Wednesday, 31 December 2014

On getting poems out there

My wee ebook

I began this year with the resolution to get myself back in print as a poet. Both of my collections (letting light in and Castings) have been out of print for years (although at least letting light in is available as an ebook here). I do poetry readings and events quite regularly and have to disappoint people when they want to buy a book of my poems, and last year, as poet in residence in the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, this became somewhat embarrassing, so I vowed to do something about it.


The winter was dominated by the launch of Into the Forest, an anthology of other people's tree poems. Once that was done, I started looking at potential poetry publishers, and decided to enter some competitions with sets of poems. I came second in the Overton poetry prize with my sequence of tree poems, one for each letter of the Gaelic Tree Alphabet. I was also listed for the Poetry School/Pighog and  Cinnamon Press pamphlet competitions. All three sets of poems were different, so although these were near misses, they at least gave me confidence I have at least 50 poems that work in combination.

How else do you get a collection published? My first collection was the result of a magazine editor liking my poems and asking to publish a slim volume of them. I like poetry magazines: they're my staple reading with a cup of tea in bed in the morning and I love the sense of dialogue with other poets who seem to hang out with the same little mags as I do. I've sent poems out to all my favourites over the past year, and as a result they've appeared in Northwords Now, Orbis, Stravaig, New Linear Perspectives, Trafika Europe, Acumen, Dream Catcher, Obsessed with Pipework, in an anthology of war poems, an anthology of landscape poems and on the wonderful StAnza poetry map of Scotland.Thank you to all the editors who keep the poetry conversation alive.

Still somehow the year has gone by without me rectifying my situation as an out-of-print poet. I'm very proud to be reading at the StAnza Poetry Festival in March 2015, but once again I'll have no books on sale. Guess what's my new year's resolution again this year?

Wishing you all a jolly hogmanay!

P.S. Sorry for the long gap since the last post. We were struck by lightning three weeks ago and today was our first day with broadband functioning since then. Much catching up to be done...

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Bear spotted in Assynt

Is this bear made by Paul Szeiler male or female?
I simply couldn't resist it.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Rahayu



I'm back home after a trip to the USA and China. It was rich with thought-provoking discussions and meetings with delightful people but punctuated by gruelling travel with frustrating delays. I am so glad to be home. It is wild, wet, windy and wonderful here, the air soft and fresh, trees dancing, water everywhere entrancing. I am rahayu.

Rahayu is a word I encountered in Bali some years ago, and it's a concept that we need in English, but have no word for. It means living in the moment, grateful for the world as it is now. It is also a woman's name. I'm determined to introduce it to as many people as possible.

Rahayu

a raven swings and rolls
crooning craw-croo
soaring between layers
of light and flow

all we need to know
the old man says
is how to be rahayu
grateful for this moment

for silver clouds in the relentless sky
and this black wheeling curve of bird

(from my first poetry collection, letting light in, available as an ebook here)

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Happy Days on Happy Daze

This has been the summer I really learned to sail. We bought Happy Daze, a 23 foot Halcyon yacht, in April and worked like crazy to get her in the water as soon as we could, which turned out to be early May. Since then we've sailed her every chance we have had, averaging a few times a week, and we've gradually taken her further and further afield as our confidence has grown.

We have been out in dead calm weather and in winds that were as strong as we'd like to experience on a boat of this size. We've sailed in sunshine, rain and fog. We have made loads of mistakes, and learned from them. We've also had huge fun and magical encounters with dolphins, porpoises and all the resident birds. We've enjoyed a dozen wonderful nights at anchor in secluded lochs. We are well and truly hooked.

The season's nearly over. It's the time of year when gales come in gangs, the weather is as unpredictable as a riot and changes faster than you can say 'safe anchorage'.  But hopefully we'll get a few more sails in before we have to take the boat out of the water and lower the mast for the winter.

Already, we're starting to make plans for next year, and dreaming of what we might get up to. My ambition is to sail to Iceland. That won't happen next year, but hopefully we will sail to as many of Scotland's islands as we can in the season. I'm wondering how much I could work from the boat with the help of wifi, or even satellite broadband...

We're also realising that Happy Daze is not a big enough boat to achieve all we want, and so we're starting to think about upgrading to something bigger. Not huge - we crewed on a 40 foot yacht earlier this summer and that's definitely too big for the two of us to handle. But we are looking at yachts a step up from 23 foot.

Which means that Happy Daze is looking for a new owner. If there is someone out there on the west coast who wants the perfect boat for learning to sail, please tell them to get in touch.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Want to imagine an independent Scotland?



Clearly 1.6 million of us have been trying to imagine what Scotland might have been like if we'd achieved independence last week. The perfect read, if you'd like to continue dreaming of a future independent Scotland, might be my novel Bear Witness. It is set in an indeterminately-dated point in time, after the population has voted yes for independence, and it's about one woman's vision of what 'rebirth' of the nation might involve.

