Sunday, 24 January 2016

Meall nan Eagan - The Dircs

Simple things make me happy. Like standing on a bridge to watch the train pass below and the driver waves up at me. I was crossing over the railway line at Dalwhinnie to walk into its wee hills to the northwest. Hidden away up there are two fabulous landscape features.

Snow and ice scrunched under my boots as I walked into the hills alongside the partially frozen waters of the Allt an t'Sluic,  using an old drovers route through to Laggan. It was a quiet place gripped in the stillness of a cold winter's day. The glen was devoid of life except for a few deer scraping back the snow for some meagre grazing. Ice was draped over the rocks like sheets over fine furniture in an empty house. There was not a breath of wind to stir the winter-bare birches and the only sound was the tinkle of the river where it wasn't locked in ice.

After a while the glen opened out to a high heather moor. The snow-capped rocky peak of Meall nan Eagan rose above while the southerly boundary of this high valley was formed by the snowy flanks of the Fara with its lower skirt of forest. But the place was dominated by two gigantic gashes up ahead, the Dirc Mhor and the Dirc Beag. These ancient glacial melt water channels had sliced through the hills leaving behind two massive cracks in the landscape. It's hard to imagine the power of natural forces that can slice a mountain in two.

l pitched the tent in this big open space, forcing tent pegs into semi-frozen ground, then easily climbed Meall nan Eagan. It's snow was deep and soft in some places but shallow and wind-scoured in others. I put on snowshoes a few hundred metres before the top as the sun glinted briefly through a grey sky, bronzing the snow-speckled moorland below. There was a panorama of snow-covered mountains all around but their tops were cut off abruptly by a ceiling of low cloud.

From the top of the hill I could look onto the Dirc Mhor and the Dirc Beag. Their eerie recesses were filled with loose scree and a jumble of massive boulders. They looked rough and wild, and dark and foreboding. I couldn't believe I'd traversed the Dirc Mhor a few years ago as from here it looked quite impassable. That was also the opinion of my companions at the time by the end of it. But I'd loved its primeval, lost world atmosphere.

I dropped down off the hill and crossed frozen cascades of water to reach the bottom of the Dirc Beag. It revealed a secret birch wood whose leafless branches added their delicate, purple hue of winter to an otherwise monochrome landscape. I found the Dirc's outflow and followed it downstream. In some places it ran clear and fast, and in other places it disappeared under bridges of ice. It was soon swollen by the outflow of the Dir Mhor then wounds its way down ice-encrusted and snow-dusted moorland back to my tent. It provided the water for a warming pot of tea, enjoyed with the last of the Christmas cake and a view through snow flurries back to the Dircs.

More photos on Flickr click here.
Fact File
Start/finish: Dalwhinnie Train Station
Map: OS Landranger 42
Route: On leaving the station continue down Station Road and turn left on the main street. Follow this road passed the distillery, over the railway and up the steep road that continues to Laggan. A short way up the road take the drovers' route to the left signed for Feagour. When it reaches a cottage, take the left fork. The track soon ends but becomes a footpath. When it peters out, climb the bank to your right to regain the original track. It continues criss-crossing the Allt an t'Sluic but there is always a bit of a footpath on the right side. At the head of the glen, the track ends, the terrain opens out and I pitched the tent here. I continued across rough moorland and climbed up the east side of Meall nan Eagan. I left the top heading northwest for a few hundred metres to avoid crags on the south side then descended west to a broad bealach with the Dirc Mhor and Dirc Beag above. Following the outflow back to the tent provided good walking. I returned to Dalwhinnie by the same route.
Tip: Great collection of old photos in the waiting room at Dalwhinnie Station. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Gear Review - Endura Urban Flipjak Cycling Jacket

I've been on lots of hillwalks but I've never been on a catwalk. The reasons are obvious if you'd care to look at any photo of me! So the review of this reversible cycle jacket may in fact be my one and only modelling assignment.

I picked up the Endura Urban Flipjack jacket a few weeks before Christmas and I've barely been out of it since. I absolutely love it. I've found its reversible option incredibly practical. One side is a high visibility pink outer with reflective details. In the men's version it's a bright green. The other side is a casual-looking black outer. The jacket is filled with Primaloft and is really cosy. It's not often that you'll find yourself wanting to cycle in such a warm jacket so it's more suited to shorter, gentler rides where you're heading to a destination or activity that's mostly off-bike. I've used it a lot for cycling to my local birdwatching spot or visits to the folks. I cycle in the pink side and on arrival flip to the black side to either blend in with the landscape or look more casual for townie activities like going for coffee.

Each side has a zipped chest pocket and an insulated grown-in hood. The black casual side also has two zipped hand pockets. Both materials are wind and water resistant. I have found the high viz cycling side to be more so which makes sense and it shakes off a light shower. Whilst it doesn't pack down really small, it does squash up into the hood for throwing in the barbag. For women it comes in sizes XS to L and for men in sizes S to XXL. I bought the jacket for £94 at Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op.

I want to thank my friend Graham for taking the photos. And now that's the modelling assignment over, it's back to the outdoors ... more lichen and moss than Kate Moss.

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.