Saturday, 15 August 2015

History in a Bigger Office: August in Cairngorm & Spey.

Having met (just) a book deadline for the end of July, I began August with a few days reading for pleasure - catching up on new outdoors writing & naturalism. I’d patched up my old Westwind tent (so damaged by blizzards in 2009 that I'd considered it a write off) & spent a couple of nights out amongst trees not far from the back door…
…clambering up into them seemed ideal for reading books like Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree.
But this couldn’t go on long: two work-related things needed doing in earnest. I had to catch up with some challenging writing on the experience of time (reading I’ve been putting off for a while) and to reconceptualise a historical project about the 1890s that has been coming together (and falling apart again) for two years.

This kind of thinking – which needs to shift established habits of thought but also embed itself deep in the memory – demands dramatically new surroundings: it's aided by unique images & atmospheres that become bound up with particular trains of thought. So I packed myself a mini-library (formed around the vast granite massif of Francois Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, but including some poetic outliers too)…
…and set off North. 

In the summer, days outdoors work wonderfully for intensive thinking. With 16+ hours of light & no distractions but sky, crag & creature, it’s possible to intersperse 10 hours walking with 8 reading. And walking must surely be the best thinking time there is: it’s no surprise, I guess, that ideas formed while moving slowly through geological & ecological drama just seem to stick deeper & burn brighter than ideas made at the same small desk that’s forever associated with daily routines.

This habit began fifteen years ago when I was a student. Back then it was partly a response to lack of private space; when I had time to travel I’d head into the most secluded spots I could find, often in the Rhinogs or the Dark Peak, with a bag of books. These were usually on a single theme – the cultures of Late Antiquity, early-medieval Scandinavia or the visual arts in the early twentieth century – and I’d stay & read for as many days as I could make my food last. 

It took a little longer (until I had more by way of resources) to get further afield. But soon I could indulge extraordinary luxuries: to get deliberately lost for several days in Fisherfield (with writing about ancient Sumer) or ensconce myself for a glorious September week on Rum (with books about George Eliot & a copy of Middlemarch). Thinking about those landscapes now leads to involuntarily recollection of precisely what I read there, and many of the books that have been most formative of my historical thinking were carried on these trips. Here's a book by John Berger, over breakfast on Foinaven:
The venue for this week’s thinking was dictated by weather: the Cairngorms were the only Scottish range with a good chance of cloud-free peaks. This is one of the highland regions I know least well. That's partly because it’s on the way to my favourite places: I’ve long feared that if I develop an affection for Cairngorm, it’ll take the edge off my thirst for the far NW & I’ll get lazy: stopping after 6 ½ hours instead of 8 ½, settling for round-ridged Ben Macdui instead of the serrations of Torridon. For years I even refused to buy the map, telling myself (I hate to admit!) that the Cairngorms, like the Lake District & the music of Arnold Bax, are for my 50s. 

So this trip was a departure. It coincided with the perseid meteor shower & a new moon: a perfect time to be out under the stars. I’d also decided to break the habit of spending mountain nights in just a sleeping bag (in case I was forced to sleep among the midgies) so this was an outing for my lovely old Terra Nova bivi bag - after 7 yrs no longer waterproof but still cosy. Arriving at Linn of Dee mid-afternoon I set off up Glen Lui and through the pine forests of Glenn Laoigh Bheag, full of ancient fallen trunks…
…then made my way onto Carn a’ Mhaim.
Tall enough to guarantee freedom from the August midge-plague, this provided a great spot to sit on rocks, lean back on my rucksack & dig deep into books. I read Hartog as the clouds turned slowly pink, with stunning views in all directions.
By sunset, though, the cloud cover was consistent: no perseids tonight.
Next day would be exactly what I’d been craving: a span of unbroken reading-walking. This kind of craving - fixating on outdoors thinking time - doesn’t seem to be unusual among historians. Some of it, I guess, is down to the old connections between history, antiquarianism & archaeology. It's intruiging, for instance, that a formative moment in Kathleen Jamie's career in landscape writing (recounted in the chapter of Sightlines entitled ‘The Woman in the Field’) came when volunteering on an archaeological dig: Jamie’s prose conjures how the lives of many who interpret the past are tied to places that are now sparsely populated. There are illustrations from the beginning of the modern history boom too: Walter Scott wrote one novel - The Antiquary - that's more intricate & ambitious than any of his others. It's full of characters representing different kinds of historical interests & different aspects of Scottish society, with a tramping chief protagonist who tries - and fails - to comprehend historically the land he lives on. One of the first texts I ask my second-year history students to read is a 1966 essay by Keith Thomas. He criticises his peers for assessing things 'by feel rather than by figures' but the way he expresses this is telling: he says that the computer must replace ‘the “stout boots” worn by the advanced historians of the past generation’.

The stout-booted writers Thomas had in mind surely included George Macaulay Trevelyan (right), perhaps the most celebrated of all hill-walking historians. 
Trevelyan created histories – which he thought of as primarily imaginative things - while he wandered the fells of northern England. And Trevelyan was one of the first historians I ever read for leisure. On a family visit to South Wales, aged about 13, I used my holiday spending money to buy (for some unfathomable, fateful reason) a copy of Trevelyan’s 1926 History of England that happened to be in a tiny bookshop in St Brides. I had no real idea what it was (I'm not sure I even registered that it might not be cutting edge). But discovering that this book had been conceptualised while walking Hadrian’s Wall gave it enormous appeal to me.

At that age I couldn't see the complete worldview that lay behind Trevelyan’s expertly-told narratives & informed his outdoors pursuits. For him, landscape was a religion, scenery a site of pilgrimage & walking a form of worship. He was fond of phrases like ‘sacred union with nature’ & supported causes like the Pilgrims Trust & Outward Bound as a kind of crusade against urban life. He was the first president of the Youth Hostel Association (their headquarters is still called Trevelyan House). Writing mainly in the interwar years, Trevelyan had been profoundly unsettled by the connections between modern technology, social change & war. This - added to a deep distrust of religion - led him to pursue a new kind of creed: ruralism was inseparable from his literary romanticism & liberal vision of history. What I failed to pick up as a teenager was the profoundly disturbing English exceptionalism & mystic nationalism that lay behind all this. Weighed down with assumptions of imperial destiny & fear of national decline, Trevelyan hoped that ‘natural beauty’ would ensure that ‘the English people’ didn’t ‘perish in the spiritual sense’. 

So Trevelyan has lived with me for a long time, as a reason for wanting to do history &, later in my teens, as a source of the realisation that all history is ideological, never morally neutral or non-partisan. Whenever I see really old fashioned walking boots, his is the name that pops into my head. And his less nationalistic writing still does make far better reading than the texts of his contemporaries – many of whom made their history utterly dry in futile pursuit of scientific professional status.
As the sun came up on the following morning, everything was engulfed in cloud. I walked onto the ridge that leads to Scotland’s second highest mountain, Ben Macdui, and stopped for the day’s first read. Rich, early-morning light had begun to break through & a better, airier reading spot would be hard to imagine. 
As I looked down at the gleaming white walls of Corrour bothy (above) I thought of Trevelyan, who would surely have been wildly enthusiastic about what the Mountain Bothies Association do (for more on that see this book by Phoebe Smith, which has been getting lots of good BBC coverage recently). The beginnings of the River Dee:
Once onto Ben Macdui itself, every reading stop brought hordes of inquisitive snowbuntings (hordes is no exaggeration). These were perfectly willing to pose for photos, and showed a remarkable range of different summer plumage, some adapted strikingly well for camouflage among Cairngorm boulders.
From Macdui, apparent patterns in cloud formation could be identified, banks clinging to the western & southern sides of the plateau. One mountain in particular seemed to stay clear of all of this: Beinn Mheadhoin. Topped by looming granite torrs (the Barns of Beinn Mheadhoin), this seemed like a wonderful place to spend tonight, so I began to make my way across via a circuitous tour of corries, full of sub-Alpine flora & fauna, that are the real glory of the Cairngorms. These are the sites of crystaline streams whose praises Nan Sheppard sang in The Living Mountain (a must-read for any Cairngorms visitor).
Even at the lowest points of today’s walking, snow fields were plentiful.
And glorious reading spots, looking out towards the evening’s target, were easily found:
This was by far the best walking of the trip – perfect conditions, verdure underfoot, ever-changing scenery, and total solitude. Plus Ptarmigan:
I investigated Carn Etchachan & Castlegates Gully before climbing down the waterfall to Loch Etchachan & beginning the last slog up Stacan Dubha, then the Bheinn itself. 

The summit provided plenty more opportunity to read/think history…
 ...but as the sun set, clouds were amassing on both the western & southern horizons. My perseid views seemed threatened once again. 

I needn’t have worried. What followed was a perfect star-gazing night, in which the milky way stood out against the sky & several meteors per-minute crossed my field of vision, with no need to close the bivi bag all night. This was one of the best nights I’ve spent on the hills recently, the only drawback being the guilt every time I allowed my eyes to close. Only when the sun rose (bivi in mid-ground)...

...did I discover what had happened to all that encroaching cloud. The atmospheric spectacle continued below…
The walk back towards Derry lodge and the Linn of Dee would be a long one, but down some of the E highlands’ most beautiful glens:
This left time for just one more venture before home, but a weather front was pushing north: clouds were beginning to veil most tops & heavy rain was promised. After weighing up several options I decided that, since I’d driven all the way up here with a boat on the car, I probably ought to use it. The canoeist’s (and whisky drinker’s) paradise of the River Spey was just a few miles away, providing low-level views of the Cairngorms, and passing through several hotspots of avian & aquatic life. After a quiet night in Kingussie, I drove to Kincraig, pushed off into Loch Insh & headed upstream. With a different kind of beauty from the plateau above – serene after the bleakness – this stretch of the Spey is lined with lichenous alders & passerine-filled willows...
...many of which are veterans, with all the splits, rot & fractures that turn a tree into a habitat.
Moths & butterflies, dragonflies, spiders & warblers abounded, flitting through the William Morris wallpaper...
...and the water itself was alive with minnows, water beetles & water boatmen – this felt more vigorous & teeming with creatures than the rivers - Severn & Wye - near home. When I pulled up on a shingle beach beneath a stand of Scott’s Pines, I left a wagtail to guard the boat... 
...and climbed the bank to read for a while. Flocks of lapwings passed, as did a surprising array of birds of prey, one particular young buzzard making an outlandish racket as it tried to draw food from reluctant parents. A little later, the sparrowhawk hidden in these branches snatched a long-tail from the willows and settled down to eat:
Over four days I'd got through around 450 pages of tightly-packed history & scribbled pages of ideas triggered [thanks Ben] by what I'd read: it had all felt like a different kind of work from what I'd do in the office, but a very valuable one.  It's interesting that an increasing number of outdoorsish historians seem to be finding ways to blend their two interests. Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk might be the most celebrated example, but Matthew Kelly's recent & wonderful Quartz & Feldspar: Dartmoor - A British Landscape in Modern Times provides another model. From a different generation, Jonathan Parry (whose whole career has been formed around nineteenth-century religion & politics) now turns to write in earnest the history of mountaineering he's been talking about for decades. Once the current projects are done, perhaps I should try to find myself a topic... 

Leaving the highlands or islands always feels bad, this time more so because the stay had been so short & uncompromised by adverse weather. But leaving was less agonising knowing I’ll be working like this for most of September, housed in a beautiful cottage on the banks of Loch Torridon, Shieldaig pub just a short row across the water. Can’t wait:

1 comment:

  1. It's a delight to go with you, in some small way, on your journeys. The view of the Dee and the bothy is spectacular. I'm surprised you manage to get much reading done when there's so much beautiful scenery to distract you!