The Last Wolf

Scotland’s Spooky Season:

Traditional Oidhche nan Cleas, the Night of Tricks costumes, photographed by Margaret Fay Shaw, South Uist, 1932, part of National Trust Scotland photographic archive of over 9000 images

Samhain, Halloween and Oidhche nan Cleas

Some Definitions: Samhainn / Halloween / Oidhche nan Cleas, the Night of Tricks

Oidhche nan Cleas is a way of celebrating Halloween in the Hebrides,  where children would make costumes from sheepskins and sheep ears, masks by scraping out sheep skulls, wigs were made from hay. Children dressed up were called Gisears (guysers) and they visited neighbours, “doing a turn” doing a trick or singing a song, or telling jokes for them.  Games included dooking (bobbing) for apples, eating treacle scones hung up on strings and ‘fuarag’, thick cream and oatmeal with a hidden treat inside.

Samhain or Samhuin is a Gaelic festival celebrated in Ireland and Scotland marking the end of harvest (hairst in Scots)  and beginning of winter.  The first written mention of the festival dates to the 9th century.

Harvesting in rural Scotland  was an activity everyone took part in, young, old, men, women and even those whose trades were not in farming, supplemented their income by working in the harvest, including tailors, shoemakers and blacksmiths.  First hand accounts, from 18th and 19th centuries,  of entire villages working to crop the fields make note of the songs sung while working, which ranged from bothy ballads to hymns. It was a time of hard work as well as joyfulness and community, providing a great opportunity for celebrating and feasting together after the hard work was done. Although, sometimes hairst dragged on into November and binder days, when the crop was bound with twine.

Above: from Charles Murray’s poem ‘Hint o Hairst’

In the ‘Celtic’ calendar Samhain was celebrated to mark the beginning of the year and therefore was the most important festival out the four main festivals, the other 3 being: Lughnasadh (1st August), Beltane (1st May) and Imbolc (1st Feb)

There are a number of Neolithic tombs in Ireland and Scotland which are aligned with sunrise around the time of Samhain, which many academics believe demonstrates the antiquity of the festival. In Irish mythology one of the Irish Gods Dagda would ritualistically couple with the Mórrígan the Goddess of War.  In both Scottish and Irish traditions it is the time of year when Faeries and Fae spirits are most active, most likely to come into your house. It’s also a time for divination.

Halloween as we know it today, incorporates much of the traditions of Samhain and Oidhche Nan Cleas with additional ones related to All Saints Day.

‘Halow’ is an old Scot’s word for a saint. Halloween is celebrated around the time of Allhallows, all saints day, the day set by the Church of Rome to honour All Saints and pray for the souls who are believed to be in purgatory.

Halloween Bleeze is the name for fires lit at Halloween.  All over Scotland bonfires would be lit of hill tops to celebrate Halloween. The fires were a vital part of remembering the dead, the saints and a way of pleasing the spirits and warding off evil ones.

It is also very similar to the ancient Roman festival of Feralia, originally celebrated on 21st February, which was changed to 1st November by the Church.

Interestingly, Anglo Saxons celebrated November as Blotmonat, “the month of sacrifice”. So it’s fairly possible that, as quite often happens, older beliefs and festivities were incorporated into Christian ones. In Feralia, according to Roman sources such as Ovid, offerings, prayers and sacrifices were made in honour of the dead. Torchlit processions made around burial grounds with poems, songs and speeches made to honour the dead. The Roman belief was that should these things not be done, the dead would rise and demand it by howling and moaning and leaving their graves.

Exert from ‘Eilean, The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw’

In the Roman festival the activities had very little to do with love. However in the Scottish and Irish traditions it was the best time of year for seeking out who would be your further partner and so activities would take place like pulling kail stocks to find out what your wife or husband would be.

Examples of Love Divination Traditions at Halloween:

Cabbage & Kail

After dark go to the place where kale or cabbage grows, bend down and pull the first stock your hand touches. If it’s long, your partner will be tall, if it’s short, your partner will be short, if there’s lots of earth clinging to the root, your partner will be wealthy.


Couples would throw them into the fire and if both nuts exploded at the same time it meant the couple would marry each other.

Sowing Hemp (or other) Seeds

While sowing the seeds say the rhyme:

“Hempseed I sow, hempseed I hoe,

And he that is my true love,

Come after me and mow.”

4 Plates:

Blindfolded, a girl was to be placed in front of the plates and allowed to choose with her fingers out of the following:

One empty plate – no spouse

One with clean water – a single lover

One with dirty water – a divorcee

One with earth in it – a windower

Photo by the author

That same night you shout eat salt herring and dream of your future lover bringing you a drink.

Wild orchids were also used for love divination and the root was then used to create a love potion. However, the belief was that the potion only worked temporarily and once it wore off, love would turn to hate, so it was generally inadvisable.

Halloween was traditionally full of songs, music and poems. One of our best known poems about this time of year was written by Robert Burns and the notes to it contain a lot of information about the superstitions surrounding Halloween.  You can read the poem here:

One the strongest beliefs held was that Halloween was when the faeries had their raids.

Exert from Jamieson’s Scots Language Dictionary, 1818


In Scottish folk tradition, two worlds of the living and the dead are interwoven and so the  oldest Scottish ghost stories portray ghosts as continuing on  as they were in life. Particular families and clans are associated with specific ghosts like familiars are now associated with witches. It was common belief that you could sit and talk with the dead as if they were still flesh.

This changed during the witch trials in 16th century Scotland and although we still have the old ghost stories where the dead and the living talk with each other freely, people did not do so in public lest they attract accusations of witchcraft and devilry.

However, there was a return to the familiarity with spirits of the dead from late 18th century onwards and Samhain traditions of setting an extra place at the table for visiting spirits returned too.  The main fear was not familiar spirits but faeries who could take any form and we’re likely cause harm. One brilliant source for faerie belief in Scotland is the writing of 17th century minister Rev Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, who recorded extensively his parishioners folk beliefs and he himself died mysteriously on the faerie hill he studied so closely.

Belief in Faeries

I recently did a talk for Bute Museum, where I spoke about the belief in faeries in Scotland and Ireland. A member of the audience asked if our faerie stories were really more aimed at children as it was hard to imagine adults being so frightened of faeries.

However, faeries as we hear of them today, the pretty things with wings who grant wishes or swap teeth for money are nothing like the faeries in Scottish or Irish tradition. (In fact traditionally Scotland has a mouse collecting your fallen teeth instead of a tooth fairy). Our Scottish faeries were associated with the underworld, with ancient burial cairns, with the restless dead and the Western wind. Our faeries could take many forms, they could be as tall as a mortal human, as small as wren or as huge as a giant. Fae folk could be spirits, lights, dogs, cats, white cattle, green ladies, any form they wish to take they can.

Oatcakes cooking on an open fire. Photo by the author

And because of their talent for shapeshifting there was a real fear for them entering your house by the window, door or chimney. Even locking the doors and windows wasn’t enough to keep the faeries out because they could call upon the help of the last cake or bannock made from the days baking.

The faeries could also call upon the help of the spinning wheel to unlock doors and windows. The way to stop the bannock or spinning wheel from assisting the faeries was to poke a hole in the last bannock made and to take off the band from the spinning wheel at night.

To stop faeries coming down your chimney, fire smooring was used. The coals in the fire covered in ash correctly, so as to insulate them and keep the heat and charms recited such as this one recorded by Alexander Carmichael:

One brilliant source for faerie belief in Scotland is the writing of 17th century minister Rev Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, who recorded extensively his parishioners folk beliefs and he himself died mysteriously on the faerie hill he studied so closely. Please see the PDF for a copy of this.

The last handful of grain cropped at the end of harvest time was made into a Harvest Maiden. This was then hung up in the house until the next harvest, when a new one was made to replace it.

In some rural areas of Scotland this was done in the 19th and 20th centuries to protect the house from faeries. It comes from a much earlier belief surrounding the Cailleach, the great mother goddess of Scotland. At the end of harvest time the last person to crop their field in the village had to make one of these Harvest maidens to represent the Cailleach and keep it and treat it like a living creature until the next harvest, to keep favour with the Cailleach.

Woollen maidens from ‘Cottage Crafts’ by Barbara Ireson

Cailleach: Scotland’s Mother Goddess of Winter

The Cailleach, the mother goddess of Scotland, is a giantess with blue skin, teeth of rust and a mane of white hair that looks like frost. She is a crone and has one huge eye in the middle of her head.

Around Samhain / Halloween she arrives with her staff of blackthorn and everywhere she touches with that staff is covered in frost. She is thought of as bringing winter in this way.

Her actions stop new growth on plants and trees and she raises huge storms, which clear the land and often bring floods.  In some stories she travels around Scotland on the back of a wolf to spread frost and raise storms.

There is lots to be said about the Caileach because she is one of the most important figures in Scottish folklore, associated with Winter and Spring, representing death and rebirth.

However, for the purposes of this essay, it’s important to point out a few things about her, which relate to Halloween & Samhain as we know these festivals today:

  1. Her staff is of blackthorn, associated with witchcraft and uncanny magic, as we associate Halloween with witches now
  2. She brings the first signs of winter, and it’s true the first frosts begin to appear at the end of October / start of November
  3. She is a crone goddess, her name in Gaelic has come to mean “old woman”, again similar to the kind of witches we are familiar with at Halloween.
  4. Her name comes from a Latin root ‘pallium’, meaning ‘a veil’ and so translates literally as ‘Veiled One’.

This is the only veil mentioned in Scottish Folk Tradition, that is the traditional culture of Scotland going far back into antiquity. There is no veil in our tradition between our world and the other world as is often mentioned in other belief systems such as Wicca.

Honouring the Dead

The talk of ghosts is because the folk belief in Scotland is that the dead are always with us, not behind a veil, but alongside us always. An important part of Samhain and Halloween is remembering / honouring the ones no longer with us.

In Scottish folk tradition the belief is that time is multidimensional and stories a form of memory, accessing all times and enabling us to bring the past with its traditions into the future.  The concept was beautifully summed up by Hamish Henderson:

‘Maker, ye maun sing them….Tomorrow, songs Will flow free again, and new voices Be borne on the carrying stream.’

It’s a theme in many of our folk stories and traditional beliefs regarding the dead too.

We think of our bodies as being conduits for experiencing life, think of memories as running through us and the landscape like rivers, connecting us to past present and future and the land, carrying everything forward.

So, to talk about the departed is a way of connecting and being with them, even though physically they are gone. My grandmother always said no one really goes, they just become harder to spot and there are days when I feel her influence or disapproval!

I wrote a poem based on this belief and inspired by Hamish Henderson’s words. It’s called You Are The River, which was turned into a short video with images from Jannica Honey, available on my Instagram page (@eileenbudd) or on the PDF download of this article.

From Past to Present

Samhain and Halloween celebrate and enact the folk beliefs in faeries and spirits. A time for dressing up to fool or appease these spirits, to be thankful for harvest, mindful of the change in season and how it affects us as part of the natural world. It’s also a time of song and celebration. Here are some traditions you might like to include in your celebrations this year:


Traditional Halloween / Samhain food in Scotland depends on the harvest, generally it included; turnip, lots of bread such a thing called  shearer’s baps, which are huge bread rolls, cream crowdie cheese, ale, milk, stovies, seasonal fruits like apples, berries, pears and nuts.

A mixture called Harvest Home was a large basin full of ale, sweetened with treacle and handfuls of oatmeal stirred in. This was then left overnight for the oats to soak up the ale and treacle. In the morning a good measure of whisky was stirred through it.

A ring was added into the bowl and mixed in.

The whole thing was served at the end of the feast and the ring foretold marriage for whoever found it in their dish. 

Stovies are a very warming traditional food made with mashed potatoes, meat, vegetables and butter all mixed together. At Halloween / Samhain charms would be mixed into the stories, like we do with Christmas pudding, so chewing was done carefully!

After eating, came ghost and faerie stories, music and rhymes, examples of which are again on the PDF.

Tumshies & Jack o Lanterns

In Scotland turnips are available in October, so carving a tumshie (turnip) into a lantern and using the innards for soup or mashed with a meal is a tradition that still exists. Although it has to be said that pumpkins are much easier to carve and so the pumpkin dominates in the Jack o lanterns.

Carved turnip Jack o Lantern from 1850


It was a custom to make fire torches from pine and at midnight every member of a household had to walk around the outside of their house with their torches lit, clockwise 3 times, to protect their house and belongings from evil until next Halloween.

Queen Victoria took part in this Halloween activity each time she visited Scotland and so we have good records of this saining and protecting ritual taking place, particularly around Balmoral.

At the end of this torch lit procession all torches were piled into a heap, more wood added to make it a bonfire and then dancing began around the fire, with young and old taking part, while reels were played on pipe and fiddle.

Eileen Budd

Eileen is an author, folklorist and storyteller based in Angus.

Instagram: @eileenbudd


Scottish Folk Podcast:

Scottish Book Trust Author Profile:

Please download the PDF for further reading and listening recommendations.

Celumë: Nature as its own Historian

Celumë: Stream, flow in Quenya Elvish.

I’ve long been fascinated by the past. History was my favourite subject in school along and has remained a constant interest throughout my life. I’ve held particular time periods in high esteem in different parts of my life.

The Scottish wars of independence, the Russian revolution, WW2, Ancient Greece and Rome, the European medieval period, Renaissance Italy, Victorian London, the Viking expansion, Vietnam, feudal Japan. All conjure up memories, books I’ve read and even where I was when I read them.

Natural history, however, all though not new to me, is not as ingrained as other historical areas. Vikings, WW2 and Picts I studied at school and most of my undergraduate degree is in history. I’ve never studied natural history or science, not once in all the education establishments I’ve been to, and though I would like to, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The term has always been a bit baffling to me. Is it not the study of almost everything in the world? And even then some. The search for water in space is the search for nature elsewhere.

Natural history can be grand, huge and even epic, one of my favourite overused words these days. Yet it can also be localised and miniscule, from the study of ants to elephants, seeds to Sequoias, the scope of natural history is enormous

While the study of history is essentially the study of people, natural history is the study of the other things on the earth, regardless of whether people are on it or not and surely it works best when people are not.

However, for as much as I’d love to do another degree in some natural or scientific area, I don’t think I’d be able to choose.

Nature has value in itself, without having to put an importance upon it as we would an impressive building, victory in battle or on the deeds of kings. Much as how history evolves, the way we view nature has changed and will no doubt develop in centuries to come, just as the words of Aristotle were once seen as ‘truths’.

Christianity changed this view, as did the industrial revolution. It’s crazy to think that agriculture, environmentalism, or even gardening wasn’t always a thing.

I like to think of nature as its own historian and this got me thinking of the ways we see the history of the world within it. Trees tell you their age once they are chopped down. Fossils can be found from beaches. We dig up peat for fires that is the vegetation dinosaurs would have eaten. Ancient shark teeth fall through our fingertips when we run our hands through the sand.

Easily visible, Hutton’s section of the Crags in Edinburgh gave us an idea of just how old the earth could be. These things are always there, the only thing that changes is our perception of them, and whether or not we notice them.

In Victorian era Scotland the study of nature was considered to be good for your mental health, now there’s a wholly modern idea.

Live Deliberately,


Currently listening to Timewave Zero by Blood Incantation

“I love to ponder the natural history thus written on the banks of the stream, for every higher freshet (stream) and intenser frost is recorded by it. The stream keeps a faithful and true journal of every event in its experience, whatever race may settle on its banks; and it purls past this natural graveyard with a storied murmur, and no doubt it could find endless employment for an old mortality in renewing its epitaphs.”

Henry David Thoreau ‘Journal’ 5th July 1852

Water, Water Everywhere…

I had a pupil a few years ago now who was convinced water made him sick. He drank it once when he was younger, vomited and never drank it again. He would only drink milk or IrnBru. Try as I might he would refuse to concede that his own body was some 60% water and that it wasn’t what made him sick. I really like water and I particularly savour the first one in the morning, especially after a previous evening of jiu-jitsu.

You can physically watch a plant deteriorate only to pick up again once it’s been given a drink. You can actually watch this happen. Think of your Christmas tree, dropping pine needles everywhere when the cat breathes, but only because you forgot to give it a drink. For two weeks.

So why shouldn’t humans be the same. I feel the same way and actually feel myself rise a bit after drinking some water. It has to be a minimum amount, maybe around 300ml at least. I’ve been in many meetings or on courses where one water jug is provided with several tiny paper cups. I have to hold myself back from drinking the whole thing because that would be rude, but no one else ever seems to want any, or if they do it’s only a tiny amount. No wonder people are tired and cranky at these things. It’s the same when you go out for dinner and ask for water at the table. I always need one for the table and one for me. And bring me a bigger glass instead of that tiny wee thing I’m constantly filling up. My previous BJJ coach when training in Brazil, once got asked how he was so strong for every class. He replied that he wasn’t strong, only well hydrated. Pre-hydration, so dehydration never occurs.

Here in Scotland we have a strange relationship with water. We have tons of it. It falls out the sky on a far too regular basis sometimes and we have many magnificent rivers and mountains. It surrounds us, except for that bit called England. Many coastal communities have traditionally made their livelihoods from the water, and it is a shame to see this way of life die out in my lifetime. Heavy rain can arrive from the Atlantic Ocean. Waterfalls sometimes go upwards or sideways this place is that mental. Rainfall is difficult to measure for the whole country due to the fact that the weather varies widely in different parts of the country. A town 10 miles away can be shut in by snow while life goes on as normal elsewhere. This is a regular occurrence.

However the western isles is generally credited as one of the wettest places in Europe with annual rainfall measured up to 4,577mm. We constantly moan about rain here, and we assume its happening all the time. It isn’t, especially on the east coast, but it does seem like it.

A trip to the mountains or even low level forest grasslands and woodlands is likely to get you wet feet. I think it’s hard for us in this country to comprehend drought, though everything dries up for about half of June and July. Wildfires are caused mostly by human error; campfires gone wrong, cigarette ends etc, not the dry ground and lightning strikes that are terrorising parts of Australia and California for the last few years. We have tons of water, our ground seems to be permanently wet. No water is not really a thing we have to deal with here. I believe we should be more thankful for this natural gift than we are.

As the world warms and the climate changes, droughts are expected to be more frequent and more severe. Although in some areas, somewhat ironically, will feature increased rainfall. I wonder which one we’ll be?

Live Deliberately


Currently listening to: Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags by Hellripper

Burning the River

Breac a linne, slat a coille, Is fiadh a fireach,

Meirle anns nach do ghabh Gaidheal riamh nàire

(A fish from the river, a wand from the wood, And a deer from the mountain,

Actions no Gael was at any time ashamed of.)

It can be challenging to find information on old Scottish poaching techniques. However, it’s something that interests me greatly because there are so many folktales in Scotland about poaching.

From the 1820’s onwards, folktales of poaching tell of a heroic man of the hills, stealing from the rich to feed the poor. It’s portrayed as romantic and a way of getting one over on wealthy landlords.

‘Poaching’, in the 18th & 19th centuries was seen by rural communities as a means of supplementing livelihood. Taking salmon from rivers like the Tweed, for example, was a common right for centuries.

However, by the late 1820’s landlords sought to change the laws, in order to ensure exclusive rights to the fish in the river.

Centuries of culture came head to head with new economic  legislation.

Perhaps little wonder then, that although poaching is part of our folk tradition, hardly anything has been written about it from the ordinary folk’s point of view in the 19th century.

So over the last few months I’ve been seeking out poachers for their stories and researching archived court cases.

Which is how I was recently given a very rusty leister, a homemade iron fork used for poaching fish out the river, using a technique called losgadh nan aibhnichean (burning the river), which was practised in Scotland right up into the 1960’s, though seldom done anymore.

Cruisie or brazier for burning the water

You would need 2-3 men: one to hold the leister, one to hold the bleis (the torch made of dried pine wood wrapped in cloots) and one to carry the dried bracken and moss to get the torch burning. You and your 2 pals would go out one Autumn night and walk the river, the fish would come to the surface, attracted by the torch light, held close enough to the surface and that’s when you’d strike the fish with your leister, skewering it.

The leister looks a lot like a pitchfork, except a leister has barbed ends and they are generally very homemade looking. Because for the most part, they were. They had to be! Leisters were illegal and it wasn’t fair or right to ask your local smith to make you one, unless he was the guy holding the torch.

A handmade leister

Now, I say “guy”, it could just as easily have been a lass.

In the 19th century there were a high number of women who were expert poachers, not just fish, but birds and rabbits too.

Court records of that time from all over Scotland mention women on trial for poaching. Some were single mothers, some professional poachers selling the meat, feathers and fur to make a living. All were very skilled at their art, such as Mary McGibbon in Renfrewshire, who’s skill at catching grouse was noted in a Renfrewshire court in 1839.

Just like that Gaelic proverb, not one poacher was ashamed to be hunting on the land they once knew to be public land, land which had since been cleared of its population by absent landlords and managed as leisurely hunting estates.

The crofters weren’t making the landlords enough money, you see, so they cleared them off to make way for sheep.

Once the sheep stopped making them money (after only 3 years), landlords cleared those too, making way for deer.

Anyone trying to take from the land was a criminal. Unless you were the landlord of course. Gamekeepers were sworn in as police constables, with powers to enter private property to investigate alleged offences. Anyone who heard of poaching taking place in the area, were expected by law to report it.

However, in a small community, where everyone knows each other, clyping on your neighbours was not in anyway respectful. So in reality local gamekeepers were known to turn a blind eye to people taking to feed their families. There are even stories of gamekeepers helping poachers or helping themselves as ex-poachers were often recruited as gamekeepers.

As far as the communities were concerned, the problem of poaching wasn’t taking one or two to feed yourself, but the poaching on industrial scale, from theives coming in from the cities.

Landlords deplored both.

In 1884 the Highland Land Law Reform Association (Land League) had this to say about poaching:

“The fish that was yesterday miles away from land was claimed by the landlord the moment it neared the shore, and so were the birds of the air as soon as they flew over his land. The law made it so, because the landlords themselves were the law makers, and it was a wonder that the poor man was allowed to breathe the air of heaven and drink from the mountain stream, without having the factors and the whole of the country police pursuing him as a thief.”

Last weekend I was taught how to catch a rabbit with a ferret and a homemade purse net.

It’s a wonderfully clever and simple device, you pop the ferret down the rabbit hole, you place the net over the rabbit hole and when the ferret chases the rabbit out the hole, the rabbit runs into the net, the running force from which closes the net, trapping the rabbit.

A purse net for ferreting rabbits. The net was acquired for the Travelling Folk Museum but not the essential ferret, so all surrounding rabbits are safe.

Ferreting is legal in Scotland, as long as you have the land owners permission, because, unlike deer or salmon or grouse or pheasant, the landlords see the rabbits as pests.

They can’t make much money from them.

If you’d like to hear a Scottish folktale about a poacher, you’re in luck, there are hundreds! And one can be found on our IG pages.

Eileen Budd

Eileen Budd is an author and storyteller. If you’d like to know more about the Travelling Folk Museum or book a visit see:

Or find out what she’s up to on Instagram: @eileenbudd

Eileen is currently driving around Scotland listening to a mix of Shostakovich, Yelle, Beastie Boys, April March, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Ordinary Elephant, Johnny Cash and the Gypsy King’s Hotel California.

Last Wolf

In those days, wolves still walked the hills, and the spaces between trees were alive with calls

that echoed across the moorlands and sank into the already chilled bones of the shepherds,

drawing the chill to place hearthfire flames can’t warm.


In those days, we were still wild.

The hills were all fever and fable,

the heathers still heavy with magic.


Smoke hangs sweet on the skin when it’s laced

With burnt incense and offerings, and sleep comes deep with dreams where the peat fire burns.


That was the way of it:

Smoke and song, fever and fable, woodlands and wolf-song.


Green witch of the bog,

Moving softly through the river.


I want to know where the wolves have gone.


Where are the wolves who prowled the hills,

Fearsome as the spirit who claimed the land?


Where are the wolves who howled their songs,

calling all eyes to the moon?


The land still whispers wolf-fables, and the river hums with magic of the past, still close enough to see when the seasons are high and your eyes are clear.


Those who listen carefully when they walk across the moors leave with a tingling on their skin,

humming something wild

heard on the wind.


They carry the wild back into their towns.

They carry the past that isn’t so far away,

and the magic of wild places that wells under the earth,

in that pulling place where it slumbers when it goes long uncalled.


For so long now the wolves have been gone from this place, where the air arches with the absence of their songs.


As evening falls, I make my way back toward the cottage,

Something wild is tossing on the wind,

the chill of it reaches my bones.


In the distance,

I hear howling.


Alexa Brockamp Hoggatt

Alexa is a poet and writer you can follow on Instagram @alexa.hoggatt or

She is currently listening to the audiobook ‘Druidcraft’ by Philip Carr-Gomm


Where the Giants Live

On a heather mattress sits the peaks; distant and drastic, momentous and unyielding, unworldly. I laugh, remembering those who say a walker’s path destroys the mountain, like the mountain even notices or cares. It is but a hair landing on ten thousand years. I cross this boulder field and it feels like Mars. Or perhaps it’s Tattooine and we are in search of the Jawas who sold us R2 and 3PO.

Ever mindful of the dryness on the dogs paws but he’s far more careful and balanced than I am. Its humans who come to injury here, not animals. The tors, if that is what they are, rise up like misplaced giants, though this is exactly where giants should be. The places where giants live.

But why are they here? Is this Arizona? It sure looks like a John Ford movie. I can’t recall a mountain top as enjoyable as this before.

I climb, the stone on my hands and under my feet. How many people have stood up here? Four or five today, maybe the same tomorrow. Into the tens at the weekend. Then maybe none for a few weeks depending on the weather. How many people have stood here in total? 10,000. Less. More. No one could possibly know. I am at least seven miles from a road and more like 10 or 12 from one that isn’t a single track. This is the way I walked, who knows how far the other way.

This is why I do these things.

Live Deliberately


Currently listening to: Volkolun: Only Trees Remember Centuries, black dark/pagan metal from Russia.

Your Memory Sucks, Do Not Rely On It!

Memory sucks, do not rely on it. At least mine does. Recently I returned to a remote mountain range I had camped at some twelve years ago, possibly more. I thought I had remembered it well, but I hadn’t, which led to some unnecessary worry and some mistakes. I do a lot of walking and camping with Thorin for company and being a dog, he’s not very good at reading maps, sharing his opinion on routes or whether we’re in the correct car park. Though he is very good at finding his own route to water and easy paths around rocky scrambles.

I had a very different picture in my head of the layby I left my car in twelve years ago than the one I ended up at, and therefore spent the night convinced we were starting off in the wrong place and a morning move would be necessary. This turned out to be not true and I was actually in the right place. I had no memory of the four mile or so walk in, which ended up in us taking the wrong path and walking for the first twenty minutes the wrong way. Only when it turned to the right through some trees and cross another river did I stop to check and found my mistake. The 4:30am alarm was hardly worth it.

My recollections began roughly around that four mile mark by the ruin of an old shieling. For some reason I had tagged it in my failing memory bank as a possible site for a future campsite. Why here and not the vastly superior beach about 200m away I have no idea. The beach I don’t remember.

The things I mostly remember about the first trip are having no dog and squeezing two grown men into my tent, one of us knocking over the stove spilling the pasta, stupidly carrying a massive book on mountaineering in Scotland as my reading material, and not getting any views on top of the biggest mountain in the area because of the weather. My biggest memory is of the wind whipping up across the loch, the whole area being really boggy and being lucky to find the only dry patch late in the day, which was so close to a river it was practically in it.

This is a really remote part of the country sandwiched between two of the roads that go north and is well worth the long walk in for a camp. But this time we were heading for the two mountains that are most easily accessible, and I wasn’t planning on taking too long about it. Hence why I was so annoyed at the morning detour. But we made good time and I wanted to get some height in early which had the effect of making me feel really crap.

I got quite emotional walking up the first mountain and there was a number of factors playing into this. Erratic sleep patterns at the best of times, tiredness, an early rise, a long walk, a steep climb, no food and no coffee made it hard work. Gruelling almost, and I admit I struggled. The ever present cloud came in. I felt worse. I couldn’t see. I got into a spiral of negative ‘how come this always happens to me’ thought; ‘give me a break for once’ and ‘let me just see for a few seconds where I am going’. This was weird. Even ‘what the fuck am I doing this for’, this isn’t fun!

I missed my home, my family, wife, kids. Funny how I’d only been gone just over twelve hours or so and these were all the thoughts I was having. At this same time my friend was spending two weeks in a tent on a crazy cross Europe cycle race and I’m feeling this balls over a walk that should take me less time than a day’s work! All these mad feelings combined into one giant shitty whole.

In order to pull myself through this I stuck on the headphones and continued listening to my audiobook of The Fellowship of the Ring read by Andy Serkis which is absolutely fantastic. The descriptions of the hardships faced by the hobbits journey I imagined mirrored mine. I perked up. At least I could turn back, didn’t have the fate of the world around my neck and I wasn’t being pursued by nine black riders.

And so we continued, still not seeing anything but managing to find the cairns that marked the summit of the two mountains we had aimed for. After coming off the second mountain we could not find the path and came too far down the wrong side. It meant we had to go back up to a bealach that separates the mountains and I just about gave up then. The thought of ascending again was awful, I was just so tired, lost, confused, and discombobulated from being in the cloud. I was fed up that was it, fed up and needed a break from not being able to see a damn thing.

A glimpse of sun can be all you need to find that route. But of course, like Sam and Frodo, we had to keep going; to give up would be to die. Here at the end of all things. Well not quite, but still a hell of a long way from home. An endurance athlete I certainly am not.

Much later on, about three quarters of the way back to the car, as Elrond is extolling the virtues of Frodo, Bilbo and the others as they accept their perilous quest at Rivendell, I was very nearly crying. Clearly all too much for me that day but by that time I was close to completing my small journey. The Lord of the Rings movies have always comes the closest to making me cry since I first saw ET! The line in Return of the King when Aragorn says “My friends, you bow to no one.” is making me well up just writing it. What a scene! What an effort! The hobbits are the total underdogs for the whole series and yet they have pretty much saved the entire world from evil domination forever. Now that is a lasting legacy.

I was very glad to get back to the car and begin my return journey to my own shire. I could not get home fast enough. Next time I’m checking the weather and eating more food.

Live Deliberately,


Currently listening to Otta by Solstafir which appears on the Last Wolf Outdoors Spotify Playlist


As much as I like the outdoors, nature as it is and should be, and am a supporter of rewilding in many of its various forms, I find the human imprint on the natural world fascinating. And also how the human world is taken over by nature and dominated once again. The most obvious and well known example of this is probably Chernobyl.

It is amazing that in the years since the disaster nature has reclaimed it so rapidly. I vaguely remember it happening on the news. A lot of high profile disasters seemed to happen around that time in the 1980s. We watched the Challenger space shuttle explode at our local youth club, the famine on Ethiopia was still very clear in peoples consciousness, a small town in south west Scotland was to become famous for all the wrong reasons. Piper Alpha was not far off. Hillsborough.

In Chernobyl in 2022, animals thrive. Brown bears, wolf, lynx, roe deer, elks, foxes and wild boar roam freely through the Ukrainian villages. Wolves are, as always, of particular interest and they hunt deer, catch fish and even eat fruit from orchards. Horses, having been introduced to reduce the risk of wild fires by grazing the overgrowth, have adapted to the environment and live in the exclusion zone. The abandoned buildings are used as animal shelters. Small mammals tested show no ill effects of radiation. Amazing.

“In the world I see you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockafeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Towers. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying stripes of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighways.” Tyler Durden.

There is a town not far from where I live that doesn’t exist anymore. A scattering of houses yet are nearby, yet there is plenty of industrial remains if you look closely at the landscape. An extremely successful ironworks and prosperous town once stood here but nothing remains except contusions in the ground, a chimney stack, and perhaps unsurprisingly in Scotland, the ruin of a pub. Quite literally the last building standing.

Nature has reclaimed this land. Yes there are some paths and a few monuments and guides, very tastefully done, to the industrial heritage of the area and the human achievement that came from there. But there is long grass, burns, woodland, big trees, shrubs, bushes and you would never guess the population or the output of this place several hundred years ago.

Live Deliberately


Currently listening to: The new single from Destroyer 666.

Trees break up the pavements

Roots come through the concrete

And take over older roots

Wrapped around, entwined forever, eternal.

A building left alone

Succumbs to moss, to weeds

And crumbles back to the earth

It came from. Goodbye home.

I worked here once, here everyday

With heat sweat muscle noise, smoke and fire,

friends and relatives,

And now. Nothing?

Cesta- ask.

Quenya Elvish: Cesta- verb. ask

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 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.

Live deliberately


Currently listening to: The late contender for black metal album of 2021 from Funeral Mist.


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.

Live deliberately


Currently listening to Stave by Osi and the Jupiter. Fantastic. Album of the year so far.

Easy Mountains/Easy Munros

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, we’re happy to help in any way to get you outdoors and enjoying the hills.

Live deliberately


Currently listening to Cocaine and Rhinestones: The History of 20th Century Country Music and those who gave it to us. Season 2.

Wanderings of a Naturalist

The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf

Seton Gordon: Wanderings of a Naturalist 1921

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.

Live deliberately


Currently listening to Exercises in Futility by Mgla for the zillionth time. An utterly flawless album.

Guerrilla Hillwalking

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.

Live deliberately.


Currently listening to: Little Richard: The Reprise Years

Dùn Eibhinn

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.”

Atlantean Kodex

Live Deliberately


Currently listening to: Càirdeas Fala, Sons of the North


From the Dùn Eibhinn monument stone.

“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.”

David Feg/Slough Hume

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.

Live deliberately


Currently listening to New Organon by Slough Feg

and …And Justice For All…

A Diet of Salt Beef

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.

Duntulm Castle where the traitor met his end.

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.

Caisteal Uisdean by David L Roberts.

Martin Shipway

Tour Guide

Currently listening to: Hekate,