Monday 30 November 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No.28

Cairn Lochan, November 20

Only twelve days since I last posted links to online reading I've enjoyed but there's been plenty to read since so here's another list, including pieces on avalanches, outdoor gear, deer, rewilding, star jelly, grouse shooting, and more.


Avalanches in Scotland - interview with Mark Diggins

Helen Webster of Walk Highlands interviews Scottish Avalanche Information Service co-ordinator and senior forecaster for the Cairngorms, Mark Diggins.

Walkers celebrate famous bothy after 100 years of saving lives in Scots wilderness

Corrour Bothy in the Cairngorms has been a refuge for 100 years. Laura Smith talks to Ralph Storer about his new book on the bothy.

The Moth and the Mountain by Ed Caesar review – bonkers but beautiful

Sam Woolaston reviews a book about Maurice Wilson and the strangest ever Everest expedition.

Kit List - what I carry and why

After nearly walking 4000 miles solo on her European journey One Woman Walks describes the gear she uses.

The Digital Dilemma 

Hendrik Morkel of Hiking In Finland wonders whether he really wants to be connected when out in the wilds.

Today Was A Gift

A lovely lyrical essay by landscape photographer and writer David Russell on a visit to a special tree in Gleann Einich.

"The Fox of Glencoe" - Hamish MacInnes RIP

Heavy Whalley on mountaineering and mountain rescue legend Hamish MacInnes who died recently.

Climbing out of the fog into sunshine is a profound experience says Ben Dolphin.

 Alex Roddie selects favourite quotes from an excellent book on a long Scottish winter walk.

Trees, November 28


Star Jelly 

Tim Melling looks at this strange gooey substance. Just what is it?
"The static world these bureaucrats worship is slipping away. And that is good."
 Derek Gow on rewilding, farming, and what 'New Nature' means to him.
 How The Shooting Industry Is Exploiting The Legacy Of The Clearances
For conservationists, reducing deer numbers is necessary to restore landscapes in the Scottish Highlands – but it’s proving controversial. David Lintern takes a closer look.

From rewilding to forest schools, our attitude to nature is changing for the better
Melissa Harrison sees hope in the many recent developments in attitudes to nature.

Nature Writing and Gender
A look at women's nature writing by Daphne Pleace.

How medieval Christian ideology changed the Polish environment forever

Medieval historian Amanda Power describes how religious beliefs led to the destruction of the forests in 14th century Poland.
Scotland is facing a nature crisis. We need to fix it. 
Jim Crumley on the biodiversity crisis in Scotland and what can be done about it.
SNP announces intention to license driven grouse shooting – early thoughts
Writer High Webster looks at the welcome Scottish government plan to license driven grouse shooting and considers what it means. 

Through the trees to the mountains, November 28




Friday 27 November 2020

Mists & Meetings

David Lintern on Cairn Lochan

November is often a month when winter teases, arriving one day, vanishing the next, and this year has been just like that. The tops have been snow-covered several times but it’s never lasted more than a few days. The beginning of this week saw snow yet again but again it quickly thawed. Later in the week the stormy weather was forecast to ease. A day in the hills called, snow or no snow. Having looked at brown slopes at dusk the day before and with no snow forecast I was surprised to wake to see the summits white. An ice axe was hastily added to my pack.

Late morning and I was about to set off from Coire Cas – a late start because the forecast was for clearing afternoon skies with the possibilities of cloud inversions and a colourful sunset – when a figure approached. David Lintern had the same idea as me. My companion on an overnight trip earlier in the month was planning a more adventurous route than me though so after a chat and a disgusted look at the ugly Snow Factory spewing out spurts of white powder to add to the piles of the stuff at the bottom of the ski run from where it has to be pushed uphill to be of any use we headed off in different directions.


As I plodded up the slopes towards the Cairngorm Plateau the air grew colder and I was soon walking on a thin layer of crisp crunchy snow. I knew it had fallen the night before but it wasn’t soft and fluffy, it was hard and breakable. I guessed it had fallen as wet snow onto wet ground and had then frozen when the temperatures dropped. There was verglas on bare rocks, almost invisible and very slippery.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda with walker

High above I could see figures descending the ridge, early risers to be coming down now. As they grew nearer I recognised Helen and Paul Webster of Walk Highlands. They'd come up my planned descent route. A bit icy, they said, we’re glad we had micro spikes. I hadn’t brought mine, just the ice axe, which would be little use on this thin covering of snow and ice. “You should get the better weather; it looks like its clearing”. With that they continued down. Above there were patches of blue sky amidst the high rolling barrels of cloud. 

Clouds over Ben Macdui

The ridge steepened enough for me to take care on the icy rocks then I was on the Cairngorm Plateau. Up here it looked and felt like winter. The land was frozen and white, the wind sharp and chill. A figure with a dog approached and greeted me. It was Munroist extraordinaire (fifteen rounds!) and mountain guide Steven Fallon, who I’d met up here not many weeks before. There were few people about and I seemed to know all of them.

Beinn Mheadhoin

The clouds racing across the sky enveloped summits then exposed them again, an ever-changing dramatic land and skyscape. Sunshine shone on mountainsides and picked out features. Although there was much swirling cloud I was rarely in it and never had the feeling of being enclosed in mist and I could usually see the sun, sometimes bright and clear, sometimes dull and hazy, but there. As I followed the northern edge of the Plateau I met just one other walker. I didn’t know them but they recognised me from my books and magazine articles so for the fourth time I stopped for a chat.

David appears

Continuing on I passed the top of the ridge David had been going to climb. Thinking of all the time I’d spent talking I expected him to be far ahead of me. He wasn’t. Arriving on the summit of Cairn Lochan I looked back to see a figure arriving at the top of the ridge. Bright green trousers and a white rucksack. It was David. I wandered across the slopes to meet him. He had his ice axe in hand and said the icy rocks had slowed his ascent.

Looking into Coire an Lochain

After marvelling, as always, at the dramatic cliffs and gullies that plunge down to the lochans far below we talked our way back to the car park. The clouds overhead thickened. There was no sunset colour. The first winter day on the hills was fading quietly away. 

Somewhere in there is Braeriach


Wednesday 25 November 2020

Winter Camping - soon I hope!


As December approaches I'm getting excited at the thought of winter camping. Real winter camping that is, in snow. I love camping in wild places year round but snow camping is special. Lying snug in a warm sleeping bag gazing out at starry skies and a vast white mountain landscape is one of my favourite camping experiences.  Under snow the mountains seem bigger and wilder, the scars of summer hidden. Hillwalking becomes mountaineering when the paths and cairns are covered in snow.

In the Cairngorms, my local mountains, winter camping can last half the year, from November to April. Most years though conditions aren't suitable until sometime in December. The best months are often February and March.

Camping in the mountains in winter does require care. I watch weather and avalanche forecasts carefully when planning where to go and always have an escape route worked out if conditions worsen. 

As winter loads are heavier - bigger pack, thicker sleeping bag and mat, more clothing, ice axe, crampons, snow shovel -, daylight hours much shorter and the terrain often tougher I don't plan long days in winter. I may set off in the dark, I may make camp in the dark, but even when I do I want to enjoy the experience and not exhaust myself - though soft deep snow or strong winds does result in the latter at times.

Thinking of winter camping I've been looking through my photos from past camps, and relishing the memories of these wonderful trips. I've posted some of them here, all taken in the Cairngorms in the last decade. I hope to have pictures of new winter camps very soon.

Sunday 22 November 2020

Thoughts on the Wind and two walks on Meall a'Bhuachaille

Over An Lochan Uaine to Cairn Gorm, November 20

Checking the weather forecast before heading out for a walk, short or long, high or low, is something I’ve done for many years. For mountain and hill trips the forecast is a deciding factor in exactly where I’ll go. When I look at the forecast the first thing I want to know is predicted wind speed. That’s more important than precipitation, temperature, or cloud levels. Those all matter of course but it’s the wind that comes first. That’s because high winds make coping with rain, snow, cold, and mist much, much harder. Really strong winds can be disorientating, exhausting, dangerous even in warm sunny weather. I’ve retreated from the hills or altered my route on many occasions over the years and the reason is usually the wind. 

The Cairngorms, October 9

These thoughts were started by an Outdoor Gear Coach zoom meeting last week during which one participant asked what wind speed people would be prepared to go out in. I and others said 30-40mph. The questioner said he’d asked because he’d been talking to an outdoor instructor who’d said 100mph. That was startling. I can only think the instructor had never measured the wind speed and had greatly over-estimated winds they’d been out in. I’ve carried an anemometer for many years and regularly record wind speeds. A few times it’s registered speeds a little over 60mph – and then I’ve been lying down or clinging to a rock before being blown back down the hill.

What’s all this to do with Meall ‘Bhuachaille? Well, it’s a favourite Cairngorms hill to go to when the weather forecast is for storms on higher hills. At 810 metres it’s some 400 metres lower than Cairn Gorm or Ben Macdui.  It’s also a fairly gentle rounded hill with no cliffs or ravines to be blown off or into and with good paths for easy navigation. This autumn I’ve been over Meall a’Bhuachaille twice, both on occasions when the forecast suggested blizzards and severe winds on the Cairngorm Plateau.

Back to the storm, October 9

The walks were over six weeks apart and conditions were very similar in some respects but very different in others. On the first trip, on October 9th, there were heavy squalls. Rain lower down, sleet and hail higher up. I had waterproof jacket and overtrousers on all day. The wind was strong, gusting on the summit to 30-35mph, but not unmanageable. On the way up though one blast of sleet and hail lashed my face painfully and came with a wind it was hard to walk into. For half an hour I sat in the heather with my back to the storm and with a thick insulated jacket over my waterproofs. I kept that jacket on when I continued to the summit, where I didn’t linger as the wind was still strong, the temperature below freezing, and I was in mist with no views.

On the summit, November 20

On the second walk on November 19 the weather was much warmer and drier. I wore fleece and windproof jackets all day and never took my warm jacket out of the pack. The wind was much stronger than in October though. On the last section to the summit it kept blowing me sideways, so I had to constantly correct my course to stay on the path. At the top I was very grateful for the small stone walls around the cairn that gave some shelter. Out in the wind I held up my anemometer, gusts blowing me backwards. The highest speed recorded was 49mph. I was very glad it wasn’t colder and that I wasn’t anywhere steep or narrow or where tricky navigation might be needed. The wind was difficult enough to deal with on its own.

100mph wind? I don’t think so.

On both walks I looked down on the wind rippling the waters of Loch Morlich and across the forest to snow on the high Cairngorms. I was glad I wasn't up there.

Loch Morlich, October 9

Loch Morlich, November 20

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Muirburn, grouse moors, hen harriers - time for a change

Muirburn on the Cromdale Hills, November 14

For several days now I've been seeing plumes of smoke and flashes of orange flames from muirburn (heather burning) on the Cromdale Hills and thinking about the destruction this causes - the creatures that die in the fire, the peat that is burnt, the vegetation destroyed - all so a few rich people can enjoy killing birds, blasting them out of the sky for fun. Then of course there's the wildlife trapped, poisoned and shot because it might eat some grouse. And the trashed landscape - a mass of burnt patches, bulldozed roads, fences and gates - ugly to look at the poor in biodiversity. It's a huge price to pay for some people to get their kicks slaughtering grouse. 

I feel strongly about this and find grouse moors depressing places. There are areas of the Eastern Cairngorms I won't visit again while grouse shooting continues. I don't go into the hills to feel angry and upset.

Yesterday, November 17, NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) published a report, Heads Up For Harriers, on one of Scotland's rarest birds of prey, the hen harrier, which is also one that tends to disappear or die if it comes near a grouse moor. Here's a quote from NatureScot's post about the report:

"Analysis indicated that harriers fare best on those estates with no shooting interests, with more breeding attempts, nesting success and higher productivity recorded on the majority of non-sporting estates."

Well, what a surprise! Anyone who has followed the fate of hen harriers (and other birds of prey) knows already that they often don't survive long on shooting estates, as well-documented by Raptor Persecution UK. It is good to have this acknowledged by the government agency for nature though. Maybe now the Scottish Government will do something?

Unsurprisingly Raptor Persecution has posted its own caustic comment on the report and the whole Heads up for Harriers project. 

This scandal has been going on far too long and there have far too many concerned words from politicians that aren't backed up by action. To help prod the politicians into doing something please support  Revive The coalition for grouse moor reform and sign their pledge. 

It's also worth following Raptor Persecution UK along with Mark Avery, who often blogs on the subject, for up to date information and details of any actions you can take. Mark Avery's book Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands, is worth reading too. It's packed with information and makes the case for the end of driven grouse shooting.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

What I've Been Reading Online no. 27

Dusk over the Cairngorms, November 9


Wolves, bears, lynx, navigation, avalanches, Munros, a mystery and more in online reading I've enjoyed the last two weeks.



Up Land: We drank Ardbeg and talked wild places and politics. 

David Lintern on our overnight trip on the Cairngorm Plateau.

When Glencoe resembled the Himalaya

An old folder of photographs brings back memories of snowy winter climbs for Alex Roddie.

Dover to Cape Wrath: full gear review 

Last summer Mark Webb walked from Dover to Cape Wrath. Here he describes his gear choices.

I learnt about winter mountaineering from this. Lancet Edge Avalanche.

David 'Heavy' Whalley recalls being avalanched long ago and the lessons he learned.

A Nameless Hiker and the Case the Internet Can't Crack

A hiker is found dead in his tent. He's met many people along the Appalachian Trail. He has a trail name - Mostly Harmless. There are photographs of him. Three years later he still hasn't been identified. Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief, of Wired looks at this mystery. 

Night Navigation on the Dava Moor with the Moray Mountaineering club. A few lessons re learned!

David 'Heavy' Whalley practises navigation on a dark November night.

Great Mountain Days in Northern Scotland 

Joe Williams of Cicerone Press braves the midges to walk, scramble and camp in the NW Highlands.

The Munros a look back to 1976

More memories from David Whalley. Here he looks back to early days on the Munros and the completion of his first round.

A Rum do – hippos, Eddie Stobart lorries and a magical protection from ticks

Ben Dolphin thinks entertainingly about ticks.

Interview: Nick Hayes on The Book of Trespass

David Lintern talks to the author of an important new book on trespass in England.

Dusk in the woods, November 9


As predators return to Sweden’s wild, ecotourism looks to change mindsets

A look at how Sweden is managing the return of wolves, bears and lynx.

Language Matters: A War on Wildlife Project campaign 

War on Wildlife launches a campaign against the use of words like vermin and game to describe wildlife. I welcome this. I wrote about it in Along the Divide and I think it really does matter. 

Bringing back the beast: rewilding projects are expanding European carnivore ranges

Jacob Dykes of Geographical magazine looks at the increasing number of projects bringing back large carnivores to Europe in this in-depth article.

The Wolf: Too Wild For Scotland? (part 2).

A look at the cultural problems of bringing wolves back to Scotland.

Secrets of the ice: unlocking a melting time capsule

Climate change is creating a new academic discipline - glacial archaeology. 

Friday 13 November 2020

My Cairngorms Inversion trip on The Caledonia Collective


The story of my cloud inversion and fogbows Cairngorm trip in October is now on The Caledonia Collective website here. Regular readers of my blog will have read about this fantastic trip and seen the pictures already but this is an opportunity for me to flag up The Caledonia Collective, which launched in September and which already has many excellent pieces to read. 

What is The Caledonia Collective? "We are a collaboration of creative people who are inspired by the landscapes of Scotland. Our diverse team of contributors includes people who are writers, photographers, musicians, athletes, historians… the list is long. But whatever our professions, our passion is for telling stories of Scotland."

I hope to contribute more to this excellent project. In the meantime please do go and have a look.


Sunday 8 November 2020

Conversation & whisky, sunshine & splendour in the Cairngorms.

Sometimes it can be great to have a companion in the hills. As a loner who mostly goes solo I easily forget this. I was reminded of it a few days ago when I went up into the Cairngorms for a high camp with fellow outdoor writer and photographer David Lintern. Over the two days we talked of much - conservation, mountains, gear, photography, writing, politics and, inevitably, Covid 19 and the effect it has had on each of us and the wider world. Fascinating conversations in a wild landscape stimulating to the mind. The weather helped too. The air was dry and quite warm, the wind light. No need to hide in jackets and hoods, any words blown away by a storm. 

The western sky was afire as we crossed the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui, the late sun dazzling and fierce. Dropping down from the summit into sunless shadows we soon found a good camp site looking to Cairn Gorm and more distant hills. David had brought some delicious Ardbeg malt whisky as promised and we toasted the night as the stars came out and the thin clouds faded away. Overhead the Milky Way arced across the sky, hundreds of billions of stars. An immense universe, its vastness ungraspable. 

Light returned with a dappled sky and a sunlit glow on distant hills. In these glorious surroundings we were in no hurry to depart,  we just revelled in being here. A half-moon hung yellow high in the sky. Late last night it had risen blood-red through the clouds. 

There were few clouds left by the time we set off, down to Loch Etchachan. The hills were edged hard against the sky, silhouettes towards the sun, glowing away from it.

 From Loch Etchachan we went up Beinn Mheadhoin, a first for David. And it was many years since I'd last climbed it. The air was surprisingly warm and very dry. High on Beinn Mheadhoin the arid atmosphere, the rich red-brown of the granite, the wide stony plateau with its sparse coarse vegetation, and the towering rock tors brought to my mind the Arizona desert and to David the Sierra Nevada in Spain. It certainly didn't feel like the Scottish Highlands. 

Back at Loch Etchachan we followed the loch shore then wound a way up a broad buttress and north across the Plateau. This is pathless terrain and I'd never been exactly this way before. The landscape is huge and complex and feels much bigger when explored cross-country. The short day was hastening to dusk, the low sun turning the summits gold just as it had eight hours earlier. Then there was just the darkening sky and distant wisps of cloud catching the last faint light.

At a final brief stop before the descent my phone picked up a cryptic text message from my partner -"Seems we have a win for decency". I knew immediately what she meant. Trump had lost the US Presidential election. We were descending back to a world that already felt better.