James McCarthy at Heriot Watt University

I’m honoured to be asked to give this inaugural lecture in memory of Tony McManus, who was crucial in the establishment of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.

Although I never knew Nan Shepherd personally, I feel a strong association with her not only through her own writings, but also because of my own connections to the area she wrote about, and I hope you will indulge me in my use of her forename throughout what follows in this talk.

Nan is the first woman writer to grace a Scottish banknote. On this Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note she is looking like a Greek heroine, with a very distinctive band round her forehead. A lifelong friend tells the true story of how Nan, (the least vain of women who never went to a hairdresser in her life) decided as a young woman to have her portrait taken at a local photography studio for some unknown reason. She spotted a length of photographer’s film lying on a table, picked it up, wrapped it round her head, and stuck a brooch on it, to create unwittingly a Wagnerian princess look. As her friend said, ‘The one vanity project of her entire life is now her public image.’ That quite forceful image however belies her natural reticence and modesty. The banknote quotes Nan’s insightful words:

‘But the struggle between frost and running water
Is not quickly over
The battle fluctuates and at the point of fluctuation
Between the motion of water and the immobility of frost                                                
Strange and beautiful forms are evolved.’

RBS £5 banknote: Nan Shepherd

I first encountered Nan Shepherd in the relatively recent writings of the landscape writer and broadcaster Robert Macfarlane – and was quite captivated. It was he who identified two seminal ideas in Nan’s writing on mountains: ‘We don’t walk up a mountain, but into it’, and secondly that ‘we must abandon the summit as the organising principle of mountains.’ She was in good company with that other unrecognised geopoet, (before the term was invented) John Muir, who said that ‘going out is actually going in.’ It was Macfarlane, among others, who also claimed that Nan coveted knowledge and willingly suffered privations (witness her arduous treks into the mountains in all weathers) in the pursuit of learning. But she was also a person of passions and lived life with gusto, represented by the quote outside the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.’ Macfarlane, author and acclaimed landscape afficianado claimed that her major poetic work In the Cairngorms was one of the most brilliant works of landscape literature … ‘no one has written as well as Shepherd about what it feels like to be in the mountains.’ Almost all her poetry hymns the combination of nature and intellect, while In the Cairngorms is like her novels in the sense of the mind’s own fineness, passionately engaged with the vastness, beauty and ultimate indifference of rock, water, light and air.

Nan lived all her long life between 1893 and 1981 in Peterculter outside Aberdeen and was proud of this association with the north-east of Scotland. After several years as a student in Aberdeen, I have come to terms with an impression of deep parochialism in the culture of this area, now considerably diminished by the advent of the North Sea oil industry – as one wag had it – ‘A day oot o’ Aiberdeen is a day oot o’ life’. She was an Aberdeen University graduate who maintained a close link with her alma mater throughout her life. Born to a middle-class family, she nevertheless developed a remarkable insight into the life and language of the poor farming communities of the rural hinterland, described, often through dialogue in the local vernacular, in her three novels. Published in the short period between 1928 and 1933, they are now recognised as significant contributions to the Scottish literary renaissance of that time, set in the small communities of north-east Scotland – a largely unrecognised precursor of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much lauded Sunset Song.

She was a pioneer in women’s writing in Scotland, focussing especially on their struggle to escape a patriarchal society. Jessie Kesson attributed her own start in a distinguished writing career to Shepherd’s advice and encouragement: Kesson said that Nan possessed ‘a grace of the soul’ expressed in discretion and reticence. But she was also a valued confidante of Hugh McDiarmid, Neil Gunn, and many other literary figures. It was Gunn who thought that her now most acclaimed work, The Living Mountain would not appeal to publishers. Nan herself describes the writing of this work in the last years of World War II as ‘my secret place of ease’. Barely recognised in her own lifetime, she was in fact a major contributor to Scottish Modernist literature.

In that lifetime, she was best known for her novels which, using the local dialect with great facility, told the story of strong, uneducated country women of all ages, attempting to swim against the tide of convention, and using as a backdrop, the life of these women, interwoven with memorable descriptions of the landscape and weather of north-east Scotland. What is particularity interesting is that, drawing on the same environment, she wrote her novels several years before Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair and Sunset Song, referred to previously, which largely eclipsed Shepherd’s earlier work on similar themes. She was also very much ahead of her time in tackling feminist issues and became an inspiring model for her largely female students. She has been favourably compared to Virginia Woolf and, according to a recent winner of the Wainwright prize, Amy Liptrot, her novels were ‘vast modernist works, multi-perspectival and exploratory’ – and yet she was living and working far from the mainly male literary establishment, from which she was largely excluded. It was the same author who said ‘It’s the deep knowledge, attentiveness and space given to things that often might be dismissed…that’s what makes it a beautiful thing to think of Nan out walking by herself or with other scientist and writer friends, getting to know the hills… she is a role model of how I would like my life to be.’

The Grampian Quartet

Nan was a charismatic teacher of English – she has been described by one student as having a spell-binding teaching talent – and took a feminist approach in her lectures years ahead of her time, initially at the Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers (subsequently to become the Aberdeen College of Education) throughout her working life. She encouraged her students to embrace the wider world, but not to despise their often impoverished backgrounds and to constantly seek fresh knowledge – a topic reiterated in her novels around her country heroines. But in keeping with the title of this talk, I want to focus on her non-fiction, even if she regarded poetry, such as that in her work In the Cairngorms, as the purest of all forms of writing.

A dauntless hill walker, she organised trips for her students into the nearby Cairngorms, introducing them to the geology and natural history of the largest area of subarctic environment in Britain, with all its wonders. It was my former colleague, Dr. Grant Roger, who introduced Nan to the botanical riches of the massif. But it was Grant’s wife, Sheila Roger, who came to know Nan most intimately: as the young child of a neighbour, she recalled lying on Nan’s bed, being read to by Nan and encouraged to take an interest in everything around her (Nan remained unmarried throughout her life, although her poetry obliquely suggests a doomed love affair.) Later Grant and Sheila were to make many expeditions into the Cairngorms with Nan and accompanied her on trips to Europe.

Nan was known for her emphasis on getting to know the geology and natural history of particular areas such as the Cairngorms. She had a deep kinship with nature, a spiritual connection which had a Buddhist outlook as a pilgrimage into being. Her influence on her students can be gauged by the number who, often established in one-teacher schools from Galloway to the Northern Isles, invited her to stay with them.

Nan Shepherd: estate of Nan Shepherd

It was in 1934 that she published In the Cairngorms, a paean in poetry to the mountains with which she so closely identified – but also expressing her own personal loves and anguished longings. She worked long and hard on her poetry – a form which she claimed ‘offered glimpses of the burning heart of all life.’
But the style of the later The Living Mountain is at once austerely intellectual and passionately felt – it is knowledge rather than feeling that seems to be Nan Shepherd’s route to the sublime, said Roderick Watson. She comes to the conclusion that the ‘living mountain’ lives because of our conscious engagement with it…. ‘as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate more deeply into my own…I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.’ Only recently, approaching my 82nd year, have I come to appreciate this insight, which converts such writing from a mere literary talent to something of a quite different order of importance in reflecting a deeper level of life experience, especially in relation to the natural world. It is nothing if not about life itself. The mountain landscape apart, she is particularly entranced by water – from the stillness and clarity of Loch Avon to the Highland torrents. In the very first lines of In the Cairngorms, she declaims:

‘Oh, burnie with the glass-like shiver, singing over stone’

– which come very close to the theme of Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts i.e. the flow of a natural stream reflecting, in accordance with the great Chinese philosophers, the spontaneous harmony of an interdependent universe going its own way. Alan Watts said: ‘The water, all moisture, transpires from the earth, streams, rivers, …the moisture is returned, as dew, as rain – a marvellous cycle: ocean to the upper air, a living interaction…’ While Herman Hesse continued this theme, with his deep immersion in Chinese philosophy in crossing the watershed of the Alps: …‘the small pool which touches my shoes runs downwards towards the north, its waters come at last into distant seas. But the small snowdrift close beside it trickles towards the south …but all the waters of the world find another again…’

It was her last work, The Living Mountain, published in 1977, having lain unregarded in a drawer from the 1940s, that establishes her as an original geopoet for its extraordinary deep and personal identification with the natural environment – a meditational work with Zen-like undertones. The title of this work absolutely encapsulates Nan’s approach to the mountain landscape. Abjuring the predominately male preoccupation with conquering summits, she described her stravaiging into her beloved mountain range as a journey into Being. I use the word into very deliberately as it expresses both the outward and the inward journey, while not neglecting the sensual pleasure of the body’s response to activity, especially energetic walking. It has resonances with Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation, in which, in Macfarlane’s words, she refined her philosophy. ‘The mountain does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.’ said Nan. Ali Smith describes The Living Mountain as ‘an enlightened fusion of philosophy and reportage of the form and force of life everywhere in the beloved landscape’. It is now recognised as a masterpiece, amongst the greatest works of nature writing to come out of Britain. Ali Smith together with the poet Kathleen Jamie have both acclaimed Nan’s works. The publisher Canongate has reissued her works and recently sold 45,000 copies of The Living Mountain, while the rights in China have gone for the largest amount ever paid for one of her books.

The Living Mountain

The emphasis which Watson places on Nan’s intimate knowledge of the ecology of the Cairngorm environment, its geology, animals and plants, is exemplified by her comment on, for example, one of my own favourite plants, juniper – she says

‘(it) is secretive with its scent. It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it now and then to renew the spice.’

She lived on her own terms, unafraid to walk the hills without destination, but allowing her senses to respond to every sight or sound which she experienced – what she described as ‘the elementals.’ She made a habit of sleeping out of doors on her own among the high tops.

‘I have slept in the open as early as May…there is an art in waking. I must come fully awake, and open my eyes without having moved. Once, sleeping in the daytime, I jerked awake, to find that a young blackbird …had been walking along my leg and elsewhere ten yards away from me a red deer is feeding in the dawn light. He moves without a sound. The world is entirely still….he looks at me, his nostrils twitch, we look at each other…’

In Macfarlane’s words, she entered a geopoetic quest and philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge. There was no difference between body and mind in the sensing of textures and surfaces of rocks, wind and water and her interactions with wildlife be they plants, animals or birds.

Robert Macfarlane filming ‘The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey’ for BBC Scotland TV

I can recall two comparable personal experiences which approximate to Nan’s own. The first was when, as a young schoolboy, I crossed the River Tay from my home town of Dundee into Fife and simply started walking. A wood on a hill slope looked inviting for my sandwich lunch and I wandered to the skyline on one of those rare days when there was a slight breeze, but the sky was springtime blue. There had been some recent felling of the Scots Pine and a cut stump provided a convenient seat. The only sound was the wind bending the tops of the trees, but the early warmth of the sun brought out the aromatic fragrance of the needles which I had never smelt before. The rough-edged lozenges on the salmon-pink bark formed endless patterns of light and shade. Beyond the crowns of the trees, I could see the patches of sunlit sky. There came a point where I could not distinguish that sky from the scent of the conifers, from the wind on my cheek, or the bark scales in front of me on the felled logs – they were all gloriously one.

I was deliciously intoxicated with this world, transported by a sense of clean beauty which could not be grasped and which could not have come in company. I was aware of myself and of the trees and everything else in my surroundings, but without any space intervening – a feeling of both peace and jubilation, together with a deep sense of belonging to this scene.

