Monday, 16 October 2017

Gigha: Isle of Mud

The earth of Gigha is more fertile than other Hebridean islands. This makes for lush grass - ideal for grazing cows. And combine heavy hooves with heavy rainfall and you get mud - lots of it.

So if you are visiting Gigha, bring your wellies.

It's worth it.

View south from Creag Bhan, Gigha:

More Gigha soon...

Saturday, 30 September 2017

West Coast in the Pishing Rain

Christ, you think. A day trip to the west coast and it's pishing fucking rain - again.

You could think that way if you like. 

Or you could look at it from a different angle...

This is not just the West of Scotland in the pishing rain. This is a place of abundance. It is the land where lichens and mosses thrive. This is the North Atlantic Rainforest.

Looks a bit different now, doesn't it? Now we're in the rainforest?

Look at moss on that rock!

Revel in this beautiful fern with raindrops on each tip!

Lift your face to the rain and feel it soak into you... you're no made of sugar, our west coast mothers would say, get ootside - you'll no melt!

And... if you wait long enough, then even on the west coast the sun eventually appears.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Little Sparta

For years I have wanted to visit Little Sparta. This is the sculpture garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the artist who - in my mind at least - created many witty works such as the Straw Locomotive and portable, suitcase-sized 'Stones of Destiny' with carrying handles.

He dedicated his later years to building up an extraordinary garden in an unpromising location - 280m up the southern end of the Pentlands at Dunsyre, as middle-of-nowhere as you can get in Central Scotland.

We arrived at this off-the-beaten track location on a rainy, lowering September day, not quite sure what to expect. A walk of about half a mile up a farm track leads past a mausoleum featuring an embossed design of a heavy machine gun and a nonsensical quote about Arcadia.

We walked into the farmyard and saw some wilting strawberry plants covered with green netting that was held up by coloured wooden sticks with 'fête des fraises' written on them. We looked at each other. So far, so unpromising.

But things started looking up when we walked into a small garden with pond, enclosed on three sides by buildings and the fourth by trees. Here a fairly standard, 18th century Scottish house has been decorated with painted-on Corinthian columns - the fluting of the columns carved into the stonework of the house. You couldn't do that these days with planning permission!

Around the garden, dense with an interesting variety of trees, are slabs with phrases in Latin, French, German, and English. Finlay seemed to particularly like the Romans, the French Revolution, and the Second World War. We are invited to contemplate that nothing happened in the world between these epochs.

The Second World War sculptures seem jarringly juvenile when juxtaposed against the erudite Latin and French quotations, sculptures such as this fine vase decorated with a picture of a Japanese kamikaze flying bomb:

Over a stile is an area of moorland with a lochan, monumental blocks, views over the Pentlands and a stand of trees entitled 'the grove in harmony with itself'.

And what of the Straw Locomotive? I would still recommend a visit to Little Sparta, but it turns out I was mixing up Ian Hamilton Finlay and George Wyllie, whose art has delighted and intrigued many - and, unlike Finlay I suspect, had the gift of communicating his ideas in a manner appealing to all.

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.