Merlin Wild Foraging Quest – A great day out in the rain!

At the end of a long, single track road lay the barn that was to be our place of meeting: a singular structure poised in the midst of a dramatically contoured landscape. The enigmatic Devil’s Beef Tub sat to our west, the mountainous craig of The Skirtle lay just ahead and the Broad valley opened to the east. As the sky marked our arrival with the first of what would become a succession of ferocious downpours, the group of participants gathered into the shelter of the barn to begin the ‘Merlin Foraging Quest.’

Due to an unfortunate accident, Quest organiser Jan Hogarth, was unable to attend. Jan knows the links with the Merlin history and hoped to connect this with the ecology and foraging. The walk was repositioned to explore foraging within the context of this environment, and for this our facilitator was ecologist and Borders Trust coordinator, Ali Murfitt. Under the sound of heavy rain pelting down on the barn roof, we made our introductions with each other as a group. We were a composite of colourful variety: botanists, students and educators; a storyteller and a woodsman- each with a different level of foraging experience, but all united in the quest to discover more about the edibility of this landscape. With a scattering of Merlin inspirations and knowledge spread across the group, we resolved to allude to the magical one wherever possible.

Through Ali’s introduction, the landscape which we were to explore was placed within the context of it’s relationship with Borders Trust. Corehead Farm was bought by the trust in 2009, with the vision for a community-engaged, sustainable project integrating restoration of native woodlands, wetlands and heathlands with a farm operating on organic principles. Ali admitted that it was at times difficult to reconcile these distinct needs of habitat restoration and sheep farming, yet- if successful- the unlikely marriage of the two could provide a way forward in re-imagining land use within the Scottish uplands.

Suddenly the rain stopped and so, seizing the window of opportunity, our group bounded out into the landscape, heading east- towards a valley which Ali assured us, was much more interesting than that of the iconic Devil’s Beef Tub. Heading through the farmland pasture, Ali drew our attention to the predominance of yellow rattle; a native wild flower now much in decline, which has the ecological advantage of being semi parasitic towards grasses, so opening the way for greater biodiversity within pasture. Although not edible (some sources indicate a medicinal use for treatments of the eye), the plant has been used as a dye- reminding us of the multitudinous facets of usage made possible by the plant kingdom. Although the pasture was still predominantly grass, perhaps over time the yellow rattle could create space that would allow for an increased presence of the pignuts, plantain and red clover which we found speckled throughout the pasture. Ali recommended the making of Red Clover Vinegar- made by simply infusing the flowers within apple cider vinegar in order for the clover to release it’s flavour- and calcium rich properties- into the vinegar which is then strained, in order to be used within salad dressing, or to add a dash to hot water to be enjoyed as a tonic.

The pignuts brought us into relation with a legal dimension of foraging: the law states that no plant should be dug out of the ground without permission from the landowner. Whilst ultimately created in order to protect property rights, the law would also go some way towards ensuring conservation. This stimulated a group discussion surrounding the dynamic between foraging and conservation. Named pignuts for good reason, perhaps the very success of the plant was dependent to some degree on the activity of the wild boar digging up the tasty tubers. In doing so, the boars perhaps prepared the ground for the seeds to fall, and a new plant to germinate. In the absence of wild boar, perhaps human foragers can fulfil a particular function through careful selection of a site in which to forage for pignuts- or ‘fairy tatties’ as they are colloquially known as in Scotland. As a group we could also testify to the suggestion that badgers too would go for these tubers- leading to the conclusion that it would only be ethical to forage for them in areas where they grew in great abundance- in addition to having the landowners permission.

Onwards and upwards, we passed through the pasture and come to a planted orchard enclosure. Planted within the realms of a protective deer fence- with wooden stiles inviting walkers into the enclosure- grows an edible hedge of blackthorn, hawthorn, crab apple, cherry and hazel, with a central cluster of young apple and plum trees. The planting was carried out by Borders Trust volunteers and junior rangers, and will grow to become a delightful edible enclave within the landscape. Ali drew our attention to the highest point of the hill, The Skirtle, and directed our gaze to the scattering of wooden boxes, each protecting a planted oak tree. It became apparent that the Borders Trust is planning the restoration of this habitat with a long term vision.

Through the gushing ford and up and over high ground pasture: grasses interspersed with heath bedstraw, tormentil and phagnum moss; the medicinal properties of each were discussed, but a meal they will not provide. Taking shelter under the tree line, we skimmed past the boundary of a small patch of woodland that includes spruce and pine trees, the new tips of which are packed with vitamin C and make a great tea (careful ID needed to avoid poisonous yew & lodgepole pine). We came to a rowan tree and took pause to reflect upon the plentiful lore surrounding this tree. With the wide spread belief that it is unlucky to fell a rowan- and the ubiquity of rowan trees being planted outside a homestead, Ali encouraged us to ponder upon the link between these superstitions and protection of particular species- what better way of a tree being protected than by a belief that it is unlucky to cut it down! We compared notes of the edibility of the berries- the making of rowan jelly to be served with game is widely known, but the berries can also be enjoyable (if a little tart!) as simple compote made by stewing the rowan berries along with other autumnal fruits such as hawthorn and rosehips (removing the hairs first).

We roamed on, entering the main area which has been replanted by Borders Trust. Suddenly the sightline changed: we were surrounded by the short but luscious growth of newly planted alder, birch and hazel. Over the past 8 years, the Trust have planted thousands of trees and the effects are already apparent. An increase in biodiversity is noticeable as our feet push through swathes of sorrel, meadowsweet, foxglove and lousewort. We paused to nibble a succulent leaf of common sorrel, the sour tang providing pleasant refreshment. Ali’s excitement was palpable as she led us down the sloping side of the valley- heading into what she has described as a fragment of the original woodland which once prevailed on this hillside.

Dipping down a steep muddy bank, hanging onto the generous limbs of an enormous ash tree for support, we were transported to a different world where the group reassembled on a level outcrop overlooking a small waterfall. The canopy layer above us was thick with leaf patterns of great diversity, the sound of fast flowing water surrounded us as the Tweedhope Burn traced its way in a curvaceous gush down the glen. Swallows darted upstream into shafts of sunlight that shone luminous through the multiple levels of greenery. Beside us was a mighty hawthorn in full bloom with a richly perfumed scent promising a full fruiting to come. Beyond it stood numerous hazel trees- the ancient Celtic tree of wisdom, offering indication of the sustenance that a feral wanderer such as Merlin must have depended upon. We stood quietly for a moment, immersed in the atmosphere of this precious fragment of ancient woodland. Then we reached for our lunch boxes to meet our own immediate needs for sustenance. For now, these hills may not be able to support the dietary needs of our group, but it is apparent that through the vision of Borders Trust, restoration of this hillside will gradually lead to increased biodiversity- with the fortuitous side effect of a greater abundance of edible and medicinal species.

Leaving the ancient woodland behind us, we retraced our path down the hill- this timing pausing at the ridged remains of the Iron Age settlement, Broad Tae. It is a humble reminder that these hills once supported not only the foragings of Merlin, but once supported a whole population who presumably effectively combined farming alongside the gathering and utilisation of wild plants and herbs. As we walked back past the planted orchard, through the meadow and back to the farm, I looked behind us to the replanted hill from which we came. With time, those contrasting sections of planted hillside and the remaining fragments of ancient woodland will merge and enmesh together to become one continuous restored habitat: a magic of which Merlin would surely support.

Thanks to Amy Clarkson for writing this Blog – Amy is a Glasgow University student of the Mlitt Environment, Culture and Communication postgraduate course which is taught at the Dumfries campus.

Quest for the Hidden Energy of Water – Drumlanrig

Professor David Munro led our quest on a beautiful Sunday at Drumlanrig Castle, where we explored the extensive grounds. Our walk followed the water systems, both natural and constructed, that make up the lifeblood of the estate, following paths that have changed over time and those that have remained constant.

As the geographer in residence for the Duke of Buccleuch, Professor Munro brought us inside the castle to see some of the maps in the archives there to start. The oldest was dated from the early 18th century and was a beautifully drawn plan used to design the gardens for the newly-built estate. These plans showed an intricate garden for several hundred gardeners to tend, based on square sections that surround fountains for easy watering. The view from the rear of the house draws the eye with a straight path leading to the cascade.

There are newer maps that show the planning of the extended grounds. It is setup to create vistas at the end of long straight paths cut through the forest. From these maps, the grounds look like a web of walking paths, at odds with the winding waterways that refuse to be confined to such simple linear routes. Although much of the water supply for the castle is based in these free flowing rivers and streams, simple modifications like dams are not always sufficient, so extensive amounts of piping and cisterns were built to allow for the water flow envisioned by the human design.

The maps that we were able to see from the massive collection showed the requirements of these significant features of a managed landscape throughout time in beautiful hand drawn detail. With this vision in our head, we set out to explore it for ourselves, taking in several subtle details in the architecture, like the flying heart motif, the angle of the railing columns, and an old ice house that has become so grown over it would look like a hill that was part of the landscaping near the house if we were not told what it really was.

There are only four gardeners now, so the gardens are certainly not as extensive as the original plans show them to be, but the general shape of the gardens have been retained in order to remain to true to the original vision and its first incarnation. Sometimes these shapes are merely implied with some creative grass cutting, leaving this open space available for the modern day play of children visitors. Much of the water in the design has been removed. The fountains have been replaced by statues, since their practical function can be met with modern conveniences like hoses. The cascade is now left dry.

site of cascade

As we wander further from the gardens and out into the trees of the wider grounds, the precise lines give way to paths that follow the curves the land more closely. Over time, the webs of straight-lined paths that cut bluntly and harshly through the tree line have softened as the ownership of the castle changed hands. Each one had a different vision of the perfect estate, based on their personalities, their preferences, and the changes in fashion over time. If I had walked about without having seen those maps, I might have assumed that these paths had always been there, gradually ingrained by passage through the trees over time until they were eventually widened and adapted for common use. Instead we saw the culmination of land management and how easily the green world can swallow up abandoned infrastructure so that it disappears, sometimes without a trace.



Our walk followed the water. We walked into the trees on a path directly over the piping that used to bring water from one of the many rather unusually housed cisterns to the castle. We walked by ponds made for water use and now commonly used for fishing; by rivers flowing free and rivers with dams; over bridges whose names have been changed through errors in record keeping; by the “Leaping Arch” artwork of Andy Goldsworthy near the abandoned hydroelectric power station; by the natural well hidden off the path; by the still usable water access for the farmers’ livestock; and over the now dry cascade.


Each pause is a place that could have easily been missed on a casual walk without such a knowledgeable guide. For example, the Bellstane, an erratic stone transported by a glacier and shaped like an upright bell, that could be easily passed by if Professor Munro had not stopped us. It requires viewing from the other side of the path to appreciate it fully. Its human connection may be unknown apart from the story of a group of boys playing too rough and breaking the curve it balanced upon, but that does not stop us from wondering whether it had more significant meaning to the people of the past or whether it was assigned meaning more recently when the area around it received druid names because that was the fashion of the time.

Although this stone is visible from the path now if we are looking for it, later in the season the plant life between it and the road can completely block it from view to be easily missed, just like the well. It is a small perfectly round spring of unknown origins known as the Duchess well. Set back from the path, it could be overlooked by the casual walker who did not know it was there. Its water is sweet and refreshing. These small features are gifts to the fertile imagination.

One of the most beautiful things about the walk is how the result of centuries of land management has resulted in a space that is so different and so connected. We can walk through a space that is fully enclosed in trees just to emerge at a pond or at a massive pasture with a ruined stone building used by some farmers’ predecessor. So, anything becomes possible to imagine, like the remains of a Roman fort on a hill that is now covered in sheep and this years lambs.


Our final stop is a recent discovery. There is a large stone that may have cup mark engravings from the bronze age in one of these sheep pastures. It had remained unnoticed for centuries, or found and forgotten again. The meaning of these engravings that must have required so much time and effort to create has been lost, and is left to our imaginations and musings for now at least. We let water flow from the cup down an unexpected path to the ground as we try to see if it could be lined up to a direction or constellation. Could the broken off section of the stone have occurred before its creation or was it originally a more extensive design that was lost when that portion of the rock broke away? Are the eroded parallel stripes a natural result of scraping from glacial retreat, or could the incomplete segments indicate a more deliberate creation? Perhaps one day these questions will all be answered, but either way we are left with an energy of thoughtful excitement from our trek even if our feet may be a bit sore.

Looking at the forest that is next to the walled pastureland, it is easy to imagine a landscape that has emerged and grown naturally. Yet these places are can still be the product of human impact and management over decades or centuries. We often see human management as an intrusion on a separate, natural world, forgetting how much each species interacts to create the world around them as it will be in the future. Together on this walk we had a glimpse of a world where human management is just another force of evolution that has brought about today’s landscape through time.

Landscape and Science: An Exploration

Duncan Ferguson and Wendy Stewart at Glenlair

Duncan Ferguson and Wendy Stewart at Glenlair

Art often draws inspiration from the landscape- indeed, the very word landscape can be traced to the Dutch word landschap, describing the sixteenth century novelty of painting a scenic view, “framing the picturesque”.

Science can also draw inspiration from the shape and form of the land. Although this notion is often overlooked, landscape can be a fertile source for the scientific imagination, informing constructive thought and reasoning.

So, appreciation of the land can bring forth creativity in both art and science; our day’s quest explores these ideas through the work of a scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, and an artist, Charles Jencks. Both have lived and worked here, both draw creative strength from their landscapes.


Duncan Ferguson explaining the history of Maxwell’s improvements to Glenlair

Our day started at the home of James Clerk Maxwell, at Glenlair, Corsock. Here, we were met by Duncan Ferguson, owner of Glenlair and Trustee of the Maxwell at Glenlair Trust, which promotes Maxwell’s legacy and aims to rebuild Glenlair, twice badly damaged by fire many years ago. Duncan explained that Glenlair was James Clerk Maxwell’s family home until age ten; his mother taught him to “look to nature”. He returned for five years, between appointments at King’s College London and Cambridge University. At Glenlair he formulated his Electrodynamic Theory, uniting the properties of light, electricity and magnetism. This revolutionary work underpins our electrical and electronic worlds; this achievement alone puts him in the same league as Newton and Einstein. Duncan told us more; he devised many principles used in structural engineering, pioneered work in optics and produced the first colour transparency. And he explained the stability of Saturn’s rings… in those days, James Clerk Maxwell would be called a natural philosopher… the newer name, scientist, perhaps loses some of the essence of the words it replaces.

Whilst at Glenlair, James designed and supervised extensions to the House, incorporating his own ideas, such as the trichromatic floor tiling, a reminiscence of his experience in photography, and the design of the supports for the rain gutters, ironwork cast in the curves and spirals of his geometric thinking.


Wendy Stewart performing in Glenlair’s inspirational landscape to artists and scientists

As Duncan guided us past the building, along the burn and through the byres, the harpist Wendy Stewart played a selection of her music inspired by James’ life and work: Folds in the Fields, Reflex Musings and Glenlair House. A song too: a poem by James, Rigid Body Sings, set to the tune Comin through the Rye.


Travelling north and east, joining Nithsdale at Thornhill (for lunch), we followed the river to Sanquhar. Just beyond, is the Crawick Multiverse. This is landscape art on a grand scale. Previously an opencast coalmine, the Duke of Buccleugh funded construction of these massive symbolic earthworks to the design of Charles Jencks; here, science informs art, inscribed on the land in a series of sculptured landforms linked by walkways bordered by thousands of aligned standing stones.

Here, we contemplate the relation of the earth with the four zones of grassland, mountains, watercourses and deserts, beyond to the sun, to our galaxy and further, to the grandly speculative ideas of the Multiverse, a theoretical notion of multiple universes, each, perhaps, with their own constants and laws of nature. These are represented as carved shapes or forms in the landscape, weaving a pattern for our imagination.


Sound experiments with chimes at the Multiverse

We walked the high road of the Comet’s Walk to Northpoint, a viewpoint for the multiverse, Crawick, Sanquhar and beyond, to the heather hills, north and south, bisected by Nithsdale, east to west.

Resting here, first we contemplated, then we conversed, then we chimed: along with her harp, Wendy had brought a selection of metal rods…collectively, in a circle atop Northpoint, each holding a rod, swinging and arcing together to meet in an ensemble of unique sound. Here too, Wendy played harp, also letting us try the strings for harmony.


Wendy Stewart performing in Andromeda

Onwards, away from Northpoint, over and upwards to the spiral mound of our Galaxy, then south, to the Omphalos, the Centre, through the Solar Amphitheatre and to our completion.

Retracing our way to Sanquhar, well fed at the Nithsdale hotel, we met at A’ the Airts, Sanquhar’s community arts venue. There, Professor John Brown, the astronomer Royal for Scotland gave his lecture Black Holes, White Rabbits and the Multiverse. His insights into the wonders and mysteries of our universe at its extremes, the realm of black holes and other universes were made even more memorable with his skill as magician and illusionist. These tricks were entertaining in their own right, but were given extra salience as a source of metaphor in scientific thought at the limits of thought and reason.

Finally, into the darkening night to the Merz gallery to visit the Landscape of Waves exhibition. Charles Jencks collaborated with Alex Rigg, a performance artist and founder of Oceanallover. On display were paintings, drawings, sculptures and costumes for the grand opening of the Multiverse on summer solstice, 2015.

A complete day of exploration and imagination: art and science from the landscape.


Further Reading

Cat, J. Glenlair: a brief architectural history. Available at:



Jan Hogarth for curating our day; Wendy Stewart for her music; Duncan, Frances and Angus Ferguson for their hospitality at Glenlair; Professor Brown for his lecture; staff at A’ the Airts; all those attending the quest.