The Oaks of Sunart

As soon as the man on the phone stopped shouting at me and hung up, I made up my mind about going away. A few minutes later I had a self catering cottage booked in the village of Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. I reasoned that besides being a place I’d wanted to spend time for ages, it was also the furthest I could possibly get away. A place no-one could find me, where I could just get my head down for a few days and indulge in silence, rest, and avoid crossing paths with another human.

A whirlpool of fatigue, insomnia and negative thinking had held me fast for months. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep it up. Months of autopilot, of not really being there, putting on a face, taking things day by day. Time was slipping away and I was never reaching that mysterious goal of feeling better. All I wanted was to spend a week or more in quietness, with no task needing done, no responsibilities tugging at my sleeve and cattle-prodding at my psyche.

Another five weeks went by slowly. Sitting numbly exhausted at my desk by day and committing GBH on my pillow when the frustration and perversity of being incapable of sleep just got too much. Then, finally, I found myself turning the key in the ignition at last, and putting all that in the rear view mirror of my van.

It felt great to see the west again. Reaching the coast I felt a real lift as I caught sight of the familiar sight of the Small Isles. Rum with its perfect mountain profile, Eigg with its attention grabbing pinnacle of An Sgurr. Summits I’d stood on, waters I’d crossed, but had not seen in far too long.

Less familiar roads lay ahead. After reaching Salen, and the shores of Loch Sunart, 20 miles of winding single track lay ahead. I took it easy, drinking it all in as I spun the wheel one way, then another. The shore road passed through thick woods of oak – one of the biggest reasons I chose this place – and all around were unfamiliar views of hills, lochs and islands. I’d only come this way once before, years ago, so each new turn in the road was fresh. Every bend loosened the coils that had been wound around me a bit more.

At the end of it all lay the cottage. I walked in to find a red tiled kitchen, a comfy sitting room with (joy of joys!) a cast iron stove and a view out across the darkening Sound of Mull. An iron spiral staircase led up to a tiny bedroom in the eaves with a comfy bed. And throughout the whole building was an utterly blissful quietness. Tired from the drive I unloaded, unpacked, treated myself to a piping hot bath, then collapsed into bed. Unlike my streetlight-infected bedroom back home, the darkness was total, the silence total. As it should be. I realised that this was how it always was where I grew up, and recognised how much I’d taken that for granted, and how much I missed it. Shortly, I fell into the deepest and most refreshing sleep I’d had for what felt like years.

In the morning I drew back the curtain and looked out at grey skies lying over the water, with the hiss and hammer of rain at the roof and window. Perfect. I love the sound of rain in a quiet house. A house where you can’t hear it feels lifeless to me. A house should shelter you from the weather, but not cut you off from it entirely. For the first time in ages, there was absolutely nothing I needed to do today, or any day for the next week. It could rain from now until then, and I would be perfectly content to just sit by the fire.

Later that afternoon, though, the rain did ease off and I decided to head out for while. After all, the most westerly point in mainland Scotland was just five miles away at Ardnamurchan Point. It was ten years, more or less, since I was last there. Back then on that summer day I was with Kirsty and my pal Nick. All young, all fit, all trainee outdoor instructors and avid climbers. We circumnavigated the point on the rocks, bouldering and scrambling above the waves on the lichen tarred rocks. We revelled in the hand to hand contact with the rock, the freedom of movement, the risk. I felt no such inclination this time. The very thought of it was exhausting.

But it was good to be here again. The air was fresh and cool, and I was alone to enjoy it without intrusion. To the north lay the Small Isles and the Cuillins of Skye. West lay Coll and the Atlantic beyond it – just rolling ocean for thousands of miles until the coast of Labrador. East were the ancient volcanic stumps of the hills of Ardnamurchan. To the south the rough shore snaked away toward Mull. The flat underside of a grey cloud extended from horizon to horizon. The sea was calm, and so was I. There was a sense of vastness here. A space so wide and calm that my stacked up senses could finally relax, and let themselves spread out again.

I began to find new energy over the next several days. Unexpectedly my legs carried me to the summit of Ben Hiant with no problem at all. The lumpy hill that overlooks the whole peninsula surely offers one of the best viewpoints anywhere on the west coast. The low November sun was warm, glittering from the waters of the sea and throwing a blanket of light over Loch Sunart and Morvern, into places I had longed to see with my own eyes. Even here at the top of the hill the air was still and completely quiet, though fresh. I sat with my back to the grasssy slope, watched the sheep pick their way across the flanks of the hills. They moved at exactly the right pace.

A fresh wave of tiredness was waiting for me later that day as I picked my way along the shore, but I was happy enough to listen to my body and head back to bed at the cottage. Fatigue makes much more sense when you have done something to deserve it. This was good tiredness. Satisfaction in a day well spent and a body well used.

Into the oak woods I went at last. This was that second ancient forest of Scotland – the ‘Celtic’ Forest; the other side of the coin to the Caledonian Forest with which I am by now so familiar. Being here among these oak trees felt so different, but also so perfectly right.  The place felt good. I felt at home immediately, welcomed by the woods. 

The colours and shapes were captivating right from the first. Those ancient, twisting woods were full of rusting browns and golds at this time of year. Fringes of green and orange lichens covered rock and branch under a layer of dying bracken fronds. The light that slanted down through the canopy glittered as if it shone from a golden mirror. The trunks were so dark and the leaves so bright.

Oak is so very very different to the pines of the forest I’m familiar with. But, that being said, the way that the branches twist and writhe on the oldest trees is very familiar. Gnarly arms and crumpled fingers pointing every which way, but with contrasting grace they delicately held golden leaves just so as if with an upraised pinky. At one place where the path led down across a sloping hillside through the trees, their branches all pointed solemnly toward the same point of sky, but the branches were so disproportionately long that it seemed impossible the trees should hold them. Branches twice as long as the tree was high; they undulated sideways like a wobbly line of ink when you test a pen to see if it works.

Everywhere I went from then on in Ardnamurchan I was looking out for the oak trees. Down by the shore of Loch Sunart where the branches hung out over the kelpy rocks. The sun reflected from the small waves back up onto the branches, where living webs of light twinkled on the webs of life. A playful seal splashed offshore while a dozen more made bananas of themselves on the rocks. All the tiredness, all the frustration I had built up inside. The woods and the water were drawing the poison out of me and letting me reconnect with the good things inside that had been crushed into small parts of my being. Now they could relax and fill me up once more.

At Camas nan Geall I walked down to the shore. Here the rugged hillside of Ardnamurchan plunge suddenly to a grassy bay dotted with old trees and even older remains of habitation. Standing stones, ruined cottages from the clearances, ancient foundations and remains of a chapel. I traced my fingers over the carvings on the standing stones, and thought about the unknown mason who chiseled those marks so long ago. An old saying popped into my head. I’m not sure where it came from, though I read once it was the epitaph of an unknown Roman solider:

‘As you are now, so was I. As I am now, so you shall be.’

Wise words, if sombre. But they aren’t hopeless. They are the opposite. As my feet wandered along the shore to another oakwood, and my eyes travelled out along the horizon to where the sun was going down behind Mull, it occurred then that the water, the grass, the rocks and oak trees might all tell me the same thing. Life is a cycle. The matter that constructs me is just one of trillions of temporary forms. If you can accept the truth and the peace of that, then it makes everything all the more wonderful and beautiful. I felt a deeper peace settling in, and the last of my tension wash away. This ultimate truth put things back in perspective. I looked at the oak trees and said to them in silence:

‘As you are now, so shall I be.’

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