Bluebell bonanza

Now is a great time to get out in Scotland and see bluebells. A number of places come to mind but number one for me has to be Inchcailloch island on Loch Lomond. Once off the little boat from Balmaha you are met with carpets of the little flowers, covering the ground below woodland mixed with birdsong.

A walk there with the family lasted for hours – far longer than the couple of miles would take if there weren’t birds to spot, shorelines to explore and picnics to be eaten. Yes, there are other places to find large swathes of bluebells but this little island takes the crown for me.

Around half of the world’s bluebells grow in the UK and the Woodland Trust is on a on a mission to find them all.

Fears of Spanish invaders out-growing their British counterparts have been around for a few years, although research by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has found the native variety is three times more likely to successfully reproduce than its Iberian counterpart.

The Woodland Trust’s aim is to monitor the status of British bluebells from woodlands to back gardens which will help them to secure their future.

But wherever you see them, they are a brilliant sign that the seasons are moving forward and summer is just around the corner.

Ben Nevis – a different vibe

I spent yesterday helping a couple of novice hillwalkers negotiate the Mountain Track up Ben Nevis in the name of charity.

They were nervous at first and exhilarated at the end when the snowy top of Britain’s highest mountain was reached and thousands of pounds had been raised for the fight against cystic fibrosis.

Some purists turn their noses up at what was once known as the Tourist Route; from what I can gather their main objection is that it is too easy! But yesterday the vibe of this 19th century pony track became apparent – it is one of excitement and genuine anticipation.

People always nod a greeting as they pass each other but on the popular trail up the Ben there are also words of encouragement – no bravado is on show, this is about people getting to the top.

At the summit there were “well dones” all round, rather than people keeping themselves to themselves. An Edinburgh University student from New Jersey was passing round his large bar of chocolate to celebrate while my companions were chuffed to have overcome their fears and enthused to try more mountains in the future – one person was making a pan of soup.

Altogether, this enthusiasm meant I had as much fun on a mountain walk as I can remember. Yes, there are more dangerous routes but none that allow you to see such a sense of enjoyment in achieving a summit.

Allyson, Morag and Garry at the top of Ben Nevis

Skills for the hills

Good to see my Scots Magazine colleague Cameron McNeish involved on a great event aimed at getting folk up into Scotland’s wonderful hills and mountains.

Skills for the Hills, organised by Mountain Aid, working with Mountaineering Scotland, will take place on Saturday at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Halls.

There will be 40 leading outdoor organisations taking part, with a mix of exhibitions, talks and demonstrations aimed at helping and encouraging people of all levels of experience, from newcomer to experienced mountaineers.

The event will be opened by Mountain Aid patron and outdoor writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish, who will also be one of the main speakers, along with fellow outdoor writer Chris Townsend, Mountaineering Scotland safety expert Heather Morning, and speakers from mountain rescue, John Muir Trust and other organisations.

Jim Kinnell, of Mountain Aid, said: “This will be a great event whether you’re an experienced mountaineer or whether you’re just thinking about starting to go hill walking. With the days getting longer and spring just around the corner, this is the time when people really start to think about getting out into the hills and we’re expecting over 2000 people on the day.”

Skills for the Hills will run from 10am to 4.30pm, with tickets costing £2 per adult and £1 per child on the door, including a free Event Programme.

For a complete timetable of talks and other information visit the website at www.mountainaid.org.uk

Danny MacAskill – falling off is inspiring

My six-year-old son was recreating stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge last night using the back and the arms of the sofa – I should swiftly add here that he didn’t have a bike, although, admittedly, even in his bare feet it’s probably not the best thing for our furniture.

But it’s great to see him inspired by the Skye-born YouTube star – and key, I think, is the fact that MacAskill often includes outtakes in his films, showing just how many failed attempts go into getting that one great shot leaping off a cliff, balancing along a rooftop or, in the case of The Ridge, along the top of a mountain. They’re certainly our children’s favourite bits and it’s brilliant for them to see even stars like MacAskill – 100 million social media views – mess up and have to try, try again.

My other half said as much to him when she met him the other week at Lindores Cross Country in Fife where he was helping to launch a horse jump built in his honour. It was at Lindores that he filmed the hay bale stunt for Wee Day Out, one of his most successful films – so successful that the luxury horse and people retreat decided to recreate him and his bale for the entertainment of their riding guests. And he agreed it was great to shatter the illusion – he fell off that hay bale 400 times over three days for the 20 second shot in the film.

He also said one of his biggest thrills was getting fan mail from schools and finding out they’d shown his films to pupils to help teach them about geography or physics. Nice guy, great role model – look out for his new film from Lindores, “racing” against top Scottish eventer Louisa Milne Home over a series of jumps including the new MacAskill one.

Good news for trees!

Having been out planting ten of them at my children’s school earlier this week, trees are definitely on my mind, especially after hearing of some great facts uncovered by scientists in Scotland.

Botanists at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh have found out that cold and windy weather might well have saved the lives of thousands of trees on the Isle of Man.

Dutch elm disease was the tree disaster story of the 1970s and 80s, with up to 75 million trees having been lost on the British mainland. But in the Isle of Man only around one per cent have succumbed even now.

Scientists first thought that they were somehow resistant – but now they believe it’s down to the weather. Dutch elm disease is a fungus that hitchhikes on the bodies of tiny elm bark beetles – and the beetles need it to be at least 20C to fly and not too windy either. And most years it’s been just too cold and windy for them to spread to the island in the Irish Sea.

And there’s more good news in that it might be the same case in Scotland. According to Botanics experts, north of Aberdeen Dutch elm disease seems to disappear and wych elms – Britain’s only native elm and also known as the Scots elm – are very hardy. The English elm, one variety which really got hammered in the 1970s, is actually a clone, reproduced through grafts and cuttings – one of the reasons why it fared so badly.

Of course, there’s always the fear that as our weather warms, the beetle might get more active and the disease might spread. But as spring tries to emerge amid the wind and snow, it’s good to know.

Watch the birdie



We’re running low on song thrushes according to the RSPB which is holding its Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.

The survey makes us “citizen scientists” says chief executive Mike Clarke, which is a snazzy PR idea but maybe a little denigrating to those who have been through years and years of study and research.

For our children, and their friends, it doesn’t matter what you call them, they just want to spot as many birds as possible. And that is a good thing if it means the next generation are being enthused about wildlife.

The lack of song thrushes is bad news, especially in our garden where they are needed to take care of the ‘eat yer greens’ brigade of slugs and snails. But it is good that long tailed tits are on the up – a group of them in the hawthorn hedge next to my office can often make a wonderful cacophony.

As with all statistics to do with wildlife, however, remember that in localised areas the picture can be different – just ask a gamekeeper who has to put up with a large number of buzzards or a farmer whose land lies beneath growing numbers of sea eagles.

That is not to say a rise in numbers is bad but it surely should be the case that just as we manage a reintroduction we should also, sometimes, need to manage numbers when they rise. More on this in the coming weeks…