Facebook beckons!

So I’ve set up a Facebook community page (you’ll find it here). It’s designed to help anyone who likes getting out for a good walk in the great outdoors of Scotland. Big day hikes to short strolls, Munros to glens, lochs to seashore, we will cover it all. The idea is to get everyone enthused and involved so they can enjoy the landscapes we have on our doorstep (or at least not very far away).

Each week I will post a walk for you to try and a mountain of the month (although this will be a higher walk, it should be accessible to anyone of a normal fitness level).

If you like bagging as many Munros as you can, that’s cool, but it is also cool to only want a one hour stroll – let’s face it, a clifftop walk can be more exhilarating than a soggy day up a mountain. As member numbers grow this will be a place to share tips, walk suggestions, or to ask for help in choosing the right route, from Galloway to Shetland. So get involved – share your best scenic pics of Scotland, or suggest a good walk for beginners. In fact, share what you like – as long as it is related to walking.

Keep checking back here as I’ll be sharing the walks on this site, as well as anything else worthy.

At the moment, Covid restrictions are affecting us all so please make sure you keep within the rules so you, your friends and family and the whole of Scotland can stay safe.

All the best, Nick

#saveyouroutdoorcentres

This summer, as the hills and glens were thronged with more visitors than ever before, there were reports of much anti-social behaviour, from littering to campfire left smouldering, from verges used as toilets to trees being chopped down for firewood. Photographs on social media from harassed rangers left to clear up the crap led to much hand-wringing among the outdoors community (I include myself here) about a throwaway culture where tents are cheap and not worth the bother of taking down and woods can be used as open toilets because someone else will clear up the mess – that’s what happens on hols.

I think the general conclusion was that a bit of education would have helped – that we (the outdoors-loving community) had been lucky enough, as children, to have been taken out by our families or by the Scouts or other outdoor education bodies with adults who showed us how to light a safe campfire, how to build a shelter; and we didn’t just learn how to do it but why we do it, why it’s important. We learnt a respect for the countryside and a desire to leave it in the same state as we found it so we and others could continue to enjoy it.

So in a year which has generally been dripping with irony, it should have come as no surprise that the Scottish government should on the one hand bemoan the state the countryside was left in and on the other fail to support outdoor education centres, the main places where many children and young people get their first, sometimes their only, taste of the outdoors.  I should say here, yes it wasn’t just Scots causing the problems (just as it wasn’t just the English) and yes it wasn’t just young people – in fact not even mainly young people. But instilling a love of and respect for the outdoors is something which should be started with young people.

It must be hard to be in government. All those people clamouring for attention and wanting their concerns addressed. However, there are sometimes issues which to the average person seem to be no-brainers, and one is supporting outdoor education centres.

Outdoor education centres are not just places where children and young people get an adrenaline rush when they abseil, kayak or rock climb, they help build health and well-being. For the disadvantaged it can be first taste of the great outdoors and for all it is a chance to build confidence away from any pressures at home, or in the academic setting of schools.

In August the Scottish Government said councils could not allow school residential trips to take place until the spring term of 2021, and that they would not review it until December. That meant that without financial support many of these places would close. So far there has been none.

Re-opening schools has been a priority but not all of education has been given the same level of importance. Classroom activity is good but activity at outdoor education centres is also incredibly beneficial to children and young people. It might not lead directly to exams but that should not mean it is less relevant to a proper education. We are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. Schools become important not just because of education but because they are child-minders for parents needing to get back to work to kickstart the economy. And somewhere along the line, the education bit gets lost – it becomes about logistics; shunt the kids here so the parents can go there. But education isn’t just exams, it doesn’t have to be indoor, desk-bound learning. It is at the moment because we have made it so. But can we not take a step back and say what do we want our children to know, to have learned, to be able to do in 20 years and prioritise our education system around that?

None of us knows what kind of world is ahead for our young people – if we didn’t know it before, this year has most certainly taught us we don’t even know what the world will look like the following week. More than ever, our next generation need to be adaptable, flexible, resilient. They need to be problem-solvers, team players, they need to be able to think on their feet. They need to be able to care about our country and our world. 

However, even with outdoor centres, the amount of countryside education our children get is well below what should be the norm in a first world country. At my daughter’s state secondary only a handful get to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and local rangers now have to charge schools for courses (despite them working for the same council which is providing the children’s education). This reduces an introduction to the outdoors children are getting and reinforces the belief in them that exams are the only thing worth worrying about.

The Scottish Government said earlier this month it was “fully committed to supporting outdoor education providers”. So far, that appears to be untrue.

Please write to your MSP and the Scottish Government, and sign this petition to pressure the decision makes into making a decision.

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.”

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.”

Enchanted again

Enchanted Forest, the woodland light show at Faskally Wood near Pitlochry, was its usual fabulous self this year from the digital rain and the waterfall bridge to the toasted marshmallows.

It’s hard to believe this year is the sixth time I’ve visited with my family. Very glad to see they do a nature audit to check all that light and noise isn’t having an adverse effect on the wildlife – and even more glad to see that this year, as in the last few years, all the tickets sold out.

In fact, this year was the first time we’ve struggled to get tickets – and we buy them months in advance. That and the fact there are so many other outdoor light shows which have sprung up around Scotland is a testimony to the brilliance of the idea and Pitlochry is reaping the benefits with an extended tourist season bridging the gap between the end of the summer and Christmas.

umbrellas at Enchanted Forest

MULTI-COLOURED UMBRELLAS AT THIS YEAR’S ENCHANTED FOREST

The Enchanted Forest isn’t run by some giant multi-national with endless funds – the venture was a real gamble which paid off. It might not have done. But it’s the kind of entrepreneurship we need in tourism in Scotland.

It galls me travelling around Scotland at this time of year and finding so many tourist information centres closed – especially the ones which sell postcards of exquisite wintry scenes in summer. And yes, it’s hard when it’s public money to justify opening centres when the tourists aren’t there in numbers. But to misquote Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you open them, they will come – the Enchanted Forest shows it’s possible.

VisitScotland also say that generally people look for their info online these days. And that is true. But another trend is the rising number of motorhomes on our roads. We have a lot more folk driving around, doing that kind of footloose, where shall we stay tonight kind of holiday – just look at the success of the North Coast 500. And while they’ll have certain must-sees such as Glencoe on their itinerary, there’ll be plenty of times when they’re just meandering from A to B.

And if you drive through a town with a tourist information centre, you might well stop even if you’ve never heard of the place because a centre means there must be touristy things to do.  So you might go up that walk by the waterfalls, then stop for some lunch, then tell your friends about it – all those pics on personal social media are the online bits that really work to spread the word.

Scotland is promoted brilliantly for whisky and golf. But now we know we don’t have to write-off the October to Easter period, we need our tourism experts to find ways of making Scotland a genuinely year-round destination to benefit the cafés, pubs, shops and campsites as much as the whisky companies and golf clubs.