Headwaters and Headspace: Helen eases out of lockdown via an imaginary island at midsummer
in her final Thread Leader installment
I ventured onto the ‘Leith Plateau Farmland’, the countryside beyond Balerno. I imagined this area as a small, fertile
island bounded by the Pentland horizon - the visible circumference from Capelaw, Black Hill and the Cairns, round to
Auchinoon and Corston Hills on the Lang Whang, down to Kaimes and Ravelrig. Centred here, around Buteland,
I felt these skylines wrap around me, like an amulet: curative, protective.
How much of this feeling of islandness, of peace, calm, was due to the gorse, I wondered; to the meadows, cnocs,
and single dwellings? The fineweather blue firth to the northeast made seacliffs of Dalmahoy and Kaimes.
More wildflowers - yellow, purple, grass-heads, orchids – bloomed into a passable machair.
This was my sanctuary: a substitute Rousay, a replacement Barra, a bield to experience the quiet of a Uist evening,
that I sought out several times a week.
I’d continue from the Buteland road-end, through forest on one hand, past fields with growing lambs and calves, red-
ploughed earth or ripening crops on the other. Where the lanes and shelter-belt paths right-angled round the fields,
the track here described a dusty-earthed parabola: up to the moor, down to the ruins at Buteland Hill.
Then it opened out above the buzzard-patrolled valley-bottom scraped flat by the glacial young Leith.
On the way back I could cycle through several seasons: wind and rain on the moor, gorse-scent releasing
sun in the forest.
My 2019 diary recorded where I was this time last year: often down in the Borders. Recompensed by local magic, I
missed and didn’t miss these trips. On the day that 300 covenanters met at the Cauldstane Slap, I walked up to the
border of the Borders again for the first time.
Early and late exercise at midsummer fits around work and helps to offset seasonal insomnia. The lethargy of
lockdown made it harder to get out of bed this year, but when I did make the effort I was amply rewarded. The
imaginary island looked especially Hebridean in a haary dawn or dusk. In the evening and early morning it became
clearer that we’re the guest species here. There might be hares in the first field after the road-end; the buzzard of
Buteland Hill shoulder-swooped humans daring to reach Leithhead.
It is an expanding experience to wait out the simmerdim of a clear June night, to determine when it starts to get
lighter, and to hear the dawn chorus crescendo from silence.
See the sun come over the horizon at Buteland Farm, rise over the Water of Leith channel at Glenbrook, risen above
Whelpside. Turn to see the lit land brightening behind on the way home for breakfast.
Was it still an island? Irises were out, and so was more traffic. People came back, and with them new ethical and
environmental dilemmas about parking and littering. Would the magic have served its purpose (and vanish) as the
carparks re-filled and gorse faded? Dawn brought back the islandness, almost-of-course it did, but the air, land-
settled, also felt and smelled autumnal.
Like strict poetic forms such as the sonnet, lockdown could be an enabling constraint. I was glad when I could
actually drive to the road-end on my ‘island’ and walk further upstream from it, pleased to have new horizons &
visions again. I started to imagine having the confidence to do more, but was wary of going much further too quickly.
I even wondered if my bodily and psychological readiness to emerge followed government permission to travel
further. We were collectively exhausted from being in a prolonged fight-or-flight state: the pandemic had also taken its
toll on those lucky enough to stay well and keep their jobs.
I posted on Facebook about having a sort of simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia
and over 40 people agreed.
Annoyingly, if symbolically, when I tried to go away overnight, just into the Borders, my old car refused to accelerate
on the open road, and had to be towed back. For a few days I just wanted to return to on-foot local exercise, to be
held in hills that held me at the start of the pandemic.
I took an evening walk up Howden Glen - now with a pink foxglove, rather than yellow gorse, border – and along the
Good to be back, amidst
the glacial channels
the accelerating year
About the Author
Helen is a Pennine-born writer, educator and editor, based on the edge of the Pentlands. She is widely published in
poetry magazines and writes creative non-fiction and articles on subjects ranging from education to hillwalking. She
also collaborates with visual artists. A former lecturer in English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University, she
has been an independent Literature professional since 2003, working across a broad range of community,
healthcare, cultural and environmental settings, with a particular interest in Writing for Wellbeing.
Twitter: @bodHelen Blog: helenbodenliteraryarts.wordpress.com - including two posts about the early weeks of
Helen also has poems about local lockdown published here: http://pendemic.ie/three-poems-by-helen-boden/ and is
a contributor to Beyond the Storm - poems from the Covid-19 era - proceeds from sales go to NHS charities: