open country

My niece Rosy was sitting up in bed clutching her tiny pink Nintendo. “Is it a mountain?” she asked with huge excited eyes. I hesitated as I thought of relatively low Coich na h-Oighe but I compared its terrain with the perception of the child before me and replied yes, that it is a mountain.

Coich na h-Oighe, the maiden’s nipple, is one of the lowest hills in the Isle of Arran’s main mountain range. It sits on the south side of Glen Sannox guarding the entrance, a small steep projection of rock that pierces the sky in defiance.

My sister would not let Rosy come with us because she had had a bad experience on this hill as a teenager. She had found herself stuck at the top of some slabs with her friend, father had gone ahead. Eventually helped down by two other walkers she was never keen to return.

I have a strange obsession with the fear that the scrambles can induce, so I have ascended and descended her slopes on several occasions. The year my late cousin was married, I went up this hill to find the jagged ridged fingered with mist. The day was humid and the hill swarmed with biting insects.

I looked down the eastern buttresses that make up the 100m western wall of the Devil’s Punch Bowl and considered catapulting myself between them to get rid of the irritation. I refrained. I descended as quickly as possible without committing hara-kiri.

In my youth, my response to the mountain’s slabs varied from year to year but I trusted my father when he told me I would not fall. To avoid the vertical slopes, the path, when it leaves Allt a Chapuill, heads north-west contouring round to the north face from where it heads due south to the summit.

When the path turns south, the real ascent begins. Over the years, I am convinced I have taken different routes up and down, often feeling none were right – I was uncertain. When I imagine the hill, all I can see are many granite slabs with no clear route.

This year my interaction with the heather and rock wall changed. The mountain has, for all her relentless steep faces, a certain sweetness in her size. The scrambling, if you choose the more difficult route, is not too exposed. The result is that you feel as if you are in an embrace with this ancient mound – while she will excite, you she will not expose you to too much danger.

I felt at home. Thirty years of walkers since I first walked there have impressed a deeper, clearer path up the slope. Father and I were alone on the summit taking turns at silly poses on its lone boulder, not because we disrespect the hill but because we are joyful to be there.

The pull to my nieces below forced the decision not to continue round the ridge. On the return to the floor of the glen, I noted how green the fresh shoots of the birch and rowan were on the steep sides of the burn – new life.

For the first time I realised that the beautiful beeches by the track were once a hedge so I stopped to observe them more closely – their shadows now highlighted by the sun that had managed to break through.

Then I decided to visit Edwin Rose’s grave in the small graveyard at the foot of the glen near the road. The metal ladder stile has almost been covered by hawthorn. Edwin’s grave is almost obscured by ivy. As I draw nearer I realise that the front of the stone is still visible and I can ponder the story behind this man’s death as I read his name, date and the words “Died on Goatfell”.