Four Inches

Inchtavannach, Inchconochan, Inchmoan, Inchcruin

Our first canoe of 2016 begins with tentative optimism. The smir of drizzle clings on- no sign of the promised clearance, but we go. We go because there has to be an end to the rain, even if we only will it.

Our optimism is quietly rewarded. By Aldochlay the grey smir has seeped away into a sheen of silver with the sun illuminating faintly from behind. It is enough to put out in, thinking we could get a turn of Inchtavanich at least. Winter’s ceaseless rain means the loch is a good metre higher than usual and we will have to take care for submerged hazards.

The water is flat calm, in it the sky is polished labradorite. Shimmeressence, says Brian. A good word for it; I consider, and consequently, shimmerescent.

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On our last exploration of these Western shore islands in the summer we observed a pair of ospreys by Inchcruin. Too early now the bare pines reach arms to the sky in expectation of their nesting visitors. We are waiting, they whisper in the ghostly air. We are waiting, echoes the water. We are waiting, is the soft voice of the earth on the slopes of Conic Hill and Ben Lomond. For warmth, for growth, for company.

We are here! gaggle the flocks of Canada geese, beating their wings in the air as the lift off from behind us. The loch is theirs for now and they tolerate us.

Paddling eastwards long arms of  sunlight break through the filmy grey and the water is luminous with it; warmth dispels the murk of winter for the first time this year, and like all growing things we bend into its embrace. Nothing is more welcome. Low in the sky it is blinding. I paddle by instinct, by every other sense. This is the spell of the early spring sun; momentary but powerful enough to erase the memory of storms and floods.

Rounding Inchmoan we spot deer. Two- who pause to observe the strange creatures on the water. They don’t startle, we are a curiosity rather than a threat. The islands are theirs entirely but it will not last. In another month the tour boats will be passing to and fro, the roar of powerboats and jet skis will punctuate this rare peace. The day trippers, children dogs and everything else that descends on Loch Lomond once the weather is tolerable.

Today, however, but for the birds and the deer we are entirely alone, a reward for our tenacity perhaps or an invitation to return. We will now and soon, and in their own time, the ospreys to the pines of Inchcruin.

 

 

My Duke of Edinburgh Diamond Challenge

It has been some time. My writing muscles (as well as most of my physical ones) are in need of a vigourous workout. Yes, there were the usual New Year’s resolutions to do more outdoor activity, see more new places, run further- and faster. Then January’s utterly dire weather put the brakes on my grand aspirations. Desmond, Frank, Gertrude and their reign of unholy havoc. Rain, wind and more rain.

I know what you’re thinking. Excuses, excuses.

Sometimes you need to be put on the spot. Last Friday, while packing up my classroom to face into the howling gale outside the Principal dropped by and my DofE Diamond Challenge began to materialise out of the nebula of good intentions and wishful thinking. Lomond School has a phenomenally successful DofE Award completion rate- certainly worth celebrating. Certainly worth embracing this new and unique challenge. I had run out of excuses.

To anyone reading who has not heard of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, it is the world’s leading youth achievement scheme allows young people between the ages of 14-26 to realise their potential, step out of their comfort zones and build skills and confidence for life. As a DofE co-ordinator I have seen first hand how participating has transformed young people through physical challenges, learning new skills and volunteering their time to help others. I have seen eyes and minds open to the unparalleled natural beauty of the Scottish landscape while out on expeditions. I cannot stress enough how important and life-changing these opportunities are…but I digress.

This year the DofE celebrates 60 years. In 2016 the Diamond Challenge invites participants of all ages to sign up, take on a challenge and raise funds and awareness of how the DofE supports vulnerable young people. My own challenge is right here. It’s been three years since I last posted. There have been plenty of adventures in the meantime including a house move and a new career. However, this year I’ve signed up to have a mini-adventure every month until my birthday in December. I shall be out and about on foot, on my bike or in a canoe. I may even succeed in running further than 5k! There are no monumental feats here, no Everest expeditions or rowing across oceans, just a commitment to pushing myself ‘oot the door’ as much as possible, whatever the Scottish weather throws at me. In your face Storm Gertrude and hello spring!

My justgiving page. Thank you for your support.

 

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.