A Slow Death on Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor, looking toward the Black Mount.
Rannoch Moor, toward Black Mount

As I approached Black Mount in western Scotland, in the middle of November, crossing Bà Bridge over the Bà River near the ruin of Bà Cottage, I thought about how nice it was that they let the sheep name everything.

I was well into Rannoch Moor, one of the last remaining wilderness areas of Europe, and going it alone, something you are warned not to fecking do. “There is no shelter to be had on Rannoch Moor when conditions turn grim, as they often can do without warning,” notes one trail guide. “Rannoch Moor can be dangerously unforgiving in the right weather conditions,” says another. Just imagine it in the wrong weather conditions.

Rannoch is a peat moor, a kind of graveyard of past life. Thousands of seasons of vegetation decayed into an acid substrate that, left alone, would then proceed to coal. Cut down into it, as the Scots did for centuries to feed their fires, and you slice through tens of thousands of years of life. Once in a while you may turn up a peat body, a shepherd who fell in three thousand years ago and was perfectly preserved, down to his hat, his last meal intact in the stomach, and his last word, still formed on his lips.

Considering what I yelled whenever my foot was sucked into a peat hole, I assume his last word was Proto-Celtic for feces.

The legendary West Highland Line runs across the moor. I couldn’t see the tracks from where I was, but I’d be taking them home in a few days, assuming the moor didn’t kill me. Because of the peat, the railroad was said to have been a nightmare to build in 1894. Every attempt to anchor the railbed to the earth was met with the disappearance first of the anchors, then of railbed and rails. Eventually they hit on a solution: make huge mats of branches and roots that literally float on the peat, then run 2,000-ton trains over them, full of coal and stone and people. Someone came up with that idea, and someone else said yes. More than 120 years later, it’s still working.

A mile past Bà Cottage, I was startled by something I hadn’t seen for miles: life. It was a single tiny red deer, hundreds of yards across the moor, looking at me with the same shocked expression I had. We stared at each other for some time, standing in light rain, neither of us moving. Once in a while his head flicked a millimeter as a raindrop made a direct hit on his nose. Until I spotted that deer, I hadn’t realized how lifeless the moor had been. There hadn’t been so much as a rabbit, squirrel, bird, or even a buzzing insect that I could recall for the past two hours, no sound or movement other than my own.

It’s the acidic peat that does it. It’s good for killing and preserving things, but not for sustaining life. So life goes elsewhere, except for me and Rudolph, the rain-nosed red deer.

Looking out across the moor, I was struck by the fact that Britain is densely populated, 64 million people stuffed into a space 2.5% of the United States. That’s 690 people per square mile, two-thirds as dense as India. Yet there are these vast areas of wild and empty space.

(Monaco, at 0.78 square miles, is the density champion at 42,485 per square mile. They also have the fewest national parks.)

The path continued over a crest, beyond which was a large peat hole with a surreal sight in the middle. The black water half filling the hole was interrupted by two mounds of white, one much smaller than the other. It took a moment for me to recognize it as the upper third of a sheep. The larger mound was her back, the other the top of her head. Her face was just out of sight below the water, her feet presumably stuck in the mucky bottom. She had wandered in and wasn’t able to get out.

Different sheep, same fate.
Different sheep, same fate.

She probably walked in while the hole was empty, looking for edible grass, then became mired in the soil before the steady rain of the morning gradually filled the depression. She could have lifted her head above the rising surface of the water for a while, but not forever. She had probably stood for hours, bleating in frantic confusion, watched by her fellow sheep around the lip of the sinkhole until at last they wandered off to see to their own survival. At some point her fear would have been overtaken by fatigue, her head lolling drowsily downward. Perhaps she’d startled awake each time her nose dropped under the waterline, time after time, until at last the muscles of the neck grew too tired, and she surrendered, her nose descending one last time beneath the water.

What would I have done if I’d come by in the middle of that long fight? If I had ventured into the hole, the peat would have claimed me as well, and in any case I’d have no leverage to pull her legs free. What could I have done but walk on?

Death is distressing, but it’s the act of dying that’s hardest to think about – the minutes in which conscious existence is flickering out. We can neutralize our fear of death itself by realizing that we never really experience it. But dying is different. Dying is real, individual, personal, in part because I know I’ll experience it someday. The dying sheep felt terror, confusion, exhaustion, and finally the agony of suffocation. The dead sheep feels nothing.

I’m glad I arrived too late.


Rannoch Moor and Black Mount image by Chris Combe, Drowned sheep image by James Almond, both CC BY 2.0

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