A favourite howff

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ENJOYED a grand walk up to Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe today and as usual I stopped for brew at my favourite howff, a natural shelter that I had regularly used as a youngster when I came here to climb, for it was on that west face of Aonach Dubh that I learned to rock climb.

Well over forty-odd years ago, spotty faced and skinny, nervous and unsure and shown the ropes, literally, by cockily confident gangrels. There was little difference in age between us, I recall, but light years in experience, in attitude as well as experience. I learned much from them but more importantly, in climb after climb, I learned to love this corrie, its crags and its burn, and its little howff.

I stop by it every time I’m in this area. The floor is still hard-packed and firm below its rock-overhang roof. Its protective dry stone wall has been built with loving attention and there is a density in the structure which cries out its impunity to the elements. Across the corrie, beyond the roar of the burn, the East Face of Aonach Dubh rears up steeply, vertically. I once knew that crag well, almost as intimately as I knew any portion of stone in this rocky land. I wonder if I would have experienced such a connection if I had learned to climb on an indoor climbing wall?

It’s a curious thing but I just like to sit within the damp walls of this little howff and enjoy a brew while I slide into a dwam of nostalgia.

It was from here that I first climbed Bidean, on a dank wet day that made the porphyr too slippery for rock climbing. We went for a pad instead, up the length of the corrie, past the lochans and over boulder scree to reach the foot of Stob Coire nan Lochan’s east ridge, just where it levels out to become Gear Aonach.

A rocky scramble took us to the summit from where a southerly ridge sweeps down into a fine bow-shaped col. Little did I see that day of the great crags of Dinner Time Buttress and Church Door Buttress as we made our way steeply up the other side to the rocky summit of Bidean nam Bian.

Today I just wandered up to Stob Coire nan Lochan and enjoyed a nice wee circuit of the corrie. The route to Bidean was mobbed – almost like the Lake District, but there was no-one else on the ridge above Aonach Dubh. I had it all to myself, and do you know this – although the weather was mostly fine and clear, there wasn’t a wind turbine to be seen in any direction. Not one.

 

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Complete ban on turbines in National Parks and National Scenic Areas

LIKE all of Scotland’s outdoor NGO’s I very much welcome the new safeguards for wild land in Scotland as published by the Government today in its new National Planning Framework and Scottish Planning Policy. In total, about 30% of the land mass of Scotland will receive significantly greater protection from developments like large scale wind farms.

Turbines will be completely banned from National Parks and National Scenic Areas, and that move will completely safeguard the finest of our mountain landscapes.

In addition, those areas described as ‘wild land’ in a map of the country drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage will see a “significant increase” in protection.

These very proposals were flagged up some time ago in a draft document that I wrote about in my column in www.walkhighlands.co.uk and, to be honest, were met with some suspicion by various NGO’s. Despite public criticism and a huge amount of lobbying from the renewables industry, energy companies and some local councils, the Government has very much stuck to its guns and  there is very little change from the original proposals.

Part of the reason for that was the huge amount of public support for the complete ban in NP’s and NSA’s and the excellent public response to the second consultation on the SNH wild land map.

I’m going to sit down with a large dram and work my way through the various documents and once I’ve got my head round it all I’ll write a fuller piece for my next column in www.walkhighlands.co.uk. Meanwhile I congratulate the Scottish Government on its boldness in facing up to the lobbying pressures of the energy companies and in publicly agreeing with so many of us that ‘wild land’ is a nationally important asset.

I would fully endorse the comments of the John Muir Trust’s Stuart Brooks who said today: “This recognition of Scotland’s wild land as a nationally important asset that needs to be safeguarded marks a historic breakthrough. Scotland’s landscapes are spectacular, contributing to our quality of life, our national identity and the visitor economy. The John Muir Trust has fought long and hard over many years with the support of many thousands of people to achieve official recognition for wild land and we welcome this commitment.’’

I’m an outdoor bum, and I’m campaigning for YES

ONCE again I’m sitting in my office, in front of my Mac, with the french doors wide open to let in some of that lovely sunwarmed air that I wish I was enjoying outside.

The problem is that I have a busy couple of weeks coming up and I have to get the writing done now. That’s the downside of being an outdoors writer. Walking the hills or riding the bike or making television programmes about these things are all great, but the downside moment inevitably comes when you have to sit down and write it all up.

After 35 years of doing this for a living you’d think I’d be used to it by now but the truth is I’ve always found the writing side of it to be a burden. How I envy those writers who love playing with words, who get a thrill out of constructing clever paragraphs and who enjoy nothing more than locking themselves away – in purdah – to create a book or a magazine article without disturbance from the outside world.

Hiking or climbing or cycling or canoeing or backpacking are the things I enjoy, the elements of my life that give shape to everything else. To allow me to do these things as often as I possibly can I have to turn the activities into some kind of business – or starve.

In the early years of my career I had a choice to make. I could be an outdoors instructor, or I could become a writer. At decision time I was running the activities at an outdoor centre and writing before I went out to work in the morning and when I returned home at night. It got to the point where I had to make a decision – one thing or the other. I couldn’t continue doing both or I wouldn’t have had the time to go out and enjoy the outdoor activities for myself – a classic scenario. I honestly couldn’t see myself teaching snow plough turns or how to line up a map and compass for the rest of my life so the prospective life of an outdoors writer won the day. I’ve no regrets.

No regrets until I find myself with too much writing to do, deadlines approaching, and the sun is shining outside. Ho-hum…

I’ve been very fortunate. I was going to say lucky but I’ve realised that you make your own luck. Twenty-odd years editing outdoor magazine – Footloose, Climber, The Great Outdoors – gave me a great base to work from, and I was very, very fortunate that I had publishers who realised I was first and foremost an outdoors guy, and a magazine editor second.

That kind of situation has changed a lot these days. Outdoor magazine editors tend to be wage slaves. The demands from publishing companies are high and profits related and most of these publishers don’t actually give a toss about outdoor activities. It’s just another subject to make a magazine and make money. That’s not to say my old publishers didn’t want to make money, of course they did, but they all realised that I couldn’t operate at the required level without a regular fix of the outdoors. That had to be explained to them, time and time again, and often in difficult circumstances, usually when they were being pressurised by profit-seeking shareholders.

Much the same goes for my television career. I’m not a television presenter who does some outdoor activities. I’m an outdoors guy who does some television. There is a huge difference. I don’t do other things on television because I’m not interested in quiz shows, or chat shows or hosting a programme about farming life. A number of years ago, just after the success of Wilderness Walks, I was approached by an independent television company who asked me to front a series about caravanning. I’d never towed a caravan in my life, I had never been interested in caravanning and I had little enthusiasm to learn, so I turned it down without a second thought. No regrets.

At much the same time I was invited to appear on a number of radio quiz shows and I accepted a couple of offers. I hated it, made a complete arse of myself and vowed never to do it again. Likewise with after dinner speeches. I now have a rule that I only give talks or speeches to outdoor folk, with one glorious exception that I’ll come to in a minute. In the past I’ve given after-dinner talks to groups of folk with no interest in the outdoors and I can see them looking at me with absolutely no understanding or appreciation of what I’m talking about. I should say many of these gigs pay extremely well, but I often feel completely out of my depth, often trying to be a comedian or entertainer when basically I’m not. I’m an outdoors bum..

This weekend I’m speaking at an event, one that I’m looking forward to immensely. It’s the Moray Walking Festival and I’m going for a walk with my old friend Heavy Whalley, retired mountain rescue guru. Heavy is leading a walk up Ben Rinnes near Dufftown and I will be his helper! In truth, my role is to blether with whoever else comes along and help make a great day of it. We’re all meeting in the Ben Rinnes car park at 10am on Saturday. Come along if you can.

Later in the evening I’ll be giving an audio-visual presentation in the Drouthy Cobbler in Elgin. I’ll be talking about some of the projects I’ve been involved in over the past few years – the Scottish National Trail, television, magazines and some of the fascinating folk I’ve met. I think there are a few tickets left and you’ll get all the information you need from http://www.moraywalkingfestival.co.uk

So what’s the ‘glorious exception’ to the kind of talks I give?

Some of you will be aware that I’m currently trying to help campaign for an independent Scotland. I’m sharing a platform with the redoubtable Lesley Riddoch in Newtonmore Village Hall on Thursday 26th June and with Mike Russell MSP and Rosie Kane in Benderloch, near Oban, the following evening. A few weeks ago I shared a platform with Derek Bateman at the highland launch of the National Collective in Inverness and that was a wonderful event. I’m still feasting off the buzz that event gave me.

I firmly believe Scotland has the ability and the resources to be a wealthy independent country and I believe Scotland’s future should in Scotland’s hands, so that we can build a better, fairer, greener, more prosperous country that many of us believe is possible.

This isn’t an anti-English stance – far from it. I’m passionate about parts of England, just as I’m passionate about parts of continental Europe, but I despair at the current UK political system and I believe Scotland is being prevented from meeting the aspirations of Scots people.

As an independent country I believe Scotland will become a fairer and more equal society, a nuclear-free society, an environmentally sensitive society with a burgeoning renewable energy industry and one in which we can bring an end to the grotesque situation where 7% of people own 84% of the land. We simply can’t achieve these things under a Westminster regime, no matter if it’s Tory or New Labour – both tend to sing from the same hymn sheets these days anyway.

Let me finish this blog with a message to Scots ‘don’t knows’, from the arch-capitalist and ‘child of Thatcher’ Richard Branson. This is what he once said;

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”

I think that’s very good advice.

 

Ireland end to end: Some final recollections

HAMISH and I have both agreed that our Irish end to end cycle trip, from Mizen Head in the south to Malin Head in the north, was probably the best of the three end to ends we’ve done in the past three years.

Land’s End to John O’Groats was a bit of a learning curve, the first long bike trip we had attempted at just short of a thousand miles and the ride between La Manche and the Med through France was, in some ways, too easy. I don’t think either of us would want to spend days biking along canal towpaths again – too similar, too flat, too boring.

The ride through Ireland was very different to the other two. For a start the quality of landscape was sustained all the way with perhaps only a slight dip on the day between Sligo and Donegal, but there were other attractions on that day, like visiting the grave of WB Yeats beneath ‘Ben Bulbin’s bare head.’

And the landscapes were fabulous – everything from great coastal scenery – Mizen Head, Cliffs of Moher, Aran Islands, Malin Head, to some lovely mountainous country – Caha Mountains, Moll’s Gap and Killarney National Park, the Reeks, James Joyce Country – to that green, rolling, agricultural land where the fields are still separated by hedgerows vibrant with wild flowers, particularly my own favourite, the blood red fuchsia (‘where the red fuchsia weeps’ – John Spillane) which seems to grow alongside every minor road, intermingled with thorn bushes. 

I really enjoyed cycling through this kind of landscape, so much more pleasant on the eye than the prairie fields we see so much in Scotland and England, the industrial agriculture that decimates wildlife.

But while the landscapes were varied and generally superb it was the people who will leave the lasting impression. What is it about the Irish that makes them so friendly, and inquisitive, and such wonderful conversationists? I lost count, on our first couple of days, of the number of people who simply approached us, asked what we were up to, then entertained us with tales and stories and anecdotes. I have to confess I’m not the most sociable of people but I simply loved this aspect of Ireland. More than anything else it was… welcoming and warm!

Something else that we noticed and remarked on was a sense of affluence. Now, I know there is poverty in Ireland as there is anywhere; I’m fully aware that the Celtic Tiger left many Irish folk unable to compete; and I know that Irish had to be bailed out when the international banking world decided to collectively shit on us all, but Ireland seems to have come out of it all better than us. (As has Iceland).

We found it interesting that no matter where we went we rarely had less than four bars on our mobile phones. At every B/B and hostel we stayed at, no matter how remote (the Aran Islands, west coast of Clare, north Donegal etc) we had Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. Here at home in Newtonmore I can’t use my mobile phone – no signal!!!

In total we cycled just over 600 miles, but 192 miles of that was getting to Mizen Head from Cork (a wonderful two days of cycling along the south coast – highly recommended) and reaching Larne from Malin Head (via Co Antrim’s Causeway Coast, another wonderful bike ride, particularly the stretch from Ballycastle to Cushendal)

We took two weeks for the entire trip so we weren’t exactly pushing it, but you wouldn’t want to push it in Ireland. It’s a place for slowing down, enjoying the scenery, blethering to people, listening to the music and soaking in the Celtic atmosphere of a land that will always be, for me at least, cloaked in romance and legend.

And the highlights? I’m no great lover of climbing hills but I loved to ride over Moll’s Gap in County Kerry where we had our first view of Carrauntoohill, Irland’s highest mountain which I’ve previously climbed a couple of times, and our visit to the Aran Islands, one of the most curious landscapes I’ve walked through; simple yet complex, wild yet lived-in, romantic yet rough. Craggy Island it may be, but it certainly doesn’t feel desolate or dour. 

One of the problems with cycling through a land is that now and again you want to stop for a while and explore a bit. I’ve made note of a number of places I want to go back to and I’ll do that later in the summer. My wife Gina and I have dropped the plans we had and I’m taking her back to Ireland to show her some of the places Hamish and I passed through, and hopefully spend a bit more time in them to get to know them better. I can’t offer a bigger compliment to Ireland than that. Go and see it for yourself, and take your bike. It’s a fine way to see the country.

Ireland End to End: in photos

Only home a few days and already our Ireland End to End trip feels like it was years ago. But a few photos bring it all back so I thought I’d share some of them with you. Hope you enjoy them…

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On our run along the Liffey quays from the ferry to our hotel in Dublin

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Hamish pretending he can get us out of Cork with his eyes shut…

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Ye Gods, which way now?

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Hamish enjoying some sunshine therapy after a long day in the saddle

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My preference in therapy was slightly different…

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The bould bhoys at start of the End to End – at Mizen Head

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The tunnel at the top of the Caha Pass in Co Kerry

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Another day, another climb. Moll’s Gap in Killarney National Park

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Fabulous cycling on the west coast of County Clare

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On Craggy Island… 

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The hugely impressive Dun Aenghas on Innismore, Aran Islands

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Couldn’t resist this one…

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More great riding in north Donegal, just south of Buncrana

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The final steep climb to Malin Head

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The Start/Finish line at Malin Head. We called it a dead heat!

The Pilgrims’ Trail – double DVD available now

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A Celtic cross on Iona

WHAT exactly is a pilgrimage? It’s been described as a journey or search for moral or spiritual significance and in many cases it’s a journey to a location of some importance to the person making the pilgrimage. Such a location might be a shrine, as in the case of the well known pilgrims’ trail to Santiago de Compostella and the church of St James, or the Muslim ‘haj’ to Mecca.

When BBC Scotland asked me to walk a Pilgrims’ Trail in Scotland for our annual Christmas television programme I wasn’t sure where to begin but my producers at Triple Echo Productions came up with a cracker of a route, a journey that partly fulfilled the ‘spiritual significance’ aspect of pilgrimage and partly fulfilled my own definition of a pilgrimage as a ‘journey of discovery’.

The route began, not surprisingly, on the Isle of Iona, a centre of Irish monasticism for four hundred years and the island from where St Columba, or Columcille, set forth to bring Christianity to the Picts of Alba. This starting point really appealed to me as I’ve long been fascinated by our Celtic heritage and I was very keen to try and learn more of the ancient Scotland that Columba was determined to evangelise.

But I had another purpose in mind for this ‘pilgrimage’ across Scotland. I wanted to take the opportunity to challenge my own perceptions about ‘wild land’, at a time when so many people are suggesting that Scotland is being ‘industrialised’ beyond repair, and that the finest of our wild land areas are being despoiled by renewable energy projects. Is industry in the highlands a modern phenomenon and how genuinely ‘wild’ is our wild land? I hoped a 250-mile walk across Scotland, from the Argyll coast to the North Sea might offer me a deeper understanding of the issues.

A pilgrimage should end at a location of some importance and relevance to the entire route. When my producers suggested Portmahomack as a destination I looked at them curiously. Portmahomack? I wasn’t even very sure where that was. A quick check on the map showed it to be on the Tarbat Peninsula, a sharp finger of land that juts into the Moray Firth between the Dornoch Firth and the Cromarty Firth. The village stands about three miles south of the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness and finds of elaborate early Christian carved stones dating to the 8th-9th centuries (including one with an inscription), in and around the churchyard, had long suggested that Portmahomack could be the site of an important early centre of religion.

Since the mid-nineties archeologists have made some exciting finds in and around the grounds of the old Portmahomack Parish Church and are now convinced that the present church stands on the site of the only Pictish monastic settlement ever found in Scotland. The leader of the archeological team, Professor Martin Carver of York University, told me that the site is “Scotland’s best kept secret” and is possibly as important as Iona, but more of that later.

Our pilgrimage route was designed as much to offer an exceptional walk as anything else, and we followed what turned out to be a highly original coast-to-coast route. From Iona I visited another coastal island, Inch Kenneth, by curragh, the type of skin-covered rowing boat that Columcille and his contemporaries used. In those distant days of the sixth century the Celtic monks would have made full use of the sea as a highway – it was probably easier than negotiating the heavily wooded landward areas of mainland Alba, where wolves and wild boar freely roamed.

Our route then took me across the Island of Mull to Fishnish Bay on the Sound of Mull where I caught the ferry across to Lochaline. But before that I was keen to deviate from the Pilgrim’s Trail just a little, to take in the only Munro in Scotland that necessitates the use of a ferry to reach it.

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On Ben More of Mull

In 1991 Ben More of Mull was my final Munro the first time round and I was keen to re-visit it, largely because in four ascents of the hill I’d never had a view from the summit. This time I was lucky and after a wild and windswept ascent the weather gods relented and the sun burst through the cloud as I climbed the final snowy steps to the summit cairn. It was a good omen for the rest of the pilgrimage!

From Lochaline we travelled north, past the silica sand mine that has been exporting to the rest of the world since 1940. The extremely fine sand is used in the manufacture of optical quality glass and later in the day I passed some more mines, this time long abandoned.

The old Lurga lead mines are found in Gleann Dubh, a few miles north of Lochaline. Mining took place here as early as 1730 and the open cast works and drystone buildings are still evident. The site consists of the remains of the lead mines, opened around 1730, derelict by 1749, re-opened around 1803 and finally abandoned by 1850. Later, beyond Strontian, I came across more mine workings. Lead was mined here in the 18th century and it was in these mines that the mineral ‘strontianite’ was discovered, from which the element ‘strontium’ was first isolated, named after the Gaelic village name, Sron an t-Sithein, the nose of the faery hill. Who says industry in the highlands is a new phenomenon?

From Strontian I crossed the hills to Loch Shiel and followed the track along its eastern shore to Glenfinnan, a place forever associated with Charles Edward Stuart. It was here he began his campaign to regain the crown for his father, a campaign that ended in bitter defeat on Culloden Moor. It was the aftermath of the defeat that interested me though, as Charles took to the heather for months on end, avoiding the Government forces that were hunting him, until he could board a ship that would take him back to France. His journey, to the Western Isles and back, was a long and convoluted expedition that made my walk look tame in comparison. Our steps were to cross several times in the coming days.

From Glenfinnan a rough track over the high bealach of Gleann Cuirnean between Sgurr Thuilm and Streap took me to the head of Loch Arkaig on the very edge of Knoydart, and from here another high pass took me into Glen Kingie. The route turned east now towards the Glengarry Forest before heading north again over the Mam na Seilg into Glen Loyne and Kintail.

I followed, in part, an old drovers’ road up into the pass but the original route dropped down to the shore of Loch Loyne where it abruptly vanished. This is pretty much all that remains of the old ‘Road to the Isles’, and this section once ran between the Cluanie Inn and Tomdoun. This drovers’ road originally forded two rivers, which were dammed and flooded in 1957 to form Lochs Cluanie and Loyne. The present A87 road was constructed around the edge. This old track to Loch Loyne is still in pretty good condition but where it crossed what is now Loch Loyne, there were once two bridges and a small wooded island. These were submerged below the waterline and only become visible when the loch is at an unusually low level.

Over the next week or so we were to be faced with more and more evidence of Scotland’s widespread hydro-electric industry as we crossed from Glen Affric, via the Munro of Toll Creagach, to the big dam at the head of Loch Mullardoch. Here I met up with fiddler Duncan Chisholm who has released a trio of albums named after three of the glens we had visited, Affric, Cannich and Strathfarrar – the Strathglass Trilogy. What we didn’t know until we met up with Duncan was that his father had worked on the Mullardoch dam, part of the Affric/Beauly power scheme.

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Duncan Chisholm, playing for us on the shores of Loch Mullardoch

“My father was born in Glen Cannich at Cosac Lodge which ended up submerged in water when Mullardoch was dammed in 1951,” he told me. “Loch Lungard and Loch Mullardoch became one loch then when their height was raised by about 100 feet, leaving a very dark and very dangerous stretch of water. In fact my great grandmother who had spent all of her life in either Glen Affric or Glen Cannich was so appalled by what had happened to her home she just couldn’t bare to visit Mullardoch again after 1951, until her death in 1967.”

Beyond Glen Cannich I walked through a very remote landscape between the head of Glen Strathfarrar (the only Strath in Scotland that’s also a glen…) and Loch Monar. A wild camp, and a campfire on the stony shoreline of Monar, was highly atmospheric and memorable.

Next day I crossed more high ground into the head of lovely Strathconan from where the River Conon and a series of forestry paths and tracks took me to the Blackwater River and the heavily forested Rogie Falls and more hydro-electric schemes. The Blackwater River rises high on the slopes of Beinn Dearg, some 30 miles away and runs down into Loch Vaich from where it contributes to the huge Glascarnoch hydro scheme. A series of tunnels carries the waters from Loch Vaich to Loch Glascarnoch and then down to Mossford Power Station on Loch Luichart. The Blackwater River itself flows out of Loch Garve and eventually meets up with the River Conon just south-east of Contin.

Soon Ben Wyvis became the third Munro of the pilgrimage, and our first real view of any windfarm activity. The Loch Luichart scheme is pretty massive, and badly sited in my opinion, and I sincerely hope that the nearby Glen Morie proposal is never given planning approval. I dropped down to the shores of lovely Loch Glass from Wyvis and then crossed a high ridge to the shores of Loch Morie, an area that was new to me and one which surprised me by its feeling of remoteness and its natural beauty. It would be a disaster to spoil it with a large windfarm.

From Glen Morie various byways took me to lovely Strath Ruisdale and Strath Rory, all new to me, before some quiet roads led me east towards the Tarbat Peninsula and Portmahomack where I met up with Martin Carver.

Martin believes the remains by the church of St Colman are one of the earliest Christian sites uncovered in Britain. It is the first Pictish monastery to be excavated, resulting in a window, opened on an unprecedented scale, on early monasticism, inspired by the Columban mission to Scotland in the late 6th century AD. The settlement has been dated from the 6th century and it’s believed the monastery was eventually destroyed during a Viking attack, possibly in the 9th century.

Amongst other finds have been more than 200 fragments of Pictish stone sculptures, including the ‘Calf Stone’, which shows a bull and cow licking their calf.

Between 1994 and 2007 the Church of St Colman was fully excavated, as well as a one hectare sample of the area within the enclosure that surrounds the church. What the archeologists discovered was astounding. Their findings led them to believe that in the 8thand 9th century Portmahomack could have been the largest manufacturing centre in Europe, making illuminated books and church vessels like tin bowls and candle holders for the rapidly expanding number of monasteries that were being built. When I asked Martin Carver if it’s possible Columba visited here he thought it quite likely, possibly after visiting Inverness to try and convert the pagan King Bridei in 565, although the founder of the actual Portmahomack monastery was more likely to be St Colman, who had succeeded Aiden and Finan as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

The Tarbat Discovery Centre now displays many of the artefacts uncovered during the excavations and it’s well worth a visit. As I wandered along the final three miles to the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness I pondered on all the trails and tracks I had followed from Iona, and the types of people who had trod them before me – saints, monks, soldiers, Jacobites, princes and cattle drovers, and in more recent times the miners, the hydro and forestry workers, crofters and farmers and the hikers and backpackers of today.

Although few of these tracks and trails wound through truly wild land I had little doubt in my mind that the mountain tops we had crossed certainly did fall into that landscape category, although all of them had evident footpaths running to the summits. But wild land or not, and despite the industrial heritage to be found all across my route, the Scottish highlands still have the ability to make you feel small and insignificant, that you are the only person in a vast and uncompromising landscape, reminding me again of its precious qualities for renewal and hope and of its immense natural beauty, qualities that I’m sure even Columcille would have been more than proud of.

St Colman’s Church, Portmahomack

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The double-DVD, The Pilgrims’ Trail, is available now from http://www.mountain-media.co.uk and costs £18.99