mountains


During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close.  Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family.  This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.

Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland.  It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb.  I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.

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It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place.  I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.

Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.

Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage.  I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months.  Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements.  When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home.  Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.

Many moons ago, actually only two moons ago, I found myself wandering in the mountains with a friend. We headed up to the summit of a small mountain under a full moon. The light was so bright that we crossed streams and moorland without our head torches. It was clear to us, but not quite as clear as day, why the full moon was used by our ancestors for hunting trips. Our overconfidence with the area meant we just glanced at the map briefly before burying it in a rucksack. It is fair to say that we knew our way with a vivid mental map, but we didn’t know how far. I think all our mental maps are too short. Maybe they are warped by the speed of our cars, or maybe they will always be warped if walked under the steel grey of moonlight. The mountain was clearly just in front of us, yet we walked on and on.

We found the summit at the end of what felt like a mythical journey. The top of this mountain flattened out into three small pools of water, three strange moon pools. On the edge of the flattened area we quickly got the bivvy bags out, and every piece of clothing we brought to keep out the cold. We spoke the usual fine nonsense and stories that feel like they should be spoken around a peaty fire on a dark night, yet the full moon and stars seemed an equally fitting setting.

I didn’t make any sort of conscious decision to note where the moon was in the sky. I just remember walking up and turning my head to see the moon in a different place completely. Then I remember visualising the arc of the moon and it’s path nearly unconsciously, and thinking; a couple of hours until dawn. Then I smiled and went back to sleep.

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summit sunrise – summit bivvy

For years now I have tried to know the moon and stars. These things can be read in books, but it’s not enough; they have to be lived. The seasons have to mean something and must be felt again and again before it sinks in and becomes part of us.  For years I was out of touch with the seasons and I simply drifted through them from a distance; sheltered behind the modern world and my ignorance.

This morning I caught the moon slipping behind the hills and red tinted sleet filled winter clouds. This full moon was waning; the Celtic dark moon. It’s appropriate. This time of year feels like the adjustment time, when the daylight feels chased and slips away into the colder nights.

The darkness brings with us and unexpected change that, if I had thought about it, I should have seen coming. When we first started keeping hens they were the hybrid variety specifically bred to keep laying constantly; an egg every twenty five hours without end. They did slow down a bit in the mid winter, but it never felt like we had anything but an abundance of eggs. Now our hens are all more traditional breeds who are more in tune with the light, and the lack of it. With no light there are no eggs. With eight hens we now only get one egg a day, maybe two, and I suspect they come from the same one or two hens. No surplus is sold for our occasional meal out with the precious ‘chicken money’. Instead, the eggs are carefully collected with thoughts of specific jobs already beckoning; pancakes, boiled eggs with toast, and french bread. Maybe a cheesecake if we save up for it. This is an unexpected joy. Like the following of  the moon, we are living in the seasons and we look forward to Easter. The Easter bunny doesn’t bring the eggs, the sunlight does.

I arrived just after midday. I wasn’t expected until later but events caused me to wander into the mountains early. After finding my mountain legs while I hiked up to the Hare’s Gap I then sat down to eat lunch. Later that day I was due to let another leader go home, but I thought I might try and spot the groups as they passed along the Brandy Pad. My eyes strained to try and pick them out, but all I could spot were walkers on the path, no groups.

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After a quick lunch I decided to try and make contact with the other leaders, as I had no radio and my mobile signal was zero, I decided to head up the nearest mountain for a signal. As I plodded slowly up I pondered how it is not unusual for groups to be this slow. I learned a lesson when I contacted one of the other leaders; the groups were long gone and on the way to camp. I had sat and watched a path already trodden.

Later that day I was walking a path with two other leaders, one of which I had convinced to bivvy out. We had my tent on my back and I used it to convince him that it was a good idea. I told him that if it rains too much we could simply crawl into the tent and hide from the elements. This settled his mind as the forecast was questionable. As we headed along the path we kept an eye out for a decent campsite not too far from the groups. I had my eye on the peaks. As one leader departed towards the groups my fellow camper and I decided that a summit was best. On the summit both phone and radio signal would be good. These were just excuses, it was the eve of the longest day and the weather was fine, what better place to sleep than on top of a mountain.

As we head up the mountain me fellow traveller commented on my walking stick and admitted his jealously. I have had a walking stick for years. I often carried a cheap modern walking stick strapped to my pack. I used it for steep ascents and as a standby for injured ankles. I always loved to walk with these sticks but hated the feel of them. Then, a couple of months ago, I found myself sitting in a hazel coppice waiting for a group. I took a look around and found a piece of hazel lying on the ground. It had the look of being cut down that winter and forgotten about. As I waited I had just enough time to cut and trim it to staff size and it has been with me ever since. They say that a hazel stick is bewitched and inspires poetry in the walker. I can believe a slither of this idea. Walking with any stick inspires something. It adds a rhythm to the walk, a tempo. More importantly, if the size is right, it urges you to stop and lean on the stick holding it just under the chin. With the stick I find myself stopping and listening more, smelling, lingering, and soaking up the poetry. When we arrived at the summit the first thing I did was to plunge the hazel stick into the ground.

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The second thing we did was to set up the refuge of the tent. In reverse order of importance, the third thing was the  cooker being set up next to brew up some coffee. We sat for a long time and watched the view around us change. The mist rolled into the valleys and the clouds slowly thickened above us. As the light faded we choose our bed spaces. On the summit of a mountain there are always some hollows and comfortable looking places. I avoided these places. If they look good to me they look good to sheep. If they look good to sheep then they look good to ticks; ticks which crawl all over sheep and man alike and feast on their blood. I settled on a flat area which looked not too comfortable, and not too rocky and unkind to my back.

You would think that coffee and dark chocolate would be a recipe for little sleep, but after walking all over the mountains all day the caffeine has little effect. I slipped into sleep with the mountains as a fantastic silhouette around me. As we began to slip into sleep we wondered if we were the highest beds in Northern Ireland. This was likely as the higher points were in front of us and could be counted on our hand. Were we the highest in all of Ireland; possibly? The wind and the light rain sent me to sleep. Previously I have only told a few people this; When I find it difficult to sleep and my mind is racing, I imagine that I am not in my comfortable warm bed. I imagine that I am curled up under a rock on the side of a mountain, or in a ditch, or on some mossy forest floor. It’s not right, but it sends me to sleep.

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I woke around 4 am. I did not have a watch, but I knew it was the solstice so it must be around four when the light pulled me back into the world. I looked around and noticed an absence. I noticed the absence of my fellow sleeper who should have been in a bright orange plastic bag only feet away. Either he had retreated into the tent or rolled over and slipped off the mountain, sliding over the slick wet moor in his bivvy bag. I assured myself that I would have been woken by the screams and that to shout over to the tent to confirm his presence would have been rude. I pulled my hat over my eyes and let myself slip back into sleep as the rain fell again on my face and the wind whistled around. There was no sunset over still air, there was no soul filling moment of spiritual fulfilment. There was just me lying sleeping on a mountain with my hazel stick beside me and a packet of bacon waiting to be cooked for breakfast on the longest day of the year. Perfect.

Sometimes as I drive around the area near to where we live, I drive under the shadow of an ancient grave.  On the summit of a dominant hill is the faded outline of a burial mound.  Unexcavated and uninspected, it exists only as a mound with a collapsed centre, hinting at a folded in chamber from long ago.

I wonder who, or what, was placed in this place.  Bones?  Ashes?  It is thought that these places were used for special burials of people of social standing.  The mound on this hill is big enough to require a lot of work to build.  Maybe dedicated workers, or a clan for their leader, or slaves.

Every time I look at this particular mound looming large on the skyline, I can’t help but think of an old story I once read.  It was set in the strange world of Iceland and involved a horrific witch.  A witch that plagued the villagers so much that when she eventually gave up her body the locals took precautions.  They placed her corpse under a cairn on the highest mountain.  They put her there, not to be close to the heavens, but to be as far away from the people as was possible, fearing that some dreadful part of her wicked spirit might not have fully left her body.  And if any wayward traveller found themselves walking over this high point, they had to carry out a task. It became a tradition to place an extra rock on the cairn, a little extra weight to help hold down the witch.

Whatever is resting up there on the hill it has changed in the last few weeks.  I don’t know the exact moment it happened, but it was a shock when I noticed it.  The silhouette that I was used to had changed.  For the last few thousand years it has slowly been worn around the edges, yet still maintained it’s profile.  Now it has a small transmitter tower stabbed into its summit.  It is an ugliness that no longer draws my eye to it, no longer stirs my imagination.  It looks like it is a cluster of microwave transceivers, the sentinel for our mobile phones.  So what is it?  Is it a highly regarded chief watching over us?  Is it our master, and we the poor slaves?  Or is it evil like the witch?  Are we brave enough to all add a small rock to it and all work together to bury it?

At the weekend I ventured out into the mountains.  It was a very late expedition, chasing the daylight with only a few weeks until expeditions are closed down for the winter.  The weather was perfect for walking, cool clear air and magnificent blue sky landscapes.  The autumn darkness seemed to arrive very quickly and coldly.  The chill was softened by amazing star-scape, the familiar constellations in their bold crystalline  glory.

The cold nights have made me more inclined to curl up with a good book.  I have a pile of ‘to read’, but I find my self digging out the same books to read again and again.  These are the books I love.  This is my book list..

the wild places by robert macfarlane

findings by kathleen jamie

a year’s turning by michael viney

winterdance by gary paulsen

wild by jay griffiths

the old ways by robert macfarlane

pip pip by jay griffiths

sightlines by kathleen jamie

There is Bear Grylls, and then there is something a little more realistic…….

Les Stroud is back with a new series in August.

About a week ago I looked at the calendar and realised that I would be at the cottage in the Mournes close to the full moon. Such a syzygy between the moon, the cottage and me is usually deliberate, but this time it was purely coincidence. At lunch time on Friday I tried to herd the pupils into the minibus to head to the mountains. There are usually a few pupils who are the sort that are busy. The sort that are quite well organised but seem constantly preoccupied because they are doing so much, doing so many worthy things. There are usually one or to of these types, but somehow most of the pupils were like this. They all seemed to have meetings to attend and I found myself having to be patient and wait on them without being able to be justifiably angry with them.

Eventually we piled into the bus and headed for the mountains. A few hours later they unfolded from the cramped minibus and loaded themselves with their backpacks before heading up into the heart of the Mourne Mountains. Their task was to arrive at the cottage before dark and they achieved it with time to spare.

The evening was spent sitting around the old cottage fire and route planning by candle light before trying to get some sleep before the cold night set in. For a couple of brief moments between laughter around the fire I spotted the nearly full moon through the cottage window. We tried to read a few ghost stories but we totally failed to take ourselves seriously and stories were started but quickly ended in laughter.


Saturday found us all awake very early. At half eight we had our feet on the hills and heading up into the Annalong Valley. Our route stretched the legs and gave the students a chance to remind themselves what hiking and camping involved, a change to enjoy the wild country and the air.

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