Friday, 23 August 2019

HUFFING & PUFFING UP GRANITE TORS

If it wasn't for my good friend Pauline, I don't think I would ever set foot in the mountains of Scotland, and what a tragedy that would be. And my available time is more limited than it used to be, but that translates into appreciating our mountain adventures even more.

Of course, only venturing out on the odd occasion also brings with it one big challenge; fitness! Or rather, lack of it.

Accessing a number of our Scottish walks is made all the more difficult by the lack of integrated public transport, or journeys that take almost a day in themselves to get to the start point. We both like to use the train as much as possible, not just from an environmental point of view, but also because we can sit back and relax, and watch the view rush past the window, but on this occasion we were starting out from Braemar, and to make the most of the three days we opted to drive.

Leaving the car in the village we caught a local bus a few miles east to our starting point at Bridge of Dee, where the track into the Invercauld Estate crosses the River Dee. We were heading for the most easterly Munro of the Cairngorms, Ben Avon, and as I heaved on my pack I knew there was a long walk in ahead. But this was the weekend nearest to the longest day, so there was plenty of time.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and all around was forest, as we enthusiastically set off. The forest soon gave way to open land, and as the track stretched out before us it entered a narrow glen. As we reached the top of this glen we were met with the remains of a house! The material used looked fairly modern. It certainly wasn't ancient. It puzzled me as to how on earth they had managed to not just build it, but get all the materials up there.


From the vantage point above the glen I could see the path heading up to a distant bealach, which Pauline informed me was where we would pitch the tents for the night.

Piece of cake.

By the time I was halfway up, with the path increasing in steepness, I was finished. My energy plummeted, and I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. So ridiculous was my lack of fitness at this point, compared to the years gone past, that I suddenly burst out laughing.

By late afternoon our tents were pitched in an idyllic spot under the scalloped face of Beinn a'Bhuird. Pauline may drag me screaming and shouting up some tough landscapes, but she has a knack for choosing great camping spots.


Dumping all out kit we then headed off to the summit of Ben Avon. Without a pack this was a breeze, albeit the first pull up from the bealach was steep. When we reached the plateau-like top of the mountain, that we would cross to reach the actual summit, we could see the granite tors jutting up in the distance, with a shape like a giant elephant poo. It was difficult to judge the distance due to the lack of any other features, but the going was easy, so it didn't matter.


We stayed a short while at the tor, clambering over the weather-rounded rocks, but as the breeze stiffened, and the temperature started to drop, we headed back to the comfort of our tents and a hot meal.


Day two started with a pull up the adjacent Munro, Beinn a'Bhuird, from our camp spot. From the summit we had clear views back east toward the tors of Ben Avon, and west to the familiar skyline of Cairngorm and Ben Macdui.


As we crossed the short grass plateau beyond the summit, we came across a tiny stream, flowing down from a small spring. It was so peaceful here that we stopped a while and contemplated the age of this little ribbon of water, constantly flowing across this plateau, probably for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

From here we skirted the dramatic cliffs of the mountain, with snow still in some of the gullies.




We now dropped down into the forested areas of Glen Quoich, heading back out of the mountains on the western side of Braemar.


This route took me by surprise in regards to its length, and as we followed the eroded banks of the river, we were on the lookout for a camping spot for the night.  But there was nothing to be had, until we were fairly far down, within a couple of miles of the National Trust's Mar Lodge.


But here was another idyllic spot, beside the river, with a gentle breeze keeping any midges at bay. In the middle of the cascading river was a rock feature with a large, perfectly smooth, hole, created by centuries of pounding water, and known as the Punch Bowl.


After a restful night our final day was misty and damp as we entered Braemar and, you guessed it, coffee and cake.


Thursday, 4 July 2019

THE MERRY MONTH OF MAY . . . AND JUNE!

Apologies to regular readers for my tardy absence over the past couple of months. To say life got in the way is an understatement.

I last wrote of the filming trip for the Ballachulish ferry film I've been making since 2017, and that has continued somewhat since then.

In addition, my enthusiastic Film Academy students were busy finishing their short films as we raced toward the end of term.

I decided to set a premier date for the Ballachulish ferry film of Saturday 19 October. It is my hope to screen it in Ballachulish itself, and then the following day up in Glenelg, where the last remaining ferry, the Glenachulish, still operates, and she has just turned 50. The operators there would like to use the screening as a fundraiser, which would be a fitting tribute.

One ferry has remained elusive elusive though, the Glen Loy. The most recent information about her, was that around 1977, having had her engine removed and her turntable deck and wheelhouse stripped, so that all that remained was the low barge-like structure, she was sold to a "man from the Clyde".


The trail ran cold.

Until last Saturday.

There have been many red herrings in the quest to find her, and Pauline and I were in Helensburgh searching through old copies of the Helensburgh Advertiser following up a new lead. And then, on page 6, of the 1st June 1979, of a different paper, the Helensburgh Times, Pauline stumbles across an article which reads "Ferry goes for a Sale".


We had found the "man from the Clyde", a one William Sutherland, who was selling the ex Ballachulish ferry, the Glen Loy having used her in a  marine contract on the west coast. We both almost fell of our seats. This had been the first time I had seen her name in print since starting this quest. Where the article reads "...must have considerable sentimental value to someone" was a very emotional moment.

I needed more information, so over the course of two days, searching through electoral registers and the archives of births, deaths and marriages at the National Register in Edinburgh, with help from my friends Dougie and Stuart, we pieced together William's family tree.

Yesterday I met two of his descendants back in Helensburgh, but unfortunately they had no recollection of the old ferry.

Now my attention has turned to the Crown Estate Scotland. If William Sutherland had the Glen Loy moored somewhere, then there's a possibility then, like now, he would have needed a licence to moor her from the Crown Estate Scotland.
Time will tell if that bears fruit.

I have now finished year one of The Film academy Edinburgh. It has been a larger amount of work and more stressful than I predicted, but we got there, with 50 very happy kids and some marvelous films under their belt.

Summer camps beckon in July and August, and with 92% of the students returning for year 2 in September, I'm hoping for a full academy of 60 students.

Meanwhile my summer break will be chasing the Glen Loy.
The truth is out there.



Thursday, 25 April 2019

FILMING THE WRECKS

Yep, it's been a month since I last blogged!!  But it's been a busy time with filming projects.

At the start of Easter, ten of my young students attended a masterclass week on acting-for-camera. It was an intensive week, building up their toolbox of skills; shooting a 90 second drama scene for their showreel; getting their professional headshots done and meeting a casting director.

Even I learned a lot from the acting coach!

The Academy was then off for the remainder of the Easter holidays, which allowed me to continue my documentary film, The Last Ferries of Ballachulish.

I had recently received a tip on the whereabouts of the third ferry, the Glen Loy, which has remained elusive since I started this project back in 2017. I am yet to get definitive proof of its whereabouts, but if it is where someone believes it to be, then in order to get there she would have come through the Crinan Canal on the west coast, an hour south of Oban.

So this was my first location, but on arrival the wind was blowing above 40mph, and so there was no choice but to wait it out until morning. 

Accommodation for the night was my tent in a small campsite at Tayvallich, a little further south. Ahh, the glamour of filmmaking! Not in the mood for cooking I ate out at the Tayvallich Inn. And very nice it was too.

By early morning the wind had died down, and despite the overcast skies and subsequent low light, I managed to get the shot I was after at the start of the Crinan Canal.


Along twisting narrow roads I headed north, 65 miles to Ballachulish, to meet up with my friend Kate, one of the people interviewed in the film, and someone who has been a great source of information.

But this was a very wet day. A day for traveling. So I continued on in the afternoon, via Fort William, 75 miles to Ratagan, and a Scottish Youth Hostel for the night, on the shores of Loch Duich at Shiel Bridge, with views across to the Five Sisters of Kintail. Nearby was the road that could take me over to Glenelg where the Glenachulish operates, and though tempting, this was not on my shot list this time round.

I was now within striking distance of my next location, the pretty little village of Plockton.

After shooting the compulsory shortbread-tin-shot of Eilean Donan Castle, a further 20 miles on, with a winding single track road to finish, I arrived at the sun-drenched picturesque village of Plockton. Though bright and sunny on the village itself, the far views were very hazy, and would remain so all week unfortunately.


I now followed the road around Loch Carron, to Strome Castle, where the first of the wrecks of an old turntable ferry were beached, the Pride of Strome.


Though she has no connection to the Ballachulish ferries, it is still a sad sight to see such an icon from 20th century Scottish history, left to rot. No longer the Pride of Strome. Compared to the Glen Duror wreck on Mull, there was a substantial amount of her left, easily recognisable from afar.

Bed for the night was another SYHA, this time in the dramatic setting of Torridon, with the mighty Liathach mountain within spitting distance.


To me it looks inaccessible, but the hostel was full of many hopeful souls for an ascent the following day. During the evening the conversation inevitably veered toward the Munro baggers, of which I am not one, and will never be. I was reminded of a line from Bothy Tales, by John Burns, that when admitting publicly that I did not "bag" Munros, "it hung in the air like a malevolent fart".

I awoke to hot sunshine, though still with that annoying haze in the distance. This was now Thursday, and I was headed 55 miles to Inverness to interview an historian, James Hunter, and his knowledge of the impact of the opening of the Ballachulish bridge on the economy of the West Highlands.

We wrapped within a couple of hours, giving me plenty of time to reach Achiltibuie, 75 miles north, out on a peninsula north of Ullapool.

I had heard about this place for decades from an old friend Jim Downie, who, until recently, spent time there every year. As I pulled in to the car parking space for Acheninver hostel, I could see why. Astonishing views across the Summer Isles, with a spectacular setting sun welcomed me. The haze for once proved to be a good thing, as it dispersed the sunlight and created a red glow over all I could see. I had never seen a sunset like this.


As the sun dipped a full moon rose on the opposite horizon, and I sat a while with an evening cuppa watching the sunlight glitter across the water.

I reached my furthest most point the next day, 40 miles further on to Kylesku. The road north is this perfect ribbon of tarmac, gently winding its way through the landscape, mostly empty of any traffic. I reached a T-junction at one point; left for Kylesku and Durness, right for Thurso. I sat a moment at the junction, marveling at the remoteness.

At Kylesku was the second wreck, the Maid of Kylesku, again, abandoned to rot on the shoreline, though her turntable was largely intact.


After a well earned coffee and banana cake at the Kylesku hotel, I set off on the 250 mile journey home, happy with the weeks filming, and what a privilege to capture all that among the grand setting of the Western Highlands of Scotland.


Friday, 29 March 2019

I'VE BEEN TO THE MOON!

When I want to breathe fresh air, I head to the Highlands.

When I want to feel the wind in my hair, I jump on my bike.

And when I want to see the moon, I head to Newcastle.

I often stare at the moon. I marvel at this natural satellite of earth, a quarter of a million miles away. So far, and yet its gravitational pull creates our tides. It rotates at a speed that means the same face is always toward earth as it goes around us, roughly every 27 days, so we never see the other side, the so called dark side. You would either have to send a spacecraft there or travel to the moon yourself and take a look.

So, I recently had an opportunity to do just that.

For some time now an exhibition has been touring the world called The Museum of the Moon. It is a 7m diameter model, lit from inside and suspended in a large space. So far it has been displayed in the ruins of a church, over a swimming pool, inside a cathedral and a library, and many other imaginative spaces, all across the world.


The artwork is by UK artist Luke Jerram, and was created at a scale of 1cm to 5km using imagery from NASAs Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2010.

The detail is astonishing, and to walk around and look up at our closest celestial neighbour is breathtaking, and of course you can view the heavily cratered dark side.


As a change from our usual outdoorsey day trips that have been a common feature of our weekends of late, Pauline and I headed off to Newcastle by train as this unique moon exhibit was on display at the Life Museum there.


I didn't rate the Life Museum very highly, and didn't feel it was worth the £11 entry fee. However, there was a small exhibit of sci-fi costumes as well, so that was a fun addition. 


I had missed the Museum of the Moon when it was in Edinburgh, suspended inside St Giles Cathedral, which must have been amazing. In Newcastle it was suspended in a large empty space, so not quite the same wow effect, but seeing it was still a great experience. I stood for a while, lost in my thoughts and imagination, thinking how incredible it is that humans have walked on its surface, though only 12 have done so, and none since Gene Cernan in 1972.


Leaving the moon behind, and with a few hours to kill before the train home, having never been to Newcastle before, we set off to explore a little.

On the journey down we had chatted to a local who recommended making our way to Greys monument in the centre, and then down Grey Street. So we did just that.

Designed by Richard Grainger and John Dobson, Grey Street was built as part of Newcastle's New Town regeneration in the 1830s. A collection of grand neoclassical buildings, it curves downhill away from the monument toward the River Tyne.


Our favourite part of all this though, was a little gem hidden behind the facade of one set of buildings, and accessed through an arched alleyway. This was Grainger Market, originally a fruit and butcher market place, built in 1835, and at the time the largest covered market of its kind in the world. It is enormous, with four "streets" of all manner of small businesses, all contained within the well preserved space. How we wished for something similar back in Edinburgh.


Having had a quick lunch of a crepe at one of the stalls in the market, we headed down Grey Street to the embankment of the River Tyne, with the famous Tyne Bridge just peaking out behind the grand buildings.


Wandering east along the river, brought us to the Millenium Bridge, a tilting pedestrian and cycle bridge, which took us across to the opposite bank, and the Baltic Art Centre.


Wandering back up this side of the river we passed under the Tyne Bridge, home to the worlds largest inshore colony of Kittiwakes, though few were in residence.


We crossed back over the river via an old swing bridge, built in the mid 1800s on the site of an old Roman bridge. It is still a working swing bridge and is adorned with a lighthouse on top and set against the castle in the distance, which dates from the 1100s.


I wish now we had been able to visit the castle, as it is the place to find out all about the history of Newcastle, way back to the Roman, Saxon and Norman times. We would have to return another day, as we were out time; there was still one more important goal. We headed back up Grey Street to Olive & Bean for, you guessed it, coffee and cake, and what a treat that was.


The Museum of the Moon had been a surreal but spectacular sight to behold, and returning home late afternoon on the train, I was pleased with myself that I could now say, in the voice of Darth Vadar, I have seen the dark side.


Friday, 15 March 2019

FISH SUPPER

Some people celebrate their birthday with a party and lots of friends. Others go out for a civilised, slap-up meal, whilst some are happy to let it pass as just another day. 

I've rarely done any of the above, and this years birthday at the weekend was no exception.

Poor planning on my part saw me working on the Saturday, taking my Film Academy students through to tour the studios at the BBC in Glasgow. I can't complain though, it was a fun day out.


As we headed home on the coach I was keeping a careful eye on the time, keeping my fingers crossed there would be no delays on the motorway. I had a train to catch, and very little time between our scheduled return and the departure time out of Edinburgh Waverley.

Two hours later, having changed into my hiking gear, and picked up my loaded rucksack, I was sat sipping a cup of tea watching the sun set behind the bridges crossing the Forth from the comfort of my seat on the north-bound Scotrail train, on my way to Newtonmore.

I had to change at Perth as the train I was currently on did not stop at Newtonmore. Now, normally this is an annoyance, but on this occasion I was glad to leave an overbooked train, full of drunk and foul mouthed people, drowning their sorrows of a Scotland rugby defeat at the hands of Wales.

As the train rose higher and higher through the Drumochter Pass, snow was falling and gathering in the mountains beyond.

I pulled into Newtonmore to be met on the platform by Pauline, who had traveled up on the Friday. The temperature was well below freezing, and as we left Newtonmore the tracks under our feet became increasingly icy.

In the hills above Newtonmore we pitched our tents, then marveled at the star filled sky. As I zipped up my tent for the night, snow was gently falling.


We awoke to a light dusting of snow, and with our tents packed away, headed off toward Kingussie with a strong breeze blowing spindrift around our feet, with more snow starting to fall.


The first part of our day was following the Wild Cat Trail, a fun, marked path above Newtonmore, that both Pauline and I have walked several times with different people.

We walked along with the satisfying crunch of fresh snow under our feet, past trees that were delicately outlined with fresh snow.


The surrounding hills looked monochrome with their new dusting, highlighted now and again as the sun broke through.


Ahead lay Creag Bheag, our only hill for the day, just short of 500m high. As always, Pauline knows the best route up, and after a brief stop to refuel we were walking through woods above Loch Gynack, the path twisting through the beautiful birch trees, their lower trunks surrounded by mossy rocks. There was no snow on the ground here, in sharp contrast to just a few miles back.


The path then turned sharply south east, and rose steeply toward the summit of Creag Bheag, up a robust path, purposely made from large boulders and rocks. As we ascended the temperature dropped and snow flurries began to fall. Some parts of the path higher up were covered in ice, and as we reached the top the wind was blowing full force. We sheltered a while in a little stone built circle, with an outlook over Kingussie and across to the snow-capped Cairgorms on the horizon.


Once down, and lunch consumed, we started our descent into Kingussie. Now the snow was in full blizzard mode, but the path, then track, then road, was well defined.

In need of a hot drink it was disappointing to find everything was closed in Kingussie. Everything that was apart from the Star Hotel, caught in a time warp, with its worn tartan carpets and dark wood paneling. A request for a latte was met with bewilderment by the bar staff.

We settled on a pot of tea for two, and as our dripping wet gear slowly dried on the hotel radiators, we watched the clock slowly tick away the minutes until 4pm, when Joe's fish and chip shop would open!


Thursday, 28 February 2019

BLOWING OFF THE DUST

My "good" bicycle lives hoisted up out of the way into the ceiling space of a room in my apartment, and the other day I lowered it down, only to find a thin coating of dust covered all the surfaces due to its lack of use recently.

It was time for a bicycle tour.

As ever, Pauline can be relied upon to uncover a little gem of a route, and over a leisurely long weekend we headed out to the west to Inverclyde and Renfrewshire.

This had never been an area on my list of places to cycle, and we had toyed with heading to Oban, but having both cycled there recently we opted to find something new.

Our route started in Port Glasgow on the shores of the Clyde, once a centre of shipbuilding and responsible for a quarter of the total tonnage of ships built in the area, the industry has all but gone bar one privately owned shipyard.

It started life as a small fishing hamlet called Newark, and in 1780, due mainly to large ships being unable to navigate the shallow waters to Glasgow, shipyards started to spring up and it's new name was adopted. From the early 1800s the Clyde was deepened and Port Glasgow's fate was sealed.


Heading almost due south we started off on the disused Greenock & Johnstone railway, converted to a fantastic cycle path now called the Clyde to Forth Cycle route.


The start to our day had been delayed by a spoke breaking on my rear wheel, but as we had planned short days this had only a marginal affect on our timings. It did mean however that just 8 miles on it was time for coffee and cake elevenses.

We pulled off the cycle path into a small settlement I had not heard of before, called Quarriers Village.

Founded in 1876 as The Orphan Homes of Scotland by shoemaker and philanthropist William Quarrier, it had a grand feel to it. He had a vision having been brought up poor and shoeless in the city, vowing to make a difference for children in need in the future.

His idea was simple; instead of large, depressing dorms, he built individual grand residences in the countryside setting, with each house run by a house mother and father. Following the end of WWI there were over a thousand orphans at Quarriers. Built using donations from himself and friends it was enormously successful, and though not an orphanage anymore, a charity headquartered in the village continues charitable work today.


Within the old school was a busy coffee shop called Three Sisters Bake,  and judging by the lack of available tables it too was successful.

As we continued south on the cycle path as far as Lochwinnoch, rain started to fall, light at first but soaking us through. We were near day ones end, but too early to set up camp, so there was nothing for it but to pass the time in coffee shop number two, The Junction, in Lochwinnoch.

Day two was a foggy start, and the tents were sopping wet in the morning at our chosen camp spot, four or five miles west of Lochwinnoch into Muirshiel Regional Park.

Our main goal for this day was to visit the island of Cumbrae, and to give us more time on the island we opted to follow the main road into Largs, a decision we would regret because of the moronic dangerous drivers using this route, passing too close to us at speed, often with vehicles approaching in the opposite direction and at times on a blind bend!

With historic links to the Vikings from the 11th century, in the 19th and 20th century Largs became a popular seaside resort. Despite its diminishing status as a holiday resort, it still markets itself as such. But we were here for one reason; to catch the CalMac ferry across to the small island of Cumbrae.


With a circumference of just 14 miles, it was a short pootle round, but with the absence of cars and the sun shining it was the highlight of the trip.

We stopped for our lunch and to dry out our wet camping gear in the small village of Millport on the western tip.


In the centre of the village is the impressive Garrison House, built in 1745 as barracks, it would later become a strategic base for Customs & Excise, given the islands location.


Looking west from the bay that the village main street wraps around, the craggy ramparts of Goat Fell and the Achir Ridge on the island of Arran gave for an impressive backdrop.

Our visit to Cumbrae was all too short, and by mid afternoon we were heading north out of Largs to our last wild camp in the hills above.


Dry tents welcomed us on the third morning, and after a leisurely start to the day we continued north toward Port Glasgow.


Almost halfway we took a detour to the Greenock Cut visitor centre on the shores of Loch Thom. Built in the 1820s, the Greenock Cut is essentially a viaduct to supply water from  Loch Thom to the town of Greenock. The designated circuit of the Greenock Cut is more of a walking route, and with our heavily laden bicycles we decided to forego the route on this occasion, but vowed to return soon to wander it's seven mile way.


From Loch Thom we turned east, through forest and alongside small reservoirs, to rejoin the original cycle path and the short distance back into Port Glasgow.

Before leaving Edinburgh I had a preconception of our three days never being free of urban sprawl, but I was pleasantly surprised, and it served well to blow the dust and cobwebs off my bike.