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, istpravda.ru):

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.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Real Cinque Terre - Part 2

The Cinque Terre coastal villages were introduced last post. But there is something you need to know. The best bit about the 5 Terre is their hill trails.

You can walk the 24 miles from Levanto to Portovenere, keep to the wooded hills, and barely touch on the Cinque Terre coast that lies in between. Not only can you do that: if you are in the area, I recommend that you do.


You start in Levanto, a quiet, stately town, refreshingly free of pickpockets and panhandlers - an indication that few foreign tourists visit. Yet it is as nice in its way as the Cinque terre, and includes a good surfing beach.

In the hills:

From Levanto, a wooded trail heads up into the hills. Stay high until la Cigoletta. We then headed down towards Manarola via its hill sanctuary, Volastra.

Manarola from the trail to Volastra:

There is a good reason to head down, splitting the walk in two. The entire trail is 38km, so doing the whole thing in a day in the Mediterranean heat is a serious undertaking. Also, the trail down from Volastra is beautiful. And oh yes, we were staying in Manarola!

Riomaggiore from the sea:

The second day started with a calf-bursting ascent then rapid descent to Riomaggiore, followed by an immediate steep climb out of Riomaggiore towards its sanctuary church of Montenero.

Volastra from near Montenero:

In the church a hymn was being sung. As the chorus swelled the hairs on my arms pricked. I had heard that vocal chord change before. That bell had tolled in the distance before. It was a fragment of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. It was a Spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood. Suddenly the cactus that littered the trails made sense.

"Where are you going?" said a man behind me.

I turned to him, chewing a metaphorical cheroot. "Il Telegrafo."

"Where are you going?" The spell was broken. He was oblivious to me, talking into his mobile phone to someone else. Talking in English. At least he was American.

We continued uphill.

At Il Telegrafo we were back on the hill trail. This is a pleasant forest walk, with far fewer people around. There were fewer views, but a delicious coolness in the shade, the constant scuttle of lizards fleeing our approach.

In the hills above La Spezia:

Finally we arrived in Portovenere - a classy town with a big castle, a place that seemed better set up for crowds than the Cinque Terre, perhaps due to its substantial harbour area. A tourist ferry took us back to Manarola. We'd seen far fewer people than on the famous Cinque Terre coastal trail, and had enjoyed the walk more.


Do you know what? Reading back on the last two posts, I obviously prefer walking in cool empty areas with no over-charging or petty thieves. Perhaps I should just stay at home.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Real Cinque Terre - Part 1

In my last post I told you about Fife's 'Chinque Touns'.

But the real 5 Terre are in Liguria, Italy (where the Alps meet the sea).

These are the four quaint coastal villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza (plus a fifth relative shitehole, Monterosso - Morcambe Bay with palm trees), heavily pressed by tourists drawn to their colourfully cubist harbours and coastal trails.


Perhaps this undersells them. But they inhabit the have-to-be-seen-to-be-believed category of picturesque. With steep Himalayan-style terraced hillsides plunging to the sea, the villages and their terroir together form a UNESCO World Heritage site. I'm afraid the East Neuk of Fife is not in the same league.


The main draw of the Cinque Terre to someone like me is the walking trails. The most famous trail hugs the coast between Riomaggiore and Monterosso. This is flat between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia, and with considerable uphills over seacliffs between Corniglia and Vernazza, and between Vernazza and Monterosso.

Corniglia from the trail to Vernazza:

Recent landslides have closed the easy paths between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia. You'll still pay EUR7.50/day to hike any remaining parts of the coastal trail.

Vernazza from the coastal trail:

In mercenary moments I have often thought a killing could be made in Scotland. All you need do to get the tourists flocking is set up a well-maintained path with good facilities, publicise it, then charge for access. What would a tourist pay for access to the West Highland Way - for all its faults, a better walking trail than the Cinque Terre coast? Perhaps fortunately, charging money to walk in the fresh air is anathema to Scots, an affront to basic freedoms as likely to catch on as alcohol Prohibition.

But there is another side to the 5 Terre - the hill trails (it's where the Alps meet the sea, remember?). These are more interesting, relatively quiet, and cost your favourite price - nothing. Excellent! Let's go for a walk.

More in Post 2...

Monday, 2 May 2016

Scotland's Cinque Terre

Clinging like limpets to the tumbling Ligurian coast, the Cinque Terre are five incredibly picturesque Italian villages.

And it was while walking between Elie and Crail that the thought stuck me. This is Scotland's Cinque Terre!

In the Cinque Touns:

OK, so the East Neuk may not be a world-famous UNESCO World Heritage site, and these pretty villages stand out mainly because they buck the Scottish trend of building unattractive domestic architecture. On the other hand, Elie, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail do not suffer from the pressure of tourist numbers affecting the Italian Cinque Terre. You can wander the streets and paths unmobbed and unregulated. To a person who likes things fuss-free, this is precious indeed.

Elie beach:

Our walk started in Elie, the only one of Fife's 'Cinque Touns' to boast a significant stretch of beach. Elie is quiet but not undiscovered. It has a reputation as a second-home destination for wealthy Edinburgers. The streets are filled with Mercedes and it has a Michelin-starred restaurant. (Right now a two-bedroom bungalow on the seafront is on the market for over £800,000 - you would pay less in Edinburgh's New Town!) But the fresh air and the seafront walks are free.

Elie from its beach:

A scarecrow festival was on, the harbour full of yachts rather than fishing boats, and everything was right with the world. We wandered out to Elie Ness, looked over to the snow on the Moorfoots and sunbathed.

Tower at Elie Ness:

The trail between Elie and St Monans is easy going, above a beach with interesting rock formations. The coast here is part earthy, part sandstone, part volcanic...

Rock formations with Bass Rock and Berwick Law in the distance:

We stopped to smell the rich tropical scent of gorse, as sparrows flitted between impenetrable bramble bushes... students were out from St Andrews, enjoying a break from their studies.

Student on a doocot:

Eventually, we approached St Monans along the earthy path.

St Monans kirk:

St Monans raises the levels of picturesque to an art. Many houses were restored by the National Trust in their little house improvement scheme.

The harbour is a lovely place to while away a some time. We ate ice cream from the local shop and wandered about.

It is a hop of just a couple of kilometres from St Monans to Pittenweem, past a windmill and old salt pans. This was an industrial landscape during the Rennaisance and Jacobean times. What was once a dirty industrial site now does its best to stay just on the right side of twee.

Approaching Pittenweem:

By Pittenweem the afternoon was well advanced. We had spent the whole date bimbling and sunbathing, looking at gable-ends and smelling the spring flowers. A decision was made to curtail our walk two villages short so we could get home in decent time for tea. Anstruther and Crail would have to wait.

Pittenweem harbour:

Coastal walking, counter-intuitively, often requires more time for the distance than hillwalking - there is so much more to see!