Friday, 31 March 2017


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


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


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


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


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.