‘Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide,’ Robert Burns noted in 1786. Scotland’s national poet of Auld Lang Syne repute could have been contemplating the waves of brown bumps that characterise the landscape of the Scottish Borders. Burns was no runner. He probably would have scoffed at the idea. Burns found compulsion elsewhere. As was typically the case in poetry and life, the song Yon Wild Mossy Mountains led him to a ‘sweet lassie’.
It is mid-January, 10 days short of Burns Night. Children in classrooms across Scotland are committing Burns to their ‘immortal memory’; the opening remarks of Tae a Moose – ‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie…’ – are embedded in their psyche. Meanwhile, on the edge of the Borders town of Selkirk, a group of runners is stretched across a muddy field. This is our tribute to the Bard of Ayrshire: the annual, ambiguously-named Feel the Burns hill race.
Between us and a finish line haggis pie was 13 miles of snow-streaked, mist-smothered moorland. The paths would be sodden, turned to streams at some points, calf-deep in snow at others. There would be no medal at the end, no memento bar streaks of filth daubing bodies that would block plugholes that night. Welcome to the world of Scottish hill racing: simple, beautiful, primal – and while Burns would have been happier at the bar than up a hill, he would have revered the romanticism.
The Scots have been running up mountains for a thousand years: ever since a trio of 11th century Macgregor brothers raced each other for the honour of being the king’s messenger to raise the clans in times of war. After reaching the top of Craig Choinich, above Braemar, the siblings plunged to the glen. The youngest found his voice: ‘Will ye share the prize?’
‘Each man to himself!’ the others declared.
The ascent was breath-taking and rapid, but the end was near. They had never felt so alive; they had never felt so close to death. The youngest Macgregor, sensing he was the strongest, surged ahead of the leading brother. Desperately, the oldest clawed at his sibling, clutching his kilt, grabbing hold and not letting go. The kilt flew off. Nothing would stop the runner. He, Dennisbell McGregor of Ballochbuie – the original mountain runner – ran on to victory.
A millennium elapsed. Everything changed; nothing changed. We are running up a hill, a line of bodies climbing to a summit, feeling the way the Macgregor brothers felt: ache in our legs; joy in our hearts. One-by-one, we spill over the top and descend pathless moor adorned by low heather. The pattern is set. We are forced up again, ploughing through melting patches of snow, flitting across the path to find where the mud is least gripping.
We reach another summit, Three Wethren, and soon we are spat out onto Burns’ ‘mossy mountain sae lofty and wide’. By the time I reach Brown Knowe, the race’s 524-metre high point, mist has descended, creating a world of shadows. I glance behind. Nothing. The race continues but we cannot see it. Reaching a dog-leg I recognised from the race map, I turn for home, beginning a frantic two-mile descent along a broad ridge. The path is narrow and today shares its course with a stream of melt water. Every step is hopeful, but this is no time to be tentative, for this is when hill running become flying. Down I go, a glorious, furious sprint. I think of the other half-marathons I have run – Peterborough, Bristol, Ealing, Exeter – and laugh aloud.
After splashing through the frigid waters of a burn at the nadir of the descent, the way wriggled skyward once more, leading to the base of the final suffering: a hands-on-knees struggle up and over a wall of heather known as Foulshiels Hill. It is here the runner feels explicitly the non-literary burns. Lactic drowns my legs, as I force limbs into freefall moments after ceasing the repetitive strides of climbing. I recalled the words of another Scottish literary giant, Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘My heart seemed bursting against my ribs; and I had neither time to think nor breath to speak with.’
I glance away from the track for a moment. A world of hills peeling off in every direction seems to be at my feet. The race winner is already at the finish line, yet it seems as if I am running for my life – and suddenly, fired and inspired, I could be an 11th century clansman charging downhill, fighting for the greatest of prizes. That, I suppose, is what happens when you go to ‘the wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide’.
This article first appeared in Men’s Running.