Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Call for submissions: Two Ravens Press anthology of 'wild places' non-fiction

In November 2009 Two Ravens Press will publish an anthology of literary non-fiction that focuses on the relationship between people and the wild places of the British Isles. We are looking for high quality writing which animates a connection between humanity and the natural world where it is not obviously dominated by the human presence. It might articulate a discovery; a new way of seeing; an emotional response; a meditation on a place or who we are as people in a wild world.

The anthology will have a foreword by Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Mountains of the Mind) and be edited by Linda Cracknell who is a writer of short fiction (collections: Life Drawing, The Searching Glance) and who received a Creative Scotland Award in 2007 for a collection of non-fiction essays in response to walks (see

There are no restrictions on the nationality/residency of contributors to the anthology. Previously unpublished non-fiction prose only; no fiction or poetry will be considered. Upper word limit: 8000 words. Contributions will be accepted by email only, and should be sent as a Microsoft Word attachment to Please include with your submission a paragraph about your previous writing experience and publication history. The deadline for submissions is March 31 2009. Royalties from the book will be split equally between all contributors.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The hard bit

The walks are done. The essays are written, at least to a certain level. I still have piles of books to read, but have already read my way through some bigger piles - Iain Sinclair, Gaston Bachelard, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Byron, Norman Lewis, Simon Schama, and so goes on my inspiring reading trail through the non-fiction world of landscape, walking, philosophy, travel.

Each of my walks has been a joy. I've never known what the walk will offer, what I'll want to write about, until I'm doing it - have been able to play and to let the journeys of feet and words kick up revelations and stories. I haven't tried to channel them in a particular direction or discipline.

Now, as I approach the end of official project time, I'm looking at the essays together - trying to polish, see how they iterate and work episodically, work out whether they make any sense and what exactly it is I've been doing for the last 16 months. It's hard, and it's lonely with my head inside the computer and words swimming chaotically before my eyes. My daily walk is probably what keeps me sane, and might just save me from public humiliation when I do leave my desk - picking my nose or exclaiming loudly to myself inthe Co-op.

Today, although I was mostly the only walker, snow that's lain for several days was like an archive documenting a community of usually invisible journeys. Boot prints led in all directions, dog pawprints close to them. The hare as anarchic as ever, loping tangentially; the forked signatures of crow and pheasant; deer striking long graceful lines across the hill. To them I added my own.

It reminded me of taking the same walk when I had first heard that I had a Creative Scotland Award to do this project, and had been asked to take some film and stills which represented my ideas. I walked after a fresh fall of snow and filmed the tick-tock rhythm of my feet falling, noting the pioneer prints on a fresh canvas, and talked about 'picking up whispers in the land'.

Today it was as if the texture of all those intersecting, layered prints was showing me the story of the project and its gathering of ideas, its maturing into an accumulation of journeys. Ghosts - raising some and laying some as I walk. Whispering ghosts. With footprints.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Middle Ground

Two friends of mine, Bonnie Maggio and Ruth Atkinson have a great exhibition on at the Birnam Institute at the moment. Both being very creative people they work in a variety of forms and genres from felt to words to music to paper and ink. But in this show Bonnie is exhibiting her shimmering glasswork which includes gorgeous bright jewellery, and Ruth a series of lino prints inspired by her explorations of Highland Perthshire.

I feel rather proud by association with the latter as one series of prints arose from a walk she took by Loch Tay, in response to a task I set for participants in a walking and writing workshop run in association with the Aberfeldy Watermill. She has written her walk and illustrated it with lino prints - including the entwined cherry trees above - and bound them together in a delightful pamphlet called 'Middle Ground'. The title refers to the level at which she prefers to walk - between hilltop and shore line, which as she says: 'in this part of Scotland at least, this is where people lived. It is empty of people now but they left their meanings behind in marks on the rock, names on the map or stories on the page.' Middle Ground also refers to this 'heartland' of Scotland.
Her walk and the story of it is a hunt for these ghosts. It is rich in observation, and also draws on her deep knowledge of natural history and botany. If you can, get your hands on a copy now - and get along to the exhibition, on till January 15th 2009.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Isle of Mull colour

A zig-zag in the path took the boy in red shoes in a moss-softened silence up between the trees. The narrow mud path led him through a port-hole fashioned by the interlacing of two beech trunks, and into the dark. A wall of trees pushed from his right and he was aware of a steep rock-tumbled slope on his other side where trees glinted luminous in the sub-marine sun that seeped through the canopy. He kept his eyes on the rise and fall of the strawberry-red Clarks shoes against grey, green, brown, copper, and he kept on looking…

But what is the boy with red shoes doing on that secretive high ‘pram walk’ in Aros Park, and what’s going to happen to him? I have no idea, at least not yet. But such are the things that happen when you take a pen for a walk, as a small group of us did last Saturday.

The purpose of the workshop I went to Mull to run in association with the Mull and Iona Ranger Service, and An Tobar, was to use the rhythm of walking and the opportunity to really look as we walk to sharpen our senses and release our imaginations.

We used blindfolds to deny sight, sensitising us to the feel and sound of our surroundings. We looked at colours – with autumn blazing at us, defying us to trap it in words – and searched for names for them as if for a paint chart. We developed metaphors as a way of describing difficult things – tree bark as dinosaur skin, and the naked core of the trunk as sinewy silk or cool marble. We gave voices to things – an argument surfaced between the abandoned roofless turbine and the jubilant burn that has escaped its power. And then we invented a character and took them along the pram walk to understand what they would see and feel and think. By the end of the walk, the alchemy of our feet on the land had kicked up stories, and we nursed them back to An Tobar where we crafted them into words.

As Rebecca Solnit says (Wanderlust, A History of Walking, Verso, 2001), ‘Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains’. On this visit to the Isle of Mull I witnessed minds sparking against autumn trees and clear skies, steps transforming into words.

Now back to the boy in the red shoes, where are his parents? What if…?

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Book of Silence

I can't recommend Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence, enough. Published this week by Granta, it charts an intellectual, spiritual and often physical journey that she has taken in pursuit of silence and an understanding of its part in her life. As a walker and a writer, I found startling resonances with my own experiences in the sister state to silence - solitude - and gained new insights into the lives of hermits, mountaineers, divers and writers, amongst others. Having been introduced to Saint Cuthbert by Sara's short story, After Life, I spent some time recently walking between places he chose to be. The pull I understand him to have felt between the life of silent reflection and prayer and a life of public duty out in the noisy world, made Sara's exploration particularly fascinating and pertinent. It's a book that draws together many aspects of culture and nature, spirituality and creativity, and the risks we must each take in 'designing' a life that makes us happy.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Last blast of light

‘You’ll be the last this year’, the landlords of pubs and B+B’s kept saying to us ‘pilgrims’ along Saint Cuthbert’s Way. Certainly we saw no-one else who seemed to be doing the full 62 miles from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island in Northumberland, or the reverse. And yet it seems to me the perfect season in which to walk it, when the tree colour is mesmerising, particularly in the early stages of the walk where it’s reflected in the Tweed River, then flaming up from the monumental beeches and oaks of Dere Street and zig-zagging bright cloisters of leaf through the plains of farmland that lead towards the Cheviots.

Just before the clocks change in late October, daylight is just generous enough, and it feels to me exactly when we need some long days outside, to refresh the body with physical movement, to feel the spark of sun and rush of the wind on our skin, before we give in to the dark. On the way, I came across a poem called ‘The Invitation’ by Charles Kingsley, in which he invites a friend to walk with him in places close to home, ‘Washing brain and heart clean/Every step we take.’ I also loved his lines about what one can discover on a walk: ‘See in every hedgerow/Marks of angels' feet,/Epics in each pebble/Underneath our feet.’

This territory was relatively unfamiliar to me, and I loved the sense of discovery, of not knowing what to expect as the waymarks led us forward, out of the woods and onto the muscular Cheviot hills – St Cuthbert’s beloved ‘high, rugged places’ – towards the coast. The pebbles under our feet certainly cast up stories. The elfland under the Eildon Hills where the Fairy Queen carried off Thomas the Rhymer for seven years, feeding him a red apple which meant he was only able to speak truth. ‘Lilliard’s Stone’, commemorating a wonderful fiction about a woman who fought on her leg stumps following terrible injury in the Battle of Ancrum in 1545. A legend of leg ends, so to speak. Bede’s stories of St Cuthbert’s affinity with wild creatures and birds in particular, took flight with merlins, owls, and waders as we approached the mudflats around Lindisfarne.

Our crossing of the ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ over the sands at dusk with an incoming tide took on it’s own ‘epic’ quality. We were blessed with a couple of days of sparkling clear skies, and with that particular east coast clarity, the dusk light washed over the wet sands. It looked as though we were walking on water as we followed the marker posts across, our destination a narrow strip of land between lilac sky and lilac sheen as seals sang us in from St Cuthbert’s Isle, and the barnacle geese squabbled loudly behind us, neither groups visible. Diverting at one point to avoid the licking tongue of tide, we rejoined the marked route, not fully realising how night had taken charge until we arrived amongst the lit-up windows of stone cottages, winding through the narrow streets of Lindisfarne village towards our final stop at The Crown and Anchor.

The year's final blast of wind and sunlight, violet skies, moss-coloured seas, out in the world with the stalk and strut of wading birds. Then home, to the change in clocks, the darkness, the hermit’s life.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

wild writing competion 2009

It's time to start scribbling an entry to the John Muir Trust wild writing competition.

“We are looking for inspiring short stories with the broad theme of' ‘experiences in wild places,'” commented competition organizer Alison Austin. “Your entry can be factual or fictional and could incorporate a journey, a place, an expedition, a mountain or river, a walk, climb, sail or kayak.” First Prize is a place on a Writing and Place course at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre.

I'm very honoured to be one of the judges, and get to go for the third year running to the fantastic Fort William Mountain Festival.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Scribblers in the Birks of Aberfeldy

Another writer has appeared on my regular walk. I'm not sure I approve.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

walking to work

Today is National Poetry Day and this years theme is 'work'. I'm no poet, so instead I offer this (a prose poem?) about a walk to work...

For five years I walked that way, head down probably, ploughing a furrow from Waverley Station to my theatre of work. The costume went over my head as I entered the inmost cave. I tugged my face into the right shape, my hand on the door triggered the bell and I was clanged into role, arrived at my desk in Old Playhouse Close.

I wonder now, what traces I left, fossilised residues on the repeated route? Do the stones hold the memory-trail of my breaths? Did I scatter pale pebbles; breadcrumbs; sounds that I can still follow echoing underfoot? Or perhaps I trailed a scent – the coconut cream from my hands, fading morning toothpaste. Or maybe each time I walked it, I laid a thread like Ariadne’s clew, a different colour for each new mood. When the routine came to an end, perhaps they wove themselves into a colourful web I can use now as a rope to guide me.

I watch now for what people trail, what markers they leave as their clews as they move through the unscratchable, unprintable city. Shadows sometimes. Coffee-scent flowing in curls of vapour behind a Starbucks trophy. A child by the length of two arms – one long, one short. Tinkling splinters and half beats escaped from headphones in a discordant wake. The invisible electronic tracks of mobile phones. And the girl in stiletto-heeled boots, thigh-high, draws after her the long, absent glances of distracted men.

It was a journey of verticals as well as horizons. From Hades-shade to light, through the stacks of the old town cliff, its stairways and closes climbing to the High Street and then down into another darkness in the Canongait. In this part of town there are pavements for a pacing rhythm, or other ways, gaits, that invite us to saunter, shamble, stride, strut; twisting ways for us to stalk or goose-step, turn back on ourselves. A silly-walk towards the Canons of Holyrood, even a plowter in Stevenson’s time. But my train came in at 8.48. Hurrying to be seated for nine, I chose the ‘stride’ and the most direct route.

A watery light splashed through thirteen acres of cantilevered glass. It shocked up the fluorescent orange working jackets, hands stretched from them for tickets, a baton passed without a pause. Fan-tailing from ticket barriers, we danced a criss-cross quickstep on the white esplanade, dodging each others’ eyes, made our bee-line for paths up, and out. Drowning in sound, we were chased out by warped voices announcing trains, the mish-mash of whistles, coffee machines, taxi rattle, words not properly swallowed by mobile phones, heels, the rumble of suitcase-carrying wheels. Did we even notice the lapping of the ghost-loch at our ankles, sewer-strong?

Up steps, past platform eleven towards the Market Street exit. Up steps to the once-a-week Socialist Worker sellers, replaced by Big Issue sing-song when that came along. We headed now into the labyrinth, the un-mappable wilderness to the south along Market Street, the mountains and valleys of Waverley’s glass roof stretching away below us. Snatching our heads back over our shoulders, snatching for the traffic gap, the legs must keep up their clip-clop, scissor-swing till they’d stopped us at our desks. Togethering brave we jaywalked between buses, taxis, the silent swipe past of cycles, crossing for the curve of Geoffrey Street somewhere under North Bridge.

Here the grand hotels turn their dark backs onto Market Street, reserving doorways in low clean elevations for their guests on the street above. We traversed their underworld. They abandoned broken glass and empty tomato boxes in piles for collection, disgorging them amongst the pigeon shit at our feet. This is where white vans line up at lunchtime. Flasks on dashboards. A slash of red letters against the glass: The Daily Record. Men, arms folded, sleeping.

So many possible routes I could have taken, between The Mound and The World’s End. The Scotsman steps, a spiralling porthole telescoping between two layers of life, screwing you around and up past hiding smokers, dark corners with last night’s vomit piles, a door opening onto a breeze block wall. They dizzy you, steal your breath, then push you out high onto North Bridge, polished gold letters on a wall, air all around, a long view to the sea and the buses’ upper decks fabricated more of light than substance.

So many chances here for enchantment, distraction from the destination. Diversion. Play. To glimpse a volcano or watch a seagull soar from the centre of a city. Let the Playfair Steps lead you to Art. Duck into the open door of the ‘Escape Club’ and do as it says. Sneak into Chalmers Close through Jury’s Inn with its windowfulls of postcard writers, a siren wobbling into the distant streets below, leaving you with peace amongst the brass rubbings. To pedestrians who risk the narrow corridors through the precipice, the closes flourish, in different proportions, history and piss. ‘No fly posting’. Pant up one of them - Fleshmarket or Carrubers – onto the High Street. Here the walkers clutching guide books, strolling pilgrims pursuing experience, will show you your blinkered errand. Another experiment in enchantment: speak to each person you meet. Try it. They might speak back.

But why have I started to tell you how to walk to work? I ignored it all, strode on, glancing across at the World’s End, a busy cobble-purred crossroads, and down towards the bell, work, my non-play in the Playhouse. And the five years’ worth of steps I laid so loyally along my chosen way? Vanished, evaporated, rubbed quite away. The streets don’t remember.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

how to make an audio walk

Last Sunday I finished co-tutoring a workshop for the Fruitmarket Gallery with sound designer, Jules Rawlinson - three sessions to develop an intimate narrative focused on a walk around Edinburgh's old town which creates interest whilst also being open-ended. We were using Janet Cardiff's audio walks as our inspiring starting point, and like her, using binaural sound. There was a lot to learn - how to use sound recording equipment and edit the results, how to combine voice, image and captured sound to develop different textures and suggest narrative, and the whole sensitivity to what's dictated by the physical spaces we passed through. Robert Louis Stevenson provided us with some resonances with his descriptions of the decaying splendour of the old town in his day, describing it as a 'huge old human beehive', 'a black labyrinth', the great cliffs of houses piling up and up so that 'the population slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction'.

One thing I found interesting was how quickly a narrative developed out of observations of the places we went to. The cool dark enclosure of the little-visited Advocate's Close slowed our pace after the public hub-bub, buskers, and walking tours of the High Street. A small garden amongst scaffolding and graffiti suggested the magical beneath the mundane and began to imply a character who had tended it and had perhaps sat in that abandoned, broken chair. But then the close itself, its broken windows, urine stench and Buckfast empties, started to tell another story, suggest a threat, and so the pace increased again, towards an exit.

The resulting sound piece is quite rough and raw as you might expect from several of us working together under pressure of time and at our own pace of learning, but if you'd like to listen, it can be downloaded from Jules Rawlinson's website listed as 'audio walk' (use headphones).

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Living Mountain

It's not often the Re-readings features in Saturday's Guardian Review have me running to the bookshop. However Robert Macfarlane's piece on Nan Shepherd's 'The Living Mountain' did. She's a classic Scottish woman writer I'm embarrassed not to have read before. As Macfarlane says, 'Most works of mountain literature are written by men, and most male mountaineers are focused on the goal of the summit. Shepherd, however, goes into the Cairngorms aimlessly, "merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him". '

The trip to the bookshop was a disappointment. 'Out of print', they said. I wasn't the first there asking for it, so hopefully Canongate might get the message. Luckily my local library came up trumps and I've now had it in my hands for a couple of hours of absorption.

It made me want to dedicate the rest of my life to tramping with no particular trajectory over one area of land that I could get to know in the way she knew the Cairngorms. The writing reflects this great intimacy, as she says: 'I have discovered my mountain - its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year, I have grown in familiarity with them all.' Her own senses and body are very present in the writing - and all is discovered through the medium of walking, '...the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the 'still centre' of being.... Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent.'

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The New Nature Writing

Granta Magazine's issue 102 is dedicated to nature writing and makes a case for a shift - towards narratives, towards the presence of humans, the presence of the writer in the story.

There's certainly some wonderful writing in there. Kathleen Jamie's 'it's not all primroses and dolphins' nature-essay looks at the human body and its sick cells under a microscope and finds vast landscapes. Paul Farley and Niall Griffiths return to the estate on the edge of Liverpool where they both grew up, go on a sort of ghost-walk through memory, chart change and edge into what are the white pages in the A-Z - the almost rural, almost urban - where they went nesting. Having just spent a lot of time with Barry Hines' 1968 novel, 'Kestrel For Knave', for a BBC abridgment, this gave me a particular tug - that urban/rural borderland was the one solace in the lad, Billy Casper's life, and was powerfully evoked in this piece. There's Robert Macfarlane tracing a human ghost species in Norfolk; a wonderful short story by a woman called Lydia Peele I've never heard of; and Philip Marsden uncovers the life of a little known Victorian artist and archaeologist, J. T. Blight who stomped around recording things in the haunting landscape and chamber tombs of West Penwith until sent to an asylum at the age of 35.

It's a very rich collection. But two things make me uneasy. Firstly, where are the women? Two out of eighteen. Where are Valerie Gillies and Jay Griffiths? The broad and inclusive notion of nature writing that contributors have offered surely would embrace many more women writers, especially if fiction is to be included. There seems something oddly old-fashioned and anachronistic in this idea of the nature-writer as man.

But this brings me to my other uneasiness. In what sense is this 'nature writing' anyway? Isn't it just 'writing' that might appear in anthologies of work collected in the name of half a dozen different themes? At the Edinburgh Book Festival event in support of the publication, the contributors present were keen to point out that they saw their writing more as reflecting a new perception of the place of nature in our lives, and ourselves as nature. I would hesitate to call what I do by this name, although nature, and a keen observation of it, is often part of it. Perhaps I'm just not happy with narrow attempts at definition, feel it as a kind of boxing-in.

But a recommended read, nonetheless.

Monday, September 8, 2008

my shadow on a beach run

Street Haunting

image from 'urban tapestries' - a research project by Proboscis

I turn from the Alps now to the old town of Edinburgh. I have wondered if being the daughter of a great Victorian alpinist helped make Virginia Woolf a writer. Presumably walking was part of family life, and might have got her observing, speculating at the people and places she saw, thus allowing her imagination to roam beyond her feet. In her 1927 essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure, it is clear that her aimless walks in the urban environment, the anonymity of walking amongst strangers, was her great adventure. ‘How could I think mountains and climbing romantic?’ she once said. ‘Wasn’t I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery, and a raised map of the Alps showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course London and the marshes are the places I like best.’

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff is another ‘street-haunter’ and her audio walks are eerie evocations based on observations in real places laced with teasing fragments of narrative and memory. Cardiff uses binaural recording techniques that envelop you in sound - a sudden whisper in your ear, or the distant sound of feet running ahead. Her beguiling voice leads you – intimate and authoritative - and has you collaborating, as you walk, in reconstructing the ‘story’. Her installations with George Bures Miller, exhibiting at the Fruitmarket Gallery until the end of September use sound and narrative in a similar way, but it is the walks that myself and sound artist Jules Rawlinson will focus on as starting point for the workshop we’re leading for the next two Saturdays.

One of our principal resources for the workshop is the immediate area of the old town around the Fruitmarket (and of course the legs of our participants to move them around it with sound recorders). Three levels nest one above the other over the same coordinate – North Bridge, Market Street, and the esplanade of Waverley Station. Dark and shade. Underland and overland. Parallel worlds associated to different journey-purposes. The odd geography is linked by dark passages and stairways, rich in suggestion, and in sound. They are liminal places where you might pass from one imagined state to another.

In Woolf’s essay she sees streams of walking commuters as if they’re wrapped in some narcotic dream, imagining themselves to be great cricketers or famous actresses before the enchantment is broken by being ‘slung in long rattling trains’ and embraced once again in the conforming influence of their homes. I commuted for five years between Stirling and Edinburgh, walking from Waverley station for five minutes to an old town office, losing the hooted train announcements for the sound of tyres on cobbles, and the echo of a dark passage before the clang of the bell on the office door as I opened it, arriving into my non-dream, office self.

The possibilities for my own work in this environment are exciting, having spent so much time walking the rural. The anonymity of walking amongst strangers and finding mystery in every face has long fuelled my short fiction writing. But I’m also curious about the forms in which we leave marks and traces as we move in criss-cross pathways about a city, in an environment of stone and tarmac which refuses to take impressions. There are many avenues. The real and the imagined; the line of a walk coupled to a non-linear story; or as Rebecca Solnit puts it, 'the magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany'.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Gertrude Bell wrote of the 'terrible and wonderful things that happen in high places' after climbing the north east face of the Finsteraarhorn in August 1902. She spent 57 hours in the attempt amidst a blizzard and mist, her ice axe teased by lightning, which provoked her cool words: 'It's not nice to carry a private lightning conductor in your hand in the thick of a thunderstorm'. Finally the party made a safe retreat to Meiringen, where she consumed a great many boiled eggs and jugs of hot milk and discovered her toes to be frostbitten. This made Finsteraarhorn the end of her illustrious and extraordinary climbing career.

My own attempt last Tuesday was on a far easier route - the south west flank and north west ridge that most parties take from the Finsteraarhorn Hut. The cloudless star-filled sky gave way to a lilac and rose dawn, a day that later fulfilled its promise, higher up, when it exposed below us and far away the fins, butresses, waves and ripples of the Alps. The dark rift of the snowless Rhone Valley was a shadow separating us from the further reaches of the Valais where we had climbed the week before.

Our own expedition was not hampered by bad weather but by a heavy fall of snow the previous day which made the going slow, hid the yawning crevasses from us, and turned the final ridge to a mix of ice-silled rock and slippery snow stacked loosely against the steep fin-side of this monarch of a mountain.

Mindful of the 'terrible things' that had befallen my father's party in 1952 by decending too late in the day, I'm proud of our decision to embrace the sense of height, achievement, view, and our fast-beating, roped-together, joyful hearts and turn back 100 metres from the summit. Looking back the following day as we left the mountain to descend to the green valleys via the Grunhornlucke (pictured), the wisdom of this choice was spelt out by the chaotic scribble of avalanched snow that now covered the graceful curving line our feet had drawn into the snow.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

soaped poles and ice axes

"The Alps themselves, which your own poets used to love so reverently, you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb, and slide down again, with 'shrieks of delight'". This was part of John Ruskin's scathing attack on climbers and tourists despoiling the Alps in his lecture 'Sesame and Lilies' of 1864.

I think I see where he's coming from. I've long loved being in a mountain environment - the views, the elevation and change of perspective away from busy life in the valleys, the physical challenge of reaching a summit. But I've not been a very conscientious munro-bagger despite living in Scotland, and as I've got older, I've been drawn more to walk amongst the human stories that haunt the lower ways, the passes and old roads, the journeys through mountain territory. There can be something gruesomely target-driven about summit fever, cars on Saturday and Sunday mornings clustered below honey-pot Munros, eroded single-track paths.

So why am I off to the Alps with the intention of climbing one particular summit - Finsteraarhorn, the highest in the Swiss Bernese Oberland at 4274 metres? The idea first occurred to me when in 2004 I went to Norway with my friend Yuli and some of her family to retrace the journey her father, Sven Somme, made in 1944 through the mountains from the west coast and across the border to safety in Sweden, after escaping Nazi arrest and certain execution. He had written an account of this journey which made it possible to retrace the route fairly accurately and to imagine some of his experiences and feelings along the way.

It began to occur to me that I could do something similar in the footsteps of my own father who died when I was very young. Perhaps I could climb a tribute towards his memory. Knowing that I shared with him a passion for mountains, but with little knowledge of his climbing experiences or their whereabouts, I began to dig about. I found more about the dramatic details of his own trip to Switzerland in 1952, and was led by a series of coincidences to find a couple of compatible climbing partners amongst friends.

So the ice axes, crampons, are assembled, muscles at least partly flexed. This is my first Alpine trip and I've heard Ruskin's warning about the culture. As I rub shoulders in mountain huts with climbers obsessed with lightweight gear and gazing up to slippery slopes, I will take care not to look at any mountain as if it's a 'soaped pole'.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

walking home, writing home

There have been two interesting aspects to working with a small group of walking writers (or writing walkers) in my home town over the last 6 weeks.

One is that most of us have chosen to write about a walk we take habitually, or at least a walk in a landscape we have grown familiar with over time. The challenge is of course to see it and communicate about it with freshness. The main theme of my own piece, about a walk I often take from my front door, snuck up on me. I didn't realise until well after I'd taken the notes and made a visual 'map' of it, as we all did prior to writing, that I was really writing about a sense of home. It was about learnt history, things that have happened to me along the route, houses I've lived in that can be seen from it, stories I've heard. Thinking about the meaning I attribute to walking has also brought me into contact with a fascinating anthropology project based at the University of Aberdeen out of which a book is coming next month, Ways ofWalking, presenting studies of walking in a range of regional and cultural contexts and the variety of meanings it can embody.
My local walk became as much about the things I refuse to see as the ones I do see. I try not to notice the dog shit bags filled and then left hanging in trees, the pylons that stride through woodlands, the house in which lurk memories I don't want to reconsider. I learnt a lot about what I don't see from one workshop participant who always drew attention to the incongruous things - the ugly row of wheelie bins in the middle of an idyllic May evening's woodland walk, the soar and scrape of a concrete motorway over a path, which has somehow gone unmarked on his local walks map with its invitation into 'unspoilt countryside'.

The other thing that has struck me is the very different approaches each person has taken in their writing despite undertaking similar exercises in the initial workshops. One is argumentative - setting out to show that an acknowledged beauty spot is nothing of the sort; another is an engaging mix of authoritative information and knife-sharp observation; another walked a group of children through the land on their way to school 100 years ago, a walk on which finding a piece of ceramic plate sparked a complete short story; another was the simple delight of 'what I see, what I know, what it makes me think of, and 'what a surprise!''.

It's been a privilege to see the way that over the 6 weeks the unique insight of each person has shaped what might have been similar material. And it's always good to have other people doing similar things to yourself so you can pinch ideas from them!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

we make marks, we leave traces

Further to my post about solitary to social paths below, I recalled this quote from walking artist Richard Long:

'My materials are elemental: stone, water, mud, days, nights, rivers, sunrises. And our bodies are elemental: we are animals, we make marks, we leave traces, we leave footprints.' Walking and Marking catalogue, Richard Long, (National Galleries of Scotland)

So I am still pondering - what form do our marks and traces take on pavements, and surfaced paths? Narrative lines drawn in snatches of conversation or thought left hanging? Scuffs and smells and litter trails? Furrows of displaced air?

Friday, May 23, 2008

white tails

This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve walked to this year. Without saying exactly where it is, for reasons that will become obvious, the name roughly translates as ‘the grey precipice rooted in water’ (I think), and is to be found by following wild goats where they have worn a red soil path through bluebell and young bracken towards a glistering sea, its horizon hung with small islands.

Here, caves forge deep under the cliffs, laid with floors of soft damp sand that, back in daylight, you find has stained your clothes a salmon pink. Burns course from a thousand feet above you to fall through birch tangled escarpments as waterfalls, spraying dark the shoreside pavements of rock and pool where bluebells force up between white sea-rolled pebbles. There are cockles too, to collect in a handful, boil and pull with a needle in small coils from their shells, to taste the sea.

And here, last weekend, I was hypnotised by the wheeling white-tailed flight of a sea eagle, Europe's largest. Mobbed by crows, tiny in comparison, it flicked and rolled to shake them off, and creaked up and down lugubrious door-sized wings. Then there was a second, larger, one joining it in the sky, coming so low that we could see the missing ‘finger’ in its left wing, see something of its battle-scarred, tom-cat character.

We were close enough to see the female return to her nest on top of a pinnacle above us, to catch the flash of her eye and the yellow curl of her beak as she looked down, imperious. But when she launched from the cliff face above me and hung, spread-winged, finger feathers in silhouette, head low, a shadow between me and the sun, I gasped with something close to fear. A beast so large, so feather-quill close, on our own shores. And then came awe and relief as she swooped away, leaving me lying safely on the rock.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

from solitary to social paths

When solo footsteps are followed by others, a path is worn - like the one on the right in East Africa.

But when I studied the hillside below and the web of paths woven by sheep and wild goats, I started to think about the webs we lay in urban areas where the most dense walking patterns seem to now exist. What kind of resonances do our interlocking ways leave when concrete and tarmac refuse to hold our marks?

Walking from the 'Muckle Toon'

Last week I spent a sunny afternoon in the hills of south-west Scotland around Langholm prior to an evening reading at the lovely, recently refurbished, Gilnockie Hall. It's a place with an interesting writing heritage, being the birthplace and burial ground of poet Hugh MacDiarmid. I worked in schools in this area during 2005-6, and discovered a new generation of enthusiastic writers with powerful imagingations, as can be seen from the 'Our Island' story I wrote with Glenzier Primary pupils.
I joined a local walking group to head south over the hills below Whita Quarry and into the lower reaches of Tarras Water. Then we doubled back to cross back to the 'Muckle Toon' along the old railway line. Features of the walk included a dramatic rescue of stranded tadpoles from a drying puddle (a crisp packet the vital conveyance), sights including a former distillery, seams of coal, and the 'Marl Well', a petrifying spring in a hillside. Best of all, was the subversive temptation of what must be the most extreme bungee jump in the world (I didn't dare).
When working in the area I discovered, with the help of some useful signing and leaflets, some wonderful and varied walks in this area. This makes the annual Langholm Walking Festival a big draw to the area, coming up shortly, in early June. If you venture there, I can highly recommend the Border Guest House for a friendly welcome and the best scrambled eggs in Scotland.

Friday, May 16, 2008

'Cleave' - New Writing by Women in Scotland

A section of my non-fiction piece 'The Dogs' Route' about walking a drove road last September appears in this new anthology from Two Ravens Press (a Scottish newcomer attracting significant attention). Intended as a cross-genre record of what it is to be a woman in Scotland in 2008, there is a great diversity of forms and names including Jackie Kay and Dilys Rose. Launched in Borders, Glasgow on June 12th, I wish the anthology well and am pleased to have my first non-fiction 'walking' piece, about the joys of chance encounters, female-ness embedded in land and stone (see above), and the meaning of ageing, included in such a book, already available direct from the publishers.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

'Riprap' by Gary Snyder

Thanks go to the Solitary Walker for drawing my attention to this wonderful poem . With its association of words with rocks with planets and paths, it seems to bring together many of my recent preoccupations whilst walking - following old forgotten crafted walls, touching worn slate stiles, and laying words to try and evoke and celebrate places and journeys.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

working pathways

This set of steps, built in 1792 into a vertical 250 foot cliff face at Whaligoe, seven miles south of Wick in Caithness, has seen hard service. With a step for every day of the year, they zig-zag down to an otherwise inaccessible fishing station. Women carried the catch up the steps in baskets, for removal on foot to the markets of Wick, or it was cured below and collected by schooner. They returned down the steps to thread the bait, or to bring bottles of hot tea for a crew that had to go straight out again, or to collect cargo. Luckily they were sturdy, and said to be as strong as the men.
One of my favourite stories about the women of Whaligoe concerns a Dunbeath crew left in bitterly cold water after their boat hit rocks in 1870. Rescued in the final stages of hypothermia by a Whaligoe boat, the men were carried into the salt house. The women who had been waiting there for their own boats, revived every man by stripping them of their wet clothes, taking off their own, and laying with them.
Having recently tackled cliff steps on the Cornish coast path which seemed designed for a giant only able to move in a straight line, I found these steps remarkable for their moderate sashays to and fro which made climbing and descending a breeze. It seems that when paths are made for working as well as walking, such as the Spanish Mozarabic trails designed for loaded farmers, they are both durable and kind on your body.

Here's another one - a mule path through the extraordinary rock sculpture park that nature has made between Piana and Ota in Corsica. A delight to walk.

Monday, March 31, 2008

March Conversation

Dyke! Have you any idea how long you have lured my eye along your length up to the famous summit of Schiehallion? – a magnet for those of us for whom lines in the land are like a fishing reel. You’re a tease – do you know that? I’ll bet you do, all one and a half miles of you snaking with the land, insisting on your twenty six degrees SSE up the north face.

Twenty seven.

And here, out of the trees, they chose a new type of rock for you – black rather than glittering grey. As if it hasn’t seen the light for years.

Six. Hundred. Million.

Eh? That sounded like a yawn.

If you insist on waking me, prattling on and on. I was saying, you’d need your snorkel six hundred million years ago to see the deep beginnings of that vertebra you touch. Before it was ossified into this scaly mosaic.

You were underwater?

I was a forest of sea lilies then, wafting their tendrils in the currents.


Limestone. Dug from that hollow over there. The scars are grassed over now. It’s only a patch, an outcrop, floated down from the limestone pavements. Walk me a bit further and you’ll see how I return to what you call silver rock. I’m the earth turned inside out – a display of what ever’s under the turf.

They used whatever was close by?

Would you want to heave it far across the hills? Forgive me, but you don’t look very strong.

Looks can be…

It was weans and women and tinkers hauled these rocks – a heap each side of the line where they were working, building my long slow uphill spine..

They carried rocks for who?

One craftsman each side. Raising two inward-leaning walls that kissed just before they were capped. Think of the men as you walk - quick-handed, with eyes that could measure. They saw at a glance how one stone would nudge and slide against another.

I see that. Here, where there are big square straight-edged blocks at your feet. But halfway up, a massive wave-shaped rock that it must have taken two to lift into place. And around it the small flat rocks that pack against its curves, insisting on the horizontal lines again around this non-conformity. It’s like art.

They made it a rule – never pick a stone up more than once. Assess them where they lie.

A waste of effort?

If you’re being paid by the yard.

What were they like?

Men with fat fingers.

Black thumbnails?

Your fingers look slim and weak.

Look how I stride along next to you though, as you ride the waves of the land. Why on earth don’t you go around these hillocks?

I’m a march boundary.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Crooked Ways and Stiles of Stone

In Thomas Hardy’s poem of 1920, ‘If you had known’, he refers back to his courtship of his first wife Emma Lavinia Gifford which took place high on the clifftops and deep in the moist green valleys of North Cornwall. This poem was written fifty years after he first met her there as an architect travelling from Dorset to restore the church tower. Hardy returned to the area after her death in what Kenneth Phelps describes as a kind of ‘pilgrimage of penance’ which pained from him some of his most beautiful poetry. He describes in the poem the wet walk back from Beeny Cliff towards the Old Rectory of St Juliot’s in the Valency Valley, ‘by crooked ways and over stiles of stone.’

Returning myself after 32 years, I walked some of the same ways I had done whilst there on a painting holiday (which also turned into walking) at 17. And this time although still spellbound in a romantic homage to Hardy, I was captivated as if for the first time by the wonderful stiles and walls, and naturally, the crooked ways that lead to and away from them.

A gatepost graced a field entrance, crescent-shaped with its straight edge facing inwards, a slim half moon facing away from the gate. I approached it from a roadway wrapped in a tunnel of dark ivy, so that the gateway opened like a window onto light, framing the steep rise of a pale green field.

Such structures sprung up at me all over the fields where I walked. A chink in a high hedge or dry stone wall invites walkers with ingenious system of slate slabs sidelong. There are steep two-sided staircases; a kissing gate squeezed under a holly tree in the nook of a wall; slate cattle grids at a churchyard entrance. And all the slate seems silk-edged and petrol-sheened with long use by hands and feet and weather. All has been built and maintained for human thoroughfare, on foot. And it all seems like art to me.

Across open fields, the paths marked on the map often seeemd invisible. I was guided only by a chink in the hedge opposite, or by the suggestion of a darker green meandering line teased in the grass by repeated footfall, or simply by an instinct as to where the ‘desire line’ lay. This sense of the persistence of walkers, and the marks they make in the land has long fascinated me and I think I may have learnt it from early readings of Hardy’s novels.

A re-reading of The Return of the Native, my A-level text, had me following characters across the huge imperturbable face of Egdon Heath, in daylight and darkness, in confidence and fear. Eustacia Vye, the discontented dark witch-beauty, is practised in her footcraft, finding paths which are, ‘an infinitely small parting in the shaggy locks of the Heath’. Hardy shows us how the regular ‘haunters’ of the Heath feel their way in the dark: ‘The whole secret of following these incipient paths, when there was not light enough in the atmosphere to show a turnpike-road, lay in the development of the sense of touch in the feet, which comes with years of night rambling in little-trodden spots. To a walker practised in such places a difference between impact on maiden herbage, and on the crippled stalks of a slight footway, is perceptible through the thickest boot or shoe.’

For me, this ‘going back’ has been a pilgrimage of happy rediscovery rather than of penance – a rediscovery both of a place where I found new things outside and inside myself and of the literature of Thomas Hardy. It has brought with it a finer appreciation of how walking made him both the man and the writer that he was, and how he influenced my own walking and writing.

Monday, February 25, 2008

St Finnan's Island to the Iron Church across Hills of Lead

I have recently walked a six mile path in the West Highlands that links the village of Polloch to Strontian, rising over the shoulder of Ben Resipol (pictured) at over 1000 feet, and linking fresh water Loch Shiel with salty Loch Sunart. Each loch cuts a dramatic 25 mile gash inland and each has a feature that once drew columns of human traffic to it.

Eilean Fhianain, the island of St Finnan, sits in a twist in such a narrow point of Loch Shiel that you almost feel you can touch the island from its banks. This island was a traditional burial ground and drew coffin paths to it from all over the once heavily populated areas of Sunart, Moidart and Ardnamurchan. The ragged high land must have taxed the coffin-bearers and resting points are still marked with huge cairns.

On an OS map of 1925, on the high pass between Polloch and Strontian, where, a few metres apart, a cairn overlooks each valley, a well is attributed to St Finnan. The well suggests this path must once have been the final journey for the people of Strontian. After the mid 18th century as they dropped steeply towards Loch Shiel, the procession would have passed the Corantee lead mines. The mines are best known for the discovery of the mineral Stronianite in 1791 which was named after the village. The chemists Crawford and Cruickshank concluded that it contained a new “earth”, subsequently Dr Thomas Hope's research set the scene for the discovery of the element strontium by Humphry Davy in 1808. The hillside is still scarred and cleaved there. Building rubble, broken cogs and implements lie on the ground in rusty testimony.

So what about traffic heading the other way? Perhaps its most remarkable use was as a religious pathway at the time of the 'Disruption' of the Scottish Church in the 1840s. At this time, the Church of Scotland was ruled over by Parliament, making the reigning monarch head of the church and the local Laird ‘Patron'. This meant that he would choose his own minister rather then the congregation doing so. In 1843 unrest about this unwelcome link between politics and spirituality came to a head and most ordinary people chose to rebel by joining a break-away movement, the ‘free church’.

Such was the spiritual hunger of the people that accompanied the physical hunger of potato famine in the area, that when the Laird, Sir James Milles Riddell refused to sell them land on which to build their own ‘free’ church, they met in huge open-air services. People would walk anything up to 20 miles to the small bay at Ardnastang just a mile west of Strontian, sometimes barefoot, in order to gather in all weathers and seasons between the low and high tide marks in services that went on for several hours. The 'Corantee' path would have been the most direct route for worshippers from Polloch.

This poverty-stricken community, having recognised that the sea could not be ‘owned’, took it a step further. They resolved their situation by raising an extraordinary amount of money to commission from a shipbuilder on the Clyde an amphibious 'Iron Church' able to accommodate up to 750 people. In July 1846 it was towed by two tugs around the Mull of Kintyre and through the Sound of Mull into Loch Sunart (pictured). People lined the shores to celebrate its arrival and flocked to it by foot and boat from Morven, Ardnamurchan and Moidart. For ten years it remained anchored just off Ardnastang and during this time the popularity of its visiting ministers was gauged from the ‘plimsoll line’ of church attendance - an inch for each hundred congregation.

There are still many parts of the story to assimilate and imagine. This is a place of careering crags, jagged skylines, and tiny communities that teeter on the edge of the Atlantic. We might think of the land as 'wild' and uninhabited. But there is a sense that human footfall, industry and belief has stamped stories on these hills. This path is an important one to keep in use. I loved walking it with this great sense of history, passion, religious observance and human ingenuity beating a rhythm under my feet.

Glen Nevis, glen of stones

Saturday in Fort William may have been one of the wettest and windiest this year, but it didn't deter twelve workshop participants from joining me to respond creatively to the experience of walking beside the swollen river in Glen Nevis. Note-taking as we went, we used observation and imagination to generate words.

We got tuned into the place with senses of touch and sound and smell by denying our sense of sight, working in pairs - one guide, one blindfolded. One person trusted their partner enough to end up lying on the river-bank, head hanging over the racing river; another knee deep in a ditch, plunging his hands underwater to feel the skin-like texture of the bottom.

We created a character to inhabit as we walked - on a journey as film-maker, stalker, cattle drover, munro-bagger. We imagined what they had on their feet and what they carried in their pockets, what filled their heads as they walked and how their state of mind shaped their perception of the landscape. This led to some very interesting pieces including one from the point of view of a dog.

We changed scale - looking closely at a rock, lichen, moss, tree bark – and imagining it is a vast plain or forest or sea. What would it be like to walk through this landscape?
Back at the Ben Nevis Inn, participants wrote up their notes into short pieces. The diversity was astonishing - historical stories; a description of music created by the combined rhythms of river and footfall; the reaction of a rock to the fierce river that is challenging and overwhelming it today, etc. Each piece of writing was unique - the individual's response to the world in that time and place expressed through their own idiosyncratic choice of words.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh

A Spanish landscape shaped by terracing and cultivation methods common to the hills of Palestine

‘…People should be encouraged to walk in the hills. It will increase their attachment to their country.’ Words spoken by Palestinian writer, lawyer, walker Raja Shehadeh, in conversation with a Palestinian Governor, who is trying to persuade him hill-walking is too dangerous after Shehadeh has been caught in a shooting incident in the valley just behind his house.

We might say something similar about encouragement to walk in the benign hills of Britain where the worst you might fear is the guns of deer or grouse shooters, never likely to be aimed at walkers in harassment. As access to our hills becomes enshrined in law, access to land on foot by Palestinians is shrinking and distorted by the building of walls, Jewish settlements, roads, prohibitions and a general sense of danger.

Palestinian Walks is a sad, sometimes embittered account, of the frustrated link between walking the land and belonging. With powerful evocations of the political situation and the spectacular, loved beauty of the hills which contain for the writer his past, his culture, his sense of freedom as a walker and a civilian, there is a terrible sense of erosion of this link we ourselves take for granted. The book records a series of walks through a ‘vanishing landscape’ over a 26 year period which chart the developments in one man’s relationship to the land and to his country through the redrawing of maps, the collision of two versions of history.

A walking book like no other I know. It demonstrates what a serious matter walking in the land close to our own homes can be.