Letting the mind wander in the Highlands

 A really good walk in the wilderness - or even your local park - can be a powerful way to clear your head. Joe Pontin heads to the Highlands for a walking break and finds his mind wandering...

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Hiding in plain sight

Walking high on the hills above Glen Torridon, I realised that I had fallen in to a rhythm.

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I can’t say thought had anything to do with it. But for an hour or more I had been absorbed in picking my way up the stony path; pausing rhythmically to glance up to the horizon.

At some point in this hour, the ground beside the narrow path had begun to absorb me too, in an absent minded kind of way; the tapestry of heather, sedge, grass. Now I saw that this skein of tangled plants was scattered with tiny flowers, bright as precious stones.

It’s amazing what you miss. I think we all have a visual filter. We often see things, but we don’t notice them, not unless we are looking for them. Sometimes we only really notice something when our minds switch off.

You can learn to notice more. Like the wine taster who learns to unweave the threads of flavour bound in his glass, the true connoisseur of the countryside achieves a kind of total visual awareness I’ll never have. My friend Rich is one of these.

When I amble along, say, a riverside, I see the world in a kind of watercolour wash of light and shade. Rich’s visual world is quite different: a text dense with secrets to delight him.

Rich has a powerful gift of empathy for both people and animals and this informs his eye.

Perhaps he is just sharp-eyed, but I’ve always thought this empathy helps him seek out the creatures around us: that leaf – warm, sheltered – looks like just the place a damsel fly might bask in the late sun; and – sure enough – there is one. He will cheerfully point out its slender body, a shard of glittering blue; and all the while he knows that a mile away, in the purple haze, a low-flying harrier is quartering the marsh; while a pike idles in murky waters below us. He seems to have the gift of 360-degree vision, simultaneously aware of everything around us.   

Rich is not with me today, up on my Highland hill, and I know that an eagle might fly overhead and I, unlike Rich, would never notice.

For now, the ground had my attention and this and those distant hills were enough. I felt something thrilling about the contrast in scale: from the vast space of Glen Torridon, sweeping away to distant blue squiggle of Skye’s Cuillen range; to the tightly woven mesh of stems and leaves at my feet.

You could fall into both; one with a beat of wings and a swoop into the light and the wind; the other on hands and knees, with a slow descent into the miniature world of the delicate forms from which this rug was stitched.

My knowledge of wild plants is haphazard. On lower slopes of the hill, I recognised the nodding heads of bog cotton, gathered in congregations like druids, their heads bent into the wind, each tuft of down swept back like a mop of wild white hair above a spindly stem. There were orchids, too, rising plump and pink above the khaki blanket. Further up, the tiny splayed leaves of Alpine lady’s mantle; like an embryonic version of the Alchemilla in my back garden (which seems gross, floppy, in comparison).

Otherwise the names elude me. Speckles of deep blue flowers, like tiny chips of lapis lazuli. Then purple flowers with leaves flattened to the ground in a star pattern. A white flower with a dark button at its centre (pictured).

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<em>Cornus suecica</em> – or Scandinavian dogwood – grows in rocky or boggy areas, and bears red berries in autumn

I felt the tug of desire to stop and simply look. Children would.

But adults too often raise their heads and prioritise. Which is precisely what I did on the day. In the end, there were only so many hours to gain the summit and make our long way down to the car.

One day I’ll be back, I tell myself, and I hope with the time to linger one those heathery slopes.  

But will I?

Clearing your mind

As all you walkers out there know, a really good walk clears the head.

Those toxic thoughts – petty, gloomy, repetitive – seem to be scoured away by a few hours of wandering.

Sometimes there’s a euphoric moment that chases all thought from your head and you can feel yourself lighten.

One of these WOW moments came after the long scramble to the grassy ridge of Beinn Eighe (Ben Ay).

At once the ground levelled and swept down from our feet southwards into the glen.

All around was space and light and the giant forms of the Torridon hills.

The rush of endorphins was palpable.

And this was the view.

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• Pictures and video are mine. Thanks to botanist James Compton for his help identfying the wildlower pictured above.