Circles of trees: an ‘arboretum’ in the making

​The idea of the arboretum came about in 2015, when I had the opportunity to take a long lease on the field adjacent to my home in Dumfriesshire. ​Having secured the arrangement, I began to ponder how to proceed. Almost two hectares in extent, the field had been set-aside for years as rough pasture. Long coveted, it now seemed a rather daunting responsibility.

Fortunately it did not daunt my ever practical friend Artur Nalepko, who assured me of his assistance and know-how. My principal idea was to plant trees, though I wasn’t sure which ones or in what groupings or pattern. The rather grand term ‘arboretum’ came a little later,

Over the years and with the turning of the seasons, various inspirations for the field have surfaced and evolved, though in no particular order. The ‘project’, if I can call it that, has grown in my head and also in the ground. In the former it emerges in fragments of new thinking, in the latter it appears in the living trees as they establish themselves and take their place in the landscape. The arboretum has emerged from the affordances of the topography, the weather, the soil, and the underlying geology. These interact in turn with my own imaginings, capabilities and feelings. It is a process that makes me as much as I make it.

Taking occupancy at Lammas, I spent the next few Autumn months pondering what to do. I began to learn about the aspects and contours of the field, which itself sits on a glacial moraine. The rising walk up from the garden. The sharp drop to the glen and the Pennyland Burn on the south east flank. The bank of blackthorn to the south and beyond it some ash trees, showing signs of age. The prevailing winds from the south west, broken to some extent by the Maryfield Wood beyond the boundary road. In the north west, the eye drawn up the open valley of the burn to stone-dyked fields dotted with cattle and sheep, with conifer forest beyond.  

On my walks round the field I noticed that in a couple of areas large circles of rosebay willow herb had formed – the fire weed. Why this had occurred, I am not sure. But on close examination the unfurling seed pods of the plant can also be seen to bend right back on themselves, forming thousands and thousands of delicate circles, so familiar, but until then unconsidered. The fire weed was to give me the central organising idea.

I resolved to plant different species of trees in circles of varying sizes. The first, and largest would be of beech, oak and hornbeam. Then on the field edge that drops to the burn, I decided to make a boundary of 100 silver birch trees. In the western corner and sunniest spot, Dr G suggested an orchard of a dozen fruit trees: apple, pear and plum, in equal number.  

My reading about trees planted in circles, landed me on the Irish legend of the well of wisdom, that was surrounded by nine hazels. A salmon in the well had once eaten a hazelnut from each tree and miraculously gained access to all the knowledge in the world.  I therefore determined to plant in circles of nine and for good measure, added Corylus avellana to my list. It seemed a good option for an academic.

Over the years I have planted several trees in the main garden, almost always from modestly priced young bare-rooted stock. Now I placed a large order with the supplier and the ‘whips’ duly arrived, tied in bundles and packed round with straw. On St Stephen’s Day 2016 we set about planting the first hardwoods. It was a satisfyingly repetitive job in the mid-winter cold, mainly done using a heavy pinch bar to make holes into the pebble rich ground. My six year old daughter laid out the supporting sticks and guards as we moved down the field edge. A couple of months later, in slightly warmer conditions, the fruit trees went in.

The success rate that year was remarkable. The oak and beech came into leaf quite late in the Spring, but seemed to settle immediately, the oaks with their distinctive red-coloured juvenile leaves. Ninety nine silver birch got away handsomely. As they grew and in time the bark developed its silvery appearance, I named this area Norwegian Wood, in honour of my friend the philosopher, Lars Johan Materstvedt. The hornbeams were less vigorous in their chosen spot, but seemed to do better elsewhere when I planted more a few years later.

With a certain amount of structure now laid out, I could think of further elaborations. The first of these, and a key decision, was to link together the tree circles with mown paths through the meadow grass.​ This simple measure produced remarkably pleasing effects and soon became popular with children and dogs at play, as well as adults who enjoyed the pleasant meanderings, twists and turns and the springy grass underfoot.

The paths suggested possible avenues. At Dr G’s request, we added an allée of poplars at the far side of the field and then planted green dogwoods in between them. A year later, further circles of red and black dogwoods were created. The first I underplanted with common snowdrops. In the centre of the second I placed a single specimen of Cornus Ilex, the holly oak, a tree I had recently come to know for the first time, in a courtyard at St Andrew’s University.

As the paths developed, they formed distinctive blocks of meadow, in varying shapes. The largest of these was blessed with huge swathes of stumpy wild daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Over the years these have flourished and spread. I have wondered if this is a consequence of the periodic mowing we do after flowering and die back, and again late in the season.

In several of the meadow patches I have planted other trees, in threes and fives: bird cherry, wild cherry, crab apple, rowan and different species of silver birch. In the far north west corner a Californian Pine is installed. It is growing at speed but I’m concerned about its stability. Nearer to the garden proper I’ve placed three weeping pears, more decorative in shape and with beautiful white flowers in Spring. I may add more in that area, perhaps ornamental cherries or small pine trees.

At an early stage, a small, rather makeshift cairn was built inside the circle of beeches. I also added there nine little holly plants, between the individual trees. Later I filled the circle with cammassia bulbs planted into the grass. One year I covered the cairn with grass strimmings, making it look like an old fashioned hay stack. It stayed like that for a few years and became home to voles and slow worms.

Centred on the cairn, I then made another path, this one flanked either side by Scots Pines, eight in all. These trees have proved the hardest to establish. Five are growing strong, but numbers of others have failed at various points over the years. Despite my best endeavours, they seem to dry out in hot weather. I have now settled for the five I have, despite the lack of symmetry in the walkway.

Similarly, right at the start I tried to make a fairly large circle of nine willow cuttings. It didn’t succeed. I tried again with nine yews. Only one survived – a more expensive failure. A third attempt has been more successful, using multiple hornbeams to form a screen. Inside this there is now a simple labyrinth. Its installation gave us some head scratching at first as we tried to fit a three circle unicursal path into the available space. Fortunately gardener Jules Gillam was able to figure out what was needed, fired up the mower and by the time I returned with coffee, a wonderful addition to the arboretum had been made. To my astonishment and delight, this small labyrinth, cut into the turf, provides daily opportunities for contemplation and deep thinking.

So pleased was I with the speed of growth in the nine oaks that I added an outer circle of nine more, thus creating the need for two concentric mown paths with a ring of rough grass in between. Into that, one Christmas holiday, my neighbour Colin Crosbie and I planted several large sackfuls of mixed narcissi, bought cheaply but bringing huge variety and a long period of interest.

In early 2021, I pruned away some of the low hanging branches in the first circle of oaks. This later became superb kindling. One morning that summer, I sat in the grass, face to the sunny breeze, my back against the strongest Quercus. I couldn’t quite believe that such a symbolic tree, so recently planted, was now giving me a place of shelter, musing and repose.

The double oak circle is by far the biggest in the field. From the start the central area seemed to have a lot of visual potential. Early in the creation of the arboretum, I was able to obtain five large pieces of Locharbriggs sandstone that had once been part of a railway bridge across the river Nith, about a mile away.  With the aid of machinery, we arranged these in an atmospheric group, easily visible from the unclassified road that runs by, just beyond the hedge. Later we covered this circle with a thick layer of pea gravel and I purchased a wooden hay rake made of ash: perfect for creating swirling patterns and ridges that look beautiful in low light or frost.

Passers-by were intrigued by the stones in the oak circle and by the whole arboretum, as it took shape. One day as Dr G strolled round the paths with the dog and I laboured with my first cairn, some walkers she knew passed by and asked what I was doing. ‘I haven’t a clue’ was her cheerful reply. Later, someone started calling my endeavours ‘the pagan garden’. I took that as a compliment.

In the summer of 2020 and not too long before returning to live in Poland, Artur found a large piece of whinstone that must have rumbled out of a drumlin at some point. It was carefully placed in a circle of viburnum I’d created a few years before, surrounded with small stones and then filled with gravel. On one side of the rock I placed a line of three more stones of diminishing size, that give a sense of planets in orbit. On the other side I planted two small ginkos. The viburnum flowered for the first time in late 2021. The whole circle is a modest homage to Japanese garden elements.

One Spring, making use of stone newly demolished from a wall near the house, I built a large and (for me) carefully constructed cairn, between the two smallest circles, and into each of which I then added some large balanced stones. When one group of these collapsed, I left it be, content to see the narrative unfold.

In total, the circles comprise, oak, dogwood, beech, holly, hornbeam, witch hazel, mahonia japonica, viburnum – and of course, the common hazel. The more decorative shrubs, in the smaller circles, are recent additions and are just beginning to establish, but in due course they will add variety and colour, especially in winter.​

Despite the thought that has gone into it, I have not really been describing an arboretum in the proper sense. This is not a collection of defined species or their variants, nor is it a place for educational and scientific pursuits. But somewhere along the line, the name has stuck. It sounds rather grandiose, male-oriented, and privileged. Intending to debunk these things, I use the word in ‘mental quote marks’ and always with an ironic twist.

Yet the arboretum field of today looks very different to the set-aside of 2015. It has created new habitats for small birds, reptiles and mammals. Acorns and cobnuts grow there to the benefit of the red squirrels. Wild daffodils and other Spring bulbs are flourishing. Providing interest to passers by, it’s even had visiting groups, ‘by arrangement’! Strolling round the arboretum with bemused friends and family provides huge enjoyment, laughter and warm appreciation. I walk through the ‘arboretum’ at least twice a day with our dog. It’s a place for exercise and for activity. Most of all though, I never tire of its diurnal and seasonal variations and the opportunities it provides, whatever the weather, to be outdoors – and, yes, deep in my own circling thoughts.

Featured image by Davie Lynch, taken in July 2020.

The Christmas Eve dinner: a mystery story

The motorway is down to one lane in the deepening snow. I’m in a convoy of vehicles making cautious progress as we all head north. Driving home for Christmas.  

I reach the Scottish border. The Gretna outlet store, now re-named Caledonia Village, is crammed with last minute shoppers. I take the next exit, heading west into Dumfries and Galloway. That little corner of Scotland that no one elsewhere seems to know much about.

To my left is the white expanse of the Solway. Land, water and sky all one. Across the Firth, there’s a shadow of the distant Lakeland hills, obscured by cloud. Ahead of me, after a day feeding inland, is a skein of pink-footed geese, returning to the salt marshes for the night.

I’m a kindred spirit, westering home to the family small-holding where I spent my summer holidays and where my parents now live permanently, along with my much younger teenage sister, that quirky and late arrival to our little family. Years back, my academic ambitions took me south, and now, established as a University lecturer, I am marooned there, academically established, but usually counting the time until my next visit to Dumfriesshire.

I’ve had a long journey with plenty of time to think. Mainly about the state of the world, and specifically the dis-United Kingdom. The pandemic has served to heighten the differences within the home nations. The Scottish First Minister, if not universally liked, has garnered great respect for her calm, consistent and assiduous attention to COVID issues, day by day. By contrast, the UK Prime Minister has played fast and loose with the rules, dithered and blundered until his incompetence is there for all to see, apart from by those who voted for him.  At COP26, the great UN climate summit, he fell asleep in the audience. He makes speeches about Peppa Pig and takes loans, back handers and in-kind largesse wherever they can be garnered. He has led the UK out of the EU and into chaos, ridicule and corruption and seems to have no capacity to engage with the world’s problems in any way other than by sound bite.

At this point I stop myself. Surely over the next few days I can forget the troubles of the nation and the planet. Dumfriesshire will be the perfect place to disengage from the social and other media, read Christmas mystery stories, eat, drink, take long walks, sleep and seek solace and recuperation from the madness of the world.

Banish all other thoughts, I tell myself, and keep on driving.

Near the coast the snow is light, but pushing north into the Nith Valley and the foot of the Lowther Hills, the conditions worsen again. On a straight stretch, a large black car passes me imperiously, its windows darkened and bearing number plates the like of which I haven’t seen before. As it overtakes, my own car slips sideways, momentarily out of control. Any tiredness I feel is dissipated by a sudden prickling of sweat on the back of my neck. For the final miles I’m wide awake, concentrating hard.

The very last stage of the journey is deeply familiar, but also taxing. The narrow lane, thick with ice, the temperature falling. Trees on either side drooping with snow. I’m watching out for that spot in the glen where the road goes perilously close to a steep drop, down to the river below. It also tells me I am just five minutes from home.

On reaching the house, it’s full of light. The Christmas tree by the garden wall twinkles its welcome. I stretch out of the car, shake the motorway from my bones and head for the front door. Unsurprisingly, it’s not locked. Stepping inside I call out, announcing my arrival. I drop my bag and walk into the warmth of the kitchen, which is smelling of winter herbs and pickles. No one there. Then into the dining room, where the stove is lit and makes a warm greeting for this urban flat dweller at the end of a long Winter journey. I call out again, but get no answer.

The place is snug and comfortable, full of Christmas cheer. But my mother, father and sister are nowhere to be seen. I go up to my bedroom, where a side light is on, and fresh towels laid out. Across the landing, the bathroom light glows softly and the bath is still running, a dressing gown folded on the radiator.  There are soap bubbles in the bath, but as I stand watching, I notice that the water level isn’t rising. I turn off the tap, puzzled by the optical illusion.

A full tour of the house confirms no one is here. Undeterred, I take a pleasant soak in the bath and change into fresh clothes. Concealing a bag of Christmas presents in the wardrobe, I decide to unpack everything else tomorrow, once I’m settled in.

In the dining room the long table is fully laid. Red candles light up the smorgasbord that has been prepared. It’s an invented custom in our Scandiphile family. Open sandwiches on Christmas Eve. Dark ryebread topped with all manner of delicacies – cheeses, herring, cured meat, eggs, gherkins. All garnished with leaves from the greenhouse. There’s cold beer in bottles next to tall glasses and at the side, shots of acquavit.

With everything clearly ready for the feast, I glance at the time. Almost eight o’clock. Of course, I realise now. Sensing I was behind schedule, my folks have gone off to the Christmas Eve carol service in the village, leaving everything ready to eat on their return, which must be soon I guess.

I pour myself a Pilsner, sit by the stove and am soon in a pleasing family Christmas reverie. My mother, the real brains of the marriage, who’d worked in corporate finance for decades and then jumped ship to head up a homeless charity in the last years of her working life. My father, a career civil servant, expert on the inner workings of Holyrood and St Andrew’s House, the consummate strategist. Then my sister, born in Edinburgh, and privately educated there like me, but now at the local Academy down here, age 15, with plenty of friends, a withering sense of humour and passionate about the environment. With a shared love of the countryside, we are a curious and fortunate crew right enough.

Half an hour passes. I reach for my ‘phone to  call one of them. No signal. City living soon makes you forget rural privations. My sister once told me she has to walk halfway up the hill behind the house, just to send a text message. I shan’t bother tonight, and settle back to the beer and the fireside, reflecting on how happy they all seem here.

But after a full hour I feel a niggling worry. It’s probably the snow. No sign of the car, perhaps they are struggling to get back. It wouldn’t be the first time. I try to reach them from the landline, but it’s crackly and unusable.  I’m concerned, but not enough to quell my appetite.

I take up my usual place at the table and begin to eat, starting with the hot smoked salmon. It’s delicious. My dad will have prepared it in his prized outdoor oven, to his own ‘secret’ recipe, found on the internet no doubt. Smoky, sweet, and hints of beechwood! As I sip the acquavit, the lights flicker for a few seconds and then settle. The wind is getting up.  I proceed to a second smørrebrød. Pastrami this time. Equally good.

Then the lights hesitate again and the house suddenly plunges into darkness. Curiously, the candles have gone out too. Perplexed, I stumble about for matches, disoriented. Then as one of the tapers comes to light, I realise something very strange is happening.

My body is telling me I am no longer alone. My sinews tighten, preparing for threat. I can sense a presence at the table. As my eyes adjust to the candlelight, I see three people shading into my vision. Two men and a woman are seated with me, where my father, mother and sister should be.

None of them looks in my direction, though my eyes are fixed on them. They begin to speak, in calm, quiet voices. I cough to announce my presence, but there is no acknowledgement. It’s as if I don’t exist or am invisible to them. They serve each other with food. Drinks are poured, water only. They appear relaxed, but serious. Respectful of where they are, thoughtful about the dinner they are eating, catching up politely on small talk. Each one looks familiar to me and yet changed in some way I can’t fathom. Strikingly different in features, they have in common a patina of age that speaks of great longevity.

I look in astonishment as I realise who they are. Here, in my parents’ dining room on Christmas Eve are Marie Curie, Pablo Neruda and Nelson Mandela. Three Nobel Prize winners under one roof.

‘Dear friends’, says Mandela, ‘’I can’t tell you how important it is that we are able to meet tonight here in this remote region of Scotland. Forgive the joke if I say that all three of us extremely old people have moved heaven and earth to be here. It has been quite a journey and we have some very serious matters to confirm in the next short while. Tonight, as you know, will be critical to the future of the entire world: no less’.

He continues. ‘We three are agreed that the world faces anthropogenic problems at a scale and complexity that have never been seen before in human history. I hardly need to rehearse them: climate change, declining biodiversity, mass extinction, the depradations of consumerism. To these we can add the deeply rooted issues of religious, political and racist intolerance, the persistence of poverty and of famine. Likewise, geo-political threats, instability, warfare, terrorism and forced migration – all blighting our global society’.

‘Alongside these, Curie observes, ‘there exist the challenges of pandemic disease and the multiple personal, epidemiological, and systemic consequences that flow from it. All over the world there are still gross health inequalities and a shameful failure to apply scientific knowledge to the relief of suffering’.

‘Indeed’ says Neruda, ‘and meanwhile the world lacks global leadership and vision. Its politicians care nothing for poetry, music, art, or literature. They are mired in narrow party perspectives, vested interests and an inability to think beyond the next election. Social democracy opened up a great vision of progress, fairness and equality that has yet to be realised. “What is to be done?” has never been a more pertinent question’.

Mandela leans in to his colleagues. He is clearly primus inter pares. ‘How the three of us have been able to turn to these things in recent months is a matter that can never be understood. Processes have been at work that defy the laws of physics, biology and the whole of nature. Somehow this miracle, for such it must be called, has brought us together’.

He goes on. ‘Through our actions we have set in train a global commitment to change, agreed in secret by the world’s leaders. The details will be announced this evening. Five elements will underly the strategy that is soon to be revealed: compassion, sustainability, equality, tolerance and justice. Our planet is about to tilt on it axis into an new era of world peace and harmony. It is an epiphanal moment as never before seen. If we doubt its importance, just remember: some things can always seem impossible,  until they are done!’

Rising to his feet, Mandela brings things to a close. ‘It is now time for us to leave. Five minutes after we depart, our driver will activate an electronic signal that will override all global media of every kind. From pole to pole a message will travel around the world to every village, town and city. It will span the latitudes, Global North and Global South, each continent and every country. It will reach every jurisdiction, government, parliament and Senatus. Crossing deserts, steppes, mountains and forests, across oceans, seas and rivers, our message will be unstoppable and the world will be forever a better place as a result. Thank you, my dear friends, for this time together. Our car is waiting’.

They leave the house, slowly and deliberately with the hesitancy of advanced age. I sit in catatonic silence, stunned by what I’ve seen and heard, not knowing what to think or do. I have just been witness to a secret conversation between three long dead people who have somehow co-ordinated a plan to create a sustainable world of peace and fairness. It had sounded extraordinary, and indeed it was. I try to get my head to a place where I can begin to make sense of what has happened.

Minutes pass, and then the headlights of a car rake across the dining room window. I stagger towards the front door of the house. It is already opening as my mother, father and sister collapse inside.  ‘Have you heard, have you heard’? ‘What?’ I ask, unsure how much they may know. ‘We were leaving the church when suddenly the car radio came on by itself, all of our phones started ringing. The same message was on all of them. The world’s population was being called to listen. In just a few moments a global announcement would be made, something to change everything on earth for ever. It wasn’t frightening. It sounded real. Like something truly, truly wonderful’.

‘So we immediately stopped the car on the track, waiting for the news. Then suddenly another car was coming downhill towards us at speed. It must have braked hard. It slithered, hit the fence and then catapulted into the glen, bursting into flames at the bottom, by the side of the river. It was horrible’.

‘At that moment the radio went dead and the announcement never came’.

‘The emergency services arrived amazingly quickly and sent us home, saying very little. They are working there now, but no one could possibly have survived. That car was going fast as it left the road and you know how deep the drop is. But who could possibly have been in it at this time on Christmas Eve? Ours is the last house on the lane’.

My head starts to buzz. Car headlights are blinding my eyes. Words from the dinner are coming back to me. Visions of a dark, troubled world of disease, hunger, poverty, war and oppression are flashing before me. My parents’ voices are growing faint. I am losing consciousness, entering a place where everything is gentle and suffused with ambient light. My sister reaches forward to grab me, as my knees buckle. In what feels like slow motion, I collapse on the floor and drift away.

It is the beginning of a dreamless and long Winter sleep. Despite the Herculean efforts of those Nobel Laureates and the mystery of the Christmas Eve dinner, when I awake, sadly, the world is as it was. Completely unchanged.

Barry Graham and the spirit of Loch Arthur

Over the last decade I have taken many friends, visitors and colleagues to the Loch Arthur Farm Shop, in Beeswing near Dumfries. I’m always pleased when the visit coincides with an opportunity to chat to Barry Graham, who in the interview with me below tells us his intriguing story.

One challenge I have had at the Farm Shop is how to introduce him to others. Occasionally I have used the term ‘majordomo’ as a title, though as the interview will testify, that is far from being the right descriptor. ‘Inspiration behind Loch Arthur’ is another phrase I’ve used, though as we shall see that doesn’t quite capture it either.

His own words tell a good story. “I am the person who knows the most people who I don’t actually know”. For my own part, I am certainly one who beyond a sketchy knowledge of Barry’s varied roles and responsibilities at Loch Arthur, until now knew very little of the person. Which is why it is such a pleasure to present here this account of aspects of his life and work.

The 520 acres of farmland, forest, estate and loch that make up the Loch Arthur Community in Dumfries and Galloway were acquired by the Camphill Village Trust in November 1984 in order to start a new community supporting people with learning difficulties, and with a strong emphasis on land and agricultural work. The progress of Loch Arthur in the intervening years is vividly described here by Barry. We see the vision, the twists and turns along the way, the spirit of the place and the changing pattern of its activities.

Clearly this interview merely scrapes the surface of Barry’s fascinating life. Yet I learned so much from it, about him and about Loch Arthur.

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that Barry had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. When I next saw him I felt I needed to acknowledge what had happened, and I tried to find the right combination of sympathy and optimism to capture my feelings. I don’t think I made a very good job of it. In the end Barry helped me out. With that kindest of smiles and with a twinkle in his eyes, he explained to me how he was engaging with this new phase in his life’s journey. He told me what he had learned about the illness and about the people who were caring for him professionally. He shared his thoughts about the future. I felt inspired by his words. Even more so, as when we parted and he headed back to his Farm Shop tasks, he turned to me and said: ‘Oh yes, David, I can tell you, I really and truly feel surrounded by love’.

Barry’s love for people, and the love he receives in return are beautifully evoked in his words here. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Where did you live before you came to Scotland, what brought you here, and what were your passions and interests at that time?

I was born, and grew up, in Zimbabwe, well, Rhodesia as it was pre-1975, which was the year I left at the age of 17, in order to avoid the compulsory draft and the likelihood of my legs getting blown off by a landmine on the Mozambique border.

It was in Cape Town, South Africa, that I spent the next 10 years of my life.  Starting as an apprentice ice cream scooper in my favourite seaside deli and ending up, 10 years later, as a director of a group of renowned delicatessens, with Cape Town’s first in-store bakeries.

I was passionate about my work and devoted myself to it wholeheartedly, living somewhat reclusively with little interest in anything else other than long swims in the exciting and enticing Atlantic Ocean (five minutes from my flat) and days out on my beautiful 1959 BMW motorbike (Put…Put…Put !!!. One of my few regrets in life, selling that beauty!)

So, come 1985, 10 years of devoted and diligent delicatessen duties had me firmly entrenched in my chosen career path but, at the same time, firmly entrenched in my relationship to Rene who had, in turn, become firmly entrenched in the idea that it was time for us to travel. To which I responded with a surprisingly spontaneous agreement, followed by an even more surprisingly spontaneous suggestion of marriage!

Our delightfully relaxed and convivial sea–side wedding took place just three weeks later and within six weeks of our unexpected onslaught of spontaneity, we were packed up, married and away travelling.  We set off for London two days after my 27th birthday.

How did the connection with the Loch Arthur Camphill Community come about and what made you decide to commit to it?

Our journey of discovery kicked off with a visit to my sister Lana who, having lived in a Camphill community in Aberdeen for the previous seven years was now a founding member of the newly-established Loch Arthur Camphill Community in Dumfries and Galloway.  Lana had encouraged us to spend time with them in their exciting and challenging new Community in what felt to be a rather remote, undiscovered but very beautiful corner of South-West Scotland. 

Our weeks spent there in the beautiful spring of 1985 were enticing and delightful but we were not to be deterred from our intention to travel extensively before settling down.  And that we did, until our exceptional journey had to be reined in and cut short when, sitting outside my sister’s house in Oakland, California overlooking the San Francisco Bay with my then five months’ pregnant wife, we resolved, much to our distress, that we needed to call time, be responsible and find somewhere to settle and make home.

Selling the delightful, classic VW Camper Van that had been our home for the past five months on our trans-American/Canadian adventure was a painful decision.  However, needs must and we were soon jetting our way back to the UK ready, or so we thought, to face the responsibilities, rigours, joys and challenges of home making in a new country.

Abandoning our travels and returning to Loch Arthur in November 1985 felt somewhat like a homecoming.  The natural beauty of the grounds and surrounds was both overwhelming and enticing.  The notion of four clearly defined seasons was both intriguing and appealing after growing up in the tropics of Africa – and the clear and rather obvious need for willing and capable hands and minds to help with the building of this new Community appealed to my appreciation of a good challenge.

At the same time, Rene’s concerns and anxieties about having her first child in a completely unknown environment with no family or friends nearby and a yet-to-be discovered social circle, were allayed by the opportunity to join Loch Arthur Community.  A place to live, a place to work and a ready-made circle of family and friends came along with the package. What more could one ask for?

Our months of spontaneous travel had in fact led us to the place that, unbeknown to us, would offer us a new home, a completely different lifestyle and a deep sense of belonging, for the next four decades of our lives.

Can you describe the main elements that make up the life and work of the Loch Arthur Camphill Community?

Camphill Communities have a remarkable history and heritage.

The Camphill Movement began originally in the early 1940s in Aberdeen, establishing communities which recognised and encouraged the enormous potential and possibilities for a full and meaningful life in every person, irrespective of their perceived disabilities and physical or mental impairments. These communities then set out to create the environment in which those people could be encouraged and helped to lead a full and independent life and fulfil the highest aspirations of their destiny, not hampered or hindered by their perceived disabilities.

From those humble beginnings 80 years ago, the Camphill movement has grown to more than 60 communities within the United Kingdom and 150 worldwide, creating opportunities for adults, adolescents and children with learning disabilities to find fulfilment in life, work, study and personal development.

I often look at my meeting with Camphill from the perspective of the trajectory of my entrepreneurial life and work, coinciding with the trajectory of the growing and developing working and economic life of Loch Arthur Community and the Camphill movement as a whole.  Opportunities were boundless for creative, socially minded, entrepreneurial people joining Camphill in those years, because at the core of the ethos in Camphill Adult Communities has always been the creation of meaningful, purposeful, engaging work opportunities for people with learning disabilities.

However, it is important to point out that life within a Camphill Community is by no means just about success on an economic or productive level. It is, in fact, about balance. That is balance between the three spheres of life, as illustrated in “The Threefold Social Order” proposed by Rudolf Steiner, whose teachings and philosophies of the early 1900s were central to the formation of the Camphill model. This “Threefold” approach emphasises the need to balance one’s activities in “The Spiritual Sphere” (guided by an attitude of Freedom in “The Social/Human Sphere of Rights and Responsibilities” (guided by an attitude of Equality) and in  “The Economic/Productive Sphere” (guided by an attitude of Brotherliness).

As Rene and I threw ourselves wholeheartedly into this new adventure, we somehow felt ourselves to be very much at one with the ethos, intentions and philosophies of this new-found way of life that we were committing to.

It interests me that, in hindsight I see very clearly that this approach to community building and a healthy and balanced approach to life was, in fact, a forerunner to the now ubiquitous model of “Social Enterprise”.

I imagine that over the years, your role at Loch Arthur has changed and evolved; can you describe the changing aspects of your work and contribution there? And has this led to a change in the goals of the community over the years? Can you describe its origins, fundamental principles, where they came from and the people it is intended to support?

In the early years (the pioneering years) we just simply did everything (we, being the group of long term, committed co-workers).  We ran houses. We supported, physically, emotionally and practically, a group of people with fairly profound support needs.  We ran farms, gardens and workshops. We attended meetings, morning noon and night. We ran the finances and administration. We rattled and we rolled with the Social Work Department and the various statutory bodies. We designed and built buildings. We produced plays, ran choirs, gave educational talks and raised a total of 19 children, many of whom were home educated for the first several years of their lives.  Yes, life was full;  life was challenging;  life was rich and rewarding.

On a personal level, within two years of arriving at Loch Arthur, Rene and I found ourselves totally immersed in this new-found lifestyle in all its richness and complexity, challenge and reward.

  • We were learning the joys and demands of parenthood and about to give birth to our second child.
  • We were jointly running a Loch Arthur Community household and responsible for the well-being of four “adults with learning difficulties” and two or three young volunteers.
  • I was responsible for the running and development of our newly formed Creamery.
  • I was responsible for the ledgering, budgeting, control and overview of our community finances.
  • I had begun beekeeping and now looked after several hives.
  • I was doing a lot with music. Leading choirs, composing and arranging for plays and festivals.
  • And Rene was cooking regularly in our household, looking after the household accounts, attending no end of various community meetings. And, in her spare time (as was fairly common for a Camphill Co-Worker) raising a family.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that “life was full”, but life was also delightful, creative, diverse and forward-looking.

Undoubtedly, the most engaging and absorbing part of my working life was my role in running and developing the Loch Arthur Creamery.   Cheesemaking became my interest, my challenge and my passion!

I was cautioned by many about how I would manage to balance the needs of a group of fairly challenging individuals (on a number of different levels) with the development of a professionally run Creamery producing a range of quality, artisan cheeses from unpasteurised milk and distributing them all over the UK from Aberdeen to London.

Well, my mantra of aiming for the highest achievable level of capability and fulfilment rather than settling for the lowest common denominator of perceived ability, paid off.

People thrived within the demands and clarity of the strict structures that were put in place to maintain standards; The Creamery thrived within a UK-wide resurgence of artisan cheese-making. New cheeses were developed, new markets found, new connections made and, on a personal level, I thrived on becoming truly “a cheesemaker”.

The original, founding model of Camphill is one in which nobody earns a salary in remuneration for work done. Instead, all give of themselves fully in response to the needs of the community and all of one’s personal and living expenses are taken care of by the Community. Until recently, there were few if any salaried staff.  People joined the community out of a sense of involvement and engagement and gave of themselves as required. There was no headhunting or staff recruitment for someone to take on a particular role.  It was more a case of people being invited to join the community by virtue of their interest and involvement and then seeing what tasks they were well suited to, and what skills and abilities they could bring to the table.

Against such a backdrop, it was remarkable just how high a standard was achieved in the productive aspects of Camphill Village Trust Communities. Wooden toys, pottery, textiles, small furnishings and much more were all sold and distributed widely throughout the UK, as well as being presented at large European trade shows, where they stood their ground against the best available.

This was a wonderful and supportive environment in which for me to develop the creamery, culminating in the award of “Best Food Producer”  in the 2011 BBC Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards. A moment of enormous pride and fulfilment for us all!

On a personal level, I had also become a member of the committee of the “UK Specialists Cheese Makers Association” and felt myself to be truly a cheesemaker.

The creamery grew, along with many other aspects of our community. The original creamery building was replaced by modern, state-of-the-art facilities which took milk from the milking parlour through production, into cheese ripening rooms and stores and away to the ever burgeoning cohort of loyal cheese lovers who made regular visits to our little “Cheese Shop”  at the entrance to the Creamery.  “The Pilgrims” as I used to refer to them.  Here, at the cheese counter, many contacts were made, many friendships were forged and our community found a new place of genuine engagement with the wider community of Dumfries and Galloway.

I am focusing here on the growth of Loch Arthur Creamery, because that was very much my world at that stage.   However, I should mention that much else was growing, expanding and reshaping within the community. More quality and quantity of housing was developed. Our bakery was established. Wood and weaving workshops were established. Our gardening and horticultural work was re-sited into a beautiful new set of buildings and hundreds of square metres of glass house were erected.

The year 2001 saw the heartbreaking ravages of “Foot and Mouth Disease” tearing through farming communities across the country.  We were not spared and, in a dramatic and gut wrenching event, on Friday, 13 April 2001 (Good Friday as it so happened), each and every head of livestock on our farm was sadly and sacrificially slaughtered and removed for incineration. It was an unforgettable moment in the history of our community. So much of the basis of our daily rhythm, our work, our livelihood and the very substance and purpose of the land upon which we lived and functioned, was here one day and gone the next!

Yet if there is one thing that this journey over the last 35 years has taught us, it is that every dark cloud does indeed have a silver lining. Where there is adversity, there is always opportunity for growth and creativity.

It was a long journey back to productivity on our farm but along that journey many elements of our structure (particularly within our working life) began to shift and refocus. On a personal level, I started to reconnect to my training and my passion for food retail and so the first green shoots of a simple “Farm Shop” started to spring up in the small space where, the public could visit our creamery.  From there, my enthusiasm just grew and grew, as did the range of products, the eking out of every square centimetre I could find where we could put another shelf and increase our range and, most importantly, the growth of, and connection to, the burgeoning community of people out there in Dumfries and Galloway who longed for the development of a Farm Shop such as this.

There has been a farm shop at Loch Arthur for a long time, but the development of a purpose-built facility with cafe must have been a huge leap. How did it all come about and is there now any danger that the success of the farm shop and cafe can somehow obscure the underlying principles of the community?

I have been known to recall and recount rather frequently, the tale of the day I said to Rene (probably about 10 years prior to the opening of our new Farm Shop and Café):  “We really need to start a proper Farm Shop here. The kind of place we were dreaming of and planning when we left South Africa”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah” she said “that was when we were thinking of setting up shop in some busy university town or city with a dense population that could support such a venture… But, come on Babs (nickname of fondness). A Farm Shop in Beeswing? Dream on!”.

So, how can I resist the temptation now, when walking past Rene’s burgeoning storeroom with three pallet loads of groceries and crafts waiting to be unpacked and a team of five Loch Arthur residents busily pricing and sorting goods destined for the shelves in our humming Farm Shop and Café (Turnover circa £1.5 million per annum) – to pop my head in and whisper (with no more than a modicum of sarcasm), “Farm Shop in Beeswing? Dream on!”

Was it a huge leap? No, it was a gargantuan leap.

In 2005, we were offered to purchase the Beeswing Church.

“Perfect” I said and I was down there in no time at all.  Measuring, pacing, dreaming, calculating. Counters, cold stores, deliveries, parking, garbage, recycling. “Oh My Gosh!”  The reality struck. If we were going to build a Farm Shop, we were going to need space and plenty of it.  Was it a huge leap? Massive!   And it took us the next four years of debate, of questioning, of considering the potential impact on our Community, of immense confidence and of crippling doubt until, eventually in the autumn of 2009, we committed and we started planning in earnest.  So much to think about, so much to consider.

In April 2011, the builders broke soil and for the following 18 months, we watched our Farm Shop taking shape. What a beautiful building, conceived, designed and constructed with care and attention.

On the 29th November 2012 we opened our doors to an onslaught of hungry customers, glad that the wait was over.    The rest, as they say, is history!

A dear, and very intelligent, friend of mine asked me as we sat one day thinking about the management of this new entity.  “Have you got a name for the project?” “Well” I said “that’s pretty obvious. It will be “Loch Arthur Farm Shop”. “No”, he said “not the name of the business. The name of the project. Something that describes its gesture and intention”. Rather uncharacteristically, there was no hesitation on my part. “Gateway” I responded. This is a gateway project. We are creating the space in which our Community can meet, encounter, interact with and be of service to, the wider community.

Now that I have begun to step back and hand the running of the shop over to the very capable and delightful group of people who look after it day-to-day, I can say, with a fair degree of objectivity.  “This shop is absolutely incredible! It is quite amazing what we have created here and what this shop has come to mean for our community, for the wider community of Dumfries and Galloway and for the world!

The growth of the Farm Shop has brought with it an enormous growth in the number of people employed at Loch Arthur (that is, alongside all the people who live at Loch Arthur and work in and around the shop).

The question has arisen frequently in recent management meetings at Loch Arthur of how we are going to stem the rather prolific growth that we have seen in the Farm Shop over the past years and is it starting to be too large an entity and overwhelming the life of our community.

Tricky one, that is. It is somehow entrenched within our DNA that “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

What has the Loch Arthur Camphill Community meant to you personally and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of working in a community of this kind? 

Has this all been easy? Not at all! Has this been a non-stop, blissful cooperation of a well aligned group of co-workers with a unanimous voice and a common sense of direction?   Not quite!

However, what it has been is action and growth through the unrelenting efforts of an “Intentional Community” united in, and driven by, a commonly felt, and somewhat altruistic determination to build community (in the truest sense of the word). And in some small way, to make a difference in the world and improve the quality of people’s lives.

In the words of a recently departed dear friend who lived as a Camphill Co-Worker for most of his adult life:  “what an honour to have been part of this wonderful social experiment!”

Have I been happy to have been part of that journey for the past 35 years of my life?

Absolutely! I couldn’t have asked for more. And yet I have got more. And more. And more!  And even now, in my early 60s and despite knowing that I will live the rest of my life with a degenerative condition, I feel enormous gratitude for the life I have been able to lead and a peculiar sense of joyful enthusiasm for the years that lie ahead.

Would I recommend anyone else to take up life in a community like this? Yes, of course I would. It is a wonderful way of life (if that’s what you make of it). It is demanding, it is all-consuming, it is rich and varied, it asks so much of you and yet has so much to offer you.  It gives you the opportunity to shape the world you live in.

I am reminded of an article I once read, regarding the United States of America.

It started with an image of the Statue of Liberty on the east coast –  the first thing you would see on arrival in this land of freedom and opportunity. It concluded with a recommendation that they now erect a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast, as a simple reminder that “ There is no freedom without responsibility!”

For more information about The Loch Arthur Community, see:

For more on Barry’s stellar reputation as a cheesemaker, see:

Barry Graham of Loch Arthur – one of the pioneers of the British Cheese revival

The Big Cheeses Are Coming To Dumfries & Galloway (listen from minute 46)

Weeds, humans and virtue

‘A plant in the wrong place’. I have long been aware of this rather cryptic definition of a weed. A few years ago I mentioned it to my friend Devi Vijay, whilst strolling around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and puzzling over a few patches of vegetation here and there that seemed out of harmony with the overall presentation of the place. When Devi got in touch with me recently about the work of a cultural anthropologist who has written in detail about the subject, I realised that there is a great deal more to the casual question, ‘what is a weed?’

The ‘weed’ has a well established etymological history. Boethius, in the The Consolation of Philosophy of 523 wrote :

Who fain would sow the fallow field,

And see the growing corn,

Must first remove the useless weeds,

The bramble and the thorn.

Weeds are ubiquitous in literature. I remember studying Hamlet at school and still recall the speech from Act 1:

… ’tis an unweeded garden,

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

For Shakespeare, who famously knew a great deal about plants, weeds signified not only the disorder of the nation, but also the deterioration of the mind, as represented in Ophelia’s head-dress and in her drowning, bedecked by ‘her weedy trophies’.

So, to be clear: weeds are a serious business.

As an amateur gardener in Dumfriesshire, at a practical level, I think I know what weeds are. They are a nuisance, they get in amongst the things I plant, they can come back year after year. In some cases a small piece of root if inadvertently carried from one part of the garden to another will soon get a hold where we don’t want it. In late summer, weed seeds blow about promiscuously and we meet the consequences the following spring.  

Yet most of the specific plants I am thinking about, only count as weeds when they are in a cultivated space, like a border. This fits with the cryptic definition.

The Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) is a good example. It is unwanted as it spreads among the Meconopsis, but welcome in the meadow grass. I remember whole fields of it when I was a child and the lovely test we did, placing a flower under a friend’s chin, to see if it reflected, thereby confirming that the person in question ‘liked butter’. Likewise the Bindweed (Convulvulus) twines perniciously around herbaceous plants and is very difficult to remove, but looks rather pretty in a roadside hedgerow.

Another contender is Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). It  can be annoying spreading through a rose bed, but just a few yards away, and especially when in bloom, it is welcome and charming in the clefts of a dry stone wall.

At the same time, some common weeds, otherwise unlovely, can have a use-value. Nettles (Urtica dioica) may be used for soup, or contrastingly, as a liquid fertilizer, though I realise it may be hard to distinguish between the two! The nettle’s sting can be relieved by Dock leaves (Rumex obtusifoliu). The obdurate ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), brought to Britain by the Romans, can be added to a salad. The Common Plantain (Plantago major) unloved by lawn enthusiasts, has been used as a healing poultice and to stop blood flow.

The Galloway artist Pamela Grace is intrigued by weeds. They feature in many of her works, where the subject is often on the edge of something, beside a wood, along a field fence, or a wall. Weeds make a lot of sense as marginalia, situated on liminal boundaries that are betwixt and between defined spaces. I bumped into Pamela whilst writing this piece and we shared our common interest in the weedy world. She kindly offered the use of a painting of hers I’d seen just a few days earlier and which appears here, capturing beautifully an enchanting drift of foxgloves at the edge of a copse, their heads leaning and nodding airily.

Foxgloves by Pamela Grace 2021

Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are ambiguous however. Are they weed or wildflower? Attractive ‘in the wild’, certainly, but growing next to garden paths, cold frames or outbuildings they incline to the scruffy. More significantly, when near my own home-grown Foxglove Alba, they become a pollination threat, agents of unwanted cross-fertilisation that must be removed to protect the cultivated white form.

As gardeners, we give agency to our plants. They can be temperamental, forgiving, tough, delicate, reliable, bossy or easy going. Our weeds are similarly labelled, but almost always with negative associations. They can be a nuisance, a pest, a brute, a bully. The French make this overarchingly clear. Weeds are simply ‘bad plants’, mauvaise herbes. Thus classified, they seem incapable of any virtue.  The dandelion is a pis en lit.

The demonisation of plants by gardeners is something I may tackle in another piece. It’s a disposition that’s heavily directed towards weeds. So much so that they are subject to harsh measures – chemical sprays and unpleasant treatments that knock them dead, first wilting, then yellowing, then rotting. Controlling weeds in this way, to whit unsightly in itself, has become a defining feature of the modern gardener. Weed killers lurk on the shelves of garden centres everywhere, whilst disputes rage about their safety and side effects. If weeds are a contested category, so too are the means of their destruction.

Thankfully, there are other narratives. Robert Louis Stevenson, chemical free, found calm and repose in the weeding of his Samoan vegetable garden. Indeed, according to one biographer: ‘He liked weeding so much that he sometimes had to drag himself away in order to get his daily quota of writing done’ (1).  There can be a delicious rhythm in weeding, whether bent over the hoe, or kneeling close to the objects of attention, with hand rake, fork or trowel in constant motion. What pleasure can result as we straighten our back and survey the results of our labours, the freshly turned soil, weed-free for the moment, a rich backcloth to our favourite plants.

One of the most brilliant books I read as a student was Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas.  In that 1960s classic she outlined a theory of ‘dirt’ and taboo, which was based on the notion of ‘matter out of place’.  Things offend against our sensibilities when they are in contexts where they don’t belong. Weeds can be seen in this light. Indeed Ben Belak, riffing on Douglas, sees them as ‘herbage out of place’.

The cultural anthropologist, Anna Tsing defines weeds in a very particular way, as the organisms that take over after human disturbance, a process she refers to as auto-rewilding. In this context, weeds can be quick to appear when new roads are built, quarries and mines are abandoned or after bombings, battles, fires and varied catastrophes of our own making. Sometimes they have enormous destructive power, creating what Tsing calls a ‘new wild’, such as in the spread of Merremia peltata a vigorous vine, which overwhelms all other fauna in the wake of commercial logging in island south east Asia. This line of thinking about weeds, I must acknowledge, takes us into deeper questions – about the character of the Anthropocene and indeed, the potential for human extinction.

Weeds therefore tell many stories.

Rosebay Willow Herb (Epilobium angustifolium), was the first thing to flower after London’s great conflagration of 1666 and became known as Fireweed. Almost 400 years later, after the Blitz, it again colonised so rapidly that many Londoners referred to it as Bombweed. Its Canadian variant (Chamaenerion augustifolia) is said to have found its way to Britain in World War Two, blowing out of the kitbags of soldiers, travelling along train lines, into railway sidings and thence to the wider landscape beyond. The rhizomes of Willow Herb are relatively easy to control in the garden border. But when each plant can generate up to 80,000 seeds, it is consummately proficient at wind-borne spread.

The yellow Ragwort is another late summer self-seeding weed that troubles gardeners. A couple of feet tall or more and with a daisy shaped flower, the Ragwort has been the object of high profile condemnation from several quarters. It is surrounded with harsh opinion, prejudice, myth, even malice. Ragwort is invading the countryside, it is poisonous to cattle and horses, and dangerous if it finds its way into hay. The Prince of Wales has joined the attack and former Conservative minister Lord Tebbit has even said that pulling up Ragwort by hand (the favoured method of control) should be done by ‘anti-social’ elements as a measure of paying back to society for their misdemeanours.

Yet when Willow Herb and Ragwort combine in drifts across a Lammas field, the effect is stunning. An impressionist painting alive and growing in front of us. Weeds in harmony, rich in colour and beautifying the landscape. The sight is a far cry from the useless and untamed, and as Friends of the Earth have shown, Ragwort is also a source of food for dozens of insects and pollinators and is the 7th most important source of nectar among British plants.

Weeds,  it would seem, constitute a moral category as well as a botanical classification. In our gardening we create enclaves of meaning that are distinct from the areas around them. These can often be marked by physical boundaries like hedges and fences. Inside the boundary, weeds must be banished. Outside they merge into the prevailing landscape and even when massing in force, can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Perhaps we forming a new relationship with our garden weeds. A harmonious ‘third way’ between chemical obliteration and weedy colonisation seems to be emerging in the minds of some gardening writers. Its ethic is appealing. Is the interest in biodiversity loss a stimulus to weed tolerance and greater understanding? There seems to be a new revisionist literature emerging that encourages all of us to live with, rather than wage war on, our weeds. Even a non-systematic review throws up numerous recent titles devoted to these previously stigmatised plants, now depicted in a new and more virtuous light. Outstanding is Richard Mabey’s ground-breaking book on weeds, a story of outlaw, shape shifting plants, that is rich in botany, biography and metaphor. A true celebration of weeds in the world.

In the garden shed, my eye avoids the shelf where weed killer can be found. For yes, I too have gone down that unedifying road, if only I tell myself, in a selective and targeted manner.

Now it’s time to draw a line. Time to accommodate ourselves to the weeds around us, celebrate their diversity, and acknowledge the blurred sometimes invisible boundaries that exist between our weeds and our plants. The relationship between weeds and anthropogenic disturbance is a powerful message. Weeds can undoubtedly keep going in the wake of destruction. Perhaps they will do so even when we humans no longer inhabit this fragile planet?

(1) McLynn, F (1993) Robert Louis Stevenson London: Hutchison, p.403.


My thanks to Dr Devi Vijay, Pamela Grace, and Colin Crosbie for their various influences on this piece.

The summer of love

Saturday early evening she closes the shop. Pulls down the blind, the summer light still pouring in above the door. After cashing up the till, her hand is shaking slightly as she removes £7 and pushes the grubby notes into the back of her purse.

There isn’t much to Sunday.

Her son Michael spends hours on the telephone to his fiancé, going over final details for their wedding. When he’s not doing that he’s combing through back issues of a magazine called Trout and Salmon, on a vicarious and unending fishing trip. Meanwhile John, the aspirant art college student, has the Beatles new LP on the stereogram. It plays and replays as the arm lifts up, swings back and settles again on the already crackling grooves. There is one song that troubles her each time she hears it. Nothing troubles Stuart, the youngest. He has been following the Test match at Headingley: England versus India, engrossed in batting averages and bowling figures.

Her husband reads the News of the World, snoozes after Sunday dinner and watches the London Palladium in the evening. Then bed.

Monday the shop is always closed.

With everyone gone from the house, she gathers up her large grocery bag, drops the latch and steps out onto the pavement. Turning the corner she heads towards the Co-operative Stores. Like so many times before, putting together a mental list of ingredients for the evening meal as she goes. Reaching the shop door, and grateful for the absence of people on the street, she keeps her eyes straight ahead and walks on. Today will be different.

At the local railway station she buys a ticket. No one is about on the platform. The guard nods. She climbs onto the train and chooses the cleanest looking seat for her journey. As the carriages cross the river Tees at Victoria Bridge, she thinks of Stephenson’s Rocket, which everyone round here calls the first steam train. Today she is retracing its inaugural run.

Darlington station is dirty and noisy. Big trains push through heading north and south, forcing you back from the platform edge. She could be in Edinburgh by afternoon, London by evening. Or maybe still here, dead on the tracks.

She reaches into her purse and finds the address, on a piece of paper hidden under the small change. The landlady had sounded friendly on the telephone. She’d booked a single room at a reasonable price. Cash on arrival if you don’t mind.

At home the bright evening sunshine can’t cope with the darkening mood. Where is she? Not like her. Did she go to the hospital to visit someone? Worry quickly turns to annoyance. It’s not fair with the wedding coming up next month. Great start to the exams I must say. How do you think I feel? By nightfall he makes a decision. If no word comes by the morning, he’ll ring the police.

Tuesday’s dawn light creeps into the boarding house bedroom.

She has been here since the previous afternoon. Thankful for the kettle, some milk and a few biscuits. Summoning up her courage, she descends the stairs to the dining room. A lone fellow guest nods but fortunately doesn’t make small talk. She declines the fried breakfast, asks for tea and toast, leaving most of it behind as she gets up to go.

The police station ‘phone is ringing. He explains what has happened. We haven’t seen her since yesterday morning when we all went out of the house. Can you give me a description asks the officer. I’ll put a call out. Let me know if she turns up at home. They usually do.

She is on a bus. It’s a short ride from here to Richmond. She has no idea what is drawing her to the pretty town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, except perhaps the complete contrast with the place where she lives. She spends some time by the river Swale, the clean water of the falls bubbling down, full of life.

Money still in her purse, but she can’t face the thought of a bed and breakfast landlady. As the evening coolness draws in she makes her way across the bridge and through a park. Beyond there is a cricket ground. The ghost of a smile flicks across her lips. She knows about cricket grounds. It’s not locked. She goes through the gate, walks to the back of the score box and lets herself in. She pulls a few sacks over her and tries to sleep as the rafters creak and a mouse scurries about among some old practice nets.

At home they sit and brood. No word from the police. No search they can organize for themselves, except for around the town. But no one wants to explain to the neighbours that she’s gone missing. Their irritation is growing at the bother of it all. He picks up the Sunday paper, yellowod by the sunshine that streams through the window. Then quickly puts it down when he reads about a woman’s body found in a layby last week. Just off the Great North Road. A man is in custody on suspicion of murder.

Early Wednesday she creeps out of the cricket ground, light headed and hungry, in need of a change of clothes and a hot drink. In a public toilet she conducts a makeshift wash, wetting her comb and dragging it through her hair, until it hurts at the roots. The mirror is dim and blotched, doing nothing to enhance her exhausted look. She goes back and sits by the waterfall, warmed a little by the weak morning sun.

Later, in a café off the market square she nurses a pot of tea and a scone. Towards five o’clock the staff bustle around, wiping down tables and chairs until she gets to her feet, leaving her money with the bill and adding a sixpenny tip. The manageress bids her a friendly goodbye.

Tears welling, she begins to feel afraid as another evening presents itself. A few regulars are waiting for the Ship Inn to open. One calls out to her as she passes. Come and have a drink with us lass. She quickens her pace and turns the first corner she reaches. There are footsteps behind her. Then a female voice at her shoulder.

You look in a bit of a state, pet. Do you want to come back to the café for a while? I’ve closed up and there’s just me there now.

More tea and this time a proper sandwich. You look like you need it. Just settle yourself there, I’ve plenty to do.

Like an honoured guest, she eats alone. Slowly. Reviving a little.

The woman comes through from the kitchen. Now, that’s brought your colour up.  I’m Doris by the way. It looks like you might be in a spot of bother.

She nods. Yes, I am really. Don’t know why I’m here. It just all got too much.

I can see that.

Three teenagers in the house. My husband home for dinner and tea on the dot every day. In and out all the time with his work. He’s an electrician. And then there’s the shop.

The shop?  Yes, it’s at the front of the house. We live at the back. It sells electrical goods, lights and heaters, plugs, fuses, all that sort of thing. When the three boys were all settled at school I wanted to go out to work. But he suggested a shop. It would help his business he said, and I could stay at home.


I enjoyed setting it all up, but I realise now I was building my own prison. That was five years ago. I run it by myself, five days a week. Last Saturday I just couldn’t face it any more. On Monday I walked out. Left them to it for a while.

Well it might do them good. You don’t miss the water ‘til the well runs dry. Don’t rush back just now. I tell you what. You can stay here for a night or two. There’s a spare bed made up. I’m just by myself, it’ll be no trouble.

Oh I couldn’t do that, at least not without paying. I’ve got money.

Oh keep that. One of the girls is off tomorrow. How about you help out in the kitchen for a bit? We have a good laugh in there, especially when things get busy. What do you say?

She wakes on Thursday in the small bedroom. Rested but nervous. She should go home now. But Doris is right. They can wait.

They are leaving the house, getting on with the day. He broods as he fries a piece of bread for his breakfast, a cigarette at his lips. The others organize themselves, preoccupied. No one mentions her.

The café kitchen is a new world for her. She is one of three women who keep busy, slicing ham, grating cheese, buttering rolls. Cakes and scones come out of the oven to cool on racks, wafting delicious smells around the small space. Doris flits in and out with the orders. No one asks questions. They make jokes, raise an eyebrow as certain customers come in, thumbs up when they go out. Her guard begins to come down. She likes the atmosphere and the others can see she is a good worker. When her lunch break comes she’s ravenous.

The afternoon is quieter and Doris tells her to take a walk. She goes to the waterfall in the sunshine and sees one or two now familiar faces, drawn like her to the current and spray, hoping it will wash away their troubles. One catches her eye and then looks away.

In the evening she eats cottage pie with Doris and afterwards they drink a glass of ruby port together. She feels pleasantly sleepy after a remarkable day.

At home everyone is out. No one can tolerate the thick atmosphere of resentment that now fills the air in each room and won’t go away.

On Friday morning she is back with the team in the kitchen, like she has been there for years. Her apron washed and put on the peg, ready for her. The morning flies by. Busy and friendly. At 2pm, the rush over, Doris asks her to post some letters. She drops them in the pillar box, wondering if she should be writing home, to tell them she is safe, doing ok.

Happy to stay out longer in the sunshine, she takes a detour by the waterfall. The sunlight is playing on the spray, bouncing in all directions. She looks for her usual dappled spot among the trees. Just then two figures get up slowly from their bench and walk towards her. She thinks to run but feels rivetted to the ground. They are police officers in uniform.

Late afternoon on Friday, the shop bell rings.

Can’t they see we’re shut he says testily, getting up from his armchair. Three silhouettes are etched in the frosted glass. He unlocks the door. The two police officers are side by side. She is standing in front of them, hemmed in against escape. We’ve brought your wife home. Can we have a word inside?

They sit in the living room, uncomfortably perched on the edge of their seats. They can’t piece together where she has been all week. She says nothing. There isn’t anything the police can do except write a report for the files. The officers soon leave.

He walks into the living room, where the rest of the family are huddled in anticipation. Mam’s home, he says. Stuart, will you pop out and get us all fish and chips? That’ll be the easiest thing tonight.

So what happened? John over the meal. Where’ve you been?  It wasn’t fair just clearing off like that. You could have left us a note or ‘phoned or something, says Michael. Stuart sits in silence, his food congealing on the plate.

Your mam got into a bit of a fluster about balancing up the till. That’s all. It’s nothing to fret about. So finish up your tea everyone. She’ll be opening the shop tomorrow, won’t you pet? Always a busy day, Saturday.

You can listen to a podcast of me reading this story at:

The eel

I was walking round the garden just before dusk on All Souls Day, when something at the edge of the pond caught my eye. I immediately thought the predatory heron had been in action and perhaps left behind some part of its prey. A closer inspection showed that the eel which lay there, for such it was, appeared unharmed and with no sign of damage from that stabbing beak.

It was a beautiful elver, maybe ten inches long. Pigmented in colours of grey and brown from its elegant dark head to its finely tipped tail, it was also mottled with greens and blues, that seemed to refract in the low light. A yellowish-brown belly, looked soft and vunerable.

The elver seemed semi-comatose and made no effort to wriggle away. I lifted it gently and placed it in the pond water. Here it gave a couple of casual flicks and then disappeared without a ripple, beneath the duckweed and into the darker depths below.

The whole business took less than a minute. I had no phone with me to take the obligatory photograph. Nothing remained to tell of the elver’s presence.

But next morning I woke up thinking about that eel. Was it preparing to leave the pond or was it arriving there from the nearby burn, just a few yards away? The recent rainfall had been substantial. The burn, trickling and gentle in summer, had become a raging torrent hurtling over the weir at the bottom of the garden. I’d read that eels can move some distance in wet grass. I concluded that the elver had somehow left the boiling spate of the burn and was heading for the tranquility of the pond. Last year I had seen the remains of eels caught near the same spot and I’d even filmed a gruesome episode when the heron was endeavouring to kill a large specimen, fully two feet in length and newly taken from the pond waters.

Had I put the elver at risk? Possibly. But in recent days I’d seen the heron sitting patiently below the weir, clearly with food on its mind. So there were hazards in the burn too. This elver, it seemed, had run that gauntlet successfully, battling its way through the currents of a makeshift fish ladder at the side of the dam, whilst simultaneously avoiding the fatal jab of the bird’s bill.

I felt admiration for the elver. It had made the successful ascent of the Pennyland Burn. Before that it had swum up the River Nith, avoiding the dangers of cormorants at the ‘Caul’ weir in Dumfries. Before that, no less, it had completed a marine journey of formidable dimensions.

For the eel spawns in the western Atlantic in an area known as the Sargasso. Such a beautiful word. It conjures up a mass of eels swimming intertwined, as a raft of seaweed floats above them, the sargassam, from which the sea takes its name. Bounded only by circulating currents and touching no land, the Sargasso Sea seems a beautifully enigmatic place for eels to procreate.

From the Sargasso, transparent larvae of Anguilla Anguilla drift north east on the Gulf Stream until they reach European shores. There they transform into evocatively named  ‘glass eels’ that grow on in river estuaries and brackish water before metamorphosing into the juvenile stage, known as the elver. Over the next few years the elvers live in burns, rivers, lakes and lochs where, on reaching maturity, they are known as ‘silver eels’, from their shining white bellies. They are now ready for the reverse transition from fresh to salt water and for the 5,000 mile return journey south west. En route they will again face many threats, natural and anthropogenic, as the cycle continues.

So I hope the All Souls elver will now settle in the Dumfriesshire garden pond and, avoiding the heron, grow large in a rich habitat full of dragonflies, frogs, water beetles, leeches and snails. Who knows, perhaps I will see it again one dusky evening, by then as a silver eel, slipping out of the pond, heading for the burn, and beginning its epic migration to the spawning grounds, where it will reproduce – and then die.

Note: The featured image was taken recently on the River Nith in Dumfries, and appears here by kind permission of Keith Kirk.

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The value of letter writing

I’ve read many more letters than I’ve written. I can say this with absolute certainty. Some years ago I took on the fascinating task of editing the correspondence of Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. After sifting through an estimated 7,000 items, I put together a book of letters in which I had selected about one tenth of the total and arranged them to tell the story of her life and work.

Cicely Saunders (1918-2005) wrote letters on a phenomenal scale. With more than half an eye to posterity, she kept copies of them too. Neither of these is true for most of us today.

Yet the letter can be a joy to receive: ‘Too much! I’ve got a letter …’ sang Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band on taking delivery of a billet doux from the USA one day in the 1960s. The writing of a letter also brings its pleasures, as authors from Austen to Hemingway to Orwell have acknowledged. Lewis Carrol enjoyed letter writing so much that he wrote a nine point guide to doing it well, But the pleasure of letter writing is not restricted to the literati.

For the last nine months I’ve written a letter each week to a person I only know slightly. Several years older than me, he lives alone, is in declining health and has been struggling with the added constraints of the pandemic. The weekly task of writing to him, which might seem a guilt-inducing chore (‘oh no, the week is almost over and I haven’t written yet!’) has in fact become an enriching and pleasurable experience. I know he gets my letters and enjoys reading them, as I think do his daughters, who get to peruse them on visits to their father; but I expect and receive no letter by way of reply. I don’t have a problem with the asymmetry, rather it makes my task both easier and more interesting.

There are several aspects to the process.

The material elements are important. I’ve acquired a quantity of A5 writing paper. Having the stock by me means there can be no excuse arising from the search for paper. My weekly missive covers both sides of A5 in full, never more nor less.

I write with a fountain pen. It’s nothing fancy, a well known brand I’ve used since school days, costing about a tenner. But the pen gives a sense of occasion and purpose to the writing. Paper and pen together are the tools of my letter writing craft.

I constrain my writing to thoughts or experiences that have occurred in the previous seven days. This way I avoid possible repetition, as I don’t keep copies of the letters, so can’t check back to what I’ve said previously. I also hope by this means to have something fresh to impart to my reader each week. My subject matter ranges from the quotidian rhythms of domestic life to earth shattering events of major geopolitical import.

For the relatively short time it takes, I give the letter writing my undivided attention. I don’t make a draft of the letter, preferring to let it emerge as pen touches paper. But this means the seven or eight paragraphs must flow confidently, even as their content is forming in my head. Having completed the act of writing, there is a sense of catharsis and satisfaction that is enhanced by placing it in the envelope, writing the address of the recipient, and applying the stamp.

Finally, I like to prop up the newly prepared letter, like a small trophy, somewhere prominent in the kitchen or near the front door. That way I don’t forget to post it.

Most of us still write letters at some time in our lives. I wonder if youth and old age are the periods when we are more likely to do so? In the former, to the objects of our affection, and passion. In the the latter, to far flung friends and family, retaining and rekindling old acquaintances. There are exceptions to this of course!

Over a lifespan we might write letters in search of employment. Likewise, an occasional letter of complaint or outrage may issue forth. Or we might write some lines of thanks or deep gratitude for an act of kindness, hospitality or exceptional care. A letter of condolence may be a sombre duty we sometimes take on. Whilst a letter of congratulation to someone on a recent success, is the most lightsome of tasks. Letters serve many purposes. I’m reading Pat Barker’s Union Street at the moment, and noticed that one of the children, Kelly, is adept at forging letters to school, in her mother’s hand, the day after playing truant.

Letter writing is said to be in secular decline, but paradoxically has increased during the pandemic. Pen pals are back in fashion. The plop of a handwritten letter onto the door mat is again something to anticipate.

But in the age of texting, emailing, and messaging on all manner of platforms, there is a sense that letter writing needs more encouragement. This the thinking behind the fairly recently established World Letter Writing Day, which happens on 1st September each year. The idea is to encourage us to pick up a pen and write to someone, devoting time, thought, and a measure of skill to our efforts.

Perhaps you know someone who would like to receive a regular letter from you? If you commit, maybe you will find satisfactions in the process that you can’t imagine at the outset. It may be worth trying. With a pen, a sheet of paper, an envelope and stamp, a true act of compassion is at your disposal.

Trevor Leat – a weaver of dreams

I first met Trevor Leat in his studio-workshop, on a Spring Fling event, several years ago. He was sharing the space with Natalie Vardey at the time and the contrast between his willow work and her jewellery showed off the remarkable skill and invention of both. Over the years I have made a collection of Trevor’s smaller works and also given away some pieces as gifts. There have been trugs and baskets of various kinds, most recently a beautiful apple picker, elegantly shaped and providing the perfect blend of beauty and practicality. We also have a decorative swirling circular piece that sits above a doorway in the house and which I look at every morning as the day begins.

I don’t know Trevor very well but always enjoy my conversations with him when we bump into one another at some event, in a gallery, or most likely at a concert. He and I share an enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band and the subsequent work of Robin Williamson. I see Trevor at my Kirkmahoe Concerts, where, until the pandemic, Robin performed annually from 2010. When we meet between times Trevor and I always seem to fall into some arcane conversation about our shared love of that strange and eclectic music.

Trevor epitomises aspects of the artistic and artisanal work that flourishes in Dumfries and Galloway. He always seems to be busy, whether near or far. He values a sense of place. His work is a paradigm of sustainability. He is unfailingly unflustered, with time to talk and to share his thoughts. His work has a seasonal rhythmn that is reflected in the things he creates.

Continue reading “Trevor Leat – a weaver of dreams”

Spring Fling

Adrian was standing at the back of a metal-worker’s forge. A demonstration of decorative ironmongery skills had just ended and as the heat of the fire died down, the large crowd was still murmuring its admiration. Suddenly, a voice tinged with irony filled the space. ‘We are soon going to take some photographs for publicity use by Visit Scotland. So if by chance you are with someone you perhaps shouldn’t be, then you might want to leave now’.

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Science and sustainability: Dr Emily Taylor

In the early Summer of 2009 I was preparing a move from Lancaster University to take up the position of Head of Campus for the University of Glasgow in Dumfries. I was fulfilling a long held ambition to make Dumfries and Galloway my home, after years of spending time here in the holidays and at weekends. On a bright June morning I couldn’t believe my luck that I was driving west towards the Galloway Hills to attend an ‘away day’ with a group of people involved in the Crichton Carbon Centre, one of our partner organisations on Campus.

It was billed as a ‘green skies’ meeting and these enthusiastic folk welcomed me into a territory that was relatively outside my comfort zone for a specialist in medical sociology and end of life care: climate change, carbon capture, and the vast range of mitigations that might be adopted to influence global warming. In the years that followed I worked closely with the ‘CCC’ team, as I came to know them. From my point of view the jewel in the crown was a ground breaking Master’s degree in Carbon Management, which we ran jointly and which paved the way later for a much bigger environmental studies development at the Dumfries Campus.

So it was with great pleasure last summer when, newly freed from full time academic duties, I received an invitation to join the three-person board of this dynamic and innovative local charity. I took up my Trustee duties in November 2020 and my first meeting was with Dr Emily Taylor, the CCC General Manager and a graduate of that self-same Carbon Management degree. Our paths had briefly crossed in my first year at the University of Glasgow.

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