Monday, December 10, 2007

stairway to heaven?

Because I am fascinated by paths, walk them and ponder over their origins, the desires that have scoured them into the land, and the time and skills invested in their making, the Valle de Laguart in south-eastern Spain had drawn me to it in pilgrimage. Not for nothing has it been coined ‘la catedral de senderismo’ – the cathedral of path-ism. The irony of the cathedral metaphor is that the system of paths that criss-cross the gorges of this valley, including a crossing of the notorious ‘barranco de infierno’ or ravine of hell, are attributed to the ‘Mozarabs’or ‘would-be Arabs’, who were Christians under Islamic rule but became entirely Arabised, and had clearly acquired the Islamic engineering skills needed for enduring and artful mountain paths.

Stepped zig-zags led me up the side of the ravine through grey-green shade, under a towering white cliff on the north-facing wall behind which lurked the sun. When I reached the eastern edge of the cliff, the path screwed itself into a series of steep tight stairways. It was like walking a series of terraces except that the turn at each end was perfectly graded for a pedestrian, almost disguising the effort of the climb. As I got higher, the sun inched over the cliff’s crest. It illuminated the white rocks that bordered the pathway, and the luxuriant grass between the edging stones of each step. Each time I turned to walk west, the sun, diffused through tree and rock, created a dazzling white incandescence high above the steps.

I reached a white knobbly crag sitting proud of the wall of the ravine, 500 metres above the river-bottom. The land from here would start to roll back, become less steep and lead to an escarpment, where road travel was possible again. The crag invited me to sit. I looked towards the Mediterranean through interleaving spurs of the ravine, growing incrementally paler as they became more distant. It was as if they were the measures of some kind of scale of distance, the striped detail of rock and foliage becoming less distinct, the colour more subtle. And before the drop to the Mediterranean plateau, there was peak where Al-Azraq’s castle had been, and with it a sense of his blue eyes watching since the 13th Century. He had perhaps bequeathed to this valley the fine engineering which made this walk through a ferocious landscape so graceful and calm, so redolent of an ancient inheritance that still marks the land and invites human journeying. If books can be considered a mark of civilisation, then perhaps fine paths stepped into steep land should be too.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Learning from Arab Literature

Following my last post, I was fascinated to read Maya Jaggi's article in Saturday's Guardian Review, drawing attention to the dearth of writing from the Arab world being translated into English. I had recently become aware of this, at least in the context of Iraq, when organising an event focusing on Iraqi writers for Scottish PEN. But according to this article, the situation is more extreme and more general to the Arab world than I had realised, and Edward Said is quoted as saying that "of all the major literatures and languages, Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded by Europeans and Americans". This does seem ironic given the lead bequeathed to the world by Arab culture in the arts of literature and translation, and important to address as Maya Jaggi says, as 'Arabic literature...can transform impressions of people who might otherwise remain misunderstood'. The flow of literature between our cultures can help us see what we have in common. Now to help redress the balance in my own reading, I am off to buy Palestinian Walks - Notes on a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A common word between us and you

I first went to Spain in 1989. With O-level Spanish locked in my muscle-memory, I spent six weeks on a teaching practice in a secondary school in Madrid and then went to Cordoba in Andalucia to visit a friend who was living there. Wandering the narrow streets and whitewashed patios of the ‘Ornament Of The World’ in the early heat of Easter, I was struck by a strange sense of familiarity. I was not long returned from teaching for a year in Zanzibar, where Arab and Portuguese influences still breathe from the style of buildings, from the faces of people, from the Swahili language.

In Zanzibar the style of mosques was simple, but they were ubiquitous. Although I never actually went inside one, the call to prayer at dusk, the snatched sight through lit doorways of rows of praying men’s heads, the rituals of Ramadan were part of my normal life. People shared wealth and hospitality in ways that we would call ‘Christian’ at home. I had to question some of my prejudices.

In Cordoba the sharp sweet tang of orange blossom pursued me, palm trees shaded walled courtyards, buildings stood tall with interiors open to the skies to create a draft. Even the open-throated singing that coiled through the labrynths of streets from balconies, punctuating day and night during the fever of Semana Santa, echoed with reminders of a style of Zanzibar music, Taarab, and with the mosque calls. I knew little of Spanish history. I was disoriented by finding this nostalgic familiarity in Europe, even though when I visited the mosque, its grandeur bore little resemblance to the simple single-story buildings I had seen on corners in Africa. Two worlds seemed to touch each other here.

In the years that followed I returned to walk in the hills of Andalucia, was excited by the aquecias- the irrigation channels high in the dry hills introduced by the ‘Moors’ and still in use today. Later when I went to walk in La Marina – a range of mountains inland from the Costa Blanca –it was the Mozarabic trails that astounded me. These are extraordinary feats of engineering - narrow paths stepped into rock so that steep ascents and descents through severe mountain and ravine-cut land could, and in some places still can, be easily traversed.

