Cuckoos and Peppered Moths – how natural is selection?

Cuckoo. Cheating by Nature – Nick Davies, Bloomsbury, 2015

Of Moths and Men. An Evolutionary Tale: The Untold Story of Science and the Peppered Moth- Judith Hooper, 2002

There is a long history of the inferential use of natural history observation , and the fascination it creates for the observer and reader. Gilbert White (reverend)and his correspondents allow themselves to speculate , and to reinforce their belief in the Great Design.  Others set out to look for some kind of proof of phenomena  – I think of Fabre‘s  laborious experiments  imposing repetition  and variation on his hunting wasps;this tradition eventually sinking into the confident personification of animal intent that permeates the voice-over of countless ‘nature programmes’.


The cuckoo book is in the Fabre tradition, sometimes known as ethology,  written by a  field scientist working on the nearest cuckoos to Cambridge . It has the essence of a species monograph , which spills over into the more popular science and natural history genres.

It is about cuckoos, but it is , of course, also about how to situate reporting the work of scientists into a more popular market. This it does well, and the conundrums of the evolution of cuckoo behaviour, and what Davies’, following Darwin,  characterises as an’ arms race’ with their hosts, led me back into the theory of natural selection again.


In fact to the extent that it came to haunt and dominate my response to the book.

I remembered a doubt I have always had about a view of natural selection which sees it as purposive, and directional . This is invoked by the famous phrase about the ‘survival of the fittest’, which was originally developed as a Victorian apologia for human suffering , and enthusiastically adopted by Darwinians (and at times by Darwin).

In another form – and this is where Cuckoo goes- it gives us to believe that  all evolved characteristics probably have some useful purpose. For example here is Davies explanation of the different plumage morphs in cuckoos

 Variable plumage is characteristic of other species of parasitic cuckoo too, and is likely to have evolved to confuse enemy recognition by host

and again on how host species recognise their own eggs

An obvious way of avoiding this mistake would be to imprint only on the first laid egg.This would ensure the host learned what its egg looked like before any cuckoo had a chance to lay. This would work beautifully if there were no variations in the hosts own eggs.. If a females eggs were variable however, then she would need to prolong learning.. The best compromise may be to prolong learning until the host has been exposed to a rangeof its own general learning should be more prolonged the more variable the host’s own eggs and the lower the chances of parasitism. Experiments are needed to test these ideas



A cuckoo in the Museum of Scotland demonstrates that being out of focus is an adaptive disguise..

I might quickly point out that experiments are indeed needed, but they would show what happens – not why it does. Or they might show what can happen now – but not how that came to pass. And in most  real life situations there are too many variables to control to make more than an impressively thorough Just So Story.

How did the Peppered Moth lose its Sprinkle..

Then I stumbled across Of Moths and Men  in the local library. My ecology degree is dated , but I recognised many of the names inside – Ford, Kettlewell, Haldane, Huxley , Lewontin , Jay Gould, without being able to place them in connection to each other in the history of science. ( I notice I am keeping to the convention of enumerating the scientists by surnames , like footballers, which is slightly awkward since many of them in a process of natural selection, have  given birth to other scientists…)

The book is about crypsis , hiding things, overtly, peppered moths.. proximately, flaws in evidence , and ultimately, a critique of scientific method, which flowed from the pen of Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s, and I found immensely helpful in an unreformed science department in the 1980s.


Melanism in the peppered moth was believed to be supported and encouraged by the selective predation on a more common morph on the altered bark of sooty trees in industrial areas of the UK. This was a reasonable hypothesis , given both the rapid spread of a black melanistic form  through the industrial revolution and the development of the synthesis between natural selection and genetic theory . A group of scientists and mathematicians  in Oxford had founded a branch of science called ecological genetics , and sought proof  of how these type of changes might occur.
An experimental trial by a researcher in the team appeared to show selective predation by birds on white forms in polluted areas , and black forms in non-polluted, and to a degree which implied that it was statistically sufficient explanation for the spread of the black, melanistic form.


So conclusive that it appears( ed) in most scientific textbooks as the supporting proof of natural selection – partly because of its clear premise and experimental design (and partly because there were few convincing alternatives). I was rewarded for reproducing it in various biology exams.

It still feels a shock to find out it is not true . As the book carefully demonstrates, the experimental design was repeatedly altered to reflect the bias of the researcher, moth and bird behaviour were effectively manipulated in the trial, and the results were smoothed in such a way that they are statistically impossible.  Aspects of the findings produced scepticism , initially from lepidopterists, and then successively from statisticians, evolutionists and ethologists, up to the present.  However even within the book the most critical biologists are unwilling to say it was fraudulent or even wrongly premised.

an adaptationist programme has dominated evolutionary thought in England and the US during the past forty years. It is  based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimising agent. It proceeds by breaking an organism into unitary traits and proposing an adaptationist story for each considered seperately


Initially , the book suggests, this was because it was released as a foundation of how evolutionary genetics could take place, and currently , as it is a pedagogic prop to the teaching of evolution, under attack by creationists, and by university governments moving towards more lucrative cellular views of biology. Criticising the paradigm leaves you open to these attacks, and damages your own reputation – I mean, the Scottish Education Department might even rescind my Higher Biology..


The book advances ( somewhat slowly) towards its  argument through the prism of the personalities of a group of charismatic but insecure scientists, participating in their own survival of the fittest around academic tenure, reputation and legacy… Some of these are charicatures, maybe scurillous ones, and have upset the colleagues of the deceased scientists. They have in turn strongly criticised Hooper’s research , but do not seem to have produced repudiations of the flaws she has pointed out in the experiment and its subsequent promotion*.


EB Ford s school  of ecological genetics ( which apparently was never formally recognised as a university department) was the initial victor , and paradigm setter, but was quickly and successfully challenged  by the more stochastic ideas of Stephen Jay Gould and  Richard Lewontin (beautifully expressed through analogy in The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm ) and in the UK by C.H.Waddington. Under these conditions the scepticism of lepidopterists and statisticians were no longer discounted , and various other hypotheses about the rise ( and subsequent rapid fall ) in the melanistic peppered moth population were aired.

Natural selection, which was first considered as though it was a hypothesis that was in need of experimental or observational confirmation, turns out on closer inspection to be  a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognised relation. It states that the fittest individuals in  a population (defined as those who leave the most offspring) will leave the most offspring. Once this statement is made , its truth is apparent…. CH Waddington, 1966


Frustratingly for the eco-geneticists the possibility of organising a sufficiently ‘rigorous’/ controlled experiment ( eliminating alternative explanations and introducing control populations) seems impossible , leading us back once again to the distinction between lab science with its simple cause-effect relationships , and the chaos of linking observation to proof in the real world.


I remember my reactions to the efforts of ecological genetics  as vaguely desperate stuff, and found myself particularly sceptical about traces of purposiveness in the idea of natural selection. I cant decide now whether I was sniffing out tautology , or simply found the determinism anathema to my fledgling Marxism.

Not surprisingly I preferred SJG’s ideas . A writer and polymath, left-liberal, and able to drop his ideas into magazine article length pieces, peppered wth asides about baseball and books, his view of evolution seemed more credible. It finds room for the  then discredited  (but instinctively attractive) ‘jump’ theory of evolution, in the suggestion that populations contain many mutations which are neither harmful or useful until a particular situation makes them so, and that survival of individuals and species have a lot more to do with luck than fitness. Within his accounts I can find room for the jumping universe ,  not-knowing  and randomness. He also will let go an occasional side swipe at the Oxbridge set. Perhaps unsurprisingly his ideas have made much less impact in the UK, and despite all of his intellectual chutzpah, do not offer a clear new paradigm.

In the UK we are still sheltered from the tide of creationism ( and its intellectual wing , intelligent design) that is threatening free thought in the US. But it is coming , as faith schools, Brexit and increasing university privatisation  play out and create a cold climate for liberal thought.  It will become harder to describe your world-view as ‘only a hypotheses that seems to make best sense of things to me’, and easier to look for justification in knowledge systems that others may not understand. To do so  is the challenge for post modernism in the face of all kinds of backward looking certainty.

There is a story near the end of Moths and Men about a biology teacher who is trying to update his teaching about the famous experiment . This involves trying to introduce an understanding about the scale and scope of the experiment , the flaws in the design , the problems in eliminating the flaws, the process of deciding what parts of the story we can still believe , and perhaps the process of being close to the gaining and losing of certainty in knowledge. I d like to think that approach might spread..


* A quick scan over Wikipedia about Moths and Men and the peppered moth experiment will show how live the controversy about the book is. The most recent posts concern the reproduction of the experiment by Michael Majerus, a now deceased senior entomologist of the Ford school, who claims to have corrected the experimental bias and found the same results , which he reiterates conclude that predation causes the differential in survival of the different forms.   His conclusion is supported by one of the American entomologists who questioned the original findings.

However the paper is only available from academic websites which charge substantial sums to non-academic subscribers. This is of course of no concern to scientists who believe journalists , and the general public are unable to understand the subtleties of their work – as the other criticisms of Hooper suggest. And which completely miss the point about why she found a market for her book , and the destabilising claims of creationism are able to take root in the post-consensual heart of a sceptical public.

If I ever get to see the paper I will be interested to see if it has addressed the suggestions for alternative explanations for differential spread of melanistic moths. And I promise to make my findings freely available, which is how we challenge the  conservatism of orthodoxy , whether its theistic or scientific.







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.



Autumn break. I find a copy of The Poetics of Space in an empty house. Its enchanting – I know this is not a novel response, but it comes from my own perpetual struggle to find somewhere to live so that I can’t see houses in the same way and wonder if I can transfer his attitude to somewhere else in my world..

Briefly Bachelard says that houses are a place to dream , a refuge, and so retain enchantment. For me about to leave my twenty forth adult residence,  never really been able to domesticate a space, houses are sites of disillusion.

Bachelard’s writing feels comfortable – he is at home with himself .

The house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the varous functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a word to express the passionate liaison of our bodies , which do not forget, with an unforgettable house

I envy him his sense of continuity.


The next day, off into the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty  we walked through the woods of Silverdale, along the coffin road from Arnside to Beecham, over smoothed limestone slabs, between hazel stools and yew clumps, along an old straight road. What you would need if you were carrying your dead friend in a heavy wooden box. Gallumping up the Fairy Steps, hopping from clint to clint on moss feathered toaster pavements, while nuthatches blow for time. I love this place.

I can never get quite this cosy in the Scottish hills and rarely in the woods. They do not contain so.

My daughter is more aware of the cows. She has been programmed to fear , and I have worsened this by lightly touching on the story of a tragic stampede. Bullocks. What do you do to take away a teenagers fear?


Unfortunately the footpath we are to follow tracks off indiscriminately over grassy (and sometimes croppy) fields traced only by prior footprints (or according to Richard Jeffries,’the very track of a rook through the grass leaves a different shade each side’),  until it makes an assignation with a more modern boundary marked only by a missing brick in a distant wall.


Yeah well , the bovine menace lurks there. Indisputably these are large beasts with a certain truculence – docile and sluggish in my view, territorially terrifying in hers. She believes that Scottish paths range through areas where there are no cows – I am not so sure.


We take to the woods, hop and scramble with GPS and map, and I hope I can turn this into a sense of independent overcoming that can get her out there again. I am consciously getting lost – in the sense of not knowing where I am , and hoping that this will engender in her, an ongoing sense of confidence that you can always find your way out. These are tight little woods of coppiced trees and you have to go where they tell you.. She takes on the posture of adapted teen – an adult has brought her here and she has to put up with it. The adult should be expected to release her from this , and as soon as possible.

When I am not wrestling with this expectation , I am aware that I am answering my question about Bachelard . Not in scrambling around amongst the pavement and briars, but in seeking and finding  paths.


I feel a sense of belonging on a path . My favourite of Robert McFarlane’s book is Old Ways. I read it like a journey (so much so it felt transgressive to scan it to find these quotes)..

the eye is enticed by a path and the minds eye also. The imagination cant help but pursue a line in the land – onwards into space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and it s previous follower

Paths connect . This is their first duty and their chief reason for being . They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people

Paths are consensual too , because without common care and common practice they dissapear.. paths need walking

My own sense of time alters on a path.  There is not really any need for time..Instead we only need distance- how far to the point of our destination.. This can press us into a route march , or remove us into a meditative state, a bit like the ones Bachelard and his authors find at home.. And more prosaically  you dont have to look where you are going – which gives your senses space for other matters.


Many people are fiercely protective of their paths. I remember an episode of Weirs Way where cuddly little Tom turns into a whirling dervish when confronted with a blocked right of way, and, if memory serves, tears the gate down.

Scotland’s right to roam may have removed some of the symbolism here , but in England the green right of way sign is still a call to arms , and a symbol of the commons..’ Paths need walking’.

And that right is still subtly contested. In Dorset recently I noticed at least four signs on right of ways warning to BEWARE OF THE BULL.   So I was , and it was BULL -there not being any..But I walked with a certain wariness (scared of cattle, me?), and am aware there will have been many people who will not have crossed that path.  Once the wariness reduced I became angry at the deception ..


Walking then becomes something different. The consensus is broken , the relationship becomes one of deceit, and potentially of dispossession, and we are then on a kind of protest march against the enclosure of our space..(I did try to knock the gate down, Tom,  but i would have needed to come back with a set of power tools..)


the long white roads .. are a temptation. What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or the underworld of the past’ (Edward Thomas, The South Country)

Let’s keep it that way – and challenge the bovine menace..


Death to the Haddingtonshire Rhymer


Butterdean Wood.

Stapled to a beech

Of seventy years growth

Is a poem

Typed and laminated

With a request




Which defies me

To take it down

For surely,


Will come along

Who enjoys shit poetry

More than tree trunks


It has stared me down

For several months

But now

As a shit poet myself

I can be bolder

Bad poetry is for its creators

Becomes good only by acclaim


The beech tree, song thrush

Grass of parnassus, wood rush

Badger, long tailed tit

Have no need of your shit

The best bit

of lit crit

I have ever done

Relieves the tree of its burden

And places it

In The Bin Provided

for the turds

Of insensitive visitors


So blank versers, rhymers

Concrete poets and haikuists

Iambic pentameter merchants

Follow the Country Code



‘And do not tell it to the trees

Because the trees dont need to know ‘


Does the Sublime have a Sense of humour?

Does the Sublime have a sense of humour?

Irreverence seems to have dropped out of our idea of nature with the arrival of the sublime. All those awesome views and stuff..

One of my regular journeys is up the West coast mainline crossing the Border and up past Beattock , where just before Crawford,  on the hills to the east is a shelter plantation shaped like an inverted penis.. or at least the standard teenage representation of one..

This can readily be tested when you point it out to to a representative teen , as they will begin sniggering- if they have not already clocked it.. I believe groups off them enliven interminable school bus trips by trying to get the first spot in. ( so to speak)..


After I had passed by a few times myself I moved from my initial belief that this was obviously a random accident – shelter belts often being long and pointy (for obvious reasons),  with a couple of knobbly bits at the end ( for less obvious ones- any ideas out there?) –  to the sense that we may be looking at some gigantic silvicultural  piece of graffiti which in years to come we may wish to preserve like the Cerne Abbas giant..

If you spend your winter living in a damp caravan in the middle of nowhere planting trees for minimum wage I think you earn the right to inscribe a giant coniferous penis on the Southern Uplands for posterity.

Do the Hills look less sublime with knob gags drawn on them?

Probably ..Faced with this question  on a visit to Cerne Giant and a glorious vista of the Paps of Jura I can remember a real dilemna over whether it was ok to snigger or not..

Irreverence is also inhibited by  other considerations – one it might somehow damage Nature, and that it might reduce my normal watchfulness and let it damage me. Both of These could be folky superstition or traces of the Awe of the Sublime. Or of the decay of practical connection to the Land (or Nature,  as I nearly said).

Irreverence is kind of engagement , albeit a rather twisted one. It is about demonstrating that we don’t want to take things too seriously , that we are a bit oppressed by what is expected of us , and we are trying to subvert that.

I saw some Airt in the Ingleby Gallery that seemed to fit this ( fittingly given its links to sly monumental joker Ian Hamilton Findlay) . Now, I confess to knowing nada about this guy, but he goes out into scenic places and creates explosions ,or puts incongruously shaped park benches in=won and has his wee-gee pals sit on them. Then takes high definition photos of them , very reminiscent of po-faced retro-sublimicist Thomas Joshua Cooper.. and then sells them at six hundred quid a pop.. Youve go to admire that chutzpah.. and yes LOL !

So onto my own walk of shame- acts of environmental irreverence (and I notice all of these involved a sense of agency in a social situation, and a sense of playfulness towards the formula)

1/ I ate many of the specimens I was supposed to identify on ecology field trips – leading to gaps in my knowledge of British vegetational communities. I saw it as an early protest against phytosociology..

2/ I removed all of the poems of the Haddingtonshire Rhymer from the trees of Butterdean Wood and placed them in the dog poop bin. And then wrote a poem about it.

3, I used a hollow oak tree in Butterdean Wood as a secret romantic post box – which worked less well as a romantic device because my intended amour couldnt find it and spent her afternoon wandering despondently in the mud.. Ardour dampening..

4.I leave small pointy piles of pebbles along boundary walls and pretend they are Andy Goldworthy installations ( but he may well do the same thing)

5. I make up exagerrated stories about our wildlife

The problem with irreverence though is when it leaves a permanent trace.. I suppose if I lived in Crawford I might get fed up opening my curtains each morning to a view of a 300m long penis..

But if did I suppose I could get some mates and a chainsaw and do something about it..




Many a hand has scaled the grand

old face of the plateau

Some belong to strangers;

And some to folk we know

The Meat Puppets, Plateau, from MeatPuppets2

Place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both is altered..

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

At a point on our diagonal journey up the ridge the underfoot changes, the heather tangle shrinks back and is replaced by a short sward – heath, moss, lichen, sprays of tiny plants and many, many stones. Like the litter of a giant lithological (rock) festival..

We are in the cloud and the strange hollow presence of the atmosphere has a room- like feel. Distant plover calls are like the murmurs of sleeping children. The plateaux denizens – leveret, ptarmigan, dotterel – crouch tight against intruders. It gives me pleasure that I can find them – but then I don’t see the many that will  have evaded me. My friend points out that our frozen hen ptarmigan has camoflague so exact it mimics the disruptive mosses that break up the grey- brown sward..  But she blinked and I saw the beadiness in her eye.

We drift in and out of pockets of humidity within the cloud. I expect sweaty, bulky looking guys in white towels to wander out of the screes. But this doesn’t happen.

We are here for a June jubilee – a jaunt back into the white world, a nostalgic reminder of previous interpenetrations – near death exhilaration on his part (on the cliffs to our left), workplace familiarity on mine (on the grouse moors to our right). It does get in your head though, this place. And it never leaves. Feels like you are back in your old room.

Not much appears to link Nan Shepherd, Doric feminist and doyen of phenomenological psychogeography  championed by Robert McFarlane), and The Meat Puppets, Arizonan cowpunk pioneers, progenitors of grunge ( championed by Kurt Cobain) , but they both have their plateaux and an agreement that they are clearly in A Place. Which may seem obvious but also feels really significant up here.

I am on the summit of Lochnagar where we wander between invisible featureless munros,  rolling up and down like downs, and  I am connecting my experience to near identical patches of land thirty miles north on the Cairngorm and twenty miles east to the Mounth. This I feel I would not do on other Scottish mountains – which after all are supposed to be individual enough to make us want to scale them. All. Seperately. And to memorize our ascents..

Nan’s writings about the Cairngorms have (often) a splendid vagueness about the where and when, contrasted with an exactness in describing the details of what she say and felt.

‘ There’s nothing on the top’ , as the Meat Puppets have it, on their plateau – which I am guessing is those Colorado Badlands that surround the Grand Canyon – or at least things are less spectacular than we might expect in the absence of  towering Mordor like summits. There is more opportunity to pay attention to detail then.

I find these things amongst the rocks. I am beginning to get used to papping flora and taking the pics back to the field guides. At home I confirm I have a trailing azalea , as described on Lochnagar by Professor Balfour in August 1847 (where it was growing beside a large snow patch)  and the fruticose mountain lichen Stereocaulon vesuvianum, named for its resemblence to volcanic smoke,  here erupting from a small piece of frost- shattered granite.

I also reflect on the glacier-squashed nature of this land . We are at the south edge of it – here because of a coincidence of height, but stretching northward with a carpet of similar plants, animals and vistas into the words tundra and north, which we can’t reach so easily on a quick day trip. I imagine it rolling forth – dissected, undulating, but for its resident flora and fauna contiguous and consistent to the melting white spaces around the Pole.  And then we nip off home for our tea.

Siccar Point

The trod to Siccar Point. Offering false promise along the shore through slab fields of fallen sandstone tipped out of cliff faces by the crumbling breccia beneath.

You cant get far that way and we are soon hopping back up following the deer to the boundary wall. But finding at the top that someone has gone and dropped a long distance path up there. Shucks!  Its a COASTAL TRAIL, but soon it dives inland doonhollow to the giant turnip complex hidden Wallace-and-Gromitly in the old quarry – what do they really do in there? The sheep look suspiciously wooden and we can see the nuclear plant in the distance.. HMMm.. There’s something fishy going on..


Following the cliff line we track a stoat along the wall. Down below sails the small boat of Mr


Hall of Dunglass , containing his near neighbour Mr Hutton of Monynut and Playfair of Edinburgh University. It bobs on a milky sea..


In the boat – (Fx – to the rhythm of the waves)

‘ Ho!, Quite glad Hume was preoccupied today..’

‘ Hi!, Wouldnt be room in the boat had he not been…’

‘Aye, sirrah, he’s a bit of a geological formation himself..’

‘Whff, How goes it with the Great Infidel’

‘He still repenteth not .. and indulgeth much’

‘ An Unconformity , indeed’

‘An example to us all perhaps’

‘And with us in spirit’

‘ We judge by evidence not superstition, what..’

All evidence suggest that the future will resemble the past‘ quoth he,,

‘ Look for the patterns – assume not magic or magicians, but time and repetition. ‘

What is there is enough to capture our awe..’

‘And that itself may be divine’

‘Or Divinely inspired”

‘Be we Heretics then, fellows?’

‘No sir, we are Three Men in A Boat, private in our thoughts and speculations’

‘ Well , so , but there is power in these thoughts.. Profitable in many directions ‘

‘Aye well ye’d know that James’

Siccar (to make sure) is near – overhead circle the fulmars and among them the figure of the w’ged Foucault.Atop the banking is the easel of Steven Campbell , and chipping away on the raised beach are Chris Grieve’s Whalsay chums. At sea a boat carries the Motley Crew. Distantly we sight the tousled wandering Nan Shepherd, while Bellany and Kenny White observe the gannets, and Jean Redpath duets with The Seals. The Caledonian antisyzgy glints in the sun.




Progress to the Unconformity is now aided by sturdy ropes and interpretative boards. The drop off is dizzyingly Danteanly appropriate. We descend not to Hell but to Truth.

The unconformity, tucked down on the shore, is Incontrovertible. God retreats after trying to shower us with an unruly seventh wave.

We trace its outline with our fingers, two geological dilletantes, defined by our unconforming scepticism ; and say how great it is to be here together. The rocks don’t fit smoothly and neither do we.


There are many lumpy differences that need to be eroded first, and a gap that speaks of absence.

We speculate about bringing the returning fundamentalist militants down for part of their re-education . But you only really see it if you want to , and when you do nothing will ever be the same again.. what is layered down on top – the conformity – is an illusion.

And more, the same small movements over and again, everyday struggle, resistance and demand, creates and destroys , makes and remakes us all.

Let our chant be

‘ that we find no vestige of a beginning , no prospect of an end’ .


On the bed of the Moldau the stones they are turning..

The night has twelve hours , the day comes at last..