I took a trip into the wilderness of Argyll at the weekend. Along with some friends I canoed along Loch Striven, camping on the shoreline amongst the birch trees and the bluebells. The air was alive with spring- birds stuffing last years grass into cracks being watched carefully by all those noisy cuckoos. The sea loch still enough to carry the tell tale ripples made by porpoise or the eager seals or the arrow like dive of the gannets. A huge moon rising over the hills bright enough to cast shadows.

On days like this it is impossible not to be aware of the new season- winter is over and everything is coming alive (even though it was VERY cold at night!) However, our connection to these things is increasingly distanced by the way we live. Our air conditioned centrally heated living spaces remain the same temperature the year long, the food we eat is available no matter what the growing season and the lengthening days serve only to facilitate our leisure pursuits.

It was not always like this. Many of the festivals we celebrate have their roots in ancient ways of marking the changing of the seasons. We humans have a way of ritualising and celebrating boundaries and transitions- particularly the ones that matter- the ones that might be the difference between life and death. So, the coming of milk to the fist pregnant ewe came to be called Imbolc in these parts, and the first blossom on the apple trees brought about the riotous dancing of Beltane. Then there was the celebration of the very last of the harvest- Lughnasadh. 

This connection to the natural world is one that many of us still crave, without always being clear why. It is something we only really experience when in the vulnerability of being in wild places. By watching the progression of the year from the sleep of winter to the wilt of late summer and the last blaze of Autumn it becomes possible to see once again this world for what it is, and our small place within it all.

Then the season becomes like a song. It finds its way inside us.

Wilderness retreat pictures…

We are back after a wonderful few days out in the wild.

This year the Aoradh wilderness trip did not venture out to one of the islands- a few people dropped out and so the boat charter would have just been too expensive. We decided that we would stay more local, so I scouted out a location half way up one of our lovely lochs- Loch Striven.  Five of us walked/canoed in from the road end and spent two days and nights in silence, in community and preparing lavish outdoor meals.

This time we managed to bake bread in a biscuit tin oven, bake potatoes and apples, cook mussels harvested from the shore in front of the tent, and spend hours sitting round the campfire talking and laughing.

Even though the weather was mostly lovely it was unusually cold, which was a shame as I took advantage of the trees to use my camping hammock/tarp set up- which turned out to be rather chilly.

This trip was very different to our other wilderness retreats but still really great- it made us appreciate again the wild places right on our doorstep here in Argyll. We also wondered whether it might be a chance to offer people short taster sessions of what wilderness and spirituality together can offer.

I also got to do some canoeing too, for the first time for a while. Andy and I clocked up around 18 miles of paddling. In the process of which we saw seals, porpoise and countless sea birds. Today we canoed to the head of the Loch and Michaela came to collect us. Lovely!

The graffiti ghosts of Polphail village…

I came across a lovely blog the other day- Westcoastings. Well worth checking out not just because the author is but a skip across the peninsular from here, but also because it is beautifully written.

It also mentioned Polphail village– a collection of empty buildings out along the coast built in the early 1970’s to house the workers of a proposed oil platform construction yard. The yard never happened, and the houses were never occupied. Instead they have lain empty for all these years, slowly soaking up the west coast weather and mouldering into the hillside. It stands as one of those failed 1970’s macro economic experiments gone wrong- and despite many false dawns no alternative use for the site was ever found.

It is already an atmospheric place- a strange piece of urban decay in the middle of wilderness- as if a slice of the inner city had been teleported in some kind of science fiction experiment gone wrong.

What I was not aware of however was that a Graffiti outfit called Agents of Change used Polphail as a blank canvas (hmm- perhaps that is not the best metaphor come to think of it) for all sorts of wonderful art.

So this afternoon we took a trip out there, cameras in hand.

It was a rather wonderful experience. It feels like some kind of furtive secret discovery, and the contrasts and contradictions land on you like lead weights as you wander round.

Soon it will all be gone, either because the site will be demolished, or simply because it will fall down. Either way, if you visit- be careful!

Here are some more pics- click to open…

Extreme commuting…

I am just back from the island of Bute. It was one of the those white knuckle journeys after which you sink into the chair at home with the white lines still coming at you like machine gun tracer.

Not that there always are white lines on the roads I drive- the shaky shot above was taken on one of those half road-half hillside single track ‘roads’ we have up here. They can be dangerous, particularly if you take them for granted. Particularly if you are in a hurry.

Sometimes I take for granted just how wonderful the landscape is that I live and work in. Today was not one of those days as the power of the wind and the huge deluge of water falling was impossible to ignore. Here are a few shots taken on my commute home…

I blinked…

I blinked

And the weekend

Went by

These days-

Like feathered things


More dispatches from the roads of Argyll…

Another brush with eternity this morning…

I travel the road between Dunoon and Lochgilphead regularly- three times this week. It is a 120 mile round trip on rural roads- in particular the beautiful yet infamous A83– one of the most dangerous roads in the country.

Road conditions are particularly bad at the moment as they are full of pot holes opened up by the winter ice. This damage adds to the fact that Argyll’s roads are the worst maintained in the whole of Scotland (according to Audit Scotland- see here.) I have had to replace two buckled wheels, two coil springs and track rod ends on my car in the last year and a half.

But the simple fact is that most of these accidents are not related to the road conditions- this from a government report-

1.5 This existing information shows that a greater proportion of all types of road users, except pedestrians, are killed on roads in non-built-up areas and, with the exception of pedestrians and pedal cyclists, a greater proportion are killed or seriously injured on these roads. Car-users account for over 70% of all killed or seriously injured casualties on non-built-up roads and most car occupant fatalities occur on non-built-up roads.

1.6 Locally managed, non-built-up A-roads and B-roads have the highest accident rate per vehicle-kilometre in Scotland, while motorways have markedly lower accident rates per vehicle-kilometre. Most rural accidents on single-carriageways occur on A-roads in 60mph (miles per hour) speed limits away from junctions. Single vehicle accidents account for one-third of all rural single-carriageway accidents. These are most likely to occur on bends, at night on B- or C-roads 3 and involve younger drivers.

1.7 Higher severity rates on non-built-up roads are considered likely to be associated with higher speeds on those roads. Rates increase in darkness, though the type of road (non-built-up versus built-up) appears to be a more important factor than light conditions. Poor road conditions (i.e. wet or with ice, frost or snow) appear to affect severity rates less. In absolute numbers, around half of those killed or seriously injured are involved in accidents on dry roads. There is some evidence from previous research to suggest that attitude rather than skill is related to crash involvement. This is particularly the case on rural roads due to higher speeds.

Have I driven too fast on these roads? Yes. Have I had numerous near misses due to other people driving too fast? You bet.

But lest we all kid ourselves that we can control the unexpected in such conditions, today I was witness to a rather typical accident.

There is a stretch of road a few miles beyond Inveraray that climbs over a hill, through some cleared forestry, just before Auchindrain. It is one  the usual overtaking spots- and regular drivers of the A83 value these places to get past slow lines of forest lorries or rubber necking tourists.

Today I approached just as another car was being beckoned past a white van. Just as it got past I positioned my car to do the same, but then caught sight of the other car spinning on the slick road surface, before it rolled end over end off the road and into a field.

The driver was not driving recklessly or too fast. It was not raining, and although there was a little mist around, the road was dry. Rather he had the misfortune to attempt a standard maneuver on a piece of road where the combination of adverse camber and slick road surface combined to over come the adhesion of his car to the road.

A chaos of car tyres and narrow misses.

No one else stopped, and I found myself wading through mud to try to help. Fortunately the drivers injuries were not severe- mainly cuts and from glass.

It could have been so much worse. The place were we stood waiting for ambulance and police was covered with the debris of previous accidents- including syringes and gloves left by paramedics. The old ash tree there had pieces of Mercedes van still embedded in it.

There is a thin veil sometimes between this world and whatever is still to come.

Seperated by a tyre tread.

Sun shining on water…

What a lovely day. It was a time for Sabbath, after a particularly busy few weeks…

Ice in the morning- then a glorious autumn day, with calm waters holding the reflection of the trees and mountains.

We drove to Inveraray to meet some old friends, Mark and Joy who are holidaying in Oban. It was great to see them again. Mark and I used to lead a music team at a church in England, and Joy has the most lovely pure singing voice. We had lunch in the George Inn, and then ate an unseasonal ice cream.

And sat at the waters edge, enjoying Scotland in the sunshine…

Before going home at sunset, deeply grateful…


Another narrow escape!

Hmmm- I am beginning to wonder if someone as got it in for me (“Infamy! Infamy!….)

(Or perhaps someone is really looking out for me.)

I had a brush with danger again this morning. Driving on the narrow road between Arrochar and Helensburgh I encountered an articulated lorry coming the other way, filling the whole width of the road.

I was not going very fast, but our combined speed must have been around 50 MPH, and I met him on a corner.

I had a choice- the lorry or the ditch, so chose the latter.

Ripping two tires to bits in the process and bending one wheel like a banana.

And the lorry?

It did not even stop.

And no, I did not get the company or the registration.

Ah well, in this case, it is only money…

The roads of Argyll- they take their toll on us all.

But there are some compensations to being around here of course-