Monday, 8 February 2016

Penicuik House

I was browsing the map of our locality. How far up the River North Esk could I extend my training runs? My eye was caught by what looked like a stately home and grounds. Penicuik House. Never heard of it. I looked it up.

Penicuik House:

How could I have been living here so long and not have heard of this vast pile before? Explorable ruins are catnip to my wife. We vowed to visit as soon as possible.

The approach is made over estate tracks, past a round tower folly on a hill. The house was destroyed in a fire in 1899 and only recently were the ruins cleaned up and stabilised. But although this was our first knowledge of it, many other families were out walking dogs. Clearly this is one of Penicuik's top recreational spots.

Another folly - The Ramsay Monument:

The house itself is a handsome Palladian design. (The even more interesting house it replaced no longer exists - a Scots baronial pile called Newbiggin which was demolished for the rational grander of the current ruin.) It was built in 1761 by Sir James Clerk, 3rd Baronet of Nova Scotia. (The Clerks also built the earlier Mavisbank House, further down the Esk). The family gained a fortune in France in the 17th century, land at Penicuik in the mid 17th century, and the 2nd Baronet fame as a politician who supported and drove the Union of Parliaments with England.

Penicuik House gable end:

The Clerk family still live on the estate, which is now a much appreciated green lung for local visitors. I suspect that for most regular visitors the glories are the riverside, forest and paths, and that the ruined house barely merits a second glance. I will be back - perhaps on a long training run from my own, rather more modest, house.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Celtic Connections

"I sang a cover of Odyssey's Inside Out in France and it went on Youtube," said Eska, Baaba Maal's support act at Celtic Connections. "The writer got in touch with me to say he liked my version. So here he is today to duet with me. Ladies and gentlemen - Jesse Rae!"

What?? This Jesse Rae?

Wrote this African-American 70s funk classic??

A Celtic Connection indeed!

It has been at least 15 years since I've been to a gig at Celtic Connections, Glasgow's musical riposte to the January blues. It started out as a folky thing, attracting fiddly-dee acts from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and Nova Scotia. Since then it has gone global, featuring roots acts from across the world.

We were here to see Baaba Maal, a legend in Senegal. I'll confess to knowing nothing about him, but when a roadie led a blind man onstage I knew it would be good. This fellow was Mansour Seck, Baaba Maal's mentor and guide. He did little during the gig except sit there in flowing robes, a Buddhist Bez, adding a touch of class to the proceedings. Baaba Maal and his incredible band were inspired, the main main hollering like a Qawwali Reverend James Brown, Weegie women up dancing in the aisles. You know it is a good show when even the roadies are having a boogie.

Baaba Maal:

Back in the day, Celtic Connections artists gathered post-gig in a function suite in the Central Station Hotel and played together until the wee small hours. New alliances formed through music. As the festival became more popular, this spontaneous happening became ticketed and regulated. But impromptu breakout sessions still happen, fiddlers bashing away in a side room as we wandered out into the unseasonably balmy Glasgow night.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Bridge

Scotland is a land of many waters. While a few rivers were bridged in the middle ages or earlier, it was well into the 20th century before many of the ferries across Scotland's firths and kyles were made redundant - the fords of Benbecula, the islands of Skye and South Ronaldsay, the kyles of Ballachulish, Connel and Kylesku, the firths of Beauly, Dornoch, Forth, Clyde and Tay.

These bridges have helped halve the journey time between Northern Scotland and the Central Belt. A trip that would have taken twelve hours in 1960 now only takes six.

There are still bridges and tunnels unbuilt. Where is the bridge to Bute, the tunnel to Unst, the A9 extension to Orkney or the connector between Kirkcaldy and Leith?

Starting the traverse of the Forth Road Bridge:

But if people in Scotland are talking about The Bridge, there is only one they can mean. The only one that gets committees set up in Parliament about it. The one that links Edinburgh with Fife and points north - the Forth Road Bridge.

When the bridge closed unexpectedly recently , I was keen to take a look. The bridge being closed to traffic solved a previous dilemma when I had tried to take a photo of the Forth Bridge (the original rail one) at night with a tripod from the road bridge. But the weight of traffic meant the tripod vibrated hopelessly. It turned out the road bridge was closed to pedestrians as well as cars, but the idea of walking across it was planted in my mind.

And so we arrived in South Queensferry on a dull and cold January day. Just an afternoon stroll, but from here, across the bridge and back is five miles.

In South Queensferry:

South Queensferry is officially in Edinburgh but is an old established town in its own right, with more character than an Edinburgh suburb and a history dating back to the 11th century. We parked under the Forth Bridge and wandered through the old town with other daytrippers, heading for the 1960s road bridge. The second road bridge, named the Queensferry Crossing, can be seen under construction in the background.

I got my photo of the famous Forth Bridge, its skeletal silhouette interesting even on a dull day.

The Forth Bridge:

Even here, on the pedestrian promenade of the Forth Road Bridge deck, exposed to chilly blasts off the North Sea, the fad for love locks (popularised by author Federico Moccia in Ho voglia di te) is apparent. This part of the bridge even seems to be specifically set up for them.

Love locks:

Close at hand, North Queensferry. But at the end of the bridge we turned around and retraced our steps, light fading and keen to get home to some hot soup and a fire.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Bothy

Not so long ago bothies were a trade secret. Your best chance of discovering them was to gain the trust of a hillwalker or other gangrel, usually by buying them a drink. Tongue suitably loosened, if they liked the look of you they'd start to ask questions. "Have you ever been to Bob Scotts? Shenavall? Rowchoish?" "No," you'd say, wide-eyed, "I've only ever camped," hoping they would tell you about the famous 'secret bothy'.

Well that was then. Nowadays everyone knows about bothies. The dam broke when the MBA started listing the bothies under their care on their website, a move that was controversial at the time. Now you can read about them in Phoebe Smith's The Book of the Bothy. There has even been a BBC TV programme about them! Bothies are mainstream. So it shouldn't really matter if I tell you this hut's name. It even has a signpost at the start of the track.

The bothy, next morning:

But I'll make you work for it. It is in the direction of Glencoe and not far from Creach Bheinn, the hill we had just climbed. That should be enough of a clue for anyone who knows bothies.

As we walked in a fallen tree appeared in our torchbeams. Oh dear. I hoped the Forestry Commission aren't felling! We walked round it through boggy terrain, only to come across more. The trunks were cracked. It wasn't felling - the wind had blown these trees over. "What if it is like this all the way?" said Alastair, concerned with the trackless heavy going. I was more concerned with the creaking and yawing sounds coming from the forest around us in the dark. I didn't fancy being hit by a falling tree.

Windblown trees on the way out next morning:

There was the possibility of getting lost if we could not get back onto the track. Would we find our bothy tonight? We had gotten lost last time we had been here, fifteen years ago, before the signposts. It started to rain and I recalled the last time we walked in to a bothy only to find it a roofless ruin. Would it turn out to be a ruin when we arrived? Such are the thoughts that run through your head on a dark wet night with a bag of coal weighing heavy on your shoulders, up to your shins in glaur because the track is blocked. Nothing is certain in the bothy game.

Anticipation thus sharpened, it was with relief we arrived, found the bothy intact, and the nearest trees safely distant should they blow over in the night. Let's get the fire on! Let's eat! Let's drink! I had carefully prepared for the night's drinking with some dehydrated beer, starting with a relatively sensible 5.6% lager and ending with 8.5% Orkney Skullsplitter.

The night's entertainment:

We were the only people in the bothy. As the wind howled and rain battered the roof, we sat snug by the fire and talked into the night.

In our bothy:

Isn't it better, more hygenic, convenient and warmer to camp than stay in a bothy? Yes, but so what? That misses out on the entire point of these rough shelters. On the way home Alastair was keen to see the Rannoch doss, one of Scotland's semi-secret bothies, hidden in a ravine surprisingly close to the main road. It was gone, flattened, a mass of collapsed corrugated iron. Times change, places change. What does the future hold for bothies now they are mainstream? Improved facilities, for example, would certainly attract more tourists to remote areas. It is not hard to imagine a European-style system of staffed, paid-for hill shelters in Scotland. But in a world of ever-increasing regulation and homogeneity, there remains something anarchic and free about bothies that would be lamented if it were lost.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

New Years' Day Corbett

Creach Bheinn is awkward, despite being close to Oban. It sits round the back of the hills if you know what I mean. This doesn't matter if you want to stay at Eriska Hotel, canoe the Falls of Lora, see mirror-calm reflections in Loch Creran or ogle Castle Stalker. But to most hill-baggers, the A828 is the road less travelled - despite sights like this.

Castle Stalker:

Yet Creach Bheinn isn't far from the Central Belt. I hadn't climbed a Corbett for over four years (my last being Morven on the last autumn day of 2011). Appalled at this oversight, I invoked a hill day. My companion Alastair wasn't bothered so long as we got away. But to me this tick was totemic. People had gained degrees in less time than it had taken me to do one Corbett.

A handy landrover track, not marked on the map, heads up the Allt Buidhe from Druimavuic. It was already 1pm so we took it to gain height fast, reaching the snowline around 300m. It had been a surprise to see as many as three cars parked at the bottom of the track, and we passed a man descending, complaining of the track being like Sauchiehall Street. A Happy New Year to you too! Once on the hill we realised we were the only ones to go this far today. There were no other footprints.

It wasn't hard to see why nobody else had gone further. A ferocious wind battered us with stinging spindrift made of hail. The wind screamed from the southeast, rising as the short afternoon wore on, firing hail like shotgun pellets. The conditions caused us to stagger at times, painfully cautious of the spots where the snow cover had been scoured bare to reveal treacherous patches of knobbly ice.

We had both been out in worse, but lack of practice lent an unaccustomed air of seriousness to our endeavours. I attempted a drink of water on the summit, only to find the water in my bottle had frozen. Pretty standard stuff for winter hillwalking, but I had forgotten that sort of thing happened.

Having a miserable time on Creach Bheinn:

We returned to the car at 5:30pm. Thanks to the conditions we felt we had experienced something grander than the short duration of the walk deserved. How incredible to think we had been battered by sub-arctic blasts and seen a sunset over the Hebrides, yet could be enjoying a hot bath, meal and warm bed in our own homes in Edinburgh in under three hours! But that wasn't what happened.

Instead, we went to a bothy.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

TT For the Bells

Hogmanay usually sees me sober. Don't feel sad, this is by choice - there have still been plenty parties such as the Edinburgh Hogmanay in Princes St Gardens. I mind driving home one Hogmanay from a party in Glasgow, laughing at all the pissheads crawling along the street, so drunk they couldn't stand up. When I got home I stepped out the car and - whoops! Ended up on my arse. The pavements were so slippery these people weren't drunk (well, perhaps they were), but falling victim to sheets of ice.

Generally though I prefer to reflect at this time of year, burning old papers and preparing to start the new year with a blank sheet. Staring into the flames of last year's detrius, the new year's ambitions are crystallised. I want to start immediately and it seems a waste to get drunk. Let's get on with 2016 as soon as possible!
 Ach who am I kidding. A Happy New Year to you all!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Memory of the Year, 2015

2015 has been a quiet year. A glorious day of winter mountaineering on Arran missed due to being too late for the  ferry. The Lake District visited in pishing rain. Lots of work around the house at home and pottering at weekends meeting family instead of micro-adventuring. And is it my imagination, or has 2015 had more than its fair share of wet and windy weather?

But there have been highlights too. Ben Lomond via Ptarmigan ridge in sparkling snow. A circumnavigation of Lindisfarne. A gastronomic/cycling holiday in France. Beaches and unexpected celebrities of Colonsay. And one trip stands out in particular. The Faroe Islands for the Torshavn Marathon.

Skaelingsfjall from Sornfelli:

I have always wanted to visit Faroe - and the reality surpassed my dreams. In Torshavn campsite I raved about Faroe's untapped tourist potential to a Londoner who was also there for the marathon. He seemed puzzled. Who would want to come here except as a novelty? he shrugged. Me? Give me a windswept archipelago in the North Atlantic over the Mediterranean any day.

Exotic Torshavn:

And it got me thinking. The hills in Faroe are like those on Rum, except sharper, more numerous. Andy Tomkins' list of Faeroese hills on Europeaklist (where I learned that Norweigans hope to gift Finland a mountain peak for Finland's 2016 centenary of independence from the Russian Empire!) show that Faroe has double the number of Marilyn-height hills of the Lake District. It is a baggers paradise. If you can see a vista of hills like this and not want to climb them, then you are made of stronger stuff than me.

NE from Sornfelli:

So why aren't there organised tours for hillwalkers to Faroe? I inquired with some mountain guides, but heard nothing back. It seems that despite being so close, Faroe really is a forgotten, exotic destination.

And the absolute highlight was not the marathon, our boat trip to the bird islands, or even watching the Faroes beat Greece 2-1 at football. It was the ascent of Slaettaratindur, something I've dreamed of for years.

Near the top of Slaettaratindur:

It might not be anything related to Scotland, which is the remit of this blog. But Slaettaratindur on a sunny day is hard to top. It is my memory of 2015.