Monday, 8 August 2016

Beinn a' Ghlo in the Pissing Rain

It would be the height of folly to climb the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe whilst drunk. This isn't the aim of the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse - just one pint in the Kingshouse, which should be sweated sober well before tackling the Aggy Ridge's scary bits, then a final triumphal pint in the Clachaig - a fun challenge combining Glencoe's two famous hostelries plus her most notorious ridge traverse.

The Aonach Eagach on a dry day:

So doing the Aonach Eagach drunk is not the purpose of the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse at all. But there are safety limits. And they have more to do with the weather than the booze. The height of folly is attempting the Aonach Eagach at all - whatever your state of sobriety - with rain and gales forecast.

Between showers:

And that's how we ended up on Beinn a'Ghlo in Perthshire in high winds and pissing rain.

Beinn a'Ghlo is one of the best-known hills in Scotland, familiar to anyone who has driven up the A9. Its rounded bulks dominate the view of Blair Castle and the Pass of Killicrankie. Its access path forms a distinctive white scar from a distance, as thousands of boots over the years have worn the dark peaty moorland away to expose the quartzite bedrock beneath.

Fungal flora of the moor:

The path is so obvious from afar I assumed we would see it from near to hand. However low clouds caused confusion and we marched right past the traditional start of the walk, followed by a couple who had perhaps been fooled by our confident manner. We walked the hill anti-clockwise, the long bash through heather tackled first, rather than last.

But this was no hardship: I am sure the last time I was here (twenty three years ago!) there was no such path as this, and the going was easy, rather than the scratchy heather slog I vaguely remember from my youth. Today the heather was in full bloom.

I did recall the delicious tasting water, and we thirstily drank our fill from the stream. Soft and fresh, running through peat over granite, the very waters of life.

Fresh waters, source of whisky:

As we started on the climb, the rain stopped. Might we be in luck? Would there be a view from the summit?

Graham contemplates more ascent:

It started to clear. We could nearly see the top!

But no. We were being toyed with. The clouds closed in again and the rain came on, the wind rising.

Summit selfie:

Beinn a'Ghlo is not just one hill but a small massif, containing three Munros, a number of smaller tops, and a great deal of flowing, rounded ridges. A random fact that has stuck in my head is that Beinn a'Ghlo has nineteen corries, and a gun fired in any cannot be heard in any other. Now there's a sporting fact!

En-route to the second Munro:

The weather had turned foul but there was plenty to see close by as Perthshire is richer in wildlife than Glencoe. Through the mists we saw raven, mountain hare, ptarmigan, deer, wheatears. A grouse in its panic exploded at my feet and flew straight into me, before flapping off in a flurry of squawking and feathers.

Before the steep descent back to the access track we were treated to a final visual treat as a brief break in the clouds brought a rainbow.

It had been a grand day out in good company, a satisfying exertion over three Munros - the first time I'd been over more than one in a single walk since the Crianlarich hills in May 2014. Would the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse have been as enjoyable? I would have to try again another time to find out!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Puffin Island

Thousands of Puffins. Thousands of them! And they are right there in front of you. Literally at your feet.

You approach Skomer hoping that you might see a puffin or two. A dozen maybe would be quite a result. They start appearing before you even land.

Out at sea, fishing, returning to their burrows...

And then you realise just how many of them there are...


Skomer is internationally important for its Manx Shearwater population. 'So what?' is the general reaction. When there are so many puffins on the island to see instead!

If you compare ease with reward, a trip to Skomer is about the best wildlife trip you can do in Britain. A ferry takes you to the island from the Pembrokeshire mainland, with the instruction that you have to be back five hours later. Will this be too much time on the island, which is only two and a half kilometres across? In fact, it is nowhere near enough time.

Because there are ten thousand puffins to watch.


There's seals, and seagulls, and gannets, and various other creatures too. But there is just one star for 90-odd percent of visitors.

I have a confession. On my site is a picture of a puffin. But it wasn't taken in Scotland. It was taken on Skomer. A puffin's a puffin, right? But there is nowhere in Scotland I know of that combines the accessibility of Skomer with the sheer wonder of THOUSANDS OF PUFFINS JUST FEET AWAY!!!!

Yes the puffins come this close:

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Appeal of Sir Benfro

You like Cornwall, but not its summer crowds? Well the great news is there's a solution just across the Bristol Channel -  Pembrokeshire.

Like Cornwall, Pembrokeshire - Sir Benfro in Welsh - is a county of surfing beaches:

Quaint creeks like Solva:

A rugged coast:

Moorland walks with Marilyns and prehistoric remains (Mynydd Carningli):

A county town with a cathedral (atmospheric sea fog in St Davids):

Lurid summer flora:

And like Cornwall with the South West Coastal Path - and the main attraction for us - Pembrokeshire has its own coastal path girdling the county. Over and above that, there are some very interesting islands to explore, something Cornwall can't boast.

Given the vast popularity of Cornwall, it's a mystery to me why Pembrokeshire isn't hoaching with more tourists...

Whitesands Bay gloaming:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Dunnottar Castle

At the eastern end of the Highland Boundary Fault a stone fist punches out to the North Sea. The Highlands squeeze the Lowlands to a narrow coastal strip at Stonehaven and, just at its narrowest point, geology has provided a near-impregnable citadel of rock, surrounded on three sides by the sea. On top of this rock sits Dunnottar, the Stirling Castle of Aberdeenshire.


Dunnottar entered written history in 680, when it was beseiged by King Bridei mac Bili, a Moray man who was in the process of reuniting the Picts after their defeat at the hands of the Angles of Northumbria.

(The history of the Picts is the great unknown story of Scotland. Between the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 and the slow consolidation of the new country around 900 a huge amount happened. A dynamic patchwork of rivalries and small kingdoms fought across Britain and Ireland. There were invasions of Scots, Angles, Saxons, and Vikings. In those days monarchs had fantastic names like Eadbert, Rienmelth, Urien, Talorcan, Sigurd the Mighty. Saints in the newly-introduced Christian religion travelled the land performing miracles. But there is no compelling narrative of the period for history fans to enjoy. The events were too many, the sources too patchy.)

Honours of Scotland (source,

The castle was prominent in other sieges of the middle ages, but its most famous moment came in the 1650s. Charles II had been defeated at Worcester in 1651 and had fled to France. Cromwell invaded Scotland, determined to get his hands on the Honours of Scotland - a crown, sceptre, and sword used in the coronation ceremony - and destroy them as he had done the English crown jewels. Rumour had it they were in Dunnottar. The siege took eight months, and in May 1652 Dunnottar became the last place in Britain or Ireland to fall to Cromwell. But where were the Honours? They had gone!

After Cromwell's death all became clear. They had been spirited out by the wife of the minister of nearby Kinneff Kirk, whom the English had allowed in to administer to the garrison's spiritual needs. When Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne, the Honours were restored.

Kinneff Kirk (By Martyn Gorman, CC BY-SA 2.0):

Dunnottar is deceptively large. After going through the gatehouse the full extent of the castle site is revealed, sloping gently towards the east. It makes a great visit. When you consider the number of armies from the 7th to the 17th centuries which have besieged Dunnottar, it is a modern miracle that these days anybody can pay their small entry fee and walk around unmolested.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Will the UK Survive Brexit?

I have supported independence most of my adult life. The reason is mundane - it's because I am Scottish. Now there are people who think that supporting self-determination is small-minded. And it is only natural for people who feel British, rather than Scottish, to think so. That's hardly surprising; but wanting your country to run its own affairs, and being outward-minded, do not have to be mutually exclusive. There are uncertainties about finances of course, with claim and counter-claim. But taking a step back and looking at the fundamentals shows that (provided we avoid electing numpties which is a whole other issue) there's no reason an independent Scotland cannot thrive.

No reason except one.

Uh oh - EU Referendum results:

There is and always has been one key pre-requisite for Scottish success, whether inside or outside the UK, and that is good relations with England. The days of cross-border peace before the 14th century Wars of Independence were prosperous, as was the age of the British Empire when we were inside the tent, pissing out. But between the 1300s and the first Jacobite rising, life in Scotland was often a struggle for survival in the face of hostile English attention. The tone of England's relations with its neighbours is key to their security and prosperity.

Membership of the EU and NATO altered that. One guarantees trade, the other physical security. Small European countries flourish in a way that was impossible in the 19th century, when they were gobbled up by empires. And while the consensus now seems to be that Brexit will trigger Scottish independence, I am not so sure. England and Wales being out of the EU is a problem for Scotland. While everyone else rushes to the Indyref 2 banner, I'd rather see how things pan out first.

Perhaps there is now no way of avoiding a period of awkward relations with the rest of the UK. If so that would be a shame. And it would be an ironically Scottish outcome - similar to the failure of the 18th century Scottish elites to rebrand England as 'south Britain' - to gain independence not through a self-empowered choice, but by England declaring it first...

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Remote Hill - Part 2

Now Beinn Lair is a remote hill. Guarded by cliffs, lochs, other hills and rough paths, it is an awkward bugger to reach. But Beinn Lair is just the appetiser. There is an even more awkward hill to reach in the 'Fisherfield Wilderness' - Beinn a Chaisgein Mor. And I was heading for it.

In Fisherfield:

This area is prized by hillwalkers as one of Scotland's wildest. Hidden between Dundonnell and Achnasheen, Poolewe and Garve, is a roadless wedge of land 30km by 50km across. Its core is the 90,000 acre Letterewe Estate, owned by the family of the late Paul van Vlissingen. In an age of absentee feudal landowners accountable to nobody, Paul was one of the good guys when it came to encouraging access to his land. Nowadays the right to roam is enshrined in law.

Looking back at Beinn Lair:

A path - sometimes rough, but mainly good-going - took me to the causeway between Fionn Loch and Dubh Loch, and then up into the stony heart of this area. Here is A'Mhaigdean, the remotest Munro in Scotland. I savoured the atmosphere. It is a bastard to get here, but now I was, what a place!

A'Mhaigdean from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:

The airy summit plateau of Beinn a Chaisgein Mor contrasts with its rocky surroundings to make a grand viewpoint. Slioch, A'Mhaigdean, An Teallach, Beinn Lair, the watery wilderness towards Poolewe... The wind tousled my hair and I breathed it all in, a deep breath of freedom. But there is a price to pay for this. It is a long way - 24km and two hill passes - from Kinlochewe. And by golly, did I not feel it on the way back. I had hoped to climb Meall Meinidh, a Marilyn across the pass from Beinn Lair. But my legs were leaden. With a nagging sense I might regret it, I chose instead to carry on down to Loch Maree. With the hill abandoned I was delighted to see early evening clouds settle over the summits.

Furnace ruins:

Back at Loch Maree I still had another 12km to go. I camped discreetly, not far from Furnace. There are numerous ruins amongst the bracken. These are larger than the usual abandoned hovels. Believe it or not this is because Loch Maree was an industrial site! The Highlands hosted a number of 18th century ironworks using imported ore, mainly founded by English companies after the union. But Loch Maree was worked earlier, founded in 1607 by Sir George Hay of Perthshire, an enterprise using ore from Fife.

Loch Maree evening:

There are far fewer trees around Loch Maree today, but still enough to catch the sun and glow in beauty.

As I walked out the next morning, fantasising about dry feet and a bath, I realised with a jolt that the last time I had been along this path was 21 years ago. Back then I was unhappy. Coming to the hills helped me then, an escape from unemployment. Discomfitingly, three days backpacking alone had recalled past unhappiness and reminded me of my mortality. In another 21 years, will I be fit enough to be able to come here at all?

I sang folk songs to cheer myself up and decided to try to just enjoy each moment as it comes.

An Teallach from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:

Click here for Part 1.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

A Remote Hill - Part 1

The group of middle aged hillwalkers arrived in the car park with the footsore and haunted look of soldiers fresh from a battle. "Brutal," said one about their nine-hour ascent of Slioch. It was raining stair rods and I had just arrived at Kinlochewe. My two-night solo camping trip in Fisherfield was starting badly.

I had nurtured a dream for years. Buy a solo tent, drive to Kinlochewe, walk up Loch Mareeside, camp on the summit of Meall Meinidh, bag Corbetts, climb A'Mhaigdean, return via Lochan Fada. It would take three days, I would camp high, feel the winds of freedom, the sunrise and sunset photos would be spectacular. It would be the ultimate short backpacking trip.

The fantasy - A'Mhaigdean from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:

But there would be no sunset photos today. Half an hour into the walk I sheltered under an oak and considered my options. The summit of Meall Meinidh was out of the question. It was more important that I got the tent up before everything was inundated. I found a flattish, exposed spot (always find the most exposed spot possible when summer camping in the Highlands - the wind is your friend against the midges) and cut the evening's walk short. I had got the tent up in time. It was cosy inside. Except for the fact my feet would be wet for the next two days, I was as comfortable as could be.

Wild camping:

I rose late next morning to sunshine that quickly turned dull, struck camp, and battled the path to Letterewe in sodden shoes. Kinlochewe to Poolewe looks magical on the map. But it is the kind of walk you only want to do once. The walk-ins of the Cairngorms are long, but are on easy trails where 6km/hr is possible. The Fisherfield walk-ins are slightly longer, but are rough going and I could only do half the speed. Oh for the well-made, dry paths of Italy! Yet despite this grumble I got what I came for - a sense of wildness. In the Cinque Terre, we saw thousands of people each day, hundreds on the trails alone. Over three days walking in Fisherfield, apart from the Slioch baggers at the car park I saw five other people. The third person I saw was camping by himself on Dubh Loch. "Busy, isn't it," he said. He wasn't being ironic.

It was noon by the time I reached the Bealach Meinidh. I had originally intended to camp here last night so would have to alter my plans for the rest of the trip - but in what way? It would become clearer later. In the meantime I had a Corbett to bag.

Beinn Lair view:

Beinn Lair is flat on top but is guarded to the south by Loch Maree, to the east by Slioch, and to the north by one of the longest continuous cliff-faces in Britain. Its inaccessibility makes it a great prize for the bagger. I put my map and camera in my pocket, dropped the rucksack, and headed up its slopes. The mist descended. Was this to be my last view today?

Summit of Beinn Lair:

But the weather was just toying with me. The cloud lifted. The sun came out. I met a couple on top. I could tell they weren't local because I was in a t-shirt and they were wearing down jackets. They were surprised to see someone else here. They were German, had come in from Poolewe and were camping at Fionn Loch. It was magnificent up here and I revelled in the easy-walking tundra of the summit plateau, a horizon ringed 360 degrees by steep, characterful hills. It is for situations like this that we go up hills, the drudgery of the walk-in forgotten.

Beinn Lair's magnificent north face:

Back at the rucksack I luncheoned ravenously on ham sandwiches and malt loaf and considered my options. Beinn Lair is remote, but there is a hill even more awkward to reach than Beinn Lair, one with better views, and I had it in my sights. But that's a story for another day...

Read Part 2.