Writing in lockdown

I’ve been thinking back to March, when we heard Johnson and Vallance’s first press conference, and the ‘herd immunity’ strategy they were going to implement. I had come across epidemiological modelling in the course of my PhD research, and I thought this strategy would probably work eventually, but it would inevitably lead to a horrendous number of deaths. I was horrified that a British government could be contemplating such a strategy, almost calculating an ‘acceptable’ number of deaths. No deaths are ‘acceptable’. They are inevitable in a pandemic, but surely any Government and its advisers should seek to minimise death and suffering in the people of that country, and not just treat it as collateral damage. That was when I wrote my first blog on the subject.

But since then a wee voice has nagged away at me from time to time, questioning exactly what I did uncover, back in the day, about the way diseases spread in a population. After all, we are talking about the late 1980s, early 1990s, and that was a long time ago. So a couple of weeks ago I dug out my PhD thesis and read the relevant chapter – first time I’ve done that in more than 20 years.

What I was researching was the nature of scientific knowledge, and the mechanisms of knowledge transfer. And lo, as they say, it was all there after all. An epidemiologist, name of Goffman, had in fact used studies in his field to develop a knowledge transfer model, and I had read and quoted him in my thesis. I did have my facts right after all. At the end of the day other models fitted my data better than epidemiology, but I did learn about R numbers, socially acquired immunity and other factors in disease transmission.

I didn’t at any point seek to keep a diary of my thoughts and experiences of living in a pandemic, but somehow some of my thoughts have found their way into poems and stories, and three of the poems have actually been published online. One of the short stories will be in my next book, scheduled for publication by Postbox Press next January.

The first poem, Getting On, was published in the Irish webzine Pendemic (www.pendemic.ie), and it was written in the early days of the virus.

The second, Ghost Train, was published as Day Twenty in the Postcards From Malthusia series (https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com). It was written in the lockdown period. I have an allotment just outside Dunbar, which backs onto the East Coast Main Line. While I was digging, empty trains would pass by, just polishing the rails, near enough for me to look in the windows.

The third one, Starting a New Normal, was written by invitation from Dumfries-based poet, Hugh Macmillan, who has been inviting poets to contribute poems, and to video themselves reading the poems. I was asked to contribute, and I feature as Number 108 in A Plague of Poets, Poems from the Backroom, at https://pestilencepoems.blogspot.com. 

 

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Writing and Speaking in Scots

I’m prompted to write again about Scots by watching a programme by Alistair Heather called The Rebel Tongue on the BBC Scotland Channel the ither nicht.

I was born in Edinburgh (in 1942, since ye ask sae nicely), and spent my first sixteen years there. I don’t recall Scots being used much in conversation, certainly not by my aspiring parents. The odd Scots word crept in of course, as one would say ‘dreich’ for example. But when I was very small – certainly afore the skweel – my grandparents sometimes babysat for me and my little brother, so that my mother could go out to work. My grandparents were from Aberdeenshire, and maybe it’s from them that I got my ear for the Doric. And finding out that my ancestors were from Buchan made Doric more special to me.

I’ve written some poems in a kind of boilerplate Scots, and even had some published. That’s using literary Scots, oot ae a dictionary, bit it’s nae the same as the leid ye hear fowk spik yae day. I’ve also edited collections of poetry in Scots and Doric.

In 2009 and 2010 I was the Scottish Poetry Library’s Poet Partner to Moray, and I heard the distinctive spik o Buckie, Lossie, Kinloss, Fochabers an ither toons in that byordnar county. Ma faimly tree has branches in Ellon, Strichen, Longside, Lonmay an a wheen o ither places.

Last year I wrote a short story in the voice o a Buchan loon whae’d moved Sooth, an sae his leid kinna reflectit baith Doric an the mair refined Scots o the Sooth-East. It wis shortlisted in a competeetion, bit it didna wun. Hooanivver, Ah aye like it, sae Ah’ll sneek it intae ma next buik o short stories, due oot neist year. The thing aboot writin like this is Ah dinnae need tae rin tae a Scots or Doric dictionary tae fun the words Ah need. Ah hae thum aa in ma heid.

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What’s happening now?

Having started blogging about coronavirus Covid-19, AKA SARS CoV-2, I suppose I should continue to log what’s happening in my mental neck of the woods.

The lock-down announced on Monday night was the latest in a series of measures aimed at reducing contact between people, with the avowed aims of building capacity into the NHS to cope with the peak of the infection, now estimated to be just over two weeks away, while saving lives. I suspect some further tightening of the lock-down will be necessary in a few days time. Mortality of 20,000 is a figure which has been mentioned.

The curves, for confirmed cases and for deaths, continue to be exponential, that is the rates of both are accelerating, rather than going up in straight lines. This is normal in any epidemic. They will rise to maxima, flatten off, and then decline, as the numbers in the community who have had the disease and recover build up immunity in the form of antibodies in their blood. In most epidemics, and I have no reason to believe Covid-19 is any different from other coronaviruses which are better known (such as SARS and MERS), such individuals should not suffer recurrences of the disease, unless their systems are exposed to exceptional viral loads, such as our front-line medical and nursing staff might encounter. I hope they don’t. When a sufficient number in the community have such immunity, the rates of transmission start to diminish, although they don’t disappear completely.

At that point we will need a vaccine, and with the worldwide effort devoted to that purpose, I am sure we will have one, maybe in a year or so.

But society has changed so much in the last few weeks; UK and world economies have changed so much, that I think the world which will emerge post-Covid-19 will not be the one we know; the one we’ve always known.

Scientists, doctors and science fiction writers have been telling us for years what a global pandemic might do to us; to our bodies and to our societies. Sadly, we’re now beginning to see the dangers for ourselves.

And what will happen next time? I’ve said before that the thing we learn from history is that we don’t. I don’t have much faith in governments and politicians to pull us unscathed out of the next one. So far, they’ve failed us on climate change, on pollution, on antibiotic resistance, on famine relief, gun control, wars and on social injustice, to name but a few.

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Covid-19; an update

In my previous post I made it clear that I was concerned about the UK government’s initial strategy for dealing with the pandemic. I am relieved that wiser counsel has prevailed, and that serious steps are being advised to limit person-to-person contact, and to increase testing.

The government’s senior scientific adviser has told the Select Committee that estimated additional deaths under the previous regime could be as high as 160,000, with which the NHS could not cope, and which I am certain the British public would have found unacceptable. I have seen higher figures quoted, but I see no point in repeating them here; goodness knows 160,000 is an appallingly high figure in any case.

He hopes that the new measures and advice will help to contain the number of additional deaths to around 20,000. That’s a lot, in terms of human suffering and loss, I know, but the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

The social and financial consequences of the new measures will result in changes that none of us can foresee at the moment. In the short term, it’s catastrophic for whole swathes of our society, and life-changing for those who will lose their livelihoods. There will be far too many in that situation.

 

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Coronavirus Covid-19

I’m concerned about Covid-19, because I understand the science behind it, but I’m not influenced by newspaper or social media hype.

When I was doing my part-time PhD in information science (1985-1991), one of the fields I looked at was epidemiology – how diseases spread. There are a number of mathematical modelling techniques in the field that I looked at in relation to my own research (how scientific knowledge is transmitted within the scientific community and eventually becomes part of the established corpus of science). So I look at the mathematics of the current pandemic, and the statistical chances of becoming infected (my estimate is between 50 and 70% of the Scottish population).

Different countries have made a choice over which strategy to implement. One, I’ll call the Extinguish Before Transmission strategy, or ‘Stop People Catching It’, was adopted (late, but not too late) by China, and belatedly (and probably too late) by Italy and other countries in Europe. The other is based on the concept of herd immunity. (If you want to see an excellent graphic illustration of how this works, watch Dr Hannah Fry’s Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, ‘How To Get Lucky’.) That’s the model adopted by the Government that the majority in the UK (not me) voted for. It presupposes that the infection will spread within the community and, in the absence of vaccination, immunity will arise naturally and eventually quench the outbreak. They’ve decided it’s inevitable, and they will try to slow it down, but not extinguish it. A majority of the population will get the infection, and eventually herd immunity will kick in. I’ve no doubt it will work. Eventually. Undue reliance seems to have been placed in behavioural ‘science’, about which I’m deeply unconvinced.

But the unknowable is how a particular individual may respond to that infection. There are a number of factors involved, one of which is exposure to one or more of the 1,500 people in Scotland who probably have the infection already (and that figure will probably double every two days). So we’re staying at home  for the most part, but when I went to the gym last week I wiped down all the surfaces with sanitizer before and after I used the equipment. This week I’ve decided to avoid the gym altogether for the foreseeable future. I won’t go to any public meetings or use public transport, and I’ll use social distancing when I’m in contact with people. Jane and I are both fit and well, with no underlying health problems, but we’re now in our upper 70s.  While the mortality stats I’ve seen for the population as a whole are running around 1% of those infected, for those over 70 it rises to 8%, and for the over 80s it’s nearly 15%. So we’re taking sensible precautions, but not losing the heid over it.

There is a risk, and it’s the risk your Government has decided to take on your behalf. They haven’t told you that. Boris the Bumbler muttered something about ‘losing loved ones before their time’, looking morose and concerned as his minder told him to. But at least the herd immunity strategy is science-based. In my view, however, it’s not the one that should have been adopted. The government should have introduced measures aimed at stopping people getting the infection in the first place. More people will lose their lives under current plans. But at least we’re not led by Trump. That man would be out of his depth in a puddle.

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Climate change, the science and the poetry

The STEM poets group held their inaugural session last night, with discussions and readings. Unfortunately I missed it, because of horrendous weather, ironically. I didn’t fancy driving a round trip of 150 miles with blizzards forecast on the higher ground on the way back, and public transport isn’t an option at the time I’d be leaving for home.

So I thought I’d post my own thoughts on STEM poetry, climate change science here, together with the poems I wanted to read last night.

I’ve read, and been disappointed by, a couple of recent anthologies of poetry purporting to be about climate change. For the most part, they weren’t. A lot of the poetry was about weather, which is not the same as climate, or about other unrelated subjects. Some of it was alarmist, and without any scientific content.

We need a dialogue between poets and scientists, and my feeling is that such dialogue is best mediated by those who straddle both cultures. In other words, those of us with a scientific background and experience, and who are also poets. There is a surprisingly large number of us.

Some poets have been ‘in residence’ at scientific institutions, or have been paired with working scientists. The outcomes of these collaborations have sometimes been successful, but not always. It’s not enough, I would suggest, for non-scientist poets to understand how to use the language of the discipline of the practitioners they are shadowing. They need to have an understanding of the nature and significance of the underlying science itself, and that doesn’t come easily or quickly.

My own scientific background is primarily in earth sciences and biology, with a lot of statistics from my PhD, so that informs the poetry I write. I know, for example, that the last major thermal excursion the planet had was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when global temperature rose by 9C. The causes are probably volcanism releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and melting methane hydrates. The opening of the North Atlantic or the emplacement of kimberlite pipes in Canada are possible triggers.

So here’s my climate change poem, the one I was going to read last night:

Maybe We Can

It’s the morning of the Eve
of Christmas Eve. Just light.
There’s a narrow crescent moon
hanging below a pinkish cloud
in the palest blue sky.
Hold that image.

It’s mild, for a Scottish winter,
but most of them are these days.
I know weather’s not the same
as climate, but I remember
Decembers when you always looked
for frost, icy  air and frozen puddles.
We learned to drive on snow,
on rutted ice – even on a motorbike –
skills it seems no longer required.

By the law of averages, which isn’t a law,
just a saying, hearing about global values
of gases from burning coal or oil,
and the fractions of degrees of warming
they indicate, we expect to feel
less cold now. We didn’t expect
such extremes this year
as the Beast from the East
and the Summer Scorcher –
we felt 40C in France – but extremes
become more frequent as heated seas
send their moisture into the air.

And, feeling effects, we look for causes,
but we can’t; the trends are subtler
than we can detect. Australia burns,
but not because of Queensland coal.
A mild day in a Highland hamlet
is the Föhn effect, not the world warming.

But still, the world does warm
in tiny increments. Year by year,
decade by decade, an average rises,
in step with atmospheric carbon.

Our world’s not static, never has been
since the crust formed, started to move,
split, recombine in new configurations,
and how that effects the movement of air
over seas, over lands, how clouds reflect energy
into space, how orbital wobbles and cycles,
heat and cool our blue home. I know
how wandering waters flow in oceans,
melting ice, cooling coasts, rising
and falling, netting the depths
and shallows in complex patterns.

But this is a different thing, a new thing.
We’ve heated the world enough
to change it, by burning too much carbon.
It’s still reversible, but the system
has a lot of momentum – economic,
political, behavioural – and this is harder
than turning down a thermostat –
though that would help. Human inertia,
lack of knowledge, and a world dominated
by professional liars and their media,
are the things we need to change.

Year by year, decade by decade,
country by country, we might
make a difference.

Colin Will
25/01/2020

Global warming can come with regional cooling. If the North Atlantic circulation is stopped, and it could be, things could get pretty cold in Western Europe. This is an earlier poem on that topic:

Ice Age

Down by the sea shore we saw no dark edge
to the white horizon. Pressure ridges
rose and fell with the tides,
creating temporary mountain ranges
with spiky summits. Far out, way beyond walking,
huge bergs growled and cracked on the swell,
pushed nearer by an unkind wind.
They streamed out from the Denmark Strait,
down the Sea of Labrador, across the track
of the dead Gulf Stream, these blue leviathans,
mountains of solid water.

Inland, we walked to the hills, foraging for firewood,
tramping through a fresh layer of powder snow,
avoiding the drifts and the cornices overhanging
the cliffs. Last year’s snow poked through the crust
in places, wind-sculpted, sun-eroded, slowly compressing
as layer upon layer recrystallised to ice, and began to flow
down to the sea.

In the petrified forest, as the wind rose,
dead songbirds fell out of the trees.

Colin Will
10/01/2011

 

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A decade in writing

Colin Will: A decade in writing, 2010-2019

2010: My first full collection with Red Squirrel Press, The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café, was published. I was elected Makar to the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

The floorshow at the Mad Yak Cafe

2011: I made some of my early out-of-print books available as Kindle editions.

2012: The second Red Squirrel Press book, The Propriety of Weeding was published.

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2013: I was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship , to stay at the Castle for four weeks, just to write. I wrote 55,000 words in that time. I published, under the Calder Wood Press imprint, a pamphlet of local poems, The Year’s Six Seasons.

6seasons

2014: Red Squirrel Press published The Book of Ways, a collection of 112 haibun written at Hawthornden. It’s the closest thing to an autobiography I will ever write, and I still think it’s the best thing I’ve written. I was elected Chair of the StAnza Board of Trustees for a second term. I joined the organizing committee of CoastWord: Dunbar’s Festival of Words.

ways
2015: I began to feel unsatisfied with the kind of poetry I was writing at the time, and I wrote my first short stories.

2016: I published the last of 61 Calder Wood Press titles, mainly poetry and short stories, before winding up the Press. My first short stories appeared in magazines, and a pamphlet collection, Getting On, was published by Postbox Press.

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2017: My eighth poetry collection, The Night I Danced With Maya, was published on my 75th birthday by Red Squirrel Press. I became Editor at Postbox Press.

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2018: I closed The Open Mouse, a poetry webzine I’d created and edited under various incarnations since 1996. I worked with authors on a number of books for Postbox and Red Squirrel Press. My first full-length short story collection, Word Play, accepted before I became Editor, was published by Postbox.

Word Play cover_front_th

2019: I began editing Postbox: Scotland’s international short story magazine. Two issues were published in 2019. I stepped down as Chair of CoastWord’s organising committee but maintain a grandfatherly interest in this unique and vibrant festival taking place in my home town.

Postbox cover

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The Way We Say Yes

That’s the provisional title of the novel I’m working on. It refers to Occitan, the language spoken in the Languedoc region of France, where the story is set. While in the rest of the place which later became France, ‘yes’ was pronounced “oïl” which became “oui”, in this area they used “oc”, which gave rise to the modern name of the region – ‘the tongue of oc’.

I’m pleased to see that Occitan is becoming increasingly popular for folk songs set in the area. It’s good to hear it, and it lends itself to song.

The main character in my novel is a Scotsman who sets up a pottery in the region, in one of those lovely little villages strung along the Canal du Midi. I’ve given it a made up name, because I didn’t want to be too specific about the actual village which inspired it (and I won’t say what that village is).

I’m pleased with progress on the novel, which is the first I’ve tackled seriously. I’m just over the halfway mark, and I know where it’s headed. Unlike my short stories, where I don’t know the ending until I’ve written it, with the novel I felt I had to write it early on, so I’d know the trajectory of the story. That doesn’t mean the whole thing is fixed and set in stone. I’ve managed to surprise myself several times already along the way.

Why am I writing it? Fundamentally, just to see if I can. If I can manage to write 100,000 words, and trim it back to 80 or so I’ll be satisfied. In other words, I’m not writing it with the aim of publication – although it would be nice if it turns out to be publishable. It’s because a novel feels like some kind of literary Everest to me, and I have to knock it off “because it’s there”, in the immortal words of Mallory.

I’d hoped to get a Fellowship to work on it France for a month, but I was unsuccessful. However, our eldest son has bought a house near Uzes, not far from the area of the novel, and we’re going there later in the year, so I’ll pick up the ambience if nothing else. We did tour round the area in the 1990s, and we’ve been to many other parts of France. Plus I learned pottery in the 1970s, and I’m making use of that background too. I’m aiming to finish in September.

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Postbox; the magazine

Postbox cover

Launched on 4th May 2019, this is the first issue of Postbox; Scotland’s international short story magazine, published by Red Squirrel Press/Postbox Press.

We announced it late last year, and requested submissions with an end January deadline. I received over 100 submissions, and the overall standard was very high indeed. I narrowed it down, and sent my initial suggestions to Red Squirrel’s publisher, Sheila Wakefield. Looking at the total word count of the fifteen selected stories suggested they could all be published in an attractive format, and we agreed on those stories. After that I came up with a sequence which made sense to me, and then I got down to copy editing. To be honest, there wasn’t much to do there – no obvious errors or typos, and most of them very clean.

I’m a ‘light touch’ editor. I try not to change things unless I know I have to. Some of the stories had passages or sentences which I wouldn’t have written that way, if it had been me writing them. But I hadn’t written them, so I left them. I think too many editors/mentors, call them them what you will, are too interventionist; they take away the author’s intentions, their writing character. And stories which are overworked lose their freshness.

The only thing I did do was to impose consistency on text and paragraph formatting for all fifteen stories, so I could pass on a clean document to Gerry Cambridge for design and typesetting. I have my own preferences for line spacing and the like, and I know Gerry can modify these to suit the typeface he chooses.

He also chose the cover, and designed it to fit. Sheila and Gerry want to alternate the postboxes on the covers of new issues – Scottish, then international – and this first one comes from an Italian postbox.

This from my ‘Editorial’:

There’s a neatness in the [short story] form, a satisfying compactness, and a real skill in balancing brevity with telling a full story. I like originality in ideas and in the writing; I love believable dialogue, and I’m thrilled by endings I didn’t see coming, as long as they make sense in context.

The stories in this first collection fulfil these criteria and more. … What I wanted to achieve in this first issue [was] a showcase for good writing, of course, but also to reflect the wide variety of themes, subjects, treatments and styles which makes the short story such a joy to read.

Here is a list of the contents:

Kirsti Wishart: The Secret History of the Shoe Tree
Laura T Fyfe: Bell Ringing
Charlie Gracie: Hyde Bridge, Sligo
Tom Kelly: John’s Dance
Maggie Graham: Bounce and Rhyme
Colette Coen: Last Words
Tom Murray: Man in the moon
Tim Love: Oh I do like to be
Andrew McCallum Crawford: Scotch Pies
Bethany W Pope: The Hunter
Steve Urwin: The Sugar-Coated Nihilist
Reaghan Reilly: Our Little Secret
Alan Macfarlane: B-road Incident
Jennifer Gray: Shadowlands
C E Ayr: The Whale Driver

From the launch: L to R Reaghan Reilly, Tom Murray, Tom Kelly, Laura T Fyfe, Colette Coen, Maggie Graham.
Postbox authorsIt was an absolute joy to hear the authors read their words. As Tom Kelly said to me afterwards, ‘Everybody had something different to say.’

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March 2019

1st March

Headed off with grandson Morten for our little break in Argyll at Appin Holiday Homes. It was cloudy and damp when we set off, with low cloud and poor visibility. We stopped at the Green Wellie place at Tyndrum for coffee, and headed out, past Beinn Dorain and Ben an Dothaidh and up to Rannoch Moor, with the clouds lifting as we went. By the time we reached Buchaille Etive Mor we could see the top, with snow in the gullies. Glencoe was spectacular.

Past Ballahulish and on into Appin, with a sight of Castle Stalker. By Loch Creran we found our holiday lodge – Badger Sett, unpacked and settled in. We bagged the room with the twin beds, leaving Morten in the bigger bedroom with the double bed. We walked down to the Creagan Inn for a drink, and came back for our evening meal. Slept well.

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2nd March

Drove to Benderloch first thing, to get the paper in the Benderloch Supermarket, AKA The Pink Shop, which it unquestionably is. To Oban today. Weather dry to start with, but not promising. We stopped in the long stay car park and walked back into town, popping in to the odd shop. By lunchtime it had started to rain heavily, so we ran for a fish restaurant by the pier – Ee-cus. Delicious meal, then we tramped back to the car in the pouring rain. Stayed in the lodge. Morten found the games room with wi-fi and a snooker table. He’s really good company.

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3rd March

It had snowed on the hilltops overnight, so the views were really spectacular. We had decided that today would be for Glencoe. It was raining, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We parked in the Visitor Centre and walked up the hill, taking in the first snowdrops I’d seen this year. Streams were flowing rapidly, due to the rain. Spectacular view of Clachaig Gully.

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Most of the Visitor Centre was closed for renovation and rebuilding, so we drove on to the Three Sisters car park, and walked down the hill as far as the river, but we didn’t cross. It brought back memories of walks in to the Lost Valley when Jane and I were younger. I’m sure it was in Glencoe, on the way back from our climbing course in 1963, when we decided to get married, so it’s always been a special place for us.

4th March

Fort William and Ben Nevis today. We parked in the long stay in Fort William, and walked through the town, mostly window shopping, before driving on to the Ben Nevis Range car park. We baulked at the cost of the gondola up to the ski station, and in any case we didn’t fancy tramping through snow. Instead, we went to the North Face car park along the Forestry Commission track, and headed up the track from there.

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It was rather good, but we stopped short of the tree line, which was where the snow started. We parked in a lay-by on the way back to get a look at the North Face. It’s on the right, under the clouds.

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By the time we got back to the Stalker tea room it had closed for the day, so we didn’t get our coffees and tray-bakes.

5th March

Last day in Appin. We packed up and were on our way before 10am. We had a good run back up through Glencoe and decided to head down Glen Etive. The road – single-track with passing places – seemed longer than it had on our previous visits, but they were a long time ago. It was beautiful though. We stopped at the loch and walked along the shore, picking up some of the coarse-grained granite pebbles. On the walk back, we were startled to see two semi-tame stags by the roadside, and then, shortly after, a herd of hinds.

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deer herd _Glen Etive

A great end to our trip, and Morten’s first sight of the Scottish Highlands.

 

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