Here’s a (growing) list of Scots and Gaelic words that appear in my writing and sometimes baffle folks from other parts. If you discover more that need definitions, do let me know.
ben – mountain or hill
cairn – pile of stones, often at a summit, though also marking a pass or waypoint
corrie – a steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley or on a mountainside; a glacial cirque
dreich – dreary, bleak (especially of weather)
glen – valley
loch – lake
lochan – small lake
smirr – fine drifting rain or drizzle, so thin it is almost mist
strath – a large wide valley, typically a river valley
Setting off for an overnight climb and camp in the Cairngorms, our mountain guide friend, John, tucked a shepherd’s crook down the side of his pack and led us, a small flock of two, down the trail from the Sugarbowl carpark. Passing through woods of birch, rowan and oak, we came out beside a rocky stream bed where a new, sturdy footbridge spans the Allt Mor. It replaces an old bridge that had been cracking under years of mountain weather and the changing tempers of the burn. An old, lichen-spattered stone still sits beside it, and you can just make out the words Utsi Bridge.
It is named for Mikel Utsi, a Swede who visited in 1947 and saw a habitat so reminiscent of the reindeer pastures of Lapland, and so abundant in lichens – reindeer’s chief food – that he was convinced the creatures could thrive here. He was right. The Cairngorms, which are the largest area of high ground in the British Isles, are often called a small slice of the arctic, with a tundra-like environment on the tops. Reindeer were, in fact, native here, once upon a time, but the last traces of them date from 800 years ago. These include the 12th century Orkneyinga Saga that recounts the Earls of Orkney hunting red deer and reindeer in Caithness. A low lying, boggy landscape at the far north-eastern tip of Scotland, the conditions there would no longer support reindeer, so, evidently, a combination of over-hunting and climate-change wiped them out.
By April 1952, however, Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, had secured all the necessary permissions and preparations to found their Reindeer Company, and shipped across two bulls and five cows from Sweden. The reindeer settled and thrived and more have been added to their number every few years to maintain a healthy gene pool. Now 150 strong, the herd is split between the Cairngorms and the Cromdale hills.
We crossed the Utsi bridge and walked up the forested trail on the other side, coming out onto the open moor. Ahead is Airgiod-meall, ‘Silver Hill’ in Gaelic, which was the new reindeers’ first home. Although they now roam freely across 10,000 acres, the herd are still privately owned and are routinely brought into an enclosure here for extra feed, care and management. This practice follows the ancient traditions of reindeer herding that go back thousands of years and span nine countries and 30 different people groups, mainly in the arctic regions of the world. Of the 5 million reindeer on the planet, 3 million are completely wild and the rest are semi-domesticated in close relationship with the people who follow their migratory patterns. Traditionally, they are a resource for transport, meat, milk and skins, though the Cairngorm ones provide only pleasure for their many visitors.
Half way along our walk, in a cleft shrouded in mist, we come across part of the herd. They are lying quietly together in a patch of grass, all facing the same way and all motionless apart from their rhythmic chewing. It looks like a solemn ritual or the reindeer equivalent of a mindfulness retreat. They are unafraid and undisturbed by us stopping to take photos and gaze at them. We don’t move close, but their thick pelts, furry antlers and large, dewy eyes are captivating. Accustomed to people, they sometimes wander across for a greeting and in hope of food. But if this ever happens, never feed them unless guided by their herders.
This human bonding to once-wild animals goes back into our most ancient history and deepest instincts and lies at the root of our relationship with sheep. Most of the world’s domesticated varieties have their origin in the wild mouflon sheep from the Caspian region of Eastern turkey. Among the earliest animals to be domesticated (though well after dogs), they were first tended in what was then Mesopotamia about 10,000 years ago. Initially kept for meat, milk and skins, it was only later that wool became a valuable resource. Gradually, through migrations and trading, sheep farming has travelled to every continent (including, briefly, to Antarctica!) with adaptations across a vast range of climates and cultures.
Sheep play a significant role in the history of Scotland, triggering the Highland Clearances and changing landscapes from coastal areas right up to the hilltops. They’re an important element of the rural community where I live, in the upper valley of the Spey, which stretches across the north-east of the Cairngorm mountains. And – much to my surprise – they formed a key thread in my novel, Of Stone and Sky. Surprise, because I didn’t really know much about them before a shepherd strode into my imagination one night and compelled me to tell his story.
In my post last month, I talked about that night eight years ago and of our recent camping trip in the Cairngorms on the summer solstice. It was both the anniversary of the book’s conception as well as an opportunity to plant a copy at the top of Angel’s Peak, which features in the novel.
I registered the deposit on BookCrossing.com and await with interest to learn its destiny. That was the same trip where we saw the reindeer and John carried a crook. He brought it, because, in the story, the shepherd disappears and leaves a strange trail of his possessions leading up into the Cairngorm mountains. The last to be seen is his crook, caught in the cliff on Angel’s Peak. Although, is it really there? The presence of the crook remains as much of a mystery as the vanishing of the man.
John’s crook, like many in sheperding families, has been passed down through the generations. It was made by his great-grandfather, John Fairbairn, who was a tenant farmer on lands in the Borders of Scotland. Like many crooks, the shaft is made of hawthorn, varnished to a honey brown. It is also surprisingly short, though we don’t know if it once broke or the maker was just a very small man. But while many crook handles are a simple curve, often made of smooth buffalo horn, this one is a perfectly curling sheep’s horn. In fact, it would be useless for hooking a sheep by the neck, so probably served more as a walking stick.
Another fascinating feature of the crook is the story of the ewe from whom it was made, which is partly told in the horn. On its edge, there are two clear cuts. This passage from early in Of Stone and Sky, explains their significance:
‘On one of the gates, a length of plastic twine flipped in the breeze where Colvin had tied a ewe by her horn so he could check later if the lambs were feeding well, as her teats were so large. She was the last to birth and he had made two cuts in her horn. As every shepherd round here knows, ewes that are barren or need help with delivery get one cut, and if either event occurs another year, a second. But big teats warrant two cuts straight away, and two cuts mean a difficult mother not worth the effort. She will be sold for mutton.’
We do not know what John Fairbairn’s ewe did to deserve her fate, but it’s somehow comforting that he nevertheless memorialised her in the making of his crook, carried her for the rest of his days, and that her memory lives on in the family’s hands. To crown it all, she has now risen to the heights of Angel’s Peak and a starring role in the climax of Of Stone and Sky.
To see the Cairngorms Reindeer, in their base at Glenmore or on a walk up the hill, visit their home site here. For a guided walk in the Cairngorms – or anywhere in Scotland – with John Lyall, who is a climber, a qualified British Mountain Guide and a member of the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue Team contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org. To get a copy of Of Stone and Sky, see here.
On this night, eight years ago, I started writing my novel, Of Stone and Sky. It was the summer solstice here in the Highlands of Scotland and I was woken at 3am by the light and an idea that kept tugging on me. Finally, I got up, went down to the kitchen table and started writing on a blank sheet of paper. The first words were, “A story. A land. A people. This place of beauty and history, of loss and hope. A shepherd.” Top right of the page it says, “4am, 22 June 13 – The shortest night”.
For a long time, The Shortest Night was the working title of the book, initially because that’s when I started it, but also, as the story emerged, because the summer solstice became the point of emotional climax for one of the central characters. That event happens right at the end of the book at the summit of Angel’s Peak, a mountain in the Cairngorms whose Gaelic name is Sgòr an Lochain Uaine – the Peak of the Small Green Loch.
It’s a tough walk to get there and I’d never been, writing the chapter based on walk reports and photos. But in eary July 2019, feeling overwhelmed by life and in need of a mountain, I went up with my husband, Alistair, and our golden retriever, Sileas, (Gaelic for Julia.) By then, the novel-in-progress was on its third title – Colvin’s Walk – but on a much higher rejection count, which was a significant source of my stress. The account of that trip and how it changed me, can be read here. On that occasion, because of the dog and our uncertainty about the route, we didn’t take the steep scramble up the north ridge of Angel’s Peak that my character Sorley takes in the novel, opting for a safer traverse.
Now, two years later, Of Stone and Sky has found the right title and the right publisher in the wonderful team at Birlinn/Polygon Books and is rapidly finding happy readers. Which is the whole point. This past weekend, in order to celebrate, to give thanks, and to walk the path of Sorley as he searches for his brother Colvin on midsummer’s night, we went back up to Angel’s Peak. This time, we swapped the dog for our professional Mountain Guide friend, John Lyall, who led us up the ridge.
And before I went, I registered Of Stone and Sky on BookCrossing.com. Bookcrossing is a way of releasing books into the wild for others to find, read and pass on. I did the same thing with my first novel, A House Called Askival, planting a copy on the top of Askival, the highest mountain on the island of Rum, for which the house in a hill station in north India is named.
Wonderfully, it was found a few days later by a delighted book-lover who shared the news and later released it at the Ryvoan Bothy in the Cairngorms (little knowing it is my stomping ground). I’ve never heard about its journey from there, but perhaps it was fed into the fire on a particularly cold night… Or perhaps, hopefully, it fell into the hands of another book-lover and is still travelling.
And so, like offering the ‘angel’s share’ of a barrel of whisky, I left a copy of Of Stone and Sky at the top of Angel’s Peak. In order to fend off the notorious Cairngorms weather, I double bagged it, put it in a tin, double bagged it again and taped it up like a parcel bound for the moon. The best container I had for the job was a shortbread tin and it seemed a perfect choice for historical fiction set in the Highlands, with its tartan, glass of whisky and Dean’s Shortbread strapline, ‘History in the baking’. But there’s a wry irony too. While Of Stone and Sky certainly does serve up a hundred years or so of Highland history, it’s not melt-in-the-mouth. In fact, more than one reader has commented how the book is NOT the shortbread-tin version of Scotland. I do hope, therefore, that the finder of the tin – and, indeed, my readers – will not be disappointed.
As well as the book in a deceptive tin, we took a very special shepherd’s crook into the Cairngorms. The full story of our walk – and the crook – will be in an upcoming post. For now, I leave you with an extract from that chapter in the novel where Sorley makes the trip.
“Three years after my brother disappears, I make my slow way up the walk they took when I was just a light in my mother’s eye, up through the pass of the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorm mountains and into the Garbh Choire. It is midsummer’s day and the smells of moss and peat rise around me in the warm air, cotton clouds drifting in the high blue. Stones shift under my feet and hands as I pick a route up the rocky slope to the Lochan Uaine and the waterfall where the MacPhersons’ key was found. Hip throbbing, sweating, I pull off my pack and ease down onto a rock, enjoying the cool air on my damp back and hair. Above me rise the twin summits of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak, together forming a curving wall of steep cliff and scree slope that shelters me from the full force of the wind. Stretched out between me and the foot of the cliffs, the lochan is a vivid blue-green, deeper than the sky. Its surface is lightly brushed with ripples, edges lapping on pebbles that all look grey at first, but gradually reveal their colours, from pearly white to peach and pink, mottled mauve and black.
I lie that night on a mossy ledge beside the lochan, the hood of my bivvy bag unzipped so I can stare at the sky. It never quite gets dark but glows a deeper, lovelier green by the minute, drawing me into drifts of light sleep and welcoming me back as I wake to the sound of a bird or a voice in my dream. Each time, I find the moon has travelled, a silver canoe rowing the deep. In the very early hours, with the sky softening to pink, I see a deer a few feet away. She is young and delicate, one hoof lifted, her eyes fixed on me. We watch each other, barely breathing. Then her ear twitches and she shoots away, so swift and quiet it seems she is spun from light.
It’s 3 a.m., but I get up, drink from the cold lochan and climb the curving north ridge beside it to the summit of Angel’s Peak. It is slow and painful, and I am light-headed from hunger and lack of sleep. By the time I get to the top, the sun has risen and washed the whole of the Cairngorms in gold.”
As well as a free one on top of Angel’s Peak, copies of Of Stone and Sky can be found here.
These are the main characters from my Cairngorms-set novel, Of Stone and Sky, roughly in order of appearance or importance.
Mo Smith – primary narrator, minister turned publican, like a sister to Colvin & Sorley
Colvin Munro – a Highland shepherd, born & raised on the farm of Rowancraig Estate, disappears
Sorley Munro – his younger brother, left at 17 to make his fortune in the City, secondary narrator
Agnes Munro – their mother, a Highland Traveller by heritage, married into the farm
Gideon Munro ‘Gid’ – their father, a shepherd on Rowancraig all his life apart from service in WW2
Donald Munro – Gid’s father
Phamie Munro – Gid’s mother
Beulah Duggins – Gid’s sister, housekeeper at Rowancraig Estate
Archie Duggins – from Yorkshire, gamekeeper on Rowancraig Estate, Beulah’s husband
Liana Munro – Colvin’s wife
Tess Munro – Colvin & Liana’s daughter
Alex Munro – Colvin & Liana’s son
Dougie MacPherson ‘Mr Mac’ – Gid’s best friend, forester and ecologist
Margaret MacPherson ‘Mrs Mac’ – Dougie’s wife and friend to Agnes
Fachie MacPherson – Dougie’s son and Colvin’s best friend
Lord Edgar Mackintosh – owner of Rowancraig Estate, the laird
Kirat Aggarwal – wealthy Malaysian American businessman
Vivian Aggarwal ‘Viv’ – English, Kirat’s wife
Rahesh Aggarwal – Kirat & Viv’s son, a lawyer
Nellie Pegg – one time maid at Rowancraig House
Annabelle – Sorley’s ex-girlfriend
Carrick Devlin – Sorley’s boss in Sydney
Major Walter Hoare-Cressington ‘ Watty’ – owner of Logie Estate, south of Rowancraig
Lady Miranda Hoare-Cressington – Watty’s wife
Plus assorted even-more-minor characters
Friends and faithful readers of Writing the Way, I cannot tell you how happy I am to share this news with you. Below is today’s press release from Scottish independent publisher, *Polygon:
FACT AND FICTION: TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR MERRYN GLOVER’S CAIRNGORMS
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited, has signed Merryn Glover to a two-book deal for a novel and a non-fiction work each set in the Cairngorm mountains. Glover was the first writer in residence at the Cairngorms National Park and has won Creative Scotland support for both projects.
Polygon has bought World All Language rights from Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown and will publish novel Of Stone and Sky in Spring 2021 and The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd in 2022.
Of Stone and Sky is a multi-generational family story set in the Scottish Highlands. After shepherd Colvin Munro disappears, a mysterious trail of his twelve possessions leads into the Cairngorm mountains. His foster sister Mo and prodigal brother Sorley are driven to discover the forces that led to his disappearance. Spanning almost a century, the novel is a paean to the bonds between people, their land and way of life. A profound mystery, a political manifesto and a passionate story of love, the novel is shot through with wisdom and humour.
The Hidden Fires is Glover’s response to Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Drawing from her upbringing in the Himalayas and gradual adaptation to Scotland’s hills, she contrasts her own Cairngorm experiences with Shepherd’s. Exploring the same landscapes and themes of the classic work, she challenges herself and the reader to new understandings of this mountain range and its significance in contemporary Scotland.
Edward Crossan, Editor at Polygon, said: ‘I am thrilled that we are publishing Merryn Glover, an exceptional writer. Her moving and profound novel, Of Stone and Sky, was commissioned on the strength of its compelling narrative and elegant prose. Her non-fiction work, The Hidden Fires, which uses The Living Mountain as its guiding light, is a poetic piece of nature writing, a fitting tribute to Nan Shepherd, and is so vital now, more than ever.’
Glover is the author of A House Called Askival (Freight, 2014), four radio plays for BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland and numerous short stories. She was born in Kathmandu and grew up in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Australian by citizenship, she lives in the Highlands and has called Scotland home for over 25 years.
Glover said, “I am honoured and excited to be published by Polygon, a proud, independent Scottish publisher and the perfect home for these books, so rooted in Scotland. I am also delighted that Polygon matches the international vision and wide reach that is so important in my work”
- Polygon Books is an imprint of Birlinn Limited, Scotland’s largest independent publisher. It publishes literary fiction, poetry, and books on popular culture from award-winning writers such as Liz Lochhead, Norman MacCaig, Jenni Fagan, Stuart Cosgrove, and the author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. Polygon was originally established by students of Edinburgh University, including a young Gordon Brown, in the late 1960s. It became part of Birlinn Limited in 2002. In 2018, Polygon was the home of the Centenary Edition of the Novels of Muriel Spark.
- Press release on Polygon’s site here.
To see what others have said about Of Stone and Sky, follow the links below. If you’ve read it, please do add your own review on Amazon, Goodreads or other retailer sites. If you would like to feature the book in your publication, site or broadcast, please contact Polygon Books for a review copy.
Book of the Year 2021 – Bookmark Festival Article in The Herald
Longlisted for the Highland Book Prize 2021
05 May 2023 “There is a very strong spiritual strain running through the book… giving it a powerful redemptive theme.” Rev Prof Ian Bradley in The Church Times
19 Feb 2022 “Unfolds impressively and with a sweeping scope, dispelling romantic notions of the Highlands to acknowledge its material realities, and doing it through diverse, well-developed characters, before capping it with a satisfying ending.” The Herald
05 Aug 2021 “It’s honestly one of the best books I’ve read, outstanding Scottish literary fiction and a real contender for my book of the year.” Joanne Baird of the Portobello Book Blog
06 June 2021 “It’s immensely readable – and overflowing with grace.” John Dempster for the Inverness Courier (& other Highland News Group papers)
15 May 2021 “I adored the writing: it’s a gorgeous, poetic story full of big themes: love, grief, ecology, politics, history and community… One of my favourite books ever.” Sarah for ScotLitDaily
May 2021 “With the most wonderful blend of stark plot lines mixed with richly descriptive detailing, this is a beautifully readable novel.” Liz Robinson for LoveReading website
Spring 2021 “Ranks with the finest of nature writing.” Neil Reid for Scottish Mountaineer magazine
3 May 2021 “A book which explores love, both the love of people for one another – brothers, youngsters, couples – and love of the place in which they live.” Vee Walker on her blog
21 April 2021 “Of Stone And Sky is a rich stew of a novel, one with a Victorian complexity of plot, a family saga which is also a socio-economic survey of Highlands history over almost 300 years… A considerable achievement.” Alan Massie for The Scotsman newspaper
INTERVIEWS, FEATURES & BROADCASTS
05 May 2023 The Church Times podcast interview with Rev Prof Ian Bradley
22 April 2022 On Northern Bibliosphere podcast: Land, Communities & Identities
June 2021 My article on Society of Authors in Scotland blog: On the Trail of the Lost Shepherd
26 June 2021 Best Summer Reads – Susan Swarbrick for Herald Scotland
May 2021 Feature by Dawn Geddes in The Scots Magazine
22 May 2021 Interview with Nora McElhone for Dundee Courier
May 2021 Conversation on John Burns Podcast
2 May 2021 Article by me for the Sunday Post about my relationship with the Cairngorms
23 Feb 2021 Feature on Nan Shepherd in Dundee Courier by Gayle Ritchie including section on me