Friday, 29 July 2016


Another week, another outdoor adventure. This is getting to be a habit.

Though I love Scotland dearly, and enjoy the great outdoors it has to offer, there's one thing I really hate. Midgies. A tiny biting insect similar to a mosquito, or what the New Zealanders would call, no-see-ums. They can ruin a trip away. But the more east you go the less chance of encountering them, so Pauline and I planned a two-day cycle run down the east coast, starting out of Stonehaven.

Like most small villages down the east coast, Stonehaven was a fishing port, and had grown up around an Iron Age settlement. Our landmark for the start was just on the outskirts of the village in the shape of the ruins of Dunnotar Castle. It commands an imposing view, perched atop a natural stone formation, and you can see how well they could have defended it. So much so, in the late 13th century during the Wars of Independence, the Scottish crown jewels were hidden here.

It was late morning as we set off into a strong headwind, south toward Montrose, 27 miles away, our destination for the day. We were mainly following Route 1 of the National Cycle Network, and enjoyed quiet narrow country lanes, twisting and winding their way down the coast, but with the sea constantly in sight to our left. At one point we took an alternative off-road route along the coast, hugging the shoreline. Despite bouncing along like riding atop cobbles, it was fun to be on a narrow path next to the sea.

Just a few miles from journeys end we stopped for a wander through the dunes to the National Nature Reserve of St Cyrus. Shielded by a natural barrier of inland cliffs and the dunes, the natural grasslands are protected from the worst of the weather and the wildlife flourishes here. Beyond the dunes on the seaward side is a 3km long beach, but with the south easterly wind bringing a chill to the air we didn't stay long, but pledged to return on a warmer summers day. 

Soon we were in Montrose, and we made our way immediately to another nature reserve, that of the Scottish Wildlife Trust Montrose Basin.

A natural circular formation some 4km square, the basin is home to an astonishing 50,000 migratory birds! It wasn't quite the time of year to witness such an event, but it was fun to watch those that were nesting on the shoreline and out on purpose-made rafts. In the far distance, through a powerful telescope, I watched an Osprey tuck into a large fish it had recently caught, atop a tree stump sticking out of the water.

Before we set off to find a camp spot for the night there was one other feature to visit. Down by the harbour is a bronze sculpture of a St Bernard dog called Bamse.

He was a heroic sea dog of the Norwegian navy in World War 2 and became their mascot. His heroic acts were in saving crew members who had fallen overboard, or were injured in an attack. One of his "jobs" among the crew was to round them up and escort them back to the ship when needed, and he did this by traveling on public transport unaccompanied! The crew even bought him a bus pass, and he would jump on board the bus at Broughty Ferry, journey to Dundee then wander to a local bar called Bodega to fetch them.

We retraced our route a little north of the town to a forest, where, sheltered by the dunes, we camped for the night.

The following day the wind had died down, and although still a headwind it was barely noticeable. Back on small quiet back roads we headed for Arbroath, home of the famous smoked haddock called, not surprisingly, an Arbroath Smokie. But there was 10 miles to cycle to get there, and roughly half way I spotted a the remains of a ruined castle.

At least at first glance I thought it was a castle, but officially it had been a "fortified house". Confusingly it was called Red Castle. I took a few photos and didn't think much more about it. Once in Arbroath I used the wonder of Google to find out a little more. It turns out it had been built in the 12th century for William the Lion but was then taken by Robert the Bruce and given to the Earl of Ross. In the mid 1500s, the son of the Earl of Grey (yes, the very same one the tea is named after) was responsible for its eventual demise. He had married Mrs Elizabeth Beaton, who owned the castle, but had fallen in love with her daughter, so he threw him out. Presumably in revenge, he laid siege to the castle and burnt the occupants out, leading to it's present state. I thought it was great to find a mostly forgotten property with links to such rich Scottish history, tucked away on a little back road.

As if that wasn't enough history for one day, on the outskirts of Arbroath stands a bronze statue to the Declaration of Arbroath. This marks the moment, when, in 1320, a letter written in Latin was sent to Pope John XXII declaring for the first time in writing Scotland's status as an independent nation and its right to defend itself. Though upheld by the Pope in persuading the English king to make peace with the Scots, it was short lived, and just eight years later they would once more be fighting each other. It seemed nothing had really changed, and here we are, almost 700 years on, still fighting for the right to independence. I wonder if in 2020, the 700th anniversary, this will come to pass, influenced by recent events in leaving the European Union.

The last 20 miles of our cycle adventure was a complete joy, following a dedicated cycle path all the way. We zipped along, through Carnoustie and Broughty Ferry, and by mid afternoon we were on the platform in Dundee waiting for our train home.

Friday, 22 July 2016


Scotland just had summer recently. It was on Tuesday this past week! Not wanting to miss the season, I set out on my bike, in 26 degree heat and light winds, to the nearby Pentland Hills.

I've cycled this route many times, but this was the first on the bike I brought back from the States last year. Due to its great hill-climbing gear ratios, very light frame and 700-size tyres, it breezed along, eating up the miles. Even the several steep hills passed almost unnoticed.

The down side of this route is that the first 15 miles or so are on busy roads, as it picks its way gradually out of the city. There are still impressive sights to witness though, even within the first couple of miles, one such being Craigmillar Castle ruins. Built by the Preston family way back in the 14th century it took 200 years to complete to its current size, as progressive owners added to it. It is most famous for, you probably guessed, it's Mary Queen of Scots connection (it seems every fortification in Scotland is). Following the birth of her son, James VI, she was gravely ill and convalesced at the castle for a month at the end of 1566. Before she left the "Craigmillar Bond" was made, a pact to get rid of her husband Lord Darnley, Henry Stuart.

In a little over an hour I was grateful to be turning off the busy roads at Flotterstone Inn, to begin the gradual climb through the Pentland Hills. It has been two years since I cycled this route, and back then the first of the two reservoirs, Glencorse, was practically empty due to work on the dam. It was pleasing then to see it full to the brim, and small boats were out with fisherman casting their lines.

With one final steep climb of the day, I was following the edge of the second reservoir, Loganlea, which brought me to my favourite spot to stop for a snack and rest, just beyond the end of the reservoir, at a small waterfall.

As I approached I could see that a new wooden bridge had been built since I was last there, making crossing the stream a little easier, though to be honest it was never that difficult, and I reached my halfway point for lunch, beside an array of vibrant wild flowers.

I had no sooner sat down than I spotted a Kestrel fly overhead toward the small waterfall. Almost immediately I thought I saw it again, on the same flight path. Intrigued I silently scrambled up the hill behind me to take a closer look, and my suspicions were confirmed as I could see it was a pair. I couldn't be absolutely sure, but on the small rocky ledge they were perched upon, the clump of heather behind them was rustling about. It could well have been a late brood for the pair. This was a first for me in the Pentlands, and it was pleasing to have seen something new on a trail I have cycled often. Satisfied I left them in peace and returned to my lunch.

As I emerged from the hills, just a mile or two on, high above the city of Edinburgh, I could just make out in the far distance the new bridge under construction crossing the Forth. It was quite hazy, and I took the best photograph my little camera could manage to record the view.

From this vantage point the existing road bridge and historic rail bridge looked tiny in comparison.

A short distance on and I was into the outskirts of the city again, through the small village of Balerno and onto the Water of Leith path. Embedded in the ground at the start of the path is a stainless steel representation of the course of the river, which was glinting in the bright sunshine, mimicking the silver water itself. From here I new I could stay off roads for about 90% of the 18 miles home.

I love this path as it winds along, following the twists and turns of the river, past quaint riverside houses, through old railway tunnels,

and through the historic Dean Village in the centre of the city.

Several miles on it joins the canal for a short distance and crosses a huge viaduct. This is where I left the canal to rejoin the Water of Leith and the final push home via the local Figgate Park to see the wildflower meadow.

Friday, 15 July 2016


Following on from last weeks mini adventure by train to the Scottish Borders, this week me and my bike hopped on a train in the opposite direction, to Aviemore in the Highlands.

Good friends of mine Sarah, Roger and their two kids Emily and Robbie, were staying in the area for a short break during the summer holidays, and had invited me up to guide them on a cycle run.

Although the train ride is three hours long, I thoroughly enjoy it. Gradually the landscape changes from flat farmland, to rolling hills and on to tall mountains. Population density decreases as well, as the train climbs to the highest point on the UK rail network of Drumochter Pass, at 1480ft. Small villages that are well known to me from past adventures with Pauline, of Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore and Kingussie, pass the window, and before long we're pulling in to Aviemore with its hordes of tourist.

Aviemore station is where the nostalgic Strathspey Railway journey begins, with maroon coaches from a bygone era pulled by a traditional, restored steam engine. My timing was perfect, as just as I alighted with my bike the steam locomotive was chuffing its way in, with many happy passengers aboard. By the end of the week it would be Sarah's parent's Golden Wedding Anniversary. They were arriving Friday and had booked a journey and three course meal on board the train to celebrate. I was quite jealous.

I was a few hours early to meet up with Sarah and her family, as they were five miles further north at an adventure park called Landmark, so I took off on my bike. First stop was for lunch at a cafe I regularly visit when in the area at Inverdruie, less than a mile from Aviemore up the ski road, and tucked in to cullen skink soup with soda bread, and a fruit scone and latte.

Two miles south of Inverdruie is Loch an Eilein, nestled among the native Scots Pine of Rothiemurcus Forest, and it was here that I spent the next couple of hours pottering about on my bike, taking lots of photos and pedaling the three mile circular route round the loch.

Loch an Eilein translates from the Gaelic as Loch of the Island, and you guessed it, there's a small island in the loch, close to its western shore line. On the island is the ruin of an ancient castle. Its origins are not known exactly, but there was some sort of structure on the island when Robert the Bruce's grandson Alexander Stewart, built a fortified hunting lodge in the late 1300s. Now there are only ruins. Back home Pauline has an inflatable Packraft, and looking at the still waters, and the short distance from the shore to the island, I quite fancied the idea of exploring the island. But Pauline and the Packraft were back in Edinburgh. Another day perhaps.

Having met up with Sarah and gang later on, we settled into comfy chairs in their rented accommodation, and after supper planned the following days cycle.

Getting youngsters out of bed on any day can be challenging, but after less cajoling than I thought would be needed, we were off for our mini cycle tour. Sarah and Emily opted out and chose to go swimming instead, and to meet us later in Glenmore. So "the men", myself, Roger and Robbie, took off out of Aviemore and back along the ski road, for the six miles to Glenmore, following  a bike trail off the road called The Old Logging Way, once more surrounded by Scots Pine.

The route is very straightforward, and is a very gentle uphill for its whole length, so gentle you don't realise it has been uphill until the return journey. Taking a very slow pace we were in Glenmore in an hour with time to spare until Sarah and Emily arrived by local bus.

Now, if there's one animal that ranks above all others in the Scottish Highlands for me, it is the Red Squirrel, and on the veranda of the Glenmore Cafe you are pretty much guaranteed to see a wide variety of native birds, and Red Squirrels. It has been quite some time since I was last there, but I always make an effort to visit, as apart from the wildlife they do a fantastic bacon roll.

Inside they had made various changes to the seating, which was good, as it was in need of a thorough makeover, but I was disappointed to see that interest in maintaining the bird feeders seemed less of a priority. The staff were different as well, though the new name, Diana's at Glenmore, should have given that away. The feeders were looking old and rotting, with only one containing any food. Apart from a few Chaffinches and a mob of marauding seagulls, there was very little wildlife action, and of course most disappointingly of all, no Red Squirrels. It was more of a let down for Sarah and her family, as I had built up the experience prior to making the trip. But a walk down to the beach of Loch Morlich and it's fabulous views soon put all that in the past.

After a short meander, myself, Roger and Robbie set off on our bikes for the run back, taking a slightly different route round the shore of the loch. Just as we bounced on to the wide dirt track a Red Squirrel bounded across the track in front of me. Result.

There is a big reward in store having made the uphill pedal to Glenmore, and that is the fast downhill all the way back. It felt as if I only pedaled a couple of times, zipping along the narrow track as it made fun twists and turns through the forest.

Too soon it was time for my train home, and I boarded the train once again for my homeward journey. As if saying goodbye, the Strahspey steam train blew it's high-pitched whistle as we pulled out of the station, leaving the Cairngorms and Rothiemurcus Forest behind, bound for Edinburgh.

Friday, 8 July 2016


It's been a while since I did an outdoor blog. Primarily because I haven't done anything outdoors! Just now it's not the best time of year to be biking and hiking in the outdoors in Scotland, because of midgie hell, as it is officially called. So it was with that in mind Pauline and I chose a more easterly route for our weekend bike trip recently.

In September of last year a new railway line was opened connecting Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders. Or should I say, re-opening, as there used to be a railway on that route until the 60s, when that short-sighted politician Beaching closed everything.

The line runs for 30 miles, and is the longest new section of railway opened in the UK in over 100 years. The last time we built new railway President Roosevelt was in office in the US and became the first to ride in a motorcar; a footway tunnel opened under the Thames in London; the Boer War ended and Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published.

This was my first jaunt on the new railway, and as  a train ride it's nothing spectacular, but it was very pleasant trundling through the lush border countryside, and in under an hour we were at the end of the line in Tweedbank.

From here we headed south east to the rugby town of Jedburgh, along small country backroads and overgrown paths following signs for St Cuthberts Way, a 63 mile long distance walking route from Melrose, where St Cuthbert started his religious life in 605AD, to Lindesfarne, his eventual resting place.

Though dry it was fairly windy, but most of the route was along lanes sheltered by high hedge rows or trees. A one point we found ourselves along a pleasant path following the River Teviot. At one point the path crosses the river via a narrow suspension footbridge, interestingly funded by the EU. I guess we wont be getting any more of that then!

A short cycle day brought us in to Jedburgh and we pitched our tent for the night in a local campsite, tucking in to Idahoan Home Buttery Style potatoes, the last of my American stash, and meatballs, whilst watching a bat chasing its own supper through the air.

Day two however was much windier, as we turned north east toward the historic town of Kelso, and we were heading straight into a 15 to 20mph wind for most of the journey back to Tweedbank.

But that in no way spoiled any of the adventure, and on this day there was a lot to distract us. No cycle trip is ever complete without coffee and cake, and on this occasion we stopped in the grounds of the magnificent Floors Castle, the seat of the Duke of Roxburghe.

As castles go it's actually more of a grand country house, built by John Adam in 1720, after any defensive fortifications were needed. Just as I freewheeled downhill round a corner the view opened up. In the sunshine it is an impressive piece of architecture, set in lush manicured grounds.

But coffee and cake were more pressing, and we adjournded in search of Floors Castle coffee shop.
It would be an almost circular route to find the entrance to the coffee shop, being situated behind the castle itself, carefully positioned so as not to show a view of the castle to those unwilling to pay the £12 entry fee. We weren't disappointed. We had our coffee and cake!

Pushing on the next point of interest was a rather roughly carved, 31foot high statue to William Wallace, in the grounds of the Bemyrside Estate, not far from Melrose. Made of red sandstone and erected in 1814, it looks out over an uninterrupted view of the Borders. At Wallace's feet an inscription reads:


Pauline was the guide for the weekend, and her next "point of interest" was The Scots View.  Overlooking the valley of the River Tweed, it frames the distant Eildon Hills perfectly, and is said to be one of the favourite views of Sir Walter Scott. The sun had eluded us much of the day, but just in time for the photographs it cast patches of bright sunlight to carefully pick out the contours of what was an impressive and calming view.

Next on the itinerary was the Leaderfoot viaduct, made of red sandstone and standing an impressive 126 feet high from the river it spans. Opened in 1863 to carry the Berwickshire railway, it was closed in 1965, by, you guessed it, the politician Beaching! in 1981 it had a demolition order hanging over it, but thankfully it's listing was raised to A, and works were carried out to preserve it.

The final stop was very close by, but there wasn't anything to see or photograph. Imagination, with the aid of information boards, was needed, for here was the 2,000 year old Roman settlement of Trimontium. At the height of the Roman occupation, 1,500 hundred soldiers would have been garrisoned here. But it wasn't all military hardship, as in 1996, during excavations, they discovered the evidence for a Roman bath and a 2,000 occupancy amphitheater.

And so it was that this mini adventure in the Borders drew to a close. We arrived back at Tweedbank comfortably in time for the next train home, which was lucky, as there was industrial action on that Sunday. And that led to the trip being rounded off nicely with a free ride home, as there was no one from which to buy a ticket from, and we settled back as we trundled once more through the Scottish Borders countryside.

Friday, 1 July 2016

1st OF JULY 1916

It is the 1st of July today. 100 years ago the bloodiest battle of the First World War began at 7.30 in the morning. Throughout this morning there has been coverage by the BBC of commemorative events in France, and a number of stories from relatives of those who fought, alongside interviews filmed in the 60s and 70s of participants, has been shown.

During the course of this first day, of a battle that would rage for 141 days, more than 16,000 British soldiers were slaughtered. To put that in perspective for myself, that is the equivalent of every man woman and child in the neighbourhood of Portobello where I live, disappearing overnight.


By the time the the generals, among them Haig and my namesake Kitchener, decided to withdraw, almost 1 million soldiers lay dead. They had advanced just 6 miles.

Two months into the bloodbath and the advance had stalled. New technology reached the front in the shape of two V-Star tanks, in the hope that it would restart movement forward. These machines were able to traverse across the trenches and barbed wire toward enemy lines. What no one had considered though was the thousands of now rotting bodies that lay several men deep everywhere. One of the films the BBC showed was an interview in the 60s with one of those tank commanders. He recounted the story of how he had no choice but to drive over the top of all these dead soldiers from both sides, and the look of horror on his face 50 years on said it all.

Back then there was still a British Empire, and part of that empire was Newfoundland, across the Atlantic, now part of Canada. 800 volunteers trained and then set sail for France to stand alongside their countrymen. On one particular day the command went up for this entire battalion to advance, and on the blow of a whistle, these 800 men went over the top.

The following day just 68 reported for duty.

Of course there were horrendous casualties on both sides. The Germans had been entrenched for 20 months before the British arrived, and had been in fierce conflict with the French. The French had learned early on that a direct charge was futile, but back then communication between forces was minimal at best, and the British never took advantage of this intelligence. However, they did discover that the Germans were surviving the artillery shelling because they had dug deep underground. Discovering this the British Royal Engineers dug tunnels even deeper, right underneath the Germans. One such tunnel, Lochnagar, was then packed with 16,000lbs of explosives and detonated at 7.28am today, 100 years ago, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme. No one knows how many were killed, as the plume of debris rose 4,000 feet into the air. It left an enormous crater 300ft wide and 20ft deep, which is still there today, and is named the Lochnagar Crater.

When you look at a population census of the UK, you can see that every year the population rises. Except during what they call The Great War. In 1914 the population stood at 41 million. By the end of 1918 it had fallen to 38 million.

72,000 soldiers are still missing, buried somewhere in the fields.