“What apps do you use?” We’re on the first steep climb to reach the 700m altitude of our Contour Walk on Schiehallion, a mountain that can descend into cloud at the drop of a hat, so to have navigation tools is advised. My response? I use the most highly prized and sophisticated navigational guide I know, one with the ability to provide detailed background information that I didn’t even know I wanted to know. More versatile, responsive and sympathetic to users than the most expensive micro-gadget, my prized asset is a refined ability to seek out people who ‘know’ a landscape and are generous enough to walk with me. Then I can ‘lose myself’ in the walking, looking and listening and if we stray from the path it’s not that we are ‘lost’, more likely our attention has been diverted by an unanticipated ‘find’.
We were well endowed for the Contour Walk with: botanists, geologists, surveyors to name a few. The aim – beyond the climb – was to traverse following ‘a line of equal altitude’ so, yes, our guide had an app for that. Leaving the path, the ground grew soft with heather and hummock, our right legs learned to shorten slightly as we leant into the mountain, and the best route finder ‘app’ became our guide’s dog, she could pick out the most even routes – and occasional deer tracks – better than we.
Stopping for lunch at the remains of the Southern Observatory it became clear why locals would have chosen this place, sheltered from prevailing winds, when more tempting flatter (but windier) areas were available nearby. Was it local man ‘Red’ Duncan (Robertson, the fiddle player) who chose it for Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne?
For the experiment in 1774/5, the involvement of local people was essential, as it was again in 1802 when John Playfair made his Lithological Survey (as Maskelyne had failed to ascertain “the specific gravity of the rock that make up the mountain”). After 25+ years, all trace of the ring of theodolite stations around Schiehallion was gone from the landscape, but not from the memories of locals who had been involved with the experiment.In Playfair’s writing, there is a palpable sense of ‘treading gently’ in this place, it was “not necessary to dig into the mountain or blast the stones with gun powder” (or even “procure holes to be bored” as Hutton had suggested). Instead he speaks of ‘native rock’, ‘rock species’ and ‘living rock’ (I think of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain), he must have been in the company of these same local men who loved Schiehallion and for whom its burns, wells, stones and caves spoke: alive with myth and legend, and thus feeding Playfair’s own sympathy for this land, one hears it again in his description of parallel plates of strata, he perceives as having “a neatness and accuracy which a work of art could hardly exceed”.