Foraging fun

Foraging is cool – it used to be the preserve of hippy-ish PHD students or high end chefs looking for poncey mushrooms and weird “leaves”.

Now it seems it is for everyone from those looking to improve their spag bol (use the water you soak dried mushrooms in, according to cookery guru Wendy Barrie) to people wanting to find sea capers on the shoreline (go and find Jayson at East Neuk Seaweed).

All things foraging are being brought together at Foraging Fortnight which begins next week (Saturday, August 31) across Scotland. I went for taster session yesterday – and there was a lot of great food to try as well as interesting people to meet

The festival programme has been designed to encourage all ages to get out and forage in beautiful locations from woodlands to seashores, hedgerows to back garden plants (Cambo Gardens in Fife are good for this). There are loads of sessions on offer – free and paid for – and they are going to repeat it in May next year.

Yesterday, I went to Bowhouse in Fife, a great place for foodies who like things natural and local, and there were the familiar things you would expect at this kind of event – lots of smiling people and great food. But there also a genuine vibe of positively looking at what Scotland has to offer for the dinner plate.

And that doesn’t mean spending a fortune in expensive delis – you can grab a feast of salad from hedgerows as you make your way to the seashore to find seaweed and molluscs. Add in a few berries and you have a really posh dinner which food snobs in north London would admire.

Don’t be snob though, just go out and give it a try – people have been doing it for years and much of it has its origins in the way the less well-off gathered their food down the centuries.

And, for any cynics out there: I wasn’t paid to write this.

CALLANDER CRAIG AND BRACKLINN FALLS

Falls higher up the Keltie Water near Scout Pool

A version of this article is in the September 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine

CALLANDER CRAIG AND BRACKLINN FALLS, TROSSACHS

By Nick Drainey

Length: 6.5km (4 miles)

Height gained: 320m (1,050ft)

Time: 2 to 3 hours

OS Landranger 57

Parking: Arriving in Callander from the direction of Stirling turn left off the A84 just after a sign for the Roman Camp country house hotel. Bracklin (CORR) Road then leads up out of the town, past a car park on the left and up to one for Bracklinn (CORR) Falls, on the right.

The route: As a teenager I took a friend to the Lake District in an attempt to convert him to the joys of hillwalking. Striding Edge seemed like a good place with plenty of wow factor and as we sat on the rocky ridge the view was astounding.

What sticks in the memory, however, is what happened after I had greeted some fellow scramblers with a cheery “hello”. When they had made their way to the summit of Helvellyn my friend asked if I knew everyone on the mountain as I had said hi to each of them and they had replied equally politely.

Fast forward a decade or two (or maybe three) and my children have asked the same question, and again been told that is just what you do in the outdoors, away from the hustle and bustle of streets and pavements.

But what is the etiquette when it comes to talking to other folk walking by a burn, on a hill, mountain, or even a ridge?

On a walk to Bracklinn Falls the other week a quick hello, or nod of the head, was all that was needed for a coach party from Germany – if I had tried to start a conversation I may have been linguistically challenged, as well as at risk of being thought of as odd.

As I followed the Keltie Burn upstream and stopped to admire more falls near Scout Pool it seemed I could have started a conversation but the couple who had reached the little bridge from the other direction decided to head off with a “lovely day, isn’t it”, I think to leave the viewing spot to me – a very nice gesture and high on the scale of politeness.

As the steeper slopes of Callander Craig were reached one of the great etiquette conundrums faced me as I approached a chap descending. Do I gasp out a breathless “hi” or try to give the impression I was in no way out of breath. I shamefully went for the latter, even if it was a little strained.

I stopped at the wonderful summit cairn – built in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Cairn and rebuilt 100 years later. The view from here is excellent, especially the imposing bulk of Ben Ledi to the west.

As I picked up my rucksack to set off, a middle-aged guy appeared and despite my best, most jovial “hello” I only received a weak smile and a little grunt on reply. Worrying I may be in trouble for excessive jollity I scuttled down the ridge but soon realised the reason for the gentleman’s taciturn nature. In front of me was a lady, presumably his wife, loudly telling a child to “stop complaining about everything, daddy has brought us up here so the least you can do is try to look happy”. I thought better of saying anything and just gave a consoling sort of smile which probably made me look a little unwell. Thankfully, for the rest of the way down I didn’t see a soul – sometimes a walk on your own with no human distraction can be the best thing.

Having a whale of a time

A version of this appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine

“The sea has inspired people for eons. It has been the source of myth and legend – sea monsters and kelpies – and has inspired song and music. Because whales and dolphins are from this seemingly mythical place, when you do see one it takes your breath away.”

Karl Stevens is trying to explain why whale-watching has become such a phenomenon in Scotland. Practically unknown 25 years ago, it’s now estimated to be worth around £7.8 million to the economy of the west of Scotland, drawing in around 240,000 visitors a year.

Dozens of boats operate around prime spotting sites in waters which are home to around a quarter of the world’s whale and dolphin species including bottlenose, Risso’s and common dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and orca.  But this summer, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust has launched a new trail to give visitors a different way of looking out for these sea creatures – from the land.

Standing at Ardnamurchan Point, one of around 25 stopping places for the new land-based trail on the West Coast, Karl, the Hebridean Whale Trail manager, explains: “A lot of people think this is something you can’t do on land, you have to be on a boat. Yes, there are definite merits for being on a boat but from an accessibility perspective and getting more people involved, land-based is a lot easier. It also means you get to some spectacular locations.

“With heights you get more distance so if you are on top of a sea cliff, you are going to get a better view over a longer distance than if you were on a boat.”

All that makes the trail world class. Karl adds: “In terms of the combination of wildlife – whales, dolphins but also seals, seabirds, plants and so on – and then the landscapes and seascapes you could argue it could be one of the best places in the world.”

One of the key things about the whale trail is that it is as much about seeing whales and dolphins as the culture that surrounds them, and the Hebrides is rich with that culture. “Every place you go to there are thousands of years of stories and tales going back to Celtic and Norse legend.”

Karl also says more modern stories such as those of fishermen and lighthouse-keepers will be retold on the trail, as well as the “slightly darker” history of whaling from the 19th and early 20th century when boats would head as far as South Georgia to harpoon the mighty creatures.

The trail is aimed at “anybody who is in the area” with Karl pointing to research saying 40% of people come to Scotland for wildlife. A significant number come for culture and the landscapes, and the whale trail “ticks all those boxes”. He says: “Anybody who is even remotely interested in those three things will get something out of the whale trail. We are trying to add to what is already there and bring the whale and dolphin stories into that.”

Karl describes whales and dolphins, and the watching of them, as an “unknown attraction” which has really only been done (aboard boats) for about 25 years. Karl says: “People think of charismatic species in Scotland; red deer, salmon, seals and so on. Then there are the mythological species – you have the Loch Ness Monster. People still come knowing that the Loch Ness Monster is likely to be non-existent and go out in the vain chance that they might catch a glimpse of the beast.” Whales and dolphins, he points out, are actually there.

Visitors can hope to see “a breaching humpback jumping out of the water” because they have already looked at clips on TV or the internet. “You may see that and be incredibly lucky. But for the most part it is those special moments when you are looking out and catch a glimpse of a fin or something moving in the water. That might hold your attention a little longer and you realise that fin is attached to a porpoise, or a dolphin, or even a minke whale. It is to try to get more people to spend more time looking out to the sea to make the most of what is out there.”

Karl says awareness of the sea and what is in it has been rising in recent years, particularly after the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series. As a result, he hopes that a spin-off of the whale trail will be that people report incidents of pollution, whether that be a patch of oil, something floating on the surface, or even something entangled in an old net.

“The ethos of the whale trail is to tap into the connectivity between the sea and the land that has been there for thousands of years, and because of the Blue Planet effect we are starting to reconnect. People are more aware of the stuff that is floating and what to do about it and that is very important.”

The trust, and other organisations, already survey the seas to try to gauge numbers of whales and dolphins but the picture is currently unclear, according to Karl. And he hopes with more reports of sightings, already possible through the trust’s Whale Track app, there can be a greater understanding of any issues and problems.

He says: “It is a mixed picture, for example last year we got more common dolphins but other species seem to be doing less well. The past couple of summers have not been great for basking sharks but we don’t know if that’s because they are not there or that we have just not seen them.

“That is a key element of the whale trail – if we can get more people out there we will get a significantly better understanding of what is out there.”

Putting the boot in

A version of this article is in the August 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine.

BEINN DUBHCHRAIG, NEAR TYNDRUM

Length: 9 miles

Height gained: 2,640ft

Time: 5 to 6 hours

OS Landranger 50

Parking: Turn off the A82 at Dalrigh, a mile south of Tyndrum. There is a car park a few yards down the single track road, on the left.

The route: Taking off your boots at the end of a walk is usually accompanied by a sigh of relief that the strains of the day are done and the hiker can be satisfied they have had a good day on the hill. But coming off Beinn Dubhchraig I had a sense of sadness; this would be the last time I would unlace my faithful footwear.

At the start of the walk, by bubbling burns in a magnificent wood of pine and birch I had snagged the toecap on the end of a protruding tree root, leaving a gaping hole.

Now I do get through quite a lot of boots, being a regular walker, but this pair were special – they were the best I have owned. (At this point I could bore the reader with tales of Brasher’s, Meindl’s and Mammut’s but suffice to say these Salomon boots were the most comfy and hardwearing I have ever had.) They were maybe not the most technically made but were definitely an overall good fit and sturdy sole which had done me proud on everything from the Cuillin ridge to canoeing on Highland lochs with the children.

I continued with the walk, out of the woods and by the beautiful waterfalls and pools of the Allt Coire Dubhchraig – a geologist could have a field day, literally, along this stretch of burn with its layers of different-coloured rock covered in crystal clear water.

The hole in my boot had got slightly bigger but the boggy ground, gradually being overcome by brilliant path work being carried out by the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland, meant I was only getting a wee soaking on my toes.

Then the Munro’s corrie was crested and a magnificent view of Ben Oss and Ben Lui greeted me. Once at the summit, Loch Lomond and the Arrochar Alps were laid out like a topographical map while closer to hand were the Crianlarich hills dominated by Ben More. To the north the myriad peaks of the Central Highlands were strewn out in a fantastic panorama – what a place to linger.

Thoughts of including Ben Oss on the route, as many do, were abandoned over fears my boot’s hole may widen to the point of complete ruin.

So, an amble back down made me think of the other great places this footwear had taken me – I am not one for too much romanticism but it was almost like taking a pet for a last walk before the vet puts it to sleep, or saying goodbye to an old friend. Eventually, inevitably they were taken off and placed in the car for one last time.

However, they will make a nice couple of plant pots for the garden.

Four brilliant summer holiday walks

This article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on June 30, 2019.

The summer holidays are here – packed lunches can turn into picnics and bags can be packed for a day in the outdoors. Wherever you look, there is plenty to explore across Scotland and if the weather is kind there at least one of these great walks will give you a day to remember.

TINTO, LANARKSHIRE

DISTANCE: 4½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,550ft.

TIME: 2½ to 3½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 72.

PARK: About four miles south of Hyndford Bridge along the A73 turn right at the old Tinto Hill tea room. The car park is about 250 yards down the road, on the left.
IN SUMMARY: Tinto is a great hill for anyone to walk up. An obvious path leads all the way to the top, from where the views are excellent – from the west to the east coast, north to the Highlands and south to England. It is said that the 2,320 foot hill had Druidic significance and that Tinto – Hill of Fire – was used for ceremonies honouring Baal, the sun god. I would just take a picnic.

WEST SANDS, ST ANDREWS

DISTANCE: 5 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: Negligible.
TIME: 1½ to 2½ hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 59.
PARK: There is a car park behind the R&A Clubhouse, next to the British Golf Museum.
IN SUMMARY: West Sands, just next to the famous R&A Clubhouse, is one of the best town beaches in Scotland. It was used in the Oscar winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire and anyone who can remember that far back can often be heard singing “Da-da da da da-da!” A nature reserve around the Eden Estuary follows before a walk by St Andrew’s famous fairways, ending with the Old Course.

PAP OF GLENCOE

DISTANCE: 5 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,390ft.

TIME: 3½ to 5 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 41.

PARK: Take the minor road which goes through Glencoe village to the Clachaig Inn. About 300 yards after passing a national speed limit sign on the edge of Glencoe turn left into a car park – just after an electricity substation.

IN SUMMARY: The Pap of Glencoe is a mountain in miniature. Despite the challenging Aonach Eagach ridge next to it and the huge buttresses of Bidean nam Bian across Glencoe, it packs a punch and some fantastic views. Take your time, it is steep on the way up, and linger on the top – preferably with a camera.

CAMUSDARACH, MORAR

DISTANCE: 2 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: Negligible.

TIME: 1 hour (but allow plenty more to explore rock pools and dunes).

MAP: OS Landranger 40.

PARK: About 3½ miles south of Mallaig turn off the A830, following a sign for Tougal, down the B8008. About 1 miles further on park on the right in Camusdarach car park.

IN SUMMARY: Just down the road from the Sands of Morar is a quieter beach which is just as stunning. Camusdarach looks out to Skye and the islands of Rum and Eigg. It was used as a setting for Local Hero and the filmmakers definitely knew something about picturesque settings.

Batten down the hatches – the doom mongers are back

It is the time of year when hillwalkers, mountaineers and climbers need to batten down the hatches as the “ban this sort of thing” brigade take to the airwaves and newspapers.

As snow descends on the mountains and rescues are highlighted it unfortunately leads some (often in offices in towns and cities far removed from the outdoors) to call for a reduction in access to the hills at a time when conditions are potentially dangerous.

This is wrong for many reasons, not least because it falls against the now widely accepted principle of land access and also that mountains are always risky for the unaware or ill-prepared. Equally, we don’t ban Sunday morning football because players sometimes break their legs, or drinking in case someone gets dangerously drunk and needs and ambulance.

One claim often made is that rescuers’ lives are put at risk helping people trapped in precarious positions. What should be remembered is that most of these rescuers are volunteers who go out because of a love of the outdoors and a desire to help fellow enthusiasts.

However, that does not mean we should ignore the tragedies and near-misses because accidents do happen and it is the responsibility of everyone who enjoys being out in the wild places of Scotland to make sure they are as safe as possible.

Shaun Roberts, the principal of the National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, has told me that if you have a doubt about going out somewhere in the hills you should treat it as a “red flag” and consider your actions.

Planning and preparation is key and courses run by places such as Glenmore Lodge can be invaluable. For example, taking an ice axe and crampons is not enough if you don’t know how to use them and a map and compass are useless in a storm if your navigation skills are not up to scratch.

Common sense also means weather and avalanche forecasts should always be taken account of and turning back if the conditions deteriorate must be an option at the forefront of your mind.

So, rather than talking of bans we should all be doing everything to reduce the risk of going out in the hills and mountains and then get on with the serious business of enjoying it.

How do others really see us?

In To a Louse, Robert Burns wrote: “Oh, would some Power give us the gift, To see ourselves as others see us”.

But we don’t need a power, spiritual or not, to tell us, we only need look at the tourists who keep flocking to this wonderful country.

Everyone seems to like Skye, we know that – and despite all the doom-mongers, surely it is a bit of investment which is needed to solve the overcrowding (although rural spending is something the Scottish Government seems averse to).

But it is people wanting to visit other parts of Scotland who interest me. A lot come from across the world and want to see Scottish castles and distilleries, as well as the scenery.

One thing that strikes me is the number, especially from the US and China, who still want to go to Loch Ness and hunt for the monster. Now, I’m not knocking it and have done it myself in the past but in this modern of age of being able to tell if a rock has rolled over on the far side of Mars, surely the monster myth should be well and truly burst by now?

Seemingly not, and when it comes to visitors and fiction, the Outlander effect is still going strong. Historic Environment Scotland has said there has been a 27 per cent increase in tourists from North America visiting Scotland’s castles associated with the TV series. And at other locations such as Midhope Castle on the Hopetoun Estate near Linlithgow – Lallybroch in Outlander – there are now visitors where none existed before.

So does fiction mirror history and help shape how others see us?

Steve Spalding, CEO of Timberbush Tours, which takes tourists on trips across Scotland, said: “As much as Outlander is a compelling story, many of Scotland’s castles featured as the backdrop to the television series are steeped in real history and have links to some of the most beguiling tales that are woven into the tapestry of our country. Tourists coming to Scotland from the US and Canada will be amazed at just how much Outlander mirrors our glorious past.”

 

A load of muck

Prime dog poo territory

What is it about children’s boots and dog muck – do they actually have a kind of magnetic attraction which means a lovely walk can be tarnished by the need to clean off the excrement.

The stomach-churning stench is actually the least offensive part – the dog doo can cause blindness in youngsters if they manage to get any on their hands which then come into contact with the face.

Now I know many, many dog owners are fastidious about cleaning up and I am by no means anti-pooch (it is regular family discussion/argument about whether to own one) but the problem is there for all to see.

In pretty much the way it has always been in my 40-odd years, the sides of a path, especially in the first few hundred yards of a walk, are often used as dog toilets with the deposits left behind. Hidden by tufts of grass or small shrubs they become the target for little feet going off to explore.

Many things which were once seen as normal are now rightly seen as anti-social and seriously frowned upon by most members of society – think of drink driving or dropping litter. But dog muck appears to be here to stay.

On a walk the other day I actually saw a black labrador squat above a rock – the sort of path-side rock which is good for humans to sit on and contemplate the scenery. The dog’s owner followed up behind but she had either not noticed or chose not to notice, leaving the mess for others to discover.

This was a seemingly “respectable” looking woman of middle-age, the sort of person who would vociferously complain if a similar pile was left on the pavement outside her house. But as much as I was fuming at her behaviour, I was angered at mine – I didn’t say anything, just made a silent tut to myself and continued walking in very polite sense of outrage.

Should I have said something or is that risking an anti-social confrontation akin to road rage? Or, should I have reported the lady to a council (which would have meant following her to her car and I was out for a walk in the country, not an afternoon of detective role play)?

Maybe there needs to more official campaigning about the problem (like there was for drink driving and dropping litter) and although that would mean pictures of the disgusting mess which can blight the countryside, it could shame the owners who leave their dog’s muck behind.

Spring, snow and ski-ing

We’re just back from a trip to visit relatives in the south of France where some of my cousins suggested a day in the Pyrenees to see the last of the snow.

“What, more snow?” asked my daughter. “We’ve seen plenty of that at home.” Instead we enjoyed walks by the Aveyron, Ariege and Haute Garonne, and visits to the great citadel of Carcassonne and La Ville Rose (Toulouse), enjoying slightly warmer weather than Scotland currently has.

But the dump of snow is not something to complain about (that seems to be a default position for many). Rather, I see it as something to celebrate.

At the weekend a walk in the Angus Glens with Scots Magazine friends meant the high tops were still covered in the white stuff, making for a great backdrop as we made our way up to Bachnagairn.

In other parts of Scotland the white stuff has made it a bumper winter of ski-ing and with more snow forecast, the season is likely to continue into May. But such is our attitude to spring –  which says it is all about flowers and sunshine, as nice as they are – Ski-Scotland is warning lovers of the piste not miss out.

The organisation’s chair Andy Meldrum said the snow is likely to remain for much longer than skiers and snowboarders turn out. He said: “Once spring does finally arrive with warm sun and daffodils blooming, people seem to believe there’s no snow left for skiing or snowboarding. However, this really is the best time of year to come for a slide in the mountains with a much better chance of good overhead weather. It’s also a really good time to learn, when the weather is kinder and slopes quieter. Just don’t forget your sunblock!”

So, keep those skis and snowboards ready, there is still plenty of time to enjoy them. And if you are walking, remember it is not time to stow away the crampons just yet.

ENDS

The joy of sledging

What is it about white stuff falling from the sky (especially when it comes close to Christmas)? Some see it as a problem and it is disconcerting that councils can fail to clear pavements and side roads, leaving vulnerable members of society housebound. But I am lucky enough to see a good fall of snow as a chance to enjoy some winter fun locally, rather than having to travel to the mountains.

And with two children of primary school age I can live out the boyhood thrill of hurtling down a slope, not quite sure how it is all going to end.

One thing I did learn in the last week or so is that two people are definitely quicker than one when flying down the side of Cockleroy, a wonderful little hill above Linlithgow.

How no bones were broken is something of a miracle but it is best not to think about that, or the buried rocks beneath the soft fluffy snow, or the cold blast of a dollop of the snow being pushed up your back as the positively Olympian bobsleigh run turns into a tumble.

Instead, concentrate on having fun and enjoy the relatively rare sight of snow away from the glens.

My youngest managed to turn a standard red sledge into a snowboard, hurtling downwards while retaining his balance for a respectable distance before face planting in a drift – he came up smiling like a mini Yeti and did it again.

Follow all this with hot chocolate and you can stuff your Meribels or Whistlers – Scotland in winter is just as brilliant. I only wish it would snow again soon.