Thursday, 24 July 2014

At the Book Festival

Edinburgh Book Festival's garden cafe is a great place for meeting interesting people. A stimulating talk, followed by a drink in the sunshine with a random stranger and a discussion of the talk you've both just seen. Time can be profitably spent whiling away the hours you should be getting home for dinner.

But watch out for a certain type of person! Authors. Not the author you've come to see, but other authors, authors who aren't on the bill, authors loitering specfically to tell you they have written a book. "I'm an author!" they'll say and expect praise and interest. Don't give it.

Turn and run.

Because authors who possess the need to talk about their own books are obsessive. No intellectual cafe-culture butterflies, lighting from subject to subject with subtelty and wit, but sons of the soil, ploughing monomanic furrows through the reluctant earth of captive minds.

Heed my warning: beware of authors at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Falls of Foyers

There are two sides to Loch Ness. On the west side the busy A82, with Urquhart Castle on Scotland's main Edinburgh - Glencoe - Inverness - Aviemore - Edinburgh tourist circuit.

Loch Ness:

The other side is almost deserted in comparison, and makes for a great bike ride from Dores to the Falls of Foyers, up into Inverness' mini 'lake district' around Lochs Mhor and Duntelchaig and back.

Our ride started at the car park in Dores. This is right on the shores of Loch Ness with a great view down the length of the loch. The panoramic situation means it is no surprise that one of the Loch's longest-standing monster hunters bases himself here.

Loch Ness from Dores:

It was a beautiful time of year, the summer leaves fresh and woodland flowers still in abundance all along the loch shore. A deer crossed the road in front of us, our silent bicycles enabling us to close in without spooking her.

Flowers in the undergrowth:

This is the side of the loch where the tabloid-styled 'wickedest man in the world', early 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley, conducted rituals at his house of Boleskine - a gothic reputation that also led Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to buy it in the 1970s. It is a peaceful spot today.


Across the loch, Urquhart Castle on its headland, crowds visible through binoculars, as we soaked up the peace and tranquility of the eastern side, the occasional fishing boat drifting by.

Urquhart Castle:

The road climbs steeply to a cafe and shop at the top of the Falls of Foyers, where what few tourists on this side of the loch had gathered. The falls were one of Victorian Scotland's premier attractions, but were severely attenuated in 1895 as the water was diverted for an aluminium works. However in heavy rainfall it reverts to something of its former majesty and is worth seeing in spate.

Below the Falls:

Below the falls a gorge drops steeply to Loch Ness, with Meall Fuar Mhonaidh rising above the opposite shore.

Above the Falls:

We had enjoyed our ride but had taken our time: and a deadline meant we left the lakes above Loch Ness for another time, retracing our outward route back to Dores.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Start Island and Scuthvie Bay

At the very eastern end of Orkney's easternmost island, Sanday, sits a beautiful bay of white sand.

Scuthvie Bay:

And at the very end of Scuthvie Bay, the land doesn't quite want to end. Another island, Start Island, can be reached at low tide from a landrover track half-crumbled into the sea.

Tidal Start Island from Scuthvie Bay:

Crossing the seabed is an adventure. The impermanent nature of the recently exposed land, water still draining off seaweed and fish in small pools, lends a frisson of urgency. The tide was coming in and sunset wasn't far off. We had a couple of hours to get back, or would spend the night on Start Island.

The ruined cottages bear exploration, crows nesting in chimneypots, their gardens gone wild. Flowers grow on the fertile machair in the shelter of low walls, and we found a rhubarb patch that provided the most delicious rhubarb crumble I can remember having.

Wildflowers on Start Island:

The wind streamed across the rest of the island, seabirds patrolling the shore edge at eye-level, indignant at our intrusion on their personal sanctuary. The lack of humans - and rats and dogs - on Start Island is evident by the large number of vulnerable ground nests. There is something special about these undisturbed places of Sanday.

We made our way over to the lighthouse, painted in black and white vertical stripes. I can't help think of the character Obelix from the Asterix and Obelix cartoons. It is the only lighthouse in the country painted like this - other stripey lighthouses have hoops - making it unmistakable during the day. Although automated in 1962, Start Point light continues to shine for shipping. I love lighthouses. I hope this beacon never stops providing its service.

A large solar panel at the side of the lighthouse reveals that it is self-powered. But the sun was setting, and we needed to see to get back across to the comfort and safety of Sanday...

Thursday, 19 June 2014


Of all the old houses in Scotland I've visited, I think my favourite might be Traquhair. It claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland (since at least 1107, maybe a 150 or so years earlier, if you're asking), the name being so old it is not English or Gaelic, but Old Welsh, the dominant language in the area before the Angles arrived in the 6th and 7th centuries. It sits in mature trees and parkland where the Quair Water meets the River Tweed, nestled - but not crowded - by steep Borders hills.

Traquhair House:

For centuries it was home to the Stewart family, today the Maxwell-Stuarts, an unostentatiously Catholic family. Whilst this is of only passing interest today, in centuries past the Stuarts had to exercise great discretion to avoid the suspicion of Protestant authorities. The old faith was easier for the landed gentry to retain than the common tenant, as they could afford to hire priests, worship behind closed doors, and were not subject to the same level of intrusiveness into private affairs - and in the Borders and Northumbria, Catholicism remained common amongst major landowners. Only when the law changed in 1829 were the Stuarts able to publicly build a chapel.

Their support of the old ways included espousing the Jacobite cause. Legend has it that in 1745, as the 5th Earl closed his new gates behind Bonnie Prince Charlie - a guest on his march to Derby - he declared that he would not open them again until a Stuart sat on the British throne. These Bear Gates remain closed to this day - and ever since, Traquhair has been accessed via a side entrance.

The Bear Gates:

I was last at Traquhair in March for the Deerstalker, a muddy hill-and-obstacle night race where the wearing of tweed is encouraged. But the most tangible souvenir brought home was not Tweedside mud, but a couple of bottles of superlative Traquhair Ale, brewed in a side building the old-fashioned way using ancient equipment found in a 1960s clearout. Founded in 1965, the Traquhair brewery must be one of the oldest existing microbreweries in the UK - if not the world.

Sunday, 15 June 2014


It was a pleasure last night to finally see a friend's band, the Just Joans. I'd meant to see them for some time.

The Just Joans:

As we chatted afterwards four glitter-faced, barefoot young women took to the stage. By the end of their second song I was entranced. I had the rare feeling that I was enjoying the privilege of seeing an amazing unknown band of the cusp of something big. TeenCanteen. Catch them if you can and let some sunshine into your life.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Crianlarich the Wrong Way

6am on a beautiful May morning at Loch Voil, probably the least visited loch in the Trossachs. Its lack of popularity is a bit of a mystery on a day like this.

Loch Voil:

I love this time of day and year! Snow patches still on the hills, the greens of the landscape fresh rather than dull and jaded, long hours of daylight and almost no midges. The right weather for a walk I have thought about for a couple of decades now - all the Crianlarich hills in one go. The observant amongst you will already have noticed that Loch Voil is on the wrong side of the hills for Crianlarich. But, why not? After climbing Creag Meagaidh from Glen Roy, I seem to be making a habit of going up hills by unconventional routes, and climbing the Crianlarich hills from the south, rather than the north, avoids not just the crowds but some of the boggiest approach paths in the country.

I stopped at Balquhidder to see Rob Roy's grave.

Churchyard with Rob Roy's grave:

The walk starts at the other end of Loch Voil, at Inverlochlarig - once Rob Roy's farm. Today the farmer sells venison from the gate, or from their website I decided to buy some on my way back down, my walking moments filled with thoughts of the fresh venison steak I would have when I got home.

Beinn Chabhair from Glen Larig:

The Crianlarich hills... despite their proximity to my old home, I have been up most of these only once - and all in bad weather. It was delightful now to see them on a fine day. They are craggy, knobbly hills, lacking major cliff faces but not to be taken lightly - especially as my route linking five or more Munros would take me up and down very steep hillsides lacking in paths. I popped out at Beinn Chabhair's airy perch at the sort of time most folk have just arrived in work.

Beinn Chabhair summit:

What a place to be! My own day's work lay ahead over some big drops and reascents. I carefully picked my way down to the col, remembering that in these hills, it pays to hold your nerve as you approach apparently impossible drops - you can usually pick a way down somehow.

The day's hills from Beinn Chabhair:

Up onto An Caisteal and over a path to Beinn a' Chroin's many-bumped summit. I was last here in 1992 in low cloud and driving rain and with so many little tops to choose from, have never been 100% sure that we reached the actual summit. I made sure of it today. But was it my faulty memory, or is there now a clear path that wasn't on this hill 22 years ago? I sat on the windless summit listening to the rushing of distant burns and was content.

Beinn Tuleachain and Beinn a'Chroin from Cruch Ardrain - Ben Lomond in the distance:

The drop from Beinn a'Chroin towards Beinn Tuleachain was particularly tough, a seriously off-piste route. I looked back from the bottom. There must be a word for looking back ruefully at a difficult descent to realise you just chose the worst possible route down your hill! And the way up Beinn Tuleachain was just as tough. Suddenly though, a path - linking Beinn Tuleachain and Cruach Ardrain - and, when I wondered if I would see nobody all day, half a dozen people. I contemplated Ben More and Stob Binnean from Beinn Tuleachain. I had thought of adding these hills too to my tally for an impressive seven Munros, 32km and 10,500ft, but Ben More is a brutal slog even without having already done five Munros, a pyramid of pain with no intrinsic interest itself. Who ever climbs Ben More twice?

Cruach Ardrain and Ben More:

I would be very late home and was already tiring. Alternatively there was venison for tea. Can you guess what I did - and what would you have done?

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Creag Meagaidh

The normal route up Creag Meagaidh is from Aberarder - a walk through beautiful native forestry gradually reveals the awesome cliffs of Coire Ardair, which can be safely turned on the side via The Window. It would be crazy to ascend from Glen Roy to the north, twice as far from the road and several trackless miles across featureless bog and tundra. Only an idiot would climb Creag Meagaidh from this direction.

Parallel Roads of Glen Roy:

We arrived at the road end in Glen Roy at 7am after sleeping rough en route, cold and glad to get moving. But this glen has features of subtle interest, chief of which are the Parallel Roads - ancient shorelines from the ice age. Once up on one, you barely notice it - they are best appreciated from a distance. But a trip along the Parallel Roads makes a great low-level walk in bad weather, looking at the various waterfalls in the glen, one of which runs under one of the Roads, forming a natural bridge.

Upper Glen Roy:

The flat bed of the ancient lake has been steeply carved by the Rivers Roy and Turret at Brae Roy Lodge, bridged by an 18th century military bridge (the strategic Corrieyairack Pass is not far away). Imagine being a redcoat trudging through the glen in the picture above, believing the provenance of the Parallel Roads to be classical-era hunting aids created by Fingalian warriors, nervously looking up at the hillsides for Fingal's claymore-wielding descendants.

Spiderweb on the path:

A rough path with only deer tracks and spider webs leads up to the Parallel Roads, and beyond to a beautiful series of cascades marked on the map as Dog Falls. A perfect skinny dipping spot. We looked enviously at the waters. "I hear folk hike topless in Norway?" I asked my companion who had lived several years in Trondheim, but he had never seen such a thing. Another cherished myth busted.

Pool on the Dog Falls:

I dearly wanted to tarry at one pool but it was too early for lunch.

Above the Dog Falls:

We stopped instead above the falls, where the snowfields of Meagaidh became visible for the first time.

Creag Meagaidh from the north:

A steady trudge across the bog took us to steeper slopes and sun-softened snowfields, views opening up with each step. To the north and west the hills of Affric and Knoydart, Sgurr na Ciche and Sgurr Fhuran prominent, Ben Wyvis just visible in a haze. To the south an unfamiliar aspect of Glencoe and the Grey Corries - Creag Meagaidh's position as a large hill away from the two big massifs of the Cairngorms and Lochaber makes for unfamiliar views. It took a while to orientate ourselves and realise we were looking at Loch Treig.

Summit view towards Aonachs and Ben Nevis:

Dirty old avalanche debris streaked Beinn a' Chaorainn and mighty Ben Nevis heaved above the Aonachs. Then the summit dome and suddenly, having seen nobody all day, a score of people: small groups in 2s and 3s processing across the snowfield from the common-sense direction of Aberarder.

Creag Meagaidh summit:

We headed as close to the cliffs of Coire Ardair as we dared: joined the bank holiday crowds as far as The Window, and left them again for the solitude of our unconventional route back to Glen Roy, only wheatears for company.

Coire Ardair:

It was a long way back, our feet tired after their long confinement in boots. But this side of Creag Meagaidh had shown us Parallel Roads, secret swimming pools, and an approach Scandinavian in scale. This route less travelled is one for the connoisseur.

Avalanche above Lochan Uaine: