Adam just stopped. His face showed an expression of surprise and trepidation. It asked for an explanation.
“What the hell was that?”
I’d heard it too. Or rather, I’d felt it. A deep, guttural rumble. Primal. And yet there was nothing to see. Well, nothing that could have made that sound.
Above us were the great lumbering giants of Torridon on the west coast of Scotland. Looking up at these sprawling mountains from the valley floor evoked the same feeling of a looking up at a skyscraper in fast-moving clouds: a dizzying sensation of something much more significant than us. In the distance, the silvery tops of Wester Ross seemed as if they’d had a dusting of snow, and perhaps they had; it was in the forecast.
A couple of hours earlier on that early October day, Adam and I had stood on top of these beasts as part of a long weekend of what’s known in Scotland as Munro bagging (climbing mountains taller than 3,000 feet). We’d scrambled over the steep, cracked slopes of Beinn Eighe mountain – spurs and summits firing off from all angles along the ridge and rivers tumbling down the flanks beneath to corries and lochs. We were now making the long walk out of the valleys, back to the road and onward to the Torridon Inn for a warming whisky.
There was that sound again. A deep cry. Pained almost.
“What. On. Earth. Was. That.”
There’s a reason people travel across the globe to the Highlands of Scotland in fall: stag rutting season. It’s a moment when the grandeur of the mountains combines with the glory of the red deer to awesome effect. It is breeding season for the red deer, which means the stags roar and fight for the rights to mate with the hinds of the group. Size matters: Older stags often scare off the young pretenders with a little roaring, posturing and dance-like walking. (Only stags older than five tend to mate.) Fights, sometimes till death, can occur.
The season usually lasts from late-September and throughout October. Some of the best places to witness it – or at least, hear it – are at Cairngorms National Park, among the Munros of Glen Coe and in Torridon, where we’d travelled.
I knew what we were hearing, but Adam hadn’t been up here before October.
We stopped our sprint to the pub.
“Stare at the mountainside,” I instructed, even though I knew there was nothing to focus on there beyond the hay-coloured shrub, purple heather and basal quartzite that gives the rock silver streaks when hit by the sun. “Don’t move your eyes.”
“Something moved!” he whispered suddenly.
A few female red deer shifted into focus, camouflaged against the grass. The roar came again. We felt in it our bodies. A couple more gentle, pale-rumped hinds skittered among the shrub. And then the source of the noise appeared: tiny on the mountain, but great in stature. The stag. Its chest puffed, legs proud, a colossal neck craning up to the darkening skies – antlers with unwieldy branches splayed in all directions.
We couldn’t count the branches, but it was an old one. A royal stag has 12 branches, an imperial stag has 14 and the monarch has 16. A deep breath and another roar echoing around the mountains.
Adam and I stood in silence, shafts of evening sun glancing off the golden mountainside. We saw another stag, smaller, younger, with long, thin antlers with only a couple of branches. He took a step nearer. The hinds watched from what I estimated to be a couple of hundred feet away.
The grumble from the larger stag started slowly again. Ears twitched and the younger stag glanced around. He took a step back, easily intimidated. The older stag won this standoff. But there would be more to come.
Above, among the shafts of sunshine, we saw the dark clouds and the unmistakable shadows of rain drifting towards us. Double rainbows appeared and faded. The skies were darkening. It was time to move – we still had another few kilometres to go before we could sip uisge beatha, the water of life. So we pressed on.
The conversation turned to the next day’s Munros and the roars faded out of earshot. But deep in the valleys, they would continue long into the night.
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