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Highlands retreat: Being alone helped with my loneliness

29 January 2021

Helen Ochyra sought healing in Scotland’s rugged Highlands


The conical peak of Schiehallion

The conical peak of Schiehallion

STANDING beneath an archway three times my height, I find myself looking through a chunky stone viewfinder. I encounter a vast nave now in ruins, and the North Sea, frothing in slate grey and foamy white. I encounter, too, sense of my own fleeting nature.

I am standing on the damp grass amid the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, in Fife. Its stone walls are turmeric-yellow with lichen. It was once the largest church in Scotland, dedicated in 1318 in the presence of King Robert the Bruce, who was said to have ridden up its aisle on his horse. It was the end point of a medieval pilgrimage which started at Culross Abbey, 64 miles away. Today, that same route is followed by the new Fife Pilgrim Way footpath, opened in 2019.

I have a longer pilgrimage in mind. I am here in Scotland to find relief, acceptance, and peace. It is less than a year after my mother died. Vasculitis, a disease I had never heard of, claimed her at the age of 62.

One day, as I sat at my dining-room table, shaking with sobs, I realised that, if I could not feel OK, or even remotely safe, in the cocoon of my own home, then perhaps I needed the opposite. Perhaps I needed to face something wild, to stand in the force of the wind. Scotland seemed to offer the answer. So I packed up the car, and headed north.

My trip was to last three months, but the first two weeks, when I travelled from St Andrews into Perthshire and across the Highland Boundary Fault, marked a turning point. This Fault is the line that divides Lowland from Highland; an end of one type of bedrock and the beginning of another. From here on, all is Highland: wild and cathartic.


FROM Fife, I head westwards, plunging into ancient forest and weaving my way between glistening lochs. I hole up on the banks of Loch Tay, my self-contained apartment a respite. The view from the window is almost entirely water, stretching for 15 miles south-west, dark, cold, and placid.

Stillness descends when I pull up one morning at the Fortingall Yew to find myself the only visitor. The tree is reputed to be 5000 years old: a tangle of trunks and branches and stories. It has seen entire civilisations come and go, empires rise and fall, and all manner of silly arguments about whose land is this, whose river is that. Still it stands, quiet and serene, in a churchyard where I see no other footprints in the mud. To reach this far back into history, to 3000 years before Christ was born, is impossible. How tiny I feel standing here, the wind lifting my hair; how capable the natural world of engulfing us.

istock The arches and nave of St Andrews Cathedral

Nowhere in Scotland exemplifies this better than the Great Moor of Rannoch, one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe. It is a vast expanse of blanket bogland, outcrops, lochs, and rivers that stretches from Perthshire westwards and north into the Highlands. It harbours a wealth of plant, insect, and animal life, but poses a danger to humans who stray too far from the path.

I visit on a wholeheartedly soggy day: lumpen grey clouds hang overhead, and the day seemingly still struggling against the night, even at noon. But I am used to the darkness now, and have come to regard a lighter shade of grey as the weather brightening up.

During the last Ice Age, this high plateau was covered by a vast ice-sheet. As it retreated, it scraped and grated the rocks, gouging deep lochs out of the landscape. One such is Loch Laidon, my companion on this walk.

At first, the landscape around me seems rather samey, almost barren. But then I begin to notice the soft purple flowers, the red-and-white-spotted mushrooms, the way the water bulges up from the ground, oozing Irn-Bru-like rust-orange, from every patch of peat. There is silence.

I realise that I am entirely alone. I quite like it. I must accept an element of danger, the idea that we cannot ever truly be safe, and that, actually, this is OK. And so, in the days that follow, I face the landscape head-on.


I DECIDE to start on my first munro (mountain), climbing the conical peak of Schiehallion with a determination to conquer it. As a child, I climbed the peaks of Dartmoor with my mum, and that day it almost feels as if she is with me as I stride out along the path, weaving upwards between the heather and ferns until the vegetation peters out, and I reach the starkness of the boulder field.

Helen OchyraSt Andrews Cathedral, in Fife, on the east coast of Scotland

Here lies the challenge: to scramble and clamber over huge, dark stones scattered across the mountainside. I look down at my feet, and take it one step at a time. I try not to look up at the summit, that seems ever out of reach beyond the boulders.

Suddenly, the ground levels out. I have made it to 1083 metres, and I can look back down over Rannoch Moor. The landscape is greener than I had noticed before. There is pea-green, olive, even jade picked out by the sunlight between the lochs. And I realise that in even the darkest terrain there is light.

Helen Ochyra is the author of Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes, published by Book Guild Publishing at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-91-320810-3.


Travel details

Fife and Perthshire are reached via the M90, travelling north from Edinburgh. You will need a car and at least a week, although two or more is better. St Andrews has numerous welcoming B&Bs; find details at standrewsbandbs.co.uk. At Kenmore, on Loch Tay, Taymouth Marina has self-contained one- and two-bedroom apartments overlooking the loch (taymouthmarina.com). For more details on Scotland, visit visitscotland.com.

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