For some years after that meeting with Murdo at the historical society, I made an almost-yearly pilgrimage to his top loch. The long and arduous walk up the mountain to this special place always brings Murdo, his irritability and roguishness, to mind. He was a man who was always apart; an intellectual with no education and who always kept his secrets close to his chest. I miss him a lot, and think of him occasionally, whenever I fish remote and wild places where I know he would have been at home.
The route to the top loch goes up past Murdo’s old house, which is at the end of a long, pot-holed rough track that winds itself through steep, bracken-covered slopes, and around dark green forestry. Beyond the house are fields that he was responsible for claiming back from the moorland. From here there is another dirt track that makes its way onto a level section of bog, and gradually turns into an indented grass path that snakes and winds its way to the old deserted village with its residents that long-ago emigrated to Newfoundland. There are no roofs, but the houses are otherwise remarkably well preserved, with rounded corners and beautifully fitted blocks of the local stone.
In front of the village are bracken-covered slopes where old field patterns and lazy beds can be traced all the way down to safe harbourage at the sea. Behind the village, brown and green swards of mountain moorland gives way at elevation to the uniform dark green of forestry. However, a massive fire-break allows access up onto the tops of the mountain, where any sign of a path disappears, and any fisherman must navigate by map, compass and dead reckoning.
Nowadays there has been an explosion in the adder population so that when navigating up the firebreak, past old walls, through unimproved wild meadowland and flat quaking bogs, the undergrowth seems alive. Hare and deer can be spotted, sheltering in the eaves of the forestry, and the air is animated with small twittering birds, butterflies, and the omnipresent midge.
Gaining the top of the forestry, the vista opens again so that, when looking back, all that can be seen is open, blue ocean with odd, grey, humpy mounds of islands. The ubiquitous ocean in this place lends credence to Murdo’s often repeated story of clansmen cutting off the thumbs of their enemies so they could no longer row. Murdo never went near the sea, and would often intone that it was a dreadful and dangerous place.
The going on the tops is hard and arduous, with knee-high grass and heather, or else wet, sphagnum moss. It’s easy to get lost because all the topographic features are similar, and streams that cascade down the many gullies need not originate from a standing body of water, but may spring straight from rock, or else coalesce from many small rivulets that drain the vast expanse of bog. Wind at this elevation is constant, and the midges cluster into narrow, sheltered spots; easily avoided.
Eventually, after nearly three hours hard march, the top loch is close-by. Perhaps the height above sea level of the top loch is the reason that there was originally no indigenous population of trout. Fish in small, shallow lochs can be particularly vulnerable to severe winter cold. Higher Llyns in Snowdonia are known to have had their populations of trout eradicated during the awful winter of 1947. No doubt Murdo’s stock will eventually go the same way.
There is no way of seeing the loch easily from a distance. One side is a steep, curved cliff that turns into a small platform where it intersects the water’s edge. This gives the impression that the loch was originally a glacial feature, such as like a Welsh Cwm. If approached from on top of the cliff so as to keep out of sight, the loch can often show spectacular species of waterfowl such as Red and Black-Throated Divers, and on one very special occasion there was a pair of Stilts.
The loch is approximately circular and a hundred metres in diameter. In the absolute centre is a bed of native water lilly that have beautiful white flowers in summer. At the opposite end of the loch to the cliff, the land is flat and rugged, making fly casting much easier. From this position you appear to be standing on the flat-top of western Scotland. Empty mountains and moorland stretch away as far as the eye can see and the open ocean, boatless except for the odd pleasure craft, has a deep blue hue that pervades the atmosphere and filters all other sources of light.