The changing of the clocks has always seemed to me to be particularly harsh in Scotland compared to down south: here in midwinter I finish my lunch and look out to see the street lights on and a sense of ending settling on the day, people hunched against the impending night, wearing their big coats tightly buttoned to ward off the gloom. And that’s only at 1.30pm.

I’ve never quite twigged the need for the change of hours. I am told the clocks go back in October so that kids don’t go to school in the dark on busy roads in the mornings, but that means instead they come home in the dark in the afternoons, when they’re tired and even more accident-prone.

And if it’s to do with farmers getting up for milking, that makes no sense. I haven’t seen many Friesians that can tell the time and will make a decision to have a wee lie in so Farmer Joe can get up a bit later…

Does this coo need more kip in March?

Whatever the rationale, I suspect I won’t be able to change the time the clocks go back. But what we can change, must change, is the date they go forward

Let me explain. The clocks went back on October 25 last year, as it does all years near the end of October, as the available daylight got shorter. Between that and the winter solstice on December 21 – the shortest day – is just 57 days. So that tells us that there are 57 days before the solstice where daylight hours are short enough to warrant this special measure for schoolkids, Daisy the cow, Farmer Joe and all their pals.

I’m no expert, but as I understand it the days get longer after the solstice at roughly the same rate as they get shorter before it. In fact a quick Google reveals to me that today, February 16, 57 days AFTER the solstice, there are actually three minutes more daylight than on October 25 here in Stirlingshire.

So the days are already longer than at the point when we have to put the clocks back because of a lack of daylight to prevent a terrifying array of consequences for children and agriculture.

Could this be one of the terrifying effects of clocks going back too soon? Or did she just overdo the Imbolc?

And that means, of course that we could put the clocks forward today,  40 days earlier than planned. without any of those consequences – doesn’t it?

Think of it: instead of finishing work at 5.30 tonight in darkness, you could have a pleasant slice of the golden hour and a bit of dusk when the light is at its best. During the current Coronavirus crisis, it’d cheer us all up to have more daylight at the end of the day, a hint of impending summer.

Why not make a slight tweak to the old Celtic spring festival of Imbolc, which currently falls on February 1, and celebrate it at the same time? A wee Imbolc party in the back garden, chat over the fence to neighbours. They’re sacrificing a goat or burning down the shed, you’re ceremonially dancing naked around the trampoline or drinking mead from a badger-skull as dusk falls at 6.30pm – what could be nicer?

The ancient Celts won’t mind the adjustment. First, they’re dead, and second, when they were alive they liked nothing more than a good knees-up. That’s why they put up with Halloween taking over from Samhain…

Anyway, Imbolc aside, all we need to do now is convince the politicians. And of course, they’ll understand – they’re sensible people, aren’t they…?

Just before the Christmas holidays my investigation of the failed Killundine community land buyout was published by the Ferret. It’s a fabulous read, and you can get it here if you missed it in the white-hot intensity of your 2021 revelries, or your excitement at what Santa might bring.

To sum up: The Morvern Community Woodland company (MCW) rather surprisingly raised the £2.7m needed to buy the 6000 acres Killundine estate and bring much-needed business units, housing and environmental restoration to the area – but even more surprisingly, local people rejected the buyout in a ballot, and it was scrapped.

Deserted: an old cottage at Killundine, most recently used as as a shed

Covid played a part in the failure of the MCW to convince the locals it was a good idea for them to buy it, and there was also the fierce opposition to it of one local community figure, who felt local farmers’ sons would have been better placed to take the job on.

Closer examination showed me the buyout could have stood a lot better chance if the company, or another such group, had had a greater capacity to sell the idea to local people, and to show it could overcome the concrete challenges of managing a large estate, and deriving public benefit from it. The company was – is – convinced it could have done the job  for local people, but it would have been a massive load for a small organisation that until then had only run a small community woodland.

This issue of capacity is an important one, and is for me one of the flaws in the current drive to “empower communities”, getting local people to take on community facilities, land, and other projects for the common good.

The fact is that volunteering in such projects is hard work, and without the backing of some staff, it can be very hard to sustain.

There is a Morvern Community Development Company which might have been expected to take that buyout on. But its chair said despite supporting the buyout, they just could not manage to take on the bid on top of their existing commitments: it already runs a marina for visiting yachters and a petrol station, and is developing housing, a community hub and the UK’s biggest-ever community hydro-electricity scheme.

To achieve all that, the MCDC has the services of a professional development officer, paid for by Highlands and Island Enterprise – and without her, the chair says, those things would not be happening.

The community council in Glasgow I chaired for a wee while was lucky enough to have the services of a secretary who was newly-retired, full of energy and able to put a huge amount of work into the job. She has gone on to drive the creation of a great new community garden at the local community centre. Having her on our team was like having a professional on hand at every turn.

But not many organisations have a paid development officer or a newly-retired June Mitchell – take a bow, please, June – and that’s just part of this issue of capacity.

In remote Highland areas, the pool of folk to draw on for these kind of organisations is tiny – 300-odd in Morvern, 800 in Assynt, 250 in Coigach. The whole of Mull, which has a wide range of community development and buyout organisations, has just 2,600 folk. The populations of these areas are notoriously fragile, partly because of the lack of the facilities community groups want to provide. Finding able and willing trustees and directors is likely to be a never-ending task in such places.

We were lucky in Scotstoun to have a widely varied demographic, and a substantial, settled population of maybe 7,000 people, but even so we struggled to get a full complement of community councillors. In more deprived urban and rural areas finding people who have the time, ability and confidence to tackle meetings, bureaucracy, planning and finances will be even harder.

So the areas that need community efforts most – the poor, remote, fragile and thinly-populated – are those that struggle most to have the capacity to do it.

For all the trumpeting by politicians of people power, of local people taking up the reins, community action, it’s no good without support.

Two things would help: more money for staff and advice than is currently available; and greater involvement from business people and academics from outwith the areas in need, maybe as volunteer mentors, directors, and advisers, to boost the capacity of organisations to tackle the challenges they face.

The last few days have been great for walking around here, the rain showers clearing the air and the lowering sun bringing a fresh light to the views.

Our local loveliness …

We’re lucky to have this on our doorstep, and to have been here through lockdown and the current restrictions.

When you see how wonderful it is,  you understand better why people from the cities have, post-lockdown, burst into the countryside at what many would think is an alarming rate, to enjoy what we take for granted.

Photos, reports from national parks and other beauty spots show cars cramming onto verges when car-parks are full, and reports of dirty camping, littering and fouling. I’ve seen a lot of it myself.

Working on a footpath in Glen Nevis on Saturday I heard the wild meadows up at Steall Falls have become a favourite campground, with the Nevis Partnership team having to take daily visits up there to remind folk to clear up after themselves and not leave their (literal, not metaphorical) shite everywhere.

On my way up there very early on Saturday it was a bit like the old film Zulu: “Campervans, sir, thousands of ’em!” Every possible pull-in from Loch Lomond to Onich was packed with big white vans, little VWs, cars with stuff taped over the windows.

Most of those travellers will have got up, had their first cuppa, and then wondered where they were going to have their morning crap. A lot will not make it to the nearest public toilet …

I was covering the Finnich Glen beauty spot story again this week, and saw an unbearable pile of filth picked up by local volunteers for disposal there.

Landowner David Young points out the problem at Finnich Glen

Of course the people who are causing problems like this bear a responsibility, but look at parking: If you have driven from Glasgow to Ben A’an because it’s a place you know, went to as a kid, and want to show your own family, you expect to be able to park.

If the car-park is full, you maybe don’t know anywhere else to go in the Trossachs, and anyway, you promised them this great place… So you park on the verge. The response from the powers that be has of course been to close all the informal parking and ticket anyone who tries to park outside the car-park. Maybe they should direct them to somewhere quieter …

Nothing can excuse leaving litter behind, but people are people and they (kids especially) will need a crap while they are out and about. They’ll try to be unobtrusive, but when 70,000+ are visiting a 27-acre site like Finnich Glen, don’t expect it to be able to absorb that stoolage without impact. Up at the Fairy Pools on Skye they have had to install a treatment tank the size of a nuclear sub for the new toilets to deal with 200,000 bottoms a year.

At the same time the TV ads tell us to enjoy the natural wonders on our doorstep, for the sake of the economy; the pressure is on to cut long-distance travel; and the realisation that the natural world is in danger is encouraging a new appreciation of its wonders.

What that means is we need more and better facilities for people visiting the countryside. It does mean more car parks, and in the less frequented places, so they can absorb some of the hordes. It means better public transport – I don’t think there’s a bus stop less than 4km away from Finnich Glen.

It means new lavs, lots of them, all over the Highlands and in other rural areas, not closing them down to save money, plus places to empty chemical toilets  – aires like they have in France, maybe.

It means income from car parks such as that in Glen Nevis (£6 a day, I’d guess 100+ spaces?!) going back into the local tourist infrastructure, the crumbling footpath we were maintaining on Saturday, the council ranger service that has been cut.

And it means education. Not just signs, not just rangers politely informing people about the dos and don’ts: I haven’t see TV ads urging people to clean up their mess in the countryside, to run alongside the lavish films that tell us to go out and enjoy it.

And while I am sure it’s on the Curriculum for Excellence somewhere that you should take your litter and bog-roll home, and not leave your tent and beer bottles behind after camping, I’m just not sure it has quite enough emphasis…

A fine morning near Mugdock

Which of course brings me to residential outdoor education centres, so many of which are under threat of closure from being unable to operate under lockdown. They are the places young people from cities learn about litter, outdoor hygiene, and caring for the country. Yet they’ve had to launch a campaign for Government help to stay afloat. Maybe the Eat Out to Help Spread Coronavirus scheme’s cash could have gone on that …

So enjoy the countryside, folks, but don’t forget: it needs money, effort and political will to keep it the way we want it. Spread the word, not the sh……

 

The trout flashes golden in the sunlit water. I reel it in, seeing the spots and patterns of its sleek body, shaky with excitement. It’s totally unexpected: first cast, with the simple gear my father taught me to use more than 50 years ago. It’s a keeper, for sure, and it goes in the bag.

Now, I worry, what’ll happen if I catch another good one on my second cast? That’ll be as much as I could possibly eat today, and I’ll have no more reason to stay here …

Fishing mad: that’s me on the right

This loch is a wonderful, secret place: a good size – maybe 400m long, 200m across – but invisible from anywhere other than the circle of low hills surrounding it. It’s not far from a big sea-loch and there’s a wide-open-sky feel here above the steep heather and bracken, birch and oak.

When I was a small boy, the family parked the caravan and our blue-and-white Austin Cambridge, 217 XTJ, on the sheep-cropped turf next to the road, maybe a kilometre away. We fished the loch we could see, and the burns, but had no idea this hidden loch was there.

Then dad met the gamekeeper. I remember him, a craggy man in tweed, pedalling along the narrow road on an ancient black bike, like the one granddad still had in the spare room, with its smell of oil and old newspaper. I saw a brown ten-bob note change hands. Dad came back with a smile.

“There’s another loch,” he told us. “Over the hill – you boys can fish it, but we can only take the two biggest you get.”

Over the hill next day, old cane rod over my shoulder, a big expedition. The loch sparkled then, too, with gnarled oak woodland running down to the shore, green, quiet, a lost world we felt privileged and thrilled to be in.

Dad supervised as my older brother and I set up, maybe a hundred metres apart, and waited. It didn’t take long then, either, and after maybe an hour-and-a-half I had two in my keep-net, and he had two. Bigger than our normal burn trout, a good dinner’s worth on each.

Then came the judgement of Solomon. I honestly couldn’t see the difference, but his two were appraised as being slightly larger than the ones I had caught, so dad ruled they were the ones to be kept. We took them home for mum to gut and cook for us. Good – but I couldn’t help wishing one of them was mine…

Happy families … mum worked hard

That holiday still burns bright in the memory. Two lads, maybe eight and 11, wandering the lochs, the burns with their dad; unearthing worms for bait from cowpats; trout sizzling in burnt butter; building dams in the small stream; seeing a barefoot pack of children outside a net-strung croft cottage.

Sunshine, midge bites, the smell of gas and boiling spuds in the caravan… Mum worked hard to keep us fed and vaguely clean, and I suspect my sister, five year older than me, hated it, but for me it was paradise.

Finding the hidden loch on the map again is no problem. Walking back over to it, I catch my breath when it comes into view, as beautiful, steeply hidden, silent and secret as before.

Two hinds shoot up from the long heather as I walk down to the water. The first time I was here, the sighting of a deer would be a wonder to be talked about for days; now they’re a commonplace. Is that why the oak trees seem sparser? There’s no sign of oak saplings – the only young trees are birches clinging under the steep loch banks were deer can’t get them.

I needn’t have worried about getting too lucky. After my first catch the next couple of hours are wasted happily, wading barefoot to cast, wandering the banks of the loch, without a sign of another bite.

I walk back over the hill to my car and gut the trout.  I’m not really sure if it’s bigger than those others, but at least it’s mine. I get out the stove and butter, and in the lee of a bank, the fish is fried, a few leaves of mountain thyme in its belly.

Crisp skin, a little salt, light pink flesh pulling off the bones: the finest food of all, tasting of the best memories.

 

Kate Holl visits a remnant of the native woods which once blanketed Scotland’s west coast:

A while back I had the pleasure of the company of Kate Holl, woodland adviser to Scottish Natural heritage, for a trip out to a very special place.

Kate Holl

I recorded our visit to a small speck of pristine rainforest, a hidden lost world, and  Kate’s deep knowledge and feeling for woodland is apparent on this tape. It was one of those days that make being my job brilliant.

The news that the Langholm Initiative had won a £1m grant from the Scottish Land Fund seems to have been generally greeted by colleagues in the media as a good news story for the Initiative’s bid to buy in 10,500 acres of moorland.

It is a significant sum of money (it would do me …) but I’m afraid the truth is that the award will be seen as a major disappointment by the Initiative, which wants to take over this chunk of the Buccleuch estate and turn it into a community-owned wildlife haven and nature reserve.

It had asked for £3m towards the £6m that the Duke of Buccleuch is asking for the land, having already raised maybe £200,000 towards the buyout through a crowdfunder and the John Muir Trust. Even that would have still left the Initiative folk with a mountain to climb, maybe a summer Matterhorn, challenging but doable for the fit and able. Now it looks a bit more like K2 in winter, in roller skates and boxing gloves.

The Langholm Initiative’s crowdfunder appeal

The basic problem is that the land fund has a limit of £1m on individual grants. This was breached a couple of years ago to give more than £4m to the buyout of 5,000-acre Ulva off the west coast of Mull, so that might have given hope to the Langholm folk, but clearly this was not judged to be so important. Perhaps Ulva, as an area brutally depopulated in the Highland Clearances, was of higher significance as a symbol of land reform.

But despite being the most expensive community buyout proposal ever in Scotland, the Langholm Moor project is significant and has a lot going for it.

Langholm Moor was the site of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, which ran from 2008 to 2018 and was intended to come up with answers as to whether grouse moors could be run differently to bring greater benefits to nature. That will mean a lot is known about how it works, its flora and fauna, and how it can be run to benefit nature.

Importantly the proposal is being put together by local people, with local support. The Langholm Initiative has been around since 1994 and has a string of other projects to its name, benefiting people in this remote corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

I am convinced that a local approach – rather than some outside NGO or agency marching in and looking to make the place “wild”, while pissing off the locals – is one of the best ways for environmentally beneficial projects to thrive, and privately staff at some of those NGOs agree.

A few months back I was down on the Eddleston Water near Peebles where a whole-catchment experiment in natural flood prevention is going on, with tree planting, remeandering and dams which mimic the work of beavers.

The project’s success is already becoming apparent, with locals noting smaller flood peaks downstream in Peebles.

And it has had excellent buy-in from landowners – not always the keenest on enviro-schemes that don’t make them money – because it’s being run by what a 2016 report describes coyly as “a trusted intermediary.” More straightforwardly The Tweed Forum which is delivering the scheme on behalf of the Scottish Government and others has its roots in the local  fishing and land managing community itself: they know the people involved from the start.

The Langholm plan is not the same but this similarity, in local roots and drive, is what makes me think the project deserves support, a chance, because local people will back it to the hilt.

There are also around a dozen lettable houses, and a working farm, on the buyout site which should mean it can be a viable business from the get-go, with money coming into its coffers to pay for support workers and schemes. Not all land buyouts have this advantage…

Those homes and farmland, of course, will have been one of the factors in pushing the price so high, but you have to question the valuation of £6m. It’s based on “current market values” but beyond the houses and farm, upland ground has no great commercial value.

It might be hoped, of course, that the Duke would look kindly on the locals at this point and lop a few quid off his asking price: what would a couple of mill matter to him? That is perhaps unlikely (!) so some other rich benefactor will probably be needed if the project is to raise all the cash by October as it must to keep its £1m from SLF.

At a time when we’re ever more aware of the degradation of our environment and the need to repair it, this situation of dependence on wealthy folk to help out of the goodness of their hearts seems crazy.

I’m not one for doing a Mugabe (or giving some the chance to suggest a Mugabe is being done) but are there grounds for suggesting that areas of land such as this might have to be sold at a discount to local people, if they have a good plan for it that will bring major benefits? Maybe “market value” is less than an ideal way to approach these issues?

Without Government intervention, the folk of the Langholm Initiative will need supplementary oxygen, down suits, crampons specially adapted to fit round the wheels, and a hefty slice of luck up there. But let’s hope anyhow they can get to the top. They deserve to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the woods … Jenny’s Burn

I’m as confused as everyone else by the different Covid directives on outdoor activities from different governments, so for the moment I’m still staying pretty local with any adventures. That can be a bit limiting, or you can take it as challenge …

On the other side of the road from my house is Jenny’s Burn, which flows down off the Campsies from a few different sources including Jenny’s Lum, currently just a wet streak on the rock but filmed during the last big storms as a proper smoking lum, with the wind blasting the water upwards in a cloud of spray. Went a bit viral, I think.

Anyway, I’ve been down into the burn bed to pinch a few stones for the garden, and looked down into it from the bridge on the Pipe Track on the hill above here, and wondered for a while what a small expedition, from source to sea (or at least the Blane Water, which it joins at the bottom of the road) would be like.

On a hot day I pack: a short rope, a sling, a harness, a helmet (all useless in the end), a head-torch (quite handy for the last bit) and head off up the Pipe Track. Turning right through a gate after the last house takes me up onto the high apron of ground in front of the steep crags of the Strathblane Campsies.

From high up this track, I head across around 600 metres of the cattle-poached ground for a large solitary ash in one of the upper gullies of the burn.

As soon as I drop down into the dip I feel I’ve found something a bit magical. A ewe and her two lambs are asleep in the shadow of the tree, so I skirt well round them and begin to follow the trickle.

There is shade from the odd tree and bush, tiny flowers, the slight sound of the burn, and a feeling that I am in a hidden landscape, richer, quieter, and more complex than the swathe of moorland above.

At first there’s no need to get my feet wet, then I lower myself down a couple of short steps in an effort to stay in the stream-bed proper. At the point where another trickle flows in from the right, it’s clear neither of these is a trickle in winter: a 5m cliff of rubble stands above the junction, source no doubt of some of the rocks across the road from home.

A bit more water in the bed now, the igneous rock changing to sedimentary, splashing through pools and across slippery slabs, and then the burn and I head into the woods. I worry I might end up visible at the bottom of someone’s expensive garden, but I only glimpse one big property in the distance on those upper sections.

There are trees and branches across the watercourse, all needing hopping, a few small water slides, but it never gets so steep I can’t walk down it with care. It’s a sunny day but there are deep pools of shade here and sometimes it’s a struggle to adjust my eyes to the changes in light.

Quite soon I’m below the Pipe Track bridge. Water gushes out of an outlet pipe, I think from the water-works, more than doubling the volume in the burn, and below here I get a fair bit wetter, with water on occasion up to my shorts.

I come to the first properties that sit right on the burn, and think someone has spotted me. Nothing happens but I scuttle quickly down a bit further, stinging my hand on something that afterwards makes me feels like I’m getting a small electric shock to the skin.

Next it’s down, around a bend and into the first tunnel – under the main A81– and through a tangle of vegetation to the channel opposite our house. Below here everything is a lot more disciplined, with a built bed and a couple more short tunnels. The deep channel runs right in front of some houses, past a mass of ivy, then I get to the last bit, where the burn disappears under the road for about 60 metres, before it emerges into the Blane.

I told myself before I started that I wouldn’t do this: the locals might think I was mad or dangerous, maybe it is mad or dangerous …

But then I think: it’s source-to-outlet, not source to 60m from the outlet. At least I can have a look…

I get the bag off, and I’m getting my head-torch out when a couple of small children trot over from the garden next to me and look down curiously. The smaller says: “Man in stream. Oooh.”

Fortunately their mum, drawn to see what they’re looking at, is a tolerant lady: she just asks kindly if I am all right, and smiles the smile normally reserved for your children’s harmless, innocent idiocy when I admit I am going through the tunnel. I dump the rucksack on the side to retrieve on my way back, and set off.

The first bit, under the entrance to Blane Crescent, is pretty cramped, requiring a crab-crawl style, but then it falls away a bit, before the next bit of tunnel, older brickwork, again cramped at first but then easier.

Then out I pop out into the Blane, allow myself a smile of satisfaction and scramble up the gabions opposite onto the bank. Expedition complete, and a success, I think.

Walking back the few yards to the road I affect the air of a man just out for a saunter for the benefit of some passing locals, forgetting I am muddy and dirty and wet, and am wearing a lit head-torch on a brilliant sunny afternoon. They probably assume I’m a crazed dentist who’s got badly got lost.

Then it’s back up the road, grab my bag and home.

It’s hard to explain the satisfaction from something as small and daft as this: it’s a tiny adventure with no huge challenges, but it’s right there, and I wonder who else has ever done this? OK, who would want to!? But … it was as much fun as I have had outdoors in a while.

Would recommend.

I’m pleased to have got an honorable mention in the Mountaineering Scotland annual writing competition, for this bit of writing that’s a bit more personal than my usual material. Fourth place didn’t come with a prize or publication, but it’s no’ bad.

No word from Raven Crag

Remembered: Ice-cold alloy gear sticking to my hands, and to the frozen ground. Just at dawn, the small car park at Thorneythwaite Farm, on a dry, snow-free February day, in the old days when I lived south of the Border.

Today, it’s the end of March. The same path for Glaramara leads up into scrubby woodland, thorn trees, bracken. I see the magnified beauty, the pretty detail and handsome hillsides of Borrowdale, the green, lush, stone-walled farmland bordering straight onto the craggy steepness, the peopled landscape edged by mountain piles. It’s a far cry from the cleared glens of my adopted home.

We’ve forgotten the water bottle, so the lad dashes back for it, and while I wait I recall our heavy-laden walk up this path. She had the rope and I had the gear, up and into the combe, crisp blue sky and rock-hard ground, a hint of anxiety at tackling a long mountain rock route, however easy, in freezing February.

There was verglas on the first pitch and we pulled it off with our hands. After that our timing seemed perfect as the sun came onto the face, instantly warming, relief to chilly hands and cold rock.

In those days the hawthorn tree next to where I sit was probably a strong young tree. Now it’s open on one side, a decaying core exposed, but on each side of it two sturdy strands have grown up like curled banister rails, its strength recovered.

There’s rich orange bark on another tree, curiously whorled and shaped around a hole made perfectly for some animal or bird to raise a family.

He’s back, and we walk on in my old footsteps, he with a long flaming mane of hair – I was the same at that age – and easy stride. I try to push the pace, but I’m the only one panting.

As the path for Glaramara rises we sidle off on the small track into the bottom of the combe, at first heading right, towards the big crag. My memory is of rough dark rock, always with a hold to go for – we whooped with joy at the hand traverse, so much exposure and excitement for an easy grade.

But the well-worn old climb is topped with cloud today, and the sun is slipping away from it. Changing plan seems simple here compared to home, with all these fine rough mountain crags to head for, charted and laced with climbs, a star here, three stars there, inviting and tempting us to sport.

Ahead now to our left is the rock-slip buttress, complicated and pinnacled, pale and dry with the slight silver-watered sun gleaming onto it.

We reach the lowest rocks, gear up, and I lead an entry pitch to a stance amidst holes, pinnacles, slots and boulders. From the broad belay I have time to watch a pair on the buttress opposite, hoping to catch them on the hand traverse and maybe hear the whoop again.

He comes through and takes his time to carefully step up onto the hanging slab above, but then his progress is swift and easy.

I know he’s fine, and I have always lived in the belief that a life without risk and challenge is no life at all. I love that he climbs, and is steady and competent, but you can’t help fearing for them.  “Time for a bit of gear, son?”

That last time: she led out in her turn, confident and smiling. The choice was justified, the risks were right, it was a perfect day, rising all the while up the narrow band of clean rock.

And at the top we coiled the ropes in grins and hugs, sunshine and easy companionship. How could we have known then what was to come? No terrible fall, no crippling hate, just life making it harder to get back to those perfect days: kids, jobs, houses, tiredness, changing hearts, changing focus …

The lad is belayed in a small cave and I step up onto the arête above, easy climbing but no gear, to top another pinnacle and face the final small obstacle, a tough little corner, awkward and smeary, a guessing game for the higher holds. I guess right and with an awkward pull I’m through it, and onto the top.

Belay on, I take in. He’s fast up it and I hear voices floating from the combe below, but no word from Raven Crag. It’s too distant and the wind is blowing towards it, to whip away stray sounds.

We coil the rope, and when I look over the other pair have topped out and are clear in profile right above the climb, heading back along the ridge, the well-remembered walk with views across and down, hard-rocked hills and green dales all around, a view to make a life for.

Did we warm ourselves by a cottage fire that night, did we camp and head for the pub? I can’t recall the rest of that old day, blurred into so many Lakeland trips, but those crystal moments remain, the pure unmixed pleasure and intensity of a climb with someone I love.

Now we’re on another route, on the slab on the left of the crag, and he steps neatly through the overlap. He’s unprotected and I look away, then gear slips into place and he follows the break up and into the final groove. It’s a long pitch and I know we packed for easier climbing, but he never complains, just eases himself over the lip to the stance at the top.

He builds a perfect belay – engineering is now his profession – and I struggle up the overlap, before trying to regain my dignity on the rest of the pitch.

We walk back down the combe in a light, soaking drizzle, delighted to have got it right again, beaten the weather, had the best of the day. There is a warm tightness in my heart, pure, unmixed pleasure and intensity.

That past sits sit easy now too, unsullied by what followed: the gall is gone, replaced by a soft, sweet sadness and a memory of the best of times. After all, when life is short, what’s the point in remembering the hard, rough, tear-filled days that ended in my flight to the north?

Tonight the lad is good company, and when we get our pints I drink a self-conscious but heart-felt toast: “To the good times.”

And I hope there will be many more, for me in my life, for her in hers, but especially for our children.

 

A look at the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 is sobering, if not frightening. In a complete inversion of the norms of society, we are not allowed by law to leave our homes, except for very specific reasons. That’s the biggest legal constraint on our people, ever, including during two world wars.

We all know why, and few would doubt that these laws and our compliance with them is necessary, at least until science and the Government has got to grips with the nature of the challenge posed by SARS-CoV-2.

Ben Lomond has plenty of space for social distancing

It’s been translated by both the UK and the Scottish Government into the simple, powerful, single ‘stay at home’ message. That, I suspect, stems from Westminster, and I think we all know why: it has to be simple enough for members of the UK Cabinet to understand.

But one of those specific reasons you can have for going out is for exercise, and it’s here that actually there’s complexity, and space for debate, based on science and rational thinking, and maybe the idea that the public can make sensible judgements.

The LAW says you can leave your home for exercise, without a time limit or mention of where that exercise should be. The written GUIDANCE from the Scottish Government https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-staying-at-home-and-away-from-others-social-distancing/pages/staying-at-home/ then suggests that it should be for as short a time as possible, with no official guidance on whether you can travel anywhere for that exercise.

Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s respected and now well-known National Clinical Director, has taken the guidance further on exercise, and said: “This is about going for a short walk locally, a run or a short bike ride, not spending time on your favourite sport or hobby.

“If you travel further afield, there is a risk you might come into contact with other people, whether you plan to or not, so please keep this to an absolute minimum. “

So there is a clear law, then some guidance, and then additional guidance, and, surely, a question over why travelling a bit further than your immediate locality poses a greater risk of contact with others.

For instance, some might think exercising in a local park in Glasgow, with perhaps dozens of others about, poses a greater risk that driving out to Mugdock Park or the Whangie, Conic Hill or up into Arrochar and the Trossachs. There might be dozens of people there, but they are spread over a much larger area. Yes, bring your own picnic, don’t go in the local shops when you’re in the countryside, be sensible, but surely a walk in empty country is as low a risk as you can get?

Then there’s the question of how long you go out for. Once you’re out, maintaining social distance and avoiding contact with gates, which pose a tiny risk, could we not spend a few hours tramping the hills?

Jason Leitch’s line about ‘not spending time on your favourite pastime or hobby’ does him a disservice: he’s been a star of this crisis, but it’s a wrong call. If you’re going out for exercise, why not enjoy it on your mountain bike on some local trails? Why not to enjoy the peace of a riverside, and maybe take photographs of wild birds while you’re out? Our slice of freedom doesn’t have to be drained of all joy.

And there’s enforcement. The cops can enforce the law, but they should be careful not to try to enforce the guidance – it is, after all, just guidance. The furore over sunbathing down south also reminds us that ‘going out for exercise’ is a pretty middle-class idea, and other people’s needs – for a bit of sunlight on skin and relaxing in an open space – shouldn’t be ignored.

Going out for relaxation and recreation, within social or physical distancing limits, would be a better phrase.

And then we get on to farmers and other country dwellers we’ve heard of trying to bar city-dwellers from the countryside … a whole other can of worms, but the sound of pitchforks being sharpened is never attractive.

There is so much to say about this, and I may be barking up a whole copse of wrong trees, but there is space for debate.

You can at present contact the Scottish Government on Covid-19 issues such as the regulations and guidance via the feedback section at the end of this document: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making/pages/10/

There is no specific email for views on the exercise side of things at the moment: it seems to be a secondary issue to Government, but don’t let that stop you.

It’s vital, so fire in a view: you may even think the law or the guidance needs tightening up, you might want them changing in other ways, but without folk lobbying, nothing will happen, and the assumption that going out into the open air and actually enjoying it is a bad thing will sink ever deeper roots.

 

There’ll be plenty of people getting a bit down about the current restrictions on our daily lives, but of course we can keep our social distance and still go out for a walk. It’s recommended in fact, and to do just that I have been exploring one of Scottish Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves. I talk to myself a lot anyway so last week I thought I would record my thoughts and the sounds of the reserve on a sunny morning to bring a bit of nature and peace to everyone at a time when we all need a some…

It’s the Loch Ardinning reserve at NS 564778 just north of Glasgow, on the A81 about 5km north of Milgavie, 12km north of Glasgow city centre.