Sunday, 10 February 2019


A pretty significant thing happened in Musselburgh, a coastal town near to where I live, in 1547. And I don't mean at around 10 to 4 in the afternoon.

But first, let me digress.

A couple of years ago I was filming with a large bunch of teenagers, an abridged version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in and around Craigmillar Castle, about a half hour walk from my apartment in Portobello. It was there that Mary Queen of Scots convalesced after the difficult birth of her son James at Edinburgh Castle in June 1566. She was just 22 years old, and when she was born in late 1542, England and Scotland were two separate countries very much at each others throat.

Henry VIII, who Mary was a great-niece to, had tried to secure an alliance with the Scots by marrying her to his young son, the future Edward VI. But when that failed he tried to do so by force. Scotland entered into an alliance with France in response to Henry VIII declaration of war, which became known as the Rough Wooing.

Though Henry died in early 1547, his successors continued on to try to force Scotland to unite, and in September 1547, they clashed at Pinkie Cleugh, just a half hour walk east from my home now.

The skirmish would become known as the first modern battle, when newly invented artillery and hand held guns were used, in conjunction with traditional bows and arrows.

On a cold but clear February afternoon, Pauline and I set off on a marked path we had no idea even existed, starting at the Roman Bridge in Musselburgh.

To walk across this bridge is to walk in the footsteps of ancient history. 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a bridge here. It was rebuilt on these original foundations in the 1300s, and on an autumn day in 1547, the Scots army would use that bridge, the one we now stood on, to cross the River Esk, and reposition themselves at a higher elevation, during what is known as the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.

The path we were following led us up old stone steps to the graveyard of St Michael's Church, which commands a breathtaking view, uninterrupted across the Firth of Forth, though the Scots army were not particularly interested in the view in the same way we were. It was clear to see why both armies wanted this position in the battle. Though the Scots reached this position first, the English army were dominant in their superior fire power, and quite literally blew the Scots away, who fled toward the south.

As we left the church grounds we headed east and through the historic village of Inveresk, with it's 18th century buildings, but even in 1547 there would have been a village here, which sits on the edge of the south side of Musselburgh. The path then leaves the now busy road and heads out to farm land, with clear views across and up to Fa'side Castle, which sits atop the faraway ridge.

It was on the slopes of this hill, and the fields in front of us, that 10,000 Scots would meet their deaths at the hands of the superior force of the English, in what was the bloodiest battle of all time up to that point.

It was a devastating defeat to the Scots, but within two years the alliance with France drove the English out of Scotland. The marriage of Mary to Edward had failed to unite the two countries, which would not happen for another 53 years.

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh would be the last major battle between the two countries. Mary's son James, born just the year before, would go on to be crowned James VI of Scotland, and James I of England, inheriting the throne from Elizabeth I, and thus uniting the crowns, and creating the United Kingdom.

It astonishes me to know that this piece of history is so close to my home, and I've never given it any attention, until now.

With the light failing we cut short our walk through history and turned back toward Musselburgh and coffee and cake, and to plan our return another day soon.

Friday, 18 January 2019


I ended last years round up blog by saying I didn't know what the main event would be in the great outdoors, but a collection of three great day walks with Pauline has already come pretty close.  Maybe it was the holiday atmosphere, but for sure they were three great days out to start the year.

The first, on a freezing, clear, blue sky day, was out in West Lothian, an area I've never associated with going for a hillwalk, mostly due to their being very little in the way of hills.

After getting off the train at Uphall, it was a short 3km cycle ride to the start of the walk, though the last hundred yards was treacherous, with black ice on the road. The walk itself takes little more than half an hour to the top of the 219m outcrop known as Binny Craig, and though small, one could say it is perfectly formed.

The shape of the hill is known as a crag-and-tail, and was formed mostly by glaciation, with the ice scraping away the softer sedimentary rocks, and leaving behind this arch of harder igneous rock. The more I stared at it, the more impressed I was. From the top were clear views to the Ochil Hills of Stirlingshire, sunlight illuminating their summits.

And this would be the choice for our next sojourn, though when we ventured onto them the tops were less impressive than from Binny Craig due to low cloud and low visibility that failed to lift all day.

We were heading for the highest peak of Ben Cleuch at 721m, but we would end up turning back due to the poor visibility.  The first section of the walk, up Alva Glen out of Tillicoultry, was spectacular though, up a deep gorge carved out by the river, passable only because of well built wooden walkways.

We ate lunch at the top of the glen before starting a relentless steep walk up toward Ben Cleuch. The low cloud and an annoying achilles heel injury, kept the summit from us on this occasion, but you can't judge the enjoyment of a day in the great outdoors by whether you reach the summit or not, and we can return another day to bag Ben Cleauch.

The third outing was on another frosty morning, starting out of a beautiful Fife village called Falkland, a pretty little settlement, with French-influence architecture, which became a royal burgh in the mid 1400s, with Falkland Palace at its centre. It has even appeared in Outlander.

We were heading for the twin peaks of the Lomond Hills, visible in the far distance from my home in Portobello.

The sky was clear, and the air crisp, as we wandered up the sculpted glen, Maspie Den. The path purposely winds it way through little tunnels, carved through the rock for no other apparent reason than entertainment, then across little wooden bridges, and even passes behind a mini waterfall.

West Lomond hill was our first destination, and though busy with lots of people doing the same, it did not detract from the enjoyment. The last 100 yards to the top was a steep slog, but thankfully short, with a view to East Lomond Hill, which appeared to be miles away. In reality it wasn't, and we stopped halfway to munch our packed lunches.

This final hill of East Lomond was a much shorter and quicker ascent, and we stopped only briefly in the bitter icy breeze, before dropping back down into the village of Falkland. I couldn't believe this was the first time up these hills, when I've been looking at them from Portobello for the past 40 years.

It was the perfect end to a trilogy of local outdoor meanders to start the year off in the great outdoors, and they were a great stress beater.

Maybe I should repeat this walk now, because the following week was, to put it mildly, the most stressful I've known for a long time.

I had made a decision before New Year to open a second Film Academy on a Wednesday, and with the Facebook debacle now solved in my favour, though still a mystery as to its cause, it was in the past, and it was now full steam ahead.

But the final 48 hours were crazy. I needed 16 students to be close to breaking even, and with 48 hours to go, I was just one short.

But then the most bizarre, rollercoaster of events unfolded, with one, then two, dropping out, followed by three new students joining, followed by another two call offs, and so on and so on, relentlessly. It continued unabated into the final 24 hours, and like a boxer fighting for survival, I tried to find the staying power to see it through, with the Academy's web guru Annabel, now becoming my second, fanning me down, telling me to stay on my feet and dodge the punches. Keep going. You'll win in the end. Round after round I went in, metaphorical mouth guard firmly in place.

Feeling battered and bruised, by the time the bell went ding ding, we were at a steady 17 students. I almost collapsed with exhaustion, as did Annabel, but we had made it.

And it was a great success, followed by another new student joining the day after, but I don't think I could go through that again.

Let's hope that the rest of the year resembles less of a Mike Tyson prize fight, and more a gentle walk up a West Lothian hill.


Monday, 31 December 2018


As the year draws to a close I thought I'd look back briefly at what has happened this year for me.

In terms of work it has been a huge year. Previously I had started to become desperate to leave the organisation I was working freelance for, but with other work thin on the ground I had to heed the advice of many friends who told me to hang on until I had something to replace it with.

Try as I might nothing was turning up, until I started to look into running my own Film Academy for kids.

How difficult could it be?

Well, very, as it happened. Four months of planning, then another four months of hard slog, to be kept on the edge of my seat waiting for people to sign up to my vision. But you can't do something like this on your own and the first and most important part of the startup was a website.  Luckily I happen to know a genius at building websites, Annabel. Watching code being written, day after day, blew my mind, but for Annabel it was like being fluent in a second language. Add in Annabel's social media prowess and the Academy's profile propelled into the stratosphere.

The Academy launched with two summer schools and both sold out, followed by a weekly after school academy, which filled within 10 days of marketing it.

The Film Academy ends the year strong, with a possible new academy opening on a Wednesday, such is the demand. Getting minimum numbers is crucial, and Facebook has been the most successful, so I went for it recently with a larger budget. Until, that is, Facebook disabled my advertising account for policy violation. Try as I might I cannot find what we have violated, so obviously I have appealed. But zero response, likely because the whole thing is automated. This single issue could well see the new Wednesday Academy fail to open as we have no other successful advertising avenue. If it hadn't been for the support from the our web guru Annabel I might have jacked it all in at that point.

As a result of this new business my outdoor activities were not as numerous this year. I ended 2017 with a cycle to Doune along the Darn Road and opened on the New Year with a cycle to North Berwick and a jaunt up Berwick Law.

I took a sudden burst of inspiration when snow fell in the Highlands and made a day trip on a cheap train ticket to Aviemore for a winter wander.

Then came March and The Beast from the East, but Pauline and I headed west to clear blue skies and cycled the Caledonia Way from Oban to Ballachulish.

Shortly after I headed off to a different landscape to visit a friend on the island of Gozo, next to Malta, before a fun jaunt in the west highlands to view The Boulders of Narnain. Andrew came along and I can still hear him bellowing out in operatic style through the mist, "THE BOULDERS OF NARNAIN!"

The Royal Deeside Way was a great weekend away, despite coming to blows with the Kiltwalk and hundreds of charity walkers. There were no such crowds in August as we set our sights on Lochnagar, even with a dodgy and painful achilles tendon.

September was a fun day out more locally, over in Fife, to a tiny little hill called The Binn, before loading up the bikes for the trip of the year in October, from Fort William to Inverness along The Great Glen Way, and back again.

Wildlife has been a special feature this year, especially one event in May when a Robin raised chicks right next to my back door in the ivy. Starlings nested as well, and then more recently a wildlife treat of a different kind when I witnessed an adult otter and two youngsters in a local park pond.

The final "event" of the year was my garden office expansion. Before I began making the existing shed/office larger, I thought it might take me a couple of weeks. Two months later, and £800 lighter, I am now sitting in the newly completed office for the first time typing up this blog.

2019 is looking to be another busy year for The Film Academy, with hopefully more students and bigger and better films. Who knows what the main event will be in the great outdoors, but I am lucky in that my best friend always manages to come up with a great plan.

And speaking of which, the year ahead sees my two best friends turn 50. Also turning 50 is The Glenachulish, the worlds last remaining turntable ferry. In July I was in the Highlands filming for my documentary film, The Last Ferries of Ballachulish, which hopefully will see it completed in 2019 to coincide with the Glenachulish's half century birthday.

So lots of fun times ahead, peppered with celebrations and no doubt the odd challenge mixed in.

Happy New Year one and all.

Saturday, 15 December 2018


The temperature has plummeted of late, but things have been hotting up in getting my shed/office revamped.

One big step I was racing toward was getting the roof finished so that I could concentrate on the inside. There had been a great deal of rain recently, which held up progress, but finally I had a window of dry weather last week.

What I should have recalled from previous work like this, is that nothing is straight forward, and you always uncover extra work. As I stripped off the old felt, to my horror I discovered dry rot, with the telltale spidery white mould creeping across large areas of the existing timber.

This had been caused by the old felt degrading in areas around the nails that attached it to the roof, and tiny amounts of water creeping in over the past 10 years.

There is only one solution, and that is to cut it all out, plus additional surrounding wood to ensure eradicating it. Then it all had to be replaced. After half a days work, finally, I could level the roof out with sheets of 3mm ply before laying EPDM, a rubber sheet material with a 50 year guarantee.

Now I'm ready to reinstate the inside, which I hope to achieve over the course of the next week, now that I have some free time on my hands.

This is because The Film Academy Edinburgh that I started back in July, has just held its first end of term showcase.

We decided to run it as a chat show, with two sofas in the middle of the stage, where three cast and crew would have a Q&A about their films they had just completed, with the rest of students taking turns to film everything. We screened the film first then invited the students onto stage.

It was a nerve racking hour for me, as I had handed over the whole event to the students.

But it was a great success, and after three months of hard work by them, and me driving them hard, we ended on a high.

Term two starts on 11 January, and the following week I'm hoping to open a second academy on a Wednesday. We're only half way there in numbers required, but I remain optimistic.

Meanwhile I'm looking forward to conducting all the Academy business from my new office space, if I ever get it finished!

Here's the students behind the scenes film from the past few months (click on the picture below):

Friday, 23 November 2018


Back in 2015 a need arose for more storage space in the apartment I live in, and need that was mirrored by Pauline who would soon live in the apartment below mine. The obvious solution was a large shed in the garden.

One traditional shed already existed down there, since around 2008, and had evolved to become my office space/edit suite after a renovation in 2012 to insulate it and make it wind and watertight.

Over the course of one month in 2014, with the help of a friend of Pauline's Bart, we set about creating the new shed. At four metres by almost two metres it was a substantial construction as sheds go, and within "permitted build" regulations, so need for planning permission etc.

Key to it's success was to raise it off the ground and cover the roof with a rubber membrane called EPDM, which carried a 25 year guarantee.

Fast forward to 2018, and the growth of my new Film Academy for kids has required new investment in technology, and the result is I have outgrown the old "shed" come office. Pauline and I deliberated for a long time about me taking over the big shed, which is an ideal size and shape, but for various reasons the logistics of using it were just not going to work out.

Solution? Expand the old shed.

This is not a large expansion. At present it measures roughly 2m x 2.5m, and when finished it will measure 2.6m x 3.2m.

First phase was to empty the interior, decanting my office into my kitchen in the apartment.

Phase two required a concrete foundation to be mixed and poured, but not before a section of root system was cut away. I took advice from George Anderson, a friend of mine and whom some will recognise from the Beach Grove Garden series on TV.
Phase three is now complete, which was to lay a course of breeze block around the outer perimeter to keep the timber frame off the floor. Ideally it would have been great to elevate the entire structure, just like the big shed, but as I am reusing most of the existing structure this is just not feasible.

The big shed was built in a four week run of sunny warm weather in September.  It is now November, and this week in particular has been very wet. Thankfully the foundation and bricks were in place during a dry spell.

The next phase is to paint bitumen on the outside of the breeze block. I used what are called aerated blocks, which have high thermal mass, but it does mean they are quite porous, hence the bitumen to seal them.

That should happen this weekend, and from then on it will be dismantling two existing walls and moving them outwards.

Hopefully in a months time the shed will be wind and watertight, leaving only the interior to reinstate.

If my academy grows anymore then I guess I'm "gonna need a bigger hut".

Thursday, 8 November 2018


Dry weather, and thus dry tents, greeted us in the morning on the side of the canal at Inverness, to begin our return journey toward Fort William.

However, because of rail engineering works the approaching weekend, we knew we would be unable to get our bikes on the train home, delaying our return, so there was little point in heading straight back to Fort William, as we'd be there in about three days, even if we dawdled.

So a side trip was needed.

We left Inverness along the canal for a short stretch, before following the Great Glen Way up a steep path into forest above Inverness to the north west. Once it leveled out the track was a good two metres wide, through dense, autumnal forest toward Arbriachan.

Eventually we were back on single track road for a short distance before the route passed back into a native woodland, some 12 miles after leaving Inverness. On the gate at the start of the narrow path was information on an eco-campsite and cafe.

In the middle of the woods.

Pauline had been here before, and was keen for me to experience it. As we wound our way along the narrow path, through pine and birch trees, I wasn't sure quite what to expect. Then, suddenly, a small clearing appeared, with signs beckoning you up a small side path for, what else, but coffee and cake!

It needed say no more.

Just a few yards in was an eclectic mix of tables and benches, and an area to one side for camping. A sign informed you to order at the house, and as I approached a small bell, that I surmised you should ring, a tall gentleman with scraggly greying beard appeared. He politely but enthusiastically took our order for a cafetiere of coffee and lemon cake.

Whilst he was away preparing we were kept company by free roaming chickens. A noisy cockerel turned up to add to the entertainment, by which time coffee and cake arrived.

And the bill.

£4 for a cup of cafetiere coffee, £5 for a slice of cake!

My own fault. I hadn't asked the price in advance, but to be fair it was almost quarter of a whole cake. And homemade. It was a quirky treat and a unique experience, and so well worth it.

After he had taken our photograph for his Facebook page, we bid him and his chickens farewell, as two other walkers arrived. Even in chilly autumn he seemed to be doing a brisk trade.

We now left the Great Glen Way and headed directly west toward Glen Strathfarrar. The entrance to the glen at Struy, is restricted to a restricted quota of motorised vehicles per day, but cyclists and walkers can come and go as they please.

Since the rebellion of 1745, when land usage in Scotland started to change, Glen Strathfarrar has been used predominantly for rearing sheep. And so it would seem it is today. Keen to get away from the sheep and find uncontaminated water, we pushed on 9 miles up into the glen before we found our camp spot for the night, a cattle grid beyond the sheep grazing area. Glen Strathfarrar is part of the Affric-Beauly hydro power scheme, and we passed two on the way, both underground with subterranean tunnels leading off the track.

Our campsite was one that Pauline had used previously, and as rutting stags bellowed on the other side of the river from us as the sun set, we fell asleep looking forward to the next leg tomorrow.

Our next day was very short and would see us double back on ourselves. Leaving the Glen at Struy we turned south west and headed along a beautifully quiet single track road to Cannich, a favourite place of Pauline's, and we pitched our tents at the village's campground, spending a lazy afternoon shopping for groceries, showering, drinking coffee, eating cake and planning.

We decided to stay at Cannich a second night. The following morning was very wet, so we sat it out with bacon rolls and tea at the campgrounds cafe, until in the afternoon, leaving all our kit behind, we headed off to the second waterfall of the adventure, Plodda Falls, just 7 miles away.

The falls sit at the top of a beautiful forested hillside, populated by enormous Douglas Fir trees. Back in the late 1800s an arched footbridge was built right over the point where the water drops over the edge down the 46m cliff face. That bridge lasted 125 years, until, in 2009, it was replaced with a viewing platform that now juts out over the edge.

On the way back, in hunt of coffee and cake, we stopped at the Coach House coffee shop, within the old Post Office in Tomich, it's walls adorned with old GPO posters from the 1930s.

The following morning a massive climb took us east out of Cannich toward Drumnadrochit some 12 miles away. But just five miles on Pauline detoured off to Corrimony Chambered Cairn.

Surrounded by 11 standing stones, the 60ft cairn is a passage grave dating back some 4,000 years, and it was a fun wee historic treat.

But Pauline's main treat for the day was to come in Drumnadrochit, by way of a fantastic full breakfast! I would spend the next few miles burning it off, walking, not cycling, as I pushed my heavily laden bicycle up a narrow single track road heading toward Fort Augustus. Near the start of the push a very helpful chap asked; "shouldn't I be sat on the bike?", to which I replied; "do you really want me to answer that?".

Soon we were back into forest and the Great Glen Way, along undulating forest track following above the shore of Loch Ness. By the time we reached Invermoriston it was raining lightly, but persistently. Stopping for a coffee at a local cafe, we decided we were not going to make the proposed camp spot south of Fort Augustus on the shores of Loch Oich, and we would now have to keep a look out for a suitable place for the night on the next stretch of forest track.

If there's one thing Pauline is very good at, and that's finding a good camp spot.


With the light fading, and the rain never ending, halfway to Fort Augustus we stopped at a mossy grassy verge deep in the forest. We were happy just to have found a 'usable' spot, and with plentiful water nearby we settled down for a damp night.

The next day, having packed away sopping wet tents, we set off late around 10.30, and rejoined the route we had cycled north on a few days ago, at Fort Augustus. After a much needed coffee we were back on easy cycling now, following the canal to Loch Oich.

Here was the memorable stretch of the route from earlier in the adventure, that followed the old railway line, which was also the line of General Wade's military road, taking us some five miles to Invergarry along the shore of Loch Oich.

Halfway we reached the camp spot where we had intended to stay the night before. We stopped and took out the sopping wet tents and ate lunch while they dried in the sun and the breeze.

One more forest track to follow, along the shores of Loch Lochy, would bring us to Gairlochy, the site of our first camp, and now the last camp.

And there, on the ground for the past seven days, was the small cloth I used for wiping down my tent, which I thought I had lost forever right at the start.

A moon just a couple of days short of its full phase, rose over nearby hills, as a bat flitted about once again and we reflected on our adventure. As Pauline had said for the past few months, it had been a tough cycle at times, but the experiences and astonishing beauty of the countryside more than made up for that, and I was satisfied this had been a 'holiday' after all.

Ten miles on the next day, and we were loading our bikes onto the train for the journey home. It had seemed so much longer than eight days, our cycle in autumn of The Great Glen Way.