Friday, 16 February 2018

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

If you're a regular reader of my blog you'll know that many a time I write about mini adventures I have in the great outdoors, mostly in the Highlands of Scotland. Regularly I find myself away on my bike or on foot, with Pauline, enjoying all that Scotland's landscape has to offer.

Well, this week I enjoyed another jaunt north of Stirling, this time to the small town of Callander, with the nearby, snow capped, Ben Ledi visible from the outskirts. But this was not a trip for walking or biking on this occasion.


About 18 months ago I became part of a team of film practitioners for Scottish Film Education, which aims to assist teachers, in the whole of Scotland, with online resources, to bring film into their classrooms. Not so much to make movies, but to use the medium to improve literacy instead of in print form.

It's been a long time coming, but finally I had my chance to launch a series of workshops that I will run in the Callander area between now and June.

By coincidence, the school that will play host to these workshops is the local school, McLaren High, the very place that my recent film students from Doune attend. Many of those young people struggle in one way or another at school, and the film project was a huge success with them. So I took the opportunity to sing their praises and promote the impressive work that those students had produced. Mostly teenagers do not speak up for themselves, and I knew I was in the perfect position to inform their teachers just what they had achieved and hopefully make a difference for them.

I was pleased to see that the response was immediate and enthusiastic, so fingers crossed new opportunities will open up for these kids.

Now I turn my attention to my usual Edinburgh students, who start shooting their next short film at a location away from the school where we usually run. The weather looks like it's going to hold, so fingers crossed for day one of principal photography tomorrow.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

THROW BACK TO THE COLD WAR

It's that time of year when filming is about to start with the performing arts academy I teach at every Saturday. Scripts are written and cast, and now we are in the throes of finding locations.

The middle age group of kids, 9 to 12 year olds, have two films to shoot and both are set in a wood, so one location was going to suffice, making my job a lot easier. I found something suitable on the western outskirts of the city, and then just needed to recce it. We have to be able to provide toilet facilities and such basic amenities for the kids, and I could see from Google Maps that there was some sort of working yard in the area called Barnton Quarry.


However, I wasn't quite prepared for what I found.

There was three inches of snow on the ground when I arrived at the quarry, which is surrounded by steel fencing, and bizarrely, an intercom on a fence post on the outside of the area. I pressed the button and eventually spoke to the man in charge. As I waited for him to arrive I kept busy looking for CCTV, feeling a little unnerved.

But I needn't have been concerned. Martyn was very agreeable to allowing the students to film in the area, and use the facilities, and then invited me on a tour of the site. I agreed, a little puzzled, as all I could see was a low brick building.

There were two entrances, and he guided me into the first which was dimly lit by working lights. Inside was a series of empty rooms off a long corridor, and at the far end was a much larger room, sunken down into the ground. It was dripping with water, leaking in from the roof, and I struggled to imagine what it could possibly have been for. But it turns out that this was one of the bases for guiding the RAF in WWII, and would have housed one of those giant map tables that operators would push around models of planes. The company that now owned the building were in the process of renovating it, to eventually open it to the public.

But the next building was even more fascinating. As Martyn dragged back the rusted outer doors, it revealed a circular, concrete-lined, tunnel, going down steeply into the earth, with a string of lights on the ceiling lighting the way. It looked all very James-Bond-villain-lair-esque.

At the bottom of the tunnel were giant hinges, giving a clue to what had once stood here. Back in the Cold War, this facility was a nuclear bunker for those in power, and the hinges would have supported thick blast doors. Martyn led the way, and we continued down three levels, deep underground. Some of the old 1960s equipment was still there, including the enormous air filters. It was vast, and could have kept those based there safe for several months. However, apparently it would not have survived a direct hit. It was built to only withstand a nuclear strike at Rosyth Naval base, some 10km away.

Amazing that vast amounts of money were spent on this in the 60s, and it was never used, apart from one exercise. Though I believe modern day facilities do exist today, somewhere.

The company behind the venture also own "Scotlands Secret Bunker" over in Fife, which is open to the public. Eventually this place too will open to the public, though that will be many years hence, but I reckon worth the wait. What a shame it wasn't ready today, and the students would have had an amazing location. For now though, much like pre production for their film, you have to use your imagination to picture what this place will look like once complete.


Thursday, 1 February 2018

ONE DAY IN THE SPECTACLUAR HIGHLANDS

I've enjoyed writing for the past few weeks about little adventures in the Scottish outdoors with my friend Pauline, and I round off January with one more foray into the snow.

During the week the forecast increasingly predicted heavy snowfall for the Scottish Highlands, and we watched eagerly in the hope that for once the forecast would be correct, as it rarely is. As the weekend approached though, huge accumulations gathered, and to put icing on the cake it was to be a cloudless and almost windless day on the Saturday.

On the Friday night Pauline readied her winter outdoor kit, complete with cross country skis. For me, well, unfortunately I had to work on the Saturday. There had been a chance that the school would be cancelled on the Saturday, but we wouldn't be told until the very last minute, which was pretty hopeless really. On what was going to arguably be the best day of the winter so far, I would be stuck indoors with 152 children, and all I would be able to do would look longingly north out of the windows.

Despite my best hopes, unfortunately the school wasn't cancelled. I received a text during the day from Pauline of just how fantastic it was up north. By the time I left work at 5.30pm, I had set my mind to get north. But the roads were starting to freeze up, and more snow was forecast, and though I had taken my full outdoor kit with me to work, anticipating that I would want to join Pauline, the sensible side of me advised against driving north at night, and so, shoulders down, I went home.

But, as I was about to head to bed that night, I remembered that Scotrail had a really cheap offer on of just £17 return to anywhere in Scotland, cheaper than I could drive north and back, and safer in winter.


By midday the following day I was stepping off the train to the snowy wee highland town of Aviemore, welcomed by a friendly Pauline, fresh from her cross country adventures. It was just a day trip, but what a day it had been so far, passing through snowy villages and the ice encrusted gorge of the Soldiers Leap, then through the high mountain landscape of Drumochter Pass, blanketed in fresh snow. Through a cloud of spindrift snow, kicked up by the train as it sped me north, I could see herds of red deer and their stags, scattered all along the side of the sparkly white hills.


Just on the outskirts of Aviemore is a small nature reserve called Craigellachie, which neither of us had ever walked. Deep snow carpeted the ground as we followed tracks already carved along the route by earlier walkers. A sign at the entrance to the reserve had stated that the walk offered "spectacular views of Aviemore". I was intrigued, as I've never heard anyone refer to Aviemore as spectacular, as a view or otherwise.


The path wove its way through the different trees, with the occasional wren flitting about the small amounts of vegetation not covered in snow.

As the path grew slightly steeper it became polished with the passage of previous boots, and I was glad to have steel-toothed grips attached to my boots. As we left the tree line and headed for the summit of the walk, the wind picked up dramatically. The next snow storm was gathering pace toward us from the west. We still had a few hundred yards to go to the top of the small hill, but despite its close proximity and low level, I knew it was still possible to get into trouble even here in these conditions.


Satisfied to have had a proper snowy experience, albeit brief, we descended back into town for a warming hot chocolate. As I reflected on the snowy landscape speeding past the window on the train home, somehow it had felt like longer than just one day, and I was glad I had caught the train, as I watched cars struggle at the snow gates on the A9.

And that spectacular view of Aviemore? Well, you can't have everything.


Sunday, 28 January 2018

AVIEMORE TO KINGUSSIE ON THE BADENOCH WAY

Last week my focus was on a winters walk in the Pentlands Hills, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Thirsty for more I decided to venture a little further afield, three hours north by train, to Aviemore and the Cairngorm National Park.

Pauline was already there when I steeped off the train at 10.30pm, having coming direct from teaching my film students on Saturday. The temperature was falling and underfoot was icy, as we walked a short distance toward the woods at Inverdruie to camp for the night.

It wasn't the best of days the next morning, with gusts up to 45mph, so the planned idea of bagging a few tops was out. Instead we opted for a leisurely low level walk back to Kingussie over two days, picking up the Badenoch Way within 4km of setting off.

Our route south west first took us under the shadow of Ord Ban and around the northern shore of Loch an Eilein With its castle ruin on a small island at the start of the path, it is always a pleasure and it is one of my favourite places in this area.

The wind was bitter as our direction took us through the forest of Scots Pine toward Feshiebridge. It had been something in the region of 10 years since I had been in this part of Cairngorm National Park, and I was surprised at the amount of new tree growth, some already taller than me. I suspect some of it is from the release of seeds as the felled timbers are dragged from the forest, as many of the trees were simply spruce. Still, trees are trees.
A little further on an we came upon a totem pole style wooden sculpture of owls and red squirrels, which was fun, but what made this one unique to others we had seen was the use of glass beads for the yes, giving them an almost real look.

As we wandered along the fringes of the mountains, some had streaks of snow remaining, and one, to me anyway, looked like frosting on a  Christmas pudding.


