Author: Alex Wood

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Thursday, May 24th, 2012 at 7:50 pm
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Book Reviews

West Lothian Writer hits the Watershed

Peter Wright is a well-known character in Linlithgow and in the wider Lothians. Aged 64, he lives in Linlithow and is one of a diminishing number of people who left school (legitimately), at the age of 14. After a Liberal Studies course atNewbattle Abbey College he set out on a career in youth work.   He was for 20 years, manager of the Duke of Edinburgh`s Award in the Edinburgh area, and was awarded the MBE for this work.  In the 1990s, he restored Niddry Castle, near Winchburgh, as a private residence.

His latest challenge was to walk Scotland’s east-west watershed, from the Borders to Caithness, and write a book, Ribbon of Wildness (Luath, RPP £14.99), to record this epic.

The watershed is an intriguing phenomenon. In Scotland every river ultimately flows into either the Atlantic or the North Sea and the divide between these two sets of rivers is the Scottish watershed.

That watershed line can be traced and Peter Wright has done so.  His odyssey, completed in stages, was a walk through wildness.  It was a trek through borderlands for the watershed is frequently a boundary, between parishes and, in a few places, between counties. The Scottish word for border country is a ‘march’ and Peter Wright has divided his journey into five Marches, borders but also, for him, sustained and disciplined foot journeys, route marches for a cultural explorer.

Each one of these Marches tends to be on high ground or at least on ground which is high relative to its surroundings.  They are also remarkably free of man-made intrusions.  Over 1,200 kilometres, there is one lighthouse, one ruined castle, one reservoir, one hydro-dam,two former opencast mines, two quarries, two houses – and one new town.

The Reiver March follows the watershed from Peel Fell on the Border, and finishes on the Southern Upland fault-line at Gawky Hill in south Lanarkshire.

The Laich (or Low) March crosses the central Lowlands.  From Gawky Hill the watershed meanders around the wild Lanarkshire-West Lothian boundarycountry close to Tarbrax and within sight of Cobbinshaw Reservoir.  It passes communities created by the industrial revolution and now economically redundant, some of which, such East Benhar, have now vanished as settlements.  It wanders past countless exhausted coal pits, by Polkemmet and in view of Fauldhouse.  Although always close to human habitation in this section, the watershed itself remains a strip of wild country until it hits Cumbernauld.  The new town sits astride the watershed, the one significant modern development which Peter Wright encountered.  The Laich March continues to Balfron, where it meets the Highland fault-line.

The next two sections, the Heartland and Moine Marches, cover the Highland territory commonly perceived as wild Scotland.  The last stretch, over Sutherland and Caithness to Cape Wrath, the Northland March, explores different wildness, the lower flowlands of Neil Gunn.

Peter Wright has produced a comprehensive, original work.  The clearly outlined routes and the indication of what surrounds them makes this an invaluable guide to countless unexplored venues – although that is not its primary purpose.  It is a fine piece of ethnographic research, connecting language, lore and culture, explaining place-names and considering how man interacted with this wild environment.  The historical background is also well furnished.  Above all, it is a plea for the maintenance of the wildness of this unique and extended strip of Marches, a plea for sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

If there is a fault in the scheme of the book it is precisely that, because it is so encyclopaedic, the lay reader is left at times baffled by the plethora of information and perspectives.  A small editorial criticism: the possessive adjective ‘its’ is twice spelled with an apostrophe.  These however are minor points.  This quite unique view of the remaining wild places in our country invites us to realign how we view our own species and its place in the natural world, an invitation on which we cannot afford to defer.

Ribbon of Wildness: Discovering the Watershed of Scotland is available here from Amazon.

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