Kingussie to Glen Banchor

Our first day, a lovely bright summer day. We were so very lucky with the weather. Not so lucky in other ways maybe. This would have been so much better split into two, not least because we found out at the end that the trains have been on strike every Sunday and we had a last three miles to walk (16 miles…my poor partner). The loop up from Newtonmore was the best and I wish we had started there to walk further up the Glen, though Gynack Burn out of Kingussie is quite lovely.

Gynack Burn is, of course, the falling water that the Duke of Gordon planned to harness to his industrialising schemes, powering factories for flour, wool and linen. One mill still stands — now The Cross, a most lovely, delicious (and expensive) restaurant that I recommend highly. But up the burn you can see worked walls of stone that once served as dams, attempts to wrest power from the water.

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Highland Landscapes

We’re just back from a week in Kingussie, a small village on both the trainline and the edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a place that feels wild, that looks wild. I loved it, for though I know I’ve been steadily domesticated since the age of 17, I still miss the wild intensely. Here there are moors, mountains, the 1% of ‘ancient’ Caledonian forest that still exists with its host of rare species unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Just look at this beautiful place.

I came having read Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, one of my very favourite books. She writes

The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind. (Sheperd, 1)

Like her, I am captive to this place.

Yet I hadn’t quite realised before we came just how many layers of human intervention have shaped the land even here in this wild place. I should stop being surprised perhaps, after walking glorious hills where the pits left by coal mining now sit in what feels like pristine countryside, or overgrown factory ruins spill down along the stream banks of remote valleys in the Pennines.

It is hard to imagine this land much more peopled, many more townships with their cows. Ancient forests. For all that probably feeling even more wild. But so it was.

The OS map shows a scattering of hut circles and burnt mounds, of which there is nothing now really to be seen beneath the heather. Hill forts, like the great square of Sidhean Mor Dail A’ Chaorainn in Glen Banchor, also mostly disappeared into the squaring off of this glacial mound apart from the raised ring at its top.

A view of the raised ring on Sidhean Mor Dail A' Chaorainn in Glen Banchor

There were eight townships in Glen Banchor above Newtonmore. Prebble in The Highland Clearances describes the social structures of land ownership that existed in more historic memory for the people who lived here once:

Highland society had been a pyramid. Below the chief, at its apex, the tacksmen leased their land to sub-tenants who paid for it in kind and service. They had no written leases and held their meagre patches of soil from year to year on the sufferance and goodwill of the tacksmen. Their insecurity of tenure was the greatest guarantee that they or their sons could be brought into the clan regiment when needed. Below them was a bottom stratum of landless men, the cotters, who screamed into battle in the wake of the charge.

The sub-tenants formed small communities or townships. Six or eight men might hold a farm in common, and whereas in the beginning, beyond their memory, each man might have had an equal share, now one had a third and another a sixth with the obligation to divide even that fraction among their sons at their death. The township held a portion of the glen and a tract of mountain pasture for thirty or forty black cattle, a small herd of thin and fleshless sheep. The best of the arable land was farmed in runrig, strips for which the sub-tenants periodically drew lots. (Prebble, 14)

These are the relationships of honour, family, subsistence and debt that provided a way of life and were marshalled to undertake war, initially against other clans. The ruined castle on Loch Eilen that we could barely see for trees, was one of the ‘lairs’ of Alexander Stuart, 1st Earl of Buchan, Wolf of Badenoch (1343-1394), as was the castle at Ruthven. Here legend has it, the Stuart was killed by the devil himself. We just missed the anniversary.

on 24 July 1394 a visitor dressed all in black arrived at Ruthven Castle and challenged the Wolf of Badenoch to a game of chess. That night the castle was beset by a terrible storm of thunder and lightning. The following morning there was no sign of the visitor, but the castle servants were discovered outside the castle walls, apparently killed by lightning. The Wolf of Badenoch himself was found in the banqueting hall: his body unmarked, though the nails in his boots had been torn out. Such, it would seem, are the perils of playing chess with the Devil. (Undiscovered Scotland)

The highlanders who once lived in these townships would be mustered as warring bands then as regiments by such clan chiefs. In later years they would go to battle for the glory of the British Empire and then for the deposed Stuart kings.

Jacobite defeat proved calamitous.

To maintain England’s control, General Wade would carve new additions through the landscape in the form of military roads and installations starting just after the 1715 uprising. You can still walk them.

Eric Gaba, NordNordWest, Uwe Dedering, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the great mound where the devil took the soul of the Wolf of Badenoch, the more prosaic ruins of Ruthven Barracks now sit high above the Spey. They attempt to dominate the skyline as they attempted to dominate the people here. Still, the mountains pale them to something close to insignificance.

Perhaps the greatest changes lay ahead, their foundations partially laid in the 1745 defeat at Culloden. The victors forbade the speaking of Gaelic, the carrying of weapons, the playing of pipes, the wearing of highland dress. But perhaps most damningly, defeat transformed highland nobles from heads of clans whose wealth lay in warriors to landlords based in London, hungry for rents. As Prebble writes:

Once the chiefs lost their powers many of them lost also any parental interest in their clansmen. During the next hundred years they continued the work of Cumberland’s battalions. So that they might lease their glens and braes to sheep-farmers from the Lowlands and England, they cleared the crofts of men, women and children, using police and soldiers where necessary.

This process proceeded in curious counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars. Clan chiefs raised regiments of men to fight, to die. Those who returned often found their homes razed to rubble, their families dispersed for the sake of sheep.

So began the invasion of the Cheviot or True Mountain breed. They came up the old cattle roads into Argyll, Inverness, and Ross. They climbed where the deer died, they throve where black cattle starved. Land which had produced 2d. an acre under cattle now yielded 2s. under sheep. Four shepherds, their dogs and three thousand sheep now occupied land that had once supported five townships. (Prebble, 28)

The eight townships of Glen Banchor are gone but for rubbled foundations, still marked on the maps.

Some great lords moved households to other pieces of coastal land where not even sheep could thrive, each family taking the timber of their homes with them to try to build anew. Other townships were burned out by sheriffs and men of property and soldiers, their crops left to rot in the fields, encouraged to head south to Glasgow or emigrate to Canada. They fought such betrayal from the heads of their clan with sticks and stones, burned eviction writs, yet they did not win more than a reprieve. Prebble’s book is heartrending in its descriptions of the brief attempts at rebellion, the burnings and the deaths of the old, the infirm, the sick as they clung to life beside their burnt out homes.

And alongside this the lords felled the great Caledonian forests as the price of lumber skyrocketed. Today’s landowners have implemented an even more extractive method of plantation forestry across the country, so the Cairngorms are some of the last places where you can find anything ressembling the old forest still standing. But even here the oldest of the trees were the young survivors of the great fellings of the Napoleonic wars.

They are wondrous, these great Scots pines. The stands of this older forest are strikingly full of life in comparison to the stands of plantation firs, even those being thinned and left to renaturalise. We began to seek them out. But imagine the forests we might have seen had profit not driven such total destruction.

So now these lands are ‘wild’, moors empty of trees and full of sheep, or filled with dark plantations and logging roads. In places the sheep have given way to even more lucrative businesses of estates devoted to grouse shooting, deer hunting, salmon fishing. The sheep did not in fact continue to generate the wealth of those early years. Kingussie is the result of attempts to find new ways of making these lands generate ever more wealth. As their lovely local history boards state:

More than 200 years ago, the Duke of Gordon drew up plans for a new town at Kingussie one of many planned settlements around the Highlands created by landowners who wanted to make money from new industries rather than depending on rents from farming. The Gynack Burn was at the heart of the Duke’s plans. He hoped that its water would power wool and fax (linen) mills and attract “tradesmen, manufacturers and shopkeepers” to live and work in Kingussie.

Although there were small clusters of houses where Kingussie now stands there was no village. In 1792, the local minister reported that this was a great problem. “The wool that could have been manufactured … must be sent to buyers from another kingdom. The flax that might have been a source of wealth has been neglected because skilful people are not collected… to carry through the whole process.”

And in horrible irony the Duke advertised for new people to come take up residence.

“The Duke of Gordon being inclined to have a village erected near to the Church of Kingussie, will give every degree of encouragement to tradesmen, manufacturers and shop keepers who may be inclined to settle there. There is a stream of water running close to the spot, fit to turn machinery of every kind; and there is a lint mill already built on the premises. Shoemakers and weavers are most particularly wanted in the country and may depend on finding constant employment. ” (A New Village at Kingussie in Badenoch, Aberdeen Journal, 1799)

Highland history is one of such cruelty, it is hard to look at it squarely. It makes you even angrier at figures like Sir Walter Scott, romanticising an absurd sheep-herding version of the Highlands even as his heroes dispossessed their tenants by force and fire. Or painters like Edwin Landseer, whose affair with Georgina Russell, Duchess of Bedford brought him to Glenn Feshie to play at rural life in a series of comfortable refuges and to paint romantic landscapes and stags and noble shepherds.

Staring at the implications of this history also connects this landscape and its oppressed people to those of the colonies, primarily Canada. There the oppressed became potential oppressors through the conquest of indigenous lands and the genocide of Native Americans. I had not realised how much the highland clearances–and the matter of fact defense of them in discourses of civilisation of highland savages and the highest economic use of land–would resonate and intertwine with those of empire. They must have fed from each other, even as the clearances filled boats with families starving, brutalised and desperate.

And of course this history and these landscape connect to cities, for where else did a good proportion of this rural exodus head to? We began and ended our stay in Glasgow, and there is the last mark on the landscape for this blog, the lovely glass railbridge extending from Glasgow Central railway station, also known as the ‘hielenman’s umbrella’.

it was Gaelic-speaking workers (who’d arrived in the city following the Highland clearances in the 19th century) who were first known to gather there [under the bridge] and seek refuge and shelter from the harsh Glasgow weather.

Around 30,000 Gaelic speakers moved to Glasgow from the Highlands to find work, and while many found employment working as servants in the city’s affluent west end, thousands more were dispersed all over the city and separated from their friends and family.

But once a week, usually on Saturdays, the ‘Hielanmen’ would come together to meet under the railway bridge and catch up on the week’s gossip and share stories of their new lives in Scotland’s biggest city.

The Umbrella traditions reached its height in the 1920s and 1930s but following the outbreak of the Second World War and the resulting blackout, the tradition of meeting under the bridge soon became forgotten.

Urban Acupuncture

Curitiba, I remember it as a rather wonderful city, though I know it has different sides. But the buses…a brilliant example of an innovation that brings meaningful and important change to many thousands of people and has an impact on the carbon footprint. With service every few minutes, a life-changing improvement in accessibility built into the design, dedicated lanes and innovative safe and protected loading areas where passengers pay before they get on the bus, they revolutionised public transport for a fraction of the cost of underground lines. A stripped down version of the idea was introduced in LA, and London as well until Boris Johnson made one of his first disastrous marks. So in many ways I love this short book of what are essentially case studies from Jaime Lerner, the mayor who made the bendy buses possible and whose loss earlier this year made many mourn.

In some ways I am all for it. As Lerner writes:

Everyone knows that planning is a process. Yet no matter how good it may be, a plan by itself cannot bring about immediate transformation. Almost always, it is a spark that sets off a current that begins to spread. This is what I call good acupuncture–true urban acupuncture. (2-3)

I definitely love this idea of a spark — I think in the end this is actually how good things start to happen. And acupuncture is awesome, but has its limits, especially when you have no food or shelter.

So I do wish this book came with a warning label. Something like, YES! Be inspired, do what you can with what you have, imagine and innovate, try new things, get people involved, learn from others, see how powerful small changes can be. BUT DO NOT STOP THERE.

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A hissing of Geese: Rochdale Canal Walk

Geese everywhere. Big. Mean. Angry. The collective noun is supposed to be a gaggle, in flight it is a skein a team a wedge a plump. None of these terms capture the absolute terror of geese protecting their young on a narrow canal path. Hissing bastards. Look at its tongue, my god:

We got past these but not the next. Four hissing adults square in the middle, a bunch of heedless goslings along the far edge. Maybe if we still had some of our pies left, but no. We beat a retreat. Less than a mile to go around, and we didn’t mind that the older gent and his young grandson we warned about them on our way back got past without a problem (the geese had obviously taken to the water, or they are as afraid of small boys as we are). I got this picture though, probably didn’t mean much to Mark, but it was a win for me. I love these contrasts of Victorian/Edwardian industrial architecture.

Just look at these enormous old mills.

Continue reading A hissing of Geese: Rochdale Canal Walk

Walking to Pemberley

We took the train to Disley, and from there walked over to Lyme and back again. A glorious walk, highly recommended.

Lyme is, of course, the house used as the outside of Pemberley. Pemberley! The home of not just any Mr Darcy but of Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Oh my days.

I saw Pride and Prejudice for the first time in 1998. I lived in LA, alone, just off Sunset, in a tiny studio in a back second floor of an old apartment building. The front faced Los Globos (Los Globos! Cabron, que lugar but still not as bad as the bar just across sunset with its incredibly large women in incredibly little clothing who were playing pool and killed me with their eyes the one time I walked in one Sunday afternoon trying to find somewhere to watch the World Cup).

This particular night a woman was off her meds or on the wrong ones or enjoying some kind of crazy cocktail in the dirt parking area, started screaming and screaming at someone in the building. Started throwing rocks. I looked out just to see it was just her, if she was all right (I mean, as all right as she could be) and she seemed to be so I didn’t think there was much to do. But she saw me looking and then started screaming at me. Awful. I debated getting the manager but thought surely someone else had already tried. A huge rock came through the window, almost hit me, scattered glass across the bed. Still screaming but the shattering glass must have got through to her she needed to leave. Good thing, because the manager made me call the police for the insurance on the window. They took hours to arrive of course, she had plenty of time to get away, and did nothing but fill out the report.

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Vaccination walk – Or A Beginning Typology of Ways in which Manchester Pedestrians are Screwed

About 6 weeks ago I got a text from my GP saying I could make THE appointment and I was surprised knowing it was early but so happy, not least because my GPs were administering the vaccine themselves ten minutes walk away. Brilliant. Within hours a number of other texts arrived from another number saying cancel that appointment immediately, there is no vaccine for you.

I’d just seen the news about vaccine shortages, the hold put on the roll out.

A real fall after something of a high. Of course I knew full well the vaccine roll out hadn’t even (hasn’t even) started in some other countries. Even disappointment carries its privilege. So many here means so few there. Things beyond my control but that I hold in my heart.

I finally did get to go get my vaccination last Thursday — freedom day. Of a limited kind still I know, but still. Sadly, the closest available location was Etihad stadium, home of Man City. I cannot afford to get there to see football of course, very sad indeed. Knowing it was a stadium I also knew the whole experience would be a little bit of a fuck you to pedestrians. My theory was the newer the stadium, the more of a fuck you. I was not wrong.

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free Spaces: Social Movement, space and The Practice of Democracy

Free Spaces was first published in 1986, second edition way back in 1992, yet the ways it thinks about space, conviviality, democracy, communities and societies that work…pretty timeless. Not everything, of course. But I love how it brings the ways in which people live in and occupy the physical spaces around them with the processes that contribute to political and social engagement, the ability to work across difference, the capacity to listen to others to build a better world. As they write:

Free Spaces asks an elemental but important question. What are the environments, the public spaces, in which ordinary people become participants in the complex, ambiguous, engaging conversation about democracy: participators in governance rather than spectators or complainers, victims or accomplices? What are the roots not simply of movements against oppression but also, more positively, of those democratic social movements which both enlarge the opportunities for participation and enhance people’s ability to participate in the public world? (viii)

It’s interesting also that they differentiate the positive kinds of neighbourhood activism and organising from the reactive through differences and a narrowed understanding of ‘public’, I think it would be really useful to bring this a little more into conversation with the renewed wave of thinking about populism (see for example Muller or Revelli).

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Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.

I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.

I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)

Labour should read more I think.

The Weaver’s Daughter

I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,

she writes

weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)

Continue reading Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:

My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)

The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)

Continue reading Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

Wild Walks: Buxton to Whaley Bridge

Another escape onto the moors as lockdown eases. Still glorious. Today was an effort to do better than our last attempt at these particular moors, walking from the station Buxton. That was a grim, cold walk and no mistake, and a closed pub at the end of it. I almost cried.

This was a beautiful sunny day, we sat on a wall eating pasties and taking in a view of the now-open Crescent Hotel (I rather fancy staying there when things open again), bought ice cream as we walked through the Pavilion Gardens. My last memory of it I was tired, hungry and bedraggled. And there were mummers. I never know what I think about them. But no mummers today.

This was lovely, a bit long to get out of Buxton maybe, but then a swift climb up hill, over an old rail line, and up where you feel on top of the world. Across the hills in sun and shadow. A brief encounter with a geezer in a tweed waistcoat, awesome. The lovely blue waters of the reservoir. The ruins of Errwood hall and a brief wish we’d arrived a little later to see the hillside of rhododendrons in full bloom. Exhausted stumble into Whaley Bridge. Home.

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Andrea Gibbons