Tag Archives: Scottish Borders

Walking the Southern Upland Way – Days 4-6

 

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The wild hills await… K. Manwaring, 2017

 

And now for the section of the walk that looked the most intimidating – in my guidebook it broke it down into too insanely long sections: Bargrennan to St John’s of Dalry (24.3 miles) and St John’s to Sanquhar (26.7), but not being a complete masochist, I opted for the ‘more manageable to walk’ itinerary, which breaks the 50 plus miles of challenging walking (ranges of hills, bogs, no facilities) into three days. They were still tough, but not always for reasons expected.

Day 4 – Bargrennan to Clatteringshaw Loch (16.3 + 5)

This should have been a pleasant stroll from our fabulous campsite (so much nicer when I was able to set off in the morning without any driving involved) along the shores of the picturesque Glen Trool, but it turned into something of a nightmare. It didn’t help that it rained all day, sapping my spirits, tiring me out, and soaking everything (my back-up phone still hasn’t recovered).  It was very tempting to walk straight from ‘Expedition Base-Camp’ (an utterly lovely campsite despite the midges and stencilled military-style signage) to the Glen Trool visitor centre – intersecting the walk at the Twin Bridges – and skip the first section of the walk which made me go back on myself, and added a few winding miles – but I was feeling diligent. What’s  the point of doing a long-distance walk if you skip bits? Sometimes however the wendings are annoying diversions (a reroute caused by a bolshy landowner, or by a civic authority keen for the tourist dollar) and common sense should prevail. The quicker route from Glentrool was listed as an alternative in ‘wetter winter months’ and the only ‘safe and viable route’ when the River Cree and Waters of Minnoch (great names) overflow, and it was raining heavily when I set off. But … I dutifully trekked back to the bridge at Bargrennan and rejoined the route from yesterday’s end-point.

There followed some lovely riverside woodland walking – it was wet, but the trees gave me some shelter. By the time I got to Twin Bridges of Trool, it was late morning and I had a coffee and a snack at an SUW shelter. Then feeling in fine fettle I carried on.

But that’s where I went wrong — and resulted in a 3 hour detour which I won’t bore you with here! Glen Trool was pretty though…

Day 5 – Clatt. Loch to Stroanpatrick (15.8)

 

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The lonely way. One of the several fallen signposts I re-erected. K. Manwaring, 5 July 2017

 

Fortunately, the next two days were far more enjoyable. It didn’t rain for a start  and despite the ‘path’ being poorly signed and little more than a slight indentation in the grass across wild moor-land I didn’t get lost. My compass-fu was fully functioning. I could see why so few people do the SUW – but it’s Catch 22: better signage and better maintained paths would surely result in more walkers; this would result in more tourist income for the region, warranting more investment.  Perhaps it is the length and difficulty that puts people off, for other LDPs seem popular.  Apparently 50,000 walkers do the West Highland Way every year – although when I did it, I only saw a half a dozen walkers a day. There were long stretches when I didn’t see anyone. The campsites weren’t that busy. On these trails you can also find solitude – it’s easy to adjust your pace to overtake some walkers if you don’t fancy chatting, although sometimes it’s nice to have a brief exchange. Today’s highlight was the lunch stop at St John’s of Dalry – a charming village with a very steep High Street and a churchyard featuring Covenanter graves. Named by the Templars (Dail Righ: ‘meadow of the king’), it was an important way-station for pilgrims en route to the Isle of Whithorn (apparently even the King would undertake this annually, as an act of atonement – which made me wonder, did walking the SUW shrive me of my ‘sins’? It certainly felt cathartic and good for the mind, body and soul). Like a pilgrim filled with enthusiasm (en theos: the god within) I sang as I went – today choosing ‘Crooked Jack’, and ‘Fathom the Bowl’ in addition to my usual walking repertoire which I dipped in and out of (‘Caledonia’; ‘Jerusalem’, etc).  The headspace of today I described in my journal as ‘a wildlife corridor for the imagination’. And I saw plenty of actual wildlife too – a barn owl in broad daylight, swooping amongst the trees and a red kite, on top of the usual curious or twitchy livestock .

Day 6 – Stroanpatrick to Sanquhar (18.9)

 

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Ben Brack (1902 ft), K. Manwaring, 6 July 2017

 

Today was the longest and toughest so far – officially anyway – crossing over 7 hills, all over a 1000 ft (including the 2nd highest on the SUW). It meant for any early start and an unnecessarily stressful car journey, which threatened to mar the whole morning, but I tried to put that behind me and focus on the ‘here and now’ of the walking, the most stunning and enjoyable so far. I found my walking legs today, striding across the miles with a spring in my step. Dividing the day into quarters helped – having a break every 5 miles or so; and rewarding myself with snacks and slurps of water or coffee now and then. Long distance walking, as with an ‘endurance’ activity, is  alot about the psychology, about mental as much as physical stamina.  You really have to draw upon inner reserves – so one’s frame of mind at the beginning of the day is critical. It is nice to start the day in quietude. Over the SUW I found myself waking early and enjoy the simple morning ritual of making the first brew, a bowl of porridge, and preparing my flask and sandwiches for the day (and increasingly, bandaging my feet). Having a decent breakfast inside you is also essential – otherwise you soon find yourself flagging.  And I needed the energy today – having to climb the following Galloway Hills: Manquhill (1381 ft); Benbrack (1902 ft); Cairn Hill & Black Hill (1863 ft); High Countam (1640 ft); Allan’s Cairn (1630 ft); Cloud Hill (1479 ft). It was good to get Benbrack out of the way in the morning – the 2nd highest summit on the SUW, it was a beast to climb, and harder than the highest (Lowther Hill, awaiting me tomorrow), as it was one continuous ‘full frontal’ slog. Once I had reached its summit, the rest became physically and psychologically easier, as I worked my way along the high country connecting them.  It was fine walking . Being high up is edifying – one enjoys the efforts of one’s toil. It’s as though you are a giant, striding over the land – wearing nine mile boots.

 

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Striding Arch, Ben Brack, Galloway Hills, K. Manwaring, 6 July 2017

At one point I came across a stone archway, unannounced, unsigned, on the summit of Ben Brack. This was quite a surreal thing to encounter unexpectedly – emerging from the mizzle that mantled the bleak hillside. It turned out to be one of Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Striding Arches’ – another distantly visible on a sister summit. The sculptor lives nearby, in the creative community of Moniaive, so his artworks adorn several of the summits along the SUW – these striking, bold statements stand in quiet power, holding subtle conversations with the surrounding landscape, one that has been in ‘dialogue’ with man for millennia.  The solitary walker joins this conversation for a while. Walking in silence one is able to discern the whispers of time that haunt it still.

 

 

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Allan’s Cairn – Covenanter Memorial to Margaret Gracie and George Allan – eerily situated in the middle of a forestry plantation

 

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Walking the Southern Upland Way – Days 1-3

 

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Follow the thistle – waymarkers of the Southern Upland Way. Portpatrick, K. Manwaring

 

I am going to give a brief account of my long walk along the Southern Upland Way (212 miles coast-to-coast across the Scottish Border country), focusing on the highlights and insights. It took two weeks, so I’m going to break it up into 4×3-day and 1×2-day blog-friendly sections. Enjoy the walk!

Day 1 – Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy (13.4 miles)

 

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Blackhouse Lighthouse, K. Manwaring 2017

 

And so I set off after the obligatory snaps by the ‘official’ starting point looking out across the handsome harbour of Portpatrick. My gaze lingered on the Irish Sea – in a fortnight’s time, if all went well, I would be beholding the North Sea, reached under my own steam (or sweat and blisters) by Shank’s Pony. It was good to finally set off after all the preparation and the long journey north. Now, all the tedious traffic jams on the motorway melted away as I climbed the steps out of Portpatrick and struck out along the first section of the route – lovely cliff-top walking to the Blackhead lighthouse.  It had been glorious sunshine when I had left the campsite – so I was rather optimistically in my shorts and t-shirt. By the time I reached the lighthouse it had started raining. Turning inland as briskly as possible, away from the exposed coastal path, I trudged up the track passed an elderly couple smugly getting into their waterproofs. Looking at my bare limbs sceptically, they called ‘the weather is setting in!’ I agreed, but pushed on – realising I had not brought my jacket that day. I was hoping it was just a light shower, but by the time I had reached the open moorland (of Broad Moor) it had really set in. I was looking for some shelter to have my sandwiches – no such luck. Starting to feel my core body temperature drop, I realised that unless I did something quick I could get ‘exposure’. So I improvised with what I had (all part of the spirit of an adventure) – putting on my gloves, scarf and (thank goodness!) waterproof trousers, and fashioning a rain-poncho out of my emergency blanket (which I had been carrying around in my walking kit for years unused until this point). I looked ridiculous – an extra from a low-budget sci-fi movie (‘Space Rambler’) but I didn’t care. I was preserving my precious body heat, and was able to sit down and eat my sarnies in relative comfort.

 

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Space Rambler, C. Smith 2017

 

As soon as I got moving, I warmed up – and started to enjoy myself in a slightly mad way, alarming cows in my shiny get-up and spindly appendages (poles I find essential, usually one suffices: for testing footing, and fending off frisky cattle – although two can be handy for steep bits and when ‘Nordic-walking’ is required to warm-up or to make progress). I was hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone. It’s okay looking ridiculous in the middle of nowhere, but not in built-up areas. Fortunately, the route skirted Stranraer, and I only passed a couple of hamlets. Typically though, I met the only two other hikers on the whole of the route that day – a German couple, wombled up in their full-length rain ponchos. They were lugging full packs and slogging up a steep lane in the heavy rain when I passed them. I may have looked a nob, but at least I wasn’t having to bear a full backpack for the long miles ahead. Not only does it make the whole experience less of a slog, there were times when being light on your feet was life-saving – when bog-trotting across lonely moorland for instance;  negotiating steep, slippery slopes; or balancing atop stiles over electric fences!  I was pleased with myself for reaching my first destination, Castle Kennedy, ahead of time (I find an average walking speed of 2 miles an hour across tricky terrain about right – which allows time for stops; on good paths this can pick up to 2.5 or even 3). I was relieved to find my partner waiting in the layby (the hotel we had arranged to meet at had closed down), and glad to get back for a hot shower, and a change of clothes. A long day’s walk certainly gives you a good appetite, but you find yourself nodding off very early.

Day 2 – Castle Kennedy to New Luce (8.9)

 

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Remains of Castle Kennedy, gutted by a fire ‘started by a servant’, in 1716 K. Manwaring 2017

 

The next day, according to my journal was ‘a most agreeable day of walking.’ The shorter route meant there was time in the morning to explore the lovely Castle Kennedy Gardens with Chantelle. When I spotted four white swans on the ‘Black Loch’ I suggested to her she sang ‘White Wings’ – her song about the Children of Lir created for our new show Brighid’s Flame (premiered a week before the start of the walk). I recorded her on my phone, and thus jumpstarted her ‘Ballads of the Borders’ project which she would entertain herself with while I was off gallivanting every day: her plan was to record herself singing a selection of Border Ballads in situ. Her Lir song was clearly not one in the literal sense, although in terms of liminality and littorality it was. Anyway, it was a nice way of responding to the genius loci. After we parted I didn’t see a single soul all day. As I crossed the Glenwhan Moor I was overcome with a deep sense of peace – dropping down into a place of still and silent contentment.  The peace was so tangible it was not an absence, but a presence – and it stayed with me (I captured it in my poem ‘Deep Peace’). The view across the moor was quietly beautiful, for and of itself. Apart from the occasional percussion of a Stonechat, there was hardly any sound at all. The sussuration of the wind, the squelch of my boot, or tap of my stick. Now and then I sang. Today I warbled Woody Guthrie’s classic ‘This Land is Our Land’, as well as ‘The Wind and the Rain’ from Twelfth Night. Apart from surprising grazing cattle with my crooning, my small voice was absorbed into the silence of the moor as though soaking into peat.

Day 3 – New Luce to Bargrennan (17.8)

 

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the day of wind turbines … K. Manwaring, 2017

 

Today was my first long stretch, and it was glorious walking – sunny, but not too hot. I was slowly heading for the high country, the Galloway Hills looming before me as the day progressed. It was pretty wild in places, bog-trotting across lonely moorland with not a soul in sight within a 10 mile radius.  The morning was dominated by a massive wind-farm – it was a surreal, slightly disquieting experience to walk amongst these giants that towered over me like malevolent tripods from some HG Wells reboot. 65 metre high, with 30 metre long blades, each one generates power for a 1000 homes – and although I think they are a generally good thing, I could see for the first time why there is often fierce opposition to them locally, as they have massive impact on the landscape, dominating the skyline for miles around (obviously such an impact is miniscule compared to that of a nuclear power station). From afar, they can seem quite ‘pretty’, but not up close and personal. The thrum of the blades and the screech as they turned was a bit oppressive after a while, as was the dreary infrastructure of gravelly roads, signage and fencing that gave the landscape a militiarised feel. I also experienced the ‘joy’ of forestry plantations – which are very tedious to walk through (especially when the path across one of the windfarms roads was completely decimated – sans footbridge and signs). This was offset by reaching the lovely Beehive Bothy, the first of six quirky dwellings along the route. Bothies are a fine institution – free and open for all respectful walkers to use, either for a respite from the rain, a spot of lunch, or to spend the night. There maybe a fireplace, a chair or two, and a space for a sleeping mat – but not much else. Logbooks record the visitors and guests. I added my name and comment, before pushing on.

 

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Laggangarn Stones, K. Manwaring 2017

The other highlight in the forest was the Laggangarn (or ‘gairn’) Stones – two megaliths (possibly the remains of a stone circle, Christianised with crosses (as the way intersects with a pilgrimage route to the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and first brought Christianity to pagan Scotland). In the late afternoon, feeling fatigued, I had an epiphany – I felt (and not for the first time) that walking in this big country expands your soul – you feel ‘bigger’, but not in an egotistical way. It just makes you realise how much we ‘shrink’ ourselves to fit into our lives. We limit ourselves when we can be so much more. Our true glory awaits, ennobled by the hills.

 

 

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Galloway Hills, K. Manwaring 2017

 

Sounding the Heights

Walking the Southern Upland Way

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Summit of Ochiltree Hill, Day 3 (New Luce to Bargrennan), K. Manwaring, 3 July 2017

 

Over the last three years I have wound down from the academic year by walking a long distance footpath. In 2014, it was Hadrian’s Wall (84 miles), undertaken with my partner, Chantelle Smith, an archaeologist and folksinger; in 2015, I walked the West Highland Way (96 miles) solo; and last year, Offa’s Dyke (177 miles), with Chantelle joining me for a couple of days. And so I find myself in a bit of a self-imposed bind now – having to raise my game every year. But I like challenges, and so I opted for the Southern Upland Way (212 miles), which is described as the longest and ‘most challenging’ LDP (to adopt the acronym of the LDWA – sorry, Long Distance Walkers Association) north of the Border. This was suggested by a cycling couple I stayed with in Glasgow last year on my way south from Wester Ross (thank you, Peter and Amanda!) as an alternative to the very popular Pennine Way. As I have been researching the folk traditions of the Scottish Borders for my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester since 2014 (part-time) I felt already familiar with its psychogeography. I had explored the area on my Triumph Legend motorbike, visiting key folkloric sites, but nothing substitutes getting to know a place on foot. Apart from a visit in the early 90s, when I spent a windy night on the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, I hadn’t walked the apparently ‘bleak’ hill-country so often the backdrop to a car or train journey crossing the Scottish Border en route to Glasgow, Edinburgh or beyond. And so I planned a two week walking holiday with my partner, who would provide ‘backup’ while spending the days recording folk ballads in situ (two bards with one song, so to speak). I had long ago decided that the backpacking experience over a long distance is not for me – I have nothing to prove except to myself and have no wish to make it a slog. A 25 litre daysac is sufficient for my needs – the rest can be dealt with by a luggage transfer company. In this case, we would be using three ‘base-camps’ over the fortnight from which I will be dropped off and picked up at the relevant section (on some occasions being able to walk from or to the campsite when it coincides with my day’s itinerary). This would mean the minimum of hassle and the maximum of comfort – a large tent, air bed, pillows, body heat, etc (as opposed to the small tent, thin mat, light sleeping bag and minimal kit I used in previous trips). After all, it was meant to be a holiday too. Not having to pitch the tent and take it down in the morning  was a blessed relief after or before a long day – and alternating cooking helped too (some days we opted for take-aways or dining out). Nae bother. I went for the ‘sensible’ itinerary, which still required some hard-core slogs of twenty miles odd on some days (over 1000 ft plus hills and bog) – planning to complete it in 14 days, averaging 17 miles a day (with no rest days, but a couple of short sections). This felt saner than the 25-27 mile days which the guidebook cites! Each day I chose a ballad to keep me going (a habit I picked up from walking and warbling along the West Highland Way), although in practise I moved organically through my repertoire as the occasion, terrain, weather or mood compelled – anything to keep my spirits up and my legs moving. Each day, I added a song to my ‘current’ playlist – downloaded into my head from my walker’s songbook – so by the end of the walk I was able to sing 14 or more songs from memory. I took photos more as an aide memoire than to win any awards, but I did find the experience a very visual one this time as I slipped into a non-verbal space for most of the day (beyond the odd song, I didn’t really ‘think’ in words much at all). Working with words intensely throughout the year (teaching, writing, editing, performing, MCing, etc) means I value a space where I can savour long periods of silence and solitude – essential for my sanity. To leave behind the chattering world for a while was a real pleasure – I intentionally avoided the news and social media, a digital detox to augment my academic one. I wanted to be fully present and to have a visceral, embodied experience beyond words for once. By spending time in nature, in quietude, I hoped to be able to ‘hear myself think’ again, and to restore meaning and magic to language again. Without forcing anything, I let the natural balm of the hills work their charm. I walked for days sometimes without seeing a single soul – a dream-like experience when you’re traversing a moorland with people-less views for 10 miles in every direction. This suited me fine. As with the thoughts and words – I greeted warmly any kind-eyed stranger who happened to cross my path – but I did not go out of my way to seek them.

 

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Starting Point, Portpatrick, Photograph by Chantelle Smith, 1st July 2017

 

 

Sounding the Rift

The Agency of Place in Fantasy Fiction

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Hadrian’s Wall, Kevan Manwaring 2014

In classic Fantasy novels places often seem like characters in their own right – think of the grotesque decrepitude of Gormenghast; the prelapsarian loveliness of Lothlorien and the Industrial nightmare of Mordor; the donnish eccentricity of Narnia; the heterogeneous archipelago of EarthSea; the Mooreefoccian Jordan College and the rugged fastness of the Svalbard Peninsula in His Dark Materials; the chrono-labyrinths of Ryhope Wood; the TARDIS-house of Little, Big . Agency in Place has be there from the earliest forays into Fantasy, in the monstrous uncivilisation that threatens Babylon in Gilgamesh, in the drear fen of Beowulf and the doom-laden fells of Gawain and the Green Knight. And it is to be found in modern cartographies of such liminal zones, in, for example, Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time (a helter skelter through the epochs hidden within a rainforest) and Tom and Nimue Brown’s Hopeless, Maine (an island in limbo from which no one can ever leave).

In my contemporary fantasy novel The Knowing setting plays a key role. In some ways the narrative emerged as a conversation between places: between the Scottish Lowlands and the Southern Appalachians primarily, but also between cities (Asheville and Glasgow), between the rural and urban, the wild and the tamed, as well as between worlds: the worlds of the Sidhe and the human – the Silver and the Iron, as one of my favourite characters puts it. Sideway Branelly is a Wayfarer, a trader between the worlds with an uncanny ability to find the hollers and low roads that link them. Although freer than many characters he is associated with the location in my novel I am most proud of and intrigued by: The Rift. This is an ever-widening gulf between the worlds …. a chancy No Man’s Land caused by the Sundering – a catastrophic sealing of the Borders between the worlds. This ultimate Debatable Land was part inspired by the psychogeography of the Scottish Borders – its long, bloody history of Border Reivers, blackmail, skirmishes, land grabs, cannibals, and uncanny goings on – and by Hadrian’s Wall, which I walked the 84 mile length of in 2014 with my partner folksinger Chantelle Smith*. The latter is an impressive if ultimately futile feat of engineering and hubris which seems eerily resonant – following the dramatic line of crags that rise between Newcastle and Carlisle, a natural line of defense augmented by mile-castles, vallum (parallel ditches), auxillary towns, and a twelve foot high wall, the Wall seems, in its derelict state (masonry stolen for local buildings) particularly Ozymandian. If it was designed to keep the ‘other’ out (i.e. the wild Pictish tribes to the north – the ‘Kong’ of our Skull Island) it failed – but it is possible it was used to control trade as much as anything, and demarcate the northernmost extremity of the Roman Empire (when the Antonine Wall was abandoned farther north). It was clearly a power statement saying, among others things: look what the might of the Roman Empire can achieve; and, the savage north is ungovernable and thus economically useless. What we cannot control we disown, casting out beyond the pale of our ‘civilisation’. Of course, the Picts might have seen it conversely – that the Wall marked the end of freedom, and the beginning of control. What makes Hadrian’s Wall more than just some impressive military archaeology is the glimpse it affords us into the beliefs and lifestyles of those that worked and lived upon it – the temples to Mithras; the shrines to other, obscurer deities (such as Mars-Nodentis, or the Cucullati); the graffiti from bored, homesick Centurions; the bath-houses, store-rooms, stables, barracks; the service towns that grew up on its flanks; the whole economy the presence of Rome created. Walking the Wall gave me a lot of the time to ponder on the creative tensions of such a place. And the museums my partner insisted we visited all helped to enrich my imagination.

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Sycamore Gap, Kevan Manwaring 2014

The one place that particularly fired my imagination though was a natural wonder – an amazingly situated sycamore tree whose roots grew on both sides. Made famous by its appearance in various films (e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it inspired a poem (‘Sycamore Gap’) and the idea of a Rift Oak, which grows between the worlds, demarcating the edges of both – the ultimate border oak. I liked the idea of the natural subverting man-made borders. Of course, birds of prey, foxes, badger, deer, mice… all ignore the wall. Nature cocks a snook at man. And what if I had a character like that – who broke the rules? Who crossed a Border that was meant to be sealed? Who smuggled things – contraband, journals, people – across. And so Sideways Brannelly was born. I needed someone who would smuggle something pivotal out of the Silver, back to the Iron. And Brannelly, a reluctant hero (driven mainly by a desire for personal gain, petty revenge, and a contrarian mindset) got the job. And the Rift was forged – in the Sundering of worlds, a cataclysmic plot event which now seems eerily prescient. The Knowing’s  first draft was written against the backdrop of the first Scottish national referendum in 2014 (my initial field visits haunted by a countryside divided into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ flags, banners and signs) – little did I know then there would be (most likely) a sequel to that, Brexit (Theresa May announcing the date of the triggering of Article 50 on the day my ebook was released), and Trump’s victory, isolationism, ‘Muslim ban’ and Mexican Border wall plans (America as Skull Island). Not that I equate a bid for Scottish independence with Brexit or Trump – this time I think it is an entirely sane and justified thing to do – but they are all taking place in the same increasingly sundered world. The European refugee crisis that has played out in the last couple of years is real humanitarian disaster, but in some small way, the ‘backstory’ of my novel seems to echo it, with what befalls the victims of the Sundering in my story-world – as Ironbloods and Silver find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Rift. The results of this schism has turned this fault-line between the worlds into an increasingly perilous terroir – a chancy wasteland where a chancer like Brannelly can flourish … if he chooses to.

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Sideways Brannelly’s bone-pipe – his favourite way of pondering. K. Manwaring 2017

The Knowing – A Fantasy is published as an eBook by Goldendark on 20th March and is available on Amazon Kindle

*Last year I walked another border – Offa’s Dyke, a long-distance footpath which runs 177 miles, the length of Wales from the north coast at Prestatyn to the Wye (another hubristic gesture, this time by the 8th Century King of Mercia, Offa). And this year I intend to walk the Southern Uplands Way (212). I must have Borders in my blood…

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based research in the creation of a novel

 

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A writer’s retreat. View across Gairloch Bay, Wester Ross. K. Manwaring 2016

 

In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot.  The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014  when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.

I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.

A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.

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The grave of Robert Kirk, the Fairy Minister, Aberfoyle, K. Manwaring 2014

I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.

And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star …  Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:

  • In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
  • From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
  • Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
  • In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
  • From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
  • In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
  • I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
  • This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
  • While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
  • Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
  • I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
  • While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
  • In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
  • My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
  • And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
  • Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
  • Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.

And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…

 

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Field Research. On the road to Applecross, looking towards Skye, K. Manwaring, 2016

 

 

 

 

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life –
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…