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Project Officer by Peter Goulding

This story is to remember Millicent Fawcett who planted a Holly on 7 July 

Around Inverness it doesn’t feel like Britain. The road signs are the same, the chains of shops are the same – a load of Tescos – but the light is different, the people are different. It can feel Viking, or like an oil refinery town in the Arctic circle. Tougher, with less rules.

The Land Rover headed north, Tanya behind the wheel. It was towing a horse box full of tools, like mattocks and pinchbars and camping gear, propane gas rings to brew up big pots of mash or pasta. It crossed the Moray Firth by the North Kessock Bridge, past the Black Isle. In the Cromarty Firth, oil rigs had come in from the North Sea to be refitted. There were three of them, they looked small in the wide deep water, their floodlights twinkled like fairy-lights.

“My kitchen window looks out on this,” Tanya told the volunteers in the back seat. “When I walk the dig I hear them shouting and dropping spanners across the water.”

“My kitchen window looks out on this,” Tanya told the volunteers in the back seat. “When I walk the dig I hear them shouting and dropping spanners across the water.”

“How long have you lived here?” a voice floated from the back.

“Came here 10 years ago. Started volunteering and now I am the Project Officer.”

Her accent was East Anglia, near Norwich. You can hear any accent in the Highlands. Central Belt Scots, more delicate Highland Scots. Dutch and German, excellent English, Unmodified Lancashire or Neutral Northern.

Two hours later, they were deep in the Flow Country in Sutherland, soggy peat bog poking through rounded hills of granite. For the next 10 days, Tanya would show a dozen people – half of them English, some French, an Italian guy – how to build drystone walls for a spectacularly ungrateful client.

Tanya’s wrists were thin, they looked too fragile to pick up the stones. She squatted next to them, stood up with her thighs and core muscles, and gently swung the granite lump the size of two shoeboxes onto the wall. Then a wiggle, twist it to where it best fit, and wedge it with a sliver of granite under its back face to stop it rocking.

As the Project Officer, Tanya had to go on the site visits to price up the work. The charity worked as if it was a contractor – you had a job, you paid for them to do it. Drystane dyking would become a holiday, rhododendron clearance a job for autumn. Pulling out Himalayan balsam or cutting gorse could be work for the midweek group, or the Bad Lads who didn’t get on with school.

Out near Corrimony, she pulled up the work van. Dave got out of the passenger side, he was one of the Volunteer Officers, she normally took one along with her. He was from Sheffield, wanted to change his career from being an electrician after his marriage had broken up.

The client was waiting in a green Range Rover, wearing a tweed jacket, quite smart. He looked about 50, smooth skin, not hammered by the outdoors, hair well-kept and grey.

“Hello,” the client said, walking straight up to Dave, public-school English accent. “Nice to meet you. Donald. I’ll show you the path we want doing.”

Dave looked at his toes and cleared his throat. “Hello,” he said. “Er, this is Tanya.”

Donald looked at Tanya.

“I’m the Project Officer,” she said. “We spoke on the phone.”

Donald looked back at Dave. “But you’ll be running the job?”

“No,” said Tanya. “I’m running the job, because I’m the Project Officer.”

Tanya had done a night class in welding a few years before, just for the crack of it. She had wanted to make a chair out of steel. There were eight blokes, and her.

The tutor had given the eight blokes fresh plates of mild steel, box section, tube. Tanya a had to get her material from the bin of off-cuts and abandoned projects that people had cocked up or got bored of.

After eight weeks, the tutor went off sick with groin strain. He was replaced by someone else. Tanya went to get scrap out of the bin, and the New Tutor said: “What are you doing?”

The New Tutor was furious.

“I’ll give you the metal everyone else is getting. Let me know what your project is and we can order anything you want.”

He came over to the booth where Tanya was welding.

“I don’t know if I’m doing this right,” she said, flicking up her visor, “this keeps happening.”

When you weld with an electric arc, the spark is so hot that it could burn the metal into ash. The flux sucks up the oxygen so that can’t happen, so the metal melts and bonds without burning. The flux forms a crust on top of the weld. When the weld cools, you knock it off with a hammer, like a crusty scab off a healed wound.

Tanya’s flux wasn’t staying on the fresh weld. As the electric spark ate the rod, the flux cooled and started to curl up behind it.

“That’s because you’re doing it perfectly,” the New Tutor said. “Perfect speed, perfect gap and your box is set up spot on.” He looked around at the other booths, the spilling blue light. “No one else here is doing that. Women are better welders anyway. They have steady hands. They don’t turn up thinking they can already do it.”

Tanya had learned how to work with stone when she first moved up to Inverness and volunteered with the conservation charity that ran the holidays. They had found some funding to train people how to build cross-drains on the upland footpaths. When the snow melts, millions of gallons of water pour down the hillside, like fire-hoses blasting their own way through any path. Most hill-walkers never really noticed them, the square gutters that you easily hopped over on the way up a Munro.

The stones were huge. The bloke teaching the course told them: “If you can lift it on your own, it’s too small. The water will just push it out of the way.”

They spent a summer learning how to move the rocks. They carried winches up the hill with them, spades and pinchbars. No machines or diesel calories; most places, no digger or dumper could ever have got up there.

The pinchbar was her favourite tool. A six-foot-long steel bar with a square point at one end and a flattened chisel-tip at the other, lever and pivot to walk the biggest boulders over, slow and sure. You could lay two pinchbars parallel like train tracks and slide the boulder along them, then drop it – carefully – into the hole you’d dug. Then lever it in to get it just right, so other rocks wedged it into place.

Tanya was good at it, she loved the technique. No one would know you’d been there, apart from appearance of new cross-drains and shedding bars across the path. The spoil you had dug out of the path went back in the hole the boulders came from, turfed over. Tanya and her mates did footpaths all over the west, around Stac Pollaidh and Ben Eighe.

The next year she was showing volunteers how to build the drains. One of them was Claud, a man in his 40s, unused to manual work. He kept on picking up rocks to use with a grunt of effort.

“No,” Tanya told him. “That — is too small. If you can lift it by yourself it’s too small. Use that one, there.”

He would grunt and strain at the bigger rock, trying to pick it up with his hands. “It’s impossible! Impossible!”

Tanya dropped her spade, and picked up the pinchbar and went to show him again how to do it. “Lever it up like this, then pivot it like this.”

“Yes, yes. I know all this.”

Tanya walked back over to her section of path. Behind her, just as she got to her spade she heard him grunt, and then shout “Impossible!” She turned on her heel to show him. Again. Tedious.

The end of that same week, they had a monster of a boulder to get in place. They had patiently dug it out, toppled it onto a rail of pinchbars and got it to the edge of a hole dug across the path. They only had one chance to get it in right. Tanya got all the volunteers together, six of them, so they could slowly manoeuvre it exactly into its place.

“So everyone be really careful. Don’t let it land on you, but it must go right in, first time… Ready?”

Suddenly ‘Impossible’ Claud pushed her away from the edge of the hole.

“For this we do not need a weak woman.” He looked around, seeking approval from the group. “We need a strong man.”

No one moved, the contempt obvious on their faces. Everyone looked at Tanya to see what she would do.

Telling the story later:

“…So I pushed him in the hole.”

Peter Goulding is a climber and writer from the North of England. He has spent most of his working life in kitchens, pubs and on building sites. He moved to rural Norfolk from Inverness. He is working on Slatehead, a history and memoir of the North Wales climbing scene.