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Of Near and Of Far

Routine is generally considered to be a pretty good thing for us. During the pandemic, when 90% of my life is unstructured time alone in my house, when I have vague goals of working and eating and sleeping, routine has helped me navigate the blank stretch of time, both accomplishing what I need to, but also thriving and embracing all sorts of new experiences.

Still, for someone who’s spent a large portion of their adult life not sleeping two weeks in a row in the same bed, these 220 days since lockdown began have stretched on. While routine can be empowering, routine also means waking up every single morning, looking out over the same pillows you looked at yesterday, knowing that most of what you’ll be doing today has already been done.

I’ve learnt new things. Saturday night I learnt to make mozzarella cheese. And of course I’ve picked up so many new skills during lockdown, many of which have become important parts of my life, like spinning wool and making sourdough. But lockdown has also reminded me that it’s not the experiences that we have, but the ways that we perceive them, that make all the difference.

As of Friday night, Glasgow moved into Tier 4 restrictions, which means that we’re not meant to leave our council area. I actually live just over the council line in East Renfrewshire, which means that I’m not meant to even go into the city. The confinement to my neighbourhood in April and May meant sunny mornings sat out on the driveway, drinking coffee and playing guitar, and long evening walks watching the sun set over the golf course. Now it’s cold and rainy every day. The sun sets at 4:00 o’clock, and I spend most of my time in my living room.

Just before these new restrictions began I went on a nice, long hike. Not wanting to travel too far from home, I opted for the stretch of hillside between the towns of Helensburgh and Garelochhead, heading North along the River Clyde as it turns into the Gare Loch. Helensburgh and Garelochhead are train stations I’ve passed through many times as I’ve travelled further north on the West Highland Line, but never somewhere I stopped.

The walk was beautiful. At first it passed through the woodland at the top of Helensburgh, full of local dog walkers, before climbing over the hilltop. You could just see the edge of Loch Lomond in the distance as the path descended into Glen Fruin, gloriously sunlit with the last remnants of a morning rainbow fading into the cloudy sky. The path led down to a country lane which passed by farmhouses, ruined cottages and grazing sheep, before climbing back over the hill, tracing the ridge, and descending down into the village of Garelochhead.

Nearing the end of Glen Fruin, a path led up the hill towards the highway. I checked the map, which said that after some time the path lead to the Auchengaich Reservoir. Scotland can be hard to decipher on a map. A road that looks short and straightforward can be so, but it can also be incredibly steep, leading straight up a rocky cliff, or it can be completely drowned in a muddy field that sinks up to your knees. I didn’t want to linger too long as sunset was approaching, and I didn’t really know what still lay on the path ahead of me as I continued on to Garelochhead.

In the end, my curiosity got the better of me and I climbed over the fence, heading up the mossy road. The path ended up climbing gently through some spectacular highland scenery, those broad sweeping hillsides covered in bracken that are so irresistibly Scottish. The sun broke through the dark grey clouds casting the auburns of the remaining fall foliage into full saturation, as the heavy skies lingered at the hilltops.

At the top of the road lay a beautiful lochan. A few trees lingered around the shores on one edge, while sheep grazed at the other. Beyond the water, the hills curled around each other, heading further into the distance. It was a lovely place to sit and enjoy a piece of cake and romanticize over the beauty of the Highlands and the serenity of the hills.

I’m reading two books right now which go together quite nicely. One is called The Life and Death of St. Kilda: The Moving Story of a Vanished Island Community by Tom Steel, and the other is called The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebank.

The Life and Death of St. Kilda is a fascinating account of the intricacies of life and the organization of the society of St. Kilda. St. Kilda is a small island stuck out in the Atlantic Ocean, some 40 miles west of the westernmost point of the Outer Hebrides. St. Kilda has no trees, and the people survived primarily on seabirds that they caught nesting on the cliffs. Though people had lived on St. Kilda for hundred of years, the population was usually between 100 and 180 people. In 1930, the lifestyle was deemed too difficult, and the remaining 37 inhabitants of St. Kilda were evacuated and resettled to Argyll on the mainland.

