Crossing Rannoch Moor, Scotland. Late May 1969.
Our days went walking by with no other souls, just us and the dogs and Bess and the wagon. A barren landscape of heather and moss which for me held nothing but cold dread – all that sky-wide space and featureless misty horizon. Exposure.
As we stopped to rest, Robert saw a pile of rocks far across the moorland and decided he must go to visit it. I stayed with the dogs and Bess and the wagon as he set out. His figure became smaller and smaller until I thought he might just disappear – taken into the hidden fairy kingdom he had always wanted to find, never to emerge again, leaving me with my heartbeat and the dogs and Bess and the wagon to go back or go forward or – or what?
The road was so long, empty. But then – back in the distance – I saw a red dot. The dot became a car. A red mini. It flashed past me in a blink, reminding me how slowly we had been travelling, how our footsteps and hoof-beats were taking us along at just a human and horse’s pace.
I stood there – seemingly invisible, but the driver must have seen that strange little green wagon – with its red undercarriage and bright yellow wheels against the endless colourless moor. And the black horse, and the young woman waving in the middle of this great bare land. But there was for me no longed for waving back, or slowing down or ached for link with another human being. The mini became a small red dot again. Gone.
Fury rising. Why was I not in a car? A car with a good strong engine and a tank full of petrol, safe and insulated from the wilderness. Why were we making Bess do this? How ever did I come to be here, alone in the middle of wide open land under a never-endingly grey sky? With miles left behind me of urban and suburban roads, spring-green fields and lakes and familiar soft hills – with miles of unknown ahead all still to be trodden? Slow and steady pace wins the race? What was the sense in it?
I remember vividly that moment of doubt – and still don’t really know the answers.
Finding wood for a fire to boil the kettle was not possible. No trees. Combustible heather roots? Danger, fire, fire. Better not. No tea for Robert when he returned – without news of fairy kingdoms.
On we went.
We had been climbing slowly for days. Through Tyndrum and on, no let up for Bess, leaning hard into her collar and traces.
But as we approached the jaws of Glencoe with the mountains rearing up around us, we could feel the road begin to fall away. We clambered up on to the seat of the wagon, beckoned the dogs safely inside, and our black Bess started on her wild, mane-flying, glorious descent.
Free, no trudge, no ache, just the wind in our hair, the air racing past and the joyous clatter of Bess’s iron shoes as they hit the tarmac.
Laughter the whole way down. A long way down, and down and round and down again. No other vehicles on the road.
As that road flattened out we found a lone cottage owner who let us stay in his field. We could let Bess out of her harness, off to her peaceful grazing.
In my mind I still see the kindly green of the hardwood trees. The first ones we had sheltered under for miles and miles.
A few fallen branches. Wood for the fire.
Sweet tea at last.