Tuesday, December 7, 2010

winter trees

I can't claim to have been doing much walking over the last week or so, but I have been shuffling around on my skis with my eyes frost-struck and a camera in hand. This particular weather event has dressed the trees - ghosting their arterial shapes with white echoes; baubling them with ice-lights ; laying low mists to worship at their feet; and scouring the skies with purple dusks to backlight the symmetry of their reach. And perhaps the effect is most striking because it was only just before this, they were still dressed dark gold for autumn.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Paths to writing

It was lovely to hear Claire Tomalin talking on this afternoon's Radio 4 Book Club about her biography of Thomas Hardy: 'The Time-Torn Man'. She spoke of how significant to becoming a writer the long walk to school had been to Hardy, offering him a rich internal life. When I read the biography, whilst I was re-walking some of Hardy's Cornish paths, I was very struck by that childhood development, and wrote the following as part of a longer essay:

'As I approach [St Juliot's Church], I feel again that sense of path as theatre, but also path as custom, repetition, familiarity. The two things seem at a kind of odds with each other. For me, a recreational walker, it is the meditative inner world that predominates as I walk. There is rarely drama.
I know from reading Tomalin’s biography of Hardy how walking was central in his youth. The decisive turn his education took when he was enrolled at school in Dorchester at the age of ten, set him on a three mile walk each way in which he observed hares, ‘learnt to read the noises of the fields and the woods, the bark of the fox’ and exercised his imagination. This time for solitude and reflection no doubt walked him towards his writerly sensibility and helped shape the exquisitely sharp observations of nature that have startled me in my re-readings of his novels. But as Tomalin says, ‘Walking the roads, meeting others on the road, exchanging news with travellers, being overtaken by riders, carts and carriers or offered lifts’, will also have educated him about human life and led towards speculation and then drama. As his success grew in literature and public life, his walks continued but became a matter of recreation, an airing for his writerly mind, rather than of necessity.'

Thursday, October 28, 2010

the poem and the path

Marvellous series on Radio Three's 'The Essay' this week in which Andrew Motion explores the relationship between walking and writing through a number of poems.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autumn in Ardgour

I needed to gasp some lung-fulls of the clear autumn air that the last few days suddenly gifted us, and grasp at some of that scoured-sharp light before the clocks changed. Ardgour was my target - the diamond shaped piece of land more or less bounded by Lochs Shiel, Eil, Linnhe and Sunart.

The area first demanded my attention from Strontian at its south-western corner when I was walking through the territory of my radio play 'The Three Knots', about the anchoring of a floating church in Loch Sunart in the 1840s. I walked the coffin path between Strontian and Polloch, and looked east, admiring the rough crags, wondering.

The great sharp spear of Garbh Bheinn, and the M-shaped peaks of Sgurr Dhomhnuill and Sgurr na h-Ighinn draw the eye from many directions in Lochaber, characterising Ardgour's rocky and precipitous nature. In complex twists of peak and ridge and bealach, where no summit exceeds 3000 feet, there is a sense of remoteness exactly because it attracts few walkers and because of the rugged punch of the summits above their height.

I'd spent many hours staring at the map, at its dense and contorted contours, its web of old paths. I was seeking a solution to the puzzle of a route across Ardgour. This week I finally set out on a journey from Loch Eil across the heart of that interior. I always thought it would need to be broken with a night in a tent. But my day was stolen between the coldest October night for 17 years and the first of the season's hurricanes - not so conducive to camping. I just had to press on through the daylit hours.

As I set out a full moon still hung low in the sky while mists hung over the loch, blurring its edges with the land. It was an exciting start striding west with numb hands along Glen Scaddle, cleaved between russet ridges still hard with frost, amongst the roaring stags.

The weather began to change as I left the Glen and climbed the steep nose of Sgurr Dhomhnuill, thick cloud lowering over nearby peaks, billowing apart to allow views back to the pretty blues of Loch Linnhe, the clarity of eastern skies behind me. The two tops were exhilarating and unforgiving - steep, not offering obvious routes between raised knuckles of rock. But the cloud stayed off and my views opened west to the far end of Loch Sheil, the Rum Cuillin, and beyond.

Then the gnarled ridge took me down to the old lead mines at Bellgrove. And there, starting to tire after at least six hours of walking, I was happy with the certainty of a route ahead, the old mine road laying a steady way towards Strontian, through an oak forest hung with gorgeous green velvet robes of moss. It was here in the Ariundle oakwoods that I'd located one of the 'Three Knots' characters in a woodland croft. Having written about it, a wonderful familiarity greeted me, from the time I'd spent here in my imagination.

And just as dusk fell, the quiet embrace of the trees released me to the incipient edges of the strung-out village. The Ariundle centre appeared, a perfectly timed refuge of food and sleep and instant comfort as the windows darkened outside and the rain and wind set in.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Creative Journeys

Last week, the Times Educational Supplement covered an unusual project I was involved with at Kingussie High School in September. About twenty facilitators -- artists, writers, natural historians, craftspeople -- with a particular interest in outdoor learning, converged for two days, and took the entire second year on a 'creative journey'. With 100 pupils and 10 teachers, this was quite a logistical feat. The first day was a journey in the outdoors for each small group, somewhere in the Cairngorms National Park within which the school sits, and the second day extended this journey through reflection into making, thinking, writing, doing, back in the school.

My particular journey was with a small group of pupils and adults on ponies up Glen Banchor, a now depopulated Glen to the north-west of Newtonmore which is rich with rubbly remains of crofting townships, ancient hill forts, and stories whispered from past generations. This includes the tale of a cursed mill whose failure to flourish almost certainly contributed to the allure of the new town built on the Spey (Newtonmore), which sucked families out of the Glen, leaving the houses empty.

Before taking a group to a new place, I always like to go myself, to see what creative responses it prompts in me. I visited the Highland Folk Museum (pictured above) which was a wonderful way to bring the old cruck-framed turf houses of this area to life in my imagination, to smell the bannocks cooking on the fire, and to think of 15-20 people inhabiting such a smoke-filled space. And I walked up the empty glen stretching flat and green up to Glenballoch where the lights finally went out, the hearth went cold in the last inhabited house.

I loved the weathered door of the steading, and invented reasons for the grooves worn by an old latch, now hanging useless.One winter night, I decided, a terrible storm kicked the latch from the door, as if with the hind hooves of a huge black horse. One of the children in the house heard the door burst open. The next day her father replaced the latch in a slightly different place but the memory of the terrible night remained in the markings on the door.

On the opposite side of the burn from Glenballoch, little remained of the crofting township except piles of stones from the house footings. As witnesses to past lives, I had to appeal to two ancient rowans that guarded the homes from evil. I asked questions of them, and later experimented with writing these questions onto their images in photographs (see below).

Afterwards, I walked up into the hills, following Glen Fionndrigh, and camped overnight at the sheilings where women and children would have taken cattle for summer pasture. It was a sheltered spot by a burn, and a steep hill above me flowed with deer on my approach.

I'd wanted the pupils to come here to observe, to interrogate the things remaining, to imagine, to feel the warm inhabited bustle of former lives and then to have a go at some of the creative exercises I gave myself. But in the event, the day was wet and windy, riding a challenge for some, and we inevitably concentrated more on ourselves. What came up in the writing we did on the second day were the sounds of movement and companionable chatter, the horses warm beneath us and moving rhythmically, the sensual details of the journey up the glen and down again. And it was this that led us to write a group poem with a sequence of verses like this:

Up Glen Banchor, down Glen Banchor
Ponies mutter, girls clutter
Up Glen Banchor, down Glen Banchor
The curse shadows the glen

Up Glen Banchor, down Glen Banchor
Wind whistling, trees bristling
Up Glen Banchor, down Glen Banchor
The sky glares down

I didn't regret this change of plan. Horses were so much part of the past life of the glen, that this way of travelling in the outdoors and the desire for the pupils to dwell on it was quite appropriate.

The school took a brave departure from conventional settings for learning with this project run by SpeyGrian. It would be interesting to know how the journeys influence the pupils' lives and attitudes to landscape and the great outdoors in a year or so's time.

Rosie, the 'fastest dog in Scotland', who accompanied us, using her own legs sometimes, from Newtonmore Riding Centre.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Values of Environmental Writing

Glasgow University is undertaking an interesting research project exploring the relationship between reading habits and pro-environmental behaviour. Looking at what is referred to as 'Creative Environmental Writing', the project raises a lot of interesting questions about the role and responsibility of writers in challenging times, how easy it is to 'track' reading choices and attitudes, and the relationship between language and the world.

Although there is a limit on the numbers involved in face to face meetings, they are keen to engage a wider group of people through an on-line forum, which can be found on the website along with other accompanying papers used to stimulate discussion. The Dark Mountain manifesto in particular stimulated some spirited discussion!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Black Isle in words

I've just spent a delightful weekend at the 10th Black Isle Words Festival in Cromarty, an 18th century sea port. It's the third time I've been lucky enough to attend as part of the programme and it delivered its usual intimate sharing of words and ideas, with the stimulus of quality literature in a jewel-like setting on the Moray Firth.

This year, the theme was 'where the wild things are ', and the significance of place to many writers was explored as well as the process of connecting to nature, wilderness, and wildness through words and writing. The event drew in speakers of international renown such as Jay Griffiths and John Lister-Kaye, but also ensured a place for local writers who have captured the Black Isle in words or been captivated by it. The legacy of Hugh Miller still runs deep through stories, geological discoveries, and even some of the carvings he made on Cromarty gravestones. His links to this place are beautifully brought to life in a short piece of writing by Ali Smith which you will find here.

On the Saturday I led a walking workshop with poet and wildlife photographer Gerry Cambridge. It was a relaxed ramble around places and ideas using our senses and imagination, but the undoubted highlight was our visit to the Gaelic chapel which sits on a knoll above the village. Built for incomers brought to work in various industries during a prosperous period of Cromarty's history in the late 18th century, it is now being reclaimed by nature, its roof a lattice of living branches building a vault into the sky, its floor crackling with ivy. It held us there in silent exploration and then in discussion for many minutes, evoking thoughts about the trees that make up the Gaelic alphabet, sacred groves, hidden roots, and much more.

It's not the only interesting church in Cromarty. The festival events on the Saturday afternoon, were held in the beautiful pre-reformation East Church which is currently under restoration. The writer Jane Duncan, for whom the Black Isle was home and subject, was the focus. Mairi Hedderwick gave a fascinating account, through her archive of publisher's letters, of her early career as an illustrator of Jane Duncan's children's books. Letters full of care and tact, which maintained distance between writer and illustrator. It would be hard to imagine there being time for such letters to be written now. Dr Fiona Thompson of Leeds University reflected on the importance of place in Jane Duncan's novels, her character and life through her diary and letters.
There was time as well to walk , to smell the sea, scan the skyline for dolphins, sniff history and mystery in tunnels and crypts, the lighthouse and seashore which have witnessed the passing of so many emigrant ships. There's another fascinating small graveyard sheltering within a copse of trees beyond the village, above the sea. Known as the 'Pirate's graveyard' because many of the stones are ornately carved with skulls and crossbones, it was outside the village because the graves were for victims of TB. The gravestones lie supine now, scattered with leaves, polished up by rain and by thin sunlight strained through leaves.
Sunday's programme proved fascinating too. Sharon Blackie of Two Ravens Press (publisher of ' a Wilder Vein ') spoke about the principles underlying her writing, publishing and lifestyle, which she has recently relocated to the far west coast of the Isle of Lewis. John Lister-Kaye reflected on taking 30 years to 'know' the mile walk around his home near Beauly where he founded the Aigas field centre as documented in his new book 'At the water's edge '. There were weasel cathedral within a dry stone wall, poignant events of childhood evoked though a smell, and an interesting account of the 'genre ' of nature writing which had me wondering, once again, where the women writers are. And then Jay Griffiths gave a passionate and lyrical introduction to her 'Wild ', which she feels as the state of the human soul, not just as an idea of land or remoteness or what we think of as savage.

As I pedalled furiously against a headwind to get to my train in Inverness my mind sang with thoughts, ideas, words and reflections. A weekend of great company in an intriguing place where everyone is a participant with words. Exactly what a good book festival should be.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My new book - a dry stone dyke tells its story

My second pocket book is out this week, with a stony cover to chime visually with ‘Whiter than White’, and inside pages illustrated with line drawings. ‘The Beat of Heart Stones’ celebrates a Highland Perthshire landmark - an extraordinary dry-stone dyke that climbs two miles in a straight line towards the summit of Schiehallion. I find it hard to claim it as either fiction or non-fiction, but a walker who falls into step with the wall gets to hear its story.

