Wednesday, 30 December 2015

North Berwick Law - Selection pack

At the farthest away corner of East Lothian where the lands starts its southward turn, is a perfect cone-shaped little hill called North Berwick Law. It's a familiar point of reference in my local landscape here around Portobello and yet somehow, I'd missed climbing it over the years. Luckily the festive holidays freed up a bit of time as the Law makes a great little walk with a selection of landscape delights crammed into one miniature package.

North Berwick Law is a plug of ancient volcanic rock exposed by glaciers grinding away the surrounding softer layers. The word "law" is an old Scots word meaning "hill", usually applied to conical shaped hills. North Berwick Law like many other pointed little hills was once used as a beacon hill to send messages across the land by lighting fires on top. But it's human history stretches back farther than that with evidence of settlements around the base of the hill dating as far back as 2000 years ago.

It was a beautiful winter's morning as I set out up the steep climb, with the sun barely dragging itself above the Lammermuir Hills to the south. Behind me there was laid out a patchwork of fields of golden stubble, fresh green grass and rich, dark ploughed earth. To the west and hazy in the low sun were the Pentland Hills and Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh's own ancient volcano. After a zig-zagging grassy path and then a short scramble over rocks, I was on the wind-blasted summit. To the north the clustered houses of the town filled the space between the foot of the Law and the old harbour. To the east, the Bass Rock sat offshore, solid and solitary.

Probably the most famous feature of North Berwick Law is its whalebone arch. The arch currently in position is thankfully made of fibreglass. But until 2005 there had been a real whalebone arch here since 1709. It was said that it formed a landmark to guide sailors home. The top of the hill is also cluttered with an old lookout station dating from the Napoleonic wars and an observation post used during the two world wars.

I dropped down off the east side of the hill and followed a path through sparse trees and across green fields before crossing the town and popping out on the beach. Waves washed the golden sands and crashing, white surf blasted the offshore rocks. People surfed, ate picnics and played ball games as if it was a summer's day. But it was mid winter and as I looked back, the sun only just cleared the pointed top of the Law. It cast across the town a long, Law-shaped shadow. 

Fact File
Start/finish: North Berwick Railway Station
Transport: Regular trains from Edinburgh Waverley. You can also take the X24 or 124 Lothian buses from Edinburgh city centre.
Map: OS Landranger 66
Route: On exiting the train station turn right up Station Road which becomes Marmion Road and at a sharp bend, hang right. Take Law Road to the right at the next junction. Once you are passing the school you can pick up a footpath on the left side of the road signed for the John Muir Way. Follow the footpath to a small car park and go through the gate at the far side. The route to the top of the Law is signed. For the return I took a path to the left where the main path does a sharp dog leg. Follow it east until it joins a track along a field margin then a road through some cottages. There is a dovecot in the field here on your right. It then joins the B road that becomes Heugh Brae which I followed into town. I went straight on at a small roundabout then crossed a park with tennis courts on the right exiting onto Marine Parade from where you can get onto the beach. Walking west along the beach takes you to the old harbour and the popular Seabird Centre. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Aberlady - Out on the bay

Winter is when I always find myself at Aberlady Bay. In the cold months the shallows and mudflats are picked over by thousands of waders, constantly moving and probing. There is always something to see. The calls of curlews can be heard as well, carried on stiff winds that clip the small trees and bushes into eastwards straggling topiary. And at dusk the skies fill with noisy winter geese, their neat skeins silhouetted against golden clouds.

A walk to the bay starts at the old wooden bridge that crosses the river. It has weathered into its position over the years and the elements have faded the wood so it looks like old bone. I look down between the slats and today, after the rains, the water is fast and muddy, the colour of a strong white tea.

On the other side of the bridge the trail passes through dense thickets of sea buckthorn. It forms a tunnel around the path and even on the wildest day, it blocks the wind. Small unseen birds twitter deep inside. In winter the sea buckthorn is covered with dazzling orange berries and today they contrast with a blue sky above.

Beyond here the trail opens out onto grasslands and dunes and big skies. The grasses catch the peachy winter sunlight and bend and sway in the wind. The path climbs over the dunes and drops steeply to the vast sandy beach. In places the sand is scoured smooth by the wind and in other places it's rippled by the receeding tide.

The biting cold winds push frothy white waves into shore and the sea is turbulent and wild. Across the water to the north is the dark outline of the low hills of Fife. To the west the Edinburgh hills, Arthur's Seat and the Pentlands, are hazy in the golden light of the sinking sun.

Fact File
Start/finish: Aberlady
Transport: Bus 124/x24 from Princes Street to Aberlady
Route: Get off the bus at the bus stop after the double bend on the main street and continue walking around the edge of the bay on the footpath beside the road. At a small car park which also has cycle parking, cross the wooden bridge over the river. Follow the main trail and at the first split stay left. At the next path junction take the track to the left towards the bay along the edge of a field and follow it to the beach. You can vary the return by taking one of the paths that leaves the beach over the dunes and returns to the bridge.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Winter gear reviews

With winter approaching, I thought I'd re-post my favourite winter kit reviews from last year. Top tip? Those Icetrekkers Diamond Grip are the best buy ever.

Icetrekkers Diamond Grip shoe grips

TSL Snowshoes

Mountain Equipment Guide Gloves

Enjoy :-)

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Ross-shire - Werifesteria

Werifesteria is an old English word and I learned it recently on Facebook of all places. It aptly sums up my holiday week up north, rambling around the autumn woods of Ross-shire. It means "wandering the forests in search of mystery". 

My wandering started on a mountain called Wyvis, a huge whaleback of hill that rises to the north of Inverness. On the map the route up Ben Wyvis looked quite dull as it passed through swathes of pine plantations. But in reality it followed the shallow gorge of the Allt a Bhealaich Mhoir which was stuffed with birch and rowan in the russets and golds of their autumn garb. Early morning sunshine showed off the colours and a gentle breeze ruffled the leaves. 

Higher up, the path left the woods to climb the steep flank of the mountain. Where it crossed boulderfields, I stopped to catch breath and gaze at the rocks which seemed to be on the move. A group of ptarmigan were picking their way through the boulders. Their pale, mottled plummage was a perfect match for the lichen-covered rocks of their high mountain home. Before much longer, they'll be turning completely white to blend with the winter snows.

I gained the top and strolled across its flat plateau. Ben Wyvis is a mountain on the edge. To the east I gazed over the gentle farmlands of Easter Ross and the Black Isle, and the glistening waters of the Cromarty Firth. But behind me to the west were the wilder lands, the mountains and woods of Wester Ross. I headed west.

I wandered up lonely Strathrannoch where a wild, white water river rushed down through an old Scots pine wood and next day I trekked over the hills into Strathvaich. It was covered with a forest of trees just 2 or 3 feet high. An extensive block of new fencing had excluded the deer whose browsing prevents the trees from growing. Here's a supportive argument for re-introducing lynx. Not only do they prey on deer but they also keep them on the move, reducing their browsing impact. I left the dwarf forest and crossed a high, barren pass before dropping down into the beautiful  trees of Gleann Mhor.

Steep slopes swept down to a flat valley where a river meandered through dense woods of birch and Scots pine. A few summer flowers, heather and scabious, lingered in the clearings. On the craggy, open hills above the trees, the air was full with the bellow of red deer stags in their autumn rut. Sunshine filtered through the trees, dappling the track and forest floor and a breeze rustled the birch leaves, sending them down like a shower of golden pennies.  There was a mystical atmosphere to this old place and I pitched the tent for the night deep in the woods.

Next day I followed the river down the glen and eventually left the woods at the isolated hamlet of Croick. I wanted to visit its historic church which was once the scene of a desperately sad story. In the 19th century, the area around Croick was like much of the Highlands with smallhold tenants working the land and living off subsistence farming. Around this time, many land owners decided they could make more money from sheep farming. They forcibly and often violently evicted the farmers who had lived there for generations. In many instances, homes were burned down and people were left with nothing. This most appalling episode of Scottish history became known as the Highland Clearances. 

Glencalvie to the south of Croick was the scene of particularly unpleasant clearances as 18 families were evicted from their homes. They fled to the church at Croick to take refuge in makeshift shelters in the graveyard. And 170 years ago they etched their names and thoughts onto the glass of one of the windows of the church.

On a balmy, sunny afternoon, I pushed open the stiff gate of the graveyard at Croick and slipped inside. In the middle, the little whitewashed church rose into the blue air and the sun cast long shadows of gravestones on the lush, green lawn. I made my way around to the east window where the people of Glencalvie had etched their writing on the glass all those years ago. And sure enough, it was still there today. Handwritten messages from a grim past.

I'd met a stalker earlier near Croick who'd warned me that a big storm was on the way for tomorrow so I pitched up that night in the shelter of the woods. I woke next morning to lashing rain and a wind that had whipped out one of my guylines so that the tent almost flattened with each gust. The trees swayed in the wind as if a hurricane was blowing through. It was a day for staying in the shelter of the trees and Einig Wood with its river of roaring, peaty water provided some relief from the weather. 

But by the afternoon the wind had intensified and it was clear that I would struggle to find any cover to pitch the tent out of its blasts. I was a long way from anywhere. I crossed a bridge and something made me take a track to the left. By some kind of magic, there was an old barn tucked into the trees. Its walls and roof were made of corrugated iron, once painted a bright bluish-green but now faded and peeling. At one end there was an open-fronted store and I settled down there out of the weather. The wind rattled the place and rain dripped from the eaves but it was out of the wind. As the light faded, there was no respite in the weather so I pitched the tent inside the barn. After dark, the clouds cleared and a good moon flooded the barn with silvery light.

The storm passed overnight and the following day was dry and bright as I set out on the long walk through to Ullapool, a west coast fishing town where I'd catch my bus home. I was blown away again but this time by the spectacle of the autumn colours as I trekked out to Corriemulzie, a remote lodge in the hills. 

Morning sun set the landscape alight as it illuminated the fiery orange deer grass that now covered the slopes. Every river gorge and stream gully was filled with birch, rowan and alder creating a tapestry of greens, golds and yellows. And as the route climbed higher, the mountain massif of Seana Braigh dominated the view ahead. Its beautiful scuplted ridge rose to a pointed, rocky peak. 

A thin line on the map high in the hills suggested a path through to Glen Achall and on the ground when the time came, a charming, handmade sign for Ullapool had been placed at the junction out on the lonely moor. The path passed high and as it did so, the rocky cluster of the Assynt peaks poked above the lower hills. 

As I descended into Glen Achall, the double-topped Beinn Ghobhlach took over the view. From this angle it looked like a flat, table mountain. The change in Glen Achall was palpable. Almost on the west coast, it benefits from a slightly warmer climate and on that day it seemed to be clinging onto late summer with greens dominating over golds. The sun shone, birds sang, cattle grazed and it was warm like spring. I followed the glen's river west as it snaked lazily through the valley, below wooded, rocky escarpments.

Glen Achall is a long, long glen and by the time I was trekking down into its lower reaches, the light was fading. The trail had passed through open fields and meadows but the glen narrowed here and was engulfed once more by the woods.  I put up the tent in a copse of birch. The dark hours were filled again with the bellow of stags and the screeching of a night-time owl.

It was still night when I unzipped the tent next morning and made a quick breakfast before starting out on the final couple of miles to Ullapool. It was raining heavily but as I approached the village there was just enough grey, grainy light to make out the shapely bulk of Beinn Ghobhlach ahead. I stopped suddenly as a stag emerged from the woods, crossed the track and then lingered just a few metres away on a small mound. He was a beauty, a ten-pointer, and perfectly silhouetted against Beinn Ghobhlach. All was still and quiet in the half-light of morning as we stared at each other for what seemed like several minutes.  Then he melted away again into the trees. 

The stag. The woods. The mountain. It was a beautiful moment and will forever in my memory embody werifesteria, the mystery and magic of the forests.

More photos on Flickr.

