'Fragments on Walking (...)' Published in Paperboats Zine Summer 2023 https://paperboats.org/2023/08

Diary: Fragments on Walking, Writing, Mythology, Rowans, Dogs, Deer and Trains.
Day 12, 1.6.23: walking from camp at Tigh na Cruaiche, by Loch Laidon, to Rannoch. Train from Rannoch to Corrour. 


The train slows, stops, sheds people onto the station platform at Corrour. After the last two days’ walking and camping this buzz of voices and Velcro on rainproofs, crunch of walking poles on loose chippings, feels electric. The dogs pant in the heat but look glad to be off the standing-room-only clatter of the train.

During the short train journey I was thinking about ants, their collaborative superpowers, just as I felt myself shrink back from the press of bodies on the crowded train. I was thinking in particular of the narrow-headed ant, Formica exsecta, on the brink of extinction and hanging on in only a few places in Scotland: these include the pinewoods near Mar Lodge in the Cairngorms, and close to here in the Black Wood of Rannoch. The worker ants live brief lives, the queen ant a staggering average of twenty seven years. Leaning in towards her, I play with what she might say to the worker ants:

Workers – our-Body our-Being. You bring me gifts bright as the wren’s blink: circles of sunny disposition; of pine and birch and heather-hold; of stoicism; of survival; of shared sky. Your explorations hum notes of honeydew and collaboration. I’m in awe of your shrewdness, your noticings of dust. I nod to your volition, your acid tenacities. We can be safe in the quiver of this woven home, under cap of nibbled heather and grass. You’ll die and I’ll carry your epic griefs, your epic joys, into new generations. They’ll flow along narrow-headed paths that teem with will, that grow deep under all the dappled antics –

I’m surprised that the imaginings aren’t entirely bleak.

It’s problematic writing in human language what I a human animal imagine it might be like to be ant. The same applies when I’m compelled to imagine what it’s like to be tree, deer, adder, pebble, pony or toad. If I were a dancer, a sculptor, a musician, a mark-maker in any other form that wasn’t language, would it feel closer to the more-than-human, less all-thumbs than this writing endeavour does? Would I have less to apologise for? Yet writing is the form of mark-making that calls me. What I can do is to keep asking questions, to listen, be humble, be alert, and to remember, always, that there is much I don’t and won’t ever know. 

Poet and artist Alyson Hallet notes In Stone Talks:

'I spend a lot of time not knowing what I’m doing. It seems to be the most honest place to start working from. An inclusive place. A deeply collaborative place. When I don’t know what I’m doing, I wait for a prompt. It can come in a dream. From a stone. It can rise up from a part of my body. It can be a thought arrowing in as I turn a corner in a meadow.'


Things I’ve learnt about writing about the more-than-human: that I take it very seriously, whilst also engaging in serious play; that I always ask permission of any being – whether river, rock, vole – that I wish to write of/into; that I have a clear methodology for listening; that I explore means of mark-making other than human language. 

I’ve experimented with asking permission from place and its non-human denizens in different ways, both verbal and non-verbal. I’ve played with clay, paint and dance; I’ve tried to be non-judgmental about the outcomes. I’ve run back to the pencil in red-faced relief, but I’ll persist, I’ll keep on experimenting.

To know the other – whether a place, creature or person – involves a constant stretch to learn, listen, feel and accept. It’s a willingness to let the space between our ears, the spaces between our fingers, our ribs, be fluid and open to new information. It’s also a process of decolonisation, to rediscover what lies beneath the conditionings of a patriarchal and capitalist society. Arguably writing, alongside other forms of mark making, can be a valuable and viable way into those underworlds and otherworlds. 

In Charles’ Foster’s author’s note of Being a Human he writes about the importance of feelings:

'Scholarly books about the past start with facts: I start with my feelings – feelings that occur when I’ve immersed myself as best I can in an era, or a wood, or an idea, or a river […] We have brains shaped and expanded […] for relationality, and wonder why we’re unhappy in an economic structure built on the assumption that we’re walled islands who do not and should not bleed into one another […] I don’t explore here what is to be done. I am no seer, sage, shrink or sociologist. But it will involve radical kindness, waking up, and old stories.'

This bleeding, or leaning into one another, is, for me, at the heart of writing. I may often get it wrong, but the intention is always to connect, empathise and love as we keel towards unreliable horizons.

So, about those ‘old stories’. In the ingenious mix of folklore, biodiversity, humour and emphatic swearing that is the The Blindboy Podcast, Blindboy describes mythology and folklore as the stories that humans create about our lived environment so we can coexist in balance with ecosystems. 

This time last year I spent two weekends up here with friends including Katherine a Goethean scientist, Shuna a horse-trainer, Lizzie a filmmaker, and Dougie a storyteller. I’d written in my notebook: 

After a break of eight years I’m back up at Corrour, two weekends walking and exploring, the added joy of Dougie Strang sharing his passion for the folklore and mythology of these parts. Stories of the Cailleach of Beinn a’Bhric, an earth-shaping figure, the deer mistress who mediates between the deer and the hunter, a Goddess and a shaman. Stories that show how people filled the land with meaning, a mythology that embodies deep respect for the natural world, and warns of the dangers when a respect, a balance, is lost: since the wood was burnt, since the wood was burnt laments the ‘the semblance of a woman with a green shawl about her shoulders’ at the foot of being a’ Bhric, as she knocks a pair of deer shanks together ‘without ceasing’. Meanwhile snipe winnow and display, at night stars burn in their billions, sunshine presses out the scent of warming peat. We camp by an abandoned house at the head of Loch Treig that has pictures of border collies and wolves pasted on the walls under collapsing ceilings. The collies are smiling, the wolves are watching. I think about how the peat must remember the wolves, their piss and scat, their lives hunting deer in a forest that still had trees. We walk across peat, drink from peaty burns, soak our feet in sphagnum and story. We sit and talk and laugh, share drams and feed a fire when the folklore gets too spooky. There are new stories too, of someone finding a horse skeleton in the peat, just there across the loch, the saddle still attached. Lizzie’s soft voice: the only time I shot a deer was here. I don’t know what I thought about it … it died. It fed my family at a wedding on Skye that I couldn’t go to because I was cooking.

Tonight the dogs choose to sleep outside again. Mottled grey and black and white they are hard to tell apart from the lichen-covered rocks scattered in the heather, but they’re the warm-blooded ones, the ones with softer lines, the ones waiting and watching.

A single deer turns up and is barked away.  It’s surprising to see this hind, the land managers up here at Corrour follow a controversial deer cull– to enable the natural regeneration of the trees without the constant pressure from herbivores – and she’s the first deer I’ve seen. Here, in this place, on the last day of the trip, I see rowan saplings – not only the so-called ‘flying rowans’ that I’ve seen throughout the trip, growing out of rocks and ruined roofs beyond reach of sheep and deer – but here rowans are growing out of the ground, coming up through heather and blueberry and molinia grass. Bright-leaved, glossy with dew. Immanent. New beginnings from so many bloody endings. 

A train comes through at dusk, headstrong and rhythmic.  

I watch the moon, almost full, as it curves up and round towards the west, is scored by the craggy summit of Leum Uilleim, continues over Beinn a’Bhric where Dougie showed us Fuaran Cailleach, the Cailleach’s well, where we left pebbles, made wishes. 

Wind and temperature drop, mist comes in. I pull the sleeping bag tight over my head.