Wednesday 30 May 2012

Kenneth White: Landscape Poet

The first time I heard of Kenneth White I was instantly sceptical. Kenneth, a Glasgow-born Ayrshireman, had been Professor of 20th Century Geopoetics at the Sorbonne. That title alone was enough to put me off. And then I read this in the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics:
Geopoetics looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave 'the motorway of Western civilisation' in the past in order to find a new approach to thinking and living e.g. in the writings of intellectual nomads such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Thoreau and Patrick Geddes... It also seeks to express that sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics i.e. a language drawn from a way of being which attempts to express reality in different ways e.g. oral expression, writing, visual arts, music, and in combinations of different art forms.
My bullshit meter was going into overdrive. He had been recommended to me, but I had little time for such unplain speaking.

It was only later, after a conversation with someone else about Kenneth White's merits (or in my view, demerits), that I decided I should really read some of his poems so that I knew what I was dismissing. So I found myself speed-reading his anthology Open World when I was suddenly brought up short by this:

A late afternoon in Govan
at the junction of the Clyde and Kelvin
rain falling on sullen stone

floating on the dark, dank waters
one lone mute swan.

And later, this:

A scurry of red leaves
and the wind passes over
rippling the stream
the wind is all around
but only stray gusts enter
the wood's dark centre
enter and are gone -
only scurrying leaves
and the rippled stream.

I am still not convinced by the concept of geopoetics. I am probably too British in outlook to be comfortable with the French-style intellectualism White wears on his sleeve. But as a landscape poet, Kenneth White hits the spot. I find that his spare style, lacking rhymes, is easy for me to emulate - unlike that of, say, Liz Lochhead. Do you know what? I think he is my new inspiration. I have decided to walk the length of the Dee, from Braeriach to Aberdeen Harbour, and write a poem about it...

Dipper flash
Pine sap
rushing water -
simple joy

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Crathes and the NTS

The Scottish Chateau* by Scotland's top architectural historian, Charles McKean, was a real eye opener for me. Most of what we know as castles in Scotland are not, McKean explains, defensive structures, but are Jacobean chateau, in the French sense of a palace or grand home. The Victorian fashion for large piles in castellated form largely used the architectural styles of these 17th century chateau, rather than actual castles. The patternbooks for Balmorality were the fairytale fortresses of the northeast, the likes of Craigievar or Crathes, rather than real mediaeval castles like Tantallon, Stirling or Bothwell, or the grim towers of the border.

Crathes detail:

And what a patternbook they make! Cupolas, erratic string courses, pepperpot turrets, warm harling, and in the case of the northeast chateau, severe, minimalist, small-windowed lower floors bursting into riotous rooflines and joyous detail.

Crathes elevation:

Crathes, built in 1596 by the Burnett family who had lived in the area since Robert the Bruce granted them the land, was damaged by fire in 1966, although you would not know that today. My favourite room is the music room with its ancient instruments and wonderfully muralled ceiling, and other rooms have similar ceilings, low-beamed and charmingly detailed. This is the future of home decor, I am convinced. Unfortunately you can't photograph the interiors, so you will have to take my word for it!

Crathes' other claim to fame is its gardens. The day we arrived a plant sale was on and the NTS membership were out in force. A lot of wise grey heads amongst the camelias.

Multicoloured bluebells:

But the gardens and wider grounds provide good walks, and Crathes can keep a family entertained for an afternoon. OK, I don't have a family - but we are determined to get value for money from the year's NTS membership we signed up for!

*I don't know if I should link to Amazon any more, now it has become clear they do not pay tax in the UK...

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Duffus Castle

Something generally unappreciated is that the north of Scotland between Tain and Aberdeen was as rich, important and as densely populated as the south in the early history of this nation. Today the gross urbanisation of the Central Belt distorts our view, but there was much less difference between north and south before the industrial revolution, and perhaps hardly any before the renaissance.

In Pre-Scottish Pictish times, overlordship of Alba see-sawed between the north Picts and the south Picts (those north of the Mounth and those south of it). This continued into medieval times until Lulach, the last northern king of Scotland, was killed in 1058 by southern rival Malcolm Canmore.

The southern hegemony was even then not quite complete, as the MacWilliams - whose ancestors had once ruled Moray as Moramers or Earls, but been replaced by the southern king's feudal imports - threatened to take the crown of Scots right up into the 13th century. This only ended with the brutal murder of the last MacWilliam in 1229, an infant girl killed on Alexander II's orders at Forfar merkat cross.

The seat of the Earls of Moray was Duffus Castle:

Climbing to the top of the castle and looking out reveals a land of flat arable fields, not the mountains and moorland that a casual visitor might expect from the north of Scotland.

View from Duffus Castle:

It is no surprise that the Earl built his castle here, surrounded by rich farmland and just a few miles from the sea; that the bishop of Moray built his palace nearby - complete with a medieval canal - and the magnificent cathedral of Elgin is just a few miles away.

Duffus interior:

I know what you are thinking. Why is that wall and window lopsided? The castle was first built on an artificial mound. But when a new keep was built in the 13th century, the mound simply failed under the weight, and the tower slowly toppled over. I'm not sure if the castle is pronounced 'duff-us' or 'doo-fuss', but the latter seems apt given the circumstances of the foundations. Whit a reddy.

Nearby are the ruins of Elgin Cathedral. This beautiful building was known as the Lantern of the North. It was burnt in 1390 by the powerful noble Alexander Stewart, unruly brother of king Robert III. This outrageous act came about because the bishop of Moray had ordered Stewart to leave the mistress he had taken up with and return to his wife. It was rebuilt, but abandoned to nature after the reformation in 1560. Today Elgin is the main market town for the largely rural country of Moray, and an epicentre of whisky distilling.

Elgin Cathedral:

The north of Scotland. It's not all mountain, lochs, and eagles, you know.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Bank Holidays and Burnsong

The correct use of time is one of the philosophies I profess. Time is the one thing we don't get more of. All of us are getting older at the same rate - a day at a time - and every new year is another year closer to death. Time, therefore, is the most precious resource we have. In my younger days, wasting time was an agony. How could other people spend their weekends and holidays sat in front of TV, chilling out? Did people not feel the hot breath of time on their necks?

And yet although I believe this philosophy, I don't practice it, I don't throw myself wholesale into everything I do, I don't spend time in the most fulfilling manner possible, every single day. Perhaps I have realised that a balanced life contains tedium and sacrifice as well as those precious moments, which should be treasured when they happen, but not sought constantly. Perhaps I have realised that bald achievements do not in themselves lead to satisfaction. Anyway, what I am coming to is that we spent the May holiday weekend not away up the hills or on the west coast islands or a similar spring escape like I used to, but indoors doing DIY. A canvass of my office revealed that most other people were also planning DIY over the holiday weekend. When did we lose the sense of how time should be spent? Or perhaps, with contentment, time does not seem such a pressing, wasting resource, and I should start professing a different philosophy?

Let me know below if you got up to anything interesting at the weekend. I would like to live vicariously through your adventures. And have a wee listen to my song 'Looking Good in the Afternoon' that I completed at the weekend for entry into a competition run by the organisation Burnsong. It is about somebody who has made chilling out an artform. See - I did achieve something this weekend.

Please listen to Looking Good in the Afternoon.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Cape Wrath and Sandwood Bay

Cape Wrath. The northwestern extremity of the British mainland. It bears the brunt of Atlantic and Arctic weather but is named not for anger, but from the Norse Hraf, turning point. Cape Wrath was the marker Vikings from Orkney used to turn south and raid Ireland and the Hebrides. However if you don't have a longboat, and want to get to Cape Wrath, you are going to have to work for it.

Cape Wrath from the east:

There are two ways to Cape Wrath, 20km and a ferry ride from the nearest public road. The first is to approach it from the Kyle of Durness in the east.

Kyle of Durness:

This is easier in physical effort than walking in from the south, as a tiny passenger ferry takes you to a jetty, the start of a dilapidated unclassified road, which is otherwise entirely unconnected with the rest of the national road network. At the other end of the road is Cape Wrath lighthouse. A minibus takes passengers there, past the remains of old, burnt out vehicles on the blasted moor. This is a bombing range, and trips by the road are dependent upon it not being active. Thus in some ways, it is less hassle to approach Cape Wrath by foot from the south. This also affords the walker a trip to Sandwood Bay, largely acknowledged as the finest beach on the British mainland.

Approaching Sandwood Bay from the South:

Sandwood used to be known for its great inaccessibility, but if you visit today it is clear how popular it is. In summer there are usually plenty of cars parked at Blairmore, and you will meet folk either on the track out to Sandwood or in the dunes of the beach itself. But on my first visit to this beach in 1996, I had it entirely to myself.

Sandwood Waves:

Sandwood Bay is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a shipwrecked mariner, and a crofter over a hundred years ago claimed to have seen a mermaid here. You scoff - until you get the bay to yourself in windy weather. This extract from my 1996 diary gives a feel of the place:
Cape Wrath looked a long way still. I descended with excitement to beach, to face the booming surf. Gulls flew about, ignoring me. A cacophony of express train breakers. I stood alone facing the giant breaking waves, the wind whistled in, spindrift loosened from the dunes racing by my feet. This place had an oceanic feel I've not experienced on any other mainland British beach. Would I stick my neck out and say this is possibly the best beach I've ever seen? I wouldn't want to say so! For there is something different, something indefinable here that made me uneasy. It had such a powerful atmosphere, and I was the only person there. The seabirds carried on their business, ignoring my presence. Breakers streamed spume. My footprints were washed away by the waves. It was as if I were never there.
You can still experience this atmosphere by visiting Sandwood Bay out of season, or, as we did on my second visit, by walking from the last house on the west coast along the deserted, orchid and bog-cotton scattered coastal seacliffs from Sheigra, descending to the Bay after the seastack Am Buachaille.

Am Buachaille:

Oh, but if Sandwood Bay is not enough? You really want to experience this area to the full? Then the extended walk to Cape Wrath is a must. As soon as you ford the river issuing from Sandwood Loch and look back on the bay from the north, you are venturing on a magnificent trek into proper, unvisited wilderness.

Sandwood Bay from the north:

The route is trackless, and dwarf pine and other mountain plants - more familiarly seen high on Munros, not at 200m above sea level - can be seen on the journey.

Given good weather and a strong southerly wind, you can be at Cape Wrath quite quickly: but the temptation will be to linger, to follow the edge of the seacliffs and watch the seabirds and waves crashing in. I was lucky with the weather on my one and only trip to the Cape.

The north coast cliffs from Cape Wrath:

I will leave you with my diary again at this extremity of Scotland:
I was blown along the cliffedge to the Cape, the lighthouse perched precariously on its clifftop above two jagged seastacks. I hadn’t realised before how high the lighthouse lay above the sea. White flecked waves and surging tides. Took a self timer picture of myself, the sea and headlands having a headbutting competition and the gulls flying between like so many flecks of fishy dandruff. Windblown and exhilarated I shouted:

"I've made it!"

But there was nobody about to hear. A door left open by a tourist in the information barn was banging in the wind. The lighthouse complex was a ghost town. Not a soul about. No bus. The sheep eyed me boldly. I was getting chilled in the wind from which there was no shelter, so walked the few miles east to the bothy. It lay in a perfect little bay just east of the Cape, a pale nest of sand between dark cliffs and moor with a twin-spired seastack offshore. I wound down to the sand. A flock of oystercatchers sifted the far end of the beach. There was a seal on the beach too, gulls in the air, and the wind tangled my hair and met the swell coming pounding in from the Arctic Ocean. I hadn’t seen a soul all day, and I just knew that the fishing net-festooned bothy was going to be empty. I collected some driftwood by the cliff-breaking sea and lit a fire, lulled into a trance by the flames cackling with air pockets, and the sun slowly set beyond the edge of the land. The cry of the oystercatchers, the flickering flames, the eternal crashing of the waves.
There are prettier capes in the world. But I have never been anywhere with such an atmosphere as this lonely, windswept, stormtossed area.

Kervaig Bay: