Every year these small monuments, few of them as high as my knee, are torn down. Every year people return to re-build them. Tentatively I bend down, wondering if I can keep my balance long enough to find a pebble that might make a cairn extension.
Too big – no, that won’t do; all the other rocks would topple over if I tried to use something that size. I scour the ground until I find something small enough that I can hold it easily with just thumb and forefinger. Luckily, my eyesight is stable enough at the moment to see what I’m doing.
I reach out my arm to place the pebble in position; my hand shaking almost as much as the branches of those birch trees we’ve seen so often on this trip. The last thing I want to do is knock over a cairn put together by others with such care. But my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) makes it hard to control or judge my movements.
I manage to place the pebble on top of a cairn, where it slots into place. Silently I say a prayer for my family as I do so. Tufts of bog cotton have jerked free; I watch as the white, feathery plumes are carried into the air by the wind.
It’s a day later; we are travelling to the beach of Ardmair, a village in Wester Ross in the North West Highlands. Rough land makes it hard for me to walk from the bus to the beach, testing both my balance and strength. I have to cling onto somebody’s arm to reach the shoreline. But, again, I manage, despite my fears.
All around us are flattened rocks, their surfaces washed smooth by the sea. They’re almost symmetrical in their regularity. Our driver and guide from Rabbie’s, a young chap named Dan, shows my kids how to skim the stones on the sea’s surface. I’m grateful to him; my own wrists are too floppy and weak even to attempt stone-skimming.
But I do manage to stoop down (without falling over) and pick up a small, flat stone as a memento of our time here. It feels unexpectedly heavy, though nobody else on the beach looks like they’re having anything like this much trouble with similar-sized stones.
Later that day, I’m stood with my children at the Applecross peninsula, looking out towards the Isle of Skye from the Scottish mainland. I spot tufts of what appears to be cotton wool, so bend down and look more closely. To my surprise, I realize this is proper wool – and, sure enough, nearby are some sheep looking a little embarrassed to be without their normal coverings. It turns out they’re moulting now that summer has reached the Highlands. I stuff the wool into my pockets, planning to turn it into yarn I can use when we get home.
When I got my diagnosis of MS two years ago my world closed in, reduced to the four walls of my bedroom. Even going upstairs or making it to the loo was a struggle.
But stood on the beach at Ardmair and gathering wool at Applecross, it feels like my life is at last expanding again. Perhaps those cairns above Loch Loyne have already started doing their work.
Helen Fowler is an Edinburgh based journalist and MS campaigner