Life on Shuffle
Arriving to stillness. The patter of tiny raindrops on the slender tent; the baaing of sheep; the wind through the birches; and a distant murmur of life beyond the moor – yet here I feel the delicious solitude. I have arrived at my first destination: the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor – a small stone circle, surrounded by at least seventy cairns – within a birch grove (nearby is the village of Birchover). It feels good to be on my way – and wild-camping at last (much better than a campsite, which I nearly went to, fatigued from my journey and floundering – yet I persevered; found the Cork Stone entrance and parked up). I made myself some food before striking out across the Moor in the twilight – eager to find the stones and pitch my tent before it got too dark; and I did it! So satisfying to find them (no convenient signposts). Even more satisfying to be finally on my way after days of intensive ‘loose-end tying’ and preparation. Fraught farewells; threshold guardians … Now very tired – not feeling eloquent (yet) but hoping the Nine Ladies will bring me inspiration – as I journey to the Castle of the Muses. I feel I am on a mythopoeiac ley-line of sorts – my own songline: one I hope will take me all the way to Callanish (Gaelic:Calanais) for the blue moon. But for now, the old moon is dark, and I feel tired from the road. A good ride here, with my music on shuffle. Turning the wheel again.
Under the Weather
Perhaps imagination of dark, withered and sodden land, and the change threatening; helped to perfect that sweetness which was not wholly of earth. Edward Thomas
Thomas describes the weather with such precision, lingering longer than he should on its description – the embryonic poet inside the critic dragging his heels, as he embarks upon another ‘hack job’. He leaves London ‘under the weather’, hypersensitised to its whims – taking its unpredictable moods personally. In an extended pathetic fallacy, he describes climate as though he was describing his soul.
Could it be that the weather is not a barometer of the self; but vice versa – that the Earth’s ‘dis-ease’ manifests in us, its symptoms acted out by human weather-vanes? This notion of ‘bringing the weather with us’ became a throughline for the trip. I was challenged by heavy weather on the way up. It did not let up, making it harder going – challenging my tenacity, my morale. It is hard to stay postive when you have been riding through driving rain all day, and everything is soaked – it creeped into my tankbag, a rain tide-mark edging the pages of Thomas’ book.
The rain was lashing down the day I set off for Scotland. It had been the same old story all ‘summer.’ I use the term lightly – it seems to have disappeared – flown north by the sounds of things; according to the reports of fine weather in the Highlands (‘Sixteen weeks without a drop of rain,’ observed a tough old walker, met later on the shores of Loch Maree). Enticed by this; and inspired directly by Edward Thomas’ classic travelogue on two wheels, (In Pursuit of Spring, 1913), I began my own cycle tour, 99 years on, with 900 ccs more horsepower, on my Triumph Legend motorbike – on pilgrimage to Calanais for the blue moon – via some personal SSSIs (my Sites of Specific Storytelling Interest), starting with the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor. Here, I would begin my courting of the Muses, that would culminate (I hope) with the lunar communion at Calanais, if the Goddess is with me. Along the way I would consider the Other – who has tagged along for the ride no doubt: a stowaway in my psyche/cycle – a shadowy figure I have yet to meet… (Thomas, in his factual travelogue, describes his encounters with the mysterious Other Man, who appears to be a shadowy alter-ego). At the Nine Ladies stone circle this mysterious ‘other’ seems to be symbolised by the outlier monolith known as ‘The Fiddler’ – masculine in his solitariness, compared to the communal feminine of the circle. Another distinctive stone, the Cork Stone, also stands alone at the other end of the moor. As I set up my slim tent at Nine Ladies, a man in dark clothing lingered in the stones, occasionally kneeling or inspecting the stones. I called out to him ‘Evening’ – he responded with a wave, but did not talk. Seven sheep nibbled amid the stones – grey wethers come to life. A windy, eerie place. Slept when I turned northwards.
Next day, after quickly striking camp in the driving rain and thawing out over a quick coffee at the nearest pitstop, I pushed on to my next Muse-site: Long Meg and Her Daughters – a stone circle east of Penrith. Here, I met a retired Geordie engineer, who walks his dog up to the stones every day and never counts the same number of megaliths twice.
