Tag Archives: Country Diary

Recent writing

The last few months got away from me, so here’s a quick summary of some of my recent published work:

Guardian Country Diary
I continue to contribute regularly to this short daily feature in the Guardian newspaper. I’ve written recently about curlews, seasonal birdsong, snorkelling the shipwrecks of Orkney’s Scapa Flow, and the purple heathered uplands of late summer.
Probably my favourite of these pieces are the more personal ones: on walking the same paths again and again through lockdown (“Every day I look at these same hills, these same shores, and every day they show me something new. Over time, these daily walks build up, one upon the other, to create a long view: a portrait of a place through time…”), and my latest effort, in which I begin to recognise Orcadian seasonal signposts as I pass into my sophomore year as an islander (“Knowledge of the land builds up in layers. I will never be from here, but, over time, these windswept hills might come to feel like home.”)

Prospect
I continue to write my monthly column ‘The Wild Frontier’ for Prospect magazine. Expeditions of any kind have obviously been curtailed during lockdown, so I’ve been writing more about island living. Since I last updated you, my columns have been on
Lockdown in Orkney (“Our containment on the island is a source of comfort and claustrophobia, both.”),
Why everyone has been getting into birdwatching during the Covid crisis (“In empty streets, birds have felt more present than ever.”),
What keeping tadpoles taught me about change (“I feel it in the air now, sense it moving in the wind. Change is coming. But what kind of change are we facing?”
a paean to Britain’s county recorders, our invaluable newt counters (“In the Orkney Islands, we have 26 of them, including recorders of cetaceans, molluscs, algae, sawflies, bats, and slime moulds.”)
I’ve also been book reviewing for Prospect on occasion. Recently I wrote about David Farrier’s intriguing Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils and Sonia Shah’s The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and the Terror of Life on the Move, which I found thought-provoking and readable, even if I found myself picking holes in her argument.

New Humanist
I wrote a long feature on the danger and promise of genetically modified humans for this monthly magazine published by the Rationalists Association – and why we find the idea so horrifying. It led me to Philip Ball’s fascinating book Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People (2011), and some of his more recent writing on the subject, which explored concepts of ‘anthropoesis’, or the making of artificial people, in literature and mythology.
The New Humanist is a great, unashamedly intelligent quarterly publication, run on a shoestring by the brilliantly clever Samira Shackle, and I love writing for it. She also gave me the opportunity to review my favourite new book of 2020 so far, Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket. The review was published in the summer issue but is yet to go online – I’ll put a link here when I can.

Five Books
I continue to review and interview for this literary website, where I am the deputy editor. I’ve written round-ups of the most notable novels of summer 2020 and fall 2020, plus recommendations of very short books for the chronically distracted, and interviewed experts on subjects as varied as the best sci fi novels of 2020, books on Handel, forensic science, and diet books.
Five Books continues to go from strength to strength; we now have a monthly readership of around 700,000 (which reached 800,000 during lockdown!) from both sides of the Atlantic, plus significant reach on our social media channels and our biweekly newsletter.
I love to hear about significant book publications, so if you are a book publicist, please consider getting in touch. I’m particularly interested in the environment, psychology, natural history, and literary nonfiction in general, plus literary fiction and literary-crossover genres like literary sci fi or literary horror. (NB. My colleagues Sophie and Ben tend to concentrate on history, business and economics, while Nigel Warburton heads up our philosophy section and Casper Henderson sometimes mans our hard science coverage.)

Scottish Field
I continue as the wildlife columnist for this monthly glossy magazine. Recently I’ve written about beavers and their detractors, the wild boar breeding and spreading through the west Highlands under cover of night, and efforts to save rare Scottish butterflies. I love to get tips on what to cover next – drop me a line if you’re involved in an interesting wildlife project in Scotland. There’s a lead time of 1-2 months.

Forthcoming
I look forward to seeing two major pieces of work in print in the not too distant future – including an essay for Isabella Tree’s guest-edited issue of Granta, which should be out very soon.

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Country Diary: Wacky Races

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A brief vignette from spring-time Orkney for the Guardian’s Country Diary: a brief stand-off with a brown hare. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Country diary: the cannibal seals

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A second dispatch from Orkney for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. It’s about the darker side of nature, and a murder mystery now solved: the dead seal pups and the cannibal bulls. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold.

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Country Diary: the super-pod

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Another brief postcard from Orkney, this time from the shores of the island of Flotta – a short ferry ride from where I live (in the west of what we call ‘mainland’ here on the archipelago). A super-pod of porpoises has been in residence for several weeks, as they have every autumn for the last few years during their breeding season. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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The big move: now based in Orkney

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I recently moved to Orkney with my partner Richard, where he has been posted as a probationary teacher. At times like this I am reminded what a wonderful privilege it is to be self-employed – and able to up sticks easily, and work from such a beautiful and remote location. (Although it doesn’t feel at all remote, once one is actually here.)

I wrote about moving house – and how the task of packing up my belongings made me think rather wistfully of our six weeks living the ultralight lifestyle on the Colorado Trail – for Prospect, in my latest ‘Wild Frontier’ column. (Text can be found online here, or after the fold.)

I also had a nice surprise when my first Country Diary entry for The Guardian from Orkney was an unexpected hit, racking up more than 30,000 readers in its first few hours online (quite unusual for this section, which features gentle snippets of nature writing). It dealt with the arrival of stoats on the archipelago, and why conservationists believe that might be disastrous for the ground-nesting birds that live here. (Full text can be found here, or after the fold.)

Eradication and ‘population management’ of wildlife prompts important ethical questions in environmental circles – ones I have touched on in more length in the context of red deer culls (for Granta and The Guardian’s long-read section) and in a discussion of our instinctive dislike of ‘invasive’ non-native species (for the New Humanist). So, why not read more?

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Country Diary: the show-off seals

Another brief postcard for the Guardian’s regular Country Diary slot, this time from a rocky inlet near Armadale, on the Isle of Skye. I highly recommend the short amble through the woods beside the permaculture community and campsite Rubha Phoil, where one can often spot otters and seals, or at the very least go away with a pocket full of emerald-green sea urchin shells. I went there with my partner Rich and my eagle-eyed niece and nephew who live nearby and are expert rockpool-hunting specialists.

Text can be found at the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Country diary: an explosive atmosphere

Another short scenic snippet for the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary, which I love contributing to. Here’s a small scene from the Ardeer peninsula in Ayrshire – a former explosives works turned wild.

I visited Ardeer with local campaigners seeking to keep it wild; plans to develop the region were released several years ago, but are facing much resistance from environmentalists. Due to an legal quirk dating from its use as a factory, no planning permission is required to build on the site – and having it declared an SSSI is currently impossible for the same reason. But maybe this can change. (If you’d like more information on that campaign, please look out for my next Scottish Field column.)

Full text on the Guardian site here, or after the fold: Continue reading

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Guardian Country Diary: Cairn Gorm in winter

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I recently made another contribution to The Guardian’s Country Diary. I love writing for this small regular feature, which publishes snippets of seasonal nature writing from around the UK daily.

It can be found on the Guardian website here, or (in a slightly longer form) after the break: Continue reading

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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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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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