Outdoor Pioneers: John Muir

So tomorrow (April 21) is John Muir Day – the birthday of ecologist, naturalist and writer John Muir who was born in 1838.

And it got me thinking. His influence is everywhere – the John Muir Way runs near my house, the John Muir Trust helps protect some of my favourite Scottish landscapes and both myself and my children have completed John Muir Awards, given for work with nature.

We’ve got a lot to be grateful to him for so I thought I’d write this wee piece about him to mark the day but also make it the first in a series looking at Scotland’s outdoor pioneers, those folk we owe a debt of gratitude to for paving the way for us today. 

Scotland has had John Muir Day since 2013 but all this recognition has been relatively recent – for years Muir was somewhat forgotten here as his pioneering work was done in the US.

Born in Dunbar in East Lothian, the third of eight children, Muir grew up loving the countryside around his home, hunting for birds’ nests and going on walks with his grandfather. He moved with his family to the US when he was 11 but Scotland was always with him, not least in the form of a book of Robert Burns’ poetry which he carried with him on his mountain travels.

This extraordinary man studied, explored, wrote about and fought for the wilderness that he loved. His influential writings helped create the first national park in the US, Yosemite. He took the US president Theodore Roosevelt camping in the Yosemite wilderness in 1903 and convinced him that the country’s wild places needed more protection from man’s intrusion. He was an inventor, botanist, geologist, glaciologist and activist whose influence is almost impossible to quantify. And that influence bounced back to Scotland in the form of an increased interest in protecting our wild places, even if it was nearly 100 years before we got our first National Park.

Muir lived before the days of sound bites but because he understood the beauty and power of language every bit as much as that of nature, I find his quotes far from meaningless platitudes. Instead they have a deep resonance and often come to me as I’m out on the hills. His most famous quotes are probably: “The mountains are calling and I must go,” and “Wildness is a

necessity”, which you can fit on a T-shirt but which seem to have layers of meaning. My favourite is: “All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.” A quote I try to keep with me to remember wherever I am, so long as I’m in nature, I’m in the best place in the world! 

Wild swimming – in icy water

A VERSION OF THIS APPEARED IN THE SCOTS MAGAZINE AND IT WAS DONE PRE-LOCKDOWN

The snowplough was out, clearing the roads at the foot of Glen Feshie, while the frosted trees and icy landscape were doing their best to create the appearance of a magical winter wonderland.  A perfect day to be on the snowy shore of Loch Insh. But perhaps less than ideal for an outdoor swim.

Alice Goodridge, however, would disagree. She runs SwimWild which organises courses and adventures in the Highlands for those who like to get into the water outdoors – and that includes in winter.

“It is the most amazing way to start the day, it sets you up and I find I have more positive days afterwards,” she told me. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would get the same effect from a cup of steaming coffee from the nearby café, but I decided instead to have faith in her qualification as a lifeguard and take the plunge – despite the fact I was shivering already while still wearing four layers of clothing.

Outdoor swimming has gained huge popularity in recent years and that now also includes the colder months, even when the thermometer drops below zero.   A quick change saw me even colder but ready to go in.  When Alice produced a sledgehammer to break the snow-covered ice, however, I began to wonder if this was a bit too extreme and undertaking for me.

I needn’t have worried – the ice was thin enough to crack and move out of the way by hand (thank goodness for thick neoprene gloves and socks, essentials at this time of year) – and the water was genuinely lovely. Yes, it was cold – Alice said the water temperature was 1 degree C – but the action of breaking ice warmed the body.

Then came the moment of actual swimming; I gingerly dipped down so my shoulders were submerged then decided just going for it was the only option. There followed a desperate imitation of breaststroke but it was actual swimming, in winter, surrounded by ice and snow!

We had only been in for ten minutes but the adrenaline was surging through me, not realising the most important part of the experience was to come – getting warm as quickly as possible once out of the water.

Numb fingers were warmed on a hot water bottle, then I had to ask for help while struggling out of my wetsuit – this was no time to be prudish.

“You get to know each other quite well because you will be helping each other get dressed really quickly,” Alice explained. “Your hands and feet are going to get cold but it is your core you need to get warm as soon as a possible. Your hands and feet will be throbbing and your body will feel fine but there is this thing called after drop which means your core keeps cooling down when you get out of the water so you want to get clothes on as soon as possible.”

Alice’s introduction to taking a dip in winter began when training to swim the Channel in 2012. In 2017 she set up the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers group and more than 20 meet for a dip every Sunday in winter – it is important to swim with someone else for safety. But it is the thrill of it which attracts most. “I get a buzz

afterwards – it is a little bit addictive,” Alice said. And after my dip I realised I might be an addict too.

TOP TIPS FOR WILD SWIMMING IN WINTER

Good clothing – a woolly hat to keep the heat in; thick, tight-fitting neoprene gloves and socks (a wetsuit can be worn but only if you can take it off quickly afterwards to avoid getting overly cold).

Never swim alone.

Make sure you know what is under the water such as whether the bed of the loch drops off suddenly.

Clear ice before swimming to avoid being cut on sharp edges.

Breathe out – focus on your breathing to avoid hyperventilation caused by repeated sharp intakes of breath.

Hot water bottle and lots of warm layers to quickly put on afterwards.

A hot drink in a flask, or café close by.

HOW TO GET INTO WILD SWIMMING

The Outdoor Swimming Society was established in 2006 to pioneer outdoor swimming in rivers, lakes, lido and seas.

It has a comprehensive list of outdoor swimming clubs which can be found on its website: www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com

Birnam Hill, Perthshire

Birnam Hill is a great walk with loads of history, some real, some fictional, and superb views. If it is out of your area I would save it up for when we can travel again.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the witches said the king would only be safe until Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane. Much blood and gore ensued but the story still endures and the places mentioned do exist, including the wood on this hill.

The way up is surprisingly steep and your lungs will know they have been on a hill walk. The once arduous slog near the top has been made slightly easier in recent years, however, thanks to some good work restoring paths.

DISTANCE: 4 miles / 6.5km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,150ft / 350m.

TIME: 2½to 3½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 52.

PARK: There is parking at Dunkeld and Birnam Railway Station but it is for ScotRail customers. If not travelling by train, park in the centre of Birnam and walk to the station to start the walk.

THE ROUTE: Go to the end of the station car park and follow some steps down.
Go left at the bottom to pass under the railway line. Follow a path up to some cottages and turn left along a minor road, following a sign for the “Birnam Hill Path”. After passing some large houses the road turns into a track and passes through mixed woodland. As the track gains height and starts to pass through rhododendrons, take a path on the left, by a red waymarker. The path leads into a clearing, where you should ignore a path to the left and continue ahead, passing a bench.

The path rises then falls to reach a track. Go left by a marker post and follow the track for about 200 yards. At a wooden signpost, go up a path to the right and follow it through the trees. The path goes up and round to the right, climbing fairly steeply – go straight on at another signpost.

When the path levels out there is a diversion to the left which leads to the “Stair Bridge Viewpoint”. From here you get a good view over Perthshire, south east lie the Sidlaws which includes Dunsinane, mentioned by Shakespeare.

Return to the main path and follow it uphill to reach a fence on the left. The route then goes right and drops down before rising to another marker post where you go left (really straight on), up a narrow grass path. At a wider path go left and follow it as it zig zags to steps which lead to the tree-clad top of the hill.

A muddy path leads through trees and heather to the cairn on the top of Birnam Hill, a promontory known as King’s Seat. At 1,325 feet the views are extensive; south are the Lomond Hills of Fife and north west is Schiehallion. To the north lie the Grampians. Because of the steepness of the descent it is probably more pleasant to return the way you came but to make a circular walk go past the cairn and down through the trees. After passing a large boulder on your right a view of Birnam opens up.
From here the way down is very steep all the way to a t-junction of paths above the Inchewan Burn, go right to reach the cottages near the start of the walk. From here the path to the left goes back under the railway line where you turn right to reach the car park.


The wooden house with a heart

The house of a pioneering Scottish artist has been saved for the nation after a last-ditch funding appeal saw mystery benefactors come forward. 
The Tim Stead Trust had almost given up hope of raising the £450,000 needed to buy the late artist’s home in the Borders. The house, which is filled with the Stead’s experiments in wood – even a wooden sink – had gone on the open market when the anonymous benefactors stepped in.

Tim Stead, founder of Britain’s first community woodland and the artist behind works such as the National Museum of Scotland’s Millennium Clock, died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 48. His widow, Maggy, wished to return to her native France but could not afford to keep their home – The Steading, near the small village of Blainslie – as a cultural hub.

It was due to go on the open market after a fundraising campaign struggled to meet the huge amount needed but the Tim Stead Trust has announced that with a “significant number of major pledges and donations”, finished off with help of a Crowdfunder campaign, the target of £450,000 has been reached. 

The funds will allow the Tim Stead Trust to purchase The Steading for the nation and begin an ambitious programme of restoration, renovation and development.

Now, phase two of fundraising is about to begin in order to turn the home into a cultural and education centre.

The good news comes as the culmination of a roller-coaster journey for the Trust, which began a major fundraising campaign over a year ago. In November, following the refusal of The National Heritage Memorial Fund to award a major purchase grant, the Trust’s hopes were severely dashed. However, within days a major benefactor stepped up and offered matched funding up to £250,000. This was swiftly followed by a number of major private donors and trusts, and within a few weeks the majority of necessary funds had been secured. The Crowdfunder campaign, launched only a week ago, raised £20,000 with donations from over 240 individuals.

The Tim Stead Trust has ambitious plans to develop The Steading as a major international centre for “wood culture” which embraces Tim Stead’s all-round vision for the environment, art, literature, wood-working and architecture. The Steading is envisaged as a centre for education and creativity, reflecting its unique place in the Scottish Borders, but with a global reach.

Maggy Stead, Tim’s widow, said “It is a huge relief to me to know that my Tim’s work will now be preserved and used in such a creative way. He would have loved that.”

Unlike his public work, such as the North Sea Oil Industries Memorial Chapel in Aberdeen created in 1989 and the chair made for Pope John Paul’s visit in 1981, this was a private family house where the couple brought up their children Sam and Emma. But it is also a shrine to Tim’s work and his experiments in wood.

Sam Stead, Tim’s son and a Trustee, said: “It is fantastic that we have managed to get to the point where The Steading can be bought by the Trust and start working on opening it up for the public. The amazing support from friends and fans of my father’s work has been truly heart-warming.”

Stead, originally from Cheshire, came to Scotland in 1975 as a post-graduate at the School of Art in Glasgow. He met Maggy, also studying in Glasgow, four days before she was due to leave Scotland – they fell in love at first sight and were married a year later.

Nichola Fletcher, Chair of the Trust, added: “We are overwhelmed by the speed of this response, and with the enthusiasm that our project has sparked. We are so grateful to our supporters, who have given so generously. The past two months has turned me into a fund-raising junkie so I’m not stopping now!  We have urgent restoration work to do and of course we have ambitious plans for The Steading. So now the real work begins, of fundraising for Phase 2 of the project, which will allow us to realise our dream of developing The Steading into a major centre for creativity and education.”

His style of working with wood, celebrating its natural beauty, is so fashionable now, it was actually pioneering at the time.

Initially he used pieces salvaged from a Glasgow hardwood importers – the bed in the couple’s bedroom, complete with a knobbly, multi-coloured topped chest, is from wood destined for a bonfire –  but a move to the Borders ignited a passion for native wood.

Café Gandolfi in Glasgow was one of his first public works, the Millennium Clock one of his last, created in conjunction with several artists including Eduard Bersudsky, who now runs the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre in Glasgow but who lived in a nearby cottage when he first arrived from Russia in 1993. One of Bersudsky’s characteristic pieces – ornate shelves – graces the house, a testament to the time when the house buzzed with art students and collaborators. Stained glass around the house was made by local artists, the kitchen table was created by Tim from a slice of a massive stump of burr elm spotted by the couple’s chimney sweep while up on the roof.

To find out more about the house and the ongoing fundraising, visit www.timsteadtrust.org

Skye Bridge, 25 years on

A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SCOTTISH BANNER EX-PAT NEWSPAPER IN OCT 2020

Andy Anderson is a criminal. He has been charged under the law more than 100 times, spent time in jail and had his face shown in newspapers and on TV news programmes across the world.

But Andy is also a hero, a fighter for justice and a good friend of the policemen who put him in front of the courts.

It is just over 25 years ago that the Skye Bridge opened amid great controversy. A road link had been established to the “Misty Isle” for the first time but at great expense to the taxpayer, and to those driving across, who were faced with a toll which was the most expensive, per mile, in Europe.

Enter Andy Anderson, then the owner of a B&B near Uig at the north end of the island. He, like many islanders, was opposed to the crossing charge and was determined to fight it, even if that meant facing up to the British Government, major American banks, and the courts.

After the bridge was first proposed by the Government in the late 1980s it had seemed a good idea to many but as the high cost of the tolls became apparent, opposition began to grow. When the bridge finally opened that resistance had grown into a full blown protest and the campaign group Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (SKAT) had started what would become a nine-year battle to have the charges abolished.

Andy was the secretary and had helped organise a protest which would see drivers refuse to pay when the bridge opened at midnight on 16 October 1995.

“We decided to go down at midnight and be there as soon as the bridge opened and we wouldn’t pay.” SKAT expected around a dozen people to be there in no more than 10 cars but the numbers were three times that, despite the weather being awful. “A whole load of people who had never been at the meetings decided they were going to do it as well. It wasn’t your usual rent-a-mob, this group were elderly, young, business people, a real mix and you knew straight away this was different.

“The wind was howling and they kept us there for hours, they wouldn’t let us through. The police wanted us to go away.” Just before dawn they were let through, but only after being charged – the first of many times the protestors would be at odds with the law.

But Andy and his fellow campaigners were in no doubt they had to continue the fight. “We were left with little option – either we had to shut up and do what we were told, or we took them on. That was quite a daunting prospect; a small community taking on the Government, but we did.

“Once we were in the battle there was no way out. As soon as I started getting charges against me, which I was refusing to pay, I realised my house and property was in danger. The minute we tried to draw back they would come after us.”

Protests took many forms; as well as refusing to pay campaigners would hand over bags of pennies at the tollbooth, which led to huge tailbacks as the cashiers counted them up (the charge was £5.70, one-way, for a car). Another tactic was to drive over flocks of sheep – something which was legal. “There was an ex-Army officer who had a croft and he drove his sheep over. We realised we could block the bridge with the sheep and technically it was a way of putting two fingers up.”

On many occasions they tried to invoke the spirit of the law which says it can be broken with a “reasonable excuse”. Even though they had little chance of succeeding in court, they knew the publicity they would receive would help their cause. Andy, a former miner and trade union official, who has a degree from Oxford University, once referred to a Government minister who had called the protestors “lunatics and luddites”. “The police sergeant came down and asked what our reason for not paying was. I said: ‘If you disabled you are not required to pay, and I am a lunatic. A minister of the Crown said so and ministers don’t tell lies.’ The sergeant said I should see my doctor. I said: ‘I can’t do that, he’s in the car behind and he’s a lunatic too.’” Again, Andy was charged.

That interaction with the officers of the law was typically friendly, in part because everyone knew each other as friends and neighbours. Andy says:  “We had a perfectly good relationship with the police – they used to ring us up to say we were going to get arrested. I once said that I was going down the pub for choir practice as I was in a Gaelic choir and they said ‘OK, give us a ring when you’re ready’.”

However, the threat of imprisonment was ever present for campaigners who refused to pay – it had been made a criminal offence by the Government, rather than a civil one. Because of that, Andy thought he was better placed than some others to risk going to jail because he was semi-retired which meant he no longer had a young family to support unlike younger campaigners who would have risked losing their job if they received a criminal conviction. “We realised the only people who could take it on were people like myself, no family commitments and no career to worry about. So I decided to go for the jail, to up the ante because every time we did that it became a lot more political and we got a lot more support.”

In 2001, Andy was placed in Inverness Jail for 14 days for refusing to agree to return to court after being charged with refusal to pay. “Within two days the balloon had gone up – there was international press and people in Australia and the United States asking about it – that interest put them on the spot.” When he was brought back to court he was not given a prison sentence but received and admonishment which under Scots law meant he was free to go but with a warning and conviction. “They wanted rid of the case. If the media had heard I was going back to prison, it would have exploded.”

After that ruling, Andy believes the authorities decided they could no longer threaten protestors with jail if they refused to pay the toll and victory in their fight to abolish the tariff was in sight.

After much political argument, the tolls were finally lifted in December 2004. Andy believes there were a number of reasons for their victory, including the gradual weakening of the Government’s political position, with the help of national and international media coverage and the support of leading politicians of the day such as Liberal Democrat John Farquhar Munro. But Andy also looks back at the efforts of the residents of Skye and Kyle who had faced up to authority and held firm: “The community stuck together in a way that we ended up with more criminals per hundred of the population than anywhere in the world … but we won.”

Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan

Where’s the most out of the way place you’ve been on a walk? Ardnamurchan is pretty remote at the best of times and at the moment it might as well be in Patagonia for most of us, amid the travel restrictions. Still, it is always good to plan and this is one coastal walk to bookmark, hopefully, for the coming months.

White sandy beaches backed by dunes, rugged coastline and views to Hebridean islands – this has to be a perfect coastal walk. Take your time, and a picnic, then linger and enjoy. But do keep to the travel restrictions at this time – it is not worth the risk to go beyond your local authority area.

DISTANCE: 4½ miles / 7.25km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 600ft / 180m.

TIME: 3 to 4 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 47.

PARK: About five miles from Kilchoan, just after a cattle grid as you enter Portuairk, there is a parking area on the right.

THE ROUTE: Continue down the single track road, enjoying great views over the bay to the islands of Canna, Rum, Muck, Eigg, and even Skye in the distance on a clear day. At the bottom of the hill go right at a junction in front of a little sandy inlet to pass some white cottages. Then, go left in front of the last cottage, following a sign for Sanna.

At a burn head a little way upstream to cross a wooden bridge then go downstream to follow another sign for Sanna, up a coastal path. Once through a small gate drop past an isolated cottage and head inland a short way to cross a burn via stones. On the other side go inland a little further before following a path going round to the left, ignoring a path going left again after a few yards.

At a junction turn right to go up a fairly steep, rocky path. This gradually bears left as you gain height and reaches a signpost, where you go straight on. The path bends further left to reach a stunning view of white sandy beaches and the Hebridean islands beyond. Drop down towards the beaches and at the bottom follow a bath going right – it is best to take this route if the tide is high. Go through a gate, turn left then reach a stile, on the other side of which are the beaches.

Follow the main beach along and round to the left before taking a path to the right, over dunes. To the south west you can now see Coll and Tiree. Follow another beach to a white house standing alone. Go up the side of a sizeable burn to cross an old wooden bridge then follow an indistinct path round to the left, behind the house. There are now views of Ardnamurchan Lighthouse as the path begins to bear right.

You continue right to pass a series of cairns from where there are great views, making a large loop which finishes back at the bridge near the white house. Re-cross the bridge and retrace your steps to the start.

BEN A’AN, TROSSACHS

ScotRail use a pic of the top of Ben A’an as a way of enticing folk to travel to the mountainous areas of Scotland, despite the fact that the nearest train station is more than 20 miles away. But you can see why; this is a proper pointed little mountain in miniature with views from the rocky summit down Loch Katrine to the Arrochar Alps in the east. Ben Venue is across the head of the loch and the huge bulk of Ben Ledi is to the east. South are the Campsies and to the north are the mountains above Crianlarich.

Take your time to enjoy this view, it is one of the best in Scotland.

