Friday, 16 July 2010

(13) Sma' Glen

Our Shirakawa is Sma’ Glen and Saint Fillans Hill; our Shirakawa Barrier is somewhere and everywhere.

13 Newton, towards Glen Almond
Alec Finlay, 2010

Sma’ Glen was one of the places Ken originally suggested for TRN, but it fell away from the longlist. Now here we were about to drive through it, on the road from Aberfeldy–Comrie via Amulree, for the southern half of our Perthshire stay; exchanging the 'Heart’s Mountains' episode – Haguroyama, Yodono, Gassan; Schiehallion, Ben Lawers, Carn Gorm – for the gateway of the project, Shirakawa.

And where was Shirakawa? Cross the Forth and there are Welcomes to The Highlands made on many signposts; but Shirakawa, that’s something else. If you had to choose a place where the crossing’s made, from Lowland into Highland, where would it be?

Basho gives before and after, placing the crossing somewhere between the ‘anticipation each day mounting’ of station 13, and the retrospective ‘And so we went over and crossed the Abukumagawa’, of 14. Ken and I planned to find our Shirakawa triangulated between Dunira, Dalchonzie and the slopes of Beinn Dearg. Glen Lyon had shown us how the true doors into the Highlands open SW, NW, along faulted glens winding into the hills by way of rivers. There is no direct route north: life isn’t made that way.

Sma’ Glen is our ‘before’ Shirakawa, because of the Newton beeches.

the gate
makes a space

for things
to come

The Newton beeches

13 hokku-label, Newton Beeches
(the Newton beeches' / bark-book / young in 1860)
Ken Cockburn & Alec Finlay, 2010

As we went from station to station through Perthshire and Atholl we kept happening on beech trees carved with names; 'others of poetic bent left word of feeling behind', as Basho writes. Perhaps not so surprising in the popular destinations – Aberfeldy’s Birks and Falls of Bruar – but the hillock of beech we found at Newton was of a different character.

We stopped there because I wanted a pee. Newton, a Lowland name – by now the map was a mixture of allts and burns – and now a nothing name for a settlement that was new a long time ago. Here the side track heads off through a gate up Glen Almond – a different Almond to station 28 – and the main road bends round into Sma’ Glen.

The first signed beech caught Ken’s eye – more initials, maybe a photo for the album. But looking closer, the beeches were filled, and these seemed to be the initials of shepherds and farm labourers – no women (?), no love-hearts, no IDT, just lettermarks carved in time; 1860, 150 years, made when the trees were young. We even found a comet.

13 beech-comet, Newton
Alec Finlay, 2010

There’s a fank over the track, so we imagined the sheep being brought down from the hills – Dalmore, Creag Chruinn, Alpinishields – and the shepherd lads carving to pass the time while they were penned, dipped or clipped.

talk on the radio
of moving

poor folk
for jobs


13 tanka-label, Invergeldie
(it's close / under the ash / of Invergeldie // cool up on / Ben Chonzie)
Alec Finlay, 2010

audio: Invergeldie, Glen Lednock
Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn, 2010

In station 11 (Tingwall, Shetland), Basho describes brushing a poem as a keepsake for a villager. Around the same time haikai became popular the ‘tanzaku’ was devised: a strip of stiffened paper on which people would write a hokku on. In a similar way renga in Japan became associated with a folded sheet of paper, the sides defining the poem’s sections.

Without knowing it, we’d adapted the tanzaku into our 'hokku-labels' – parcel tags from the P.O. – pinned on fenceposts or tied on trees, along the way. Sometimes artists talk of having a ‘practice’ – drawing perhaps – poets less so, though much of the art falls into forms of dailyness. You don’t get to the view without doing the whole walk. For Ken and me, the thing with the labels has become what we do, whenever we stopped at a place where some connection is felt. Our look-see becomes our left-behind keepsake.

This label practice does have its minor risks, as on St Fillan’s Hill, where I couldn’t resist scrambling a small cliff to tie one on to the beautiful gean – one of a row that had peeled its fold of turf over the cliff edge by dint of its own weight. Note to self: don’t wear the Gunsons on hills, they have no grip.

At Dunkeld Cathedral a party of Americans spotted me attaching a poem-label to a low larch branch; turned out they had been following our trail for the last 2 days, tagging us from Falls of Bruar through Hermitage Wood, and now catching me in the act. From Boston, they were on their own wandering oku, heading on to Fort William. I told them about Loch Eilt and Lochailort, though our labels won’t appear there until August. And last week Meg bateman happened on our labels at Achnabrek.

It was the habit of poem-labelling that gave us a way to mark what Newton was, in the there and then. And the unplanned nature of our pause here and at Sma’ Glen, resolved into the feeling of anticipation that defines Shirakawa.

The computer print-out list of names that determines our road north is a roster of anticipations: we never know what each name might become. A few days on, our walk at Invergeldie, which was likewise in this new mode of happenstance-with-a-purpose, saw us looking over to Ben Chonzie (‘The mountain of King Kenneth’). Studying the map, we saw that its far slope led down to the Almond. We were beginning to map this barrier-land as a series of bends and turns in and out of the mountains.

13 postcard, The Sma’ Glen

Sma’ Glen

Seton Gordon called the Sma’ Glen a bit of the Western Highlands transported south. In July 2010 we heard the same oyster-catchers he had in 1939 “flying swiftly above the gleaming shingle-beds of the river, calling one to another with high-pitched whistling cries”.

The glen’s an upturned bell, between Meall Tarsuinn and Dun Mor, with Clach Ossian for its clapper. Picknicking by the stone findling, we pondered: if Wade’s soldiers moved this enormous rock to make their road, and found the tomb of bones underneath, who moved the stone in the first place to make the grave?

Wade’s was no oku, his matter was ordnance. His roadbuilder soldiers thought the grave was Roman: for Imperium read Imperium. In Highways and Byways Gordon quotes Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1730): “I think there is no room to doubt but it was the Urn of some considerable Roman Officer and the best of the Kind that could be provided in their military Circumstances; and that it was so seems plain from its vicinity to the Roman Camp.” There was indeed a fort and signal station at Fendoch, south of the glen; but Gordon describes a mass gathering of local Gaels who “having formed themselves into a Body” reclaimed the bones, piping them in solemn procession to a new burial gound, safe within a circle of standing stones – suggesting their faith that the grave was Ossianic, for they would hardly have taken such care over Roman bones.

13 hokku-label, Sma Glen
(scraped comb lines / positing ice or flame / we're a couple of fakers)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Ossian will be our pair for Basho’s ‘courtly costume’ donned for the barrier.

13 wish, alder, Clach Ossian, River Almond, Sma’ Glen
Alec Finlay, 2010

We picknicked and made notes, drank Bai Hao Oriental Beauty, sampled a Tullibardine and tied a wish on one of the alders by the river. In the next field the local shepherd and his son separated the ewes and tups.

Ken’s grown fonder of alder
that grows by water
now he knows its name

misremembering the classics
for ‘Amulree’ read ‘Crowdieknowe’

(AF / KC)


this is a guide to 13, Sma’ Glen: there is a car park by the bridge at Newton (56°27'43.44"N) (3°48'21.74"W). Clach Ossian is a little further south, between road and river.

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

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