The silence overcomes us

Loch Garten

– Loch Garten, Scotland, November 2012

Bar a few cars passing us on the approach road there is no one here. And but for the track itself, the birch, heather and lichen covered Scot’s pine exude a sense of ancient wilderness. There are no human trails through the heather and soggy mounds of moss, only a few signs of other mammals escaping into the wilder regions. Some odourless spraint we discover at our feet intrigues us: pine marten, otter? I don’t know. A bit further back, we watched a red squirrel hug the trunk of a pine, climbing a branch higher as we took steps closer. The images we’re fed in England of confiding creatures doesn’t match the shy nature of these Scottish animals.

The sound of chainsaws is moaning, unending. It may be work that will help these famously mistreated woodlands, cleared with such fervour by the English, but the noise is irritating. We turn into Loch Garten and our minds to the capercaillie, a member of the grouse family which is renowned for the defence of its territory to all comers. Our host in Aviemore showed us a photograph in the guesthouse lobby of a celebrity capercaillie that entertained the masses in the 1990s. Anyone who passed the field bordering the bird’s pinewood territory would be met with a fanfare of its black tail feathers, not unlike a peacock. The framed photograph in the lobby showed that the bird lacked a tail feather. This led to uproar locally – someone’s dog had attached the bird and it had lost its feather. That, however, proved to be untrue. A local farmer had put out feed for his horse in the field next to the capercaillie’s dwelling, and the bird had begun to join the horse for dinner. Eventually, the horse grew tired of the charismatic grouse eating its food and bit it on the arse. Mystery solved. There is no chance of us witnessing such scenes today at Loch Garten.

But what’s to be enjoyed in the absence of the Cairngorms’ other celebrity birds, the ospreys that travel here from Africa to breed? The Loch itself. The roots of mature pines spread freely from the soil as the opening of the Loch appears before us: the gentle movement of its surface, the image of Craiggowrie in the distance, the silence overcomes us. How peculiar that silence can feel louder than chainsaws. Nan Shepherd wrote about it up in the mountains but here it is lapping on the water at just a few hundred feet. The movement of the water’s edge does not end there, it moves across the sandy soil, into the pine forest, rippling through me. From the bordering pine forest comes the cheerful trill of a crested tit, it sounds like the only thing on earth. The pines on the waterfront have beard lichens snagged in in their branches, so much like the facial hair of miniature woodland elders, dark green and bright blue. The gnarled dead wood of the pine holds their ghastly expressions. We turn on our heels and head for the depths of Abernethy Forest.

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