James Ogilvie has an unexpected encounter – and change of heart – while hill walking in Argyll
I never wanted to be a Mum. One minute I was striding out on my own across the Scottish wilderness and the next minute a small white creature bolted towards me and attached itself – limpet like – about my person, or more accurately my legs. In fact it tripped me up in full stride.
As I collapsed in a heap on the ground I was vaguely conscious of a feeble â€˜baa’ coming from beneath me. That’s a lamb, I thought to myself as I hit the heather. Simultaneously my brain told me not to be so stupid: lambs don’t trip up humans. I must have tripped over a quartz rock instead. Picking myself up from the heather I glanced down. No, that’s a lamb, my brain told me again as I beheld a small white ungulate with a black face looking up at me endearingly.
“Go away,” I ordered crossly, brushing heather stalks from my jacket.
This encounter wasn’t in my hill walking plans. Clearly the thing was disoriented and confused. In a moment of stupidity it had latched onto me thinking I was its Mum. How bizarre. Oh well, it would soon enough realise the error of its ways.
I looked around for a ewe. She would surely be close by: the one looking all worried and maternal.
Nothing. Not a mutton sausage to be seen. Only the lively lamb chop nudging at my feet in a display of youthful affection.
“Bugger off home!” I commanded in a stern and threatening tone of voice.
OK, I thought to myself, not a problem. I’ll simply run off and leave it to be discovered by its real mum in the near future. So without a backward glance I legged it as fast as I could, happy at having solved this minor irritation. But less than a minute later a horribly familiar little nudging sensation could be felt at the back of my legs. And there it was again, the blasted critter. This was beginning to get seriously annoying …
Now just ahead of me was the Abhainn Ghlas: more of a raging torrent than a trickle despite the recent dry weather. That’s the answer, I thought to myself. No way is the little limpet going to cross that obstacle. So, jumping from rock to precarious rock as the river surged all around, I eventually hauled myself up the steep soft bank beyond and onto terra firma. I looked back smugly. No lamb on my side of the river. Result! But wait a minute … where was the little bleater? Not – as I expected – standing pathetically on the other side and howling, or whatever it was that lambs do. So where was it then?
I returned to the river and there, nestled into the bank, was the bedraggled cruciform shape of lambkin, its front legs splayed pathetically into the soil and its back legs still in the water unable to move either up or down. I couldn’t imagine how on earth it had got across the torrent. Great! Now I had a half-dead creature on my hands, baa-hooing plaintively. Things were going from bad to worse.
Still listening in vain for the maternal bleating of a distressed ewe, I picked up this pathetic ball of wet fur and tried to dry it as best as I could. But despite its near-death experience, it quickly regained its composure and once again started trotting behind me up the track. Although I was relieved that it seemed none the worse for wear I was still annoyed by its leech-like tendencies.
There was another Munro to be climbed and time was fast slipping away. This was beginning to resemble one of those true life stories where the experienced Everest mountaineer has to abandon the summit bid after encountering another climber in trouble … except that this was a lamb (even if it was starting to seem almost human by now) and not a climber. Mind you the little blighter had stamina, I’ll say that for him.
Eventually an opportunity presented itself in the confusing terrain and I seized my chance to give it the slip amongst a baffling series of undulations. I ran like hell and hid behind a bluff. At last, a sheep-free zone!
Sneaking a peek from behind the vegetation I saw Limpet – for this was what I had mentally christened him by now – looking pathetically this way and that, before sitting down and appearing just as miserable as only a little lambkin could. Half guilty but wholly relieved, I carefully clocked its whereabouts and continued on my way towards the next mountain. If it’s still there by the time I return, I thought to myself, I may have to do something about it. I then happily put the matter out of my mind for the next two hours or so.
But as I descended Beinn Mhanach, my thoughts turned to what the future might bring. If Limpet’s still there when I return I couldn’t just leave him. He’s only two or three days old: the buzzards will surely get him. I’ll have to rescue him from certain death.
That was my angel side talking.
But my devil side pointed out that it would still be a 10km hike across rough trackless terrain up and over a high pass – and that was just back to where I had left my bike at the foot of Creag Mhor. From there it would be another three quarters of an hour’s cycle to where I had parked the car. And by now it was five o’clock in the evening.
The moment of truth approached as I arrived at the place where I had abandoned Limpet. Would a mad white furry orphan still be there – and would he still recognise his giant of a mother again?
Dammit – he did!
In a repetition of our first encounter he rushed towards me exuding affection from every fibre of his fluffy white fleece. Mum had returned and all was right with the world.
As I picked up little Limpet to give him a cuddle, my devil side knew when he was beaten. “Please yourself,” he snarled, “on your head be it.”
And so the epic homeward adventure began. It started well enough as I prepared a lamb-sized comfort zone for Limpet in my rucksack. “It’s OK little one,” I said. “Your bed’s a fleece, but it’s acrylic, so no worries.”
“Baaa.” He clearly understood. We were definitely on the same wavelength now and the bond between us was growing ever stronger. Feeling smug and self-righteous I started humming â€˜Little lamb who made thee’ as I strode over the heather towards home, mentally congratulating myself on having solved the problem so brilliantly.
But it’s true what they say: you should never work with children and animals. And you should definitely never work with childish animals. Although Limpet and I started our journey well – his little head peeking out of the rucksack flap – after a few minutes there was an uncommon commotion followed by a flying lamb and a brief “Ba …” as he hit the ground.
“Bother!” More delay. Well maybe it would knock sense into his numb lambskull.
It didn’t. After a couple more instances of ungulate aerobatics I decided that it was high time to put my hoof down and make a stand. He could bloody well walk now. “Let’s see how you like that, eh?” I snarled at him while he snuggled himself devotedly around my legs once more.
Clearly unfazed by my hostility, little Limpet continued to bounce along behind his mum. My cunning plan to tire him out before attempting to carry him again took far longer than I anticipated. It was only after a full mile of ascent and multiple burn crossings that he started to drop behind a little and bleat pathetically, his small white flanks heaving with the exertion of it all. Clearly little Limpet was a fighter. I liked that. In a change of heart – and tactic – I picked him up and gently tucked him into the front of my fleece. With his handsome black head poking out, we continued homewards. And although we now resembled kangaroo and joey more than ewe and lamb, at least Limpet didn’t struggle like before.
I could say much about the magic of that still spring evening: the setting sun casting shadows on the corries and flanks of the hills; the red deer striking romantic Landseer poses; the ravens croaking evocatively and a complete absence of any other human beings. Little Limpet and I made a great team as the distance slowly shrank and the shadows gradually lengthened. And as we forged through the miles towards civilisation and safety, strains of Taverner gave way to The Proclaimers â€˜And I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more’; and, â€˜We’re on our way from loneliness to happiness today (u-huh, u-huh, u-huh, u-huh)’.
After reaching my bike at 8 o’clock the happiness factor did indeed increase. Limpet was now zipped up safe and snug inside my fleecy pouch, paying no heed to the ups, downs, bangs and bumps of the rough Land Rover track, until, just as darkness fell, we reached the security of the car. By now a seasoned traveller, Limpet was content to stay in the passenger floor well gently swaying to the road’s twists and turns, and taking to his third means of transport that evening like, well, like a duck to water.
The next problem was where to go next? Now call me heartless, but taking a lamb to live in an Edinburgh garden seemed a tad unfair on the neighbours, not to mention Jasper the Irish setter. His proclivity towards sheep had already earned him a sheepish reputation. Limpet and Jasper? No, I just couldn’t see it, somehow.
Happily, a solution appeared half an hour later in the shape of Kiltyrie Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast and its owner, Jane.
“Hi Jane! Long time no see. I’m bringing a friend to stay tonight if that’s OK.”
It wasn’t really. I mean who would drop everything to be a foster carer for a four-legged un-house-trained peeing machine, I ask you?
Jane did. Without demur. That’s the kind of person she is.
And at that, a burden lifted from me, both physically and metaphorically: I was sheep-free at last!
But when it came to bidding little Limpet farewell I found it much harder than I’d expected. This wretched creature that had tripped me up, nearly thwarted my Munro plans and taken a Herculean effort to rescue, had strangely grown on me.
Although I would never admit it, I’d come to love little Limpet.
… there’s a happy ending to this story. Jane phoned the next day to tell me that a local farmer’s ewe – that had lost her lamb that morning – had happily adopted Limpet as her own.
What a relief: I’d never have made a good Mum anyway!
About the author
Having summited six of the highest mountains on each continent, James is seeking sponsorship to complete the 7 Summits this winter when he plans to climb Mt Vinson – at 4,897 metres (16,067 ft), the highest mountain in Antarctica. He would be interested to hear from anyone who might like to assist with a sponsorship deal. James can be contacted at [email protected]
Image courtesy of Jane Watts