Friday, 19 May 2017

OF MICE AND . . . BIRDS

If there's one thing I really enjoy every day it's feeding the wildlife in my garden. This week has been particularly fun with an abundance of sightings, but not just in the garden.

We're just getting into warmer temperatures now, and on Wednesday of this week it was warm enough to sit out in the garden and have breakfast. So I purposely fed the birds before sitting down to quietly eat my muesli. I never have to wait long. Sometimes I don't even make it up the back steps into the house before the Starlings descend. Energetically they hoovered up the mealworms in just a few seconds, pecking each other out of the way, before moving on to my neighbour Pauline's garden for a second course. We have one particular Starling, which I've noticed perches on a particular branch, which is a perfect mimic of other birds, and even the crying of a neighbour's baby!

Then came nature's announcement that summer had arrived, as several screeching birds swooped down through the garden at unbelievable speed. The Swifts had returned!

The Sparrows are comical, almost like unruly teenagers, lazily hanging around my garden all day, making a racket that seems like they are gossiping with each other, whilst enjoying the safety of cover, usually in the dense ivy or fir tree. The ivy though is starting to get quickly out of hand as it has literally burst into rapid growth in need of a slight rim I think otherwise I'm soon not going to be able to get down to the garden to feed the wildlife.


Most of the birds are now starting to perch inside the birch as it reaches full leaf, so that provides a better opportunity to see them. On this particular morning I realised there were more than the usual number of Sparrows, when it dawned on me that I was watching new fledglings. That was a great treat.

The blackbird hangs around most of the day as well, and his song is a joy at the end of every day. Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Crows, Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves, Magpies; all visitors in that breakfast time period.

The other "wildlife" in my garden habitat are two field mice. The have their own corners and are quite bold. Unusually they are out during the day, and one very small one, a picture of who ends this blog, seems unphased by my presence, and sometimes even sits atop a pot while I put food out, patiently waiting. I do worry about him, as though I have a pretty good fence all around, a persistent cat of a neighbour occasionally gets in. On Thursday this week I spotted it, slinking away slowly. Slowly that was until it heard me thundering down the stairs in hot pursuit!

Pauline also has a field mouse in her garden, which occasionally pops through to mine to steal food, and I noticed during the day that it's food had not gone. I checked a few times and it remained there all day. I was getting concerned that the cat had found its prey. Later that night, after dark, I decided to take a torch for one last check. Maybe it had been spooked by the cat and decided to return to nocturnal activities. To my relief, not only was the food gone, but he was there, on top of Pauline's narrow, thin, metal, six-foot bird table, shimmying down one of the narrow legs, upside down. It was very funny to watch. Pauline had seen this once before but I never had, so I was very lucky with my timing.

Away from my garden earlier in the week, whilst walking home late one night along a local lane, I was swooped by three bats out catching bugs. But the best siting of the week was driving home late one evening from seeing a friend in the country. On a long straight stretch of road, up ahead, illuminated by a trucks lights going the opposite way, was the white underside of a large owl, gliding through the air, across the road, to a small wood on the opposite side. I pulled over into an adjacent layby, switched off the lights and engine, and waited patiently. It didn't reappear, but it hooted several times. A very spooky but fabulous sound.

Pauline has topped all these encounters this week though. She is away up north on holiday and witnessed her first enormous Sea Eagle. Very jealous. Can't wait to hear all about that.

Meanwhile I'll be quite content with my Sparrows and mouse.



Friday, 12 May 2017

LIVE YOUR DREAMS

One of the best films of recent times is a Ben stiller movie called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I'm in the process of looking more closely at this film, deconstructing it, with a view to teaching my young students about it. It deals with a number of issues that may affect the majority of us, and it is this that makes the film so good I think. It is no coincidence that it is set at Life magazine.

If you haven't seen it, basically it is a quest movie about a daydreaming, boring photo processor, Walter Mitty, working at Life magazine in its last days before going online. He loses a negative, a first for him, for the last issue's cover, sent by one of the photographers, Sean, twho is the only person that recognises Walter's skills. The film takes us on an epic adventure from shark attacks in Greenland, to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Snow Leopards in Afghanistan.

To mark the beats of Walters quest throughout the film, he regulalrly gets calls from Todd of eHarmony, asking what else he can add to Walter's profile to make him more interesting, to increase his chances of finding a partner. Part of what makes Walter so boring, is his scrupulous accounting of his finances, which stays all the way through. A sort of count down to oblivion for him, down to zero dollars. His first job had been in a pizza restaurant called Papa John's, and he finds himself in one on Iceland. As he studies the plastic cup, after first checking his dwindling finances of course, he suddenly has an urge to get out of there. Away from the superficial plasticity of an international food chain, a metaphor for the world. This marks the point where Walter starts to change. Working for money and counting every bean is a waste of a precious, short life. This is reaffirmed by Life magazine's motto all the way through the film:

"To see things thousands of miles away,
things hidden behind walls and within rooms,
things dangerous to come to,
to draw closer, to see, and be amazed"

Though Walter had worked at Life magazine for a long time, his role was obscure, and a bitter sweet reminder that modern technology is changing everything, including the security of all our jobs. In essence, if you aren't creating something new, you're replaceable.

We're not here long at all, and we're really good at excuses, busy living up to what other people think we should be doing. But the bottom line is, stop doing what you hate and go out and live your dreams.

At the end of the film Todd from eHarmony appears and ask Walter if he is zoning out still, daydreaming. Walter pauses a moment, reflecting on what he's experienced, before he answers . . .

"Not so much"

Friday, 5 May 2017

DISCO DIVA

A couple of weeks ago I was in Carlisle for a wedding. I wasn't able to make the actual ceremony, and arrived just in time for the evening celebration. It's been a long time since I've been to a wedding reception, and on this occasion I thought I'd dropped through a wormhole, back in time.

As people gathered, the DJ, incomprehensible on the microphone, started his play list for the evening. Someone leaned over to me and told me that the same guy had run all the hotel's disco needs since 1979.

Well, I don't think he's bought any music since then either!

However, 1979 was a great year for music. I was 16 at the time, and on a Friday evening I would travel into Edinburgh to Cinderellas, an enormous disco at the bottom of St Stephen Street. I recall I wore black trousers that had a thin white line down the seam of each leg, that I had to lie on the floor to squeeze myself into.

Most of the other young people there were busy sneaking in bottles of vodka in their handbags, and so on. But for me, it was straight onto the dance floor. Many of my friends knew how much I loved to dance, and I was pretty good, though I say so myself, and they would follow me onto the floor. The DJ must have loved me too, because I was regularly the first on, and rarely left.

It was probably a subliminal influence of the disco at the wedding reception, but in the middle of this week I found myself researching hits that I remember from the charts around that time. How many of these do you recall:

Le Freak - Chic: Loved this one, sitting on the floor doing particular moves, and I always led from the front.
YMCA - The Village People
Don’t bring me down - ELO
Tragedy - Bee Gees
Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles
Pop Muzik - M
Light My Fire - Aimii Stewart
Rivers of Babylon - Boney M
The Shuffle - Van McCoy
Crazy Little Thing Called Love - Queen
Funky Town - Lipps Inc

Then there were others I came across, which though not dance music per se, brought back fond memories:

Monster Mash - Bobby Pickett and the Crypt Kickers
Walking on the Moon - Police
Enola Gay - Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Another Brick In The Wall - Pink Floyd
Oxygene part IV - Jean Michel Jarre
19 - Paul Hardcastle

Unfortunately there wasn't a single one of the dance tracks above that the Carlisle hotel DJ played that night, otherwise I would have been first on the floor, and would most likely not have left.


Friday, 28 April 2017

IT'S A SIGN

I found an excellent article recently online which I thought I'd share with you this week.

It centres around how the majority of us are making things harder for ourselves than they necessarily need to be. I must admit to feeling I fitted most of the categories.

It started with a fairly common one; taking offence at something when in actual fact there was most likely none intended. An example given was of another driver on the road cutting you up, but from my own perspective I could see how I "ascribe intent", as it was headed, when a friend will make a trivial comment or observation. At times I can react as if it's a personal slap in the face, which it mostly never is (some who know me well will be nodding their heads right now!)

If you read my blog regularly you'll know I make and teach film. Another situation described one as, being the star of your own movie. You wrote the script, and therefore you know how you want it to unfold, and even end. But, like most of my writing, no one else has read the script, then when someone screws up their expected lines, or fails to do something, you feel that the movie is ruined in that instant.

Hmmm, this was becoming eerily familiar! But I'll bet I'm not alone in all this.

As I look back on my life, and some of my closest friends make observations, it is clear I am a "glass half empty" sort of person a lot of the time. Which made me fit the next paragraph in the article very easily; I fast forward everything to its worst possible outcome in my mind when a problem appears, when the actual outcome is usually better than utter disaster.

Others need very little explanation, but rang similar bells, such as, refusing to let go of things; comparing my life to others in a negative manner; having unrealistic expectations of situations or others.

I would say that over the years, on average, I have been a believer in "fate". Some things have happened in my life that cannot be explained in any other way, and I'm happy to say, against my glass half empty personality, have been rewarding moments. A close friend of mine though, dismisses fate 100%. It is, he says, like waiting for "a sign" before acting.

Well, that brings me rather neatly to the last item on the list.

Over the past year I have been contemplating making some pretty big changes. But that is as far as it has progressed to date. Contemplating. But the last paragraph in the article made me sit up and take stock, and has actually made me start the process. It's heading was; You let other people steal from you.

This wasn't in the sense of material items or money etc, but referred directly to Time. For me, time is way higher up on my priority list than money. However, for a long period of time now I have been giving away my time, mostly to people and situations that will never recognise the full extent of what I give. In fact, I can easily go as far as saying, it has raised an expectation in those people. The big changes will put pay to this.

I must apologise to my good friend, because for me, finding this article, and particularly that paragraph, was most definitely a sign.


Friday, 21 April 2017

A GRAND ADVENTURE

I'm pretty hopeless at knowing the titles of my different relations. The easy ones are auntie, gran etc, but beyond that is confusing. This weekend I'm off to "my brothers son's" wedding, as I refer to him. He is, of course, my nephew. I'm not big on weddings or the whole social chit chat with strangers thrown together, but I'm looking forward to catching up with my brother, which I haven't done for a very long time, and brainstorming a little on a trip we're going to take into the past together in July.

In 1971, as a little boy of eight, I lived not far from Glencoe on the outskirts of a village called Ballachulish. I have few memories of childhood, but the ones from there are happy ones. One such memory was of the turntable ferries that used to transport six cars at a time across the water before they built a bridge in 1975. One of those ferries was called the Glenchulish, and it survives to this day as the Glenelg ferry, making the short crossing from the mainland to Skye. Just before that it continued to ferry cars back and forth right up until the bridge was opened.


The rest of my memories are a little unclear, but because my brother is eight years older than me I figured he would be the perfect travel companion to try and recall the memories clearer while we are there.

That eight year old boy spent the summer holidays with a small leather pouch collecting money from the waiting cars before the boarded the ferry. I would then make the crossing back and forth with the ferrymen. It was a recent picture online of the Glenachulish that made me wonder what had happened to the other two, the Glen Loy and Glen Duror.


To cut a long story short I made contact with a community group in Ballachulish, and they have given me directions to the locations of the abandoned, decaying hulls. So my brother and I are on a quest to find them and document them at the end of July. We'll also walk the old railway tracks, long since decommissioned, and reminisce of a time now lost. We're hoping to capture most of it on film and edit a short film together to gift to the community group in Ballachulish to the new museum they are planning.

It's starting to shape up to a grand adventure.


Friday, 14 April 2017

THE THREE BRETHREN

It's been a while since our little hillwalking trio, myself, Andrew and Pauline, had an overnight outdoor adventure. Recently we had enjoyed a one day walk to the Eildon hills of the Borders, taking in the Roman settlement of Trimontium, and the Borders countryside was to once again provide us with a destination, this time for an overnighter in our tents. With the Easter holidays in full swing, and sunny skies forecast, we set our sights on a small section of the Southern Upland Way, starting out from Innerleithen and finishing at Galashiels.

Access to the start of our walk was a mile and a half or so along tarmac, across the River Tweed, and then onto the route proper. The path we followed for the entire walk was great, and skirts an area called the Minchmoor.


The first day was a long pull gradually upwards, under hot, cloudless skies, but it was a fabulous, leisurely wander. The Southern Upland Way is the longest route of its kind in Scotland, some 212 miles, from Portpatrick in the west to Cockburnspath in the east.

The Minchmoor section we were walking has evidence to date it back to pre-Roman times as a Pictish Road, and was the main highway well in to Medieval times between east and west.

It is said that the Marquis of Montrose used this very route to flee from the battle of Philiphaugh in September 1645. He was eventually captured and hung in Edinburgh, and his head was displayed on a  spike in the Tolbooth. Lovely. It is said that as he was fleeing he buried a stash of money somewhere along the route, so we were keeping our eyes out for buried treasure.

A couple of hours in we came upon The Cheese Well. It is a natural spring and provided refreshment for thirsty travelers along the route, as it did for us this day as we filled out water bottles. It can be found marked on maps going back to the 1600s and derives its name from leaving small presents of cheese to thank and placate the fairies. These days people leave a coin or two on the engraved rock, so when in Rome, as they say.

A little further on, and a short few hundred yards detour, we came to the summit cairn of Minchmoor. A number of mountain bikers were already there, and in the short time we stood on its summit a number of others arrived, such is the popularity of the area with bikers. We had just come down and back on to the Southern Upland Way when Pauline found buried treasure. Well, actually, commemorative coins stashed in a hole in the wall to anyone who wants one. You'd have to know they were there mind you. There were only three left, and all a little corroded, so we only took one.

As I said at the beginning, we had walked the Eildons a few weeks back, which were now visible in the distance. On that walk we had enjoyed a treat of visiting the ancient Roman site of Trimontium. There we marveled at depressions and lumps and bumps on the ground, showing evidence of a once mighty settlement. As our walk along the Minchmoor progressed we came upon a man-made gouge called Wallace's Trench. This was a purpose built defensive ditch some 4 to 6 feet high, clearly made to defend one area from an approaching force of some size. As our small band of three got closer and closer, it looked from a distance like a slightly raised line of ground. More lumps and bumps of things long buried. But when we finally reached the actual site it was astonishing in its scale and preservation, still perfectly formed as a trench many hundreds of troops could have easily concealed themselves in.


Near to the end of our day was the third highlight of the route, and the title of this blog, The Three Brethren. When Pauline had first mentioned them I thought it referred to three slightly rounded hills next to each other, but in actual fact they are three giant cairns atop a hill at 465m.


Beautifully constructed, and standing some ten feet tall, they mark the intersection of the estates of Buccleuch, Yair and Selkirk. Originally there was only one cairn, built by Alexander Pringle in 1512 (of the wool jumper fame) and owner of the Yair estate.

This was to be our cut off point to drop down on the southern side of the route to camp for the night. As the sun was setting we tucked into our evening meals among the heather, relaxing after a rewarding day.


The sun shone again for us the following morning. This was to be a much shorter day as we made our way to Galashiels, but the walk was through some of the prettiest woods, along fabulous little paths dappled in sunlight, that I have ever walked.


As we descended toward the mighty River Tweed once more, the path was lined with great stands of Douglas Fir. It was popular in Georgian and Victorian times to plant Rhododendrons and Douglas Fir in the extended gardens of large estate houses.


So I started to think we may come upon just such a house. And we did. A beautiful, and grade 1 listed, Georgian mansion, built of red sandstone, the seat of Yair estate and Alexander Pringle that had built the first of The Three Brethren. A long time back the estate and house had been sold to pay off debts, but Pringle went to India, made a fortune, and on his return bought back the family estate.


We now ascended for one last time, across rolling farmland manicured by munching sheep, across well made dry stain dykes, past estate workers burning heather to create new and fresh habitat for red grouse, to eventually sit upon a small rounded hill overlooking the town of Galashiels.


The trip ended as it had begun, with coffee and cake. Of course.



Friday, 7 April 2017

COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BUY

I'm very proud of my community right now. Over the past few years three out of four churches in my neighbourhood have closed and the congregations amalgamated into one church. This then led to the Church of Scotland selling off the churches and adjoining properties now closed up.

Normally these fabulous buildings get snapped up by developers, and are either demolished and some collection of apartments, supposedly "designed" by an architect, are thrown up and sold to the highest bidder. Well, under new Scottish law passed a year ago, any such building put on the open market has to be available to the community it resides in under the "community right to buy" legislation. We have history of such an undertaking, albeit for island communities, but never in an urban setting, but since April last year this right was extended to cover the whole of Scotland.

It is a long process, but basically, if there is support in the community for it to happen, then things move on. To cut a very long story short, the last step is that the Scottish Government issue ballot papers to all registered voters. Somewhere in the region of 60% must vote in favour.

Well, on the 5th April a whopping 98.7% of this community did just that!

Now the purchase price will be provided by the Scottish Government once the Government minister upholds the legislation. This will be published on 26th April, but it would seem to be just a matter of ticking that box. So off we will then go to develop the space for the good of everyone.

Exciting times. Here's the action groups website in case you're inspired and want to do something similar: https://www.bellfield.scot/news/


Friday, 31 March 2017

WHITE VAN MAN

End of an era coming soon. Well, not quite an era I guess. I'm selling my big white Ford Transit van.

It has served me well over the nine years I've had it, and like myself it has changed its purpose in life many times.

At the beginning of 2009 I took the delivery of a monstrous motorcycle. You see, I'd always wanted to own a Harley Davidson, still do, if truth be known, but it was financially well out of my reach. But Suzuki had brought out a lookalike at a quarter of the price, so I went for it.


Though an inexpensive tourer, it was still a very attractive bike to look at, and I knew I couldn't leave it on the street, but I didn't have a garage. That was when a bright idea struck me; buy a van. And so the Transit came to be. I had it kitted out with a cage inside and ramps at the back, and after every time I used it, that is where it lived, though it was always nerve racking driving it up into the van and stopping before ending up in the cab!

I only ever did one big trip on it, up the west coast of Scotland. During the winter it was stored off its wheels in a friends garage. And the summers from then on were not conducive to motorcycle touring, so it rarely saw the light of day. It seemed a waste.

Then an opportunity came in 2011 to bicycle across the United States. Money had to be raised for the six month adventure, so it was a no brainer: the bike had to go.

I still had the van, and shortly after returning from the US I shelved it out to store all my DIY tools and bits and bobs. Almost a workshop on wheels, which helped me service a rental property and carry out odd jobs for friends to earn a little extra income. It served as transport for taking the bicycles away for a weekend up north as well, and the added bonus was you could stand up inside and get changed at the end of a muddy bike trip. By this time I had also become involved in the local community market, and part of that responsibility was to store the A-boards and other paraphernalia for the monthly farmers market. Again, the van did its job.

But it was becoming an expensive shed on wheels essentially, with service and MOT bills rising every year. So the past few weeks have been spent cleaning it up, repairing rust patches and emptying it of everything, ready to put on the market in a weeks time. It has two jobs left to do, one decorating a friends kitchen, and the other helping a friend move house.

I end on a daft poem by Felix Dennis:

White Van Man has a very white van
And a very white van has he,
Except for the dents and rust by the vents
A very white van has heeee!




Thursday, 23 March 2017

THE HERDSMAN OF ETIVE

Nothing gladdens the heart like a trip to atmospheric Glencoe, with the mountains dusted and capped in snow, and the sun shining.

So it was that this week I found myself, after driving for almost three hours, in its spectacular scenery, filming with, of all things, a drone.

This is all part of one of my teenage student's projects this term; Shakespeare's Macbeth. Last Saturday all 52 of them gathered at Craigmillar Castle and the surrounding park, to capture various sequences for the film, most notably the scenes of battle and the witches on the heath. Though the forecast had been for light cloud and low wind speeds, for three hours in the middle of the day it poured down and blew a gale!

Thanks BBC weather forecast!

But the students prevailed and put up with it and got the job done. This is teenagers I'm talking about!

Glencoe was glorious. I was aiming to be there for around 11am to catch the sun on Buachaille Etive Mòr (The Herdsman of Etive"), an enormous pyramid shape of a mountain, guarding the entrance to Glencoe valley. The idea was to fly toward the mountain, gradually gaining in altitude, a shot that would open the film. However, the drone refused to fly, giving me a message that the compass had malfunctioned. Frustrated, I shot a very slow zoom in with the main camera, which luckily I had taken along.

Dissappointed, I drove a few miles further on the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe valley, to treat myself to lunch. The clouds had moved in and everything was looking a bit grey and poor light for filming. However, lunch finished, as I was about to leave a couple of hours later, the sun started to break through.

If only the drone worked.

I decided to phone the repair centre in Newcastle, and explained what had happened. They made a suggestion that because of the high iron content in vast areas of Glencoe, the compass may not be broken, but confused by the iron in the rocks. With fingers crossed, I carried out the pre-flight checks, and low and behold, she flew! Delighted, but with very little battery power remaining, I captured some shots of the late sun spilling on the rock faces of nearby Bidean Nam Bian, my favourite mountain in Glencoe.


At one point I almost took the decision to stay in Glencoe overnight, charge up the power packs, and film the shot I came to do the next morning. But I had enough I reckoned, and headed south for home, marveling at the golden hour of light from the setting sun, bathing the snow covered mountains. It was such a magical time, and there was a wow moment round every corner.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

BIRTHDAY WEEKEND

You would think in a country as small as Scotland, after 50 years of exploring its landscape you might run out of new things to see. But you'd be wrong. It was my birthday recently and I was keen to do something different as part of it. Somewhere I'd never been. In Scotland.

Catching the earliest train available, Pauline and I set out from Edinburgh bound for the west coast, via Glasgow. The forecast was for overcast skies, but dry, though given a little time that could change. In a little less than two hours we were off the train at Gourock and aboard a ferry crossing the Clyde toward Dunoon. Five kilometers north along the side of the Holy Loch and we turned west, toward our new adventure destination.

The road was mostly single track all the way, and around two thirds of the way along we hit a 12% gradient.

Which then changed to a 20% gradient!

Ordinarily, with no kit on the bikes, I would have managed, albeit slowly, to climb the road, but as it was, 200 yards from the top, I dismounted and pushed. And made the top quicker than I would have pedaling!

By mid afternoon we were trundling our bikes onto another ferry and onto our destination for the weekend. Somewhere new for me, the Isle of Bute, and we camped in a forest clearing overlooking Loch Ridden and the little ferry we had just been on. As darkness fell, a full moon rose and illuminated the landscape in soft light, with the only other lights those of the ferry, twinkling on the still water as it made its way back and forth across the 500 metre crossing into the night.



Early morning and the forest was filled with the golden light of the rising sun, and a myriad of different bird song.

We struck camp and headed off to explore. All roads lead to Rothesay, it seemed, as at every junction there was a sign, with different mileages, to the capital. On occasion we came across old stone block mileage pillars, with distances in fractions. Nowadays we simply round them up.

As we rounded Kames Bay we came upon Kames Castle. More accurately it is a castellated mansion house, and the 18th century house was built upon a 14th century tower.


Originally the seat of the Bannatyne family it is one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in Scotland. Behind the castle was a walled garden, with a turreted building at one corner, and as you turned your head west, looking up a sweeping grassy plain, you came to a church tower, standing guard over the local grave yard. Though the church is a ruin now, the graveyard is still in use today.


Following the main road directly south, we reached its furthest point by early afternoon. We could have carried on along the road, turning north, and head toward Rothesay, but something drew us along a track heading down toward the southern most point of the island. It was a misty murky overcast day, and as we trundled along we could just start to make out the outline of the mountain peaks of the Isle of Arran to our right.

Two and a half kilometres on and we came to the end of the road. A small sign pointed up a grassy path toward Blane's Chapel. We had no idea what to expect, and there was not a single glimpse of it as we walked up the rise.

In what we both described as reminiscent of Inca stone work, stood a remarkably well preserved chapel dating back to the 1200s. It sat in the middle of a grassy mound, and was circled by a series of walls. In the graveyard of weathered stones, dates went back to Norse times. There has been a religious site here since the 500s, when a monastery was founded, and at one time this little chapel served the whole island of Bute.


The sun came out as we wandered round the site. It is flanked on the north and east by small woods, while to the west was a natural cliff face, rising up some 20m offering natural protection. Open views to the south led your eyes to the Holy Isle of the Isle of Arran. Maybe this had been on purpose. It was a magical place, so peaceful, and the highlight of the adventure. A real hidden gem.


Further back down the track we stopped a while a some standing stones, before heading to Rothesay and the ferry home.


As we approached the fringes of the town, having negotiated a muddy cross-country path, we arrived at a natural depression in the landscape called Loch Fad, meaning Long Loch. It is interesting geologically, as it was formed along the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault.

Having satisfied our need for coffee and cake in the centre of Rothesay, we just had time to wander round the outer walls of Rothesay Castle, described by many as one of the most remarkable castles in Scotland, for its long history and unusual circular plan.


Built in the 13th century, it fell into ruin in the 17th century and is now looked after by the state. But for me the most striking part of the castle was the unusually shaped moat, defensively surrounding its walls.


With photographs and memories of a two day adventure, that seemed altogether longer, we boarded the CalMac ferry and left the Isle of Bute behind, heading for Wemyss Bay and the train home.

It had been a great birthday weekend.




Friday, 10 March 2017

ALL THINGS COME IN THREES

It's been a long while since our hillwalking trio, myself, Pauline and Andrew, had a wander in the landscape of Scotland. In fact, it's well over a year, so, last weekend we hopped on the three-carriage train to Tweedbank in the Borders.

A Short 20 minute walk brought us into the famous rugby village of Melrose, the starting point for our walk. The town's humble beginnings were as a monastery way back, and in the middle ages it was re-built in its current site, the now famous Melrose Abbey. Originally it had gone by the name of Mailros, meaning The Bare Peninisula, and is referred to in Anglo Saxon writings as Magilros. When the monastery was rebuilt they symbolically represented the old name with a masons hammer, a Mel, and the Cistercian abbey symbol of the Virgin Mary, a Rose, hence, Melrose.


The monastic ruin of the Abbey is the location of the burial, in a sealed lead casket, of the heart of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

Our walk today started with a short, but very muddy, ramble up the adjacent Eildon Hills, a close collection of three distinct points.


It was two steps forward and one back, although more of a slide back than a step, as we tried to keep upright through the sticky red clay underfoot. It wasn't until we reached the saddle between two of the peaks that we left behind the squelchy quagmire. The annual hill run across the Eildons had just passed through, and the pounding feet of a hundred runners hadn't helped conditions. How they had managed to run on that surface though beat me.


We decided to walk only two of the three tops, and as the sun broke through, we headed east for top number two. Coming down from here was an adventure. I found my skiing balance skills were more useful than any hillwalking fitness, as the clay path became smooth and polished with all those before that had negotiated this way down. Still sticky underfoot, it clogged up the soles of our boots and left us with no grip. It sounds rubbish, but actually it was an hilarious hour, as Andrew and I gingerly picked our way down, mostly through jaggy gorse. Pauline on the other hand, had used her Ninja skills and had seemingly floated down unscathed. We met up again at the base for a rest and lunch, and shared our stories of treacherous paths and the close decision of calling mountain rescue.

Folklore tells of fairies below the Eildon Hills, and famously of one 13th Century Scottish Laird, Thomas Rhymer, written about, as well as by others, by Sir Walter Scott. A little further on from our lunch stop, at the point where we popped out onto tarmac road, is a stone tablet, erected in 1929, inscribed with the tale of Rhymer. He had a reputation for prophesy and supernatural powers, and famously prophesied the death of Alexander III. It is said that it was at the site of the stone that he met the Fairy Queen of the Eildons on a "milky white horse". Sir Walter Scott writes that the Queen dared Thomas to kiss her and go away with her for seven years.

Happy with underfoot now firm, and free of sticky clay, we set off in search of the main historical landmark of the day, named after the Three Hills of the Eildons, Trimontium, the largest northern fort of the Roman army.

Built around AD80, at its height it held 1500 soldiers, and became the main stepping off point for Rome's push into the north. Information boards circle this vast area, and one shows an aerial photograph, taken in the time of a drought in the 1980s, where you can clearly see the outline of the fort. 2000 years later!


Buckets of imagination are needed to picture the scene as it must have been, as now it is all agricultural plowed fields.The information boards help, and we all left with a strong feeling that this significantly important place should be properly excavated and opened to the public. It would become a World renowned archaeological site. Amazing treasures have been unearthed, as recently as 1905, 1947 and the early 1980s, from small digs carried out. Imagine what we might find with a full excavation.

At the far end of the Roman site is the modern day viaduct that once carried the railway line. It runs parallel to the old Roman road called Dere Street, that leads away from Trimontium north.


From here we turned south to continue our circuit of the fort, wandering along the disused railway line leading from the viaduct, through a tunnel of trees.

One fascinating item for me was a stone pillar milestone. Replaced by a modern marble replica, an original sits in the Museum of Scotland now. Sited on the corner of the fringes of the fort, all distances north, measured in 1000 Roman soldier steps, began from the one milestone pillar. It inspired me to visit the museum to see the original, found near modern day Aberdeen and mentions the distance from Trimontium.

Our day ended with a wander past the ruins of Melrose Abbey, followed by a trio of lattes in a newly revamped coffee shop called the Greenhouse cafe in the centre of Melrose, with views to the abbey.


Friday, 3 March 2017

CARPETS AND WALLS OF COLOUR

It may be bitterly cold on some days at the moment, but that's mainly because of clear skies. The sun is shining and the deep blue of the sky just makes you feel good.

During the past few days I've been receiving email alerts warning of a possible sighting of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Because of the clear skies every night, it presented the chance of a cracking display of colour. Despite my patience over several nights, whilst shivering outside in the late hours, I didn't witness any sweeping brush strokes of dancing colours across the night sky.

But out for a wander a couple of days ago, through my local park and along quiet lanes, I did get a treat of vibrant colours. We are, afterall, entering that wonderful stage of new life, when nature throws its pallet of colours across our landscapes.

It is for me, like many people, my favourite time of year, though I do also love the hues of Autumn. But there's something really uplifting as you turn a corner onto a nondescript, busy road, and come across a simple garden hedge, displaying a veritable wall full of colour and beauty.


This rebirth period of the year also inspires me to wander further, in search of what is coming into flower next. Nearby is a large National Trust estate, and last weekend I happened upon glades of newly opened snowdrops.

Just now it's the turn of the crocuses and snowdrops, and they are creating carpets of colour everywhere. Very soon the bluebells will appear, then the daffodils. Already blossom has appeared on some trees, and soon the heady smell of wild garlic will adorn the cycle paths into the city.

In my local park, the first of the photos above, there is one particular tree that I love. It is easily 30ft tall and the same again wide, and for just a brief period it has the most incredible display of pinky purple blossom. The buds are there now, squeezing their way through, but it is yet to bloom. I can't wait. As a tease I came across this tree, with white blossom, in someone's garden at the end of my walk. Isn't nature amazing.