Saturday, 21 May 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: John Muir- The Call of the Wild

This is the third of a series of articles that I am writing for the Voice for Arran about Walking and Wildlife on Arran. This article appeared in April 2011 to celebrate the birthday on the 21st April of wilderness visionary John Muir. 

My first encounter with John Muir was just two years ago, though he had already been dead for 94 years. While working on the Arran Wildlife Festival, an email dropped in to my jam-packed inbox from Dan Sealy, of the US National Park Service’s Centre for Urban Ecology.  “Ranger Dan” was coming to Scotland, on a pilgrimage to the birth place of his champion.  We welcomed Dan to the festival, and arranged for this unassuming man to hijack a bat detecting evening to deliver a talk to the unsuspecting audience on the life and legacy of an American hero from Dunbar, Scotland. 

Muir was born on the 21st April 1838, and at the age of eleven immigrated with his father to Wisconsin.  His early years were filled with bone breaking labour on the family farm, but he showed signs of genius and eventually found a place aged 23 at Wisconsin University.  Here Muir was set upon the scientific path that would allow him to record and write about the wild places that he visited, but it was his years living rough in the mountains in the 1870s that set his soul on fire. He is lauded in America as the father of the National Parks and it is surprising that he is a relatively unknown figure in his native home of Scotland. The John Muir Trust has done much to re-dress this balance and now owns several remote Scottish estates, working as an advocate for the enjoyment and protection of wild land and promoting outdoor education for the young.  However, most people in this country are unaware of the man or his role in the birth of the worldwide conservation movement.  Inspired by Ranger Dan, I began to read Muir’s writing. What I have found inscribed within those pages is arresting and enlightening.
Muir the visionary
Muir was driven by a compulsion to understand, experience and endure the wild in all its forms. He kept detailed records of the habitats he explored, and sought out extreme and dangerous encounters that brought him closer to the wild nature that he admired. A committed Christian, Muir’s passion was fuelled by an evangelical natural mysticism. He did not see man as the God-given custodian of the landscape, instead he regarded the wild places and their inhabitants as teachers, and he strove to learn by their example.  He wrote often of nature’s “loving lessons[1], and compared them to the harsh religious schooling he had received at home. In the complex and miraculous web of nature, he saw the hand of God in action. 

Marvelling at the Sierra forests after a violent storm, he wrote: “But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fibre thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn in to cathedrals and churches the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.[2]

Muir the conservationist
Muir’s unique spiritual perspective combined with scientific method and exceptional recording skills allowed him to see complex relationships in the natural world.  Way ahead of his time, his writing is a rallying call for ecologists: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.[3]  Although he married and settled with a family, Muir felt most at home in the wilderness.  He understood the healing power of nature for the body and the soul. He wrote of the importance of wild places for society; Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.[4]  This formed the basis of his argument for protecting wild landscapes that ultimately gave rise to the American National Parks movement.

Muir for the modern world
Muir writes about nature in a way that articulates what many who love the outdoors feel, but struggle to express.  We know instinctively that our brushes with the wild are rejuvenating experiences. Most of us who live on Arran have chosen to do so and those that came from outside were drawn here in part by the magnificent natural environment. Nowhere on Arran is untouched by human influence, and yet in the high places, and on the ragged coastlines, nature’s power and intricate splendour thrives in a way that is moving to all who pause to enjoy it.  For me, the joy of living here has been getting to know the details, and like Muir, observing the lives and characters of the island’s wild residents. As each season passes, the delicate piping of the winter redshanks, or the tireless exuberance of meadow pipits in spring, lifts my spirits and roots me in the present.

Muir’s language is luminous, passionate, and fiery. It is a paean to a wildness already long gone from much of America, and it is heartbreaking to imagine what he would make of his native Scotland in modern times. But his work has an even greater relevance to our urbanised world than ever before. There is so little left of wild Britain that we must treasure it. We can begin here on Arran by recognising the value of our natural environment not only to us, but the thousands of tourists who come here each year to experience the healing power of a different pace of life.  If we can go further, as Muir did, and recognise the sanctity and substance of life no matter how small, woody or fierce, we stand to benefit immeasurably from the simple pleasure of finding our own place woven in to this astonishing world. 

Reading Muir: Journeys in the Wilderness:  A John Muir Reader is a paperback containing the selected works of John Muir, with an introduction by Graham White.

John Muir Trust: For more information about the work of the JMT visit the website:

[1] The Story of My Boyhood and My Youth.
[2] My First Summer in the Sierra
[3] My First Summer in the Sierra
[4] Our National Parks

Monday, 16 May 2011


The online Urban Dictionary defines the Scots word dreich as: "A combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. At least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich...."  I'd say that all of the above applied today, and I'd throw in windy and wild for good measure. Anne and I had hoped for a walk in the mountains but with the burns full and gales roaring across the tops we opted for a low level walk from Lochranza around the Cock of Arran. I've blogged about this route before, but I've never done it in such appalling weather! Nevertheless, we had a fantastic day, enjoyed some great views, and set the world to rights. Thanks Anne for a great day out. Hope you've dried off by now!
Today we chose to do it in an anticlockwise direction, aiming to hit the rough scramble of An Scriodan as the tide was dropping.  We set off up the good Narachan track, and before long we were treated to views of red deer on the golf course below.

Enjoying the sweet grass on the golf course. 

The track climbs above the village and heads to the open moor between Lochranza and the sea. Even in the wet weather, the delicious gorse scent from the whins was heavenly.

We dropped down the other side of the moor, and peeked in at Laggan Cottage before heading along the coast to the ruined mining village where we stopped to grab some lunch in a sheltered bay.

Shades of grey....

After lunch we had a pleasant walk along side the sea, where we saw seals and red breasted mergansers, and found plenty of otter signs, before the final scramble around An Scriodan back to Lochranza.

The massive boulders at the north tip of the island were great for sheltering amongst!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Blue Sky Days

This week the island has been basking in unseasonal sunshine and dry weather. I've had two fantastic days in the mountains before the weather broke, in almost identical conditions of hot dry rock and a cool breeze- perfect for scrambling and climbing.

On Sunday, I was out training with Arran Mountain Rescue Team ( I am a probationary member), and we headed up on to the western slopes of Mullach Buidhe to practice some rope work and rock climbing.  Normally AMRT training sessions are hard work, but this had more of the air of jolly picnic on the beach, although we did do some top roping of some hard and highball boulder problems on the ridge, plus some abseiling and climbing on the biggest buttress. All quite leisurely really.

AMRT Jolly. 

Setting up for the ab and climb.

Top roping in the sun. 

Great views of Cir Mhor and Caisteal Abhail across Glen Sannox. 

On Tuesday a good friend stopped by on route to the highlands and we whisked him from the ferry into the hills. At this point I should provide a nice big plug for the company he represents, Mountain Hardwear, but as we lent him a load of non Mountain Hardwear gear for the day, he'd prefer to remain anonymous!

So it was back in to Coire Lan and up on to North Goatfell for a quick traverse of Stacach in perfect conditions.

The boys enjoying tremendous views from the top of North Goatfell. 

Heading off down the Stacach for Goatfell summit. 

Now it is Thursday and the rain has come at last.  It is sad to say goodbye to the sun for a bit, but the island was beginning to feel like a tinderbox in the haze from the mainland wildfires.  I'm relieved that we have survived the dry spell and the moisture will only help the wildlife. Good for gardeners too!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Woodsmoke: Woodlander

Spending time in nature over the years has forged in me a deep respect for the myriad of efficient, clever and ingenious ways that life thrives in wild places.  Once upon a time humans also knew what it took to make a living in wild Britain, and there are still a few people who know, or have learned survival and life skills that rely on their own knowledge and resilience, and the resources of land, not clever kit, frieze dried meals or goretex.
I'm fascinated by the concept of humans having a place in nature, so although my own practice is generally one of "leave no trace", taking in my fancy gear and carrying out my rubbish with minimum impact,  I am intrigued enough to want to learn some of these bush skills, and push myself to understand how a human might live within and alongside nature, rather than skating over the top of it as a hardy visitor with a rucksack full of equipment.

I enrolled on a bushcraft course with Woodsmoke in the Lake District, for a week-long immersion in to basic bushcraft skills. The instruction was excellent, the course was very real and hands on, and at times incredibly challenging.  The week is not for you if you fancy a holiday, but if you want to really push yourself, definitely give it a go! I've just got back, and I'm still picking the leaves out of my hair: here is a photo blog of what the week entailed. 

Most of our days were spent either ranging over the beautiful wooded estate where the course takes place, or in the outside classroom at the camp.

 I picked a plum spot for my little tent. I was serenaded every night by tawny owls and woodcock.

 The week was characterised by a mountainous series of projects, from craft and cordage, to field cooking, tracking and plant lore. The first project involved making a Waugan Stick to suspend a billycan above a cooking fire. 

The finished article.

 Another major project was making fire using a bowdrill.  This is hard work.  Here is my first and most triumphant ember.  Only half way there- you have to get the tinder going from this. 

The tinder catches- fire!

 We built natural shelters.  Also hard work!  This is a three person shelter that took six people all afternoon to build!

It was cosy when finished.

Three of us spent the night in the shelter snoozing next to a warm camp fire. 

It wasn't all work.  We had the opportunity to play in a cedar strip built canoe, and swim in the tarn above camp. 

Badger or teddy bear tracks ?

Projects projects projects......

 Pigeon pie cooking in camp ovens....


We learned so many wild plants with multiple uses, but here is a common and edible one, Wood Sorrel. High in oxalic acid, so don't eat too much, but a tasty addition to any hedgerow salad.