Sunday, 10 December 2017

Happy Birthday! 500th Post

Happy birthday! The Loveofscotland blog is 500 posts old. I started it to give impressions and poetry from around Scotland. It was intended as a more frequently updated companion to, an online tour of Scotland that does not really change (and badly needs another update). Below is a link to a map where you can see every post in the blog:

The most popular post is The Driest Town in Scotland. The least popular? Pretty much any with poems. There’s hillwalking, historical, and just general out-and-about posts, and as the quantity of posts has dried up, the style has become drier, more terse.

When I look around my space, I see chatty blogs giving a tourist-centred view of Scotland; I see blogs about hillwalking or canoeing that inspire awe and envy; I see political blogs that I avidly read but don’t really get involved in; I see some amazing one-stop portals like Undiscovered Scotland; I see lifestyle and fashion blogs featuring la dolce vita.

So here’s the thing. What would you like to see more of? Not poetry, that is obvious from the stats. But the general out and about posts, the outdoorsy posts, and the historical ones vie with each other in the top 50.

Is there anything about Scotland you wish you knew, but maybe didn't even know you didn't know...?

Thursday, 30 November 2017

What Sir Walter Scott Did For Us

In the pantheon of best-selling Scottish authors, JK Rowling reigns supreme. Estimates from 2013 indicate that she has sold at least half a billion books. That puts her more than an order of magnitude ahead of contemporaries like Ian Rankin (20 million), Alexander McCall Smith (20 million), Val McDiarmid (11 million), or Alastair Grey (dunno... but it's less than the others). Even dead Scottish authors like Alastair MacLean ‘only’ sold 150 million books. Unless we were to cheat and consider James VI the author of the James VI Bible (James VI would insist the author was God), then nobody else comes close.

So who is Sir Walter Scott in comparison to volumes like that? What did he ever do for us?

What about saving Scottish banknotes? Since 1696 Scotland's banks have always issued their own notes - they are the oldest paper money in Europe. In the early 19th century, pressure mounted by the British government to discount these notes. Sir Walter Scott was having none of it. Writing anonymously as Malachi Malagrowther in the letters page of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal, Scott campaigned - successfully - for private Scottish banks to retain their distinctive pound notes.

Scott on a 20th century banknote:

Or what about the rediscovery of the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish crown jewels? After the union of 1707 they were put in a chest in Edinburgh Castle and forgotten about. But when George IV visited Scotland in 1822 - a visit also orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott - Scott and some fellow antiquarians did some detective work and located the jewels to present to the king. Imagine their satisfaction on opening the chest and being the first people to see them for over a hundred years.

If that's not enough, what about reconciling the Highland and Lowland Scots to each other? Lowlanders had liked to consider Highlanders barbarians since at least the 15th century. The apogee came in the Jacobite rising where traitorous troops in tartan marched on Derby. The Highlands were brutally pacified. It was only after Highland soldiers had made a huge blood sacrifice fighting for the British Empire that the moment had come for people to be receptive to Scott's message. He created a synthethis of Scottish culture, the kilts and bagpipes of the Highlands coming to represent all of Scotland. And the stories Scott wrote were so popular, people wanted to see the places they were set. Thomas Cook brought Scotland’s first paid tourist trips to the Trossachs. They were there specifically to see the scenes made famous in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. So Sir Walter Scott invented the Scottish tourist industry.

And that's not all...

The story of Bruce and the spider.

The phrase, ‘The Wars of the Roses’.

The saying ‘oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!’


JK Rowling sold more books. But what will her legacy be?

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Running the Pentland Skyline

In the Pentlands:

I think of myself as a hillwalker. Others may be fell runners, climbers, or ramblers - but I am a hillwalker.

Sure, I run down hills of a certain angle - it's only common sense to let gravity to the work. In fact it is easier than walking.

And I take advantage of the lightweight gear that has been popularised by fell running - shoes especially. It's the sensible thing to do.

So I wear lightweight gear and run down hills. But I'm still a hillwalker.

Or so I thought until recently in the Pentlands, when I overtook a group of fell runners going up Carnethy Hill.

At the start of the day:

As I waited at the top for them to ask to get my photo taken, my photographer asked "what route are you doing?" Down to the Kips then back to Flotterstone via Allermuir. "Enjoy your run!" she said cheerily. My run! Maybe I am a fell runner!

Not a fell runner:

"We're only doing 18km," she confessed. Only 18km! That's how a fell runner thinks. My own walk was not much longer and I considered it to be a big outing. So maybe I'm not a fell runner after all... I stood at the top to chat with a man with a collie dog and watched the cheerful mixed-sex group in their twenties jog onwards. Seeing them move easily across the terrain brought joy in their grace and gratefulness that I could do it too.

Fell runners:

The Pentlands are hills for fell runners. Of middling altitude, with long rolling ridges and clear paths, it is possible to eat up the miles, gain fresh air with views across the Borders, Ochils, Fife, Highlands and Edinburgh. And there is one route I have wanted to do for a long time - the circuit of all the hills in the northern half of the range, from Flotterstone over Carnethy to the Kips, down to the pass of Green Cleugh and back over Black Hill and Allermuir.

And there were plenty fell runners up here on a glorious autumn Sunday. With Edinburgh so close, it is inevitable there are crowds. “It's like Princes St up here!” announced a woman to me on West Kip. Princes St? You mean Sauchiehall St! Perhaps I live on the east coast now but my roots were showing.

On West Kip:

So far I had been having a lovely time. But I expected the fun to stop on Black Hill, and was right. The hills bordering the A702 were busy. But Black Hill is deserted, for good reason. It is a great awkward-angled heathery lump that I cursed as I bashed through the heather, progress slowed. The sun went. Does it ever shine on Black Hill? The last time I was here we found a mouse, frozen to death. Allermuir and Carnethy are thronged highways in the sky, Bell’s Hill, Capelaw and Harbour Hill the haunt of the occasional fell runner, but Black Hill stands alone and unvisited. I ran down it and found the way back up Bell’s Hill hard going. What is it the gambling authorities say? ‘When the fun stops, stop’? Does the same approach hold with hillwalking?

Looking back to Black Hill:

But after that I enjoyed the rest. The crowds returned on Allermuir Hill, familiar from scores of visits. I finished on Castlelaw Hill and jogged down the path to bump into old friends I hadn’t seen since 4 Reasons You Must Climb a Scottish Hill for New Year. We made a tryst to climb a hill in the crisp winter weather that we are now on the cusp of experiencing.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

At the North End of Gigha

Halfway to Ireland, lying between Kintyre and Islay, Gigha is a small, unprepossessing island. It is 10km long and 3km at its widest - half the size of Colonsay, for example. Its highest point is only 100m high. My Scottish Mountaineering Club Guide to the Islands of Scotland has this faintest of praise for Gigha:
though the coastal crags attain a maximum height of only 20m, they provide good bouldering for the frustrated climber on a family holiday.
You don't come to Gigha for an outdoor walking holiday. It is famous instead for its gardens of Achamore. Yet even these are past their glory at this time of year. So why would you come to Gigha? Let me rephrase that. Why would you not?

Gigha is a Hebridean island, lush, temperate, small, albeit a little too large to be comfortably explored just on foot.

It has fine sandy beaches:

Views of Islay, Jura, Knapdale, Kintyre and Ireland:

And rugged headlands.

We went to the north end of Gigha to watch the waves and the Islay ferry steaming to and fro, cows browsing amongst the bracken and occasional eruption of rocks.

And went to Eilean Garbh, on an entertaining route that included a step ladder to surmount a small cliff:

This former island is now connected to Gigha by a machairy tombola, a beach at either end, cormorants and divers off the northern beach and a heron patiently stalking fish at the southern beach. But no otters, even though we know they haunt these shores.

We enjoyed our short visit to Gigha. As we left, Storm Ophelia approached. The waves grew higher and the sun turned dull orange, reflected in the shallow seas of Ardminish Bay. It was time to leave before we became stranded.

Ardminish Bay:

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Gigha’s Spouting Cave

At the southern end of Gigha, looking to the Mull of Kintyre and Ireland:


We started at the forgotten grave of a medieval gallowglass in the ruins of Gigha's St Cathan's Church:

Heading south through Achamore Gardens and past Achamore farm, we broke out onto open ground and encountered the ancient fetish objects called am Bodach agus Cailleach (the old man and woman):

A muddy field or two later led us to the beach of Grob Bagh, seaweed tossed onto the beach in recent storms.

We were getting closer to our ultimate aim: the spouting cave on the island's southern tip. When the wind comes from the south-west and the tide is high, the waves come crashing out a hole in the ground.

The Spouting Cave:

Today the wind was coming from the east. We dropped in that direction to the shore. The cave rumbled, rattled and boomed above us, its power unnerving even on this relatively benign day.

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.