Sunday, 6 August 2017

Ready for the Storm

I have a confession to make. I like Scottish weather. Perhaps that's not surprising for someone who has just returned from Southern Europe which is currently pinned down by 40 degree heat.

And there are times I have cursed my timing when I have arranged a day in the hills only to have it ruined by a weather front. And what about those interminable grey days, useless for photography, when the sky and the sea and the land all borrow from the same limited palette?

And yet.

A break in the clouds, Knoydart:

There's a saying: 'what is your shit sandwich?' It means: what compromise will you make, what downside to life will you tolerate to get the good things you want?

I will take the dreich days for this.

Sunset over Eigg:

I love the wind in my hair. It invigorates. It compels action. It enables my favourite outdoor activities in a way that isn't possible in the intensity of Southern European heat.

And the light. It flows, pale and liquid, rarely the same for more than a few seconds.

Loch Quoich:

There is a gentleness and translucence in the presence of cool water. Yes, the threat of rain lends uncertainty, but I can deal with this with a good coat. I can sleep at night. I can't in the suffocating summer nights experienced below around 45° N.

The Scottish climate suits me. Next time it rains every day for more than a week, I will read this again to remind myself of that fact.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Off the Beaten Track - But Fabulous!

I nearly didn’t post this. My time has recently been taken up with family and working on my history book. But the question had to be answered. Would June 2017 be the first month in this blog’s history that there would be no posts? And the answer? No!

So here’s what I’ve been thinking. We’ve had holidays in Italy before - Florence, Tuscany, Rome, Cinque Terre - but it was on reading a recipe book that we were hit by a brainwave. ‘Visit our home city of Parma’ the book said. ‘It’s as beautiful as Florence but has hardly any tourists’. So we used the philosophy for another holiday in Italy, to Lago d’Iseo. Where? Exactly. A beautiful lake surrounded by the Munro-height hills of the pre-Alps, wedged between the far more famous (and crowded) Lakes Garda and Como. And it was true. Here is somewhere 90% as beautiful as the famous lakes (so, being the Italian Lakes, this is still staggeringly beautiful), but with 10% of the tourists. We heard only one English-language voice for the duration of our stay - a retired, middle-class woman in a sunhat walking along a promenade and loudly saying to her friends “I just want a decent cup of tea!”

Lago d’Iseo from Monte Isola:

And it got me thinking again. Italy isn’t the only beautiful country with off-the-beaten-track places. In Scotland, the vast majority of tourists stick to the same circuit - a loop between Edinburgh, Aviemore, Inverness, Glencoe, Stirling and back to Edinburgh, with an optional detour off to Skye. But use the 90% philosophy. Where could you go?

What about the ruined abbeys and rolling hills of the Borders, as lovely as the Yorkshire Dales but virtually tourist-free?

The beaches, hills, castles, forests and historic villages of Galloway, completely off the radar of almost everyone except those in the know?

The clifftop walks, long beaches, and rugged, picturesque fishing villages of the Moray Firth coast?

The windy, sunny machair of the lesser islands of the Inner Hebrides - Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Jura?

The tumultuous rocks, silent evenings, eagles and wildcats of Ardnamurchan and Ardgour?

Orkney’s little-visited Northern Isles islands such as Rousay, Westray or Sanday?

You won’t find tourist hordes in any of these places. And many of them will disagree that they are only 90% as beautiful as, say, Glencoe. Take my own top pick of the off-the-beaten-track places for example: Gairloch. A neat, whitewashed village between curves of beautiful sand, backed by the hills of Torridon and Fisherfield. This is a place with 10% of the tourists but 110% of the beauty.

One of the beaches at Gairloch:

We will definitely follow the off-the-beaten-track philosophy for our next holiday. Where would you go?

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Nevis Gorge

Lochaber is one of the roughest parts of the country. It contains many of the best, biggest (and wettest) hills, from rough and inaccessible Knoydart to the long-multi Munroed ridges of Glen Nevis or the rhyolite cliffs of Glencoe. But not every route is a hairy-chested hillwalk.

Take the Nevis Gorge for example. At the end of the dead-end road up Glen Nevis, a mile-long path squeezes through a tree-lined gorge, to debouch suddenly onto a meadow surrounded by steep mountains and with an impressive waterfall set picture-perfectly at its head.

The Steall meadow, Glen Nevis:

The start of the gorge is a widening of the road (it seems over-grand to call it a car park) that these days, is usually overflowing. Twenty years ago this was a hillwalker's secret: not today. It is a perfect length of walk for a small family (hold onto the little ones above the drops) or the tourist who wants to see a bit of wild scenery without climbing a hill.

Below the path the river twists down a steep constriction. Pebbles and boulders rumble in the current and the striking effects of their erosive power can be seen on the rocks lining the river, smooth holes bored out by their action.

Rock bored out through the power of water:

And suddenly, the tumult is over. The Steall Falls appear at the far side of the Steall meadows. A perfect picnic spot. It looks like a dead-end, but isn't: the glen twists to the left and continues on for many more, increasingly bleak miles.

Steall Falls:

The Nevis Gorge walk is over, but there's an optional extra. To access the foot of the waterfall necessitates traversing a wire bridge over the River Nevis. This makes a great highlight to the walk for adventurous eleven-year olds. (Children who are too small won't be able to reach the wires.)

On the path in the Nevis Gorge:

The walk up the Nevis Gorge is the first part of my favourite route up Ben Nevis. But that's is for another time...

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Most Boring Hill in Scotland

"The Scottish hills are the best hills in the world!" said a friend.

"What," we chided him, "even the boring ones?"

"Aye. Even the boring ones."

And there are plenty boring hills in Scotland. Alan Dawson in The Relative Hills of Britain states that:
To be sufficiently boring a hill should be at least a couple of hours walk from the nearest road, so that a full sense of anti-climax can be experienced on reaching the top.
though he also cautions:
Some walkers would argue that all of the Scottish hills are full of interest compared to parts of the English Pennines.
On Windlestraw Law in the Moorfoots:

Can anywhere in Scotland match the Pennines for dullness? We do have some particularly boring hills near our house - the Moorfoots. I have attempted their two highest summits on two separate occasions, only to be repulsed by ennui the first time and by my hillwalking partner mutinying the second time. Yet I've always wanted to stand on top of the Moorfoots. Seen from the path to our local Tesco they glow in late evening sunshine, a world of wilderness and wind rising above our suburban existence.

And that's how we came to be setting off for a walk up Dundreich, a Donald (though not a Marilyn) just over the Peeblesshire border.

South from Dundreich:

The walk starts pleasantly enough along a tadpole-filled loch, a noisy gathering of gulls evoking a harbour with crows and buzzards quartering the lochside forests.

Portmore Loch from the hill:

But it was up on the shoulder of the hill that the magic started. A soft spring breeze tousled our hair. The air flooded with sunshine and lark song and we watched and listened to these small birds courting for a good half an hour.


The top gives view after view of windfarms. Close to hand on the Moorfoots, away in the distance on the Lammermuirs, and really really far - I had the binoculars out - at Whitelee to the south of Glasgow, the biggest onshore windfarm in Europe. And what were those peaks shimmering in the haze beyond Whitelee? I was amazed to be looking at the peaks of Arran. Not something I expected to see from Peeblesshire.

Distant windfarms:

We descended well satisfied with the day. The Moorfoots may well be the most boring hills in Scotland, but this route at least had entertained us greatly.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Stacks of Duncansby

John o' Groats has a lot to answer for. 'Is that it?' is the most common reaction to the tiny hamlet. And despite its fame it is not the furthest point on the British mainland from Land's End - that's Duncansby Head. (In fact Land's End isn't the furthest point from Duncansby Head either - but that was the subject of a previous post.) So we aren't going to discuss John o' Groats any further. This post is all about Duncansby Head, just 3km from John o' Groats.

The Knee (mini stack)

And the great thing about Duncansby Head is its scenic drama - a fitting headland for most north-easterly point on the British mainland.

Duncansby is topped by the ruins of a WWII encampment. Like Hoxa Head, guns were placed here to deter the German navy. The scenery starts pretty much immediately, small seacliffs, a stack, and a geo - the first place my wife ever saw a puffin.

At the Geo of Sclaites:

Beyond the geo the cliffs march south towards Freswick and the impressive Stacks of Duncansby appear. These sea-stacks are 60m high and were first climbed in 1958. They are less famous than the 137m high Old Man of Hoy but are probably seen by more tourists.

Stacks of Duncansby:

We continued just beyond the three stacks where the crowds thinned dramatically. Perched precariously on the very edge of the cliffs was a couple in flagrante delicio, adding an extreme sport frisson to the act of coitus. It was well seeing that the midge season had not yet started.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Pride of Scotland

"You a historian?" barked the man propping up the bar.

"No," I replied, trying to catch the barman's eye to order my round.

"Good. I'm always falling out with historians," he replied.

Delighted for you pal.

"The Yanks! Who would win in a fight between us and the Yanks?"

"Eh, the Yanks of course."

"Bah, the bloody Yanks! Never been in a proper fight! We'd beat 'em for sure. The British Army! Best army in the world."

Where's that barman...

"The English!"

Here we go...

"The English! We'd whip their arses... never been in a proper fight... Scottish soldiers... best soldiers in the world."

He drained his pint. The barman looked over.

"What can I get you?" Finally.

"Three pints of whatever this fella's on."

Friday, 24 February 2017

Was King Arthur a Glaswegian?

The title is straight out of the Daily Mail, but bear with me.

Arthur is mentioned just four times in ancient Welsh literature:
  1. Arthur's twelve battles are mentioned in Nennius' Historium Brittaniae.
  2. The Battle of Badon is also mentioned in the Annales Cambriae
  3. Taliesin's The Spoils of Annwn mention Arthur in passing.
  4. And "he was no Arthur," is the entirety of the fourth mention, in Y Gododdin, a book about warriors from Edinburgh.
The real cult of King Arthur took off with Geoffrey of Monmouths 12th century Historia regum Britanniae. Other writers enthusiastically embroidered this story by borrowing further from ancient mythology, particularly Malory's epic Le Mort d'Arthur. Suddenly a lesser-known historical figure became the most famous king between the Romans and Alfred of Wessex. Yet what were his achievements? In these stories, they were largely appropriated from other characters:

Defeated the Saxons: Credit must go to a historical figure, Emrys Wledig - a.k.a. Ambrosius Auerlianus, 'last of the Romans' who according to Gildas won the Battle of Mount Badon c490. This victory reversed all Saxon gains for a couple of generations. Many other historical figures fought the Angles, such as Urien, Rhydderch, Morcaunt, Gwaulloc, Mynndog Mynfawr, but only Emrys was successful in his lifetime at turning the tide.

Had a magical sword: Rhydderch Hael (Roderick the Generous) had a sword called Dyrnwyn which burst into flame when wielded by a worthy man. Rhydderch was known as 'the Generous' because he was willing to lend the sword to anyone - but no man was brave enough to try and so Dyrnwyn stayed in its sheath. Excalibur, anyone?

Had a round table: Charlemagne had one decorated with a map of Rome, and in Celtic tradition warriors would sit in circle around lead warrior.

Was cheated on by his wife: Rhydderch again - Queen Langoureth had to call in the services of St Kentigern to clear her name.

Had a friendly magician: Myrrdin (Merlin) was a wise man cum madman who was contemporary with Rhydderch, but who fought on the other, losing side in the Battle of the Lark's Nest, one of the 'Three Futile Battles of Britain'. He then retired to Cat Coil Celydon (Ettrick Forest) and made a number of prophecies.

Merlin, a magical sword, fought the Angles and had a cheating Queen? All Rhydderch.

The medieaval tale of King Arthur took scraps of legend from many different characters and weaved them together into one incredible story using the name of a Dark Age warrior. Amongst these characters was Rhydderch, a real life King of Strathclyde in the latter half of the 6th century, a man with a cathedral at Glasgow and a court at Al Clut (Dumbarton).  And no other single figure contributed so many key features of the Arthurian legend. So in conclusion...

King Arthur was a Weegie.

A Weegie called Roderick.