But what interests me most is the amount of attention paid to St. Kilda by the general public. The book is fascinating, and the personal accounts of the missionaries and nurses highlighted in the book create an intimate portrait of a lost island lifestyle. Yet despite the fact that only 37 people were evacuated from the island, there seems to be a huge amount of public interest in their community, historically and even today, when tourists take expensive private day tours from the Outer Hebrides to visit the ruins of St. Kilda’s only street.

From the mid to late 1800’s, tourists came to visit St. Kilda on steam ships. The Victorian upper classes crowded into the small bay, where they bought eggs of the seabirds, and had their postcards stamped at the most remote post office on the British isles. They bought knitwear and woven tweeds from the women, and paid to photograph the people. It seems like they came, and despite having only a few hours on shore to experience the island and its people, grabbed at whatever small bits they could physically take back with them. When news of the evacuation spread, there was disproportionate national interest in this tiny group of people living on a rock out in the Atlantic, despite the fact that the St. Kildans alone experienced the hardship of isolated island life.

The Shepherd’s Life also looks at the romanticization of rural lifestyles in Britain. Though I’ve yet to make a trip down to the Lake District in England, I’m well familiar with its many cultural references, from the poetry of William Wordsworth to Taylor Swift’s new song The Lakes. The Lake District is a National Park in the northwest of England, full of - you guessed it - lakes. It also has lots of mountains (called fells), sheep, daffodils (as featured in Wordsworth’s most famous poem), and quaint British cottages. Many Brits (as well as Taylor Swift apparently) spend holidays climbing its peaks and relaxing in its hotels.

Author James Rebanks is also a shepherd, who writes about his life in the Lake District, shepherding on the same hill that his ancestors have shepherded on for generations. He fights back against this myth of romanticization, saying that a weekend getaway on the shores of Windermere has nothing to do with the harsh realities, but also the deep gratitude of forming a relationship with the land. He denounces the fanciful words of the poets, and speaks in his plain English of his deep connection with the Lake District soil.

These books make me think about what we see, and how it is. I have ideas about Scotland, about cultural myths and Highland fancy (someone’s been watching a bit too much Outlander), and I also have my lived experience of it. I’ve had amazing times roaming about the Highlands, but I can also go on beautiful walks closer to home, even right here in East Renfrewshire.

A few weeks ago, when visiting Netti in Fife, she took me to visit an ancient standing stone, Macduff’s Cross, located only a 5-minute drive up the path from her house. It sat on the hillside, overlooking the Tay, right where it’s sat since 1059 CE. Just beyond the stones lie the Whinnybank Cat Sanctuary, a farm housing hundreds of stray cats, paid for by donations collected by the tireless Sue who runs charity shops in Newburgh and nearby Auchtermuchty to pay for their care. You never know what you might find around the corner.

Today I visited Pollok Country Park in Glasgow. Formerly the estate of the the Maxwell family who lived there for 700 years, in 2008 the park was voted the best park in Europe. Amidst the historic Pollok House and abundantly manicured gardens lies the Pollok Beech. Hidden in the forest, up winding paths, and planted firmly in the centre of a raised hill mound is a gnarled burnt tree stump. Thought to be one of the oldest trees in Glasgow, the Pollok Beech was vandalized in 2017. Yet all across its remaining branches, small clootie rags are tied, part of an ancient Celtic Christian (or earlier) tradition of tying strips of fabric to significant trees as a form of prayer.

The Pollok Beech is 3.9 km from my front door. Macduff’s Cross is 1.6 km from Nettis. We needn’t go far to find incredible things. We need simply to open our eyes.

On the path up to the Auchengaich Reservoir, I happened upon a pair of hiking boots hanging on a tree branch. Nobody was around to have left them, and they were quite wet, they’d clearly been there a while. My hiking boots, made for the dry mountains of Canada and not the swampy hills of Scotland, have been rubbing a bit lately, and I was considering getting new ones. But right here, in front of me, nicely hung on a tree branch, were a gently worn pair of boots in precisely my size.

Roberto Arlt writes in The Pleasures of Vagabonding, “I have come to the conclusion that he who does not encounter the whole universe in the streets of his city will not encounter an original street in any of the cities of the whole world. He won’t encounter them because those who are blind in Buenos Aires are blind in Madrid, or in Calcutta…”.

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