The Pentlands, a range of hills to the south-west of Edinburgh, are just about eight miles out. We went up them yesterday for a walk. Or, I might borrow famous Scottish hiker, Nan Shepherd’s better fitting expression: yesterday we went into the hills for a walk. Nan Shepherd’s mountains were further north, and she wrote a book in the 1940s dedicated to her beloved Cairngorms called, ‘The Living Mountain’ in which she spoke of ‘going into the mountain’. For her, a day out was becoming part of the hills, letting them envelop you, rather than you conquer them. I’m sure our excursion was less intrepid than Nan’s adventures, but still, we layered up, filled a flask full of tea and wrapped the last few slices of Christmas cake. We arrived at Flotterstone – two adults and two children – along with half of Edinburgh, it seemed! It was cold, with little wind, cloudy, but good light nonetheless. We walked towards the Glencourse reservoir, one of six reservoirs in the Pentlands, all providing water to Edinburgh.
A solitary shag was sitting on a rock jutting out into the reservoir. Twenty metres below that bird (I learned later, when reading about where I had been) lies the submerged ruins of the chapel of St Katherine’s in the Hope. Hard to imagine now, but the valley was flooded only 200 years ago to create Glencourse and bolster the city’s water supply. By the time it was flooded, the chapel was already in ruins. There’s an ancient story linking the chapel to a mediaeval deer hunt. According to the story, Robert the Bruce (the king) and William St Clair of Roslin (a knight) had a hunting bet over a rare white hind that stalked the land. The stakes were high: should Robert the Bruce kill the hind, he would take William’s life; should William of Roslin get the hind, he would take Robert’s Pentland estate. William prayed to Saint Katherine and his prayers were answered. With the help of his two hunting dogs he managed to bring down the deer, and in gratitude and honour, he built a chapel in her name the very spot in the glen where he finished the hind. The reservoir is pretty, but wouldn’t I love to see those chapel ruins!
On a hillside to our north was a solitary roe deer grazing (no white hinds!), and on the brow of the hill to our south were hill-walkers, silhouetted against the low sun. We watched a red kite being chased by a flock of crows. Patches of snow lay on the hills, but there has been a thaw lately making it muddy on the lower land where we walked. Some of the peaks have lovely names: Scald Law, I can’t imagine ever getting scalded in the Pentlands – at any time of year; West Kip (and East Kip), maybe after climbing those peaks you have a wee sleep at the top; Byrehope Mount, I wonder is there a barn up there? The highest is just shy of 2,000 feet, nothing too taxing, my kind of climb, but yesterday we stayed low. Everyone was out: strolling couples; groups in full walking regalia – gaiters and maps in plastic – marching with purpose; a toddler who couldn’t have been more than 18 months, head to toe in pink: boots, snowsuit and bobble hat; dog walkers, some with practical looking collies, some with improbable balls of fluff who looked like they had rarely been outside of Barbara Cartland’s lounge; and fair weather walkers, like us, delighted by the extra 40 minutes of daylight that has been tacked on to the end of our day. Every little helps!
We decided to cut some rushes, it being close to St Bridget’s Day, who knows if we’ll get out again before February 1st? I had a penknife and we got in amongst the rushes. S. was taken by rolling hillside and asked could he climb over a stile and run down the field. “Let me check for bulls,” was his mother’s response. All clear on the bull front; off he went. Turned out she didn’t check for bog, and his lords-a-leaping frolics turned into him being up to his oxters* in mud. Not that his oxters were the problem, it was his pristine, dove-grey running shoes, now dip dyed a less than attractive cow-clap brown, and feet squelching uncomfortably for the mile back to the car. “Skip to keep your spirits up,” his mother encouraged the mud lorn child in her best Joyce Grenfell tones. Coming close to four o’clock, and almost back at the car, the crows started squawking as they settled to roost high up in the Scots Pines. Spring can’t be too far off.
*Ulster Scots; oxters = armpits