Lost in an Empty Land
My experience of a place is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic. While there is a vertiginous quality to this experience – a deep awareness of the accretion of narratives, strata of significance and association, of memory and amnesia – I am also at pains to be fully present in the moment, to cultivate a Zen-like beginner’s mind, trying to experience whatever is in my immediate vicinity with a freshness of perception, a jamais vu.
This deliberate ‘forgetting’ forces me to engage my senses. Not to think, but to simply ‘be’. To employ Arnold Van Gennep’s over-used term, in my peregrinations I endeavour to enter a liminal state. But in so doing, there are consequences – as I discovered on a long-distance walk during the summer of 2017.
I was lost, although I wasn’t to notice it for a good hour or so. After a while all monotonous, gravelled, ankle-grinding tracks in a Forestry Plantation blur into one. I blame the rain, which prevented me from checking the map in my guidebook too often. It was getting into everything – soaking me by slow incursions, layer-by-layer, extremities to core, making pages stick together and sapping my spirits. After a long morning of walking, on top of several days of hiking, missing a trail sign was all too easy.
Along the Southern Upland Way (SUW), a 212-mile long coast-to-coast path that straddles the Scottish Borders, the white thistle signs are intermittent or poorly situated: elusive ellipses over the rough draft of the heath. Taking what I thought was the more sensible option – a lower level route recommended by my trail-guide in inclement weather – I soon found them disappear altogether.
Slogging up a rain-lashed section of trail dragging a growing feeling that something wasn’t quite right, I sat down exhausted on a stump. Hunger gnawed at my belly so I munched on soggy sandwiches, surrounded by the no man’s land of a deforested section, one of several that marred the trail (partly the consequence of a policy to replant the dreary dead zones of Sitka Spruce with native species). I seemed to be on a Sustrans bike trail. I soldiered on, perhaps rather optimistically hoping it would intersect at some point with the SUW. Alas, as I trudged along my desperate hopes diminished. The track eventually ran out into a timber-strewn cul-de-sac.
For a moment I was engulfed by a wave of cold knowing. I was lost.
The sobering realisation, combined with the uncertainty of my precise location, tilted my surroundings as dramatically as an earthquake.
The forest had become antagonist – the ranks of mute pines seemed to mock my ineptitude.
Not wanting to sup the thin gruel of defeat just yet, I decided to make one last effort to get back on track and made a traverse of the ridge, which hid the SUW. Traipsing with difficulty over branch, stump and gulley, I eventually reached the brow of the hill. Yet, instead of seeing the hoped-for path beyond, the cemetery of trees just extended in all directions.
Starting to get a bit worried – aware I was wasting precious energy, time and body-heat – I dropped down to the tree line, hoping to be able to follow an easterly bearing back to where I’d come from. Unfortunately, this resulted in my getting entangled in the gloomy nightmare of the conifer interior, wading through deep mulch, hidden streams, and jagged barriers of low branch. I am not one for using GPS, but in extremis the situation called for it, as I had no visual bearing on my position. The map on my dying phone, however, only showed a dot in a featureless expanse of green.
I would have to rely upon my compass and common sense.
I headed east and downwards, hoping to reach a forestry track. I kept spotting strips of white plastic tied to trees, and, in my increasingly manic state, took these as some kind of sign and followed them. Eventually they led me to an access track. I’d never been so grateful for gravel before.
Mercifully, the track came out at a junction I recognised. Cursing my incompetence, I painfully retraced my steps to my lunch point, up a very steep track. I kept going until I spotted a SUW sign. It had taken me two hours to get back to this point, after an hour of being lost. Now I was running three hours late. I was eight miles into the walk, with eight miles to go … and still no signal. I’d arranged to meet my partner (who was kindly providing ‘back-up’, whilst enjoying herself in a less onerous manner) at an obscure location at 5pm. I decided to push on.
Guzzling down the rest of my coffee, and stuffing my face with a Mars bar, I went into ‘turbo’ mode with both of my walking poles out. I was angry with myself as much as anything – that and the adrenalin kept me going as I trekked away from Glen Trool through a lonely glen associated with a famous victory by Robert the Bruce; and later, with the famous biplane chase sequence in The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan (a nearby hamlet shared his name). My whole day had been transmogrified into a minor crisis all because of the poor signage. At a critical turning I discovered, to my incredulity, the absence of a fingerpost (the actual tiny SUW sign was hidden along the turning by foliage). The guidebook, normally reliable, had failed to mention this. Sighing, I yomped on. Already exhausted by getting lost (which resulted in me being drenched in sweat beneath my rain-soaked clothes) I now had to draw upon inner reserves to keep going. Such experiences certainly test your stamina and morale, or ‘grit’ as they might call it up in Scotland.
The track through the lonely, exposed glen went on and on. It eventually passed Loch Dee, where I had to stop for replenishment in a midge-infested glade. I pushed on, aware that my partner was probably very worried by this point, but, barring a signal, there was nothing I could do about it except get there as soon as I could. This made the walking stressful as well as exhausting – but by that point I had resigned myself to the whole debacle.
There was one upside to this experience – I never became lost again on the remainder of the Southern Upland Way. Afterwards, I was extra-attentive to the trail (which was sometimes not much more than a slight indentation in the grass across miles of open moorland – the rumour of a track, a sheep-trail or deer-way), taking my bearings often, and never being complacent. Other Long-Distance Paths have been straight-forward to navigate, even across serious terrain (e.g. the West Highland Way, which crosses Rannoch Moor). Normally, the direction you have to go in is reassuringly clear – but not on the SUW! Clatteringshaws Loch, the end-point of my day’s route repeated like a mantra, seemed to take forever to reach – so I was mightily relieved to see my partner driving towards me along the last hundred yards. The search-party had arrived.
However unpleasant at the time, the experience of disorientation is, as long as you live to tell the tale, one from which something can be redeemed. I actually like getting a little lost on a walk, before later finding my way back onto the trail. It makes you use your wits, gets the adrenalin going, and is often the most memorable part. Thrust out of your comfort zone, you suddenly have to become hyper-aware of your surroundings, conserving energy and supplies, phone battery life, and body heat.
Everything becomes intensely real, a kind of altered state that transforms one’s experience of place.
Yet the above anecdote is an extreme (and to date, unique) example, and in fact I have experienced many satisfying days of walking through a different quality of ‘lost’ – through vast, apparently empty hillsides.
I would wander for twenty miles without seeing a soul, a strange sensation when walking through open moorland – you, the only sign of human life for ten miles in every direction. It’s as though some apocalyptic event has happened and you are the last man on Earth.
Hairy tales of cannibalism keep you on your toes. In the case of the atmospheric Borders one could be forgiven for succumbing to folkloric fallacy, for on the south-west coast between Girvan and Ballantrae the notorious Sawney Bean and his clan was said to have stalked ‘long-pig’. According to the legend, the cave-dwelling serial-killer and his incestuously monstrous family (8 sons, 6 daughters, 18 grandsons, 14 grand-daughters) were said to have consumed a thousand victims over a 25-year reign of terror. Although he crops up during the reign of James I of Scotland in the early 1400s, he is most commonly associated with the 17th century, at the time when the Jacobite Rebellion resulted in negative caricatures of the Scottish appearing frequently in English-produced chapbooks, the sensationalist tabloids of their day. Not one whit of credible evidence has emerged to confirm Sawney Bean’s existence.
The true horror of this tale is what we are willing to believe about each other.
Unpleasant propaganda aside, it is still easy to let wild fancy carry the visitor away in such brooding locales. The blear vistas and vast emptiness works away on the psyche, day after day.
