The Bothy Project Neighbourhood Residency – Part 3

Writing about my relationship with paths has been on the cards for quite some time, as the 3rd installment of my reflections on the Neighbourhood Residency experience back in April. What better day to finally get round to writing it than the day when I managed to step right into a bog, and sink all the way up to my waist. Ok, it was up to my knee, and by mid-day the tale I told said it had been up to my thigh. The story grew arms and very long legs. But who would have thought that there was anything to fall into anyway, in a patch I know well and navigate often, right here on our croft.

I think when it happened I was distracted looking up, or maybe sideways, despite knowing the safest way for me to walk is to look down. I think one of the reasons I have always been so drawn to the small things, the detail, is that I usually look down more often than up, noticing things others just glance at, and step over.

But let me return to the paths I walked during my neighbourhood residency, the week that allowed me to stay in the heart of a network of paths, and a road, a real difference from the higgledy-piggedly roughness of my woodland croft and its wild, unkempt, tussocky terrain, where the closest we have to paths is those trodden by us and our friends, the deer. 

As you can see from my previous post on Going slow, on the fast lane to Suilven – All The Colours Of The North on my very first proper day I was drawn to one of the paths, and leaving aside the challenges with speed, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Having solid ground under my feet meant I could let both my eyes and my mind wander, truly immerse myself without having to survey the uneven ground and it was during this period of looking up that my desire to dwell more on the subject of paths and my own attitude towards them first arose.

The Community Arts study sits at the centre of a few paths – the path to Suilag Bothy, where it branches into two, one to Suilven and once across the hills towards Loch Assynt, another path that takes you across the hills to the River Inver and along its banks onwards to Lochinver, the single track road to Lochinver, and a short Nature Trail path. All of varying length and terrain, all ready-made ways to send the walker/hiker/wanderer off on a pre-determined journey of discovery.

I walked all of them during my residency week, some more than once, at dawn and dusk, the middle of the day, usually slowly, sometimes with purpose, both of the noble and trivial kind. 

The walk to the village on the road was for the purpose of finding a 4G signal, and a snack, which felt somewhat trivial, but then I had deliberately left my car at home so that I had to walk should any urge to get to the village prove to be irresistible, so it was still kind of noble. Leaving aside the purpose – walking on a road as part of what was supposed to be a true, deep, immersion into nature, felt wrong. Despite a fair share of potholes it was a proper road, there was no navigating bumps and lumps and watching my every step. I noticed I walked faster than usual (possibly to get somewhere) and yet it didn’t feel like a lesser experience in taking in my surroundings. Without my focus needed on my steps, my attention was freed up to focus elsewhere – I could look up, not just down, gaze over the loch, look up trees, the sky. There was no stumbling, just movement, effortless. I started to love it and gradually noticed that this was a different experience. After my village immersion into the blessings of the internet, and some snacks, I took some time to dwell on that experience sitting on a bench gazing over Lochinver Bay, and decided on the way back I would actually pay more attention to the smooth walking experience and slow down deliberately (also tempting because it would be slightly uphill) to see how that felt. 

I concluded that my deliberate ‘bimble’ was a great success. At times, or actually most of the time, I completely forgot my feet. I spotted birds, followed the flight path of dragonflies, took in the changing light on Suilven. I appreciated how solid ground under your feet allows you to go fast, and immerse yourself in all other sensory experiences the Highlands have to offer, or bimble slowly. Or mix it up. It’s liberating. And it made me feel somewhat guilty for always having felt walking a path, man-made, or trodden, was not quite as superior as ‘going off the beaten track’, find or beat your own track. 

In the weeks and months that followed my residency, I tried to confidently ‘stay on track’ more often, at least outside my home patch. I tried to not see the ‘let’s have a quick spin through Culag Woods’ outings as an inferior option but embrace the wonderful path network of our Community Wooland that offers a good variety of paths with different levels of accessibility and difficulty (including the personal favourite, the ‘Are you brave enough path’) as an opportunity. 

On one of our regular family walks, the Loch an t-Sabhail circuit, Little Assynt – usually chosen when we are stuck for more adventurous or innovative options – I observed that I could remember previous walks for the conversations we had. Why do we talk more on this walk, than any other? Possibly because we usually stick together more than spread out when we are finding our own way around rough terrain. Close together we talk and share and laugh more. This particular route has amazing views over the Highland landscape, beautiful little lochs, and Quinag in the distance. And I marveled at them, letting my feet do the rest to carry me along.

I shared my thoughts about the value of paths, and how it enabled me to look more at other things with my 12-year old son. He reflected on my experience and how I looked up more when I was on a path. He seemed somewhat bothered, not quite sure if this was truly a gain, so I asked him what he was thinking about the matter. 

He pointed at a caterpillar on the path – never mind missing the encounter with this little creature, would I step on them if I didn’t pay attention to the ground as much? Then he drew my attention to a spider nest on a blade of grass, and then cuckoo spit on some thistle. With my eyes no longer cast down but up high would I miss all those creatures and little things we had loved to share, sometimes getting into competitions of how would spot something exciting first? It was my time to reflect, and worry a bit. I hope I will ultimately do both rather than either-or and not miss out on the small treasures close to the ground. Another reminder that mindful walking is so important in many ways.

Since April and the start of my path musings I have certainly been more deliberate in my choice of surfaces to walk on. I feel more into where I want to tread, where I want to look at, do I want to focus on the steps, the surface, or do I want to have my head in the clouds? Several of my offerings as a guide certainly benefit from walking on a solid path. Any kind of deep reflection, prayer, or reading the landscape are immersive activities where it’s easy to lose one’s focus when having to mind every step or being unused to uneven ground. And then there are of course the issue of accessibility – not everybody has the physical ability to navigate rough, unchartered ground, and environmental concerns, with many narrow mountain paths having turned into wide muddy and eroded mountain motorways. Sending everybody off the beaten track can be a great idea, and yet at times, it can be overly romantic, impractical, and damaging if taken too far.  

I’ve certainly also become more grateful for the paths we have, woodland paths, some mountain paths, coastal paths. They are true treasures alongside all the wild places I can explore, eyes firmly on my feet and all the treasures around them.  A lot of work has gone into creating and maintaining them and there is now an impressive variety in the Coigach & Assynt area, which you can read about on the Paths and Access page of Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape – and hopefully then explore yourself one day.

Since this blog post was first published a series of podcasts have been published, where participants of the bothy project neighbourhood residency are sharing their experiences:

You can find three podcasts on the neighbourhood residencies page of the bothy project website.

The project and the experience of myself and another Assynt participant is also featured on the Scotland Outdoors Podcast: Bothy Culture – Using Bothies to Reflect and Connect