Monday, April 23, 2007


Number 51 in the Ordnance Survey Landranger series, ‘Loch Tay and surrounding area’ is one of my tattiest maps. The cover has broken free, the paper is faded and torn along the fold marks and where I have been this morning, around Killin, there are muddy smears as if a dog has trodden on it. It isn’t surprising – this is my local area.

And yet my explorations this morning have reinforced a sense that the map conceals as well as reveals these local lands. The yellow line of the glen road and the blue of the river Lochay it follows are there alright. The contours tell of the steep north side climbing over 1,000 metres and dropping to the glaciated Glen Lyon. Shielings, even cup marked stones, burns and forests are marked. But to understand the architecture lying beneath it, to realise the tunnels that gather water and carry it between glens, keeping it high until it can fall with maximum force onto a turbine, you need to overlay a different map. This land holds secrets of massive construction as little as fifty years ago, and the lives and stories of many men, drawn from far and wide to harness and drive natural resources for human needs.

I am usually attracted to things which have an ancient quality – the system of aquecias built to bring irrigation to the harsh land of the Andalucian mountains during the exile of the Moors from Granada. The mozarabic trails cut into the stone of terrifying ravines, feats of engineering which entwined Christian and Muslim tradition and allowed direct travel across mountainous terrain in Valencia. But perhaps it is not their age that makes them intriguing. Perhaps, like the hydro systems of the Highlands, they strike me as markers of human ingenuity that have in some way become secret, occult, abandoned or forgotten. Perhaps here it has just happened a little more quickly.

Even those who wield Landcruisers around the single track roads of Highland Perthshire rather than taking to the hills on their feet, will have come across concrete dams, hung on hillsides to hold back reservoirs drained from hill and snowmelt. These are the blatant symbols of the hydro schemes. Few though will realise beyond it, the invisible network, the result of the largest post-war construction project in Europe, and a massive social experiment to bring Highland villages into the twentieth century with power and light and provide work for men returning from the War. Still meticulously maintained by a discreet band of illuminati in their landrovers and plastic hats, monitored remotely by computer, the full scale of it is fading.

Hillwalkers find whispers of it amongst the hills - outcrops of concrete, channels, gates, walls and ladders, even sometimes a mysterious tunnel entrance in a remote hillside, such as the one in Fin Glen, that climbs up from the Allt a’ Chobhair taking you from Glen Lyon onto the Lawers range. But there is comparatively little on the ground, or in people’s heads. Despite its short history, the evidence is grown over by heather and the scramble of birch, the local eye has become accustomed and unquestioning, the original engineers are dying off.

Hugely controversial in its day – prompting a public enquiry in Pitlochry in 1945 on the Tummel-Garry scheme that had locals slamming hotel doors against visiting engineers, so sure were they that the scheme would undermine businesses dependent on the natural attractions of the area. Yet today the dam and salmon ladder at Pitlochry , the point of the funnel for 1,800 sq km of land, receives over a quarter of a million visitors a year.

Upstream of these icons, the land is now thought of as something close to wilderness. At that time it was filled with armies of men – Irish tunnellers and powder monkeys, displaced Poles earning British citizenship on half-pay, Highlanders – stationed in their thousands in encampments up remote glens. They stayed in tin dormitories rank with the smell of gelignite and feet, enduring freezing winters and midge-infested summers. The ‘Tunnel Tigers’ earned vast sums on epic shifts drilling through rock to meet a team coming from the other glen, white faced with daylight deprivation, and exposed to considerable danger.

So fascinated have I been by these hidden tales of the land, that I have written a play about a team of mixed nationality men drilling under a mountain in 1948, attempting to break a record. They are each fiercely, but differently motivated – cash, the need to legitimately belong, ideology. In concert, and in conflict.

Until this morning I had only ever used my imagination to access their territory. Now I have walked there – an adit leading to the main tunnel that passes under the eastern flank of Meall Ghaordaidh, bringing the flow from Stronuich Reservoir to Lochay Power Station. The tunnel is quiet now, rather than fume-filled, pounding with the noise of the drill, the ‘loco’ that took away the spoil, and the men’s jokes and curses. But it still gave me an idea of the confined space, the impossible dark, the persistent drip of water, the wrinkles and corrugations of the rock and its seams of schist. I was amazed to find snaggles of thin red wire lying on the concrete floor – the explosives detonators still there after fifty years. But so few people have walked this way in that time, perhaps it is not so surprising that they remain.

The overland and underland. Another theme I want to explore in my walking – the invisible history beneath my feet, the land that is not as innocent, wild and un-peopled as it might look, that defies assumptions. Rather as you see landscape in a different way if you have only ever navigated your perceptions along the same road, and then walk cross country, or you see it from the air, or by its waterways - so an awareness of its underways must change our perception of the land. And by ‘underways’ I mean both the physical routes and the narrative paths, its human past.

A challenge. How to walk it in a way that draws on this, and how to write about it?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Writers’ Footsteps

The summer that I was seventeen, recovering from glandular fever, and with family holidays finally put behind us, I was dispatched on my own for a painting holiday at Carole Vincent’s studio in Cornwall. Boscastle’s rocky shores summoned me on a journey in the drought of 1976 with no appetite or energy, teenage recalcitrance and a reluctance to leave my boyfriend. But off I went. It was perhaps on that week that I discovered the joys of walking alone. After a morning spent painting and Carole’s rough hunks of home-made bread and beer for lunch, I went off for the afternoon with my pink-jacketed OS map to explore and extend my knowledge of the area. I gained strength, recovered my appetite and found an independence I didn’t know I had.

In the midst of A-Level English and a study of Return of the Native, I was inevitably drawn away from the village, upstream along the damp shade of the Valency Valley to find St Juliot church. Hardy travelled to his 'Lyonnesse' as a young architect, and met his first wife, Emma – a meeting that generated so much of his poetry and the novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Discovering the places that Hardy wrote about, the soaring Beeny Cliff and shady waterfalls, his 'Castle Boterel', I also seemed to find myself, my feet. Something mysterious happened, and that week took on a magical significance, a kind of falling in love with Hardy, with life, with discovery. A rite of passage I suppose.

When I think of Hardy’s novels now, I see small figures on ancient landscapes and pathways - the long walks his characters often have to take. I associate his work with walking, and with the particularity of places. One of my journeys on this project is going to be a return visit to the Valency Valley, following myself (and my own journal) that summer, pursuing a romance with Hardy.

But it has started a train of thought about following writers, and a reading of Richard Holmes’ fabulous Footsteps, part biography of Stevenson, Shelley etc, part memoir, part travel. And it has made me think of another ‘journey’, a sharing of landscapes with another writer whose work I have only come to know in the last year through adapting a short story of hers for BBC Radio Four, but which I admire enormously.

In 1946, Jessie Kesson took a ‘holiday’ from writing her own life in fiction and radio drama. Her writing career was a triumph over disadvantage and seemed to be born of a need to make sense of her past. Her childhood is described by her biographer Isobel Murray as ‘a series of violent shifts of surroundings and circumstances, with no ongoing family support..’. She was born illegitimate, lived in Elgin slums with her mother before being moved to an orphanage, and spent a year in a mental hospital, at the age of 18.

But in 1946, she took over the ‘Country Dweller’s Year’ in the Scots Magazine from Neil Gunn, and her monthly pieces are a little uncharacteristic of her wider work - exquisite observations of nature and rural custom in her favourite places. I read these recently (sadly only available by retrieving back copies in the National Library of Scotland) and was particularly struck by one passage describing the summer she spent at Abriachan above Loch Ness when she was ‘boarded out’ with an old woman after release from mental hospital. I was partly taken by the sheer exuberance of her experience 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’. The same location is featured, again with visceral joy, in her fiction and poetry.

But perhaps I was also drawn to her writing about this location because about ten years before I came across her work, I wrote a short story, Keeping Away from the Water, also concerning childhood at Abriachan. In this story, excerpted below, the landscape plays an important role:

The sudden heat at Easter fells sheep into panting heaps in the shade and drops gifts of frog spawn overnight into the pond. The grip of winter lifts with the early morning mist. I lie on my stomach and gloop the frog spawn with a stick, watching it froth and pulsate. The winds turn sweet and soft, luring everyone out of winter dank cottages to breathe again, the air still clear of summer’s midges. Doors and windows are opened wide for the Spring to sweep through, rocking chairs and lifting papers from table to table, leaving the house smelling of wild garlic and the sea. Down the hill, boats are being re-floated in the loch, our neighbours stand and stare at the soil, appealing to their cold gardens to revive. Birds are careless; tumbling and falling down the steep gap to the water.

Voices burble up with the Spring wind, with the sunshine, in the birch trees. I hear them best if I lay my head in the whipping grasses and close my eyes. They never quite let me hear them directly - who they are, what they’re saying. I crunch down on last year’s bracken by the burn, finding primroses amongst the rusty deadness, turning their pale faces to be licked by the sun. I try to see what’s behind the veil of water, where the singing’s coming from. I peer into dark corners of saturated black and jewel green moss, waiting for the chatter to transform into words.

Particular places have an important impact on us all and I feel a (humble) affinity with Jessie Kesson at this coincidence of our observations. I am hatching a plan to celebrate this, to return to Abriachan and make the journey from village to lochside, the ‘plunge downwards through rough, hairy brackens’ she describes in I to the Hills.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Why non-fiction?

I love writing fiction. I love the mysterious way that observation and imagination mesh and wrangle to make something that feels complete and true. My characters can often be found moving through wild or semi-wild landscapes, taking some sort of personal meaning from mountains, or going on journeys. And yet they are not me.

I’ve long walked the hills, loved journeys, felt satisfied by going solo, revelled in the wakening of the senses, the opportunity for inward reflection, and the sense of walking a narrative. I’ve also had a long fascination with paths and other trails in the landscape – aqueducts, tunnels, dykes, switch-back pony routes, all have me asking how they got there and who made them. Did they come about through the tread of feet on a repeated journey, or were they constructed by a third party for other feet or wheels like the roads on the west of Scotland estates, built by Irishmen displaced by the potato famine? Relics in the land, and particularly those that appear to lead somewhere, always make me look for stories.

Not all the paths I want to follow have left a physical trail. Three summers ago I followed the route taken by a friend’s father as he escaped Nazi capture from the west coast of Norway through the mountains to neutral Sweden. The trail we followed wasn’t way-marked in any physical sense, but he had already written his own story, and it was brought to new life by the trail of people who participated in our reconstruction. They contributed what they remembered of the man and his journey, or what their father or grandmother had told them of it. They showed us the rooms and barns where they hid him. They helped us ford the same streams they had showed him the way over. One old lady passed back to his children the shoes he had left with her at the start of his journey when her brother had offered to exchange them for his robust leather walking boots. Sixty years on, this journey-story was still thrillingly alive, the route sketched in pencil on the maps we carried, and engraved in the hearts of people who came to celebrate its retelling as we passed through what seemed to be wild terrain.

So these are the kind of journey-stories I want to engage with. The whispers or shouts left in the land by people before us. The resonances. But why non-fiction? I’ve written two collections of short fiction, a novel of sorts, a few pieces of radio drama. Why depart from this now? And how will my fiction writing skills enhance or benefit from this new adventure?

I can hardly explain it, other than it is a gut feeling. Is it, as a friend and mentor has suggested, an instinctive need to write closer to life, to get ‘toe-to-toe’ with subject matter that I have circled around in my fiction, so that I can connect personally with the natural environment and personal stories of my own? After all, there is emotional territory in my proposed journeys – following the father who died when I was 18 months old up an Alpine summit. Past loves and other lives I might have had are linked to places on maps that I will pass.

In a recent article for The Guardian, V S Naipaul wrote about his own turn to non-fiction as an engagement with history and the wider world in a way that his fiction wouldn’t wholly allow. By doing so, he was able to learn about the world and thus feed his fiction. ‘After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.’

In the same paper a week before this, Milan Kundera, reflecting on the art of the novelist, suggested that a lyric poet ‘gives voice to the inner world so as to stir in his audience the feelings, the states of mind he experiences.’ This sounded a little like what I want to do in these ‘journey-essays’, connecting inner and outer worlds through movement and an opening to environment, a meditation resulting in textured writing. But Kundera goes on to say that as this lyricism connotes youth, ‘then to pass from immaturity to maturity is to move beyond the lyrical attitude.’ Will I be going backwards then in my development as a writer, moving into the region of the lyric and poetic, preoccupied by myself and my own fascinations?

These are some of the questions which preoccupy me as I prepare for this project and ask myself what I am really trying to do. Robert Henri said, ‘An artist’s job is to surprise himself.’ That’s what I will set out to do.