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.