The Mountain Charm

A famous writer of the eighteenth century declared that to a civilised mind the mountain solitude was naturally abhorrent. To be impressed was unavoidable, he allowed; to love barrenness and the wilderness, to take delight in shadow and silence, to find peace in loneliness, was unnatural. It is humanity that redeems nature, he added in effect.

The opinion is not one commonly held now, or not admitted. But many hold it who would not admit that they so felt or thought. I have often asked summer wanderers if they have no wish to see the solitudes in early spring, when the ptarmigan’s wing begins to brown; in November, when the rust of the bracken can loom through the hill-mist like the bronze shields of the sleeping Fianna; in December, when the polar wind frays the peaks into columns of smoke, the loose, dry snow on the northward foreheads of ancient summits; in January, when there is white silence, and the blue flitting shadow of the merlin’s wing; in March, when in the south glens the cries of lambs are a lamenting music, and the scream of the eagle is like a faint bugle-call through two thousand feet of flowing wind. Few, however, would really care ‘to be away from home’ in those months when snow and wind and cloud and rain are the continually recurrent notes in the majestic Mountain Symphony. ‘To see in a picture, to read of in a story or poem, that is delightful; but … well, one needs fine weather to enjoy the hills and the moorlands.’ That, in effect, is what I have commonly heard, or discerned in the evasive commonplace. It is not so with those who love the mountain-lands as the cushat loves the green twilight of beech or cedar, as the mew loves troubled waters and the weaving of foam. I remember, a year or so ago, being impressed by the sincerity of a lowlander whom I met on the road among the Perthshire mountains, in a region where the hills frowned and there was silence save for the hoarse sea-murmur of pines and the surge of a river hidden under boughs of hornbeam and leaning birch. I forget whence he had come, but it was from a place where the low lineaments of the fields were hardly more than long wave-lines on a calm sea; the only heights were heaps of ‘shag’ by old mines, scattered columnar chimney-stacks. The man had trod far afoot, and was eager for work. I told him to go on toward the pass for about a mile, and then to a big farm he would see to his right, and ask there, and probably he would get work and good pay. Some three hours later I was returning by the same road, and again met the wayfarer, but southward set. I asked him why he had turned, for I knew labour was wanted at the farm, and the man was strong, and seemed willing, and was of decent mien. “No,” he said, “he had not got work up yonder.” I knew he prevaricated, and he saw it. With sudden candour he added, “It’s no the good man at the farm—nor the work—nor the pay. It’s just this: I’m fair clemmed at the sight o’ yon hills … eh, but they’re just dreidful. I couldna’ abide them. They’re na human. I’ve felt it all along since I cam up beyont the Ochils, but it’s only the now I’ve kent weel I couldna’ live here amang them.” “Weel, first and foremost,” he added, when I pressed him further, “it’s the silence. It fair kills me. An’ what’s more, it would kill me if I stayed. The wife up yonder gave me a sup o’ milk an’ a bannock, an’ when I was at them I sat on a bench an’ looked about me. Naething but hills, hills, hills: hills an’ black gloom an’ that awfu’ silence. An’ there was a burd—a whaup we ca’ it in the southlands—which fair shook my mind. It went lamentin’ like a grave-bell, an’ I heard it long after it was out o’ sicht. Then there wasn’t another sound. Na, na, wark or no wark, I’m awa’ south.”

And so the wayfarer set foot to the white road again, the south spelling home and human solace to him. Those dreary coal-lands, where the green grass is wan and the thorn hedge sombre, and any wandering water illucid and defiled, those hideous heaps of ‘shag,’ those gaunt mine-chimneys, those squalid hamlets in a populous desolation—these meant ‘human comfort’ to him. Or, if they did not, at least they gave him somewhat which the mountain silence denied, which the gathered hills withheld, which the moorland solitudes overbore and refuted.

An extreme case, no doubt. But the deep disquietude of hill silence, of the mountain solitude, is felt by most habitual dwellers in towns and thronged communities. There is no mountain charm for these except the charm of release, of holiday, of novelty, of an imagined delight, of contrast, of unwonted air, of unfamiliar aspect. One of the popular excursion resorts in the near highlands of Argyll and Dumbarton is Loch Goil Head. A dweller there told me last autumn that of the hundreds who land every week, and especially on Saturdays and Fair holidays, and generally with an impatient eagerness, by far the greater number soon tire of the loneliness of the hills a brief way inland, and become depressed, and with a new and perhaps perturbing eagerness seek again the house-clad ways and the busy shore; and seem content, an hour or two before their steamer sails, to sit where they can see the movement of familiar life, and turn their back upon the strangely oppressive loneliness, so perturbingly remote, so paralyzingly silent.

