Ship of These/us

This is my grandfather’s axe. My father replaced the head and I replaced the shaft. This is my grandfather’s axe.

Three weeks ago we moved to Kingussie in the Cairngorm National Park. It’s been a busy time. It’s not insignificant to me that my family has returned to the Highlands a lifetime after war took my grandparents south. I have little time for essentialism and I'm staking no claim by mentioning this, simply acknowledging something mysterious to me. Sometimes life moves in circles and cycles that aren’t easily rationalised. I’ve become a civic Scot by dint of choice, defined in celebration of possible futures for my family, not just a flight from an ethnic English death cult. For those that need some escape from that, though, Karma dictates that our door will always be open. You’ll be welcome if you come knocking.

It’s also seven years since I began writing here. A big change affords the chance to look back over one’s shoulder, and I notice that a constant preoccupation has been the relationship between edge and centre, people and place. What you see is where you’re at, and of course the reverse is also true. What this relocation means for me is to finally dissolve those spurious distinctions once and for all, and I guess we’ll see how that goes. I also see reflected in the mirror someone more determined than I expected to be, someone who willed himself closer to the hills and trees and somehow it came true. I don’t expect that to mean anything to you; maybe I had low expectations, but he’s surprised me.


Last Sunday, my partner hemorrhaged and was rushed to Raigmore hospital in Inverness. I drove a drowsy three year old into an apocalyptic sunset over the Slochd pass knowing without doubt that we’d lost the baby. Within 24 hours I was driving south again for a night bag while she went under the knife. I couldn’t be in theatre because in haste we had no-one near to take care of our daughter. The baby boy was born six weeks early by Cesarean. My Mum flew up late in the evening, circling over her old home town in the dark almost three score years and ten after she left as an infant herself.

A tiny life hung in the balance for the next two days, miniature lungs not ready to breathe on their own. When not grinding out the practicalities I dry sobbed in the men’s bogs, my partner came to, shouldered and soldiered, and our daughter took the upheaval hard. Mostly we held the jumble and jangle of it all together for each other. Just.

Both mother and baby are much stronger now. The coming months will be challenging, and naturally moments like this are existential and sort the wheat from the chaff. What matters? What is important? As parents, teachers, learners and citizens, we'd better know. Dipping back in to 'reality', the online world seems ever more flimsy and vainglorious, politics a sham and a theatre. By contrast, the people of the Strath have already been so welcoming, and we are lucky and grateful. Now that we’re in the right place for us, our time here has already been more full of people than I could possibly have predicted. Edge and centre? Like I say, it’s been a busy time, and if the last week or so has reaffirmed anything, it’s that timing is everything. Scotland’s future is in the glens, and that future is now.



so much ground, so little time

Last Friday, 3 friends and I walked soggy switchbacks to the Bealach Duibh Leac, dropped our bags and headed south for a Corbett called Bhuide Bheinn; the yellow hill. It was the pre-amble for the South Glen Shiel ridge - about which more another time - but that afternoon was full of changing light, kindly voices and rough ground little frequented and loaded with a sense of itself. Cold winds blew as we strode out across the boundless knolls, heather, slimy terraces, bog and rock, snow showers swept across the lochans and that light went from cold to hot in only seconds. We caught up with each other, and discovered somewhere new. Now here, no where, nothing to it.

We're close to moving away from the city now, somewhere to call our own and look after each other, a lucky luxury of care and love that's easy to bait if you're born under punches, so everything rings with significance - a seabeaten brick on the tideline opposite the base threatening first strikes, shrill election mantras from the death cult authority. Time to go, it chimes in a voice from my twenties, this scene is washed up man. My other half found a hand written list when we were clearing out, a list made on a walking trip 15 years ago. Did you ever do that - make a wish list on holiday? On it, there's something a bit like what we hope we're moving to. I'd forgotten all about that list. Life takes time, and there's so much ground to cover, it's easy to lose sight. But for the land, which helps me remember.

dancing not fighting

A few personal photos here, taken quickly while teaching/guiding on the west coast this last weekend. There's quite a range just in these few, so although these are pretty disparate thematically it at least gives a sense of some of the ground we covered. If you fancy joining me on one of these outings, please get in touch.

(title with a more than a nod to Tirzah)

The humble mountain doss

I've just had a tiny piece in TGO mag around bothies (to support Ed Byrne's Corrour feature), and bothies in general are getting a fair bit of air time at the moment on the back of a new book by MO Geoff Allan. It's reminded me of this short piece I wrote for the same magazine to accompany a photo feature in 2015, to mark the MBA's 50th anniversary.

Shenavall in the Fisherfields

The Mountain Bothy Association celebrate their 50th birthday this year. They have been duly honoured with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, a tribute to the graft, craft and ingenuity that’s required to keep around 100 buildings afloat, tiny ships adrift in lonely seas of bog and heather, places that exist against the odds. For me, the real reason to celebrate bothies is not a birthday, or a merit badge from Her Maj’, but for a love of stories and preservation of ethics.

The bothy code is a code for life. Turn no-one away, leave no trace, respect each other and the place you stay. Not ‘rules’, but an appeal to that rarest of elements in the modern periodic table - empathy. A wistful reminder of mountain ethics in an age of dumbing down and go pro drones, but the romantic in us kens it: These ideas are fit to guide our wider life, not just for taking shelter in the wilds.

A bothy stay will warm hands, but can also warm hearts and even save lives. Thankfully I’ve never arrived at death’s door, but I have fallen through the door at Corrour drenched and dehydrated, to find a fire already burning and a chair already waiting. Camban bothy is a favourite, purely because it saved a friend new to Scottish hillwalking from what might have become hypothermia. Fortunes change under a roof and four walls - even if the only running water is running down the walls, and the roof is shared with mice. These buildings are also places to share with new friends and old, and a gentler introduction for those new to big, wide-open spaces.

I used to vaguely disapprove of bothies, their nod to creature comforts where I thought there should be no concessions. But as my understanding of our backcountry has deepened, I’ve grown to love them, not as intrusions, but part of the landscape story. Bothies offer a link to our natural and cultural history, fragments of past lives lived.

By visiting, writing in the bothy book and meeting likeminded souls, we make the story new. A bothy book is my favourite kind of reading – episodic, as much about what’s absent as what’s present, accents unique, each voice given equal measure. Funny, stupid, poignant, pointless and poetic – all of life is here, the pages of an enormous novel thrown to the wind, each character given license to run riot in the hills outside.

fragments of past lives lived - found pinned up in Staoineag bothy

More information about the MBA: