Saturday, 28 December 2013


Wrapping paper added to landfill, turkey gobbled and stuffing, well, err, stuffed, we enter the last week of 2013. A time when most of us reflect, not just on the year gone but further back too.

I too often hear people say things like; live in the now; today is the first day of the rest of your life; the future depends on what you do today, and so on. One I have recently heard is, "you cannot use the past to fill what is missing in the present". I strongly disagree and would counter that, "one cannot erase or dismiss the past simply because it does not fit the present".

Someone once told me that I dwell too much on the past. I think they mistake my fondness for my past experiences and memories as a negative thing. For me they are what makes me who I am, and what we are.

An adaptation of an old grace, goes: "gather in the summer for the winter ahead", referring on this occasion to the harvest. But I've also heard it applied to taking photographs or gathering memories, and I have gathered a bumper crop of both over the years. So maybe some see me as dwelling in the past, but in actual fact I simply cherish the memories of good times . . . often.

They are, in some ways, all that remain.

I could go on forever, waxing lyrical on the subject, suffice to say we are a product of our experiences, our memories, and they are precious to me, to all of us.  Some are not so great memories, and some make us smile and laugh, but they are all important. More often than not they are made up of experiences with people, and yes, I do long to repeat them. The fact I often reminisce about past adventures and great experiences with the people that have been in my life, says a lot about how much I value those friendships and times.

So I think it is good to reflect. It helps us make new decisions. Imagine if science never considered what had gone before. Where would we be now? For me I can see where I went wrong over the past year and beyond, of where I put too much effort into one thing, only to end up with a poor result. In contrast I recall those times where a small amount of time and effort resulted in a strong, everlasting memory that will stay with me forever.

2013 for me? Two special memories: the first was my 50th birthday weekend and the second of course was the talk tour over the summer. Both were made all the more memorable because of one special person involved in both.

And so on to 2014. Some call them resolutions, I prefer to call them goals for the year ahead. I have a few (I love a list). Mostly though I can see that 2014 is going to bring change, and I'm not great with change.

Whatever happens it will be an experience to reflect on next new year.

Friday, 20 December 2013


I was at a friends house this evening for "drinks and nibbles", and one of the topics of conversation was about those in the Philippines still dealing with the aftermath of the typhoon that hit them at the start of November.

Then there's the Syrian refugees and the worlds largest ever appeal launched by the UN.

Closer to home an elderly couple talked about how they had nursed their daughter most of the year in her final months of a terminal illness.

Another friend had just marked 10 years since losing the love of their life in December 2003.

There is no doubt, this is a tough time of year for many around the world.

Now this all might sound a bit miserable and putting a dampener on things, but actually it was some what inspiring. As the conversations grew it became more and more apparent just how many people were so much more aware of the needs of others, and many had given to the big appeals this year.

A number of years ago I stopped buying and sending Christmas cards, choosing instead to give that money to a disaster appeal. A number of people in the room had also done the same this year. I received a Christmas card from my friend George, with a note inside saying this was the last year he would be sending cards as he was going to give the equivalent money to a worthy cause in future.

It's not that we were being miserable, but that we were bringing the issues out into the open and taking some form of action.  When I think back say just 10 years, the very idea that we would not send Christmas cards but give all the money to charity instead was almost taboo. The closest we would get would be to buy charity cards, which is something I guess.

There is still far too much commercialisation of Christmas, and we are bombarded for months before hand to buy buy buy. The pressure on less well off families is immense, driven by advertising influencing their kids to have the very latest whatever.

Over the past couple of months I have been privileged to have been involved in teaching high school students filmmaking. The last time we all met up it was encouraging to hear them talk about the pressures on families at this time of year, and they too were taking action to do something for those less fortunate.  I can't remember this ever happening when I was their age.

Of course the key to all this is global communication, and latterly social media sites.  Yes there is a downside, that advertisers get increased opportunity to target us, but on the up side humanitarian issues and appeals now reach everyone, of all ages, and I can see a shift in thinking like never before.

May everyone find hope and happiness in their Christmas stocking.

Merry Christmas everyone, wherever you are.

Friday, 13 December 2013


There's no use in denying it any longer:  Christmas will soon be upon us!  Though to be honest it seems it's been upon us since October!

We've all moaned about it I guess, the shops putting their decorations up in September, Christmas adverts on the TV in October and piped Christmas carols everywhere you go in November.  I often wonder if businesses have a competition to see who can be first.

I used to own a retail deli some years ago, and Christmas for me who start in July when I had to decide what to order from my suppliers!  I too was guilty of forcing it on the public as my Christmas stock would be on the shelves on the 1st November.  From experience I discovered that if I left it much later than this customers would go elsewhere for the goodies I sold.

Maybe we should all take a leaf out of Amsterdam's books: there it is not allowed by local law for ANYONE to display Christmas decorations, or shops to display products, until December 1st.

But to the matter in hand: the Christmas tree.  When are we supposed to put it up and take it down?

The traditional decorated tree really originates from Germany.  But even before its association with Christianity, trees have long be used as symbols. The Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December; people of Finland used groves instead of temples in ancient times; Romans decorated their homes with evergreens during a winter festival; Druids decorated oak trees with golden apples during the winter solstice and in the middle ages trees were hung with red apples as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve.

The first reference I could find for a fir tree decorated for Christmas is in Latvia in 1510 and later in Germany in 1531.  German settlers introduced the Christmas tree to the United States in 1804, and Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, in 1841 put up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle and the idea caught on in Britain.

Some use real trees, and some artificial. I have a small, two foot artificial one, as I long believed it was more environmentally sound. However I recently read that you have to use an artificial tree for at least 20 years before it surpasses the carbon footprint of using a real tree! I'm pretty close now, though it does smell a bit musty these days.

The triangular shape is meant to represent the Holy Trinity, and so originally the Christmas tree would not be put up until the night before on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to put up the tree on 6th December, in honour of the death of St Nicholas, and take it down on Epiphany, on the 6th January.  Most people these days say 12 days before, the 13th December, and 12 days after, which happens to be Epiphany anyway.

Where I live some people have gone bonkers with Christmas decorations. One house nearby has the entire front of their building covered in flashing and blinking lights. And they are three storeys up!

I never used to bother with any decorations until Pauline and I shared a home, and even stopped when she left on her world travel.  But I'm pleased to say the tradition has returned.  In terms of when I put it up: I like to stick to the 12 days before. Today in fact.

So if you'll figure me, I have a tree to decorate.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Where, gleaming with the setting sun,
One burnished sheet of living gold,
Loch Katrine lay beneath him rolled,
In all her length far winding lay,
With promontory, creek, and bay,
And islands that, empurpled bright,
Floated amid the livelier light,
And mountains that like giants stand
To sentinel enchanted land.

Sir Walter Scott

A golden sunrise over the Wallace monument at Stirling, set Pauline and I off on our 70mile bicycle trip for the weekend, setting out from the Bridge of Allan railway station toward the silver strand that is Loch Katrine.

It was cold and frosty as we weaved our way across farmland on quiet little backroads in the early morning light. In the far distance to the north east were the recognisable giant sentinels of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin and directly ahead was Ben Ledi, all with a light dusting of icing-sugar snow.

Through the sleepy little village of Doune we were soon eating up the miles, passing the outskirts of Callander and on to the shores of Loch Venachar, it's surface as smooth as a mirror. We were following leafy forested tracks on the south shore, past little sailing clubs and half way along Invertrossachs House, visited by Queen Victoria in 1869 as one of her favourite destinations.

Four miles on from Loch Venachar we reached the winding Loch Katrine, at the small jetty where steam ship The Sir Walter Scott sets sail with tourists on it's cruises around the eight-mile-long loch. The wind picked up noticeably at this point, channeled down the valley at the north end from the sentinels of Ben Lui and Ben More, creating a choppy surface.

The Sir Walter Scott has been sailing the waters of Loch Katrine for over 100 years, and is named after the poet and novelist of the same name, who died in 1832, who gave us the poem The Lady of The Lake. It draws upon the Arthurian legend, where she is said to have given King Arthur the sword Excalibur. Sir Walter Scott's poem tells a different story though, and is set around the shores of Loch Katrine.

We were almost at the top end of the loch, some 35 miles since starting out, when we came upon a man-made promontory. The sun was starting to dip behind the mountain chain of Ben Lomond to the west, casting a lively silver light across the loch, as we parked up the bikes and wandered down to the point. Here was the burial ground of Malcolm Gregor, one of the chiefs of the clan MacGregor, buried in 1699. Rob Roy is the most famous member of the clan of course, but his remains are buried at a small church in Balquhidder. Here, on the shores of Loch Katrine, the chieftain had slept, looking out over this enchanted land for the past 300 years.

Turning round the head of the loch we headed south west now to the shores of Loch Chon, a tributary of Loch Ard, source of the River Forth that flows to our home city of Edinburgh. We camped for the night in dense pine woods on its western shore, with twinkling lights on the opposite shore from fellow campers. During the night I was awoken suddenly, when just beside my tent there was a thump thump thump and a snorting. I can only assume a deer had come upon our tents in the darkness.

A spectacular sunrise the following morning beckoned us to start our return journey home. Blue skies from horizon to horizon made the journey all the more pleasurable, as we picked our way past Loch Ard, the Lake of Mentieth, and through the towns and villages of Aberfoyle, gateway to the Trossachs, Thornhill and finally Doune.

We couldn't let a fabulous bike trip pass without indulging in a long standing tradition, and so it was we pulled into a little coffee shop in Doune for coffee and cake.

Tired but satisfied, once home I slipped into bed for a restful sleep with thoughts of enchanted lands, majestic lochs and sleeping chieftains.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm Scottish, so why am I writing a short blog about Thanksgiving, a North American tradition?

Thanksgiving has its origins in a celebration during the Fall of 1621 when a feast was given to give thanks for a good harvest. A very important harvest being the first of such for the early settlers. Though the "good harvest" would technically have happened well before the end of November, it is nevertheless set in tradition, and law, now that the fourth Thursday in November is the celebratory date.

In the UK we have a Harvest Festival, which is similar but isn't celebrated with a large gathering of family, friends, a lavish meal  and a large roast turkey at the centre.

But I do celebrate it in my heart, and always send wishes to my friends in America.  I will be forever grateful for the great cycle adventure across the USA in 2011, where I was on the receiving end of many a kindness and generous act. So, to all of the people I met and new friendships that were made, I hope you all have a great time.

I guess not so great for turkeys though.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Accidental death?

Down in the garden today I was busy gathering up all the dead leaves from the Autumn Fall. It is a time of death for nature, a natural cycle that happens on purpose every year around this time.

50 years ago this Friday, on the 22 November 1963 (also a Friday) a very unnatural death occurred on Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, when the then President of the USA, John F Kennedy, was assassinated. But recent compelling evidence has arisen that would suggest although Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to kill Kennedy, he may have actually died as the result of a round being set off accidentally from Secret Service agent George Hickey's rifle, travelling in the car behind.

Born in Massachusetts in May 1917, Kennedy was elected to President in 1960. His foreign policy was dominated by confrontations with the Soviet Union, most famously the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. He stood his ground with the then Russian president Khrushchev to remove all Russian nuclear missiles from Cuba. The world waited in fear of a nuclear exchange between the two countries, but thankfully Khrushchev relented.

In Berlin in June 1963 he gave his famous speech which included the phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a citizen of Berlin) at the now completed Berlin Wall, blaming it on the failure of communism.

He was a true visionary. He tried to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty, but failed. It would later come to pass. He fought for improved civil rights and total racial integration, and though he turned down an invitation to speak at the famous rally that Martin Luther King gave his now legendary speech, he was a strong supporter of him.

In May 1961 he laid down the challenge to place a man on the moon before the decade was out.

He truly was one of Americas great Presidents, but many disliked him for his views.

The recent evidence suggests that Oswald fired only two rounds. The third shell casing was in fact an  empty case, placed in the rifle to protect the chamber from damp. The first shot ricocheted off the road, the second went through the Presidents back and out of his chest and on to hit Governor Connaly in the front seat. New computer analysis now has the path of the bullet lining up perfectly, discounting the previous myth of a "magic bullet" turning corners.

But right at this time, in the car behind, George Hickey reached for the only rifle in the Secret Service arsenal, flipped off the safety and stood, about to turn to where the shots came from. The car lurched. At this point new evidence now strongly suggests that he may have accidentally pulled the trigger, and a round was fired straight into the back of Kennedy's head.

The most damning evidence are the bullets themselves. Oswald fired bullets with full metal jackets. These would penetrate and exit the target intact. The bullets that where in the Secret Service rifle however were designed to explode on impact. This would have caused the kind of injury to Kennedy's head that was witnessed by all on that fatal day and shown in the Zapruder film footage. The calibre of bullet was also different to Oswald's.

In a controlled test using respected marksmen, not a single one could recreate the original theory that Oswald got off three accurate shots in five seconds.

A member of the Vice Presidents car, which was two cars behind, later reported a strong smell of gunpowder hitting them as they accelerated away from the scene. This could not have been from Oswald's gun way up in the book depository window.

We'll probably never know for sure. If it is true, George Hickey would have lived with this secret for the rest of his life up to his recent death in 2011. He always denied the allegations and even attempted to sue those who tried to publish the story as fact.

I have no idea if this is true or not of course, but it does raise an interesting angle to the debate. If it were true it would be understandable why this would all be covered up. Not just because of the embarrassment but the far reaching effect on a nation who's moral was already low with recent events and the escalating crisis in Vietnam.

Whatever the cause, it was a very unnatural and sad death.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lucky 13

Over the summer, Pauline and I were busy touring Scotland with our talk show of our travel across the USA, Sleepless 'til Seattle.  The show was a huge success with great audiences, quite an achievement considering we are not household names.

When we took our final bows on Friday 30th August in Helensburgh we thought it was all over. However, just a couple of weeks later the Royal Geographic Society in Scotland invited us to be part of their winter season of lectures, alongside names such as climber Doug Scott, Professor Iain Stewart and expedition leader Col John Blashford-Snell, all most definitely house hold names in terms of their achievements.

We were to give two talks, the first in Perth and the following evening in Stirling, at the university's lecture theatre.

The first night went very smoothly, with an audience close to 200, our biggest so far. At Stirling the following night, things were a little more nerve racking. Once again it was a good size audience of well over 100, and as always we were well prepared to give an entertaining performance.

But the gremlins decided to infest our technology. For some strange reason, that we were never able to fathom, the charging cable for the computer created interference all over the image on the screen. The only way to solve it was to remove the cable and run on battery power. That would have been fine, but experience had told me that the battery would only last somewhere around one hour, as it had to power an external hard drive.  But the show was around one hour and five minutes long!

I have to admit to feeling increasingly nervous as we got closer and closer to the end. A clock on the wall went past one hour. I was now planning in my head what I would do when the battery power failed, and more importantly what I would say to the audience.

We reached the end and the final slide went up. We'd done it. We'd reached the end of our journey. 30 seconds later and the power died. We were very lucky.

It was a great relief. This had been the 13th show after all.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Summers end

As you'll know from my last blog, autumn is my favourite time of year with it's fantastic array of amber tones. Typically it doesn't last very long and the colours disappear from the trees, carpeting the ground in fiery tones. But the end of October also brings a new colourful time, with amber tones once again dominating, but this one is manmade.

Halloween, derived from All Hallows Eve. A night when kids, young and old, are out and about, trick or treating in America or guising in the UK. America seems to go for Halloween in a big way, with the bright orange pumpkins taking centre stage. But in fact history shows that it originates in the Celtic regions, mostly Ireland, where it was said to be a celebration of summers end.

Traditional celebrations have us dressing up as ghouls and skeletons, scaring each other or watching scary movies. This most likely comes from the more direct meaning of All Hallows Day where the dead are celebrated.

This year I like the twist that artist Dmitri Galitzine has taken: he is going to attempt to row a hollowed out 800lb pumpkin from Gosport to the Isle of Wight, a distance of three and a half miles. As you do!

In the UK Halloween and Guy Fawkes night, the 5 November, all seem to roll into one, and last night it was past midnight before the fireworks stopped and the bonfires were dampened down. Guy Fawkes was famously a member of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt on King James 1st life, by setting explosives below the House of Lords in 1605, and the 5 November is an annual event of thanksgiving for its failure.

The nights are suddenly darker earlier, the temperature has dropped, and the burning amber colours of the leaves have given way to ghosts and ghouls and pumpkin soup  followed by the fires and bright flashes of fireworks, all rolled into one, all in colourful celebration.

Summers end.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hills on fire

I've been working away from home for the past two weeks. It was a big job and every day I was exhausted. Towards the end I was in need of a treat.

On a windy and wet late Friday afternoon, I packed up and headed north from Broughty Ferry, just outside Dundee. The roads were busy and the rain was coming down in sheets. I had just one hour ahead of me to my destination of Dunkeld, but the sun had already set and by the time I arrived it was pitch dark.

After feasting on local tasty fish and chips, I made my way with my camping gear to a nearby campsite.  I couldn't find my torch at first and fumbled about in the dark trying to pitch the tent. Tired, but happy to be away in my tent, I went to bed with the wind picking up outside and more rain coming in. The nearby river was in spate, crashing over boulders, as I drifted off.

The next morning I awoke to the first light and the dawn chorus. The rain had gone off and the early morning sun was spilling onto my tent. I opened the door and spontaneously exclaimed, wow! All around me, and the low hills beyond, the hills were ablaze with colour.

I had chosen this area on purpose, as some weeks before I had made a pact to myself to come here at the height of the Fall. Autumn is my favourite time of year, though spring comes a close second, but the colours of Autumn take the prize. The range of colours, through bright yellows, to oranges and fiery reds, are something to behold and lift the heart. Nearby a Robin hopped down onto the ridge of my tent, puffing out its red breast. It was a perfect day.

Just an hour later and a train rattled past on a nearby hill. I checked my watch, and sure enough 20 minutes later my outdoor buddy and best friend Pauline trundled round the corner with her outdoor kit slung over her shoulder.

Packed up we headed back to where I had left my van and pulled out our mountain bikes from the back. Loaded up, we set off into the hills, heading toward nearby Deuchary Hill. The first half of our route was along hard packed track and through tunnels of vibrant Autumn colours. All around was an overall colour of amber, above our heads, off to each side, and the surface of the track. It was truly amazing.

Eventually the track, being less travelled, started to narrow, and in places became deeply rutted and full of water and mud. Halfway to our destination for the night, the side of a small lochan north of Deuchary Hill, we were out of the trees. The track became almost impassable at times and we were regularly off the saddle and pushing. But it's all part of the challenge and I love it, the thoughts of pitching my tent and brewing a coffee soon, keeping me going.

The track improved slightly after passing over a small summit, allowing us to pedal once again.

By mid afternoon we were pitched for the night in a delightful little spot that pauline had seen previously on a walking day. The wind picked up and dropped the temperature, but we were all tucked up in our little shelters, a cosy home from home.

I awoke the following morning face to face with a little visitor, a tiny little caterpillar that had sheltered for the night in my tent door, looking for all the world like a small piece of lichen, such was its expert camouflage. The wind had eased, and though the skies threatened more rain we were lucky as it stayed dry. The first part of our track out required some more pushing but very soon we were speeding down the hillside tracks and back into the amber forests. I faced a new challenge toward the end as both of the hydraulics for my disc brakes started to fail!

Just another, slightly worrying, challenge, but the joy of the hills of fire all around me could not be extinguished.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A mournful lament

It's been a tremendous summer in Scotland, but my favourite time of year has arrived at last. Autumn.

Together with a friend, Vince, I journeyed to the small town of Callander on the fringes of the Scottish Highlands, about a half hour drive from Stirling.

With our loaded-up mountain bikes we set off north, following Route 7 of the National Cycle Network. With not a cloud in the sky and a chill in the air, we scooted along the cycle path, scrunching fallen amber leaves beneath our tyres. Within just 20 minutes or so we were past the car park that serves the hillwalkers of nearby Ben Ledi, and passing an ever-expanding collection of log cabins. I hadn't been this way for almost five years and in that time a half dozen log cabins had grown into a small village.

Grateful to be past the sprawling development, we were now on the west shore of Loch Lubnaig, on a well defined wide track, with the low sun in our faces, its lingering warmth taking the chill off my cheeks. On the opposite shore speeding cars and screaming motorbikes competed to be in front on the narrow loch road, but we were safe and quite content as we pootled along.

After 10 miles we reached Strathyre and four miles further on the small ancient settlement of Balquhidder, at the head of Loch Voil. Settled in the 9th century, it is most famous for Rob Roy McGregor, some of whose exploits were played out in the area, and deemed by some as the Highland Robin Hood. He died in 1734 and is buried beside his wife Mary and sons Coll and Robert in the grounds of Balquhidder Parish Church.

