Glorious Gorse, a great Scottish native

Glorious gorse

You know Spring has arrived when you walk past a gorse bush and the air is full of that delicious aroma of coconut rising from the yellow flowers in the warm sunshine. And right now the Island of Arran is positively awash with gorse.

Gorse, also known as whin or furze, is native to Scotland and has proved its usefulness over the centuries. A traditional winter feed for cattle and other livestock, it would be ground with mallets or with a whin-stone, until it reached an edible consitency!

You can add the flowers to a salad or use the leaf buds to make ‘tea’. Apparently the seeds are mildly astringent, containing tannin, and were used to treat diarrhoea, varicose veins and slow down infections. Then, like most plants, it can be used to produce a dye (replace the The Good Life’s nettle green with yellow!)

Goats love gorse!

Importantly, it was regularly used as a fuel, burning well even when quite green because of its high oil content. The ashes are rich in alkali and gorse was often burned off to improve the quality of the land. These alkali-rich ashes were also mixed with animal fat to make soap. And it’s a sanctuary for small birds, who can hide safely inside this thorny shrub.

On the other hand, there are few things worse than fighting your way through gorse that has been allowed to grow unchecked – then those spikes become just too vicious. But, on the whole, gorse has been a friend to farmers and crofters and fitted in well with rural life in this country.

Skunk cabbage fringes the pond at Brodick Castle

Gunnera aka ‘giant rhubarb’!

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the rampant rhododendrons that grow unchecked in so many parts of Scotland. In the right setting, as in the gardens of Brodick Castle, rhododendrons flourish alongside other exotic plants that were brought here in the late 18th and 19th centuries to fill the gardens of the new, fashion-conscious, owners of country houses. In Brodick Castle grounds you’ll see American skunk cabbage (with its very curious smell) and Gunnera (looking for all the world like enormous rhubarb) arranged to create areas of great interest.

However, as the management of many large country estates has declined, their gardens have been left to run wild. As a result, some of these non-native species have been allowed to escape and are now too rampant, too invasive, and are causing wide-spread difficulties. In particular that ‘Victorian monster’ Rhododendron ponticum, has become a severe problem throughout Scotland.  It shades out other plants – and their attendant wildlife – and soon creates dense jungles which are not simply hard work, but also almost impossible, to clear.

There a numerous projects afoot now to try and contain and clear these plants which are deadly to all other growth if left unchecked. Though I would have to say that the relatively new-kid-on-the-block, Japanese Knotweed, is now regarded as the world’s most invasive species. It’s found a foothold here and is spreading, and any plant that can grow up through concrete floors and bring down houses is definitely a real menace!

Give me gorse spikes (and a pair of secateurs) any day!!

A bank of gorse protects the grass and sand dunes along the shore at Brodick Bay

The Problem with Ponticum

 

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

What is it about islands…?

Just what is it about islands that authors, playwrights and poets are drawn to use them as settings for their works? Especially crime writers? I wrote an article on this very topic, which is now in The Island Review.

If you haven’t come across The Island Review before, it’s an online magazine which is: ‘dedicated to great writing and visual art that comes from, is inspired by, celebrates or seeks to understand the extraordinary appeal of islands, as places and as metaphors.’

So if you like books, enjoy crime stories, are intrigued by islands and wonder what William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Peter May and Enid Blyton have in common? Then read on, Macduff!:  ‘A distant isle, where darkest deeds are done’

Power and Beauty in the Glens: Loch Sloy Dam Part 1

It was freezing cold, with snow in the air and on the hills, and colder the higher we went. But, as so often when walking in Scotland, we knew the destination would be worth it. And that destination was the Loch Sloy dam, flanked by the mighty and rugged Ben Vorlich.

Parking at Inveruglas Visitor Centre on the west bank of Loch Lomond, we followed the signposts for Loch Sloy & Hills, which took us past the impressive Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric power station. Construction of the dam began in May 1945 and was the first in the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board’s revolutionary scheme. Work was completed in 1949 and the station officially ‘switched on’ in October 1950. The construction work was back-breaking and dangerous, with twenty-one men losing their lives in the process.

Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric station on Loch Lomond

The dramatic history of ‘Power from the Glens’ has long interested me. The water for this power station comes from Loch Sloy, high in the hills, with its massive dam, 56 metres high and 357 metres long. From here it is channelled through a 3km tunnel, hewn through of the massive side of Ben Vorlich. On reaching the valve house it thunders down through four mammoth pipes to drive the turbines below.  Such is the power of the water that the station can generate enough electricity to meet sudden peaks in demand, reaching full-capacity within 5 minutes of a standing start!

It’s a straightforward walk, a round-trip of 11km. When you reach the access road to the dam, walk under the railway bridge and then it’s up! And the higher you go, the better the views of Loch Lomond and the surrounding hills become. The construction of the Loch Sloy dam and power station was, quite literally, a groundbreaking start to one of the most progressive and far-reaching engineering projects in the world. So when you reach the dam, take a look at your map, and wonder at how it was possible, all those years ago, to carve such tunnels through these mountains. Some of the work force were even prisoners-of-war awaiting repatriation. In a booklet published by Scottish Hydro Electric, due credit is given to these men:

After the Second World War, men from all over Scotland came to work on the schemes, attracted by high wages. The highest wages were earned by the men who dug the tunnels. Germans, Poles and Czechs were acknowledged to be skilled tunnellers. They became known as the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ because of their cavalier approach to safety in their quest to earn the huge bonuses that were available. The lower regard for health and safety issues than there is today inevitably led to high accident rates and deaths amongst the workers. No definitive accident statistics exist, but in one camp alone, which housed some 1,000 workers at its peak, there were 22 deaths in just one year. For the vast majority of workers the rewards were great. In the late 1940s, a ‘Tunnel Tiger’ could expect to earn up to £35 a week, compared to £3 or £4 for a Highland estate worker. Mostly they lived in temporary work camps built near the construction sites. Not surprisingly, the sites looked like military camps, sometimes housing up to 3,000 men.”

The scheme was masterminded by Scottish politician Tom Johnston (1881-1965) and, under the auspices of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Scheme, 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. ‘Power from the Glens’ ultimately changed the face of rural Scotland and the benefits continue to this day.

Their achievements are all the more remarkable given the harsh conditions and often unforgiving terrain they had to work in, and we owe them a great deal. For not only is Scotland a country of great natural beauty, but it’s also one rich in natural resources. And so it’s doubly remarkable that Tom Johnston and his fellow visionaries harnessed hydro-power without damaging the landscape, and also left dams and power stations of great stature and beauty.

As renewable and sustainable energy become increasingly important, the hydro-power schemes these men bequeathed us become equally more significant. We need renewable energy like hydro-power: and in a country of rivers, lochs and plentiful rain, hydro-power is definitely here to stay!

Snow- and cloud-capped Ben Lomond from the road to Loch Sloy dam

Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Time out in the Trossachs 2: it’s BLiSS out there!

The LookOut mirrored cabin on the shores of Loch Voil and Loch Doine

On a dreich day in February getting out-of-doors might not be uppermost in your mind! On the other hand, it can be a time to think about, and plan for, trips in the not-too-distant future. A favourite place of mine is one of the innovative Scenic Routes installations in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park: The LookOut on Loch Voil.

Strictly speaking, it’s not on Loch Voil, but sits in a flat meadow between the head of Loch Voil and its smaller neighbour, Loch Doine.  Here the stretch of water between the two lochs is so short and narrow that the south bank is barely yards away and accessible by stepping stones for the brave!

Even the puddles are reflected in the LookOut cabin!

To reach the LookOut you follow the twisting single-track road that runs through Balquhidder Glen along the beautiful north shore of Loch Voil, until you come to Monachyle Mhor farm restaurant and hotel, where you can leave your car and walk down to the shore.

The LookOut is a Tardis-like mirrored cabin, that reflects different views of the landscape in which it stands. Depending on the light, it can be almost invisible as it blends in with the surrounding meadow, hills and lochs: so much so that it can be easy to miss, only to come as a surprise as you begin to see yourself approaching!  In a curious way it can make you feel that you’re part of this beautiful landscape.

Balquhidder is also on the BLiSS (Balqhuidder, Lochearnhead, Strathyre and St Fillans) Trail: a community extension of the Scottish Scenic Routes project. Gordon Watson, Chief Executive, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park welcomed BLiSS, saying: ” I wanted to say how impressed I am at your efforts to extend the success of the Scottish Scenic Routes initiative through the launch of the BLiSS Trail.  I was delighted to see the coverage that the launch attracted. Your dedication to improving the visitor experience in the area is a real credit to the National Park, so thank you.”

Monachyle Mhor farm restaurant and hotel

The BLiSS Trail is in Rob Roy Country and it’s hard to miss that Balquhidder Glen is very much MacGregor territory!  On the approach to Loch Voil you come through the village of Balquidder, with its tiny church and the graves of Rob Roy and his family.  While across the water from the LookOut is Monachyle Tuarach, a working farm and a comfortable hostel today, but once home to Rob and his wife before his final move in 1722 to Inverlochlarig, at the head of the glen, where he lived peaceably until his death in 1734.

If you’re feeling adventurous, it’s possible to drive to the end of the public road at Inverlochlarig, where there is a small car park and picnic area, and from here you can take to the hills!  But what is a dead-end to us today was once the ‘Coffin Road’ from Glen Falloch to Balquidder Kirk.  Take a look at a map and find Bealach nan Corp – Pass of the Corpses – and it’s amazing to think that coffins were carried for such a distance and over such wild and high terrain as this.

