A Midsummer Night’s Walk

‘To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we can have’ Thomas A. Clark, In Praise of Walking

At Midwinter I walk in the Pentland Hills between dawn and dusk(ish), on as many days as work and weather allow, with the intention of walking between dusk and dawn at Midsummer. Come June, the theory of mirroring my walk through daylight hours with one through the hours of darkness, doesn’t make it into practice. I walk early (but rarely early enough to catch  the 4.30am sunrise), I walk late (weighing up making safe descent from Caerketton against making last orders at the Hunter’s Tryst) – but not on adjacent days.

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Cauldstane Slap, looking north-west, 11.30pm, 21 June

This summer, curiosity about the nature and quality of these few hours of darkness got the better of me.  Can you see to walk without a torch if there isn’t a moon? Does it feel scary? Where exactly would I go? (In the daytime, I tend not to plan an answer to the latter question much; I set out and see what the wind and temperature and my energy feel like, and go where my feet seem to want to take me – in marked contrast with many other areas of my life where I exist very much in my head, ruminating, weighing options. The right walk for the occasion works itself out along the route.)

I left for West Linton about 9.30pm on Friday 21 June 2019, armed with two flasks, a couple of books, a lot of food, and some winter walking gear. Set off walking from the end of the public road below Baddinsgill Reservoir, at about 10pm, with the initial intention of just having a wander across the dam and the around environs of the reservoir.  Continued into the horizon light along the old cross-Pentlands drove road, the ‘Thieves Road’. Curlews called. Cattle, which sometimes huddle around the path, grazed at a fading distance on my right. And on, feet at some point deciding to try to aim for the Cauldstane Slap, the col between East and West Cairn hills, where you can see over to West Lothian and the north – a site of the conventicles, or outdoor religious gatherings, of the persecuted Covenanters in the seventeen century.  Reached it in about an hour, finding the path, which I haven’t walked in daylight for some years (once walked up from W Linton, over E Cairn and down to Balerno in my 30s) fairly easy; took out camera.

 

 

Coming back across the moor was a darker, slower undertaking; the path less distinct. Less surefooted, I switched on my torch. Once or twice I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turning, or missed a fork that would be obvious in daylight. Was I heading too far west and off-course? Why uphill when I should be descending? Didn’t really matter: it wasn’t cold, and would get lighter again soon enough, but yes, I was experiencing a bit of what  William L Fox calls  ‘cognitive dissonance in isotropic places’ (as discussed in Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, p.79). The terrain, of a type with which I’m very familiar, felt slightly unfamiliar. I also started to feel a bit sleepy, possibly due to the low light at this point, in addition to the late night / long day.

Reached the reservoir again after an hour and a half, disturbing its avian population, and therefore possibly the sleep of the human population of the handful of cottages at Baddinsgill. Walked along the top of the dam and sat looking at the still water for a time. Laid down and looked at the stars.

 

 

At  about 1.15am a  yellow half-moon rose over the plantation behind me. I walked back down to the car as it ascended. The sky out of the passenger window was perceptibly lightening, I had some food and tea, then went back up to the reservoir for another hour. My camera records the time, but (I) did not take useable photos.

Before coming home, I drove alongside West Linton golf course. On the verge are grasses to which I seem to be more allergic than to any other I know. My memories of returning from summer walks in the area, to the Covenanter’s Grave, or up from Dunsyre, are of  itchy and sore eyes, of just wanting to reach the Gordon Arms at West Linton so I could bathe them. In fact, the threat of  hayfever was probably the major factor in not  hitherto attempting an all-nighter in my local hills. Last year all my allergies were bad, and I had a very debilitating eczema flareup. One evening I walked from home, south-west over the shoulder of Harbour Hill and was so uncomfortable that I took no pleasure from it, and stopped hillwalking altogether for several weeks. For the hay-fevered, one compensation for this cold, and often wet, June, has been a very low pollen count.

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Homewards. Daybreak.  Near Rullion Green, where a Covenanter uprising was brutally routed in 1666, it was no longer night.

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I drove north into morning. My timing was unplanned, but perfect for turning off at Hillend to watch the sunrise, over Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth, from beside the ski centre.

 

 

Then home, the north face of the Pentlands fully re-lit. Tea, book, bed. It wasn’t exactly possible to walk for hours, as Clark recommends – the Lothian midsummer night simply isn’t that long – but I did find it a large, an enlarging,  experience. More satisfying than sitting up for General Election results (certainly an excellent diversion from the current Conservative prime ministerial election); obviously less distressing than the disturbed sleep patterns of hospitalisation or bereavement – but not without a sense of sadness that I don’t quite understand. Perhaps it’s down to some combination of the inevitable shortness of the season, of the northern simmerdim; to inability to process the experience (already reduced to this record, and the photos I took); to a political situation that regardless goes from bad to worse. Or maybe it’s just due to  body-clock disruption, which like my awareness of the impermanence of the moment, is not entirely unwelcome either.

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Tales from Two Residencies

Not been on here for a while, though I feel to have been fairly ubiquitous on other forms of social media, mostly promoting workshops and posting photos from my walks. My apologies if that’s become annoying – I am pleased to have what looks like quite a lot of work, but the freelancer is often working on short-term or one-off projects, whilst trying to make new contacts and find new clients and funding (and this may not be their strongest skill, or have much to do with their ability to deliver the actual work). And I’m pleased to be well enough to walk and cycle and visit the out of town places I love, given that a year ago I was not; and that I have several friends whose health and mobility problems mean they are not.

I’m also genuinely excited to be  involved in two writer residencies. One is in Dunfermline, for 150 hours over a year, with YesUAre Partnership.This is a charity that is renovating the derelict Erskine Building, a former town centre church, for community use. It’s already running several projects, one of which is Creative Writing. Funded by Santander Foundation, with working title Survive & Recover, this is a work-in-progress which offers writing workshops for those  whose lives have been affected by trauma – including early life experiences, mental health problems, addiction, homelessness, the criminal justice system. I have wide experience of working with groups of vulnerable people, but usually there’s a common denominator  –  the group comprises mental health service users, or carers, or refugees, or survivors of sexual abuse, for example. They meet in a familiar place and often already know one another. My challenge here is to bring into a new environment individuals from very different backgrounds, who may have little in common other than an interest in or curiosity about creative writing.

 

We have regular meetings on Tuesdays, where we use existing texts and visual images as starting points or prompts for new writing, as well as  proven Writing for Wellbeing and Bibliotherapy approaches. I also give 1:1 mentoring, and go out to other organisations in the town, whose members may initially feel uncomfortable about coming to a new place to work with new people and embark on something they may not have tried before.

I’m particularly interested, though, in responding to the physical environment of the building, itself surviving and recovering, as it is repurposed for twenty-first century Dunfermline.

 

 

Every time I visit, more progress has been made with the building works; more materials and furniture have been donated. The writers previously met (round a lovely table, photographed above) in the office, now there is a dedicated group room. A cafe will be up and running this summer. We are developing a blog, which features work by participants, documents the writing project as it documents the wider project, and offers a resource of creative and therapeutic writing ideas – please take a look:

https://www.yesuare.org.uk/blog/categories/creative-writing-workshop

 

And during March I did a residency to mark the 50th(ish) anniversary of the Moredun high flats in south Edinburgh. The aim was to produce text for a booklet (designed in the shape of a tower block) that will be distributed to each of the 540 apartments in six blocks of 15 floors. It was a project that could well, but for limited (council) funding, have run for much longer. It was not a project where you advertise a creative writing workshop at a specific place and time and expect a lot of people to show up. I worked one-to-one with many residents, and visited groups that already meet in Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre and Moredun Library. Thanks to introductions from members of the  dynamic residents’ association, community workers  and the local minister, I heard the stories of residents ranging from the first tenants from the 60s to the newest occupants, and visited 15th floor flats. Social media also played an important part – I posted about the project on various Facebook groups, initially requesting the sharing of old photographs of Moredun. This didn’t really happen, but what did happen was that residents and former residents started to chat  to each other across generations, across the green between blocks, across the city and beyond. Common themes that emerged include: stuff you can get in lifts and chuck out of windows, getting stuck in lifts, sunbathing and drying laundry on the roof before the days of health & safety, extreme weather & the wind tunnel effect. The resulting booklet, containing reminiscences, new writing and photographs, will be available soon.

 

 

 

I’m working on new poems from both residencies, and loving my regular Tuesday commute to Fife.

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Walking with Wilfred Owen

10 August 1917: a dozen walkers from the Craiglockhart War Hospital Field Club, including Wilfred Owen, walk in the Pentland Hills. According to an article Owen wrote for the hospital magazine The Hydra, the route took them from Balerno tram terminus to Threipmiur Reservoir, Bavelaw Castle, Green Cleuch, Loganlee and Glencourse.

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Threipmuir / heather

10 August 2017: a dozen walkers, and a dog,  from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Canada retrace Owen’s route, led by Neil McLellan, chair of the Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 committee, and indefatigable researcher of Owen’s time in Edinburgh, Tommy McManmon, Natural Heritage Officer (that’s a Ranger, pre-rebranding by the council), and me, poet of these parts.

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We departed, in both senses of the word, from Owen’s route, at Harlaw Visitor Centre, to have a cuppa, make introductions and do some warm-up exercises to prime us for walking as poets. Then along to Threipmuir to fall into century-separated step with Owen (I’m reminded of Nan Shepherd’s ‘one is companioned, but not in time’, The Living Mountain, ch 5).  We also fell into step, conversation, and companionship with each other, sharing stories of what brought us here, today, literally and figuratively. Periodically we  stopped and Neil took us back to 1917 and the findings of his own research.

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2017 historian / walkers

After a lunch stop at the Howe (‘Habbie’s Howe’ to Owen), we fell into silence for a spell, to observe, hear and generally ‘sense’ the experience of walking in August 2017 – both to be mindful of the present moment, and to remind ourselves of  the 1917 walkers, here as part of a rehabilitation that would make them fit to be returned to the front, that would see Owen unnecessarily killed a few days before the Armistice. Beneficiaries of post-WW2 peace and prosperity struggling to come to terms with Brexit and Trump, we used our minutes of silence to walk in an act of remembrance and maybe resistance, for peace, integration, tolerance; and to write. The results were stunning and I hope they will be in the public domain at some point.

 

A humbling, inspiring and companionable experience for someone who, like many, was introduced to, and became enthralled by, modern poetry when studying the WW1 poets at school; who has lived somewhere between Craiglockhart and the Pentlands for the last 7 years, and walked this route for over 20 without realising until now that it was the one taken by Owen. Not my average day’s walk in the hills of the adopted home.

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harvest / Harlaw

Simultanism: Words and Pictures, Reading and Looking

 

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I’ve just had a love-my-job couple of weeks. This is possibly because it’s been quite a workshop-intense fortnight, and workshops are one of my favourite aspects of my job. Also, a lot of them have taken place in beautiful gallery settings, which does tend to enhance one’s sense of creativity and zest for life.  Within the ekphrastic-workshop (writing about art) category I’ve enjoyed quite range of different activities over a short time period. What follows are some notes and observations on this, in words and photographs.

I  attended a  rich panel discussion on writing and sculpture at the Fruitmarket Gallery  the other week, during Sara Barker’s exhibition Change-The-Setting. One of the speakers argued for a fluid transition or ‘translation’ between the two mediums, rather than the old ‘influence’ model. Of course this isn’t always desirable, or possible, particularly if you are a specialist in only one field. So how do we find an equivalent language for sculpture? Another spoke of Barker’s own reading, of authors including Virginia Woolf, and her attempt to make spatial equivalents of the texts in which she was immersed. The closing remarks drew an analogy between sculpture and spoken word: both operate in space. This seemed an appropriate conclusion, as  I was en route to Kevin Cadwallender’s monthly poetry event 10RED in Leith.

Change-The-Scene, Fruitmarket Gallery: visit by Third Thursday Writers in April 2016. Photographs by Rosemary Bassett.

During a decade of working as a freelance educator  at National Galleries Scotland – often as the only one  who didn’t go to art school or study art history – I’ve developed a love for works in the collection that incorporate writing in some way: in mediums ranging from collage to neons; by substituting objects drawn or painted in perspective with their names; playful working with signs and messages; almost-text marks, and words in unfamiliar scripts. Are we reading or looking  when we view them?  One of my favourite works has to be Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration with French poet Blaise Cendrars, A Trans-Siberian Prose

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Delaunay was a proponent of simultanism. This meant finding a visual equivalent for the text, rather than illustrating it. She and husband Robert Delaunay aimed to present simultaneously a number of different ‘modern’ experiences – distilling words, colour, or their signature take on the  Eiffel Tower  (bottom left in the image above) into a single picture. This could be a great way of thinking about the text and image relationship, rather than seeing them in more hierarchical terms of influence or inspiration. Of course there are pictures that serve to illustrate text, and writing that captions images, and the ‘responsive’ model of using a visual artwork as a writing prompt remains a productive one. But ‘simultanism’ seems to offer a way into thinking about some alternatives.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a monthly session called ‘The Drawing Room’. This  ‘examines the range of possibilities within contemporary drawing practice and explores how mark-making can also be conceived as sculpture, installation, video, performance, writing, sound, textiles and animation.’  When organiser Sharon Quigley invited me to lead this month’s session, I jumped at the chance. We walked round the top floor of Mod One, collecting words from the artworks, before settling down for a series of  practical exercises. All the participants were visual artists. Once again I was reminded how writers and artists work differently: short, intense bursts of concentration suit the former; long, slow periods of concentration seem more appropriate for the latter – in workshop settings at least. And of course there will be individual variations and preferences. We can learn a lot from listening to each other and observing each other’s practices. I’d wanted to show  a range of activities, options and possibilities, but I realised I also needed to respect their way of working – some of them might well be out of their comfort zone here. I felt reluctant to stop them and move onto a new activity as they settled into a task, though Sharon reassured me they welcomed interruptions. During writing groups, it’s usual to pause, read and critique at several points – here saving up all the work done to display at the end worked best. I was hugely impressed by the quality and range of what they’d produced, and the way they displayed it.

The regular groups I work with use a lot of visual stimulus. The raison d’etre of the fortnightly writing group at National Galleries Scotland, Words on Canvas, is ekphrasis or responsive writing. Their recent writing triggered by synaesthesia, light, colour, time, ‘random constructions’ and ‘looking out / looking in’ in the prints of Whilhemina Barns-Graham was amongst the best they’ve ever done.

The termly-theme approach at South Side Writers tends also to encourage responsive work:  like many writing groups, we often use prompts in the form of images, objects and other texts. Writing on ‘Mapping’ just now, this seems especially the case. As always, there is a massive range of relevant historical, geographical and cultural material available to use, enhancing individual and collective knowledge of the subject. Some great discussions take place in the room. We’ve used old maps, personal maps, art maps, maps of the imagination and obsolete maps; poems about maps, and novels that contain maps. We’ve considered the aesthetics and politics of cartography, and used place names and landscape features in our word hoard. As always, members have written original, funny, moving, lyrical and surprising responses.

P1300165_Writing Room groupMapping South Side Writers. Photograph by Olga Wojtas.

Third Thursday Writers go to a different exhibition  each month. Most recently we were at the Ingleby Gallery, in its final week in its Calton Rd premises, looking at Kevin Harman’s No Man’s Land – beautiful glassworks made by repurposing double glazing units and household paint. We used them  to think about synaesthesia; and about chance and choice, mood and perspective in art and writing. Ingelby Gallery  is a wonderful writing space – I  do wish I’d used it more. The station announcements audible from Waverley across the road can seem intrusive, but we found a way to incorporate them into response to the artworks, combining place-names, remembered journeys, and imagined locations with ideas suggested by the artworks.

At No Man’s Land on the Third Thursday. Photograph by Rosemary Bassett

Cartoonist, musician and generally brilliant colleague Malcy Duff and I reprised our Text & Image workshop, previously set in art galleries, at the Scottish Poetry Library. This was about hybridity in more than medium and form: writers and artists combined their ways of working, their energy and interests, to make shape poetry, found poetry and sound poetry.  One participant blogged about his experience here. The day  also encouraged me to consider  the relationship between creative and pedagogic practice, as I participated in Malcy’s exercises, drawing different shapes of speech bubbles; collaging; reproducing pictures using only words; making non-linguistic sounds to fit a ‘script’ of drawn shapes.  Afterwards I  put the four letters of the word PLOT in the corners of a rectangle, and I drew the outlines of Yorkshire and its constituent parts before, and after, the 1973 local government re-organisation. The shape of Yorkshire uncannily resembles a speech bubble –  into which I might put the words wool, or steel, or scone, or STOP FRACKING – or that common lament of Yorkshire people living in Edinburgh who haven’t got the time to go and stand in a queue in Anstruther: decent fish and chips.

Text & Image workshop – spreading out at the SPL. Photography By Hector Michael Fried.

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Interesting reflections from a participant in Saturday’s Text & Image workshop at the Scottish Poetry Library – including a rather lovely film-poem he made afterwards.

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script1_verticalI accidentally attended a workshop at the very excellent Scottish Poetry Library yesterday. ‘Accidentally’ because the workshop wasn’t exactly about what I though it was – my fault for not reading the small print in sufficient detail once again!  I should have looked up acrostic first (well, now I know…)

stravaigWhat the workshop was about was about image and poetry, but in the sense of using text and other elements to make a poem that is spatial as well as (or maybe more than) temporal.  Well, so to speak…

…clear as mud? Think ‘concrete poetry’ (for example).

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however, so I decided to give it a go…

To be honest, I felt a bit at sea – I’ve always found this kind of thing quite difficult to get into. But in any event it was good to grapple with it with people who didn’t.  I was impressed by the range…

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Text & Image, Writing & Surrealism

Two ekphrastic day workshops coming up in the next couple of months:

On 21 May I’ll be teaming up again with cartoonist Malcy Duff  for our Text & Image gig – but for the first time in a library setting. We’re thrilled to be doing this at the Scottish Poetry Library, where we’ll use the archive – including some amazing concrete poetry, and the text art in the building itself – as a starting point for practical and experimental exercises in writing and drawing. This will be the fifth, sixth even, time we’ve collaborated, since co-facilitating a comic book workshop at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007. We’ve run Text & Image as a six-week course and as one-day and two-day workshops at National Galleries Scotland, considering many ways in which words and pictures combine – including in illuminated manuscripts, political cartoons, calligraphy and pop art. We’ve worked in a variety of mediums, including collage and acetates, and with our non-dominant hands – and our vocal chords! We look forward to adapting the exercises we devised for this new setting.

For writers, and artists, and folk who identify as both, or neither.

More details and how to book here. Please book by 6 May.

 

Back at NGS, on 25 June I have a day workshop on writing and surrealism, in response to the Surrealist Encounters exhibition which runs from 4 June – 11 Sept. There will be time to look at and discuss aspects of the exhibition, try some innovative writing exercises, and develop your own piece of work. We’ll cover topics associated with the surrealists, including automatic writing and dreams, and explore  how the relationship between chance and conscious decision-making contributes to the creative process. Includes refreshments, and a day pass to the exhibition (normally £10/8).

Details and booking information here.

Writers of all levels of experience, and in all genres, welcome on both days.

cycling from summer to autumn

I have a class in Linlithgow on the last Sunday of the month, and last weekend I cycled home from it. My plans for the 22 mile ride along the Union Canal towpath this summer had been stymied first – often – by weather, and then by engineering works which meant that I couldn’t get the bike to the start point by train. Weather and other commitments have also prevented me from building up much in the way of fitness, so this would be easily my longest ride of the season.

Over the course of a few hours (including two pub lunch pit stops – I said I was unfit), stony surfaces, where the hinterland was arable and open, alternated with squelchier ones on long wooded sections. The repetitions began to create a sense of deja vu in one unfamiliar with the route. Robert Macfarlane borrows a term that I like from American artist William Fox: ‘cognitive dissonance’ (The Old Ways, p.79). Macfarlane finds this chiefly in what he calls ‘data-depleted landscapes’ such as high moors and tidal strands, my own favourite terrains, but it can happen when any sort of defamiliarisation is induced. Sea voyage, test match, Ring cycle. With the canal a constant on my right hand I felt as though I was cycling from summer to autumn. I know what West Lothian looks like: I’ve travelled between Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly for twenty years. I watch it from up in the Pentlands on a weekly basis. But I don’t know it. Canals subvert our knowledge of terrain, linking places by the line of least resistance, the contour, and not the line of greatest efficiency (the road). Their sinuings show you the locality in a new way.

The route of the Union Canal makes a lengthy detour around the Broxburn bings. The red spoil heaps are a memorial to the extraction of shale for oil in this area. Accustomed to seeing them in the distance, their denuded and increasingly biodiverse proximity experienced from cycle level startles. It’s like a passage through an otherworld, or, to use another Macfarlane term, a xenotopia, in the middle of the central belt.

Progress eastwards was slow; Edinburgh seemed as though it was getting further and further away, even when the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat had become visible on the horizon. Signposts – Winchburgh, Almond Aquaduct – kept indicating the passage of a ridiculously low mileage since the previous one. It was the final weekend of the Edinburgh festival, and the journey felt a bit like a (slow) progression from one stage set to another. Woodside, fieldside, woodside alternated like scenes designed to build dramatic tension – or muscle fatigue. I wanted to switch to a higher gear and higher cadence in order to get home a bit more quickly, but wasn’t able to on the narrow track.

A couple of people had told me that there was ‘a rough section’ on the towpath. I think it would be more accurate to say there was a smooth section, a surfaced stretch around Broxburn. For the rest of the route, I and my bike, which is officially and accurately classified as a rugged hybrid, were jolted along uncomfortably. On FB* there’s a photograph of me taken at a poetry reading last week. The forearm grasping my paper, honed by absorbing shock from the the rugged hybridity of Lothian cycle paths over the last couple of years, probably has even better definition now.

And the fest? As usual, I was just getting into my stride in week 3 when fatigue was setting in for everyone else. Unusually, I didn’t attend many music events, choosing to focus instead on poetry and spoken word. Refusing to make a distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’, or  book and fringe festivals, was liberating and enriching, though I followed with interest the debate  around the dichotomy and hierarchy between them. I went to two concerts, on the final Friday, and they were very good, but my head was still (too?) full of words. Other highlights: Juliet Binoche in Antigone; gyoza from the Harajuku Kitchen stall in George St; the moon making a guest appearance above the magical lights in Charlotte Square and George Square. Still to come: the exhibitions that stay up in September, and space to actually look at them. More cycling before it gets too cold, and some hillwalking before the heather dies away. Going back to work, and my ‘Summer’ holiday.

* Never an early adopter, I was initiated into the world of Facebook this summer and as a result my blog posts have become even more sporadic. I don’t even know if it is ethical or possible to link to the photo.