looking down


We had some fine weather on Islay, and on Sunday enjoyed a glorious day’s walking. When we last visited this part of the world in May, we sat by the water at Ardfin, and gazed across the sound of Jura to some very good looking Islay hills which we had never ascended. So we decided to ascend them. The hills in question sit in a corner of the island that, in comparison to other parts of Islay, feels incredibly remote. Our walk started at Ardtalla and our route (North-West, then South-East) is marked by that wiggly red line:


This is a great walk, but it is not for the faint hearted. While the hills are not particularly high, and nor, at 10 miles, is this a particularly long route, the terrain — involving a characteristic mix of bog, rock, and waist-high bracken — is consistently challenging. . .


. . . but rewarding in every way. After tramping a couple of miles round the coast, we came down to the water to have a look at the old abandoned farm at Proaig.


. . . which is not quite as abandoned as it looks.


A tin roof and some rudimentary furniture make this quite a serviceable bothy, and the swallows nesting in the beams certainly seemed to like it. While I enjoyed the graffiti (“no writing on wall”) Tom found a notebook in which visitors had marked their recent presence in the building in pen and ink.


We were interested to see that Dave G had visited Proaig that morning, though we saw no sign of him — or anyone else for that matter — all day. Perhaps he had already returned to McArthur’s head and the otter.


After crossing the water along a conveniently placed girder, we began our climb.


This is where the walk got really interesting. The sides of these hills are steep, and that solid-looking heathery undergrowth is deceptive. Beneath the heather is moss, beneath the moss is bog, and beneath the bog is The Unknown. The Unknown may be water, it may be loose rock, or it may be a Nice Big Hole just waiting to sprain your ankle. Ascending up such hills can be quite a tricky business — very much like climbing up a large, slippery sponge. This is the kind of walking where one must look down frequently, to see on precisely what one is stepping. But I like watching my feet. There are amazing things to see.


I was not quick enough to photograph the fat cream-and-chocolate adder who appeared out of the heather, and the camera also missed the bright yellow lizard that darted across Tom’s boots. But that gigantic caterpillar wasn’t going anywhere, and neither were the fungi or the flowers.

I love the way that the peat and water that shape this landscape bring things to life in such outlandish colours.


There are incredible greens and browns and oranges everywhere you look. And the shades of rock and lichen are equally intense. Sun-yellows, reds and peaches. Quartzite, pink as a giant roast salmon.


When one reaches the tops of hills, one begins to look down in a different way. If the day is clear, there is the reward of a fine expansive view. And whatever the weather, there is that heady sensation of traversing the curve where the earth meets the sky.


Sometimes the point of a walk seems the prospect, and in this case, it was a delicious one: back across the Sound to the three paps of Jura. We could see the place where we sat three months ago, anticipating this superb Islay walk.


But I’m in a nuts-and-bolts kind of mood at the moment, and however great the prospect view, I think that its the nuts-and-bolts of this landscape — the things that I noticed by looking down at my feet — that I’ll continue to muse upon.

Yes, I did knit that hat. It is my new favourite walking hat. I’ll perhaps say something about it another time