Day 38: Ballater to Grantown-on-Spey

‘People ask me, “what do you do for a living?”
And I say, “As little as possible if I can help it”.’ – Gerard, Corgarff,

Life and I are getting wilder and weirder by the day.

I am to all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere, immersed in a landscape I have never experienced before, one of rich, verdant forests, the steepest of mountain crags, and little living except birds and vegetation. In other words, everything. I am tumbling through towns with no preparation, guided by the road and the conversation of people in streets, pubs, chippies and other passing places. Camping now feels less like a desperate second best and instead the proper way of experiencing the terrain, sleeping among it, smelling it, being disturbed and thrilled by it.

And the dawns…! I’ve known nothing like it. Everything feels so far removed from those codes of common life I left behind in London. Work, work, and… work. There’s no value in those codes here. A few times now I’ve heard older people speak derogatively about ‘having a piece of paper’. The paper qualifications like those I’ve got might help procure a stressful and insecure job in the lower rungs of the professions where burnout and breakdown are as common workplace injuries as lower back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome are for labourers.

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But can I fashion and hook a rod and catch a fish? Do I know how to develop and cultivate land for wheat, or to grow fruit, or vegetables, on anything beyond a potted level? Yes, I can build you a website, but I cannot build you a house. My Excel tables are better than my dining ones. I can help you research your family tree, but I’d be hopeless cutting it.

None of these skills will find you work in the modern city. But they begin to make sense out here, in the Highlands, roaming about the unknown, where my education is of no use.

‘A country almost as little known to its southern brethren as Kantschatka.’

That’s how Thomas Pennent describes Scotland. He’s an intriguing fellow, and I’ll introduce his story when we begin to travel west.

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I awake tired and cold though, and the air is cooler than the previous day. My tent is perched up a little hill overlooking the only road that passes up north through these parts. I misjudged the pitch and I’ve spent most of the night squashed on the lower side of the hill. It’s just about secluded and safe, but passing traffic is so rare that I may as well be camped beneath a road sign. Hunting birds squeak and call to each other in the distant trees.

Packing away, the scenery that defines much of the Cairngorms between settlements just grabs me by the heart and tugs for dear life. It is inexhaustibly tremendous. I set off up into the hills.

When I say hills, I’m not joking. These are great bloody mountains, and the road north I follow is the only one a road bike like mine could manage.

I’d originally planned to get to Braemar the previous night, and then attempt the Lairig Ghru crossing to Aviemore, an ancient shepherds’ track through the glens from south to north. It would’ve been disastrous. Joe and Jen had told me the previous day that there wasn’t much at all in Braemar, whilst I’d have been physically carrying the bike over the rocks and river passes of Lairig Ghru. Cyclists, beware.

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The road threads up one great mountain after another, and the sweeping views of the surrounding landscapes earned at the top are all worth it. Beneath and around me are sweeping expanses of gullies, glens and ridge, and the hillsides display a verdant tapestry of light and dark greens, with violet heather and butter-yellow gorse spilling between them. Stopping to take my breath, I hear no human, no airplane, nor car or police siren. Just grasshoppers and songbirds, and occasionally sheep, each communicating to their own kind through a hypnotically repetitive call and response.

I pass the ruins of old cottages, and notice the layers of brick thickening the walls, once keeping out the cold. On one great hill I spot two stone staircases that lead up to an empty plateau, where nothing else remains. In a region renowned for its fresh clear water, I pass rolling springs and streams, as well as the little but lively River Don leading to Aberdeen, where it joins the River Dee. In one valley I see the imprinted remains of the glaciers that once entirely covered Scotland and most of northern England.

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There are red squirrels about too, but the only ones I find are squashed by the motorhomes and bikers that make up the sparse fellow traffic that overtakes me along the hills. Most number-plates are German, and to a lesser degree Swedish and Dutch, alive and aware of the staggering and cruel beauty of the Cairngorms whilst advertisers in London sell trips to Las Vegas and Lanzarote for the locals.

It’s early afternoon, and being under no deadline whatsoever, I take a curious peek into Corgarff Hall, the first settlement I’ve passed all day, and where a photo exhibition is on. Outside I meet a man walking two golden retrievers, Fay, and her daughter Effy. His name is Gerard, and this is his exhibition. He invites me inside for coffee.

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The conversation is inspiring and engaging. Gazing out of the window of the old village hall with its decades-old photos of community parties once staged here, Gerard warmly talks about the area and how he found himself here. Originally from Northumbria, near to Ashington again, his love of travel and skiing has led him across the world seeking out sights, slopes and adventures. Eighteen years ago he arrived for the skiing, up in nearby Lechte, and the peaceful and remote nature of the lands has kept him.

‘I never earned more than 10 grand a year and I’ve travelled the world. Everywhere.’

He still works in skiing during the winters, but gets by selling his photos and working as a tree surgeon. Once he’d spend half the year working, as a cycle courier in London (‘the squats were amazing!’), managing avalanches in Canada or France, whatever, and the other half travelling. He shows me his photography, capturing scenes from traffic in China, farmers in Saigon, life across India as well as the streams of the Highlands, the beauty of lichen on rocks, snowy winter passes in the Cairngorms, and grouse-hunting with the local lairds. I realise that photography benefits from the extraordinary scenes that become everyday in long-distant travel, and how a desire for adventure and an ethical perspective to record scenes fairly can enhance its art. Take a look: www.gerardmurphyphotography.co.uk.

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We get talking about this remote area, and I ask him about the ruined old houses dotted along the road. Are they the remains of the Highland Clearances of the early 19th century? (This will be explained once I get further north…). ‘Oh no.’ Deserted villages like Corgarff were once bustling communities with post offices, bakeries, and young men around working the farms. The trenches of the Western Front wiped most of them out, and after the First World War there weren’t enough farmers returning to make use of the land. Farms disappeared and widows and their children moved on.

Farming continues here today but in much lesser form. The lands here are mostly owned by English aristocrats who keep them for hunting. Gerard tells me that Lord Cowdray’s son Charles Pearson owns this land (how does one own land? The misery of property has ravaged this area), and the few locals around tend to work as gamekeepers. In exchange for a free house, car, and reasonable enough pay, they preserve the deer and grouse for the occasional toff shooting party. ‘This area is very unionist’, and the gamekeepers are loyal to their masters.

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There’s little work for the young, a common enough fact everywhere. Round here it’s ‘dead man’s shoes’, where a job becomes available only when one’s father or uncle has died. With such topsy-turvy arrangements like this, where the young go without work or a living wage whilst English lords inherit land and riches to indulge themselves with, the life of the average young person round here will be an unnecessary and arduous struggle. They leave for the cities, crammed into inadequate houses like those Gerard despairs of on the rare event he drives into one.

‘How can people be expected to live like that? How can they call that a living?’

With difficulty, as these conversations on the road keep revealing.

English lords share this land with the Queen’s crown estate further north at Glenlivet. The poverty and emptiness of the landscape, combined with the unjust opulence and waste of allowing these parasites to pass on stolen goods from father to son is so damn wrong. The land of this area should be returned to the people born here and displaced from here. The removal of the monarchy and of this class of aristocrats is just one of many conditions for establishing a genuinely equal democracy across the regions of these isles.

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I drink up my coffee, buy an artwork and head on my way. I don’t have a map for this leg of the journey, and it feels sensible to get a better bearing on where I am beyond just following the road. Gerard points me the right way, and quite organically suggests that the solution to my phone would be to put phone companies under single public ownership, reducing bills, masts and increasing efficiency. Yes! Another good proposal from the road, another fruit harvested from banter with strangers on the road, friends you’ve not met yet.

A Yorkshireman pops his head in and chats friendlily. Steve’s worried that the local community has become divided over some proposed change to a building. I sense that there are some divisions between the local Scots and the increasing prevalence of English settlers. Some of these disagreements seem pedantic in nature, and Steve sounds weary. ‘You can’t change human nature, eh?’

But you can…

Another steep hill appears, distracting me from sliding down another mental tangent, and I have to stop every 50 metres or so to reinflate my lungs. The road is vertical at times! I am climbing up a mountain on this toughened old friend, taking this beloved and unlikely bike far beyond where it should really be rode. My word, it is steep!

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I’m not getting fitter, but the landscape seems to get more enchanting the higher one gets. Bound-up by the rugged beauty about me, I can’t help focusing on the contentedness in the eyes of people I’ve met round here. The Cairngorms has been the most interesting and inspiring place passed through so far, there’s no doubt on that one.

Could a good life be led here? It seems so, but I think of home, and wonder seriously. Making a living would be tough, and cycling for a whole day each way to get to the nearest supermarket could be a struggle. My onesome is a twosome, but with a car and some form of income, I can think of no place more arresting or wonderful.

Eventually I make it to the very top, reaching the Lechte ski slopes. In winter it’s a small ski resort for local people, but in summer the ski lifts wave about in the lazy wind beneath patchy grass and there is just nothing for miles around.

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I have reached the top of the world. A sign tells me this is Moray, malt whisky country. I’ll certainly need a stiff drink after this. It has taken perhaps an hour to crawl up this two mile stretch, but the rapid plunge that comes next has me whizzing the same distance in about two minutes. The feeling’s ecstatic, like the elevated joy felt playing as a child, the wind tearing through one’s eyes and ears, one’s body shaking and bouncing. I daringly follow the winds of the road without applying brakes, laughing and singing to myself, touching well over 40 miles an hour I think on these crazy curves. Waaaa!

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On the other side of the mountain is Tomintoule, a small and pretty village surrounded by flattened fields, a river and the odd pine forest. It is little more than a string of shops and hotels on a single road. In the tourism office I meet Laura, a friendly young woman who tells me about her life in the area. Her family originally moved from Glasgow to bring her up here, seeking a quiet, safe and pretty place where a better quality of life might be found.

‘It feels so safe’, and I get a good impression about the place.

She feels lucky to work in the tourist office. Getting work in a small town is hard but, quite fairly, she now wants to travel further afield beyond this isolated spot. University is the common way out for young people. She’s hoping to start a degree in Psychology at Edinburgh, a town that feels vibrant and alive, and I tell her much about my travels and experiences. If a degree’s not your thing, most young people that stay behind tend to work in cooperage (barrel-making) for the nearby whisky distilleries, or as tour guides for them over the summer. Walker’s shortbread is another big employer nearby, and these villages rely more on tourism than the whisky itself it seems. Laura’s quite surprised when I tell her that in London drinks like Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and Glenlivet are commonly drunk.

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I need a pint after that monster mountain, and a local tips me towards the Glen Avon hotel bar. A Spanish feller spots my Transport for London water flask and starts conversation.

Beyond birthplaces, this young man is my doppleganger. His name’s Dan and from London, he’s a similar age, and has also fallen for the magnificent vistas of our environs. He’s also partial to a dram, and tips me on the local Tomintoul malt.

‘It’s so different to London, it’s like… nothing…’

He and his friend Juan-Carlos are travelling about the north and west of Scotland by car, and we trade tips and stories by the bar, laughing at each other’s exploits. They play pool whilst I catch up on some writing, which is also a good opportunity to eavesdrop on curious conversations. People nearby discuss their fishing.

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‘There’ll be clear water tomorrow … but there’s a lot of weed.’

Sea trout is being caught but seems unpopular, whereas salmon is the thing. I’ll find out over the next couple of days that sea trout is quite a luxury, and indeed landowners have meddled with fish stocks to supply the rivers inland at the expense of former fishing communities. At this point in time, this fishing talk travels several knots over my head, and I type and drink with the dexterity of a sodden octopus.

I leave Tomintoul on the same road north, and I’m warned as I go that some freaky beast of a hill awaits me. I munch through a bag of dry roasted nuts in trepidation. Ah yes. A relatively flat and empty road suddenly dips into the centre of the earth, and I am at the Bridge of Brown, beneath a pyramid with a pencil-line of a path. Well, can you come out and give me a lift up here? No. That newly discovered inner fortitude gets to work, focusing on happy memories, people I care about and inventing weird little songs as I huff and puff up the zigzagging road. The views at the top are like those of a dream, epic expanses of glens and mountains that peter away into infinity. Kestrels soar high above, whilst swallows bounce over the air above me, and rabbits chase each other across the fields.

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There are signs for the Glenlivet and Glenfiddich distilleries, but the road otherwise supplies a safari ride through the precipitous prettiness of northern Scotland. By evening I cross the river Spey and reach Grantown.

I pause by a forest just outside to take my breath. Elated and exhausted, a meditative moment takes me, and I strive to consider each individual living thing in my eyeline. The task becomes impossible after a few minutes, and I realise I am facing a small galaxy of life. I scrutinise just one living tree. What does its life mean to other things nearby, and to those things far beyond that have no knowledge of it? Life is lit and extinguished equally easy, but pessimism is misleading. Focusing on living things, there’s a far more intense animation that strives to live, realise itself and reproduce, than to self-restrict itself, tolerate unnecessary suffering, or desire self-annihilation.

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I wonder about the life of people as a collectivity, in the same way that individual trees form into the ecosystem of a woods. The people I’ve encountered are like these trees in that they’re too immense in their stories and selfhoods to ever be appropriately captured in one view. Yet write about the world based on just one experience, your own, and so much is missing.

What do I mean? Well, in most modern writing since Montaigne and Descartes, it’s common to use one’s self as the basis of proposing something to be true. People elaborate their own opinions of places or ideas without asking anyone else, without conversing with other people who might be affected, say the residents of towns they pass, or people also affected by some injustice, or just other human beings who might share the same doubts or curiosities about democracy, or desire, or the future of the human race. It strikes me as either a little autistic or arrogant, yet it’s oddly the norm. There are a few exceptions, the odd collectively-written book or travelogue woven with stories of strangers, but they’re rare.

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Trees, beer and fatigue lead into a new image. Consider this proposition so banal and obvious you’ll laugh: trees need light, rain, and a degree of maintenance and protection to flourish. So what of people? Has there been an adequately democratic state where the flourishing of all people as equals was the norm? Where work, resources and learning were shared fairly? Where all could live without anxieties about the future, or crime, or violent bigots? Some point to Labour governments of the 1940s or 60s, but I’m not sure. Memories of rationing, economic gloom and top-down imposed public authority remain. It’s still waiting.

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Sorry… let’s head into Grantown and look around, right? It is a small village, though larger than Tomintoul, boasting at least two streets occupied with hotels and houses. It’s a little touristy and not so charming as other places, but still a lovely enough place to reach. I find a Co-op supermarket open and get myself some dinner. The rates here are much higher than any larger supermarket I’ve passed, and I can’t help wondering about its ethics. Does Lidl or Asda better serve those on low-incomes through low-price food, compared to the high rates of an ethically ‘good’ store?

My dinner here would be more expensive than a takeaway, so I find the town’s chip shop and feast on some deep-fried tatties. The Scottish chip shop is a very particular kind of experience with new forms of exotic food (what do you mean you can deep-fry a …..?). I reckon some plucky and amoral entrepreneur would make a mint opening a Scottish style chip shop near the centre of an English town. They’re in a league of their own.

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I talk to Margo, a friendly lady who works at the chippie. She says that there isn’t a great deal of work in the town, but ‘it’s a nice place, quiet, safe, good for kids’. Some people work in welding for a nearby firm, but ‘for most it’s related to tourism, hotels or places like this’. She recommends Craig’s bar to me, one of the village’s two pubs, and I head there in search of company and refreshment.

It’s a lively local on a back-street, full of Norwegians sampling the whiskies. I enjoy an Aberlour and then a Glenfarclas, delicious local malts, and wash them down with Cairngorm’s Sheepshagger ale. The staff are warm and full of life. I get talking to a barmaid whose name I don’t catch. She’s also originally from London. She came up with husband for a short break, and … never left. The local butcher had been searching for a worker for two years, and on the whim, her husband called in for the job. That was that. She loves it here.

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‘It can be hard to make a living, but you’ve got to diversify’. This can mean working here and in three other jobs, as she does. The landlord is a former ski instructor with an injured knee, and he serves a pint with a good measure of hilarious banter and self-deprecation. ‘Whisky? I dunno young man. I only drink bourbon cos I’m a pisshead!’ It’s cheery and friendly, delightfully shoddy, and the landlord calls everyone darling and young man/woman. I get talking to Kev, another English migrant from Chester with a similar tale. He came here for a break after his dad found a job here, and decided to stay. Today he makes a living watching golden eagles on wind farms. ‘I absolutely love it.’ He shows me photos on his phone and tells me the best places to spot them, Hebridean islands like Harris, Mull, and Skye.

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‘We are strong aren’t we?’, the barmaid remarks to the landlord at the end of a busy night. I filter out and head north out of town, onto a dark and empty road. I’m not sure how long I pedal before a little forest appears, but I clamber up and set up camp for the night. It’s been an exhausting and spell-binding day. Glimpses of another way of life, and another possible life, have filtered between the magnificent mountain expanses. The worst of the hills are, for now, over. What lies ahead?

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