Above Kingussie in Autumn

After taking my headcold and camera for a walk yesterday, I thought I'd share some new photos of autumn in the Cairngorms, alongside a slightly edited version of a route I wrote up for TGO recently. 

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Creag Bheag - my new local hill - is a walk or run from my front door, from the valley floor through tiers of forestry and native woods to the montane scrubline, where the trees peter out and the moorland takes over. It's not a Munro, a Corbett, a Graham or any other... it's just a hill above a highland village, and a great source of solace to me.

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The first time we visited, we opted for a simple up and down as a break from the unpacking, not expecting our three year old to meet the timberline, yet alone reach the top. I’ve since found a much more satisfying circular route that makes a great microdose of the outdoors. But of course there's as many ways up, down and around as there are days in the year.

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Whichever way I go, it's a compressed adventure: Dark forestry cloaks the lower slopes, mixed in with elegant birch sporting the real colours of Scotland – green and grey (and now yellows and oranges)  – their leaves shooshing away my worldly woes in the breeze, then a crown of blaeberry and heather on an otherwise craggy top. I’ve found the place where 2 young birds of prey are nesting, sorrell to snack on, sturdy trees for abseil practice and short ridges to scramble. The local kids are building their own red (more like black!) run MTB track through the plantation, far beyond my riding abilities. It’s the Cairngorms in miniature.

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The summit is broad and dotted with fairy hills, most of which feature small cairns and are all worth visiting on a little circuit, offering different perspectives on the giant views across Strath Spey to the Cairngorm Plateau, north to the RSPB reserve at Insh Marsh, south to Glen Tromie and west to the Newtonmore Munros.

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Then the small details where the mountain fades back into the village: The rusted remains of cars, aging fencing collapsed under treefall, a haunted forestry ride overlooked by a dilapidated treehouse, pregnant with some memory of itself. These edge lands remind me of my youth on the fringes of another town in another country, same same but very different. 

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The Bard of Kingussie, Donald Campbell, whose grave can be found in the town behind Main Street, wrote a famous poem about the Clearing of a nearby Estate in 1838, following the potato famine. ‘Here’s good health to the people’ promises the emigrants ‘silk and ribbons’ at the end of their journey... not to mention the maidens, wool, cattle and sheep.

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Five were born on the four month journey to Sydney, but twice that number died. Before they left, they convened on the top of our ‘Little Rock’ for a last farewell to their homeland. Local historian Thomas Sinton documents their keening lament as: “Let Fortune use me as it may, I will think on Scotland far away.”

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I think on that leaving ceremony every time I go up there. For me, moving to the Highlands 70 years after my mother’s family left, Kingussie is a place not of leaving but of returning. Home is not far away now, I can see it from the summit of Creag Beag. 

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Walk Highlands have a route guide to Creag Beag (different again to my route, but just as nice) 

Holy Mountain

Pic D'Estats is a bit over 3000m, and the highest mountain in Catalonia. I reached it after 5 weeks on the HRP, the day before my 40th birthday. 

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It was lunchtime when we arrived at the lake at it's foot. At that point I was full of grace and fit as a Chamois, I was bound to go up. I remember boundless joy that afternoon. I began to run, only slowing as I reached steep red screes to pass friendly Catalans descending. Everyone seemed to have a blue spark in their eye, and they were all were smiling too, radiating happiness. It wasn't just altitude or achievement, it was something else.

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I spoke to one woman who was moved to tears. During our conversation of broken English and Spanish, what she described was a pilgrimage. In the remainder of my time in the eastern Pyrenees, I learnt that for Catalans, this place had an almost religious draw. Pic D'Estats was a symbol of a longed for sovereignty. Perhaps like me, for that woman I spoke to, reaching the top demonstrated to herself her own personal sovereignty. 

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I reached the top myself at 5pm, and spent an hour alone there. I found many tributes to the loved ones of Catalonia. I don't approve of hill furniture in general, but I was a guest and this is most definitely their mountain. Then the air grew chill and clouds began to gather. I left a small message of thanks in the ledger I found in the tin box, and began to run down.

Scots and Catalans are both mountain people, not by some essence but because high and wild places are important materially and culturally to both... so aside from any historical and political allegiances, for me it's no surprise to see a solidarity shown. The cynics can roll their eyes all they want, but it can only be positive to show support for an impulse towards self determination. There's no getting around it - that blue spark just won't be denied. 

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Coire Ruadh - a film

My friend Simon's film, set in Glen Feshie, is still touring dance film festivals around the world. 

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Another friend - James - and I made the sound for it, looping live guitar and synth performances in Logic and Ableton, and then dropboxing them between Edinburgh and Hastings, before finishing using the amazing UAD plugins. It was made 'blind' - i.e we knew the rough concept but put the sound together without seeing rushes or a rough cut. We saw a few stills but otherwise, it was a blank canvas. 

That was about 4 years ago, and the last piece of sound/music I made. I've since sold my recording and mastering kit and while I still have some instruments, I barely pick up a guitar at the moment. I felt ambivalent (if not terrified) about stopping at the time because it was core to who I was for decades, but I'm completely at peace with it now. So much so, I might even start again one day. That ambivalence, plus the busyness and adaptation of and to new fatherhood, was probably why I didn't blog about this fully at the time. Meantime, nothing gets wasted; sound just morphed into writing and photo making. A creative habit is all about regeneration... appropriately enough given the location of this film.

Aside from my waffle, given the setting and subject matter, readers here might well be interested. I think it's a lovely piece, regardless of our tiny contribution - Simon and his collaborators are incredibly talented. Here's what they say about the filming process, and you can click on the screenshot at the foot to watch the film on vimeo:

This multi screen installation was commissioned through the Imagining Natural Scotland project during the Year of Natural Scotland, funded by Creative Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage. Simon Fildes and Katrina McPherson collaborated with Dr Rob McMorran of the Centre for Mountain Studies (CMS) Perth College, The University of the Highlands and Islands; examining and responding to the issues around the research into the mapping of ‘wild land’ in Scotland.

This project aimed to create a work that articulated the borders, zones and differing perceptions of wild land that formed the basis of the research. We were interested in how the research matches the perceptions of place that inform a view of wildness; and how, depending on our personal experience of such landscapes, it seems that humans will mentally ‘edit out’ cultural artifacts that interfere with that perception.

For this video work we went to one particular location with 3 dancers at 3 different times of year, where the mapped border between ‘wild land’ and ‘not wild land’ is easily accessible in The Cairngorms near Glen Feshie. A path to Sgorr Goaith winds up through beautiful mature Scots Pine on the Invereshie National Nature Reserve next to the Allt Ruadh and soon opens out in Coire Ruadh. We always felt from the start that the work had to stand up on its own right with little background information about the process. We want people to find their own journey in this work, asking questions and coming up with their own answers. If nothing else we realised that, like any psychological or physical transition, these borders between wild and not wild for most people are all about a feeling. The very personal response is the most important thing. The stepping over an invisible threshold where the shoulders relax and you smell the pine in the air, catch a glimpse of a red squirrel, watch wood ants wrestling on sun warmed rock, step over the raptor torn remains of a Ptarmigan, and lie down in the heather and stare at the clouds for a while thinking about nothing in particular. Designating lines on the map are the necessary part of defending that moment for all of us.

We would hope that our work can be another perspective on landscape that is not just another set of highland landscape postcards but includes humans in that picture and gets deeper into what it is to be in these wild places, their ecology, the changing impact of seasons and weather and the cultural history and their uncertain future.

Photo guiding in the Cairngorm National Park

Just a few shots I took while working with Matt on the weekend, who was up from Perth for some photo tuition, and was great company.

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The weather was terrible on Friday so we postponed a day for the weather window, making a virtue of necessity maybe, but it worked, and we caught a few chinks of light in between the showers and the midges. It was my first time working nearer home - the Cairngorms, and it felt good to show it off, even though I'm sort of new here. What an incredible place.

As regulars here will note, I'm enjoying taking lots of monos right now. It might just be waffle but I think it informs the colour photos in the long run. Back and forth, tones and graphic, we're all learning. 

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My workshop info is here. It's flexible, not fixed... but I'll throw this out there: The best stuff happens on an overnighter. That's when it turns into an adventure.