Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Blood and Heather

We came for heather.

August. The time of the Wild Mountain Thyme:

Will ye go, lassie go
and we'll all go together
to pull wild mountain thyme
all around the blooming heather
will ye go, lassie go

In August, some of Scotland's longer miles come into their own. Acres of flowing hillside - home to the grouse, plover, and mountain hare - become purple robed as the heather flowers.

But where to see this? Thoughts turn first to the Eastern Grampians, but the Lammermuirs are as good as anywhere.

This neglected hill range (neighbouring the most boring hills in Scotland in the Moorfoots) has many secret heathery corners. With the grouse shooting season in full swing we decided to avoid mutual inconvenience by taking the Southern Upland Way up the Watch Water to Twin Law.

The day was windy, with less sunshine than I’d hoped. Startled grouse squawked and tuk-tukked low across the ground. Hares abounded on the track. ‘Beware adders’ said a sign. Maybe we wouldn’t roll in the heather after all. But the views opened out across the prominent Dirrington Laws to the Eildon Hills and Ruberslaw, across the Merse to the Cheviot, and far away, something distant that may have been Lindisfarne or Bamburgh Castle.

At the top, two prehistoric cairns are topped by squat circular stone towers. These are the Twinlaw Cairns.

A plaque on the trig point gives the legend behind the towers. When the Angles were invading the area, they challenged the local Britons to a fight. Each side sent their champion, and the two warriors fought each other to the death. It was then revealed that the warriors were twins - the Angles had kidnapped their champion from the Britons in a raid years earlier when he was a boy. The opposing sides then built the towers as memorials to the brothers at the spot where they fell.
And they biggit twa cairns on the heather
And they biggit them round and high
And they stand on the Twinlaw Hill
Where they twa brithers lie.
As we came away, an irregular pop of shotguns blew over the flank of the hill from the active shooting butts.

We came for heather. We got blood.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Ready for the Storm

I have a confession to make. I like Scottish weather. Perhaps that's not surprising for someone who has just returned from Southern Europe which is currently pinned down by 40 degree heat.

And there are times I have cursed my timing when I have arranged a day in the hills only to have it ruined by a weather front. And what about those interminable grey days, useless for photography, when the sky and the sea and the land all borrow from the same limited palette?

And yet.

A break in the clouds, Knoydart:

There's a saying: 'what is your shit sandwich?' It means: what compromise will you make, what downside to life will you tolerate to get the good things you want?

I will take the dreich days for this.

Sunset over Eigg:

I love the wind in my hair. It invigorates. It compels action. It enables my favourite outdoor activities in a way that isn't possible in the intensity of Southern European heat.

And the light. It flows, pale and liquid, rarely the same for more than a few seconds.

Loch Quoich:

There is a gentleness and translucence in the presence of cool water. Yes, the threat of rain lends uncertainty, but I can deal with this with a good coat. I can sleep at night. I can't in the suffocating summer nights experienced below around 45° N.

The Scottish climate suits me. Next time it rains every day for more than a week, I will read this again to remind myself of that fact.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Off the Beaten Track - But Fabulous!

I nearly didn’t post this. My time has recently been taken up with family and working on my history book. But the question had to be answered. Would June 2017 be the first month in this blog’s history that there would be no posts? And the answer? No!

So here’s what I’ve been thinking. We’ve had holidays in Italy before - Florence, Tuscany, Rome, Cinque Terre - but it was on reading a recipe book that we were hit by a brainwave. ‘Visit our home city of Parma’ the book said. ‘It’s as beautiful as Florence but has hardly any tourists’. So we used the philosophy for another holiday in Italy, to Lago d’Iseo. Where? Exactly. A beautiful lake surrounded by the Munro-height hills of the pre-Alps, wedged between the far more famous (and crowded) Lakes Garda and Como. And it was true. Here is somewhere 90% as beautiful as the famous lakes (so, being the Italian Lakes, this is still staggeringly beautiful), but with 10% of the tourists. We heard only one English-language voice for the duration of our stay - a retired, middle-class woman in a sunhat walking along a promenade and loudly saying to her friends “I just want a decent cup of tea!”

Lago d’Iseo from Monte Isola:

And it got me thinking again. Italy isn’t the only beautiful country with off-the-beaten-track places. In Scotland, the vast majority of tourists stick to the same circuit - a loop between Edinburgh, Aviemore, Inverness, Glencoe, Stirling and back to Edinburgh, with an optional detour off to Skye. But use the 90% philosophy. Where could you go?

What about the ruined abbeys and rolling hills of the Borders, as lovely as the Yorkshire Dales but virtually tourist-free?

The beaches, hills, castles, forests and historic villages of Galloway, completely off the radar of almost everyone except those in the know?

The clifftop walks, long beaches, and rugged, picturesque fishing villages of the Moray Firth coast?

The windy, sunny machair of the lesser islands of the Inner Hebrides - Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Jura?

The tumultuous rocks, silent evenings, eagles and wildcats of Ardnamurchan and Ardgour?

Orkney’s little-visited Northern Isles islands such as Rousay, Westray or Sanday?

You won’t find tourist hordes in any of these places. And many of them will disagree that they are only 90% as beautiful as, say, Glencoe. Take my own top pick of the off-the-beaten-track places for example: Gairloch. A neat, whitewashed village between curves of beautiful sand, backed by the hills of Torridon and Fisherfield. This is a place with 10% of the tourists but 110% of the beauty.

One of the beaches at Gairloch:

We will definitely follow the off-the-beaten-track philosophy for our next holiday. Where would you go?

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Nevis Gorge

Lochaber is one of the roughest parts of the country. It contains many of the best, biggest (and wettest) hills, from rough and inaccessible Knoydart to the long-multi Munroed ridges of Glen Nevis or the rhyolite cliffs of Glencoe. But not every route is a hairy-chested hillwalk.

Take the Nevis Gorge for example. At the end of the dead-end road up Glen Nevis, a mile-long path squeezes through a tree-lined gorge, to debouch suddenly onto a meadow surrounded by steep mountains and with an impressive waterfall set picture-perfectly at its head.

The Steall meadow, Glen Nevis:

The start of the gorge is a widening of the road (it seems over-grand to call it a car park) that these days, is usually overflowing. Twenty years ago this was a hillwalker's secret: not today. It is a perfect length of walk for a small family (hold onto the little ones above the drops) or the tourist who wants to see a bit of wild scenery without climbing a hill.

Below the path the river twists down a steep constriction. Pebbles and boulders rumble in the current and the striking effects of their erosive power can be seen on the rocks lining the river, smooth holes bored out by their action.

Rock bored out through the power of water:

And suddenly, the tumult is over. The Steall Falls appear at the far side of the Steall meadows. A perfect picnic spot. It looks like a dead-end, but isn't: the glen twists to the left and continues on for many more, increasingly bleak miles.

Steall Falls:

The Nevis Gorge walk is over, but there's an optional extra. To access the foot of the waterfall necessitates traversing a wire bridge over the River Nevis. This makes a great highlight to the walk for adventurous eleven-year olds. (Children who are too small won't be able to reach the wires.)

On the path in the Nevis Gorge:

The walk up the Nevis Gorge is the first part of my favourite route up Ben Nevis. But that's is for another time...

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Most Boring Hill in Scotland

"The Scottish hills are the best hills in the world!" said a friend.

"What," we chided him, "even the boring ones?"

"Aye. Even the boring ones."

And there are plenty boring hills in Scotland. Alan Dawson in The Relative Hills of Britain states that:
To be sufficiently boring a hill should be at least a couple of hours walk from the nearest road, so that a full sense of anti-climax can be experienced on reaching the top.
though he also cautions:
Some walkers would argue that all of the Scottish hills are full of interest compared to parts of the English Pennines.
On Windlestraw Law in the Moorfoots:

Can anywhere in Scotland match the Pennines for dullness? We do have some particularly boring hills near our house - the Moorfoots. I have attempted their two highest summits on two separate occasions, only to be repulsed by ennui the first time and by my hillwalking partner mutinying the second time. Yet I've always wanted to stand on top of the Moorfoots. Seen from the path to our local Tesco they glow in late evening sunshine, a world of wilderness and wind rising above our suburban existence.

And that's how we came to be setting off for a walk up Dundreich, a Donald (though not a Marilyn) just over the Peeblesshire border.

South from Dundreich:

The walk starts pleasantly enough along a tadpole-filled loch, a noisy gathering of gulls evoking a harbour with crows and buzzards quartering the lochside forests.

Portmore Loch from the hill:

But it was up on the shoulder of the hill that the magic started. A soft spring breeze tousled our hair. The air flooded with sunshine and lark song and we watched and listened to these small birds courting for a good half an hour.


The top gives view after view of windfarms. Close to hand on the Moorfoots, away in the distance on the Lammermuirs, and really really far - I had the binoculars out - at Whitelee to the south of Glasgow, the biggest onshore windfarm in Europe. And what were those peaks shimmering in the haze beyond Whitelee? I was amazed to be looking at the peaks of Arran. Not something I expected to see from Peeblesshire.

Distant windfarms:

We descended well satisfied with the day. The Moorfoots may well be the most boring hills in Scotland, but this route at least had entertained us greatly.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Stacks of Duncansby

John o' Groats has a lot to answer for. 'Is that it?' is the most common reaction to the tiny hamlet. And despite its fame it is not the furthest point on the British mainland from Land's End - that's Duncansby Head. (In fact Land's End isn't the furthest point from Duncansby Head either - but that was the subject of a previous post.) So we aren't going to discuss John o' Groats any further. This post is all about Duncansby Head, just 3km from John o' Groats.

The Knee (mini stack)

And the great thing about Duncansby Head is its scenic drama - a fitting headland for most north-easterly point on the British mainland.

Duncansby is topped by the ruins of a WWII encampment. Like Hoxa Head, guns were placed here to deter the German navy. The scenery starts pretty much immediately, small seacliffs, a stack, and a geo - the first place my wife ever saw a puffin.

At the Geo of Sclaites:

Beyond the geo the cliffs march south towards Freswick and the impressive Stacks of Duncansby appear. These sea-stacks are 60m high and were first climbed in 1958. They are less famous than the 137m high Old Man of Hoy but are probably seen by more tourists.

Stacks of Duncansby:

We continued just beyond the three stacks where the crowds thinned dramatically. Perched precariously on the very edge of the cliffs was a couple in flagrante delicio, adding an extreme sport frisson to the act of coitus. It was well seeing that the midge season had not yet started.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Pride of Scotland

"You a historian?" barked the man propping up the bar.

"No," I replied, trying to catch the barman's eye to order my round.

"Good. I'm always falling out with historians," he replied.

Delighted for you pal.

"The Yanks! Who would win in a fight between us and the Yanks?"

"Eh, the Yanks of course."

"Bah, the bloody Yanks! Never been in a proper fight! We'd beat 'em for sure. The British Army! Best army in the world."

Where's that barman...

"The English!"

Here we go...

"The English! We'd whip their arses... never been in a proper fight... Scottish soldiers... best soldiers in the world."

He drained his pint. The barman looked over.

"What can I get you?" Finally.

"Three pints of whatever this fella's on."

Friday, 24 February 2017

Was King Arthur a Glaswegian?

The title is straight out of the Daily Mail, but bear with me.

Arthur is mentioned just four times in ancient Welsh literature:
  1. Arthur's twelve battles are mentioned in Nennius' Historium Brittaniae.
  2. The Battle of Badon is also mentioned in the Annales Cambriae
  3. Taliesin's The Spoils of Annwn mention Arthur in passing.
  4. And "he was no Arthur," is the entirety of the fourth mention, in Y Gododdin, a book about warriors from Edinburgh.
The real cult of King Arthur took off with Geoffrey of Monmouths 12th century Historia regum Britanniae. Other writers enthusiastically embroidered this story by borrowing further from ancient mythology, particularly Malory's epic Le Mort d'Arthur. Suddenly a lesser-known historical figure became the most famous king between the Romans and Alfred of Wessex. Yet what were his achievements? In these stories, they were largely appropriated from other characters:

Defeated the Saxons: Credit must go to a historical figure, Emrys Wledig - a.k.a. Ambrosius Auerlianus, 'last of the Romans' who according to Gildas won the Battle of Mount Badon c490. This victory reversed all Saxon gains for a couple of generations. Many other historical figures fought the Angles, such as Urien, Rhydderch, Morcaunt, Gwaulloc, Mynndog Mynfawr, but only Emrys was successful in his lifetime at turning the tide.

Had a magical sword: Rhydderch Hael (Roderick the Generous) had a sword called Dyrnwyn which burst into flame when wielded by a worthy man. Rhydderch was known as 'the Generous' because he was willing to lend the sword to anyone - but no man was brave enough to try and so Dyrnwyn stayed in its sheath. Excalibur, anyone?

Had a round table: Charlemagne had one decorated with a map of Rome, and in Celtic tradition warriors would sit in circle around lead warrior.

Was cheated on by his wife: Rhydderch again - Queen Langoureth had to call in the services of St Kentigern to clear her name.

Had a friendly magician: Myrrdin (Merlin) was a wise man cum madman who was contemporary with Rhydderch, but who fought on the other, losing side in the Battle of the Lark's Nest, one of the 'Three Futile Battles of Britain'. He then retired to Cat Coil Celydon (Ettrick Forest) and made a number of prophecies.

Merlin, a magical sword, fought the Angles and had a cheating Queen? All Rhydderch.

The medieaval tale of King Arthur took scraps of legend from many different characters and weaved them together into one incredible story using the name of a Dark Age warrior. Amongst these characters was Rhydderch, a real life King of Strathclyde in the latter half of the 6th century, a man with a cathedral at Glasgow and a court at Al Clut (Dumbarton).  And no other single figure contributed so many key features of the Arthurian legend. So in conclusion...

King Arthur was a Weegie.

A Weegie called Roderick.

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: