I am on my way to Inshriach Bothy, nestled in the Cairngorm mountains on the banks of the Spey. It’s February, a month that usually brings challenges and opportunities to this part of the country. This year, however, it presents neither. The air is cold, but not cold enough. There is not enough snow to bring the winter-sports crowd to the area and thus the towns and villages are quiet, the landscape sleepy. The sun is welcoming but the shadows bitter; the rain precise in its iciness but unsettled in its style. I am here between two moments: the end of a winter that did not deliver, that remained hesitant and undecided until it was too late; and the beginning of, well, who knows what?
I arrive late because I have been unwell. It is a sickness from which I have not fully recovered, and I cannot tell if it is naturally subsiding or whether I’ve merely willed it into temporary dormancy. Consequently, I do not know whether to be nervous about the elemental cold of the Bothy or excited about the generous heat of the stove. And there’s also the dark, how dark will the coming week be? I have candles, but I know this is the kind of darkness that one simply has to submit to, and hope that one is still there when it gives way in the morning. The whippet, my companion for the week, does not worry about such things, he lives only in the moment. What will he make of our temporary residence and its surrounds? Will he embrace his animality, or will he pine for the ‘normality’ to which he has become accustomed? Will I?
The farmer drives us from the road to the Bothy in his Land Cruiser and explains how everything works. The Bothy is a small cabin with a single room divided into a sitting area and a cooking area, above which is a mezzanine bed. Collecting water from the tap involves a twenty-minute round trip, or the containers can be filled from the river. Wood for the stove is in a hut down the track, and needs to be split using an axe and block located in a nearby clearing, and washing is via a camp shower hung on the Bothy’s outer wall. Electricity is provided by a solar panel, but there is only enough for a desk lamp or a single laptop charge, as there is not much sun at this time of year. Keeping the stove going is the central on-going concern in winter, and—as I remember from a previous Bothy residency I undertook on the island of Eigg—it can become something of an obsession. The planning and enacting of basic tasks such as washing and cooking take up considerably more time and energy here than a city-dweller might be used to. It simulates a simpler age. It asks you what—or who—you think you are.
The farmer helps me unload my bags from the Land Cruiser and asks about my plans for the week. I have deliberately not prepared, and I feel self-conscious.
‘It’s… er… a writing commission,’ I say, ‘I’m here to produce a text that will go into a kind of chapbook about the area. The last time I went to a Bothy, I only thought of a way to organise my ideas about it when I got home, but this time I… well, I don’t know what I want to do really. The results took me by surprise last time because the island crept up on me while I was trying to do something else.’
‘What were you trying to do?’ he asks.
‘I took a project with me that I was already working on and tried to finish it, which turned out to be a mistake. I basically treated the Bothy and the island as a retreat rather than a place in itself, and just drew pictures that could easily have been done at home. But halfway through the week it dawned on me that the project was failing, and I spent the latter part of the residency walking around the island in a state of despair.’
‘Did you finish the drawings?’
‘No, I gave up.’
‘So… what were the results that took you by surprise, then?’
‘Well, when I got home I was asked to write a report of my time on Eigg, and I didn’t want it to be about the failure of my project, so I wrote about the caves that I’d visited on my walks instead. The drawings that had gone so wrong were based on a recent journey I’d made through Europe, so I compared the caves of Eigg to a cave I’d visited in Italy. Out of the blue, this small report became the solution to my broken project! It seems obvious in retrospect, but it felt like the island had objected to being ignored, and also reprimanded me for being so self-absorbed. It showed me how to see my own work better, and demanded that I be more attentive. So, this time I have not prepared anything in advance. I want to submit to the land, to listen to it, to have it tell me what to do.’
‘Hm,’ the farmer grunts, ‘it sounds like you might have unwittingly made the same mistake again.’
I feel my heart lurch.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, just because you’ve arrived here without a fixed idea doesn’t mean you’re not repeating yourself. Last time, you were in your own world, thinking your own thoughts, drawing your own drawings, and the island objected. Do you think that by stating you’ll listen, that by deliberately focussing on the Bothy’s surroundings, that the land will speak to you? What if it refuses to speak? It’s no less arrogant and self-absorbed of you to arrive here and imagine that the land will comply, that it will supply you with what you need for your chapbook entry, than it was to expect that it would leave you alone with your own private musings last time. What if it resists? What then?’
‘I… er… ’
‘This land has its own ideas, and it will not give them up just because you say you are “listening.” And even if it does, what if you don’t understand what it is saying? How will it respond? It will not be happy.’
‘Well, I… er… I hope that… ’
‘Aye, hope. We all need that just now.’
And with that, the Land Cruiser pulls away. The whippet is shivering. It’s time to light the stove.
It’s morning, and the whippet and I stand at the foot of a steep-looking hill at the edge of a village downriver from the Bothy. The sky is grey, and the various weather forecasts disagree on how the day will pan out. We have enough food to stay out until evening, but due to my lack of hiking experience I have perhaps over-prepared for the walk. My rucksack feels heavy and I am already overheating, despite the fact that the air is cold. I am not physically or mentally built to be an adventurer.
At first, the path is easy-going and well-trodden, climbing up through a natural pinewood, which rises steeply up the rocky hillside. It is a dense and handsome wood, the hillside ahead presenting the only angle offsetting the almost military verticality of the pines. The whippet is not interested in geometry, though, and is instead on high alert for anything small and furry. Every noise, however slight, causes him to stop dead, ears pricked, muscles taut. He can remain statue still for minutes. A second noise and…
Here we go, he thinks, hind legs twitching and eyes wide…
Then, when he remembers that it is February, that there are never squirrels or rabbits to be had at this time of year, he slumps in disappointment and plods on.
As we ascend further, we reach the border of the woods, which opens out into moorland, where the path is boggy at first, before turning to rock, loose stone and—in places—running water. At other times of year, the moorland would be alive with wildflowers, ferns and purple heather, but right now the dominant colours of the undergrowth are a deep burnt umber with dark sepia shadows, a damp and greyish yellow ochre, and the canopy appears as a soft blur of pale burnt carmine interrupted by the hard vivid trunks of scattered silver birches. The rock face of the mountain beyond, to which are heading, is a crisp golden grey against the flat, overcast sky.
The air temperature drops considerably, and the path becomes steeper and looser as we climb above the moorland, and now we’re getting closer to the peak the wind is picking up. We are yet to see another person, and there is still no sign of animal or insect life. It is hard to ascertain what constitutes the summit, as there are a number of rocky peaks, none of which provide a full panorama of the mountain’s surrounds, though there is a stone shelter in which it’s possible to temporarily hide from the now quite substantial, icy wind. The view to the south-east from here is remarkable, even though the peaks of the Cairngorms are completely obscured by cloud. But the whippet cannot stand still in these conditions, and he looks up at me pleadingly every time I stop to take a picture, so we quickly get moving and begin our descent down the opposite side of the mountain.
It is a relief when, after ten minutes of descent on the steep, slippery rock path with the wind blasting our faces, we find ourselves within a close wood of silver birches. It is as if the world has suddenly shrunk, or a door to the outside has suddenly closed, such is the embrace of the trees and their accompanying silence. Still there is no sign of another living thing, not a single soul to share a greeting, nor a single distraction for the whippet. The path curves at the foot of the mountain, and we are walking on level ground with the bank of the loch down to our right, and the mountain up to our left. It is a narrow but easy and well-trodden earthy path through round mossy rocks and damp, wintry trees. The silence is so close as to be eerie now, the water on the loch and the air at this altitude completely still. Soon, the woods thin out, and we emerge at the eastern bank of the loch, the mountain dropping away behind us, and we are in moorland again. It is a huge open space, beyond which are the dark Monadhliath summits, on which we can see a spattering of snow. The moorland on this side of the mountain is an expanse of burnt ochre and raw umber, of pale sanguine and a deep reddish brown. The path becomes wide and sandy, the width of a road in fact, and it begins to feel almost industrial, with strange-looking heaps of aggregate and what seem like turning circles appearing intermittently along it. We reach—and pass through—a gate that seems to signal an estate border, and although we are still on a gravel track, rather than a path, it feels less like we will be mown down by heavy plant or quad bikes than it did a moment ago.
The moorland is now so wide and open that it is possible to see for miles in almost every direction. There is no movement anywhere, and still not a person or animal in sight, and yet, for the first time today, I begin to feel a presence that I cannot explain. The whippet is still on the lookout for something he can chase and does not seem aware of any threat, but for some reason I cannot shake the feeling that someone is nearby. But where could they be? There is no cover at all, and the moorland off the track is soft and boggy, so there are no hiding places. I continue walking, albeit with an uneasy feeling, and keep my eye on the whippet, who is alert but calm.
And then… footsteps.
The rhythm of my own feet landing on the gravel is suddenly interspersed with a second, syncopated rhythm of two more feet on gravel, feet that are much heavier than mine, and that sound like they are directly behind me.
I whirl around.
The noise has ceased. I am frozen to the spot. I can still see right across the moor and at least half a mile down the road. I start to move again but backwards, slowly, deliberately, and can now only hear the sound of my own footsteps. All is still, nothing stirs. I turn and continue to walk along the track and am just beginning to think I’d imagined it when it starts again! It is definitely real. But before I can turn, the whippet takes off!
‘Shit!’ I run too.
He must have just known something was up, he must have sensed that…
’Shit shit shit!’ He had sensed nothing, but instead spotted what he’d been looking for since we emerged from the woods: a deer!
I call after him, but he’s not interested, he’s flying across the moorland. The deer has bolted, and the whippet is in hot pursuit. I keep running along the track in his direction, thoughts of ghostly presences having now vanished from my mind, replaced instead by the thought of the whippet sinking in the bog or getting shot by the estate manager. He disappears over a brow, but as I run over it, I can no longer see him. The track curves round to the left, and a path forks off to the right, leading to a wooden bridge over a burn. I think I see movement, and opt for the path. There is a fence to my right that marks the edge of the estate, and which prevents access to a dense and dark pinewood beyond. I look left and see the whippet. He is two or three hundred metres into the moorland, another hundred or so metres ahead of me. I leave the path and run towards him across the lumpy, boggy ground, which gets stickier and stickier as I progress, and I fear that if I stop I might sink right down into it. The whippet is standing still and looking down as if he’s caught something, and he doesn’t move as I approach. When I reach him, I see he’s standing on a small grassy patch, and I step off the sticky ground and join him there. He has not caught anything, and there is no sign of the deer.
I bow my head to recuperate, and as I begin to look up I notice tracks in the mud, perpendicular to my—and the whippet’s—direction of approach. They are hoofprints, but have clearly not been made by a deer, the regularity seeming to point more to a two- than a four-legged beast. The prints are approximately fifty centimetres long and thirty-five wide, and there is a gap of around two metres between each stride. There is no difference between each foot, and they proceed in a rough, single line.
‘What on Earth… ?’
The whippet has no answer. He is panting heavily, and his eyes are red and wide. Seeping up from the ground within the hoofmarks is a thick black oily liquid. I look back to my own footprints, and they are clean, but for a little water. The direction of travel of whatever made these strange impressions seems to have been from some indeterminate point across the moorland towards the fence at the edge of the estate. I pick the whippet up and follow the trail back towards the path, sometimes stepping in the oily indentations and trying to imagine what kind of beast made these marks, a beast with feet at least twice the length of my own and more than four times as wide. When I reach the track, the hoofprints disappear. I look through the fence and they are not there, as if the beast that made them had leapt the fence and into the trees.
I put the whippet down and we continue along the track. I do not know what to make of what’s happened in the last few minutes, and merely wish to get off this land and back to the Bothy. The track continues for around half a mile until the landscape turns into pasture, and the gravel then becomes tyre marks made by agricultural machinery pressed into grass. The whippet stays close as we walk past a large flock of grazing sheep, who look up and watch us go by. We pass through a gate that leads to a private road through a farm, which in turn becomes a public road through a small village. We reach the main road which links the village to my starting point, and I head along it until I reach the car. When I get there, the black gunk is still clinging to my boots, so I walk down to the Spey, which is running fast at this point, and stand in a shallow spot on a rock at the river’s banks. As soon as I step into the water the gunk completely disperses, but as it washes away down the river I can see that it is not black, but blood red.
James N. Hutchinson is an artist who works curatorially. He lives in Glasgow.