Friday, 5 May 2017

Clackmannanshire - Teleporter

Concealed in the Clackmannanshire countryside is a secret little cycle path that connects Alloa with Dollar. Secret perhaps to you and me but not to the people who live close by for it's a well used route. It's called the Devon Way and runs for seven miles, mostly using the bed of an old railway line. 

The route is bounded by trees and hedgerows which in May are bursting with spring greens and birdsong. And when there's a breeze, there is a blizzard of blossom. Above the trees the steep Ochil Hills rise to the north. I agreed with my dad when he said the Ochils seemed very distant when we started in Alloa but over the few miles to Dollar, they had really closed in above us.

So flat and easy and pleasant was the route that we seemed to be magically whisked to our destination in no time at all, oblivious to the world beyond our tunnel of green. I'll therefore always think of the Devon Way as a kind of teleporter.

Fact File
Start/finish: Alloa train station.
Route: exit the train station and turn right. There is immediately a pedestrian bridge over the railway - this is the start of the Devon Way and is signed for NCN767/Tillicoultry although it goes all the way to Dollar. At the end of the route it's worth going into Dollar for a view or walk up Dollar Glen. We returned by the same route to Alloa. Except for one very small hill, the route is flat and easy and all off-road.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Borders - Minchmoor meander

The Minchmoor is an old drove road in the Borders hills that connects Traquair with Selkirk. Since cycling it last summer, it's a place that's stayed in my imagination for its quirkiness, its history and the open, airiness of its landscapes. So I was back there at Easter, walking its route with friends Graham and Andrew. 

From Edinburgh we took the Borders railway to Galashiels and jumped onto a bus that was heading back to Edinburgh. We only stayed on it for a few stops of course and stepped off in Innerleithen. There was time for coffee and cake outside in the sun, enjoying the outdoorsy vibe of this mountain bike-mad wee town.

Just south of Innerleithen we picked up the Minchmoor as the line of its old road cut across the fields and started to climb into the blue above. The Southern Upland Way, a long distance walking route, joins the Minchmoor here and we would use it over two days to walk back to Galashiels. 

A steady climb put us on top of the ridge that we would follow eastwards. There were some undulations but mostly we were up and staying up. The top of the climb is called Resolution Point and its marked by a sculpture and arty circles created in the heather. It's an interesting spot, the area being part of a project to increase the black grouse population here.

Just beyond Resolution Point, we came to the Cheese Well where it was said that travellers in days gone by had to make offerings of cheese to the fairies here to ensure a safe passage. We didn't have cheese, at least not since we'd eaten our lunch at Resolution Point, but we did leave some coins which we placed on the marker stone. On a hot day, we were also glad to be able to fill our bottles here with the cool spring water.

This wonderful route meandered now along the top of the hills, making us feel like we were on the roof of the Borders. The sense of space and the expanse of the view was wonderful. It was such a quiet place as well, we hardly passed anybody all day and the busiest spot was the top of Minchmoor Hill where a few mountain bikers had escaped the lower, groomed trails of the biking centre below.

We walked on into the hot afternoon, stopping at one point to marvel at Wallace's Trench. We had read about it on the train journey down. It's an ancient defensive trench, protecting against attackers from the west, the way we had walked. Given how the old trench is, we were perhaps expecting to see some shallow markings in the heather that might indicate where it had been. We were impressed therefore to come across the trench pretty much intact and 5 or 6 feet deep, cutting right across our route and extending a little way down the hillside. 

We walked on and on, through woods and over the gentle undulations of the ridge. We knew we had gone a fair distance east when the Eildon Hills came into view far ahead of us. We'd enjoyed a walk there just a couple of weeks ago so it was interesting to see them from a new angle.

By late afternoon we were nearing the end of the ridge and the climax of the day's walk, the Three Brethren. These huge stone cairns date from the 16th century and mark the boundaries of the three estates that meet at this point - Buccleuch, Yair and Selkirk. They're a stunning feature on what's already a beautiful spot.

Weary wanderers now, we dropped off the ridge and followed a path down the Philiphaugh Long burn to find a camp spot. Before the sun dipped behind the ridge, we sat outside drinking tea and cooking a hot supper. I surprised the boys later with a hot pudding of chocolate brownie and custard. It was the final act of the evening as the sun sank and we wrapped ourselves up in our sleeping bags. I think we were all pretty much asleep by lights out.

The following day was another cracker and we climbed back up to the ridge to rejoin the Southern Upland Way into Galashiels. The route was lovely, initially dropping down to Yair through springtime woods full of birdsong and then crossing the Tweed to make a gentle climb over the next series of low, rolling hills.

The path struck out across fields which were criss-crossed with drystone dykes. I loved the crossing points for walkers which were not the traditional gate but a series of stepping stones laid into the walls themselves. We must have used a dozen of these on the short leg into Galashiels.

After a final pull up a wee grassy hill, we were suddenly looking down on Galashiels. We ended the trip as we started ... with coffee and cake before catching the train home.

Fact File
Start: Innerleithen. Train from Edinburgh to Galashiels. The bus interchange is right opposite the train station and the Edinburgh-bound bus stops at Innerleithen.
Route: We walked south out of Innerleithen on the B709 for about 2km. Just after Traquair there is a quaint three-way junction at the war memorial - turn left here to join the Minchmoor and the Southern Upland Way. The route is signed now all the way to Gala and stays high across the tops. It's worthwhile making the short detour to the Minchmoor viewpoint which is signed from the main route. This, Resolution Point, the Cheese Well and Wallace's Trench won't be missed as they are right on the route. The Minchmoor high level route ends at the Three Brethren. We dropped down to the right here to find water and a camp spot then retraced our steps next morning. From the Three Brethren we stayed on the Southern Upland Way through to Galashiels. It was a lovely walk through springtime woods down to Yair then over gentle open hills into Gala.
Tips: Nice coffee shop on the main street in Innerleithen opposite the junction for the B709. And nice coffee shop in Gala immediately behind the Interchange.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Dun Caan - Seasides

I love coastal mountains. There's something very northerly and rugged about peaks that plunge into the sea. And if they're covered with snow or if the sun is out, creating aquamarine pools in the shallows, then all the better. I also love hopping on and off the ferries on Scotland's west coast. A wee ferry ride adds something special to a destination. Perhaps it makes it seem more exotic because you can only get there by boat. How lucky then that the little peak of Dun Caan on Raasay combines both of these things.

Raasay is an island that drifts offshore of another island, Skye. My ferry journey there was a short hop but as the boat pulled away from Sconser stunning views opened up. Behind us Skye's snow-covered peaks rose above the shore and to the north, a long way up the waters of the Sound of Raasay, was the rocky outline of the Storr on the Trotternish peninsula. 

Once the ferry had deposited us on Raasay, we walked along the deserted island roads and then picked a trail that followed an old tramway serving mines, now disused, above the main village. The tent was pitched at the top of the trail with a view back to the hills on Skye. Then we set out for Dun Caan.

A thin, boggy trail wound its way up and over open moor before eventually pulling over the last rise and rewarding us with a view of the bizarrely-shaped Dun Caan. It slopes steeply on one side, does a flat plateau at the top and then drops sheer on the other side in rocky crags. Mind you, the arrangement of the landscape here is generally quite strange. We crossed a rocky escarpment as a brief blizzard struck. It was broad on one side with big flat rocks like paving stones that made for good walking but on the other it gave way suddenly to vertical cliffs.

We found a path that had itself found a chink in the cliffs and descended to a lochan with a beach of black pebbles. You could see the gradations in the pebbles - fine and small at the water's edge but larger and rounded near the shore. 

From the lochan a path zig-zagged up through snow-dusted rocks to the top of Dun Caan. What a place to be that day. The snow-covered mountains of Skye stretched out to the west and on every side of us was sea, glinting and shimmering in the moments of sun. We marvelled at the sheer drop to the sea on the east side. If you dropped your lunchtime orange here, it would likely roll all the way into the water. And we watched swathes of steely blue snow clouds engulf the hills in bizzards and then move out across the sea itself.

Eventually we turned tail and retraced our steps to the tent. At the end of March it wasn't too late before the sun began to sink, touching the hills of Skye with gold and pink. The next morning we meandered back down through the woods and caught our ferry back across the sea to Skye. 

Fact File
Start/finish: Sconser ferry terminal, Skye
Route: From the ferry terminal walk along the road and hang right. At the next split take the left fork in the road signed for Fearns. Shortly after there are signs for the Miners Trail walk to the right. Follow this trail until eventually you cross the road again. Continue straight over and passed the old mine buildings. Where the track makes a sharp U turn and there are two footbridges, there is a sign for the path up to Dun Caan. The path is obvious as it crosses the moor and then climbs up the side of a rocky escarpment. At the far end an obvious path drops down to the lochan and then a very clear path climbs up Dun Caan. We retraced our steps to the footbridges and then returned by following the continuation of the trail where it's now known as the Burma Road trail and it heads back down towards the ferry.
Tip: There is a great leaflet in the ferry terminal detailing all the walks on Raasay.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Laggan - Littlun

Binnein Shuas is a small mountain on the south shore of Loch Laggan. It's only 746m high but it's definitely a mountain. At least it was on the day we climbed it when squally snow showers driven on a gale force wind battered its knobbly, rocky upper parts, imparting a more challenging, edgy character to this little peak. 

Between squalls the view was sublime though. Sapphire-blue lochs and snow-streaked mountains below a sky that was blue then black then blue again. The only other streaks of white in the landscape were the whooper swans on the water, pondering, or perhaps reconsidering, their flight to Iceland.

Binnein Shuas proved to be easier to get up than down as we picked our way down a steep gully in thickening snow. A walk through a whiteout world put us back at the tent.

Fact File
Start/finish: Moy by Loch Laggan
Transport: Car on this occasion using a large layby on the A86 about 1km west of Moy Lodge. You could access the hill by bike from Dalwhinnie or Corrour train stations using off-road tracks.
Route: At the layby cross the bridge over the River Spean and hang left when the track splits. At the next track junction, turn left again towards the woods. We climbed the hill's northwest flank from our camp spot but it would less steep to use the southeast ridge. There's no path on this little visited hill but it's easy enough to pick your way through the rocky outcrops to the top. We dropped off the northeast side to walk back along the shores of Lochan na Hearba before picking up the track that heads back down to Moy and joins the outward route. 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Bute - Doon the Watter

In more charming times than the ones we currently live in, there was a tradition for the working people of Glasgow to take a steamboat down the Clyde and holiday in places such as Dunoon and Rothesay which became popular seaside resorts. The habit was known as going “doon the watter”.  These days there’s only one of the old steamboats remaining but thanks to a network of trains and modern ferries, it’s still possible to go doon the watter. And that’s exactly what I did a few weekends back.

The train passed through the gloomy suburbs of Glasgow and deposited me and my friend, Graham, at Gourock where we went doon the watter on the Argyll Flyer, a small passenger ferry to Dunoon. As we crossed, the sea was ruffled and steely grey to match the skies overhead. I can never think of Dunoon without singing in my head the Sinatra song “Fly me to the Moon” because a friend of mine always use to say it with the words “fly me to Dunoon” instead. Highland Mary didn’t find that at all amusing as she stared down unmoved above the pier. Her statue commemorates Mary Campbell, a mistress of Robert Burns.

Off the water and on the bikes, we cycled west across the Cowal peninsula up and down ridiculously steep roads through a landscape that was surprisingly rugged and remote despite its proximity to the populations around the Clyde. At Colintraive we took to the water again as our Calmac ferry made the very short crossing of the Kyles of Bute. We rolled off on the other side on Bute, “the unexplored isle” as pronounced by the sign that welcomed us.

We set off exploring south down the only road at the top end of the island. In early March the nights still draw in fairly early so we were soon looking for a camp spot. We pulled off onto a forest track and made a steep climb up into the trees to find a lovely spot at the edge of the woods. There was a view back down to the ferry, still chugging back and forth across the water, and as the light faded we enjoyed surround-sound bird song. Once darkness set in, we sat nursing mugs of hot tea and watched the lights of the ferry going to and fro on the inky black water. The constant throb of its engine drifted up through the night air to our camp.

The springtime sun made an appearance as we explored the rest of the island the following day. As we pedalled south, to our right were the mountains of Arran, looking hazy and misty, and teasing us with brief glimpses of their rocky upper parts.  Bute itself is quite a contrast. In the north of the island our road crossed hilly moorland but in the south we found ourselves cycling through lush farmland. At times the pungent smell of fresh manure would almost make you pass out and we found ourselves pedalling faster to get away from it. We stopped regularly as there’s so much to see  on Bute – sandy bays, ruined chapels, Bronze age hill forts and standing stones, such as the prehistoric stone circle at Kingarth.

The highlight of Bute however, is not the hand-cut chips on the seafront in Rothesay but the wonderful St Blane’s Chapel. The chapel is part of a monastery dating from the 6th century and you really get an idea even today of the expanse of the place with the main chapel and many of the boundary walls relatively intact. You can still see in part the vallum wall which marked the border between the monastery and the secular world beyond. To the rear of the complex is a large boulder with an oblong hole that once held a large cross. It’s filled up now with rainwater and previous visitors had dropped coins into it like a wishing well. These old structures are set in a natural amphitheatre with protection around three sides afforded by a rocky outcrop, the roll of the hills and stands of tall trees. 

But the most wonderful thing about St Blane’s Chapel is its secretive existence up in the hills, like a miniature Machu Picchu. We arrived by cycling a long way down a single-track road then making a winding walk on a wee path steeply uphill above the sea and the fields below. The chapel is completely hidden from view until the very last moment so it’s a real surprise and utter delight to come upon the place.

St Blane’s is at the bottom of Bute and we had to get back up to the island’s main town, Rothesay, to catch the homeward ferry. We cycled the dirt track called the Moor Road which cut high across the central spine of the southern part of the island. It was rough and muddy in places but was lined by yellow gorse and with a blue sky above, you couldn’t grumble. The route dropped into Rothesay via the causeway of Loch Fad, part of the Highland Boundary fault line that had filled with water over the millennia.  We rolled into Rothesay and onto the late afternoon Calmac ferry that would take us back “up the watter”.

Fact File
Start: Dunoon, using the train from Glasgow Central to Gourock. The ferry from Gourock to Dunoon meets the train and leaves right next to the platform.
Finish: Wemyss Bay having taken the ferry from Rothesay on Bute. A train goes from Wemyss Bay (beautiful station) back to Glasgow Central.

Route: From Dunoon we cycled the A885 north and then took the B836 west – it has some stiff climbs on it upwards of 20%. We then took the A886 south but diverted quickly onto the delightful and empty B886 to Colintraive. We continued south on the A886 on Bute. The woods on the right soon after the ferry provided a good campspot. We then took the A884 down the west side of the island. Just before Kingarth a single track roads keeps going south to St Blane’s at its end. We cycled up to Rothesay on the A884 but took the Moor Road to the left about 2km after Kingarth – the start is beside the war memorial. The track was mostly good but with some muddy sections and one very rocky but short section. It pops out on the B881 where we turned right and then took the first left to cycle up to and over the causeway at Loch Fad. At the other side, turn right to head into Rothesay. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Pentlands - Grim x 2

A wet, wind-blasted day and a monochrome landscape beneath moody, pewter skies. Rain batters the windows of the number 44 bus to Balerno. I hop off and strike out across the moors. The air is good and clean, the wind blowing away the cobwebs. 

Over West Kip, East Kip and Scald Law in drenching mist and I'm blown around by the wind so that I'm walking as if drunk. The rain starts and I pull my hood in tighter but the drops still sting my face. It's grim ... but in an enjoyable sort of a way.

I tick off the tops as I track eastwards and the mist clears above Allermuir. How funny to have such an east/west split in the weather in such a small range of hills. There's a view now but still the wind that sends waves of movement across the pale winter grasses. And still the grey, glowering skies above. 

Off at the far end and pick up the number 4 bus homeward, collecting Gorgie Road football fans along the way.  I jump off briefly for some shopping necessities. Into the seething masses of Saturday afternoon Princes Street. It's grim ... in an unenjoyable sort of a way.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Eildon Hills - Past present

Recently I was trying to explain to an American friend what, in my eyes at least, makes experiences in the Scottish outdoors so alive and so layered in rich contexts. I was trying to say, not very well, that wherever you go in the landscape, there is evidence of time, ancient and primeval, that you can touch and be amongst. It’s as if the past is always present.

Take for example, a recent walk in the Eildon Hills, down in the Scottish Borders, an area that’s gotten under my skin of late. The hills rise in quite a dramatic fashion above the historical town of Melrose, a pretty wee Borders town with a market square and lively High Street. The route up the Eildons from town follows the trail of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance walking route that commemorates the saint. He started his religious life in Melrose in 650AD and the trail links Melrose to Holy Island off the Northumbria Coast, St Cuthbert’s original pilgrimage shrine and final resting place.

As I climbed steeply out of town, the trail was frozen solid on this chill winter’s day and there was a dusting of snow on the tops up ahead. A patchwork of farmers' fields were laid out below, some green and some rich, dark brown having gone under the plough. The incline of the route eased a little as I gained a bealach between the North Hill and the Mid Hill, two of the three peaks that make up the Eildons. Here I touched history even farther back in time. Millions of years ago, these peaks around me were active volcanoes. The tops themselves were formed by underground eruptions. And 7000 years ago, early people settled here on the slopes, making shelved places in the hills for siting basic dwellings and using flint tools which have been found throughout the landscape hereabouts.

A short, but steep and icy, pull had me on top of Mid Hill where I was blasted by a freezing wind. At 422m it's a tiddler of a hill, but its isolated position and shapely outline make it a real Borders landmark. And in today's weather, it felt like the top of Everest. The view was gentle and rolling though today I wasn't going to linger in the wind and cold on top to enjoy it. 

I dropped off the south side of the hills into the relative shelter of the stately beech trees that make up much of the woodland here. Following a small path through the trees, I eventually contoured round the east side of the North Hill in late afternoon sunshine. The path followed a field edge along a line of beautiful, old beech trees. Below me, on the lower slopes of the hills, was the site of a Roman garrison called Trimontium. Dating from 80AD, it was named after the three peaks above. There's not much left to see on the ground today but information boards and artists' reconstructions try to bring the place back to life.

As I contoured further round the hill to pick up my outward route, Melrose appeared again down below and before long I was back amongst its shops and traffic. Before I caught my train home, there was one more piece of the past to visit, Melrose Abbey. Founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks, the abbey is now partially ruined and is all the more beautiful for it, especially today as its red standstone facade glowed in the golden rays of the sinking sun. It's said to be the burial place of the heart of Robert the Bruce though nobody has been able to prove beyond doubt that the heart held there in a casket is indeed that of the ancient king of Scotland. That mystery will for ever be consigned to the past. 

As for the present, I had a train to catch and the path alongside the lazy waters of the River Tweed took me back to the  Borders railway at Tweedbank for my ride home.

Fact File
Start/Finish: Melrose. The Borders railway ends at Tweedbank from where it's a short cycle, walk or bus ride into Melrose. From the town centre head out on Dingleton Road and just after the overpass look for signs for St Cuthbert's Way/Eildon HIlls which point to a path through a gap in the houses. The path climbs a long series of steps then emerges on the open hill. Follow St Cuthert's Way to the bealach and from here the routes up North Hill or Mid Hill are very obvious. To return I continued along St Cuthbert's Way for a short distance down the other side of the hill and took a faint path east through the trees just before a gate. This path eventually emerges onto a track. It's a lovely walk. A little way further on, beside two wooden seats, a Melrose Paths walkers' sign points through a gate and a path follows a field margin as it contours round the North Hill. It soon junctions with another path heading to the top of the hill - turn right here. Immediately before the next gate turn left onto a smaller path, faint at first but becomes firmer. This continues to contour round the hill and eventually joins the outward route at a waymarking three-point sign.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Gear Review - Mountain Warehouse Wanderer 20l Rucsack

Times are hard and money is tight. This is on account of me buying my first ever flat (I know, at my age!).  What this means is that when I needed a new daysack, I had to forego the array of  expensive options at Tiso in the £70-£100 range and instead check out the cheaper options at Mountain Warehouse, of all places!

I chose their £25 20l Wanderer rucsack and have to say, so far anyway, I'm pretty happy with it. The main body of the rucsack has two compartments as you'd normally find on bigger rucsacks. They can be zipped apart to make one bigger space but I've found the small easy access, bottom compartment really handy for waterproofs and dirty gaiters (bearing in my mind that my clothes are quite small). There's a handy front pocket with an internal organiser for keys, mobile phone or maps. The back system is an air mesh design and though I've not used the rucsack yet in warm conditions, I could certainly feel the wind blowing through the space between the rucsack and my back so I'm guessing it'll be effective in the hotter months in avoiding a sweaty back. The colour options were black or the more girly grey and purple I'm wearing in the photo.

Other welcome features that again you expect on much more expensive packs are good-sized hipbelt pockets, hydration sleeve and outlet, elasticated side pockets, side compression straps, trekking pole stash loops, chest strap and an integrated rain cover that packs away into a zipped compartment on the bottom. In use, I've found it to be really comfy to wear. 

The only negative is the quality of the materials and stitching which is obviously much less than top brand packs but I'm not sure in practice how much of a difference this will make. The only feature that's really disappointing is the quality of the zips which don't run really well and do feel on the cheap side. But overall, for the price, I think this is a great summer hillwalking pack or low-level winter rambling rucsack.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Fife - Mini walk on the sleeping giant

Anyone who has travelled south on the M90 towards Edinburgh will have admired the shapely outline of the long, low-lying hill that forms the south shore of Loch Leven. Its correct name is Benarty Hill but locals believe that its outline resembles a great warrior lying asleep on his back with his feet pointing east towards the Lomond Hills and his headdress stretching westwards. And so the hill is more commonly known as the Sleeping Giant. For such a wee hill in a populated landscape of fields and farms, it's got a surprising mix of pleasant approach walk, craggy ruggedness and gorgeous big views. I find myself drawn back again and again.

I climbed the hill most recently during the festive break on a crisp, breezy day in late December. My walk started in the former mining town of Ballingry whose claim to fame is to be the home town of Richard Jobson of the Skids. If you remember them then you are as old or even older than me. 

A dirt track leaves the back of town and heads out through open woodland with Benarty Hill rising steeply to the right and the pleasant waters and parklands of Lochore Meadows down to the left. From here a good path then zig-zags up through forestry. Don't be put off by the forestry. This morning shafts of low winter sun burst through the trees and in the open glades the view stretched as far as the Firth of Forth. It was lovely.

At the top of the forestry the gradient relents and a pleasant wee path makes a beeline across heathery moorland for the summit trig point. Today that same low sun picked out the contours of the hill and illuminated the shapely lines of the Bishop Hill on the other side of Loch Leven. 

From up here you can see the vastness of the loch. When you are standing down on the shore, it seems so big that you think of it more as an inland sea than a loch. Its waters were dotted with green amoeba-shaped islands and the tiny white pinpricks of swans, hundreds of swans. To the west the Ochil hills had a light dusting of snow, adding a cold, wintry edge to the view. None of these are big hills but I love the way they sit in the landscape and accentuate the open space and big skies all around.

A small path keeps close company with an old drystone dyke all the way along the top of the ridge and it's a lovely walk. I headed east along the ridge and eventually dropped off its far end to pick up a new path down to the RSPB centre at Vane Farm. It's a great place to get the loch-level view and watch over flocks of teal and widgeon in the wetland pools. In the late afternoon I trekked back over to Ballingry on the path which contours round the bottom of the great warrior's feet. The temperature was dropping and the sun was sinking way out west beyond the battle headdress of the sleeping giant above.

Fact File
Photos on Flickr.
Start/finish: Ballingry. Local buses travel every 10 minutes between the train station at Lochgelly (on the Fife circle line with direct trains from Edinburgh) and Ballingry. 
Route: Get off at the last bus stop in Ballingry at the turning circle with recycling skips. Just before here a dirt track heads west behind the last of the houses. Follow it until it meets a road. Go straight across and you'll find the obvious path up Benarty Hill. The first time I went there was a sign but there wasn't the second time. Follow this path to the trig point. The top of the cliffs is a few metres further and affords a great view across the loch and hills. Turn east on the ridge top path and eventually where the gradient of the north face of the hill eases, you'll spot a new quarry dust path below and a faint path down the grassy slope which you can use to get onto it. This excellent new path will either take you down to RSPB Vane Farm if you turn left or back to Ballingry if you turn right.  An alternative to returning to Ballingry is to pick up the wonderful Loch Leven Heritage Trail at Vane Farm and follow it to Kinross to pick up buses to Inverkeithing/Edinburgh.