Day out on the Three Lochs Way: Helensburgh to Garelochhead

Diamond DofE  adventure day #3

I set out this morning from the Hill House, Helensburgh, from where the Three Lochs Way is signposted. This leg of the trail I have planned to follow to Garelochhead through Glen Fruin; about 10 miles of woodland and moorland path followed by minor road. The Three Lochs is a named for Loch Lomond, the Gareloch and Loch Long; the three bodies of water linked by the 34 mile trail. It is one of Scotland’s shorter long walks but scenically rich; a threshold between the lowlands and highlands, crossing the Higland Boundary Fault.

The Hill House is a most appropriate point of departure, its deceptively beautiful design revealing at every angle, with every shaft of carefully directed natural light, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s sensitivity to the local environment and its colours and moods. On a day like today the amethyst glow of stained glass lights would conjour the pink-purple of moorland heather.

A mile north west of the Hill House the path branches off in the direction of Glen Fruin and this is my route. I am pleasantly surprised by there being a path at all for this section, as it is not marked on my map. No need to handrail the tree line then! Pine woods to my left soon give way to open hillside before dropping down into the glen, where the Fruin water winds its way noisily through fields of cattle and young lambs.

The glen is peaceful. Traffic is local with the exception of walkers, joggers and hardy cyclists, through traffic uses the higher haul road- far enough away for its din to be almost imperceptible. There is little wind today, just enough to cast cloud shadows on the flanking hills and sway the yellow clusters of daffodils.

I follow this road for about 7 miles, eventually climbing steeply up and out of the glen to where the two roads connect before a sharp descent to the shores of the Gareloch. After tranquil hours in the glen it is so strange to be peering down over Faslane Naval Base, home of Brtiain’s nuclear deterrent. How incongruous. How incompatible with the peace this journey has afforded me, and yet here it is. I am in principle a pacifist, finding human violence deeply disturbing in any form. At the same time I am all too aware of the importance of the base to the local economy; the livelihood of communities like Garelochhead, Helensburgh where I work and Cardross where I live. An unlikely lifeline. Does this make me a hypocrite or a realist?

I pass by the base getting a cheery hello from some of the military police at the one of the gates and hit Garelochhead bang on my estimated time. Facing away from the massive sprawl of the base and its miles of razor wire fences the village is a most picturesque little place. I find a sunny spot on the shore path, flatten out my jacket for a seat to enjoy my picnic and rest weary legs.

This done I have an hour to kill before catching the train back to Helensburgh so I find Cafe Craft-  just that, a craft shop cafe. As expected I enter to find a group of women knitting over a cuppa. My mum would be in her element here; the walls stacked high with yarns of every imaginable colour and texture, handmade jewellery, pattern books and the like. I think of the half finished hat I have been knitting and regret not packing it in the rucksack. A big steaming mug of cappuccino arrives and I take a seat by the window to watch the world from.

The knitting ladies exchange a bit of banter with me about my walk and what goes on at the cafe before I need to make for the station. En route I note where the Three Lochs path continues on to Arrochar- 13 miles. This stretch I have yet to do, having previously walked the final stage from Arrochar to Inveruglas. As the poem goes however, I have left this road for another day, but without doubt that I will be back.

 

 

 

 

Two lochs and a lake

February ended with a spell of that brilliantly clear, chilly weather that sometimes arrives after a season of storms. A chance to visit a familiar favourite loch and venture into some new waters.

We first visited Loch Ard back in May 2013; a secluded gem in the heart of the Trossachs on the Loch Kateine side of Aberfoyle. Its name translates as the high loch, and so it is, but sheltered from the worst of the winds that whip through the hills to the north and east. Loch Ard is technically the source of the River Forth. Hard to believe that this shallow stream becomes the mighty flow spanned by the famous road and rail bridges and soon to be completed Queensferry Crossing.

It’s a lot quieter today, we are alone but for the walkers in the woodlands flanking the southern shore, their voices magnified and carrying in the glass-clear air. Occasional birds flicker in branches or alight on the water. We are along until we round the outcrop we had christened Caslte Rock on our first visit, but here we come upon a pair of brave or mad souls taking a dip. Ice edging the shallows and these two are hurling themselves from a height into water cold enough to freeze the marrow in your bones. We give them a wave and keep paddling. My hands suffer in this climate, I need to keep wriggling my fingers to squeeze some blood to their tips or risk dropping my paddle…the thought of going into the loch after it less than appealing!

Pulling up on a small islet for a snack we recall how it was, that May, carpeted with bluebells…and now in spite of the frigid cold there is warmth in the earth; green shoots on bare boughs and breaking the soil. Life turns…

By sunset we  arrive at the Lake of Mentieth; notably the only ‘lake’ in Scotland. We had booked a night in the Lake Hotel, a splendidly situated country house on the water’s edge. After a most welcome reception of tea and scones we walk outside to look across to where the ruins of Inchmahome priory are just about discernible in the gloaming shadows- the stuff of gothic novels. Our original plan was to reach it by canoe; being too early in the season for the Historic Scotland ferry, but unfortunately for us this wouldn’t be possible. The lake is carefully protected; any vessel on the water requires permission from the fisheries, arriving on a Saturday evening there is nobody to ask. We must be content with an evening walk and we do so as the sun dips low on the horizon, pulling back silvery fingers of light from the reed beds fringing the shores. A star appears faintly and then another. The Spring warmth vanishes with the light. It is time to turn in for dinner and a dram at the bar before bedtime.

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Fortunately there is no shortage of enticing lochs in the Trossachs. After breakfast in the conservatory, bathed in the white gold gleam of morning lake-light, we make for Loch Lubnaig just south of Strathyre. Lubnaig in Gaelic means bendy (luib is a bend or turn) and so it is, curved like a boomerange lying at the foot of Ben Ledi. I used to pull in here on long drives north if time and direction allowed for avoiding the A82. I always imagined Lubnaig as a benevolent loch; a place to snatch some moments of calm before facing the onward miles. I would conjure up the graceful glide of our small boat, the dip and slice of the paddle.

We are here now at last. We break the ice on the water’s edge to launch and slip soundlessly in. The mirror of its surface is disturbed by a single swan who passes ahead of us, indifferent to visitors. Ben Ledi is still blanketed in snow despite the faint warmth present in the ground. The chill air forms tiny beads of water on my eyelashes and numbs my fingers. Behind us climbs the sun in cloudless blue. The Spring has come-finally,  and it is so welcome.

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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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