Category Archives: Walks

Gaelic Birdsong (1)

As Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival Writer-in-Residence for 2019, I’ve been creating new work exploring the links between birds, art and the landscape, inspired by my experiences during Spring Fling. The new work will be revealed at Wigtown Book Festival (27 September – 6 October) but in the meantime here are some insights and sneak peeks…

I’ve been researching place-names in Dumfries and Galloway which relate to birds. There are many, covering all sorts of ground, from coastal rocks to inland moors and up into the high hills. Many of these place-names are derived from Gaelic, spoken in Galloway until the 18th century.

Here are three, given with their English meanings, together with a description of the place taken from the Ordnance Survey place-name books compiled in the 1840s and 1850s. The map extracts are taken from OS maps published around the same time.

Benyellary OS Sheet 13

Benyellarie (N of Glentrool)

“A large lofty rocky heathy hill on the farms of Palgown… on its eastern side is a large precipice called “Scars of Benyellary.”
Benyellarie, from beinn iolaire, the eagle’s hill

Cairnywellan Head OS Sheet 31

Cairnywellan Head (by Port Logan, S of Portpatrick)
“A head land which terminates Port Nessock Bay on the South side. It is a Conspicuous object & well known to mariners.”
Cairnywellan, from cárn na bhfaoileann, cairn of the seagulls

Drumadryland OS Sheet 11

Drumadryland (E of Cairnryan)
“A Broad heathy hill on the North side of a large Moor or marsh, and on the farm of Delhabach”
Drumadryland, from druim na’ dreolan, ridge of the wrens

The OS information can be found at https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

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Trees for Life at Dundreggan

Dundreggan Jack Heath

Meet me,
On the slopes of Binnlidh Mhor.
Meet me,
Where the shielings were before.

Meet me,
By the bushy juniper.
Meet me,
Where the pinewoods once were.

Hamish Read, after Robin Robertson’s poem ‘Trysts’

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The landscapes we see around us today are simply a snapshot in time; they were, and will be, different from this. As part of the Trees for Life project Rewilding the Highlands, in June 2017 I ran walking and writing sessions for two groups of S3 pupils from Glen Urquhart High School in Drumnadrochit. We spent one day at the TfL estate at Dundreggan, and the following day at school. The aim was to teach pupils something about local habitats, especially in terms of flora and place-names, and to give them opportunities to respond to these landscapes.

At Dundreggan we followed the route of the Juniper Walk, stopping by the waterfall (loud and midgey); the drystone walls (lichen and wildflowers), and the burn (gorse, thistles, nettles and raspberry). After a break for lunch at the Lodge, we climbed the track towards Binnlidh Beag as far as the lazybeds, again stopping to reflect on what we noticed (sounds, creatures, vegetation) as we progressed. There were some complaints as we climbed, but they were soon overcome by a general euphoria when we reached our destination, beyond the current edge of the forest, as views south and west over Glenmoriston opened up.

The next day at school I led the pupils in a series of writing exercises drawing on their experiences of the previous day, extending that by looking at a selection of Gaelic place-names from across the Highlands (drawn from a larger collection made by Alec Finlay).

Gaelic Couplets Alistair Nicholson

The names referred to flora and fauna, once there, now absent, but which might return: rustling leaves at Leitir Beithe, Birch Face; or rooting trotters at Sgùrr an Tuirc, Boar Peak. Pupils wrote circle poems, acrostics and mesostics, simple walking narratives (comprising short verses about each stop we made on the hill-climb), and poems drawing on real and made-up place names.

From their feedback, what they most enjoyed was walking up the hill, and seeing the creatures we came across, especially a couple of slow-worms.

They appreciated how walking helped them write: “it gave us a lot more ideas and a varied vocabulary… it helped me describe what was there better.”

Through the place-names they glimpsed something of the history of the place: “Gaelic place-names tell us about what was there before and things that aren’t there any more.”

And they were pleased to discover that the name Drumnadrochit comes from Druim na Drochaid, meaning ridge of the bridge.

When asked if they’d like to return to Dundreggan, most said yes, and several had a specific aim in mind: “to climb up the higher hill”.

Teachers also saw benefits for the pupils: “the workshop was really effective in inspiring the majority of the pupils and they really enjoyed learning outdoors for a change.  It made many of them much more aware of what we have on our door step.”

 

Art in Aden

I made What is a tree? for the Midsummer Arts Festival at Aden Country Park, near Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, on Sunday 19 June. It’s a set of poems on botanical labels attached to trees around the park. The poems aim, as in a riddle, to provide an initially puzzling, but also recognisably accurate, description of the tree in question.

Below are some notes about the ideas behind the poems.

(1) Recognisable by its black buds, the ash is one of the last trees to leaf in spring.

(2) The beech’s smooth bark has made it a favourite for inscriptions over the centuries; these expand as the tree grows.

(3) Their branches used for besoms in the past, birches create an environment favoured by many plants, fungi, moths and birds.

(4) To encounter a cherry was considered auspicious and fateful.

(5) The elder’s branches don’t burn well; its flowers don’t have a very pleasant smell, but make a fine drink.

(6) The horse-chestnut is easily recognisable at different times of year.

(7) Lime flowers attract bees in numbers.

(8) Planted outside houses to fend off evil spirits, the rowan’s red berries worn as a necklace were considered protective.

(9) The water-resistant resin in the wood of the Scots pine makes it good for boat-building; rosin (a residue from pine wood) is used for treating the bows of stringed instruments.

(10) Spruce wood was used in early aircraft construction, including the Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk.

(11) A non-native tree, it’s unclear when the sycamore first arrived in Scotland. Its wood produces much heat when burned, while trees that show a ‘flame’ patterning in the wood are favoured by violin makers.

(12) Yews are often found in churchyards. The middle two lines are taken from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Yew Trees’.

With thanks to the Friends of Aden Country Park for commissioning this work.

 

Curved Stream at Traquair House

Curved Stream

Curved Stream is an exhibition by seven artists and one writer (myself) at Traquair House, near Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Each of the artists has a work in one of the garden pavilions to the rear of the house, and a related work in the main house and / or in the gardens and grounds.

Pavilion painting D&A

One of the pavilions has, as its centre-piece, an anonymous ceiling-painting depicting an episode in the story of Diana and Actaeon (told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses), just before the transformation of Actaeon into a stag. The survival, intact, of this beautiful artefact, embedded in the fabric of the building, exemplifies many of the special qualities of the site as a whole.

The work I’ve made is called DEA SILVARUM (Goddess of the Woods), as Ovid describes Diana, and is a walk with poems on the theme of hunting in the gardens and grounds of Traquair House. The poems include Ted Hughes’ version of Ovid, plus works by Robert Burns, Edna St Vincent Millay and the great Anon, among others. I led a first walk at the exhibition opening on 5 September, and will lead a second on Saturday 10 October at 2.30pm.

In the pavilion is a printed sheet listing the poems I selected for the walk, typeset by Barrie Tullett, with handwritten annotations featuring extracts from and reflections on the poems, as well as notes as to where I’d planned to read them. The sheet is in a drawer, so you have to open it to read the text – the idea for that was taken from a Victorian Game Book which was (but is not longer) on display in the house, in a glass below a window with a sheet of dark fabric draped over it to protect it from the light. I liked that ‘reveal’, and it seemed to echo the events in Actaeon’s story as well, so the text is hidden in the drawer, until its own ‘reveal’.

If you don’t know the story: Actaeon has been hunting deer with his friends in the woods. After a successful, bloody morning, they pause; Actaeon wanders off alone and stumbles upon a cavern where the goddess Diana, is bathing. Angry that he has seen her naked, she turns him into a stag, and he is hunted down and killed by his own dogs.)

The artists involved are Gordon Brennan, Mark Haddon, Jane Hyslop, Paul Keir, Deirdre Macleod, Andrew Mackenzie and Mary Morrison. There is more information about the exhibition and their work at the Curved Stream website and Facebook page.

Falkland Labyrinth

Labyrinth symbol

In 2014 I was asked to write a poem for the orchard at Falkland Palace in Fife. Sonia, the palace’s head gardener, had just planted a willow labyrinth, with a circular area at its centre. There she planned to install a circular bench, with on it a poem.

Over the summer I ran various events in and around the palace, working with local residents, pupils from the village primary school and from Falkland School, as well as kids from the nursery just up the road. We explored the orchard in blossom time, and again when the branches were heavy with fruit; and a group of us did a circuit up Maspie Den, following the “Yad’s single thread” upstream. I climbed East Lomond, or Falkland Hill, which I’d last done as a teenager, and also West Lomond, a bit further out from the village, which I’d last done more recently as part of The Road North.

Pictish bull stone NMS

I read about the village’s history: the obscure origin of the name ‘Falkland’; the Pictish stone featuring the image of a bull, “spirited and naturalistically rendered”; the development of the palace as a hunting lodge with an enclosed park around it for the ‘sport’ of the Scottish royals; the locally grown flax which was woven into linen; the now ruined Temple of Decision; and the local flora and fauna, from white ramping fumitory to the soprano pipistrelle.

I was also thinking about the ‘release – receive – return’ principle of the labyrinth: you release what’s you’re carrying with you on the way in; at the centre, the point of stillness, you receive what’s there for you to receive; and as you return, you think how what you’ve received will impact on your life in the future. I knew readers would encounter the poem at the mid-point of their experience of the labyrinth, and at what feels like a central point within Falkland, from that part of the orchard you can see the palace, the town hall, the church and East Lomond.

And I’d to fit all that into a poem which, given the dimensions of the bench and the need to have legible letters, was limited to 185 characters – slightly longer than a single tweet.

Now your steps to here have led
sit within the woven shade

Just outside this pliant wall
crowstep clocktower steeple hill

In the future bear in mind
the twists of labyrinthine time

Willow leaves

On Raasay

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I was on the Isle of Raasay in early June, for the launch of Patterns of Flora | Mapping Seven Raasay Habitats. ATLAS Arts, based on nearby Skye, had commissioned Edinburgh-based ceramicist, Frances Priest to develop a series of handmade, ceramic artworks for permanent installation in Raasay House.

The form and design of the artworks – vases, door knobs, door pushes and pieces for sills – are based on Raasay’s plant life, and in particular seven different habitats that host unique and varying plant species: Bog, Coast, Fresh Water, Limestone, Moor, Mountains and Woodland. Alongside these Frances designed a map, featuring the habitats with associated walks. She collaborated with Raasay-based botanist Stephen Bungard.

(I had worked with Frances several years ago, on Pandora’s Light Box at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, and it was good to catch up with her work in a very different setting.)

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I was there to lead a ‘haiku walk’ on the Saturday afternoon, again working with Stephen. We went to the salt marsh at Oskaig, arriving at a particularly wind- and rain-swept moment, but the weather cleared and there was much to enjoy immediately around us, and looking across the sound to Skye and the Cuillins. I was struck by Stephen’s remark that the four aspen trees we saw were in fact all one, the trunks all sharing a single root.

Back at Raasay House all was notebooks and concentration.

On Sunday, once the morning rain had cleared, I managed a walk with Frances and others on the east coast from Fearns to Hallaig, below the cliffs and into the birchwood the burn runs through. In his poem ‘Hallaig’ Sorley Maclean repeoples the now empty places:

na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe, / dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.

the girls a wood of birches, / straight their backs, bent their heads.

there were our own there were the others

Killerton REMEMBRANCE

I spent much of summer 2014 driving the motorways and country lanes of England and Wales with Luke Allan for there were our own there were the others, a project by Alec Finlay for the National Trust to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Luke & I visited 23 properties, all of which had some connection to the war – a family member who served and was perhaps killed; a house used as a hospital, grounds used as a training camp; gardens planted as memorials to the carnage. At each I led a silent memorial walk, bookended by a pair of poems from the past century on the theme of conflict. At most properties we set up a pair of lecterns, on which the poems were presented, and at some the lecterns were placed either end of a sandbag wall, reminiscent of the trenches. At a few we flew a red flag featuring a circular version of project’s title. That phrase is taken from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, about his experiences in the North African desert in the Second World War, but it seemed an apt way of memorialising all the victims of conflict, rather than just those ‘on our side’, as did the large-scale ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London.

This gallery above shows some photos from the tour (all are by me, except Killerton Chapel by Hannah Devereux, and Liverpool, by Luke Allan). The full itinerary is on the website.

After the English and Welsh tours I was able to visit Belgium at the end of September to visit some of the First World War sites near Ypres: graveyards, battlefields, memorials. I also saw the excellent exhibition In Flanders Fields in the Lakenhalle in the centre of Ypres itself, which shows the war from the perspective of the four armies who were fighting there: Belgian, French, British and German. We stayed at Talbot House in Poperinge, a small town which, for most of the war was just far enough behind the front line for it to be fairly safe. Talbot House became a social club for off-duty soldiers, and retains many features of that time.

book of the same title documents and reflects on the project. It includes poems and prose by myself about the walks and the poems, as well as the poem ‘Cloqueliclot’ about my experiences in Belgium. It also features fine photos by Luke and Hannah.

our own the others front cover

Wordsworth & Basho: Walking Poets

Sill Stone

I was in the Lake District last week for a symposium on ‘Wordsworth and Basho: Walking Poets’. A group of us were there to meet and discuss what we might make for a forthcoming exhibition at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, home to the Wordsworths from 1799 to 1808, now a museum and home of the Wordsworth Trust.

The Prelude mss

Curator Jeff Cawton shared his enthusiasm for ‘The Prelude’ and its various manuscripts. Most are written in the hand either of Mary, the poet’s wife, or Dorothy, his sister, with amendments by William; apparently he found writing physically painful, so composed in his mind while out walking, dictating the results when he came home.

Wordsworth ms

The pages above show a draft of Book 10, with William’s revisions on the left hand page:

… As a light
And pliant harebell, swinging in the breeze
On some grey rock, its birth-place, so had I
Wantoned, fast rooted on the ancient tower
Of my beloved country, wishing not
A happier fortune than to wither there
And now was from that pleasant station plucked
And tossed about in whirlwind. I rejoiced…

Wayfinder

A group of us managed a walk in Easedale, up Sour Milk Gill (a fast-flowing stream) to Easedale Tarn (a placid lake). At the foot I read ‘Emma’s Dell’, one of the ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’ – right place, wrong season, as the poem is set on “an April morning, fresh and clear”, whereas we had damp January.

Easedale Sour Milk Gill

Though with all the recent rain, it was still true that

The Rivulet, delighting in its strength,
Ran with a young man’s speed…

The white waters reminded me the Inverianvie, of one of our stations on The Road North, so I adapted a line from Basho to fit the new location.

Poem-label gillEasedale label rapidsEasdale 1

Blossom

2013-04-16 09.39.45

Last month I spent an overcast spring day at the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale Farm, near Faversham in Kent. It was supposed to be the height of the blossom season, but most of the trees were holding on to their winter bareness until the weather improved.

I was there to lead a couple of haiku walks – the idea was that we’d write poems about the abundant blossom, but what we actually wrote about was the late arrival of spring.

I was there with Luke Allan, who works as Alec Finlay’s studio manager. Luke was there to install and photograph poem-labels for a project of Alec’s called The Bee Bole, and here all the poems were variants on Basho’s famous haiku about a bee leaving a peony-flower.

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You can see all the poems here.

Below is a sequence of haiku, featuring some of the names we came across (four trees and a beer).

chilly April
an Early Bird
at the Sun Inn

chilly April
Pyrus Chanticleer
has yet to crow

chilly April
the Blue Prolific
is anything but

chilly April
Zwemmers Fruehzwetsche
and one bee

chilly April
Prunus Stella
unconstellated

chilly April
one magpie
in a fallow field

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