Our landscape doesn’t owe us humans anything. It has no obligations to us. Beneath our feet it’s heart beats as surely as ours. It is free. And we have, until our recent creation of climate change, lived in relative harmony.
It didn’t feel like harmony as the snow blew at me from every direction, in spite of the stone structure I was crouched behind. At 931m, Ben Chonzie was giving me a lesson in upland weather and how she was definitely the boss today. The snow bounced off my goggles, like a thousand games of squash all taking place at once with my face acting as the vertical front wall.
I should have been terrified. Nature was giving me a reminder that this landscape wouldn’t and shouldn’t be handed to me on a plate. It wasn’t a peaceful spot as the views from only 10 minutes earlier had been shrouded in dark cloud, big gusts and snow missiles, seemingly aimed right at me. But after a short “oh bollocks, why am I up here” moment, my breathing returned to normal. With my face and body protected by my clothing (I always take too much), I was able to relax and enjoy the spectacle, safe in the knowledge I could leave when I wanted and navigate back down to low ground. It was hardly deepest Antarctica, but I felt at home in the Perthshire wilderness.
And I thought a while about that idea of “home” or “connection” this week after being invited to see a gig at Celtic Connections by Neil the Adventureman. Duncan Chisholm is a fiddler and he has written albums about places that I’ve explored such as the Cuillin and Sandwood Bay. It didn’t take long to accept Neil’s offer and I spent a few days cramming songs into my head and listening to a couple of podcasts with Duncan, discussing his work and its connection to the land. In the same week that people lost the right to wild camp in Dartmoor (one of the few parts of England where this was possible) it was great to hear Duncan talk about his music and explain his creative process which involves numerous visits to an area, including camping, and this helps inspire beautiful compositions such as Beneath the Fortress and Haze Across the Sun.
While I can’t play a fiddle, I do find my own inspiration outside and in the 20 years since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 I’ve been lucky enough to explore some incredible stretches of space and the connection I have to the land of Scotland is a kind of friend/steward relationship.
I suppose connection to place or land comes most obviously to us in where we live or were born. The first year of my life was spent living in a police house in Earlston. Not that I recall anything about it. Only a photo my mum gave me of her carrying me, gives me any hint of a link back to that time. I’m wrapped up in a horrendous beige jump suit facing the camera, mum perched on the bonnet of a 1978 model Ford.
My connection to that time and place is so lost in my mind that, although I vaguely recognise the faces, it might as well be a pair of strangers staring back at me.
I’ve always loved Edinburgh, a city that gets me a little giddy whenever I know there’s a trip on the horizon. It’s definitely MY city.
The years I remember most as a child were lived in Walkerburn. Friends, pastimes, schools and adventures, all remembered to a greater or lesser degree. A village set in the Tweed Valley between hills and forest plantations, it’s a place now I love to drive through on the way to my mums, to see some of the old haunts, how they’ve changed and what I used to get up to.
It’s a place I loved growing up in and I explored it like any child, foraging for berries, playing rugby in the park and building dens in the hills and woods. And if I’m ever asked where I’m from, Walkerburn is always the answer, even though I lived in another 3 border towns, including Earlston, before that. I’m proud to have grown up there and my connection to the place and the land it’s on continues to this day. A question I’m asking myself regularly at the moment is what created that connection?
Living in Perthshire for the last 9 years, my connection to the land feels strong as I’ve lived in my village for 3 years and taught at the village’s school since 2014. In a way, covid helped this connection to develop as we spent a lot of time exploring the local area on our daily walks. It’s an area that I feel at home, once more in a river valley, the river a large stones throw away from my house.
It’s a place where I feel a connection. I’m no native, I haven’t tilled the land and whether renting or owning a house in the area, there has been no difference to the strong feeling of belonging to the area. Belonging to a land and space which I think I fill neatly.
While reading Alistair Humphries book, Microadventures, he discussed a trip from where he was born to where he lives now. I keep at the back of my mind the idea of a trip from Walkerburn (not Earlston of course) to my present home in Perthshire. Come back to this blog in a couple of years and maybe I’ll have completed it!
Interestingly, while walking the Annandale Way a few years ago, we walked past the clan seat of the Johnstone’s, Raehills. I remember thinking at the time that it was interesting to amble past, but from the point of view of connection to the land, it might as well have been Earlston or some other far off land.
And yet far off lands do provide me with connection. The Scottish Highlands has always felt like home. From Sandwood Bay to the Cuillin to Glen Affric (to name three of Duncan Chisolm’s albums) I journey to these places and feel like I’m heading home. In the same way that some people wonder if they should have been born in a different time, I often wonder if I should have been born in a different place. Maybe the highlands are not that different to the borders in some ways, separate entities cut off from the cities across the central belt and east coast, but the pull of the highlands lingers in my mind constantly. Planning new trips is always a joy (I have two planned already this year….) while recalling past adventures is always guaranteed to make me smile, and want more. Walking the streets of Glasgow before the Duncan Chisolm gig, I passed a shop called House of Highland. My thoughts were immediately directed towards our northern lands and I may have skipped a little amongst the grimy alleys whilst avoiding a multitude of Just-Eat e-bikes. With that I should try and make a list of the top 5 places I think I should have been born?
So here’s a few more questions to ponder. Is it the putting down of roots that provides connection, or is it the foraging and eating of local edibles that gives you a closer relationship to the land? Does learning and understanding the language of the landscape e.g. in Gaelic, English or Doric, give you a greater connection to land? Is it the stravaiging across the land exploring what secrets it keeps? Or is it a symbiosis where you take what you need from the land but ensure you give back through proper stewardship of that land? The land does provide for me and my family (we spend way too much time picking berries and wood sorrel) but it also provides peace, time for clear thinking and inspiration.
After reading what I’ve written so far to this point I’m struck by how many of my pictures include water. Maybe my connection is not with the land, but as the pictures below show, it’s with the water?….
Cooling my feet in a deep, peaty loch or river after a long hill walk has always been one of my simple pleasures. One of many the more I think about it. My love of the outdoors is perhaps my way, subconsciously or otherwise, of building connection. Connection to a land and landscape that I love to explore. That last foot picture was taken near Sandwood Bay. Could it be my pictorial impression of “The Light of Tuscany” by Duncan Chisolm?
Does connection mean knowing something about a place? Perhaps you walked there, stayed in a bothy, dipped your feet in the river or foraged. Or does connection means knowing everything; your neighbours, hills, rivers, trees, plants, animals and so much more. As much as I’ve explored much of Scotland, I feel I’ve barely been anywhere and I know there is so much more to find and find out about. I love building that connection. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever leave a lasting mark on our planet earth, each place I visit leaves it’s mark on me, and for that building of connection I’ll be forever thankful. Even if it is blowing a hoolie.