Hebridean Ptarmigan

The dog feeling embarrased by being asked to pose.
The dog feeling embarrassed by being asked to pose.

Having passed hundreds of miles of Britain under my car bumper over the past few weeks, it seemed time to catch up with a pseudo-chronological record of events since the start of August.

Gannets coasted easily around the ferry as it pounded out from Oban, slicing through the short gap to Craignure. The sun began to set and the throb of Lismore lighthouse sent a shiver through the ripples of the wake. As the electric mainland glow diminished, the dark, hulking shape of Mull came to dominate the horizon, along with a front of deep blue cloud gathering over Morvern. An unwilling camper at the best of times, I anticipated a wet night beneath the now proverbial canvas (proverbial, considering that most tents are currently being made from a species of highly flammable polyester that is as water resistant as lavatory paper).

It is a curious system which quantifies the internal volume of tents in terms of the number of people that they can contain. The number relates to the amount of men who can literally fit inside the tent, provided of course that they are motionless and are adopting contorted positions which are only otherwise encountered in the deepest misery of a game of Twister. Comfort is not considered in the “man” system of tent sizing; merely harsh, unforgiving areas that are anathema to those of us who sleep in the shape of a swastika.

The world record for the number of people squeezed into a (new) mini cooper is 28, and yet you don’t hear that statistic bandied around by salesmen in mini dealerships. Minis are sold as being suitable for the transport of (at most) four adults and a child, and in the same way, “three man” tents should be sold as being suitable for the storage of small pets and comestible items only. The amount of space required for one man to sleep is, in my estimation, approximately the same as the area designated as a “six man” tent.

Despite an appalling paucity of space, three of us were able to squeeze into the tent as the rain began to fall with a noisy rattle, and we were subsequently doomed to a night of such maudlin discomfort that when daylight returned to the Sound of Mull, the prospect of ascending Ben More seemed as likely as a trip to Saturn. Everything was wet, and the dog had filled the car with farts that would make a mink gag. If the ferry had been sitting at the terminal, I would have gone home then and there. As it was, the great black and white vision of salvation was idling fatly in the harbour at Oban, on the other side of a chasm of ocean that has never seemed wider.

Buoyed by the spirits of my two friends, we slowly drove across Mull to the foot of the island’s highest point, overlooking Loch na Keal. The summit was smothered in cloud, and only two benign humps rose up in the direction of the peak. Not knowing what we were letting ourselves in for, (and feeling strangely elated by the crippling after-effects of a whisky spuriously named Ben Fogle), the walk was begun.

It is a strange thing about hill climbing that it becomes its own pleasure. Removed from the usual joy of walking to achieve an end, the exercise becomes the job itself. The thrill of ascending grows with ascension, until height becomes a strange, almost drunken buzz. After three hours, we entered that extraordinary no-man’s land of cloud, stone and lichen. Although it seems innocuous from a distance, Ben More is imposingly awesome in person. Vast, invisible spaces grew steadily larger all around as the journey passed; a feeling of appalling emptiness lurked invisibly in the racing fabric of cloud. We get used to having sky above us, and it turns the stomach to feel it on either side, particularly when we are blinded by cloud and cannot quell the imagination with reality. Ravens clocked noisily overhead, while the dog’s whiskers grew silver in the dew. Now and then, a ragged window of sunlight overhead revealed that, somewhere up there, the cloud was thinning.

Strange pools of alpine lady’s mantle quivered as the cloud raced over them, and the mounds of scree chinked musically like porcelain shards on a beach. Shortly before the summit, a small covey of ptarmigan coasted meekly through the stones. One of the smaller poults paused to peck deferentially at the lamplight fruits of some obscure moss, before ambling shyly away. We stood until they had gone, then had the dog look the ground they had been on. She showed huge interest in the leeward sides of the larger stones, where the soft little bodies had cowered while the wind was up. Following their trail backward through the stones, I came at length to a spot where they had lain up together; a small hollow in the moss where fresh shit and deeply-skinned caecal pats indicated that it was a popular spot. Along with the short, brittle cylinders of shit, the staining pats were the only evidence that those mild, ghostly birds had been anything more than kinks in the otherwise easy passage of cloud.

Returning from the summit, the thinning mist chose a fine moment to part. In a few seconds, the rushing clammy veil vanished to reveal Coll and Tiree behind the queer “Dutchman’s cap” of Treshnish fame. Nearer by, Ulva stretched back into the Atlantic, while turning over my shoulder revealed the trio of vast, pyramid peaks on Jura. A scree-stained tangle of mountains lay all around, while Mull itself was lacerated with sea lochs. It was such a staggeringly unexpected vista that I had to sit down and take it in. Hinds appeared from the stones below where we had walked just a few hours before, and a ptarmigan creaked knowingly nearby, wholly concealed without the slightest effort. The bleak, damp night before became a distant memory in the face of such astonishing geography which almost seemed to stretch to America, but which in reality only stretched to something like Mingulay or Barra.

I hadn’t really expected to find ptarmigan on Mull, and knew that while a few birds still remain on the higher ground, like most of the west coast birds they share their lives with wet weather and heavy grazing. You wouldn’t go to the West coast to see ptarmigan when they are so abundant and easy to come by on the drier East, but the very difficulty of finding them on Mull added to the choking pleasure of those few long moments. Extraordinarily, as I sat and absorbed a panorama as fine as any on earth, a peacock butterfly landed on the scree next to my foot. I have no idea what it thought it was doing 2,900 feet up a bare, rocky mountain, but it was clearly nothing unusual to the gaudy insect, since it was joined by another a few moments later.

Having succeeded in finding ptarmigan, I did take extra care to watch for red grouse on the lower ground. Although a few small stands of heather seemed viable, the undergrowth was altogether too grassy to sustain much in the way of wild game. Stacks of asphodel broke the monotony of fescues and bents, but where the higher ground had been littered here and there with sprigs of blaeberry and herbs, there was very little to spare for Mull’s small population of red grouse. Down by the shore of Loch na Keal again, the mountain’s peak stood silvery grey in the evening sunlight.


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