Thursday, 26 June 2014


The great naturalist John Muir died 100 years ago this December. He was born in Dunbar on Scotland's east coast, but, aged 11, he moved with his family to the United States. He spent his later life campaigning to protect the wilderness, and was responsible for the establishment of America's National Parks.

For as long as I can remember there has been a "John Muir Way" from Dunbar to Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh, a distance of roughly 33 miles. In April of this year, in celebration of John Muir, that route was extended to cross the width of Scotland, and now ends after 135 miles in the west coast town of Helensburgh, where Muir and his family set sail to the New World.

This morning, under a cloudless blue sky, I set out to cycle the coast to coast route over three days. I intended to use a Warm Showers network contact for the first night, and camp wild the second night. The map that has been produced is sadly inadequate, in fact, just short of useless, so the day before I painstakingly created my own set of maps using Google.

The John Muir Way Coast to Coast (JMWCC) website would suggest that you start in Helensburgh and finish in Dunbar, presumably to have the prevailing wind behind you. For me though, there was something more appropriate about starting at the place of his birth and finishing where he left his homeland. And so it was, I set out for Dunbar on the train.

I really enjoy setting off on an adventure by train. It adds a certain something. It was my friend Pauline who woke me up to the delights and advantages of doing so. There's a real sense of starting something when you step off the train and it pulls out leaving you and a few others on the now quiet platform.

As luck would have it the weather had changed over the past few days. The forecast for my journey now had the wind, unusually, blowing directly from the east. The temperature was a very pleasant 15C (60F) and the breeze was around 12mph, so, with the wind at my back, literally, I sailed along almost effortlessly.

Immediately I had a grin on my face. Though I was on my own I kept exclaiming out loud how utterly fantastic the route was. You leave the little fishing village of Dunbar, along the coast, looking out across the Firth of Forth to the Bass Rock, the worlds largest Gannet colony, along little back roads lined with wild flowers, the sun shining and the wind at my back.

I was thinking that maybe I should do more this first day, and complete the journey in just two days, especially as I kept being overtaken by serious road cyclists in lycra, determined to clock up their 100 miles. But sometimes it's the journey, not the distance travelled, and I'm not really into the fast paced cycling thing. No, this was about noticing the little things along the way, taking time to stop, as often as I wanted, to take as many photographs as I cared to. Besides that, it's been a while since I've cycle-toured, so I was breaking in gently.

From the map I could see that there was a section of busy road approaching. Just as I had psyched myself up for lots of traffic, the route surprised me by presenting a shared footpath, as it would again at various points. It wasn't long before I turned sharp right and headed north for a number of miles toward the town of North Berwick, in the shadow of a small conical hill called Berwick Law, an ancient volcanic plug that was blasted across the sky from some 30 miles away, millions of years ago. On this section the route changed repeatedly: one minute I was on narrow little paved country roads, next I was crossing between two fields of barley on a dirt path with fantastic views.

In North Berwick I watched the world go by on the edge of the beach as I ate my lunch, with little boats pootling out across the waves with wildlife watchers from the Seabird Centre on board, before I set off once again toward Edinburgh.

The second of three busy road sections now presented itself, and after the joy of the cross country trails this was fairly unpleasant, with no shared pavement choice unfortunately.

There are two routes for the JMWCC, one for walking, and one for cycling. I knew from previous experience there were sections of the walking route that I could have cycled, keeping me off the road, but I wanted to follow the cycling route religiously, to see what it was like. To give the designers of the route their due credit, they've tried their best, and after a short couple of miles I was off the main road back on country roads and tracks, through lush overgrown woods.

The miles seemed to slip by, and before I knew it I was approaching the planned end of this section of the JMWCC by early afternoon. Through the little village of Port Seaton, past the decommissioned coal-fired power station at Cockenzie, and on into Musselburgh, following the man-made lagoons, created using the ash from the power station.

On the outskirts of the City of Edinburgh, just 35 miles after starting, I called it a day and headed for my accommodation for the night. I was very confident of not just a warm shower, but a comfy bed and maybe even a pizza for supper. Why? Well, you see, that Warm Showers contact is in fact . . . me! The JMWCC passes very close to my home near the beach, and so I was able to leave the majority of my kit behind for day one.

Tomorrow I'll have a heavier bike and will be camping out. The forecast is still for easterlies, so once again I'll have the wind at my back.

To see more photos from the trip follow this link to FLICKR (photos are in reverse order). You can catch up on how I get on over the next two days in next week's blog.

Thursday, 19 June 2014


This past weekend has seen a flurry of activity on the beach at Portobello, just yards from my front door, with a whole manner of beachy-type things going on with rowing boats, baton relays and fun runs.

On Saturday morning a large gathering of people from all over Scotland started to grow near the local coffee shop, The Beach House. Traditional skiffs from as far away as Wick, Stornoway and Ullapool, to Eyemouth, North Berwick and Dunbar, descended upon Portobello Beach to compete with Row Porty's very own skiffs, in the Scottish Coastal Rowing Regatta for 2014. Out of nine teams Portobello came joint 1st with North Berwick.

It was a glorious sunny day with light winds and a wonderful atmosphere among the crowds enjoying the rowing and the beach itself, from ten in the morning until five in the evening.

Shortly before the rowers packed up for the day though, a historic one-off event took place around 4.30pm. In the lead up to the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, starting on the 23rd July, the Queen's Baton Relay took place along the length of the promenade. Each runner only had the baton for 200 yards, but the support and atmosphere of the excited crowds was not in short supply. One of my friends from a local youth group was a proud father as his son Michael took the baton from the local swimming pool to just outside my house. If you want to see a short, minute-long, film of the event click on the picture.

And so to Sunday, and on another great day the local Portobello Running Club had organised a four-mile beach race in aid of a local charity, and once again the crowds turned out in both participation and support.

I already love the place where I live, but to see such great use of the mile-long beach front just enforces how lucky I am. It doesn't matter if it's meandering walks slurping melting ice-cream, or energetic rowing out on the Firth of Forth, I love all the beachy things that happen, year round, right on my doorstep.

Friday, 13 June 2014


Since October last year I have been working relentlessly on a renovation of an old property for the sister, Karen, of my friend Pauline, in Broughty Ferry, a two hour drive north from Edinburgh.

Located on the Firth of Tay, Broughty Ferry was annexed in 1913 by the nearby City of Dundee to the west. Prior to that it was independent. There is evidence to suggest prehistoric settlement here, and to be honest, the state of the house I've been working on would suggest it was that settlement!

On the first day this week, of yet another marathon stint, I had a nice surprise toward the end of the day. Karen's mum and partner, Sheila and Dougie, came along to have a look, and I think took one look at my beaten and dusty body and felt sorry for me. Instead of some limp end-of-day sandwich from a local store for supper, that night they treated me to a homemade burger with all the trimmings at a local bar called The Ship.

In 1878 a rail bridge was built across the Tay, leaping to fame in 1879 when a catastrophic failure plunged a passenger train into the firth with the tragic loss of all 75 lives on board. It was rebuilt and still stands today without any further such events I'm happy to say.

But prior to that Broughty ferry played an important role in train travel: a roll-on roll-off ferry provided the link between Tayport on the southern shore to Broughty Ferry, on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen main line.

I have been very lucky in my visits to Broughty Ferry, in that almost every day has been glorious sunny weather. Not so great when you're stuck indoors of course, but in the evenings I can stroll along the beach and sit for a while looking out over the Tay beside the castle that sits on the harbour.

Built in 1495 it played a part in the Anglo-Scottish wars, and though they ended in 1603 the castle remained a defensive structure until 1932. It certainly has that air of history about it and is a prominent focal point that can be seen from a far distance in all it's moods. On Wednesday of this week there was a full moon, and at close to midnight I wandered down to take some photographs.

The one drawback of working in the property is it is quite far from the nearest store for lunch. There is also no working toilet yet, and the public toilets are at a distant that you don't want to leave it too late before deciding to go, as the walk could prove disastrous! This was not a problem this week however, as my friend Pauline had left me her folding Brompton bicycle. It must have looked quite comical to see this tall man, covered in plaster dust and other such detritus, pedalling frantically on this rather swish, and most definitely fun, mode of transport. On one such jaunt I passed a BBC film crew shooting something with actor Brian Cox. I bet they were jealous when they saw my bike.

I'm taking a welcome break from the project for a few weeks now, but for sure when I'm next back in Broughty Ferry I'll be taking the Brompton and maybe cycle into the village for a well earned burger.

Thursday, 5 June 2014


Last weeks blog, entitled, "A Playground For Gentlemen", was all about a short hillwalking trip with friends to the great Highland landscape of Corrour. This week's blog is from the same weekend but on a very different, and worrying subject.

On our second day, on a drizzly, cloudy Sunday morning, we made our way toward Corrour Station. The path leads from the old ruin to a landrover track close to the SYHA hostel on the shores of Loch Ossian, where we would then turn left and head out to the station and on to climb the hill Leum Ullieum.

As we came toward the end of the path I noticed that it had been improved dramatically, from a rough muddy path to a wide, hard-packed and smooth track. At first I was quietly pleased, until we reached the landrover track. Here was a sign, erected by Corrour estate, informing of forthcoming "improvements".

The proposal is to build three hydro power plants, themselves small in size, to generate electricity. Two are to be located at the Corrour Lodge at the eastern end of Loch Ossian, and one further north and west, at the head of Loch Treig. Alarm bells started to ring when the information on the sign stated that the power plants would generate enough electricity for up to 2000 homes. Apart from the lodge, the youth hostel and the B&B at the station, there is not anything like 2000 homes. Not yet anyway, was my thinking.

I contacted the estate on my return and they responded very quickly. They say that the power generated is for the estate use and that the rest will be sold to the National Grid via a series of cables buried underground, along the historic line of the Road to the Isles, the path we had walked the previous day.

There will be a great deal of construction required and new roads are being put in which, once the construction period is over, "will be reduced in size to the width of a quad bike". I found it strange that they should be as specific as to mention a quad bike. Not a welcome addition to a wilderness area if they were to become a regular feature. The estate assured me this was for maintenance only in the future.

But I can't understand why an already wealthy estate such as Corrour needs to generate such a large quantity of electricity to sell the majority to the National Grid.  I'm all in favour of green energy, but I smell a rat in here somewhere.

The impact study was in consultation with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Highland Council, so I wrote to them with my concerns.  I was surprised when SNH replied that planning permission had still not be granted, yet it was clear construction work had begun in the area by the presence of large diggers and earth moving equipment, together with giant rolls of electric cable. Highland Council have not replied at the time of writing this blog.

SNH were helpful though in giving details of the planning application should I or anyone else wish to write in to object. If you wish to have your say you should go to the Highland Council ePlanning website at The planning reference is 14/00714/FUL

Part of their reply stated "the proposed capacity of a development does not necessarily indicate future plans to build houses". The use of the words, does not necessarily indicate, does not mean never.

The estate promise that the long term outcome will benefit hillwalkers and cyclists with a more robust path on the Road to the Isles, and improved vegetation, as the habitat will be replanted after the construction.

The company behind the project management are based in London, and I seriously doubt have ever spent any significant amount of time in this wilderness area. There are precious few such naturally wild areas left, and why is it man thinks he can "improve" upon the natural environment.

There's trouble brewing in this playground I feel, and there seems little anyone can do to stop it.