The Horizontal Oak

There’s a single oak high on the flank of Ben Hiant, overlooking the Sound of Mull. I have known this resilient tree since my early child­hood. It’s in a place I love very much. Massaged by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, battered by the wrath of the Atlantic and silhouetted by a thousand sunsets over the islands of Mull, Coll and Tiree, it is horizontal, its trunk fissured and colonised by tiny ferns. An oak sustains more life forms than any other native tree. Generally, we think of oaks as mighty: trees for building houses, boats or bastions; trees of grandiose parklands, their massive weighty boughs stretching to the heavens. The oaks of Scotland’s rainforest on the western sea­ board are different: diminutive, wind­sculpted. Many do not stay the course while others, like mine, grow strong and beautiful as they find succour between a rock and a hard place. Raven, hooded crow, buzzard and tawny owl frequently visit this tree. Sometimes it will be the little stonechat with his dapper black bonnet. And, from time to time, it is me, for its trunk, having withstood so much abuse, offers me support too, the horizontal oak, high on a hillside west of the sun.

Ordinary families like mine hide secrets, issues and struggles that cause pain. When my mother died, I knew that it was time to come to terms with the strains of my relationship with my parents.

When the poet Philip Larkin wrote his well-quoted ‘This Be the Verse’ in 1971, I was eleven years old, and knew nothing of the poem. At the age of eight I had been sent away from my glorious west coast home to an all-girls boarding school. Now in a strict regime riven with petty rules and regulations, free spirits, had to be moulded into shape.  I loathed it and often felt miserable. That era was made worse by the intermittent visits of my alcoholic father. My parents had recently divorced with the resulting fall out. Dad was miserable too, and the more miserable he became, the more he drank. And the more he drank, the more miserable he became. Up until that time away at school, Mum had successfully protected me from seeing him in an inebriated state. Witnessing it first-hand left a mark.

There are probably few families who are not touched by alcoholism. Sadly, it’s not only the afflicted that suffer – it’s those around them whose world is dragged into a quagmire of anxiousness, and uncertainty. Reading Larkin’s poem now, always makes me laugh.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Many hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

I have always believed that blaming the past for how you as a person are, is no excuse, but it can indeed be difficult. Indeed, my parents were both flawed – aren’t most of us? Yet they were also fabulous. Really fabulous. Looking back now they are gone, ironically, I know I am privileged and grateful for the way in which they brought me up, encouraging my percolating passion for nature. We always lived in outstandingly beautiful places, but little did I know that all that time I spent outside, gave me the finest tools to deal with the turmoil and tragedy that lay ahead. It provided me with emotional ballast that would be stretched to the utmost.

After two depressing spells at girls’ boarding schools, the last in the south of England, I ran away. Surprisingly this had a wonderfully positive outcome.  I was then sent to the outward-bound school, Gordonstoun, on the Moray Firth. It too was in an outstanding landscape – far removed from the dreary English boarding school where I had been so homesick constantly yearning for the hills.

Now I learnt life skills, and forged friendships that have never faltered. There was copious sport – sailing and numerous other outdoor activities. And long exped­itions into the mountains including the mighty bastions of Torridon, and the glorious hills of Glen Affric. We honed our capabilities on vertiginous wind-­scoured, scree-clad ridges, learnt to deal with incessant rain, leaking tents and gales. We learnt the importance of making life saving decisions, and taking the right gear even in June, when icy sleet showers could sweep in from nowhere. We learnt that rations had to be eked out to last for the duration, and that pulling together could make or break the trip. And we also learnt about blisters in the days of ill-fitting boots when Compeed was yet to be invented! And I loved it all.

Dad, when sober, was a keen hill walker too. When he visited, we often climbed Munros together. He could stand on the summits and unveil the names of all the surrounding mountains, without referring to the map – I never inherited that extraordinary ability, nor the alcoholism – thankfully. Memories of those hill days remain precious. It’s how I like to remember my father, but they were short lived. Our partings were painful and though I was always cheery, inside I was engulfed in sadness and anxiety, wondering how he would be the next time – would he be sober? Increasingly, he was not.

Compared to the other schools I’d attended, Gordonstoun was a happy place, where they didn’t try to remove the ‘individuality’ from pupils. I began to learn my strengths and weaknesses, and the importance of grasping opportunities. The school motto, Plus est en vous – ‘There is more in you’ was a philosophy that involved self-discipline too, much of which was revealed during time in the mountains when things were testing. I never forget it and particularly on the epic days I go with my son, also a passionate hill walker who sometimes walks faster and further than I think we are going to, and increasingly I struggle to keep up. But the big days he plans are exceptional leaving me euphoric for weeks after, and far more able to deal with life.  The assault of Ben Lui swathed in a dramatic inversion, on what evolved as one of the hottest days of the year when no breeze dared whisper, proved a challenge. Then later between Ben Oss and Ben Dubhcraig, we sat beside an acidic bog pool watching dragonflies, as an eerie brocken spectre created an ethereal shroud. Descending, we cooled in the burn before following a suppurating path into the remnants of ancient pine forest embalmed in low gold light. Muscles stretched like high tensile wire.  Plus est en vous. Euphoria!

I was in my early twenties when my father committed suicide. Walking, and exploring with my Border collies, whether alone or in company, be it on high tops, seashore, through Atlantic oakwoods, out gathering sheep, or simply ambling on well-trodden footpaths wherever I was, brought me solace and comfort.  It would help answer the numerous questions fighting one another in my head – the if onlys, the wish I had said and dones, and the guilt. Oh the eternal guilt – most experience it following the suicide of someone close.  While walking I became even more  grateful to my flawed and at times, very tricky family for the role they played instilling in me a passion for the exceptional things that have made my life happy: nature, animals, hill walking and livestock farming.  

I wanted to tell my story in my latest book to acknowledge all the good that came about due to the tragedy, in the hope too that by doing so, it might help others experiencing similar problems.  I wanted to highlight, the importance of our connection to nature, and its astonishing power to ease some of the hardest emotional challenges we may face.

Years ago, I had a friend’s eight-year-old son staying. I had made a picnic for lunch, but the weather was erratic. I asked him if he might prefer to eat inside. Without hesitation he replied, ‘Oh no let’s go out, Mummy says it’s important for us as it releases dolphins in the brain.’ Endorphins – it brilliantly summarises the feeling that is captured when we spend time in nature and reveals once more the importance of forging that vital connection.

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