“…the "typical" landscape cannot be read as an object but only as one component in a narrative sequence, a sequence that attests also to processes.”

– Lucius Burckhardt

“art is the enrichment of the perceptual capacity of the individual”

– Jed Rasula



Accessus is an approach. For some the hill is an open invitation; for others it constrains the circumference of the day.

Earlier this Summer I met a ranger employed by a leading conservation body. She has an iconic mountain in her care. Embarrassing as I find it, I had to explain that, due to an old muscular condition, I couldn’t climb the mountain – that I have never climbed one.

We opened the map and settled on an old sheep fank as our X. My familiar summit is the lower slopes, like the fond walkers in ‘John Anderson, My Jo’ whose hiking days are done. When the path widened enough to walk side-by-side she told me about the months after she gave birth, when she found herself in a wheelchair. For the first time in her life she couldn’t access the hills. Those months were still vivid for the frustration of feeling the hills becoming strangers, being cut off from the more-than-human, and irked by narrow trails fit only for hiking boots. She’d become aware of space and time in a new way, as impinged upon.
Being confined to one square of the map I know the feeling well – worried by distance, factoring in the closeness of contours, and rehearsing what I’m due to be doing in the next few days.

Whenever I go a walk I calculate the likely affect, based on incline and terrain. If I go to that copse, or as far as that burn… or even, could I make the waterfall? Enthusiasm often gets the better of me, but if I am being sensible then the last day of a trip is the one to walk furthest. I can rest at home. It’s not that I can’t go further – the temptation is always there – but that the pain, what I call the lag in my legs, would be disastrous. Aches pass; what causes lasting hurt is when beautiful places and shared experiences become tangled up with the wrong kind of suffering.

Feelings are part of access, as much as rights of way, or welcome aye-hi nods from passing hikers. 
My fondness has imaginatively lowered the definition of a ‘summit’. Knowes, cnocs, and toms are my thing. On the road north, a journey around Scotland guided by Basho, I discovered that ‘seats’ and dùns offer some of the most generous outlooks to those whose walking is challenged. Sometimes I refer to my anti-summitism – mountains are there to walk around, and in, as Nan Shepherd said, as well as up – but I am only teasing.

This enforced love of knowes held true until the last two years. During the Cairngorms project I have had three runs up on the hill in a landrover – once with a local mountain guide, once with a gamekeeper, and once an estate factor. It’s hard to explain to a non-hiker what this access, this closing of distance, feels like – being on Cùlardoch looking across to Ben A’an, picking out the
Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe; or taking in the relic pines of Glen Derry; or pottling around the ruins of the old lodge at Loch Builg.

But here’s the conundrum: my access depended on roads built by lairdly estates. That brings another question trailing behind it: how rare it is for people with limited walking, or with a disability, to gain access to the Cairngorms, or any mountains? I know of no scheme that allows, let alone encourages it. Why? Is this a failure of land access campaigns, driven as they are by boots on the ground? There’s a disconnect between the new tracks pushed into the hills by estate and the forestry commission and any sense of the access they could provide. The roads are for shooting, timber, or, away from Deeside, wind-farm access (no windmill turbines on Royal Deeside!). Whether publicly or privately owned most have a locked gate blocking the way. This limits boy-racers and keeps the top for ‘hill pursuits’, nevertheless, I’m struck that, as far as I am aware, there’s no access scheme.

I am told that John Robertson, former stalker at Glen Muick, did use his discretion, allowing disabled acquaintances to take their cars along the track as far as the loch, in a neighbourly gesture. There are always logistical issues. Access would need to be planned. Well-made tracks allow wheelchair use, and there could be arrangements for electric-powered buggies, or the odd horse-drawn carriage. Best of all would be a landrover trip with a local guide. Why not?