After someone commented to me,'I liked your referendum outcome in Bear Witness rather more than the one we actually got!', I decided to do a post-referendum special offer on the novel. You can get yourself a discount, free postage, a signed copy, a free bookmark and a virtual bear hug by buying it from my website here.

Dream on!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

New media for Scotland, anyone?

Remember Northings? I think it's time to get it working again.

Chewing over the post-referendum bitterness, spitting out the pips and trying to find something that feels like a way forward, I find myself coming back to the things that make me angry. There's energy there.

One of the things that most infuriates me is that there is virtually no main-stream media willing to come out on the side of independence for Scotland. We have, apparently, 37 national newspapers, and only the Herald is pro-independence. The BBC is structurally biased in favour of the establishment. Even the Guardian thinks self-determination is a good thing for Palestinians, but not for Scots.

It is clear therefore that we need to create new Scottish media platforms that have an editorial openness to all opinions about the future of this country, in order to balance the space available for the views, opinions, news, ideas and knowledge of all people and communities, not just unionists.

One of the most distinctive things about Scotland is the cultural sphere, which is completely different from that south of the border. Up here in the Highlands, I perceive it as a Gaelic-rooted culture that relates strongly to the land and sea, that wears emotion openly and honestly and is laced with a quiet, wry self-deprecating humour. One of the things I love about living here, and why I will never live anywhere else, is because I feel surrounded by a great intensity of creative people - artists, craft makers, writers, musicians, story-tellers...

We used to have an online magazine that celebrated this creative intensity. It was called Northings. It was set up as an online community, to enable us to talk to each other, highlight news and upcoming events, review performances and exhibitions, delve deeply into the creative work of individuals, discuss movements and trends. It was great. I loved it. But when HI-Arts was killed off last year, it was mothballed. The creative voices of the north were silenced. I blogged about it here. It was a travesty.

Perhaps this is the time to find a way to revive Northings, and claim back our voice. Perhaps Northings could embrace the hopeful visions that the referendum has stirred up, and continue to showcase the depth and breadth of the culture that makes this part of Scotland so special. Perhaps the National Collective could use it as a platform. Perhaps it could also provide a space for views, news and opinions about our culture in the widest sense, including politics. We need to find ways to continue the conversation about the future in all parts of the country.

There are some excellent independent online fora, like Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland, Wings Over Scotland (there must be more, please tell me!) but cultural stuff doesn't get much coverage, and anyway, we need at least 37 of them, for balance. If, like me, you think Northings has a valuable legacy that could be the springboard for an ongoing conversation, get in touch. If enough of us want to do it, we'll find a way.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Why I am voting Yes for an Independent Scotland

I am voting yes because I've concluded it's the ethical choice. I have long been ashamed of the role that the United Kingdom plays in the world. We consume far more than our share of natural resources, both individually and through corporations that base themselves and finance themselves in this country and carry out policies of resource appropriation and economic pillage in other countries poorer than ours. We condone and take part in unacceptable military interventions in other parts of the world, and we pose a nuclear threat.

I hope that Scotland, as a new, small, peace-loving country will be able to behave better than the UK currently does. I hope we can live both here and abroad, in more socially equitable and environmentally gentle ways.

I have considered hard the fact that the UK is a large, powerful, rich nation, with a seat in the Security Council at the UN, with a powerful position in the EU, etc. Scotland will be a small country, with much less power. Is it an abdication of responsibility to give up on the UK, rather than to try to stay within it, and change it to be a better country? I have worried about this, but all my life I seem to have been going on marches, demonstrating, petitioning, voting and writing to my elected representatives and over and over again I have seen the powers that be, in Westminster and in the City of London, ignoring us and acting with aggression and greed and without a proper mandate from the people. The political and economic system in the UK is riddled by class inequality and corruption. The electoral system is geared to reinforce rule by the powerful few over the powerless many. The City of London is over-protected and unaccountable, the military is cowed by America, an upper-class English elite has control over our government, the judiciary and the media.

I know I am not the only individual in Scotland to conclude that we have no legal, non-violent way to influence the behaviour of the UK. It is not an abdication of responsibility to turn away from the UK, and seek a new country in which we can have some, meaningful influence.

It will be difficult to change our society, but after listening to many debates and talking to many people I conclude that there is a real will in Scotland to make this a better country. I have worked in the Scottish Parliament and I know it is a more civilised and consensus-based parliament than Westminster, so I have faith that we can operate a different kind of politics. Our climate change targets and legislation is far stronger already than the UK's as a whole. Our welfare system, to the extent that we can change it from Holyrood, is already fairer than the UK's. I believe that an Independent Scotland will create foreign policy and financial regulation that will be more ethical than the UK's.

I believe that we have the brains, the resources, the creativity and the social consciences that we will need. I believe that we will be able to work with other small, peaceful nations, in the UN, in Europe, within the world's financial system, even if necessary within NATO, to push for global reforms to rein in the excesses of countries like the UK. We will not have so much power, but we will have moral authority. We will be only modestly just, but that's better than being powerfully wrong. It's a choice between might and right.

I'm choosing right.

I'm voting Yes.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Retreat to Assynt in 2015


Dates have been set for two retreats at Glencanisp Lodge next year: 4-9 January (the perfect week to kick start your new year's resolution to write the novel, finish the play etc etc) and 31 May - 5 June. The retreats are for writers or other creative people who want some peace, quiet and space to develop their work in a spectactular place with the occasional company of other like-minded people.

Glencanisp Lodge is a beautiful 12-bedroom house, about a mile from the fishing village of Lochinver, in Assynt, north west Scotland. It belongs to Assynt Foundation, a community body that also owns about 44,000 acres of land including four mountains and countless lochens. By coming on this retreat you help to support this community organisation, in a remote and economically fragile part of Scotland, and you also get to visit what Norman MacCaig called 'this most beautiful corner of the land'.


You'll have a room to yourself (unless you choose to share) with table and lamp, bed linen and towels are provided, and the prices are full board (not including alcohol). The kitchen is stocked so you can help yourself to breakfast and lunch as you please. We eat dinner together in the evening and afterwards we often share work and conversation by the fireside.

There is a 'creative warm-up' session each morning to kick start your day and a scattering of walks and writing workshops organised during the week. All of these are optional and you are free to take part in all, some or none of them. Our central concern is to ensure that your creative juices are helped to flow in whatever way is best for you.

Prices and booking


Prices must increase from last year but are being held as low as possible and there are a range of costs to reflect the various different size of rooms in the house and hopefully to suit all purses.

For the January retreat (4-9 January), the room rates are £450, £425, £400 per person. If shared, £300, £275, £250 per person.

For the June retreat (31 May - 5 June), room rates are £525, £475, £450 per person. If shared, £400, £325, £300.



To book, contact Jane Tulloch at Assynt Foundation, on 01571 844100 or email jane@assyntfoundation.org.uk



In 2015, we, the people of Assynt, will have owned Glencanisp Lodge and the mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg for ten years, so it will be a special time to visit.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What's wrong with this map?

I'm just home from a jaunt to Edinburgh for the festival - the highlight of which was undoubtedly Paul Lewis playing Beethoven, which deserves a blog post in its own right. I also went to the Generation exhibition of contemporary Scottish art at the National Gallery (Steven Campbell is a highlight but David Shrigley stole the show). The map above is on the wall there. It shows all the art venues taking part in the exhibition. There are more than 60 of them around Scotland, and although they reach up to the islands, and down to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway in the south west, there's a huge hole in the north west.

Why? It's not as if there are no contemporary artists or galleries in this part of the world. What about An Talla Solais in Ullapool? What about the craft village at Balnakeil? What about all of the artists in Assynt? I have ranted before in this blog about the way our arts agency, HI-Arts, was eradicated, and I can't help wondering if things would have been different if it had been there to advocate for all of the Highlands and Islands to be properly represented.

I've recently become the proud owner of a Peter White painting. I never thought I could afford such luxury, but I bought this when the aforementioned An Talla Solais held a sale. It emerged from Peter's practice of drawing and painting from photographs of people who died in concentration camps and gulags. I wrote about this practice in an interview with Peter here. It's an immensely powerful painting, an honouring of a victim of inhumanity, and I feel proud to be able to welcome this unknown person into my home, give them a place at the table, show them some respect. I am moved by this painting daily: that beautiful mouth, those questioning eyes.


An Talla Solais ran its art sale in an effort to improve its dire financial situation. Could this have anything to do with being overlooked by the mainstream arts world, we have to wonder? If anyone down in the Central Belt is reading this, hello! We have art up here as well and we're trying to keep it alive. We are not nowhere, and our artists are not nobodies. Please put us on your map!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Bears in captivity

Sorry not to have posted for ages. Summer in Achmelvich involves avoidance of the computer as much as possible! There's a boat to sail, there's a garden to tend, there are mink to catch (unfortunately) and there are birds and seals and people to watch.

But haunting my desk are letters and cards from Animals Asia, with images of bears in cages. I'm not going to reproduce them here, because they break my heart. They are mostly bears rescued from bear bile farms.

Bear bile farming is an unspeakable practice - bears held captive in order for bile to be extracted from their gall bladders for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Its active ingredient, ursodeozycholic acid, is supposed to be good for the liver so it is used, amongst other things, as a hangover cure. The trade is huge, and bile farmers claim that they are helping to prevent the slaughter of wild bears, yet the conditions under which bears are kept are cruel and the extraction of their bile is life-threatening. There are good synthetic and herbal alternatives - rhubarb is apparently just as effective.

So, it is a non-brainer that bile farming shouldn't be allowed, and I am 100% behind those brave people who are trying to fight against it, particularly in countries where challenging campaigning can be risky. Organisations like World Animal Protection, MoonBears.org, Wildlife SOS, Free the Bears, Hauser Bears and Animals Asia are all trying to change perceptions and laws in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, India and other countries where bear bile trade is strong. There's a facebook community of people advocating for caged bears here. If you are interested, each day you can find an uplifting or horrific story about bears being rescued from a life of dancing, from baiting or from cruel zoos.

The thing that really breaks my heart is that when these campaigners win victories, and secure the release of captive bears, they usually can't be released into the wild because they are too ill, or damaged, or do not have the skills to fend for themselves. So they must be taken to sanctuaries. Animals Asia is currently trying to raise millions of pounds to create a bear sanctuary. I know it's necessary, and I hope that they achieve their goal.

However, we also need to remember that bears need protecting in the wild, through the protection of their natural forest habitats. We will have done a kind but stupid thing if we succeed in achieving more comfortable cages for captive bears, but fail to save their wild forest habitats. This keeps me awake at nights.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

#whatsinyourpaper

I inhabit a paradox. As a writer, I want vast quantities of paper to come pouring off the presses with my words on it, but as a campaigner for forests and the people who depend on them, I want the paper industry to stop trashing forests. This paradox has driven my obsession with paper for years.

It must be possible for paper production to be achieved sustainably, and many of us believe it is. In my day job I co-ordinate a network of environmental and human rights campaigners who all have a vision for the future when paper is made and used in benign ways. This is the Global Paper Vision, which was launched today, signed by more than 120 organisations around the world. It's worth following the link just to see how pretty all their logos are! You can make a pledge to make sure that you do what you can to use less paper and make sure you know what's in it. Join us!


Sunday, 4 May 2014

Cows on the croft

We have two new residents on the croft. Life suddenly has a new rhythm to it, with feeding time late afternoon, and two big, furry, friendly animals to stroke, pat, chat to and be mystified by.

They leave a scent trail. You can hear them coming from the rasping tear of gums on grass. In the rain, they steam and carry on munching. They can empty a pail of water with a single gulp. When I shake the feed bucket, they look at me with their beautiful, melted chocolate eyes, and follow me wherever I want them to go.

I am besotted.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Primroses etc

Two weeks fly by. The poem every day trial was de-railed by a trip away. First there was relief not to have to expose these seedling poems to the harsh light of cyberspace, and then, I have to confess there were some days when no poem got written at all. Not that I didn't write every day; the novel gets its daily scribbled page no matter what at the moment, and my notebook is full of neat blue ink lines. Just not poetry, or not every day anyway. There have been some bursts onto the page though, so in the spirit of NaPoWriMo, here are some of them.

a big beary bumble bee
feeding on arctic bearberry

--

we                 all

         need
         much

more             space


--

explosion


the fuse is lit
life smoulders
through mats of fibres
sap wicks up
lusting to bloom

-- 

All the primroses say

Wake up! Winter's over.

Come and peer down on us
with eyes full of willow catkins.

Which of our two shades is primrose yellow?
Why not the other one?

Violets are so blue.
Celandines so gold and glossy.

You have to bare your soul
or bees will not come.

We are not afraid of the pig
though he seems wary of the way we gaze at him.

We may look innocent but we are sex machines.

Pin and thrum. Vive la difference!

Of course we do this every year. 
It is not a ritual. It is survival.

Birds are singing of love and so are we. 
What do you mean you cannot hear us? 
Are you listening?

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Nursery

Here is a poetry seedling for #NaPoMo2014

Nursery


Poems are like seedlings.
Keep them moist.
Gentle them.
Some wilt.
Others succumb to frost.
Bring on the rest
but not too quickly.

Pot up.
Give space.
Nip out lush growth.
Show care.

Then harden them off
for the cold world out there.
Ready them
for wrath and wonder.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Of edges and boats

It's been a busy few days of work, plus we bought a sailing boat on Monday - Happy Daze! Getting daily poems onto here has therefore not been feasible, so here's the backlog.

The first is a musing on the edges again, after our exciting trip down into the underworld of High Pasture Cave at the weekend. And then there are inevitably a couple of nautical poems, including one which is just a shopping list for the boat in vaguely iambic pentameter. These are all definitely seedlings that look vulnerable to dying back, but in the spirit of the thing, I shall bare them to the world. I have to say showing such raw work feels a bit like going out in my underwear.

Liminal

shine a torch
turn the light off

let waves wash in
wash out again

speak this tonguetranslate into an canan eile

rub off the paint
apply another layer

old bracken collapses
new fronds unfurl

the moon wanes
waxes again

the day lengthens
but still the fire is welcome

conflict happens
peace is possible

the edge is thin between action
and inaction

all boundaries are made to be broken
all edges are crossable

Happy Daze

Although every boat requires love of a kind
different from the care we lavish on each other

I am won over by freshly-polished wood,
talk of hinges, well-worn sheets,

hooked by dreams of shrouds
making music in a summer evening breeze

the song of undercurrents, trickles under keel.
In any future year I might let my probing fingers

press into the red flesh below the waterline,
scratch at the pitted scabs beside the crusty anode

but it is spring and barnacle geese
are skeining for the northern isles,

Faroe, Iceland, Jan Mayan, Svalbard,
ice-fringed coastlines where balugas rise

and dive. I must be on the ocean
tracking Pytheas along the wrack-scent margin,

while the nights are brief and pale.
Thule beckons in the wind among the trees.

Shopping list

The ropes go up the eight yard mast then down(although today, because the stick is prone,
they run along a horizontal line and back);
we're measuring them, and making plans
for when good sailing weather will arrive.
The boat has overwintered in dry dock.
Her shrouds are slumped. She does not look alive.

The best of it is drawing up the shopping list:
new sheets, halyard, anodes for the keel,
barometer, a plumbline and a tender,
a scrubber for the hull and anti-fouling,hasp and hinges where the rust set in,
life vests, coastal charts and mugs for tea.
Soon we'll be all set to go to sea!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

High Pasture Cave

Yesterday I went down Uamh an Ard Achadh, the cave at High Pasture on Skye, with Martin Wildgoose, the archaeologist who has been exploring this incredible site for the past 10 years. The picture, drawn by him, shows how it may have looked when it was in use, between 750BC and 100AD. The crescent-shaped structure is a huge burnt mound, made from stones heated in a fire and then used to heat water. In front of this is the original cave mouth, which is now sealed.

The ceremonial cave can now only be reached through about 130 metres of underground passages, through limestone, with pools and subsurface streams. This is where Martin took me.

It is absolutely exquisite, with black chert boulders and white marble stripes among grey limestone. The surfaces swarm with stalactites and needles, scallop patterns and calciferous growths like elves' ears and rows of teeth, as if there are people frozen into the stone. The running water chuckles and sings continuously, and everywhere drops of water gleam and glitter in torchlight, making the whole place seem to be lined with gems. It is utter magic.
 
The site was clearly used for ceremonial purposes, and it seems most likely to have been linked to the Celtic goddess Brigid. There are lots of pointers to this: when the sun comes over the hill at Imbolc at the very end of January (a date sacred to Brigid), it would have shone directly into the cave. Within the cave there are burials of the bones of whole cows (which were sacred to Brigid), as well as many objects linked to women (beads, hairpins, querns etc) which were ritually deposited. Brigid was the goddess of smelting and there are signs of metal working in the cave as well. It seems many people may have been cremated on the sacred fire outside, and then their remains brought down to the underworld and perhaps offered to the running water within. Brigid is also goddess of poetry, and so I wrote yesterday's poem by trying to imagine what might have been sung or said by those using the cave.

Liminal

stone from a shore
from sea to pasture

body to flame
from breath to fire

ash to the cave
from higher to lower

wish to water
from now to ever

time of wonder
over, under


In 100 AD the cave entrance was blocked up with clay and boulders, and guarded by a buried woman, together with her dismembered infant child and foetus, and the foetus of a pig. Who was she? Why was the cave sealed up after almost a thousand years of ceremonial use? We will never know.

And finally today's poem, a cave haiku:

drinking in darkness
a handful of pure nothing
cupped from a cave pool

Friday, 4 April 2014

Spring Butterfly

I like to test the boundaries of what a poem is. Does this count?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Damp again

The first skeins of geese went over yesterday (or the first I've seen anyway) and reminded me of what the Vikings called the whale-road north... Today, after ten days of clear, dry weather on the back of an endlessly drying east wind, it is damp once again, and this poem is the result of the change in the weather.

I'm not sure about it, and if it weren't for my National Poetry Writing Month commitment, it is the kind of poem I would usually consider a fragile seedling, which I'd put in the 'nursery' folder to see if it will grow into something I like over time. But as I have made a poem-a-day commitment,  in the spirit of being open about what actually comes down the pen, here it is.

Rain pause over, spring resumes

The stick that was white is wet again.
Birch buds bursting
look like a struggle
but damp earth
smells as if it will ease them.

Are the willows sorry for the primroses?
No. Nor are the primroses
as lonely as they seem.
Nothing is forlorn.
This is just how it is now

while the air is still
as thin as birdsong
and the pull of the whale-road north
is strong enough
to wind the wind-skeins up again.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A month of poetry

All these spring shoots must be getting to me. It is NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month, and the challenge is to write a poem every day. This isn't the kind of challenge I would normally rise to, but somehow the idea has got under my skin. After yoga last night, I wrote a little poem, and this morning, another. In the spirit of the enterprise I've decided to give it a go, not only trying each day to see if there is a poem there waiting to begin, but also to display the raw, tender little seedling poems here as they appear. I won't necessarily get them up onto here each day - there are lots of other things going on this month. But we'll see how it goes.

I am squarely obsessed by sailing at the moment, both with dreams of the coming season and memories of past experiences on the water. Last night's poem is from the former, and this morning's came from a look back over notes I made in the arctic last year. We had the trip of a lifetime sailing north from Scotland to Svalbard and around Spitsbergen in June and I haven't written much about it really. As the geese have now begun flying north over us, don't be surprised to find me full of arctic reveries.

So, here's last night's poem.

Dreaming

I am dreaming of sailing over the edge
where depth seethes and imagination fails

   a sail furls
   a rope coils

      a whale may rise 

And for this morning's it might be worth knowing, if you don't already, that a less-than-berg-sized chunk of ice fallen off a glacier (dangerous to sailers) is called a growler.

Ice teaching

'Man might be more tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear.' J A Baker, The Peregrine. 
 Staring out from between two cliffs
   a small blue glacier
      scarred by its battle with air and water
         has nowhere to go.

Slow, incremental motion
   moves a mountain
      but the sea's toothed skin
         consumes from below.

The boundary between ice and sea
   is frazzle
      then pancake
         then floe.

We need nature to be fiercer than us
   to show us like a naughty child
      enough
         to growl at us, no. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Boats

You know it's spring around here not only by the primroses, but also by the fact that on good days there is always work to be done on a boat. There's this one, called Ripples, which has new gunwhales and rowlocks this year, as you can see. She is now painted and launched and looking lovely on the running mooring in the loch.

Then there's Vigilance, Bill's old fishing boat. She's still in the harbour in Lochinver, but as the weather improves the day will no doubt come when it'll be time to bring her round to Loch Roe.
Perhaps we are crazy, but we are talking about also getting a sailing boat. Is there any other way to get beyond 'competent crew' to being actually able to sail, confidently? I doubt it. Both Ripples and Vigilance are beautiful in their own way, but oars and engines just don't do what a sail can do!

Each summer for the past few years I've spent time on other people's yachts, but there are real limits to how practical (and affordable) that is, and to how much we will ever learn if we're not making our own mistakes on our own vessel. I also have a sneaking suspicion there's a lot of sailing poetry to be written, once I can be alone on board - the lexicon of sailing is so delicious, all those sheets and stays, not to mention all the knots!

So, we're on the look-out for a cheap boat. Any offers?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Beavers

I was recently in Kilmartin, doing some events at their Literary Festival. I took the opportunity to go beaver-spotting at nearby Knapdale forest, where the Scottish Wildlife Trust is running a trial re-introduction. We were given a tip-off to visit a lodge some distance from the main visitor site, in a quiet loch, and so we set off a bit before dusk.

We immediately saw willow trees at the lochside showing signs of beaver activity, some chewed right off, some partly gnawed. Across the loch was a huge lodge - a mound of sticks built out into the water.

We waited.

There is a special kind of animal-watching meditation. It took me years to learn it. As a child I was incapable of sitting still. My dad used to take me badger-watching, which involved sitting quietly by a sett at dusk until the badgers emerged. I would rustle and fidget, and the badgers would no doubt hear and use a different exit. The more frustrated I became by the wait, the noisier my scuffling and the less chance of seeing a badger, until eventually we would give up.

Somehow as an adult I have learned to wait quietly for animals. Attention is everything. Standing by that loch, I revelled in the cool breeze across the water, blowing gently in my face, perfect for not being smelled by the beavers. There was little sound except for the rippling water and the hush of breeze through twigs. It was good to know I was there, in the beaver's habitat, experiencing their loch.

As the light dimmed, details of the lodge became harder and harder to make out across the loch, and it became easier and easier to hallucinate brown furry bodies! I think I saw, faintly, movement at the fringe of the loch. I can't be certain.

But what I can be certain of was the splash. And then the 'pfffff', closeby, a sound similar to that made by a seal surfacing. Only this was freshwater, so it couldn't be a seal - it must have been a beaver!

It was almost completely dark by then, so we headed back down the track, full of that elation of proximity to a fellow-animal. That evening goes down in memory as one of those precious encounters in which sight was not primary - like the time we smelt an invisible brown bear passing us in the forest in Romania and the night camping in Zimbabwe when we heard a leopard killing a deer. This encounter, one quiet 'pfff', wasn't perhaps quite so dramatic as either of those, but in its own way, because these beavers are so newly re-introduced to Scotland, it was just as exciting.

I'm delighted that the beavers are back, both officially through the reintroduction trial and unofficially in the Tay valley. We need to return all of the native species that we have exterminated to extinction, to prove that we are willing to share our land with other animals. If you agree, please tell the powers that be - they are currently consulting on the re-introduction. You can have your say here: http://www.scottishbeavers.org.uk/

Thursday, 27 March 2014

letting light in available as an ebook

letting light in now available as an ebook
letting light in, now available as an ebook
For ages now I have been in the sad position of being a poet with all my poetry out of print. It is unfortunate that even when poetry sells well, even sells out, publishers are not able to reprint books. It was a shame not to be able to use the opportunity of being poet in residence at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh last summer to give people a chance to buy my poetry, so one of my new year's resolutions this year was to get my poetry backlist available again, at least electronically.

To do this I have had to climb the learning curve of producing ebooks, and now I'm proud to be able to announce that my first poetry collection, the pamphlet letting light in, is now available as an ebook for just 77p from Amazon.co.uk here, or Amazon.com here. 

The poetry is a response to the quiet arrival of spring in Assynt, so having been out of print for years, it is appropriate that it is once again available as spring blossoms begin to open.
under the aspen
where the heron shits
the first primrose
  I'll be interested in responses, so if you do buy it (here it is!) please leave a review on Amazon.

Friday, 21 March 2014

It's spring!

The official start of spring here is when the first primrose flowers open. This morning's walk gave me my first primrose, so it's official. I don't think I've ever known the first primrose to fall on the equinox, so it's doubly spring today! It's squally and wild, just as it should be.

Now it becomes necessary to 'get tore in about' the last remaining winter jobs. There are a couple of birches to come down, and digging to do in the garden. So, enough of this.

Wishing you all a wonderful growing season.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

How many bears? Lots!

[photo of Slovenian bear by Danegger]

I am often asked how many brown bears Scotland could support. I answer that there hasn't been a proper feasibility study, but probably many more than people imagine. Most folk probably think bears need as much space as wolves. Think again!

There is an interesting article in the current issue of Ursus (the journal of the International Bear Association), about brown bears in Slovenia. The paper is about whether putting livestock carrion out for bears influences how much they attack livestock. The authors (Irena Kavcic et al) conclude it does not.

What's most fascinating is some of the basic data. Here are some examples:
  • There are about 450 bears in Slovenia, which is about a quarter the size of Scotland.
  • In their core area, the density of bears is high - in a farming region with more than 2000 people per 100 square kilometers, there are up to 40 bears per 100 square kilometers.
  • In the period 2005-9, there were a total of 400 sheep killed by bears, out of a total population of 133,800 - i.e. less than one per bear.
  • The annual cost of compensating farmers for bear attacks on livestock (97% of which are on sheep) is €104,500. 
Now Slovenia is much more densely forested than Scotland, and its sheep density is much less than ours, but even so, these statistics paint an interesting picture of a landscape that is full of people living in relative peace with bears. It at least gives us something to aspire to! For a nice summary about Slovenian brown bears, see here.

The final statistic, that of the €104,500 cost of compensating farmers for sheep lost to bears, is worth contrasting with Scotland's farm subsidy budget of £600 million (around €700 million)  (see this article by Rob Edwards for more on our farm subsidy scandal).


Friday, 7 March 2014

Sacred bears

When bears used to live in Britain, were they sacred animals? I believe they probably were. Most indigenous peoples who share their environments with bears revere them. They have the great magic of going to ground, and apparently dying, for the winter, then being 'reborn' in spring. Female bears reappear having miraculously produced cubs, so for many cultures they are powerful symbols of fertility and regeneration.

If there is one thing that we desperately need in our culture, it is regeneration, so I am delighted to have discovered that there are moves afoot to rekindle a spiritual connection to bears. Louisa Potter, a priestess of Avalon, is leading a process to create a Temple of Ursa, a place where people can delve into ancient bear mysteries and think what bears might be able to teach us today.

There's a discussion starting right now, in Glastonbury (see here for more details), about how we might reconnect with bears. They'll be watching the film, Brave, and talking about how the She Bear is represented within it. I wish I was there taking part!

Personally I'm torn about Brave. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see a modern-day take on the old folklore theme of a person being transformed into a bear. I used that idea as the background for my novel Bear Witness (that's why the main character is called Callis, after Callisto, the maiden in the Greek myth who was turned into a bear).

On the other hand, I am frustrated by the way the film perpetuated a load of myths about bears. For example, it set the scene firmly in a Scottish landscape, then had the bear catching salmon - Grizzly bears might do that in Alaska, but there's no evidence that European brown bears eat much fish at all. Then there was the way that the mother character was taken over by various stereotypical bad bear behaviours, like aggression and ravenous eating, as if bears are always like this.

Overall, though, I find it uplifting that as a society we remain fascinated by bears, whether it's Paddington, or the mother in Brave, or the latest cub videos that go viral on twitter. There is something deep in our culture that says we need bears. They are our sibling creatures. We need them. And not only in cartoons.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Alchemy of Bronze

My next novel is set more than two thousand years ago, in the Iron Age, and I have recently been getting serious about the research for it. I have been reluctant to write about it here, as it's going to take me ages before the novel is anything to speak of. However, the research is fascinating in itself.

I began February down in Cornwall, among storms. I'd never been there. Despite travelling all over the world, I kept thinking it was odd I had never visited the other end of this island. Finally I had a good excuse to go - some of my fictional characters belonged there. I am sure normal people have sensible reasons for where they go on holiday, but is one of the peculiarities of being a novelist that you go to places because people who don't actually exist 'live' there.

Anyway a big reason to visit was to find out how bronze would have been made in the Iron Age, and one of the highlights was meeting Neil Burridge, a master of the craft of bronze smelting, who specialises in the methods used in the Bronze and Iron Ages. He was kind enough to take me to see a place where tin was mined and smelted in the iron age. Then, even more kindly, he let me watch (and smell, and listen) while he smelted bronze, blending tin and copper in a crucible, and then cast a replica bronze age sword and spear head, shown in the picture fresh from the forge.

Watching Neil I was enthralled by the alchemy of bronze. Solid copper is put into a crucible, where it seems unaffected by tremendous heat. More than a thousand-degrees-centigrade leaves it apparently unmoved, unmelted, unchanged. Then a little tin is added, a remarkably small amount, but this diminutive little blob of metal melts rapidly to a silver drop, which seems literally to devour the copper. In a matter of moments the solid, invincible copper is reduced to a little puddle of glistening liquid. This liquid is then poured from the crucible into a mould, with considerable speed and all the drama of flames and smoke, and in just a few moments it is solid again.

It really is magic. I imagine how much more magical it must have seemed to people before the age of science and engineering. But even today, it's still magic.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Upcoming events

I have a flurry of bookish events coming up in the next fortnight, in Falkland, Kilmartin, Skye, Glasgow, Golspie, Inverness and St Andrews, so I hope to see some of you at some of them. It has to be said, this is an awkward moment for the car to die - but that won't stop me!

I'm particularly looking forward to being in Kilmartin Glen this weekend - the museum there is my favourite museum in Scotland, and the glen is full of the most fascinating traces of past lives, including the mysterious cup and ring stones.

Friday 21 February - Falkland Centre for Stewardship, Fife, a workshop with school children
Saturday 22 - reading and discussing my bear novels, Bear Witness and The Last Bear, Kilmartin Glen Literary Festival (see here)
Sunday 23 February - talk about the Tree Alphabet and tree poems from Into the Forest, Kilmartin Glen Literary Festival
Tuesday 25 February - reading from Into the Forest with Rody Gorman and Maoilios Caimbeul, Skye Reading Room, 7pm Skeabost Hotel (see here)
Monday 3 March - Glasgow University environmental careers event, 4pm
Thursday 6 March - celebrating World Book Day with tree poetry at Golspie, 9.30-12.30 am
Thursday 6 March - poetry workshop at Eden Court, Inverness 7-9pm
Sunday 9 March - StAnza Festival event, a poetry tour of Scotland, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 3.30-4.30pm

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Retreat to Assynt

If you need a bit of peace and quiet to get on with a writing project, or indeed any other creative project, why not come to Assynt? From 20-25 July, Glencanisp Lodge will be hosting a creative writing retreat, and I'm delighted to be able to invite people back to this most spectacular setting.

Since the Assynt Foundation bought a huge chunk of this land, bringing the beautiful mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg into community ownership, I've periodically booked what used to be the laird's hunting lodge and invited anyone who wants to come to join me in a retreat there. We've done this 15 times over the years, and it has never failed to inspire people to produce writing beyond their wildest imaginings. I've watched people write the first poems they have written since school. I've been amazed as writers have poured out literally thousands of words of a novel or a memoir. We've had people finishing their novel, writing their first ever short story and even writing a complete play.

When you see the landscape, perhaps that's not surprising. It is, in Norman MacCaig's words, 'this most beautiful corner of the land'.


The Lodge has been refurbished to a wonderful level of comfort, and there are rooms to suit all purses, from grand and en suite (£425 full board), to budget with shared bathroom (£295 full board). If you'd like to join me from 20-25 July, please contact Sara Corkish at Assynt Foundation, email: info@glencanisp-lodge.co.uk or phone 01571 844100. See the Glencanisp Lodge website for more details:

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Scotland's National Tree

There was a debate last week in the Scottish Parliament about our national tree. Scots Pine was chosen after the consultation last year. Not rowan! Despite my championing! Of course it's no surprise and I'm very happy that this mighty tree is now the symbol of the nation.

I'm even happier that the Parliament noticed that trees are the stuff of poetry, and gave Into the Forest a mention. Who says poetry and politics don't go together? You can read the debate here.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Yew

Blogger was due to post this yesterday, while I was away in Inverness leading a creative writing workshop about holly, but it failed to do so. So, better late than never, here's the last letter of the tree alphabet.

It is no accident that the final letter of the tree alphabet is yew. It is the archetypical tree of death, but also of resurrection, and is found throughout the celtic world as a guardian of graves. Sacred yew groves, or sites where individual old yew trees grew, were often taken over as churchyards, so there are many yews that pre-date the church built beside them. The most venerable yew in the country, in Fortingall, may be 4000 years old. Yet it is not a bleak tree - it offers comfort and shelter to grieving people and it absorbs the flesh of corpses, producing blood-red berries that are loved by blackbirds, which sing the spirits of the dead back out into the world.

Don't eat yew - every part of the tree, except the red flesh around the toxic seeds, is poisonous. Yet, yew leaves contain taxol, a drug that is proving effective, and is commercially harvested, to counter breast cancer.

In death there is life.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Aspen

The penultimate letter of the tree alphabet is aspen, a glorious tree with its muscular bark and fluttering leaves. It is the odd one out of the five vowels, being deciduous while the others (pine, gorse, heather and yew) are all evergreen, but there it is. Beavers love it, and so do I.