Skye is an almost unbelievably beautiful place: the Cuillin are the mountains of our childhood imaginings, great black pyramids and spires, still spattered in snow when I was there last week. The nearby Red Hills rise steep and barren: again there is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the Highlands. Then there’s the cliffs and spires of the northern hills, the sea cliffs, the shimmering lochs, the small white cottages …

Mountains like no others …

It’s easy to see why the place is a magnet for tourism, with the roads thronged, Portree rammed with people… and yet my  visit there last week left me wondering just what the visitors really get out of it.

I had heard before that a few select spots such as the Fairy Pools have become overrun with visitors, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing perhaps 200 vehicles parked in every possible (and a few not-so-possible) places on the main Staffin road below the Old Man of Storr.

One group of young guys had got out their car and were standing, shirts off  and slung over the shoulders, looking up at the hills from a fine vantage point in the middle of the road, while traffic slowed and drove around them. It’s not a single-track or anything: it’s a main A-road.

Sure, the Old Man is a fine place for a wander, and I’ve been up many winters ago for a scramble round; then there was no other soul there.  But go there with perhaps 400 other folk? I might as well be out in Kelvingrove Park on a sunny Saturday.

Skye is blessed with a decent road network, plenty of access to many wonderful places, plenty of great sights; why on earth people think it is essential to see the ‘five best’ or the ‘ten best’, the place that featured in a film or on telly, when almost every square mile of this island provides another natural wonder, is beyond me.

Maybe if the tourists are stuck in the honeypots it’s a blessing. I was shown  a fabulous spot on a sea-cliff top not far from the Storr by a couple of locals who use it to watch otters and whales, dolphins and porpoises. Not many people go there, and those who seek out the less-easy, less pre-digested experience,  can find plenty of these places. If they become popular they could be ruined.

But I can’t help thinking that the ant-like visitors are missing out when they stick to their guide-books and follow the rest of the mob to the same old spots to take the same old pictures. Lift up your eyes, look around and see where else you can go: your life will be richer for it. I don’t know if tourist guides and information sites point this out, but maybe they should lay a bit more emphasis on it for the sake of locals, tourists and the places themselves.

Those of us whose idea of a good time is to get out climbing walking, cycling, surfing and the rest take it for granted, but there is a growing appreciation of the benefits of the outdoors  on our mental health.

How much being in green space helps me was brought home by my best job recently: a trip out with a group in Cumbernauld set up to help people with mental health concerns get the benefits of being outdoors with good company.

Peace: Coldingham beach with the sun going down

It was organised by Paul Barclay of the Conservation Volunteers, and we ended up making a really nice tape for the Kaye Adams programme on BBC Radio Scotland, followed by a discussion with me and Paul and a few others – I think it made good listening and we certainly spent enough time to get right into the topic.

The trip out itself could not have been simpler: Paul , Claire and their volunteer Rebecca, plus group members Sharon, Jaz and Judy, all met up in a shopping centre and then walked through the surprisingly extensive green spaces of Cumbernauld to get to a quiet bit of woodland by a burn. We picked a bit of litter, lit  fire (eventually!) and used the Kelly Kettle to make tea, listened to the birdsong and chatted quietly. It was all the good things about being outdoors rolled into one.

A week later when we were on the radio a caller said she organised outdoor wellbeing sessions with a Japanese element, and a proper tea ceremony – and it struck me how common that is to a good day out in the country. Making a brew, sharing a flask or even just stopping to have a cold drink and eat: those are the times we probably communicate most with those around us, and take in the scenery we’re surrounded by, whether it’s a day on a wild beach or a cragging session.

We’re often goal-focused when hillwalking, climbing, skiiing or whatever, but what we should value more is the just-being-there element of it all.

At the start of the week we took and couple of days off and on Monday night took a barbecue onto the headland east of Coldingham beach, cooked some food,  swigged from a bottle of beer and watched the sun set and the tide fall. There was the occasional person with a  dog on the sand,  a gannet diving for fish, some smoke curling up and the still blue sky of a May evening.

The surf we’d hoped for had failed to materialise but perhaps the evening was all the better for it, and we went to bed feeling soothed by the place, the view, the company, the colours … as Paul Barclay had said, we’ve all got mental health to look after, and that was what we’d done.

It’s easy for people like me who seemed to spend half his childhood damming streams and fishing for trout in Welsh rivers and Scottish burns,  but for those of us who are not used to it, or can’t afford to travel, or who don’t feel safe, anything like a club or a group or even an NHS prescription that gets them into the simple green spaces on their doorstep, is just so much better than anything else for making us feel well.

 

I use the cycle track which runs behind my home in Scotstoun a lot – more now that I am training for the Etape Caledonia in just three scary weeks. I often praise the track as a linear park for the local community. It saw the regular Kiltwalk charity parade at the weekend with lots of colourful outfits and kilts strapped to people of all shapes, ages and sizes.

On their way to Loch Lomond they may have noticed some litter on the track, although as green spaces go it’s not the worst.

Kiltwalkers – let’s hope they can keep their feet clean …

They might also have been baffled along the track – as I was all the way to Luss yesterday – by the small black plastic bags of dog-shit scattered on the verge, stuffed in hedges, left on walls…

At least I assume it’s dog-shit – I haven’t looked in them all, and there may be piles of Smarties or cheese sandwiches in some of them, but from the outside I would guess it’s dog-shit all right. It comes in dog-shit bags and some of them are open at the top or have begun to decay, to reveal the dog-shit within.

I love dogs and plan to get one when I have the time and the space to look after one properly. The thing about dog-shit is this: if you leave it out in the open, without going to the slightly nauseous trouble of picking it up in a bag, it’s just a nuisance and unsightly. Kids and people like me step in it and bring dog-shit into houses; your bike runs over it and it leaves your wheels all dog-shitty, but this dog-shit does eventually disappear, helped along by the slightly-higher-than-average-for-the-UK rainfall here in the west of Scotland.

However, if you put dog-shit in a plastic bag, it lasts a lot longer. On a recent litter pick we find someone’s secret stash of bagged-up dog-shit, hoarded and half-buried behind a tree at Scotstounhill, like the gold in a dog-shit version of Treasure Island.

You can imagine the refrain from the pirate’s parrot: “Pieces of shite, pieces of shite…”

It all begs the question: why do people go to the unpleasant trouble of picking the dog-shit up but then can’t take it home or put it in the local dog-shit bin? And who are the people who leave this ready-wrapped dog-shit? I have never seen it being done, and no dog-owner I know admits to leaving plump parcels of dog-shit around for others to admire.

One of the more bizarre things I have seen in the past year or two is dozens of bags of dog-shit dangling from a tree on the access track to the cycle-track. Was this an effort to create a sort of dog-shit Christmas tree?

Perhaps that’s a clue: it’s all down to just one magical dog-shit Santa, who travels through the sky on a flying toilet seat, pulled by flying cocker spaniels, resplendent in a suit of dog-shit brown-and-white (oh yes, remember white dog-shit?). He leaves his gifts of dog-shit everywhere we like to walk and enjoy. And his working calendar is not stuck to December like his dull old non-dog-shit counterpart, but makes every day his dog-shit Yuletide.

If it isn’t that, then tell me who the hell it is. Answers on a Christmas card please.

An email pops in from my old friend Geoff Gosling, asking if he can recirculate an article I wrote about climbing clubs. Of course he can. He’s now an honorary vice-president of the  Rucksack Club, one of the the north of England’s most important mountaineering clubs.

A gang of Rucksack Club members with Geoff at the front in white.

Geoff was the driving force in the Oldham Mountaineering Club when I joined in the 1980s and could be depended on to fill his big Ford estate car – he was a sales rep – with six or seven climbers and ship us all out to the Peak District to drape ourselves gracelessly across the glorious gritstone edges, scraping skin and egos and learning about rock-climbing, how to live well, and how to appreciate the heather hills and vast open spaces. Stanage, Indian’s Head, the Roaches, Castle Naze, dozens more, and Geoff seemed at the time to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of them all.

I can’t believe he’ll soon be 70, but then I can’t believe how old I am now. It seems the Rucksack is facing the same challenges as many other clubs, how to adapt to the modern era. Perhaps we should say that if a club struggles to get new members it’s not wanted: but the Lomond Club here in Glasgow has been through booms and busts, and kept going as an institution, still giving something back the to climbing community.

We’ve changed, abandoning regular Wednesday socials to concentrate on the climbing walls; we operate through Facebook more than anything else. I’m not mad on either but the club seems to be thriving, there are more women and more younger folk on board, and it seems to work.

Let’s hope Geoff and the Rucksack can do something the same. His club is a real institution, embedded in the history of climbing and apparently the first in the UK to have a club hut. If nothing else it’s worth a new generation joining to learn from people like Geoff about climbing and life.

We were in Cowal for Hogmanay, staying in Tighnabruaich and enjoying the place, the fantastic light, the darkly glittering sea and deep winter colours, stovies, steak pie and whisky.  The Kames Hotel on Hogmanay was buzzing nicely, and the loony dook the next day tempted me in…

The horror, the horror …

My icy swim lasted about ten seconds, but I got my head under, and it demonstrated one good reason for living in Scotland – here my pallid gingerman torso is the norm.

The celebrations showed the sense of community such places have: a few pissed people, right enough, but no problems, friendly chat and good cheer. The fireworks outside the pub were great, too.

We admired the range of enormous properties, odd for such a small, remote place but doubtless explained by Glasgow money in years gone by, and I would guess that while it’s a remote community like many others in the Highlands and Argyll, there’s still money here in a way that there isn’t in some of those other communities.

And we enjoyed a run through the Kilfinan Community Woodland, where good things are happening, with dark evergreens being felled for the benefit of the community. It seems they are also clearing the dreaded invasive rhododendron ponticum, a massive problem in this part of the world,   getting people involved with the land and generally helping to tie the community down.

At least one family has been brought in by the availability of a woodland croft, and the sense of possibility we picked up on when we chatted to the crofter was refreshing.

We will be back to explore the community woodland, no doubt, and to find out more about its impact, but the fact that the woodland organisation has cleared a large area of the massed non-native timber crops  and opened up the hillsides, hopefully for native trees, has got to be good.

A while ago I visited the legendary Mick Tighe in Lochaber to see  the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection – the UK’s biggest collection of historic climbing and mountaineering artefacts – and to record some audio about the collection. Some highlights went out on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme today, Tuesday October 3, because the stuff is on display this week, and  Mick and the charity which the collection operates under would dearly like it to have a permanent home where at least some of the stuff could go on show all year round. Importantly, if it did Mick’s wife could get her garage back.

Mick Tighe
Photo: Dave MacLeod

Anyhow here is the full tape, all 20 minutes or so, for anyone who wants to get a proper idea of Mick’s collection. It blew me away. I suspect that a lot of the information and knowledge that Mick has is not written down anywhere, and it is fascinating.

And if you’re interested in Mick, here’s Dave MacLeod’s rather good short film about him.

I’m in northern Spain at the moment and it’s an interesting time to be in the country. Of course there’s little sign here on the streets of any of the upheaval currently contorting Catalonia, but when we turn on the TV news it’s right there at the top: police raids on regional government officials, protests, endless pictures of politicians, rapid-fire Spanish news delivery, and on the slightly more downmarket channels even more rapid-fire delivery. I keep expecting them to say “scorchio…”

Santander …worth a look around

We can’t understand much but with a bit of help from Google it’s fascinating viewing, and of course no-one who lives in Scotland can fail to think a bit of “what if…”

One small detail of our trip pointed maybe to one big difference. We’re here to surf and enjoy the fantastic beach resort of Somo, with its cafes and and seafood and dusty streets and warm September sun, but we also planned to do a few walks in the local countryside, and being me I wanted an Ordnance Survey-style map. Just so I could get us lost better …

Amazing … the beach at Somo

I’d failed to buy one off the internet in time before we headed abroad, so we asked in this fair-sized town, and no-one here had such a thing. We went to the recommended bookshops in Santander, a substantial city, and still no detailed topographical maps.

Finally a bright spark understood our pidgin Spanish and directed us to the right place: a government office.

After a half-hour trek across the city, we showed photo ID before being allowed in to the building, and marched straight into what turned out to be the local equivalent of the JobCentre. After a quick baffled look we then found the map repository, where the helpful English-speaking woman in charge sold us a 1:50000 sheet of the surrounding area. Bingo.

But why was it so hard? Why didn’t tourist info, the local garage, the bookshops, have a simple walking map?

Google wasn’t that helpful except for one suggestion: that maps in Spain were until comparatively  recently the preserve of the military.

There would of course have been every reason why Franco and his forces would not want the troublesome populace to get their hands on maps. Spain only emerged from his shadow in the 1970s, 40-odd years ago. Could this have been a hangover from those times – with no tradition of bookshops selling good maps, everyone just assumes you get them off the Government?

It’s a tiny detail (and talking of detail, that 1:50000 doesn’t have a lot that’s much use …) but it made me for one reflect on the newness of democracy here and the fragility of it; why the Spanish government has acted the way it has in the face of the planned referendum; and what could happen to this important corner of Europe in these uncertain times …

Lots of us have seen stuff  recently telling us how bad plastic litter is in places such as Pacific islands and the Arctic, but much closer to home there is just tons of it too. I had a day out in sunny Eyemouth recently to join a beach clean, and afterwards sat down on Eyemouth harbour wall with the enthusiastic organiser of the event to capture her thoughts on the issue. It’s shocking at times but Sarah Russell has a message for us: we have to try to do something about it.

Sarah Russell doesn’t like this …

Thanks to the Marine Conservation Society too for getting me to go along, and thanks to the gulls for giving me such great atmos!

If you know me, you may be aware of my simmering rage over the A82 from Tarbet to Inverarnan past Loch Lomond, the so-called A road that defies description. This week the rage is boiling over.

On Sunday, coming back from Oban on a busy Sunday afternoon, someone had decided to send a massive flatbed long-load vehicle plus escort down this stretch of road. Result: Total traffic standstill, we lost more than a hour. That road cannot cope with that kind of traffic full stop, and certainly not on a Sunday afternoon in August

Today, coming back from Lochaber, this stretch of road was awash, in one place for about 200 metres, and I lost count of the floods. Ah, you may say, but the rain was torrential. Ah, I say, this is the Scottish west Highlands. No stranger to torrential. The road’s drains just could not cope, water was foaming white over the carriageway.

These guys are right …

There is currently a set of “temporary” traffic lights where yet again part of the road has decided that it prefers being in Loch Lomond to carrying traffic. Don’t expect them to be gone for another 37 years.The road is in places pitted and pocked, breaking apart with grinding traffic, rain and frost. Even first thing this morning when the weather was dry and the burns didn’t seem to be high, there was water flowing across the road.

Long stretches are hemmed in by stone walls which regularly shed rocks into the carriageway and which push nervous driveways into the centre of the road. Tight bends, potholes … it’s unbelieveable.

This stretch of road is without a doubt the worst A road I have ever been on. It is dangerous, although not the most dangerous, but combining that with its sheer uselessness as a trunk road – 40mph is a good average on this stretch – it must be the worst A road in Britain.

Yet thousands of tourists and locals are expected to use it – while over a billion pounds has been spent on a second Forth road crossing that wasn’t even needed once they fixed the old one.

Sleek self-satisfied Edinburgh-based politicians don’t care, I am told, because there’s only 80,000 votes at the end of it. Well the politicians – and especially those that represent Oban and Fort William and the other places for which this road is a lifeline – should pull their bloody fingers out and see what a massive problem this is, not just for foreign tourists and those few locals, but for the hundreds of thousands of people from the West of Scotland who like myself use that road regularly,  for business and pleasure, and risk our lives and waste our time on a road that is not fit for purpose.

Since my trip in May to the North Coast 500 to find out what local people made of being on ‘possibly the best driving route in the world’  it’s had loads of attention. I’d like to pretend that’s because of my reportage  for the Herald Magazine (enjoy that again here and here!), but you’ll know that the NC500 has a life of its own and is burgeoning like an alien bursting forth from the chest of a member of a beleaguered spaceship crew.

My favourite North Coast 500 adventurers

The P and J got its latest dose of NC500 with a story about how shifting nuclear waste would mean people might have to miss a nine-mile stretch of the route proper.The cynic in me says it would be the boring and slightly scary bit past Dounreay, it’s nine miles, the alternative B-road is probably prettier, and it ain’t a tale, but I’ve done plenty local news and I know a top-line is a top-line.

More interesting is the statement in a North Star story (other versions are available) from Fiona Hyslop on a recent trip to Inverness that the NC500 “needs strong co-ordinated support from the public sector to ensure its long-term sustainability.”

That could be good news for Tracy Urry, the Highland Council roads supremo who as we speak is preparing a bid for extra cash for the road’s upkeep, based on the economic benefits of the extra traffic: it is estimated that the new designation has brought 29,000 extra tourists and £9m to some of the most economically  and socially fragile bits of the Highlands.

But it’s vital that Ms Hyslop puts her money where her mouth is. As my original piece points out, one of the problems of the road is that while it generates extra local income, the extra taxation from all that cash goes straight to central government, and there’s no benefit for local authorities direct, until people start building new hotels and restaurants and paying more business rates, which might be too late for Ms Urry’s roads to be saved from the beating they’re now getting.

We can’t turn back the clock, and even without promotion the NC 500 will be out there and attract travellers – they stopped promoting Route 66 back in the 70s and replaced it with a much better road but that didn’t stop you hearing about it and maybe even fancying a look at it.

So whatever you think of the NC500 – and it has been criticised among other things for encouraging polluting car-born travel – we have to make sure that the road itself, the magnet for all those folk, is maintained, if only for the sake of the locals who need it to get out, get to hospital, see their friends, and go to work, and the folk who do it the best way, by bike.

*If the title I stuck on this made you think back to the fabulous Canned Heat hit from 1967, then here it is to save you Googling … If you don’t know it already, you should.