Linda Cracknell is an-award winning Highlands-based writer known for her creative approach to exploring wild places and man’s interaction with them. Her Walkhighlands’ essays cover the cultural aspects of the Scottish landscape on a quarterly basis.
Always keen to make my travel interesting, I arrived as guest reader on a travel writing course at Moniack Mhor having made a four-day journey on foot. I chose a route which began with an east-to-west crossing over the Corrieyairack Pass from Laggan to Fort Augustus through the Monadhliath mountains, and then walked north along the Great Glen Way.
There’s something about Moniack Mhor. It might be magic at play, or the elevation raising you above everyday worries, or some kind of benefactor-in-residence. Whatever this ‘something’, it feeds creativity and because of this (or this is because) it is Scotland’s creative writing centre.
I enjoy a sense that all roads lead there, and yet when people ask where it is, it’s not easy to describe. If you unfold the 1:50,000 Inverness map, take one hand span north from Drumnadrochit, and one south from Beauly; two to Inverness to its Northeast, you’ll see ‘Teavarran’ marked – the original croft. At 300m, and perched on the western edge of a plateau, it hoists its residents up amongst the spring burble of curlew, tumbling peewits and red kites soaring. From a writing desk, I look into the peaks of Glen Strathfarrar and down into the green pastures of Glen Convinth. Although Loch Ness is three miles behind me to the east, I sense the steep drop to it and a further plunge, 244 metres below the shoreline.
In 1993 the first of many residential courses had Roger McGough and Liz Lochhead as tutors. The legacy of the many writers who’ve followed accumulates. It’s as if you hear their footsteps still creaking on the floorboards of the converted steading, their voices crackling late at night around the fire. Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who comes annually, says it’s one of her favourite places.
Its peculiar mix of sweet and harsh has issued an irresistible summons to me since attending a short story writing course in 1998; I’ve come since as tutor, on my own writing retreats, and as midwife to children’s poetic responses to Abriachan Forest two miles down the road. In February this year I skied out of the door along single-track powdery roads and crisp forest tracks. Provisions were brought in by sledge. I’ve felt the place rise above a sea of mist during inversions, been there when every window frame rattles and westerly gales can pick up a wheelbarrow to fling it down again two fields away. And of course there are also glorious days of unbroken blue skies. It is always painful to leave.
Crossing the hills at nearly 800 metres, the Corrieyairack Pass was a drove road until the late nineteenth century, paved by General Wade in the early 18th-century as part of the Government attempt to quell Jacobite uprisings (ironically also giving them a strategic advantage at the start of the ‘45 campaign). Although we now admire Wade’s well-laid roads and stone bridges meshing themselves into the landscape (see previous piece), the disruption and mass of working men must have seemed intrusive at the time; an alien force moving north and west, demanding order from wild tracts of land as well as from the Highlanders themselves. And now the Beauly-Denny pylon line which shadows the route has, understandably, provoked a similar reaction.
At the splendid Garva Bridge, I started to climb gently on a road of Roman straightness. It felt like the real journey had begun. As seems inevitable when you walk west, lumpen masses of cloud were brooding over the hills I was to cross, where in the 18th century a mean spirit was said to prowl.
On into the wide gentle strath, and some sunshine, I walked alone as the cobbled road began leading up more steeply towards a rake of 13 zig-zags to the summit of the pass. Views then opened to the west – the spiky outlines of Knoydart’s peaks jammed up against each other, navy blue; a matching weight of sky seared with blizzards of white light. I started to descend towards the wooded ravines of Glen Tarff, and found a green bank on which to pitch my tent. The next morning, a silvery strip of wet road led me down alongside gurgling burns. They can’t resist the gravitational pull of the Great Glen, but it seems that neither can confluences of religious, romantic and literary travellers.
In the last mile before Fort Augustus, a path takes you through the ancient-feeling graveyard of Cille Chumein, named for a Saint from Iona who was a follower of Columba and probable founder of this settlement in the 7th century. (Columba himself visited the area in the 6th Century, shooing away the Loch Ness monster with the sign of the cross and some stern words after it drowned a man on the River Ness). There’s a gravestone carved for carpenter John (Jo) Anderson, originally of Ayrshire, who was said to have built Burns’ coffin and to have been the subject of the eponymous song he adapted from a bawdy ballad.
John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw,
but blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!
Fort Augustus was renamed from Kilchuimen after Wade built a fort here in the early 18th century to protect the strategic route through the Great Glen. A century later, Thomas Telford’s Caledonian Canal opened; a single waterway of 60 odd miles from northeast to southwest, two thirds formed by natural lochs – an engineering marvel attracting travellers ever since. Mairi Hedderwick, patron of Moniack Mhor, writes about making the passage in ‘Sea Change: The Summer Voyage from East to West Scotland of the Anassa’, and of the spectacle at the staircase of five locks which carries boats up and down, bringing the highlands closer to the western lowlands. She describes how, with lines to the shore each boat is drawn along by hand, tourists crowding to watch as if the boats are racehorses being led around a paddock; appraised and valued.
In 1773 Boswell and Johnson arrived in Fort Augustus as part of their tour to the Hebrides. From Inverness they travelled 33 miles in one day down the east side of Loch Ness. Wade’s Road was described by Samuel Johnson as following a rock, ‘levelled with great labour and exactness, near the waterside’. In fact so easy was the way that he felt freed for contemplation and observation:
‘On the left were high and steep rocks shaded with birch, the hardy native of the North, and covered with fern or heath. On the right the limpid waters of Lough Ness were beating their bank, and waving their surface by gentle agitation. Beyond them were rocks sometimes covered with verdure, and sometimes towering in horrid nakedness. Now and then we spied a little cornfield, which served to impress more strongly the general barrenness.’
They travelled with four horses for themselves and their luggage and two Highland men ‘to run beside us’. They were initially dismayed by the lack of hospitality at Fort Augustus and its ‘wretched’ inn, but once settled for an evening with the Governor of the Fort, Boswell remarked on having, ‘all the convenience of civilised life in the midst of the rude mountains’. From here their journey continued towards the west coast, following Loch Ness as far as Invermoriston.
In 1803, at the age of 30, poet of the ‘Ancient Mariner’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also washed up at Fort Augustus having parted from Dorothy and William Wordsworth in the Arrochar Alps. Making a solo tour of the Highlands, he walked some 30 miles a day despite gout, made possible by Wade’s network of roads. ‘I have been on a wild journey,’ he wrote to his friend, Robert Southey. He reported his experience of being flung into Fort Augustus prison for a night as a suspected spy, where he no doubt endured one of his ‘screamy nights’ brought on by addiction to laudanum and opium. Nevertheless he was released the next morning and breakfasted with the Governor before resuming his journey.
‘I am enjoying myself, having Nature with solitude and liberty,’ he wrote in his journal. Many of us who walk alone, especially over a number of days, note the internal monologue growing louder, crazier. My mind interprets and invents from the inner and outer landscape so that walking and writing are perfectly harnessed together.
Jennifer Hodgson of the ‘Writers’ Inner Voices’ study by Durham University and Edinburgh International Book Festival, has written of her initial findings in the Spring issue of Mslexia magazine. Many writers she interviewed talked about hearing the voices of fictional characters almost as if they are memories, or located somewhere deep inside the subconscious. When the connection with the voice stops, writers’ strategies for retuning to it often involve walking and pacing. It is because of this embodiment of the imagination that I rarely tutor a workshop without even a small element of physical motion and interaction with the environment. Beware: All you who walk may become poets and story-makers!
Envisaging the Great Glen – a 380 million year-old fracture – against the pip of a human lifespan can create a seismic shift in the mind. Its substance impresses too. An elusive, slick-skinned monster is a fitting metaphor for the psychological and physical profundity of the loch that yawns north-east from Fort Augustus, with its spectacular sheets of near vertical scree. Its ancient, tumbling birchwoods are mentioned by both Boswell and Johnson in their journals, and also by Coleridge: ‘O never, never let me forget the beautiful birch stems, like silver tarnished’. Stem-like indeed, they dazzle in early Spring sunlight, trunks spraying upwards, topped with a maroon haze readying to flush with green.
Far above the whine and rumble of the Loch-hugging A82, the new high route of the Great Glen Way courses at about 300m after the steep climb from Fort Augustus. Passing occasional proud vestiges of Caledonian pine, a reliable and open path allows the eye to rove into the sharp slice of the Glen, and over to the Cluanie ridge and Monadhliath hills. It gives a true sense of elevation but, unlike many older paths, holds its line and height. When I walked it in March this year, it remained intact, despite the devastating storm of a fortnight before which closed the A82 and severely damaged a section of the Caledonian Canal.
Further along, the sometimes-path-sometimes-track from Invermoriston rolls in and out of high forestry plantation and clear-felled apocalypse, but there are small treats such as a ‘Troll Bridge’ over the Allt Ruighe Bhacain. Poems and drawings by children from Glenurquhart primary school are displayed here (‘I am a troll and you have to pay to get over the bridge!’) before a steep climb to one of several superb viewpoints.
The path leaves a closed-in feeling stretch of plantation to climb through open meadows and copses, passing prehistoric Dun Scriben fort, to the hamlet of Grotaig just under the ubiquitous hump of Meall Fuar-mhonaidh. A sign invited me to visit a pottery. I expected it to be closed. Another promised tea. I anticipated it would be only ‘in season’. But, like a mirage in the desert, not only was there tea, but moist banana and date cake, fuelling the last few miles down to the lochside.
From Drumnadrochit, I began to feel the gravitational pull of Moniack’s magic as the rising ground became more familiar. Of all my forays out from there, my favourite is a coffin path running between the shore at the coach-infested ‘Clansman’ Hotel towards Abriachan village, 250 metres above. From the path in late Spring, curtains of birch leaves give wind-blown glimpses of yachts under sail. This image got entangled in my mind with a traditional song I heard Andrew Greig sing one evening at Moniack Mhor – I Once Loved a Lass, with its curious refrain:
The men o’ yon forest they askit o’ me
How many strawberries grow in the saut sea?
I answered them back wi’ a tear in my e’e
How many ships sail in the forest’?
The mystery in these words worked its way into a beautiful poem written by a 17-year-old student who attended the course that week, and also into a radio play I wrote, ‘The Three Knots’, about the coming of a floating church to Loch Sunart in the 1840s.
In 2013, poets Ken Cockburn and Alec Finlay, known for their creative walking journeys and responses to landscape, walked in fellowship with Boswell and Johnson, adjusting the route at this point and taking the west side of Loch Ness between Drumnadrochit and Abriachan rather than the east, with local poet John Glenday. His poem, Northeasterly, also associates sail with forest, and whispers of that mysterious ‘something’:
Driven by sleet and hail,
snell, dour and winterly;
it fills the unwilling sail,
empties the late, green tree.
lodged in the heart of me
empties itself and fills
Like that sail. Like that tree.
The Great Glen Way climbs then through trees where foresters recruited from Newfoundland worked during World War II, many staying and marrying locally. The legacy of their work is commented on by taxi drivers in the rumble of tyres along the lanes approaching Moniack Mhor; the logs still lying in rafts between bog and tarmac.
At the border with Abriachan Forest the wide forest track of the Great Glen Way can be abandoned for one of several lovely paths that criss-cross the community-owned land, many with superb views across Loch Ness and the hills. Established in 1998, when the Trust purchased 534 acres of forest and hill from Forest Enterprise, it provides creative, recreational and educational activity for people of all ages and dispositions. A remarkable vision is embodied in native tree-planting, paths laid, small dens and buildings secreted across the land. I’ve been involved in a number of initiatives which link writers from Moniack Mhor with Ranger expertise here. Two lovely anthologies have resulted — The Written World of primary school pupils, and Words in the Landscape from adults.
Something sure to be seen on this walk was turned into a riddle by Ellie and Megan from Balnain primary school:
My head is dazzling white
as I dance in the wind
You might see me as you trip
I am Queen of the bogs where I rule
and my cotton tail bobs
What am I?
In Words in the Landscape Roddy Maclean writes about the relationship between our stake in the understanding of Scotland, and Gaelic language heritage. He encourages us to look through the eyes of the people who named the mountains, corries, lochs, and streams. Look at a map of the Highlands, he says, ‘Can you work out where you might find blueberries or cloudberries, or catch the biggest trout? Can you find places of greatest snow-lie or a burn that was once flanked by birch trees, now (sometimes) eaten out by sheep or deer? A map is an encyclopaedia and, for the creative person, a source of inspiration.’ (From ‘The Gaels and Their Land‘).
I regained tarmac somewhere on the road that leads between Loch Ness-side and the village Abriachan, brushing against more literary ghosts who have walked and run and stretched their backs after digging the soil here, looking out across an exceptional vista and gasping in clean air. Jessie Kesson was here for 6 months when she was 19, between mental hospital and married life; rambles I’ve written about in Doubling Back. The place remained her touchstone for physical freedom and intimacy with nature, at the heart of her writing through The White Bird Passes and Another Time, Another Place. Katharine Stewart, who died aged 98 two years ago, made a life as a crofter here, writing prolifically about it as well as being a teacher and postmistress. She also lectured on crofting at nearby Aigas Field Centre.
For the last mile or so it’s a gently rising trudge towards the highest point of the plateau; a flutter of joy when the low white steading appears brinking the valley edge a little below me. Behind it springs the dome of the straw-bale building known as the ‘Hobbit House’, a space for creative conviviality.
It’s good to feel a little tired at this point, to feel the jarring of tarmac underfoot and then to reach the Centre’s sign, and turn down the familiar track towards an open door, a welcome. This is a place that shows us how words and imagination can get woven by walking and by bodily inhabiting particular places. Poet Valerie Gillies says, ‘open air and birdsong are the inspiration to my writing’. She and I (with my refrain: ‘I need to walk to write’) ran a course here in 2009 in which we explored the area with participants, engaging all five senses, and even dowsing to reflect it into words. This August we’re repeating it.
I unpack my rucksack, laying out pens and notebooks, here once again with my head amongst the peewits, knowing that gifts await; that something will be offered up.
Something is dealing from a deck of cards,
face up, seven, a week of mornings, today’s
revealing the hills at Moniack Mhor, shrugging off
their mists. A sheepdog barks six fields away;
I see the farm from here.
Twelve-month cards, each one thumbed, flipped,
weathered in its way — this the eighth, harvest-time,
a full moon like a trump, a magic trick.
It rose last night above this house, affirmative.
I sensed your answer — hearts.
Or a single hour is a smiling Jack, a diamond,
or a spade learning a grave; charms or dark lessons.
Something is shuffling; the soft breath of Moniack Mhor
on the edge of utterance, I know it, the verbs of swifts
riffling the air
and the road turning itself into the loch, a huge ace
into which everything folds. Here is the evening,
displayed then dropped to drift to the blazon of barley, bracken,
heather. Something is gifting this great gold gathering of cloud;
a continual farewell.
Carol Ann Duffy
WRITING AND PLACE: Places, Worlds and Words runs from August 24th -29th with Linda Cracknell and Valerie Gillies as tutors and John Lister-Kaye, founder of the nearby Aigas Field Centre, as guest reader.