còmhlan bheanntan | a company of mountains
walk the path, sit the rains
clearing the mind and sliding in
to that created space
Gary Snyder, ‘Endless Streams and Mountains’
The predecessor to còmhlan bheanntan | a company of mountains was another journey project, the road north, for which Ken Cockburn and I were guided through Scotland by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho, re-enacting his Oku-no-Hosomichi.
Without intending to, Ken and I found our own rites; we tied poem-labels as tanzaku, poured libations of whisky, drank a different tea at each ‘station’, listened to songs in particular locations – ‘Hey Joe’ is forever Glen Nevis, ‘Apache’ the Great Glen Cattle ranch. This hotch-potch practice helped to orient us, for, if we were to find the right relation to a passage of Basho, then we needed to channel our way into the here and now, knotting a paper wish to the branch of an alder beside a river, turning in the right direction toward the skyline.
We gathered this Oku around us, from another time and place, and threw it ahead of us; 53 yarrow stalks cast in the air.
St Adamnan's Cross, Glen Lyon, photograph KC, 2010
Each bracketed topography was rich – the way-glens of Perthshire; the lodestone of St Adamnan’s Cross in the longest glen, where we swam in the Lyon; the broken crown brochs of Glenelg; the midgy sacred wood of Hallaig; on to the far west and the chthonic chamber of Bharpa Langais.
Before these encounters could be realised as poetry, we had first to understand where we were. OS maps were a starting point, but soon I found myself ‘compassing’ views, using a rubber-stamp made the year before to print a compass-rose.
compassing Tarskavaig, AF
A hapless orienteer, I looked from the rose to my surroundings and copied out the names of hills, lochs, dùns and islands by hand, finding where I was, quadrant by quadrant. The purpose of the hand-written place-names was not to plan a linear route – we weren’t concerned with hikes or climbing –but to sketch an initial understanding of the terrain. A still figure in a strange landscape, I shepherded my gaze, aligning landmarks, composing conspectus; it was this practice which led to còmhlan bheanntan | a company of mountains.
word-mntn (Mòr-bheinn); poem AF, photograph AP
After our stint in Perthshire, I sketched some pattern poems based on the letters of the names of saints and hermits associated with the way-glens, such as that splendid mute Fillan, and Adamnan, protector of the innocents. Then I applied a similar patterning to the names of dùns and mountains related to the Saints’ holy sites. Here was a new form: the ‘word-mntn’.
word-mntn, first sketches, the road north, AF
As minimal as these poems are, they remain associated in my memory with the breathtaking afternoon we’d spent on Saint Fillan’s Hill. Sitting on the stone suidhe, seat – according to Watson’s The Celtic Placenames of Scotland, the name is commonly associated with a site of contemplative viewing, whether for saints or heroes, as with Arthur’s Seat – overlooking the crown of Mòr-bheinn, Dunira, the ridge of Bealach Ruadh, and down Glen Artney. Here were the remnants of a native tradition of viewing, which the stone made sense of. We had realized the first conspectus of our journey.
AF labeling, Sligachan, photograph EN
Drawn to a tradition that equates poetic forms with natural elements – the mesostic with word-branches growing from a name-stem; the circle poem that can catch the flux of time, tide or season – these first sketched word-mntn offered themselves as models of the hills. Their schematic letters formed triangular summits but, being dictated by language rather than geology, they diverged from the ‘true’ shape of their ‘home’ mountain.
The ‘word-mntn’ maintains the distinction between names and things, a reminder that the hill is not its name.
word-mntn (Sgùrr nan Gillean), AF
I began notating the name of every Scottish mountain, working from the available lists of Munros, Marilyns, Corbetts, Grahams and Donalds, writing each one out on a sheet of gridded paper, as a ‘drawing’. As I worked my way through the Highlands I saw an index of potential journeys, summits I may never see out from.
Skipping a year on, in summer 2011 I headed up to Skye to visit Emma Nicolson. The plan was to tour the island with word-mntn – I had a large concertina wallet filled with poem-labels – returning the names to their mountains.
My new journey had no need for a narrative, such as Basho provided. In the same spirit as the Oku, each day started with a route plotted over the breakfast table. Emma, Dilly and I hopped into the old Landy, with its array of compartments purpose-designed for holding labels, pens and maps.
AF & Maoilios Caimbeul, Tobhar Loch Shianta, photograph LA, 2011
I have often traveled through Skye on my way to the Outer Hebrides, staying with poet friends – Meg Bateman in the south, and Maoilios Caimbeul in the north – but I had no intimate knowledge of the Cuillin. The poem-labels were my education. Emma and I soon found that, while identifying ‘celebrity’ peaks is easy, distinguishing Sgùrr a Mhaidaidh from Sgùrr a Ghreadaidh from a distance takes more practice. Driving has the effect of endlessly altering the horizon, exchanging bluffs for peaks, peaks for jagged skylines, which disappear in turn behind some low hill, as the road bends about an intruding sea loch.
Our sense of the things we see has gained much from the popularization of specialist knowledge – botany, geology, ornithology – but the tradition of viewing has declined. These days we have ‘scenery,’ parking places and [i] signs beside concrete bins. It is corny to use such poetic categories as ‘vale’, ‘vista’, and ‘prospect’, and the calendrical skylines of Neolithic culture are caught up in the muddy skirts of ‘Neo-paganism’ and the megalithic portal, with its helpful maps and blurry philosophy.
On the road north we set out to renew cultures of alignment and, Like Patrick Keiller’s Robinson, in the most recent of his journeys, Robinson in Ruins, we took the Neolithic as our lodestone, connecting prehistoric outlooks in Perthshire, Argyll and The Hebrides, with the later follies of Dunkeld and Acharn, and contemporary viewing temples, such as Turrell’s Rannoch skyspace, Chris Drury’s hut of shadows – which brought us full circle, to the barp at Langais, – and John Latham’s Ancient & Modern Earth Goddess triad, ‘Niddrie Woman,’ ‘Heart’, ‘Limb’, visioned in the shale bings of East Lothian.
The Skye project began as an attempt to further this diverse movement, shifting from the picaresque narrative of the journey toward the fundamentals of viewing itself. Having stepped out of the frame, I needed to find a way to relate the individual views to one another. Laybys lack wonder, but they allowed me to jump out of the jeep and tie a word-mntn label to a heather sprig, or, more rare on Skye, the branch of a tree. Emma snapped the shutter and a ‘view’ fell into place.
My collaborator, Luke Allan, spent an afternoon on Dùn Caan patiently photographing every word-mntn that was in sight, clarifying the skyline into names. At one point, a man-with-beard-and-spectacles sped up to the summit, snapped the trig point for his collection, turned, and left. The splendor of the view, the ecology and culture of Raasay, none of these detained him – his treasure was a concrete block, which only prove that we are an odd species with a tendency to be reductive.
The views of Skye draw on many specialisms, refining the essentially simple act – or art – of viewing. Most of all, I wanted to learn to see the wilderness better myself.
photograph EN, 2011
Returning the name-poems to their mountains set Emma and I the task of exploring Skye. She was patient with the slowness of my walking. We gently stirred the waters of what it means to belong in a place like this. The journey had a frisson for Emma, as she had only recently come ‘home’ to the island of her forebears. As we drove past Sconser she pointed out the boggy slope on the far shore where the family croft had been. Back home in Portree she looked out a letter from her relative, Sorley Maclean, who had first encouraged her interest in the culture of the island.
The word-mntn guided us, and we trusted that the journey would discover some new perspectives between past and future. Setting our assigned roles:
Soon there would be a circle of collaborators and advisers, sharing the making, broadening my understanding of the island, most helpful of all, 5 islanders: Maoilios Caimbeul, Caroline Dear, John Purser, Martin Wildgoose and Meg Bateman.
I ask Meg can we see
Sgùrr nan h-Iolaire
from here? – she pauses
and then replies
I don’t know,
this wouldn’t be where
I would look
for it from
label guddle, poems AF, photograph CD 2011
The word-mntn were logical, systematic; they provided the organizing principle; returning the names to their home location became the lyrical task. Photography provided the means to record the encounter. Neither poetry nor photography was the project’s ultimate end.
The tension between the close-up, which poem-labels required, and the prospect of a mountain in the background, prevented either the text or the sublime landscape from commanding the image. Our photographic album could have contained an infinite number of perspectives of Skye peaks, but if we tied a poem wherever we found a pleasing view the result would end up as a join-the-dots walk, and there is more than enough hiking literature.
Formally, word-mntn define an annular act: proceeding from a place and its given name, and then returning the name to its place, as a poem. As with the intuitive ‘rites’ of the road north, the intention was, finally, the self-awareness of being as fully as possible in and of a place – the flare of a brief moment of belonging, sometimes shadowed, lacking the weight of sacrament, but nevertheless touching.
True to the many-faced mountains, the potential for inner translation, feeling and reflection, occurs in the passage in-between these different media. Each of us sees on our own terms. The meaning of a view is can be rewritten from many perspectives. If we find the right places to stand and look out from, then we may share a view, and realise it has been held in common for thousands of years.
Clach na h-Annait, poem AF, photograph EN
I realised that the project would have to be resolved into set locations, where views could be shared. I call these places to look out from conspectus. Later on, descriptive poetic guides emerged, as collages, blending historical knowledge and speculation; Gaelic culture, mountain lore, natural navigation and ecology.
Extensive as the texts are, the essence of the work remains the alignments themselves. The guides are more ‘mineral’ than digital; they should be read in situ, close to the conspectus, although I accept that in reality most people will see them before, or after, their visit to the island.
The scale and profusion of Skye’s mountains absorbed me, the viewpoints extending to the peaks of the mainland and Hebrides – so many names. What the project still lacked was a theory of alignment. On my second visit I started to explore the islands’ Neolithic sites, picking out the gothic lettering from the OS map. At Loch Harport Emma and I found Dùn Merkadale and it dawned on me that this hill’s shape was identical to the dùns I knew from Perthshire and Argyll.
Dun Scaich, photograph LA, 2011
Ken and I had characterized these for the road north:
To Make Your Very Own Dùn
to begin, you will require your own
split rock form, like camel humps,
with one always bigger than the other
& the dùn on the lower peak
the higher summit’s for the beacon flame
sending smoke signaling departures
a conspectus view over a plain toward a screen
a geomantic alignment with other dùns, standing stones
or cup-and-ring marked rocks
a small winding path, often obscured
by fern or heather
a spring or well
a mythic figure: Saint, King, Warrior, Cailleach, Bod,
a tale, always tragic
a scattering of sorrel, wild thyme, foxgloves, some ferns,
nettles and birches, always a rowan
secure at the margin
alternatively, for those who wish to stay alert,
a distant hill with a rival dùn
optional extras include vitrification, sheep and birds-of-prey
hanging in the air overhead
Merkadale had the same split-rock mound as the mainland forts. It presented a ‘natural’ interpretation of the Cuillin as a fully realized skyline. There and then I was reminded that such ancient sites could fulfill the particular requirements of the viewpoints I was seeking. Ancient traditions of alignment are contested but, even if my hypothesis has a dash of poetic fabulation, it was evident such a site was designed for seeing and understanding, being seen and dominating, the landscape it looked out upon.
Dùn Merkadale, poem AF, photograph EN
The next phase of the project involved identifying a number of Neolithic locations to view the significant peaks, north, south, east and west. In the end 14 sites were sufficient. There were overlaps between viewpoints, but, being on Skye, they were all defined by their orbit around the Cuillin massif.
My first experiment in the ‘presentification’ of viewing, the renga platform, was constructed in 1999, under the guidance of David Connearn. The platform was a transportable structure that we slotted together almost 100 times at locations across the British Isles. Designed for a group of people to compose poetry together over the course of a day, the thick central posts acted as frames, and the 4 outlooks were distilled into the imagery of the poem.
the renga platform, photograph MG, 2005
Based on my sketchy knowledge of Chinese Shanshui viewing platforms and tea shacks, the renga platform nestled itself, cuckoo-like, within the ancient Asian tradition of viewing. The texts we wrote on the platform were rarely memorable as literary productions; that wasn’t the point. Sharing writing’, composing outdoors, alternating silence with speech, drinking tea, and the feeling of exhilaration and exhaustion that resulted, affected those who took part. Poetry became a collaborative, social and outdoor act, participating with language within the place of composition.
My sense of sightlines as a mode of thought deepened when David Connearn and I spent a week in Norway surveying the foundations of Wittgenstein’s house at Skjolden, overlooking Lusterfjord. The views the philosopher chose, clarified in the photographs of my collaborator Guy Moreton, were of forest landscape, paths and vistas, each field with its own neat hut. The philosopher could see the roofs of the village but, struggling with intimacy, the ‘porcupine’ needed to set himself apart.
Along with architecture – the more famous house he built Vienna – and photography – the photo-albums assembled – the potential of viewing at Skjolden represented one of the ways in which Wittgenstein attempted to do philosophy without language, reconciling feeling with thinking.
Here, on the plateau, perched above the lake, the foundations are a man-made rock.
Stand where the verandah was
and look out over
the grey curtain of mountains
and their rippled reflections.
See the view that W chose:
a landscape utterly simple.
I would like to set out my life clearly,
to have it plainly in front of me,
to survey all of the connections.
I can’t imagine that I could have worked anywhere
as I do here at Skjolden.
It’s the quiet and, perhaps,
the wonderful scenery;
I mean its quiet seriousness.
There it seems to me that
I gave birth to new paths
of thought within me.
There I had some thoughts of my own.
The Wittgenstein Hut; poem & concept Alec Finlay, photograph Guy Moreton
The lone shelter of the Memorial Hut at Coruisk gave me license to survey the 'hutopian' movement – Outlandia, the bothy project (Inshriach), Bothan Shuibhne / Sweeny’s Bothy, and the host of viewing huts that will hopefully follow.
If bare and abandoned places such as Coruisk invite painters and poets to project their visions, what better way to ground the visitors’ imagination than by making exciting minimal structures that allow people to dwell here. In terms of viewing, the razed foundations in Norway are interchangeable with the rock footings of Dùnadd and Dùn Beag. Each perspective produces a ‘created space’.
The sea no longer laps the foot of Dunadd Hill, though it may return someday; there is no longer a rowboat tied-up in Wittgenstein’s little dry-stone harbor. Ancient or modern, shorn of dwelling, the ruins retain their outlook, even if the landscape has altered.
poem AF, photograph LA
I was struck that Wittgenstein and the Skye dùn-makers eschewed great heights, being content to build their shelters low down, below sweeping alpine peaks. Our topographical models of thought no longer restrict themselves to picturing philosophy as a vertical ascent toward the summit of the ideal. In the same spirit; nowadays we seek for new narratives of the hills and wilds, rebalancing the well-worn sense of triumph, such as Tim Robinson describes:
‘Any hill suggests a progression from close-up observation of what is immediately under the climber’s hands and feet, through rests for breath-catching and retrospection and glances ahead at intermediate delusive skylines that hide the ultimate goal, to the triumphal horizon-sweeping outlook from the summit.’
That summit view may be unattainable; ‘triumph’ may be exchanged for a less assertive emotion, a less definitive thought. Robinson’s own detailed maps of Connemara and Árainn prove what we gain by our openness to ancient names and the memories they reveal, or hold fast within them.
I began to sense a purpose for the Skye project: to enquire what it would mean to be among the mountains without climbing them, setting aside steps for the sweeping gaze, ‘so much more mobile, so labile, so nimbly coupling place and person, mood and matter, occasion and purpose’ (after Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran).
Dùn Caan, photograph LA, 2011
My sense of viewpoints as organizing principles was renewed on Raasay. Reading Sorley Maclean’s elegiac masterpiece ‘Hallaig’ on the summit of Dùn Caan the poem was embodied in the landscape, in 13 braided place names.
Basho’s walks also sought out the lay of a poem, as at Shirakawa, slipping and sliding through the weather of time to old Priest Noin’s lines on the autumn wind heard on a Spring day centuries before. To define such alignments we co-operate with what is before us, opening to the view, locating ourselves within time and space. Where place-names pinpoint perspectives, where viewpoints are shared, there and then, the eyes and I of poets and readers coincide, equal participants in the poem, even if a text only exists in recall.
‘’s tha mo ghaol aig Allt Hallaig ’na craoibh bheithe
And my love is a birch forever by Hallaig Stream’
The lure of art draws us deeper into a place. Tying a poem-label, sketching an orientation, fares the viewers gaze on, towards a far peak or dùn. The verses I sketched on the Basho road were pruned back to word-mntn; presbyterian constructions sans chatter. Taken out into the field – or more often bog – the poem-names were repositories of myths and event. The names themselves are anchored to the reality of appearance: Big, Red, Black, Speckled peaks; knotch, pap and pintle; a Corrie of Secrets, or Rock of the Wild Cat.
And yet, I was not ready to stop short at the reductive purity of the word-mntn form. To balance the bare letters of the mountain name-poems, I began to attempt guides for each view. Gathering together different points of view necessarily incomplete, these texts grew in the gaps between word-mntn.
I slid between the prose of the gazeteer and poetry. Poems of place tend to ‘improve’ views, teasing out signification. I found that if I refined the material too far toward poem then descriptive detail tended be lost. The limits on my walking also kept me from making this kind of personal claim upon the island. Climbing nothing I had to listen to others' reports.
Certain Skye scenes have acquired a theatrical aspect or attracted fantastical visions, most notably Coruisk, beloved of the 19th century poets, painters and alpinists. Coruisk’s ‘monstrous, abnormal, chaotic’ cauldron figures as the heart of darkness in Alexander Smith’s tour of Skye, despite the eccentricity of his host M’ Ian’s scheme to float a Cal-Mac-cum-Xanadu entertainment hotel off the coast, so that Knightsbridge peers could enjoy the view in ‘decent’ comfort. More recently, Robert MacFarlane’s classic The Wild Places portrays Coruisk as a chamber shaded with fear.
No doubt I push the poetics of viewing too far, allowing mythopoesis to tempt me further than records will strictly bear. The prose notes attempt accuracy but, on occasion, I allowed the poems to slip into conjecture, as at Kilbride, where I was enchanted by the traces of Scotland’s first named goddess, Anaitis, of Anatolia. It was the local archaeologist who encouraged me to risk an element of poetic surmise.
stone Anaitis; photo, George Kozikowski
The vision of the cave at Uamh An Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave), in conspectus 3, draws on the artifacts –awls, antler tines, ritually burnt saddle querns – uncovered there, and the alignment of the hills. The mountains give way to the chthonic mysteries beneath Beinn na Caillich, in the demesne of Anaitis.
It is surely no coincidence that the same mountain name, the crone, occurs near to three other burns or wells dedicated to Anaitis in the Highlands. This encouraged me to join in the debate between Dr Johnson and Reverend McQueen, conducted after their visit to the Temple of Anaitis beside the River Bay – Caroline Dear provided a photograph of the remains of the temple, reproduced in conspectus 12. Janet Paisley’s daring fictionalization of Neolithic Skye, Warrior’s Daughter, encouraged my identification of the cave as the likely high temple. In the days when the sea licked its way into the glens around Kilbride and Torrin, this would have been a busy crossroads, ideal for social and ritual gatherings. George Kozikowski of Orbost shared his photograph of the ‘female’ stone form that was excavated at Uamh An Ard Achadh, a figure we both identified as ‘the goddess’, Anaitis.
Tigh nan Cailleach: the Cailleach, her husband Bodach,
and their daughter, Nighean; photograph, CM and NS
Such goddess stones were shaped by the river and returned to the water to be ritually washed. These Anaitis are surely related to the stone family that the shepherd takes out from the turf covered airigh at Allt na Calliche, high above Loch Lyon, every May – the Cailleach, her husband, Bodach, and their daughter, Nighean.
During our stay at Kilbride, as we mulled over the bare bones of the Anaitis myth, Ken Cockburn proposed a new interpretation for the associated legend of Collum Cille, who is said to have slain a wild boar in the hazel woods thereabouts, with ‘the power of speech alone’. This myth retells how the Early Church vanquished the ancient pig-cult of the folk who worshipped in the cave on the hill, overwriting the landscape, shape-shifting the sacred waters of Anaitis into the holy well of Brighid-Bride. Olson warns against the habit of slopping around in the bath of ‘likeness’. At root Anaitis is kin to Artemis, but she is not Gaia, though we may be drawn toward their association.
Grianan nam Maighdean, photograph KC, 2010
On another trip Emma and I climbed An Dùn Beag, the remains of ‘a fort beneath the Quiraing, and I was reminded that two years before Maoilios Caimbeul had guided Ken up a nearby path, one which passed by Grianan nam Maighdean, the sun-bower of the maidens. The most famous of these mysterious bowers is Tigh Grianach, Deirdre’s ‘sun-bower’ beside a waterfall on Glen Etiveside.
In ‘North of the Tweed’ MacDiarmid celebrates another site somewhere in Glendaruel: ‘Thinkna’ that I’m ungratefu’, wi’ nae mind / O Deirdreand the fauld o’sunbeams yet, / Or canna on bracken slopes abune the bog / The orchis smellin’like cherry-pie’ (To Circumjack Cencrastus, 1930). No-one knows for certain what the Tigh Grianach place-names denote, and few Celtic scholars have enquired but, as with the Anaitis sites that are scattered around Scotland, the bowers may relate to some kind of seasonal rite, possibly of fertility, for they tend to be on slopes or rises, offering a calendrical or transhumant view.
sun cradle, photograph AF
Eddie Stiven, who lives near Dun Grianach, The fort of the sun, in Glenelg, thinks of these bowers as trysting places, protecting lovers. Are bowers a female equivalent to the male ‘grove’ of the druids, each true to a body of knowledge? In the same spirit, John Purser and Meg Bateman have suggested male and female readings of Skye landmarks, in the bull phallus of the Old Man of Storr and the water-carved limestone pudenda hidden in the chamber of Uamh An Ard Achadh.
Paul Devereux speaks of leys and solar and lunar alignments as ‘an extension of the descriptive process’, beyond strict archaeological fact. What excited me were the lines of sight that connected the Neolithic skyline of Beinn na Caillich and Beinn a Dhubhaich, where the stone Anaitis was buried and uncovered, and it was the local archaeologist who told me, with a glint in his eye, that the sun penetrated over the horizon into the ‘temple’ on Imbolc.
Dùnan an Aislidh, photograph KC, 2011
Despite such conjecture, the guides contain no general hypotheses. That said, at particular places meaning did settle on the horizon. One such was Dùnan an Aislidh, which I explored with Emma and, a year later, visited again with Ken.
I was intrigued by the old fort’s position, at the seaward end of the An Aird tombolo. Being continually in view during the walk, Aislidh seems close-by, but out on the point we found ourselves on a rock-deck floating in the sea, with startling perspectives of the Cuillin and Trotternish. Thrift and yellow lichen gave the ruin an air of wild garden.
I started with the familiar task, aligning the word-mntn:
Dùn Caan, capping Raasay
Beinn Dearg Mòr, declining into Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach
Glas Beinn Mhòr on Loch Ainort
Sgùrr nan Each, Garbh-Bheinn & Beinn na Caillich
glimpses of Ben Aslak and, back on the tombolo, the thrust of Beinn Sgritheall
the great fore-shoulder of the Black Cuillin
heading the loch, Ben Tianavaig
The mountain names resounded with the litany of place-names in ‘Hallaig’ and, as I looked around, I became aware that north-east/south-west demarcated Sorley Maclean’s eye- and life-line – from his childhood home at Oskaig on Raasay, to his final home in Peinachorainn at Braes, on Skye.
As the cormorants flew, one-by-one, over the Clarach toward Ben Tianavaig, the poet’s alignment and the Neolithic conspectus resolved themselves into a memorial gaze. Poems cast language beyond the page beyond the inscribed stone; a phrase may follow the call of a curlew, or extend as far as the eye can see, farther even.
Sorley’s poem gave the window of his childhood home into our memory. That frame is a perfect image of how poet’s view, through the glass of childhood, remembrancing across time, naming and aligning a landscape, whether flourishing, barren, or riven by history.
Later Meg Bateman told me that the house at Oskaig was a home again, the boards removed from the window.
In wild landscapes such as Skye and Raasay, memorials are as likely to refer to exiles or visitors who have formed a bond. From Dùn Caan the view north looks toward Joe Strummer’s ashes, scattered among the ruins of Umachan, where his grandparents crofted.
At Kilmuir the ashes of Alexander MacQueen are scattered in the graveyard.
On a clear day, far to the north you can see Suilven, where Ewan MacColl’s ashes lie. Figures of fame, tending toward myth; the dead, whose final resting places we can only gesture at with a motion of the hand, a sightline.
Hallaig, poem-label AF (after Sorley MacLean), photograph LA
When Sorley read from his early love lyrics he sometimes referred to their origin in the abiding sense of guilt he had felt at having failed to take up arms in the anti-fascist struggle against Franco. In ‘An Cuilthionn’ ‘The Cuillin’, this historical fall is projected onto bare land, woven together with the defilement of the Clearances and the disfiguring effects of poverty and violence. I tied a poem-label for Durrutti, to memorialize this insurrectionary spirit. The theme recalls Boswell who, on looking on the Cuillin was transported back to another island, Corsica, and the memory of his revolutionary father-figure, Paoili.
The fall from the heroic that MacLean gives mythic voice to resonates with Robert MacFarlane’s more recent account of Coruisk, in The Wild Places. Confronting the Inaccessible Pinnacle, he records a wave of fear descending upon him and, retreating, pays heed to the dangerous lure of invulnerability. The outrage of the perpendicular rock called out for an ascent, completing the narrative of conquest, gaining the summit view; but, as every climber knows, that view conceals an emblem of death.
The disfiguring effects of the heroic mode recall the mythic death of Cú-Chulainn, murdered on a bare shore by his own son, Conla. In their meditations on the mountains of Skye, MacLean and Robert MacFarlane resign themselves to the preservation of the self, out of love for family. In the same spirit, when Sorley served in the Desert War, he undercut the heroic figures of the past, praising a ‘poor Mannikin’, in ‘Curaidhean’, (‘Heroes’), an Englishman who he served alongside, with ‘chubby cheeks’ and a ‘pimply’ face.
In Loop, a documentary portrait of the philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess, there is a telling moment when, old and stooping, he guides the camera up the mountain to Tvergastein, his cliff-top hut, whose isolated situation is a concretization of vision. For all its vigorous altitude, the eeyrie is, like the plateau upon which Wittgenstein’s house rests, an admission of fallibility and the need for reclusion. The young cameraman follows Naess as he recounts the climbing exploits of his youth. He walks over to an immense findling and, fixing his grip on the boulder's pitted surface, attempts to drag his weight upwards. He slips, makes the attempt again. Again slips. A wry smile. Another attempt and another failure. Naess’s ‘defeat’ is touching; the event is no less complete than any ‘victorious’ summit expedition. Boulders and mountains, bereft of self-awareness, remain infinitely unmoved by our presence.
the peak is the smallest, poem & photograph AF
I have never climbed a mountain. Since the age of 21, a muscular condition makes it difficult, often painful, to be in wild places, although I do still love them. I did once reach the foot-slopes of Sgùrr nan Gillean, and paid for my bravado for a week. Is it folly that I should compose these poems on Skye? What do I mean by this attempt to enter a territory that is, inevitably, in my own terms, harsh?
I recall an afternoon at the height of my illness when the functioning of my legs become so alien that it felt as if I was walking with rocks strapped to my legs, stepping, terribly slowly, through a crammed gravity. I imagined designing callipers with wire-mesh cages to hold rocks, to approximate the sensation.
callipers; drawing, AF
For me, the distance to any summit is measured from that moment, not from the base of the mountain. Resting at the foot I’ve learnt to whistle ‘John Anderson my Jo’.
It took me 24 years to admit this defining experience into my art. It was difficult to feel that I could belong, as the experience of illness never stops being alien. and I resisted normalizing the situation as a 'disability', because I didn’t want the wilderness to be placed, finally, beyond me. It was during the road north that I acknowledged the reality. One of the later episodes describes a walk Ken and I took up the Inverianvie River, toward Loch a Mhadaidh Mor.
bend after bend
skyline after skyline
we came this far
The blog for that walk accepts failure. The loch was too far for me and, rereading Basho, I recognized that he was honest in his accounts of illness, describing the various places that he never reached.
The Skye project brought these constraints to the fore. In writing the guides I used referred to hiking and climbing blogs, and worked collaboratively, sharing the composition with people who found distances easier. A touching memory of an earlier project, when I had to compose a word-map of the Dalwhat Water in Galloway, comes to mind – Alexander Maris, made the final ascent to the source of the river, near the summit, bringing me back a description of a fawn leaping away with fright. With generosity and imagination we can reach beyond our limitations, and accept them.
Forms such as these – word-mntn, guides, sketched poems, mountain conspectus and photographs – are collaborative solutions. The walking-artist Alison Lloyd discussed her experience of taking my word-mntn poem-labels on two trips:
I left them on the Mountains in Torridon, and then wished I hadn’t as I could have taken other photos from other places – the glens and bealachs. I had also thought about bringing them back down and leaving them in the SMC Hut (The Ling Hut). They did look good next to all their framed photos, and the bits and pieces of their memorabilia, just stuck on to the tongue and groove walls.
For Glencoe I tied them together in groups so that I knew which ones to take out and where, and had them to hand to photograph. Also one might be photographed at the beginning of the ridge and the other at the other end. In many cases the wet was eventually getting through my gear after many hours out. In Glencoe it was possible to use one of the labels several times as there were at least two mountains with the same name.
I understand what you mean about each person having their own method. I got back into hill-walking and walking in winter with ice-axe and crampons, because I didn’t feel scared, frightened or terrified. Whereas at home waking up in the morning I was experiencing all of these feelings.
As the map of Skye shows, the 14 viewpoints are within relatively easy reach of the road. There is one exception, the walk out to Rubh an Dùnain, conspectus 7. Although I have never been there I still felt able to write the guide. Alison Lloyd and Luke Allan shared their eyes with me; they carried poem-labels, tested my descriptions, answered my questions, and offered their own contributions. I looked at photographs on Flickr, corresponded with the artist Norman Shaw, and listened to his recording in the chamber. I discussed the site with Caroline Dear. And I read Seton Gordon’s account from the 1920s. I wonder if a reader can tell that I hadn’t been there?
Stob Coire Rainneach void, word-mntn AF, photograph AL
‘Fatigue changed the world for me as the microscope changed a dewdrop’
– Alexander Smith
Illness became the project’s secret guide, though outwardly the project bears no trace of my condition. The drawings, poems, labels and alignments are all a means to belong up there, where my legs can’t go. What is inaccessible, whether an ultimate pinnacle or a short walk to a spring; what we cannot see or touch, someone else can. There are reports and we may rely on them.
In the Highlands, the sense of belonging is pinched by history, land ownership, the contested values of marginal crofting, tourism and wilderness. Matters of access extend beyond physical constraints. Where the fences are too high to climb, no one can prevent you from looking. The foul wealth of entitlement may possess a place but, as the guides record, there are new approaches to commonality: co-operative wind-farms, the stewardship of the John Muir Trust in Torrin and Strathaird, Staffin’s Urras an Taobh Sear Eco-museum, the continuing influence of the Gaelic College, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, and, indeed, the work of Atlas, exploring new approaches to culture and memory.
AF Dùn Beag, photograph EN
Art has territories and borders of its own. Artists encourage us with their destinations, as at Outlandia and the bothy Inshriach Forest. With respect to ‘the muses’, there are also occasions when it seems necessary to pause, or turn back. I was told that when Janet Paisley was researching Warrior’s Daughter, she refused to enter the Uamh An Ard Achadh cave, preferring to penetrate its recesses by the imagination, guided by detailed archaeological record. I can understand that reticence.
Physical and mental constrictions go hand-in-hand with rugged terrain. There is only a thin ledge between a heightened and a deranged vision, survivalism and wonderment. Mystics sought out deserts, rock stacks and mountains; I have little wish to live on gull eggs and grasses.
Those who engage creatively with the materia of belonging and dispossession will recognize how liberation can, of itself, seem to call down a bolt of lightning – as if one’s renewed sense of belonging induced a counter-reaction. This scenario was played out against the practice of poem-labeling – Basho’s tanzaku – by Suzanne Piper, who said that I would ‘never belong in wild places’. Contention is no stranger to mountain-tops and hidden fortresses.
Poem-labels are made to fade, or, in the case of còmhlan bheanntan, they were removed from where they’d been briefly tied. Many of the viewpoints I chose on Skye are ruined forts, ruled over by sorrel, thyme, foxglove and rowan. To some access and anomie go hand-in-hand, and the wilds are a mountain fastness that must be defended, at all costs. Love of wild places is sometimes close kin to a social wound, whether it is the deep hurt some feel at the damage the human race inflicts on nature – on the very places that symbolize their refuge – or whether one individual’s liberty to belong is, in itself, an intrusion upon the fastness another person is bound to.
Mountains have no party, but wilderness bears the brunt of our projections, whether yearning, mournful, or inflected by that ferocious ‘purity’ of ideas – as MacDiarmid, in 'On a Raised Beach’, praising stone’s ‘simple and sterner, more beautiful and more oppressive world, / Austerely intoxicating’.
Despite it's intoxicating joy, walking cannot unconditionally claim an ethical stance. There are those who raise cairns and those – MacDiarmid’s ‘unshakeable few’ – who raze them; there are those who make large-scale photographs crafted to last 1,000 years, projecting scree and summits into a post-urban world; those who tie poems to flutter briefly on hazel and birch. There is, finally, no quarrel between these aesthetic solutions. All we can share is care for the places we love, and the allowance we make, that anyone shall belong, as long as they do no harm.
Each of the contributors who shared the many journeys around Skye, helping to shape the 14 viewpoints, walked their own paths toward momentary experiences of belonging. I invite you to do the same.
there are no mountains
only bare remnants
and a few scattered
the surface of the earth
An Storr from Dùn Gerashader, LA
conspectus: a turn around looking
prospect: a point for seeing
poem: line in time
dùn: circle in space
the road north mapped some of the current contemporary art projects in rural settings. These include, to name a few: Geoff Thomas and Eilidh Crumlish’s HICA (Highland Institute of Contemporary Art); Ninian Stuart’s rethinking of Falkland Estate as a centre for stewardship and rural arts; the community focused projects hosted by Deveron Arts in Huntly; performance-rites devised for Glen Lyon, Achnabreck and An Stoer, conceived by Angus Farquhar (NVA); the new viewing hut, Outlandia, in Glen Nevis; Hamish Fulton’s two decade traverse of the woods and peaks of the Cairngorms; wilderness, activist and pastoral walks, such as those made by Marshall Anderson, Pete Horobin, Thomas A. Clark and Norma Hunter & Claudia Zieske – to which many walk projects could be added, such as Lucy Livingstone’s ‘Enoch was a Woman’, Alison Lloyd’s guided walks, Simon Pope’s walk conversations and the fictional perambulations of Robinson; Gerry Loose’s residency in a native oak wood in Ardnamurchan; and, most recent of all, the bothy project’s residencies at Inshriach.
On a later trip I realized that Dùn Beag, on the opposite shore of Loch Harport, offered the same view of the Cuillin ridge as Merkadale; but from a structure that was better defined, with the advantage of a northerly aspect over Waternish. Although I set Merkadale aside, I still recall the afternoon Emma and I spent there as the moment when the methodology for còmhlan bheanntan | a company of mountains slipped into place.
The renga platform has now been retired from touring and is permanently installed at The Garden Station, Northumberland. The Scottish architect, Malcolm Fraser, cited the renga platform as a ‘traditional Japanese form’, and influence on Outlandia, the contemporary viewing hut he designed.
Ian Armit, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (Edinburgh University Press, 1996)
Paul Devereux, Earth Memory (Quantum, 1991)
Sorley MacLean, Collected Poems (Polygon, 2011)
John Purser, Scotland’s Music (Mainstream Publishing, 2007)
Alexander Smith, A Summer in Skye (Nimmo, Hay, & Mitchell, 1912)
Frank Fraser Darling, Natural History in the Highlands & Islands (Collins, 1947)
Gary Snyder, ‘Endless Streams and Mountains’, a survey of ancient Chinese mountain poetics, Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, 2008)
Tim Robinson, Connemara (Penguin, 2006)
the road north
cave at Uamh An Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave)
to go back to the top click here
To view the first conspectus click here
to visit the map page click here