Country in the city- yes it is possible!

Here it is, my top 5 walks and cycles about Edinburgh over the past year:

1. Leith – Edinburgh Botanic Gardens

You can walk this in just under an hour, from the end of North Junction St. out along Ferry Rd, turning off at Inverleith or Arboretum Avenue. Ferry Road is busy, but Inverleith is calmer and the Botanics themselves are a joy! I have never walked there without it lifting my spirits, even in the middle of Winter. Extend the walk out the John Hope Gate and into town via Dean Village and Stockbridge. If you’re passing through on a Sunday morning check out the Stockbridge farmer’s market.

2. Arthur’s Seat and Duddingston Loch Nature Reserve

From Leith you can walk to Holyrood Park in an hour at a brisk pace. Arthur’s seat is a wonderful (if sometimes crowded) place to take a breather and gain some perspective. Coming off the hill follow Queen’s Drive and connect with Duddingston Low Rd, or the signposted path to Duddingston Loch- this little oasis of calm in the heart of the city is a bird sanctuary.

3. Leith to Cramond cycle

This is about 6 miles each way. I did this via Ferry Road to Davidson’s Mains, but there is a cycle path that takes you along the coast via Granton. Cramond is a charming and affluent village (now more of a suburb) at the mouth of the River Almond where it enters the Firth of Forth. Archaeological evidence suggests it is one of Britain’s earliest settlements and the remains of a Roman fort can be seen in the parkland. Cramond Island is a tidal islet which can be reached on foot via a causeway at low tide. It gets a mention in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn.

3. Leith to Musselburgh cycle via Portobello

Again, about 6 miles either way but a very pleasant coastal cycle- out of Leith via Seafield, Portobello and Joppa. You can avoid the A1 and most of Portobello High Street by following the promenade, but look out for joggers and dogs.

4. Balerno reservoirs

Take a 44 bus from Princes St to Balerno (about 40 minutes) and walk up through the village- follow signs for Pentlands Regional Park. You can take any number of routes up into the Pentlands from here, but the three reservoirs and the Red Moss can be done in a couple of hours. Take food or pick some up in the local co-op, there is only one pub serving food in Balerno (The Grey Horse) and the kitchen was closed on the day I was there.

5. Water of Leith walk

I’ve only walked a section of this,  from the city centre to Leith, in parts the path is difficult to find and not fully developed (and I can imagine a little bit dodgy if you’re on your own) but stretches of it are very beautiful, particularly about Stockbridge. The entire route is 12 miles long and runs from the back of Balerno High School so I will be revisiting.

Loch Carron from Plockton

With a pocket of bright and slightly warm weather over the Easter holidays we rustled the canoe out of hibernation. Loch Long for a practice run- fairly straightforward on a calm day with a high tide with a couple of curious seals for company. I had forgotten what it is like to loose all feeling in your fingertips in the chill air of a West Coast morning and spent about an hour fretting that I’d drop my paddle if I couldn’t warm up my hands- and that’s with merino wool liner gloves inside a pair of sealskinz! I did warm up eventually and found that I hadn’t lost too much conditioning over the Winter. The next day we set out from Plockton.

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Plockton is one of those places where Scotland doesn’t feel like Scotland, yet casting your eyes upwards to the massive knuckles of Applecross it couldn’t really be anywhere else. It is rumoured that Plockton has its own micro-climate. Palm trees grow here, not straggly and wind-thwarted as you would expect, but healthy and green. Roses creep idly over doorways, and now, irises and daffodils and crowding tubs and window boxes (yes, Plockton is that pretty. Incongruously It was also a location for the film The Wicker Man.). It’s also a sheltered harbour which makes it perfect for water sports.

We set out at a steady pace parallel to the railway, towards Duncraig Castle and a chain of rocky islets, selecting an appropriate lunch stop. This stretch of coast we negotiated without any difficulty, although at lower tide could present some hazards- very sharp ridges of rock flanking the islets. After eating we doubled back towards the village to skirt around the north-western edge of the bay and out towards the narrows which separate Loch Carron from Loch Kishorn by Eiliean a’ Chait lighthouse. I wonder if the cait referred to is a wildcat. I’ve never seen one in this part of the world, but the coastal slopes are densely forested and I can imagine it would be possible. Kishorn we left for another day, the wind had gotten up and we hadn’t packed or prepared for a longer expedition on a much more exposed stretch of water. After a year of canoeing I still consider myself very much a novice. I haven’t applied myself to it as rigourously as Brian, but like mountain navigation, there will come a time when I have to acquire more skills. Loch Kishorn is quite a step above in terms of challenge- a much more exposed stretch of sea and a shipping channel, but straining my eyes to see beyond the narrows I feel that familiar hunger for a challenge. The Summer is coming and the water calls.

Beyond the bridge

Fourteen months later…my writing muscles are a little achy, bear with me. The long and the short of it is that the Island and I have parted company. Our relationship had run its course, the split has been amicable and I’ve still got visiting rights, but I’d got the urge for going. Over the bridge and far away, to Edinburgh.

It has been a strange year living a sort of nomadic life swinging between gnawing uncertainty and heady, intoxicating freedom. I wondered how I would cope with city life again. I grew up in a city but had been on the Island for 6 years. What would I miss about it? What would the experience ultimately teach me about myself? Would I find that expanse of mental and physical space afforded by having the wilderness on my doorstep?

I cannot answer with any certainty yet, but I have learned-
What draws you to a place is sometimes not the place itself, but a need for experience.

What do I mean by that? For me, a need for a more intimate and immediate connection to nature, to deeply understand and appreciate my natural environment, to challenge myself with physical activity. Being on Skye made that possible but threw up other challenges which I had not anticipated. Insularity is a lonely state of being. Loneliness can leach the beauty out of a place.

The strange thing is that the ‘connection’ I longed for, which drove me to Western edges of Scotland in the first place has not been broken since I left Skye. I am seeing the previously invisible: a bank of bluebells on a motorway siding or the herring gull building a nest two roof-tops from my balcony. I am choosing new paths to explore. My experience on the Island has given birth to awareness of nature, not just on a grand scale, but in the smallest and least spectacular things. It travels well. There is nothing to miss.

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Touchstones…

This morning I walked out on St. Andrews pier with friends, into a swirl of sleet sweeping noiselessly in off the North Sea. The cold on my face slowing speech, slurring my exclamations at the marvelous immediacy of history and the delight of a place newly visited. We shared the memory of our first meeting and sharing a sodden bivvy bag on the Cairngorm Plateau back in 2007, huddling together for warmth while our instructor doled out hot tea. There on the mountain- friendship! One of two forged that weekend. Touchstones on each other’s personal journeys. How wonderful, how remarkable, when paths converge and a part of your journey is shared.

 

 

 

It has been Winter for so, so long. The promise of Spring glimmers in the wake of a January sleet fall. I am glad to my heart’s core for it.

Spring Dawn

I observed the dawn this morning. Nothing really significant about this, I see many dawns as I’m partial to a bit of outdoor exercise before I go to work, but today is the first of Spring. It was about -3 and a hard frost had made everything sparkly, but for me Spring had officially sprung. Tiny narcissi were peeking their soft yellow heads up out of my flowerbeds, a joy to see after a miserable Winter. The first of February is also St. Brigid’s Day, Là Fèile Brìde, celebrated by Christian and pagan alike as Brigid the saint is often confused with Brigid the goddess. I don’t profess to be either one but I like the symbolism. In Celtic mythology Brigid was of the Tuatha De Danaan, the godlike race of pre-Christian Ireland. She was the goddess of fertility, poetry, smithcraft, the hearth and the home. On her feast day fires were lit on hill tops to call upon her favour and bring warmth to the land. Saint Brigid was a fifth century mystic and healer, founder of monastic settlements principally in County Kildare.

So this morning I ran to welcome Brigid. I watched the sun rising over the Kylerhea hills as the stars faded into the brightening blue.

Upstream, downstream

Winter is over on Skye. I open the front door and am not flayed alive by the wind, nor drenched in the miasmic drizzle that soaks into your bones. That light in the sky is really the sun and oh how I’ve missed it. The months of 7am running in the damp darkness, gruelling rides into wind and hail endured to maintain core fitness will now pay off. It’s time to take to the water.

We’ve not been out in the canoe since about October and I’m anxious that I’ve unleanred my paddle skills, but muscle memory is a remarkable thing. You never forget how to ride a bike, or to swim. It appears that you don’t forget how to paddle either. As we push out on Loch na Sguabaidh the strokes come comfortably and naturally. That said, it will take a few outings before I am confident to take on the sea lochs or  an expedition like the Great Glen.

The strath is peaceful today, a couple of tents by the bridge suggest walkers about, other than that we are alone but for a pair of mallards and some busy reed buntings.

We cross the loch to the river which links it to a smaller upper loch as this is somewhat sheltered from the wind which funnels down the glen and a good spot to practice our manoeuvres. Today we are working on turning the canoe with duffek and cross duffek strokes. There are several ways of turning a canoe, the most basic being sweeping strokes of the paddle in an arc from the bow or stern. To ‘plant a duffek’ is for the bow paddler to plunge the paddle blade into the water at either a 10 (onside) or 2 (across body) o’clock angle. This creates an axis about which the canoe can turn efficiently and quickly, as the bow paddler drives it forward. This snaking river is an ideal place to practice this move safely as it is relatively free of rapids or other obstacles.

About three hours on the river and I think I’ve mastered the duffek technique. The wind has picked up so it will take our last reserves of energy to push back down the length of Loch na Sguabaidh to where we left our car. One thing I had forgotten is how much of a full body workout three hours of canoeing is, apart from the obvious work you do with your arms and shoulders, the strength comes from your core, your balance from your legs. By the time we get home and unload the gear we’re both completely knackered. It has been indescribably good to be ‘back in the paddle’.

Connemara dreamin’

Did you ever linger in the last pages of a book because you just didn’t want to let it go? I’ve been reading the final installment of Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, Little Gaelic Kingdom. For weeks I have shrugged off geography and time and returned to the wild place that I have loved for so long I can smell the air at the mention of it. In Robinson’s words and thoughts I am fourteen years old with the surf crashing over my feet at Roisin na Manach. I am skipping bog pools on the trail up to the Mass rock overlooking Kilkieran. I am chanting verses of Peigin Litir Mor in the ramshackle coach that ferries city kids to and from Irish college each Summer. The landscape and language of Connemara moved me with seismic force at that formative time.

Tim Robinson is one of my literary and environmental heroes. I recall a later time when I was teaching a field school in the West and rambling about Roundstone in the hope that I might stumble across him and impress my students, but perhaps he knew that and kept a canny distance. A writer with sufficient wisdom to balance nostalgia with realism, empathy with empiricism and the mental dexterity to explain the Connemara coast with fractal mathematics.

It would be easy, lazy even, to look back twenty years to that Summer in Irish college and romanticise Connemara, but I’ve lived enough in a remote rural place to know better.

In the twenty years of meticulously mapping, researching, gathering and compiling Robinson doesn’t romanticise either, and this is something I admire. Alongside the quaint eccentricities and wry humour he accounts for centuries of social and economic deprivation, oppression and the sheer brutal struggle to survive in an environment as hostile as it is beautiful.

There are so many parts of Scotland that this writing could be about. Many times while out on the Morar coast or the more westerly islands, Tiree in particular, I’ve felt a sense of Connemara, that Atlantic light with the darkness gathering behind. A vision symbolic of its predicament; the light and the dark. I leave Connemara as if it were a physical leaving. I wonder when I’ll be back there again. In such times as these, I wonder how I will find it.