November in the Cairngorms is the quiet month. The summer holiday crowds are long gone and the October midterm breaks are over. The watersports centres furl their sails and pack away their boats, local guesthouses close for a few weeks, and there’s not enough snow for the skiing to gather pace. Apart from the decked halls of supermarkets, all the Christmas carry-on has not yet cranked up and diaries have gaps. It is a lull. For locals and the land, a welcome lull. We can draw breath.
But the weather can be grim. Temperatures start to plummet and darkness cloaks us. There are storms. A rare free day without rain sends me up the Feshie hills with a friend and the dog. The forecast was for cloud all day and high winds in the afternoon, so we start early, and are rewarded by surprisingly clear skies. To the west, we can see far across the Spey strath to Monadhliath, “the grey hills”, and to the east, the lumpy lower slopes of the Cairngorms. The sun brings a late autumn glow to the landscape, lighting up the long grasses, the coppery bog asphodel and the rust of the granite. On days like this, you can see why the Gaelic name for this range is Am Monadh Ruadh – “the russet hills”.
In the three hours of our steady climb, with contented stops for hot chocolate and carrot cake, we meet one other soul. The quiet of the land seems deep and wide, the day golden. Until we get to the top. The mist finally reads the forecast and rushes in to engulf us. At the dramatic thrust of Sgòr Gaoith (“the peak of the wind”), we catch only fleeting glimpses of Loch Einich at the bottom of the chasm. The sun is reduced to a vague round brightness in the swirling white.
Like extras in the wrong film, people suddenly appear out of the cloud. A woman is propped against a rock, eating sandwiches and scrolling on her phone. Three couples saunter into view, stop to chat and compare routes. And in the crowning absurdity, a mountain biker bombs up the ridge with his collie, who is as coy as a starlet going incognito, but immediately steals the show in her wildly coloured reflective ski goggles.
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