Walking with Jackie Wylie on 24 April 2011

Goatfell (Goat Fell)

I am walking with my friend, Jackie Wylie. Jackie and I share a penchant for some of the good (but not so healthy) things in life – wine and cocktails being two of them. Jackie’s proposal to take a strenuous hike up Goatfell takes me somewhat by surprise but I am nevertheless especially pleased at the prospect of this walk because when Rachel and I first viewed what would become our home, on a bright, clear November day in 2005, the Estate Agent looked out of the bay windows of the living room, pointed in a South Westerly direction to a very distant snow capped peak, and said ‘That’s Goatfell, on Arran’.

Though Arran (‘Scotland in miniature’) is relatively close to Glasgow I have only visited the island once before, and this is Jackie’s first trip. In moments of stress, Jackie has a well-worn escape-walk, on the Isle of Bute, which takes her through forest. But she’d like to add another option, so rather than share her known walk with me, today we will test out a new walk for her. Out of my living room window, Goatfell looks tiny. As we approach Arran, on the CalMac ferry, Goatfell – 867 feet (874 metres) – looks huge.

I turn up in my walking gear (fleece jumper, rain resistant trousers – with zips to let the air circulate, and a newly purchased walking pole). Underlining my practical approach to the task, I refer to myself as the Owl Woman (stocky? wise? sensible?). By contrast, Jackie is, as always, très chic – black leggings; fashionable t-shirt; fitted cardigan; holey black sweater; cool shades; make-up. But she is also wearing walking books (well-loved, a 21st birthday present from her mum) and a sensible (black) jacket.

Arriving on Arran, we take the open-top bus to the Brewery, where Jackie’s colleague Sinclair has instructed us to commence our walk. The bus itself is a joyful experience; small children screaming gleefully on this Easter Sunday as tree branches appear to ‘just miss’ slicing off their heads. The walk begins directly behind the Brewery (a sign says ‘3.5 miles’ – ‘Nothing’ says Jackie, but I’m thinking 3.5 miles uphill is quite a long way…), through a glade and then on to a forest track. The sun is shining on the spongy green moss forest floor. It feels good to be out of the city again. Signs handily point us in the right direction and soon we are out of the forest and onto the open moor land. But the path is well marked; well, not so much marked as built. The stone steps are like paving stones built for a giant (though I cannot resist suggesting that I install an ‘owlevator). We let people overtake us. We are not in any rush. We walk and we talk. About love, life, work, family, stuff. And we laugh. About love, life, work, family, stuff. And we contemplate. Love, life, work, family, stuff. I have known Jackie for a couple of years now, but today I learn much more about her. That’s one of the rewards of taking a long walk together.

Walking on, the landscape behind us opens up – the bays of Arran coming in to view. As we ramble upwards, a team of sporty young men sprint down, stopping not far ahead of us at a wooden bridge, where a couple choose to turn their backs on the path and ‘take a leak’, whilst others fill up bottles from the stream. I, in turn, choose this moment to go sprawling on my face, like some incompetent day tripper (no Owl Woman in sight). ‘I’m absolutely fine’, I insist. If I was already red from the effort of walking; now I was positively beetroot.

We soon see what lies ahead – an almost vertical, seemingly rock-strewn ascent. Goatfell, the highest mountain on the island, is formed from the granite remains of a volcano (some 60 million years ago). Some of the rocks make uncanny looking sharp teeth, almost perfect isosceles triangles. Others seem like the bricks of a giant’s house. Friends had forewarned me that the last section was a scramble. These rocks require some strenuous negotiation: heaving, pulling, deep breathing, heart pounding effort. People descending spur us on, the camaraderie of walkers brushing off us on: just five more minutes, nearly there, almost at the top… As we go up, the clouds come down. At each breather, the vista below is a little less visible, till eventually, nothing below us but mist, but above, the peak beckons…

We arrive – hot, breathless, but triumphant. The scene that greets us is surreal – small groups of jovial fellow hikers, huddled around picnics, on top of a mountain from where absolutely nothing can be seen. We might well be the inhabitants of a strange planet, disconnected from everything but this small circle of terra firma. And lest I have given the impression of an overly demanding walk, I should point out the young children happily picnicking up here – seven year old boys and girls – and a very small terrier dog (how on earth did it climb those big rocks?)

Though we were not the last to ascend the mountain, nor were we the last to leave its top, Jackie and I are nevertheless the last to reach the bottom. But who cares? Arriving at the Brewery just before it closes (phew!), I enjoy a well-deserved Arran beer, supping it as the rain gently falls and a red squirrel leaps over the branches of a nearby fir tree. I look across at Jackie, who is supping a well-earned Cider – the carefully applied make-up and styled hair is rather ‘undone’ – but the face that looks back is totally made up, glowing with achievement.

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