Travellers’ Tales

Union chainbridge

Union Chain Bridge crossing the border between England and Scotland.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru

Venturing across the Minch and driving across the Highlands through Glen Shiel and Glencoe in the February may not be for the faint hearted but it hardly ranks among one of the “great journeys” that the world has to offer the intrepid traveller. Although taking the ferry has become as routine as catching a bus (and about as reliable as any rural bus service) and we have travelled this road many times, the landscape never fails to delight and the weather to surprise. Perceptions of Scotland in winter are bound by myth and cliché; but if you are prepared to risk the fickleness of the weather, the colour of birch twigs in a shaft of sunlight, a waterfall frozen into icy daggers or a rainbow framing the gateway to a rainy glen can turn myth into reality.
Organising something as mundane as having the car serviced is a routine chore for many, but for those of us who enjoy living in rural isolation it can require the logistic precision of a military operation and getting the car to the garage can cost more than  the service. Although I am never enthusiastic about leaving the island, there are times when it is necessary, and the prospect of a little self-indulgence helps make the chore more palatable. The opportunity to visit friends, discover a new garden, nursery or bookshop and explore some less familiar regions of Scotland are good enough reasons to muster a little enthusiasm.

The Union Chain Bridge spans the River Tweed between Horncliffe, Northumberland, England and Fishwick, Borders, Scotland

The Union Chain Bridge spans the River Tweed between Horncliffe, Northumberland, England and Fishwick, Borders, Scotland

On recent trips to the mainland we have been exploring the borders from Berwick in the east to Stranraer in the west. The landscape is much softer and richer than the austere windswept islands which are now my home. The verdant valleys, woodland and rolling farmland are comfortable within the shelter of the hills and moorland of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria and the Scottish southern uplands. It is as if a mantle of settled, affluent middle age has descended on the shoulders of rebellious, turbulent youth, turning reivers into yeoman farmers as times rolls on.
The border between England and Scotland is not a precise line drawn by modern cartographers following UN peace negotiations. It meanders from coast to coast, an ancient demarcation drawn by centuries of conflict, changing allegiances, internecine feuds and treachery. This is the land where as a boy Walter Scott was first introduced to the Border Ballads and it is just a short step to Waverley novels and the creation of the romantic myth of Scotland. Whether you like your history with a sugar-coating of romance or prefer the darker under tones of harsh reality the Scottish Marches like their Welsh counterpart do not carry their history lightly.
There are no border posts, wire fences or police patrols and the bands of reivers have been banished by time, but in other parts of the world borders are still areas of conflict and despair. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie now belong to film noir, the le Carré genre of cold war espionage fiction and Trip Advisor, as the focus of history has now moved once again to the borders of Greece, Turkey, Syria and beyond. As we meandered along these now quiet Scottish border lands, admiring carpets of snowdrops in the rain and misty vistas of distant hills, it was difficult not to be aware of the darker side of the history and the despair which seems to drift like a miasma over lines on a map. As for the Scottish Snowdrop Festival, we never did manage to find any of the gardens advertised as open – perhaps another border myth.


A grand day out

It was if I’d sat in the chair after a hard days labour and nodded off to find that I’d missed the summer and it was the day of the North Uist Agricultural and Produce Show. Definitely a touch of the Rip Van Winkle!
The North Uist Show marks the end of the summer events and is not to be missed, your absence will be noted! It exists in a wonderful time warp and is about as Hebridean as you can get. Gently chaotic, when everything happens in its own good time in a mixture of English and Gaelic, where everyone knows everyone and visitors are warmly welcome. It is a very special day out and this year we had one of our few sunny days – a day for a goose burger or a hot salmon bap rather than an ice-cream! No fast food, no commercialism, just an old-fashioned country show.
This year the islands’ bakers seem to make a very special effort with more tables than ever groaning with mountains of plain and fancy cakes, scones, clootie dumplings, shortbread, pancakes and oat cakes. Jewel like jars of preserves jostled with hand-knitted socks, the most delicate filmy shawls, and carved horn crooks! Predictably there were hardly any entries in the vegetable and flower sections, a very sad comment on the summer. I’m rather relieved I wasn’t judging this year as I’d given everyone a prize for participating!

Gardener, Botanist, Citizen Scientist?


Waiting for the ferry

Most gardeners are good botanists and when interrogated will often reveal a profound knowledge of garden ecology and the wildlife that inhabits their garden and beyond. Many of us take part in all kinds of surveys from garden birds to butterflies and have unbeknowingly been secretly recruited as “citizen scientists”. We have all been citizen scientists long before the PR guru/media nerd, who invented this awful phrase, was let out of kindergarden. Infact amateur naturalists have been pottering way in the countryside since before Gilbert White took holy orders and William Turner became the father of English botany.
It really has taken the men in grey suits rather a long time to realise most of our knowledge on the flora and fauna of the British Isles is based on the work of amateur naturalists. Moreover this army of volunteers can be mobilised to provide a whole host of environmental information for almost nothing. A prospect to make any government accountants heart beat with joy. However, appearances can be deceptive and some of these genteel and mild-mannered amateur ‘ologists, whilst not exactly eco-warriors, can be surprisingly fierce when roused
So as one of the “leaders” of a ragtag gang of assorted ‘ologists (we can only manage a dozen or so on a good day so we don’t count as an army) last week I was on my way to Inverness to “speak truth unto power”. I don’t normally drag my soapbox all the way across Scotland, but sometimes you can’t beat a face to face frank exchange of views and even a little metaphorical table thumping. This was just the opening skirmish, and it will be a hard fought battle, but we are a stubborn and determined bunch and even if we can’t win we will gain major concessions.
So far the only casualty has been my blog which is suffering from neglect and my posts are more erratic than ever. My muse is also grumbling but has been told that she has to exercise her grey matter and put her literary pretensions aside. So my apologies, the periods of AWOL will be more frequent, but I’m still around, reading your posts, visiting your gardens and enjoying your adventures.
If you want to discover more about the “edge of the world ragtag gang” (aka Outer Hebrides Biological Recording) we have a website and a paininthe*book page (I don’t understand social media but apparently we have to have one).

Defending the Wild Lands

South Uist Hills

South Uist Hills – Proposed Wild Land Area

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir

The Year of Natural Scotland included a celebration of the life of John Muir, the Scottish born explorer, conservationist, naturalist and writer. Born in 1838 in Dunbar in East Lothian he emigrated to the United States as a child and was ultimately responsible for the establishment of the world’s first national park system.
A remarkable visionary Muir believed that the integrity of the wilderness was part of God’s plan for life, that preservation of the natural order was central to the continuation of life and that wilderness was more valuable than civilization. He also maintained that it was important to protect the wilderness for its own sake and not for furthering human economic gain.

It is perhaps difficult to reconcile the idealism of a 19th century naturalist with the competing demands for land use in an increasingly over-crowded island, however, it provides the basis for the public debate.
Scotland contains some of the most extensive areas of “wilderness” in the British Isles, and a new map of wild lands is stimulating discussion, generating the usual amount of hot air and hyperbolic rhetoric.
The use of the term wilderness is inappropriate in Scotland, as we cannot meet the criteria of the IUCN  (International Union for Conservation of Nature) definition:
an environment in which biodiversity and ecosystem processes (including evolution) are allowed to flourish or experience restoration if previously disturbed by human activity. Human use is limited, often allowing only those who are willing to travel of their own accord rather than via established touristic activities. Wilderness areas can be classified as such only if they are devoid of modern infrastructure, although they allow human activity to the level of sustaining indigenous groups living wilderness-based lifestyles
Our landscape has been shaped by thousands of years of human activity and although apparently wild in parts, ecologically it has been modified to some degree by settlement, agriculture or industry. Therefore, the term wild land has been adopted to describe those areas of mountain, moorland and coast which are
uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal
Inherent is this basic definition is the understanding that these landscapes possess the quality of wildness or perhaps it is a characteristic which we attach to them. Herein lies one of the problems in attempting to define an area as wild land –  the experience of wildness is subjective as it depends on individual perception and experience, thus wildness can also be experienced in places which could not be strictly defined as wild land.
I do not wish to drown in semantics or get mired in a debate on the philosophy of wildness, but for those who seek to protect wild land, it is important that there is an understanding of how it is defined.
Wild land is not necessarily devoid of human activity and often carries the ecological footprint of its cultural and social history. The fauna and flora in these regions is often extremely specialised, not necessarily particularly diverse, but usually extremely fragile. Not all areas of wild land could be classified as important for wildlife as some parts have been degraded by inappropriate land management, although they have the potential for recovery.

Alt Volagir South Uist

Alt Volagir Relict Native Woodland in South Uist Hills Wild Land Area

These are not empty wastelands, they are valuable both socially and economically. We can of course look at the bottom-line and calculate their monetary value and development potential in terms of tourism or natural resources. Alternatively we could take a different perspective and attach a value based on the wildness factor. This is the human response, aesthetic, spiritual and emotional, to the remoteness, isolation, space, solitude and quietness of wild land.
“an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded….but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer will seem mystical to them.” Wallace Stegner
It reminds us that we are part of the natural world and that there should be more to life that the current western zeitgeist of money, materialism and anthropocentricity. To quote Wallace Stegner again:
We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its
edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” (Wilderness Letter, 1960).
The current wild land map is not perfect, but for the first time it proposes to designate land in terms of something other than wildlife, geological, archaeological or landscape characteristics. It acknowledges that wildness is important and that before we set about destroying it we should think very profoundly about the consequences. It is not the modern equivalent of the clearances, it does not stop development, agriculture or wild sports, it is just asking land owners and local communities to take responsibility for maintaining the integrity of these wild lands. If you have enough influence, money or power it is possible to over-ride planning designations and convince government or local communities that the economic benefits of development are paramount. In fact if your arguments are very convincing they might give you a grant to help fund it.
I am not sure what it requires to “move public opinion in a more biosphere-friendly direction” (The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood) nor am I convinced that the required changes in cultural and economic values to move from land exploitation to stewardship are possible. However, it seems that those who wish to have the ability to destroy our wild lands also wish to constrain our ability to question their actions. The proposed new designation will not stop development or poor management practices, but it will clearly state that society values the concept of wildness and that there have to be very good reasons for it to be compromised.
The proposed designation should not be quashed because it is too subjective, because we can’t agree over boundaries and what is included or excluded, or because we don’t like the methodology or being told what to do by the Scottish Parliament. For once let us declare that there are somethings which are so valuable that they don’t have a price tag.
“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” Edward Abbey

There are warnings of gales in ……

Wind Map 6 December 2013

Wind Map 6 December 2013.  ©Magic Seaweed

I would like to thank everyone who was kind enough to enquire whether the gardeners and croft garden had survived the storm on Thursday. The house on the headland, the cottage, the garden and of course the gardeners are all safe and intact. Although the garden is looking a bit like the morning after the night before, as are the gardeners after a sleepless night!
If you are perverse enough to choose to live on a small island  exposed to the full force of northern Atlantic gales you have to expect that the weather will cut rough at times.
We rely on the Shipping Forecast for our weather predictions and normally wake to hear a familiar voice on BBC Radio 4 announcing “here is the shipping forecast issued by the Met Office, on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.” The Shipping Forecast has always had an aura of romance for me which began as a child when my father taught me the shipping areas and introduced me to its enigmatic and rhythmical phrases, creating visions of distant northern islands and remote lighthouses beset by stormy seas.
There are warnings of gales in Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, South-east Iceland”  is par for the course, and I only normally pay attention when we get to “Violent Storm Force 11 perhaps Hurricane Force 12“. Then it is time to batten down the hatches, make sure that the torches, candles and matches are to hand; fill the spare log buckets, bring supplies in from the shed and most importantly find the hot water bottles.
On Wednesday evening the wind began to rise and the squalls were accompanied by  strong gust and battalions of hail and rain. As predicted it was going to be a stormy night. Around 3 am it sounded as if the whole of Valhalla, with a full contingent of Valkyries and Norse heroes, were partying on the roof and hurling hailstones the size of meteorites at the windows. It was when Thor joined in with a thunderstorm that I burrowed under the duvet with my head under the pillows! By dawn the wind had subsided to a mere severe gale and it was just light enough to see that the cottage by the sea and the polytunnel were still there.
The strength of the wind is awesome and the combination of the north-westerly gale and a spring tide has re-arranged the topography of our beach. Fortunately we are protected by the reef and sitting on a rocky headland are above storm surge levels; unlike the inhabitants of the east coast of England who have suffered from the devastating effects of the power of the sea, and for whom I have great sympathy.