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.

I’ve been helping out BBC Radio Scotland of late, and got the chance to fix an interesting guest for Good Morning Scotland this week.

The story was about the (not so amazing, really) finding of a study that being involved in creative, arty stuff was top of the list for making people over 60 feel happy.

I’d heard the Clydeside Strings rehearsing in Heart of Scotstoun Community Centre before, and although I’m not a classical music buff the sound of their music soaring through the building is always a thrill.


I tracked down the couple at the centre of the Strings, Bob and Christine Nelson from Scotstoun, and Christine, a former RSNO violinist who’s been playing for more than 60 years, dragged herself out of bed at an unearthly hour to come in to the studio to talk to the team about the thrill that music still gives her.

The quid pro quo of that was I agreed to go along to the Strings rehearsal last night and try to capture a recording: something the group has not done before.

The Strings are a mix of very good amateurs, professionals and retired pros, mostly over 60, who play and coach each other for the sheer love of it, and only perform in public for the occasional fund-raiser

Sitting in the rather spartan setting of the hall at HoSco, the music was amazing: interesting too to see Bob marshalling his troops as conductor and gently coaxing them to the right emphasis. I think you’ll agree the results are rather wonderful, and even my little Marantz recorder, mainly used for speech recordings, has managed to capture a sense of it, despite a few little bumps.

The recording is not perfect, and I’ll be going back to do some more with them soon, but it gives a pretty good idea of what they can do. Pretty stunning for something they do for love …

When every national news outlet reported the story of the 18th century diet of the St Kildans just before Christmas, I was ready to cry fowl (sorry). A newly-discovered census from 1764, it was said, declared that the 90 residents of the remote islands each ate 18 seabirds and 36 seabirds eggs a day.

The gannet: could you eighteen a day?
The gannet: could you eighteen a day?

Firstly, I thought,  that’s far too many birds and eggs for anyone to eat in a day, even on the most generous of interpretations. If each bird yielded just 4oz of meat, that’s 4.5lb, and if each egg weighs about half as much as a large hen’s egg, that’s 2.5lb of eggs. 7lb of food, all protein and fat. I suspect the actual total would be nearer 10lb or more; and it could be a lot more, half a pound of meat per bird and eggs the size of a hen’s make 14lbs. Perhaps someone who has eaten guga can give me an idea of how much meat there is on a gannet, one of the birds the St Kildans ate?

So, I thought, either this is evidence of a paleo diet being taken to extremes – they were living in conditions not far from stone age, to be fair – or there’s something wrong with the interpretation.

So I got hold of the original press release from the National Register of  Archives for Scotland, looked at the transcript, checked on the photo facsimile, and there the census taker does indeed record that each of the 90 inhabitants ate the amounts reported.

How could I have doubted my colleagues in the press? Well, it was the way the figure was reported, without even an expression of surprise, a question to a dietician, or a reference to some other expert. Get the press release, waft it in, no questions.

And more doubts: the St Kildans had some potatoes, oats, eggs and fish. How could they manage to cram that in on top of more than 7lb of protein? Why would they risk life and limb for more protein than they really needed, even if they really liked the taste of birds and eggs?

You might say it doesn’t matter, it’s a good tale, no-one died and where it’s unimportant it’s true that sometimes we don’t let the facts spoil a good yarn.

But there might be an even better tale within.

Picture this. A census taker from some landlord or government agency of the 18th century pitches up in St Kilda in 1764.

He’s a gent with pretensions, he’s probably not too pleased about being sent out here, and has been puking all the 40 miles from Lewis.

As a representative of an outside authority he is not going to make himself very popular with the locals and may well turn up his nose on being offered a fulmar omelette for lunch. In fact, he sneers at the diet of the locals, which does contain a lot of birds and their eggs

They, in turn, think he’s a right knob.

So at some point he asks the head honcho of the St Kildan’s, let’s call him Old Angus, just how many birds and eggs everyone on the island eats per day.

There’s not a lot of entertainment on St Kilda even today, and back then there was even less, so they had to take their fun where they could.

Angus sees his chance. The idea that he or anyone else keeps a record of what they scoff, has worked out averages, and can trot the statistics out, is beyond ridiculous.

But putting on his most serious face, he thinks of a number some way beyond the realms of realistic, a factoid that can be disproved with a bit of arithmetic but which has the ring of truth (think “60% of Americans now weigh more than half a tonne…”).

“18 fowles,” he declares. “We each eat 18 fowles a day. And 36 egges. Men, women and children.”

Everyone keeps a straight face as the census-taker swallows it, writes it carefully on the census document, and is rowed out to the waiting brig to take him back to civilisation. At which point the merriment begins, howls of laughter from the St Kildans at the idea that he bought this preposterous figure. They can’t look each other in the eye. Every time someone mentions birds (which they do a lot, because they DO eat a lot of them) the laughter starts again. Or the figure 18, or 36.

Angus’s mate Hector sees him coming down the street, sticks out his belly and puffs out his cheeks, putting on a porky waddle. The laughter starts again.

The joke would have lasted for years. And Hector and Angus and the rest of the crew are probably all still pissing themselves now, wherever they are, that we bought it all over again …

For the past month or so I have been working with CELCIS. The Centre for Excellence for Looked-after Children in Scotland is a bit of a mouthful but its work is simple: trying to improve the way all sorts of agencies support children who have come into the care of local authorities.

The new digital magazine
The new digital magazine

Not my bag, really, I kind of thought at first, but it’s been a fascinating experience talking to social workers, children’s panel members, lawyers … everyone involved in the delicate and no doubt often stressful process of helping to settle looked-after children.

I’ve been helping to create a new multi-media edition of CELCIS’s in house magazine, Reach, based around the theme of permanence – the difficult job of settling looked-after children in places where they can be assured they can stay until they grow up – and beyond if it’s needed.

We’ve been talking a lot about PACE, CELCIS’s drive to help local authorities speed up the route to permanence.

But the material is not a straighforward love-in, with a kinship carer and a parents’ advocate making strong points about their needs within a system designed to put children first that can sometimes I’m sure not work properly, and seem a Kafkaesque place.

I’ve been marking up film for editing, transforming interviews into blogs and articles, and – my favourite bit – creating podcasts of all sorts of people talking freely about their work.

It’s all here: CELCIS comms lead Lesley Sneddon has woven the material into a modern multi-media magazine, and it looks great.

It’s aimed at people with some knowledge of the system so you might not be familiar with all the terminology, but if the topic or the way it’s done is of interest, take a look:It looks to me a bit like the future for a lot of publications.

11/12/16: Work and a few other things have prevented me doing much in the week at the Glasgow North West Food Bank in recent months, so when I got the call from Kyle to help out on  Saturday morning my conscience gave me a shove, and I committed myself to a couple of hours.

I know what the system does to our clients, I know the banal unthinking cruelty we apply to our most needy citizens: I’ve been involved with the Blawarthill set-up for years. In the past couple of years though I’ve been working more on the stock-shifting side, so become a bit more distant from all that, my chief complaints being about the soup lake, pasta mountain and bean swamp that takes up so much of our storage (poor people need a bit more than soup, beans and pasta, folks).

Blawarthill Church has had a facelift and now looks a lot better than this.
Blawarthill Church has had a facelift and now looks a lot better than this.

On Saturday I was brought face to face with the reality of the clients again, and it brought back the anger I felt when I first helped the food bank.

It turned out we were doing home deliveries of food parcels, which have grown in recent months since the closure of a food bank in another area and some of its clients ending up with our Trussell Trust operation.

We’ve got a van, and I’m insured to drive it, which fulfils a boyhood ambition, and we rattled off around the city.

I don’t know the backgrounds of clients and don’t probe too much but catch snippets and Kyle tells me a bit. Some inevitably are people sanctioned by the DWP; others are refugees  caught in our zombifying immigration system.

All are embarrassingly grateful, delighted to be helped, pleasant, decent people, embarrassed at needing such help.

Two visits stuck in my mind, both to families from abroad.

One was a single mum of two children. She was on the ‘no recourse to public funds’ list: no benefits, nada, just the possibility in certain circumstances of help from the local authority, but I have no idea if she could get that.

The other was a delightful, friendly, charming couple, who explained that they needed the delivery because they had two young children and it was just too difficult to get them out to  the food bank or even its two new centres which are being set up closer at hand.

I wondered afterwards to Kyle why one couldn’t stay at home while the other picked up the food, but he explained that the mother was working.

I have no idea what other help they have, but it is staggering that with one parent in work this couple can’t afford to feed themselves.

These people’s stories are undoubtedly more complicated, I know; people do stupid things that get them in a financial mess or in trouble with the system, the system can’t be expected to be perfect, and even charities like ours have to have limits to what we can do.

But it’s all a reminder that in our current system there are people in the UK who the Government is prepared to see starve. That’s in a society that’s so wealthy it throws away thousands of tons of food, where we all have indoor lavs and central heating, and nice tellies and new bikes and fridges and the rest of the luxuries we take for granted.



27/11/2016: I once broadcast to every other news programme producer at BBC Scotland a highly amusing but rather vulgar conversation between myself and a well-known presenter about beavers. Remember to press the mute button if you’re chatting while holding for a conference call…

Damage caused by beavers. Probably in the States so a different species, but you get the picture...
Damage caused by beavers. Probably in the States so a different species, but you get the picture…

I think of that every time beavers are in the news, as they have been this past week, but I’m also thinking about the consequences of the Scottish Government’s decision to grant protected status to the beavers living in the wild in Scotland.

The population in Knapdale is part of a deliberate Goverment-backed reintroduction experiment – it was a report about the beginning of that that started my ill-fated chat at BBC Radio Scotland – and those in the Tayside catchment are the descendants of accidental or illegal deliberate releases.

The designation, according to the Guardian,  makes them legally the same as native animals.

Frankly there was never much chance that the Scottish Government would be able to say “No, Knapdale hasn’t worked, get rid of them, and while you’re at it shoot the ones on Tayside.” There’s been beaver tourism in Knapdale (stop giggling at the back…) and though the beavers in Tayside have been less than popular with landowners for cutting down trees and blocking burns to make lakes, animal enthusiasts would have made life pretty tough for any Government minister who announced a cull.

The deal that’s been struck with landowners to allow the beavers to stay lets them disrupt beaver dams where they cause a nuisance and cull them in some circumstances with a licence. Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham also said that any future releases would be met with the full force of the law.

That last is a bit weird, isn’t it? How on earth will they know if it’s a release? And if they are just the same as native animals, isn’t that like saying releasing red squirrels into the wild will be clamped down on, or voles or otters or red deer? Sounds like stable door, horse, bolted kinda country.

They will spread: numbers in Tayside are said to have reached 250 already, and that’s with farmers “controlling” them. There will be conflict between them and people, because they alter the environment in a very obvious way and we often want to control that for ourselves.

The big reintroduction success of recent years has been sea eagles, and they are amazing to see, but farmers have concerns about predation on stock, so none of this stuff is easy.

And I suppose I also have this idea at the back of my mind about how dependent the Highlands has become on the tourist dollar. What we’re saying is some damage to forestry and farming interests – and it could be a lot or it could be a little – is OK because people want to see these attractive, charismatic creatures in the wild, and that helps the hotels and tearooms.

But not everyone wants to work in a hotel or tearoom. There’s an argument to be had about the romantic dream many of us have for the wild land that makes up much of Scotland and the conflict that creates with development and jobs – dare I say industry?

It’s a bit like folk in the UK telling Brazil not to cut down all their trees, when we did it here about 300 years ago so we could get rich quick. The other side of the coin of course is the alleged impact of industrial-scale fish-farming on the west coast rivers where even young lads like my brother and I with an old cane rod and a  fat worm could hook the occasional sea-trout back in the 19longtimeagos. Not very likely now, I gather.

Is more protection for more species, making the land (and water) less available, less useable, the right way to go?