Saturday 31 December 2022

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 1

 It's Hogmanay - the biggest Scottish festival of them all - so how better to mark it than with a countdown of the most notable deaths in Scottish history?

10. The Bonnie Earl o' Moray. 

The 2nd Earl of Moray, if the ballad written in his honour is any guide, was considered one of the most handsome men in Scotland. This did not protect him from being pursued in a vendetta by the Earl of Huntly, who attacked him at his castle of Donibristle in 1592. As Moray received his fatal blows, one slashed him across the face, leading to his famous (and likely apocryphal) last words:

"You hae spoilt a better face than yer ain!"

9. Mary, Queen of Scots.

The brief and tumultuous reign of Mary ended in 1567 amid accusations she had plotted to kill her husband and marry his murderer. Had she not be a woman and a Catholic, she may have gotten away with it, but on fleeing to England she transferred her problems to Queen Elizabeth. English Catholics believed Mary, not Elizabeth, was legitimate heir to Henry VIII, leading to Mary's end on the chopping block in 1587 when she became implicated in a Catholic plot against Elizabeth's life. Her execution was trigger for the launch of the Spanish Armada. That invasion of England ultimately failed, but Mary had the last laugh: her son James VI inherited the English throne, and moved his mother's coffin to its magnificent final resting place in Westminster Abbey. En ma fin gît ma commencement indeed.  

8. The Black Douglas.

Sir James Douglas was one of the great heroes of the Scottish wars of independence, right-hand man to Robert the Bruce. Loved by the Scots - to whom he was 'the good Sir James', his reputation was quite different across the border, where nursemaids crooned to their charges "hush pet, the Black Douglas shall not get thee." After the death of the Bruce, Douglas was tasked with taking the Scottish king's embalmed heart to the Holy Land to battle Muslims. En route, he found himself fighting on the Christian side at the Battle of Teba in Andalucia. Legend has it that on becoming outnumbered and surrounded, he flung the Bruce's heart before him shouting:

"Lead on, brave heart, as thou were ever wont to do!"

The Black Douglas has one of the most iconic deaths in Scottish history. Just a shame the story of his final moments cannot be verified by any contemporary source.

Image courtesy of Andrew Spratt

Will Douglas' be the last legendary end, or did the mythmakers get their hands on other historical figures?

 Find out after the bells when the countdown is continued...

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Big Walk Dreaming

Winter may seem a fallow season for outdoor adventures, but it is the season when seeds are planted, when dreams of future expeditions take shape. Reading Alex Roddie's The Farthest Shore recently rekindled my own plans and awoke a hunger I forgot I possessed.

Ardnamurchan Point:

Alex's book is the story of the Cape Wrath Trail (CWT), except he starts at Ardnamurchan Point instead of Fort William. Wait a minute, that's where I started when I did a similar route! Mine was in 1996, before the CWT existed as a concept, and I wanted a grand walk linking the westernmost point of the mainland, Ardnamurchan, with the north-westernmost: Cape Wrath. I wouldn't stick strictly to the coast but would take the most sensible line between the two points. 

Some parts were a revelation. Ardnamurchan itself, which I had never visited, is beautiful. Cape Wrath was a suitably awe-inspiring climax to the walk. And in between, the spacious backcountry around Maol Buidhe bothy proved a highlight.

Leaving Ardnamurchan, 1996:

It would be good to return and do a couple of bits I missed out back in 1996. I missed out the whole section from Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie, having given up and gone home in terrible weather, to return only for the last couple of days of the walk to Cape Wrath. It would be good too to walk through Knoydart, which I skirted by going from Corryhully to Kinbreck bothy then out to the Cluanie Inn, then cheating a bit by taking a lift down the A87 to Invershiel before continuing. 

But that's not all! There's so many walks I'd like to do. The MacPhies of Colonsay, planned for 2022 but postponed through illness. My idea of the Grampian coast to coast, following a fault line from Knapdale to the Findhorn via the Buachaille. Large sections of the British coast. Once you start dreaming there is no end! 

But perhaps it is enough to achieve something more modest. Such as a weekend away, which I've just realised I haven't managed all year! My own hillwalking book, after all, is called The Weekend Fix. Hopefully in 2023 I will get a few more of them.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

December Snow

After the floods, the freeze.

The first inkling of the coming cold snap came on my morning commute. Snowflakes driven onto Edinburgh pavements, tourists stopping to photograph the scene.

We went next day to the local woods, crystals gleaming on moss.

Driving home I stopped to help an African fellow who had crashed. His car was bent, but fortunately he was OK. The magic of seeing snow for the first time had been replaced by a harsh lesson in the inconveneince of the white stuff.

But for us - oh, for us! This is when the fun starts.

The roads are bad, but if we can make it, the rewards are priceless.

May there be wonder in your December days: whether it's sunset from a mountain, or the sparkle of light on a patch of snow in your garden.

Friday 18 November 2022

November Rain

The ground can't take any more.

Splashing through a field with the dog, glad of wellies. Earthworms drowning, writhing out the ground. Thousands of them. 

It's been raining for weeks.

The water flowing on any slope, the local burn with its banks burst, water swirling around the base of lampposts on the path, now underwater.

My jacket hasn't dried out properly for days and it's started to smell.

The dog looks like she's had enough of this walk. Happy to go back now? she seems to be saying.

I throw her a ball and the splashes it makes remind me of playing rugby as a teenager. Rolling round in the mud and freezing water in just a thin jersey. Character building.

But it's not the rain that gets to you. It's the darkness. When the streetlights go off and it suddenly gets noticeably darker, because sunrise doesn't mean much on days when the cloud is so dark and dense. And then at half past three the curtains are drawn again.

I'm reminded of comments on an emigrants forum years ago. An American woman who had moved to the West of Scotland was warning her compatriots off.

'I'm fine with rain,' one replied, 'Scotland will be OK.'

I could picture the original poster's haunted look as she replied back.

'You don't understand. It's not the rain. It's the DARKNESS.'

The poor woman was not coping too well.

Och well, don't worry. Just another three months of this to go.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

The Four Seasons: Summer

The fact is all seasons are wonderful, for different reasons.

So before we talk about summer, let’s look at them.

There’s autumn, the time of year for waterfalls and forests, leaves sun caught in beautiful death, of roaring stags dark with peat...

Winter, the time of year of drunken oblivion in the dark, the flashing of a woman’s eyes in a whirling dance...

Spring, the time of year for colour to return, splashes of wildflower like herbs for the eyes...

But at last,

Summer comes in endless daylight.

Newgale beach:

Here in the north it is the time of year of barrelling down empty roads in bright sunshine at 4am, listening to your favourite driving tunes,

Listen to summer driving tune: Lab 4 — Reformation:

the time of ploys and adventures by sea and by hill,

Light winds on the Island Peaks Race:

the time of sweat and smiles,

of insect bites,

of blood and flesh,

the time of marriages, of brides stunning in white,

the groom her necessary accessory

children playing in the street, endless twilight echoing to their games,

the time we take family holidays to the coast,

the time we go

Skipping Barefoot Through the Heather.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

The Four Seasons: Spring

this is the time of year for colour to return, splashes of wildflower like herbs for the eyes,

clouds white as newborn lambs scudding across a fresh scrubbed sky, wind tousling your hair,

the time for wild camping and weather as changeable as a girl’s fancies,

the time of the apple and cherry blossom,

lovers hands strolling lightly,

the time when the whole world opens up.

Listen to spring tune: Vivaldi — The Four Seasons, Spring:

Next season: Summer.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

The Four Seasons: Winter

this is the time of year of drunken oblivion in the dark, the flashing of a woman’s eyes in a whirling dance,

Listen to winter tune: Salsa Celtica — Auld Lang Syne:

the season that family gathers, rain hammering the windows as darkness falls,

trees bare sketches bent in the wind,

the time we crave sunlight and climb snowy mountains to be nearer our God,

Sunset from Ben Lomond:

the time of reflection and resolution. The time of things unseen,

the time to begin again.

Next season: Spring

Thursday 6 October 2022

The Four Seasons: Autumn

This is the time of year for waterfalls and forests, leaves caught in beautiful death,

Falls of Feugh:

of roaring stags dark with peat and shaking with desire,

the season of bounty, of foraging for berries and mushrooms, of bramble picking, hands bloody with juice and sharp thorns,

of the striking of the first match of the first fire of the season,

grateful for the rain for driving us back home.

Listen to autumn tune: James Yorkston & the Athletes — Shipwreckers:

Next season: Winter.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

A Callander Autumn

 Another beautiful sunny morning, heavy with autumn dew.

The first leaves turning, a fire of bracken on the hillside.

Do you ever associate certain seasons, weather, or times in your life with a particular place? 

I do. And for me, September is redolent of Stirlingshire. Drymen, Kippen, the Trosachs, Dumiyat - I am not sure why. Meeting cousins as a child, easy daytrips from Glasgow, small-scale country, an ever-present dampness even in sunshine.

In the Trossachs:

Other seasons are for other places.

Every season has a place for me.

Where do you associate with particular seasons?

Friday 26 August 2022

Ben Wyvis: Return to my Last Munro

May 1997. My hillwalking friends were doing their final exams. I was at the Aultguish Inn with three who weren't. It was a day of stair-rod rain and a cloud base two feet above sea level; but we were there, so might as well climb the thing.  

A boggy path led to an eroded zig-zig up a steep shoulder and the summit plateau, a revelation of beautifully soft moss. 

Ben Wyvis, 1997:

A quick-as-possible stop at the summit to sip celebratory whisky it was my last Munro, after all and we retraced our steps without lingering. We'd treated ourselves to indoor accomodation, and the Aultguish Inn bunkhouse had huge, steaming baths of peaty whisky-coloured water and a well-stocked bar. “What are you going to do now you’ve finished the Munros?” my friends asked. “Get a woman and a decent job!” I half-joked.
Twenty-five years, several jobs, a dog and a decent woman (who I married) later, I was back. This time we chose a nice day!
Ben Wyvis, 2022:

We foraged blaeberries in the forest and played in the burn before the steep climb up the shoulder of the hill.

The entire hill is free of sheep (it is a nature reserve) but the dog was on the lead again on the summit plateau in case she chased birds. 

 Unlike last time, we weren't the only people on the hill. There were several others with dogs, a couple of women together who our dog was very interested in, a couple eating sandwiches I had to distract our dog from bothering, a lovely local pair ("we're dog friendly" the man said as we approached) at the summit who climbed this hill all the time, or at least the woman did. I was unable to stop myself telling her this had been my last Munro many years ago. I recognised a politician coming up the hill, Kenny Macaskill, who released the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He also had a dog.

 The views from the top are vast, as you might expect from an isolated massif. An Teallach and Torridon, the hills of Sutherland and Caithness, oil rigs in Nigg bay, the Moray coast and Cairngorms. The two tops of Suilven just poked up above an intervening hill. Ben Wyvis makes a particularly good viewpoint as it stands right on the boundary between two very different landscapes, the arable fields and firths of Easter Ross and the jagged desolation of Wester Ross.

We put our blaeberries in a crumble that night. This time round, nobody asked me what I might do next. We were already doing it.


Tuesday 28 June 2022

A Midsummer Munro

I never thought I would be using a headtorch on a hill on midsummer's day!

But that's what happens when you climb that hill for sunset.

Ben Lomond from Beinn Chabhair:

The walk started with an early finish from work. Lorry and tractor filled roads brought me to Inverarnan, and a rendezvous with the friends who had organised this. At 17:30 in the evening the heat and humidity were remarkable for Scotland, and we made a slow start.

The summit remained in cloud, and I took the shot below, thinking it would be the last we would see of any view!

That assumption seemed right when we got to the top. The mist wasn't thick, but views were obscured. Still, it had been nice enough - it would be a very different evening in the rain.

Then something magical happened as we waited...

Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin appeared, climbed last solstice. Ben Lomond reappeared.

It was the first brocken spectre for one of our group:

And the second Munro (of hopefully many) for this one:

Before we knew it it was 21:30, and time to head down - it would be sunset around 22:10! We were slow descending, torches out at 23:30, finally down for half past midnight. The day held a sting in its tail - Bein Glas farm had locked its gate! It's a big no entry affair over a deep river. There was another bridge a mile to the north, with a mile of unpleasant road walking back with a black dog. Being locked in works if you have a small family and were worried about them wandering off. But I like to climb hills both late and early, so staying somewhere like Bein Glas farm wouldn't work in summer if I planned some hills!

Friday 24 June 2022

Lowland Hills and Highland Hills: the Highlands

Three summer evenings, three hills, three geological divisions of Scotland.

Across the Firth of Clyde from Tom na h-Airidh:

Twenty-five years ago I searched for the best viewpoint of the Firth of Clyde, visiting various points like The Saddle on the Ardgoil Peninsula, Lyle Hill above Gourock, Dunrod and Hill of Stake.  

A strong argument can be made for Haylie Brae above Largs, but my favourite was Tom na h-Airidh, an obscure but glorious spot above Helensburgh, defended by bogs and a disorietating conifer plantation.

Time to revisit!

In my last two posts I wrote about an atmospheric Friday sunset on Windlestraw Law in the Southern Uplands; and a windy, sun-flooded Saturady evening on Turnhouse Hill in the Central Belt. On the Sunday it would be a Highland hill. How would they compare?

Glen Fruin from the top:

Tom na h-Airidh is only just in the Highlands, the first hill after Ben Bouie on the Highland Boundary fault. It's the lowest hill of the three, yet I knew not to underestimate it thanks to the difficult approach. But things have changed since I last visited. In summer the bogs have largely dried out, and some of the conifers have been felled, making it easier to see where you are going. 

The other change is that today I was using the Strava app on my phone. I am an old school navigator who prefers a map and compass, but I've never been comfortable in forests. They can be so easy to get lost in! Strava shows you a map overlaid wih the ways others have gone. It feels like an unfair advantage, a window into the secret local routes, and I went a shorter and less boggy way than if I had relied on my own initiative. I would have missed at least one turning without Strava.

Coming out the trees:

As we approached the edge of the trees near the summit I prepared to get my dog on her lead. (One advantage of forest walks: no sheep.) But coming down from the top were three healthly, happy women and their three dogs. No sheep about, they said, so my own dog stayed off her lead.

The views from the top were as good as I remembered.

Tom na h-Araidh summit outlook:


But something had changed. In quarter of a century the trees have grown, obscuring the bottom of the view. One day this lot will be felled, and I fancy returning. 

View from near the top of Tom na h-Airidh, late 1990s:

We headed back down via some obvious mountain bike trails. It was heartening to see the local kids had turned this forest into their resource. Lower down, we met a couple of boys pushing their bikes up the hill. 

So how did these three hills compare?

The Highland hill had the best views. The Central Belt hill was the most convenient. And the Southern Upland hill had the most atmosphere.

 But there's one thing they all share: there isn't a corner of Scotland where you can't find a great short walk.

Wednesday 22 June 2022

Lowland Hills and Highland Hills: the Central Belt

Three summer evenings, three hills, three geological divisions of Scotland.

Sunset from Turnhouse Hill:


In my last post, I described a Friday evening trip up the Moorfoots in the Southern Uplands. Less than half an hour's drive from my house, but a world away in terms of atmosphere.

For Saturday evening I decided to go even closer to home: just quarter of an hour's drive gets me to the Pentlands.

There were sheep everywhere, so the dog had to stay on her lead, poor thing!

It was incredibly buffety on top, so we didn't hang around!

Last week I marshalled the Turnhouse Hill Race. It follows a line I've never taken, NE down from the top to the inner bend in the Glencorse Reservoir, before heading back to the standard path. I've looked at this deserted slope manys a time from the other side of the reservoir. But I've never been here, so naturally had to explore.

Heading towards the 'biscuit van':

It's a beautiful spot in late evening sunshine, easy to reach on a decent path. These Lowland hills are a well-trod lung for the people of Edinburgh and Midlothian, increasingly familiar to me, yet there are so many unmarked paths in the Pentlands I still haven't been on.

What a great place to have fifteen minutes from your doorstep!

Monday 20 June 2022

Lowland Hills and Highland Hills: the Southern Uplands

Three summer evenings, three hills, three geological divisions of Scotland.

Homeward bound:

Everyone knows Scotland is split in two: the Highlands and the Lowlands. The geological fault line runs between Helensburgh and Stonehaven. Everything north and west is the Highlands: south and east, the Lowlands. 

But the Lowlands also have two faces. To the south and east of the Lowland boundary line, the deserted sheep country of the Southern Uplands: north and west the Central Belt, all firths, farmland, coalfields and cities, where the vast majority of the population live. 

There are hills in the Southern Uplands, proper hills, but they are lower and less glamorous than the Highland hills. They are tight and steep and a mystery to most Scots, who live in the Central Belt and turn their eyes north to the Highlands whenever they want a proper walk.

Bowbeat Hill from Windlestraw Law:

All this is a preamble to Windlestraw Law, which I had previously disparaged as the high point of the most boring hills in Scotland. Yet of the three evening hills it was the wildest, and easily the least visited. Only half an hour from my house in the Central Belt and completely deserted, at least by recreational walkers.

Yet it is home to golden eagles and merlins and mountain hares, as the shepherd told me. He came over on his quad bike on account of the sheer novelty of seeing a hillwalker. He recommended a local fellow who trains tracker dogs, and while we were on the subject, asked if I would continue keeping my own dog on the lead on behalf of the sheep and ground nesting birds? One day, I tell myself, my dog will be so well trained she won't need a lead. Until then, happy to oblige.

Peat and heather and grouse butts form the top of Windlestraw Law, a little pool of peaty water shivering in the wind at the summit trig point. A wonderful sense of space and freedom. I waited at the top hoping to see eagles but the dog was getting bored, so we came down as the sun set.

Arthur's Seat from Windlestraw Law:

Hooray for summer evenings, still light after ten o'clock at night! What would next evening's walk in the Central Belt bring I wonder?