Crossing the river we picked up a track neither of us had wandered before, which would lead us to a small collection of four wee lochans, the main being Uath Lochan, pronounced Wah Lochans and meaning the hawthorn small lochs. The forest was pretty, and very dense around the lochs and this would be camp for the night. After hiding our heavy kit, we were early so took off for a wander to a crag called Creag Far-leitire, marked on the map as a viewpoint. Far-leitire translates as Far Searches, so I'm not quite sure what this crag derives its name. The view down to the lochans from the top were fabulous, and the thin frozen surface of Uath had created an almost Paisley pattern.


The water from the lochan was of a colour that would have given a doctor cause for concern had been a "sample", so in failing light and drizzly rain we went in search of the small burn marked on the map. It was no better and so we made do. It certainly made dark coloured tea that evening.


The following day we took the same path that had come down form the crag and picked up the Badenoch Way. I was glad that Pauline had persuaded me to go up for the view the previous afternoon as now it was fairly misty with low cloud and drizzly rain at times.

The well defined path took us across moor and through forest, past Inveruglas and Insh, popping out at Drumguish. A little further on we crossed Tromie ridge, its waters raging with the recent rain fall and snow melt higher up, and entered the RSPB Insh Marshes Nature Reserve.

Friendly mules greeted as we skirted the reserve, following the narrow path edged in leafless trees decorated with lichen. As we rounded the hill on the southern edge of the reserve the ruins of General wade's mighty Ruthven Barracks, perched prominently atop a defensive mound.

Having hardly seen a soul over the two days, we ended our adventure passing under the chaos of the A9 and into Kingussie for our train home.


Thursday, 18 January 2018

INSPIRATION via THE POETS GLEN

Edinburgh's nickname, which perseveres today, is Auld Reekie (old smoky), earned from the days of coal and wood fires, smothering the city in smoke. It was first called so by the Edinburgh philosopher, historian and poet Robert Fergusson in 1752, known to Robert Burns as "his elder brother in the muse".

During the 1700s, and into the 1800s, Edinburgh was home to a variety of writers and poets. As well as Fergusson there was Allan Ramsay, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Of more recent times, and living to the ripe old age of 97, was Will H. Ogilvie.

They all had one thing in common. They would escape the smoke of the city into the nearby Pentland Hills, where they all drew inspiration from its landscape and seasons. They influenced Stevenson at the start and end of his literary life, and so too Scott, for who it was Carnethy Hill in particular. For Ramsay he found inspiration for his book The Gentle Shepherd, while Robert Fergusson wrote his wintry poem The Daft Days.

On a 2018 wintry, blue sky day, with our own inspiration, Pauline and I took a short ramble along the Pentland Hill's northern peaks, and where better to start than appropriately through Poets Glen, on the outskirts of the city suburb, Currie.

The ground was frozen solid beneath our feet and a light dusting of snow was on the hills up ahead. The path through the little glen twists and winds its way over a small burn and through tall trees, to emerge beside open fields, sporting a feint green tinge of new winter-sown crop shoots. It was a cracking day for the hills, and a fair number of people had clearly had the same thought.


Our route took us east up the gentle slope of Capelaw from the base of nearby Harbour Hill. On the top, with our backs to the city the southern summits were in view, with Sir Walter Scott's Carnethy Hill just off to the west. Turning round 180˚ the view from the top went on forever, looking north all the way to the Highlands. In the foreground was the newly opened Queensferry Crossing road bridge.


Despite the bright sunshine it was bitterly cold if you stood around too long. It was still winter after all. So after a quick lunch stop of piping hot, homemade soup from our flasks, we took in our last two hills; Allermuir and Caerketton, the latter hosting Europe's largest artificial ski slope.


An early influence on Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson lived only to the age of 24. A sculpture of him can be seen on the Royal Mile, striding away from the Canongate churchyard, where Burns had commissioned a commemorative gravestone for him. Largely forgotten for a long, a painting of Fergusson now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Filled with inspiration ourselves, we too now strode away from the Pentland Hills, albeit a little chilled, toward home, with the excited anticipation of mugs of warming hot chocolate.


Friday, 12 January 2018

IT'S THE LAW

20 miles east of my house, just a half hour away, is the small coastal town of North Berwick. There is archaeological earthings around the town dating back some 2,000, but the first record of its current name, stated as Northberwyk, dates from 1250. The name Berwick translates as barley farmstead.

Many's a time I have visited the small town, and a few years ago I started off on my bicycle for a cross country ride following the John Muir Way, as North Berwick is the famous naturalists birthplace.

On the south edge of the town stand a small conical hill some 600ft high, called Berwick Law.


The hill is actually an ancient volcanic plug, blown there some 300 million years ago from a giant volcano that covered Edinburgh. The enormous Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh are part of that same volcano, they being the remnants of a lava tube. Slowly, the glaciers carved away everything inbetween, but somehow Berwick Law survived the erosion.

More astonishing to me was the despite its proximity, I had never been to the top. So during the Christmas and New Year holidays, it was a wee adventure for Pauline and myself as part of our list of things to do.

It is a very easy path up, though in places a mud bath due to its popularity. In no time you are atop its summit, and there, perched on its peak, are two bones from a whale jawbone. Well, fiberglass replicas actually. A jawbone has stood there since 1709, replaced several times over the years, but in June 2008 the most recent one was removed due to having rotted away. A donation was made to have the replica constructed so that North Berwick could have its famous landmark back.


As we stood taking the customary photographs, up above we heard an all too familiar call, as a skene of around 100 geese flew overhead. 


Summit ticked off we headed down its eastern flank into town and followed The Glen, a wooded glen with a small burn and home to broadleaf trees of Ash, Beech, Oak, Elm and Sycamore. There are three ruinous water mill buildings dating from the Middle Ages along the banks of the small burn, and we followed its dirt path and boardwalk down to the beach and the waters edge. From here we had a clear view across to Bass Rock, itself another volcanic plug of the same age as the Law. This one however stands 2km offshore and in the breeding season is home to the worlds largest colony of Gannets.


A wander along the beach brought us back to our start point and home, for what else, but coffee and cake.


Friday, 5 January 2018

THAT DARN WALK

A new year, a new beginning, and I was itching for a new walk somewhere. Being the holidays, transport links were minimal, so finding somewhere away from the usual haunts in and around Edinburgh was tricky. Luckily I have a personal oragniser that can help with these problems. Not the personal organiser of the leather-bound type in the 80s, but my good friend, Pauline.

So it was, on a lovely winters day, that we took a short train ride to a little old town, sheltered by the Ochil Hills just north of Stirling, its origins dating back to the Iron Age, called Bridge of Allan. By the mid 1800s Bridge of Allan had become a renowned spa town.

Just a couple of hundred yards beyond the railway station is Allan Water, which rises in the nearby Ochil Hills and eventually joins the Forth. This was the start of the first part of our walk, an old 4km path to Dunblane, called the Darn Walk, thought to have its origins back to Roman times.

A short distance along the path we came upon an old cave, with giant roots and boughs of old trees emanating from its upper edge. Beside it was a more recent bench, carved with depictions of pirates and buried treasure. The author Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area often, and it is said that the cave was one of his favourite spots and it may well have been the inspiration for Ben Gunn's cave, a character in his novel, Treasure Island. We stopped a short while for a coffee and a sandwich, kept company by a hungry Robin, flitting down to take the scraps I purposely dropped.

 
The temperature was sitting at zero for the whole day, and there was not a breath of wind. On our right the fields' fences and withered grasses were encrusted with white frost, their crystalline structures glinting in the sunshine, and the low angle of the suns rays created long shadows on the path ahead, like a scene from some spooky fairy tale of witches and warlocks.

In places the path was bound either side by stone walls carpeted in thick green moss, creating an enclosed road of sorts. Underfoot, where the path was shaded by the tree canopy bending over, the path was muddy, and where the path traced its way across open land, it was frozen hard.

The varied nature of the walk revealed something new around almost every corner, making the all-too-short walk the highlight of the day. Within a very short space of time we were in Dunblane. The town dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries, and at its heart stands a large Medieval cathedral, because of which Dunblane is often referred to as a city.


The steep high street leading up from the Allan Water also feels old in its architecture, and the buildings either side, comprising of shops and homes, were unique and distinct in their character.


Just short of the cathedral is an old post box, painted gold rather than its customary red. The tennis star Andy Murray was born in Dunblane, and the painted post box marks his gold medal win at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

A picnic lunch and coffee consumed on the bridge across the river, we now turned due west toward the village of Doune, 6km away, following the Old Doune Road, which mostly took the same line as the old railway, closed in Beaching's carve up of the railways in the 1960s. We were ahead of time to meet our bus connection and so we ambled along, enjoying the peace and quiet of the Scottish countryside in winter, with views to the snow capped mountains of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin, which had also been visible iduring our last walk over Benarty Hill in Fife. Further west were the high peaks of Ben Ledi and Ben Lomond.


By early afternoon we were in Doune, which dates back to the 14th century, and is not only famous for Bonnie Prince Charlie having passed through in 1745, but more recently as the location for my young students film, Operatunity Knox! Doune was also once famous for the manufacture of pistols, and it is said that a Doune pistol fired the first shot of the American War of Independence. Dating even further back are the remains of a Roman Fort, from around 79AD, during the first incursion into Scotland.

So we had started along an old Roman path and now ended at the site of an old Roman Fort. From here our chariot, in the form of the number 59 bus, took us back to Bridge of Allan for our train home.