The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

This story is by former member Nick Hamilton (with due deference to Kenneth Grahame, he says). The photo above is of Nick on Suilven.

Midsummer 1981, and it’s approaching midnight as I climb slowly up towards the rough slopes below the summit of Conival. Gleann Dubh is behind me and the cluster of Club tents beside the road at Inchnadamph is lost in the magnitude of the landscape. The glow from the dying day shrouds me in the strange light that is only found high in the mountains on a midsummer night.  A burn runs across my path; all bubble and murmur, chuckle and gurgle, as clear as glass. I stop for a drink and water tumbles out of my cupped hands onto my boots and trickles its way back to its source. Sweet water, upland water that has no equal in the pipes and ducts of civilisation.

Looking up to the ridge that leads to the summit of Conival the glow of the sky is a mixture of pale golds and blues. A fine night to be out alone on the high mountains in the far north of Scotland with all the beauty and magnificence of a midsummer night still to come. The quartzite boulder slope ahead of me reflects pastel shades far different from the white that is the true colour of the rock. Up, up I climb, using the stone blocks as a staircase and playing the game of judging which of them will shift under my weight and which ones will remain steady and firm.

At last I reach the ridge that stretches up to my right and ends at the summit cairn and the triangulation point. Heading for the top I come out into direct sunlight. The sun, dipping on the northwest horizon, casts my shadow in front of me and I remember Norman MacCaig’s words in his poem Climbing Suilven, ‘I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust the mountain down and down.’ I think MacCaig would have appreciated my situation because he loved the far northwest highlands and climbing mountains was one of his many passions.  When I arrive at the summit the light has changed again. The sun has nearly disappeared now and seems to be impossibly far north when compared to the perspective from a lowland viewpoint or at sea level. I speculate on where the sun will rise again; I know it will still be on the northern horizon but further round to the east. How much higher and further north would I have to go, I wonder, to witness the sun throughout the night? I don’t know, but I mull the problem over as I rest against the cairn, enthralled by the spectacle that surrounds me.

It’s well after midnight now and the light continues to decline. Between 1.00am and 2.00am the light will be at its lowest level but on such a lovely clear night illumination from the glowing northern sky will be strong enough to read comfortably, should I wish to, and continue walking without difficulty. On similar expeditions I have encounter unexpected poor weather on midsummer nights and been forced to stop for an hour or two as the light declined to a level when it would have been unwise to continue walking over rough ground. But this night is the best; high on the mountain tops and very far north with clear weather; what could surpass it !

The ridge to Ben More Assynt stretches out to the east and beckons me on. Nowt but bare rock; quartzite dominates, white in certain light but on this night the north side is a warm lemon yellow, changing abruptly at the crest of the ridge to shades of grey as the mountainside falls away to the south and a deep blackness. I make my way along the ridge, walking casually where the ridge is broad and gentle and more carefully in places where a balancing act along a narrow crest is necessary. As I start the ascent towards the summit of the mountain the light around me fluxes and pulses. I stop and try to work out the source of this strange effect. The sun is still below the horizon and it will be a while before it casts the first rays of the new day directly at me. I fantasise that I will be the first person in the county to see the sun rise this day; surely nobody can have a greater advantage of elevation and latitude than me at this time.  The light continues to fluctuate; it must be my brain doing this, there cannot be any scientific explanation that would satisfy me, Mr Pragmatic, Mr Realist, yet the light really does seem to ebb and flow.

I carry on climbing until I leave the ridge and join the widening plateau that ends abruptly with the summit rocks of Ben More Assynt. All is shattered, splintered rock in wild perfusion. The sky lends the scene another set of shades; yellow still dominates but blues, greens and pinks are reflected off surfaces near and distant. At first glance there is no vegetation of any kind but experience tells me that even in the harshest of rock landscapes one can usually find hardy alpines clinging to a precarious existence. Searching reveals sparse clumps of Trailing Azalea, almost at the end of its flowering period, and Moss Campion in full bloom. Their hold on life looks tentative but in reality they are the true survivors of the plant kingdom and they dominate their lofty domain at the top of the world. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

Conival from Ben More Assynt

Sitting at the summit I stretch my legs out to the north to watch for the sun to re-appear. It is too early and although the light has grown there is no sign of the fiery ball that will eventually rise slowly out of the distant horizon. The waiting is a strange experience; by now I’m rather cold as the temperature has dropped significantly because of the clear sky, and a gentle breeze is flowing up from the dark recesses of the coire below me. I don a fleece, a jacket and a woolly hat. I get comfortable and snuggle down into my layers. The light is growing but still the strange fluxes continue; what can be causing that?  Gradually I become aware of a great weight bearing down on me, the sort of weight that frightened me as a young child when my understanding of the world was just beginning and sleep was an unpredictable experience. I can’t seem to move from under the weight or shift it off me. A faint unearthly sound like music, yet not music, is playing inside my head.  The sensation is not unpleasant and I become enveloped in it, unexpectedly grateful for its company and eager to learn more about it. Figures move across my field of vision; other walkers? No. Shirley and the boys? It can’t be. Elves and Orcs? Come on, get a grip!  Quite slowly, as though waking from a dream I raise my head and catch the first shaft of sun as daybreak arrives. Within minutes everything is transformed and reality asserts itself but I’m left with an enduring sense of having experienced something moving and profound. I’m reminded of Ratty and Mole who underwent a similar experience, but in a far different landscape, when the piper at the gates of dawn appeared before them in the form of Pan and left them physically bowed down but spiritually greatly uplifted.

Early in the morning I return to my tent knowing that I have been greatly uplifted. I don’t think Pan visited me on the top of the mountain but I do know that I have experienced something that for me is unusual. Maybe it was just the wonder of the mountains on an exceptionally fine midsummer night, but maybe it was something else. After all, we are reminded in Exodus that the mountaintop is the place to meet God.