Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Things I bet you didn't know ...

In no particular order, fascinating facts from the Lateral North trip:

There is talk of a tunnel between Mainland Scotland and Orkney. Not only that but it is financially viable and would be paid off in ferry savings within 9 years.

People in Tongue have the same number of tongues as the rest of us but like to turn up at Lateral North gatherings and waggle them more than most.

The local nightclub in Thurso is called Skinandi which means ‘shining one’ in Norwegian.

At least two thirds of all Lateral North attendees in this area were women.

We visited one school with ten pupils only one of which was a boy.

The Applecross road is sometimes closed with no apparent reason …

The people of Shapinsay want to be linked to mainland Orkney by a tunnel or causeway. The people of Tongue and Melness want to dig a trench so they can become an island.

All roads lead to Lairg except the A9 which leads everyone away.

We saw many rainbows and on one occasion became the pot at the end of it.

Inverness is the fastest growing city in the UK.

True North conference was about documenting the past, present and future but no-one to my knowledge, apart from Lateral North, did the latter.

Everything Andy Wightman said about disenfranchisement of people by large landlords is true.

Borgie Cabin is a giant log cabin made of giant logs, would be suitable for giants, and is in the middle of the woods near Tongue and a very long way from Applecross. You can stay in very cheaply and experience big starry skies.

There is a traditional church bell in Helmsdale still sounding every quarter of an hour.

Leibster was the third largest herring port during the herring boom after Fraserburgh and Wick, despite being a wee village of only 400-500 people.

Orkney has full employment.

Two girls escaped the plague in Perth by hiding in the woods but were unfortunately sought out and discovered by their boyfriends who didn’t realise they were infected and all four lovers died.

Highland moos are the only coos legally allowed to keep their horns in the UK.

Budget Inverness are heroes who fixed the broken exhaust on the van swiftly and for nothing.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Time Flies with Timespan and Lateral North.

Where did that week go? We actually managed it all, Helmsdale, Shapinsay, Thurso, Tongue, Applecross, Lairg and back to Helmsdale, all in four days then two days of the True North conference at Timespan. It feels weird waking up in the same bed twice and with another night in Helmsdale still to go. Yay!

Obviously, the van survived, mostly intact, even scaling the dizzy heights of the famous Applecross road. This is what met us when we had less than an hour to get to Applecross Primary.
Many of the best laid plans … So we hared it round the long way and this rainbow was up ahead of us for much of the way.
The kids were fab. Eight of the population of ten kids were there and fitted neatly with space for more inside the van. (I have actually had this number of adults in here before plus two standing but they weren’t entirely sober.) Then we went out into the field where the kids (and teacher) had ideas for an outdoor classroom. The current school sports Victorian-style windows with high sills to prevent kids being distracted. The current teacher and pupils think the reverse, and want the view and its wildlife to be part of lessons.

After a productive Lateral North meeting in the community centre that evening, we slept soundly in the home of Alison and Alistair MacLeod, Alison being the super-active local Development Officer.

Thence the following morning over the now-opened road which was lined in part by six foot snow drifts, the normally spectacular views obscured by thickly shifting cloud and the traffic surprisingly heavy, but only comparatively. We’ve had most of these Highland Roads entirely to ourselves.

The trip in its entirety was a practice shot for something more extensive in the future if the funding can be found. It worked well as a trial. Being whistlestop was fun and the Lateral North workshops got people thinking, talking and hopefully the various debates will continue and become action plans which might help life in these places to prosper. Graham Hogg’s Laternal North presentations were inspiring, dealing with macro and micro, citing examples of change in a range of locations, and determinedly positive. All the debates were lively, engaging and occasionally contentious. We thought a follow-up would be useful too with some kind with an enabler to provide practical information about funding, who to contact etc for people to bring plans to fruition.

On future trips, I’d like more time to blog (apologies to Tongue and Melness and their fabulous turnout and enlivening discussion) and more time to respond creatively in writing. I’d like to write up each event, perhaps in a newsletter, so that people could revisit and reconsider what was said.

I’d also like to document in some tiny but immediate way the lives of those we met. We heard many little snippets of lives which illustrate the trials and triumphs of life in these communities and locations. Akin to oral histories, I suggest oral testimonies of life now by people of all ages living there now. For instance, kids in both Applecross and Helmsdale effectively leave home at the age of twelve to go to school five days a week, and an elderly lady in Lairg will have to leave for the first time when she needs help looking after herself. There are a variety of ways these testimonies could be taken, but they would be invaluable communications in the co-ordination of community efforts, creating wider change as people separated by distance see common difficulties or goals, applying for funding (large or small) and greater understanding within and outwith these communities about the special difficulties and advantages they have. They could also be archived for posterity, which is what I’m hearing about at the Timespan conference True North right now. More on that later.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


(poster designed by Lynne Collinson)

I’m in Shapinsay, an Inner Isle of Orkney. I’ve spent the day gasping, as you can imagine. Up at the crack of dawn in Helmsdale, my accomplice Graham Hogg and I drove my little campervan from Helmsdale to Scrabster. The journey was white with frost, the colours of the land and seascape pale with early morning light. The vast expanse of the North Sea glittered into the distance below full-drop cliffs, gave way to the time-rounded immense space of the moorlands of Caithness. Here I indulged my habit of searching for signs of previous lives. Old roads, deserted farms and houses standing firm and often roofless against the wind, and green patches of previously tilled fields. Otherwise all was brown winter heather tipped with frost, and white caps of mountains just visible over the curve of the bog.
Two ferries later here we are outside the Shapinsay Kirk where I’m about to give a creative writing workshop. We had no idea who or how many people would come, plus it was 0° at the front door, so a workshop in the van seemed unwise. Before you laugh at the very idea, it has two benches the length of beds which makes it ideal for small intimate workshops or meetings. However, a warm church awaited us.

Having prepared a workshop for many eventualities, I had in fact forgotten the request I’d made a month previously for aspiring writers to bring an object which signified the future on Shapinsay in some way. Someone brought a Rossi’s Dolphin skull, another person brought a bag of limes, oranges and grapes with a tag ‘Grown in SHAPINSAY’. We did daft writing exercises designed to loosen up the imagination and open up possibilities. Much hilarity was had and some amazing futuristic visions of the island made it on to the page.
Later, in the evening, we returned to the kirk for its second (my workshop being the first) non-religious event, a presentation from Lateral North and an open discussions with and between local people about, again, the future of Shapinsay. My earlier workshop had been designed to get everyone thinking ‘outside the box’ as Graham puts it or as I would say, ‘anything is possible.’

Our kind hosts, Nic and Lois, were so enthused by the discussions they were up half the night afterwards discussing what had been said.

Sunday, 1 March 2015


Having forsaken the certainty of work deadlines, other people’s stress and the dark streets of Glasgow, I am now in Helmsdale on the chilly northeast coast of Scotland. This is my campervan parked outside Timespan, a heritage and arts organisation. I am on a campervan journey of uncertainty. Unlike some of my previous campervan trips, this vagueness is deliberate, albeit not on my part.

Also differing from previous campervan trips, I am not alone. With me is Graham Hogg of Lateral North, an architectural designer, and he seems to know what he’s doing. Graham has set up a series of destinations. There is loose talk of presentations and workshops and collecting stories and the future of Scotland, especially the north. I am simply the fool who responded to a plea on Twitter for a campervan which would enable this exciting project.

After a short business meeting in the van while parked outside the People’s Palace in Glasgow, I was silly enough to let him take measurements of dear Vanessa Hotplate (named after her cooker) and then two weeks later he took her away to various destinations without me in order to do a refit. A refit? Anyone who knows Romahome campervans will realise this is madness. Romahomes are basically fancy lunch-boxes on wheels with special shapes inside for cupboards and a sink, all moulded immovable plastic. This is not easy to modify. Graham promised nothing permanent would be done without my agreement and that when I got it back I could use it as I always had: for working, chilling, eating and sleeping. Therefore, gasps went around the kitchen table at home when I said I’d agreed to holes being made in the metal of the cab. Six weeks ago I had never met Graham. But he seems to get things done.

Last night he revealed to me the inside of my little van. It now has slatted wooden benches, a map of Europe across one end, a slot for a i-pad for a quick search and display, tartan curtains and cushions (all matching, which has never happened before) and an aerial photo of Scotland on the roof. You can even stick pins in the photo to indicate where you’re from or the site of a particularly wonderful story. Gasp and sigh! I love it. Internal photos to follow. Here's the front, and yes those are Mini Eggs and Percy Pigs on the dashboard.

Look out for us on our tour from Helmsdale to Shapinsay to Tongue to Applecross to Lairg, and then back to Helmsdale and the True North conference next weekend. Stop us with your stories.