Preview: The Hielan’ Ways Symposium, Tomintoul

The paths that linked rural Scotland were once a vital lifeline. They can be again, say a group of artists and explorers. By Susan Mansfield
Paul Anderson. Picture: ContributedPaul Anderson. Picture: Contributed
Paul Anderson. Picture: Contributed

The path curves into the hills, where fields give way to wild moorland. Under a changeable sky, a rainbow hangs just to the left of the newly erected turbines of Clashindarroch wind farm. Artist Gill Russell and I take the Kindie Burn Path, climbing into the hills above the village of Cabrach in Aberdeenshire. In eight miles, we’ll be in Glenkindie.

This is an old path, part of a network which linked crofts and communities in an age when walking was the predominant form of travel. With Cabrach church at one end and St Ronald’s Chapel at the other, it was also a “kirk road” and a “coffin path”, used to reach services and funerals. Today, it’s barely walked on. Not many miles from here, Munro-baggers and outdoor enthusiasts flock to the Cairngorms. Here, there is no one but us, and the sheep which look up to regard us quizzically as we pass.

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In barely a mile, we pass half a dozen ruined cottages and farms. The sense is of a land which was once worked and inhabited by communities of people, but now lies desolate. The old roads, like this one, survive in fragments but many, like the people, have disappeared.

Russell has been walking here all summer as part of Hielan’ Ways, a year-long project by Huntly-based Deveron Arts aiming to explore and open up forgotten paths. Since last autumn, several artists, a musician, a poet and a historian have been invited to explore and respond to this area stretching South and South-west from Huntly, to Dufftown, Tomintoul and Strathdon.

The project culminates on 14 and 15 November in Tomintoul, with a two-day Hielan’ Ways Symposium, Perceptions of Exploration, at which the guests include celebrated walking artist Richard Long and mountaineer Doug Scott. Other guests for two days of walking and discussion include Gavin Pretor-Pinney of the Cloud Appreciation Society, paraplegic athlete and explorer Karen Darke and broadcaster Vanessa Collingridge.

Paul Anderson, a leading Scottish fiddler and traditional composer, based near the edge of Hielan’ Ways territory in the town of Tarland, has been walking his own routes through the area, and has written a Hielan’ Ways Symphony based on his ramblings which will be premiered as part of the symposium.

Deveron Arts director Claudia Zeiske says: “We wanted to finish off and celebrate the Hielan’ Ways project and bring it to wider attention. We have looked with a magnifying glass at this area, but we wanted to widen that and bring other people into it who can contribute to the discourse. Richard Long and Doug Scott come from two ends of the spectrum of walking and exploration. I wanted to bring the world of the outdoors and the world of art together, to find the threshold where they can meet.”

That such a company is converging on Tomintoul, one of the most remote towns in Scotland, speaks volumes for the reputation built up by Deveron Arts over more than a decade. Under the slogan “The Town is the Venue”, the organisation invites artists from all over the world to Huntly to engage in three-month residencies working with the community.

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Several have featured walking; Hamish Fulton, who, with Long, is considered the founding father of walking art, was a guest here in 2010. Last year, Zeiske, a keen walker herself, founded the Walking Institute as an offshoot of Deveron Arts. “I’m interested in looking at ways in which the model we applied in Huntly can be applied in other places. Also I was getting fed up with constantly sitting at my desk, so I wondered, is there such a thing as a walking curator, as opposed to a sitting one?”

Heilan’ Ways began with an old map. Bending over a town plan of Huntly from 1811, Zeiske and local historian Ron Brander, author of Over the Hills to Huntly, noticed a path curving up out of the town named The Highlandman’s Road. “In the present day it is just a path which leads between field boundaries up and over the hill,” says Brander. “We scratched our heads and wondered, why is it called that, where it is going and why?”

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This ancient track led them to a maze of tracks and trails which were the highways of a bygone era. “They were crucial,” says Brander. “Getting the right path was what enabled you to get home on time through the hills. They went to and from the fairs and markets which every little community had, which must have been highlights of social life.

“The area might seem empty and desolate now, but this was the main thoroughfare between the South and the province of Moray. In terms of history and heritage, everything has happened there: Picts, neolithic settlements, Bronze Age finds, castles, battles, drover’s roads – the more you start exploring, the more the conversation opens out.”

“It has an atmosphere all its own,” says Gill Russell, pointing out and naming ruined homesteads as we walk. We pass a hamlet of cottages, their walls just tumbledown stones. At another cottage further up this same path, Russell found a cheese press, a poignant reminder of lives once lived there. “It’s ironic to see the rowan trees planted at the doors to ward off bad luck, when some of these people would have been driven from their homes by poverty.”

Land management policies play a part, too. Much of the land here is the property of absentee landlords who manage it as shooting estates. Russell points out the telltale signs: burned patches of heather, cleared to provide new shoots on which young grouse can feed, crow traps, a wooden deer silhouette used for target practice. “You can’t escape things like that walking round here,” she says. “The land is managed, and there is a conflict of interest with having people living here. It’s a bit crap in this day and age to do all this so a few people can blast grouse to bits for a couple of weeks a year.”

“Land ownership laws play an important part,” says Ron Brander. “Over the hill there is another estate which is quite supportive of people living on the land, and of outdoor leisure pursuits. The land is almost identical in terms of terrain and history, but it is instantly obvious that there is a difference in the way the two areas are managed.”

The artists working on Hielan’ Ways are keen to open the area up. London-based artist Simone Kenyon has created a five-day walking route in the footsteps of Nan Shepherd, the Scottish modernist writer whose works were inspired by the landscapes of the Cairngorms. Russell has been creating new walking routes, inspired by sources ancient and contemporary, from the Pictish Trail to the Highland Safari (which links place names featuring animals).

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Meanwhile, artist and poet Alec Finlay has been poring over the meanings of old place names in the area, particularly those which include a reference to colour, and has used them to create walking routes, prints and poems. “I was interested in what the place names tell us, and what’s hidden in them,” he says. “It’s a very sad landscape in a way, because of the absence of living presence, but it’s lovely to find the living memory in the names, describing how people used the landscape.

“The landscape itself is quite dour and peaty, not characterful in the way of the Cairngorms, and it doesn’t have what I might call celebrities, major mountains or landmarks. In making English translations of the names, I’m hoping to give an interest to really quite ordinary places, modest places that people might ignore. I wanted to bring some real value back to these places which have just become a rich man’s plaything.”

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Claudia Zeiske says: “What interests me is where tourism fits in all this. A lot of areas have been opened up for tourism and outdoor pursuits, but this one hasn’t. Munro-baggers are chiefly interested in zooming up there, ticking the thing off. I’d like to introduce those people to more of interest in the landcape. At the same time I’d also like to introduce other people to walking, and how liberating an activity it is – and how one can also do this in this particular countryside which is quite under-explored.”

The Hielan’ Ways Symposium: Perceptions of Exploration, Richmond Memorial Hall, Tomintoul, 14-15 November,