Friday, 19 September 2014

Sex For the Disabled

I fancied a walk up Arthur's Seat this morning. In my mind's eye there would be a beautiful sunrise, maybe even some people on top. Instead it was foggy with drizzle. I was alone with the wind, some discarded roses and a crawing hoodie.

Here's a song by Momus.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

TGO Magazine October 2014

A big day today! No, not the referendum. I refer of course to the appearance of my first article in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, Britain's biggest-selling hillwalking magazine...

You can get it in newsagents or get a copy for your tablet here:

Tuesday, 9 September 2014


WIth just one more day in Reykjavik before flying home, we wanted to see some of Iceland. Snaefellsnes - a 200km drive from Reykjavik - fits the bill nicely. The scenery on the way is typically volcanic. There are similar landforms in places like Skye and Mull but these volcanic rocks, although the youngest in Scotland, are millions of years old. In Iceland, they are still being born.

Trap country:

Snaefellsnes is the 60 mile long peninsula of Snaefell, a glacier-capped volcano that inspired Jules Verne (it was his entrance point to the centre of the earth). There's a Snaefell on Man (from which the six kingdoms of Man, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and Heaven can be seen). The one on Man is 620m high and has a funicular railway station and cafe at the top. The one in Iceland is over twice as high, is capped by a glacier, and is considered by those who consider these things to be one of the seven major energy centres of the earth. Thanks to the clear Arctic light it can be clearly seen from Reykjavik despite being 80  miles distant.

Distant Snaefell:

We set off early, picking up a couple of young American hitchhikers who had been sleeping in caves near the road. It was a beautiful day. The sun felt dangerously bright, and the air very dry, but the temperatures stayed in the mid teens and despite expecting sunburn, none happened. Eventually we arrived in Stykkishólmur and stretched our legs. The Americans had just missed a ferry to the Westfjords, a particularly remote and scenic part of Iceland. We had a look around the harbour.


Brightly-painted wood and corrugated iron houses bring a cheerful note to a grand and empty landscape.

Stykkishólmur harbour:

Continuing west we passed Berserkerjarun. The sagas describe a road through this lava field as an 'impossible task' set by a farmer to two berserkers as the price for his daughter's hand in marriage to one of them. To his consternation, they successfully cut a road through the flows, and returned to claim their prize. However whilst they were relaxed and unarmed in a sauna, the farmer and his neighbour burst in and killed them. As any Boer could tell you, 'the farmer has a plan'.

Northern Snaefellsnes:

The sauna is a peculiarly Scandanavian institution, but in Iceland it is possible to bathe in hot spring water all year round. We saw smoke near a road and wandered over to it, to come across a steaming vent hole, water running out of it into the sea. These must have made life in an Icelandic winter slightly more bearable to those who lived nearby.

And then we saw it. One of Iceland's most photogenic hills. The 463m high Kirkjufell.

Kirkjufell rises next to the village of Grundarfjörður which has a beautiful red-roofed church and a saga museum. We ate lunch and the local school came out, the children gathered small groups, talking unhurriedly. I've never seen such a quiet group of school kids. Is there something about the place that breeds, if not reverence, then stillness? I should point out that none of these photos have been photoshopped in any way. It really is this uncannily bright and clear in the high north sunshine.

Grundarfjörður main street:

Kirkjufell provides amazing photo opportunities, especially around a roadside waterfall. We met a young Norwegian who was taking photos on an impressive camera. He had spent a few days camping in the village and a local had told him about the northern lights that had been on display lately. "In summer?" I was surprised. As had he been, but he showed us the incredible evidence on his camera's display. Unfortunately I have lost his business card, so you will have to make do with my own photos.


As we travelled along the peninsula towards Olafsvik, the scenery just got better and better but... that is a post for another time...

South Snaefellsnes, return journey:

"Autumn is on its way," said the woman in the cafe in Borgarnes on our way back. I scoffed but on our return to Scotland, the leaves were already turning and falling, the brambles ripe. It was still August. An early end to summer - but what a way to end it, with a short trip to Iceland.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


People avoid Iceland. It is Nordic, therefore must be extortionately expensive. Foul beer at £10 a pint and a mortgage to afford dinner. That is probably why so few people visit Iceland. Yet "I am so glad you are going to Iceland!" a friend said. "People travel halfway round the world to visit New Zealand, when you can see the same things a two hour flight away in Iceland."

"I've always wanted to visit Norway," I said.

"Iceland's better," he replied.

And he is right. Iceland is exotic in a way more distant places are not. It is a land of dark volcanic rocks, and buildings of white corrugated iron and concrete. In Reykjavik these even have white roofs, which makes the city look modern, clean, a bit clinical. The countryside has few old buildings, turf-roofed hovels abandoned as soon as people could afford modern convenience. But some of the old traditions remain. There's hákarl, rotten shark meat (served in a sealed jar), smoked puffin - and bitarfiskur, a pleasant if pungent biltong-style snack made of dried, salted fish.


Fly with a budget airline and camp, and Iceland is cheap. The beer is no more expensive than in central Edinburgh and - to my astonishment - some of it is quite good.

And another thing about Iceland. I like the way random geographical features have proper names. This volcanic crater is called Kerið.

Each geyser also has its own name. This is Strokkur.

Another in in the park around Geysir is Konungshver. Another Blesi. The largest (and most famous) is Geysir, which gave its name to the whole class of hot spring fountains. Unfortunately it is not a frequent spurter. Strokkur is, and every five minutes or so provides entertainment as unwary tourists downwind are sprayed with hot sulphurous water.

Pressure welling in Strokkur:

Iceland is a land of abundant rivers and, on a wet day, what could be better than going to see a major waterfall like Gullfoss? You are going to get wet anyway...


At first sight, only the 11m top fall on the River Hvita is revealed. But get closer, and the lower 20m fall comes into view, thundering into a narrow slot gorge and sending wet clouds of spray high into the air.

The story of Gullfoss is one of local farmer Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who campaigned to have it preserved for the nation and saved from being dammed for electricity. There is a bust of Sigríður by the waterfall to preserve her memory. I like the way ordinary people in Iceland are recognised as heroes. Perhaps it comes from the tradition of the sagas. Perhaps it is because this is a country of ordinary people, whose infertile land repelled aristocrats and landowners, leaving the inhabitants to make the best of what they had. And in the last 100 years, they've made quite a bit of it. What other country generates 100% of its power requirements from renewable sources, has a proportion of 1 in 10 of the population as published writers, or puts supposedly untouchable international financiers in jail for negligence?

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Reykjavik Marathon

When you are going through your mid-life crisis, at some point - after flying a seaplane, but before getting a ponytail and a motorbike - you'll want to tick a marathon off your list. Ideally you want to do it somewhere scenic, not too hot, somewhere where the locals are friendly.


Graham (my Island Peaks Race companion - he's not having a mid-life crisis, he's just mad) and I arrived at Keflavik Airport in evening light that would excite comment in Scotland for its clarity and purity. In the near-Arctic this light is apparently fairly common. The clear skies brought their own problems overnight - I didn't sleep well in the cold. A sheet of ice on the tent in the morning. In August! We had got chatting to folk on the plane - including experienced runner Mark, who wanted to qualify for Boston, the runner's marathon. To make things more difficult, he was camping too. He gave me great tips on staying hydrated and fuelled before and during the race, which helped immensely.


Race day was cool and almost windless - perfect conditions! 1144 people had entered the marathon, with another 8 or 9 thousand doing the half and 10k. Locals lined the route, cheering and banging spoons against pots. Bands played in makeshift combos on driveways. An elderly man in a suit and fedora played his saxophone. Small children waved Icelandic flags. The congested mass of runners started to thin out. "Too fast, we're going too fast!" I urged Graham. I was determined to keep some energy in reserve for hitting 'the wall'. Eventually Graham pulled ahead. I let him go. I had my own personal race to run.

Running a marathon in Iceland:

By 19km, the 10k and half marathon runners had left us, and all became quiet. (Iceland is a quiet country. There is almost no birdsong.) At each junction local kids directed the way and stopped traffic. We ran through a glen and along the shore, past a monument to the Great Auk. It was going to start to hurt around 30km. OK, 32km. When it didn't, I wondered what was going on. Where was the wall? I didn't speed up though, just hummed tunes to myself and kept trundling on... and there was the finish line. Woo hoo! I'd done my first marathon. And it was easy. I could have kept going at that pace for a fair way yet.

My time was 4:36. Graham did it in 3:59. Mark qualified for Boston with the excellent time of 3:22.

"What did you think of your first marathon?" asked Mark as we wallowed in the campsite's hot pools later that afternoon. My first marathon? Yeah, it was great. Would I do another?

I would if they are all like this.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Kings Cave, Drumadoon Bay

You know the legend of Bruce and the Spider? It was the fag end of 1306 and Bruce was at his lowest ebb, his ambitions forced prematurely into the open after his murder of John Comyn in the Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries, his hurried coronation followed by excommunication by the pope and a couple of swift defeats by Comyn sympathisers, his wife a prisoner of Edward I of England. He was skulking in a cave in the west, hidden by one of his few remaining friends, Angus Og Macdonald of Islay, when he saw a spider spinning a web. Spitefully he swiped the web away, only for the spider to patiently begin again. "That spider inspires me not to give up!" thought the Bruce, and the rest was history. The story is not history though: it is fiction, first appearing in Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather.

The cave exists though.

Kings Cave:

It is an interesting cave, obviously in use for a long time, with Pictish carvings if you know where to look. There are a number of sandstone caves in the raised beach at this point, Kings Cave merely the most prominent. In others, guillemots nest, flying back to their chicks to trigger squawking and a fishy odour.

At the caves:

The walk to the caves is interesting, past the prehistoric coastal fort of The Doon. A path through the golf course leads past the Doon on its inland side. On its coastal side, you have to pick your way over cyclopean columns of fallen basalt.

The Doon from Kings Cave shore:

It is a tranquil family walk, improved by visiting the beach at Drumadoon Bay before returning to Blackwaterfoot. This beach is littered with beautiful pebbles from all of Arran's varied geology, with a view out to Ailsa Craig, Sanda, and Kintyre. You can get an ice cream in the village shop. A perfect place to while away an afternoon with a family.

Kintyre from the walk to the caves:

I hope you don't mind but I lied earlier when I told you about the cave. It is not the cave from Scott's apocrypha. It is thought Bruce spent the winter of 1306/7 in Rathlin, an island between Islay and Antrim. Here instead is a true story about Kings Cave. It hosted Bruce the day before he returned to the Scottish mainland to continue his campaign for the throne. From Kingscross Point, he saw the signal fire lit by his brother, who had landed secretly at Turnberry tasked with discovering if Scotland was ready to rise for the Bruce. In fact Scotland was not ready - Bruce's brother was captured and killed. It was sheer chance that someone lit a fire at the right spot that night. So Bruce crossed to Carrick anyway on this misunderstanding - and history was made.

Monday, 11 August 2014

South Arran Enchantment

Arriving on Arran at Brodick, you are met off the ferry by a choice of two buses. One says 'North Island'. The other, 'South Island'. It seems that a mini-tour of New Zealand is on offer. Instead, these buses take you clockwise - or anti-clockwise - round the island's coast road.

Above Kildonan:

To a hillwalker, there is only one possible direction - north, drawn like iron filings to a magnet by Arran's enticing northern skyline. But the opposite pole also has its attractions - subtler, and possibly more profound. Kildonan's lovely south-facing beach delights at any time of day, but especially at an evening low tide.

The last house in Kildonan:

At the last house in Kildonan, a path leads down to a beach, long black volcanic dykes fingering out to Pladda and Ailsa Craig. Seals arch themselves out of the sea on flat rocks, grunting and calling to each other.

Ailsa Craig:

Beyond an Icelandic-looking waterfall on the Levencorroch Burn, the path leads eventually to a boulder field and the Black Cave of Bennan Head, Arran's largest cave.

Bennan Head:

Beyond the seals, the lighthouses start flashing. I love lighthouses. The southern Firth of Clyde sees lights at Ayrshire, Pladda, Ailsa Craig, Sanda, Kintyre, even Northern Ireland. The electric lighting went on on a cruise ship, heading from Greenock to Kirkwall. I enjoyed watching the boat glide by in the distance from my hillside perch, the moor air mingling with the sea air along this coastal belt of fertile dairy fields.

Pladda light:

Beyond Bennan Head is a prehistoric chambered cairn at Torrylinn. There is not much to see here. But! There is such an atmosphere of rightness about this low, rocky, south Arran shore and modest raised beach.

Perhaps it was the company, perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was my mood. But though I had never been here before, it felt like coming home.