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..

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.


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’.


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)



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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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..


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.


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.


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.


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.

Land of Plenty

Buchan- a land of plenty

Peat bogs and puddock-steels,

Weet and clorty widder,

And contermashious deils!

John C Milne 

I think contermashious is pretty memorable word. The Concise Scottish Dictionary states it is derived from a slightly archaic (or pure) English form.  Its the only word in the poem above that I would not have recognised on my own. Yet I got  the sense of it quite quickly and see the  emphatic, aggrandising fit of it against ‘deils’.

My older relatives who we visited interminably in my youth spoke something like Doric, on occasion, usually for effect – comic, demonstrative, or directive. .They loved Doric verse .. Its full of stuff like this -which probably only works if you get the double meaning of Plenty. and comes from a cultural place best summarised in the sayings “Ah kent his father” and “Wha’s like us- damn few, (and they’re aw deid)” , which used to adorn tartan tea towels in the  giftshops of my past..

Reading through the Bothy Ballads, fictive sourcebook of this stuff, I see a resemblance to the lyric sheet of a rap album – drink, girls, sharp practice, testosterone and masses of unselfconscious pride. It is the music of a masculine working class elite, but preserved in aspic (whatever that was)  by a bunch of  nostalgic schoolmasters as the Wars ended that culture, if we believe James Leslie Mitchell( which is a good idea in my view) .

I feel like I would like to claim ‘contermashious’ as part of my cultural capital , to go alongside ‘hailstergowdie’ , ‘foggit’, ‘cushats’, ‘teuchats’ and ‘wee nyaffs’. But never in the same sentence –  I don’t want to become a cultural cliché, and were I to lapse into Scots derivatives there will be a fair number of my friends who wouldn’t understand me, and they are probably more interesting than the people who would.


Window in St Nicks, Aberdeen

Which would have been my position  through most of my adult life. But I may be at some kind of tipping point..  ‘What you cast off will hit back..’ as Mark E Smith snarled on an early album.. The tipping point is about trying to establish a sense of identity – well that part of it that allows you to have authority about a part of your life that you have lived.

I wonder if I can find a response to the language which identifies my home patch – which in the words of its makars would be Doric, a strange Hellenistic term for  the vernacular of North East Scotland.. It is now mysteriously merged with Lallans , vernacular from central Scotland into something called Scots, into which classics of children’s literature  are being translated, and some writing is being produced by James Robertson , Matthew Fitt and others.. This being distinguished from Lallans , in the words of an audience member at one of Robertson’s book signings,   ‘by the fact you can understand it’.

Intelligibility is a useful characteristic for a language, but another is descriptiveness.  My belief has usually been that nothing very original has been said in any of these languages.  They are usually comic in intent, and conservative in their form.  These are the limitations that led Hugh McDiarmid (himself an invention) to create synthetic Scots , which is unintelligible,  self -aggrandizing, but occasionally memorable.

All of these are , of course, sanitized vernaculars – the Concise Scots Dictionary has no truck  for the swearie words, the cadence is reproduced without class and locality, the democracy of presbyterianism is reproduced  without the repression.

In Doric particularly there doesn’t seem to be any  geographic beyond to look to. Not Gaeldom or Europe, but archetypes of the past , granite versions of ageless stoicism and dark, unmentioned shadows. Thus the  rise and fall  of New Aberdeen feels like a tide breaking over a large block of granite. It started in my teens and hasn’t quite lasted a lifetime ( which in my case started with a typhoid outbreak and may end with lots of the region underwater) but never seemed to have any permanence . Exhibition centres, civic buildings and house farms have all had a pop up feel.The land alone endures as LGG  has it.


Granite lion, guess where?

It may be that sometimes the past looks more hopeful. Grammar schools, when you kent their father and, when you could trust the laird to stick up for his chiels, that great reimagined past.

Maybe in the part of the country where the contrast between a conservative , semi-rural society and high multinational capitalism has been starkest, that nostalgia is more explicable. But it is still bollocks, and we should be grateful that wee Eck’s opportunism has landed us with no worse than a mock-Baronial golf course as a monument to the worst ever US president’s vanity (not that the residents of the Mennie Estate will feel so).

Around the oil capital this summer I noticed lots of young people running. Probably  in circles, potentially away , but apparently to avoid stasis , the sense of settling, or like prisoners doing press ups,  to keep in shape for their eventual release (or jail break).

Of course I am drawing on another tradition the  long history of exiled Scots returning to trash their home land. Edwin Muir, JM Barrie , Rhona Cameron ( I live in Musselburgh) . Maybe we can understand it as frustration and relief..As another exiled ( almost) Scot put it

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,

Could we make The Thrums vibrant ? (  although currently Kirrie , birthplace of JMB, feels fairly funky). One of the legacies I can see in these grumbling narratives  is a deep pessimism about  volkishness and loyalism ( both with and without capitals)   which seems more pronounced in the North East than elsewhere. Other scots regionalism – say McDiarmid s Langholm , pie-eyed Dundonianisms or various Gaelic Brigadoons, seem to refer outward to a common humanity, and lands across the sea. Up in Buchan its the ancestors – actual or mythical.

The oil boom allowed more of my classmates to escape this than ever before. When I met them in adulthood on north bound trains they told me of their adventures in the Far East and Mid West, usually on familiar engineering installations, but with furlough in strange parts there was little doubt that travel had broadened their minds, as it broadened mine.  The ones who’ve stayed faired less well.

I’ve taken it personally. So it seems everytime I write about the North East I reach a point of suppressed rage at its dunderheided parochialism.  I want to be identified with where I grew up , but I don’t want to identify with what happens there.

I used to select items of hopeful intent from local history – the commune Edward Baird set up on Rossie Island, the Brechin carter’s strike,  the genesis of Hugh McDiarmid in a back street in Montrose,  the CND protests against the US naval base in Edzell. These are rare moments and largely unacknowledged, and moreso because of the consensual basis of parochial localness, which largely papers over the cracks and thus protects the status quo. Near where I grew up tied cottages have prevented rural development and effectively preserved a long glen as a shooting estate for a group of landed gentry. There is an efficient and well established anthropological folk museum and history project in the area which makes no mention of this.

Most of our heroes now are never going to be local . But it would be nice to imagine they could have been. That Bruce Springsteen or Morrissey , could have roamed the Angus Glens in a battered Ford Escort, gunning it towards pheasants on the roads at dusk ,partly for food and partly out of vengeance.. but it is hard to imagine either of them plucking a pheasant..  Or indeed anyone who has plucked a pheasant as a star.

Yet where do we go without dreams ? We settle . We take what we are given , grudgingly , but as plenty , as in the sense of enough. And we resent those who don’t . Contermatious may be a good word to know at the moment.

The Faces



There were times when drinking brought elation, but others, like tonight, when it brought only a weariness that felt universal. It was too hard to walk home, the streets and pavements all sloped steeply upwards, the street lights dimmed, and the hoardings were all touting TORPOR.

In this mood I sat down on a bench and was shortly joined by an elderly wino.. The accepted behaviour in these situations was to move off smartly discouraging the anticipated hard luck story and importuning request.. I hadn’t the energy and it seemed neither had he to close on his mark.

Instead he lingered, hesitant in his pitch, coughed, fidgeted, and then slumped back . We shared a mutual silence. We watched the branches wobble uncertainly in the breeze as an occasional footfall passed. Time passed  too.

At some point I heard him say,

Son , the only thing that’s changed around here are the faces..

The silence resumed. We made no eye contact, but continued to stare out from our bench, at the silhouettes of the bleary figures, and finally I could see it was true. They had changed – been repaired, restored or recycled.. With concentration you could see the scars, the tucks and joins.

We sat there for aeons, and watched new versions of the same intrigues. Our vista grew and shrank and grew again, took in the growth of cities, ruinous sieges, pageants, romances, memorials, commitments, riots, pantomimes and pogroms , which we knew would cycle endlessly, like the growth and decay of the foliage which overhung our seat. There was still no need to say anything, yet I felt a certain duty to reflect on what I d seen , to pass the time of day with another witness –

‘Son, the only thing that’s changed around here are the faces.’ I said..