Thursday, 31 December 2009

Once in a Blue Moon

Did you know that tonight is a blue moon? This year is one with thirteen full moons. The thirteenth in any year is called a blue moon, and given the phrase 'once in a blue moon', is more common than you might suppose.

With all the snow around, it has been wonderfully bright in the evenings this last week. Inspired by Jamie Whittle's blog I went for a wee night time wander a couple of days ago, enjoying crinkling grass, a frozen bonspiel of a pond, mysterious animal prints in the snow and a barn owl. I will go for another wander tonight, this time in company. A happy new year to you all, and here's to bringing in the bells tonight outdoors!

Update: tree at midnight:

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Alnwick

Across the border to Alnwick, site of Alnwick Castle. Today it is famous as a film location, for it stood in as Hogwarts in the first Harry Potter film. It is the stronghold of the Percy clan - don't be fooled by the soft-sounding name, for the Percys were Dukes of Northumberland, chief of the English clans on the Border, formidable foes to the Scots and, when occasion demanded, the English king.

Alnwick Castle:


In the past, the castle was the rock against which a Scots king dashed himself. During the rule of David I between 1124 and 1153, Northumbria as far as the Tees briefly became part of the Scottish kingdom. It was subsequently lost, and William the Lion invaded in an 1174 attempt to regain it, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the rebellion of Henry II's sons. He allowed his army to dissipte in multiple seiges around the county, and on the appearance of a small force of English knights, impetuously charged them shouting "now we will see who is the greater knight!" Like a numpty he was unhorsed, captured, and ransomed for the promise that Scotland belonged to England.

This promise stayed in place until 1189, when Richard Lionheart needed to raise funds for a crusade: and for a large sum of money, it was annulled. Richard and William stayed on good terms: when Richard was captured on crusade, William, who knew how it felt to be a captive, helped raise money for his ransom. In gratitude, Richard offered Northumbria to the Scottish king. William refused, as Richard wanted to keep control of all the castles.

Bamburgh Castle:


Had Northumberland become Scottish, it would have made a considerable difference to the complexion of the country today. It would be a far more Lowland country, with a greater heritage of mining and heavy industry than even today. Northumberland, after all, contains England's most deprived areas, as well as being the loveliest. Anyone who doubts either of these claims has never been to the post-industrial apocalypse of Ashington, nor walked the beautiful coast from Bamburgh to Alnmouth.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Snow for Christmas

Snow, snow everywhere. Driving back from Glasgow on Sunday night from playing a gig, I got stuck on the M8. A skidding lorry had blocked the road, but I managed to divert through deepest Lanarkshire / West Lothian, the ghostly sight of the Five Sisters bing letting me know that I was past the worst.

Ascending the Pentland Hills:


On Monday, the last of the Christmas shopping: and yesterday, a trip up the Pentlands, a lung-freshening burst of exercise on hills whose snowy slopes were making an impression of a compressed Highlands, only half an hour from my house and an hour up to the top.

Forth Bridges glimpsed from the ridge of the Pentlands:


From the top of Allermuir Hill, Edinburgh is revealed, the whole of the Firth of Forth below. Yesteday the sun had gone, a fog crept up the Forth, columns of smoke from Grangemouth rising high in the air and beyond the haar, beyond the dull Ochils, a brilliant flash of bright white - the Highlands were in sunshine.

Edinburgh Castle from Allermuir Hill:


But the most satisfying sight was back along the range towards the twin peak of East and West Kip: I made a snowball and a hillrunner appeared round a hummock, asking apprehensively:

"Is that snowball for me?"

In the Pentlands:


Back down, the road traffic was busier than usual, as was the car park at Ikea and the out-of-town shopping centre. It's always good under these conditions to snatch a hill instead. For those of you getting up to the Highlands for a number of days walking this holiday, I envy you.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Poem: Santa Run

This Sunday is the Santa Run in Edinburgh - a slightly silly charity event that involves dressing up as Santa and running twice round Princes St Gardens in the company of thousands of others. Seriously ill children get taken to see Santa in Lappland with the money raised. However that's probably a peripheral benefit to most of those involved, who are just there for the banter.

We did the Santa Run
ruddy with small charity
- that's not Edinburgh.

Took bratwurst in the German Markt
smelt warming spice in wine
- that's not quite it either.

We drank the Jolly Judge dry
rollbuckled down the Mound
- that's ma Reekie!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Peebles for Pressies

Something you may not know, but has been on my mind for a while, is that the old royal burgh of Peebles in the western Borders has the best independent high street in the UK (after Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire). There are more speciality and independent retailers than anywhere else in Scotland. And now that the time for buying Christmas presents has come, it has occurred to me that there is potentially a more pleasant experience than struggling with crowds and tram works in central Edinburgh this weekend.

http://www.peebles.info/index.cfm?page=directory&type=1&Shops

Peebles isn't far from Midlothian where I now live - in fact, it will probably take no longer to get to Peebles than to central Edinburgh, and the parking will be easier and cheaper. So, people of Edinburgh and southeast Scotland - why make shopping more of a chore than it needs to be? Why not take a trip into Peebles for the Christmas shopping?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Googlemaps

Thinking that readers might like to geographically see the areas mentioned in this blog, I created a googlemap of the blog entries. You can see it here:

Loveofscotland Googlemap.

Let me know what you think - do the photos in the links work for you?

It also helps me see what areas are under- or over- represented. No surprise that Edinburgh, my home area for the last few years, has a lot of entries. But interesting to see gaps for Galloway, Moray, and one of my favourite parts of the country, the Argyll & Moidart coast.

Off to the Baggershambles gig/hillbagger gathering now. A strange event: I've never been to an event before whose main aims are to perform music and talk about hillwalking! Hope I can remember the words to my songs...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

98.8 Leith FM and Blackwells Bookshop

Have you ever wondered about the great conspiracy between TV executives and publicans? It is fairly blatant. It's Saturday night, and you're wrapped up in the house, fancying a cosy night in front of the telly with a cup of tea. You switch it on and flick through the channels. What's on? X Factor, Big Brother, I'm A Celebrity, Britain's Got Talent, Celebrity Come Dancing?! "Sod this," you think, don your coat, and go down the pub.

It's a conspiracy, I tell you.

And nearly as blatant as the one between the daytime TV executives and the jobcentres. No fit and healthy person would choose to watch daytime telly over even a mind-numbing, repetitive job.

Both examples of conspiracies by TV executives to help mould society's behaviour.

However, the one night that you should stay in, the night you should be done with your weekend's fun and mentally preparing for another week's useful toil, is Sunday night. And well, have the powers that be arranged some fine entertainment for you on Sunday night! Perhaps not telly entertainment but, you wouldn't want to get too stimulated. No, something nice and intellectual as the last sands of the week slide down the neck of life's eggtimer. Something like a Leith tonight arts and culture interview with me on 98.8 Leith FM on Sunday 22 November at 22:00. It's supposed to be about The Weekend Fix: do you think I can squeeze Tokyo in there as well?

Oh, and if you miss 98.8 Leith FM at 22:00 Sunday 22 November, there's always Blackwells Bookshop Edinburgh South Bridge 18:30 Thursday 26 November.

I can't say that my publishers aren't doing their bit to get the book publicised! If only the woman at the Edinburgh Evening News would answer her phone...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Caledonia Dreaming

As I walked up the glen to the hill this Saturday in the rain, I kicked myself for not getting out the weekend before. The weather was beautiful the previous weekend. But circumstances prevailed against, as they often do these days. Now I get away when I can, the days arranged in advance and fixed in stone. No more am I flexible, my hill time ruled by the weather forecast. I thought about the last time I went up a hill in decent weather. It was fourteen months ago, last September. I am the antithesis of Blue Sky Scotland. I dream of the hills in sunshine.

Bridge over the Allt Mhairc:


But there were compensations for Saturday's soggly slog. The rivers were full and brawling, the Allt Mhairc especially picturesque at its confluence with the Allt Diridh, crossed by an old packhorse bridge.

Crofting ruins in Glen Tilt:


And after a good bout of exercise and exposure, slopping drenched back through the forest, a red squirrel dropped the used case of a beech nut at my feet. Better than an afternoon sat in front of the telly I suppose.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Tokyo and the South Africa Connection

This has got nothing at all to do with Scotland, so you'll have to bear with me. A South African music webzine has picked up on a song I wrote a while ago about a South African politician turned businessman called Tokyo Sexwale. Yes, it's a real name, and you can hear all about it here:

http://www.speakerbox.co.za/content/video.aspx?id=412

Unfortunately the interview text is not included. Perhaps it was too boring, or perhaps, when they suggested I write a song about politicians Blade Nzimande or Terror Lekota, they were disappointed when I told them no, I would not write a song about these people. Tokyo is their daddy.

Gig punter with Tokyo Sexwale mask:

Monday, 2 November 2009

Top 100 Walks: A Challenge

Have thought further about my top 100 Scottish Walks. They wouldn't all be hillwalks, unlike many other lists. The Buachaille via Curved Ridge would be there of course, as would the traverse of Liathach: but so would a stroll round Edinburgh, or the West Highland Way from Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven. But I've come across a problem. There are so many areas of Scotland about which I have little first hand experience. What do I know of walking in Shetland? Nothing.

Moray and Buchan? Zip.
Orkney? A little.
Lewis? Nada.
Islay? Jura? Coll? Eigg? Duinish on Skye? Never even been there.

And there are even many classics I've not done. A traverse of Fisherfield, from the shores of Loch Maree past A'Mhaigdean; the Lairig Ghru; the Gaick. And who's to know if, say, the Mull of Kintyre to Machrihanish Bay isn't a great walk, until you try it? You can't really have a definitive best 100 until you've walked everything.

The good thing is, there's lots of walking and exploring to look forward to.

In the meantime, a random selection from a top 100:

Liathach


Start at the Coire Dubh car park, walk round the back of Liathach and make your way into impressive Coire na Caime. Head SW for Meall Dearg, supposedly the hardest of all the Munro tops. (Though I am sure the Bastier Tooth and Knights Peak are harder). I must confess to not having done it from this direction yet, but from above, from Mullach an Rathain. After Meall Dearg come Liathach's Northern Pinnacles, an exciting scramble whose hardest part, you'll be glad to know, is near the bottom. A great sense of achievement will be had on topping out on Mullach an Rathain. You can head down from here, but the day is only half done - head east along the fearsome Am Fasarinen Pinnacles to Liathach's summit, and continue along a delightful airy ridge to the eastern top, Stuic a Choire Dubh. Retrace your steps a little to find a steep, knee-grinding but safe path all the way back down to Glen Torridon, where a day of fear can be rewarded with a pint in the Beinn Damph hotel.

Beinn a' Chrulaiste


There's not much to this hill, conveniently situated an hour and a half (at the most) of a walk from the Kingshouse Hotel, but the view is extraordinary, the best of all of the Buachaille. Either head up the west side of a shallow corrie just to the north of the Kingshouse, or walk along the West Highland Way for a short distance until you see a rib of pink granite above you and climb this - it barely counts as scrambling. Keep your head down till the summit to enjoy the view. Extend the descent by going over Meall Bhalach and take a look at the ruined shielings by the Allt a' Bhalaich. Navvies working on the Blackwater Dam used to take this route to the Kingshouse, and a number died on the return journey, their bodies still somewhere out on the moor.

Carsaig Arches, Mull
Take a minor road to Carsaig, where there is parking for a couple of cars. Chose a windy, sunny day for the best atmosphere, Staffa-like basalt columns in the cliffs above you, sea eagles soaring, the sun shining through the surf and views of the Paps of Jura in the distance. It's not a long walk along the coast, but there is plenty of interest, so allow lots of time. The Carsaig Arches are unusual basalt formations. I suppose returning along the cliff top would be pretty cool but I've not done that.

Monday, 26 October 2009

100 Best Walks: Loch Faskally

Somebody like myself, used to the obvious, the explicit, the big hills and clear lines, has driven past Pitlochry perhaps a hundred times, zooming along the A9 bypass, thinking that perhaps it would be worth having a look at Loch Faskally, but being seduced instead by those hills towering above the road - Beinn a'Ghlo, the Cairngorms further north: the explicit, the obvious. But this was a walk I had fancied doing for a while - along Loch Faskally at Pitlochry, up the riverside to Killicrankie, round the Linn of Tummel, and back, along an unclassified road, to Pitlochry. I'd had an intimation earlier this year of how beautiful this hidden area was, paddling down the River Tummel on my stag do.

Looking across Loch Faskally (from Faskally House area):


Yet this walk was still a revelation. Dog walkers, young families, ramblers - the path was as busy as Shiehallion on a Sunday, yet these people knew a secret, it seemed to my hillwalking mind, that I had only just been let in on - the beauty of the area around Pitlochry. The reason this was a surprise, I suspect, is that the hillforms around here are no match for those of Glencoe or other areas in the Highlands, and therefore I had dismissed it out of hand. But there is more to the outdoors than hilltops, and the autumn colours and watery reflections around the rivers Tummel and Garry are, in the words of Louis Stott about the The Waterfalls of Scotland 'worth gaun a mile tae see'.

River Garry:


The forecast had been for sunshine and showers - and it was half right! But the rain wasn't too bad once we set off; the area around Faskally House and Clunie power station, a masterpiece in the mould of St Andrew's House, is especially beautiful. The sun even came out briefly as we crossed the footbridge over the Garry, and we saw a red squirrel near the Linn of Tummel.

The Linn of Tummel:


Rowan Berries:


I'd been given a copy of Cameron McNeish's Scotland's 100 Best Walks a while back and was gratified I'd already done most of the walks. This was one of the few I hadn't, though ours also included the dam at Loch Faskally, where at the right time of year, you can watch salmon climb the salmon ladder. I'd recommend this extension, and would have this walk in my own personal top 100.

Above Clunie Power Station:


I wonder what that full list would be?

What would be in your top 100?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Landscape Photographer of the Year

I've been sworn to secrecy until now, but now that the feature in yesterday's Sunday Times is out, I can tell you - I've been commended for a picture in this year's Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. Being commended means I don't get any prize money. I do get my picture in Landscape Photographer of the Year - Collection 3, but no money from the sales of that book. The honour of being featured is supposed to be reward enough. There's also to be an exhibition of the pictures in London's National Theatre from 5 December this year to 24 January.

My entry to the competition:


The competition mainly revolves around English National Parks - the park authorities are the main sponsors, and there are special prizes for best pictures taken in each of them. What is interesting therefore is how many of the pictures chosen represent Highland landscapes - the obvious place to look, perhaps, for a landscape photography prize, but I liked very much some of the less obvious and subtle entries. Mine was taken above the Cairnwell near Braemar, and features Billy battling against spindrift on a winter's day. It's not the best quality of picture - taken on 35mm film and scanned a while ago for my website, it could have been scanned better. Compare it in sharpness and detail to the technical quality of the winning picture:

The winning entry:


I don't like obviously faked landscapes, and confess I presumed a heavily photoshopped entry might win; but the processing in this enhances, rather than detracts from, the picture. I like it very much, and it encourages me that such a normal looking, albeit spectacular (and well composed - look how the rays of sun hit the Old Man), landscape won the competition. Perhaps next year??

Billy - if you'd entered the pic of me and Dave on Beinn Mhic Mhonaidh, you might have won something!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A Great Glen Adventure

The rain stopped before dawn, mountains still wrapped in cloud blankets as the sun rose red across Rannoch Moor. Reflections of sky and boulder dotted the moor, the water glass-still, and two deer crossed the road in front of my car. A monumental atmosphere entering Glencoe. A primevally perfect day for a paddle.

Lunch stop, Loch Lochy:


The aim was to travel from Banavie locks to Fort Augustus along the Caledonian Canal, taking two days, staying on the side of Loch Lochy on Saturday night. We had sea kayaks hired from Snowgoose Mountain Centre in Corpach, and enough gear to take care of ourselves.

Weather closes in:


The Caledonian Canal was a revelation. I had always previously considered the area from Fort William to Invergarry to be dull, a lull on the road to Skye between the crescendoes of Glencoe and Kintail. The reason for this is that the car-bound hillwalker doesn't see much except trees on either side of the road. From the water, and at a slower pace, far more is revealed.

Put in next day, Loch Lochy:


The paddlers:


I was especially impressed with Loch Oich. This is a place I want to return to again. Oak, birch, scots pine and other trees are turning for autumn, the water full of fallen leaves, a romantic ruined castle perched on a crag above the loch, one whose existence I never even knew of.

Old Invergarry Castle, Loch Oich:


There had been a couple of hairy moments crossing Loch Lochy, with squalls and a building swell that threw us onto our last beach of Saturday. But the canal itself was beautiful and quiet, and we glided past swans, dippers, and ducks, unconcerned with our passage through their territory, brambles bushes fat with fruit hanging over the sides of the broad handsome canal, acessible only to canoeists.

Caledonian Canal:


This was my first canoe trip, but I hope it won't be my last.

Monday, 12 October 2009

To Inverness

It has been many years since I've stopped in Inverness, rather than just passing through, so I was curious to see what the town* - which has supposedly been one of the fastest growing in Britain - is like today. There were certainly signs of change - the Polish delis that are in all large British towns, and a huge shopping centre squatting over a couple of roads. Not to mention the Kessock Bridge, which has been built since I last stopped in Inverness! It feels larger than Stirling - perhaps, if Inverness keeps growing, it will overtake Paisley in population size, if it has not already done so? It's certainly a nice area to live if you like outdoor sports, with a dry east-coast climate situated very close to some of the best west coast scenery, with biking, hiking, rafting, skiing and most other things well catered for nearby. In fact the only thing that marks it down as a place to live is the short hours of winter daylight. It could also do with a university campus, but the University of the Highlands and Islands is a unique, decentralised organisation with offices scattered across the north and west.

St Andrew's Cathedral from Inverness Castle:


Although there has been change in Inverness, some things have remained as I remembered. The outlook from the castle is beautiful, as is the walk up the island-studded River Ness. Unfortunately there wasn't time to go up Creag Phadraig where the Pictish kings held court, as I was in Inverness on business.

The reason I was in Inverness was to talk about my book. (I promise not to make too many more posts on this subject!) It was good to meet John Allen, author of Cairngorm John, and John Davidson, an outdoor journalist who chaired our talk. Both Johns live in Inverness/Invernesshire. Cameron McNeish lives in the next-door village to John Allen. It's the place to be, it seems, if you are going to write about the outdoors.

At the book festival:


*Inverness is officially now a city, but there's really only one proper city in Scotland, and that's Glasgow.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Inverness Book Festival - Thursday 8 Oct

This is just a quick note to let you know about the Inverness Book Festival - I'll be appearing with John Allen (who wrote Cairngorm John and was leader of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue like, for ever) to talk about hills in some way or another. It's on Thursday 8 October - the same day as Claire Grogan and Brian Wilson!! (No, not that Brian Wilson - this Brian Wilson.

So, if you've got nothing better to do, and you are in Inverness on Thursday, and you like hillwalking, why not pop along and join in the fun.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Ailsa Craig

You can't stop catching it out the corner of your eye in views up and down the Firth of Clyde.



"What's that," you think, "that improbable pebble?"



It is Ailsa Craig, cliff-girt on all sides bar a short landing area and quarry. It really shouldn't exisit, this abrupt stone, rising alone and supreme 1000ft out the middle of the sea. Arran to the north is bigger, more varied, yet Ailsa Craig's simple profile appeals more.



From Stranraer or Arran, it appears conical.



From Kintyre or the Ayrshire coast, its vertical sides ease off to a flattish top, like a curlingstone - apt, for the quarry on Ailsa Craig is the source of all true curlingstones. Fact.





You walk away from the viewpoint, but can't help turning back for one last look.





Sunday, 27 September 2009

Culzean Coast

If Burns Cottage was a let down, the same could not be said for Culzean Castle. This is the National Trust's flagship property, with hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The castle is perched on the edge of a low, romantic seacliff, surrounded by managed policies in the fashionable English style of the 18th century. The exterior is perhaps a little plain: but the interiors are the glory, Robert Adam at the height of his powers in the beautiful ceilings, harmonious decor and furniture, giving a unifying impression of good taste that is unobtainable today. Unfortunately it is not permitted to take photos inside the castle, so you will just have to take my word for it.

Culzean Castle garden:


The grounds are extensive, and free to wander. We walked from Culzean Bay in the north along a corrugated beach, past the castle with its mature trees and swan pond, to the prettily located village of Maidens in Maidenhead Bay. We walked further still to Turnberry - along a rocky, volcanic coast peppered with agates, and round the famous Open golf course.

Castle with caves below:


On the way back we walked under the castle on the exposed shore. The caves below the castle were, it is said, used by Thomas Kennedy, the 9th Earl, for smuggling. Worried about his reputation, he decided to get into a more respectable business, and so in the 1760s bought a quarter share - in an American slave trader.

The refined dining and drawing rooms of Culzean were, it seems, built on the proceeds of human misery.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Burns Cottage, Alloway

At last! I have finally done it. As the Austrian should visit Mozartsgeburtshaus, or the Englishman Statford-upon-Avon, a once-in-a-lifetime trip should be made by all curious Scots to the origin point of their most famous artist, Robert Burns.

Burnsgeburtshaus:


As someone interested in poetry, and Scotland, a trip to Burns Cottage in Alloway had to be made at some point in my life, a poesy pilgrimage, a haggis hajj... but instead, a wet Monday in Ayr saw us unmotivated and looking for something to do. Why not Burns Cottage? And so to Alloway, on the outskirts of Ayr, we went.

The cottage is near Alloway auld kirk and the Brig o' Doon, which are of interest if you have read Tam o' Shanter. If you haven't, the impact is lessened. Indeed, if you don't know anything about Burns, Burns Cottage - where the poet spent the first seven years of his life - is underwhelming. It's an old cottage. That's it. There's no description or interpretation of the life and work of Robert Burns. I think that if you are considering a visit, it is worth waiting for the opening of the new museum, due next summer.

A mile from Alloway, the River Doon discharges into the Firth of Clyde. On a promonotory above the rivermouth sits the remains of Greenan Castle, a stark, Smailholm-like tower, jutting, unexpected, abrupt. Who built it and when, I wondered?

Greenan Castle:


I much preferred Greenan to Burns Cottage.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Poem: Tower Ridge

You're probably not that interested in the provenance of my book's title, but I will tell you anyway. It was going to be Hip Flasks and Rucksacks, a title I liked suggested by a friend, but at the last moment The Weekend Fix bubbled into mind. It's a fairly common phrase - a concept first grasped by me when someone described their attitude thus in The Angry Corrie: "Maybe I'm the typical blinkered enthusiast, unable to understand how folk exist without their weekly bout of blindfold indoor bobsleigh". That seemed to sum up my attitude to hillwalking quite nicely!

Around that time, I was learning to climb or rather, learning to fear climbing. Not for me the heightened senses, adrenaline rush and sense of achievement. Just leg-trembling fear. My imagination was too gothic to be balancing above huge drops. I wrote a poem about it called Tower Ridge, and it was from this that the book title came:

Here on the sickening face of Nevis
The death face of a hundred bold climbers
I falter, overwhelmed with the depths.
Fear in bold moves conquers pride....
And life is assured, in broken euphoria
On reaching the far other side.

This is not the joy of movement
A delightful scramble
The cobwebs blown
On weekend fix:

This is not the love of nature
A beautiful exposure
For good clean fun:

This is death: on airy ridges
Nearer hell that earth we know it,
And know it unprepared.



Ben Nevis with Tower Ridge on the right:

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Book Launch

A wet Thursday last week saw the official launch my hillwalking book, The Weekend Fix. I read some extracts, thanked Hamish Brown for calling me a 'young man' in his introduction, got the assembled crowd to sing a song about a bothy, and was asked to play in November at a tenth anniversary gig for The Plimptons. Both Hamish and another Sandstone Press author, Ron McMillan, were there.

At the launch:


If you want to help promote the book, here are some things you can do:

* Buy the book!

* Review it on Amazon.

* Go in to your local library and request it.

* Tell your friends about it.

* Link to it from your website.

* Next time you are passing your local bookstore / outdoor store go in and lay the book out cover first, in front of some other, more boring, hillwaking book.

* If you run a radio station, interview me.

* If you write a newspaper review column, review the book.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

A Walk Up the Royal Mile

Last week:

A man with a parliamentary pass on a mobile phone saying "committee room two". A group of Japanese taking pictures of each other standing next to the Robert Ferguson statue. A family with a ten-year old and young teen in tow. A red-faced jakey in dreadlocks and a kilt. Four people in matching show t-shirts disappearing down a side close. A group of attractive girls with shades, shorts, tans, and London accents. Indie kids in skinny black jeans and day-glo belts. A swaggering impressario on a mobile phone. Fresh-faced American beefcake. Two men and a woman in bowler hats approaching a pedestrian crossing in line, placing their briefcases down in a premeditated, synchronised move. A pub swallowing a dozen middle-aged tourists. A Japanese girl in knee-high socks and pigtails. The sound of Spanish. So many people at this point I have to step off the pavement to make headway. A crowd gathered around someone performing street drama. A painted Thai girl catching passers-by attention - a Bangkok ladyboy? Heat in the stones, warmth and dryness in the air, colours and crowds.

This week:

A bosky smell of spent vegetation, shivering trees, and the birds have all flown away.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Tumult of Amboise

Last year's annual holiday was a cycle tour of the Western Isles. This year's was considerably more relaxed: a pedal down the hot flat landscape of the Loire, France's longest river, between Orleans and Angers.

The dazzling Chateau Chinon:


As usual when visiting France, there are things for us to learn. The castles along the Loire are white: those here used to be harled and whitewashed the same dazzling colour, but time and ruination has rendered most Scottish castles gaunt and bare. Additionally, some old churches in France remain gaudily painted inside, as old churches here would have been had they been maintained rather than destroyed or left to decay. The Middle Ages were a much more colourful time than the modern imagination, using the evidence of ruinous remains, gives credit for.

Inside Notre Dame de Grande, Potiers:


What I also did not know was that the Loire was the centre of power in France for a long time. It was not until the end of the 16th century that the king moved his court to Paris; until then, the court was a moveable feast up and down various Loire fortresses and palaces, especially Blois and Amboise. And it was at Amboise, in 1560, that Scottish and French history intersected.

Mary, daughter of James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise of France, became queen of Scotland on James' death in 1542, aged just six days old. A 1543 treaty between a pro-English party and the representatives of England promised Mary in marriage to the son of Henry VIII of England: their son would become by right the king of both England and Scotland. Mary's mother, Marie de Guise, led a pro-French party which would not countenance this, and she eventually prevailed. An English army invaded Scotland between 1544-51 during a period known as the 'Rough Wooing'; burning and pillaging in an attempt to make the Scots change their mind. Marie de Guise concluded a countertreaty with the French king that her daughter would instead marry his son instead of the English heir. In 1548, Mary was sent to the court of the King of France for safekeeping, and a French army landed in Scotland and helped kick the English out.

Portrait of Mary in Chateau Beauregard:


Mary was a favourite in the French court on the Loire, and grew up French in manners and outlook. She was tall, athletic, charming, skilled in many courtly accomplishments. She was also a de Guise, which proved a problem for the French Protestants. The de Guises were Catholic, and persecuted Protestants. When the French king died, Mary was already married to Francois, the heir to the French throne. She now became queen of France as well as Scotland, and her first born son would rule France and Scotland by right. Her family, the de Guises, lost no opportunity to embed themselves at the centre of French politics.

A plot was hatched by Protestants to kidnap Mary's young husband, to remove him from the influence of the de Guises. The de Guises got wind of this, and moved their court from stately Blois to the more heavily defended chateau of Amboise. In early March, 1560, less than a year after Francois took the throne, the plotters were surprised in woods around Amboise. What followed was pre-meditated horror. Over a thousand men were hung from the walls of the chateau and, when space around the chateau ran out, they were hung from trees in the village below. The executions took several days. The effect of this sight and smell on the young Queen Mary can be imagined.

Amboise:


It no doubt also had a spurring effect in Scotland, where the pro-English party led by Protestants like John Knox had finally prevailed. They forced a reforming Parliament which met in July of 1560 and concluded, on 24 August, with the banning of the celebration of Mass and the promotion of a Presbyterian form of worship.

Francois died in December 1560 of an ear abcess, his short reign unfulfilled with an heir. Catherine de Medici's second son Charles then became king, and she did everything in her considerable power to advance his cause. The de Guise influence in France collapsed. Mary was no longer wanted. Thus the scene was set for the unhappy return in August 1561 of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots to her newly Protestant native land.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Book Launch - The Weekend Fix

Note: Venue changed from Hetherington Research Club to Queen Margaret Union

An open letter to all readers...

Sandstone Press cordially invite you to the launch of Craig Weldon’s great new book The Weekend Fix to meet the author, hear him read a short extract and enjoy a drink in the (subsidised) bar. Details are as follow:-

DATE: Thursday 3rd September 2009

TIME: 6.00pm for 6.15pm

PLACE:Queen Margaret Union, 22 University Gardens, Glasgow, G12 8QQ.

How to get there: University Gardens is four minutes walk from Hillhead Underground station. The underground links with Queen St and Partick main line stations. There is car parking in Lilybank Gardens and a few spaces on University Gardens, but allow time to find a space and adhere to local meter restrictions.

http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&q=university+gardens+glasgow&ie=UTF8&split=0&gl=uk&ei=6XOKSqMegbmMB9XN6Vc&ll=55.871386,-4.289389&spn=0.00549,0.008948&z=16&pw=2


Of course, if you can't make the launch, you can buy the book already on Amazon - it should be in the shops on the 1st of September - but the book launch will be a lot more fun!

If you want more persuasion, see an extract below:


Sgurr Dhomhnuill (skoor don-ill) – dark shapes of deer

Billy and Dave were in the Kingshouse, waiting, as we were to rendezvous there. By the time I arrived they were a few pints happier, and we camped by the infant Etive, waking to a gorgeous, winter day.

“Did you guys bring a spare axe?” I asked hopefully. They hadn’t. I’d forgotten mine in my rush to head off on Friday night. Hopefully Glencoe Mountain Sports had one to hire. When we got there, all they had left was an ice hammer at £3.50 for the day’s hire – not ideal as it lacked an adze for cutting steps, but hopefully it would stop me in the case of a fall. They might be shut by the time we got back on Sunday, but it was no bother – “Just drop it off at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven, and I’ll get it from there.”

It was good to see Dave again. He was nearing the end of the Munros, but had never visited Ardgour or Moidart before, so we crossed the Corran narrows and headed for Sgurr Dhomhnuill. Garbh Bheinn was pencilled in for Sunday as the others hadn’t been there yet. I didn’t mind visiting it again so long as I got Sgurr Dhomhnuill.

This is the highest hill in the whole island-like area south of the A830 Fort William to Mallaig road. Several times near the start of my hillwalking career, I’d looked across the West Highlands from some Munro or other and wondered what that prominent peak was in the distance. It took me a while before I twigged that the reason I couldn’t place it was because it wasn’t another Munro, but a Corbett: though at 888m, it is not far off Munro height, and it has to be approached virtually from sealevel.

We parked on a glorious spring-like morning, gaining distance quickly and easily thanks to the old mining track through the moss-heavy forest. There are some old mines at the lip of the corrie, but there is little to see except small spoil heaps and a couple of walls, blending in well with the surrounding scenery. When we exited the trees, the north wind hit us hard. It was our constant companion until we regained the trees at the end of the day. It was a fantastic late winter day of sunshine and wind, crocuses and primroses by the roadside and snow on the tops. As we climbed higher, the views improved – Garbh Bheinn, Beinn Resipol, Ben More on Mull; and east, Glencoe, Cruachan and Lochaber – an unaccustomed aspect for Dave, and he voiced his approval. “I’m coming back to this area again!”

Full of high spirits, we continued onwards for the final pull to the summit, taking photos of the fine scenery, our heads down against the occasional band of stinging hail. We took a southerly line to avoid the buffeting wind, and there was a bit of mixed snow/rock scrambling. All good healthy fun, but we decided it was best not to descend this way. The summit was uncomfortably windy. The wind made it hard to stand, and it cut through our clothes like a stiletto shower. Only a Corbett! But we were glad not to be higher with this wind. “Let’s go down the other way,” I shouted, “then head down the glen.” “That’s what I was thinking,” said Dave, and so we headed northwest from the summit.

Dave was leading. The way seemed to end at a cliff face. “No way down this side,” he indicated, and I tried the other side. It looked steep, a snow slope leading who knows where? I hesitated, suddenly nervous, and Dave took the lead again. The snow was disturbed, so presumably someone had already come down this way. This was of some comfort. Dave descended, then the wind caught us again. I crouched and grasped my hired axe as tightly as possible. The slope we were on ended in nothing.

I really didn’t want to be blown over it or slip. Dave took a side way down, sending up clouds of stinging spindrift. Crouching, head turned, I waited it out until the spindrift passed, then followed him over the lip of the snow bank. Below was nothing but a further snow slope, even steeper now, ending in nothing. I wasn’t happy. Descent seemed slippy. It was hard to tell with a face full of spindrift where I was putting my feet in all this sugary snow, so I turned again until it cleared a bit.

Billy was above, having had to wait for me to finish moving before being able to continue. When I turned back, Dave had disappeared. I dropped a little further, getting closer to the edge. There didn’t seem to be any safe way. Surely he hadn’t... my heart hammered hard and senses became super-alert as I considered the serious risk I might be taking if I went on. I looked across, and realised a large block of snow had carved a path of sorts away to our right before disappearing over the precipice. Suddenly it hit me. The disturbed snow we were following was not old footprints – it was avalanche debris! I stopped, and waited until Billy reached me.

“I’m shitting myself,” I told him. “I’m going back to the top.” But where was Dave? We had to contact him. The horrible thought came to me that he might have slipped to his doom, and we were helpless to act. Then –

“Dave!” shouted Billy. He had spotted him. A second later I saw his axe battering at the edge of the precipice, and he hove slowly into view. ‘Back up?’ I pointed. ‘Back to the top,’ Dave signed.

Billy led the way, slowly making sure of each step, slipping occasionally. I tried cutting steps with the ice hammer. Some of the snow was hard, but much of it was sugary, and would provide no purchase for arrest in the event of a fall. Back into the screaming wind, legs tensed for all they were worth, we made a slow ascent. Billy waited for us on higher, safer ground, lying down holding his axe. We laughed in relief. Dave appeared. He had cramp, and didn’t feel like laughing.

“It was icy, sheer rock. Terraced cliffs. I was slipping... too far round to the north for the col... not a good descent route.”

There was only one thing for it: descend the way we had come up. Dave hurried us along despite the gorgeous sunset over Beinn Resipol, despite Garbh Bheinn turning a deep blue. We reached the ‘ascent’s steep bit’ and laughed. We could descend this facing forward! It was nothing compared to what we had just foolishly attempted.

“I forgot the rule,” said Billy; “NEVER follow old footprints.” Especially when they aren’t footprints at all.

As darkness gathered, the constant wind started to get to us. But once back on the mine track our spirits were restored, though we were humbled by the lesson a mere Corbett had taught us, amazed that despite our experience, we could still have such a close scrape.

“Well Craig,” said Billy, “at least we know what your life is worth!”

“What?”

“Three pounds fifty!” he said, remembering my hired ice axe.

Dark shapes of deer flitted silently through the trees.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Meet Lance Armstrong in Glasgow Today

One of the most impressive sportsmen of all time is cyclist Lance Armstrong. He has concentrated his efforts on the Tour de France, winning it more times than anyone else. This is especially notable when you consider that he contracted cancer in the middle of this - beat the cancer - then came back to win more Tours. In the comedy Dodgeball, this fact is used to contrast the main character's decision to quit with Lance's determination:



In a notable week for sporting prowess - Usain Bolt running 100m in 9.58 seconds, Andy Murray becoming #2 tennis player in the world - the chance to see a legend like Lance is still not one to pass up. For once during the Festival, the best thing on in Scotland is not in Edinburgh.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Book Has Arrived!

Saw it for the first time today. My book, The Weekend Fix!



I've had a book published before, but that was a commissioned piecework done for a fee. This book is completely different: it's personal, my own idea and story, and I had to hawk it round publishers until Sandstone Press took a punt on me.

It's got colour pictures, hand drawn maps, entertaining little stories, an introduction by Hamish Brown - there's not much else you could ask for in a hillwalking book.

Having your own book published is a great feeling. Having said that, it has been so long in gestation that I've mentally already moved on to other things... but not until after the book launch early in September in a venue tbc!

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Lothian Skies Walk

For a while now I've harboured a notion to re-enact the story in The Proclaimers Song, Joyful Kilmarnock Blues:

I'd never been to Ayrshire, I hitched down one Saturday
Sixty miles to Kilmarnock to see Hibernian play
The day was bright and sunny, but the game I won't relay
And there was no Kilmarnock Bunnet to make me want to stay

But I'm not going to talk about it
On a night when I can see with my eyes shut
When I started walking at Wishaw, my eyes obscured my vision
But five miles on my way I began to learn to listen

I walked through the country, I walked through the town
I held my head up and I didn't look down
The question doesn't matter, the answer's always "aye"
The best view of all is where the land meets the sky.

Lothian skies, Lothian skies


Charlie and Craig, The Proclaimers:


In my imagination, I see the Reid brothers drinking in Kilmarnock after a football match, hitch-hiking as far towards Edinburgh as Wishaw, then walking the rest of the way, dawn breaking as they march through West Lothian. With the exception of having to watch Hibs, I fancy doing this walk myself: have a skinful in Kilmarnock, get somehow to Wishaw (the trickiest bit, probably), then walk overnight from Wishaw to Leith. It's about 34 miles, a long but manageable distance. And perhaps by Livingston the first trains and buses will be running, which would shorten the walk considerably.

This ambition is probably fuelled by tales of a student friend from Helensburgh who arranged to stay with a mate in Glasgow, fell out with him after the last train for Helensburgh had already left for the night, knocked the pub table over and marched out, not stopping until he reached home several hours later. Well, there was one stop: he slipped on ice crossing a bridge in Dumbarton and was helped up by a couple returning from a late night out.

"Where are you going?" they asked.

"Helensburgh," he replied.

"Don't be daft!" they said, "where are you going really?"

Whenever I would tell him of a big walk I had done, he would counter with "aye, but have you walked home to Helensburgh pissed yet?"


I wonder if any Hibbies or Proclaimers fans have already done this Lothian skies walk? It would be good to get a small group together for it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Hugh Piggott's Windpower 101

One thing that the British Isles does not lack is wind, especially on hills and western and northern coasts. As a result, wind farms are sprouting up all over the place, the most ambitious being that above Eaglesham Muir south of Glasgow, and an offshore one in the Solway Firth. An even larger farm, planned to cover almost the whole of the island of Lewis, has been rejected by government as too intrusive.

Robin Rigg Windfarm, Solway Firth (courtesy Carlisle Times and Star):


There are various problems with windfarms, apart from their visual and local environmental impact. The windiest places are usually sparsely inhabited, and so there is the problem of moving the electric potential from the place of generation to the place of consumption. There is also the problem of storage. It isn't windy all the time, and so excess electricity has to be stored somewhere, either in batteries or behind hydro-electric dams. The more we rely on windfarms, the more storage becomes a headache for power generators. But - with wind being free and everywhere, wouldn't it be great to generate your own electric from it?

With windpower all the rage these days, it is not surprising that the thoughts of ordinary punters turn to generating it themselves. Why not install a turbine, and sell the excess electricity generated back to the National Grid? With such thoughts in mind, I went to a morning talk at Earthship Fife by Hugh Piggott, perhaps Britain's foremost expert in home-build windpower.

Hugh Piggott (courtesy of Hugh):


Hugh lives in Scoraig, a tiny crofting community in an exposed location in the Northwest Highlands. There is no road to Scoraig - access is by boat - and it goes without saying that there is no mains electricity either. Fortunately Scoraig is very windy. It is the perfect place for a self-sufficient type to grow their own electricity.

Hugh's talk was illuminating. A couple of the people there were serious about building their own wind turbines. The rest were dilettantes like myself, and Hugh, though softly spoken, was completely and utterly hard-nosed practical.

"You said there was the possibility of hydro power at your location?"

"Yes."

"Then do that. It is much less hassle than wind power."

Hugh went on to describe the various pitfalls of wind power. The boring things like towers, batteries and converters are more expensive and important than the turbine itself, and if you can do something equivalent with less effort and more reliability, then that was the thing to do. I got the impression that if Hugh lived in a city he would insulate his loft, double-glaze his windows, wear an extra jersey, and leave the job done at that, glad to get the convenience of coal-fired electricity. He had done experiments in urban locations, including Edinburgh, and found that there wasn't the minimum level of average wind required to generate power at most of these locations. The companies who sell little rooftop wind turbines to well-meaning urban greens are, it seems, smooth-talking, snake-eyed charlatans.

So, not living at Scoraig or any other very windy location, it is water power for me. Anyone got a steep stream to experiment on?

Hugh's website:
http://www.scoraigwind.com/