The Stag

by Anna Baum

A leap into the unknown United Kingdom


I have always sought out solitude, relishing the way it allows me to experience the world with an almost childlike curiosity. As I dropped my backpack to the ground on the shores of Loch Einich, it hadn't even occurred to me that camping wild alone would not be easy, yet as the evening wore on I had never felt more afraid. I was spending my last two nights in the Cairngorms National Park deep in the mountains. That morning I had woken early and staggered up the long path into Glen Einich beneath the hefty weight of my pack, waving wearily to the other hikers who sailed past. By late afternoon, each of those hikers had passed me again on their return and I was the only person left in the valley. It had been a bleak day, yet even in the dull, heavy light I was stunned by the sight of the loch. Contours and height measurements on the map had not prepared me for the towering walls of granite all around, speckled with patches of snow. It was hushed like a cathedral. A sacred, ancient place. I found a patch of grass on which to pitch my tent and methodically went through the motions of spreading the groundsheet and pushing tent pegs into the earth with cold, stiff fingers. As I worked with the wind blustering about me, nerves set in. I felt as if I were intruding, as if someone was about to find me and tell me to clear out. There was no one, of course. No one for miles around. The Gaelic name for the Cairngorms is Am Monadh Ruadh meaning The Russet Hills, and I understood why as evening light catching the heather glowed warm red, yet I was struggling to appreciate the beauty. For the first time I became acutely aware that I did not belong in the wild; I was the only being in that Glen not built to survive it. Solitude was what I had gone for but once I had it, all I wanted was company. I felt more frail with each cold gust of wind, more vulnerable, a blundering fool in a majestic land. Once the next morning arrived with gentle birdsong, I was quickly out of my tent. It was a few hours later, walking high up on the valley side, that I saw my first stag. It trotted far beneath me, daintily lifting its hooves over the heather. To me, its presence was a comfort, but the creature showed no sign that it even knew I was there. The Cairngorm mountains were its place, not mine. It was isolating, terrifying, but a liberating thing to realize. I did not belong, but I could still catch traces of this other world, looking up, breathing it in, tiptoeing through.