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.