Thursday, 16 November 2017

Rediscovering The Kilpatrick Hills. Glasgow's Arthur's Seat. A Gallery.

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As I've not been back to the Kilpatrick Hills above Glasgow for a few years I thought I'd revisit them to see the magnificent views over Clydebank, Glasgow, Paisley, Renfrewshire, East Kilbride etc etc...
Of all the hill ranges that surround Glasgow the Kilpatricks are the only ones where you really do feel like you are standing above the city- looking down on it like a living map. The main reason why Glasgow has a tall, man made viewpoint tower near the city centre is that it doesn't have an Arthur's seat in the middle of the urban sprawl- a high natural observation point where you can look down over the complete city, end to end. It does have dozens of smaller drumlins across the various districts but they are too low to give a proper bird's eye view of the entire city in one panorama. Scotland's largest city sits on a glacial, family sized, egg box carton surrounded by low hill ranges. One of the reasons it regularly hits the heights for UK air pollution levels and spectacular winter fog inversions is its geology, Britain's 4th largest post industrial city sits within a shallow bowl. When winds are absent anything within it lingers for weeks or days at a time and I clearly remember, with a few adult males, getting off the bus in the 1960s into thick yellow fog then walking ahead to scope out the road beyond the headlight beams when the driver was completely blinded and could only see yards ahead. An exciting adventure as a schoolboy and the stuff of vivid dreams later on- many nights spent wandering unsighted for hours at a time in my bed through that mysterious yellow realm with a world of half seen structures lying ahead. When industrial and domestic chimney smoke was an issue from the  early 1800s until the late 1960s Glasgow, like a lot of UK cities, had a reputation for long lasting smog. One memory bubble that came back to me recently with full impact, like a punch to the face. How could I ever forget such memorable dreams from that time? You always need a catalyst to recall.

The Campsies, to the north, offer a distant view of the city but are too far away to really see much in detail... the Castlemilk/ Cathkin Braes, slightly closer but still viewed across the districts rather than downwards... Brownside Braes to the south west, roughly the same.
The Kilpatricks therefore are the Goldilocks Hills in my mind... high enough and close enough to be just right... and the putrid yellow smog of my childhood days that killed many thousands in British cities until the clean air acts of 1956 and 1968 made a real difference to health are largely absent today.
Above, moving right to left are Drumchapel Water Tower (white round) A corner of Linkwood Flats (white hi rise, still in Drumchapel) the white and red stripe of Anniesland Tower and the spire of the University of Glasgow. ( in darker shadow)

Most people that grow up and live in cities, towns or villages (unless they change drastically, something happens untoward, or they are just too quiet to live and get jobs in) have a long lasting history  and a very real love affair with that place. It is my eternal totem. Although Glasgow changes all the time with new buildings springing up as soon as you turn your back on it and entire districts rising and falling year by year, decade by decade it has always been an exciting lifelong companion to share my life with... and it never lets me down..... so to see it spread out in all its glory across the flat plain below is both a wonder and a joy. Over 2 million people (this includes all the other towns and urban areas all the way to Hamilton) spread out in one vast view makes an incredible and thrilling sight that I never tire of seeing. In the photo above, the Kilpatrick Hills rise in a long escarpment above Clydebank and a faint balcony trail can be found running along its edge. Most folk, being baggers, just head for the two or three highest points in the range further back towards the plateau like interior.. which is great as it means you can easily avoid them.
Which I did. This area used to be little frequented except by locals but with the internet it's got busier year on year and dozens of cars line the minor road above Old Kilpatrick every good dry day.This has caused problems with local farmers, service workers etc needing access, so a while ago barriers were erected, presumably by the local council or officials, to stop anyone parking on the grass verges and they now park beside the bowling club/ train station. This area is also packed any sunny day nowadays and just means the locals can't park there to use these facilities.
A situation I have noticed happening on Skye as well as most pictures on TV recently of that famous Scottish island show long lines of cars and churned up lay-bys in summer near any famous outdoor location. The last time we were at the Storr and Quirang on Skye a few years ago, (world famous rock formations used in dozens of films)  hundreds of cars lined the road on both sides with the existing lay-bys totally overwhelmed. A growing theme in the countryside in popular places these days. Knowing that and leaving the house late around 10:00am I took the train instead, one way, to Old Kilpatick as I suspected I'd never get a parking place. This proved to be the case. As the farm track up to the high-points looked  busy with walkers  I picked the alternative option of this grassy route up onto the ridge line. With Scotland's wet climate and hill-walking more popular than ever grassy trails like this one and empty lands without people everywhere are an increasingly rare commodity these days. Somewhat ironically, I've often found the lands surrounding urban areas and in the Central Belt can be far quieter than the traditional wilderness areas- like the Scottish Highlands.
And what a view you get up here. two million plus people take up a lot of room and on a clear day you can see the urban sprawl almost stretching to the horizon.
The southern uplands bulk of Tinto in the distance here, looking across the city.
A view of Dalmuir flats, The Titan Crane and The River Clyde.
Erskine Bridge. As I enjoy balcony trails for the views I maintained a wandering line along the escarpment edge instead of walking further up into the interior. By doing this I was completely on my own so it just shows how focused most people are on one thing- summit ticking.
Old Kilpatrick and Erskine Bridge. The train station here is very handy for the hills and I thoroughly recommend it. Get off at Kilpatrick Station and walk uphill past the Bowling Club then the route up the farm track is signposted to Loch Humphrey. Enjoying the solitude I carried on in the direction of Dumbarton.
A view of Dumbarton Rock.
And a kestrel looking for a mouse or vole in the long grass
A view across to the rolling uplands of Renfrewshire.
This really is an excellent balcony trail.
It was at this point I discovered signs of heavy machinery leading into the interior. Since my teenage years the Kilpatrick Hills have been largely un-fenced and open plan- offering great spacious walks across an empty upland habitat from the River Clyde to the Highland boundary fault at Drymen where the higher mountains start.. You often see small groups of roe deer dancing across the tall grass meadows here in what is probably the largest expanse of wild open ground anywhere near the city. Unfortunately, that has now changed as forestry interests appear to own most of it and extensive new planting is now going on at a fast pace. Inland, large areas have been fenced off, young trees planted, and access roads into them created.
This was a bit of a shock as I was intending to head inland at this point over previously open landscapes but several seven foot tall fences blocked off my intended route. I did meet someone after this point who said it might be the Woodland Trust or the Forestry Commission. Although these may well be 'the good guys' I have to admit I'm slightly conflicted about this whole subject. The Woodland Trust have a large site at the nearby Lang Craigs and landscaped the area there, planting trees, improving access for all by creating new walks/mountain bike paths and ripping out one of the most spectacular massed displays of Rhododendrons anywhere in the UK as they 'didn't belong.'
National parks often have the same effect on me as they just seem to encourage more folk into them, some misbehave then inevitably you tend to get restrictions that you never had before when less people visited and access and publicity was not as good. I mention this because a long line of white tape has been tied in place leading down to my grassy, largely unknown and unfrequented balcony trail that looked suspiciously like a template for a future mountain bike run. Troubling stuff.
Also troubling was trying to find my intended path through three different sets of high fences placed between Loch Humphrey in parallel lines... seen below...
and Greenside Reservoir ...see also below... an easy walk before across open, un-fenced, ground.
Eventually I managed it without climbing over them so it can still be done but it was a bit of a maze to get through and involved some strange high level detours round the side of lochs.
A lesser trail under the Slacks. This is what the fenced area used to look like. I suppose I'll get used to it eventually as all things change and there are long established forestry plantations up here already but it will look very different to what it was before in the past- high open grassland stretching for miles.
I did find an info board at the start which gave me the idea of  a circular route  across the Kilpatricks ending up in Faifley where I could get a bus back to my house.
This I did and had a great day of around 4 to 5 hours duration, easy walking.
A spectacular trip.
Great views...
And a full moon to end. I've zoomed this up to the max to show 'the man.'

This video looks like a fabulous coral reef in a shallow sea,  somewhere really exotic, but it is in fact the wonders of creation happening inside your own body. After seeing this it should make you wonder about needless wars, death, violence and torture occurring daily around the planet. We are stardust....and part of some great unknown cosmic plan. Amazing visuals.


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Strathpeffer. A Return Visit.

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The reason I didn't want to do Cnoc Mor in the last post, apart from having done it before and having only limited views due to tree cover, was that I wanted to visit the unique village that is Strathpeffer. In 50 years of exploring Scotland's towns and villages I can report that there is not another place in the country like it. That's not true for England, as Strathpeffer resembles many towns and villages in the Lake District and other hilly, wooded scenic areas south of the border. Gardens, woodland, and architecture wise- it's slightly similar to a Highland Bearsden or maybe rural Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire, but with many more grand hotels. It's these massive buildings that dominate the slopes rising above the main street and give Strathpeffer its unique feel.
It is, in short, a 'golden bubble' that has little in common with any of the surrounding towns and villages, even Contin or Dingwall a few miles away. The reason for this discrepancy is its history as Scotland's major spa town in the Highlands. In fact such was its popularity that during the Victorian era it was a rival for any English or Alpine health resort and celebrities and middle class visitors alike flocked here in there thousands once the railway made easy access viable. Even today that Victorian legacy hangs heavy over this alpine feel village, surrounded and sheltered by high wooded ridges climbing above it.

This is where black mage and mountaineer Aleister Crowley met serial flirt and recently married then widowed Rose Kelly around 1903. Crowley was of course in full highland dress and cut a dashing figure in his kilt and tartans, even though he probably didn't have a drop of Scottish blood in him but like most Victorian's under their esteemed Queen's influence at nearby Balmoral, the newly cleared Highlands of Scotland were there for the taking as an early theme and game park where they could dress up and party. As Crowley had recently acquired Boleskine House and landscaped grounds near Loch Ness he had taken to calling himself -The Laird of Boleskine, Aleister MacGregor, even in letters to friends ... a practice that continues to this day in many parts of Scotland I've noticed- even if its a newly installed hotel manager from the English Midlands in a highland castle on the outskirts of Glasgow. "The new 'Laird of Glen Gurgle' welcomes visitors to his home." .....all part of the tourist trade.

Rose was there with her mother for 'the cure' by sampling the famous mineral springs, the average diet of rich Victorians being suicidal and unhealthy large portions of meat and offal every day with often six or seven courses when entertaining guests.  Even the puddings and starters were meat based with little in the way of veg or fruit. No wonder they felt ill and bloated and rushed here in their droves to taste what was reputed to be the most sulphurous springs in Britain-  smelly spring water straight from Satan's kitchen. Hydropathic hotels or in reality 'water torture buildings' were all the rage as well from the 1880s until fading out around the 1940s- a similar time period to here for peak popularity. Victorian society, for respectable women at least, was very formal and straight laced with a rigid set of rules to follow. The only pleasure they seemed to get was sipping sulphurous water or blasting themselves with freezing cold jets in unheated rooms from every conceivable angle as 'health cures.' No wonder so many died young. Even when ill they would stake them out on the lawns in hospital beds in mid winter, even young children barely able to crawl, to enjoy the dubious benefits of fresh clean air... windows left open at night of course, in all seasons, to 'purify' fevers in the wards. If anyone tried to run away they were fully encased in plaster as a deterrent.

It turned out the recently widowed Rose had a fever of her own and had not been very good at keeping herself pure in thought and was now being pursued by two ardent suitors she had agreed to marry. Both of them unaware of each other but soon to find out.

Crowley's brilliant solution was to snatch her away from any rivals that same day and marry her himself. Today's society might well label him bipolar or borderline personality disorder as he was often prone to impulsive behaviour. He'd only just met her and she him so maybe they were well matched in temperament... or maybe not... as it didn't last.
Famous writers, thinkers, artists, explorers, and society fashion icons all rubbed shoulders in this large Highland village and even today you can still feel that rarefied atmosphere lingering on. Eminent doctors and Illuminati of the time praised its tonic waters and health giving properties. Anything that smells bad must be very good for you! Although Alex is pretty good himself at going places as long as he gets his hill first I knew he had no interest in exploring this place in any detail as we'd already been to the village shop for food and once we climbed the hill we'd be heading for home without delay.
That meant I had around an hour on my own to visit some old haunts I hadn't seen properly for 20 odd years. I first visited Strathpeffer in my teens with my parents during the Glasgow Fair Fortnight, two weeks of driving around the Scottish Highlands in the first or second car our family ever owned. Driving west in July always meant rain and mist hanging over the mountains (no change there at all) and Torridon was just the usual blur of wind and rain... but day trips walking around this village were sparking, sunny and enjoyably warm with cloudless blue skies... and no midges worth noticing.  Memory bubbles that never dim. I did come back several times after that and also stayed in a caravan on the Black Isle for a summer... and it never rained.. or never seemed to for weeks at a time. Golden days in a golden bubble... hence my desire to return here. Apparently, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had the same early experience- a wet rubbish holiday on the west coast but friends in Deeside having eternal sunshine that same trip... so they purchased what would become Balmoral Castle in the mid 1850s and set the ball rolling for the conquest of the Highlands we still see today. In fact its still ongoing and probably always will, this time in rural England in a more subtle and less violent displacement, with villages there losing pubs, post offices, shops, local schools and banks at an alarming rate in a modern version of the clearances; families and lower income locals forced to move out as each desirable village slowly becomes an upmarket commuter town for those who can afford to live there with shopping, banking, and socializing now carried out mostly online. As the new arrivals use cars to get around, loss making bus services are cut, exacerbating the problem in the countryside as anyone without their own transport is stuffed. (A situation highlighted today on Countryfile.)
The old railway station. I've still got a hand carved leather belt I bought here in a drawer somewhere... been close to throwing it out a few times then saved it at the last minute. It was made here in a craft shop specializing in leather work goods for someone else, with a carved name on it plus elaborate flower patterns in lifelike colours. It's lasted longer in my care than any relationship I've had :o)        or maybe......    :o ( Wah!!! is more appropriate.  At least I ended up with the belt as a consolation prize.....and I've always liked it as a piece of art as well as a belt. Unlike a tattoo there's no need to alter the name to something else.
The railway to here lasted from the 1880s until the 1940s, coinciding with peak popularity but they still manage to fill the numerous hotels here somehow... enough to keep them open anyway. Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Micheal Buble, Neil Diamond and various others were advertised appearing at one but only as tribute nights. I went to one recently in Glasgow featuring my own taste in music and had a great time- £17 for an excellent night instead of £100 plus for the real thing- amazing value and actually better in this instance than the star in question would have been. More on that in a later post.)
St Anne's round tower church.
Another hotel in Strathpeffer. Like most Scottish villages, apart from the lovely period scenery there is not much to do here except for some cracking walks in the surrounding locality but it is a good base for touring the Highlands if you don't want to stay in busy Inverness itself with a better chance at sunshine than the west coast. It has a unique atmosphere all its own and I loved my time here.. then and today.
In autumn it is a special place and I've not seen such a variety of vivid hues anywhere else this year.
A time bubble.
I can see how many folk would want to travel abroad however... not only for the sun, the heat, but also for cheapness. Any holidays we took in Scotland during the Glasgow Fair were always expensive undertakings, even in a no frills caravan and we never stayed anywhere posh but it was more money in the 1970s for two weeks here in a B and B than two weeks in budget bargain basement accommodation in Spain today. Another reason why folk prefer the sun.
Another view of Castle Leod near Strathpeffer.
Period house beside the train station.

And a step further back in time for anyone who enjoys nostalgia for past decades. A likable family go back to the Victorian period and their ability to leave modern living behind completely, makes this excellent BBC series work. The same family, The Robshaws, did the 1950s to the present day in another series I enjoyed more as I obviously lived through that time period as a child so identified with it fully but both are informative and highly entertaining. Filled in the gaps by showing how technological innovations often changed lifestyles overnight, then as now, which I'd never realized happened so fast before watching this.  I believe some full episodes are still available to watch on You Tube or BBC i Player...  So this is just a trailer.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Cat's Back. Cnoc Mor. A Fairy Tale Forest.

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A good night was spent in the hut during our three day trip up North but on our third hill day the weather turned cold, wet, and cloudy so we left the dripping west coast and headed east. One of the great things about a small country like the UK is its range of varied landscapes within a short distance and if it's grim on the west coast... driving under an hour in the car to the flatter, sunnier, east coast often brings high rewards.
The Inverness , Black Isle, Nairn, Elgin and Macduff districts/ coastlines sit well away from the Scottish west coast high mountain ranges which catch most of the rain and as a result have a drier sunnier, climate year round with half the rainfall of the west coast. Above is Cnoc Mor, a small hill lying beside the village of Strathpeffer and Alex's objective for today. Although I had climbed it myself  several times in the past I was keen to do it again as I knew the views were excellent from the ridge.
We were just on the rain- sunshine boundary here as this view shows. Rain and murk over the higher mountains looking west....
Sunshine and hay harvests where we were, a few miles east around Strathpeffer. Most of our hut companions on this trip were Munro baggers so enjoyed a thoroughly wet day by comparison but I've always maintained  that sunny days are completely wasted on the young anyway :o)
On the western edge of Strathpeffer village a signposted side road leads to a car park with forest trails and tracks running up Cat's Back which is the continuation ridge of Cnoc Mor, the highest point. Many of the small hills around this crumpled, rolling ridge area are heavily forested but Cat's Back is unique by being clear and open along its modest spine. Seen above is a fairyland of carved wooden characters but this entire district has that same vibe of slightly surreal dimensions.
Thor at work.
You are being watched.
It didn't take us long to climb a balcony trail up to the pass separating the wooded end of Cat's Back from the open side.
This is a superb little walk to the eastern end of the ridge looking down on the town of Dingwall. I know this area fairly well but I'll explain why in the next  post. This open ridge with fantastic views reminded me strongly of the Malvern Hills around Worcestershire and indeed this entire area has a mixed Highland/ English Lake District feel to it. The reasons for that will also be explained in the next post.
This area is also famous for its autumn colours- some of the best I've seen anywhere.
Castle Leod, Seat of  Clan MacKenzie and in former times Clan MacLeod. (a Lewis branch now defunct) Apparently, this castle was a big inspiration for the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon but  being an overnight stay, distance wise, from Glasgow and Cumbernauld, where the studios are situated, it would have meant extra additional budgets for film cast and crew in hotels, whereas Doune Castle, much nearer Glasgow, was a better option for daily shoots. Although romantic and chocolate box to look at, this castle does seem a tad fairy tale compared to the more austere and sombre Doune. Although of the right time period it doesn't really fit in with well established preconceived ideas of what Scotland or Scottish castles, should look like. A familiar pattern in places like Scotland, Scandinavia (Vikings with cow horns! ), parts of Africa or Japan with a deep international image already set in stone in film goers imagination. In a word... its too pretty for olden times- even though its real. Probably the reason why William Wallace is seen charging across wild, west coast mountains in Braveheart when he fought mainly in the central Lowlands and never went near the Scottish Highlands if he could avoid them. After all, dangerous strange folk lived there if you came fae Paisley/ Elderslie. Not too be trusted at all. W.W was essentially a flat lands city boy but lowland scenery is not as colourful or dramatic for films. Oh, and he probably never wore a kilt in his life, being a minor noble, but chain mail for fighting in; the Scottish lowlanders of higher rank dressed very similar to the enemy troops he was attacking, as did the common foot soldiers on both sides- also confusing for films. Kilts are crap at stopping arrows and they were brave men... not stupid. Even the Scottish versus English theme is a bit suspect and too complicated to go into here....:o)
Amazing just how many films Doune Castle has appeared in as a 'go to' ye olden times abode. Never knew Elizabeth Taylor had a film here although I knew she stayed in Scotland briefly later on. See info at the end of this link.

Loch Ussie and several islands.
Western edge of Strathpeffer.
Looking down from Cat's Back over rural farmlands to the North.
Looking in the direction of Ben Wyvis, 1046 metres, 3432 feet, a massive and isolated upland plateau covering a sizable chunk of this north east corner ending in a Munro summit surrounded by vast gentle slopes of grass and moss. A mountain most hill-walkers remember well for its individuality and endless tramping, walking across this vast tract of empty waste on a pleasantly deep and shock absorbing green and yellow carpet, high in the air. So different and lush a surface underfoot compared to the bare bones, boulder strewn, steep edged, western ridges.
A view down towards Dingwall on the coast.
Habitation below. A form of rural suburbia by the looks of it.
Cat's Back ridge and a low pass over the spine of this modest little range. At this point we split up- Alex to bag his Cnoc Mor trig - me to head off elsewhere on a journey I was determined not to miss. Hill-walkers tend to be fixated on bagging lists and not much else I've noticed over many years so I knew I had to visit it properly on my own now or not at all. I'd already done the wooded high point before so my new objective was a 40 year old nostalgia splurge... to be continued...

Something very different as a contrast- the wild spectacle of the mighty Atlantic Ocean/ North Sea in frisky mood. One of the world's more turbulent hunting grounds for a fish supper. Impressive stuff in this link, best viewed full screen. Don't think a couple of sea sickness tablets would do much good in this storm somehow. Amazing video.