Scotland is one of those places that seems to never really be simple, or summed up neatly into a couple of words. Sure, you can try, the tourists certainly do: tartan, booze and heavy accents; but I’ve lived here all my life, never worn tartan nor drunk (although I suppose my accent is fairly thick). In reality, it’s like most places in the world are nowadays: a strange mix of tradition and striving to be ahead in the modern world. But one thing that truly seems to persist with the country is fear. The fear of the countryside, the hills and the cliffs, the strong currents of the sea, the knowledge that the world “out there” is a dangerous place. Fear followed us into the towns as well, one of the simplest forms of merely being stabbed by one of the notorious gangs on the east coast, but after my experiences growing up, I would say the fear of the countryside persists the most. That old world full of magic and ghouls, so easy to laugh about when sitting at home…but out there, on the moors, it’s the type of place where you really can start to believe those old stories.
I grew up in the countryside, in one of those tucked away houses in the Highlands, which, in order to get to, one needed to take the most underused roads possible before turning down a practically hidden track winding deeper into the unkempt forests. In a lot of ways, it was a pretty darn good place to grow up in; there was little traffic so my parents had little worry over the usual “city” problems, plenty of room to keep animals of all sorts and a vast playground stretching out for miles. There were a few downsides, of course, a long journey to school and back each day (even longer once I moved up to Secondary), a pretty crap internet connection (once we finally got it), and a temperamental source of electricity (we got good at playing board games during power cuts).
But one thing that I loved about our house was its location: near the base of a steep hill. My parents were enthusiastic hill walkers and although when I was little I’d complain about being dragged along, I soon caught the bug for it. All we had to do for a great walk was take the pathway from the back of our house heading uphill and just follow it along. Soon enough, the trees would clear and you’d be left with a pretty fantastic view of the landscape. It was also the type of hill close to several others on one side, the types that all appear to melt into each other and loom dauntingly, bordering the view from a car window on the long stretch of road heading towards Inverness. And, boy, if you love walking, you’d adore these hills.
Of course, my parents were always cautious when I was little, it was definitely the type of place you wouldn’t want a small child wandering about by themselves, but once I got older I was allowed to go out by myself, promising to stick to the designated path and not go too far.
Kids never really do listen to their parents, do they?
Of course, as I grew even older my parents become much more lax about the rules, and trusted that I was able to look after myself fairly well on my own, and generally I had good experiences up the hillside. I found what I can only really describe as the “glory of walking”, the feel of being completely isolated and at one with nature, the vastness of everything, the knowledge that the path I was walking had been one that people many generations ago had taken.
But I suppose this story is about the bad experiences I had up there.
As beautiful as the landscape was, there’s another thing about Scotland: the weather is as unpredictable as our own tempers. There was once, when I was about nine years old, I’d grown bored of watching television and decided to head out on a walk, taking one of our three dogs along with me, Penny, a border collie, and wandered up along the hillside. I was heading towards this pile of rocks which I’d nicknamed “Stonehenge” but was, in reality, most likely an old cairn that had been knocked over and its stones haphazardly scattered. It was a bit off the beaten path, but not too far away from the safety zone. I enjoyed going up there to play about at being a Neanderthal or tomb-opener, the details I can’t remember, but what I do remember is how I was so caught up in my imaginings and play that I didn’t realize the weather had taken a turn for the worst, and that a thin veil of mist had set in that was growing steadily thicker and thicker. I noticed this, and even though I started to feel unsure, I could still see the pathway, so shrugged and carried on playing. The next thing that I knew there was a loud bark from Penny who I turned to face, to see what she had gotten worked up about. But as I turned I saw her speeding towards me, her teeth bared.
When a dog comes running towards you as though it’s about to attack, it’s a pretty frightening thing, especially when you’re so young. I was frozen still trying to figure out where I should run when Penny had already jumped on top of me, toppling me over, and I fell in the gap between two of the largest stones. Thankfully I didn’t crack my head open on a rock, but the tumble was still scary enough and I merely curled up whimpering, convinced that my dog had turned against me and would tear me to shreds. She hovered above me, her teeth inches from my neck, but instead of reaching down, she continued to snarl at something that wasn’t me. She barked, and I felt her weight lift from me as she moved off me, furious at something that I couldn’t see between my fingers. I stayed very still for I don’t know how long, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, she stopped appearing as though she was about to attack, and retreated back to me, tentatively licking my face. I gathered as much bravery as I could muster, and got up on my knees before she nudged me away from where she’d taken a stance. I stood up and moved towards the path, and Penny stayed close at my side, still not at ease. She relaxed a little when we met the trodden path, but as I stumbled back along towards home quickly my legs still brushed against her side as I took each step.
