In the runup to staging a one-man mountaineering-themed play at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, John Burns snatches a few hours from his busy schedule to re-locate himself on a bothy night micro adventure.
It happens to us all these days. You look in your calendar and something’s missing, someone has stolen your time. I was sure I could squeeze a few days on the hill in before August, just two or three, nothing extravagant. Yet everywhere I look I have appointments and things to do. I’m sure there used to be more days in July than there are now.
When you are a child, I read somewhere, time drips slowly past, when you become an adult that drip turns into a waterfall. I’m petrified I’m going to turn round one day as something rushes past, “What was that? Oh, my life! Shit I missed it.”
Then an idea occurs to me, a way of getting a quick fix of solitude before I head to Edinburgh and spend August amongst the mad maelstrom of the Festival Fringe. I live in Inverness, right in the heart of the heart of the Highlands, and I’ve always thought how easy it would be to walk in to a bothy on a summer’s evening and come out the following morning having had a night of peace but still able to get work done the following day.
"The little walk is good value, it’s often the small things you spot that bring interest to a journey"
I’ve thought about doing this, planned it even, but have I done it? Of course not, I’ve put it on the “things to do” shelf, along with buying a canoe and writing a novel, and left it gathering dust. Now is the time. It’s gone seven in the evening by the time I finally extricate myself from Inverness and head down the great glen to Fort Augustus.
I expect to get there in half an hour forgetting that this is summer and the roads are clogged with tourists cruising at 30 miles an hour, taking photos, and gazing transfixed at the scenery whilst, behind them, irate Highlanders brake furiously, with teeth gritted and try to remember that without these dreamy holiday makers the economy of the region would collapse.
The loch keeper’s clock in the wheelhouse of the swing bridge at the head of Loch Oich reads 7.45 as I cross the Caledonian canal. An hour or so later, I’m not too sure as I’ve forgotten my watch, I push open the doors of Glenbuck bothy and settle in for the night. It’s a warm night but I’ve carried in a thing called a Firelog to give me a bit of a blaze. A night in a bothy without a fire is like Christmas without a tree, you can survive it but it’s just not the same.
"The peace of the place slowly seeps into me and all the worries I have feel insignificant now"
The Firelog proves amazingly effective and blazes away for hours giving me something to watch instead of TV. The peace of the place slowly seeps into me and all the worries I have feel insignificant now. I must be getting old, I don’t tick Munros, I don’t rush about the hills worrying about how far I’ve walked or if I can make the next top. I'm not here to climb Carn Dearg, the local Corbett; I just enjoy being here; the hills have cast a spell on me.
As the light of the day fades a doe leads her fawn, bouncing on spring like legs, past the bothy window. She catches sight of me and we exchange glances for a moment like travellers in a secret world. The night passes in this silent place and I’m glad I have the bothy to myself. Somehow I want to be alone here and sense the rhythm of the place. Only a handful of bats sweep silently around the bothy, barely disturbing the air as I drink my tea and watch the sun sinking.
On the floor there’s a business card left by a member of the Kervaig Pipe club. Like me, these men are fugitives from a world that constrains their every move. One of them must have sought refuge here, puffed his pipe, and moved on before the Health and Safety search teams found him, leaving only this card and the lingering smell of pipe smoke in his wake.
The sun wakes me in the morning, at least I think it’s morning, as I have no clock it’s hard to be sure. Though the sun is high there is still dew on the grass so I reason it can’t be too late. If I were a true woodsman I’d be able to tell the time by planting a boy scout in the ground and measuring the distance between his shadow and the nearest pub. Either that or by looking at which side the moss grows on a tree or perhaps that’s how to find North, I’m never too sure.
"A bothy night without a fire is like Christmas without a tree, you can survive it but it’s just not the same"
After a brew and some porridge I head back down the track towards what is supposed to be civilisation. The little walk is good value, it’s often the small things you spot that bring interest to a journey. A little shrew wanders across my path on his way to terrorise the insect population. On seeing me he pretends to be a pebble long enough for me to photograph him. I don’t like to tell him I’ve spotted him and his ruse of pretending to be inanimate is all in vain.
Lower down, as the Great Glen opens up below me, the Caledonian Canal a lazy blue ribbon, I notice some little burrows in a sandy back. I’m peering into one when a bird pops out so fast it almost hits me in the face. I’m no ornithologist but I think he, and his mates, of which there are about twenty, are called sand martins - well that would make sense.
The Lock Keeper’s clock reads 9.30am as I head back to my car. My arrival coincides with the cruise boat that plies its way up and down Loch Ness and I wait for a while, at the gate of the swing bridge, as it passes. Quite a few of the tourists photograph me, standing there with my rucksack and walking poles. I realise, with some delight that, at least for them, I am part of the local wildlife.
Driving back to Inverness I say good bye to the shrew, to the sand martins and the doe with her fawn. I realise how fortunate I am to be able to drive in under an hour to a place that it would take most people in Britain a whole day to reach. I must go back soon and make the solitude commute again.
- John Burn's play Mallory: Beyond Everest is on now at the Fringe, and runs until 25 August - see listings here
Mallory and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, vanished into the mist high on Everest in 1924. They carried with them the hopes of a nation ravaged by World War One. But what if Mallory had survived Everest, what demons would have haunted him? This one-man play, uses a combination of physical theatre, projection and specially composed music to explore the nature of obsession, and looks at what drives a man to sacrifice himself and those he loves for a symbolic goal. Comedy and tragedy combine to create a piece that is both moving, funny, and controversial.
Here's a preview:
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