GILDED IF NOT GOLDEN
In one of Alan Garner's essays, he writes about the deep attachment he has to his particular corner of Cheshire, his - and here he has to reach for foreign words for which, he says, there is no English equivalent: from Russian, rodina; from German, heimat. I'd always thought that heimat translated roughly as homeland, but a native German speaker recently put me right: it's not just your home town but the area around it, the woods, the fields, the paths, and the bond that one feels with them.
I experienced this myself in August, not for the first time and not unexpectedly. Doctor Jon-avec-le-Lotus was shortly to get married and had decided that he didn't want to go down the beer and strippers route; in fact he preferred that the two of us should head north and tackle a hill and camp out, something we hadn't done for years. I was content with this and so off we went. Stag day was celebrated in the pissing rain with steak cooked on a primus and champagne drunk out of unbreakable children's mugs, within sight of the cloudbase covering Lochnagar. I believe we were both quite happy. Happier still that the weather was so rotten come the evening it made a hotel the only sensible option.
The following day we drove north from Ballater - at speed, a Lotus being constitutionally incapable of doing anything else - up the A939, over the Lecht summit and down again towards Tomintoul. Fourteen twisty miles after Tomintoul you come to Grantown-on-Spey, a fair-sized town which sits in the Strathspey running SW to Boat of Garten and Aviemore, NE towards a thousand distilleries. Due north lies Dava Moor and Lochindorb. I've driven in to Grantown-on-Spey a few times, knew the strath at this point to be arrestingly beautiful and was looking forward to seeing it again. The effect as you drop off the bleak high ground and into sight of greenery and fields is like a balm.
But more than this, I know that north of the town is the beginning of what I continue to think of as my own country, the edges or boundaries of it, at any rate. Even a Mark II Elise makes a hell of a racket, but as we turned a bend and got a first sniff of the valley I realised I was becoming insensible to the engine, and to any conversation, which I was scarcely able to carry on with. It wasn't unlike being mildly stoned, the same feeling of detachment, calm and lightness, of being in some way carried. As I say, it wasn't unexpected though it was unsought.
Sadly we were not heading north, but turned west along the A95, a surprisingly broad and good-quality road for the Highlands, to my mind. Mechanically efficient.
Later, as we reached the Drumochter summit on the A9, Doctor Jon remarked that that was a really striking view as well. Indeed it is, bleak and spectacular; but every time I see it I feel sad, and something closes up inside me, and the defences acquired through years spent living in a foreign country begin to raise. It's the prospect of the south, and the knowledge that the Highlands (for want of a better and less loaded word) are being left behind; and something cries out against that.
Duncan Williamson died at 1am in Kirkcaldy on November 8th. RIP.