Tuesday 31 December 2019

At the End of the Year

It's been a tough year!

Earlier in 2019 I asked some people I was corresponding with what their dream lifestyle was if they were millionaires and could afford anything...

 One lady wrote a particularly interesting response:
"In the end," she concluded,
"good health turns out to be the most important thing of all."
It turned out she and her husband were millionaires, but he had recently died of cancer. And if you don't have your health, what have you got?

And this year I've had a few health problems. Nothing too serious, but enough to keep me away from some of my favourite activities for a while and make me appreciate the importance of good health.

But I'm on the way back!

My target was to manage a hillwalk before the end of the year. And a couple of days ago, The Cairnwell and Carn a Gheoidh provided the perfect reintroduction. It has easy route options that would allow me to head down early and wait for my companions if the sciatica I got earlier in the autumn returned.

A gloomy start for a hillwalk at Glenshee Ski Centre:

The Cairnwell above Glenshee is more Continental than Highland in its industrialisation, but Carn a Gheoidh proved suitably wild in the fog and driving rain, mountain hares and grouse fleeing our approach.

Ice covered lochan on the way to Carn a Gheoidh:

The weather was terrible, but the company was peerless, and in completing my first hillwalk for months - 10km! A milestone! I felt that finally, the recovery to full health is happening.

Old friends: Brian Doogan

Today the sun shone for the first time in what seems like weeks, and so we got out again. 17km this time! On one of my favourite walks between North Berwick and Aberlady.

Craigleith from Broad Sands:

It's hard to say just how much I love this walk, and how grateful I am to be able to do it again!

Aberlady Bay:

So here's to 2020: may all your fortunes rise :)

Sunday 6 October 2019

The Mamores, Twice

"We are off to do a race at the weekend," a friend told our mutual colleague who likes to hear about our adventures. "How far this time?" she asked.

"One kilometre," came the reply.

"Well, that's not very far."

The route of the Vertical Kilometre on Na Gruagaichean above Kinlochleven:

I'd been here in April with another friend. We walked from Kinlochleven up unremitting slopes to the summit of Na Gruagaichean in around an hour and a half (plus time to catch our breath!), then carried on over Binnein Mor and Binnein Beag, the final descent hard going on feet that hadn't been out much over winter and weren't used to wearing boots.

On Na Gruagaichean in April:

Descending Binnein Mor:

Long way down off Binnein Beag:

But the April walk in beautiful weather inspired Graham and I to try an organised event called the Salomon Mamores VK. This is a short, 5km fell race from Kinlochleven at sea level to the summit of Na Gruagaichean, 1050m higher, our other friend trying to persuade us that the race was easy as we didn't have to run down again. But we would still have to make our own way back down from the top...

The two of us arrived at the race centre on a beautiful September morning. It was going to be interesting comparing the Mamores in spring to the Mamores in autumn, and we had caught fantastic weather for both days. Neither of us were particularly fit due to health and personal circumstances, and I wondered if we would come last and second-last.

Today's walk: Na Gruagaichean from the start at Kinlochleven:

I've also got a bit of a prejudice against organised events in the outdoors but this day, if I am honest with you, had such a friendly, laid-back, and well-organised vibe. I loved it, taking great pleasure and inspiration in being surrounded by so many healthy people smiling broadly in the sunshine. I just hoped I could keep up!

We started in pairs at 30 second intervals, and my fellow startee was also called Craig. He soon shot ahead. I assumed it would be the last I'd see of him. We hit the path climbing the side of the hill by the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall and the pain of the effort started almost immediately. I remembered from April what a brutal introduction to the hill this was, and resolved to take the first couple of hundred metres through the forest easy. And then we were on the open hillside and the meat of the route.

I caught up with Craig. "Started too fast and peaked too soon!" he said, though still finished ahead of me. I thought we were already high up, perhaps 750m, but someone with an altimeter told us were were only halfway. Had my memory of the hill been so affected by wishful thinking? I had a runners' sports gel and drank the water out my rucksack, wishing I was wearing my Tilley sunhat. The Salomon publicity material majored on the wet and misty weather in Glencoe...

But what a fantastic day!

Graham had started a few minutes earlier and though I could see him ahead in his distinctive Heb 3 t-shirt, I just could not catch him before the summit.

It had hurt more than a half marathon, which is a considerably longer undertaking - and there were people the same day doing the Ben Nevis Ultra, which at 52km of hard hill running makes my head hurt just to think about. As we descended we were passed by a man in a Falkirk running top.

On the summit of Na Gruagaichean:

"That was my first Munro," he said. "If that's what doing the Munros is about, you can ram it!"

Having a lovely time on a fell race:

Until this year, I'd never been up the Mamores from the south, only ever tackling them from Glen Nevis to the north. But the Mamores Vertical Kilometre is an easy enough route and distance to be within the reach of most keen hillwalkers. As an introductory race I highly recommend it. And back down at the Red Squirrel campsite, washed and watered and with whisky fumes interfering with our reasoning, the idea started to form that we might do something like this again next year...

Sunday 22 September 2019

Hill of Hills

Five years ago, I climbed Bidean nam Bian with a friend as we sought perspective on recent events.

This weekend, we were back.

Moon above the Buachaille:

It was a glorious day, generous in its beauty, rowan trees laden with bunches of red berries and autumnal rust discolouring the bracken:

We entered the jaws of the Lost Valley,
lost in the land that is lost,
for our legends were lies

How did the MacDonalds of Glencoe get their stolen cattle up here? They must have been nimble beasts.

A steady procession of walkers climbed the corrie headwall - the busiest I have ever seen it up here - and once on the breezy ridgeline almost everybody went for Stob Coire Sgreamhach, a top that used to be neglected and would still be today, if it had not been added as an official summit at the last revision of Munros Tables. Snobbishly I didn't want to visit it but my companion did. I was grateful for his insistence. I had forgotten what a great place it its.

Druim Alban from Stob Coire Sgreamhach:

Up here a line of little red flags marked the route of the Glencoe Skyline race, a mad concept that starts in Kinlochleven, takes the West Highland Way up Curved Ridge on the Buachaille Etive Mor, crosses the saddle on the Buachaille Beag, comes up here over Bidean, and then back down to the floor of Glencoe. But that's not it, no! Runners then head up punishingly steep slopes to tackle, whilst suffering fatigue, the narrow and technical Aonach Eagach, before finally rolling back down the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven.

Bidean from Sgreamhach:

It's not a route for ordinary mortals, but an excitable young foreign couple were up here discussing it, the man telling a stranger of the opportunities to competitors of equipment sponsorship. I can think of easier ways of acquiring a pair of fell-running shoes!

A tumult of peaks from Bidean:

Our own route was much more modest yet still a good big hill day over three peaks of Sgreamhach, Bidean, and Stob Coire an Lochain.

I placed my stone on top of the cairn and looked over the edge. All we had to do now was get back down. My knees weren't very happy. Because what I didn't mention, was that we had done another one of the Salomon Skyline races the previous day.

To be continued...

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.