Sunday 26 August 2012

The Peninsula

One of my all-time favourite cycles is around the Rosneath Peninsula from Helensburgh. In my youth I would take the coast road from Helensburgh past the Faslane submarine base to Garelochhead, then back down the peninsula to Rosneath. I would do this cycle with a school friend and it felt almost like a pilgrimage at times. We loved cycling to Rosneath. Sometimes, but only rarely, we would go further round to Kilcreggan. Rosneath was far enough for us. My record time from Helensburgh to Rosneath was 36 minutes on a 5-speed racing bike, which I can barely believe today. Am I really so much less fit than my teenage self?

Knarled trunks between the peninsula road and the Gareloch:

In the 90s, a new road was opened above Garelochhead for the use of MoD traffic to Coulport. I used to take my bike on this new road, with its fantastic views down the Gareloch and Loch Long, then ride past Cove and Kilcreggan to meet up with my old favourite ride back from Rosneath. This new route was longer but more satisfying, the big Victorian villas of Cove and the seaward views down Loch Long providing more interest. On a recent visit to Helensburgh, we set off to do this route again.

Heading past Faslane:

Not far into the ride we were caught in a tropical monsoon and fled for a bus shelter for half an hour. The rain passed and we pedalled cautiously on. Typical of the west coast, the previous blue sunny skies were suddenly full of interesting-looking cloud, with the watery-grey light and lush summer greenery characteristic of the west.

St Modan's kirk, Rosneath:

At Rosneath I wanted to have a look for something I had never seen in all my previous pilgrimages, St Modan's Well. In fact I did not even know of its existence, having only recently seen it on an OS map. We couldn't find it, there seemed to be some new build housing in the way. But we did come across this interesting old ruin above. Back home I looked it up. St Modan was a 6th century character from the Celtic age of saints, and nearby was Tom-a-mhoid, moot hill, a gathering point or site of a local parliament. Nobody seemed to know how old it was and the papers had an archaeologist called Fiona Baker who had been digging around Rosneath. I'd known someone called Baker when I was at school - I wonder if they were related?

Yachts and gathering stormclouds:

At this point the ominous rumbling we had heard coming from the other side of the water broke out into a full scale thunderstorm. The clouds had blackened impressively and forks of lightning flashed down around Helensburgh and the Rosneath transmitter, just a mile or two south. We considered our options. To carry on south round to Kilcreggan and back up over the new MoD road would take us into the path of the thunderstorm. Yet north was dry, sunny even. It wasn't a hard call to make to cut the trip short, and return from whence we'd come. We would have to visit the whole peninsula another time.

Faslane from the peninsula:

Curiously, when I got back, I couldn't find St Modan's Well on the map any more. Had I imagined the whole thing?

Friday 17 August 2012

Wallace: Letters and Legacy

Another something you can do during the festival... until September 8, you can see at the Scottish Parliament the famous Lübeck Letter (in which the Guardians of Scotland, after the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, informed the Hansa town of Lübeck that Scotland was open again for business).

The Lübeck Letter:

The return of the letter has been a labour of love for history enthusiasts. Like lots of old, cool things, the letter is surprisingly small. Why not combine a look at the letter with with a 24 August, 11:30-12:30 free talk in the Parliament debating chamber about Wallace and the wider world by Dr Fiona Watson? As chance would have it Fiona Watson, like Andy Wightman, is someone I have previously met - though Fiona, unlike Andy, would be likely to recognise me, as we were once at the same university. Different courses though - whilst she did history, I frittered away my time in a dalliance with engineering.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Wightman and the Olympics

I haven't seen Andy Wightman since - or before - 1996. He had recently published a book called Who Owns Scotland? that was a real eye-opener. Vast swathes of Scotland were (still are) owned by a surprisingly low number of people (or, to avoid tax or snooping investigators like Wightman, by shell companies owned by trust funds with anonymous PO box addresses abroad). It was a complete coincidence that we met, both being invited to Peel Fell on the border by Dave Hewitt, editor of The Angry Corrie. I'm not quite sure why I was invited, having achieved nothing of note, but I was in exalted bagging and general outdoor company. Alan Dawson, author of The Relative Hills of Britain, mega-baggers Richard Webb and the Bowkers were also there. I recall Andy had an infant in a rucksack who was carried all the way up to the summit near the England-Scotland border.

It was surely down to people like Andy Wightman that the Scottish Parliament passed land access legislation in 2003, making it legal to walk wherever you like over wild land. It is commonly assumed that this has always the case, but in fact it wasn't - anyway, since 2003, the de facto right of access has been law.

So when I saw that Andy - in conjunction with Lesley Riddoch - had a show at the Edinburgh Festival, I went. The Scottish Six, discussing land issues and other things, is the kind of show that should be televised for the enlightenment and benefit of the general populace. It runs for the rest of the week and I recommend you go if you can. A few minutes into last night's show the venue filled with a thick scent of ethnic cooking and a fire evacuation followed. On resuming Andy then had to rattle through his talk a bit too quickly. It gave food for thought. But, ironically, not about land issues. About the recent Olympics.

Chris Hoy's golden post box in Hunter Square:

The Olympics have been a massive success, with even a sports spectating refusnik like myself getting enthused. Capitalising on that, Colin Moynihan has recently called for greater investment and participation in sport on the back of the Olympics, to enable even higher medal counts in future games. It seems obvious that higher medal counts will naturally follow on from greater participation in sport, but in my opinion Lord Moynihan is in danger of falling into a trap. They are two separate things. And given a limited pot of money to spend, they may well be mutually exclusive.

The experiece of Australia provides a cautionary example. Towards the end of the last century, the Australian Institute of Sport was given increased funding for the purpose of increasing Australia’s medal count at major events in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics. In this they were massively successful and other countries, including Britain, copied the Australian example.

But it came at a cost. Australia – whose image is of healthy outdoor pursuits – is now the second most obese country in the world (after the USA, another country that spends vast amounts on its elite athletes). Australian sporting endeavour became hollowed out - vast sums spent on the elite, and everybody else left to their own devices.

Greater participation in sport is often cited as one of the benefits of the Olympics. But the example of Australia shows that, unless a deliberate effort is made to invest in grassroots facilities, the opposite is more likely. So policy makers like Moynihan have to decide what they want. Personally I would happily never see another gold medal again for Britain if the population's fitness was maximised. Think of the improvements in quality of middle aged life, savings in the NHS, greater social cohesion for bored teenagers. That is worth more than a few baubles.

Unfortunately I fear that Olympic fever has gripped the country, and there will be a greater concentration than ever of resource and effort at the elite, medal-winning level, whilst the rest of us become less fit, sitting on our sofas stuffing ourselves with MacDonalds and Coke, cheering at the gogglebox whilst other people run around a field.

Saturday 11 August 2012


At request, a post from the past. I have only ever taken one roll of black and white film, and wasn't very impressed with the results. But the time I did, occurred during one of my more frightening experiences.

Billy and I started from A'Chuil bothy on a Saturday morning in February. The weather was wet and miserable in the glen, with high winds and low cloud. We caught glimpses of snow through the cloud - the top third of the hills was covered in it. Or in Billy's words:
It was like there was a doorman hovering around the hills. Not the professional but firm 'regulars only tonight' type; no, a nasty neanderthal knuckle dragger who kept a claw hammer with a stanley knife taped to it under his jacket. This one snarled at us 'don’t even think about it. 'Cos if you do, you're going to wish that you had stayed at home, sandpapering your fuckin' nuts and dipping them in vinegar by the time I've finished with you. Now FUCK OFF!' Still, this was nothing to worry us; we’ve been out in this sort of stuff lots of times.
Personally I was concerned about the weather. It was turn back weather. On the ascent of the Coire na Ciche I fell through a bank of snow into the stream and didn't dry out or warm up again. Had I been alone I would have turned back there and then, but Billy's keenness drove us on. My brain was running a bit slow for part of the day, so I will leave most of the description to Billy...

Ascending the gully above Coire na Ciche:

To this day, I’m not sure if our cockiness was due to experience or stupidity, but how else do you gain experience? I do believe that most situations can be tackled 'safely' if you are confident in your own abilities and aware or your weaknesses and danger signs. You should be able to show the wisdom not to get into a situation that you cannot get yourself out of. If you choose the challenging situations you do so at your own risk, and if it goes well, you will have a rewarding experience. However, you may also die, only to be found in 5000 years time by a bunch of archaeologists that want to gang probe your butt.

I would like to say that we had weighed all this up, but without much thought; we just looked at the doorman and said, 'Bring it oan!'. We decided to tackle Sgurr na Ciche first, and headed up the gentle gully to the Fedan pass. W
e were being plastered by a moderate mix of wet snow and hail, but made remarkably quick progress up the gully to the gap, aided by the strengthening wind that was pushing us on from behind. At the top of the gap, we reached the break in the slope that leads to the summit, and took a bearing. The summit was found easily enough, but we decided not to linger and tried to retrace our steps. The wind and spindrift had filled them in. We took a back bearing and came to a break in the slope. We weren't convinced that this was the spot that we had ascended from, but nothing makes much sense in these conditions, when you can barely see your feet, and few rocks protrude through the snow and spindrift to give any point of reference. In situations like this, you have no idea where the ground is and you can quite literally walk into a snow bank or even over a cliff. We were now facing into the wind on descent, a malevolent wind that was firing sharp pieces of ice up my nose and blowing my breath onto my storm flaps and goggles, where it was freezing. I couldn’t see and had to take off my goggles. However, I still couldn’t see as my eyes were now being sand blasted by horizontal hail. The conditions were so bad that you could hardly see your feet (though considering that you could not open your eyes, this didn’t really add to the severity of the situation). The best that I could do was to take off my mitt and squint through semi splayed fingers. I would do this for as long as I could take it, turn my back to the gale, close my eyes and let the pain and the tears subside, and then repeat the process.

Trying to descend from this point was not going to be the piece of cake that we had anticipated. We were pinned to the spot; you could not even throw yourself into the wind, because it would just lift you back up. It is at times like this in the gloomy white haze that the red mist comes down and you tap into that inner beast. I ran at the slope with all my being, arms windmilling in an exaggerated cartoon swimming style.


Pause, puff, pant..


The mountain was fighting us and I was loving every minute of it. This went on for a while, it was an epic fight. I was pumped up and felt heroic. I stopped to wonder how far I had come. How many yards had I kicked the mountains' hairy oversized ass? I looked back at Craig. The fact I could see him was not very reassuring. I thought, "Four feet! That was the hardest fought four fucking feet of my life!" Eventually we got down the slope by slow determined walking, not running. If I had ever bothered to think about the biomechanics of bipedal locomotion, I would have realised that this was the way to do it: always one point in contact with the ground! Just 60 feet down from the break in the slope, the wind became less severe.

The major struggle was behind us, but we were not out of the woods yet. Craig needs his glasses to see, and they had frozen over, as had his trousers. In fact, he was beginning to remind me of the scene from Terminator 2 were the Cyberdyne T1000 has an unfortunate encounter with a truck full of liquid nitrogen. I was thinking that any moment now. I'll hear a crack and one of his legs will drop off. What I did hear was nearly as disturbing. For the first time ever I could hear an alarming shakiness and uncertainty in his voice. Up until now, I had been joking with him that we HAD to get Garbh Cioch Mhor done, and if he died, I could hollow him out with my ice axe to make a toboggan. However, it was now getting serious. He was becoming hypothermic. I now had to guide him down the slope, and through the crags. The going was tough and I was getting tired. My crampons had fallen off on the way up, I had to kick most steps (and several rocks) two or three times, and due to a recent ankle injury I was not as fit as I could be. The thing that contributed most to this tiredness was actually trying to shout instructions to Craig; the wind just tore away my voice and it was lost forever. Eventually we fought our way to a frozen waterfall and sheltered behind it to have some food (eating on top would have been impossible in the wind). As soon as we stopped, I noticed that Craig was shivering violently. I was also starting to cool down at this point, my exposed hand numb and useless. This made me realise that we had to get to the bothy as soon as possible, get Craig in a sleeping bag, get the fire going and make lots of hot sweet tea.
Billy in the ice cave:

Billy had brought a flask with hot drink and chocolate (my customary bag of dry oatmeal was not going to cut it at this point). I put on my dry spare woolly jersey my aunt had given me for Christmas, had the hot drink and chocolate, and fortunately recovered as quickly as I had started to fall victim to the cold.
As we got closer to the bothy, the food we had was starting to kick in and Craig was beginning to perk up, so we just decided to have some tea, pack up and head for home. By the time we got back to the car Craig was almost bouncing, but through all my extra efforts and injury, I however, was sore and dragging my feet.

As I neared the car, Craig had been there for a few minutes and was starting to change. He was bouncy and chirpy, his spirits having risen considerably. I looked at him and wondered about the reversal of our circumstances. Why was he now so lively and I literally had to drag myself the last few miles? I somehow felt cheated. When I finally drew up to Craig, I looked at him and demanded, "Why aren’t you dead?!" Honestly, there is no justice!
Thanks Billy. And people wonder why I don't like Knoydart...

Friday 3 August 2012

My Last Munro, Second Time Round - Part 2

The main reason I am showing you these pictures from yore is that I now have a decent slide scanner. It takes a long time to scan pictures, but the quality is nearly on par with digital. Perhaps, when I scan some properly exposed pictures, I might find it is just as good or even better?

The night before we had driven up and climbed the Corbett of Sgurr na Caorachain near Applecross, (easy from the Bealach na Ba road if not the recommended route to the summit), and enjoyed a glorious sunset. Today we were on unfinished business, and woke from our tent to a dull, humid summer day. I had been up Beinn Eighe before, but only been to the summit, Ruadh Stac Mor, via Coire Mhic Fhearchair. This impressive corrie is reached by a wonderful walk between Torridonian giants, and is a worthy destination in itself. 

In Coire Mhic Fhearchair:

Once on the top we traversed the ridge, green and grey - glas is the word for it in Gaelic - along to Spidean Coire nan Clach, and onwards east over the other tops. To the north lay a Corbett, Ruadh Stac Beag, a considerable drop although still part of the same massif. It would have to wait for another day.

On Beinn Eighe:

My last Munro, second time round, was a quiet affair, quieter than Ben Wyvis had been (which in itself had been pretty quiet, and very wet).

Last Munro, take 2:

Some years after Beinn Eighe, Billy and I climbed Beinn Dorain on a dreich winter's day*, the entire hillside a sheet of ice. But the clouds parted near the summit, and great beams of sunset illuminated the crags on Beinn an Dothaidh and turned the clouds candy floss pink. (Ah, to have slides of that!) To my surprise there was a second cairn on an eminence a short distance from the first, and clearly higher. I remembered climbing this hill before in thick mist and not going to the second cairn (and a look at my map, a hand-me-down first edition of the 1:50,000 map from the 1970s showed that only one summit was marked). "This is my last Munro, third time round," I said to Billy.

Billy with Liathach behind:

But it got me thinking. How many other hills had I climbed and bagged, in all faithfulness, yet not actually reached the summit of? I could think of at least one more cairn in the mist that might, on revisiting on a clear day, turn out not to be the actual top...

*When we descended from this hill we were accosted by an excited couple who were doing market research for their dream to open a chip shop in Tyndrum, and we told them what a great idea it was, there being no chip shop between Balloch and Fort William, a distance of about 85 miles. When we finally got round to visiting the chip shop, the excellent Real Food Cafe, we discovered that the woman, Sarah, was in charge of a thriving business, but that her partner, Steve, had tragically died soon after the opening.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

My Last Munro, Second Time Round - Part 1

Back in 1997, I completed the Munros on Ben Wyvis. That was my Munro bagging days over - until, later that year, the SMC brought out a revised edition of the Tables. There were eight new ones. I read the revisions, and smugly realised I had climbed them all bar one. My mind went back to the people we met on the traverse from the Devil's Peak to Braeriach in the Cairngorms, who decided to contour round Sgor an Lochain Uaine to save themselves a small amount of effort. They would be feeling pretty sore with themselves now. It is just a short extra effort when on the traverse, but a long way to go back for one hill.

The one hill I still had to do was the newly promoted second Munro on Beinn Eighe. This had to be climbed - not just to complete my first round of the Munros (for the second time) - but because Beinn Eighe is such a fine hill that it deserves to be properly traversed. My previous trip to Beinn Eighe's summit was rewarding, but a full traverse is really the only way to do justice to this hill.

On the way up, at sunset, we drove up the Bealach na Ba to climb Sgurr na Chaorachain, a Corbett. A few minutes along a track from the road at the top of the pass leads to the summit of this hill and its sunset views over the Inner Sound, and eastward to deep shadowed corries, a rainbow bursting out of the nearest one.


In terms of the ratio of value gained versus effort expended, this is probably the best hill I've ever done.

Billy on Sgurr na Chaorachain: 

We soaked up the views until the moon shone bright in the night sky. This was going to be a good weekend.

To be continued...