A flick back in time… to a former life

PICT0035-1Couldn’t resist posting this old photo from around 1966.

The young guy on the left with a full head of black hair is me, aged about 16. I was Scottish junior long jump champion and my coach, the chap on the right, was the great John Anderson, who was convinced I should acquire skills in all the track and field disciplines with a view to a future career in the decathlon.

I went on to gain a couple of Scottish internationals as a long jumper while John, at that time Scottish National Athletics Coach went on to great honours as one of our finest track and field coaches ever. He later found fame as the official referee in the televisions Gladiator shows. Remember “3-2-1…”

John is now living somewhere in the south of England but I plan to visit sometime early next year. Will be great to catch up…

Meanwhile, filming is almost finished for our annual televised long walk. This year it’s from the Mull of Galloway to Oban. We’ve called it the Western Way!

The Carn Mairg Munros of Glen Lyon. Go and enjoy them!

IT’S eleven years since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act was published ,the hard-won legislation that gives the public a right of responsible access, a codification, if you like, of the traditional right to roam that Scottish walkers and mountaineers have enjoyed for generations.

Even after eleven years the legislation doesn’t please everyone of course, and there are still hotbeds of discontent amongst some of Scotland’s landowners, many of whom have been trying to interpret the term “responsible access” to suit their own purposes.

A few years ago the huge metal gate that once barricaded the track to the Cairn Mairg hills in Glen Lyon had become infamous amongst regular hill-goers. A notice board, pinned to the gate, spouted forth all sorts of conservationist gobbledygook about why people shouldn’t walk on the hills during the stag shooting season, the hind culling season, the deer calving season and the lambing season. Many walkers interpreted all that as simply “keep out”.

Well, the gate is still there, together with a plethora of signs, and some leaflets are available for walkers to take away and study. In general the estate appears happy to conform by the new access law, but have also made up some rules of their own that are certainly not in the spirit of the legislation. For example, the leaflet orders you to “walk clockwise and stay on the recognised route.” It then goes on to tell you to “stay out of all the corries and glens.”

It is a pity that the Chestill Estate has seen fit to try and impose its own rules on walkers, rules that have no legitimacy under the Land Reform Act legislation, for the high level walk around the Munros of Carn Gorm, 3376ft, Meall Garbh, 3176ft, Carn Mairg, 3415ft, and Meall nan Aighean (sometimes referred to as Creag Mhor), 3218ft offers one of the best expeditions in the area, a walk of about 11 miles. Go and enjoy it. Act responsibly and if you experience undue harassment by estate staff report them to the police.

My mate Steve and I had arranged to meet in Glen Lyon with the intention of walking at least part of the route. The weather forecast suggested a brief lull in the gale force winds and driving rain that had been battering Scotland all week and we knew that if the weather really closed in we could escape from the route by descending through one of the corries back to the glen – despite the local Chesthill rules. (This was well outside the stag stalking season)

As it was we didn’t have to. What wind there was had torn great patches of blue in the cloud layers and thin drifting mists only enhanced the views up and down the length of Glen Lyon. Carn Gorm was snow-capped, and after a long pull over rising moorland and the final steep pull to the summit, we delighted in the prospect of the high-level walk that lay before us.

The broad, rolling nature of these Carn Mairg ridges allow you to stride out purposefully and navigation is made simple, even in foul weather, by the rusting uprights of an old boundary fence that march their companionable way over the tops. We used them to good effect, for the spells of glistening, clear weather were interspersed with curtains of black cloud that obliterated the views across the deep, tree-lined chasm of Glen Lyon towards the Ben Lawers hills and to the north where the wide open landscape rolls on towards the broad swell of mountains beyond Loch Rannoch. During the clear spells nearby Schiehallion stood out supreme, not as the bold conical shape as it’s so often portrayed, but as a long whale-backed ridge.

It was on Carn Mairg itself that we might have come to grief. The fenceposts had lulled us into a false sense of security but a sixth sense convinced me we were heading the wrong way, and none too soon. A check with the map and compass confirmed it. A steep crag lies immediately below the summit slopes and it’s best to traverse east for a bit from the summit cairn, before descending grassy slopes down to the high bealach above Coire Chearcaill. Our little error was hardly serious, but it did mean we had to negotiate a slope of boulders that were covered in wet, slobbery snow; more ankle-threatening than life-threatening.

Double-topped Meall nan Aighean was our final Munro, the summit of which is the rock capped north-east top. With black storm clouds gathering in the distant recesses of Glen Lyon we were keen not to outstay our welcome. Taking issue with hostile landowners is one thing; riding your luck with Biera, the Celtic queen of winter, is another thing entirely. A quick trot down the grassy ridge on the south side of the Allt Coir Chearcaill soon dropped us back at the footpath by the Invervar Burn. We beat the rain by minutes.

A Very Special Place – The Angus Glens

Outside Davy's Bourach on Jock's Road

Outside Davy’s Bourach on Jock’s Road

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 Cairngorms 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 – this was the land of the 40-verse bothy ballad.

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.

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 four or five 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.

Loch Brandy,Dreish and  Mayar beyond

Loch Brandy,Dreish and Mayar beyond

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 circumstances 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.

On Jock's Road near Glen Doll

On Jock’s Road near Glen Doll

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.

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.

Close to the summit of Driesh, with Mayar behind

Close to the summit of Driesh, with Mayar behind

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.

A World Away on the Isle of Arran

Cir Mhor and Casteal Abhail from Goat Fell

Cir Mhor and Casteal Abhail from Goat Fell

FOR many of us there is a place, a particular spot in this lovely land, that we can forever associate with a life-changing experience. For me that place is the island of Arran. It was here, only a dozen miles or so from the Ayrshire coast, that I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to climbing mountains and exploring wild places.

It was after negotiating the narrow and spectacular ridge between Beinn Tarsuinn and Cir Mhor – the finest ridge in Scotland outside the Skye Cuillin – that I made that fateful decision. It was 1969 on a sun-soaked day and I had been thrilled by the tight and exposed crags and ridges – over Beinn Tarsuinn and the A-Chir ridge onto the narrow summit of Cir Mhor. My companions and I had spent too long on the sun-kissed granite and so we had to jog down the hill to catch the evening ferry at Brodick.

As we loped down the hillside, exhilarated by our achievements, I made the decision that somehow I was going to spend the rest of my life amongst mountains. Ever since then the hills of Arran have been a bit special.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Arran since, but I know it’s not enough. Too many years passed while I was exploring other parts of Scotland and when I did return it was as a seasoned and experienced mountain addict. But by that time I was interested in more than just bagging peaks. I quickly realised that Arran, this island that many suggest is ‘Scotland in miniature,’ has much, much more to offer.

Arran is steeped in myths and legends, some of them associated with smuggling, others with the saints and sinners, kings and lords who visited the island long before us, even as far back as Bronze Age times.

The legends surrounding the Cat Stone at Corrie, the story of Robert the Bruce hiding from the English forces at King’s Cave and the history of Arran’s whisky industry can all be experienced on a long walk around Arran’s coastline.

Back in 2003 I was invited to open a new long distance trail, the Isle of Arran Coastal Way, and spend a few days walking sections of the route. While the mountains of Arran have always attracted climbers and hill-walkers many folk are a little over-awed by the steep and narrow ridges of the island’s main peaks. For every climber who has been thrilled by the sweeping granite slabs and the steep, soaring pinnacles of the likes of Cir Mhor and Casteal Abhail there are dozens of walkers who would rather tackle something less dramatic, less taxing, but challenging enough to make their outing an adventure. And so the 65-mile Isle of Arran Coastal Way was conceived by two local men, Hugh McKerrell and Dick Sim.

On the Arran Coastal Way, approaching Lochranza

On the Arran Coastal Way, approaching Lochranza

The coastal route can be treated in a number of different ways. Diehard backpackers can wander round the island carrying a tent, sleeping bag and everything else needed for survival, dossing down in one of the island’s many caves or bivouacking below the night skies. Others might prefer a little more comfort, spending the nights in a guest house or hotel. Others again might prefer to walk the route over a number of weekends, tackling one or two sections between villages each time.

Arran has, in a sense, been ideally created for coastal path walking. A raised beach, like a shallow coastal fringe, encircles the island, even below the steeper cliffs of the island, and the Coastal Way follows this raised beach virtually all the way. While much of the route follows well used footpaths and stretches of beach here and there you have to follow the road, albeit a very quiet and pleasant road, mostly on the west of the island.

My own favourite section was probably the toughest part of the route, from Kildonan to Whiting Bay past Dippen Head. No footpath tames this part of the walk, although the difficulties can be avoided by following the road at the top of the cliffs. With steep 300ft cliffs on one side and the open sea on the other this part of the coastal fringe is an enormous boulderfield, and some of the boulders are the size of a double-decker bus.

The route passes the Black Cave, the largest cave on the island, and although great care is required as you leap from rock to rock there is something rather satisfying in the uncompromising nature of the terrain that made me, essentially a mountaineer, feel very much at home.

Rocky reefs run out towards the little lighthouse island of Pladda, and beyond, floating on the horizon, is the great plug of Ailsa Craig. It isn’t hard to believe that these parts have seen regular encounters between excisemen and smugglers over the years – the contraband trade once thrived well on these south shores of Arran.

Just recently the Arran Access Trust, who have inherited management of the Arran Coastal Way, secured a Coastal Communities Fund grant to upgrade the Arran Coastal Way. One of the aims is to meet the criteria to be accepted as one of ‘Scotland’s Great Trails’, as well as improving and promoting walkers’ experiences on Arran. The work will last about two years.

I suspect archeologists and geologists feel pretty much at home on Arran too for this island is a living archive. A nineteenth century geologist once wrote: “The number of rock formations, sedimentary and plutonic, which are found within this limited space is truly remarkable, perhaps unparalleled in any tract of like extent on the surface of the globe.”

Most of the mountainous northern half of the island has been formed by a large granite core, created by volcanic activity around 60 million years ago. Sedimentary rocks dominate the southern half of the island, especially Old and New Red Sandstone.

On the Coastal Way, as you approach Lochranza from the Cock of Arran, you’ll come across a coastal feature known as Hutton’s Uncomformity. Visiting Arran in 1787, the geologist James Hutton found his first example of an unconformity, which provided evidence for his theories about the age of the Earth. At that time the common view was that the Earth was about 10,000 years old but Hutton discovered adjoining layers of rocks that appeared to have been created at different times, and by different sources. This led him to believe that the Earth was not 10,000 year old but much, much older, possibly many millions of years old. This site on Arran is one of the best known places in the study of geology.

Just off the shores of Lamlash Bay lies a smaller island, home to a community that has embraced a somewhat different, older culture. A tiny ferry had whisked me across the bay to Holy Island, just off Arran’s south-east coast and a line of glistening white chortens and fluttering multi-coloured prayer flags led up the grassy slopes to the whitewashed Centre for World Peace and Health’

Chortens and prayer flags on Holy IsleHoly Island is run as a centre for wisdom and learning within the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and is open to people of all faiths and none, but that’s not why it’s called Holy Island. The place has a spiritual heritage that stretches back to the 6th century. The earliest recorded name for the island was Inis Shroin, or island of the water spirit, but when the Celtic missionary who became known as St Molaise lived on the island at the end of the 6th century, the place was named after him. During the early part of the 19th century the island gradually became known as Holy Island.

The highest point on the island is only 314 metres on Mullach Mor and that was where we were heading, through a gateway of prayer flags, up the edge of a tilting field, over a style and along a rutted footpath through a recently planted native woodland area. When we came out of the trees all the big hills of Arran were visible to the north across the shimmering waters of Lamlash Bay.

The island has two hill-tops, and it was now a steep climb to the first of them, Mullach Beag. As I climbed I realised it’s no wonder that ancient monks and contemporary lamas have chosen this island as their place of meditation and prayer, for the natural beauty of the place heightens the senses and brings you full face against the whole glory of creation, whatever your religious leanings, although I suspect the beliefs of St Molaise and the current leader of the community here, Lama Yeshe, are not as far apart as people might assume.

A steep descent from Mullach Beag is followed by an even steeper climb to the main summit, Mullach Mor and its from there that you can appreciate the full glory of the surrounding views. To the east the hills of Ayrshire are low-lying but closer at hand, beyond a green and yellow patchwork of fields, lie the rugged hills of Arran. And at your feet, across the peaceful waters of the bay, lie the houses and buildings of Lamlash, white and glistening in the sun, strung out round the gentle curve of the bay.

The descent from Mulloch Mor is badly eroded and steep. The community say plans are in hand to repair the path and that’s good, because of the rest of the walk, down to lighthouse which now forms the Inner Light Retreat for women and back up the west coast of the island, is quite beautiful.

As we made our way along the grassy track that runs up the west of the island, we passed a number of colourful rock paintings that depict different deities and teachers of the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism: White Tara, Green Tara, Milarepa, Marpa, Gampopa, Buddha Shakyamuni and Dusum Khyenpa. And close by the rock paintings lie another feature of the island, the Holy Well and cave of St Molaise.

Bhuddist paintings on Holy Isle

Bhuddist paintings on Holy Isle

The cave is indicated with a little sign pointing up some steps, and just beyond it bubbles the well where, for centuries, people have come to drink the water in the hope of being healed from whatever ailments they were suffering from. I lapped some myself, and it was cold and crystal clear, although it doesn’t apparently meet current EU standards!

We made our way back to the Centre for World Peace and Health where a Centre volunteer profusely apologised for not being able to make us tea or coffee before the next ferry arrived. We just had time for a quick exploration of the Centre’s organic garden before we were whisked off the island again and back to Lamlash. We left a quite different world behind us…

In 1628 the Duke of Montrose entertained the traveller William Lithgow at Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran. Lithgow, known as Lugless Willie on account of his deafness may have been hard of hearing but there was nothing wrong with his eyesight. During his stay with the noble duke he climbed Goat Fell, the highest mountain on the island. Formerly known as Goatfield Hill Lithgow later wrote in appreciation of the experience.

“A larger prospect no Mountaine in the world can show, pointing out three Kingdomes at one sight: Neither any like Ile or braver Gentry, for good Archers, and hill-hovering Hunters.”

Lugless Willie may have been deaf but there was little wrong with his eyesight if he managed to see Scotland, Ireland and England!

One old guidebook suggests the views from Goat Fell are “laid out like a geography lesson,” with the Firth of Clyde spread out in a shimmer of blue. Beyond lies the Ayrshire coast, running all the way down to the Rhinns of Galloway and up towards the opening of Loch Long. Dotted on the Firth below lies the Cumbraes and the Isle of Bute. The small island off the west coast of Bute is Inchmarnock, once known as the “drunk man’s island.” Drunkards who persistently offended against Bute’s laws of sobriety were banished there to serve a term of punishment!

The best views are to the rest of this remarkable island. To the west of Goat Fell, across the deep gulf formed by Glen Rosa, the rocky ridge of Ben Chliabhain climaxes in the vertiginous slopes of Coire Daingean which, in turn, is joined to Cir Mhor by the great buttress of A’Chir. Beyond it protudes the stump of Caisteal Abhail and the north ridge of Glen Sannox. Beyond Beinn Chliabhain the great prow of Beinn Nuis soars above the serrated ridge that runs out to Beinn Tarsuinn.

Only once in several visits have I enjoyed this view, and it remains imprinted on my memory. The Isle of Arran has this curious, and frustrating, habit of wearing a cap of cloud. When all the low lying areas have a blue, cloud free sky smiling down on them the mountain peaks lie smothered in their own little weather system.

Some recent plans for a weekend of ridge wandering and scrambling were dashed by heavy rain and low cloud so instead of tip-toeing delicately across the sun-warmed slabs and narrow ridges of A’Chir and Cir Mhor we opted for a plod in the rain up Goat Fell.

I felt a little guilty for treating Goat Fell in this way, as though it’s inferior, but it is a bit of a tourist romp up the well-maintained footpath. Although the hill would grace any highland region and offers a serious enough challenge, it is the easiest to climb of all Arran’s peaks.

Although it was still wet and cloudy on the summit we ate a quick lunch and, ever the optimists, pushed on towards North Goat Fell over the granite buttresses and spires of the little ridge that’s known locally as the Stacach. Tracings of paths run round the sides ofthese little turrets but we opted to climb them, before realising that weeks of rain had turned the normally rough and reliable Arran granite into boiler plates of greasy slime.

North Goat Fell couldn’t come quickly enough and we escaped down the steep and well worn ridge that leads to The Saddle between the heads of Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa. Ahead of us the precipitous slopes of Cir Mhor rose into the gloom but we decided to leave its ascent for another day. The long path down Glen Rosa led to the pub, dry clothes and plans to return to Arran’s delectable mountains as soon as we possibly could.

Brodick and the Holy Isle from Goat Fell

Brodick and the Holy Isle from Goat Fell


















The Edge – Twenty Years On…

Mountain guide Alan Kimber in the role of Norman Collie, myself and mountain guide John Lyall as John MacKenzie

Mountain guide Alan Kimber in the role of Norman Collie, myself and mountain guide John Lyall as John MacKenzie

IT was the most unlikely setting for a meeting, and one that saw me becoming involved in the most exciting television project of my career.

In 1993 I was in Russia with a group of trekkers, backpacking around the base of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, before climbing to the 5,642 metres/18,510 foot summit. Sharing the icy flanks of the mountain with us was Chris Bonington, Britain’s best known mountaineer. Chris was working with a small film crew, making a film about his attempt on the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each of the seven continents.

Once we had all climbed to the top we retreated to the relative luxury of a valley hotel and enjoyed a few beers together. Over several beers I had a long chat with Richard Else, the film crew’s director, about the contribution made to Scottish mountaineering by Scotland’s finest mountain writer, WH Murray.

Richard was keen to make a documentary about Murray. At that time, in the early nineties, Bill was in his eighties and not in the best of health and Richard passionately believed there should be a television archive of Bill, a record of the man and his considerable achievements.

Some weeks later, BBC Scotland accepted the proposal but rather than a one-off documentary about Bill Murray they suggested a much bigger project, a six-part series that would document the past century of Scottish Mountaineering. It would be broadcast throughout the UK on BBC2 and Richard felt it was important to have a television presenter who climbed, so he asked me. Naturally, I accepted!

Initially we had two major problems. Firstly, how on earth were we to choose the subjects for six programmes from the plethora of great mountaineers Scotland had produced in the previous hundred years, and secondly, we only had four months to film and produce the six programmes. We started filming in January 1994 and we had to deliver everything by Easter.

It was an incredibly tight schedule but we were blessed with some phenomenal winter conditions and a film crew that was willing to work incredibly long hours in the most difficult conditions to get the climbing action we required. On many occasions our camera operators and safety crew wouldn’t get off the hill until well after dark, on some occasions as late as nine or ten in the evening, and then be up at the crack of dawn to start all over again. Without their total commitment and sheer professionalism we wouldn’t have produced anything.

This attitude contrasted greatly with stories I had heard from Tom Weir about film crews insisting they were back at their vehicles by five o’clock, and cameramen who demanded proper lunch breaks. In contrast, virtually everyone in our crew was a climber; cameramen, sound operators, runners and producers, and we were supported by a superb safety team made up of seven qualified Mountain Guides expertly led by international mountaineer Brian Hall. The combined experience and mountain awareness of the whole team was to prove invaluable time and time again.

Before we began filming Richard and I spent a lot of time visiting and talking to climbers about the subject matter. Tom Weir was very helpful, as was Hamish MacInnes who, sadly, couldn’t appear in any of the films as he was busy. Eventually we decided on a mixture of biographical and thematic films that we hoped would each represent a particular era in the development of mountaineering in Scotland between the 1890’s and the 1990’s.

We began with an examination of one of the finest climbing partnerships in the history of the sport, the unlikely pairing of Victorian scientist Professor Norman Collie and the Skye-based mountain guide John Mackenzie. The two men climbed together every time Collie visited Skye. On each visit he would immediately contact Mackenzie at Sligachan, and the two would formulate plans for the holiday. The guide to client relationship quickly grew into a deep friendship and the two men, from such contrasting backgrounds and cultures, were bound together by a common love and appreciation of the Skye Cuillin. They were eventually buried side by side in the little graveyard near Sligachan on Skye.

Murray WHOur original inspiration, WH Murray, was the subject of the second programme, and represented the era up to the outbreak of the Second World War. We decided to film an account of Murray’s ascent of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, his last climb in Scotland before going off to the war. This film, shot in remarkably good winter conditions, later won a Scottish BAFTA award.

On Murray’s return from the war he didn’t try and compete with the new generation of Scottish climbers, people like John Cunningham, Tom Patey, Jimmy Marshall, Robin Smith and Hamish MacInnes. According to Murray these men “had a speed and confidence we simply hadn’t possessed.” Another era was about to begin.

For this new era we concentrated largely on the contribution made by Edinburgh climber Jimmy Marshall and his relationship with the likes of the younger Robin Smith and Dougal Haston. The American mountaineer Yvon Chouinard described Jimmy Marshall as being “the real genius of the decade.” He was six years older than Smith and eight years older than Haston but Marshall was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the climbing success of a whole bunch of young Edinburgh climbers, collectively known as the Currie boys.

Though a relative unsung hero of Scottish and UK mountaineering Jimmy Marshall has been inextricably linked to the development of cutting edge climbing in Scotland during the 1950′s and 60′s. In one legendary week on Ben Nevis in 1960 Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith transformed the shape of Scottish winter mountaineering, advancing it a full ten years. On consecutive days the two men climbed six first winter ascents, including the mini Alpine-route Orion Face Direct, while also making the second and much quicker ascent of Point Five Gully for good measure – in seven hours as opposed to more than 40 hours when previously climbed.

We filmed Jimmy climbing on the Buachaille Etive Mor and even at the age of 62 there was a precise ballet-like movement in his climbing, a vertical grace that was a sheer joy to watch.

Robin Smith became one of Scotland’s finest ever climbers but sadly died at the very young age of 23 in the Pamirs. Haston became the first Scot to climb Everest in 1975 and later moved to Leysin in Switzerland where he died in an avalanche in 1977.

Filming on the Old Man of Stoer for The EdgeThe fifties and sixties saw a huge explosion in interest in climbing and mountaineering in Scotland, with standards rising proportionally. While the Creag Dubh club in the west and Marshal et al in the East were leading the way many climbers were heading to the unexplored grounds of Scotland’s far north-west. One of them was Doctor Tom Patey from Aberdeen, one of the most charismatic Scottish mountaineers of the century.

Few climbers have matched the long-lasting charisma of Patey and when he died in an abseiling accident after climbing The Maiden, a quartzite sea stack off Whiten Head in Sutherland on 25 May 1970, it brought to an end a tremendous mountaineering career that had lasted twenty years.

To the public at large he was known only through the Old Man of Hoy BBC television spectacular in 1967 (which had an audience of 15 million) but inside the small mountaineering world he was a familiar and well loved figure. From his very first ascent on Lochnagar’s Douglas-Gibson Gully in 1950 to his very last climb, which led to his premature death at the age of 38, he was a major and significant player on the Scottish climbing scene.

Our final programme was very much a look at modern developments, as they were then, and we followed the climbs of three young Scottish Mountaineers, Rab Anderson, Dave Cuthbertson and Dundonian Graeme Ettle. This was at a time when climbing was changing fast. Better equipment, different attitudes and greater fitness saw the likes of our three climbers search our and climb some of the most technically difficult routes in the country, but other forces were at work too – indoor climbing walls were becoming fashionable and young climbers were training hard for sports climbs, bolted climbs, and even climbing competitions. It seemed that traditional climbing in the Scottish sense was being overlooked.

In an interview at the time 26 year old Graeme Ettle said: “There are any number of climbers of my age climbing hard on indoor walls or on bolted routes, but very few are active at the highest levels during the winter. In areas such as Beinn Eighe there are acres of climbable lines, all in the top grade, the equivalent of E3 routes and above in winter conditions. If more young climbers had as much commitment to winter climbing as they have to summer sport climbing the result would be tremendous, but it’s not happening. Wall climbing takes place in such a controlled environment that it is very hard to imagine anyone breaking away from it. If I am on a route and fail, then I am involved in hours of hassle before I reach safety. If you fail on a wall, you simply drop off and go home. Where is the comparison?”

Today, twenty years after Graeme’s comments, that specialisation he refers to has solidified. Rock climbers flood to the sports-climbing crags of the south while others, like Dave MacLeod, has brought the gymnastic skills of the climbing walls to outdoor crags like Dumbarton Rock, Ben Nevis and Strone Ulladale on the Isle of Harris.

Dave MacLeod climbing for the cameras on Strone Ulladale, HarrisThree years ago, in another Richard Else-led outside documentary, viewers watched a live ascent of the great overhanging prow on this Hebridean rockface by MacLeod and fellow climbers Tim Emmett. It was a fascinating and gutsy display of modern rock climbing at its highest level.

While it’s safe to say that much of the earliest exploration of the Scottish highlands took place in the first half of the twentieth century climbers are still discovering new crags and new potential lines, even on some of the popular crags. Last year I bumped into Andy Nisbet, one of Scotland’s climbing legends, and he was being very wary about telling me where he was heading. There is still a strong competitive element amongst those who seek out new crags and new lines and few Scottish climbers have as many first ascents to their name as Andy Nisbet.

There have always been peaks and troughs in the development of climbing in Scotland and in all the peaks, and more importantly, in all the troughs, there have still been climbers on the hills enjoying themselves. The vast majority of these climbers will not be challenging the prevailing standards, nor creating new routes, but just accepting the challenges the mountains pose for them as individuals. Most climbers, then and now, don’t particularly worry whether the sport that we know as mountaineering is developing or stagnating. It’s a personal game, and most of us take part in it, and love it, at that level.

Twenty years on from the filming of The Edge, there are still those pushing the standards of mountaineering in Scotland, and while hundreds annually line up in queues to climb Everest the mountains of Scotland still provide a technical challenge for some of the best climbers in the world.

And twenty years on from the first showing of The Edge on UK television perhaps it’s time the BBC commissioned a follow-up, to bring us up to date, a programme that could showcase some new faces, the modern stars of Scottish mountaineering?

The Western Isles End-to-End

Comp & Clegg at the start on Vatersay

Comp & Clegg at the start on Vatersay

Day 1

Ballachulish to Oban/Castlebay to Vatersay

Not really Day One, that starts tomorrow when we head north from Vatersay but we’ve called this Day One because we chose to ride some of the way to the ferry port in Oban.

Gina kindly offered to drive us some of the way so Hamish and I accepted her offer of a lift from Newtonmore to Ballachulish.

It was a wet start, a typical west highland summer morning of mist and drizzle but by the time we had crossed the Ballachulish Bridge the rain had gone off and there was a discernible lightening of the sky.

Encouraged by the change in weather we loaded the panniers and set off on the wonderful N78 cycle route that runs south to Oban.

We’ve both ridden this route before and know how good it is and although it joins the main road for sections it’s generally off-road on a very well surfaced path.

We made Oban in good time, after stopping for twenty minutes for a coffee and jam scone in Benderloch. We even had time for some fish and chips (to help us endure a five hour ferry crossing) before buying our tickets and boarding.

The sea was calm and the sun shone and Mull and Ardnamurchan and Rum and Eigg all looked majestic but not as beautiful as Barra looked as we swung into Castle Bay in the setting sun. Lovely Heaval, rising above the scattering of houses, was golden in the evening light and the ancient ramparts of Kishmuls Castle added a sense of romance to the scene.

On the ferry we had telephoned the Kishmul Cafe to book a table for dinner and it was lovely to return there where I had filmed when we did our Hebridean Trail telly programme a number of years ago.

There was only one problem. We wanted to begin our little bike odyssey in Vatersay, the most southerly inhabited island in the Western Isles, and that necessitated a big hill climb out of Castlebay and down to the causeway that links the two islands.

I had never ridden a fully laden bike up a steep hill immediately after eating scallops pakora and rogan josh! This was a new experience and not one I’m liable to repeat, although the meal did feel as though it might repeat, several times.

It was a genuine relief to freewheel down the other side and cycle over the causeway. My friend in the cafe had told us about a good camping spot, just on the other side of the causeway and we found it. We also found the crofter who owned it but he was charm itself, and told us the best spots to put the tents.

Within minutes we had pitched up, had a brew on, and laid back to the sound of the crashing surf on the beach below us. Some days are good and this had been a memorable one, and we hadn’t even started yet!

Day’s mileage: 35 miles

Day 2

Vatersay to Lionacleit, Benbecula

We were up and away by 8am. Hamish had some problems with the gas canister he had brought so we had to back into Castlebay and see if we get another one. Cycling back over the hill was certainly easier this morning and it was good to see, in the light of day, what we had tackled the night before with all that Rogan Josh and pilau rice sloshing around inside me.

As it happened the one shop that sold gas canisters didn’t open till 9.30 so we had to hang around a bit. As we waited a young lad approached me and struck up a conversation, a chat that was right out of a Lillian Beckwith novel…

Hello, he said, so you know the shows on today?

No, I didn’t, I replied, will it be good?

Yes, it will, I’ve got a boat.

Great, says I, is it a big boat.

Yes, and I’ve also got a hen…

We left it there, he to  attend the show, maybe with his hen, and me to follow Hamish who, now that he had his stove gas, was high-tailing out of Castlebay. We had a ferry to catch.

It was a lovely run up the west coast of Barra, past Borve and then over the spine of the island to the ferry port at Aird Mhor. A number of other cyclists were waiting for the ferry too, about 10 of us all together. I’d love to know how many folk do this trip every year, it must number thousands each summer.

We were a little sad to see the wee tea room which once graced the ferry port is no longer there. Hamish remembers the lady making his a bacon roll a few years ago and when Gina and I attempted to walk the length of the Hebrides, about 10 years ago, we had coffee and sandwiches there.

Now there is only a vending machine, and that was empty…

We had to wait until we reached the SS Politician, the pub on Eriskay, before we got some grub. But before that we had to negotiate the very, very steep hill that climbs away from the Eriskay ferry. It was hard work and we struggled a bit but it was worth it to swoop down the hill on the other side all the way to the pub where home made tomato soup and cheese toasties made us feel human again.

We didn’t stay that way for long though. On leaving the pub so began one of the hardest afternoons of cycling I’ve yet experienced. The wind had risen, out of the north-west, and threatened to stop us in our tracks if we eased our pedalling for even a second.

I’ve cycled in wind before, often enough, but this was a 30 mile ride in which I felt like I was living a nightmare, one of those dreams where you are trying to run as fast as you can but you’re not actually moving!

Fighting the headwind on Benbecula

Fighting the headwind on Benbecula

I’d love to be able to describe the landscapes we passed through but I was concentrating too much on maintaining forward progress to even notice it. What should have been a pleasant slightly undulating road became a test piece where every little rise, combined with the head on wind, felt like climbing Everest.

And many of the drivers on the mainly singletrack road didn’t help either, hurtling towards us, ignoring the passing places, threatening to drive us into the ditch. Drivers, in their little heated bubbles, totally unaware of the struggles we were having with wind and hills. Bastards.

We enjoyed a brief respite with coffee and scones at a museum tea room, Barbara’s Tea Room, and then we were off again to a new variety on the weather front. Frequent rain showers, frequently heavy rain showers.

By the time we struggled over the Benbecula causeway we were soaked, cold and knackered so we pulled into the campsite at Lionacleit, found a place for our tents as sheltered from the wind as possible, had a hot shower and cooked some very welcome food. After that we struggled along the road to the pub, had one pint, struggled back again and collapsed into out tents. It was only 8.30. We both fell asleep with a simple prayer on our lips. Dear Lord, kill the wind tomorrow -please!

Day’s mileage: 41 miles

Day 3

Lionacleit to Horgabost, Harris

The wind blew all night long. In the camp site at Lionacleit there were four tiny single person tents, all huddled round the gable end of the toilet block where the wind was slightly less fierce.

I didn’t find it too bad. I stuck some earplugs in my lugs and had a pretty good night’s sleep. Hamish just slept through it all…

We were up and away by 8.30, into a dour looking morning with a hint of promise away in the north-west and that promise soon came true. Once we crossed the causeway into North Uist the sun came out and the whole watery landscape glittered and smiled.

Being Sunday morning the road was quiet and we spent a lot of time taking photos. I’d take a picture of Hamish on his bike, then he’d take one of me on my bike, then I’d take one of him off his bike and so on and so forth.

Eaval, the Mt Fuji of the Uists

Eaval, the Mt Fuji of the Uists

We took some shots of the North Uist landscape too, although it seems there is as much water in it as land. Shots of distant Eaval, the Mount Fuji of the Uists, shots of croft houses on the horizon over layers of loch, seeweed and rocks, shots of signs saying Otters Crossing. We were making the most of the sun, which was as well because it didn’t last long.

We stopped for a bit to explore the 14th century remains of Trinity Temple, an ancient seminary where it’s said the young Duns Scotus was educated. The seminary was apparently founded by the wife of the great Somerled in the 13th century.

I’m glad we stopped for I’ve passed the road end often enough and its amazing to think that here, in amongst some little hills, one of the greatest minds in Scottish history was educated.

We had earlier made the decision not to follow the coast road round to Berneray. It was too long and we wanted to catch the 4.30 ferry to Leverburgh. Instead we took the Lochmaddy road and since the turn off up to Berneray was very close we decided to visit the Lochmaddy Hotel for some Sunday lunch. Nothing else was open, it being the Sabbath.

We had an interesting conversation with the barmaid. The menu said we could have a breakfast or bacon rolls up to 12 noon, but when we asked for bacon rolls we were told the chef wouldn’t be in until 12. So we asked if we could have a bacon roll when he came in but the girl said it would be too late then for the breakfast menu – you could only get that up until midday. We didn’t argue, and instead ordered some sandwiches… It seemed easier.

After that we flew along. The landscape between Lochmaddy and Berneray was as good as anything on the trip so far, and a sun dimpled landscape was a real bonus.

As it happened we had a bit of time to spare before we caught the ferry and I remembered a tea room just over the hill. The Lobster Cafe. We found it but it was shut – the Sabbath again, but we were a little put out by all the signs telling cyclists not to lean their bikes on the walls of the cafe -instead lean them against the fence. I’ts a curious way to encourage customers…

The ferry crossing was uneventful, although we managed to get some hot chocolate and a Kit Kat from a vending machine. Across the sound the hills of Harris looked dark and a tad foreboding and when we wheeled the bikes out from the ferry it was into a cold wind.

We didn’t hang around Leverburgh. Everything was closed – the Sabbath – so we high tailed it along the very scenic road for eight or nine miles to the campsite at Horgabost. We found a lovely flat bit of turf with great views across to the hills of North Harris and settled in for an epic cook- in and another early night. Tomorrow we hit the big hills of Harris.

Day’s mileage: 45 miles

Our camp site at Horgabost, Harris

Our camp site at Horgabost, Harris

Day 4

Horgabost to Dail Mor, Lewis

Woke to a magnificent pink dawn, then the wind dropped and the midges came out, midges the likes of which I hadn’t experienced for a long time. They certainly hurried us up with our packing and we were on the road before eight.

It was good to get moving, although on the big hill that runs down from the top of the Golden Road to Luskentyre we noticed that was definitely a minimum midge speed. If you dropped below it, the midges attacked, but keep above it and we ere OK. I think it was probably somewhere around 7mph and on the steeper sections of road it was easy to drop speed.

I did have the thought that if you found the road too steep, and you had to get off the bike and push, it could be quite a miserable experience, easily enough to put you off cycle touring for life. It was quite a motivation to keep pedalling, as hard as possible.

It was actually a good run round to Tarbert, despite the hill, and we were well aware we had an even bigger one to negotiate later in the day, over the Clisham pass.

We lingered for a bit in Tarbert, ostensibly waiting for the tea room to open and when it did we were tempted by their full Scottish breakfast, despite the fact we’d already eaten.

We bought meals for the next couple of days and suitably fortified with sausage and egg and bacon etc we tackled the Clisham hill, Hamish with more success than me. I was fighting my way up in my granny gear when, for no real reason I swerved onto the grassy verge and came off. No damage done, but when I tried to get going again I couldn’t – the hill was too steep. So I shoved the bike until I could get on and turn the pedals.

At that point the weather was pretty wet and gray but it must have been localised to the mountains because once we started the long descent the sun came out, for the rest of the day actually.

I stopped to take a picture of the Harris Walkway cairn, although the plaque looks pretty weather worn now. Hard to imagine I opened that route 14 years ago, in June 2000, at the grand old age of 50!

Our original plan had been stop at Luirbost, which would have given us another 43 mile day, but we got there in early afternoon, and anyway, there was nowhere to camp. We wentoff route for a mile or so to the Erixxx Hotel for a coffee where we both got a bit upset because an old couple from south Wales were having some difficulty.

The lady had lost her handbag with all their holiday cash, her credit cards, and her medicines. We really felt for them although there was absolutely nothing we could do. We left them in the capable hands of the Yorkshire couple who ran the hotel.

From there we pressed on and the new plan was to reach Callanish, which would give us a 53 mile day, but when we got there and asked at the Callanish Stones visitor centre we were told there was no camp site. The young couple made some suggestions but it seemed the best option was to continue for another 10 miles to Dail More, beyond Carloway. The girl said there was a car park near the beach and no-one would mind if we camped there.

It was a hard 10 miles. We were both knackered and we took it in turns to fight the headwind. Eventually, beyond Carloway, we saw the sign and followed a narrow road downhill for about a mile to a graveyard and a picnic area.

There were some German surfers in residence, complete with their VW’s, but we found space for our tents about 50 metres from the crashing, booming surf. There was even a public toilet, with an outside tap. We were quid’s in, although completely bushed. It had been a 64 mile day.

Day’s mileage: 64 miles

Day 5

Dail Mor to the Butt of Lewis and back to Galson

An easier day to complete our Hebridean End to End. We decided to check out an independent hostel a place called Galson, about 8 miles south of the Butt, and since there was room we dumped our panniers, had a cup of coffee, then hightailed it north to the Butt of Lewis.

We arrived about lunchtime, took various photos, sat in the sun for a while and soaked it all up feeling rather pleased with ourselves.

Sadly, the promised good weather didn’t quite happen. The watery sun soon evaporated into a dour greyness that, I have to confess, matched the dour landscapes of this part of Lewis. This isn’t stimulating countryside, many of the houses look mean and miserable and the only encouragement I took from the land I was passing through was in the number of YES signs I saw everywhere.

Journey's end at the Butt of Lewis

Journey’s end at the Butt of Lewis

We did have a marvellous lunch though. Both of us read, and enjoyed, Peter May’s book The Blackhouse, so we toddled down to Port of Ness, scene of the home of the legendary guga hunters, the men of Ness who travel to the remote Sgula Sgeir every year to “harvest” the gugas, the young gannets.

We had been disappointed that we hadn’t found any cafes open so it was with some delight we came across Cafe Sonas in Ness where we both had a superb steak mince enchilada. If you ever visit Port of Ness, check it out.

So, belly full of mince and cheese we cycled back to the hostel (we should have learned our lesson from the Barra curry) into the teeth of an increasing wind and rain.

Day’s mileage: 41 miles

Day 5

Galson to Stornoway and home

We were up and away from the excellent Galson Farm hostel just after 9am for an easy 20 mile ride down to Stornoway.

We were riding into a bit of a wind but the weather was much better than yesterday. And with the sun shining the general environment of Lewis smiled at us.

We cycled over the Barvas Moor and while this area can never be described as beautiful it does have its own attractions – vast moors of peat in every direction with the hills of Uig and Harris away in the south.

I remember when there was a proposal for Europe’s biggest wind farm to be sited here, and I also recall being surprised how many people objected on the basis that Barvas moor was a bit special. That proposal was eventually turned down on environmental grounds.

It didn’t take us long to get into Stornoway, grab a good breakfast and then hang around in the sun waiting for the Ullapool ferry. It was a good opportunity to reflect on the trip.

First of all, as ever, Hamish was a most excellent cycling companion. We’ve known each other almost all our lives so we have no need to try and outdo each other, or prove ourselves to each other.

Having said that, Hamish has worked hard and lost a fair amount of weight in the past few months and it showed in his cycling. He was much fitter than I was and made me work hard to keep up.

The trip itself was very good and the Hebrides End to End has become something of a classic. We saw plenty of other cyclists on the route, all enjoying it, and there is a good contrast between the flatter southern islands and the hilly areas of Harris.

Lovely contrasts too between Barra and Eriskay, my two favourite Hebridean islands, and the very different landscapes of the Uists, which are certainly not without their attractions. The long day through Harris was the hardest, but best, with some stunning mountain scenery.

We had a couple of great wild camp sites, two good nights on official camp sites and one night in the very highly rated Galson Farm hostel.

Total distance cycled was just under 250 miles, including our initial ride from Ballachulish to Oban to catch the ferry.

Day’s mileage: 22 miles

Our aim must exceed our grasp – reasons for voting YES

AWAY back in the mists of time, or at least the late seventies I found myself in a situation where I was to make a choice that was to completely change the rest of my life.

After leaving school I found myself taking on a number of jobs – but I wasn’t entirely happy in any of them. In my mid-twenties, with a wife and young child, I went off to work for the Scottish Youth Hostels Association and absolutely loved it. We ran the hostels and I started doing a little bit of writing in my spare time. I did a Mountain Leader Training gig and got some work teaching climbing and hillwalking and cross country ski-ing in winter.

A number of years later, now with two young sons, my wife and I sat down to have a think about our future. She was doing some part-time nursing.

Could we continue to run youth hostels for the rest of our working lives, or was this the time, while we were young, to try and satisfy other burning ambitions?

I desperately wanted to be an outdoors writer. I had been chuffed to have had some pieces published and I had been greatly encouraged by the features editor of the late and much lamented Sunday Standard, a forerunner of the Sunday Herald.

It all seemed like a dream that was very unlikely to become real. I hadn’t done particularly well at school; I didn’t go to university; I couldn’t really settle in a job; I didn’t have any savings stored away; I was in a job with a tied house and I had a young family. I really just wanted to climb mountains and write about it.

My dream of being an outdoor writer seemed impossible. Then I remembered a quotation from the poet Robert Browning, a quote that had been given to me by my boyhood hero, Lynn Davies the Welsh Olympic gold medallist long jumper.

“A man’s aim should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Lynn Davies, son of a coal miner from a working class background in Nantymoel near Cardiff became the greatest long jumper in the world. His ambitions far exceeded his grasp. What indeed, was a heaven for unless you believed in your own destiny?

My wife and I discussed the situation and we went for it. We got a little house in Kincraig and I worked my backside off, teaching outdoor activities by day and writing from 6-8 in the morning and then between 7 and 9 in the evenings.

It wasn’t easy but somehow we survived, and more importantly, it was possibly one of the happiest times of our long marriage.

After a few years I became deputy editor of Climber & Rambler magazine, then editor, then in 1990 I became editor of The Great Outdoors magazine, a role I remained in for 20 years.

During that time I was fortunate enough to enjoy some radio work and then some television work.

It was a fabulous existence. From the very comfortable base of a monthly salary and a company car I climbed hills near and far, led treks in the Greater Ranges and made several major television series for the BBC. My sons grew up, went to University and went off on their own career hunt. Then Gina and I were blessed with two granddaughters.

The risk that I took in leaving SYHA had paid off. At the time it seemed a silly thing to do and a number of people suggested to me that I lacked the experience, the skill and the qualifications to make a go of it. They meant well but they were wrong.

Then, almost five years ago, I had to make another decision, another personal choice that involved risk.

I had reached the grand old age of 60. I was in a comfortable, well salaried job. I had made my name, I had written about 15 books, made a number of television series for the BBC. I was gioven a lifetime achievement award for services to magazine publishing in Scotland. I was made an honourary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. I had climbed the Munros several times and had walked, climbed and skied throughout the world but one thing niggled me…

I became aware that time was not eternal. I was growing older and I still had many things I wanted to do while I still could, while I was still reasonably fit. I wanted to travel more, I was keen on doing more television work, I wanted to write about other outdoor related things than just climbing hills, I wanted some time to campaign more effectively for the political issues I thought were important.

To have the time to do these things I would have to give up the relatively time consuming job as editor of The Great Outdoors.

Could I, at age 60, pick up a career as a freelance writer and television presenter?

My wife had just retired as a staff nurse, so once again we had to sit down and discuss our future and once again I recalled those words by Browning…

“A man’s aim should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

With a renewed sense of adventure, but probably better prepared this time, I resigned from TGO and went into the big wide world on my own again.

I’ve not regretted it. Not once.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the writing I’m doing for the Scots Magazine and WalkHighlands, I’m enjoying the role I have in BBC Scotland’s Adventure Show, but more importantly I’m doing a lot of things I didn’t have time for before. Lots of long distance cycling, much more travelling with my wife, and being able to spend more time with my granddaughters.

I smile when I hear people talk about the risks of independence for Scotland.

I laugh when I hear people suggest Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent.

Compared with the risk I took when I was was determined to earn a living as a young writer the risks that face Scotland are negligible.

I embarked on my adventure with few qualifications, only determination and ambition. Scotland can embark on her adventure with a bagful of qualifications.

Some of the best natural resources of any nation in the world;

A skilled and hugely talented workforce;

Existing industries like food and drink, whisky, agriculture, engineering, digital resources;

A thriving arts and cultural sector;

Bigger oil reserves than the likes of Abu Dhabi or Quatar…

I could go on but do you get the point? Scotland is well qualified to go it alone on the world stage.

The question is do we, as Scots, have the ambition to do better, or are we happy to remain as we are and face another uncertain future, a future that could see us, against our will, being dragged out of the EU;

A future where billions of pounds are spent on renewing weapons of mass destruction and stored in our midst;

A future in which decisions about Scotland are made by right wing politicians who want to punish us for having the audacity to think we could become independent;

A future in which we will for ever be known as Scotland The Feart!

Let’s grasp this opportunity. Let’s aim high, far beyond our grasp. If my personal experiences are anything to go for, we, and our children and grandchildren, will be richly rewarded. September the 18th is our date with history. Let’s take our place in history, by voting YES! And let’s remember Robert Browning’s words…

“A man’s aim should exceed his grasp, or what a heaven for?” 

Revolution Country Premier touring bike – thoughts after 200 miles

Loch Laggan looking pretty spectacular under blue August skies

Loch Laggan looking pretty spectacular under blue August skies

WHAT a magnificent day it was for a bike ride. With the sun shining from a cloud-free sky It didn’t take much for me to  decide that I had no immediate deadlines pressing and it would be a computer-free day.

There’s little point in living in one of the nation’s most beautiful areas if you can’t enjoy it on a lovely day so that’s exactly what I did, very aware that the BBC weather forecast was full of gloom and doom for tomorrow.

It wasn’t however, a complete work-free day. Next week I’m taking a new touring bike to ride the Hebrides from end to end. I collected the bike, a Revolution Country Premier from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op, last week and I’ve now ridden a couple of miles on it, including today’s 100km (sounds more impressive than 60 miles) down to RoyBridge and back to my home in Newtonmore.

In short I’m really impressed with this bike, although I changed the saddle after a hundred miles or so. The Selle Royal saddle that came with the bike felt hard-edged and very uncomfortable. Probably I should have given it longer to break in but I’m afraid I tend to be impatient with saddles.

The Revolution Country Premier at Creag Meagaidh

The Revolution Country Premier at Creag Meagaidh

A painful backside on a bike ride is even worse than riding all day into a wind as far as I’m concerned and after a couple of outings I was very uncomfortable in the sitting department. Everything else was fine so it seemed sensible to change the offending item.

And here’s the strange thing. Some time ago I bought a Brooks saddle but even after 5-600 miles it still felt very uncomfortable so I relegated it to a shelf in my garage. Some sixth sense made me look it out the other day and fit it on the Evolution bike and do you know what? It felt fine. Still a bit hard and unforgiving but a big improvement on the Selle saddle.

I also fitted some Shimano M324 combination pedals. I like the fact that these are clipless on one side and flat on the other. Sometimes when you’re touring it’s useful to have a flat pedal and I’ve used these on all my big bike trips over the past few years.

So, having changed the saddle and the pedals, how did the Revolution Country Premier perform in its first couple of hundred miles?

Well, it performed well enough to for me to commit to taking it across to the Hebrides next week instead of my usual steed, my Ridgeback Panorama.

It’s taken me a little while to get used to the multi-position ‘butterfly’ ergo bars, offering a wide variety of riding positions, and I’ve found that by using the top bars I can occasionally stretch my back quite nicely. On the lower position I find my fingers going a little numb so I’ll perhaps need to look at changing the height of the bars just a tad.

Gear shifting, courtesy of the latest Shimano Deore LX 3×10 shifters and gear mechs, is excellent and very exact. The spread of gears is much the same as on my Ridgeback –  48/36/26 chainrings and Shimano 11-32 10-speed cassette. This setup offers a higher top gear than a regular mountain bike transmission with 42/32/22 chainrings to enable a quicker burst of speed on the road.

The biggest advantage of this bike is undoubtedly the cable operated disc brakes. These are Avid BB% mechanical disc brakes which roll on ball bearings to ensure smooth engagement and release and they operate beautifully. What a difference to the rim brakes I’m used to. You barely have to squeeze these to slow you down, indeed ‘sqeeze’ is not a good word. Squeeze these and you’ll go head over the handlebars. All you really have to do it gently tickle them and you slow down. Wonderful. Too many times I’ve had cramp in my wrists because I’ve been squeezing the hell of out rim brakes when on long downhills, especially with a big load on the back.

revolution-country-premier-14But there’s one a potential problem with these disc brakes. The mechanism on the front wheel means that it looks like it could be pretty awkward to fit front pannier racks and that could be very inconvenient. There is so much weight already in the rear of this bike that I’d be keen to split any load between front and back. I’m not sure I can…

I’ll have a further tussle with my front pannier rack before I head west and if I can’t fit front panniers I’ll just use a Wildcat Mountain Lion handlebar harness that I use on my mountain bike. That should be able to carry my tent at least, freeing up a bit of space and weight  from the rear panniers.

So, after a couple of hundred miles I’m really enjoying riding this bike. It has a turn of speed on the flat, climbs well and is becoming more comfortable with every ride as I get used to the handlebars and the saddle.

At this stage is seems to me that the retail price of just under £800 is very good indeed for what is a pretty up-market touring bike.



Why I’m voting YES

SOMEONE said to me recently that Alex Salmond has “divided a nation” with the independence referendum, but if division is about discussion, about debate, even friendly argument, with so many people engaged in something as important as the future direction of my country, then I’m absolutely all for it.

I heard someone discuss this on the radio the other morning and he said his family were Italian – and they often have loud, vociferous family arguments about kinds of things – but they still loved each other… 

I think it’s wonderful that a small nation like Scotland can reach this point in considering its future direction with what has been a campaign of hope, optimism and positivity.

But before I set out my reasons for voting Yes I should remind folk that I’m not a politician – mind you, that’s not stopped Danny Alexander from becoming First Secretary to the Treasury!

I don’t think anyone who has watched any of my television programmes could be in any doubt as to my love of Scotland, my passion for the hills and mountains and wild places, its history and legends, but of course independence is much more than that.

I’m at an age where the result next month won’t actually make all that much difference to my career, or my finances, or how I feel about Scotland, but I actually have two very important reasons for voting YES – and they are aged seven and five!

I really don’t want my granddaughters to grow up in a Scotland that is governed by a Westminster elite that has no concern or vision for a more equal society.

I don’t want them governed by a privileged few that have absolutely no commitment to the protection of the most vulnerable in society.

I don’t want them to grow up in a country that harbours weapons of mass destruction.

I don’t want them governed by people who, when they talk about “times of economic uncertainty”, actually mean fluctuating oil revenues or increased borrowing costs, rather than the economic uncertainty of insecure or poorly paid work, and food banks, and pay-day loans and the kind of deprivation that sees one in four men in Glasgow die before the age of 65!

I don’t want them to grow up in a Scotland where one in five children are in poverty.

In my lifetime the UK has had five Tory governments, and the people of Scotland didn’t vote for any of them.

I want my granddaughters to grow up in a Scotland where, if our government is cheating on us, or telling us lies, or producing legislation that puts the most vulnerable at risk, we can simply sack them, by not voting them into power again.

With a Westminster government the like of which we have at the moment, we can’t do that, or we can, but only with the unlikely help of Middle England. And it’s become increasingly clear over the years that the political aims and ambitions of Scotland and Middle England are poles apart. 

I believe, like many others, that Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands, so that we can together build that better, fairer, greener, more prosperous country that we all know is possible – 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 to an end the grotesque situation where 7% of people own 84% of the land.

We talk endlessly about the importance of democracy but how democratic is the current UK set-up?

Let’s not forget that as a nation state the United Kingdom was an imperialist construct. To this very day it retains the undemocratic trappings of such a concept:

A hereditary head of state,

An unelected second chamber,

No written constitution and

A ruling elite drawn from a narrow, privately educated strata of society.

It’s time for fundamental change.

Let me ask you a question. How do you see Scotland? Do you see it as a poor, wee, grey northern country with its hand out for more and more subsidies?

If you do perhaps you need a paradigm shift. You know these drawings you see of an ugly old person, but the harder you look the vision changes to that of a handsome young person?

An optical illusion that demonstrates the way in which a paradigm shift could cause you to see the same information in an entirely different way. Maybe some of us need to start looking at Scotland through different eyes.

A Scotland with the potential to be amongst the five wealthiest nations in the world.

A Scotland with enough natural resources to create a huge renewables energy industry that could be the envy of the world.

A Scotland with massive oil reserves,

A Scotland with a hugely successful whisky industry,

A Scotland with enormous agricultural and fishery resources,

A Scotland that has the best educated society in the world,

A Scotland with a diverse and hugely talented workforce,

A Scotland that has a well loved song that is sung around the world every New Year,

A Scotland whose people are welcomed wherever they go, from Tibet to Timbuctoo…

Think of these things, then look at that grey old picture of poor wee Scotland once again.

Two years ago I walked through Scotland from end to end, 470 miles from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders to Cape Wrath.

I walked through the country because it’s only by walking that you can actually hear the heartbeat of the land; it’s only by walking that you can read the small print of a nation.

In the course of that long walk I saw a land that was rich in potential, from the fertile argricultural lands of the Borders to the world-leading engineering example of the brilliant Falkirk Wheel, to the natural resource potential of renewable energy – wind, wave, tidal and of course, the world famous landscapes of Scotland that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Earlier this summer I cycled the length of Ireland, from Mizen Head in the south to Malin Head in north Donegal.

In the course of that my mate Hamish and I were astounded by the apparent affluence of the place. We cycled on roads that were well cared for and smooth.

We never had less than four bars on our mobiles and even in remote places like the Aran Islands or the west coast of Clare we had Wi-Fi in every bed and breakfast and hostel we stayed in.

And in the course of dozens of conversations no-one at all, absolutely no-one, thought it would be good if Ireland once again became part of the UK.

And do you know this – recently Ireland was voted as the best place to live, in the world. A small, independent nation, just like Scotland could be.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Scotland is too wee, or too poor, or too dim, to go it alone.

Let me finish by sharing the advice of the arch-capitalist himself, the former pin up boy of Margaret Thatcher – Richard Branson.

This is what he said; “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not too sure you can do it, say yes anyway – then learn how to do it later.”

I think that’s fine advice. On September 18th let’s say YES, and set out on that adventure together, overcome the difficulties and strive for the summit.

I’ll be voting Yes so that Scotland and England can enjoy the relationship of equals that the Union, in over 300 years, has never actually delivered.

Thank you. Saor Alba gu Brath!