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?

A strange mixture of traditions was being celebrated on Cochno Hill in the Kilpatricks above Clydebank on Saturday, November 5. For a start there was the Lomond Mountaineering Club tradition of odd-ball social events: seven club members plus my son Joe, on a visit from down south, marched up the hill to light a fire and enjoy the fireworks across Glasgow – it’s a great viewpoint.

Picture: Holly Duncan
Picture: Holly Duncan

So there was Bonfire Night, where we celebrate the execution of a Catholic plotter; Bommy Night to me and Holly who are from Merseyside, and we both remember when bonfires were held in every back garden down there, instead of the tame neutered public displays. Oh for the days when dad could burn the shed down by nailing a Catherine wheel to the door …

We toasted marshmallows – in my case amateurishly, setting them on fire and sticking them to my teeth. That’s from the States, I think.

We carried firewood up, other food and and gluhwein, with Klaus bringing about a gallon of it and force-feeding half  of that to Joe, who wasn’t complaining. Klaus explained that there is a German festival at this time of year, I can’t remember its name but it involved fire, religion and possibly strong drink.

And of course what we were really doing here in Scotland was marking Samhain, the pagan  autumn fire feast that was subsumed into Halloween by the clever Christians, the ones who turned the winter solstice celebration into Christmas and household gods into plaster saints. Samhain’s last fiery traces were probably later turned into the Guy Fawkes auto da fe.

The wind whipped in from the north and we huddled round the fire, laughed, ate and enjoyed the fireworks from below and our sparklers, flapjack, and stories.

It felt slightly crazy in the freezing cold, uncivilised and invigorating, a few hours to enjoy the raw elements away from the city spread out in lights and flashes below us.

Just the thing for celebrating Samhain, and perhaps the spirits of those from the old, mysterious Celtic communities that once lived along the shores below and in the hills to the north  were drawn to our light and slipped among us.

I think they would have felt at home.

28/10/16: I’ve lost a bit of the fitness I built up hillwalking in the summer with a few weeks of a cold and post-viral knackeredness, but I’m still starting to think about a bit of winter climbing, the most fickle, tricky, but most rewarding of activities.

Good ice: Me on SC Gully
Good ice: Me on SC Gully

That trickiness means climbing ethics tend to be a bit more flexible om winter. There has been plenty of comment and debate about hammered pegs, although I still carry them in winter as a get-out-of-jail card. There has even been bizarre talk about the ethics of hanging on leashes. If you still have them, that’s what they’re there for  …

But are those things the ethics that should bother us? After walking in the north west I have been talking about winter trips up there: the guide Iain Murray was enthusing about the climbing on Liathach and getting round the back of there does not look too hideous a trek in. I’ve been tempted too by a suggested trip to Norway and then to Italy to bag ice.

There’s always this thing in the back of my mind about travelling long distances to winter climb. It’s obvious, isn’t it: We like winter,we want it, we want those big freezes – but those big trips contribute to global warming, surely? We can  justify it by saying the plane would be going anyway, my small bit of diesel used to get to Torridon is insignificant, and ‘if you take that attitude you would only go to where you can walk, cycle or  train it to,’ and none of those options are very practical for winter hits.

I’m certainly not going all holier than thou on this, and I’ve certainly made many a long drive for a brief encounter with the outdoors in the past

But a couple of years ago I managed to get six or seven good routes in over the winter, mainly with Gary Wroe, and never travelled more than an hour and a bit from Glasgow. That included steep ice on Good Friday (Taxus) and a couple of other decent IVs. It was mainly in the Bridge of Orchy area, and I think I had a day or two on the Cobbler too. Living where we do made it easier, but there was definitely a buzz from keeping the whole day shorter, spending less to get there, and climbing on the local hills.

Something to aim for?

Good time with my son Rob on Sunday when we spent an enjoyable afternoon in the rain at Comrie Croft mountain biking centre, a great spot which manages to project a relaxed vibe while providing excellent service: maybe it’s something to do with the element of employee ownership/community awareness there …

Stormy Sundays ,,,
Stormy Sundays

It was stormy – well, wet and rainy – and we were riding. And we listened to The Doors’ magic track on the way home, one of rock musician Rob’s current favourites, and that big pompous voice of Jim Morrison was as thrilling as ever. So yeah, we were Riders on the Storm, dudes …

It was wet too on Saturday for our second Scotstoun Community Council litter pick. Big thanks to the five others who turned out, and in just an hour and a half we had Larchfield Avenue looking a fair bit better. Best litter finds? An electric heater and three old car batteries.

There’s no point in me ranting on about litter, we all hate it, but I couldn’t help compare the streets in Glasgow to the roads and lanes around Comrie, which seem to be litter free …

I don’t know how it’s done in Perthshire, but I really believe that litter is dropped because people see there is already litter there and so they don’t care. The answer is to clean up, and get local people involved in looking after their own environment. Let’s face it, with Scotland’s local government gap yawning ever-wider, councils are never going to do as much cleaning up as we want.

Back to Bowling Harbour this weekend to get further in to this fascinating place. I headed along the top of the inner harbour wall until it became more broken and then went down onto the muddy seaweedy silt, fortunately not sinking in too much as my wellies were back in the car.

Towards the inside end of the basin there are these great pyramids, sort of semi-detached moorings complete with a capstan apiece.

The head of the harbour by Bowling Station
The head of the harbour by Bowling Station

From the end of the basin you can get on to the long arm of the harbour wall and head back out east along the bar. At the start you can look west to this enormous rotting wooden pier setup – I am sure local historians know all about it but if you don’t know it’s there it’s amazing.


Capstan full strength ...
Capstan full strength …

The bar is rough and rocky, broken in places but has been a tremendous piece of stonework in the past.

I think Jax may have been here ...
I think Jax may have been here …

This waterfront is stunning, looking out to green fields and low hills in Renfrewshire. The old stonework is tremendous, the big iron capstans speak of strength and all the while the water glitters and shifts around you.

On the north bank of the Clyde from the city centre out there are the odd bits of waterfront development, and of course places like the BAe Systems yard near my home, which need and use the river. But there are miles, great tracts, of brownfield land that could be turned into something much better, with good devopment, some parkland, a cafe … Even in the city centre itself much of the waterfront is a dull stony steppe.There are sites like Bowling Harbour and the old pier beyond which could be modestly restored so people could access them properly for leisure instead of climbing through holes in fences, as I did to get there. In Yoker a tarmac road runs in front of wasteland along attractive waterfront for probably half a mile, with nothing there other than weeds and dog-walkers.

If you go to Bowling canal basin, east of the harbour, with its little cafe – which really has found its market in dog walkers – and shops (with more to come), bright small boats and accessible paths, you can get an idea how other places could look.

But most communities seem to have turned their back on the river, and often you can hardly tell it is there, just a few hundred yards away. If this was London people would die for this waterfront space. Instead so much Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire’s waterfront space has been left to die.