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.
A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on May 13, 2007
CAMBO SANDS AND ESTATE, FIFE
Just down from the Old Course in St Andrews is Kingsbarns – a links course for more than two hundred years.
The beautiful Cambo Sands on its eastern side is a lovely place for a stroll or picnic – it is often a little quieter than other beaches in the area.
At the southern end a path takes you up a beautiful wooded glen to the Cambo Estate, privately owned by the Erskine family since 1688. This is best known for its snowdrops but it is beautiful all year round and the contrast with the stunning, windswept coast is fantastic. There is an entrance fee for the gardens but it is well worth it and children go free.
DISTANCE: 3 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: Undulating but about 80ft in total.
TIME: 1½ to 2½ hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 59.
PARK: Turn off the A917 at the southern edge of Kingsbarns and drive three-quarters of a mile to the end of a narrow road and a car park next to the sea.
IN SUMMARY: Drop down to the beach and look to the left at the remains of the old Kingsbarns harbour before going right, along the sands. (Even at high tide you can walk along the shoreline although you may have to clamber over some rocks to avoid getting your feet wet. If unsure or the waves are high, follow the path above the dunes with Kingsbarns Golf Links to your right.)
At the far end of the beach go up to the top of the dunes and carry on in the same direction. As a track goes away to the right, go left and follow a Fife Coastal Path waymarker.
The path leads to a green and then a broad, well-built track going right. Ignore a another track, going right, and continue down to the Cambo Burn. Go right here and after about 20yards cross a footbridge – the third bridge up from the sea.
Go up some steps and follow the path up the wooded glen, above the burn. After about half a mile you reach a sign indicating the way, right, to the gardens.
Drop down and then go up to the entrance to the walled garden. You have to a go little further to pay the entrance fee in an honesty box next to the potting shed.
After wandering around the walled garden follow the signs through the rest of the gardens to the back of Cambo House where you can make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy a home made cake or sandwich (again, use an honesty box to pay). You can also buy plants here.
Go back to the front of the house and turn left, following the path out of the gardens and back down the wooded glen – on the other side of the burn you came up.
Once at the bottom retrace your steps around the edge of the golf course and along Cambo Sands back to the car park.
A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on April 30, 2006
BEN VRACKIE, PITLOCHRY
Ben Vrackie is one of the finest mountains in Scotland where you climb up high to reach a proper pointed summit with great views over the Perthshire and Grampian mountains.
The wonderful Moulin Hotel at its base helps to make it even better.
DISTANCE: 6 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,100 ft.
TIME: 4 to 5 hours.
MAPS: OS Landranger 43 and 52.
PARK: Turn left at the Moulin Hotel, about a mile from the centre of Pitlochry along the A924, then go right a couple of hundred yards later. The car park is at the top of the single track road on the right.
IN SUMMARY: Ben Vrackie looks great, it is rocky, pointy and dominates the town of Pitlochry below. It’s not a Munro but it is up there as one of the finest summits in Scotland. A walk up is just as a day up a mountain should be; a little strenuous and exhilarating with brilliant mountain views and real sense of achievement.
The route starts on a signed path which takes you out of the car park and alongside the Moulin Burn. Higher up, the sight of the 2,760ft summit greets you – don’t worry about the daunting appearance with a large craggy face looming above, the route up is not as hard it looks.
On reaching two wooden benches from you can take a breather and look back across Pitlochry and down the River Tummel to the Tay beyond. Shortly after the bench ignore a path to the left and carry on to Loch a’ Choire with the summit of Ben Vrackie rising steeply above it.
Cross the grassy dam by the edge of the loch and go up the well built path on the other side. The path zig-zags its way up and is easy to follow (if a little strenuous on the lungs). Near the top the path goes round to the left before a final steep section to reach the summit cairn. Stop and give yourself a pat on the back before using the view indicator to locate mountains from Schiehallion to the south west, the mountains of Lochaber in the far distance to the west and the Grampians to the north.
Retrace your steps to the start.
Note that in winter conditions the use of ice axes and crampons maybe necessary.
A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on August 21, 2016
BEN A’AN, TROSSACHS
Despite being only a little over 1,500ft high, from the pointed top of Ben A’an you can look down Loch Katrine to the Arrochar Alps. Ben Venue is closer, just across the head of the loch, while Ben Ledi is to the east. South lie the Campsies and north the mountains above Crianlarich.
A new path leads up to the top, via a fun clamber up by the side of a burn. Once at the top, take your time to enjoy the view, it is one of the best in Scotland.
DISTANCE: 3 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,250ft.
TIME: 2 to 2½ hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 57.
PARK: A couple of miles west of Brig o’Turk on the A821 there is a Forestry Commission car park for Ben A’an, on the left. (£3 charge)
If travelling over the Duke’s Pass from Aberfoyle, the car park is on the right a few hundred yards after the turning for Loch Katrine.
IN SUMMARY: Cross the road from the car park and go up a wide track on the other side. When the track bends left go straight on, up steeply on a newly built path.
The path veers left as it nears the tumbling waters of Allt Inneir then continues steeply until a gratefully-reached flat section, before you cross the burn via a wooden footbridge.
The path then continues uphill a short way before levelling out as Ben A’an appears ahead. Don’t be daunted by its pointy appearance, the way up is a lot easier than it looks.
The path carries on across clear-felled ground then enters a band of birch woodland below the crags around the summit.
After a small clearing the path climbs steeply again, by a small burn which you cross, before levelling off and doubling back to reach the summit.
After spending time exploring the summit rocks most return the way they came and this is the easiest option. An alternative is to head to the north and west to reach the shore of Loch Katrine. This, however, is pretty rough terrain and can be very wet underfoot.
A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on March 3, 2009
LOCH AN EILEIN, ROTHIEMURCHUS
This is one of the most popular low level walks in Scotland, and rightly so. Nestled among the Caledonian pines of the Rothiemurchus Forest, Loch an Eilein makes an enchanting setting, completed with the ruins of an ancient castle.
This area is home to some fantastic wildlife. Red squirrels would be a highlight, as well as Scottish crossbills and Osprey in the summer. These magnificent fishers once nested on the castle but were driven away by egg hunters about 100 years ago.
The castle has a history dating back as far as the 13th century and was once said to have been home to the notorious Wolf of Badenoch. In the 1770s a causeway to the ramparts disappeared when the water level was raised by a sluice gate built to allow timber to be floated down to the River Spey.
At the top of the loch a narrow path takes you to Loch Gamhna. Right on the edge of the forest, it sits like a Highland oasis, dwarfed by great, bulky mountains.
The return takes you back along Loch an Eilein then through forest before returning to the shore and a last view of the castle ruins at the end of one of the best short walks in Scotland.
DISTANCE: 4½ miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: Undulating but about 500ft in total.
TIME: 1½ to 2½ hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 36.
PARK: Take the B970, Cairngorm road, from Aviemore. Turn right after about three-quarters of a mile, following a sign to Insh. Just over a mile down the road go left, following a brown sign to Loch an Eilein, and you will find a car park another mile further on.
IN SUMMARY: Go to the far end of the car park and take a path to a notice board where you go straight on to reach a small visitor centre and some toilets.
Walk the few yards to the edge of the loch and go right, following a good path.
The main path follows the loch shore, although slightly above it, and passes the castle – after this look out for a path on the left which drops down to a bench offering good views of the ruins.
At the top of the loch ignore a track going right and follow the footpath round to the left.
After a few hundred yards (after the path has veered away from the loch and gone up a slight incline) take a smaller path on the right which leads to Loch Gamhna. Follow the path round the loch to reach the main path again, where you go right.
Ignore smaller paths going off to either side and follow the main path as it veers away from Loch an Eilein, before swinging round to the left and returning to the shore and visitor centre. Go right here to retrace your steps from earlier back to the car park.