Inclement weather, Nan Shepherd, and an ice-cold swim: Anna Fleming explores the Cairngorms’ Loch A’an.
Overhead, the granite boulder glittered in torch and candle light. Our breath made clouds as we clustered away from the drips that worked their way in somehow, running through gaps between rocks, dropping from surfaces.
We slept under the shelter stone: an enormous rock that, at some moment since the last ice age, calved off the vast crag above, tumbling down to rest perched upon other boulders, leaving a large cavity underneath. This interior is big enough to sleep six (or more if packed like sardines). At at one end you can almost stand upright; the roof tapers down and lowers to crawling space on the other side. Walkers and climbers have used the shelter stone as a howff for generations – some caught out by the elements, others seeking an adventurous night, many calling in to make a brew or guzzle a sandwich en route through the mountains. These traces are faithfully recorded in the visitor book, tucked in a corner inside a Tupperware box.
On this Friday night in early September we were walkers; we had planned to bivvy under the stars but had also kept the shelter stone in mind as a possible back up. The forecast was fine, yet as we dropped down the mountain, the rain came in, settling heavy for a steady drenching. We were glad to find shelter this dark wet evening. I felt like Jonah inside the whale: the space was cramped, dank, and not entirely comfortable, but it was infinitely preferable to drowning.
During the night my face was cold. I woke for a pee and was blinded by absolute darkness. My fingers trawled the earth floor in the urgent hope that I had had the foresight to put my head torch within reach. They passed over a soft lump (woolly hat), rustling plastic (breakfast), and lighted on a fabric band with a hard plastic head: my torch. Outside, the rain had stopped and stars shone between clouds.
When I next woke, light blazed through gaps in the rocks. Our shelter space suddenly became a tomb and we rushed to escape, spilling out into a glorious September morning. Shining threads of light crossed the path. The early walker breaks the cobwebs.
The Shelter Stone is inside Loch A’an (or Avon) basin, a deep trough that cuts through the Cairngorms plateau. The basin was carved out by glaciers: soaring granite cliffs encircle the valley head, in the centre is a ribbon lake and from the bottom end, the River Avon winds its way out though remote moorland. Loch A’an is not easy to get to. The quickest way to reach the basin is to cross the plateau, ascending to over 1100 metres and then follow an eroded boulder path beside one of the streams that plummet down to the loch.
The first time I saw Loch A’an, my reaction was a mixture of intrigue, relief, and horror. I had been curious to see the loch for some time; however the circumstances were not ideal when I finally glimpsed it. I was lost on the plateau in wind and rain – the clouds shifted and I found myself looking down on Loch A’an. The loch provided some relief: at last, here was a tangible navigational feature within the undulating, monotonous plateau. But my stomach lurched – shit – I shouldn’t be here, I’m seriously off route. Now was a time for compass bearings and food, not for admiring the view.
One winter day of swirling cloud and blue skies, I looked down longingly at Loch A’an. I had waded over the plateau through deep snow, my legs disappearing to ankle, knee and thigh. Through a V in the hills, the loch appeared before me – frozen, intriguing – but I was daunted by the steep snowy descent to its shores. Eventually, I retraced my steps. I was not willing to descend from the plateau.
Loch A’an is immense: three miles long and thirty metres deep. People ski across the surface in the winter. The shores are lined with golden-white bays where granite crystal-grit gathers. In sunshine, the water glows turquoise in the shallows and deep sapphire over the glacial depths. Nan Shepherd was captivated by the loch and wrote of the water’s terrifying brightness. Wading in on a summer day she noted:
‘What we saw under water had a sharper clarity than what we saw through air. We waded on into the brightness […] Then I looked down; and at my feet there opened a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped. We were standing on the edge of a shelf that ran some yards into the loch before plunging down to the pit that is its true bottom. And through that inordinate clearness we saw to the depth of the pit. So limpid was it that every stone was clear.’
There is something about Loch A’an that invites a depth of vision. This is not a landscape to look across. Instead you peer down into it – whether from above on the plateau, or from within the basin, peering further down into the depths of the loch. And there is always a sense that you can go deeper. Within the exposed plateau world, Loch A’an basin is an inviting enclosed space; a vast opening that suggests shelter. Ecologically, this is a place of survival. Wiedemmania simplex (a species of fly found nowhere else in the UK) has clung to life here since the last Ice Age. The larvae hatch in the deep, cold waters and the adults skitter around granite boulders. A few dwarf willows (no higher than your knee) circle the loch, perched on ledges in the crags. These are the last remnants of a montane shrub layer – a zone of willow and juniper – that has been all but obliterated from Scottish hills through overgrazing and muirburns.
But within the allure there is also a danger. This compelling place is also subject to extreme and harsh conditions. The duality of appeal and danger is written into the name. In Gaelic, the River Avon that flows from the loch is named Uisge-Athfhinn (ooshk AH-hin), meaning ‘water of the very bright one’. There is an ancient story attached to the name from the mythical tales of Fionn MacChumhaill, a legendary hunter and warrior from Gaelic culture. The story goes that the river was previously known as Uisge Ban, Fair Water; however one day Fionn MacChumhaill returned from hunting in the mountains, and was forced to cross the river in spate. Fionn managed to cross safely, but his wife Athfhinn slipped and drowned. In his grief, he re-named the river after her.
Chaidh mo bhean-sa bhàthadh
Ann an uisge bàn nan clachan sleamhainn;
On a chaidh mo bhean-sa bhàthadh,
Bheireamaid ‘Ath Fhinn’, air an abhainn.
My wife has been drowned
On the fair water of the slippery stones;
And since my wife has there been drowned,
Let us call the river ‘Ath Fhinn’.
When we visited in September, the loch waters glittered and sparkled. We stripped and swam. The water was so sharp that my skin was set on fire, my chest tightened, and I felt the cold creep up the spine, through my neck into the brain. We shrieked, cackled and gasped. In that vital swim, I joined the sparkles of light flashing on the loch – a cluster of atoms set alight by sun and water.