Fact File
Start: Garve by Inverness to Kyle train or Inverness to Ullapool Citylink bus.
Finish: Ullapool to catch Citylink bus to Inverness.
Map: OS Landranger 20
Route: In Garve take the back road opposite the station that passes the cemetery. At the next junction in 1km turn left. After another 1km take a forest track to the right signed for Silverbridge. When it meets the A835 turn right and walk along the road for approx 2.5 km. It wasn't too busy and there's a wide verge then a good section of old road. About 500m after the farm at Achnaclerach take the forest track to the right. After it crosses a bridge it junctions with the footpath up Ben Wyvis. If doing Ben Wyvis as a single trip, this approach is perfect for cycling. After Ben Wyvis I walked another 3km north on the road then took the track up Strathrannoch. I followed the track north then west over a small pass into Strathvaich then north passed Loch Vaich and down into Gleann Mhor. I followed the track northeast to join a road into The Craigs and then turned left at the next junction to Croick Church. I followed the track that continues northwest from Croick up Strath Cuileannach. It passes high before dropping down into Einig Woods. A right turn at the main track in Einig Woods took me down to the barn. I retraced my steps and continued west to Duag Bridge where there's a bothy and onto Corriemulzie Lodge. About 4km after the lodge, the track splits. I took the right split and at grid ref NH285921 took a footpath to the right. It passes above a lovely water-filled gorge then drops down to Loch an Daimh. I picked up the track that travels west to Ullapool through the beautiful Glen Achall.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dunkeld - A walk in the woods

In early autumn when the rowans are scarlet and the birch edged with gold, I love long rambles in the woods around Dunkeld. It's wonderful to soak up autumn and capture the colours on camera. I headed there a couple of weekends ago with friends Graham and Andrew for a wee climb up Birnam Hill and a long walk in the woods.

The name of Dunkeld is derived from "fort of the Caledonians" which signified an importance stretching back to the Iron Age and lasting into the Middle Ages when the village and its cathedral were a major religious centre.

Our walking route left the village along the banks of the River Tay where the autumn colours were beautiful.

We walked onto Polney Loch whose reflected colours were vibrant even on a grey day.

The sun was out on the second day for our walk up Birnam Hill through the beautiful Birnam Woods. The woods retain a mystical aura having been made famous in Shakespeare's play, Macbeth. "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until, Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill, shall come against him". And of course it did.

Thousands of golden birch leaves fluttered down around us on the breeze as we followed the trail higher up the hill.

Eventually we left the woods and crossed the open top of the hill.

On the other side the birch trees were replaced by stately larch which rained down on us their orange needles as we returned to Dunkeld.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dunkeld  & Birnam Train Station
Map: OS Landranger 52
Route day 1: From the station follow the cycling/walking signs down to Birnam and turn left on the main street. At the T junction turn right into Dunkeld and cross the bridge over the Tay. Take the first left into the market square, continue straight onto the cathedral and then follow the path that skirts it to the right and continues along the Tay. When you come to the hotel, pass right of the main reception and continue passed the health club. Swing right where road becomes dirt track and continue uphill.  When you meet a road turn right and then pick up the path that passes Polney Loch. This eventually comes out at the Cally car park. There is a multiway walking sign here - follow the signs that continue east for the Loch of the Lowes via Fungarth. After skirting the golf club, the track crosses a field, enters a wood and then junctions with another track. Turn right to return to Dunkeld.
Route day 2 for Birnam Hill: From the train station follow national cycle route signs south on a cycle path beside the road. Turn right up the B867 and a few hundred metres the walking route up Birnam Hill is signposted. Take the short signed detour to Stair Bridge for a great view. The signed route descends to the station.
Info:  We stayed at the lovely campsite at Invermill, beside the river and surrounded by woods. There's a nice walking path there which is signposted at the junction of the main street of Birnam with the road into Dunkeld. You can also use a lovely path that passes under the Telford Bridge and follows the Tay and the Braan to Inver.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Mayar - The fabulous Fee

During the last ice age 10,000 years ago, Scotland was even colder than this summer and covered by glaciers and a thick layer of ice. As the climate warmed, the glaciers retreated and as they did so they sculpted our mountains into the forms that we see today. There are few places where this ancient glacial action is so clear to see as in the beautiful Corrie Fee.

