Only our boots crunching through the dry leaves underfoot breaks the stillness of the crisp, clear morning. Sarah Hobbs, our guide for the next few hours, is wrapped up against the nip of frost in the air, her small face breaking into a smile amidst layers of muted wool. Sarah’s lemon-yellow coat will be a reassuring marker as she leads our small group through the stories that make up the landscape around us. We wander along the tracks that weave their way around the southern tip of the Speyside Way, one of Scotland’s four official long distance trails.
Sarah Hobbs started life in the English Midlands. Her journey took her through Norway, Egypt and London before she arrived in the Scottish Highlands several years ago. A lifetime of working with communities and for social change has led Sarah to the path she now walks, down the ancient way of Gaelic folklore. The stories Sarah shares might be old, excavated from the archives at the Highland Folk Museum and beyond, but their magic still shines today. These are stories of the land and the people who have lived with it, working alongside the mountains that stand like giants amidst this landscape.
Sarah takes people walking across several locations in the Cairngorm National Park. Our route goes off the beaten path in places. Sarah tells us that she likes to keep her routes varied and can adapt them depending on the walking ability of her listeners.
As our small group weaves through the golden autumnal woodland, Sarah’s soft voice draws us close. Epic love stories and historic medical remedies swirl together, opening a portal that allows us to glimpse another, brighter world. We begin by meeting Beira as Cairngorm and the mountains around sparkle with a fresh powdering of snow. The goddess is making it clear that we are under her protection on this journey. Find out more about Beira from Sarah herself here.
The Goddess of Winter is just one of the many vibrant characters we hear about on our walk. Sarah has the extraordinary ability to make these figures and their tales come to life. An ancient world awakens around us. The modern world is forgotten as we venture off the established path and down a small trail into the woods. The group around us chats and laughs as we walk. An awed hush rushes through the group whenever Sarah stops to look more closely at something or settles down to reveal her next tale. Sarah’s gentle storytelling soon enraptures even the initially dubious.
Epic tales are balanced beautifully by the soft blanket of the surrounding woodland. We listen to Sarah and see the world around us in a new light. Today’s walk calls on more of our senses as we smell the pine needles, taste the wood sorrel and feel the rough barks. Sarah’s stories are a careful blend of ethereal legend and tangible nature. Sarah introduces us to the mighty birch tree as we pass through a copse. A familiar sight across the northern hemisphere, birch trees tend to live much longer in Scotland than down in England. We taste their peppery buds, discover how to use birch polypores as plasters, and the many other uses of this deciduous hardwood. Further along the trail, Sarah points up to show us some chaga. Chaga is a fungus prevalent in natural medicine, which looks almost burnt against the pale bark of the birch.
Looking down, we find some wood sorrel. These tiny plants offer a refreshing interlude, the juicy apple taste balancing well against the earlier spice of the birch. It doesn’t take long to find some clover for comparison, the rounded leaves offering a spray of green against autumn’s jewelled swansong.
Our forest lesson isn’t limited to birch. Deeper into the woodland, we find aspen. We hear this willowy tree before we see it, the leaves whispering in the wind, calling us closer. Sarah Hobbs brings us nearer still, showing us the distinctive diamond shape on the trunk of this sprawling deciduous.
After a delightful few hours of developing a deeper connection with the land around us, Sarah leads our group to a fallen tree. Here, she brings out a large flask from her bag. We are treated to a steaming mug of tea made from locally foraged Scots Pine and Douglas Fir. This citrusy, earthy cup of Christmas cheer is the perfect accompaniment to one last story before we head home, our hearts and souls full, and our imagination alight.
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