maybe a little bit of wisdom. OK, perhaps not wisdom, but experience at the very least. If Scotland had sent the boy "homeward to think again," he was perhaps the outcome of all that thinking.

Mist starting to clear from Coire Lair  © Norman Hadley
Mist starting to clear from Coire Lair
© Norman Hadley

On your marks, get set, go. Picture, if you will, one of those clever exercise apps that pits you against a moving dot to represent your Personal Best. The man ran up through forest fire-road, keeping pace with his younger self, then pulling away, unburdened by heavy kit. A stop for a glug of water and perhaps the dot had overtaken. Who knows? There is no detailed record from that time, back in the mid-eighties, before satellites silently hovered overhead, triangulating our every footstep. But the man felt sure he was at least holding his own. The boy had walked through a particularly flaming June, the peat crisp as burnt toast and the sun blindingly bright.

The stalkers' path led onwards, gaining height into the hidden recess of upper Coire Lair. Red deer raised their heads from browsing, bemused by this middle-aged man racing an invisible boy. The solid sheet of cloud above his head started to stretch and thin into wispy strands. The closer he got, the more insubstantial and ghostly it became: ephemeral as a memory. As morning sun broke through, it became apparent that this day was about to deliver something special: a partial inversion.

The man pressed on, lungs pumping; no longer was he racing just the boy but also the shift in the weather, the hope that lures us on. As he attained the summit ridge, the cloud sank away. Across the huge gulf of Coire Fionnaraich, the improbable peaks of Maol Cheann-Dearg and An Ruadh-Stac punched through the sky like a heavyweight's fists. Cloud eddied and tumbled over the shoulder of Fuar Tholl.

Fuar Tholl's massive Mainreachan Buttress  © Norman Hadley
Fuar Tholl's massive Mainreachan Buttress
© Norman Hadley

What We See Depends on Who We Are

The Coulin Forest hills proved just as wild and romantic as the man remembered on the boy's behalf. Possibly more so. The youth earnestly argued he was the more overawed, on account of everything being new. This was his Walkabout, his Farewell Tour to Boyhood.

The man said, no, true perception needs layers of knowledge, familiarity and understanding to fully absorb. "See how the Torridon giants pierce the northern sky? I've trodden those ridges and clambered over those shattered pinnacles. Now look to the south; a huge jumble of peaks fills the horizon, from the Loch Monar hills to Kintail, with the unmistakable bulk of Ben Nevis overtopping the lot". There were so many memories for him here, of bright days, wild days, dreich days. Danger-filled days. But to the boy, this was just a dunefield of anonymous summits, to be looked at in blank incomprehension.

An incoherent crowd of hills, or the familiar faces of old friends?  © Norman Hadley
An incoherent crowd of hills, or the familiar faces of old friends?
© Norman Hadley

Divergent Descents

Their paths parted. It was never a meaningful race and neither would have wanted to humble the other anyway. The boy headed north, his sunburned teenage forehead trying to encompass that word Torridon: its spikiness in the mouth, the implausible yet apposite heat of the first two syllables in his English ears.

Meanwhile, the man ran south, down steep, pathless slopes to the jungly ravine of Coire Lair and the stalkers' path back to his car, scattering deer as he went. He suspected he was faster than the youth but there could never be proof and even if there were, what conclusion could possibly be drawn?

He drove the short distance back to the holiday cottage that he had crept from in the dawn light, a cottage whose weekly rent cost more than the boy would have made from three years of his paper-round. Inside he discovered his wife having breakfast with their daughter, already five years older than the stumbling, heatstruck boy somewhere up there in the furnace of Coire a Cheud Chnoc, trying to comprehend the scale of Liathach.

Liathach and Beinn Alligin from the Coulin hills  © Dan Bailey
Liathach and Beinn Alligin from the Coulin hills
© Dan Bailey

About the Area

The Coulin forest is a wedge of high terrain between Strathcarron and Glen Torridon. The name is, of course, not to be confused with the Cuillin of Skye. Neither should the visitor expect any more tree cover than elsewhere in the Northwest Highlands: the word forest refers to hunting lands. For monomaniacal Munro baggers, there are three peaks of interest: Sgorr Ruadh, Maol Chinn-dearg and Beinn Liath Mhor. But there are also Corbetts of arguably even greater distinction: Fuar Tholl, An Ruadh-Stac and Beinn Damh among them.

The area is largely hewn from Torridonian sandstone, lending itself to grandeur on a monumental scale, with great slabs laid down half a billion years ago and richly bejewelled with lonely lochans. These hills are generally much quieter than the famous Torridon peaks of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe to the north, and that's a great reason to go.

Norman Hadley  © Norman Hadley

About the author

Norman Hadley is an engineer, mathematician, poet, short-story writer and occasional novelist. Outdoors, he's a keen fell runner, lapsed mountain biker, hesitant wild swimmer and recovering wild camper.

Based in Lancashire, thirty minutes from the Lakes National Park boundary, he gets out on the Wainwrights as often as is decent. His current obsession is fastpacking nano-adventures: two-day runs with an overnight wild camp so ultralight as to not need a rucksack.

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