Posted Leave a commentPosted in Cairngorms National Park, India, Land Reform, Scotland

John Anderson

The view from Goldenacre looks out across Loch Insh to the Feshie hills beyond. John Anderson, who is nearly 80, serves me tea and Victoria sponge beneath the window as he tells me the story of his family. He has discovered an unexpected connection between us, which is why he asked me over. I went to boarding school in the hill-station of Mussoorie in North India and the school – Woodstock, named for a Sir Walter Scott novel – was in the Raj-era cantonment of Landour. John’s mother had been born in India while her doctor father, David Wilson Scotland, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Medical Service. He shows me a sepia postcard sent from Glasgow to the Scotlands at ‘Church View, Mussoorie, India’ and another addressed to their home back in Colinton, Edinburgh, where they had named the house, ‘Landour’. He knows nothing more about their time in the hill station, but I speculate that Dr Scotland may have served in the British army sanatorium established in Landour in 1827.

Mussoorie postcard

Mussoorie, India 1860s

It’s a small world. A particularly small world in the village of Kincraig where both John and I live, though I am a relative newcomer, having been here for a mere twelve years. He has been in the area on and off through his youth and for the twenty years since retirement, but laughingly tells me he’ll never be considered ‘local’. When he was born in 1939, his parents were tenant farmers at Banchor Mains, 10 miles south-west of here by Newtonmore, and they moved from there through Lochiel, Loch Rannoch, Invereshie and Strathmashie, graduating at Loch Rannoch from tenancy to landowning.

Years later, when sheep from the local estate were ravaging the Goldenacre garden, John contacted the shepherd, who was the late Donnie Ross, legendary in these parts for his outspoken views on crofting, the environment and anything else to do with land management, but also for treating others with respect. He sent one of his strapping sons to deal with the sheep, but the young man also saw fit to berate the ‘English incomers’ for always complaining. John did not argue, but when the son reported to his father, Donnie told him, in no uncertain terms, “John Anderson’s father gave all his tenants at Strathmashie the right to buy. You go straight back down and apologise.” He did.

sheep Merryn Glover

John himself never followed in the landowning or farming walk of life, to his father’s disappointment, but did study agriculture in London and joined what was then the Edinburgh and East of Scotland Agricultural College, now part of Scottish Rural College. His chief role was monitoring farm incomes in South East Scotland and covering the fortunes of the potato sector for which he was perhaps better known, having contributed a monthly commentary on it for 23 years without missing a single edition. He challenges me to match that writing record, which shames me into scuttling straight home afterwards to type up my notes.

John’s story, like so many in this area, is one of deep history with the land. I ask him how he feels about it. “I’ve lived in beautiful places all my life,” he says. “At Fassiefern House we had a view of Ben Nevis. But I never climbed it then. People ask me why, but when you had sheep and hill cattle, you only went up the hills if you had to.” When I ask his views about tensions between farming and conservation interests he says, “It’s complicated.” And that’s about the simplest way of putting it. What is clear is John’s own quiet dedication to caring for the landscape as he goes out regularly clearing litter from the village. “I fill a wheelie bin a month from one kilometre of road – can you believe it? Why? Why do people do it?” “Laziness,” I suggest. “Some people just don’t care and can’t be bothered.”

Feshie hills Merryn Glover
The view from Goldenacre

We agree it reflects a loss of connection. A loss of connection with the land, with the animals who are dependent upon it and with the people who call it home. Ultimately, littering also seems to me a loss of connection with a deeper part of ourselves; a part that dwells fully present in our environment, that does not experience it as just a backdrop, or a playground, or indeed a workplace, but as much a part of us as our breath and bones.

The light from the window dies softly in John’s living room, where my feet rest on a one-hundred year old rug from India. (The Asian in me has left my shoes at the door.) Long and lean as a stork, with hair as white as the scant snow on the Feshie hills, John holds his mug in gnarled hands as he tells me of a walk with his late wife, Frances. “We climbed to the pictish fort of Dun da Lahm above Laggan and we could hear the stags roaring in the woods below and the echoes of it across the valley. And she turned to me and said, ‘This would be a good place. You can lay me to rest here.’”

John Anderson

He looks up and smiles, a pattern of light and shadows on his face, and I know why I have come. It is not so much to talk about historic links to India or the local land, but to share time and presence on this passing day; to experience something at the root of what our environment and people so badly need: connection.

Glen Feshie Cairngorms Merryn Glover

The Guide

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Cairngorms National Park, Pilgrimage, Wildlife

“I don’t believe it!” Duncan cries, peering through his binoculars (or ‘bins’, as he calls them. I’m learning the lingo.) “Is that them?”

Who? What? Where? We’re parked in my car in a layby several miles up Glen Feshie and I can only see a snowy expanse on the opposite bank of the river, broken by a strip of forest plantation.

“It is!” He hoots and launches out of the car. “Black grouse!”

“Really?” I catapult out the other side as he rummages in the boot for his telescope and sets up. Duncan is a friend and experienced guide who has agreed to take me up this legendary glen in the Cairngorms, where he knows all the secret hideaways and passages of the local wildlife. It’s early in the year and he didn’t promise black grouse, an endangered species on the conservation Red List, but lo! through my own ‘bins’, there are the grouse! I whoop and cheer at my first sighting and then graduate to the even better view through his ‘scope.

There are five birds: black beasts about the size of a chicken with small beaks, red ‘eyebrows’ and splayed feathers, all strutting around, advancing on each other, backing off and striding in again, occasionally pecking beak to beak. It is the lek, an elaborate performance that Duncan explains to me with a diagram in the snow. These are all males jostling for top spot in the mating hierarchy: their lekking court is divided into a grid of invisible circles which they each occupy, all trying to oust the dominant male and take centre stage. They’re just warming up now, but by April, when all the females are watching closely from surrounding trees, the lek becomes ferocious – full-on gladiatorial combat from which not all will survive.

Lek diagram Cairngorms Merryn Glover

At this point, the birds just look comical, particularly since they appear to have sat down for too long and got lumps of snow stuck on their bums. I laughingly point this out to Duncan, who is polite enough not to laugh at me, but to point out that these white wads are in fact their tail feathers and all part of the display. The joke’s on me. I can’t tell the back end of a grouse from a snowball. Readers, your diarist is a simpleton.

But it’s why I’m doing this. I’ve lived in this area for over twelve years and am ashamed that I don’t know this stuff; the opportunity of being Writer in Residence for the Cairngorms National Park gives me the perfect excuse to rectify the situation. Already conscious of my ignorance, I’m painfully aware that my journey of discovery will only reveal the vast extent of it. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. But the only way to proceed is with the honesty and enthusiasm of a child; it’s the only way to learn anything. And there’s certainly no point trying to fake it around Duncan.

Passionate about the environment since his teens, he is a natural, in every sense of the word. His vast experience has taken him from volunteering at Possilpark in Glasgow to the Aigas Field Centre near Beauly, to monitoring raptors in Mauritius to guiding on the coast of the Black Sea. (If you ever meet him, ask for his story of close encounters with a scorpion in Armenia; hilarious and horrifying, it’s David Attenborough meets Alfred Hitchcock. He can be found, by the way, at Speyside Wildlife.)

As we walk, he points out the tracks of vole, stoat, mountain hare and roe deer. I’m sure I have seen them all before, but couldn’t identify them with certainty. And how often have I stopped to wonder which animal passed this way, or why it suddenly took off or disappeared? We hear the yearning cry of buzzard and the croak of raven. Duncan spots the corvid high on a Scots pine and, as we watch, its mate flies down and their beaks meet. ‘Allopreening’ it’s called, the ravens’ mutual grooming that cements the bond.

Higher up the glen we keep a look-out for my dream sighting. “There are two types of eagle worker,” Duncan says, quoting naturalist Leslie Brown, “leggers and arsers.” We’re going to be arsers for a while and I’m quite happy with that, as it involves perching on an abandoned trailer, drinking Earl Grey tea and eating the last of my son’s Christmas cake as we wait. It’s the end of January and -6 degrees, but the sun is making everything shine and the sky is a ringing, singing blue. Beside us, the Feshie runs wide and shallow over its path of rocks, the banks are thick with snow, the slopes dotted with dark trees.

In this era of instant gratification, it is good to wait; to be an arser. In the waiting, we talk. Duncan shares from his rich store of knowledge about the environment and the creatures of the Park; and we talk about our lives: the fragile environments of family, the endangered creatures we were and are becoming, the spiritual experience of time in nature. I’ve known Duncan for years, since he was a Countryside Ranger running an eagle project at my sons’ primary school, but I know we would not have had this conversation if we weren’t spending a day out here, walking and waiting.

It reminds me of my intention to approach this Park project as a kind of pilgrimage. Though many people undertake a solitary walk, by their very nature, pilgrimage routes have been trod by thousands and are often walked in company. As Henri Nouwen wrote in The Genesee Diary; Report from a Trappist Monastery, “It seems that the crucial decisions and the great experiences of life require a guide. The way to ‘God alone’ is seldom travelled alone.’

So too of the natural world. A big part of my pilgrimage is learning to see what is there. Others tell me that eagles and black grouse are ‘everywhere’. Indeed they may be, but I didn’t know where or how to look. Thanks to Duncan, this day, for the first time, I have seen black grouse lek and ravens kiss. And, there, at the top of Glen Feshie, high above the snowy crags, a great bird appears. Its wings beat, beat and glide; beat, beat and glide. Another soars in to meet it. And then a third. Even from this distance, I can see they are vast and powerful and how they catch the sun on their feathers. And I can hear my guide name them: golden eagles.

At last; I’ve seen them. And I am not alone.

Glen Feshie Cairngorms Merryn Glover

Non-motorised access to Glen Feshie is open to all. Our thanks to the Estate for vehicle permission.

Merryn Glover Cairngorms

Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms

Posted 2 CommentsPosted in Cairngorms National Park, Pilgrimage

Here is an invitation: come with me on a journey into the Cairngorms. 

Perhaps, like me, you live here; perhaps, like I once was, you are a visitor. In some senses they are the same. Next to the deep time of the mountains, our sojourns here, whether a lifetime or a holiday, are but a flicker. And yet, however brief – and even if we have never come – we make our mark.

These ranges and valleys, with their forests, rivers, moors and marshes, may be ancient, but they are not invincible. They live. And the collective effect of all of us who have shared their life for thousands of years has shaped and changed them, just as they change us. They and we live together.

And we belong here. In the same way as the capercaillie and the stag, the mountain willow and the scots pine, people belong in this place. Why not? People are not aliens or machines imported to this planet from elsewhere, and nor do I believe the world would be a better place without us. People are of the earth; as much a part of nature as the rocks and trees and creatures.

But too often we have forgotten it. Too often we live on it rather than within it, not noticing how much the damage to the earth is damage to us, or how much the thriving of the earth is our own thriving.

So I am learning to take notice; to find and feel my belonging to the natural world around and its belonging to me. That is the journey of a lifetime, but 2019 is unique as I am privileged to be Writer-in-Residence for the Cairngorms National Park. I am already a writer (since childhood) and already a resident (since 2006) so what does this role mean? It means time alongside other folk sharing our experiences of this special place together, whether in workshops, story-telling sessions or reading each other’s work. It also means time for me to write with a particular focus on our life here alongside nature.

I don’t know yet what I will write or what form it will take. My plan is not to have a plan, but to explore the territory, both physically and creatively. That feels at once exciting and frightening, because I don’t know where it will lead or what I will have to show for myself by the end. But it also feels right. This year is a kind of pilgrimage; it has a goal but no fixed destination. It is a journey into the living landscape and a pledge to listen to it; a traveling in stillness as well as motion; a commitment to presence. As Nan Shepherd wrote in the first page of The Living Mountain, her iconic hymn to the Cairngorms, “it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here.”

And so I invite you on this journey of seeking. You can join in the workshops and your own writing by following the news at Cairngorms National Park; and you can follow my pilgrimage through this blog on my website. However you live in and love this place, I hope you will share your story.