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.

Raven threat to lambs

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Post on April 30, 2017

By Nick Drainey

Lambing season for farmer Selena Swanson has become a time of fear as the growing number of ravens prove a deadly foe for newborn lambs.

At the family farm near Halkirk in Caithness, Selena said: “I have just taken in a lamb who was still alive but its eye had been pecked out and we didn’t manage to save it.”

Selena, and her husband John, have lost dozens of lambs to ravens, forcing them to move pregnant ewes into sheds, rather than the natural environment of the fields outside.

Selena said they would prefer to be outside but after losing 50 newborn lambs last year they had no choice but to go indoors.

Even then, the lambs are still at risk when they go outside. Selena said as well as the dead lamb she found one injured nearby. She said: “I have another one which I managed to save – it has part of its tongue missing.

“We have to leave them inside longer now – we keep them in for four to five days if we can and we have built some pens outside so they can get that bit stronger before they go into the field.”

Selena is unsure why the birds attack as the carcasses are often left untouched once the lamb is dead. She said: “They don’t always peck them to death – their eyes and the tongues are the main bit, but they will go for the back end as well.

“It is just an enjoyment, there is a little bit of hunger but it is not all for hunger. If they were hungry they would just be eating the weak ones which you expect and is part of farming.”

Selena, whose 350 breeding ewes produce more than 500 lambs a year, has a joint Scottish Natural Heritage licence with five neighbouring farms to cull 50 ravens, up from a single licence to kill 5 last year.

But she said more needs to be done and is hoping SNH will come up with a better solution. She said: “It certainly helps but it is not going to make a big enough impact. They are going to need to come up with some ideas; we don’t want them killed outright but we want them controlled because they are getting out of control.

“SNH have been helpful, they have stepped up this year. They have said they will come up with other ideas depending on feedback – it is not a problem that is going to be fixed straight away but if we can start do something then that has got to be a bonus.”

Selena, who has also tried scarecrows, bags on the ends of poles, kites and even motorbikes to scare the birds away, said: “We are trying to preserve a life and the ravens are taking away the life – we want our animals to live and survive, we don’t want them to be lying, suffering.”

Raven numbers have increased by more than 40% in the last 20 years and there are thought to be up to 3,000 breeding pairs in Scotland. While some would see this as a success story it has led to flocks of the birds being seen in areas where previously there would only have been a handful.

The birds peck out the eyes and tongues of young lambs, often working in pairs with one distracting the ewe while the other attacks her offspring.

There has been a huge increase in the number of licences issued to control them but farmers say more needs to be done to stop the carnage in the fields which the National Farmers’ Union say is increasing.

NFU Scotland’s Deputy Director of Policy, Andrew Bauer said: “Raven predation has serious animal welfare implications, causes huge emotional distress to the livestock keepers as well as a financial impact on the business.

“In recent times there have been some graphic demonstrations of the dreadful impact that ravens can have on young lambs and, in some cases, calves. Sadly, raven predation isn’t a new problem but around the country some farmers and crofters are seeing the raven population increasing in size and range.”

Raven numbers have risen in recent years after many decades of persecution by farmers and gamekeepers came to an end.

However, the numbers are causing problems and there were 162 licenses to shoot ravens issued by SNH in 2016, twice as many as in 2014. They led to the shooting of 690 birds.

But Mr Bauer said more work was needed to understand how may ravens there were “because our members believe there are a lot more than the official figures”. He added: “There is also an issue about people being able to shoot as many ravens as they are authorised to because ravens are a difficult bird to shoot and there are not as many farmers with the right type of rifles anymore, and it is time consuming.

“We need to get a balance between conservation and the protection of lambs.”

The intelligence of ravens is well known among farmers and landowners and research has found they are among a group of animals second in brain power only to humans. In experiments which involved animals finding food, carried out at Lund University in Sweden, scientists found that despite having tiny brains ravens were as clever as chimpanzees, the smartest primate.

A spokesman for The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said licences were necessary “to protect livestock under the Wildlife and Countryside Act”. He added: “A flexible licensing system is the answer to the problem, and many other problems of predation in the countryside. The ability to control a set number of ravens at lambing time is not going to affect in any way the conservation status of the raven but it could make a huge difference to the economics of the farm operation. It is a win, win situation.”

Robbie Kernahan, SNH’s wildlife operations manager, said research was being carried out “to get a better understanding of what is happening with raven populations in Scotland and how we can strike the right balance between conserving the wider populations of ravens and minimising the impact that they can have on other interests”.

He added: “We acknowledge the damage that ravens can cause to livestock and the impact this has on farmers. We issue licences to control ravens to those who are suffering or likely to suffer serious damage to their livestock where there is no other satisfactory solution. These licences permit shooting of birds that are causing the damage, with the aim of removing problem birds and deterring other ravens. It’s important to note that preventing serious damage caused by ravens isn’t just about licensing, but also about ensuring that there is good animal husbandry, and employing other scaring techniques to deter birds. If someone is experiencing damage to livestock from ravens then they should contact SNH licensing team.

“We’re working with farmers to look at different approaches in areas where there are particularly serious problems to better help them to address issues.”

Cademuir Hill, Peebles

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on May 07, 2017

CADEMUIR HILL, PEEBLES

The Forestry Commission has been doing quite a bit of work at Cademuir, just to the south of Peebles. What was once a nice stroll now includes the top of the hill and although the cleared forestry is not the prettiest, more trees are promised and the lack of branches mean excellent views are to be had of the Tweed Valley and Southern Uplands.

All of this made me head off to try the new route – named the Pilot’s Trail like its predecessor, after two German pilots who hid in the woods here in after their plane came down nearby. They were caught when smoke from their campfire was spotted.

But, as good as the trail was, it was something completely different which I most enjoyed, and it happened right next to the car park – a group of four young roe deer were feeding on the edge of the woods. Maybe it was their juvenile age but they seemed rather less afraid than deer would usually be. I enjoyed a joyous five minutes watching them before they decided that the fellow with a rucksack was becoming annoying and sauntered deep into the forest.

DISTANCE: 3½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 730ft.

TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 73.

PARK: Head over the Tweed on the B7062 from Peebles’ High Street then take the second right, up Springhill Road. After about 400 yards turn right into Springwood Road and just before the High School go left, down Bonnington Road. There is a Forestry Commission car park about a mile and half down the road, on the right.

IN SUMMARY: Take a path on the right at the top of the car park to walk up through woodland. (You are following marker posts with red flashes on them throughout the walk.)

This is a steep-ish start but it means you reach views more quickly. The path turns sharp right and continues to a picnic bench at a junction, where you go left.

A path leads downhill slightly before becoming a track and crossing an area of felled forestry. When the track has turned right go right, up a stony path which takes you round to the right and up to the top of Cademuir Hill, with another picnic bench.

Enjoy the views then follow the path over the top of the hill and drop down before bearing right, away from a wall with a field beyond. The path continues all the way down to the picnic bench passed earlier (at a junction). Go left here and drop down further through the trees to a junction almost on the edge of Peebles. Turn right and follow a wider path which becomes a track, back to the start.

 

Safari on Loch Tay

Pic credit – Phil Wilkinson

A version of this article first appeared on April 5, 2017 in The Times and The Herald

By Nick Drainey

Tourist boats are to return to Loch Tay nearly 70 years after steamers last took day trippers across the waters, amid the mountains of HighlandPerthshire.

The Earl of Breadalbane created the Loch Tay Steam Boat Company which sailed between Killin and Kenmore via Ardeonaig, Lawers, Ardtalnaig and Fearnan in 1882.  But the last steamer, the Queen of the Lake, stopped sailing in 1949 because it was losing money when the Royal Mail stopped using the boats and improved roads were built on the back of a growth in car ownership. The branch lines to Aberfeldy and Killin which brought day-trippers from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the steamer then closed in 1965.

Now, the tradition of pleasure trips is now restarting with Loch Tay Safaris’ Iolaire, a purpose-built 12-seater rib based at Kenmore. It is the latest in a list of activities including trips across moorland and mountain to watch wildlife, gold panning, and a red deer park run by Donald and Julie Riddell of Highland Safaris. The couple are marking 25 years in business this year, tapping into the trend for widlife tourism.

Both have roots in the Kenmore and Glen Lyon area stretching back over a century and have tapped into their knowledge of the history and wildlife to build their business.

The Loch Tay Safaris boat was named Iolaire – Gaelic for eagle – because it is the same name as a steam powered yacht belonging to Donald’s great-grandfather. Sir Donald Currie founded the Union Castle Shipping Line and was a well-known philanthropist and naturalist who owned estates in and around Glen Lyon.

The original Iolaire was commissioned to detect and destroy mines off the west of Scotland as the horrors and misery of the First World War reached their peak.

The new boat will take in sights such as an Iron Age Crannog and the Sybilla’s Island, where the 12th century queen, wife of Alexander King of Scots, is said by some to be buried.

It will also cross the deepest part of the loch, below the Munro of Ben Lawers. In these 150m waters there is said to lie an ancient Kelpie, who historically was fed boats to provide boats safe passage.

Donald, 58, was born in Glasgow but his family owned an estate in Glen Lyon which he visited every summer as a boy. He moved to the area in the late 1970s and took up farming before moving into tourism. Julie, 52, was born and bred in the area and her family farmed Mains of Taymouth, just down the road from her current home, before diversifying it into a holiday park, self-catering and a golf course.

Julie says their local knowledge means tourists get both wildlife and heritage information. She said: “This whole area is our lives and for generations it is very much in our blood. All the characters that we both grew up with were able to tell us stories of what it was like from the turn of the century onwards – I wish I had had a microphone.

“My father is 86 and is the oldest indigenous Kenmore resident. He can remember sitting in the steamer in the late 1930s with his mum having tea and he was looking over the side.

“Now, Dad goes off on his disabled scooter and he looks out for people to tell them about Taymouth Castle and how it was a Polish hospital during World War Two.  He feels really privileged but I feel really privileged because it is a beautiful area and it is a wonderful thing sharing your passion with visitors.”

Highland Safaris began in 1992 from simple evening walks organised by Donald after a day farming.

He says: “I have always had a deep love for the outdoors and we met on a badger watching safari. We got married and the idea had been formulating but it was very much a hobby.”

Donald and Julie realised it could be a full time business which has been growing ever since, including the new boat.

Donald adds: “TV programmes have brought the outdoors into people’s living rooms and they want to get an experience of that but they want to do it in a safe way.”

Bothy bible is the word

Camban bothy, Kintail. Pic credit – Geoff Allan

A version of this article first appeared on April 3, 2017 in The Times

By Nick Drainey

Geoff Allan does not do hotels, B&Bs or even campsites if he can help it, never mind vehicles.

For five years, he has been using pedal and foot power to visit nearly 100 bothies, from Cape Wrath to Galloway.

For the first time, the often hidden network of abandoned croft buildings and shepherd’s huts which provide little more than a roof to shelter under has been chronicled by Geoff. Far away from the usual tourist accommodation and without electricity or running water, he had to carry in his own food, as well as wood for fire to cook it on, battling the Scottish weather as he did so.

But the solo adventure was a labour of love which culminated in The Scottish Bothy Bible, which has just been published.

Geoff says: “It was a long process, I rediscovered Scotland at a slower pace on the bike.”

But it was a bit more than a long bike ride in the sun. Geoff says: “The hardest day was on Skye.

“I woke up at 7am and knew from the forecast there was a weather window of about six hours and then a big storm. It was 25 miles to Dunvegan, raining constantly, I was soaking wet. Then, there was a 10 mile hike to Ollisdal bothy.”

But when the weather lifted he was rewarded with a great view of Macleod’s Maidens, sea stacks just off the coast.

Geoff says: “Then, I got back to the bike and there was a 25 mile bike ride with a storm coming, all against the wind. That was a long day.”

Each bothy is different, according to Geoff. They can be small or multi-roomed, often in old buildings not used since shepherd’s were regular faces in glens. Some have a good source of wood nearby while for others it needs to be carried in along with your food.

But one of the most important things is to get on with others when you arrive.

Geoff, who lives in Edinburgh and trained as a surveyor but now devotes his time to photography and bothies, says: “I like to be on my own and I like to chat to people, I don’t mind either. Your bothy experience is what you make it in terms of the food and fuel you bring and your social experiences.

“I cycled down to Over Phawhope in the Borders and it was a Sunday night and I thought I would have it to myself.

“But there was a group from Edinburgh in there, and they were already drinking. There was one of two ways to go – a cold room to sleep in or go with it. They gave me a seat by the fire, a glass of wine and away we went. I had the best sing song I have ever had.

“They left in the morning and I had an extra night on my own, so it is a kind of balance.”

Since he began the book, Geoff says he has noticed changes in the Scottish countryside, not least that “bike-packing (rather than backpacking) has become a thing”.

He adds: “The key thing for me is that the bothies are getting more comfortable. There are more sleeping platforms and more stoves instead of sleeping on the floor with a badly drawing fireplace. The Mountain Bothy Association are spending a lot of money making them better. This is the best ever time to go bothying and it is only going to get better.”

Geoff, who first went bothying to Camban in Kintail as a student at Edinburgh University nearly 30 years ago, says the challenges are there when bothying, but not enough to make it dangerous for the well prepared.

He says: “There is a real frisson of being out in winter on your own, knowing there is no-one around for 10 or 15 miles if you get into trouble. Your eyes are wide open because you know you can’t make a mistake.

“But even if you do it is generally only annoying and uncomfortable. All these components make bothying a challenging but not too hard and then your reward is a being set up for the evening with a fire and a glass of wine.”

*The Scottish Bothy Bible is published by Wild Things Publishing and costs £16.99

Pic credit – Geoff Allan