Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Calgary Bay

Mull is an island of surprises to the person who assumes it is all about climbing Ben More, visiting Iona, spotting an otter and going home. To the person like me, for example.

Calgary Bay:

And one of the things we did not know about Mull is its collection of fine beaches. There are superb beaches at the tidal island of Erraid for example, we knew about that. And there are other beaches tucked away on the Ross of Mull.

Beach at Fidden, Mull:

But we did not know about the beaches of North Mull, the superb Langamull beach for example. And we had never been to the only one that is widely known beyond Mull - Calgary Bay.

On arriving we discovered a wonderful sculpture trail, Calgary Art in Nature. It is free to wander round with donations accepted.

Here's a clever metal pea-pod with beach boulders for peas:

The trail is set in a beautiful wood tumbling down the hillside from the cafe to the shore.

Ferns real,

and imagined...

At the edge of the wood the sun came out and we could see the beach below us.

There is something special about these pockets of ancient, windswept woodland that run the length of Britain and Ireland's west coasts.

At the edge of the North Atlantic Rainforest:

The 'golden hour' was just passed as we reached the beach. A fine sunset instead.

The house in the distance is Calgary House. Lt-Col James Macleod, Hebridean-born Commissioner of the Mounties in the later 19th century, was inspired to christen the city of Calgary in Alberta in its honour having enjoyed excellent hospitality at Calgary House.

We are a long way from the gleaming city of over 1 million people here. The entire population of Mull is only 2,800. Only two of them were out on the beach with us on this fine sunset.

As we made our way back through the trees the trail took us past more sculptures. With stags roaring in the gloaming in the hills all around us the sculptures seemed to gain presence in the fading light, hurrying us back to our car.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

On Mull

We'd been to Mull before. Twice to visit Iona, I had been up Ben More a couple of times, and we had cycled down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Craignure on the last leg of an island-hopping holiday.

Duart Castle, Mull:

So we thought we'd seen Mull. But we we were wrong.

And of course we were! Mull is the fourth largest island in Scotland. From Fionnphort to Treshnish it's 65 miles, two and a quarter hours drive on Mull's single track roads. There's a couple of castles to visit, 27 Marilyns to climb, a galaxy of offshore islands including Iona and Staffa, one of the west coast's most picturesque villages, seacliffs, waterfalls, loch and forest walks, beautiful white sand beaches, and a whole load of wildlife.

In Mull's interior: Ben More:

We were keen to see some of this wildlife so asked Jacqui and Mike of Enjoy Mull to show us around. What a great investment that was! Without knowing where to look we would never have seen Mull's famous white-tailed eagles, despite their size. (Now the chicks have fledged, eagles spend most of their time hanging around in trees.) We watched a huge bird, up to a metre tall - imagine a bird of prey that tall standing next to you - perched on a tree, taken aback by its piercing glare.

"It seems to be staring right at us," we said.

"It has a better view of you than you do of it," replied Mike.

Our sea eagle:

There was an otter on Loch Spelve, geese and young stags at Loch Don, and herons. A lot of herons. If Mull is famous for anything, it probably should be herons.

Loch Don reflections:

And Mull is lush. There are woods all over Mull. Those on Loch na Keal and around Loch Ba are particularly entrancing.

Wooded croft at Aros:

We looked up to the hills. There are few paths on Mull, and while Ben More is popular, nobody really comes here to climb any other hills, despite this being a very hilly island. Why aren't these hills more popular? Standing on the shores of Loch na Keal with the late afternoon sun dappling their slopes, it seemed a great mystery.

Mull's neglected hills:

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Calmac Conundrum

We took the boat to Mull. It was important we arrived in Oban before the last ferry, so I consulted the timetable. And noticed something funny.

The last sailing of the day was back to the mainland.

On the last boat to Mull:

This is not a boat for the island. It is a boat to the island.

I looked at other timetables. Arran, Islay, Jura, Colonsay - the same pattern. The first boat of the day leaves the mainland, the last arrives on the mainland.

Am I alone in thinking this is the wrong way about? The impression is that the ferry to Mull is a service for the convenience of mainlanders. If a boat was needed for an emergency or other event, it is out of the islanders' power to do anything about it. It's not their boat. It's our boat. But we don't depend on a boat. We don't live on an island.

Are all Caledonian MacBrayne services like this? No. The boat from Ardnamurchan to Tobermory, for example, stays the night on Mull. It's just... one part of the mainland arguably more remote than the islands is Ardnamurchan. Tobermory is Oban when compared to Kilchoan.

The Calmac conundrum - a right maritime mystery!

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lessons from the Bishops' War

Britain in 1638 was a powderkeg awaiting a spark. In Scotland King Charles I had, in the teeth of local Presbyterian opinion, decreed that all religion must follow the Book of Common Prayer. This was a high-Anglican pattern book that had been introduced into churches in England.

The spark had a name - Jenny Geddes. A market stall owner in Edinburgh's High Street, the minister in St Giles Kirk had barely begun reading from the new book when she flung a stool at his head, shouting:

"daur ye say Mass in my lug?"

And all hell broke loose.

In an act of fundamental rebellion against the King, Scots refused to accept the new Prayer Book. They signed the National Covenant in their droves. Today this long document makes a turgid read. There is no uplifting take-away phrase from the National Covenant, no 'we hold these truths to be self-evident', no 'liberté, égalité, fraternité', no 'for so long as a hundred of us remain alive', just a rambling furrow of Catholic-bashing. But at the time it was revolutionary, mass printing and widespread literacy enabling the population, for the first time ever, the tools to question their superiors and demand a better, more populist, more Godly rule. Archibald Johnston of Warriston was ecstatic. It was:

"the glorious marriage day of the Kingdom with God."

In the meantime, English Puritans weren't happy either with the pomp, circumstance, and knee-bending to authority that was inherent in Episcopalianism, the halfway-house brand of Protestantism that had been founded in England by Henry VIII and enthusiastically endorsed by royalty ever since. Charles I was a fan of course, and wished to bring Protestantism to new aesthetic heights. Many of Charles' MPs at Westminster opposed his plans, which he dealt with through the simple expedient of dissolving Parliament. As Parliament was the mechanism by which royalty raised money, Charles now had to raise funds by other, exceptionally unpopular means. But with the Scots rebelling, he realised he needed even more money to pay for an army to face them. Reluctantly, he recalled Parliament. They immediately presented him with a list of grievances and refused to fund him until their demands were met. Charles promptly dissolved Parliament again.

However where the English were divided, the Scots were united. Charles raised a motley army of 20,000 unmotivated men to face the Scots. In contrast General Leslie led a Scottish army of 12,000, who had been recalled from the Continent where they had been hardened as mercenaries fighting religious wars against Catholics. The fighting in the Bishops' War was desultory - neither side really wanted to hurt the other - but the result decisive. The Scots occupied Newcastle and issued quixotic demands to the English Parliament.

Because in the aftermath of victory it was clear to Scottish Presbyterians that Scots were the chosen nation, like Israelites in the days of old. As demonstrated by victory in the Bishops' War, it was manifestly God's will that the rest of the world - starting with England - should follow Scotland's lead in making Presbyterianism compulsory. Treaties were made with the English Parliament, who desperately needed the help of the Scottish army against Charles. But the English Parliament had neither the intent nor the ability to seriously enforce Presbyterianism on their countrymen.

In a time of rapidly shifting politics, it is striking that today England is again divided and chaotic over a fundamental issue, whereas Scotland is relatively united and well-led and would, if it could, impose its will on England for its own good. It is a situation where progressive opinion on both sides of the border has a common cause. There are massive opportunities for Scotland to gain from this situation. But it would behoove any Scottish leader to be aware of the risks too. For if we are looking back at history as any kind of guide...

The ultimate result of the events kicked off by Jenny Geddes was the military occupation of Cromwell.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

When Women Ruled

It's a town straggling eastwards down a hill with a castle on top. Edinburgh? Stirling? No - Clackmannan. The town gets its name (Clach Mannan = Mannan Stone in Gaelic) from the stone raised on a plinth outside the old tollbooth.

The Mannan Stone:

I was keen to see the Mannan Stone and visited this hilltop village after the Stirling 10k. There's a Co-op... a post office... a pub... some sheltered housing... otherwise, there is not much going on in Clackmannan. But oh, there's a story in the old stone!

Central Clackmannan:

This ancient fetish object was a ceremonial centrepiece for the people of Manau, the Maetae, the tribe who lived in this area during Roman times. The name of one chief is even recorded for posterity - Argentocoxus. It was he and his wife (whose name is sadly unknown) who submitted to Emperor Severus and his wife Julia in 209, when Severus brought the largest army Britain had ever seen to Caledonia to subdue his troublesome northernmost frontier.

Clackmannan vista:

As the men parleyed, the women had their own conversation. It was a memorable exchange. Julia questioned Argentocoxus' wife's virtue by referencing the fact she slept with the warriors of the tribe. The reply was stinging.
"I proudly sleep with the best of men in full public knowledge, while you skulk in secret with the worst." (Julia was rumoured to be having an affair with a senator.)
Because there is something worth knowing about the women of ancient Britain and Ireland. True, they lived in a man's world - but it was a very different world to that of the Continent, where women were treated as property of their fathers or husbands. Women in Britain and Ireland could own property in their own right - they could divorce on fourteen grounds from physical cruelty to male impotence - and they could occasionally lead tribes and armies, as Boudicca, Cartimandua, Maeve and Sgàthach attest. And - what really excited writers from the Mediterranean - they openly slept around. This practice died out in Roman dominated Britannia, but was clearly still in full swing in the Pictish lands outside Roman influence.

Clackmannan Castle:

And this leads to an interesting speculation, one that I've never seen in any history book. Beyond any moral implications, there is a very good practical reason to promote monogamy. Where this reason doesn't exist - the island of Tahiti before the arrival of Europeans for example - society can be structured quite differently. Could it be that as well as rabbits and aqueducts, there is something else the Romans introduced to Britain - sexually transmitted diseases?

Monday, 8 August 2016

Beinn a' Ghlo in the Pissing Rain

It would be the height of folly to climb the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe whilst drunk. This isn't the aim of the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse - just one pint in the Kingshouse, which should be sweated sober well before tackling the Aggy Ridge's scary bits, then a final triumphal pint in the Clachaig - a fun challenge combining Glencoe's two famous hostelries plus her most notorious ridge traverse.

The Aonach Eagach on a dry day:

So doing the Aonach Eagach drunk is not the purpose of the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse at all. But there are safety limits. And they have more to do with the weather than the booze. The height of folly is attempting the Aonach Eagach at all - whatever your state of sobriety - with rain and gales forecast.

Between showers:

And that's how we ended up on Beinn a'Ghlo in Perthshire in high winds and pissing rain.

Beinn a'Ghlo is one of the best-known hills in Scotland, familiar to anyone who has driven up the A9. Its rounded bulks dominate the view of Blair Castle and the Pass of Killicrankie. Its access path forms a distinctive white scar from a distance, as thousands of boots over the years have worn the dark peaty moorland away to expose the quartzite bedrock beneath.

Fungal flora of the moor:

The path is so obvious from afar I assumed we would see it from near to hand. However low clouds caused confusion and we marched right past the traditional start of the walk, followed by a couple who had perhaps been fooled by our confident manner. We walked the hill anti-clockwise, the long bash through heather tackled first, rather than last.

But this was no hardship: I am sure the last time I was here (twenty three years ago!) there was no such path as this, and the going was easy, rather than the scratchy heather slog I vaguely remember from my youth. Today the heather was in full bloom.

I did recall the delicious tasting water, and we thirstily drank our fill from the stream. Soft and fresh, running through peat over granite, the very waters of life.

Fresh waters, source of whisky:

As we started on the climb, the rain stopped. Might we be in luck? Would there be a view from the summit?

Graham contemplates more ascent:

It started to clear. We could nearly see the top!

But no. We were being toyed with. The clouds closed in again and the rain came on, the wind rising.

Summit selfie:

Beinn a'Ghlo is not just one hill but a small massif, containing three Munros, a number of smaller tops, and a great deal of flowing, rounded ridges. A random fact that has stuck in my head is that Beinn a'Ghlo has nineteen corries, and a gun fired in any cannot be heard in any other. Now there's a sporting fact!

En-route to the second Munro:

The weather had turned foul but there was plenty to see close by as Perthshire is richer in wildlife than Glencoe. Through the mists we saw raven, mountain hare, ptarmigan, deer, wheatears. A grouse in its panic exploded at my feet and flew straight into me, before flapping off in a flurry of squawking and feathers.

Before the steep descent back to the access track we were treated to a final visual treat as a brief break in the clouds brought a rainbow.

It had been a grand day out in good company, a satisfying exertion over three Munros - the first time I'd been over more than one in a single walk since the Crianlarich hills in May 2014. Would the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse have been as enjoyable? I would have to try again another time to find out!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Puffin Island

Thousands of Puffins. Thousands of them! And they are right there in front of you. Literally at your feet.

You approach Skomer hoping that you might see a puffin or two. A dozen maybe would be quite a result. They start appearing before you even land.

Out at sea, fishing, returning to their burrows...

And then you realise just how many of them there are...


Skomer is internationally important for its Manx Shearwater population. 'So what?' is the general reaction. When there are so many puffins on the island to see instead!

If you compare ease with reward, a trip to Skomer is about the best wildlife trip you can do in Britain. A ferry takes you to the island from the Pembrokeshire mainland, with the instruction that you have to be back five hours later. Will this be too much time on the island, which is only two and a half kilometres across? In fact, it is nowhere near enough time.

Because there are ten thousand puffins to watch.


There's seals, and seagulls, and gannets, and various other creatures too. But there is just one star for 90-odd percent of visitors.

I have a confession. On my site loveofscotland.com is a picture of a puffin. But it wasn't taken in Scotland. It was taken on Skomer. A puffin's a puffin, right? But there is nowhere in Scotland I know of that combines the accessibility of Skomer with the sheer wonder of THOUSANDS OF PUFFINS JUST FEET AWAY!!!!

Yes the puffins come this close: