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The Tales of the Land

The 'Spirit of the Highlands' is defined by the relationship between its people and the landscape

I have spent my life exploring the landscape of the Highlands. I am fascinated by its wild places, its rugged mountains and its hidden glens. I have learned to love these places and to feel the life that courses through the earth.

I wanted to show these places through the eyes of the people who still explore the wild land, the walkers and the climbers. Also I wanted to speak for the creatures who inhabit these places and make a statement on their behalf about the damage that has been done to the Highland landscape.

I am inspired by what the Highlands could be, by how rich and diverse our land will be in the future. I am filled with hope for what the Highlands can become.

The Tales of the Land

These are the stories of the hills.

Tales of the high peaks and deep glens,

ragged white foamed shores

and silent moss dark forests.

These are the tales of the land

told by its Pagan hearted people.

These are the stories of those scale the wild cliffs,

and walk long lonely ridges.

Whispered in candle lit bothies, they are sung by the rocks

and the ruined township walls.

These are the lives of those who love the untamed places.

We are of the land beneath our feet.

The blood of the earth flows within us

its song is ours too.

For those who listen the sky talks,

and there is music in the wild wind.

The old life in us longs to embrace the land,

to roam these Highlands that lent us life.

The land brims with stories of the folk it has known.

of the people who spend their lives amongst its hills and glens.

It speaks of the people it has lost and cries for the dispossessed,

It sings for the walkers and the climbers

For those that love it still.

The rocks and the tumbling waters recall the forests

and search for those who are missing.

They ache for the soft footed lynx.

They long for the grey slinking wolves

that slipped away, like smoke through the trees, moments ago.

We are the creatures of the land

we are its children.

Come closer, I have tales to tell.

The Climber’s Tale

My dreams are born in high places.

They come from the ageless cliffs,

the soaring rock and the vast beckoning below.

Here I test my sinew, my courage, skill and hope

in this arena of truth.

My tale is written by finger tips on jagged edges,

I am a priest in a vertical temple.

I sing of my faith on overhangs and chimneys

with hands wedged in cracks and feet smeared on hope,

I trust the god of gravity and pray for his forgiveness.

In these places, where few can linger,

I found brothers and sisters and we formed our church of this improbable brotherhood.

Together we gloried in our victories and laughed at our failures,

Even though they cut us deep.

We struggled, pushed, swung and scrambled.

knew fear, hope, despair and joy.

In these tall places we left the drab

monotone days spent toiling to feed the machine.

For a fraction we lived in Technicolor,

our lives stripped down, destiny in our hands.

our zen the joy of movement, the freedom of a body in space.

In summer my story is told on warm slabs

Balanced as delicate as a moths wing.

When winter comes the song changes

and is sung in the shattered ice of frozen starlight.

Moments caught in the breath and felt in a heartbeat.

We reached the summit of these frozen places as darkness falls

And see the lights of life twinkling below

Knowing that for a few moments we dwell in an exalted place.

And yes, there were times we watched in silence

as those who paid the mountain’s toll

came slowly down in stillness

our hearts emptying for them.

We learned from these great places how fragile we are.

We felt fools, became lost and found ourselves again.

We laughed at our follies, came swinging off the cliffs on taught ropes

cracking our pride and our knees

and learning to laugh at both.

Yet still we tell the climber’s tale

For it is our song of life and joy, a dream of tactile things.

The Hillwalker’s Tale

My legs are weary, feet sore, ankles aching.

I am burnt by the sun and blasted by the wind.

Yet I climb higher still, searching the endless horizon.

A moment ago I left the valley

and headed upwards into this ancient place.

Here the earth sings beneath my feet

as I gaze across a limitless land.

I am far travelled yet rest is forbidden.

I seek these hills for here is my home.

Once I lost my way in city streets and grey built towns,

Among factories and sightless offices

My vacant eyes watching endless screens,

Listening to the babble of empty words.

I stared at these illusions so long I forgot how to see

until a distant whisper called me back to these forsaken places.

I have seen the spindrift whip across Cairngorm summit

and the sunrise in Glen Coe as the icy tops catch fire.

I have walked alone yet felt a spirit with me.

I stood staring in wonder at wild Lochnagar,

while in my heart dreams of these places grew.

Here I listened only to the wind and let my heart sing.

In these hills I have wandered the long day

Regretting that this time will ever end.

I felt the harsh hail and the warm sun,

the gentle rain and the angry wind

knowing that these were the moods of an old friend.

I wander distant places and see the seasons turning.

In spring as winter loses its ice fast grip

I feel the earth stirring as the force of life

writhes impatient to escape the cold cocoon.

Winter’s grip must yield to the quickening pulse of Spring.

In the forest the desiccated tones of yellow and brown

give way to the green of life as leaves burst open.

At last the silence of the frigid air yields to the song of birds.

in nests perfect eggs crack open

And are filled with the gapping mouths of insistent chicks.

I watch the Hen Harrier sweep across the waving grass.

on ghost white wings he flashes over the rolling ground

seeking prey to feed his broods of hungry chicks.

A survivor of the assassins, his a prayer of hope.

When the long languid days of summer came

I spent my days on the hills and glens

and leant against the rowan as the sun warmed the earth.

On days like these, when the air beats with a billion insect wings,

I feel the pulse of the land as the long summer sits luxuriant.

September brings the first touch of Autumn with splashes of gold among the trees.

It’s then that the pace quickens among the children of the glen,

as all life races to brace itself for the coming cold.

The trees draw in the blood from their leaves

Ready for the dark gales coming.

All life knows that the dance of summer is ended

and the chill of the short days and ice winds is coming.

Now the forests bloom with colours of gold and russet brown.

For these few weeks the woodland hill burn in glorious colour

until the Autumnal gales leave the woods black veined skeletons against grey skies.

Soon the ice of winter stills the glen

and holds it tight in immovable chill.

Now the earth bends its head and bows before the harsh cold.

The cycle goes on, change and chill, sun and wind.

The season’s march brings life to this eternal land.

It is here I walk, my existence running its long season

until I return to the earth as winter comes once more.

The Bothie’s Tale

Walk along the old footworn path.

Follow the giggling burn through the oak wood

to where it forces its way between the stubborn rocks.

Its water white with the scent of heather and wind.

Here the trout jigs between the stones,

the water is quick with a thousand lives,

and the creaking bridge speaks of footsteps.

Higher still, leave the wizened trees

and step into the open glen where silence booms across the land.

Amongst these far hills you will find me

in the kingdom of the stag and the eagle.

At the foot of the ridge where the hills sweep down

embracing the valley like a lost friend,

I sit and wait to welcome you.

I am the bothy that shelters from the rain.

My walls have stood against these winds a hundred years

and will stand a hundred more.

In the dark of my walls rucksacks empty.

Coal and candles, mugs and plates,

Food and whisky, tumble on to my floor

As night creeps in over the hills.

Only the phantom wings of the owl move now.

My old stone walls are cold,

and the room peat dark.

A match, a spark, and a candle flickers.

In the hearth kindling comes alive

and the reluctant coals smoke a while

until the yellow flames begin to dance.

Now, with lives beneath my roof I breath again

remembering those I sheltered long ago.

Once there was a family here.

Once children were born and grew

to laugh around my rowan tree.

Once a woman toiled to hold back the soot and the dirt

To keep her children clean and fed.

No one lives here now

but for a while my walls are home again to travellers of these hills.

There are voices and laughter.

Stories are told, as strangers become friends.

Leaving the troubles of lives far away.

Davie sings as Tam plays his harmonica.

Jenny tells her story of a night lost on the mountain.

Are equal within my walls.

I shelter all of them and care not who they are.

I see no foreigners or foes,

Only folk who sit a while beside my hearth

And take a little warmth in a cold world.

The Eagle’s Tale

I am wind. I am of air and open sky.

Wing borne, free of the tethers of earth

I roll among the rolling clouds.

My flight is timeless in these boundless skies.

Far above this green raked country

I look down upon the flesh of the land,

Its ice etched bones rolling on below.

My eyes are bright and see beyond.

I see the small creatures and the marks of time.

Once I soared over forests.

I watched the elk and the buffalo,

saw the grey wolf, a ghost among the trees.

I witnessed a bear take a silver fish bleeding from the river.

I watched as the forests fell and burnt

when the dark smoke fill the sky.

Those things are remembered by these mountains,

The earth does not forget.

Only the bones remain, scoured of their flesh.

This land is empty

and aches for those it has lost.

Yet even now the land burns, and its creatures suffer

at the hands of men who rake the sky with claws of lead

and count death among their pleasures.

There is sorrow in my flight as I turn towards white capped sea

and leave behind this scar wracked land.

The tale of the stone

One Autumn day I took the steep track into the forest.

I walked up through the scented pines.

I followed an old way to where the ground levels.

On to where the trees give way to the open glen

and the river runs clear across a bed of painted stones.

Here I left the darkness of the forest and walked in the sunlight.

There is a silence here that hangs in the air,

it is the timeless quiet of a land holding its breath.

Alone in this voiceless place I found them.

A line of stones here, and there a fallen lintel sunk with age

Tumbled into the long grass like a lost memory.

All that is left of lives that once were lived here.

I laid my hand on the rough stone and felt its memories.

A red haired girl ran here once,

With the unhindered joy of childhood.

A young man toiled in this field

Until time came to dim his eyes and bend his back.

He lays there, beneath the twisted Rowan.

These are the echoes of a place that has lost its folk.

They are not forgotten, these stones remember

the people who lived here once, and the life that was lost.

The Cry of the Land

My voice is silence, my words are still

Yet I am speaking now.

In the corners of the land the forest is creeping back,

tiptoeing in to claim the empty glens.

Where the stream runs between the lochs

there are marks on the trees not seen for centuries.

They were made by beaver come to shape the water.

In time they will change the course of the river

And give new life the chance it needs.

I wait for a sign to let me heal.

To bring back the forests

and let the leaping fish return to the rivers.

I have not forsaken this land.

For I am old enough to forgive

if you are wise enough to listen.

The 'Spirit of the Highlands' is defined by the relationship between its people and the landscape. The high mountains and rugged remote coasts have produced a people who are self reliant and independent. We are part of the landscape and it has shaped us. We are the custodians of this land, we will be remembered by the way we treat it and by what we can become if we learn to treasure its wildness.

John D Burns

John D Burns is an award winning outdoor author who writes about his life among the glens and mountains of the Highlands. He has published four bestselling books. These include The Last Hillwalker a memoir of forty years in the Highland hills, and Bothy Tales, his collection of stories from remote mountain shelters.

Credit: Northport
Credit: Northport
Credit: Northport