Eliminating hurry – notes from the mountains

It’s a dreadful cliché. I found God on a mountain top. But to avoid the very worst of it, it wasn’t on the top that my epiphany came but about halfway up the side of my third Munro of the morning.

Five Sisters of KintailTowards the end of the nineteenth century Hugh Munro decided to list all of the peaks in Scotland over 3000 foot, along with their subsidiary peaks. In true British fashion he didn’t set out clear criteria for what distinguished a Munro from a top, and over the last century many impassioned debates have raged over whether a particular peak is a Munro or a top. Every ten years or so the list is reassessed and the task of reaching all the summits becomes either a little easier or just a bit harder.

Across Scotland there are 282 Munros, from those that just squeak over the threshold to Ben Nevis which at 4,409 feet is the highest point in the UK. While wandering over a few peaks, and talking to other walkers, I came across the challenge to climb them all. It’s a natural sort of endeavour – there are a lot of peaks, and people want to have reached the summit of them all. But 282 is quite a lot. During my week in Scotland I climbed eight, if I took such a trip every year it will take me 35 years, if by the age of 66 I’m walking up my last Munro, I will have achieved something both petty and significant.

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Hills are not changed by walking up them. Most of them do not have clearly marked paths up their route, they may have a slight trail that ebbs and flows and disintegrates into a wide scree slope before emerging once again. If each year I tick a few more off my list my calves will stay in shape and I will hopefully retain some of my fitness, but apart from the achievement of getting to all of the places over an arbitrary height I will have achieved very little.

But walking up hills is constantly teaching me lessons. When in June my friends and I failed the Welsh 3000s I learnt a little about the burden of leadership. And a further lesson that was birthed then and grew a little more this past week in Scotland was that going slow is not a weakness.

In fact, when it comes to mountain walking, going slow is the fastest approach. I’m not a seasoned hill walker, but I like to think that I’m learning a few important lessons pretty quickly, and the one that makes the most difference is to walk slower than you think is necessary. The first walk I took in Scotland, over the Five Sisters of Kintail, was quite an initiation. I parked the car, looked at the map and instructions and saw the ridge towering above me and a wooden sign leading to a narrow path (which would frequently disappear) heading up 700 metres of steep grassy slope. And from the ridge I climbed the first summit, and then the next, and I think on the fourth or fifth occasion actually reached the top of my first Munro. And inevitably, to reach the next I had to first go down, and then up, and then down, and then up. By the end of the first day I’d covered over 20 miles, waded through bog, probably trespassed across a farmer’s land, listened to a couple of sermons and a couple of episodes of the NPR All Songs Considered podcast, and I was tired.

Loch Ossian

After a day’s break I set off to climb another two Munros. This time I was based at the most remote Youth Hostel in the UK, a mile walk from Corrour station, where there’s no public road access, the Ordnance Survey map of the region has just two tiny bits of road clipping the corners. Here, by Loch Ossian, with millions of midges for company, in a hostel powered by solar and wind power alone, with strict instructions to take out everything you bring in, I set out on my own once again. I met just a couple of other walkers that day. One who had walked in the night before, stayed at an even more remote bothy before climbing the hard to reach Ben Alder before walking back to the station on the second day. Getting to some of the 282 Munros is not an easy business. It’s not the sort of thing you can race around and do (although, of course, some do: the record for a round of all the summits is about 40 days).

With Rannoch Moor stretching to the south and east, the Ben Nevis range to the west, and the Great Glen to the north this is the closest to the middle of nowhere you can get in the UK. To find the hostel the site of drunken escapades in the middle of the following night was a little unexpected. Fire alarm set off at four in the morning, sick on the front porch, empty bottles scattered by picnic tables on the edge of the loch. Unconfirmed report that one of the late night revellers had fallen into the loch. It was dissonant.

Rannoch Moor

The final day’s walking was based out of the Glen Nevis youth hostel – from the lack of civilisation to the lack of tranquillity. Ben Nevis is a tourist’s mountain. The main track leading from the glen up to the peak is variously known as the pony track, the mountain track, or, the tourist track. I was glad to be not walking up on a weekend. I also opted to start early and take an alternative route, which meant another gruelling ascent up onto the first subsidiary peaks of Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis’s far lesser known neighbour – but at over 4,000 foot still a considerable climb, and a far more interesting one that it’s more prominent neighbour.

Ben Nevis is basically just a giant lump of rock, Carn Mor Dearg is a proper peak, which rises and falls before reaching its final height. What attracted me to this route, but also set my nerves sparking as I approached, was the transition between the two Munros known as the CMD Arête. This is a ridge that curves around for over a kilometre before presenting the walker with a final rocky scramble to Ben Nevis’s peak. The ridge wasn’t as precarious as I feared, or it looked, and for the scramble I was grateful to follow a pair who stayed a helpful distance ahead. And then suddenly I was on the top, from the fairly lonely exertion with hands and feet pulling body over rock after rock, to a summit plateau populated with hundreds of walkers who had made their way to the top. Selfies proliferated, parents insisted children posed, sandwiches feasted on, water bottles quaffed.

Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Carn Mor Dearg did not have the remoteness of some of the other climbs I did, but it certainly had the difficulty, it was very hard work on the legs. And it called for slowness. Although not crowded, there were enough other walkers on it’s ascent to notice our respective speeds. It was with some smugness that I let people pass me on the early stages, and then keep on going as they had to stop to catch their breath. Towards the top a couple raced past me, only to fall back before reaching the summit. I knew that I might be walking slower, but I had the confidence it would enable me to get there first.

Somehow I was gaming it all. I was pretending not to hurry but perhaps had just learnt that it was the fastest course.

In life I hurry all the time. I like to move from one thing to the next and the on to the next, with each consecutive thing providing stimulation and excitement. I cope with solitude well, I cope with stillness appallingly. I also burn out. I run out of energy, I start to fall apart. At the end of three weeks of holiday I’m only beginning to feel rested. Each day I set myself tasks and the thought of waking up without anything to do fills me with borderline horror.

Loch Ossian at night

Going slow is not just key to getting up mountains, perhaps it’s a lesson for much of life. Sometimes I’m far too slow, too deliberative, too inactive, sometimes I’m paralysed by indecision. But I think there’s value in slow plodding, setting a course, and working your way towards it, step after step, even if each takes longer than the last. Eugene Peterson wrote a book, ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’, the title caught my attention long before I got around to reading it.

It comes from a section in Nietzsche’s writings, and he had to fight his publisher to use it for the title. The wider section in the original goes: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something that has made life worth living.”

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Scotland: Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter

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If I owned a kilt today is the day I would wear it.

Today is a day for unity and solidarity. After a campaign designed to see the United Kingdom pulled asunder, in the wake of its failure is a never greater need for reconciliation.

Voting is sometimes easy and done with little thought, but this vote was not. Deciding the future of a nation is not a small step. I woke up in the early hours to follow the results as it soon became apparent that the surge in support for Yes, and for an independent Scotland, had shrunk slightly in the closing days.

The votes have been counted and the politicians leading the no campaign are reaching for their prepared lines or hastily redrafting speeches to express just the sufficient amount of pleasure without taking on a patronising tone. Or for those pushing for a yes, acknowledging the people of Scotland have spoken but trying to salvage scraps of victory to take away from the counting table.

In the days and weeks to come the pledges the party leaders cobbled together to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament will be tested. The yes campaign will want to squeeze all they can out of this defeat, well others will feel the promises lacked any mandate and will seek to back pedal on further constitutional change.

But I am sure change will come. It may not look exactly like what Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband promised, but it will come. It will also not just be about Scotland, as more powers go to Holyrood great the pressure becomes to revisit the powers of those MPs representing Scottish constituencies who have a vote over issues that do not affect their areas. This is not simple, you could exclude Scottish MPs from voting on these matters, but that would also need to apply to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs for the more limited areas of devolution there. You could also create an English Parliament meeting at Westminster to decide English only MPs, but once again, what about those votes affecting England, Wales and Northern Ireland? This would also be problematic, because what if the government has a majority for UK wide votes but not for English matters, or vice-versa?

More ambitious ideas, and you could sense the twinkle in the Liberal Democrats’ eyes, include a fuller federalisation of the United Kingdom. Voices have also risen up calling for regional devolution, whether for the North of England, or the Greater Manchester region.

My prediction is that the Government will attempt to give the Scottish Parliament more powers early next year, but this will be delayed and pushed beyond the election due to objections within the Conservative Party. In the Prime Minister’s statement this morning he announced that the changes would be agreed by November and draft legislation published in January, whether it gets further than that is dependent on the good will of his backbenchers. The broader constitutional questions will then become a key part of the electoral battleground at next May’s general election.

I don’t have a kilt to wear today – a checked shirt is as close as I can get. If I were to have a kilt, it would be the Buchanan kilt, as that’s the clan I can trace some roots to. Their motto seems particularly apt today: “Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter”.

It is my hope that Scotland and the United Kingdom will benefit from staying together. But if, for whatever reason times become hard, I am glad we get to find a way forward together.

Today is a day for celebrating unity, but also for acknowledging that unity does not simply happen, it is a task we have to give ourselves to, commit to, and persevere with. There are many months of hard work ahead, for the politicians as they seek to honour their promises. And for the Scottish people as they continue to live side by side with those whom they have disagreed so passionately and campaign against these past months and years. And it is here that the Church can play a role. It can bring people together, it work for the common good, it can help build a society rooted in values that are not restricted to vote winning manifestos or coalition compromises.

For Scotland the brave, please don’t leave

Facebook-20140914-124754Watching Braveheart won’t be the same, it won’t have the same sense of irrational patriotism – cheering the Scots to rebuff the English won’t feel quite the same. It’s illogical, it is borderline nonsense, but seeing the resistance against the invading armies and the defence of their nationhood seems more stirring knowing that three centuries later it was a Scottish king who took on the united crown of both countries.

When the Union came it was not an invasion, it was not the conquest of a marauding army, but the coming together of two countries.

I have a little Scottish blood in me, I occasionally consider getting a Buchanan tartan to mark that part of my heritage. I have never lived there, visited only a few times, but it is a connection I do not want to lose.

And this week I’m scared about what might happen. And I am saddened too. The idea of a United Kingdom without Scotland seems wrong, it’s like a wedding where the groom doesn’t show. This is no more than an emotional defence of why I want Scotland to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I have heard the arguments – I have seen them shift like the sand beneath tidal turns. I have watched the politicians make the case for independence, and the counter arguments against them. I have listened and tried to comprehend the financial, constitutional and political dimensions of the debate and in each there are reasons why Scotland might want independence, but they fall short against the logic, the romance and the attachment of the Union.

Scotland might be better off if they kept all the revenues from their oil, but they would have to deal with a national debt on their own. They may want to retain the pound, but no one is quite sure how that would work without leaving one union only to re-enter another straight away.

The devolution of powers to Scotland caused all sorts of constitutional niggles – not least the West Lothian Question whereby Scottish MPs have a vote in Westminster on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore have not impact on their constituencies. But what happens if they vote yes, do MPs stand in 2015 and hold their seats for a year, what if those seats are what ensures a governing majority?

There are certainly political issues at stake, the Conservatives have not fared well north of the border in recent years, their standing in Westminster would be much stronger without Scotland, the dynamics of politics in a Scotland-less-union would be very different. And yet they put aside short term political opportunism to stand for a Union that is more important than who governs it at any particular point.

And this is because this decision goes beyond the logistics and the politics, and the practicalities of how it would work. Maybe Scotland might suffer financially, maybe the rest of the UK might be changed politically, but while those are the battlefields the independence debate has be fought on, they are not the field upon which it will be decided.

Facebook-20140914-124801Despite all this I’ve not really engaged with the campaigns, and perhaps that is because I don’t have a vote. Or maybe it is because I have no doubt how I would vote. This is not a decision that rests on the tactics or strategies or the policy promises. It is not about the preening of the politicians or the caricatures of each other’s character. It is about the gut. I care more about the result of Thursday’s vote than I have about any election I’ve observed.

I have leafleted for local council candidates, I have canvassed for prospective parliamentary candidates and I have the wonderful record of never campaigning for the winning candidate. The disappointment of standing at the count and seeing the candidate for a council seat you have work with for weeks lose by a handful of votes fades into insignificance against the prospect of Scotland ceding from the Union.

Needing a passport to get into Scotland isn’t a big deal, if you fly you need it anyway. Even changing currency is a frustration that would be swiftly accommodated. The pain of this divorce would not be in the short term logistics, or the financial turmoil it may lead to. The pain is in the decades and centuries to come when the Union that stood through centuries, that brought peace and stability to these isles, that worked together, accommodated differences and thrived on unity, is only a relic in the history books.

And that is the thought that saddens me, that what made us strong, what helped us through strife, what stood against foes internal and abroad, has slipped away. That’s why I am hoping beyond all hope that Scotland votes no.