Monday 28 September 2009

Ailsa Craig

You can't stop catching it out the corner of your eye in views up and down the Firth of Clyde.

"What's that," you think, "that improbable pebble?"

It is Ailsa Craig, cliff-girt on all sides bar a short landing area and quarry. It really shouldn't exisit, this abrupt stone, rising alone and supreme 1000ft out the middle of the sea. Arran to the north is bigger, more varied, yet Ailsa Craig's simple profile appeals more.

From Stranraer or Arran, it appears conical.

From Kintyre or the Ayrshire coast, its vertical sides ease off to a flattish top, like a curlingstone - apt, for the quarry on Ailsa Craig is the source of all true curlingstones. Fact.

You walk away from the viewpoint, but can't help turning back for one last look.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Culzean Coast

If Burns Cottage was a let down, the same could not be said for Culzean Castle. This is the National Trust's flagship property, with hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The castle is perched on the edge of a low, romantic seacliff, surrounded by managed policies in the fashionable English style of the 18th century. The exterior is perhaps a little plain: but the interiors are the glory, Robert Adam at the height of his powers in the beautiful ceilings, harmonious decor and furniture, giving a unifying impression of good taste that is unobtainable today. Unfortunately it is not permitted to take photos inside the castle, so you will just have to take my word for it.

Culzean Castle garden:

The grounds are extensive, and free to wander. We walked from Culzean Bay in the north along a corrugated beach, past the castle with its mature trees and swan pond, to the prettily located village of Maidens in Maidenhead Bay. We walked further still to Turnberry - along a rocky, volcanic coast peppered with agates, and round the famous Open golf course.

Castle with caves below:

On the way back we walked under the castle on the exposed shore. The caves below the castle were, it is said, used by Thomas Kennedy, the 9th Earl, for smuggling. Worried about his reputation, he decided to get into a more respectable business, and so in the 1760s bought a quarter share - in an American slave trader.

The refined dining and drawing rooms of Culzean were, it seems, built on the proceeds of human misery.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Burns Cottage, Alloway

At last! I have finally done it. As the Austrian should visit Mozartsgeburtshaus, or the Englishman Statford-upon-Avon, a once-in-a-lifetime trip should be made by all curious Scots to the origin point of their most famous artist, Robert Burns.


As someone interested in poetry, and Scotland, a trip to Burns Cottage in Alloway had to be made at some point in my life, a poesy pilgrimage, a haggis hajj... but instead, a wet Monday in Ayr saw us unmotivated and looking for something to do. Why not Burns Cottage? And so to Alloway, on the outskirts of Ayr, we went.

The cottage is near Alloway auld kirk and the Brig o' Doon, which are of interest if you have read Tam o' Shanter. If you haven't, the impact is lessened. Indeed, if you don't know anything about Burns, Burns Cottage - where the poet spent the first seven years of his life - is underwhelming. It's an old cottage. That's it. There's no description or interpretation of the life and work of Robert Burns. I think that if you are considering a visit, it is worth waiting for the opening of the new museum, due next summer.

A mile from Alloway, the River Doon discharges into the Firth of Clyde. On a promonotory above the rivermouth sits the remains of Greenan Castle, a stark, Smailholm-like tower, jutting, unexpected, abrupt. Who built it and when, I wondered?

Greenan Castle:

I much preferred Greenan to Burns Cottage.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Poem: Tower Ridge

You're probably not that interested in the provenance of my book's title, but I will tell you anyway. It was going to be Hip Flasks and Rucksacks, a title I liked suggested by a friend, but at the last moment The Weekend Fix bubbled into mind. It's a fairly common phrase - a concept first grasped by me when someone described their attitude thus in The Angry Corrie: "Maybe I'm the typical blinkered enthusiast, unable to understand how folk exist without their weekly bout of blindfold indoor bobsleigh". That seemed to sum up my attitude to hillwalking quite nicely!

Around that time, I was learning to climb or rather, learning to fear climbing. Not for me the heightened senses, adrenaline rush and sense of achievement. Just leg-trembling fear. My imagination was too gothic to be balancing above huge drops. I wrote a poem about it called Tower Ridge, and it was from this that the book title came:

Here on the sickening face of Nevis
The death face of a hundred bold climbers
I falter, overwhelmed with the depths.
Fear in bold moves conquers pride....
And life is assured, in broken euphoria
On reaching the far other side.

This is not the joy of movement
A delightful scramble
The cobwebs blown
On weekend fix:

This is not the love of nature
A beautiful exposure
For good clean fun:

This is death: on airy ridges
Nearer hell that earth we know it,
And know it unprepared.

Ben Nevis with Tower Ridge on the right:

Sunday 6 September 2009

The Book Launch

A wet Thursday last week saw the official launch my hillwalking book, The Weekend Fix. I read some extracts, thanked Hamish Brown for calling me a 'young man' in his introduction, got the assembled crowd to sing a song about a bothy, and was asked to play in November at a tenth anniversary gig for The Plimptons. Both Hamish and another Sandstone Press author, Ron McMillan, were there.

At the launch:

If you want to help promote the book, here are some things you can do:

* Buy the book!

* Review it on Amazon.

* Go in to your local library and request it.

* Tell your friends about it.

* Link to it from your website.

* Next time you are passing your local bookstore / outdoor store go in and lay the book out cover first, in front of some other, more boring, hillwaking book.

* If you run a radio station, interview me.

* If you write a newspaper review column, review the book.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

A Walk Up the Royal Mile

Last week:

A man with a parliamentary pass on a mobile phone saying "committee room two". A group of Japanese taking pictures of each other standing next to the Robert Ferguson statue. A family with a ten-year old and young teen in tow. A red-faced jakey in dreadlocks and a kilt. Four people in matching show t-shirts disappearing down a side close. A group of attractive girls with shades, shorts, tans, and London accents. Indie kids in skinny black jeans and day-glo belts. A swaggering impressario on a mobile phone. Fresh-faced American beefcake. Two men and a woman in bowler hats approaching a pedestrian crossing in line, placing their briefcases down in a premeditated, synchronised move. A pub swallowing a dozen middle-aged tourists. A Japanese girl in knee-high socks and pigtails. The sound of Spanish. So many people at this point I have to step off the pavement to make headway. A crowd gathered around someone performing street drama. A painted Thai girl catching passers-by attention - a Bangkok ladyboy? Heat in the stones, warmth and dryness in the air, colours and crowds.

This week:

A bosky smell of spent vegetation, shivering trees, and the birds have all flown away.