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.


The game never ceases surprising us. This year I have been less than assiduous about getting out, and my first outdoor climb, at Auchinstarry Quarry near Glasgow a few weeks ago, was not exactly a success. I struggled seconding a couple of severes and then a lad in the club snapped his ankle.

But I’m planning a week with my older son in August and he’ll want to climb, so on Saturday I decided to get out. Nice easy stuff, I thought, just v.diff.

Atop B Buttress

The v.diff I chose, however, reminded me that any route in the mountains can be a test, especially for the rusty or oh-so-casual experienced hand.

I’ve always wanted to rock climb on the west face of Aonach Dubh in Glen Coe, having climbed in winter there 30 years ago, so carefully selected Bumblebee, a two-star v.diff on B Buttress. I then failed completely to read the approach notes in the guidebook, so Jules and I ended up in the wrong place altogether after a gruelling uphill slog, and climbed The Pinnacle Face, another two-star v.diff, instead.

In that we were probably lucky, as later descending No 2 Gully we saw a fair bit of damp in the Bumblebee area. But the Pinnacle Face was challenging enough. Stepping up the first few metres I was unnerved to find myself on the sharp end. I started to make slow but steady progress, but it was seriously cold, colder than anywhere in the UK has a right to be in July, with a whipping wind. Duvet jackets were the order of the day for the whole way, and still my hands were totally numb on the tricky little crux at the end of the first impressive chimney. It took me five or six goes to thrutch my way awkwardly up it. Climbing with a rucksack … hmmm, forgot about that too.

I strung two pitches together and was punished with elephantine rope drag, and then trundled up some broken rock before a couple of fine short good bits made up for it. Jules went over the top and we thought we had finished, but a bit of thought might have helped us realise that The Pinnacle Face would end up atop a pinnacle, with awkward and exposed scrambling on loose ground to get off.

A good if under-used climb, and it felt so hard. No route on a mountain crag can be regarded as a soft touch …

When I learned of the death of Bob Brodie, who I interviewed seven years ago about his cycling life, my reaction was the same I am sure as many of his friends: sadness at his passing but pleasure at recalling a tough, determined man who was still riding his bike aged 92.

He was 96 when he died, and had declined since he lost his wife Helen a few years earlier: when I last saw him, I think about a year after she died, he told me he how badly he missed her. Almost 70 years of marriage will do that, I suppose.

The Craigallian Fire memorial

Bob, 5ft 2in and eight stone wet through,  was known affectionately as Bottom Bracket to his pals, for his love of discussing the mechanics of cycling, and he was not a perfect interviewee. While I looked for anecdotes of days on the road and campfire stories,  Bob was keener on the facts and figures of his competitive cycling career.

But he did tell me about his honeymoon, when he and Helen went on a straightlaced trip to some hotel or other, and he was expected to wear a jacket and tie. Three days in they came home, got their tandem out and cycled from Glasgow to Whitby instead.

And a holiday trip with their baby daughter was the stuff of legends. They attached a sidecar to the tandem and cycled with the baby to the Lake District from Glasgow, then pedalled around the mountains for a week before Bob, over-ambitiously, tried to ride home in a oner. I believe they had to sleep in a barn that night.

I was moved to tears and laughter when this 88-year-old man told me how excited he was every Tuesday night, almost unable to sleep, because he knew he would be on his bike the next day heading out to meet the other veteran cyclists – the Wednesday Wobblers – at their drum-up spot south of Glasgow.

The sight of him slowly but surely making his way up a hill on a machine that seemed too big for him is the image of determination for me.

It was not long after hearing Bob had passed away that we heard of the death of Rhona Weir, Tom Weir’s widow, at the age of 97. I only met her once, and she was both charming and impressive. We were at the unveiling of the memorial to the Craigallian Fire, the place near Carbeth that in the late 1920s and 1930s was at the heart of the birth of the outdoor movement among ordinary working people in Scotland.

Bob, Rhona Weir, Lawrie Travers of the Lomond Mountaineering Club who lived to 92 and told me about his experiences in the hills in the 1930s, gave us a link to those days between the wars when people found hope and peace of mind in hard exercise and fine countryside, showing the way to all of us who enjoy climbing, hill-walking, cycling and all the other outdoor activities we take for granted now.

There can be precious few of them left now, and we should guard their memory and the privilege of having known them. I doubt we’ll see their like again.


We’re heading back to Eigg this weekend and looking forward to another stay at the fabulous Laig Beach Bothy.

When I was there for a week last year I was working on a piece about the 20th anniversary of the community buyout of the island , which is actually this year.

There were a few people I wanted to talk to who weren’t keen, and that was fine – plenty of people did, and were extremely accommodating with yet another journalist wanting their take on things and trying to say something new.

The Sgurr's a target this year
The Sgurr’s a target this year

This week islanders Maggie Fyffe and Stuart McCarthy were good enough to play ball for me with the demands of BBC Scotland for interviews on the subject of Eigg’s population topping 100.

Maggie of course has been the figurehead of the buyout that has transformed the island and enabled the population to grow from the low of 64 in 1997. Stu the Brew is one of the people who has helped to raise the population by moving there and breeding!

This week too there were people reluctant to talk, and the reason is generally a feeling of overexposure. The island’s buyout was genuinely groundbreaking and historic; the green power scheme really is something special; the community vibe is unlike that of anywhere else; and of course writers like me, film-makers and the rest all want to get a slice of the action.

The 20th anniversary, officially celebrated in June, will attract more attention and more journalists. The islanders will be braced for it, I’m sure, but the professional visitors must tread carefully.

This is a living community and people can be reluctant to lay bare their lives for dissection in the media: the media is not always kind and has not always been kind to Eigg.  Go gently, respect people’s wishes, and be genuinely interested in what this community does and how it works, and I’m sure like me you’ll get a warm welcome. Steam in looking for a quick hit and a news story and you’ll piss ‘em off for sure, and that’ll make it all the more difficult for other writers to tell the world the ongoing and frankly inspiring story of this unique place.

I’m lucky that my fourth visit to the island will for the first time not mean writing anything: it’s just a holiday this time, no microphones and no notebooks, and I can just enjoy the scenery, the weather, and the craic.

I’ll hopefully get up the Sgurr this time, and maybe out in a  kayak. We’ll light a fire on the beach, watch as the sun dips behind Rum’s ragged mountain rooftop, and feel a touch of envy for our friends here who really are living the dream.

The view to Rum from above Cleadale
The view to Rum from above Cleadale


Battling through a steep, densely planted, tumbledown stand of Sitka spruce in Cowal the other day reminded me of the strange new alliance Mountaineering Scotland (MCoS as was) has forged with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Jock Nimlin would have been turning in his grave, having waged a war of defiance against the servants of landlords, but MS (is that the best way to sell yourself, guys?!) teamed up with the SGA to warn against proposals to create acres of new woodland.

Trees, hills and wet snow in Cowal
Trees, hills and wet snow in Cowal

The representative body of climbers and mountaineers fears more block plantations and blighted views. As I clambered over the roots of another fallen tree and grovelled up another greasy rock, unable to see where there was solid even ground to head up, and with little idea of where I would come out, I had a bit of sympathy. Compared to striding over open hills this was sheer murder, and more of it was not feeling like a good idea.

But the same debate produced equally unlikely bedfellows in the shape of woodland and conservation charities such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and Confor, the representative group of the commercial forestry business. The logging industry is obviously keen on targets to raise Scotland’s woodland cover from 18 per cent to 25 per cent. Confor told me they can no longer plant in blocks, their plantations should not block access to the hills, and they should include a mix of native trees. After some maths I reckoned the rules under which they work would mean only about half of the extra woodland would be non-native conifers, the dark-green aliens such as Sitka which many feel are a blight on our landscape.That explains the enthusiasm of the nature-lovers, among whom climbers would normally count themselves, and I wondered if the MS stance was based on experiences like mine in Cowal.

A few days later we were climbing a hill on part of the Rob Roy Way near Pitlochry through a pleasant mix of native trees and aliens,  full of bird song and beautiful lichens, and it helped me to see where SWT were coming from. From what Confor told me it seems unlikely too that important mountain areas, high bare ground, will be planted under the current government drive for more trees, and wildlife could benefit; there will be constraints on wrecking our views.

But there again – James Fenton, the respected ecologist, was drafted in by the SGA and the climbers to bolster their argument, and he says we should not consider our bare landscape  a result of human action but more the product of  natural change  involving deer and other herbivores. He deplores the rush to reforest, and I sympathise with his desire to see the biggest threat to Scotland’s woodlands – the complex hybrid swarm of the invasive rhododendron – dealt with before we put cash into creating more woodland.

Rhodies have overwhelmed native woods near Lochgoilhead
Rhodies have overwhelmed native woods near Lochgoilhead

Like so many policy goals and numbers that governments like to stack up, the Scottish Forestry Strategy looks green and virtuous and is an easy win for ministers because it is unlikely to cost them very much and sounds so positive. It has however created this odd polarisation among groups that love and value our outdoor spaces, and probably agree rather more than they think – Confor is not planning to plant grouse moors with trees, the climbers are really not against more trees, they just want them in the right places, the wildlife trust and MS will have an awful lot of members in common, and all would probably agree that Jimmy Fenton is talking a  good deal of sense when he says we should get on with clearing the rhodies.

But that is going to cost money, and take  decades, and there’s no easy voter appeal in it. Reforesting will take a while too but that target – I am sure some minister has called it “ambitious”, as if that means something other than “We’re saying it but it’s unlikely we’ll ever do it” – sounds good now, and the consequences of failure are zip. It’s playing politics with our natural environment when bold decisions are needed on rhodies, plastic, red deer, squirrels and lots of other things.