So what exactly is the Higgs Boson Particle?
Probably not a question you'd expect from some roving tentamuffin, and certainly not in a Cairngorms travelogue. The reason I bring it up is because it was while walking in these very mountains in 1964, Peter Higgs, a Geordie from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and lecturer at the Tait Institute of Mathematical Physics at the University of Edinburgh, developed his hypothesis of the Higgs Mechanism, which defies detailed explanation because I don't understand a bloody word.
In a nutshell, however, I'm told it's the part of the Standard Model of Particle Physics (itself a devilish whirligig of words, integers, and peculiar mathematical doodads) that lends matter the property of mass. Without the Higgs Mechanism everything in the universe would be flitting about at light speed and stuff wouldn't, well, be.
Which is why the party at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, when the mechanism was finally confirmed in 2013, must've been a knees-up to shame even my own nefarious drinking buddies. There'd have been the poking of flashing red buttons marked DANGER, drunken dares to quaff antimatter projects and cosmos-collapsing cries of the Universal Disaster Portent; Watch this, lads!
I like to imagine a frail octogenarian Peter Higgs, surrounded by giggling science groupies and prostrate academics, when, spectacles dislodged by the bounce of an errant boob and draped in party popper ejaculate, he murmurs his now legendary maxim, 'It's very nice to be right sometimes.'
These scenarios obviously wouldn't occur, of course, as the great unwashed (and the great washed, for that matter) are too distracted by the bling of celebrity show business, shouty sporting events and the gloom of war and catastrophe to attend the properly important. Our water cooler conversations concentrate on Bieber's new 'do, or outrage at the latest infantile/anemic government policy, or whether some red carpet trollop inhaled the wrong cock when her career began to flag. Higgs et al didn't register even the tiniest blip on most people's radar.
Higgs' wandering demonstrates the benefit of imagination, and more poignantly, the importance of having the opportunity to explore it. One of the problems, I feel, with modern western life is our lack of this luxury. Every waking moment seems to be filled with some distraction or other: even while strolling to the corner shop I feel compelled to fill the time with music or an entertaining podcast. While partaking of such things may be intellectually and emotionally appealling, they rarely improve our implicit ability to reason, or help us arrive at a considered opinion. As I've grown and matured (shut up), I've found myself less reluctantly agreeing with the older generation that silence is the best soundtrack for thinking.
The sharp cold dulled somewhat, the deficit replaced by blustery waves of misting rain, necessitating several flappy and frozen-fingered fights with the poncho. I thus stuttered along the undulating bike route to Kingussie while listening to an episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast about weird people preempting the inevitable mergence of technology and biology by sewing magnets under their skin, followed by a chapter of Bernard Cornwell's Harlequin (AKA The Archer's Tale in the US), which put me in a receptive mood for something historical. The Highlands didn't disappoint.
Ruthven Barracks appeared from behind a hill and stopped me in my tracks. This gem of a ruin is sited on a hill dominating the valley and surrounded by mountains, it's got Game of Thrones written all over it. I hadn't seen a car or person in twenty minutes, so I parked up by the gate, didn't even bother locking up the rig, and clambered up the steep path to find out what the hell this place was.
The sign said it was a barracks completed in 1721 by our old mate General Wade to house soldiers combating the Jacobite Uprising.
It was besieged twice, the first time defending against 300 Jacobites with only 12 redcoats, the second time overrun by Bonnie Prince Charlie's minions. After their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, they had subsequently made this their rally point some 40 odd miles away. 3,000 highlanders gathered here after the fight, to be met by a message to disperse from the aspiring potentate. I was starting to dislike this posh pretend Scottish git more and more: he didn't even have the stones to show up himself. They set fire to the place when they left, and what stands now is pretty much what remained.
There's something incredibly satisfying about exploring a deserted ruin alone. It lends a unique solitude and reflection, absent with company, that stirs the imagination and helps transport oneself back in time. While exploring the two barracks blocks, devoid now of furniture, floors and roof, I still got a sense of what life must've been like for the soldiers, crowded in ten to a room and two to a bed. The stables to the rear of the fort catered to the dragoon rapid reaction force, tasked to keep the roads clear of bothersome autocrats.
