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.


Threipmuir / heather

10 August 2017: a dozen walkers, and a dog,  from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Canada retrace Owen’s route, led by Neil McLennan, 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.


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.


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.


harvest / Harlaw

In Scottish Book Week

Since  last posting, back in June, I’ve had a blast writing poems and getting some of them published, cycling, socialising, gardening, walking, teaching, cooking, and sunbathing and sea-bathing in nearby East Lothian, not necessarily in that order, without feeling particularly prompted to blog about them. Until this week, when I went to three wonderful literary events.

Last night I was at a reading by poets LesleyMay Miller, Henry Marsh and Jean Taylor at McNaughtan’s Bookshop at the top of Leith Walk in Edinburgh. The shop is currently showing an exhibition by the Artist Book Group, and the three poets read, beautifully, ekphrastic and other works that responded to this context: poems specially written; previously written and published poems  about other visual artworks; pantoums and sestinas whose metrical forms seemed to parallel the intricacies of the artists books surrounding us; poems containing metaphorical references to stitching and making. It was a free event, in a beautiful venue, with wine, nibbles –  and a fantastic elderflower drink that I’ll be offering as a non-alcoholic alternative this Christmas – and was better than  many readings where I’ve paid to hear big names. The show, unfortunately without poets in residence, but with a number of other activities on offer, runs until 21 Dec, just round the corner from Edinburgh Printmakers writer-artist collaboration The Written Image, which I hope to visit soon.

On Thursday evening the Scottish Poetry Library hosted a workshop showcasing a project called Making it Home. Two groups of women, from Pliton in Edinburgh and Maryhill in Glasgow, had been introduced by facilitators Jane McKie and Claire Askew to poems on the subject of home by Edwin Morgan, Jackie Kay, Ruth Padel, Lorna Goodison and George MacDonald, and invited to make short films in response. Reading poetry, and making creative work on themes including immigration and homelessness, fostered strong links between groups of people who initially felt little connection to each other – a perfect example of poetry’s capacity to break down boundaries. It is so important that this kind of work happens in our communities. The films, together with more information about their making, can be found on  the project website. Jane encouraged us to write poems in response to images from the films, thus completing the circle (or triangle?)

Back on Wednesday, I went to a talk on the War Poets Collection at the Craiglockhart Campus of Edinburgh’s Napier University. I’ve  lived nearby for three and a half years, and never fail to be moved by the fact that this is the place where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met and drafted some of their most important poems. My first encounter with the First World War poets as a sixteen year old doing English Lit ‘O’ Level was literary-life-changing, as it continues to be for many adolescents. The collection is housed in the former main entrance to the building, a foyer in which I’d love to sit and write. It includes a photograph of the Sambre Oise canal at Ors, beside which Owen was killed a week before the armistice. On the black and white print, it looks very similar to to the Union Canal, just out of view at the bottom of Craiglockhart Hill.