Saturday, 17 March 2018

Cnoc Coinnich and The Brack

The Argyll Forest Park. Dense ranks climb steep hillsides, logging roads and military vehicles, lochs with deep detours and always dampness, seeping out of everything, sour tasting water and metallic schistose.

Head of Loch Long:

But sometimes the clouds break, the sun comes out, and magic happens. Mist drifts though the dawn, drawn out of the dew to join the sun's dance.

Logging road:

Behind, the fairy peak of  Cruach an t-Sithein wreathed in mist:

Ahead, broken black cliffs stud the gleaming snows of The Brack, set in a blue sky.

At the forest edge I climb upwards towards the summit of The Brack, pulling on tufts of fescue as shaggy as a sheep's winter coat, driving the axe into semi-frozen turf, glasses fogging over with the effort. Before long, I am in the snow.

Glen Douglas:

Which way upwards will I choose? I thread a gully, kicking steps. The obvious way further is straight up. Instead I contour round to see a lochan, realising once halfway across a small flattish area that I am standing *on* the frozen lochan! From here the ground steepens and I attack another gully with relish.


And then the fun stops. The gully steepening and the run out invisible, I traverse to solid ground, which is frozen and provides no grip. The sound of tinkling ice as pieces fall off the surrounding cliffs and skitter down the gully. What a stupid route. I traverse back to the relative grip of the snow, controlling my breathing, talking encouragingly to myself, taking great care with each change in balance.

Foolish route:

The top: but the joy had left the day. It had clouded over, and I cursed the snow that I had to trudge through to reach my second peak, Cnoc Coinnich. Beinn Reithe as well? No, sod that.

Beinn Reithe and the lochs from Cnoc Coinnich:

But the joy returned in descent, admiring my line of footprints, a record of the judgement of the placement of each foot punched into the snow. I had survived a little scare, had good exercise and fresh air, and was going home intact.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018


This may surprise you, but four years ago I started writing a musical. Provisionally titled Gette!, it was the story of women gaining the vote in the UK. The curtain is raised at an early Edwardian dinner party where the first song - 'Hush Woman' - follows one of the heroines giving an informed opinion on the Schleswig-Holstein question to the horror of the assembled gentlemen:
Hush woman, Hush woman!
You are an inferior race.
Hush woman, hush woman!
Your opinions are a disgrace.

When it comes to matters of state
Only men can be first rate
Hush woman, hush woman!
You've got me quite irate.
There follows public meetings, parliamentary defeats, the formation of the Womans National Anti-Suffrage League (a genuine organisation, astonishing to relate, of women campaigning against gaining the vote), smashings of windows with toffee hammers, force-feedings in jail, and the martyrdom of Emily Davison.

Women go on strike, the leader of the WNASL has second thoughts, and then the Great War begins. After a subplot involving right-on Labour saint Keir Hardie who supported universal suffrage and raging Tory imperialist Emmeline Pankhurst, women gain the vote and in the final scene, women in fashions from across the 20th century line up on stage, ballot papers in hand, singing the Suffragette Hymn March of the Women,  and vote one by one.

It's an amazing idea and when I put it to a director four years ago her eyes lit up. She immediately started discussing the logistics and how, with great determination to overcome the many difficulties involved with putting on a live show, it could maybe be put on in the back room of a pub with a cast of two and a piano. Fuck that. I wanted a The Lion King spectacular or nothing. The idea went into hibernation - I had four years after all - and now here we are four years later at the centenary of women's suffrage still with nothing more than the original outline and some song fragments.

Instead I've been concentrating on writing my book of Scottish history. And one of the most notable aspects of the subject is the invisibility of women in much of written history. The first Scotswoman to enter the stage (unless you count the legendary warrior Scáthach) doesn't even have a name - she is described merely as Argentocoxus' wife. It is really only now that women are gaining parity - with a female First Minister and Prime Minister, female leader of the opposition in the Scottish Parliament, and increasing number of women leaders in business and public life.

So a challenge for the girls of today: it's over to you to make sure that when the history of the next 100 years comes to be written, there will be a lot more women to write about.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The City With a Park in the Sky

Most cities have parks. But how many do you know with a park in the sky?

Edinburgh is one.

The citizens of Edinburgh are spoilt for choice. On a sunny day they can visit the beach at Portobello, the miniature mountain of Arthur's Seat, riverside walks along the Water of Leith and River Almond or city centre parks like Princes St Gardens and the Meadows.

And when the sunshine is combined with snow there is one obvious choice. The Pentlands, easily accessible at the end of a couple of city bus routes.

The Pentlands used to be the haunt of the shepherd and the nature-lover. But that was a few decades ago. Now they are a popular destination for local people, a couple of broad new paths cut across their slopes that can be taken to with ordinary shoes and bicycles.

Not everyone is happy about this desecration of the landscape. But everyone we saw seemed happy enough today.

And why wouldn't they be, when you get to the top and gain vistas like these just a couple of miles from the city's edge?

Monday, 15 January 2018

Heaven is a Place on Earth...

Climb Rois Bheinn on a fine winter day and you will probably be able to work out where it is.

Rois Bheinn (pron. Roshven) is a Corbett in one of Scotland's most under-appreciated areas.

Not Skye, whose hotspots are apparently overrun by tourists, or the North Coast 500, whose success means some tortuous roads in the north-west will have to be upgraded.

This is Moidart, part of a 45 by 30 mile lozenge of land south of the A830 still only lightly touched by tourism or outdoorsy types.

Rum from Rois Bheinn:

Heaven requires a bit of work: there's hoof-churned fields to wade through first (reminiscent of Gigha's Isle of Mud) and a relentless climb up steep, tussocky ground. These bogs are hard going in descent, especially if you've stayed up high for sunset and are coming down in the dark.

Seasoned hillwalkers are used to this: it's the price you pay for getting the good stuff.

Cold river:


The figure in the photo below was taking pictures of the sunset. He was disappointed because the views weren't as good as he hoped. Apparently if the north-west hadn't clouded over an hour before sunset it would be even better.

Let that sink in a bit.

He thought this was shite.

But for us it was a little slice of heaven, carved out of a sunny winter's day.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

A Borders Christmas

To the Borders for Christmas. Berwickshire and Roxburghshire. Frost and snow and a black wind out a blue sky, cosy homes with crackling fires overlooked by craggy castles.

Fatlips castle on a crag above Denholm, Roxburghshire:

The days after Christmas we climbed Rubers Law. We started in the village of Denholm, parking by the green, a single rugby goalpost for practice.

Above the village a muddy, but frozen track led to a forest, from where we could see our objective: Rubers Law, a miniature peak rising 340m above the village.

The snow deepened and we made our first snowballs of the year, before climbing to a stand of trees with a magical outlook over Teviotdale.

From the top The Cheviot came into view and the whole range of snowclad Cheviot Hills on the southern horizon, marking the border with England.

What a glorious place to be! If this would be our last decent walk of 2017 (it wasn't - we also went to St Abbs Head) then it was a cracker to end the year on.

Descending Rubers Law:

May 2018 bring you much joy and interest: I certainly intend that to be the case for me.

Saturday, 23 December 2017


You know what Scotland is world famous for? Rain. And where does rain come from?

  • Wispy beards smeared across the stratosphere
  • Fluffly fleeces gambolling across blue skies
  • Great billowing sky cathedrals
  • Smothering grey blankets of cloud
  • Dark curtains parting for shafts of sunlight

I once asked a visitor from South Africa what they best liked about Scotland. Her reply? “Clouds.”

It’s hard to believe (because it almost never happens in Scotland), but perfect sunny day followed by perfect sunny day for days on end eventually gets boring.

It was photographer Colin Baxter who introduced Scots to the concept of clouds as a thing to celebrate rather than moan about. Before him photo books of Scottish landscapes showed a country of blue skies and sunshine, something that spoke more of the accepted standards of photographic merit (and the photographer’s perseverance with the weather) than of the beauty - or reality - of the landscape.

We've moved on. Today, films can include scenes where you can’t even *see* the landscape and yet be considered inspiring and iconic.

Source: Eon Productions

So if you are fed up with bright sunshine beating down on you day after day and crave a change... you know where to come.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

A Winter Corbett

What a long period of fantastic weather we have had this winter! Cold and dry, each weekend has sparkled - even if only for a few hours each morning. (If you wake up in winter and it's sunny, my dad used to say, get out straight away! You can always do your day's other tasks in the afternoon, when it has clouded over. His wisdom has proved itself time and time again - see if you don't now notice it yourself).

I realised I hadn't climbed a new Corbett all year. Time was running out. Where would it be? If I had a companion it would be Beinn Trilleachan by Loch Etive, a fjordside hill with stimulating views. If I was going solo it would be Ben Vuirich, which on the map looks like one of the most arduous small hills in the Southern Highlands. From Blair Atholl a long estate track leads to a horrendous 3.5km bog trot. This would be even more difficult - if not impossible - in deep snow.

I went solo.

But what I found was so much better than expectation.

Above Edradour:

The secret was that I did not approach from Blair Atholl - the route described in the guidebooks and so the route everybody takes. Instead I looked for a route that would minimise time trudging over bogs and approached from the south via Gleann Fearnach. Like my idiosyncratic route up Creag Meagaidh, it was deserted and enjoyable. I'm not sure why more people don't go this way.

Beinn a' Ghlo from Gleann Fearnach:

Heading up, I passed beautiful Glenfernate Lodge, owned by former Conservative minister David Heathcote-Amory, the tracks of hundreds of mountain hares in the snow. Buzzards flew above and some chilly-looking sheep grazed a riverside pasture.

Above Gleann Fearnach lie thousands of acres of grouse moor, and the going became tough. The ground levels out and paradoxically becomes much more arduous due to the peat hags that have to be negotiated. I kept my mind on the steeper, easier slopes ahead, each step taking me closer to the top, treating it as a metaphor for life. At least the snow wasn't as deep as it could have been.

Loch Loch from the upper slopes of Ben Vuirich:

In an increasingly cold wind, a raven watched me stop and take a drink out my flask of tea. If I broke an ankle here and failed to crawl down again, this would be the bird that pecked my eyes out. I made sure of each onward step.

To Glas Tuleachain and the hills above Glenshee:

The top was freezing, big Beinn a' Ghlo dominating the view north, the flowing white curves of Glenshee, a glimpse of the oddly-named Loch Loch, Shiehallion prominent in the distance, and Ben Vrackie above Pitlochry a shaggy, Trossachs-like gathering of knarled ground. 

Ben Vuirich summit:

I returned happy, listening once back on the track to personal development audios on my mp3 player and waving to a stalker on a quad bike as he drove past - the only person I saw all day.