Monday, 22 June 2020

What Hill Will You Climb After Lockdown?

It won't be long now until the coronavirus lockdown is over. We will still have to socially distance, but we will be permitted to climb hills, which will be lovely. It has been the longest period since foot & mouth disease that the hills have been closed to visitors, and it has been difficult to stick to the rules. One or two (or a dozen) visitors won't have any negative effect on the nation's health, but we stay away because we know that otherwise, there will be massive crowds and unsustainable parking in Glencoe, Coire Cas, Linn of Dee, Rowardennan, Glen Nevis, and anywhere else that immediately comes to mind when people think of going up a hill.

My friends want to climb Suilven. Like the lead character from the film Edie, Suilven has become a totem of freedom, of escape from a life poorly lived.


For me, I prefer the idea of going where nobody else is. This requires a cunning reversal of the normal question, "where do you fancy going this weekend?"

What, instead, is the last place you would expect to encounter people?

I've already written about what may be the most boring hills in Scotland, the conveniently nearby Moorfoots. But when we get the chance to drive further afield, it will be hard to resist doing so. And with the net cast further, what really, echoingly empty places can we go? To be truly off-putting for enough people, the approaches have to be laboriously long, the payoff on reaching the top a massive sense of anti-climax.

Could that be a reasonable description of the Monadhliath? These hills are brimming with wildlife and views over to the Cairngorms and North-west Highlands, but to most people they are a purgatorial high moor devoid of interest.

The Monadhliath - MAMBA country:

And while the Monadhliath may be prime MAMBA (Miles And Miles of Bugger All) country, I think the real prize goes to Caithness. In the Caithness backcountry there's nothing but bogs and water, a place you can guarantee you'll meet nobody. So for me, it's Ben Armine or Ben Alisky, a long drive and then a depressing trudge from the nearest road-end.

Can't wait.

But we'll probably have a crack at Suilven.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

A Local Walk

How are you all doing in coronavirus lockdown? I hope things are going OK for you. I can work from home and my family haven't been infected. Many of you will not be in that position.

At least we can still get out for a walk.

The playparks closed, a permanent sabbath:

And in that sense we are fortunate again. Our house is at the edge of a conurbation. Head in one direction, and it is pavements and people-dodging on the cycleway. Head in the other though, and we go deep into rural Midlothian. It's a direction we rarely explore. But we are glad of it on our doorstep now!

Quiet area beyond Whitehill House:

We explored paths we'd never been on before, encountering almost nobody. Between the towns of Midlothian and the Moorfoot Hills is a secret area of farmland, the Pentlands and top of Arthur's Seat visible, furloughed cruise liners moored in the Firth of Forth, neatly tilled fields and statement oaks.

Eventually we reached a bridge over the River South Esk, and a side of Midlothian we were already familiar with: the riverside gorges of the North and South Esks and their tributaries. But this particular stretch of the South Esk was unknown to us.

This is the domain of redwoods and roe deer, and we walked with delight along a path strewn with wood anenome and celandines. The sun finally came out and had us blinking in its brightness. 

The South Esk passes Dalhousie Castle, and we were less than a mile again from Edinburgh's growing conurbation. We'd managed almost the entire route on quiet paths, and seen far fewer people than on the more popular greenways that connect the towns.

Dalhousie Castle:

This is just one of the quieter routes around us that we are fortunate to have. So what is your local walk?

Saturday, 7 March 2020

John Tullis' Big Munros Question

A chap at Edinburgh University called John Tullis asked himself a question recently: which city is better for Munrobagging? Glasgow or Edinburgh?

Having lived in both, the answer is pretty obvious. Glasgow of course! But John's data visualisations give an answer that is both definitive and engaging - quite a feat. I encourage you to click on the link and watch his animations. I personally could watch for hours the wee cars driving around the Highlands.

And he's giving a talk on it on Thursday 12 March 2020 in Edinburgh, a must for any hillwalking geeks.

Because John will reveal one further piece of information his analysis has uncovered. Based on minimum total driving time, what is the best location to live to bag all the Munros? Is it Fort William? Dalwhinnie? Find out at his talk! I intend to be there - perhaps I will see you?

Get free tickets from:

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

At the End of the Year

It's been a tough year!

Earlier in 2019 I asked some people I was corresponding with what their dream lifestyle was if they were millionaires and could afford anything...

 One lady wrote a particularly interesting response:
"In the end," she concluded,
"good health turns out to be the most important thing of all."
It turned out she and her husband were millionaires, but he had recently died of cancer. And if you don't have your health, what have you got?

And this year I've had a few health problems. Nothing too serious, but enough to keep me away from some of my favourite activities for a while and make me appreciate the importance of good health.

But I'm on the way back!

My target was to manage a hillwalk before the end of the year. And a couple of days ago, The Cairnwell and Carn a Gheoidh provided the perfect reintroduction. It has easy route options that would allow me to head down early and wait for my companions if the sciatica I got earlier in the autumn returned.

A gloomy start for a hillwalk at Glenshee Ski Centre:

The Cairnwell above Glenshee is more Continental than Highland in its industrialisation, but Carn a Gheoidh proved suitably wild in the fog and driving rain, mountain hares and grouse fleeing our approach.

Ice covered lochan on the way to Carn a Gheoidh:

The weather was terrible, but the company was peerless, and in completing my first hillwalk for months - 10km! A milestone! I felt that finally, the recovery to full health is happening.

Old friends: Brian Doogan

Today the sun shone for the first time in what seems like weeks, and so we got out again. 17km this time! On one of my favourite walks between North Berwick and Aberlady.

Craigleith from Broad Sands:

It's hard to say just how much I love this walk, and how grateful I am to be able to do it again!

Aberlady Bay:

So here's to 2020: may all your fortunes rise :)

Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Mamores, Twice

"We are off to do a race at the weekend," a friend told our mutual colleague who likes to hear about our adventures. "How far this time?" she asked.

"One kilometre," came the reply.

"Well, that's not very far."

The route of the Vertical Kilometre on Na Gruagaichean above Kinlochleven:

I'd been here in April with another friend. We walked from Kinlochleven up unremitting slopes to the summit of Na Gruagaichean in around an hour and a half (plus time to catch our breath!), then carried on over Binnein Mor and Binnein Beag, the final descent hard going on feet that hadn't been out much over winter and weren't used to wearing boots.

On Na Gruagaichean in April:

Descending Binnein Mor:

Long way down off Binnein Beag:

But the April walk in beautiful weather inspired Graham and I to try an organised event called the Salomon Mamores VK. This is a short, 5km fell race from Kinlochleven at sea level to the summit of Na Gruagaichean, 1050m higher, our other friend trying to persuade us that the race was easy as we didn't have to run down again. But we would still have to make our own way back down from the top...

The two of us arrived at the race centre on a beautiful September morning. It was going to be interesting comparing the Mamores in spring to the Mamores in autumn, and we had caught fantastic weather for both days. Neither of us were particularly fit due to health and personal circumstances, and I wondered if we would come last and second-last.

Today's walk: Na Gruagaichean from the start at Kinlochleven:

I've also got a bit of a prejudice against organised events in the outdoors but this day, if I am honest with you, had such a friendly, laid-back, and well-organised vibe. I loved it, taking great pleasure and inspiration in being surrounded by so many healthy people smiling broadly in the sunshine. I just hoped I could keep up!

We started in pairs at 30 second intervals, and my fellow startee was also called Craig. He soon shot ahead. I assumed it would be the last I'd see of him. We hit the path climbing the side of the hill by the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall and the pain of the effort started almost immediately. I remembered from April what a brutal introduction to the hill this was, and resolved to take the first couple of hundred metres through the forest easy. And then we were on the open hillside and the meat of the route.

I caught up with Craig. "Started too fast and peaked too soon!" he said, though still finished ahead of me. I thought we were already high up, perhaps 750m, but someone with an altimeter told us were were only halfway. Had my memory of the hill been so affected by wishful thinking? I had a runners' sports gel and drank the water out my rucksack, wishing I was wearing my Tilley sunhat. The Salomon publicity material majored on the wet and misty weather in Glencoe...

But what a fantastic day!

Graham had started a few minutes earlier and though I could see him ahead in his distinctive Heb 3 t-shirt, I just could not catch him before the summit.

It had hurt more than a half marathon, which is a considerably longer undertaking - and there were people the same day doing the Ben Nevis Ultra, which at 52km of hard hill running makes my head hurt just to think about. As we descended we were passed by a man in a Falkirk running top.

On the summit of Na Gruagaichean:

"That was my first Munro," he said. "If that's what doing the Munros is about, you can ram it!"

Having a lovely time on a fell race:

Until this year, I'd never been up the Mamores from the south, only ever tackling them from Glen Nevis to the north. But the Mamores Vertical Kilometre is an easy enough route and distance to be within the reach of most keen hillwalkers. As an introductory race I highly recommend it. And back down at the Red Squirrel campsite, washed and watered and with whisky fumes interfering with our reasoning, the idea started to form that we might do something like this again next year...

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Hill of Hills

Five years ago, I climbed Bidean nam Bian with a friend as we sought perspective on recent events.

This weekend, we were back.

Moon above the Buachaille:

It was a glorious day, generous in its beauty, rowan trees laden with bunches of red berries and autumnal rust discolouring the bracken:

We entered the jaws of the Lost Valley,
lost in the land that is lost,
for our legends were lies

How did the MacDonalds of Glencoe get their stolen cattle up here? They must have been nimble beasts.

A steady procession of walkers climbed the corrie headwall - the busiest I have ever seen it up here - and once on the breezy ridgeline almost everybody went for Stob Coire Sgreamhach, a top that used to be neglected and would still be today, if it had not been added as an official summit at the last revision of Munros Tables. Snobbishly I didn't want to visit it but my companion did. I was grateful for his insistence. I had forgotten what a great place it its.

Druim Alban from Stob Coire Sgreamhach:

Up here a line of little red flags marked the route of the Glencoe Skyline race, a mad concept that starts in Kinlochleven, takes the West Highland Way up Curved Ridge on the Buachaille Etive Mor, crosses the saddle on the Buachaille Beag, comes up here over Bidean, and then back down to the floor of Glencoe. But that's not it, no! Runners then head up punishingly steep slopes to tackle, whilst suffering fatigue, the narrow and technical Aonach Eagach, before finally rolling back down the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven.

Bidean from Sgreamhach:

It's not a route for ordinary mortals, but an excitable young foreign couple were up here discussing it, the man telling a stranger of the opportunities to competitors of equipment sponsorship. I can think of easier ways of acquiring a pair of fell-running shoes!

A tumult of peaks from Bidean:

Our own route was much more modest yet still a good big hill day over three peaks of Sgreamhach, Bidean, and Stob Coire an Lochain.

I placed my stone on top of the cairn and looked over the edge. All we had to do now was get back down. My knees weren't very happy. Because what I didn't mention, was that we had done another one of the Salomon Skyline races the previous day.

To be continued...

Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Day I Didn't Go to St Kilda

We're going to St Kilda! Waiting on the ferry at Uig, Skye:

It can be hard to get to St Kilda. The couple of tours that run get booked up six months in advance. You're not going at late notice unless you take your own boat. So you book in November, and pray for the best - pray, because the weather has the decisive say in your trip. St Kilda sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and has no proper harbour. We booked and we prayed.

The days before I didn't go to St Kilda started with a Half Marathon on Benbecula. Wind, some rain, a great post-race buffet, and meeting kind people. Despite the rain, I've hardly enjoyed a half marathon more.

Camping on Benbecula:

We didn't much fancy the cycle to the ferry on Benbecula in heavy rain, but the running club from Stornoway somehow shoehorned us and our bikes onto one of their minibuses. And then, a miracle! There was no space at Am Bothan in Leverburgh, but we were allowed to camp on the grounds. A Sunday spent listening to the rain drumming on our tents hadn't appealed. We pitched tent, had the day's catch in The Anchorage restaurant, and all was good with the world.

It continued to rain and blow a gale all next day, but as the afternoon wore on the rain stopped. We emerged from Am Bothan's spacious living space and went for a ride to bag a Marilyn. A walk round the base of Ceapabhal had been suggested, but as the cloud started to lift, a more ambitious plan presented itself. We would climb the hill itself!

It was windy - we were both sporting the 'Hebridean mohawk' - but the sun even came out.

On Ceapabhal:

What a place!

But it was not to last. next day, the day we were due to travel to St Kilda, the wind kept blowing and the rain came back. There was going to be no trip today. We cycled to Tarbert for the ferry to Skye and camped the night at Sligachan, in midges and damp underwear. I was ready to go home.

Sligachan campsite:

Instead, next morning in damp, cloudy conditions we climbed Ben Tianavaig.

Ben Tianavaig, Skye:

We met a couple of New Zealanders, saw a golden eagle, and returned home happy with our damp and windy Hebridean adventure, even if we hadn't managed to do what we had set out to do.

Descending Ben Tianavaig:

Next time, St Kilda. Next time.