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.


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.,-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!”


“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.