Sunday, December 13, 2009

contours in the ice

Ice on the slopes of Schiehallion, where contours were invented in the 1770s.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nature writing, mist-filled valleys and chocolate


What a great morning. Sunrise as I crackled through frosted grasses above the mist. A steaming mocha with whipped cream on top. Then home to find that The Independent have today recommended A Wilder Vein as a Christmas read in their nature-writing round up. (Some other great recommendations there too). Hurrah!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Black Wing, abundant light

I was in Zurich to talk about writing. The lands transformed incrementally as the train rolled from my local station through Scotland, England and France. Despite this, on arrival I immediately noticed my noticing - the senses sharpened by being somewhere different. The scent of roasting coffee beans spilled onto the streets; trams screeched on their rails; I rubbed my eyes in smoky bars. The effect of being a little outside familiar society, so powerful for a writer, always makes me think of poet and translator Alastair Reid, who has lived much of his life outside his native Scotland and writes so brilliantly on Being a Foreigner.

On my final day I walked with friends in the mountains. Climbing above a cloud inversion, we gazed through opaque silk to lake and mountain ranges dissolved by sunlight into a fairy tale distance. The chamois passing darkly between the forest trunks seemed befuddled by the perverse warmth of the late November day, stopping to blink at us, when we felt they should have run. My rock-climbing mind and muscle were briefly woken from hibernation as we pulled up onto the summit of Kleine Mythen above the village of Brunni, and shared the space with hungry choughs, while the still sky above us was grazed by the croak and sweep of ravens.

Then down into the cooling shade-filled valley to Einsiedeln where dusk gradually turned the clear sky a brittler blue above the sweeping fa├žade of the cloisters and abbey which perch above the village. The gilded clocks on the twin towers were luminous with last light. The interior immediately hushed and stilled us. Our heads dropped back to revere the vault in which, high above us, was collecting the monks’ soft chanting for vespers, and their huffs of incense. Between the ceiling murals a candied impression of pink piping on a cake brightened the abbey against the black marble of the lady chapel that we stood close to.

When the chanting stopped, a dark line processed from the chancel, led by two lit candles. The monks lilted uniformly as they walked to the rear of the abbey - one long dark rhythmically swaying creature. They faced the entrance to the Lady Chapel, and lifted their voices again for the Black Madonna and Child within. Soft prickling stepped across skin.






The Lady Chapel is built on the site of a previous chapel said to have been established by 9th century hermit, and later Saint, Meinrad, who withdrew into the dark forest. He stayed there with only two ravens for company, experiencing visions until two men, seeking his supposed treasure, beat him to death. The ravens retaliated, pecking and pursuing the murderers so that the men were finally apprehended. The site became a centre of international pilgrimage, famous for the black Madonna, a carving from at least as early as the 15th century, who now appears in Spanish courtly dress, coloured according to the season.

Although it’s not exactly a religious feeling, I respond to the symbolism and the stories of early saints. I also take note of coincidences and strange synergies when they present themselves. The raven had made her mythical flutter felt . Having recently made a radio play in which a raven plays a significant role (wait till 22nd December!), and edited a book for Two Ravens Press, I was taken by the village sign for Einsiedeln which honours the two ravens of Meinrad’s story.




The Black Madonna drew me too. Although the Abbey authorities claim that it was candle soot over the centuries that coloured her skin, the congregation demanded she be painted black when a 19th century restoration tried to pale her skin tones. In Jungian thought, the darkness of the Madonna is closely connected with mysterious deep forests, the underworlds of Persephone or Isis, and represents an archetype of rebirth and renewal arising from the deepest darkness. My walking friends drew my attention to a paper by Jungian psycho-analyst Cedrus Monte which expands on this. Within the paper a beautiful poem was quoted, and the lines below struck me as relevant to the whole experience of the day – the brilliance of the walk and aspects of the abbey, the melancholy of Meinrad’s story and the shuffling monks.

‘Sadness, I need
your black wing.
So much honey in the topaz
each ray smiling
in the wide fields
and all an abundant light about me,
all an electric whir in the high air.
And so give me your black wing,
sister sadness.’

Somehow it wasn’t such a great surprise when I found it to be by Pablo Neruda, from the collection ‘Fully Empowered’ (1967. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) And the translator? Alastair Reid.

Monday, November 9, 2009

'A Wilder Vein' adds emotional depth to the environmental debate

An interesting review of 'A Wilder Vein' by Roger Cox in the Scotsman on Saturday here, describes it as a book, 'in which 18 writers – poets, novelists, anthropologists and natural historians – visit the uninhabited regions of our crowded little archipelago and meditate on what these places mean; and while individually the results are often sparklingly written and utterly transporting, taken together they also reinforce a point Macfarlane makes in his introduction: that "certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places, such that when we lose those places, we are losing kinds of imagination as well".'

The review concludes with a focus on Mandy Haggith's piece. In it she reveals the dilemmas of trying to live in sympathy with a 'wild' place - a woodland croft in Assynt - and some of the contradictions raised.

'Their dilemma – whether to focus on protecting their immediate environment or the environment at large – reflects in microcosm the much larger dilemmas facing humankind. And I don't think it's too fanciful to wonder if some of the answers to the environmental challenges we face in this scary new century might come, not from the ivory towers of urban universities, but from backwoods philosophers such as Haggith, more intimately in tune with the Earth and its mysterious rhythms than a city-based academic could ever be.'

It's rewarding to think that a book such as this might set people thinking about how they/we live without a sense of being pronounced to, or being fed apparently easy answers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Map as narrative as journey as map

I suppose it’s inevitable that a walker will develop an obsession with maps. I spend hours looking at maps of places I know, or places I plan to go. The imaginative gap between what I read from the configurations of line, shade, and word, and what I meet and feel once in the actual landscape, is always intriguing. Google Earth has never worked the same magic on me, although it can be a useful way of anticipating what to expect, and I was fascinated by Kamila Shamsie’s account of using it to research places for her novel ‘Burnt Shadows’.

I discovered the Roy military maps of the mid 18th century some time ago - gorgeously figurative depictions of Scotland incorporating volcanic bursts of bold shade for hills with the fine detail of settlements. They can be viewed online at the National Library of Scotland, who can also provide copies from the incredibly helpful, and good value map library.

But I’ve only quite recently discovered Timothy Pont’s sketch maps of Scotland made in the late 16th century. He seems to be something of an unsung hero, a young scholar from St Andrew’s University who walked vast tracts of Scotland in what must have been quite hostile conditions to sketch topographies and human settlements as far apart as Dumfries and Durness, including many lands between. He was the earliest known Scottish map-maker, and his sketches were the basis for the first printed maps that appeared in Joan Blaeu’s world atlas of 1654. But his originals remained unprinted until Jeffrey C Stone’s collection appeared in 1989.

To walk a river valley today, or climb onto a hilltop on the dividing ridge of a watershed, and sketch what we can see without the aid of mapping or surveying tools, would put us on an equal footing with him. (I must try this as an experiment.) His combination of aerial representation and elevation often mean that buildings and hill shapes are recognisable when seen from a particular angle. Some slightly odd representations have fuelled speculation that he sometimes used verbal sources and descriptions to fill gaps in his own observations. He shows us chapels, mines, bridges, islands, antiquities, and placenames, and annotates with field notes. For the far north west corner of the country he wrote: ‘extream wilderness’, and ‘verie great plenty of wolfes doo haunt in this desert places’. He also commented on the lack of trees in Caithness, where he later became Minister of Dunnet Church (pictured below) between 1600 and 1610, where he is now celebrated by a plaque. I am fascinated by what motivated Pont. Is this a general human urge? Are we all driven to map our environment to some extent? I think back to Hamish’s wonderful map, the eight year old son of a friend who continues to pore over maps and make his own with extraordinary skill. And I think of the rock art pictured below that forms part of an amphitheatre of engravings just to the north of the river and west of Weem Castle on Pont’s sketch of the Tay valley above. Could these mysterious engravings have been maps showing the relationship of key places to each other as people conceptualised them in their own minds and tried to show others? The diversity of this act of conceptualisation is demonstrated on a brilliant blog, ‘Strange Maps’.

And now I’ve begun to wander into the relationship between texts, stories and maps. In trying to help students structure essays as part of my Royal Literary Fund (RLF) fellowship at Stirling University, I was struck by this advice which appears on the RLF website: ‘Another way of thinking about the introduction is that it should draw a map for the reader. Imagine you are taking the reader on a journey. Your introduction tells the reader not only the intended final destination but the route you are going to take, the method of transport, the places you are going to visit on the way, the people you are going to meet and even some of the things they are going to say.’ Leslie Stephen described a walk as ‘a little drama itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes’. In ‘Wanderlust’, Rebecca Solnit says: ‘the long distance walk is an easy way to find narrative continuity. If a path is like a story …then a continuous walk must make a coherent story, and a very long walk makes a full-length book.’

There’s something here I want to pursue. Map as narrative as journey as map. And those ‘haunting wolfes’ must surely be part of the story…

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Annandale Way opened with feet and words

Last Saturday, mist cleared to another blue-ceilinged September day and brought over a hundred walkers and runners onto sections of the Annandale Way to meet for celebrations at Lochmaben. Lady Hope-Johnstone spoke and unveiled a finger-post to officially open the 55 mile route, and two of the pupils who had walked and written with me read from the creative writing work which is incorporated into the guide and the wayside interpretation. (More about the development of the project here) Get your copy of the very attractive guide from Sulwath Connections.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Wilder Vein back from the printers

What a delight it has been to receive the anthology that I've edited hot of the press from Two Ravens Press. Although publication date is 2nd November, it's for sale before then from their website ONLY at the great price of £8.99, for delivery from 1st October. This not only gives the reader a good deal, but is good news for this small press who are severely challenged by the commercial discounts required by many booksellers.

This is a quality book - looks good, feels gorgeous and packed with diverse and beautifully written responses to the wild places of Britain and Ireland. It includes the extended version of Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh's piece, pre-published in The Guardian in July. It's very gratifying to see so much work by so many going out to make its way in the book world. Please help it on its way!
Launch events at The Aberfeldy Watermill, Tuesday 27th October with Andrew Greig, Mandy Haggith, Alison Grant and Kenny Taylor; and as part of the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair on Thursday 29th October with readings by Judith Thurley, Ken Wilkie, Andrew Greig and Jane Alexander.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Walking The Wall

Last week I walked a 40 mile section of Hadrian's Wall path, starting in the east, on the outskirts of Newcastle, and climbing up to the escarpment of the whin sill where the Wall clings to its tippy edges through the Northumberland National Park. We finally left a rain-sluiced wall at Birdoswald Fort not far from Brampton in Cumbria.

I had glimpsed a tiny section of the wall only once before, and knew little of the World Heritage Site or what to expect. It's not the first time I've written about following a wall on foot, and many of the same fascinations surfaced for me - its fluidity as it snakes across crag-filled landscape; the antique patina of wear and lichen on the stone; the personal legacies of graffiti or other markers left by the builders. However the great age and endurance of the Roman one inevitably raised an even greater sense of marvel at the builders' skills, audacity, and an intrigue with what the Wall has witnessed.
I remember when I was at art college in the 80s and writing a dissertation linked to Land Art that I came across the startling image above - Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 'Running Fence' in California. They described their aim for their art, as to present a different way of looking at landscapes that have become familiar to the general populace, as well as to make the world look more beautiful. It seemed to me as I walked, and as the line of the Wall drew the eye - clinging, curling, cornering, bucking along its scarp like a line of piping on clothing, that at one level Hadrian's Wall provided a stunning visual and aesthetic experience. I hadn't realised that it had originally been plastered and painted white. At fifteen feet in height with regular 'milecastles' and interspaced turrets, journeying at least in its mid sections through high land visible from a great distance on each side, the visual impact must have been enormous. Might people have actually travelled to see it? Of course it was also a massive statement of power, a geopolitical icon with a military function.

As a contemporary walk, the opportunity for absorption in the Roman theme is considerable as the days' march between each major fort gives you the chance to visit Chesters and Housesteads Forts, as well as other less 'museumified' remnants of Roman civilisation. Here I found my imagination rebuilding entire impressive facades from remnants of gates and buildings. I was fascinated by the sophisticated ways of moving water for need and pleasure - for the bath houses, and particularly the technology associated with toilets. Stones moulded to butt up against wooden doors; the circular depression in a flagstone where a door pin would rotate; the contrariness of blundering yet exact placement of stones for function, and its regularity against nature. This engineering reminded me greatly of my explorations of the Mozarabic trails in south-eastern Spain, and made me think I had perhaps under-appreciated the legacy of the Roman precedent to the Arab engineering wonders there.

As you walk, there is a steady drip drip of information which starts one dreaming, questioning, speculating about the life along the Wall from then until now. Walking from the east provided an easy, flattish, start for the first day, but the Wall was a phantom. The lumps and bumps of the defensive earthworks either side had to suffice. The 'Military Road' (B6318) sizzling with Bank Holiday traffic on the first day felt too close a companion. A lazy path follows a road I thought. But had to adjust my thinking. General Wade's 18th century road was built on the Wall and is still in use. Its retaining wall often bears the hallmark of regular cut whinstone, clearly one and the same with Hadrian's masterpiece (see above). The path therefore had to follow the road, at least until the rise up to Sewingsheilds Crag. From there, road and Wall separate, and there is a considerable stretch of well-preserved masonry right up until Walltown quarry, perhaps for the very reason that access for locals to remove and 'recycle' stone for houses, churches etc was less easy.


Some other links of interest to the Wall: A community creative writing project called 'Writing on the Wall' ran between 2001-6 and was inspired by the 2000 year old Vindolanda Tablets, discovered at a Roman fort just south of the Wall. (They're the earliest written texts in Britain, now held in the British Museum. Fascinating reflections of everyday life including a request for more beer, and for underpants!) I've also just discovered that Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie are currently walking it for a series of their shows on BBC Radio 2. Thursday's will include poet Simon Armitage so worth a listen I would think. And finally Durham University have been involved in an interesting research project, 'Tales of the Frontier', exploring the significance of the Wall and its landscape as both monument and icon from the time of Bede (C8) until today.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jessie Kesson's nature writings

One thousand feet up on the hillside at Abriachan where the winds sing over the brow of the steep western slopes of Loch Ness, a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pasture land and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie, where at the age of nineteen, prolific writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) went to rehabilitate after a ‘lost year’ of virtual imprisonment in a mental hospital. She was ‘boarded out’, as the practice was known, living with and helping an elderly woman on her croft. The experience of Spring here flushed her into an ecstatic appreciation of nature, and spelt out for her recovery, re-growth and a sense of freedom. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high up that ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she walked ‘without limits of walls’.

When I set off to explore Kesson’s terrain in 2008 for my own essay for Doubling Back, I wanted to draw more than a glimpse of her hillside. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. I ‘found’ Jessie’s hillside, in the sense that my own rambles seemed to correspond with the joyful arrangements of her own words evoking Spring here, and because I took the sunny green slopes below Achbuie rather than the bleak moor bristling above.

I sought out her other writing, read more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years. The dull bass beat of pain was always there, but somehow overlain with bright, poetic joys found in nature or brief moments of love and belonging.

I've written before here about Jessie Kesson's life and writing of this time and place, which bubbled up in much of her later work, including the twelve essays she wrote as 'Ness MacDonald' for the Scots magazine during 1946, entitled 'The Country Dweller's Year'. Last year I had to go to the National Library of Scotland in order to read them, but I'm delighted that these essays and various other pieces of her writing - essays, drama for radio, poetry, fiction - in response to nature during her early writing career, have recently been collected by her biographer Isobel Murray and issued by Kennedy and Boyd. As Murray says they demsonstrate 'a passionate response to the natural world' in a style of writing that is lyrical even in prose, and yet earthy and direct as if the language itself is inflected by place, smell, and song.

Walking the World

This collaboration between Orion magazine and Words Without Borders looks interesting - writings in translation about varied walks.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Last Bear comes first

The winner of the first Robin Jenkins Literary Award was Mandy Haggith with her novel The Last Bear, described as 'a haunting and compelling novel set one thousand years ago in the remote northwest Highlands of Scotland, ..[it] recounts a tale of ecological and spiritual crisis from the viewpoint of one extraordinary woman.' The shortlisted writers, pictured above (L to R: me, Louisa Gairn, Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, Mandy Haggith holding The Last Bear
and Linda Gillard. Gregory Norminton was missing from the photo) tried to concentrate through forty five minutes of an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, whilst the judges discussed our work. Finally the announcement was made and sweaty palms could be wrapped around a cool glass of wine. The judges' feedback was of great value to me, with Doubling Back currently unpublished, and it was a great thrill to have been on the shortlist and met the other candidates with such diverse and interesting books.

Hats off to Mandy, I'm genuinely pleased for her. Even better, a piece of her non-fiction writing appears in A Wilder Vein, that I have edited, also published by Two Ravens Press and back from the printers any day now.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Robin Jenkins Literary Award - on the short list!

I'm delighted to find that my unpublished book Doubling Back based on walks taken with feet and pen during 2007 and 2008, is on the first ever shortlist of the RJLA. This new award is for books that have the environment, trees and forestry in Scotland as a key theme or setting, in the name of the wonderful writer of rural Scotland, and beyond, Robin Jenkins.

In a recent edition of The Author, Janie Hampton wrote about the 'torture' of shortlists, the waiting, the disappointments... But I'll just enjoy it and forget for the moment about the announcement of the winner at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 24th August. The endorsement of the judges this far is a prize in itself.


Here's a bit of blurb about the book:


In this collection of non-fiction essays, I walk and write pathways into life. Following journeys made by particular people or stories of habitual use and purpose, I draw on imagination, memory, myth, history, and explore the human resonances layered in what we might perceive as ‘wild’ land, seeking the ghosts that remain. As I embrace middle age, these walks have me ‘doubling-back’ to places and journeys which have held a personal meaning in the past. Along the way, I reflect on how and why we walk and the relationship of walking to creativity, writing and literature. The rhythms of the walk inflect the prose and in the process some new stories are created.


Two hundred miles along a drove road between Skye and Perthshire; a hillside at Abriachan in springtime which inspired Jessie Kesson’s words; a reflective pilgrimage across the Border to Holy Island; the possibilities for enchantment whilst walking to work through Old Town Edinburgh; an autumnal circuit around the Birks of Aberfeldy to confirm a sense of home – Scottish walks form the backbone of the collection. My experience of the natural and cultural environment of Scotland acts as a touchstone for diversions to other places: Medieval pathways in Spain which provide a walk-able legacy of religious tolerance; Hardy’s Cornwall; the art of barefoot travel in a Kenyan village; a re-telling on foot of a dramatic wartime escape through Norwegian mountains; and my first Alpine summit, climbed in memory of my father.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Writing Place

It seems to be a formula that works. Take sixteen writers, put them together on a windswept, sun-scoured hilltop between Beauly and Drumnadrochit for five days with good food, writing activities and the theme of 'Place'. A stimulating time seems to be had by all.

I was one of the tutors last week at Moniack Mhor with poet Valerie Gillies as co-tutor, Andrew Greig as Wednesday night guest reader and a group of writers ranging across all the forms. We walked, dowsed, talked, drew, mapped and explored our senses. And of course everyone wrote.

One of the topics of discussion I found of particular interest was how writers realise places to which they have never been in such a way that both they and the reader believe in them. Stef Penney's novel 'The Tenderness of Wolves' came to mind. This reader felt firmly located in place and time and yet the writer was criticised from some quarters for never having visited the Canada she wrote about. Kamila Shamsie wrote recently in the Guardian about how Google Earth had allowed her to convincingly research her novel 'Burnt Shadows', set in Afghanistan and contemporary Nagasaki. 'If you're going to write about a place you don't "possess" yourself', Andrew Greig advised. 'Have your character a visitor, or someone returning after a long absence.' I realised on reflection that I have almost never written a place I haven't visited or experienced through my own senses. A challenge for the future perhaps.

Finally, a plug for Valerie's wonderful book published next week 'The Spring Teller' in which her poems transport us on a remarkable journey across Scotland to visit over a hundred healing springs and wells. 'Each thought-provoking poem mirrors the flow of water, from still wells locked in the inner-city to the free-flowing springs of mountain or glen'.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Raja Shehadeh - A Wilder Vein


As A Wilder Vein, the anthology of 'wild places' writing that I've been editing is prepared for print, I'm delighted to see a shorter version of the piece Raja Shehadeh has written for it in today's Travel Guardian. He reflects on his first visit to the Scottish Highlands when he found the landscape muted in colour and water-saturated in comparison to his often bone-dry native Palestinian hills. However he found powerful echoes in the histories of displacement and the memories left in each terrain.


In this anthology ‘Wildness’ is applied to these islands in terms of each writer's sensibility. It might be a sense of scale or remoteness from roads, solitude, or a perception of surroundings that are natural or unchanging in comparison to human life cycles. That the idea is different for each of us is interesting in its own right. But history, memory, and the impact of the way that landscapes are seen animate the writings as visibly as the lines of river, stream and contour on the map. The pages are haunted by thousands of years of human activity which have formed our cultural landscapes, landscapes marked by tools or stones, by remnants of buildings.


The contributions of poets, travel-writers, natural historians, anthropologists and novelists give us many ways of looking, and varieties of writing. Amongst the pages there is lyricism and humour, biography and memoir, celebration and elegy. Perspectives come from inhabitants of these places, from visitors to them, and from travellers from other natural and political contexts like Raja Shehadeh who find echoes of or distinctions from home.


A Wilder Vein also includes writings by Sara Maitland, Andrew Greig, Margaret Elphinstone, Gerry Loose, Mandy Haggith, Neil Hegarty, Lisa Samson, Alison Grant, Lesley Harrison, Marco Daane, Katharine Macrae, Michelle Cotter, Ken Wilkie, Kenneth Taylor, Jane Alexander, Judith Thurley, Susan Richardson and with a foreword by Robert Macfarlane.
Published 2nd November

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A fairy cake for the Fairy Hill

A midsummer evening on my local hill, Schiehallion. We turned away from the summit, leaving a cake as an offering to the resident fairies, and as we began the descent, cloud drifted in to wrap the mountain and we projected onto it a huge brockenspectre of ourselves and the spiky summit. (Thanks to Elspeth for the photo of it).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A flavour of walking the Annandale Way - from five schools along its route



From the Devil’s Beef Tub to the Devil’s Bath Tub

We took a walk on the Annandale Way.
At Corehead, under the Devil’s Beef Tub
glaciers cut into the hills
thousands of years ago and
many valleys now thread into one.
We smelt wet moss and felt
attached to the shimmery small river
as it flowed gently past –
glistening rocks and spongy grass.
We were nearing the end of our walk
but for the river it was just beginning.

On the way to Beattock
a rainbow hovered over the hill.
We marched a Roman road
like centurions
past an army of pylons
thinking a word rhythm in time
with our steps.
We burrowed under the M74
and met the Evan Water
wanting to be free from the rocks
which squeezed and corseted it.
We felt sad to see the river closed off
by the motorway,
but some of us
never knew it was there.

S1 Moffat Academy



We took a walk on the Annandale Way.
Tall grand trees loomed over us,
others were down-hearted,
lifeless stumps.
We trudged towards the rickety bridge
that had holes like little eyes
spying on us from the river below.
It creaked as
we crept, afraid
we might fall deep, deep, deep.
The whistling wind wove through the trees
like the spirit of the baker chained
in Spedlin’s Tower
for baking bad bread, and
left roaming there.

Birds whistled to each other
a soft lullaby.
The river was trickling,
then rushing, crashing, whooshing,
roaring like a tiger.
The sweet smell of
bright white hawthorn
tickled sneezes from us and
fresh, lush air hung
above the tree canopy.
We said to ourselves,
‘We’ll never make bad bread’.

P7 Lochmaben Primary


We took a walk on the Annandale Way.
The gorse was like a blanket of mustard
on a bed of nails.
It smelt of coconut-butter,
taking us back to
exotic holidays.
We saw many things.
Cows were one,
sheep were two, and birds were three.
Joe Graham’s monument rose,
a sharp needle from its hill
like a candle on a birthday cake.
From there we could see
the huge belching monster that is the
cheese factory and
the Solway Firth shining
like a crescent moon.
The Annan below was like a wavy ribbon
weaving continuously.
We could trace the river
like a palm reader following
the lifelines on an open, eager hand,
telling us stories.
Mud, like marshmallows,
squelched under our toes
tried to steal our shoes
and set as cement.

We took a walk on the Annandale Way.
Children were yelping, whooping, breaking
the silence with their joy.
Laughter tumbled down the hill
and the trees talked to one another
in the wind.
The gazing eyes of a deserted house
inhabited by crows and bats
made us shiver as we passed.
Fighter–jet sounds
rumbled overhead like a giant’s belly.
On the crest of a hill
sat the misty outline of wind turbines
near the steep volcano of Burnswark,
green and smooth on top.
We found a bird’s leg full of decay,
the smell of young trees budding.
Our legs,
tied down with kilogram weights,
grew tired from walking.
Some of us thought it a lonely place
because nobody else was there.

S1 Lockerbie Academy


We took a walk
on the Annandale Way.
On the horizon the hills climbed
so that the sun could nest between them.
The Annan ran softly and smooth
its golden cool waters rustling like leaves.
We came to the glittering place
where it met the Water of Milk.
Families of water joined
and went on their way as one.
A huge heron flapped its wings.

We took a walk
on the Annandale Way
and the towers of the old pink
Hoddom Castle
peered from above the forest and lured us in.
Trees were around us like a cave,
leaves dripping with bright blue raindrops,
a rainforest canopy,
the smell of nature.
Wild garlic smiled at us.
Bluebells, giant hogweed and
wild rhubarb grew.
Birds scattered through the leaves,
one calling like a creaky door.
The river roared.
After Hoddom Bridge
buttercups spread over lush green grass
to lead us to the deserted graveyard
of Saint Kentigern.

We took a walk in Annandale
and at the end we asked,
‘Can we walk the whole way?’

P6/7 Hoddom Primary


We took a walk from Annan
on the Annandale Way.
At Welldale, by the old piers,
it was just us, the wind, the water and the curlews
where once had been shouting workers,
passengers hauling luggage for the ‘Victoria’,
shrimp boats chugging
and sandstone blocks banged aboard
to sail abroad.
Over the small stone bridge
lines of Cochran’s men once cycled,
and we took a walk
on the Annandale Way.

At Barnkirk Point, the tide was coming in,
pushing the river back upstream
instead of flowing to meet other waters
for the party of the Solway.
Warring waves drew
a spiral pattern on the surface,
rough rippling as if fingers
had been dragged through sand.
‘Let me out!’ the river called to the sea,
and we named this deep and dangerous meeting place
the ‘Devil’s Bath Tub’.

When the tide turned,
allowing the Annan to flood the Solway mud,
the river lost itself
un-named, unnoticed, forgotten.
But we knew its waters would, in time,
be sucked skywards
to return as clouds
to the hills of the Devil’s Beef Tub
fifty miles inland.

‘You again!’ the hills will say,
as they tear at the clouds, emptying them
so the waters begin their descent
and once again we call them ‘Annan’.


S1 Annan Academy

With thanks to CREATE and Sulwath Connections who are running this project. You will find more of the pupils' work here.

Rivers and writing


There is Nothing in the Water by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a wonderful testimony to the charms of the Annan river, published this month in a new anthology of nature-writing brought together by angling and culture website Caught by the River. Writers from Irvine Welsh to Roger Deakin explore the silt, sedge, cargo and currents of the UK's waterways. In Frank Cottrell Boyce's story, excerpted in yesterday's Guardian, he considers the heady mix of risk and freedom that the river Annan offers. The hidden landscapes and histories caught between its tributaries should tempt a few to walk the Annandale Way come its opening this September.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The art of walking - two rambles about London

Here are my top tips for creative walking enthusiasts in London. Both have a foot in the art gallery and a foot firmly outside.

Although I have probably seen before the majority of Richard Long's work that is currently on show in major retrospective 'Heaven and Earth', I found its expansion into the large spaces of Tate Britain unexpectedly moving. Perhaps it was the humbling effect of a walk through a life dedicated to using his body, the land, the rhythms of sun, moon, tide, walking and resting as his art. Or perhaps it was the chime with my own solitary walks that moved me, I'm not sure.

The show is fascinating for revealing the evolution of ways he has represented his walking art in a gallery space - 'the knowledge of my actions, in whatever form, is the art.' (I find his gallery-specific pieces much less engaging and appealing.) His walks, which first began just as the first human steps were taken on the moon, were first communicated as photographs; later as a line on a map; and then a series of words capturing a narrative of discovery along a route. His work is conceptual to some extent but, at least for me, totally translatable into a sense of interaction with place. Also see Robert Macfarlane's excellent article on Long for the Guardian.

Second top tip: the newly refurbished Whitechapel Gallery which celebrates the democratisation of art and doesn't charge for entry, has an almost hidden gem, in addition to its less hidden ones. A tiny white card next to a pile of books in the lobby alerted me to a site-specific audio walk by Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller devised in 1999.

Borrow an MP3 player from the reception to be guided by the compelling voice of Janet Cardiff into a physical journey around the lanes and alleys of the East End. The world you find yourself in between headphones, and between real walls is a curious mixture created by binaural sound recording and the real sounds of the places you share with Cardiff. A narrative begins to emerge about a woman with red hair, running from something.

I was never quite sure whether the overheard conversations happened in her time or in my own. She has an acute way of predicting one's own observations. There's a wonderful moment where you are guided into a church to sit in its cool and quiet. As the doors bashed behind me, for real, and on the headphones, I was struck by a smell of incense 'Mmm, smells like incense', said the intimate voice in my ear. When I took off the headphones to walk back to the gallery, I found myself highly attuned to the peculiar qualities and possible meanings of what I heard and saw.

I listened to many of Cardiff's audio walks on her website when I tutored workshops related to the Fruitmarket Edinburgh's exhibition of her work last year, but this was my first opportunity to experience the richness and mystery of walking real spaces with her, and the powerful suggestiveness of two sets of sound.

Highly recommended!

Monday, June 1, 2009

'Whiter than White' - a new story in book form


First offspring of 'Best Foot Books', this small book, perfectly formed to fit a pocket, contains a long short story inspired by my walks on the Isle of Rum. The Edwardian history of Kinloch Castle and the servants' walk across the island between castle and laundry form the backdrop. (See previous posts). Available from a number of appropriate outlets including The Aberfeldy Watermill, the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, The Land, Sea and Island Centre and Cafe Rhu in Arisaig; the Mallaig Bookshop, Mallaig Heritage Centre ; Kinloch Castle on Rum. It can also be ordered direct from my website for £4 inc p&p.
It’s 1913, and as the stags’ roaring fades in the hills, the household at Kinloch Castle is packing up to return to Accrington at the end of another season. Jimmy will walk over the hill only seven more times to deliver the laundry to the maids Emma and Lily at Kilmory. Then he will return to his home on the Isle of Eigg. In those last brief visits, will he manage to both ensure his future with the departing Emma, and to contain their secret?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Annandale Way























What links Romans and motorway engineers; opium and cattle-reiving; cheese and sandstone; saints and hunting dogs; wind-bleached uplands and mud-sea shores; the salmon and the Solway; Burns and Scott?

Last week I walked the Annandale Way and found all these links and more. Running between the headwaters of the Annan river at the Devil's Beef Tub north of Moffat, and Barnkirk Point on the Solway, just south of Annan, this 54 mile walk surprises almost because much of the landscape is so unassuming. As I stepped across the veins of the river catchment, stories unfolded of the travel of ice and water; after which came feet, hooves the lines of wheels, rail and road. From reedy upland to pastoral lowland, the river gushes and then meanders through friesian-bright meadows. It finally slows, tide-tugged and moon-torn, to mingle with the Solway Waters amongst desolate smears of mud and sky, horizons haunted by curlew call and a demolished lighthouse, described by Burns as 'this wild place of the world'.

I found flashes of kingfisher, crumbling mansions, the blink of a hare. Oak trees twisted through centuries of growth and willows sprung quickly from the earth to harvest for the bio-mass station which pumps smoke into the air near Lockerbie.

Rivers are mysterious, and they demand us to think in holistic ways. What befalls the land leaches its effects into rivers and thence the sea. Rivers endlessly cycle through millenia, from hill to shore and back, witnessing our history, shifting in their course or level, perhaps commenting if we allow them to. Sometimes I walked slower than the river and sometimes faster. But I was always going in the same direction, warned by the river of its powers, 'Walk against me if you will, but I'll sweep you down again in your sleep when you can't resist, so you have to start again.'

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How to be an anthologist

‘Editing anthologies is an unsung art. An anthologist balances story selection, story editing, story arrangement, and central concept ...'

This quote comes from an article, Anthologists Discuss their Craft in Clarkesworld magazine. OK, their territory as 'six of the most accomplished and innovative editors working in the fantasy, science fiction and horror fields', is a little different to my own, but the principles seem similar. Anyone considering taking on the editing of an anthology might do well to read this fascinating discussion which Philippa Johnson of Literaturetraining, in her role as professional development adviser, alerted me to.

As I read all the words Two Ravens Press have called in from writers of 'wild places', a fascinating process begins to unfold. The selection is a curious and complex task, and a great responsibility. It's not just about selecting for the quality of writing, but for the diversity of what is said in relation to the theme, the way it is said, the places that are evoked. I go for a walk in the tug and sun-splash of this April day, afraid that all the words will gust out of my head. Instead, the individual pieces start to jostle against each other, talk to each other, set up chimes and frictions, and I return to my task excited. I begin to see how a gathering of 'stories' could muster to become more than the sum of its parts in A Wilder Vein.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

wayside interpretation

Here's a great idea. Last week I walked a stretch of disused railway line, now a path, between Haddington and Longniddry in East Lothian. Along the way were these panels, with some helpful and fun suggestions for what to see provided by Longniddry Primary School.

From late April I'm going to be walking and writing along a new long-distance footpath in Dumfriesshire, the Annandale Way, which follows the Annan river from source to mouth for 52 miles between Moffat and Annan. I'll be working with five schools along the way to write some wayside interpretation and accompanying literature for paper. So the Haddington example was good to see.

The Annandale Way is new territory for me but already I know that it will pass through some fascinating story territory - reivers, the site of the discovery of an ancient bow, medieval land-use systems and even Merlin is said to be buried in a hill near Moffat. Atlantic salmon run the river and there's a famously tragic Burns song about Annan waters. We will have plenty to set our pens walking.

The path opens on September 12th.