conceived by Alec Finlay

walked by Gerry Loose, Andrew Schelling, Rebecca Eland, in the company of Colin Will, Luke Allan & Morven Gregor.

photography: Hannah Devereux 2014

commisioned by UZ Arts


Some Colour Trends

mountains are cultivated
with the eyes

The familiar settings in which my recent walking and mapping projects have found themselves – A Company ofMountains (14 mountain conspectus on the Isle of Skye), Walking and Seeding the John Muir Way, a walk and planting from Dunbar to Helensburgh, and there were our own /there were the others, a series of silent walks of remembrance at parks and gardens in England in the care of the National Trust – are, in their distinct characters, at odds with the wild atypical uplands of The Cabrach. This peaty 'gamekeepery' region is lodged between the Cairngorm massif to the south and the ferm-touns of Strathbogie to the north. Here there are hills, but no definitive mountain range, and glens, but set within expanses of boggy mire. To the novice it seems a region likely to endanger ankles and displace the mind from sensible landmarks and settled categories.

word-mntn (Cairngorm), poem AF, photograph LA

The Cabrach is, in human terms, semi-extinct. It bears the traces of settlement, transhumance and wayfaring, in shieling, drove roads, blue-stone cairns, fords, wells, stone circles, and bothies – all hinted at in place-names. 

Nowadays the hills are dominated by the old and new technologies of factory grouse shooting and wind-farms, which lay down metalled tracks, erect deer fences, and speak to the horror vacui of forced decline and exploitation. Land ownership in Scotland remains an issue that froths and grumbles but awaits the full spate of reform.

The Cabrach+ project that I have been working on over the past year was commissioned by Deveron Arts Hielan’ Ways, co-ordinators of The Walking Institute. I have given the work the title:

Some Colour Trends:

a genealogy of place-names relating to colour in the Cabrach and neighbouring regions with new translations into English

Here trend is shucked away from its metropolitan context: trend, from treid, troda drove, a path, a direction of travel. My trending is a tweet-free zone.

Unlike previous journey projects, the road north and Out of Books, which revived the traditional notion of The Tour and renewed cultures of viewing, in The Cabrach I could find no figures to follow – no Basho & Sora, Boswell & Johnson, Pennant, or Burns, to act as visitors and guides. Aside from some local history there were no obvious significant texts to rub shoulders with. Its an oral landscape, best known for its bothy songs.

At first I felt thwarted by the seeming lack of definition in the landscape – one could almost say, in contemporary-speak, the place seemed to lack topographical 'celebrity', compared to Skye, with its famous mountain peaks. The drove roads – or trends – that defined the project sometimes exist as marked routes, some of which carry names; others have been colonised by roads, where folk's need to travel upgraded them; and sometimes the trends are anonymous, half-lost, or forgotten. Haldane's Old Roads of Scotland remains the classic history.

Today Scotland brims with new Ways named after celebrities – Muir, Cuthbert, Buchan – but out there on the moors, looking for Ca' place-names, following -------- paths, we would be looking to tread in the footsteps of the anonymous drover.

There were also my practical limits as a walker. Claudia Zieske, a hiker of marathon proportions, was curious about how I might access these remote places, without stepping over them? And I had to ask myself: why this insistence to track with the mind and imagination where the legs cant step? 

Skye has a culture of skylines. The John Muir Way is a single trail to plant seeds along. But what of the all-over-up-down-and-boggy Cabrach? What landscape is more removed from the careerist highways of the contemporary, from the Sublime or Romantic? 

My research began with John Milne's Celtic Names of Aberdeenshire – this was before I learnt that he is notoriously unreliable. I read that the drovers, always travelling at the pace of their beasts, a steady 10-miles a day, would distinguish between the black roads, Ca' Dubh, whose peat moss became impassable in rain, and the more secure footing of the yellow trends, Ca' Buidhe. From that black/yellow differentiation I then devised a systematic analysis, based upon place-names and colours.

Names, to reveal the patterns of habitation and hybridity, from Gaelic, to Gaelscots, Scots, and English, with traces of Pictish and hints of Indo-European.

Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe

   Meikle Caochan Odhar

      Gowdie Hillock

         The Wormy Hollow

         River Deveron

Colours, to reveal how the inhabitants perceived the stuff of the earth’s surface, how they spoke to its appearance, and what that said of use.

Hill of Snowy Slack

   Hill of Greenfold

      Hill of Blackroads


            Cnapan Or

Colours to isolate cultural perceptions – names – and topographical realities – peat, heather, moorgrass, sward, heathen stone – and expose them to an aesthetic regime of typographical modeling, rendering the colour walks that illustrate this blog – the colours chosen in collaboration with John Murray, the designed composed with Studio LR. The Cabrach was revealed to be more colourful than its appeared.

after Nicolaisen


names are composed of words
for what a place once was


the names of rivers, burns & mountains
are the mother lode of onomastics


no text reveals the gap
between speaking and writing
more than the maps
of the Scottish Highlands:

The task was to explore lost languages and eroded ecologies.

there are no rowan
on Rowan Mountain

Trace land usage.

from shieling to shooting butt

a rise in class
a fall from grace

To finally understand why so many Gaelic names refer, in translation, to combined colours, bluey-grey, greeny-grey; to grasp why a mountain range was blue-gorm to some folk and red-ruadh to others; and see how broken-breacain, pockled hillsides defined the original tartans.

the complexity of Scotland’s rocks
gave birth to a science: geology
as its terrain gave birth to tartan

(after Paul Shepheard)

Three Burns


Allt na Duibhre, Gloomy Burn

my head rose in moor-grass
then spilt into darkness


Ault Tairich Laichcavine, Ruddy Burn of the Butterwards

a faint flavour
   of butter

Allt na Greine, Wee Sun-warmed Burn

vestiges of cud
flushes of  sun

Another task that I took on was the composition of English translations of the names. I have attempted to create respectful equivalents to the Scots and Gaelic originals, as an alternative to the existing translations, which are functional transcriptions of elements, with little attempt to suggest the names’ music or deeper associations. Perhaps this is one way in which the poet can renovate the wilderness?

The Thwarts

   Ferricky Burn 

      Drabbit Hillside

         Haunt of the Lucky Stag

            Bridge of the Eerie-lanestanes

the walk leaves
a lag that lurks
in pools of darkness

And what of that fundamental question of belonging – in a place that I can barely access, whose moors are bare, strange, beautiful in moments of sunny prospect? I think back to the accusation You can never belong in nature”, and recognize again how that forced my awareness: with or without walking, we may find and share ways of belonging in the wilderness.

Some Colour Trends was made in collaboration with:

Ron Brander, who advised on local history.
Maoilios Caimbeul, who made Gaelic translations.
Alexander Twig Champion, who made field trips
Peter Drummond, who advised on the interpretation of place-names
John Stuart-Murray, who advised on place-names on colours
Amy Porteous, who helped with the mapping
Gill Russell, who made field trips and maps
David Wheatley, who composed a companionable essay
Simone Kenyon, who walked the entire route

And Luke Allan and Brodie Sim, who co-ordinate the studio.

It will appear as a book and digital prints in November 2014, on the occasion of a symposium organized by The Walking Institute, Deveron Arts, in Tomintoul.

for Hielan’ Way, commissioned by DeveronArts.

The WalkingInstitute initiative was developed by Deveron Arts in collaboration with guest curator Simone Kenyon.

The Hielan' Ways network includes historical routes, colour walks, hydrological walks, and a 5-day route with accommodation.


Global Oracle

Global Oracle is a book-length poem, exhibition installation, and audio poem. 

The book is available now (morning star: 96pp, paperback, £7.50), and can be ordered by emailing info@alecfinlay.com

The installation is included in Counterpoint, as part of Generation, at Talbot Rice Gallery (01 August–18 October, 2014).

The audio poem, with sound design by Chris Watson, is available from iTunes as a free download from 13 August.

Global Oracle: a work of prophetic science is an apicultural model of global satellite communication and navigation systems. Here the complex navigation and communication systems of bees and humans are read together.

This is the most ambitious multimedia artwork I have worked on since Swarm (ASX), an apicultural model of worldwide speculative finance, which I made for the 2012 Sydney Biennale. 

Global Oracle was commissioned by University of Warwick Art Collection, as a permanent artwork which I will install on the campus in 2015. Once complete it will provide comradely outdoor companionship to Simon Paterson's wonderful Cosmic Wallpaper wall-piece.

The project is a technological pastoral, similar to some of the artworks I produced for Skying, which considered renewable energy, landscape, and aesthetics. 

In this new project five NAVSTAR-style satellites have been constructed, in collaboration with Spencer Jenkins and Old School Fabrications. Imagine the straw satellites, which offer themselves as nests for solitary bees, in flight among sycamore and sweet chestnut trees. 

The gallery installation also includes five traditional bee skeps, with their Omphalos-like forms, punctuating a wall text.

Global Oracle explores the relationship between bees, prophecy in Ancient Greece, and GPS satellite navigation systems, such as our contemporary oracle, Garmin. It offers a touching paean to dwelling, and an elegy for the fate of the bees, which is our fate.

The oracle at Delphi was sacred to bees, presided over by The Melissae – seers high on ‘green’ honey. Today our 'buzz' is the honey of star-fallen communication. The prophetic powers of our smartphones depends on an oracular swarm of satellites, with their wings tilted to the sun. These vessels are controlled by the US airforce – Delphi is now twinned with Schreiver airforce – who employ the same system for their spy 'drones'.

These themes are explored in the poem, illustrated with my sketches, and four 'bee-masts', digital prints made in collaboration with Hanna Tuulikki, which she has posted about here

An abridged version of the poem, with sound-design by Chris Watson, is included in the installation, available as a free download from iTunes from 13 August.

from Global Oracle

Bees are messengers

bees are oracular   
foretelling the weather

bees are atoms of delight
analogue to the stars

bees discourse the language
   of immensities

bees will wing us
guided by the daughters
of the sun

along trajectories
only open
to the thinking man

To the Greeks   honey was astron
To the Romans   Saliva siderum   star-fallen

aethereal fare
in the air

at star rise
especially when
Sirius shines
the honey falls
from the skies
as star-spittle

& dews
the leaves
of dawn

Bees become flowers –
flowers become bees –
habits engender harmonies

Bees need flowers
for nourishment 

flowers need bees
for reproduction 

Flowers and bees agree
timing is everything

The bee is a clock
whose dial measures
the day   & records
moments of plenty

the bee remembers
any point   within a day
in its body

the bee is unable
to count beyond
   that day

   the bee is

Our oracles broadcast
from arboreal masts
hung with rich clusters
   of antenna

through that first darkness
which is always with us –
to the distant vessels
that turn in strict circles –
like the loyal geese
that are said to wheel
   the lost Atlantis


Satellites tune us
to the honeydew
of invisible signals
delivering the influx
   of information,
skyfallen words
& the rush   of ceaseless communication

foretelling indexed fortunes
meteorological patterns
computing shipping routes
& the price of rice
predicting our wants
as downloads & tabs

penetrating everywhere
& extending everything
wherever a mast or dish
interrupts the horizon

Over the past three years I have produced a series of art projects and poems relating to bees, culture and knowledge. These include artworks at Brogdale, Shandy Hall, Malham, Merzbarn, University of Stirling, Falkirk and, in 2015, at the University of Warwick. They can be viewed on The Bee Bole.

Bee-related artworks, including the 'bee-mast' digital prints, are available from Ingleby Gallery.

These projects were produced with the help of Luke Allan, Hanna Tuulikki, Amy Porteous, Hannah Devereux, Brodie Sim, Sarah Shalgosky, Chris Watson, Spencer Jenkins, Chris Ellis, Old School Fabrications, and Kathleen Jamie.


on (and off) mountains

Selections from a new collection of pensee on mountains, walking and viewing, a-ga, illustrated with photographs of word-mntn.

a-ga: Sanskrit, ‘mountain,
that which does not go’

the mountain is vulnerable :
with one hand
we may blot it out

we take to the mountain
for a change of air, meaning,
a change of breath.

the tiniest pebble
resting on the summit
is higher than the mountain

the deer’s place: wilderness

hills are for daydreamers;
mountains demand vigilance

he was a man of only one thought :
he had his moor on top of his mountain

(after Joƫ Bousquet)

a mountain can raise itself up
on a fault

a-ga, morning star, 2014; available now, £5 (plus postage)

The book was published for the exhibition Walking Poets, Dove Cottage, Ambleside.

word-mntn woodblock sculptures available from Ingleby Gallery

photography: Luke Allan, 2014



A rosary is a traditional rose garden. 

Here, in the gardens of Castle Park, Frodsham, the trellis are formed from new-made oak ladders, pace Nietzsche's famous saying: we each have a ladder inside. 

The texts combine embedded poems, composed with 'rose' concealed within them – thus Cicero makes his appearance, twice – circle poems, and one-word poems.

the rose colours culture
colours culture the rose


an arch
is an open

tangled in this
retro season

romance blossoms
into reason


prickled damask

eros enflamed


a ladder
has branches
but no leaves


our hero

thorns that


hybrid electro-

radiant vibro-


petals blow

see-saw torches
all aglow


morose stems

their drooping


Cicero sensed
glory follows virtue

as sun draws


Cicero searched
for Art

in Nature’s





This artwork was created a few years ago now. The roses are maturing and the ladders gracefully ageing. The poems are weeded regularly.

Photography: by Hannah Devereux, 2014
Ladders: Tim Kendall
Workshop: Ken Cockburn
With thanks to Luke Allan

Commissioned by Castle Park Arts Centre