Tuesday 23 July 2013

Kippford, Rockcliffe and Castlehill Point

On a hot day, too hot for the hills, where else to go but the Scottish Riviera? We arrived in the pretty village of Rockcliffe for a walk, having had a big cycle round Dumfriesshire and a daunder up Criffel the day before. This was to be a day of relaxation, sunshine and crowds, and we slapped on the sun cream in a shady car park, already full.

Rockcliffe from Mote of Mark:

Rockcliffe is a secret that everybody is in on, a small haven bustling with weekenders and holidaymakers. With three caravan sites within a 4km radius, you might think the village would be ruined as a result. However, it has little in the way of facilities and somehow, despite the tourists, retains its peaceful village atmosphere, everyone making their own entertainment, down on the small, rocky beach or pottering about in small boats offshore in the sheltered Rough Firth.

Rough Firth:

Only a mile from Rockcliffe lies another pretty coastal village, Kippford, slightly larger and boasting a village shop. We walked along the coastal path between the two villages, enjoying a picnic in a sunny glade, emerging at the Kippford end at a beach made entirely of cockles.

Cockle beach:

Kippford today is a whitewashed town of artists and tourists, strung along the narrow shore between the muddy Rough Firth and the low wooded hills behind. The firth is attractive at high tide but miles of oozy mud are exposed at low tide, the boats moored at Kippford sitting on the mud at crazy angles.

There are no miles of golden sandy beaches and the scenery is not dramatic, yet this shore is a sheltered suntrap and there is a feeling of rightness. There is an art gallery, and a sculptor lives at the end of the road that greets walkers arriving from the Rockcliffe coastal path. One of the sculptures stops you in your tracks and in the middle of a sunny, beautiful day drops you down a deep, dark historical hole. It stands at the waters edge, a small figure of a female made of wood with red fishing net hair, chained to a post. It is a memorial to the Wigtown Martyrs, two Covenanters, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, who were judicially murdered on 11 May 1685 for refusing to swear the Episcopalian oath recognising James VII as the head of the church. (For Covenanters, God was the head of the church.) Their mode of execution was to be novel: tied to stakes in the Solway firth and drowned as the tide came in. Margaret McLachlan, the elder woman, was tied further out, in the hope that the younger woman would be terrified by the sight and swear the Episcopalian oath. But she did not. Margaret Wilson was eighteen years old.


On the way back from Kippford to Rockcliffe, we took the higher path through the woods. "Watch your feet!" I said to my companion. She had unwittingly stepped right over an adder, sunning itself on the path!

Higher up, the path opens out onto a 6th century hillfort, the Motte of Mark. There is nothing to see anymore of the fort, but it remains a great spot to see up and down the coast. Below us lay Rough Island, accessible at low tide by a causeway. This area was renowned for smugglers in the 18th century and there are plenty caves as well as tidal islands. Have you ever read the Famous Five books?  I know that Enid Blyton is supposed to have set them in Devon, but there can't be a better prototype for Kirrin Island than Rough Island. For letting children run wild and free, the Rockcliffe and Kippford coast must be a better fit for 1950s Devon than the Devon of today is.

Rough Island:

When we returned to Rockcliffe, we wanted to walk further, so headed out to Castlehill Point, where the Rough Firth meets the Solway Firth. The light was blinding, almost psychedelic on the bright yellow broom, and the cliff edge heading east tempted us on to Sandyhills Bay. But that's another story...

Hestan Island from Castlehill Point:

Thursday 11 July 2013

What's You're Favourite Whisky?

I drink far less whisky nowadays than I did as a teenager. Before you get visions of me as a Bullingdonian, ordering cigars and double Macallans all round after lobster thermidor at the Ritz, I used to take whisky backpacking, as the most weight (and cost) efficient way of getting stocious in remote bothies. A bottle of Stewarts Cream of the Barley was my tipple of choice, under £10 in the 1990s yet, unlike other cheap blends like White Horse, Bells, Dewars, or Famous Grouse, it didn't taste entirely of paint stripper. (Apparently the best selling whisky in Scotland is Grouse, so don't trust a Scotsman's opinion on whisky - if you want a blend, Black Bottle is hard to beat.)

