Friday, 17 February 2017

Caithness Impressions

Caithness. A bleak place. It's funny because we love Orkney, and the Caithness landscape is not that different to the Orcadian one. Perhaps it is the larger scale, or the long line of inhospitable seacliffs. Driving north, the contrast between sylvan Easter Ross and the bareness of Caithness is more immediate than the transfer to an island landscape. Certainly there is nothing in Orkney as magnificently wild as the hills bordering Sutherland under snow.

Opposite Caithness, the rigs of the Beatrice oil field can be seen. How strange it must be to work on these rigs for several weeks at a time, able to see the lights of the mainland yet unable to visit! I'd find that very claustrophobic.

Graves and platform:

On our way to Orkney we stopped at Dunbeath harbour, a quiet oasis burrowing into the land with the waves crashing in against the seacliffs, Dunbeath Castle perched above. (A former stronghold of the Sinclair clan). We'd never stopped before in Caithness, always driven through, and the nature of the A9 means it is easy to bypass these semi-secret villages completely.

Dunbeath Castle:

It occurred to me that I haven't explored Caithness nearly enough. If you look at the interactive map of loveofscotland blog posts, Caithness is a big empty blank. It is drive-through country for us on our way to Orkney. Next time, I'd like to stop and explore this county.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

We Knew Who to Blame

The train for Glasgow had been stuck just outside - not at, or we could have gotten off, just outside - Preston Railway Station for nearly four hours.

The buffet carriage had run out of sandwiches. More urgently, it had run out of booze. And the toilets had been unable to cope with the demand. A pool of pish seeped under the door of the carriage and threatened our shoes.

The stress was getting to some folk. The carriage had slowly filled with the acrid haze of cigarette smoke. A group of kilted rugby fans returning from the Scotland vs Wales game in Cardiff had a great idea to cheer people up. One of their number started playing the bagpipes at ear-splitting volume, marching up and down all the carriages in the train.

This tipped one wee Weegie wifie over the edge, who stood up to scream in the piper's face "shut up! Shup up! Fucking shut up!" 

The elderly gentleman opposite me had taken in the scene with gentle amusement. He leaned over and tapped me on the knee to get my attention.

"You know," he said in cultured tones, "this reminds me of when the Luftwaffe used to bomb the railways during the War."

"At least then we knew who to blame." 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Beaten by Benarty

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The Lowlands are blessed with miniature hill ranges that make perfect winter half-days. To go for a brisk, unplanned walk up the Ochils, Pentlands, or Campsies is such an integral part of my life that I sometimes have difficulty imagining their absence. What do people do at the weekends who don't have access to good quality walks? Its a mystery.

Benarty's escarpment:

And so we wound up at the foot of Benarty at the tail end of a beautiful winter's day. I had been keen to get a walk but we had prioritised other activities. Now it was time to bag this Marilyn. It is only 356m high but rises steeply above Loch Leven and the M90, a hill of character that I had long wanted to traverse. And there was still an hour and a half before sunset. I was quietly confident.

Sculpture on the forest trail:

As we headed up through a lovely birchwood, now shadowed in the short winter light, we could hear birdsong. No surprise as this is an RSPB reserve. On the path were the tracks of deer, rabbits, squirrels. The only other people we saw were heading down. "Take care," said a perfumed lady hanging on to her daughter, "it's slippery!" But unlike them, we were appropriately shod.

Looking across Kinross from Benarty:

Halfway up a viewpoint looks over Loch Leven. We could see the Lomonds of Fife, St Serf's Island with a fishing bothy on it (I later discovered this is not a bothy but an ancient ruined priory!) and a glider somehow finding lift in the freezing air. It was about to get dark. No problem, push on!

But this was when the problems started. A march across a field and we were confronted with a barbed-wire fence or a stand of gorse. Neither were fancied. We retreated a bit and tried again at a gate. More barbed wire ahead, but also a track? It wasn't on the map. We followed it. It led us down instead towards Ballingry. There were trees all round. We'd faffed and bimbled and were still 1km from the summit. We had to head back now before dark. I'd thought this would be easy.

Fife and the Forth from Benarty:

Back at the car park I looked back at the dark shape above us, scunnered.

Beaten by Benarty.

Friday, 13 January 2017

How Scottish is the Kilt?

I was walking down Argyle Street in Glasgow one Sunday morning with a bear of a hangover, having been to a football match the day before. We had wound up at a party after the game and I was only now heading home. I eventually became aware of being kerb crawled... by a bus.

I looked up. Half a dozen panoramic windows of Japanese tourists were hitting me with a full broadside of camera action. WTF?

Did I say I was walking down Argyle Street? The truth is I was marching down Argyle Street. In fact even with a head full of hammers I was schwinging my way down Argyle Street. I couldn't help it. I was wearing my kilt.

In my kilt:

What makes the kilt so potent? Clap a kilt on any moderately vigorous man and you impel him to stride out. There is a tactile pleasure in the feeling of rough cloth on naked thigh, the swinging of the material in rythmn with your stride... a kilt is not a garment to sit around in. And one purpose of the sporran, I have often thought, is to weigh down erections when dancing with a lady.

And it is a martial and manly garb. Kilt wearers are (sub)consciously following in the footsteps of the Jacobite rebels who put London in a panic. Soon after, Highland regiments were the shock troops of the British Empire. Men in kilts stormed the seemingly impregnable heights of Quebec; they fought against Napoleon, formed the thin red line in Crimea and raced to raise the seige of Cawnpore and Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny. A kilt was the Victorian equivalent of a green beret.

This heady mix of sex and violence is something few other national costumes boast - consider how an otherwise handsome man looks in lederhosen or the morris dancing outfit, for example.

But is the kilt really the ancient garb of Scotland? When did people start wearing them? Because by one interpretation, the kilt was invented in the 18th century by an Englishman.

Before you choke on your porridge, let me explain.

Plaid has been around for a long time. The ancient Celts who originated on the northern slopes of the Alps had checked cloth, and when they migrated to Britain it came with them. The oldest extant piece of Scottish plaid was found in Falkirk and dates from around AD 235. So tartan did not originate in Scotland, but it has been here longer than 'Scotland' has been.

And kilts were garments worn by many ancient people - Egyptians, Roman legionnaires, the ancient Greeks. The ancient Britons may perhaps have worn tartan breeks rather than kilts, but Pictish stones show that kilted designs weren't unknown.

Early kilts:

But look closer at the classic image of a clansman. The kilt he wears is a different garment to what we have today. The féileadh-mór (big plaid), is a large piece of cloth wound round the waist with the rest thrown over the shoulder and secured with a broch. It doubled up as a blanket for sleeping in and was discarded entirely in the heat of battle (yes, Highland clansmen fought battles wearing nothing but their shirts).

The modern kilt, or féileadh-beag (small plaid), is too small to sleep in and only goes round the waist, without the shoulder element. Tradition has it that this garment was designed by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman in partnership with Ian Macdonnell of Glengarry in the charcoal business. He realised that the philamore was interfering with the smooth operation of machinery and in 1720 designed the cut-down philabeg - which Macdonnell of Glengarry himself wore and popularised.

When the Jacobite Highlanders marched on London in 1745, they wore philamores. In the aftermath of Culloden, the kilt was seen as such a subversive garment that wearing it was made illegal. By the time the ban was rescinded and Highland regiments had distinguished themselves in the service of the Empire, the soldiers' garment of choice had become the philabeg. The royal seal of approval came when George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, wearing a philabeg (and flesh-coloured tights) designed by Sir Walter Scott.

And so yes, the kilt is an entirely Scottish garment. But one with an intriguing English twist...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

4 Reasons Why You Must Climb a Scottish Hill at New Year

  1. You start the year on a positive note, exercising in the fresh air.
  2. By committing to climbing a hill on New Years' Day, you moderate Hogmanay drinking and avoid the regrets next day.
  3. You meet old friends and have a great natter.
  4. You get to be somewhere incredible like this:
Climbing Beinn Ime, Arrochar:

Like this:

Or this:

If you were on holiday, wouldn't this be your new Facebook picture? A place just an hour from Glasgow?

So How Can You Climb a Scottish Hill for New Year?
  1. Find a local who likes to climb hills (quite a large group).
  2. Find a local who likes to climb hills and intends to stay sober on Hogmanay (a slightly smaller group).
  3. Have basic equipment (boots, waterproof, warm clothes, map, compass, food) and fitness.
  4. Cross your fingers for good weather (nobody likes climbing a hill in a howling gale and horizontal hail).
Descending Beinn Ime:

Safety note! There are also reasons why you must *not* climb a Scottish hill at New Year...
  1. You've got a crushing hangover and would rather die than drive an hour to some of the best scenery in Europe.
  2. The weather forecast isn't perfect - most Scottish hills aren't too dangerous in good weather, but in high winds, driving rain or snow, they are killers.
  3. You don't like cold, wet, strong winds, hard exercise, pain, avalanches, or blisters.
  4. You are alone - I love solo walking but the extra risks of winter beg the safety margin of companionship.
  5. You can't use a map. Most problems in the hills start with navigational errors.
  6. You're unfit or aren't well equipped.
  7. You've set off late in the day. If it is lunchtime and you haven't started yet, maybe do a shorter walk than a Munro? I love a summit sunset but the pay-off is descent in the dark.
These safety notes apply mainly to Munros and Corbetts - you can happily climb other hills like the Pentlands with little experience.

So why wait? If you are going to experience Scotland properly, you need to have climbed a hill!

Heading towards Beinn Ime, Arrochar:

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Memory of the Year, 2016

There have been some great trips this year. Orkney in February. Mull in October. A washed out walk in pissing rain across Rannoch Moor, great mainly in retrospect. Solo backpacking in Fisherfield.

But the year has been marked by trips I didn't do for various reasons... the pub to pub traverse of Glencoe. A trip to the Cuillin of Skye. Bad weather seems to have dogged my plans all year.

The Edinburgh touch squad:

But the big memory from 2016 is not an individual event, more an ongoing process of change. I got a new job, had a taste of touch rugby at a higher level, smashed all my race PBs, made positive progress for the first time in years on my next book, trained in digital leadership and meditation, stopped getting hangovers, gained focus on my goals, ditched other commitments that weren't working for me, started mentoring others and am being mentored myself. The seeds have been sown for 2017 being an amazing year.

So this is more a forward projection into 2017 than a memory. I'd love to bring all my various interests into harmony. I am interested in history, the outdoors, writing, citizen engagement, Scotland, and new digital technologies. And I'd love to get together with you to talk through ideas in any of these areas. If that sounds like you, drop me a line in the comments or email me craig at loveofscotland dot com and let's do something amazing together!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Presidents of the United States

How many Presidents of the United States of America have Scottish ancestry? It is perhaps both more, yet fewer, than you think.
For example there is a list that states that an incredible 23 of 43 US Presidents have Scottish ancestry. But most of the bloodlines are pretty thin. Whilst a number have Scottish great-grandparents, or grandparents whose families had settled in Ulster from Scotland, only two US Presidents qualify for the honour of representing Scotland at international football through FIFA's grandfather rule. Those two Presidents are Woodrow Wilson - and Donald Trump.

The Donald does not even have to go back to his grandparents to pull on the dark blue jersey with the lion rampant. Trump's mother was from Tong in Lewis, which makes him the most Scottish person ever to lead the USA.
No need to thank us.

Now Trump's own relationship with Scotland has been mixed. All seemed great at first when he visited the maternal homeland with a business plan. First Jack McConnell, then Alex Salmond were swept off their feet by Trump's considerable dynamism, allowing the best golf course in the world to be built on the dunes of Balmedie, despite opposition from environmentalists and the people who were already living on the land. But Salmond fell foul of Trump when the toupéd Twitterer discovered plans for an offshore wind farm visible from Balmedie. And well before then, questions were asked about how keen the government had been to please the American tycoon, whose unneighbourly behaviour was documented in You've Been Trumped.

Trump's second golf course in Scotland - Turnberry:

Then Nicola Sturgeon antagonised relations further, publicly castigating Trump's election stump comments about women, Muslims and Mexicans. She removed his Global Scot status. The President-Elect was undeterred, who by now had also bought the famous old golf course Royal Turnberry. (Renaming it Trump Turnberry.) When Trump visited the course in a blizzard of publicity on 24 June this year, he congratulated Scotland in voting for Brexit, despite the opposite being the case. 'Scottish Twitter' replied with ripely surreal insults.

When Barack Obama became president, the people of Kenya's pride was piqued that his father was one of them. By contrast the people of Mary Anne MacLeod, mother of the next President of the USA, have elected to brand her son a 'cheeto-faced shitgibbon'. But you know, insults like that aren't meted out to just anybody.

It's almost a tribute.