Non fiction 'Pony Paths'



Author’s note: In this piece the true Gaelic place names have been avoided in order to safeguard the location of golden eagle nest sites. 


It’s late August and I’ve been walking the pony paths in this glen with you since early June. Now the frogs are half-grown, no longer springing like tiddlywinks from under our feet. Gold rush of bog asphodel is over, empty flower shells relaxing to rust. Meanwhile the Scotch argus butterflies have exploded, we’re passing through dark sweet clouds of them now.  It’s been fifteen years since ponies took deer off the hills here, and today there are no Highland garrons living in the glen. Lintel, Morag and Duke, Amber and Jodie, all long-buried. Yet the paths cleave on, works of craft and hard graft. These remnants from the Victorian Deer Forests are culturally and politically problematic for me, and yet their physicality is a balm, they are works of art. Walking them my hearts sings, and my feet find ease.

    I walk with the stick you gave me. The shank is hazel cut locally. The handle is carved from the horn of a tup you found on the hill - he’d fallen into a hole and died there. Twenty odd years ago you’d shot his horns off, a stick maker couldn’t leave them to go to waste. I imagined the pink scud of the exposed quick. I shuddered, it sounded violent. Hard to sync that to the soothing heft of horn handle now fitting my palm. The lucent aliveness of it, how it catches every colour and mood of the day. This is a careworn stick, you’d taken it to the hill yourself for years, replaced its shank many times, before giving it to me.

    You and this stick know the pony paths so well. I feel very fortunate to walk them with you both. Today we are high on The Rough Hill. It’s early August and hot. Sweat pours down my back and we drink at a pool where you tell me Morag used to drink on her way to collect deer shot on The Round Hill of the Birches. We’re keeping well above The Burn of Split Stones. You hold a lot of store by not losing height, it saves energy and time. The water below breathes over madder-rose rock, my lungs want to float me down there, let my toes trail through the uppermost needles of the Scots pines on the way. These trees that have survived against centuries’ of odds. Previous owners admired the pine trees, got helicopters in and fenced the area off to protect them from grazing. The pine trees were infertile through old age so seedlings were brought in from outside. The old and new are flourishing. I imagine that these long-standing pines must know everything there is to know of this place, mapping it all in the jigsaw of their bark: each birth, love and bare-boned death; every secret of wolf, vole and cone; every land-use change, displacement and replacement; summering of cattle, gathering of sheep, then the last cow walked out of here, last of the lambs sold. And when the hydroelectric power schemes go in next year, and their roots are shaken by heavy machinery, they will feel yet one more tremble of time. 

    In this stronghold of golden eagles, this curved place where voices of land and water and sky can be heard crystalline clear, you urge me to think positively. This glen has seen so much action over the millennia, at the hand of ice and human, it can surely cope. And maybe the current owners will put the money generated back into this generous place; into restoration and regeneration projects, like the one in the remnant pine forest below; perhaps even the repopulation of this glen, now there is only you, one man living here, an all-time low. I follow you through a gate that after fifty years is still hung to within a millimetre of perfection. You point out the workmanship, how every fencepost is straight, every wire still taut. You shake your head in admiration. Simple things, in the here and now, that make sense to you. That are full of meaning and connect you to the people who have worked here before you.

    These pony paths are the same, painstakingly built, often over older pre-existing paths, by people who knew what they were doing, who built things to last. We’re following the cairns - large glacially deposited rocks with small stones placed on top by stalkers and ghillies - that mark the pony path. It is a slow hot trudge, my heart is pounding into the hush of the hillside. From here, on the other side of the glen, two more pony paths are visible following burns that curve round each side of The Hill of the Hinds. I have walked them slowly with you, you who knows them by heart. I feel the pony paths, all four of them, in the warm open spread of my hand. The lines on my palms tingle. From up here I can see how the deer paths cross the pony paths, running like threads of bruise and grace through the story of it all.

    The path curving round the west face of The Hill of the Hinds is the pony path I know best, I’ve walked it three times now. The first was with you this time last year. We were shadowed that day by a juvenile golden eagle and you told me how the eagles are your friends, how they know you, have been watching your every move for thirty years. They recognise the measure of your step, sense in the air the days you will leave deer gralloch for them. The second time was with my friend and our two Highland ponies, Ross and Chief. We’d been training Ross for the deer. You shot a hind and Ross carried her down off the hill that day. We’d loaded him on the other side of the burn among the shielings at the base of The Black Glen. Ross was willing, the work still present in his Rùm blood, but he was twenty and his hocks were sore and we all knew he wouldn’t be doing any more of this work. 

    The third time on that path was this June. I passed Ross’ droppings, still there on the path from last year, and I cried. I cried because he’s getting older, and I won’t take him on hard high hills anymore. I cried for the passing of time. There will be other ponies you’d said, I just need to cry for this one, I’d replied.  It had helped to walk behind you, forgetting and thinking only about where to place each foot, and counting frogs. When we got to the shielings, and the crossing place where months before Ross had ferried the hind across the burn, a dipper spun past us, sat bobbing on a rock up to its knees in torrent, a miracle of resistance. As we walked higher the scoop of the corrie wavered in a heat haze. I was carried into the thinness of this place, the closeness of other worlds. Under The Round Top of the Cattle I could almost hear the molinia grass being torn by cattle mouths, high voices lifting from the shielings, taste woodsmoke and warm milk. I heard too the calls of a greenshank, so insistent that I lifted my binoculars. Eventually I saw it, but only in flight, skimming over the tussocks. When it landed it became invisible once more. The first greenshank I’d seen here. We walked on following cairns and crossing trout-plucked pools, up towards The Sandy Bealach glowing pink with broken granite, to where the watershed tips over. On the other side was The Corrie of the Twisted Ones, a hard and hungry place you said.  You pointed out up on our left The Corrie of Snow, where you’d shot a stag one day, and as you dragged him out another stag had followed you. It was horrible, you said, horrible, you’d shot his friend, never seen anything like that before or since, they’d probably never been apart. 

    We walked back down through a spin of dragonflies. You told me that’s why hobbies like it up there, they hunt the dragonflies. You used to see ring ouzels in this place. We saw neither hobbies, nor ring ouzels, nor eagles nor a single deer that day.  It was important, you said, to know that in some places the deer numbers aren’t going up. Where are the deer you ask. And where are the trees I ask. You believe in a world where deer and trees co-exist. Deer are forest animals, after all. Aye, but its complicated, you sigh. You talk to me of where you would plant trees if you had the say. Stands of woodland in your minds eye, bits best suited to rowan or aspen or birch. Juniper too and Scots pine. You paint trees into the landscape for me to imagine, and for the deer to bide in. But no wolves, no wolves in these trees of yours. You are most adamant. That’s others’ dream, you say, they can fill their boots you say, but it wouldn’t work, there just isn’t the space anymore. They’d be persecuted. More pain. More trouble. I cannot deny my own longing to hear wolves. 

    There on the east side of The Hill of the Hinds is the other pony path, the one that shadows a steep deep burn, and your single-plank swing bridge that crosses it down near where it joins the river - a bridge that makes dogs cower and stomachs turn. My eyes home in on this second pony path, a steady green line inclining westwards to pines up above in the gully, yes, more Scots pines hanging on in a final hold. Safe there from axe and fire, sheep and deer, surviving where they are forced to survive. The tree stock is strong and resilient, like the people who must have lived in these places, I think to myself. Before they ran out of toe-holds.

    The July day we’d walked up that second pony path on The Hill of the Hinds it was hot and close, I was struggling. We drank from pools, and I stopped often to admire the path, patches of plaited stonework still perfectly in place, slabs set snugly over burns like lintel stones. Lintel was the name of your favourite deer pony - you said she’d been good craic, had trusted you. You told me about the day you’d fallen asleep as ponyman, it was a Saturday, you’d likely had a hangover. The stalking party hadn’t been able to rouse you, not even by lighting a fire and sending smoke signals. In the end they’d had to send the ghillie down to wake you. You laughed remembering as we followed the path to where it ended at The Spying Point. We carried on to the summit, at over 3000 feet it is a Munro; at the bottom the bog asphodel had been at the peak of its flowering, at The Spying Point it was just budding, and finally there on the tops there was none. 

    It had been like tundra up there. Worlds of tiny lichens and plants I didn’t recognise, bound tight to the ground, with antlers and eyes and bright colours. You showed me a mountain hare’s shelter, a small natural cave, full of droppings, and pointed out the livid moss marking a spring in the hard high ground. Up on the very top the ravens met us, lifting off their shit-splattered rock in casual ease.  We lay out of the wind and watched two walkers fool around taking selfies on the summit cairn. You said they were great, you loved how they were having so much fun. We waved at them. They were exuberant back. Some peoples’ faces cloud over when they see your stick, your dog, your tweed. After the women had left the ravens found their apple cores. They swallowed and hopped as you and I passed a bag of nuts and raisins between us. 

    I’m pulled back to this butterfly-hot August day on the steep side of The Rough Hill, your hand has come behind you in an urgent ‘get down’ gesture. We both drop. Ahead of us, fifty yards away, two stags are leaning into the hill, knees and hips at uncanny angles, the deep velvet on their antlers holding light like rain. Through my binoculars I could see their calm interested expressions, their periodic chewing. They stood at their leisure, watching us. They just know we’re not stalking, you say, such clever beasts. Then they’re gone, over the top, and my thoughts follow them down to the fourth pony path that runs up The Pass of the Storms. I think back to its steady climb of spider webs and pyramidal moraine, its Scots pine that crowns all of the others and the pony post longstanding above it. You’d told me that day how that path, its smell of dry heath, always reminded you of home on the east coast. You’d pointed to the spread of pink, wild thyme. As we’d walked through patches of lain-down-upon grass, and the taut-sweet smell of deer, you told me if it was your shout you’d have planted this whole burnside with native woodland. You pointed out the old Drovers Road, to where at the head of the corrie it turns into a series of sharp zigzags where they used to walk the cattle up and over the top, then down into the neighbouring glen. We talked about how in the past people had trodden lightly, using only what they needed, leaving barely a trace, just this, a memory of walking, still green from long ago dung. ‘We need light hands and feet, now more than ever… see there, at the foot of the zigzag path, you can bring a pony round between The Round Top where there are Birch Trees, and The Hill of Wild Garlic. Then down onto The Greens to meet up with The Rough Hill pony track.’

    Today, on the top of The Rough Hill, surrounded by the imprint of these four pony paths, a single painted lady butterfly sashays past. We’re on the lookout for a juvenile golden eagle. A week ago a landslide wiped out its nest. All that rain we’ve had - you’ve never known the ground here so ‘full’ - has destabilised the ground. The chick was right on the point of fledging. You’re hopeful that it will be safe somewhere, that its parents will be taking care of it. I am anxious. You’ve borrowed my ears, your own a roar of tinnitus, and I’m listening out for the insistent peep of a young eagle. It’s been a bad year for golden eagles, this was the only pair to successfully breed in the area. I think the chick will be fine, you say. I wish I shared your optimism. As we eat our lunch of salted almonds and cheese the female parent bird shows herself, distinguishable by her size, her darkness, the spaces on her left wing where she’s missing primary feathers. I am thrilled to see her. It’s a perfect day, you say, standing up. 

    I look back across the glen to the top of The Hill of the Hinds, I breathe in all the space between, hoping hard that the young eagle has survived the wreckage of its nest, the premature slide into the unknown. I pick up my hazel stick, let it take my full weight, We start the steep descent down towards the river, its pools glinting in golden brown. You told me there’s been a good run of salmon in the river this year, and I’ve seen the hazelnuts beginning to ripen. Even as we spin towards environmental collapse, I feel a flicker of faith that wisdom can still break through. I step down over the falling away ground as swallows strike ancient knowings against a clear sky, and two damselflies, locked in mating, crackle past like newly-lit fire.