Saturday 29 December 2012

Pentland Hills Regional Park

In the Pentlands again:

"It's going to be busy," I said, and it was. Flotterstone car park on a fine Sunday afternoon was hoaching. As we set off, a ranger doing a survey asked us a few short questions about our thoughts on the Pentland Regional Park. Somewhere at the back of my mind a memory stirred. The regional park was detested by gangrels back in the 1980s when it was created, wasn't it? Where had I read that? We set off up Turnhouse and Carnethy.

Carnethy from Turnhouse Hill:

It was an absolutely glorious day. Setting off earlier would have been preferable (Chris Highcock had been up the same hills the same day at sunrise and captured these amazing photos) but I was glad to be out at all, despite the crowds. This was, I think, only my second time on Carnethy Hill, and I was looking forward to seeing the prehistoric cairn at the summit. It was long ago largely remodelled into a number of summit shelters, their shadowed northern sides still frost-covered, the wind biting savagely despite the sun.

Carnethy summit:

We were perhaps a little too late starting, as the sun went behind a cloud as we dropped to Loganlea reservoir from Carnethy Hill, and it was a chilly, shadowy walk back down the glen road to Flotterstone. We surprised a heron just a few feet away on the Logan Burn, which took off in that ungainly, prehistoric way and settled a few yards further upstream. Happy hunting! High above, a line of about twenty ramblers could be seen, descending Turnhouse Hill. Whenever I see a line of walkers silhouetted on the horizon, I can't help it - I am always reminded of the final scenes of The Seventh Seal.

Shortly after, I was in the library and took out Jim Crumley's 1991 paen to the Pentlands, Discovering the Pentland Hills. Aha! Here was the fellow who disliked the Regional Park and its signposts, bulldozed paths, car parks and increased numbers of visitors.
The Pentland Hills Regional Park... is unloved and unwanted by farmers, landowners, shepherds, local residents, hill wanderers, the great mass of Edinburgh people, in fact by every strand of relevant opinion other than the handful of local authority officials who are paid extravagantly to manage them... It is inappropriate, committee-minded, ineffective, expensive, wasteful, and utterly useless. Mercifully it plays no part in the Pentlands beyond Cauldstane Slap...
So Jim, do you like the Pentland Hills Regional Park or not?! Jim has more to say about my favourite short walk near my house, Allermuir from Castlelaw:
Castlelaw is a sacrificed hill, complete with rifle range, danger zone and bulldozed road to the summit... Is the army presence really appropriate, in a landscape of such value? Does its presence within the boundaries of the regional park not demonstrate the futility and irrelevance of the park?
Yet I confess I love this walk. On short or lazy days, the easy-angled, bulldozed track from Castlelaw provides an unintimidating route to one of the best viewpoints in the area, Allermuir Hill. We were up again recently, drinking in the views.

Caerketton from Allermuir summit:

It was incredibly clear, the Highlands sharp, and do you know what? I did not feel that pang of unfulfilled desire at not being up the Highlands on such a beautiful day. I was content with Allermuir Hill. Its secret is that it feels like a real hill. Allermuir Hill always leaves me fresh-cheeked, lung-filled, invigorated, endorphinated, and today was no different.

Allermuir Hill from Castlelaw:

On the way back, we crossed over to Castlelaw, Jim Crumley's sacrificed hill. He has a long history with the Pentlands, and will have resented the intrusions of the army and bureaucracy in the 1980s. I did not come here until the latter half of the 2000s, the hills already changed. I love them anyway.

Distant walkers and more distant Highlands from Castlelaw:

For all the bulldozed roads, crowds and signposts, the hill tops have not changed. The sunrise, sunset and weather has not changed. The wildlife - may be less, but it is still here. And I prefer not to call this the Pentland Hills Regional Park. Just the Pentlands.

Pentland Panorama from Castlelaw:

Sunday 23 December 2012

Poem: Cairngorm

Ach weel - it wisnae tae be! The poetry competition I entered earlier has returned its verdict, and the £2,000 prize is someone else's. Never mind - I will maybe join a writing class anyway, get some pointers on bettering my poems, for I can tell they need improvement - just not how. For example, here's one about Cairngorm I wrote after the creation of the Cairngorm funicular. Concerns by conservation groups over its effect on the mountain environment led to the seemingly absurd compromise to allow tourists to take the funicular up Cairngorm in summer... but not allow them out at the top. See if you can tell what is not right about this poem?

Top floor, Cairngorm.
Everybody out.
Come to the wilds, see what the fuss is all about.

Isn't man great.
Look at what we've tamed.
Barren, empty, go back the way you came.

Don't step outside.
Don't spoil the fragile 'scape.
Stay in the car! Too many feet it cannae take.

But total mountain cares
nothing for its fate.
Humanity cannot inspire either love or hate.

For it remembers ice.
Ice will yet grind out
a climate change to top them all,
from the 'gorms,
for the south.

PS: happy Christmas all!

Sunday 16 December 2012

The Arrochar Alps

The path to enchantment:

Round about the age of fourteen I used to walk from my house at the edge of an estate, across a field, up through a golf course, through a wood, to a point where the path started to go downhill again. At this point Loch Lomond became visible, as well as the smooth, rounded slopes of Glen Fruin, the first hills of the Highlands.

To me, Glen Fruin's swelling mams were as enticing as the burgeoning figures of my female contemporaries, and a hell of a lot more accessible. I wasn't allowed to go hillwalking by myself, but I would sneak away on my bike, pretending to stick to the roads, and drop the bike in Glen Fruin, legs pumping up the steep green slopes of Beinn Tarsuinn or Beinn Chaorach towards the blue crown of sky. Once up there, I would drink in the views. Just a few miles further north were the Arrochar Alps, real hills, craggy hills, hills over 3,000ft. The Cobbler, Beinn Narnain, Ben Vane, Beinn an Lochain, Ben Ime.

The Arrochar Alps:

Arrochar was only twenty miles away, less than two hours on the bike. The road was unpleasant, busy, narrow and bumpy, but the rewards on reaching Arrochar immense.

The Cobbler above Arrochar:

I cut my teeth on these hills. Their broken crags, wavy schistose, green grass, black winter rock, are the hills to me.

From youthful summer adventure, powering uphill at 20m a minute, stroking the grass on top, or enchanted by secret spots such as Lag Uaine or the southern slopes of The Brack; to adult winter reflection, the year turning, early sunsets on frosty slopes.

Beinn Narnain and the Cobbler from Beinn Ime:

Nowadays it is the Pentlands I can see from my bedroom window. But I will always think of these as my natal hills. I used to say I would like my ashes scattered from the summit of the In Pinn on Skye. But the more I think about it, the more I think I would prefer an obscure slope on Beinn Narnain, the winter sun sinking, there to rest for ever more.

Monday 10 December 2012

Glasgow Necropolis

Glasgow's Necropolis started life as a park - Fir Park - where the people of Glasgow took the air amongst newly planted fir trees in the first quarter of the 19th century, a time of increasing industrialisation, immigrants flooding in from the countryside and Highlands, the Napoleonic Wars, war with America, and the radical rising. In 1825, a statue of John Knox was placed at the top of the park, glowering over Glasgow Cathedral on the flat land on the other side of the Molendinar Burn.

Knox Statue:

But the population of Glasgow was increasing at a rate today seen in Chinese cities, and there was a need for new cemeteries. Glasgow's fathers met in 1828 and decided on the Fir Park as their own Necropolis, modelled on Paris' Père Lachaise. The Parisian cemetery had led the way, and a number of cities now wanted something similar - a parkland cemetery on a hill, full of grand monuments, open to all denominations.  The first burial was not even a Christian -  Joseph Levi, buried in 1832, was a Jewish jeweller.

Necropolis monuments:

The design started at the end of the reign of George IV, but the Necropolis became synonymous with the early Victorian age, as Glasgow's population expanded massively, and the Necropolis grew to 37 acres. It now holds 50,000 graves and 3,500 monuments - smaller by a factor of five than Glasgow's Southern Necropolis, but given its central location on a hill, far more prominent. The monuments in the Necropolis were designed to be seen.

Celtic Crosses:

There are other interesting graveyards in Scotland - Greyfriars or Canongate kirk in Edinburgh, Iona's Reilig Oran - but none so ambitiously flash as the Necropolis. "Glasgow's a bit like Nashville," said Billy Connolly in his World Tour of Scotland, "it doesn't care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead." The Necropolis is ideal for photography, the view changing with every other step.

Homes of the living, homes of the dead:

One of the little known stories of the Necropolis is of the family of roe deer, who arrived via routes mysterious to this green oasis in the centre of the city. Unfortunately for the deer, they were featured in a TV programme a few years back, and this raised profile brought their end as some locals hunted them with dogs. Roe deer have been sighted again in the last year, however.

Glasgow Cathedral: 

I remember visiting an uncle in Glasgow's Royal Infirmary, the view from the window being of Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis. What better place to contemplate mortality than the Royal Infirmary, looking out over the decaying old heart of Glasgow. The Necropolis featured in Alistair Gray's Lanark, as well as my friends' band The Plimptons video Ocean Colour Resurrection...

Thursday 6 December 2012

Word Maps

Wordle is a website that allows you to make word maps from a given chunk of text or URL. Curious, I wondered how my book The Weekend Fix (which is also available as a *cough* Amazon Kindle e-book and would make an ideal Christmas present) looks through Wordle's prism?

The Weekend Fix:

As would be expected, 'hill' and 'summit' take prominence, but so does OS and NN - there is an OS grid reference given at the start of each little story. As it is a personal story, names such as Brian, Alastair appear, and tellingly, 'car' is a bigger word than 'Munro'. Intrigued, I ran the text of a history book I am in the process of writing through Wordle. The results were interesting, for a couple of reasons.

History book:

If things were being given their due weight, 'church' would be a far more prominent word, and the word map highlights a deficiency in important historical words such as pope, presbyterian, industry, and empire. What also comes out most clearly from this book - a history of Britain, that is really a history of Scotland with the other parts of Britain considered - is the pivotal part England has played in Scottish history. Perhaps I have collected too much material on this relationship to the detriment of other areas?

What about my songs and poems? I ran a list of songs up to around 2004 through Wordle. 'Love' is by far the most prominent word. How hackneyed.


My poems are a bit more fey - words such as dream, moon, heart - but also death, fuck, and, for some reason, gudgie...


I had a bit of fun on Wordle - run some of your own text through it and see what it comes up with!