Tuesday, 17 March 2015

St Patrick and the O.K. Connection

St Patrick, while not the first evangelist in Ireland, was the most famous. By the time he was done at the end of the 5th century, Ireland had been converted to Christianity. Thanks to the spread of the Irish diaspora, he is famous throughout the world.

Less well-known is his Scottish connection. St Patrick was from somewhere in west Britain, and Old Kilpatrick, at the western end of the Antonine Wall and at the base of the Kilpatrick Hills, claims him as a son. (Although as his father was a bishop of Carlisle, the odds are higher that he was a Cumbrian.) Certainly however he wrote to Cortoticus the King of Strathclyde in his castle at Dumbarton, to lambast him for allowing newly Christianised Irish citizens to be captured and sold as slaves.

In the Kilpatrick Hills:

Given Patrick's connections to the West of Scotland, and the West of Scotland's large Irish community, it seems strange that St Patrick's Day is not a more notable affair. Beyond a festival in Coatbridge, largely unknown in the rest of Scotland, St Patrick's Day passes without comment.  

Perhaps the reason is historical. The religious wars of the 17th century and plantation of Ulster continues to cast a weak shadow over the West of Scotland even into the 21st century. The flying of Irish flags inevitably leads to a reaction of Union flags and a rejection of Irishness by antediluvian elements of Scottish society. It is not unknown for Scots who identify as Irish to be told not to be daft, they are Scottish. As if the two things are mutually exclusive.

But is this not hypocritical? Do Scots abroad not like to celebrate their ancestors' heritage? And is it not possible to live comfortably with more than one identity? Scottishness and Britishness, after all, commonly reside comfortably in the one body.

So let's celebrate the culture of all our immigrants and natives - whether Irish, British, Indian, Carribean or whatever - and not fear the dominant culture is too small-minded to accommodate them all.

After all - St Patrick may well be one of ours.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Trossachs Way

Do you spend your time looking at maps and dreaming up new walking adventures? I do. And it was while looking at OS Landranger 57, Stirling and the Trossachs, that I wondered if it would be possible to link a number of lochs in the Trossachs together in a circular walk whilst avoiding main roads. And you know what? It is.

Route map (alternative route as dotted line):

Start in Aberfoyle, and there are any number of routes through the Queen Margaret Forest towards Loch Venachar - cycle tracks around Loch Drunkie, or the Rob Roy Way for example - that lead towards a quiet backroad into Callendar.

Loch Katrine:

From Callendar, the busy A84 can be bypassed completely via the track of an old railway on the opposite side of Loch Lubnaig, passing the scenic rapids of the Falls of Leny, before picking up another very quiet backroad between Strathyre and Balquidder, where Rob Roy's grave can be visited.

Loch Lubnaig © Copyright Liz 'n' Jim:

Thr route from Balquidder to Stronachlachar is the longest and most exposed stretch, and would require hillwalking experience. However if one stuck to the scenic public road on the north side of Loch Voil, rather than the forest track on the south side, it would be possible to break the day at Monachyle Hotel.

Loch Voil:

From Stronachlachar on Loch Katrine you follow the lochside road east until striking up the hillside along an unusual series of towers - vents for a tunnel - towards to Loch Chon. Forest roads lead you past the south banks of Loch Chon and Loch Ard - with another optional stop at Kinlochard - and finally back to Aberfoyle.

Loch Ard:

(An alternative, on reaching Loch Katrine, would be to walk down the private road towards the heart of the Trossachs, then take the forest tracks on the south side of Lochs Achray and Vennachar back to Callendar.)

Loch Achray:

The whole walk would be about 80km and take 3 days. It is all very do-able. Of all my fantasy walks, this might be the one I am most likely to do in the near future.

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: