Sunday, 14 July 2019

Trains, trade shows, thunderstorms.... and the peace of nature

Foxgloves and greenness. Strathspey, July 13.

Last week I was down south in Manchester at the Outdoor Trade Show, wandering hot, stuffy windowless halls looking at gear designed to be used in the open air and wild places. The contrast strikes me every year. The best aspect of these shows is meeting people, old friends and new. And some of the gear is interesting too - it'll be reviewed in The Great Outdoors over the next year (some isn't available until next spring).

View from the train.

After the three days of the show I was happy to make the long train journey north. Thunderstorms were forecast but the view from the train showed a sunny day. Texts from home told of torrential rain and damage to the track to our house. And the train was delayed due to flooding on the line. Then when I got home I found lightning had taken out landline and broadband, leaving just a very weak mobile signal.

Needing to escape from the frustration of trying to work on the phone I went for a walk. The day was muggy, drizzly and dark, the hills swathed in thick clouds. But there were flowers, many flowers, and wildlife - roe deer, buzzards, red squirrels, rooks and more. And the rich greenness of the grasses and trees was soothing. Calmed by nature I returned home in a more accepting frame of mind.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Inverness, Edinburgh, Manchester - Sandstone, DofE Gold, Outdoor Trade Show - July non-outdoor travels.

After sunset from a high camp, June 2018
The first half of this month is busy, very busy, with travels to different events all connected to the outdoors but all taking place indoors.

First came a trip to Inverness where my publishers Sandstone Press were holding a party to celebrate moving into new bigger offices. There I enjoyed talking to many people including fellow Sandstone authors Cameron McNeish and John Allen - the latter's Cairngorm John was Sandstone's best seller until recently. Now, unsurprisingly, it's Man Booker winner Jokha Alharthi's Celestial Bodies. There's a new updated edition of Cairngorm John due out soon - maybe it will regain the top spot!

Before the Sandstone party had even finished I had to dash off for the last train to Edinburgh as the next day I was a presenter at the big DofE Gold Awards at Holyrood Palace. When I say big I mean huge. There were twenty-four presentations (I did two) to almost 1000 young people. Handing out the awards to the eighty young people in my groups I reckon I was photographed at least four hundred times! It was a rewarding, interesting and tiring day. I was well out of my comfort zone too - I had to wear a suit and shirt and tie, for only the second time in many decades. (Mountaineer Alan Hinkes, another presenter, has photographs!).

Back home very late in the evening from Edinburgh I've had two days to get ready to head to Manchester for the three-day Outdoor Trade Show where I'll get sore feet  - it's always more tiring than any hillwalking - wandering round the exhibition halls looking at new outdoor gear. I'll be posting snippets of anything interesting on social media. At the show I'll also be meeting The Great Outdoor's new editor, Carey Davies, along with online editor Alex Roddie and various people from the magazine's publishers.

Once home from the show I'm hoping normal business can resume and I can get out in the hills and gaze at scenes like the one at the top of the piece. That's what it's really all about.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

What I've Been Reading Online No.8

Backpackers in the Cairngorms, June 27

Here's the next selection of items I've enjoyed reading online, covering the last two weeks.


The Longest Straight-line Walk in the World
A fascinating mathematical exercise works out the longest you could theoretically walk in a straight-line is 11,241km from China to Spain.

A revisit: The PCT Hiker's Handbook
Paul Mags looks back at a seminal book of the modern lightweight backpacking movement.

The Case for Hiking with a Heavy Pack  
A somewhat controversial piece. Interesting but I think makes generalised and inaccurate assumptions about lightweight backpacking.

Time to retire 

Barefoot Walking Gives You Calluses That Are Even Better For Your Feet Than Shoes, Study Suggests
We didn't evolve to wear shoes. Calluses are good for you!

Another Afghanistan: Trekking in the Wakhan Corridor
Yes, you can go walking in Afghanistan. Sounds good too.

Common Spotted Orchid, June 23


Can planting billions of trees save the planet?
Patrick Barkham looks at TreeSisters and its work on reforestation. A heartening story.

Trophy hunting 'imperial' and 'unsustainable' 
Well-argued piece showing elephant trophy-hunting is not about conservation.

The weight of the law?
A powerful piece by Guy Shorrock of the RSPB about traps and snares catching non-target birds and animals.

'We are losing the web of life': why the global nature crisis is as dangerous as climate change. 
A worrying analysis.

Connections on Cairngorm
Peter Cairns of Scotland:The Big Picture describes the important and encouraging work of Cairngorms Connect to restore and revitalise wild nature.

Utopia isn't just idealistic fantasy - it inspires people to change the world
Why utopianism matters.

What Does Climate Change Really Mean for Cumbria? 
Excellent look at climate change in general and its effect on Cumbria in particular by environmental scientist Sir Martin Holdgate.

The legalised persecution of wildlife in our National Parks and the Protecting Scotland's Wild Mammals bill   
Nick Kempe of Parkswatch Scotland looks at the problem of wildlife persecution, especially of mountain hares, and questions whether proposed new legislation will work.

The Psychology of Wolf Fear and Loathing 
An interesting look at why people are so scared of wolves.

Welcome to the fastest-heating place on Earth  
On the Svalbard archipelago global warming is taking dangerous hold. 

The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging  
Lovely piece on bird songs and calls and us.

Global beef trade 'destroying the Amazon'  
The destruction of the Amazon rain forest speeds up as the demand for beef increases.

One of the Wells of Dee, high in the Cairngorms, June 28
The Unseen World Beneath Us: Places of Beauty, Danger and Wisdom
A wonderful review of Robert Macfarlane's Underland by Terry Tempest Williams.

'The Underland is A Deeply Human Realm' Getting Down with Robert Macfarlane
A fascinating interview with Robert Macfarlane about his new book.

After sunset, June 19

Strì an Fhearainn: Story of the Land
The importance of the land and who owns it in Scotland's culture and community.
Communing with the Dead: I followed the Grateful Dead to escape and ended up finding home
Social psychologisty Amy Cuddy finds a community with Grateful Dead fans.


Sunday, 30 June 2019

A Wild Camp on Braeriach

Wild places always call. Sometimes the weather does too.  Blue cloudless skies, hot sun, the mountains sharp and clear. I couldn’t resist. So I went to Braeriach for a circular walk with a high camp that I think takes in just about everything the Cairngorms have to offer from the forests to the mountain plateaux.

The walk began amongst the wonderful pines of Rothiemurchus Forest. Even in the shade of the trees it was hot. The rivers and streams still ran strongly though, full with recent rain. The path took me slowly up through the forest towards the great cleft of the Lairig Ghru and the ragged cliffs of Creag an Leth-choin. 

Once below the cliffs and in the mouth of the pass I turned more steeply uphill to climb the slopes of Sron na Lairige, the other wall of the Lairig Ghru. A few walkers passed me, descending. Distant views opened up, far hills sharp and clear. 

A last climb and I was on the long broad summit ridge of Braeriach looking across the snow-splashed cliffs rimming huge An Garbh Choire to Cairn Toul, one of the great views of the Cairngorms. Across the Lairig Ghru a few clouds were drifting over the summit of Ben Macdui, the first I’d seen all day.

Away across the plateau I could see the silver thread of the infant River Dee running across the mountainside before plunging down into the corrie as the Falls of Dee. Reaching the stream I followed it to its source, a collection of springs called the Wells of Dee. Here I camped, alone in a vast landscape.

A thin mist slipping over the ground reduced the sunset to a thin red line. At 2.30 in the morning I woke and looked out to a clear sky with a bright crescent moon and the white streaks of noctilucent clouds rising above the orange glow on the eastern horizon. I wandered round camp, revelling in the silence, the beauty, the peace, the joy of being here. In the distance I caught movement, a herd of reindeer browsing in the half-light.

Several hours later I woke again as the bright light of the sun warmed the tent. A breeze gently rattled the fabric, a breeze that kept me pleasantly cool as I wandered up to Einich Cairn and then along the edge of Coire an Lochain where I gazed down snow-filled gullies to the dark waters of the lochan.

From the mouth of the corrie an old little-used path zigzagged down towards Gleann Einich with the long cliffs of Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor rising above, another splendid scene. A final descent down boggy heathery slopes and I was on the wide track in the glen and heading back towards the forest. Once in the shelter of the trees the heat hammered at me, making the walking the toughest of the day. Amongst the glorious trees I was happy to slow down, sitting often to soak in the life of the forest.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Book Review: Scaling the Heights - Measuring Scotland's Mountains

Back in 1891 Sir Hugh Munro produced his Tables of Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet high using the maps and surveying techniques of the time. These often weren’t very precise leading to doubts about hills just above or just below the magic 3,000 feet (914.4 metres). Modern surveying equipment and methods can measure hills much more accurately. The Ordnance Survey however only gives heights to the nearest metre. So a 914-metre summit might be 3,000 feet or might not. 

In 2006 The Munro Society decided to settle the matter by measuring accurately the two hills the OS said were 914 metres high, Beinn Dearg in Torridon and Foinaven. This developed into eight years of measuring the heights of all nineteen hills around 914.4 metres, a process that became known as “The Heightings”. 

This book, produced for the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro, tells the fascinating story of The Heightings with contributions from many of the members of The Munro Society involved plus the surveyors themselves. There are also chapters on how Munro constructed his Tables, the changes to the Tables since Munro’s time, and how modern surveying techniques work. 

Measuring the hills involved carrying heavy equipment to the summit and then waiting for hours while readings were taken. Sometimes the weather wasn’t kind, but the surveys still went ahead except on the very first trip, the only one I was on, when we turned back due to the stormy weather. 

Excellent photographs give a real sense of what The Heightings were like, showing the surveys taking place, the hills themselves, and the people involved, often wrapped up warmly or lying in bivi bags as they waited for the survey to be completed. 

Heading up Beinn Dearg on the first Heighting

Given the subject matter this could have been rather a dry book. It isn’t. It’s entertaining as well as informative and contains some humorous stories. My favourite comes at the end of The Heightings when a German TV company films a pretend Heighting (a real one would take too long) as part of a documentary on Scottish life and culture with an emphasis on the idiosyncratic. Iain A. Robertson, the author of this chapter, comments ‘how any group of persons who climbed mountains because they were above a certain height and, moreover, went to great lengths to check these heights, could be regarded as idiosyncratic is difficult to fathom’.