I had a bit of explaining to do to my parents when I came in, but they were used to me getting a bit dirtied up and scratched when I played in the forest. I mentioned how defensive Penny had gotten, but we all ended up brushing it off thinking it had maybe been a stray sheep that she’d been growling at.
The second experience I had was a fair few years later when I was fifteen years old. It was an age in which I’d probably spent the least amount of time outside on walks as I’d gotten caught up in the world of the internet and was able to communicate with my friends relatively cheaply at home – something which I was greatly excited by. That Saturday, the internet had failed and I’d gotten increasingly angry, taking my frustration out by yelling at my parents about how horrific it was to live so isolated and, in the typical teenage manner, stormed out of the house. Knowing that they’d be likely to follow me on the road towards civilization, I headed in the opposite direction and took myself up the hillside. Slowly, my frustration diminished as I worked out my anger through my physical exercise and I found myself almost smiling as I looked out at the view I’d not seen in some months, having forgotten how glorious walking was.
Instead of going back home in a much more reasonable mood, I decided to enjoy the countryside that afternoon and started wandering about the hillside. By that age, I knew the whole area better than most people know their home town and could have figured my way back home in the middle of the night. I hiked up to the summit of one hill before dipping down and up again to the next summit. As I looked out I could see that the weather was taking a turn for the worst again and headed off back home. As I wandered back, a strange combination of mist and cloud started unfurling itself, obscuring the summit from my view and wafting down the hillside in waves. It was just about then I started feeling odd. There was a strange sensation, a tingle down my spine, if you’ll pardon the cliché, and my steps, although usually strong and steady, felt unsure. I stumbled down the hill as fast as I could before glancing down at the landscape around me that was now partially obscured. It was then that I had the single most terrifying experience of my life. As silly and typical as it sounds, I felt doubt. Doubt over where I was. I had a vague idea, but was doubting whether I really was where I thought I was. As I’ve said before, I knew that hillside so well, that to have a moment where I felt unsure was completely alien.
I then panicked.
Blind panic is one of those things that you feel ashamed of, or don’t really understand as a watcher, but it was what I experienced up there. Everything became so silent and all I could hear was the beating of my heart. My breaths grew ragged and shallow, uneven, inhaling too little, exhaling too much. My childhood world was gone, and I was in a place that I didn’t know and would never get out of.
It’s a fairly common occurrence for people to get lost in the Highlands, people wander out into the hills, get hurt and can’t get help. People get lost among the heather and fall in a peat bog, unable to get out. It’s a sad truth, but you get used to it. We get a lot of tourists in our area and they often do go missing. The number of cups of tea we’ve served to rescue teams is innumerable, and it’s sad that we appear to have grown an exterior skin, being a bit insensitive and feeling more that the tourists were a bit dim for getting lost up there and not sticking to the paths. In that moment, though, I genuinely believed that I wasn’t going to get home.
I broke down and ran.
It didn’t really matter that tears were obscuring my vision or that the misty clouds had grown thicker than ever or that I had no idea where I was running, I just ran as damn well hard as I could. I wasn’t going to be someone who would curl up into a little ball and freeze to death, and for some reason, I just hoped as long as I ran downhill for long enough, I’d reach some form of civilization again – but that depended entirely on which hill I was on.
I stumbled along down, trying hard not to fall, although I’m sure I twisted my ankle by plowing through the uneven terrain until finally… I fell down. I screamed, a true, completely uncontrollable scream, as I fell to the ground hard. I banged my face on something hard and cried out in agony. I felt my face and cringed to find a warm sticky substance on my face. I wiped it away as best as I could and squinted hard to see what I’d fallen on. I almost crying with joy when I realized that I must have tripped over one of the rogue rocks of Stonehenge!
It was a relief to know that I was at a well-visited landmark of mine, and had the instructions of how to get home from here carved into my mind. Although it’s a bit pathetic to admit this… I crawled to the path and cried with relief when I reached it. I continued crawling for a good part of the way, just too scared to get up and see the world closed off around me, with the mist pressing in from all sides. I eventually managed to stand up again once I’d reached the muddier path of the forest.
My parents were worried sick when I got back in, and quickly drove me to the hospital. My wounds weren’t too bad but I’d lost a lot of blood as the cut was to my head so I got stitched up. I shakily managed to tell my parents that I’d just panicked, ended up running and tripped. It could easily be chalked up to nerves, or the fact I hadn’t been walking up there for a few months, but I felt in my heart it was something deeper than that. There had been an instinctive part of me that had felt wrong and, though I wouldn’t dare admit it to anyone, I hadn’t been alone on the hill. It hadn’t just been bad weather, it had been the strange sort of mist that had either fogged my brain, or had been trying to draw me into it.
After that incident, I wouldn’t go walking up the hill by myself, and always made sure I at least brought a dog along. I was simply too shaken up, but it didn’t completely deter me from enjoying the splendors of the hills.
The final time I went walking in the hills was about a year after the last incident and I was sixteen. I was starting to feel a lot better about what had happened and began to rationalize it in my head. One of my closer friends had come over for a weekend and we had spent the first night staying up late, stuffing our faces and munching away on whatever food we could find in the cupboard.
The next day though, our entertainment was wearing thin and we decided to get out and about a bit. Unfortunately, having woken up late we’d missed a ride into the closest village with my Mum, and instead of taking a trek down to the bus stop, we decided to just do a walk nearby, and set off up the hill. We laughed and jested, and I showed my friend, Lesley, the place where I’d cracked my head open, as well as the cairn on the top of the hill, and we spent a good couple of hours simply wandering slowly around the hillsides.
Again, we lost track of time a bit and it was starting to look a bit dim so we started to head back home. A mist had settled in and the whole place felt, as it had when I was fifteen, a bit disorientated. However, I took deep breathes, controlling my emotions and continued on in a calm manner. After a while, Lesley started to worry a bit aloud.
“Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?”
“Yes,” I replied confidently, trying to keep my voice assured.
There was a pause as we walked in silence for five minutes.
“How come it’s taking so long?” Lesley moaned. “Are you sure you know where we are?”
“How can you even tell in this?” my friend gestured around at the white landscape.
I didn’t really know how to answer that. I was just using my gut instinct. I could have pointed out a couple of rock shapes that we’d passed that I knew well, but I doubt it would have seemed very convincing – Lesley knew that I’d gotten lost here once and evidently that was casting doubt on the accuracy of my judgment.
I looked around and realized for the first time how blindingly white it all seemed. It was then that I saw something else in the mist.
Glancing back at Lesley, I saw that my companion had seen the figure too. It was hard to properly see, but it definitely looked like someone else had gotten caught in the ridiculous weather as well. Some poor bugger was stumbling around looking lost. I sighed, and was just about to say I was going to go fetch them and take them back with us, when Lesley spoke first.
“Look, why don’t we go ask them for directions?”
I choked back a laugh. “Uh… somehow I don’t think they’re going to be the best help. It’s probably some tourist.”
She looked at me incredulously. “What are you talking about? They look a damn lot more sure of themselves than we do!”
I glanced back at the figure, which appeared to have fallen down, confused.
“Look, c’mon, before he goes!” Lesley started off towards the figure.
“No!” I grabbed her arm.
I spoke in an urgent whisper. “The… thing over there, it’s standing up?”
Lesley looked at it before turning back and rolling her eyes. “Yes…”
I looked over. The figure was most definitely on the ground, fumbling around.
“We should go. Now.”
“Sssh!” I lowered my voice. “Now, step back slowly.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! Look, I’ll just be a minute to go ask the guy if we’re headed in the right direction, okay?”
I shook my head, but she prised her arm from my grasp, made a face at me, and wandered off towards the figure. I watched her go, as she and the figure faded slowly from my view. I waited for ten minutes, then went home.
When I got home, I told my parents that Lesley and I had gotten separated, and a search team was called. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I should mention the figure we’d seen, hard to make out by both of us, but with such differing behaviors, but I told the police when they came to interview me. I doubt they took me seriously, what with the fact I’d had bad experiences before, and probably concluded that I’d had a hallucination of some sort.
After all, a lot of people go up, but not everyone comes down. It’s a sad, unfortunate truth.
But now, looking back, I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that. Of course, accidents happen…but I can’t help but remember those three incidents: the same pricking of hairs against my shirt, the same feeling of the mist pressing in around me, the same nagging that something wasn’t quite right…
You see, the figure was two things at once: from my perspective, I saw a lost tourist, some poor bugger that had strayed from the path and not gotten back before getting completely disorientated; Lesley claimed to have seen someone who was sure of themselves, someone to ask for help. We both saw something that we were attracted to approach. I didn’t. Lesley did.
They never found Lesley.
After that day, I never went walking there again. Now, I’ve moved away and in my final year at university in Aberdeen, glad to have moved on with my life. There have been times I’ve been out with mates to the pub and come across a group of tourists just heading north. They often ask a few of us about the Highlands, and for any stories. Sometimes they even ask directly about mythical creatures, such as the Loch Ness monster or about the Fay, and I’ll tell them my story. Normally they’ll nod and listen politely enough, while my friends jeer away at me for trying to wind up the tourists or being a bit soft in the head believing in faeries and the like. But there are a few times, after I laugh off the teasing, that I catch someone’s eye, whether they be someone I share a mutual friend with but don’t know well, or a quiet drinker at the bar listening in to our conversation, someone who, themselves, have lived outside the cities. And we share, just for a moment, an understanding.
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