Tuesday 31 January 2012

My Favourite Outdoor Books

A couple of years ago, when the finishing touches were being put on my book*, the publisher asked if I had any thoughts over who should do the introduction. I know Dave Hewitt, so he could perhaps be approached. There was Cameron McNeish, but I didn't know him and I doubted he was interested. "What about Hamish Brown?" asked my publisher. I nearly fell off my chair. Hamish Brown! Imagine a hard rock band's management asking them if they would like Lemmy out of Motörhead to sing on one of their songs on a new album. Hamish was one of my walking heroes, his books read at just the right impressionable age ('Give me a girl,' wrote Muriel Spark, 'at an impressionable age and she is mine for life'), spinning my imagination off in wonderful directions and filling it full of avarice for the outdoors. I've recently been reading the new edition of Hamish's Groats End Walk. Hamish is full of interest for everything, from wildlife to history to the characters he meets, but it has always been the smart turns of phrase that I admired most. On crossing the Cheviot he notes 'the clouds bannered the sky, argent on azure' neatly tying in, through the use of heraldic terms, the bloody days of chivalry on this border with its landscape. Or try this: 'the evening view off Latrigg... would make a poet out of a pig'. These are just two random quotes a couple of pages apart in the Groats End Walk.

I thought I would take the opportunity to do a wee list of my favourite Scottish outdoors books. Perhaps there will be ones you haven't heard of that will enrich your life. Perhaps there are ones you know of that aren't on this list, that will enrich mine? If so, please tell me!

Undiscovered Scotland / Mountaineering in Scotland - W.H. Murray
Prose doesn't get much purpler than WH Murray at times, but for inspiration he cannot be beaten. Mountaineering in Scotland was written in a WWII PoW camp in Germany on toilet paper - having to be started again from scratch when the first edit was discovered - so it is no wonder that the hills and the freedom they give are idolised and raised to such heights.

Enjoying Scotland - Campbell Steven
A quirky volume - with exploits like skating across the frozen lochs of Rannoch Moor from Ba Bridge to Rannoch, then repeating as a canoe trip in summer - this book is full of fun. Steven sets out to enjoy the place, and that is what happens. Will inspire mad ideas of your own...

Hamish's Mountain Walk - Hamish Brown
Probably the most influential text of my early hillwalking career. Hamish was the first person to walk all the Munros in one continuous expedition, and this is what you get, along with diversions on history, wildlife, campcraft, the Ordnance Survey, weather and dogs.

Blazing Paddles - Brian Wilson
Brian paddles the coast of mainland Scotland, from the Solway to the Tweed, with a diversion around the Western Isles, each headland seemingly more terrifying than the last. Will he get through the Pentland Firth in one piece? A surprisingly beautiful, lyrical work for a watersports book with a jokey title.

Tales of Rannoch - A.D. Cunningham
The Rannoch area, the roughest part of Highland Perthshire, either has the best folk tales and ghost stories in the country, or A.D. Cunningham is simply a wonderful story teller and collector of interesting tales. Perhaps a bit of both.

The Relative Hills of Britain - Alan Dawson
My bagging bible, this is a dry list of every hill in Britain with a drop all round of 500ft, no matter the height. There are around 1550 of them. Has given me walking targets everywhere from Orkney to Kent.

The Western Highlands - Arthur Gardner
Published in 1924, this is one of the earliest books of West Highland mountain photography. Given the limitations of technology and knowledge at the time of publication, it is possibly the best book too. There are viewpoints here I have never seen in a Colin Baxter or Prior book.

Mountain Days and Bothy Nights - Ian R. Mitchell and Dave Brown
The ultimate account of walking in the 'old' days, with an unforgettable cast of (supposedly) true characters. Post-walk stories of bothy shenanigans have always interested me more than dry accounts of ascents or route descriptions.

Always a Little Further - Alastair Borthwick
Did I say that Mountain Days and Bothy Nights was the ultimate account of the old days? Perhaps it is Always a Little Further, with its even earlier days and the Hunger March. I can't decide.

Argonauts of the Western Isles - Robin Lloyd Jones
Starting with his early days canoeing, practicing rolls off Helensburgh and paddling out to Bass Rock, Robin graduates to bigger journeys, including one very humbling one where he learns a lesson in mortality and competence. He paddles into seacaves, lands on beaches on deserted islands, and basically makes you want to get a canoe.

Munro's Fables - Grant Hutchison, Chris Tyler
A slim, insubstantial, fun volume, detailing the adventures of Lachlan McLachlan (more than a hint of the tales of Murdo about him), interspersed with descriptions of hillgoing stereotypes. Doomed Boyfriend - the young man with a girlfriend fitter than himself - was a particular favourite.

Scottish Journey - Edwin Muir
A depressing book, but a classic. Edwin Muir travelled Scotland during the great depression and was not impressed by what he saw. Around 1990 (when the Proclaimers were singing 'What will you do, when minority means you?') Andrew Eames did a follow up book, Four Scottish Journeys, at a time when Scottish industry and identity again seemed under attack. Both worth a read to get a feel of the character of the country under duress, even though not strictly outdoor books.

In Search of Scotland - H.V. Morton
Repeating the success of In Search of England - Morton's stone cold classic - another book from the 1920s that is as charming today as when it was first written, an age when an Englishman was a gentleman and the world, though quieter and less frantic than today, was still recognisably modern with its cars, telephones and American tourists.

The High Mountains - Irvine Butterfield
This is the only guidebook on my list. Guidebooks tend to sell well and be very boring. This is the exception to the rule. Irvine Butterfield's guide to all the 3000ft peaks in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland is a major reference work, full of stunning self-taken photographs and idiosyncratic descriptions of the hills - only scorn is reserved for rounded, modest hills lacking dramatic ridges or corries.

Turn Right at Lands End - John Merril
John was the first person to complete the pedestrian circumnavigation of Britain, and every day of this walk is logged in his spare, undramatic diary. To read one day, one week even is to be underwhelmed, with perhaps just one particular detail noted every day or so. But the daily rythmns and observations build into something much bigger and more powerful than the individual entries, and you end the book overwhelmed and uplifted.

There's also the work of Tom Weir and Muriel Grey, but their best was mainly on TV, (Weir's Way and The Munro Show) and of course Jimmie MacGregor's programme on the West Highland Way that also came out at just the right impressionable age for me (a friend told me that, age 16, he wasn't allowed to do the WHW: when his parents went on holiday to the Costas for a week, he set off and did it anyway. It was his first big walk, and after the testing section along Loch Lomondside he came across one of the WHW markers, on which someone had scrawled 'Fuck Jimmie MacGregor').

I've restricted this to Scottish outdoor books, otherwise the list would be unmanageable. But it is impossible not to recommend my favourite new read from the last year:

A Voyage for Madmen - Peter Nicols
This is a heartstopping account of the first non-stop round the world yacht race. It reads like a masterfully created novel, the tension building all the time (especially if, like me, you don't know in advance the fate of each of the entrants to the race). Yet it is a true story. If you like adventure stories, true or otherwise, you must read this life-enriching book of human endeavour.

* I was not to know that the time between writing my book and it coming out was to be a pivotal one in my life, which changed from one of weekends away up the hills to ones with my now wife. I would not, as I had assumed, be going to Glencoe every other weekend and buttonholing walkers about my new book, although I did print flyers with a quote from a nice review in TGO magazine and leave them about occasionally. Perhaps one of them resulted in an extra sale.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Beaches of East Lothian

One of my favourite walks near where we live - perhaps the favourite - is along the coast from North Berwick to Aberlady (or sometimes from Aberlady to North Berwick!) It is a walk of constant interest, a sucession of sandy beaches separated by sea-sculpted rocks - sandstone, volcanic and conglomerate. Yesterday was clear and calm - the first really good day since mid December - with a placid, ice-blue sea, frost in the air, and great visibility, every fold in the cliffs of the distant Isle of May visible.

North Berwick:

We started at North Berwick (the 124 bus, which runs every hour on Sundays between Aberlady and North Berwick, is the key to this linear walk), joyous to be alive and out walking on such a beautiful day. It had been so long since we had been exposed to anything more than passing sunshine.


The rocky islands of Lamb, Craigleith, Fidra, May and the Bass stud the Forth, and across the water the white-painted houses of the East Neuk villages gleamed on the horizon like barnacles on a rock.


Beyond the end of Yellowcraigs beach at Craigleith the dog walkers and uncommitted strollers of North Berwick turned back, and only the occasional through walker was seen, even on such a fine weekend day as Sunday. the recent gales have blown huge amounts of empty razor shells ashore. When we looked, there was far more than just razor shells - mussels, cockles, scallops, limpets, whelks, half a sea urchin, crabs.


In the sandstone rocks, half-fossilised remains of seashells can be seen. The remains of their descendants littered the beach, tossed there by the ceaselessly moving surf. I find a great deal of comfort in the rythmns of a wild beach. Nothing is still, yet the fossils indicate continuity over a great span of time.

I wonder if there are any fossils with tracks like this? What could it be?

Starfish trail:

We looked closely and saw a dead starfish at the end of the trail. Alert to the signs, we found more - and returned some lives ones back into the sea. With the tide coming in, they might just survive. A cheery walker told us about the tidal islet of Eyebroughty, but with the tide on the way in, we did not want to risk walking out to it. Plenty of seabirds bobbing up and down in the water today however, and oystercatchers probing the shore. The best time to do this walk is low tide.

Near Eyebroughty:

The walk continued on, past a ruined chapel on a low headland, past swathes of sea-bleached orange thorn berries, to Gullane and sudden crowds, everyone seemingly with a dog, racing across the sands with the freedom of being out the house. Beyond Gullane lies Murder Hill, an infamous piece of natural circuit training. The first time we did this walk, I raced up Murder Hill - it was easy! But it was January, and the sand was frozen. The second time we passed Murder Hill I tried it again - not so easy in summer!


Thorn bushes:

We carried on to Aberlady Bay as the short winter day came to an end, seabirds finding their homes out on the water, Scotland in the Gloaming type photographers and birdwatchers with cameras, tripods and binoculars appearing on the beach access path. It had been a great day to be out.


Before Braveheart, most people's exposure to Scottish history was through the novels of Nigel Tranter, who lived in Aberlady and used to wander these sands with a notebook in pocket composing his stories. When we get to the end of this walk, I always like to sit and imagine his mind wandering over 15th century baronial relationships whilst looking out over bay to the Lomonds of Fife, the Pentlands, and Cockenzie Power Station.

Aberlady Bay late afternoon:

It doesn't matter which way you do this walk. You can walk into the sunset at Aberlady Bay and, if the tide is out, wander out to the scuttled WWII midget submarines at the water's edge. Done in the other direction, Berwick Law appears bathed in late afternoon sun above a broad sandy beach, and you finish with a fish supper on the pier and the sound of boats clanking in the gathering darkness.

Just writing about it makes me want to go and do it again this coming weekend...

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Old Scans

Clearing out my parents garage, I found some old CDs I thought were lost for ever. The main excitement is being reunited with some songs I had lost and hadn't been able to recreate (like The People With Computers in Their Head), but along with my music CDs were a couple with scans of slides of Scottish scenes.

When I first created loveofscotland.com as a project to fill my spare time when on leave from working offshore (coming up for 13 years ago!) I decided to make pictures no wider than 600 pixels. A good monitor had a resolution of 800 pixels wide. But times change, and so I spent some time this Christmas holiday tidying up the scans and sticking them on loveofscotland.com. Here's a selection...

Castlebay, Barra:

On Curved Ridge, Glencoe:

Castle Tioram:

Rois Bheinn Summit:

Inveraray Castle:

Park Circus, Glasgow:


Grey Mare's Tail:

St Monans

Loch Quioch:

Hill House, Helensburgh:

I have plenty more slides I'd like to put online, but no scanner at the moment. Decent ones are still ridiculously expensive, even second hand. Anyway, that will do for now...

Thursday 5 January 2012

New Year Hill

This winter break has been dominated by high winds and rain, the first break in the bad weather coming on the morning of 1 January - we managed to get out for a quick burst of sun before the rain closed in again. Determined to get a bit more fresh air, we headed up the Pentlands the day after.

Allermuir Hill from Caerketton:

What a tonic to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine!

Midlothian skies:

We were battered about by 40mph winds, but exhilarated to have been out and about. There was even a friendly guardian at the top of the ski centre slopes to welcome in the new year with us!

Angusina the New Year Coo, Edinburgh behind:

Shortly after descending, the rain came on again and the wind rose. Happy new year to you all.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Bliadhna nan Gaoithean

The Bawbag Aftermath:

Given that high winds have prevented me from travelling to Glasgow today as planned, perhaps now is the time to recall the wind earlier this winter, that was quickly nicknamed Hurricane Bawbag. A trip to Helensburgh over Christmas revealed plenty of debris still littering the sea front, seaweed and driftwood heaved onto the promenade and concrete seats along the promenade tossed over by the waves. Helensburgh was on the news during Bawbag, and my dad saw a friend's van on the street. He immediately got on the phone.

"Did you see your van on the news?! It's parked on a double yellow line. Better move it before the traffic warden notices."

Last week our snowdrops and aconites came out, and primroses have been flowering since late autumn, all very unusual. Perhaps there will be no real frosts or snow at all this winter in the Lowlands. Instead, after the year of snow last winter, this is shaping up to have been the Year of Winds.