Category Archives: Nature writing

Across Scotland on horseback

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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

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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?

The magazine is biannual, so I’ll post the full text online come autumn when it’s off newstands. Until then, the latest issue is available here.

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Book interviews and country diary

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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

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Recently

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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

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The trouble with lichen

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I had another short article in the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary section a few days ago, about lichen land grabs and the slow wars waged over centuries.

Find the full text here, or after the break.

Continue reading

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Islands and otters in the Guardian

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I was delighted to contribute a piece to the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary section, about a close encounter with three juvenile otters while camping on the beach on Gigha, a small island off Argyll. Find the article online here, or after the fold. Amusingly it was featured on the Guardian’s homepage under the heading ‘breaking news’. This is the sort of news I like to break best. Continue reading

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Puffin spotting on the Isle of May

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I spent a lovely day on the Isle of May, a beautiful nature reserve off the coast of Fife, spotting puffins and other nesting seabirds for this Country Diary entry for The Guardian. It was a gorgeous, cloudless day, and the birds there are thick upon the ground – literally! I almost stepped on several eider ducks who nest in the grass and regularly in the middle of paths, and will not shift for anything!

I travelled on the Osprey rib from Anstruther, which was fast, exciting and vastly superior to the’pleasure cruise’ that chugs the same route, which we zipped past and looped the loop around. From the rib we also had fantastic views of low rocky shelves where seals were basking in the sun, and were raced by flashy boy-racer eider ducks (who abandon their women to their nesting duties). While stopped at the foot of a sea stack, several puffins flew down to dive right by us. Fabulous.

Text of the Country Diary piece can be found on the Guardian website here, or after the fold.  Continue reading

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Country diary: Shetland’s high energy coastline

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I headed to Shetland for Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa fire festival and while there took the time to pen this short entry for the Guardian’s brilliant Country Diary section, which prints short nature ‘postcards’ that charts the progress of the seasons.

Find it at the Guardian’s website here, or after the fold. The lovely pic above is of the Eshaness lighthouse, a beautiful example of the Stevenson-designed lighthouses, taken by Ian Cowe.

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The tree graveyards of the Flow Country

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I was excited to contribute an essay to Granta: a long piece of reportage in which I travelled to the far north of Scotland to wander in the vast peatlands of the Flow Country.

North of Helmsdale, the land opens up. It is a rare and unusual landscape, stripped back and open to the sky … what strikes you first is the utter absence of the picturesque. A single sweeping line demarcates the heavens and the earth: God’s rough draft, the Earth formless and empty still. The cow-brown flats tussocked and pockmarked by puddles and pools. Slow gradients slope off in every direction; in the distance a few low hills poke their noses into the air.

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Country diary: sunlight on snowfall

adrian hopkins - view from Sgurr MorI wrote a short entry for the Guardian’s Country Diary section this week following a fantastic hillwalking trip to the west coast, on the edge of Knoydart, stopping off at the Kinbreak bothy.

Full text can be found here, or after the break

Continue reading

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