Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Photography’

Among Raasay’s ruins

P1080334

A few lines of verse lured me to Raasay; haunting Highland words by a renowned Gael about the passing of time and the mass clearance of island people from their land and heritage. “Time, the deer, is in Hallaig wood…” it begins.

I walked along the ancient bracken path, through Hallaig’s thicket of birch trees to the soft greenness of the township’s terraced landscape, a raised beach with a still sea below and the crags of volcanic Dun Caan high above. It was a September day in any year in the last century and in the sunlight I ached for the Highland diaspora transported by ships from this homeland to a new, unknown world. Reports of the time say some were forced aboard vessels clutching grass from their ancestors graves, a fraying thread to their history and a land they knew they’d never see again.

I found stones. Moss on stones. Stone built high, still forming the outline of a home. Fallen gables and gaping holes. And lines of stones harvested from village houses to make a holding for sheep, the new inhabitants of Hallaig and Screapadal and all the other cleared villages across the Highlands.

The sun shone, casting shadows on the rough edges of grey and pink. Clouds scudded over and fattening lambs snoozed in the lee of tumbledown lintels. And I sat too and read Sorley MacLean’s words among gentle ghosts, the faint imaginings of children playing in the burn and phrases of gaelic whispered on the breeze.

There will always be an emptiness here but moss, the marker of time, now smothers the sharpest of grief. And after only a few hours in Hallaig it’s not easy to turn and walk away.

P1080318

P1080305

From a distance it was idyllic…

P1050445

…but just like so much of this beautiful land, the underlying decay and centuries of wasted opportunity becomes clear when you look a little closer. Just 432  families own half of Scotland, few are Scots and many are absentee aristocrats, bankers or oligarchs who visit their Highland playgrounds for just a week or two a year. Or, in some cases, never.

Our history of land ownership has been so wrong for so long we’d almost given up hope of change. But this week the Scottish Government finally announced plans for radical land reform. Legislation is on the cards to improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership. And there will be new Government powers to intervene where a landowner acts as a barrier to development.

There are plans to establish a Scottish Land Reform Commission. New taxes will require to be paid by shooting estates and used to pay for an  increase in the fund that supports community land ownership.

It won’t be enough to change everything that’s wrong with land ownership in Scotland overnight. It won’t break up the vast estates that are in the hands of foreign investors or give young farmers access to land and the opportunities they need.  But for future generations there is now a chink of hope that Scotland’s land will eventually be returned to its people. And that is something to celebrate.

Beautiful barefoot summer

I’ve spent most of the last three months barefoot. And the simplicity of not wearing shoes feels like the ultimate freedom. Invariably I park up near beaches and work then spend my downtime in the water, wading through the waves, paddling and swimming.

My doubts about my lifestyle only surface on days like today when I waken in a city to the sounds of a helicopter and traffic rather than the murmur of waves or wind. That’s when nothing feels right and I start to question the decisions I’ve made and directions I’ve taken.

A run through the sea on St Andrews’ fine sands this evening restored my equilibrium and reassured me that the conversion to nomad is almost complete. Time will tell if my iphone’s unscheduled salty dip has an equally happy outcome.

 

IMG_2177

Naked hills and empty glens

 

The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.

The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded,  it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.

It’s the empty, treeless expanse  below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens,  beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be  animals and  birds. And trees.

Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland  hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed  trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.

These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful  – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.

There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.

At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.

My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.

P1040026

Boots that were made for walking

 

They’re irreplaceable old friends that  have accompanied me for a thousand miles or more. Every step of the way.

I never imagined, when I bought them five years ago, that the distances they’d travel would be so vast or that they’d transport me on adventures that are still reshaping my life. I thought they’d be just occasional acquaintances, brought out to play on odd weekends.

But gradually the high heels and cowboy boots were discarded, the sandals and wellingtons laid aside and for the last two years they’ve been my default footwear, whether it’s climbing hills or boarding the steps of aircraft. Bare feet are the only better option.

They walked the Camino: 500 miles across Spain, climbing high over the Pyrenees and skimming the dust of the Meseta, kicking over woodland tracks and along the sides of hot motorways. They pounded the industrial suburbs of major cities and trod gently on the smoothed stone of ancient cathedrals. They carried me all the way to Santiago.

They walked more warily on the exposed ridges of  New Zealand’s Kepler Track, strapped on snowshoes in the wilds of Ontario and slipped into the stirrups of Ginger to explore the wilderness at the far end of Lake Wakitipu.

But (like their owner, I fear) they’re showing some signs of wear and tear. The once deep, rutted tread is worn smooth and unsafe. Holes have cracked open along the seams and they’re no longer watertight. I worry that their long adventurous days of crossing moors, hill paths, heather and rock are numbered but admire how they have matured and now tell a story of the bumps and scrapes experienced along the way; not least the mushy mess that replaced my little toe for a week in Spain.

But how do you say goodbye to such trusted friends?

Almost guiltily I’ve started to research brands and prices. After five years of skipping the footwear section of outdoor stores, I’m being drawn to pick up and assess the alternatives. I haven’t tried any on but one of these days I’ll have to invest and break in replacements though I’ll never dispose of them, and on dry days and gentle slopes they’ll be taken out of retirement.

Many years ago I tidied the attic and found the tattered trainers and broken skateboards my son had been hoarding. Callously, I  consigned them to the bin. He threatened to leave home unless they were retrieved so I complied, of course, but didn’t understand.

I’m sorry Ali; I get it now.

IMG_1429

The summit of Ben Lomond

Walk the WHW (if you dare)

The West Highland Way is Scotland’s best known long distance path, but nobody seems to have informed the cattle that it’s a right-of-way. Or maybe they were just a bit weary of the endless hikers on a May holiday weekend and decided to stage a protest.

I’m not frightened of cattle  (although these girls had a definite glint in their eyes) but I spotted a few folk who preferred to take a huge detour rather than run the gauntlet. Pamplona’s Bull Run would be the Camino’s equivalent, I suppose  – although I don’t remember any pilgrims signing up for that either!

 

 

The long shadows of Skye’s stones

The mossy carpets of ruined homes, turf-topped walls and ragged church gables tell the story of Tusdale, the Skye village that died with the Clearances two hundred years ago. It’s far off the tourist trail, quiet and alone with its memories, and I sense a poignant, unfinished business in the lands of the evicted.

P1030530

P1030475

P1030508

P1030495