I am a New Zealander by birth; I grew up there. But I spent almost my entire adult life in Australia. On hearing this, people often ask me why I choose to live in Scotland when I could be living in Australia – the implication being that Australia has a lot more to offer. The question usually comes from someone who doesn’t know me well (or at all); often, for example, in a lunchtime conversation with an Experience Week guest. I can only imagine that they are thinking something like: Australia = warm weather, Scotland = cold weather; Australia = New World, Scotland = Old Country; Australia = land of opportunity, Scotland = dead end, etc.

The question is both easy to answer and tough to rationalise. The easy answer is: I am here because I have chosen to live in the Findhorn community and ecovillage, of which there is no equivalent in Australia. I hope that this blog is making clear why this is so important to me. The difficulty I have with it (and my greatest challenge) is something they haven’t usually considered. I have family in Australia: an aging mum whose health is not the best; two married daughters whom I love with my whole being (one in Oz and the other in NZ); two grandchildren whom I am watching grow up via Skype; and several siblings, as well. To be living in Scotland, about as far from them as it’s possible to get, is hugely difficult and conflicting.

But the Findhorn community is just my primary reason for living here. I doubt whether I could if I really hated the weather and found Scotland alienating. But actually, the opposite is true. I love this land: its nature, history, culture and politics. I can handle the weather here and I love the seasonality that it brings. What’s more, I don’t at all appreciate much of the history, culture and especially the politics of Australia. I find all of that totally alienating. And I struggle with the weather there much more than I do in Scotland. One can at least dress appropriately for a Scottish winter. I find it more difficult to endure a typical Australian summer. So for the moment at least, I am very happy to live in Scotland, despite the challenges. I am committed to be here until at least the end of 2016. If the pull back to Australia is much greater by then, and Tony Abbot is no longer Prime Minister, I will consider returning there to be closer to family. In the meantime, I deal with the separation by travelling there once a year and stay in touch courtesy of the Internet. But of course it’s hard.

All of this is by way of introduction to this post. I wanted to report back on the mountain walk I did with friends two days ago. But before doing so, I’d just like to expand a little more on my love of all things Scottish. Perhaps I’ll post more about this in the future. I have been here nine years now and am quite enamoured. Actually, it’s living in Europe that I enjoy as much, but that’s another story. I have permanent residency in the UK and hope to gain citizenship within a year. I have just registered to vote for the first time in my life (having always been a conscientious objector to party politics) just so that I can vote for Scottish independence. I am fascinated by Scotland’s history and culture. I love golf. And I adore the landscapes. What more can I say? Scotland rocks!

It’s the extraordinary landscapes, in particular, that I associate with my adopted home country, and that they are so pristine and undeveloped. Scotland is very under-populated. In North Scotland anyway, there is little noticeable ongoing change to either rural or urban environments. The countryside appears to be almost completely free from development; for better or worse, even new houses here look like old ones. There is hardly any traffic on the roads. And the Highland landscapes in particular are exquisitely beautiful (to my mind). Some people find them alienating due to the scarcity of trees. But I find them extraordinary! Let me see if I can illustrate.

Two days ago, I set out with four friends to spend a day hiking in the mountains. We drove about an hour from Findhorn to a town called Aviemore, a famous Highland destination for hikers, skiers and nature lovers. We drove on another 15 minutes, almost to the base of Mount Cairngorm, Scotland’s most well known winter skiing destination. In summer the area is popular for its flora, fauna, water sports and walking and hiking opportunities. We planned to climb, not Cairngorm itself (4080 ft), but the much less challenging Meall A’Bhuachaille (2650 ft) which, honestly, is just a foothill. But it’s perfect for a relatively easy mountain walking experience in beautiful, diverse landscapes and ecosystems. The whole area, although mostly privately owned (some would say stolen) by the landed gentry, is a National Park – indeed Britain’s largest. Cairngorms National Park covering 4,528 square km was established in 2003 under the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000.

We set out from Glenmore Visitor Centre, headed uphill through plantation pine forest and also areas that had been clear-felled where the vegetation was struggling to re-establish. Sadness was expressed by those who could see little regrowth since the last visit two years earlier. Once we got above the tree line the landscape changed radically and the views opened up. At this time of year, the heather is in full bloom. So for the next hour we walked through a lush lavender coloured carpet of heather up a recently constructed path-cum-stairway of local stone. Further up the mountain we met National Parks volunteers who were valiantly extending the route (see pic).

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As we came closer to the top, the heather gave way to a barren, rocky (shaley) moonscape. And the wind started to howl. It amazed me how we had no consciousness of the wind until we neared the summit and then, suddenly, without any apparent change in the weather, it became a gale. Easy to see how ill prepared or inexperienced, but occasionally even expert, hikers can get caught and sometimes perish in these mountains. I was glad I’d borrowed good quality outdoors gear from a work colleague. It was very cold, although not quite the minus7 degrees (with wind chill factor) that I’d seen forecast.

At the top, we sheltered in a ruined bothy (a wee stone hut) with several other hikers, all wearing brightly coloured mountain clothing. We, and they, pulled out our packed lunches of sandwiches, fruit, nuts, chocolate and thermoses of tea. We were high on the experience and ate mostly in reverent silence. It was a bit like a ritual of the inducted ones. And I felt honoured to be amongst them.

The 360 degree views were stunning; visibility was good. We could see countless other mountains, hills and valleys and about a dozen blue and green lochs scattered all about … with hardly a road or a building for as far as the eye could see. We could see wet weather all around us and had the privilege of watched it moving rapidly across the landscape. If you’re in it, of course, you don’t get that opportunity. And we could see some heading our way. So after eating, we posed for the obligatory group photo and headed back down … but by a different route.

We descended the other side of the mountain with the wind at our backs. I was grateful for the walking poles I’d borrowed. It felt like they stood between me and being blown all the way down. But once down a hundred feet or so, the wind died as quickly as it had sprung up on the ascent. We could see a tiny wee loch, Lochan Uaine, way down the bottom which was our next destination. Along the way we stopped briefly at an intact bothy – one of those facilities provided free by National Parks for hikers and skiers to take shelter in or perhaps sleep overnight. The interior was minimalist in the extreme, with just a fireplace and a built-in wooden window seat. I could live in it, I thought.

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We stopped next at Lochan Uaine, a mysterious phenomenon actually. It’s one of those rare lochs without a water course running into or out of it. There was an eerie green colour to the water and what seemed like submerged walls, which turned out to be huge bleached logs, not far from shore. We investigated an area of woods with a dense undergrowth of ferns and brackens. The path led to a recently constructed platform and seat overlooking the loch, which proved to be the perfect place for an impromptu céilidh (traditional Scottish dance). A member of the group, a guy I had not previously met, showed himself to be an excellent whistle player. The rest of us danced as light rain began to fall. It was a sweet moment.

We pressed on; the weather was threatening. We chose a return route through what’s called, the Caledonian Reserve. Remnant old growth Caledonian forest contains ancient native Scots pines (up to 500 years old) and a range of other trees, including junipers, birches, willows, rowan and aspens. They are powerful awe-inspiring places, dense with vegetation and wildlife. We walked in single-file and silence but for the accompaniment of Ian’s tin whistle, up and down along a narrow stone pathway that passed close by some incredibly gnarled old trees. The thick vegetation was wet and pungent. The whole thing felt to me like a clip from Lord of the Rings. Indeed, I think it took me back to childhood and hiking in dense New Zealand rainforest. I loved it!

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We got back to the car all too soon, drove back to Aviemore for a snack and then headed for home. The atmosphere in the car was one of deep nourishment and contentment – tired bodies and engaged minds, high on nature and the company. We vowed to do it again soon. I can’t wait!

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