Book festivals are a great place to escape to; immersing yourself in a favourite, or completely new, subject can be just the recharge your batteries need from time to time.
So I was completely hooked when the Wigtown Book Festival decided to mix words, which as a writer I am fascinated by, with that greatest of pursuits, walking.
At this year’s extravaganza of literature – running from September 22 to October 1 – a series of “Walking & Talking” events are taking place. These include James Canton recreating ancient Wigtownshire by taking festival goers on a walk from Torhouse Stone Circle.
Authors Robert Twigger and Jessica Fox will walk through the forest inspired by Casual Games for Casual Hikers by poet Harry Giles – a book and map of things to do on a gentle walk from telling stories to rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains to maps to draw when you get home.
Meanwhile, Sara Maitland, who has used her life as a hermit in Galloway as the inspiration for much of her writing, will take folk on a silent walk – getting people to contemplate their surroundings.
Another outdoor experience comes from author and farmer Rosamund Young who will bring to life her cult book The Secret Life of Cows on a local dairy farm.
What all these events have in common is something walkers will appreciate but maybe take a while to realise. Certainly with myself the achievement of getting to the top of a summit, along a glen or around a loch was all I was thinking about when I first went walking.
But there is more to it than that. You nearly always feel better after a walk, even when you get soaked to the skin you can feel enlivened at the end of the day. There is also the side effects which come from being with others – one university in Scotland introduced a scheme where all meetings involving two people had to be conducted while walking around the campus, the reason being it made folk more productive.
So, there really are many reasons to get out walking other than the view. And one of them is to take in a book festival. Find out more about the Wigtown Book Festival at: www.wigtownbookfestival.com
A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on July 22, 2012
DIRLETON, YELLOWCRAIG AND GULLANE, EAST LOTHIAN
I took my cousin (who is French) to Yellowcraig a few years ago and she was stunned to find out such beautiful beaches existed away from the Mediterranean. If it was hot as the Med the beaches of East Lothian would be even more popular than they are now.
This walk takes in a lovely stretch of coast, including sandy bays and rocky shores, backed by dunes which are filled with flowers in the summer months.
DISTANCE: 8 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 130ft.
TIME: 3 to 4 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 66.
PARK: There is a free car park in the centre of Dirleton, off the B1345, opposite the Castle Inn pub.
IN SUMMARY: Cross the road from the car park and walk in front of the pub, following a sign for Dirleton Gallery. Go straight ahead at a junction then bear right at a fork to pass a war memorial and reach the gallery. The road turns into a track shortly after the gallery, follow this between fields.
At a signpost go straight ahead, following a sign for Yellowcraig on to a slightly rougher track. The track bears right when it reaches a band of trees and turns into a path. Follow this as it joins a metal fence which you keep to your left. At a track near a car park and playground go left.
Ignore a sign pointing right and walk through low dunes to Yellowcraig beach with Fidra and its lighthouse offshore. Go left and at the end of the beach keep following the coast. (Note that there is a rough path above the shore but this walk is best done when the tide is out to allow you to explore the rock pools and beaches. Go to this link to check tide times.)
After a rocky section of shore a wide sandy bay is reached with Marine Villa at the far end – Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have spent time at Marine Villa and used Fidra as inspiration for Treasure Island. At this point it is easier to take the path above the rocky shore but after a short while erosion means you have to go back to sea level – not advisable at high tide. After the rocks a wide sandy bay leads to dunes (a path above the shore is now resumed). Follow the coast round the dunes and along a small bay. Another dune path leads to a view of the next section of coast, comprising of a series of sandy bays. Follow these to the end of a fairly large bay with pine trees set back above it. Climb up to some low stone ruins and follow the shoreline to the very wide Gullane Bay. Follow the beach for almost two-thirds of a mile where a gap in the dunes (next to an emergency line) leads to a path up to a car park.
Go left to follow the road out of the car park and at the top leave Marine Terrace and go right, along a road with stone walls on either side. Go left on reaching Gullane’s Main Street. You can catch a bus back to Dirleton but to follow the John Muir Way continue along Main Street, out of the town and past fields.
