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:

Saturday 21 September 2013

Ireland's Highest Peaks - Carrauntoohil

The hills of Ireland (like Wales and to a lesser extent, the Lake District) are 'familiar strangers' to Munro baggers - similar landforms and topography to the Highlands, yet put a photo of one in front of a bagger and they will scratch their heads, trying to work out where on earth in Scotland the picture was taken.

Is that, eh, the Mamores? No, Macgillycuddy's Reeks:

Macgillycuddy's Reeks rise from a patchwork of green Kerry fields, filling the horizon between the tourist honeypot of Killarney and the rugged and scenic Iveragh peninsula. They form the largest mountain massif in Ireland, full of steep corries and dramatic, narrow ridges, the match of any Munro, and contain Ireland's highest hill, Carrauntoohil. As a bagger on holiday in south-west Ireland, guess where I went first?

Below Carrauntoohil:

There are three options in ascending Corrauntoohil from the direction of Killarney. You can go south-west straight up Hags Glen to a bealach, walk along the dramatic ridge to the left of the glen and go over hills like Cnoc na Peiste, or go up to the right of Hags Glen via Benkeragh. Benkeragh was my first choice, to gain a bird's eye view of the deep corrie of Eagle's Nest and to traverse the narrow ridge between Benkeragh and Carrauntoohil. This was exhilarating without being terrifying - the best of hillwalking.

Carrauntoohil from Benkeragh:

The summit of Ireland sports a great iron cross, and I waited in vain for the mist to clear before heading down, spending the night in an interesting hostel near Dingle. On mine and Billy's return several years later, we took the trade route straight up to the saddle from Hag's Glen. (Apparently this has become badly eroded in recent years.)

Loch in Hag's Glen:

From the saddle it is a straightforward slog to the sunmmit. As we descended the same way, we met another couple of Scots, who told us about a path we hadn't heard of, 'Heaven's Gate'. This involved descending the tourist route halfway to the saddle, contouring round back towards the steep corrie of the Eagle's Nest, picking up a faint path and descending vertiginously. We left the crowds behind and gained spectacular views, but I would only try this route in clear weather due to the accurate routefinding required.

Descending Heaven's Gate:

The Reeks are a superb range, and Carrauntoohil just one corner of them. I would love to return and explore them further.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Glasgow Doors Open Day

Doors open day is upon us again, an annual opportunity to see inside intriguing buildings that are otherwise not open to the general public. Fire stations, private clubs, stately homes, mosques, churches, offices - open for two or three days to the nosy public. I will not forget my astonishment at seeing the interior murals of the Phoebe Traquair Centre in Edinburgh, for example.

Photo courtesy Mansefield Traquair Centre:

The first place to hold doors open day in the UK was Glasgow in 1990, and today it has probably the best programme in Scotland.

Like a kid in a sweetie shop - or, as it is free, like a bookworm in a library - I can't decide where I would like to go this weekend. The Glasgow School of Art? City Chambers? Scotland Street School? Hampden Park? St Vincent St Church? Pacific Quay? Commonwealth Games athletes' village? Tennent's Brewery? Fairfield Shipyard? Govan Old Church? House for an Art Lover? Glasgow Central Mosque? Trades Hall? The Sub Crawl?

Where would you go?

Sunday 15 September 2013

Swanston and Allermuir

For a while I've wanted to see Swanston, a village above Edinburgh in the foothills of the Pentlands. Robert Louis Stevenson came here to recuperate and a picture I'd seen made it look like the village that time forgot, the Brigadoon atmosphere enhanced by its location in a fold in the hills, invisible from any surrounding roads.


On closer aquaintance, Swanston slightly disappointed, more of a tiny hamlet than a village. However it is also one of the many starting points for routes into the Pentlands, and we took the opportunity of a daunder up Allermuir Hill.


The views from here are different to those from the southern and eastern approaches. The surprise view from the top is not the city of Edinburgh, which dominates this northern approach, but towards the rolling ridge of Carnethy and the Kips.

Caerketton screes:

If I had grown up in southern Edinburgh I would have been up here all the time as a teenager. There are plenty interesting folds in the slopes on this side of Allermuir Hill, little cleuchs and wrinkles to investigate, tiny crags, thistles, gorse - the seedpods cracking in ripeness, expelling little green ball-bearing seeds - and heather, still in bloom.


We were on top of Allermuir in no time, caught in a sudden squall and headed straight back down. This must be the quickest route of all to the top of my favourite quick hill, and the most accessible route on foot from Edinburgh.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The Cowal Games

"Would you like to come to the Cowal Games?" asked my friend Andy. "I've borrowed a yacht and will anchor it off Dunoon." I certainly would! But I had another event early on Sunday morning and couldn't spend Saturday night off Cowal. "I will see you there for the day instead." I said.

Huge family crowds poured out of the train from Glasgow to Gourock, but the ferry companies had laid on extra boats, and the queues moved reasonably quickly. I had been living in Birmingham for a while, and only recently returned to Glasgow. My grandmother had lived in Cowal, but I had not been back for years and had forgotten how beautiful it was, the steeply forested hillsides dropping to a shoreline of white houses reflected in sparkling, emollient waters. I did not even know that Dunoon had a stadium. It is nestled in a hollow in a forest at the top of town, and the day was sunny enough to keep the midges off.

I found Andy and his girlfriend in deckchairs on the banking surrounding the stadium and settled down to watch. Highland Games have semi-mythical origins, dating back to Malcolm Canmore who held a contest of speed, strength and skill at Braemar in the 11th century. The current incarnation of Highland Games though is a couple of hundred years old, dating from the 19th century fashion across Scotland for tartan and other symbols of Gaeldom.

We watched towering athletes in kilts heaving hammers over high beams and attempting to toss the caber. On a stage near the middle of the stadium various groups of girls jigged away constantly, subject to the most intense scrutiny from the serious end of the stadium - the World Highland Dancing Championships are decided at Cowal, and these girls were dancing for gold. Of the Highland Games I have been to, the Cowal Games stands out as the best. And for me the highlight is the climax of the event. The World Pipe Band championships are usually held around a week or so earlier in Glasgow, and many of these bands, honed to a pitch of perfection, come together for one last hurrah at Cowal. The bands march one by one into the stadium until the whole floor is taken up with them, thousands of pipers playing the same stirring tune, and then they start to file out, playing all the time. Spectators lined the street down to the centre of Dunoon as the bands marched past, a seeming never-ending procession of them, some in fancy dress, all adding a very unScottish level of noise, colour and joyfulness to the street.

Massed bands, ©

After the bands, there was nothing else to see. We elbowed our way past a jam of thirsty pipers spilling out the pubs for a pint, and I left Andy and his girlfriend to enjoy the yacht to themselves as I queued up in the sunshine for the next ferry back to Gourock.

An incident from the games. During the last track race, two game but unfit men, a tall, thin gangly one and a fat one with an impressive beer belly, were lapped by every other runner and left to jouk it out for last place. They completed an extra couple of laps themselves, the thin one well in front, when the fat one dropped his head to his chest, and in a superhuman effort, started to gain on the thin runner. A ripple of excitement passed through the crowd. Would he catch up? A low noise started, rising to a roar as the fat man, red in the face, risking a heart attack, gained and then, just before the line, overtook the unsuspecting thin runner! I hope he survived his efforts.