Tuesday 31 December 2013

New Year Resolutions

It's that time of year again for retrospection and resolution. How was your 2013? How would you like 2014 to turn out? Away from the more personal things, I had always promised myself a few experiences by the time I turned forty. I've already had a seaplane flight, but have still to do the Cuillin Ridge in a single expedition. I have signed up for the Reykjavik marathon in the coming year though!

I enjoyed playing music for Julius Caesar in 2013, and in the coming year I'd like to write a musical... though putting one on might be a bit beyond a mere year's preparation!

I'm captain of a touch rugby team this year so hoping the season goes well, the team enjoys itself, performs well and nobody gets badly injured!

I'm not much of a traveller, but I've always wanted to visit Norway and the Faroes for the walking and incredible scenery. I suppose Iceland this year will be a good Nordic experience.

I've been collecting historical facts for the last few years, and this year of all years is a great time to publish a pocket-sized introduction to Scottish history - of course, every proper historian worth their salt will have the same idea. We will see what happens.

As for outdoor activities... I seem to do less and less these days which is a crying shame. My plan of walking the coast of Britain is probably a retirement dream, but there is no reason why I can't promise myself a few weekends away. Especially as I've realised with horror that my last Corbett was Morven, over two years ago - this must be rectified, I must do some Corbetts!

Whatever your hopes and fears for 2014 - I hope you stay healthy and have a good year!

Above Helensburgh, a snowier year:

Friday 20 December 2013

Sandend and Portsoy

We stayed the night at the campsite in Sandend, a highly attractive sandy bay on the Buchan coast. The morning was cold and clear, and we went for a walk. A 19th century fishing hamlet hunkers down against the west side of the bay, and there are tank traps and pill boxes hiding in the dunes. As one of the few easily accessible beaches along this rocky coast, sleepy Sandend could have been on the front line in the event of a German invasion from Norway in 1940s.


Surfers say this beach is 'like Cornwall without the crowds'. The fishing villages of the Buchan coast are slightly less picturesque than their West Country counterparts, but there are no traffic jams or parking charges here.

Sandend's defences:

Not far from Sandend is Findlater Castle. Like Fast Castle in Berwickshire, there is no longer much to see of the fortress clinging to its precipitous headland. The reconstruction below (© Andrew Spratt at Maybole.org) gives a better idea of what the castle would have looked like on its steep-sided little headland.

Findlater Castle: source: http://www.maybole.org

It isn't known exactly when it was built, but an idea of its age can be gained from the fact that it had already fallen into disrepair when it was rebuilt in 1260 on the orders of Alexander III to guard against Norweigan attack. It was abandoned in the 17th century, according to an apocryphal story, because a nurse accidentally dropped the infant Ogilvie heir out a window into the sea below.

Back at Sandend, a pleasant coastal path leads to the next village along the coast, Portsoy. We had the misfortune to visit the harbour just as an intense and uncommunicative gaggle of photographers from a camera club descended, putting me off taking photos myself!

Portsoy rocks:

The town was chartered in 1550, its harbour built in the 17th century by Jacobite Patrick Ogilvie of Boyne to ship out the local stone, a green serpentine which was sold under the name 'Portsoy Marble'. You can still buy it today from the shop on the harbour. Its most famous use was in the making of Versailles Palace.

Portsoy harbour:

Portsoy flourished on herring in the 19th century as did many Scottish fishing ports, but today it is a sleepy haven for pleasure boats, houses on steep north-facing slopes tumbling down to crowd around the small harbour. Each June it hosts the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival - definitely the time to visit!


Saturday 14 December 2013

Craigievar Castle

Ever since seeing it on a NTS Christmas card, I've wanted to visit Craigievar Castle. Although it has slightly less going for it as a visitor attraction than Fyvie, Brodie or Crathes castles, thanks to its fairytale appearance and influence on later, Victorian architects, it is the most famous tower house of them all.

To architectural historians like Charles McKean, Craigievar is the apogee of Scotland's indigenous tower house style, the mature, baroque flourishing of a basic defensive form. Unlike other tower houses such as Fyvie or Castle Fraser, it is untouched since the early 17th century, its purity of line uncomplicated by later construction.

It was completed in 1626 by an Aberdeenshire merchant, William Forbes, who made his fortune in the Baltic. Craigievar thus stands as a tangible reminder of a wider and little-known part of Scottish history, the Baltic diaspora. It is estimated that 40,000 mainly Aberdonian Scots (5% of the Scottish population) emigrated to Poland alone late in the 16th and early in the 17th century, attracted by her uniquely tolerant religious laws. They went as artisans, merchants, and mercenaries. In Poland, serfs were tied to the land and the nobility disdained trade, thus providing opportunities to Germans, Jews and Scots.

And the other merchants disliked the Scots. As well as providing credit, these merchants and peddlars avoided paying tax, undercutting the competition (in Germany today, bargain goods are still advertised as “schottenpreis” – Scottish Price). Town guilds forced them to be based outside of town boundaries.  But the Scottish black marketeers operated unmolested, protected by their usefulness to the nobility as mercenaries. For Polish lords considered Scottish infantry better than the native serfs (Spytek Wawrzyniec Jordon, a Polish big cheese, reckoned 2,000 Scots were better by far than 6,000 Poles), and many Scots peddlers happily swapped packs for guns for the right price. By 1632, even Sweden controlled an army of 25,000 mercenary Scots, fighting in Eastern Germany for Gustavus Adolphus' short-lived Swedish empire. The reason this Baltic diaspora is so little known is because the Scots who stayed on integrated fairly quickly, often taking local names, becoming indistinguishable from the native population in a couple of generations.

But people at the time certainly knew about it. When the House of Commons in 1606 debated a possible union of Parliaments the Commons opposed the plan, saying (according to Puritan historian Arthur Wilson):
"If we admit them into our liberties, we shall be overrun with them, as cattle pent up by a slight hedg will spill over it into a better soyl ... witness the multiplicities of the Scots in Polonia." 
Or consider the words of The Rebel Scot, a poem written by royalist John Cleveland during the English Civil War:
Had Cain been a Scot, God would have changed his doom
Not forced him to wander, but confined him at home
And you thought this was going to be a post about the rolling Strathdon countryside, magnificent Jacobean interiors and intricate corbelling bursting exuberantly from a plain defensive base...

Sunday 1 December 2013

Sands of Forvie

I was curious to see Balmedie Estate, and the damage Donald Trump has caused with his new golf supercourse. (Not much to see apparently - from the beach side, at least.) But an Aberdeen-based friend recommended we head instead to Forvie, which he reckoned had the biggest sand dune in Europe (I always thought it was on the coastal side of the Gironde in France?). Balmedie is a lo-o-ong stretch of otherwise unremarkable beach between the estuaries of the Don and Ythan, but Forvie is something quite different: masses of dunes, a sand-engulfed village, loads of seals, and a clifftop walk to a pretty harbour. In the end we only had a couple of hours before dark - but Forvie exceeded expectations.

Forvie dunes:

Just across the Ythan from Newburgh, a car park and information board prepare you for your visit. A short walk through a dark forest leads to a sandy trail, the village of Newburgh opposite, seals watching just offshore in the estuary of the Ythan.

It took a surprisingly long time to traipse through the soft shoreline sands, and well before the tip of the dunes at Newburgh Bar we cut across the desert-like landscape, the sea briefly out of sight.

On the other side the North Sea appeared.

About a dozen boats sat just offshore Aberdeen harbour, waiting their turn to dock.

We walked up the deserted North Sea beach, now in shadow, disturbing a vast gathering of seagulls who had thought they had finally got the beach to themselves for the night. The sea took on an icy blue appearance as the eastern sky lit up with the coastal equivalent of Alpenglow.

I was intrigued to find a church, like St Enodoc's or St Pirin's Oratory in Cornwall, nearly buried in the dunes. Information boards around the site tell you more. In medieval times this was a village called Forvie, but by the 16th century it was frequently "oftimes ourcassin be violent blasts of sandis" and was eventually abandoned.

I loved being here - and next time will walk all the way to St Catherine's Dub. But darkness was falling, and it was time to head back via the now spooky avenue of trees, the crow-mobbed Knockhall Castle silhouetted in the dying light of the western sky.

Aberdeen from Forvie:

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Meeting Orlando Bloom

I did a double-take walking down the street to work - Orlando Bloom! That was in August, during the festival when all sorts come to Edinburgh, so it is perfectly possible. But I've seen him several times over the last few months - not Orlando Bloom, but an uncanny similarity. I told my work colleagues that the next time I saw him, I was going to stop him in the street and tell him he looks like Orlando Bloom! "Are you sure you want to do that?" they said. "He's the spitting image!" I replied. "He could be making money on the side as an Orlando Bloom lookalike."

Well today I went into Edinburgh Arts & Picture Framers and there he was, behind the counter! So I had a good look at him. And do you know what?

He looks nothing like Orlando Bloom.

Monday 11 November 2013

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

I haven't posted recently for a couple of reasons. One is I've been felled by general lurgy (also known as that deadly strain, Influenza Testostero). The other is that my time has been absorbed in rehearsals, meaning trips have been few and far between, despite the beautiful weather recently. I've written music and will be performing it for amateur dramatics group the Edinburgh Grads in their production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. What? But there isn't music in Julius Caesar! Well, there is now. I am sure that if there were drums, keyboards, bass, electric guitar and four part harmonies in Shakey's time he'd had scripted them in.

Come and see the show, from Tuesday 26 November - Saturday 30 November, at Adam House, Chambers St, Edinburgh, at 19:30!

Thursday 24 October 2013

Spur of the Moment

I looked out of the office window at Salisbury Crags glowing in late afternoon sun. I wanted to be up there! But there was work to be done. Sod it. I took a document to finish at home and walked out the door.

Heart and legs pumping, slipping in my gripless office shoes, I was soon established on the path above the crags. I caught my breath. Holyrood Palace nestled in its park below. The sun fired the autumn leaves on the romantic, shaggy outline of Calton Hill.  The distant Lomonds bronze against a murky cloud over Fife, the Forth cobalt blue, the Ochils etched clear against the setting sun. Figures silhouetted on the Salisbury Crag skyline resolved themselves as I passed, youngsters singly and in pairs, perched on the cliff edge like nesting fulmars. The castle below their dangling feet. Students and tourists. Arthur's Seat wore a crown of tiny figures.

Thankful for my health, for my mobility, for the opportunity to see and experience this, I descended back into city life. What a place Holyrood Park is, what a privilege for Edinburgh to have a mountain in its midst! And what a joy to pluck a moment like this from a dull, routine day.

On Salisbury Crags:

Sunday 20 October 2013

Loch an Eilein and Inshriach Forest

Autumn colours:

Inshriach Forest in autumn. If you can't get up a hill, a walk round the forest makes a good alternative. Lots of trails, a nature reserve for capercaillie, wildcats, and other flora and fauna, an abundance of fungi and some beautiful forestry. We set off from Glen Feshie, intending to do a circuit round Loch Gamhna and Loch an Eilein, returning via Drake's bothy and and the Allt a' Mharcaidh. The autumn colours were beautiful, and we stopped at a clearing for lunch with a view of the Cairngorms.

Glen Feshie trees:

At this time of year, the forest has an incredible variety of mushrooms and toadstools. On the drive up, we had seen people by the roadside picking some. We're too cautious to do that. Which of these are edible, and which poisonous? My guess is that they are all bad news.

Inchriach Toadstools:

After a short stretch of muddy path Loch Gamhna appeared. Dragonflies sunned themselves on bleached white rocks, and bamboo rustled in the shallows. Here? At this time of year? There is something of the Chinese watercolour about Loch Gamhna.

Loch Gamhna:

Up till now we had seen nobody: but once on the circular path around Loch an Eilein, a stready trickle of people made their way round the well-made path.

Loch an Eilein's beautiful path:

At the art gallery / ice cream shop next to the car park - our point for turning round and going back - a sign says this is "Britain's Favouite Picnic Spot". Is it really, Rothiemurchus estate? I am not sure it is even Scotland's favourite picnic spot. Surely Princes St Gardens is more popular. But why nitpick? This is one of the best run estates in the country, and the path was being enjoyed by people of all levels of mobility, including someone in a motorised wheelchair. We ate an ice cream and watched people walking their dogs.

Loch an Eilein:

Loch an Eilein is famous for its ruined castle, on a tiny island just offshore. By the time we reached it, the sun had gone and a chill wind sprung up. I looked up at Cairngorm, cloud-free and still in sunshine. The hills are calling again. As the air chills and the nights grow shorter, I have a terrible urge to climb a white-fanged western giant and watch sunset from a snowy summit...

Loch an Eilein castle:

Friday 11 October 2013

King William of France

The Antique Theatre in Orange:

Somewhere - I don't remember where, perhaps Norman Davis' Europe: A History - I recall a map, with arrows pointing out of it from France towards the rest of Europe. The arrows denoted the migration of significant knights, nobles, or marriage partners to rule other parts of Europe. It was an impressive diagram, putting France at the centre of the web of international monarchy. Just a few examples:

  • the English monarchy and aristocracy was deposed in a hostile takeover in 1066 by William Duke of Normandy, and so effective was this that the oldest English noble families usually do not date their ancestry any further back than the Norman invasion. 
  • During the crusades, France provided the kings of Jerusalem. 
  • Norman adventurers did not just conquer England, but Sicily and Naples. 
  • The Stewart dynasty in Scotland can trace their French ancestry back to Dol in Brittany via Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland, whose father Alan was invited over by Henri I of England to help pacify the Welsh marches.
  • William of Orange's title stems from the lands of Orange, now in France... gained in a will in 1544 by the Dutch Nassau dynasty.

The evidence was gathering that France really was the cradle of European monarchy. But whilst researching for this post, I read that Denmark's 19th century king Christian 9 was nicknamed the 'father of Europe' due to his relations with the rest of the monarchies of Europe. I realised you could probably draw a map like the French one for many other countries, including Scotland (whose dynasties have provided kings and queens for Norway, England, Ireland, France, Burgundy and Bohemia, just off the top of my head).

The truth is they are all interrelated anyway. As royalty might say: we're a' Charlemagne's bairns.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Plus Beaux Villages de Ecosse

In France recently, I was struck by a scheme for picturesque villages known as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. To get into the scheme as a 'most beautiful' village, it is not enough merely to be picturesque: you need at least two protected national sites of historic or natural interest and a maximum population of 2,000.

Gordes, a plus beaux village de France:

It got me thinking - what villages in Scotland would comply with such a scheme? On first thoughts, Scotland is a land of thin pickings for picturesque villages. People come here for the glorious scenery, not the ugly built environment, which all-to-often seems to have been commissioned and designed by people who care nothing for the art of living.

Yet further contemplation reveals some places worthy of such a scheme. Culross, of course. The rest of the East Neuk villages like Pittenweem and St Monans. Falkland. Inveraray. Dunkeld. Pennan. (There are plenty other places with picturesque vistas of course, like Tobermory or Portree, but one street does not make a village.)

Culross, a plus beaux village d'Ecosse:

A scheme like this might concentrate the minds of residents and planners. Perhaps they would pay more attention to the beauty and human impact of demolitions and developments, in the hope of joining the scheme, or of not losing their place in it. Look at Edinburgh for example, whose historic centre has been maintained thanks to the efforts of the Cockburn Society. They might be tweedy pedants, telling you what colour you are allowed to have your front door, but the city council would have bulldozed a motorway through the New Town and over the Meadows in the 60s and 70s if the Cockburn Society had not fought them.

One of the 1960s plans for the Edinburgh's Inner Ring Road motorway:

On the other hand, a national beautiful village scheme would encourage the gentrification of villages. Like many of their French counterparts, they might become hollow communities full of second homes, as Plockton or Lochcarron already are today. Perhaps that is not what Scots want. Perhaps they prefer a certain degree of dereliction. In the words of a crofter on 1990s Gaelic comedy show Randan, whose croft full of rusting, wrecked machinery deterred an obnoxious pair of yuppie second home buyers:

"Aye, I knew that old car would come in useful some day!"

Thursday 26 September 2013

Ireland's Highest Peaks - Brandon Mountain

Of all the hills in Britain or Ireland, which do you prefer? According to Hamish Brown, a man who knows his hills, Brandon Mountain on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry is the best. Given such a recommendation, I was eager to experience it for myself.

Virgin Mary at the start:

There are two main routes up Brandon Mountain. To the west, a pilgrim route is marked by crosses and small white posts. It would be difficult to get lost, even in thick mist. To the east, a quieter but more dramatic path cuts up into Brandon's impressive eastern corries, with the sporting option of a narrow, scrambling ridge. We decided to ascend the corrie path from Brandon Bay, descend the pilgrim route towards Smerwick Harbour, and worry about getting back to the start when we got down.

Entering the corrie:

Cloud obscured any views from the summit, topped like Carrauntoohil by a large cross, and we hung around a while hoping it would clear. Seeing that it wasn't, we headed down the pilgrim route.


Almost immediately we broke out of the cloud. It had filled the corrie and capped the summit but left the rest of the mountain free. Looking back, we could see the way we had come up, from a fine beach below in Brandon Bay to the east and the corrie we had ascended.

Brandon Bay:

Brandon's fine eastern corries:

The pilgrim route shows a completely different aspect to Brandon Mountain, an easy if sometimes steep path, well marked.

The pilgrim route:

No great corries or deep lochans on this side of the mountain but instead, fantastic views across the green patchwork of Dingle to abrupt seacliffs and steep rocky islands.

On our way down we got chatting to a couple who were touring Ireland in their campervan. They offered us a lift back to Brandon Bay and we gladly accepted. So is this the finest hill in Britain or Ireland? Many would say not - including the campervan couple - and that hills such as Liathach or the Buachaille provide more sporting routes and spectacular views. Yet there is nothing in Scotland like the views across green fields to sharp islands and creamy beaches, and the association with St Brendan - who, according to some, discovered North America in the 6th century - adds an extra dimension to this fine mountain.

Clouds clear on Brandon Mountain: