I'VE long been subdued by dark December, when the days are short and the enthusiasm for big mountain walks even shorter.
It's a malaise which strikes regular as clockwork. It starts to kick in around mid-November and lasts until mid-January.
Maybe it is the natural response of the body to the exertions of a long year, the need to reset by moving to a state of semi-hibernation during these days of suppressed light.
This year there was the added factor of travel restrictions, so options to seek out the area with the most favourable weather were limited. Staying local was the responsible recourse. November had been kind in the east so we were overdue some disappointment and that's exactly what we got for the first half of December. But when there was at last some light streaming in the window after days of relentless rain, it was time to rustle up some enthusiasm and head for the hills.
Glen Doll is just a short hop, and it has always been a great default outlet. The plan was flexible: a circuit via Bachnagairn to the Glittering Skellies and then back by Jock's Road. There was also the possibility of yet another visit to Broad Cairn. The pastel-streaked skies and benign conditions that waved me off didn't last long, however. My destination may only have been a few miles north, but it didn't take long to leave the light behind and hit a wall of grey.
I drove through a strangely silent, waterlogged landscape of bare trees and empty fields. Every so often a ray of sunshine managed to penetrate the gloom bringing false hope. At one point, I spotted a horse standing beside a newly-formed lake which had surrounded the nearby farm, its reflection illuminated in perfect stillness like a work created by Constable or Monet.
This persistent diffusion of the light was rapidly reaching correlation with my ambitions as I travelled along the final stretches towards the glen. The hotel was closed, the car parks empty and pieces of the road were missing, gouged out by the power of the flood. The high tops were invisible, unwelcoming, the cloud pressing down. I wouldn't be heading up there.
As I changed into my walking gear to try to salvage something from the day, I felt there was something missing. Then it struck me – there was no chaffinch frenzy. At any other time of year, the picnic area is alive with these cheeky little scroungers. They show no fear, coming right up to your feet, cocking their heads as if asking: “Where's the food?” I've even seen them sitting in the boot of the car. Now, they were conspicuous by their absence.
I set off on the path through the trees with the water roaring along beside me, crossed the bridge and then took the track past Moulzie. The path beyond was running with water and the unmeshed duckboards on the next section felt lethal, forcing a squelchy walk alongside them rather than on top.
The bridge beyond is a replacement for one swept away a few years ago, and the force of the flow here was re-emphasised by the sight of big chunks of the river bank having recently collapsed into the water. The cloud showed no sign of moving, and the stop-start progress caused by having to divert round so many mud and water obstacles had rekindled my inertia. This day would be marked by its brevity.
As I sat by the side of the water, I heard the keening of a bird of prey echoing round the glen, then spotted a buzzard sweeping upwards over treeline to skyline on Cairn Broadlands. This lone cry perfectly summed up the emptiness of a dark December day.
A second day in Glen Moy promised better with the golden sweep of early sun which lit the bare slopes ahead, but it was short-lived. The familiar feeling of isolation soon set in as I walked along treeless terrain on tracks hard as iron, passing the sad shells of long abandoned crofts.
I at least had the company of a couple of kites, silhouettes circling overhead, and the always amusing sight of the hares changed into their winter white ensemble without the benefit of snow cover.
The following day I stood on the beach and waited for the sunrise in my search for light but even its beauty was born in tenebrous tones, a fitting nod to dark December.