Down from the Shelter Stone

12th April 1996 at 01:00
I first discovered the Cairngorms in my last week as a student. After that glorious June week, when the weather and friendship were perfect, I knew I would return again and again. And so, some five or six years later I spent a weekend camping there with senior pupils.

If you come down off Cairngorm and follow the narrow path of Coire Raibert, you eventually descend into the almost hidden Glen Avon, with the green waters of Loch A'an trapped between steep, scree-covered slopes. At the head of the loch, halfway up the hillside is the Shelter Stone, a huge, dolmen-like boulder, deposited there by a glacier, and beneath which there is room for eight or nine folk to spend the night - if they're desperate enough.

Our leader was a famous outdoorsman, Cameron McNeish, a man so talented, enthusiastic and generous of spirit that he forbore from patronising us, and encouraged us to employ skills we never knew we had. He took this to the extent of allowing me, for the first time in my life, to pitch a tent. It was a one-man bubble tent, which he was testing for the distributor. It struck me later that he might have been trying to see just how idiot proof it was, because, inevitably, at 2am, disaster struck.

I awoke with a feeling of unease, to see stars far above, and to hear the rattle of camping gear in my ears. So disorientated was I that Cameron had to tell me the bad news: the tent had blown away. There was nothing for it but to grope my way blindly up the hill and join the half dozen or so pupils who had wisely reckoned the Shelter Stone to be a safer bet than canvas.

Sleep was out of the question. We talked the night away, encouraged by the closeness that came as we contemplated the faint light of the loch below in the great darkness, realised we were further away from things than in any other night of our lives, and thought of those who had sheltered under that stone in the past, and why.

We would all remember it in our different ways. It confirmed me in my commitment to working with young people far more meaningfully than passing my probation had ever done. I was happy to be a teacher; pleased to shelter with my pupils; delighted to be learning, as they were, from Cameron. It was a time of almost complete happiness.

Now, of course, we know that, around about the same time, and not so many miles away, a man called Hamilton was embarked on a less successful expedition, the failure of which, if we believe what we were told, was to lead to unthinkable horror all those years later in a small Perthshire town.

I was back in the Cairngorms last month when I saw the bravest of men, Ron Taylor, blinking, in the glare of television lights, and in the aftershock of 17 funerals in a week, as he promised: "We will make this a happy place of learning again."

Lost in admiration for his strength and dedication I looked away, through the window and over the loch, and I saw the snow on the Cairngorms.

I had never been more proud of being a teacher.

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