CHONG Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond. Photo: Eileen Chong.

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Climbing the Hill

There is a photograph of me from a recent trip to Scotland, taken on a hillside. Loch Lomond is in the background, and the dramatic outline of the Trossachs rise above and around the water. The hill is covered in green tussocks, and the grey outcrops of rocks show through the grass. The loch is beautiful, in the way a landscape painting is beautiful, although the clouds above it are ominously dark.

In the photograph, I am wearing a blue-and-white dress printed with images of cats, thin navy tights, and rather incongruously, thick wool socks and hiking boots. I am carrying a black down coat in my arms. I do not look happy. In fact, I am about to cry—from fatigue, frustration, and disappointment.

It was my first time in Scotland. My husband, C, and I were at the beginning of our three-week road trip around the islands and the highlands. We had spent a few nights in Edinburgh, and would first stop at Balloch. We would then take a car ferry onto the Isle of Mull, return to the mainland and drive through Glencoe, then cross the bridge onto the Isle of Skye from the Kyle of Lochalsh. From there, we would take car ferries to the Outer Hebrides, and on to Shetland, before driving through Aberdeen to Pitlochry, and visit parts of Fife, before finally returning to Edinburgh.

C is what we might call a ‘Fifer’—he was born in Dunfermline and was raised around Inverkeithing. Both towns are in Fife, a historic region north of Edinburgh across the Forth Bridge. He’d left Scotland at the age of sixteen and had returned to live there for a couple of years in his twenties, before leaving for England and beyond. The last time he’d been back in Scotland was for his grandfather’s funeral in 2004; a few years after that, he would move to Australia to live permanently.

Glen Coe. Photo: Eileen Chong.

We’d left Edinburgh the day before, and were staying at an inn at the mouth of the River Balloch. That morning, I’d sat in the window alcove of our hotel room, drinking my coffee while looking up towards Loch Lomond. It was a fine day. The boats moored at the jetty bobbed peacefully in the sun, and the sky was a clear, bright blue. C suggested that we go for a walk up Beinn Duhb.

How long is the walk? I’d asked. Six kilometres, he’d answered. Six kilometres was achievable; I would walk that distance a couple of times a week from our apartment to the bay for exercise. I said yes, and we set off.

We arrived at the village of Luss, and found a shady parking spot. I got out of the car. C eyed my sneakers, and suggested I put on my hiking boots. I raised an eyebrow, but did so. It should have given me a clue as to what was to come.

We walked past an idyllic beach on the shores of the loch, where a young couple sunbathed. It should be over here somewhere, C said, looking at his map, before he led us across a bridge. We came upon a sign: Beinn Dubh (642 m) hill path. I took a photograph of it. We fumbled the gate open, stepped into the field, and pulled the gate shut behind us.

Twenty minutes later, we were a quarter of the way up the hill on the path. The loch was behind us, and every time I turned around, the view would change, and each time, was breathtakingly beautiful. I would turn to face the path again, struggling to catch up to C, who seemed to always be twenty paces ahead, no matter how fast I climbed.

By now, I had stripped off my overcoat because I was sweating so much. I had a clumsy makeshift pack on my back, into which I had put my leather handbag. I was thirsty, having drained the contents of my small water bottle long ago. I clutched a handkerchief, which I would soon use to cover my face as I stopped, mid-climb, and sobbed.

Two months prior to our trip, I had undergone yet another operation in a long series of surgeries in order to address a chronic health issue. A side effect of all the associated stress was a flare-up of psoriasis, with fissures and cracks occurring, painful and persistent, in the creases of my body. I had been unable to exercise for the previous six months without exacerbating my skin issues, which had led to a gradual deterioration in my fitness levels.

And here I was, climbing a hill in Scotland, my unwell body clearly unprepared for the physical demands of this activity. You said it was a walk, I cried. C was baffled by my distress. This IS a walk, he said.

By the time we were halfway up Beinn Dubh, I had given up. I don’t think I can do this, I said, quietly. Okay, C replied, gently. He bounded back down towards me, and took my hand. We made the descent together, and returned without incident to the car. As if on cue, the sky opened, and down came the rain. Good timing, C said, smiling.

We were safe, and dry, but I was upset. I hate not finishing things. I hate failing.

I was upset because I hadn’t been strong enough to complete the climb. I was also upset that C hadn’t prepared me better for what to expect. I had been wearing the wrong clothes, I reasoned, I would have brought more water, I would have brought rain gear. You should have told me it was a hike, I admonished afterwards. My husband shrugged. I’d said ‘we would go UP the beinn.’

Later, I would read that ‘ben’, as in ‘Ben Lomond’, or ‘Ben Nevis’, is the Anglicisation of the Gaelic beinn, ‘peak’, or ‘mountain’. I would also find out that C had intended for us to complete climbing Beinn Dubh, and if we had sufficient energy left, to walk around the saddle of the peak before making our descent down another hill—in total, he’d planned for us to walk a 12-kilometre hilly circuit over 5 hours.

In Scotland, mountains over 3000 feet, or about 915 metres, are known as ‘munros’. They are named for Sir Hugh Munro, who had produced the first list of such mountains, the Munro Tables, back in 1891. The act of climbing all the mountains on this list (last updated in September 2012 by the Scottish Mountaineering Club) is called ‘munro bagging’; the undertakers of such a task are known as ‘munro baggers’.

While Beinn Dubh, standing at 642 metres, or 2106 feet, is not a munro, that day, for me, it had been insurmountable. I’m not a mountain climber, I reminded C. It was only a hill, he responded.

I was born in, and grew up in Singapore, a city-island-state, which, at around 720 square kilometres, is about two-thirds the size of New York City, or around the size of Lake Taupo in New Zealand. The tallest point in Singapore is Bukit Timah Hill, which, at 163.63 metres tall, or 537 feet, is only a quarter of the height of Beinn Dubh.

Scale is paramount when we think of place. Nature can help us reset our perspectives. When we climb a mountain, when we stand on the shores of a lake, when we cannot contain the girth of a tree in our outstretched arms, we get a sense of our smallness in this world. Our individual, human problems recede into the distance, or at least, shrink in proportion to the majesty and power of our surroundings—be they mountain or lake, forest or sea. We are reminded of the limitations of our animal bodies, and of our relatively short, inconsequential lifespans.

I’ve always been a city girl. One of my earliest memories is that of traffic noise coming through a narrow strip of louvered windows in the bedroom I shared with my parents. Our bedroom was one of several within a terraced shophouse that we shared with over fifty members of our extended family. Singapore can be a crowded place.

When Sir Stamford Raffles annexed the island of Temasek for the British Crown in 1819, the population was estimated to be around 1000—comprising mostly Malays, Chinese, and Orang Laut. Within five years, in the first official census of 1824, the population had risen to nearly 11,000, largely through immigration from Malaya, China, and India.

In 1980, the year I was born, the population was recorded at nearly 2.4 million. In 2007, the year I left Singapore for Australia, it had risen to 4.6 million. In the last official census of 2015, Singapore’s population was estimated at 5.53 million— nearly 7,700 people for every square kilometre. It is hard to find solitude in Singapore.

I moved out of my parents’ apartment at the age of 21 into my own home. It was a small flat, one of hundreds in a block of public housing. Eighty-two per cent of Singapore’s population live in such flats, which are largely owner-occupied under a 99-year leasehold scheme run by the government. Living in such close, dense quarters, noise from your neighbours and your surrounds was a given.

When I was in my Honours year at university and working on my thesis, I found that I could only write in the early hours of the morning, when there was relative silence. No cars and buses starting and stopping, no aeroplanes overhead, no television sets blaring. At 3 am, I would hear my downstairs neighbours in their bathroom. They would flush the toilet, clear their throats, and sluice water onto the tiles. Perhaps they were shift workers. That would be my cue to go to bed.

I have lived away from Singapore for twelve years now. When I return for a visit, I see it with different eyes. I now see what visitors meant when they said that Singapore resembled a large building site.

Everywhere on the island, there is demolition and construction. It appears to be constant. I often get lost—the train lines are now far more numerous and complex than when I’d lived there. As a result of extensive land reclamation, there are now entire towns that did not exist before. There are miles of underground, air-conditioned passages linking one glass and concrete building to the next, and the next. Singapore sometimes seems like a single gargantuan shopping mall.

I did not always see this when I lived there. I’d always believed the advertising that Singapore was a ‘garden city’.

As a child, ‘going back to nature’ meant taking the bus to East Coast Park, so my friends and I could cycle hired bicycles along a concrete path by the coastline. The path would divert into an underground passage when it crossed a large expressway. It would end, somewhat abruptly, at Changi Jetty. Sometimes, there would be people fishing off the pier. I once watched a fish left to flop helplessly on the hot concrete, and suffocate to its death.

MacRitchie Reservoir was where we would go if we really wanted to be amongst nature. There was a treetop walk, and colonies of wild monkeys. If you left the boardwalks, you might even get your shoes muddy.

Less than 0.5 per cent of primary rainforest remains on the island of Singapore. There is no true wilderness in Singapore left, not even on the relatively undeveloped southern island of Pulau Ubin.

I was not a writer when I lived in Singapore. I do not know if I would have become a writer if I had stayed. I do not know if I would still be a writer if I returned.

I’d moved to Australia for love. I found a small house in Kensington, close to the University of New South Wales. Our furniture from Singapore barely fit in its poky rooms. Yet, to me, it was a palace. An actual house! I had a front yard! A back yard! A standalone letterbox!

The novelty would wear off, but for a few years, that first home was a safe place from which I would explore my new city, in my new country. For the first time in my life, I had a car. In summer, I would drive to Coogee several times a week so I could swim in the sea.

I enrolled in a Master of Letters at Sydney University. In winter, I would write my essays sitting on the couch in the drafty living room, because it was the warmest place in the house when the oil heater was on. I took classes in creative writing; I wrote short stories and screenplays. My first published story, ‘Learning to Swim’, was set in Coogee.

My classmates invited me to go to Sappho Books in Glebe for a poetry reading, adding that there was an open mic section. I was not writing poetry, not then, not yet, but that day, I wrote a poem adapted from my short story. I read the poem that evening to a small crowd. It even won a prize. The judge was the reader that night, Peter Boyle, and the prize, a DVD generously donated by then-convenor Roberta Lowing. Several home moves later, I still have the DVD somewhere.

I never did have the children I thought I would have.

By this time, we’d set up in a large suburban home. It yawned with empty rooms.

Let’s move to an apartment, he said, in Kings Cross.

There would be fewer prams and babies there, I thought. I said yes.

By this time, I was writing poetry, and not much else. I did most of my writing at my desk in the hallway, because there was no space for a room of my own.

Eventually, love ran its course, and I moved out.

I kept writing, even though I didn’t think I could.

I wrote lying in a sofa bed in a friend’s basement, where I stayed for two weeks.

I wrote at the kitchen tables of a series of temporary apartments.

I went on a writing residency in Wagga Wagga, and stayed in the writer’s flat at Booranga. I wrote during the day, and lay awake at night, thinking.

I needed a home. But where?

I didn’t want to leave Kings Cross.

I loved Kings Cross. I loved its art deco buildings. I loved the fountain. I loved how close it was to the city. I loved its green spaces, its proximity to the water, its cafes and shops. I loved the people in it—Linda at the supermarket, Joe at the post office, Piotr the picture framer.

I would not leave it, or them.

There is a writing nook in my new apartment. I say new, although I have been here for a few years now.

It is not a large space, but it contains bookshelves, a desk, a chest of drawers, and a small couch. There is room to read, to think, and to write.

From my study, I can see a small patch of sky. The view is partially obscured by the surrounding buildings, but I know that under that sky is the bay, with yachts in the water, dogs in the park, and cormorants wheeling overhead, although I cannot see any of that from here.

My friends, the poet Joanne Burns and her partner, the artist Loma Bridge, live close by. We sometimes meet at a café at the marina for lunch and a chat. I often think of Joanne’s poems when I go about my business in the neighbourhood, so tied they are to places I recognise from my own meanderings.

I suffer from a lot of anxiety when I am away from home. I worry that if I go away, it, or I, will somehow disappear.

I write best from home, with my cats close by, and with my domestic routines intact and predictable. I read, and read, and I tell myself I can learn everything I need to from within the pages of a book.

My family tells me that when I was a baby, my mother left my brother and I in the care of our father and our grandparents for a month. She went on holiday with her cousin across Europe; they slept in bunks on a bus, and washed in campground bathrooms.

I had no idea how unusual this was for a young Singaporean-Chinese mother, not until I was much older. In a yellowing photograph from that time, my mother is somewhere in Scotland, posing on a hillside, the skies teal and orange above her.

Why didn’t you take us with you? I used to ask her. You’ll go on your own someday, she would respond.

When C and I first met, I was delighted to find out he was Scottish. When he told me about his ambivalence towards his heritage, it surprised me. I had always thought of Scotland as beautiful, wild, and romantic.

Reality is not a postcard.

As our relationship deepened, I began to understand the complexities and nuances of his feelings towards the land of his birth. Entwined in his history: a conflicted childhood, a failed marriage, two children left behind in England.

Let’s go to Scotland together, I proposed. Let’s be tourists. We could revisit his old haunts, but also explore new places. It would be a trip of healing, and of reconciliation with his past. He had not intended to return, ever, after he’d moved to Australia eleven years ago, but he agreed to go with me.

The rain had arrived, drumming on the car roof, and pouring down the windshield. Beinn Dubh abandoned, we decided to drive into Glasgow. I wanted to visit the Gallery of Modern Art.

There was an exhibition on the theme of the domestic, spread across several rooms. I spent a long time looking at three palm-sized, photorealistic oil paintings by a local artist named Lois Green.

The first: a pile of unwashed dishes in a sink.

The second: half an unmade bed, doubled in the mirrored door of an open wardrobe.

The third: a window, its shade drawn up, reflecting the detritus of the same bedroom.

C bought me a pair of bright orange Irn-Bru earrings from the gift shop.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 provides for reasonable rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, also known as ‘freedom to roam’. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code details how you can behave responsibly while exercising your access rights.

I cannot believe such a law exists.

C wanted to see standing stones on the Isle of Mull. We found a stone circle on the GPS, and drove from the town of Tobermory in the general direction of its location.

In the village of Lochbuie, we came upon a white gate. On it was a small, hand-painted sign: Follow the white stones to the stone circle.

We unlatched the gate, went through it, and shut it behind us, then walked past three sheep resting beneath a tree. Don’t get too close, or they’ll charge you, C warns.

We kept walking. Someone had marked out the trail with a series of stones they had painted white. The trail cut across several fields. Each time we opened a gate and went through it, we shut it carefully behind us.

A herd of wild deer startled and scattered when we approached.

We arrived at the stone circle without ceremony. It was a small circle at the bottom of a valley, set into boggy ground. I was grateful for my waterproof hiking boots. I squelched my way towards the first stone of nine.

Somewhere, a bird was singing. There was no one else around.

We walked around the stones, touching them gently—rough rock, velvet moss. I wondered about ley lines.

We stood in the centre of the circle, faced each other, and held hands. I wondered how many others, throughout the centuries, had done the same, in this very spot.

The sun shone upon our faces, and the air was sweet with the scent of wildflowers. Around the field, the hills of Ben Buie rose up like a cupped palm. For the most part, we were silent, each alone with our own thoughts.

Standing Stones, Mull. Photo: Eileen Chong.

The old hunting lodge at Uig was a good place to stay on the Isle of Lewis, because we were keen on visiting the Calanais standing stones, and the Blackhouse Museum at Arnol in the north of the island.

What I didn’t expect to find at Uig: a pristine beach, dotted with rocks. C and I crossed the bank, and walked on the fine, white sand. We were freezing, despite the fact that we were wearing knee-length puffer coats, woollen hats, scarves, and gloves.

It was a Hebridean summer.

Close-up, the rocks were monolithic, striated in grey and red, and weathered smooth by the waves. Later, I read that those rocks were Lewisian gneiss, and were some three billion years old.

Uig beach. Photo: Eileen Chong.

We’d crossed part of the North Sea on an overnight ferry, and landed in Shetland early on a Sunday morning. The fog enveloped the harbour at Lerwick, sheeting the boats, the wharf, and the buildings by the water.

No, not the fog—what we were looking at was haar.

A crew of men and women prepared their boat for sailing, coiling ropes on deck, talking and laughing. The flag, a blue cross on red—Norwegian.

There was only one café open at the harbour. Everywhere else was shut: the fish and chip kiosk, the souvenir shops, even the tourist information centre. This was the island Sunday shutdown I’d read about before we’d arrived.

The room was warm, though it was not a place to linger in. We ate our breakfast quietly and quickly. It was too early to check into our accommodation in the north of the island, so we headed south.

Sumburgh Head is a well-known nesting-site for colonies of birds, but we were not there for that; although we did see them—gannets and skuas, razorbills and kittiwakes. We were there to visit the Jarlshorf settlement—an archaeological site with evidence of human habitation from as early as 2500 BC, right through to the 17th century.

Layered like a family grave: Neolithic, Bronze, Iron, Pictish, Norse, Medieval.

I stood in the middle of a room that had once been enclosed by stone walls. I wondered about the woman who’d pounded grains in the quern, who’d cooked over the fire, who’d discarded bones and shells in the midden heap. I wondered what songs she’d sung to herself, or to her children, as they crossed over into the realms of dream.

We climbed to the top of the ruins of the laird’s house, and watched the waves crash onto the rocks, and scatter beyond the cliff.

That night, we slept in a converted Victorian schoolhouse in Brae. We would both have nightmares, and wake, cold and sweating, in the strange half-light.

On our last night in Shetland, we went for a stroll after dinner. The sky stays bright for a long time that far north in summer—sunset is 11p.m., sunrise, at 4 a.m.

In the field, two black-and-white birds whirled over our heads, crying out.

I wonder what bird that is, C mused. That’s an oystercatcher, I responded. How do you know? he asked me. I don’t know, I just do, I answered.

When I looked it up afterwards, I saw that I’d been right.

I had never seen those birds before that evening. I must have read about them in a book.

I started to see words everywhere. Scree, corrie, eilean, divit, burn, gloaming, dreich.

The flowers were giving up their names. Foxglove, gorse, heather, meadowsweet, marsh marigold, cowslip, milkvetch, sea rocket.

The trees were, as well. Elm, oak, birch, willow, alder, blackthorn.

I picked up a stone at the bottom of a hill in Glencoe. I climbed the path slowly, without hurry.

At the peak, I placed my stone on the top of the cairn.

The shape of the cairn echoed the shape of the mountain beyond.

I took a loose stone from the bottom of the cairn, and put it in my pocket.

I make myself a cup of tea, and think of the hill path.

I climb up the hill, a step at a time. I look at the earth beneath my feet, at the shimmering loch beyond, and at the wide sky above me. The wind blows in my face, and I smell the smoke from a peat fire, the ripe scent of sheep, and the clean salt of the sea. I come down the hill, careful not to land on any loose rocks.

I sit in my study. The Scottish poems are starting to arrive.

Are they Scottish poems?

Are they Australian poems?

Are they Singaporean poems?

I do not have the answers to these questions.

Perhaps the answers are in my poems.

Perhaps my poems are the answer.

We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish this essay.