Corrie Fee is tucked away at the head of Glen Cova on the eastern edge of the Cairngorm plateau. My dad and I wandered through as we climbed Mayar, the Munro whose flank was gouged out by glaciers to create the corrie. The trail to Corrie Fee initially followed Jock's Road, the old walking route to Braemar. It passed through woods where the low morning sun had cast long tree shadows across the trail and chased away early strands of mist. Above the woods, the bellow of stags in their autumn rut carried across the hills.

The trail soon shook off the forest and stepped into the spectacular  amphitheatre of Corrie Fee. The walls of its huge bowl were bounded by steep craggy slopes that sprouted gold and scarlet rowans. The waters of the Fee Burn cascaded over the lip of the corrie and sparkled in the rays of the sun that had now pulled itself above the lower ridges. The burn tumbled down over rocks and when it reached the bottom, it slowed and then meandered across the corrie floor, never quite able to make its mind up about which direction to take.

The lower corrie was rucked up by the ridges of old moraines, glacial debris now covered by heather. Its floor and the woods below were dotted with huge boulders called erratics which were picked up by glaciers and then left stranded in their current positions when the ice melted. There are still hints of this former arctic climate in Corrie Fee which is special for its alpine flora as well as its moutain architecture. The season was mostly over but in October it was surpising to see summer foxgloves still in flower.

Our narrow trail zig-zagged steeply up the back wall of the corrie and emerged onto the plateau, leaving us an easy stroll to the top of Mayar. The view stretched westwards over layer after layer of hazy hill. As is the way in the Cairngorms, the rounded hills didn't hint at the hidden dramas of places such as the fabulous Corrie Fee.

Fact File
Start: Glen Doll car park. Unusually for me this was a trip by dad's car on account of there being no public transport.
Map: OS Landranger 44
Route: From the car park, follow the forest walks signs. The route to Corrie Fee initially uses Jock's Road but splits to cross the river by a bridge. The track becomes a path, leaves the woods and meanders up through the corrie. At the top of he corrie it's a straightforward walk south to Mayar. For the descent we continued east from Mayar on the trail that links it to Dreish and then picked up the Kilbo Path, the old route that links Glen Clova to Glen Prosen. It descended the Shank of  Drumfollow. Once back in the trees follow signs back to the car park.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Knapdale - Waterways part 2

Until 400 years ago, beavers were the architects of woods and water in Scotland. But it was the same old story - we hunted them to extinction. However for the last five years a trial reintroduction has been running in the forests of Knapdale on the west coast of Scotland. l was keen to cycle there during my holiday to see it.

Knapdale is a difficult area to define. It straggles west of Lochgilphead with a ragged coastline of wiggly sea lochs that cut into a land of small, densely forested hills. It's pockmarked with lochs and lochans so it's very much a place of woods and water. It's prime habitat for otters and also for beavers which our ancestors used to call "dobhran-los-leathann", the broad-tailed otter.

I cycled into Knapdale from the top end of the Kintyre peninsula after spending the first few days of my holiday cycling on Arran and Kintyre. l stayed on the rolling coast-hugging road that headed southwest. As it rounded the headland at Kilberry the horizon was filled with islands as the hillocks of Gigha, the low-lying lands of Islay and the mountainous bulk of Jura floated offshore.

That evening I found a faint track that passed through the woods to reach the shore at a sandy beach with a shelf of green grass that was perfect for pitching the tent. After supper l watched the sun sink behind the hills whilst nursing a mug of coffee. I had noticed that the rocks were strewn with the chewed remains of crabs and nearby a freshwater stream cascaded out of the woods. I was certain it was an otter place and sure enough after dark I heard them on the rocks scratching and munching and sending out their characteristic "hah" call. It was too dark to see them but I did see the ghostly pale owl that flew right over my tent.

Next day I cycled inland and then popped out on the coast again at Ardrishaig to join the Crinan Canal. Opened in 1801, it's nine miles long and joins the Sound of Jura with the head of Loch Gilp, providing a navigable route between the Inner Hebrides and the Clyde. It's known as Scotland's most beautiful shortcut and I wouldn't argue with that. As the canal approached the village of Crinan at its west end, the great moss of the Moine Mhor stretched north on my right. At its boundary was the little hillock of the ancient fort at Dunadd. The River Add meandered across the moss and flowed into the sea loch, Loch Crinan which flooded the salt marshes and reflected the blue sky and cotton-bud clouds above. On my left was the canal itself so that for much of the way the towpath was a narrow causeway bounded on both sides by water. The canal also does several beautiful curves before reaching Crinan.

I left the canal to cycle to the coast again and to the idyllic village of Tayvallich. The village is strung out along a single road that curves round the edge of a perfect natural harbour bounded on three sides by wooded hills with a small outlet to the open sea. It sits on a narrow isthmus and on the other side the view stretched across rough seas to the rain-swept hills at the northern end of Jura.

It was a short cycle from  Tayvallich to the beaver site on a day that was lashed by a series of torrential downpours. It was at least perfect weather to be tucked up inside the dense forests, still mostly green with a tiny hint of early autumn in the chill air. I wandered the woodland trails spotting knawed trees and large log piles, evidence of the beavers beavering away. At one place they had created their own waterway by building a dam across a stream. The pond that had formed behind it enabled them to move between their preferred lochs without leaving the water as that is where they feel most safe. Of course, I didn't see any beavers as they are mostly nocturnal and pretty shy. But the knowledge of their presence in these woods changed for the better the atmosphere of the place which felt wilder and more primeval, especially on a murky day. The reintroduction is currently being evaluated so fingers crossed that a wider programme will get a green light.

Back on the bike, I pedalled north and crossed again the Crinan Canal and the Moine Mhor to enter the fascinating area of Kilmartin Glen. My first stop was the Iron Age fort of Dunadd, once capital of the ancient kingdom of the Scots, Dalriada. I parked up the bicycle and clambered up the steep rocky slopes of the small hillock that Dunadd sits on. A gully up through the rocks was the old gateway and took me onto the citadel at the top of the hill. The view stretched across Loch Crinan, the great moss and on to the small hills of the Highland edge. On the very top is the inaugural rock of the ancient kings of Dalriada. Kings-to-be would stand on the rock, place a foot in the carved out footprint and thereby be proclaimed king. Standing on top of Dunadd with the place to myself, the power of the landscape was palpable. There was something so elemental about it.

Ancient people must also have felt that power. Not only did they build the old fort here but their presence dates as far back as neolithic times, 5000 years ago, when this place must have held huge significance judging by the sheer number of ancient relics that dot the countryside. My cycle route took me passed just of few of the sights such as the stone circles at Temple Wood that formed a ceremonial site aligned with the winter solstice sun.

I pedalled by numerous chambered cairns and peered down into the cold, damp darkness of their interiors. These tombs were the last resting place of the farming communities who once lived here. And in the village of Kilmartin I wandered around the beautiful medieval grave slabs in the church cemetery before eating my picnic lunch on a hillock looking down on thousands of years of history.

My own holiday was almost history as I cycled the final leg north up the wooded shores of Loch Awe. The lowlands gradually gave way to the Highlands as I pulled into Taynuilt to catch a train home.

All the photos on Flickr - click here.

Fact File
Start: Claonaig via Lochranza ferry
Finish: Taynuilt served by Glasgow to Oban trains
Route: By chance I mostly followed national cycle route 78. From Claonaig I cycled the B8001 to Kennacraig and north on the A83 for a few unpleasantly busy miles to turn off onto the B8024 to cycle around the coast via Kilberry on a gorgeous road with great views and then rejoined the A83 into Ardrishaig,  a very short and quieter section. At Ardrishaig I picked up the Crinan Canal and cycled its full length west to Crinan before doubling back to Bellanoch and taking the B8025 to Tayvallich, a lovely road through forest then alongside a sea loch. I camped at the campsite at Tayvallich which was pretty basic. There's a gorgeous cafe on the waterfront and a wee grocery store. The beaver site is passed on the way down to Tayvallich and has a wee information hut. I cycled back to the canal and stayed on bike route 78 as it did a lovely journey north across the great moss and right beside all that interesting stuff at Kilmartin before heading up the very quiet and pretty hilly west side of Loch Awe. I finished at Taynuilt to get a train home.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Arran and Kintyre - Waterways part 1

Cycle touring on Scotland's west coast may not guarantee sunshine but it will guarantee one thing- water. Hopefully that won't be in the form of rain but rather the form of sea crossings, coast-hugging roads and old canals that make up a network of watery ways. l headed to the west coast for my September holiday week and spent the first few days pedalling the watery ways around the Isle of Arran and the Kintyre peninsula.

As my ferry pulled into Brodick harbour on Arran there was an explosion of cyclists from the boat. There had been about 30 to 40 bikes onboard as the quiet and scenic single track roads of Arran make it a good day trip from Glasgow. Undulating roads and a forest trail took me on a southerly circuit via Lamlash, Arran's main settlement, and back over to Brodick on a high road called The String where I made a wild camp in the woods above the village.

Next day I pedalled north along a narrow coastal road that passed little hamlets and harbours with boats pulled up. The route was dominated by the jagged ridges of Goat Fell, Arran's mountain, that towered above. The road pulled into Lochranza whose 16th century castle sits on a prominent spit looking out to sea and guarding access to the land. It's a reminder of how important our waterways once were as the major routes for transportation and invasion. These days you can still be transported by water here by taking the slow ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig at the top of the Kintyre peninsula. On a grey morning my boat chugged across calm waters as a few solitary gannets wheeled overhead.

At the other side I set out along the single track road that runs down the east side of Kintyre. In my books at least, it's one of the most difficult in Scotland being a rollercoaster of a dozen or so stiff climbs and descents, some as steep as 16%. But it's worth the effort to enjoy a landscape of rugged, forested headlands and rocky shores. Every now and then the road dipped to the sea at an idyllic bay with a sandy beach and a cluster of cottages looking across the blue waters of the Kilbrannan Sound to Arran.

I stopped halfway down Kintyre at the pretty spot of Carradale set on a crescent - shaped sandy bay washed by wild surf. The village is quiet now but was once a holiday destination when the old Clyde steamers brought tourists here across the sea from Glasgow. What a contrast it must have been to the city then. It still is.

After a wet night when rain hammered on the tent,  I continued pedalling south to the romantic-sounding Machrihanish Bay near the foot of the peninsula. The pristine sandy beach stretched as far as the eye could see as Atlantic rollers washed in and threatening clouds the colour of bruises gathered on the hills. The last few miles were completely flat and graced by a stiff tailwind on the way back.

After Machrihanish Bay I repeated the rollercoaster ride back up to Claonaig and turned west to cycle into a very quiet little corner of Scotland called Knapdale. Over the next few days, I would be pedalling around more waterways, one of them man-made and the other mammal-made by a very intriguing little animal!

All the photos on Flickr. Click here.

Fact File
Start: Brodick, Isle of Arran by ferry from Ardrossan. Regular trains from Glasgow Queen Street to Ardrossan Harbour connect with ferries.
Map: OS Western Scotland 1:250,000
Route: I cycled south out of Brodick on the A841 which was quiet to Lamlash then took the minor road inland shortly picking up a signed cycle route on a forest trail through to the south coast. I followed the coast road round to Blackwaterfoot - it was pretty hilly - then climbed The String road to return to Brodick. I rejoined the A841 north to Lochranza. Took the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry which runs regularly through the day then cycled south down the B842 on the east side of Kintyre. It's gorgeous but genuinely pretty tough especially with a loaded bike. I camped at Carradale which has a lovely campsite overlooking the beach and lots of great little walks in the immediate area for an evening stroll. There's also a cafe with bike hire, repairs and wifi. They gave me free cake. Small shop in the village. Continued south to Campbeltown and took the B843 to Machrihanish - the only flat road on Kintyre I think. Campbeltown has a big Co-op supermarket. Cycled back to Claonaig the same way.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Gear review - Viking Monocular

This is a very small review about a very small thing ... a monocular. If you're into lightweight backpacking and cycle touring, then a monoular is a great alternative to heavier and bulkier binoculars. Of course, there's a compromise in performance but the monocular is a lot better than nothing, often making the difference between seeing a bird or not seeing it. 

I always buy my opticals from the Viking Optical shop on Rose Street in Edinburgh where the chap is incredibly helpful and friendly. You can also order online from them. The magnification is 6x16, it measures   3cm by 7.5cm and weighs 75g. It comes with a neck cord, wee pouch and one of those ubiquitous fuzzy felt cleaning cloths. Given its tiny size it fits easily into one of the hipbelt pockets on my rucsack and is great for sticking in the bar bag when cycling. As well as for watching wildlife, it's great for scanning the trail ahead and spotting an evening camp spot from the top of the day's hill.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Drumochter - The boat house

It was a lovely wee camp spot. A promontory of dry, green grass poked out into the waters of the loch. The sinking sun touched the clouds with pink and providing some shelter from the wind was a little boat house. 

I got there early evening after a full day in the hills. A stiff climb up from Dalwhinnie had put me on a long, broad plateau which had a Munro at each end. They hardly seemed to be separate mountains, more upswellings of the plateau itself. To the east the plateau was dramatically dissected by the huge cleft of the Gaick Pass and its associated gullies, unnervingly deep and dark. Beyond the Gaick were the hazy outlines of the Cairngorms. To the west were the peaks around Ben Alder, its huge massif still clinging onto patches of snow. They say we might have some permanent snow patches this year due to the cool summer.

It was a long plod to pick off the two Munros and every time the plateau dipped there was water and bog and peat hag to negotiate. As I reached the second Munro late in the afternoon, the cloud lowered and the rain came on. I made steep descent down purple heather slopes and found the camp spot beside the boat house. The wind rattled the corrugated iron roof and made a constant bang from a whisky miniature that had been hung from the door by fishing line. It was picking up now and the loch was choppy and frothy. A pair of red throated divers called to each other offshore and an osprey hung in the air above the water. I pitched the tent on the leeward side of the boat house, looking out over the loch.  I slept well despite the howl of the wind and the drumming of overnight rain.

Next morning the wind had ramped up even more and sent out white horses across the loch. I climbed up Meall na Chuaich, the shapely northerly outlier of the plateau. It was difficult to say the least. I could barely stand up or walk in a straight line as I staggered to the top. This was the effect of the wind, you understand. It wasn't me that had drunk the whisky miniature that hung on the boat house door below.

Fact File
Start/finish: Dalwhinnie, served by Glasgow/ Edinburgh to Inverness trains or Citylink buses. The bus stop is a little closer to the start of the walk.
Map: OS Landranger 42
Route: From the train station walk down Station Road and turn right on the main road through Dalwhinnie. Follow this road south out of the village and just before it junctions with the A9 take the cycle path to the right signed for Pitlochry. Follow the cycle path for about 700m and where it changes from old road into new, narrower cycle path, climb up the bank and cross the A9. Take the double track on the other side that crosses under the pylons and follow it as it climbs  southeast up the hillside. It reaches the edge of the plateau at on old quarry site. Follow the track right and when it starts to turn west and downhill again, leave it at a boggy bealach and head south over rough ground to A'Bhuidheanach Bheag, the prominent top ahead. Then retrace your steps to the quarry and continue northwest on the track until the final rise to Carn na Caim where a faint path leaves the track on a more direct line to the top. I continued along the edge of the plateau for 1km or so until I reached shallower slopes down to the Allt a Choire Chaim which I followed to a firm landrover track. I followed this all the way to the main track alongside the Allt Cuaich. I turned right and walked to Loch Chuaich to camp. To climb Meall na Chuaich, I followed the track heading east from the loch alongside the Allt Coire Chuaich. Just after the bridge over the river, a path leaves on the left and heads all the way to the top. To return to Dalwhinnie I followed the track beside the aqueduct down to the A9 which it passes under, and over a bridge that put me back at the south side of Dalwhinnie.
Tip: Some great old railway photos on display in the waiting room at Dalwhinnie.