Wednesday 31 December 2014

Hogmanay Apocrypha

The tale goes that one December in the 1980s, Dundee Airport faxed a message to the UK's main air traffic control centre.

"There will be no flights over Hogmanay." 

A while later they received a reply.

"We've checked our maps, but can't find it. Where is Hogmanay?" 

A good Hogmanay to you all, wherever that may be.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Memory of the Year, 2014

Looking back over the year, I wondered what my favourite photo was. Barring holidays abroad and family photos, which picture of Scotland would bring back the best memories? I started looking through my pictures. Snowy step cutting on the Blackmount in January. A storm-lashed Aberlady Bay, marram grass bent back and white horses on the sandbar. Pladda light at gloaming with a distant Ailsa Craig enticing me on to Antrim. But my favourite of all was the one that had popped into mind from the start. 

Glen Rosa, Arran:

A perfect summer day in Glen Rosa. We had waited for the rain to stop, and it was late enough in the day that the planned walk through the glen to Sannox was already marginal. But now the day was heating up, birds singing in the trees of Brodick Castle estate, and the afternoon crowds dispersing towards the campsite. We approached the glen from the castle, a quieter, more interesting approach. High above, buzzards soared along the cliff edge. Small trout basked in the River Rosa.

We stopped at a large, clean, granite slab that slipped into a rockpool on the Rosa, and all thoughts of walking further melted away as we played in the pool and picnicked. At this dark time of year, with the 'weather bombs' we have been having, this carefree summerness, with huge dragonflies rattling about, seems like another world. This picture reminds me of those days, and makes me hope for more fine summers to come.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Birnam Tay Dunkeld

The Tay at Birnam:

Autumn. The time of golden trees, russet bracken, roaring stags and dark rivers. The time to take a trip to the Highlands.

Dunkeld House Hotel:

I am carrying another injury so the walk had to be short. The Tay at Birnam and Dunkeld fits the bill. We had been here before, but not in autumn.

Fiddler's Path:

A well-maintained trail called the Fiddler's Path takes you from Birnam, up the right bank of the Tay, onto the A9 to cross the Tay, then down the left bank through the grounds of Dunkeld House Hotel. It was damp and dull, but the sun occasionally filtered through the clouds.

The Tay here is dark, deep, fast-flowing. Occasional bubbles and eddies speak of strong subsurface currents. Wait long enough, and a salmon splashes through the surface to take a look around.

Dunkeld is an historic village. Its cathedral is modest and relatively modern - the current building dates from the 13th century - but it is situated on the site of an ancient 6th century church, surrounded by mature trees with the Tay gliding by. It is a peaceful, exceptionally right spot. We came out of the cathedral grounds and bought speciality cheese in Menzies of Dunkeld to eat with oatcakes on our way home.


A lovely short walk of six or seven miles. I just hope to be well enough to take to the snowy hills this winter.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Eastend and Tinto

Lanarkshire from Tinto:

There is an element of Hobbiton in the green teletubby hills and stands of mature trees that mark the rolling South Lanarkshire countryside, especially when driving along the backroad via Biggar and Thankerton on a fine day. We had come to South Lanarkshire for two purposes: to climb a hill, and to explore an abandoned house. I already knew and liked Tinto, and the grapevine told us of an intriguing derelict just a mile or so from the bottom of the hill. On a mellow autumn day, we parked discretely and headed on foot to our mysterious ruin.

Approaching Eastend:

The house is substantial and largely watertight, surrounded by trees and set in a lawn with a fine view of Tinto immediately south.

Although abandoned, the house seemed to still be in reasonable condition. We went inside.

The stairs were solid, and we spent a while wandering around the upstairs rooms, taking care not to go through any floorboards.

This house was one of many across Southern Scotland that were commandeered by the Polish Army in exile during the Second World War. After the war, many of these grand houses lacked a function. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar abandoned houses in Scotland, great houses built or expanded in the Victorian era, designed for entertaining large parties, whose size became uneconomical as society changed and empire and industry shrunk. Those that failed to be turned into hotels or similar viable businesses in the second half of the 20th century have often been left to ruin. It is sad to see grand houses like these derelict. Perhaps now that society is becoming more unequal, one of the side benefits may be that large houses like these could make viable family homes again, and thus be rescued from ruin.

The house thoroughly explored, we walked on to Tinto and its popular north-eastern approach. The first couple of times I went up Tinto was from the south, through the trees and boggy field above Wiston and turning the steep nose on its side. The north-east approach however had a well-made path all the way up, and other parties enjoying the day.

The path heads past an intriguing 'fort', although the defensive capabilities of the concentric structure are questionable. It is more likely that it was used for some ritual rather than defensive purpose. Tinto, after all, is a beacon hill, its gentle swelling well seen to the south from any high-rise in Glasgow on a clear day, a place where Beltane rituals were likely conducted in time immemorial.

At the top, a view south of Culter Fell and the Southern Uplands. Tinto is an outlier of this range, moated by a big loop of the Clyde. The summit boasts a 45m wide, 6m high prehistoric cairn, visible, apparently, from both the Atlantic and the North Sea. It is a windy, exposed, exhilarating spot, with views in all directions.

Tinto is a magic mountain, easily forgotten by those who favour more rugged Highland hills, but rich in old history. The fields of Clydesdale grew grey with dew as we descended and the sun's light and warmth fled.

Friday 24 October 2014

The Best Live Band Ever

THE BEST BAND I ever saw live was Hairy Banjo. From the first jangly strum of their wistful, indie fuelled chords, and the exceptional craft of their lyrics (as exemplified in their opening song, 'Hairy Banjo' - we're Hairy Banjo, who the fuck are you) I was hooked.

They were soon raised out of the toilet venue circuit by none other than Mark E. Smith, who booked them as the warm-up act for The Fall. However it all started to unravel at this point for Hairy Banjo. It was bad enough being such dicks that at one notorious gig the entire audience left before the main act, but spending their life savings on a street team to paste over The Fall's promo material with posters proclaiming 'the Mark E. Smith miserable cunt apology tour' was the last straw. They were dropped.

The seemingly inevitable end for Hairy Banjo came in Texas. They were paid by the Scottish Arts Council to visit SXSW where they strutted about as if they owned the place, insulting and alienating every band, roadie, and music journalist they came into contact with. At Rowdy's Salon, they drunkenly drove a Cadillac on stage two hours late, careering into the drumkit and crushing the guitars, before getting out wearing ten gallon hats, brandishing loaded handguns and breaking into an a capella version of a song they had just written, 'Texas is Shit'. The audience immediately shot every member of the band dead.

It was the first and only time a Hairy Banjo gig ended, not in a riot, but with applause.

Saturday 18 October 2014

In Torridon

Sometimes you just want to get away, reconnect with places you know are charged with goodness. One place I have never had anything other than a good time is Torridon. I have always been lucky with the weather, and the hills are amazing. A weekend in Torridon is a world apart from normal suburban life. The eerie keening of wildcats echoing off the banded tiers of Liathach at night. Eagles soaring on thermals during the day. An absorbing day on the hill, and a perfect pint in the Beinn Damph Hotel after talking to a stalker. This is the stuff of Torridon.

The bothy:

I arrived in Strathcarron on the south side of Torridon well after sunset, but the walk-in to the well-maintained bothy is straightforward. I had it to myself. The glen in which it sits is a beautiful one. There is a strikingly phallic white rock in the glen, to which legend says the hero Fingal tied his dogs when he went off hunting. Why he didn't take his dogs hunting isn't explained. But there is a feeling of rightness about this glen, the arrangement of water, land and trees. Once again I was lucky with the weather in one of Scotland's most beautiful areas.

The glen:

My targets were a Corbett and a Munro, An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Cheann-dearg. A good stalkers' path heads up to a bealach at 600m, making the initial ascent easy. Deer streamed across the flanks of Meall nan Ceapairean. I stopped at the lochans sitting in a rocky bowl below An Ruadh-Stac and bathed my feet.

Any stress drained out of me into the ground. Contentment at the situation welled up in its place.

Beinn Damph from the lochans:

The hills of Torridon are singular, rocky, banded, full of character. The way up An Ruadh-Stac looked intimidating, but on a clear day it is easy. From the summit, precipitous drops to shadowed corrie lochs. West, hilly islands of Rum and Skye interlock with the sea.

Distant Rum:

North, my target for sunset. Maol Cheann-dearg.

An Ruadh-Stac is grey. Maol Cheann-dearg is made of different rocks, red and pink underfoot as I peched my way to the summit cairn. I could sit up here for hours, nursing a dram and simply enjoying the moment. To the south, An Ruadh-Stac caught the evening light.

But it is the view north to Liathach that commands the attention. This is the place to be as sunset enroaches and the shadows lengthen, on the airy summit of Maol Cheann-dearg with a hipflask of Talisker. I waited until half an hour before sunset before reluctantly retracing my steps back down to the bothy, more content than I had been in a while.

Glen Torridon from Maol Cheann-dearg:

Saturday 11 October 2014

The North Britons

With Scots recently declining to run their own affairs, it is interesting to have a daunder down one of history's intriguing byways - the abortive project of North and South Britain.


The terms were first written down by James VI, soon after he took over the throne of England and Ireland in 1603. More than anybody, he was keen to unite his two kingdoms. In his very first speech to the English Parliament in 1604 he made reference to union:
"I am the Husband and the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife; I hope therefore no man will be so unreasonable as to think that I that am a Christian King under the Gospel should be a polygamist and husband to two wives."
But the English Parliament saw no advantage in union. The attitude had not changed even a century later. "He who marries a beggar," said Edward Seymour MP of Scotland in 1700, "can only expect a louse for her portion." However a brief window of opportunity opened when England involved itself in a continental war in 1701. Scots had been wanting trade with the English Empire, and now England wanted to close a potential northern front in its war with France. Thus, through mutual expediency, Scotland and England were dissolved - and a new state formed, Great Britain.

Project Britain

At first the union wasn't popular. But from the mid 18th century, the Scottish establishment and intelligentsia threw their weight behind the British state. An unfortunate but seemingly necessary element in embracing a new British identity was to erase the Scottish one. The phrase used for this new identity was not Scottish, but North British. A concept invented by Scots, this was to contrast with the new name for England - South Britain.

But there was a problem - the English. Why should they become South Britons, when England's institutions were effectively unchanged? And the Scots, the people who wanted this change, were unpopular in London. They were hoovering up positions of influence and then recommending their North British friends for further advancement. When a Scottish petition came before the House of Commons, polemicist John Wilkes MP refused to even consider it, saying "I care not who prevails! It is only Goth against Goth!" The reaction against increasing Scottish influence in empire, state and business culminated in anti-Scottish riots at the end of the 1760s. For their own protection in London, Scots were forced to drink together in Scottish-owned taverns, increasing their clannishness and alienation further. In the face of this rejection, the concept of South Britain survived no further south than Edinburgh.

The twist
It is a historical irony that Scotland was saved from becoming North Britain. Not, as a layman might assume, through any patriotic Scottish efforts, but as a result of English indifference to project Britain, and hostility towards the concept of losing their English identity. Even today, many English people habitually talk of England when they mean the UK. It's common for Scots to get annoyed at this casual conflation of the two. Perhaps instead we should be glad. For in never embracing a South British identity, the English allowed space for the concept of Scotland to live on - despite the best efforts of some Scots to the contrary.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Poem: The Cairn

It took sweat to climb
grind and grit
avoiding: "why?"
a focused mind
my highest reach
...and to mark it
(and for those who came before)
I placed -
on top -
a single stone.
View from Bidean nam Bian, September 2014:

Friday 19 September 2014

Sex For the Disabled

I fancied a walk up Arthur's Seat this morning. In my mind's eye there would be a beautiful sunrise, maybe even some people on top. Instead it was foggy with drizzle. I was alone with the wind, some discarded roses and a crawing hoodie.

Thursday 18 September 2014

TGO Magazine October 2014

A big day today! No, not the referendum. I refer of course to the appearance of my first article in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, Britain's biggest-selling hillwalking magazine...

You can get it in newsagents or get a copy for your tablet here:

Tuesday 9 September 2014


WIth just one more day in Reykjavik before flying home, we wanted to see some of Iceland. Snaefellsnes - a 200km drive from Reykjavik - fits the bill nicely. The scenery on the way is typically volcanic. There are similar landforms in places like Skye and Mull but these volcanic rocks, although the youngest in Scotland, are millions of years old. In Iceland, they are still being born.

Trap country:

Snaefellsnes is the 60 mile long peninsula of Snaefell, a glacier-capped volcano that inspired Jules Verne (it was his entrance point to the centre of the earth). There's a Snaefell on Man (from which the six kingdoms of Man, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and Heaven can be seen). The one on Man is 620m high and has a funicular railway station and cafe at the top. The one in Iceland is over twice as high, is capped by a glacier, and is considered by those who consider these things to be one of the seven major energy centres of the earth. Thanks to the clear Arctic light it can be clearly seen from Reykjavik despite being 80  miles distant.

Distant Snaefell:

We set off early, picking up a couple of young American hitchhikers who had been sleeping in caves near the road. It was a beautiful day. The sun felt dangerously bright, and the air very dry, but the temperatures stayed in the mid teens and despite expecting sunburn, none happened. Eventually we arrived in Stykkishólmur and stretched our legs. The Americans had just missed a ferry to the Westfjords, a particularly remote and scenic part of Iceland. We had a look around the harbour.


Brightly-painted wood and corrugated iron houses bring a cheerful note to a grand and empty landscape.

Stykkishólmur harbour:

Continuing west we passed Berserkerjarun. The sagas describe a road through this lava field as an 'impossible task' set by a farmer to two berserkers as the price for his daughter's hand in marriage to one of them. To his consternation, they successfully cut a road through the flows, and returned to claim their prize. However whilst they were relaxed and unarmed in a sauna, the farmer and his neighbour burst in and killed them. As any Boer could tell you, 'the farmer has a plan'.

Northern Snaefellsnes:

The sauna is a peculiarly Scandanavian institution, but in Iceland it is possible to bathe in hot spring water all year round. We saw smoke near a road and wandered over to it, to come across a steaming vent hole, water running out of it into the sea. These must have made life in an Icelandic winter slightly more bearable to those who lived nearby.

And then we saw it. One of Iceland's most photogenic hills. The 463m high Kirkjufell.

Kirkjufell rises next to the village of Grundarfjörður which has a beautiful red-roofed church and a saga museum. We ate lunch and the local school came out, the children gathered small groups, talking unhurriedly. I've never seen such a quiet group of school kids. Is there something about the place that breeds, if not reverence, then stillness? I should point out that none of these photos have been photoshopped in any way. It really is this uncannily bright and clear in the high north sunshine.

Grundarfjörður main street:

Kirkjufell provides amazing photo opportunities, especially around a roadside waterfall. We met a young Norwegian who was taking photos on an impressive camera. He had spent a few days camping in the village and a local had told him about the northern lights that had been on display lately. "In summer?" I was surprised. As had he been, but he showed us the incredible evidence on his camera's display. Unfortunately I have lost his business card, so you will have to make do with my own photos.


As we travelled along the peninsula towards Olafsvik, the scenery just got better and better but... that is a post for another time...

South Snaefellsnes, return journey:

"Autumn is on its way," said the woman in the cafe in Borgarnes on our way back. I scoffed but on our return to Scotland, the leaves were already turning and falling, the brambles ripe. It was still August. An early end to summer - but what a way to end it, with a short trip to Iceland.

Wednesday 3 September 2014


People avoid Iceland. It is Nordic, therefore must be extortionately expensive. Foul beer at £10 a pint and a mortgage to afford dinner. That is probably why so few people visit Iceland. Yet "I am so glad you are going to Iceland!" a friend said. "People travel halfway round the world to visit New Zealand, when you can see the same things a two hour flight away in Iceland."

"I've always wanted to visit Norway," I said.

"Iceland's better," he replied.

And he is right. Iceland is exotic in a way more distant places are not. It is a land of dark volcanic rocks, and buildings of white corrugated iron and concrete. In Reykjavik these even have white roofs, which makes the city look modern, clean, a bit clinical. The countryside has few old buildings, turf-roofed hovels abandoned as soon as people could afford modern convenience. But some of the old traditions remain. There's hákarl, rotten shark meat (served in a sealed jar), smoked puffin - and bitarfiskur, a pleasant if pungent biltong-style snack made of dried, salted fish.


Fly with a budget airline and camp, and Iceland is cheap. The beer is no more expensive than in central Edinburgh and - to my astonishment - some of it is quite good.

And another thing about Iceland. I like the way random geographical features have proper names. This volcanic crater is called Kerið.

Each geyser also has its own name. This is Strokkur.

Another in in the park around Geysir is Konungshver. Another Blesi. The largest (and most famous) is Geysir, which gave its name to the whole class of hot spring fountains. Unfortunately it is not a frequent spurter. Strokkur is, and every five minutes or so provides entertainment as unwary tourists downwind are sprayed with hot sulphurous water.

Pressure welling in Strokkur:

Iceland is a land of abundant rivers and, on a wet day, what could be better than going to see a major waterfall like Gullfoss? You are going to get wet anyway...


At first sight, only the 11m top fall on the River Hvita is revealed. But get closer, and the lower 20m fall comes into view, thundering into a narrow slot gorge and sending wet clouds of spray high into the air.

The story of Gullfoss is one of local farmer Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who campaigned to have it preserved for the nation and saved from being dammed for electricity. There is a bust of Sigríður by the waterfall to preserve her memory. I like the way ordinary people in Iceland are recognised as heroes. Perhaps it comes from the tradition of the sagas. Perhaps it is because this is a country of ordinary people, whose infertile land repelled aristocrats and feudal landowners, leaving the inhabitants to make the best of what they had. And in the last 100 years, they've made quite a bit of it. What other country generates 100% of its power requirements from renewable sources, has a proportion of 1 in 10 of the population as published writers, or puts supposedly untouchable international financiers in jail for negligence?