It was one of those clear winter days which only the north manages to deliver.
At this time of year the sun, seemingly exhausted after its 12 months of effort, can barely pull itself above the hills and instead skims in a low curve across the rim of the horizon, only just spitting out sufficient light to illuminate the land in what seems a permanent dawn. It's as if it has struck a bargain with we of the north: I can give you heat or I can give you light and we have chosen the latter. It's the right choice. Today the low sun has burnished and bronzed hillside, wood and heather. The ground, hardened by days of heavy frost, seems to ring underfoot, our breath steams into the bluest of skies. The dogs, skittering along the track, remain confused as to why the puddles are frozen. It's a fine time to be walking on Scotland's whisky mountain.
Ben Rinnes changes your perspective. A pink granite outcrop, it's the highest mountain in the immediate landscape, one which lifts you clear of the local and replaces the parochial with a country. To the south, the Cairngorms are ruffed with a breaker of white cloud, to the north across the grey blue sea is the Caithness coast. At first sight it's the classic personification of the wild, a place where man is a stranger, where 'nature' has the upper hand. It's a seductive reading of the landscape which appeals to our ego: fooling us into thinking that we who have kicked steps through the snow to the wind-blasted peak have somehow become absorbed into this strangeness, that Scotland, civilisation, whatever you wish to call it, has fallen away.
It's a false interpretation. This is not wilderness. Almost every part of this 'wild' land is owned, managed, farmed. It may disappoint the Romantic soul, but Scotland has not been wild for centuries. Its beauty lies in the ways in which we have adapted its earth and been adapted by it, its power lies in the way in which its geology and tides have impacted on its art.
All the way through our ascent we were picking out the most obvious manifestations of man's work: there's Allt-a-Bhainne, the Rothes dark grains plant, over there are Macallan's new aircraft hangers, every glint of silver a distillery window, every puff of steam a chimney. At best this is shared land, a place where ptarmigans explode from the hill like snowballs, a land of mountain hares and looping waters, of high moorland, but also one filled with farms and grazing beasts. Sniff and you can imagine the faintest scent of sweet mash in the air.
We stand and plot, our Tunnock's caramel wafers shattering in the cold, the Glenfarclas slipping down a treat. While the real reason for this winter climb will have to remain under wraps until May, it allows a late in the season moment of contemplation.
Down there in the real world the talk is of tax hikes and tax cuts, of falling interest rates and unemployment, of recession, deflation and zombie economics. As the world stumbles in a chaotic fog, so the whisky industry is recalculating and recalibrating. Already there's talk of distillers cutting back on production in 2009. Local Speyside-grown barley is sitting unsold as maltsters look abroad for low price, and lower-quality alternative sources.
There's much talk of which of the smaller distillers will go to the wall, rumours of overseas investors circling, seeking a bargain, looking out for those whisky producers who aren't cash rich.
And yet, the perspective from Ben Rinnes is different. In every direction there's whisky. It has been made in this landscape for centuries, it has survived famine, repression, troops, downturns, closures, booms and busts. The air has long been scented by it, its peat has added depth, its fields have given barley, its men and women have crafted barrels, smithed copper. This so-called wild land is whisky land and just as its rivers and rocks have endured, somehow on this chill summit at the end of November, a dram thawing my core, it seems me that no matter what whisky will endure as well.Hold on to that thought in 2009.