Island Resilience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve often written about travelling to the Scottish islands – Harris, Lewis, Mull, the Orkney Isles, Shetland – remote outposts of the far north of our own island home.  My perspective is usually that of holidaymaker, traveller and visitor.  Perhaps not your typical tourist, if such a thing exists, but certainly my visits are not much more than a dalliance with island life.

 My trip to the Outer Hebrides this year was to a part of Harris I hadn’t been before, the bays area, along the so called Golden Road (so named for how much it cost to build).  It is a bleak landscape; treeless, rocky, full of lochans and peat bogs, similar in some ways to the flow country in Caithness.  It is wild and beautiful and full of life, but it is a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

The ruggedness and remoteness clearly encourages creativity.  In a 2 miles stretch there are 3 art galleries, a ceramic artist and photographer, and that’s in one small area.  The road is dotted with artists and artisans drawing inspiration from their surroundings.  It’s a tough place to make a living and a tough place to live; people have to be self-sufficient, resilient.

I have never met anyone more resilient than Eddie.  He and his wife owned the holiday cottage we were renting for our stay.  I don’t know how old he was, almost certainly retired, but it was clear that he had some illness which affected his speech and his core strength.  It later transpired that he was living with late-stage Parkinson’s.  This didn’t seem to hold him back: he cycled most days, did jobs about the house, gardened, and cooked.  We learned that in 2015 he had undertaken a charity bike ride up the spine of the Uists and headed all the way up to Stornoway.  Physically this should have been impossible, but he has grit and determination which seems to make up for some of the physical challenges he must face daily.  Eddie is not a native islander, but he has certainly adapted to island living and displays those characteristics – both flexibility and toughness – which make the difficulties he faces wholly surmountable.

He also makes an awesome Key-Lime Pie!

Murder on the Rise

I’m not talking about the latest crime statistics here.  I’m talking the writing genre that is crime fiction.  Whether it’s ‘Nordic Noir’ or home-grown crime thrillers, there has been a definite surge in both interest and output over the last decade.  There have been awards for crime writing for many years -The Golden Dagger is the biggest in the world- and now there are crime writing festivals a-plenty, from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival to Bloody Scotland.

crime fictionIn my home country (Scotland) there seems to be a plethora of dark writers, from established international authors like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Val MacDiarmid, Denise Mina, Alex Gray and Ann Cleeves, to perhaps less well known writers like Alan Guthrie, and Peter May, and newer writers like Helen Forbes and LG Thomson.

The UK has a fine tradition of psychological thrillers – not necessarily ’crime’ or ‘murder’ (think Hitchcock here) and a rich seam of ‘Who Dunnits’ and detective fiction.  The ‘Golden Age’ was always considered to be the 1890’s to the mid 1900’s with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Michael Innes topping the popularity stakes.  They weren’t so much about literary style and rounded character but much more about the ‘whodunnit’ formula which allowed readers to guess who the murderer might be, with a little deliberate misleading, though rarely with too many surprises.

I read Agatha Christie in my youth, and bored easily of the formulaic approach.  It left me with a bad taste about crime writing in general, although I don’t deny that it was often clever and compelling, and very, very, popular. However, as a result I’ve tended to avoid the genre, until now.

My partner is an avid crime writing reader and has catholic tastes.  I’ve never much been persuaded by his gory descriptions (Stuart MacBride and Tony Parsons spring to mind) although when I ran out of reading matter one wet afternoon, I was tempted to a few Ian Rankin books, and was pleasantly surprised.  Although I got annoyed with Rebus after a while, it opened my mind to the fact that crime writers can handle plot development and character with the best of them.

We both support and attend a local literary salon which invites along publishers, agents and writers.  A surprising number of the authors we’ve had to speak are crime writers: the ubiquitous Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Alan Guthrie, Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and LG Thomson to name a few.  Their insight into writing both plot and character have been enlightening.  When one of our own members – Helen Forbes- produced a first novel in the genre, I bought it in the spirit of supporting a fellow member, and ended up enjoying the book enormously.

I’ve been impressed with excerpts from Denise’s books, and thoroughly enjoyed the readings from LG Thomson at the launch of Emergent’s XpoNorth festival in 2015.  These are writers who write gritty interesting characters and multi-faceted plots. Crime may be the genre of choice, but there are good stories here for the telling.  It’s changed my perspective, and reading choices.

I don’t tend to like graphic bloody films, and in some ways books can be as bad if you have a visual imagination, so I’ll still avoid those especially gruesome tomes and stick to something with a little more intrigue and a little less blood.

Edmund Wilson suggested that “reading detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking” and perhaps he is right.  Auden described himself as an ‘addict’ of the genre, and I have friends who can’t get enough of their ‘fix’ and read crime fiction voraciously and exclusively. There is certainly a popular and wide appeal and this sort of fiction is no longer separated into dark corners of bookshops but competes on its own terms taking up more inches of shelf space than some supposedly worthier tomes.

John Sutherland (former chairman of the judging panel for one of the foremost literary prizes) had the view that submitting a crime novel for the Booker Prize would be: “like putting a donkey into the Grand National” This may still be the view held by ‘literary’ types, but is a kind of literary snobbery that puts people off reading, rather than encouraging them.  And with around 1 in 3 new novels being crime fiction, not too many people will be giving too much gravitas to these views.

I doubt if the current assent of the crime novel will breed a race of psychopathic writers, or a nation of murderers.  My hope is it will continue to produce a nation of readers, and that we will continue to get good quality new crime writers telling stories of the complexity of human nature, and questioning how we judge people.

L G Thomson’s website: http://www.thrillerswithattitude.co.uk/

Helen Forbes Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Helen-Forbes-Author-457783327732599

Bloody Scotland Website: https://www.bloodyscotland.com/authors/

Secret Life of Mammals

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We found a shrew on the drive the other day.  Sadly, it was dead, though recently so.  It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks.  I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little  life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature.  I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.

The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life.  Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.

The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.

If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ .  The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link.  See BBC Nature for additional information.

 

photo from BBC archives

 

 

60 Degrees North

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A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

The Long Commute

View to end of Caledonian Canal into Beaul;y Firth Ben Wyvis distance smallMy current commute is longer than some, not as long as others.  I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.

I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route.  Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper.  It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!

I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital.  The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness.  The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969.  The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness.  Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.

The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore.  Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge.  It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals:  the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks.  Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch.  In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere.  The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.

Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.

Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming.  It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.

I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute.  Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city.  Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!

Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved.  View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.

Why I‘m Not Mourning the End of Summer

Woodburner smallI work in a sector where the colder days and dark nights are a cause of dread.  If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or depression of any sort, the cold gloomy days ahead can seem interminable, and the fact that we’ve had a good summer this year seems to make it worse, by highlighting the contrast.

I’m the last person who would trivialise peoples’ anxiety about winter, especially those who have mental health issues, but I’m one of those people who are lucky enough not to suffer from SAD, and can see the benefits that the cooler days bring. 

For a start, I love the autumn colour: Glen Affric in the autumn is a delight, particularly if you get one of those cold bright days, which we sometimes do.  Who doesn’t like crunching about in autumn leaves and collecting conkers?

Admittedly I don’t like the cold – not one bit- so living in the northern most part of the British mainland may seem like an odd choice, but as Billy Connelly said, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing’, so as long as I can wrap up and keep warm I’m happy to engage with the colder weather on my own terms!  I love putting on my winter woollies, which my mum knits, and walking on a deserted beach; I actually really like seeing the first snow fall on the mountains, and watching Ben Wyvis, which I can see from my utility room, turn white at the summit.  I even love crunching the white stuff underfoot and building snowmen (well, snow pigs in my case, but the point is the same).  Also, I am in love with my wood burner.  There I’ve said it!  I will be delighted with the new opportunities this season presents to stoke up the fire.  There’s something magical about being toastie-warm in front of a real fire, whilst it’s blowing a gale outside.

There are many other seasonal benefits to be had – the darker night skies provide much better opportunities for stargazing, and if like me, you’re lucky enough to live in a ‘dark sky’ environment you’ll appreciate the clear night skies at this time of year.  The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) are also only really visible in the autumn and winter months, and although I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing them, the north is one of the best spots in the UK to do so.

Food is always a pet subject of mine, and at this time of year there are plenty of seasonal delights from blackberries and other hedgerow food, to chestnuts, game and stews.  Gone are the summer salads, in is hearty, wholesome, warming grub in extra big portions to give me energy for keeping warm: steaming piles of fluffy creamed potatoes, soups of every kind, stodgy puddings, and back on board are the lovely shellfish too.

I enjoy getting out and about, but the cold short days are also a good excuse to curl up on the sofa, in front of the fire, with a good book, or a good film, and not feel guilty.  I do miss the exercise I get in the summer from gardening, but I can sit inside smug in the knowledge that all the tending has been done and my sprouts are doing their thing in time for Christmas.

I said the ‘C’ word.  I’m aware it’s not something that sets everyone’s heart alight, but I do love Christmas and all the traditions associated with it:  Candlelit carols, wrapping presents, sending cards, visiting friends and family, and all the food sights and smells that go with this time of year –the Christmas cakes, pickles, hams, cheeses, mulled wine, and all the Christmas spices.  And let’s not forget the start of the citrus season too!

There are lots of things to enjoy as we move towards cooler weather, and of course, there’s always the spring to look forward too!  Would we appreciate it as much, do you think if we didn’t have autumn and winter?

 

 

 

Life on the Edge

Beyong Luskentye smallLife on the Edge – it’s the strapline for the Outer Hebrides tourism website, and the title of a new BBC Scotland Series which starts this month (May).  The Outer Hebrides is a chain of Islands that sits only 30 or so miles off the coast of Scotland, but is perched in the Atlantic on the very edge of Europe – next stop Canada.

If you search on line for ‘life on the edge’ it returns pictures of people hanging off cliff edges, and leaping buildings, and there is definitely a sense of exhilaration in going to somewhere as wild and exposed, and remarkably still untouched, as the Outer Hebrides.  Interestingly it is the only place in the UK to make the ‘Wanderlust Magazine’ list top 100 travel destinations.

I was fortunate to spend the best part of a week there, exploring some of the islands in a campervan.  I mentioned ‘Out There Campervans’ in my blog post exploring wilderness Scotland last year (A Week Out There), and this time used one of their smaller, but still well equipped, vans.  The Outer Hebrides is definitely no places for a large motorhome!

It’s difficult to find adjectives to describe the Outer Hebrides that aren’t over-used and hackneyed, but ‘amazing’ and ‘wild’ are two that can’t be avoided!  I didn’t feel that a week was sufficient time to ‘island hop’ and concentrated on the main islands of Lewis and Harris, also tagging on Scalpay and Great Bernera, which are attached to the mainland by road bridge.  Even so, a week wasn’t really enough time to do the place justice.

If you visit, and I would urge you to take the opportunity, the beaches are something that will stick in your mind.  The weather was quite cool at the start of the trip, and the wind blustery, but even so, the rugged, almost deserted beaches were heart-stopping.  When the sun decided to shine it was easy to believe you were in some exotic location, or a film set.  In the end we did get a bit ‘beach blasé’ as there were just so many stunning bays, coves and shorelines to explore! Traigh Lar,  Dhail Beag, Bosta,  Mangersta, Horgabost and Luskentyre are a few of the highlights, but there were plenty more we didn’t get to.

The array of wildlife is another key reason to visit the Outer Hebrides.  Although the weather wasn’t good enough for a boat trip (it wasn’t good enough for the container ship to sail, or the fishermen to go out!) there was still plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife, particularly birds.  Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot golden eagles at the hide on North Harris, we did see one one our way back from Bosta beach, a magnificent creature coasting along the ridge.  One of the joys of having the campervan is that it can be taken to some fairly remote locations and parked up overnight.  We had an interesting encounter with a herd of cattle, and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking, wild animals, it was interesting to see them in a natural setting.  When you have a large bull scratching his head on your wing mirror, you had best be engaged!  We didn’t see otters, or even red deer, but you have a better chance of seeing them here than a lot of places, and there is always next time.

The Hebrides offer a rich cultural history, and for those who enjoy exploring, there is plenty to find out.  We visited the Calanais stones, as this felt mandatory, and their brooding ancient presence was worth the trip.  There was plenty we didn’t see, as we felt that trying to pack too much in would dilute what we did get to.

Like Scotland in general, and the Highlands in particular, the islanders were friendly and chatty.  Most people had the time to spend a few minutes blethering, and the islands seem particularly accommodating, welcoming even, to campers who wish to wild camp.  We only stayed on a campsite on the first evening, and thereafter camped where we landed each day.  There were plenty of safe level spaces, many with stunning views.

I’m a bit of a crafter, and enjoyed seeing some of the local craft work and paintings.  As you can imagine there’s no shortage of artists and photographers prepared to share their take on the stunning vistas, and there are a number of very nice independent art galleries which also double up as cafés.   Hebrides Art is a 5-star visitor attraction, and as well as a stunning gallery of local art, has an excellent collection of island crafts.  We didn’t try the café, but the views of Seilebost from there are jaw-dropping, and the smell of homemade soup and bread was enticing.  I sneaked a peek at the cakes too, and they did look yummy!

The real joy of the Outer Hebrides is of course outside – the space, the peace, the rugged landscape, scoured by the Atlantic Ocean.  Even the Highlands seemed a noisy and busy place by comparison.  This is definitely life on the edge, people shaped by living on the edge, and every bit wonderful because of that.

 

 Outer Hebrides Visitor Website http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/

The Murder of Crows

P4237306On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, I inadvertently spent the night in a campervan with a captured crow for company. The bird was not in the van, lest you’re wondering, but trapped in a cage on the edge of the moor.  The wild bird, or Larsen trap, is quite legal, and supposedly humane – the trapped bird must have shelter, water, food and a perch.  But there was nothing humane in seeing a caged bird die.

The traps are supposed to be checked at least every 24 hours, and I have no reason to suppose that the person who set the trap did not do so.  I wonder as to the efficacy of such interventions in the course of the natural world.  Sometimes members of the corvine clan are caught for research, sometimes to avoid decimation of the songbird population, and sometimes because they affect the livelihood of estates.  I don’t know why this particular bird was caught, but it was scared and alone.  One moment it was cawing in the dawn, and the next it was dead.

Larsen Traps were designed by a Danish gamekeeper (Larsen) in the 1950s, but are now banned in that country because the traps are viewed as inhumane for trapping magpies and crows.  Recent research has indicated that corvines are particularly intelligent, and for any intelligent animal being caged can never be humane.

I know people will always have arguments to support such activity, and rural poverty will always get my sympathy, but I can’t help feeling that this poor animal was a victim of the profit principle – protecting game bird young from the natural predation by crows and magpies.  I suppose that crows are not in decline, and need no protection, but they have young too; maybe a crow family has starved to death whilst its parent died of terror in the bottom of a cage.

I can’t help feeling that there’s not much humanity in murdering a crow, indeed, any creature, and that with artificially high numbers of game birds in the countryside the odd captured crow isn’t really going to make much difference.  As usual our interventions upset the balance of nature, whether we support or decry her.

I toyed with the idea of releasing the bird and risking ‘mischief with intent’ but decided that I did not know enough about why it was there to intervene.  I wish now I had let it go.

 

A week ‘Out There’

Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that.  In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives.  There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!

I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist.  Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun.  So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.

Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore.  The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’.  We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day.  Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense.  Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa.  Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife.  On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water .  I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it.  In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells.  Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.

John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming.  Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be.  There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with.  Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.

Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need.  Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister.  You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.

Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience.  You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is.  You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day.  There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam.  Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!

 

 

Rabbie..not just for Burns Night!

Burns Night is almost upon us again.  It falls mid week this year, and I celebrated at the weekend with bashed neeps and tatties, although minus the dram, as it was lunchtime!  Burns suppers are celebrated across the globe, and not just in Scotland.  The national bard is widely respected, but I’m  not sure how widely read is he is outside of his native land.  Let’s admit it, the Scots dialect which he elevates to poetry, can be a mite difficult to understand, but if you’re interested in history, poetry, social structure, and most importantly for me, language itself, then it’s worth getting to grips with.  Some of the best British writers wrote hundreds of years ago in language which is very strange to our modern ears, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, dismiss Shakespeare or Chaucer because they seem ‘difficult’.

If you don’t have a tame Scotsman (or woman) to hand it’s worth trying to find one! If you can’t, the BBC audio archive has his complete works available, read by some of Scotland’s biggest names. The poems are meant to be read, or sung, out loud, and a Scottish accent of whatever persuasion, certainly makes the lyrics flow.  Their meaning seems easier to grasp when they’re performed in the native tongue, but failing that there are plenty of on-line and published translations available.

Burns wrote over 600 songs and poems that we know of, and it’s worth having a browse at a few more than the ‘Ode to a Haggis’ and ‘A Red Red Rose’ with which we’re all familiar.  ‘To a Mouse’ is a great example of everyday poetry.  Burns, a ploughman by trade, would have disrupted many a field mouse from their home and this poignant poem is full of observation, humour and a prescient knowledge that we need to share the earth’s resources.  He was also a keen observer of the social order and the hypocrisies of the ‘kirk’, as well as being a drinker and womaniser, so it is little wonder that he had popular support.  His first collection of poems,  published when he was 27, made him famous across the country.

The Scots dialect in which he wrote is not a completely dead language, and many words creep into common usage, so it’s worth a delve out of interest, to see what words and phrases have survived.

Burns was not the only poet to write in Scots; Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote in Scots, and Robert Tannahill,  known as the ‘Weaver Poet’, is contemporaneous with  Robert  Burns, and there have been other makar’s throughout the centuries.  Not only dead people write in Scots!  John Mackintosh, a local chap, is a talented and thoughtful poet writing today in the Scots dialect.  He has produced two volumes of poetry and they’re certainly worth looking at.

Whether you’re Scottish, British, or from another corner of the English speaking world, I would urge you to take a new look at Rabbie Burns, and some of the other poets writing in Scots; you may be surprised.