The Round of Coire Lair

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First steps above the snow line

SPRINGTIME in Scotland can be frustrating. Just when you’re convinced that winter has gone and you can relegate the ice axe and crampons to the gear store the promise of spring turns out to be a lie, and winter returns to bite you. And sometimes quite savagely…

I had spent the night in Strathcarron where there was a distinct scent of spring in the air. It was a smell of warm earth, of new grass, the faintly sweet coconut perfume of early bracken growth. Or was it my imagination? The next morning dawned grey, and cold. The hills had turned white overnight, springtime swept away by winter’s hand for another few days. Or weeks. I had planned a round of the Coire Lair Munros and I drove along to Achnashellach in a dark mood, just like the big hills on either side of the road, my previous optimism having plummeted like the barometer.

Once kitted up (I fortunately had an old ice axe in the campervan) I felt better, and how could anyone maintain a black mood when walking up the track out of Achnashellach and into Coire Lair, one of the best approaches to any group of hills in Scotland? I crossed the railway, pleased that Network Rail hadn’t seen fit to ban pedestrians from crossing the railway line, as they’ve done in dozens of other crossings throughout the nation, followed the forestry track through the woods before dropping down to the old stalkers’ path that follows the deep gorge of the River Lair.

What a fabulous start to a walk, with pine trees sheltering the path that climbs over sandstone slabs, crinkled and creaked with streaks of quartz that glint and sparkle in the sun. Presiding over this part of the Achnashellach Forest like some prehistoric watchtower, the 2976ft Fuar Tholl, or cold hole, is one of the most impressive hills in the land. Its three tops are guarded by steep cliffs of Torridonian sandstone, soaring skyward from the lower pine-clad levels of Coire Lair. The hill radiates three spurs, to the north, the south and to the south-east, and it’s on these spurs that the great rock features of the mountain are prominent. Between the north and the south-east spurs lies the Mainreachan Buttress, a magnificent mass of terraced sandstone, which seems to be suspended above a tiny lochan below the north face of the mountain.

As I climbed over the lip of Coire Lair I took a moment or two just to take in the scale of things. The two Coire Lair Munros are the attention-grabbers here – Sgorr Ruadh on the left and the long, knobbly ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor on the right. The classic Coire Lair Horseshoe walk gathers both of them in, the two hills linked by a high pass, a high portal that carries a good footpath from Coire Lair into the very heart of Torridon at the Ling Hut in Glen Torridon.

I once set off from the Ling Hut on a very misty morning, eager to get to grips with the two fine Corbetts that lie to the north of Beinn Liath Mhor, Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine and Sgurr Dubh. It was an incredibly dank day and visibility was down to a few feet. I had followed the track above the Ling Hut and I felt confident enough in my timing to know roughly when I would reach the col between the first Corbett and its southern neighbour, the Munro of Beinn Liath Mhor.

Unfortunately my timing was out and I found myself scrambling up scree slopes in what felt like the wrong direction. Eventually I stumbled across a huge cairn where several folk were eating their lunch. I hadn’t a clue where I was so rather than admit I was lost I nonchalantly enquired if anyone knew the correct pronunciation of the peak we were on. “Ben lee-a vore,” came back the answer. I was on the wrong mountain!

Smiling at the memory of that encounter I made my way towards the Drochaid Coire Lair and a cairn that marked the steep route up the south-east ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor’s eastern top. It wasn’t long before I was in the snow. It was soft and unconsolidated and not very pleasant. Things improved as I approached the first summit at 876 metres – the wind had blown the soft snow clear and the scree slopes were much easier to walk up. Unfortunately the easy conditions didn’t last long.

By now I was in the cloud and in the odd clearing I looked out into a monochrome world. The combination of lack of colour, the shifting mists and awkward underfoot conditions unsettled me and I momentarily considered returning the way I had come. Just beyond this eastern top of Beinn Liath Mhor an awkward pinnacle bars progress to the narrow ridge beyond and I cursed myself for not bringing crampons with me. I tentatively crept round the side of the pinnacle on hard neve to see the narrow corniced ridge drop down to a high bealach below. The mist prevented me seeing any further.

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Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine

Then, suddenly, it was gone. It was like a curtain being lifted on a stage when the audience gasps at the beauty of the stage set. Instead I gasped at the sheer expanse of the view around me. The hills close at hand were still in monochrome but behind me, to the south-east, there were splashes of colour – the blue of the sky and orange of the sun-dappled mountains. With spirit now soaring I romped down the ridge, climbed to the second summit of Beinn Liath Mhor and gasped in astonishment at the scene that had now opened up. To my right the lovely little Corbett of Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine rose impressively above its dark lochan and beyond it the great steep wall of Liathach was splashed with colour as the sun broke through the cloud. To my left Sgorr Ruadh, the second of the Coire Lair Munros, rose from the dark depths of the corrie, its buttresses riven with steep snow filled gullies. Ahead lay the western top, and summit, of Beinn Liath Mhor, looking like a separate mountain in its own right, its summit ridge snow covered and inviting. Beyond it all lay Loch Torridon and beyond it lay the Trotternish peninsula of Skye. Beyond it, shimmering on a far horizon, lay the hills of Harris.

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The summit of Beinn Liath Mhor

I sat on a rock and spent some time summit spotting, trying to recall Gaelic names, before climbing the final steep rise to the summit ridge. Another undulating ridge, a blend of quartzite scree, moss, snow and ice led me to the giant summit cairn where the view of Loch Torridon and the other Torridon hills was superb. But I didn’t hang around. Time was ticking inexorably onwards and I still had a long way to go. I also knew the descent to the Bealach Coire Lair could be awkward, navigating through and around some steep sandstone crags and an awkward cliff-girt knoll which is best avoided on its left.

From the frozen lochan that seems to fill the narrow bealach, I followed old footsteps in the snow over steep slopes to a small lochan on the north-west ridge of the day’s second peak, Sgorr Ruadh, at 962 metres. From there it was a straightforward, if steep, scramble on a snow and scree-covered footpath all the way to the summit, with thrilling views across the glen to the multi-topped ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor.

As far as I’m aware the classic Coire Lair Horseshoe only includes the two Munros but strong walkers will take in the next hill, beyond the Bealach Mhoir, which is Fuar Tholl, the smallest of the three but the finest. I suppose Fuar Tholl is living proof that Munro-bagging is a bit of a nonsense, albeit a delectable one! Many walkers come to Coire Lair and climb the two Munros leaving the best hill in the area for another time, probably post-Munro compleation. I didn’t have time to include it today – it was already later afternoon and I knew I’d be walking out in the dark, but I’ll describe the hill to you anyway, as some kind of compensation for not including it in my wintry round.

Fuar Tholl is best climbed by taking its northern slopes head-on, crossing the top of the Mainreachan Buttress to reach the summit. From here an interesting line of descent follows the rim of the south-east corrie, a ridge which is tight and rather airy near the top. Soon you can scramble down to the lochan in the corrie and then down the slopes back to the River Lair. If the river is low you can easily cross to the opposite bank to the outward path back to Achnashellach. If, however, the river is high you’re best staying on the south bank all the way down to the railway line.

In the gathering gloom I dropped down snow covered slopes to the Bhealaich Mhoir and then, avoiding the steep buttresses on my left, followed the stream down to Loch Coire Lair and beyond it, the footpath that would carry me back down to the woods of Achnashellach. At the lip of the corrie I turned and looked back on the hills I had just traversed, watched them gather the gloom to themselves, shrouding themselves in the darkness that was falling fast, inscrutable and implacable, caring little for what season of the year it was. I gave an involuntary shudder, and scuttled down the glen by the light of my headtorch, feeling tired and glad that I was going home after a great day.

 

 

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Glen Feshie – a new beginning

WITH the high tops scoured by rain and gale force winds it was a day for staying comparatively low-level. We went to Glen Feshie, one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms.

Feshie Estate has been the subject of much controversy over the years, largely because successive landowners have insisted on maintaining high levels of red deer. This resulted in an important remnant of the Caledonian pine forest becoming ravaged by browsing deer.

However, a more recent change of ownership and the enlightened attitude of its factor has seen almost miraculous change. Today the glen is bursting with new life and its a joy to behold.

I went to Feshie a while back and had a long chat with the man largely responsible for the changes, Thomas MacDonell, and I wrote the following feature for the Scots Magazine in 2012.

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Glen Feshie – A New Beginning

TAKE visitors into most mountain areas of the Scottish highlands and they will most probably gasp in wonder at the natural beauty that lies before them. The size and shape of the hills, the sheer expanse of sky and the humbling awareness of human insignificance is not unusual but in many cases those visitors will be gasping at a land that is degraded, shorn of its indigenous vegetation, bare of trees, and lacking in biodiversity. Caledonia stern and wild, but more often than not treeless.

It’s well known that pine and birch woods once covered much of our uplands but less than one percent of this natural woodland remains. Man’s not entirely to blame – a wetter climate and peat formation have played their part as have burning, deliberate forest clearance and overgrazing.

In recent years serious attempts have been made to encourage the regeneration of the remnants of the Caledonian Pine Forest that once covered much of the highlands.  In Glen Affric, Rothiemurchus, Glen Tanar and Abernethy, to name a few, there is evidence of new growth as young pines, birches, rowans and aspen are given the opportunity to flourish. At the foot of Coire Ardair on Creag Meagaigh, near Laggan, a birch wood that was dying was brought back to life, life in all its biodiversity, by simply removing the browsing animals that fed off any young seedlings that dared to poke their heads through the earth. And now an estate that has been described as the “jewel in the crown of the Cairngorms” has put the regeneration of its pine forest at the top of its management plans.

Glen Feshie will always be associated with the 19th Century artist Sir Edwin Landseer and his Monarch of the Glen. That iconic red deer stag has become a symbol to those who oppose the estate’s plans to regenerate the woods by culling large numbers of deer. The latest owner of the estate, Danish clothing millionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, wants to more than double the area of native woodland from the existing 1,900 hectares over the next five years and he plans to do that by maintaining the number of deer at a lower density than previously.

Under Feshie Estate’s previous ownership, a large cull of red deer had taken place in partnership with the Red Deer Commission, a cull that led to allegations of “wildlife crime” by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. More recently there has been criticism of the estate’s plans from community leaders in nearby Kincraig, who claim that the proposed regeneration will turn the estate into a “jungle”. But after only a few years of this regeneration management, the changes to the face of the landscape are marked and positive. Young pines are growing on the roadside slopes, young birch trees are abundant and there is a freshness and a vibrancy in the glen that suggests nothing less than complete renewal. Capercaillie have been seen in the glen again and blackcock numbers are rising. Red deer still roam the woodlands and the slopes around the Glen – there are just fewer of them now.

Glen Feshie wears its “jewel” description with some justification. The area has a long history of people living and working here, and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large quantities of pine timber were taken from the woods in the glen. This extraction continued before and during the first and second world wars. Feshie was greatly favoured by Queen Victoria and the natural beauty and mystery of the glen inspired the artist Edwin Landseer. Such inspiration is not surprising – there is a sense of timelessness at work here. It’s an intriguing thought that some of the older pines, the so-called ‘granny’ pines, are between 250 and 300 years old so thirty generations of these trees take us back to the end of the last ice age!

These gnarled and knotted old trees are rock hard and anchored deep. Their orange-red trunks contrast vividly with their bottle-green foliage and you can feel their antiquity in the rough bark. And nature has woven an immaculate carpet of lichens and mosses on the woodland floor – juniper and heather live alongside bilberry and cowberry, and wintergreen chickweed and orchids open in the sunlight of summer. It’s a beautiful environment, but it has, until recently, been shrouded in the hush of an old folks’ home. There has been no progeny, no youngsters coming through, because the deer have been eating them.

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Go there now on a bright spring morning and you’ll find the place glistening with new growth and alive with birds – crested tit, tree pipit, dipper, common sandpiper, skylark, wryneck, jay and crossbill in or near the woodlands and golden eagle, peregrine, dotterel, ptarmigan, red and black grouse, dunlin, greenshank and ring ouzel on the hills and moorlands. In addition to red and roe deer the mammals include mountain hare, brown hare, otter, badger, fox, wildcat, pine marten, weasel, stoat, water vole, red squirrel and moles. Pine martens are resident and wildcat has been seen in the lower glen.

Two years ago my wife and I had been mountain biking in Glen Feshie and as we trundled down the estate road I became aware of a large Range Rover drawing alongside us. I’m afraid my pre-Land Reform Act bogies are still alive in me, and my natural instinct was to expect some form of confrontation about access, but I was wrong. A young tousle-haired man leapt out, introduced himself as Thomas MacDonell, the estate factor, and asked if we had noticed the regeneration in the glen!

His bubbling enthusiasm was infectious. We had, in fact, been delighted and amazed to see the abundance of new growth in the glen – pines, juniper, rowan, birch – the glen was being transformed, and much of that transformation can be put down to the vision and enthusiasm of Thomas MacDonell himself.

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Thomas MacDonell

Born and bred in nearby Kincraig Thomas has known this estate all of his life and witnessed at first hand the problems created by too many deer. It was while working as a fencing contractor, building fences around little tracts of woodland for the Nature Conservancy Council and then Scottish Natural Heritage that he came across deer that were starving to death. During the harsh winter months in particular, there simply wasn’t enough food to feed the high numbers of deer that existed. Secondly, he realized that the vegetation within the fenced enclosures grew in unsightly blocks that looked unnatural. The fences themselves looked out of place in such wild landscapes and posed a threat to birds, particularly capercaillie. Surely, he thought, there must a management solution whereby deer occupancy could exist with the emergence and growth of seedlings? The answer, of course, was to reduce the number of deer to a level that was compatible with seedling growth, and, armed with this realization, Thomas set out to discover as much as he could about the balance between deer management and conservation.

Red deer management is an extremely complex subject but the challenge to land managers is simple enough – how to get the right deer numbers to maintain benefits to people in jobs, in venison and in tourism against the potential damage to wildlife habitats. Red deer have also become a problem on Scotland’s roads, particularly in winter when they are attracted by the salt put down by road gritters.

Thomas MacDonell’s family have long been entrenched in farming and sporting estate activity, so he was well aware of the controversies that existed in deer management, particularly the anxiety that existed in sporting estates to keep deer numbers high. He decided to work with a range of people to learn and promote understanding about the need to manage deer in a way that takes into account a wide range of interests and perspectives. Those interests include commercial deer stalking, tourism and nature conservation. He quickly learned that management is about getting the correct deer density, or the number of deer divided by the area of land, so the impacts they cause are acceptable to all who use the land.

When Glen Feshie was sold to Anders Holch Povlsen in 2006 Thomas lost little time in sharing his vision with his new boss. The Dane was receptive, and  immediately began plans to further expand and improve low-level woodlands while also restoring mountain woodlands with rarer species such as aspen, holly and oak. He has already spent a considerable amount of money in repairing and maintaining footpaths, and the old electricity poles that once marched up the glen have been removed and the cables put underground.

Over the next five years, the estate hopes to more than double the area of native woodland from the existing 1,900 hectares to around 4,000 hectares. Some planting will be carried out in areas where the seed source is missing but most of the increase will come from natural regeneration.

“We want to do it in a way that will improve the quality of this wonderful and special place, while maintaining local employment,” Thomas told me. “Indeed, in years to come when the deer settle in the forest again it won’t be so easy to cull them. It’ll be a cat and mouse game trying to shoot them in the trees. That’s when we’ll need to employ more stalkers, there’s definitely employment opportunities in conservation.

“I reckon that in the next few years we’ll have to shoot about 400 deer every year to maintain a deer density that’s compatible with the regeneration of the woodlands, and that’s without building any fences. That’s not an unusually high figure, other estates about the same size as Glen Feshie will have culling targets that are very similar.”

Regenerating woodland along the riverbanks will help freshwater life including the Atlantic salmon, and both Thomas MacDonell and Anders Holch Povlsen are keen to further expand and improve low-level woodlands while also restoring mountain woodlands with rarer species such as aspen, holly and oak.

I asked Thomas to paint a picture of how he would like to see the estate in the future.

“I want to see a much larger network of woodlands on the estate, a return to how it would have looked during the heyday of the Great Pine Forest of Caledon,” he told me. “I want to see more trees growing in the deeper soils and shelter of the low ground. The forest should be patchy and varied in nature, with lots of clearings and open spaces. Higher up there should be a low-growing cover of gnarled and twisted undersized trees, made up of pine, birch, willow and juniper, trees that are capable of coping with the exposure and thinner soils. And on the mountain tops, dwarf trees like the mountain willow should be clinging to the land, surviving the harsh conditions by nestling among the carpet of mountain mosses and sedges.”

Already others are recognising the value of the work that is being undertaken on the estate. David Green, convenor of the Cairngorms National Park has been fulsome in his praise following a Park Board visit to Glen Feshie.

“Traditional sporting estates in the park are working hard to meet many objectives,” he said. “We were impressed by the constructive but challenging long-term management approach to sustainable development balancing out the environmental with the economic and community interest.

“In particular, we are supportive of the estate’s active restoration of native forests, improvements to hill tracks and other initiatives.

“It was also good to learn more about how the estate is keen to engage with the local community and encouraging responsible outdoor access – all reflections of the aims of the national park.

This is an estate that is moving forward in a very positive way and drawing a line under the controversies of the past.”

Meanwhile Dick Balharry, one of the country’s most respected naturalist, says; “On a recent visit I was very impressed by the actions of estate staff that has led to the revival of this land. For fifty years I have witnessed the glen. Over that time I have had reason to be depressed regarding its future well being. Although as yet in its infancy, and still vulnerable to fire and grazing pressures, the promise for the future is optimistic. This has been a major undertaking and has at times been controversial. With adjacent estates showing similar shifts in land management, I wonder if, in the not too distant future, a red squirrel will be able to travel within native forest from Speyside to Deeside! The future of Glen Feshie is now on the right road to recovery but it needs all our support to ensure that it remains so.”

Young birch bursting into life along the stream banks

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An Eriskay love lilt

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IT wasn’t a day for rushing anywhere. The weather was ‘soft’, as the Irish would say, and a thin mist hung over the sea. From time to time an ethereal glow would suggest the sun was trying to break through the clouds but the wind, which had blasted the Hebrides for several days, had been stilled.

Somewhere above us, Ben Sciathan, a mere 186 metres above sea level, rose in craggy layers above the rugged moors and the scattered crofts. Its summit was the highest point in Eriskay, and we wanted to climb it.

Lying close to the foot of the chain of islands we know as the Outer Hebrides, the small island of Eriskay is a sparkling jewel set between South Uist and Barra. While it shares many of the features of the other islands in the Hebridean chain – white cockleshell beaches, domed skies, small rugged hills and an air of tranquility, Eriskay’s various claims to fame are out of all proportion to its size.

I first visited the island a number of years ago during an attempt to walk the length of the Hebrides, from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis. It was an attempt that was doomed to failure because of bad weather, too much road walking and footpaths that had deteriorated into bogs and knee high tussocks, but Eriskay remained in my memory as a little bit different to the rest of the Hebrides, with a spirit of place that seemed less harsh, more welcoming with a gentler environment than its close neighbours.

When I returned a few years later to make a BBC television programme about the Hebrides I spent some more time on the island and learned more about it, largely thanks to a man who was, at that time, the oldest inhabitant of the island. Father Calum McLellan was a lively, charismatic Roman Catholic priest who had been brought up on the island. He was 84 years of age at the time but he could have passed for someone in his sixties.

Most intriguing was the fact that Father Calum had been a teenager of fifteen when the cargo ship, the SS Politician, grounded just offshore and lost its cargo of 2000 cases of whisky, many of which were ‘liberated’ by the local crofters, a tale that was humorously retold by Compton Mackenzie in his glorious tale of Hebridean cunning and wit, Whisky Galore. Calum clearly recalled the police and customs officials searching the island for the hidden contraband. “A number of crofters were charged with theft,” he told me, “something that Compton Mackenzie didn’t mention in his novel.”

It was also Father Calum who explained to me how island life changed when the causeway to South Uist was built in 2001, making the tiny island part of a much larger, and more accessible, community.

“Before the causeway was built I knew I could relax once the last ferry had gone”, he said. “Now I can have people chapping at my door at any time of day or night, but the causeway has been good for the island. In the thirties there were over 400 people living on Eriskay, but by 2000 there were only about 130. Today that’s risen to almost 150.”

Father Calum, who passed away last year at the age of 86, recalled a trip to Glasgow when he was eight years of age.

“We travelled to Mallaig and got the train from there to Glasgow. It was the first time I had seen a train and led to a lifelong fascination with steam engines. But when I arrived in Glasgow I was shocked to the core. I saw a woman, and she was wearing trousers! Could you believe it? What’s more, she was smoking a cigarette.”

Father Calum’s contribution to life in the islands was considerable. The native Gaelic-speaker was the first vice-convenor of Comhairle nan Eilean , the Western Isles Council, when the Hebridean archipelago was unified under a single local government authority in 1975 and he later had the Freedom of the Western Isles bestowed upon him for his contributions to island life.

Many will recall him as a star of the BBC fly-on-the wall series An Island Parish, which followed the lives of three Hebridean island priests, and indeed there have been those who dubbed him a real-life version of the Channel 4 comedy Father Ted. In actual fact Father Calum probably had more in common with an earlier Catholic priest from Eriskay.

Father Allan Macdonald took over the parish of Daliburgh – which then included Eriskay – in 1884. The people of the area – more than 80 per cent Roman Catholic – were very poor. Despite this and other difficulties, he was able to encourage the building of a hospital in Daliburgh which was only recently replaced by a modern one in Balivanich on Benbecula, and the present church in Eriskay.

Father Allan is also remembered as a Gaelic folklorist – responsible for one of the greatest collections of Gaelic literature related to one locality. He died aged only 46 in October 1905 after a bout of pneumonia.

Despite the fact the island is nowadays attached by its stone umbilical cord to South Uist Eriskay still feels remote and unspoiled, a sensation that is probably emphasised by its small size. It’s a mere two and a half miles by one and a half miles, but much of that land is hilly with two prominent tops – Beinn Sciathan and Beinn Stac in the south of the island.

Our ascent of Beinn Stac, 125 metres, was straightforward. We climbed over rough grassy slopes on a curving ridge from the tiny township of Acarseid but we didn’t see much. A thin veil of mist obscured everything but the most immediate of views, although we could just discern the southern islands of Eilean a’ Gheoidh, Eilean Dubha and Eilkean Leathan, rocky outcrops than rise across narrow strait of Caolas an Stac.

The walk was short enough to allow us to return to Am Baile and the Am Politician pub in time for a bar meal. Our excuse was that we were waiting for the mist to clear before we tackled the bigger of the island’s two hills, Beinn Sciathan.

My wife and I combined an ascent of Sciathan with a wander through the island’s main township, Am Baile, and along a superb cockleshell beach, the Coilleag a’Phrionnsa, the Prince’s Stand, a name that commemorates the arrival of Charles Edward Stuart on July 23rd 1745. The prince was put ashore on a small boat from the French ship, Du Teillay – it was the first time he had set foot on Scottish soil and it heralded the beginning of the second Jacobite Rebellion.

It was an inauspicious start to Charles’ ambitions to win back the crown for his father. He was apparently met by Alexander Macdonald of Boisdale who, rather than welcome the Young Pretender with open arms, told him he would receive no support from the MacDonalds of Clanranald, the MacDonalds of Sleat in Skye or the MacLeods of Skye, and urged him to go home. “I am come home sir,” retorted the Prince, before sailing for the Scottish mainland with the Seven Men of Moidart to raise his standard at Glenfinnan.

We all know the outcome of that adventure, but Charles left his mark on Eriskay. It’s claimed that as he removed his handkerchief from his pocket he pulled out some seeds of a flower, pink-and-white striped sea bindweed. The plant certainly isn’t native to the Outer Hebrides, and aside from Eriskay it’s only recorded at one other site on the islands.

A commemorative cairn, built by local schoolchildren, lies beyond the marram grass sand dunes behind the strand. It was erected on the 250th anniversary of Charles’ arrival on Eriskay.

From the south end of the beach we followed the ferry road back towards the village for a short distance to a junction. We turned right here and followed the narrow road that runs down to Acarsaid Mhor for a short distance before taking a track that ran past a small water treatment building and on to the open hill.

A small herd of white Eriskay ponies greeted us. One of them, braver than the others, sauntered forward shyly, but wasn’t too keen on being stroked. The Eriskay pony is the most rare breed in Europe and almost became extinct in the 1970’s although the numbers are now increasing. These are not ‘wild’ ponies as such, each one has an owner, but they don’t live in stables and are content to run free on the island, and in parts of South Uist.

They are stocky beasts, not particularly tall but with a thick coat that can withstand the Hebridean chill. It’s thought the Vikings took them from the Hebrides to Iceland, about a thousand years ago, and today, it appears, the well known Icelandic pony has very similar DNA characteristics to their Hebridean cousins.

We left the ponies munching the tough deer grass and followed a series of marker posts towards a saucer of dark water cradled by some tumbled morraines. I imagine Loch Cracabhaig would be a good trout loch, and a lovely spot to spend an hour or two angling, but we had other fish to fry, so to speak.

Beinn Sciathan rose above us in a series of craggy terraces and although we knew it wasn’t far to the top it would be a steep climb, and we would need to take care to weave a safe line through the outcrops.

By this time much of the cloud had dispersed. The hills of Barra filled the horizon to the south west and the sea between was splattered with small sunlit islands. In the west the uninhabited island of Lingeigh looked like an upside-down pudding bowl floating in the water.

Using our hands as well as our feet on occasions we clambered upwards, excited at the prospect of a clear view at the summit. And what a summit it was. The trig point stands on a rocky plinth and offers expansive views across the Minch towards the Isle of Skye and south to the hills of Barra. To the north a jumble of lower hills lead the eye towards Beinn Mhor in South Uist and closer at hand Eriskay reveals itself as a sun-blessed, beach fringed jewel of an island, with the vast majority of its houses and buildings established in the north end below the protective gaze of St Michaels church, built in 1903.

The weather was improving by the minute and although there was still drifting mist across the south western shores of South Uist a break in the cloud allowed the sun to light up the north west corner of Eriskay, picking out each white washed building in a dazzling display. We lay against the summit rocks ands drank from our flask, picking out the traces of old field ages and former cottages, some of the old homes from a time when Eriskay was relatively well populated.

Colonel Gordon of Cluny had purchased Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula and Barra from the McNeils of Barra and immediately cleared most of the islands to make way for sheep. Since it was thought Eriskay wasn’t suitable for sheep farming he permitted many of the cleared crofters to establish themselves there instead, swelling the population fivefold.

Today, despite the initial success of the causeway in halting population decline, there is concern for the future of Eriskay, as there is generally in the Outer Isles. The primary school in Am Baile has closed and the children go to school now in South Uist. A number of the houses are holiday cottages and tourism, with its very short Hebridean season, is the main industry. A ferry links Eriskay and Barra, but unlike the ferries from the mainland to Stornoway, Tarbert, Lochmaddy and Lochboisdale, inter-isles ferries don’t get any Government subsidy. And they are expensive.

With the sun now lighting up the entire island and the blue/green sea glittering under the evaporating mists there was a temptation to suggest heavenly comparisons, a hint of paradise lost, a shining pearl in the Hebridean seas. The reality is that these are island on the edge – on the edge of Scotland, on the edge of Europe, and on the edge of an uncertain future. But at least today that future is very much in the hands of those who live there. A sporting syndicate sold the assets of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay to a community-owned organization called Storas Uibhist in 2006 and a census two years ago recorded a population  increase of 7.5%, compared with a Scottish islands population increase of 4% for the same period. There is hope, and optimism for the future.

Our descent was surprisingly steep, down grassy rakes and gullies between rocky crags, but in no time we were back on the lower slopes, following the marker posts through the common grazings and back to the village, and another visit to the Politician pub, just in time for supper. We were well contented after our day on Eriskay, the loveliest of all the Hebrides. It won’t be long before we return.

Bheir mi òro bhan o

Bheir mi òro bhan i

Bheir mi òru o ho

‘S mi tha brònach’s tu’m dhith.

(The Eriskay Love Lilt)

Would highly recommend www.sonasselfcatering.co.uk

First published in The Scots Magazine

Brooks Saddles – good for cycling bums

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IT wasn’t that there was an awful lot wrong with the saddle on my touring bike. But at the end of a long day it felt a bit squelchy, a bit soft, as though it wasn’t supporting my weight terribly well.

The result was that my buttock muscles were sore and tired, as though the muscles had been trying to do the work of the saddle.

I ride a Ridgeback Panorama touring bike, and it’s a wonderful bike to ride. It feels smooth, the steel frame offers a kinder suspension than carbon and although it’s considerably heavier, and consequently slower, than my carbon frame road bike I don’t really use it for speed. It’s simply for getting from Point A to Point B, day after day, in comfort.

That last point is the important one. I wasn’t arriving at my destination in comfort every day, so I thought it was time to check out a new saddle.

Everyone told me the best touring saddle in the world, bar none, was the Brooks B17 but it suffered a little bit from the Marmite Phenomena – you either loved it or hated it, depending on how long it took to break in the leather.

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I checked out some cycling forums and websites and some folk seemed to take over a thousand miles of cycling to break in a Brooks saddle, for others it fitted like a glove, right out of the box.

I was also warned that Brooks saddles are hugely expensive, but the internet came to my rescue again. I got one for just over £60 from Wiggle. I guess that is quite a lot of money to pay for a bike saddle but if this was as good as people reckoned, and most believe it should last a lifetime, then it would be worth it.

It arrived within 24 hours – amazing service from Wiggle incidentally – and I was amazed at the quality of the packaging. It was like buying a new computer from Apple – sometimes the packaging is better than the computer!

Anyway, there it lay, a Brooks B17 saddle, honey bronze in colour with a faint whiff of leather from it, a thing of immense beauty. I was loathe to remove it from the packaging, it looked so good.

I treated it with Brooks’own leather treatment, inside and out, wiped it down, and then fitted it to the bike. It didn’t take me long to fit it – very simple – and I planned a 50-mile ride for next day.

First thing I notice was that I was sliding forward on the saddle. I stopped and readjusted it, pulling the peak up just a tad. After that it felt fine – as hard as plastic, but that was OK for the first 20  miles or so. It was about then that I thought I was reaching forwards a bit too much so I adjusted the saddle again, this time pushing it forward on its rails, just a bit.

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After 40 miles my backside felt slightly uncomfortable, but a slight change of position sorted things out.

And so I completed my first 50 miles on my new Brooks B17. For most of the ride I felt very comfortable and even at the end of the ride it didn’t feel too bad. The important thing is that now, two or three hours after riding, my backside feels fine. I guess the proof of the pudding will be when I sit on the saddle again tomorrow. Will it be painless?

I think it might take a few rides to break this saddle in but after one ride I’m pretty impressed. Fingers crossed, and I’ll let you know it it goes.

In fact my bike looks as though it’s had a makeover. To match the honey bronze saddle I bought some golden Fizik bar tape to match. Looks nicely retro now and I might have to buy a wool racing shirt now to go with it…

www.brooksengland.com

On Test – Fat Lad at the Back bike clothing

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I still recall with embarrassment the first cycling shirt I bought. I tried an XL – too tight. Then tried an XXL – still too tight. With mounting disbelief I eventually struggled into an XXXL. No-one had told me cycling clothing was designed for skinny racing snakes.

Not surprisingly others have had the same experience, and it was on an ascent of the infamous Alpe d’Huez that three Yorkshire lads came up with the idea of putting the words Fat Lad at the Back (FLAB) on a t-shirt for the last person up the hill.

And so Fat Lad at the Back was born, a bike clothing company that realised not all cyclists were wafer thin.

If you happen to have a 55-inch chest and a 55-inch waist then these Yorkshire lads can supply you with shirts, bibshorts and bibtights that will fit you, without making you feel you’ve been bound up like a shrink-wrapped chicken. I have absolutely no doubt there is a huge market (pardon the pun) out there.

What’s more important is that this kit is quality – made in Yorkshire from Italian fabrics. The padded bib tights are made from Super Roubaix fabric and so are ideal for winter while the bib shorts, with the wonderful Yorkshire name of Ey Up Shorts, are made from Lycra and have a high density seat pad.

The short sleeved shirt, which I’ve been using, is cut to a comfortable, rather than tight, fit and is quick drying, fully breathable and sweat wicking. It’s called the Balmy Short Sleeve Jersey. Won’t I be embarrassed by the message emblazoned on the back? Not a bit of it. I might still be a bit heavier than the lads at the front but I know my place!

Fat Lad At The Back shirt costs £49.99 and the bibshorts are £59.99

www.fatladattheback.com

 

On Test – Paramo’s Quito Jacket

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Paramo’s Quito Jacket – good for walking and cycling

PARAMO certainly has a strong following amongst Scotland’s walkers and the company’s clothing range is designed to be functional, rugged, dependable and well priced, although for some it may be a little short on cosmetics.

But perhaps that’s no bad thing, and while the style-police may gripe and grimace at the sack-like cut there is little doubt in my mind that no fabric on the market works as effectively as Paramo’s Nikwax Alology Light.

You won’t get wet while wearing this jacket, and you won’t suffer from condensation either. Unlike most waterproof fabrics, Nikwax Alology really does draw moisture away from the skin and delivers it to the outside where it simply evaporates. No matter how hard you work while wearing this jacket, it’s highly unlikely you’ll experience any condensation at all. That means you won’t get chilled, you will stay drier for longer and you will remain comfortable.

And that’s a huge bonus if you’re on a bike. I’ve worn a variety of waterproof jackets on the bike in the past couple of years and most of them suffer from condensation forming on the inside. When you hit a big descent and the rushing wind cools you down, that condensation can really chill you. Wearing a jacket that is both waterproof and breathable is a big bonus.

The Quito Jacket is a genuine multi-function jacket. I’ve been using it as a walking jacket this past winter and on wet days I’ve also worn it as a cycling jacket, in which it excels. The long tail, longer arms and reflective strips are all good cycling features, although I wouldn’t necessarily want a hood on a cycling jacket. I would also have appreciated some kind of pocket in the tail.

My biggest gripe about Paramo jackets has always been about the weight of the garments, but the Quito is Paramo’s lightest to date, weighing in at a tad under 500gms. That’s very respectable, especially when you consider the Quito could be used as a full-on winter jacket, with its wired hood, volume adjuster, full length zip with inner storm flaps, underarm ventilation zips and four pockets.

I’m not too fussy about the handwarmer pockets which are accessed through the ventilation zips, but all-in-all I think this is one of the best jackets Paramo has made to date. I think I’ll be using it a lot of bike touring this spring. It costs about £200, depending where you buy it.

www.paramo.co.uk

In the steps of Duncan Ban MacIntyre

I’M heading off this weekend in search of Duncan Ban MacIntyre, fair-haired Duncan of the songs.

MacIntyre, or Donnchadh Ban nan Oran, was born near Bridge of Orchy in 1724 and became one of Gaeldom’s greatest bards. He had a mixed career, as a gamekeeper and forester working for the Earl of Breadalbane, before becoming a soldier in the Argyll Regiment of Militia.

Duncan moved to Edinburgh in 1767 and spent the rest of his life there serving with the  Breadalbane Fencibles and the City Guard before retiring in 1806. During his time in Edinburgh he composed several prize winning poems, mostly about his native Argyll.

An extraordinary granite monument – some 44 feet high on the Old Military Road from Inveraray to Dalmally, was raised by public subscription in 1859 and dominates Glen Orchy and Loch Awe and its islands.

Probably MacIntyre’s best known work was his Moladh Beinn Dorain – in Praise of Beinn Dorain, the mountain that dominated the view from his early home at Druim Liaghart on the southern shore of Loch Tulla. This is a significant poem in the canon of early Gaelic poetry because of the author’s awareness of the aesthetic values of the hill, a rare acknowledgement in those days.

 “O gladly in times of old I trod that glorious ground,

And the white dawn melted in the sun, and the red deer cried around.”

 I wonder how many folk, particularly hillwalkers and Munro-baggers, have since trod that “glorious ground”, initially inspired perhaps by the near perfect conical symmetry of Beinn Dorain, its image filling the pass ahead as they drove over the A82 from Tyndrum.

It’s a significant hill, sitting on the ancient Druim Alban, the watershed of Scotland, the line of which lies surprisingly closer to Scotland’s west coast than the east. While the waters of the River Orchy and River Etive are fast and furious in their short descents to western seas the River Lyon, which rises to the east of Beinn Dorain, takes a much more relaxed and stately pace as it flows eastwards. The hill’s position, along with its neighbours Beinn an Dothaidh, Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a’Chreachain also form the formidable barrier of mountains once known as the Wall of Rannoch, the ancient boundary between the old Pictish Kingdom of Alba to the east and the Dalriadic Kingdom of the Scots in the west. There’s certainly more to Beinn Dorain than it’s Munro status!

Most of Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s poetry is descriptive and despite the Jacobite upheavals that wracked the highlands during his lifetime it was his experience as a gamekeeper in Argyll  and Perthshire in the employ of the Earl of Breadalbane, and later the Duke of Argyll which had greatest impact upon his poetry. Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain stems from this period. The significance of Duncan Ban’s nature themed poetry is that it has been described by Gaelic scholars as “the zenith of Gaelic nature poetry”.

What is surprising is that MacIntyre remained illiterate throughout his life. His native region had no school and he kept his work by memory. He had to receive help from the minister of Lismore, Donald MacNicol, with transcriptions. The poetry of Duncan Ban would later be translated into English by such notable figures asHugh McDiarmid and Iain Crichton Smith.

He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, where he died in 1812, and a memorial to him stands there, having been erected by friends and well-wishers. Hopefully this weekend I’ll tread the slopes he trod and visit the remains of the house at Ais-an- Sidhean in the Auch Gleann, below the flanks of Beinn Dorain where MacIntyre once lived when he worked as a keeper.

It’s cruelly ironic that the ruins now shelter sheep, the beasts that MacIntyre loathed, blaming them as the cause of so many people being evicted from their homes. His disgust is explained in one of his poems, Oran Nam Balgairean.

 My blessing be upon the foxes, because that they hunt the sheep,

The sheep with the brockit faces that have made confusion in all the world.”