Thursday, 29 May 2014


Corrour station in the Highlands of Scotland is the highest on a mainline railway in the UK, and one of the most remote, with the nearest road 10 miles away. Sir John Stirling-Maxwell bought Corrour Estate in 1891, initially as a "playground for gentlemen".

On a stunningly beautiful day, myself and two friends, Andrew and Roger, set out from Rannoch Station late morning, having caught a very early train out of Edinburgh. Both Andrew and I had walked this path once before with Pauline, and on that occasion a large part of it was literally a muddy swamp.

The route in question is the Road to the Isles, and starts 4km east from Rannoch station and heads north toward Corrour. We had full packs with us, as we had planned to spend an overnight camping, near to the picturesque Loch Ossian. Both Andrew and I were pleasantly surprised that the path had recovered to a large degree from the previous time, thanks in part to additional drainage ditches having been dug.

Just 15km later, having stopped briefly at the ruins of the old Corrour Lodge, where I admired a very red-looking Common Frog, we were at our camp spot for the night, a delightful ruin of an old house, a place I know is very special to Pauline. It is in a stunning setting and Pauline has photographs of the old house in virtually every season. It is quite photogenic, as Andrew found out to his delight. He is prone to taking a lot of photographs when we are in the hills, and on this occasion he outdid himself and confessed that if ever an architect required comprehensive evidence of the architecture of the ruin from every possible angle, he had it covered. I had never camped at the ruin before so I was particularly looking forward to it.

Our three tents set up, and supper prepared and consumed, I relaxed in the late evening sunshine watching the sun set over the Grey Corries to the north, still with remnants of winter snow. There was not a breath of wind, except from Andrew in his tent, and the silence was only broken by the last train heading north across this remote land.

Roger is very knowledgable about bird life, and he was able to point out the many species we encountered during the day. We saw Wheatears, Common Sandpiper, Wagtails, and on one occasion, a Merlin, which apparently was quite rare to catch sight of.  As Andrew and Roger were busy inside their tents, two eagles soared past, heading south, presumably to hunt at Blackwater Reservoir a few kilometres way.

The following morning could not have been more different. During the night it had rained relentlessly and by dawn there was low cloud everywhere. We packed up our wet tents late morning and set off for Corrour Station. There was talk of mutiny, and catching the early train home, but I was determined to stay, optimistic it would clear up.

It didn't.

After the south bound 12.30 train had left we set off up the nearby small peak of Leum Ullieum. Usually the view from the top is spectacular, as it had been on a previous occasion. It really feels like this hill is smack in the middle of all the famous mountains of Scotland, with Glencoe to our west and Ben Nevis to our north. We knew they were there somewhere, but on this occasion we were lucky to keep sight of each other in the low dense cloud along the summit ridge.

After several short heavy showers of rain it decided to come on monsoon-style. The decent was slippy and boggy and by the time we reached Corrour station again none of us had any item of clothing on that was even remotely dry. For those staying at the expensive B&B opposite the station it must have been quite entertaining as three men stripped to their undies in the station shelter.

With a hot cup of tea and shortbread on the way home on the train, this three gentlemen all agreed we had enjoyed our time in the playground of Corrour.

Thursday, 22 May 2014


Two days ago an event happened that always makes me smile: it was the tell tale sound of screeching high up above. The swifts had returned from nine months in Africa to the skies around my home.

They are incredible flyers, twisting and turning at high speed like natures military air display. In fact swifts are the fastest of all birds in level flight, with the highest speed recorded at 69mph. For the average six years of their life they never land except to breed. Just above my bedroom window a pair of swifts have nested for the past few years, which is an added bit of fun to this annual visit. The distinctive high pitched screech they make as they dive and streak across the sky is unmistakable, and occasionally they swoop down and back out again into my small enclosed garden, clearly having lots of fun. They truly take my breath away.

Speaking of which, the day after the swifts arrived I was driving my van to drop off some building materials. As I was going to head out for a cycle afterwards, I had loaded my bike in the back. As I approached traffic lights there was a sudden loud screech lasting about five seconds from the rear of the van. Initially I thought that maybe a tyre on the bike had burst, but the sound was unfamiliar and chilling. As I pondered what on earth it could be the cab started to fill up with what looked like smoke and I could barely breath. I pulled over quickly and opened the side doors of the rear of the van. Immediately a dense cloud of blue powder billowed out. The bike had come loose of its bungy cord and fallen onto a powder fire extinguisher. In five seconds flat it had emptied the entire contents into the rear of the van, covering every square inch in fine powder, in places a centimetre deep. It took almost two hours to clean it up, but I reckon I'll be finding the fine dust forever more. Not as an enjoyable a sound as the screech of the swifts. At the time it made my blood run cold.

Which brings me neatly to the last screech of the past week. Yesterday I had to have some blood taken for some tests the doctor wants to do. Probably nothing to be worried about as the main reason is to check my cholesterol levels. Anyway, for as long as I can remember I have had a phobia of needles. I even turn away from the TV screen if a needle comes into view to go into someone's arm, but lying there seeing it happen live is not something I cope with very well.

Let's just say that's one screech no one wants to hear.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


"Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck.
Give the penny to a friend, and then your luck will never end".

OK, so superstitious nonsense perhaps, but how many of us do this I wonder? After a little bit of research I discovered that the saying has it's origins in ancient cultures, who believed that metal was a gift from the gods given to man to protect him against evil.

There are many sayings connected to the humble penny, the lowest denomination of coin:
A penny pincher is someone who is fanatical about savings tactics;
Penny wise and foolish implies that one's efforts to manage money are a bit careless;
A pretty penny is used to describe that something you paid for was expensive;
A penny saved is a penny earned, refers to the fact that saving is just as important as earning;
Without two pennies to rub together tends to refer to people who never have any money in their pocket;
And finally, in for a penny in for a pound, means when an opportunity comes along you dive in with maximum effort.

As a complete aside to this blog, my best friend Pauline has well and truly lived up to this last saying: on Tuesday this week she clocked up just shy of 2,600 miles on her bicycle, having cycled from Edinburgh to the North Cape in Norway, Europe's most northerly point.  If you'd like to catch up with her exploits just follow this link.

On the same day as Pauline was battling snow and ice in the Arctic Circle, I too was out on my bicycle, but in far better weather, scooting about all over Edinburgh for four hours, delivering leaflets promoting one of my businesses. When I stopped to chain up my bicycle at strategic points and went on foot for a while, I found five individual pennies over the course of the day.

This got me to thinking.

Imagine if only three-quarters of the people in the world, roughly the adult population, found just one penny, once every two weeks. Over the course of just one year that comes to a whopping 1 billion pounds, or 1.5 billion US dollars!!

Think I'll start keeping those pennies to myself!

Thursday, 8 May 2014


I recently watched a documentary about the rise, and rise, of the online retailer Amazon. Though it started with just books it now sells pretty much everything. Stuff, basically, most of which we don't need but have been lured into thinking we do by manipulative advertising, or that cliche of, retail therapy.

I'm not long back home from a few days in London, where I was attending an assessment course for a possible youth work contract. As I sat in various workshops I couldn't help noticing how often people were checking their mobile devices, even when it hadn't made a noise for an incoming text or some such thing.  The younger the person, the more they checked it. During lunch someone was ordering something on, you guessed it, Amazon, using their tablet. Clearly it just couldn't wait until they were home.

During one afternoon we were out and about on the streets of London, and I lost count of the number of people I almost walked into who had their heads down, transfixed by their mobile phone. This was also a mid-week day, and the streets were crowded with people out shopping, laden down with bags of stuff. Probably hoping that this new purchase would be the one to make them happy.

Everywhere, on buses, shop windows, neon sings and people handing out fliers, were adverts trying to convince us to buy.

This "stuff" all has a consequence of course, in terms of the rare natural resources we are consuming at an ever increasing rate. Much like the train I travelled on, we are heading to a destination that has a definitive end, at an ever increasing pace. As we consume, consume, and consume some more, we are eventually going to run out of track, very abruptly. As the train announcer put it, when we arrived at our destination; "...where this train terminates".

I'm reminded of a saying by a Hindu Sadhu:
"If we don't change our ways we are likely to arrive where we are headed".

My journey home seemed to be a gradual reverse of the chaos of London. Gradually over the five hours back to Edinburgh, the train emptied of people and grew steadily quiet. I stepped out onto the night street of Edinburgh to a fine, refreshing drizzle, a pleasant change from the oily grime that I had accumulated in London. After a short bus ride home I wandered slowly down the street where I live and out onto the edge of the beach next to my house, with just the gentle sound of the waves caressing the shoreline.

And, relax.

The next time you think that some retail therapy will make you happy, and that one gadget you've been longing for and have been persuaded to acquire, remember this interesting statistic; the average length of time that a new purchased item, whether it be a shirt or a car, is a novelty or has special appeal, is just 11 days.

Then it just becomes part of your general collection of stuff.