We had just 7 miles to go, and having turned west from Strathyre to Balquhidder, we now turned back on ourself, east, on a quiet little back road, before turning north once again toward Lochearnhead, back on a well defined cycle path. This section follows what I like to call a "rails to trails" route, following the route of the old Callander and Oban Railway. Non profit making it was closed in 1965 as part of the Beeching closures of many railways in the 60s.

The path of the old railway line gradually bends to the left as it passes Lochearnhead and starts a long, slow climb up through Glen Ogle. I love this section, far above the busy road and lined in lush vegetation either side. That is until it crosses a granite-faced viaduct as it majestically sweeps round a curve. Just a little further on from here we decided to make camp for the night in a small wood next to a a small hidden body of water, Lochan Lairig Cheile.

We had been camped for about an hour, a place I have used before with Pauline, when we decided to explore the dense woods surrounding our hidden away camp spot. Fallen trees were now covered in a thick layer of spongy moss, and a last splash of summer colour was provided by the purple of a solitary fox glove.

As we rummaged around the long thin trunks of the firs, we spotted a large tree that had been uprooted some time ago. Where its roots had left a small crater we spotted something lying in the collected water. As we got closer I could see that it was, or had been, a young male deer. Just 3 points on it's antlers. Probably this had been its first summer. As we rounded the animal we could see that its jaw had been ripped away and was lying exposed. I'm no expert but it looked as if it had suffered a fatal blow at the antlers of a larger male during a recent confrontation. This was, afterall, the rutting season for the red deer.

I was saddened by the sight. I spotted hoof prints in the mud on the opposite edge of the water, where it had stumbled its last few steps into this pool and come to rest, exhausted and fatally wounded. There was no smell from the carcass, and the blood from it's mouth was still bright red in the water, so it was likely this had happened very recently, perhaps during the last day.

After supper we sat in silence looking up at a star filled sky. In the distance I could hear the mournful bellows of the stags as they called out in the night. I knew it was for the rut, but a part of me felt it was a lament for the loss of the young deer.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Undead need not apply

Back in 2002 I made my very first short film called Bingo. We had a great crew and at one point 50 extras! Looking back I think I pulled off the film through sheer naivety.

It didn't go anywhere but it did open a door that led to meeting Kenneth Branagh, from whom I received a lot of advice and continue to keep contact with him to this day. However, as time has gone by I have learned more and more and now I find even the smallest film daunting in its complexity, but despite this the whole experience back then spurred me on to make bigger films.

Eventually, over the past two years, I pulled together a self-shot feature film documentary, all about a cycle trip across America. This time I took it as far as screening it in a cinema, entering it into film festivals and having DVDs made, which have sold in five countries to date.

Three years ago I was lucky to be given the opportunity to run a workshop for a local youth group, and I hoped that I might inspire young minds to make their own movies. Instantly it was obvious that this was a path I would like to pursue further, teaching kids film making.

Just three weeks ago I started to do just that, albeit a short contract. At a local high school, once a week for three hours, I have a dozen girls and boys all eager to learn the art of making movies. In a months time they will be on location making their very first film, which, once edited, will be shown on a local cinema screen.

They're excited and passionate, I'm excited and passionate, and I get paid to do this! I have definitely missed my calling in life. Academically I'm not able to pursue it as a career as I don't have a degree, but this is certainly the next best thing.

Apart from being my dream job, teaching these young students film making, I also get a lot out of it creatively. Each week I am amazed at the creativity of their minds. They know no bounds, and at times I need to pull them back a bit, but overall I think we are going to have a lot of fun creating a short film in the coming months.

One rule though is proving unpopular:

No Zombie films!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Arran heavy knit jumper

I am inspired to write this week, about a time long ago, by my friend Pauline's blog.

Last week the weather was glorious, and the smell and chill of Autumn was in the air.  As I have done many times, I headed out to the nearby hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh, the Pentlands, to complete a 30 mile or so round trip on my mountain bike.

I've written of this route previously, so I won't bore you with the details again. I made good time up and down the main roads heading out, with only the odd car driver being careless and robbing me of room on the road, and within an hour was turning off into the hills.

The road is still paved at this point as it climbs and twists and turns round the two reservoirs, dotted with fishermen on the mirror-like surface, swishing their lines back and forth. As I trundled along a group of school kids were coming in the opposite direction. They were loaded up with varying designs of rucksack, badly packed with all manner of objects dangling and rattling on the outside. Each one had a thin foam mattress rolled up and inside a black bin liner, tied to the bottom of their packs. Two of the team had the tent, precariously balanced atop their packs.

I continued on, smiling at their dishevelled appearance, until I left the paved road and followed a dirt path to the base of a small waterfall and stopped for lunch. Within a half hour two other groups of students appeared, similarly kitted out. They literally dropped their packs to the ground and slumped down, grateful to be stopping. I laughed out loud as a small argument erupted as to who was going to carry the map next.

Many many years ago I used to take similar groups from the Boys' Brigade out into the hills, the Pentlands being a popular destination. Looking at these groups now it could have been 25 years ago. Nothing had changed. The packs were the same, the rolled up mats in plastic bags were the same, and the argument about the map was the same.

My kit was no better at the time, 25 years ago. My rucksack was a scratchy nylon affair tied to an aluminium frame that would cut your arms every time you hauled it on and off. I wore blue trousers that stopped at the knee, then bright red hiking socks with matching laces on my boots. On top I wore a green tartan shirt and if the weather turned chilly I had a heavy knit Arran jumper in my pack.  Quite a sight.

Thankfully all that changed a few years later, and from 1995 onwards, thanks to the expertise of Pauline, my kit changed dramatically. I wasn't allowed to buy any new gear by myself for some considerable years after, in case I was ever tempted to buy another Arran jumper.

Almost 20 years on, now kitted out with the latest gear, and vastly more experienced thanks to adventures with Pauline, I have been lucky to have trekked slightly further afield from the Pentlands. From the great mountain ranges of the Scottish Highlands to places as far away as the Rockies, the Dolomites, Patagonia, and once, the mighty Himalayas.

More than 50 years ago Sir Edmond Hilary made it to the top of Everest with an Arran jumper, so I reckon I would be OK if I sneak one in my pack.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

And a partridge in a pear tree

Gradually the landscape colours are changing as autumn approaches, and my own small garden is no exception.

Already the leaves of the small spindly Apple tree that is planted in a large pot, have turned a fabulous bright orange. Just a few feet away is my favourite foliage in the garden during autumn, the Hawthorn. The leaves go through a rainbow of colours until they reach a bright fiery red.

Across from the Hawthorn is a Rowan, covered in red berries, its leaves only just starting to turn. The largest object in the garden is the Silver Birch, now a staggering 30 feet tall. Only a few of its leaves have started to show the signs of change, turning a pale yellow. Eventually it will look like a blazing beacon from afar once its tiny leaves have taken on a wild mix of yellow, orange and red.

But the most noticeable sign of autumn on the way is the arrival of a seasonal visitor. Recognisable by it's distinctive song, and loud for its small size, the Robin arrived last Friday (photo courtesy of Pauline). Perched among the dense foliage of the birch it announced its arrival all afternoon. The Robin seems to be far more tame than the rest of the birds that visit, unphased by my presence.

The all year round visitor to the garden, the Sparrow, have recently grown in number to more than 20. Their song becomes a natural alarm call as they collectively chirp away at first light, eating their way through a whole feeder of seed and three small bags of peanuts a day.

The Rowan provides natural food for many of the birds too, and last week I laughed out loud as 11 starlings all noisily pecked away at the berries as they tried to balance on the top most branches with varying degrees of success in the wind.

Over the years I've regularly seen two Collared Doves feeding on the floor of the garden, but to my surprise two weeks ago I saw six, four of which looked smaller and scruffy, so I can only assume the original two have successfully bred nearby.

With the Sparrows providing the loudest dawn chorus, to the bird that provides my favourite, cheerful song at the end of the day and continues to use my garden as a safe refuge. The Blackbird.

Over the past few years I've seen a huge variety of birds, and on one winters day a couple of years ago I counted 18 different species of bird in one day.

No Partridge though. I don't have  a Pear Tree in the garden.

Monday, 16 September 2013

State of the Union

Back in early June 2010, Pauline and I took our mountain bikes by train to Bowling, on the west side of Glasgow, and the start of the Forth & Clyde Canal.  On that occasion we stopped 30 miles short of Edinburgh at the beautifully designed canal boat lift, the Falkirk Wheel, where the Forth & Clyde Canal ends, and caught the train home.

On the weekend just past we decided to return to cycle the final leg on the Union Canal, from the Falkirk Wheel to Edinburgh. The only difference this time was instead of mountain bikes we took Brompton folding bikes.

The canal was built in 1832 but inevitably fell into disuse and ceased to be a working canal in the 1930s. In 2000 though, it was brought back into use thanks to a project called The Millennium Link. This would see the Forth & Clyde Canal being connected up again with the Union Canal through a series of locks, the most ingenious being the Falkirk Wheel. In addition a new section that had been lost over the years on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Wester Hailes was reinstated, and now you can travel by boat from the centre of Edinburgh to the west coast.

The Union Canal does not follow a straight line to Edinburgh from Falkirk. The designers at the time wanted to avoid the use of expensive and time wasting locks, to speed the transfer of minerals from the Lanarkshire region to Edinburgh, so the canal twists and turns as it follows the 240foot contour all the way. In 1832 that must have been quite a challenge.

On a sunny and blue sky day we set out from Falkirk train station to the Falkirk Wheel. This was about a four mile addition to our route, as once there we would have to turn around and retrace our route. It was all about completing the length of both canals, otherwise we would have had a four mile gap in our quest. So our 31mile journey on the Bromptons officially started at the top of the Falkirk Wheel boat lift.

The towpath is, for the most part, fairly smooth and varies in width from a couple of feet to, at times, six feet, the only interruption being the occasional staggered gates at regular points, put in to deter motorised users. There were very few people on the path, which I found surprising given that, though a little chilly, it was a beautiful day.

Not long after the start we encountered a very long, dark and damp tunnel. It must have been easily half a kilometre long, if not more. I could hardly see a thing inside but I was just a few feet behind a jogger in the tunnel, so I kept up with him to stay orientated. It would have been wiser and safer to walk through, as did Pauline, and on a couple of occasions the tyres did lose their grip.  The walls of the tunnel were coated in limescale, giving the illusion of being inside some manmade Disney ride or a set from Star Trek.

Along it's length there are four navigable aqueducts, one being 80feet above the ground. Uneven and narrow, these are definite moments when you get off and push. Inevitably you meet others coming the other way and it can be an interesting moment as you try to squeeze past each other without falling in to the five foot deep murky water.

Autumn was definitely knocking at the door with many trees starting to show their fiery colours in their leaves and the berries of the Rowan trees were flaming red. Blackberries were out in abundance at various stages of ripening and we enjoyed the occasional stop for a mini feast of the dark sweet fruits. The whole setting was very pretty; a bloom of vegetation creating a patchwork of green across the surface of the canal; little stone bridges crossing over; swans resting on the edge with their adolescent signets as narrow canal boats chugged past; shafts of sunlight dancing through the branches of mature trees creating a hidden world feel to long stretches of the route.

About halfway along we decided to pay a visit to the birthplace of one of Pauline's distant relatives. Pulling off the canal at Linlithgow we stopped for coffee and cake, and whilst sitting outside in the autumn sunshine we were entertained by a local brass band, resplendent in their bright red tunics.

Coffee over it was time to make that visit and we wandered up a narrow cobbled road to the Palace of Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. That's right, you read that correctly - I was  cycling with royalty, as Pauline is a distant relative of Mary Queen of Scots. Just as well their powers are diminished these days or she might have had me beheaded for my bad behaviour in the past!

But idyllic little journeys like this wouldn't be complete without me managing to create a problem at some point. As Pauline often says, there's always something with me.  With 12 miles to go, and far from any connecting train station, my Brompton developed a puncture in the front wheel. Unfortunately , although we had a repair kit with us we had forgotten the spanner for the front wheel nuts! We continued on, stopping every half mile so I could pump up the tyre, then pedalling like Chris Froom in the Tour de France (I was wearing the Team Sky jersey afterall) to get as far as I could on one pump. Then a miracle happened. The Madonna del Ghisallo, patron saint of cycling, must have shone down upon me. The puncture suddenly repaired itself! Amazed but delighted, we continued on uninterrupted to finish our journey at Lochrin Basin in Tollcross.

If you'd like to read about the original adventure on the Forth & Clyde Canal, please follow this link.