More than 20 years ago, I found myself on one of the last undeveloped stretches of the Maine coast in USA, south of Acadia. This was The Country of the Pointed Firs so beautifully delineated by Sarah Orne Jowett in the dying years of the 19th century. Living in a remote lighthouse, I was carrying out a commission from the US National Park Service to investigate a potentially contentious proposal to create a new national park on this coast. After a late night writing up notes, my head still buzzing with all the conflicting issues involved, I rose very early for a run through the nearby coastal woods. There was an old Indian trail that skirted the cliffs. A deep morning mist intermittently shrouded both the cliffs and the forest of spruce, fir, birch and cedar which reached down to the shore around inlets. Elsewhere, the jagged black and grey rocks were barren except for orange lichens which reflected a splash of colour. The woods themselves were carpeted with velvety emerald mosses below an understorey of low woody shrubs. The silence and the damp air were a tonic to the body and the brain. With a path that gently undulated and wound its way round the clifftops, I soon recovered from the first minutes of awkward stumbling over roots and found an easier rhythmic stride. Along the trail, there was evidence of moose and black bear.

The Bay of Fundy

Occasionally the mist rose above the woods to reveal a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy, in the distance, with its spectacular tides. There was an ethereal atmosphere – a combination of windlessness and calm sea, only seen in gaps between the trees, while the suspended cobwebs glistening with morning dew, created their own ghostly miasma. I felt my running was good and almost effortless on the spongy mat of the trail. My own breath, in this morning cold, was creating miniature grey clouds. I could hear my breathing, but I became aware of something that sounded like an echo to my left which I could not identify. I kept going, enjoying the exhilarating rhythm of running, but increasingly aware that my passage through the silent woods was punctuated by a parallel movement to seaward. Just the noise similar to that expellation of the cleansing breath of a Tai Chi exercise, when you are encouraged to make a natural ‘whooshing!’. Unable to see clearly through the undulating coastal mist, the low whistling seemed to keep pace with my own progress, an almost eerie reflection of my momentum, rising and falling. The half-closed mind clicked. Whales!

Through the trees and the mist, nothing could be seen of the creatures. But with my ears now attuned, and my remembrance of reading of the several species of cetaceans which ploughed down this quiet sound, I was in no doubt. I could hear them but, pounding over the moss, could they hear me? Whatever, their need for air and my own seemed to create an umbilical cord across woods and water, both of us floating in our distinct but united worlds, moving down the coast.

In the last chapter of The Living Mountain, appropriately entitled ‘Being’, Nan describes a childhood experience not dissimilar from my own in that Fife pinewood. She says:

‘I set out on my journey in pure love. It began in childhood, when the stormy violet of a gully on the back of Sgoran Dubh, at which I used to gaze from a shoulder of the Monadhliaths, haunted my dreams. That gully, with its floating, its almost tangible ultramarine, thirled me for life to the mountain. Climbing Cairngorms was then for me a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished. Certainly not children. It was still legendary on the October day, blue, cold, and brilliant after heavy snow, when I climbed Creag Dhubh above Loch an Eilean, alone and expectant. I climbed like a child stealing apples, with a fearful look behind. The Cairngorms were forbidden country – this was the nearest I had come to them; I was delectably excited. But how near to them I was coming I could not guess, as I toiled up the last slope and came out above Glen Einich. Then I gulped the frosty air – and could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-struck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank. I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms…’

Some of us have experienced and remembered that early elation.

Sgoran Dubh Mor from Sron na Lairige by Scottish Horizons

In 1940, Nan wrote to Neil Gunn:

‘To apprehend things, walking on a hill, seeing the light change, being aware, using the whole of one’s body to instruct the spirit – yes, that is a secret life one has and knows others have. But to be able to share it, and thro’ words…it dissolves one’s being, I am no longer myself, but a part of a life beyond myself.’

Gillian Carter, writing about Nan’s domestic landscape, said ‘The fully embodied engagement with a specific landscape, the dissolving of one’s being, and the transgression of the boundary between the self and other, all operate in The Living Mountain.’ One eminent reviewer stated unequivocally that it was the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain. The closing words of that work epitomise Nan’s insight:

‘The purported objectivity of science is shown to be less than the subjective, embodied involvement – every reality that matters to human beings, is a reality of the mind. Through living in it, the landscape becomes part of us, just as we are part of it.’

Where the landscape in her fiction shows the possibilities of freedom for her characters, both male and female, it does the same in The Living Mountain for the self. In my own work as a professional conservationist within an organisation which prided itself on its scientific objectivity, I could not allow the poetic and the philosophical to intrude into the papers I prepared for sceptical committees. I now realise that this constraint allowed me to see only one part of the picture and perhaps the minor part. Macfarlane, a writer of the greatest sensitivity to the Highland landscape, described The Living Mountain as a sensual exploration of the area and claimed that it had quite altered his vision of this mountain range, which he had previously known intimately. It has quite altered mine.

The following is written as if spoken. It is, however, a reconstruction from subsequent memory, plus some elaborations to what I said at the conference – Expressing the Earth, organised by the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the University of the Highlands and Islands on the Isle of Seil, 23 June 2017. The pictures are a small sample of what were used during the talk. For greater detail, including my use of Kenneth White’s poetry in my activist work, see Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum, 2001. My latest book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn 2016), shows in an implicit way the impact of geopoetics on my work in the course of exploring what I think of as “an ecology of the imagination”.

I have just come back from speaking on the Isle of Eigg. There, on June 12, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the buyout into a community land trust. It is the second such birthday this year. A few months earlier, we had celebrated the twentieth year of the GalGael Trust in the Greater Govan area of Glasgow. Our people there build wooden boats. These reconnect an urban people with their wider coastal heritage. We see our work as geopoetics applied, and since the early days, have been honoured to have had Kenneth White as our patron.

One of our strap lines is “Reconnecting coastal communities”, and we see our boats and the River Clyde as metaphors for life, metaphors for building or rebuilding human life. It happens that “Reconnecting with the River” is the title of one of White’s short poems that opens with a quote from the sixteenth century Scots poet, Alexander Montgomerie.1

“As I looked me alone/ I saw a river rin ….”

White’s words that follow speak to the condition of so many of our folks – lives that have been blighted by poverty, but uplifted by humanity; the dreich offset by glory.

A late afternoon in Govan
at the junction of the Clyde and the Kelvin
rain falling on sullen stone

floating on the dark, dank waters
one lone mute swan.

It rather thrills me that Hilda Ibrahim, the mother of Gehan Macleod who co-funded the GalGael Trust in 1997 with her late husband, Colin, is today the retired schoolteacher who chairs the Eigg Residents’ Association. There we glimpse the Möbius strip that turns the urban to the rural, the rural to the urban, reconnecting the flows of life between our communities.

Veteran land campaigners at Eigg’s 20th Anniversary Celebrations, 12 June 2017: Camille Dressler, Maighread Foxley, Karen Helliwell, Michael Foxely, Michael Hutchison and vintage Talisker (Picture: Alastair McIntosh).

Eigg’s Part in Modern Scottish Land Reform
Today, however, my focus is to be rural, for I was one the four trustees who founded the original Isle of Eigg Trust in 1991. My swansong in 1997 was to sign over the balance of the £1.6 million in trust funds that had been raised in a worldwide campaign by the resident community. With this, the island was purchased by the more fit-for-purpose Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, set up to represent a partnership between the islanders, Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Eigg was the first full scale modern community buyout – full scale in the sense of being more than the crofting (or small scale agricultural) tenants alone, such as had been the case with the Assynt Trust. The drama that unfolded on Eigg helped to set a pattern and example that has inspired many buyouts since. Today, it receives visitors from all over the world who come to learn about its community-run renewables electricity grid, social and ecological housing, the ecological regeneration of nature, small business development such as the micro-brewery and an ever-growing wealth of experience around the gritty task of doing community. In that task one is, not least, forever on a learning curve of recognising and processing the conflicts that are inevitable in being human. “Towards the human”, to borrow from the title of Iain Crichton Smith’s collected essays, is always (in the work of making community) the guiding star that nods to incompleteness, yet points towards an opening of the way.

On a national scale, twenty years on, we now have land reform legislation in place, a £10 million per annum government Land Fund financed by imposing business rates on sporting estates, and over half a million acres of Scotland now held by dozens of local land trusts. That’s getting on for three per cent of our land area, and the Scottish Government has set the goal of doubling it by 2020. The tiny channels that campaigns like Eigg, Assynt and Gigha opened up have become the conduits through which a much more mainstream political flow has followed.

Understanding Bardic Politics
That brings me to the poetics, to Hamish Henderson’s dictum that “poetry becomes a people.” As activists for social, environmental and perhaps other forms of change, ours can be a bardic politics. The politics of a people resourced by their poetry. Ours is not to stand in the mainstream, but to open out fresh conduits of the mind. We may not have much to dig with. We may only have a teaspoon. But that can make a start upon the most compacted soil.

I remember, back in the days when I worked in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, a dear Australian priest called John Flynn who was building an airstrip. It was to serve the village of Hauabango, to which he had devoted a large part of his life. Fr John had no mechanical diggers with which to level a slither of the mountainside. Instead, he used a technique that he nicknamed “water mining”. He got the people digging narrow channels using spades. Into these, the local stream was diverted. When it flooded to a spate, the channels widened and the water also carried off unwanted earth.

That’s how poetry too can function. It whittles out the tiny runnels into which a greater flow of political process can subsequently follow. It is why, as Morton Bloomfield and Charles Dunn have shown, both in the Celtic world and in African tribal societies the function of the bards has been to work a “verbal magic”. Daniel Corkery has shown how the bardic schools thereby saved the soul of Ireland during the centuries of British colonisation. As Colm O’Baoill puts it, speaking in a Scottish Highland context, the bards were “the political brains” behind the chiefs. To that, I would only want to add that they were also spiritual conduits of the people.2


“We may not have much to dig with. We may only have a teaspoon” – Cartoon courtesy of the Leeds activist, Matt Carmichael.

Now, the cynics say “you can’t eat poetry”, but I want to put it to you today that land lies at the base of the food chain. As a storyteller once said long ago, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Whether with the Assynt crofters’ buyout, or in the example involving Kenneth White that I am about to give, poetry has played a role in modern Scottish land reform. Personally, I would call it the lifeblood. I use the term “poetry” to mean both poems, but also, the wider sense of creative quiddity that infuses all true arts. And by “true” art forms, I mean those that come from somewhere deeper than the ego – those that emerge from the collective levels of consciousness. Those which are, as the Hebrew prophets might have said as they railed against the injustices of landlordism, moved by inspiration from beyond our conscious ken. Moved by the echoes of a distant tide that draws us into ever-deepening openings of life’s way.

I think of a time during the Eigg buyout campaign – it was in 1996 – when, to get the fundraising rolling, the broadcaster and activist Lesley Riddoch organised a gig called Not the Landowner’s Ball. It was held in the Assembly Halls of Edinburgh. The late (as is now) Angus Grant of Shooglenifty whipped his fiddle into spindrift spirals of shamanic ecstasy. The crowd responded. I have never before, nor never since, danced in such a frenzy. This was the magic happening. This, we knew, was Eigg “happening” – manifesting from some realm invisible before it manifested outwardly. That, by the way, is how the spiritual materialises, how poetry becomes a people. I doubt that any who were there that night would not have felt the bedrock skirl of Scotland’s metamorphosis.


Not the Landowner’s Ball.

Geopoetics and Landed Power
The irony of my setting this framing is that I once asked Kenneth White if he considered his work to be political. He said not. But poetry can be a seed crystal in a saturated solution. Such was so to the four of us who founded the original Isle of Eigg Trust in 1991. We were the Scoraig crofter Tom Forsyth, the artist Liz Lyon, the Lochwinnoch sheep farmer Bob Harris and myself. As we drew up the manifesto, Liz drew our attention to one of Kenneth’s poems, and he kindly gave permission for it to be included in the published booklet that was distributed to all homes on Eigg and far beyond. Here it is.3

My Properties

I’m a landowner myself after all –
I’ve got twelve acres of white silence
up at the back of my skull.

Now, a poem like that, a Haiku or however it would be classified, is more than just a ditty. It is a power cable. Its effect, for the four of us at least, was to mainline legitimacy. As Bob is no longer on this Earth, as Tom is in an Ullapool care home, and as Liz drew back from the Trust soon after it was launched, let me speak for myself. What emerges from the latency of that white silence comes a claim of right. A clean sheet of paper on which to write a different title deed. A claim that we, in our claim of right to freedom, are all the “owners” of the land; or as I prefer to say, “landholders”.

Landed power can lay its claim to no such charter. It lacks the moral authority of standing, to borrow from Hamish again, in the “carrying stream” of the cultural flow.4 For me at least, Kenneth’s poem became a white steed on which to ride into the fray, from which to perpetrate our tactic of buying Eigg cheaply through market spoiling. After all, what rich man would want to buy a holiday island stuffed with restless natives?

There was something else that Kenneth’s work gave me. It was a sense of what Tom Forsyth, drawing on the work of the quantum physicist David Bohm, called “the implicate order”. The implicate order is the underlying realm out of which the “explicate order” – the material world of particles and energies – might be said to emerge. With his permission, I quoted often, including when I came to write Soil and Soul, from his poem, “Walking the Coast”.5

for the question is always
how
out of all the chances and changes
to select
the features of real significance
so as to make
of the welter
a world that will last
and how to order
the signs and symbols
so they will continue
to form new patterns
developing into
new harmonic wholes
so to keep life alive
in complexity
and complicity
with all of being –
there is only poetry

(Unfortunately the original formatting of the poem cannot be reproduced here.)

If the “landowner” poem affirmed legitimacy, these lines from “Walking the Coast” affirmed the emergence of vision. Put it like this. Imagine trailing up and down between the Central Belt and Eigg for meetings, sometimes hitchhiking on very little money, sometimes secretly crashing out for the night in the unlocked St Bride’s Church at Ballachulish to break the journey. And imagine Tom Forsyth, sleeping literally in ditches wrapped in his yellow oilskins as he criss-crossed the country doing drystane dyking work to raise some £3,000 legal and other costs of setting up the Eigg Trust.

Imagine being ridiculed in the press for proposing that ordinary people, functioning as healthy communities, could be landholders. Imagine walking into Glencoe at night, just off a ferry late back to Arisaig, wondering if you’ll get another lift before night falls. And then, imagine that white horse cantering from out the skull, complicit in complexity, “to form new patterns … with all of being.”

Sure, you can’t eat poetry. But you can ride it. And ride it hard we did.

Trustees of the original Isle of Eigg Trust, back in our Taliban days – Bob Harris, Tom Forsyth, Alastair McIntosh & Liz Lyon (Glasgow Herald, 1991).

Superquarry Poetics
What’s more, in the last couple of decades of the 20th century we were in a climate in Scotland when poetics were quickening at the grassroots. The music of Runrig, Dougie MacLean, Karen Matheson and some of the Irish groups were wake-up calls. On Eigg, as in many other small West Highland communities, the Fèis (“feast”) movement had spread out from Barra and was reconnecting people to their cultures, their music and their untold stories.6 Partly inspired by a worldwide resurgence in the consciousness of indigenous peoples, this sat comfortably with “world music” and was inclusive of whoever chose to belong by participating.

For me, as Eigg was unfolding as the weft of this wider leap in warp speed, so too was the Isle of Harris superquarry campaign. Roineabhal is the highest and most majestic mountain that graces the National Scenic Area that covers South Harris. In 1991 it fell under the threat to turn it into the biggest roadstone quarry in the world. For me, and I must stress that this is a personal take, what was happening on Eigg interwove with what was happening on Harris, and also with campaigns like the M77 “Pollok Free State” motorway campaign that evolved into the GalGael Trust.

It took until 1997 for Eigg to come under community landholding, and 2004 for the superquarry campaign to be decisively won as the result of a massive, multi-layered environmental campaign with many actors. Throughout that decade-and-a-half, however, geopoetics was exploding into consciousness in Scotland. Kenneth White himself was resident in Brittany, but his patch was held and cultivated largely thanks to the efforts of the late Tony McManus and Norrie Bissell. Other figures who breathed life into geopoetic events of that era include Rachel Blow, Richard Browne, John Hart, Nanon McManus, Bill Taylor, Jennie Renton and Graham Urquhart.

I remember how my Quaker friend, the wooden boat designer, Iain Oughtred, plied me with copies of the publications of the Open World Poetics group and bootlegged recordings of White’s recitations. Similarly so, Colin Geddes, the grandson of Patrick. I had been a science student in my youth. I was ignorant of poetry, but friends like Iain and the botanical writer, Tess Darwin, took it on themselves to complete my education. Whether it was Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, the emergent young Gaelic poets in translation or Kenneth White, the blue touch papers that they lit went off as rockets in my mind.

Neither was it a solitary experience. During the 1990s there was a positive buzz around geopoetics, largely stimulated by Tony’s and Norrie’s events and publications that put a saddle on the galloping back of poetry such as amateurs, like myself, could mount and use to get a grip. It was not just the written word. It was also the remarkable tonal qualities of White reciting his work, and the mind-boggling span of his talks during his fairly frequent visits back to Scotland.

I had just started teaching at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Human Ecology. Murdo Macdonald, later to become the professor of History of Scottish Art at Dundee University, was another mentor who led me to draw deeply upon geopoetics. Issue 88 of the Edinburgh Review, of which he was the editor, carried my Isle of Eigg Trust launch address. The article that immediately follows was White’s essay, “Elements of Geopoetics”. Reflecting on the work of Henri Pourrat and Walt Whitman, White said:

“There you have almost pure geopoetics…. What matters is what’s there, it’s in it – in those rock-piles – that the poetics lie.”

Over on the next page stands a single line, ending ineffably in an ellipsis. I have used this many times as a proxy definition of the world to which White opened up our minds:

“Poetry, geography – and a higher unity: geopoetics…”7

It was to me a balm of inspiration. The superquarry scene was looking grim. The major environmental agencies – the Friends of the Earth Scotland, WWF, RSPB, and all the rest of them were trying all the conventional means – the economic arguments against the quarry, the ecological ones, the social and you name it. Somehow the rationality of the impending government public enquiry wasn’t going deep enough. White and MacDiarmid ran side-by-side in my mind. “I lift a stone; it is the meaning of life I clasp,” says MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach”. And there, in the old master’s footsteps, White the shaman monk weaves his spirit with the Celtic monks as he wanders, as a nomad, into “Labrador”.


Eigg sales brochure – it really was marketed by an islands brokerage called Vladi Private Islands.

My reader today must forgive me if this sounds a heady mix. It was. Geopoetics became pivotal to the curriculum of the MSc degree that I directed. We had White visit us in the human ecology classes at 15 Buccleuch Place. Other times, I’d play extracts of him reading from his epic poem, “Scotia Deserta”. It changed lives.

I had a science background, proof matters, so indulge me if I give an example. My then student, now an environmental lawyer, Jamie Whittle, wrote up his MSc dissertation as a book, White River. It is about the human ecology of his native bioregion, the catchment valley of the River Findhorn. As he reaches the end of a pilgrimage in which he walked up to the source, then paddled back down to where the Findhorn meets the North Sea, Whittle reflects:

What I am beginning to sense is that consciousness is infinite. Looking back at how trapped inside the glass bottle of my own ego I used to be … [I now see that] it is only by quieting the ego that we may have the awareness to experience the world more deeply, more groundedly and more colourfully.

It was the poem “Labrador” by Kenneth White that summed up much of this outward, expansive, exploratory movement to me most coherently:

I lived and moved
as I had never done before
became a little more than human even
knew a large identity

the tracks of caribou in the snow
the flying of wild geese
the red Autumn of the maple tree
bitten by frost
all these became more real to me
more really me
than my very name

I found myself saying things like
‘at one with the spirit of the land’
but there was no ‘spirit’, none
that was outworn language
and this was a new world
and my mind was, almost, a new mind

Whittle reflects how Labrador “captures those first footsteps into a transpersonal world.” It had carried him into an age “beyond rampant industrial growth and collateral environmental damage.” It opened to “a new space beyond neurotic frenzy.” Such is the space, he concluded, “that can be found when we connect with the larger non-human world.”8 Some would call that ecopsychology. Others, ecopoetics. Naess called it Deep Ecology. Whittle found it here in Scotland through White’s geopoetics.

As part of Jamie Whittle’s studies, he and I had gone to Harris and climbed Mount Roineabhal together. The eagle has its eyrie there. In my dreams and visions the eagle of Roineabhal had grown in an imaginal realm. One day, as I struggled with my small contributions to the superquarry campaign, a colleague from America had said, “Why don’t you call Stone Eagle?”

Poetry precipitated necessity. Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, then the war chief of the Mi’Kmaq Nation in Nova Scotia, had been credited with stopping a similar superquarry at Kluscap Mountain, the sacred mountain of their territory. To cut a long story short, he answered my call and agreed to give testimony at the Scottish Office (government) public inquiry in 1994.

The media went ballistic. “Stone Eagle flies in to stop superquarry” ran the headlines. The detail can be read elsewhere.9 Suffice to say here that the chief’s testimony, along with mine, and that of Professor Macleod of the Free Church College all on the same platform – all that triple whammy – merited a single paragraph in the inquiry’s multi-volume report.

Stone Eagle Flies in to Roineabhal (courtesy of Murdo Macleod, 1994)

We had zero legal traction. But that was not the point. We were doing poetry, and theology; not law. We were quite consciously seeking impact in a different universe of discourse. It had massive traction, both in PR terms as the TV and press cameras zoomed in, and in terms of deepening local thinking about the issues at stake. Much of the Isle of Harris is now owned by community land trusts. The place has moved from falling derelict, to thriving. The young are coming back. There is affordable social housing, business units, renewable energy and jobs created by a newly energised economy and culture. All that, without the superquarry. Who said “you can’t eat poetry”? Who … said it? I’d like to know who tried to lead us astray with that put-down. Who tried to close our eyes?

To borrow from Allen Ginsburg’s Howl,

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”10

The sphinx failed. The superquarry, like landlordism on Eigg, was thwarted. Why? There are many reasons, many winds that blew in different directions at different levels of the stratosphere. But one reason stands out for me. The sphinx failed, because it never knew that we, too, were landowners.

We, too, had twelve acres of white silence up the back of our skulls.

The Shaman Dancing on the Glacier
In appreciating White it is not my intention to set him on a pedestal. As with all prophetic figures, there are criticisms. There is in any generalist, who sets specifics into the context of greater wholes, always the question of intellectual overreach; of what, as Pierre Jamet characterises it, “his detractors call mere name-dropping.”11 I have heard it suggested that White is perhaps over concerned with his own legacy, and I have noticed a fastidiousness in how he likes his work to be described. But those flaws, if flaws they are, can arise from artistic necessity, and from out of faithfulness to that which is being carried. To me, it is striking that White’s middle name is Dewar. It means, “steward”. In Scottish tradition the Dewars were the stewards, or custodians, of holy relics. The name derives from deòiridh or deòraidh which means “pilgrim” or “nomad”. White, now an octogenarian, has long championed “intellectual nomadism”. One of his books has the evocative title, Pilgrim of the Void. In the course of writing this piece I needed to confirm his middle name. I mentioned these interpretations, and he answered: “I am aware of that Gaelic meaning and tradition.”12

Anent the cost and even the peccadilloes that may result from the gravity of what we carry, I recall an incident when Chief Stone Eagle came to Scotland. I had taken him to several of the isles. At one point, I felt the need to apologise for the behaviour of a certain tradition bearer who had let us down by having had too much to drink. “Don’t you apologise for old (so-and-so),” the chief rebuked me. “You’d be drinking too if you were carrying what he carries.” As Cairns Craig has remarked, “White remains somewhere in the margins of modern Scottish literature and yet if there is one Scottish writer with a truly European reputation, it is him.”13 There may be ways in which he has contributed to that marginalisation. A prophet finds it hard to work from home, just as “home” finds the prophet trying in its midst.

That said, White’s work would never have reached so many of us were it not for the people and movements that surrounded him. I have observed an immense generosity of spirit in the geopoetics movement. I single out what I know best, specifically, the graciousness that has characterised the endeavours of Tony McManus and Norrie Bissell. Norrie, after Tony’s untimely passing, has carried forward the earlier work of Open World Poetics into the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics with its online journal, Stravaig. That word, delightfully, means, “to wander aimlessly”; and one glimpses here a Labradorian aimlessness where aims themselves are stripped back down as “outworn language”.

From where might this nomadic stravaig come in White’s psyche and his writing? I sense a clue within the title of his essay, “A Shaman Dancing on the Glacier”. It appears in the collection, On Scottish Ground, but the version I had long worked with first appeared in the arts newspaper, Artwork, in 1991 just as Eigg and the superquarry campaigns were born. That title alone was enough to impact heavily on me. Why? Because always for the activist, a pressing question when the going gets costly, is: “Why am I doing this?” With issues that concern the land, one answer is the chthonic imperative, the calling of the Earth itself, working through the chambers of an ecology of the imagination. That is the field, the grounding, of shamanic awareness.

White opens the said essay by telling how, at one point during a symposium on Burns, Beuys and Beyond – the figure of the artist in (modern) society, he was asked for the title of his impending lecture. He says that the shamanic imagery “leaped in to my mind with all the inevitability of dictation from the subconscious.” That, he concedes, “is another way of saying that my title may sound a bit surrealistic. I didn’t understand it very well at first myself, but, as I worked away, I came to understand it more.”14 Such are the dynamics of shamanism; here, the antithesis of plans of action, performance indicators and managed outcomes. Such shamanic stravaiging is of the essence of art. Issues such as land reform, superquarries or motorway protests become the stages of much wider dramas, a deeper and more basic call to consciousness of what is human, and to that in nature which is not-just-human .

In his essay, “The Archaic Context”, White tells how the first poem that he wrote – he was around nineteen at the time – was called “Precentor Seagull”. A precentor in a Scots Presbyterian context is the leader in the singing of the Gaelic Psalms. He muses,

“That first poem of mine was a shaman-poem. I was a shaman without a tribe.”

Kenneth White (from Wikipedia, by Esby, at the “Comédie du Livre”, Montpellier, 2009)

Like MacDiarmid at his best, it is the shamanic calling that White shares with his readers; that of the nomad walker between the worlds, the worlds of materiality and spirit, where one foot stands in each realm, held in equipoise. In his classic study, the Romanian ethnographer Mircea Eliade concludes that “the shaman’s essential role” is “the defence of the psychic integrity of the community.” It is, indeed, a dewar’s role. She or he, Eliade surmises, “is able to see [in the supernatural world] what is hidden and invisible to the rest.” Here, “poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom,” in which “the purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that … reveals the essence of things.”

As such, the shamanic function is to “stimulate and feed the imagination, demolish the barriers between dream and present reality [and] open windows upon worlds inhabited by the gods, the dead and the spirits.”15 The American mythologist Joseph Campbell arrived at the same conclusion through his study of the heroic archetype. “The effect of the successful adventure of the hero,” he concluded, “is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world.”16 That is what distinguishes shamanic art, sacred art, from narcissistic forms of self-expression.

How far is White aware that his work might answer to this function? I can imagine him smiling, shyly, with slight embarrassment at the suggestion. I can imagine his unease at my emphasis here on “the spirit”, and at my crediting his work with having a political impact. In other ways, I suspect that our “dewar” is very aware of these things. Everyone who walks between the worlds feels the tension between what is safe in being rarefied, and what can have a power upon the material plane that can be frightening in the responsibility that it carries. Think of the slow, deliberative, swings of energy from one foot to the other in the piper’s gait when playing pibroch. Think of the gaze of onlookers from the dress circle – bemused, puzzled, discombobulated – as evening dawns the dreaming of the call of great migrations. They can stone the prophets, you know, as well as cheer them on.

In another of the essays, “Into the White World”, our stravaiger notes that “what Chinese taoist thought offers us is ontological re-sourcing.” This, the nature of being, is with what “we are concerned in poetry, which is why poetry, in its higher instances, has always seemed to be on the edge of Western civilization, not an integral part of it.” Here is Kant’s “noumenal world” in counterpoint to the uncontested “phenomenal world”. It is, says White, this noumenal (based on the experience of the ontological) …

which is absent from so much of Western poetry … but which is forever present in the poetry of the East. ‘The ultimate excellence of poetry’, writes Yen Yu (China, thirteenth century) ‘consists in one thing: entering the spirit. If poetry can succeed in doing this, it will have reached the limit and cannot be surpassed.’ To enter the spirit is to enter the world (the ‘real life’, the absence of which Rimbaud was to decry in the West.) We are badly in need of poetry that ‘has a world’.

To have a world! There stands the reason why the politics of land reform is bound in with the poetics of consciousness. “Again, I am not suggesting that we celebrate any mountain goddess,” writes White, in an almost anxious breath; a wariness, perhaps, of transgressing one boundary too many as he draws his “Shaman” essay to a close. Rather:

“I am suggesting that we try and get back an earth-sense, a ground sense, and a freshness of the world such as those men, those Finn-men, knew when they moved over an earth from which the ice had just recently receded.

This is the dawn of geopoetics.”

In that line we hear the piper stepping at the gates. A paradox of White is that Precentor Seagull’s very act of precenting seems at odds with his “professed atheism”; an atheism, observes Jamet, that “still remains dialectically attached to what he professes to have emerged from long ago” of his Presbyterian upbringing.17 That paradox for White, like with some of the Gaelic poets of the 20th century, must perhaps remain unresolved. However, a generation or two further down the line a way has cleared that lets the sun climb higher in the sky. To be a nomad is one thing. To return as prodigals from the wandering is another; yet that is what is happening when the younger generations of today reconnect, as they are able to do, with lands from which their forbears had been alienated.

That is why, in 2018, Eigg is to be given a special focus in Celtic Connections. As the festival’s director, Donald Shaw told The Herald: “It is good for us to celebrate Eigg, quite an amazing achievement … in stablilising a community … and they have used music in a powerful way.”18

What Will We Leave?
I close with a cameo. In 2016 a group of women issued an album that they composed together on the Isle of Eigg. Called Songs of Separation, one of them, called “Soil and Soul”, was written by Rowan Rheingans after reading my book about the Eigg and superquarry campaigns.19

In her lyrics we find no reticence of celebration of the mountain goddess. Here, from Eigg “the Island of the Big Women”, the spiritual feminine is freed of self-conscious reticence.

There’s a woman in the mountain
there’s a woman in the hill
there’s a woman in the mountain
who knows this place well

There’s a bird that’s circling
and then roosting and watching
every trickle unfolding
every stream separating

Into soil and soul
soul and sea
what will we leave, when we leave?
What will we leave, when we leave? ….

I think how Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from the mountaintop, but was not himself allowed to enter. So might it be with Kenneth White’s nomadism. That was the demanding task of his generation. It is for a younger generation to take the final steps. Theirs is the future for the making. Theirs to choose, “What will we leave …?”


Eigg residents symbolically walk ashore to their own island, Independence Day, 12 June 1997 (Photo courtesy of Murdo Macleod)

I started off this lecture by telling that I’d just come back from the twentieth anniversary celebrations on Eigg. My part, and Kenneth White’s indirect part, were but tiny fragments of a massive undertaking involving many actors, most of them unsung. There was one thing from the week of partying that left me feeling incredibly satisfied. In the original Isle of Eigg Trust launch address, the one that was delivered on the island on Friday, 25th October, 1991, and was later published side-by-side with White’s essay, “Elements of Geopoetics”, in the Edinburgh Review, I had said:20

“This Trust offers the prospect that when a future visitor asks your children who owns Eigg, they will reply, not a German factory magnate, English pop star, Swiss banker, Saudi oil sheik, Dutch syndicate, aristocratic heir, racing car driver, insurance company or any other sort of “laird”, but simply, “Us … held in trust for people and nature”.

The back page of the islanders’ anniversary brochure, handed out to guests on the 12th June, 2017, has a picture of the school. A dozen or so children are playing football in the foreground. Emblazoned across the page is the proud caption:21

“The current island directors on the Trust were all children at the time of the buyout.”

I ask my question, one last time.

I ask it in honour of the work of Kenneth Dewar White, and in honour of all those who have aided the study and practice of geopoetics.

Who said “you can’t eat poetry”?

Who … said it?

 

Endnotes

1 Kenneth White, Open World: The Collected Poems 1960-2000, Polygon, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 47.
2 Full discussion and references in Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press, 2001, chapter 6.
3 We misquoted “skull” as “mind”, and that misquote has subsequently been replicated many times elsewhere. Apologies, Ken. It was Liz’s artistic eye that found the poem, and I’ve often wondered if she might have given it a subtle tweak to tone down the elemental rawness. The original is in White’s Open World, ibid., p. 99.
4 “Hamish Henderson (1919 – 2002)”, Scottish Poetry Library,
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/hamish-henderson.
5 “Walking the Coast” in Kenneth White, The Bird Path, Penguin/Mainstream, London/Edinburgh, p. 42. I have also used this poem in the exploration of “meaning” in the theory of social science research, see the second of my chapter contributions to Radical Human Ecology (Ashgate/Routledge), Farnham, 2012, p. 253; online at http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/articles/2012-Radical-Human-Ecology-McIntosh.pdf. I see this as a paradigmatic stanza of poetry, one that could be seen partly as an outcome of postmodern fluidity of thought, but also as a restraint upon it, even a rebuke to soulless deconstruction; a calling to a higher and Zen-like sense of the ordering of reality. I first encountered the quoted stanza in a publication of Scottish Churches’ Action for World Development, thus providing a nod towards the tangential religious impact of White’s work.
6 See http://www.feisean.org/en/feisean-en/what-is-a-feis/.
7 Kenneth White, “Elements of Geopoetics,” Edinburgh Review, 88, Summer 1992, pp. 163-178.
8 Jamie Whittle, White River: a Journey up and down the River Findhorn, Sandstone Press, Highland Scotland, 2007, pp. 144-145.
9 Primarily, in Soil and Soul where the superquarry saga runs in parallel with that of Eigg and the searching issues of our times.
10 Allen Ginsberg, Howl, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1956, p. 21.
11 Pierre Jamet, “Kenneth White and Religion” in Grounding a World: Essays on the work of Kenneth White, ed. Gavin Bowd, Charles Forsdick & Norman Bissell, Alba Editions, Glasgow, 2005, pp. 96-108.
12 Pers. com. 12 Sept. 2017. According to MacLennan’s Gaelic Dictionary, it can also mean a destitute person, which can be fitting to the artistic predicament. I should love to see some suitably qualified student make a study of Gaelic spiritual terms, and in particular, to gather what might still be out there in the old religious folks, before it disappears into the sphinx of “Gaelic with business studies”.
13 “Intellectual Nomad,” Cairns Craig, Scottish Review of Books, 28 June 2013, https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/2013/06/intellectual-nomad/.
14 Kenneth White, On Scottish Ground: Selected Essays, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1998. The essays I refer to here are “A Shaman Dancing on the Glacier”, pp. 35-48, originally published in Artwork, June-July 1991; “The Archaic Context”, pp. 15-34, originally written in 1967 and first published in La Figure du dehors, Editions Grasset, Paris, 1982; “Into the White World”, pp. 58-67, originally written 1966, first published in Raster VI/I, Amsterdam, 1972; and “The High Field”, pp. 165-180, originally written in 1975, first published as “Taking off from Hugh MacDiarmid” in Scottish Literary Journal, Vol 17:1, May 1990.
15 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Arkana, London, 1989, pp. 508-511.
16 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Fontana, London, 1993, p. 40.
17 Jamet, ibid.. In the traditions of the Highland church, according to John MacInnes, the role of precentors developed in part out of bardic tradition (pers com, c. 1996).
18 Miller, Phil, “Eigg’s historic community buyout to be celebrated in Celtic Connections 2018 25th anniversary festival”, The Herald, https://goo.gl/wh3P9i, 25 October 2017.
19 Songs of Separation, Proper Music Publishing, Navigator 094, www.songsofseparation.co.uk, 2016.
20 Eigg Trust Launch Address, The Edinburgh Review, Edinburgh University Press, No. 88, 1992, pp. 158-162.
21 See https://goo.gl/KEBTxR.

A warm welcome to all the new members who have joined the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics since June’s Expressing the Earth Conference in Argyll, and to all the new subscribers to this newsletter. A special welcome to new members in Australia and Ireland.

The conference was a watershed event in the development of geopoetics and we have decided to follow it with a Geopoetics Day and an annual Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture to be held after our AGM on Saturday 18th November. The inaugural lecture will be on Nan Shepherd as Geopoet and will be given by our Chairperson James McCarthy.

Geopoetics Day

Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture

James McCarthy: Nan Shepherd as Geopoet

Saturday 18 November at 15.15

Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton, Edinburgh

Tony McManus founded the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics in 1995 and was its director until his death in 2002. He was a wonderful musician and teacher who wrote many perceptive essays and reviews as well as the book The Radical Field. He worked tirelessly to raise awareness of geopoetics in Scotland and internationally. The Centre has decided to initiate an annual lecture in his memory to recognise his important work. The inaugural lecture will take place this year in Edinburgh, given by Chairperson James McCarthy on the theme of ‘Nan Shepherd as Geopoet.’

Nan Shepherd has been described by Robert McFarlane as “an incredibly inspiring figure, and an unusual one, in the sense of being a woman writing about mountains and the wilderness and nature… she’s so far ahead of us – we’re only starting to catch Nan up. Philosophically and stylistically, she was extraordinary.”

James McCarthy is a writer based in Edinburgh, the author of 11 published books, currently focussed on historic Scottish travellers and explorers, in addition to articles in other publications. He is a former forester and leading conservationist who has travelled extensively in East Africa, USA, Canada, Australia and Europe. He is an engaging speaker who has presented his work at the leading book festivals in Scotland.

S C H E D U L E

Free entry; donations welcome. You can attend for all or part of the day.

Please email Norman Bissell if you are having lunch so we can let The Bridge Inn know numbers – lunch booking is essential. Standard menu can be found here.

Join the Facebook event

10.30 – Assemble at main entrance to Heriot-Watt University (directions; campus map)
10.45 – Walk along the Union Canal to Ratho
12.15 – Lunch at the Bridge Inn, Ratho
13.30 – Transport to Heriot-Watt University
13.45 – AGM (agenda to follow to members and those attending)
15.15 – Tony McManus Geopoetics Lecture
15.45 – Questions and discussion
16.30 – Close

7pm until late – informal ceilidh in Edinburgh (venue to be confirmed). Come all ye and bring your songs and poems.

BLÀTHAN BRISTE
A collaborative exhibition by Alec Finlay and Hannah Imlach exploring energy independence, localism, and technology, from the Neolithic quernstones (hand-mills) of the islands, to the MoD rocket range on Uist and St Kilda, and the renewable energy arrays of the future. Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, North Uist until 28 October. Read more

MAIRI CAMPBELL | PULSE
Mairi Campbell takes her acclaimed one woman show Pulse to Paisley, Stirling, Aberdeen and Cromarty from 5 – 14 October 2017. Follow her journey of discovery in her music and life from London to Mexico, Cape Breton to Lismore.
Video | Tickets | Read more

SOMHAIRLE MACDONALD | EXHIBITION

Somhairle MacDonald is an artist, photographer and musician from the Scottish Highlands. His recent work inspired by the landscapes of Lochaber will be on display at The Ceilidh Place, Ullapool from 16 October – 4 January.
On Landscape | Instagram | Read more

KARINE POLWART | WIND RESISTANCE

Karine Polwart returns with her hit show Wind Resistance to the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh from 3 – 11 November 2017. A compelling combination of story and song set at Fala Flow, south-east of Edinburgh.
Video | Read more

SCOTLAND’S GEOHERITAGE FESTIVAL

A host of guided walks, talks, short courses and other interesting events from Shetland to Glasgow, Eigg to Edinburgh will take place throughout October for Scotland’s Geoheritage Festival. It includes the launch of ’51 Best Places to see Scotland’s Geology’ by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum at Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh on Saturday 14 October from 10 – 4pm. Read more

THE SHIELING PROJECT | AWARD
The Shieling Project has won ‘Best Social Enterprise’ at the Highland Business Awards. The project is a community enterprise, working with schools, teachers and local community exploring our landscape’s past to help shape a more resilient future – a microcosm of a lived philosophy of placemaking. Visit on Wednesday 11th October for family fun as part of the Highland Archaeology Festival. Read more

ELIZABETH RIMMER | POETRY
Poetry reading on Thursday 30 November and workshop on ‘Herbs Habitat and Ways of Knowing’ on Friday 1 December at Taigh Chearsabhaigh Museum and Arts Centre, North Uist. Elizabeth’s new poetry collection, Haggards, based on her work on herbs, from Red Squirrel Press will be launched at the Scottish Poetry Library on 10 February 2018. Read more

NEW BOOK: KENNETH WHITE
A new book from Kenneth White is now available from Aberdeen University Press. Collected Works, Volume 1: Underground to Otherground contains 3 early books, Incandescent Limbo, Letters from Gourgounel and Travels in the Drifting Dawn. Read more. There are also some of his essays available in English here. An appreciation of his work and a retracing of his Blue Road journey to Labrador can be read here. More information can be found on his personal website here.

NEW BOOK: MOHAMMED HASHAS
Intercultural Geopoetics in Kenneth White’s Open World by Mohammed Hashas introduces geopoetics as a radical, postmodern interdisciplinary and intercultural project.
Read more

Please send information about geopoetics related publications, news and events for future newsletters to Norman Bissell.

Stravaig is the online journal of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, published on our website. We invite you to submit essays, poems, artwork and images for the next issue on the theme Expressing the Earth to Norman Bissell by 15 January 2018. Email: normanbissell@btinternet.com

You can read the latest issue of Stravaig by clicking below:
Stravaig Issue 5

The keynote talks by Michael Russell and Norman Bissell at the Expressing the Earth Conference are available to read on our website www.geopoetics.org.uk.

“Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound” Argyll: Place, People and Neighbours

Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell

The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics is a membership organisation which relies on members’ subscriptions to fund its activities which are carried out by volunteers. Its purpose is to raise awareness of geopoetics as a crucial way to approach and respond creatively to the natural world of which we are part.

Its network of individuals includes visual artists, writers, musicians, ornithologists, geologists, botanists, teachers and lecturers who all share a common interest in developing an understanding of geopoetics and applying it creatively in their lives.

Membership for the year is £10 waged / £5 unwaged. Thank you!

Read more about membership here

Download membership form here

Please feel free to circulate this newsletter to friends who may be interested.

Norman Bissell
Director, Scottish Centre for Geopoetics
Mo Dhachaidh
51 Cullipool
Isle of Luing
Argyll
PA34 4UB
tel. 01852 314322
e-mail normanbissell@btinternet.com
twitter @nbissell
www.geopoetics.org.uk
www.atlanticislandsfestival.com

Our recent Expressing the Earth Geopoetics Conference in Argyll was a huge success and exceeded all expectations. Over 70 positive, passionate people from Brazil, USA, Switzerland, Italy, England, Wales and Scotland who care about the planet and its creative expression took part, including speakers from Argyll College and SAMS (both UHI). As well as fascinating talks and excellent discussions there were interesting visits to Kilmartin Glen, Easdale and Luing, top quality locally sourced and prepared meals and two ceilidhs which local people attended as well.

The Conference aimed to encourage everyone to be creative in expressing the Earth in diverse ways and there were 7 workshops to choose from, such as Walking & Writing, the Sea as Time Machine, Writing Haiku, Visual Arts, Mindfulness and Creative Ethnology. Some of the creative work that emerges from these sessions will feature in the online journal Stravaig. We hope there will be enough work submitted for at least two issues (see below).

The keynote talks by Michael Russell and Norrie Bissell are available to read on our website www.geopoetics.org.uk.

“Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound” Argyll: Place, People and Neighbours

Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell

The feedback from those attending was that it was an inspiring and life-affirming event because of the wide-ranging inputs people made and the generosity of spirit shown by all. You can read more of the responses and contribute to them on our Facebook Page here.

O n l i n e J o u r n a l : S t r a v a i g

Stravaig is the online journal for the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, published on our website. We invite you to submit essays, poems, artwork and images for the next issue on the theme of Expressing the Earth to Norrie by 15 January 2018. Email: normanbissell@btinternet.com

You can read the latest issue of Stravaig by clicking below:
Stravaig Issue 5

M e m b e r s h i p

Many of those who attended the conference have joined the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and we hope you will do so too. We’re very grateful to those of you who’ve already done so. You can download the membership form below. Membership for the year is £10 waged / £5 unwaged. Thank you!

Read more about membership here

Download membership form here

N e w s & E v e n t s

Geopoetics Council
Our editorial group of Elizabeth Rimmer, David Francis, Norrie Bissell (SCG) and Mark Sheridan (UHI) has been joined by Rachel Clive, Mairi McFadyen and Ullrich Kockel whom we are delighted to welcome.

New Group in USA
Another important development from the Conference is that Laura Hope-Gill is setting up an American Geopoetics Centre based in Asheville, North Carolina and the theme of the WordFest event there in April 2018 will be geopoetics.

Upcoming Events: AGM
Our AGM will take place at Heriot Watt University on Saturday 18 or 25 November 2017 and will be preceded by a walk along the Union Canal to Ratho and followed by a talk by an invited speaker. Full details to follow in September.

New Book: Kenneth White
A new book from Kenneth White is now available from Aberdeen University Press. Collected Works, Volume 1: Underground to Otherground contains 3 early books, Incandescent Limbo, Letters from Gourgounel and Travels in the Drifting Dawn. Read more.
There are also some of his essays available in English here. An appreciation of his work and a retracing of his Blue Road journey to Labrador can be read here. More information can be found on his personal website here.

New Book: Mohammed Hashas
Intercultural Geopoetics in Kenneth White’s Open World by Mohammed Hashas introduces geopoetics as a radical, postmodern interdisciplinary and intercultural project.
Read more

Land Alliance Northeast (USA) Call for Submissions
Land Alliance Northeast is a partially crowdfunded project based in USA dedicated to protecting forests, wildlife, farmland, and green spaces. They are looking for submissions on the themes of science, arts and environment.
Read more

Please send information about geopoetics related publications, news and events for future newsletters to Norrie.

Please feel free to circulate this newsletter to friends who may be interested. Thank you.

With all best wishes,

Norman Bissell

Director, Scottish Centre for Geopoetics
Mo Dhachaidh, 51 Cullipool
Isle of Luing, Argyll
PA34 4UB

tel. 01852 314322
e-mail normanbissell@btinternet.com
twitter @nbissell

www.geopoetics.org.uk

www.atlanticislandsfestival.com

Expressing the Earth Conference
Thursday 22 – Saturday 24 June 2017
Seil Island Hall Argyll

It’s only 5 weeks until our biggest ever trans-disciplinary Geopoetics Conference in Argyll with a wide range of creative workshops, presentations, field visits, films, network sessions and performances.

The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the University of the Highlands and Islands are hosting Expressing the Earth in Argyll 2017 to bring together creative artists, musicians, poets and film makers along with local people, academics, researchers, students and teachers to explore, create and debate the earth and the environment in this spectacular area of Scotland.

We’ve had a great response to our Call for Engagement and, as you’ll see from the draft programme on our website home page www.geopoetics.org.uk, we have about 50 contributors to the event from different parts of Scotland, England, Switzerland and USA.

It promises to be a very stimulating and inspiring event which should lead to lots of new creative work for possible inclusion in Stravaig.

Themes and activities include literature, history, visual arts, film making, archaeology, geology, geography and theology – with active engagement and creative outcomes as central to the conference as academic papers and presentations. Speakers include Michael Russell MSP, Neil Simco (UHI), Mairead Nic Craith, Norman Bissell, Anna-Wendy Stevenson, Kenny Taylor, Elizabeth Rimmer and Alastair McIntosh. Workshops are from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Phillips, Helen Boden, Julie Ann Thomason, Susanne Olbrich, Mairi McFadyen and Susannah Rosenfeld-King. Performances include Mark Sheridan, Helen Moore, Finlay Wells.


Aerial image by Birgit Whitmore of Ellenabeich with Seil Island Hall next to the largest quarry pool on the right.

The Conference will take place at the Seil Island Hall in Argyll with field visits to create new work on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 June to Kilmartin Glen, Easdale Island and the Isle of Luing. There will be poetry readings, musical performances and social gatherings on the Thursday and Friday evenings.

Cost £120 for 3 days, £45 per day, £5 for Friday night ceilidh only. The 3 day cost of £120 includes all sessions, 3 lunches, 2 evening meals and 2 ceilidhs, all teas/coffees and return transport to Isle of Luing, Easdale Island and Kilmartin Glen (and Kilmartin Museum entry).

Places are limited, so please send a cheque made out to the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics ASAP to Dave Francis 214 Portobello High Street Edinburgh EH15 2AU to avoid Eventbrite transaction deductions, or book here: http://bit.ly/2nOUyng.
It really is an event that’s not to be missed, and your support and input at it would be greatly appreciated. Hoping to hear from you soon.Free Wifi available in the hall.

All participants will receive a free copy of Grounding a World: Essays on the Work of Kenneth White, Alba Editions rrp £9.95. Participants with relevant books to sell at the Geopoetics bookstall in the Hall should contact us in advance.

Accommodation links: B&B & Self-catering: www.seil.oban.ws

http://www.easdale.org/links/accommodation.htm

Caravans: www.oban-holiday.co.uk

Camping: Argyll Kayaker Cove, North Cuan, Seil 01852 300366

Camping & Camper vans: Highland Arts, Ellenabeich : 01852 300273.

I may also be able to advise you about accommodation if you can’t find any using the online links.


Stravaig Online Journal

The latest issue of our online journal Stravaig is still available to read here: http://bit.ly/2hWgzdI.

There are essays from Jane Verburg and Antonia Thomas, the first and second place prize winners in the Hugh Miller Writing Competition, + James McCarthy on Nan Shepherd, Lisa Macdonald on the Coigach Conundrum and Bill Eddie on an Encounter with a Wall Creeper. There are also poems by Lisa Macdonald, David Francis, LesleyMay Miller, Mike Roman, Clare Diprose and Helen Moore.

Geopoetics Membership
If you join or renew your membership of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics you will receive:

A free copy of Grounding a World; Essays on the Work of Kenneth White: ed. G Bowd, C Forsdick & N Bissell rrp £9.95

Twice yearly Newsletters by e-mail.

Advance news of and discounts on books relating to geopoetics.

Advance news of Kenneth White and geopoetics events.

Invitations to all our meetings and field visits.

The satisfaction of assisting the development of our geopoetics work and publications.

Encouragement to develop your own understanding of and creative response to geopoetics.

Please send this completed form with a cheque for £10 waged/£5 unwaged, payable to the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, to David Francis, 214 Portobello High Street Edinburgh EH15 2AU.

Name …………………………………………………………….

Address ………………………………………………………….

……………………………………………………………………

……………………………………………………………………

Postcode ……………………………………………………….

E-mail address …………………………………………………

Please circulate this Newsletter to friends who may be interested. Thank you.

Expressing the Earth Conference
Thursday 22 – Friday 24 June 2017
Seil Island Hall Argyll

You are cordially invited to take part in a trans-disciplinary Conference with creative workshops, presentations, field visits, films, seminars and performances.

‘Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and the opening of a world’.

The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the University of the Highlands and Islands are hosting Expressing the Earth in Argyll 2017 to bring together creative artists, musicians, poets and film makers along with local people, academics, researchers, students and teachers to explore, create and debate the earth and the environment in this spectacular area of Scotland.

Expressing the Earth will address the ways in which people are influenced and brought together by island and rural environments from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, early Celtic Christian heritage and seafaring history to more recent industrial exploitation of the Slate Islands.

Themes and activities include literature, history, visual arts, film making, archaeology, geology, geography and theology – with active engagement and creative outcomes as central to the conference as academic papers and presentations. Speakers include Michael Russell MSP, Neil Simco (UHI), Mairead Nic Craith, Norman Bissell, Mairi McFadyen, Kenny Taylor, Elizabeth Rimmer. Workshops include Mandy Haggith, Andrew Phillips, Helen Boden. Performances include Mark Sheridan, Helen Moore, Finlay Wells.

The Conference will take place at the Seil Island Hall in Argyll with field visits to create new work on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 June to Kilmartin Glen, Easdale Island and the Isle of Luing. There will be poetry readings, musical performances and social gatherings on the Thursday and Friday evenings. It is intended that the work created by the conference will feature in publications, travelling exhibitions and workshops in 2018.

Ellenabeich with Seil Island Hall beside the largest quarry pool on right: Birgit Whitmore

Booking
Cost £120 for 3 days, £45 per day. Places are limited, so book early at Eventbrite here: http://bit.ly/ExpressingEarth.
First preference will be given to those who can attend all 3 days.

The 3 day cost includes all sessions, 3 lunches, 2 evening meals and 2 ceilidhs, all teas/coffees and return transport to Isle of Luing, Easdale Island and Kilmartin Glen (and Kilmartin Museum entry).

Free Wifi available in the hall.

All participants will receive a free copy of Grounding a World: Essays on the Work of Kenneth White, Alba Editions rrp £9.95. Participants with relevant books to sell at the Geopoetics bookstall in the Hall should contact us in advance.

The conference programme will be available soon.

Accommodation links: B&B & Self-catering: www.seil.oban.ws

http://www.easdale.org/links/accommodation.htm

Caravans: www.oban-holiday.co.uk

Camping: Argyll Kayaker Cove, North Cuan, Seil 01852 300366

Camping & Camper vans: Highland Arts, Ellenabeich : 01852 300273.

The latest issue of our online journal Stravaig is now available to read here:  http://bit.ly/2hWgzdI

There are essays from Jane Verburg and Antonia Thomas, the first and second place prize winners in the Hugh Miller Writing Competition, + James McCarthy on Nan Shepherd, Lisa Macdonald on The Coigach Conundrum and Bill Eddie on an Encounter with a Wall Creeper. There are also poems by Lisa Macdonald, David Francis, LesleyMay Miller, Mike Roman, Clare Diprose and Helen Moore.

Many thanks to all the contributors and to Bill Taylor who designed the new look Stravaig. Your feedback on its content and form would be most welcome.


Wall Creeper at Neuschwanstein; Bill Eddie
Connecting with a Low-Carbon Future – the Challenges for the Arts and Humanities Conference University of Stirling Wednesday 19 – Thursday 20 April 2017

This conference is part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Research Network in the Arts and Humanities ‘Connecting with a Low-carbon Scotland’, and is hosted by the University of Stirling Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy. It includes panels for literature and theatre, law and politics, visual arts and media, and history and philosophy. Poet and Scottish Centre for Geopoetics Council member Elizabeth Rimmer will be speaking at the conference.

Further information:
https://www.stir.ac.uk/cehp/projects/connectingwithalow-carbonscotland/.
Register and pay here:
http://shop.stir.ac.uk/conferences-and-events.

Geopoetics Membership
If you join or renew your membership of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics you will receive:

A free copy of Grounding a World; Essays on the Work of Kenneth White: ed. G Bowd, C Forsdick & N Bissell rrp £9.95.

Twice yearly Newsletters by e-mail.

Advance news of and discounts on books relating to geopoetics.

Advance news of Kenneth White and geopoetics events.

Invitations to all our meetings and field visits.

The satisfaction of assisting the development of our geopoetics work and publications.

Encouragement to develop your own understanding of and creative response to geopoetics.

Please send this completed form with a cheque for £10 waged/£5 unwaged, payable to the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, to David Francis, 214 Portobello High Street Edinburgh EH15 2AU or to arrange to make a bank transfer tel. 07825 788861.

Name …………………………………………………………….

Address ………………………………………………………….

……………………………………………………………………

 

……………………………………………………………………

Postcode ……………………………………………………….

E-mail address …………………………………………………

Please circulate this Newsletter to friends who may be interested. Thank you.

The latest issue of our online journal Stravaig is now available to read here: http://bit.ly/2hWgzdI

It’s been a long time in the making but its poems and essays are well worth reading. The essays include the first and second place prize winners in the Hugh Miller Writing Competition.

Many thanks to all the contributors and to Bill Taylor who designed the new look Stravaig. Your feedback on its content and form would be most welcome.

2017 promises to be a big year for the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics with our Expressing the Earth conference in collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands taking place from 22-24 June 2017 in Argyll. Full details will follow in January but right now we’re looking for proposals for engagement in the event:

Expressing the Earth

A Trans-disciplinary Conference
the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics
in collaboration with the
University of the Highlands and Islands
Seil, Easdale, Kilmartin and Luing, Argyll
22-24 June 2017
Call for Engagement:
Creative workshops, presentations, papers and performances

‘Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and the opening of a world’.

The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the University of the Highlands and Islands will host Expressing the Earth in Argyll 2017 to bring together creative artists, musicians, poets and film makers along with academics, researchers, students and teachers to explore, create and debate the earth and the environment in this spectacular area of Scotland.

‘Atlantic space, the west coast of Europe, is characterised in the first instance by fragmentation … a multitude, a proliferation of islands and peninsulas separated by difficult waters. It is a territory of dispersion and precariousness – but each fragment is exact in itself, there is no confusion in this plurality. In a word, unity is not something given, to be taken for granted, it has to be composed.’ (Kenneth White, 2004)

Expressing the Earth will look to the multitude and proliferation of the islands and peninsulas and address the ways in which people are influenced and brought together by these features from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, early Celtic Christian heritage and seafaring history to more recent industrial exploitation of the Slate Islands.

Themes and activities, rooted in Geopoetics, include literature, history, visual arts, film making, archaeology, geology, geography and theology – with active engagement and creative outcomes as central to the conference as academic papers and presentations.

The conference will take place at the Seil Island Hall in Argyll with field activities also in Kilmartin Glen, Easdale Island and the Isle of Luing. Poetry readings, musical performances and social gatherings will play a key part in the conference programme and it is intended that publications and exhibitions will follow.

Please send a 200 word proposal, title, short bio and supporting images, if appropriate, to Mark Sheridan, Reader in Music and Creativity at the University of The Highlands and Islands, by 15 January 2017 – mark.sheridan@uhi.ac.uk.

Further information on the programme, key speakers and content will be published in due course.

Membership

Please join or renew your annual membership (£10/£5 unwaged)
by sending your name, postal and e-mail address & a cheque
made out to the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics to our Treasurer,
David Francis 214 Portobello Road, Portobello EH15 2AU.

Please spread the word by sharing this Newsletter with others.

Season’s Greetings to you all! We hope to hear from you in 2017.

 

If you’d like to know more about what geopoetics is, the best place to start is our website at www.geopoetics.org.uk where you will find an overview of geopoetics and 4 issues of our online journal Stravaig. Issue 4 contains essays on intellectual nomadism by Kenneth White, Martina Kolb, Bill Stephens and Norman Bissell, and on Rimbaud by Karen Strang and Mike Roman. It also has new poems and images by Morelle Smith, Alyson Hallett, Andrew McCallum and also by Gordon Meade and Douglas Robertson from their new book Les Animots: A Human Bestiary.

The International Institute of Geopoetics website is now available in English and contains many essays by Kenneth White including one on Alexander von Humboldt and An Outline of Geopoetics. http://www.institut-geopoetique.org/en/the-geopoetics-review.

Our AGM in Portobello in August decided to produce this Newsletter twice a year and to continue to publish Stravaig annually in the Spring. It also agreed to make plans for a major conference on geopoetics in 2017 and we have already had fruitful discussions with representatives from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) and the University of Glasgow about this. Watch this space!

Stravaig Issue 5 Call for Submissions
We are looking for submissions of essays, poems, short stories and images on the general theme of geopoetics to be sent to nbissell@btinternet.com no later than Tuesday 23 February 2016. Prose should be a maximum of 3,500 words and no more than 4 poems should be submitted. Relevance to the wide field of geopoetics will be one of the main criteria for selection.

To keep up to date with the latest geopoetics news, why not Like our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ScottishGeopoetics?fref=ts and follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/@SCGeopoetics?


Photograph by Mike Knowles

We were very sad to learn of the death of Tessa Ransford in September. She made an outstanding contribution to poetry in Scotland as a poet, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library and promoter of poetry pamphlets; and to culture in general, both here and internationally, which will live on and be her legacy to the world. She was passionate about many causes and in recent years joined the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and came with us on some of our walks. Her latest poetry collection A Good Cause from Luath Press was well named. Further information and reviews of her other books and much more are at http://www.wisdomfield.com/.

A Memorial event for Tessa Ransford will be held on Monday 7th Decemberat 7.30pm in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church , George St , Edinburgh .

We are delighted to partner the Scottish Geodiversity Forum and The Friends of Hugh Miller in supporting and promoting Testimonies of the Rocks: the Hugh Miller Writing Competition. Poems, non-fiction and fiction inspired by the geological and landscape writings of Hugh Miller, Scotland ’s celebrated self-taught geologist, are invited by Friday 18 March 2016. Miller was a poet and prolific writer and this competition, open to all ages, will encourage a renewed interest in his work, a catalogue of new writings inspired by him and greater awareness and appreciation of Scotland ’s geodiversity. See more at: http://bit.ly/1Gv1CdG.

Upcoming Events

Thursday 29 October at 6.30pm Les Animots: A Human Bestiary at Books and Beans 22 Belmont Street, AB10 1JH Aberdeen . Gordon Meade will read from his eighth collection of poems, a collaboration with the artist Douglas Robertson, published by Cultured Llama Publishing. http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/ http://on.fb.me/1ic9V2n

Saturday 14 November 10am-4pm Traditions in Place Perth and Kinross
A day event at Perth Concert Hall, for musicians, dancers, storytellers, promoters, teachers, community activists etc interested in the traditional arts and oral and local history: a chance to share knowledge and find out about resources for the traditional arts in Perth and Kinross. Speakers include musicians Pete Clark, Steve Byrne and Kath Campbell, storyteller Jess Smith and Local History Officer Nicola Cowmeadow.  Further information and booking here: http://bit.ly/1Mg6IXj

Monday 23 November 2015 at 6.30pm The Last Man in Europe Oban Phoenix Cinema A talk and readings from the novel in progress The Last Man in Europe by Norman Bissell about the last years in the life of George Orwell on Jura and elsewhere. He will outline Orwell’s love of nature and tell the dramatic story of his near drowning in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool and his desperate struggle to finish ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ on Jura before his health failed him. This will be followed by a showing of the film ‘1984’ starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. http://bit.ly/1LZjVrC

Wednesday 25 November 2015 Scottish Geodiversity Forum Conference at Battleby near Perth . A world-class visitor attraction – Scotland ’s Landscape, fashioned by geology: this Sharing Good Practice event, organised by the Forum and Scottish Natural Heritage, will explore what’s currently on offer, and how the sector might develop and expand. http://scottishgeodiversityforum.org/

Friday 27 November at 7.45 pm Atlantic Islands Centre, Isle of Luing A Talk and Reading by Carla Lamont, author of The Ninth Wave: Love and Food on the Isle of Mull as part of Scottish Book Week, supported by the Scottish Book Trust. Full details at http://on.fb.me/1H6rWpf.

Tuesday 1 December Book launch of Disko Bay by Nancy Campbell Enitharmon Press, London . The poems in Nancy Campbell’s first collection transport the reader to the frozen shores of Greenland and relate the struggle for existence in the harsh polar environment to modern life and traditional ways of subsistence. http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk


Wednesday 27 January at 8pm Pulse Mairi Campbell Tron Theatre Glasgow
Drawing on her combined fluency in Celtic tradition, free improvisation and classical idioms, as well as her personal artistic journey, the award-winning Scottish singer and fiddler/viola player Mairi Campbell performs a new one-woman show that blends live and recorded music with animation, dance, movement and storytelling. http://bit.ly/1k6EIi8

Saturday 5 March 10.30am-4.30pm Geopoetics in the National Galleries of Scotland Collections: Bill Taylor. A guided tour of the Collections in the National Galleries of Scotland , Edinburgh led by artist Bill Taylor, a Geopoetics Council member. A date for your diary – full details to follow in the next Newsletter.

Members’ Books
Thinking of Christmas gifts? Why not choose books written by our members?

Kenneth White Guido’s Map: A European Pilgrimage A new narrative prose book in which Kenneth White moves over spaces and among places, ranging from Ireland to the Balkans via Spain , from Glasgow to Trieste via Bilbao . This and his Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath: a collection of essays on cultural politics, Latitudes & Longitudes: a new collection of poetry, and The Winds of Vancouver which charts his travels in British Columbia and Alaska are available from http://bit.ly/1MQp3ea

James McCarthy A Short Call to Arms, a military memoir can be obtained from mccarthy-james4@sky.com for a modest donation to the Askari Appeal.

Martina Kolb Nietzsche, Freud, Benn, and the Azure Spell of Liguria, University of Toronto Press, about the influence of the Ligurian coastal area of Italy on three seminal German writing modernists – Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Gottfried Benn. Available from http://bit.ly/1icdpSs.

Mavis Gulliver Slate Voices: Cwmorthin & Islands of Netherlorn, a poetry collection set in Scotland ’s slate islands and the slate mines of North Wales with Jan Fortune. Also Cry at Midnight, a children’s adventure story. www.cinnamonpress.com

Christian McEwen Sparks from the Anvil The Smith College Poetry Interviews with 16 poets by the author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down http://bit.ly/1Mg9sE6.

Norman Bissell Slate, Sea and Sky Luath Press. A new paperback edition of my poetry collection which contains an Introduction and some new poems as well as photographs by Oscar Marzaroli is out now. A signed and dedicated copy can be obtained from me at this e-mail address. You can also Like my book page on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1OUthHB.

Membership

Please join or renew your annual membership (£10/£5 unwaged) by sending your name, postal and e-mail address & a cheque made out to the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics to our Treasurer, David Francis 214 Portobello Road, Portobello EH15 2AU.


To unsubscribe, just send an e-mail to Norman Bissell at normanbissell@btinternet.com.

Please share this Newsletter with others.

 

 

 

Geopoetics News July 2015                        
Stravaig Issue 4: Intellectual Nomads
Issue 4 of our online journal Stravaig is now live and contains essays on intellectual nomadism by Kenneth White, Martina Kolb, Bill Stephens and Norman Bissell, and on Rimbaud by Karen Strang and Mike Roman. It also has new poems and images by Gordon Meade, Doug Robertson, Morelle Smith, Alyson Hallett, Andrew McCallum and many more. Many thanks to Nancy Campbell for all her great work editing it and to Steve Pardue for creating it online. Sorry that issue 4 and this Newsletter are late due to illness, but they are well worth reading.
Stravaig Issue 3 is still available at http://www.geopoetics.org.uk/online-journal-stravaig/stravaig-3/.  It has 8 essays and 14 poems on the theme Geopoetics in Practice ranging from Aberlady Bay to Saudi Arabia, from Illinois to Iona.
Upcoming Events
 
Our SCFG AGM will take place on Saturday 8 August at 12 noon at the Dalriada, 77 the Promenade, Portobello. We would like to see more people taking an active part in the SCfG and will be discussing how best to take it forward e.g. what should we be offering members? Would crowdfunding enable us to pay someone to carry out admin, develop our website, plan and lead activities etc? Contact me if you would like to attend and you will receive an agenda etc.
 
Living Well on Luing Events at the Atlantic Islands Centre
Thursday 23 July: Seafood cookery & Words and Music night
Friday 24 July Geology Talk and Walk
Saturday 25 July Botany and Poetry Walks 
 
Thursday 16 July The Oxford launch of The Interpreter’s House No.59 by Nancy Campbell at The Albion Beatnik at 7.30 pm. There’ll be kayak poems and more.
 
Scottish Geodiversity Forum
A world-class visitor attraction – Scotland’s Landscape, fashioned by geology: Wednesday 25 November 2015 at Battleby near Perth. This Sharing Good Practice event, organised by the Forum and Scottish Natural Heritage, will explore what’s currently on offer, and how the sector might develop and expand. http://scottishgeodiversityforum.org/
 
 
To unsubscribe, just send an e-mail to Norman Bissell at normanbissell@btinternet.com.
 
Please share this Newsletter with others.
 

Expressing the Earth: Geopoetics and George Orwell

Norman Bissell

So, what is Geopoetics? I suppose the simplest answer is: look around you.

It’s about creative people: writers, musicians, storytellers, visual artists, geologists, ethnologists, botanists, ornithologists, geographers, conservationists, researchers and people who care about the future of the planet, coming together to discuss our common ground and to express the Earth in whatever creative ways we wish.

I’d like to thank you all for taking part and welcome you to Argyll on behalf of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. Particularly those of you who’ve come all the way from Brazil, USA, Switzerland and Italy as well as England, Wales and Scotland.

Geopoetics involves expressing the Earth in a variety of ways – for example, through oral expression, writing, painting, photography, film making, music, geology, geography, other sciences, philosophy, combinations of art forms and of the arts, sciences and thinking. By its very nature it is trans-disciplinary in its approach as a synthesis of ideas and practices, and lends itself to collaborations between artists, scientists and thinkers of many different kinds. That is why our conference programme emphasises our creative responses, and provides space and time for everyone to create new work of all kinds, some of which we hope will subsequently be published in our online journal Stravaig which features essays, poems and artwork on our website www.geopoetics.org.uk and will be made available in other ways.

But what is it we have in common that brings us here?

Geopoetics would suggest it is various things. It is not least a shared concern for the planet, which means putting the Earth at the centre of our experience. It can involve developing a heightened awareness of the world of which we are part and using of all of our senses and knowledge in approaching the world, something that my poem ‘When You Go Out’ tries to express.

 

When You Go Out

When you go out into the world
try to use all your senses
touch and taste wild thyme
smell hawthorn and kelp
watch herring gulls soar
listen to the sound of the sea
above all open your mind
and who knows what you will find.

 

So, geopoetics is an approach to the world, a way of being in the world, as well as a world outlook. It seeks to overcome the separation of mind and body and of human beings from the more than human world. It involves learning from others who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’, as Kenneth White calls it, to find a new approach to thinking and living, for example, ‘outgoers’ or ‘intellectual nomads’ like Henry Thoreau, Nan Shepherd, Patrick Geddes, Joan Eardley, Alexander von Humboldt, Kenneth White, and many others.

It has led to a network of Geopoetics Centres with a shared project to develop our understanding of geopoetics and apply it in different fields of research and creative work. There are such Centres in Quebec in Canada, different parts of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Chile and New Caledonia. The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, which was founded on Burns Night in Edinburgh in 1995, has attracted members from England, USA, Morocco, Germany, Poland and Sweden as well as different parts of Scotland. Geopoetics is truly a trans-national movement.

Geopoetics seeks to open up the possibility of radical cultural renewal for us as individuals and for society as a whole. It could be considered a wave-and-wind philosophy and this part of the world is a fruitful and wonderful place to develop it.

On the face of it, George Orwell and geopoetics are strange bedfellows. Orwell was one of the finest political writers of the twentieth century, he attempted to turn political writing into an art, and he well-nigh killed himself writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on the Isle of Jura, which you can see from outside here in Ellenabeich, to warn the world about the dangers of totalitarian dictatorships. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have sold over 40 million copies between them and, as you will know, Nineteen Eighty-Four became a best seller again this year with the election of Donald Trump as America’s President.

Orwell was a fascinating, complex, contradictory character who as well as being a politically-driven author, was also a naturalist who yearned for the ‘Golden Country’ of his childhood and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible when living on Jura and before that in the village of Wallington in Hertfordshire.

He was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, but was brought up in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. He loved playing outdoors where he exercised the most important attribute any child can have – he was inquisitive about everything he came across.

In the summer of 1930 he tutored some boys in Southwold and took them on long walks in the country. One of them, Richard Peters, says in the book Orwell Remembered, published in 1984:

He was a mine of information on birds, animals, and the heroes of boys’ magazines. Yet he never made us feel that he knew our world better than we knew it ourselves. …

His attitude to animals and birds was rather like his attitude to children. He was at home with them. He seemed to know everything about them and found them amusing and interesting. … He infused interest and adventure into everything we did with him just because of his own interest in it. Walking can be just a means of getting from A to B, but with him it was like a voyage with Jules Verne beneath the ocean. … A walk was a mixture of energy, adventure and matter of fact. The world we felt was just like this. And it would have been absurd not to notice all there was to see. …

Eric and Richard Blair at Canonbury Place by Vernon Richards

‘Noticing all there is to see’ is an important element of geopoetics.

From 1936 onwards Orwell and his wife Eileen rented a small cottage known as The Stores in Wallington in Hertfordshire where he kept goats, geese and chickens round the back. Their first goat was called Muriel and they named their rooster Henry Ford. Their black poodle was called Marx, and Orwell used its name as a kind of political test of visitors to see whether they thought it was named after Marks & Spencer, Karl Marx or Groucho Marx. He also grew vegetables and planted roses and many other cottage garden flowers there.

In an extract from one of his best essays, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ published in Tribune in April 1946, Orwell writes,

The pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.

As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters.

Orwell went to Jura in May 1946 to get away from London and the treadmill of journalism which made him feel “like a sucked orange”, to bring up his adopted baby son Richard after Eileen died, and to write what became Nineteen Eighty-Four. That first summer he took a break from writing and threw himself into gardening, fishing, digging peat, shooting rabbits (who kept eating his vegetables), and keeping hens, geese and later pigs.

Here are a couple of extracts from my novel I Want to Live just after he arrived at Barnhill on Jura:

Next morning George walked down to the rocks and gazed contentedly at the gently lapping water of the Sound of Jura. The sun was up and the grey-blue sea shimmered in the early morning light. To the east lay the low hills of the mainland and not another house in sight. It was even more beautiful than he had imagined during that last cold winter in the city. Where better to be than on a Hebridean island on a day such as this? This is what he had come for; to be part of all of this, to give himself space in which to think and to write, to make a new life for himself and his son here. It certainly beat the frantic grime of London. Maybe he could borrow or buy a boat from the Fletchers and do some fishing? He went back up to the garden and stripped to the waist revealing his white, scraggy body. In a shed he found a garden fork, a spade and a sieve. Someone must have done some gardening here before. He used the fork to break up the dry, stony soil and started to clear it of weeds. Soon he was sweating and panting for breath. It was back-breaking work and he hadn’t done any real manual labour since Wallington years before. He went into the kitchen to find an old towel to wipe off his sweat. At this rate it would take him most of the week to prepare the ground for sowing. Perhaps by that time the veg. seeds he’d ordered would have arrived.

…..

Barnhill on Jura looking east

Later that first week, spade in hand, George slowly dragged his sledge up a hill. Up on top he dug up peat, breathing heavily and sweating in the hot sun. He took off his shirt, his thin body looking slightly browner than before. He piled the peat up in blocks to dry and was surprised how quickly he could cut it. In not much more than an hour he’d piled up about a hundred blocks. A raven flew overhead. He felt content. He’d come to lose himself in this remote place that he’d fallen in love with. To do the kinds of things that he fondly remembered doing as a boy in Henley-on-Thames, exploring and getting to know the territory, and going fishing. But now he also wanted to see if he could live off the land and become as self-sufficient as possible, taking it all much further than he had at Wallington. Here he had peat for the fire and all the fruits of the sea at his disposal, and even the occasional gift of a deer to top up the meagre rations he was allowed by law. It was a dream he’d had for a long time and his knowledge of nature’s ways should help him to realise it. But he also needed a complete break from any serious writing. He knew what his next book would be, and had written a little of it; he’d drafted its structure years back and here he could make a proper go of it at last. But first he needed to clear his head, to rid himself of all the things that had held him back. Right now he was feeling tired, perhaps he’d overdone it. He headed back and went up to his bedroom and slept for several hours.

Orwell’s Jura diaries faithfully record all of these activities: the Argyll weather, how far on the plants and trees were, the gardening and other practical work he did, the wildlife he came across, and how many fish he and his sister Avril caught.

Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that most dystopian of novels with its oppressive atmosphere of a city falling apart and on which flying bombs might drop at any time, there are some fine lyrical passages which vividly depict the English countryside. For example, this passage descripes in Winston Smith’s dream of his mother and baby sister who disappeared when he was young:

Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country. It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.

Many of us have lost the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of our childhood and we desperately want to find them again. The ‘Golden Country’ is the dream of Winston Smith, but it’s also the dream of George Orwell who longed for the lost rural childhood he’d experienced in Edwardian England as Eric Blair. It is also the dream of our earliest experiences of the natural world that we all long for. Winston’s yearning for his lost childhood is referenced later in the book when he and Julia escape the eyes of Big Brother by going into the countryside to make love, away from spying telescreens.

Orwell’s bedroom in Barnhill on Jura

As his health deteriorated from tuberculosis, Orwell thought more and more about his childhood, the repressive prep school he went to, and his love of the countryside. The ‘Golden Country’ represented his dream of what life could be like for everyone. Even when he was dying in a London hospital he sent for his fishing rods from Barnhill since he hoped to fish in Switzerland where he was to recuperate in a sanatorium

When you boil it down, geopoetics is a way of approaching the world with heightened awareness, it’s about being open to what’s around you, using all your senses and knowledge to take it all in, and expressing it creatively. A keen interest in all things and the ability to observe them closely and express them creatively is just as applicable to politics as it is to the bird life, the Atlantic weather systems or the rugged terrain of Jura. Orwell demonstrated that truth in his life and work.

In his essay Why I Write he wrote:

So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

There are strong elements of geopoetics in some of Orwell’s work and in his fascination with nature. This final quotation from ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ provides another splendid example of how insight into natural phenomena and heightened political awareness can illuminate each other.

At any rate, Spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

It doesn’t matter where you live, this openness and alertness to nature can enable us us to be more creative and be healthier people. In places like this, the energy that comes from the Atlantic waves and winds can re-ground and re-invigorate the potentially vibrant cultures of the islands and of Scotland as a whole. By attuning our minds to the elements in such places we can renew our lives and our creative work. Over the next 3 days I hope we will all experience this and do just that.