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.

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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.

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

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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.

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(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)

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum

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Everybody’s Smashing things UP*

The Luddites. In Huddersfield they broke things, assassinated capitalists , kept stum and disappeared back into the night. And about them there is now silence. In Heckmondike (or whatever it is called now) they had a meeting in a pub, decided to attack a factory, put the word out around the county, assembled at a distant meeting point, marched by night up hill and down dale to the factory, where the reinforcements hadn’t appeared, and attacked. The mill is stuffed with soldiers. There was a battle. So there is somewhere  and something to commemorate – there is a Trail now, and a plaque just outside the soft play on the edge of an  industrial estate to heroic failure (again).

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This clock overlooks the site of Rowson’s Mill. One of the things that capitalism was about was creating time discipline. Id say more but I am in a rush to get this finished.

It was a quest to find it, swinging around perilously in my  infernal machine through the stampede of traffic in search of Liversedge and Rowson’s Mill, in search of a place which seems to have many names and none.

The plaque says they lost. Wounds were incurred.  Then,  a hat was dropped in the river , which gave a clue to the bizzies , and arrests, deaths and executions followed.

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In the film version, led by bestubbled,thick biceped artisans the Luddites march down here

Then there was the book launch.I  realized as I was following the trail that  I was always ahead, anticipating. The mise en scene in my head. The torches, the stubble , the frock coats, the Emmerdale  accents. I suspect  this is from Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, who was local and had her own take on the characters.  but definitely romantic – in a doomed, moor -ish way.

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In the film version, the victorious Luddites do not stop here to buy a takeaway

I m taking pictures in a post-industrial estate in the rain. I noticed a sign on a gap site LUDDITE INDUSTRIAL ESTATE which I wanted to photograph  for a pitch for a future sit com. I get distracted by the River Spen, which would be the only protagonist remaining from the Luddite story ( the mill having long disappeared under a string of development opportunities).IMG_20170911_111719355

I am trying to find an appropriate portrait shot, when I am hailed by a friendly local. She wants to bemoan the loss of wildlife and greenspace behind the hoardings and bulldozers of the LIE (Ok thats not actually their acronym.).IMG_20170911_111906434

Its on a flood plain and there are loads of empty units in Hathersedge anyway. (this I can vouch for having driven around most of them on the trail to the Luddite statue)

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This is a heroic representation of an angry desperate man wielding what  I imagine is a frame over his head, in a pose not unlike Liberty vaulting the barricades, but watched by a despondent looking urchin.  This is the twist for the Spen Valley Civic Society – get the kiddies on your side. The interpretative panel contains lots of stuff about the hardships of Victorian life which would make it feel OK for your dad to go out and trash the local workshop.

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The SVCS have an angle . Their park is basically a roadside triangle between a main road along the hogsback and a well used rat run down an abandoned high street. Like everywhere else  I went in Spen Valley there is a constant stream of traffic and sense of amorphousness as all the ribbons link up. The SVCS are protesting against the submergence of their place by re-signing  LIVERSEDGE -rebranded,as Luddite heritage site -right opposite the old town hall, which has been converted into anonymous flats.

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I go to take a picture of the inn where the Luddites met. For a secret organisation they seem to have got out a lot.

One of the things I was finally able to do once released from learning the Latin names of beetles at Uni was to read The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson, which looked like it would be the best book ever. I have kept my copy and it still does the job.  It contains the Luddites, and much other English history besides, but it contains it in such a way that it feels like a weapon of sorts in an argument I expected to have.  On the cover is a etching of a man in Victorian working clothes  smoking a clay pipe and wearing an enigmatic expression.   The illustration is to show his costume, but also just about shows an early steam train, as a sign of contemporaneousness.

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Thompson is making a case for how Marxists should do history,  that it is relevant that they should do history, how Marxists can be Marxists , and how history might have been. This is contained in a (relatively) famous sentence in the preface..

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obselete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.. they lived through these times of acute social disturbance and we did not.  Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience.. (p13)

The Luddites for Thompson, were conducting a protean industrial dispute by various means through trial and error. This dispute about working conditions roamed into ownership of the means of production, terrorism against democratic means, class consciousness against local loyalties and was conducted through a culture which only occasionally leaves traces in literate form (although these are perhaps more powerful as a result).

