Poetry instead of Tea

Today there was poetry in the afternoon, instead of tea.  The instigator of the Poetry in Motion group, Clio Gray (author and library assistant at Tain library), read from Gerald Manley Hopkins. The subject was ‘birds’ and she selected ‘The Woodlark’ to read. These poems are written to be read out loud, to be listened to.  The writing is full of sound and movement and puts you right there, seeing and hearing what the poet sees and hears.

It reminded me of what an interesting and original poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was; he invented new words and new forms. His language was always vibrant, lively and very visual.  In spite of the era, and his religious leanings, it is still very relevant and accessible.  He is definitely one of our great nature poets. Sadly most of his poems weren’t published until 1918, well after his death in 1889; he was little read in his own lifetime.

He suffered from depression’ like John Clare, and wrote a series of what he called ‘terrible poems’ about those ‘dark’ days, which may not be his best known, or finest work, but still have much merit.

I’ve not read any of his poetry for years, and this is a good excuse to revisit it. He is well worth reading, and I’ll certainly be looking out my dog-eared Penguin copy of his poetry and prose.  I’ve written this to share his poetry with you, if you don’t know him, or remind you of it if you do.

As a taster, here is perhaps one of his best known poems – apart from ‘Inversnaid’ – ‘The Windhover’ (a lovely old name for the kestrel).  Enjoy.

 

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

 

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

 

Outdoor Girl

 

Watership Down 58 miles from London
Findhorn 600 miles from London

I was born and raised in the suburbs of London.  It was Surrey then and is South West London now, less than a dozen miles from the city centre.  We lived on a busy main road in Park Villas, salubriously titled in honour of the local authority recreation ground which our long skinny garden backed on to, and which we called ‘the rec’.

As kids we spent hours in the rec, playing in the playground, kicking a ball about, playing mini golf or messing about with a racket and variously annoying the park keeper. If we weren’t in the rec, we were in the garden, playing with the animals, in the Wendy house, on the swing, or when we were older, doing a bit of pretend gardening.

Most of my childhood memories are outdoors: we’d cycled to Richmond Park as a family, and when I was older I cycled there with friends. We got 2 buses to the outdoor pool in Richmond in the summer, completely unsupervised. We played pitch and putt on summer evenings and went to the coast – Angmering-on-Sea, Littlehampton, Bournemouth – on summer weekends. We picked blackberries in the late summer and early autumn. We walked, cycled and swam in the open. Sitting indoors was reserved for winter and really wet days.  TV was an evening only activity, and restricted at that.

So, a city girl living in the far north of Scotland is more at home than you might think. I enjoy being close to nature and the seasons.  Living on a farm means time passes by the things that happen outside: ploughing, planting, lambing, hay-making, harvesting; passing the year through nature’s rhythms.

Life is less frenetic here.  It’s easier to take time to walk, to chat to people.  A lot of children walk to school, and get the opportunity to play outside, although I suspect far less than did a few decades ago.  Nowhere, however remote, is immune from the spread of technology in day-to-day life: the phones, games, pads, music, laptops and Macs.  The gadgets that keep kids, and adults too, locked indoors in bedrooms and lounges across the country.  Electro tech’ that’s deemed so vital, yet keeps a generation of children from accessing what really is vital – a connection to nature; enjoying the great outdoors.

We can’t go back in time to those halcyon days, which we remember as more idyllic than they probably were, but we can teach our children and grandchildren that there is joy to be found in fresh air and countryside by encouraging them to engage in outdoor activity from an early age. Being stuck indoors with a piece of tech should be the less interesting option.  I’m not demonising technology, simply suggesting that children need to reconnect to with the natural world.  We need a generation of caretakers for the earth, and sitting inside watching nature programmes is less likely to spawn one than being outside connecting with nature.

My life-long love of the natural world was kindled by being outdoors, by bringing all sorts of creatures home – rabbits, birds, tortoise, cats, fish, crabs – strays of all descriptions.  My tolerant parents encouraged me to be outside if I was moping about and that always energised me in ways I didn’t understand.  This still holds true today.  A brisk walk, a stroll along the beach, a short run, they all blow the metaphorical cobwebs away and re-charge us in inexplicable ways.

I’m lucky to have arguably the greatest outdoor destination in the country on my doorstep, but whether you’re in the city or another part of the country you’re never far from somewhere outdoors where you can rejuvenate your spirit.  Make being outside a part of your week and I promise you’ll feel better.

Island Resilience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve often written about travelling to the Scottish islands – Harris, Lewis, Mull, the Orkney Isles, Shetland – remote outposts of the far north of our own island home.  My perspective is usually that of holidaymaker, traveller and visitor.  Perhaps not your typical tourist, if such a thing exists, but certainly my visits are not much more than a dalliance with island life.

 My trip to the Outer Hebrides this year was to a part of Harris I hadn’t been before, the bays area, along the so called Golden Road (so named for how much it cost to build).  It is a bleak landscape; treeless, rocky, full of lochans and peat bogs, similar in some ways to the flow country in Caithness.  It is wild and beautiful and full of life, but it is a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

The ruggedness and remoteness clearly encourages creativity.  In a 2 miles stretch there are 3 art galleries, a ceramic artist and photographer, and that’s in one small area.  The road is dotted with artists and artisans drawing inspiration from their surroundings.  It’s a tough place to make a living and a tough place to live; people have to be self-sufficient, resilient.

I have never met anyone more resilient than Eddie.  He and his wife owned the holiday cottage we were renting for our stay.  I don’t know how old he was, almost certainly retired, but it was clear that he had some illness which affected his speech and his core strength.  It later transpired that he was living with late-stage Parkinson’s.  This didn’t seem to hold him back: he cycled most days, did jobs about the house, gardened, and cooked.  We learned that in 2015 he had undertaken a charity bike ride up the spine of the Uists and headed all the way up to Stornoway.  Physically this should have been impossible, but he has grit and determination which seems to make up for some of the physical challenges he must face daily.  Eddie is not a native islander, but he has certainly adapted to island living and displays those characteristics – both flexibility and toughness – which make the difficulties he faces wholly surmountable.

He also makes an awesome Key-Lime Pie!

Secret Life of Mammals

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We found a shrew on the drive the other day.  Sadly, it was dead, though recently so.  It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks.  I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little  life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature.  I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.

The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life.  Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.

The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.

If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ .  The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link.  See BBC Nature for additional information.

 

photo from BBC archives

 

 

60 Degrees North

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A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

The Long Commute

View to end of Caledonian Canal into Beaul;y Firth Ben Wyvis distance smallMy current commute is longer than some, not as long as others.  I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.

I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route.  Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper.  It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!

I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital.  The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness.  The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969.  The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness.  Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.

The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore.  Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge.  It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals:  the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks.  Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch.  In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere.  The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.

Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.

Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming.  It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.

I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute.  Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city.  Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!

Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved.  View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.

A Thing About Trees

IMGP1446I was going to begin with the line ‘I’m not a tree-hugger’ as if it were some kind of criticism, but actually, I am, and it isn’t!  I am not your classic eco-warrior, protesting about trees being destroyed for roads, although sometimes I wish I had a bit more courage!  I do have a ‘thing’ about trees though, and I think always have had.  I was a tom-boy when I was younger (a lot younger) and climbing trees was one of my favourite things to do, partly because it was viewed as something slightly daring and ill-advised by my parents, but also because I liked the scuff of bark and branches, and the different perspective that height gave. 

We had a huge garden at home, but sadly there were no trees.  My mum was, and still is, intimidated by large growing things.  I’m not quite sure why, but I think it’s partly a control thing.  Like our Victorian forebears, she has a need to control nature, to make it conform to what she needs and wants from it, perhaps because there is so little else she controls in her life.

As a species we have a history of exploiting the natural world for our own gain.  Scotland’s barren landscape is testament to that.  The ancient forests may have been decimated before warfare took its toll, but the desolation is still manmade.  There have been moves in recent decades at restoration, and education, and all to the good.  I can’t help feeling that having more of a love of our natural world, in general, and trees in particular, might do more good.  ‘Project Wild Thing’ is tackling one of the fundamental issues – our lack of connection with the natural world-and is encouraging young people in particular to engage with nature: to get muddy, to climb trees, to look in ponds, to realise that there is much more to life than an illuminated display and keyboard.  Simply being outside is good for our health, and conversely, there is a good deal of research that now suggests the disconnect we have with our natural world is actually damaging our health.

I was at a workshop at the weekend, entitled ‘words for health’.  Lapidus, the organisation running the event, believes that creative writing promotes mental well-being, and as a writer and artist, I would agree.  The weekend workshop was about their new project ‘writing place’ which embraces writing where we are, and has real connections for those of us who live in the stunning scenery of the highlands.  A sense of place has always been evident in highland writing, and the landscape informs our creativity in an elemental way.  We did a lot of writing this weekend, and much of it was inspired by the stunning venue, Anam Cara, high above Inverness, set on the edge of forest.  We were lucky to have a real ‘tree lady’ taking one of the workshops!  Mandy Haggith is a writer based in Assynt, in the north-west highlands of Scotland. Her current project is ‘ A-B-Tree’and celebrates the link between trees and writing.  It was an interesting and energising day, encouraging us to engage more with ‘outside’ and the words, and health, that being there promotes.

Currently about 13 million hectares of forest are cut down each year 1.  Although there is some re-forestation, the net loss is massive, and includes some of the world’s remaining unique and pristine habitats: the five countries with the largest annual net loss of forest area in the period 2000-2005 were Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma)  and Zambia.  These forests cannot be replaced, and the systems they support are likely to be lost.

 Even in the UK, the rate of loss is greater than the rate or replanting, and the truth is even we need more trees.  We all know intrinsically that trees are good for us. Their leaves improve the air we breathe by trapping particles and releasing oxygen. Their roots help water travel deep into the soil, capturing pollutants and reducing flooding. By planting more trees we can capture more carbon and help species move in response to climate change.  The world’s forests have been described as the ‘lungs of the world’, and I think that description aptly conveys their importance to life on earth.  Without them we cannot survive long term.

 OK, you may not want to go and hug a tree – though personally I would recommend it, it’s a life-affirming experience- but you could certainly plant a tree, or support one of the organisations who are currently engaged in replanting schemes.  Wherever you live, your environment will benefit from a tree or two.  I would also encourage you to get out there into the outside. Whether you live in a town, city or the countryside, there are green spaces where you can re-engage with your natural environment.  Getting out of the office at lunchtime is a lot more beneficial to your well-being than playing Angry Birds, or updating Facebook! If you really can’t spare a few minutes, then make a point of getting out at the weekend with your family and appreciating the natural world.  Trees are amazing natural sculptures, and some of them have been around for centuries.  I guarantee you will be enriched by your experience.

 If you want to be more involved with re-forestry, or need an excuse to get outside, there are lots of organisations who would welcome you as a volunteer.  The Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, and Trees for Life all have schemes you can get involved in.

 For more information on Mandy’s project see her website: http://mandyhaggith.worldforests.org/a-b-tree.asp?pageid=336781

 If you want to find out more about Lapidus, their website can be found here: http://www.lapidus.org.uk/  look at their ‘regional networks’ section for more information about what’s going on in your local area.

 If you want to be inspired by some tree images, take a look at my pinboard: http://www.pinterest.com/drnaturegirl/trees/  and http://onebigphoto.com/worlds-most-beautiful-trees-photography/

 Happy Tree hugging!

 

References#

1 United Nations Environment Programme ‘Forests’ http://www.unep.org/forests/

 

Being Human

SockfluffI have an insane fear of fluff.  Not any old fluff you understand, just the sort of fluff that gets left on the carpet, mostly of the sock variety.  Thankfully most of my floors are covered in vinyl and laminate, rather than carpet, so it’s not reached the peak of ‘phobia’ just yet.  It’s the fear of the ‘unknown’, I think; dark uncertain objects lurking on -or worse in– my carpet.  It could be anything! Not anything hideous or harmful, but some unspecified ‘creepy-crawly’ : slaters, silver fish, carpet beetles, larder beetles, fur beetles, biscuit beetles, mutant bed bugs, all marvellously innocuous sounding.  The point is, they are creatures from ‘out there’ and should not, to my mind, be ‘in here’!

I’m not arachnaphobic – if it’s a spider I’m very happy.  I like spiders.  Spiders kill flies (I HATE flies).  Spiders may require relocating from the bedroom carpet, but they’re fine elsewhere, doing their spidery stuff.  Other unspecified creatures I don’t have as much truck with.  They need to go.  They don’t have to have their life extinguished for the benefit of my irrational dislike of their choice of habitat, but they do need to be somewhere other than my boudoir floor; the space under my feet where I can tread on them at night, when I can’t see what I’m treading on…

Mostly I’m pleased to say, the unspecified objects are indeed sock fluff: dark threads, sinister blobs and bubbles masquerading as the dreaded arthropods.  It can look amazingly life-like, animated even, by the light of a 15 watt energy-saving bulb at 10pm, believe me!

Of course the definition of a phobia is an irrational fear. Our caveman selves probably had very rational fears of what was ‘out there’ – the things that they had to share their lives with that they understood and feared because they might actually get them!

We are still sharing our lives with all manner of things, albeit less and less variety of creatures each year, and very few in this country likely to get us.  We are still competing for food and territory, although we have a better understanding of our fragile eco-system, our necessarily shared resources.  Or do we, protected as we are by manmade constructs, with only bugs on the carpet to fear?  And there’s always that hoover in the cupboard…

The Murder of Crows

P4237306On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, I inadvertently spent the night in a campervan with a captured crow for company. The bird was not in the van, lest you’re wondering, but trapped in a cage on the edge of the moor.  The wild bird, or Larsen trap, is quite legal, and supposedly humane – the trapped bird must have shelter, water, food and a perch.  But there was nothing humane in seeing a caged bird die.

The traps are supposed to be checked at least every 24 hours, and I have no reason to suppose that the person who set the trap did not do so.  I wonder as to the efficacy of such interventions in the course of the natural world.  Sometimes members of the corvine clan are caught for research, sometimes to avoid decimation of the songbird population, and sometimes because they affect the livelihood of estates.  I don’t know why this particular bird was caught, but it was scared and alone.  One moment it was cawing in the dawn, and the next it was dead.

Larsen Traps were designed by a Danish gamekeeper (Larsen) in the 1950s, but are now banned in that country because the traps are viewed as inhumane for trapping magpies and crows.  Recent research has indicated that corvines are particularly intelligent, and for any intelligent animal being caged can never be humane.

I know people will always have arguments to support such activity, and rural poverty will always get my sympathy, but I can’t help feeling that this poor animal was a victim of the profit principle – protecting game bird young from the natural predation by crows and magpies.  I suppose that crows are not in decline, and need no protection, but they have young too; maybe a crow family has starved to death whilst its parent died of terror in the bottom of a cage.

I can’t help feeling that there’s not much humanity in murdering a crow, indeed, any creature, and that with artificially high numbers of game birds in the countryside the odd captured crow isn’t really going to make much difference.  As usual our interventions upset the balance of nature, whether we support or decry her.

I toyed with the idea of releasing the bird and risking ‘mischief with intent’ but decided that I did not know enough about why it was there to intervene.  I wish now I had let it go.

 

A week ‘Out There’

Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that.  In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives.  There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!

I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist.  Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun.  So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.

Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore.  The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’.  We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day.  Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense.  Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa.  Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife.  On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water .  I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it.  In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells.  Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.

John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming.  Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be.  There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with.  Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.

Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need.  Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister.  You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.

Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience.  You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is.  You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day.  There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam.  Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!