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.

1 comment:

  1. As we delve into the intriguing connection between low winter light and its potential impact on motherboards for servers, it's fascinating to see how seemingly unrelated factors can interplay in the world of technology. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-known phenomenon that affects many during the colder months, and its effects extend beyond just our personal lives.