The drive this morning was one of the more dramatic I have had. I set off in slanting rain, which had been rattling at the windows all night. There were amber warnings out for most of Scotland but I blithely ignored them, thinking everyone was getting far too hysterical and it was just a bit of weather.
The hills looked as they usually did, only with black clouds rising from them like smoke. It was just another dreich day, until I got to Braemar and there was a vast loch where the fields should be. For a moment I thought that I had forgotten the landscape and become so used to a spreading body of water that I had stopped noticing it. But no, it should have been green fields. The whole of the wide valley floor was covered in a rising tide, and, on the far side, in the shadow of some doleful pines, a flock of sheep stood, desperately, on the last island of dry ground, as the water lapped at their feet.
For a moment, I panicked. They were too far away for me to stop. Did the farmers know? Were the mountain rescue out? Should I stop and call someone?
Then I saw a lone figure in black waders, arms akimbo, water up to his ribs, plunging across the water to his sheep.
I wondered how they would get them out. The water ran for hundreds of feet in each direction. No car or tractor could get near. Would there be a community effort, like the raising of the barn in Witness, with each of the strongest and tallest of the local men carrying a single sheep above his head to safety? Would there be an airlift? Would there be flying sheep against the lowering sky?
I did not have much time to think about this as I was getting into the remote part of the glen. I measured it once, on the speedometer. There is a stretch of road without a house or a human for thirteen miles. In a small island with almost seventy million people this is quite remarkable. Usually, I find the space and the solitude delightful and invigorating. Glenshee is an open, benign valley, not sinister and brooding as some of the more dramatic ones are, to the west. (I’ve been properly frightened in one or two glens, spooked out of my rational mind.) But this morning at seven-thirty it was angry and tormented.
The water was bursting its banks wherever you looked. Where the rocks and bridges meant it had to smash through narrow spaces, it was turbulent and raging. Normally it is silvered as a millpond. Today, it was a furious peaty brown, with great white waves coming off it in all directions, as if it were a wild sea, or one of those white-water rivers you only find in the wild spaces of America or Canada. From the walls of the glen, more water came crashing and tumbling. Usually, the tiny thin lines of water that fall there look like delicate traces of mercury against the blue and green and purple. Now, they were like flailing white scars, tearing down the rock, urgent with movement and menace.
It’s really hard to describe and I’m running out of adjectives, but it felt as if the water was going to win, as if this mighty valley, so many hundreds of thousands of years old, would be wrecked and overwhelmed by the urgency of the flood, as if even it could not withstand these elements. In the wider parts, where one could get a panorama of the scene, it looked like something you might see on the news, the aftermath of a typhoon in the Philippines or Bangladesh, everything trashed and broken.
There was one last drama at Bridge of Cally, where the entire stone bridge was under a foot and a half of water and I drove through praying the electrics would not cut out, which they did once near Pitlochry, so my friend the Political Operative stripped down to his Calvins and got out and pushed.
Then, Perthshire, the politest county in Scotland, asserted herself in all her elegance and calm. The crazy weather went back into its box, the floods existed only in the occasional genteel sheet across the road, even the cows looked rested and self-contained.
At Tebay, rather relieved to be in one piece, I ate mushroom soup out of a Thermos and watched the 1.10 from Fontwell. My horse won. Then I bought some cake and some Tudor pie and rang my mother to tell her I was not dead in a ditch.
What a journey.
Somewhere to the north, a red mare rests gently under her favourite tree. To the south, the smallest cousin tells her mother: ‘I can’t believe Tania is coming tomorrow. I am just SO excited.’ I’ve known these children since the day they were born and we love each other a very great deal. That is why the drive is always worth it. I just hope that someone got to those stranded sheep.
This is what Glenshee should look like.
Now imagine the sky black, the water all over the valley floor and rushing, all choppy and white and churning, and lapping menacingly at the road. And from the very tops of those hills, more tumbling water chasing down the crevices, as if they are coming to finish the job.
Really quite something. I would have stopped and taken a picture, but I was a bit too wigged out, and just kept my eye on the road and my foot on the accelerator.