Forty years at Blair House by George Harris

 

Eleanor’s father George Harris, who taught history at the Edinburgh Academy 1973-2010, remembers forty years of expeditions to the glen.
There’s at least one of my paintings of Blair House hanging in the Staff Room at the Edinburgh Academy. I left it behind when I retired, as a reminder of a great place that was soon to be sold. How wonderful that it is going to be a field centre still, always bustling with folk. I don’t see why not.
The painting shows the building in snow, from the Acharn end with the Doll woods behind, disappearing into wintry mist. It was done in about thirty-five minutes, with big brushes, for it was done from life, and no weather to be standing around outside.
George with daughter Sarah, son-in-law Andrew, and a friendly local in the woods near Moulzie.
Winter is always a great time to be at Blair House. I wonder if anyone who reads this remembers the time we set off on a walk with Maurice Garret before dawn and that evening, in darkness and falling snow, argued about the route. The argument was settled by the fortuitous passing of a car, about twenty yards away, so close were we to the road below the Clova Hotel. Later on there was a great family holiday one Easter when we were able to build the children a working igloo up at the Viewpoint. As for Hogmanay, that was often booked up years in advance. Those feasts can’t have been better than the glorious Christmases we spent there with the Marshes, with a ceilidh in the washroom. The first time I used my crampons in anger was coming from Mayer and then down the Kilbo. Before I was even appointed my interview (Feb 1973) was supposed to include a day in Glen Doll with Rector Mills. Thank goodness we got a phone message that the road was blocked with snow; I doubt if my lack of winter mountaineering skills would have impressed him.
Spring for a long time meant the great Higher Revision Week that Henry Marsh and I used to set up. Other families – Roberts, Trotters, Cowies – often came too, and the most we sat down for dinner was 24. The pupils were guaranteed five hours supervised work as day, interspersed with fresh air and exercise. Only once, I’m afraid, was a wood-gathering party led up the track by a piper. It ought to have been a tradition. Spring comes late to those high glens, and the main flower as I remember was primroses. There always seemed to be frogs in abundance, and great herds of deer on Craig Mellon.
With Henry Marsh at Blair House. “This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present Wall…”
I rarely managed a visit in the summer term, though that was when so many lucky pupils – the Primary 7 that we called Geits – experienced the place. However, there was a time when my A-levels finished well before term ended and there was a chance to take senior pupils for some serious walking. I don’t know if anyone else went up and down and up again to Glas Maol, but that was a great day in remote country. Three times I took parties to Lochnagar, once in mist so thick that the top of the summit cairn was out of sight from its base. The line back to the top of Jock’s Road was the longest compass bearing I have ever managed. Though I do remember someone saying on Tolmount in mist: “Well. I’ve been lost with Mr Boyce, I’ve been lost with Mr Williams, I’ve been lost with the Rector. Now it’s your turn.” For trophy hunters our best such day was the complete horseshoe, starting with Dreish and finishing (still a long way from home) with Broad Cairn. Six Munros in a day.
Climbing the Kilbo Path to Driesh with a much smaller Sarah, one Easter revision week c.1990.
Summer holidays were families and children. What a great experience for everyone. Craig Mellon and Corrie Fee had limitless possibilities for exploration and wonderful flowers. There was the occasional foray down the Glen to castles and gardens and hill-forts and Pictish stones. There was Jeremy Fenton’s wonderful wayfaring course, which took youngsters to strange glades and rocky outcrops deep in the forest. In recent years improved paths and extra bridge-building have made all sorts of easy circuits, and easier access to the rivers for swimming or boating.
Photographing a lizard on the Capel Mounth Path, with Andy Heald, 2011.
In the autumn term (or “Winter Term I” as cynics called it) one was usually glad of the open fire. Autumn spates and autumn colours gave the glen and the corries a different sort of beauty. One never knew what to expect. Blair House is certainly the only house where I have seen a cuckoo and a stoat out of the front window and a red squirrel out of the back. I only once went completely on my own – a heavy pile of marking and an exam paper to set – but while I was sitting on the patio I was able with binoculars to watch deer feeding and two eagles circling. It is not easy to do that from town.
“Eagle!” Veronica Harris, George Harris and Henry Marsh on Jock’s Road, c.1990.
For my last few years of teaching I was officially in charge of the bookings and did my utmost to maximise the field centre’s use. I hope the small bus-load of Geits we took up to explore the history down the Glen still remember the splendid few days. We rehearsed “The Mikado” there, too, I recall. Geographers and Biologists found it ideal for fieldwork. But it could not be denied that there were all sort of problems. So my daughter Eleanor’s decision not merely to buy the place, but to refurbish it and revive it as a place where young and old alike can live more close to nature than most places I know has been really lovely news. My reminiscences need not be “good old days” but exciting ideas for what to plan next.
Looking over Glen Doll Forest from Craig Mellon, 2009.
Stay in touch with the refurbishment by following Blair House on facebook. Until 24 March you can also provide much-needed financial support through a crowdfund. You can also contact Eleanor Harris, eleanormharris@gmail.com, if you are interested in being involved (painting party anyone?).
You can also follow George on Twitter @historylecturer.

Blair House Plans

As plans for the Blair House refurbishment are now well-developed and as people are so generously supporting it through the crowdfund, it seems a good time to provide a bit more information about what these plans are. I would add the disclaimer that none of them are set in stone, but they are well advanced and I hope work will be complete and Blair House reopened later this year.

Blair House and the adjoining Acharn Farm

The refurbished Blair House will have 20 beds in 7 bedrooms. Its basic rate will probably be £250 per night which works out as £12.50 per bed or £35 per room (maybe less for a week/ more in peak season etc).

These competitive rates are possible thanks to low housekeeping costs: visitors will have to bring their own bedding and towels, and will be expected to leave it clean. This does not mean it is not also homely and luxurious!

It may be possible to book only part of Blair House, but as it will not be staffed this will only be by special arrangement. For the same reason, it will not be possible to book individual beds. For small groups the nearby Clova Hotel has bunkhouse, lodge and hotel accommodation and I can testify to its excellent bar and restaurant.

My aim with the refurbishment is to solve three major problems — fire safety, bathrooms, and heating — while changing the character of the house as little as possible. This is likely to cost around £200,000.

We’ve all fallen down the bunkhouse stairs … They will be replaced, and turned 180 degrees!

Those who remember Blair House from its Edinburgh Academy days will be particularly interested in what this means in practice. The major changes are:

  • Central heating powered by log-burners, replacing the coal fires and storage heaters
  • Solar thermal supplementing the hot water immersion heaters
  • Insulate loft and inside internal walls
  • Five shower rooms (two upstairs) to replace the washroom
  • Old washroom area divided into downstairs ensuite bedroom and new ‘playroom’
  • Old toilet block to become new drying room
  • Dorms and stair on bunkhouse side reconfigured to meet fire regulations
  • Dining room to become kitchen-dining room
  • Clear roof to porch reducing the blockage of light to the dining room
  • Full rewiring and specialist fire alarm system
  • Easily-accessed and hardcored car park for 5 cars
The proposed ground floor plans. Not much change to the house side (right) but a reconfigured bunkhouse side (left).
The upstairs plans. Upstairs toilets, such luxury! And the ‘study’ will be a real library, full of books, and, I hope, a log-burner (not yet marked on the plan)
Site plan, showing non-muddy-slope carpark; solar panels; and clear porch roof. Suncatchers!

As the plans show, it is an odd building. The whole site is a nineteenth-century farm steading. The ‘house’ side seems to have originally been one-and-a-half of three farm cottages and the ‘bunkhouse’ a barn. I believe it was all acquired in the early twentieth century from the farm by the Forestry Commission, which converted it into a bunkhouse for those planting Glen Doll Forest. It was purchased with the Blair bequest by the Edinburgh Academy in 1970 and refurbished, and the porch added, by staff. I have been visiting it since about 1985 with my father, history teacher George Harris.

Eleanor and George Harris exploring in Corrie Fee in 2006. Silly hats.

Blair House will be run on a social enterprise basis, meaning that after its refurbishment debts and people’s time has been paid for, any profits will go into a fund dedicated to fulfilling its aims which I have summarised as ‘restoring nature by inspiring people’. This might include funded trips for groups which could not otherwise afford to go; subsidising training courses; or supporting other charities or projects with similar aims. My intention is to publish an annual report on this activity.

As part of the social enterprise ethos I also plan to maintain the link with Trees for Life established through the crowdfund, by inviting visitors to plant a tree (£5) for each car that travels up and for each basket of logs used in heating.

I plan to redeploy the washroom sinks in the new bathrooms. Waste not, want not – and they’re lovely!

I hope you like the plans which are the result of many people’s ideas and comments. Please do add your own especially if you have valuable experience or expertise. I would also invite you to make a donation, however small, to the crowdfunder which runs until 24 March. This will not only help directly with the cost of refurbishment, it also means Blair House is re-founded on the basis of a community of support.

Please stay in touch by following Blair House on facebook and following Eleanor Harris on twitter.

Glen Doll Forest

One upon a time, there was a dark, dark moor,
and on that moor there was a dark, dark wood,
and in that wood there was a dark, dark house…

Blair House, Glen Doll, Angus

So began a beautifully-illustrated children’s book. I loved it because after the spookiness its ending is all homely, and because it made me think of Blair House, Glen Doll. I didn’t know one day Blair House would be mine, and I’d be restoring it as a field centre.

Doll is the Angus glen with the forest: the biggest on the Munro-strewn plateau that heaves between Deeside and the Mearns. Glen Doll forest clothes the midway point on Jock’s Road, the ancient drove road from Braemar to Kirriemuir.

Blair House, on the edge of the forest, was acquired from the farm which it adjoins by the Forestry Commission, who sold it on to the Edinburgh Academy after the forest was planted. Its history is entangled in the forest.

I love Glen Doll forest because it has no pretentions. It panders to no human constructs of aesthetics or authenticity: neither “picturesque plantation” nor “native restoration”. It’s a functional timber crop of spruce, larch, fir, and lodgepole pine, yet it has grown so much richer than that. It provides vital shelter and variation in habitat. It covers land which would have been forest originally, now denuded and degraded by millenia of overgrazing, nothing like the pristine bogland notoriously damaged by ill-placed spruce plantations in Sutherland.

Glen Doll Forest with the peak of Mayar (top left) above Corrie Fee, Craig Rennet (centre), and Jock’s Road running left to right.

Parts of Glen Doll forest have grown over-mature and begun tumbling down, creating glades and deadwood. Parts are being clearfelled, parts replanted, parts managed for leisure and biodiversity.

Summer larches and bilberry understory (V’s photo)

Conservationists argue incessantly about how Scotland’s landscape should be managed, but on one thing they all agree: we need more trees. We need them for biodiversity, and we need them for ourselves. Trees are our best renewable fuel and building material, and, vitally, our only effective method of carbon sequestration.

There is nothing ‘wild’ about Scotland’s landscape: humans have been shaping the Angus glens since the stone age. Glen Doll forest is a fine example of how our influence can enhance, instead of degrading it, while making our own living from it. It is practising John Ruskin’s economics: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”.

The woods on the Kilbo Path are strewn with boulders, full of the sound of tumbling water, and rich in mosses, ferns, and starry flowers.

Glen Doll forest has got into my Blair House refurbishment. I investigated biofuel pellets and ground source heat pumps; I was recommended oil; but I came back to log burners. I’ve contacted the foresters, and they can supply me. Instead of switching a switch to keep warm, people staying at Blair House will feel the roughness of Glen Doll timber in their hands, smell its scent, see it glow and hear it crackle. That’s being in touch with nature.

Loving the trees at Blair House. That’s me in green.

But we must plant more trees. And it is no good to say; we’ll do that later. The ease with which we can spend nature’s resources while so busy with our own thing is our downfall. There is no economics too costly, no politics too urgent, no religion too true, to delay restoring nature. The World Wildlife Fund as calculated that when Blair House first became a school field centre in 1970, there was twice as much nature in the world as there is today. Unless we put more back into nature than we take out of it every day of our lives, we will lose, catastrophically and soon. We need to write restoration into our every act.

This is why I have teamed up with Trees for Life for my Blair House fundraiser. For every £25 donation, £5 will plant a tree. When Blair House is open, guests will be invited to plant trees for the cars they drive and the wood they burn. This is not a gimmick, or a distraction, or a romance. This is writing restoration of nature into the down-to-earth running of Blair House.

Pines at Bachnagairn. (V’s photo)

Trees for Life are restoring the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once reached as far as Angus, but their work currently focuses on Dundreggan further north. You can find scraps of it around Glen Doll at the steep corrie-ends and amongst the boulders out of reach of deer: Corrie Fee, Bachnagairn, and one above the treeline above Jock’s Road which we christened ‘the magic wood’.

‘The Magic Wood’, Jock’s Road, showing the natural treeline should be far above the extent of the planted forest.

These are my tales of Glen Doll forest. If you like them, please help me restore Blair House, and plant a tree: here’s the link.

I love the larch because it is deciduous, marking the seasons like a Japanese garden. In spring it bursts out in pink flowers…
… and in autumn transform to gold. (V’s photo)

In autumn the forest’s fungus community puts on a glorious display of mushrooms: if one isn’t enough, here is an album.

In winter spruce and fir make far better shelter than larch. Looking down from Craig Mellon in December, the woods look like warm woollen rugs on the landscape.

 

“You struck off from Dundee, up through Angus, heading deep into the glens and up and over, aiming for Deeside. Snow covered the higher peaks. […] You were in amongst a circle of pines, gently brushing the upper inches of the thick needle blanket into a deep, dry bed. […] When you awoke you had been there long enough for a white sheet to have drifted down over you. You stood and shook yourself. […] and soon you were on a track across a moor, climbing into the dimming light. The wind rose and the snow came on more densely, piling up with astonishing speed. In a while you realised you’d made a mistake by leaving the shelter of the trees.” James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still.

When I was very little, we used to make little houses for mice amongst the tree roots, inspired by Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter: a slate table and log benches, a carpet of fine red beech leaves, a feast of shiny mast, with their cuppy shells for candelabra, and lichen flames.

Mum used to organise treasure hunts through the woods for me and my sister and my friend Lucy. Look, there’s a clue in that tree! And we’re deep in the woods on our own!

When I was twelve, Lucy, her friend Vicky and I were sent off by our parents to do the Edinburgh Academy wayfaring course right round the forest. We were into Eternal Flame, unrequited love, ghost stories, and, in my case, developing my arty photographs in darkrooms. It was October, mists rose out of the trees, and stags were bellowing on the hills all around us. We worked ourselves into an exquisite gothic terror, especially at one particular marker post, Number Ten, deep in a ride in the darkest part of a fir plantation.

I went back in 2012 to see how many of the wayfaring posts were still there, and found about half of them. I was excited to revisit Number Ten and approched it from the direction we had come almost twenty years before. But forest had been felled, and I found myself crossing a hundred yards of windblow. I thought I might never get out.

As I remembered how we had imagined Number Ten was enchanted, or cursed, it occurred to me that if I impaled myself or broke my neck here, no one would ever find me. Number Ten, when I eventually found it, was well outside the forest, amazingly still there. No, I’m not telling you where.

We also used to love going for late night walks in the dark, letting the forest enwrap us. And when Lucy published her first novel last year, there it was:

“We let our eyes adjust to the dark, agreeing we would only use the torch if we got lost. Sound and touch became everything: the roar of the river, the crack of twigs under our feet, Jonathan’s strong, warm hand taking mine. […] After ten minutes’ steep climb we came out of the trees at the viewpoint. There was a narrow bench and we sat down. The mountains were just traceable against the sky. They seemed to have a presence in the darkness. […] “Look at the stars!” Lucy Lawrie, Tiny Acts of Love.

The landscape is always changing: the trees have grown up so far at Lucy’s “viewpoint” that it is a name one can only pronounce now in inverted commas. When she came back with her own children last year, I showed her a new path through the woods along the river, where once we had struggled like pioneers in jungle. Her children were enchanted, like we were.

It’s time for a re-enchantment of our landscape, of our society. Plant trees.
Or it’s time for an evidence-based, long-term economic policy. Plant trees.
Or it’s time to take practical action to mitigate climate change. Plant trees.
Plant trees.

Blair House will enable hundreds more people to encounter the enchanted, humble Glen Doll forest. Please follow this link to support its refurbishment – and plant a tree. You can find out about the Trees for Life Caledonian Pine Forest restoration on their website.

Eleanor Harris @eleanormharris.

Photos mainly by me except for those by V who prefers to remain anonymous.

Red and green.

 

Looking across the forest to Craig Mellon from the window of Blair House in summer.
Larches and Scots Pines (V’s photo).
Rainbow over a forest road.
The Whitewater in summer.
I love walking in the woods in heavy rain. You are sheltered and the trees turn to diamonds.
The woods immediately behind Blair House are not Forestry Commission, but associated with the old hunting lodge, and are full of ancient treasures and mossy riches.
V’s photo.
Larches and fir at Lucy’s Viewpoint.
Fern, sorrel, anenome: rich shapes in the forest understorey.
Blair House behind a licheny bough.

 

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The Great Glen Doll Meadow

I’ve rescued and am refurbishing an old independent school field centre in Angus. It’s a super house with which I have a long connection, but Glen Doll is even greater: a forest surrounded by a mighty Cairngorm plateau with thirteen Munros within reach. But greatest of all are its flowers.

One corner, Corrie Fee, is a site of global importance, which has inspired botanists for centuries, from the Forfar botanists who pioneered plant surveys of the British Empire, to modern Forfar botanist Alan Elliott of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, to Mum, me and forester Andy Heald, armed with a field guide, no Latin names, and not much head for heights.

Corrie Fee waterfall, Andy being brave, and all we found was a globe flower, but it was a triumphant one!

Botany forms an important part of my vision for Blair House. The house is right in the glen: all my photographs on this page were taken within a few miles’ walk of it. Learning to recognise flowers is one of the easiest ways for people of any age to reconnect with the diversity and beauty of nature. With a great variety of landscape types — forest, lowland pasture, protected and degraded upland, cliff, alpine and wetland — and good existing records, there is great potential for field trips and research.

This is why in raising the funds necessary to reopen Blair House I decided to create the Great Glen Doll Meadow. Everyone who pledges £10 or more to the crowdfund for refurbishment will receive enough seeds to plant a square metre of wildflowers – poppy, mayweed, bugloss, teasel, marigold, yarrow, knapweed, bedstraw, scabious, campion, ragged robin, vetch and more. You can sow these in your garden or a windowbox or perhaps in a neglected patch outside your office or school. I’d like you to post a photo of your flowers on the Blair House facebook page which I can collate into an album. The seeds are a mix of Scottish varieties from Scotia seeds based in Brechin, not far from Glen Doll.

So thanks to you, Blair House will not only be a place from which to look at flowers: it will also start out as a place which planted flowers, supported bees and other invertebrates, and inspired people with the wonder of the natural world — before they even arrive. Make your pledge of £10 now, and get your bit of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Bedstraw predominating in a summer riot of flowers and grass above the tree line on Jock’s Road

 

Anemone in the deep dark woods; sneezewort on the high mountain pasture.

 

Last April it was still all grey mist, rock, lichen: then I spotted the pink treasures: larch flowers, and high on the grey hillsides tiny purple saxifrage.

 

Little wild pansies, and tiny tiny eyebright: each one painted like delicate watercolours or ladies’ eyes, to draw in the bees.

 

Frances hunting the perfect botanical photograph in the woods on the Kilbo Path.

 

Even as a very amateur naturalist, by learning to recognise the common flowers I can spot something a bit more unusual. This scrap of canary-yellow crumpled silk in its cherry-coloured crinoline, prancing high up the mountain, turned out to be a rock-rose.

 

My enduring favourite flower is one of the commonest: harebells. They look as if spiders have been constructing an orchestra on principles of gothic architecture from scraps of summer sky.

 

Orchids on the mountain and by the stream. Marching armies, of whirling dervishes.

 

No Scottish glen would be complete without heather and ling. Tons of it.

 

I think this is Alkanet, in the Blair House carpark.

The historic flora of Corrie Fee is symbolic of the need to restore biodiversity and people’s connection with nature. Please make your pledge today, and invite a friend to be part of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Knapweed, thistles and scabious: so tough, bright, profuse, Scottish.

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The Spirit of Glen Doll

In the early 1970s, the Edinburgh Academy were given a bequest. With a vision and drive which has become legendary, the headmaster, Bertie Mills, bought one-and-a-half farm cottages and an attached Forestry Commission lodge in Glen Doll, beyond the end of the road, high in the mountains of Angus.

They named it Blair House after the donor, and the teachers fitted it out as a field centre. My Dad was one of a new generation of teachers for whom the new Blair House was the most exciting part of their induction to the school. Adventurous year-group trips for juniors, camping, climbing, bouldering, wide-games; biology, geography and botany field trips for seniors; music, art and drama trips for the quiet aesthetes. My introduction to Blair House was the Easter holiday revision trips led by Dad and his colleagues for Higher students: studying in the morning, and walking up Driesh or Jock’s Road in the afternoon. For the children of the staff, it was all holiday: it was all our lives.

Blair House was less suitable as a twenty-first century outdoor centre. It is too small for a whole year-group. It is inconveniently remote from specialist instructors, and has no opportunity for watersports. Its design did not envisage that the Academy would become co-educational. It required a great deal of staff and curriculum time. It needs major work to meet new fire safety standards and this eventually closed Blair House at the beginning of last year. To the sorrow of the biologists and geographers, staff and their families, and of generations of alumni, the school decided to sell the beloved Blair House and develop a more diverse outdoor education programme.

And I decided to buy it, and make it the educational field centre Blair House again.

I knew people would be delighted, but I hadn’t expected the torrent of support from the wider Blair House diaspora, and the excitement amongst all my acquaintances. I felt as if I’ve gained an enormous extended family, and it made me dare to think that, even though I could only just pay the purchase price and couldn’t get a mortgage for the refurbishment, and even though I have no experience of running a business or managing a refurbishment, that it might really be possible. A crowd-sourced funding scheme and viable business plan looked possible.

 

I want Blair House to have the educational use for which it was designed, but no longer restricted to the privileged Edinburgh Academy. Why shouldn’t it be available to all children taking Higher Geography or Biology? Glen Doll is within easy reach of all the Scottish Universities: why can’t I invite all the students to botanise in the globally-important Corrie Fee, or bag their first Munro on the Cairngorm Plateau before lunch, as I’ve invited my friends over the years?

The eyes of my printmaker friend lit up as she said, ‘Residential art courses!’ My sister, whose church Destiny has a youthful and culturally diverse urban congregation, said, ‘congregational retreats!’ My friend at the Botanics said ‘it’s time we revived the student botanical surveys in Angus: it would be the perfect base’. I hadn’t even started advertising.

People always came back from Blair House changed for the better: generations of tiny children explored woods for the first time, teenagers fallen in love for the first time, students saw real mountains for the first time, shy people made lasting friendships, hesitant people discovered their creativity, city people discovered the mighty scale and intimate intricacy of the natural world. My friend and I, in late night bunk-bed discussions, used to call it ‘the spirit of Glen Doll’. It’s time the spirit of Glen Doll was revived.

My ‘grand designs’ adventure began on Thursday when I got the keys. This was already the culmination of three years’ planning, negotiation and uncertainty, ever since the future of Blair House came in doubt. There’s a great deal of work to be done before Blair House can open again, all of it new and challenging for me, but I’m beyond excited. This is all my first and best dreams come true.

Update! The plans are now in place and a timetable for the refurbishment to be completed by the summer, but I will need to find around £200,000 funding to achieve this. I’ve launched a crowdfunding site with more information about the plans and exciting rewards. Please have a look.

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Glen Doll Forest

One upon a time, there was a dark, dark moor,
and on that moor there was a dark, dark wood,
and in that wood there was a dark, dark house…

Blair House, Glen Doll, Angus

So began a beautifully-illustrated children’s book. I loved it because after the spookiness its ending is all homely, and because it made me think of Blair House, Glen Doll. I didn’t know one day Blair House would be mine, and I’d be restoring it as a field centre.

Doll is the Angus glen with the forest: the biggest on the Munro-strewn plateau that heaves between Deeside and the Mearns. Glen Doll forest clothes the midway point on Jock’s Road, the ancient drove road from Braemar to Kirriemuir.

Blair House, on the edge of the forest, was acquired from the farm which it adjoins by the Forestry Commission, who sold it on to the Edinburgh Academy after the forest was planted. Its history is entangled in the forest.

I love Glen Doll forest because it has no pretentions. It panders to no human constructs of aesthetics or authenticity: neither “picturesque plantation” nor “native restoration”. It’s a functional timber crop of spruce, larch, fir, and lodgepole pine, yet it has grown so much richer than that. It provides vital shelter and variation in habitat. It covers land which would have been forest originally, now denuded and degraded by millenia of overgrazing, nothing like the pristine bogland notoriously damaged by ill-placed spruce plantations in Sutherland.

Glen Doll Forest with the peak of Mayar (top left) above Corrie Fee, Craig Rennet (centre), and Jock’s Road running left to right.

Parts of Glen Doll forest have grown over-mature and begun tumbling down, creating glades and deadwood. Parts are being clearfelled, parts replanted, parts managed for leisure and biodiversity.

Summer larches and bilberry understory (V’s photo)

Conservationists argue incessantly about how Scotland’s landscape should be managed, but on one thing they all agree: we need more trees. We need them for biodiversity, and we need them for ourselves. Trees are our best renewable fuel and building material, and, vitally, our only effective method of carbon sequestration.

There is nothing ‘wild’ about Scotland’s landscape: humans have been shaping the Angus glens since the stone age. Glen Doll forest is a fine example of how our influence can enhance, instead of degrading it, while making our own living from it. It is practising John Ruskin’s economics: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”.

The woods on the Kilbo Path are strewn with boulders, full of the sound of tumbling water, and rich in mosses, ferns, and starry flowers.

Glen Doll forest has got into my Blair House refurbishment. I investigated biofuel pellets and ground source heat pumps; I was recommended oil; but I came back to log burners. I’ve contacted the foresters, and they can supply me. Instead of switching a switch to keep warm, people staying at Blair House will feel the roughness of Glen Doll timber in their hands, smell its scent, see it glow and hear it crackle. That’s being in touch with nature.

Loving the trees at Blair House. That’s me in green.

But we must plant more trees. And it is no good to say; we’ll do that later. The ease with which we can spend nature’s resources while so busy with our own thing is our downfall. There is no economics too costly, no politics too urgent, no religion too true, to delay restoring nature. The World Wildlife Fund as calculated that when Blair House first became a school field centre in 1970, there was twice as much nature in the world as there is today. Unless we put more back into nature than we take out of it every day of our lives, we will lose, catastrophically and soon. We need to write restoration into our every act.

This is why I have teamed up with Trees for Life for my Blair House fundraiser. For every £25 donation, £5 will plant a tree. When Blair House is open, guests will be invited to plant trees for the cars they drive and the wood they burn. This is not a gimmick, or a distraction, or a romance. This is writing restoration of nature into the down-to-earth running of Blair House.

Pines at Bachnagairn. (V’s photo)

Trees for Life are restoring the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once reached as far as Angus, but their work currently focuses on Dundreggan further north. You can find scraps of it around Glen Doll at the steep corrie-ends and amongst the boulders out of reach of deer: Corrie Fee, Bachnagairn, and one above the treeline above Jock’s Road which we christened ‘the magic wood’.

‘The Magic Wood’, Jock’s Road, showing the natural treeline should be far above the extent of the planted forest.

These are my tales of Glen Doll forest. If you like them, please help me restore Blair House, and plant a tree: here’s the link.

I love the larch because it is deciduous, marking the seasons like a Japanese garden. In spring it bursts out in pink flowers…
… and in autumn transform to gold. (V’s photo)

In autumn the forest’s fungus community puts on a glorious display of mushrooms: if one isn’t enough, here is an album.

In winter spruce and fir make far better shelter than larch. Looking down from Craig Mellon in December, the woods look like warm woollen rugs on the landscape.

“You struck off from Dundee, up through Angus, heading deep into the glens and up and over, aiming for Deeside. Snow covered the higher peaks. […] You were in amongst a circle of pines, gently brushing the upper inches of the thick needle blanket into a deep, dry bed. […] When you awoke you had been there long enough for a white sheet to have drifted down over you. You stood and shook yourself. […] and soon you were on a track across a moor, climbing into the dimming light. The wind rose and the snow came on more densely, piling up with astonishing speed. In a while you realised you’d made a mistake by leaving the shelter of the trees.” James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still.

 When I was very little, we used to make little houses for mice amongst the tree roots, inspired by Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter: a slate table and log benches, a carpet of fine red beech leaves, a feast of shiny mast, with their cuppy shells for candelabra, and lichen flames. 

Mum used to organise treasure hunts through the woods for me and my sister and my friend Lucy. Look, there’s a clue in that tree! And we’re deep in the woods on our own!

When I was twelve, Lucy, her friend Vicky and I were sent off by our parents to do the Edinburgh Academy wayfaring course right round the forest. We were into Eternal Flame, unrequited love, ghost stories, and, in my case, developing my arty photographs in darkrooms. It was October, mists rose out of the trees, and stags were bellowing on the hills all around us. We worked ourselves into an exquisite gothic terror, especially at one particular marker post, Number Ten, deep in a ride in the darkest part of a fir plantation.

I went back in 2012 to see how many of the wayfaring posts were still there, and found about half of them. I was excited to revisit Number Ten and approched it from the direction we had come almost twenty years before. But forest had been felled, and I found myself crossing a hundred yards of windblow. I thought I might never get out.

As I remembered how we had imagined Number Ten was enchanted, or cursed, it occurred to me that if I impaled myself or broke my neck here, no one would ever find me. Number Ten, when I eventually found it, was well outside the forest, amazingly still there. No, I’m not telling you where.

 We also used to love going for late night walks in the dark, letting the forest enwrap us. And when Lucy published her first novel last year, there it was:

“We let our eyes adjust to the dark, agreeing we would only use the torch if we got lost. Sound and touch became everything: the roar of the river, the crack of twigs under our feet, Jonathan’s strong, warm hand taking mine. […] After ten minutes’ steep climb we came out of the trees at the viewpoint. There was a narrow bench and we sat down. The mountains were just traceable against the sky. They seemed to have a presence in the darkness. […] “Look at the stars!” Lucy Lawrie, Tiny Acts of Love.

The landscape is always changing: the trees have grown up so far at Lucy’s “viewpoint” that it is a name one can only pronounce now in inverted commas. When she came back with her own children last year, I showed her a new path through the woods along the river, where once we had struggled like pioneers in jungle. Her children were enchanted, like we were.

 

It’s time for a re-enchantment of our landscape, of our society. Plant trees.
Or it’s time for an evidence-based, long-term economic policy. Plant trees.
Or it’s time to take practical action to mitigate climate change. Plant trees.
Plant trees.

Blair House will enable hundreds more people to encounter the enchanted, humble Glen Doll forest. Please follow this link to support its refurbishment – and plant a tree. You can find out about the Trees for Life Caledonian Pine Forest restoration on their website

Eleanor Harris @eleanormharris.

Photos mainly by me except for those by V who prefers to remain anonymous.

Red and green.

Looking across the forest to Craig Mellon from the window of Blair House in summer.
Larches and Scots Pines (V’s photo).
Rainbow over a forest road.
The Whitewater in summer.
I love walking in the woods in heavy rain. You are sheltered and the trees turn to diamonds.
The woods immediately behind Blair House are not Forestry Commission, but associated with the old hunting lodge, and are full of ancient treasures and mossy riches.
V’s photo.
Larches and fir at Lucy’s Viewpoint.
Fern, sorrel, anenome: rich shapes in the forest understorey.
Blair House behind a licheny bough.

The Great Glen Doll Meadow

I’ve rescued and am refurbishing an old independent school field centre in Angus. It’s a super house with which I have a long connection, but Glen Doll is even greater: a forest surrounded by a mighty Cairngorm plateau with thirteen Munros within reach. But greatest of all are its flowers.

One corner, Corrie Fee, is a site of global importance, which has inspired botanists for centuries, from the Forfar botanists who pioneered plant surveys of the British Empire, to modern Forfar botanist Alan Elliott of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, to Mum, me and forester Andy Heald, armed with a field guide, no Latin names, and not much head for heights.

Corrie Fee waterfall, Andy being brave, and all we found was a globe flower, but it was a triumphant one!

Botany forms an important part of my vision for Blair House. The house is right in the glen: all my photographs on this page were taken within a few miles’ walk of it. Learning to recognise flowers is one of the easiest ways for people of any age to reconnect with the diversity and beauty of nature. With a great variety of landscape types — forest, lowland pasture, protected and degraded upland, cliff, alpine and wetland — and good existing records, there is great potential for field trips and research.

This is why in raising the funds necessary to reopen Blair House I decided to create the Great Glen Doll Meadow. Everyone who pledges £10 or more to the crowdfund for refurbishment will receive enough seeds to plant a square metre of wildflowers – poppy, mayweed, bugloss, teasel, marigold, yarrow, knapweed, bedstraw, scabious, campion, ragged robin, vetch and more. You can sow these in your garden or a windowbox or perhaps in a neglected patch outside your office or school. I’d like you to post a photo of your flowers on the Blair House facebook page which I can collate into an album. The seeds are a mix of Scottish varieties from Scotia seeds based in Brechin, not far from Glen Doll.

So thanks to you, Blair House will not only be a place from which to look at flowers: it will also start out as a place which planted flowers, supported bees and other invertebrates, and inspired people with the wonder of the natural world — before they even arrive. Make your pledge of £10 now, and get your bit of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Bedstraw predominating in a summer riot of flowers and grass above the tree line on Jock’s Road
Anemone in the deep dark woods; sneezewort on the high mountain pasture.

Last April it was still all grey mist, rock, lichen: then I spotted the pink treasures: larch flowers, and high on the grey hillsides tiny purple saxifrage.
Little wild pansies, and tiny tiny eyebright: each one painted like delicate watercolours or ladies’ eyes, to draw in the bees.

Frances hunting the perfect botanical photograph in the woods on the Kilbo Path.

Even as a very amateur naturalist, by learning to recognise the common flowers I can spot something a bit more unusual. This scrap of canary-yellow crumpled silk in its cherry-coloured crinoline, prancing high up the mountain, turned out to be a rock-rose.

My enduring favourite flower is one of the commonest: harebells. They look as if spiders have been constructing an orchestra on principles of gothic architecture from scraps of summer sky.

Orchids on the mountain and by the stream. Marching armies, of whirling dervishes.

No Scottish glen would be complete without heather and ling. Tons of it.

A forget-me-not in the Blair House carpark. A symbol of love all constructed on mathematical principles, like something out of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The historic flora of Corrie Fee is symbolic of the need to restore biodiversity and people’s connection with nature. Please make your pledge today, and invite a friend to be part of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Knapweed, thistles and scabious: so tough, bright, profuse, Scottish.

The Year of Life

My New Year’s Resolution is to be a biodiversifier. It makes a good twitter hashtag too, look: #biodiversifier.

In 2014 we discovered that world populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish had declined by 52% since 1970. If you haven’t read the WWF Living Planet Report which announced this, you should have a look at it. It’s vitally important.

Sometimes biodiversity or ecosystems and their troubles can seem remote from our real life and concerns. Often they are discussed in scientific or romantic terms which cements this unreality. Yet this is a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. The natural world provides our food, our clothes, our shelter, our medicines. It provides the only available alternatives to mineral building materials and solid fuel. Most importantly, in its very diversity, it provides the robust systems which ensure rivers run, pollution is cleaned, even that the atmosphere stays wrapped around the earth and doesn’t burn off into space as happened on Venus.

We might not like to admit it, but biodiversity would survive just fine without social justice, without feminism or gay rights, without literature or the arts, even without peace (the area around Chernobyl is famously biodiverse). The depressing moral reality is, unless humans can change their relationship to nature, can, as an old book says, “work it and take care of it” instead of exploiting and demolishing it, the best prognosis for biodiversity would be a swift war or plague amongst the rogue species homo sapiens that would cull us sufficiently to allow nature to recover.

So, we must change our relationship to nature. We must do it urgently and profoundly. This does not require great leaps in scientific knowledge. We know a tremendous amount about the natural world, and more importantly we are aware of our ignorance and limits: that nature recovers well when we stop interfering, and ecosystem “experiments” (for example pouring carbon dioxide or CFCs into the atmosphere) often carry vast and unpredictable risks.

We need to become biodiversifiers. By protecting forests and oceans; by better land-management and agriculture; by “green cities” which replace traffic, paving and domestic cats with green roofs, sparrow-filled hedges, insect-buzzing parks and gardens; by strong and immediate measures to curb climate change, we need, person by person, nation by nation, day by day, year on year, to create more biodiversity than we destroy.

We need to question our Romantic and “scientific” attitudes which can hamper strategic action to allow nature to diversify. Giving money to the RSPCA and enjoying country walks, but hating spiders, killing greenfly and using fossil fuel wastefully is not being a biodiversifier. Creating seedbanks or maintaining a firm optimism in human ability to solve problems may be important, but unless they are only sideshows to a main event of allowing biodiversity to flourish, they will not prove to be the intellectual legacy of advanced minds but only the last ravings of self-destructive fools.

52% of nature has gone since 1970. How far can we push the experiment until we watch life on earth collapse? Another 50 years? Another ten? Another two? We face a planetary emergency: but it is one in which are by no means powerless. Every one of us, in fact, can and must be a superhero. In 2015 all our attitudes, our charitable giving, our consuming, our political campaigning, the way we use our homes and gardens, should be directed to restoring nature: to becoming biodiversifiers.

But what about the other issues? Maybe in the process a few of those — injustice, intolerance, poverty, mental health, cancer — will begin to sort themselves out. But one thing I’m sure of: without biodiversity, all the things we presently worry about will be the least of our worries.

So my 2015 New Year Resolution is to be a biodiversifier: to allow ecosystems to flourish more than I damage them, and encourage others to do the same. I can’t measure it, but I know the kinds of places to begin. Here are a few and I hope to add more over the year:

  • Buy organic milk to support insect-friendly agriculture
  • Preserve and plant forests via Woodland Trust and World Land Trust
  • Install the most low-carbon heating system I can in my Highland field centre Blair House
  • Use local and eco-friendly materials in the refurbishment of Blair House
  • Fill the window boxes at my Edinburgh flat with insect-friendly plants
  • I don’t own a car but they are necessary to reach Blair House: set up a “mitigation scheme” for myself and others to donate to an afforestation charity on each journey.
  • Use my political connections to help develop and promote policies to make Edinburgh a “green city”
  • “Fast for the Climate” on the first day of each month, in company with people around the world, to show political leaders my commitment to the need for a strong climate deal in Paris this December (More information about this here)

Rethinking my relationship to nature, committing myself to restoring it, understanding its underpinning importance to all the civilization, religion, prosperity and meaning that we know, makes sense of John Ruskin’s famous but strange statement, “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”. If we believe that to be true, as surely we must, today is the time not merely to nod approvingly, but to put our backs into it, and act accordingly.

Eleanor M Harris is on twitter @eleanormharris. If you’re on twitter please get in touch, and make use of #biodiversifier.

How not to be cynical

My architects and I are currently trying to work out how to insulate, heat and ventilate my Glen Doll field centre Blair House effectively, affordably, and greenly. It’s a far greater challenge than we expected. We’ve had recommendations from contractors, done our own research, and consulted the excellent Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, and are still only half-way to a plan.

One contractor put a persuasive argument for LPG: ‘It’s easy to install, very cheap, and if you want to be green, it’s far more efficient than electricity, far lower carbon emissions than oil.’ Most consumers would be at the mercy of an apparently expert argument like this. But I happen to know that there are two main sources for LPG in the world today: Putin, and fracking. And I do not wish my field centre to be warmed courtesy of Putin and fracking.

Putin and fracking. Yesterday (24 November) BBC business news reported that the falling oil price is damaging the rouble and costing Russia up to $100bn a year, a sum which makes the western sanctions of $40bm look comparatively affordable. But why are oil prices low? According to the BBC business analyst, ‘abundant global supply, partly due to the US shale boom’. While I try to heat my field centre in the glens, Putin and fracking are making geopolitical economic waves.

Low oil prices. This morning (25 November) DJ Shaun Keaveny on BBC 6 Music had a little rant about energy prices: ‘When are we going to see our bills come down, eh, big energy companies? Oil prices have gone down by, what, $24 dollars a barrel is it? The benefits are supposed to trickle down, you remember?’ Then he switched to the voice of the big energy company, far off from the microphone as if shouting across a field: ‘Eh what? Can you just … Sorry I didn’t quite catch … Sorry what language are you speaking?’ ‘Oh, forget it!’ I like Shaun because he has at least one foot in the switched-on social-satire comedian school of the likes of Marcus Brigstocke and Hugh Dennis. He makes one of the joining-ups: energy companies are buying at a price that reflects abundant oil, yet charging consumers prices that suggest scarcity.

Pretend scarcity. This brings us to fuel poverty, which connects this global tangle to the hottest political issue of my immediate society: the social injustice being perpetrated by the present British government by policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Yet it is easy to see that addressing this injustice alone will do nothing to lower fossil fuel consumption or avert climate change.

Today, 25 November, Obama’s climate change envoy Todd Stern is quoted in the Guardian as saying that fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. This is very nice. But how does it fit with the fact that almost everyone in the world, from Vladimir Putin to Shaun Keaveny, is being affected by the abundant fossil fuel coming from the US shale boom?

Not least affected by the oil price fall is the Scottish nation (note the emotive identity-term). Today the BBC reports that the UK Chancellor George Osborne is under pressure from a powerful Scottish business lobby to subsidise North Sea Oil, because the fall in oil prices, caused by the US fracking boom (it’s like a nightmarish re-telling of The Old Woman and her Pig), has caused a loss of confidence in the industry and share prices to fall: which, if oil is the backbone of the Scottish economy, is bad news for Scotland.

The announcement on 20 November that Ineos, whose biggest operation is at Grangemouth in the heart of Scotland, is to invest £640m in UK shale gas exploration, elicited a storm of commentary last week. ‘With much tougher planning rules, more ambitious climate targets and a review of both health issues and licensing underway, Scotland is the last place any company should apply to frack,’ said Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. The Scottish Green Party, who allied with the SNP to campaign for Scottish independence, agree with Friends of the Earth in regard this fracking threat as an imposition from Westminster and call for a devolution of powers on the issue.

This narrative of Scotland as a tough wee country where sharp-eyed politicians and people stand together and tell big, rapacious companies where to get off is persuasive. Scots on both sides and from all walks of life, including me, have been inspired by the political awakening, the participation, the intelligent debate, sparked by the independence referendum debate; and it is easy to draw smug contrasts with the apathetic voters of England, thoughtlessly allowing UKIP and frackers to walk all over them.

Yet I fear this confidence in Scotland’s newfound political strength is a delusion, because it ignores the geopolitical economic situation. There is tremendous pressure on Scottish politicians to strengthen the backbone of North Sea Oil with a shale boom of our own: the gas, we believe, is there to be fracked. Ineos is ready with the funds to frack it. Unless couthy wee Scotland turns its people’s and politicians’ attention from blaming Westminster to this wider global context, it risks being swept along, waving its anti-fracking plackards, in this destructive game of fossil fuel, fuel poverty and climate change. Not so sharp-eyed. It is blinded, I am afraid, by a nationalism which cuts across the political spectrum: by the desire to protect our own interests, in a world where groups protecting their own interests is the very root of all the problems.

In the last few weeks, after a lifetime of political non-involvement, I have joined Scottish Labour and then weighed in to the campaign to elect Sarah Boyack as its leader. This is not a sudden random enthusiasm. Rather, it is because in Sarah’s copious and lucid writing on a huge range of policies, I am seeing, for the first time, a leading politician who genuinely understands these connections and complications. Another political player thinking in these terms on a global scale is World Bank Climate. It gives me great hope because it has the economic understanding — so often the element that has been lacking in discussions of environmental politics — to see how a transition to a carbon-free economy could be made to work.

Their image above is part of a great infographic which joins up climate, human prosperity and biodiversity which I commend to your attention: it is a whole other joining-up piece of thinking which I am counting on readers of this article to understand already.

The technological view of the global energy question is, literally, very sunny. The Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) at the University of Dundee, collate evidence from a whole range of sources that solar power is on track to become world’s largest energy source by 2050, like this one from Computerworld. Yet without the political and economic framework to back it up, the effect of the oil price fall that is taking place just now shows that the solar boom will not avert climate change. Abundant cheap energy from another source is a necessary condition for a prosperous, oil-free global economy, but not a sufficient one. Oil will still be drilled and burned not because it is needed for energy, but because it is central to entrenched business and, more problematically, national interests.

What I believe is missing from the World Bank Climate analysis is the political element. If the world were to agree to make a transition from oil to solar, as technologically it could Russia, Scotland, BP and Ineos risk being put in the position of cornered tigers.

John Simpson asks on the BBC today, Could we be facing a Cold War Two? I’m struck mainly by the fact that Simpson doesn’t pick up on the US shale effect on Russian oil revenue I mentioned earlier. He is one of a generation of historians and journalists who grew up with the luxury of not having to be constantly interdisciplinary. He is perhaps less exhausted than me, the young historian with threads flying everywhere, but in my opinion is an example of a commentator identifying, but failing to analyse, the problem.

I could use the metaphor of being caught in an oily web, with a quote from one of my favourite authors Walter Scott, ‘O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!’ We are deceived into thinking we can enjoy the benefits of cheap oil, deceived into believing Russia’s activity is simply unreasonable political hostility, deceived into thinking fracking is all the fault of the Tory government, deceived into thinking North Sea Oil could ever have been a backbone of a future Scottish economy. But it seems to me to be one of the tritest things Walter Scott ever said; and in any case, spiders are one of my favourite animals.

So let’s change the metaphor around. The oil economy has become a plague of horrible, disease-carrying bluebottle flies, like the ones that poured out of my fireplace by the hundred recently when a dead bird fell down the chimney, the most horrible week of my bed-sit life. What we need is some heroic spiders to weave us a fine, shining web of good policy, economics and renewable technology that incorporates everyone’s interests — poor person, western consumer, consumer energy supplier, oil-producer, national governments — into the one global interest on which we all deeply depend.

How will these wonderful policymaking spiders work? First, they need to banish thinking in terms of goodies and baddies. Who are the baddies anyway? Are they Putin, Ineos and the consumer energy suppliers? Or are they Shaun Keaveny, who wants to be able to afford to forget to switch his central heating off? Or the Scottish Green Party, threatening the viability of the Scottish economy? Or Todd Stern, talking about keeping fossil fuel in the ground while the oil price tumbles as a result of his country’s shale. Or us, who, for all our complaints of injustice and austerity, know at the back of our minds that the oil economy has got us into a position which we would not change for a slum-dweller of Mumbai, or a villager in Liberia? Going down the blame road leads so rapidly to moral absurdity, it’s not worth even trying. Clearly, there is no ‘other’. We are all in this one environment, economy, society together. We all have to live together, as very close neighbours, whose real lives link together in the headlines of one week.

The decarbonising of the economy is usually described by the gentle word ‘transition’, but what we are really talking about is a massive change, and massive change is terrifying. Think instead in terms of interests, threats, opportunities. Think who will suffer, who will be frightened by it, and understand why they are likely to strike out, and think how the change can be managed so they are brought with it, not treated as the wicked ‘other’ and left out in the cold. In the sunny solar economy there’s no need for that to happen to anyone.

So, if I were a wonderful policymaking spider, I would want the climate negotiations in Paris next December to make the final link. I would focus on making a list of the losers in a transition from a fossil to renewable economy — Russia, Scotland, BP, Ineos and so on — and focus on finding a way to transform each of them from cornered tiger to proud spider. All of them possess mighty assets: engineering expertise, financial capital, political territory, and political weight. I would offer them almighty incentives to convert these powers from the fangs, muscles and claws of a cornered tiger, into the powerful creativity of the renewable-economy weaving spider. This is where the subsidies should go.

Our spiders will need heroic courage and vision, and they will need to be working at all levels of society.

Much of the responsibility for this education falls on environmental campaigners like Friends of the Earth, who have led the way in environmental thinking so well for so long and now need to lead the way again, in dropping the discourse of blame and ‘otherhood’ in favour of a web of shared interests. I am a strong supporter of Scottish Wildlife Trust, who appear to me ahead of the game in this regard right now and have had a lot of criticism from more traditional environmental organisations for their willingness to work with business. I believe far richer policymaking would result if more organisations followed the same strategy.

Business leaders need to understand the web, and have the vision to adopt new technologies. Investors (that’s you, assuming you have any kind of pension, insurance, or savings) need to support them in that vision (the campaigns run by, for example, Operation Noah, for fossil fuel divestment, and the opportunities presented by World Bank Green Bonds for renewable investment, are perfect examples of this)

Voters (that’s you again) need to understand the web, to see the relationship between their energy bills and their fracking threats. Politicians need to understand the web, credit voters with the intelligence to understand it too, and credit businesses with the vision to share in their web-weaving and not to fly out of their country. Political party-members, too, need great courage to elect such leaders. There are two responses to a politician who treats voters as intelligent. There is the cynical response: she is a wise fool: the public won’t get it. Or there is the optimistic response: people tend to become thing they are treated as.

The cynical response is so prevalent in our society that those who step out of it look like clowns. It is not helped by the fact that the word ‘cynical’ is often used to mean ‘realistic assessment of the magnitude of the problems we face’. People often call me cynical for daring to raise the spectres of climate change and mass extinction in stark terms, but I hope this article does something to refute this charge. The cynics in the Labour leadership debate, in my opinion, are those who want to choose a leader not for the qualities of their policies, but for their capacity for running a campaign that will defeat the opposition. The hope is that, somehow, Labour will then pull out policies (tax-rises, perhaps) to deliver social justice in spite of the voters’ stupidity. It’s same cynical narrative of stupid (apathetic or nationalist) voters, evil others (Tories or nationalists), and smart politicians in suits playing the games to get themselves into power. It’s the same old politics again: it’s politics that has kept me in politicial retirement up till now, and, in this geopolitical carbon mess, the politics that could destroy us all.

I prefer the optimistic response. Again, optimism a much abused term often used to mean ‘hoping for the best’: the optimism of overtaking round a corner with your eyes shut. This is partly to do with a muddling between social and scientific methodology which I have written about elsewhere In the political context, optimism is the philosophy that good multiplies itself. If people are trusted with responsibility, like sixteen-year-old voters, they will rise to it. If people are given the opportunity to act unselfishly, like by giving to food banks, they will take it. This philosophy is in the ascendant in Scottish political culture just now, and policians need to seize it and believe it. Voters do not want someone in a suit telling them they will make them rich: voters want a solid plan for building a better society.

The Whig Henry Cockburn described the corrupt power networks in Edinburgh in the 1790s, which led him to spend his life working, successfully, for greater political freedoms. The debate was as polarised as debates on terrorism today: anyone suspected of wishing to increase the electorate, educate the people, or negotiate with America or France rather than shelling them, was regarded as a guillotine-wielding atheist, determined to overthrow all the morality and social order of Christendom. Cockburn told the story of a political reformer Joseph Gerald, transported for sedition in 1794. His defence pointed out to the judge Braxfield, pillar of the existing Scottish social order, that being a ‘reformer’ could hardly be sufficient evidence for ‘sedition’ since all great men had been reformers, ‘even our Saviour himself. ‘ “‘Muckle he made o’ that,” chuckled Braxfield in an under voice, “he was hanget.” ‘

It is easy to say ‘we need heroic vision and courage’, ‘we need a different kind of politics’, and ‘we must banish cynicism’. Yet when we spell out what that means in practice, as I have just done, we realise the scale of the task, the miracle, that is to be achieved. ‘Credit voters with intelligence? Credit businesses with vision? Reimagining Mr Putin as a good guy? Hahaha, good luck to you my sweet child!’ I can hear my readers saying. Well, my intelligent reader: that is what banishing cynicism looks like.

Whenever I hear those phrases I think of Gerald, being transported for life, thinking of Christ as a reformer; and Braxfield, pointing out that Jesus was ‘hanget’. That’s what courage versus cynicism looks like. Just as we need to get rid of goodies and baddies, we need to get rid of the super-structure of our political discussion in which we glibly accuse one another of cynicism or unrealistic idealism, without really understanding what those terms mean.

Yes, a carbon-free economy is possible: very possible indeed. Yes, achieving it will require a truly miraculous transformation of attitudes, a truly unworldly lack of cynicism, a truly self-sacrificial level of courage. Yes, it starts with you. You have to choose between being a Gerald, prepared to be hanget like Christ; or a Braxfield: cynical, and sending Gerald to Australia.

Yes, all of us would rather be quietly doing anything, anything with our lives than this: but cometh the hour, cometh the heroic spider.

Eleanor Harris is a postdoctoral historian from Edinburgh studying nineteenth-century religion and society, and author of a novel, Ursula, about ethics and the environmental crisis. More at www.eleanormharris.co.uk or tweets @eleanormharris.

The Spirit of Glen Doll

In the early 1970s, the Edinburgh Academy were given a bequest. With a vision and drive which has become legendary, the headmaster, Bertie Mills, bought one-and-a-half farm cottages and an attached Forestry Commission lodge in Glen Doll, beyond the end of the road, high in the mountains of Angus.

They named it Blair House after the donor, and the teachers fitted it out as a field centre. My Dad was one of a new generation of teachers for whom the new Blair House was the most exciting part of their induction to the school. Adventurous year-group trips for juniors, camping, climbing, bouldering, wide-games; biology, geography and botany field trips for seniors; music, art and drama trips for the quiet aesthetes. My introduction to Blair House was the Easter holiday revision trips led by Dad and his colleagues for Higher students: studying in the morning, and walking up Driesh or Jock’s Road in the afternoon. For the children of the staff, it was all holiday: it was all our lives.

Blair House was less suitable as a twenty-first century outdoor centre. It is too small for a whole year-group. It is inconveniently remote from specialist instructors, and has no opportunity for watersports. Its design did not envisage that the Academy would become co-educational. It required a great deal of staff and curriculum time. It needs major work to meet new fire safety standards and this eventually closed Blair House at the beginning of last year. To the sorrow of the biologists and geographers, staff and their families, and of generations of alumni, the school decided to sell the beloved Blair House and develop a more diverse outdoor education programme.

And I decided to buy it, and make it the educational field centre Blair House again.

I knew people would be delighted, but I hadn’t expected the torrent of support from the wider Blair House diaspora, and the excitement amongst all my acquaintances. I felt as if I’ve gained an enormous extended family, and it made me dare to think that, even though I could only just pay the purchase price and couldn’t get a mortgage for the refurbishment, and even though I have no experience of running a business or managing a refurbishment, that it might really be possible. A crowd-sourced funding scheme and viable business plan looked possible.

I want Blair House to have the educational use for which it was designed, but no longer restricted to the privileged Edinburgh Academy. Why shouldn’t it be available to all children taking Higher Geography or Biology? Glen Doll is within easy reach of all the Scottish Universities: why can’t I invite all the students to botanise in the globally-important Corrie Fee, or bag their first Munro on the Cairngorm Plateau before lunch, as I’ve invited my friends over the years?

The eyes of my printmaker friend lit up as she said, ‘Residential art courses!’ My sister, whose church Destiny has a youthful and culturally diverse urban congregation, said, ‘congregational retreats!’ My friend at the Botanics said ‘it’s time we revived the student botanical surveys in Angus: it would be the perfect base’. I hadn’t even started advertising.

People always came back from Blair House changed for the better: generations of tiny children explored woods for the first time, teenagers fallen in love for the first time, students saw real mountains for the first time, shy people made lasting friendships, hesitant people discovered their creativity, city people discovered the mighty scale and intimate intricacy of the natural world. My friend and I, in late night bunk-bed discussions, used to call it ‘the spirit of Glen Doll’. It’s time the spirit of Glen Doll was revived.

My ‘grand designs’ adventure began on Thursday when I got the keys. This was already the culmination of three years’ planning, negotiation and uncertainty, ever since the future of Blair House came in doubt. There’s a great deal of work to be done before Blair House can open again, all of it new and challenging for me, but I’m beyond excited. This is all my first and best dreams come true.

Update! The plans are now in place and a timetable for the refurbishment to be completed by the summer, but I will need to find around £200,000 funding to achieve this. I’ve launched a crowdfunding site with more information about the plans and exciting rewards. Please have a look.