I was at yor hoose last neet, and meyd mysel very comfortable. Ye hey nee family, and yor just won man on the colliery, I see ye hev a  greet lot of rooms, and big cellars, and plenty wine and beer in them, which I got ma share on. Noo I naw some at the colliery that has three or fower lads and lesses, and live in won room not half as gude as yor cellar. I ont pretend to naw very much, but I naw there shudn’t be that much difference. The only place we can gan to o the week ends is the yel hoose and hev a pint. I dinna pretend to be a profit, but I naw this, and lots o  me marrows na te, that wer not tret as we owt to be, and a great filosopher says, to get noledge is ta ken wer ignerent. But weve just begun to find that oot, and ye maisters and owners may luk oot, for yor not gan to get se much o yor own way, wer gan to hev some of wors now (p785, quoting a note left after a strike riot in the Durham coalfields in 1831)

 

Sometimes they were Luddites sometimes they weren’t. At their best they were shadows  – I think of the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49 (which I revisited for a book group which also mysteriously disappeared at the time of my presentation, leaving me alone in a city centre bar wondering, like Oedipa Mass, if I had imagined the whole thing) . These phantoms could be limited and controlled when turned into concrete forms. Like an uprising, a narrative or a statue.

We all know someone who had thrown their mobile phone into the sea, or refused to watch TV (and that does actually include Iplayer) for a few years, and we generally admire them. More difficult examples exist – the person who stopped reading,  the scratcher of cars , teenage purveyors of litter, ‘one man’s freedom fighter..etc’ .  Thompson seems to be saying that this is an experimental tactic rather than a definitive statement, and if we follow him, what we should be pursuing, in a variety of ways  is for a greater control of the means of production.

Id like to imagine what might happen on the Luddite Industrial Park (as I will insist on calling it). One of the scenarios of course is that it may never be finished – the removal or sabotage of pieces of construction equipment hilariously recurring over a number of episodes like a running gag. In other versions the hardworking staff become aware of strange voices and poltergeist activity which turn out to be versions of themselves dressed up in Victorian costume.  Or there is a situation(ist) comedy where the staff realise the true nature of consumer society through a deep interpretative reconquest of the term luddism and decide to make things they actually want instead which turn out to be hugely successful and then recreate the problem all over again ( oh hang on that sounds a bit familiar).

 

To be a Luddite was a part time and secret occupation, and the more social and permanent your  ambition became the greater the risk of discovery (which probably meant death). Thompson makes the point that this happened incredibly rarely- that there was some kind of solidarity or consciousness amongst the outgroups of society ( he would unashamedly call it a class)  which had at least sympathy with it

In the Trystero/W.A.S.T.E network Pynchon could at least imagine a way in which this could still exist in 1960s America..

It was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote,loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private. Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?) there had to exist the separate silent, unsuspected world. (p94)

And now? I am drawn to the re to conclusions of  Slavov Zizek to his analysis of the events of 2011 ( Arab spring, anti-capitalism, London riots – seems a lifetime ago)

what Marx concieved of as Communism remained an idealized image of capitalism, capitalism without capitalism, that is , expanded self-reproduction without profit or exploitation. This is why we should return from Marx to Hegel, to Hegel’s “tragic” vision of the social process where no hidden teleology is guiding us, where every intervention is ajump into the unknown, where the result always thwarts our expectation. All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely; whatever will come after will not be “our future”. A new war in the Middle East or an economic chaos or an extraordinary environmental catastrophe can swiftly change the basic coordinates of our predicament. We should fully accept this openness, guding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future ( The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp134-5)

 

I have blogged already about the post-capitalist thinking of Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streek. I was in Yorkshire for a conference of psychogeographers, whose wanderings seemed very in touch with a situationist spirit of going off message. Phil Smith‘s address to Congress suggested

Through the political spasms of the last year, clumsy expressions of deep rhythms of change, a new kind of Spectacle is emerging from its old ‘integrated’ form into a new meshwork of ‘post-truths’. ..We need to detourn the spectacle.. We need to protect the hidden part of ourselves from the brightness of the spectacle

Phil talks pretty fast and my ability to make notes is not as good as it was. Yet it seems that like our Luddite ancestors the tactics and focus of resistance is provisional and varied . That we are in search of some sort of commonality and universality which still has a strong personal meaning.   And which is always quickly being pulled away again as it becomes processed to become part of the  Spectacle . There will not be one  way to answer this dilemna – there will be a search for the thing that Walter Benjamin suggests can flash up at a moment of danger to guide us (Theses on the Philosophy of History , 6) .

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Watching out for the Luddites coming over the Hill, Liversedge, September 2017

 

  • you’d think really there would have been a punk band called The Luddites. I was actually convinced there had been and looked them up. I found a link to a vanity side project by Rick Astley .. ( Rick ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ Astley ! ).  Never have the thoughts of Guy Debord looked more prophetic..  Anyway in case you dont know (and  indeed care) the title quotes The Damned’s 1979 anthem ‘Smash it up’

 

Purple Hairstreak, Gait Barrows

‘Look for the oak tree with the butterflies dancing round the crown.’

Or a needle in a haystack.  How many oak trees ( or ash trees if its brown hairstreaks you’re after) are there in  a forest?

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Managing a nature reserve for invertebrates is really  a type of gardening – selective pruning and lopping of native vegetation. It leaves herbaceous borders of knapweeds and ragworts, standard tress unexpectedly naked, walkways and trails to peer from, and somewhere in amongst that,  by consciously getting lost and learning to look again at insect level ( hover, bumble, damsel, dragon, beetle), something immersive and satisfying happens  to me again.

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Limestone pavements are the main feature of Gait Barrows. The woods and marshes are there because it has been impossible to adapt it for intensive agricultural use.

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Hairstreaks dance up from the upper branches of oaks ( purple) and ash (brown,preferentially), and do so with the sun on their backs (or really wings) in late summer when there is sap to lap off the leaves or apical buds.  They are drawn to a central tree in the midst of the small colony where they feed , meet and mate.

Towards my end of my own lolloping circumnavigation of the Barrows  I find one. We are both looking for something- either by gradually tuning in, through patience or just  by happenstance. It lollops from one leaf to another about every thirty minutes. This feels a long time to stand staring fixedly at an oak tree, but is almost sustainable as an act of anticipation. Its like it used to feel waiting for the Band to come on.

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Its up there somewhere, honest..

 

I am delighted with a couple of quick silhouettes , a rustle and a surprisingly plosive sound as the creature disappears again in to a floret of leaves. I now have the thought of how something lives.

 

Then I meet the guys who are staking out  brown hairstreak. They’ve already been there for two and a half hours. This is a rarer butterfly, which they tell me  conspiratorially ,shouldn’t really be there (this is because Gait is a long way away from the other known colonies of brown hairstreaks, and dispersal  – like other hairstreak modus operandii – does not take them anywhere fast). They are armed with telephoto lenses and camoflague fatigues, but dimming senses. ( I  notice again how our urge to find things seems to grow in inverse ratio to our ability to do so). And of course I am delighted to become the sharp eyed tracker of the group (at least temporarily).

They draw a crowd ( 6 people at Gait Barrows is a crowd). After the sense of anticipation falls again their leader/guide strides over and hoofs an oak tree which trembles and two hairstreaks pop out of the top and wobble off  to cover.

I am a bit shocked , but am enjoying the group dynamics. Two ramblers they have tempted in by showing them the telephoto pin ups, have joined the chase and are perching on boulders to get better vantage points of the canopies.

I find one of the displaced hairstreaks silhouetted through the lower surface of than oak leaf. It is beautifully complete I think , and  from this perspective,verdantly green, but the others need to see its colours and take off for better vantage points – which scares it off again. I see the white line ( the’ hairstreak’) as it wobbles off into the foliage of an unkickable birch stool, and sanctuary.

Meanwhile the guide has remained remarkably patient training his optics on the spot in the foliage where the hairstreak first emerged, and sifting through the green. Eventually it returns as butterflies will do – although I remember he told me that the brown one he found yesterday took over four hours to do so.

One of the safari guys tells me his son-in-law moved up to Fife.

‘To  a place beginning with an R’

‘Glenrothes?’

‘That’s it! He wasn’t the only one who went- but hes the only one that talks like you’

 

By now dark clouds have gathered (as they do) and I feel if I stay any longer I will have become part of the group, an object of easy scorn for the next fully-facultied young whippersnapper who may be passing. Despite the tantalising hope of a clear view through the scope, it is not a tough call.

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I dont know that I definitely found a purple hairstreak, or five – I didn’t see any purple and only one streak which i might easily have imagined. And yet I have the sense of  getting what I wanted  -which is to know where and how they live. As one of the ramblers , who are also making their excuses, says ‘ I never thought of butterflies up trees’.

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We do owe the the guys though .( You also  if you  enjoy  the amazing , and uncharacteristic pics they or others like them posted). Thus they have pride as their finders fees, and  I have  gained a sense of a purpose for  searching. For the rest of the week I scan the silhouettes of all the oaks I pass for  blurry speckles.

How many ash crowns would you examine before you quit hoping? How many cars did I smile at when I thumbed on the slip road at the services? How many conversations started? How many breaths taken? How many heartbeats?

Sometimes you are defined by when you feel you’ve had enough.

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Ploughmans spikenard, growing in a grike. Gratuitous image, but I liked the sound of it.

Cosmic, mate

Why would anyone not want to explore the multiverse? Its an opportunity to go where no man has gone before . And it only costs a fiver..

I give the admission guy a twenty..

Do you want change ?

Well I could go round four times instead..

I ve passed the humorous retort test. There’s not much to do in Sanquhar but manning the car park in an open cast site can be a long day even so. They tell me I am  the fortieth visitor.

Thats quite a good day for us

Space is lonely , and as destination for a traditional brown sign daytrip it can feel fairly immense. It does look a bit like an abandoned quarry, which could be  a reasonable analogy for the universe, all rock and sharp sides.IMG_20170810_141016759

 

My most frequent fellow orbiter is a sprightly pensioner known as Poppa to his satellite grandweans, who he is failing to frighten with rumours of dragons and unicorns. I think The Alien might work better.

Hes good at quips.. ‘Might be nice when they finish it’, which feels like something one of Douglas Adams‘ characters might have said.

I m headed for the Omphalos at the Centre of the Universe – navels having become one of my things this summer. The Vogons appear to have fenced it off, but somehow I am gravitated into its vortex.IMG_20170810_143519690

This is the most sculptural part of the park, it most pompous and least successful. Thankfully it’s being inhabitated by a rabbit and a pair of wheatears, and already has the feel of an abandoned civic sculpture rusting on a roundabout in a new town.

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What I like about Charles Jencks, from a distance at least , is that he appears to have no concerns about pretentiousness , scale or limitations on genre.At his best he is syncretic, at his worst pompous and simplistic. Maybe these have to come together.

I think you’d need to be a bit arrogant to design and build your own universe. At times I quite applaud this and am expanded- at others, much like Poppa, am having a good time practicing my sense of facetiousness.  I contemplate the view from the Omphalos down the column of megaliths marking a ley across the site and out into the distance . I follow the avenue and find it trained on the Portaloo in the car park – marked’ WC in Fields’.

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The most interesting monument on the site breaks the line of megaliths leading away from the Omphalos. There’s a kind of amphitheatre, a couple of symmetric geometric pools and an inlaid …. sculpture containing a spiral of lots of red cup and ring marked pebbles> the explanatory text ( I assume by Jencks)

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They contain red spirals and target forms, looking like ancient life, but actually they are self organising patterns. I call them Liesgang rocks , after the German chemist who discovered such patterns in 1896.Pulsating rhythms of iron oxide formed in a white desert, and then solidified. They are little globes of energy , micro-suns and stars, except in a white matrix, and tiny. They grew, in a few places in the Nith, through a reaction diffusion cycle, wave forms that pulsate again and again, 1-2-3-4 – supersaturation, nucleation, precipitation, depletion. The rhythm builds up and dances to exhaustion.

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Poppa and his clan pass. He murmurs  ‘Bah  humbug’ , I think, at me poring over the commentary.  I smile but my connection to cosmic speculation has loosened. I feel a little exposed – but he hasn’t actually called me a swotty bastard ,and I have been able to retain that old Caledonian antiszygy which is our birthright.

Unfortunately the  next line  I read is

The non-living looks strangely alive , like a work of art, an agent of the sun itself . In the mosaic Madame Sun pulls Monsieur Earth in spirals , just as she spirals around our galaxy every 200 million years

Its like, all connected..

 

In fairness I don’t know of anyone who has been able to contemplate the vastness of the universe with out talking a pile of pseudometaphysical bollocks . Carl Sagan, Arthur C Clarke, Albert Einstein, Brian Cox, Leonard Nimoy, Stephen Hawking – all apparently smart dudes whose heads ultimately expanded infinitely into space.

But does that mean that we should not look at it/ or try to expand our horizons?

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The Multiverse has a companion exhibition , Cosmic Collisions, at the modestly named (not!) Merz Gallery in  an old washhouse just off the High street in Sanquhar.

In the exhibition I read the following exemplar by Noam Libeskind, who has become a decipherer of cosmology

According to what astronomers have dubbed the Strong Copernical principle, we live in a universe which looks  the same in every direction one looks at, from every point in space and time.. It is only when one zooms in that features start to stick out..

His sister, Rachel, an artist , has tried to create something approximating to 4 dimensional  space to  represent what this might feel like .I dont like it much , but that’s not the point. Its the kind of hippy crap I can relate to.IMG_20170810_154557620

It seems to me the clever stuff is not to apply overarching metaphors to the universe but to see if the universe can teach us different ways to think about our world, and of course, ourselves.

From my visit to the Multiverse I learnt that my wondering needs to pass through a filter of plebean skepticisms before I can make use of it. There appears to be a small Maxwell’s daemon somewhere in there sorting out the destiny of these ideas.

 

One of Jencks’ big things is that Universes seem to be created from collisions and chaos, and that these things are therefore potentially creative . He is, of course, talking about art and ideas, at  least by implication (which may be why entropy doesn’t seem to form part of his thinking). Around the site  there are designs of universes emerging funnel-like (or phoenix-like if you prefer) from  preceding ones.

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The guys in the Portacabin don’t have any souvenirs for sale, but they are glad to see me again. They ll make it to Edinburgh one day , to look at that gallery thing – but maybe they ll have better things to do ‘on thon Rose Street’.

They are selling very cheap ice creams. Unsurprisingly they haven’t any tubs left ( I guess they had less than forty in stock), but they do have ice lollies for 50p. I last had an ice lolly in the 1970s and it looked (and cost) kind of the same. Like a space rocket, and as I suck it new layers of brilliantly dyed cylindrical ice emerge from the funnel-shaped preceding layer. I wonder if God, or Charles Jencks , might have a sense of humour after all.

