Monday 30 November 2020

Scotland's Story

This blog has been quiet over the last couple of years. There's one good reason for that. This:
Let's take a closer look...

It's my history book, published this week! So new, I only have the proof copy. But you can buy your own copy here and get it delivered before Christmas.

I love Scottish history, and years ago decided to systematically discover more. I loved finding out things I never knew about, like the story of the Picts, or the Scottish origins of the American rednecks. What was even more intriguing was discovering things I thought I knew, that turned out not to quite be the case: Scottish history has so many myths and legends that there were plenty of those! What is the real origin story of the Saltire, for example?

Eventually I realised that there was a book in what I'd learned. An accessible, yet fact-checked and up-to-date history of Scotland.

'From Ice Age to Indyref',

I subtitled it. But the first draft was half a million words, and there was no way that was going to be published! The edits alone would take years.

So I split the book into three volumes:
  • Covenant covers from 1513 to 1815, and the pivotal moments of Reformation, Union, Empire and the titanic showdown with Napoleonic France.
  • Citizen covers from 1815 to 2014, and the struggle for ordinary people for dignity and representation, while others try their fortunes abroad.
  • And this first book, Foundation is the cornerstone of them all: covering all the way up to 1513 and the Battle of Flodden, it describes how several different peoples combined to form and then defend a country called Scotland.
Researching and writing this has been a real labour of love. And you can get the fruits of this labour by heading over here and buying your own copy!

Friday 21 August 2020

The Light and the Land

A rainy day in the Black Mount.

Yet between sweeping showers, moments of beauty can be found.

Wet feet at a high lochan, tin-tacked with rain.

We take to the cloud-swallowed hills.

We get back wet and tired. This has not been a classically good day. Yet who could say we had not been priviledged?

Thursday 30 July 2020

Confessions of a Reluctant Camper

Do you like camping? I'll be honest, I can take or leave it. It's something to be endured as a means to an end. And if that end can be achieved by other means, like getting up earlier, or going faster and lighter, I will take it! I've never slept well in tents, and summer brings midges, so that's even more reason not to camp! Even somewhere as lovely as this...

A wild camp in the North-west Highlands:

But sometimes a night under canvas can't be avoided, either because you are heading off last minute and there's no accommodation to be had, or because you want to base yourself for a few days somewhere remote. I'd love to know your personal tips and tricks for a comfortable night's camping! Here's mine:

  1. Don't. Sleep in your own bed and set the alarm for 3am!
  2. Accept that camping is not meant to be fun, and you will be mentally prepared.
  3. If you must camp, camp in spring when it is no longer dark all day and before there are midges around.
  4. Choose your suffering. I'd rather go as light as possible, and not sleep, than carry a heavy pack and get a sore knee. I've 'slept' in the pissing rain on the Cuillin ridge covered in nothing but a foil blanket. That's taking it a bit far though, I would carry at least a sleeping bag these days.
  5. Take a blow-up airbed. My Thermarest is ridiculously expensive for a small piece of plastic, but it has transformed comfort compared to the roll-up yoga mat I used to lie on.
  6. Get a down sleeping bag. They are warmer, lighter, and pack down smaller. They usually cost hundreds of pounds, but you can get a decent one from Eurohike for £60.
  7. Wear cosy bedsocks, as warm feet help you sleep.
  8. Don't bother with cooking equipment. There's two schools of thought, one says that a hot meal or drink is a morale booster. But I will happily forego those things to save some pack weight.
  9. Don't drink anything within 2 hours of bedtime. Getting up in the middle of the night for a pee is a faff!
  10. Sleeping in your own dried sweat is uncomfortable, so find a river to swim in to wash yourself before bed. I like the 'press-up' method as it minimises contact with cold water - get naked in the river on your hands and feet, head facing upstream, and do a few press-ups to enjoy an invigorating natural shower.
  11. Have an afternoon nap to catch up on sleep because let's face it, you won't be sleeping much overnight.
  12. Camp in the windiest, most exposed spot possible! Normal advice is to do the opposite, but normal advice doesn't consider midges. If you are camping low, find some machair or dunes near a beach. There's usually fewer midges on that terrain compared to a forest or moor.
  13. Avoid high-fibre foods. It's nice if you don't need a number 2 during your camping trip. But if you do...
  14. Dig a wee hole and bury human waste under a couple of inches of topsoil and vegetation. Do your business well away from paths and running water. Choose a different spot each time. You might even consider carrying bags specially for it, and pack your waste out!

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Sleeping on Suilven

Suilven and I have unfinished business.


Years ago (twenty-six years ago in fact!), I climbed Suilven on a March day of deep snow and sunshine, the kind of day you gladly endure a week of rain to experience. But just below the top, little balls of snow rolled spontaneously and continuously down from the summit. It looked like it could avalanche at any moment. I refused to go further. And so we contented ourselves with a sunbathe in the snow before heading back down for a night in the bothy. I would have to return. I didn't realise it would be twenty-six years.

But here we were, in 2020, looking for an experience to kick-start the end of the hillwalking lockdown.

Approach walk:

The plan was ambitious, but beyond the hard grind it had several points in its favour. Camp on the top of Suilven. A high camp gave us the best chance of avoiding midges. A late/early start would avoid the crowds who, in these NC500 staycation times, are surely drawn to this internationally famous peak. And watching a spectacular sunrise and sunset from the top of Suilven would be, as I said excitedly to my friends,
"a once-in-a-decade experience!"
It didn't quite work out like that.

High camp, Suilven:

Having spent a cold, wet night, we lay around a while waiting for the weather to improve, but at 9am we gave up and headed back down.

Which was when this happened...

"I'm going back to the top," I said to my friends, who decided to carry on downhill, missing this:

The cloud never stopped swirling around but, if I am honest, it added something special...

One day, I'd like to head over to Suilven's second summit as well. But it was time to catch up with my companions. The day had been a wonderful gift.

Suilven from the walkout to Lochinver:

Wednesday 15 July 2020

You Know You're Wild Camping When...

Wild campsite with migde hood, on the northern shores of Loch Maree:

When you head out this weekend, will you be wild camping? Or will it be another kind of camping?

There's an easy way to tell. If you want to know if it is wild camping, ask yourself the question:

Did anyone even know you were there?

Were you in a small group or go solo? Did you camp high, out of sight of any roads or houses? Did you carry out any litter? If you needed to go to the toilet, did you dig a shallow hole, a long way from any watercourses, and cover your mess up with turf - or even better, carry it out in a bag?

In short, did you camp like a ninja?

That's wild camping.

Unfortunately the phrase 'wild camping' has been repurposed. Anybody pitching a tent ten feet from their car in a Highland layby, having a party, setting fire to things, leaving behind beer cans, cigarette butts, NOx canisters, barbeques, plastic bags, dog shit, and human shit, nowadays claims to be wild camping.

That's not wild camping.

That's feral camping.

Big difference.

Did you camp like a shit-flinging chimpanzee?

That's feral camping.

Of course, there's gradations in between. And the main complaint against roadside campers, apart from their sheer numbers in some popular places like Glen Etive or Loch Lomond, where feral camping is now banned, is the litter and excrement they leave behind.

So even if you are camping by the road, you can avoid feral status just by clearing up after yourself.

If nobody could have known you were there after you have gone, then good job! At a time when official campsites are still shut, you are being about as responsible as it is possible to be in the circumstances.

Just please, don't go feral!

Saturday 11 July 2020

The First Hills After Lockdown

What were, or will be, your first hills after lockdown? Your first taste of freedom? Previously I mentioned Suilven, but I just couldn't wait...

Breadalbane hills:

At the last minute my companion couldn't come, so I decided to go somewhere that appealed to me alone. I would start early, slaister through pathless bogs over two unfashionable Corbetts at the head of Glen Lyon, and see nobody all day. 

The day couldn't make up its mind - would it rain, or would it be sunny? In the end, it was both.

Glen Lyon morning:

I decided to head straight up the hill from Pubil, so once I'd worked out where to discretely park, I was off! My first new Corbetts all year! A wet-footed squelch up Sron a'Choire Chnapanich revealed Loch an Daimh with a deep tide mark. With so much rain this month, I wondered why the dams are so low?

Glencoe and the Blackmount from Meall Buidhe:

From the top, the Blackmount appeared draped in raincloud across Rannoch Moor, and I headed down through peat hags for a steep reascent of Meall Buidhe. I didn't mind the terrain though. This was a secret place, full of deer and frogs, a kestrel of some kind hunting along the burn. I scared a grouse and saw dozens of wheatears.

Looking back towards Loch Daimh from Meall Buidhe:

After Meall Buidhe, the usual thing is to head back to Pubil. But I had a rendezvous with a special place that I had read about decades ago, and have wanted to visit ever since. This is a unique set of stones who live in a small turf-roofed house and are brought in and out with the turn of season. It is miles from anywhere, west of Meall Buidhe. The terrain became even more isolated, wheatears giving way to plovers circling and crying at my intrusive presence, sheep staring at me and deer making themselves scarce. I descended by a series of cascades and took a look at my prehistoric curiosity in Gleann Cailliche. To my surprise I met a couple, eating sandwiches. I hadn't expected to see anyone. They told me they lived in Glen Lyon and came here regularly. Apparently I was the first person they'd ever seen here.

Loch Lyon:

All that remained was to jog back out along the track along Loch Lyon, legs tired from the first decent-sized hillwalk all year. The traffic heading back south via Callendar was horrendous. But here's to more trips around Scotland in the second half of 2020!

Monday 22 June 2020

What Hill Will You Climb After Lockdown?

It won't be long now until the coronavirus lockdown is over. We will still have to socially distance, but we will be permitted to climb hills, which will be lovely. It has been the longest period since foot & mouth disease that the hills have been closed to visitors, and it has been difficult to stick to the rules. One or two (or a dozen) visitors won't have any negative effect on the nation's health, but we stay away because we know that otherwise, there will be massive crowds and unsustainable parking in Glencoe, Coire Cas, Linn of Dee, Rowardennan, Glen Nevis, and anywhere else that immediately comes to mind when people think of going up a hill.

My friends want to climb Suilven. Like the lead character from the film Edie, Suilven has become a totem of freedom, of escape from a life poorly lived.


For me, I prefer the idea of going where nobody else is. This requires a cunning reversal of the normal question, "where do you fancy going this weekend?"

Where, instead, is the last place you would expect to encounter people?

I've already written about what may be the most boring hills in Scotland, the conveniently nearby Moorfoots. But when we get the chance to drive further afield, it will be hard to resist doing so. And with the net cast further, what really, echoingly empty places can we go? To be truly off-putting for enough people, the approaches have to be laboriously long, the payoff on reaching the top a massive sense of anti-climax.

Could that be a reasonable description of the Monadhliath? These hills are brimming with wildlife and views over to the Cairngorms and North-west Highlands, but to most people they are a purgatorial high moor devoid of interest.

The Monadhliath - MAMBA country:

And while the Monadhliath may be prime MAMBA (Miles And Miles of Bugger All) country, I think the real prize goes to Caithness. In the Caithness backcountry there's nothing but bogs and water, a place you can guarantee you'll meet nobody. So for me, it's Ben Armine or Ben Alisky, a long drive and then a depressing trudge from the nearest road-end.

Can't wait.

But we'll probably have a crack at Suilven.

Sunday 12 April 2020

A Local Walk

How are you all doing in coronavirus lockdown? I hope things are going OK for you. I can work from home and my family haven't been infected. Many of you will not be in that position.

At least we can still get out for a walk.

The playparks closed, a permanent sabbath:

And in that sense we are fortunate again. Our house is at the edge of a conurbation. Head in one direction, and it is pavements and people-dodging on the cycleway. Head in the other though, and we go deep into rural Midlothian. It's a direction we rarely explore. But we are glad of it on our doorstep now!

Quiet area beyond Whitehill House:

We explored paths we'd never been on before, encountering almost nobody. Between the towns of Midlothian and the Moorfoot Hills is a secret area of farmland, the Pentlands and top of Arthur's Seat visible, furloughed cruise liners moored in the Firth of Forth, neatly tilled fields and statement oaks.

Eventually we reached a bridge over the River South Esk, and a side of Midlothian we were already familiar with: the riverside gorges of the North and South Esks and their tributaries. But this particular stretch of the South Esk was unknown to us.

This is the domain of redwoods and roe deer, and we walked with delight along a path strewn with wood anenome and celandines. The sun finally came out and had us blinking in its brightness. 

The South Esk passes Dalhousie Castle, and we were less than a mile again from Edinburgh's growing conurbation. We'd managed almost the entire route on quiet paths, and seen far fewer people than on the more popular greenways that connect the towns.

Dalhousie Castle:

This is just one of the quieter routes around us that we are fortunate to have. So what is your local walk?

Saturday 7 March 2020

John Tullis' Big Munros Question

A chap at Edinburgh University called John Tullis asked himself a question recently: which city is better for Munrobagging? Glasgow or Edinburgh?

Having lived in both, the answer is pretty obvious. Glasgow of course! But John's data visualisations give an answer that is both definitive and engaging - quite a feat. I encourage you to click on the link and watch his animations. I personally could watch for hours the wee cars driving around the Highlands.

And he's giving a talk on it on Thursday 12 March 2020 in Edinburgh, a must for any hillwalking geeks.

Because John will reveal one further piece of information his analysis has uncovered. Based on minimum total driving time, what is the best location to live to bag all the Munros? Is it Fort William? Dalwhinnie? Find out at his talk! I intend to be there - perhaps I will see you?

Get free tickets from: