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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classes of 2012

The summer of 2012 saw, inter alia, the 25th anniversary of Edinburgh’s South Side Community Education Centre. As part of the celebrations, the writing and art groups mounted a joint exhibition in the centre cafe on the theme The South Side 1986-87. 

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ODYSSEY by Iain Matheson

She comes to a standstill at the corner of Hill Street. The bus had been prompt, she had been late. By the timetable there’s not another due for half-an-hour – too long to wait when she has just this one day to see the Edinburgh sights. She wants to walk but doesn’t know the way. She picks a boy to ask but he’s already gone, poking furiously at a screen in his hand. An old man passes, bent double, his life’s belongings in a dozen plastic bags, his momentum unstoppable. She flags down another man carrying a banjo.

‘Excuse me please, I’m looking for Blackford Hill, do you know if I can walk there?’

Banjoman stops, stares into space. Finally his eyes close; his head makes a slow rotation, once to the left, once to the right, back to the centre. His eyes reopen and meet hers.

‘No such place.’

Banjoman’s voice resonates as from the foot of a mineshaft.

‘Oh dear, are you quite sure? I saw it on a map and thought I’d like to go there.’

‘Tourist maps. This is the only map you need.’

Banjoman props his instrument against the marbled wall at the corner of Hill Street and unbuckles a rucksack. He labours inside for almost a minute till he produces a coloured, crumpled sheet. He stretches it loudly between his hands to flatten it, then beckons her. At the top, florid green letters declare,’The Southside’. She looks for a moment and says,

‘Yes, I’ve visited some of these places today, McEwan Hall… and the birthplace

of Harry Potter. Now, if you could show me which road to take for Blackford Hill…’

‘No such place.’

Banjoman’s phrase, repeated, combines fate and triumph. He points to the map.

‘That’s all the places there are. It’s a map of the world.’

She looks at him, bewildered, she says, Sorry? although she knows she has heard correctly. A map of the whole world.

‘But what about the castle?’ Once more the slowly shaken head.

‘Or Princes Street – I’ve been there!’ A raised eyebrow joins in the motion.

‘What about the roads at the edge of this map – they can’t just stop?’

Banjoman’s head changes tack; now it nods, the same, slow, reptile’s move, once up, once down.

‘But what happens when people leave The Southside?’

‘They don’t leave.’

‘And how do other people get here?’

‘There’s no other people.’

‘What about travelling to work, going on holiday, buses – where do the buses go?’

‘All in people’s heads.’ The nodding head now comes with a smile, lips closed.

‘So – so there’s really nowhere else? Just  – The Southside?’

Banjoman becomes animated, he raises an eyebrow and smiles and nods, all at once.

‘This is quite a shock. Do you think I could keep this map please?’

‘Take it, take it, I’ve plenty more.’

Banjoman nods twice to settle the matter. He struggles back into his rucksack, picks up his banjo and rejoins the flow of Southsiders on Nicolson Street. She stares at the map in her hands, appalled and secretly thrilled. Bowmont Place, Bernard Terrace, Middle Meadow Walk… singing inside she sets off to explore, the whole world at her feet.

*       *        *       *      *     *     *

As usual there were many creative writing activities at National Galleries Scotland. Shortly after the re-opening of the splendid Portrait Gallery I ran a five-week creative writing course on portraiture and character, which was repeated in the autumn.  In August cartoonist Malcy Duff and I collaborated for the third time on Text & Image, a course that looks at the history of combining words and pictures, then introduces practical exercises on interpreting writing as drawing and drawing as writing; illustrating writing and captioning images, and presenting text as image. Experimentation is encouraged, and we also include some sound poetry, creative reading and performance.

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This time we were based out at the modern art galleries for two full days, and able to use the wonderful resources of their archive, including artist’s books by key figures of twentieth-century art, as well as the temporary Picasso and Modern British Art and Munch exhibitions.

It is always a delight to work with Words on Canvas, a group of very talented writers that meet fortnightly at the Galleries. This year some of us also participated in a collaboration between poets and craft makers on an exhibition for the Pittenweem Festival, Fife.

In August Southsiders and WoCers  joined to give a well-received reading at the Captain’s Bar, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In the summer I was invited to lead a series of four monthly workshops at the Hermitage of Braid, to produce textual art for its newly-reclaimed walled garden. Given the sort of summer we had, or rather didn’t have, we were incredibly lucky to be able to work outside on all four occasions, three of them in pretty good weather.

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Juliet Wilson, who blogs as Crafty Green Poet, wrote a haiku which can be read by clicking the link.


BRAIDBURN SYMPHONY by Olga Wojtas

I take my seat and listen

To my left, the bass throb of the waterfall

To my right, the soft rippling through rocks

Stereophonic streaming

The pizzicato of jogging shoes

A scherzo of children’s giggles

The faintest fluttering of leaves

A yap

A yap

A yap

Fortissimo barking

Chorus of apologies

The faintest fluttering of leaves

The bass throb of the waterfall

The soft rippling through rocks

I wrote the following poem to mark the occasion.

Braid

On the Occasion of the Writing Workshops for the Walled Garden, Summer 2012

June’s birdsong is all but washed away
by the shout of the Braid in July
in a hurry through the Hermitage today
on its course along the lower side of the garden wall
to the shore of a firth making scarce more noise.
Out in the North Sea it mingles  via the Humber
with the waters of  Spen and Calder which  return
to the burn that stitches the Pentlands to Portobello.

This is not the Water of Leith but of remembrance.
Above it all this sort-of summer sits a new Parnassus
on  the top-most terrace  where we are  inspired
by  coast-bound stream and   breeze along the Braid,
whose water, like the brook Derwent at the bottom
of  Wordsworth’s childhood garden, is ‘boxed’  but not here
‘stripped of his voice’, two centuries and thirty  steps  below
along the  southern edge of  an Edinburgh plot.

And if like that, could this not also be
the forest pool by which a goddess bathed
as a bewildered hunter chanced upon her and gawped;
or the bank where a visitor from across the Pond
planted lily of the valley with her betrothed
in memory of their first meeting here;
and  a perpetual memorial to the  woman  who tried
to rescue her dog in a spate like this and was drowned?

The rest of the work produced is available to read in a folder at the Hermitage Visitor Centre, and some of it will find a permanent home in the garden, alongside sculpture and other artworks.

I always enjoy participating in others’ workshops. In March I joined a session led by Ken Cockburn to mark World Heritage Day. To tie in with this year’s theme, the Roman legacy in Scotland, Ken devised a series of writing walks on the seven hills of Edinburgh. I went on the one on Salisbury Crags. Ken’s account, and poems by myself and other participants,  can be read here.

Elsewhere in 2012, I had wonderful holidays walking and writing in Swaledale, Yorkshire; and sea-bathing and eating in the south of France.

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Scar

On the slant of Kisdon Hill
the song of a robin sears the whole air
substantial as the drystone walls
that   brand the fields of Thwaite austere
and  project their shadow on the meadow
– here  angular, rectilinear, there
in  a random,  crazed geometry –
while underground levels invisibly divide
the land’s inside into seams and veins
directed at the artery
of this damaged country.

Yet along the inroads to the moor
stones from smelt-mill and lead-mine
crumble and return to screes
on the sides of  Surrender’s* shallow valley
and in  the steep ravine of Gunnerside Ghyll
where land formed from human hand
and the structures carved by nature
resolve in mutual cohabitation.

* The Surrender Mining Company is one of several that operated commercially  in Swaledale in the eighteenth century. ‘Surrender’ is also a legal term internationally associated with the handing over of mining rights and land.

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The former trip took place in the mini-heatwave at the end of March and the latter in the season of Alpine storms. In between the two, I watched more sport on TV than I ever thought imaginable. It started with the Tour de France, which I discovered on ITV 4 for the first time. Cycling + scenery = my kind of sport. Catching the mountain stages live in the afternoons was what I imagine playing a video game is like. Vicarious thrills, vicarious holiday, vicarious summer. The Tour was, of course, followed by the Olympics and Paralympics.  I overcame my initial cynicism to treasure the winning smiles of Nicola Adams, the first woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing; Katherine Grainger,  the rower who finally took gold after three games’ worth  of silver, and Adam Hills on Channel 4’s The Last Leg. The night after it was all over, Will Self, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, remained unconverted: ‘the Selfs are not welcome at the court of King Coe’. Airing that, then, was maybe an editorial misjudgment on the part of Newsnight.

On t’medals table
if Yorkshire wer a country
it’d ‘a come twelfth.