I can’t visit Scotland’s mountains – so I’m sketching them instead

It started with Ben Hope, a mountain about as far north as you can go on the mainland UK. Rising from the Flow Country, in Sutherland, Ben Hope is famous for being the most northerly Munro.

I was sitting at home in Yorkshire, thinking back to when I climbed this mountain about a decade ago. Suddenly I wanted to draw Ben Hope, to capture its shape and character, that lonely hill up there, a long way away, in a place I love to be. Doing so helped to jog my memories of the misty spring day I reached its summit.

I did this sketch earlier this year, during the first lockdown. With no chance of getting to Ben Hope, or any other mountain for that matter, I took to revisiting them through memories – sketching scenes from some of my previous adventures.

I am a fell runner. I love to spend time in and around the UK’s high places. The mountains of Wales, the Mournes of Northern Ireland, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and islands … over the past 20 years I have come to know many of these, spending days running, exploring and sleeping high among them, then waking up and doing it all again the following day.

While running in the hills keeps me fit, it also does wonders for my state of mind. Spending time in them helps me to unwind and put life in perspective. When I was younger and before I had children, I would be somewhere in the mountains nearly every weekend. These days, while my hunger for them has not diminished, it’s generally once a month, twice if I am lucky, more when we go on holiday. My children are now old enough to walk with me in the fells – special times I hope they keep on enjoying.

I have been painting and sketching mountains and writing about them for nearly 10 years now. Before then I raced around them as much as I could and as fast as I could. Nowadays my life is busier and the time I can spend running in the mountains is less than it used to be. I have found I now need to savour this time, to slow down a little, enjoy the view and to eke out the memories between trips.

During lockdown I have missed the release valve of running in the mountains. But I found that sketching Ben Hope made my memories of climbing and the landscape sharper. I also remembered the conditions – bursts of broken sunlight on the mountain, making parts of the land golden; the way I felt as I climbed the hill; and the things that went through my head as I ran. Soon enough I also started writing about these mountain journeys, which helped me to remember them even more.

I chose Ben Hope as the first because of what it represents to me: the remoteness of the northern Highlands and the peace of the place. Somewhere I love to be even when the weather is bad (as it often is up there). But in good weather there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Ben Hope and the mountains of Assynt and Sutherland – Ben Loyal, Foinaven, Suilven, Canisp, Quinag – are the ones that mean the most to me. When I am among them all that matters is their wild beauty and the calm I find in myself.

As we head into this lockdown winter, I am going to keep sketching and writing my mountain stories. They will tide me over until the spring, when hopefully it will be easier to head north again.

Heather Dawe is co-author of Traceless, which explores the Charnley Round fell running route in the Lake District (Little Peak Press, £12). She will be discussing the book with co-author Geoff Cox at the Kendal Mountain Festival at 8.30pm on 23 November. Tickets available here

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