The ‘mozarabs’ (would-be Arabs) were Christians who adopted Moorish customs and habits and learnt their skills. Although the majority of the population converted to Islam, Christians were treated with tolerance, had normal freedoms, and contributed considerably to the Hispano-Arab civilisation that flourished for several centuries.

It was the physical superiority of these ancient paths that grabbed me, and have insisted that I follow their zig-zags and archways again. At the time I had no idea that they were also emblematic of a period of religious tolerance when culture in the arts, science, engineering was so sophisticated we might even call it a ‘golden age’. But this idea now excites me – that our very feet might teach us something by taking pilgrimages on enlightened routes.

This October, when prominent Muslim scholars wrote a letter to the Pope, they warned:
"If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world's inhabitants. Our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."

They called the letter ‘A common word between us and you’, drawing attention to shared theological values and their expression in words from the holy books. I was interested in the language aspect of this, 'the word'. Already in my scant reading around the subject of the era of religious tolerance in medieval Spain, I’ve come across problems with the way words come at us. ‘Medieval’ itself is often used to indicate a backward and enlightened culture, when in this case we mean quite the opposite. ‘Moor’ was a disparaging word for Muslims used by Christians. And even ‘Mozarab’ is said by some to have been used by Christian resistors against those who collaborated with Muslims to become Arabised and impure. The word is loaded, needs to be regarded cautiously.

I had no idea my feet would lead me into such territory, but I’m going back to La Marina to see what walking can tell me about the word between us. I have no doubt of the importance of this issue, and the importance of looking at history.

As part of the 2007 London Design Festival, '26 Posters' set a challenge to twenty-six pairs of writers and designers. To create a six-word ‘advertising’ poster that somehow comments on or reflects its immediate location. I’m intrigued by this one and its intertwining of two words, two worlds. It also reminded me of this image on a Zanzibar postage stamp in 1963.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

whiter than white

The laundry at Kilmory

A story unfolding in laundry tape?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Desire Line

The ‘desire line’ is the line of least resistance taken by walkers’ feet – where they will naturally go. It is dictated by the lie of the land, the most direct route, or the lure of following previous marks in the ground. In mountain areas, perhaps the access to a particular view will also be a factor. A worn path is often the marker of a desire line and obstructions and cunning have to be used to keep people where path-planners want them to go to avoid erosion. In urban areas, some planners will allow desire lines to form before finalizing the construction of paved pathways. Paths across Central Park in New York were determined in this way.

Last week I walked again the route taken by the servants from Kinloch Castle to the laundry at Kilmory. I thought about these expressions of human desire, natural purpose, and wondered whether the road the servants took, improved by the Marquis of Salisbury in the mid 19th century, was based upon a desire line. It certainly has a steady incline, and takes the lowest pass between the two glens.

It also got connected in my mind to another piece of new-found knowledge. The maid based at Kilmory for the ‘season’ when the Bulloughs were in residence at Kinloch, and the man-servant who delivered the laundry to her and returned it to the castle each day, were rumoured to be sweethearts. And so the land itself started to tell me a story.

Let’s say it was near the end of the season, late October. Let’s say the man had been recruited from the next island, from Eigg, to transport with a pony the wine-stained table linen, corsets and shirts from the household of 16 family and guests, and return it each day whiter-than-white. He will soon be returning to Eigg. Emma will be returning to Lancashire with the family entourage. And so, the man decides to make the journey on his final day off, not this time for the laundry shuttle. As the roars of the stags die out at Kilmory, and they begin to return to the hills to recover their strength for the winter ahead, his passion will take him across the hills, five miles there and five miles back.

Emma will lose her job if their liaison is discovered and so he must take a hidden, occult way, find his own ‘desire line’. But has he not studied the soft flanks of Rum’s north-east corner many times as he’s plodded the road from one coast to the other? He has traced with his eye an older path on the north side of Kinloch Glen which is guided by a low dyke out onto the open hill. It might have been a coffin path at one time to the ancient burial ground at Kilmory, or the route by which livestock was gathered and driven to Kinloch to be taken to the mainland.

Once on the open hill, he fixes his eye on the lowest ground between the Black Hill and Sgaorishal to keep him right. Lungs heaving and heart racing, he pauses at a high point on the nose of the hill between the two glens. From there he can look down at the little bridge over the Kilmory burn, where he would normally allow the pony to rest and drink, the highest point reached. But where the path would have him descend into the glen only to re-ascend to the road, he resists. His heart and feet call him to hug the contour line he has established.

He turns the nose of the hill and takes the most direct line – the natural slope of the sandstone terrace, buttressed on one side by crags and marked for him by deer’s hooves. He is light-footed, a dancer of some repute, so the bogs that suck at his boots and the snarls of darkening heather that snatch at his laces don’t slow him. Snipe burst up from the tussocks under his feet, their calls making him jump and then laugh aloud as they flee with their grass-patterned wings twisting them one way and the other. A glint of sunlight ignites the fire still held in the autumn grassland, rippling it across the hill before it returns to dullness. The shores of Skye across the sound are golden, the dark mass of mountain above merging with cloud. He crosses the nests of sleeping deer, their splayed lines of grasses abandoned. They make him think of the ground under his overcoat when he and Emma rise from the machair, how they turn and look with something like pride at the floor and walls they have laid, that just needs a thatch roof to make it into their own wee house.

And then below, he sees the welcoming arms of land that hold Kilmory Bay, the breakers glittering onto pink sand, a sight that always skips in his heart. As he gets nearer, he sees the linen drying on the greens in blank white messages to the gods.

He is on the cropped grass of the valley bottom, having taken the quickest line, the tightest corner between the two shores. He is down near the burn and the beach, amidst the stags marking their hinds, their coats beginning to turn winter drab. The cacophony of their last roars seems to rise up within him. On the beach, he turns right, away from the laundry, sees the lines the deer have made in the sand, walking up and down the dunes. And then he sees that one of the lines has been made by small human feet, leading towards ‘their’ place. As he follows them, he breaks into a run.

The Hermit’s Hut

Take a simple cottage on its own on a west-facing Hebridean beach. Make the beach the open end of a valley that plunges from a long mountain ridge enclosing it behind. Give the cottage a window onto the sea. Scent it with drying kelp. Surround it with the lash and snarl of gale-force winds. But above this noise, allow the shingle to ring out as it slips back with the retreat of each wave.

Bring in night. Throw into the skies behind the cottage a bright full moon that pours window-shapes onto bare walls and floors. From the long crenulated ridge of the mountain behind, release white clouds to sail along the glen, over the roof of the cottage and out to sea.

Put a woman inside, a woman menstruating. To one side of the cottage, thrust up a towering escarpment. Call it ‘Bloodstone Hill’. To the front of the cottage, just within the crisp moon-shadow cast by the cottage and its two chimneys, seat a stag. Give him tall antlers. Have him roar and bellow to another stag unseen on the hillside. Let their exchange drift in through the gaps between stone and window-frame, keeping the cottage rocked on the edge of sleep throughout the night.

Myth? Fairy-tale? Poetic image? Or all three bound up in a real experience and a psychic state?

If you walk from place to place in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it’s not long before you come across a simple bothy with an unlocked door, a couple of near-empty rooms, a notice asking you to keep it tidy, and a spade. This is simple shelter – refuge.

I find bothies echo oddly with the transience of lives that pass through them. People leave strange markers of their lives – a single sock, a copy of Private Eye, a piece of bone or horn found nearby. Perhaps these things seemed meaningful at the time, but they can take on an uncomfortable quality. And then there’s the sense lying quietly beneath the use of these cottages now- that they were once homes for shepherds, crofters, families.

In the last few weeks I have stayed overnight in three bothies and I was very glad of the shelter – to dry out, get out of a storm, wake up in a beautiful place. In these three cases I was alone, but one of the odd things about settling into a bothy is that you can never be sure what company you will have – human, rodent, or conjured by your own terrifying imagination.

To spend a night alone in an unlit bothy can be a primal experience. At Guirdil bothy on Rum’s red-cragged west coast last week, I read in the failing daylight by the window as the sun glanced through mackerel clouds and then succumbed into grey haze just south of Canna. The sense of archetype in my experience was highlighted to me by reading Chapter 1 of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’.

In it he speaks of the poetic image of the house, and in particular he goes on to explore the ‘hermit’s hut’ – isolated, redolent of simple poverty, and of legend. The image, he says, ‘leads us on towards extreme solitude. The hermit is alone before God.’ I began to see myself as a hermit, unconsciously making a pilgrimage towards solitude, pitting myself against comfort and the lavish opulence that my main residence of the week, Kinloch Castle, on the other side of the island, represented a century ago.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

'I'll never walk the same again!'

That is what one of the participants said after last week's 'walking and writing' workshop at the Drovers' Tryst walking festival. On a golden October day we walked a figure of eight around Innerpeffray near Crieff. It's an appropriate place to play with words, being Scotland's oldest free public lending library, and still housing a fascinating antiquarian book collection. A place redolent of history, education, religion, where earls and Highland chiefs lie under your feet as you walk in the chapel, it was described as 'a jewel inlaid in the fields of Perthshire' by Robert Crawford in his recent poem 'The Digital Library, St Andrews' written for National Poetry Day.

We tuned into the rhythms of our feet, talked about how you describe sunlight on the river without cliche. We made notes, made our own lines through the land, drew maps, found metaphors and made up names for places. An early exercise to experience the environment without sight sharpened our other senses so that feelings, smells and sounds were scribbled in our notebooks for the remainder of the walk. The flowers of the Himalayan Balsam brought their sickly reminder of my childhood garden. Birds haunted us - the squabble of geese in a nearby field, cormorants splashing from the River Earn, and the wings of pheasants thrown up from long grass by our feet near the Castle thudded and throbbed like the starting up of old British motorbikes.

Participants were a mixture of writers and walkers.What became clear was that the process of sharpening senses and looking for metaphor whilst on a walk can enhance the experience. But also that walking is an effective meditation for good writing - giving access to the unconscious, to rhythms, and to the immediacy of outdoor experience.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Walking the line

On a long walk it is surprising how quickly life becomes simplified into a line. It stretches behind from where you have come, and ahead, marking your intention. Life turns on decisions about where to stop for the night, what to eat and when, and slight variations on the route. The packing and unpacking of the rucksack takes on its own systematic ritual. The rhythms of the line give the walk its resonance and pleasure.

On my recent walk, following (in reverse) the ancient route used by drovers bringing cattle from Skye to Crieff, the line also linked places and people warm in my affection from a twenty-five year relationship with this part of Scotland. I was walking between memories of past climbs, paddles, pub nights, days spent with friends and lovers. I hadn’t planned the route around this, at least not knowingly.

As Thomas A Clark says in ‘In Praise of Walking’, ‘Walking is the human way of getting about.’ It is obvious, and yet worth reminding ourselves of this. For me, the pace became the thing. In ten to fifteen miles per day, the changes are of a human scale – the gradual handover from one land-shape to another, from one settlement and group of people to another. It is enough to adjust to, accommodate, enjoy. I wonder whether more than this can dull rather then enliven the mind, giving too much stimulation to digest. When the landlord of the Tomdoun Inn referred to Aberfeldy as ‘not far’, I looked at him in astonishment. For me it was ten days away.

‘I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs,’ said Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ralph Waldo Emerson called walking, ‘gymnastics for the mind’. I know of few writers for whom the rhythms of walking (and possibly running, cycling) do not bring reflection and discovery that lead to creation. I like speed too. I ride motorbikes and sometimes skis, and like freewheeling downhill on my bicycle. But the purpose is thrill, and the practice of skill at speed. Such ways of getting about have an entirely different function.

Perhaps for everyone, whether they wish to be creative or not, walking as a refreshment, a pilgrimage which links special places or people, is something we should award ourselves annually? It is an intensifier of life, a celebration of crossing points and transitions, a getting-to-know ourselves. I came back a different person from this journey in ways I cannot yet explain. I was often surrounded by the pleasure of familiarity and revisit, there were challenges, an emotional threshold, a spiritual experience and a reassurance that my body still works. I carried what I needed in terms of shelter, food, warm clothes, the materials with which to read and write. And it was enough. This sufficiency makes me question the accumulating objects that seem to normally burden my life and travel, claiming to be ‘essential’.

The line of the walk is the string upon which, in memory, the jewels of special moments are held in lapidary brightness. A double rainbow arcing over my tent by a crag-framed lochside near Kinloch Hourn; late sunshine transforming a simple spectacle of water and grass into a miracle of colour; wind-walking a god’s path above Camasunary in a tumble of storm-cloud, sun-glare and the gnash of Cuillin pinnacles; the quiet smile of a man offering a cup of tea. The white gloss of bracken shimmering beneath dark stands of Scots Pine; the high mew of buzzards; honeyed heather scenting the path beside white-rock-tumble on the Water of Tulla. Hot water blasting onto cold, damp skin in a shower at the end of a hard day.

Leaving my line after fifteen days brought a bruise of loss. It also meant a return to a mobile signal, to emails, to the tyranny of my ‘to do’ lists at home. I longed to maintain the simplicity for a little longer, to keep walking, even to turn around and walk back again, arriving at my front door a month after I had left it. The trees I passed in Glen Lyon would then have been toasted and bronzed with the change of season rather then just golden and copper-crowned as they were.

It took me seven hours to reach home from Portree, even with the vagaries of buses and hitch-hiking. Less than thirty minutes for every day I had walked, and taking a route that echoed and had glimpses of my own way. It felt like a betrayal of the line and the sense of simplicity and intensity it had drawn.

Crossing points. Thresholds. Migration and pilgrimage. I am still counting and fingering the beads along my line.


Monday, September 24, 2007

These boots were made for....

...walking, but fifteen days carrying fifteen kilos seems to have finished them off!

This was where they went:

Monday, September 3, 2007

Setting off after the dogs: Drove Road

‘We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends.’ ‘In Praise of Walking’, Thomas A Clark.

The ancient purposefulness of a drove road seems at odds with its contemporary silence. The sense of a throng each September, of people, dogs and cattle, chattering and lowing their way from Skye to Crieff for the ‘Tryst’, is still palpable. Stories told, beer drunk, hooves scuttling and splashing mud. After the sales, whilst the men stayed drinking in the Inns of Crieff, or went further south to return to Scotland by boat, the dogs went home ahead of them, stopping to rest at the same inns or ‘stances’ where they had stopped and been fed on the way down. They had a curious discipline.

Partly to be contrary, and partly to follow an impulse which lures me west, I will take the drove road in the ‘wrong’ direction, following the dogs home. The route links two territories for me. The starting point is the place I have called home for the last twelve years - Highland Perthshire, with its statuesque mountains sedately separated by wide valleys. I have seen the architecture of the land from many angles - I have walked and run, cycled, paddled canoes, swum in pools, laughed amidst it, cried, got sunburnt, learnt its names and tales. At the other end of the route, the last point on the mainland, is where I might have made my home, had I chosen a different life a few years ago.

My walk will traverse these two territories, build a bridge between them perhaps, make sense of the emotional residues still caught between the seams of schist, or apparently forgotten between the leaves of a book.

Each time I get in a car, on a motorbike or bicycle and head west from home, I recognise the same exhilaration. My usual route goes high above Loch Tay. To my left the low hills roll towards Crieff. In Spring time, the steep green fields that drop to the loch are decorated with new lambs and calves, the dance of sheets on washing lines. At my right shoulder, the Ben Lawers range marks the start of the ‘real’ Highlands, and ahead the rise of Ben More and Stob Binnien, the alpine shape of Ben Lui spell excitement and anticipation. Somewhere before Killin, I cross an invisible line into the irreverent wild west.

There have been many times I’ve made this transition on wheels, but never, in earnest, on foot. The true start of this walk would be Crieff, but it feels right to start the walk this week from my own front door and join the dogs at Kenmore as they make their way up Glen Lyon. I will walk out of tame Perthshire into the west where the peaks are corrugated, the pubs loud with joke and tale and music, and eccentric off-beam lives are nurtured and accepted.

There will be time for careful observation, a gradual leaving of the familiar, to feel the rhythm of walking and how this effects thought and mood and words. It will take me two or even three days to reach places like Bridge of Balgie which might be a stop for tea and cake on a normal day trip from home. Then I will leave the comfort of the recognisable, head out along Loch Lyon, linking my mental map on a new route to Bridge of Orchy and beyond. From there a cross country route will take me to the Kingshouse Inn – site of countless pints and nights with midges before or after adventures in Glencoe.

From Kingshouse, a long stretch of ‘wilderness’ east of the Mamores and skirting Fort William, takes me through to the Grey Corries – where I did a glorious circuit in Alpine conditions one Easter weekend long ago – and on to Spean Bridge. This stretch will challenge my mental geography of the landscape or land-shape, which has been formed by the few iconic roads. This may be adjusted, reoriented, by straying into the hinterland between the A82 and A86.

In my map collection, the two most scuffed are the one on which I will start this journey – Landranger 51, ‘Loch Tay and surrounding area’ - and the one with Kinloch Hourn at its centre – Landranger 33, ‘Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel and surrounding area’. From Spean Bridge I cross into this ‘other’ territory. Here is the gateway into the craggy paradise of Knoydart which I have in the past traversed from all possible directions, using where possible the slow pony-paths that gentle you over passes with views to the crenulated summits, loch and islands.

This time I will stick to the north side of Loch Hourn, climbing the steep hill behind the ‘big hoose’ accompanied by the hum of its ancient turbine, towards Glenbeag, from where I used to walk the old paths and valleys, becoming familiar with hills and their names – Beinn Sgitheall and Ladhar Bheinn – guided by a map with its dense brown collections of contour lines showing the ferocious upward exuberance of this land, wearing at its folds till the paper hung in barely attached strips. I used to know which set of pylons marked which pass, where to ford the rivers, exactly how long it would take to shoulder Coire Chorsalain to reach Sheena’s tea room, the corrugated shack at Corran with a spectacular view of the Cuilin of Skye across the mouth of Loch Hourn. I hope that this soft tread around parallel possibilities, past lives, can bring a kind of joy in rediscovery, that my path will draw a line of healing.

From there, I will go a little further west - onto Glenelg to cross the ferocious narrow tidal strait at Kylerhea where the cattle were swum across in the slack of the high tide. And so to Skye.
The route has been well tested by streams of cattle over perhaps four centuries, and devised by drovers with their special qualities of head, heart and body. Their love of movement and adventure, their dipping into gossip and talk in different stopping places, I hope to share along my way.

My journey in a way still culminates in Crieff in early October as it would have done the drovers. The Tryst at Crieff was the great centre of the Highland cattle trade till the mid eighteenth century. Now transformed into a festival of walking, the Drovers’ Tryst is where I will run a workshop for walkers with an interest in writing, writers with an interest in walking, at the first lending library in Scotland, Innerpeffray Library, a place of history, books, words and gentle landscape on Wednesday 10th October.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane was published on Saturday 25th August and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I abridged it for BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week where it is featured for five days from 3rd September.
When I received the manuscript to consider whether to take on the job, I was on Skye, ending a week of school workshops by walking from Elgol to Camasunary on the south of the island, following the shore of Loch Scavaig. About twenty years earlier I had walked this route from the other direction, emerging from the Cuillin fortress of Loch Coruisk after several days' exploration.
This time it was a much needed breath of wilderness after too many days in schools, a bed and breakfast each night, living from the boot of my car. I still had five or six weeks of the tour to go, and should not have been adding to my workload. But when I opened the manuscript, there in Chapter 3 - Valley - was a description of this very place. As I scanned the pages, I could still smell Loch Scavaig's Atlantic swell, see the harlequin plumage of a pair of shelducks as they flew low to the shore at Camasunary. I had arrived on an evening of tumultuous cloud that stacked and exploded as it was torn on the high jags of the Cuillin summits, and that memory could still make me shiver. I recognised the landmarks Macfarlane noted on the walk - a stunted forest bent over the path by the wind, the bay-ful of storm-tossed rubbish with its array of languages that wrote of the currents. And his description evoked in me a memory from twenty years before, the secret interior of Coruisk. The book seemed to chime with my own forthcoming project. In short, how could I resist getting intimate with this text?
In The Wild Places Macfarlane searches for the last vestiges of wildness in Britain and Ireland, starting at its rocky isolated peripheries of north and west. He experiences these landscapes in visceral ways - walking, swimming, sleeping out in all seasons. He writes with great lyricism, but also stitches into his prose the musings of previous walking writers, new guides, thoughts about philosophy and the future. His vision of wildness changes in the course of his book as he moves south and east, back towards his own home in Cambridge, and towards mud and sand. This shift in understanding in the book is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of it - the growing realisation that nature coexists with human history, that 'wild' places are necessarily inhabited with ghosts, and that nature will reassert itself over ourselves, that it is indomitable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


wasting bright golden hours
sitting on your heels
propping up the railings
trapesing aimlessly

These words might have been used (quietly) by servants as they observed the Bulloughs entertain in their sporting country estate on the Isle of Rum (see post below). But they weren't. These words were actually used in the Accrington Times and Observer to describe employees, who were neither at war nor at work in August 1914 when Howard and Bullough, a major Accrington employer, refused to meet the demands of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and locked out 5,000 boys and men from the cotton machine works. It being not long after the 'Glorious Twelfth', I wonder where George Bullough was at the time and whether he was holding, 'either hammer or gun', as the newspaper jibed that the factory men were not doing, 'to play your part for the honour of your country'.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Laundry Walk 1: The one-handed clock

The carousing in the servants’ quarters went on until the first grey light fell into the quadrangle. The second floor corridor lined with the doors of servants’ bedrooms, looks inwards across the quadrangle to the much larger windows of the main house. Lights still burnished inside, or possibly reflected off them, inviting speculation as to what was happening in each one – were billiards still being played, or the ballroom’s starry-ceiling lights glittering over dancers? Over there, central-heating coursed through the veins of the house, but it was shiver-cold in the corridor. A long high scream coiled up the narrow staircase, sustained, ululating. Then silence. The dying pipes of antiquated plumbing.

The Castle’s clocks are all silent now, the place holding its breath. Dead things congregate in corridors and rooms. Horn and ivory, stags’ heads, stuffed salmon, the humming birds a taxidermist has caught in a spasm of flight and captured in a glass case after they froze to death in the Castle’s conservatory. There are talons, beaks, and staring eyes. Four deer hooves have been fashioned into a light-fitting; a ram’s horn butted with a silver cover to make a casket. A large cat drapes itself over the 1895 Steinway Grand Piano. You could stalk it forever without it ever giving itself away with a blink or a twitch of its whiskers. It hides the place where a stiletto heel marked the glossed mahogany. Here the ghosts of parties lurk amongst the dead.

Our tour of Kinloch Castle twelve hours earlier had animated the place in imaginations. When one of our party sat at the Steinway, and made measured notes into melody and chime and rumble, embers flared from ashes. The Great Hall seemed to raise its head. Within the resonant sustained note, a single tick of a clock, the blink of a glass eye on the wall. Figures poised in grand portraits relaxed their heads and rigid arms, and looked around. It was as if the bronze wings of the monkey-eating eagle had softened back to feather, and the long scale of black and white had released it to swoop around the gallery. Even the frozen lion lying on the faded red carpet might just find voice to resume its silent roar.

Sock-footed tourists were spelled in a circle of listening, the room around them taking on life. Outside the leaded windows, between the Castle and the lawn that fronts the bay of Loch Scresort, the sand road shone with the day’s persistent rain. The weather held no threat though, tamed by the ease of an interior, by entertainment. For once, I was not drawn to be out in the elements, was not looking at my watch.

In Lady Monica’s light-filled Drawing Room down the corridor, amongst white and gilt inlaid tables, and hand-embroidered silk wall-hangings, I had seen a one-handed clock. A society beauty who claimed descent from Napoleon’s family, she could no doubt take time to enjoy views from the Castle’s windows. She and her lady friends had no need to know the minutes, their days measured out in mealtimes and hands of cards, sporting excursions and preparations for the next party. They would give little thought to the meaning of time on the other side of the quadrangle, for those who are bought in hours. And the connection to the reliable arrival of freshly laundered linen.

When I first became interested in the ‘Laundry Walk’ on the Isle of Rum, I dwelt upon Sir George Bullough’s vanity in locating his laundry five miles from the castle, at Kilmory on the north coast. During the season he invited politicians, businessmen and theatrical stars to his house-parties. They were there to be impressed and assist his social mountaineering, not to glimpse a swaying line of wet sheets, revealing the mundanities of running a house. Separation between guests and servants was carefully engineered. In the ballroom, the fourteen-piece orchestra performed from behind curtains and the barman lurked behind a shutter until summoned.

In the party years between 1897 and its abrupt end in 1914, the servants walked five miles to Kilmory and five miles back. They went west up Kinloch Glen with the curving road always visible before them and then turned north at the meeting of the glens to descend the long slope down Kilmory Glen. On a clear day the bay would be washed white with spume three miles before them, and the hills of southern Skye looming across the Sound. George Bullough was known to drive past the servants in one of his collection of sports cars, greeting them with a jolly wave. Empathy for the servants boiled up in me - the indignity, the exploitation. I sensed bare feet, the snarl of winter wind, the chafe of a wet woollen scarf against a cheek, the long wet road ahead. The location of the laundry seemed to me just one of the many absurdities of a place designed so that a small number of people could enjoy idleness.

Last week I took the walk for the first time. The land told me its own story, and perhaps creaked my mind open to different possibilities.

The history of Rum (or Rhum) beats with rhythms of displacement and dislocation. The sandstone plateau constituting the north of the island came from somewhere near the Equator. The Manx sheerwaters who famously burrow their chick hatcheries into the soft stone high up in the Rum Cuillins (themselves named by Norse invaders), depart each autumn for Brazil. Many of the islanders were cleared to Nova Scotia by the Marquess of Salisbury in 1826 to make way for sheep. Deer were hunted to extinction by the 1780s and then restocked from the mainland in extravagant numbers. George Bullough’s grandfather James made the family rich by technological inventions which displaced workers. He revolutionised the cotton weaving industry at a time when steam-powered machinery was being introduced, and later became a Lancashire mill owner.

When George built the castle in 1897, the island’s Torridonian sandstone was not pink enough for him, so he imported stone from Annan. He shipped in 250,000 tons of Ayrshire soil for the gardens. His Lancashire-based architects came up with their usual cotton mill template, adding ‘castley bits’ onto the outside. The chefs came from France; servants from Lancashire or Eigg. At various times grapes, peaches, nectarines, figs, humming birds, turtles and even alligators attempted to flourish in the Castle and its grounds. It wasn’t just Belgravia coming to the Hebrides. The resources of the globe seemed to be implicated.

I left the servants’ quarters (now turned hostel) without the burden of the gentry’s laundry, but with a hangover and a heavy head from too little sleep. The way is simple though, and requires little thought. Through the gate to the north of the castle, a track leads between alder thickets, up onto the open moor. The granite is rough underfoot now, but must have been smoother in the days of George’s sports cars. He is said to have reached Harris, on the south west of the island in only 16 minutes, a journey that now takes an hour in a Landover. The road would have been wide enough for the servants to walk abreast, jostling with a laden pony or two, gossiping as their lungs woke up for the day to the two mile climb.

A Force Seven westerly was getting up, and the higher I climbed on the unspectacular track, the more my face was whipped by my own hair, and stung by horizontal raindrops. The volcanic Cuillin, cloud-locked, loomed well to my left. The Kinloch River curled below along the glen to my right, reflecting steely skies. This was more like October than August.

On the pass at the meeting of the glens under Minishal (or Black Hill), a sudden change occurred. The track began its turn to the north, passing over two fast-flowing burns by bridge. Beside the second of these, just downstream of the bridge was a flat grassy bank. It invited speculation. On a sunny day, or even on a day such as this, could it have been the half-way resting place where the ponies would be offered a drink. Could there have been some paddling of tired feet, a story told, an oatcake to bite on? Could there have been an element of ‘play’ in such work, I wondered, rather as I imagine a day cutting peat on the hill would have once included?

Kinloch Glen dipped to the coast below. The small white glint of gale-rucked waves in the bay contrasted with the grey beyond which might either have been sea or the sudden hills of Skye, or the sky above them. I walked on in a curiously changed mood. Could it have been with the shift of rock beneath my feet – exchanging granite for a pink cobbled pathway of sandstone? Or was it the suggestion of colour and subtle cloud-break ahead? Or simply the prospect of walking downhill?

The steep western side of the glen, sometimes densely wooded, cut off the wind. To my right the glen carrying the river was textured in rich long grasses. Small birds were tossed from it by the breeze, trilling. Reminders of humming birds. I felt warmer, protected, beckoned to the sea sparkle, sand, the lush call of the meadow.

I thought about George Bullough’s reasoning. I began to see how his mind might have worked. He would have explored his island well, found this place and wanted to make it part of his ‘playground’. He would have wanted to give it a function. Perhaps it was the sight of white breakers uncurling – in the way that such things in TV adverts suggest freshness and cleanliness. He presumably had no notion of the practicalities of washing clothes; about sources of water or the weight of wet sheets. Perhaps it was more of a poetic decision of his to locate here the corrugated iron laundry building in view of the open sea with the reel and wheel of gulls about it, and the bark of seals. Perhaps the location of the laundry here was really a sign of how he loved the place?

Just before reaching the shore a small diversion from the Laundry track took me down through the nineteenth century township. A sunken grassy ‘street’ leads between low, roofless stone walls, now rounded with accumulated turf and tufty grass. A graveyard is prominent in the midst of the houses, on a high slope. Successive island shepherds and their families are buried here. The houses clustered on the bank of the river, are redolent of close community life. But when I visited, the figures at the hearths of the old houses, clambering between graveyards, wading the river, were red deer rather than people. They raised their heads with little curiosity as I walked past.

I lingered there for a long time, walked the machair and dunes, the beach where more deer waded and left their hoof prints in the pink sand. Gulls rose and fell in white glittering clusters like handfuls of thrown paper. On the slopes above the beach, lazy beds rippled in stripes, revealed by the play of sun and wind on the silk-strong grasses that have covered them now.

After the lingering at Kilmory, the daily journey for the servants seemed a gentler thing to me. Their days would be measured out by the walk there, the work with cloth and water and soap, the walk back. Would the time be broken again at the resting place next to the burn on each leg of the journey? Broken again by the length of a story? Would they have knitted as they walked, measuring the time in the arm of a jumper or the length of a calf? Would they sing songs to help the pace as they struggled up hill into headwind? I know how often when walking alone and trying to push on, music has intruded unbidden into my head. Scottish dance tunes – a Gay Gordon’s or Dashing White Sergeant – have kept my paces regular and rhythmic, and have stomped and pulsed long after the walking has stopped, stubbornly beating time.

It is perhaps one thing that the servants had in common with Lady Monica. I have the sense that the servants on this daily walk had no use for a clock to tell them about minutes, or even hours. Their days would beat with the sun’s rise and fall, the passing of land beneath their feet, the row of stitches in a knitted sock, perhaps a phrase of notes on a whistle, and the flow of water between hill and sea.

I looked back at the island as I surfed away from it on the Sheerwater towards Eigg and Arisaig, and knew I'd be back soon. I want to get closer to the servants’ walk, trudge it in different seasons, with different companions to help me look at it in diverse ways. I want to feel the nature of it - the saunter or the march, what might induce them to linger or stride; the landmarks noted by the walkers which told them of their distance gone and time spent. Here is the rock that looks like the face of the old woman, here the rowan tree that's the first to bejewel itself with fruit each year, here the burn crossing, and the first sight of the bay. These are the rhythms of a walk when we get to know it well. As regular and steady as the steps marked out on the face of a clock.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Walking and Marking

‘In some cases, there is no physical alteration of the landscape and thus no ‘product’, but walking forms the medium of the work, suggesting a similarity to performance art. But he requires no audience… He saw walking as a kind of drawing, a mark-making process, which inscribed the landscape without necessarily leaving a mark.’

In 1981, I wrote these words about Richard Long as part of my art college dissertation Hill Figures to Land Art in which I traced links between ancient land art, the Victorian chalk hill figures, and the 60’s land art movement. At 21, I must have seen the 60s as ancient history. That’s my excuse now anyway, for speaking of Richard Long as if he was long deceased.

Fortunately he is very much alive and a major retrospective and exhibition of new work Walking and Marking is currently showing at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Since 1981, I’ve had the opportunity to see several of his exhibitions and they never fail to excite me. I tried to work out yesterday where that excitement comes from. Perhaps it is the suggestion hovering behind the evidence of his walks – photographs, words, lines drawn on a map, an arrangement of stones – of the solitary artistic life, the intent, the preoccupations in his mind as he walks. They are preoccupations that drove him on to ‘A coast to coast walk across Ireland’ or ‘A Leap year walk, England 1996’. The words tease, and leave gaps between the High tide at Avonmouth at midday and a total eclipse of the full moon at midnight 366 miles and eight days later. These gaps evoke for me the connections he has made through time and space.

In an interview in the exhibition catalogue he says, ‘My materials are elemental: stone, water, mud, days, nights, rivers, sunrises. And our bodies are elemental: we are animals, we make marks, we leave traces, we leave footprints.’ In 1981, I had no idea that my interest in walking, even then, would lead me towards even greater interest in Richard Long’s ideas – that I too would be fascinated with marks that humans have left in the landscape – paths made by bare feet on their way to a fishing boat, or tracks defined by the hooves of cattle on the annual drove to market in the 18th and 19th centuries. And that I would want to work with these as ‘art’ too.

‘..When I’m out doing my thing,’ says Long, ‘many people would consider that I’m not working at all, that I’m just walking on a mountain.’ It’s all in the intent, the connections drawn, and these are largely invisible to others. Fortunately for Richard Long he has found a way of showing what captivates him about landscape in a way that can be brought into a gallery, has developed installations and mud 'markings', and this has made him hugely influential.

‘So you’ve got a grant to go on a walk?’ someone said to me of my Creative Scotland Award. My challenge now is to communicate in words the intent of my journeys that feel both like 'going for a walk' but also more than this. As Thomas A Clark says in his prose poem In Praise of Walking, 'The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement'.

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.