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At Scotlands navel

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Loch Ossian from the Road to the Isles which wanders off through the distant v to the Fort, or if you were to turn round, over the hill towards Perth

This might be the Zone. I had imagined the Zone to be a post industrial edgeland full of dripping and feral animals, like in Stalker, but that is obviously too literal. The Zone is the place where you get what you wish for. ( I imagine that it is also the place you keep remembering).

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I got off the train where the cast of Trainspotting did (twice now). The Corrour Highland Estate has no particular interest in revisiting Renton’s soliloquy it seems. Tommy brought them to make them proud to be Scottish..

Its shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched , miserable , servile, pathetic trach that was ever shat into civilisation.. Its  a shite state of affairs to be in , Tommy, and ALL the fresh air  in the world wont make any fucking difference..

I had planned to come just after the doomsday election (which turned out not to be so bad after all), to decide it it was still shite being Scottish. or less shite being Scottish than British.

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Instead I wandered into a community of seekers. A gnarled fell walker, a Gothic heroine in exile, a Dutch girl in search of encounter, a German woman looking for solitude,  some actual trainspotters, and me. We orbited our strange wooden abode (the hostel is a converted boathouse where Edwardian toffs, en route to dethroning the Monarch of the Glen with a twelve bore, waited for the steam yacht to ferry them down the loch) provided walk-ons in each others quests, and then left again.

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Parmelioid lichen swarming over a boulder – I d really like this to be Parmelia omphaloides, but I m not really sure

I was leaving when the film crew arrived. The fell walker had already made a hasty exit. The warden had spruced herself up to be interviewed in the mists by the lochside. I pointed out the faux romanticism ,and she  jauntily offered to pop back to her hut for her cloak and raven. The girls seemed paralysed by the headlights of fame, or the language barrier. The crew said they were from the Chamber of Commerce (what!). I agreed to be interviewed on the bench outside, until they asked me to say ‘My Highland capital is.. WILDLIFE’ .

( ‘Its obviously not, its Inverness’ ,I thought).

I pointed out a diver had just crossed my path, and made my excuses. You need to be true to yourself.

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When I was looking down at the myriad of bog pools from the ridge of Sgurr Ghaibre I decided my wish was to find a diver. As I write I realize some of you may imagine I sought a frogman or Tom Daly lookalike rather than a long-necked goose-like bird. To draw a diver , draw a goose, and then rub out a concave section on each side of its neck , and place these shavings gently on its back. There is an adventure story by Arthur Ransome ( Swallows and Amazons) which I read, along with everything else in the children’s section of my local library. Great Northern. It has maps, and quests, and secrets, and enmity and a loons nest in the Hebrides. This year I met a Russian exile whose dearest wish is to see a Great Northern. They have a following, then.IMG_20170614_141343330_HDR

 

But I am in the wrong place for Great Northern’s (which does seem to be largely where people look for them). I hope for a throated diver, red or black, RTD or BTD. In winter these float around lone-ly in our estuaries . In the summer they move inland and north to glimmering lakes and tarns of the sodden Highlands, and seek out secluded pools with little, low-slung islands for nest sites , protected to a degree from egg thieves , and offering scope to nursery paddling for flightless fledglings. And, yes reader, you have to find them amongst the vastness.

It took me three days. My search methods of preference are random. Wander, do something else, keep the possibility in mind. You have a reason to be there at least , and a dream, of an oversized bird on a flatly reflective pool.

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The fleeing diver passed in the direction of the bog around Corrour Station , which I d spotted from the train across Rannoch Moor.

Rannoch Moor is hardly a thing, except as an  absence of mountains. Not a meall or a carn for twenty square miles. But slopes, knolls, nobbles, drumlins, eskers, moraines, bogs , mires, pools and straggly conifers in rows. A one point the water stopped flowing west, and started flowing east – around the time the German kid opposite waved his socks out into the passage again, and then it changed back again. So it traverses the spine of Scotland, and from the bog at Corrour water can flow north, east, west or south, and reach the sea near Fort William, Dundee or Inveraray.

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Bog is tortuous to cross . Like the Zone you rarely go forward in a straight line. I wobble from hummock to hummock, retaining equilibrium, practicing Zen like patience to be at one with the elasticity of the surface of the mire. What will come, will come. Move as the bog allows. I fall in anyway.

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It rained and it stopped , and rained and stopped , the hills acting as the stage lighting and scenery team as I traced round the shorelines like those I used to copy  from maps of the North west coastline. I found a tiny beach of silver sand abandoned on the rim of peat, and a couple of vulgar mallards. The game was a bogey , and I let my dream go and wrote my slogan on the sand.

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And yet here in the middle of Scotland on the last tiny pool, there, was a diver ,floating motionless, in silhouette against the grey lit water. I did drop to my knees  – partly pilgrim, partly stalker, partly because i was wearing waterproof trousers already, and I may have cried with joy.

 

And this is where a film would end  with a voiceover from the clouds –

HIS HIGHLAND CAPITAL IS DIVERS..

HOLIDAY IN SCOTLAND -ITS NOT AS SHITE AS IT USED TO BE.

GIE US YER EUROS!

Its the edit. Its a wrap.

But , now,  life doesn’t do that . The diver wasn’t going anywhere . It was alone, waiting or resting, and I was left to consider -what do you do now with your dream?

After a few minutes I felt an impulse to make it fly, like a toy for me, to watch it flap silently, arduously over its world, until it passed out of reach. And to have that ending. I didn’t- although you don’t know this for sure..

The only other option was a painstaking retreat across the moor, around erratic boulder, peat hag, another boulder, sphagnum pool, outflow streams, another boulder, heather tussock. Looking back from the top of each mound to see if.. Until it disappeared, although really I did. After all I had a train to catch in a few hours.

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At the station the Estate has created a bistro hotel with a cafe that serves a decent latte. I left my boots and waterproofs in the waiting hut on the platform and joined the lingerers inside where I could have had a locally slaughtered deer burger for 14 ( served on a brioche bun with beetroot chips and slaw).

And still , close by , but also an enormous distance away, at the navel of Scotland, on the great moor there is a still pool , and on that pool there floats a blackthroated diver.

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Dwarf cornel, lower slopes of Beinn Dearg. My first ever.

 

Postscript –

Two months later in search of traces of Donnchadh Ban, who has a walk on part in the next part of my trip,   I go to a book launch for Literature of the Gaelic Landscape by John Murray. This contains a description of a precursor to the praise poems of the Gaelic landscape called the Song of the Owl ( Oran na Comhachaig) in which the poet , Domnhall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dan (Donald MacKinlay of the Verses) meets an owl on the way home from a party, which he persuades to tell him her the story of their homeland ( owls as well as being wise,and talkative were also believed to reach a great age). Anyway that homeland is basically the area that you can see in the photo at the top of the post, the owl meeting having taken place at Fearsaig on Loch Treig which is over to the right in the picture. It does seem a lot of journeys run through this space..

Going to visit the Folks

The walk to Taigh na Bodach has aspects of a pilgrimage for me. It involves  along journey, some routefinding and a walk through as near to a desolate landscape as I am ever likely to find in a Scottish summer ( although the walk to Hampden Park from Glasgow Central on Cup Final day also pops into mind).

I spend a lot of time wondering why I dislike reservoirs so much.  Reducing the carbon footprint or public thirst quenching doesn’t seem to make a difference to my disdain. This one -grandly titled, Loch Lyon- is as usual surrounded by a tidemark of unnatural beaches and a stretchmark of dirt road.

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I spend a lot of time plodding forth and making unlooked for journeys back to my originary version of this – called Loch Lee, which blocks Glen Esk at the top of its own single track road, and made an obvious focus for family picnicking trips back in the day.

It always invoked a sense of dread in me – I felt Iwas being watched by a malevolent deity, and the frequent angry gusts down the vacant gape of the loch were shudder provoking. Now I can  also see the connection to premonitions of carsickness and unwelcome adult attention which went with these excursions.

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I try to treat Loch Lyon on its own merits , notice wheatears being white arsed, and take in the views of the thighs of the local cloud topped mounts, but as usual my response reverts to trying to route march around the track as quick as poss. Diverted mainly by the constant rain of grit into my boots ( how does that happen?).

At the top of the loch a burn leads up into the Breadalbane hills , green knee caps of the giants, and from that another hanging glen dangles, containing, above the falls Taigh na Bodach (or Cailleach).. This is one of the many ambiguities here . It is clear the glen is Glen Cailleach , home of the Alllt Cailleach. The OS map says in that wrinkly special writing – that feels like a treasure map – Taigh na Bodach , but all the current bloggers are keen to revise it’s goddess association.IMG_20170616_112615182

I am here largely because I wrote about this place carelessly in my article on Tombreck for the catalogue to Poet, Painter,Potter .I wondered at the time whether my house style would fit with the ascetic of art catalogues, and received enough editorial feedback to make me realize it was not a good match.

One of the feedbacks which I considered thoughtfully was the attachment of personal pronouns to the statue of An Cailleach in this hut.  I used It originally,  it was suggested I amend to She,  the lack of gender being confirmed as a significant insult by a shamanistic source . I found I couldn’t do this. This took me into a quandary . I don’t think it will be a huge spoiler to announce  I am an atheist , and am not inclined to personify imaginary deities, and particularly representations of them. On the other hand,  the use of the trappings of signification are clearly a part of my writing style , all that weird profane illumination stuff , and I am inclined to try to understand how other people are coming to terms with the Death of God ( or Dearth of Gods, as I typ(o)ed originally and much prefer).

So here I am trudging up Glen Lyon to make my peace..

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A small stone hut, about the size of a kitchen dresser and the height of a sheep , turf-roofed , timber-lintelled and carefully dry-stoned ( which I later discover is the result of a recent restoration) is the abode of the statues. It is in a lot better nick than several of the bothies I ve come across, and most of the graves in a Scottish cemetery.

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The Cailleach, the Bodach , the Nigheach (daughter) , and a few other rounded stones are outside , surveying the glen ( if stones had eyes) , from what I guess is their garden. They are about the size of cobble stones, or irreverently, garden gnomes, but shaped into things with necks , which is no minor thing to do to a lump of granite..

Someone has brought them a couple of Red Delicious , I suspect from the NISA in Crianlarich , where I noticed them yesterday , whilst sheltering from the rain. The teenage shop assistant was relieved I seemed willing to make an actual purchase within an acceptable timescale, which differentiated me from the usual backpack customer

‘ They stand around for ages , don’t buy anything and then expect me to give them a weather forecast. How the fuck am I supposed to know when the rain is going to go off.. Its CRIANLARICH..’ .

The apples are confusing the small flock of sheep which I have scared off to a nearby vantage point, and since neither they or the Celtic gods have eaten them yet I think it is safe to remove the offerings without serious consequences.IMG_20170616_113401714

I’ve walked two hours to get here and feel a lengthy contemplation would be the appropriate thing to do . I manage 15 minutes..

Its remarkable , it has an installational quality ( perhaps because of the emptiness of the background), a site specificness, and the heavy rock rubbed into shape has a primeval quality, which speaks of primitive rather than ancient – although it could be both. It reminds me of outsider art , and of course it is – a strange cult , in a remote place, part of a meaning system i don’t understand – deep in the heart of Scotland ,  a long way from authority , except for the authority you might imagine from the eyes in the hills, which loom, as they do.

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The Taigh ( male, female or gender neutral), opens East and downstream over an area of lush grass – as lionized by Duncan Ban on the other side of the hills some centuries ago– and about a hundred yards from the resting phase of a Highland stream, slightly upriver from a small confluence. A moraine makes a boundary to the foreground, crossing the valley , forming a lip to the bowl , which the river skirts and then breaks through in geological time stage left , where the landrover track has now opened a second wound into the boulder clay.  The doorway also frames the hill on the other side of the main valley , which catches the light occasionally, but doesn’t look exceptional.

None of it really does. Its not Stonehenge , or Maes Howe (and I wouldn’t have this place to myself if it did). Its a humdrum special place , somehow homelike and impossibly remote.

My reaction to it is to The Past. The Before and Gone. That feeling I get when I experience an aspect of a way of life that I cant comprehend. – which I guess is that the world is even bigger than I thought.

The statues are small enough to inspire care,not awe. The sheep have knocked one down , and I set it upright again, like I would have done with my child’s toys, or do to cairns on top of mountains. They feel more like your grandparents than your gods. Maybe that’s it  – they are after all about continuity, like the old stories that were dying.IMG_20170616_122325060

Some of the sources describe the shrine of unique. Again I am inclined to doubt. All over Scotland the animals went off to the upland pasture at Beltane , and returned at Samhain. There are loads of ruined shielings – and we would not know if they were for shepherds or gods. On the Inner Hebridean island of Gigha there are bodach and cailleach stones , bare and overlooking the lands, much as a barrow would have done.  A fallen Celtic God would easily merge with the rubble of abandoned cottage , sheep fank or glacial outwash.IMG_20170616_113442221

My shamanistic source tells me that their school interprets the Celtic family as spirits or archetypes , something watching over us, or that we can imagine watching over us, rather than an interventionist deit(ies). There are some legends about this place , but it is hard to know how much they have been rewritten.

 

The legends I found involve  a strange family who come to the Taigh and receive shelter and offer ongoing protection if they’re hut is kept maintained. It is a familiar tale – although in this version no-one upsets the apple carts.. (unless it was me with the Red Delicious,,)  I like better the personifications of the Hills and the Snow in the forms of the Cailleach and Bodach. Its the world you are looking up at all the time , which contains your fate in the winds and the weather. These are the things you’d want on your side.

One of the virally spread internet explanations of the site, suggests it had to be rededicated to the local saint at some point ( who has the main valley named after him) and the rocks are numbered at twelve, and are apostles. Maybe this was a clue to its protection and survival, whilst the missionaries moved north into the Jacobite hinterland.

Taigh was part of something though. I wonder if its custodians were honorary or casual, its respect specific or customary , its presence happenstance or deliberate . I guess all this ambiguity and remoteness is what gives us scope for imagining – and that is why  now it is an appropriate site for a pilgrimage.

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It hints to an active world that was once there- ruined shielings,  an extant site of tree roots which would have been a dying pine wood – and is  gradually returning to being one again as neo-Celts, stravaigers and psychogeotourists blunder up Glen Lyon again to read the entrails of Gaeldom.

A Sett in the woods

IMG_20170516_194924333 Up the track in the dusk lined with green alkanet , blue fairy lights marking the way. Rustle on through the briars, aware, too aware, of every exploding woody and alarm screeching blackbird, we move back into position at the Badgers’.

IMG_20170516_194832736Well, I am back, for this time, for the first time I have brought others to share my illusionsIMG_20170522_132113725

I’ve been aware of a contradiction between my  declared mission to share and my solitary wanderings. And so recently I’ve been trying to teach the unteachable. Birdwatching, lichen appreciation , environmental sensitivity .. whatever.. Its a peculiar struggle within me , filling up my compadres with context, background and skill-sets, versus trusting them to experience their own small miracles in the commonplace.

I have been enjoying my crepuscular visits to leave peanuts and establish sightlines and escape routes without expectation or responsibility. If I want to wander aimlessly around a wood on a spring evening and chuck some nuts about, well that would be my own eccentric business, wouldn’t it?

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The installation of purpose creates a different dynamic which I’ve been trying to work out and channel for some time. It is both comforting and frightening to think you might be up to something.

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I had a nice conversation with my daughter about the deer which graze an exposed slope along the A1 through our world

. ‘ I sometimes remember to look for them when I am getting a lift [to  morning training]. They’re always there.’ ,’Yeah , virtually every day’.’But I keep telling people about them and they always seem surprised .’ ‘People don’t notice them….Yet they aren’t hiding or anything..’ .

‘But you have to look for them’.

You do indeed.

You need an intent. I keep hearing about Levinas and the Ethic of responsibility to the Other. Its an attitude to try and be available for interaction, communication, and surprise . It strangely fits, although I imagine other things might too.

So on our bank in the dusk , we are staring intently at the badger hole ,wondering if a snout will emerge. My friends are sitting on a yoga mat, and the thing does remind me a bit of a meditation practice . Stay focussed, keep still . I don’t of course. I suffer from intent drift, but I think I am available – and hopefully heightened. I hear the rustles of my coat on the twigs ( memo to self- no waterproofs next time), the white space between the calls of the thrushes slowly settling into the anxious night, the more distant hum of the traffic getting louder. I imagine the badgers hear all this too. img_20170522_133558429.jpg

One of us wonders how they know when to come out. I believe they wake, scratch and head out, all instinct and hunger pangs, but, really, it feels more natural to think of them as creatures of volition, considering their contact needs with their environment. And again I wonder if contact with an actual badger will break the spell of imagining. We have all had preparatory badger dreams.

I am also racked with responsibility . What if there are no Actual Badgers ? I imagine some burly estate worker interrupting our vigil with a powerful flashlight to tell us he gassed the sett out years ago, while chortling about the stories he will be able to tell at the next works dance. How will I face the world humbled in my nascent role as nature guide? Or my cold and disappointed friends walking back down the hill..

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The Actual Badgers emerge, I note, once the last blackbird has throstled, once the soundstage is set.

We become the rapt audience for a music concrete recital, savouring each note and tone. Rustles echo, advance and recede, but mainly remain elsewhere. The noises are  major, arpeggio and haunting  . It feels like everything is listening.

They are also lateral, elsewhere. I wonder if they are aware of our presence. The rumbles occasionally come in our direction, but as they grow louder, they also , repeatedly, stop abruptly to be followed by pregnant silences – which produce nothing. Are they sniffing? Listening?

Experienced badger watchers , having customized their formulae for peanut butter lures, also roll their overcoats around on the spoil heaps of excavated burrows and leave them maturing near the sett, to costume back into on their next visit. It’s a routine a shaman would recognise.

I wonder about the underworld of dark, musky tunnels – one badger width diameter, full of mixed olfactory messages of welcome and warning, of decaying bedstraw, fermentation, and proprioceptive presence. I also like the boundary – the secret.

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As I write my imagined badgers continue to forage under subliminal understories. I can now hear them move , but I still cant quite picture their paths across the screen.

Images in the article are drawn from  A Guide to Watching Wildlife (1963) , by David Stephen, which was my 10th birthday present. I am not sure which illustrator made the drawings.

Badger facts from the more recent New Naturalist monograph , Badger, by Tim Roper. And badger awareness from Scottish Badgers

Badgers are still being gassed for their alleged role in the spread of TB in cattle. Labour election manifesto promises to stop the cull. And renationalise the railways…