Wednesday, 14 July 2010

(12) Aberfeldy

Moness Burn

‘While o'er their heads the hazels hing
The little birdies blithely sing’

– Robert Burns, ‘The Birks o’ Aberfeldy’ (t
une: The Birks of Abergeldie)

Our Ashino is Aberfeldy: for
Saigyo’s willow read Burns’ birks.

from river to river

As we drove into the car park I played
Jean Redpath singing ‘The Birks’. Abby Newton’s cello rills and Alasdair Fraser’s fiddle, are the Moness tippling down the glen.

12 the braes ascend, Falls of Moness
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Alec Finlay, 2010

Reading up on the song I found we’d circled around the same glens as Burns. His
narrow road was a collecting tour, commissioned by James Johnson, on which the bard took in Falls of Bruar, Ossian’s grave – one of them anyway – at Blair Castle; Dunkeld, where he paid his respects to ‘kind open-hearted’ Niel Gow; and Glen Lyon, where he was fascinated by a ‘druid's’ temple’ – as we would be in turn. Basho by foot, boat and horse; Burns by horse and foot; we by hire-car and foot.

Jean Redpath’s singing of ‘The Birks o’ Aberfeldy’ reminded me of her wonderful collaboration with Serge Hovey, whose interpretations first drew me to Burns’ songs, especially the less known, ‘Wantonness’, ‘Lady Mary Ann’, ‘The Posie’, 'The Mauchline Lady’. You can hear the rills of the Moness in Hovey’s version of ‘Cauld is the E’enin Blast’, which weaves a lyrical passage from Serge’s improvisations into the introduction.

In the early 1990s I visited Esther, Serge’s plucky widow – my pal Tom Keith, who helps run the annual Clann an Uabhair Gay & Lesbian Burns Supper in Manhattan, wrote recently with the news that Esther passed away in April. He also sent us this from his collection of Mauchlineware:

Thomas Keith, 2010

The night I called on th
eir home in Pacific Palisades, there was rare LA rain and the roads were blocked by mud-slides. Esther allowed me to see Serge’s archive – shelf upon shelf of masters, for Serge had set down his musical vision for every one of the songs in layers of piano. Heroic, tragic too, for Serge made the tapes following his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease, knowing that his time at the piano would be limited.

In a letter to Hamish Henderson, sent in 1972, when Serge was seeking guidance for the project, he suggested an imaginal shift in terms of landscape and time:

When I hear a fine, slow lyric American melody by Charles Ives, or ... Aaron Copland, I think they are echoing old Gaelic airs. Many hymns and Negro spirituals have this haunting association, to my ear. There's no question of the strong Scottish musical heritage in the Appalachians (misnamed "English" by the otherwise capable Cecil Sharp). Whatever the exact musicology of it, I am sure of one thing, the Scottish melodies are organically, deeply related to the American musical scenery.

I remember Appalachian versions of the auld ballads, in a selection of Americana Jean Redpath made for Radio Scotland – Barbary Allen and Sweet William, married in Knott County, Kentucky.

circle poem (for Burns, for Basho, for Saigyo)
Alec Finlay, 2010

from birk to willow

Ken and I searched for another kind of memorial – arboreal
– walking up from the car park, hunting around for ‘Saigyo’s willow’. In the end, the specimen we were most sure of was back where we had started.

does it matter
if the willow I found
grows by the car?

12 wish, willow, Birks o' Aberfeldy
Alec Finlay, 2010

from willow to beech

12 inscribed beech, Birks o' Aberfeldy (I)
Alec Finlay, 2010

12 inscribed beech, Birks o’ Aberfeldy (II)
Alec Finlay, 2010

The birks here are nadokoro, but the beeches are also for lovers: they bulge with names. We were amused how often Ken seemed to have been here before himself.

cut hearts & crosses
it’s a thin line

if you make it
this way

12 inscribed beech, Birks o’ Aberfeldy (II)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Reminding me of a work by the Glasgow-based artist Stephen Skrynka, which memorialised the graffitied names and phrases (1962–2000) from a tunnel under the Clyde.

Tunnel (where is your promised land)

The graffiti was converted into sung,
whispered and spoken sound loops.

These were broadcast down the tunnel
as travelling ghost sounds
through 160 concealed speakers.

The sound library was accessed the website
users could choose which sounds to use
and at what speed they wanted them to travel.

It was a 3 week long sound composition.

I worked with a composer and a soprano
and we did workshops with primary schools
on either side of the tunnel.

They wrote and sung their own pieces of graffiti
and these were added to the library.

A Ukrainian choir sang a concert of traditional songs
40 of them in one long line
with the public traversing through.

The acoustics were incredible.

Stephen Skrynka

from Tunnel (where is your promised land)

I kissed carol White and turned into a frog
Stupid not a clue what he’s talking about
Sandr A and Steph McN Ross Mc Pink Floyd
If you are gay read this you are gay
God made wankers big and small Govan possie has got them all
One night stand last night fucking great Pink Floyd Florrie loves tricia frae Knitswood
do I don’t disturb Tracy Roseanne mary Karen Lou Reed put up or shut up
I am 17 how old are you
Who would like to suck this if you would meet me here tomorrow during the day or
night I will be down here okay In excess

Stephen Skrynka

from beech to hazel

12 hokku-label, hazel, Birks o' Aberfeldy
(sunken catkins / in pure water pebbles / worn here and there)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Willow leaves fall
and fresh waters wethered stones
scattered here and there

– Buson, tr. Earl Miner

Buson’s haiku pays its respects to Basho’s willow, as Basho’s pays respects to Saigyo – I made a version of the Buson sat by Burns' statue.

sunken catkins
in pure water pebbles
worn here and there

12 wish, hazel, Birks o' Aberfeldy
Alec Finlay, 2010

Burns also refers to the hazels clustered along the riverbank. I tied one with a wish. Being June the splurge was on in the darkling glen.

ramsons and ferns
hing over for
scant light

Alec Finlay, 2010


from hazel to birk

12 Burns' hands, Moness Burn
Ken Cockburn, 2010

At Moness Burn I leave Eck near the Burns statue and follow the path on the east bank. I’ve often walked here in autumn, path deep in leaves and sky visible, but now, so much green! Beneath the overhang, water’s heard, but not seen.

12 Here Robert Burns, Moness Burn
Ken Cockburn, 2010

12 wish, birks, Moness Burn
Ken Cockburn, 2010

There are few birks until past the falls, and those back from the watercourse. Beyond a fern-grove’s strict verticals a fine open wood; one all-but-horizontal tree’s held just enough by another still to leaf.

12 ferns
Alec Finlay 2010

12 curved birch
Alec Finlay 2010

The path leads to the Urlar Road and on to Dunskaig, once empty and forlorn on the hillside, now des res. Returning I pass horsetails and hawthorn, many a great piece of turf.

The whisky wasn’t Aberfeldy, but Ledaig (1993) – Burns wouldn’t have minded.


from birk to juniper

’hiharara hiharara
hhedari hiharara hiomento hinem’

– Kevin Henderson, from ‘Canntaireachd

In the arboretum we found juniper (Juniperus chinensis pfitzeriana), sharing our liking for China and Japan.

12 hokku-label, juniper, Birks o’ Aberfeldy
(juniper here / or Japan / or China)
Alec Finlay, 2010

As we drove away we passed the URLAR ROAD sign, wondering if it related to piobaireachd; the first movement, urlar, is a simple melody upon which subsequent variations, siubhal, dithis, etc., are formed. Could it refer to the river itself, whose flow breaks into so many falls and rills?

12 postcard, Lower Falls of Moness

Aberfeldy Watermill

well, if those hills
are The Highlands

then we’re not
there yet

Alec Finlay, 2010 (Dunfallandy)

Where would you go to buy a Vaserely, Kitaj or Bridget Riley? The Watermill bookshop and gallery at Aberfeldy. Our route is partly planned to stitch together some the different ventures which define contemporary art on the oku. They’re welcome; for their tea; their walk-guides and maps; for the aspirational reading matter you find there – books that from then on remind you of the place. Where magical wild places coincide with thought or felt objects, then both extended delight.

Back in 2000, after the first 3 pocketbook anthologies had launched, I took a short break on Berneray (Harris); it was great to see the books stacked together, first on Skye, at An Tuireann, then at Taigh Chearsabhagh – what better place to find a book of Scottish haiku and one-word poems? Those gallery-bookshops were our partners; we sold more books through frontier outposts than in all the London bookshops put together.

These places are our partners again now and we will be putting a QR-code (linking to the audio poems) at these venues, come May 2011.


Crannog Centre

12 postcard, Crannog Centre
photograph, T. N. Dixon

The Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay is thatched in reeds from Errol, where loch waters have left the river to become firth.

Dwellings that reflect ways of life we can’t fully understand; compare this conical family dwelling with Outlandia (Ben Nevis), An Turas (Tiree), or the Turrell sky-space we will search for on Rannoch Moor. How will they be comprehended in 1000 years?

Lots of unanswered questions here. Why crannogs in the first place? Hard to build, need remaking every four years, too close to shore to be really defensible. Why are there no human remains, not even a child's tooth? How did the spelt and opium seeds get here, from Asia Minor and beyond, long before the Romans? Trade circulates, and the rivers were the motorways of the past. What's out on the back roads now was in the mainstream back then; in 1122, Alexander I's queen Sibylla died on an island in the loch. We pull on the proffered Ancient Celt outfits and are glad of them against the wind. Inside we get today's tidy version, smoke and animal free.


The road here is narrow and winding, the sun bounces unpredictably off water, I'm glad to arrive. Rommedahl scores the winner against Cameroon, and down at the shore, smoke from a camping-party's bonfire drifts towards us.

late June northlight
hazy half-moon settles down
into the trees

how do the bats get by
on so little dark?

12 Loch Tay
Ken Cockburn, 2010

In the morning we breakfast outside on a little lawn, defined either side by wooden fenceposts, overlooking a grass-meadow. Swallows and sparrows, thin cloud, sunshine, warm enough already to sunbathe.

12 wish, willow, Loch Tay
Alec Finlay, 2010

Loch Tay

far from the sea
a straw tide
spated beyond
the hollow roots
of willow and alder


Our guide opened a door, and we entered a dungeon-like passage, and, after walking some yards in total darkness, found ourselves in a quaint apartment stuck over with moss, hung about with stuffed foxes and other wild animals, and ornamented with a library of wooden books covered with old leather backs, and mock furniture of a hermit's cell. At the end of the room, through a large bow window, we saw the waterfall ... a very beautiful prospect.
– Dorothy Wordsworth at Acharn, 1803

We were intrigued by DW’s description of this library of wooden books, remembering Alec's xylotheque in the hidden gardens at Glasgow.

postcard, Perthshire, Ronald W. Weir photography

Croft Moraig

Croft Moraig is a complex double stone circle which owes its appearance to no less than three phases of religious activity over 5,000 years ago… excavated in 1965 by Stuart Piggot and Derek Simpson. Piggot's book Scotland Before History (1982) provides a good history of the pre-historic era.

Croft Moraig become our marker for (W>) almost home or (just got going. It's in a field S next to the A827 between Aberfeldy and Kenmore, beneath huge oak and lime trees, by farm buildings and a sawmill.

12 Croft Moraig
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Burns passed by in 1787, describing it thus in his journal: Druids’ Temple, three circles of stones, the outermost sunk, the second has thirteen stones remaining: the innermost eight, two large detached ones like a gate to the south-east – say prayers to it.


of the places
we went near
but did not see

all I will say is
the burn knows
nothing of the sea


this is a guide to 12, The Birks o’ Aberfeldy (56°37'8.07"N) (3°51'56.02"W). Park in the car park. The footpaths running either side of the burn meet at the bridge over the falls; that on the east is the more dramatic, and harder work. Past the falls, on the west, where the path meets Urlar Road, turn right, then left through a gate, and follow the track downhill past a pylon to Dunskaig. There, turn right; at the end of this track a path ahead leads to the burn, or you can turn left down Urlar Road, which ends just below the turn into the car-park.

the completed journey will be realised as an audio-visual word-map, published online and in print, May 16, 2011. If you would like more information about the project email


The Watermill is the largest bookshop in the rural Highlands and has been voted the best independent bookshop in the UK.

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