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.


Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Hogmanay Apocrypha

The tale goes that one December in the 1980s, Dundee Airport faxed a message to the UK's main air traffic control centre.

"There will be no flights over Hogmanay." 

A while later they received a reply.

"We've checked our maps, but can't find it. Where is Hogmanay?" 

A good Hogmanay to you all, wherever that may be.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Memory of the Year, 2014

Looking back over the year, I wondered what my favourite photo was. Barring holidays abroad and family photos, which picture of Scotland would bring back the best memories? I started looking through my pictures. Snowy step cutting on the Blackmount in January. A storm-lashed Aberlady Bay, marram grass bent back and white horses on the sandbar. Pladda light at gloaming with a distant Ailsa Craig enticing me on to Antrim. But my favourite of all was the one that had popped into mind from the start. 

Glen Rosa, Arran:

A perfect summer day in Glen Rosa. We had waited for the rain to stop, and it was late enough in the day that the planned walk through the glen to Sannox was already marginal. But now the day was heating up, birds singing in the trees of Brodick Castle estate, and the afternoon crowds dispersing towards the campsite. We approached the glen from the castle, a quieter, more interesting approach. High above, buzzards soared along the cliff edge. Small trout basked in the River Rosa.

We stopped at a large, clean, granite slab that slipped into a rockpool on the Rosa, and all thoughts of walking further melted away as we played in the pool and picnicked. At this dark time of year, with the 'weather bombs' we have been having, this carefree summerness, with huge dragonflies rattling about, seems like another world. This picture reminds me of those days, and makes me hope for more fine summers to come.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Birnam Tay Dunkeld

The Tay at Birnam:

Autumn. The time of golden trees, russet bracken, roaring stags and dark rivers. The time to take a trip to the Highlands.

Dunkeld House Hotel:

I am carrying another injury so the walk had to be short. The Tay at Birnam and Dunkeld fits the bill. We had been here before, but not in autumn.

Fiddler's Path:

A well-maintained trail called the Fiddler's Path takes you from Birnam, up the right bank of the Tay, onto the A9 to cross the Tay, then down the left bank through the grounds of Dunkeld House Hotel. It was damp and dull, but the sun occasionally filtered through the clouds.

The Tay here is dark, deep, fast-flowing. Occasional bubbles and eddies speak of strong subsurface currents. Wait long enough, and a salmon splashes through the surface to take a look around.

Dunkeld is an historic village. Its cathedral is modest and relatively modern - the current building dates from the 13th century - but it is situated on the site of an ancient 6th century church, surrounded by mature trees with the Tay gliding by. It is a peaceful, exceptionally right spot. We came out of the cathedral grounds and bought speciality cheese in Menzies of Dunkeld to eat with oatcakes on our way home.


A lovely short walk of six or seven miles. I just hope to be well enough to take to the snowy hills this winter.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Eastend and Tinto

Lanarkshire from Tinto:

There is an element of Hobbiton in the green teletubby hills and stands of mature trees that mark the rolling South Lanarkshire countryside, especially when driving along the backroad via Biggar and Thankerton on a fine day. We had come to South Lanarkshire for two purposes: to climb a hill, and to explore an abandoned house. I already knew and liked Tinto, and the grapevine told us of an intriguing derelict just a mile or so from the bottom of the hill. On a mellow autumn day, we parked discretely and headed on foot to our mysterious ruin.

Approaching Eastend:

The house is substantial and largely watertight, surrounded by trees and set in a lawn with a fine view of Tinto immediately south.

Although abandoned, the house seemed to still be in reasonable condition. We went inside.

The stairs were solid, and we spent a while wandering around the upstairs rooms, taking care not to go through any floorboards.

This house was one of many across Southern Scotland that were commandeered by the Polish Army in exile during the Second World War. After the war, many of these grand houses lacked a function. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar abandoned houses in Scotland, great houses built or expanded in the Victorian era, designed for entertaining large parties, whose size became uneconomical as society changed and empire and industry shrunk. Those that failed to be turned into hotels or similar viable businesses in the second half of the 20th century have often been left to ruin. It is sad to see grand houses like these derelict. Perhaps now that society is becoming more unequal, one of the side benefits may be that large houses like these could make viable family homes again, and thus be rescued from ruin.

The house thoroughly explored, we walked on to Tinto and its popular north-eastern approach. The first couple of times I went up Tinto was from the south, through the trees and boggy field above Wiston and turning the steep nose on its side. The north-east approach however had a well-made path all the way up, and other parties enjoying the day.

The path heads past an intriguing 'fort', although the defensive capabilities of the concentric structure are questionable. It is more likely that it was used for some ritual rather than defensive purpose. Tinto, after all, is a beacon hill, its gentle swelling well seen to the south from any high-rise in Glasgow on a clear day, a place where Beltane rituals were likely conducted in time immemorial.

At the top, a view south of Culter Fell and the Southern Uplands. Tinto is an outlier of this range, moated by a big loop of the Clyde. The summit boasts a 45m wide, 6m high prehistoric cairn, visible, apparently, from both the Atlantic and the North Sea. It is a windy, exposed, exhilarating spot, with views in all directions.

Tinto is a magic mountain, easily forgotten by those who favour more rugged Highland hills, but rich in old history. The fields of Clydesdale grew grey with dew as we descended and the sun's light and warmth fled.