Water delight

For me the Highlands have always been there for hillwalking, it was all about the mountains and the rest was really a backdrop to enjoy in the evening.

But having young children has been something of an eye opener, revealing the many activities I knew about because of roadside signs but had never tried out.

So, on a family camping trip to the Cairngorms this summer more time was spent on water than the paths and ridges of the superb mountains.

Both our ten and seven-year-old love the idea of reaching a summit but when they gaze down from Cairn Gorm their eyes are drawn not to Coire an-t Sneachda but Loch Morlich in Glenmore Forest.

The area has long been established for it winter sports but nowadays the summer season is just as important and no more so than on the loch.

Its beautiful beach, at 1,000ft, is dominated by the Northern Corries and on a sunny day can look a little Mediterranean – there is even a barbecue on the go. All of this is helped by watersports on the loch.

The youngest is desperate to follow his big sister on to a paddle board (he just needs his arms stretching to be able to hold the paddle). No matter, all four of us were able to explore the water, if a little inexpertly on one windy day, exploring a little river and generally enjoying a side to the great outdoors I have ignored since my youth when Duke of Edinburgh Awards were part of my life.

Other than that, the wetsuits never had time to properly dry out as wild swimming became “a thing” in the family and those who were bravest made it into water deeper than they could stand up in.

One of my favourite walks in Scotland, or anywhere for that matter, starts at the west end of the loch and goes up to the magnificent Braeriach and its corrie which looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.

But when the rest of the family were spending a day with some friends who live locally what did I do? Hire a kayak and spend a few of the happiest hours you can imagine paddling around and across the loch, admiring the views of the mountains from below.

Some may say it is a type of midlife crisis to go back to things I enjoyed in my youth but it is one I intend to embrace with no regret.

Going down the pub

A pint in a cosy pub after a day on the hill, up the glen or along the coast is one of life’s great pleasures.

On a cold day a blazing fire is as welcome as the chance to ease off your boots while at this time of year a beer garden can be a peaceful retreat after a day of exertions.

The Campaign for Real Ale know a thing or two about good pubs and have compiled a list of some of the best walks and hostelries to enjoy across Britain.

Written by Daniel Neilson,  CAMRA’s Wild Pub Walks includes classics such as Ben Nevis with the inn of the same name at the bottom, as well as pubs in nearby Fort William.

If I had to pick a couple of favourites they would be the Moulin Inn below Ben Vrackie, one of the first mountains I went up after moving to Scotland nearly 20 years ago. Going back 40 years, I broke in my first pair of walking boots on the Langdale Pikes and proudly wore a button badge declaring I’d climbed them. That was the start of a love of hill walking although it was a few years before I started to appreciate the Old Dungeon Ghyll but it soon became a favourite of me and my mates.

One thing that does strike me about hillwalking and pubs is that, rightly, the pub is always enjoyed at the end of the day, when the strenuous exercise is over. But when it comes to ski-ing, especially in the Alps, the bar or restaurant is a lunchtime destination where a meal with a couple of glasses of wine is the norm. Without wishing to sound like a killjoy it does seem strange to have a drink of alcohol before setting off down a steep mountainside – I often ask myself what reaction you would get if you opened up a bottle of red by the summit cairn of a British mountain in the middle of June?

A lost pencil

As someone who makes his living by writing I was intrigued to find an old pencil high up on Ben Nevis earlier this month. It had obviously been sharpened with a penknife and appeared to be well used.

It may sound a little naff to obsess about something so every day and mundane but I have become intrigued about who owned it and what they used it for. Was it a sketcher or maybe a fellow writer who jots down notes with a pencil?

Whatever its origins, it was lying by the path at the top of the zig-zags on the Mountain Track – about 1,200m (just short of 4,000ft) up.

I would be more than happy to send it back to its owner, and even more delighted to find out what its use was on the highest mountain in Britain.

Counting birds

We have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old, both of whom have become obsessed by birds.

This is great, not only for the way it allows them to learn about the environment, habitat etc but it also gets them to enjoy my number one passion – walking in the outdoors.

The recent sunny weather took me and the nine-year-old to the RSPB’s Loch Leven reserve near Kinross where for me the lapwings with their swooping dance and strange call are the highlight. But as we made our way along the hides it became apparent the number of species was important for my daughter. It seems her enthusiasm was fuelled by a desire to beat the tally of her younger brother who had been a few weeks earlier.

But as we took break for a snack and sat looking up at Vane Hill I explained how a peregrine falcon might hunt around that part of the reserve. All thoughts of tallies ended and off we went, up the path to the top. The view was excellent but the peregrine was absent. No matter, we enjoyed the birch woods and maybe a little sub-conscious lesson had been learned – ticking off species is good but trying to find a particular one is just as much fun, even if you don’t see it.


Old fashioned camping is wild fun

Fidden Farm on the Ross of Mull is old fashioned camping at its best. This is no spartan experience to be endured rather than enjoyed, it is a glorious pitch by a white sandy beach above turquoise waters studded with granite rocks.

There are no electric hook ups, no games room or swimming pool (why would you need them with the coastal playground all around?). My children loved it, only being dragged into the tent when it got dark – the iPad was used for no more than 20 minutes on a four day stay.

The grown-ups liked it too, although I probably spent too long trying to take a picture of the moonlit beach.

The weather was good and we could have stayed much longer with so many rock pools to explore, little bays to swim in and parts of the beach which had not been used to create mini villages, castles and bridges.

Once back home, some friends in the Central Belt thought the lack of “facilities” made it sound more like wild camping. But with a good shower block there is no need for extras, they are provided by nature.

Whatever the weather …

So the weather has changed. The couple of weeks of blue skies and beautiful sun framing the Scottish glens, mountains and coastline has been replaced by rain and low cloud, at least in the Trossachs. But to say going outdoors is no longer any good would be a defeatist, and wrong, attitude.

I’ve just returned from Kirkton Glen above Balquhidder after leading 35 keen members of the Scots Magazine’s hiking club on a route to a hidden lochan.

The cloud was down and rain came on in fits and starts but as the group strode up the track it was still with anticipation of what was to come. For me a walk in the countryside is always enlivening – it is not like a walk to the shops, bus stop or office, it is a walk where you never really know what you might see.

Today, once high up by Rob Roy’s Putting Stone – a huge boulder the size of a bungalow where the outlaw was believed to have hidden – the isolated Lochan an Eireannaich was reached. Damp drizzle accompanied a lunch break but as the mist swirled above, revealing glimpses of the crags and hills, this was still as magical as if suncream conditions were prevailing.

The lochan itself was like a millpond when the wind dropped and it was not hard to conjure up images of the Irish missionaries who came this way in the 5th century and are still remembered in the name of the small body of water – translated it is Loch of the Irishmen.

So, whatever the weather, today was proof that it is always a good idea to get outside.