Friday, 16 November 2018

It Looks Like Scotland

"She wound me up something chronic," I said to friends as we drove through Iceland,

"my mother. We'd be somewhere abroad - like South Africa - and we'd be driving past some fields or whatnot with a hill in the background, and every time she'd say,"

"It looks like Scotland."

"It's the veldt, mum, it's Africa! It looks nothing like Scotland!"

"Well, I don't know..."

My friends hooted and looked out the car windows. We drove past a lava field.

"Looks like Scotland, Craig."

"Aye, we could be on Paisley High Street."

Fuck off.

It's a trope as false but persistent as deep fried Mars bars or the Loch Ness Monster that the rest of the world actually *does* look like Scotland. Why, listen to McGlashan:



They stole our idea for a countryside...

And when we visited a cousin's farm on New Zealand's South Island... in lowering cloud and heavy rain, green hills to the horizon and bleating sheep...

It really did look like Scotland. Maybe it's true. Maybe there's nothing to see out there that you can't find a version of back home.

And with that unsettling thought, we went on a tour. And arrived at the base of Mount Cook, a vast gleaming glacier-girt mountain. It was magnificent. It blew me away. And I thought...



Thank God, there's nothing like this in Scotland.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Edinburgh's Seven Hills

Perusing a map of Edinburgh a few years ago I realised that Edinburgh is built on seven hills. The famous three in the centre: Castle Rock, Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat; then four more round the outskirts: Corstorphine Hill, Braid Hills, Blackford Hill, and the Craiglockhart Hills (of which there are two... so maybe there are eight hills of Edinburgh).

Idly I drew a route between them all - and was excited to see that it was roughly a half-marathon in distance. I wanted to run it!

route map


Then I discovered the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race, which has been going since 1980. But I had no interest in the race. Like the now defunct Caledonian Challenge (a race along the West Highland Way for corporate teams) and TGO Challenge (a self-guided route between the west and east coasts of Highland Scotland), doing the route on a set day within set parameters seemed a bit too organised and restrictive. I just wanted to discover the route in my own pace and time.

So I did.

The official race starts and ends on Calton Hill, but we were doing the route we wanted, so started and ended at my friend's house in Newington on an overcast, humid morning. The obvious first hill is Arthur's Seat: get that done while the legs are fresh. From the top all the hills can be seen. Corstorphine a fair distance, Calton Hill just a leap away across the valley of Holyrood Park, the unknown territory of Craiglockhart and Braid overshadowed by the distant Pentlands.

Arthurs Seat


A slippery descent from Arthur's Seat on loose gravel, ravens and adventurous tourists at the summit, then Regent Road and Calton Hill which was thronged with Chinese tourists taking photos of Princes St. 8.30 in the morning and this was the busiest part of the whole route: up North Bridge and on to Castle Hill, moving well, the Castle Esplanade blocked by tattoo works so down to Johnston Terrace, round the base of Castle Rock and the fountain on Princes St Gardens.

heading up the Royal Mile


We talked of families and holidays as we took the easy drag up Ravelston Dykes; steepening for Corstorphine Hill then a moment of confusion. Where is the top? Corstorphine Hill is a level, tree-lined ridge so we couldn't tell. I had intended to take to a road down the west side of Corstorphine Hill in descent, but signs indicating the John Muir Way were too tempting so we followed them, getting lost in brambly undergrowth then arguing over the best way forward. "My auntie lives in Slateford, I know the way," said my friend, who turned out to be right.

By now the weekend traffic was in full flow, and climbing towards Craiglockhart Hill on busy streets was the least enjoyable part of the route: but it did not take long to reach Napier University, and a farcical detour into the campus which saw us clambering over a wall and through more undergrowth to reach a path on Craiglockhart Hill West. This is the higher of the two Craiglockhart Hills. I don't know why the official route doesn't go over it (chosing Craiglockhart East instead), but as we debouched onto a golf course with games in full swing it became apparent we may have made our approach from the wrong direction. A dash across the golf course and we were accosted by two dog-walking ladies, one of whom ordered us "stick to the paths, this is a site of special scientific interest." The perils of urban orienteering.

Craiglockhart


After Craiglockhart the Braid Hills looked high but went easy enough after dropping to walking pace before the summit, navigation fortunately on point despite this being my first ever visit. Just one more hill to go and another golf course to negotiate. Bramble pickers out in force - the brambles have ripened early this year - and happiness in simple movement across the landscape. But oh! I think I went the long way round to get up Blackford Hill. But no mind... I had a cunning plan to head straight down... but came a cropper as I ended up nearly back where I started up Blackford Hill on Midmar Drive.

This route definitely repays local knowledge!

On Blackford Hill


My friend had had to bale out after Craiglockhart to get home in time for child-minding duties, and I popped round to say hello and relay the official stats. According the seven hills website the shortest route is 14.3 miles with 2,200ft of ascent. Aaccording to my tracker we did 17 miles (2.7 miles further than the shortest possible route!) in 3 hours and 8 minutes of running time, plus another 21 minutes of hanging around on the tops taking selfies, buying lucozade from shops, arguing over which way to go next, etc.

I am going to do this route again. It was an absolute blast.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Climbing Kirkjufell

Four years ago we saw this mountain and that was it for my friend.



He dreamed of its stepped precipices and airy apex. It had to be climbed some day. This is Kirkjufell, church hill, shaped like a steeply pitched roof or old-fashioned tent. It is possibly the most-climbed hill in Iceland. It is certainly the most photographed. It isn’t particularly easy. But if like my friend you are lured by its distinctive shape, tempted by its easy road access and modest height of 468m… and you intend to visit Iceland some day... read on.



Bog cotton waved in the breeze as we set off at 6am, following an obvious path alongside a fence from the top of the road. Behind us a car park for Kirkjufellsfoss, the local beauty spot, a new path around a small but excessively picturesque waterfall. Ahead of us a young German couple in matching orange coats who would eventually — possibly wisely — refuse the final ascent. A bit of wind, some ice, poor visibility, and we would have done the same. The path was clear: accounts I had read from eight years ago said it was not. This increase in erosion suggests climbing Kirkjufell has gained in popularity in the Instagram age.



We weaved up this volcanic ziggurat on exposed grass terraces until after about an hour the path stopped in front of a cliff. A rope dangled over it, silently daring us on. Dryness gripped my throat as I calculated the chances of survival should one of us slip. A woman died here last year. Two things — no, three — pushed me on. The first was that my companion went first and encouraged me up. The second was that two girls in the campsite the night before had told us they had climbed Kirkjufell. If they did it then dammed if I couldn’t. And the third was plain old YOLO.



We reached the top of the rope. We were committed now. A fulmar glided past, eyeballing us. Ravens croaked.

"I'm not looking forward to coming back down that."

"Me neither."

 There were two more ropes. A group of three Czechs were making a meal of descending the top one. Would you like to see a picture of the top rope? OK, here you go:



Shall we take a closer look?



Gaaah! I refused to use the rope.

"I might not do this," I told my companion, who went first again then coaxed me up. And we had done it! A fine viewpoint.



Well, we had half done it. We still had to get back down. But the roped sections were easier in descent, for me at least — I had to help my companion down one of them.

At the bottom we saw a solo European marching up with a large rucksack. Was there a path? How did you get up? What was it like? she wanted to know, seeming enthusiastic if a bit clueless. We recommended leaving her pack at the bottom of the first rope and on she merrily went. “Do you think she’ll be alright?” asked my companion.

“She looks more hardcore than us,” I replied, thinking of how much more easily scared we get by stuff like this as we age. “I think she will be fine.”

Descending Kirkjufell:

Thursday, 2 August 2018

The Five Lochs Trail

What's the roughest part of Scotland? I'm not talking people, but terrain.

It is surely Knoydart, or The Rough Bounds of Knoydart to give its full title. So the clue is in the name. And wouldn't a walk through the roughest country in Scotland make a good challenge?

On a pass in Knoydart:


Many years ago I walked this approximate route, between two freshwater lochs and three sealochs. The country is genuinely rough, especially around the head of Loch Morar, an area that sees few visitors due to a lack of Munros.

You start at the railway halt of Glenfinnan and its Jacobite statue at the head of Loch Shiel. It was here in 1745 that the Jacobite flag was unfurled as Charles Stuart ('Bonnie Prince Charlie') gathered his first small army of Lochaber clansmen.

Glenfinnan monument:


A year later he was back in these hills evading redcoats, the roughess of the country an advantage. So let's head into the hills, under the 'Harry Potter' viaduct. It's the last road we'll see for a few days.

There are various ways to reach Loch Morar. The least direct and easiest (and the route I took) is to head NE over a pass to Strathan and then W up ever-narrowing Glen Pean where the v-shaped valley floor becomes choked with boulders from an ancient landslide and you have to carefully pick your route. This is a particularly atmospheric place, the cloud-flirting face of Carn Mor towering above in terraces of torn rock.

At the head of Loch Morar:


A path appears and tumbles you down to Kinlochmorar and the bothy of Oban. There are no easy ways onward: plunging shorelines must be negotiated before reaching the north side of the loch, and the choice of whether to take to the hills for Loch Nevis or stick to the longer but easier trail through the glens and passes.

Loch Nevis:


From the well-placed bothy of Sourlies on Loch Nevis, the wild glen of the River Carnach takes you to the mountain pass of Mam Unndalain and the shores of Loch Hourn, which I have never yet seen except in the pishing rain. After walking the length of the loch on a rough, up-and-down path with boots full of water and a soaking coat you may be tempted to bail out at the single track roadend at Kinlochhourn. But be aware: it is 20 miles along this road before you reach a junction where you might reasonably be able to hitch a ride to civilisation. It is easier to complete the walk and take further mountain passes for Glen Shiel and Loch Shiel, and a night in Ratagan Youth Hostel or the Kintail Lodge hotel where a wash and a meal beckon.

Loch Shiel:


This final section is the least satisfying unless you intend to finish with a couple of Munros: there are several possible routes, and I ended up with a stretch of road walking on the A87 before being picked up by a car as I hitchhiked home. I never got as far as Loch Shiel that first time: I had to get home to sign on at the Jobcentre. But it was a walk that stayed with me for the gloom of the weather, the effort of traversing the terrain, and the lack of company: I met a couple of people in two of the bothies on the route and saw nobody else the entire time. If you want to experience a trek in Scotland - if you really want to experience a trek in Scotland - you would be hard pushed to find a more memorable route.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Bannockburn

"You are the most Scottish person I know," said a friend on the Glasgow indie music scene. That would be quite outstanding today, where it is de rigeur to have a beard and a cardi, be into world music and all things Scottish, and hate the Labour Party. But this was twenty years ago. In those days the socially acceptable thing for members of obscure Glasgow bands was to follow Celtic Football Club, vote Labour, and hate Protestants and nationalists.

I didn't really think I was that Scottish. But then I found a picture of myself from the same period at a fancy dress party. While everyone else was dressed as a pirate, robot, or sexy cat, I was clearly eye-swivellingly drunk, wearing a kilt and Scotland football top with an arrangement of saltire flags sticking out the back of my head. I looked like an absolute roaster. Perhaps there was something in my fellow scenester's perception after all.

And here's something strange. For someone so deeply Scottish, I've never been to Bannockburn. Only the site of the most famous Scottish battle. You know, The One Where We Beat the English. I had been to Culloden a couple of times. Flodden. But never Bannockburn, despite the NTS visitor centre. Visiting Bannockburn just always seemed a bit too Braveheart. And this from the guy who once wore a headband full of Scotland flags.

High time to sort that out, because there is a new visitor centre. What would it be like? Now I'm posting more about history than hillwalking, I reckoned I would go and find out.



On a beautiful day I arrived at Bannockburn and made for the flagpole, trying to get a feel for the battle site.



On a hill stands a flagpole, surrounded by quotations.



In a clearing next to the flagpole is a powerful statue of Robert the Bruce, his steed no thoroughbred prancer but a sturdy battle horse.



I went to the visitor centre, to discover that tours had to be booked. I had just missed the start of a tour. Did I want to wait a while and book myself on the next tour? Not really. I knew what happened here. Before heading home I went back for one last look at the statue, surrounded now by a modern housing estate.



You can take the indie scenester out of Glasgow, but it is harder to take Glasgow out of the boy. I left Bannockburn with the irresistible impression that what the dignified statue of Robert the Bruce lacked was a traffic cone on its head.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Book of Kells

The trouble with being famous for your literary genius is that - unlike art or architecture - there's nothing to see. This isn't a problem for tourists visiting the land of Michaelangeo, Botticelli, Raphael and Bernini. But what is there to see in the city of Joyce, Yeats, Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Shaw and Kavanagh?

Take to Dublin's streets and pubs and enjoy the craic - what unease the dullard must feel! - but as far as sights and attractions goes, Dublin is neither a fairytale showpiece like Prague or Edinburgh, or a great capital stuffed with the loot of empire like Paris or London.

There is one thing to see though, and it's a cracker. Fittingly for Europe's most literary land, it's a book. The greatest work of European art from the Dark Ages. The Book of Kells - crafted by Irish monks on the Scottish island of Iona.

St Oran's cell, Iona:


So why isn't it called the Book of Iona? We went to the book's home at Trinity College to find out.

Trinity's quads and lawns are a tranquil oasis on a hot Dublin day, the queue to enter the old library short, the staff chatty. There's background to the book, who made it, where the different coloured inks came from. And why it came to be in Kells.

Like other British islands, Iona was repeatedly raided by Vikings at the end of the 8th century and dawn of the 9th. And so the treasures of Iona were sent away for safekeeping. The gospels ended up at the inland monastery of Kells, where they witnessed various events before being sent to their current home in Dublin.

the book (source, Wikipedia):


The exhibit climax is seeing a couple of pages from the actual book: around A4 size, it may seem a little underwhelming at first, until you get right up close and look at the detail. It is incredibly detailed, something that doesn't quite come across in internet pictures. I wanted to get my nose right up to the glass and get my magnifying glass out.

You think that is it, but there is one further treat as you leave the exhibit: Trinity College's elegant library.

library detail:


There's something else though, something not mentioned in the exhibition you should know. After the fall of the Roman Empire - we're talking 5th century AD, before the Vikings - Christian Europe was overrun by pagan emigrations from the north and east - the Saxons, the Angles (who would name England), Franks (who would name France), the Allemani (Germans), Goths, Visigoths, Huns and Vandals. The Christian faith and the Roman habit of writing things down went out of fashion - except in Ireland.

Across Europe this time became known as the Dark Ages, and Irish missionaries set out for Britian and Europe to covert these pagans. In Christian Europe's time of straights, Ireland shone a light in the dark. It is a little-appreciated fact in Europe that Irish literacy kept the gospels alive, not to mention old tales of the Ultonian Cycle, tales of the Fianna, and the great Homeric classic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Though to be honest my favourite piece of text might be the charming rhyme Pangur Bán, scribbled in the margins of a religious textbook by Sedulius Scotus now found in a monastery on the German-Swiss border:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Scottish Bastards

Long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I am ploughing - slowly but surely - through the first draft of a book on Scottish history. And the more I research, the more I am coming to the conclusion that the Scots down through the ages have been - how can I put it? Complete bastards.

This jars with the popular narrative of Scottish history, that tells of:
  • against-the-odds plucky resistance to Roman and English domination;
  • a political union with England arranged through bribery of the nobility;
  • the forced emigrations of the Highland Clearances;
  • famous losers like Mary Queen of Scots or Bonnie Prince Charlie;
  • Scotland itself disappearing into a twilight of Celtic mysticism, leaving behind tight-fisted alcoholics with massive chips on their shoulders against the English and their avatars (Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher!)
The Scotland I am discovering instead is one that invaded and wasted England as much as the reverse, failing to conquer Northumberland only through the greater resources of the English crown, rather than for any want of trying.

Area of Northern England under Scottish control, 1138-1157:


  A nation anciently reviled across England, Poland, the Holy Roman Empire and France as poor yet infuriatingly self-entitled: her people haughty, saucy, grasping, dirty and disputatious... though useful mercenaries in Europe's endless rounds of war.

A country that enthusiastically participated in the British Empire, whose entrepreneurs ran slave plantations in the Caribbean and fought the Qing Emperor over the right to sell opium to the Chinese people; entrepreneurs whose extortion of debt from impecunious American colonists was one of the contributing factors to the American War of Independence.

Ruins of the Chinese Emperor's Old Summer Palace, looted & burned by British forces in 1860:

 
A people whose anti-Catholic prejudices and Hibernophobia long predate the Union, the roots of which prejudice have never properly been tackled. A people whose once stolid unionism has recently fractured into Scottish and British nationalism, waking who knows what sleeping monsters.

Personally I find that a much more interesting story than the standard narrative. Celtic twilight? Meet Bastard dawn.