It is the time of year when hillwalkers, mountaineers and climbers need to batten down the hatches as the “ban this sort of thing” brigade take to the airwaves and newspapers.
As snow descends on the mountains and rescues are highlighted it unfortunately leads some (often in offices in towns and cities far removed from the outdoors) to call for a reduction in access to the hills at a time when conditions are potentially dangerous.
This is wrong for many reasons, not least because it falls against the now widely accepted principle of land access and also that mountains are always risky for the unaware or ill-prepared. Equally, we don’t ban Sunday morning football because players sometimes break their legs, or drinking in case someone gets dangerously drunk and needs and ambulance.
One claim often made is that rescuers’ lives are put at risk helping people trapped in precarious positions. What should be remembered is that most of these rescuers are volunteers who go out because of a love of the outdoors and a desire to help fellow enthusiasts.
However, that does not mean we should ignore the tragedies and near-misses because accidents do happen and it is the responsibility of everyone who enjoys being out in the wild places of Scotland to make sure they are as safe as possible.
Shaun Roberts, the principal of the National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, has told me that if you have a doubt about going out somewhere in the hills you should treat it as a “red flag” and consider your actions.
Planning and preparation is key and courses run by places such as Glenmore Lodge can be invaluable. For example, taking an ice axe and crampons is not enough if you don’t know how to use them and a map and compass are useless in a storm if your navigation skills are not up to scratch.
Common sense also means weather and avalanche forecasts should always be taken account of and turning back if the conditions deteriorate must be an option at the forefront of your mind.
So, rather than talking of bans we should all be doing everything to reduce the risk of going out in the hills and mountains and then get on with the serious business of enjoying it.
In To a Louse, Robert Burns wrote: “Oh, would some Power give us the gift, To see ourselves as others see us”.
But we don’t need a power, spiritual or not, to tell us, we only need look at the tourists who keep flocking to this wonderful country.
Everyone seems to like Skye, we know that – and despite all the doom-mongers, surely it is a bit of investment which is needed to solve the overcrowding (although rural spending is something the Scottish Government seems averse to).
But it is people wanting to visit other parts of Scotland who interest me. A lot come from across the world and want to see Scottish castles and distilleries, as well as the scenery.
One thing that strikes me is the number, especially from the US and China, who still want to go to Loch Ness and hunt for the monster. Now, I’m not knocking it and have done it myself in the past but in this modern of age of being able to tell if a rock has rolled over on the far side of Mars, surely the monster myth should be well and truly burst by now?
Seemingly not, and when it comes to visitors and fiction, the Outlander effect is still going strong. Historic Environment Scotland has said there has been a 27 per cent increase in tourists from North America visiting Scotland’s castles associated with the TV series. And at other locations such as Midhope Castle on the Hopetoun Estate near Linlithgow – Lallybroch in Outlander – there are now visitors where none existed before.
So does fiction mirror history and help shape how others see us?
Steve Spalding, CEO of Timberbush Tours, which takes tourists on trips across Scotland, said: “As much as Outlander is a compelling story, many of Scotland’s castles featured as the backdrop to the television series are steeped in real history and have links to some of the most beguiling tales that are woven into the tapestry of our country. Tourists coming to Scotland from the US and Canada will be amazed at just how much Outlander mirrors our glorious past.”
Prime dog poo territory
What is it about children’s boots and dog muck – do they actually have a kind of magnetic attraction which means a lovely walk can be tarnished by the need to clean off the excrement.
The stomach-churning stench is actually the least offensive part – the dog doo can cause blindness in youngsters if they manage to get any on their hands which then come into contact with the face.
Now I know many, many dog owners are fastidious about cleaning up and I am by no means anti-pooch (it is regular family discussion/argument about whether to own one) but the problem is there for all to see.
In pretty much the way it has always been in my 40-odd years, the sides of a path, especially in the first few hundred yards of a walk, are often used as dog toilets with the deposits left behind. Hidden by tufts of grass or small shrubs they become the target for little feet going off to explore.
Many things which were once seen as normal are now rightly seen as anti-social and seriously frowned upon by most members of society – think of drink driving or dropping litter. But dog muck appears to be here to stay.
On a walk the other day I actually saw a black labrador squat above a rock – the sort of path-side rock which is good for humans to sit on and contemplate the scenery. The dog’s owner followed up behind but she had either not noticed or chose not to notice, leaving the mess for others to discover.
This was a seemingly “respectable” looking woman of middle-age, the sort of person who would vociferously complain if a similar pile was left on the pavement outside her house. But as much as I was fuming at her behaviour, I was angered at mine – I didn’t say anything, just made a silent tut to myself and continued walking in very polite sense of outrage.
Should I have said something or is that risking an anti-social confrontation akin to road rage? Or, should I have reported the lady to a council (which would have meant following her to her car and I was out for a walk in the country, not an afternoon of detective role play)?
Maybe there needs to more official campaigning about the problem (like there was for drink driving and dropping litter) and although that would mean pictures of the disgusting mess which can blight the countryside, it could shame the owners who leave their dog’s muck behind.
We’re just back from a trip to visit relatives in the south of France where some of my cousins suggested a day in the Pyrenees to see the last of the snow.
“What, more snow?” asked my daughter. “We’ve seen plenty of that at home.” Instead we enjoyed walks by the Aveyron, Ariege and Haute Garonne, and visits to the great citadel of Carcassonne and La Ville Rose (Toulouse), enjoying slightly warmer weather than Scotland currently has.
But the dump of snow is not something to complain about (that seems to be a default position for many). Rather, I see it as something to celebrate.
At the weekend a walk in the Angus Glens with Scots Magazine friends meant the high tops were still covered in the white stuff, making for a great backdrop as we made our way up to Bachnagairn.
In other parts of Scotland the white stuff has made it a bumper winter of ski-ing and with more snow forecast, the season is likely to continue into May. But such is our attitude to spring – which says it is all about flowers and sunshine, as nice as they are – Ski-Scotland is warning lovers of the piste not miss out.
The organisation’s chair Andy Meldrum said the snow is likely to remain for much longer than skiers and snowboarders turn out. He said: “Once spring does finally arrive with warm sun and daffodils blooming, people seem to believe there’s no snow left for skiing or snowboarding. However, this really is the best time of year to come for a slide in the mountains with a much better chance of good overhead weather. It’s also a really good time to learn, when the weather is kinder and slopes quieter. Just don’t forget your sunblock!”
So, keep those skis and snowboards ready, there is still plenty of time to enjoy them. And if you are walking, remember it is not time to stow away the crampons just yet.
What is it about white stuff falling from the sky (especially when it comes close to Christmas)? Some see it as a problem and it is disconcerting that councils can fail to clear pavements and side roads, leaving vulnerable members of society housebound. But I am lucky enough to see a good fall of snow as a chance to enjoy some winter fun locally, rather than having to travel to the mountains.
And with two children of primary school age I can live out the boyhood thrill of hurtling down a slope, not quite sure how it is all going to end.
One thing I did learn in the last week or so is that two people are definitely quicker than one when flying down the side of Cockleroy, a wonderful little hill above Linlithgow.
How no bones were broken is something of a miracle but it is best not to think about that, or the buried rocks beneath the soft fluffy snow, or the cold blast of a dollop of the snow being pushed up your back as the positively Olympian bobsleigh run turns into a tumble.
Instead, concentrate on having fun and enjoy the relatively rare sight of snow away from the glens.
My youngest managed to turn a standard red sledge into a snowboard, hurtling downwards while retaining his balance for a respectable distance before face planting in a drift – he came up smiling like a mini Yeti and did it again.
Follow all this with hot chocolate and you can stuff your Meribels or Whistlers – Scotland in winter is just as brilliant. I only wish it would snow again soon.
Autumn is turning into winter, the last leaves are dropping off the trees, snow is falling in the hills and early morning frost has become the norm. But that is not a reason to pack away walking boots and wait until the return of spring before enjoying a walk.
Winter conditions can mean ice axe and crampons are needed on the higher summits but lower down the winter wonderland on offer across Scotland is stunning.
VisitScotland close many of their dwindling number of visitor centres at this time of year which is amazingly short-sighted, even for city-based decision-makers. The outdoors is still there to be enjoyed and the conditions can be great to enthuse children, whether it is smashing up icy puddles, sledging down a slope or building a snowman.
Here are five great walks to take little ones on:
BENNACHIE, ABERDEENSHIRE, stands high above Aberdeenshire with views stretching down from the Cairngorms, over rolling farmland to the North Sea. The tors and tops on top of the hill are easily explored from a network of waymarked paths.
LOCH AN EILEIN, CAIRNGORMS, is a good place to look for red squirrels, deer and pine martens. The water often freezes giving a 13th century castle just offshore a magical appearance – even if it was once said to have been home to the notorious Wolf of Badenoch.
BEN A’AN, TROSSACHS, has a proper pointed summit with views over Loch Katrine to mountain but it low enough to escape the severe ice coating which can hinder progress on higher mountains. A relatively new path leads up to a steep and exhilarating, but safe, clamber by a burn to the rocky top.
BEN VRACKIE, PITLOCHRY, is another pointy mountain which dominates Pitlochry and offers a great way to burn off any Yuletide excess. The views over the central Highlands are superb and made even more memorable if you finish the day in the cosy inn at the Moulin Hotel near the start. This is the most arduous of the five walks and in very wintry weather, crampons and ice axe may be needed.
CAMBO SANDS AND ESTATE, FIFE, is a wonderful place at the end of winter when the snowdrops are staring to emerge. Beginning the walk below Kingsbarns, you can enjoy a bracing winter’s stroll along a great stretch of sandy beach (and maybe a wee sandcastle), before enjoying the flowers.