My friend Iona Scobie, who runs East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, rides her four Highland ponies cross-country twice a year, east coast to west coast and vice versa, between their summer and winter grazing. It’s a journey of about 70 miles, and usually takes around three days—via road, forestry track, sheep path and peat bog, roughly in that order.
This year, me and my partner Rich joined her for the journey, riding three horses and having the fourth—a youngster called Boo—follow on behind. We slept in a hayloft and an abandoned cottage, and stopped off at the Glenbeg bothy too on the very, very wet last day on the hill.
Usually we’d keep at least one of the horses contained, but on the last night, we let them loose on the hill to let them relax and crossed our fingers they’d stick close by. Luckily they did. Or, not lucky exactly: after several days on the move together, the horses come to perceive our group as their ‘herd’ and like to stay in eyeshot of all its members.
I’ll write about the trip in more depth for the next issue of EQY, but in the meantime, here’s a brief postcard from the peatbogs written for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. Full text after the fold.
At the weir at Glenbeg, we abandon the path and head west, using the river as a guide. The bog is dirt-black and soupy, threatening to mire us at every step; all we can do is give the horses free rein to seek a safe route through the morass. They lower their heads, ears pricked as they inspect the ground, and veer off along sheep-trodden detours, leaping sloughs and streamlets. Highland ponies in their element.
Where the river branches, we follow the tributary high onto a plateau to the east of Eididh nan Clach Geala, a Munro whose Gaelic name suggests it to be “clothed” in white rock: gleaming, boulders of quartz that glimmer, unnervingly clean and sharp as bared teeth. On a good day, one can see the Summer Isles or the stark lines of Assynt, where lone mountains rear up from the flats. But, today, low clouds have closed around us, brushing past damply, and the steady, relentless rain hasn’t faltered since we woke.
Left to my own devices, I’d have lost my bearings hours ago, but the grey mare knows what she’s doing. She reads the land – its flat sheets of rock, glistening wet; its hair shirt of matted heather; its black peat hags, shaggy with reeds and thin grasses, where the heavy, rainsoaked soil has sunk and slid down like icing on a hot cake, showing the dark flesh underneath – and leads us through the mist to the cairn that marks the way home.
A string of tiny lochans shines silver in the diffuse grey light. We drop down, beneath the cloudline. All is still, but for a dozen deer in the distance, already departing. But grouse are lurking, watching, and fly up as we pass, gabbling protests, their scarlet brows flashing bright against the muted tones of the moor: grey and dun and tawny-brown.
Colours seep in as we descend, as if dialling up the saturation: first, the acid green of new grass; lower down, a field of blaeberries. Their tiny, bell-like flowers bring a blush to the hillside’s cheeks: spring, summer even. But winter clings on along the high ground.