Category Archives: Features

Essay: Wilderness as therapy

I contributed an essay to the summer issue of Prospect, about wilderness therapy and the impact of nature upon mental health and the treatment of mental illness. In it, I profile the work of Scottish charity Venture Mòr, an amazing organisation led by outdoor instructors turned counsellors, which has been working to bring the field of ‘wilderness therapy’ to a wider audience in the UK.

Full text can be found on the Prospect website here,

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Scottish Field: Wildlife through the seasons

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I continue to write a monthly wildlife column for the glossy lifestyle monthly Scottish Field. So far I’ve covered subjects as varied as seal pupping season, moths, starling murmurations and raven culls.

There was a liquid quality to the flock, its edges curving and irregular yet clearly defined. All the time smaller flights were being attracted into the larger body, or – when it stretched out thinly – breaking off as droplets, and swooping away only to return minute later. The collective took on its own personality, sweeping overhead in a breathy whisper then making a handbrake turn to swing out over the road, where it seemed to hang for a moment, pulsating.

They’re not available online, so find the text of some of the latest articles after the fold.

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The aliens in our midst: invasive species

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I wrote a feature on the ethics of invasive species for the New Humanist’s ‘migrations’ special issue. The beautiful picture above, which ran with the article, comes from Martin Rowson’s comic strip ‘Migration’ (Seagull Books).

Full text can be found on the New Humanist’s site here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Recently: Wellcome Collection and new columns

I’ve had my head down working on long term projects recently, but I was pleased to see my six-part series on the history of the National Health Service to mark its 70th anniversary go live over on the Wellcome Collection’s website; for it, I spoke to patients, NHS workers and historians about the service’s germination and evolution. The NHS is not perfect, but surveys repeatedly find that our health service is our biggest source of national pride, ahead of the BBC and the royal family.

(It’s a subject close to my heart. I’ve already written about my own experiences of disability, and of my extensive leg-lengthening treatments under the NHS for The Sunday Times Magazine – find that essay here.)

I was also pleased to begin writing two monthly columns; one for Prospect magazine, on ‘backcountry philosophy’ – that is, life lessons from the wilderness; and a regular wildlife slot for Scottish Field.

My first Prospect column will be out shortly, while my second Scottish Field outing is already on newsstands. So far I’ve covered the basking sharks of the Inner Hebrides and the seabird colonies of the Isle of May.

Every species takes up a place in the strata of life, a multi-storey settlement that rises vertically from the waves….the razorbills with their snubnosed beaks – gnomish and oddly proportioned, squat like penguins but with the delicate wings of terns…Then the sleek guillemots in their evening wear: silken black-brown heads set apart from starched-white breasts by their sweetheart necklines…

Columns on raven culls and mountain hares are coming soon.

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The language of twilight?

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For the past few years I’ve been making on-again, off-again attempts to learn Scottish Gaelic, a language that was spoken in my family until a couple of generations ago. It’s a difficult language to learn, and the Gaelic-community of Scotland is billingual – they all speak English already. So why do I try? The answer is, it’s complicated.

When we lose a language we may also lose the ability to describe the landscape it lives in. The land becomes less readily characterised, less gradated, more difficult to read. And so do we: what it means to be a Highlander, for example, becomes diffuse when there is no language to mark you apart.

I explored my desire to learn Gaelic – and attempted to untangle my, and my country’s, strange relationship to the language for Prospect magazine this month. The full text is online here (outside of the paywall), and after the fold.  Continue reading

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The Sunday Times Magazine and Radio Scotland

Sunday Times Magazine - Riding into the Sunset

I wrote a short-ish article about our adventures along the Colorado Trail for The Sunday Times Magazine last week, which alas I missed seeing in hard copy because I was doing a mini-residency at a cabin in Inshriach Forest, on the edge of the Cairngorms, for The Bothy Project. (It was a joy. Look into it, if you are a writer or artist and enjoy solitude / chopping wood / working by lamplight / cold water washing.)

But here’s a PDF – and I’ve gathered together all my posts about our Rocky Mountain summer here, including 6 weeks’ worth of trail diaries (1/2/3/4/5/6), some tips for packhorse use, and some notes on the equipment we took with us.

Rich and I also discussed our journey with BBC Scotland presenter Fiona Stalker for her Friday afternoon show Out for the Weekend, which is available to listen to here.

Full text of the article after the fold Continue reading

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What makes good nature writing?

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I continue to edit and conduct interviews for the literary website Five Books. I was particularly pleased with this recent interview with polymath barrister, vet, academic and author Charles Foster, about the best nature writing of 2017, and what it means to be a good nature writer. I was delighted too to see it picked up by The Browser, which called it “a rather wonderful conversation”.

As you may or may not know, I write quite a lot about the landscape and natural world (for example: this Granta essay on plantation forestry and the Flow Country, an upcoming piece I have written for the same publication about red deer in the Highlands, and a series of entries for the Guardian’s Country Diary slot) so it’s a subject close to my heart, and it was a pleasure to speak to Charles, whose writing (and clarity of thought and purpose) I admire greatly.

Full text can be found on the Five Books website here, or after the fold.

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The abstract beauty of maths

 

I was delighted to contribute an essay to the New Humanist, which discusses the concept of ‘abstract beauty’ and the way mathematicians can perceive certain formulae to be aesthetically pleasing. I’m not a mathematician myself, so I was delighted to see it praised by the University of Oxford’s maths department on Twitter.

“Euler’s identity, for example—e + 1 = 0, an equation that combines five of the most important numbers in mathematics—is often cited, both by individual academics and in wider polls, as the most beautiful equation of all time. Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, for example, has likened it to “a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep.”

There’s a technical barrier to appreciating the beauty of maths, that does not exist to the same extent in art, or music. “I doubt you can appreciate it the way mathematicians do,” Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at Warwick University, told me. “But by reading the right books and articles, a layperson might get a sense of what’s involved. It’s a bit like reading poetry in a language you don’t speak: someone has to translate it for you.”

Find the full text here, or after the fold:

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Third issue of Equestrian Year out now

The third issue of Equestrian Year (EQy) is out now. Horses have always been a passion of mine, so I love contributing to this annual glossy magazine—through which I have met many of my sporting heroes (such as Ian Stark and Zara Philips).

This issue I spoke to two rising stars in the showjumping and eventing worlds: Douglas Duffin and Wills Oakden, both of whom recently made their debuts on the national squads at the very highest levels.

I also interviewed Jo Barry: one of Britain’s best dressage riders who, in 2014, suffered a life-changing brain injury in a freak accident while schooling a trusted veteran horse at home. Having seriously damaged the pons (the nerve-dense junction box between brain and spine), she had to learn to walk, talk and ride again—but through an incredible work ethic and the support from family, friends and sponsors has returned to the very top of her game. I was very moved by her remarkable story and strength of character.

The magazine is still out on newstands, but I’ll post the full text of my features online in a few months.

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Finding beauty in post-industrial landscapes

I was pleased to contribute to issue five of Avaunt magazine, an award-winning journal which is “dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavour, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.” It runs excellent new writing on adventure, science, technology, style and culture.

I visited the Slate Islands, off the coast of Argyll, for an essay on the surprising beauty that can be found in man-made, post-industrial, landscapes. It has been beautifully illustrated by images of the Isle of Easdale by Jon Tonks.

Anywhere would be pretty in summer, maybe: when brambles and rioting wildflowers – harebells, montbretia, thrift, golden rods, spotted orchids – are there to soften the edges. In January, when I return, the look is more austere. Easdale is stripped right back to its bone structure: hollow-cheeked, quarries sunk into its skull like eye-sockets, staring… All around come great chutes of broken slate – the spoiled by-products of the quarrying, undersized or tinged with impurities. Their edges bristle, like iron filings teased with a magnet. But here and there, order rises amid the chaos: tightly stacked embankments and walls form safe passages; drystone dykes outline monotone blocks of vegetation (the rust of thick-packed reeds, the sickly green of winter grass, the brown and tattered heather) in bold, abstract patterns.

Even now, in its off-season, this is a remarkable place. But how is one to explain its appeal? From where arises the strange beauty of the desolation and the ruin? To admire an attractive landscape is usually to marvel at its innocence, its untouched nature, whereas here, the hand of man is omnipresent. Easdale is a terraformed island cast aside.

I find parallels in the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, famous for his beautiful, abstract images of open-cut mines, motorway intersections and nickel tailings, or land artists like Robert Smithson, who was pre-occupied with collapsed mines, abandoned buildings and a more generalised sense of disintegration.

Standing here in the brutalist sculpture of Easdale and surrounds, I can’t help recalling the words of the critic Barbara Reise, who dryly commented upon viewing Smithson’s show in 1969 that his works were “consistently less interesting than rock quarries themselves.” For if the work of Smithson, Richard Long and others can be seen as meditations upon man’s relationship to land, then aren’t post-industrial landscapes like Easdale and the remnants of the lost Eilean nam Beitheach the ultimate objets trouvé?

T latest issue is available here,  and the full text can be found after the fold: Continue reading

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