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'.