Thursday, 21 May 2015

Kiloran Bay

"We're looking to go to Kiloran Bay. We haven't been yet."

"Your first time on Colonsay?"

"Yes, how do you know?"

"If you'd been to Colonsay, you'd have been to Kiloran Bay."

Kiloran Bay:

Kiloran Bay is Colonsay's best known feature. In 1904 Donald Smith - Canada's richest man and recently ennobled as Lord Strathcona - was on holiday in the Hebrides with his wife Isabella. She reputedly fell in love with Kiloran Bay, so Donald bought the island. It is in the possession of his descendants today. They preside over what seems, from a tourist outsider's view, to be a well-run community. Their base is the attractive 18th century Colonsay House, a wonderfully lush place for a windswept island. Colonsay is known for its bird conservation, but for me the real bird of the island is neither chough nor corncrake but the cuckoo, abundant thanks to the surprising number of trees for the Hebrides.

Colonsay House estate:

The beach itself is a lovely stretch of pale yellow sand, orange when damp, and calling anyone with any aquatic bent whatsoever to go for a swim. We walked its length, lazy waves lapping the sands.

Kiloran Waves:

Now to some, this is the finest beach in Colonsay. But not everyone thinks this.

Monday, 18 May 2015

A Hebridean Cruise

A holiday usually begins when you arrive at your destination. But when you are going to an island off the west coast, the fun can start as soon as you leave Oban.

Leaving the port of Oban:

Given good weather, the Calmac ferry to your island is a pleasure cruise in its own right.

The whole seaboard of Drum Alban was visible (seen here from our island destination). Behind the twin peaks of Beinn a' Bheithir, Ben Nevis is visible on the left, its southern flanks still full of snow. Bidean nam Bian, Ben Starav, and the distinctive double peak of Ben Cruachan.

The boat pulls south into the Sound of Kerrera, island views opening up...

The slate island of Easdale, a quarry until a storm filled the mines with seawater. These peaceful lagoons now host the annual World Stone Skimming Championships.

Mull with Ben More, barren, dark and high...

The unpopulated island-hill of Scarba...

I was excited to pass close to the Garvellachs, a remote, uninhabited island group I had never seen before.

The boat passed down the little-seen north-western side of Jura, a barren shore of low seacliffs, mottled brown moors, and undisturbed streams. To the south, the Paps of Jura rear into the sky...

With the sky clouding over and the wind dropping, we pulled into the peaceful harbour of our destination. What would a holiday on a Hebridean island bring?

Arriving at Scalasaig:

Friday, 8 May 2015

The Scottish Bloc

To outsiders, the electoral behaviour of Scots over the last year may seem puzzling. To reject independence in the referendum, but then colour the map SNP yellow just eight months later.

UK General election results, 2015 (source, BBC):

However it makes sense when you realise two things.

The first is the constitutional desire of the Scottish electorate has not changed - as much power as possible whilst still remaining in the UK. Polls before the referendum consistently showed it as the most popular option - but it was not offered in the referendum. Nor has it been offered in the general election, except as an SNP pledge. And it still seems to be the Scottish electorate's desire. Hence the logic of voting No in the referendum, and SNP in the General Election.

The second is that tactical voting in Scotland is not new. It is normal. Scots have voted tactically for decades, if not centuries, and down the ages the occasional commentator has sneered that the Scots don't do democracy, evinced by their historical habit of returning a phalanx of identical MPs. But being tied to a neighbour with numerically superior representation in Parliament, Scots have tended to vote en bloc as the only way of ensuring their voice was heard at all. For decades, Labour was seen as the best party to protect Scottish interests.  Before that, the Unionists, then Liberals and the Whigs. As far back as the 18th century, when parties were not quite so well formed and Henry Dundas had huge powers of patronage, the purpose of Scottish MPs and the tiny electorate was clear - to support the government of the day, in exchange for the best deal for themselves in the form of the government sinecures, pensions, and imperial positions distributed by Dundas.

Thus the SNP's blanket domination is just the latest, if most explicit expression of that understandable, age-old phenomenon - Scots trying to get the best deal for themselves from a parliament dominated by non-Scottish interests.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The English 3000ers - Skiddaw

A slow start. A first, healthy breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, spinach and coconut oil. A second, unhealthy breakfast of bacon, beans, fried mushrooms, sausage, and toast. There was no hurry with the rain, weather that matched the hungover mood. I had climbed Helvellyn plus three other hills the day before, and met old friends in Keswick on Friday night. We had drunk far more than was sensible for middle aged guys with mortgages and families. In our delicate state we were going to drive nowhere. Skiddaw might be bland and boring to walk on, but it rises directly behind Keswick in a majestic sweep and so we tenderly set off in the rain for what we expected, if we are honest, to be a slog.

Derwentwater from Latrigg:

The first of the day's objectives was Latrigg. Reaching this took us two hours, having got lost in Keswick first, then bimbling amiably up its steep flanks. But by the top, the rain had stopped and the cloud lifted. It was going to be a no bad day.

Skiddaw contains a Dodd, of which there are many in this area. "Graphite," said Cammy, dod being the local word to denote hills containing this pencil-making material. (Keswick did used to have a pencil factory, after all.) This also makes for rounded outlines. Skiddaw and the northern hills of Blencathra and Knott are quite different to the rest of the Lake District, more Scottish in character, the glen between the three hills unrelieved by quaintness.

Blencathra from Skiddaw:

It was freezing cold on top, the winter weather resolutely determined to stay despite spring's lengthening days. I was happy though. This was my last English 3,000ft hill - The Scafells, Helvellyn, and now Skiddaw. Twenty years separated the first and the last. Now for the Welsh 3000ers. Another place I'd like to go is the Isle of Man - visible from the top of Skiddaw. I've been to Snaefellsnes in Iceland. It would be nice to climb its British namesake.

Man from the top:

The views down to Derwentwater are good. Did we really have to walk all that way back to Keswick?

Derwentwater from Skiddaw:

As we descended, the sun came out. Something we'd not have expected when we set off. Had we been sensible the night before and had an early start, we would have missed this!

Derwentwater in sunshine:

It was a glorious walk back down. We headed into Keswick basking in sunshine, and while the others planned dinner, I headed back up the road towards Edinburgh, taking the A7 to re-familiarise myself with more Borders countryside and towns. A good trip to the Lake District.

Helvellyn from the Latrigg car park:

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The English 3000ers - Helvellyn

The road wound south through hills dotted with sheep, daffodils waving by the roadside, patches of snow glimpsed up distant cleuchs. Blue sky, pearlescent mist, more blue sky. A secret country, empty for miles, its tights folds and many glens disorientating to Lowlander and Highlander alike. The way from Edinburgh to the Lake District traverses the Borders, whose neglected backroads like the A701 are a treat to follow early on a weekday morning.

Arriving at Ullswater:

And what a glorious start to the day! The forecast was bad but on arrival, Ullswater was sparkling. Is there anywhere more picturesque than Lakeland on a fine spring day? Where else has its bewitching combination of lambs and fresh scrubbed grass, quaint farmhouses and villages, and rugged, satisfyingly complex hills? Spring is the season of Wordsworth's daffodils, a season when the tourist horde has not yet descended to clog the byways and jade the experience.

I could not believe my luck, but it was not to hold. Within minutes of setting off, the weather turned. That's spring for you.

Last view:

My target was Helvellyn via the Grade 1 scrambling route Striding Edge. I wasn't going to underestimate it, as someone had died on it earlier in the week - the fifth fatality on Helvellyn this season. The lingering cold had left snow and ice on the tops which had been catching people out from Easter onwards.

Striding Edge:

It was a shame to have no view, but the ridge itself, whilst requiring concentration, was ice-free and easy enough - like crossing a bouldery beach. One thing that stood out was the polished nature of the rock. As the steps of an old church wear away with centuries of use, so Striding Edge must see a lot of traffic. Certainly, I've never seen so many crampon marks on one route as on Striding Edge.

Crampon marks:

And then the top - thick fog, a rim of snow, and sudden flatness. I walked in the general direction of the top and touched the cairn and the trig. Not far from the top I came across a disorientated family. They had come up from the west and lost the path down. I shepherded them down to the unmistakably broad path to Wythburn that they had followed up until it had petered out into the stonefield of the small summit plateau. They were relieved and grateful - but they would not have to had waited long for assistance somewhere as busy as Helvellyn - even on a weekday in spring.

Helvellyn trig point:

I had hankered for a while after England's most famous ridge, and her most popular hill. A shame to have seen so little of it. But I carried on over three more hills in the cloud, freezing wind, and drizzle - Seat Sandal, Fairfield, St Sunday Crag - enjoying a rare day of navigational and physical exercise.

Distant Helvellyn on a better day:

Sunday, 12 April 2015


I like webcams. They can give you an idea of what the weather is like before you head off hillwalking (or skiing, if you into that sort of thing). My favourite of all the webcams is that at Glencoe Mountain Resort. But for such a scenic country, Scotland has surprisingly few tourist webcams - there is a set at each of the ski-resorts - and not many more. Those that do exist tend to be low resolution affairs set up by local B&B owners, or road authority ones concentrating on traffic flow.

But imagine the advertising benefits to the local area of broadcasting somewhere like Traigh Seilebost live at high resolution? Get it sorted, Scottish tourist board.

I must confess that my main pleasure with webcams is to look at mountain areas when I am at work or home on a sunny day. As it is more often wet than not on the west coast, it cheers me up no end to see something like this:

Glencoe Mountain Resort, today:

I know I am not missing out on my favourite activity, and can get on with what I am doing without that insistent sense that I should be somewhere else. This doesn't always work, of course. Sometimes I switch the computer on on a day where other plans have been made and am greeted with this:

Glencoe Mountain Resort:

Damn, I will think, another wasted day!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Sweetheart Abbey

Thoughts turn at this time of year to spring cycle trips. And where better than Galloway, with its quiet roads, rural charm, and coastal villages?

Roadside dell:

We took the bikes from Rockcliffe to New Abbey on a glorious spring day, intending to climb Criffel and visit the ancient abbey.

The streets of New Abbey:

But clouds were gathering as we climbed Criffel. A shame, as it must make a grand viewpoint over Galloway and the Lake District on a fine day.

View over the Nith from Criffel summit:

The main attraction after Criffel is Sweetheart Abbey, founded in 1273 by Devorgilla, who inherited the Lordship of Galloway. She had her husband's heart buried in the abbey grounds. He was John de Balliol, a member of the French-speaking Norman aristocracy who ruled much of Western Europe by this time, an elite who seamlessly traversed the single, rarefied establishment ruling the French, English and Scots courts.

Devorgilla's sons and grandsons would play an integral part in the Wars of Independence - her eldest surviving son was legitimate heir to the Scottish throne, but was opposed by de Brus, another half-Norman family with nearby roots. (Though the Bruces eventually triumphed over the Balliols, the legitimacy of Devorgilla's son, Scotland's hapless King John I, should not be lost in the glare of Robert the Bruce's fame.)

We headed back to the campsite in the teeth of a strong wind, a now wet and raw day. Spring is like that sometimes.

Carsethorn on the return journey: