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.