Thursday 24 July 2014

At the Book Festival

Edinburgh Book Festival's garden cafe is a great place for meeting interesting people. A stimulating talk, followed by a drink in the sunshine with a random stranger and a discussion of the talk you've both just seen. Time can be profitably spent whiling away the hours you should be getting home for dinner.

But watch out for a certain type of person! Authors. Not the author you've come to see, but other authors, authors who aren't on the bill, authors loitering specfically to tell you they have written a book. "I'm an author!" they'll say and expect praise and interest. Don't give it.

Turn and run.

Because authors who possess the need to talk about their own books are obsessive. No intellectual cafe-culture butterflies, lighting from subject to subject with subtelty and wit, but sons of the soil, ploughing monomanic furrows through the reluctant earth of captive minds.

Heed my warning: beware of authors at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Falls of Foyers

There are two sides to Loch Ness. On the west side the busy A82, with Urquhart Castle on Scotland's main Edinburgh - Glencoe - Inverness - Aviemore - Edinburgh tourist circuit.

Loch Ness:

The other side is almost deserted in comparison, and makes for a great bike ride from Dores to the Falls of Foyers, up into Inverness' mini 'lake district' around Lochs Mhor and Duntelchaig and back.

Our ride started at the car park in Dores. This is right on the shores of Loch Ness with a great view down the length of the loch. The panoramic situation means it is no surprise that one of the Loch's longest-standing monster hunters bases himself here.

Loch Ness from Dores:

It was a beautiful time of year, the summer leaves fresh and woodland flowers still in abundance all along the loch shore. A deer crossed the road in front of us, our silent bicycles enabling us to close in without spooking her.

Flowers in the undergrowth:

This is the side of the loch where the tabloid-styled 'wickedest man in the world', early 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley, conducted rituals at his house of Boleskine - a gothic reputation that also led Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to buy it in the 1970s. It is a peaceful spot today.


Across the loch, Urquhart Castle on its headland, crowds visible through binoculars, as we soaked up the peace and tranquility of the eastern side, the occasional fishing boat drifting by.

Urquhart Castle:

The road climbs steeply to a cafe and shop at the top of the Falls of Foyers, where what few tourists on this side of the loch had gathered. The falls were one of Victorian Scotland's premier attractions, but were severely attenuated in 1895 as the water was diverted for an aluminium works. However in heavy rainfall it reverts to something of its former majesty and is worth seeing in spate.

Below the Falls:

Below the falls a gorge drops steeply to Loch Ness, with Meall Fuar Mhonaidh rising above the opposite shore.

Above the Falls:

We had enjoyed our ride but had taken our time: and a deadline meant we left the lakes above Loch Ness for another time, retracing our outward route back to Dores.

Friday 4 July 2014

Start Island and Scuthvie Bay

At the very eastern end of Orkney's easternmost island, Sanday, sits a beautiful bay of white sand.

Scuthvie Bay:

And at the very end of Scuthvie Bay, the land doesn't quite want to end. Another island, Start Island, can be reached at low tide from a landrover track half-crumbled into the sea.

Tidal Start Island from Scuthvie Bay:

Crossing the seabed is an adventure. The impermanent nature of the recently exposed land, water still draining off seaweed and fish in small pools, lends a frisson of urgency. The tide was coming in and sunset wasn't far off. We had a couple of hours to get back, or would spend the night on Start Island.

The ruined cottages bear exploration, crows nesting in chimneypots, their gardens gone wild. Flowers grow on the fertile machair in the shelter of low walls, and we found a rhubarb patch that provided the most delicious rhubarb crumble I can remember having.

Wildflowers on Start Island:

The wind streamed across the rest of the island, seabirds patrolling the shore edge at eye-level, indignant at our intrusion on their personal sanctuary. The lack of humans - and rats and dogs - on Start Island is evident by the large number of vulnerable ground nests. There is something special about these undisturbed places of Sanday.

We made our way over to the lighthouse, painted in black and white vertical stripes. I can't help think of the character Obelix from the Asterix and Obelix cartoons. It is the only lighthouse in the country painted like this - other stripey lighthouses have hoops - making it unmistakable during the day. Although automated in 1962, Start Point light continues to shine for shipping. I love lighthouses. I hope this beacon never stops providing its service.

A large solar panel at the side of the lighthouse reveals that it is self-powered. But the sun was setting, and we needed to see to get back across to the comfort and safety of Sanday...