It’s freezing up here in the Glen. The wind is coming down from the North and forecasters predict a heavy dump of snow which will hit the Highlands sometime after midnight. It’s early in the season for snow, but I can imagine it. The clean air, painful to breathe in, out here.
I’m glad I packed extra layers and those Fair-isle socks that cost me a bloody fortune in the mountain shop in Glenshee on the way north. Scandi style is definitely in, but I draw the line at the £350 Fjallraven designer jumper. Maybe after though, I ponder. I’ll go back and buy the red one with the blue and yellow diamond patterns around the neck. If all goes according to plan, then I’ll deserve a special treat.
I’ve had a good feeling about this one. Innes’s profile indicated a Ben Fogle type. Someone who’d look as good in the flesh beneath his Goretex jacket, as he did in the photos. And when we meet up at the bothy, I’m genuinely impressed. He has those rugged model good looks, roll neck jumper that matches the blue of his eyes and a fair beard that is subtly trimmed into just the right shape. Neither effeminate hipster, nor smelly farmer type. Unfortunately, his good looks are just not enough though. They never would have been.
I’d given him the latest version of my story by email. As Heather, I needed someone strong and experienced to guide me in the mountains for a few days and he looked as though he was up to the job. It had always been Heather’s ambition to walk the Lairig Ghru. When I set out from the car park at Linn of Dee, following the trail through the ancient pine woods which dot the hillside, I know things will go well with this trip.
I take my time during the four mile hike up to derelict Derry Lodge. I didn’t realise just how much I’ve missed this view. More than a decade has passed since I’ve watched the weather change over this part of the Cairngorm Mountains. It’s such a treat. Sets the scene nicely for what’s to come later. A staggeringly beautiful, yet desolate landscape. Who’d have thought you could get this remote in Britain?
A stag roars on the hillside opposite and idiotic young grouse, eyes bulging with fright, scoot out across the path, running in all directions as I approach. It’s well after the glorious 12th though and hunting season in this part of the world is already in full swing. I never liked it. Not until I began to hunt myself. The thrill of my first kill still gives me a warm glow inside.
Not like those amateurs who take an annual bloody pilgrimage. Teams of shooters, paying tens of thousands for the privilege, pile into Braemar, to stay at the newly renovated Fife Arms, where after a day sweating on the hills, taking pot shots at the wildlife, they retire to the bar after a gamey dinner and reminisce on their hunting prowess over a few fine malts. They’ll spend a few days gathering anecdotes and patronising the locals, before piling back into their metallic Land Rovers and Porsche Cayenne’s to head back to the central belt, their arses toasted by heated leather seats. Then the Barbour jackets are put away and guns locked up, their blood lust satisfied again for this year.
As I sit now, back in my old car, enjoying hot coffee with a dash of brandy to warm me through, I recall a similar party all those years ago, when I was a young waitress at the restaurant in the Fife. When I’d been Ellie. I don’t often let myself remember. It’s too painful. But that was where my character was made. That night, when the crowd of young hunting bucks had offered me a drink after the bar closed and despite my protests had bundled me into the back of an old Defender and driven me out to Derry Lodge. I shift in my seat.
I couldn’t scream with that scarf tied around my mouth, or scratch with my hands tied behind my back. But I remember the pain and the shame of it. Six of them, one after another. Drunk, but still able to make use of me and then leave me shocked and hurt, to make my way back home along the dark track through the storm. I vowed that night that they would pay. The hunters would become prey, no matter how long it took me. When I look into Innes’ eyes today and tell him who I was, I can tell he can’t even remember. He denies it, of course. Says he’s never been up here before. That I am wrong, as he pleads for his life. Liar. His mistake was underestimating me. I’ve learned how to play my part. Said it would be so exciting to break into the old lodge and see what was inside, pretending I was frightened so he could protect me. He didn’t know I’d hidden the axe there weeks before. That I let him go first, to make sure it was safe. The first blow knocks him to the ground. He wasn’t expecting it. He turns, confused.
‘It’s Ellie,’ I say. ‘Remember me?’
It was only when I list their names. Rory, Dominic, Fraser, Jonny, Rupert and finally Innes, that I see a flash of recognition cross his face. The last expression he will ever make. I glance across into the dark, where I know the others are buried. It is hard dragging his body over to the pit I dug weeks ago, but this is the last one and the thought gives me strength.
Back at the car, I take off my boots, and put my hat and gloves on the dashboard. I’ll burn everything later. But for now, I sit and enjoy the view.
I know now I’ll never come here again.
Find out more about author Suzy Aspley in her author profile here.