Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Hallows on Dùn Coillich

Communion with past spirits; a waving off of summer; fancy dress; freakish acts of nature. It’s Halloween. And I’m lured away from these seasonal concerns towards fresh air and a snatch of big bright daylight on the summit of Dùn Coillich.

I take the route newly marked to pass a number of archaeological features. Relics of shieling huts have been located to the south of the summit and the practice of taking animals up to the summer grazing there is memorialised in the sunken paths that climb steadily across the land between Dùn Beag and Dùn Coillich. They are marked now by the rustle of bleached grasses underfoot and the absence of heather.

The route turns off this track to the north, into a lovely corrie above the shieling huts, up a small gully, and takes you zigzagging onto the summit. This last part needs more pioneer feet to establish it, and this is a good time of year for it. The bracken is weak now, crisping back into the ground and giving the hills their gorgeous tawny autumn colour. It’s forgiven its thuggish summer stronghold of sap and fibre.

It feels appropriate on this day where living and spirit worlds open to each other, to follow the people who walked before us, their trails and piles of stones still ghosting the land. I like to think that by walking old ways such as these, we forge a link across the centuries. It hasn’t taken long to find myself back in Halloween territory.

I’ve climbed to the top of Dùn Coillich by many routes but this one will now be my favourite and is perhaps the quickest at under an hour. The last steep gasp is rewarded by the lively thrash of wind and a panoramic view revealing the local lay of the land. Schiehallion heaves skywards to my west wearing a small bonnet of cloud. Loch Tummel and the hills beyond; Farragon; Glen Lyon’s hilltops. Cloud parts to give sudden fox-coloured illuminations of larch and bracken and to glitter glass on day-trippers’ cars way down by the Lochside. I can also see new layers of archaeology being formed around me – Griffin’s wind turbines; Balfour Beatty's ‘electric road’ working its way down the valley towards Coshieville alongside General Wade’s 18th century way; the new road stretching into the netherland between Dùn Coillich and Schiehallion for a hydro-intake.

A walk always rewards with observations and feelings -- the unseasonably warm blush of sun on my face; the buzzards mewling; a chainsaw yawing faintly. It also reminds us of things we know or have experienced before. But if we walk with a curious mind, we learn even more.

Today I place my feet carefully, tiptoeing around trails of large dark hairy caterpillars, each sporting golden-yellow stripes. They bask on the grass as if it’s summer. Fortunately the hut that I return to is a mine of information (and one of the good reasons to become a HPCLT member). Here I answer my curiosity. Recent sightings and ‘hearings’ in the visitor’s log include raven, hare, stag and 'fox moth larvae'. I look the last up in the Moths and Butterflies book and there is my ‘fancy dress’ caterpillar and the fox-coloured moth that it will become after its hibernation in these hillside grasses.

However, the second mystery of the day remains unsolved. Jellyfish lying on open grass. OK, they turn out not to be jellyfish, but they are great gobbets of a jelly substance, some bearing clusters of black caviar-like eggs. A quick search on Google when I return reveals that heads have been scratching over these wobbly phenomena over the last years, and probably far earlier. 'Star Jelly', remnants of a meteor shower, perhaps? Slime mould; or the regurgitated innards of frogs taken by predators? Or, as some have suggested, the freakish secretions of alien visitors or fairies?

Take your pick. The eve of the Celtic New Year approaches…

Dùn Coillich is a lovely hill owned by the Highland Perthshire Community Land Trust. It needs more feet on it to lay and revive trails. The route described is easily found from the hut (on the left of the B846 just north of Glengoulandie as you head towards Tummel Bridge). Cross the burn below the hut on the obvious stepping-stones, climb the path between two gates up to the head dyke, from where bamboo poles with red and white flags will lead you to the summit. Be prepared for some rough and wet ground but for a very pleasing walk.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Waking up with Will Self

Will Self's ten minute programme on Sunday morning, 'In Praise of Wind Turbines' was a fine thing to wake up to, even though I did have to listen again to properly absorb his argument rather than just floating to consciousness for the stinging metaphors and gobbets of wit. In his usual acerbic style, he questioned the attitudes of those who consider wind turbines ugly and unnatural, pointing out that landscape is a human-made construction in this country anyway. For him, objectors are merely living in a rural idyll - or rather, his point is that they're not living in it, just observing what they interpret as pristine landscape from urban homes. And as he pointed out, most people will be driving past wind farms on roads, which are at least equally as intrusive in the landscape, but with an existence on the whole unquestioned. People are generally unprepared to face up to the infrastructures that current lifestyles demand

With the super-sized pylons currently being erected on my doorstep and a massive wind farm growing on the hill above me, I've been watching, assessing, contemplating my own attitudes to these industrial objects gathering on the hilltops and in valleys. I certainly agree with him that there is no measure of objective 'beauty' or 'ugliness' that can be applied. People I know seem equally divided, and equally amazed when they hear a contradictory aesthetic judgement on the spin of white blades.

My recent walk over the Corrieyarack Pass (see two posts ago) raised my awareness of pylons. I sometimes think we've grown so accustomed to them, they can seem invisible. But all is to change apparently. The Guardian reported at the weekend on a pylon design competition which has been won by a Danish company with a pylon in a T-shape, somewhat resembling a small wind turbine. Apparently '...the T-Pylon – or something close to the competition entry – will soon enough be stepping politely across the hills, dales, sunlit uplands and rain-drenched lowlands of Britain'. I suddenly, perhaps ridiculously, feel a little protective of 'our' familiar girder-ish, humanoid, striding pylons (as, apparently do the 'Pylon Appreciation Society'!). By being less intrusive, and more polite, they will suddenly be very visible... So perhaps I am (are we?) just conservative, change-averse.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The PEN is mightier..

I've just returned fom the 77th International PEN Congress in Belgrade. Very interesting and important in many ways, it involved long hours in an assembly of writers from 90 countries. However, I was also able to get out and walk around the city, which was where I came across this fellow, Dositej Obradovic (1742-1811).

He caught my eye for several reasons, not least his dynamic posture with hat and walking stick, his coat swirling, books in hand. He appears to stride out of the sky and autumnal foliage. A writer and a major figure of Serbia's Enlightenment, he is captured in the monument as 'hero of the pen, travelling the world in quest of knowledge'. Apparently he stated as his personal motto : 'I shall be writing for the mind, for the heart and for human natures, for my fellow Serbs of whatever faith and creed. '

I enjoyed encountering him in my wanders in the City as I mulled over the issues of freedom of speech, and solidarity with endangered writers, literature and languages around the world; the subject of our indoor debates. (There's more on the experience of the Congress in our Scottish PEN blog.)

A few blocks away, the buildings bombed by Nato twelve years ago still gape hollow wounds, now latticed with straggling saplings. A chilling reminder.

Friday, September 9, 2011

power lines, uprisings and cattle droving

'You'll maybe no be welcome in there now,' the driver said to me as I got out of his pickup at Laggan Stores. 'It’s Chief Anti Campaign Woman runs the shop’.

He was referring to the fact that ‘Balfour Beatty’ was emblazoned along the side of the vehicle in which I'd just hitched a lift – the company now installing a much resisted power line between Beauly and Denny. In fact, I knew ‘Chief Anti Campaign Woman’, and so I was welcome. But the BB boys had already told me how they were barred from certain B&Bs, pubs and even roads, because of their association with the project.

This had a familiar ring. I live in the heart of Scotland, where large-scale hydroelectric systems were installed as part of a socialist vision in the late Forties to give work to men returning from war and to modernise some of the glens of the Highlands still in the dark. Not everyone welcomed the large-scale engineering that poured concrete across crevices in the land, dammed and tunnelled and diverted water channels. Opposition was so fierce that in Pitlochry, where the village of Faskally was flooded, all but one of the local hotels refused hospitality to any workers associated with the scheme. The fear was the loss of tourism value of the area. Today 500,000 visitors a year flock to see the dam and fish ladder.

I had no idea when I decided to take the Corrieyairack pass from Laggan in the upper Spey valley 25 miles through the Monadhliath mountains to Fort Augustus, that my chief walking companions would be striding pylons and the BB boys. What attracted me was the history of cattle droving on this route, still common till the second half of the nineteenth century, and the paving of the way by General Wade in the early 18th-century as part of attempts to quell Jacobite uprisings. It’s a brave way, crossing a high mountain pass of nearly 800 metres and answered my attraction to old ways and through routes -- paths with a purpose. It was a link for me between East and West, offering a new mental map, altering geographies largely determined by the twin track references of the easterly A9 and westerly A82, which both stretch towards the north.

Having done little long distance walking recently, I also wanted peace, fresh air, mountain heights, the possibility of a last gasp of light before autumn set in. I hadn't expected BB to be slicing new roads along the glen for pylon construction access; to be accompanied by concrete mixers, bleeping diggers, the flash of fluorescent jackets along a parallel track to my north for the first six miles.

General Wade's roads are famous for the beauty of their stone bridges. Framed within one of the lovely double arches of Garva Bridge was a busy scene of contemporary bridge construction just half a mile away. I'm fascinated by engineering of any sort and would love to know what principles of construction and tools both Wade and Balfour Beatty had in common, and what has changed.

It seems to me that although we now revere Wade’s well-laid roads and stone bridges that have sunk and meshed themselves into the landscape, the disruption and mess and mass of men working might well have seemed intrusive at the time; an alien force moving north and west, demanding order from wild tracts of land. The drovers certainly resented them, claiming that the paving would harm their beasts’ feet, finally leading to the practice of shoeing cattle. The drovers were also hostile to enclosures and to the new dykes which restricted their movement in an effort to protect arable land. I was reminded of reading somewhere that dry stone dykes, when first laying out their great, straight intrusions with glittery bare stone, were considered an abomination on the landscape.

Enclosures. Wade. Balfour Beatty. Change. We don’t like it. I find the controversy over these giant pylons interesting. Ugly but necessary to link renewable installations to the grid and save us from climate change? Or an act of vandalism? Such thoughts kept my attitude to the BB work curious rather than hostile, as I ambled on alongside the march of the existing – more petite – pylon line. I’ve sometimes been appalled by their intrusion, but sometimes visually enjoyed the lines they make through a chaotic landscape, and sometimes thought how early on in the lighting up of the Highlands, they might have been seen as a symbol of great progress and modernisation by communities affected.

At Garva Bridge, I left Balfour Beatty behind and started to climb gently on a road of Roman straightness. Overhead ravens croaked and groups of geese flew against me, trailing sadnesses east. It felt like the real journey had begun, and all the usual pleasures of walking alone returned to me along with sore feet and the ache in my hips from carrying a full pack. As seems inevitable when you walk west, a wall of wetness awaited me somewhere ahead; lumpen masses of cloud brooding over the hills I was to cross.

Over a rise in the road, came the suggestion of a horn sounding, then over its brow poured a red-brown cavalcade of cattle, jostling hoof and horn, complaining gently as they were pushed forward by a dog, a Land Rover and its horn -- the modern day drover’s tools. The cattle passed me coyly, curiously, skittling off the road to leave me a wide berth, and then gradually quietening into the valley behind me.

On into the wide gentle strath, and some sunshine, I was definitely now alone with the pylons, the stone bridges, the cobbled road that then began leading up more steeply towards a rake of zig-zags to the summit of the pass. A rising wind rang in the power lines, making them sing out and growl above me. Views opened to the west – the spiky outlines of Knoydart’s peaks jammed up against each other, navy blue; a matching weight of sky seared with blizzards of white light.

I started to descend towards the wooded ravines of Glen Tarff, found a green bank on which to pitch my tent. Shivered as the wind lashed, and the wet weather encroached.

The next morning, I followed the silvery strip of wet road down to gentler climes, welcoming the return of colour in beds of heather and flashing rainbows, the muted reflections of Loch Ness. And I met Balfour Beatty again, climbing upwards with a similar clamour of engine, splattering mud, bleeping warnings on their road-cutting toward the other team. From Fort Augustus, I journeyed on to Moniack Mhor, where I was guest reader on a travel-writing course run by the fabulous pairing of Chris Stewart and Mairi Hedderwick. It was wonderful to arrive, windswept and dishevelled off the Great Glen Way, refreshed by the sort of travel that I love best.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Eccentric Wealth on the Isle of Rum

I'm delighted to see that Alastair Scott's book 'Eccentric Wealth' about the relationship between Sir George Bullough and the Isle of Rum is out now. This is the background to my story (published in a pocket book format) of the servants' walk from Kinloch 'Castle' across the island to the laundry in 'Whiter than White'. I'm looking forward to reading it, and learning more about the extraordinary Edwardian industrialist's flamboyant creation amongst the mountains, the deer and the Hebridean weather.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Walking Men

I love this art project by Stephen Wragg - a photographic record of the painted men who walk under our feet, striding, dancing, or mincing across the tarmac. Better still, he's inviting photo submissions, so keep your eyes peeled for your local walking men!

You might imagine we live in a country with tight design standards and control - but no, self-expression is flourishing in Highways Authorities throughout the land. This is a project, begun in 2004 by Stephen Wragg to document the unique diversity of painted 'walking men' on the streets of the UK. Take a look; the collection of photographs on the pages men and street are arranged by country: England & Scotland,and in alphabetical order by county and metropolitan districts.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Saint Fillan got me walking again

It wasn't quite a Lazarus moment, but curiosity about this early Celtic Saint gave my leg the longest stretch it's had since injury back in April. The curiosity was inspired by a tiny writing commission of 62 words as part of the '26 Treasures' project which has matched writers to 26 objects at the National Museum of Scotland, with equivalent schemes in Belfast and Aberystwyth.

The 62 words are now submitted and will be revealed in the '26 Treasures' trail later this year. For such a miniature piece of writing, it's surprising how much 'digging', reading, and walking went into discovering the meaning of the 'Coigrich', this showy reliquary of Saint Fillan's crozier.

It took me walking along a stretch of the West Highland Way nearest to where I live, and had never walked before. I went to find Saint Fillan's mysterious 'healing pool' and the ruins of the chapel priory named for him. The durability of these sacred places, objects, beliefs is striking, surviving the Reformation, the damping down of superstition. Magic is alive and well along those birch-tunnelled burns and amongst the lichen-aged stones.There's a fuller account of this intriguing project on the '26 Treasures' blog (including my piece on St Fillan's Magic here) where each writer discusses their approach to the task, including James Robertson on 'The Maiden' guillotine, and Lee Randell on the Darien Chest. Meanwhile here's some photos of Strath Fillan on a lovely July day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On not walking, but writing

It's two months now since I was heaved off the tarmac of a tennis court to take up a supine position with a bag of frozen peas. Even now my right leg doesn't quite keep up with the breezy swing of my left, and protests if it goes too far or has to tackle inclines.

Although quite seriously disabled by my torn hamstring, I never completely stopped walking. At first it was only the 200 yards or so from my front door to the Co-op, taken at a literal snail's pace. Normally at this time of year I would expect to be quite active, so perhaps it was fortunate the summer has mostly been fairly similar to winter, except with light evenings (and just about without the snow). Perhaps I have been a little less frustrated than otherwise. I have also learnt a few things from the experience:

If you walk at toddler pace, the world is revealed differently. My eyes have been glued to the ground, alert to impending jolts and slips, and so my observations have been at foot level and in miniature. The discarded shoe lace or shopping list; lost buttons; the postie's trail of red rubber bands; flowers forging up between cracks in the pavement; a beetle poised on the end of a blade of grass. These tiny miracles, these embryonic stories, I would normally overlook.

I've developed a sense of affinity with people who walk with sticks (not the sort who bound along with hiking poles). There are many of them, I've discovered. I want to ask the younger ones about the nature of their injuries; the older ones I've admired for their bravery in taking to their feet at all and joining the unbalancing flow along pavements. That sense of vulnerability is not something I'm used to.

In the initial weeks, my work involved more teaching than writing, and unfortunately this included a day's walking and writing workshop for Edinburgh University Geosciences students, and a week roaming about in the woods at Abriachan with about 100 schoolchildren. (I hope they didn't take my pained expression and mental lapses personally.) After this came the period allotted to writing. You might think this would be a really good time to sit down and get it done. But my pattern of heads-down thought and word-pulling (as in teeth) is usually followed by a walk. It loosens everything up, allows for obvious solutions of word, character or plot to float into my slightly removed mind. How incomplete my writing days have felt without the daily walk.

One early morning in late May, I took myself, my fast leg and my slow one for the much missed 'turn' about the Birks of Aberfeldy. I'd forgotten the sense of elevation when I leave the trees for meadows at the top, the sense of getting away from the hum of roads. There I found a look of surprise in a lamb's eyes, the sway of calf-high bluebells, the cuckoo's insistent alarm call, the soft smirr of dew on grass. I felt ridiculously thankful for the return of my mobility; the intensity of it made the exile of injury seem almost worthwhile.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Following our Fathers

Meredith Robinson, who is currently undertaking an MLitt in Publishing Studies at Stirling University displays the illustrated book she has created for her course project: Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains. The book comprises two essays, photos and hand-drawn maps extracted from my longer essay collection, Doubling Back, which was shortlisted in 2009 for the Robin Jenkins Literary Prize for environmental writing, and currently remains unpublished in its full form.

Following our Fathers will be in print from 'best foot books' later this year, and you can already 'like' it on a Facebook fanpage!

Robert Macfarlane has said of it: "A wonderfully subtle pair of stories about walking, wayfaring and memory. Cracknell explores the strange durability of the paths that we make in our lives, in our dreams and after our deaths."

And here's the blurb:

Two men make significant journeys on foot, one in Nazi-occupied Norway, 1944, and one in the Swiss Alps, 1952. More than half a century later, the writer finds their routes still ‘way-marked’ by memory. By sharing their footprints, she makes memorials to the men as fathers – one of them her own. Despite the shadow of death and danger, the book celebrates life, family, friendship and walking through mountain landscapes richly textured with stories.

This has been a very worthwhile collaboration with Meredith whose course and its professional approach will, I hope, see her midwifing many further books and writing projects, before long.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Maps in the sands

I've been spellbound by a chance reading of 'Arabian Sands' by explorer Wilfred Thesiger, of whom I knew little until I read this obituary (he died in 2003). My copy of the book published in 1959, has a linen map folded into a pocket at the back, immediately endearing it to me. It charts in red lines Thesiger's extraordinary traverses across Rub al Khali (The Empty Quarter), the vast area of dunes that seems to defy national boundaries in the Arabian Peninsula. The journeys of previous European explorers are marked on the map as dotted black lines: Philby 1932, and Thomas 1931.

Just one night spent in the Wahiba Sands of Oman in January, made me appreciate the profound effect of that landscape. When I returned home, I dreamt every night for about a fortnight of being in the desert - exposed, but thrillingly energised by it.

What comes across from Thesiger's stunning prose, is the incredible hold that the desert had on him, his hardships while travelling with Bedu tribes becoming their own reward. He was clearly compelled to go back and back, to feel the desert's 'mystery of space'. 'Here, to be alone was to feel at once the weight of fear, for the nakedness of this land was more terrifying than the darkest forest at dead of night.'

Thesiger also felt the levelling effect of the desert on his relationships with the men he lived closely alongside. He was devastated by the changes that occurred to traditional lives here not long after his journeys, and the irony of his own part in this did not escape him:
'While I was with the Arabs I wished only to live as they lived and, now that I have left them, I would gladly think that nothing in their lives was altered by my coming. Regretfully, however, I realise that the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.'

It's made me think about the word 'explorer' and what it means. In an article in last Saturday's Travel Guardian Has technology robbed travel of its riches? 'Explorer' Benedict Allen talks about how much of the more extreme contemporary travel doesn't count as exploration because it doesn't communicate a new picture of a place or advance knowledge.

It's also made me think about maps, which I tend to value almost intrinsically. I caught sight of a headline today which said the British populace are now so dependent on satnav that map reading skills are being lost. These skills feel ancient, and traditional, but it was pointed out to me last summer that by the time maps were being drawn, a level of geographical and language skill had already been lost. Routes would have been learnt through our own landscapes by an intricate remembered sequence of place names passed down through generations, and then these were replaced by marks on paper...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Trails and Translation

In Oman, I indulged my usual preoccupations in a new landscape. I was drawn to lines representing journeys; built structures that penetrate wilderness. How could I resist, with so much space, with textures of sand and rock and sea.

A single set of footprints left in Wahabi Desert dunes – an archive of a journey that was almost eradicated overnight by the reorganising wind.

Animal prints sunk into wet wadi mud, then fired by the sun into a textured ceramic tile.

This deep, corrugated trail, testament of a 90 million year impulse, left overnight on beach sand by a green turtle. She heaves herself ashore to lay her eggs, returning to the surf and her elegant sea-creature self as the sun rises.

Two months later all 100 young turtles hatch, take three days or so to swim up to the light through sand, and make these confused, energetic trails as they search for the horizon, water, light.

But the trails I followed in Oman were also less visible: faded imprints of history, geography and culture that have paced to and fro along the coast of North Africa to medieval Spain leaving the legacy of Al Andalus; the curving sails of dhows that caught trade winds seasonally north and south along the coast of East Africa, trailing the scent of cloves, and laden with dark cargoes, empire and slavery. As I expected, my first experience in the Arab world brought echoes and chimes from my previous travels, and raised the rounded heads of question marks.

The historical links between Zanzibar and Oman reverberate on in the Swahili language spoken widely in Muscat; cardamom-flavoured coffee served in the streets of both places in small white porcelain cups, with dates; the charm and courtesy offered to strangers; men in floor-length white dishdashas and women in black; the portioning out of the day by calls to prayer in mournful echoes between walls and mountains; the slow shuffle of sandals along darkened lanes.

Southern Spain echoed there too, in arches and architecture, in open throated singing, in the parchment dry ravines and jagged fins of mountain that must have seemed familiar to the first Umayyad settlers in Spain. And in the systems of falaj and aquecia, when the mysterious skills of surveying and a democracy of sharing, brought arteries, veins and capillaries of running water to the last date palm, the centre of the most remote village to redeem the dust.

falaj in Wadi Shab, Oman

I re-trod my previous thought-steps, taken when I was in Spain walking Mozarabic trails in 2007. I thought again of Al Andalus and the value placed on the word, on translation, on books and libraries as a way of sharing intellectual curiosity across cultures of the world. And I thought on the religious tolerance that existed, however briefly, in that same period.
As the Arab world rocks, and our cultures and religions seem in danger of further polarising, might it not be time to turn to the values of this period, and in particular to put more value on translation?

It's well accepted that reading builds empathy. But so little Arab literature finds its way into English, it almost seems that we in the west are being wilfully ignorant. In the view of Farouk Mustafa, translator and professor at Chicago University, Arabic literature can transform impressions of people who might otherwise remain misunderstood. "Whether you think it's going to be a 'clash' or a 'dialogue' of civilisations," he says, "we have to know what the rest of the world is doing and thinking, and nothing expresses that better than literature."

When the longlist for the Best Translated Book award was announced this week, it included very few works from non-European languages, and only one from Arabic. Orhan Pamuk also complained this week about this marginalisation: "When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can't love be general? I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience this humanity."

By being monolithic, are we reinforcing cultural barriers rather than allowing free-flowing fraternisation, an awareness of our common humanity? It seems now more urgent than ever to reinvigorate translation. Arabia Books and other projects stimulating developments in this area, are to be applauded, but so much more is needed.

Some of the books on my current reading list (both specific to Oman and more general to my understanding of the Arab world) are:

The Dark Side of Love, by Rafik Schami – a Syrian epic novel, already underway with this one – splendid!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

'Waller and Dyker' review of The Beat of Heart Stones

Delighted to have 'The Beat of Heart Stones' reviewed in the official magazine of the Dry Stone Walling Association, Winter 2010.

This book brings to life the building process of an old dyke, the history it has witnessed and the life it supported in a brilliantly evocative way. I challenge you not to become involved with these living stones by the end of the journey.

Richard Love