Dougal’s introduction to hill-walking and conceptual art

Dougal easily outruns the Liliputians pursuing him up Wether Hill

On finding somewhere I really enjoy walking, my tendency is to return there time after time rather than heading off in search of pastures new. There’s so much wonderful countryside in Britain that it might seem a bit perverse to be endlessly ploughing the same perambulatory furrow; perhaps it’s laziness, but I love the sense of intimacy that comes with familiarity.

My passport ran out over a year ago and personally I can see no good reason to get a new one at the moment as there’s so much to detain me closer to home. I’ve lived in Scotland for over four years and have still only seen a tiny fraction of the country because of my yo-yo-ing back and forth to the Southern Hebrides.

Well, a new chapter will open in writesofway’s Caledonian peregrinations this weekend when I head to the isle of Rum, accompanied by the lovely Fiona. Rum, together with the other Small Isles – Eigg, Muck and Canna – and their near neighbours, Coll and Tiree, will be on the receiving end of several visits this year. We’ll be spending five days on Rum this time, our first  backpacking excursion for several months. I can’t wait. Dougal will be staying at home in the care of Malcolm, in case you were worried. It will be a while before he’s big enough to accompany us on Very Big Walkies.

After weeks stuck at home, it was great to have the opportunity to stay down in Dumfriesshire for the weekend with our friends Colin and Jane. I was itching to revisit the lovely hills above Durisdeer and fortunately Saturday dawned cloudless and crisp. Dougal and I were up before first light and out the door for our early-morning wee. Still, it was late-morning before we left the house as Colin and Jane have not long been together so had to be prised apart and levered out of their bedroom before we could be on our way.

We decided that Dougal could manage his first hill – the top south of Wether Hill – before Fiona would head home with him and myself C and J would continue over Black Hill and Well Hill before returning back along the glen.

The frost ensured that the often boggy ground was good and firm and we were soon launching ourselves up the steep flank of Wether Hill. Dougal was undaunted by the climb, perhaps all the up and down the stairs to the back garden at home had made for good training.

Note the dearth of technical fabrics being worn by the assembled company.

So, Dougal’s first hill conquered. The first of many to be inflicted on the poor, defenceless wee dug.He and Fiona scampered off back down the hill while I dragged C and J, kicking and screaming over the whale-backed hills to our appointment with sarnies and ginger snaps on the summit of Well Hill.

Returning down the glen via the Roman fortlet guarding the pass, we were soon back in Durisdeer. We had a look at the ever-fascinating kirkyard with it’s collection of scary funerary art; a real thanatologist’s dream.

Apparently, Durisdeer is the setting for part of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, according to Ronald Turnbull’s excellent guide book to the Lowther Hills. The tiny hamlet is exceptionally beautiful and to my eye it has one of the finest settings of any settlement I’ve ever visited in the British Isles.

When you’ve not been for a good walk in a long while, it really brings home what a wonderful thing it is to get out and get some fresh air and exercise. My mood was improved no end by our few hours in the hills, so much so that I insited that we stop off to admire some sculptural land art on the way home.

This cone, which is found just outside the village of Penpont is one of a number of Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture’s scattered around the area. He lives nearby and makes many ephemeral art works as well as the more monumental forms such as the Striding Arches arrayed on hilltops around nearby Cairnhead.

The following afternoon – once we’d thrown a bucket of cold water over Cand J, we headed up Glencairn to visit The Byre striding arch, which is the most accesible of the arches. It’s possible to walk around all of the arches in one day, but this would be too much of an undertaking for young Dougal, even if we had managed to evict C and J from their love shack early enough.

This was Dougal’s first encounter with a monumental conceptual sculptural art form and he seemed to take it in his stride (sorry).


19 responses

  1. Fine looking young beast you have there.! Suspect you have done the correct thing in leaving him at home for a winter backpacking trip to Rum.I think I`d prefer being left behind also 🙂
    Well Hill is a cracking little viewpoint,isn`t it ?

  2. Hello Alex, yes, Well Hill is a fine viewpoint indeed and there’s something very attractive about that wee group of hills all in all. Hmmm, on reading your reaction to the prospect of Rum in winter, I experienced a chilly intimation of lacerating winds, torrential rain, swollen burns, ice, snow, hail storms and bothies occupied by cackling loons. Maybe I’ll stay home with Dougie and issue Fiona with some precise instructions instead. She’s small, but she’s game…

  3. “Dougal easily outruns the Liverpudlians pursuing him up Wether Hill”. I read that again and luckily I had read it wrongly the first time round!

    “Dougal and I were up before first light and out the door for our early-morning wee”. I read that several times and it remained the same. I hope that before long you are allowed to wee in the house Pete! I have just been standing at the back door in my dressing gown waiting for Rueben to sniff the yard, cock a leg on the fence and poo. It’s all very exciting.

    Good to see that Dougal is enjoying the hills, he is looking to be a right handsome chap. Enjoy Rum, I have to say that I am very very jealous of you there Pete. Careful when throwing Fiona over raging burns though.

    • You’re such a wag. Wag, wag, wag. Yes, the early morning wee scenario is part of the attempt to get the little chap out of the door first thing before he can wee indoors; so I don’t get the chance to empty my own tank beforehand. By urinating up lamp posts myself I’m aiming (!) to set an example to Dougal. Not cocking my leg though. Maybe I should. What do you reckon?

      As for being pursued by Liverpudlians, maybe I should have called him Torres, but I’m guessing that footie-related banter passes under your radar, James?

      Probably like yourself, I can’t think why we didn’t get a dog before now. What a waste of time!

      • “Dougal easily outruns the tories pursuing him up Wether Hill” That sounds much better. Do they hate dogs too?

        Footie related banter will go right over my head Pete. Football is for ‘real’ men innit, or that is what I have been told!

        If you cock your leg at lamp posts make sure you do it under the cover of darkness! Thats what I do, some hobbies should be kept yo yourself.

      • I’m going to train Dougal to eat Tories on sight. I thought I might show him pictures of George Osborne while applying electric shocks and braying ‘We’re all in this together’ in a posh Tory Twat accent. I know it’s cruel, but extreme circumstances demand extreme responses.

        Actually, real men go hill-walking rather than spending loads of money on a season ticket and spending their Saturdays travelling to Middlesborough to watch… etc etc, you get my point? I started supporting Arsenal 14 years ago when living near Highbury so I would have something to talk to some of my mates about. I love watching The Arsenal play, but only on tv.

        Let’s keep the other issue between you, me and the lamp post.

  4. Excellent piece, Pete. I love what you have to say about returning to the familiar. There often seems so much emphasis placed on discovering the new, that we neglect the treasures of repeated explorations of the same landscape. And that is very fine landscape indeed to have on a list of the intimate. Beautiful hills and shades and contours; a delightful looking walk in fact, particularly when you can throw in a cultural stop in a fascinating cemetary. The Goldsworthy cone is a wondrous addition to the landscape. Thanks for the morning tour!

    • Morning Hoff! I’m sure Durisdeer would be right up your U-shaped glacial valley. If you’re ever over this way, we’ll be sure to take you on a visit. Where’s ‘Berlin Pt 2’? No pressure x

      • I’m as interested in where ‘Berlin, part 2’ is as yourself. I seem to have misplaced my notes for that particular tale somewhere between the German capital and our Grecian village. Otherwise, it would have been ‘part 1’! But having just finished a big writing deadline on the weekend, I’m hoping to scour the shelves and folders and miscellaneous collection of papers scattered across my desk in search of them today! Would anyone notice if I just moved on to something else instead? xo

      • Answer is yes, people would notice. You have a dedicated readership now Mr Hoffman; no-hopers like me whose anxious little faces light up when the old post alert pings in to the inbox.

        Rings of Saturn; yes a re-read is in order. Rather irrationally, I do feel that the privacy of reading such an intimately familiar text is somewhat invaded by the knowledge that the film/Ten Years After Sebald etc will bring a whole new raft of readers to this fine book. Daft of course – the best possible outcome is for as many people as possible to read it.

        I seem to remember that you and Joules had a dog come to stay with you when you first moved to Prespa – or am I mistaken?

      • Very kind words, Pete, but no-hoper is way off the mark I must say! Writes of Way has its own dedicated fellowship who (myself included) would be most upset if Dougal absorbed so much of your time that you no longer penned your journeys for us! Let that be remembered!!

        Yes, I know what you mean about ‘Rings of Saturn.’ What has been interesting this time around for me is to also note the sheer comic vibrancy of so much of his writing. Although dark, I have found myself smiling deeply any number of times. That and the theme of environmental dissonance that seems to underpin so many sections. Though not the first time I’ve seen it in his work (it is such a strong strand in The Emigrants) I perhaps didn’t notice it so much in ‘The Rings of Saturn’ before. That idea of dabbling with a power beyond us echoes throughout.

        We did indeed have a dog, sort of. Hector the Half-a-Dog was his full title. He didn’t actually belong to us, but had lived with the previous people in our house. We became very good mates and he accompanied us to the fields and helped plough up the soil with his strong back legs or assisted with irrigation by breaking open the earthen water channels until water travelled everywhere. But what Hector the Half-a-Dog loved more than anything else was coming to the mountains with us, where he would race off over the hills for hours without his owners ever knowing where he’d been all day! Sadly, his owners started keeping him on a tighter leash a few years ago and he passed away not long after, no doubt recalling his own doggie version of ‘Blue Remembered Hills.’

      • Now I remember. I seem to recall that you and Joules used to send round a kind of email newsletter back in the days before the blog. Perhaps there was even a picture of Hector the Half-a-Dog?

        I’m glad he had the opportunity to enjoy your company for a while at least.

        I meant to ask earlier; what was the big writing deadline for then Mr H?

      • Yes, there was a round robin newsletter now that you mention it, penned by Joules! The deadline was for an essay that I had to submit by the end of the month. It’s partially about a beaver reintroduction project in Romania but looks at the idea of extinction in a general sense and in relation to human lives as well. I was even more excited than usual to finish a piece as I think that now completes the book, at least in theory!! I may, of course, be wildly off the mark there…

      • I remember you interacting with Paul White re the beaver reintroduction in Romania. There was an interesting article about the beaver reintroduction at Knapdale in NW Scotland in Scotland Outdoors magazine, here’s a link:

        Click to access so_summer10_muddy_waters.pdf

        The book! Fantastic! Any ideas where you’re going to punt it publishing-wise?

      • Thanks for the link, Pete! It wouldn’t work when I first tried it, but I’ll try again later as we’ve had some internet problems here.

        Yes, Paul and I talked a fair bit about the reintroductions – both a fascinating topic and part of the world where he lives.

        My first port of call will be Milkweed Editions, a terrific publisher in the States, whose non-fiction line is particularly interested in the connections between the human and non-human worlds. But I’ll certainly see what I can find that might be suitable in the UK. Any suggestions more than welcome!! Cheers, Hoff

      • Hmmm. Grey Wolf, Two Ravens, Luath, Iron Press are among the smaller publishers that do ‘nature’ writing. However, I wonder if Canongate (Edinburgh) might be a good port of call. They’re fairly Scotocentric, but not exclusively so worth a try. In fact, any publisher YOU like is worth a go. Be ambitious, you’re a talented writer, Julian, and to compound matters you are an acute and humane observer of the internal and external worlds and so have much of relevance to say. And this is not merely ego-buffing hot air.

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