In my photographic practice the act of walking slows me down, calms the chattering monkeys and helps with the process of attenuation – of slowing down and stifling conscious thought. As I walk, things capture my attention, beg to be noticed or offer me the briefest glimpse of the essence of Skye. They cause me to stop, stare, and gaze. I might sit on a stone, on a warm clump of grass or gaze out to sea and to the mountains beyond. I might sit down against the trunk of the lone silver birch or find a place where the sun shines through to warm up the forest. Sometimes I continue walking, soaking up nature, and other times I recognise potential and settle down to watch and wait, I dwell. I breathe slowly and deeply. . .
Walking has long been seen as a means for creatives to cogitate and ruminate about their writing, composing, painting or thinking. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782) began the recognition the centrality of walking in creative pursuits. Frederic Gos in The Walkers Waking Dreams (Chapter 9) writes about walking in a way that explains my experience:
“During long, easy walks, on well-traced routes, when all you have to do is follow an interminable set of hairpins, you hatch a thousand plan, invent a thousand tales. The body slowly advances, with measured steps, and that same tranquility gives the mind a day off. Relieved of duty by the automatic functioning of the body, it follows up its fantasies and projects itself into a labyrinth of stories. While the gentle shock-ree rolling of happy legs drives the evolving narrative forward: challenges arise, their solutions are found, fresh ambushes appear.” (Gros 2015 p69).
Throughout history, particularly writers have been known to use walking as a significant component of their practice including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Keats. The philosophers Emmanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche also used the rhythm of walking as part of their daily routine. Frederic Gros explains Nietzsche’s walking as integral to his writing and “the natural element of his oeuvre”.
Kathleen Jamie in the Foreword to Wanderers – A History of Women Walking begins by saying:
“As humans, walking defines us. We are the two-legged apes. We walk and we talk. We are the thinking minds – thinking in language, more often than not. The rhythms of our walking and of our thinking are one.” (Andrews 2020) p9).
Throughout history there are many women who walked in spite of Gros’ omission in his Philosophy of Walking (2015). Dorothy Wordsworth was one. Kerri Andrews takes up the story:
“In December 1799 Dorothy Wordsworth walked 70 miles with her brother William from Sockburn in County Durham to Kendal in Westmorland. They were walking home, back to the Lake District where they had been born, and from where Dorothy had been exiled, away from her siblings, since she and her brothers were orphaned in 1783. Over rough paths and hill tracks William and Dorothy walked towards the place where they planned, at last, to share their lives: Dove Cottage in Grasmere, found by William just weeks before.” (Andrews 2020 p58).
Dorothy walked and climbed the paths of the Lake District as she became more familiar with her new home and surroundings. Like Nan Shepherd she tramped along paths repeatedly getting to know them in different moods and seasons. She recorded her walks in her diary where she not only noted the highlights of the day but also returned to memories of the same spot over previous years:
“Recorded here is a constellation of interconnected memories and associations evoked by varying combinations of light, the time of day, the company, the time of year and, most importantly, the act of walking the same route over and over again.” (Andrews 2020 p63).
At about the same time, Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt was walking in Scotland, often alone. Her first expedition took her from Stirling to Edinburgh, taking in the central Highlands, Glasgow and West Lothian en-route. Hazlitt recorded the distances covered in her diary, achieving a total of 170 miles in eight days.
In the twentieth century, walking around Bloomsbury in London became an integral part of Virginia Woolf’s practice as a writer. She became a “flaneuse”, a wanderer and observer. She recorded the importance of walking in diaries and letters, speaking of its value as a means of developing storylines and building confidence as a writer and a person. She spoke of walking in To the Lighthouse, a novel about the Ramsay family’s trip to the Isle of Skye:
“As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of the vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s room . . .” ((1927).
For Woolf, getting lost was not about losing one’s way but rather shaking off the shackles of one’s identity and sense of self, and other’s perceptions of oneself. The contemporary writer, activist and historian Rebecca Solnit takes a meandering approach to her walking, whisking the reader along with her personal essays. Her two books Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2014) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2017) takes us on a journey of mystery and ambiguity, of wandering, feeling lost both figuratively and literally.
My photographic practice is similarly about being lost in my surroundings and more importantly losing myself in my practice. Like Solnit, I do not get lost in a geographical sense, that would be difficult given my knowledge of the locations I work in. Rather, the place offers me the chance to dwell both in terms of taking it slow and in entering a space of creative flow within the landscape. The combination of walking, fresh air, and the pursuit of the reality of Skye through my work, is rather like an extended pilgrimage, a life’s work and time for reflection. In the company of so many artists, writers, and philosophers throughout history, I feel comfortable that walking provides me with the creative foundations of my practice. Whether it be slowly making my way around the loch, or walking in the hills and woods behind the lone tree, or simply parking at the ruined church of Kilchrist and choosing to take the walk down the single-track road, through the feeding sheep in the shadow of the Red Hills: Beinn na Caillich (Hill of the Old Woman) and Beinn Dearg Mhor (Big Red Hill) and Beinn Dearg Bheag (Little Red Hill) to get an early sense of the creative opportunities that might lie ahead.
Andrews, K. (2020). Wanderers – A History of Women Walking. London, Reaktion Books Ltd.
Solnit, R. (2014). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. London, Granta.
Solnit, R. (2017). A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.
Woolf, V. (1927). To the Lighthouse. London, Hogarth Press.