Walking Contours

The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy

Roughly 325metres above sea level, all around Glen Roy, nature has etched out a contour line. There’s another just above it at 350m, plus one further down the flanks of the Glen. The lines are so remarkable they were initially considered to be the work of (mythical) men intent on purposes unknown. It took much conjecture and debate in the 1800s (even Charles Darwin weighed in) before the nature of the lines’ ice age construction was finally figured out. 

Robert Dawson, drawings of stones as hills, Image courtesy of The National Archives (TNA)

As life-size emulations of the contour model hills that cadets – as taught by Robert Dawson – learned to draw from, I was keen to visit ‘the parallel roads of Glen Roy’. Last week a friend and I climbed to the middle ‘road’ and walked the contour as far as we could. In the distance, on the other side and towards the head of the Glen, horizontal lines scored the landscape. They are so distinct I had expected to find something akin to a track to follow, not so, our ‘road’ was obscured by waist-high bracken so that neither notional path, nor even our feet, were visible as we stumbled along.

place, map and mark making coincide

My previous post mulled on the appearance of contours and the difficulty I’d had in drawing a contour line as just that: a uniform line. Contour lines on maps are essentially a diagrammatic abstraction, yet like both my drawing attempts and Illuminated contours, the ‘roads’ appeared embellished; pricked out in hues of paler green, or fawn, as they circled the heather and bracken-decked Glen. 

OS Map of the Parallel Roads with benchmarks (detail), courtesy of National Library of Scotland Map Library

Armed with both current and historical OS maps there was much pausing for perusal and then to drink in the view. The oldest map I chose was for the benchmarks that appeared to stud the ‘roads’. Most of the rocks likely to have been scratched by a surveyor’s chisel were too heavily clad in lichen and mosses for a proper inspection. Only one appeared distinct enough to elicit that pleasing sensation of map, mark and precise location bound together in place and time. It heralded a moment of contemplation, firstly of all the renowned men of science who, in the 1800s, walked here before us as they formulated theories and surveyed; then those men of commerce in the 1950s who desired to obliterate the ‘roads’ under a vast Forestry Commission plantation, and finally the tourists, those of us in need of a summer holiday who have headed to Scotland in droves this summer. But where were they? Snagged round the corner on Ben Nevis? We saw not one other soul out walking the ‘roads’. I’m not complaining, but to have such a spectacular and unique swathe of Scotland all to ourselves did seem rather extravagant.

A track on the way back out of the Glen. Not a parallel road, though I’d assumed they’d look like this!

About karenrann

Karen is a visual artist drawn to working from a sense of place
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