Sunday, 13 August 2017

Shona McCombes AIR 2017

In 2009 or thereabouts, when I was 18 or thereabouts, confronted with the long and languid emptiness of a university summer, I decided to take a train alone to a town near Fort William and spend two weeks working and living in a hostel, the first trip I ever made entirely by myself. I did this for no other reason than to see if I could. At 18 I was shy and awkward and unaccustomed to independence and I kept to myself, cleaning the toilets and walking out into the surroundings as far as my feet would take me. Not far, it turned out: at 18 I had barely used my body and, carless, my movements followed the ebb and flow of rural bus timetables. The expansiveness I had imagined might reside there, the wildness and the freedom, turned out to be somewhat elusive, and my 18-year-old heart was left somewhat unfulfilled.

In the time since, my only contact with the area has been in brief window-framed flashes, passing through on the way to or from other places. Eight years later, to be back in the same landscape is a strange experience, revisiting a small slice of life that I had mostly forgotten, everything filtered and coloured by the time between. In those eight years I’ve lived in eight different houses across three countries and circled right back round to where I started, confronted again with the overwhelming freedom of an empty summer, a layover between two lives. Halfway through a two-year, two-country MA, I am back in Scotland but not really home, drifting between friends and family scattered across the country, spending my nights in spare rooms and on sofas, trying to slot myself back into old ways of being. In this erratic, formless life, the two weeks carved out for my research and writing residency at Outlandia feel like a space in which to breathe. The cycle along the glen and the steep hike up the peat track sculpt the shape of my days, a straining movement up and away from an everyday life crowded with questions and decisions and replies and obligations and lists and notifications. The emptiness of the space clears me.

I am a city dweller; ‘nature’, for me, is always an excursion, always elsewhere. I have become the kind of person who aspires to outdoorsiness, but I’ve never quite managed to successfully embody it – always some item of clothing not quite appropriate, some essential piece of equipment missing, always leaving too late and not taking enough water or taking too much and sagging under the weight of a poorly adjusted rucksack. I am exhausted by the consumer side of the wilderness industry: so many jackets and bags and tents and torches to choose from, so many different kinds of fabric and just-in-case gadgets. Getting back to nature involves a lot of buying.

It’s this and related points of tension that underpin the research and writing I’ve been doing. A place like Outlandia enters the imagination as something wild and remote, something closer to a natural state than everyday urban life, but really it’s embedded in one of the most well-trodden landscapes in the country, a central node in a national network of nature tourism. Each day a steady trickle of walkers find themselves at the end of the boardwalk – camping families and local dog-walkers, munro-baggers and mountain-bikers, organised tours and lone travellers, of scattered origin and varying levels of curiosity about this space they have stumbled into. They express different degrees of romanticism when they comment on the view: for some the landscape is pure aesthetics and awe, for others an obstacle course to be conquered and checked off a list, for others simply the fabric of their everyday lives seen from a new angle. For many the central sensation seems to have something to do with unreality: the word “fairytale” is uttered frequently. Outside, birds and small creatures of the undergrowth go about their lives, and the sky shifts ceaselessly through a spectrum of blues and greys.

All landscapes are heavy with layers of contradictory meaning; all landscapes are etched with invisible lines that mark ownership, heritage, history – and with other lines, the tracks of animals and trajectories of flight that pay no heed to borders or title deeds. From the Clearances to the hunting estates to windfarms and Wild Land Areas, the politics of land, in which animals and plant life are inextricably caught up, have been at the heart of Scotland’s structures of power and its processes of national meaning-making. I have been reading about the laws of landownership and histories of hillwalking, about strange hypnotic relations between people and other living things. I have been writing stories about encounters and exploitations between people, animals, landscapes – about hunting and culling and conserving, and the imbrications of life and death in any attempt to care for the non-human world.

This is not the most obvious choice of topic, perhaps, for a thesis in Gender Studies. But the relations we weave between ourselves and the land and the other beings that inhabit it, the stories we tell about what certain places mean and who they are for, are never by or about a neutral, universal “human”, because such a creature has never existed; they are about the gendering of space and sexuality, the racialising of nation and migration, the class relations of labour, leisure and ownership. They are about oppositions and tensions between threat and vulnerability, between the wild and the domestic, between native and alien, between saving and killing, between nature and culture. In thinking about the wild I am interested in exploring the routes by which power circulates through bodies and spaces, the kinds of national imaginaries and identities that emerge in encounters with dramatic landscapes and endangered ecosystems. The natural sciences and the tourist industries, the environmental policy-makers and the history-making nation-builders, the hikers and the campers, the lairds and the workers all play their part in weaving these stories, and my research is attempting to trace their histories and explore their implications in an age where our relationship to the non-human world becomes ever more urgent and ever more politically volatile.

But part of my aim at Outlandia was also to disentangle myself from the rigid structures of academia, which can be stifling to thought. After months spent writing research proposals and literature reviews and bibliographies, I chose to use my time here not for systematic study but for free association, reading and writing without a quantifiable goal. For the first days I wrote by hand, and I found myself writing about writing by hand – about what it means to leave a physical mark, bearing the trace of the body that made it, a different texture of language than clean anonymous lines of type. Sometimes the page is damp and the ink smudged from a heavy rainfall that soaked through my rucksack; sometimes the text is messy and sloping from an aching wrist; sometimes the heavy score-marks of indecision eradicate what was beneath them, sometimes fragments glimpse through. The stories I started writing at Outlandia all remain unfinished, but my hope is to nurture them into a loosely connected collection of narratives – a series of characters whose stories do not intersect but who inhabit the same small piece of land, who encounter the same animals in different states of animation, in different modes of interspecies relating. As my academic research continues to influence and infest my fictions, I hope these fictions in turn will contaminate my research, make it into something more speculative and imaginative, less constricted by frameworks and categories, something more fluent and flowing. The time I spent at Outlandia was not strictly productive in a measurable, completed sense, but it has been invaluable in beginning to create the space in my mind for this kind of thinking.

 All images courtesy Shona McCombes


  1. These landscape are so beautiful. i Really adore this place. I really like the way of your writing.I want to visit this place as soon as possible.Thank you for uploading this interesting photos and stories..!!

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