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.
Another short postcard for the Guardian’s Country Diary, which is always a pleasure to contribute to. This time: rockpooling and fossil-hunting at Barns Ness on the East Lothian coast: John Muir country. Full text after the fold, or on the Guardian website here.
In other news, I was pleased to be shortlisted for HorseScotland’s equestrian writer of the year award for my work for EQY (a glossy equestrian annual) and The Sunday Times Magazine. While in Falkirk for their glitzy awards night I also took the opportunity to review Airth Castle hotel for the Telegraph.
I’m very excited to have had an essay appear in the print edition of Granta (issue #142: Animalia). It is about the impact of red deer in the Highlands of Scotland, and the annual cull which takes place in estates across the country. It’s a complex issue, and one that causes a lot of discussion and disagreement in the Highlands. Thanks especially to my friends Julien Legrand and Iona Scobie of the East Rhiddoroch Estate, who helped me understand the issues at stake. Julien took me shooting during the hind season, where I learned the realities of stalking and gralloching.
I think of every time I’ve ever used the word ‘visceral’ and resolve never again to take it in vain. What did I know of viscera until I felt the chainlink of intestine running through my fingers? How dare I allude to this most intimate of acts: the touch of another creature’s innards, of following the transfiguration of grass to fumet as one traces digestive tract from throat to tail.
It was a primal experience, and immersing myself in the subject has totally changed the way that I look at the landscape around me. Read the full essay here (£), or after the fold.
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.
My friend Iona Scobie, who runs East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, rides her four Highland ponies cross-country twice a year, east coast to west coast and vice versa, between their summer and winter grazing. It’s a journey of about 70 miles, and usually takes around three days—via road, forestry track, sheep path and peat bog, roughly in that order.
This year, me and my partner Rich joined her for the journey, riding three horses and having the fourth—a youngster called Boo—follow on behind. We slept in a hayloft and an abandoned cottage, and stopped off at the Glenbeg bothy too on the very, very wet last day on the hill.
Usually we’d keep at least one of the horses contained, but on the last night, we let them loose on the hill to let them relax and crossed our fingers they’d stick close by. Luckily they did. Or, not lucky exactly: after several days on the move together, the horses come to perceive our group as their ‘herd’ and like to stay in eyeshot of all its members.
I’ll write about the trip in more depth for the next issue of EQY, but in the meantime, here’s a brief postcard from the peatbogs written for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. Full text after the fold. Continue reading
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?
I’ve still got my head down working on a longer term project, but in the mean time I continue to conduct interviews and edit for the literary site Five Books, which you should visit and follow if, like me, you like to keep a to-be-read pile larger than your bedside table or to hear authors/academics/public figures talking about their areas of expertise in depth. Recently I’ve spoken to author Matthew Green about post-traumatic stress, journalist and memoirist Bryony Gordon about depression, and academic Philippa Levine about eugenics.
I also contributed another short entry to the Guardian’s Country Diary, this time about horse-riding in the Black Isle during pheasant shooting season. Text at the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading
Just a quick note about recent work—I was delighted to hear earlier this month that I’d been shortlisted for feature writer of the year at the Scottish Magazine Awards for my work on the equestrian magazine EQY. It was a wonderful evening, and although in the end the title went to the very deserving Pennie Taylor, a former BBC health correspondent, I was pleased to see my writing on the shortlist.
Elsewhere, I’ve written another dispatch for the Guardian’s Country Diary, this time from the far northeastern corner of the country, at Duncansby Head near John O’Groats, where I was lucky to come across a seal colony during the pupping season and hear their haunting siren song. (Full text can be found on the Guardian website).
I was fortunate enough to be commissioned to do a series of reviews of some of Scotland’s top hotels, in remote and beautiful areas of the country, for the Telegraph. Our stay at Arisaig House was blissful—helped no doubt by an invigorating swim at the silver sands at Camusdarach, in the clear winter sun—while Torridon House offered ultra-luxe accommodation in a most perfect location down by the lochside. Ardanaiseig House, near Oban, was a perfect romantic getaway (in a secluded country house decorated in flamboyant style by a noted antiques dealer), while Natural Retreats in John O’Groats was a bastion of Copenhagen cool in a part of the country that, to put it kindly, is not well known for its style. Continue reading