Gullane Bay walk

Gullane Bay from the Gullane Bents car park

A version of this appeared in Scotland on Sunday on January 12, 2020.

The seaside at this time of year can be a wild place, and that is what makes it special. This has to be one my favourite family walks when the days are short but want a bracing walk with plenty occupy everyone.

A good expanse of sandy beach gives way to low rocks and a small headland before pinewoods begin the return. Throw in a bit of history and a crisp, cold winter’s day and you have a good outing.

I took the family here just before Christmas, and then returned at the start of the year – despite the cold, a bit of rock pooling meant the demands for a quick return had to be heeded!

You can extend the walk by continuing along the coast, passing sandy bays and more rocky outcrops before eventually reaching Yellowcraig, with the island of Fidra just offshore. This may prove too much for some, in which case a linger on the coast can be just as exhilarating if not as tiring on the legs.

DISTANCE: 3½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 130ft.

TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 66.

PARK: Follow a brown sign for Gullane Bents from the west end of the town’s main street. At the end of Sandy Loan go left to reach a car park above the coast. £2 parking charge.

IN SUMMARY: From the shore side of the car park drop down a path which starts between a pay and display machine and some information boards. This leads to the long beach of Gullane Bay, where you go right to follow it to its end. A path then runs just above the shore and past some low dunes. Keep close to the high tide line before reaching some low ruins – this was St Patrick’s chapel and was in use until the early 16th century.

Leave the shore at this point and go around to the right in front of the ruins, then right again at a junction to walk along the edge of a dense pine wood. The path is then more of a track as it enters the trees. Just before the end of the wood go left at a fork to follow a path over open ground. This bears right and climbs a bank to reach a slightly more defined path. Go left then, shortly afterwards, turn right in front of a fence. On the other side of this are the hallowed links of Muirfield golf course – one of the most famous in the world.

At a junction of paths go left then keep on the main path, which heads further inland. The path becomes surfaced before turning right and reaching a very large grassy area. As the path (now a track) bends left you can see the car park. Leave the track on the right at this point and follow a grass path to the beginning of the walk.

In praise of urban walking

Scots Mag walkers out an about in Edinburgh

Why choose to walk in a town or city, rather than the wonderful Scottish countryside?

It isn’t as weird a decision as it might sound. As gales lash Scotland at this time of year, plans to get up on the high mountains are ruined but that doesn’t mean walking is ruled out completely.

Urban walks are not only more sheltered than a ridge in Glencoe or the Cairngorms, they can also throw up a few surprises.

The delights of the Water of Leith in Edinburgh are a prime example. Here, there are otters (yes, really), kingfishers and heron. I’ve seen them and if you pop into the Water of Leith visitor centre the nice people in there will confirm regular sightings of all sorts of wildlife.

A walk from Roseburn to the visitor centre gives the counter-intuitive feeling of being out of the city even though you are right next to it. While bustling streets, offices and houses are all around it is the trees, shrubs and river which envelop you.

The peace and tranquillity was enjoyed by more than 40 folk on a Scots Mag Hike at the weekend. This was one of the most popular outings of the year, I think because of the good conditions underfoot.

Some run the route we took (returning to the city centre by the Union Canal towpath) but the idea of charging through the scenery, while good for fitness, makes me think much of nature in the city would be missed.

So, if you look out of the window and don’t fancy a trip to the wilds, or even semi-wilds, think about what might be on your doorstep.

Five brilliant Christmas walks

Make time to get out into the fantastic Scottish countryside this Christmas. If you are lucky it will be covered with snow. And, you will be left feeling energised, as well as having an excuse for mulled wine and mince pies!

MEALL A’ BHUACHAILLE, THE CAIRNGORMS

DISTANCE: 5½ miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,607ft.
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.

IN SUMMARY: The Cairngorms in winter may seem like a place for skiers, snowboarders and ice climbers, not hill walkers. But Meall a’ Bhuachaille is a great, popular hill which takes you up high and gives a fantastic panorama of the shattered cliffs and ridges of the Northern Corries. The Ryvoan Bothy at the bottom of the steepest part of the walk is a perfect spot to have a break, amid a great expanse of open moorland and mountain.

EAST LOMOND, FIFE

DISTANCE: 2½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,250ft.

TIME: 1½ to 2½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 58 and 59.

PARK: There is plenty of parking in the centre of Falkland.

IN SUMMARY: East Lomond is only 1,391 feet high but you will need to fill your lungs to clamber up its steep upper slopes. Usually grass covered but perfect for sledging in snow, they lead to a great viewpoint taking in both the Southern Uplands and the Highlands to the north. The walk starts in the pretty village of Falkland which itself is Christmassy enough to visit in itself, with a Renaissance palace and little shops, tearooms and pubs.

BEN VRACKIE, PITLOCHRY
DISTANCE: 6 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,100 ft.
TIME: 4 to 5 hours.
PARK: Turn left at the Moulin Hotel, about a mile from the centre of Pitlochry along the A924, then go right a couple of hundred yards later. The car park is at the top of the single track road on the right.
IN SUMMARY: Not a Munro but a proper, pointy mountain, Ben Vrackie dominates Pitlochry and offers a great way to burn off the Yuletide excess. The views over the central Highlands are superb and made even more memorable if you finish the day in the cosy inn at the Moulin Hotel near the start.

LOCH AN EILEIN, CAIRNGORMS

DISTANCE: 4½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: Undulating (about 400ft in total).

TIME: 2 to 2½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 36.

PARK: Take the B970, Cairngorm road, from Aviemore. Turn right after about three-quarters of a mile, following a sign to Insh. Just over a mile down the road go left, following a brown sign to Loch an Eilein, and a car park a mile further.

IN SUMMARY: Loch an Eilein is a picturesque spot all year round but in winter a silence blankets the surrounding Rothiemurchus Forest, whether there is snow or not. The fairytale setting is completed with a castle out on the water, dating back to the 13th century. It was once said to have been home to the notorious Wolf of Badenoch. A circuit of a second loch – Gamhna – adds a sense of wilderness to the walk, below the high mountains of the Cairngorms.

BIRNAM HILL, PERTHSHIRE

DISTANCE: 4 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,150ft.

TIME: 2½ to 3½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 52.

PARK: You can arrive by train at Dunkeld and Birnam Railway Station but there is also parking in the centre of Birnam. IN SUMMARY: Birnam Hill is tougher than it looks with steep going, especially towards the top, but it is ideal for winter because it does not usually get covered with deep snow and a walk up and down only takes a few hours. Shakespeare used it famously in Macbeth and the stunning views do indeed include Dunsinane in the Sidlaw hills.

*Versions of these walks have appeared in Scotland on Sunday.

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.”