WHAT OF THE RIVER ITSELF?
“And what will you do with yourself?”
“Oh, I’ll knock about and fish and that…
Though, actually I do have one
small idea – I intend to follow
a certain river to its source.
It’s a thing I have wanted to do
for a long time.” The river, our river, is the place in which Kenn played as a child, where he learned to swim, caught his first salmon, felt the first stirrings of love, learned the meaning of loss. I am not the first to follow in Kenn’s footsteps and I doubt if I shall be the last. If you do travel all the way from sea to source, a round trip of about 30 miles, then you will have completed what one local referred to as The Great Journey.
Modest enough in terms of physical endeavour, the Dunbeath Water has inspired artists, writers and readers for decades. As a river of the imagination it flows comfortably alongside its more famous, and longer, siblings: the Thames (where to start?), the Severn (Alice Oswald) and the Dee (Nan Shepherd) to name a few. And it’s Dunbeath Castle overlooking the Moray Firth, into which the Dunbeath Water debouches easy to get to, as the iconic and lovely A9 passes straight through Dunbeath. The journey begins on the coastline of Caithness, among the heaps of ballast where the river meets the North Sea. When my 12-year-old daughter Evie and I were there, the moorland grasses had bleached and bent, the gold and red glowed against the black peat beneath, and the cliffs became an old gilt frame around the sky, separating it from the mackerel-coloured sea.
Neil Gunn pays astonishing attention to the detail of the landscape in his work. This makes walking up the riverbank like being inside a pop-up book. The first three miles are so well documented that I felt as though I was meeting an old friend – the well pool, the old road bridge, the Dun Beath Brock. Wide, shallow, stony pools, the water amber from the peat, the occasional slick curve of a salmon breaking the water. A beech wood, hazelnuts, silver birch, a disturbed grouse rattling like a broken gate.
You could happily spend the whole day here, in the first few miles of the river. Or you could go beyond to where the land starts to rise, into a landscape breathtaking in its austerity, its clean lines, washed colours, yet heaving with sound: the wind layered like gesso, the grass humming with bees, the song of the water, the odd cry of a bird. There are few birds once you reach the moors, and most of those that we met flew from beneath our feet. Deer are evident everywhere, their prints in the peat, the flat places where they have stopped to rest and, often enough, they come in person.
I should mention Highland cattle. Maybe they’re just curious, but I wouldn’t recommend the Highlands to anyone who is squeamish about these great orange rumpled stacks, their dilating wet noses only marginally less distracting than their exaggerated hat-stand horns.
And then there’s the loch… If you do complete the journey you’ll find a loch with shores of the finest quartz, its cool water glowing like a polished shield cast into the heather by some returning Pictish hero, long since gone.
“WIDE, SHALLOW, STONY
POOLS, THE WATER AMBER FROM THE PEAT”
by Katharine Norbury is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99.
The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream