Don’t mind the gap

Sycamore Gap at Hadrian's Wall

WHEN the American poet Robert Frost said: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, he clearly wasn’t thinking of Hadrian’s Wall. Quite a lot of people love that ancient boundary between England and Scotland – or north Britain as it was before the Angles and the Scots came along – as demonstrated by the numbers walking the stretch towards Sycamore Gap when we visited recently on a cold, clear, sunny November day.

We humans are good at trying to divide things up with neat lines, particularly in that part of the world where there have been divisions and lines and boundaries – and battles over them – for thousands of years. Hadrian’s effort just happens to be the one that’s survived physically for the longest so far.

But what struck me most driving through Northumberland, then through southern Scotland on our way home north, was how similar the two are – the wild moorlands on either side of the Border which give way to isolated farms and rolling fields. The use of language and expressions are similar too – and I suspect rural north Northumberland is frequently as neglected and overlooked by politicians in London as rural southern Scotland is by those in Glasgow and Edinburgh, giving the two areas far more in common with each other than with their respective national cities.

Sycamore Gap is the most visited spot on Hadrian’s Wall, quite an achievement when you consider this is an 80-mile coast-to-coast World Heritage Site, with the remains of forts, bathhouses and shrines along its length. I suspect its appearance in the 1991 blockbuster movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves has an awful lot to do with that but then there are thousands of blockbuster movie scenes which aren’t still capturing folks’ imaginations 25 years on. So I rather hope that subconsciously people are drawn here by the fact there is a gap, a break in the wall, a link between the two halves, marked by something living and thriving. Because, in fact, we don’t love a wall.

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.

Reds are on the up

Pic credit – © Peter Cairns www.scotlandbigpicture.com

Nick Drainey

The battle to save red squirrels from extinction is being won across Scotland with conservationists moving the well-loved creatures to new homes, creating strongholds for the threatened animal.

There is also an increase in sightings of the furry rodents in areas where woodlands have been improved but charities warn that more needs to be done to secure their future.

In the UK, red squirrels are now rare with only an estimated 138,000 individuals left. Their numbers have been decimated by the reduction of forests to isolated remnants, and by disease and competition from the introduced non-native grey squirrel.

Last month, (Nov) a project by Trees for Life relocating red squirrels to their old forest homes in northwest Scotland reported success in new populations of the animals.

The conservation charity has been reintroducing the squirrels to suitable native woodlands where the species has been lost in the Highlands. Because reds travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces, they can’t return to these isolated forest fragments on their own, meaning they were moved by hand. As well as helping red squirrels, increasing numbers benefit native forests, as the animals collect and bury thousands of tree seeds each autumn, which are often forgotten by them and can then take root.

Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Wildlife Officer, said: “Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding in their new homes, they are also starting to spread out into new areas – with squirrels being sighted as far as 15 kilometres away.”

The project’s initial relocations took place between the springs of 2016 and 2017, with the first 33 squirrels from Inverness-shire and Moray released at Shieldaig in Wester Ross. This was followed by 22 more released at the Coulin Estate next to Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve near Kinlochewe, and 30 at Plockton, which is owned by landowners including The National Trust for Scotland.

Animal welfare is central to the project and squirrels are transported in special nest boxes, lined with hay and containing food and apple for hydration. Only small numbers are removed from any site, to leave donor populations unaffected. Health checks ensure that diseased animals are not introduced to new populations.

The boxes are fixed to trees at the reintroduction sites, with grass-filled exit holes allowing the squirrels to leave when ready. Food is provided for several months as the squirrels get used to their new habitat.

Annual monitoring involves observations of feeding signs, drey surveys and sightings records. Community groups are used to report sightings, monitor the squirrels, and carry out supplementary feeding.

Red squirrels occur throughout most of mainland Scotland, with the largest populations in the Highlands, and in Dumfries and Galloway. The Scottish population – estimated at 120,000 individuals – has increased slightly in recent years, but the animal’s range and population would have been far larger before the loss of most of the Caledonian Forest.

Trees for Life now has evidence of the relocated squirrels breeding two years in a row at Shieldaig, and also of breeding at Plockton.

Natural recolonisation of other areas appears to have begun from Shieldaig. During 2016, the squirrels spread throughout much of the habitat, with one sighting 13 kilometres away beyond Loch Torridon. There have been further sightings in the same area during 2017, and others two kilometres further away, at Inveralligin.

Trees for Life’s Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project aims to expand significantly the numbers and range of the red squirrels and this autumn further releases have taken place around Lochcarron, with squirrels going to the remote Reraig peninsular and to Attadale.

Meanwhile, feeder box monitoring and camera trapping carried out in Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, near Aberdeen, indicates a good future for red squirrels in that part of the country.

The work by Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) and Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) indicates that red squirrel numbers in the area are increasing – and that the woods are free from non-native grey squirrels.

As well as following best practice to manage the woodlands for red squirrels, other measures taken include minimising the amount of large clearfell sites and maximising the tree species favoured by red squirrels.

Matt Nuttall, SSRS Conservation Officer, said: “We are extremely pleased by the results of our monitoring work from Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, as it demonstrates that the hard work of all the project partners, our volunteers, and members of the public over several years has had a real positive impact on red squirrels.”

Earlier this year the Scottish Wildlife Trust was awarded a grant of £2.46 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels – Developing Community Action project.

Over the next five years Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels will enlist many more volunteers from communities to carry out practical work to protect and strengthen the strongholds of the animal.

Pic credit – Raymond Leinster

More than a view

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

 

Dirleton, Yellowcraig and Gullane, East Lothian

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.

 

Water delight

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.

Going down the pub

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?

A lost pencil

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.

Counting birds

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.

 

Old fashioned camping is wild fun

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.