Dry stone walling dates back at least three and a half millennia, to the village of Skara Brae in Orkney, and the Iron Age brochs of northern and western Scotland. The Perthshire dyke probably dates from the early nineteenth century and marks a very old boundary line. My eye has always been drawn up the dyke from the road under Schiehallion’s northern side. It has a monumental place in the landscape, striking upwards over steep and undulating ground. Eventually I walked its length, and began to think about the artistry of the people who built it, and what it might have witnessed in two centuries of standing there. That’s when I started to ‘hear’ the voice of the wall! More about the project can be found by clicking on the ‘dyke’ label.

‘The Beat of Heart Stones’ by Linda Cracknell, best foot books,
ISBN 978-0-9562453-1-1, £4. Available from The Aberfeldy Watermill, some other local outlets, and direct from my website for £4 inc p&p.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Books, Borders, Bikes

The 'Books, Borders, Bikes' festival running for the first time at the gorgeous Traquair House in the Borders on 14th and 15th August is getting me excited. It brings together so many of my passions: land, walking, cycling and international exchange. I've been invited to appear with Raja Shehadeh, whose writings, particularly about walking, identity and land issues ('Palestinian Walks') I've long admired, and his insightful piece on walking in the Scottish Highlands appeared in 'A Wilder Vein' which I edited last year.

The organising body, 'Beyond Borders', is 'an international art consortium dedicated to showcasing the work of writers, intellectuals, artists and filmmakers who come from small nations around the world. Beyond Borders aims to offer a platform for artists from similar smaller nations to explore common themes and experiences, especially in relation to those nations and peoples who are or have been caught up in conflict.' And they are working with Scottish PEN, hence my involvement at Traquair.

You can find the programme here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

coffin roads and wool shrouds

Bereft of our long-planned but necessarily postponed 'drove' through the Cairngorms, a small group of us spent a couple of days exploring the southerly section of our intended journey between Glen Brerachan, near Kirkmichael, and Blair Atholl. An old road stretches though here, a 'short-cut' through the hills, a by-pass of Pitlochry. The road, that climbs north over a pass and then drops to the beautiful 'Shinagag' meadow, has been in use for centuries, connecting sizable hill communities that were once strung through the glen. The life that once clamoured there now haunts the wayside in quiet, low, piles of stone and the choruses of sheep.

It was also a coffin road, for corpses carried to St Bride's church in Old Blair (pictured below) over ten or fifteen miles in what must have often been difficult conditions. One testimony to this remains in stone. A funeral party, forced back by bad weather, had to bury the corpse by the side of the road at the nearest point to the church, a good four miles short. The grave remains as a lonely marker.

Walking with my old friend and wool artist, Yuli Somme (above), added a special dimension to this sense of the past, and of the rituals associated with death. One of her creative enterprises is making felt shrouds for natural burials. Thinking 'outside the box', the Bellacouche shroud is designed in the shape of a leaf, evoking the changing seasons of life, its surface embroidered with oak or willow. It's used instead of a coffin, in either a woodland burial ground or traditional churchyard. Our walk through a landscape littered with discarded wool fleece, was occasionally halted by phone calls from relatives planning funerals, celebrating lives of loved ones by choosing this gentle form of carriage.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Drove activities cancelled

Just in case any readers were intending to join us drovers along the route next week, I'm afraid to say that because of some sad circumstances, the journey has had to be postponed.

More news will follow in due course.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A-droving we will go

I'm off soon on a trip following some old roads through the Cairngorms with various others including pack ponies, and at least at first, some Highland cattle. The creative journey is undertaken under the aegis of 'Speygrian', a network of outdoor educators, artists and writers, whose inaugural journey I was part of on the Spey. I'm hoping that this one will be a bit dryer!

Come and meet us at public events featuring droving history at our starting point at Ruthven Barracks, Kingussie from 2pm on Saturday 3rd July, and at the Atholl Country Life Museum, Blair Atholl, 12-2pm Wednesday 7th July.

The Speygrian website describes our latest undertaking as:

The core group of the SpeyGrian network first came together in 2000 for a journey by open canoe from Ruthven Barracks to Spey Bay. To celebrate our 10th birthday, we are taking another journey from Ruthven Barracks which involves a diverse group of professional and amateur artists, ecologists, storytellers, historians and educators including two from the United States and two who currently work with Dartmoor National Park. Some of the participants will be local and the others drawn from the SpeyGrian network.

The group will travel by pony on the Minigaig Pass (an ancient drove road connecting Speyside to Atholl) and the Shinigaig Pass (a coffin road connecting Blair Atholl and Glen Brerachan). The theme of this 'mobile conference' will be exploring how a road is more than a line of communication between two places, but has a life of its own, with unique stories to tell, linking people, places and journeys over time.

Ponies and cattle will be provided by Ruaraidh Ormiston from Newtonmore who will be accompanying us on our journey - which we believe will be the first drove to travel on the Minigaig Pass for over 100 years! Ruaridh’s family have bred ponies and cattle in Speyside for several generations and have some fascinating links with the drovers.

It's not the first time I've been involved in a droving adventure, but was also very interested to read that Vyv Wood Gee is setting off on the same drove route I took three years ago, from the Isle of Skye, but going a bit beyond the Scottish cattle markets, all the way to Smithfield on her pony! You can find out more about her journey across Britain and her search for the significance of droving history here.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Annandale Way alluring in springtime

My article about walking the Annandale Way appears in the June issue of a very nice magazine called Dumfries and Galloway Life. It's a glossy, high quality publication and so I was particularly pleased that my photos as well as words passed muster. I hope the piece will encourage a few people to walk the Way, as I do think it's understated treasures are worth seeking out, especially for people who live in the area. More about the route can be found here, including details of how to get the guide book which I helped write with pupils from five schools along the route.

This is how the article begins:

On my fourth day on the Annandale Way, I fell to my knees. The River Annan had just taken a muscular sweep under Williamath Bridge, where it held several fishermen, chest-deep. It tumbled on through a tunnel of birch, contained by low hills, while the path led me away.

It wasn't tiredness that felled me, or prayer, although I was in St Mungo's graveyard. It sloped dankly towards the river, sheltering horizontal gravestones that had collected mattresses of moss. The roofless church hosted a congregation of head-nodding daffodils. Knees dampened, I faced one of many ornately carved graves, and by parting the long grass from its base, revealed two small, age-rounded figures, either side of a stone tree. I could just make out a serpent appealing to one of them, and the suggestion of a fruit. I was thrilled at my discovery.

Many of us think we know Annandale, hurtle through it often enough on the train or M74. It conjures words like ‘green’, ‘rolling’, ‘rural’. But walking it is like parting the grass to discover more: flashes of kingfisher, crumbling mansions, the blink of a hare, willow plantations for the bio-mass station whose billowing chimney near Lockerbie acts as a landmark to the traveller. The 55-mile Annandale Way surprises almost because the walking is straightforward, and much of the landscape unassuming, inviting us to get under its skin. Annandale rewards curiosity.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

cycle time

A nice read in Saturday's Travel Guardian about the joys of combining cycling and storytelling in Fife, by Kevin Rushby. I'll shut up about cycling now, and get back on my feet!

Thursday, May 13, 2010


There can't be many stretches of A road in Great Britain where a cyclist can be Queen. I found one on Friday. Twenty two miles of single-track peace and the few vehicles who were on the road gave me priority in the passing places!
This was the A836 from Kinbrace, in the heart of the Flow Country, the name given to the rolling expanse of peatland and wetland, covering 4,000 square kilometres in northern Scotland. The road then winds north through Strath Halladale, bright that day with gorse flower and lamb-studded meadows, to reach Sutherland's north coast at Portskerra.
I thoroughly recommend this route (or going west from Kinbrace) if you want a flavour of African-style open space. There's a unique thrill to having so much relatively featureless country covering such a massive area, and so little human habitation. Having said that, I would hesitate to walk here. I'm with Ralph Waldo Emerson on this, as he said in his essay Country Living, 'For walking, you need a broken country'.
This thought took me to North Cornwall and my experiences of walking in the Valency Valley near Boscastle, where Thomas Hardy once walked and loved, and which inspired me to write this as part of a longer piece when I returned three years ago after a thirty year absence:
'Hardy’s ‘crooked ways’ seem to me characteristic of the scale of North Cornwall, with its tight valleys, intimate fields, and the lanes that tunnel so much deeper than the farmland that border them. It is not clear as I stretch out to the walls of a lane on each side of me whether I touch built wall or bedrock. Has this lane been burrowed into a ‘holloway’ by centuries of recurrent human thoroughfare?
Sumptuous growth over built structures means that walls, corners, culverts, channels, paths, become softened by earth, disguised by ivy, fashioned into emerald tunnels. The scale means that even for a 17 year old, it is impossible to be bored by walking here. A few strides brings a change in view - enough height reveals the next valley; a dropped hedge reveals the sea; once eyes have adjusted, a woody hollow holds an ancient church. Walking unlocks the treasures of this valley.'
The miniature scale couldn't be more different to the boundless horizons of the Flow Country, and made me think how fortunate we are to be offered such contrasting experiences of landscape on this small island.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

walking with music

Intrigued to hear about a fun way to get people to walk the stairs in the subways of Chile. “A ‘musical ladder’, which looks and sounds like a piano, opened Thursday at a subway station in Santiago de Chile with the aim to encourage Chileans to use the stairs and encourage daily exercise”. More here.

Also, following on from the last post, I love this clip of elegant ladies 'dancing' on bicycles.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cavalcades, processions, choreography

Groups of people moving through the land in semi-organised ways, has become a bit of a theme over the last week or so.

Raja Shehadeh wrote in last Saturday’s Guardian about taking 48 international writers for a hill walk north west of Ramallah as part of the second Palestine Festival of Literature (the third starts today). If the very existence of the festival is sticking a neck out, the walk represented a challenge in a place where Palestinians ‘have no control over time and space’ and driving ‘a mere 20 mile journey might consume a whole day’. The hilltop watchtowers, the blockage of ancient routes by new Israeli settlements and checkpoints, meant this group walk was not just an exploration, but an act of solidarity, confirming of an old order by the laying of footprints; a protest of sorts.

His piece also includes beautiful insights into the geophysical and human origins of the paths: ‘the land is like an open book on which nature and humans continuously write.’

The frustration, threat of violent encounter, lack of freedom to roam, contrasts with Hamish Fulton's latest walking project, written up in the Scotsman last week. He’s currently on a 21 day walk in the Cairngorms, making the plan up as the days go by, with no commitment except to arrive at Glenmore Lodge at the end of it. The Cairngorms are considered one of Europe's last wildernesses, and thus provide the 'Room to Roam' that he seeks both mentally and physically. The journey itself is the piece of art.

Before he set off from Huntly he choreographed a walk for 30 or so people, a silent procession lapping the same block in single file with a two meter distance between each person. He'll be leading something similar at Glenmore Lodge on 9th May.

For 40 years he's made works of art relating to walking. He makes no interventions in the landscape as Richard Long does, but produces minimalist responses, often in text. He's walked for Tibetan Freedom and to the summit of Everest.

His choreographed walks are a new departure and brought to mind another spectacular procession which will happen on Glasgow Green on 29th May. 111 bicycles will dance ‘A breeze’, a piece choreographed by Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel. Part of a much bigger project about ‘Dummy Jim’, a deaf and dumb man who cycled to the Arctic Circle in 1951, who has two Glasgow musicians cycling in his tracks this summer.

In July this year I'll be walking some old roads in the Cairngorms myself. This time I’ll not be alone, but in company with fellow walkers who are part of Speygrian. Poets, artists, educators, ecologists, adventurers, a band of us will be travelling with pack ponies. I imagine our cavalcade like a pilgrimage party, noisy with story and shared incident, ragged and un-choreographed, but strung together by joint purpose. I will report back.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dying Villages

Poet Tom Pow has undertaken a wonderful study of dying villages in a number of European countries, exploring the social, ecological and cultural effects of demographic change. He responds to the experience of travelling through them in a mixture of poetry, photographs, landscapes, physical artefacts and this excellent website.

I went to hear him speak about it last week at his residency at the Scottish Poetry Library and 'enjoyed' the melancholy sense of loss. Despite the photos of empty houses, weathered doors, abandoned churches, it is essentially a human story about forgotten recipes, lights going out, and other trends captured in the poignant, How to tell when a village is dying such as: 'when the village girls have no eyes for the village boys'. And yet, in the photographs, stories and interviews, the human spirit still bubbles up in the few remaining inhabitants and Tom has breathed life into the reality of rural lives in a way that I've seen no academic/formal rural development project do. In this respect it is a hopeful story, I felt.

Two beautiful, small, letterpress-printed poetry books are also available from the website.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tour de Perthshire

Look away now if you're not interested in a sponsorship request!

On 7th May 2010, my Raleigh Royal and I will have been together for 20 years and have travelled many miles.

To celebrate, and to raise money, we are going to take part in the Etape Caledonia on 16th May, an 81 mile closed-road 'race' through the hills of Highland Perthshire which passes my home in Aberfeldy. We're both a bit rusty, and I won't be the one in the yellow jersey, but if there's a prize for the greatest combined age (bike and rider), we might be in with a chance. We do hope to finish, anyway! Last year some kind soul scattered carpet tacks on the route but I'm hoping there won't be any excitement of that kind this year.

When my stepfather was ill with cancer, it was Macmillan nurses who supported my mother and improved the quality of his life with care, skill and good humour until his death in 1994. I'd love to give something back to this charity so they can do the same for others.

You can find my sponsorship page here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Britain from above

This is quite a fascinating website if you are currently marvelling at (or infuriated by) the relinquishing of our skies to birds, air currents, volcanic ash. A short film visualises flight paths across Britain, the central 'motorways' these routes conform to, the fabric their lines weave, and the gaps above sensitive military sites etc. There's some similar animations showing taxi routes in London, the tentacles of telephone networks, pipelines of electronic data delivery, and Britain's population by light intensity.

It's all very interesting for any mapping fanatics, making invisible routes visible, and brought to my mind both Richard Long's fascination with the marks we leave, and Anthony Doerr's piece in Granta 102 (The New Nature Writing), in which he writes of animal migration:

‘Salmon, wildebeest, locusts. Stalks, swifts, snow geese. What if the torrents of animals migrating past us every year left behind traces of their routes? What if arctic terns sketched lines should the sky as they poured out of Antarctica and back; what if steelhead trout left thin, colourful filaments behind as they muscled up rivers? The skies above our fields would become a loom; the continents would be bundled in thread.’

Wouldn't it be fascinating to do this for walking journeys in various parts of the world?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Walkers as visionaries

I'm very grateful to a reader of this blog for drawing my attention to Fieldwork, a collection of essays by Ronald Blythe, and in particular to ‘John Clare and footpath walking’ written for the John Clare Society Journal in 1995. It infects me with excitement, as reading sometimes does. It articulates, with wonderful clarity and economy, my own half-developed observations and ideas; and each time I read it, I learn something new.

The essay explores the role of paths (as opposed to roads and newly-forged ways) and our fairly recent but diminishing legacy of walking as a way to get somewhere which also becomes an incidental route towards learning. It draws attention to a peopled countryside, the fields as one-time places of social intercourse, where routes of work met and crossed. This was what I wanted to capture when I walked village paths in Kenya, meeting and chatting with people going about their ordinary business on foot; walking old ways such as drove roads with their legacy of footfall; and is one of the aspects of Thomas Hardy’s novels that I relish. The sense of travel along shared paths and social routes is very precious, when so much of our recreational walking now seems to suffer from both its deliberateness and its anticipation of relative solitude.

During the recent months of snow, I was intrigued to hear of a change in ‘normal’ patterns. A woman living a mile or so from the shop in Strathtay (where most people get to and from home entirely by car) told me how she and her neighbours, unable to get their cars out, established a new ritual. Each would walk the mile along the river to the shop, returning together, and finding that they enjoyed the unaccustomed pace and company. This would have been the natural way not long ago for rural dwellers, but I suspect now spring is here, and the roads are clear, it will be a rarity again.

Clare walked both for his travel to work – lime-burning or ploughing – and for his poetry, in order to look, to solve problems and to scribble furiously as he stopped in dips and hollows in the land. The effect of walking on a creative mind is profound, as Blythe says in this essay, ‘a great amount of our best poetry, novels and essays smell, not of the lamp, but of dust, mud, grit, pollen, and, I expect, sweat.’

But more interestingly for me, Blythe highlights how the experience of walking touches everyone: ‘.. it touches us because we are all descended from the walking men, the walking women, the walking children: and not so very long ago either. Sometimes we forget that it wasn't only the poets, novelists like Hardy, who had these wonderful ideas as they walked….. Certainly, these long walks to work, these long walks to school, these long walks with a friend, these long walks just to get out of the house, etc, were part of a pattern of life of people right up until the modern age. Whilst it happened, their minds ticked over in an extraordinary way. Because men and women haven't all been able to write, or paint, or make music about certain things, it doesn't mean they haven't experienced them...’

I particularly love Blythe's idea that countless people, not just writers, whilst on the way to work, or at work itself, were unwittingly visionary. And I love this line: 'It was the landscape being articulated in their heads, via their normal work practices. ' Walking is a great leveller – it democratises the visionary and gives everyone the opportunity to learn. But with the loss of these simple ways of getting around, I can’t help wondering what else we’re losing.

Now I’m off to try and find a copy of the out of print Fieldwork so I can read the rest of the essays, and while I’m at it, Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, a novel featuring John Clare's time at High Beach Asylum in Essex.

Monday, March 15, 2010

'I cycled to the Arctic Circle'

OK I didn't, that was 'Dummy Jim'. But I'm thinking of him for inspiration as I start the uphill training towards the Etape Caledonia - a day's 'spin' along 81 miles of closed roads in (hilly) Highland Perthshire. In May, when this ride happens, I'll have had my bike for 20 years.

Getting back on a bicycle after a winter break reminds me what I love about cycling. As far as rhythm and pace go, it's not as meditative for me as walking. Movement and thought are less well matched, but the same sense of independence goes with it; me and the road, blasts of fresh air and a pace that engages me with what I travel through. There can also be occasional speed, and the potential for tea and cake stops if I get the route right. It reminds me of my earliest 'strikings out' on a bicycle as a teenager, at first to get to a horse I wanted to ride and then on solo tours with a tent on the back.

Re-establishing my cycling cadence, easing out stiff limbs after my lengthening rides, has made me appreciate this quote from H.G. Wells, The Wheels of Chance: 'After a day of cycling, one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow.' Cycling literature inevitably brings to mind Flann O'Brien's brilliant The Third Policeman (I'll be keeping an eye on my wall-leaning habits over the next two months).

So who's Dummy Jim? In May 1951 a profoundly deaf 28 year old Scotsman called James Duthie – known fondly to his local community as ‘Dummy Jim’ – cycled solo on a return trip from the small fishing town of Cairnbulg in the north east of Scotland to the Arctic Circle. The journey took three months and cost £12. On returning to Scotland, Duthie wrote about his travels and in 1955 a slim volume called ‘I Cycled into the Arctic Circle’ was published. Sadly the cyclist was killed in a mysterious road accident in 1965.

In 2001, artist film maker Matt Hulse was inspired by the eccentric journal and made a commitment to bring James Duthie’s unique story to the silver screen. A Creative Scotland Award set the wheels in motion, and the film is due to be made in 2010, as well as a cycling reconstruction (re-cycling?). You can follow progress, and support fundraising for the film, on the inventive and entertaining website which involves pedalling hard through the story and all the countries on the way to the Arctic.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

more hares

The wind is rising, and so is the temperature. The first green patches have re-emerged in my garden, and there are rumours of a thaw after what seems weeks of a china-blue freeze over a white land. So I took my skis out again, back to the hares on the hill, while I still can.
I saw only one or two at first. They sprang up out of hollows; the sound of the wind must have stopped them hearing my approach. In a normal winter, I'm used to spotting them easily, white against dark heather. But this year, seen against snow, I see more clearly why they're called 'blue hares', following with my eyes their smoky, off-white coats as they loped away.
Suddenly, when I got up to about 1500 feet, there were 30 or 40 of them, widely spaced but fleeing in the same trajectory, uphill, away from me . Once they'd gained the relevant distance, they stopped simultaneously, sat, frozen again, offering me a series of triangular profiles like unbreathing sentinels guarding the hillside.
I heard a snippet on In Our Time on Radio 4 this morning, about Boudica, who used a hare in her uprising against the Roman Empire, releasing it from her skirts as a form of divination in battle. Perhaps it was the idea of this mystic run that tempted me out onto the hill again.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


One of the delights of being surrounded by white stuff has been observing the criss-crossing patterns of prints made by animal and human movement. I was on a hill near home this afternoon which was scrambling with mountain hares in their white coats. They were locked, as they should be now that it's March, in nose-to-nose combat, leaping and circling. I was mesmerised by the lines left by their journeys; ill-defined holes in deep snow, or fine, clawed paw-prints in the harder stuff. But always that characteristic cadence.

It brought to mind some lines I love from a Thomas Hardy poem:

'Yes, I companion him to places

Only dreamers know,

Where the shy hares print long paces,

Where the night rooks go'

(The Haunter)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rules for writing - Walk!

A great feature in Saturday's Guardian Review had a number of writers proposing ten rules for writing fiction, as inspired by Elmore Leonard's original. I was fascinated to see that Helen Dunmore, Will Self, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel all had going for a walk amongst their ten. It's no big surprise, but good to see the endorsement for walking as part of a writer's toolkit. Helen Dunmore's experience: 'A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk', has often been mine.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The suppleness of stone

Also been having a bit of fun trying to capture 'my wall' in ink....