Monday, 23 February 2015

Friday, 13 February 2015

Ecosse Profonde in Newburgh

When you're visiting Scotland, where do you go? Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Glencoe, Skye? Where you are not likely to go is the northern shore of Fife. Even the Fife Coastal Path started at the Tay Bridge, missing out the entire North Fife shore. (Only in the last couple of years has the path been extended to Newburgh.) North Fife is one of those areas that nobody visits, a blank on the map like the coal villages of eastern Lanarkshire. It is terra incognita.

I don’t know about you, but I find that irresistible.

I was attracted to Newburgh by the density of casually scattered historical remains, like stones in a Lochaber field or churches in Rome. There are so many remains that Clatchard Craig was quarried for aggregate. No big deal, Clatchard’s just an ancient hillfort, plenty more where they came from. To the south Denmylne Castle, to the south-west Macduff’s Cross, to the west, Abernethy round tower. At some point this must have been an important place, but the tide of history has receded, leaving Newburgh alone with its memories.

Lindores Abbey:

We started at Lindores Abbey, a place I expected to be signposted. It wasn’t, so we stopped to ask a group directions and, to our luck, one of them happened to own Lindores. Own Lindores? I had assumed it would be in the care of the state like many other historic sites. “It’s private ground,” he explained, “my back garden. But you’re welcome to look round. Where did you hear of Lindores?”

I had read about it on the internet. The abbey was founded around 1180 and is the place where whisky production was first documented, in 1494. I hadn't expected it to be quite so ruined - or have rockery plants! (It really is someone’s garden.) The other strange feature above Lindores is a large figure gouged out of the hillside. What could it be?

We asked a passer-by. She was a mine of information. The figure on the hillside was a bear and a post - the symbol of Warwick - due to some ancient connection between the English Midlands town and one of the king Alexanders. The hillside figure itself is only twenty-odd years old though. She was also full of questions. Where were we from? What brought us to Newburgh? It was a lovely community in her opinion, like a time capsule from the 1950s. Young people like us bought dilapidated Georgian houses in the town and did them up. We heard about the eel house, used by monks from the abbey to catch eels. I had an urge to find the eel house.

First we headed down to the waterfront. This was surprisingly attractive, with little piers and boats. The Tay is broad here and quite wild, reed-fringed with an island mid channel and the distant Highlands gleaming white in snow. This used to be the site of a giant linoleum factory until the 1970s. Another piece of local history, all trace gone. Behind, Newburgh straggled steeply up its hill, most of the town in its shadow. I think this is one reason North Fife is neglected by outsiders. Who wants to hang around and overshadowed town?


The eel house, we had been told, was on the outflow of the burn that ran from Lindores Loch to the sea, a mile or so from the abbey and not far from the loch. We parked at Abdie and Dunbog church (an interesting ruined predecessor is a quarter mile distant) and looked up and down the stream. And there we found it! It is still intact and functional. It was built by medieval monks to catch eels as they migrated between the loch and the sea. What a lovely, random thing to find.

The eel house:

This was the highlight of my day, but there was one last curio. A Marilyn, Cairney Hill, quickly bagged before sunset, the low hills of Fife rolling in every direction and pheasant tracks in the snow. On the top an amateur radio enthusiast who told us about his hobby. It had been a lovely day meeting some interesting people. Newburgh, intact in itself, receiving - and needing - no external interest. Rather than being an area of no interest, this part of North Fife is Ecosse profonde.

Loch of Lindores from Cairney Hill:

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Hill That Got Away

Summer is the normal season for an expedition to Arran. In winter Arran becomes remote - a blind spot in the imagination, despite its proximity to the Central Belt.

Arran from Ayrshire:

But a dusting of snow transforms the Arran hills into something exotic. Even simple Goatfell provides the challenge of a Big Hill experience under such conditions. As a winter daytrip, it is hard to surpass. With easily-accessible hills as exciting as these, why do we not go to Arran more often in winter? (A question discussed in my book, The Weekend Fix.) It is because it is an island. It requires organisation. Because if you do not arrive half an hour before departure, the ferry gates close and this is as close to Goatfell as you will get:

Abondoned in Ardrossan with Goatfell sparkling in sunshine:

Bloody Caledonian Macbrayne! The boat was still in port, but I couldn't alight. A 200 mile round trip for nothing. A beautiful day wasted. I was distraught. I drove home doing my best to count my many blessings, listening to Andy Murray screw up his day as well as I had mine.

Friends were kind enough to share photos of what I'd missed:

View from Goatfell:

Next time, Arran. Next time.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

History Book - Wordle Visualisations

Just heard this week that my hillwalking book, The Weekend Fix, has gone out of print. There won't be a second print run. So if you want a copy, you had better be fast!

Of course, it will always be available for Kindle here.

So what of my next book?

This may be of only passing interest to others, but to paraphrase someone who probably isn't Maya Angelou despite her name being lodged in my head as the generator of the quote: "I can't do the job a want, I'd be a damn fool not to blog what I want!"

I have about 400,000 words that I am currently wrestling into a history of Britain. There is a twist - it is a history of Britain from a Scottish perspective. The first section covers Prehistory to Pictland:

The second, the formation of Alba to the 'Golden Age' of Alexander III:

The third volume, the Wars of Independence and the Stewarts:

The fourth, Religion and Union. (It is interesting to note that most histories of Britain, invariably written from a Metropolitan perspective, get by comfortably without mentioning Scotland at all. The history of Britain from a Scottish perspective meanwhile, still has plenty to say about England. The same, however, does not seem to be the case for Wales.)

The fifth part, Industry and Empire:

The sixth and final, Decline and Regeneration:

These visualisations are purely for my own curiosity. It will be interesting to see how they compare with the finished book. Normal service resumed in the next post :)

Friday, 16 January 2015

Circumnavigation of Holy Island

Lindisfarne Castle:

There's something special about an island that you can walk to from the mainland, one that you can entirely circumnavigate on foot, and return across acres of corrugated sand in the gloaming.

Frozen sand approaching Lindisfarne:

Especially when the island is Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, the Iona of the East, the St Michael's Mount of the North.

Crossing the sands, we saw another group of walkers looking at something in the near distance. As we passed we saw it was a seal, hauled out onto the sands and eyeing the distant humans warily.

A bigger surprise was a little egret, a beautiful, small white heron. I had no idea they lived here!

Approaching the end of the beach leading to Lindisfarne:

We arrived on Holy Island at Primrose Bank, or more accurately, kept Holy Island to our right, circumnavigating clockwise (as in The Sea on Our Left, a classic account of walking the British coastline). The sands stretch expansively between Berwick and Lindisfarne, and it is possible to keep Holy Island's shore at quite a distance. Surf pounds the sands edge, but walk closer to Holy Island and the beach dips slightly towards shore, creating an odd effect - the surf still audible, but no longer visible, as if the end of the sand bank falls off the edge of the world.

Looking back beyond the surf towards Berwick:

When the beach narrows at the north eastern end of Holy Island, two surprises - first a short cliff above a beach, backed by dunes and frozen sand.

Coves Haven:

Second, beyond lumpy links land, a pyramidal beacon marking the turn south, where the Farne Islands, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh Castles came into view as we turned south for the village.

These castles are both iconic. It is safe to use that overused word in this context. This view of Lindisfarne Castle is a well-known symbol of the National Trust.

The classic view:

At the castle, suddenly, crowds. We had seen a surprising number of people on our circumnavigation, but they had numbered in their tens. Here was the real thing, on the short stretch between car park and castle to which 90% of island daytrippers confine themselves.

Looking back to Lindisfarne, crossing the sands:

Sun was now setting. The tide would stay out for another couple of hours, but we had to hurry to cross in the remaining daylight. (A situation that reminded me of Cata Sand.) The car park emptied in a steady stream, lights across the causeway. Lindisfarne village would be a good place to stay the night, the tourists gone, the island back in the possession of its inhabitants, ensconced in the snug of a pub with the clanking of boat sheets in the evening breeze.

Route marker poles across the sands:

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Neither Here nor There

I like the area around Biggar. This wasn't always the case. It's not anywhere in particular. But now I find that part of its attraction. It is a liminal area - not quite west, not quite east. Not fully lowland, nor upland. Peeblesshire, Lanarkshire and Lothian all meet at the southern end of the Pentlands. Tinto, Little Sparta, Skirling with its wrought iron animals and Habbie's Howe. A short drive from Edinburgh but a world away in spirit.

Cloud-capped Tinto:

How lucky those of us who like the outdoors are to live in Central Scotland!

South from Broomy Law:

The Pentlands are at their quietest and most interesting here. A cluster of Marilyns give panoramic views. The pictures on this post are from modest Broomy Law, 426m high on the county boundary between Lanark and Peebles. Hard against the opposite slopes of the hills in the picture below is the capital of Scotland and its congealing mass of satellite towns. In this place, near Biggar - which is not really any place in particular - it is hard to believe a conurbation is only twenty miles distant.

Pentlands from Broomy Law:

Friday, 2 January 2015

Ben Lomond via Ptarmigan Ridge

View from the top:

Day broke as we motored up the M9 past Stirling and turned off for the country roads that would take us west. Pastoral fields roll down to the Forth with the Highland hills a backdrop frieze. I had never stopped, until now, to take a photo. Here's Ben Lomond from the south-east.

It was going to be an absolute cracker of a day. Knowing how fine the sunset is from Ben Lomond, I didn't want to finish the hill too soon. Delaying tactics were required. My companion Dave had never been to Duncryne, Tom Weir's daily walk and perhaps the finest viewpoint in the Lowlands. It certainly is part of my favourite half day out. It somehow seemed appropriate to make a pilgrimage to Tom's favourite spot, the day his statue was unveiled at Balmaha.

Loch Lomond from the Dumpling:

Before we knew it is was lunchtime and time to climb a hill! Dave wanted to ascend via the Ptarmigan Ridge, which I had never been up. A well-made - if icy - path took us quickly up the sides of Loch Lomond, a more intimate route than the tourist path.

Above us, across frost dappled slopes of an Ochil-y hue, a silhouetted ant-procession of walkers on the tourist path. Below, boats cavorted in the loch, making road-shaped bends in their wake.

For all the cars in the car park, we met only one other fellow on the way up the hill. The only route to beat this, I felt, was an ascent of the corrie from Comer farm to the north-east. Followed by a descent of Ptarmigan. Because you have to include Ptarmigan in your Ben Lomond itinerary. Because it contains places like this:

View west from Ptarmigan:

I stood for a long time, soaking in the atmosphere as the last of the day's other walkers passed us heading down Ptarmigan. So close and familiar, Ben Lomond. It is easy to forget what a fucking awesome hill it is.

View north from Ptarmigan Ridge:

The ridge joins the summit cone and narrows and steepens satisfyingly, views north-east into perpetual shade, south-west to the loch, and above to the summit.

Summit rocks from Ptarmigan approach:

The summit of Ben Lomond at the end of a fine winter's day:

Descent was made on icy paths in gathering darkness. A fair price to pay for being taken, just for the moment, out of our own world and into the breathtaking otherworldliness of a Highland hill on a fine winter's day.