Saturday 25 May 2024

The Tiree Half Marathon

The main road on Tiree:

On the first Saturday in May I left the house at 2 a.m., drove through the night to Oban, boarded the ferry for Tiree, cycled to the campsite and back past corncrakes and skylarks, to arrive 1 p.m. at race registration after 11 hours travelling for the Tiree Half Marathon with friends; the registration volunteer dancing behind the table as she handed me a bag with a Hawaiian flower garland to wear, people cycling on the beach, a piper warming up: and we all went down to the shore where a line had been drawn in the sand to mark the start of race.

Cycling to the start of the race:

Tiree is different to other Hebridean islands. Low lying, fertile and surrounded by long beaches, its nearest equivalent is Sanday in Orkney. Its name means 'land of corn', as depicted in the Wickerman-esque island flag. It is known today as a surfing location, but I wasn't here to surf. My aim was land-based - but only just. Of the 21km of the half marathon, only 6km were on road: the race route is mainly on the beach.

Runners:

It was slightly surreal to find myself on a Hebridean beach surrounded by keen runners having woken up in my own bed that morning, and the sheer novelty of the experience kept me going through tiredness, high humidity and sand underfoot. I ran out of puff about two thirds of the way through, and was glad of some salty food in the Lodge Hotel afterwards, not having eaten much all day. 

The Tiree ferry lounge:

This was just a flying visit to Tiree, which is no way to see the island: I got only glimpses of the unique Tiree expression of the Hebridean blackhouse and whitehouse, only visited one shop, missed the ceilidh, the beach clean, the beach yoga; but the next morning, before getting back on the ferry home, I did go down to Balephuil Bay to poke around the sea thrift and driftwood.

Balephuil Bay:

Just for one brief moment, the sea turquoise over sand.

Until next time, Tiree.

Sunday 31 March 2024

Loch Lochy Munros

Nothing marks the passage of time like going back somewhere you haven't been for a while. You might think the hills would be an exception: they've barely changed in thousands of years. 

"We can see thirty miles," said my companion, looking northwest from Meall na Teanga, "and not a sign of human activity."

But though the hills haven't changed, wait long enough, and you will! 


I've written about Loch Lochy before (A Great Glen Adventure), and this was my first return to the two Munros west of the loch. The shortest and most popular route goes from Laggan Locks to the north-east. A forest road and signposted hill track takes you to a bealach at 2,000ft and a straightforward ascent of Sròn a' Choire Ghairbh on a fine stalker's path. From here, the round of the corrie looks a fine prospect, including the Corbett Ben Tee.


But we're not here for the Corbetts! The next objective is Meall na Teanga on the other side of the bealach, another Munro. Today, a short stretch of snow over an awkward step meant the ice axe had to come out. I was delighted. It was my first axe work all year!


After the step, the summit. A clear view down Loch Linnhe, then a big arc of wild country round Ardgour, Knoydart, Kintail, Glen Affric. But it was Ben Nevis that grabbed the eye, enrobed in snow.  


The hills today were bathed in spring sunshine and simple to navigate. What a contrast to the last time I was here in the 1990s! We tackled Meall na Teanga from the south. It was a wild wintery day, cloud down, nothing to see in the blizzard, hard to stand up in the wind, which made the descent off Meall Coire Lochain to Meall na Teanga particularly 'interesting'. The reascent to the second Munro was suspiciously quick, until we checked the map and realised we'd climbed an intervening lower peak (Meall Dubh) by mistake! Today I was appalled at the bog we must have crossed on descent of Sròn a' Choire Ghairbh back to Gleann Chi-aig. There's no way I would cross that sort of terrain today if there was an easier option. 

It's true what they say: it won't be the same if you go back. And it wasn't the same: today was far better. But even if the hills haven't changed, frankly, I have. I wouldn't even attempt these hills today in the kind of weather we experienced thirty years ago. 




Monday 11 March 2024

The People You Know

The people you know will get you into all sorts of scrapes and adventures. After all, they form a large part of who you are. People talk about nature or nuture, but it's not just your parents or your innate personality that moulds you. The people you surround yourself with are also crucial.

The reason I know this is rooted in an event over four years ago, when I got a nasty case of sciatica. I seemed to recover fairly quickly - by the end of the year I was up a hill again, the Cairnwell - but less than a year later I climbed Suilven with a walking stick and just one working leg. When it first happened, I told myself I would celebrate my recovery to fitness with something I'd never done before - an ultramarathon. But as the years rolled on, as Covid disrupted my routines and dog ownership affected my ability to rest and recover, an ultramarathon seemed further away than ever. A year ago today I tried to jog 10km and failed, pulling up short at 8km with an injury. It was a real low point.

That's where other people came in.

At the start of the John Muir Way Ultramarathon

I am in a running club and a cani-cross club, and a surprising number of club members had done an ultramarathon before. Many of them had done several. There was one woman in particular who had recovered from injury while still walking her dogs every day, and I was particularly keen to hear her story. I heard the same phrases so often that I actually started to believe them. The 50km ultramarathon I had signed up to was a "nice easy one," I would "enjoy it," and even though I really didn't know if I could handle the distance, I would "manage it no bother." People pointed out that I had done a marathon six years earlier. They had more belief in me than I did, and that confidence started to seep in.

That support led me to Port Seton esplanade this weekend for the John Muir Way Ultra, freezing on the start line along with 340 other hardy souls in a cold east wind, with the belief I could do this. We set off, the advice to "start slow, and get slower - you'll be fine!" in my ears. I followed the advice - my body frankly, couldn't manage more than a trundle anyway. But I got there in one piece.

An ultramarathon completed!

The dog walker with the injury was one of those 340 other people and in a lovely touch, she had waited at the finish to congratulate me. "You're an ultramarathoner now!" she said. The biggest mental milestone in my recovery from injury has been achieved. If it seemed less amazing a feat than it did four years ago, when I was doubled over in pain and popping co-codamols like there was no tomorrow, it was thanks to the people around me making it seem an everyday, unintimidating thing to do.

Thanks, folk who know me, this one's on you!

So what should I try next??

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Scottish Race Events That Should Exist

Scotland is home to many races and events, from The Cape Wrath Ultra, a largely pathless 250-mile ultramarathon fom Fort William Cape Wrath, to the Subcrawl, a largely pissed circuit of Glasgow pubs. But what races should exist that don't? Here's a few that come to mind:

The Royal Mile Mile. 

A mile race uphill from Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle. The winner gets to activate a plunger in the castle grounds, which sets off a spectactular firework display to mark the end of the Edinburgh Festival.

The Royal Mile:

The Pilgrimathon

A race commemorating the spread of Christianity across northern Britain. It starts at Iona Abbey and ends at Lindisfarne Priory, with racers chosing their own route. Will they follow the Tay to Dunkeld and down the east coast? Will they take the West Highland Way to Glasgow and the Forth-Clyde canal / St Cuthbert's Way? It's up to you! The twist is that water transport is banned except for a coracle, which competitiors must carry on their backs between the start and end points. (Or swim the Sound of Mull.)

On the Pilgrimathon in Mull:

Taste of Orkney Gourmet Half Marathon

There's already the Dramathon in Speyside, but what better place to sample the best of Scottish produce than Orkney? There's the best fish and seafood, beef and North Ronaldsay lamb, local cheeses, two distilleries at Kirkwall and Scapa and two amazing breweries. There are already two half marathons in Orkney, Kirkwall and Hoy, so just upgrade one with tasting stations and job's a good one :)

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall:

The Lothian Skies Walk. 

A walk from Wishaw to West Lothian (or, maybe, to Leith). I wrote ages ago about this route in commemoration of the Proclaimer's song The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues. The important thing is that the walk has to be done overnight, after having first watched Hibs play Kilmarnock in Kilmarnock. How you get to Wishaw from Kilmarnock is up to you, but the rest of the way has to be done on foot. 

So there you go. Scotland already has lots of unique races and events, but there's plenty more to be created and competed in!

Sunday 10 December 2023

A History of Scotland, Book Two: Covenant - out now!

How long does it take to write a book?

It depends who you ask.

George RR Martin has taken over a decade to write his next book, with no sign of it appearing.

Whereas Barbara Cartland could churn one out every few weeks.

And for me the answer is three years.

Three years ago I released Scotland's Story, Book One, a history of Scotland from the Ice Age to the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

Book Two is finally out, and there's been some changes!

The series isn't titled Scotland's Story any more, but A History of Scotland.

Book One now goes up to 1542 and the death of James V.

And there are new cover designs for the series...

 

Book One: Foundation covers Scotland's early story. It's a tale of brutality, drama, freedom... and a slightly surprising battle against royal taxation.

Buy A History of Scotland, Book One: Foundation on Amazon.co.uk.

Book Two: Covenant dives deep into the pivotal moments between 1542 to 1815 of Reformation, Union, Empire, and war with Napoleonic France... and answers the question: did the early Americans really hate the Scots that much?

Buy A History of Scotland, Book Two: Covenant on Amazon.co.uk.

What about Book Three?

I'm working on that now. Hopefully it doesn't take another three years to complete! But if it does, I'll be pitching you the whole series to enjoy in 2026 :)

Wednesday 6 December 2023

The Seven Tops of Holyrood Park: Part 2

 In Part 1, we visited the first two tops of Holyrood Park: Haggis Knowe and Salisbury Crags. It's time to take a wander over the rest!

From Salisbury Crags, a memorable vista of central Edinburgh opens up. Yet above you is a higher top, Arthur's Seat - the summit of Holyrood Park.  It's twice as high above the city, so surely the views from up there are twice as good? They aren't, but it makes a memorable ascent, so lets go. Descend the crags and take a zig-zag path up and right, to find yourself on a bald minor top of Nether Hill. There's not much to it, and to be honest it was only researching the seven tops that I realised this bump had a name! 

From here it is a short rocky scramble to the much more prominent Arthur's Seat. This is the highest point of Edinburgh inside the city bypass, the top of a long-extinct volcano. Wide and windy vistas open up - it is always windy up here, so bring a cagoule - to the Pentlands, Moorfoots and East Lothian, to Fife across the water, and beyond the Forth Bridges to the Ochils and Highlands. The view north is basis of an obscure list called the Arthurs: see how many of them you have climbed. From Arthur's Seat, it is a short walk over to Crow Hill, quieter than the summit which is thronged most days by tourists. A good place for a picnic and contemplate your surroundings.

Crow Hill from Arthur's Seat at sunrise:

Your eyes turn to Whinny Hill, sixth of the seven tops. This is an individual hill in its own right, much less frequented than Arthur's Seat or Salisburgy Crags. The paths on Whinny Hill are confusing, threading around the 'whin' or gorse that names this hill. There isn't an obvious single summit, so wander in the general direction of what seems highest. We enjoyed the peace and perspective from this top before heading down to the final top, Dunsapie, and a big surprise! The tiny loch at the foot of this bump is home to an otter! Seeing an otter this far from any rivers, in the centre of the city, was quite an experience.


Well, you couldn't top the unexpected sight of an otter in the middle of the city, so we walked back down Queens Drive to our starting point, happy to have climbed over all the tops of Holyrood Park, even if we didn't make it to the Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston!

Saturday 2 September 2023

The Seven Tops of Holyrood Park: Part 1

My colleague and I were cooking up a plan. Leave work in Edinburgh - run over Arthur's Seat - a couple of pints in the Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston - taxi home. 

Yes! And have you noticed there are seven tops in Holyrood Park - let's do them all!

Yes! And make sure we do it on a fine evening!

 Yes! And let's invite a few friends to make it even more fun!

Yes! And let's hold off until everyone's calendars align... at that point, the plan stalled. 

The calendars never aligned. Eventually I'd had enough, and just went myself over the seven tops.

What are these seven tops, you are wondering? Arthur's Seat is the summit, the scenic Salisbury Crags below, but what else?

I like the number seven, and Edinburgh itself has a long-standing race over seven hills (Calton Hill, Castle Hill, Corstorphine Hill, Craiglockhart Hill, Braid Hills, Blackford Hill, and Arthur's Seat). But Arthur's Seat itself has six other lesser-known companion tops in the confines of Holyrood Park, and it was time to visit them all in one trip! 

Haggis Knowe:

The first and easiest top is Haggis Knowe. This is a tiny top, barely a hill at all, but it is ringed by a low line of basalt cliffs that make its ascent easy from one direction only and gives the summit an airy, precipitous feel out of all proportion to its height.


No wonder Will Ferrell chose it as the home of his Icelandic Elves in the Eurovision movie

If you are short of time or energy, Haggis Knowe makes a great viewpoint, looking back at the Royal Mile climbing up its hill beyond Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament.

Above Haggis Knowe looms the ruin of St Anthony's Chapel, but we aren't going there next: the crag the chapel stands on doesn't qualify as one of the seven tops. Instead I went to Salisbury Crags, the most spectacular of all the tops. This is one of the must-visit sites in Edinburgh. 


Wander up here, sit down and dangle your feet over the edge of the crags, look at the miniature city below going about its day, watch the sun set beyond the castle. You can climb all the way up to Arthur's Seat if you wish, but the views don't get any better: below the crags, a path built as a make-work scheme in the early 19th century called the Radical Road is currently closed due to rock fall. The crags are a popular spot for rock climbing, or would be if there wasn't a ban on climbing due to the risk of rock falling on pedestrians below. These rocks hold an important place in geology - James Hutton used used them to prove his 18th century theory of the volcanic formation of bedrock.

As well as beauty, science, and a bracing walk, Salibury Crags provided a mystery that remains unsolved to this day: a 19th century discovery of 17 miniature coffins in a small cave.

This alone makes a great walk. But so far, we've only visited two of the seven tops. Read about the rest in Part 2!