Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Bramble Pickers

This is the time of year to gather wild fruits. Mushrooms grow in woods, seaweed and mussels along the shore, hazelnuts, brambles and elderberries in hedgerows, blaeberries on moorland... Given the riches out there, the question begged is - why does nobody gather them?

The answer is because our lives are dominated by pre-packaged things from supermarkets. We will interact with nature in a certain way - wetsuited, with a GPS and a blow-up sleeping mattress - but the ultimate act is to put something wild into your mouth. No pasteurisation. No Best Before date. No statutory rights. No guarantee. It terrifies our modern soul - yet satisfies something older.

But the one thing we will eat is brambles.
Sweet brambles,
dark and luscious
have drawn me in.
Sharp thorns
hold me.

Now I cannot leave
without tearing
Angus Dunn - Desire

Brambles grow in profusion along roads and country paths. Unlike mushrooms, they cannot be confused for anything else. Everyone knows what a bramble is. If you are scared to drink water from a stream and terrified of picking a mushroom, you know where you are with a bramble. At the weekend, we gathered enough for a crumble and some jam - our hands a mess of thorn scars and nettle stings, red bramble juice dark as dried blood.

Earlier I quoted Angus Dunn, a Rossshire man whose writing has ripened into High Country, a poetry anthology published by Sandstone Press. Yet this moment of fecundity is also the moment of his premature death. You've probably never heard of Angus - why should you? Poetry can take a bit of effort. A bit like foraging in the woods. Well, I will leave you with some more Angus I have picked for you just for this occasion. It is up to you if you want to add more to your basket.

Last Look
Not an ounce on her more
than was needed to cover
her bones.
Her mouth open in sleep,
she looked like a fledgling -
just as she should look,
ready for where she's going.

Friday, 25 September 2015

TGO Magazine - Slaettaratindur, Highest Hill in Faroe

I was visiting my neighbours as a teenager, and the subject came round to my parents' forthcoming package holiday to the Costas. "That will be nice," said the neighbours, "you'll enjoy that."

"I'm not going," I said. "I don't like those sort of holidays. I'd rather go to the Faroe Islands."

"The whit?" said the neighbours, clearly of the opinion I wasn't quite all there.

The neighbours would hate this:

Well as you have seen in Impressions of the Faroe Islands, Faroe Adventure: the Torshavn Marathon and The Fantastical Faroes - I finally achieved that long-held ambition to visit. And I left the best till last, the ascent of Slaettarartindur, at 882m the highest hill in Faroe.

Looking south from Slaettarartindur:

This mountainous group of islands is an absolute paradise for hillwalkers. So good in fact, I wrote about it in the October 2015 issue of TGO magazine. So why not 'archipela'-go and get yourself a copy?

October 2015 TGO magazine:

It's a great story.

Obligatory figure shot:

Sunday, 20 September 2015


I was in Hawick for a 10k race, but had a bit of time to spare. I'd passed through before but never really looked round - the general impression from the A7 is of boarded up mills and the air of a town past its prime.

But passing through on the A7 doesn't do Hawick justice.

Hawick from the mote:

This is a handsome town with steep streets in a green Roxburghshire valley.

Hawick streetscape:

Was it my imagination, or did the locals look sportier and healthier than your average? Maybe it was just people gathering for the 10k and the local sports grounds emptying of players. This is a big rugby town, and horse riding is popular in the Borders. I had a wander up the main street.

Hawick town hall:

The usual charity shops and Greggs with just a few independent local businesses. No different to any other Scottish town. What would it take to improve the vitality and economy of Scotland's many small towns? Proper local democracy? A system of Mairies as in France? A more equal distribution of the national GDP? Better infrastructure links? Hawick, after all, is known as the furthest decent sized town from a railway station anywhere in Britain. I wonder if the partially reconstituted Waverley line between Edinburgh and Galashiels changes that?

Hawick main street and the 1514 memorial:

This statue is the town symbol. You see representations of it everywhere. It commemorates an event that happened after the battle of Flodden, where Hawick's adult male population was killed. Flodden left Hawick open to attack from roving bands of English reivers, who were not slow to take advantage. Hawick would undoubtedly have been sacked like other Border towns were it not for a daring night raid by the boys of Hawick on a camp of bandits led by the Bishop of Hexham. The surprise night attack turned the tables on the English reivers and Hawick was saved. The statue shows a youth returning with the Bishop's banner - an event commemorated every year in the annual Common Riding.

The mote:

Hawick' history is older than this. Up a side street sits a small artificial hill known as the mote. This is a 12th century construction built by the Norman Lovel family and would at one time have had a wooden fort on top. I had never heard of Hawick's mote until my little wander around. It features in the Common Riding celebrations too, as the cornet mounts the hill at dawn to sing the town song and kick off the festivities - which The Rough Guide World Party describes as "an equestrian extravaganza that combines the thrills of Pamplona's Fiesta de San Fermin with the concentrated drinking of Munich's Oktoberfest". The mind boggles!

The Towerhouse:

As I left Hawick, I heard a woman say to her wee son "would you like to see the motorbikes?" They joined a crowd lining the A7 where they could watch the memorial run to Steve Hislop. Steve was a superbike champion who grew up near Hawick and died here too, in a helicopter crash in 2003. As I left the town hundreds of motorbikes came in the other direction in an annual riding of a motorised kind. In the town furthest from the railways, they like their transport with saddles on.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Ecclefechan Siege

"One day," you say to yourself driving down the M74 and seeing the signs at Junction 19 for Ecclefechan, "I'm going to turn off the motorway and visit Ecclefechan." But of course you never do.

Then one day, I did.

High summer Ecclefechan:

Comedy show Absolutely had a spoof folk song, 'The Hills of Buccleuch', which consisted in its entirety of the phrase:
Oh there's not much to do // in Buccleuch.
The same could be said for Ecclefechan. But this is a place with an ancient history. I'm not talking about the neat street of the 18th century village, or the birthplace of Victorian man of letters Thomas Carlyle, now in the care of the National Trust. I'm talking something much older and more dramatic, but nowadays completely hidden from view.


What I am talking about is flat-topped Burnswark Hill, once ceremonial gathering point of the the Anavionenses tribe. The Anavionenses were the Iron Age inhabitants of Annandale. They saw the Romans sweep north to Mons Graupius, south to Carlisle, north to the Antonine Wall, then south again to remain behind Hadrian's Wall. Sitting just a few miles north of Hadrian's Wall, Annandale was frontier country for the Romans, and they built a tax outpost called Blatobulgium (bulging bag) at the foot of Burnswark to collect tribute from the Anavionenses.

Climbing Burnswark:

In AD 155 the Anavionenses sacked Blatobulgium, and the Romans retaliated by laying seige to Burnswark. 200 years earlier they had defeated a massive Gaulish army at a similar hillfort of Alesia, and it is tempting to imagine a mass of Anavionensian infantry and cavalry cooped up in Burnswark with the Roman artillery raining down on them. However after Mons Graupius the Caledonians tended to avoid engaging Roman armies directly, preferring the guerilla tactics that they excelled in. It would be surprising if there were many people at home when the Romans vented their fury in target practice against the local tribe's sacred site.

Archaeological trench:

This hill is extremely modest. It is not one you would notice unless you were looking out for it. At the roadend I was surprised to find a small crowd, but the reason soon became clear. An archaeological dig had just finished and there was a display of locally found artefacts. "The dig has been good," said the archaeologist, "locals have tended to neglect the hill, but now there's a bit of pride and interest. Lots of them have signed up to volunteer for next year's dig. Would you like to sign up too?"

Burnswark view - Roman Britain across the Solway:

The dig site had yielded artefacts both ancient and modern - including WWII mortar shells, which had to be disposed of by the bomb squad. After peching up the steep ramparts the view from this small hill was a revelation - the whole of the rich grassy farmland of Annandale, across the Solway to Cumbria, the Galloway Hills, the Tweeddale Hills. (Almost, even, the Hills of Buccleuch.) No wonder the original inhabitants chose it as their ceremonial gathering place.

Burnswark view - Annandale and Galloway Hills:

Next time you are looking for a leg-stretch on your drive north or south, why not pull over at Junction 19 and have a wee jaunt up Burnswark Hill?

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Brough of Birsay

The royal burgh, cathedral town, largest settlement, and proud capital of Orkney is Kirkwall. But this was not always the case. For a long time, Orkney was administered from elsewhere. At the dawn of recorded history about 2,000 years ago, the King of Orkney lived at the Broch of Gurness, an iron-age complex on broch-lined Eynhallow Sound.

But the Vikings had other ideas. As pirates their base had to be an eyrie, somewhere with a good view up and down the whole coast.

Brough of Birsay:

The Brough of Birsay fits the bill perfectly - in one direction, you can see all the way to the Old Man of Hoy and, in very clear weather, Scotland. In the other direction, all the way to Noup Head on Westray. Nobody can sail along the west coast of Orkney without being seen from Birsay.

The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island, which can be reached via a slippery shore-side scramble from the mainland at low tide. When the Vikings arrived, there was a Pictish village on the landward side of the Brough. They were soon displaced and the Norse took over. The village is in a sheltered spot on the landward side of the Brough of Birsay, looking over the causeway. Now oystercatchers nest in ruins that once housed farmers and pirates.

Ruins of the village, Brough of Birsay:

It was from here the Vikings issued to raid Scotland, Ireland and Norway, a complaint captured in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga:
One summer Harald Hárfagri sailed west to punish the Vikings, as he had grown tired of their depredations;
for they harried Norway during the summer, but spent the winter in Shetland or Orkney...
From the village, you can walk the circuit of the island. Birsay rises continuously north and south from a low sheltered eastern shore to a spectacular western cliff edge. The lighthouse perched here can be seen for miles. Fulmar, puffins, razorbills and other seabirds nest in the cliffs, the split slabs of Orcadian sandstone providing perfect ledges to lay eggs.

Birsay's western edge:

Today, like so many significant sites in Scottish history, the Brough is ruinous and deserted. Just you, the birds, and perhaps another tourist or two wandering about soaking up the atmosphere.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Last Arthur

In 2013 Kellan MacInnes launched his book, Caleb's List. This is an engaging book about Caleb George Cash, a member of the Cairngorm Club and Royal Geographical Society round the turn of the 20th century. Back in 1899 he published a list of hills visible from Arthur's Seat. MacInnes christened them 'the Arthurs'. There's twenty of them. As many are Munros, I realised at the book launch that I had already done most of them. Chris Highcock had the same thought, but he actually climbed the remainder, becoming only the second Arthurist on record.

Arthur's Seat from the Pentlands:

The Arthurs are an eccentric list because Caleb, bless him, chose to only list hills visible to the north of Arthur's Seat. No Pentlands, Moorfoots or Berwick Law for him! There are those who would salute such latitude blindness. For me, I was intrigued by which hills remained so that I could say I had bagged them all.

North from the summit of Meall Dearg:

And so, this month, I came to my last Arthur - Meall Dearg. This is an obscure 690m high Graham in the ill-frequented (by hillwalkers) wedge of Perthshire between Crieff, Dunkeld and Shiehallion. The area includes Farragon Hill, newly-discovered Marilyn Creag na Criche, and a couple of windfarms. Oh and tussocky heather and bracken - quite a lot of it.

At the start of Meall Dearg:

We parked at an estate track just before the bridge on the A826. Once off the track, the way up bashes through luxuriant vegetation, plenty of lingonberries and blaeberries, not quite as sweet-tasting as they will be in a month's time. Dank trickles of water hidden under heather. Peat hags on the summit plateau. Sheep, frogs, hares, caterpillars, and a deer hind by herself. The trig point hoved into view and I touched it. Woo hoo! I was an Arthurist. We had gone straight up from the road, but on the top it was clear there was another way down. A new track, not marked on the map, goes close by the summit and links up with General Wade's military road to the north-east. We took this down and made a circuit.

South from the top - Arthur's Seat somewhere in the distance:

Here, for your delectation, is Caleb's complete list. How many have you done?
Ben Lomond 974m
Ben Venue 729m
Ben Ledi 879m
Benvane 821m
Dumyat 419m
Stob Binnein 1165m
Ben More 1174m
Ben Vorlich 985m
Ben Cleuch 721m
Ben Lawers 1214m
Meall Garbh 1118m
Ben Chonzie 931m
Schiehallion 1083m
Meall Dearg 690m
Beinn Dearg 1008m
Ben Vrackie 841m
Beinn a'Ghlo - Carn nan Gabhar 1121m
West Lomond 522m
East Lomond 434m
Lochnagar 1156m

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Dover and the Albans

At the farthest end of Britain from Scotland are the white cliffs of Dover. There may seem to be no connection between Dover and Scotland, yet I can think of at least two. The first concerns the oldest known name of the island of Britain. In the north, it was Alba. In the south, Albion, effectively a variant of the same word. An argument has been made that this comes from an old Indo-European root word alb-, meaning white - the same root word that named the Alps and Albania. Why would Britain be described thus? Some say that the name came from people who sailed across the narrowest point of the Channel from proto-Gaul, saw the white cliffs of Dover, and like European explorers of the 18th century in the New World and Australia, named the entire island after the first thing they saw. Alba, then, used to describe the whole of Britain - today, in Gaelic and Welsh, it is used only for Scotland.

White Cliffs of Dover:

This isn't the only argument of course - some historians argue that Alba came instead from the root word for dawn - and was therefore named not by Gauls but by the Irish, who saw it in the east. Britain, like Japan, may well be not 'white land' but 'land of the rising sun.'

The second connection concerns the movements of Scottish armies. It is a little known fact that in 1216, Alexander II invaded England as far south as Dover - the furthest south an army led by a Scottish monarch has penetrated. He did so to support Prince Louis of France as heir to the English throne in the aftermath of King John's dispute with his Barons' over 1215's Magna Carta. Louis had the support of most of the Barons, but was having trouble reducing Dover Castle, which was being stoutly defended by Hugh de Burgh.

Dover Castle:

This immensely impressive castle, the largest in England, is perched in a strong position on top of the white cliffs and a great prize for any who held it. Hugh refused to surrender 'the key to England' to a foreigner. But before the siege was resolved, John did England the favour of dying on 9 October 1216. His 9-year old son Henry III was persuaded to agree to Magna Carta and put under the guardianship of Hugh de Burgh, and the Barons saw Louis off, now that he was no longer needed to rescue them from a useless king.

France (the white horizon behind the ferry) from Dover:

Nowadays Dover is a run-down town, a poor advertisement for anyone arriving from the Continent. But the cliffs remain, providing a unique and beautiful walk along an historic coast. On the edge, wild flowers grow and Europe can be seen in clear weather. On seeing France the mind wanders unbidden to Napoleon's thwarted invasions or the desperate fights of the Battle of Britain in 1940. In such a mood, the Channel is nothing less than Dover Castle's 21-mile wide moat, sometimes all that has held invading hordes at bay. With illegal immigration the latest moral panic, the whole of today's UK seems to narrow to this one fretful point.