Category Archives: Nature writing

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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The Wild Frontier #3: Winter’s Approach

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My third column for Prospect is now out on newsstands. It talks about the wonders of winter, and why we shouldn’t dread the coldest months. It’s no secret that I love snow and ice and frost and everything that goes with it (see my previous diaries of working at a husky kennels in Finland back in 2012/13); it’s always a surprise to me to find that I’m in the minority.

At noon on the very darkest days, the red sun still cast its rays into the very lowest reaches of the sky, washing it in blood and burgundy. In the twilit hours on either side, the snow shone blue and brighter than the sky, and the bare and stunted pines, candied with hoar frost, stood out black against it. It’s difficult to grieve the loss of the day if the night is so beautiful.

Give winter another chance! Here’s why.

Full text on the Prospect website here, or after the fold.

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The Wild Frontier #2: Fighting your fears

My second Prospect column is out now – again, beautifully illustrated by the wonderful Kate Hazell (hire her!). It’s about sleeping alone in the woods, and facing the things that go bump in the night.

I lifted myself on to the mattress and slid the axe carefully into the gap between mattress and roof, above my pillow…I dared not imagine the sort of desperate, protracted battle in which a splitting axe might come in useful overnight. But the suggestion of it suffused the cabin anyway

Text can be found on the Prospect website here, or after the fold.

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Prospect: Twisted firestarter

The first of my monthly columns has appeared in Prospect magazine – the series is called ‘The Wild Frontier’ and will deal with all aspects of nature, wilderness and outdoor living. The brilliant Kate Hazell is producing a sequence of accompanying illustrations.

Full text on the Prospect website here, or after the fold.

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Country Diary and the jellyfish soup

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I was delighted to contribute again to the Guardian’s regular Country Diary feature, with a short postcard from the north west coast. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold.

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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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Barns Ness: fossils and hermit crabs

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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.

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Tracking badgers with Nan Shepherd

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I wrote a short postcard from the foot of the snowy Cairngorms for The Guardian’s Country Diary, while doing a week-long residency on the Inshriach House estate with The Bothy Project. It can be found on the Guardian site here, or after the fold.

(Edit: If you’re interested in staying in this beautiful contemporary bothy at Inshriach, but aren’t in a position to apply for an artist’s residency, Inshriach House takes private holiday bookings during the summer months – find it here.)

(Edit II: The Artist Bothy is now available to buy as a pre-fab cabin, from Bothy Stores. I love it, would very happily live in it, and just need to get a patch of land to put one on….)

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Granta and Guardian Long Reads

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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.

The Guardian also kindly reprinted an excerpt from the essay as their ‘long read’ on Tuesday. It can be found online here. 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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