Friday, 17 November 2017

WHAT WOOD IS THIS I SEE BEFORE ME?

On the coldest night of the year since summer, I ventured off for a short hillwalking break with Pauline to the environs of Dunkeld.

This is a good time of year to go. The area is well known for its Autumn colours, and the rich gold, amber and red foliage of Birnam Wood did not disappoint, and could even have soothed the tragic Macbeth.


On the southern edge of Dunkeld & Birnam flows the longest river in Scotland, the Tay, from its humble beginnings on the slopes of Ben Lui, to the Firth of Tay, south of Dundee, it drains an astonishing 2,000 square miles of land, a little over 10% of the entire country, along its 120 mile course.

It was dusk when we arrived, alighting at the small railway station on the southern edge of the Tay. To our south was our destination for the night, Birnam Hill, and our goal was to camp for the night near the summit before darkness fell.

By 7pm we were fed and watered and tucked up in our little home from home. As I read my book under torchlight, something unusual caught my eye through the open door of the flysheet. Looking north east along the edge of the lower reaches of the highlands, a bright, deep orange, full moon began to rise. It was as if on fire, such was its depth of colour. Because the Earth is closer to the moon at the moment, I had read that it was 14% larger than usual. It was an astonishing sight. As it rose higher its orange colour faded, until it shone its silvery light through the trees surrounding my tent. It was truly magical.

On the Sunday we woke to beautiful clear skies, and the early sun was dancing through the trunks of the Scots Pine and Larch, the only deciduous conifer in Scotland.


Tents packed, we headed down to and through the village of Dunkeld. Our destination was Deuchary Hill, a 500m peak we have walked many times, and with many different people.


I was still recovering from a small bout of viral pneumonia, so my progress was slow. That, added to the fact that I mostly bike now as opposed to hillwalk, so my overall fitness is not what it was. I guess I'm a little older too, but that didn't deter from the enjoyment of the walk.

To make life easier we had dumped kit in the woods near the railway station, and were now sporting much lighter packs. Though not a strenuous walk overall, it was still nice to stop 3km on at the waters of Mill Dam, if only to feed a part of my lunch to the ducks, patiently waiting for the next generous passer by. The resident swans were on the water as well, but seemed too busy to swim across for their share.

The path we chose goes directly north toward the flank of Deuchary Hill, but its condition in places had deteriorated somewhat. The cause of this became apparent as we were passed several times by mountain bikers, enjoying getting mud splattered. Where the track takes a sharp turn we spotted the somewhat hidden path that is the direct route to the top.

Though steep in places, it is an easy route up, and we quickly popped out onto the summit and we beheld a glorious view of surrounding Perthshire, albeit buffeted by an icy wind.


Not a time to hang about, we descended quickly, making it back to Dunkeld with more than enough time to indulge in the usual reward of coffee and cake. Well, you would, wouldn't you.



Friday, 10 November 2017

ROBERT OWENS' NEW LANARK & THE FALLS OF CLYDE

"Exchange their poverty for wealth,
their ignorance for knowledge,
their anger for kindness,
their divisions for union".


So said industrialist and philanthropist, Robert Owen, in the early 1800s.

Do you work an eight hour day? It's likely because of Robert Owen's vision to improve workers rights in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. At the time he coined the phrase, "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest".

A couple of weeks ago, because of yet another good suggestion by Pauline, on a clear blue sky, crisp Autumn day, I visited the World Heritage site of what was Owens' utopia, New Lanark, situated south west of Edinburgh and almost equidistant from Glasgow.



New Lanark is a purpose built "town" like no other you are likely to come across. On first approach it looks like a Victorian style new-build, so pristine is its stone work. In actual fact the build was started over 200 years ago by David Dale. The area was chosen for the fast flowing water of the river Clyde. The speed of the water is due in part to the fact that over a short distance the vast volume of the river plummets over a series of three waterfalls immediately before New Lanark. This was another reason for our visit, the Falls of Clyde.


In its early years many buildings went up as the cotton industry thrived, and in this time of the Industrial Revolution, new machinery was powered by giant waterwheels, rotated by the diverted water of the Clyde.

As I walked past the three-storey high, stone built buildings, I felt I was in some rather grand meuse in a suburb of London, than among what were essentially, cotton mills.

We walked south and away from the collection of buildings, following the course of the River Clyde upstream. Visible from the village are the tumbling rapids of Dundaff Linn (Linn meaning waterfall), the lowest of the three Falls we would see, and nearest to New Lanark. The sun was low in the sky and no sunlight reached the river. Over millennia it had gouged its way deeper and deeper, and now the sides of the canyon was smooth vertical rock over a hundred feet high.


The track through the woods then becomes a boardwalk just a foot or two off the water, though when the river is in spate the boardwalk is not accessible. This pops out at Scotlands very first hydro electric power station, built in 1927.


The path wound its way through Autumn woods, eventually following a sharp bend in the river, where the highest fall, Corra Linn, came into view. A mist of fine water particles rose, as huge volumes of water went over the 84foot drop.


The path crosses over a weir two kilometres on, over the top of Bonnington Linn, the first of the Falls, which for me were the nicest set, split in two by a small island. Now at the top of the gorge, a small amount of sun could reach the cascading water.


To return to New Lanark you have to double back and retrace your steps, which is what Pauline and I eventually do, but not until we had wandered down the west side of the river to view the Corra Linn at a closer vantage point.

Halfway we came across the ruins of Corra Castle, and at first I hadn't noticed it, buried as it was in hundreds of years of ivy growth and fallen trees. Built in the 15th century it was home to an appropriately named family, the Weirs. Now it is home to a rare family of bats.

After viewing Corra Linn we started the retrace of our steps, and within little time were back in New Lanark.

New Lanark's founder, David Dale, sold the mills in the early 19th century, to a partnership that included Robert Owen, his son-in-law. Owen would become an influential social reformer, and improved the living and working conditions of all the workers at New Lanark, some 2,500 at its height. He introduced the eight hour day, and built a school for the workers 500 children.

War may always be prevented,
by those who adopt the principles of peace,
being at all times prepared
to resist injustice and oppression;
and this may easily be affected by
wise arrangements in the education of the young.
 

Owens business partners were unenthusiastic at his spending of profits on making the workers "comfortable", but Owen fought off all attempts to interrupt his vision. New Lanark would go on to become celebrated throughout Europe. Visitors, including royalty, were astonished at the cleanliness  of the place, and the happiness of its inhabitants and workers. His vision of, a happy worker was a productive worker, was justified by the mills becoming highly profitable.

They eventually closed, as recently as 1968, and rapidly fell into disrepair. New owners stripped the buildings of valuable metal, but in 1971 they were listed as historic buildings, that then required their legal preservation. By 2005 most of the buildings had been restored, with new business, such as a hotel and offices, opening up in the old mills. Along with Edinburghs Old & New Towns, St Kilda, the Antonine Wall and the Forth Bridge, UNESCO made New Lanark a World Heritage Site.


Robert Owen passed the ownership and operation of the mills to the Walker family in 1825, and set sail for the US state of Indiana. He established a new vision there, based along the lines of New Lanark, and called it New Harmony. The project ultimately failed, and Owen returned to the UK. He passed away in 1858, penniless.

So the next time you put in your eight hours, say a little thank you to Robert Owen.


Friday, 3 November 2017

THE DEVON WAY

If it wasn't for my best friend Pauline I don't think I'd get much of any exercise at all. I certainly wouldn't have discovered as many places in the great outdoors, or cycled across the width of the United States. So pretty much every time Pauline suggests heading off somewhere for a mini adventure, count me in.

But when she suggested getting the 9.30am train to go and cycle the Devon Way, and that we'd be back in time for evening supper, I had to question her judgement. I mean, it would take all day just to travel the 500 miles to Devon for goodness sake!

But as usual, I hadn't listened. This was a short cycle route starting in Alloa, just outside Stirling, and follows the Devon River to a small village called Dollar in the shadow of the Ochil Hills.

Normally when we are on a cycle trip I take my hybrid Specialized bicycle, but as this route was very short, easy and entirely flat, we opted to take Brompton bicycles, with its ingenious folding design. Personally I think I look ridiculous atop a high saddle stem on the tiny bike with tiny wheels, but I have to admit it is great fun. The other advantage is there is no requirement to book the bike onto trains, as it neatly folds up and can be carried on. It's a fairly recent concept, with the company only starting up in London in 1975.

You wouldn't necessarily choose to use a Brompton on a long cycle tour, as it is very much a commuter bike, but this day we were only traveling a total of 14 miles, so it was perfect as the path is so easy. If there was any doubt remember that it's advertised as being suitable for baby buggies for goodness sake!

Leaving the station at Alloa the path took us north toward Tillicoultry, which is about the half way point. It's not until you are within sight of Tillicoultry that you actually start following the River Devon though, at an appropriately named village called Devonside.

Needless to say the Autumn colours were evident, if not past their best, though this year has not seen a vibrant display anyway. Earlier in the year we had three months of virtually no rain, and it has stayed unseasonably warm after summer. It's likely those two factors have contributed to the leaves starting to turn then falling quickly before they have had a chance to display their bright colours.

Very Quickly we were in Dollar and chaining up the bikes at the bottom of a gorge walk called Dollar Glen. Owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland, it has a fairy tale feel to it. Waterfalls spill out of narrow clefts in the cliff sides, and moss carpets the stones and fallen trees among a dense woodland, ensconced in the shadow of the nearby Ochil Hills.



There is a boardwalk all the way up, mostly to protect the environment from the erosion of many feet. Lichen is the most abundant life form on the planet, and in Dollar Glen alone there are upwards of 190 species. This, combined with the wildlife habitats and geology have made it an area of Special Scientific Interest, guaranteeing its protection.

At the top is Castle Campbell, dating back to the 15th century, when it was a stronghold of the Earls of Argyll, now managed by Historic Environments Scotland. Originally known as Castle Glume, it passed to the Campbell Highland Chief through marriage and the Campbells stayed at the castle for 200 years. It is one of Scotland's best preserved tower house castles. Of course, as you may have guessed, Mary Queen of Scots stayed there, as did the preacher John Knox.

You can walk a circular route and coming down takes you through less precipitous landscape. Though we had only cycled seven miles to get here, and 45 minutes would see us back in Alloa, we could not break with tradition, and so, before unfolding our transport, sought out the usual "coffee and cake", rounding off a perfect mini adventure.


Friday, 27 October 2017

8 MORE WEEKS TO CHRISTMAS!

What a thought! But hang on, why be so down about that fact? I reckon our feeling of "oh no..." is borne not out of actual dislike of the season, but the earlier and earlier bombardment of adverts, and the stores displaying Christmas goods from as early as August! The period itself, for me anyway, is a great time of friends, food and relaxation. Oh, and presents, naturally. I'm not a religious person at all. I don't sign up to the so-called "real meaning" of Christmas from a Christian point of view. But then, isn't the "real" meaning of Christmas, peace, compassion and love?

Well, whatever it is to everyone, it is a fun time for most. Yes it can be a sad time, recalling lost ones, and maybe better times past, but it can also be a time to leave your troubles to one side, and surround yourself with close friends and family.

Then there's the food. Oh, and how I love the food. I am a traditionalist, albeit chicken instead of turkey, and though I say so myself, I do put on a good spread. A highlight of this is a traditional Christmas cake, and today that is precisely what I have been doing. I make two cakes every year, both gluten free, which is not difficult, given the tiny amount of flour required. Both are gifts to friends. I could never eat a whole one myself . . . I don't think.

Making them consumes most of a day, with a good hour or so for prep, and then keeping a watchful eye on the oven for two and a half hours. Times two of course.


From next week will come the careful "feeding" of the cakes with brandy. This will continue for about six weeks, at which time I will make my own marzipan and icing, and apply the finishing touches.

Satisfied with my efforts, during the baking time I ventured out for an Autumnal walk to the local Figgate Park. I was pleased to see that there was still some colour to be had from the wildflower meadow. Just over a month ago the meadow had been virtually all yellow, but it would seem the more colourful flowers have made their appearance later.


I sat a while watching the ducks, geese and swans on the pond, foraging for scraps of food, either from under the surface, or from people throwing various food items into the water for them to fight over. Normally the competition is fierce due to the large number of squabbling seagulls, but on this occasion they were obviously off somewhere else, creating an altogether more civilised foray.

After sipping a coffee in the late afternoon sunshine, I wandered back home in time to extract the golden brown creation from the oven.


Friday, 20 October 2017

NEW KIDS, NEW CHALLENGE, NEW FILM

Around a month ago I was asked to provide a filmmaking course for a teenage group up near Stirling, for 16 weeks up until Christmas. The goal is to show any films they make to the local community just before Christmas.

This is a different challenge to what I'm used to. At the weekly academy I teach at, there are 160 students, from ages 6 to 18, who are all there to learn and participate in performing arts, period. In this new group, there are only at most, 12 teenagers, who gather every Tuesday night at a local youth group, in a building they affectionately call, The Youthie.

The difference between the two groups, apart from size, was clear straight away; in Edinburgh they attend for the subject, whereas up in Stirling we could just as easily be meeting to play pool, or video games. In essence this was just another project like any other that they have done recently. So it was quite a challenge convincing them about making a film. Afterall, it's a lot of work, and requires a lot of dedication.

It's a mixed group of abilities, and some young people have their own personal challenges that they are dealing with. But I know from experience the value that filmmaking can bring to young people. I just had to win them over.

After about three weeks I was starting to worry that this project's ambition was too much. Attendance was sporadic at best, but there was a core that were starting to arrive on time and show keen interest. Here they are filming themselves during an improvisation exercise.


As if the combined challenges were not enough, I hatched a plan to put them under pressure to deliver. Though their ultimate goal is to make a short film and show this to the community just before Christmas, I decided to enter them now into the Scottish Youth Film Festival. The entry date was the 19 October, which basically gave them a combined 6 hours to come up with an idea, write and film it. Bearing in mind these are teenagers who have never made a film before.

But they pulled it off. Yesterday their film was submitted to the festival just four hours before the deadline. The festival is held on the 22 November, so fingers crossed they garner some success.


I have also made another observation of these country teenagers that differs from the Saturday city group. They have an air of confidence about them, and are comfortable with each other in ways that the Edinburgh group are not. I've also seen remarkable support toward each other, especially to those handling their own difficult issues. Yes, they have mobile phones, but they are on them less.

Normally we meet on a Tuesday evening, but it has been cancelled on the 31st. Everyone is taking part in Halloween, and they go for it big time. When I was a youngster I too immersed myself in Halloween, but again, this is something I don't see the city kids getting involved in.

I'm hoping when we meet next week that the rest of the group will enjoy watching the first film as much as their fellow students did making it.

 

Friday, 13 October 2017

SPEYSIDE PEDAL

For a number of weeks now I have been looking forward to a three-day cycle tour away with Pauline to the Oban area, picking up a fairly new cycle path linking through to Ballachulish. But the west coast of Scotland has been a washout this year, as I know only too well, trying to complete my latest film project.

Determined to get away regardless, we found an alternative, this time in an old favourite of Speyside, and thus on Saturday morning took the train to Aviemore.

The Autumn colours are just kicking in, and so the surrounding countryside was already a mixture of hues. The birch is probably my favourite native tree, with its delicate leaves, and the way they turn golden in Autumn. But at the moment they are mostly in their lime green stage, but I love this too, as it creates a canvass of variegated green across the landscape.

The first part of our route would take us through Boat of Garten, known as Osprey Village, due to its seasonal population of ospreys.


The run from Aviemore winds through native woods and cuts across a once open area, but now the trees have started to really take hold, and in just a few more years this too will be forest. Just a little further on, after scooting along a winding path through autumnal woods, we popped out into the village of Boat of Garten. A great new coffee shop had recently opened, so it felt wrong not to support it.


Not far from here is the village of Carrbridge, which boasts the oldest stone bridge in Scotland, built in 1717, though I doubt you would want to use it now to cross the River Dulnain below, such is its level of decay.


On this particular day the World Porridge Championships were being held, and somewhat disappointingly it was a girl from Sweden who had won!

We would end up camping wild beside the River Dulnain just a few kilometres on, due to the fact we had not arrived in Aviemore until early afternoon, and so our day was short in available light. Both of us were surprised as we pitched out tent, to discover that we were in the company of midges. It was unseasonably warm though, so perhaps their season had extended, as normally by now they are all gone. We had also hoped for a clear night so we would be able to see the spectacular Draconid meteor shower, but sadly that was not to be. As I lay in my tent, slowly drifting off, in the distance I could just hear the bellows of the rutting stags.

Day two began with a frustrating search for my buff. Every bag was searched three times at least, inside and outside the tent, over and over, but still I could not find it. Until . . .

I remembered I had stuffed it down the rear of my shorts to keep my behind warm during the night!


Our first section of the days route took us over Sluggan Bridge, built by General Wade as part of his military road network.


That two-arch bridge was washed away in the early 1800s and the one we crossed this day was built shortly after. The surrounding area was spectacular in colour and setting.


It was Carrbridges turn to get our coffee and cake spend, but I was to regret this a little later. From there we retraced our route back through Boat of Garten and on to Loch Garten. The Ospreys were all gone for the year now, but this made the backroads pleasantly quiet for cycling. We then headed through the Abernethy Woods toward a familiar route to cross the Ryvoan Pass to take us over the hills into Rothiemurcus. But no sooner had we reached the start of the climb, than I had a "sugar crash". This can happen with an abnormal rapid rise in blood glucose levels, triggering an insulin release and rapid uptake of the glucose, thus causing the crash. I was literally wiped out. It had to have been the large overly sweet cake in Carrbridge. The cure? Exercise. And so after a brief break we cycled over Ryvoan and into Glenmore and the expanse of Rothiemurcus forest.

I was disappointed to discover that the Glenmore Cafe has changed hands, and is now called the Red Squirrel Cafe, possibly due to its famous frequent visitors. On reflection though it had been in need of being dragged into the 21st century for along time. The new owners are clearly not used to the weather yet up here north of the border, as they had their wood burning stove on full tilt.

Camp that night was in a familiar spot within the Rothiemurcus Forest, but once again in the company of midges, and still no clear sky for meteor shower viewing. Light rain fell during the night, and the sound of it on the tent, together with the gurgling of the nearby passing river, gently floated me off to sleep.

Our final day started damp, but it rapidly cleared up, and our route took us through the forest to Loch an Eilein and then 7km south west to Kincraig.
I love the circuit path around the loch, and at this early hour we had it all to ourselves. The sun repeatedly broke through, casting beautiful light through the trees onto the orange, pine needle-covered track.
Leaving the loch behind we were back on tarmac backroads, heading for Kincraig. Here we picked up a brand new extension to the Speyside Way, but not before bacon rolls at Loch Insh.


The 9km run, which mostly follows the railway, is a complete delight. It twists and turns, up and down some very steep, but short, inclines for the first couple of kilometers. We were well ahead of time, and it had cleared up into a glorious sunny day, so we stopped a while, to soak it up, and nibble our chocolate peanuts.

But it was soon time to go, and we followed the perfect track all the way into Aviemore, at one point getting a friendly toot from a passing train. Soon we were on the platform for the train home.
The adventure was over . . . until next time.



Friday, 6 October 2017

A RACE AGAINST TIME

I have a feeling I am going to lose this race, but right now I am striving to complete shooting for the Last Ferries of Ballachulish film. It's a race because autumn is upon us, and though I am a huge fan of this time of year, I need to have at least some greenery in the landscape so that my shots over the past few months match.

But in real terms, time is not the limiting factor, the weather is. The west coast has had one of its wettest and windiest summers on record, ruining some harvests, and trying to capture the impressive landscapes of Scotland with a drone in the rain is pointless. There are some shots that will be easy to pick up on any bright day, given that they are "pieces-to-camera" inside a car, but I need those landscape shots. It is my hope that I'll be able to capture everything on the weekend of the 14th. Here's hoping for dry weather.

I'd also like a bit of dry weather this weekend, as we are off on a three-day cycle trip to Speyside. Originally we had planned this to be on the west coast too, but with the aforementioned rain forecast a change was called for.

Changes are happening in my garden as well. This year Pauline planted a Boston Ivy in a corner of the garden, and it has now started to change into its autumn scarlet red. The potted apple tree has already lost all of its leaves and the Rowan, though covered in bright red berries, now has yellowy leaves. Last to go, and in dramatic gold, will be the Birch tree. My second favourite for colour change has to be the hawthorn, mainly because this goes through almost every colour palette of autumn. A professional gardener once told me that plant and tree leaves have all the colours we see at this time of year, throughout the whole year, it's just that green is the most abundant. The hawthorn puts on a show  in what seems a slow peeling back of the colours. But it is in no hurry, as its colourful performance is spread out over a number of weeks to enjoy. It's only me in the race against time.