Thursday 30 November 2017

What Sir Walter Scott Did For Us

In the pantheon of best-selling Scottish authors, JK Rowling reigns supreme. Estimates from 2013 indicate that she has sold at least half a billion books. That puts her more than an order of magnitude ahead of contemporaries like Ian Rankin (20 million), Alexander McCall Smith (20 million), Val McDiarmid (11 million), or Alastair Grey (dunno... but it's less than the others). Even dead Scottish authors like Alastair MacLean ‘only’ sold 150 million books. Unless we were to cheat and consider James VI the author of the James VI Bible (James VI would insist the author was God), then nobody else comes close.

So who is Sir Walter Scott in comparison to volumes like that? What did he ever do for us?

What about saving Scottish banknotes? Since 1696 Scotland's banks have always issued their own notes - they are the oldest paper money in Europe. In the early 19th century, pressure mounted by the British government to discount these notes. Sir Walter Scott was having none of it. Writing anonymously as Malachi Malagrowther in the letters page of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal, Scott campaigned - successfully - for private Scottish banks to retain their distinctive pound notes.

Scott on a 20th century banknote:

Or what about the rediscovery of the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish crown jewels? After the union of 1707 they were put in a chest in Edinburgh Castle and forgotten about. But when George IV visited Scotland in 1822 - a visit also orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott - Scott and some fellow antiquarians did some detective work and located the jewels to present to the king. Imagine their satisfaction on opening the chest and being the first people to see them for over a hundred years.

If that's not enough, what about reconciling the Highland and Lowland Scots to each other? Lowlanders had liked to consider Highlanders barbarians since at least the 15th century. The apogee came in the Jacobite rising where traitorous troops in tartan marched on Derby. The Highlands were brutally pacified. It was only after Highland soldiers had made a huge blood sacrifice fighting for the British Empire that the moment had come for people to be receptive to Scott's message. He created a synthethis of Scottish culture, the kilts and bagpipes of the Highlands coming to represent all of Scotland. And the stories Scott wrote were so popular, people wanted to see the places they were set. Thomas Cook brought Scotland’s first paid tourist trips to the Trossachs. They were there specifically to see the scenes made famous in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. So Sir Walter Scott invented the Scottish tourist industry.

And that's not all...

The story of Bruce and the spider.

The phrase, ‘The Wars of the Roses’.

The saying ‘oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!’


JK Rowling sold more books. But what will her legacy be?

Thursday 9 November 2017

Running the Pentland Skyline

In the Pentlands:

I think of myself as a hillwalker. Others may be fell runners, climbers, or ramblers - but I am a hillwalker.

Sure, I run down hills of a certain angle - it's only common sense to let gravity to the work. In fact it is easier than walking.

And I take advantage of the lightweight gear that has been popularised by fell running - shoes especially. It's the sensible thing to do.

So I wear lightweight gear and run down hills. But I'm still a hillwalker.

Or so I thought until recently in the Pentlands, when I overtook a group of fell runners going up Carnethy Hill.

At the start of the day:

As I waited at the top for them to ask to get my photo taken, my photographer asked "what route are you doing?" Down to the Kips then back to Flotterstone via Allermuir. "Enjoy your run!" she said cheerily. My run! Maybe I am a fell runner!

Not a fell runner:

"We're only doing 18km," she confessed. Only 18km! That's how a fell runner thinks. My own walk was not much longer and I considered it to be a big outing. So maybe I'm not a fell runner after all... I stood at the top to chat with a man with a collie dog and watched the cheerful mixed-sex group in their twenties jog onwards. Seeing them move easily across the terrain brought joy in their grace and gratefulness that I could do it too.

Fell runners:

The Pentlands are hills for fell runners. Of middling altitude, with long rolling ridges and clear paths, it is possible to eat up the miles, gain fresh air with views across the Borders, Ochils, Fife, Highlands and Edinburgh. There is one route I have wanted to do for a long time - the circuit of all the hills in the northern half of the range, from Flotterstone over Carnethy to the Kips, down to the pass of Green Cleugh and back over Black Hill and Allermuir.

There were plenty fell runners up here on a glorious autumn Sunday. With Edinburgh so close, it is inevitable there are crowds. “It's like Princes St up here!” announced a woman to me on West Kip. Princes St? You mean Sauchiehall St! Perhaps I live on the east coast now but my roots were showing.

On West Kip:

So far I had been having a lovely time. But I expected the fun to stop on Black Hill, and was right. The hills bordering the A702 were busy. But Black Hill is deserted, for good reason. It is a great awkward-angled heathery lump that I cursed as I bashed through the heather, progress slowed. The sun went. Does it ever shine on Black Hill? The last time I was here we found a mouse, frozen to death. Allermuir and Carnethy are thronged highways in the sky, Bell’s Hill, Capelaw and Harbour Hill the haunt of the occasional fell runner, but Black Hill stands alone and unvisited. I ran down it and found the way back up Bell’s Hill hard going. What is it the gambling authorities say? ‘When the fun stops, stop’? Does the same approach hold with hillwalking?

Looking back to Black Hill:

But after that I enjoyed the rest. The crowds returned on Allermuir Hill, familiar from scores of visits. I finished on Castlelaw Hill and jogged down the path to bump into old friends I hadn’t seen since 4 Reasons You Must Climb a Scottish Hill for New Year. We made a tryst to climb a hill in the crisp winter weather that we are now on the cusp of experiencing.

Thursday 2 November 2017

At the North End of Gigha

Halfway to Ireland, lying between Kintyre and Islay, Gigha is a small, unprepossessing island. It is 10km long and 3km at its widest - half the size of Colonsay, for example. Its highest point is only 100m high. My Scottish Mountaineering Club Guide to the Islands of Scotland has this faintest of praise for Gigha:
though the coastal crags attain a maximum height of only 20m, they provide good bouldering for the frustrated climber on a family holiday.
You don't come to Gigha for an outdoor walking holiday. It is famous instead for its gardens of Achamore. Yet even these are past their glory at this time of year. So why would you come to Gigha? Let me rephrase that. Why would you not?

Gigha is a Hebridean island, lush, temperate, small, albeit a little too large to be comfortably explored just on foot.

It has fine sandy beaches:

Views of Islay, Jura, Knapdale, Kintyre and Ireland:

And rugged headlands.

We went to the north end of Gigha to watch the waves and the Islay ferry steaming to and fro, cows browsing amongst the bracken and occasional eruption of rocks.

And went to Eilean Garbh, on an entertaining route that included a step ladder to surmount a small cliff:

This former island is now connected to Gigha by a machairy tombola, a beach at either end, cormorants and divers off the northern beach and a heron patiently stalking fish at the southern beach. But no otters, even though we know they haunt these shores.

We enjoyed our short visit to Gigha. As we left, Storm Ophelia approached. The waves grew higher and the sun turned dull orange, reflected in the shallow seas of Ardminish Bay. It was time to leave before we became stranded.

Ardminish Bay: