Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Thursday, July 8, 2010
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
More news will follow in due course.
Monday, June 28, 2010
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
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
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Also, following on from the last post, I love this clip of elegant ladies 'dancing' on bicycles.
Saturday, May 1, 2010
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
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Monday, April 19, 2010
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
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
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Thursday, March 4, 2010
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'