Ruthven Barracks are built on the bones of an earlier castle, one of the lairs of Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan. This hate-filled fuckwit was known as the Wolf of Badenoch in the late fourteenth century, primarily because he, along with his Cateran, or private army, had a propensity for the rape, pillage and murder of his peasant protectorate that far exceeded the potential ravages of any likely invader. With over forty illegitimate offspring it's difficult to picture the impotent, innocuous nobility of today descending from such lusty and loathsome stock, but this is where inbreeding gets us, I suppose.
As the third son of King Robert II of Scotland, his appalling behaviour was largely tolerated, although token penance was undertaken occasionally to assuage the demands of the Church. He was granted governmental positions and titles such as Justiciar of Scotia for a time, likely in an attempt to give the wayward lad some responsibility, but none of it worked. The Wolf's depredations culminated in the sacking and burning of Elgin town and Cathedral in 1390, apparently in retaliation for the Church's condemnation of his murdering, thieving, torturing, and relentless shagging, but more probably the denouement of their power struggle for control of Scotland's north.
One particular story involved imprisoning the monk who delivered the news of Alexander's excommunication in the bottle dungeon of Lochindorb castle. The dungeon breached the water table of the lake island location, meaning any prisoner had to live in three feet of water: essentially sentencing them to a horrible death either by, or caused by, sleep deprivation.
The Wolf was killed, it is said, after losing a game of chess to the Devil himself in 1405 (or 1406, or 1394, depending on who you listen to) at the age of 62 (or 63, or 51), his body found after a great storm marking the Devil's victory, uninjured but with the nails ripped out of his boots. This is, of course, absolute bullshit, but he's interred, rather ironically given his history of psychopathic excess, down the road at Dunkeld Cathedral.
Kingussie & Newtonmore
I parked outside the library in Kingussie (population: 1,400), setting for the Monarch of the Glen TV series, and noticed another loaded touring bike locked to a railing. I got talking to the chap inside, easily identifiable by his rangy and unkempt contentment. He was a young man for a bicycle tourist, barely into his twenties, and he'd impressively ridden all the way from Istanbul. I loaned him my spare pump to fix a flat, and told him to keep it to see him home to Edinburgh. I gave him my card so he could mail it back to me later.
Ego buffed to an immaculate sheen by such prodigious charity, I left the library as the sun waned and rode to Newtonmore (population: 1,000), the next town along, for a quick shop of bread and cookies, and headed out the other side to camp. Pickings were slim, however, and as darkness fell my anxiety grew until I found a spot by a bend in the B9150. My description of the town should end here, as I'd sluttishly treated the place like a pitstop, but it really is more important than that: Newtonmore being a hotbed of the ancient and amateur sport of shinty.
I first rode past an impressive shinty stadium in Fort William, and was surprised to discover there's an entire sporting league on the island I grew up on that I'd never heard of, despite it predating Christianity. The game has striking similarities to Irish hurling, so much so the sports are often combined under unified rules to allow teams from both to play each other. Newtonmore Camanachd is one of the premier club teams in shinty, and ruled the roost for many decades, winning 30 national championships since the competition's inception in 1896. However, the team from Kingussie, literally two miles away, has dominated the last twenty years or so, winning 23 times in all and meriting a mention in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records as World sport's most successful sporting team of all time. What a fascinating yearly rivalry this must be, in this remote and seemingly sedate highland valley. I may have to come back just to go on the piss, I mean, watch a game.
The rain didn't let off until noon again, then I decamped and began a long, cold, granny gear slog into an abject cunt of a headwind, accompanied by stinging horizontal sleet, past the village of Dalwhinnie and its namesake whisky distillery, the highest in Scotland, and up towards the Pass of Drumochter.
I don't complain about much, which is probably an undesirable trait in a writer. Reading a good bitch about something mundane can be hugely entertaining, a revel in someone else's angst whether we empathise with it or not, but there's nothing mundane about a proper fucking headwind for a cyclist. Every revolution becomes a battle, every mile a war. I'd have camped down and waited it out, because I'm all about having fun and this certainly wasn't, but real winter was clawing at my tail and with limited supplies I didn't want to get trapped in the mountains by the snow.
Midway through the pass, frozen and exhausted, the cycle path ended, so I was forced, rather worryingly, onto the A9's dual carriageway. I wasn't crapping myself at every passing lorry for long, however, as roadwork bollards soon separated the lanes. The inside one had been resurfaced; richly dark, lounge singer smooth, and gloriously all to myself for the next ten miles or so of resplendent downhill. In addition, the sleet stopped, the wind switched direction, and the sun smashed through. Thus the breathtaking glide down the broad Garry and Tummel river valleys as they twisted through the mountains was sublime, effortlessly sweeping from pleasing view to pleasing view, a high banked flight corralled by the black ribbon of road. It was hypnotic. Familiar now, I surrendered to it, bathing in the feeling. Not thinking, I turned off the music that'd helped me up the pass and just... flowed. Suddenly, the answer to the question of my life was glaringly obvious. Just do this. Bugger all that other shit. This is what it's about, evermore sweetened by the antecedent slog.
As the land flattened and the bullshit babble of humanity rushed back in, I considered the euphoria. It was an excruciatingly addictive drug. So this is what religion must feel like, I mused. Or heroin. It ruined any further chance of a normal life, whatever that is. I was actually, truly, finally, free.
I considered the aesthetic, too. Was it the simplicity of moving through a gorgeous landscape that caused this, or was this just the first time I'd properly been 'in the moment' on a downhill? And what is 'beauty', anyhow? Realizing I was teetering on the edge of philosophy I knew precious little about, and no doubt every idea I could come up with had already been discussed and dissected to death, I consulted the Greeks and their academic progeny.
And discovered the philosophy of aesthetics to be an unnecessarily complicated load of old bollocks, compounding the idea that much of academia invests in overblown waffle to describe things that are quite simple, probably in an attempt to appear brainier. I promptly gave up and decided to sling a quote your way instead to look like I know what I'm talking about.
Beauty is anything you are compelled to look at. - John Waters
That should cover it.
I rejoined the bike path, and quickly found a fantastic camping spot on a cliff with a grandstand view of the raging River Garry, a few miles northwest of the awesomely appellated village of Killiecrankie. This has nothing to do with Wee Jimmie Krankie, the cross-dressed Scottish schoolboy of Crackerjack fame, but it made me think of her anyway. (She recently admitted, along with her comedy partner and husband Ian, to being heavily involved in the swinging scene during the eighties. Oh, how I curse my persistent and overvivid imagination.) I clambered down the rock face to grab a bucket of water from a tributary burn, feeling very Bear Grylls, filtered some to drink and had a rejuvenating wash with the rest. Bubbly TV chef Ainsley Harriott completed today's weird celebrity quotient by providing dinner in a packet of his Thai chicken soup, and surprisingly acceptable it was too, hungrily scoffed down with half a loaf of bread. My phone told me it was 4 degrees C in nearby Pitlochry, but the ice in my water bottle disagreed, so I wrapped up cozily and delved deeply into season four of The Wire, punctuated by long stares at a fantastic night sky.
Rain forced only a couple of hours in the saddle today, but that short span took in a parade of pretty villages, impressive castles and hidden stately homes, the latter often only indicated by their roadside gatehouses, which were pretty spectacular in themselves.
I decided not to stop at Pitlochry library and pushed on through Dukeld, passing by the cathedral grave of the Wolf of Badenoch, to the library at Birnam, a small village in a fetching valley setting. The library was a throwback to the seventies, it seemed, with an ancient computer system and barely an hour's grace with their ridiculously inconvenient opening schedule. I left with the dark and climbed the valley side along a bike route that looked worrying like a private driveway, confirmed about halfway up by a PRIVATE ROAD sign. Bike routes often follow such prohibited thoroughfares, though, as the signs often only refer to powered transport, so I paid it no mind. I couldn't find a decent flat bit suitable for a tent apart from one right by the road on a corner, but it was so quiet I decided to pitch anyway, and didn't see a soul until morning.