What Brought you Here
Connection and Community on the Knoydart peninsula
Words: Tom Hill // Photography: Dan King // Film: Friction Collective
‘Think about what brought you here. Think about the decisions that led you to this place.’
The white noise of rain fizzes like static electricity against the panels of the geodesic dome I am lying beneath. I breathe deeply and feel my stiff back press into the yoga mat below me. Vertebrae slowly relaxing into place. Through closed eyes I can still sense the brightening of the sky, a momentary break in the storms racing up Loch Fyne.
What brought me here? In all honesty, I’m not completely sure. For me, running is almost entirely a solitary pursuit. I’m not a running-club kind of person. A run is time to think, time to meditate, time to explore. What did lure me in were the mountains – and Scotland. Corners that I hadn’t yet visited. For my entire life mountains have acted as a literal touchstone. A grounding, a reconnection that allows me to take flight; a source of adrenaline and means of using it up. Activity sometimes for activity’s sake; need as much as want. So, I lay there with some trepidation, waiting to see what the next few days would bring.
Charlie runs beside me 24 hours later. Some of the group are up ahead, others not far behind, all strung out along doubletrack, drizzle settling on eyelashes and pooling in creases of fabric. Laughter and chatter hangs like the mist, engulfing us. If, as a white guy in his 40s, running clubs aren’t for me, they definitely weren’t for Charlie Dark. The black DJ from inner-city London took up running in his 30s as a way of countering a period of depression. It became a tool to explore his city, remind him of his potential outside running – and to connect to others. He ended up founding Run Dem Crew: ‘a running club for those who don’t consider themselves runners’. It shook up the (perhaps stereotypical, perhaps not) stuffy running-club structure with one that was inclusive, positive, supportive, mentoring. As we descend the trail, he shares stories of the crew’s growth from a few mates to over 500 members, and the impact it has had on the lives of so many.
I drop back and run side by side with JP, a native of Louisville, Kentucky who flew over to join his London-based college buddy, Matt. Over the course of a kilometre or two, we discuss death and the wrench of loss, missed opportunities and positive futures: big personal stuff. And while we run, we also listen. No longer tied to the need to find the right sentence right away. Free to breathe and digest thoughts before responding. Able to leave ideas and emotions hanging in the wind. Some we grasp back, and carry with us. Others are left on the hillside.
The experience is repeated over and over during the next few days. Brian, ‘the train’, has travelled from Texas. Now in his 60s and running a few ultramarathons a year, his steam-train-like breathing routine kicks in each time the trail climbs. Naureen, Nigel, David, Angie, Mike, and Sanchia. Lives and stories are so much more easily shared when shoulder to shoulder.
I am not running with runners. I am running with people. Wonderful, interesting, funny, caring people. I am seeing new landscapes through their eyes. And, after two years of relative disconnection, we revel in the joy of meeting diversely minded but ultimately like-minded others.
We pause under pines, with sorrel at our feet. Pete – our wildlife guide for the day – talks us through the vast numbers of fungi on the forest floor. The nature that is so often a backdrop to our runs becomes centre stage for a moment. Applying a name and a small amount of knowledge to scenery transforms the world we are passing through. We become more watchful, more mindful, more thoughtful as we move.
That day is a run measured not in kilometres or height gain, but in friendship, sharing, community. There is no adrenaline, but instead a longer-lasting high that more than survives the journey further north.
The sea is 5B lead black. Sharpened pencil tips prickle and stab at my skin as I stumble in, rapidly numbing feet feeling their way across slick pebbles. Bullets of rain explode against the leathery surface of the bay. Goosebumps ripple over me. Each step grows in purpose as the water creeps above my waist. Around me there is chatter and gasps and giggles. Deep exhalations. And then, silence. Above us, the mountains of Knoydart are cloaked. Cloud cascades down their flanks, as fluid as the rain that they carry. The hum of the small passenger ferry carries across the calm water; it’s the only motorised link between the small community who live on the Knoydart peninsula and the rest of Scotland. Gradually the motor fades, leaving just the heartbeats of humans and the percussion of water against water.
I stand on the beach, tugging on layers over briny skin. A low sun finds the small letterbox between distant mountain tops and low clouds, and bronze light cascades across the sound. Behind me waterfalls and bedrock catch the light, glimmering against iridescent greens of low pastures and the coppery autumnal hills.
Back in the lodge, our guides, George and Jo, trace their fingers across the map laid across the coffee table. The edges hang like a tablecloth with all the intricacy of lace; contours and trails intertwine across the surface. We plot a route into the heart of the hills and back again. Lines of weakness through high peaks, around lochs, past old abandoned steadings.
Later, runners scamper and skip across the very lines we drew on maps and in minds, through woodland, amongst the moss, fungi, and pine. Drovers’ path becomes sheep and deer trod, then the faintest impression of flattened grass and eroded peat. We follow centuries of footsteps distilled into a scratch against the hillside. The trail represents a living history. Layers upon layers of tales laid down across the contours of the landscape. It’s a history that we immerse ourselves in, not by learning facts and dates, but through shared experience. Lactic acid in quads and calves, the relief of a moment’s shelter from the wind, and the scolding blush of rain whipped across cheeks. Palpable human moments that are as relevant now as they would have been across centuries past.
Burn and path collide, coincide, conjoin as we climb. Wind harries and hurries. Waterfalls spill upwards, returning rain to the sky. Light and dark dance in the heavens and across distant contours. Windows of perfection open and close by the second. Vivid rainbows span glens, so bright that they appear solid, as if propping the mountainsides apart – yet they remain ethereal, vanishing as quickly as they appear, and the summits do not topple. Instead they remain unmoved but ever-changing in the wild weather.
Our group huddles together, pressed into the mountain for shelter, almost swallowed by the land. Smiles beam out more brightly than even the rainbows.
The chaos of the storm feels like a million miles away as I lie back on my yoga mat. In reality the Knoydart Community Hall is a virtual stone’s throw from the hilltops upon which we flew. I stretch. Listen. Breathe deeply. The village of Inverie is so much more than the cluster of whitewashed coastal cottages strung along the edge of Knoydart. It is community embodied; strengthened through its distance from other communities, from the village store that sells everything to the pub that was bought back by the residents a week or so after we left. Through isolation comes togetherness. It is a reminder after months of solitude that we are social beings. We are inspired, entertained, challenged, reassured by the people we meet.
What brought me here? I’m still not sure. But I left with much more than I was expecting. I learned more about my body, felt new physical sensations as I strode out into cold water for the first time. I saw the mountains looking their finest. I turned my face to the sun, hid it from stinging hail. But the longest-lasting memories will be of the friendships made and a genuine sense of a new way of seeing (maybe even feeling) my running. I enjoyed a shared reconnection with the landscape: exploration in the widest definition of the word.
Aire Libre organise running retreats and holidays around the world. Find out more via @airelibre.run