But for those who love the hills as comrades, what a spell, what enchantment! To wander by old grassy ways, old ‘pack-road’ or timeless mountain path; to go through the bracken, by grey boulders tufted with green moss and yellow lichen, and see nothing but great rounded shoulders or sudden peaks overhead or beyond, nothing near but the yellow-hammer or wandering hawk or raven: to feel the pliant heather underfoot, and smell the wild thyme, and watch a cloud trail a purple shadow across the grey-blue slope rising like a gigantic wave from a sea of moors, rising and falling against the azure walls, but miraculously suspended there, a changeless vision, an eternal phantom: to go up into solitary passes, where even the June sunshine is hardly come ere it is gone, where the corbie screams, and the stag tramples the cranberry scrub and sniffs the wind blowing from beyond the scarlet-fruited rowan leaning from an ancient fallen crag: to see slope sinking into enveloping slope, and height uplifted to uplifting heights, and crags gathered confusedly to serene and immutable summits: to come at last upon these vast foreheads, and look down upon the lost world of green glens and dusky forests and many waters, to look down, as it were, from eternity into time … this indeed is to know the mountain charm, this is enchantment.

For the mountain-lover it would be hard to choose any pre-eminent season. The highland beauty appeals through each of the months, and from day to day. But, for all the glory of purple heather and dim amethystine slopes, it is perhaps not the early autumnal mountain charm, so loved of every one, that ranks first in one’s heart. For myself I think midwinter, June, and the St. Martin’s Summer of late October, or early November, more intimately compel in charm. And of these, I think June is not least. In midwinter the mountains have their most ideal beauty. It is an austere charm, the charm of whiteness and stillness. It is akin to the ineffable charm of a white flood of moonshine on a stilled ocean; but it has that which the waters do not have, the immobility of trance. There is nothing more wonderful in dream-beauty than vast and snow-bound mountain-solitudes in the dead of winter. That beauty becomes poignant when sea-fjords or inland waters lie at the sheer bases of the white hills, and in the luminous green or shadowy blue the heights are mirrored, so that one indeed stands between two worlds, unknowing the phantom from the real. There is a dream-beauty also in that lovely suspense between the last wild winds of the equinox and ‘the snow-bringer,’ that period of hushed farewell which we call St. Martin’s Summer. The glory of the heather is gone, but the gold and bronze of the bracken take on an equal beauty. The birch hangs her still tresses of pale gold, ‘that beautiful wild woman of the hills,’ as a Gaelic poet says. The red and russet of rowan and bramble, the rich hues of the haw, the sloe, the briony, all the golds and browns and delicate ambers of entranced autumn are woven in a magic web. In the mornings, the gossamer hangs on every bush of gorse and juniper. Through the serene air, exquisitely fresh with the light frosts which from dayset to dawn have fallen idly, rings the sweet and thrilling song of the robin, that music of autumn so poignant, so infinitely winsome. In what lovely words our Elizabethan Chapman wrote of the robin, of which we also of the North speak lovingly as ‘St. Colum’s Friend,’ ‘St. Bride’s Sweetheart,’ and the ‘little brother of Christ’:

“… the bird that loves humans best,
That hath the bugle eyes and ruddy breast,
And is the yellow autumn’s nightingale.”

But it is in June, I think, that the mountain charm is most intoxicating. The airs are lightsome. The hill-mists are seldom heavy, and only on south-wind mornings do the lovely grey-white vapours linger among the climbing corries and overhanging scarps. Many of the slopes are blue as a winter sky, palely blue, aerially delicate, from the incalculable myriad host of the bluebells. The green of the bracken is more wonderful than at any other time. When the wind plays upon it the rise and fall is as the breathing of the green seas among the caverns of Mingulay or among the savage rock-pools of the Seven Hunters or where the Summer Isles lie in the churn of the Atlantic tides. Everything is alive in joy. The young broods exult. The air is vibrant with the eddies of many wings, great and small. The shadow-grass sways with the passage of the shrewmouse or the wing’s-breath of the darting swallow. The stillest pool quivers, for among the shadows of breathless reeds the phantom javelin of the dragon-fly whirls for a second from silence to silence. In the morning the far lamentation of the flocks on the summer shielings falls like the sound of bells across water. The curlew and the plover are not spirits of desolation, but blithe children of the wilderness. As the afternoon swims in blue haze and floating gold the drowsy call of the moorcock stirs the heather-sea. The snorting of trampling deer may be heard. The landrail sweeps the dew from the tall grass and sends her harsh but summer-sweet cry in long monotonous echoes, till the air rings with the resonant krek-crake. And that sudden break in the silences of the dusk, when … beyond the blossoming elder, or the tangle of wild roses where the white moths rise and fall in fluttering ecstacy, or, yonder, by the black-green juniper on the moorland … the low whirring note of the nightjar vibrates in a continual passionate iterance! There, in truth, we have the passionate whisper of the heart of June, that most wonderful, that most thrilling of the voices of summer.

It is in June, too, that one mountain charm in particular may be known with rapt delight. It is when one can approach mountains whose outlying flanks and bases are green hills. The bright green of these under-slopes, these swelling heights and rolling uplands, is never more vivid. Near, one wonders why grasses so thick with white daisy and red sorrel and purple orchis and blue harebell can be green at all! But that wonderful sea-green of the hills near at hand gives way soon to the still more wonderful blue as the heights recede. The glens and wooded valleys grow paler. Rock and tree and heather blend. “What colour is that?” I asked a shepherd once. “The blueness of blueness,” he answered, in Gaelic. It is so. It is not blue one sees, but the bloom of blue; as on a wild plum, it is not the purple skin we note, but the amethyst bloom of purple which lies upon it. It is beauty, with its own loveliness upon it like a breath. Then the blue deepens, or greys, as the hour and the light compel. The most rare and subtle loveliness is when the grey silhouette of the mountain-ridge, serrated line, or freaked and tormented peaks, or vast unbroken amplitude, sinks into the sudden deep clearness of the enveloping sky.

Even in June, however, the mountain charm is not to be sought, as in a last sanctuary, on the summits of the hills. I believe that to be a delusion, a confusion, which asserts the supreme beauty of the views from mountain summits. I have climbed many hills and not a few mountains, and, except in one or two instances (as Hecla in the Hebrides), never without recognition that, in beauty, one does not gain, but loses. There are no heights in Scotland more often climbed by the holiday mountaineer than Ben Nevis in Argyll and Goat Fell in the Isle of Arran. Neither, in beauty or grandeur of view, repays the ascent. Goat Fell is a hundred times lovelier seen from the shores or glens of its own lower slopes, or from a spur of the Eastern Caisteall Abhaill: the boatmen on the waters of Lorne, the shepherd on the hills of Morven, the wayfarer in the wilds of Appin, they know the beauty of ‘the Sacred Hill’ as none knows it who thinks he has surprised the secret on the vast brows overhanging the inchoate wilderness. At its best, we look through a phantasmal appearance upon a phantasmal world, and any artist will tell us that the disappointment is because every object is seen in its high light, none in its shadowed portion; that the direct sunlight being over all is reflected back to us from every surface; that the downward vision means a monotony of light and a monotony of colour.

The supreme charm of the mountain-lands in June is their investiture with the loveliest blue air that the year knows, and the entrancement of summer cloud. Small feathery cirrus or salmon-pink and snow-white cumulus emerging behind the shoulder of a mountain or drifting above the vast silent brows have an infinite beauty. We should be cloud-climbers rather than mere mountain-climbers; we should climb to see the heights recede in continual fold of loveliness, and the clouds lift their trailing purple shadows and sail slowly or hang motionless beyond the eternal buttresses. And it is but an added poignancy to the sense of infinite beauty to know that this word ‘eternal’ is, even for those ancient ‘changeless’ hills, but the idlest hyperbole—as though one were to call the breaking wave everlasting, or the blowing seed of the meadows as timeless as the wind. There is not a vast and lonely mountain that has not a fallen comrade among the low undulating ridges of the continual lowland; not one of these that has not in turn to feed the white dust of the plain or the sea-gathered sand of ancient or as yet unformed shores. For the hills pass, even as we, or the green leaf become sere, or the fruit that ripens to its fall; though we speak of them as everlasting, and find the subtlest spell of their incalculable charm in the overwhelming sense of their imagined eternity.


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