Monday, September 19, 2022

Day of Access: Culbin Sands

This is the second post for the postponed program of Day of Access events. These offer creative approaches to disability access. The post will be updated after the event, with documentation and creative responses to Culbin Sands. There is a separate photo-essay by Sam MacDiarmid here.

Our event was conceived for a group of walkers who experience arthritis, run under the aegis of Versus Arthritis, with some support from Paths for All. Although the group is based in Elgin their guide, Phil, suggested we explore a more ecologically diverse location, Culbin Sands, a coastal woodland near the mouth of the River Findhorn. He knows the site from visits made while studying the ecology of bats in Scottish woodlands.

I invited the forager and writer, Tamara Colchester (Plant Listening), to host the event. In recent months Tamara and I have discussed the microtonal aspect of foraging, which can adjust our sense of scale in terms of a small patch of land. For those who experience constrained walking there's a need to enrich very short walks; attending to flora and fauna is one way to do that.

For our previous collaboration, the Apples and People project, Tamara slept in an orchard and then, upon waking, recorded a text I'd written on apple culture – originally composed for an orchard at Jupiter Artland. I admire her gift for bringing people into an intimate relationship with landscapes and ecology.

In preparation for the visit to Culbin Sands I did some place-aware research. Tamara and I agreed to use the mesostic name poem to record the flora we discover there. 

Before we forage, I began the process of mapping the landscape by composing this mesostic from local place-names and their meanings. These are one way to attune to a place.

Culbin is defined by one of the largest dune systems in these islands, subject to shifting and ingress. An entire village was engulfed in the late 17th century.

The original Gaelic name was Bar Inbhir ÈireannThe Sandbar at the Findhorn’s Mouth. Those letters became the trunk from which the other place-names grew. (As my writing is small I have added the translations below). 


Some of the English versions are akin to sketches and they may not all be correct as, like the coastline, names are subject to erosion and flux.


the bar, the sandbar

drumduan, dark ridge

druim, the ridge or spine


maviston, song-thrush farm-town

the shian, the fairies

snab of moy, the plain steeps

loch loy, spade loch

kintessack, squirrels head

cran loch, heron loch


macbeth’s hillock

kincorth wood, head of the standing stone wood


dyke, stonewall

darklass, reddy-bit

penick, wee pennylands

muirtown wood, moortown wood

We came near to Culbin on our journey through Scotland following Johnson and Boswell, Out of Books, stopping off for a cup of tea at MacBeth's Hillock.

If you get up close to a habitat and lift the blanket, the ecological reality that’s revealed is a largely passive affair, characterised by infinite fragile and inter-dependent relationships. By contrast, our desire for hierarchical forms and human thrills once elevated wild landscape into theatres for climbing and hunting. 


Think like a mountain is a good motto. It’s also an expression of Summitism. These days, lively minds model social change on the microcosmic scale of honeybee democracy, ant communities, flock theory, and mycorrhizal networks. We’re encouraged to imagine ourselves inside the bubble worlds of lichens and mosses, for whom an environment must have liveability – a quality they co-create. 

The change in the weather and the pandemic are forcing us to remember we share their common air and need for benevolent conditions. Lockdown made us aware of the local, and it's the local we will tune into at Culbin Sands. We can learn how species belong and interact from a few hours spent foraging. 

For the event, Versus Arthritis walks involve people with an arthritic or other musculoskeletal condition, which limits them to no more than 30-40 minutes of actual walking, so time spent foraging is a way to expand the experience, without going beyond people's limits.


Human life has more in common with Mother Trees, and the communities they host, than heroic stags silhouetted on skylines. 


Describing the slow transformation of his farm in Devon, Derek Gow observes how, season by season, the land becomes ‘free-willed’ and gathers complex ecotones.


‘… large, semi-domesticated and wild ungulates can create landscapes that give opportunities for smaller creatures – where purple emperors can flit to find sallow, where colonial bees excavate their burrows in bull-exposed soil, where burring squadrons of dung beetles pour down from the sky into piles of still-steaming shit … To restore the drained fields of rush and ryegrass back to flower-rich meadows, excavate infilled ponds, fence out valley mires, readjust the course of streams, destock to the point where trees can grow again in fields, to plant the fritillaries and the southern marsh orchids where I consider they would do well.’


The bucolic farmer plants his fritillaries, regenerating a landscape of prose cattle into a wetland poem – less productive, more meaningful, differently useful. 

Whether a patch of land is truly free-willed, self-willed, or democratised, is arguable but, in ecological terms, rewilding distributes votes more fairly and considers that the things we judge to be useless must have a say. 


Indigenous concepts of nature and new theories of rewilding dream of returning environments to a state of Natural justice. Biotic life is designed by preferendum, not votes cast in a first-past-the-post system. 

It was a poet, Gary Snyder, who suggested the extension of voting rights to ‘mountains and rivers, trees and animals’. More recently, the Rights for Nature movement allowed a region to be declared a legal ‘person’. Te Urewera, whose name means The Burnt Prick, is a park which owns itself – the natural conclusion of self-willed land reform – making a mockery of our so-called national parks.

Cameras and microphones allow us to perceive nature in ever-closer detail, bringing us close to a wood-pigeon’s wing-claps or letting us listen to a human choir singing in honeybee.

This ecopoetic shift in our senses is what we’ll explore when we forage at Bar Inbhir Èireann. It will be a day to help us all foster a sense of belonging.


There is a gain in empathy, when scientists help us to imagine different species as companionable, capable of taking decisions, dwelling in root filaments that crackle with chatter. By the same light, those who lived with pain and limit have the right to enter wild landscapes. Their needs can broaden and deepen the conversation we’re having about environmental wounds and their healing.


Report on the event

The foraging was focussed on the gravel pit ponds, near Wellhill, at OS: NH996 619.


I arrive at Findhorn just as its getting dark. The beach I stand on reaches towards Culbin Sands like a tongue that only ever tastes sea. It is a lilac evening with a cold strong wind, and I stand on Burghead beach and watch the impervious wading birds. 

Above me the sky is dotted with honking geese, and I run beneath them with my hand in the air as though they are a string and the rising full moon a balloon. 

They swoop, turn and then settle on the water. 

There should be another name for landing on water...


The next day we gather in the car park at Culbin Sands and the afternoon is rich with light, the sun low through the pines. It is a small group that grows tentatively with each new arrival. There is some shyness. Nobody wants to stand around because we’re here to move and as we set off, I wonder if people will get impatient with moving very slowly and stopping every few minutes to discuss the plants. 


We walk along a straight sandy avenue and there are mushrooms lining the path like lanterns at a magical party. We stop and peer at some Slippery Jacks, laughing at their slimy surface. 

Next, we examine some of the plantain amongst the grass and wonder at the abundance of herbs (or weeds, depending on your feelings about them) that surround us wherever we are. 

Someone notices a pink flower and we move on, discussing the different kinds of heather (ling, bell and cross-leaved heath) and the health imparted by their bells, and the fact that the flowering tops were Robert Burns’ favourite wild tea. 


Many different forms of mushroom are examined – those with gills, those with tubes and those with teeth. Spores are released in clouds that drift in the afternoon sun and we stare, touch, squeal and exclaim. A woman peers at a mushroom through one of the jewellers’ loupes I have handed out and then screams as a maggot appears, enormous, from the mushroom she is holding.


We soon spot flashes of red amongst some birch trees and it’s Amanita Muscaria, Fly Agaric, the biggest I’ve ever seen.

We make our way towards it, drawn away from the path onto the soft mounds of moss and surround the mushrooms, exclaiming at their colour. I’d hoped to find one on this walk, as it’s an old Nordic remedy for sciatic and arthritic pain and I wonder if it might be of help to some of those present.

We talk about the need to trust the cultures who have not suffered the loss of their plant knowledge, and how we have been pushed out of a reliant relationship with the land and its gifts. There is a shared sense of appreciation at the plenty that surrounds us, and a sadness at how things have gotten to be as they are. 


Soon after we find another extraordinary mushroom, a hawkwing fungus, quite rare, that grows only in northern Scotland and mostly on sand. Its surface is dark brown and feathered, its underside a mass of ‘teeth’ that look more like fur. It is a creature. 

We finish our walk by the pond and Phil, our host, tells us about the bats he’s studied here for many years and the quiet nights he’s spent sleeping in Culbin among the trees. He knows and loves the place and that feeling spreads itself around us as we sit and I brew tea with a Kelly kettle, fired by sticks gathered by the group. 

The tea is made with some of the flowering heather we gathered earlier, rosehips from Findhorn and apple juice pressed by the monks at nearby Pluscarden Abbey. 


Although one walker bemoans the lack of hobnobs (I quite agree) we are united in our enjoyment of the steaming cups in our hands as we listen to Phil’s tales of bat and moss, before saying our farewells to the willow tree that stands at the water’s edge.


This second mesostic species poem lists some of the flora the group observed, discussed, or tasted.

Among the other species we could have included are: Bay Bolete, Earthball, Elder, Apple, and Hawthorn.


Phil is the Regional Officer for the charity Versus Arthritis, who organises these walks. Derek Gow: ‘The Lye of the Land’, Granta No. 153, 2020. Te Urewera is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island; it ceased to be a national park in 2014, under the Ngāi Tūhoe Treaty of Waitangi settlementThe wood pigeon, on Chris Watson, Outside the Circle of Fire (1998); the ant walking was recorded by Watson for David Attenborough’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’; the honeybees, a collaboration between Watson and composer Marcus Davidson, ‘The Bee Symphony’, Cross-Pollination (2011).


'A variety of cultures', Jupiter Artland, AF, photo by Hannah Devereux. 

Macbeth's Hillock, photo by AF. Photo of Fly Agaric by Phillip Neville. All other photos by Sam MacDiarmid.

Thanks to Versus Arthritis, Heritage Lottery Fund, Lapidus Scotland, and Paths for All, for making this event possible.

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