Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Day I Didn't Go to St Kilda

We're going to St Kilda! Waiting on the ferry at Uig, Skye:


It can be hard to get to St Kilda. The couple of tours that run get booked up six months in advance. You're not going at late notice unless you take your own boat. So you book in November, and pray for the best - pray, because the weather has the decisive say in your trip. St Kilda sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and has no proper harbour. We booked and we prayed.

The days before I didn't go to St Kilda started with a Half Marathon on Benbecula. Wind, some rain, a great post-race buffet, and meeting kind people. Despite the rain, I've hardly enjoyed a half marathon more.

Camping on Benbecula:


We didn't much fancy the cycle to the ferry on Benbecula in heavy rain, but the running club from Stornoway somehow shoehorned us and our bikes onto one of their minibuses. And then, a miracle! There was no space at Am Bothan in Leverburgh, but we were allowed to camp on the grounds. A Sunday spent listening to the rain drumming on our tents hadn't appealed. We pitched tent, had the day's catch in The Anchorage restaurant, and all was good with the world.

It continued to rain and blow a gale all next day, but as the afternoon wore on the rain stopped. We emerged from Am Bothan's spacious living space and went for a ride to bag a Marilyn. A walk round the base of Ceapabhal had been suggested, but as the cloud started to lift, a more ambitious plan presented itself. We would climb the hill itself!

It was windy - we were both sporting the 'Hebridean mohawk' - but the sun even came out.

On Ceapabhal:


What a place!



But it was not to last. next day, the day we were due to travel to St Kilda, the wind kept blowing and the rain came back. There was going to be no trip today. We cycled to Tarbert for the ferry to Skye and camped the night at Sligachan, in midges and damp underwear. I was ready to go home.

Sligachan campsite:


Instead, next morning in damp, cloudy conditions we climbed Ben Tianavaig.

Ben Tianavaig, Skye:


We met a couple of New Zealanders, saw a golden eagle, and returned home happy with our damp and windy Hebridean adventure, even if we hadn't managed to do what we had set out to do.

Descending Ben Tianavaig:


Next time, St Kilda. Next time.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Stirling in Spring

Cherry blossoms, Stirling riverside:


Cherry blossom season - one of my favourite times of year. And on the BBC website they had a cherry blossom special. I love the long avenues of it in Helensburgh, the colourful drifts of pink confetti in Edinburgh's The Meadows, the trees lining the Dollar Burn in Dollar, the stately trees at Scone Palace. The first picture in the article linked above was from the River Forth in Stirling. "Shall we go for a walk along the Forth and see if we can find the cherry blossom?" I asked on a beautful spring day, and so we went for an explore.

Cherry blossoms from the Cambuskenneth side of the Forth:


I had no idea whereabouts on the Forth we'd find the cherry blossom, so we parked in an industrial estate to the east of the town and went for an explore. The woodland flowers were out, celandines and wood sorrel and bluebells, a delight to see on the path that hugs the winds of the Forth, its exposed banks of esturine mud glistening in the sun. At Riverside we had to move inland away from the riverbank, but came back to it through new housing and arrived at a footbridge over the Forth. The blossom was just beyond! But - where did the footbridge lead? To Cambuskenneth, a quiet place vibrating with history but where I'd never visited. We took the short detour to the abbey ruins.

Cambuskenneth street:


Here, Bruce held a Parliament after Bannockburn. Here, James III and his queen Margaret were buried. But most vitally, in sight of Edward I's siege of Stirling Castle, the last stronghold of the Scottish patriots in 1304, Bruce and Bishop Lamberton made a secret pact to make Bruce king on Edward's death, effectively deposing the descendants of King John - who Edward had banished to the Tower of London and then to his ancestral estates in France - from ever ruling Scotland again.

But on this fine spring day the abbey ruins provided a nice spot for a picnic lunch, a couple of groups of young people with the same idea.

Cambuskenneth Abbey bell tower:


We walked along the river bank enjoying the cherry blossom, the Wallace Monument in the distance, until we came to Old Stirling Bridge. I had driven past here hundreds of times as a child visiting family, but never once stopped!

Stirling Bridge:


It has a similar construction to the Brig o'Don in Aberdeen, and here there were more sunbathers and picnicers, the spot busier though thanks to the main road nearby. A heron quartered the banks and people strolled over the bridge, basking in the fine April weather.

We could have walked directly back, but there was something else I wanted to see - the cannons on Gowan Hill - another spot we'd always driven past as a child but never stopped to see. On the way up we met a local who quizzed us about our origins and intentions, before bemoaning the lack of real ale pubs in Stirling. We moved on.

From Gowan Hill:


I had no idea there was a walk underneath the cliffs of Stirling Castle, and this quiet spot was full of birdsong and budding greenery, giant boulders boiling up from the ground to hold the rocks of the castle. A notice asks passers-by not to pick up items they might find, as the inhabitants of the castle in days of old were not as environmentally conscious as we are today. The things we might pick up and take home - buckles, musket balls, smoking pipes - could be debris from the renaissance!

Rock in St John's Kirkyard:


But the day held one more delight, all the better for being unexpected. As the path came out at the cemetery of St John's Kirk, it started to gently run downhill, old walls above us and the wooded escarpment below. The walls were ancient and I realised with a jolt that Stirling had intact medieval town walls. Why had I never known this?

Town walls:


In holes in the wall pigeons have taken roost. A spring walk of exploration and meandering and discovery - my favourite kind!

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Third Book

Ten years ago Sandstone Press published my second book, The Weekend Fix. The Weekend Fix was a bunch of stories about hillwalking, focused on Alan Dawson's Relative Hills of Britain or Marilyns.

Ten years.What have I been doing with my time since?

Well this month I finished the first draft of my third book, provisionally titled The History of Scotland You Actually Want to Read, though it will probably be published under a different name.

I just did a word count. It's 480,000 words so no wonder it has taken so long to do!

The final version will be considerably shorter... and I am working on that now.

I can't wait to show you! But I can give you a sneak preview into Part 1, spanning the start of history to the chaos that threatened after the death of the Maid of Norway. It begins:
Longships tethered above the tide, Lochlanners in seal fat-smeared knitwear told each other tales of the beginning...
And ends in a cliffhanger:
Oh dear.

Watch this space! And if you know a decent book cover designer... get in touch.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Running Sunrise

My morning workout was complete, but today I fancied more. And so I ran out from the gym, up to Holyrood Park, the dark bulk of Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat looming above. My feet hit the steep path up the face of the hill and I slowed to walking pace. Approaching the top I broached the shadow, summit rocks reddened by a rising sun.



It was cold, a keen wind cutting through my shirt - is there ever *not* a keen wind on the summit of Arthur's Seat? - and a surprisingly large number of people dotted about the hill already, maybe a dozen. Last week at sunrise I'd come across a score of Chinese tourists at the very top. Perhaps they'd been attracted by the lunar eclipse an hour earlier and decided to stay till daylight to see their way down.

What a place to be at 8:20 on a clear frosty morning! I ran down senses humming with focus, an intense balance of gravity, rock, frost and running shoe. My heart bursting with thankfulness.



45 minutes later I was sitting at my office desk. I'd worked on my book and had a run up Arthur's Seat for dawn. Whatever else happened in the next few hours, the day was already won.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

New Year Gold

I've never seen a New Year's Day with so little snow.

We climbed a Corbett in Ardgour, struggling out of the dark forestry into a world of light. After the heavy rain of Hogmanay, the golden sunshine on Carn na Nathrach was a welcome tonic.

Beinn Resipol from Carn na Nathrach:


It was not the winter wonderland we might have expected for the time of year. Compare this to a heavenly Rois Bheinn at the start of 2018, or the bitter cold of Creach Bheinn on the first day of 2016. Perhaps this year the snows will come late?

And it wasn't just the hills that were golden. The wildlife was too:

Juvenile golden eagle:


It has been so long since I've seen an eagle from a hill! To see two, an adult and a juvenile, and to see them so close - the picture above was taken with a 50mm lens - was a moment of magic.

May your 2019 be full of them.