The Road Between
The Earth was the rooks’, heaven was the larks’, and I rode easily on along the good level road, somewhere between the two. Edward Thomas
Taking the A6 north, (snaking caduceus-like alongside its motorway counterpart) I crossed the Border with a Braveheart whoop – Freedom! The road opening out before me, inviting me on, like the smile of a bonny lass. Quick coffee in Langhame, then a winding back road to Lockerbie, through mist and wildness, entering an uncertain zone of transition. In Hero’s Journey terms, I was now in the ‘Special World’. Pushing on, through lowland Scottish towns; the bold lines and Megacity sprawl of Glasgow; over Erskine Bridge; up the flanks of Loch Lomond; then ‘over the hills and far away’ – beyond Rest and Be Thankful, down an improbably steep and winding track to Lochgoilhead. First glimpse of Carrick Castle – caught in the later afternoon sun. Arrival! Here, I would spend a week, writing and communing with the muses – a guest retreatant of the centre, run by Dr Thomas Daffern, peace poet and polymath.
The Redeemed World
Sitting in the sun by the shores of the loch. Shadow on the fine gravel. A single shell. Straggle of seaweed. The brown bubblewrap of bladderwrack. Deep blue loch. Deep green of the pine forest rising opposite to knuckle of rock – the bare granite summit opposite. A couple of white boats thread the waves. Lap of wave, gently swaying seaweed. Spaciousness. Solitude. Enjoying being still. In love with life.
The robin sang in one of the broad oaks, whether any one listened or not.
I stop and turn to look back, inland, along the loch – the beach making a clean right angle left, leading the eye. Birch trees in the foreground. Mountains, blue, purple and green in the distance. The water so clear here. Pebbles, like gems and jewels – gleaming beneath the surface. Perspective – of the road taken; a new path ahead, unknown. Sense of freedom and peace so rich you could slice it – break it off, like slabs of shortbread. The signal fades. Off the grid. Stones like fishscales on the beach. Chunks of quartz. Intense blue shells. Everything so vivid. The redeemed world. Redeemed by what? An act of vision? Of compassion; of imagination. By the simple act of deep appreciation, of gratitude. Letting it touch us (a furry caterpillar crawled onto my bag. I caught it in a shell, carried it to a leaf). A blast of fog-horn – I look across the loch. I see a train in the distance, threading thru the hills above Gairlochhead; then steaming inland, an old-fashioned paddle-steamer – like something from HG Wells. Red, white and black funnels. A crowd of passengers on the deck. Something splendid and stately about it. Something thrills the blood – then its gone. Civilisation (in a puff of smoke)?
With some relief, I left the intense eccentricity of the Castle, and headed for the Highlands – taking the scenic coastal route up the West Coast to Achnasheen – an Adelstrop of a train station – where I rendezvoused with my partner, J, and took her pillion, to our domicile for the next fortnight – on the coast of Wester Ross.
We have arrived at Tom’s bothy, (a Stirling man, met at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend)… A lovely, simple cottage at the end of an improbable lane – a hairy ride on the bike! A wild, windswept coast – though peaceful and beautiful this morning. So spaced out with fatigue when I arrived – everything was a little surreal. After we ate an improvised meal I fell asleep in front of the fire – wiped out, relieved to have finally arrived. Slept well! Dog-tired. … Waking up it felt very different – the north wind had gone and the day was bright. We had arrived at Badininal. Tom’s family have been coming here since childhood. There’s a wonderful journal on the table in front of me – the Badininal Diaries – charting ten years’ of its history; guests; etc…. It’s very remote – Gairloch is the nearest town. There’s a pub at Badachro. The view from the conservatory across the loch to Strath, Lonemore and Big Sand. From the headland you can see a stunning vista – the mountains inland, and, across the Minch – the Western Isles: Lewis, Harris, and Skye. Things are on a different scale up here. It lends itself to big thoughts, big hearts. The bothy is well-made and surprisingly aesthetic – with a wooden interior. There’s a kitchen with a burner; and a living room where I made a fire last night. The water is from a spring. Gas-lamps and candles provide lighting. There is a first floor created in the attic space, with two bedrooms, and a third bunk on the landing. It is comfortable, solid and remote – the perfect bolt-hole. I can see why Tom and his family have been coming back here for many years. It is a place to retreat from the world; rekindle the flame; and seed dreams.
Venturing out, we visited the fabulous Hillbillies in Gairloch – run by The Mountain Coffee Company to promote The John Muir Trust. A cafe bookshop, this seemed an ideal place to hang out. After a lot of travelling, it was good to be stilll. (‘All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go… The spot where we chance to be always seems the best’, John Muir). We walked to Flowerdale waterfall – had a quick skinny dip – before the midges bit!
I went on more cheerfully, as if each note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into Winter’s coffin. Edward Thomas
The day after we had arrived there was a terrible tragedy in Gairloch Bay – two fathers, out sea-kayaking with their four children, ran into difficulties. Three of the children drowned and one of the men went missing. A Sea-King scoured the coast – passing right in front of the bothy, searchlight piercing the gathering gloom. Like us, these poor families must have gone ‘in search of summer’, but their pleasant outing had resulted in a devastating loss. Inexplicably, the day had been calm and sunny. What had seemed idyllic to us (on arrival) revealed a darker side. It (brutally) showed how nature is not to be sentimentalised. The sea has a cold heart.
The Truth is Simpler and More Grounded than We Imagine
There is a strong wind today. The sea is constantly changing – alive, swirling, the wind’s shadow moves across in pulsating rings of darkness. Deep blue, white caps out in the race, a thousand ships beseiging the coast, sails furled. Bands of marram grass in immediate foreground – sharp outlines encroaching on storm beach, scattered with loaf-sized rocks, graded into ever decreasing size up the beach. Shades of dark and light. Lichen and seaweed; then, submerging into the shallows where this morning J went for another dip. An elemental life. Fire. Water. Earth. Wind. Stars singing in the silence. The solace of sleep. The rhythm of sheep. Identifying seabirds. Mugs of tea. Head in a book. Heating water for a wash. The simple life. Hearty and satisfying. The truth is simpler and more grounded than we imagine. The bedrock of existence. Here, upon the ancient rock of this land, this Lewissian Gneiss, we hit the core reality. Terra firma.
The Wild Waits at the Edges
J. pointed out star moss on the way back along the lane to the bothy – and an orchid on the walk. I commented how plants liked to hang out with each other (e.g. gorse, heather, rowan, fern). J called them companion plants – loving the same soil, and altitude/light/drainage, etc. Like people, although perhaps not all. Sometimes I crave the opposite – feeling the claustrophobia of the centre, I yearn for the edges.
We kept our trousers tucked in – for the ticks. The midges weren’t a problem tonight – the wind had blasted them away. Apparently, their hyper-abundance has been caused by deforestation, resulting from the Highland Clearances. We would love to see an eagle, otter or pinemarten. The wild waits at the edges for us to be still and silent enough for it to let us in.
God’s Own Country
Walk from Redpoint to Craig Bothy (approx. 10 miles there and back). Sea very calm today – like quicksilver. Saw an otter this morning – dipping and rising in the water immediately in front of the bothy. …The staccato rhythm of walking. The body’s language. Putting our mind into our feet. Batteries run out on phone, but we have all we need. Heaven, despite the midges keeping us on our toes. Creation, creating and uncreating itself, before our eyes – in swathes of rain and light. The islands, like legends, faint outlines on the horizon – appearing, disappearing. Skye, vanishing into the sky. The Hebrides, fainter still. Walking through the rain. We saw it roll in. just in time to put on our waterproofs. Sting of sea-shower on cheek. Then, a glimmer – the sun breaks through. The world is remade. The sea, so alive – giddy with tide. We spot another seal, spy-hopping. We wave. I sing to it. No response. (He was obviously not impressed – I’d had better luck on Bardsey when I got a whole group of them to sing with me). We push on – ‘making time’. Reach Redpoint, just in time – as the storm hits, driven by the north wind. At the viewpoint we chat to a man from Kendal – in a white van with a collie with one white eye, settling in for the night with a bottle of wine and a book. ‘God’s own country’, he called it.
The weather changing so dramatically – from a sublime calm to this wild chaos. We wound our way back home along the wanderline of the road – as though someone had made it up as they went along (like Creation perhaps). Chilly ride back in blustery gale – damp and tired. It was a slog back up the track in the driving rain. This is the reality of Highland life. A taste of the Cailleach’s broth! This isn’t the Scotland of tourist shortbread and tartan dollies. We make it back with relief – got the kettle on and thaw out by the burner with a hot drink; drying our clothes on chairs. The primal imperative of simple survival is satisfying – but demanding. The Mountain Mother demands all from us.
With no wildness a landscape cannot be beautiful.
A perfectly clear day – the sky cloudless above, fluffy clouds on horizon – the sea, an almost Mediterranean blue. We walked up to the nearest highpoint. Stunning views towards the Western Isles, and back across the mountains. Feels like anything is possible. Blue sky thinking. Sitting on ‘summit’ when a bird of prey (possibly a Great Skua) flies directly towards us – soaring overhead – and arching around for another view, checking us out. We played ‘I-Spy’: buoy; sand; lichen; yacht; island. The sea was like a blue wall – a sarong, or bolt of crushed satin, stretched from north to south. ‘I am so content, in this moment.’
God Looking Through a Keyhole
J. exclaimed, calling me out to have a look at the (nearly) full moon. The light was so bright we could play shadow-games on the wall of the bothy. We gazed at the moon – the object of our desire, the focus of our trip. I said that it was: ‘God looking through a keyhole.’
A Ragged Banner
Arrived at Stornoway – hooray! – after a ‘dramatic’ morning (line of tension – from Badachro to Ullapool – running low of gas, and out of time) and a spectacular, but very chilly, ride. We awoke at 5.30am – I made us tea, and we quickly got on our way. The sunrise set the sky aflame, a ragged banner across the mountains. To see the light return across an endarkened bay was … moving. All things are possible, it seems, when you arise with the new day, working with the diurnal tide. As George Harrison sang: ‘Daylight is good at arriving at the right time’. However, we should have heeded the Scottish Gaelic weather saying: ‘…when the morning sky is red, the hero Fionn would go back to sleep’, for, unbeknownst to us – we were riding towards a storm.
The Dancer in the Stones
We walked along the back lanes to the stones, which we could see on the hillside, silent sentinels of mystery. As we drew near we decided to experience them in silence. It was such a powerful, visceral experience – the stones were truly mind-blowing in their majesty. We had something akin to the consciousness of the pilgrim – slightly euphoric from the ardours of the journey and relief at getting there. We had made it! We walked the main avenue hand-in-hand, as though up an aisle. We let our hands linger over the glittering Lewissian Gneiss – like driftwood sculptures, honed by nature. They are extraordinarily thin and graceful. The thirteen central stones – standing around the tall central stone – are all the world like cloaked priestesses. They seem very human, caught sight of in the grey haze. The setting is truly spectacular – high up – surrounded by the loch, moor and mountain. One of the most dramatically situated circles I’ve ever seen – a truly World class temple (the last time a place had evoked in me such awe, was the Temple of Karnak, at Luxor).
in the mist –
on the hillside.
the moon’s dance
of veil revealing,
the rising of the
Old Woman of the
Moors, giving birth –
hope re-gleams at
the darkest hour.
the negative spaces
of the stones, as
though they were
designed for this
then away. Running
fingers over the
one’s skin with
it, like the way
each others’ bodies.
We part, ships passing
plaid of light.
Riders on the Storm
Our visit to Lewis was a flying one – we could only manage a night at Calanais. Our time there was overshadowed by terrible weather. A storm hit, with 100 mph winds causing death (7) and devastation across Scotland. Riding back across the almost treeless interior in a gale was particularly challenging – right into the teeth of the wind. We felt the bite of the Cailleach – a fierce and fearsome presence. A local lass in a garden store called it ‘dreich’. We took shelter in the Arts Centre Cafe, and dried our clothes out on the ferry as best we could. Wiped out, we decided to treat ourselves to a B&B in Ullapool. Things picked up when, warm, dry and fed, we went to the Ceilidh Place to enjoy some live music and sample the fine array of malts. A dram of Ardbeg hit the spot!
An Embarrassment of Riches
(Returning from Ullapool) we stopped for a cuppa at a beautiful river – wide and sparkling, which swept around in a big slow arc on its way to Gruinard Bay – descending in white rapids under the bridge. It was too good to miss, to cherish the sheer majesty of it all. If this was England, I observed, it’d be a major tourist attraction. Instead, such Scottish beauty spots – lochs, waterfalls, mountains – are almost two-a-penny. Scotland has an embarrassment of riches.
More Room to be Yourself
This big country lends itself to expansive thoughts and feelings. It lets the soul grow into itself – rather than shrink to ‘fit in’, as it sometimes does in cities and crowded lands. There is more room up here to be yourself.
The Tongue of the Lake
A bike-free day today and a local walk – from Badachro to South Erradale (at least, that was the intention). It was great to get to know the lay of the land with our legs. Just as we were about to set out it chucked it down – we waited ten minutes and it cleared and off we went. Badachro lives up to its name – the Bay of Saffron – the seaweed looking yellowish in the sudden intense light. After the rain, all of the colours seem to come to the surface. The blue of the inlet, the green of the hills, the distant blue of the mountains, and the scudding sky. A rainbow presented itself briefly. We pushed on – taking the footpaths over the hills. 5km it said on the sign – it felt like a lot more, as the going was heavy in places. The ground underfoot was boggy and we were walking into the teeth of the wind. The path peetered out by a loch – where we trod the ‘pathless path’. We stopped a few times, finding refuge against the rocks. The lichen on them stood out. Everything seemed more itself here. The light rippled on the loch in silent symphony – a local might describe the experience of this, ‘Teannalach’ – the tongue of the lake. As a farmer so beautifully put it: (quoted by John O’Donohue in Divine Beauty): ‘I can hear how the elements and the surface of the lake make a magic music together…’
I sort out a cave of gold (‘Uamh an Oir’) where a piper was said to have lured local children, Pied-Piper like, into the hillside, never to be seen again. I investigated with my head-torch, but only found flotsam and jetsam. (Later, though we were treated to a golden sunset – the true sun comes out when we let go).
A glorious day yesterday – the only day we’ve had when it hasn’t rained. We were determined to make the most of it, and planned a walk to Loch Maree (‘the most beautiful loch in the Highlands’). We took the stone path to Slatterdale – extremely well-made, to begin with anyway – constructed with solid wedges of stone, creating a stone age pavement – passing through a spectacular glen flanked by sheer cliffs. The day was dry and warm, mercifully for once, and it was pleasant walking conditions. I ploughed on ahead – it felt like I could go on for miles and miles.
Finding my gait – lost in the rhythm of the walk. Making my way, by my own efforts, through life. The path, a metaphor for the journey, its own destination. I push on, determined to reach the viewpoint for lunch – a goal, a reward – yet, as I do so, realising the absurdity of it. A ‘viewpoint’ is, after all, only someone’s point of view. We have ‘views’ wherever we look – the rocks below our boots; the star patterns of the moss; the brittle lichen. High overhead, an eagle keens. We pass a couple of walkers with their boxer; a runner in St Andrews’ colours; no one else. The peace falls upon us when we finally stop. It fills the glen to the brim. Waiting for us all along, to finally listen to it, to be. A place of wild beauty. The shadow of the wind on the loch, passing – like us.
The focus of Thomas’ pilgrimage was Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey. It felt like our humble and remote ‘base-camp’ (Tom’s bothy) was ours. Here, off the tourist track, we found our Grail.
The Bothy of Lost Summer
So, we have come in ‘pursuit of summer’, in the spirit of Thomas – and yet I realise that summer isn’t (just) about the weather, about sunshine and t-shirt days – it’s a state of mind; or, rather, of being. And so it almost doesn’t matter where you are (although some places are undoubtedly more conducive) but the way you are. We have ring-fenced these two-three weeks as our holiday – and have dropped down into that day-to-day being. Slow time. Here-and-now-time. Being spontaneous – no timetable, except what we make. Creating it as we go along. Making-it-up-as-we-go.
Tom’s bothy encapsulates the spirit of lost summers – it is a temple of play and good times. Every detail attests to it: the cupboard of games and art materials – Scrabble, Monopoly, Jenga…; the wetsuits and flippers, masks and snorkels – and sea-kayaks; the wendy house in the woods – swings, ropes, balls, childhood heaven; the books; the Badininal Diary, describing ten years’ of adventures enjoyed by Tom,his family, and friends – catching fish, lighting fires, going for walks, sharing stories, singing and singeing sausages round the fire, football and ‘weeja’ board, ghosts and wildlife, local characters, days out, rain and midges, repairs and improvements. The folksy touches – the washstand, jug and basin; the woodstove and fireplace; the gas-lamps and candle-holders; the homely simplicity and unpretensiousness. The spare beds and chairs – for extra guests and unexpected visitors. The sense of wild freedom.
Tidying the place, we depart our home-from-home at the end of our fortnight stay and head east – via Inverness – towards Findhorn, to spend a night with a couple of friends, before heading south.
The Green Life
A sunny morning at Chris and Kirsty’s place (Am-Muillean-Dubh – ‘the Dark Mill’.). A perfect end to our trip. It has been really nice, enjoying some homely energy – a lovely meal, fire, conversation, soft bed, hot shower – after ‘roughing it’ for a fortnight (relatively speaking). Our hosts are an inspiration – Chris is a writer/therapist (co-author of ‘Active Hope’ with Joanna Macy); Kirsty, a historian. They are leading the ‘good life – their garden is an amazing cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, free-ranging chickens, a small forest, and two happy black labs (Millie and Zak). We sat around a fire last night (one of Bristol Kev’s fire-woks) savouring the dry, warm evening with a neighbour, Chris P (a musician who made rocket-stoves, builds round-houses, and doors). There was a good sense of community – sharing their garden with their neighbours, planning a polytunnel. This place feels like a fitting conclusion to my ‘quest’ in pursuit of summer. I found it here – on two golden days, with good friends, good food, and music around the fire. Chris played ‘Summertime’ on his mouth organ, while the neighbour picked away on his guitar. The stars glimmered beyond the alder tree, like dogs eyes’ glistening in the dark.
The Shadows on the Road
You can’t follow the light without embracing the darkness – if you don’t own your shadow, it’ll manifest in extreme ways. Thomas’ certainly took his with him – his writing soaked in a melancholy tinge: ‘Robins and blackbirds sang while bats were flitting about me.’
The whims of the road, the fall of the weather, mirrored his shifting moodscapes. His comical meditation on weather-vanes (via his alter ego, the Other Man) seem to provide a metaphor for himself – blowing with the wind.
We can no more escape our Shadow than sunlight can. I realised my outer personality (what my students, audience, and some readers see) is the Summer Man; all the while, the Winter Man is waiting in the wings, lurking in the dark. He needs to be honoured to – with silence, space and solitude (which Scotland has in bucket-loads).
We can only shine, if we have the shadows. The days of sun more delicious and poignant because of their frequent absence. ‘And likewise, ‘good times’ are perhaps more so because of the more ‘difficult times’ that often frame them. Tiffs and squalls are inevitable in any relationship. Wherever you go – no matter how far – you’ll always end up meeting yourself. Yesterday, as we walked to South Erradale the line of the Crowded House song haunted me: ‘Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.’ Summer is a state of mind – and it is so easy to have four seasons in one day; or, as the Gaelic saying goes: ‘A day of seven storms’. It certainly felt like we did, most days in the Highlands and Islands!
On return to Ullapool from Lewis, we had passed the Summer Isles as a storm blasted around us, sending tall waves crashing over the prow of the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry. Apparently, the islands were given their names because cattle swam across to them for their summer pasture. It felt like our taste of summer was equally as hard-earned – though more appreciated for it.