Saturday, 5 May 2018

Glen Loin - Right turns

A low cloud day in the Arrochar Alps equals a low level circuit equals a day of turning right to complete the Glen Loin loop. A lush woodland path connected the train station to the village then our walk meandered for the rest of the day below crags and snow-filled gullies. A more promising outward leg than the map suggested, with open views to the bits of Ben Lomond and other hills not in the cloud. Then a gorgeous walk over the pass of Glen Loin as early evening sunshine broke through the clouds. We pitched the tents in thin birch woods filled with birdsong.

Fact File
Start/finish: Arrochar and Tarbert train station
Public transport: Glasgow to Oban/Mallaig trains
Our route: At the bottom of the platform steps, turn right and a beautiful path undulates through the woods to Arrochar. We walked along the waterfront then picked up the signed hill path. Where it met a track close to a mast, we turned right and followed this track. Eventually it crossed a side stream at hydro station and we turned right. This track eventually joined the tarmac road to Sloy dam and when it did we turned right again and soon another right, picking up the signs for the Three Lochs Way. A delightful path then returned to Arrochar via Glen Loin. We camped near its head.

Monday, 16 April 2018

The Slate Islands - Cobalt and copper

Cobalt and copper were the colours for my cycle tour south of Oban to the Slate Islands. With the sun still low early in the year, the clear skies were deep cobalt with a few brush strokes of white. And before the first flush of spring greens, the hills held their copper tones from last year's autumn.

The Slate Islands are a cluster of small islands off the west coast of Scotland, south of Oban. I had to cycle over the Atlantic Ocean to get there! Or at least I had to cycle over the bridge over the Atlantic, as the old Clachan Bridge is called. Its single arch crosses the narrow Clachan Sound which, it is said, is directly linked with the Atlantic. In the 18th and 19th centuries the islands had a thriving slate industry that roofed some of our most prestigous buildings such as the cathedrals of Glasgow and Iona, and Castle Stalker. The slate was also exported worldwide. Catastrophic flooding during the great storm of 1850 closed many of the quarries though the industry continued on a smaller scale up to the 1950s when the last slate was cut. 

Cycling across the islands to the tune of skylarks, I wouldn't have guessed at this industrial past. The remains of the quarries are dotted about the place but nature has softened their edges and it's become a peaceful part of the country. The cycling, if short, was wonderful along empty, single track roads surrounded by acres of sea and sky. The Clachan Bridge connected me from the mainland to Seil and little ferries connected Seil with Easdale and with Luing, on the other side of the fast-flowing waters of the Cuan Sound.

Drifting along the road that rises and falls along the top of Luing, I felt a million miles away from the modern world. I pulled into its two main villages, Toberonochy and Cullipool, cycling along the narrow road between rows of quaint whitewashed quarriers' cottages. The island is famous for its indigenous breed of Luing cattle. 

Easdale is also a breed apart when it comes to islands. There are no cars or roads and the ferry is little more than a rowing boat with an engine. The locals move their goods around by wheelbarrow and when I landed at the slate-lined harbour, the first sight that greeted me was a row of wheelbarrows, each with a house number painted on. Easdale is famous these days for hosting the world stone skimming championships. It was easy to see why as I ambled along the shore, crunching over millions of perfectly oval, smooth skimming stones. 

I explored the islands from my base, a quirky little campsite at the Cuan Sound. The comings and goings of the ferry were a pleasant backdrop with its softly rumbling engine and the regular boom of the deck opening onto the slipway. I sat on the headland here with my evening cuppa and watched the sinking sun paint the cobalt sky pink and peach.

Fact File
More photos on Flickr
Start/finish: Oban
Public transport: Train to Oban from Glasgow Queen Street
My route: Followed cycle route 78 out of Oban and at the top of the hill, followed cycle signs for Taynuilt then down the west shore of Loch Awe. Half way down, just before Dalavich, I took the road west to Kilmelford which was fab. At Kilmelford I turned left then right for Melfort. Followed the coast road towards Degnish and just before a right of way signed for Armaddy climbs over the hill. It's mostly cyclable, just a couple of very short steep and loose bits. On hitting tarmac again, I headed for the Clachan Bridge onto Seil. The routes for Seil, Luing and Easdale are obvious! Easdale is tiny so I didn't take the bike over. The campsite was at Cuan House, to the right just before the Cuan ferry to Luing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Appin - There's been a murder

On 14 May 1752, Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, the government-appointed factor to the forfeited estates of the Clan Stewart of Appin in North Argyll, was shot and killed near Duror. The search for the killer targeted the local clan, the Jacobite Stewarts of Appin, who had recently suffered evictions on Campbell's orders. The chief suspect had fled so James Stewart (also known as James of the Glen) was arrested and tried for the murder. Although it was clear at the trial that James was innocent, he was found guilty and hanged on 8 November 1752 on a specially commissioned gibbet above the narrows at Ballachulish, now near the south entrance to the Ballachulish Bridge. This episode of history is known as the Appin Murder. My friend Graham and I recently explored the murder scene by bicycle on a three-day mini tour.

Our cycle started at Connel Ferry station as we jumped off the train at the stop before Oban. The cycle north from here is sublime as it’s mostly off-road on specially built bike paths on a route called the Caledonia Way. It uses a variety of methods to travel north – disused railway line, bits of old road and farm tracks. At times you are drifting through woodland and at other times you’re hugging the coast, right at the edge of the sea.  

In mid March the temperature was bracing and every now and then the east wind blew in light flurries of snow across our route. But when the sun was out the views across the sea to the snow-streaked peaks of Ardgour set against a cornflower blue sky were stunning.

Late afternoon on the first day, we left the Caledonia Way at Duror on the trail of James of the Glen. We climbed up high into the hills above the village on forest tracks, pushing the steeper sections, and wondering, as the track seemed to go on forever, if we would find what we were looking for. But eventually we came out into a clearing in the woods and arrived at Duror Bothy, once the home of James of the Glen. 

It’s a one-roomed dwelling with sleeping bunks at one end and an open fireplace at the other. Standing looking out the door the view stretches south across the snow-covered steep slopes on the other side of Glen Duror. There were the remains of farming enclosures on the hillside behind which is the back side of the shapely peak of Beinn a'Bheithir above Ballachulish. As we stood taking in the atmosphere of this old place, a stiff wind with an Arctic edge was screaming through the pass that is the exit from the glen to the east. So we might have stayed in the bothy but for its other occupant lighting a stinking fire. Instead we pitched the tents just outside.

Next day, after the morning sun had eventually climbed above the peaks and raised a faint warmth in our tents, we enjoyed the fast downhill back to Duror to rejoin the Caledonia Way and cycle further north. Before long we were approaching South Ballachulish on the old railway line that once dropped passengers at the Ballachulish ferries. We lingered a while below the bridge, near the place of James’ hanging, before cycling on to Glen Coe. Up the calm waters of Loch Leven, the Glen Coe peaks and the Mamores were a dramatic, snow-covered backdrop.

It was time to turn tail and head back south but we had a different plan for the return, taking in the island of Lismore. As we passed for the second time the atmospheric battlements of Castle Stalker, we turned off for the village of Port Appin, a sleepy little hamlet on a peninsula of the mainland that’s a stone’s throw from the top of Lismore. 

There’s a tiny passenger ferry here that would take us and our bikes onto the island the next morning. But before that, for our second night out in tents, we found an idyllic camp spot on a grassy headland. The panorama stretched across snow-covered mountains, islands and skerries, and a sea that was like a mill pond. Geese drifted offshore and a seal patrolled up and down, curious to our presence. 

The gorgeous weather prevailed next day as the little ferry deposited us on Lismore for more sublime cycling. A single track road bounded by drystone dykes undulates gently along the spine of the island. Some daffodils were making an appearance, despite the cold, and the air was alive with birdsong. But what is truly remarkable about Lismore is its slightly detached and low-lying nature such that the 360 degree views were astonishing, taking in the snow-covered peaks of Ballachulish, Ben Cruachan behind Oban and Ben More on Mull as well as other islands and the squiggly coastline of the mainland here which is sculpted by sea lochs and peninsulae. It was absolutely beautiful. 

Conveniently for us, there is a another, larger ferry that leaves the bottom end of Lismore. We jumped on it mid afternoon and marvelled at the stunning coastal landscape that passed by the windows – it was a little too bracing to be out on deck for more than a few minutes. In just under an hour, the ferry was pulling into the busy harbour at Oban. 

With a few calorie-burning miles under our belts and time to kill before the evening train, we thought we might take advantage of Oban’s reputation for fresh seafood … and decided we could fair murder a fish supper! 

Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE
Start: Connel Ferry train station
Finish: Oban
Public transport: The start and end points are on the Glasgow-Oban train line. Route uses the Port Appin-Lismore passenger ferry and the Oban-Lismore car ferry.
Route: Exited Connel Ferry train station and immediately picked up cycle signs for the Caledonia way, direction of Fort William. At Duror the Way crosses a side road, we turned right here to cycle into Glen Duror. Once the road ends and forest tracks begin there are signs (yellow on blue Saltire) for the bothy. At Ballahulish Bridge we left the Caledonia Way to detour into the west end of Glen Coe on bike path for a nice lunch at Crafts and Things. On the way back south, just after Castle Stalker, we left the Way and crossed the wooden Jubilee Bridge then joined the single track road down to Port Appin. We camped near here then took the hourly passenger ferry across to Lismore. Cycled the main road of Lismore south, doing a nice wee offroad loop by following signs for Sailean - looks like private farm road but it's actually public road. The farmer here is just about to finish renovating a bothy and will offer camping plus use of the bothy. It's a gorgeous spot, will be great for kayakers as well. Took the Lismore to Oban ferry. 

Monday, 5 March 2018

Trossachs - Before the Beast

Before the Beast from the East cast its white breath over the land, I'd been for a wander in the Trossachs, west of Callander. The hills had been lovely at that time as they were capped with snow, not blanketed, while the glens and woods were free of snow. I like that contrast. It makes our hills look more beautiful and more dramatic. The Trossachs capture that beauty well with shapely little peaks rising from loch and forest. I'd planned climbing a shapely little peak myself but too long a walk in, on too short a winter day with too deep snow, put paid to that. I turned back before the top and retreated to the glen in the gathering dusk. It was disappointing but I quickly reminded myself that a wander outdoors and a night out in the tent are never wasted. And the moments of winter light had been stunning.

Fact File
Start/finish: Callander
Public transport: Trains to Stirling then bus to Callander from Stirling Bus Station which is adjacent to the train station. There is Demand Responsive Transport in the Callander area which is what I should have used to cut down on the long walk from town. With hindsight!
Route: Picked up National Cycle Route by the river in Callander and followed it west out of town along a lovely stretch of old railway line. After it crosses the A821, I left it and picked up the Great Trossachs Path west towards Brig O'Turk which is signed. It's a lovely walk through scrubby woods and climbs high up the side of the hill for great views. The path eventually junctions with the routes into Glen Finglas and around Brig O'Turk. I camped in Glen Finglas then returned to Callander along the south shore of Loch Vennachar - turn right along the A821 at Brig O'Turk then left into the entrance for the Byre Inn. Go straight on, over the bridge, through the farm then left at the next track junction. This continues to Callander. At Gartchonzie you can turn left up the minor road to rejoin the outward route and that's nicer than continuing on tarmac.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Speyside - Boreal

I’m not sure why but “boreal” is one of my favourite words. The dictionary has its meaning as “relating to northern regions” so maybe I like the word because I am a lover of the north. When I think boreal in Scotland, I think of grey, still, clagged-in winter days wandering through ancient birch and pine woods. There’s something about remoteness in the word and it would be cold with an edge to the wind that feels like a breath from glaciers long gone. But if the low winter sun would poke through, it’s ethereal light could cast a veil of magic over the place. I have a deep-seated need to be in these boreal landscapes. So early in the year, I wandered along the Spey Valley to lose myself in its boreal-ness.

On a quiet weekend when the snow had temporarily retreated, I walked from Boat of Garten to Kingussie, picking up my friend Graham in Aviemore along the way. We followed a network of paths and tracks that meandered through the valley and barely left the old woods at all. The cloud was low and scudded across the tops of the Cairngorms. Where we walked through birch, drizzly mist had formed droplets on the fine twigs that reflected back the world in their little spheres.

Our route skirted the quiet waters of Loch an Eilean and Loch Gamhna and popped out at Feshiebridge where we followed a thin trail up-river. Although not remote, it felt wild here, enhanced by the fact that we barely saw a soul. The walk felt like a long ambling meander but we did have a destination for the second night out in tents – the Uath Lochans. The lochans are glacial kettle holes, formed by a chunk of ice carving off and sinking in the sediment. Our trail pulled in there mid afternoon. 

We hid our heavier camping kit in the trees and made a fabulous walk up and over Creag Far-Leitire. A short pull led to a high level path that snaked along the top of the crag which forms a backdrop to the lochans. At its southeastern extremity there is a stunning view over the lochans and the boreal landscape that they inhabit. There are four lochans and from up high they looked like a giant dinosaur’s footprint that has filled with water. Water that today was iced over in swirly patterns.

After a quiet night at the lochans, we picked up the Badenoch Way to continue through the woods to Kingussie. I like this stretch of the walk. It flirts with the outskirts of the hamlets at Insh, Inveruglas and Drumguish. Here wood smoke from cosy homes filled the air and, peering into back gardens, we had a brief glimpse of somebody else’s life. 

The old arch of Tromie Bridge signalled the last few miles of our walk as we pushed open the gate and entered Tromie Meadows. But what a lovely last few miles. The trail wandered across the fields then left the river and climbed a wooded rise where young birch encrusted with lichens are regenerating. The rise gave views over the watery world of Insh Marshes. Too soon it seemed we were almost in Kingussie and walking below the atmospheric ruins of Ruthven Barracks.   

The old barracks date back to 1721 and stand at the head of the valley on a large mound created by the retreating glaciers. They are bounded on the south by the sub—Arctic realms of the Cairngorms and on the north by the Monadhliath. As I looked up at the ruins under a glowering sky threatening snow, I thought, like myself, they sat well in this northern, boreal landscape.

Fact File
Photos on Flickr click HERE
Start: Boat of Garten
Finish: Kingussie
Public transport: Train to Aviemore then local bus to Boat of Garten. Bus stop opposite front of station. Train back from Kingussie.
Route: National Cycle Route/Speyside Way from Boat of Garten to Aviemore. Starts opposite the shop/post office. Aviemore to Inverdruie along the ski road then picking up a path on the other side of the car park that enters the woods and continues to Lochan Eilean. Round the north shore of Lochan Eilean then the south shore of Loch Gamhna but picking up a branch in the path to the left which continues passed a bothy then onto Feshiebridge. Crossed the river at Feshiebridge then took the right of way up the west bank. It eventually passes between houses and hits the glen road. We turned right on the road then next left onto forest track for the Uath Lochans. The main track into the lochans continues behind Creag Far-leitire and meets the Badenoch Way which we followed into Kingussie. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Glen More - Ski funday

I feel like I'm in a Christmas card. The world is white under a dump of dry, powder snow. I clip into the skis and love the feeling of gliding along trails that meander through woods whose trees are plastered with snow. It's wonderful to hear the skoosh of the skis and feel the chill snow down my neck when I brush against low-hanging branches.  At the day's end, the tent goes up in the trees and I stare up through the tall, thin trunks at a sky speckled with stars.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stirlingshire - Old year, old ways

The final outdoor act of 2017 was a wonderful winter wander along old ways in the countryside of Stirlingshire. A little gem of a walk.  I'll do it many times again.

We started by following an ancient route north along the Allan Water. Called the Darn Road, it dates back to Roman times. In more recent history, relatively speaking, it was a favourite walk of the author Robert Louis Stevenson whose family took holidays in Bridge of Allan. A cave a little way into the walk was said to be his inspiration for Ben Gunn's cave in Treasure Island.

On a cold winter's day there were pockets of even deeper cold by the river. Here the rich tones of the bare winter branches and the rusted grasses were muted by a thick layer of frost that sparkled in the low December sun. 

Before we dropped into Dunblane, the old route became enclosed in stone walls that blocked out the modern world from view, making it easier to tune into the echoes of ancient footsteps. I liked a story from the past that I read. The landowner of the day had angered local people by diverting the Darn Road and building a wall across the route. It was said that the men he employed to build the wall secretly took it back down again every night.

A little further on and the rooftops of Dunblane came into view backed by the dramatic snow-covered peaks of Stuc a'Chroin and Ben Ledi. We ambled through the pleasant streets and gawped at the cathedral before popping out on the far side on more ancient routes. We were on the Old Doune Road now where it crossed Murdoch's Ford. It was here that King Robert II's grandson, Murdoch, was captured by English forces. 

The Old Doune Road meandered across winter fields and passed cottages with Christmas trees in the windows. All the while snow-covered mountains provided a rugged backdrop to the pastoral scene. It soon joined the Doune Trail, an old railway line converted to a walking and cycling track. It's deep cut passed through bare winter woods before emerging into the fields and the village of Doune itself.  

My friend and I have our own old ways, one of which is using buses and trains to get to our walks. And so we jumped on the bus to take us back the way we came.

Fact File
Start: Bridge of Allan
Finish: Doune
Public transport: Train to Bridge of Allan. Bus back from Doune to Stirling for a train home.
Route: We turned right out of the station at Bridge of Allan then left up Blairforkie Drive. As the roads rises we took a path to the left between the houses which continued alongside the Allan Water. It reaches a bridge where there is a sign for Dunblane. It eventually pops out at dual carriageway at Dunblane. We crossed and took the first right which heads down to the main street. At the top is the cathedral. Ahead is the train station. We crossed to the other side of the train station and turned right to then turn left up the Old Doune Road opposite Tesco which continues as track and path once it leaves the houses. This is now the national cycle network and can be followed easily into Doune.