Originally from Merseyside, John D. Burns moved to the capital of the Highlands, Inverness, over thirty years ago, to follow his passion for the hills. For over 40 years he has walked and climbed the hills of Scotland whilst also making occasional trips to more exotic location like the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Canadian Rockies.
An expert ice climber, he was also a member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, and has taken part in numerous rescues in the Highlands. More recently he has rediscovered his love for remote bothies (isolated mountain shelters) and regularly visits the wilder places of his Scottish home. John is the author of two books: Bothy Tales and The Last Hillwalker.
Sweat is anxiety leaving the body. I don’t remember much about the drive along Loch Ness to the hills above the isolated white cottage that is the Cluanie Inn nestling in the depths of Glen Sheil the steep sided Highland glen. In the hour or so it took me to drive from my home in the Highland capital I took little notice of great expanse of water I drove beside, my mind spinning in turmoil.
Everyone is beset by some sort of struggle. It can be a myriad of things like family conflict, addiction, health or workplace stress. For me, on this spring day, it was the sense of being let down that persecuted me. I had applied to take my workplace pension two years early. At first, I’d been led to believe that it was a mere formality; that I’d simply have to apply to get my pension released.
My imagination had sung with visions of freedom that would allow me to spend my days exploring the hills of my Highland home or, indulging my other passion, writing. I’d imagined lazy summer days in the hills, nights in remote bothies and the freedom to allow my creativity to take me to unheard of places. A little paradise, away from the drudgery of work, was at hand.
That morning a brown envelope landed on my door mat. I read the letter in a dazed silence. ‘We regret,’ it had said, nothing good ever comes after those words. The letter told me that I couldn’t be allowed to take my pension early and, in the few moments it took me to read the letter, my vision of paradise vanished. I’d have to spend another two years in a job I’d come to hate. Two more years of enduring endless meetings in stuffy rooms, two long years of writing reports that achieved less than nothing.
For the first hour of my walk I saw nothing. The landscape around me was blotted out by the anxiety in my head as I rehearsed over and over again how I would plead my case and fight to overturn the decision. Then I crested a small hill and a movement caught my eye. I had taken a stag, dozing in the grass, by surprise. Only yards from me it leapt to its feet in alarm and galloped away. Watching that sleek, powerful body, flow across the hillside awakened me from my nightmare of worry and brought into sharp focus the landscape around me.
The scent of the heather filled my nostrils and, for the first time that day, I listened to the wind as it ran its fingers across the hillside. I felt the breath sucking through my body, the effort of the climb making my body damp with sweat. I stood, transfixed, my eyes following the contours of the hills and watching the sunlight pick out the greens and browns of the hills.
When I moved on, I had changed. The arguments in my head sounded distant now and the world I worried about was far away. An hour or so later I stood beside the summit cairn and gazed in wonder at the grandeur of the Highland hills stretching far away into the distance. I had stepped into a different world, where time is measured in millennia and the rhythm of the seasons is the only law.
On the way down, the worry had left me. Now I noticed all the changing hews of the landscape and paused to examine intricate patches of moss and marvel at the lichen growth on the rocks. I felt at peace, in harmony with the wild, natural world around me.
Going down I passed the stag I had surprised on the ascent. This time he knew I was coming and watched calmly from a few hundred yards distance as though we had reached an understanding. I was relaxed and carefree as I returned to my car. The sweat on the ascent and the wild wind had purged the worry from my body.