Wednesday, 26 March 2014


I've said it before, and I'll say it again; I'm very lucky where I live, just yards away from a sandy beach and the open sea.  The mile-long promenade is my regular starting point to many a cycle route, and the other day, on a calm, azure blue sky day, I set off on one of my favourite local routes, and as I was to discover, a route steeped in history going back millennia.

I turned east toward the town of Musselburgh and joined the main road where the promenade comes to an end, for the mile and a half to Fisherrow harbour, on the outskirts of the town, and joined the John Muir Way, shown here on this map.

The John Muir Way footpath has existed for some time, but until recently the route was only from Dunbar, his birthplace, along the coast to the harbour in Musselburgh. To mark 100 years since John Muir passed away, this April a new section opens that has been way marked. The path  now runs 200km from Dunbar to Helensburgh on the west coast, where he and his family set sail for America. John Muir was the father of America's National Parks and a key figure in the conservation movement.

My route now followed the shore line from the harbour and crossed the River Esk at its estuary, where I turned north, still on the John Muir Way, to cycle round the lagoons.

This part of the River Esk is actually the result of two rivers converging around five miles away. One, the North Esk, starts in the nearby Pentlands Hills, east of Edinburgh. The other, the South Esk, rises in the Moorfoot Hills, both about 12 miles away, and flows out into the open sea at the eastern edge of the lagoons.

The lagoons started life as reclaimed land for the deposit of ash from the nearby power station at Cockenzie. They are still in use to this day, but small bodies of water have been formed over the years, creating a perfect habitat for wildlife, attracting the likes of mute swans, geese, curlew, golden eye and cormorant.  There are even two owls somewhere in the surrounding woods. Bordering this reclaimed land is Musselburgh Links golf course, which bizarrely sits in the middle of a horse racing course, and dates back to 1672. It is the oldest golf course in the world still being played.

By now I was speeding along a perfectly smooth paved cycle path, dodging in and out of the dog walkers, with the shrill cries of the curlew on the sea edge to my left. At the end of this reclaimed land the John Muir Way continues east on the main coastal road toward Dunbar, but I turned west, back toward the town of Musselburgh, following its southern edge.

Musselburgh is the largest settlement in East Lothian, roughly six miles east of the City of Edinburgh. As you can guess it derived its name from mussels, a shellfish once gathered in the coastal waters here. It has a long history, having first been settled by the Romans in AD 80. They built a fort at what is now called Inveresk and bridged the River Esk a little downstream.  That bridge formed the main eastern approach to the City of Edinburgh from England, and is still in use today 2,000 years later as a pedestrian walkway, having been rebuilt twice over the centuries and now sporting three arches instead of the original two.

It was near to this bridge that I now joined a delightful path that follows the river upstream. As it wound its way along the banks the air was filled with the pungent aroma of wild garlic, overpowering my sense of smell. Just as the path reached the edge of the town, I crossed the river over a small iron bridge, and cut through the middle of Monktonhall golf course.

Founded in 1938 it was once the open championship course for Scotland, now held at Muirhouse, 15 miles to the east. The course was designed by former champion James Braid, who went on to design the world famous King's and Queen's course at Gleneagles in the Highlands.

Skirting along the edge of the town through a modern housing estate, my route now took me past Queen Margaret University as it curled round to head north.

Founded in 1875 as Queen Margaret College, and named after the wife of King Malcolm the III of Scotland, the campus moved to this new site in 2008 at a cost of £100million.

I was now approaching journeys end with just two more places of interest to pass through. The first was the Newhailes estate.

A 17th century mansion dominates the grounds which is now owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland.  It was once home to Sir David Dalrymple, the 3rd baronet of Hailes, a Scottish advocate, judge and historian. The house was originally called Whitehall, built by the architect James Smith around 1686, but was bought in 1709 and renamed Newhailes. It remained in the Dalrymple family until 1997 when the Trust took it over. The surrounding woods are a joy in any season to wander through and it was here that I rattled down to join my last path as I emerged from the woods.

Here was a small stream called Brunstane Burn, where I turned west toward home. I've wandered this path many times over the years but I had no idea until this day that it now forms part of the extended John Muir Way, which was a nice surprise. This tiny little stream is geographically important locally as well, as it marks the boundary between the City of Edinburgh and East Lothian.

My little jaunt through the past 2,000 years of history in this part of Scotland was at an end, and over a coffee and cake reward I planned my next foray into local history.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


To mark the arrival of Spring, at first light this morning, the Druids gathered at Stonehenge to watch the sun rise as they performed fertility rites. Quite what these rights entail I don't really want too much detail on, thank you very much, but it's mostly to do with celebrating the Saxon goddess Eostre, who is symbolised by eggs.

March 20 is the Spring Equinox, also called the Vernal Equinox. Folklore would have it that a few minutes before the Vernal Equinox you can stand a raw egg on its end.  What purpose you would have for doing this beats me, but that's folklore for you.  I forgot to try it so I can't tell you if it's true or not.  Some regard the elements of including eggs in the Christian celebration of Easter as having derived from this ancient ritual. There's probably a colony of rabbits in and around Stonehenge too, so maybe that's where the Easter Bunny comes from.

The word equinox is derived from Latin, meaning equal day and night, when the earth's axis is tilted neither toward nor away from the sun. In reality however is doesn't feel like we have equal amounts of day and night, probably because the suns rays are bent round the earth when it is below the horizon.

By now we should be seeing ladybirds flitting about and buds appearing on trees and shrubs. I haven't seen any ladybirds yet, but the bushes and trees in my garden are definitely in bud.  The birds seem to be chirping louder and longer, especially at dawn, mostly likely in attempts to attract a mate. The other day I spotted a sparrow carrying nesting material up into the eves of a nearby apartment, so someone's got lucky early. Not the only species getting loved up either, as the toads I spotted last week with Pauline clearly proved, on their way to a love fest in a nearby pond.

On Sunday, travellers from Spain visited the garden, as a number of Goldfinches arrived back (photo courtesy of the British Trust for Ornithology), though not all Goldfinches are migratory. For those budding Twitchers out there, did you know that the collective name for a group of Goldfinches is a Charm. Appropriate name I feel as the sight of them certainly charmed me.

The crocuses and snowdrops have now had their brief life of colour, which always brings me great pleasure to see, and they have given way to the taller, bright yellow of the daffodils.

There is even some warmth in the sun once again. Don't be fooled though. Snow can still fall in Scotland at this time of year.  I recall at the end of March last year I was encountering a blizzard in Glen Tilt, near Blair Atholl, whilst cycling, and we still had snow into May.

I don't know about worshipping Saxon goddesses of fertility at 5am, clothed or unclothed, but if it's anything to do with eggs, I'll have mine covered in milk chocolate with a creamy centre, thank you very much, the wonder of which is immortalised here by my friend Andrew.

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Last year I celebrated a milestone in birthdays when I reached a half century. Over a number of days my closest friends gathered for various events to celebrate. It was very memorable.

Amazingly a year has passed and this week another pile of birthday cards hit the mat. Not a very exciting number this year, and I hadn't put any thought into whether I would do anything to celebrate it or not.  However, once again my friends stepped up to the mark.  Last year Pauline and Andrew put in a lot of work to make my birthday very special, and ever the reliable friends that they are, they made time to entertain me with their great company this year as well.

The day before my birthday I met up with Andrew at the Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh, to view the short films made by the school students that I had run workshops for over the winter. That was fun, and then Andrew treated me to a great lunch at one of my favourite restaurants in the city, Browns.

It was a glorious sunny day on my actual birthday, and I set out on a leisurely cycle to meet up with Pauline. Given the glorious weather we set off for a walk up nearby Blackford Hill, site of the old observatory and one of the venues of my birthday last year. From there we dropped down into The Hermitage, a local nature reserve gifted to the City of Edinburgh in 1937 by John McDougal. I still find it surprising that the deep gorge that is The Hermitage was formed by the movement of glaciers thousands of years ago.

From here we reached the busy area of Morningside. By now it was mid afternoon and time for coffee and cake at a small coffee shop called Cafe Blush.

Pauline is a very good cook, and made a delicious stir fry for supper, and we were joined by our mutual friend John. After a delicious three course meal and good conversation, we set out for an early evening walk, heading once again toward The Hermitage. This time however we had a specific goal in mind.

At one of the entrances to the reserve is a small pond, a favourite mating spot of toads, and this is the time of year when they start to make their way to the pond. Despite thinking we may not see any we did spot 2 small males. If we were in any doubt as to the difference between toads and frogs we were in luck, as further on we came upon two frogs for comparison, as the grainy photos below show.

The final stage of my birthday was a couple of days later when I met up once again with Pauline and Andrew at a local cinema to see the new Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A strange but enormously entertaining film.

So once again, thanks entirely to my friends, my birthday stretched out over a number of days.

Only downside is I need to wait another year to see what they come up with again.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


Like most people across the country I received mail today, all business letters, 2nd class, at 50p a time. But I had a few things to do first and left them to open later in the day.

Spread out across the city, and on a chilly day, I set out on my bicycle to fulfil all my chores, thereby saving me money, not polluting the environment and getting good exercise.

Satisfied at a job well done, I returned home just as the first signs of light rain started. It was time for the last chore of the day, to open the various bits of mail, three of which, I noticed, were from the Royal Bank of Scotland, or RBS as they like to call themselves these days. This is who I bank with personally and for business. Two business accounts actually, one of which I've had with them since 1991, so they know me pretty well, through all the ups and downs of two recessions, when we all had to find cost cutting measures.

It's been a rough time recently for RBS too, just reporting an £8billion loss for 2013.  Over the last six years the UK taxpayer has become the largest shareholder of this bank at a whopping 81%. Turns out that it has now lost the £46billion we invested with it, and yet still finds some spare change, £576million to be precise, to pay out in bonuses!  Bonuses for what? Managing to keep a sinking ship from having its plug pulled once and for all maybe!

Well, I know a way they could save some money.

The first, and fattest, letter I opened was information on how to apply for an RBS business credit card.

I already have one.

The next letter from the RBS was details about transferring balances from an existing personal credit card when I take out an RBS personal credit card.

I already have one.

The final letter was about first time buyer mortgages.

At 50 years old, and on my third property, I hardly think this is relevant to me. Oh, and you guessed it, I already have an RBS mortgage!

So there's £1.50, in one day, in one week, in postage.  Let's say for arguments sake they do this once a month, to 5million customers. That's £90million a year.

But the RBS have their own ways of saving money: they're axing 30,000 jobs over the next few years.

I understand a businesses need to market themselves for new business, but in this day and age it can't be difficult to figure out who already has products and services so you don't waste money mailing them, not just on postage but on valuable commodities as well.

I used to run a medium sized retail business employing nine staff. If I had run my business affairs in such a wasteful, and what seems careless, manner as this I'm fairly certain the RBS would have recalled their loans and closed me down.

I did think of sending a well worded letter to Ross McEwan the chief executive, but I have better things to spend 50p on.