Category Archives: The Road North


Whiskies from & for Argyll

Cullipool on Luing

Last week The Road North led to Argyll. It was part family holiday as well, and there were six of us in total. Fewer stations than Perthshire, and no two-in-one-day, so we should get the blogs up sooner than last time. There’s a new web address, which takes you to a map of Scotland with all the stations marked; the darker ones are those we’ve blogged to date, the lighter ones those to come.

Other than Dunstaffnage Castle which I visited in 1998, when I was visiting primary schools in the area with the Scottish Poetry Library van, last week’s destinations were new to me – Achnabreck, Kilmartin, Dunadd, Kilmichael Galssary, Luing, Crinan. The cup-and-ring marked rocks at Achnabreck are astonishing beautiful, a density of perfect circles rippling through milennia… and despite the rain, the walk cairn-to-cairn along the ‘linear cemetery’ in Kilmartin Glen was one of the highlights of the week for the girls.

Achnabreck cup-and-ring-marked rocks

Kilmartin Glen, Temple Wood from Nether Lairgie South cairn

The black slate beach at Luing was a revalation to me, and my thanks go to Norrie Bissell for showing us round there; that was our Matsushima, Basho’s ‘magnificent vista’ where ‘all sorts of islands gather’ – fourteen in our case, compared to his 263, but magnificent it certainly was that bright afternoon, as we looked from Jura across the Garvellachs to the south coast of Mull. I missed the beach at Carsaid, as I was walking to (and nearly missing) Castle Dounie above Crinan; again the view was spectacular, and now I had a much better idea of what I was looking at.

Castle Dounie looking NW towards Mull

Alec led us to Loch Na Torrnalaich, between Kilmartin and Kilmichael… or, as it turned out, the unnamed lochan just to the south (he said it was smaller than he remembered). But there were waterlilies there too, and we swam, and it was beautiful, other than the bites I took away with me.

In the unnamed water-lily lochan

We ended the week with Pat Law, her husband Andy and daughter Kirsty, who’d sailed over from Lochmaddy, having dropped a dozen messages-in-bottles into the Minch, to await their fate. Over the table in the Crafty Kitchen at Ardfern, we toasted ‘journeys’. Long may they continue.

Looking west from Beregonium

Setting out

I recently spent a week in Perthshire with Alec Finlay, the first big trip of our project The Road North. We stayed in Acharn, on the south shore of Loch Tay, and Dunira, between Comrie and St Fillans. From Acharn, guided by Basho (and assisted by amongst others The Modern Antiquarian) we travelled to Aberfeldy, Weem, Fortingall, Glen Lyon and Schiehallion; from Dunira we went to Dalchonzie, Dundurn, Glen Lednock, Dunkeld and Birnam. Alec’s father lived at Dunira in the 1950s, and we found his shepherd’s cottage there, smartened up as a hunting-lodge; his poem ‘Dalchonzie’ features “the railway” and “the mill”, and we found both, and though neither now run, the mill-building has been renovated as a self-catering cottage.

The weather was very kind to us; there was sun and little wind at Schiehallion’s summit, we river-bathed a couple of times, and both came back more tanned than weather-beaten, though did suffer from the midges. My only soaking was at the top of Birnam Hill, after a steep, clammy and midgey climb through the woods, so the rain wasn’t so unwelcome. We’re currently writing up the trip for the blog, and in the longer term will write a renga / word-map / skyline poem for each location.

Next stop is Argyll in a fortnight – Crinan, Dunadd, Kilmartin, Luing, Dunstaffnage – mostly places new to me.

The Road North

A project I’ll run with poet, publisher and artist Alec Finlay has been awarded funding from Creative Scotland’s Vital Spark awards. The Road North is a ‘translation’ of the Japanese classic Oku no Hosomichi by the poet Basho, in which he recounts a journey made in 1689 with his friend and fellow-poet Sora. They travelled north from the capital Edo (now Tokyo), heading into the mountains and across to the west coast. On their way they called on friends and visited sites famous from poetry and history, or for their beauty.

Basho’s book is written in 53 ‘stations’ or chapters, and for each of these we’ll find an equivalent place in Scotland. Basho describes mountains, waterfalls, famous trees, ruined castles, harbour-towns and rural villages, so there are plenty of equivalents for us to choose from! Ben Dorain definitely reminds me of Mount Fuji.

Our road north – with many detours – will take us from Edinburgh to Inverness, west to Skye, and south again to Argyll and Galloway. Unlike Basho, we have modern methods of transport at our disposal, so rather than a single continuous journey we’ll make a series of shorter journeys to our various ‘stations’.

For each ‘station’ we’ll write a ‘renga’, or verse-chain. This Japanese form is usually composed communally, and Basho and Sora wrote renga as they travelled, though these aren’t included in the book. We’ll write together, with writers and others we visit and meet on the way, and we’ll also draw on ‘found’ material we pick up on the way – signs, inscriptions, conversations – as well as drawing on information available on websites such as flickr.

The renga will be made available via a website, each presented visually as a word-map, in the form of a skyline taken from that location, and as an audio file. The audio version will also be available in situ, using QR technology. Working in partnership with local organisations and landowners, we’ll leave a plaque which, when read with a QR reader on a mobile phone, will take you to the relevant webpage. It’s all new to me, but Alec has developed this form of what one might call site-specific publication in the Peak District.

We’re planning to start our journeys in mid-May. Basho and Sora set out on the 16th, so we’ll do likewise, and hope the cold winter means the cherry blossom is still around then.