Tuesday 30 December 2008

Dumiat and the Stirling Gap

We took a wander up Dumiat recently, Stirling's local hill. The weather was beautiful, early frost warming in the sun, and as I had twisted my foot before Christmas, this was about as big a walk as I could manage.

Looking down from Dumiat, I was struck by the view. East, the Forth widens to the sea. West, the flat Carse of Forth, drained in the 18th century by farm improvers, stretches as far as the Highlands.

Firth of Forth from Dumiat:

Carse of Forth and Ben Lomond:

Between the sea and the former swamp lies Stirling, where the Forth squeezes through a gap a couple miles wide between two hill ranges, the Campsies and the Ochils. Stirling Bridge used to be one of the few crossing places on the Forth. Seeing this area from Dumiat brings alive what that really means.

Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle and Campsies from Dumiat in the Ochils:

This used to be Mannan, a border country between Picts and Britons, before and after the Romans. Later, it was the fulcrum between Picts, Scots, Britons and Angles and, after the Scots established a border further south on the Tweed, it became the brooch that held Scotland together. 'Whoever held Stirling Castle,' the saying went, 'split Scotland in two.' It is probably the most geographically strategic spot in Britain.

The number of battles fought in this area testifies to its strategic importance. Strirling Bridge, Bannockburn, two at Falkirk, Sherrifmuir. Stirling is Britain's Thermopylae.

Monday 22 December 2008

Cities, Design and Evolution

I mentioned this book, Cities, Design & Evolution, briefly in the comments section of my last post. You can probably guess what it is about from the title. I haven't read it yet - it is an academic text book - but from skimming the first and last chapters it looks interesting. The author sets up the premise of the design of items being generally seen as a good thing, and therefore the design of cities is unique in the field of human endeavour, as actually being worse the more designed they are. I am looking forward to reading the author developing this argument - I suspect it resolves around cities being allowed instead to evolve.

The reason I mentioned it is because it contains some of my pictures of Glasgow.

Here's one of my loveofscotland.com pictures in the book:

Saturday 13 December 2008

The Weekend Fix

I suppose now is the time to introduce to you all my new book, The Weekend Fix, to be published in June 2009 by Sandstone Press:

It's about hillwalking, friendship, weather, bagging, and getting away for the weekend. Following the philosophy of The Angry Corrie, it is not about any heroic or mighty acheivements, like Hamish Brown's 'Hamish's Big Walk' or W.H. Murray's pseudo-psychological, mythical mountaineering classics: it's about the more banal, yet more recognisable world of getting some fresh air, exercise and a bit of banter at the weekend.

Most of us don't go into the hills for the transcendant experiences described in the purple prose of many outdoor books - most of us do not have awe-inspring tales to recount like Ranulf Fiennes or Reinhold Messner. For most of us, hillwalking is just something to do at the weekend.

Yet this is still a worthwhile activity, a vaild thing to do with our spare time, and something that - if written about well - can provide as much inspiration as stories of more impressive feats. I hope this book inspires some to get out there, entertains others with knowing nods of recognition, and most importantly of all, sells many thousands of copies.

Happy Birthday!

This blog is one year old - I'm glad I started it, as there have been a number of things that have not been appropriate for the main loveofscotland.com website but worth sharing here.

There will be an update of the main site soon - there's been a lot of new pictures taken over the last year that I've never got round to preparing, and updates are required to the text for the various areas on the virtual tour.

So, here's to the next year!

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Bangour Village Hospital

I had never heard of this amazing place before this week, but on a tip off, we went early on a frosty Sunday morning for Bangour Village Hospital.

Aha! I recognised it. It is the village I could never quite place when driving along the M8, glimpsed through a gap in the trees. Apparently it was also used in recent Hollywood thriller The Jacket.

This place is a former asylum, built a hundred years ago, but was not a hospital in the traditional sense - it was a self-contained village, with power house, shop, church, nurse accomodation, activity block, main hospital building, and a number of substantial residential villas, set out in a clearing on a wooded hillside near Bathgate. The village concept, and the level of psychiatric care, were leading edge for its time.

Villas at the western edge of Bangour Village Hospital:

We wandered round this deserted and boarded up village, impressed with its size. It is not possible to access any of the buildings, but glimpses in some windows show the interiors to still be in good condition. The site was not abandoned completely until in 1990s and the building of a new hospital for the area.

A series of handsome stone villas and flats set in parkland next to Livingston and the M8? It is a prime site for development as a commuter town. Hopefully this site is used again soon, and is not left to decay and 'go on fire' like so many other old buildings in Scotland.

Monday 1 December 2008

The Mission For Lost Songs

To my hometown of Helensburgh for an appointment this morning. At the station I recognised a tramp who used to hang around the town centre when I was at school. My school friends' band wrote a song about him - Sobriety's Not My Strong Point. He does not seem to have aged in nearly twenty years - an impressive achievement.

Whilst waiting for the next train back, I went to the deserted pier. It was a cold and beautiful day - the kind of day to drop everything and head for the snow-clad hills of Argyll. Instead I pulled out my penny whistle and practiced a new tune I've written, Homecoming 2009, my only audience a cormorant in the Clyde.

Helensburgh from the pier:

Whilst in a musical mood, I ruminated on a project I've fancied starting for a while - The Mission for Lost Songs. The idea behind this is to create a web archive of good music released by unsigned bands that no longer exist. It is my strong belief - backed up by numerous examples (listen to Opposites, or The Cooling of Lightbulbs pt 2 for example) - that many bands, or artists, have at least one good song in them. Many have a lot more than one song. Yet the vast majority of these bands never recieve much publicity, and fade into utter obscurity after a couple of years. This is a great cultural loss, as these songs are worth preserving.

But I'm no Alan Lomax or John Peel, and there is so much stuff out there that The Mission for Lost Song would need to be a collaborative effort.

The Mission remains just an idea - for now.

Thursday 27 November 2008


Looking back over the year, I've seen a lot of nice places and taken a few good photos. So what's my favourite picture of the year? It has to be one from the top of Beinn Mhic Monaidh, taken in September. The only problem is that I didn't take it - Billy did.

Me and Dave on Beinn Mhic Monaidh:

Well done to Billy for taking this picture. Why can't mine have been so good? :(

Monday 24 November 2008

Poem: Edinburgh Traffic

Parking - and driving - in Edinburgh has become difficult. Partly this is because the city is too small to accomodate a lot of cars: partly it is because of the unprecedented amount of roadworks holding up city traffic. Trying to park in Edinburgh has become impractical, and I now try to avoid driving in the city at all costs. It is quicker and more enjoyable to get around by bike or bus. In commemoration of my last drive in Edinburgh, I wrote this poem:

They swoop on cars at dawn
carrion in peaked hats
ticketing their march -
I park further out.

On a quiet dark street
a Police Notice says
kids break the windows -
I park further out.

In a clot of cars, lead-
breathing, coned
I saw it! from the bus -
your ten foot square of kerbside priviledge:
green envy of your parking space.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

A Midweek Trip to Hampden

I enjoy following the national football team, and try to get to Hampden in Glasgow for each home game. I don't have the time or inclination to follow club football, so the international game - with half a dozen games a year and a party atmosphere - is perfect for a part-time fan like me.

Normally, a midweek trip to Hampden in November for a non-competitive friendly game would be a test of loyalty, and the atmosphere at friendlies is always subdued compared to competitive matches. But tomorrow's game will be different. Firstly, it is against Argentina - one of the true giants of world football, and so a once-in-a-generation chance for the likes of me to see one of the best teams in the world in the flesh.

Secondly, it is Maradona's first game in charge of Argentina. Maradona is lionised across the globe as one of the best (Argentinians would say the best!) football players ever. However in Scottish football folklore he is famed for another reason. During the run up to Argentina's 1986 World Cup win, Argentina - driven by an inspired Maradona - put England to the sword. The English were extremely sore about this, as they said Maradona's first goal was a handball:

"Was it handball?" asked the press after the game. Maradona shrugged, and grinned. "A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God," he replied. A legend was born in Scotland. I remember at the time that Argentina tops outnumbered Scotland ones on the streets. I felt then it was a little childish. It still is, but that is part of the fun.

It will be strange going to Hampden tomorrow, feeling for once as excited to see the opposition as to cheer on Scotland!

Friday 14 November 2008

A Tweedside Daunder

Alright, I'll admit it. This visit was not in Scotland. But you could see Scotland across the Rio Tweed!

We spent a Sunday of sunshine in and around Norham. The village has an impressive ruined castle, with thick medieval walls, situated above the Tweed on a low sandstone cliff. The castle was built in 1121 at the extreme edge of England by the Bishop of Durham to protect his lands from the Scots, but was captured by the Scots numerous times between 1136 and 1513. It is ruinous now, but enough of it remains to be one of the most impressive castles in Northern England. Another impressive castle, Roxburgh Castle, further upriver in Scotland, was not so lucky - it was completely levelled in 1460 by the Scots so that English invaders could not garrison it.

Norham Castle and the Tweed:

A bend in the river

The Tweed at this point is deep, wide and fast-running. Water bubbles up from sub-surface disurbances, and back-eddies form at the bends. Otherwise the river was silent, and there was surprisingly little noise. No traffic, no birdsong. The day was still and even warm in the sunshine - perhaps the last warm day of the year.

The Scottish bank:

Island in the Tweed:

Birch tree on a sandstone cliff above the river:

A leaf-floored path leads downstream from Norham, up and down the soft low cliffs. An occasional swan, heron or family of ducks swam on the water. There was much of interest, and we did not wander far before realising that time was against us.

Autumn trees:

When the sun went behind a cloud, it suddenly became very cold. We wandered through the old village of Norham back to our car and the bridge to Scotland.

Thursday 13 November 2008

A Hillwalking Trip to Glen Lyon

At the start of November I climbed a hill in Glen Lyon.

Stopped at Loch Lomond on the way up:

And at the Falls of Dochart at Killin:

On an island at the base of the falls is the ancient burial ground of the clan Macnab, a tranquil, woody place to rest:

Finally arrived in Glen Lyon, parking amongst the trees:

Heading up the track:

Once on the hill, it clouded over:

Ben More from the summit:

View west to remote Loch an Daimh:

View south to snowy Ben Lawers:

and home for tea.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Remembrance Day

At 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month, Britain goes quiet for two minutes. In our office, those who were on their feet stopped and bowed their heads. Those sitting at computers stopped typing. No phones rang. The reason? To pay respects to Britain's war dead. This tradition began after the carnage of the First World War - the armistice was signed at 11am on the 11th of November, 1918.

The First World War seems very distant now. It is hard to think of the trenches and what they were like. Today, I spent the two minutes thinking of our generation and our children, wondering who will die in action in the name of our country. I hope that there will not be great wars in future, but who knows what the future will bring?

We can only hope that our soldiers do not kill and die in vain.

Monday 3 November 2008

Inverleith Park

Edinburgh's parks, few in number, are well used. Inverleith Park is my nearest and is used at all times of the day and week - it is heartening in our sedentary, solitary age to see Edinburgh at play on its green acres with rugby, cricket, football, ultimate frisbee, and tennis all popular. There's no booking - you just turn up with some friends and play. I have done this before for games of touch rugby, both here and on the Meadows.

This evening I walked home through Inverleith Park. A freezing fog was out, rolling slowly through the air like a living thing. The smudged yellow lamplight of the avenues looked like the fog of Old London Town, a stage set for a play about Jack the Ripper. Dark silhouettes moved in the light's margins, British Military Fitness taking their regular recruits through their paces. Across the way under bright spotlights, a rugby team practiced, their clear shouts carrying in the frosted air across the park, the bright white light filtering in rays through tree branches, illuminating the dark glassy surface of the pond, ducks and swans still awake and gliding about. A woman entered the park with her dog - it was wearing a collar with a dim red LED. What was the light on the dog's collar for? Without it, if the dog ran into the middle of the unilluminated area of the park, it would be impossible to see.

The avenues through Inverleith Park, the Meadows, and Bruntsfield Links (a free putting course) are well lit and are not no-go areas in the evenings. Back home in Glasgow, I would never have considered crossing, for example, Queens Park at night.

Friday 31 October 2008

Scotland and the Sunshine Break

Now is the time of year for a few days on the Mediterranean, a last blast of Vitamin D before the dark Scottish winter.

We have just returned from a sunshine break. It was our first flight for a couple of years, but the short, instant hit of sunshine and warmth is something that could become addictive at this time of year.

It was cold when we left Barcelona - from the beach, snow could be seen on the mountains - but this was nothing compared to the shock at returning home. A cruel wind whipped across the near-deserted streets of Edinburgh, its grey Georgian buildings raw-faced and frost scoured. The flat was a deep freeze. Yet glimpses inside the windows of pubs and bars showed a city going about its business socialising, young clubbers dressed up for a Halloween night out, scurrying to their venues.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona:

This weekend I'll head into the Highlands. It might be colder still than Edinburgh, and there is nothing in this city to match the Modernisme and easy living of Barcelona. But is there even in Gaudi's joyful, colourful facades, a fire to match the falling leaves of Killiecrankie, sun-caught in beautiful death?

Tummel Bridge, near Killicrankie:

Wednesday 22 October 2008

The Remains of St Andrew

Legend has it that St Rule, a Greek monk, had a dream where he learned that the bones of St Andrew were to be removed from Patras - where Andrew was martyred by the Romans - to Constantinople by the Constantine the Great. Being warned by an angel to take the bones instead to 'the ends of the earth', he got in a boat, and ended up in Fife. The church of St Andrews was founded at the spot he landed. It is not known if this legend is wholly correct, or if it is an early medieval fabrication by the Scottish church in their bid to maintain independence from the aggressive English church, whose patron saint was no disciple of Christ, but a mere dragon slayer.

In high medieval times, the church would have been a major site of pilgrimage, as people came from far and wide to view the remains of one of the twelve disciples. But the remains aren't there any more - I had not given much thought to it, but assumed that since the Reformation and destruction of St Andrews Cathedral, they had disappeared.

Thus imagine my surprise, on reading Doug Johnstone's novel The Ossians recently, to discover that the bones of St Andrew lie in St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Edinburgh! I popped in for a look last week. More handsomely decorated inside than Protestant churches, this is now the mother church for Fife and the Lothians, yet looks grey and almost apologetic from the outside, tucked away in a corner at the top of Leith Walk.

Inside, the shrine lies at the northeastern corner of the church - I walked over and looked. The modest fragments of bone - are they really of St Andrew? - are flanked by gold statuettes, and sealed within a tabernacle. Behind is a small and ancient looking piece of Byzantine art.

It is quite astonishing that the remains of Scotland's patron saint lie here, tucked away in a nook in central Edinburgh, completely unknown by the vast majority of Scotland's population.

Monday 20 October 2008

The 6am Joggers

My alarm goes off. What? Where am I? The sound of the occasional car splashing through the rain outside my window. It's cold and dark. It's the middle of the night. Bleary eyed, barely conscious, I stagger over to the window, cold goosepimpling my flesh. Great puddles of standing water tremble in the gutters, autumn leaves bowling along in a massive wind. I shiver. And then I see a man jogging past! He's alert, awake - and now a woman, going in the opposite direction! I think my body might refuse to move if I tried to run at this time in the morning. Who are these people?

Thursday 16 October 2008

North Third

On Sauchie Craigs:

Last Saturday we had a family event, then in the last of the day's light visited North Third Reservoir. This is dominated by a low but characterful crag that erupts from the surrounding forest. It looks for all the world like a crag in Africa, somewhere exotic, somewhere unScottish. A path leads up the crag through the trees, tiny acorns amongst the yellow-parched leaves. On top, crows dived acrobatically, playing in the stiff wind blowing up the face of the crag, made from large, rounded columns of dolerite. The Highlands were visible north, and the loch with its beautiful wooded islands below. Above and below the crags a forest grows, and at a gap in the cliffs - from where the Wallace Monument was visible, brown-grey stone bathed in sunshine against the autumn colours of the Ochils - we descended towards the reservoir. The moon was out, and locals were walking their dogs. This is stocked with trout and is a popular fishing spot, but the boats were all berthed and the fishermen had gone home. The only fisherman left was the heron, perched in the crown of trees on an island in the reservoir. We shivered in the rapidly cooling evening, a good cobweb-blowing walk before getting back into the car.

Sauchie Craigs:

Due to the family event, I missed the Scotland v Norway football match at Hampden. But after hearing of the result and performance later, it was probably just as well I didn't go!

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Clashgour and Upper Glenorchy

Last weekend, I met with old friends at the Glasgow University Mountaineering Club hut, Clashgour. This hut - little bigger than a tool shed - was built a hundred years ago as a school for the children in the glen. It has been leased by the estate since 1948 to GUMC, and provided a welcome haven from grey, wet Glasgow during our student days. The hut sleeps 6 but, according to the GUMC website, sleeps up to 12. From experience, a dozen bodies is exceptionally cosy in Clashgour.

Inside Clashgour:

Clashgour rainbow:

We visited often as students - occasionally to walk the hills, perhaps to do some work on the hut; but more often simply to fester, to get out the city and have a little space for the weekend, walking up the river, brewing tea, and visiting the Inveroran Inn, 45 minutes walk from the hut.

This time of year is probably the best time to visit. The brown autumn colours; the rivers full; the stags roaring; the stars in a dark sky; the fire stacked.

The Inveroran Inn from the West Highland Way:

On Sunday we rose late after an evening of juvenile silliness, and headed for the Corbett of Beinn Mhic Monaidh. We were late starting, but as it was my first hill since May, I was determined to give it a go. The route begins at a bridge over a beautiful gorge on the River Orchy. We stopped for a few minutes, hoping to see salmon, but saw none - although we did see canoeists leaving the scene! It looks like a dangerous, but exhilarating run. Birds sang in the waterfall-rushing woodland as we ascended an easy track to the treeline, then we slowed considerably tackling the steep southeast flank of the hill. Deer stood silhouetted on the corrie lip, and there were probably many more we couldn't see. We could certainly hear them, roaring like constipated cows. At the top the sun was setting, and the view onto the Blackmount hills is the best I have seen of this range. Ben Lui and Ben More to the east, the ridges and forest of Glenorchy: wood-fringed Loch Awe, shining burnished bronze, Cruachan a dark mass in front of the sun. The three Paps of Jura clearly visible (from most angles, only two can be seen), Rannoch Moor, and furthest away, the high, snow-capped peak of Ben Nevis. Billy took a photograph with which to taunt Dave, who was unable to come this weekend.

Loch Awe from Beinn Mhic Monadh:

On the summit of Beinn Mhic Monadh:

On the way down the road, we stopped in the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum for dinner. Who should pop in but the current GUMC! They still hold their fresher's meet in Glencoe, and more than half the new intake are foreign. If past years are anything to go by, then most, like butterflies, will not last beyond the first couple of meets and the first snows of winter.

Thursday 2 October 2008

At a Bend in the Whiteadder

I always liked the fact that there really is a place called Blackadder in Berwickshire. Previously, I had assumed it was a name made up by Rowan Atkinson for his comedy series. There is also a Blackadder Aisle in Glasgow Cathedral - and in his first Blackadder series, he plays the Duke of Edinburgh. Is Rowan Atkinson a secret Scotophile?

As well as the Blackadder River, there is a Whiteadder River too. I spent a while at a bend in the river last weekend, just watching. It was a mellow, early autumn day, and I was glad to be outside in some rare sun. The birch is turning yellow, but plenty green remains to turn. No orange or red leaves yet, treetops waving in a breeze. Ducks in the river, a couple of dippers in the racing waters. My heart always warms to see a dipper bobbing up and down. I could see minnows and small trout in the shallows, and knew that somewhere in the deep pools are much larger fish - maybe even salmon. A flash of blue - a kingfisher! Above, crows attacked raptors. One crow was enough to see off a kestrel, but it took three of them in a wave to see off a buzzard. The buzzard shrugged them off, glided on a bit, and continued hunting a few hundred yards further on. What were the crows protecting? A grasshopper jumped into a nearby pool, and I pulled it out the water, its long, Usain Bolt-like legs stretching and drying. And then with one bound it was away in the grass. A frog jumped away from my feet into the water, and I wondered if it would eat the grasshopper later. Nature does not do mercy.

In the evening a bat landed at my feet, squeaking. I left it on a window sill, and it took off again, flying round and round before disappearing into the darkness.

Friday 26 September 2008

40,000 Visits

Got up this morning and my webcounter is showing 40,000 visits to loveofscotland.com.

Admittedly this is over eight years.... but I feel I should do something to celebrate hitting this milestone.

A hill at the weekend perhaps?

Thursday 25 September 2008

Links for Loveofscotland

I have added a few links on this site - more to be added as and when I can be bothered.

Scottish Links are links to sites you might be interested in if you like loveofscotland.com - Friends Links are a random mix of content created by people I know and people who have dropped by and said hello. I am not responsible for the content of any of the links!

Tuesday 23 September 2008


Sweet is the voice of the cuckoo
On the bending tree,
Sweet it is above Glendaruadh.
This weekend we went to Cowal. Given its proximity to the Central Belt, Cowal is the forgotten district of Argyll: a quiet, forested land of steep hillsides. We visited Kilbride Bay on a tip off, which was not as good as expected - perhaps because of the dull weather, high tide, and high expectations gained from a summer of sunny beaches in the Western Isles. There is a lavender farm nearby, which must be one of the most northerly ones in the world.

We also took a look at Kilmodan Kirk in Glendaruel. I've been here before, and there is something indefinable about this place that gives me a feeling of great peace and restfulness. It is the site of the chapel of St Modan, a 6th century contemporary of St Columba.

A small collection of graveslabs dating from the 13th-16th century have been lifted and are sheltered in an outbuilding next to the church.

Sculptured graveslab, Kilmodan:

Glendaruel is mentioned in an ancient Irish tragedy, The Exile of the Sons of Uisneach. As they return from exile to certain death, Deirdrie laments for the happy times they have spent in Argyll:
Is binn guth cuach
Ar craeib chruim
Ar in mbinn os Glenndaruadh
The river Ruel in Glendaruel:

Although peaceful now, examining the church in Glendaruel shows this was not always the case. Kilmodan Kirk has three separate entrances, with three separate balconies, so the three sides of the feuding family of the local Campbell laird did not ever have to physically meet. One wonders on what flimsy reason this family feud originated.

Cowal actually has a large town at its southeastern end, Dunoon: but this faces the Clyde more than it does the rest of Cowal, and a short ferry journey over the grey waters, surrounded on all sides by hills, takes the weekender out of the West Highlands and straight into the Central Belt.

Thursday 11 September 2008

September Sun

The last festival tourists have gone, torn posters swirling with the leaves. A grey blanket of cloud swathes the city, giving heat like a Morningside miser. I'm wearing my jacket again. There's no denying it's dark earlier. Vegetable soup, log fires, and hot water bottles. And trips to the Highlands being planned: fire in the grass and bracken, deer roaring, friends gathering for a spiel.

And then I cycle to work today, a rare warmth in the sun, blue sky begrudging nothing, generous in its light and heat. People are walking more slowly, enjoying the experience.

Autumn can wait one more day.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

The Butt of Lewis

Arriving at the Butt of Lewis (or less amusingly in Gaelic, Rubha Robhanis) provides a small sense of achievement for the cyclist who has come all the way from Bagh a'Deas, Bhatersaidh.

It is the end of a long dead-end road, with people watching intently as you ride past the strip villages, Barabhas being the most characteristic. As this is a dead end road, nobody comes up here without coming back, and the locals want to check you out.

Seacliffs at the Butt of Lewis:

With a strong headwind in prospect, we didn't want to cycle all the way back to Stornoway, so took the bus from Eoropaidh. The buses in the Western Isles have space for a few bikes, a great improvement on public transport on the mainland. We waited for the bus on the superlative beach, half a kilometre of dunes leading to pristine honey-coloured sands, the surf crashing in and gulls feeding at the tide line.

Traigh Shanndaidh, Eoropaidh:

Saturday 6 September 2008


One of the highlights of a visit to Lewis is the standing stones of Callanish. They have been called the second best stone circle in Britain after Stonehenge but, having visited both, I reckon that Callanish provides the more satisfying experience. Stonehenge is crowded and fenced off, but at Callanish, outside the times of the opening of the visitor centre - early in the morning, late in the evening, or in winter, the visitor has the stones to themselves, and can wander amongst the gneiss pillars, weathered like boards of timber.

Built around 3,000BC, it is not quite clear what these stones were for, but people have speculated a sacred function, related to the position of the moon as seen from a certain point at a certain time of year. It is almost certainly the site described in Pytheas' 325BC lost text On the Ocean, referenced by later writers, where 'the god visited the island every 19 years and danced continuously through the night from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades'. (The moon has a 19 year cycle, and every 19 years can be seen each night to skim along the hills on the horizon when viewed from Callanish.)

It is unique in not being a simple stone circle, but rather takes the form in plan of a Celtic cross, with avenues of stones radiating away from a central circle.

At each step around this complex, one is struck by a new view as the stones align themselves afresh. What was it built for?

Each weathered board,
each visage, each stump;
a question mark,
a buried book,
a raised exclamation.

The Stones of Callanish:

Dun Carloway and Lewis Life

After Callanish we visited Dun Carloway, stopping a while later to rest for the night.

Dun Carloway, Lewis:

Dun Carloway is one of the best preserved brochs in the country, perhaps the best preserved after Mousa in Shetland. These double-walled round towers, looking like prehistoric power station cooling towers, were built in a quick burst between 100BC and AD100. Nearly all of them are in Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, and the Hebrides. Their function was probably short-term defence from opportunistic sea-raiders - but nobody knows for sure.

After Dun Carloway the heavens burst, and we popped into the tearoom in Gearannan village to avoid a soaking.

Gearannan, Lewis:

This village was inhabited well into the post-war period, but after it was abandoned the houses were turned into basic tourist accomodation, with a cafe and a preserved interior of a blackhouse from the mid post-war period.

Something the visitor notices in the Western Isles is the relaxed pace of life. Strangers are more open than on the mainland. If you pass somebody, it would be rude not to stop and exchange a greeting. I have heard this compared wistfully by a retired Englishman to life in the rest of Britain in the 1950s, and he mourned the passing of a better mannered way of life. It is possible to be frustrated by a lack of commercialisation and facilities for tourists, especially on a Sunday, but that perhaps is to miss the point.

Certainly, on returning to the mainland - or in our experience, Tobermory on Mull - we felt a change in the atmosphere, and locked up our bikes for the first time since leaving Oban for Barra and Vatersay.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Tolsta: the Big Beach at the Dead End

Lewis is a big island, the biggest in Scotland; awkward to get around by bicycle, with a lot of dead end roads. The problem with these roads is that they often end up somewhere particularly beautiful or interesting, so they cannot just be ignored. There is no road between the Butt of Lewis and Tolsta, so there is no obvious circular tour of the island. Anyone who wants to see Lewis has to do a fair bit of doubling back on themselves.

From Stornoway, we decided to take one of these dead end roads, the one out to Tolsta: I had seen a picture of the beach at Garry just past Tolsta, and was keen to have a look.

Traigh Ghearadha:

Traigh Ghearadha is a striking beach with its tidal sea stacks, but it was Traigh Mhor at Tolsta that really impressed. It might not look so striking in a photograph, but its size and shape is peculiarly satisfying to the beachcomber.

Approach to Traigh Mhor:

On Traigh Mhor:

Traigh Mhor faces Northeast, and despite strong winds, the sea lapped gently on the beach. Whatever the wind direction, there is a beach on Lewis that faces into (or in this case away from!) the big waves.

Overview of Traigh Mhor:

There is another beach at Tolsta, hidden beneath cliffs below the village to the south. Word is it is just as fine as Tolsta's more public beach at Traigh Mhor, yet even more deserted.

On the way back we battled a fierce headwind, and stopped for a break between Bac and Gress.

Ruined mill between Bac and Gress: