My new world of work requires me to wear shoes. Shoes! And makeup. I need to wash my face and put on clothes before I start typing every day. Hair? That’s still a bit deranged but there’s only so much preening I can handle.
There are no more early morning strolls along the coast, boiling the kettle for that third cup of coffee, putting on the washing machine, checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, a couple of news websites and WordPress before typing my first sentence. Then stopping mid way to have another quick peek at Twitter. My walking boots, fleeces and down jackets are currently… resting. Read more
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.
When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.
I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.
My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.
At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.
I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.
There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.
And I resolved to make more morning memories.
The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only 612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.
It was a steep but short ascent and once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more
My mission this week involved driving 150 miles through some of Scotland’s most glorious scenery to interview salmon farmers on the far west coast. I’ve been deprived of snow all winter in my frost-free, east-coast cottage, removed from mountains and the spectacular raw wildness of the west. I jumped at the chance.
I saw snow alright, on the tortured hills of Glencoe, the mighty Buachaille Etive Mor guarding the entrance to the notorious narrow pass. Late afternoon sun broke through the snow clouds to create lighting effects that accentuated the drama – if that’s possible in such a place. I followed labouring lorries loaded with straw bales bound for livestock farmers on the islands. And I stopped to get close to ducks looking longingly for food.
And the work? A ride on a boat; questions about how salmon farmers handle protected predators like seals (scare them, deter them or shoot them). And finally a sea loch-side hotel and a sleep within hearing distance of the tide.
I suspect there will be yet more tricky twists and turns to negotiate in 2015. But for now the sun is shining in Aberdeenshire’s wintry woods. Happy New Year.
We specialise in recycling stones in Scotland, as our ruined churches, castles, cathedrals and crofts can testify. They each have their own unique atmosphere, some bleak and sad, others proud and magnificent even in stark destruction. But with our troubled history of battles and Clearances, few ruins feel as peaceful as Deer Abbey. This ancient site was inhabited by monks for 340 years, until Protestant reformers did their utmost to remove all traces of Catholicism from the country in 1560.
So it too has been through troubled times and most of the stone was stolen to build a mausoleum. And yet the vibes here are calm and tranquil. The monks may have been banished, but they left their mark.
…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.
It’s quiet for now but the waves of Barnacles are close. Thousands of geese are migrating from the Arctic every day, settling on the Solway to escape the harsh Svalbard winter. The skeins speed overhead in a cacophonous cloud, swirling, unsettled, mad. And when the deafening sky fades and the last outliers pass, an expectant stillness settles on the sands, fields and rivers. The next invasion is imminent and compulsively you scan the empty skies and listen for the elemental sounds of autumn. The long, languorous summer is over.
Never have I felt such responsibility or torment over making a simple mark on paper.