Callanais Walks 5th September 2015

What is commonly referred to as The Callanais Standing Stones are a late-neolithic era stone circle and avenue, situated on a low hill above East Loch Roag in the west of the outer Hebridean island of Lewis. However, there are several other, presumed related, stone circles in the locale which is thought to have been an important site of religious activity over a period of 1500 years. In a response to the area I created a 4.25 mile route in four steps between five of the sets of stones. I walked from the smallest, a set of standing stones, to the largest, a complex arrangement of stones in circles and avenues:
Step 1: Callanais VI (Cùl a’ Chleit) to Callanais IV (Ceann Hulavig)
Step 2: Callanais IV (Ceann Hulavig) to Callanais III (Cnoc Filibhir Bheag)
Step 3: Callanais III (Cnoc Filibhir Bheag) to Callanais II (Cnoc Ceann a’ Ghàraidh)
Step 4: Callanais II (Cnoc Ceann a’ Ghàraidh) to Callanais I (Tursachan Chalanais)
I recorded the walks (with a pair of DPA 4060 microphones and a SD702T recorder), recorded the walk as a drawn trace and made a 12-page concertina fold book containing a copper plate etching.

The walk is across a contemporary landscape starting on moorland, it transitions in and out of seashore through sheep pasture and grassland. The land holds a framework of fences, bridges and roads, one small community and a scatter of used and unused buildings. In thinking about the people who raised these stones and the area as it was then, none of the current landscape is relevant and I can imagine much of it away – though modernity’s sonic presence – a motorbike, a strimmer – is a little harder to remove.
My walk starts at Callanais VI. Naming can be problematic – always a process of claiming the land, we have no knowledge of the topographical names used when the stone circles were extant so I have chosen to avoid current names, in either Gaelic or English, wherever I can, preferring to describe what would be experienced by a walker on the ground.
I stand on a low, 40-metre-high hill that forms the high point of the north bank of a small river that is draining moorland lochs into the sea loch that I can see a mile and a half away to the north west. The stones have fallen so there is no longer anything above the ground though there are the nearby remains of a croft and marks on the land of an associated ridge and furrow cultivation system. These came after the stones.
I walk away from the top of the bluff and pick a way down a steep slope into a boggy basin alongside the river. I use one of the trout fisherman’s bridges to cross – the river is not large but is wide and deep enough to rule out jumping as an option. I continue across unmarked moorland stepping through variously deep heather as the land begins to rise towards the second site. I climb a roadside fence and cross the road to a short, marked path on up the hill to the first stone circle. A ring of stones, each taller than me, set on the shoulder of a hill; low hills to the south and north channel my view so my lines of sight are back to my starting point and west to the sea loch below me.
Knowing I have to cross the river as it drains into the sea loch, I head for the point at which the road bridge provides a dry crossing. Perhaps the stones’ architects meant the route to go down to the shore and around, though this would not have afforded views of the other three sites as, like Callanais IV each is, to some extent, hidden by a shoulder of a hillside. Down the hillside I am crossing rough pasture, fenced with barbed wire, pulling open rusting gates, then stepping off the bridge and onto the foreshore. With the tide low, the shore offers a simple path, but I still have to climb low cliff edges strung with more barbed wire, swing round low promontories, and jump short gaps in low cliff edges. Having passed an area of fenced fields, the way is then up a sequence of undulating fields with no view of the next site. Eventually, cresting a rise the third site is below me. A loose oval of standing stones, all relatively small, with the suggestion of a double circle, the site is set back from the edge of a hill. The fourth site is clearly visible, as is the fifth and final site. From now on I can see my final destination most of the time.
I walk down the side of the hill and cross wet grassland, bridged with boardwalks, to reach the next circle. Set on flat ground above a small inlet the stones are much larger than those remaining in the circle I have just left.
Down to the shore of the inlet and along to its head. The direct route is now through an impenetrable hedge and across someone’s garden, so I detour around the edge of their property. Past this, and, for the first time, walking along a road, it is a short distance up a steep hill to the largest of the sites – Callanais I.
Any specific relationship between the circles can only be speculative. Callanais I, the largest of the five with a burial chamber, a stone circle and an avenue of stones is set on the top of a low ridge, in the absence of some of the modern vegetation, the stones would have offered a skyline from the shore below, though from many other places there isn’t an open backdrop that makes them stand out – from many directions they are set against distant hills. So, whilst it is visible from both Callanais II and III, it is surprisingly difficult to pick out. Similarly, Callanais IV and VI are each visible from the other but are hidden from the others by a low hill. However they were used, being able to see all five circles at once doesn’t seem to have been part of the process but, whatever the intent behind their design and use, people would have walked the land between them.
To listen to the recordings whilst looking at an aerial presentation of the local you can visit radio aporee https://aporee.org/maps/projects/callanaiswk

A two hour radio work: Flux #2 Búðahraun

A slightly different opportunity to broadcast work with Resonance Extra. ‘Flux’is a monthly radio show (curated by James Davoll) that explores themes of liminal space, temporality and boundaries, whether physical or theoretical. This exploration is carried out through field recording and sound design. The next show, Búðahraun, is brought to you by me (scheduled for broadcast (https://extra.resonance.fm) on Sunday January 6th2019, 16:00 – 18:00). My thanks to James and to everyone at Resonance Extra.
The ideas
The work examines distance, time, movement and place from replicated walks into the remote, coastal, Icelandic lava field of Búðahraun. I walked a ‘there-and-back’ route twice, once at dawn and once at dusk; distance is the distance of the walk, the accumulated distance of the two walks as well as the distance heard across the lava field.
As well as the elapsed time of the walks themselves, temporality is present as the time of day but also the time between the walks – the time of a day – and, as the walks took place around the summer solstice, the time of year. You also hear across time. The structure of the two recordings was the same – walk in, rest, walk out. In order to present listening across time the composition runs as follows: walk one walk-in; walk 2 rest; walk one walk-out; walk two walk-in; walk 1 rest; walk 2 walk-out. Both ‘rests’ overlap the walks at either end, so at any point in time you are listening to recordings that are presented as simultaneous but are 12 hours apart and across the piece as a whole these are two different 12-hour intervals.
Movement comes directly from my footfall, my embodied movement across the rock, but also from the comings and goings of the birds as they, and their calls, songs, and displays move over the lava field. Together these elements contribute to a sonic portrait of a place but they also create a space to allow a listener to hear a place of their own.

My Allenbanks Renga

Having talked about the writing process in a previous post, here is the Renga that I wrote.

The edge of autumn

Today’s truth –
the seventh month is our ninth
white river brown

grassheads dance
to a chainsaw’s tune

branches sway
trunks creak
above dropped leaves

the canopy pours green
onto the path

uphill
tripping on roots
my breathing quickens

on the gorge edge
the updraft lifts the sky

leaf needle twig
strewn stone
steps down to the pond

sedge reed and lily
the tarn lies still

light shades
from bending leaves
pollen blown as rain

a dragonfly
hunts the glade

pheasants creep away
through bracken
a plant of an earlier time

fallen trees
soften into earth

swallows skim
the edge of autumn
rain mists the meadow

around over along
the Allen sings.

A 14-verse Renga at Allen Banks,
Morralee Wood,
on 6th September 2017,
by Martin P Eccles.

4 Midsummer Eve Rants, 20/06/2017 Alnham

Notes from walking the four rants

I have made a previous post from this – here is my basic set of notes about my conduct of the Rants.

Up at 04:30, on site just before 06:00 and walking by about 06:20. Initial dismay whilst changing into my boots as I am being bitten by tiny black droplets of insects and I have no repellent. On with a beanie hat to give a physical barrier. Connect my kit, lock the car and set off only to find I have a marked creak from my rucksack. Unable to make it stop I walk back to the car and swap to a smaller, frameless rucksack that I have tried out the weekend before. It is slightly less comfy but silent.

The first leg is the Salter’s Way almost to the start of the open-access land then a hop over the fence to the ditch at the edge of the crop field. The path is heavily overgrown and wet with dew. I am, from the knees down, sodden.
There is a view over the upper Aln valley down to the Simonsides and across towards the coast. A gentle breeze and overcast sky (although this will clear). Pretty quiet with occasional birdsong and sheep.

uphill, crop field, hawthorn, dew-wet grass, drystone wall

Rant 1 Step 1
Very still. The wind barely moving the grass heads as they poke up amongst the oats. Distant chaffinch, wood pigeon – coo coo cooo coo coo – trala lah trallooah. The conversation of the sheep – naaah naaah. Occasional passing of a fly. Two hawthorn hedges, several plantations, down to the valley, rolling fields. Distant wood, bottom edges of the trees shaved off, grazed away, a low-level ceiling before the roof of the trees takes over. Drystone wall, capstones cemented in place, dark grey of the stone obliterated by the pale green-grey of the lichen, occasionally yellow.

Rant 1 Step 1 to Step 2 – along the edge of farm and fell then up to the edge of a conifer plantation. The way passes along a line of very old mature trees – Oak, Hornbeam – presumably marking an old way on the Prendwick estate. The plantation is part of the Prendwick estate shooting activities, heavily fenced – head high plus electric fencing. Dark interiors, surprisingly few gamebirds in evidence. Here the view is lower with other plantations – Four Doors, Churchbrae, Southbraes. The main birds calling and flying are wood pigeons.

Rant 1 Step 2

conifers, fenced plantation, game bird pens, valley burn
Long view across to low cloud on the hills. Cooing of the wood pigeon. Low thrum of the wind through pines. Distant wakening of the farm. Quiet call of the crows.

Rant 1 Step 2 to Step 3, the single longest step down to the south of “the island”. Back down the slope and over the Prendwick Burn, before the rough pasture, slow climb to the Salter’s Road. Down the hill to the site of the mediaeval village and east to the road junction. Crossing directly over the road and then wading the nascent Aln. The field is running with ewes and their lambs, lots of bleating as they stop/start run back and forth. The track goes up a slow gentle hill through two gates and a stockyard. Further up the hill three hares run from the path into the field and disappear over a low rise. Carrying on there is a gate in the wall and then a sharp left turn to start tracing the edge of the large crop field. Skylarks are flying in and out of the crop; one is moving ahead of me sequentially perching on fence posts before it finally leaves. At least two are singing; small dark jewels suspended in the sky by the thread of their song. At the junction with the track the way is to the right and along for about 400 m before moving to the site in the field to the south.

Rant 1 Step 3 
water trough, skylarks, crops, tyre lanes, distant road

Rant 1 Step 3 to Step 4 – I walk down the hill, through the gate at the bottom of the Hawthorne hedge and on through the buildings Scrainwood Farm. Walking into the field I follow the tire tracks which are symmetrically etched across the field until I reach the next recording site. Here land is lower; I have crossed the watershed between the Aln and the Coquet, the fields are full of crops, the woods are full of thrushes singing.

Rant 1 Step 4 

thrush song, solid wheat, farm, road, fence

Quiet rustle of the heads of the wheat as they rock in unison in the wind. The monotonous cooing of the collared doves. Distant blackbird demonstrating flutey song. Background hum of insects, a low drone.

Rant 1 Step 4 to Rant 2 Step 1. With rant one complete the way now goes north along the road. The next site is in the middle of a crop field and inaccessible. Whilst I record at the nearest point I will not use the recording.

roadside, crop, house, swallows

Rant 2 Step 1

Rant 2 Step 1 to Step 2. Rant two continues back at the Salters Road, so the way is along the road and then taking a shortcut which goes directly through the site of the remains of Alnham Castle. Stepping across the river Aln and over the wall I walk back up the Salter’s way to the edge of the moorland, turn to the north-east and the next site is amongst the trees of the ancient Avenue.

Rant 2 Step 2
shelter, old trees, fence, edge

Rant 2 Step 2 to Step 3 – Turning back on myself I retrace my steps towards the top the Salter’s Road. This time I continue on and go over the top of the hill descending towards the valley of a stream that will eventually flow into the Scrainwood burn. My destination is 300 m into the field that contains a herd of cows with their calves, still small, and a single Charolaise bull. He shows no interest in me and the heifers have moved their calves away and stand at a safe distance watching me. I’m standing in the middle the blog and have made sure that move slowly, I know where my nearest escape routes are should either the heifers or the bull become overly interested.

Rant 2 Step 3

bog, slow, hill, larks
Freshening wind cooling against the exertions of the walk. Terratorial skylarks suspended by the thread of their song. Anxious heifers shepherding their calves around the field keeping them away from me. I make sure to move slowly so that I don’t startle them. They begin to feed again after I leave. The large bull stays on the ridge, utterly disinterested. More intent on keeping up with the small group of heifers than he is engaging with me.

Rant 2 Step 3 to Step 4. I climb out of the field and retrace my steps to the top of the Salters Road and then down the hill once more. The final site for Rant Two is back at the bottom of the island. In fact it is on the southern limit. The way takes me back over the site of the castle, onto the road, across the watershed once more and down to Scrainwood farm going southeast at Scrainwood and down a track following the path of the Scrainwood Burn I reach a point close to the site which is inaccessible in a field of flax.
(I record as close as I can. The recorder battery goes flat and I have to return to the car and come back with a fresh supply of batteries – 2 ½ miles I didn’t need to walk.)

Rant 2 Step 4

flax, gate, dense grown, river valley

Rant 2 Step 4 to Rant 3 Step 1. This start for Rant 3 is very close – through the gate up to a gap in the hawthorn hedge where I follow a vague track through the shrubbery and stand on the soil of the field.

Rant 3 Step 1
hawthorn hedge, scrainwood farm, crop cover, partridge

The umbels of cow parsley starting to rise and spread above the nettles; sweet cicely going over. Distant crows. The fluctuating, undulating hum of insect pollinators as they go about their work.

Rant 3 Step 1 to Rant 3 Step 2 – up by Castle Hill and so the walk goes back through the farm, then follows the burn up to Hazleton Rig, through Hazleton rig Plantation across to Castle Hill and on into a hay meadow to the north east. The plantation is cool and quiet; sound is dampened by the close pine trees and the moist earth. I have to pick my way through an obstructed track for the second half the plantation walk.

Rant 3 Step 2
grass meadow, clover, sheep, mowing hay

Rant 3 Step 3 is back over the Prendwick Burn. I can cross country walk through the gap between Pennylaw’s South and Pennylaw’s North plantations to the top of the Salters Road. I retrace my steps along the ancient line of trees, cross the Prendwick burn and walked diagonally over the field to the edge of the plantation.

Rant 3 Step 3
plantation, pheasant, wood pigeon, close trees

Rant 3 Step 4 is back by the site of the ancient mediaeval village so I am once again retracing my steps to the top of the Salters Road down the hill. Turning right over the cattle grid to the roadside site. Another herd of cattle is loose in the field and again they move slowly away from me.

Rant 3 Step 4
downhill, road, cows, stream

Rant 4 – the way is straight up the hill, ignoring the road, heading for Castle Hill. Through the gate and across the field I reach the site.

Rant 4 Step 1
uphill, hairpin bends, ringing gate

Rant 4 Step 2 is in the middle of a field close to Prendwick Farm. I have not been able to get a view of this field and so don’t know if it will be a crop field and inaccessible to me. I take the slightly easier route along the road and get to the bottom of the field at the east end of Southbraes Plantation. It is a pasture field with flocks of shorn sheep and about 30 cows. I walk up the field to the site at the north end of it.

Rant 4 Step 2
grass, shearing, sheep, cows, avenue

Rant 4 Step 2 to Step 3 – The remaining two sites are very close together and back towards Castle Hill. From where I am the quickest route is north to a track that runs through the Prendwick Estate at the right angle bend I carry straight on and walk the southern margin of a wheat field to get back onto the Salter’s Road. From here I walk up to the top of Pennylaws South Plantation and then climb the wall to walk the rough pasture to the site to the west of Pennylaws North Plantation.

Rant 4 Step 3
rough pasture, trees

To reach the final site I skirt the top of Pennylaws North Plantation and walk towards the wall that is the west boundary of the Salter’s Road. The site is at the same level as the very first site but on rough pasture the site is easy to find.

Rant 4 Step 4
wall, hawthorn, boulder

I climbed the wall, step onto the Salters Road and for the last time walk down the hill.

4 Island Reels at Sound+Environment, University of Hull, July 1st 2017

I was delighted to have a piece of work selected through peer review for the international Sound+Environment 2017 Conference at the University of Hull as part of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture.  These are my reflections on the overall experience.

Location: 4 Island Reels was installed in Ensemble Room 2. It was a good room, a decent size and good acoustic properties.  It took an hour to install it with two assistants and 30 minutes to take down.

Technicalities: The set up was a centrally placed table with the laptop and soundcard and four outward facing speakers set off from the tables’ corners.  Outward facing speakers, denying a listener a single spot to listen was an unusual set up, and one that seemed to confuse some listeners.

The work lasted 20 minutes and ran three times each hour on a continuous loop.  In general, it ran OK but there is a problem with something in the setup causing momentary drop out of the sound producing an intrusive ‘click’ (I am looking into what causes this; possibly buffering).

Aesthetics: The piece worked, and looked and sounded, as I wished it to.

On reflection, the place of walking in the method and the walk (and thus sense of movement) is not sufficiently apparent and I will seek to change this in any subsequent works using the same method.  However, some of the decisions about the balance of the various parts was driven by the organisers requirement of a shorter (15-20 minute) piece.  My ideal installation of this piece would be quite a bit longer.

Attendance and audience engagement with the piece: Twenty five members of the conference came through the room, plus five of the student helpers who were keen to hear the work.  This was a disappointingly low number given that there were about 120 people registered at the conference.  A major reason was that the work was scheduled for Saturday and in the morning there were parallel paper sessions and the afternoon was given over to works in Hull city centre and so, once the papers finished, most people left the venue without coming to the installations.

Of those who came to listen most stayed for about half the piece.  Four people stayed for the whole work. I don’t know how many people ‘got’ the underlying idea of the piece; most people took a copy of the concertina-fold booklet; a few people read the poems.  Everyone who offered a view was positive about the work.

I didn’t get a sense that lots of people were moving from speaker to speaker listening for differences or similarities.  However, people did have to walk around the room which was the idea behind the setup.

A couple of conversations with people about the piece prompted some new ideas for things I could do.

Overall it was a good experience.

4 Midsummer’s Eve Rants

Building on the slowly growing series of Cageian pieces I have just completed a set 4 walks based on the Island of Alnham.  This mythical island in mid Northumberland is based around a 13th century church and contains a peel tower, the site of an old castle and an ancient hill fort; it is also marked by the rising of the River Aln and the watershed of the rivers Aln and Coquet.

Having identified 16 locations across the island and grouped them into four sets of four-step rants I recorded the sequential walk between the locations as well as recording at each of them.  Starting at just after six in the morning of June 20th I was walking for 12 hours, over 19 miles, and up a total climb of 3200ft.  The three local farmers had kindly agreed that I could access their lands but even so there were two sites I could only get to within 400m of as they were in the middle of crop fields.

This is the third such series of walks that I have now done – the first was walking on Fair isle (https://mpefairislereels.wordpress.com) and the second was across the whole of Northumberland.  The Northumberland walks involving a lot of driving between sites and being back on foot felt both good and important and as a consequence (and unlike the Fair Isle work) the walking will become a major focus of the subsequent performance piece.

I have text to work with alongside the sound recordings and will need to explore how to reflect the two sites I couldn’t get to – silence is my current thought.  Still, this will all need to evolve over the next few months as I work my way into the recordings.

Northumbrian Rants: Rant 4

Rant 4 Step 1

A relatively early start (on February 5th) so that I am at the first site shortly after sunup.  A large field of winter wheat and still, cold air.  It doesn’t seem to be overlooked by any habitation.  A walk along the road and then into the field over a broken gate.  Along the field edge then I walk into the field trying to step between the neatly drilled rows.  Distant Jackdaws.  Out along the same track as a trio of cyclists chat their way along the road.  Back over the gate, onto the road and back to the car.

frozen field

crows call

still air, cold, mist

 

Rant 4 Step 2

I park in a layby that, according to the road signs, is in Cumbria but the walk will be to the site on an edge of Northumberland.  Stepping uncertainly onto a disguised, uneven surface; I walk on heather, grass, wet, peat, step over fences; I drift off line to the south.  I put up a lot of Red Grouse from the heather moorland, flush a small flock of Golden Plover and am a little surprised to flush three separate Hares – I think of them as animals of lowland fields not upland moors.  My sense of distance seems all wrong; it seems so much further over rough moorland.  Eventually supress my instincts, trust my technology and attain High Green Hill (which, paradoxically, is brown).  I record in the windy, grouse punctuated solitude and then walk out along a bearing straight towards the car –12 minutes faster than the walk in.

disorientating

hard walking, no rhythm

stop, start, back, forth

grouse

rounded hillsides

wide sky, sunlight, gaps in cloud

solitude

 

Rant 4 Step 3

I am surprised that the sat. nav. can get me right to the site.  I drive past a farm and, though she waves a friendly greeting, the farmer’s wife, in the guise of walking her dog from her car, still comes after me.  She watches from a distance and then drives up to check what I am doing – I didn’t like to say “waiting for you to go away”.  After a pleasant enough conversation, she drives off back to the farm.  Next to a tank turning circle and with a ruined shell of a tank (surprisingly inconspicuous) on the nearby fell, it is an odd place.  Not much moves and not much calls.  There is no walk in or walk out as it is a roadside site; as the farmer’s wife explained, off road equals risk of death.  So … it’s all very simple.  I complete the recoding and move on.

quiet

remote

flat horizon, grey cloud

roadside fences

tracks

grass moorland

wrecked tank

 

Rant 4 Step 4

Since the map was drawn, forest ‘harvesting’ has changed the landscape.  Despite this the site is still about a further 20 metres into an impenetrable conifer plantation.  The track is fine but the road edge clearing is typical forestry underfoot with lumps, ridges and troughs apparently designed to trip even the wariest walker.  The wind sighs through the trees.  It may still be trying to rain but tucked inside the shelter of the conifers nothing gets anywhere near me.  I record, walk out and I am done.

cocooned in trees

sound deadened

vista of trees

dreadful underfoot