Friday, 28 February 2014


On a cold but dry winters night, as darkness fell upon the City of Edinburgh, Pauline and I met up to view a recently installed outdoor art exhibit of lights by British artist Bruce Munro. He first came up with the idea in 1992 when touring Australia.

Right in the heart of Edinburgh lies St Andrew's Square. Constructed in 1772, and as part of the New Town of Edinburgh design by James Craig, it became the most desirable place to be seen. The gardens are surrounded by busy roads now, and more recently a terminus for the newly engineered trams.

Dominating the centre of the square is the fluted column of the Melville Monument, commemorating Henry Dundas, the first Viscount of Melville, and it is around this monument, and covering the entire gardens, that the art installation called The Field of Light, appears.

It consists of an astonishing 9,500 illuminated glass spheres on two foot stalks with ribbons of fibre optic trailing away to central points. Gradually the lights change colour and so the view is forever changing. It is very immersive and shows off St Andrews Square in a new way. However, I wanted to get a better overall view, which meant gaining height.  Nearby is the Harvey Nichols store and I made my way to the 4th floor, rather expensive looking restaurant. I quietly asked the Maitre-de if he would allow me to photograph the exhibit from their windows. Better than that he said, and duly opened the massive sliding glass doors that lead to the balcony. A tremendous view with Edinburgh picked out in the remains of the days light as a backdrop.

This is the installations first venue, and remains in Edinburgh until the end of April win it sets off on a UK tour.

Leaving the restaurant and all it's delicious smells, I was now quite hungry, and so we picked up our bicycles and headed toward a small fish and chip shop near to Pauline's home, called the Marchmont Takeaway.

This is not just any fish and chip shop though, this is a sustainable and environment friendly fish and chip shop.  It is now well documented that half of all the fish caught in the North Sea are thrown overboard, dead, because of quotas for certain fish. As their part in trying to discard this madness, this little chip shop offers varieties of fish other than the bog standard cod. On the menu this night was Rock Cod, a far more tasty and firmer version of the normal Cod, and Mackerel.  I've had the Rock Cod before and this time opted for the Mackerel.

It is a naturally oily fish so I was a bit apprehensive with what deep frying in palm oil (from the Green Palm Sustainability Programme) might do to it.  They generously serve up two fillets, but I would have been happy with one, maybe paying slightly less. That said it was delicious, and yes, it was noticeably oily but not too much. I only managed to munch my way through one and a half fillets before feeling very full.

Very yummy but not exactly the lightest experience of the day.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


On the west coast of Scotland is a 34 mile marked way, promoted as "one of Scotland's great trails". For the first time in almost four years, our merry band of three, Pauline, myself and Andrew, aka Mountain Ninja, Mountain Goat and Mountain Jesse, reunited to put the claim to the test.

For a change the weather forecast was in our favour, and so, on an early morning train out of Edinburgh last weekend, we set off on our mini adventure.

The route is called The Three Lochs Way, and links up Loch Long, the Gareloch and Loch Lomond. We didn't have enough time over the two days available to us, to complete the entire route, so we joined it at roughly one third of the way along, at Garelochhead.

Food usually plays a central theme to our little adventures, and as it had taken almost three hours to reach the village by train and bus, by the time we were on the main trail, half a mile in, it was lunchtime.  From our vantage point high above the village, looking north west, we had a rewarding view to the snow capped Arrochar Alps, the most well known of which is called The Cobbler.

The main walking route follows a paved road through Glen Fruin, the site of a bloody battle between the Macgregors and Colquhouns in 1603. However, it was hills we wanted, and so, thinking it would be more enjoyable, and easier on the feet, we detoured and set off across a heather covered moor and three small hills.

A sign at the start of the approach to these hills warned that when red flags were flying this was a military training area, which seemed strange that such a tranquil setting would be used for military training. That aside, there were no flags flying, and so we set out.

15 minutes later and it wasn't quite the tranquil, easy walk we had anticipated. The entire area was basically one very large, watery bog! Step after step we sank into the spongy, water-saturated moss. Freezing water filled my boots to the brim,  something I was less than happy about, a fact I made my fellow adventurers aware of.

As we were already wet, we decided between us to carry on, as surely it would improve.

It didn't.

I was surprised, to say the least, that the relentless bog clung to the steeper side of the hills we were walking up, and now snow added to the hard going. No matter which direction we chose we were constantly ankle deep in bog. The water in my boots was replenished with every step, and so by the time we had crossed the first hill my feet were like blocks of ice.

Thankfully, by mid afternoon, we approached the final hill, only now to be faced with a landscape of two-foot-deep trenches, leftovers from commercial tree planting. Too wide to step across, and full of watery mud, each one had to be jumped. By the time we reached our camp spot for the night it is fair to say that our planned easy first day had exhausted us. But there's something enjoyable about a shared challenge, and the views all around us to the snowy capped mountains made up a little bit for the difficulty underfoot.

Our camp spot, just above the town of Helensburgh, was deep inside a small forest, accessed from a fire break and under moss-covered old trees. Just next to our little spot for the night was a "cup marked" boulder, dating back to the Bronze Age. Little is known of their purpose but one theory suggests they were believed to give off energy that would protect their small dwellings from unhealthy forces.

After our tough day, there was nothing that was going to keep me awake, apart from maybe the throbbing pain in one foot. Eventually though, well fed, thawed out, and under a bright full moon, I drifted off to sleep.

Our next day was the longest, and would take us from Helensburgh on the Gareloch, over to the village of Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond, following an ancient drove trail in part, known as the Stoneymollan Road.

Within the first hour we entered the outskirts of Helensburgh. The first building we passed was The Hill House, probably the most famous house design by Charles Rennie Macintosh, and built for the publisher Walter Blackie in 1902. Neighbouring properties were just as grand, most likely built for succesful Victorian industrialists, and now worth a healthy sum.

At first the path out of Helensburgh was a quagmire of mud, again, but eventually it improved and led us east across a small hill. Roughly halfway, at a small clearing in the forest covering the top of the hill, right on the Highland boundary line, we had a spectacular view across Loch Lomond to the mighty snow-covered mountain of Ben Lomond. Over Christmas someone had taken the time to walk up to this view point and decorate a small fir tree in tinsel and baubles. Very festive.

Having lingered a while admiring the Christmas tree and soaking up the view, we headed off for the final part of our route to Balloch. It was now all downhill, following a track through the forest. After a short distance the track disappeared into a dark and spooky wood, reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow, and it was hard going with most of the path reduced to mud, surprise surprise. At times the path was hard to find as it weaved its way through lichen-covered trees, but thankfully, someone had tied small pieces of tape to the trees, marking the way. We religiously followed these little markers. That is, until they ran out. In the centre of the forest!

"And they were never seen again!"

With a little deduction, our reliable leader Mountain Ninja, aka Pauline, found the route again, and we breathed a sigh of relief. The final mile was following an ancient road known as the Coffin Road, where centuries ago locals would carry their dead to hallowed ground and their last resting place.

On the train journey home from Balloch we all agreed that we had enjoyed the adventure, but whether it could be classed as one of Scotland's great trails? Hmmmm. Jury's still out on that one.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014


On a windy, and sometimes wet, weekend, Pauline and I headed north to the small Highland village of Newtonmore, said to be just a few miles north from the centre of Scotland. The Ordnance Survey put the centre further south, 5km east of the mountain Schiehallion, but Newtonmore was near enough for me.

It was from here that we loaded up our bicycles and set off north east toward Aviemore for a weekend of cycle touring. The wind was behind us as we pedalled along, with gusts at times knocking us of our course together with the odd squally shower giving us a refreshing soaking. It wasn't quite the forecast the BBC had served up just hours before.  While the rest of the UK suffered from major flooding, Pauline had pin pointed Newtonmore as having the least weather problems for the weekend. Despite the forecast being wildly inaccurate, again, on reflection we did get the best of conditions compared to elsewhere.

Three miles on we turned onto a quiet backroad and passed by Ruthven Barracks, a ruin of a fortress built by General Wade after the Jacobite uprising of 1715, and set on a prominent hilltop. He was a prolific road builder at the time, keen to make passage through the Highlands easier. To this day many of our main roads follow his original routes.

Just under 10 miles on we found a woodcarving sculpture trail near the small settlement of Feshiebridge. The carvings were all created by artist Frank Bruce who died in 2009 aged 78. The works depict icons of patriotism and  tragedies of world poverty, yet set in a beautiful and tranquil wood. I found some a little creepy and unnerving while others were thought provoking.

Our plan was to do a loop circuit, camping for the night in Rothiemurcus Forest. Just two miles short of the 18 miles to Aviemore  my bike developed a puncture. Used to this now, and with the help of a handy tyre lever I bought in the USA, I quickly changed the tube, only to find the tyre going flat almost immediately.

It seemed that on virtually every bike ride the rear tyre would get a puncture.  Clearly something was fundamentally wrong, a fact Pauline was quick to remind me that she had said this many times.  But of course stubborn me persevered thinking I had solved it each time I changed the tube.  But the tyre was also now split due to riding with a flat. I had no alternative. I walked, pushing the bike with all it's gear, the two miles to Mikes Bike shop in Aviemore.

A new tube, rim tape and tyre later, and thanks to a very helpful staff, we were back on the road, but time was now not on our side. Picking up a trail through Rothiemurcus Forest, which lies adjacent and east of Aviemore, we found our campsite for the night, deep in among the old Scots Pines of the forest.

Rothiemurcus Forest is a remnant of the Great Wood of Caledon, which gets it's name from the Roman word for Scotland, and used to cover much of the country. Now just 1% remains, and most of that is thanks to recent regeneration projects.  Rothiemurcus is the largest such remnant, and we both love its dense variety of native trees and wildlife. Many years ago Pauline saved the forest from near disaster as she ran several miles to raise the alarm on a fire that had broken out. This weekend however it was a little too damp for any risk of fire.

There was a bright half moon out in the evening, dispensing with the need for a torch as we fetched water from the nearby river. The wind died down, and under a clear sky we busied ourselves making camp and supper. I love this part of outdoor adventure. I look forward to it all day.

The following morning started off sunny and bright as we continued on toward Boat of Garten where we turned to start the 24 miles back to Newtonmore. Gradually the clouds gathered and the heavens opened, so half way we took shelter in a coffee shop on the shores of Loch Insh for soup and hot chocolate, before the final push into a head wind, retracing our steps back to Newtonmore, the centre of Scotland...

...or thereabouts.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


Just 15 miles east of the City of Edinburgh lies the small coastal village of Aberlady.  500 years ago this was an important port for the neighbouring town of Haddington but the village's origins go back a lot further to the 7th and 8th century.

As you leave the small picturesque village you have magnificent views across the Firth of Forth and the shallow beach that forms Aberlady Bay. In 1952 it became the first local wildlife reserve in the UK.  It was here, on a very wet and windy day, that Pauline and I ventured out for a day that had promised broken sunshine but had turned out to be anything but.

To our right was a well known links golf course adjacent to the next village of Gullane. Ahead the path snaked its way through open pasture, flanked occasionally by what I think are Sea Buckthorn bushes, ablaze with bright orange berries, a spectacular sight on this grey and wind blown day. The path then started to rise up large sand dunes, held together by clumps of coarse grass. As we reached the top a sandy beach opened up and stretched out before us.

We made the first footprints in the sand as we continued on our walk. The sea was pushing its way back in as the tide began its fast rise across the flats. Somewhere out there were several wrecks of fishing boats that had met their fate over the past 200 years, probably on a similar wild day.

The route we were on forms a small part of the John Muir Way. He is a world famous naturalist born locally in the town of Dunbar in 1838. Most notably he was the founding father of the National Parks in America, successfully petitioning Congress in 1890 to form Yosemite and Sequoia parks.  He left the UK as a young boy but we honoured him here in the UK by creating the 50mile coastal path in his name.

For lunch we found an overhang of rock and crouched under its natural shelter to escape the worst of the weather to feast on a flask of homemade soup and sandwiches.  All around us were the remains of millions of shells swept ashore by the rough seas, destined to one day form part of the sands of this coastal route.

As we sat enjoying our lunch, hunkered down from the elements, a group of walkers trudged by, led by a very wet looking gentleman who, judging by his faint mutterings, would rather be somewhere else.

We returned by the same route, invigorated by the winter storm, a little damp but definitely looking windswept and interesting.