On the slopes of Binnlidh Mhor.
Where the shielings were before.
By the bushy juniper.
Where the pinewoods once were.
Hamish Read, after Robin Robertson’s poem ‘Trysts’
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).
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.”