Monday, August 29, 2022

A Very Short Walk at Dalchonzie

This is the first video in a new project to create 100 walks of around 100 metres, for the walking constrained. I call them VSW or Very Short Walks and they are similar to the minor walks I've written about.

The idea arose from my experience of Long Covid. I thought back to places I've visited where there was a rich walk experience within a short distance. Anyone can contribute their own suggestions. I imagine most will be short texts with a sketch map and OS map reference.

This is the film.

The mill race at Dalchonzie Power Station has always been one of my most loved landscapes. I think of it as a water garden, combining the utility of energy production, innovative architecture, expressive of the utopian era of the Scottish hydro project, and a commitment to landscape design. The site offers leisure and pleasure, as well as power. Other energy forms signally fail to provide such a social good. No-one goes for an evening walk in the grounds of an oil refinery or nuclear power station.

I visited on 27.VIII.22, in the early evening of a summer day.

If you would like to do this very short walk, Dalchnozie is near Comrie: grid ref: NN7405421975. 

Another Very Short Walk nearby would be to Earthquake House in Comrie.

There is more information on minor walks here.

For full disclosure, I did have a relapse as a result of the walk, with breathing issues on day two and three, which is typical of Long Covid. The Very Short Walk was worth it, but there was a cost.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Day of Access: Greendykes Shale Bing

I see them from the train, at least I did, pre-pandemic, when trains were still part of my life. Pinkish heaps of spoil, made fond by their associations with the English artist John Latham.

One gift of art is to allow us access to ideas and emotions, creating a sense of shared meanings. These can be embedded in a particular landscape. My dear friend Hans Waanders dedicated his art to kingfishers as a way to reckon with mortality. Now any friend who walks by a river remembers Hans and experiences the frisson of a flash of blue that might just streak by. Art is not only concerned with physical objects: it is a machine we use to produce memories, and these can populate our future as much as our past. They may even predict the healing of a person, or a landscape. 

Limit is part of life

To see things anew, from an unfamiliar perspective, at a distance, through the frame of strangeness – limit, or what we know as disability, alters experiences of place. Landscapes become remote or inaccessible. 

Chronic illness changes the map, is also requires as to construct a new cartography, recalibrated to our limits. This image is by Christina Christine Goldschmidt, an artist and creative map maker with Long COVID, representing her experience of illness as a terrain to be negotiated. She is one of 2.3 million people in these islands whose life has been drastically altered by the virus. The community has given a new urgency to Day of Access.

I invited an old friend, Rob Bushby, to guide this event. 

Rob and I have always enjoyed sharing creative approaches to wild landscapes – he as an outdoorsy guy, expert in the fields of nature and ecological remediation, me as an artist with a disability, devising poetic forms to enhance access. 

It didn't matter that, in those days, he could do ultra-marathons and, in those days, I had to limit my walks to under a mile. Long Covid has brought a new closeness to our friendship as now we both know limit in a severe way. As well as aspens and rewilding, our conversations are scattered with pacing chat, and reports on the latest minor activity that's buggered us for days.


This blog post is preparatory to our Day of Access event at Greendykes shale bing, by Faucheldean. You can read about the event and see some of the responses below.

There is access onto the bing for the fit-ish walker, via Broxburn and Winchburgh, revisiting John Latham’s artwork, 'Niddrie Woman'.

Day of Access aspires to explore what happens “when vulnerable bodies encounter vulnerable ecologies”. Even if it is frequently shunned, vulnerability contains forms of wisdom and shards of knowledge which are illuminating. Ask anyone with constrained walking and they will tell you that, with the frustrations limit brings, there are also new perspectives, especially in terms of the landscapes that are now harder, or impossible, to reach. Viewing the landscape, whether in memory or from the roadside, assumes new significance.

For this event, the second in our pilot series, the idea is still to create a healing experience of wild nature, but in this case we have shifted radically, setting aside hills and mountains, to enter a man-made landscape: the shale bings of West Lothian. 


As I conceived the project, Day of Access would help people with chronic illness, fatigue, or pain – symptoms which constrain walking – to be, once again, in wild places. In their strangeness, the shale bings suggested a different locus of human experience and so, for this event, our participants have all experienced vulnerabilities associated with mental health.

Our new partner, Friends of the Award Edinburgh & Lothians, supports young people with mental health issues, helping them towards being able to participate in Duke of Edinburgh projects. This involves volunteer leaders sharing field knowledge and mentoring young people, to help them gain the particular kinds of self-awareness and confidence that accessing wild places requires. They may go on to work on ecological remediation projects. 

All Day of Access events share a concern with how people can feel they belong in nature. Our sense of belonging is, well, akin to a sense. It inflects our life in the most subtle ways and can be enhanced, or constrained, by painful or illuminating experiences. Culture can bring healing to those who have lost their sense of belonging.  


The primary route of the walk is from Broxburn, heading onto the plateau of the largest bing, Greendykes, walking around a landscape of spoil that John Latham, renamed “Niddrie Woman”. The walk, which I was once able to do, offers remarkable views of central Scotland.

A walk on the moon

Several paths lead onto the bing and, in my original conception, if more than one group participates, I suggested that the 1-1 parties access Greendykes at different points, so they would see one another in the distance. You can try this and imagine you've met another astronaut on the moon. (There's a second route is to walk in from the north, at Winchburgh).


The final artwork recording this event is a report, published below, accompanied by aerial photos and current satellite images, which reveal the growth of flora across the site. Alongside this the participants made a ‘sole map’ of the plateau. 

Each participant used their sole map to note down words or names referring to whatever they see or feel as they walk. If you want to try this them remember that locations that can be viewed from the plateau can be added outwith the outline of the sole. This form was devised to represent the life experiences of immigrants to Scotland. The here / there of the feet offers a sense of shifts in time and place. The associations between the bings and the body suggested adopting the sole map: using it in this way is a useful way to creatively confuse cartography and memory. Would the participants be notating places, feelings, or both?

One intention of this Day of Access event is to enjoy the rare flora that flourish on this SSSI site. The greening of the bings is an image of natural healing achieved over decades. Faucheldean Bing is the most fully greened and its shrubbery and trees anticipates the eventual recovery of the larger bings. 


I’m interested in how the participants will respond to this bare landscape of spoil, once defined as derelict and now recognised as ecologically significant. 


The participants will enjoy an exceptional panorama, or ‘conspectus’, of central Scotland. When I visited, in 2018, I found the views unexpectedly liberating, given the region is dominated by container culture and arterial roads, I hadn’t anticipated the rich variety of landscape that would be visible, including views of Jupiter Artland as well as other shale bings.

John Latham

As I mentioned, the site is associated with an important conceptual artwork created by Latham in 1975-76, during an artist in residence at the Scottish Office – one of the first such residencies, embedding an artist in an organisation or place. Latham came across aerial photos of the region, and these allowed him to reimagine the bings as anthropomorphic forms – Greendykes and its neighbours became a giant earthwork representing an earth goddess. This is Craig Richardson’s description of the artwork:


“In this first, mediated introduction to the landscape, Latham determined that the largest shale bing known as Greendykes and its adjoining bings known as Niddry, Faucheldean and Albyn constituted historic documents that ‘unconsciously’ lent themselves to ‘a modern variant of Celtic Legend, namely NIDDRIE WOMAN’ (Latham’s underlining). Using the aerial perspective afforded by a single surveillance photograph Latham anthropomorphised Greendykes as the ‘Torso’, Faucheldean as the ‘Limb’, Niddry as the ‘Heart’ and Albyn as the ‘Head’, comprising the torn figure of a woman whose disembodied ‘Heart’ is too large to fit inside her approximately-scaled body. The Feasibility Study also mentions a visual comparison with the prehistoric carving The Venus of Willendorf (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna). This surrealist and perverse homage was less of an imposition than it might at first seem: the terrain of England is populated with ancient images cut into chalk hillsides, such as the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire and the Cerne Giant in Dorset. As an experienced traveller across England and Scotland, Latham may have sought to make the bings a comparably emblematic feature of the Scottish landscape.”

Arguably, the artist's discussions with planners and councillors, helped preserve the bings so that, over decades, the landscape could undergo a gradual greening. In 1995 Greendykes was officially declared an ancient monument. Latham claimed these massive monuments to the extractive industries were as important as Stonehenge and the Pyramids, “being classical sculpture but in a mode that has not otherwise come to be recognised ( – one might call the mode Process Sculpture) – … the largest site is seen as the dismembered body of a primal Woman’. 


Latham made what I think was an ill-conceived proposal, to install gigantic book sculptures on the bings. If this had been realised then he suggested the shale must maintained in its distinctive reddish colouration, removing any vegetation – which would have been an enormous and counter-productive task. It was the naming of the bings that helped preserve them, until ecological healing gave his imagined goddess a glimmer of reality.


In the 1970s no-one conceived the shale bings would have ecological significance. As a boy I remember them being described as eyesores on Reporting Scotland. These days it’s rare to hear anyone calling for their removal. Some bings are being mined for road building material, while others are defined as SSSI or public parks. To me the most interesting aspect of Latham’s artwork is the lack of a physical sculpture. Renaming the site offered a fresh perspective, even a deliberate misunderstanding of the landscape, which allowed its value to be realised, eventually. What was spoiled had gradually healed. This healing has obvious meanings in terms of individuals and their recuperation from long-term illness, whether physical or mental, as well as helping us think in terms of the time land requires to recover.


This imagination of recuperation – very slowly – from chronic illness is central to Day of Access. The bings are a ravaged and yet, at the same time, healing landscape. As motifs and ecological realities, they differ from the rewilding or wilderness sites Day of Access typically focusses on. That said, our first event, at Meall Tairneachan, concluded at a Barytes mine.


Another difference with this event is that mostly our definition of access involves people who cannot walk far, or at all – a community for whom any access to wild land and altitude is deeply moving. Whereas the bings event is concerned with healing and the mind, perceptions of landscape and the self – what is a wounded landscape/self, and what is a healed landscape/self?

I know from my own life that physical vulnerability, and limits on walking, bring with them a natural anxiety in terms of wild landscapes. Now that Long Covid has limited my walking to a couple of hundred yards my experience of landscape has become more fraught. Almost anywhere I want to go is fraught with the potential of a dose of pain lasting days. If I go further than this micro-realm I will relapse. It doesn't matter if the walk was to a bus-stop or a waterfall, or whether it made me happy or sad, the mechanism of the disease doesn't care. That changes how I experience the world. I am sure there are parallels with those whose vulnerabilities lie in the mind, for whom the act of walking, or being alone, or being seen, in wild places is daunting.


I have set out some ideas and associations for the event, but the response to the walk is for the participants to define and I look forward to what significance the bings have for them. You can read Rob's report below.

I’m also interested in promoting the site as a place to view the wider region from.  

I’m keen to know what flora the participants recognise. 


I’m also aware I can no longer access the bings – Craig and I went there with my then wife – and so there’s an aspect of “proxy walk” to the event, where the participants are walking for me, and perhaps for you.

Ashes and orchids

When he died, in 2006, Latham instructed that his ashes be scattered on the bings, so the fondness he felt for them is clear. This is a short poem I wrote, as a summary of his vision, followed by a satellite image showing the bings as they are today.

Latham found his new

and ancient goddess

visioning her in 


Faucheldean and Albyn

pinkish spoil renewed

by a flush of green

fringed with rare alpines






Greening the spoil

This is something I wrote for an earlier blog post:

It takes time for technology to be absorbed, to become, as it were, natural. An element that seems to one generation to demand removal may, to another, become a memorial, or be transformed, by some unforeseen evolution, whether this is led by notions of public use or a radical altering of perception. 

Latham saw the role of the artist as a purposelessness of looking: 'Ground-level politics are a form of sectional-interest civil war.' An artist, or as Latham retitled them, 'Incidental Person', may be able to observe the 'the doings and listen to the noises, and to eliminate from output the signs of received idea'. In doing so they are more willing and equipped to represent 'people who would not accept their premises, time-bases, ambitions, formulations, as valid'. Above all, this about-to-evolve species of artist-person would gear themselves into the long-term, the real processes of the future, looking at such issues as derelict land and urban renewal afresh. The Goddess was Latham's radical and avowedly eccentric conclusion; and yet, uncannily, and to Latham's credit, ‘She’ came to exist in the greening of the spoil.”


How do wounds heal over time. How can we learn from nature’s ability to heal. What has been spoilt and what can still heal?

Alec Finlay

August–October 2022

the event: creative responses

Rob guided the group. The responses took the form of sole maps and acrostics, which you can see here.


An aim of all the events is to create place-aware mappings that encourage new visitors. 

For anyone who wishes to experience the walk there is public transport available:

This map, from NLS, is the first edition six-inch OS, 1860, showing the area before the town of Broxburn and the shale bings existed.

Photography: shale bing, by Hannah Devereux; sole map, AF; John Latham book at Five Sisters bing, AF (with Amy Todman); Barytes Mine, Meall Tairneachan, Mhairi Law; satellite image of Greendykes Bing, National Library of Scotland map library; photo of participants, Rob Bushby; all other images courtesy of the estate of John Latham.

useful links

Thanks to Friends of the Award Edinburgh & Lothians, Heritage Lottery Fund, Lapidus Scotland, and Paths for All, for making this event possible.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

low winter light (SAD)

Light leads us back to life.


Recently I’ve been thinking about light and darkness. 


The meaning the sun has for me has been accentuated by Long Covid. Unable to walk far – c. 150 metres is the distance I can rely on without a relapse following – whenever I’m able to I turn my room into a wee solar, clearing pots of pens and brushes from the sill, opening both windows wide, letting in all of the air and light that can enter. 


the sun makes 

   a vast exten-


sion for this

   one room


Throughout the day I drag the old sofa around, like the shadow cast by a gnomon, following the sun, or I shift my desk a few inches either way, so that the window of light falls on my body. I seek the sun, wanting the rays to find my pineal gland, where I imagine it as a healing tang coursing into me. Ask anyone with Long Covid and they will say that nothing helps post-exertional malaise more than laying for hours in the sun.


This blog is about some of the ways we might go outdoors indoors. 









A solar was a designated room in a grand dwelling which had the brightest aspect, which is to say, a chamber that the most sunshine would reach. The term is medieval. It shares characteristics with the bower, from which boudoir derives. 








Many of the original meanings that are associated with the rooms in our homes share these outdoor / indoor characteristics. A bower had associations with shelter, privacy, and the pleasures of love, whether these were enjoyed in a wild wood, a shelter twined in garden honeysuckle, or a bedroom decorated by Morris & Co.


The dappled and interlaced patterns of ‘natural’ or wild bowers became, in a translation from nature to culture, flowery wallpaper, carpets, and fancy house plants. 


As an experiment I once created a bower in a Derbyshire wood, with the help of the architect Kevin Langan. Knowing the word from ballads and love poems, I wanted to understand what bower might mean, so I made an example of the structure it referred to. I remember how the sunlight reached in-between the two rude beds, made from found branches, and how, in the morning, there was a shadow of dew drawn across the entrance.

Researching the evolution of the bower I read an essay by Mark Taylor and Julieanna Preston, ‘Interior Bowers: The Dormant Wilderness of Nineteenth- Century Boudoirs’, which describes the boudoir as a room with ‘vegetal ornamentation’, in which ‘Nature’ is conjured in the appearance of a garden, covers walls, throws and rugs. They quote from Francois de Bastide’s novel of 1780, La Petit Maison:


‘The walls of the boudoir were covered with mirrors whose joinery was concealed by carefully sculpted, leafy tree trunks. The trees, arranged to give the illusion of a quincunx, were heavy with flowers and laden with chandeliers. The light from their many candles receded into the opposite mirrors, which had been purposely veiled with hanging gauze. So magical was this optical effect that the boudoir could have been mistaken for a natural wood, lit with the help of art … Mélite could scarcely contain her delight’.


The emphasis on light is interesting. The date coincides roughly with the craze for follies in Scotland, where mock caves, huts, and other forms of outdoor room were lined with mirrors and painted glass, intended to accentuate the view, which was typically of a waterfall – a gush of white water interrupting the dark course of a river. The folly at Acharn had wooden books and fruit, to emphasize the sense of being in a rock cave that was also a poetic chamber. 


There are different interpretations of the origins of solar, whether it indicated a sunny room, or one to be sole in. A laird would have placed his best bed in a solar. The windows would be of the finest, perhaps with stained-glass, to accentuate the light. Light was a motif of wealth as well as an enhancement of love.


Traditionally the solar was an upper room. Wikipedia connects it with a wilder Gaelic form of sunny outdoor chamber, grianán, from grian, sun, with the meaning sun-bower, a shelter on a sunny slope – also giving us the name Grainne. I will return to sun-bowers.







SINSYNE, Scots: since that time


I’ve recently begun a new collaboration with geographers, Living with SAD: practicing cultures of seasonality to 'feel light' differently. This will consider how people are affected by feelings associated with the changing seasons, and moods that seem to be governed by the nature of the weather overhead and related qualities of natural light’.


These daily experiences of light are familiar to us all, and, in Scotland, especially the West of Scotland, they characterise our lives. For some people, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) heightens the experience of light and dark to such an extent that it becomes fraught, weighted and depressive. SAD is an ‘intensified form of this lived experience that … can be debilitating and limiting, resulting in emotional challenges, lowered mood, and feelings of anxiety.’ 


I don’t experience SAD but, for some years now, winters have been much harder on my health and, since Covid, associated with danger and the possibility of death. Covid has certainly given the experience of winter anxiety a collective significance. We all now expect the coming winter to be marked by a new wave, with more deaths, and many more people falling into Long Covid. 


Come March, when the sun begins to return, I feel a deep sense of relief. I give thanks that I will make it to another summer. Seasonality defines a profound difference in my physical and emotional daily life.


In preparation for the workshops that Hayden Lorimer and I will share with people affected by SAD, I have been reviewing previous projects I’ve created, reflecting on how they relate to experiences of light and landscape. In my wee solar, at my desk by the window, I returned to traditions of dwelling and seasonality, wondering how they might inform a SAD project.  


We used to know the sun as a character, Auld Sol, our friend and helpmeet.






SOL: Late ME and e.m.E. sol the sun, personified (c1450), L. sōl.].


I wondered, could the twin forms of the indoor solar and outdoor sun-bower be helpful as images of healing? 


Could we dream or create a contemporary reinterpretation of a grianan, whether imagined as a summer-dwelling, bender on the hill, viewing platform of sunny aspect, or simply a sitooterie in which we enjoy as much sunshine as we can. 

Could the concept of the solar enhance our homes, if it became a room in which the experience of light is maximised – perhaps through expanded windows, mirrors, colours, interior decoration, SAD lamps, neon poems, or the bright living gardens of aquariums or terrariums? When my dog was sad and old, suffering from cataracts, he liked nothing more than to spend an afternoon gazing at my SAD lamp. On his last beach walk he began to very slowly plod into the sea, making his way towards the low winter sun, as if it were home.

In my place-aware mapping of Gaelic landscapes and ecology I’ve found many examples of sunny slopes that bear place-names derived from grianan.


An Grianan, The Sunnyspot

Stob Grianan, Wee-peak of the Sunny-bit

Beinn na Grianan, Sunnyspot Ben

Rubha Grianan, Sunnyslope Headland

Eilean Grianain, Sunnybit Island

Cuidhe Ghrianain, Sunny-bit Fank

Grennan, Sunnyspot

Greenock, Sunnybay

These are typically south-facing, ideal for pasturing cattle, but they have also gather edmytho-poetic associations from the folk-tales of the people who summered on upland hills. 


The supposed site of Scotland’s most famous sun-bower is down Glen Etive, among hills where Deirdre hid out with her lover, Naoise, and his brothers, Ainle and Ardle. These refugees from the wrath of the Irish king built themselves a fragrant sun-bower. We even know here it was, as the old ballads imagine it located located on Stob Grianan. 


As someone whose walking is constrained, any name that lights up the hillside is welcome. I can sit by the roadside, on a blanket, with the map open, and imagine a sun-bower on the hillside. I like to think of their sun-bower as the beginning of hutopianism in Scotland, representative of our desire for light, places, to forage, and a tradition of summering on the uplands. 


Land management practices have exiled from such concepts and hutopianism remains a radical project, associated with rewilding and the slow healing of Highland landscapes, degraded by human desire. I decided to imagine what huts of healing might consist of. If this seems like a remote or indulgent poetic fantasy, consider that we once had cottage hospitals, which enshrined a philosophy of recuperation. For people with chronic illness, for whom medical science represents a closed door, such huts do have meaning.


As Ken Cockburn and I travelled around the Highlands on our journey project, the road north, an alternative antiquarian and ecopoetic map began to emerge. We realised that forgotten glens like Etive could be sites of poetic pilgrimage, with brown signposts announcing footpaths to bowers, folly grottos, or hydro water gardens. Why should we forget Deidre’s summer idyll and dot our maps with signposts that recall Queen Victoria’s visits?


Grianan place-names reappear throughout the Highlands and across Ireland. My friend Eddie Stiven, who lives near Dùn Grianach, Hillfort of the Sun, in Glenelg, thinks of them as trysting places protecting lovers and outlaws.


A first port of call is always Edward Dwelly’s dictionary, and he gives the meanings of grianan as sunny spot, bit, slope, or place, perhaps for drying peats; summer-house; sunny eminence with a conspectus; royal palace or seat; and gives the example, ‘‘grianan àrd sam biodh na féidh’, a sunny eminence where the deer would be’’. 







The imagery Dwelly has collected is suggestive of a broad spectrum in terms of the land management practices and the mythopoetics of wild landscape in Gaelic. Within that name, grianan, and its meanings, we can see the perspectives of transhumance, poetic ballads, nobility, and hunting. Grianan propose ordinary and, at the same time, ritual sites, places to view from and be viewed – a sunny spot for grazing, or gold glinting on the roof of a palace that never existed. 


Grianan names imagine the landscape as a site of narrative. The sun-bower is recognisably part of the name-poetry of the Fiannscape – a term I use for Gaelic Fingalian landscape poetics – in which cultural myths floated across the Highlands like clouds, settling on whichever wild places were capable of sustaining them, in particular, aristocratic hunting grounds and folk shielings. 


Dwelly’s definitions, and the images they conjure, confirm that a sunny hill viewpoint could function as an expression of political power, long before there were grouse butts and wind-farms. He alerts us to the paradox that a sunny brae used by peasant farmers is also imagined as a grand house, or kind of solar.


If you follow the imagery of yin and yang back to their origins you find yourself in a landscape defined by light and darkness.


the two sides



of the mountain



In Irish Gaelic culture, at sites such as the cashel of Grianán of Aileach, in Donegal, whose name means the stone bastion of the sunny aspect, south-facing hills were fitting locations for temples, ceremonial burial sites, and landscapes sacred to an ancient goddess said to have been born from a sunbeam. Our desire for light is hard-wired.

Sun-bower names poeticise the withy benders and tents herdsman and hunters used for shelter. Around the fireside, stories were told of Deirdre’s grianan and the orchard she planted beside it – remember, these would be soor crab apples, not Pippins or Bramleys. Deirdre’s Badlands idyll describes a wild garden, a place of respite in the tragic love story of these runaways. As Ken Cockburn describes, after their betrayal it was said that the lovers returned:


as swans
in a muted assembly
at Camas na Cùirte


Camas na Cùirte is Bay of the Royal Court.


Not all sunny-bits are found up hills. On a day-trip to Heisgeir (Monach Islands) – an island which has no upland – Kate and I walked by Loch nam Buadh, whose name means Loch of the Virtue. Then we watched hundreds of seals calling. We were concealed in the shelter of Cuidhe Ghrianain, another sunny-bit, where we were chivvied by a wild breed of Hebridean sheep. 


With my difficulty walking I never thought I’d reach that wee divided isle , plopped down at the edge of the Atlantic. That I was there on a calm day when the sun shone seemed even more remarkable. In such wild landscapes, where the sea dominates, the prevalence of light or dark changes the entire character of a place, creating memories which are literally illuminating. 


In MacDiarmid’s ‘North of the Tweed’, he recalls Deirdre and the fank, stell, or fold of sunbeams. That was what we found on Heisgeir, an ordinary sheep pen where a queen might alight.


Grianan are our first shelters. Studying the Gaelic sources, I have prepared these notes, from which anyone could build their own sun-bower.


to make your own sun-bower


‘Thinkna’ that I’m ungratefu’, wi’ nae mind

O’ Deirdre and the fauld o’ sunbeams yet,

Or canna find on bracken slopes abune the bog

The orchis smellin’ like cherry-pie’


Hugh MacDiarmid: from ‘North of the Tweed’



to make your own sun-bower

   you need to prepare

      for a spell of self-isolation


choose some good friends, 

   lovers, or tag along

      with sisters and brothers


begin with written sources

   setting them down

      in their real places


at Dail an Eas

   look for shelf in the scree

      of An Grianan


with room for a bender

   a sit-ooterie in the sun

      and burn for water


try by one of the streams

   that rush down

      to Allt a’ Chaorainn


when it comes to constructing

   a sun-bower be careful

      whose advice you take


thatch with long stems 

   of royal fern, clay wattle

      line the interior with pine 


and soft feather down, 

   weave a couch from rushes,

      then some speak


of silks, mantles, posts

   of silver and gold – really? – 

      all you need’s a firepit, 


frying pan, thermos, some

   enamel mugs and plates

      and moss to clean the dishes


plant a family-sized orchard

   around the bower

      with one crab per person


now ask yourself, are you

   ready to exchange a palace

      for a summer shieling?



Dail an Eas, Waterfall Dale   

An Grianan, The Sunnyspot

Allt a’ Chaorainn, The Rowan Burn


Deirdre planted her wee orchard, adding a tree for each brother – a remembrance of the mythical Irish isle of the blessed, Emhain Abhlach, Apple-tree Islewhich floated off the west coast of Scotland


Seton Gordon records how, when he arrived in Glen Etive, the last old man who knew the true location of the orchard had recently died. That is how things are arranged in folklore, that the sources remain misty. When we visited Ken and I poked three apple pips into the peat, happy in the certainty we, or they, were sure to be in the wrong place. They came from fruit Ken had brought north from his ex-wife’s allotment in Edinburgh. 


Whether apples could survive on An Grianan is a question for ecologists, not poets. 


Across our maps, there are many place-names that recall where the sun falls, such as the farm of Soilzarie, from Gaelic, soilleiridh, which is given by Adam Watson as bright-place. Peter McNiven agreed, noting that it may relate to the open, south-facing aspect, sheltered beneath Bleaton Hill, in Glenshee.


As someone with constrained walking I depend on these traditions of viewing. Lolling in the sun is healing, and names, with the ecopoetic analysis of the landscape they contain, add interest to the hours I spend resting in wild places. 


We can still bring nature indoors. Solar, bower, grianan: these old words and their meanings are useful points of departure to encourage small acts of self-care, making dark winter days more biddable or bearable. We can dust off any associations with wealth, princes, palaces and hunting. Behind the grandest boudoir their lurks a simple bower made of branches and honeysuckle. From every house there should be a view open to the light.


the sun makes light

   on the flats


from their tops

   down to their car lots


Our love of light is also our vulnerability to darkness. But, when acknowledged and cared for, there is wisdom that can be accessed in vulnerability. When the project team met in Glasgow, sharing an afternoon in an outdoor café, waiting for the grey summer sky to turn to drizzle, we were forced to acknowledge how badly the Scots have adapted to their climate, compared say to our Scandinavian neighbours. If our Neolithic ancestors loved their saunas why had they died out? Why are so many of our homes damp and dank? 

Could the wisdom inherent in the vulnerability of the SAD community be a means to improve the design of homes, streets and even cities, allowing our love of light its full expression?

Alec Finlay

Information on the SAD workshops will be available in Autumn 2022. The black and white photo of a bender is from the collection of the School of Scottish Studies.