Saturday, 21 November 2015

In Praise of Lowland Hills

Lowland Hills. An oxymoron, surely? Yet the Lowlands are studded with wee hill ranges, from individual peaks such as Berwick Law or the Dumpling, to substantial massifs such as the 721m high Ochils, a dramatic escarpment rising above the flat plain of the Forth. And the best thing about them? For 80% of Scotland's population - including me - they are right there on the doorstep.

Whitewisp Hill in the Ochils and distant Lomond Hills:

I love hillwalking. But sometimes it just isn't practical to get away for a whole day. And the onset of winter brings fresh imperatives - short daylight, and a desire not to spend hours on the road in the dark. Well, there are plenty of leg-stretching options available within an hours' drive of home. What about a traverse up steep gorges onto the flat, sun-flooded plateau of the Ochils and a descent past a mediaeval castle?

In the Ochils:

A wander up the worn rhinoceros horn of Dumgoyne, round the rim of the vast, untrodden Corrie of Balglass, and down past the beautiful Spout of Ballagan in the Campsies?

Dumgoyne in the Campsies:

A trek past the Bonnet Stane in the Lomond Hills of Fife, followed by a high-level escarpment walk round three grassy peaks of volcanic origin?

Falkland from the Lomond Hills:

Or what about my nearest hills, the Pentlands? 13 minutes drive according to the AA Route planner.

In the Pentlands:

Thirteen minutes, and I am on my way up here.

Scald Law from Carnethy Hill:

Exercised, ruddy-cheeked with wind, skin flooded with Vitamin D, in good company if I'm lucky, a bit of perspective put on the world bustling about its business at our feet.

Caerketton from Allermuir Hill:

This is the view from Allermuir Hill, right on the outskirts of Edinburgh - so close to town in fact that you can get a city bus to Hillend at the hill's base.

Pentlands from Allermuir Hill:

The Lowland Hills. I can thoroughly recommend them.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Battle of Largs

A battered sea-front, waves crashing on the shore. That was the scene this week when storm Abigail, the first of the winter, hit the Ayrshire coast. What wasn't seen this week was the largest Viking fleet ever assembled riding out the storm offshore. But under similar conditions, that was exactly the view in 1263. For how many people today know that the Clyde was once an international frontier between Scotland and Norway's empire?

Largs seafront, Cumbrae and Arran:

For decades, Scottish kings had been claiming the islands of the Clyde and Western coasts, territory belonging to the Norwegian king through conquest. Alexander II died in 1249 campaigning near Oban against forces loyal to Haakon IV. His successor Alexander III continued pressing the claim. Eventually the elderly Haakon had enough, and ordered a great fleet to be assembled. His own galley was trimmed with gold and the dragons head prow. At least 120 longships sailed from Bergen in July, gathering more men as they reached Scotland and reaffirming his rule from Shetland to Man.

On hearing of Haakon's progress, the Scottish king gathered his Norman knights in the pastoral fields of Ayrshire and waited, in view of the Norse islands of the Clyde. For despite Scottish consolidation on the Lowland side, the Clyde remained a Norwegian sea. Haakon sailed up the Clyde, and a stand-off began at Largs. Alexander couldn't take the battle to Haakon - the Norwegian king was unbeatable amongst the islands and at sea. Yet neither could Haakon engage - his Viking warriors would not have been able to withstand Alexander's heavily armoured, mounted knights on land. And so the two forces sat, paralysed, parleying.

Largs town:

Haakon sent a diversionary force up Loch Long and down Loch Lomond to Dumbarton, burning and pillaging the surrounding countryside as they went. But Alexander stayed fast. For he knew that winter was coming, and the longer that negotiations continued, the better his chances of success. And so it proved.

On the night of 30 September, the first fierce storm of winter hit the coast. A number of Norwegian longships slipped their anchors and were beached at Largs. Local levies fell on them, beating them back, until they were reinforced by Haakon himself. The next day the main Scottish force arrived and forced the beached Norweigans to take to sea again. But the Norwegians countered, ending up in possession of the beach on the night of 2 October. Come morning they made an orderly withdrawl. Haakon headed out by Arran where he had more sea room in the storm, and was re-joined by his Loch Lomond party. But it was too late for any further battles. Vikings were strictly summer warriors, the winter seas too hazardous. Haakon withdrew to Orkney, where he died in December. In 1266, his successor Magnus VI signed a peace treaty with Alexander and sold the Hebrides and Isle of Man to the Scots king for a large quantity of silver.

The fighting at the Battle of Largs was desultory, and at the time it was seen as a minor engagement. But hindsight has given it greater prominence, as it proved to be the final battle between Viking and Scot. It lead to the Hebrides finally coming into the orbit of the Scottish monarch after spending nearly four-hundred years under the nominal control of Norway. And that is perhaps the final eye-opener in this story - that islands that are now considered so quintessentially Scottish, were once as Norwegian as roll-mop herring and trolls.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Paintings from the Italian Renaissance, a statue of Elvis with a neon halo, and a stuffed giraffe. A collection of grimacing masks, Dutch masters, and a Second World War fighter plane. Prehistoric carvings, a classical organ concert, and a good quality square meal. Meeting friends for the weekend, kids wandering about amused, and high Victorian architecture.

What do they have in common?

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum:

The answer is they are all exhibits in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery.

This museum and art gallery has a good claim on being Britain's most loved. Partly this is because of how the museum is funded and controlled. London has the vast British Museum, glory hole of the empire, and the UK's free, centrally funded galleries of traditional and modern art. Edinburgh has Scotland's nationally funded galleries, and the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers St that tells Scotland's story. But the Kelvingrove is run and funded entirely by Glasgow City Council. I think this makes the difference. Londoners and Edinburghers are proud of their cultural assets, but somehow they are only really keeping them for the benefit and edification of the whole nation. To a Glaswegian, the Kelvingrove is theirs. It even has its own urban legend.

Inside the Kelvingrove:

Every child from Glasgow and the surrounding area visits the Kelvingrove as part of their education. This cements affection at an early age. It is no stuffy museum, but a cornucopia of curios and artefacts. And there is one artefact that every Weegie child remembers. Having had a Kelvingrove childhood myself, I can tell you what it is. Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross.

Christ of St John of the Cross (© Glasgow Museums):

Today this painting hangs in its own special room, surrounded by interpretation boards. Back in 19-oatcake though, it hung at the end of a long corridor. The powerful perspective effect of the painting was enhanced by this previous setting. You know when you don't know anything about a subject, but you see a work of genius and you instantly just know it's something special? It could be a tone-deaf person hearing Johnny Cash's voice. It could be a someone with no interest in sport watching George Best dancing round the opposition like they aren't there. It could be a snotty-nosed child encountering this painting for the first time.

In the film The Monuments Men, the story climaxes with the recovery of Van Eyck's stolen Lamb of God. Had the film been set in Glasgow, it is clear to any lover of the Kelvingrove that Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross would be the stand in.

The River Kelvin:

After a visit to the gallery, the rain stopped and the sun came out. As I mentioned in a previous post, the area around the Kelvingrove makes a wonderful leafy autumn walk. Why not visit while the colours are still at their best?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ben A'an

A mighty wind terrorised the trees lining the A84. A swirl of leaves filled the air, sun caught in vigorous death. The forecast gale had materialised. A Munro in Breadalbane seemed a punishment exercise in such conditions. But it was too sunny to do nothing. A forest walk... a lochside... a half-height hill perhaps? The solution came to us both at once.

Ben A'an in the Trossachs. Beauty without exposure. And the opportunity to explore some of the newly-opened Great Trossachs Trail, which runs from Inversnaid on Loch Lomond to Callander, home of the world's earliest recorded organised football match.

Breezy Loch Achray:

Arrival in the Trossachs is heralded by a shaggy Highland cow at Callander then the small, wooded hills of frontier country. This was the first tourist area in Scotland, made popular by Sir Walter Scott, but as he is unfashionable these days I promise not to mention him.

The intention was to repeat a previous walk - a circuit of Ben A'an and a wander along Loch Katrine, with a return on a section of forest road rebranded as the Great Trossachs Way. 

Sometimes though events conspire against plans made in the comfort of your home, and that happened here. Where was the path up Ben A'an? It has disappeared into an area of fenced-off forestry felling. 'Alternative route Ben Venue car park' said a sign. I wasn't aware there was a Ben Venue car park. We found it, and started our walk on the alternative path. Slippery, slidy, muddy... Ben A'an's modest altitude was hard gained. 

Ben A'an from the approach path:

But what a hill it is! Seemingly steep and impregnable, it is in fact quite easy. The sun was still out on the top, the only other people here a holidaying German family asking for a photo. They had climbed a hill in the Trossachs and seen a Highland cow in a field by Loch Achray. They looked like they were having a fantastic time. Well, wouldn't you?

View from Ben A'an:

We descended west from Ben A'an, a little-known route that allows you to walk a circuit rather than head back down the muddy path. I had come this way before, but this time messed up. The trick on reaching a fence is to *not* cross it at a stile, but follow it down to a stream and then follow this to Loch Katrine. Instead we crossed the stile and became lost in a wilderness of heather, bracken and oozing bog. A huge stag watched us for a while from the forest below, wondering what we were up to, before legging it, muscles rippling under his shaggy coat. It is a good thing deer aren't aggressive creatures. 

Loch Katrine from the west side of Ben A'an:

After this wrong turning the stuffing had been knocked out of me. It had started to dull over and I wasn't fully convinced I would find the right way down to Loch Katrine. (In retrospect, if we had just kept going a bit longer we would have found a way down.) So we retraced our steps back to the top of Ben A'an and down the slippery ascent route. Beaten by Ben A'an! I thought I was made of sterner stuff, but the hills always have a lesson to teach us. 'Land of heath and shaggy wood' indeed.

Did I say earlier I wouldn't mention Sir Walter Scott? Damn.

On the Great Trossachs Trail, earlier:

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Autumn Cities

Autumn. A time of year that conjures thoughts of trips to leafy areas. The waterfalls of Deeside, neatly laid out tourist trails of Dunkeld, or perhaps taking to the water in the Great Glen or the Trossachs? But there is no need to go so far. There are leafy areas in all of Scotland's cities. Why travel, when you can stroll around Glasgow's West End?

Glasgow University from Partick Bridge (source: Wikipedia):

Is there any need to go far when crisp air, welcome sunshine, and lovely views can be gained just as easily wandering around Edinburgh's Botanic Gardens and Water of Leith?

Sunny October day at Stockbridge on the Water of Leith:

When the leaves are still on the trees, the sun is out, and the air still, take advantage of it. Get outside from your city job and refresh your spirit. Soak up the vitamin D. It is the last good day of the year and should be enjoyed. There will be plenty days of rain-lashed gloom ahead.

Inverleith Park, Edinburgh:

There is something you notice though if, like me, you are drawn to leafy areas at this time of year. It is almost axiomatic that the leafier the neighbourhood, the wealthier it is. While it costs nothing to wander where you will in our cities, why should poorer areas not also enjoy the benefits of trees? I am sure there would be major health benefits. Town planners, please take note.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Gifford and the Lammermuirs

High in the Lammermuirs and the heather has turned.

This flat-topped moorland plateau is traversed by quiet roads, of which the B6355 carries National Cycle Route 1, the cycle route that follows the North Sea coast. (The A1 follows the actual coast but is unpleasant and dangerous for cyclists.) 'Allez Evans' it says at the top of a steep climb, painted on the road surface by a cycling fan.

National Route 1:

To the south, the road gradually folds you closer into the Borders, winding down with the Whiteadder towards the Merse and the Tweed.

To the north, the lowlands of East Lothian, pale with ripened wheat.

Continue pedalling and you reach Gifford, basking in rare autumn sunshine.

Is this even Scotland? It is the kind of village you would not know existed if you knew only North Lanarkshire or Clydebank. Yet in East Lothian, it is typical. Direlton, Aberlady, Stenton, East Linton, Saltoun, Gifford, Pencaitland...

Gifford Hall:

From the bar of the village hotel, the sounds of the Rugby World Cup on TV. Cyclists on the green, refuelling and adjusting their wheels.

I am more used to wishing to be in the Highlands in this weather. But if you have to spend a beautiful autumn day in the Lowlands, you can do worse than cycling round East Lothian and the Lammermuirs.

The Avenue, Gifford:

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.