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Ptarmigan in the Mist

by Suzanne Gyseman - 08:20 on 26 April 2016














Here's an article I wrote for Faerie Magazine eight years ago, about a meeting with a pair of Ptarmigan in the mist on a walk in  the Scottish Highlands. The article and accompanying illustration were published in the Summer 2008 issue:


Ptarmigan and Other Walkers in the Mist, Beinn Damh. 

When you look at a mountain what do you see? Is it simply an a enormous hill of rock, earth, lichens and moss or a magical landscape woven through with invisible but somehow tangible energies, lines of force, fantasies…secret pathways and tunnels into the heart of an Other world….

Some years ago I was working on a series of paintings of mountains for an exhibition. Most weekends I would go walking in various mountainous landscapes of the west coast of the Scottish Highlands gathering sketches and photographs for inspiration. One such walk was up a mountain called Beinn Damh where I spent an April day wandering with another hill-walking friend.

The path begins in an old forest at the base of the mountain, threading upwards between tall trees and tangled thickets of rhododendrons. Dark shadows among the mossy roots and rocks suggested to me the haunts of gnomes, trolls and other woodland folk. A local mist had formed in the air about the mountain as we arrived but as we were following a known track we kept going. 

As we climbed above the tree line we were disappointed to find the mist still obscuring the view. Staring into such mists, strange forms can rise and swirl in front of the eyes, suggesting figures which shape-shift or waft away or become rocks or darker patches of moss on the pale boulders, or patches of sky where you had expected there to be hillside. So we trod carefully following the track.

Then, along the stony rise we were treated to a much less spooky presence -  a pair of Ptarmigan! These are a rare sight in Britain, confined to Scottish mountains usually above 2000 feet, so I was delighted to have such a close view of them. They seemed unafraid of us, perhaps because they rarely see humans, being birds of windswept moors, tundra and mountaintops.  They tamely walked along  for a while a short way ahead of us, as if keeping us company or leading us along the lonely way;  and as the mist parted to reveal glimpses of distant peaks, the male ‘posed’ on a rock against a fantastic backdrop of blue distant mountains (Beinn Alligin). I made a quick sketch while my friend photographed the birds. Then we decided to stop to eat our sandwiches and the mist evaporated completely to reveal fantastic panoramas under a blue sky.

Walking onwards above Creag na h-iolare (the Crag of the Eagle) towards the Peak of the Lady (Sgurr na Bana Mhoraire) I discovered that my camera batteries had died. So my friend photographed the panorama of mountains which includes Beinn Alligin, Liathach, Beinn Eighe and the Coulin Hills. Unfortunately I never got around to asking for copies.

The Peak of the Lady is so called, according to the guide book “100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains” by Ralph Storer, because of the legend of a Lady kept there by a cruel Lord who fed her on shellfish. Shells may still be found there…on a peak 2253 feet above sea level! 

From this Peak of the Lady we could see a mountain lochan (small lake) beside which stood a mysterious castle-like building which I could not place on the map. I began to wonder whether we were still in the same world we had left some hours ago! Perhaps I had become mesmerised from gazing at the sheen of sky on the water of the lochan, the sky and drifting clouds reflecting like the way ink furs and feathers when dropped into clear water. Perhaps the high, clear air and the sight of  mountains as far as the eye could see had cast some spell over me. The landscape seemed like a strange uncharted land and it was easy to imagine that we had passed through some portal somewhere in the mist along the way into another time, or another world. 




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