On a cloudy October morning in 2008, I quietly opened the door of Ling Hut, where we had arrived in darkness the night before, stepped out into the damp air and looked on the mountains of Torridon for the first time in my life.
Since I was such a cartophile I was already familiar with the names of the hills surrounding; I might even have been pompous enough to correct the pronunciation of their Gaelic names by my English pals, though I myself am not a Gaelic speaker. Yes, I was that sort of person back then.
But, standing there in reality for the first time, I realised just how ignorant I was. The depths of my incomprehension plummeted away to darkness as surely as the flanks of Liatach and Beinn Eighe sloped like rumpled leather up into the clouds. Crenelated ridge lines ran along their tops; layers of dark stone peaked out from under fringed grasses like stacked up walls and buttresses of a vast fortress.
There was immediately a huge sense of space; a simultaneous expanding and vanishing of scale as I shrank to insignificance while I tried to grasp the huge weight of size, stone and time all around. But I could not do it then. Such knowledge – real knowing – must be earned. Between you and a place lie many layers of compacted ignorance, trod down by the burden of egos that pass across them. To scrub and peel them back may take a lifetime of effort. But, when you peel away that last layer and reach through to touch the true understanding beneath, then the universe is yours.
I speak of nothing less than the experience of ‘transcendental actuality.’ To strike a less pretentious tone, it is the moment when your senses seem to expand, your idea of self is simultaneously lost and totally fulfilled. Something inside you reaches out to the world; your senses embrace it totally with complete awareness of it and yourself in it. And the universe, somehow, reaches back.
I have heard such experiences described many times. Often in the mountains, sometimes during moments of great concentration, stress, effort, suffering, or ‘simple’ silence. To some they are epiphanies (in both or either the religious and secular sense) or out-of-body experiences. Perhaps to Buddhists this is the moment of enlightenment. I personally think that such episodes of transcendental clarity may lie at the heart of all genuine religious experiences. I wonder if it may even be the fundamental human experience from which religion is born.
It is so very esoteric. You may even scoff at it. I don’t know what to tell you, except the fact that I, a sceptic and an aetheist with a scientific outlook, never went looking for such an experience. Yet I found it anyway. Three times, so far, I have felt that moment of a sublime connection. And perhaps what is most curious is that each time was so very different. No familiarity. A different aspect, and always found via a different path.
I didn’t know, that first morning in Torridon, that the path to just such a moment was already laid before me; braided into the very literal paths that threaded their ways through heather and boulder up into the hills and the secret places that they tucked away from the world’s prying eyes.
With friends I climbed the ‘classic’ hills of Glen Torridon. The sinuous ridge lines and boulder filled coires of Beinn Eighe, where we strode along with the wind in our hair and the red deer on the run before us. The pinnacles of Liatach, where we inched our way with the rock beneath our toes but nothing less than 1500 ft our air under our heels. We delved into chasms on Sgurr Dubh and heard the song of every hill burn rushing in spate. We let those waters carry us down the rivers in our kayaks, charging cannily through the weak points in the foaming rapids. We walked, we talked, we lived richly for brief, flashing moments upon an infinite face of stone and water.
This all took years. Sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, gradually peeling back those layers of unfamiliarity, letting the place in. And, by the by, anyone who believes they conquer a mountain when they climb it is a fool.
And then one day it just happened. Plodding slowly up the track, nodding to my shadow (as Norman MacCaig put it so well) with a heavy bag. Tough going, heavy breathing, sweat creeping down my back. Step by bloody minded step, I passed upward past the layers of rock. The typical sandstone rock of Torridon that is synonymous with the glen. Torridonian. Ancient before the ancients. Step by step, I passed up through the layers. My legs were sore, my back was sore, my shoulders were sore. And so I gave in, swung my bag to the ground, turned to sit on it, and look back out at the view.
The empty space of the glen stretched out in light and shadow. The wind was still. I heard the trickle of water nearby. My eyes found the sandy shore of Loch Torridon off in the distance where I had paddled bare foot yesterday among the sand worms and light flicking waves, ankle deep in the water. I turned my head and found the moon in the dark blue sky, shaded in one half as if the man were peeking out from behind a curtain. My eyes came back to the ground, and passed over a curious pattern frozen in the granular sandstone. There was something there.
I already knew in a cerebral sense of the great age of the rocks around me. The geology books tell me that they are 1.5 billion years old. And as we always say, such numbers are not comprehensible to us. The mind can not form an image of such a number. The nearest we can come is lots.
But I had been trying to picture it, turning the numbers over and over in my head with each rising step up the hillside. Making comparisons and mental ideas.
Make a year into one breath. 3 seconds per breath. One million seconds is twelve days. One billion seconds is 31 years. One million breaths per month, one billion breaths per lifetime. Every breath is spring, summer, autumn, winter. Every breath is hundreds of days of sun and rain and wind and silence.
My eyes darted back to the rock with the pattern and I realised what I was looking at. Ripple marks. Ripple marks from shallow waves on the sand, like the beach I had splashed in yesterday. Sitting here, I could trace my hand across the grooves and troughs made in the shallow water billions of years previously. My eyes moved between one and the other, and up again to the ancient face of the moon which had seen it all happen. I thought of the ripples in the sand beside this present shore, and my footprints in them, high and dry on a mountainside a billion more years hence.
A billion years. By the time the dinosaurs went extinct, these rocks were already 96% as old as they are today. This rock is older than life on land, but those ripples in the water have been preserved for what amounts to forever.
And then it happened. Between the trifecta of new, old and timeless – the ripples, the rock, and the moon, I suddenly felt the reality of all those ages. With the snaking line of the glen and the silent air connecting it all. Geological time. I could see it, I could feel it. I could grasp the weight of aeon upon aeon stretching out before and behind me. An ocean of time with limitless horizons and myself, an infinitesimal speck, borne along in the tiniest of its currents. Even the edifices of these daunting mountains were no more than half-notes in an endless symphony. But the wind quietly stroking the water of the shore, sorting the grains of sand into a pattern beneath the light of the moon and sun. Endless time; endless return.
I was not borne down by the weight of all that rock, or cast loose into Hutton’s ‘Abyss’ of time. I was borne up upon it. The merest speck indeed, but floating on its surface. A sense of wonder to be here, weightless and free, at the intersection of now and then. It was one thing to read in a book that the rocks of Torridon are 1.5 billion years old. It was another thing entirely to understand it.