In hindsight I can acknowledge that I was passing through a landscape inhabited, and shaped, by people for millennia. That it is, despite its depopulation, still a working landscape, with forestry plantations, farms, hydro-electric dams, wind-farms and rural businesses… For the people that work in these places the lonely hills are the backdrop of their daily lives (as the forestry worker I came across acknowledged: ‘A lovely place to work!’ I called out. ‘Except when it rains…’ was her cheery reply).
Yet there are clear historical reasons why the Southern Uplands of Scotland seem so empty, and it has nothing to do with legendary cannibals.
A traditional system of agriculture in Lowland Scotland existed unchanged for hundreds of years. It was a rural economy, the land being worked by the cottars, part-time labourers and subtenants on the centuries-old runrig system of subsistence farming – a system of land occupation, the name refers to its characteristic ridge and furrow pattern, with alternating ‘runs’ (furrows) and ‘rigs’ (ridges). These ancient agrarian rhythms shaped the land, maintained as they were for generations – families of farmers, ploughing their own furrows. The Agricultural Revolution in Scotland during the 17th to 19th centuries had a devastating effect on these traditions. While the ostensible agenda was the modernisation of farming methods, the price of increased productivity was its impact on human lives.
The cottars were brutally replaced with full-time agricultural labourers who lived either on the main farm or in rented accommodation in growing or newly-founded villages. Small settlements were torn down, their occupants moved to new, purposely-built villages. Other displaced farmers relocated to the new industrial centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh and northern England. In other areas, such as the southwest, landowners offered low rents and employment to tenants they deemed to be ‘respectable’. As farmland became more commercialised, land was often rented through auctions, leading to an inflation of rents that ultimately priced many tenants out of the market.
During these events, which took place between 1760 and 1830, and have been identified by some historians as the Lowland Clearances, many Scottish Lowlanders who had found themselves out of work or had been forced off their land migrated to North America. These mass migrations occurred mostly after 1776, when tens of thousands chose to take advantage of the many new opportunities offered in America and Canada to own and farm their own land.
Now, sheep-farming dominates the area, and the 13th century prophecy of Thomas of Ercildoune seems to have been fulfilled: ‘The teeth of the sheep shall lay the plough on the shelf.’ Sheep were more economical than people, easier to control. After the Jacobite Rebellion this was as much a political move as one driven by market forces.
It is tempting to draw parallels between these historical evictions and the folk-tales of ‘hollow hills’ (e.g. the stories associated with The Piper’s Knowe, Ednam; or Thomas the Rhymer, Canonbie Dick and the Eildon Hills), with notions of an aboriginal race ‘gone to ground’ and of the unwary being taken into fairy knowes never to be seen again. Within his parish of Aberfoyle, situated within the heart of The Trossachs, this was believed to be the fate of Robert Kirk, 17th century Episcopalian Minister, translator of the Bible into Gaelic and author of the 1691 monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. Certainly, my writer’s imagination cannot help but populate the telling absences and tantalising lacunae of such numinous places with narrative – for it is not only nature that abhors a vacuum. We are meaning-making machines – we crave pattern and significance – and ‘empty’ lands, whether they be deserts natural or manmade, serve as a tabula rasa.
The path one forges through the wild is a kind of narrative. One becomes the stylus, tracing the text/ure of the land.
You achieve a kind of Zen-like state – your mind in your feet, often not thinking of anything in particular, just ‘being,’ fully present in the moment. And then, miles from anywhere, and deep inside/outside yourself, the little epiphanies arise; moments of Gnosis when the negative space around you becomes a presence. An intense peace fills you, and the silence speaks.
These are moments that make you stop, dead in your tracks – or, rather, fully alive – and weep at the gift of the wild. A Northamptonshire dialect word for the thawing snow, ‘ungive’, (Like Dew Before the Sun, Dorothy A. Grimes, 1991) suggests that even the weather, in the form of a heavy snowfall, is a form of giving. Nature is profligate and we squander its casual miracles daily.
Wilderness, literally the ‘self-willed’ landscape, (Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places, 2007) or wild-deor-ness, ‘the place of wild beasts’ (Jeremy Hooker, Ditch Vision, 2017) ennobled by its own non-anthropomorphic autonomy, stirs in us a similar empowerment. Our soul does not stoop to enter it, but is encouraged by the shift of scale to expand to the horizon. In the vast skies the mind finds the space it needs to think bold thoughts. In the wild rivers our heart song is heard and heeded. The self-willed landscape invites us to declare our own state of independence, bestowing upon us the gift of freedom – not just a right to roam, but a depthless interiority. The foothills and mountains become metaphors, become themselves again. We start by wanting to climb to their summits until we realise, like Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain, 1977), that every mountain has an ‘inside’.
John Muir, in turn, observed: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” (The Wilderness World of John Muir, 1954). The eponymous protagonist in John Cowper Powys’ typically singular novel Wolf Solent (1929) echoes this sentiment: “The most important things in my life … are what come back to me from forgotten walks, when I’ve been alone…” Wolf spends his life seeking ‘The Ideal Road’. This wanderlust becomes a kind of ontological practice: ‘the sensation came over him that he had only to walk on and on … on and on … just like this … in order to bring that secret ‘mythology’ of his into relation with the whole world.’ And yet there is a grain of something healthful here – a realigning of one’s internal narrative with the perennial novel of the world. Somehow, through sheer effort, through the honest of the artificial accretions of modern life, it synchronises with the greater cycle. The pilgrim is renewed by the act of pilgrimage.
Solent’s monomania echoes the obsession of the protagonist François Seurel from Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the only novel by Alain-Fournier, killed in the first month of the First World War. Seurel’s search for the ‘lost domain’ of innocence and nascent desire is a search doomed to failure, for we can never return to that prelapsarian state before the bloodletting of the 20th century began.
Major Percy Fawcett, cartographer and explorer, spent a lifetime searching for the fabled lost city of ‘Z’ deep in the Amazon, consumed by what Robert Macfarlane identified as ‘fern-weh’ or Fernweh, a German word meaning ‘far-sickness’; a painful longing for distant places, a consuming compulsion to travel or to escape home.
This wanderlust sometimes finds expression in the act of pilgrimage, as so beautifully evoked in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which suggests that humans are just as affected by zeitgebers (The Snow Geese, William Fiennes, 2002) as migratory birds:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swetebreeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes.
It is this existential hunger for the exotic shores of such ‘straunge strondes’ that compels both the explorer and the pilgrim. They are on a continuum – with ‘secular’ at one end, ‘sacred’ at the other. The former may justify her motives by claiming an advancement of knowledge, the latter, an advancement of soul. Yet however it is framed, it is often a primal, possibly endogenous desire that the act of ‘setting off’ is sating. Humans, a perambulatory species on the plane of evolution, are hard-wired for walking.
In his essay ‘Walking,’ Henry David Thoreau sang the praises of the ancient ‘art’ aligning it with that of the Medieval ‘Saunterer’:
SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.
Some accused of the apparently pejorative title were, as Thoreau acknowledges, indeed ‘mere idlers and vagabonds,’ although its homophone ‘sans terre (from which he also posits ‘saunterer’ could be derived) indicates ‘without land or home’, which the author suggests ‘will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.’ Thoreau muses that ‘this is the secret of successful sauntering.’
This notion greatly appeals to me, partly because it reframes my own ‘saunterings’ in a Romantic light, recasting me as a Quixotic crusader (a consoling fiction when trudging through the rain, getting stuck in mud, or bitten by midges), but more importantly because it suggests the amorphousness of national identity – a resonant concept in this modern age of displacement, migration and xenophobia – that the wanderer is both homeless and at home everywhere. Michael Ondaatje echoes this sentiment in The English Patient (1992) when he writes: ‘We are the real countries.’ By walking amid Borders I have found that I lose my own.
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