Coronavirus

PLEASE NOTE THAT CORONAVIRUS MEANS WALKING IS EXTREMELY RESTRICTED TO SHORT WALKS LOCAL TO WHERE YOU LIVE – PLEASE KEEP TO THESE RESTRICTIONS, THEY ARE DESIGNED TO SAVE LIVES. IN THE MEANTIME PLEASE LOOK THROUGH THE SITE FOR IDEAS FOR WALKS WHEN ALL THIS IS OVER, ARTICLES I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT RURAL SCOTLAND AND SOME LOVELY PICTURES OF WHAT IS WAITING FOR US ALL WHEN IT IS SAFE TO WANDER AS FAR AS WE DESIRE. STAY SAFE.

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.”

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.