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

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.”

Finding the right way, for fun

A VERSION OF THIS APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 2020 SCOTS MAGAZINE

I have always thought of orienteering as something of a nerdy pursuit – all about peering at a compass and map. Surely yomping up a mountain, camping in the wilds or paddling a kayak is more fun?

Actually, it is great fun; like a mini-expedition with the challenge of navigating your way over unfamiliar ground, looking for marker posts (often called controls). To put it another way: “It’s like a treasure hunt but without a sticker or sweets at the end,” observed 10-year-old Eric before we set off.

We had chosen one of the easier courses at Beecraigs Country Park, above Linlithgow; there are a host of different options from super-simple routes to incredibly difficult ones involving virtually impenetrable forest. Competitive orienteering is designed to complete a course as fast as possible but we had also decided not to go too quickly as we were just learning our way.

Some studying of an incredibly detailed map showing the route – printed from the British Orienteering website – and we were off. The first post (with a plate containing red and white triangles and a code number) was south of the car park, so provided a simple introduction to the compass, especially as the map uses magnetic rather than true north.

The second post was found by following the map along a track but some searching was needed as it was partially covered by a low-hanging tree. More map work identified a ruined wall and stream and the next couple of posts were quickly found, boosting Eric’s confidence. The map was a particular source of interest, especially a path that appeared to end in the middle of the forest. “That leads nowhere. I like that, it’s cool,” declared Eric.

More posts ensued (and a quick snack to boost energy levels) before the most intriguing decision of the day. The easiest way between two posts seemed to be up a path and track but the shortest route was straight ahead. Eric chose the latter, ploughing through gnarled roots and fallen branches before reaching an open patch of ground. “Looks like we will be going through knee-high grass – what happens if a snake bites me?” he worried. Informed that there were no snakes (probably) he charged on and learned another lesson when confronted by a burn flowing along a deep ditch, something he hadn’t noticed on the map. A huge jump followed and a path was reached. I then decided to take the easiest way to the post, leaving Eric to make his own way across a dense thicket. Some time later he emerged through rosebay willowherb, towering above his head. “Your way was more boring – my way was more interesting but slower. And, I like wading through all that stuff,” he announced.

It was an easy walk back to the start and the words every parent likes to hear were spoken by Eric: “That was fun, can we do another one?”

PANEL – TOP TIPS FOR ORIENTEERING

Orienteering maps are much more detailed than the usual OS ones, they also show magnetic north, making compass reading easier. So, familiarise yourself with them before setting off.

The quickest route between posts is not always the shortest, hence the need to read the map properly in order to avoid obstacles such as dense forest or rivers.

Trousers or leggings are a good idea if going over rough ground to avoid ticks and brambles.

Trainers can be worn but sometimes tougher footwear is needed.

Pick an easier course to start with and work your way up to more challenging routes.

PANEL – WHERE TO GO ORIENTEERING

Orienteering is done across the country from built-up urban areas to the wilderness of the hills.

A good way to get started is to get in touch with a local club and the British Orienteering website https://www.britishorienteering.org.uk/home has a comprehensive list.

Many competitions are held, using temporary courses with entrants timed to see who is quickest around each course.

There are also permanent courses where you can go anytime, printing a map out before you go. Again, head to the British Orienteering website to find out a course near you.

St Kilda, 90 years since evacuation

A version of this article appears in the latest edition of The Scots Magazine. Pics courtesy of National Trust for Scotland.

When Alice MacLachlan arrived on St Kilda in 1906 with her husband, Peter, the newly appointed minister, she was nervous, fearing a life of hardship on the archipelago 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, surrounded by the stormy seas of the Atlantic.

What she discovered, however, was a well ordered community who lived relatively well, despite the elements. Her recollections, recorded in documents cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, now form a fascinating insight into what life was like on the “islands at the edge of the world” – where seabirds were a key source of food, plucked from cliffs, along with their eggs.

When she left in 1909, she said she had “a very warm place in my heart for the St. Kildans and for the island”.

But this year (2020) marks the 90th anniversary of the very last residents leaving St Kilda, victims of a changing world which had brought disease and taken young men and women away from the remote spot.

In 1930 the islanders asked to be evacuated because their way of life had become unsustainable. The last 36 left on 29 August of that year and now the National Trust for Scotland looks after it as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site – for both its heritage and habitat, which includes its own wren and a sub-species of mouse which is twice the size of a British fieldmouse.

Susan Bain, the National Trust for Scotland’s Manager for St Kilda and the Western Isles says: “St Kilda has attained an almost legendary reputation – a symbol of a lost world of existence on the edge and a lifestyle that few now will ever experience.

“It was the evacuation in 1930 that gave rise to this elegiac status. Yet the reality was somewhat different and much closer to what happened less dramatically in many of Scotland’s island communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hard economics is what led to depopulation before the evacuation, with islanders discovering through marine and war service that a better living was to be had elsewhere.

“But St Kilda was and is more than that – it’s the sum total of millennia of an intertwined human and natural heritage.”

The islands had been inhabited for 4,000 years but by the beginning of the 20th century conditions were becoming harsh. Not only were young men and women leaving for better lives on the mainland but disease was being introduced because of more boats arriving and in 1913 there was an outbreak of influenza. Even ailments such as the common cold were tough for St Kildans as they had never, or rarely, been exposed to them before.

Alice gave birth to her daughter Susan in 1909 and left the island with her husband soon after. In a talk to the YWCA on her return from St Kilda in 1909, she gave a foretaste of what was to come: “One of the most peculiar things about the St. Kildans is that they nearly always catch cold when strangers visit the island. It is a kind of Influenza and they always seem to have it after the visit of a steamer or yacht.  It does not only attack one or two but goes from end to end of the village. Mr. McLachlan, strange to say, never took it, while the girl in the kitchen would at once take it. We never could account for this sickness.  We have been told there is another solitary island in the South Atlantic Ocean, called Tristan-da-Cunha, where the same thing happens.”

In her diary, Alice MacLachlan wrote of how the islanders had given them a warm greeting when they arrived aboard the SS Hebrides in August 1906. She wrote: “The men & quite a lot of the girls were on the Pier and all escorted us up to the gate of the Manse where Kate [the Manse servant] was waiting.”

Later, in her recollections to the YWCA, Alice said the couple “were far from being lonely”. The fondness with which she speaks is possibly because the Kirk was such a focal point of island life. She said: “Every one on the island attends – men, women, and children, babies in arms, and if any one absents himself he is called on by the majority of the congregation on the way home from service to know why.”

Healthcare also formed a big part of her life: “There was a great deal of bandaging to be done. The men got terribly cut limbs on the steep rocky hillsides while chasing down the sheep, a system of catching the sheep which is very bad both for man and sheep. The poor people did not understand the need for keeping wounds clean.”

Although there were about 22 acres of land for growing crops and many villages kept chickens, as well as sheep – which were “plucked” rather than sheared – much of the work to produce food was catching seabirds: “…the principal occupation of the men is catching the sea birds, for the sake of the feathers and oil, these being bartered with the factor for the proprietor of the island, McLeod of McLeod, in payment of their rent.”

Alice died aged 48 at Acharacle on Ardnamurchan in 1920 and her daughter, who had moved to Africa as a nurse, passed on her notes and diaries to the National Trust for Scotland in 2000, when she herself passed away.

Susan Bain, of the National Trust for Scotland, says human activity, such as that described by Alice has left “an indelible mark on the landscape and our collective imaginations” But she adds that “nature continues to shape the archipelago’s form and the lives of unique land, avian and marine species. The National Trust for Scotland’s late Chairman, Dick Balharry said that he saw St Kilda as a bellwether for a changing climate, and what we see there every day bears that out.

“St Kilda is a unique treasure and its World Heritage Status is richly deserved – it is an honour for our charity to care for it.”

ALICE’S RECOLLECTIONS

From a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda

“They are very industrious, at least the women are, the men I always thought might have done more work, altho’ when once properly started they worked well. I used to find fault with them for allowing the women to do work they themselves ought to have done.  It was no uncommon thing to see the young man helping to rope the bags of meal & flour which had come by steamer on to the women’s backs. Sheep, coal or any burden were carried from the pier by the women as a rule – very occasionally the men.”

Also from a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda

“The different birds you see there are solan geese, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, shearwaters, etc. Of course the people eat the flesh of all these birds … I may tell you we sampled all the sea birds to be able to say we had tried them.  The fulmars were not at all nice, oily & sickening; the solan goose tasted coarse & fishy; but the puffins & guillemots we could just manage, but we much preferred on the days that we were dependant on the birds, to take one of our own domestic fowls.”

Pics courtesy of National Trust for Scotland.

Goat gardening

This appeared in the national papers earlier in lockdown. Pic courtesy of Ed Daynes.

By Nick Drainey

One of the most famous pubs in the Highlands is having the lawn in its beer garden cut by a herd of feral goats during the coronavirus lockdown.

The horned animals are taking advantage of the lack of people during the restrictions and coming down off the mountains to explore the luscious grass and plants around Glencoe’s Clachaig Inn.

Ed Daynes, the pub’s co-owner, said the goats are doing him a favour as he tries to keep the business ticking over while the hostelry is shut during the lockdown.

He said: “There are a bunch of feral goats that live between us and Glencoe village on the hillsides at about two or three thousand feet.

“There is no one here at the moment so they are now merrily munching the grass and plants in the garden. They are doing us a favour because there is no one to mow the grass and they seem to be keeping the new growth of the shrub plants at bay. I think they have eaten the daffodils though, they seem to have gone.”

The pub has had to furlough 34 staff while the coronavirus lockdown is in place but are hoping to open at some time in the summer. “We are an old, well-established business and reasonably resilient but it is all a question of timescale and we don’t know what that is.

“We are being realistic and saying July at the earliest to re-open … we need a bit of summer to turn us around but if we go into autumn we might not be able to sustain the level of staff.”

In order to help, he is urging the public to stay away from the Highlands while the restrictions are in place, no matter how tempting it maybe as the warmer weather arrives.

“No-one should be travelling or thinking about travelling at all at the moment, For the most part I think that is happening – I am riding my bike up and down the glen, it is so quiet. There are one or two travelling but it only one or two and there is quite a high police presence as well.”

Herds of feral goats are found across the Highlands and islands but usually keep well away from humans. They were introduced by Neolithic farmers and kept in fairly large numbers. In the 17th and 18th centuries the demand for their hair for making wigs dropped off and many of the animals were turned onto the hills to survive on their own in the wild.

Many local communities hold them in affection and estimates suggest there are between three and four thousand across Scotland. However, they are classed as a non-native species and are sometimes culled when individual herds become large.

ENDS

Tapping into birch

By Nick Drainey

The health giving properties of the sap from birch trees were recognised in Caithness 5,000 years ago, being drunk by humans and even cattle as the long, cold months of winter came to an end.

Now, in the forests of Perthshire, the practice of taking the clear liquid is being rediscovered and, for the first time in the UK, a commercial operation has begun to take and bottle the “birch water”.

Gabrielle and Rob Clamp use maple syrup kits bought from Canada to syphon off the natural tonic which is reputed to cleanse kidneys and liver, ease arthritis and rheumatism, and help strengthen teeth.

The process is popular in Finland and the Baltic countries and the water is drunk by celebrities including Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. But it has never been seen here on a large scale.

The history of birch water in Scotland goes back millennia. Rob, whose company Birken Tree collects around 5,000 litres of sap each year, says: “We trace it back at least 5,000 years. There was a Neolithic lady whose body was dug up in Caithness where I am from and there was evidence of some food and some of that was birch sap. In the Highlands there are records of people using it as a tonic after a long winter; giving it to babies, themselves and even cattle. It makes sense because it is so full of minerals and vitamins and it is a lean period (in nature).”

Although still known about in other countries Rob says there could be a simple reason its use died out here. “They have a very different history to us in Scotland. People were cleared away to the New World and that connection to the land was severed.”

Sat amid the birch trees of Grandtully Forest in Perthshire, Rob explains the unique taste: “I like the silkiness of it, almost creamy. There is a very slight sweetness, depending on the tree or the season. Some people compare it to melons or cucumber, it is very subtle.”

When they first tapped the sap Gabrielle said she was “excited”: “We realised the taste of fresh sap was different from the bottle we had before – we really loved it. That is why we use glass bottles to keep the taste right. And, if you warm it up slightly the flavours are more intense.”

There is usually only a three week window to gather the sap in early spring, usually March, because as the warmer months arrive it develops a bitter taste.

They collect about 5,000 litres a year but estimate that each tree only loses a tiny amount of its sap. Rob says: “We take about one per cent. We know they take up 100s of litres a day and we take about five.”

Gabrielle gave up a job as a chiropractor to concentrate on the business. And while Rob still works as a forester he aims to concentrate on their start up business full-time.

Internationally, the market is worth millions of dollars and Gabrielle and Rob were introduced to it when a friend gave them a bottle marked “Made in Finland”.

Gabrielle says: “We thought someone must make it in Scotland but no.” As a result, they became the only Scottish producers on a  commercial level, selling to local delicatessens and through a wholefood distributor.

Gabrielle adds: “There are lots of vitamins and minerals, enzymes and amino acids. There is xylitol as well which is good for the teeth.

“A lot of people ask if it is (normal) water because it is called birch water but no, it is pure sap.”

The sap ferments in three days so they freeze it and then pasteurise it a little to give it a longer shelf life.

Rob says: “At some point it would be nice to focus on it full time and we have launched a crowdfunding campaign.” Growing the business will mean adding flavours such as cranberry, bilberry and meadowsweet and also creating sparkling birch water which has been asked for by high end hotels and restaurants.

“We are so proud that we have been able to revive this ancestral Scottish tradition and unlock the huge potential that these native Birch trees can offer. We have injected so much energy, enthusiasm and money into our business – but now we need help to take it further.

“We’ve been so grateful for all the support we’ve received so far and hope that this campaign will encourage more people to get behind us and play an active part in the use and conservation of our native Birch woodlands.”.

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, 31, has written about birch water on her Facebook page saying the “nutrient-dense liquid” is a “hero ingredient”.

Despite the trendy, modern feel to the product Rob insists its 5,000 year history means what they are doing is “nothing new”. He adds: “What we are saying is ‘hello, you should be drinking this stuff’.”

Hayley Bruce, Commercial Marketing Intelligence Manager at Scotland Food & Drink, said: “Scotland has a rich heritage when it comes to food and drink production and it is great to see traditional techniques being adopted in the modern world. Searching through the past for inspiration, whether looking for ancient wisdoms, indigenous ingredients or heritage produce, can open up some fantastic new opportunities for the Scottish food and drink sector.”