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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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

midwinters

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each December day
the sun describes a low arc
over Capelaw Hill

Well, at least it did at the beginning of the month. For much of December 2012  lack of light made living in Edinburgh seem like living in an episode of The Killing. This is my third winter on this edge of town. For the previous nine years I lived in a fourth-floor flat with a view to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. There were many times when it was tempting just to sit and gaze out of the window, and some times of year when it became a ritual simply to do so: on midsummer evenings when light lingered long; and especially in December, when the sun would rise between Arthur’s Seat and the Crags, over whose flank it would describe a low arc before setting behind one of the spires of the South Side – where  I stayed for the  six years before that.

I was born in midwinter, on St Lucy‘s Day, the shortest day in Scandinavian tradition and some calculations of the Julian calendar,  when, according to John Donne, ‘the world’s whole sap is sunk’. A more optimistic take is offered by  George Mackay Brown’s poem ‘Seven Stars for Lucy’, in Voyages (1983). Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Lullabye for Lucy’,  a setting of another text by Mackay Brown, celebrates the birth of the first child in thirty-two years in the depopulating valley of Rackwick on  Hoy, Orkney, where Max had made his home. With its reference to plants, lambs and ‘the brimming / Dance of the valley’, the imagery of the poem is more vernal than hibernal, but it’s a grand song to set you up for going out to mark the passing of another year.

According to family lore,  snowflakes fell on my face when I was first brought home from hospital early in the new year.  I have a vague memory of the existence of  a photograph posed just before I was swaddled into the back of my dad’s car, but maybe that’s just a picture I invented to accompany the story.  I was a winter child, and adolescent, and young adult; I adored the pale clarity of the northern winter light, and I never felt the cold. When I studied in Newcastle in the eighties, I did wear a coat  for an evening out, counter to local tradition, and occasionally felt a bit chilly in the flat when we couldn’t afford to turn the heating on, but I rarely complained. On the other hand, I had very poor tolerance of heat. In summer I lurked in the shade, a Niles Crane of a thing in high-factor sunblock and UV-protective clothing. Until I had a course of acupuncture and went into reverse. I discovered sunbathing, and just how bloody cold the east coast of Scotland can be in the winter. In the last decade, I seem to have achieved more of an equilibrium. All seasons, and the changes between them, are now sweet to me. It’s now January 2013, and, temporarily and thermally at least, what TS Eliot called ‘midwinter spring’. In my wee garden on the fringe of the city with a view to the Pentland Hills,  I’m well placed to partake of seasonal shifts and observe and write about their reversals and vagaries. I grew up in a location that could similarly be described as both suburban and semi-rural; it suited me, and I’ve come full circle again.