We’re sitting on the balcony of our log cabin, Silver Birch, surveying what will be our view for the next month. There’s an expanse of trees set among heathland, with snow-dusted hills beyond. This will do nicely.
The cluster of dwellings that make up the hamlet of Ault-na-Goire lies on the south side of mighty Loch Ness, which carves a path so deep through the Great Glen that the body of fresh water it contains is greater than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. The south is considered the ‘quiet’ side of the loch – and being 600 feet above sea level means we’re even further off the beaten track of hikers and tourists.
Behind the cabin, bracken-covered moorland slopes steeply down to a burn, beyond which there are acres of forest to explore. It’s dark and quiet among the trees – there’s little birdsong and the carpet of pine needles softens our footfalls enough to surprise Sika deer, which bound away emitting short high-pitched barks that send Morris into a frenzy of excitement.
With few distinguishing features on the various trails through the trees, I find it hard to get a sense of where I am on our first few walks and runs, or how one trail links up with another. To compound the issue, many of the trails lead on to rough roads created for logging, and these all look the same. So it’s no surprise that on a long run one Sunday, I get truly lost. I’ve already been out for more than two hours when I emerge onto a 4×4 track and have no idea which way to go. I turn left and go for around a mile before deciding it doesn’t feel right. As I make my way back, I see a man heading my way. Thank God, I think, I can ask him where I am. Not only does he know where I am, he knows where I am going, too; it’s Alex, husband of Janet, who rented us Silver Birch, and who lives next door. He just so happens to be the Scottish cross-country and 5K champion in his age group. He ‘runs’ me home (the opposite direction to which I was going, oops), and although he’s nearing 70, I struggle to keep up with the fleet-footed veteran. To add irony to insult and injury, Jeff’s been away all day on a course learning how to teach navigation…
I discover a new method of finding my way around the area shortly after, on a walk with Morris. Spotting a piece of bright orange tape hanging from a tree, I walk towards it; from there, I can see another, and then another. The tapes take me down a previously undiscovered-by-us trail that is all but grown-over in places. It passes through a magical dingly dell, which wouldn’t look out of place on a Tolkien film set. I keep expecting Bilbo Baggins to come bumbling down the path with a reel of orange tape, but it turns out that it’s Alex we have to thank – he puts the tapes out to mark his trickier running routes.
Our days take on a similar shape at Silver Birch as on Luing. The only difference is that packing in two good walks, creative hour and a run or cycle before the daylight runs out is a race against time. December evenings set in at four o’clock. After so much time on our own, it’s nice to have the occasional company of Alex and Janet. Whenever we pop over to theirs to ask a question or pick up fresh bed linen, we end up sitting beside their Aga, chatting over tea and cake. It’s a bit like having a surrogate mum and dad to look after you.
The cabin itself is small but perfectly formed. There’s one main living area with a cathedral ceiling and windows on three sides – then a bedroom just big enough for a double bed, a single room, in which we keep all our stuff, and a tiny bathroom. It’s warm and cosy (it was imported from Finland, Janet tells us), which is just as well, because a week and a half into our stay we wake up to snow.
It’s dry and powdery – issuing faint squeaks when compressed by our feet and coating everything like elaborate icing. It looks beautiful and, in such an isolated place, remains unsullied for days. On most tracks, our footprints are the only ones, save for those of deer and pheasants (and occasionally, our landlord).
As on Luing, we don’t have a shop or pub on our doorstep up here in Ault-na-Goire – the closest is four miles away, in the village of Foyers. We stay put for a couple of days when the snow comes, but when we do venture down to Foyers for supplies, we’re amazed to find it snow-free at the lower altitude. But on the way home, the now-hard-packed snow and steep gradient prove too much for the van, and we end up stuck in a ditch – blocking the single-track road. We trudge home and sheepishly knock on Alex and Janet’s door. They inform the police and local council that the road is impassable and help us organise a rescue truck for the following day. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Janet, pouring more tea. ‘We once had a lady staying at the cabin who got her car stuck in a ditch twice in a week!’ I’ve had more than my fill of the white stuff after all this. And frankly it isn’t doing my running any favours – my forward progress hampered by my battle to stay upright.
Once the snow melts away, we’re rewarded with some unseasonably warm weather (read: 5 degrees instead of -2). We manage to get in a couple of bike rides – the roads are great for cycling; smooth tarmac, sweeping vistas and barely any traffic.
While Silver Birch is a match for Luing when it comes to setting and views, there hasn’t been much in the way of bird life. But, one morning I look out the window and see a large bird of prey soaring above the heathland. I’m resigned to it being a buzzard (the ‘default’ bird of prey) until I notice the forked tail. Grabbing the binoculars, I can clearly see the rusty underside and long-fingered wings that define the much-rarer red kite. I watch its aerobatics with awe. The only other birds we have a close encounter with are Alex and Janet’s chickens. They go away for the weekend, leaving us in charge of the brood; a responsibility we take very seriously. I’m constantly terrified that a marauding pine marten will get in and leave a blood bath but thankfully there are still seven birds when they return on the Sunday.
On the night of the full moon in December, we take the tent out to the forest and camp overnight. We get a fire going, cook on the stove and drink whisky and hot chocolate. Before bed, we walk out into a clearing and marvel at the giant, gleaming moon. It’s the kind of evening when you say to yourself ‘remember this.’
After a week’s respite, the snow returns and this time, it means business, laying six inches through the night, with no sign of stopping. There’s no chance of getting the van down the hill in this, so when we need groceries, we wrap up warm and hike down to Foyers, treating ourselves to coffee and cake at the Cameron Tea Rooms.
It’s really hard work walking in such deep snow (nine inches now, in places) not least if your legs are barely longer than six inches each. But the wonderland the snow has created is well worth witnessing.
Given that we don’t have a Christmas tree to decorate at home this year, we decide to dress one of the thousands of trees in the forest and use a photograph of it as our Christmas card. The end result looks good, but the process isn’t as fun and romantic as you might imagine: we bicker in an un-festive manner about which tree to pick and Jeff manages to step in a deep, icy hole while trying to administer the tinsel. Snigger.
When it’s time to leave Silver Birch, shortly before Christmas, I’ve finished writing my story (it’s too short to be described as a novel) and learned to run a little better on snow. But I still haven’t got my guitar out of its case, nor read half a dozen of the books I brought away. The end of the year is fast approaching, sending me into a panic about how much I’ve yet to explore, experience and learn and reminding me how precious this time is. We’re going to see our families in Edinburgh and London over the Christmas period and, given that our tenants move out at the end of the year, we debate whether we should call The Crazy Thing a day, and head home to start the New Year. But, we decide – not yet.