Thursday 27 August 2015

Brough of Birsay

The royal burgh, cathedral town, largest settlement, and proud capital of Orkney is Kirkwall. But this was not always the case. For a long time, Orkney was administered from elsewhere. At the dawn of recorded history about 2,000 years ago, the King of Orkney lived at the Broch of Gurness, an iron-age complex on broch-lined Eynhallow Sound.

But the Vikings had other ideas. As pirates their base had to be an eyrie, somewhere with a good view up and down the whole coast.

Brough of Birsay:

The Brough of Birsay fits the bill perfectly - in one direction, you can see all the way to the Old Man of Hoy and, in very clear weather, Scotland. In the other direction, all the way to Noup Head on Westray. Nobody can sail along the west coast of Orkney without being seen from Birsay.

The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island, which can be reached via a slippery shore-side scramble from the mainland at low tide. When the Vikings arrived, there was a Pictish village on the landward side of the Brough. They were soon displaced and the Norse took over. The village is in a sheltered spot on the landward side of the Brough of Birsay, looking over the causeway. Now oystercatchers nest in ruins that once housed farmers and pirates.

Ruins of the village, Brough of Birsay:

It was from here the Vikings issued to raid Scotland, Ireland and Norway, a complaint captured in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga:
One summer Harald Hárfagri sailed west to punish the Vikings, as he had grown tired of their depredations;
for they harried Norway during the summer, but spent the winter in Shetland or Orkney...
From the village, you can walk the circuit of the island. Birsay rises continuously north and south from a low sheltered eastern shore to a spectacular western cliff edge. The lighthouse perched here can be seen for miles. Fulmar, puffins, razorbills and other seabirds nest in the cliffs, the split slabs of Orcadian sandstone providing perfect ledges to lay eggs.

Birsay's western edge:

Today, like so many significant sites in Scottish history, the Brough is ruinous and deserted. Just you, the birds, and perhaps another tourist or two wandering about soaking up the atmosphere.

Friday 21 August 2015

The Last Arthur

In 2013 Kellan MacInnes launched his book, Caleb's List. This is an engaging book about Caleb George Cash, a member of the Cairngorm Club and Royal Geographical Society round the turn of the 20th century. Back in 1899 he published a list of hills visible from Arthur's Seat. MacInnes christened them 'the Arthurs'. There's twenty of them. As many are Munros, I realised at the book launch that I had already done most of them. Chris Highcock had the same thought, but he actually climbed the remainder, becoming only the second Arthurist on record.

Arthur's Seat from the Pentlands:

The Arthurs are an eccentric list because Caleb, bless him, chose to only list hills visible to the north of Arthur's Seat. No Pentlands, Moorfoots or Berwick Law for him! There are those who would salute such latitude blindness. For me, I was intrigued by which hills remained so that I could say I had bagged them all.

North from the summit of Meall Dearg:

And so, this month, I came to my last Arthur - Meall Dearg. This is an obscure 690m high Graham in the ill-frequented (by hillwalkers) wedge of Perthshire between Crieff, Dunkeld and Shiehallion. The area includes Farragon Hill, newly-discovered Marilyn Creag na Criche, and a couple of windfarms. Oh and tussocky heather and bracken - quite a lot of it.

At the start of Meall Dearg:

We parked at an estate track just before the bridge on the A826. Once off the track, the way up bashes through luxuriant vegetation, plenty of lingonberries and blaeberries, not quite as sweet-tasting as they will be in a month's time. Dank trickles of water hidden under heather. Peat hags on the summit plateau. Sheep, frogs, hares, caterpillars, and a deer hind by herself. The trig point hoved into view and I touched it. Woo hoo! I was an Arthurist. We had gone straight up from the road, but on the top it was clear there was another way down. A new track, not marked on the map, goes close by the summit and links up with General Wade's military road to the north-east. We took this down and made a circuit.

South from the top - Arthur's Seat somewhere in the distance:

Here, for your delectation, is Caleb's complete list. How many have you done?
Ben Lomond 974m
Ben Venue 729m
Ben Ledi 879m
Benvane 821m
Dumyat 419m
Stob Binnein 1165m
Ben More 1174m
Ben Vorlich 985m
Ben Cleuch 721m
Ben Lawers 1214m
Meall Garbh 1118m
Ben Chonzie 931m
Schiehallion 1083m
Meall Dearg 690m
Beinn Dearg 1008m
Ben Vrackie 841m
Beinn a'Ghlo - Carn nan Gabhar 1121m
West Lomond 522m
East Lomond 434m
Lochnagar 1156m

Sunday 9 August 2015

Dover and the Albans

At the farthest end of Britain from Scotland are the white cliffs of Dover. There may seem to be no connection between Dover and Scotland, yet I can think of at least two. The first concerns the oldest known name of the island of Britain. In the north, it was Alba. In the south, Albion, effectively a variant of the same word. An argument has been made that this comes from an old Indo-European root word alb-, meaning white - the same root word that named the Alps and Albania. Why would Britain be described thus? Some say that the name came from people who sailed across the narrowest point of the Channel from proto-Gaul, saw the white cliffs of Dover, and like European explorers of the 18th century in the New World and Australia, named the entire island after the first thing they saw. Alba, then, used to describe the whole of Britain - today, in Gaelic and Welsh, it is used only for Scotland. Wouldn't it be ironic if Scotland was named after a geographical feature at the farther end of Britain?

White Cliffs of Dover:

This isn't the only argument of course - some historians argue that Alba came instead from the root word for dawn - and was therefore named not by Gauls but by the Irish, who saw it in the east. Britain, like Japan, may well be not 'white land' but 'land of the rising sun.'

The second connection concerns the movements of Scottish armies. It is a little known fact that in 1216, Alexander II invaded England as far south as Dover - the furthest south an army led by a Scottish monarch has penetrated. He did so to support Prince Louis of France as heir to the English throne in the aftermath of King John's dispute with his Barons' over 1215's Magna Carta. Louis had the support of most of the Barons, but was having trouble reducing Dover Castle, which was being stoutly defended by Hugh de Burgh.

Dover Castle:

This immensely impressive castle, the largest in England, is perched in a strong position on top of the white cliffs and a great prize for any who held it. Hugh refused to surrender 'the key to England' to a foreigner. But before the siege was resolved, John did England the favour of dying on 9 October 1216. His 9-year old son Henry III was persuaded to agree to Magna Carta and put under the guardianship of Hugh de Burgh, and the Barons saw Louis off, now that he was no longer needed to rescue them from a useless king.

France (the white horizon behind the ferry) from Dover:

Nowadays Dover is a run-down town, a poor advertisement for anyone arriving from the Continent. But the cliffs remain, providing a unique and beautiful walk along an historic coast. On the edge, wild flowers grow and Europe can be seen in clear weather. On seeing France the mind wanders unbidden to Napoleon's thwarted invasions or the desperate fights of the Battle of Britain in 1940. In such a mood, the Channel is nothing less than Dover Castle's 21-mile wide moat, sometimes all that has held invading hordes at bay. With illegal immigration the latest moral panic, the whole of today's UK seems to narrow to this one fretful point.