New Year’s Eve in a Scottish new town, and it was strangely subdued – the lull before the storm of celebrations. Then as midnight approached, tall, dark-stroke-red and (allegedly) handsome men (for these are the necessary credentials of the first-footer) crept out onto the streets armed with whiskey, a tumbler, shortbread, and a piece of coal. All along the street, the first-footers huddled up against doors like stray cats waiting to escape the cold.
As I stood in the hallway, I heard the muffled rumble of low voices outside, then laughter, the ‘glug, glug’ of whiskey being poured, and the clink of glasses. Neighbours caught up with a year of news, visiting family members sometimes decades. As the celebrations sprang into action, our household slipped off to bed; we had other plans.
Snatching a few hours of sleep, we were up again come six. While the town dropped off into an exhausted slumber, we stumbled bleary-eyed to our car and headed northwest. The streets were deserted except for a lone figure weaving a drunken path.
We curved round the shadowy base of the Campsies, black humpbacks in an inky sea of sky. Finally we arrived at the shores of Loch Lomond. It was almost seven, and Scotland still slept.
Silently, we ducked into dark woods. I breathed in the sweet smell of peat and pine. This is where I wanted to be. Ahead the ice-covered path rose up, a guiding strip of pale neon in the darkness.
“I’m glad we’re not in America,” my son whispered as we slid through the trees.
“Why America?” I whispered back.
“If there was a bear right in front of us, we wouldn’t see it!”
The sky changed from black to ink-blue to powder-grey. Dark silhouettes slowly took on texture and colour. We reached the gate that would take us up Conic Hill. Soon we were climbing steeply upwards. Down below us, orange lights scattered across the valley like marigolds on the Ganges.
Light was seeping through the sky now like a pale dye spreading through fabric. We were close to the summit. It was a hands and knees job as we scrambled ever upwards; nothing between our feet and Loch Lomond and the tens of islands strewn across it.
Then we were on top. Giddily, I texted: ‘Happy New Year from Conic Hill’. You would think I’d just conquered Everest – and so I had in my mind.
We followed a wide runway of green grass down off the hill. Ahead, the ridge and the Loch islands cut a straight line to the hill on the other side – the Highland boundary fault line. I felt I could take off with a hop and skip across the islands, over Greenock, the Isle of Bute and the world beyond. I felt anything was possible. The world was mine.
But instead we dropped down to the shore of Lomond. Father and son skimmed stones over the ice. The dull thud-thud-thud of the bouncing stones echoed around the loch and the snow-marbled mountains.
It was an hour, and a million light years, from the grey concrete town.
About the Author: Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. She blogs at: http://moathouse-moathouseblogspotcom.blogspot.co.uk/