Friday, 26 October 2012

Some mysterious promised land


Once I met a man on the Migneint. The shock to each of us was almost disabling. Then he changed course and made haste to intercept me. I went forward with mixed feelings since I could see at a distance that he was a shepherd, and the area is a National Trust restricted access estate. But he greeted me warmly, telling me that he:d been out there every day for six weeks and hadn't seen a soul. It wasn't easy to get away.

East of Ffestiniog two roads diverge, enclosing a triangle of high moorland. Just inside and just above these roads a gentle ridge sweeps round, nearly encircling a shallow desolate depression, a secret place, the Migneint. This is a landscape insistent on a single theme. Long miles of heather, spacious stream systems, bottomless sphag­num bogs, a couple of tiny lakes, juncus marshes. Neither roads nor paths may be seen in any direction. A solitary feature dominates the waste. From the east Arenig Fach looks into it: a little hill which, with a powdering of snow and nothing to lend it scale, sometimes assumes an aspect of indefinite distance and colossal bulk.

There's nothing theatrical about the Migneint, and in fact it's sensed as much as seen. A first crossing ought really to be made by compass in thick cloud, and the ability to walk fairly long shots to precise locations would be helpful. The experience, though memorable, would not appeal to everyone. But if it tempts you, follow me. Firstly, pull on your wellingtons, then start from 776 443,where you may or may not find a milestone A bearing on Llechwedd-mawr will take you straight into peat hags. Work through  around these and find the spot height. Then make your way to Llyn Serw and down to the stream to the west. Soon you will come upon a lost little cliff on the bank.

Take a break at this mysterious place while I explain what's so good about this walk. In a fair number of excursions, I've discovered less than a dozen positive features on the Migneint. There's the small cliff you are sitting by; the tiny lakes of Serw and Dywarchen; an ancient slate mine, its approach route now swallowed by the swamps; a crude shelter high up the Arenig. And there is Cefngarw, a lonely habitation now used only for sheep-gathering. When I first entered it, a few outlandish Welsh names were scribbled on the plaster and the signatures- get ready- of two Germans POW's. A life-size ram was drawn in meticulous detail on one wall and a short verse was written on another:

Look after all the kettles / Be careful with the wood / We leave the door unbolted / As long as you'll be good.'

It feels like the last place on earth but once a post­man walked here twice a week if occasion demanded. Lately some fencing has reaches up the valley to this area. A new generation makes its doomed but courageous attempt to subdue the sodden moor. Now when, after a half-hour of driving rain or mist, you suddenly stumble on one of these landmark-, you experience what I can only describe as a sense of encounter. There is a curious atmosphere, preternatural though by no means hostile. You tend to loiter for longer than there is good reason. The faculties dazed by the endless jewelled particularity of vegetation, pool and stream, suddenly regroup in some sort of force field.

To continue. Make your way to the top of Arenig Fach. If, after a few days of heavy rain, you visit Cefngarw and then head for spot height 1,507 you may find the trivial Afon Serw slightly awkward to cross. From the summit the most appropriate route of return is to follow the long procession of boundary stones on the ridge west and north. You will take in Carnedd Iago. (From the south-west, forestry plantation threatens the Migneint skyline.) You can visit Dywarchen‑ And you can strike out for the road early or late according to inclination. If time presses, a shorter route would use the Nant y Gangen and Nant Llwyni-howel.

By now I can fancy murmurs of protest. The party has been marched up the wrong side of the mountain and then sent back home the same way. The east face with its fine lake A shapely structure has been deliberately concealed from view. The point is this: there are plenty of mountains around here but only one Migneint. The route described makes the most of it, permitting no early overview. If you can fix the transport, you could work out your own descent to the Llyn Celyn road. The going is difficult over most of this ground but in fine conditions a strong walker would make nothing of it. It is, after all, a quite small piece of land. So for those with support and with no objection to crossing a metalled road the logical extensions may be worth noting.

Arenig Fach is matched to the south by Arenig Fawr. The match is perfect. And the Migneint develops more scenically to the north-west, around the Llynnau Gamallt. This is a beautiful complex of lakes and crags offering excellent short walks, but it would be wrong to single out just one of these. There remains the big Arenig and this time, I suppose, we take the popular route: up to the lake; easily round the east and south shores or, more daringly, nearer climbers' territory, by the west, and up the Bryn y Dyfrgi. On approaching the top of this admirable hill you cross a rock-strewn plateau. Here you will see a scatter of aircraft wreckage, the remains of a Flying Fortress, and close by a memorial to the eight Americans who died here on August 4, 1943.

The names slide off the memory but the states of origin are added and strike a strange resonance: Idaho, Wyoming, and the rest. The huge machine, its crew at ease maybe, pounding steadily through the cloud so many years ago, to meet the very summit of the immovable Arenig.



Harold Drasdo: First published in Classic Walks: Photos John Appleby


Monday, 22 October 2012

The Crystal Spirit: Karen Darke's Boundless review.


But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit
.

George Orwell
Hanging around above the Lledr Valley in North Wales yesterday, I glanced up from my position  twixt earth and sky. Above, the rope disappeared over the lip of pale,sharp rock set against a leeching late afternoon ultramarine sky.Below the overhang, the ground fell away in an autumnal frieze of bracken,birch and scrub. It was then I thought of Karen Darke, or rather what the fates conspired to deliver to her. A pile driving headfirst fall into a plinth of dark rock under a Scottish sea stack. A fall which delivered paralysis from the chest down and which transformed her life beyond imagination.

 'I'd rather be dead than paralysed'... a climbers' predictable and instinctive reaction to a cataclysmic event which can never be a choice anyway. It was the natural reaction of the author herself  when she had considered such a possibility in the years leading up to her darkest hour . An event which was fully recounted in Karen's first book -'If you fall'.  As I sat there suspended in my harness I wondered at the odds of surviving a fall from here more a less intact? .80...100' down at least? I would hit the slab first...say 50'- then bounce out a hit the base of the crag from which I would  career through the boulder strewn bracken-which would be like falling down a cheese grater- before coming to rest. Dead...paralysed...a few broken bones??? I thought about the legendary US climber Doug Robinson describing in palm sweating detail the complete anatomy of a fall in his classic 'A night on the ground a day in the open.

" John told me later I screamed all the way down. He quit climbing for months,he said, because the scream and the sound of my impact on the rock kept rising incessantly in his dreams'

For Doug Robinson the fall which 'broke my back clean in two' saw him fully recover and return to his dirtbag climber lifestyle. For Karen, the climbing God's chose another path for her to follow. When presented with such a choice  do you stick or twist? Take the easy option and accept your outdoor life is over forever or re-invent and reapply yourself to your new physical circumstances?
For someone as motivated and driven as Karen Darke, there is only one answer. Boundless continues Karen's inspiring story through her description of an epic crossing of the Greenland ice cap, an attempt to circumnavigate the island of Corsica in a sea kayak and a jummaring ascent of a classic El Cap route with partner, Andy Kirkpatrick.

From the outset,let me say that Karen's story is written in a beautifully understated natural style which flows beautifully from page to page. Despite the drama and the tension within,she never feels  the urge to stray into experimental prose or invest in hyperbole. It certainly helps the reader the stay focused on the unfolding diary of events.
The first half of the book which describes her Greenland crossing on a specially adapted sit ski set up is not surprisingly the main course. The expedition over 29 days,crossing 550 kilometers of unyielding ice, is brutal,life changing and hugely impressive. For the ordinary Joe/sephine it sounds outrageous in its ambition and execution. A truly awesome achievement which can never be understated. By contrast, the passage which follows the drama and tension of Greenland, 'Down by the sea'- the sea kayaking expedition set in the Med- is something of a anti-climax and perhaps would have been better suited as an article or essay within a future KD collection. That's just my feeling; others will disagree.

However, The El Cap climbing/jummaring extravaganza-although relatively brief compared to the Greenland chapters-does work well alongside the former section. Karen at times brilliantly captures the wide range of physical and mental stresses and strains involved in multi day big wall climbing. An undertaking which would push most able bodied climbers to the limit. For Karen,these pressures must have been sheer torture at times. A grueling battle to keep body and mind together and stay focused- as much for the sake of her partners as for herself. On the page,she brings it all together perfectly.

The paperback version of the book I received is well produced and liberally illustrated with photographs which both relate to events  within and to the author's 'pre-fall'- life. Despite having just a minor  question mark over the inclusion of the brief Corsican adventure, overall, the book works as a moving and honest account of a remarkable woman re-inventing and reapplying herself to her circumstances.  A journey of discovery which  points the way towards new horizons and which offers  new goals. A fine testimony to the indomitable human spirit.

John Appleby 2012

Boundless can be ordered direct from Karen's website

Monday, 15 October 2012

Travels with a donkey


BOOM— a plume of water shot 50ft. into the air. Kelly beamed all over his face. BOOM —the second depth charge went off. Kelly's beam turned black as the expected trout failed to surface.
"Not enough gelignite," explained Kelly as he rummaged through the back of the transit for his two cardboard boxes containing a hundredweight of high explosive. The third explosion of atomic proportions was curtailed however, as the brush around us swayed and parted revealing a large and heavily armed portion of the Greek Army completely surrounding our strategic position on the bridge.

I suppose, in retrospect, they had a good reason to capture us; it was probably a mite thoughtless of Kelly to start dropping bombs off a crucial bridge in the military border area between right-wing Greece and lefter-than-left Albania. The other problem was that Kelly was a bandit and looked more like a bandit than most bandits. A week earlier he had disappeared into the dusty, crumbling heart of Ioannina, a mountain-backed military town in northern Greece, with five bottles of whisky. Several hours later he returned grinning all over his bandit-ridden face with a large cardboard box full of gelignite under each arm, forged permission to enter the military zone in his teeth and two full bottles of whisky still in his pockets.

Again the whisky came to Kelly's rescue, though I suspect the cavalry commander was still unconvinced that everyone in Britain fishes that way. Several hours later we were high in the Timfi d' Oros range at the drivable limit of our van, which I thought was pushing it a bit, but then it wasn't really our van (Kelly had hired it in Salford for the day, three weeks earlier, to move his granny's effects from Dukinfield to New Mills). I actually suspect it was the first time a vehicle larger than a bull donkey had been sighted in the tiny cluster of huts that was Upper Papignon.

Here Kelly produced a sawn-off shotgun; he had vowed back in New Mills that its sole purpose was to shoot the choughs that flew about the top of the pothole we were to descend, loosening rocks on those below. Now, however, he used it effectively to round up all the village donkey drivers so that we could get our ton of gear transported up the mountain. It's a strange thing about donkey drivers that what fits exactly on one man's twelve donkeys will also fit perfectly well on another man's two donkeys, which are of course cheaper.

With a kind of friendly prodding action with his shotgun Kelly. put me in charge of donkey management because of my previous experience. (I should perhaps mention here that the experience in question consisted of having a father who had once owned a donkey for a few months before it drank the half gallon of bright blue paint that he'd put in its field, with which to paint the fence.)
We hired and paid a Greek who promised us eight stout donkeys for the trip. The following morning he arrived with four things that resembled tatty Alsatians and a fifth animal with one ear and a splint on its back leg.

The Greek proceeded to load the animals with me supervising while the others went off to get drunk. The technique was quite simple—load the animals up with mountains of gear until their legs buckled and they collapsed, then remove one item of equipment and kick the donkey as hard as possible in its knackers to raise it to its feet again. It was barely possible to see the donkey beneath the mounds of ropes, ladders and recently ex-army tents but off they staggered, driven forwards by a sharp 'thwack' on their private parts with a specially designed 'donkey thwacker' that all hill Greeks carry.

The donkeys collapsed at regular intervals up the hill, sometimes never to rise again, until the donkey man stopped at the halfway stage, surveyed the hillside strewn with gear, dynamite and dead donkeys and said that enough was enough, that was as far as he went. The rest of the expedition was boring—carry all the gear up a mountain, carry it all down a hole, bring it out again, carry it down the mountain and so on: exactly the kind of boring repetitive stuff you read in expedition books. It was on the way back that my interest in the world about was rekindled, I suppose.

She was in the van when we got back from the orchard we had found miles from anywhere as we crossed the Pindus Mountains. We all piled into the back, trousers and shirts spilling oranges and peaches everywhere, and were screaming off down the road before we had even noticed the beautiful, diminutive sunburnt girl sitting amongst our gear.

"Who the fuck are you?" snarled Kelly graciously.
"Elizabeth," was the gentle reply, then as an afterthought, "and I like screwing." She smiled a beckoning Californian smile at everyone but me, about whom she was obviously reserving judge­ment. Kelly's black eyes bulged as she unwrapped her only luggage, a sort of coloured tea-towel containing a full two-pound block of hashish.

The expedition drifted aimlessly and happily homeward along an undetermined and certainly illogical route as the block of happiness diminished. Somewhere in southern Yugoslavia occurred the 'Kelly and the Giant Melon' incident. Admittedly I don't remember too much about it, although I do recall being a central character; I was still rather dazed from lack of blood and the shock of seeing Kelly auctioning two pints of my rhesus positive in the streets of Thessaloniki to pay for my share of the petrol.

The van screeched to a halt, the dust and daze subsiding to reveal a large field containing a large central melon. "Get it," said Kelly. As I staggered towards the melon the field got bigger and bigger and the melon began to grow. Even before I'd reached the giant, the peasants in bullock carts were beginning to take an interest in our activities. Once there the first thing that was immediately obvious, was that I couldn't even lift the thing. I beckoned for help but by the time we were struggling across the field fumbling with a melon nearly a yard wide the peasants were after us. More help! Kelly came and we ran for the vehicle, heaving the giant into the back as the show made a flying getaway.

An hour later we stopped to eat the prize; the knife wouldn't cut it and a saw only managed to win a small piece. It tasted awful but we were determined to eat it. Then Frank, the Daily Express man who was exceptionally clever, came back from the front for a look at the yellow giant.
One night the team visited a disco in Spittall; I couldn't go because they'd spent all my blood money on petrol, so I stopped behind in the van. A few minutes later the girl returned with a bottle for me. She edged hesitantly closer, letting her shift slide off.

"I'd like to screw a queer." Who was I to argue? It transpired that Kelly, after he'd had his turn, had told her not to bother with me because I was homosexual and consequently wasn't interested in women. At last I had the last laugh. Four years later I found myself in a similar situation, living 11,000ft. up in the Zagros mountains of Persia amongst the Kurds (spelt with a K, not a t). Again we were caving and I was penniless. but we had a leader who was the antithesis of Kelly; Judson was such a low-profile leader that most of us never met him until the expedition was half over.

I had been in the advance party dumped by bus in the desert town of Kermanshah, a genuine dust bowl hell-hole. The rest of the party were to follow when the food and other survival gear arrived by Land Rover. Our problem in the advance party of four was quite simple; We had to get half-a-ton of caving gear from Kermanshah across 20 miles of desert to a Kurdish settlement, hire donkeys to get the gear to the cave entrance at 11,000ft. and ladder up the cave. Without food or money.

The first problem seemed a bit daunting how to get the gear across the desert to the Kurds' donkeys? A promised helicopter, as expected, failed to arrive. Standing on the central island of a short dual carriageway leading out of the town, Glyn, the expedition poet from Dukinfield (I know, that's what I thought) had a brainwave. He just held out his hand and a taxi stopped.
We pointed at the four of us, the half ton of gear, then at the desert. The taxi driver beamed in Arabic and began dementedly throwing our gear into the taxi then persuaded us to climb in after.

"It's not a melon," he screamed with delight, "it's a bleeding pumpkin!" Somewhere in the middle of a road in southern Yugo­slavia there probably still lies 9810 of a giant, uneatable pumpkin. By the time Austria came I began to ponder why I wasn't getting my share of Elizabeth and why Kelly was getting more than his. It wasn't that she ignored me, she just observed with a strange look from a distance.  We had just over 9p between us; we thought it only fair to show this to the driver first, then just wait and see how far down the road to the desert this would take us.

Minutes later we were at the roadhead with ten miles of pure desert between us and the Kurds' tents. Instead of stopping our beaming driver careered off the road into the desert with dust, sand and sagebrush flying everywhere. That taxi went in a dead straight line for ten miles over sand, dry streambeds, rocks, camel skeletons and the like to drop us at the Kurdish encampment. Off went Abdul in a cloud of dust with his 9p, beaming all over his face.

The donkeys were there, dozens of them all controlled by one impudent little twelve-year-old Kurd and his younger sister. He was very efficient, leading all the donkeys up the crag-littered mountain flank on his own after tying them all together. He tied a short rope from one donkey on to the tail of the next one and so on. This Whymper-like arrangement was to have disastrous consequences later.
This little Kurd tried to swap his sister for my Swiss Army knife, then when that didn't work he upped his offer to his sister and a donkey. I didn't go much for that either so he stole it from me.
Well, the caving ended uneventfully with little of interest happening, apart from a ten-foot-long mountain leopard jumping over John and Colin as it passed them going the opposite way on a knife-edge limestone ridge at night (what either party were doing there at that time is a complete mystery to me).

The donkeys returned for the trip down, were loaded up and tied together. At the very top of the steep south flank of the mountain the donkey Kurd decided to take a short cut across a smooth limestone slab. One donkey fell and another six went with it, donkeys and our gear strewing themselves down over hundreds of feet of hillside. The Great Donkey Disaster left much of our gear and several dead donkeys on that hillside for ever, but the Kurds kept beaming all over their faces.
Returning to Kermanshah there only remained the most danger­ous part of the expedition for me, the final meal out and booze up. It was here that Caver X made his first series of attempts to murder me. (I should explain here that he was not without motive, I did owe him £5.36 for the expedition insurance cover).

Mister X took the expedition to a desert village mealhouse in theLand Rover and we ate and got plastered. This in itself was quite dangerous—to drink at all in these orthodox Muslim areas was risking being stormed by the Arabs, though we felt fairly safe in numbers.Having taken us out there Mister X decided he wasn't taking me back, but would leave me to the glaring Arabs around. I didn't fancy this so when the Land Rover set off I jumped on to the roof rackHalfway back I couldn't resist hanging down over the wind­screen and peering in at Mister X.

He was furious and immediately drove off the road into a forest of low  trees in an attempt to sweep me off the roof; too drunk to argue, I got off, only to grab the towing ball on the back as I saw how close the Arabs were getting. You should try hanging on a greasy ball with your backside bouncing off the desert in the middle of nowhere, being chased by hordes of stone-throwing Arabs.I survived, but I nearly succumbed in another assassination attempt a  week later. I was sure I was in dire need of antibiotics; X, however, had padlocked the medicine chest to induce me to die. Having broken in in the dark, I gobbled half a bottle of painkillers by mistake.......I don't think they did me any permanent damage.
Pete Livesey

First Published in Crags 1971

Friday, 12 October 2012

Goodbye David Hooper

Photo Ben Ball
No apologies for postponing this weeks planned article to offer a brief tribute to a much loved climbing friend to so many, David Hooper. Like many people, I first came across Dave on the popular UK Climbing forum where his calm and measured postings contrasted markedly with my own more incendiary offerings which were quaranteed to set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons! Despite this, Dave became a cyber soul mate and comrade and I was delighted to finally meet up with him when he turned up at my gaff in North Wales with his lovely partner Liz and his legendary hound, Chewwie.

A long time resident of Liverpool, Dave had arrived in the city as a student- having spent his formative years in London-and remained in the city for the rest of his life. A keen climber and outdoorsman, he was a  well known and popular  figure amongst climbers in north Wales and nearly everyone, from the novices he instructed, to the leading lights in the field, inevitably encountered the strikingly dreadlocked old hippie and his equally hirsute hound, sooner or later on the Welsh crags.

Never a climbing star in the sense of technical achievment and new routing exploits, David found his true vocation and gained supreme satisfaction, teaching others to climb through his role as a self employed instructor.A role which opened up new international horizons to him.In climbing, he had a particular preference in later years, for winter climbing. Furthermore, his outdoor activity developed a new perspective in recent years when he gained a passionate interest in mountain biking. An interest that took him all over Wales and northern England. In particular,the popular Llandegla Mountain Bike Centre became something of a second home.

Apart from his south Liverpool abode, Dave and Liz had a unique second home-a converted ex army hut which had been beautifully restored- near Capel Curig in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park. It became a welcoming haven for friends from far and wide who descended on the hut for a brew and for some lively banter. The last couple of years were  however,particularly painful for Dave and Liz. First beloved Chewwie died  two years ago at the same time as David was showing signs that the cancer he had defeated 12 years previously had returned. Alas, this time,despite fighting a hugely positive rearguard action,he finally succumbed to the disease earlier today.

Like many of those offering tributes across the internet today, I was lucky to know David in life although my only regret will be that he came into my life somewhat late in the day. His calm reflective personality and positivity could only enhance the lives of anyone who came into contact with him. He will be greatly missed by so many.

Equal to everybody else video featuring Dave Hooper

Friday, 5 October 2012

Landscape and identity: Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines

 My plan when I started this blog back in 2009 was to use it to as a platform on which to explore the connections that exist between landscape and identity. Such connections are abstract and intangible; consequently I have touched on the topic infrequently and obliquely. A recent work trip to the US provided me with the time and space to re-read a favourite book that has a lot to say on this subject, Bruce Chatwin's 'The Songlines'.


Published in 1987, the book describes Chatwin's travels among the Aboriginal peoples of the area surrounding Alice Springs in Australia's red centre. He gained access to these normally reticent people courtesy of Arkady, who was surveying the route of a proposed railway between Darwin and Alice Springs, working with the traditional owners to identify their sacred sites so that the railway could be built with as little adverse publicity as possible. 'The Songlines' paints a vivid picture of the country and its inhabitants. But it is more than a travelogue, along the way Chatwin lays out his ideas on nomadism and on the roots of human aggression. Almost twelve years had elapsed since I read  'The Songlines'  for the first time. The aspect of the book that stuck with me over that time was its description of the Aboriginals' deep and complex relationship with their land, which I will attempt to summarise below.
The song lines or dreaming tracks are known to the Aboriginals as the 'footprints of the ancestors', legendary totemic beings that wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their paths, singing the world into existence. The ancestors were generally animals; for example kangaroos, echidnas, budgerigars, ants or termites. The ancestors fashioned themselves from clay and traveled through the country scattering a trail of words and musical notes along the line of their footprints. The concept of going on walkabout - disappearing into the bush for weeks or months on end - was popularised by the film 'Crocodile Dundee', however I don't recall Paul Hogan mentioning that when an Aboriginal goes on walkabout he retraces the steps of his ancestor and sings the ancestor's songs, recreating the Creation. For the Aboriginals the land existed first as a concept in the mind, only once it had been sung did it really exist.


Everyone inherited, as his or her own private property, a stretch of his or her ancestor's song and the country over which the song passed. A man's songs were the title deeds to his territory. One may lend or borrow song, but never sell or destroy them. Stops are handover points where the song passed from one's ownership, perhaps to a member of a neighbouring tribe in who shared one's dreamtime ancestor. Elders would advise travelling only 2 or 3 stops down the songline, but man may acquire ritual knowledge, thus extending his song-map and his territory. If a man strayed from his songline without first acquiring the necessary songs, he was trespassing and could expect rough treatment - even a spearing - from the owners. But if he had the song he could rely on their hospitality.


Most tribes speak the same language as their neighbours, or at least a similar one. However, song cycles may pass through many language barriers, for example following lines of reliable waterholes from Broome in the Northwest right through the centre to Adelaide in the South, passing through 20 languages en route.  For example in 1900 an Arnhemlander walked from his home, northeast of Darwin, to the south coast. There he found a wife, who he took home to the opposite side of the continent. Her brother accompanied them on the return journey and did the reverse.
The real mystery and beauty of the songlines is that an Aboriginal would be able to recognise the land being sung by a member of another tribe from a thousand miles away, despite not knowing a word of the language in which the song was sung. Chatwin reported that at least three theories had been proposed. Firstly there was telepathy. Secondly there was something that sounded like astral projection or the shamanic 'flying' described by Carlos Castaneda.  Lastly, the most likely explanation, which is that the land itself was encoded in the melody and rythm of the song. The melodic contour describes the lie of land directly, geographical features were rendered in particular note combinations. For example a listener would be able to count the number of river crossings or changes in gradient and pick out the precise position on a songline. The music of the dreamtime was thus a memory bank for finding one's way about the world. Chatwin tells of accompanying a group of Aboriginals in a Toyota Landcruiser, bumping along a dirt road. He noted that one of the men was singing very quickly, his lips a blur. The cadence of his song altered with the speed of the vehicle, suggesting that his song described the country in real time, at walking pace.


In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land: if the songs are forgotten the land itself will die. Periodically the elders of a totemic clan may decide that it was necessary to sing their song cycle from beginning to end. All owners would assemble at a 'Big Place' and sing their sections in order. A Big Place would be a significant landscape feature, such as those in the photographs that accompany this piece, Uluru, Kata Tyuta, Kakadu and Karlu Karlu. Many songlines would converge at a Big Place making them important for trade and for arranging marriage between members of different tribes.
The Aboriginals of Australia are unique in having maintained a stable and mature hunter gatherer society for tens of millenia, perhaps fifty thousand years. Hence their beliefs may provide the best window available into the minds of our own distant ancestors. There are other constructs that are remeniscent, to some, of the songlines: Britain's ley lines; the dragon lines of Feng Shui; Lappish singing stones; the Nazca lines of Peru. Yet Chatwin felt the songlines not be be a peculiarly Australian phenomenon, but to be universal; that they were the means by which man had marked out his territory and organised his social life. All other successive systems were variants - or perversions - of this original model.


The main songlines in Australia appear to enter the country from the north or northwest - from across the Timor Sea or the Torres Strait - and from there weave their way southwards across the continent. It is possible - perhaps probable - that they represent the routes of the first Australians as they traversed the country around sixty thousand years ago. Chatwin presented an enchanting vision of  songlines stretching across the continents and through the ages, speculating that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song, and that these trails must reach back in time and space to the region in Africa's Rift Valley from which all modern humans originated.
We may  now and again catch an echo of these trails of song. Chatwin speculated that the whole of classical mythology might represent a totemic geography of the ancient world. I have not read his later work and so don't know if he was able to expand on these ideas prior to his death in 1989. It strikes me that these echos may even be audible in Scotland, that through legend and placenames it may be possible to reach back through time and to see into the minds of the first hunter gatherers that migrated into Scotland at the end of the ice age, eleven thousand or so years ago.


This may seem far-fetched, but let me give you an example of an echo that I heard on my recent trip to the Isle of Jura to view the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Corryvreckan has been translated as ‘cauldron of the plaid’. The plaid in question was owned by the Goddess of Winter, Cailleach Bheur.  As winter approached the Cailleach could be heard washing her plaid in the swirling waters of the Corryvreckan for three days – possibly a reference to the enhancement of the whirlpool’s roar by the equinoctial gales. After such treatment the plaid was pure white and became the blanket of snow that covered the land. Placenames containing Cailleach are common in Scotland and are often translated as 'old woman' or 'witch'. But could it be that all these Cailleach landscape features are linked to ancient legend, and that a route connecting them might trace the path taken  by some form of dreamtime ancestor and by inference the migration routes of the first Scots?


I'm going to finish by restating the Aboriginal belief that an unsung land is a dead land: if the songs are forgotten the land itself will die. I visited that wild west coast of Jura twice in 2011 and both times I  publicised it online through word and picture (see the first visit here). Being actively involved in the popularisation of wild places makes me slightly uneasy, for part of the attraction of these places is that one can count on not meeting other people. But I believe it is also important to spread the message and keep the place alive, after all would I even have been there had W.H. Murray not inspired me by writing of his visit? For me that rugged coast will always be there, and it will always be important. But if no-one ever went there, if its beauty remained unseen - and it has been seen less and less over the centuries - at what point could it be said to no longer exist in any real sense? As I stood alone atop the flat-topped stump of Aros Castle behind the Glengarrisdale bothy, admiring the view out to sea and thinking these thoughts with the wind in my hair, I would like to think that in some small way I shared the feelings of deep reverence and connection with the landscape that an Aboriginal experiences as he sings his country into existence.

Gavin Macfie

First published on Gavin Macfie's 57 Degrees North