At a cottage look for a John Muir Way sign pointing down a path. The path leads through trees and down to a road which you cross and turn left. At another John Muir Way sign go right, on to a track – not a well-built path starting to the left of it.
The track turns into a lane and takes you back to Dirleton. At the end of the lane go right to walk past the pub to the car park.
For me the Highlands have always been there for hillwalking, it was all about the mountains and the rest was really a backdrop to enjoy in the evening.
But having young children has been something of an eye opener, revealing the many activities I knew about because of roadside signs but had never tried out.
So, on a family camping trip to the Cairngorms this summer more time was spent on water than the paths and ridges of the superb mountains.
Both our ten and seven-year-old love the idea of reaching a summit but when they gaze down from Cairn Gorm their eyes are drawn not to Coire an-t Sneachda but Loch Morlich in Glenmore Forest.
The area has long been established for it winter sports but nowadays the summer season is just as important and no more so than on the loch.
Its beautiful beach, at 1,000ft, is dominated by the Northern Corries and on a sunny day can look a little Mediterranean – there is even a barbecue on the go. All of this is helped by watersports on the loch.
The youngest is desperate to follow his big sister on to a paddle board (he just needs his arms stretching to be able to hold the paddle). No matter, all four of us were able to explore the water, if a little inexpertly on one windy day, exploring a little river and generally enjoying a side to the great outdoors I have ignored since my youth when Duke of Edinburgh Awards were part of my life.
Other than that, the wetsuits never had time to properly dry out as wild swimming became “a thing” in the family and those who were bravest made it into water deeper than they could stand up in.
One of my favourite walks in Scotland, or anywhere for that matter, starts at the west end of the loch and goes up to the magnificent Braeriach and its corrie which looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.
But when the rest of the family were spending a day with some friends who live locally what did I do? Hire a kayak and spend a few of the happiest hours you can imagine paddling around and across the loch, admiring the views of the mountains from below.
Some may say it is a type of midlife crisis to go back to things I enjoyed in my youth but it is one I intend to embrace with no regret.
A pint in a cosy pub after a day on the hill, up the glen or along the coast is one of life’s great pleasures.
On a cold day a blazing fire is as welcome as the chance to ease off your boots while at this time of year a beer garden can be a peaceful retreat after a day of exertions.
The Campaign for Real Ale know a thing or two about good pubs and have compiled a list of some of the best walks and hostelries to enjoy across Britain.
Written by Daniel Neilson, CAMRA’s Wild Pub Walks includes classics such as Ben Nevis with the inn of the same name at the bottom, as well as pubs in nearby Fort William.
If I had to pick a couple of favourites they would be the Moulin Inn below Ben Vrackie, one of the first mountains I went up after moving to Scotland nearly 20 years ago. Going back 40 years, I broke in my first pair of walking boots on the Langdale Pikes and proudly wore a button badge declaring I’d climbed them. That was the start of a love of hill walking although it was a few years before I started to appreciate the Old Dungeon Ghyll but it soon became a favourite of me and my mates.
One thing that does strike me about hillwalking and pubs is that, rightly, the pub is always enjoyed at the end of the day, when the strenuous exercise is over. But when it comes to ski-ing, especially in the Alps, the bar or restaurant is a lunchtime destination where a meal with a couple of glasses of wine is the norm. Without wishing to sound like a killjoy it does seem strange to have a drink of alcohol before setting off down a steep mountainside – I often ask myself what reaction you would get if you opened up a bottle of red by the summit cairn of a British mountain in the middle of June?
As someone who makes his living by writing I was intrigued to find an old pencil high up on Ben Nevis earlier this month. It had obviously been sharpened with a penknife and appeared to be well used.
It may sound a little naff to obsess about something so every day and mundane but I have become intrigued about who owned it and what they used it for. Was it a sketcher or maybe a fellow writer who jots down notes with a pencil?
Whatever its origins, it was lying by the path at the top of the zig-zags on the Mountain Track – about 1,200m (just short of 4,000ft) up.
I would be more than happy to send it back to its owner, and even more delighted to find out what its use was on the highest mountain in Britain.
We have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old, both of whom have become obsessed by birds.
This is great, not only for the way it allows them to learn about the environment, habitat etc but it also gets them to enjoy my number one passion – walking in the outdoors.
The recent sunny weather took me and the nine-year-old to the RSPB’s Loch Leven reserve near Kinross where for me the lapwings with their swooping dance and strange call are the highlight. But as we made our way along the hides it became apparent the number of species was important for my daughter. It seems her enthusiasm was fuelled by a desire to beat the tally of her younger brother who had been a few weeks earlier.
But as we took break for a snack and sat looking up at Vane Hill I explained how a peregrine falcon might hunt around that part of the reserve. All thoughts of tallies ended and off we went, up the path to the top. The view was excellent but the peregrine was absent. No matter, we enjoyed the birch woods and maybe a little sub-conscious lesson had been learned – ticking off species is good but trying to find a particular one is just as much fun, even if you don’t see it.
Fidden Farm on the Ross of Mull is old fashioned camping at its best. This is no spartan experience to be endured rather than enjoyed, it is a glorious pitch by a white sandy beach above turquoise waters studded with granite rocks.
There are no electric hook ups, no games room or swimming pool (why would you need them with the coastal playground all around?). My children loved it, only being dragged into the tent when it got dark – the iPad was used for no more than 20 minutes on a four day stay.
The grown-ups liked it too, although I probably spent too long trying to take a picture of the moonlit beach.
The weather was good and we could have stayed much longer with so many rock pools to explore, little bays to swim in and parts of the beach which had not been used to create mini villages, castles and bridges.
Once back home, some friends in the Central Belt thought the lack of “facilities” made it sound more like wild camping. But with a good shower block there is no need for extras, they are provided by nature.
So the weather has changed. The couple of weeks of blue skies and beautiful sun framing the Scottish glens, mountains and coastline has been replaced by rain and low cloud, at least in the Trossachs. But to say going outdoors is no longer any good would be a defeatist, and wrong, attitude.
I’ve just returned from Kirkton Glen above Balquhidder after leading 35 keen members of the Scots Magazine’s hiking club on a route to a hidden lochan.
The cloud was down and rain came on in fits and starts but as the group strode up the track it was still with anticipation of what was to come. For me a walk in the countryside is always enlivening – it is not like a walk to the shops, bus stop or office, it is a walk where you never really know what you might see.
Today, once high up by Rob Roy’s Putting Stone – a huge boulder the size of a bungalow where the outlaw was believed to have hidden – the isolated Lochan an Eireannaich was reached. Damp drizzle accompanied a lunch break but as the mist swirled above, revealing glimpses of the crags and hills, this was still as magical as if suncream conditions were prevailing.
The lochan itself was like a millpond when the wind dropped and it was not hard to conjure up images of the Irish missionaries who came this way in the 5th century and are still remembered in the name of the small body of water – translated it is Loch of the Irishmen.
So, whatever the weather, today was proof that it is always a good idea to get outside.
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.”
Now is a great time to get out in Scotland and see bluebells. A number of places come to mind but number one for me has to be Inchcailloch island on Loch Lomond. Once off the little boat from Balmaha you are met with carpets of the little flowers, covering the ground below woodland mixed with birdsong.
A walk there with the family lasted for hours – far longer than the couple of miles would take if there weren’t birds to spot, shorelines to explore and picnics to be eaten. Yes, there are other places to find large swathes of bluebells but this little island takes the crown for me.
Around half of the world’s bluebells grow in the UK and the Woodland Trust is on a on a mission to find them all.
Fears of Spanish invaders out-growing their British counterparts have been around for a few years, although research by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has found the native variety is three times more likely to successfully reproduce than its Iberian counterpart.
The Woodland Trust’s aim is to monitor the status of British bluebells from woodlands to back gardens which will help them to secure their future.
But wherever you see them, they are a brilliant sign that the seasons are moving forward and summer is just around the corner.