When the sun is unveiled over the Highlands, the colours pounce out of the scenery. The tawny hills are unexpectedly a wondrous straw yellow. There is now gold in the green of every pine tree. Gaudy purples emerge from the forest shade, as if Titian has freshly applied them. Today the Cairngorms are enthroned above the valley, as crisp as a perfectly iced wedding cake. The sun flashes on the peaks and they rejoice.
All of our cars are waiting in a layby. A blue van will arrive to collect us and we will form a motorcade which will wind its way up on to the next shelf of the landscape.
After a certain point, snow is suddenly caked over everything, as stiff and smooth as marshmallow cream. It billows flamboyantly over pine branches, daring the world to disturb its intricate patterns. It rolls deeply over the ground, daring you to push your boots into its immaculate surface. Yet we have been forced to annex a bit of this perfection to make a modest path. The snow has been trodden down to a slimy glacial smoothness and our boots bite toothlessly at it. Everybody waddles along with comical dignity.
Now and then we stop to listen to the herder. She has a sing-song Scottish voice, half sleepy and half sarcastic. When she addresses the reindeer, they probably all surround her, spellbound. I am alarmed to hear that we will have to “herd” the deer. I picture myself stamping and flourishing my arms at hundreds of deer whilst they edge slowly back. But it turns out that if we form a procession and walk up the hill, the deer will join us.
These reindeer are females and juveniles, and most of them wear extraneous dying antlers. The deer grow and shed their antlers every year. Some have bright bunches of antlers; others have a single spike, rather like a radio antenna.
Later in the season, these deer will return to the remoter uplands, where many of them will give birth. The gentlemen deer are presently on a tour of the wild places, but they will be soon due a spell of home leave. Existentially, these creatures are rather like cats, being neither wholly domesticated nor convincingly wild. They have an “enclosure,” but there are over a thousand acres of it. They are not morally opposed to eating manmade food, but they could subsist on lichen if they were minded to.
It is hard to grow accustomed to the eeriness of these deer. They slip along noiselessly, hanging almost like fish over the ground. They are as cold as fish, their bodies releasing negligible heat. They can sleep in the snow without melting it. Once we have accepted handfuls of reindeer muesli – a medley of cereals, porridge oats and dark whisky grains – the deer are nosing around us like sharks. We are all bubbling together in a frenzied pool, the deer probing for our hands.
(Actually, the deer are not completely silent. They have a tendon somewhere in their back legs which “clicks” to broadcast their whereabouts. When they are all on the move, they snap and crackle like a bonfire.)
At first the deer are docile, or they are at least keeping their thoughts to themselves. But it seems that their characters emerge only once they are feeding. The big deer become pushy and abrupt; the little ones are plaintive and they get under the big deer’s feet. I try to select a puny little deer to feed but I am too slow. A big snout swings in and impatiently snuffles away the food in my cupped hands.
Whatever solidarity had existed amongst our feeding expedition is breaking up. Everybody is now absorbed in their cameras and videophones – in snatching little bits of our experience for their own private files. I find it repulsive, this obsessive taping, and I want to point out to a startled tourist that they do not need to record everything. They have a faculty called memory which will remember it automatically. But if you put away your phone, it is very fine being up here in the Cairngorms, with hillsides at our feet and mountainsides overhead, and the fresh air as potent as fumes. Watch the deer – eat them up with your eyes – before we have to turn around and plod home.