Saturday, 27 May 2023

Morven: The Serpent at the Breast

I always thought Caithness was a flat county, beyond the hills. Morven, Scaraben, and Maiden Pap beg to differ.

Approaching Braemore:

Maiden Pap must be one of the most distinctive small hills in the country, yet it is virtually unknown.

From some angles it looks like the Roseberry Topping of Caithness (which itself is the 'Matterhorn of Yorkshire').

From other angles it lives up to its name, an improbably pert breast. It just fails to reach 500m, but you would not get tired of looking at this peak.

But I was not here for Maiden Pap. I was here to climb Morven, at 706m the county top of Caithness. Hidden behind Maiden Pap, it slowly reveals itself as you travel the estate track from Braemore. In a backlit headwind, it looked much higher and further away than it actually is.

After the track I took to moorland bashing, glad of the sunshine and clear skies despite the powerful headwind. 

Finally I found myself at the base of Morven and the 400m pull up the summit cone. There are two ways up, both awkward. One involves a trackless traverse round the mountain to find a steep grassy gully that pops out just below Morven's east top. The second tackles the hill direct, but peters out into an unpleasantly steep and loose boulderfield, before also popping out at the east top. I started the traverse and enjoyed a moment out of the wind, sheltered behind the steep bulk of Morven. A rush of wind like a mighty river in the corrie below.

A cuckoo was calling. But where were the trees?

Higher up a lizard slinked out my way, before I breached the final steepening and the summit cone. The wind tore at me as I staggered to the summit, bright superstreams of light-saturated air. An intense and happy moment before starting my descent.

Morven summit:

With the wind at my back and going down, the walk back along the moor, which earlier had been such a trudge, seemed effortless. Marching across the bog and singing at the top of my voice, I suddenly came across this foot-long snake:

An adder! I doubled back to take another photo and it coiled and faced me as if about to strike. Nope nope nope! I beat a retreat and decided not to bivvy out here tonight. But I had been up Morven, my penultimate county top.

Maiden Pap from the west:

I started bagging county tops in the lockdown, when we weren't allowed out our own county and I realised I hadn't been up its highest point. Now only Rona's Hill in Shetland is left to visit for my completion.

Monday, 8 May 2023

Where is the Real Stone of Destiny?

We have a king, and his name is Charles - Prince Charles, if you must know, which I can't stop calling him. I know it's wrong, but whenever "King Charles" gets mentioned I pause, just for a second, to figure out who they are talking about. Remember as a child forgetting the new year had come, and by sheer force of habit, writing the old year in your jotter on your first day back at school after Christmas? Well, it's like that.

But though I'm not one for royalty, even I was aware of Charles' big day yesterday, with all the pomp and tradition of hundreds of years. There's the ride in a gold coach, Zadok the Priest, anointing by the archbishop, carrying the sword and sceptre and orb and wearing the crown. And there's something else he did, something that caused a lump of Perthshire sandstone to be taken out of Edinburgh Castle a few days earlier and be transported to London. The stone is the Stone of Destiny, and it had to be in Westminster Abbey specifically so Charles could sit on it. I'm sure the coronation would still be valid without it, but the stone is one of the oldest parts of the ceremony, having been in London since the late 13th century.

Or has it?

The twist is that after being damaged during the 1950 heist, the stone went to a stonemason's yard in Glasgow for repair. And that mason, Bertie Gray, had made two copies. According to the Reverend John Mackay Nimmo, Chevalier of the Knights Templar of Scotland, it was one of these copies that went back to London in 1951, and the real stone hidden in a location that he alone knew. When the Scottish Parliament recovened in 1999, Nimmo offered his stone to the nation. X-ray analysis showed that Nimmo's stone was not broken and repaired in a way consistent with the stone taken in 1950, and it subsequently disappeared from view. 

Well that's a nice story. One quirky anecdote for something that was definitely taken in 1296 by Edward I, and definitely taken back again in 1950. That must be it, surely? No! Strap in, because the Stone of Destiny has more legend and myth attached to it than anything else in Scottish history.

Other legends go back to 1296 and the original theft of the stone. Knowing Edward was coming to steal it, the monks of Scone swapped it for a worthless lump of local sandstone - reputed to be a cludgie cover - and hid the real thing in a nearby hillside. And there it sits, hidden to this day, awaiting its moment... or perhaps not! Because Robert the Bruce found and used the real stone, according to another legend, and entrusted its keep thereafter to Angus Og Macdonald. It's actually hidden somewhere on the Isle of Skye, its whereabouts known only to the chief of the Clan MacDonald. Why else would the Scots not have demanded the stone's return from London after the Bruce's victories? Because they knew the one in London was a fake.

Ach no, say the people of Argyll. The real stone - the actual, proper Stone of Destiny - still lies in Argyll, somewhere near Dunstaffnage Castle, brought over when the Scots first migrated from Ireland. Whatever the Scottish kings were crowned on at Scone in Perthshire, it wasn't the real McCoy. 

Head spinning yet? Don't worry. The Irish have a story to resolve the mystery. The Stone of Destiny - originally the Irish Lia Fail - never left Ireland in the first place. A switcheroo saw the Scots sail off to Argyll with a fake, the real stone, its origin the Holy Land rather than Perthshire, still lying under the ground of the sacred Hill of Tara.

The Stone of Destiny fairly gets about. Its travels inspired scupltor George Wyllie to create portable 'Destiny' stones the size of briefcases, with a convenient handle for anybody to carry about. And that inspired the closing lines to my poem 'The Stone Room':

For boys of destiny
still play under Argyll skies -
freedom is a noble thing.
I found myself some bedrock
and in time-honoured tradition
have proclaimed myself a king.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

Kilantringan Bay

Kilantringan Bay has haunted my dreams for the best part of two decades. 

We'd driven to the lighthouse for sunset after the Stranraer half marathon. Ireland lay clear across the water, velvet on gold as the sun sank. The breeze whipped up a wee bit colder, sea air in our lungs, as the lighthouse above us began its revolutions. Away in Ireland, other headlands winked back. 

Leaving Kilantringan:

They say you should never go back. But I had a hankering to see Kilantringan Bay again after that magical first time. 

The weather today was not as fine as I had hoped. But we were here, and dressed for torrential rain.

With the tide half in, a simple walk on sand becomes an adventurous scramble up and down the craggy shoreline, the dog pathfinding.

Pathfinder pup:

Beachcoming over slippery seaweed, we found things washed up on the beach. A lifejacket. A lot of plastic. Mermaid's purses. (In reality, the eggs of shark and dogfish.)

Finally we made it to the beach. We couldn't see Ireland. But we'd had a scrambly adventure reaching this long-imagined spot and had the place to ourselves, gulls fleeing our approach. Maybe we'll come back on a day of sun-kissed promise. Today, we turned our faces into the rain and looked forward to drying out in our holiday cottage.

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 3

4. The Black Dinner.

One of the most infamous incidents from Scottish history, the 'black dinner' of James II was gruesome enough to inspire George RR Martin's 'red wedding' in the Game of Thrones novels. When James I died (see previous post), his son and heir, James II, was only six years old. The keepers of the two most powerful castles in Scotland, Stirling and Edinburgh, connived to increase their own influence and power by holding the young king effective prisoner. Only William, the vigorous young Earl of Douglas had the power to shake them. The castellans conferred with the earl's uncle, who would inherit the earldom should anything happen to young William. With a nod and a wink, he confirmed that he would not interfere. The groundwork laid, William Douglas and his younger brother were invited to dine with James II by the keeper of Edinburgh Castle. In front of the horrified king, who pleaded for their lives, they were seized and summarily beheaded. Acording to legend, as the dinner drew to an end, a platter was brought in bearing the head of a black boar - the traditional symbol of death, and signal to act to the assasins.

3. Kenneth II. 

Of all the deaths on this list, none can be as colourful or as unlikely as that as that of Kenneth II, who died in 995. Legend has it that after Kenneth had executed the son of the Mormaer of Angus as a traitor, the boy's mother, Fenella, vowed revenge. When the king was hunting in her area she approached him, vowed loyalty, and said she had information of a conspiracy against him if he would just follow her to a house on the estate. Intrigued, Kenneth entered the house where he saw an incredible sight: a statue of himself, holding a golden apple. The king lifted the apple out the statue's hand. But the statue was a booby-trap, and moving it triggered hidden crossbows, which skewered the king with arrows.  

2. Sigurd the Mighty. 

Sigurd the Mighty, Jarl of Orkney, had already conquered Scotland north of the River Oykell for the Norwegian king, when he issued a challenge to Máel Brigte, the Mormaer of Moray. Meet me on the shores of the Moray Firth with 40 men, said Sigurd, and we will see who is the better warrior. Máel  turned up with 40. But Sigurd brought 80 men to the fight, and killed and beheaded Máel Brigte. Máel was famous for having a crooked tooth: and as Sigurd rode home with his enemy's head tied to his saddle as a trophy, the tooth grazed his leg. The wound went septic, and Sigurd died, buried in 892 at Cyderhall (Sigurd's Howe) at the edge of the land he had conquered.

1. Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty.

A polymath who translated Rabelais and created a new mathematical system, Urquhart was also a committed royalist during the War of Three Kingdoms. He paid for his support for Charles II with capture at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and busied himself in the production of works such as Logopandecteision, a universal 'perfected language', with eleven cases, eleven genders, and eleven tenses. Such an eccentric genius deserves a notable end, and you'll be pleased to know that is exactly what he gave himself. On hearing of the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Urqhuart laughed so hard he died.

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 2

Happy New Year! Last time, we looked at three notable deaths. Today let's continue the countdown of top ten Scottish deaths with these memorable moments from history:

7. James I.

James died for a game of tennis! Having annoyed and alarmed his nobles with persecutions and land grabs, aggrandising his own position at their expense, James probably should have preferred the stout walls of castles to poorly defended houses. For while relaxing in the undefended Blackfriars in Perth in 1437, a minor noble with a grudge burst in with a small band of assasins looking for the monarch. James fled for the sewer, but his way to safety was blocked - just days earlier he had the exit covered over as he kept losing tennis balls down the hole from the court next door. His assasin cornered the unfortunate monarch and stabbed him to death.

6. Percy Pilcher. 

Pilcher was an English naval engineer based at Glasgow University as the 19th century drew to a close. On the gently sloping land near Cardross on the Clyde, he perfected his designs for a hang glider. But Pilcher had grander ambitions: heavier-than-air powered flight. Having built a plane, he intended to demonstrate it on 30 September 1899 in front of sponsors at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. The weather was too bad to fly: Pilcher went up in his glider instead, and crashed. Pilcher's death is a case of lost opportunity: had he lived a few more months who knows, he may have added heavier-than-air flight to the list of Scottish inventions.

5. William Wallace.

No list of historic Scottish deaths could be complete without the end of Sir William Wallace. Like Joan of Arc he died resisting English invasion, in a cause that would ultimately triumph: in part, thanks to the inspiration of his own example. Wallace was betrayed by a Scottish noble who had made peace with Edward I of England - as, to be fair, had the rest of the nobility. Wallace was taken to London and tried as a traitor, which he denied:

"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I owe him no allegiance."

Wallace was hanged, taken down while still alive, had his genitals cut off, disembowelled and his organs thrown in a fire, and finally beheaded. His body was quartered and his limbs sent to be placed on spikes above the town gates of Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth as an example to the population.

Edward had found he could beat Wallace when he had been a fugitive and alive. It was another story once he became a dead legend. 

Read on for the last in the installment of top ten Scottish historical deaths!

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 1

 It's Hogmanay - the biggest Scottish festival of them all - so how better to mark it than with a countdown of the most notable deaths in Scottish history?

10. The Bonnie Earl o' Moray. 

The 2nd Earl of Moray, if the ballad written in his honour is any guide, was considered one of the most handsome men in Scotland. This did not protect him from being pursued in a vendetta by the Earl of Huntly, who attacked him at his castle of Donibristle in 1592. As Moray received his fatal blows, one slashed him across the face, leading to his famous (and likely apocryphal) last words:

"You hae spoilt a better face than yer ain!"

9. Mary, Queen of Scots.

The brief and tumultuous reign of Mary ended in 1567 amid accusations she had plotted to kill her husband and marry his murderer. Had she not be a woman and a Catholic, she may have gotten away with it, but on fleeing to England she transferred her problems to Queen Elizabeth. English Catholics believed Mary, not Elizabeth, was legitimate heir to Henry VIII, leading to Mary's end on the chopping block in 1587 when she became implicated in a Catholic plot against Elizabeth's life. Her execution was trigger for the launch of the Spanish Armada. That invasion of England ultimately failed, but Mary had the last laugh: her son James VI inherited the English throne, and moved his mother's coffin to its magnificent final resting place in Westminster Abbey. En ma fin gît ma commencement indeed.  

8. The Black Douglas.

Sir James Douglas was one of the great heroes of the Scottish wars of independence, right-hand man to Robert the Bruce. Loved by the Scots - to whom he was 'the good Sir James', his reputation was quite different across the border, where nursemaids crooned to their charges "hush pet, the Black Douglas shall not get thee." After the death of the Bruce, Douglas was tasked with taking the Scottish king's embalmed heart to the Holy Land to battle Muslims. En route, he found himself fighting on the Christian side at the Battle of Teba in Andalucia. Legend has it that on becoming outnumbered and surrounded, he flung the Bruce's heart before him shouting:

"Lead on, brave heart, as thou were ever wont to do!"

The Black Douglas has one of the most iconic deaths in Scottish history. Just a shame the story of his final moments cannot be verified by any contemporary source.

Image courtesy of Andrew Spratt

Will Douglas' be the last legendary end, or did the mythmakers get their hands on other historical figures?

 Find out after the bells when the countdown is continued...

Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Big Walk Dreaming

Winter may seem a fallow season for outdoor adventures, but it is the season when seeds are planted, when dreams of future expeditions take shape. Reading Alex Roddie's The Farthest Shore recently rekindled my own plans and awoke a hunger I forgot I possessed.

Ardnamurchan Point:

Alex's book is the story of the Cape Wrath Trail (CWT), except he starts at Ardnamurchan Point instead of Fort William. Wait a minute, that's where I started when I did a similar route! Mine was in 1996, before the CWT existed as a concept, and I wanted a grand walk linking the westernmost point of the mainland, Ardnamurchan, with the north-westernmost: Cape Wrath. I wouldn't stick strictly to the coast but would take the most sensible line between the two points. 

Some parts were a revelation. Ardnamurchan itself, which I had never visited, is beautiful. Cape Wrath was a suitably awe-inspiring climax to the walk. And in between, the spacious backcountry around Maol Buidhe bothy proved a highlight.

Leaving Ardnamurchan, 1996:

It would be good to return and do a couple of bits I missed out back in 1996. I missed out the whole section from Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie, having given up and gone home in terrible weather, to return only for the last couple of days of the walk to Cape Wrath. It would be good too to walk through Knoydart, which I skirted by going from Corryhully to Kinbreck bothy then out to the Cluanie Inn, then cheating a bit by taking a lift down the A87 to Invershiel before continuing. 

But that's not all! There's so many walks I'd like to do. The MacPhies of Colonsay, planned for 2022 but postponed through illness. My idea of the Grampian coast to coast, following a fault line from Knapdale to the Findhorn via the Buachaille. Large sections of the British coast. Once you start dreaming there is no end! 

But perhaps it is enough to achieve something more modest. Such as a weekend away, which I've just realised I haven't managed all year! My own hillwalking book, after all, is called The Weekend Fix. Hopefully in 2023 I will get a few more of them.