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.


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..


Winter Birds of the Apocalypse, Number 2 – The Bohemian Waxwing


The Bohemian Waxwing

Named for their exotic appearance, but not so known in Bohemia, where loucheness is blamed on the gypsies instead, this poshed-up monicker replaced their previous colloquial name of the Devil Bird.

Medieval folk witnessing dramatic occasional appearances of flocks of two types of unusual birds into their manor felt it natural to regard their appearances as omens. Since one type had beaks which made the sign of the cross and the other a gaudy, debauched appearance it was obvious which was going to get the bad press..

Waxwings arrive in flocks as the light fades in late autumn. They clump in the upper branches of bare small trees, where in winter sun, their plumage can seem almost fluorescent. Eye stripes , gloss-painted wing bars and an exaggerated quiff complete the satanic(or new romantic, depending on your era) appeal.

Waxwings have taken to frequenting supermarket car parks during the Winter Shopping Festival. Crowding into weedy ornamental sallows they offer an ongoing commentary on events, like clockwork Jeff Koons installations, or brightly painted cousins of the singing crows in Dumbo.

Either way the devil -birds seem to observing something..

And waiting.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No4 – The Pintail

The pintail is a long tailed duck, but not THE long-tailed duck.

No, it is one of the many medievally-named ducks discriminated originally as menu items for potlatch feasting Tudors. While their enemies and vassals starved at their doors,  large-bellied despots bought loyalty with annual meals of prodigious meatiness,  largely sourced from the watery places that fringed their feudal domains. While the swan, the goose, the pike, the roach, the gadwall, the shoveller, the widgeon, the pigeon, the dace and the plaice may have had the fecundity to survive the appetite of the British ruling classes, the pintail did not and discretely declined.

It now appears seldom, singly, or in pairs, on the fringes of garrulous displays of wildfowl.

At the show-grounds of the Wildfowl Trust ancestors of the Tudors feed the ducks their own prodigious potlatches. The birds display themselves shamelessly by floodlight- human appetites for spectacle, and,perhaps, penance , are simultaneously met.

At the edges of the feast are ghostly pintail, the narrow white stripe on their facial plumage – indicating perhaps a trace of archetypal trauma- their streamlined svelte shapes pointing contrast at the gross, tubby ducks belching around them,  as they seek, among the detritus of food pellets and breadcrumbs, the last few freshwater shrimps choking amongst the algal blooms.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No.1 – The Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan are the only bird commonly known by their Gaelic name. And with a classical Greek spelling for it, more common vernacular transcriptions having failed the early ornithologists’ need for affectation.

‘Tarmachan’  is Gaelic for croaker, and these birds truly lack affectation.

In the strange cosmologies into which we young ecologists were inducted there were niches ( ‘nitch’ as my professor insisted , presumably to distinguish the term from the classically affected statue space it had metaphorically escaped from). These were ecological spaces – Into each niche evolution would squeeze  out something unique to fit .

The ptarmigans niche, then, would be the last bird to survive before the Big Chill on Snowball Earth.

At the moment thousands of these birds cling to the upper slopes of the Cairngorm plateau, cowering under rocks on top of mountains, using their lee for protection. When the wind drops they fly uphill to the exposed ridges to harvest the few dry shoots that have been scoured out by the wind-blast.

At other times, and in other places,  they dig down under the snow and stay until daylight returns. This may be for some weeks in Svalbard, where they tough out the winter in a state of torpor.

Their biggest predator is frost, which can seal them into their snowholes if it freezes a cap on the top.

They have splayed feather-covered toes, which act as insulated snowshoes, as, neck withdrawn for extra insulation , they sidle across the frozen lands like refugees from South Park.

They will outlast us without needing to ask why.