why the mountains matter as much as ever: reflections on backyard summits and Scottish hills

yesterday, I completed my first backyard #circumspectaclessummits challenge. in increments of 35 ft (the height of the hill in my backyard), I climbed 2740 ft (835m). this is the elevation gain required to summit Mayar and Driesh, two munros I love in County Angus, Scotland.

I completed the elevation gain in two consecutive evenings after work for an ascent time of ~4 hours, including snack breaks

these hills loom over one end of Jock’s Road, an ancient Right of Way that cuts from Glen Doll to Braemar. cattle drovers took their cows from the highlands to lowland markets for generations. sometimes, cattle thieves and whisky smugglers utilised the path in times of social tumult. according to some sources, 700 highlanders took Jock’s Road to fight against English imperialism in the bloody and ill-fated Battle of Culloden.

a shitty picture of my actual 2017 hike of Mayar and Driesh

attitudes to the land shift over time, changing the very way in which we relate to and move within places and spaces. in the 1800s and in the wake of the wool-hungry Industrial Revolution and the Highland Clearances–during which entire rural communities were violently evicted from their farms in order to make room for the cash-friendly sheep–Scottish landowners became increasingly jealous of their land.

(maybe because they had the audacity to assume that their hunger for money was more important than the hunger of children? just a thought. I’m not angry.)

jk, totally still pissed about the Highland Clearances

whether in the name of maximising sheep pastures or maximising the hunt, several landowners moved to shut down access to ancient paths, effectively claiming their personal land use as more important than historical, ancient, or ancestral rights of way.

people resisted.

there are many lawsuits I could touch upon, but there’s one that directly pertains to the elevation I climbed yesterday.

summit toe shoes from my actual 2017 hike

in the 1880s, landowner Duncan Macpherson attempted to close down attempted signposting and communal access to the ancient cattle drover’s path from Glen Doll to Braemar. a lawsuit ensued, eventually going all the way to the House of Lords. (it was super. fucking. expensive.)

the Scottish Rights of Way and Recreation Society won (but everyone was broke afterwards). the ancient path became known as Jock’s Road, a tribute to John “Jock” Winter, a common man held to have testified in the legal battles.

while many more legal struggles (and some physical struggles) were to follow in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, this case helped to establish the legal precedent which would eventually become known in Scotland as the Right to Roam. mass trespassings and the climber-bothy culture all played a role in this story, but those tales are to come at a later time.

my face when I finished my after-work challenge. totally walked up the same hill 79 times…

for me, Jock’s Road represents the ways in which attitudes towards the land shift and change over time. land and landscape are constantly being contested, reformed, reshaped with the times and with the onslaught of human voices. Jock’s Road, in my mind, demonstrates how no one person’s interest or claim to the land can be absolute or dictatorial. it also raises some interesting questions: how do we determine whose right to the land is important?

one thing’s for sure: not exactly how we’re doing it now.

in an age where science is obscured in the name of profit, where indigenous people still. have. to. fight. for so many basic land rights, where the honest complexities and limitations of data are portrayed as a license to consume and use and maximise–no matter the cost–land matters more than ever.

peaks matter more than ever.

ultimately, the mountains are just like any other geographical feature, except they’re not. they tower in human imagination as the touchstone of the sublime, sometimes even as the homes and amphitheatres of deity. they represent risk and challenge, death and beauty, unutterable grace and unimaginable gore.

they guard historic valleys, mark ancestral roads, and operate as a beacon for environmental and conservation issues.

perhaps this is all simply because their immensity is so goddamn hard to miss.

we’re small; they’re big.

we move and travel and die; they’re not going anywhere soon.

mountains amass stories in the human mind. they offer us a chance to step into some of the most hilarious, most beautiful, and most tragic narratives across the ages. their stories offer us a window through which we can reflect on the deepest social issues of our age while also allowing us to step outside of ourselves, if only for a moment.

in a time of pandemic and social isolation, we need the mountains–and what they represent–perhaps even more than ever.

perhaps they can bring us together.

that’s why I’m climbing the elevations of peaks laden with stories, even if it’s just in 35 ft increments in my backyard because I’m stir-crazy and hello, The Coronavirus. I’m hoping the challenge of the ascent connects me to something bigger.

email circumspectacles@gmail.com or dm me on Instagram <3

I hope it stands for more than a testimony to my sheer stubbornness. I hope it’s about more than my personal sense of disappointment in the politics of the age.

I hope it’s about the stories. I hope it’s about the hills. I hope it’s about the birds I hear singing in the backyard. I hope this effort serves to show that mountains matter, even when we can’t climb them.

because it’s social distancing time in the 21st century, follow my backyard journeys on Instagram. also, for more discussions of archaeology, anthropology, history, and adventure–along with plenty of music and good cheer–join me on my Instagram live stream this Thursday at 5:30pm EST. the theme for the week is “Risk.” the lineup will be out Wednesday morning!

Sources + Recommended Reading (to get ya started):
-a super-historic mass trespassing in the UK: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/nature/2017/04/mass-trespass-opened-gates-countryside
-The Guardian’s take on the mass trespassing:
-The Highland Clearances:
-Jock’s Road:
-also Jock’s Road:
-also also Jock’s Road:
-do you like Jock’s Road?
-would you like to walk Mayar and Driesh and experience more of Jock’s Road?

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