The funicular railway up Cairn Gorm to the Ptarmigan Restaurant is an exception – it is
fully accessible for wheelchair users – but I’ve never felt like going as it seems such an imposition on the mountain. Maybe someday.
The things we ‘do’ in order to be ‘in’ nature tend to divide us into wee tribes of activity: the stravaigers, the shooters, the skiers, the twitchers, the hunters for numinous stones, and so on. Obvious to see the reasons why, but our culture has no common concept of access to the wilderness separate from hiking, climbing, or stalking. Before we invented ‘leisure’ there was droving, hunting, and the culture of shieling, or summertowns, which kept a human presence on the hill, along with cow shit greening patches of pasture among the heather.

Have we lost the 18th century aesthetic appreciation of ‘viewing’ as a good in itself – whether for the theatre of scenery, the antiquarian’s zeal for formative ruins and barrows, or the craze for Ossian and his ecstatic mountain wilderness?

To adopt Christopher Smout’s term, one of the sources of ‘Green consciousness’ in the Highlands – or, in terms of gathering, the origins of eco-poetics – was the wild gardens, follies, and tree plantings of the Scottish landscape movement. Visiting wilderness by choice began with the aristocratic fashion for wilderness, which peaked in the odd but inspiring craze for fog houses and viewing houses of the 1760s. ‘The Tour’ was born and, with it, our AA Guide, Let’s Go Scotland, Haggis Tours, and Megalithic Portal. So there’s no doubt that our concepts of access are an expanding blend of 18th c tourism, wandervogel idealism, working class bothyism, sporty alpinism, the renewal of Gaelic consciousness, along with some stray strands of what I optimistically refer to as the New Walking.


            (after J. H. B. Bell)

Instead of every trip being a walk too far, with the ache that follows, I started to write poem-labels (tanzaku), compose conspectus – more about them in a later post – and use maps as ways to extend my looking into viewing. Simple enough to walk a wee way, sit down, and then try and understand where you are – and perhaps compose a poem there and then, and photograph it.

Gradually I understood that place-names – especially Gaelic names – and their meanings were another way to access the landscape, closing distances imaginatively, moving the eye and thought rather than feet. I had the help of friends who spoke Gaelic, and then I began to read the likes of WJ Watson, Adam Watson, WFH Nicolaisen, and John Murray.

            that must be such-and-
            such a burn…
            and there’s the ruins
            of the farm called…
            and those hills are…. 

Rather than walking a line, reeling in distant points of interest until they grow into the detail of up-close scale, I accepted what seeing, naming, and joining places together could offer. Meaning settled into colours, textures, and stories in the farwawy. It was touching, to look for a name – to find the pale patch of grass, stony field, crook in the river, or stand of juniper that a name had predicted would be there, like sewing a button on a shirt and making it whole again.

Affleck Gray recommends taking a raw onion to the hills as the surest way to revive a hiker in difficulties, but I would just whisper names in their ear.

In the past couple of years I have devised walks, composing by way of paired names rather than real terrain – these some remain imaginative routes, or, at least, eccentric ones. And I’ve composed poems drawing on eye-witness reports, from books, maps, flickr photos, walking and climbing websites – equivalent of the tours of the 18th century – and working in different ways with peers – Alexander Maris, Ken Cockburn, Alison Lloyd, Luke Allan, Hanna Tuulikki, and Gill Russell.

            my eyes take in
            the hill by names

            traversing slopes
            my legs can’t gain

No, it isn’t the same, but I had no choice. There are plenty folk who walk for a day without gaining a name – and fair-play to them. There are thankfully only a few folk whose own access to the hills depends on their sense of superiority, whether physical, cultural, or spiritual. Without intending to, without even knowing it’s what I was doing, I found ways of being in the wilderness that didn’t require walking, rockslabbing or snowy athletics.

This isn’t to daftly oppose walking itself, which is good for dogs and men. ‘Place-awareness’ is a fancy name for age-old values – respect, lore, poetics – but, just as one of the purposes of poetry is to sieve writing, just as dance is a way to embody movement, so there is a place for awareness. Drawing attention to it, making it a ‘thing’, is not to assert a claim on anyone’s territory. A poem-label is not a flag, and it’s taken home after it has been photographed.

There is nothing I could say on the subject that Nan Shepherd didn’t put better in her poetic renewal of walking-as-awareness. But then she could.

Shepherd recorded this sensible piece of advice from a local gamekeeper, to be kept in mind whenever one walks in bad weather. She was conscious of the danger of death on the hill, even though accidents were rare in her day.

The most depressing anti-access tract that I’ve come across is a book on bothyism in which the authors insist on their right to get drunk and stoned in every howff they visit, intimidating beginners, and making noise half the night. The way they style living it up in the wilds is every bit as proprietorial as the most paternalistic laird.

That’s the complexity of access; it isn’t closeness to one thing, but intimacy with as many things as possible.
For some years the condition I had worsened into what I called LWI, my Long Winter Illness. Four or five winter months were spent mostly in bed. The loss of lung capacity and stamina meant that May and June were a time of beginning over, when every path leading off from a car-park was an invitation that seemed blocked with gates. Physical illness takes our habitual measure of pace – which, being so familiar, is also invisible – and it dissects it, irradiating the surrounding landscape with a kind of vertigo-for-legs. There is that fear in any of us: will I get home from here. For some it kicks in sooner.
Standard measures of distance fall down. A walk of a few hundred yards might be possible, but each hundred yards less reduces the view exponentially. In the Cairngorms my beginner walks were along the gravel track by Felagie, among the pines beneath Craig Leek and, a little further along the line of the burn, by Creag na Spaine, the Spoonlike Crag, walking back down the glen towards Aberarder and Felagie. There’s a spot there with a nothing board-bridge, lovely birches and sweet bog myrtle. Two Summers’ running it brought me back to belonging.


            The Vein

Adam Watson gives Felagie from féith, bog stream, léig, marshy pool, while Diack suggest an alternative, the slow burn. Discussing the general term for these streams which compound the bog and the channel that drains from it, Robert MacFarlane suggests sinew.
This is the heart of access: to feel a sense of belonging, settle into a landscape, despite the strangeness that illness or limit brings. A few years ago, and again recently, a former collaborator became driven by some inner hurt to troll my work, taking offence at poem-labels. Their attacks tangled themselves with a voice for the experience of the dark winter months, when the wilds became inaccessible. Their anger was unrecognizable in terms of our former closeness, and yet it held some fundamental truth – an evocation of the self-accusing feelings that any of us can experience in terms of access.

Their rage touched the inner recess in which inner permission dwells, saying: “you will never belong in nature.” Scary as it is to become the object of animus from someone whose life and work you are no longer connected to, the scenario replicated the feelings of vulnerability and shame that anyone with a physical or mental illness experiences, in terms of an allowance to dwell, for a while, in wild nature.

Kickback”, that’s how a woman who runs an urban croft project described the conflicted emotions that prevent young men becoming involved in a communal growing project. Gates can form inside any of us, whether from anger, dispossession, or hurt.

There is, finally, no relationship between the ways that I have found to begin to ‘belong’ in the wilds and the trauma of dispossession this particular artist feels, and I hope their journey of healing finds solace. One painful aspect of human nature is how the weak are attuned to weakness in others, and sometimes fearful or chary of it. As a culture the shrill protectiveness of rights of identity and rights of access are not the balm we hoped. Still, there can never be too much access, too much closing of distance, as long as it furthers care for the earth.

J. H. B. Bell: A Progress in Mountaineering
Lucius Burckhardt: 'Wasteland As Context’           
Francis Diack: The Inscriptions of Pictland
Robert MacFarlane: Landmarks
Jed Rasula: Destruction was my Beatrice
Nan Shepherd: The Living Mountain
T. Christopher Smout: Exploring Environmental History
Adam Watson: The Place Names of Upper Deeside

Hillside: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Glen Girnock: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Glen Girnock: Hannah Devereux, 2015
The Road North: front cover image by Tomohiko Ogawa
Heather: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Craig Leek, Rockslab Crag: Alec Finlay, 2015
from Some Colour Trends: Alec Finlay, 2014
Glen Ey: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Callater Burn: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Deer, Glen Ey: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Felagie Burn: Alec Finlay, 2015
Lichen: Alec Finlay, 2015
MOUNTAIN: Jo Monks, 2015

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.