Wednesday 12 December 2012


Here's Bill's latest, shot on Ardroe. 

Sunday 2 December 2012

New Year Resolution writing week

There's going to be a creative writing week at Glencanisp Lodge, the first for almost two years, in January. It's the week after Hogmanay (from Sunday 6 to Friday 11 January) - the perfect week to put your new year's writing resolutions into action.

The Lodge is under new management (still Assynt Foundation, but new staff and board of directors) and this makes creative use of the lodge affordable again.The setting is spectacular and the lodge is lovely, with rooms ranging from comfortable to luxurious. If you need a week to get away from the internet, the mobile phone, work, family or whatever else it is that stops you writing, come to Assynt. The many writing weeks we have held at the lodge since the community bought it have all proved very productive for the people who came.

Back in 2005, the community of Assynt bought a big chunk of Scotland's land, including the iconic mountain of Suilven, which presides over the lodge. There's no more inspiring place to write, plus it's a great feeling to support a local community charity whilst indulging in a pleasurable and creative week. 

To find out more, see here:

If you'd like to come, but can't for some reason, do let me know why. The new arrangements are trial and feedback would be welcome. Hopefully there'll be at least one other creative writing week later in 2013.

Friday 30 November 2012

Bears and seeds

When I suggest to people that perhaps brown bears could return to Scotland, I often get a response along the lines of 'maybe, once the forests are restored...' But I think this might be putting the cart before the horse. As well as keeping herbivores on their toes, bears have an even bigger role to play in natural woodland regeneration.

One of the most interesting things I found out while researching my novel Bear Witness is the role bears play in spreading seeds, particularly big woodland seeds like acorns and hazel nuts. When I met Andras Zedrosser and Jon Swenson from the International Bear Association in Norway I asked them what European brown bears' main ecological role is, and their response was 'tree seed dispersal'.

If there are nuts and berries available bears will scoff large quantities and some of them will get right through the bears' digestive tracts and emerge with a good quantity of fertiliser. Anyone who has seen autumn bear scat knows it is berry-laden. Bears have big ranges too, so by the time the seeds are sown, they can be quite a long way from where they were eaten.

So, if we want help spreading our native woodlands, bears could be very helpful. They don't need to live in woods all the time; there are plenty of bears in tundra areas in northern Europe and Russia, for example, so they would probably survive in some of our more open lands and would probably help these lands to regain some tree cover.

I've seen people marvel at the graphs that show how rapidly oak and hazel moved north and recolonised Britain after the end of the last ice age. One of the reasons for this is bound to be that bears were helping the spread of the seeds.

Bears would also help to spread berry trees, like rowans, although right now the huge and wonderful flocks of redwings, fieldfares and waxwings, who have summered in bear-rich habitats, are doing a great job. Everything with yummy seeds (hawthorns and blackthorns, crab apples, wild cherries, hollies, brambles, roses, raspberries, strawberries) would stand a better chance of being dispersed if bears were back in our ecosystems. Many of these species aren't planted at all in the tree plantations that are installed under the guise of 'new native woodlands'.

So I say, if we want more forests so that we can have bears in them, why not get some bears to help? That way we'll be more likely to end up with the kind of woodlands they might like!

Thursday 29 November 2012

Is it time to bring back bears?

Oliver Rackham was recently bemoaning the UK's approach to woodland expansion being so dominated by tree planting, rather than natural regeneration. Not only are the resulting plantations artificial, but the whole process has encouraged the seedling trade across borders that is being blamed for ash dieback disease's introduction to Britain.

One of the main reasons new woods are planted rather than regrown naturally is because we have such unnaturally high levels of herbivores. Young trees can only get away if they're grown behind fences to protect them from teeth and the high costs of fencing and our current system of forestry grants has led to an urgency to get trees established in order to be able to claim grants quickly and recoup the outlay on fences.

I was fascinated to read recently (in The History of British Mammals by Derek Yalden) that Britain's wild mammals weigh, in total, only about 140,000 tonnes (humans weigh in at 3 million tonnes, and our domestic animals at a further 3.5 million tonnes). Not only is it incredible that we and our livestock outweigh the wild mammals 40 to 1, but of those wild mammals, half of the total weight is deer and rabbits. What chance, frankly, does a wild wood have?

So, is it time to think about returning some of our native carnivores, to keep the bunnies and deer under control, and reassert a bit of natural balance in our shattered and fragile ecosystems? This is the question I address in my new novel, Bear Witness, which will be published by Saraband on Earth Day, 22 April 2013. We're allowed  a sneak preview of the cover - you saw it here first!

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Ash die-back

In case you haven't heard, there is a nasty disease spreading through ash groves around the UK, called chalara dieback (see the Forestry Commission's site for details). We may, unfortunately, be about to experience the massive loss of ash trees that Denmark has been suffering in recent years (see here for more about that).

I can't help reflecting on what this all means. Ash has always been a hugely valuable tree, because not only is it the best firewood but it's also a useful timber, so valuable in fact that in times gone by people caught cutting ash trees without permission could even be hung. However, the significance of ash is not just economic; many cultures including the ancient Greeks and Celts revered the ash as a symbol of one powerful god or another (see here).

No culture gave greater importance to the ash than the Norse people, to whom the ash was (and from the reports from Denmark perhaps still is) the tree of life. Vikings called themselves ‘Aesling’, which means Men of Ash. They believed the first man came from an ash tree (and his wife came from a rowan, sometimes called mountain ash).

One ash tree in particular, Yggdrasil, was the sacred Norse World Tree, the axis of the world, around which the universe achieved harmony. Yggdrasil was believed to hold the earth in its roots and the gods’ houses in its upper branches. Idun, the Norse goddess of life, lived in the tree.

The legend says that when the ash tree dies, so dies the world. Perhaps it is not surprising so many people are grief-stricken at the tragedy of withering ash trees.

Sunday 18 November 2012

In praise of hazel

Hazel nuts
The most interesting thing I did this week was to look down a microscope at a four thousand year old fire. Incredibly, from the charcoal we dug up at the burnt mound excavation at Stronechrubie (for more of which see we can tell which species of tree they were burning. As well as birch, which we expected, we found hawthorn or apple, which we didn't, as well as lots of alder and hazel. I kept getting these two mixed up, until I learned that appropriately enough, through the microscope, the cellular structure of hazelwood has flame-like patterns of pores that lick up from each annual growth ring.

We also found hazel charcoal in the broch at Clachtoll, where it was used to create the floor of the first storey of the building. The woods here on the croft are still rich in hazel, and they have clearly been coppiced for centuries, presumably to make all kinds of useful things from hurdles to fishing creels. I used it to make the bender when I was writing The Last Bear and I needed to see how Brigid would have made hers. And I used it for the struts of the back-creel I use to bring bring seaweed up from the shore. Maybe it's because it's my Mum's name, but Hazel always seems a special tree to me.

I'm compiling an anthology of tree poems at the moment, and have been surprised at the paucity of poems about hazel, despite its plethora of uses, its importance as the symbol of wisdom in folklore, the sheer beauty of the tree - especially its lovely catkins in early spring - and of course its delicious nuts. G F Dutton wrote a brilliant one - but if you know any other good hazel poems please let me know.

At this time of year, I have a compulsion to gather hazel nuts. My pockets fill up every time I walk in the woods and I sow them in fish boxes then plant them out to grow on in the garden.

However, each year I complain that the nuts are mostly infertile. You can tell by putting them in water - those with kernels sink, the empty ones float. Each year, my pockets yield up about 2% sinkers to 98% floaters. This year I tried picking them direct from the trees and they have averaged more than 60% with kernels. So, I've had to revise my view that the trees are poor producers - I have far too many to grow and have been eating them - delicious! I realise the mice and voles must get to the fallen ones before I do, and they don't need to see if they sink in water to know if they're worth taking home or not - presumably a full hazelnut is, to a mouse, considerably heavier than an empty one.

Despite the low yield of the fallen nuts, two years ago I collected so many I now have lots of young hazels to plant out on the croft. Or maybe I'll replenish some of our more degraded woodlands elsewhere in Assynt. If we ever bring bears back, they'll no doubt appreciate them!

Sunday 14 October 2012

Rowan Jelly

The rowans are berrier than I've ever known them this year - making up for last year's total lack. I'm also making up for it and I've made twice as many jars of rowan jelly as I would usually. After the Assynt Festival, I needed to relax and there are few better ways than sitting listening to music while picking rowan berries off their stalks after a foraging walk. The jelly bag dripped all last night and the brew was completed this morning - all those little red jewels are transformed into jars full of ruby goodness.

If I do nothing else to honour the season of harvest, no matter how busy I am, I always make rowan jelly if there are any berries at all. It is tart and delicious with strong cheddar, brilliant with sweet vegetables like neeps and carrots and a good local substitute for marmalade.

If you want the recipe you'll need to look at the Handbook of Scotland's Wild Harvests, published by Saraband. This was the Scottish Book of the month earlier in the year, quite rightly, as it's packed full of brilliant free food recipes, together with folklore and harvesting advice and all sorts of other wisdom about eating from the wild. It was compiled by the wonderful people at the Scottish Wild Harvests Association. I wrote the rowan bit, including my jelly recipe, which is very simple but has never failed me.

Monday 8 October 2012

Not getting my hands dirty

I am currently writing a dig and trail diary for an archaeological dig project in Assynt. The archaeologists are digging a burnt mound - a mysterious pile of charred stones from the bronze age - and a team of guides is leading walks back into the mists of time around Assynt. I get to tag along and leave my impressions on the archaeologists' website.

If you'd like to follow the proceedings, it's here:

Sunday 30 September 2012

A celebration of the Tree Alphabet

Over the past year I've been celebrating the ancient link between writing and trees, as expressed in the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, or Ogham, which links a native woodland species with each letter. As part of the A-B-Tree project (see for more details) I challenged myself to write a poem for each species, and the result is a pamphlet of poems. I wanted to incorporate Bill Ritchie's photos too, and after a lot of fiddling about with layout and format, we settled on a two-part pamphlet, with the poems in one part and a pull-out strip of pictures.

I have hand-crafted 18 of these, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each is unique. The toggle on the front is made of the relevant species, with a felt leaf approximating to the right shape for each.

As the process has gone on, it began to feel clear that this is in no way a commercial venture and the pamphlets are not for sale. Instead, we are giving them to people who have been supportive of the project or of me and Bill. It has been really hard to decide who to give them to - 18 is in no way enough to thank all of the people we would like to thank. But they are now winging their way out into the world.

Hopefully I'll find another way to make the poems a bit more accessible. The photos are all up on the A-B-Tree web page.

Friday 31 August 2012

Bear Witness to be published by Saraband

My second novel, Bear Witness, will be published by Saraband in Spring 2013. There. You read it here first.

The novel tells the story of one woman's effort to try to bring about the return of bears to Scotland, so, in a way, it's a very, very, very long-term sequel to The Last Bear, which told of their demise. It draws on the old Greek story retold by Ovid, of Callisto, who was turned into a bear by Diana after she became pregnant with Jupiter's son. Bear Witness is set in a not-too-distant future Norway, Romania, Finland and Scotland and that's about all I'm going to give away.

I am also working with Saraband on an anthology of poetry based around the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, as a wonderful outcome of the A-B-Tree project.

How delighted am I? You can guess!

Tuesday 31 July 2012

To Mandy From Mandy

Sometimes you read something, and don't know whether to laugh or cry. Today is one of those times - the other Mandy is in bed with the nastiest paper company in the world. 

In a recent interview with Pulp and Paper International, that well-known organ of the pulp industry, Peter Mandelson, aka The Prince of Darkness, aka 'Mandy', explains that he has been hired by Asia Pulp and Paper as a consultant, gushing that 'it is more than an opportunity, it is a privilege to help a company like APP'. 

Peter Mandelson, you will remember, is a master of spin. As Tony Blair's right-hand-man he turned the UK's Labour Party from a socialist party into a bastion of capitalism, steering us directly into the economic and moral shambles that we'll no doubt remain in for years to come. A master of spin and double-speak, he massaged the left wing of British politics so far into the centre ground that it became indistinguishable from Thatcherism. 

And now, he has the 'privilege' of working for APP - Asia Pulp and Paper - and his job is presumably to carry out a similar act of legerdemain. There isn't a paper company on the planet with a worse reputation for forest destruction and trampling the rights of local communities than APP. They are responsible for massive deforestation in Indonesia, taking over vast tracts of land without the local indigenous people's consent, razing forest to the ground and replacing it with monoculture plantations of alien species, like acacia. When I visited Indonesia to research my book, Paper Trails: from trees to trash, the true cost of paper, I was steered away from close investigation of APP because their security forces were deemed too dangerous. If you're interested, you can read about it in chapter 5. 

This is a bad company, and now they're being promoted by one of Europe's most powerful men. After playing his part in various scandals in the UK, Peter Mandelson became Trade Commissioner for the EU, and it is this role that is useful to APP. The company has a track record of reneging on debt and using wood of at best 'questionable legality' (see a recent letter to European export credit agencies for more details). Next year, the European Union will bring in strict new rules banning the import of wood and paper products that come from illegal timber. Peter Mandelson's job is to work out how APP can flaunt, or get around, these rules.

What bugs me most about Peter Mandelson's skin-creepy interview in PPI is how he scoffs at the environmental and human rights organisations that have been campaigning tirelessly for years to try to limit the damage being wreaked by APP on Indonesia's forests and forest people. He sanctimoniously urges NGOs 'to stop dwelling on the past and start focussing fully on the future'. But a recent report from Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of Indonesian organisations, shows that APP's promises for the future have no substance whatsoever. 

What Peter Mandelson is ignoring is that the environmental and human rights community has been talking about the future for years. The future of the forests and their people is what gets us out of bed in the morning. Back in 2006, a huge consensus about what we want the future to look like was achieved, and more than 50 organisations in Europe signed up to a Vision for Transforming the Pulp and Paper Industry. There's an even bigger network signed up to a similar vision in North America. We've been focussing on the future for years, while all APP has been focussed on is trashing the rainforest and telling lies. 

Peter Mandelson needs to wake up to the reality of the present - the people who are struggling today to make their livelihood because they have lost their land under a pulp plantation, the carbon emissions from the deep peat soils laid bare by APP's logging machinery, the tigers and orang-utans whose dwindling rainforest habitat is being cut down as you read this. Of course we shouldn't believe a word of APP's so-called 'Sustainability Roadmap', and the reason is neither because of the past nor the future, it's because of what is happening to the Indonesian forests to supply APP's pulp mills right this minute. 


Sunday 8 July 2012

Greedy bastard!

On Friday night a deer got into my vegetable garden. It didn't just stroll in, it forced its way under the fence, then feasted. It ate every single brassica plant in the place: all the cabbages, calabrese, kale and most gutting, the 40 brussels sprouts plants I have been lavishing care on (they're Bill's favourite vegetable). It demolished the entire row of peas, snapping the broad beans plants (which are not to its taste) in order to get at them. It trampled the onions in order to devour the carrots. It snacked on the lettuces and had a tasting of potatoes.

Fruit for pudding, naturally: it stripped the apple and plum trees of every leaf and as the damson was a bit tall it snapped the main stem in half, to make sure it didn't miss a single shred of foliage. Then, just to complete the devastation, it smashed its way out, ripping the mesh of the fence and tearing nails out of posts.

To say I was upset yesterday is to understate the matter. But by the end of the afternoon I'd reached the point where the fence was repaired, and thanks to the generosity of neighbours in offering materials and brassica plants to try again, I was contemplating a possible future for the garden. By this morning, I was being philosophical about the fact that we share this place with wild animals, and with new, stronger defences in place, I was planning how I'd replant the beds.

But while I slept, the deer, clearly a cabbage addict, busted into my main garden for a second feast. My fruit cage is intact, except that a deer got in there already in April, whcih neatly trimmed off all the fruiting shoots and grazed the strawberries to the ground, so there's barely a berry in the place. Last night's kale-junky invader sniffed out every single brassica, even the pretty red cabbages I'd put in amongst the herbs and sweet peas for colour, and razed them to the earth. It trampled around on the seed and bean beds, scoffing as it went. It chewed the apple and pear trees to smithereens, munched the raspberries, sheared the cherries and roses and bit the shoots of all virtually every single willow withy in my basketmaking grove.

It is quite incredible what one ungulate can eat in one night.

Why did it wait until this year? For 12 years the garden has been deer proof, but most years I am pretty slack about keeping on top of it. This year I have lavished attention on it and, until yesterday, it was the best it has ever looked. I was looking forward to bumper crops. I suppose, ironically, this means it is the first time it has been worth invading.

What guts me is that we live on 11 hectares, all managed as regenerating native woodland, intentionally left wild with no non-native species. We only use 0.1 hectare for our own food production. The damned deer has 99% of the croft to indulge itself in whatever it wants! We don't like them to eat the trees, we ask them politely not to whenever we bump into them, but we basically tolerate them taking a share of the growth, rather than fencing out not only them but also the badgers, foxes, pine martins, otters and wild cat. But not content with 99% of the croft, the greedy bastard has been coveting my cabbages, and has now taken to breaking, entering and theft.

I am a vegetarian, sandal-wearing peacenik, but I tell you, it's enough to set me to sharpening a spear. Bring back the bears and wolves, that's what I say.

Saturday 30 June 2012

Mint Sauce

Variegated pineapple mint
This time of year I seem to be too busy to blog. There's so much to do outside it's hard to find the time to do the essential things at the desk, like work, let alone this. But  today I made mint sauce, and thought the world should know.Why? It's one of the seasonal rituals that marks midsummer, I suppose, the beginning of the long, wonderful feasting season of autumn.

Mint sauce is always my first real harvest activity, the first big bag-full of stuff to be brought in from the garden. There is always a daily picking of salads of various sorts, some greens, lots of herbs, etc, but that feels like grazing rather than harvest.

I do mint sauce in quantity because I'm addicted to it and eat it with nearly every meal (every time I have potatoes I have it on the side, every time I eat curry I have a minty raita, and every salad dressing I ever make has mint sauce in it). A single jar of mint sauce requires a huge volume of mint - still surprising after about 20 years of making it.

Fortunately I have an extreme abundance of mint in the garden. It's my number one weed and grows rampantly among the fruit bushes. So gathering it is also a kind of weeding. I have several kinds - a very nice apple mint with furry leaves, a beautiful pineapple mint with white-and-green mottled leaves and a ginger mint that is a green-bronze thug. There's also wild peppermint here and a rather feeble spearmint. Today's sauce was made with apple and ginger mints.

I love the process, music on, newspaper spread out on  the floor, picking the leaves off the stems in a meditative manner and washing them. There are always all manner of creatures to pick off the greenery - blobs of cuckoo spit with little green hoppers inside, slugs to grumble at, spiders to rescue. There's the palaver of jam jars to be sterilised with boiling water and the sweet sugary vinegar to cook up. By this stage aromatherapy has really set in and I'm in a mint-hazed dwam of anticipation. I screw the grinder onto the shelf (I've got an old-fashioned hand-mincer - no mains electricity thus no food processor to ruin the quiet ritual) and start feeding it with leaves. Round and round the handle goes and the deep green fresh-scented pulp piles up in the bowl. On the music machine it's Liadov - old Russian folk tunes with lush orchestral textures - music to swoon to.

It's suddenly all over. The jars are full, the vinegar is in, the lids are on, the washing up is done. There's a shelf of pretty green jars and warm rain outside - the chanterelles will be shaping up nicely.

I still have masses of mint in the garden. Favourite recipes most welcome.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Bears in Norway

For the past two years I've been saving from my somewhat meagre income as a writer to go to Norway to research my next book. It's a novel, set in the future, about the reintroduction of brown bears to Scotland. It's speculative fiction, OK!

Having written The Last Bear, about their extinction in Scotland, writing the story of bringing them back has become a necessity. I can't bring myself to set it a thousand years in the future - surely it won't take that long – so I've set it, optimistically, in my lifetime.

So, where does Norway come in? The protagonist of the story starts out in Norway, and there she learns a lot about how to try to re-establish a precariously small, persecuted population of bears. Norway is similar in size to Scotland, with a similar number of people. It's more rural and it has twice as much forest and gets much more snow in winter, but there are lots of landscape similarities - a long coastline, lots of islands, not much good arable land and plenty of mountains. Brown bears were extinct there until fairly recently too. So I was interested to find out how the Norwegian rural people are managing to live with bears again.

Norway has a major advantage over Scotland - it is part of the continent, and shares a long border with Sweden, and short ones with Finland and Russia, over which bears can wander. As a National Park manager pointed out, bears don't recognise national boundaries!

In Sweden, the bear population was also decimated in the 19th century but in the 20th century made a big recovery. After the second world war, Sweden industrialised rapidly with a big shift of people away from rural areas to urban areas. This meant that the pressure on bears reduced dramatically, and they thrived accordingly. The population has doubled in the past twenty years. This expansion is the primary reason why bear numbers appear to be increasing in Norway. There are simply more Swedish-born bears wandering across the border.

Counting how many bears there are 'in Norway' is therefore a difficult process, as most of the bears found on the western side of the border probably spend most of their time in Sweden, which is home to around 3000 bears. There is intensive monitoring of bears in Norway, with DNA testing of hair and scat. Last year, just over a hundred bears were known to have visited. Many of these will be males, which roam widely, but a few females are slowly making their way into the country, with an estimated six females denning and producing litters.

With so few bears on the ground, we knew that spotting bears was going to be highly unlikely, especially in April. There was still a metre of snow on the ground, and although the sun was warm when it shone, and lakes were starting to thaw, nights could be bitterly cold. It was -12 degrees one morning when we got up out of our tent, and it had been colder than that in the night.

So we were over the moon, when walking in the Lierne forest, to spot bear scratchings on trees, and even more delighted to find two sets of footprints. One set were of a big animal, which walked down to a stream, and rolled in the snow nearby. The other set were an even bigger thrill - a set of big adult bear prints, with smaller prints interspersed with them. We could picture the mother keeping her cub nearby, and the cub trotting along following its mother's footsteps. We were told that last year's monitoring had shown 37 distinct bears had visited Lierne. We had seen evidence of the 38th bear!

There are some Norwegians who want to hunt bears, and a hunting quota is set annually by the government. And this quota is a serious work of fiction! The quota last bear was 26 bears, but the actual number of bears shot was just two. Why? Partly because they are extremely shy and difficult to hunt but mostly because there are simply so few of them. For a quota of 26 kills to be set for a resident population of less than 10 breeding females, and a total transient population of only about 100, is indicative of the history of persecution, the lasting paranoia about these animals, and the way quota-setting is based on politics rather than science.

I wonder how the 38th bear in Lierne will fare?