At Scotlands navel


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 –


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.


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.


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


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?


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.


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..


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.


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…

The Case of the Celtic Rainforest

in-tree-300x300It was the day I  saw the fairy dancing amongst the undergrowth that I knew the whole bogus stunt had gone sour..

I hunched my collar up my neck against the  teeming rain, flicked my cigarette butt away and headed back to the office.. (unfortunately I may have burnt down a small, semi-natural ancient woodland in the process  – but it was in the name of genre authenticity).

It was time I spilt the beans..

When I was  a greenhorn ecologist,  rainforests were massive, perpetual and in  the tropics; Celts were ancient peoples from central Europe – or football supporters; and the damp, dwarfed midge-ridden woods of the west Highlands were just that – not even forests – which in Scotland are large estates full of deer.

But now look at this – from our heroic parliamentarians,   breathy with wonder..

The Celtic rainforests ignite the imagination. For those who have not visited—me being one—the names alone paint a picture of an otherworldly habitat. I understand that we could explore Puck’s glen or go on a hunt for blackberries and custard or octopus suckers.(Labour)

The species that dot the forest floor and enjoy an epiphytic bond with the overhanging trees contain a joyous mix of names and uses (Nationalist)

I do not know what bush tucker can be found in Scotland’s rainforests, but I am told by my eldest daughter Sibylla that wild garlic makes very good pesto.  ( guess..)


It is a little hard to pin down what exactly has changed to create this buzzing uniquely ‘Naturally Scottish’ ecological zone – and that may be because it’s existence has a tinge of contingency, which I ‘ll get to, but lets review the ecology first..

To begin with it appears that a rainforest has become a forest that grows for a long time in a rainy place, and although it should still have certain characteristic indicator species,  but these can be related to microflora or non-flowering plants.

Then we are, it appears,  to extend that elasticity a little further to suggest that it may not always have been there – at least in its current form.. And that there might be a degree of fluidity in the size, structure and presence of the vegetation needed to make the sites part of the same zone.

So in the case of this Celtic rainforest, or Atlantic  semi-natural woodlands as they were formerly (more modestly?) known, these criteria are fulfilled by the fact that it is pretty wet and windy in Argyll and west Invernesshire ;  it’s near the sea (a high oceanity index); that there are a lot of woods which were cultivated for charcoal smelting  or tan-barking in this area which gives them a unique history and structure ( at least in Scotland); that although most of the flora and fauna occur in other places, there are, amongst the lichen, moss and  fungal communities ( again not unique),  some species which are found nowhere else in the UK, and possible nowhere else at all ( which may of course be a function of how hard the rest of the world is looking for small cryptic non-flowering plants).


The slightly underwhelming but undoubtedly rare White script Lichen, graphis alboscripta

Of course by these criteria we can have a lot of rainforests , as long as we have a lot of rain.. we can have birch rainforests, hazel rainforests ( now that we have revised our opinion that hazel is not scrub), oak rainforests, and possibly ash ones too . And maybe pine ones if they could cope with the rain.. To an uninitiated woodland creature,  or  world-weary ecological gumshoe, the reality of all these situations might look  pretty different, but we might not understand categories so well as the people who write the guidebooks.

And then ‘Celtic’ – there are similar forests ( which I would call woods) on the west coast of Ireland (  one of which  Colin Farrell and Rachel Weiss’ frolic through with a camel in my favourite dystopia , The Lobster ). As there are also in Cornwall, Portugal and Madeira – and probably on the Azores as well. Is there something which makes the maritime woods of Scotland and Ireland more alike than say those, or the woods of Argyll and the Southern Lakeland area..? Ermm..

So would that thing be cultural?

In the hastily coffee -tabled glossy Rainforests of Britain and Ireland, used as a sourcebook by the researchers who wrote the politician’s speeches above, Clifton Bain suggests

The term Celtic rainforest has been adopted to reflect the shared geographical distribution with remaining Celtic languages, but it also conveys some of the mystical and spiritual connections with our ancient past.

Like any rural medieval community , Gaelic culture used woods as sources of fuel, pasture and timber and they figure in Gaelic culture . The Gaelic alphabet is named for trees and in that alphabet there are lovely, ancient, concrete poems describe natural phenomena.

James Hunter has suggested a special cultural attitude towards nature in archetypal Gaeldom.  But in my view the evidence suggests that the  woods figure as a backdrop rather than as a cultural space – there are for example no specific words remaining  in Scots Gaelic for types of forest – coille , is used for all woods, and, unlike the rich array of landscape words which cover the moors and coasts of the north west, there are not many for wood types. Duncan Ban McIntyre and Sorley McLean, are both rightly seen as great nature poets  working in Gaelic, but are using contemporary poetic forms in their native tongue.

Historical records don’t suggest any patterns of use that identify consistent timber conservation or management patterns through the Gaeltachd – instead they suggest the usual interplay of pragmatism and economic interest found in the rest of Britain.

Celtic does have other connotations, which if mumbled vaguely in a lilting tone  can be attractive to tourists ( ‘Gee,  didnt they film Game of Thrones somewhere round hereabouts’?) but none of these have anything to do with damp woodland

I have it on good authority that in the post offices of Assynt  and Ardnamurchan the words ‘Celtic rainforest’ translate into local speak as ‘tourist hoakum’.img_20160917_175031977

So where has all this come from – and suddenly. Something persuaded the daddy of lichenology,  Paul Gilbert to move from a cheery description of the joys of the semi-natural woods, to slightly awkward hagiography of the Celtic between two publications in less than a decade.. Could he have been lent on?

Pragmatically it’s good to have a monicker , a USP, and if that works for your sponsor all the better. The Scottish government – through Scottish Natural Heritage ( which became the Nature conservancy + the countryside commision, ecologists +planners) is now the sponsor to most research and conservation effort in Scotland – and it is keen to brand its nature.. It has discovered its own crossbill- a bird that can only be identified by minute comparisons of its beak , and may not even be distinguishable by other crossbills.. and, finding itself the proprietor of a lot of Highland land, needs to be seen to doing something worthy with it.. so whilst,  to me , the widely quoted studies of the Coppins are the kind of exploratory stuff lichenologists still routinely do everywhere, they fit that other bill (‘uniquely Scottish’) quite well.

The whole idea seem to have been bigged up by a variety of oscillating waves of publicity effort – conferences, publications, mappings and the growth of a style of conservation which functions a bit like the community health initiatives of other parts of the government. That is  – publish lots of glossy stuff and hope that it shows that we are doing something.

‘So gumshoe, why does this get you so much ?‘, said the Lauren Bacall lookalike lounging in her cagoule against the  conveniently placed standard oak..

‘Is there anything wrong with enthusiastic promotion of potential (as opposed to outright lying) – its not as if anyone actually dies, and a mossy wood is a delight whatever its called, surely? ‘ (not sure her name was Shirley, mind you..)

My problems are two fold – the first is that this type of gloss is very much using the authority of science to peddle its wares .

While I was going through the files about the Celts I came across this famous quote about Whig history

It is not a sin in a historian to introduce a bias that can be recognised and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organisation of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognised  (Herbert Butterfield, 1931)


So if we substitute ‘ecological’ for ‘historical’ this feels like what’s happening . Its about creating Scottishness or worse Celticness , without acknowledging  that’s what’s going on. And thats a lot to hang on some mosses and liverworts..

The second is that you might not be able to see the wood for the trees.. There are two prisms which we are simultaneously viewing nature at the moment – one is holistic, the other contextual?.. Is a wood a system of production, or an aggregate of the things which are haphazardly growing there.

The rain forest stuff relates back to a style of ecology which discusses climax vegetations , ecosystems and plant communities as if they were platonic forms ( and goes along with some fairly wacky right wing thinking too, which often goes underground in metaphors about order and natural balance)..(see Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, pp220-3 for a concise discussion of this) It also largely wrong ..

Real places we discover through studying the records of what has actually happened and what exists on the site- so for example we have some interesting woods in Western Highlands

1/because they survived the general overharvesting and grazing in the nineteenth century Highlands

2/because their timber was locally valuable and

3/  their boundaries allowed them some protection .

They decayed gently internally until the present day – most helpfully most of them were either too small , steep or wet to have been murdered by the Forestry Commission in the last publicity driven siege on the woodlands ( anyone remember ‘Plant More Trees’) after the second world war which culminated with the tax dodging afforestation of the flow country by that jolly cove Terry Wogan and his mates in the nineteen eighties..( Sorry got a bit carried away ).

Within them there are relicts on steep inaccessible terrain from which small , slow growing damp tolerant plants can gradually recolonise . This pattern is found in other localised areas of Western Europe , but not necessarily any more frequently in the immediate vicinity of those sites.

What exists on a site is a matter of history and there is no ‘intrinsic’ reason why one part of it is better than another..

For example one of the most characteristic plants of the Celtic rain forest is the rhododendron , which loves the shade and slope of these woods – it was introduced by people who saw it as source of ongoing beauty and in some parts of the Celtic rainforest zone like Inverewe Gardens is still visited by tens of thousands of people each year..

However at the same time SNH are encouraging landowners to root them out of woods to restore an original vegetation that often didn’t exist there.. It is a decision about woodland management to grow rhoddies or damp lichenous scrub (which does take a bit longer) , but if you allow that to be the case you cant give authoritative advice on the right thing to do –  hence another reason for the spurious nonsense about CRFs.

We should love things for what they open for us- in the damp woods it is the scale and patterns of growth that surprise and delight. There are lovely artistic responses to this, for example, in the art sponsored by the (reformed, cuddly) Forestry Commision in At the Edge,  or in the images of Sorley Mclean in his poems Hallaig and the Woods of Raasay. There are also responses in the hutting and woodcraft that occupy the denizens of Reforesting Scotland .

A visit to the Celtic rainforest is pretty much as it has always been – I actually visited four over the last two years without knowing what I had stepped in.. I went looking for woodland birds , couldn’t find any in the dense foliage , but did see a lot of moss and rain. On Seil in the  Ballachuan Hazelwood I walked for over an hour under the canopy without standing upright whilst enjoying my sense of immersion in the green glow. I thought how nice it was to get lost there.


Whilst there I thought heard a rustling and along a branch thought I spied a fleeting glimpse of the Caledonian Chimera , the one animal that is unique to our rainforest . Feasting on a diet of publicity materials and nesting in an ancient druid’s staved oak it has existed for hundreds of years in a way which is both authentic and really quite cool.. but I fear all of the fuss and attention from the excited tourists that our MSPs believe are about to flock there might scare it back into the Celtic twilight from which it had emerged..