The road along Balquhidder Glen

Balquhidder Glen had long been of spiritual importance and legend has it that St Angus, who brought Christianity to the area in the 8th century, recognised it as a “thin place”, a spot, the Celts believed, where Earth and Heaven, the earthly and the spiritual, are very close.

St Angus is said to have spent the rest of his life in Balquhidder and to be buried somewhere near the site of the original first church there: Eaglais Beag, the Little Church. Clach Aonghais, the Angus Stone, which once covered his grave, can today be found in the church.

Looking down Loch Doine

So, if you’ve not yet been to the LookOut, or followed the BLiSS Trail, put them firmly on your to-visit-list. And when you reach the LookOut, make sure you take a photo of yourself reflected in its mirrors. Designed by Daniel Tyler and Angus Ritchie, this scenic viewpoint is one that, quite literally, puts you in the picture!

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park

Rob Roy Country : Bliss Trail

Scottish Scenic Routes

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

Stoneymollan Road: the Coffin Road from Balloch to Cardross

Once upon a time there were old tracks the length and breadth of Scotland. Before the advent of trains, buses and cars, the majority of people had no alternative but to walk. Tracks went up hill and down dale, often taking the most direct route possible from one place to another. However, over the years many of these old tracks have disappeared; become overgrown, built over, ploughed up, forgotten. But a few still exist, and have been incorporated into the growing number of newly-created walks and trails.

One of these is the Stoneymollan Road, an old track that runs from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. It may seem strange to us today, but this route was once an old coffin road. Why such a curious name? The answer to that goes back centuries. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and these churches were often few and far between. Rural settlements were scattered and often remote from a church. As the population grew and spread, new settlements appeared, and people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. And the coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way!

The tracks became known as coffin roads, though there were many other names too: corpse roads, funeral roads, lych-ways, burial roads, coffin lines, bier roads, church-ways and more. These coffin roads were often long and across difficult terrain. Imagine having to undertake the journey in the snow, or torrential rain!

Over time, numerous eerie superstitions, some very ancient, others newer, became attached to these old tracks: the coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home; the coffin bearers must not step off the path onto neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns; you could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad! Spooky!!

The crumbling shell of Woodhall House

However, as communities grew more churches were built and the need for these coffin roads declined and finally died out altogether. So instead of being a route for coffin bearers, the old Stoneymollan Coffin Road is now part of both the Three Lochs Way and the John Muir Way and links Loch Lomondside with the Firth of Clyde (and vice-versa). And the people you’re most likely to meet today will be walkers, joggers and even cyclists!

Setting off from Balloch we noticed the crumbling remains of Woodhall House, with an array of rusty iron gates, nearly invisible under shrubs and trees: almost like the hedge of thorns that grew up around Sleeping Beauty. This area used to be full of such grand houses even though the settlement at Balloch itself was small. But Balloch had its pier and boats regularly plied the waters of Loch Lomond. Later came the railway, which for many years ran right up to the pier, until that spur was closed in 1986.

The hidden gates to Sleeping Beauty’s palace?

The track goes upwards and the higher the track, especially atop Stoneymollan Muir, the better the views back over Loch Lomond. When you reach the highest point a spectacular panorama opens up westwards, over towards Cowal and, if you’re lucky with the weather, sometimes even as far as Arran. There is a tremendous sense of space and openess on this track: a real sense of freedom.

Then it’s downhill all the way to St Mahew’s Chapel in Kirkton. This lovely old building was restored in the 1950s, but it’s history goes back to at least 1467, and it’s possible that there may have been a Christian missionary building on this site from the early sixth century onwards.  For almost two centuries the building served as a school prior to its restoration, but the site was one that had long been held sacred, and is so again today.

When you come Cardross at the end of the walk you can take the bus or train back into Glasgow. While if you walk the route from Cardross to Balloch (ie west to east and sometimes easier in the prevailing westerly wind), you can likewise take the bus or train from Balloch back into town: but don’t forget to check the timetables. Alternatively get a friend to pick you up from whichever end you arrive at!

Boo!

But watch out for any spirits that might just still be lingering along this old coffin road!

Stoneymollan Road

Three Lochs Way

St Mahew’s R.C.Church

St Mahew’s Chapel at Kirkton

It’s Tintin’s Birthday!

Today Tintin turns 88 and he and Snowy are still going strong! His enduring appeal is due partly to the exciting stories, partly to the wonderful drawings and partly to Hergé’s use of authentic locations. One of my favourite books is The Black Island and it was a thrill to discover that real places in Scotland had inspired Hergé and his team when they updated the original edition for publication in the UK.

Which places? Which castles? Which islands? I hear you ask: and so, without further ado, here are the answers, as we go:

In search of Tintin!

Lochranza Castle on Arran

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

The village of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island

The village of Castlebay on Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island. Photo courtesy of Annie Houston

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Both share that exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement on a rugged, wild and isolated Scottish island.

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1933

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!