Monday, 2 May 2016

Scotland's Cinque Terre

Clinging like limpets to the tumbling Ligurian coast, the Cinque Terre are five incredibly picturesque Italian villages.

And it was while walking between Elie and Crail that the thought stuck me. This is Scotland's Cinque Terre!

In the Cinque Touns:

OK, so the East Neuk may not be a world-famous UNESCO World Heritage site, and these pretty villages stand out mainly because they buck the Scottish trend of building unattractive domestic architecture. On the other hand, Elie, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail do not suffer from the pressure of tourist numbers affecting the Italian Cinque Terre. You can wander the streets and paths unmobbed and unregulated. To a person who likes things fuss-free, this is precious indeed.

Elie beach:

Our walk started in Elie, the only one of Fife's 'Cinque Touns' to boast a significant stretch of beach. Elie is quiet but not undiscovered. It has a reputation as a second-home destination for wealthy Edinburgers. The streets are filled with Mercedes and it has a Michelin-starred restaurant. (Right now a two-bedroom bungalow on the seafront is on the market for over £800,000 - you would pay less in Edinburgh's New Town!) But the fresh air and the seafront walks are free.

Elie from its beach:

A scarecrow festival was on, the harbour full of yachts rather than fishing boats, and everything was right with the world. We wandered out to Elie Ness, looked over to the snow on the Moorfoots and sunbathed.

Tower at Elie Ness:

The trail between Elie and St Monans is easy going, above a beach with interesting rock formations. The coast here is part earthy, part sandstone, part volcanic...

Rock formations with Bass Rock and Berwick Law in the distance:

We stopped to smell the rich tropical scent of gorse, as sparrows flitted between impenetrable bramble bushes... students were out from St Andrews, enjoying a break from their studies.

Student on a doocot:

Eventually, we approached St Monans along the earthy path.

St Monans kirk:

St Monans raises the levels of picturesque to an art. Many houses were restored by the National Trust in their little house improvement scheme.

The harbour is a lovely place to while away a some time. We ate ice cream from the local shop and wandered about.

It is a hop of just a couple of kilometres from St Monans to Pittenweem, past a windmill and old salt pans. This was an industrial landscape during the Rennaisance and Jacobean times. What was once a dirty industrial site now does its best to stay just on the right side of twee.

Approaching Pittenweem:

By Pittenweem the afternoon was well advanced. We had spent the whole date bimbling and sunbathing, looking at gable-ends and smelling the spring flowers. A decision was made to curtail our walk two villages short so we could get home in decent time for tea. Anstruther and Crail would have to wait.

Pittenweem harbour:

Coastal walking, counter-intuitively, often requires more time for the distance than hillwalking - there is so much more to see!

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Kelpies

"Jesus!" you think, as you weave across the M9, nearly crashing your car into a vehicle in the next lane. "What the fuck is that?"

It's the Kelpies, that's what.

The Kelpies are a 2013 sculpture at the end of the Forth-Clyde Canal. As the dullest and least scenic roads in Scotland, the main arteries between Edinburgh and Glasgow have become repositories of outdoor art. The Heavy Horse, the Pyramids, the Teletubby-like Horn (which apparently broadcasts sounds if you were to get out your car and listen) and the weird six-limbed Arrira.

The Kelpies though are something else. 100ft high, they loom over the M9 motorway, appearing suddenly from behind some trees at a bend. In The Godfather, the Mafia intimidated a character by putting a horse's head in his bed. If that film had been shot in Scotland, not only would it be slightly more surreal, but the victim could well have woken up inside a horse's head, such is the scale of these things.

But it is important to remember they aren't horses. They are kelpies, water spirits from auld Scotia who liked to take the form of horses to lure unsuspecting maidens onto their backs. They would then gallop into a nearby loch with their victim on their back, never to be seen again.

I've wanted to visit the Kelpies since the sculptures were completed. They have caused a bit of local interest, and unlike the other sculptures along the M8 and M80, are worth visiting in their own right, dominating the canal basin at the Forth end of the Forth-Clyde Canal. I surely can't be the only person who has thought that they would make a fitting end to an ultra-marathon or canoe race, traversing the 35-mile length of the canal from west coast to east?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Ring of Rannoch

It was the weather of a West Coast exile's dream. Cool, damp, and dull. We looked across the wastes of Rannoch Moor and I breathed deep the fresh air. What a place!

"It looks like the set of a 1970s horror film," said my companion. "Screw this, I'm going to the pub."

We were at the Kingshouse for a reunion and it seemed that only I wanted a walk. Just as well I like my own company.

On Rannoch Moor:

The walk I had planned would take me a long way along estate tracks towards the heart of the moor, up to the superlative viewpoint of Stob na Cruaiche, down towards Tigh na Cruaiche, and back across a track marked on the map. The first stage was a quick march along the Black Corries Lodge's well-made estate road, the Etive brawling alongside. I know from experience that this is a fine spot for sunbathing or swimming on rare days of midge-free warmth. The lochans in the wedge of moor between the A82 and the lodge are full of sporting brown trout.

The infant Etive:

Fifteen minutes after I began, the rain stopped and the sun even shone briefly. Ha ha! That would teach my companion. A few minutes later the rain returned for the rest of the day. On leaving the track to take a photo I was instantly lost in a wilderness of serpentine standing water, dank oozy drains patterning the tweed-coloured landscape. The estate track makes for easy going, but this is not a landscape to mess about with.

Rannoch Moor: bleak as fuck

At the lodge I was surprised by birdsong. The lodge is surrounded by trees and the wide moor briefly relented to an oasis of feathered chatter. Ducks flew from a lochan and I saw deer, surprised grouse, and even spotted a newt in a pool of black water. Peat blackened stumps of ancient pines glimpsed amongst the hags tell the tale of the forest that covered this land before the dampness and the peat won over.

Peat-preserved pine roots:

So far, so enjoyable. But after leaving the track I was on my own. My target was Stob na Cruaiche, the top of the Black Corries, but the angle of the moor makes for hard going - neither steep enough to gain altitude quickly, nor flat enough for rapid progress. Soon I was in the cloud, views gone, legs aching with the effort of lifting them over tussocky peat hags as I slowly soaked in the increasing wind and rain. "This is shite," I said to myself.

Last view:

I walked amongst frozen turf, sodden fescue, ice on the lochans and sudden vivid mossy greens amongst the browns and blacks of the moor. Where exposed the bedrock was startlingly white, a beautiful speckled granite. But it was a hard darg, and I was wet and not particularly enjoying myself when I finally reached the summit, a viewless pillar of concrete in the pissing rain and mist.

The re-entrant:

But then something magical happened. On descent I found myself in a small fold in the hill, a secret flat area halfway down a steep hillside. A river I could not cross forced me to pause and take stock. I was still soaking and cold, but a single moment of beauty was taking my breath away. We are sensitive to our environment after sustained periods of grind and misery and a different perspective had suddenly opened up. The river running through tunnels of snow, twisting where it will. A place so utterly without human value that the land does nothing except be itself. Just be itself. I stood and absorbed this place, as indifferent to me as only a truly wild place can be. Standing here in the mist and rain, this seemed profound.

The Rannoch Amazon:

I followed the smoothly flowing river, impassable, as deep as it is broad, a collection of elements, of earth, water, wind, gravity and light. The land steepened, and the river roared downhill as I finally broke out of the cloud.

Loch Laidon at the heart of the moor:

I had a rude shock on arriving at Tigh na Cruaiche. There was still a long way back, I'd forgotten that the path marked on the map didn't exist, and it would soon be dark. I was glad I hadn't done the full 'Ring of Rannoch' all the way to Rannoch Station. It was a hard forced march back to the lights of the Kingshouse, where my friends had been wondering where I had gone.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Hoxa Art Deco

There's a great collection of Art Deco architecture on Orkney. The best examples are at Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay. To be honest most people would not class them as Art Deco. Most people would call them wartime gun batteries. But what are these curves, if not pure le Corbusier?

Balfour Battery:

When form matches function so elegantly?

Hoxa Battery:

During WWI and WWII, the Royal Navy's most important home base was Scapa. This anchorage needed defended, and these gun batteries were the result. Now they are crumbling, the steel in the reinforced concrete rusted, the buildings liable to sudden collapse. A shame for such treasures of modern architecture.

Track to Hoxa Head:

The walk out to Hoxa Head from the Hoxa Tearoom is short but fine in winter sunshine. A muddy track leads you to an information board and the first battery. There are views across the Pentland Firth to Caithness, and nearer at hand to Hoy at the other side of the entrance to Scapa Flow. The oil terminal on Flotta is an incongruous sight in such a beautiful area. The battery sits on low cliffs, a tilted sandwich of sandstone strata, jagged edges attacked by the sea. A seal watched us from inshore.

From here it is a short stroll round to the next battery and the track back to the tearoom.

View from Hoxa Head:

In the end the Germans did successfully attack the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow, when G├╝nther Prien took U-47 past the defences and sank HMS Royal Oak. He didn't bother with the front door, guarded by the Hoxa batteries. This southern entrance to Scapa Flow was considered impregnable. U-47 came in via the shallow inter-island channels to the east of Scapa. The Churchill Barriers, sealing these channels to sea-traffic and incidentally linking the islands by road, were the result.

Spot the seal!

We didn't meet any Germans. Just some fulmars, cormorants, and an inquisitive seal.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Broch of Gurness

For years historians debated if it was a transcription error. The 'King of Orkney' who attended a meeting with Roman Emperor Claudius at Colchester surely didn't refer to the remote Orkneys. The unsophisticated, illiterate Caledonians always had been Rome's enemies. It was absurd to believe the remotest of them had been plugged into mainstream Mediterranean politics. And if it wasn't a transcription error, it was probably just Roman lies about their reach stretching to the farthest corners of Britain.

Broch of Gurness:

And so matters lay until pottery from Claudius' reign was unearthed at the Broch of Gurness. This was the most complex broch on Orkney and home of a chief. Historians started to put the evidence together and a story emerged.

Gurness ramparts - old as Rome:

Roman emissaries had arrived at the King of Orkney's broch at Gurness and made the appropriate noises. Emperor Claudius was coming to conquer Britain they said, and it would be in Orkney's interests to submit. They brought gifts and tributes to sweeten the deal. Thus it was that the King of Orkney - alone amongst the Caledonians - was one of the eleven kings of Britain who paid homage to Claudius during his triumphal visit to Colchester in AD43. Most intriguingly, Claudius only spent two weeks in Britain. Given the travelling times involved, the King of Orkney must have had advance notice and planned accordingly.

Entrance ruins:

The currents of world affairs may have ebbed from Gurness, but the riptide of Eynhallow Sound is eternal, a north wind battering us and sanderlings companionably scavenging at the tide edge, a seal watching just offshore. Gurness is a fascinating place. The socket for the door pivot can still be seen next to the anterooms where the guard dogs lived, and there are stone beds, a grinding stone, a stone basin inside. For all that it must have seemed a dirty and uncouth place for a Roman more used to villas in the sunshine. I shivered in the wind and thought that I would accept a little dirtiness in exchange for a roof and a warm fire.

Outside, the broch is surrounded by rings of ramparts and an Iron Age village complex. In winter the site is closed. What this means is that there is nobody to take money. But the gate is unlocked, and visitors can walk around alone with just their imagination and the wind for company.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Orcadian Elemental

A skein of honking geese hug the contours of the land. A black bag, ripped, flaps against a barbed wire fence. A window creaks in an abandoned house. The wind gets everywhere, like water. Ducks are alarmed at my approach. By the time I reach them, they are only ripples in the burn.

A hailstorm sweeps the landscape. I bow my head and plough on. The green earth has turned white. A hint of red amongst dawn's greys.

My run's objective is the broch. Inside its thick walls it is calmer, the howl of the wind different, a bluff buffeting as if waves against a ship's hull.

I take a still moment, a deep breath, and head back.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Orkney in Winter

We arrived in Orkney for a short break. Orkney in February? But why not? Perhaps we would see the Northern Lights.

Northern stars:

"You should have been here in winter!" said the first man we talked to. I looked around. There was snow on the ground. Isn't this winter? He shook his head. The sun was shining.

Loch of Harray:

We returned to a favourite spot. Above, the Kitchener Memorial. Below, Marwick. What was that black dot... no...? yes. A surfer. Suffering fuck, that must be freezing.


People in Orkney are often named after their place, she explained. The people from Twatt, well, their surname was Twatt. But some didn't like it. They changed their name to Watt. But if you meet a Watt, she said slowly, drawing the vowels out, you know they're really a Twatt.

Hailstorm passes Marwick:

I went for a run and counted more than twenty tractors in a field. What was going on? "It's the plooing match," said a retired farmer. Straightest furrow wins. I wished I'd asked how the field gets chosen. Dounby. Farms surrounded by a bowl of low hills. Never mind Kirkwall, this part of Orkney feels like the real heart of the archipelago.

Plooing match:

At Skara Brae officialdom greeted us. Did we have a ticket? No? Sorry, it was about to close. We could return tomorrow. Only Maes Howe and Skara Brae operate through the winter as tourist sites, she said. She was snugly wrapped up against the wind. Only her blue Viking eyes were visible. But the inference was clear. We could wander at will elsewhere. A rugged-up family drew pictures in the sand. A black dot in the big wave near the rocks. I don't believe it. There was another surfer out there.

Skaill Bay:

We went to the Ring of Brodgar for sunset. At this time of year that's 5pm. The whaleback hills of Hoy, the pale space of Loch of Harray, empty as the sky, the scattered lights of Dounby.  We breathed in the cold, keen air and returned to our rented cottage for dinner, bath and a fire.

Ring of Brodgar:

This is the time of year to visit Orkney. No cruise liners. No queues. Just you and the wind and the locals.