Aberfoyle

From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!

Sometimes we like to think that our ancestors were far more superstitious that us: less sophisticated, less modern or up-to-date. But pay a visit to your local cinema and take a look at the large number of films full of vampires, zombies, ghosts and  horrific creatures: all there to scare the living daylights out of us.  And we even pay for the pleasure! It’s curious, isn’t it.  Just what is it in us that enjoys being terrified and faced with such primeval fears?

Back in the 17th century Rev Robert Kirk, the young minister at Kirkton Church in Aberfoyle, wondered just that. He collected folklore and stories from local people about their experiences with the supernatural. He then examined biblical references and asked whether there might in fact be a class of ethereal beings in this world which we didn’t yet understand, or could fully explain. He’s remembered today as The Fairy Minister, which tends to belittle him, and makes it easy to shrug of his work. But who really knows? And sometimes it’s worth keeping an open mind on such matters!

Certainly you’ll find that his grave is, more often than not, covered in coins, put there by the superstitious of today hoping for some good luck from their gesture. Or at the Minister’s Tree atop Doon Hill, where there’s a ‘clootie well’, with so many pieces of cloth that the whole hill top can look fairly dirty and untidy. Yet these things are put there as ‘wishes’ to the fairies: or to whatever power may be willing to offer assistance. I sometime wonder if we’re really much less superstitious today after all.

Kirk’s short study, The Secret Commonwealth, helped put Aberfoyle on the map, as did Sir Walter Scott, and the arrival of the railways. Yet there’s much more to the history of this small town than you might think. On top of which, it’s a wonderful base for exploring the Trossachs on foot, by bike or in the car.

This is just a taster for what’s in my article in July’s edition of iScot magazine. So if you want to find out more then simply download the online edition (116 full-colour pages for only £2.99) from iScot at Pocketmags or buy a print copy (£3.99) from any of these newsagents (right):

You won’t be disappointed. But, be warned, you might just find yourself checking under your bed before turning the lights out!

 

Glenelg – Spacemen and Spies!

It’s easy to dismiss small or seemingly remote communites as offering nothing much of interest. But that’s a very mistaken assumption. Everywhere has a history. Everywhere the impact of human life leaves a mark. And small places are no different. In fact, it’s in these places that change is often felt more intensely and with far greater repercussions.

Glenelg in Lochaber is a good case in point. As the title of this article shows, a lot more has happened there than you might expect! Sometimes it can take a bit of digging to discover past events and fully appreciate the legacy they’ve left behind. But echo down the years they do: leaving their mark on the land and the people.

Iron Age brochs, redcoat barracks, Gavin Maxwell and his otters, sailing over the sea to Skye: Glenelg has all that and much, much more. I know Glenelg well and have visited often, but I still find there’s always something more just waiting to be experienced.

If it’s a place you don’t yet know, or even if you have visited, but would like to find out more, then my article in the June issue of the iScot magazine is just right for you: and costs less than a pint of beer in the pub! So treat yourself to something that will last a lot longer than that pint – and probably do you more good to boot!

iScot from Pocketmags

King’s Cave on Arran – a message still resonating today

Remember the tale of Bruce and the spider? The tale of how a tiny creature’s persistence provided the spur that Bruce needed to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds? With the benefit of hindsight we know that success was eventually to be his. But he didn’t know that. He had to face his darkest moment without knowing what the future would bring.

Bruce faced terrible losses; the barbaric torture and death of some of his closest family, the imprisonment of others, the loss of Scotland. How much easier it could have been for him to turn and run. Give up and disappear from history. But he didn’t.

With hindsight life seems much easier than it is. But the reality is that, more often than not, we have to take a leap of faith, not knowing what the final outcome will be, but hoping that the decision we’ve made is the right one.

And it’s this that makes the central message of Bruce’s tale resonate just as strongly today as it did all those centuries ago. Right now, in countries like Syria and Yemen, men, women and children are facing the horrors of war, torture and starvation. Drug wars rage in South America. Torture and beheading go on unabated in Saudi Arabia. Ours is not a peaceful world. Yet despite that, there are always those courageous enough to stand up against oppressors, no matter how impossible the odds appear.

Standing up against injustice takes courage and conviction. While we may not fear for our safety in a physical sense, there are still anxieties that stop us speaking out against the insidious structural violence that dictatorial government in Westminster is inflicting on so many people. Right now the poor, the disabled, the widowed and the most vulnerable are being crushed. New laws are being slipped in silently, without debate, without scrutiny, without consensus. Legal?  Perhaps, but at the same time immoral.

In Europe we’ve had a long spell of peace and relative stability and it can be hard to take in the seriousness of what’s happening. Or have we become too comfortable to notice any more? Too cosy with our nice homes, our holidays, and more than plenty to eat? Is it just too easy to sit in front of our televison sets and shut out the reality of what others around us are going through?

Imagine you talk to friends of trying to bring about change. Someone mocks you, calling you naive, idealistic, says forget it, nothing can be changed. But they’d be wrong, for change is at the very heart of human existence. If it weren’t, we’d still be dressed in animal skins, slavery would still be legal, children would still be working down mines, there would be no NHS. Change is happening all the time. But all too often we allow ourselves to think that someone else will sort things out, someone else will fight our wars, someone else will be the hero. But those times have gone.

Think of the words of Edmund Burke, who said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Or the Bible, where in Proverbs 31: 8-9 it clearly states:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
 Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.

WE are ones being called upon to act, to speak out – not ‘someone else’.

Bruce came out of his cave (with a little help from the spider!) and faced what had to be done. Now it’s our turn to make the difference, to fight for change, to be involved, to look beyond our comfortable lives and play our part.  That ‘someone else’ is now you and me.

King’s Cave article available in iScot

Amnesty International UK

Cape Wrath – remote but reachable

It’s genuinely remote, there are plenty of obstacles to getting there, but it can be done – and it’s definitely worth it! Time of year, weather and MOD activity in the bombardment range, all have to be taken into consideration before you set out. Once these factors are sorted, however, you’re on your way. And fear not – there will be a cup of tea waiting for you when you finally reach the lighthouse!

We felt a real sense of achievement when we visited Cape Wrath. There’s the lighthouse and the welcome Ozone Cafe, as well as the decaying Lloyds Buildings, which are described on the Visit Cape Wrath website as: “a signalling station complex established by Lloyd’s of London Marine and Commercial Insurers to monitor passing ships, tracking their cargos, ports of departure and destination along with estimated arrival times”. Built between 1894 and 1903, advances in communications led to their closure in 1932, although they were reused at the start of World War II as a coastguard station.

The decaying Lloyds Buildings, closed in 1932

The small group who travelled on the ferry and minibus with us were from all corners of the globe. There’s obviously something very addictive about getting to the (almost) unreachable parts of the world!

I’ve written an article describing the journey and the history of the Cape – from the terrifying arrival of the Vikings – those fearsome Sons of Death – through the trials and tribulations of the Clearances, to the present day set-up where the MOD own vast tracks of the land. The article is available in the April edition of the excellent iScot magazine. iScot is a wide-ranging publication, which looks at what’s happening in Scotland today: what’s going on in the news and what there is to see, do and think about in this wonderful country of ours. If you have an interest in Scotland it’s well worth considering a  subscription, whether in paper form or in a digital edition.

Cape Wrath was the hvarf, the ‘turning point’ for the Vikings. Life is full of turning points and our reactions to these can have a profound effect on how we live our lives and relate to those around us. At times life can be more challenging than we might prefer, but, with places like Cape Wrath to visit, at least we can’t complain that it’s dull!

Visit Cape Wrath

iScot Magazine

Walk Highlands

The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph

Caves full of bones? Mass murder in the peaceful Highlands of Scotland? No, not in this case! But rather a tale of how some things in nature are undoubtedly stranger than fiction!

I’m not a mountaineer, but I delight in the splendour of these ancient hills and glens and find myself amazed at the thought that they were once shared with bears, lynx, arctic lemmings, reindeer and even polar bears! It’s good to know that animals and men roamed freely here for thousands of years, in a landscape, wild and untamed.

It’s a rich and fascinating story of how landscape is shaped and how man fits into that pattern. And how even old bones can tell us so much about our long-ago past.

To find out more, follow the link below for a free download of the March edition of the excellent iScot magazine. And once you’ve read my article about the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, you’ll be packing a bag and heading off to Assynt to see them for yourselves!

iScot Magazine FREE March download with The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph

Bute’s West Island Way

iScot magazine have a special free download offer this month. Among many other interesting items, it contains an article I’ve written about the wonderful West Island Way walking trail on the island of Bute. https://pocketmags.com/iscot-magazine

You can also read about Robert Burns, the remote but beautiful Applecross Peninsula, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, current affairs, whisky, the dreaded midge, Meal Makers (help for the elderly) and much more.

And if you love the great outdoors here’s a new website devoted to Argyll: http://www.wildaboutargyll.co.uk/  Watch the short film and see how many of these places you have already been to – and then visit the rest!

There’s something for everyone in Scotland!

Time out in the Trossachs 1: An Ceann Mòr on Loch Lomond

‘An Ceann Mòr’ or ‘The Great Headland’: the dramatic new pyramid-shaped viewing platform at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside

Ask most people to name a place in Scotland that they’ve heard of and chances are they’ll come up with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. What Walter Scott set in motion all those years ago with his poem The Lady of the Lake continues today. And with good reason. A National Park since 2002, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is possibly one of the best-known areas of Scotland. Natural beauty, lochs and mountains, hills and glens –  the Park has them all: and a-plenty.

When the Scottish Government launched its first Scenic Routes competition, there was a wealth of entries. Young architects from all over submitted pland for special installations, designed to enchance particular areas in the Park. The four winning entries were duly built and have become popular and much-loved sites for visitors.

‘Stargate Loch Lomond’ – Loch Lomond’s very own pyramid!

It’s not often you associate the Scottish countryside with pyramids, but Loch Lomond now has a splendid one!  An Ceann Mòr, Gaelic for the Great Headland, is one of four installations that marked the inaugural Scottish Scenic Routes project.  Funded by the Scottish Government, the four new landmarks were specifically designed to highlight features of much loved areas of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

The challenge to take a beautiful and much-loved spot and succeed in enhancing it has been at the heart of the Scenic Routes competitions, and it’s a challenge  talented young architects have risen to with resounding success. The winning designs are all very different, but have one thing in common; they make you stop, think and see a familiar scene in a new way.

Our first stop was the striking pyramid, An Ceann Mòr, which sits high above the loch close to the Inveruglas Visitor Centre, with stunning views down towards Ben Lomond and over to the Arrochar Alps. But that’s not all you’ll see as you stand on this beautiful wooden structure. You’ll find your eyes drawn to another distinctive landmark, the Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric power station. How often do we drive past it without giving it a second thought? And yet its construction was part of one of the most progressive and far-reaching engineering projects in the world.

Loch Sloy information board

Completed in 1949 and officially ‘switched on’ in 1950, Loch Sloy produces hydro-electricity, and in a country of rivers, lochs and plentiful rain, that supply is likely to be inexhaustible! The history of its construction – which included the tragic loss of 21 lives – is a revelation.  In fact, the massive scale of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Scheme was unprecedented, but succeeded in bringing ‘Power to the Glens’ in a way never before imaginable. By 1963 90% of the Highlands were attached to the grid, more than twice as many as when the scheme began just after the Second World War.

The Hydro Board was the led by the Scottish politician Tom Johnston and over three decades the ‘Hydro Boys’ and the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ created generation and distribution schemes that became renowned the world over. Their achievements are all the more remarkable given the harsh conditions and often unforgiving terrain they had to work in. However, this ‘Power from the Glens’ ultimately changed the face of rural Scotland and the benefits continue to this day.

Hopefully An Ceann Mòr will be long-lasting too. It was designed by three young architects Daniel Bar, Stephane Toussaint and Sean Edwards from BTE Architects in Glasgow.  Eight metres high and with 31 steps, it is made from sustainable timber, wood which the young architects have chosen especially as it will gradually weather to a more muted silver-grey colour, blending in naturally to become part of the surrounding landscape.

Part of the landscape, but also a feature that makes us take more notice of that landscape than ever before. And that’s no bad thing at all!

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

The Camping Coach of Adventure!

British Rail camping coaches“A CAMPING COACH. Another recent form of holiday-making by rail is in the camping coach. These coaches stand in some remote, rural siding and come under the care of the local station-master.” (From Railway Wonders of the World, April 1935)

Can you imagine how exciting it must have been for children to have their very own railway carriage to live in? In the summer of 1963 we had just that, and had one of the best family holidays ever! A converted railway carriage that sat on a siding beside the station at Plockton. Perfect accommodation set in a stunning location on the north-west coast of Scotland.

The carriage was fitted out with a kitchen, living and dining area and three ‘bedrooms’. The only thing lacking was a toilet, but we were free to use the station toilet, with ‘potties’ to hand for young children in the night!img003-1

In those days Plockton, a Highland village on the shores of Loch Carron, had yet to acquire fame as the fictional home of PC Hamish Macbeth (and who can forget Robert Carlyle in the role?). But it was definitely well-known as a wonderful place to spend the summer.  Close to sea, loch, hill and glen.

The very first 'Alison' book by Sheila Stuart

The very first ‘Alison’ book by Sheila Stuart

As children growing up with books like Swallows and Amazons, the Famous Five and Sheila Stuart’s Alison books, there couldn’t have been a more perfect a place for a holiday. We were ready to swim, row, fish, cycle, explore caves, find treasure, climb trees, scale cliffs, foil dastardly crooks: in short, we were ready for adventure! And while the Famous Five might have had their own island and lighthouse, we felt we were doing just as well spending the long summer holidays in a railway carriage!

img002-2Why camping coaches? The first coaches made their appearance in the 1930s at a time when cycling, hiking and camping were becoming increasingly popular among Britain’s urban population. Very many people still lived crammed into the grimy, heavily-industrialised cities, where pollution, in particular smog, was a problem.

We might think that smog was only a problem in late Victorian times; a useful cover for criminals in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or the infamous and creepy pea-soupers of old black and white films watched on wet Sunday afternoons. But in reality smog was deadly problem long after that. In fact, as late as 1952 the Great Smog in London is believed to have caused up to 12,000 deaths and ultimately prompted the 1956 Clean Air Act.

The very first of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, 1942As holidays became more common, and for longer periods, people sought the fresh, clean air of the countryside. For families with children camping coaches held a greater appeal than spending your holiday under canvas. In the railway coach you had a proper roof over your head and more space, but were still away from home. They were also usually set beside beautiful remote rural and coastal areas of Britain. Cheaper too than a guest house. Private cars were not common, so being able to take the train right to your holiday doorstep was an additional bonus.

World War II saw the coaches taken out of service, but for two decades after the war they flourished again, better equipped and more luxurious than before.  Till along came Richard Beeching with his axe: lines were closed, stations closed and many of the most popular camping coach sites disappeared. Cheap flights and holidays in the sun also played their part in ending this unique type of holiday.kyleakin-lighthouse-eilean-ban-500p-copy

The camping coach at Plockton may be long gone, but today the station building itself is available for holidays. And in a few places the camping coach is making a come-back. So if you have fond memories from your childhood, or have children who revel in Thomas the Tank Engine, then one of today’s new camping coaches might just be the place for you!  It certainly was a brilliant ‘Camping Coach of Adventure’ for us !