A river is ..

Even on the border of the most frequented paths are many things travellers have passed by unheeded or unexamined. (from Natural History of Deeside and Braemar)

I find William MacGillivray’s grave by accident in New Calton graveyard. Exploring.  It is a little out of place. A lump of red granite with faded gold lettering, an orra lump, amongst the grey neo-classicism of the Victorian Northern Athenic elite. It is illegible.


As he often was.

And of course redolent of Aberdeen, where he was born, and ultimately lived and died. And where the previous summer I had noticed a plaque marking his home there.  I recognised his name from his dominating presence in Raptor, by James McDonald Lockhart. He says he had also discovered him by accident, but hangs his book around MacGillivray’s sophomore journey from Aberdeen , via Fort William and Carlisle , to the ornithological collection of the British Museum. On foot. 800 miles or more of continuous, self absorbed quest.

I can see why . There is something Dostoyevskian about this lumbering intent figure. During much of the journey  he shuns company , and is refused lodgings due to his appearance. Over one agonising period after he crosses the Border , he is without food and shelter, as he repeatedly has the English banknote he has collected in Carlisle refused,  allegedly due to fear of forgery.

Rise with or before the sun

Walk at least five miles

Give at least half a dozen putts to a heavy stone

Make six leaps

Drink milk twice a day

Wash face, ears and feet

Preserve seven specimens of natural history ( whether in propria persona or by drawing)

Read the Chapter on Anatomy in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Read the Book of Job

Abstain from cursing and swearing

Above all procrastination is to be shunned

(from Journey to London, edited by R. Ralph)

I wonder about MacGillivray’s wilful eccentricity – is it mere stubbornness. He lives by a set of strict imperatives,and battles a Biblical sense of shame.

This man grew up on Harris, and maybe that explains a lot. He was raised by a grandparent , having been effectively abandoned by his father in Aberdeen, following the death of his mother. He went back to University there aged twelve, walking back and forward to the Long Island for the holiday period each year. Science, linking him to his God, was a given and a kind of extended worship. A calling.

MacGillivray was a success . He was a professor, with a large family, who introduced the idea of fieldwork to university curricula, had bird North American bird species named after him by James Audubon in gratitude for his assistance with his work and was credited as the discoverer of the hooded crow..


‘What ?!’

MacGillivray was a failure. His exquisite illustrations to his enormous and exhaustive history of British Birds were too expensive for him to afford to include, and his star fell behind other popularisers of Victorian natural history. He was not able to gain academic credit in Edinburgh, and periodically shucked off his responsibilities to go wandering back into the hills.

MacGillivray’s grave was originally illustrated by the engraving of a golden eagle – one of the most famous of his illustrations, which were collected in the Natural History Museum after his death. The metal plate has now been stolen – presumably for its value as scrap- leaving only a vague impression in the limey foundation behind it, looking something like an eviscerated pigeon.

We make stories though. McGillvray made a few of his own. In his massive bird books , he decided to insert diversions, mock dialogues and such to break up the (fairly unrelenting) flow of anatomical and habitat details of the species. He and Audubon wander through the Pentlands, puffing up each others reputations, and blasting the hell out of anything unfamiliar with feathers..


Mecistura longicaudata

The Long Tailed Mufflin

Bottle Tom. Bottle Tit. Long Tailed Mag.

Huck-Muck. Poke Pudding. Mum-Rufflin
( species heading from A History of British Birds, Indigenous and Migratory)

I am more interested whether in his journals he had a posterity in mind. Two survive ,  a Hebridean one, has  him as rather cool young doctor, waiting to find his direction, while he dallies with an number of young women, and knocks off the fauna of the Hebrides, and stuffs a bear. A few, perhaps chastening years later, he manically walks to London.

And of course he has been reinterpreted, as great. or lost , or a bit Aspy. My own wonder was if he could be  reclaimed as a founder of psychogeography. He has a particular eye sometimes . For instance in this quote

A river is nothing but a continuous series of continually renewed drops of water following each other in a groove. (from Natural History of Deeside and Braemar)

It has I think a crystal clarity ( see what I did there!) -seeing beyond the obvious to what is really there. MacGillivray would not have liked to think that rambling was his purpose, although I think it was his therapy. There is a transcendent effort to his attempts to describe his birds that I recognise. See them- see what I see, see me.

A flight of sandpipers is a beautiful sight; there they wheel around the distant point, and advance over the margin of the water; swiftly and silently they glide along now, all inclining their bodies to one side, present to view their undersurface, glistening in the sunshine; again, bending to the other side; they have changed their colour to dusky grey; a shot is fired, and they plung with an abrupt turn, curve aside, ascend with a gliding flight, and all, uttering shrill cries, fly over the stream to settle on the shore that settles out towards Barnbogle ruins. (from A History of British Birds, Indigenous and Migratory)


We might see MacGillivray as an outsider . Hurrying away from society. Split into pieces by his journeys and the different things he was at the ends of them – orphan, Calvinist, Gael, lad of Pairts, proto-scientist, Establishment figure, family man.  Occasionally needing to run to the hills with his demons (failings).


But we can also see him as making the journeys of many lower middle class Scotsmen, on foot towards improving prospects and methods of transportation, with a discomfort about the pace of change and a nostalgia for the space in which they lived, and their animal companion. And perhaps authoring himself, in a way which now invites our post-modern counter-readings.

What do we know though?

I found some of MacGillivray’s illustrations on the NHM website. The reminded me of a story about Richard Richardson a later ornithological  artist, attempting to ‘penetrate beyond the inscrutable eye’ of the nesting black-tailed godwit. Richardson’s legend is that he could somehow ‘think bird’. which means really he could predict what it might be about to do next (so they believed)*.

MacGillivray might also have aspired to this, yet most of his illustrations give back a blank stare. He lived in a world before binocs, so perhaps there is a prosaic explanation, but I like the metaphor. MacGillivray gives us back his own blank stare. We don’t know his essence , he merely reflects the light.

Or is it a reflection – if we were close enough and looking from the right direction it would be. What might we want from this character?  There is a fashion for the unsociable outcast, the oddball , the fool on the hill, which it would be easy to fit him into. But looked at closely almost any self made Victorian scientist would look gauche and autistic. I have biographies of Smith and Gould and said Hugh Miller,which talk to their uncomfortable translation from humble, determined (nay obsessive) repetition (and origin) to the sacred methods of science. Usually the transformations of activity were easier that the crossing of the class divide and the coupling of faith and truth. MacGillivray seems both intractable and prolific. His exhortations to himself are the apogee of self-discipline (or self-punishment , as we might see it now) . But it  worked – he was either a genius or a driven man. Probably both.

MacGillivray appears to have been of an irritable , highly sensitised temperament, fired with enthusiasm and ambition, yet contending, for some time at least, with poverty; ill health and a perhaps not well-founded , though not the less acutely felt, sense of neglect.. thus ceaselessly moved to accomplish yet as continually haunted by the dread of failure… This author was undoubtedly unwise in his frankness, but dipomacy is a stranger to such characters. He never hesitated to differ sharply with anyone, or to express his own views pointedly – if he scarcely disguised his contempt for triflers, blockheads, pedants, compilers and theorizers he was nevertheless a lover of nature , an original thinker, a hard student , and finally an ornithologist of large practical experience, who wrote down what he knew or believed to be true with great regard for accuracy if statement and in a very agreeable manner ( Elliot Coues)

I spent an afternoon with his pictures, or the reproductions of them in Robert Ralph‘s popularisation.  He is not an artist to omit detail , and so things are not naturalistic. He paints one of the great auks (from a skin he was given) dwarfing a rock shelf ( with a limpet for scale), but about to be breached under a wave of shaving foam type fluff , which runs unconvincingly off towards what looks like Toe Head on the west coast of Harris ( where McG grew up). Another outsize and awkward great auk bobs in the distance. (I thought we’ll never know how it moved..)

For painting I have a natural genius and in as far as I have tried this art I have succeeded well. Flower drawing however is the only branch of it in which I have made considerable progress

(from Hebridean Journal)

He is good at plants , and careful to set his specimens in naturalistic scenes – birds breach from a sycamore supporting two cushats, lichens smother the rocks below a slightly off balance looking ptarmigan. It looks like its modelling.


Some birds I think he has studied in life – wrens, linnets, pigeons- feel that ,despite the anatomical verisimilitude, they have been seen. They look like they are about to move (albeit often from unlikely starting points).

Unfortunately the golden eagle picked for his memorial would only move if it had a battery. it sits weightless on an unconcerned rabbit, string vacuously into the middle distance.


MacGillivray became a voracious cataloguer  – fish, molluscs, shells, cattle (but for some reason, perhaps a financial one, not plants). One of the linnets which were about to take off in the last paragraph hangs limply from the mouth of an ermine – the stoatie s eye glints with excitement.

Ralph’s selection of plates ends with a horseshoe bat. One bat hangs unobtrusively on a by now familiar, foraminiferous rock outcrop. Another soars off into the space of the white page, tiny toenails expanded – as near weightless as  can be.


Its a good place to end.

Mr Mcleod accompanied us as far as the mouth of the rivulet, on which we fished yesterday.At parting he gave us a true highland clasp, which spoke to my sentient faculty of a heart warm with tenderness. Excepting the grasp of Jessy Simpson, last year, I never felt a more endearing one. As to his character I dare not meddle with it… Fare-thee-well, my dear friend. May the blast of Misfortune fall lightly on thy frame ! (from Hebridean Journal)

* this is from here






Walter Benjamin and the pizza box in the wood

I found an abandoned pizza box in a sun-speckled wood as I was completing my post about the dialectical image. It spoke to me.  I have taken it’ s picture and wonder if I can use it to illustrate my understanding.


Ive noticed before in discussions about philosophical and other imagined concepts, agreement (or understanding) can usually feel enabled/achieved , but it is only tested when you have to use it.

The pizzabox reposes on the spoil heaps which mark the remains of Tynemount Colliery and Coal Washing Plant.They have been lightly sprinkled by a silver birch wood, and undersown by an active  and unofficial motorbike scrambling course. There is a shrine to a dead teenage daredevil nearby, and it is only advisable to visit the wood during school hours or when it is raining buckets.


The maw of spoil with adjacent birches

The pizzabox features a photo of the Duomo in Venice ,outlined in cool blue ,and has  faded into its back ground of dark grey and  black bodyradiant ash.

It felt  as natural to find it there as the other things I had  been looking at – cowslips, whitethroats, speckled wood butterflies. These things come together in an ecological community we know as the Edgeland , an area for discarding, unofficial use and surprisingly fecund wildlife living on the margins of the vermin controlled, pesticide and insecticide laden agri-desert which forms most of the official countryside.

The pizza must have made a journey of five miles to the wood , from either Tranent or Pathhead, possibly partly by home delivery, more likely by full throttle scrambler, with passenger hanging onto the box, in the spirit of local sidecar legend Jock Taylor. There is also a historical journey of around a century from the arrival of small groups of Italian immigrants in Scottish communities to the centring of pizza as a street food of choice for the non-metropolitan Scottish working class, which creates a marketing nexus between an image of classicism in the post-Renaissance duomo, and an expectation of reliably authentic ‘Italian’ ( but really Scottish) taste.

And then there is the inevitable disposal of the box. No rebel without a cause takes their  litter home with them. And the box does nothing to ask you to retain it. I didn’t open it – it may be full of feasting ants, and it will  eventually decompose . In time, once the ink runs away. But more slowly than the packaging would have done a decade before.

What is my claim about this as a dialectical image?

Benjamin recognises the danger that an object decentred from its original use, will become a poignant and sentimental locus. It will encourage us to look back at the past with nostalgia, or attempt to ascribe value to its rarity and uniqueness as a survival, while denying it any use value. I give you the Antiques Roadshow..

His concept is that the ‘surprise’ of the image, creates a counter thought which asks us to consider our current situation from an external perspective, which is both real and yet usually unthought and directs us to a critique of our everyday situation, which is only resolvable by changing it.

The surprise for me was the dappled light, which made no distinction between pizza box and understory, and the relative bareness of the latter ( due to the toxic washout which cuts away potential colonising flora, as  just as effectively do the wheels of the scramblers). So the box is both crisply defined and has a patina of weathering.


Here are my counter thoughts ( the dialectic)

Why do my tracks and those of dissolute teens keep crossing, despite the fact we are both seeking space? Social margins have always required a pioneer phase where their colonisers have self-identified as outlaws and interactions are unpredictable. These spaces have shrunk.  Housing shortages driven by profiteering on land prices are keeping teenagers in overcrowded family homes, while social mores and gender modellling stress risk, independence and reaching a point of control over danger. The open space of the countryside is being colonized- physically, by agriculture, housing development and planning, imaginatively, by the bastard children of Robert McFarlane. The risk of a speeding two-stroke petrol engine is the best deterrent to a New Nature Writer, and, for an itinerant blogger, reduces the danger of finding that once again someone has already written that piece.


The former pavilion in Ormiston demolished last year in municipal improvements to park and sporting facilities

More generally what does the exponential growth of writing about previously overlooked nature say about our current society?  Actually, I am sure several people have already written that piece, so lets move on.

Does the concept of litter have a place in the Edgelands ? I would have removed the pizza box from my garden , but I recorded it there, as I would a wildlife siting. In a place of  contested purpose, who decides what is litter?

What historical connections exist between the artefact and its surroundings?The original impetus for the immigration from Italy was industrialization of the agricultural processes. These were the same processes that in the eighteenth century led to the creation of Ormiston as a model village , with ‘craft industries’ , such as linen bleaching to support the subsequently disinherited farm labour force, creating capital , which further opened up industrial development and making large scale investments such as collieries and railways possible , transforming the area into an industrial landscape – where teenagers left school to work in the washing plant on this site, and then as the market moved abroad,  leaving it without any local employment and a dodgy internet connection and transport links . Although it is not hard to buy drugs.Or pizza.


Kayleigh is queen for a day! 17 of her classmates never will be..

One of the most damning criticisms of Benjamin and his followers in the Frankfurt School is that they adapted Marxism to interpret the world and not to change it,which is proving much harder , and instead lived ( with the exception of Benjamin, who committed suicide trying to escape, fairly incompetently from Nazi occupied Europe) comfortable lives in what Lukacs describes as the Grand Hotel Abyss * ( eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine).

I probably should do something more energised with my time than take pictures of pizza boxes.  Engage with the youth group in the next town which does brilliant work with teenagers getting them to repair motorbikes?  Buy a two-stroke and rev it up the sharp end of Bellyford Bing?  Of course , that is  how the dialectic works – thesis, antithesis- can there be a synthesis . or only a further thesis?  (so,  probably another blog post)


Ormiston Maltings in winter (distance)

*Also the title of a recent readable account of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Shirley McLaine reference is , however,gratuitious.

Walter Benjamin’s ghost


This isnt a picture of Walter Benjamin. Those are on the internet. This is Longwood open air  theatre in Kirklees. Other images come from Bo’ness, Humbie Churchyard and the Necropolis, Glasgow

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination.

My intent when I decided to triangulate my blog was to seek behind the quotes I had lovingly copied.  I knew more about Walter Benjamin than the others, so I thought it would be easy to find the context of profane illuminations.

Of course dear reader that is not what happened.  We are now , I think, four years on , and many inter-library loans, ad hoc visits to the National Library , clandestine google searches, seances, and invocations of flaneurism in the streets of my town, have not produced the body.


I don’t know where the quote comes from, I don’t know where i found it, and I don’t even know if it totally, utterly, is from Walter.

I suspect it is though. He wandered around 1930s continental Europe dropping aphorisms out of his pockets in a way which was both generous, and careless.  And he spent a fair bit of time in Marseilles getting stoned. This is where I looked first.

Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly , Benjamin is not very interesting on drugs (in either sense). The writing in Hashish in Marseilles, is, like ‘Did you ever think how far away the sky is..’ or , how I spent an hour  trying to change channels on the tv via the keypad on someones mobile  phone. For example,’ under hashish we are enraptured prose beings in the highest power’.


While stoned, Benjamin , like many others has seen things in a different way. Unlike others , he has usefully realised that there isn’t much further to go in that direction.




Benjamin’s overturnings are attempts to recover the human endeavour that is reified in the form of the Thing . In this case – illumination seen as a transformatory viewing of the world, but not through the historic form of organised religion, so therefore , profane.

Profane is an antonym of sacred. It has also acquired the useful synonyms of unholy and irreverent. So Benjamin has set up an oxymoron. Possibly . Or something that is hard to think of- a kind of eternal dialectic.  But, yet,  not hard to feel – music , for example is an obvious possibility of profane illumination ( unless we accept its origin as sacred and everything following being a debasement of that. But to do so is also to accept that the religious experience is at the centre of being human, and all other experience is somehow lacking – which I,of course, don’t).


We can experience Things as illuminations – as storied, overdetermined artefacts of lost dreams and buried labour as Benjamin’s collections and catalogues are.  But there are surely too many of them to deal with. Benjamin produced aphorisms , short essays, and never finished The Arcades Project. It got swept away in the river of things.

The context in which a profane illumination can occur, must also be in contrast to a sublime one. It must be unexpected, personal, possibly ( hopefully ) shared.  The experience that led to my story The Faces is one for me. That happened thirty years ago now, and told me something about the world and who I was within it.


I  began looking for profane illuminations in nature . There are some pictures of them on the blog. My idea vaguely was that confrontation with the overlooked, ephemeral and indifferent environment around us might supply a focus for reorientation. But I realise that they will not be illuminations to anyone else.  They are actually about  my experiences, and  about the wish and struggle to share these.


The mythogeographer ,  Phil Smith, uses the phrase To See Whats Really There in his work . This comprises various disorientation or immersion techniques to reimagine the mundane .  These can be profane illuminations.

Recently, psychogeographing, I’ve looked at the epitaph on a bench in the Royal Mile, artificial plants on cafe tables, the dark straight track down Lovers Lane, and felt changed. It has been possible to share these moments with others. Not necessarily in the ‘Look, look at that!’ moment, but in the sense of the Being There as part of the scene, like the guys on the bench.


Benjamin is loved for something affective in his writing, which seems to link the past and the future, via a provisional present which may be there , but we can’t quite see. He has this notion of the dialectical image, which at one level is contradictory , at another is phantasmagorical , yet somehow suggestive of an unstable and provisional arrangement which acts as a nexus for a number of conversation

Benjamin sees language as the natural expression of dialectical images*. His language – full of aphorism and oxymoron. I think they can in turn act as  harbingers ( another favourite Benjamin word) of profane illuminations. And that is what we are about here.


* the new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world in which that dream which we name the past, refers to in truth (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p339)



The beast inside..

IMG_20180302_142202058It seems the Beast has given us the chance to see something familiar anew.

I spent yesterday looking for falling icicle risk. There was  a sign about it outside the bike shop, with some cordoning off tape like something had ACTUALLY HAPPENED.


I was hanging around for a bit whilst someone came to talk to me about panniers. Everyone looked up nervously , and there were (I checked) some actual fang-like icicles, distant, three storeys above us.


I wandered the streets that afternoon looking up. At the surprising height of the tenements, and the intricacies of the roof architecture, until a couple of hours later the ice risk had dissolved.


I like Walter Benjamin s phrase about ‘profane illuminations’, largely because I dont think I can really ever define what it means.

IMG_20180304_144152917But clearly sometimes they happen.



IMG_20171126_150304741 I find myself in The Spen Valley , as in ‘Batley and Spen’. Like a lot of other people , I learnt last year was the name of a parliamentary constituency. I learnt it through the murder of its young Labour MP by a Neo-Nazi outside her constituency surgery just before the Brexit referendum. The ’cause’ for this appeared to be her liberal, pro-European views.

That and the alarming triumphalism and the ensuing spate of racist attacks that followed the referendum created a feeling of despair in me that I can still touch (like a grief). I decided I should  go and see where it happened. I thought I might make some kind of psychogeographic tribute, but I also wondered if I might just be rubbernecking.

There is CCTV footage on the internet of the perp. leaving the scene -eerily good enough for me to instantly recognise the street – and  I  suddenly found myself  parking outside that library , rails festooned with Tour de Yorkshire bikes. I expected to find … something, but what I found was a bewildering gap.

There was no recognition of what had happened there ( or at least no overt visible recognition).  I felt instantly uncomfortable in my quest and diverted (looked away).

Lunchtime. Lots of people going about their business. Toddlers and pensioners using the library, but a sense of ‘I Spy Stranger’, which felt clear and familiar.  I decided not to take any pictures, and to anonymise the town ( the ones you ll see here are from another small Pennine place nearby)


I remembered that the killer was a local, but also that some of these locals would also be victims of the trauma that had interrupted their business, and might reasonably be wary of another unfocussed middle aged man stalking around the town centre.

There were visibly other things that people wanted visitors to associate with  – Joseph Priestley, the Brontes, the Luddites  were all old safe history.

Brexit divides have become unspeakable too – I stayed with friends that night who map carefully where their extended family have gone on this, and what they might comfortably (not) say in front of them.

One of the things that is hard to speak openly, is that the death of Jo Cox was the result of that fucking campaign. I can’t prove that of course. Or that the unstable loner might have received the encouragement to buy a sawn off shotgun in the same mysterious way he was able to shout the slogans used by a far right group who are currently infiltrating the British Army and organising terrorist activity in the North of England. But some circumstantial evidence is very strong.


Something sickened in me when I heard the unfolding newscasts . I knew well before the confirmation what had happened . I also knew that a sane society would then have stopped the referendum in its tracks, but that would not happen. By finding out what that place was like I was hoping to travel backwards to a turning point – not to where a crime might not have happened  ( although I also wish that), but to one where a belief about the legitimacy of opposing views was accepted, and to the confirmation that this was no longer the case.

I come from another place  beginning with B. where a woman was murdered going about her daily business which had something to do with migration. While the murder happened amongst migrant agricultural workers and the response of the local community appeared benevolent, there is no doubt in my mind it was an accident waiting to happen, and that it stemmed in part from a willingness to overlook what desperate lives were going on around us.

And of course, no longer living there, I only have to think about that occasionally. The concern for those who still live there , as in B. , is to forget about it in a way which feels ethical and get on with their lives. They are less likely to want to be reminded that B2 is the place where the body-on-the-bus killing took place ( indeed if you google ‘murder, b2’  you will now find a reference to a detective fantasy on the local steam railway).


I wander around B1 for a little while , trying to decide whether to see it as a crime scene or someone’s home town. An old folks home, a library , some take aways , a car park, an inexplicable one way system. You are unlikely to uproot if something horrible happens there to someone you may not even have heard of.  And the view point I have of B1 as a place of horror is also the one that will have been brought to town by the national press parachuting in in the days that follow.. If what happened here changed your view of your safety , or of the reliability of the people round you, you  wont casually  be making that public. Similarly if you see your hometown classed as a place of unstable rednecks any lingering reactionary sympathies are unlikely to dissolve.

If my view of the incitement of the press and little England xenophobia running through the Brexit campaign is accurate this accident waiting to happen could have happened  in a lot of anonymous town centres.

I wonder if I was ghoulish to want to see it. I don’t imagine its a tourism that is welcome , although it is well known along the routes of serial killers and celebrity deaths.

And while the widower and friends of Jo Cox wish us to continue to make the case for tolerance and connection  the real legacy of what happened is to make me and others want to recoil and mask our differences.


Moladh to Donnchadh Ban

 Gentle reader, please bear with me.. I ve always avoided introductions, preferring to let people introduce themselves as they see fit, but I feel I might be doing a bit of trespassing here which will leave some big footprints across parts of the kaleyard.

So I would like to tell you about my acquaintance with the shade of a dead poet, before you read the fruit of that haunting.

(And I am afraid there are also some footnotes..)

Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir..aka Duncan Ban McIntyre was an 18th Gaelic poet who spent his early life as a ghillie(stalker),  and crofter in the area  where the Dochart, Awe and Lyon converge – where we now meet the wild bare hills of the Highlands  for the first time on the long road to the Deep North.

His life and art  have as their background of  the massive transformation of Gaelic society – from a feudal landscape via the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellions (Donnchadh  fought at the Battle of  Falkirk – although like many other Highlanders he was part of the Hanoverian force) , to the major transformations in land use and tenure  brought about by the subsequent Highland clearances .

His writing moves from the traditional praise of the martial qualities of the clan leaders, through a playful focus on everyday life to ambitious literary pieces, such as the Moladh Beinn Dobhrain, in which using the format of a traditional bagpipe piece he praises (nostalgically) the qualities of the mountain, deer and hunt he had once taken part in .

Donnachd  spent the latter part of his life in Edinburgh , where he was part of the City Guard. Apparently unable to read or write and with  only basic English he still appeared to have followed the trends in contemporary poetry, but writing in a language which was regarded by contempt in Scottish society, he did not receive much recognition, until around fifty years after his death where memorials were raised to him in Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh near where he lived and died, and then, later, when a national campaign deposited a blocky neo-classical receptacle on a hill above Dalmally . 

He seems to have been following me around for a while now – via citation by James Hunter as an interpreter of  specifically Celtic attitudes to nature, around Glen Lyon where he ghillied and I wandered last summer , on a rainy day run when I found his Dalmally monument ,  via the discovery of his memorial  at Greyfriars when I was looking for James Hutton, and then to a book launch of Literature of the Gaelic Landscape by James Murray, who I discovered had been crisscrossing the same umbilical landscape which interested me in the summer.  His mapping of the places and routes found in Donnchadh’s poems, as what he describes as ‘songlines’, gave me an idea to apply the mythogeography techniques described in my other favourite book of the summer, Desire Lines by Roy Bayfield(1) .And  now see where that got me.

So,  all praise to you, Donnchadh Ban –  I have felt you as a useful peripheral presence through my wanderings , and so I wonder what help you could offer me if I try to give you proper attention?

Ive decided to walk towards you with an intention to follow the deer who travel  through Moladh Ben Dhobrain , in their traverse through the corries and slopes to drink in the Allt na h-Annaid , and at the same time honour the echo I have in my mind of Time ,the deer, in the wood of Hallaig, which haunts me as you may have haunted Sorley.

Calgary Stag

Calgary Stag, willow sculpture by Trevor Leat

I cant go to Beinn Dorain yet.  I am also in exile, but I will start at your memorial in the town where we both ended up and do my dance , the drift around places.. maybe one day I ll get back there , but as we both know, I ll find it changed.


At your memorial I decided I would follow the deer. Undecided if I was looking for some shamanistic transformation , or the narrator’s view of the fabled band journeying round the summer high pastures around  Ais an t-Sidhean, where you lived. In my own tradition I drifted out and in.


detail from work by Lizzie Fairey(5)

I was  also briefly with the deer. I was not a stalker. I took a shovel ( dug ditches) , was a beater ( I made it easy for the gentry to shoot birds) and was rewarded with an extra month’s wage as a pony loon ( horse drawer). The keepers did the stalking (also for the gentry) . It was a life of few words , most of them verbs and nouns. The words were sometimes Doric (often imperatives) and sometimes placenames  eroded out of your Gaelic ( Fafernie, Monawee, Benty Roads, Potty Leadnar )

The head keeper said he had left the Glen twice – once to fight the War, and once to visit Brechin which he didnt like much. This was the only thing we had in common.

It was of course a Tale , but a useful one. It said They lived in the best possible worlds. They were thrawn , insular people , deeply dependent on patronage and tradition ,and hideously underpaid.

Mostly they killed vermin enthusiastically and reflexively(2). Vermin are actually much harder to shoot than fat semi-tame grouse and deer, as they have learnt to run away fast.

Stalking, though, brings in the Nobs to experience the post-orgasmic glow of killing something bigger than them. After a success ( a kill) the deer is gralloched by the ghillie (which you can now learn how to do on Youtube)- its guts cut out where it falls and feed to the waiting terriers. Any newbie is then ‘blooded’ – their face smeared with the entrails .. an interesting odour of blood, fermented grass clippings and methane. As temporary pony loon I was included alongside a delirious merchant banker whose day on the hill did not involve a ten mile  return walk leading a frightened horse carrying a  bleeding , dead deer on its back. I was told that tradition did not allow me to wash the gunk off until the Nob had returned to the lodge.

I became a vegetarian soon afterwards – which is both true, and a Tale.

So  Donchadh we know that there are good Tales around the hunt , and I m sure  those who wanted to remember them were willing to reward a man with a good turn of phrase who could commemorate their successes.

‘ Shot a deer, shot a deer, He’s the chief of Clan Breadalbane and he’s gone and shot a deer!'(3)

(not one of yours, that)



Your monument is a -crumbling Donnchadh, the acid attack of the city, the noble stag  dissolving from Monarch of the Glen into Rudolph, the sporting bag  into a half-remembered  label on a tin of Baxters Soup ( ooh, Royal Game, by appointment).  I doubt you d care much – by all accounts you never wanted to be here anyway.


Deer traverse around contours and like the wind on their face to tell them whats to come. They move to the rhythm of feeding, shelter and security.

IMG_20171119_145942020 It was clear to join them I must climb away from the disclaiming voices of memorialists to mythical  wizards onto the back wall of the Greyfriars corrie, and keep watch from there, seeking morcels amongst the graves.


We are overshadowed by great cliffs and there is some sweet grass to be found. In the highest corrie  (Coire Raineach) there is some respite from the din – stimuli are more discrete and manageable.. the cries of the tours guides battling each other blend into the cries of ravens echoing back off the cliffs.

Here is the Covenanter’s Prison, atrocity site and sometime Goth Central, now fortified against trespass.

Religious wars are part of your world and mine – you were a reluctant combatant in one, and I pay my taxes (equally reluctantly) so others can fight them.  Yours left you in a world in which you were no longer at home, except as a fabulist of what had been lost. What you witnessed grew up  the imperialist mission to harmonise the world, which  now keeps those  righteous fires burning.

You moved out of the Highlands an economic migrant and ended up here in the old Reek  where, now, I am, back with the deer, crossing the Bealach (pass), swept with gales of tourists streaming over the ridge -to pay homage at the statue of a dog.

The deer make a long traverse down George Fourth Bridge – the  Prince Regent to you …later to open one of the first tartan giftshops on the Royal Mile, and  to begin the rehabilitation of the domesticated highlander ( a little late for you though).

We look for forage – at first this is petrified or insubstantial,

IMG_20171119_150634982IMG_20171119_150751663 but later we find delicacies like rashes among the heather along the smooth corrie (Coire Reidh).

IMG_20171119_150807917IMG_20171119_150826983IMG_20171119_150910521In the Moladh you notice the deer’s particular appetites with a detail that tests your translators vocabulary, and their dedication to  botanical exactness (not great so far).

Which  would all have been relevant knowledge for the stalkers of Breadalbane -which pasture will draw the herd on particular patterns of water,wind and light. These vital patterns once had more differentiation – my stalkers were frustrated by the lack of some subtle terms , and by our inexact translation of more. Your poem, then, is also a historic guide to the hill and its patterns.  It would have begun as a song of sharing these , as local direction as much as celebration , and was still being passed from hand to hand back there when the Scottish Studies guys came crashing in through the jungle with their recording devices.

It reached your New World here as a gift to a group of second class exiles whose native tongue was  becoming increasingly a party piece , and reaches me now as an echo of a sense of place and connection – in a world which is belatedly trying to find those again

In this new world were poets – collected and feted. Not so dissimilar from you – Thomson, Clare, Burns- faux naif figures who could sing for their supper, telling nostalgic tales of kith and kin.  You recognised that tune well enough. No need for the writing to do that.


The piles of manuscripts copied from you and your kind lie in two huge piled libraries towering over the deer as they take the ridge. I  have chucked an occasional  fanzine article onto the pile.

When you were here you joined the City Guard, the ‘black banditti’,  mocked by Fergusson – who has a  psychiatric unit named after him now, where I chased escaping lunatics through the corridors for a while, trying to return them to the straight and narrow. I read the City Guard by  your time was mostly Highland exiles – a relatively rapid rehabilitation of a more martial and doff capping group than the ingenious urban poor, and another chip off the imperialist production line(7). You were proud of your gun(8), and I imagine you got a uniform and enough to eat, and somewhere where clumsy English was ‘no problem’. The security industry , we call it now.  You may have stood by as anti-Catholic mobs burned down the Gaelic Kirk  – not a cultural misunderstanding it would have been wise to correct at the time.

We descend to where the Dog meadow  (Connlonn), which is predictably convenient as a  toilet for urban pets, who now outweigh our native fauna, and whose  expenditure outstrips the GDP of many small countries. At home I have gerbils.  They would look much like vermin to you, and would become so should they make it out of their prison.  But we miss that connection to the living world outside. You had that fascination of an animal watcher , but no need to distinguish it from the vital processes of living and dying.


I am looking for The Source, my free translation of the Burn of the Mother Church(Allt na h-Annaid) where the herd’s journey ends  with a drink. It is below Meall Teanail (the gathering hill)- where I see some saplings on the horizon (Creag Sheillach – willow rock). We are in Hunter Square aptly enough.

IMG_20171127_141223348 The deer stoop to drink in a large stone basin , finding instead a beer can and an empty packet of Swedish meatballs.  The benches around are full of sad exiles , and their obverses topped with knobbly statues of redcurrant bushes. More petrified fruit , murmur the deer.


It feels the right place . And I notice I have now collected some urban mud on my soles to scatter on the floor of Pret a Manger (the pretentious sandwich) in a small ritual.



Time the deer, fleeting.

Donnchadh, glimpsed, detoured, retaggled, mythologised ur Bard,

Jacobitten; underclass, illiterated erse-in-gobragh migrant ,

fighting gun for hire.

Sometime sychophant and player of loyalties,

Sharp literary stalker of fashion and craft.


Further, formalist experimenter,

prolix celebrant,

memorialiser and mnemonicist.

Buried beneath ground he didnt take to –

resurrected in blocky redemptor form

in alien granite

hanging in the clouds above Dalmally ,

where he is known at the Post Office(4).


What is it that I want from you?   During my journey I found a quote

Line is not really important because it records what you have seen but because of what it will lead you to see (5)

And I saw…

What we are really exiled from is our past. The hills , the deer, the energy, the possibilities.  The loss.        The compromises.


The sheep with their phones

Have no eyes for the horizons

The herd moving up and across

The slope to the far side

The moment infilled around us as spectacle


You can never go back. Its not just the landscape that’s changed.


Now, around your corpse are resting the disposessed and the lost. Harried by foreign wars, unhomed by the factor, betrayed by benefactor and fortune. They make precarious friendships in one tongue or another – and warily note my strange purpose among the flocks.

Donchadh weaves patterns for the knowing to nod along to, and those achingly fade, the names rewritten, misspelt and ultimately deprived of meaning. The sense of  particularity atomised -dispelled to the general twinkly Celtic  nature of Bardism.


We should know your  places again like I know this Cowgate – where the racists murdered the Somali exile, where  exploring we sank down to on occasion – out too late and seeking a deeper level of indulgence. Greyfriars, where I d eat my sandwich and stare into warmly lit windows. The Courts where  Stevie got sent to jail..The Deacon where, unco fu,  I watched the tanks roll onto the Royal Mile and thought ‘Here They Come for Us’. Cockburn St , where we waited for trains and felt things, and finally to the Tron(6) on Hunter Square, and the Bells where the mass , the moment, you and me, were one and the same, in the immersing throng, tangled, swirling in Celtic knots, in what was past and what was yet to come.

But I bet you hated Auld Lang Syne and that opportunist Sassenach Burns.. I imagine you thinking’ Could have been a Contender’  – if not for that awkward immigrant thing..


(1) Desire Paths applies various techniques of mythogeography to Roy’s journeys. One of which is described as ‘Finding'(Ch 6.) and involves transposing a preplanned route onto another landscape – in this case the route identified as a songline by  John Murray following the deer  in the Siubhal section of the Moladh,  rescaled from the 1:25,000 OS Map 377 – Loch Etive and Glenorchy, and superimposed on the streets of Central Edinburgh,  leading away from Donnachdh’s memorial  in Greyfriars churchyard and using bearings , topography, behavioural ecology and JM’s translations of Gaelic placenames as a guide.

(2)Their successors still do . The area I worked in leads the  national league table for disappearances of raptors. The estate I worked for recently cut down a tree containing one of the first (protected) sea eagle nests in Eastern Scotland. They claimed not to have noticed the eight foot diameter structure,  but there have been  boasts about it in the local bars.

(3) to the tune of ‘Wem-bill-ee, wem-bill-ee,  We’re the Famous [Insert team name here if it scans] and we’re going to Wem-bill-ee’.    It’s a football chant. I dont actually know what the tune was before that.

(4) Ashamed, I rocked up in Dalmally without direction , and fairly unexpectantly asked for the memorial to a poet at the post office. ‘Ah, Donnchadh Ban? He’s down the road past the station and then up the hill for about another mile. You can’t miss it’  Which was true. Its not a subtle monument.

(5) which is from John Berger, quoted in the catalogue of  A Fine Line which was showing at the City Art Centre  just off the deer’s grazing route through town on the day I visited.  I found the detail from Lizzie Farey’s willow piece  there too.

(6) The Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile was where Edinburgh met at midnight on Hogmanay, before the current festivities began . People got drunk, rolled around a bit , and then went home again. Those were the days.

(7) The info on Donnchadh’s presumed life in Edinburgh is distilled from ‘Urban Highlanders’ by Charles Withers

(8) One of Donnchadh’s early hits was The Song to My Gun (NicCoiseam). Yes, his gun had a name. The past truly is another country..

A Walk to the Pans.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAt Morrison’s Haven grassy triangle paths between red clover and trefoil. Stringy elastic rye grass rebounds from my tread, ringlets and blues flit – a good facsimile of COASTAL GRASSLAND (neatly cut and pasted from the AA Book of the Countryside) sedimenting over the industrial past.


Medick,vetch, burnet moth, reed bunting, lintie, whitethroat cacophonous from perches amongst dog rose, bramble , synchronous fecundity , eye candy for rambler.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAOn the shore the protrusions are man-made, netted embankments, grey sand mixed with industrial flotsam , smouldering driftwood arson practice for the young Pans Team, while protruding from the banks an archaeological hoard signifying serfdom and short brutish lives.


A blue painted shore crab, a nosegay for you..


Moving towards the town, murals.. Leger rip-offs fluff up the dignity of labour.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAJohn Muir makes camp on the rocks outside the Goth as groups of gouching teens are want to do at weekends, while his mule averts its eyes.


(In the Pans now no-one averts their eyes and you are always watched. In the celebrated hive of industry people don’t have enough to keep them busy)


The low wagon road along the shore, this is some industrial archaeology . I’ m too lazy , you can find out about it if you need to, or make it up .. Progress perilous in more than an onshore breeze, the bottom Pans floods still the separation from the brine is scanty.


In the distance where the corpse of Cockenzie PS is being picked clean, naked engineering glints coyly.


War Memorial square- pensive kiltie on stick , appears to shit sandstone from beneath his kilt , an appropriate response to the murderous western front.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA Weathering from the onshore wind blast and his greening kit bag offer a parallel to the fading of war memories . Man there are a lot of names here – four Andersons, three Cunningham, three Darlings, four Edmonds on the list.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe square, decorated with decayed bunting and fresh Greggs’ bags, was clearly someone’s vision.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA Densely benched, Mine craftily intricate in its passages and levels, it is a centre point where no-one ever sits, the sight-lines being too truncated to see who is coming round the next corner. In this way the square makes an honest epitaph for many sorts of vision.

Its time to head back from whence I came.


Interpretation boards proliferate in East Lothian, where the subtle rebranding of Visitor Attractions in succeeding aeons of corporate speak will soon become a topic area for post-industrial archaeology.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA On one fading relic of idyllised seashore life has ,amongst the foggy silhouettes of eider ducks, neatly pre-faded , the legend THE LIVING SHIT.


Back on the coast road on the bend opposite the industrial heritage centre two teenagers in baseball caps are wandering up and down under full length blue sandwich boards proclaiming ONLY £6.99, as they stare fixedly blankly into the oncoming traffic.


Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum