Friday, 28 January 2022

Camas Bostadh - Scotland's Finest Beach?

I always assumed the best beach in Scotland was Traigh Seilibost on Harris, because that is what the internet tells us. It is pretty photogenic.


But there is a difference between looking good on a screen, and the experience of a beach, as anyone who has been to the storm-tossed beaches of Cape Wrath can attest.

Sandwood Bay, Cape Wrath:

The appropriate place to discover otherwise is a summer evening gathered around a driftwood fire. One of those nights when it never really gets dark, the kind of night when you can still see the white caps of the waves rolling in at 1 a.m. The kind of night when you encounter a stranger on the beach and welcome him into your circle and in return, he reveals a secret: the finest beach he has ever seen.

Kervaig, Cape Wrath:

That would be the appropriate place. Where I actually made the discovery was round my mum's for afternoon tea. My sister had travelled the world, yet insisted that Camas Bostadh on Bernera was the best beach she had ever encountered. She has been all over the place, she has been to Fiji, so her opinion on the matter is pretty definitive. I would have to see it for myself some day.

And then another globe-trotting friend revealed his pick of the world's beaches - Camas Bostadh. This couldn't be a coincidence. It was time to check this out for myself!

The early signs are promising. On a gloomy day the beach appeared spotlit, the obligatory picturesque Outer Hebridean graveyard standing above.

We wound our way down to the beach, the weather improving, sea stacks appearing offshore. Nearer to hand an unusual building turns out to be the remains of an Iron Age house, exposed during a storm in 1993 and rebuilt by the local history society. This is as snug a spot as you will get in the Western Isles, as good a choice of home as the Sands of Uig for a seaborne people.

Once on the sands, blindingly bright now, we paddled in the gentle Atlantic waves.

There is a curious structure standing on rocks at the far end of the beach, exposed at low tide. We went to look at it. It is a tide-driven bell, created by artist Marcus Vergette. This seems an odd choice of location for this project: the beach at Arbroath would seem more appropriate. After all, it has the Bell Rock at the mouth of the Tay. 

So: is this the best beach in Scotland? I am not sure. It is certainly a lovely spot. But if I had to choose, I think I still prefer the corner where Colonsay meets Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Longest Day, Shortest Day

The weekend before Christmas 2021 a temperature inversion blanketed the Highlands. I was careful to avoid Instagram, so that I couldn't be jealous of people's amazing pictures when I wasn't there. But a friend had plan: he wanted to climb a Munro on 21 December, the shortest day of the year. It would complement the walk we did on 21 June, the longest day of the year. Then, we set off from work after 4pm and drove a couple hours north to Loch Earn, to climb Ben Vorlich in lovely evening light.

We had talked to a man at the top who planned to bivvy out. He would get an amazing sunset! It seemed that he would be alone after we left him, but on our way down we met two women with a dog, a couple with backpacking rucksacks, a garishly-trousered group planning to paraglide off the summit, and a puffing group of mountain bikers. He would not be alone after all!

That had been a great day out on the hills, the nearest accesible Munro to Edinburgh. Six months later we set off again from Loch Earn for Ben Vorlich's neighbour, Stuc a'Chroin. It wasn't nearly as nice a day. Cloudbase around 200m and gloomy with it. We resigned ourselves to a difficult walk.

Ben Vorlich, 21 June 2021:

But as we climbed higher, something magical happened.

The temperature inversion had stuck around!

Up here was a completely different day to the dreich weather we'd been experiencing recenly, when it seemed the clouds would never end. They still hadn't: but today we were able to climb above them.

Ben Vorlich from Stuc a'Chroin, 21 December 2021:

The day before, my dad got out of hospital, having had a life-threatening scare. This may be the shortest day of the year, but it felt like a moment of renewal, of hope for the future.

Ben More and Stob Binnein from Stuc a'Chroin:

I'll be honest, it has been a tough year. In retrospect, midsummer 2021 seems like the last carefree moment for a long time. Perhaps now, after the shortest day of the year, things will start looking up?

Monday, 15 November 2021

The Glamour of Book Week Scotland - With Luath Press Discount!

It's Book Week Scotland! This week is packed with literary and non-fiction stars. Why on Thursday 18 November alone, you can meet Christopher Brookmyre in Helensburgh, or watch Alan Cumming online with Scots language enthusiast Len Pennie. If your mind takes a more outdoor bent, you can see Alan Rowan talk hillwalking. Or if you are really in the know - and this is one for the true afficionado of the obscure, the discerning person who likes that nobody else knows their favourite author, you can come and watch me, live, in a funeral parlour, talk about how not to climb hills.   

If that doesn't catch your fancy, then something a little more glamorous is Lynn Coleman's How Scotland Dressed the World. You might not think Scotland fertile territory for fashion compared to the catwalks of Paris or Milan, but prepare to be educated. Coleman explains how the base metal of fashion, the textiles clothes are made of, has surprisingly often been sourced in the weaving sheds and mills of Scotland: 

Think rustic outdoor settings and blankets over chairs to keep guests warm. Butter-soft cashmere stoles over silky bridesmaid dresses. Flowers sprayed everywhere, colours popping with tartan. Special weave cashmere kilts teamed with chunky cable knits. It looks authentically homemade but oozes luxury with every tactile touch.

If that sounds like your thing, including chapter titles taken from modern Scots (Gallus, Peely-wally, Bunnet), then check the book out

Lynn's people also say this:

We would like to offer discounts to your readers on purchases through our website with 20% off orders over £20 with the code LUATH2020, and 30% off over £50 with LUATH3050.

So get yourself to the Luath Press website, see what books you like, and grab yourself some discounted copies!

Monday, 8 November 2021

Callanish II

Callanish is world-famous. Less so than Stonehenge perhaps, but its isolation in the Western Isles has protected it from the tourist horde. You can wander around the stones at Callanish in an intimate fashion that is just no longer possible at roped-off Stonehenge.

But of the relatively few folk who make it to Callanish, how many know that it is just one of many stone circles in the area? There are eighteen in total, transforming the whole of East Loch Roag into a monumental sacred landscape. 

At Callanish II:

What was its purpose? These giant exclamation marks on the landscape demand an explanation. Folklore across Britain tells of men who were dancing on the Sabbath and turned into stones by the devil, of giants who refused to build churches and were turned into stones by saints. Later historians associated stone circles with druids, the priestly caste active around the time of Christ. None of these explanations gets anywhere close to the real origin story.

Callanish I from Callanish III:

But in On the Ocean, Greek explorer Pytheas gives some clues. He left Marsailles around 325BC to explore the Atlantic and Baltic coasts, leaving their first written descriptions. At 58 degrees north in the island of the Hyperboreans, he came across a temple where the locals worshipped Apollo, who danced every nineteen years with their goddess. The only place this fits is Callanish, from where the 'lunar standstill' can be seen, a regular 19-year phenomena where the moon barely rises then flirts with a distant range of hills called Caillich na Mointeach, the 'Old Woman of the Moors'.

Two stones of Callanish III, the hills known as the Cailleach, and a sheep's arse:

Was that then the original purpose of Callanish? Here's some perspective: we may think Pytheas lived a long time ago, but he was kicking about nearer our own time than when the stones were erected around 3,000BC. Who knows what may have changed in the over 2,500 years before he visited?

Sunset at Callanish II:

Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Skye Cuillin: Dark Rampart of Mountaineering Desire

Beyond misery, despair, hatred, treachery,
beyond guilt and defilement: watchful,
heroic, the Cuillin is seen
rising on the other side of sorrow.

An Cuilithionn, (The Cuillin), Sorley Maclean

Landscapes get the poets they deserve. Lakeland had Wordsworth, ('bliss it was in that dawn to be alive') and the Grampians Byron ('away ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses') but there is one landscape in Britain that stands braes apart from the rest of this rounded and well-tramped archipelago. This is the Black Cuillin, the ultimate place; not the highest perhaps but the steepest, rockiest and most naked, out of bounds except to rock climbers and the most intrepid scramblers, washed with 4m annual rainfall and guarded by sudden disorientating sea-mists and fierce midges.

Such a landscape deserves an equally outstanding poet. It has one: Sorley Maclean. If you aren't aware of him, there is a good reason. He wrote in Gaelic, a language as sadly inacessible to most of us as some of Skye's more difficult peaks. But the English translations of his work give a taste of what you are missing:

In ascent from the corrie,
foot on shelf, finger on little edge,
chest to boulder, mouth to jutty,
on crack step head not dizzy,
tough arm strong unturning
till it grasps the skyline of your fifth peak,
where will break on the struggle's head
the great dim sea of gabbro waves,
knife-edge of high narrow ridges,
belt of the dark steel surge:
an ocean whose welter is tight in rocks,
its yawning mouths permanent in narrow chasms,
its spouting everlasting in each turret,
its swelling eternal in each sgurr.

We are a long way from daffodils here.

These dark ramparts of mountaineering desire lie beyond ordinary walkers, but my friend Graham and I recently hired the services of Skye Guides to take us along a part of the ridge. The Inaccessible Pinnacle was behind us: Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh lay ahead. 

Many years ago I had attempted the Cuillin Ridge in one expedition with a friend, abandoned at the Bealach Bannachdich due to bad weather. I separately climbed Sgurr na Bannachdich myself but didn't fancy the look of carrying on to Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh alone. The Skye Munros were all bagged, but the full ridge linking Sgurr na Bannachdich and Sgurr nan Gillean remained virgin territory, barring a teenage expedition in winter up Bidean Druim nan Ramh that I have no wish to repeat!

On Sgurr Thormaid with Graham and Tom from Skye Guides:

Our route seemed modest on the map, over the four Munros of the Inacessible Pinnacle, Sgurr na Bannachdich, Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, and Sgurr a' Mhadaidh, but Tom showed us how moving over technical terrain is a slow and methodical business, requiring constant communication to keep the rope between us taut. I had never moved together on a rope before, and found the teamwork aspect enjoyably absorbing. The difficulties melted away, moves made that I would never attempt solo. With Tom's encouragement, we maximised the scrambling by sticking to the stimulatingly exposed crest as much as possible, a process that was not just not terrifying, but actually fun

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh from Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh:

By Sgurr a' Mhadaidh it was clear that we had had a good day out and there was no prospect of going further. Content with the new terrain we had visited, I looked along the ridge. The rest of the way towards Sgurr nan Gillean would have to be tackled in another trip, maybe even two.

We turned downhill for the punishing descent into Coire a' Ghreadaidh and to slake our thirst in the burn.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

The Inacessible Pinnacle

The Inacessible Pinnacle. On one side this narrow fin of rock overhangs with an infinite drop, according to WH Murray in Mountaineering in Scotland, with a drop on the other side even steeper and longer. Murray was being hyperbolic: in reality the drop is only 1,500ft on one side, and 3,000ft on the other; and if you fell you would bounce off various slabs and ledges much sooner.

Figure on the In Pinn:

It has been twenty-nine years since I climbed the In Pinn, and twenty-five since I was last on the Cuillin of Skye. It is one of life's mysteries that I have left it so long. Sure, it is far away, midgey, and always raining, but that doesn't quite explain why I haven't been back to one of Scotland's finest hillwalking areas. I suppose the real reason is the technical difficulty of the terrain.

But that's not a problem when you are guided by Skye Guides. Each year my friend Graham and I like to do an adventure (last year was camping on top of Suilven). This year he was keen to hire a guide to go up the Cuillin, and I was keen to do a part of the ridge I hadn't done yet. I was perfectly happy not to go up the In Pinn again, but Graham was desperate to climb it for the third time!

Graham tops out:

What hadn't changed in twenty-nine years was the weather! I was glad of it back in 1992, as it meant I wouldn't be able to see the drops. To make it even easier psychologically, I elected to climb the shorter west ridge. This is considerably harder technically, but in my mind preferable as less exposed. 

In those days a rusty karabiner bolted to the summit rocks provided an anchor to abseil off. When my climbing partner came down after me, he told me he had left his own gear up there as the karabiner I had roped off had been visibly flexing. Hair-raising if true. Today, our guide Tom explained, a chain is maintained by the guiding companies and regularly replaced.

Tom and Graham abseil off:

I enjoyed watching and photographing the pair of them on the In Pinn. But my part of the adventure was coming up next: a part of the Cuillin ridge I had never been on!

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Search and Rescue Dogs

Search & rescue dogs! 

Had an enjoyable day out recently acting as a 'body' for search dogs to find. All a body has to do is hang out on a hillside for the day and a succession of cool dogs come and say hello. I met the rescue volunteers at the end of the road in Glen Doll, was given a walkie talkie, climbed halfway up The Dounalt, and waited to be found.

View from my perch:

We got a puppy ourselves recently, who will hopefully be joining us on lots of outdoor adventures. I loved watching the grown-up rescue dogs doing their thing. Would this kind of activity interest our dog?  

Our dog, Skye:

It was also interesting to see search drones practicing, especially as the technology is not yet good enough to match the keen senses of search dogs. Lie down in a camouflage bivvy bag, and a drone won't see you. Lie by a rock in summer, or use a foil bivvy bag, and the drone's thermal camera won't see you either! 

"The drone works only if you want to be seen," said an operator.

I don't have mountain rescue experience, but that's not necessary to be a body. Just a willingness to lie out on a hill for a few hours in potentially midgey rain.

They are always looking for new people to act as bodies! So if you fancy a go, get in touch with Search and Rescue Dogs Association or SARDA Scotland. I found getting away for the day so relaxing I'm surprised they don't charge for the experience!