When I see marks like this on a tree, I don’t think vandalism. I don’t think about the person, the message or what the initials may stand for. I don’t even think about the tree. Two letters carved in the side of a mature tree is a mere bruise, a slight scar on its hopefully uninterrupted long life. A story to tell the rest of the forest dwellers. It is a sign that the tree is doing the right thing by just being here and looking particularly attractive. Scars are Like Tattoos with Better Stories says the sticker on my old acoustic guitar.
Trees stand the test of time much more so than we mere humans do. They may break limbs during winter but they can grow to be far older and wiser than we can ever hope to be. This is a moment in the trees life, a moment when it gets a tattoo it didn’t ask for, but a mark that says someone was here and someone thought about this tree and maybe even that someone still does.
What I find most interesting in tree carving is that you rarely see it now. Why is it that young men, for it is nearly always young men, no longer carve their girlfriends name or that of their favourite bands into the bark of local sycamores? The answer is simple and the most noticeable thing to me that I think of when I see initials on an unseen tree in an unknown wood. Nobody carries knives.
How else is such primitive art made without the humble penknife?
From cowboys to Conan, from soldiers to Highlander, everyone I grew up with carried a knife. The thought of using it on another person, or even as a weapon, was so far removed from our developing minds it never once occurred in it. These things weren’t weapons, they were barely even sharp. They were tools, useful items to have upon ones person at all times for building bases, whittling, or sharpening stakes to kill all the damn vampires. It just dawned on me that we used a knife as a tool to make weapons. A touch contrary perhaps to the point I’m trying to make but you get the idea.
I learned knife skills from an early age and have always been comfortable around them. On our first holiday abroad I was determined to find a penknife with a matador on the handle. It was all I wanted and I’m not even sure where this early obsession with bullfighting came from. Perhaps an early latent love of Hemingway lying dormant until appearing many years later. I came back from a week in Benidorm with a one inch blade and a yellow and red matador on the handle. It might have been meant to be a necklace it was that small. But it was all I wanted.
In the 1980s, off the back of the movie Rambo: First Blood Part II there came a flood of Rambo style knives. Mostly these looked nothing like his actual knife, it would just have a serrated edge but would sometimes have hidden treasures like a compass on the handle. This would unscrew to reveal a hollow handle that held a small first aid kit, presumably for sewing the wound in your arm shut after jumping off a cliff to escape a police helicopter. It also held the all-important waterproof matches. Lifesaving items right there when you’re 13 and trying to get a fire going down the beach.
You can’t carry them in the UK now. Even my ancient trusty (and rusty) Richards of Sheffield penknife is classed as a deadly weapon. Legal knives are given the rather boring nomenclature ‘everyday carry’ or EDC. The law states that an EDC is currently a non-locking blade with a length up to 7.6cm or 3 inches. Why locking blades are illegal is a bit odd as in my opinion it makes them safer, but to the authorities they turn the carrier into a deadly samurai. This also includes multi-tools so carrying the can opener is also not allowed.
A 3 inch folding blade is not nearly as interesting to a 13 year old as a full on Rambo replica complete with essential extras. Also it does seem odd that knife sellers require a license, yet supermarkets who sell countless amounts of kitchen knives do not. And the vast majority of knife based crime is done with these kinds of ‘weapons’. Generally speaking the chances of being stabbed by an imported £500 handcrafted Damascus steel knife is highly unlikely. A rusty old kitchen knife that mum uses once a year to cut the turkey with is far more likely. But that would be useless at carving your girls initials into a tree.
As the bush craft fans will tell you, a knife is a tool before it is ever a weapon, and they no doubt will carry an expensive one. Knife porn is a thing believe me but as sure as young couples may still go to the woods, it is unlikely nowadays for either of them to be carrying.
Currently listening to: Deus Vermin, awesome blackened death metal from Leeds, UK.
Disclaimer: In no way is anything said in this article in support of knife crime of any sort. It is an abominable and heinous act to use a knife upon a human being, but we do understand that it is a huge issue in certain parts of the UK.
How do you look at a city landscape? Perhaps your eyes are opened by your interests or job. An architect or surveyor may view a city block with the possibilities of modernity and regeneration. Maybe if you are a history or classical art fan you bemoan the glass monstrosities and old buildings turned into shitty Weatherspoons or McDonalds. Maybe you like looking for the trees or green spaces, the garden areas; roots cracking through the pavements.
I guarantee nobody looks at a city like a skateboarder. The way a skateboarder perceives the world is completely unique. Once you have been a skateboarder, the way you look at even simple urban architecture is completely changed and you never look at things the same way again. Suddenly modern art sculptures have a whole new layer of possibility, dirty car parks start looking attractive, concrete banks become years of solid fun and not an eyesore. Painted kerbs become a holy grail. You develop opinions on kerbstones, salt bins and picnic benches. I have not skated for twenty years and I still look at my driveway and picture backside ollies.
The only other cultural movement that looks at city space in a similar, although very different, way is a graffiti writer. They may look for flat surfaces that are out of the way, with no security cameras or night guards and return these places at odd times. Much like a skater, they will often climb fences and gates to get to the place they intend.
I spent my teenage years in these places, exploring every back alley, car park, school playground, street and dead end in search of a different spot to skate but we’ll get to the reasons for that. This article was meant to be an interview with veteran Australian skateboarder and filmmaker Chris Coleman. Chris lives in Melbourne and it’s been a few years since I’ve seen him, but last year we talked for over an hour online on this unique relationship between skater and the city. It was most enjoyable and good to catch up, however my luck ran out this time, as I expected it would at some point. I either forgot to switch on my voice recorder or deleted it by mistake when I went to listen back to it. What follows is my take on some of the things we talked about, based on my shoddy memory and the scant notes I made. My apologies of course to Chris for the article this could have been.
We started off talking about how good lockdown has been for skateboarding, which is something I hadn’t considered before. In Melbourne, and probably in most cities worldwide, skaters now had access to 100% of everything. There was no bars open so the streets and pavements weren’t covered with tables and drinkers. The city was suddenly completely available during the day; every day. And this seems a major positive to come from lockdown. Cruising the streets with little or no traffic, like it was film set or New Year’s Day in Scotland but with better weather. Very quickly the spots that were totally inaccessible before were now fully skate-able. To the skateboarder, the city was finally open.
Then I remembered a brief time during lockdown when West Lothian was on the same tier as Edinburgh. I took the family into the capital and was able to park in the Grassmarket with no problem. We walked up the steps to an almost deserted castle parade ground. Normally at this time of year it would’ve been full of visitors. In fact you probably wouldn’t have been able to see the castle due to the enormous seating for the military Tattoo. There was less than 10 people in the whole area and I doubt I’ll ever see it that quiet on a summer’s afternoon again.
This constant search for new spots, different places and general exploration of the place you are in for me was key to the understanding and also the fun of skateboarding. I was never one to stay in the same place for long and always enjoyed tearing up the streets like a Mike V video part. It is this interest in the lesser known places and the unknown that I believed was important.
Urban exploring seems to not be quite so much a thing anymore with the plethora of skate parks available, something that was completely lacking when I skated. Chris and I agree on this and he is always looking for new and untouched skate spots, not just to skate but also to film. A drive to work on a different route becomes a chance to scout for new spots. It is an excuse to go checking out different suburbs and areas. There is an element of effort in this that most people won’t realise if your concept of skateboarding is at the local park, the X-Games, or more likely on the X-Box.
The search and particularly the discovery of spots is exciting and addictive. Chris prefers the more obscure and crusty places and admitting the influence of Rick McCrank in this (see links). Skateboarding is not perfect. The majority of skaters, at least when they’re staring out and learning, do not have the amazing Californian weather or an expensive park on their doorsteps. You therefore learn to use your eyes in your surroundings, and your imagination. Utilise whatever is around you, whether it is filling in concrete gaps, using public items such as grit bins or picnic tables, or stealing kerbstones from building sites and transporting them to your own spot. Once the spot is found or created it echoes through the entire skate scene quickly. We once swept out an abandoned fish shed and stole some kerbstones and planks of wood to act as ramps. It didn’t last long, but it was worth it.
For Chris, it took moving from Brisbane to Melbourne in his early twenties to recognise one of the most important aspects of skateboarding that again may not be obvious to outsiders, the social aspect. Homo sapiens are a tribal species, and nothing pushes the individual more than a positive group influence. A good crew forces progression and everyone improves; feeling like a team in what remains an individual activity. Again, a difficult concept maybe for non-skaters to understand, but it exists in many other pastimes and sub cultures from climbing to combat sports.
This certainly worked for Chris, he’s been hanging around with the same bunch of dudes that he has for years, many of whom have been very successful, one of his best friends even skating for Australian in the Tokyo Olympics. So perhaps I’m way off the mark here and what is important to skateboarding is not the connection to place at all, but the connection to people. And it makes spending hours and hours in a manky car park all the more enjoyable.
“Skateboarding is whatever you want to make of it.” Chris Coleman, June 2021.
Currently listening to: Tales of Realms Forgotten by Tyrant
This is an age of instant gratification. For the last twenty years we have bred a ‘must have it all now’ culture that is obsessed with celebrity and living for the ‘likes’. Within this horrifying modernity we need to change our mind-set over what we wear and one of the obstacles is in challenging the stigma that still exists over pre-worn clothing.
This throwaway, ‘wear once’ idea impacts our fragile planet instantly. However quality clothing is inherently sustainable, it not only lasts much longer in the first place but can also be reused or recycled. And vintage items will tend to be from a time when things were made with a little more longevity in mind. Therefore by its very nature it is both better quality and more sustainable.
Buying something labelled vintage says something more than just ‘I enjoy unique and different styles of clothing’. It is more than a move that says I choose quality. It is shunning this bullshit modernity, a kick to the face of high street capitalism, a huge fuck you to the fast fashion. Vintage and upcycling is the most obvious retort to both fast fashion and expensive designer brands. Hell in this day and age it’s practically a political statement.
Similar to human beings, vintage items may show signs of wear or use. I call this character. In choosing vintage you are giving new life to a piece of clothing that has previously been discarded. Think about that for a moment. Your favourite pair of jeans or jacket was, most likely, going in the bin; on its way to landfill. Not only are you saving resources on new clothing but stopping potentially damaging items becoming unnecessary landfill. A quick search tells me polyester can take up to 200 years to decompose. Glad I only wore that shirt once then so the petroleum it’s made from can get back in the ground sooner.
And this is where we come in. A shirt, well-made originally, well-worn maybe, well-loved likely but no longer required by its owner makes it way to our hands where it is re-invigorated back to life. It becomes vintage, not forgotten. Art not trash. Bespoke and original, the opposite of fast fashion, this is eco-fashion, creating a more conscious consumer. Custom made, one of a kind, you get the idea.
Keep using what the planet has already given us.
Rewild your wardrobe.
Currently listening to: Wolves Chase the Light by Elegiac
New clothes feel nice, but I’m willing to bet that your favourite items of clothing are the ones you’ve had the longest; the pieces that have stories to tell, the items that hold the memories.
I predominantly wear band t-shirts. In the music world, and specifically the land of heavy metal, these stories are obvious. Go to a gig, buy the shirt, support the band. Have a favourite band or album that you want to show off, wear it. Want to show how kvlt you are? Wear a t-shirt by a band who released a cassette only demo of 666 copies. This is a uniform that instantly puts you in the same club as many others wearing something similar. We are a tribal species after all.
The t-shirt you bought the first time you saw your favourite band takes you back to that magical time every single time you put it on. The hand stitched battle jacket has your sweat, blood and beer on it soaked into the patches of all your favourite bands, showing your allegiances to the world.
And it’s not just metal. I remember seeing a worn-out original My Bloody Valentine t-shirt on a boy I knew, still getting an airing despite it being almost in tatters. The guy in front of me last time I saw AC/DC was wearing a shirt that looked like he got it when he was 15. It was actually hanging off him, but you’ve never seen anyone enjoying a concert as much as this guy who was well into his fifties.
Speaking of AC/DC, I have a shirt from the 1978 Highway to Hell tour. It’s so gnarly and old it might even be original. The hardened arm pits certainly have the weight of the work of a sweaty European tour roadie.
Outdoor brands do not inspire the same love and loyalty, the same commitment but there is no reason stories of memory and feelings of affection can’t apply to outdoor branded clothing. Maybe there is just not the market or the forum to share it in.
But I’m also willing to bet you think similarly about certain items. For example, I’ve had the same shirt that’s done at least 100 Munros with me. I still wear it now, though more out of loyalty as its…well getting a bit wee. It’s the shirt honest. Throw it away? No chance.
I still wear the same salopettes I bought 25 years ago with my first credit card though, in all honesty I haven’t been snowboarding in a long time. I had to buy a new pair of waterproof trousers recently so I bought the exact same ones as I had before. I tore the arse out of my previous pair sliding down quite a steep hill in the snow, holding my giggling two year old. Every time I wear those trousers I think of that moment and the fun we had. That is worth any money.
And so we have come to our Reimagined range. Our slogans, words to live by, Rewild Your Soul and Live Deliberately emblazoned on vintage heavy duty flannel shirts. This is more than reusing, this is reinvigorating. These shirts are custom made, they are one of a kind. They exist as seen, possibly with imperfections but mostly not. They have been fully professionally cleaned to an extremely high standard before the reimagining process begun.
Let’s face it, outdoor clothing is fucking boring. It does not have to all look the same, from mountains to movie theatre, from the woods to work, these shirts are versatile and stand out in an ocean of banality. Reawaken your wardrobe and wear it your own way.
Currently listening to Olhava, some cool blackgaze/drone from Russia.
Western attitudes towards clothing is finally changing, and it has to. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter of the earth, taking that dubious silver medal only after the oil industry. The impact upon the planet some 80 billion products produced per year is staggering. It is especially notable that the majority of these items are being worn on average 7-10 times before ending up in landfill. Only an estimated 15% are recycled or donated.
Fast fashion brands continue to pollute not only our world but the minds of our young and susceptible people into thinking they get everything they want, instantly and cheaply. Make no mistake this is connected to the social media derangement and must have now culture that has erupted in the last twenty or so years.
This throwaway culture is changing as we find alternatives to damaging our fragile planet for instant gratification.
Outdoor wear is a bit different, but still part of the same industry. Most brands shun fast fashion and make quality products that while maybe not organic or eco-friendly, are well made and built to last. We need products that walk the walk. It’s no good proclaiming an item of clothing is waterproof when it isn’t, or that a sleeping bag will reach minus 10˚C when it won’t. This type of claim has its obvious dangers.
Here at Last Wolf we are interested in exploring ideas for a more sustainable and ethical existence. Reduce, reuse, recycle are words commonly used when talking about reducing the impact on our environment. We aim to add to Reimagined to this lexicon. There are others too.
And so we present the Last Wolf Reimagined range. Our message, slogans, words to live by, mantra if you will, Rewild Your Soul, Live Deliberately and the Last Wolf runes emblazoned onto vintage heavy duty flannel outdoor shirts. This is more than reusing, this is a re-awakening. The opposite of fast fashion, this is eco-fashion. Bespoke, vintage shirts, each one unique. Rewild your wardrobe. Last Wolf Reimagined range available now.
Currently listening to Hymn to the Woeful Hearts by Pure Wrath, atmospheric black metal from Indonesia.
The question of land access differs in what country you happen to be in. Here in Scotland we are extremely lucky in that we have a statutory right to roam, a legal pass to wander, as long as you’re being responsible. I am a naturally curious person, which could just be nosiness, but if there is a bunch of trees I’ve never been in or a hill I’ve never been up, I want to go there and explore. I’ve written about this before, maybe most noticeably here http://lastwolf.co.uk/explore/ but in my wanderings, I have learned one massively important lesson in how to navigate around someone else’s land.
Say hello. Be polite. Ask. Even if faced with the grumpiest of curmudgeons, the inimical ‘get orf my laaand type’, (known as Fifers to a friend of mine), maintaining a level of politeness and interest in the area will aid you in any situation. Even if you leave them with their eyeballs still sweating, at least you’ve got the moral high ground, the law on your side and can skip you’re merry way to thy chosen destination.
However this kind of situation is unlikely. Most landowners, farmers, businesses, ghillies, whoever it is, in my experience will be happy to help you navigate your way so long as no damage is occurring and you are in no danger yourself*. They will answer your questions, possibly give advice on the best routes, what to avoid and what to look out for etc. People who own or work on land are generally interested in it, and therefore usually enjoy talking about it.
Two episodes spring immediately to mind regarding this. Both differ from each other, and actually stand opposed.
Once upon a time, when smart phones didn’t exist, I was on a solo walk around some Scottish hills I had never been to before. I approached a fishery looking for a route upwards, having no map and no local knowledge other than I could see where I wanted to go and a desire to get there. Large signs out the front of the fishery said no dogs but this was not at all helpful in giving any directional advice on hill access. I decided to put the dog on the lead, avoid the main road in, and thus the building as well and take the long route around while looking for a way up the hill.
Upon doing an almost full round of the fishing area without noticing any way upwards, a large and exuberant German shepherd leapt over to us, barking and nipping at the rear end of my dog. All the while two bigger ones behind a fence were making such a noise that all the fish swam off. Eventually a guy came out of the building to get the dog saying she was an excitable pup who didn’t like that my dog was on the lead. In the din of three large dogs barking their heads off, he proceeded to give me all the info I needed; the easiest route up, and the hardest. He told me of a waterfall on the harder route that most people missed. This guy loved the area and was only too happy to share it. His description was spot on and the dog still did the same thing to us on the way back.
There was another time though whilst out walking during deer stalking season in a very remote part of Scotland. I thought I might get a bit of props from the hunting guys as I happened to have two black labs with me. Both were on the lead as we went past the days shooting party. My friend and I were very early in setting off and we were into the mountains way before the guns. They overtook us in Land Rovers a mile or so in, and one of them stopped.
The driver and clearly the main guy, asked us where we were heading and gave us some helpful directions to the mountain and tips for the best views. It was a good ten mile walk in. It had a difficult Gaelic name I couldn’t remember, yet he pronounced it perfectly with an accent that only people who drive Land Rovers on open mountains have.
It was only much later, on our descent from the wrong mountain and long but admittedly beautiful walk out of a different glen that we realised why he was being so generous with his knowledge. He had deliberately kept us off the hill and out of the way of the shoot. Not that we would have been anywhere near it anyway but he clearly wanted to keep us as far away as possible with his route advice. I can’t complain about the day, it was good, but we ended up being two glens away from where we thought we were.
So yes, be polite and look for advice. But maybe sometimes take it with a pinch of salt. There might be an ulterior motive!
*Don’t use the Land Reform Act (2003) as an excuse to go wandering through a working quarry. Keep that for when they are closed due to snow.
Currently listening to: The late contender for black metal album of 2021 from Funeral Mist.
It took me a long time to realise how much depression is linked to reactions. How you have reacted, not to one or two specific events but a culmination of many of them, sometimes issues that have been there for an entire lifetime. It is not a simple straightforward reason that you just need to get over and there is no easy fix. But there are a number of things that can be done to make things go a bit more smoothly and hopefully make a move towards the exit from that downward spiral sooner. The biggest one of these is very relevant to us, and certainly one of the main reasons for the existence of Last Wolf.
It is this, and it remains the biggest cure for me in battling my mental demons to this day. Go outside. Seems simple right? And if it was that easy there wouldn’t be such a thing as poor mental health, depression or even suicide. For some people it is not that straightforward and I understand that. But for those who can, and who currently don’t, the best thing you can do is spend regular quality time outdoors.
Set yourself a task, start off small. Walk round the park every day, read the newspaper on a bench (a good pair of waterproof breeks will help), walk to the local library and take a book out, return it the next day if you don’t want to read and do the task again. The task can also be big; walk to the next town, walk up your nearest hill or mountain and increase from there, take a flask to a woodland and enjoy your soup/coffee/tea/hot chocolate with your back against an ancient tree, whittle on a stick while you’re there or build a small fire and develop some bush craft skills. Alternatively it can be huge. Complete a round of Munros, walk the West Highland Way, swim the English Channel. Aim high, just don’t go jumping too far without the necessary experience. It’s the experience itself we’re after.
This has to be done regularly, every day, every weekend or as close to this as possible. Embrace an obsession. The point being that the more time you spend outside the more your interest expands and the more your mind will wander from the dark places to something else. In other words, distract yourself and get in the vitamin D at the same time. The regenerative power from sitting under a tree for any length of time is huge. Watching the sunset from an ancient yew or the top of a hill is timeless.
Although I have always been interested in Scottish history in a broad sense, my treks into the mountains localised my interests in history and folklore, topography, ecology and nature. These were topics I may not have considered interesting previously, or even known what they were. Over time you may find a love for birds, or trees, or weather, or exercising outdoors (see our guide to that here http://lastwolf.co.uk/outdoor-gyms/ by the way). Who knows who you may meet on these excursions and what situations you may end up in? Speak to people, say hello, look around, learn, play.
I remember my first ever Munro. It was the dead of winter, the snow up to our knees. Woefully inexperienced we were, but it holds one of the dearest memories of my adult life. On the descent from what had been a wonderful day, my dad and I glissading down, the technical term for ‘sliding down on our arses’, laughing harder than we had in a long time; the happiest I had been in years, playing in the snow like we did at Anster golf course when I was wee.
There’s an incredible amount of pressure put on young men these days. I can only imagine that this is at least doubled for females, but I can only specifically speak for males because I am one. My theory is there is a problem age for males around the late twenties and early thirties. At this stage in their lives men are more likely to begin feelings of depression, anxiety and a general lapse in mental health. The vigour of youth is waning, they may be developing alcohol or substance abuse problems, their rock star dreams haven’t happened or, for one friend I remember saying vividly that by 33 he realised he was never going to play for Scotland.
This news was crushing, and it may seem flippant but looking at it in more depth reveals a fear of the future. It’s the idea of being past it, about the rest of your life being useless because you’ve held that dream for so long. I’m not claiming this to be anything scientific, but it is based on many people I have known and spoken to. It has to do with the conflicting emotions of becoming ‘a man’, a real one, not the one you were pretending to be at 22. It is to do with finding your own place in a world that isn’t the place you thought it was going to be.
Roughly a generation after that, the age bracket for men between 45 and 49, is statistically the second highest for suicide. The 50 to 54 bracket is not far behind. This speaks volumes, especially when it is second only to the over nineties. Male depression hits around thirty and by the late forties it has peaked with tragic results. Look out for your friends, brothers and partners. Look out for each other. A walk in the woods may be all that person needs to perk up their day.
Accepting that there are certain things you can’t control is hard, but how you spend your time isn’t one of them. There is a mountain of really helpful Facebook groups that I wasn’t aware of until relatively recently. Use them, find your inner outdoor interest, because it will help, believe me.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” John Muir: The Mountains of California
Currently listening to Piano Works 1 and 2 by Anton Belov. Amazing haunting ambient piano.
“Winter comes fast to this town, summer arrives and leaves even quicker. I first start to notice it when I can see the horses in the field more easily. The sheep that live there in the summer are taken away and the horses return at the end of it. But you can’t see them properly from our side due to the hedges and trees. Now though, with leaves falling at a rapid rate, my daughter can see them. The dog can too rather than just knowing that something is there.
In the winter when it’s clear, you can look from my garden for miles to the east. In the summer it’s all blocked with overgrown hedges, bushes and nettles. In the winter all that shit is dead and you can see right through. The horses come right over to say hello and small boys feed them grass. We can see the fireworks from Princes Street at New Year. We can see the bridges lit up at night time like a passing cruise ship. We can see the fog rolling in from the sea; we’re higher up than we think.”
This is an edited version of a paragraph I took from a notebook. It’s a few years old now; it only mentions one daughter for example and I now have two. But in reading it back there is a despondency that wasn’t there before as it was never intended. The fields and views that I speak of are disappearing rapidly. The house builders have moved in and what was green belt will soon be 500 or so new homes. As you can imagine, at the moment, it’s an enormous building site and not the tranquil view it once was. Many of the sunrise pics on the LW Instagram are early morning views across this area which will be no more.
The recent BBC series Restoring the Earth is sub-headed The Age of Nature, probably made as a backlash to everyone who thinks nature programs are far too depressing these days and to instil some hope into the populous for COP26. The BBC website describes the show as…
“Visiting Bikini Atoll, Panama, Norway, Mozambique and China, we discover the extent of nature’s resilience and how ecosystems devastated by human impact can be revived, how human prosperity is dependent on the natural world and how when working within nature’s limits, resources can be maintained for future generations.”
Yet this is not the reality when people look out of their own homes and into their own communities. Deforestation is a huge problem globally, no one doubts that. Yet in small towns all over Scotland, not just the central belt, housing developers rip up masses of acres of land, trees, bushes etc. with complete immunity. Landowners are allowed to dictate how a town looks. Green belt land, even brown belt that local people may like just the way it is, is developed to make way for new homes or shopping malls. People have no voice in this. None. Mature trees are cleared regardless of the wishes of the people who live there, and this is an era when were meant to be protecting them. The run off from turning over such large areas of land I’ve noticed recently, even affects the surrounding water supply.
People need places to live, but I can understand how some might feel apathetic towards global issues when their own towns and surrounding green areas are at the mercy of large housing corporations and uninspired councils desperate for cash. As our towns creep closer and closer together, it’s the natural world that loses out.
Currently listening to: Type O Negative’s World Coming Down
Try our Spotify playlist ‘Last Wolf Outdoors’ for an eclectic mix of folk, atmospheric black metal, 70s occult rock, epic doom and some good old heavy metal. Perfect for a walk in the woods.
Last Wolf has taken a back seat to my life recently. Work, family, illness, lots of things conspire to distract my focus for lots of different reasons. Social media fatigue is a real phenomenon; sometimes I’ve just had enough. A re-setting was clearly needed. Perhaps then this is the best time to consider roots and beginnings before pushing momentum forward.
Roots are important. I believe everyone has many, and they go beyond the genealogy/family tree type idea. Have a think and see if you can find a few related to your own life. An example; do I have a love for guitar based music, particularly heavy metal, because of my early fascination for the bands my parent’s liked such as Queen and Status Quo? You can bet your cowboy boots that the root of that particular obsession comes from Queen’s Greatest Hits 1 and the Rockin’ All over the World tapes. The roots of a tree aren’t that obvious, yet mine, and concurrently Last Wolf’s are plainly visible.
As a brief aside, I wonder if this is connected to my continued use and fascination for the Odal rune. Odal, or Othala, meaning heritage and tradition, family or homeland, is my favourite rune. It is also known as Odin’s rune, the god whom I have a particular fascination for. Odal is also in my top four Wardruna songs.
But back to roots; we shall not be mentioning the polarising Sepultura album. Recently I shared a photo on social media of what to expect when you make a purchase from the Last Wolf shop. The point was to highlight the recyclable packaging and how items are processed from this one place. The photo was taken at my desk, an antique that belonged to my father in law. Although it looks different than when he last sat at it 20 something years ago, I hope it still resonates with a similar work and creativity that it did when he was alive. You can see his copy of the Declaration of Arbroath on the wall as well, though the Jamison’s is mine. He was teetotal.
Last Wolf began life here, years ago, in the smallest room in my house, surrounded with books and music, sitting at my father in law’s desk. It was here that I studied Pictish, Celtic and Viking age art far more closely than ever before. This has been a lifelong interest; I had written on these themes at school in the mid-90s, and I began to reproduce images by the process of pyrography onto what I called wedges of wood. These wedges were hand sawn by me from branches I found that had fallen during storms or from walking in nearby woodland after some cutting had been done. I called it locally scavenged.
Once my own cuts were made I then had to sand them so the surface was smooth enough to burn the image onto it. It was very time consuming and though they sold well, it was never financially rewarding; but that was never the point in the first place. The items were sold on Etsy under the name Last Wolf Crafts and I took part in a few craft fairs in Fife which were good fun.
Last Wolf was born in this environment. Its beginnings were in art, in creating; me in my room and in my head listening mostly to folk music and black metal cassettes. I returned to that room to look for how to move forward, and I started by recreating one of the most popular pieces from Last Wolf Crafts, the Kelpie. Things move on…expect more.
Explore: verb, to traverse or range over (a region, area, etc.) for the purpose of discovery: to explore the island.
Once upon a time I lived on a new build housing estate in a small town in the middle of Scotland. The town was completely new to me. I had only ever visited it once before moving there and this was only a brief visit to a friend’s house.
Within a few months of living here I had been on nearly every path surrounding my house, almost every street in the town, explored the old railway lines and graveyards, climbed trees in the nearby woods. I had a nosey about in the quarry and climbed on the diggers in the silence of the snow. I could tell you a great spot to go and see bats where there was even a rundown old bench for sipping whisky on. I knew the best place for a quiet morning run and the best trees for pull ups. I quickly found how all the other towns were linked, though not by the main roads. I knew the people at the post office and the library, the times of the market, and the quickest ways to get to these places from my house.
A colleague from work happened to live on the same estate. One day I mentioned the ponds out the back of his house and I was met with total bewilderment.
“What do you mean, what ponds?” Imagine a tone like I was making it up.
“The ponds!” I said, note the plural.
This time it was my turn for bewilderment, how could he not have seen them? They had been living there longer than I had. So I described it.
“Ah right there. Yeah, never been there.”
It turns out he had never been further than the front door and rear car park. There was no inclination or interest to know what was surrounding the house. When he left it, it was to go directly to the car.
I was incredulous. How can you not know? How can you not want to know more about where you live? Admittedly this area had been planned by the developer, but it was still beautiful, consisting of several ponds with real ducks in them, surrounded by reeds and one of them even had a brand new bench, a million miles away from the rundown one that sat atop Bat Hill. The ponds were, and maybe are still, a hefty stone’s throw away from his back garden.
As an adult, I understand that people make their own choices. It is not for me to suggest ways in how this person could enrich his own life. But just imagine how much more it would be if he began to pay attention to his own local surroundings. As a teacher and as a parent I find that quite alarming. The most immediate thing a child should be exploring when venturing outdoors is their own immediate environment. And unless you live on a motorway, this can be done anywhere; and should be.
Young children should be picking up leaves and touching trees, looking at birds, clouds and planes, jumping in puddles and getting themselves dirty without worrying about getting dirty. This will stoke the flames of curiosity and as they get older they will become more naturally curious about their world. But initially they need to see these things within an environment that they are familiar and most comfortable with. This is the one closest to their home. I see little point in taking your child to the zoo if they cannot even tell you what is across the road from where they live.
And hopefully, once this is encouraged at a young age it will continue into adulthood. You often see internet posts or memes about the importance of play, and how adults should allow themselves time to do this for their mental well-being. But maybe adults should be learning to be more curious as well. What’s at the end of that road you’ve never been on? What’s in that random looking clump of trees? What does it look like from on top of that hill? Can I see my house from there?
Or maybe it’s just me. Spend the weekend looking and exploring.
Currently listening to Stave by Osi and the Jupiter. Fantastic. Album of the year so far.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this shit is easy. Mountain climbers, proper climbers, by that I mean the folks that spend the entire day on the end of a rope to go up the north face, might say that this is just walking. Which it is. I’ve only done a handful of actual ‘climbs’ in my life. These were mostly scrambles, but I have done a fair bit of abseiling in the past and some rope work on Skye. Big thank you to Dan for that; I don’t need to go near the Inaccessible Pinnacle again now, unless I really want to.
But this mountain walking, it is still hard work. I’m looking for the easiest way up for sure, but let me tell you this; there is no easy mountain to walk up. If there was, it wouldn’t be called a fucking mountain. It would most likely be a field. Despite what Google tells you, you still have to gain height at some point. Regardless of how far above sea level the starting point is or how gradual the gradient is, it is still hard work. You need endurance, you need to be able to breathe properly and keep your footing. It is helpful to know where to step and what to avoid, when to stop and for how long, all the while exhaling like a bison. In Scotland there is the added pressures of completely unreliable and unpredictable weather which is usually the reason mountain rescue are called out so often.
I prefer to use the word straightforward about a mountain rather than saying it is ‘easy’ to hike up. A straightforward mountain will generally have a defined path for most of the ascent. A path that is clearly marked and easy to follow immediately from the accessible and signposted car park. There will be zero chance of walking off route, even when covered in cloud. There might even be a river, dam, road, pipeline or fence visible to keep you on the right track. I’m actually all for signposts or cairn markers, on the more popular hills anyway, so the straightforward mountain may have one or two of these as well.
In my opinion all this adds up to what would be an ‘easy’ mountain. But herein lies the problem; the effort is still required. The hard work still must be done. Many times have I been asked ‘what’s the easiest mountain to climb?’ by someone who has barely done anything physical in their lives. This is usually asked as if it’s going to be a breeze and the key is simply in find the easiest one. Going by the amount of results a quick search for ‘easy Munros’ gets you, many other people think the same way.
Using my straightforward definition, a mountain like Ben Lomond would be easiest. Its relatively close to the central belt, has a good car park, an obvious starting route, a well maintained path pretty much to the summit with lots of other people around on it too, Loch Lomond keeping you right by always being on the left… But it’s still going to take around five hours, most likely three of which will be constantly uphill as it’s nearly 1000m high. If you’re not used to that, or at the very least prepared for it, you’re going to feel like your lungs have collapsed and turning back will become very appealing.
However, in saying all that, anyone can do it. There’s no magic, just the impetus to give it a go. If you are unfit, start out small with regular local walks, small hills; whatever is available and within range of your home. Just do it and do it often. Or, if you have always fancied Schiehallion, pick a day and give it a shot. Just make sure you do your research and stay safe. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, but let’s not pretend that it’s easy either.
Direct any questions that you may have regarding any of this to us via DM @lastwolfoutdoors on Instagram, FaceBook or TikTok. Alternatively (and better), email firstname.lastname@example.org, we’re happy to help in any way to get you outdoors and enjoying the hills.
Seton Gordon is hardly a household name anymore, but he deserves to be. He became world famous as a naturalist, folklorist and photographer in his lifetime and most of his works are still widely available and some still in print. He was born in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire in 1886 and died in 1977, coincidentally, the year I was born. This year sees the 100th anniversary of his book Wanderings of a Naturalist, and it seems timely that this becomes one of the Sacred Texts of Last Wolf.
Wanderings of a Naturalist is one of those heralded books of Scottish nature writing that I heard about and saw mentioned by others many times before I even saw a copy. I can’t remember where, or even when I got it, but it is a hardback Cassell first edition from 1921 with ’78 Illustrations from Photographs by the Author and his Wife’.
Seton Gordon’s primary interest seems to be birds. Bird life overrides this book and a lot of his work and he wrote widely on the subject. His first book, published when he was only 21, was entitled Birds of the Loch and Mountain. He wrote some 27 books throughout his life, including a book entirely dedicated to his favourite winged species, the golden eagle that almost certainly had an impact on the bird still being seen in certain parts of the country today. One of the striking things about a lot of chapters in this book is the amount of times he sees an eagle, insinuating from beyond the grave that there was a lot more of them around a hundred years ago than today. He was one of the first people to photograph eagles in their eyries.
Wanderings of a Naturalist is written through the eye of an obsessive, not just an expert. Birds may be an overriding passion; he spends countless hours and days in huts and shelters to observe various birds, but he writes about the outdoors, mountain vistas, views from island hilltops etc. with the same passion and a poetry that brings the magic of the area truly to the fore. And it is almost exclusively about Scotland. He seems to be able to name every surrounding hill and mountain within eye-sight and even names those that he should be able to see as well if the weather didn’t allow it. In the chapter on Ulva for example, he names all the islands and as well as each of the peaks on them. He is firstly a naturalist but he never ignores the country or its people and he writes equally about both. He collected stories and folklore and does not shy away from our sometimes violent history.
As all these early 20th century pioneer types seemed to be, Gordon is quite the character. He usually wandered wearing a kilt and a bunnet, or sometimes a deerstalker, no doubt cutting quite the figure wandering the moors, glens and mountains. Magnificently, he would often break out a bagpipe tune, something I find wonderful as I often sing when alone on the hills and find myself wishing for some instrumental accompaniment.
Gordon may have been Oxford educated but spent most of his life in the wilds of Scotland and when he died a memorial bench was erected on Skye in his memory. The plaque reads…
“In the memory of the late Seton Gordon, CBE, writer and naturalist whose twenty-seven books on the highlands and islands led many people to appreciate their beauty. His love of the Hebrides influenced his coming to Skye where he lived for more than fifty years among the people of this area.”
We will end with what is a fairly random section of text reproduced from Wanderings of a Naturalist.
“Landing in one of the sheltered bays-for the south wind blew strong- a short walk took me to the hill-top, where, on the cairn, the peregrine is wont to sun himself, and where on the heather and bramble plants stone-chats rear their broods, and whitethroats flit noiselessly as the busy themselves at their nest-making. Great fields of wild hyacinths covered the hillside, so that the air was heavy with their scent, and the quickly springing bracken fronds, which soon would cover the hillside in a thick canopy, could scarce be seen for the luxuriance of the bluebells and primroses that grew between them.”
This is very lyrical in its description. I have broken up the same text into lines. Read again, the same words but how poetic they are. This could be poetry:
Landing in one of the sheltered bays-
for the south wind blew strong-
a short walk took me to the hill-top,
where, on the cairn,
the peregrine is wont to sun himself,
and where on the heather and bramble plants
stone-chats rear their broods,
and whitethroats flit noiselessly as they busy themselves
at their nest-making.
Great fields of wild hyacinths covered the hillside,
so that the air was heavy with their scent,
and the quickly springing bracken fronds,
which soon would cover the hillside in a thick canopy,
could scarce be seen for the luxuriance
of the bluebells and primroses that grew between them.
Seton Gordon ladies and gentlemen. So happy 100th birthday to Wanderings of a Naturalist. Take your rightful place amongst the Sacred Texts of Last Wolf.
Currently listening to Exercises in Futility by Mgla for the zillionth time. An utterly flawless album.
This summer I learned a few things from my most recent mountain trips. The main one is nothing short of a revelation, and something I wish I’d done three or even four years ago. This has completely revolutionised how I visit the mountains. Bear in mind that I am a father of two very young children so this is based on their needs and my own desire to be with my family, yet still indulge my outdoor and hillwalking passion at the same time. I’m going to let you in on my secret. Shhh, don’t just tell anyone…I call it…Sleeping in the Car.
Sleeping in the Car is a lot comfier and straightforward than I thought it was going to be. I get way more sleep than I expected using my rucksack as a pillow and with my legs bent all night. It helps that I am very tired and usually need the sleep, so I use this to my advantage.
Now, I’ve slept in my car many times in the past, countless times, so this is not exactly new to me. In the past, the cars I had were much bigger and there wasn’t a dog taking up the boot either. It is the way I use Sleeping in the Car that is new. I’d leave late, waiting for the girls to be properly fed, bathed and bedded but would still take my time getting north. I’d stop at a garage for coffee and a walk somewhere for the dog. Then I’d park up at the bottom of the mountain I intended to ascend in the morning, get as comfy as possible and go to sleep. I call this Guerrilla Hillwalking.
I pack the tent anyway, but usually I found that I couldn’t be bothered looking for a spot at around about midnight when I didn’t have to, and on a few occasions the midges were absolutely louping anyway. Pitching a tent in the middle of a midge infestation is horrendous. It’s almost as bad as taking one down in the morning, which is a very special kind of torture. Driving along Highland roads late at night was great though. Very few cars around at all.
The alarm goes off at half four, so by quarter to five we’re out and away. One morning we summited at exactly 7:00am and passed the first early morning walker heading upwards just after eight. We were already on the forest track, a mile to the car. To say this was satisfying as fuck is a total understatement. I had been eaten at by the clegs constantly for the last half hour or so of descent and it was only the constant movement that kept them off more. The dreaded midges were ok that day; we possibly managed to miss them but the clegs were out like the Luftwaffe and I was glad to be heading. That day I was home whilst the youngest was still having her morning nap.
So, for the time being at least, this is my new way of getting to the mountains. It’s worked well for me, ensuring I get time with my daughters, see them off to bed, yet still getting the time I need for my own trips, to replenish my soul and clear my mind and do all the other wonderful things that ascending mountains does for your health and well-being.
My point is not, ‘you should be sleeping in your car like me’ though. Only this; do what needs to be done. If you’re passionate about something, you should find a way to do it. Everyone is busy, but squeeze it in somewhere, somehow. Make it work for you. This fits my life right now; it might not in a year, but then I’ll need to adapt and find a new way. But there is always a way. Find yours.
Currently listening to: Little Richard: The Reprise Years
When I first started visiting higher places, I used to look back at views like this and think of adjectives like rugged, wild, untouched, natural. Over the years, I now look at it differently. I still love this land but now look at it tinged with sadness and anger for now I see it for the desert that it really is. This is barren, a wasteland, bereft of even the possibility of the life it could have. This is a place that would have so much promise were it not run for profit and greed by its ‘owners’ who pretend to care for it. They are only caring for their own assets and their own future, protecting their own industry and not the wildlife or natural world they encourage you to be responsible for.
The anachronism displayed in certain parts of our ‘wild’ lands in this country is outrageous. We are told to protect nesting birds from dogs because men want to come and shoot the birds later when they are bigger. We are told to stick to a path by people who have clearly taken a vehicle to the very tops of mountains. Every year, around this time, priority is given over massive sections of the country to a handful of individuals to kill deer in the name of sport. And it is your duty to watch out for them.
In my opinion, this is all unacceptable. The whole thing reeks of an attitude from landowners that may accept access laws, but only because they have to. This is an attempt to control this access as much as they can.
The following images are from an information sign in place in the Highlands, kindly produced by Scottish Countryside Alliance Educational Trust, Scottish Land and Estates (Helping Rural Scotland Thrive), Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland and the Cairngorms National Park Authority. It explains the variety of wildlife you can find on our moors, as well as their justifications for killing some of it. My favourite bit is the passive aggressive tick warning at the end. It’s almost trying to put you off. If you get one, Lyme disease will teach you not to come meddling in these parts.
The justification of the burning of the heather is an absolute crime against nature. It should be as punishable as is the illegal chopping down of trees. As if nature needs any help with its own regeneration. This is burning for business; to maximise grouse numbers so they can be shot later. This is a monoculture, pretend biodiversity. The more I look at the land, the more it sickens me and am thankful that projects such as the Alladale Wilderness Reserve and the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve are on the right track. Pockets of the public, and certainly the internet, are beginning to be convinced also that this is the way forward.
This is a land in stagnation, in a perpetual state of near death. It reminds me of the guy in the bed in the movie Seven. He’s not dead yet. He is dry and degraded, yet a few scant forms of life remain on him. A horrible metaphor, but I remain hopeful that one day we will jump up and let the audience leap out of their seats.
But don’t just take my word for it, ask the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust about heather burning.
What would happen on heather-dominated heaths?
A: The current landscape of open heathlands dominated by heather is generally perceived as a ‘natural’ environment, whereas in fact it is the product of thousands of years of management by man. Forests were cleared, and vegetation maintained by grazing and burning to produce the heather-dominated landscapes that now exist. If management in these areas were stopped, heather would become old and degenerate and ultimately be lost, bracken would spread, scrub and tree regeneration would gradually occur, and over many decades it would progress to a vegetation community of shrubs, bushes and trees.
‘A community of shrubs, bushes and trees.’ That sounds not bad…
If you’re interested in making this a reality please visit some Rewilding charities and consider supporting them. There are many throughout the world so you can probably find some relevant to your area if you don’t happen to be Scottish.
My dad liked an adventure. But he wasn’t one for roughing it in the woods or climbing mountains; he liked his comforts too much for that. However he did like discovering things and bringing history to life, especially for his children. My siblings and I had a great childhood, eccentric but great. I was very close to my dad and I always knew we were quite similar in personality. This is only becoming more apparent as I get older and I realised when I became a mum, just how much of an impact he had on me.
There are two stories about my dad which will help lead me to my point. One relates to his reading habits. He was a big reader and always had a book on the go and several on order at the library. He could be quite thoughtful on the completion of a book and would sometimes discuss it with us over dinner. He retained a lot of information and had a great memory for books and their content. It would influence what he read next, what he listened to or watched and of course, where we would visit.
He liked fiction and non-fiction, though his real passion was for history books. He was particularly fond of the Scottish author Nigel Tranter. He loved his books. One of them contained a description of a castle somewhere on the east coast of Scotland and on completion of the book, he became determined that we would find and visit that castle. This was over 30 years ago. There was no internet, Satnav, Historic Scotland signs or even any information to hand. He used only the description in the book to drive us to the borders and walk over fields, climb fences and through gates until after a few hours we found the ruins of the castle from the novel. He was delighted, not to mention knackered (he wasn’t a keen walker!) but I remember him being quite thoughtful about how it matched what was in his head and how it fitted with the story.
My other tale also involves the car. Late one afternoon my dad told me to get in the car and we both went out for a drive together. He was the only driver in our family at the time; I was learning to drive with an instructor. My dad wasn’t the most patient person in the world so it was never an option that he’d teach me. We drove out to the Trossachs; it was just starting to get dark and beginning to rain. He parked up and told me to swap seats. His car was his pride and joy and I was shocked that he was offering it up, but delighted to get a shot! I was a little nervous as it was bigger and faster that what I was learning in and the conditions outside were quite challenging. Once we had swapped seats he said ‘If you’re going to drive, then you need to know how to navigate windy roads in the dark and in wet conditions. I don’t want you to be one of those drivers who can only drive in certain conditions.’ I agreed and asked him to direct me home. ‘Oh, and the biggest skill in driving is in direction. So get lost and find your way home. Use the road signs, landmarks and the map in the glovebox.’ Yep, it took us hours to get home!
Which leads me to my point. This lesson stayed with me. I am still intrigued by maps and am very determined and independent in getting places. I love a road trip and have driven across America and Australia, Sicily and Scotland. I love driving and although I now use Satnav at times, I still tend to go with gut instinct, road signs and sometimes, an actual old school map. You should try it some time. I’ve found some of the best roads ever just by following a different coloured squiggly line on the map. It’s especially good if you’re going to an unfamiliar place or a long trip. Obviously factor in time, fuel stops and plenty of snacks. Oh and make sure the map you’ve got is up to date! Happy driving.
I jumped the fence near the monument. I had spotted a rabbit run right through a track in the field earlier so suspected this was the way to go. More animal tracks rose upwards on the hill before me but there was no discernible path. The far end of the field brought another fence to climb and I immediately entered what looked like Mirkwood in miniature. Only here it had the added bonus of rusty barbed wire sticking out all over the place like old snares. In the minutes it took to cross this glade, I took a few in the feet and legs and one in the face. A vague path remained underfoot; remnants of the last use of the fort in the mid-17th century maybe. I followed the path while climbing the ancient trees and came out at an opened rusty gate that hadn’t been closed for hundreds of years.
This being high summer I had to make my way through the masses of ferns, eye-high thistles, long grass and dry heather before making it up to the first plateau and my first proper look at Dùn Eibhinn, the island of Colonsay’s ancient hill-fort.
From my viewpoint below it looked like the ideal place for a fort and king’s house, as these places normally do. Were places in the past better chosen as sites for building on? Today we build on mine shafts, next to rivers and flood plains without long term consideration. We settle in desert and places known for drought and famine. Did historical builders consider the land more than we currently do when constructing?
The base of Dùn Eibhinn itself shot upwards, a scramble to climb on this south east face, though it would have undoubtedly been the entrance for reasons I had yet to have knowledge of. Guarded these days only by forests of ferns, jaggy nettles and the ubiquitous national flower, Dùn Eibhinn is flat topped with perfect views to Jura, Islay and beyond. Once on the top, failing to avoid the mass of sheep and rabbit excrement, I realised how steep the hill fort actually was. It would be a fair climb for anyone to get up the north facing sides now, all flat rock and steep verges, let alone there being defensive walls and most likely, defenders trying to stop you.
After spending some time on the hill-top and circumnavigating its base, I climbed the neighbouring peak. Higher and more pointed than Dùn Eibhinn, it afforded me a better view of the actual fort site. Here I sat for a while, enjoying the view and trying to picture what Dùn Eibhinn looked like in its Viking era heyday.
This was and is a magnificent place, a gem amongst the ancient hill-forts where nothing remains. I am a big fan of Historic Environment Scotland. I’ve been a member for years, read their monthly magazine cover to cover and we visit their sites regularly as a family. For all the good work H.E.S. does, I much prefer places like this, the bits where no one goes. The ancient and the forgotten. No gift shop, no café, no visitors. Seriously none, there ain’t no pictures from here on Google maps. As much as I like Stirling or Urquhart Castle places like Dùn Eibhinn and Dunadd, where we visit once a year, remain my favourites for the reasons that there is nothing left. You need to use your imagination here and that’s all right with me. As we try to keep history alive in our castles and palaces, at re-enactments, summer jousting, and special open days we should remember that there is greater history all over that is already dead.
“We must not bury the past
Or we will be buried by the future.”
Currently listening to: Càirdeas Fala, Sons of the North
“The detached rocky knoll situated on the skyline directly in front of the viewer is the site of Dùn Eibhinn (Dun Eivan). This dun, or fort, is believed to have been built by the High King Gille Adamnan as a royal residence in the early 11th century. It was a seat of Viking power in the Western Isles and occupied by descendants of Gille Adamnan, including Somerled and his grandson Donald, progenitor of Clan Donald. The fort came into Clan Macfie possession in the early part of the 13th century.
The Macfie or MacDuffie Chiefs were Keepers of the Records for the Lords of the Isles and the Clan provided many of the Priors for the Priory on Oronsay. Malcolm, last Chief of Clan Macfie, moved to Dùn Eibhinn in the early 17th century and the fort fell into disuse from that time.”
The plan was to get up two mountains. Beinn a Chaorainn and Beinn Teallach sit close to Spean Bridge and even closer to Roybridge where I had stayed only two weeks before. Leaving the car at just before 7:00am meant I had a good jump on my normal start time of 9:00am. Also by sleeping at the car park I was a lot more refreshed than if I had just done an early morning three hour drive to get there.
Some of you may have caught the video I made on IGTV of the morning views during the ascent. If not, you didn’t miss much; there was none. I only got the briefest of glimpses of neighbouring Beinn Teallach before it disappeared into the misty morning. And it kept coming, the result being that when the dog and I summited Beinn a Chaorainn around 10:00am we couldn’t see a thing. We were completely inside a cloud.
Now I knew this cloud would burn off as the sun got higher and the day went on, but it didn’t look like it was moving anytime soon. After a snack at the cairn and a few biscuits for Thorin it was time to move on. We headed in the direction we needed to go in order to reach the bealach, the pass or part of the mountain that connects it to others; in this case the elusive Beinn Teallach.
We walked for a 100m or so and then discovered that we were far too close to the crags on the eastern slopes than I wanted to be. I made the decision then to return to the cairn while we still could. Once there I sat down and wrote this in my notebook. I type it up here unedited.
“Sitting here writing in the summit cairn of Beinn a Chaorainn, part of the west Monadhliath group. The cloud cover hasn’t improved, although I can see round about me at the top here, a little further down where we need to find the path is thick with cloud. It is impossible to see where you are going. I have my compass but I’m still not risking it until I see. May have to leave Beinn Teallach till another day. I know from experience not to push this. It is easy to get disorientated and lost in this cover. I know it will lift later but don’t really want/can’t wait around. Thorin gets restless too. Climbing a mountain directly from a road or obvious landmark is one thing but trying to find paths or bealachs or waypoints in thick cloud is another. Your head starts to mess with you and you make mistakes. I’m not into that.”
I’ve walked many mountains in fog and cloud, and I’m sure I will again but the experience I refer to in my notes there is from one particular day on one of the mountains around Bridge of Orchy. I forget which one it was so long ago, but on the summit plateau a cloud turned what had been a straightforward day into a possible missing person and dog case. I kept on tromping along thinking I was going the right way to get back to the road, trusting in my inner compass which is ridiculously good. Or so I believed.
Luckily I bumped into some other walkers coming from the opposite direction and we talked about where they had come from. I said I was about to head downwards that way and pointed into oblivion. They told me in no uncertain terms should I be going the way I intended. If I was to put their speech into the written word it would look like this. “NO DON’T GO THAT WAY YOU IDIOT!!!” Turns out that the edges and cliffs I was cleverly avoiding by my route down were right in the direction I was heading. Had I continued, I would either be dead or severely injured with no chance of rescue; or if I was lucky, wandering completely lost in the wilds of Rannoch Moor.
You learn from your mistakes. I was lucky I met those folk. I hot footed it in the right direction, the opposite from where I was going and descended the mountain as quick as I could. I came out miles away from where I started but at least I knew where I was. This is how I ended doing a part of the West Highland Way, completely by accident.
Returning to the original story, I made the decision to turn back and descend the mountain. I could still picture the way, knew where I had come from and how to get back. Nevertheless the mind games still continued as I tried unsuccessfully to look for the markers I had seen on the way up. I knew I would struggle in finding that route to the next mountain whilst inside a cloud. I’d just have to come back another day and that’s not really a bad thing. Within an hour and a half we were back down on the forest track and the mountain was clearing. But that head thing where I wasn’t convinced myself that I was on the right route was still with me during most of that time.
Had I been younger and more reckless I definitely would have kept going but I know I made the right choice. Not having anyone to bounce ideas off didn’t help but I’m happy to go back and get up Beinn Teallach another time. In this case the early bird most certainly did not catch the worm.
As a teacher of primary aged children I get a daily input of news from Newsround, the kids TV news program that turns 50 next year. When it’s not plugging BBC shit that children don’t care about such as Strictly on Ice and The Masked Belly Dancer, it’s actually a really good show. Newsround presents the views of children well and showcases what issues they find important. Plastic reduction has been all over it.
Plastic is big business and has been at the forefront of environmental news for the past few years, most definitely since that David Attenborough episode that showed the whale calf and the grieving mother. You know the one I mean. Utterly heart-breaking, and if you have no contact with children of this age, you might not be aware of how big an issue this has been to them, and continues to be.
Of course the question of what we do about it is fairly moot. I imagine most of you are reading this already recycle as much as you physically can, probably aren’t quite as frivolous with items as you maybe once were, and definitely do not litter. Who buys straws anyway?
Musician Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, used to do litter picks along the coastal paths of North East Fife. According to him, the worst offending item was always the humble cotton bud. This was way before it was a popular lock down activity, at least 15 years ago at a guess. He even roped all his ticket buying public into helping out; a stroke of genius, with zero social media. This wasn’t done for the hashtag.
The success and popularity of current community litter picking groups only highlights the want, need and interest people have in this. These groups do a great job, and we can only hope councils are keeping their end of the bargain up.
So we turn with interest to perhaps one of the biggest users of plastic in our everyday worlds, the supermarkets, and how they are handling this. Some supermarkets here in the UK have attacked this problem. Looking at the plastic reduction league tables, I can’t say that I’m surprised with Waitrose sitting on top, but check out Aldi in second! They were in last place. That’s a business on the up, doing things right, especially in the social media departments regarding their recent caterpillar cake.
Morrison’s dropped down to ninth. But, they are the first supermarket to ban not only plastic bags, but plastic from their bags for life range. They will have an entirely paper based alternative and is what they call a ‘significant milestone’ in their reduction of unnecessary plastics.
Of course does a reduction in plastic have a knock on effect of more trees needing to be cut down in order to provide a more natural product? I’m not really into that idea either.
However I am all for the reuse and refill idea currently being trialled at some Asda’s in England. Health food shops are used to having these kinds of things, massive tubs of cereals and nuts. You would think it would be fairly straightforward to make a switch to washing powders or pastas, and we all love a pick n’ mix.
In 2018 all supermarkets signed the UK Plastics Pact which aims to reduce plastic waste by bringing together businesses across the food supply chain. All promised to hit targets by 2025. This involves a lot of creative thinking on their part in the redesign of packaging, and ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. It is prudent to remember Great British public, that up until fairly recently even all your tea bags had plastics in them. Steps are being taken to reduce this now, though not yet across all brands.
One alternative of course is to grow your own fresh food as much as you can. We’re just about to harvest our potato crop for this year and I’m excited to find out if they are tastier than last years. Allotments have never been in more demand and we should be creating more of these opportunities.
And amongst this maelstrom of the entirely human problem of carrying messages to the car, we present to you our own Bag for Victory, for all your fruit and vegetable needs. Inspired equally by the World War II propaganda posters Dig For Victory (a sentiment that we could do with resurrecting) and death metal album covers, our idea for the Bag for Victory was brought to life by Scottish artist Stu Allan. The bags are 100% certified organic cotton, are completely vegan, of highest quality and limited in number.
Grab yours while you still can here and say ta ta to plastics. Purchasing fresh plastic free products and recycling plastic waste really will make a difference to the amount of waste created. We are moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.
Currently listening to Eternal Hails, the new album by Darkthrone.
Nan Sheperd was born in 1893 in Cults which is now part of Aberdeen. She lived in the same house for most of her life which since 2017 has had a commemorative plaque outside. Like me, Nan went to Aberdeen University, graduating in 1915, 80 years before I went. She went on, also like me, to be a teacher. Though unlike me, she taught teachers, employed at Aberdeen College of Education until her retirement in 1956. She wrote poetry, three novels in a similar style to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and many essays. However, her most famous work, a short non-fiction book lay in a drawer for thirty years, Nan only publishing it four years before her death.
“To feel heather under the feet after long abstinence is one of the dearest joys I know.”
This book, The Living Mountain, was written in the latter part of World War II and thankfully saw the light of day in the glorious year that was 1977. This was quite a year. It brought the release of three of the top eight biggest selling albums of all time. It was the year of the Queen’s jubilee. Star Wars rose and the plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd tragically fell. It was also the year of my birth, three months after the death of Elvis, who weirdly died a year younger than I am now.
The Living Mountain is centred specifically in the Cairngorms and is a celebration of the mountain range; but this book is much more than that. It is perhaps easier to say what it is not. The Living Mountain is not a book about summiting. It is not a book about peaks, speed or victory. This is a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage even, and a fresh take on writing about mountains that is unconcerned with the more masculine pastime of conquering. There is more than one way of climbing a mountain.
”Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
Nan really explores this landscape, and she recognises the details and subtleties of the entire area, a range that is older than the Alps and the Himalayas. She looks upon the plateau of the Cairngorms as a whole, not individual mountains but one, with many tops. I love this idea, one that Nan called the Total Mountain. And unlike every other mountain, you do not look up at the peak, but look downwards, into the chasms and depths from the plateau itself.
The book is divided into chapters that reflect features of the mountain experience. It includes chapters on water, snow, plants and wildlife but also on man, on the senses and what Nan calls Being. It deserves its place amongst Walden and A Sand County Almanac as one of the world’s greatest books on the outdoors, and as a sacred text of Last Wolf.
“Man might be a thousand years away.”
One of my favourite sections is on Life: Plants and I love the descriptions of the various smells you might become acquainted with in the Cairngorms. Smell is important to my memory and sense of place and I can understand why she covers it. I can be taken away to a Highland loch or forest, a deserted winter beach or the summer Tuscan countryside with one aroma. Nan compares smells on the mountain to scones baking and jam on the boil.
In this same chapter she also laments the mass cutting of trees for the war effort, which began in the Napoleonic era and includes two, very recent at the time, world wars. She highlights the fact you can see how far up the mountain the tree line used to go. I suspect it is even much lower now than it was in 1945.
“So simply to look on anything such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.”
This is a factual book; a record or diary even of everyday detail in the Cairngorms. It includes a lot of ecology: it is sold as a celebration, but is mostly a meditation. The spirituality in this book is the reason it is a lifelong influence on Last Wolf. It feels closer to a Buddhist text rather than a book on mountaineering and it is this that makes it transcend and shine through in its unadulterated joy of the Cairngorms. Her descriptions of the flight of swifts are as sublime as those of the eagles; stags sing with tenor and sometimes bass voices.
This Zen like quality to the outdoors is something that has been written about before on this weary road to Word Mountain and no doubt will crop up many times on this journey. When we walk into the mountains, we walk into ourselves. We have “walked out of the body and onto the mountain” and are “a manifestation of its total life.” This is a beautifully written book that deserves far more recognition than it gets. I’ve read it many times and I know I’ll read it many more. The Living Mountain is the preeminent spiritual inspiration on Last Wolf.
Currently listening to: The new track from Wolves in the Throne Room.
The spectre of David Hume looms large over Edinburgh. He was born in the Lawnmarket, right in the heart of the old town of our nation’s capital. Here his statue sits, guarding the entrance to the High Court and supplying a little shade for the bagpipers in the summer. This is less than ten minutes’ walk away from the best bar for live music in Auld Reekie, Bannerman’s.
A few years ago, when gigs were still allowed, we went to Bannerman’s to see heavy metal band Slough Feg. They’re a great band and are fantastic live. Early Iron Maiden style twin guitar melodies, and great vocals with really inventive lyrics, Slough Feg are one of the best bands given the slightly disparaging term, traditional heavy metal. They are named after The Lord Weird Slough Feg, the villain from the Slaine comics, possibly the best series to come out of 2000 A.D. in the 80s and 90s, and in The Horned God stories, one of the best comics ever written.
After the gig we were speaking to singer, guitarist and SF main man Mike Scalzi, who told us that he loved Edinburgh as David Hume was his favourite philosopher. Do you have a favourite philosopher? I don’t, and this was not a conversation I could easily get into so we mumbled some generic band pish like ‘great show’, ‘really enjoyed it’ or perhaps ‘where are you guys playing next?’ etc. to avoid any philosophic embarrassment. Which was just as well, Mike Scalzi, is actually a philosophy professor and therefore is exactly the kind of person who has a favourite philosopher.
And a while ago I came across this quote, beautifully painted on an archway wall next to an Edinburgh Tesco which made me think of that gig and our encounter with Mike.
“Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them”
This is the shortened version; the full phrase from Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays first published in 1757 is…
“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
A similar quote, though perhaps less wordy is about beauty being in the ‘eye of the beholder’. This phrase apparently dates from Ancient Greece but was only popularised in English in the late 19th century. I have two memories, or really thoughts regarding this phrase. One of which I might even have made up, but I love how the human brain makes these connections. The main one is ‘Eye of the Beholder’, the second single from Metallica’s ‘…And Justice For All’ album. This was one of my favourite tapes when I was a kid (and their last good album?!?). The song though, is not one of Lars’s favourites and it hasn’t been played live in full since 1989. Unlike Lars, I like the song; it’s no ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ but it’s a decent album track and the lyrics, about limitations on freedom of speech are memorable.
I always imagined the eye of the beholder as a thing, a noun, something you could visit, like the Mona Lisa or the statue of David Hume. I pictured something akin to if Camera Obscura had been in a Conan story, probably made of gold on a raised dais, surrounded by many barely dressed women and possibly a snake; a giant eye that saw everything and knew Conan was coming to steal it. Like Sauron only less scary. This may have come from an episode of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, another of my childhood favourites, but I might have made that up.
So where are we at with this? Hume’s quote resonates, it turns the importance of art from the artwork itself to the viewer. This is a wonderful way of thinking when looking at the outdoors. Think of your favourite outdoor view, the one that really blew you away, the one you’ll never forget. Beauty is subjective; it’s all in your mind, your ‘mind’s eye as you are the ‘beholder’. Would this view of yours be the same as someone else’s? Unlikely.
Those grand mountain vistas and beautiful sunsets over exotic locations that I’m sure you were just thinking about, the ones that are so popular on Instagram, are only noticed by grown-ups. Children do not care for such things because their world is right in front of their faces. It is the insects under the logs and the handful of fallen leaves. The daises and dandelions and buttercups may cover the field, but it is the one in front of their eyes that they notice and pick.
Details make life interesting and little eyes see the details. So I say narrow your vision, pay attention to the small things; notice the details. The world is directly in front of your eyes. Use them well.
Last Wolf is an entity of our own making, and this suits us best. We are therefore perhaps in a privileged position to discuss some of the more esoteric or mythical aspects of the outdoors and not necessarily the need to follow science or current opinion. For this article we shall be exploring the outer fringes of current buzz word ‘rewilding’. Rewilding is important, essential even. But perhaps it begins within us all and is a far more spiritual manoeuvre than we first thought. Bear with me here, and for anyone not wanting any Game of Thrones plot spoilers, cease reading now.
Certainly one of the biggest cultural phenomenon of the 2010s, George R.R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire has shifted some 90 million copies worldwide and the ensuing TV series was a staggering success, despite its staggeringly shite ending. This was watched by millions of people who would have normally scoffed at watching a fantasy series, let alone read something from the SF/Fantasy section of the local Waterstones. Orcs and goblins may be out but plenty of human genitalia is in.
In the world of Westeros and beyond, those who live beyond the wall are called ‘wildings’, meaning ‘savages’; the uncivilised. They are to be feared and kept out, whilst all amount of debauchery goes on at Kings Landing, the centre of civilisation. Royal lines are kept by an incest so secret that everyone knows about. But as we know, the real battle was never against the feared wilding invasion, or the wilding of the civilised world. It was against the white walkers, the Others, vacant deathly spirits whose only motive is death and the real ‘rewilding’ of the known world.
Over a thousand years before Game of Thrones, though part of a similar literature, came Beowulf, the hero of the Old English poem named after him. Beowulf kills Grendel, a monster local to the great hall Heorot, home of the Danish King Hrothgar. Grendel keeps eating the king’s warriors because they are partying too much and enjoying themselves far too often. Beowulf hears of this and leaving his home Geatland, goes off to help the Danes purely to further his own personal mythos and reknown. When they eventually meet, Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm at the shoulder and Grendel subsequently dies from his wounds.
Quite rightly, this angers Grendel’s mother. Seeking revenge, the next night she attacks Heorot and kills a favoured warrior. Beowulf again hears of this and finds the monsters family cavern deep underwater where they battle fiercely. Grendel’s mother is a much trickier foe but Beowulf eventually chops off her head with a giant’s sword. He finds the corpse of Grendel and removes his head from his shoulders and presents both to King Hrothgar.
The ‘wild’ has been suppressed; the meres and marshes are safe. Strong bonds between the Danish and the Geats are created. Heorot becomes an actual refuge rather than a symbolic one, where light and warmth and culture can continue. The Danes are free to go about their business without this horrendous outside threat and party like its 999. The story is not over for Beowulf though. He becomes a king himself in his own land and fifty years later from the Grendel story, he battles and kills a dragon. But Beowulf himself dies as a result of their encounter.
“The world period of the hero in human form begins only when villages and cities have expanded over the land. Many monsters remaining from primeval times still lurk in the outlying regions, and though malice or desperation these set themselves against the human community. They have to be cleared away. The elementary deeds of the hero are those of the clearing of the field.” Campbell. Pg. 285.
But dragons do not exist. These fantastical ones anyway. More importantly what about real animals that have suffered the most at the hands of man and the death of the wilderness. It is hard to argue against the suffering of the wolves, enemy of man for centuries, if not longer. I wonder where dogs actually evolved from because even going by tales as modern as Disney’s Frozen, beady eyed wolves roam the forest waiting viciously for any passing traveller to harass and presumably eat. Or a snowman with a sausage for a nose.
What are traditional tales really about? Could they really be about the taming of the forest; the loss of the wild. The wild becomes a civilised place for little girls to walk happily to their grandmas. Whilst evil old wolfie will even go as far as wearing grannies clothes to lure the hapless girl who clearly forgot her glasses that day to her doom. Why he has to go to such subterfuge, we’ll never know, but he’s clearly hungry. Is it possible that when the woodsman hero of the story isn’t chopping of wolves heads, he’s busy chopping down the trees, ridding the wolf of its natural habitat and forcing it into the human domain? Sound familiar?
The wolf is the ultimate bad guy. He is devious and manipulative, he attempts to outsmart the humans. He is a threat, and this mind-set has continued into the present day. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, the boy who cried wolf, The Big Bad Wolf. The fear of nature. The fear of the wild. Fear is our natural defence mechanism developed over millennia to ensure our survival and the fear of animals is still in our genes.
I believe we still have a genetic hangover about our very human attitudes towards rewilding. Imagine living in a world in the not too distant past where being prey for a bear, a wolf, or a lion was a reality and being lost in an unknown, pathless forest a likely possibility. Have these Hansel and Gretel type stories made us fear the woods and the wild more than we should?
So learn from this
and understand true values. I who tell you
have wintered into wisdom.
Beowulf. Pg. 119.
Campbell, Joseph. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Abacus: Sphere Books, 1975.
Heaney, Seamus. “Beowulf: Bilingual Edition”, Faber and Faber, 2007.
Currently listening to: Sentenced’s first album, ‘Shadows of the Past’, 1991
My family and I are taking part in The Wildlife Trusts nature challenge #30dayswild. I would be all for going full Walden and living in a cabin in the woods for a month, but I don’t think that really suits having such a young family. And my work might object to the smell. July would be a better month for Waldoning it anyway, so we have opted for a much more straightforward option.
We’ve got our wallchart and my wife, ever the planner, has drawn out a list of activities that we are going to participate in throughout the month of June. This isn’t as easy as it seems. Our lives are quite tightly packed and juggling work, nursery and time for eating before an early bath and bedtime is as difficult as it sounds. Every day. Therefore some days may seem easy; walk barefoot or water the plants for example. This leaves trickier ones, like visit a waterfall, to the weekends when we have more time on our hands.
This is not the only outdoors based initiative running at the moment as the country slowly starts to open up again. The John Muir Trust has a Journey for Wildness campaign, but The Wildlife Trust one we have picked as it is flexible suits our family life best.
Wednesday seems to be a good day to update this #wildwednesdays perhaps. Look out for it and why not join in too? Share your stories in our Facebook Group. Links below.
We use a hashtag sometimes #outdoorsisfree because it is; but outdoor gear is expensive. In my opinion, a decent pair of boots are worth spending several hundred quid on, but they’ll last for years. Coupled with a good pair of socks, you’ll get many happy memories and not sore feet. However for a long time I’ve felt that the outdoors industry has had an ‘ours only’ kind of attitude that is not only snobbish but also sexist. A wealthy boys club for folk with money to burn on down jackets and every piece of overpriced equipment under the sun. Or rain clouds.
“I was really lucky. I went to school at Craigroyston in Edinburgh, I grew up in Muirhouse.”
Not really a sentence you hear a lot. I know the area. The school is mentioned in Trainspotting. Spud went there; it comes up during his job interview. But these are the words of Carol Murdoch, double business owner. One of them is Love Outdoor Learning, a West Lothian based outdoor learning provider and educational consultants. As well as being a regular Last Wolf contributor, Carol is also a former primary school teacher; we’ll get to that, but I’m initially intrigued how growing up in one of the more deprived areas of Edinburgh developed a love of the great outdoors. And why she deems it ‘lucky’.
“Back then university wasn’t considered as being an option for us. For my year group, it wasn’t really talked about, but it meant that the school was able to invest money in different ways. We therefore had the best outdoor education department in Edinburgh. It was amazing. For one week in every term we’d spend the whole time going outside and doing rock climbing, abseiling, cross country skiing, canoeing, kayaking all this stuff every single year throughout school.”
All the kinds of activities you’d maybe associate with the capitals more elite schools. Not an area like Muirhouse, 25 years ago.
“The science teacher ran the skiing club and canoeing club and kept everything at really low cost. It was brilliant. Even in primary school there was a skiing club. We had these brilliant activities that most kids wouldn’t have got access to in the same way. And then I was in air cadets, so I got even more through that.”
The outdoors hit Carol then from an early age and as an adult, she gravitated towards specifics, skiing, snowboarding and various water based activities, even renting kayaks and going camping for her 30th birthday. But it’s a big leap, going from an enthusiast to running a business. I also knew that she had previously been a teacher for many years. I was intrigued to know how and why someone would leave a fairly comfortable career to take such a risk.
“I always loved the outdoors but if you told me I’d be working in it I’d have laughed at you. The first CPD I did as a teacher I hand on heart hated it. I was Friday afternoon, it was wild, it was wet, it was windy and I had to go outside and do outdoor learning for the afternoon. I was not amused. So if you told me back then that I’d be doing this now, I wouldn’t have believed you. And if you’d told me I’d have my own business, I wouldn’t have believed you either.”
This just makes her eventual career choice all the more bizarre, and yet intriguing.
“Let’s just say that the politics of teaching wasn’t for me. I had some bad classroom experiences, not from pupils, but I felt I wasn’t supported by management. If you’re not valued, you don’t want to hang around. I needed out of teaching even though I loved it. I love seeing kids learn, but enough was enough and I just couldn’t stay in a school anymore.”
By this point though, Carol had been specialising in outdoor lessons with her class for years and was now enjoying it. The memory of that first CPD suitably in the past, within a month of quitting teaching full time she had gone on supply, applied to do a master’s degree in outdoor learning, and started her own tutoring business. It was Carol’s Tutoring that paid for Love Outdoor Learning, but that was never the plan.
“We do a lot of mindset and well-being with the tutoring kids, so the families got to know about this. The adults started talking about how they wanted an outdoor group for their kids to go to. So I thought ok, I’ll start that. It started it as a hobby that tied in with my degree. It came about by chance; parents suggested it and I said aye, I’ll give it a go. And that’s how Love Outdoor Learning was born, pure fluke.”
I disagree. The suggestion may have been by chance but the decision to act on it was no fluke. It takes a certain person to be able to take on that role, and that risk, and make something of it. Quite plainly, it takes balls to do something that big. I put this to Carol, who agreed, although somewhat reluctantly.
“I am one of four kids, but the only one with a business, and if it was as simple as that they would be doing the same. I still haven’t worked out the full answer to it but I feel I am getting closer. Why was I so bloody minded enough to do it? I did get into teaching later and had a career before it. I suppose I realised that there are other ways to do things and there is always other options.”
And where does this drive come from?
“My mum set that example. My mum was awesome. She was a force of nature; five foot and half an inch, that half inch was always important to her. If she saw something needed doing, she would do it.”
Carol’s mum was a carer for her dad back when being a carer wasn’t a recognised thing. She used this experience to set up a carers’ group in Edinburgh that still goes and she was involved with it up until her death. She volunteered in the Boys Brigade and ran an air cadet squadron. She was a member of every parent and school council groups for all of her four children. It’s therefore easy for me to see now where Carol gets it from. To her getting up and doing something is just what you do. Because that’s what her mum did.
However, a can do attitude may be half the battle but starting any business can be daunting and no doubt every single one struggles to begin with. Carol’s struggles were within herself, although the teaching part came naturally.
“It wasn’t delivering the activities. I was a teacher, I knew I could do that with my eyes shut. It was more confidence and self-belief; was I good enough to do it, did I have enough knowledge, did people want it? All those sorts of big questions that can hold you back. Self-worth and self-belief, that’s where the difficulties were.”
But Mum’s confidence and ability to just get on with it shone through and the business grew by just doing what felt right and reacting to what the parents wanted. Sessions were booked out and people would ask for specifics.
“As Love Outdoor Learning grew, we needed staff and that became the challenge. How do I find more staff? How do I do books? These are things you don’t do as a teacher, you don’t do hiring, finance, maternity leave, things like that was so different. It is a steep learning curve, but we always tried to meet the demand if someone asked for it and just gave it a go. This is how the Fledgling Sessions started.”
A knock on from the sessions for younger children was the effect it had on parents, showing them the magic that children bring to the outdoors. For some people, this doesn’t come naturally and being shown how to access the outdoors has literally changed their lives.
“We hear quite often ‘I don’t know how to do it, I was never taken outdoors as a kid’ from parents. But we can support this. Wee ones bring an absolute magic with them, they’re looking for the Gruffalo, and it’s contagious, even for parents who aren’t used to spending that time in the outdoors. When they come back and tell me they went out last weekend, you know it a big thing for them. They are developing the confidence to take their kids out too. It’s brilliant. The common theme is realising the magic that people have in them and doing things they didn’t do before. What I do is no rocket science; anyone can do this, but that’s part of the magic.”
We talk about teaching for a while. It is, after all, my profession as well and Carol has some cool things to say about education. How does she help within schools?
“Quite often it’s a school that doesn’t do outdoor learning and wants to know how to do it. They come to me and ask where they should start. We can provide access to our online portal, training, deliver talks, whatever they need to help them through the process. Every school is in a different place with outdoor learning and they’re all trying to get something different out of it. Also, every school has different grounds. We always encourage to use what’s available so any teacher can do it.”
Carol uses her experience of Friday afternoon CAT sessions to know how best to deliver advice. Sessions are usually split into theory/safety, and actual outdoor activities. Staff experience what the children will learn. Acknowledging teacher gripes, and there are many at 3:00pm on a Friday, and telling them how she struggled with outdoor learning is a way in.
“I can see right away which ones are buying into it and which ones are hating it straight away and they are the ones I target. I go for the haters, they’re the ones I need to win over. I tell them I had a mental health breakdown. I hated outdoor learning, but it helped me stay in the classroom by getting outside of it. It massively helped my health and well-being. I probably would’ve quit teaching way before had it not been for outdoor education but I wouldn’t have known what to do. Teachers don’t tend to talk about this.”
And just in case you’ve got this far and are unaware of the benefits the outdoors has on your child, I offer that question to Carol.
“Well, it helps their learning, their confidence and resilience It aids health, decreases their anxiety, helps sleep, it forges better family connections, it does all of that. It develops the immune systems and problem solving skills, creativity, social skills, it helps all kids in all kinds of ways, and we don’t use it enough.”
And what, in your opinion is the most important of those skills you’ve just listed. This is off the top of her head by the way, this isn’t pre-planned.
“Confidence. If you’ve got confidence you’ve got good mental health and you will go out and try other stuff. As a teacher it’s something we all want, it’s one of the four capacities*. Let them fail and make mistakes, because when they realise that they can pick themselves up and do things they never thought they could, it’s like magic”
“You can build relationships outdoors that you can’t do in classroom. We see it time and time again. By removing the pressures of the classroom and of the school building, children can be who they are and not who they are expected to be. The self-fulfilling prophecy, they don’t need to be that person anymore. It removes all barriers. It takes guts as a teacher, especially if you have a high tariff class, but you tend to get far less behavioural issues out of class than you would in it. Put them in a different environment, in THE environment and let them shine.”
*The four capacities of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence are:
Currently listening to the Dread March of Solemn Gods, the new NINKHARSAG album.
I thought these photos sent in this week by R.K. Hughes deserved their own dedicated post. The description written by him follows the image. Enjoy. Follow our social media accounts on Instagram, Facebook and kids favourite Tik-Tok for more.
This photo of Pittenweem in the late 1800s means a lot to me, not just because it hangs on our staircase, but it is a constant reminder of the dangers of the fishing industry in the days of sail. It reminds me of the loss of the ‘Sisters KY 221’, in 1887 about 70 miles east of North Shields when my great great grandfather was the eldest of the crew. Six of the crew are buried in Pittenweem kirkyard and one was not recovered.
This photo is of my grandfather who is in the foreground baiting lines with mussels. It was taken pre- 1932 as the young lad on the right, John, my grandfather’s brother was drowned at the bathing pool that year in a tragic accident aged 19. My great granny is also in the photo with her back to the camera. My mother and two of her siblings were born in that house.
Taken by my school friend Robert Melville on a snowy day from a point about 300 yards from the house I was born in, it shows the West Shore along with my birth house on the left, and that of my mother on the right. The old gasworks by the shore is long gone.
A photo taken by myself on February 2015 with a fresh westerly breeze and a big tide. The three windows to the left are where my mother was born and lived until 1937, before moving to University Avenue.
The statue of the Pittenweem Fishermans Memorial by sculptor Alan Herriot. Photo by Gerry Durkin whose grandfather was the Station Master at Pittenweem before my time. Nice guy, met him pre-covid in the Larachmhor.
Currently listening to: Amy MacDonald and Saor Patrol
Last week we celebrated the one year anniversary of the Last Wolf blog. One post per week missing only Christmas and a week in January I think. We made cakes and took a picture. Then, because we are allowed to do so again, we went out to visit a castle. We explored the kitchens, ballroom and dungeons. We did cartwheels and somersaults on the grass in front of it. My wife took this picture of me and my girls walking over the drawbridge.
Through writing, editing and putting together this blog for a year, I’ve learned when I need to take to take a break. I left it this week and I spent my time fully with my family. It was worth it.
Currently listening to: The Wiggles Tell Me Ma on repeat. And Hell Awaits by Slayer.
I recheck the bag, ensuring I have everything. Diluting juice (squash) in a jam jar, a flask of boiling water, towel, extra jumper, hoody, gloves, hat (not any hat, but my Live Deliberately Hat), boots. I am wrapped up and ready. I head to the car; it reads 23 degrees. It is time to head off; I dive into the car.
As I navigate the twists and turns over to Linlithgow, the nerves are kicking in. The worries making my heart sink. What will it be like? Will I be ok?
What if I panic? What if the people aren’t friendly? What if I am the only one with lumps and bumps? I had only told my husband the night before that I was going to do this.
He had his concerns.
I pull up and check my phone. I am 10 minutes early. I surreptitiously people watch. Is that the lady I had texted and arranged to meet? With 2 minutes to spare, I take a deep breath and head to the meeting point.
There are two ladies, Yvonne and Clare, smiling brightly as they chat. They look at me, offering a warm welcome. It is time to walk to the site.
As we wander down the country path, the viaduct overhead, my heart is racing. Those initial fears come flooding back. I remind myself; I can go home at any moment.
We get to the site, and I am shown to a patch of grass, my changing room—time to take the plunge and strip off to my swimwear. No-one gives me a second look; each person caught up getting themselves organised. All my body worries disperse in an instant. I pull on my Live Deliberately beanie, my neoprene boots and gloves and take a deep breath.
It is time to dive in.
Creeping to the water’s edge, everyone passes me words of encouragement. It is time. I dip a toe in. Surprisingly, it isn’t as cold as dreaded, I later find out it is around 13 degrees Celsius. I edge forward. Before I know it, I am waist-deep. Yvonne reminds me to go at my own pace. There is no pressure. I can get out any time. Clare snaps a pic of myself and Yvonne, my guide, from the shoreline. As she is taking it, I take the plunge and go shoulder deep. I am all in.
Yvonne suggests we head for the island. It did not look too far whilst I was on land, but suddenly it felt a million miles away.
I could not get into a proper swimming rhythm; my body would not obey. But little by little, my breathing relaxed, my muscles started listening to what I wanted, and I edged closer to the island. Yvonne reminded me I could turn back at any time. She constantly reassured me. She believed in me.
Eventually, we drew parallels with the island. It was right there. I had made it!
Now, it was time to swim back! We chatted a little. It was nothing like pool swimming. You do not have the same regular markers, so progress feels slow. But you make progress, nonetheless.
Around 15minutes after edging in, I slowly edged out. I had done it. I had swum to the island and back. Yes, my legs were now like lead weights. Yes, my swimming technique had been terrible. But I had done it.
I headed back to my wild changing room and wrapped up warm, and texted my husband to let him know I had survived. The jam jar of hot diluting juice tasted fab. I had done it. I had swum to the island and back. Then, as other swimmers started getting out, they chatted away, praising my efforts and helping my confidence soar.
I came home buzzing, on an endorphin high, and jumped online, ordering a wild swimming buoy and fabric caps.
I even jumped online to share my tale with friends, no longer worried about what people would think. I know without a doubt I will be taking the plunge again, and I am happy to let others know.
Carol Murdoch runs Love Outdoor Learning, an outdoors education provider based in West Lothian but working all over the country. She also writes a great blog. https://loveoutdoorlearning.com/blog/
I’ve been skydiving for eleven years now and have over 6000 skydives thus far. I guess my job title would be Skydive Instructor.
My story begins after moving to Australia from Edinburgh, finding a job, and making some friends. My job as a sales person selling cable TV, yielded me a prize which I think was for most sales in a particular month. That prize was a tandem skydive at a dropzone in Melbourne.
Skydiving is always something I had been interested in trying, just for the sheer thrill of falling for an extended period of time. Having had some experience diving and trampolining while I was young, I had always been keen to feel the sensation of falling further than the boards at the pool or a trampoline would allow, without catastrophic injury. And also, my ironic fascination with the 1995 Power Rangers movie; the opening scene being a skydiving sequence.
When I arrived at Melbourne Skydive Centre to redeem my prize, I met with my instructor. It happened to be one of the owners of the business, and by chance was also someone I had met in the pub on a night out a year earlier. We had a chat and went up in the plane. The freefall was exactly as awesome as I had anticipated, and after the canopy had opened, we started flying back to the landing area. I was now in love with skydiving and asked him how I could do this as a job. He laughed and asked me what my current job was. It turned out he was looking for someone to work in sales for his company. By the time we had landed the parachute I had scored myself a job working for him in the office.
That office job led to working on the dropzone itself, editing the tandem videos for clients after they landed and packing parachutes. This led to me learning to skydive solo, which happened to be at a different dropzone near Sydney. Where, lo and behold, as hilarious twists of fate would have it, my instructor was actually the guy that did the skydiving stunts for the 1995 Power Rangers Movie. He played the white Power Ranger; mind blown! By this time I’m making money editing videos on the dropzone and taking any chance I can to do a jump here and there to get my numbers up.
I was interested in all aspects of skydiving at this point. I learned to fly camera so I could film tandems in freefall. I learned to fly wingsuits to see what it was like; it’s awesome. I also became a rigger which gave me license to pack reserve parachutes, make repairs to, and parts for, skydiving gear. At this point I had around 300 jumps which was enough to become an instructor and when an opportunity arose in WA through a friend, I moved west and took the course.
The instructor course was a week-long process. Most of that time was spent in classes learning information to sit a written exam, and a few days spent doing practical exam jumps with an examiner. It was necessary to prove the ability to control another skydiver in the air and deal with any complications that may arise. I passed all the exams and was given the green light to start taking students.
I was now jumping multiple times a day, teaching people to skydive and coaching existing skydivers how to improve their abilities. I was 33 years old and it was the first time in my life I would wake up and literally couldn’t wait to get to work. It was unreal that this was now my full-time job. An average day would be spent jumping with students, coaching skydivers, and teaching people how to pack parachutes and keep themselves and others safe. Add to that, living on the beach in Western Australia and you have a pretty good lifestyle. This was the way for the next few years.
When my time in Australia came to an end (8 years after my visa did), I flew back to the UK, getting a 3 year ban on my way through customs for overstaying my visa. Worth it! Knowing there is not a large contingent of dropzones around the UK, and that our weather is not the best year-round to sustain a full-time career in skydiving, I opted to write a quick blurb about my skydiving credentials into an email and group send it to the bulk of the dropzones in Europe. First to reply the next day was a small dropzone south of Madrid in the centre of Spain called Skydive Lillo. I chatted on Skype with the owner, and that weekend shipped out to start my new life in Spain. Remember when we could all do that pre-Brexit?
After I arrived in Spain I immediately upped my credentials once more by sitting my Tandem Instructor course. This one was much easier as I was already knowledgeable with regards to safety and procedures, and had been around tandem skydiving for years at this point. The written exam was a breeze and the ten practice tandem jumps are done with existing skydivers as passengers and a few with the examiner. Once they were completed, I was cleared to strap unfortunate souls to myself and hurl them out of the plane attached to me. My Mum being the bravest from my family and my 13th tandem passenger. She loved it. I now have around 1500 tandems, and 1500 happy clients that made it back to Earth safely.
I have moved to Catalonia now and work at Skydive Empuriabrava, one of Europe’s biggest and busiest dropzones. I spend my days at work repeatedly going up in the plane and falling back to the earth for money. Life is good.
After 2020 being such a balls up of a year, I recently got the chance to fly to Egypt for a skydiving event in Cairo. I was tasked with doing tandem jumps over the Pyramids. They were probably the best jumps of my career so far. It was an unreal experience getting to fly around the Pyramids and land right at their base. Not least because of the aircraft we got to jump out of, a Hercules C130 that had been loaned out by the Egyptian Army for the week. This is not a usual jump aircraft for normal skydivers, so it was an amazing experience.
I would have to say that the thrill of jumping never gets old. I don’t get scared while skydiving, but I have certainly had a few spicy moments that get the old blood pumping. Be it a canopy malfunctioning, or having to land off the dropzone in a tight spot because the winds have changed, or even a close call with other skydivers in freefall or under canopy. The key is to be aware of what you’re doing and your surroundings, and be prepared for as many eventualities as you can predict. A lot of our training is based in safety and looking out for each other. Keep those things in mind and statistically, it’s one of the safest sports out there. Certainly one of the most fun and rewarding careers too.
As for my future in the sport, I intend to keep at it. It never gets old and it never gets boring. It may not be the most lucrative of jobs, you certainly don’t choose a career in skydiving to become rich. But I would rather live a life I love for less money, than work a job I don’t enjoy for more.
My advice… go jump!
Currently listening to: Aesop Rock and the Daft Punk back catalogue.
I’d been planning some sort of sea related article for a while but never got round to it. But then my sister sent in some pictures for #fivephotofriday and it got me back to thinking about the sea and what it means to me. Her pictures are all included here and every single one of them is blue.
We grew up next to the sea. We learned to walk next to it, would play on its beaches and in rock pools as children. School projects were on fishing. As teenagers we’d build fires and later drink varying degrees of alcohol next to the sea. It was always there. We were always able to smell it, or hear its constant song and noise. You’d be able to tell the weather just by the sea’s voice. Apparently when I was very young I’d need to see the lighthouse shine round twice before I went to sleep.
I don’t like being in it but I like being on it. Boats are fine; from ferries to rowing boats, I don’t mind. I only felt a wee bit sea sick once and I think that was more to do with the fish supper I ate just before we left. But swimming is a big nope. I don’t like it, never have. I know this mostly comes from my terrible eyesight but also from the desire to not being eaten by a shark, which is still my greatest fear. And whether it’s an outdoor bathey in Scotland or a hotel pool in Benidorm I still don’t really like it.
When I first left home, I moved to a city with a famous port and lived within walking distance of the beach. The sea was always there, although not quite so close and I couldn’t see a lighthouse anymore. Sometimes after nights out we’d walk down to the harbour and look at the fishing boats. There was lots in those days; it’s empty now. We’d watch the sunrise from the sand dunes and WW2 bunkers, a beach fire dying slowly as the sun came up.
I really miss living next to the sea. I know it’s not there, you can feel it.
Possibly the most random place I have ever been to is Kazakhstan. Bear with me here, there is a point. My four friends and I were there for a reason, to play a Burns Supper ceilidh for all the ex-pat Scots working in the oil and related financial industries. We were there to do a job, with not a lot of spare time for individual adventures but this is not really about that trip. The point I want to make here is how for the first time I my life I felt landlocked. Now, I know there are lakes. Lake Balkhash looks huge and Issyk Kul in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan is close, but they are still both big lakes. The Caspian Sea, which is itself landlocked, is more than 1500 miles away and the Arabian Sea, which would lead to the Indian Ocean, is well over 2000.
In Kazakhstan, I was the furthest away from the sea I had ever been in my life, and I felt it. I knew the sea was a thousand miles away, my body told me. The temperature, I remember, was extremely low and was down to -20˚C while we were there. But it didn’t seem as cold as Scotland which was probably sitting at a few below 0 in January. This was due to there being absolutely no wind coming in from the sea. I was reminded of this today when sunny Easter Monday proved to have an icy wind blasting you from all sides, dropping the temperature by approximately fifty degrees. It was horrible, and not a pleasant experience to be socially distanced in the garden without full winter gear on.
In conclusion I wonder what it is that I miss about living next to the sea. Don’t expect an answer because I don’t know if there is one. Is it possibly the noise? I kind of like hearing something all the time. Perhaps this goes someway to explaining my fondness for noisy music. But if that was the case, surely every fishing town and village in the world would be home to the most amazing drone, noise and harsh black metal scenes.
I don’t believe it’s anything tangible. I’m going to throw a Charles Manson quote out here, mostly because I’ve never had the opportunity, but also because it kind of illustrates my point.
“You can try to prove that Columbus sailed on an ocean, but it’s not the same ocean, it’s a different ocean, it’s a different world.”
The sea is not the same as it was before, it’s never the same, constantly evolving and changing. The seas, the oceans, the rivers share the same substance, the same life, the same evolution and the same creation story but also the same future, to be reused and to be recycled and re-funnelled and eventually recreated.
Be like water.
Maybe I need to move.
Currently listening to: Rammellzee by Flee Lord and DJ Muggs.
The following post was written for us by a contributor we have known for some time who happens to be female. I think it touches on some very amazing and pertinent points that I, being male, did not even consider and therefore could never write. These issues are incredibly important and I am grateful to the author for raising them within our forum. As always, comments and discussions are encouraged, either here or on our various social platforms, in particular our newly formed Last Wolf Outdoors Facebook Group which was designed entirely for this kind of open ended talk. If anyone knows of any groups or initiatives mentioned in the article, please share them too.
Currently listening to: Once Upon the Cross by Deicide because its Easter.
Reclaim our Outdoors
I first want to start by saying, I’m not someone who scares easily. I always try to walk confidently, even when I don’t necessarily feel it. I have back up plans to various scenarios that run through my head when I’m out alone, with my children and dog, or with friends. I have different apps on my phone (what3words is one) in case I get in an accident or get lost. I know how to carry keys to use as a weapon and I always scout the scene around me (unusual vehicles, people, marks on fences). I assumed everyone did all of these things and it wasn’t until recently that I realised that not everyone does; most notably men.
I always felt empowered that I knew to do these things and that my parents had always instilled both a sense of safety and independence. I still do to a certain degree. Except as a mother, I now realise and feel angered by the fact I have to educate my daughters in this without scaring them. Educate them without restricting their independence. Educate them without allowing them to see more bad than good. My anger is about the unfairness and inequity of it all. I’m proud to be a woman and I want my girls to be too. However, I also have to make them feel like they’re vulnerable, weak and easily targeted by discussing and educating them on these issues. How does this all link to an outdoor blog? Because as we reclaim our streets, we also have to make a claim on nature and the outdoors too. Reclaim our everywhere.
This article isn’t meant to be political, I choose to not go there, and it’s not in any way anti-men. It’s not meant to scare women or make them feel inferior; I’m actually aiming for the opposite. I know many women who enjoy nature and the outdoors, and do so confidently and without issue. That’s amazing. However, I also know lots of women who would love to do more in nature but feel that it’s risky and unsafe. I want to open up the discussion on this. I want to hear ideas, solutions, and positive stories from other outdoorsy women. I want to hear from men and what their take is on this. Perhaps we can highlight some good initiatives and groups that are out there.
Here’s an example, I know a girl who loves outdoor adventure and started her own Facebook group. She asked her friends to join who shared the same sense of adventure and she’d organise trips for them all. The uptake she had was incredible and, as a result has many more friends than when she started. And she has the memories to match.
I joined another social media page of women hill walkers who discuss gear and routes, but more importantly, have met up and walked together. I read a really inspiring post from a woman on a general hillwalking page talking about wanting to climb and camp alone but was apprehensive. The replies she received were encouraging. Men and women giving tips, reassuring her and aspiring to do the same.
I’m no outdoor expert but what I hope this article does is open up the discussion on how we make outdoor access and adventures accessible to everyone. Let’s change the current rhetoric around women feeling unsafe, unprotected and vulnerable to a place where women feel empowered and free to enjoy outside spaces, whether its walks in the city at night or a lonely forest track. Better still, let’s go one step further and make everyone feel like this. The result may end up being individuals, families and children all exercising their right to the outdoors.
Rob Scott-Branton is co-founder of Kids Gone Wild, a West Lothian based outdoor learning group started with his fiancée Lauren in 2018. I had planned to talk to Rob about the outdoors, his interest in it and how he saw it as being essential for children, both his own and the pupils he teaches. But as I am finding in this interview series, as we talked, the nature of our conversation changed. We talked about how some of Rob’s aims mirror my own. We used some big words; impact, connectivity, preservation. And more importantly, due to Rob’s openness, honesty and sheer likeability, I found out something I don’t even think Lauren was aware of. Read on…
“Childhood. It’s what I did when I was growing up. I’m teaching what I learned as a kid, only I’m teaching them how to do it the right way. I didn’t have anyone showing me.”
Rob replies to my question of where his love of the outdoors comes from.
“My childhood memories are mostly the summer holidays with my cousin and friends playing in the woods surrounding my house or my grans. We’d be out there all day, climbing trees, building dens. That’s my fondest memories so that has to be where it comes from, I’ve just always tried to hang on to that as much as I could. I remember going for walks with my parents around Eliburn when I was really little and we’d always go and jump over the bridge and that would be my stomping ground. West Lothian is great for woods especially for what I do now.”
“I got bored so quickly of PlayStation, X-Box, social media, even football which I played a little, didn’t capture my imagination after a few years. I just kept reverting back to what I liked, which was going into the woods, exploring and wandering through the unknown and discovering stuff. When I got a bit older I had friends in other areas and we’d go to woods a bit further afield. All these places, like Almondell, that I am taking the kids to now are the places I played in when I was growing up.”
My friend John has a theory. As an adult, your favourite stuff is the same as when you were a kid. You get back into the things you loved as a child. This explains his predilection for indie rock 7 inch singles. And my massive Iron Maiden tattoo. Moving on, I recall seeing a ridiculous YouTube video about Satan worshippers in a Mid Calder cave. This video tells how the caves were used for rituals, shows the ‘evidence’, and even names them The Baphomet Caves. Rob unknowingly enlightens me on this.
“I’ve explored some of the old shale mines in Breich. But we also used to go explore the caves in Mid Calder. As teenagers, we’d go and sit in there and wind each other up. It was pitch dark, and mostly blocked up so we used to take tea lights to be able to see. It made a nice glow. A few years ago we saw a video on YouTube. There were these people going in and they thought it was some kind of satanic ritual, but you can see on the video beer cans, fag ends and all our tea lights, that they thought dated back to the 18th century.”
Another fine internet documentary series. Though Rob isn’t into cave or mine exploration anymore. Having kids has made him realise he can’t be quite so reckless. None of the mine shafts around West Lothian are maintained and he does not recommend going near them without proper safety equipment. Although they are admittedly, really cool. That hasn’t stopped him from exploring the top side of the outdoors though.
“I love the area around Aberfoyle. My best friend was born there so I’ll go camping or hiking with him when we can. Craig Mohr has a nice little shelf on top of the cliff where we camp and that’s always been quite a special spot for me. I have a strong pull to both the Highlands and the Borders which probably comes from being a child of the central belt. I’ve had some really nice moments camping on my own with the dog, hanging out in the mountains and hills. West coast, Glencoe, those kinds of places. That’s always been really inspirational to me and really good for my soul.”
So far so normal. The childhood love thing I understand. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone wakes up one day and decides to start an outdoor learning business because they liked playing in the woods as a bairn. Or do they? I ask Rob about the origins of KGW, and just remember now that this is a business that won a Young Scot Award last year
“I’d always had customer service jobs, I worked in a phone shop, things like that. I hadn’t really stuck in at school and ended up just coasting. When Lauren found out she was pregnant I went to work for British Gas as I needed a steady job. I had been working in a restaurant, which I loved, but it was unsociable hours and I needed a 9 to 5 so I can come home and see the family. And it was all right initially. I enjoyed the training but I started to really hate the job. I took four weeks off when Calum was born, most of it unpaid, I just took whatever I could to see him. Then I had to go back and that was just killing me. Ten hour shifts, an hour commute each way, twelve hours out of the house, from 7 till 7. There was just no point, I was barely getting to see him.”
#dadlife, this I totally get.
“Lauren had a tough pregnancy. She could pick him up but not really walk about with him. I felt really guilty for being away and I ended up getting signed off for a few weeks with anxiety. I was back for a week or so and I remember just before I went to bed one Sunday night and I said to Lauren about how I was dreading tomorrow and how I was just miserable.”
“And she didn’t come to bed. She woke me up about five in the morning and told me to not go into work. I replied that I have to, I’ll get the sack if I don’t. But she was adamant, ‘don’t go in, let them sack you, I’ve got a business plan for you.’ And then she said to me ‘what do you want to do with your time?’”
This is the key question and hence this articles title, “What do you want to do with your time?” Not what do you want to do as job, or what do you want your career to be, or even how do you want to bring money into the house, because, let’s face it, as adults we all need to do that. But what do you want to do with your time? This is important, and shows the influence the right person can have on the direction of someone’s life.
Rob’s reply was straightforward; the one thing he wanted to do above all else was to take the kids, meaning his own here, into the woods and play. Lauren had known this would be his answer and throughout the night she had written the business plan that was to become Kids Gone Wild.
“She was like ‘there’s got to be a real demand for this, you see how many kids are inside on their computers screens all the time’. We just started looking into it and researching it more and it just seemed like such a good idea with a bit of a gap in the market.”
The more the plan grew the more Rob realised that this could shape his life in a way that he wanted whilst having the added bonus of saving his mental health. However as a fledgling business owner, both Rob and Lauren still had to put the hours in. Initially KGW offered one hour bushcraft sessions which tended to be after school or weekends, the same unsociable hours Rob was trying to avoid. Along with endless hours on social media for what seems like very little return. Another thing that I can relate to. Forced to learn all the things a new business has to do, HR, marketing, finance, along with the responsibility it brought was tough. Especially as it brought in no money, only just recently has Rob been able to draw a wage from his efforts.
“The scrapping around for customers was hard. I felt like I was on social media all the time just to get an extra booking to match our costs. But for me it was all about how I can shape my life. With KGW I can entertain and educate children in the outdoors, while still being there for my own. The reason for this at the start was lifestyle. I get to do something I love all day and then come home when my kids are finishing nursery and school. I can do the family side of life without having to say work till six, and I get my weekends. Routines are starting to build and that side of my life is working out really well now. That’s what inspires me, that’s what drives me.”
Rob admits that although his parents were supportive, it was a different message to Lauren’s.
“My parents always said ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ but that description to me only ever really said ‘you can work for whoever you want to work for’ or ‘you can find a job in whatever area you want to.’ Whereas Lauren’s attitude was ‘let’s just make it happen’. You want to do something, let’s just do it. What are your barriers and let’s look to take them down. This simplified it for me and made it possible. It got KGW off the ground and was really inspiring.”
I guess that having read this far you’re expecting this question, but Rob wasn’t. This genuinely came off the back of our conversation so his answer was not at all prepared. I ask him, would he have pursued KGW if Lauren hadn’t pushed him into it? His answer, is initially a vague, maybe eventually but an honest, probably not.
“I’d like to think that one day I’d have figured it out. If I hadn’t then I would’ve went a much different path in life with a much more depressing end for me. I would have been stuck, I felt so guilty. I always thought people with anxiety were just choosing to be unhappy, ‘if you are feeling rubbish all the time just be happy, think positive thoughts’, but then I was getting overwhelming panic feelings and all this weird stuff that I couldn’t control. I felt that I was just being a wimp about it and I needed to suck it up. This is what working life is, just deal with it.”
“But it was Lauren that said no, that’s anxiety. She encouraged me to speak to the doctor, who instantly signed me off work, but again that made me feel guiltier because it felt like I was just trying to get out of it. I said to my work that I was not looking to get signed off but that I felt like this every single morning when I sit I the car. It was obviously a trigger. The doctor’s advice was to concentrate on me and not to worry about it but then after a while, I had to go back. The exact same thing would happen. Lauren saved me, for sure.”
It’s perhaps helpful to realise here that Rob is still only 27. These events happened at least 3-4 years ago, a very young age to be feeling as burnt out and anxious as Rob was. Thankfully, it worked, and the business grew. A huge change happened however when Rob was hired by a school in Edinburgh to deliver a full week of outdoor lessons for the entire school. This shifted his perspective. He started thinking about the message he was delivering and how it was best delivered for maximum effect.
“That week was the scariest of my life. I had never done anything with a full class in a school up to that point, and they were all excited to be in the outdoor environment. I was out my comfort zone, not my depth, but I did it and managed some really good sessions. It was a turning point. 400 children that week got an outdoor message and it changed my whole outlook. I thought if I can do that every week with a different school, then it would be a far greater amount of kids that I would get interested in the outdoors.”
We then hit upon one of our key words, and one that we’ve touched upon several time within Last Wolf; preservation.
“Thinking of all the development that happens now, if everything is all houses, there is no woodland. If we can be inspired by the woods then people are naturally not going to want to tear them down. Maybe I can make an impact with someone whose going to be a developer in 30 years and they make a decision to not tear down some woodland and spend a little extra money on something else because of something I taught them. If I can do that, I’ll never know, but that’s what I’m aiming for. They will respect the outdoors and look after it, and that’s got to be the path. When I’m teaching I’m remembering teachers I had in primary and high school. A couple of lessons I had still sit with me. They don’t know about it, but if it’s happened to me it must have happened to everybody, something has got to be sticking.”
Fire is possibly the best example we can use to illustrate this. Boys light fires, everyone has done it. Where I grew up we tended to do it on the beach, which is safer than in urban woodland, but still can be dangerous. Stupid fires in stupid places is how Rob puts it. Kids are going to play with matches and lighters, burn cans of Lynx and build makeshift fires. If we can teach them how to do it safely it surely will have a marked difference on the local environment, as well as themselves.
“When we were kids because we didn’t know any better. Nobody actually educated me on what’s best and why. We’d leave fires burning out and wander away. If children are going to light fires, if they’re going to mess about with knives, lets show them how to do it properly, in a respectful way, in a safe way, and hopefully cover their tracks, especially the fire thing. There’s nothing I hate more than a scorch mark in a woodland, with the wheels of a bin sticking out.”
And this is why fire safety is such and important thing for our children to learn, as well as Rob’s favourite thing to teach. Most pupils have never used a fire steel before and they can go from something they have never seen before to lighting a fire within an hour. This is a forgotten skill that not many adults can do.
“They’re always so proud of themselves. The goal of the session is to get everyone lighting a fire; sometimes it doesn’t happen for all, but there is always this buzz, especially with bigger classes with pupils jumping around they are so pleased. Their awareness adds to the security of it, fire is dangerous, knives will cut, and therefore the first half of session is entirely about safety. Yes there is risk, it’s a scary subject, but they listen and then they master it. The hard bit for me is when they don’t do it and they get really upset, but I reassure them by saying that they only have an hour and we make sure they get it next time.”
And does this make you sleep better at night?
“100% I’m sleeping better at night. I’ve never had that moment of dread in the morning since KGW started. Sure its different stresses and I have moments of tiredness, but what I am doing today and the impact of what I am doing today is so worth it. How do you want to fall asleep at night? Do you want to be ‘uuurgh’, same again tomorrow? Or feel like you’ve made a difference today?”
Hantalë: thanksgiving, as to Eru Illúvatar, the One, God.
Eru Illúvatar, creator of the Ainur and Eä (the world), the God figure of Tolkien mythology explains the root here of the word Hantalë. I was looking for the word for ‘thanks’ or ‘thankful’ which there seems to be no such word for in Elvish; they always did seem quite rude. There might be a derivative, ‘hanta’, but Tolkien never mentioned this. So Hantalë seems to be the closest and it will have to do.
I’m in a thankful mood.
It must be the better weather, the coming of spring, the lightening of the evenings. Though I could do with it a bit darker in the mornings so the little ones sleep longer. We managed a camp last weekend, the first of the year. It was still a bit cold in the woods despite the attempt at finishing a bottle of Jura but it was really enjoyable. I think I needed it. As my next interview subject said to me regarding nights spent in the mountains, ‘it’s good for my soul’.
I have been working really hard on the interview series. It takes a long time to write after the initial hours long conversations, and I need to work on it most nights for about two weeks, but I am proud of each one. They are all different in their theme, but similar in their approach, in that I kept my talking to a minimum and allowed the interviewee to ramble on. Usually sometimes halfway through the story reveals itself and that is the route I try to follow. I am thankful for each of the interview subjects, all friends, who gave their time to me as part of this endeavour. All feedback is welcome.
A while ago we started TikTokking. It allows me to make videos that I don’t even have to be in quite easily, complete with cool music; mostly Wolves in the Throne Room. Despite all the gleaming faces, dancing, recipes and yoga pants, it is a really great tool and is remarkably easy to use. This is especially good for a Luddite like me, who still struggles with his own Facebook account. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I am thankful for Tik-Tok. If you have it, give us a follow @lastwolfoutdoors.
I have been enjoying our new (ish) weekly hashtag #fivephotofriday, incorporating #myscotlandinfivephotos or #myworldinfivephotos for the non-Scots. To all the people who have taken the time to send us in photos, it really has been cool sharing in your life like that. To them, of course, I am thankful. I wish I had come up with this idea myself, but I’ll let you in on a small secret, it wasn’t mine, it was my wife’s.
I’m thankful for my wife, who puts up with my head being in the clouds every day by keeping hers on the ground. Actually mine are usually in the trees. I’d apologise, though it seems that is how my head works, but I’m sorry anyway. I’m thankful for our daughters who are both healthy and thriving thanks entirely to their mum. They’re thankful for her too, I can tell. I’m thankful for our own mums, who have helped us out, allowing us to return to work but also for our families who have remained safe throughout the year and who hopefully we can hang out properly again soon.
What are you thankful for?
Currently listening to: The new album Portraits by Perennial Isolation, quality Spanish atmospheric black metal.
…the only star visible in the night sky, the rest are covered in cloud. They’re still there, you just can’t see them. You’re not allowed. A cloud of face masks, social distancing and families not seeing each other. A cloud where no one is allowed to touch anyone else. The world’s loneliest party. Millions of people off work and no one to share it with.
Isn’t social media wonderful how we can all stay in touch easily? Just imagine what life for the past year would have been like without it; total shit, instead of just shit? If you are unlucky enough to be have been without family, kids or work during lockdown, I hope you have made the most of that time. Learnt something new, done something you always wanted but never had the time, working out, litter picking, new hobbies, skills…
No more sitting on the couch with unlimited boxsets eating your way through Armageddon. Or playing an endless apocalypse game that ironically when the real one came you were completely unprepared for, the zombie sticker knife proven to be useless.
I wandered lonely for an hour a day and…
…then sat for the other 23 staring into space,
a blank screen,
a blue screen,
a movie made on a green screen.
Someone else’s opinions, someone else’s thoughts. Had I not the courage to know my own?
How do I enter this space? Someone else already did that/thought that/did it better than I could.
No, they didn’t, because they didn’t do it like you.
When considering the nature of Scottishness in the modern age, it’s hard to stay entirely removed from our bagpipes, kilts and tartan heritage. Yet for most of us this is not an everyday occurrence. The image sells us in a global marketplace and draws millions of visitors every year. Internationally, this stuff sells; even the tunes are massive Scottish exports. You can’t help but be proud of the reach this part of our culture has had, and I wanted to know more about it. But I needed an insider and who better to speak to than a man who spent a lot of his life looking like this.
Jim Robertson has been a Seaforth Highlander, a policeman, a drum major and a drum major adjudicator amongst many other things in his 83 years. His image has graced numerous postcards and even Scottish themed colouring books.
Jim is an awesome guy, full of great stories and well known in his home village and beyond. Whenever you meet someone from the village, they always have a kind word to say about Jim and his late wife Bertha. I feel very lucky to have known both of them, and their son Andrew Grant. I was very excited to be able to have a chat with Jim solely about his life, and this world I know so little about.
“The judging of a drum major competition is held in three parts” Jim explains. “The first part is dress, twenty points. It starts at the head and you work your way down from the glengarry to the tails to the badge and the jacket. You check if there’s any hairs or anything on it, then the kilt and sporran. The cantle at the top of the sporran has got to be one hands width from the waist belt and it must be centred. The leg dress, hose or spats lose more points than any other part of the dress. That’s the first and most important part of the competition.”
This is all incredibly detailed, and I’m already fascinated. Thankfully the other parts of the competition are more obvious to the crowd. The second part, 40 points for marching and deportment. In other words, how the drum major carries themselves. The third part, again 40 points, is for flourishing. Flourishing?
“If you don’t flourish, you’ve had it. It depends on the degree of difficulty and the variety. That’s what we are looking for, if you’re doing the same things all the time that’s no any good.”
Pipe band tunes are played twice over. After the first 16 paces the drum major must flourish, and only has this second 16 to do it in. Before and after, is not allowed; normal marching style only. Flourishing is the crowd pleaser. Picture a row of men in full dress kilts throwing a mace up and down in time with the pipe band. It’s quite a sight and something that American drum majors really took to, forcing the Scots and Irish to up their game.
“A normal flourish, like throwing a triple to the front is quite good, but twice is ok. You need to look out for the wind, sun and rain. If it’s windy you’ve got to prepare for that. If its really bright sunshine and you’re looking into it you don’t do the more difficult moves. Likewise if it’s wet and the mace is slippy. If you drop it you’re going to lose a lot of points. But there is dozens of wee things that the public don’t notice. They don’t see what I’m looking for, but it’s not the big things.”
Jim’s mace is older than he is, being presented to West Calder police band in 1937.
“My mace is shoulder high, a lot of them nowadays are shorter. It has a large silver head with criss-cross chains all the way down. Newer ones have chord instead of chains so it’s easier to grab and they’re lighter. Some of them are so light and small when you throw them up they forget to come down. I wouldn’t like to put a price on mine, and it’s as good as it was 83 years ago.”
Jim had an interest in pipe bands from an early age but, as I was to find out, this was and still can be an expensive hobby. Being the eldest of a family of ten, his parents couldn’t afford for him to go to a pipe band. However, at the age of seventeen and a half he joined the Seaforth Highlanders, where he remained until 1959. He learned quickly the Highland regiment staples of discipline, marching, drill, and uniform. Serving in the police after the army, Jim was on duty one day in North Berwick where he happened upon an international drum major’s competition for the first time. Jim had previously been a drill instructor, yet he was amazed at the standard of discipline, dress and marching that these drum majors held. Upon moving from East to West Lothian, he was approached by the pipe major of Torphichen and Bathgate band to become their drum major.
“And I thought, strange, I don’t know anything about it, but I do know lots about marching, dress and everything else. So I became their drum major; my dress was perfect, my drill was more than competent but I had to learn how to be a drum major. I didn’t know how to flourish and I had to learn the mace drills. I competed for a few years, won the Lothian Championships several times and my best position in the World Championships was 8th out of nearly 100 entrants.”
Jim doesn’t remember who first suggested that he be an adjudicator but they thought he would be good at it. He was a senior drum major judge from the 70s up until his retirement a few years ago. This role meant Jim and his family travelled a lot. From April until September competitions run almost every weekend with five major competitions for drum majors throughout the British Isles and Europe. And this is how the Robertson family spent most of their weekends for years.
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful outlet for my Saturdays and Sundays. We’ve met a lot of nice people, a lot of lovely families and it’s just been part and parcel of my life.”
Also true of the Robertson family is their legendary hospitality, hosting countless visitors at their home from all over the world; Bertha making sure everyone was taken care of.
“We had nine Dutch people staying at one point that all had to be fed and watered. Annually we had an entire Dutch family, all staying with us for ten or more years. We just enjoyed that, being sociable with people and that’s been more or less our lives.”
It was a visitor from the U.S. that invited Jim to judge at the North American Championships held in Sacramento. Jim would be the first Scottish drum major ever to judge in America, and would return many time, to many different places.
“Once at Pleasanton, California the competition was held at the race course. The stadium that overlooks the track holds about 60,000 people. There was couple of Scotsman doing the commentating and they got me to explain things to the audience. It went down well. At the finale for the drum majors we had to march back and forth with the mass bands on the racetrack. I was asked to march with the senior American drum major at the front, who turned to me afterwards and said ‘I thought I was marching with God’”.
One of the other places Jim has judged in was Las Vegas. Part of the strip was shut off as the bands marched down it to an expectant Jim and Bertha waiting at the end. The bands got halfway down before the American drum major marched them off route and through a hotel, making ‘a right mess of things. I was very embarrassed.’ Jim proclaims that the job should have gone to the Irish drum major that was there; the Irish, in his opinion, still being the best in the world.
This is tradition, and one that I’m pleased that Scotland is still world leaders in. The pipe bands, the Highland Games seem to be getting bigger every year, and this can only be good for Scotland. Even the amount of people in the bands has increased. As a parent, Jim considers it a great thing for children to be involved in. As well as the opportunity for safe travel, a sense of pride about their band is evident in every member. You also have to work hard, pipe bands take a lot of money to run and ensuring everyone is kitted out in kilts is expensive.
“The first competition I went to was a world championships at Stirling. There was 80 to 100 drum majors all in number one dress, that’s the feather bonnet and spats and all the fancy stuff. Over the years, the pipe bands and drum majors couldn’t afford this. It’s a big thing and it’s far too expensive.”
Travel though is the biggest expense. Bands must have a minimum of eight pipers to enter a competition and the best way to make sure everyone is there on time is by coach. This might show the drum majors role in a different light.
“As a drum major you’re a disciplinarian, time keeping was down to me. It’s my responsibility to control things and make sure things are right. That is a massive responsibility. I always inspect the band before we went on parade. If a tie was loose or clips undone, if there was anything wrong, they got told not to come in front of me again. With the juvenile bands, I used to give a pound for the best dressed piper and drummer. I would never give it twice to the same person but it was a lot of money in those days and I’d make it round the band. The adults listened but the children listened even more.”
Jim recalls a time practising for a mass band event at Edinburgh Castle. The assembled bands met at a nearby barracks and in the morning all sections practiced separately. After lunch they amassed for full rehearsal, but there was a problem; a bass drummer had clearly been drinking. Jim told him to get off the parade ground, to which his pipe major replied that if the offending drummer was to go off, then the whole band would too. Jim’s eloquent reply was “Be my guest” and the band left. Half an hour later the pipe major approached, saluted Jim and asked for permission for the band to come back out, to which Jim simply replied in the affirmative.
“You can’t allow things like that. If he’s been drinking then others would. Nobody was allowed to touch drink until the end of the day or on the bus back home. The army was a great grounding for discipline. The idiots were always just marched off to the guard room”
I’m curious to know how this goes down abroad, particularly in America and Canada where I imagine there are a lot of passionate expats.
“Aye, especially in Canada, and there’s also a lot of really good bands there. When we go to Sacramento or San Francisco for the North American Championships, there’s maybe one or two great bands. The rest not so compared to the Scots and Irish where even juveniles and juniors bands are all pretty good. But it’s the enthusiasm they have for it there, they’re really well supported. Competitions in America have a big interest in pipe bands, but it’s only a small part of it there. They have huge tents where each clan has an area, there’s Highland dancing, big parades at the beginning, and they’re big on the re-enactment thing. We’ve been introduced to Mary Queen of Scots and her entourage several times. She knows her stuff. There’s massive support to all these things.”
And what of the Scottishness, where does that fit in?
“I’m just so proud of being Scottish. I’m sure Americans are proud and Germans are proud but there is something else about Scotland. Other people, from any other country, people want to know about your background and about your history. They want to know about your clan and if you’ve got any information. My father was Mackenzie as were the Seaforths so that connects quite well. We were at functions with the international police force in places like New York and Long Island and some of the guests just wanted us to speak to them. Once near Times Square we were conscious of a couple following us. I said can we help you and they said ‘we just love your accent’. They had been following us listening to us talk. They were from Toronto and offered to take us, all expenses paid, to be guests for a week at some event they were having. Unbelievable! People just wanted to hear us talk.”
When Jim first told me about the drum majors role, I was surprised at how little it had to do with music. It also surprised me that he never picked up an instrument.
“I suppose it’s the one sad thing about all this is that even though I was in a Highland regiment, I never played the pipes or drums. I led the mass bands of the Royal Legion of Scotland at Edinburgh Castle for quite a few years and it’s the best feeling a drum major could ever have, coming out of the castle onto the esplanade. Royalty, politicians, military, celebrities all were there.”
“I’ve had a wonderful life as far as every part of my life is concerned, from the family to police to pipe bands, all the associations I’ve been in; I’ve never been disappointed in any of them. I’m just a fortunate guy.”
And this is what I’m taking from my chat with Jim. All the parts of his life seem to have met in one cohesive whole, with total functionality. The knowledge and experience in the army that brought him to the drum major role. His career in the police force, not only afforded him a living but also the opportunity to travel. Likewise his weekend interests, which took him too many different places and meeting many different people. Though, when I say ‘him’, Jim does not often say ‘I’ or ‘me’. He always talks of ‘we’. He uses ‘us’; it’s always him, Bertha and Andrew Grant. There is an impressive lesson in synchronicity here that has maybe overshadowed my initial questions. A pure example of how to live deliberately.
Most visits to the Isle of Skye have invariably led me to the best known castle there – Dunvegan Castle, the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan for the last 800 years and apparently the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. One of the lesser visited castles is the crumbling, ruinous Duntulm Castle, ancestral home of the rival Macdonald clan on the north coast of Skye. And one of the even lesser visited castles is the 16th century ‘Caisteal Uisdean’, or ‘Hugh’s Castle’, a castle built by the notorious Hugh Macdonald. Hugh was also known as Uisdean MacGhilleasbuig Chlerich, or Hugh Archibald Clerk as he was the son of Archibald the Clerk, the then Macdonald chief.
I’d read about this man and his castle when reading a book about the Trotternish peninsula some years ago, and so it was that one beautiful sunny day after finishing work, I decided to venture off and look for the remains of this edifice which lay somewhere on the western coastline. I’d tried this before on a couple of occasions but failed. So after some uncertainty, and asking at a farmhouse, I found the track and set off along the path, a route that gave great views over Loch Snizort Beag.
Hugh Macdonald’s father, the Macdonald chief, died in mysterious circumstances, possibly murdered, and was succeeded by Donald Gorm Mor, his brother and Hugh’s uncle. It was sometime after this that Hugh started to plot revenge against his uncle and several other high ranking members of the Macdonald clan, and usurp the title.
Hugh was regarded as a powerful and treacherous man and was given the title of factor of North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, based at Dun an Sticir. By 1581, the protestant reformation was well underway on the mainland and the authorities made plans to spread the message to Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Only the powerful MacVicar clan stood in their way. Hugh’s role was to dispossess the MacVicars of their land.
In the autumn of 1581, with Donald MacVicar away on the mainland, Hugh and his men took the opportunity to attack his sons. First they travelled to Carinish, where they killed the eldest son, Donald, setting fire to his buildings and burning his documents. Hugh then, under the pretence of friendship, invited the remaining three brothers to a banquet at his stronghold of Dun an Stìcir. There, in cold blood, they were murdered. Their sister later composed a lament in memory of her brothers.
After this period, he became involved in piracy and cattle stealing for which he was given a pardon in 1589. Building of his castle commenced sometime after this.
After walking for some time along the path, and with increasing excitement, I soon saw Caisteal Uisdean come into view. The castle resembles a big square block with the only visible entrance being where the first floor would have been, and a smaller hole in the wall below. The original height is unknown and it’s possible the structure was never completed. The entrance on the first floor led directly into the main hall and was accessed by steps, or perhaps a retractable ladder as one account stated.
As his castle was nearing completion, Hugh now formed plans for the killing of Donald Gorm Macdonald and seizing the title of Macdonald chief and Duntulm Castle. His ‘bold and treacherous’ plan was to be carried out at a great feast he had organised, around 1603, to celebrate the building of his castle. Writing a letter to a local tenant, William Martin, asking him to help him kill the clan chief, he also wrote a letter to the clan chief inviting him to the celebrations. Unfortunately, it appears the letters got mixed up and the letter intended for William Martin ended up in the hands of the clan chief instead. Realising what he had done, he tried to disguise himself as a woman, grinding a quern for flour, but was recognised, seized and thrown in a dark, secluded vault in the basement of Duntulm Castle. Fed on a diet of salt beef and a jug with no water, he died delirious and in agony of thirst.
Legend says his ghost haunts his ruined castle. Unfortunately he was nowhere to be seen that day. Only overgrown bracken and vegetation was visible as I peered through a hole in his door-less stone block. Maybe he’s lurking around at Duntulm. Hopefully, one day I’ll go back for a closer look.
F stared into the abyss beyond; arms held high, aloft to the universe and screamed at the sky. The aurora, dazzling golds and greens and blues streamed silently in the night above him and his cries were only answered with his own echo. Deep below, his scream reverberated around the glen and along the front of the lochan before turning to bellow right back at him. He railed against God, against Man, against his father, his teachers, his friends. Why had they not seen this anguish in him? And why had he not foreseen this misery that had engulfed him and his every thought?
Why hadn’t any of his companions at the university helped? Could they not have intervened, have stopped his descent into the complete madness of despair that he now found himself in. A man screaming towards the heavens, at the top of a mountain. The mountains of madness.
After a few moments, or more, of listening to his own screaming, F stopped and took in his surroundings. How he got here, he could not say. He was quite surprised. The meagre equipment he had on his person and his clothing were wholly unsuitable for night time mountain climbing at the start of winter. There was snow around the top. Had he met with an accident he wouldn’t have survived long.
Still he had managed the ascent, with only the moon and the shimmer of the night sky to light his way. He had been lucky, and was sane enough in these moments to realise this.
Yes, this was a spectacle. This was exceptional. The aurora borealis from a snowy mountain top with a near full moon out. He took a deep breath, a breath of clarity and surveyed the scene for a few more seconds. The cold of the air and the sweat on his body caught up with him. Feeling the chill for the first time, he turned. Finding his own footsteps, he returned.
This lockdown life is tough. Maintaining some semblance of normality throughout it is not easy. It is a life with little promise of adventure; no gigs, no travel, no randomness. To fight off the mental demons or to keep a business afloat, many people have had to adapt or change their everyday practice in order to survive. However, it’s not as straightforward as ‘just go work in cyber’, like the UK government told arts workers and creative people to do last year.
Today I’m speaking to Jeff Kohl who despite being American born, has chosen to live in Edinburgh for close to twenty years. He is a lifelong artist and tattooist who has also collected art for, as I was to find out, as long as he’s been alive. As a constantly creative person, I was keen to find out what’s keeping him going through lockdown. Was it work, with the promise of some sort of return to normality or something else? What can we take from this, and what lessons have we learned as we approach a year in the global pandemic?
Disclaimer: Jeff swears a lot! I have edited most of them out for the sake of brevity rather than offense, but have kept some for the sake of staying true to Jeff’s words and enthusiasm.
“Honestly dude, I’m fighting for my life. I’m about to go into my eighth month of being shut in a year and paying for a glorified fucking storage locker. Even when we were back, money wasn’t really coming in, voucher money paid for bills with a little bit of paying customers. “
The problems for the shops return started almost immediately and Jeff explains how illness and positive tests meant that customers were unable to come in for their appointments. Then came the tiered system that discriminates against those who don’t live within that particular authority. With no one able to cross tiers the shop was having daily cancellations and really struggling.
“Some shitty things happened and then our tattoo licence expired. It was overdue due to our closure and they wouldn’t grant us any dispensation even under the circumstances. We had to reapply for a new one, it came through in a month rather than the 92 days after me phoning every day. Five months we were shut and then struggling for three months open. We got the licence back on my birthday, the 20th December, I was stoked. Closed for Christmas on the 23rd our last open day, and then lockdown part two was announced on the 26th.”
The shop, Hotter than Hell in Edinburgh, is one of a kind, a testament to Jeff’s ideas driven personality. It has Kiss pinball, light show, smoke machine, massive screens, art everywhere and a stage where they have hosted several local bands. But his new aims, pushed along by pandemic, don’t necessarily involve tattooing.
“It’s been tough dude, in the first lockdown I didn’t draw a single thing for four months. I was busy with the Corona vouchers for the shop but my creative input went into cooking and cocktail making, for four months. This time was different, this time I was ready.”
“I’ve been formulating this idea for the best part of five years, and its full steam ahead with this new lockdown. The problem I had was all my art was on paper. Scanning shit in was lame, Fiona was trying to digitise everything which took ages. I thought I’m just gonna bite the bullet and I bought an iPad. Man up and make digital art so I can upload files directly and immediately in ultra-high resolution. I’ve been super inspired and super creative. I had 70 new art things for the new project including logos, in five weeks.”
I ask him how he found the transition from traditional materials paint, pen and ink to digital art.
“It was actually super fucking great. I had a little invaluable help from my son, but it was really intuitive and suited to my style of inking and brushing and painting and splattering. Tattoo designs are very precise but what I do with paint is much looser. It suited my style of cool bright shit, just way faster. I’m inspired as fuck, it’s nice, I haven’t been super inspired for a number of years. I needed a right fucking kick up the ass.”
We joke for a while about how he should be the poster boy for the UK government’s cyber ad campaign instead of Fatima the ballerina.
“Retrain for cyber! Bullshit! I was like fuck that, but I’ve actually been hoping to do this for about the last half decade, I’m that guy now! Can’t believe I put it off this long but old dogs new tricks. Now I can upload straight to a site and it’s straight onto a shirt. It’s a new business model for me.”
I ask when this old dog first started drawing…
“Dude, I was born drawing. You’d need to go back to when I was like 6 months old. I always drew dude, it’s what I do.”
He then goes off the camera for a few seconds and returns with a book, a bulging scrap book made by his mum. I can see the parallels immediately between this blue satin 1960s baby book and the life of the 54 year old on my screen. There is a wrist band from the hospital, birth announcements, numerous childhood photos, a silver dollar and even baby hair! But there is also drawings, awesome drawings from an extremely young age. A gun, a doorway, a vermicious knid, a monster under the rocks and even on my laptop screen the pictures look great. This book is stuffed with stuff. Art clearly runs in the family.
Me: I can see a lot in that book in how your shop looks.
JFK: What a fucking mess?
Me: No, in how it’s presented. You’ve kept that all your life, and your mum kept it and created it too. That book looks like your shop! Gig tickets next to photos next to tattoo art.
Jeff sold his first tattoo shop in the states. He talks of it fondly; strictly old school tattoo, 20 feet wide and 40 deep. From floor to ceiling on each side of the walls in the same wooden frames, were tattoo flash, every single one drawn by Jeff. This was a hangout spot, with plenty of room for the packs of metalheads, punks and tattoo fans that showed up.
Shop space in Scotland, especially Edinburgh, is quite different from that. Jeff’s shops previous to HtH, housed his quite massive and ever increasing art collection that was normally stored at home, covering the bizarre council law of using 80% of your ground floor space for retail.
I recall a time when I was in the shop and there was a pile of broken stained glass wrapped up in sheets on the floor. Jeff had seen it in an antique store walking home one night, went in and paid £200 for it straight away.
“Eight years it sat in bundles in the basement like Indiana Jones. Sarah at the shop was doing a course in making things from stained glass and the teacher specialised in restoring medieval stained glass. You bide your time, £200 seemed like a bargain. I can’t remember the date, could be 1349 but I could be getting that confused with the band. There’s no other one in existence dude, it’s a one of a kind ancient church window and now it’s in a crazy custom made new frame and that is the sickest thing.”
I ask if Hotter than Hell was the ultimate goal.
“Oh shit, I never had an ultimate goal dude, I’m not really that far sighted, though I’m trying now with the new thing. I’m an all or nothing guy, it’s just how I go at life. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, I see it and I just go for it when its fucking right, when you feel it when its right, selling my shop in the states and moving to Scotland with my whole family and a shipping container, you just do it, what’s the worst that could happen?”
What advice would you give to anyone who perhaps is struggling but has ideas?
“Just go for it. I guess the word I like to use is proactive. The early bird gets the worm that kind of shit, live deliberately, live fearless, fortune favours the bold. What’s that one Kiss stole from the paras, Who Dares Wins.”
Before we start talking entirely about the quality of Kiss tour shirts, bootleg Ozzy t-shirts from the Bark at the Moon tour and heavy metal in general, and this being an outdoors blog, I ask Jeff about his relationship with the outdoors.
“Well, let’s talk about the outdoors, I haven’t been outdoors in the last ten days, I’m in lockdown dude! I’m not going on too many walks, I did on the first lockdown through the graveyard and up to the Braid Hills.”
“I loved camping as a kid, we went to the lakes fishing, we had bonfires and motorcycles. When I was a kid we’d go every summer out to Lake McConaughy which is the biggest natural reservoir in Nebraska 4 miles across. My uncle had a house on one side and the campsite was on the other side and my dad and uncles and all their friends were all bikers and they would build bonfires out of old trees and they would build huge ramps and then they would jump their motorcycles over them all night long while they were all drinking and I was like six years old and hanging out with all their kids and my cousins. We’d run around in the sand hills and collect frogs and cow skulls and cool shit. Years later when I was in my teens and had a car and a motorcycle myself I’d ride around there and put the cow skull on my motorcycle. Power machines in the outdoors is my kind of shit. Now I love hanging out in my garden, there’s all kinds of wildlife in there. I like my nature, it’s all about the trees and who doesn’t love the Ents.”
And what does the future hold in a post Covid world…
“I am fighting for my life dude and next year is probably gonna be more of the same, it’s not an instant fix everyone getting vaccinated. I can’t see everything returning to normal anytime soon in regards to tourists, bars, gigs, shows etc. We have a three pronged attack, all shall be revealed soon. But this new venture has to work, the tattoo Gods somewhere up there on Orion’s Belt are showing me the way out of this pandemic mess and I’m gonna have to come back with some kid of fucking crazy awesome thing.”
“So I have a plan when everything hopping and rocking and jumping again to come back like the Ultramarines, All Guns Blazing, and that’s the plan. Put things on ice until the city is back, and then come back bigger and stronger than before. I’ve got long range plans and it all hinges on me. I shot out like from a fucking cannon and I never stopped for fifty years.”
Demons on your mind? Plan or don’t plan, just be bold. Step out of your comfort zone. Retrain for cyber?
Sure, but do it on your terms.
Currently listening to: Pizza Thrash, your one stop playlist Spotify shop for all things thrash, old and new. Curated by Mr John Kohl.
My conversation with adventure cyclist Dan Calverley eventually and inevitably turned to fitness, but the result is not what I was expecting. Clearly Dan was extremely fit by the time he started an around the world ride in January 2015 and this would surely be a prerequisite in attempting such an arduous task. “2013 was probably the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I did the Bob Graham Round in June that year and didn’t drop off too much the following year.”
The Bob Graham Round, a 66-mile fell running challenge that takes in 42 tops and involves 8200m of ascent is one of the classic UK running test-pieces. In other words, a whole load of excruciating madness.
“Fitness for the world trip never occurred to me though. I’d done a lot of long distance cycles previously and I had started to really push the distance on the road bike. I was getting close to a 300km day in 2013/14. But I learned that you don’t train for a big bike tour. How do you train riding a big heavy bike every day? If you do, you’re already doing it. You’re already on tour! Riding a carbon fibre road bike in the summer isn’t exactly training for cycling what is essentially a steel frame tank with 40kg of supplies attached. This can include camping gear, food for a few days at least and, depending on where you are in the world, an awful lot of water. And any previous experience of cycling or level of fitness I had was to be detrimental in the first few weeks of the trip.”
More on this later but let us back track just a little. In August 2014, Dan arrived on the doorstep of my new house and stayed with us for a few days. He told me and my wife he was planning to do something – what it was he wasn’t quite sure at this point, but he was certain it involved lengthy travel and the possibility of not returning to the UK for some time, if not ever. Toying with the idea of taking his motorbike at this point, Dan took three weeks off work went from my house in central Scotland to our friends in Forres, then to London and Bristol, on to Belgium, France and Germany. Coming to halt somewhere near Frankfurt due to a multi car pile-up for several hours, Dan made a phone call that would cement his ideas.
“I was reading Mark Beaumont’s book about cycling the world. Although I liked the book, something didn’t quite gel with me. He always seemed in a rush, pushing himself to do mile after mile. I admired this, the athleticism and need to push on physically. I’d barely been out of Europe and I realised that seeing the world was really important, seeing and experiencing.”
Smoking rollies and reading Beaumont’s book at the side of the autobahn Dan contemplated how he would do a trip like that differently. He also remembered that he knew someone who done an around the world trip on a bike already.
“Steve was a friend from home. He cycled the world about 10 years before, taking a northerly route through Russia. He used to send a weekly letter into the local paper about his travels. I’d read this on my lunchbreak when I worked as a recruitment consultant, and while I sat on the autobahn I decided to phone him. We hadn’t spoken in eight years or so, and I suggested to him that we meet so I could pick his brains about cycling. He apologised and said he was currently guiding cycle tours in Germany! It turned out I was only a few hours away from him and we were able to meet within a few days.”
Steve became Dan’s cycling mentor, taking him under his wing and giving him the benefit of his expertise and previous adventure cycling knowledge.
“I knew then it would be by bicycle. Steve recommended a few books I found more suited to me, Alistair Humphreys and Rob Lilwall amongst others.”
These romantic travel stories, Steve’s included, cemented the idea but I suggest that the inspiration and drive was already within Dan. These influences brought it out and galvanised the plan.
“I needed to get out, needed to take a chance and get out of my comfort zone especially socially. I realised my world was closing in. Although the break-up of my nine-year relationship was not the driving force behind the trip, it wasn’t healthy for me staying in the same place, and I needed to put myself into the world and trust its people more.”
Selling his house, motorbike, car and mountain climbing gear, Dan left knowing he would be gone a long time. He told one of the last people he spoke to before leaving England he was aiming for around 80 miles a day. The reply from an elderly gent was that his aim seemed quite a lot. How right he was. This is where our previous comments on fitness returns.
“I was actually quite naïve. My expectations were based on my experience as a long distance cyclist; I was fit as I could get as a runner, but this all was against me and set me up to push myself too hard. My expectations were totally out of whack with reality, and I resorted to my old self, cracking the whip, riding in the dark and trying to make up the difference. My fitness level and experience actually worked against me. I developed a problem with my knee and needed a rest day within the first two weeks.”
The initial aim, to get to warmer weather as quickly as possible, was still achievable – but maybe not the crossing of the central Asian desert before summer. Dan knew that the pass through the high mountains of Tajikistan in winter was out of the question, and there was seasons to avoid through China and the Himalaya.
Related to the sheer physical exertion of the cycling was the constant discomfort of camping. Every night. Dan had camped a lot, I knew this already, but camping in the Scottish Highlands or the Lake District where there was no one around was an entirely different experience to camping on the continent. It took Dan a month or so to acclimatise.
“The first month felt like I was hiding out. I was keeping myself hidden. You have to camp where you are, especially when it gets dark, which it did quite quickly. I had to sleep in some crazy places but you get used to it. A lot of the time it was like camping in say, Motherwell. Where do you camp when you are forced to stay there? But I think I got quite good at picking out good spots and following my nose to hide out in. The bike gave me a lot of freedom in this.
“The bike was everything. I rarely had any niggles with it. It opened the envelope of what was possible, and indeed opened up the world. Rather than the Beaumont style of fast roads, good amenities and the quickest possible time, I relaxed in to the bike. The motorbike was too fast, everything goes by in a blur. It’s noisy and expensive. The bike made it a totally different trip. I had never used it as an adventure vehicle and realised very quickly that I was a stranger in all these foreign countries. A motorbike brings very different connotations of how people perceive you. A bike is like a social passport and enables you to meet people you wouldn’t normally. It’s a counter aspirational mode of transport that made people curious, not treating me like I was a wealthy westerner on a powerful machine.”
Which returns us to Dan’s previous thoughts about socialising during our chat. How he interacted with people on this trip was to become more and more vital.
“I learned to say I was only cycling to the next town. Anything further, people would say that it’s too far. Sometimes the next town was too far. ‘And what about all the bad people or wild animals?’ It is dangerous they’d tell me. They’d approach me because I looked mad, but I was travelling in this humble way that made me approachable and opened a lot of doors. I didn’t see any of the bad people or the wild animals but it was comforting to know local people were looking out for me.”
The details of the trip can be found on Dan’s excellent blog (www.selfpropellingparticle.com) and I was keen to talk about the writing process itself and what Dan thought about it. Initially a connection for friends and family, selfpropellingparticle has exactly zero practical information for the wannabe adventure cyclist. And this makes it succeed. Dan admits to having no knowledge of the process in the beginning and being sceptical of writing about himself.
“Being a fairly private person, not secretive, but not much of a Facebook poster, it was odd for me to be sharing so much. My personality naturally is up and down and to combat this, I adopted a voice that became like a boys own adventure story. If I wasn’t moving I felt tense and I think the writing became prosaic, a dog’s dinner of a pretentious style. I’d have to work myself up into the enthusiasm to write.”
Feeling that the tone had become too repetitive, Dan had to change track. He still wanted to do something creative, the writing he believes to be as integral to the trip as the cycling or the landscapes. He began the process of changing the nature of his blog.
“I reached a point where I couldn’t write like that anymore. I always tried to extract some wisdom, and then tried to sit down and write about my trip rather than wait for inspiration or when I was in the mood. I had to find a happy medium and as a result, started to be more honest. Day to day stuff would have been a total whinge fest, cycling is hard, but I reached a whole new level of sharing for me. I had to hold back on some of the personal stuff but I was getting more used to putting me out there.”
Changing his aims to be something more like reporting, Dan started trying to understand the place he was in as best he could. The concerns of the people, the problems they face and their opinions on things became his topics. This brought its own problems, the most obvious being from language barriers.
“My new ideals and goals worked for writing retrospectively about the USA where I could focus on individual characters and find the story, find something relevant. The biggest problem was the short visa time you get there. There was less cycling time in Canada too due to the winter.”
But what do people read on the road, and are they able to keep it relevant to where they are? For Dan the trick was to keep it fairly light hearted.
“I stopped reading cycling books and focussed on travel books. It was nice to read something set where I was, but a lot of the time reading on my kindle in my tent, I could have been anywhere in the world. I’d wake up unsure of what country I was in sometimes and could quite easily escape into another world.
“I had to be careful though, I can be quite impressionable and had to be careful not to colour my mind in a negative way. I didn’t need to mess with my head the way certain books can so I deliberately kept it light hearted. I didn’t want to be reading about Mexican drug cartels for example. But I also didn’t want to get wrapped up in false stereotypes, nonsense fears and fake news coming from populist news media. Sensationalist news sells but colours the view of the world and your willingness to trust people. There are dangers of course, but I based my idea of what I think of people and places by what I see. I didn’t want to be a liability but I didn’t want to overly focus on the negative and relied solely on need to know information.”
Dan became more clued up as he went on getting a handle on any political situations and potential conflicts. But he was careful not to let any hint of paranoia seep in.
“Almost everywhere in the world people will treat a foreigner with a sense of curiosity and almost pride. Contrary to what we might be told in the west, Muslim countries are most hospitable to travellers. I encountered very little hostility, and as I hoped, my world view changed. I had heard that countries that have experience of international aid, or are in some way dependent on it can be strange for cycle tourism but I didn’t get too much of that at all. The trip became less about the cycling, less about me and more about the people.”
The story took over. The nature of both Dan’s writing and his adventure had changed and adapted with his interests and how he himself had adapted to the situation. In other words he kept growing, kept progressing and kept moving until forced to stop by events out of his control. He feels the need now for some roots, especially in the current climate, but hopes to do six months or yearly trips once travel returns to normality. South America and Africa would complete the continent loop maybe taking two years and he talks of a possible overland trip to Asia via a more northerly route. But like everyone at the moment, Dan has no plans.
“Everywhere I went was too quick and you have to make choices. I missed out most of Mongolia, I’d like to see Pakistan but didn’t manage for visa reasons. I realise now that in six months on a bike you can be in China. The bike opened up the world to me. My original idea of one long continuous journey didn’t quite work out but I no longer have those ‘this is my one and only chance to see this place’ kind of thoughts. It may have seemed like a slow process but steady increments cross continents.”
Steady increments, cross continents. Someone should put that on a t-shirt.
Currently listening to Torchlight: The Long Quest, courtesy of Dark Age Productions
Forced back to the UK from Mexico due to the global pandemic, Dan Calverley had to call a halt to his adventurous plan of cycling through six continents. Since January 2015 he had been constantly cycling and camping around the world. With a brief break teaching in South Korea, Dan had successfully cycled from his home in the north of England through southern Europe, heading east through Turkey, Georgia, and a few countries that end in ‘stan’. He has cycled through many others, 32 at last count before his progress was halted. A total journey of over 60,000km pedalled.
The following article is based around a conversation I had with Dan one snowy Saturday night via zoom. We had planned to do this interview while walking a mountain ridge somewhere or at least in a Highland pub. The real reason for me wanting to speak to Dan, was not to find out about his travels; his excellent blog www.selfpropellingparticle.com does that exceptionally well. I wanted to find out his drive, how he kept going and what got him inspired into the outdoors enough to make a man want to spend most of his forties in a small tent.
“I was always quite outdoorsy I suppose” explains Dan when we finally get the laptops working well enough to hear each other.
“When I was a kid I was really active. I did my first bike tour when I was 11, dragging one of my older brothers to a youth hostel about a 15 mile cycle away. My best friend and I would cycle all through the Yorkshire Dales and into the Lake District.”
“I’d do outdoors stuff with my dad and older sisters, camping, but never anything like climbing mountains. I’d have to give the credit to my third oldest sister Sarah. She worked in an outdoor education centre on Arran and from the age of 15 through to 17 I’d spend several weeks every year there visiting her. Of all my six brothers and sisters, she was the one who properly inspired me to the outdoors.”
While Sarah was taking groups of schoolkids hiking or kayaking, Dan would wander off on his own, telling his sister his route but losing it very quickly and getting “as lost as fuck”. This was the first time he had been out properly on the hills, unaccompanied, and “learning to read the landscape the hard way”. Following animal tracks and ending up on ridges far from his intended routes and wandering into areas that would be solely for climbers, Dan admits to blundering around Arran. They call the island Scotland in miniature for good reason but this was to be a good training ground for the future. He just didn’t know it yet.
And this is where I come in. I first met Dan in late 1995, during our first year at university. To me, at the pretentious age of 17, all Dead Kennedys, Coltrane and Kerouac, Dan was exactly the type of person I’d hoped to meet at university. A year or so older than me, he had already lived what I thought an incredibly exciting life and we bonded over records, books and booze. “We went up Bennachie once did we not?” asks Dan. We did, and that remained our sole outdoors pursuit for four years save the odd Buddhist retreat (Dan), skateboarding (me) and drinking on the beach (both).
Unbeknownst to me though, by the time Dan had graduated and was ready to move on, he had started running, along the beach mostly in an effort to get fit after nearly four years of drinking. When he moved to Glossop with his new wife for a job in nearby Manchester, he found himself with the hills of the beautiful Peak District on his doorstep. “They were just inviting me to run”, which he did. He also got into hillwalking, with the odd scramble thrown in but as in Arran, Dan soon found himself in areas far more technical than walking would allow. It was at this point with a thirst for both knowledge and experience, that he joined a climbing club.
Serving his climbing apprenticeship with the “old salts” of his local JMCS scratched the itch for real climbing but progression in an individual’s ability was not high on the clubs list, at least at the time. If an effort to learn more Dan was accepted onto an alpine climbing course run by the British Mountaineering Council. A week long course in Chamonix was where the confidence to do long and proper winter climbs came from. Here he learned advanced mountaineering skills; rope work in teams, how to fix ice screws and real time ice arrests in the glacier. This latter skill Dan would teach me several years later on the more forgiving slopes of a snowy Tarmachan.
Though neither of us was to realise it at the time, Dan was to become my outdoors mentor. We shared many camping and walking trips, and still would if lockdown restrictions didn’t apply. Dan was responsible for my traverse of the Cuillin in Skye, including the bagging of the famous Inaccessible Pinnacle, Sgùrr Dearg (quote of the day: “Inaccessible! My arse.”). The In Pin is somewhere I’m glad I don’t really have to hold onto again; actual mountain climbing never grabbed me. I hate heights, but as Dan explains to me, climbing is a head game.
“I’d never say never, I just find it hard to imagine I’ll do proper climbing like that again. My head isn’t in it. I wouldn’t say it’s a lost interest, but being on a rock face dangling on a rope doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I am miles fitter now than when I was climbing regularly but you need to keep it up and keep your head in the game. I lost a lot of that the year I did my PhD and thought I could return to the form I had previously. I’d need to go back to the beginning now and start again, which may not be a bad thing… I always enjoyed the low grade climbs or roped scrambles most anyway.”
I was surprised at this. Dan’s climbing experiences hadn’t answered what I was after and so we changed course. Whatever we were going to find out here, it didn’t have to do with mountaineering. I asked Dan if he could only follow one interest for the rest of his life what it would be, and the answer was emphatically ‘running’ and with that I felt we were getting closer to the heart of what drives him.
“I’m a runner, not a racer. People feel the need that when they run, they need to run fast, that it’s all about the clock. The kinaesthetic movement of running brings me most joy and most clarity. The feel of the run, that’s the important bit.” Although he was an active local cycle club member it was the running club that he really found most enjoyment, and possibly himself.
“I’d enter races, fell runs. The Peak and Lake Districts are the home of English fell running and I lived right next to it. I liked the longer weekend ones. 22 miles or more. You’d run in the snow because they’re all year round. You have to pace yourself, know about nutrition and have navigational skills. I did these for most of the decade doing 30 plus milers. They’re called ultras nowadays, that’s kind of taken over the kind of fell running tradition.”
37 miles and 10,000 feet of ascent, Dan ran the Old County Tops in the Lake District four times in total and was part of the winning team the first year he did it. But something else comes up in this chat about events that isn’t necessarily about competing, or even running.
“I started running races when I first moved here as a way to meet people. I entered as a non-affiliate, initially I had no club, but the Glossop one was excellent. It still is. It’s for all abilities and the camaraderie was brilliant. We made a weekend out of the races, staying in a hut or camp or hiring a cottage. I loved that.”
I’m not a runner. Very occasionally I might and I have done part of the Edinburgh marathon as a team event. My attention waned around the 8 mile mark. However I do recognise what Dan is saying here. Sharing the hardship of outdoor pursuits such as this is a surprisingly social pastime. In my case, hillwalking with another person is an intense period of time to spend with another human. And sometimes it is the company that is the best thing about it. Forget the spectacular or unusual views, the sunrise or sunset, when else do you spend as concentrated a time with another person exerting yourselves equally with a deliberate aim? This is the ultimate and tragic lesson Alexander Supertramp realises far too late. Human contact is powerful, we crave it, and when you have a shared goal, whether its winning a race or ascending a mountain, the experience is all the more memorable. Dan clearly relishes in this in his time running, and I hope, in his time hillwalking with me.
Maybe next week in Part Two we’ll talk about his travels.
Currently listening to Mulatu Astatke, EthioJazz, a Dan Calverley recommend
In the early months of the first lockdown, I found in my notebook a short piece of writing about Last Wolf from the very early days and added a few sentences that were relevant to the current worldwide situation. It was never published. Or finished. As we move forward, a new year, a newer lockdown, a new president of the USA this week, I offer it up here. In it, I was trying to figure Last Wolf out, what it was, what it is and what it aims to do.
The Heart is the Centre of the Universe
I break down the focus of Last Wolf into three key areas.
Introduction: Of ideas, opinions and thoughts, places, adventure, travel. Of Last Wolf as a company and the things we do. Of people, people who love the outdoors, together under a banner, working together to benefit the soul and the environment. Of wonder and awe and beauty of the world. Last Wolf pack members should be easily recognisable to each other, treating each other with familiarity and respect.
Education: Professionally I work within this field and have done for many years. Last Wolf may therefore naturally have a focus on this. I hope this is always relevant, useful and informative as well as entertaining. I’m learning from this process and I hope throughout it you will be too.
Inspiration: Inspiring outdoors. Let me try and explain what one meaning of this may be. Human culture is filled with examples of people being inspired by nature to do great things. The image of Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog immediately springs to mind here. Mendelssohn‘s overture The Hebrides, was instantly inspired by his visit to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa. You may not be Friedrich or Mendelssohn but you can be inspired by the outdoors in a similar way that is just as relevant to you and those around you.
Flipping this around though let us not just be inspired by the outdoors. Let us also inspire it, take care of it, look out for the natural world and show it respect. If there is an environmental bright side of lockdown it is surely a global reduction in pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air, less food waste and a greater sense of community. It can be localised too, a faster commute for keyworkers, jellyfish returning to the canals of Venice…
Although we humans have unlimited needs, the planet has a limited capacity to satisfy them all. Let us inspire it. Plant trees, pick litter, live off grid, eat less meat, however you choose to make a difference, do it deliberately.
Currently listening to Amon Amarth: Twilight of the Thunder God and wishing I was watching them live!
“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” E.B. White
Ahhh, EB, aren’t you cropping up a lot in my reading these days. It makes sense. His is the second name in Strunk & White’s classic writing text, The Elements of Style, after all. I’ve probably broken a lot of his rules already but we won’t worry about that yet. Let us just stick with the Henry Rollins/Nike school of Just Do It for the moment. I try to write every day, it’s a good habit to get in to. Sometimes its fiction, sometimes its thoughts or experiences, sometimes journal entries. Occasionally I like to take a prompt from a writing magazine or website and run with that for a few hundred words.
The other day it was the quote above from the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little that cropped up in my 2021, despite him haunting around my 2020. Its time I paid more attention. Charlotte’s Web, by the way I haven’t read for at least ten years, but I think it is fantastic. I have a hardback copy in class and I have read it to pupils somewhere before; the best way to enjoy a children’s book. I had recently been reading about White on Wikipedia and then this quote appears in an email. How timely.
And so we turn this comment around into a question. What do I want to say with my writing and what is presented here? What do I want you, fellow adventurer, to get out of the Last Wolf blog? Are my aims in anyway similar and as straightforward as those of E.B. White?
If our goal is the ascent and eventual summiting of Word Mountain, how do we get there? Are we still scrabbling about in the foothills, lost over a crumpled map, unsure of where we are heading? Are we wrestling with the initial steepness of the climb? Or are we merely enjoying the tranquillity of an early morning forest walk as we make our approach, listening to the sound of the river, the birdsong…
My aim is to develop and share a sense of wonder and curiosity. The sense of wanting to see something just for the hell of it, for the sole reason just to see it. No reason needed. To go somewhere because it’s there. How many people do not know what lies beyond that hill? I’m continually surprised how many people have never explored the area they’ve lived in all their lives. With Covid restrictions limiting us one again there has never been a better time to discover the radius we inhabit. My favourite question for a local explore is ‘what does the inside of that clump of trees looks like?’ Usually the answer is near impenetrable, but it’s always worth checking. Don’t take my word for it.
We humans tend to stick to the same routes and roads in life. An important question is where does all those other roads go? Or perhaps what does that road even look like? I use the word road here loosely, as a metaphor. There are countless amounts of ‘roads’ as I include in this paths and animal tracks, rivers, walkways, motorways and dual carriageways.
But there is also the symbolic journey of say, reading War & Peace, Ulysses or some other massive novel. Or perhaps learning a musical instrument or a new language. What might my life look like in a year if I practised the mandolin for half an hour every single night? What effect on my life does writing 500 words per day have?
Yes, I agree with E.B. White. I can see why he wanted people to know he loves the world. But what I aim for most of all is for you, fellow adventurer, to love it too. I want people to look after the natural world, to protect and respect it. But at the same time I want you to make the most of your life. Reject the unimportant things, go outside and explore. This world is wonderful, and it is yours.
As befitting, the day this was posted, this quote popped up on Twitter.
Currently listening to Buffet Lunch new album masters! @BuffetLunchBand
It might be alarming for some teachers to not be able to see any of the pupils they are responsible for. Normally this would be true and I would do everything in my power to not allow this to happen. In a school for pupils labelled with social and emotional behavioural difficulties it could even be downright dangerous. But not at this moment. They had dropped completely out of our sight because that’s what we had told them to do.
“I’m going to turn my back and you lot have twenty seconds, to run, drop and hide. And me and Mr Hughes here are going to hunt you. Go!” We faced the road. Sean shouted to twenty and when we turned around we couldn’t see a single one of the seven boys aged 11 and under that we had a duty of care for.
“Oh this is great”, Sean exhaled. I don’t know if it was directed to me or if he would’ve said it anyway. We scanned the tops of the damp field, mostly made up of waist high dying nettles and ferns, without seeing a flash of a tracksuit, a cheeky face looking up, nothing. They had hidden themselves well. We patrolled with our ‘weapons’, mine a long dead branch I had found in a log-pile back in the woods. Sean’s hand carved walking stick, looking mysteriously like a shillelagh, held high like a Winchester in an old cowboy movie.
As soon as we turned around I felt it. I don’t know if there is a correct word or term for it, but I have a suggestion. I liken it to a visual trick some filmmakers use, but again I do not know the technical term. It’s like when everything comes into focus for a character, the pieces of his or her story and life come together and the world collects into one part of their consciousness, usually the front of the forehead. The camera focuses on the character experiencing it whilst the background spins or blurs. Think James Stewart in Vertigo. Its more than deja-vu. The closest word to the feeling I can think of, is time travel.
Instantly I was taken back to some 30+ years ago, to one summer in particular. I believe I was 11, I was one of the youngest in my years at school. I might have been 12. It might not have even been summer, it could have been Easter. The weather would probably have been better then anyway as it seems to be now. I was still hanging out with the friends I’d had at primary school. Local boys, the kids I’d known since nursery or P1. We all probably lived within a square half mile of each other. Some lived on the same street, none on mine, but they did live near my granny. As a result, I played around there a lot and always had a place to stop off for a drink.
That summer, or Easter, my parents were away and I was actually staying there and we had new friends. Our range had also extended. We were at that age where the whole town suddenly opened up to us, not just the boundary of the park, or the high school hockey pitches. We were now at an age when we could go out west. This was a big deal for me as I lived in one of the last houses in the east. Granny lived a lot more centrally which meant I could stay out later, I wasn’t always last home and I had a little more freedom with my trusty yellow mountain bike. I say trusty as my previous bike, the black and red racer was the exact opposite. It was actually deadly. The chain would slip any time it felt like hurting me, regardless of speed, sending me directly over the curved handlebars. This bike was the devil’s work and I was glad to see the back of it. Many times I ended up in a painful pile in the middle of the road or at the bottom of a hill. That thing cut my nuts once. Death trap, good riddance.
Our new friends were from the west. They had gone to a different school but we were destined to be at least in some of the same classes at high school after the summer. Sometimes we hung out in the holiday camp chippy. This may not seem very appealing but for some reason locals were not allowed in the campsite parks or arcade. We’d be chased off the park or kicked out the arcade. I always thought this was mental; we were there to play games after all, to spend our pocket money on Double Dragon or Operation Wolf. The chippy was most likely run independently so we didn’t have that problem. It also had a room with a pool table, a jukebox that had Run to the Hills on it and an arcade machine that I could have sworn was about the show Monkey Magic. However, the internet has proved my childhood memories have lied to me again as the Monkey Magic arcade game never made it out of Japan. It was also made in 1979, ten years before this story is set.
But the chippy was for the long summer evenings, eating Mr Freeze ice poles and drinking Pepsi because it was cooler than Coke. During the day, I’m not sure why, we played in fields. We tried many different fields, but it was one in particular that fulfilled our needs perfectly. It was a big one, on the edge of town, next to the park out west that I had barely ever been to. I think it was an oilseed rape field as they all seemed to be in the 80s and we played hunters in it. Hiding in the entire field while a team tracked the others down. I can clearly recall tearing through the thick reeds on hands and knees, hiding, escaping, laughing, exhausted. And also in the hunting, scanning the crops, much higher than 2020s dead nettles, though it is entirely possible it was because I was much smaller. Every time we played this game when I went to bed my thighs hurt from constantly walking or crawling against thick growth. My hands hurt too, but I slept gloriously.
I loved this game. We played it every day, at least it seemed like it. It might have been just a few times, it might have been an entire two weeks. There’s a lot about this I don’t remember and have no real way of finding out. I don’t even remember who was actually there. Nor do I understand why it was so important to me that I’m writing about the impact it made and the memories I have of that time three decades later. All of this is what goes through my head when I turn round. Here I am, standing in a field, a fully grown man, with children of my own, playing the same game, with new friends and I love it just as much as I did when I last played it. And I’ve just time travelled.
“Bang! Got you Josh.” Sean shouts off to my right as I patrol my part of the dead nettle field. “This is my new favourite game” he says to me.
It’s always been mine I reply, but only in thought.
Having spent some time on the Isle of Skye as a tour guide I’ve seen many parts of the island on my visits, from the “places to see before you die” tourist spots to some of the equally beautiful, lesser known places that are off the beaten track. After entering a marathon a couple of years ago, I decided to take the opportunity to do some training on the island in the early morning and run for many miles in the dark with nothing but my torch and the rustling bushes for company. Fear of a troll or goblin jumping from the trees was an immediate concern but went away.
One of these trips took me from Portree down the east coast of Skye towards the Braes, and the old crofting townships of Gedintailor, Balmeanach and Peinchorran. Crofting townships were established at the beginning of the 19th century by the clan chiefs, who were now commercial landowners, dividing arable lands of a pre-existing joint farm into individual holdings. The requirements of an effective arable agriculture were strictly subordinated to landlords’ overarching desire to make money by whatever method came to hand. Landowners, keen to make money from fishing and the kelp industries (harvesting of seaweed for the kelp kilns to make soap or glass) encouraged the proliferation of miniscule holdings as a means to these ends. Crofts were deliberately designed to make it impossible for their occupants to be self-sufficient agriculturalists. The collapse of the kelp industry, potato famine and overcrowding, and the introduction of commercial sheep farming, led to ‘assisted passages’ or forced evictions of these crofters on ships to the New World with tens of thousands of Highlanders being brutally evicted and their homes burnt down – Fuadaichean nan Gaidheal or The expulsion of the Gael.
The road to the Braes is separated from the main road to Portree by Ben Lee (a ben is a hill or mountain) and I followed a narrow and winding road which was dark but still allowed views across the Sound of Raasay towards the Island of Raasay and Ben Tianavaig behind me. Until 1865, this hill, Ben Lee, on Lord Macdonald’s estate, was leased to a sheep farmer for an annual rent of £128 with the Braes crofters being permitted to graze their sheep on it. However, representatives of Lord Macdonald claimed in 1865 that it lay outside the boundaries of the Braes township and the tenants had ‘no right or claim to it’. They were also not entitled to any reduction of their rent because of it’s loss. To the crofters, this hill for many generations was connected with their township. Arrests were to be made for those refusing to pay these rents although the passing of the Irish Land Act, the contact of the crofters with their Irish counterparts and the conflict raging in the Irish countryside made the crofters draw their own conclusions and decide that they had had enough.
On 7 April 1882, a sheriff-officer left Portree to intimidate the crofters with eviction notices. At Braes the unlucky sheriff-officer was met by a crowd of 150 people and assaulted. Although he was not seriously injured, the summonses were taken from him and burned on the spot. Eviction notices were the universally hated symbol of landlords virtually unrestricted power over the tenants and although this had been done before, this campaign at Braes was well organised and offensive rather than defensive. The Braes crofters posted sentries on the hill and awaited developments.
William Ivory, sheriff of Inverness-shire, a man whose instinct was to crush the crofters’ movement, particularly welcomed this turn of events. An appeal was made to the local authorities in Glasgow, the British Empire’s second city and home of Scotland’s largest constabulary.
Before dawn on 19 April, a day of cold and relentless rain, a detachment of over 50 policemen marched from Portree to the Braes with Ivory ‘at their head’. The force passed through Gedintailor without any resistance until reaching Balmeanach where they were met by about 100 men, women and children. Whilst attempting to make arrests, the Braes folk had gathered in some strength and surrounded, stoned and otherwise assaulted the officers. About a dozen officers were injured. Batons were drawn and the police repeatedly charged the crowd to regain control of the situation with some of the crofters and their wives being injured in the process. In the end the police emerged victorious and a final desperate charge took them through the encircled mass of furious crofters where they escaped towards Portree through a last barrage of mud and stones.
And so passed into history and folklore ‘The Battle of the Braes’, an event that gave unprecedented publicity to crofters’ grievances. Within a few days newspapers such as The Scotsman, Inverness Courier, London Standard and the Freeman’s Journal, in Dublin, were reporting on the despicable conditions which the Hebrideans were living in, helping to sway public opinion in their favour. This was further achieved by yet more agitation and the development of a crofters political organisation, the Highland Land Law Reform Association (HLLRA) but a statement had been made and fair rent and the right to stay on the land that had been unfairly taken from them was on the horizon.
Running back up the road past the more modern houses that dot the landscape, every now and then I would see the bare walls of a ruined croft amongst the trees where people used to live and children used to play. A plaque on a small hill by the road commemorates the ‘battle fought by the people of the Braes on behalf of the crofters of Gaeldom’.
I don’t speak much Gaelic myself but there is a word, Duthchas. Apparently it is impossible to translate this but expresses a belonging to a certain area of land, of being rooted by ancient lineage to a particular place that was communally held by all the people of a clan. Maybe an expression of unity existing between land, people, all living creatures, nature and culture. It was simply accepted as the natural order of things. Evictions by the landowners flew in the face of this. The Braes is a place I hope to get back to sometime.
Martin Shipway can be found on Instagram @pictavian
A Sand County Almanac was in my Amazon wish-list for about ten years before I bought it. I don’t know why it took me so long. It was never expensive, only ever around £10 or so, I just never got around to buying it. I eventually got it a few years ago, just before Christmas, and I read it quickly.
Every Hogmany (New Year’s Eve non-Scots) we spend several days at a cabin in the west of Scotland. This had replaced the hubbub of Christmas and become my favourite time of the year. It is very quiet, rarely do we even see anyone. Before the bairns came along I used to use this as a time to drink whisky, sleep, walk and of course read. Reading uninterrupted with nothing but a log fire and a view of the mist on the loch, or the frost on the ground. What could be better? Some books fit this scenario better than others. Books on Scotland for example, especially Scottish history, fit very well. Stephen King’s It, not so much. I read A Sand County Almanac at our cabin, finishing it on New Year’s Day.
It’s a wonderful book, an undisputed classic of the genre. I haven’t been so affected by nature writing before or since. I reread parts of it over and over. I wrote down an entire chapter in my notebook and I am just going to repeat part of it here.
August: The Green Pasture
“Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes. I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my mind’s eye. Like other artists, my river is temperamental; there is no predicting when the mood to paint will come upon him, or how long it will last. But in midsummer, when the great white fleets cruise the sky for day after flawless day, it is worth strolling down to the sandbars just to see whether he has been at work.
The work begins with a broad ribbon of silt brushed thinly on the sand of a receding shore. As this dries slowly in the sun, goldfinches bathe in its pools, and deer, herons, kill-deers, racoons and turtles cover it with a lacework of tracks. There is no telling at this stage, whether anything further will happen. But when I see the silt ribbon turning green with Eleocharis, I watch closely thereafter, for this is a sign that the river is in a painterly mood”.
Leopold then goes on to end this section…
“Do not return for a second view of the green pasture, for there is none. Either falling water has dried it out, or rising water has scoured the bar to its original austerity of clean sand. But in your mind you may hang up your picture, and hope that in some other summer the mood to paint may come upon the river”.
Beautiful imagery, and nature writing at its very best.
It’s harder to pinpoint how this book has influenced Last Wolf directly but it has to do with how the simple things in life are all connected. Everything fits together in and we, as humans, need to respect that and fit in too. The best trophy of the outdoors, the wilderness, the wild, whatever you want to call it, is the experience itself, and that is ultimately human. He discusses ideas that were way ahead of his time, topics we have met already atop Word Mountain, and no doubt will meet many times before the day that this project ceases to be.
How do we encourage use of the land to ensure it remains protected and conversely protect it at the same time? Is governmental influence an answer? This book is a plea to value these places. Think the idea of tropic cascades came from George Monbiot? Aldo Leopold discusses this in 1949 within a heart-breaking yet life changing story of shooting a wolf mother and at least one pup. This was a time when the killing of wolves was almost considered good manners; less wolves equals more deer for the sportsmen. But the young trigger happy author instantly regrets it.
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes- something known only to her and to the mountain”.
When thinking of farmers clearing the range of wolves, Leopold writes…
“He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”
“too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run”, he then goes on to quote or old pal Henry David Thoreau.
Think like a mountain. Be like Aldo Leopold.
Currently listening to Winter Solstice by Black Pyre and Speak English or Die by S.O.D.
What is the minimal amount of comfort you could live with? What would be the last thing you would get rid of? Ever lived in a house with no furniture?
I think mine would be a chair. I’d need a chair. I thought about this recently when watching the last season of the Arctic survivor show Alone. Early on in the series, one of the contestants makes himself a chair. This isn’t as common as you might think, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else do on any previous years. It was great, such a good idea and no doubt made his stay in Arctic Canada all the more pleasant being able to sit properly.
It didn’t have any cushions of course, or be able to move up and down like the fiendishly uncomfortable one at my work, or a nice leather covering like the one I’m sitting on whilst writing this, but there it was, a handcrafted genuine wooden chair and that got plaudits from me. I’m not particularly attached to any individual chair. I have many in my house and I’ll quite happily sit on any of them at any time. I also like sitting on the floor; probably more than I should as there is a lot of nice chairs here.
On extended camping trips or times when I have been away, I have found that the one comforting thing I want to do is sit properly. Sure I can sit on the rocks (cold quickly), logs (not bad), grass (wet most of the year in Scotland), ground (uncomfortable for any length of time), sand (good) whatever or wherever I am, but it’s not the same as having even the most rudimentary chair where you can sit back and upright, enjoying the view or a fine single malt.
As much as I like the outdoors and being in it, I would miss a chair the most. So much so that I’m not even going to preface that with the word ‘comfy’. If I lived in a Massachusetts cabin in the 1840s, or in a stone blackhouse in the Hebrides as the 19th century turned into the 20th, I would still want a chair to sit on.
I applaud the guy in Alone for making a chair.
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society”. H.D.T.
We drove past our destination. On seeing the amount of cars, I doubt we would’ve got parked anyway. The car park was overly full, vehicles were up on the verges and abandoned at the side of fields for around half a square mile. So we just kept going and ended up at a place I’d always meant to visit but never got round to, Torphichen Perceptory.
The big question for me was, what the hell is a perceptory? The answer is found in the buildings history and original intention. Today, it looks like the local church of a small Scottish village, which of course it is. However, it was built as the first house in Scotland of the Hospitallers, the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. They were the first military monastic order in Christendom, charged to both nurse pilgrims and fight Muslims in equal measure. The leaders were known as perceptors, answering my initial question, and one of their headquarters was in this quiet village in West Lothian; population 570.
It’s a fascinating place, although very little remains of what the Knights would’ve seen. The initial building work was began sometime around 1150 when King David I* granted land at Torphichen to the knightly order. Most of what we see now dates from the first half of the 15th century. Of the original building only fragments survive; the crossing tower and the two transepts from the cruciform church are complete and roofed. Traces in the churchyard and surrounding area of the village itself give some hint as to what a large seat of power and wealth this once was.
Post-Reformation, the perceptory became the parish kirk in 1563/64. Throughout all its reconstruction work over the centuries, the building retains a militaristic look to it; it looks harsh, ideal for black and white photos, but it does look fortress-like echoing its former status as a military headquarters.
Historically for me, the Hospitallers lose points for being on the wrong side at the Battle of Bannockburn, Longshanks himself apparently spent some time there after his horse stood on him. The reason for this pro-English stance during the Wars of Independence though was that the perceptory still answered to the Priory of Clerkenwell in London. However the building, if not the owners, gain some Scots points and credibility in the annals of Scottish history by that fact that William Wallace occupied it and used it as a parliament, forcing the knights out of Torphichen for at least a short period of time in 1298, as they were following Bannockburn in 1314.
However, Torphichen and the Hospitallers have suffered in recent years from the modern obsession with the Knights Templar and the two are often confused. The Hospitaller’s work such as sheltering the sick and poor, looking after pilgrims and military protection for its estates has little to do with Da Vinci code style mysteries and this fantastical look at history, as entertaining as it admittedly is, can obscure the facts and lessen the sheer magnitude of actual events.
Here is a supposed poor and forgotten about realm, on the very edge of Christendom, where even the might of the Roman Empire struggled to maintain any significant foot hold.** Insignificant in world affairs, what effect could this tiny land have on a global scale? A defeatist attitude that annoyingly persists to this day, even within its own people.
Well it turns out quite a lot. In evidence here is the home of an international order of knights, whose formation dates back to the end of the first crusade (1096-99) at St John the Baptist’s Hospital is next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. This is huge; a major world event, the crusades were the WW2 of the day, the topic everyone wanted to do. Can’t wait to get to Primary 7 to do the Crusades! The Hospitallers along with the Templars were the most powerful military order in the world. After the Templars were abolished in 1312, the Hospitallers were granted the forfeited land becoming even more powerful, whilst many of the knights were assimilated into the rival order.
This highlights the importance of Scotland’s place in the world from an early age. This is all pre-1320 and the Declaration of Arbroath, before Mary Queen of Scots nearly became a French monarch as well as an English one, before a Scotsman took over the entire British Isles and hundreds of years before a Catholic prince nearly became ruler of the United Kingdom. Here is something more than European that we were involved heavily in, global in fact for its day. As we are left today, dragged out of the E.U. against our collective will, it is significant to reflect on our achievements as a medieval nation nearly 900 years ago. Why did Scotland and teeny tiny Torphichan have a home for these renowned crusader knights? Because it could, it was important. It had a voice, it had a say. And all these things are still true, almost a millennia later.
How does the land about you make you feel? Proud, awed, excited…depressed, angry, annoyed. There’s so many places out there with a wonderful story, go explore some of them. Pass on the full car parks and seek out something else.
Bruce Bryce is a Fife based amateur historian and writer of horror fiction, amongst other things.
Currently listening to: Idiot Prayer by Nick Cave.
* That’s the grandson of King Duncan I, the real life inspiration for King Duncan in Macbeth Shakespeare fans.
** Incidentally, the Antonine Wall, the final Roman outpost in northern Europe, lies a mere six or seven miles north of Torphichan. Here at the end of all things…
This excellent map shows how close, Torphichan sitting just above Bathgate.
This article is about whaling; written by a retired skipper of a fishing vessel. There are only about ten countries in the world who still hunt whales for food. Norway is one of them, although they usually only catch around half of their quota. There are also those who actively campaign against the practice of whaling. For his part, this skipper has constantly been aware that there are two sides to every story. This article is historical and is recalled in order to make us think about this issue.
Having fished in Norwegian waters for a large part of my fishing life, we often came into contact with Norwegian fishermen and also with their very efficient Coast Guard, the Kystvakten. The fishermen rarely spoke at sea unless they had to, but they were never a problem. The Kystvakten however had a way of making you feel anxious when they came on board, even though you knew you had committed no offence. It may have been because they were the maritime military part of the Royal Norwegian Navy and very official. Never too friendly, simply super-efficient, and when they were finished checking your gear, your catch and your logbook, before the officer in charge left he would shake your hand, and say “Well done skipper, thank you”, and that’s when you breathed a huge sigh of relief. Strict but fair. But you also knew you could be boarded by the same vessel the following trip.
The Kystvakten’s responsibility encompasses fisheries inspection, customs enforcement, border control, search and rescue, shipping inspection, environmental protection and law enforcement, and an event relating to the latter two over 30 years ago, has continued to pray on this skipper’s mind to this day.
On one trip, in the late 1980s, we were fishing in an area called the East Boulders, about 60 miles from the Norwegian coast, when we heard Norwegian and English voices. A Norwegian boat had caught a whale and a marine conservation vessel, ‘Spoiler’, had been harassing the fishermen for some time and managed to cut their gear and free the whale, although it was trailing about a mile of line behind it. The skipper had called ashore to his office, who had contacted the Kystvakten and they arrived on the scene.
They ordered the ‘Spoiler’ to stop engines as they would be sending across a boarding party. Negotiations took place for about an hour and the conservation vessel was ordered to make for Stavanger. Her skipper said they could not comply as they had disabled their engines. The captain of the Kystvakten ship immediately sent across another two boarding parties, fully armed and took control of the ‘Spoiler’, rigged up a tow line and made for Stavanger.
Stavanger has two harbours, one further east near the town centre where the Port Control office is situated, and the other used mainly for merchant shipping and oil related work, to the west side.
The rest of the events were told to me by my agent in Egersund a few weeks later:
During the tow, the Kystvakten Captain was in constant radio contact with Norwegian authorities and it was decided to take the ‘Spoiler’ to a berth near the Port Control. Prior to this decision and before being relieved of his command, the skipper of the conservation vessel radioed ashore to his headquarters informing them that they had been arrested and were being taken in tow to Stavanger. The publicity process was set in train with the media being informed of the events and where they would be berthing. For them, this was a story of major import.
The next morning, all media groups were directed to the Port Control area. The road to the west harbour had been blocked off by police the night before, and the ‘Spoiler’ was towed to a quiet berth there in the darkness of the early hours. No massive publicity, no journalist interviews, only a twenty-four-hour armed guard around the vessel until a substantial fine had been paid, and she was released a few days later.
Reflecting on the above events and always trying to be fair minded, I tend to think the conservationists do have a point to their actions, but there are other times when I think that these actions are not going to help what is a more complicated situation than they perhaps first thought. During the conversation that took place between the ‘Spoiler’ and the Kystvakten prior to the tow, I was struck by a comment from the Norwegian captain.
“You have illegally damaged gear belonging to a Norwegian fisherman in Norwegian waters. You have cut away a whale with a large amount of line trailing behind it, and it is unlikely it will survive for long. This fishing boat has a legal right to catch his quota of whales, and he will now repair his gear and continue to fish. Which means because of your actions today, he will look for another whale, legally. Your actions have killed two whales instead of one.”
Currently listening to: Letter to You by Bruce Springsteen.
It was after being in the deepest part of the wood for the best part of the afternoon that I had my revelation. We had been walking for well over an hour and had actually circled back and were on our return journey. I searched and found a spot- a clearing in the pines- I had been to many times before so we could have something to eat. Nobody ever goes down there, to that part we were at, except the deer and some pretty large rabbits, badgers, foxes or whatever it was that made those huge holes we found but we were done with that and needed food. So we had headed back up to the centre and found the place for lunch. I sat on the ground with my back leaning against an old tree stump. Most other parts of the woods were heavy with water due to the recent rainfall but the pine floor here had dried out nicely if it had ever gotten significantly wet at all. This would be the driest area in the whole woodland.
I poured my lunch from my flask; my wife’s amazing lentil and vegetable soup. While enjoying my first small cup, I realised I had not been here, to this clearing, or even this woodland in quite some time. I couldn’t actually recall the last time I was here. There was a time I would come here two or three times a week. Now it wasn’t even once a month. I was needing something; a spiritual moment perhaps, a sign maybe to reconnect, to let me know all was well and I was heading in the right direction. Something, but what it was, I wasn’t sure.
The sun parted the trees in front of me a shone on me like God’s torch. It cracked the gap in the trees that were not yet fully leafless in the distant foliage. In this late October afternoon the sun shone on me directly. Like a beacon. This was the sign I needed, the comfort, the reassurance even. Like a semi-permanent lighthouse, I enjoyed the best lunch I had in ages, basking in the light and warmth of the after…voices!
A dog barks! No yelps, that was no bark, a Jack Russel or similar. They were still a while off yet but I heard it and so did my dog. He’s alert, ears up, tail wagging, eyes and nose towards the intruders. My meditative moment had been broken so I went back to enjoying my soup and took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the view. Not that it was much of a view and the pictures, like all pictures when compared to the human senses, don’t do it justice. The sun streamed into my face, in lines, cutting through the trees like a thick hot laser. The voices, still too far away to hear what they were saying, passed but they never noticed me, or the dog and I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts to want to talk or even care about strangers right now. They disappeared as quickly as they came and the beacons remained on me.
Where is this taking Last Wolf? Where is it taking me, or where is it telling me to go? The answer I came to realise then was quite simple. Here. Right here. This is where I found my sign and this is where I need to find my inspiration. At home with books, music, the internet; research whether its academia or Wikipedia, all that is fine but this is where I need to be. Right here, in this present moment and it has to be. Out here in the open spaces, or spaces forgotten, unused and unnoticed. My homemade soup tastes like ambrosia from Calypso. An old tree stump on a forest floor is as comfy as sitting on countless cushions, and I wouldn’t trade anyway. A light shines, beckoning to me. To show me what? The path, the light, the way. Last Wolf is the way. This is my inspiration. Where do you get yours?
“I’m a heathen, searching for his soul.” Primordial: Gallows Hymn
Currently listening to: Wolcensmen, Songs From the Mere E.P. Lady of the Depe is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard in some time.
Climbing with Crowley was not always rosy, as his forays further afield into Asia will attest. After ascending most of the Alps and several mountains in Mexico, including Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl and an aborted attempt on Volcan de Colima (which was erupting at the time melting their boots), Crowley and Eckenstein hatched a plan to tackle ‘the savage mountain’, K2. Eckenstein had experience of the Karakorum before, it was here he fell out with the expedition leader Martin Conway and therefore most of the Alpine Club. After two years of preparing, they set off with four other European climbers, in March 1901.
K2 was considered un-climbable and was only successfully summited in 1954, a far harder and challenging climb than Everest which is only 237m larger. As the group were to find out, the window of opportunity for summiting is extremely small and the weather is particularly harsh as well as changeable. The party had to deal with the extremes of sub-zero temperatures whilst at the same time getting sunburnt.
It’s important to realise just how difficult travel was at this time let alone mountain climbing. It took 14 days just to reach the foot of mountain and required a small army of people. Along with the six European climbers, were a squad of over 150 porters, 20 servants and 50 ponies for the extremely tough journey. They all had to be fed, which led to 18 sheep, 15 goats and several dozen hens beginning the ascent of the north east spur.
On top of this, for his intellectual nourishment, Crowley insisted on taking his ridiculous travelling library. He argued that mental health was just as important as physical. As wise as this seems, he proved to be not a good team player on this trip. He was an excellent climbing partner but his selfishness and egocentric behaviour came out in the most extreme of places and he did not work well in a team. His clothing was also unsuitable, being mostly cotton items he had purchased in India rather than the more sensible tweeds wore by the rest of the climbers. The porters and servants were also inadequately dressed for altitude in their goat skin clothing, but were better prepared than Crowley.
Crowley’s job was to lead small groups and establish camps at differing altitudes. He excelled at this, loving being in charge of what was Eckenstein’s trip, and no doubt playing the lord he proclaimed himself to be. But this was not to be a successful ascent. They were stuck at Camp X, (18,733 feet) for two weeks due to the weather, reaching as high as 22,000 feet from Camp XI but this is as high as they would get. It remained however an altitude record for seven years and not to be beaten on K2 until 1939. Crowley himself suffered from lice, dhobi itch, indigestion, constipation as well as having hallucinations, a temperature of 103˚F and had problems breathing. All the symptoms of malaria.
Whilst ascending back to camp, one of the climbers, Jules Jacot-Guillarmod, returned without his porter. The man had fallen into a crevasse and Guillarmod cut the rope. Disgusted by his behaviour, Eckenstein, Crowley and the others descended from camp to attempt an ill-fated rescue. The porter was lost, everyone was ill, camp life was incredibly difficult and the climb was over by August 3rd. They had been on K2 for 68 days and only 8 had clear weather. This would became another record for the longest time spent at altitude.
Clearly forgetting the behaviour he found so despicable on K2, once back at Boleskine, Crowley and Guillarmod made plans to conquer Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. At 28,169 feet it was a harder climb than even the unconquerable K2, only 82 feet its junior. Few Europeans had even seen it at this time. Crowley would only sign up to the expedition if he was to be the absolute leader and this was granted. They first approached Guy Knowles who was also on the K2 expedition as being a partner but unsurprisingly, Knowles refused. Perhaps he remembered Crowley had pulled a gun on him whilst refusing to ascend further up K2 in a storm. Eckenstein himself also declined. Kanchenjunga was dangerous and he did not consider Guillamord to be up to the task. He also hated him, partly for leaving the porter behind. Despite the warnings from his closest climbing companion, Crowley -aiming for another altitude record- pushed on with the planning.
Crowley left Boleskine for India on the 6th May but it wasn’t until arriving in Darjeeling on the 9th July that he got his first view of Kanchenjunga through binoculars. He concluded from that distance that the western approach from the col was the route they would take and also that it would be an easy walk, before ascending the south west face. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and Crowley’s famed recklessness, stubbornness and arrogance was to end this ambitious trip in disaster and death.
The rest of the party reached Darjeeling by the end of July. A shipwreck in the red sea had slowed their journey again highlighting how long and dangerous international travel was at the turn of the 20th century. Guillarmod had recruited only two others climbers, both experienced alpinists, though it was made clear that on this trip, Crowley was the boss. They set off on the 8th of August, again with a large group that included 3 Kashmiris he had employed on K2 and around 230 local porters carrying seven tons of supplies. They had 200 miles of ridges in between them and the foot of the mountain, but luckily the going was relatively easy to start. Heavy forest slowed their approach to the mountain as did the constant rain. Leaky waterproofs and leeches made every day a struggle.
Unsurprisingly, the south west face was not quite the easy walk Crowley had anticipated. It was obviously too dangerous, but it had been chosen and Crowley was the undisputed leader. The team almost immediately began to fall apart, mostly due to Crowley’s behaviour and treatment of everyone. He insisted on this route and pressed on in what was clearly reckless abandon, unconcerned with the sacredness the local people held the mountain in. The porters were not properly equipped; the climbers had crampons, the porters went barefoot. Nevertheless, Camp V was established at 6,200m and from there an attempt made it to 6,500m before an avalanche they caused forced them back. Crowley claims to have reached 7,620m.
After this, and fed up with Crowley’s arrogance, the others made a risky decision to descend to Camp III late in the day. This was against Crowley’s advice, according to his own writing, and he saw it as mutinous, but the camp was too small and ill-equipped for them all. The lack of appropriate footwear on the porters caused one of them to slip, and because all of them were roped together an avalanche was set off. Three porters and one of the European climbers, Alexis Pache, died. Hearing the frantic cries for help the remainder of Camp V set off to help, Crowley stayed in his sleeping bag drinking tea and then slept. He passed the site of the accident the next day upon descent and didn’t stop to speak to the survivors or offer any assistance in their rescue efforts. He continued straight to Darjeeling where he apparently pocketed the remainder of the expedition funds.
Crowley also showed little remorse upon returning home, gossiping about his partners and bemoaning their lack of skill. He wrote his version of events for the Daily Mail, possibly even in his tent the night of the fateful accident, exaggerating his own involvement and achievements. In the end though, it did no good. His mountaineering reputation was ruined and even Eckenstein would no longer put up with him. He made a trip to the Alps a few years later, all the while planning for more Himalayan adventure, but he would never return nor make any record attempts again. His already quite unpopular name had fallen even further out of favour and he was quickly forgotten amongst the mountaineering community. He knew his mountaineering days were over and he was to never climb seriously again.
Crowley was undoubtedly a world class mountaineer. His progress in the field stained by his other passions and lifestyle choices. He was to become and remain a drug addict for most of his life but it was mountaineering that gave this young man a sense of power where he lacked it. Had he ignored his magickal calling, he no doubt would be remembered as a pioneering mountaineer having broken many records during this nascent time period of the sport. His major climbs in the Himalayas may not have been successful but they were attempted nearly 50 years before they were finally climbed. His climbing received criticism at the time, he was deemed reckless and along with Eckenstein used unconventional methods such as solo climbing, un-roped pitches, short ice axes and crampons. But these techniques, and some of his routes, were undoubtedly ahead of their time and paved the way for modern mountaineering.
Bruce Bryce is going to take a break from thinking about Alesteir Crowley.
Currently listening to Ozzy, Dio and anything on Library of the Occult Records.
We delay the final part of our discussion of the great beast Alesteir Crowley with something altogether more despicable. This came to me whilst hollowing out the biggest pumpkin I have ever seen for Halloween. It was so big, my hand was genuinely getting sore from scraping the flesh off the sides of this massive vegetable; soup for a fortnight out of this bad boy. I stopped to rest my hand and thought to myself, don’t be ridiculous. This is a luxury, and if anyone has ever attempted to carve a neep, they’ll know exactly what I mean.
Now let us pause for a minute and clear up what a neep is. Regardless of what anyone says, it is not this…
It is in fact this…
Yum. And this is what we carved in Scotland on Halloween before the arrival of the gallant pumpkin from America sometime in the 1990s. Pumpkins are a piece of piss to carve. Neeps on the other hand are an absolute nightmare. They stink, they are dry, harder than stone and will either bend all your mum’s spoons, blunt all her knives or cut off all your fingers at the same time. I have nothing but smelly and painful memories from carving these things as a child, and the results are, well mixed. Admittedly, though they do look crazy. The neep can’t help but look like some sort of edible primitive folk art, which I suppose it is. We used to carry these monstrosities with a dripping lit candle inside; no battery powered night lights here.
Yes, I did say carry them. They weren’t just for sticking on the doorstep like the enormous pumpkins of our American cousins. The neep lanterns were portable, hardy enough to be supported by a piece of string and carried around all evening. But carried where? Don’t forget, the forgotten Halloween art of guising. Where you actually had to do something for your apple, monkey nuts or single toffees. This was an era before Fun-Sized confectionary; another invention from the 1990s. I had not realised the great strides forward humanity had made during that decade until now!
Poetry would be recited, I can remember Luke Skywalker doing The Sair Finger in our living room one year. Songs would be sung, instruments played, jokes would be told, scenes would be acted out with siblings. Unfortunately, I do not recall any of the routines I had to do so don’t ask. Maybe I did the Skye Boat Song. Then there was the ugly side of Halloween, when all the towns arseholes would go out anti-guising and steal all the profits made from those younger and weaker than them. Which was probably everyone.
Trick or Treat, pumpkins, decorating the outside of your house, all inventions that came from America to infiltrate the originators of Halloween, the Scots and the Irish. Like all good invaders these ‘traditions’ stayed and ours got the boot. So next year, when all social restrictions are gone, my daughters are going guising, carrying neep lanterns and God help them if they utter the word ‘candy’ in my presence.
Halloween may be more fun, but it is a lot less fucked up.
I’m still going to carve a big pumpkin though. Those things are fantastic. Happy Halloween.
Keyboard intros to metal songs aren’t really a thing. I love a bit of Van Halen, DLR era thank you Sammy, but alas, Jump isn’t metal. The Final Countdown? Cool, I suppose, when you’re 8. It’s very famous, but it’s maybe a victim of its own ridiculous success to be ever taken seriously. And of course it’s not metal either. Likewise the awesome, and heavy, Tom Sawyer by Rush. There has to be a load of Dream Theatre songs with keyboard intros, but I’ve never listened to that band in my life and I’m not dipping into their weighty back catalogue any time soon. Queensryche? Probably a heap of power metal too and there will most likely be some symphonic black metal that I can’t think of right now. Curse You All Men! Seventh Son, the song, is cool but that’s more synthy and it’s the guitars that actually play the riff. From Out of Nowhere by Faith No More is a good one. My personal favourite though is Rainbow in the Dark from Dio’s near perfect debut album, Holy Diver. It happens to be metal as fuck as well.
But the king of the bat-shit crazy keyboard intros of metal has to be Mr Crowley by Ozzy (see what I did there?) from 1981’s Blizzard of Oz. It’s a minute long, bears no relation to the rest of the song and unlike Rainbow in the Dark, it doesn’t reoccur at all. Genius. It was played by Don Airey, who seemed to be in every single significant band of the era, including Rainbow, Sabbath, MSG and is currently being John Lord in Deep Purple. He even played keyboards on Painkiller! Yup, that’s the same Painkiller by the ultimate heavy metal masters Judas Priest, though I’ll need to have a re-listen to find where the keyboards actually are*. Despite his mind-blowing credentials, (unsurprisingly if you’re aware of the Osbourne’s nefarious treatment of their musicians), Don wasn’t given writers credit for the intro to one of Ozzy’s most famous songs.
So why is the intro it even there? In the near 40 years this song will have been played live, they’ve never just missed it out, despite the intro having nothing to do with the track itself, musically anyway. The song would be unthinkable without it. What it does do, however, is set the theme of the song up. When Ozzy come in with the opening line “Miiiiisstttteerrrr Crowley, what went on in your head” for a full minute previously, you’ve been listening to this layered ceremonial piece that conjures up the world of magic, or magick in this case, that the real Mr Crowley created. I can imagine him swanning about in his ritualistic garb and triangular hat with an endless loop of Don Airey’s keyboards going on. I think Mr Crowley would’ve liked it.
But what the hell is all this metal talk doing on an outdoors blog? Aha! As perhaps a counter point to my previous piece about the Reverend Armstrong, who better to balance things out on the side of all things evil than the man once dubbed the wickedest in the world, whose own mother gave him his nickname The Beast as a child, the inimitable Aleister Crowley?
And it follows, why would Crowley feature in a blog known mostly for its pursuits of the beauty and inspiration of the outdoors, devote a thousand words to the great beast himself? Well the answer to this question is often missed or forgotten by those interested in Crowley, whether its occultists or Thelemic adherents or as an inspiration to countless heavy metal bands**. Like the good Reverend Armstrong, turns out Mr Crowley himself was not only a fan of the outdoors but a shit hot mountaineer as well.
Born into a wealthy family in 1875, Crowley had the luxury, surely a rarity at the time, of being well travelled as a youngster. He recalls his first trips to France and Switzerland in his autobiography at aged only 8, remembering the beauty of the sunrise over Rigi Kulm and the waterfalls surrounding the mountain. As a youth he was sickly and prescribed plenty of fresh air to treat a form of kidney disease called albuminuria, advice which he seems to have adhered to, taking to hillwalking in Wales, Scotland and the north of England with his appointed tutors. He took golf lessons in St Andrews of all places, with professional golfer Andrew Kirkaldy who placed 2nd in the Open Championship in 1889. This, crossing the path of the right people at the right time, was to be a reoccurring theme throughout Crowley’s life.
But it was holidaying with his mother during the summer of 1891 that Crowley was to experience a life changing trip to the Isle of Skye. Whilst staying at one of my favourite haunts, the Sligachan Inn, which was as popular then as it is now with people seeking not only the fresh air but access to adventure, the young Crowley fell in with a bunch of mountaineers that included Sir Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery and father of modern surgery. Encouraged by his mother for the good of his health, the young Aleister, then still known as Edward, went off for what he suspected would be a quick jaunt up a hill. His experience climbing Sgurr nan Gillean gave him a new perspective and love of mountains and mountaineering which he was to fall passionately into for the foreseeable future.
Mountaineering then was a very different pastime to the one we recognise today. This was a new sport at the time and popular with the wealthy. However it was extremely dangerous, the use of ropes in its infancy and ice axe and crampons being almost non-existent, more of this later however. Until the second half of the 19th century, the mountains of the British Isles were used solely by snooty Alpinists, in training for their forthcoming seasons, or as was becoming more popular in Crowley’s day, in the more far flung areas of the British Empire. The Welsh mountains, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland as well as more localised rocky outcrops throughout the British Isles, however, offered a new and wholly unique take on the climbing experience. At the very least, each area is notorious for its ever changing weather systems. A lot of new experimenting was happening on these mountains in the latter part of the 19th century as rock climbing became a world-wide sport unto itself, and not just one for the Alps. The British Isles at the time was the place to be for this new breed of unconventional climber, and like it or not, Aleister Crowley, the great beast, was at the centre of this.
To find out how much, be sure to catch part two next week. And listen to the song if you don’t know it. I’m a big fan of the live version from the Randy Rhodes tribute album, the soloing is incredible.
Bruce Bryce is a writer of horror fiction amongst other things
*Touch of Evil of course! Great song, so I’ll put it as number three on my top ten keyboard metal intros.
**For more of this see Alan Averill of Primordial’s excellent podcast Agitators Anonymous, who recently did an episode about Crowley’s continued influence on metal.
In this, the first in a series of explorations of the texts sacred to Last Wolf, I will attempt to explain a bit about the books in discussion for those who may not be immediately familiar with the text, as well as my own feelings or stories I associate with it. This is by no means from an academic perspective, merely from someone who loves to read and to share books.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”
Henry David Thoreau
Walden: Or Life in the Woods
A direct quote from Henry David obviously, it possibly being the most famous part in his most famous book, Walden: Or Life in the Woods is one of our most sacred texts. An American classic, it is both widely read and taught in high school and college syllabus but is far lesser known here in the U.K. First published in 1854, it tells an account of Thoreau’s two year long journey into ‘living deliberately’ by building himself a cabin in the woods near Concord Massachusetts. You can visit a replica of his cabin in the area around Walden itself, the name coming from the pond it was constructed at.
Thoreau is concerned that people are so occupied with the day to day “labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” and it surprises him that this is true of people living in a country as free as America. Contrastingly, he takes us through his day, the hunting and fishing, the repairing and maintenance, the seasons and the solitude. But sometimes he’ll spend an entire morning ‘rapt in a revery’ or an entire day watching one animal, for primarily, Thoreau is a naturalist and it is the wildlife that gets most attention. He studies wildlife, carefully watching the squirrels and foxes, jays and chickadees and most memorably perhaps, the loon that spends as much of its time underwater as it does in the air. The visitors he has are sometime human. He famously has three chairs, one for solitude, one for friendship and the third for society.
And of course we get his thoughts and philosophies. He describes his morning reading of that most famous of Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Geeta, as bathing his intellect, whilst his morning bath in the pond is also given religious overtones and turned into an almost ritualistic experience. Yes, the spirituality of nature is everywhere in Walden. Heaven is indeed under our feet as well as above our heads. Nature’s unlimited ability to renew life, inspiring Thoreau to grander thoughts and higher aspirations for himself and humanity.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
What does it mean to live deliberately?
Which brings me to thinking of Walden and what it means to Last Wolf, the phrase ‘live deliberately’ specifically which I use to sign off my communications. I use this term in connection with Last Wolf and in my own life, attempting to live my life deliberately and applying this theory to every aspect of it.
What? Let me give some examples.
Words have power. Think about the effect every word that comes from your mouth has on the listener, or of their perception of you. I recall something a friend’s dad said about one of our mutual friends. He said that when he first met our friend he thought he was simple (not his exact words!). This was until he realised that he was taking time over what it was that he was saying. Every word that came out of his mouth was considered and thoughtful, and for some reason that stuck with me. Coincidentally, this is a guy who lived in a tepee in the woods for four years so he didn’t have to pay rent whilst at college. He’s probably a big fan of Thoreau. This in turn translates to what goes on social media. I delete more comments than I write. In an age where an image is worth 1000 words, yet there are thousands of images and far fewer words, words are becoming increasingly essential.
Use time wisely. Making every minute count. Seems obvious but with a young family, this is especially pertinent. I’ve found myself writing future social media posts, ideas for blog posts etc. in the notes in my phone on my lunch break. Or while watching Frozen, again! Keep a notebook and use it. And connected to this is…
Make life work for you. How do we make the time in our modern busy lives? I’ve struggled with the hours in the past. It took me a long time to realise we are all given the same ones, it’s just how we use them that changes. Would I like more hours in the day? Sure, but I would prefer to get better at making use of the ones I have. And connected to this is…
Live the life that you want to live and not the one that society thinks you should. For example, in my real job, I’m a primary school teacher who has tattoos on his fingers and until Covid hit, fronted a death metal band. Just how many of them do you think there are? Me and Nocturno Culto? The professional progression tree may not suit some people, most people maybe. Do some people take on more responsibility or management roles because they actually want to, or simply because they want a bigger wage packet every month? Whatever your choice, make it suit you and not the other way round.
Recognise the beauty in the everyday. As Thoreau himself says “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth” resonates into the everyday existence of everyone on the planet. See the wonder in your own back garden. I once saw a meme that I agreed with completely. It was around the time of a big harvest blood blue red moon, or something. Let us just assume it was one of those lunar events that doesn’t happen too often. “LOOK AT THE MOON” exclaimed the meme “says me every night when I go outside.” Bang on! The moon is wonderful and you don’t need to wait until it turns blue and on the news to look at it. Get off your couch and go outside. It’s there all the time! And while you’re there, have a look for Venus too.
“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”
Ach, there’s tons more examples, but I’m not here to get preachy. Maybe we can revisit these thoughts. My aim is to share Walden, its ideas and how they have affected me and Last Wolf. Like I said previously, this isn’t a book that is read very widely in this country Next time we’ll maybe discuss something a bit closer to home.
When they pass me by it just fills me up with noise.
It overloads me.
I wanna disconnect myself,
Pull my brain stem out and unplug myself.
Whilst I’ve never met Henry Rollins (I’ve come close a few times), I know enough about him to be sure he would not admit to being one of the great song lyric writers of our time. However he is a prolific writer and has been since the mid-1980s, building up as devoted a fanbase as varied as his career. I’m thinking about the lyrics to this song Disconnect, the opening song on the Rollins Band 1994 album Weight.
I wonder how much Rollins was expecting the idea of being ‘connected’ to be taken to such an extreme and literal meaning 26+ years later. Is he predicting the rise of the internet and the smartphone, constantly being connected, the ability to never truly be away from work? He uses the word download!
Surely its far more important to ‘disconnect’ nowadays than it has ever been. There was less than 3000 websites in 1994. A ‘fact’ I recall but can’t seem to verify is that there was around 50 when Bill Clinton took office in early 1993. It might have been as much as 100. Back then I suppose it would have been entirely possible to read the entire internet. The number would grow to more than 10,000 by the end of 1994.
The first time I think I ever used the internet was at university sometime in winter 1995. I have no memory of using it before that in school. I can remember getting my computer science pal Dave to help me with accessing a massively complicated UNIX based sysa code thing with the most complicated email addresses ever, in order to message my friends in Edinburgh. Now of course I can do this in seconds with the black box of elements in my pocket. (http://lastwolf.co.uk/elements/)
The idea of disconnecting seems far more relevant in 2020 than it did in 1994. So this weekend I urge you to disconnect, even if it’s just for a short while. Pull your brain stem out and unplug yourself. Switch off Netflix and the laptop. Switch off the phone and leave it in a drawer. Use the airplane mode if you really find it difficult. Go outside and breathe the air. Walk like you did in 1994. Disconnect, and enjoy.
There’s a place I used to sit back home. Sometimes me and my friend would sit there, other times it would just be me on my own. I only think I shared that place with one or two other people.
It involved a bit of climbing and I don’t know how I came across it in the first place. I only ever went there on the way home late at night, like really late. 3 or 4:00am, those kinds of times, pitch dark or sunrise kind of times. Stop, climb, contemplate.
You accessed this place by a ladder, but you didn’t climb up or down. What you had to do was go through the gap, there was a waist high pole between the harbour wall and the building next to it, which possibly belonged to the church. The gap allowed access to the beach and this pole acted as a breaker to the nothing ness.
A rusty ladder went down to the rocks below. They’re called skellies here, they run out to sea, it’s not a beach that you can build sandcastles and have a picnic on. You have to start by climbing down the ladder in the normal manner although you climb to the immediate left and up and you will find yourself on a beautiful little ledge just big enough for one or two people to sit on. Your back is hidden by the tall harbour wall behind you and someone could probably climb down the ladder without even noticing you if you were quiet. As long as they didn’t look up, and to the left.
Often the coolest places are where you least expect it. Open the eyes of your spirit and look at things differently. Where’s your place?
Some of my earliest outdoor memories comes from walks with my granda’. I can remember getting our picture taken on the Dreel Bridge from local photographer Bill Flett of the Dundee Courier. I was maybe 4. It has helped that this picture has been at the top of the stairs in my mum’s house ever since, but at least I think I remember the day. It was warm, as it always seems to be in your childhood memories. I have shorts on in the photo.
Sometimes we’d walk two miles of the coastal path between Cellardyke and Crail to Caiplie Coves. These are natural sandstone caves that have been eroded by the sea, and man, for centuries. They’ve been used as a barn and a doocot, and as a shelter for Christian pilgrims, presumably on their way to or from St Andrews or possibly even the May Island. My granda’ told me that before the war there was a man, a hermit he was called, who had lived in the caves. He had a door at the opening and showed me where it had once been. I was baffled, intrigued and a little bit frightened. For years after I didn’t step into that part of the cave, and although I didn’t understand what the word ‘hermit’ meant, I found it quite scary.
Every time I walked past those caves I thought of someone living there, lonely, not speaking to anyone, no family, maybe chasing kids off that were climbing on his hoose. What drove a person to live in there? Granted, it’s better than nothing, but still it would be a fairly extreme place for anyone to stay, particularly in the winter.
As I got older and into teenage years, we still spent a lot of time there. We carved Iron Maiden, Slayer and Anthrax with penknives into the rocks. A nice counterpoint to the ancient Christian crosses we thought, how clever we were at 13! We swung on the rope swing that separated two of the chambers. We climbed the face, not an easy task with the soft crumbly sandstone, and dared each other to go down further into the deepest parts of the tunnel. You could go quite far into the hillside in those days. Shiteing it disnae come close!
But still, the thought of this man living there kept reoccurring in my mind. My old friend Bill, whose family have lived at Caiplie for generations, had a picture of the man in the cave in their house. Older still, though not by much, we started going to The Haven, the pub next to Cellardyke harbour. Lo and behold, whose photo is on the stairs, but this same hermit? I used to see this photo and think the same feelings that were in me when I was a bairn. Curiosity, fear, interest, who was he, how did he manage it and most importantly, why was he there?
Was he really a German spy and that’s why he disappeared just as war broke out? I had heard this story. But no, the truth is a little more unfortunate, tragic and poverty stricken. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and research done for a radio programme we now know at least a bit of the backstory of one Jimmy Gilligan, the hermit of Caiplie Coves.
Jimmy was a soldier, born in Aberdeen* into quite impoverished circumstances in 1859. By the age of twelve both his parents were dead and he was living in an orphanage. Enrolling in the Gordon Highlanders as soon as he was old enough, he served in Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880 and fought at the infamous Battle of Majuba Hill of 1881 during the first Boer War. This was a terrible battle and a right whipping for the British army, one of the most humiliating in history according to Wikipedia, with 92 killed, 134 wounded and 59 captured. Jimmy himself sustained some really serious injuries, in particular to his legs and head, which he was never to really recover from. He spent the next 25 years or so in and out of various hospitals and institutions, happening upon Caiplie on 1909 and moving in.
Too old for duty by the time WW1 kicked off, he volunteered anyway, but had been discharged in 1882 for assaulting a corporal. He no doubt suffered from PTSD and significant head trauma, as well as the injuries to his leg which made the walk to town or the local farm he sometimes sheltered at, especially in the dark winter months, very difficult. Due to the outbreak of war in 1914 he was no longer able to carry his lantern, or indeed have it on in his cave, contributing massively to the hardship of his existence at the time. The years were difficult and by the time WW2 comes around, and the same restrictions come back into force, Jimmy disappears from the Fife coast.
It seems unlikely he would be a German spy. I think he was just a war veteran, surviving as best he can in time with no compensational help for war wounded. And he seemed to be popular among the East Neuk residents. Jimmy turns up in a Leith hospital soon after, where he dies in early 1940. He died homeless, his last address given as 1, The Pleasance, Edinburgh. The Salvation Army Hostel has the same address to this day.
It’s a sad lonely, story. And looking at the picture of Jimmy you can tell the years have been far from easy; he looks a lot older than he actually was at the time. Was he someone’s grandad? My granda’ must have remembered him and known more about him, maybe even spoke to him. He would’ve been 13 years old in 1939, too young to fight Nazism but old enough to be shipped off to India at the tail end of the war. It’s one of those seemingly insignificant conversations that you wish you could still have with someone who is no longer here. Caiplie Coves, for all the memories I have of the place that are unconnected with him, for some reason really reminds me of my granda’, more so than any other place save his house and hut, Anster bowling green and Pittodrie. Maybe we only actually went there once and all my memories are from the same day, but I don’t think so. No doubt the tale of Jimmy Gilligan is intertwined in those memories too.
Like my mind, Caiplie Coves are much more eroded these days than they were near 40 years ago when I first went with granda’. They seem to change every time I’m there, which isn’t often these days, the last time was some 6 years or so ago. You can’t see where I carved Iron Maiden anymore, it was on the top, but you can see where the hinges for Jimmy’s door were hung. It’s still a special place for me and maybe in a few years, when my daughters are old enough, we’ll go there and tell them that I came here when I was your age, and that a hermit used to live here. Only this time I know his name.
* For anyone who knew my granda’, it just had to be there didn’t it!
Glossary of terms
Granda’: Grandfather to Sir Walter Scott. In this case, yer ma’s da.
Doocoot: A doo’s hoose. A pigeon’s residence.
Hoose: Abode. Dwelling. Residence.
Bairn: A wee lad. A child.
Shieting it: Filling one’s breeks. Really scared.
Disnae: Pronounced Disney. Does not.
Hut: A shed.
Anster: Anstruther. Fish and chips.
Pittodrie: Former dung hill for police horses. Hallowed Ground.
The following text is from the Sunday Post September 5th 1915.
Fife Coast Cave Dweller anxious to serve his Country
Jimmy Gilligan is an Aberdeen man. When he was young the life of a soldier appealed to him, and he threw in his lot with the old 92nd, the Gordon Highlanders.
He served for three years in Afghanistan under Lord Roberts. He also fought in the first Majuba, when he was wounded in the head – the mark of which he bears to this day – and also in the legs. Soldiering in these days was not what it is today. There were no special inducements such as allowances for dependants, and no compensation for the wounds sustained in fighting for King and Country.
He had an adventurous career before he chanced on the neighbourhood of the Fife Royal burgh. Broken in health, suffering from an internal malady and injuries to his legs, he had been out of one hospital and into another, when some six years ago he was discharged from one in Edinburgh. It was at his home that his footsteps brought him to Fife. He had no plans but as he trudged along the seafront the waves as they dashed themselves against the rocks took hold upon him. It was the beginning of winter and the sea was in its most entrancing mood. The wanderer was footsore and weary; he wished to rest.
And it seems as if nature had answered the unspoken prayer of the homeless man and provided him with a shelter for his head. The sight of the Caiplie Caves brought joy to the heart of Jimmy Gilligan. Here he could find rest for a time at least, but never for a moment did he imagine that the deep, dark cave in the heart of the huge rock would provide him with a home for six years and as he fervently believes, for many more years to come.
The weather, however, provided a deceiving factor. The storms of winter soon broke upon the land and, not being in the best of health, the wanderer was forced to make the best of the rude shelter which had so fortunately been found.
But while providing a cover for his head, the cave was by no means an ideal habitation. Damp and dark and open to the cold wintry blast from the North Sea, with the angry waters at high tide dashing practically to the mouth of the cave, there was little comfort to be found.
But Gilligan set himself to make his newfound home as comfortable as circumstances would permit. It was a slow process. Suitable materials for his wants was difficult to obtain. Not over-burdened with worldly wealth, he could not purchase what he desired. Here again Nature, provided him with much material wherewith to protect himself from the elements.
By degrees, he added to the comforts of his new quarters. By an ingenious device, he fitted up a stove in the interior of his cave and he quickly overcame the smoke difficulty by gathering sufficient piping to make an ideal chimney, which he carried through an aperture above the doorway. Flooring from the wood he gathered on foreshore kept him off the damp ground, and as the winter months passed and he had procured a bed, a table and several chairs, it occurred to him that he might do worse than take up permanent residence.
The Cave Dweller of Crail is a great favourite with visitors and he enjoys their visits to the full and is delighted to show his home to all callers. A farmer close by is very good to the hermit and Jimmy is often to be found there. He used to spend his winter evenings among the men employed on the farm, returning to his cave in the darkness. He always carried a lantern with him on these occasions as the road is a very dangerous one, but these happy evenings are now a thing of the past. A light at night on the Fifeshire coast is an offence, and Jimmy is forced to remain indoors after dark. This means a long, long, lonely night for the old man but he finds much pleasure in his books.
Some people have been asking me where the stuff is. Where’s the apparel? Where’s the shop part of the Last Wolf website? The answer is, it’s still coming, just not yet. Initially I was quite eager and impatient to get some products moving. I was aiming to get at least a few items out as quickly as possible which would mean a load out by now. But then I remembered what we’re already doing is the important part. The sharing of experience, the dialogue, the thoughts and the inspiration. So yes the products will come, eventually.
We’ve had emails and questions, sample products and test items, some good, some great. Finding the right ones is a bigger minefield than I thought possible but it has been narrowed down now. Sustainable, recyclable packaging is of massive importance to LW but it needs to be able to do a job as well as be good for the planet. Finding the perfect solution doesn’t exist, yet, though I hope one day either it does or I find it.
Four months our blog has been running now with a new post every single week covering a wide range of topics, from wild food to ministers, mountains to magic. This is the 19th post. A not so significant number maybe, but its 19 more blog posts than I’ve ever been responsible for in my life so far. It might be quite ambitious to keep this momentum up, I’m not sure, but for the time being we shall endeavour to continue this on a weekly basis.
I see this is as being the building blocks, getting the ball rolling, putting out the feelers, the chapter one (maybe it’s the preface), the Uruk Hai scouts out looking for the ring…you get the idea. I saw that famous picture of the early Amazon office the other day. Jeff Bezos at his desk, his 90s desktop computer a mess of wires with the company logo spray painted on a board. Good times. At least he had an office.
I’m not a social media guy really. I got Facebook in late 2014 as I felt like I missed out on a lot of information regarding the independence referendum. Like my friend Kat said at the time, all I really missed was a lot of people arguing and falling out, which was probably true. And still is. So this last 8 months or so are the most I’ve ever used my phone in my life.
We’ve run ads as an experiment across the world, and got a lot of likes in India and a lot of followers in South America. Why this is, I have no idea. The biggest difference I’ve noticed when it comes to social media is people sharing the posts. The right two people sharing a post goes further than about £10.00 worth of ads in terms of how many people see it. Crazy. This is all a learning curve for me, and I’m not afraid to admit that, but if you’ve ever shared one of our posts or pictures or stories, thank you very much. I still don’t really get stories though.
I am enormously grateful and indebted to the people who have already contributed content to the blog and/or the social media feeds. We are always open for more contributions, more people, more photos, words, art, whatever so please pass this message on to anyone you think would be interested. And better yet, do get in contact, just send us an email, message or dm. Start a chat, give a comment, pitch an idea.
Often I hear, ‘They only speak that in the Islands’ or, ‘It’s never been the only language in Scotland’ or, ‘It was only ever spoken in the West of Scotland’ or ‘It came from Ireland, its not really Scottish’.
Other than being meant as slightly disparaging, the one thing these comments focus on is geography, which is often how we think about languages, that they are of a place, not a people.
This becomes problematic with Gaelic when you read headlines like ‘Gaelic about to die out.’ Because instead of getting all our beautiful Scottish brains together to look at solving the issues involved we start thinking about place.
So lets start there.
Below is a map, showing place names in Scotland that contain BAL, which is either from the Scottish Gaelic baile or bealach meaning village or pass, farmstead, town or home. The map gives you an idea of Gaelic settlement in Scotland. (Shetland is not included, the place names there are influenced by Scandinavian languages like Norn).
It’s quite widespread, right? So lets stop thinking about Gaelic only existing in one part of Scotland, just for a moment.
Lets think about time.
It seems unlikely that all these places would have been built and named all at the same time. It would’ve happened more gradually and over a time period where multiple languages were being used in Scotland.
Celtic languages: Gaelic; Brittonic and Pictish. Scandinavian and Germanic languages: Norn; Scots and Scottish English. Even a bit of Norman French and Ancient Greek. Scotland has always been multicultural.
The languages that have survived are the ones that evolved with the people, the communities and culture of Scotland. They are the ones people used parallel to one another. Academics in language studies call this parallel-lingualism.
That means being able to use different languages alongside each other, for business or pleasure! Its way of pooling understanding, which is kind of what we do now, most Scottish people can pronounce Gaelic place names, if not because of an understanding of Gaelic pronunciations then certainly because they’ve heard the names being spoken.
And that’s it! This is the best technique to ensure survival of a language. To use it.
For this to work effectively, the use of these languages must be supported by the folk in power and used alongside English in official documents, giving people a choice and better opportunities for mutual understanding without compromising cultural heritage or identity.
This needs to be maintained at Government level and also from ‘cradle to grave’. If your prospects for succeeding or competing in business, arts, education, etc, is dependent on being able to speak English and only English, why would you keep your Gaelic or Scots tongue past primary school?
This sounds tough and it won’t happen overnight, but its called language planning and it helped Norway save Norwegian after they gained independence from Denmark in 1814.
What might be harder is breaking the conditioning that somehow Gaelic or Scots or Scots English is somehow lesser or, with the case of Scots, that it’s slang (it isn’t slang, it’s a language, it has dialects).
We need to use what we know of these languages as much as possible to keep these languages evolving with us. They are already a part of our physical landscape.
To that end, here is a free pdf that might help you understand a wee bit of Gaelic or find resources to help you learn Scots.
*DISCLAIMER: PDF contains adult language. Please do not download if easily offended.
I’ve found this article hard to write, to get any sense of ‘sense’ out of it! It’s a ramble and a bit of a moan so apologies in advance. I don’t really have any answers, though I do welcome opinions, ideas and maybe even answers, if indeed there are any. My thoughts the other day, as they regularly do, turned to accessibility of the outdoors as we tried to find a piece of natural and historical interest in the hills.
We were on our way home from a day out and took a detour for a reccy of a place we knew to be nearby. This is not an overly famous place, but somewhere I have never been, in an area I only know a part of. I was therefore immediately curious. Unless you’re a long distance cyclist or a local, you need a car to get to it.
I noticed the signs of overcrowding almost immediately as we got closer to our destination. The handful of rural houses nearby had put out directional sign posts, no access and no parking signs. Half a mile up the single track road, cars were parked on verges and in gaps in the fences. There were lots of people walking in the same direction, children, dogs, flip flops. The ‘official’ car park, space for maybe 10 cars, was of course full. People were everywhere, cars abandoned at the side of the road. We struggled to reverse and went out the way we had come in.
And here we are, trying to promote people using the outdoors. I am genuinely pleased that there is such an enthusiasm for these kinds of places. But we need to remember that these kinds of places were never meant to deal with mass numbers of people. In particular in dealing with visitors who have been indoors for months due to a global pandemic. I get that. It was also early afternoon, possibly the busiest time of the day, it’s a Friday in the summer holidays… I understand that if we went at 9:00am and on a dreich Tuesday in November it would be quite different. You’re not going to get the Eiffel Tower to yourself in July!
But I found this at odds with my own thoughts and beliefs that the outdoors is for everyone. It is, and we can’t expect kind hearted people local to areas like these to produce a bigger car park or empty the overflowing bins.*
It seems the days of going up a munro and having the entire mountain to yourself are gone. Driving through Scotland you can spot the starting point by the amount of cars in a layby or on grassy verges. Good luck finding somewhere to stop your camper van. And this popularity, again something we are trying to encourage, comes with a more worrying aspect. There is always the possibility of attracting ‘the wrong crowd’. The camping party goers. The litterers, the fires, the feeding of stags for Instagram selfies.
There is a local spot near us that I have not visited before though I have known of it for several years and had made a note to go there one day. It is quite awkward to find despite its location in central Scotland and is a fairly good walk through mostly private land. There is parking for exactly two cars safely and the site itself, is actually quite dangerous. This place has been inundated with people this summer, so much so that the police have had to go there regularly. This was previously a private and secret place.
Although I’d quite happily share any knowledge of places with any one asking, putting it blankly on social media is enough to spoil it and will attract the kind of people that will possibly abuse the site. There is nothing secret, nothing sacred. I have a hope that once initial interest wains, these are the kinds of people that don’t go on repeated visits. Once is enough, never again, especially if it’s strenuous. But there is that snobby attitude again that these spots are only for me because I found out about it ‘organically’. I wore the correct boots to access it and not a pair of Air Max or flip flops. I didn’t throw my banana skin and bag of Wotsits away when I was there.
Some social media groups I’ve noticed make a big deal of not sharing details of the place but just sharing the pictures. This is good practice, though I question the need to share the pictures at all. I guess that doesn’t make for a very interesting post. And the comments section are full of private messages anyway, promising to tell the asker where it is.
This issue does seem important to folks as I’ve seen it discussed a lot recently. Perhaps things will calm down once people can go off to Spain or elsewhere next year and there will be more space for the more socially conscious among us. I have seen calls for a ranger/police service like in American national parks, but I can’t see there being much support for that outside the serious outdoors community, or even a budget for it. The ranger service has been vastly depleted over the last ten years or so. When damage is done, littering etc. it’s a police issue anyway. Is policing and more bylaws really even an answer? I don’t know.
So here I am nearly 1000 words in and still not found my point. I guess it is this, are we, in popularising the use of outdoor space, contributing to the slow and ultimate destruction of these places? More people means more cars, more space and amenities needed, more potential business opportunities to exploit customers. And are we comfortable being a part of that?
On the other hand, why should places only belong to the culturally aware or the snobby outdoors elite? I don’t know, and I’m torn. Maybe I just wish people wouldn’t blindly share every single thing they do on social media with 25 detailed pictures. Or maybe I just wish people would think a bit more before asking on social media where the best places to go or things to see are. Do at least a bit of leg work and research of your own back. Look at a map and go. Or don’t bother with the map. Is it even a sense of adventure when someone else has told you not only how to do it, but what to do? And technology not only introduces you to it, it takes you through the experience and even in some cases, is the sole reason for it. God loves a selfie after all.
Those confused should write to us at email@example.com.
With two daughters, the oldest two and a half, the other approaching one, the time and the chance for a walk lasting longer than 45 minutes these days is quite remote. A few weeks ago, as they were both at their nana’s house, I laced up my boots as quickly as possible and practically raced towards my nearest hills. I had a window of around three hours. I knew I could get to, up and back home again in the allotted time to a hill known as East Cairn, on the very periphery of the west Pentland Hills.
I have ascended this hill many times, it being so close to my house. I was therefore quite surprised when the small car park, known as Little Vantage, was full but was able to leave the car at the entrance safe and out of the way.
East Cairn and West Cairn is ascended by way of an old drove road that runs through the middle of them. The first time I came here I didn’t know about this path. I was still in my more reckless exploration phase. Abandoning the car and wandering wherever you wanted was my ramblers right. Maps and dykes be damned. If it was there I wanted to see it and I didn’t even consider searching for it or even looking at a map. At this time I wasn’t the owner of a dog either so this kind of walking suited me well.
My approach was from further west, past the reservoir, and the remains of Cairns Castle. This belonged to the former warden of the pass, Sir George Crichton, the Earl of Caithness. A self-appointed yet seemingly necessary role which I shall mention later, it’s still a long way from Caithness. I had seen a car park at the fishery and decided that was my route. Struggling onwards and upwards through the heather and the bogs, it took far longer than it should have. I followed a burn that extends up and into the middle of the two hills for a while, which I found out later is the Water of Leith.
That’s one thing that having no children and a lot of time allows is the ability to be able to explore without the need for being somewhere at a certain time. I miss these opportunities to do things in a time that suits me and admit to finding this difficult. Without time constraints, you take in so much more, see everything from different viewpoints, you make mistakes and learn from them. You get more of a feel for the landscape because you have allowed yourself the time to do so. A time schedule makes you miss that as it becomes more about getting something achieved rather than an exploration.
I visited the ruins of an old drover’s cottage. Walked out to a promontory for no other reason than just because I could and I was there. I took the wrong way back and it didn’t matter. As a result of this, I startled a buzzard sitting on a fence post that flew off on front of me as I crested a hill. I really got an idea of its wingspan as it flew away that you don’t get from seeing them from a car.
Anyway, back to the present day. Jumping out of the car with the dog we marched off quickly through the initial boggy stages. There had been quite a lot of rain recently and I had forgotten the path can be quite waterlogged. I am grateful therefore to the Friends of the Pentlands group for providing such excellent sleeper boards at the particularly marshy bits, and the footbridge at Gala Ford built in 2010. This no doubt adds to the pleasure of the walk rather than show the human imprint.
But the human imprint is all over this land and it makes it interesting. The initial stages are through farmland with horses, cows, sheep and sometimes bulls either in fields next to you or sometimes right with you. As a result the dog was on his lead at times going past the farm but he is more interested in the rabbits. The track itself follows the Cauldstane Slap, a slap being an old word for a pass, and cauld meaning cold, which given the remoteness and windiness is a very evocative and appropriate name. It is part of one of the main drove roads, where cattle were driven from the highlands to markets down south. This one most likely went from Falkirk or further north, across to West Linton and Peebles before going on to markets in England. It was a dangerous place hence the need for a warden. The nickname the Thieves Road comes from the proliferation of lurking robbers and cattle reivers hidden on the route. Despite its proximity firmly within the central belt, it still has a feeling of remoteness about it that echoes the Highlands more than its location may give it credit for.
Upon reaching a patch of gorse just over the bridge, I discovered a sheep’s skull that I had left to naturally deteriorate a few years ago was still in its hiding place. Leaving it alone for the time being, I vowed to get it on the way back, pleased as well as surprised. Another one for the garden fence.
Following the slap up in between the two cairns, we turned left at the fence that runs east to west. It gets a bit steeper here and I was reminded how long it had been since I had done any hill walks or even exercise like this. Feeling unusually out of shape, and breath, I had to stop a few times to admire the view. I realised that I was in such a rush to get out, the digestive biscuit I had eaten since 7:00am wasn’t really the required energy for maximum performance. I was weary, but it was now after two so I promised myself some food and coffee at the top at the large cairn.
Unfortunately for me, someone was already having their lunch in the cairn so we kept going, continuing down the north-west side. This is quite steep and sore on the ankles, though at least short. Eating while walking is never a good idea but once back on level ground I ate a little. Stopping again at the bridge for some coffee and so the dog could play in the water, I realised that this was my first proper rest and I needed it. Gone are the days where I could fire up a mountain without stopping, or walk for 10 hours straight. Shocked would be too harsh a word, but I would definitely say I was surprised at my lack of fitness.
This is not meant to put anyone off, but an assessment of my own performance and my pre-children fitness level. They are excellent hills for those who feel like they can never be a hill walker and want to give it a go. They are accessible, the walk in is fairly flat and lengthy (although boggy) and the initial climb slight. You don’t even need to go up either cairn, the path continues on to West Linton, or you can just turn back and see where you’ve come from. But it’s a good walk in with a sharp incline to reach the summit on East Cairn. West Cairn is much more drawn out, taking a little longer with a much more disappointing top, but still worth a look for the views out west.
Picking up the skull from its hiding place we headed for home. Once back at the car I realised I had shaved half an hour off my time. I guess there is something to be said for head down walking when it’s necessary. No signs read, no real views enjoyed, no restful lunch eaten, just hit the tracks, and get up the hill and back. Was it enjoyable? Of course it was and a well needed walk post lockdown, absolutely. Recommended, as is the classic book on Scottish Drove Roads.
Give yourself three hours to enjoy it properly. 2.5 miles from Little Vantage car park to the highest point of the slap between the two Cairns. Another 5 miles to West Linton. Enjoy.
I’ve always believed in magic. Not cutting ladies in half or rabbits out of hats; but that anything is possible, how every day moments can feel magical. My dad used to say how he loved my view of world and often advised me to stay in that world for as long as I could. But we all get older, (although not always wiser). Stuff happens, we grown up and face realities. We play less, read less fantastical stories and encounter hard times, all of which changes our view on magic. Life is busy.
Then I met my soul mate and suddenly I started to see the magic in things again. Sharing stories from our childhoods, visiting places from our pasts, going on adventures and taking a slower pace to just enjoy each other and whatever we were doing, wherever we were. I thought all of the magic had returned.
Then I had children. They brought magic in abundance. They brought it in the obvious ways, just being them. But the most notable magic they brought, is by looking at things through their eyes. How a walk to the local corner shop can be a big adventure. How they stop and smell flowers, feel trees and ask why that stone lives on that part of the pavement and ask me how it got there. They see wonder and magic in everything and it’s contagious. I’ve found that my pace has slowed, my eyes have opened and I wonder, touch and smell everything I can with them. It does mean I don’t just ‘nip out’ anymore and a walk to the local park can take hours, but it does mean I’ve encountered Gruffalos, jumped in puddles, picked buttercups, knocked on fairy doors and spoke to a lot of dogs and their owners.
The world away from social media, the news and constant negativity is still a really magical place. Do your soul, mind and lungs a favour: get out and enjoy the outdoors. Even if you don’t find pirate treasure or chase a unicorn, it can still be pretty magical.
Scotland has a fantastic offering of wild foods all year round – from edible plants and flowers, to berries, seaweed and mushrooms. Here’s a couple of the things that I have become confident enough in identifying to put on my plate… but I’ll begin by saying that I would not call myself a forager, but rather more of an ‘opportunist rambler’. I love cooking, and eating, and walking – so it makes me super happy to be able to incorporate all of these things into one.
After some years of working in restaurants that specialised in local seasonal produce, I had a growing knowledge of Scotland’s larder. I knew what a lot of the ingredients looked like when they arrived cleaned and ready for cooking, but how and where would I find them in the wild?
Some 7/8 years ago, when living in Edinburgh, I decided to give foraging a go and try my hand at hunting for some wild garlic. I had eaten it in bread and in pesto and the smell of it cooking in the restaurant was just incredible (I’m a big garlic fan). After a quick bit of research I set-off on my first venture to try and source some free wild food and after a walk across the city, I found a large patch of what looked potentially like wild garlic. It was green, and leafy, and smelled like chives… and there was loads of it! I moved a little further away from the footpath to find some virgin territory (the main path was popular with dog-walkers), and the trees provided some welcome privacy because I was a little nervous of the thought of someone stopping me and asking me what I was doing, when I really didn’t have a clue. I brought a carrier bag full home, washed it up and blended it into a pesto – it was tasty and I was super proud of having made something so simple as a pesto from foraged goods. Years later, I discovered that this wasn’t actually wild garlic I had found, instead it was three-cornered leek, another allium hence the chive smell, but apparently quite rare to find compared to wild garlic, and I’ve never found that anywhere else again since.
Wild garlic is something I look forward to finding every spring now, and when you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to identify it without any doubts (plus the smells helps too!). On a warm spring day you’ll likely smell it before you see it. The leaves are broad and darker green (compared to the longer, slimmer leaves of the three-cornered leek), and it flowers with dainty star-burst white flowers (which are also very tasty). I missed the wild garlic season last year due to moving house and job but on one of my many lock-down walks of spring 2020, I scoured my surroundings each day to find some wild garlic by our new home in Inverness. Another day, another walk – no sign of it. Does it grow this far north, I wondered? Maybe the terrain here is too acidic, too alpine for something so delicate to grow in the usual places. I had all but given up on finding any wild garlic in the Highlands this year until one day, when I was walking home from town, I spotted it – in all it’s leafy, stinky, garlicky glory – a huge patch of it. Bingo. We ate wild garlic with everything, and I mean everything, for about two months. Wild garlic pesto in pasta, gnocchi, risotto, on toast, wild garlic leaves with eggs, in potato salad, soups, cheese scones… We gave jars of pesto away to friends and colleagues and put some in the freezer for when mushroom season came back around…
Chanterelles, probably the most abundant and widely known of edible wild mushrooms, can be found from summer through to autumn nestled in mossy, sloping woods underneath a mixture of broad-leaf deciduous trees. Once you find the real thing, they are pretty unmistakable – fleshy, egg-yolk yellow and trumpet shaped with an apricot like scent – but I had found myself unknowingly picking a whole bunch of ‘false chanterelles’ the year previous to last. It’s hard to determine by descriptions alone exactly what characteristics to look for when you don’t have anything to compare it to visually. As far as foraging goes – mushrooms aren’t one to experiment with if you have any doubts whatsoever. Not certain about the ones I had picked the first time, my partner and I cross examined the orange/yellow stems when we arrived home only to discover after some extensive online researching that they were indeed fake, and poisonous, and although we didn’t eat them in the end, we’ll never make the mistake of picking these ones again. The best piece of advice I would give to anyone else new to this is if you’re not 100% sure – don’t eat it!
After that year I invested in a pocket-sized mushroom book to pop in our bag for future walks and last autumn, on a rainy Sunday afternoon cycle somewhere in the far north of the Cairngorms was where we first struck ‘gold’. We had been looking out for chanterelles (also known as girolles) on our woodland adventures for a while now and were so stoked when we found a plentiful supply in a location that I won’t name. Hidden deep in the moss under the trees the chanterelles shone like little golden nuggets against the forest floor. Feeling much more confident after having researched it so thoroughly we picked a good couple of handfuls each and popped them in my rucksack to clean up at home.
Lucky for me, my other half is a dab hand in the kitchen and put together a cracking dish featuring our wild garlic pesto and the freshly foraged mushrooms (with a tasty glass of wine to wash it all down too). I’ve also cooked them up really simply in butter and garlic and had them on toast which was also delicious. Cooking with foraged food brings a huge sense of achievement, and massive respect for the ingredients knowing exactly where they have come from. I haven’t mustered the patience to pick enough wild blueberries to make any kind of cake or dessert with them yet – but I just enjoy them as a wee snack while out walking.
We really are spoiled for choice for produce on our doorstep, and to make sure there’s plenty to go around for us and our forest friends for now and in the future we need to forage carefully and responsibly. Have a closer look the next time you find yourself out for a walk and see what you can find. The Woodland Trust have some great tips and guidelines on foraging on their website for anyone keen to learn more.
Laura Murray is a Scottish Highland based traveller, outdoor adventurer, food fan and opportunist rambler.
I love exploring the outdoors. The problem for me is avoiding temptation to just go a wee bit further, just off the track a wee bit, just to see what’s there. Before I know it I’m far off course and checking my map to see where I was meant to be going.
Research is like that too. In writing my book I’ve explored a lot of areas in written history and discovered some incredible stories that are pretty far away from the route I was supposed to be exploring.
One of these stories is about the Great Caledonian Forest.
Prior to descending into this particular research rabbit hole, there were two things that I believed about the Great Caledonian Forest:
It was all Scots Pines. Those great looming giants in the forest. The unmistakeably wonderful smell and the carpet of fallen needles beneath your feet on the forest floor making crunchy noises as you walk over them.
The forest was so big and dense, the Caledonians and Picts evaded their enemies The Romans, by just melting into the trees.
However, according to carbon dating and fossil records, at the peak size of the Great Caledonian Forest the Scots Pine only made up a small portion of the trees in the forest. Oak, Elder, Ash and Elm outnumbered it greatly.
In fact, Scots Pine only really starts to get established in Scotland around 9,600 years ago.
And as for the Romans…well, if you look at the areas where the Romans were in Scotland and you compare that to the map of the forest, it seems hard to believe it posed that much of a problem.
At the time Tacitus was writing about Scotland they were having a terrible time trying to subdue the people of Germania. The pine forests of Germania were a well-known issue for the Romans, so it would’ve seemed a fairly reasonable excuse for the Romans back home, if Scotland had the same dense pine forests and that was the reason no-one could get a foothold.
The Romans did like to embellish the truth somewhat.
Another thing I learned about the forest was how big it was and when I found out it blew my mind. 6,000 years ago it nearly covered the whole north of Scotland. I’ve drawn a rough green outline of it here, on a modern map to show it’s footprint.
If your house was in the forest you would’ve shared your garden with a huge variety of species including wolves, Lynx, beavers, squirrels, deer and wild boar.
By 1950 the forest had been reduced to just 1% of its original size.
There is an on-going effort to re-establish and regenerate this amazing piece of our cultural and living heritage. The replanting programme has, prior to Covid-19, been running at 4,500 hectares of new trees planted every year, a number which has gotten bigger since the Scottish Government have pushed it a bit more.
The aim over the next 200 years is to increase tree cover in Scotland by 640,000 hectares, bringing it up to 2million hectares.
That would mean around a quarter of Scotland would be covered in trees by the end of this century. The forests already generate over 30,000 forestry jobs, and the economic benefits of increased tourism would be immense.
Eileen Budd is a writer and illustrator currently working on an ancient Scottish saga. A far more detailed map of the forest will make its way into the book, so tree fans can look forward to that. You can find her on instagram: @eileenbudd
Admittedly, sometimes especially in the winter, it can be pretty grim. 70mph winds outside, torrential rain, mud everywhere. Even today in the ‘summer’ the weather is mostly rain and wind. It’s a bit shit to be honest and tough to even get out of the house. Don’t worry, like Annie says, the sun’ll come out tomorrow, although tomorrow might be four months away. For me though, for a good chunk of the year, even in Scotland, an outdoor gym is far preferable than the indoor variety. I’ve had several in the last twelve years or so. Here’s what I’ve learned to working out Last Wolf Outdoors style.
Duh, that’s obvious? Yeah it is, but if you’re still paying £40 a month to not use your Bannatynes membership pay attention. Bruce Lee said that running was the king of exercises, meaning that it is a complete exercise covering most parts of the human body. What he doesn’t mention is that anyone can do it with little or no equipment. Although I never met him, I’m pretty confident he didn’t mean running on a £2000 treadmill in an air-conditioned corporate money making hellhole that is as interested in your health as Bruce Lee was interested in eating crisps on the couch watching cat videos.
You can work out anywhere.
If you don’t mind being seen exercising of course and if you pay for a gym membership, you don’t. Your garden, the patch of grass next to your house, wherever, the location doesn’t matter. My friend used to lift the garden shed. Shedlifts, honestly. I used to do sprints and bear crawls around the local football field every night, the lines make good markers but you will get some funny looks. Odd that if 11 or 15 men were doing this rather than one, passers-by wouldn’t bat an eyelid. We are all perfectly used to seeing runners in their lycra gear, gadgets and ever present water bottles, yet performing burpees in the park looks weird.
Another thing I used to do was go to the beach and throw rocks. One winter a storm forced hundreds of rocks up onto the shore and covered the coastal path. I made it my mission to put them all back in the sea. I failed. “Exercise or civic duty?” A local dog walker asked. Most people will look at you funny when you throw rocks, do burpees or bear crawls outside, but yours is a spiritual and mental quest as well as a physical one. Learn to ignore theirs.
Survey the area thoroughly first, you don’t want to put your hands in dog shit or glass if it’s a well-used area. Nettles or thorns aren’t great for bare hands or feet either. Use common sense and probably best to not drink any of the available water either.
Woods are best
But if you are secretive and don’t want people thinking you are an utter lunatic, if its available to you, take yourself somewhere quiet and out of the way. This is the ideal as it leaves you open to explore all kinds of movements under your own circumstances without fear of being socially branded. Want to wear a ski mask and sweat suit, no problem. Want to dig a hole in the ground to bury yourself in, go for it. Broad sword swings in a suit of armour is encouraged.
Find a clearing in trees, the further off the main path the better. You don’t want to be having to stop to let dog walkers past all the time or come face to face with a slobbering Labrador. Pine forests will stay drier and don’t really get muddy. This is really the ideal floor to work out on, its soft, safe and you can see what is on top. If there is lots of leaves lying around, you never really can tell what’s under the surface. Grass is good, though long grass is problematic and can be quite unsafe. You might want to do several different workout styles in different venues though. The gym I used most in my life, Deadwood 1, was about a mile down a country path. This afforded a good warm up run and then I turned off into the pine trees for a few hundred meters or so. The main path was only really used by dog walkers or fly tippers. My wood gave me plenty of space but I could also see anyone coming in. I actually only ever saw one other person on that road and they walked past my gym entrance without even a glance in.
Things to look for
One of the good things about outdoor gyms is you have to use your imagination, the rowing and squat machines aren’t sitting hygienically waiting for you. Improvise, look for logs to press or squat with. Try and deadlift fallen trees. Although you’ll never really know what weight they are you can assume that their really fucking heavy. Ever tried lifting a dead tree? Give it a go and see tough guy. Look for low hanging branches that can take your weight for pull ups or leg hangs, pine trees aren’t great for this. Actually, are the trees climbable? Climbing is great exercise, time yourself. Deadwood 1 had an old smashed pipe running through it. I assume it was part of the nearby quarry or part of the field run off. I used the different sizes of pipe for different exercises. Smaller ones you could curl, bigger ones could be carried. Speaking of carrying, look for rocks. A pile of rubble can be very useful. Throwing a rock in a field is great messy fun.
At the ‘entrance’ to Deadwood 1, in reality a fly tipped gap in the hawthorn, there was a lot of manky old tyres. I piled them into a stack to hit with the sledgehammer I brought with me. Or I would stand at the top of the hill and throw them down and then back up again like in Superman 3. Lay down obstacles to jump or leap over. Big rocks and bigger fallen trees are useful for box jumps or elevated press ups. Everything isn’t laid out for you with attached safety warnings and programmable programmes, and this is a good thing. Push that wheel. Get creative.
You are not surrounded by people
This is a biggie for me as I never do well working out in front of strangers. But it also means there isn’t lots of people looking cute, checking each other out or sitting on their phones hogging the equipment. I’ll drive past gyms at their peak times and they are so busy, particularly during certain months of the year, you’d be lucky to get on any of the machines in your schedule. This puts me off using gyms as I don’t really have a lot of time to wait for someone else to finish. No waiting in the outdoors gym, no annoying queues and nobody looks at you weirdly when you dare to warm up properly, stretch in the corner when you’re done or scream like a maniac when you’ve just pb’d your lifts. “Could you please stop shouting sir you’re upsetting the ladies Pilates class.”
If you are the kind of person that craves the attention you get in the gym, by all means go to one and be around people. No one in the woods cares about your biceps or yoga pants. Which inevitably leads to…
This is a big irritation for me in commercial gyms. No TV screens, no terrible music that you hate. If I’m trying to squat my own bodyweight I don’t want to see the news, or sports, or hear whatever shit music is on. If I’m not listening to Revenge or Archgoat, all I want to hear is the sound of my own exertion. Of course it also means there is no handy clean towels, sanitary water provision, shower room or Jacuzzi but fuck all that unnecessary shit anyway. You get what you pay for.
Make it interesting
One of my regular gym spots when I moved away from Deadwood 1 was atop the defensive ramparts of an Iron Age fort, which is possibly even older than that. I’d take my hammer or wear the weighted vest and run up the hill and do a variety of workouts on top. Box jumps or dips on the rocks, shadowboxing round a small fire. I really feel the history in the land and the stones and ditches left. To be using ancient historical sites in such a manner I think is far more respectful than turning it into a quarry and then ultimately a landfill site which is what it became.
What’s nearby? An old castle, some ruins, a mountain, Indian burial ground? Train like you’re an immortal. Gimme the prize! There can be only one.
Oh man, the smell of anywhere outdoors beats the hell out of the smell of multi-sweaty workout folks. I’ll take the slurry pit. Mixed deodorants and such like give me a headache and flashbacks to high school changing rooms. But think of the benefit to your lungs. Working out is for the entire body, you may only see the external effects, but the internal ones are just as important. No climate control or air conditioning out here, just air. And that’s all you need.
Who cares what I’m wearing…
That’s me quoting Annie again. Tatty old shit doesn’t cut it at the modern gym, and yes you do look like you’ve just crawled out the bin in that stained Lonsdale hoody and worn out tracky breeks. Guess what, the woods care not. Hell, do your yoga naked if you want. I have.
You toughen up quickly
Yes, your hands are going to hurt, your feet probably too if you go barefoot. You should be barefoot by the way, what the hell would the point be of all this feeling the earth beneath your feet be if you’re wearing £100 Nikes? But you’d be surprised how quickly your skin hardens and your body adapts. You get used to the cold and damp. Your feet and hands get calloused and rough but ready. You are making your body useful again. Like your ancestors. Like how people used to get their exercise through their work, negating the need for exercise, gyms and the fitness industry because nobody was sedentary. If you were, you died. This is the real world, not squat machines and comfortable lat pull downs, and you will feel the benefits in the real world. A few months of doing this you’ll feel like you were carved out of wood. Ever worked out in the snow? It’s a great feeling and you can imagine you are Rocky training to battle Drago and save America.
As dried leaves, or twigs and pines pile up all over you, with mud on your face, hands and clothes, your body is getting used to the natural world again. Somehow it feels right and that is because you used to do this. This is what it was like when you were a child and it feels good. But the shower you eventually have when you get home feels incredible and is well deserved. You could have the worst shower in the world but it feels like a total winner when you get in it after one of these workouts. You’ll appreciate it so much more.
Being an outdoors enthusiast is a blanket term we use that has an unlimited amount of meaning. For me it generally means walking, hiking in particular, long walks and many hours through woods or up hills and mountains. But it also means spending time in our local country parks with the family, dog in the river, daughter collecting sticks. It also means my dad throwing stones for the dog at the beach while he runs into the sea, daughter collecting shells. It means her putting on her wellies and waterproofs and walking around our local area, touching trees, inspecting leaves, saying hello to sheep, horses and cows, collecting daisies.
For everyone else it’ll mean different things. My friend thinks nothing of dropping a 70 mile cycle on a Saturday. This absolutely blows my mind, and is not for me, though I never completely dismiss an idea! Last year for some reason or other canoeing/kayaking entered my thoughts as a potential new hobby. I have always enjoyed the times I have done this in the past and am keen to get into it, though in the future, as new hobbies are not something I really have the time for.
The classic idea of an outdoors person has to do with carrying an axe over your plaid work shirt, beard looking resplendent as you build a cabin for your young family, deer skin hanging on the walls and the food on the table is what you caught that day. Or your eyelids freezing and snow collecting in your moustache as you climb the face of that mountain, alpine axes in your hands, rope and carabineers around your waist, cursing the day trippers who took the easy route. Bullshit. We have been sold this ideal for too long, your life and your pursuits are just as relevant.
Who can claim to be more outdoors in this completely fictional scenario?
The old guy who walks his dog three times every single day of the year. Each morning he is up at six, sees the sunrise for most of the year and set again in the evening. He sits for a good part of his afternoon on a bench, talking or reading if no one’s around. He feeds the ducks.
Or the self-proclaimed rugged outdoorsman, with the heavily manicured beard. He spends an inordinate amount of money on gear and expensive clothing, so he can sit in his office job day in day out with the occasional Saturday trip to the mountains or river. From here he posts pictures on his social media account of how outdoorsy he is. #livinglifetothefull
Why do I care? Well in actual fact, I don’t, each to his own. Life’s too short and too busy to be worrying about that and it makes no difference to me what your plans are or how you spend your time. But my point is that there is an unlimited amount of things you can do that enables you to qualify being an outdoors enthusiast. So go and grab your book and sit outside on a bench or under a tree and read. Take your lunch outside if you’re at work, wrap up if it’s cold. Take a walk along the canal, the shore, whatever is close to your area. Plant a tree, or better yet plant many. Buy that bike you were always going to get, or those running shoes, kayak, walking boots or jacket, whatever you need.
Take that first step into getting outside, you’ll be glad you did. And say hi to that old guy.
Photos by R.K. Hughes of his wife. She would walk all day.
When the notion takes me, I like to cycle along the waterfront to the neighbouring wee towns and do a spot of beachcombing. There are two reasons for this really:
1 The view is pretty special, but more importantly…
2 It’s a bit like treasure hunting!
First though, there is a ritual. Get the bike out, get a bucket, make sure phone is charged, find headphones (usually a nightmare), get on Spotify, then deep breath and off we go.
I admit, I cycle a bit like an old lady, which I find hilarious as I also ride a motorbike, but there’s something so lovely and relaxing about sitting up proud, sun on my face, no leathers, no helmet, just free in the wind. I don’t have a fancy bike, but don’t get me wrong, its ace! It was gifted to me from one of the senior ladies in my gardening group. It has a furry seat and a wire basket on the back. I LOVE IT.
Off I go along part of the John Muir Path, out along past Cockenzie Harbour. I love to sit there and watch the sun set, then along behind the old power station. I usually stop along the way and take hundreds of photos, probably of the same things but I’m always looking with eyes of wonder and it is like I’m seeing it for the first time every time!
When I pick my spot, I climb down off my bike, take off my shoes and let my feet take me exploring. Barefoot, sun on my skin, eyes down, music playing (sometime I sing out loud), it’s heavenly. Sometimes I turn off my music and keep my headphones in, as this way no one bothers me, and I listen to the sea.
Penny Forbes is an East Lothian based artist and gardener. You can find her work on Instagram at @pegeggleg
Our land offers the chance to connect with our ancient past.
Not just imagine it, actually find it.
My obsession with ancient Scottish history has been with me for as long as I can remember. As a child travelling up to Inverness visiting family, my brother and I would spend hours, staring out from the back seat windows at the glens, lochs and forests as they slowly moved into view. The magnitude of the Highlands sparked our imaginations. We talked about clan warriors and chieftains of the hills as if they were still alive and re-enacted battles they might have fought at nearly every rest stop.
As I got older I read as much as I could about the Caledonians and the Picts but it became frustrating because most of the information available perpetuated the pro-imperialistic, pro-Roman myth that these ancient people, our ancestors, were nothing but barbarians.
It’s a myth that’s being challenged, as more and more archaeological evidence is discovered and traces of their ancient civilised culture is unearthed.
For example, we now know the Picts had waterwheels and kilns for drying grains to make beer and recently, evidence of book production has been found, during excavation of a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack.
We are closest to our ancestors when we’re in green spaces. Climbing mountains, exploring the forests, swimming in the sea, battling through rain or fending off midges. The land was a huge part of their lives and they have left their mark upon it and within it for us to find.
Prior to the battle of Mons Graupius Tacitus quoted one Caledonian, Calgacus (meaning swordsman) as saying to his army, “on then into battle and as you go, think of your ancestors and your descendants.”
Each member of the Highland army before going into battle would say “Is mise mac Oengus, mac Ronan, mac Iain…” meaning, “I am son of Angus, son of Ronan, son of Iain…” and some could recite up to 20 generations.
So enjoy the wild spaces and treasure them.
For your ancestors and your descendants.
Eileen Budd is an illustrator and writer, currently writing and illustrating an ancient Scottish saga. You can find her on Instagram: @eileenbudd.
Pictures show the Tap o Noth Hillfort, Aberdeenshire, view from above.
A pony cap found in Torrs Loch in the 19th century, dates to around 250 BC. Illustration by the author Eileen Budd.
Excavations at the Hillfort, led by the University of Aberdeen. As recently as last week it was found to be inhabited by around 4,000 people, which is akin to being a big city, something unheard of in Scotland until the 12th century.