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

the art of writing

I will be teaming up with artist  Campbell Sandilands,  who trained in Japan and specialises in brush calligraphy, for  a unique set of seasonal classes at the Scottish National Gallery in 2013-14.   We will start the day by looking at Japanese prints from the NGS collection and reading some haiku, continue making our own work, and conclude with ceremonial tea and readings! Join us  for one or more of these creative sessions in celebration of the seasonsAll levels of experience welcome.
 
 The Tale of the Brush: A Year of Haiku and Calligraphy – Practical One-Day Courses
Clore Education Studios, Scottish National Gallery
Wednesday 21 August, Summer
Saturday 21 September, Autumn
Saturday 11 January, Winter
TBC, Spring
10.30am-4pm
£30 (£25) per session
 
I will also be leading a five week creative writing course at the Scottish National Gallery, 1.30-4.30pm, Wednesdays 2-30 October. This will feature a set of exercises specially devised for responding to visual art (including some new ones if you’ve been before!) and the opportunity to spend two sessions looking at and writing about the Peter Doig exhibition. Booking information available soon.

mad march and invisible colours: could spring be far behind?

The closing lines of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, and a reflection that the poet didn’t live in Scotland and wasn’t factoring in climate change, formed an accompaniment to many of my March wanderings: to Fife for  StAnza; to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery  for a workshop on creative writing for undergraduates in English and journalism from Napier University; to Glasgow for a two-day training event; into the snowy hills, wafting my walking poles around like ski sticks. The month-long cold snap was ushered in at StAnza, where I  facilitated a workshop called ‘Different Viewpoints’ on the first morning. Sponsored by Lapidus Scotland, this undertook to examine through practical exercises the relationships between ‘personal’ or ‘therapeutic’ and ‘creative’ writing, and between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ stimuli. Against the backdrop of, and engaging closely with, an exhibition of poems and paintings about liminal spaces entitled Unmapped, the participants created poems that beautifully wove together personal experience, memory and present-moment response to real and imagined places.

Back in Edinburgh, facilitating a session for undergraduates, rather than the ‘adults’ I usually work with, set me thinking further about ekphrasis, or the use of visual art to inspire writing, and how and why we teach it. When the BP  Portrait exhibition was up earlier in the year, in the winter proper, I took to  reading Michael Longley in front of a wonderful portrait of the poet, The Dailects of Silence, by Colin Davidson  At the close of his most recent collection A Hundred Doors, Longley has an elegy, ‘White Farmhouse’, which concludes with a line that cites Marcel Duchamp’s claim   ‘titles are invisible colours’. Are they? I need to ponder some more, but titles (if not artist statements and gallery glosses) can be of abiding interest to those with a textual background who are looking at pictures. What are we to make, for example, of Ben Nicholson’s habit of supplementing a matter-of-fact dating or stating of medium with a descriptor, as in June 1961 (Green Goblet and Blue Square), or Painted Relief (Plover’s Egg Blue)?

Words on Canvas were invited to write in response to paintings in the Royal Scottish Painters in Watercolour (RSW) annual exhibition. There were 252 works in the exhibition, and our deadline was just a week after we first got to see them. I had a couple of hours in the gallery beforehand, en route to the Portrait Gallery to have a look at Rousseau and Hume prior the Napier session. I quickly saw the work I wanted to write about, Gordon Mitchell’s Lasting Impressions, a painting of a sun lounger  against a sun-baked wall whose cracked plaster revealed the shapes of human silhouettes. I was reminded first of  the second paragraph of  The Wasteland, the lines about aridity, broken images and shadows, that lead up to ‘I will show you in fear a handful of dust’; and then, more optimistically, of a standing joke about the cost of hiring a sun lounger on the cote d’azur from last year’s summer holiday. Fine, but on Monday morning fifteen other writers (minus a couple I bumped into in the gallery who were already hard at work) would need to choose from the remaining 251. The usual WoC format is a Gallery tour, covering just  four or five works, followed by a writing critique session a fortnight later.  Feeling under some pressure, I started to jot down the titles of works that attracted me for one reason or another. Then I took up the catalogue, and noted down titles that themselves appealed (invisible colours if you like). Bingo, eureka, etcetera. Rousseau, Hume. On Monday I asked those writers who hadn’t already seen the exhibition and selected a work initially to choose a title that appealed, and write to that before seeing the picture to which it pertained. Then we paired up and did some writing exercises in front of the paintings, and a week later we had a pamphlet of stories and poems, and were ready to attend a reception where we were introduced to the painters of the works we’d selected. ‘Have you met your artist yet?’, we’d ask as we encountered each other circulating the exhibition, glasses of fizz in hand. Several writers reported uncanny correspondences between their thought processes and those of their painter-partner.  Gordon Mitchell told me his sun lounger was located near St Tropez. I had it not terribly far away, on the Cap d’Antibes, but then I don’t suppose it’d have been in Copenhagen or Anstruther.

Meanwhile, the South Side Writers concluded their term on fruit & veg with an attempt to break out of the tradition and make an original,  contemporary statement on the subject, accompanied by a very tasty and refreshing fruit salad. Mine felt very modernist, nearly a century past its sell-by date.

In Glasgow just before Easter I did the two-day training for Living Life To The Full (LLTTF). This is a CBT-based programme designed to be delivered in eight sessions in non-clinical settings, by professionals from different fields who season the basic template with their own personality, experience and knowledge. The target client or user is the individual with mild to moderate depression or anxiety, maybe near the bottom of a long waiting list for treatment,  but it could, I think, be really useful for helping anyone to problem-solve their way around the various obstacles they inevitably encounter. Writer’s block, relationship tensions, builders who don’t turn up. Well, maybe not the latter: it doesn’t promise miracles. The programme was on the periphery of my radar untilLapidus Scotland members were invited to learn more about it at a Bibliotherapy seminar at the National Library of Scotland in February. We heard some pretty inspiring presentations, by Drs Ann Wales, whose job title, Programme Director for Knowledge Management, doesn’t quite convey the extent of her humanity and intellectual curiosity; and Chris Williams, founder of LLTTF. Later we took part in  sessions which could be loosely categorised as either  ‘creative’ (poetry, storytelling, journalling) or ‘scientific’ (concerned with the transmission of knowledge and information).

After this I felt fairly sure that my place when working in healthcare settings was firmly in the creative camp, but I was curious to learn more about this method dedicated to transmitting health information (according to a social, rather than medical, model) in simplicity and clarity  in order to help individuals make positive changes in their lives. I signed up for the training. It turned out to be a truly inspiring couple of days. After an accelerated trip through the components of the programme, we were divided into small groups, with the task of preparing a small chunk of it to deliver to the rest. Oh no, I thought. I’m too tired. I haven’t slept properly the last few nights. I assimilate information slowly, with much reflection and walking around: I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t want to look a numptie in front of esteemed Lapidus colleagues, or the lovely people from other fields I’ve only just met. Luckily, the extrovert part of me that enjoys a bit of a performance kicked in. I had fun, and, I hope, communicated my points effectively. More than that, hearing the others’ presentations really helped to reinforce everything we’d  learned in a short space of time, and I left with a sense of the possibilities that this new tool might afford.

Now that April’s here – and yes, I would like to pop down to England, though my guess is that the spring isn’t much more advanced there this time – I’ve paced along the plateau of  Capelaw Hill and been to a stimulating workshop on poetry and place with Australian poet Mark Tredinnick at the Scottish Poetry Library. At the end of a UK tour where he too has written of ‘the winter / that did not want to end’, he appeared less tired than I, much closer to home. In an open-plan learning type format,  he interspersed his  own observations about the poetry of place with dialogue with the attendees about their approaches to the matter. The moment when  Mark asked me who I was reading at the moment – rather than when faced with delivering part of a LLTTF module at short notice after little sleep – was the one chosen for me to go blank. Michael Longley?  The many writers from and writing about these islands and beyond whom I encountered at StAnza? In truth I’d been thinking most recently about  influences further back in the tradition: the Anglo-Saxon poets, Wordsworth, Hopkins, sundry Modernisits, as well as relishing the challenge of how on earth, in the air or by the water  to make it new myself, now. I could have talked about some or all of these – or about prose writings on place by the likes of  Kathleen Jamie and Robert McFarlane; or innovations other Scottish writers and artists are making – some of them in a  global context. Or I could have engaged more with some of  the many things that resonated for me in the others’ words that afternoon . . . but eloquence had well and truly taken leave of me. It may take some sun and more visible colours to power up my brain again.