The Carbon Cycle – insightful and intelligent

NO blogs for the last few days ‘cos I’ve been away. Richard Else and I have been in Turkey filming a new Wild Weekend for The Adventure Show.

Can’t really say at the moment where we were, simply because I’d like viewers to be as surprised by it when they see it on the show as I was when I saw it for real. Enough to say for the moment it was one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve walked through, anywhere!

And there probably won’t be any blogs for a few days. Off to Celtic Connections tomorrow for a few concerts – the lovely Emily Smith tomorrow night, then the Womens Heart concert featuring some of the best of Irish female singers, then the one and only Cathal McConnell and friends on Thursday before finishing off with the amazing Transatlantic Sessions musicians on Friday. I’ll be reeling by Saturday…

I feel slightly guilty because I won’t have much time all week to get out on the bike but the way the weather’s looking I probably wouldn’t get out anyway. Forecasting snow for here, and lots of it. I hope I even make it to Glasgow..

While I was in Turkey I read quite a remarkable book. The Carbon Cycle by Kate Rawles isn’t about the latest in road bike technology but about a bike ride Kate took up the length of America – from New Mexico to Anchorage, Alaska. Realising that the US is probably one of the biggest polluters and climate change denial nation on earth she set off on her low carbon transport to speak to and listen to American people about climate change.

I must confess I’ve become a little impatient with climate change deniers, especially those who base their opposition to wind farms on the claim that humans don’t cause climate change. Why can’t they just admit they don’t like windfarms because the turbines spoil the view? That’s essentially the main reason most folk oppose renewable energy. I don’t particularly like windfarms either, because they spoil the views and ‘industrialise’ what was often previously wild land, but I do believe we urgently need to do something about changing our lifestyles at a personal and community level, as well as at corporate levels, if are to halt the potentially catastrophic slide into environmental disaster.

I’ve always been aware of the ‘potential’ effects of climate change but Kate’s book paints a very graphic and alarming picture of what might well happen if we don’t act urgently. It’s scary, it’s depressing and it’s potentially horrific, but those are not good enough reasons for ignoring it.

I’ll get round to writing a proper review of the book in due course but in the meantime I’d recommend it strongly. 

The Carbon Cycle by Kate Rawles, published by Two Ravens Press



Winter on the Wildcat Trail


I’VE only three or four months left to get bike-fit for my Irish cycle ride between Mizen Head and Malin Head in May so I’ve been putting the miles in on the bike since the turn of the year.  

It’s been going fairly well, and the generally mild winter weather has helped a lot but getting the consistency of training that I’d like has been difficult. For example, I have to go to Turkey tomorrow for some BBC filming (oh, woe is me), so it’ll be a while before I get my bum on a bike again.

Despite that, I just wanted a change yesterday. The wind was blowing ferociously and I’m a little fed up cycling into the teeth of a gale so I opted for a wee change – a nice walk around my home village of Newtonmore’

Our local Wildcat Trail is a lovely little route that links some 45 hectares of varied woodland, moorland and riverside walking around Newtonmore, offering some fabulous views over the Monadh Liath and Cairngorm mountains.

Winter, so often dour and sullen, can change its face in a magical way that portrays familiar landscape in a completely new light. Humdrum views come alive in the intensity of cold light and the hills, as ever, look different when swathed in a blanket of snow.

The great feature of the Wildcat Trail is the diversity of landscape. One moment you’re walking alongside a wide and mature River Spey as it flows along in stately fashion and a few minutes later you’re being entertained by the cascading waters of one of its tributaries, the River Calder, as it bursts over ice-crusted rocks and boulders. Further on the contrast between dense forest and the wide open moorland almost overwhelms the emotions, a sensory bombardment that leaves you speechless.


From Newtonmore signposts guide walkers to the trail that runs alongside the River Spey. This trail runs below the railway bridge and the old A9 road bridge, a great spot for listening to the cailleach-cackle of mallards. I often stop at this spot on my wanders to listen to the croaking gossip of the ducks and sometimes watch a pair of goldeneye float happily out mid-river.

Beyond the road bridge the trail leaves the Spey and follows the chuckling River Calder. You have to leave it for a while to cross the Newtonmore to Laggan road but you rejoin it immediately and follow it behind Banchor Mains Farm to where it joins up with the River Calder trail, a great stretch of footpath that looks down on the boiling, churning rapids of the Calder gorge.

Once you reach the Glen Banchor road you turn right, heading away from the hills, but signposts lead you through part of the forest before you come back out on the road again. From here the trail climbs gently towards Upper Knock and through the birch woods behind Craggan, dropping down the edge of the wide moorland behind Strone towards the Ault Larie. The path follows the burn down to Aultlarie Bridge and the main road but a new stretch of footpath runs back towards Newtonmore parallel to the road.

Just beyond the Folk Park the route turns left down a lane and over the railway bridge to where signposts lead you towards the River Spey again. From here delightful paths run past what was once known as the Dale of Newtonmore, and is now Newtonmore golf course, all the way back to the start.

It’ll take most folk about 3 hours to wander round the Wildcat Trail’s 7 miles, and while underfoot conditions are generally good there are one or two wet sections that would make it sensible to wear walking boots or wellies. There is little climbing involved and plenty of opportunities to cut the route short and wander back into Newtonmore.


The Angus Glens – People and places


A wintry River South Esk in Glen Doll

AS a young man newly in love with hills and mountains there were a number of placenames that thrummed my heartstrings.

Torridon, Glen Coe, Kintail and the Cairgorms were the big hitters, popular haunts that gripped my imagination with thoughts of jagged peaks, tight ridges and wide, open skies. But lurking in the recesses of my emotions was an area that owed its appeal as much to its cultural identity as the quality of its hills.

Few of my gnarly hill companions ever mentioned the Angus Glens. Their route to the hill was invariably north by west and it wasn’t until I moved to Aberdeen in the early seventies that I began to appreciate the link between two areas of my life that I was passionate about – hills and folk music. That link was a series of glens that lay north of the fertile vale of Strathmore; Glen Doll and Glen Clova, Glen Prosen and Glen Isla and lovely Glen Esk.

It didn’t take me long to realise that the Angus Glens, and the Mounths that connected them to Deeside, were culturally very different from the hills of the west. Gaelic place names were far fewer here and there was more of a lived-in feel to the area, the land of 40-verse bothy ballads.

It was while exploring these glens that I came to know Danny Smith, the warden of the Glen Doll Youth Hostel and his wife Nancy. Nancy was a keen hillgoer and folk music enthusiast and she introduced me to Davie Glen, an inveterate hill gangrel, musician and Scottish ‘diddling’ champion. This is the mouth music familiar to most folkies – the familiar ‘tiddly di, tiddly dum, tiddly doo’ and Davie Glen turned it into an art form. He was also an extraordinary story teller and he regailed me with his tales more than once in dark bothies and howffs in various parts of the eastern Grampians.

Nancy and her daughter later moved west to Fersit, near Tulloch, where she ran a walker’s hostel and they were regular visitors to the Badenoch Folk Club which I helped run in Newtonmore in the late seventies and early eighties, but I’ll always associate Nancy with the music, and the hills of the Angus Glens.

And fine hills they are. Very different from the hills of the west, there’s something about the spaciousness and the rolling heights of the eastern Grampians that I find deeply satisfying, especially when those high-plateaux plunge dramatically into high glaciated corries. A series of well defined corries above Glen Clova are a good example.

As you approach Clova from Kirriemuir the hills of the Mounth, the vast plateau that runs south and east of Lochnagar, suddenly appear on the horizon, big frowning hills that drop steeply into Glen Clova. A trio of massive corries catch your attention. A tour of these corries, with the bonus of an ascent of Ben Tirran, a Corbett, makes a good day out.

Start at the Glen Clova Hotel, a walker-friendly establishment and conveniently based at the foot of the right of way that climbs up the hill behind the hotel to Loch Brandy, a glacial loch whose waters fill one of the great scooped hollows of Clova.


Outside Davy’s Bourach on Jock’s Road

This right of way from Clova to Glen Esk is well familiar to those incorrigible  backpackers who take part in the annual TGO Challenge, the annual coast-to-coast backpacking event that’s sponsored by TGO Magazine, which I had the pleasure of editing for some 20 years. Heading ultimately to Montrose on the east coast challengers generally funnel down Glen Doll to Clova, the crossing of the high ground towards Glen Esk the last real challenge of the route. The legendary hospitality to Challengers at Tarfside in Glen Esk is the reward at the end of a long day.

I took part in the event myself three years ago and the wind was certainly stirring the dark waters as I made my way above the loch, up the Snub, the narrow nose that separates the dramatic Corrie of Clova from the great hollow that holds the gull-infested Loch Brandy. Above the loch the strong, gusting wind made me wary of going too close to the cliff edge. A massive landslip has occurred here and the cliff edge has collapsed away like a broken cornice. Parts of the cliff edge still looked crumbly, so I stayed well clear.

A shooters’ track runs round the top of the Brandy corrie to Green Hill, and from there another cairned track runs across to the Craigs of Loch Wharral but leave it it about halfway along to skirt the Craigs on their north side. These waymarked paths often take you where you don’t want to go and I wanted to climb the gentle, grassy slopes of Ben Tirran.

A good windbreak shelters the trig point on this Corbett and you can make full use of it to have some lunch with a view to make your mouth water – from Lochnagar in the west to Mount Keen, recognisable by the dreadful scar of the track that runs up to its summit from the Queen’s Well in Glen Mark. That other eastern mount, Mount Battack is also clear and so is its lower companion Clachnaben above Glen Dye.

Make your way way down into the hollow that cradles Loch Wharral where a rough path drops down into Glen Clova, a couple of miles east of the Glen Clova Hotel. Always keen to avoid tarmac bashing  follow another path that leads over the brow of Rough Craig where the map indicates another path wriggling its way down to Inchdowrie House. It’s not much of a path so  simply traverse the grassy slopes westwards towards Clova and a welcome pint in the pub.

It was Davie Glen who introduced me to another Angus glen – Glen Isla. North of Kirkton of Glenisla, the broad, open glen is protected by high hills on either side – Mount Blair, Duchray Hill, Craigenloch Hill and Monamenach, the highest at 2648ft on the western side and the sprawling Badandun Hill, the curiously named Bawhelps, and Finalty Hill to the east. To the north, beyond Glen Brighty, Glen Isla becomes hemmed in my the steep sided slopes of the Mounth hills at Caenlochan, a national nature reserve so designated because of its lime-rich rocks and plethora of rare arctic-alpine plants.

To this day I can clearly recall what seemed like a great barrier of mountains to the north of Monamenach. The grey screes of Creag Leacach, the enormous snow-covered mound of Glas Maol and the steep icy cliffs of Caenlochan all looked impenetrable, the southern ramparts of that vast raised plateau that lies south of Lochnagar. Monamenach itself was fairly forgettable – the views to the north much less so.

We climbed the hill from the road end at Auchavan. There was a heavy haze that softened the views of the high hills and made them shimmer in the early light. Mountain hares, vivid white against the snowless terrain, infested the high slopes, and skylarks filled the air with bubbling music.

We elected to add rocky Craigenloch Hill to our day’s walk, sunbathed and had an early lunch on the slopes of Loch Beanie and then reluctantly headed back to Glen Isla down the footpath in Glen Beanie. All the way down this lovely little glen I had been aware of a curious droning sound in the air from time to time and as we made our way up the single track road in Glen Isla I heard it again. At first I thought it was from the electric lines that were slung above the road but it wasn’t – it was the croaking of hundreds of warty toads that infested the pools and ditches at the side of the road. One pool in particular has become a great writhing mass of spawning toads, a mad and passionate frenzy of spring.

Glen Doll can be the starting point for some great high-level sorties into the eastern Cairngorms, including the Mounth roads that run from Glen Clova to Ballater (the Capel Mounth) and from Glen Doll to Braemar (the Tolmount) as well as the two Munros of Mayar and Driesh.

More recently, on a wet and wild day, I took the path that climbs up the length of Glen Doll north of the White Water that has become known as Jock’s Road, although traditionally, the route is called the Tolmount. Jock’s Road, named after a climber by the name of John Winters, is the steep section that climbs out of Glen Doll opposite the dark crags of Craig Maud. By the time I reached this steeper ground the rain had become sleety and the wind was blowing a gale. Best thing to do under the cicumstances was to take some shelter, get the flask out and consider the desperate events that occurred here just over half a century ago ago…

It was New Year’s Day in 1959 and five hillwalkers set off from Braemar Youth Hostel intent on walking up Glen Callater then over the Tolmount to Glen Doll. All the men were committee members of the Universal Hiking Club in Glasgow, an active Roman Catholic club with about 80 members.

After attending Mass the men left Braemar just after eleven and not long after mid-day they were spotted by Charles Smith, a local shepherd, near his house at Auchallater in Glen Callater. According to Smith it was cold and breezy with rain and sleet falling. He was the last person to see any of the men alive.

Friends and family members were due to meet the men at Glen Doll Youth Hostel at about 6pm but by that time the weather was so severe the road out of Glen Clova became blocked with snow and the single telephone line to the hotel at Clova was cut.

The storm continued for two days and it was some time before the police could be informed of the missing climbers. It was January 4 before an ‘official’ rescue team could set out and they were hampered by horrific blizzard conditions and deep snow. Despite the conditions they soon found the body of young James Boyle above the head of Glen Doll near Craig Maud. That night a temperature of –19.5C was officially recorded in Strathdon in Aberdeenshire.

The search continued on the Monday and Tuesday but was then abandoned as the frozen ground conditions made access to the hills difficult and dangerous. By then, it was felt there was little possibility of finding anyone alive.

The others victims weren’t found until a thaw had set in at the end of February. Most of the bodies were found by Davie Glen, who knew the area intimately, but it wasn’t until April that the final body was discovered, that of Frank Daly. He was discovered in a metre of snow near the upper reaches of White Water.

This Jock’s Road disaster was a sobering reminder of how conditions can quickly change. Below me the White Water tumbled through a wild and rugged landscape before vanishing into the green choke of conifers that covers much of lower Glen Doll. On the other side of the glen Corrie Kilbo and Corrie Fee opened up beyond the steep and glistening crags of The Dounalt and Craig Rennet. I silently gave thanks to Jock for his path as I climbed over the lip of Glen Doll onto the grassy plateau beyond – the traditional Tolmount route took a wet and scrambling route up the ravine that contains the nascent White Water.

Once beyond the confines of the glen the path passes the rough howff known as Davy’s Bourach (built by the irrepressible Davie Glen) and follows the ridge that runs to Crow Craigies before dropping down into Glen Callater bound for Glen Clunie and Braemar. I huddled down just below the cairn of Crow Craigies, ate some lunch, and decided that enough was enough. I retraced my steps back down the glen as the wind grew stronger and the rain lashed even harder. We looked forward to a hot drink in Glen Clova but the dark cloud of the disaster hung over me all the way home.

For most hillgoers the big attraction of the Angus Glens is the pair of Munros that rise to the south of Glen Doll – Mayar and Dreish.


Close to the summit of Dreish, with Mayar behind

These are most popular hills in the area and the quickest route to the high bealach that offers easy access to both of them is via the old Kilbo hill path that climbs up through the Glen Doll forest, runs over the wide bealach between the two hills and down into Glen Isla.

The first time I climbed these hills I must have missed the Kilbo path for I found myself fighting through dense forestry as though it was an Amazonian jungle, but in recent years new signs have appeared pointing out the exact route. More recently the trees in the area have been clear-felled and Forest Enterprise have created a diversion, a long and steep haul up through the forest on what has become a very boggy and unpleasant path.

The diversion climbs through the forest to meet up with the Kilbo path as it breaks free of the trees at the foot of the Shank of Drumfollow where the path hugs the steep contours to climb up to the wide bealach between the two Munros. The Shank is in fact a long and narrow shoulder that separates the corrie below, Corrie Kilbo, with its neighbouring Corrie Fee. As you climb higher the views behind begin to open out across Glen Doll to the wide, bare tableland of the Mounth, patched with snow and sparkling under the winter sun

Once you reach the high bealach Driesh, 3107ft is a mere stroll away, easily reached in about a mile of easy walking. Continue to The Mayar, 3045ft by returning to the col and following an old fence west over grassy slopes. From the summit, steepening grassy slopes drop away north to the head of Corrie Fee where a steep section to the south east of the burn leads you down past some waterfalls to a footpath which continues to follow the Fee Burn into the forest where the footpath becomes a forestry road leading all the way back to Glen Doll.

This feature first appeared in The Scots Magazine 






Magnetic north is on the move

Many thank to the Ordnance Survey for the following information.

“One thing that many people don’t realise when they’re new to outdoor walking and navigation is that their compass doesn’t point to grid north – except by coincidence in some areas. The compass needle is attracted by magnetic force, which varies in different parts of the world and is constantly changing.

“The magnetic variation throughout Great Britain has been a few degrees West of grid North with the amount of variation changing every year. For years the number has decreased, and now in the far South West of Britain, the North on your compass lies to the East of the North on your map for the first time since before the Ordnance Survey came into existence in 1791.  The change is slowly crossing the country, and to mark this change Ordnance Survey has introduced a new icon to show the relationship between the three Norths (magnetic, grid and true). For now the new icon will only appear on Ordnance Survey Custom Made maps with a centre point to the West of Penzance. Custom Made maps allow customers to create bespoke maps centred on a location of their choice, for example home, favourite pub or school. We show magnetic north on all of our maps (and state the date it was calculated), but for now only Custom Made maps will be showing the latest figures, which we obtain from the British Geological Society (BGS) each year.

“For more information please visit the Ordnance Survey Blog –

Chris Chataway – runner and erstwhile climber!

I was very sorry to hear of the death of Chris Chataway, one of Britain’s finest middle distance runners from the fifties.

Chris was word record holder for the three miles but he’s probably best remembered, like his great friend Chris Brasher, as a pacemaker in Roger Bannister’s historic first four-minute mile.

The late Chris Brasher was a good friend of mind, a man who gave me a lot of his time and enthusiastically supported my 20 years as editor of The Great Outdoors magazine.

I enjoyed many a good malt whisky-fuelled night with Brasher, a man who, in the great traditions of the fine raconteur, rarely allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story. I have no way of knowing how much truth is in this story… Perhaps someone will ask Roger Bannister, the only one of the famous trio still alive.

Being a keen student of athletics history, I often questioned Brasher on that very first four-minute mile. Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy were competing openly for that time and Landy was bringing the world record down closer and closer to the magical four minutes.

As Oxford students, Bannister, Chataway and Brasher had a plan. There was to be an athletics event at the University’s Iffley Road running track and the trio decided this would be the ideal opportunity to make an all-out effort not only on Landy’s world record, but on the magical first four-minute mile.

Bannister, it seemed, was under all kinds of pressures from his medical exams to the press interest in how he was going to combat Landy’s relentless pursuit of the four-minute mile.

Brasher had an idea. He convinced Bannister and Chataway that they had to get away from things for a few days so that Bannister could relax and get himself into the right frame of mind for a world-record attempt. He suggested they go climbing in Glen Coe!

So, the weekend before the Iffley Road event, the three of them crammed into Brasher’s two-seater sport car and drove north from Oxford to Glen Coe.

Brasher was the only real climber in the trio, and if you’d ever climbed with the man you would put a great question mark over that, so decided the three of them should tackle the infamous Clachaig Gully.

Now the Gully isn’t the hardest climb in the world, but it’s hard enough and escape from it’s upper reaches, beyond the cave pitch, isn’t easy. Anyway, to cut a long story short the team got into some difficulties and were benighted. A very uncomfortable night below the wet and dank cave pitch couldn’t have been pleasant at all.

Next morning, at first light, they managed to get extricate themselves and trundled down the hill to the Clachaig Inn for a belated breakfast before piling into Brasher’s car again for the long journey back to Oxford.

A few days later, on 6thy May 1954, Brasher led the team through the first lap in 57.3 seconds and then through the half-mile in 1min 58secs before dropping out. Chris Chataway took over the pacemaking, pulling Bannister to the three-quarter mile mark in 3min 0.4 sec. With 350 yards to go Bannister went past Chataway to finish in 3min 59.4 sec.

It was a fabulous achievement but few folk know of that “relaxed” preparation in Glen Coe a week earlier. Hard to imagine any modern athletes preparing in such a fashion…


Beinn Oss & Beinn Dubhcraig – a snowy duo


Ben Lui breaks free of the clouds

THE talk on the radio was all about this winter being comparatively mild, yet as I looked out of the car window it was clear that the higher reaches of the hills were still swathed in snow. 

Crampons and ice axes strapped to my pack I set off from the King’s Field – Dalrigh – just south-east of Tyndrum. In 1306 a battle took place here between the MacDougall’s of Lorn and the forces of Robert the Bruce, hence the name, but there was no hint of war or conflict this morning. Chaffinches cavorted around the car, and great tits sang their familiar two-syllable song. There was more blue in the sky than clouds and whenever the sun appeared from behind one of them there was a definite hint of warmth in it. A dazzling warmth too – I was going to need my sunglasses.

I was heading for the Munro pair of Ben Oss and Beinn Dubhcraig, fairly easy hills that rise on the south side of the Cononish glen. Both hills tend to be overshadowed by the beauty of Beinn Laoigh, one of Scotland’s most attractive mountains, but their traverse usually offers some stunning views down the length of Glen Falloch to the Crianlarich hills and Loch Lomond.

From the south Ben Oss, 3373 ft/1028m, appears as a fine pointed peak and Beinn Dubhcraig 3205 ft/977m is more rounded but presents a craggy well broken face. But from the north-east, the usual approach, Oss falls down in steep slopes above Coire Buidhe while the summit ridge of Beinn Dubhcraig, dominates the open slopes of Coire Duchcraig above recent forestry plantations.

Today the corrie slopes were blindingly white and I decided to tackle the hill from its north-east ridge rather than from its north ridge, the usual approach. This meant following a forestry track high into Gleann Auchreoch before crossing the ice splintered burn of the Allt Gleann Auchreoch. The awkward river crossing out of the way I could then enjoy a trackless wander up through the old pine woods of the Coile Coire Chuilc.

This old remnant of the Caledonian Pine Forest looks to be in reasonable health, with a lot of young trees poking through the snow drifts. The older granny pines were gorgeous in the morning light, their trunks bark-orange, contrasting with the glaucous blue-green of the foliage, each tree distinctive in shape and character. Such trees, with a background of snow–capped hills, so magnificently portrays the abiding character of highland Scotland.

On the opposite bank of the deep-cut Allt Coire Dubhcraig, a muddy and eroded footpath runs up into the mountain’s corrie. In contrast, I ambled up unspoiled slopes of moss and lichen, serenaded by siskin, blue tits and chaffinch, the glades shadowy and secretive. But it wasn’t long before my woodland idyll was broken by a band of modern conifers, closely planted and difficult to walk through. A snow-filled forest break took me to the foot of the north-east ridge from where it was a crampon job all the way to the summit, a delightful romp on crisp consolidated snow with wide-ranging views opening up all round.

There was big and bulky Ben More with the more seductive lines of Stob Binnein beside it, and all the Crianlarich hills arrayed above the deep trench of Glen Falloch. Ben Lomond lorded it over the silver slit of Loch Lomond, with the Arrochar Alps looking more Alpine than ever, but it was a hill closer at hand that held the eye. Beyond neighbouring Beinn Oss rose the double-topped peak of Ben Lui. This mountain is surely the queen of the Southern Highlands, its two long and steep ridges bounding its upper couloir. And it looked close enough to touch.

But Beinn Oss was even closer. A high level col connects it to Beinn Dubhcraig’s north ridge from where the route follows a wide ridge over a knobbly summit and then onwards in a south-west direction to the summit. It’s possible to descend immediately north into Glen Cononish but the ground is steep and broken in places so it’s probably advisable to return over the knobbly summit and back onto Beinn Dubhcraig where its north ridge can be followed back down to the lower reaches of Glen Cononish.