Stewarts Cream of the Barley, © whisky.io

For value though, you can't beat Blair Mhor. It's an 8 year old pure malt (as opposed to the gold standard of single malt) and in those same days, retailed at £14. A bargain for the quality, and occasionally, if money wasn't too tight, I'd treat myself.

As I aged and found a bit more spare change in my pockets, I was able to afford single malt whisky. Two  stood out then, and have stood the test of time since: Glenlivet and Macallan. Macallan is a warming drink, like putting a jersey on your insides; Glenlivet is one of the lightest of malts, and always drinkable, whatever the situation, climate or mood. In the words of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd:
"If a body could just find oot the exact proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk every day, and keep to that, I verily trow that he might live forever, and doctors and kirk-yards would go oot o'fashion".
Whisky only became popular during the Napoleonic Wars, due to the difficulty in obtaining brandy. Thanks to the quality of the water, the area around Glenlivet became a hive of distilleries. Perhaps surprisingly, most of it was as illicit as French brandy, as the tax on distilling was so high that most was whisky sold was moonshine. When the tax law improved in 1824, Glenlivet became one of the first *legal* distilleries, gaining a huge cachet as a result. The owner, George Smith, took to carrying a pair of pistols to protect his life and property from incensed bootleggers.

Glenlivet distillery:

Tastes change however. I used to dislike Talisker, for example, but since my palate has matured, I now rate it amongst the best. So what's my favourite today? Lagavulin 16 year old blew me away when I first tried it, and it still does when I occasionally try it today, a whisky with a massive amount of body, my dram of choice when I celebrated setting up my music studio in Glasgow (I had plenty time that year to to reflect over a dram as I had almost no punters). But there is one even better than that. It has been a long time since I've last tried it, but Ardbeg 17 year old was my all time favourite several years ago. Plenty other people liked it as well, and it sold out quickly. The distillery must have just come out of mothballs, as they then started selling younger versions of Ardbeg, such as a 10 year old, and un-aged versions with names like nam Beiste and Uigeadail. None, however, match up to the memory of that original 17 year old.

Ardbeg 17 year old, © The Whisky Exchange:

There is just one problem with malt whisky, the main reason I drink so little of it these days. It is so damn expensive. Who can justify spending £40+ on a bottle of booze?

Sunday 7 July 2013

The Worst Tennis Playing Nation on Earth

Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin.

Get it round ye! :)

Monday 1 July 2013

The Brindled Upland

The Cairngorms are reknowned for their long aproach walks. Start at Aviemore, Tomintoul, or Braemar - Linn of Dee if you insist - and several hours of walking are required just to reach the base of the hill. Of course you can also approach from the ski-tow car park in Coire Cas, 600m above sea level, but this is anathema to the true lover of the Cairngorms. I, of course, have never approached the Cairngorms from Coire Cas (ahem)... I wanted one big hill day recently, and driving to Orkney I was struck by the great gleaming mass of the Cairngorms, visible all the way up the A9 from Kingussie to Mid Clyth in Caithness.

Cairngorms across the Moray Firth:

If I wanted a big day on the hills, it had to be the 'gorms. Ben Macdhui gave an excellent expedition a year and a half ago. Now it was Braeriach's turn. And not from Coire Cas - that would be cheating - but from Loch an Eilein.

Loch an Eilein, 8am:

I set off from home early, arriving at Loch an Eilein three hours later, snow from the previous fortnight largely gone, sun out on a glorious morning, the day already fulfilling its promise. One of the glories of the Cairngorms is their skirts of native forestry. The summit has its legend of Am Fear Liath Mor, the Big Grey Man, but the forests also buzz with mythical activity. Lamh Dearg (bloody hand) is my favourite. A terrifying bogle, he stalks the paths of the Rothiemurchus forest, taking the form of a hot-blooded and fully armed clansman. If you see him, he will challenge you to a fight. Accept! For he kills those who refuse or flee. But those who boldy face up to his challenge, he allows to pass as a friend.

Approaching Glen Einich:

It is a long walk from Loch an Eilein to Loch Einich. I counted 11km on the map, but a pair of German cyclists who overtook me on the way out stopped to chat on the way back. It was 13km from the track end to the Eileinsee, they informed me. The walk up Glen Einich, though fairly long, didn't feel like a slog. The river brawls through a gap below Carn Eilrig before the upper glen opens out, Sgurr Gaoith above, dippers and small fish in the river and happiness in my heart. A runner overtook me as I photographed the surroundings and aired my feet, passing me again on his way back down before I reached Loch Einich. He and the cyclists were the only people I met all day.

Am Beanaidh:

The track finally ends at Loch Einich and a footpath winds its way up into Coire Dhondail. Despite snow patches across the path, gaining height was the easiest part of the day. The walk-in is long, but Loch Einich lies at 500m, making for a Corbett-sized 800m of ascent to the Braeriach plateau.

Headwall of Glen Einich:

The head of Coire Dhondail provides a natural breather looking over the Moine Mhor, a high-level moss at 3000ft leading over Sgurr Gaoith to Glen Feshie. The summit plateau of Braeriach lies an easy 300m higher at 4000ft.

Moine Mhor:

The first impression of the plateau was not of flatness but verticality, as the great peak of Cairn Toul and the snow-rimmed gouge of the Garbh Coire came into view. East across the Lairig Ghru, Ben Macdhui. Beinn a' Ghlo appeared to the south, Lawers, Alder, Nevis, Creag Megaidh west, an arc of unidentified peaks beyond the Great Glen and Ben Wyvis, the Moray Firth and Caithness hills north.

Garbh Coire:

Now I was up here in this special, elevated place, I wanted to spend a bit of time experiencing it. First I followed the corrie edge to the Falls of Dee, but it wasn't possible to get too close because of the remains of cornices. The Dee is a surprisingly large river up here, and I followed it all the way upstream to the spring at its source. This was choked with snow, but marked by a few white stones. Where does all the water come from, so high up?

Infant River Dee:

There was something wonderful in the knowledge I was at the source of the River Dee. I sat and listened and felt the wind on my face, fresh mountain air in my lungs. A small brown bird cheeped in the distance. The only other sound the icy waters of the infant river. I was moved, I'm afraid, to poetry.
They come as fluffy lambs
gambolling overhead
great white galleons
bumping on the shore
Burst cloudy dams
Spilling over ridges
Thick soups of clouds
Tastes of moss and mineral
Great blank greynesses of clouds
Lost clouds
Dark black rainclouds
Swallowing horizons whole
Terrible tumultuous clouds
Tearing needles of killing clouds:
Clearing clouds reveal
Ta da!
A searing white mountain
Braeriach summit verticalities:

Not far to the eventual summit, across saturated gravelbeds and blasted boulderfields. The summit cairn is perched dramatically on the edge of Garbh Coire. After two hours dotting about the plateau, steeping myself in its terroir, I was struck again by the defending verticalities. A couple of distant figures, descending to the Chalamain Gap, gave scale to the tundra landscape. A bleak and brilliant spot.

Braeriach summit:

It was time to head down. The shortest return lay across ankle-breaking slopes of boulders and heather above the Beanaidh Bheag, passing the high loch in Coire an Lochain, ice floes floating on its surface.

Loch Coire an Lochain:

The day had given and given, and yet held one final surprise - a herd of reindeer!


I was glad to have come to Glen Einich for my walk today, and walked all the way from Loch an Eilein to the source of the Dee. You wouldn't see reindeer or compose poetry in, say, Glencoe.