Good path work means the way up is easy enough, even one very steep section is really a staircase of rock and enveloped in a gorge which means there is no feeling of exposure to height. I took my daughter up here when she was in P1 – one of the best Friday afternoons I have ever had.

Do remember to make sure you keep up with the latest coronavirus restrictions; if you are not allowed to travel, don’t – even a walk in beautiful countryside is not worth the risk.

DISTANCE: 3 miles / 5km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,250ft / 380m.

TIME: 2 to 2½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 57.

PARK: A couple of miles west of Brig o’Turk on the A821 there is a Forestry Commission car park for Ben A’an, on the left.

If travelling over the Duke’s Pass from Aberfoyle, the car park is on the right a few hundred yards after the turning for Loch Katrine.

THE ROUTE: Cross the road from the car park and go up a wide track on the other side. When the track bends left go straight on, up steeply on a newly built path.
The path veers left as it nears the tumbling waters of Allt Inneir then continues steeply until a gratefully-reached flat section, before you cross the burn via a wooden footbridge. 
The path then continues uphill a short way before levelling out as Ben A’an appears ahead. Don’t be daunted by its pointy appearance, the way up is a lot easier than it looks.
The path carries on across clear-felled ground then enters a band of birch woodland below the crags around the summit.
After a small clearing the path climbs steeply again, by a small burn which you cross, before levelling off and doubling back to reach the summit.
After spending time exploring the summit rocks most return the way they came and this is the easiest option. An alternative is to head to the north and west to reach the shore of Loch Katrine. This, however, is pretty rough terrain and can be very wet underfoot.

MEALL A’ BHUACHAILLE, CAIRNGORMS

Meall a’Bhuachaille is proof that a “proper” mountain in Scotland does not have to be a Munro. The top is a fantastic viewpoint of the rugged northern ranges of the Cairngorm mountains which form a wall of corries and ridges above Loch Morlich.

The way up is steep-ish but there is nothing technical to worry about. In Winter, it can be icy enough for ice axe and crampons to be needed but if you choose your day correctly most fit walkers will get up with no problem!

Remember the Covid restrictions currently in place; the walks will still be there when all this is over so for now, if you have to stay put, do so in the knowledge you are keeping yourself and those around you safe.

DISTANCE: 5½ miles / 9km.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,600ft / 490m.
TIME: 4 to 5 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 36.
PARK: Take the B970 from Aviemore, then go through the Rothiemurchus forest to Loch Morlich and park at its eastern end in the Glenmore visitor centre car park.

THE ROUTE: Behind the visitor centre, take a steep path – signed for Meall a’ Bhuachaille – up through the trees. The burn should be on your left. After about 250 yards the gradient eases and another path is reached. Go left, and continue up, to emerge above the forestry plantation with Creagan Gorm to the left and Meall a’ Bhuachaille to the right. The obvious path continues up to a ridge. Turn right here and follow the twisting path up to the summit at 2,657ft (810m).
The path leaves the eastern side of the summit, quickly going to the right.  The route drops down to the Ryvoan bothy and a walk through the valley back to Glenmore. Turn right at the bothy and follow the track down for half a mile, to An Lochan Uaine – it is worth dropping down (where safe to do so) to see the turquoise waters close up.
Continue down the main track, ignoring a path to the right. After another mile, ignore a track on the left. Then, at a green metal gate, take the track to the right, past the Glenmore Lodge outdoor and mountain rescue centre.
Follow the track above a minor road and at its end go right to return to the visitor centre.

The Merrick, Galloway

Robert the Bruce liked the isolation of the Galloway hills – above Loch Trool he was victorious over the English in 1307 using guerrilla tactics seven years before Bannockburn. It is still a wonderfully out of the way place, a feeling enhanced by the names given to the landscape such as the Awful Hand Range (which The Merrick sits on), Curleywee and the Rig of the Gloon.

The Merrick is the highest point in the Southern Uplands at 2,766 feet, and the route up is a good hill walk – perfect for those who want to go a little higher but without the concern of scrambling on rocks or along narrow ridges. It was once something of a bog festival but good path work makes it far easier, nevertheless it is often wet underfoot higher up, even in dry weather so a good pair of boots is needed.

Do remember to make sure you keep up with the latest coronavirus restrictions; if you are not allowed to travel, don’t – even a walk in beautiful countryside is not worth the risk.

DISTANCE: 8 miles / 13km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,500ft / 760m.

TIME: 4½ to 5½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 77.

PARK: Turn off the A714 about 9 miles north of Newton Stewart and follow a minor road for two miles to Glentrool village. Just after it, turn right to reach the Glentrool Visitor Centre. Bruce’s Stone car park, the start of the walk, is just over three miles past the visitor centre at the end of a single-track road.

THE ROUTE: At the end of the car park, follow a stone path going off to the left, next to an information board about the Merrick. The path climbs up through ferns and then runs parallel to the waterfalls of the Buchan Burn.
After passing through a wooden kissing gate, the gradient levels off for a short while, before a sign directs you left to the “high” path up the Merrick, and the route becomes steep again.
After bearing right, the path levels off and follows the edge of a felled forestry plantation before going left through the discarded trunks and branches of the trees, as well as some new growth.
The path then drops down and reaches Culsharg bothy. Go past this to the left and follow the path up to a forestry track, where you turn right and cross over the Whiteland Burn.
Turn left almost immediately afterwards, off the track and on to another path signposted to the “Merrick Climb”. It is very steep going as you climb up through the trees, but after a few hundred yards, you reach the edge of the forest and open moorland. An obvious path goes up and veers to the right, reaching a wooden kissing gate – this is just over halfway.
Carry on up the stone path which bears right before a wall and then becomes grassy and muddy. It is then not far to the cairn at the top of Benyellary – just after the path and wall bear left.
Ahead, the path drops along the broad grass ridge called Neive of the Spit, above the Scars of Benyellary, before rising up. About 150 yards further on, the path goes right, away from the wall, to cross the Broads of Merrick and reach the summit itself, with its stone shelter and trig point.
It is worth walking around the broad summit to look down the surrounding glens, as well as enjoying the distant views.
You can descend via Loch Enoch, but it is far easier to retrace your steps to the car park.

POLKEMMET COUNTRY PARK, WEST LOTHIAN

This is a time of lockdowns and restrictions and it is important to keep within them if we are to stay as safe as possible. For those of us in West Lothian it means any walking has to be done within the county boundary, so this is a walk for us! It is great for all the family from tots to grandparents with the route on flat ground, if a little rough underfoot in places. The work of 19th century plant hunter David Douglas is there to be seen in the grand fir trees which line the burbling River Almond at Polkemmet Country Park. But as well as the woodland, river and birdsong, man-made enjoyment can be had, especially for children – there is a great playpark as well as the Polkemmet Horn, used by many parents driving along the adjacent M8 to indicate to their offspring where Teletubbies live. It is actually an art installation which was erected in 1997. So, enjoy!

DISTANCE: 4 miles / 6.5km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: Negligible.

TIME: 1 to 1½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 65.

PARK: Leave the M8 by junction 4A west of Whitburn and follow the B7066 towards Harthill. Polkemmet Country Park is on the right, after the series of roundabouts next to the junction.

THE ROUTE: Go to the left side of the country park’s reception (just beyond the car park) and follow a track going to the right – not straight on to a golf driving range. The track drops down by the side of a golf course then swings right. At a junction go left then go right at the next junction to enter woodland.

Ignore a path going right and keep straight ahead to reach a pond. Keep going right, around the pond, to reach a surfaced track, where you go left.

Walk past a bridge over the infant River Almond and continue on the track to see the Polkemmet Horn close up. Return to the bridge and cross it, following an obvious path on the other side to a junction, where you go right. At the next junction go left to walk up the side of the river and past a mausoleum for the Baillie family who once owned the estate.

After going up steps you can turn right to shorten the walk and return to the car park. To keep striding out go left to follow a track which skirts the golf course. The track swings right (keep right at a junction) and continues as you cross a burn. After swinging right again the track makes a loop to re-cross the burn before reaching the country park’s main drive. Go right to return to the car park.