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I’ve always taken stories of compass reverse polarity with a degree of scepticism as I’ve never personally noticed any problems. But, in preparing for this year’s Challenge, I was  thinking of keeping my compass in a hip belt pocket along with my camera so I decided to see what effect it had. My expectation was that any effect would be so small as to be irrelevant.  I was astonished – there is a major magnetic effect (about 50 degrees)as you can see in the pictures below. How long it would take to reverse the polarity, I don’t know but for sure it is a possibility.

Compass 1

Compass  with camera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also tried other devices – a SPOT tracker which had no effect whatsoever and an iphone, which had a very minor effect. Probably too small to reverse polarity but I wouldn’t risk it. So – be careful and don’t keep your compass in the same pocket as your camera.

I am not a political animal. I’m not interested in the minutiae of politics or in partisan political views. Like a large number of people, I am sceptical of everything that politicians say and, in general, mistrust their motives. I don’t believe that all politicians are corrupt and/or self-serving but too many of them are in the pockets of others, be they trade unions or hedge funds, to trust them.

I decided to write this post because I am appalled by this general election campaign and the fact that our so-called ‘free press’ are not holding politicians to account. I don’t believe that the views of a great many people like myself are represented either by politicians or by their newspaper lackeys.  I have voted in 8 general elections and I can say without any doubt whatsoever that the quality of political debate in the 2015 election is the worst that I have ever seen.

There are lots of things that annoy me about this campaign but here are the top-five:

1.  The personal attacks, particularly on Ed Milliband and Nicola Sturgeon. This is simply disgraceful and demeaning to the attackers. I have spent 40 years disagreeing with people yet I have never once felt the need to comment on them personally.  It is to the credit of both Labour and the SNP politicians that they have not descended to this level of abuse.

2.  The failure of politicians to acknowledge that the points made by their opponents have any merit whatsoever. I can look at the policies of all of the current political parties (except perhaps UKIP) and see things I can agree with. No party has a monopoly on wisdom and politicians would gain much more respect if they acknowledged this and worked together rather than constantly bickering.

3. The obfuscation and spin around policies. There are difficult decisions to be made around economic policies and politicians should acknowledge this, accepting there will be both winners and losers, rather than avoiding questions on spending cuts and taxation and making up policies as they go along. Most voters are thoughtful and it is insulting to suggest that the only thing that affects their voting intentions is how much money they will have in their pockets.

4.  The lack of discussion on what seems to me to be a critical issue, which is the place of Britain in Europe. This is by far the most important question that we face in the next few years. I am unashamedly pro-Europe as I believe that larger rather than smaller economic units have more resilience in the face of economic shocks. Undoubtedly, reform of the EU is required but the fact that politicians are not discussing reforms and our place in Europe is appalling.

5. The lack of commitment by the major parties to ensure that our fellow citizens have enough to eat. Food banks are an utter disgrace and a sad reflection that ‘compassionate Conservatism’ has long gone.  But other parties cravenly refuse to say outright that they will adopt policies that will stop this abomination.

Disclaimer: I have already voted by post and I voted for the sitting MP in my constituency who is Anne Begg (Labour). She is a full-time MP (no other job) and on the occasions that I have contacted her, she has responded personally, quickly and thoughtfully. I would have voted for her, whatever her party as this is the kind of politician that we need rather than the arrogant and slippery individuals that are all too common.

Tis the season for the TGO Challenge where 300’odd (read that as you will) folk walk across Scotland on a variety of routes from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland. ‘Organised backpackers’ doesn’t apply to this though as the organisation is minimal and everyone does their own thing, choosing their routes then changing them on the fly. This is (I am told) somewhat frustrating for the minimal safety organisation that exists.

No, by organised backpacking I mean the remarkable organisation of some of the Challenge Tweetpackers (Backpackers on Twitter). Some have already tweeted that their gear for the Challenge is already sorted out and Paul started musing on gear as early as November 2014. Fitness regimes have been discussed – David is roaming the Lakeland Fells with a rucksack full of baked beans and John is yomping over all of the Welsh hills in a weekend. Next week, I expect he’ll report on his weekend walk to Nepal and Sunday hike up Everest.

Lots of Challengers are packing boxes with spare maps, food and clean underwear and are sending them on to various pick-up points across Scotland. Judith has produced a long and impressive list of things to do and check before she sets off. Some of these it’s fair to say would NEVER have occurred to me. Louise, who has a reputation for ultra-organisation claims to be more relaxed about planning. But ‘relaxed’ is clearly a relative term as planning a dry run still seems to me to be pretty high on the organised scale.

Andy is dehydrating dinners on an INDUSTRIAL scale. Andy is something of a gourmet so I have visions here of an enterprise something like Willy Wonkas chocolate factory but producing dried fish soup, boeuf bourguignon and small pellets of apricot pavlova.

Not only are these folks super-organised but some of them at least are gainfully employed and not a retired old codger like me who doesn’t set the alarm in the morning. Where do they get the time? I am genuinely truly impressed that people can be so organised as it’s completely beyond me.

I pretended on Twitter back in February that I was starting Challenge training but really I was just going out for a walk, which I do most weeks. And it has never occurred to me to spoil a perfectly pleasant walk by carrying a heavy rucksack when I don’t need to do so.

I don’t spend any time choosing gear cos I only have one of most things. However, I will be colour coordinated this year with a new black jacket (Polartec if you must know) to match my skinny black Terra pants and I’ll choose a fetching black buff as an accessory.  I could perhaps be taken for an outdoor hipster except I believe that they never actually go outside.

I love the idea of dehydrating food but I don’t think that it works if you shop the day before in Tescos and I did consider (once) posting on a box of stuff. Then I found that we’d recycled all the Amazon boxes so gave up on that idea too. I justify my approach to food provision by expressing my wish to support Highland communities but, to be truthful, it’s because I’ve spent a lifetime winging it at the last minute and can’t seem to change now.

When I first signed up for the Challenge a couple of years ago, I did wonder if my lack of organisation would mean ignominious withdrawal as I had forgotten some essential item of equipment or, worse, starvation as I didn’t have enough food. But I muddled through, although I would not like to depend again on trying to restock at the Well of Heads store.

So if you’re like me and lack the organisation gene, be thankful for the work of others.  We can simply use their to do lists and gear checklists without feeling guilty about not making lists of our own.  But don’t plan to take the last train north just in case (as happened to me) you forget something and  have to go home for it. I missed the Mallaig train and it was nearly midnight by the time I arrived.

Our house is right beside the Deeside Way, a walking and riding path that stretches from Aberdeen to Ballater (about 55km).  I walk on the Way every week that we are at home and have taken hundreds if not thousands of photographs on these walks.

I decided to set myself a wee project to write a short guide to the Deeside Way that was a bit better than the rather bland description on the official website. Most of the route follows the old Deeside Railway to Ballater which was used by Queen Victoria and subsequent royals on their visits to Balmoral Castle. The line closed as part of Beeching’s cuts in 1966. The current route starts at Duthie Park in Aberdeen and finishes at Ballater Station.

So here it is, my free to download guide to the Deeside Way.

From Aberdeen to Ballater on the Deeside Way

Lots of pictures so it’s about 40MB to download – be patient if it doesn’t open immediately in your browser.

Between Drumoak and Banchory

Between Drumoak and Banchory

River Dee near Maryculter

River Dee near Maryculter

From Potarch Bridge

From Potarch Bridge

Mid Hill Monstrosity

It was a cold and windy day today so I decided I’d have a walk where there was a bit of shelter, so went to Fetteresso forest. I thought I would check out possible camp spots for this year’s TGO Challenge and also have a look at the Mid Hill wind farm as some folks had wondered if there is still work going on.

I’m happy to be counted as a wind farm anti but, to be honest, I’ve only ever viewed these things from a distance and never got up close before. The ‘good’ news is that there’s no disruption from the wind farm construction and I think concerns about water pollution are misplaced. The water quality seems fine. The bad news is that, up close, wind farms are horrendous. You don’t really appreciate how big and horrible they are until you are standing under a turbine. In Mid Hill, it’s particularly bad as some forest areas have been cleared and the brash has been left lying around so the landscape is absolutely devastated.

Mid Hill - Turbines and brash leaving a devastated landscape

Mid Hill – Turbines and brash leaving a devastated landscape

I walked up Cairn Kerloch where you get a full view of just how extensive this wind farm is. This was never a place of exceptional natural beauty but was simply a place that could be enjoyed by all sorts of day walkers from the north-east of Scotland- not just experienced hill walkers.  Now it has been destroyed by the policies of a scientifically-illiterate government whose only concern is attracting city voters in the central belt.

Cairn and Mid Hill wind farm

Cairn and Mid Hill wind farm

The contrast between the old stones of the cairn on Cairn Kerloch and the turbines was a telling one. I was a little consoled by the fact that the cairn will still be there long after the turbines have gone and we have moved to a more sensible approach to electricity generation.

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The word ‘photography’ derives from two Greek roots, which roughly translated mean ‘light’ and ‘to draw’ so photography means ‘drawing with light’.  It isn’t ‘copying with light’ because when photography was introduced it did not reproduce what was in front of the camera exactly as seen. Individuals draw the same scene differently, emphasising what is important to them, and until not so long ago, the same was true of photographers – they interpreted and presented what was in front of the camera in quite different ways.

With the advent of high-resolution films and, especially, digital photography this changed, to a very significant extent. The camera can reproduce to a very high degree of fidelity, a scene as shot by the photographer and leaving aside differences in post-processing, two photographers faced with the same scene will produce very similar photographs. My photography reflects my interests in the outdoors so is dominated by landscape photographs and in this area there has been an explosion of high-quality representational images of mountain and coastal landscapes. Some of these are absolutely stunning images, which show the beauty and the grandeur of the outdoors.

Yet, I must admit I am tiring of both taking and looking at these images. They may be technically superb and visually impressive but they often fail to get over what the photographer feels about the landscape. As Niall Benvie, a Scottish photographer says in his book ‘You are not a photocopier’   these are often simply high-quality photocopies. His book is about photography and art and, while I don’t agree with everything he says, it is a provocative read. A particularly good point that he makes is that we should not necessarily present photographs on their own but that interpretative text can make these more individual to the photographer.

For some of my own landscape photographs, I’ve been thinking about how these communicate how I felt when I took these pictures and how to present this. I have decided that colour is a distraction – it’s easy to admire the prettiness and to fail to ‘see’ what’s really in the photograph.  With a black and white photo, it’s about the light, not the colours. So I have been converting the original images to black and white with a bit of digital manipulation. I haven’t gone to the extent of removing or adding elements to a scene, although I don’t have a problem in principle with this if this presents a better picture of what the photographer actually sees. But I have avoided the more extreme digital manipulations simply because I think these are mostly gimmicks that fail to do anything except impress the viewer with the skills of the programmer who developed these effects.  Captions, I think, are very important so I have thought about longer, explanatory captions that try to describe why I like the photograph.

Here are a few examples and I would appreciate any comments that the occasional viewers of this blog have.

Lairig Ghru

Looking east through the Lairig Ghru. 

Many writers remark on the beauty of the Cairngorms and, especially under snow, Cairngorms views can be superb.  But the Cairngorms are rough, harsh, unforgiving places which are often not conventionally beautiful but which awe the viewer with their majesty.I’ve been through the Lairig several times and what has always struck me at the summit of the pass is my insignificance in the landscape. I’ve tried to capture the harshness of the land in this image, which is dominated by rock yet at the same time reveal the attractiveness of these magnificent hills.

Morrone birchwoods

Morning sunlight, Morrone birchwoods

Outdoor folks in my experience tend to be quite taciturn about what they feel about the environment and they don’t talk much about the emotional impact of the outdoors. But I suspect, like me, one of the real attractions for them at least is the sense of joy and happiness that you sometimes get from being in a particular place (often but not always a summit) at a particular time. I experienced this on a walk through the Morrone birch woods near Braemar where I was struck by the spring sunshine coming through the fresh spring birch leaves. Trying to communicate happiness in a landscape photograph is pretty hard but the lightness of the leaves reflected my lightness of spirit that spring morning.

Road to Achiltibuie

Towards Fisherfield from near Achiltibuie

Sometimes when you are out, landscapes surprise you and this is one like that. We were heading to Achiltibuie on a mostly dull day when we came across this view to An Teallach and the hills of the Fisherfield Forest. What was so striking was the contrast between where we were (in the dark foreground) and the frieze of hills that were revealed. It was just one of these ‘wow’ moments that makes your heart sing.  Entranced by the view of the hills, I didn’t see the road furniture (passing place signs) and telegraph poles. Someone with better Photoshop skills than me could, I’m sure, get rid of them but I decided that I quite liked them as they showed this was a living landscape and not a calendar scene.

Emergence

Emergence

Sometimes, it’s the unexpected that makes your day. We started to walk up Ben Hee in Sutherland in dull, claggy unpromising November weather with a sprinkling of autumn snow on the ground. As we approached the summit, however, we started to get hints of a change and a few minutes later the clouds started to clear. The times when you realise that you are going to get great views are amongst the best in the hills and I’ve tried to capture the first few moments of the emergence of the landscape here.

I won’t stop taking ‘pretty pictures’ in the hills or, indeed, admiring such pictures taken by others because, sometimes, these are simply the best ways to document walks and trips.  But I also plan to think more about why I took a photograph, what it really means to me and how I can represent this. I have no pretentions to being an artist but I hope that by focusing on light rather than colour, I can better communicate what being in a landscape means to me.

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Sunlit Summit’, a biography of W.H. Murray. Murray was a pioneer Scottish climber in the 1930s who wrote what I think is the finest Scottish mountaineering book ever written – ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’. Murray and his pals were hard men – no modern fabrics, crampons, protection equipment in these days –  and they revived themselves after a long cold day with a concoction which they called ‘Mummery’s Blood’ (after A.F. Mummery, a famous Victorian mountaineer). In Murray’s words, Mummery’s Blood was made by ‘bringing half a pint of water to boil on the Primus, dissolving 3 Oxo cubes then adding 2 gill bottles of rum’.

For younger readers, a gill is a 1/4 of a pint (just over 100ml) so basically Mummery’s Blood consists of equal parts of hot, strong beef stock and hot rum.

Ingredients for Mummery's Blood

Ingredients for Mummery’s Blood

After a cold Sunday afternoon walk, I decided that rather than my usual effete cup of tea, I would recreate Mummery’s Blood. I didn’t have Oxo cubes but had some Knorr beef stock so I made this up double strength. I then took a large measure of rum (not 2 gills as this would have rendered me comatose for the rest of the evening), added an equal volume of the beef stock and brought it to the boil.

The finished drink

The finished drink

Well, it was certainly a reviving drink. I suspect it would taste better in a cold tent or bothy rather than a centrally-heated house but it wasn’t bad – it was a drink to put hairs on your chest. Hot rum is very potent and I floated upstairs to my computer to write this post. I’m not sure that I’ll repeat the experiment at home but would like to try it in the hills.

If you have never read Murray’s book, it’s still in print. I’d recommend it to all hillgoers. You have a treat in store.

I first read this book in the late 60’s when I was working my way through the climbing and hillwalking section of the Stirling Library in Glasgow. It’s a series of chapters about camps and climbs in the Scottish Highlands by Tom Weir, where he talks about his epics and experiences in the hills. It led to me spending a couple of student summers wandering all over the Highlands from Sutherland to the Cairngorms.

Tom Weir was born 100 years ago today. He was one of the first people to make a living from outdoor writing and journalism and became a ‘national treasure’ in Scotland in the 1980s after a series of TV programmes called Weir’s Way. He travelled the length and breadth of Scotland talking to people and communicating both his love of the land and his genuine interests in what people were doing. Fittingly, a statue was unveiled to his memory on the shores of Loch Lomond, close to where he lived for most of his life. (BBC link)

Highland DaysHis popularity in the 1980s led to his early book being reprinted and I remember buying it on a trip home to Scotland. I re-read it then and enjoyed it just as much as the first time. It brought back my experiences in these 60’s summers before work and family made trips to the hills a very occasional pleasure. Recently, I found it on my shelves and decided read it again.

Tom travelled all over the Highlands in the 1930s and early 1940s. He writes about his experiences in Skye (a particular favourite),Knoydart, Torridon, Wester Ross, Sutherland and the Cairngorms. Long before lightweight gear, he backpacked into remote places and camped amongst the hills. On this reading of his book, I followed some of his days on a map and was amazed how much ground he covered. But he also interacted with the local people – staying with keepers and shepherds and establishing long-term friendships with them.

Tom was not a lyrical writer but he wrote with commitment and honesty. He doesn’t pretend that all days were good days but his joy at the landscape as the weather improved is infectious. His descriptions of his walks and climbs pull you into his experiences and makes you wish you were there to share them.

The book is now more than 70 years old. It’s about a place that is both unchanged and totally changed. The essence of the book – the landscape – has changed a bit bit but most of the walks that Tom describes are still recognisably the same. But the Highlands themselves have changed as they have modernised and developed into a tourist destination.  Old communities, which were disappearing in Tom’s time, have been revitalised by incomers. While there are still problems with professional jobs for young people, the Highland are no longer an economic basket case.

When I first read this book, I found it inspiring and re-reading it almost 50 years later, it still inspires and makes me want to get out and about in the hills.  I don’t think there is a modern book about Scottish hillwalking that is in the same class as ‘Highland Days’.  If you love the hills, read it if you can.

Lately, there has been some controversy over voting for outdoor blog awards and the fact that the voting system required a Facebook login and you had to agree that your list of Facebook friends should be disclosed. Frankly, I think this is disgraceful but an increasing number of sites use Facebook logins and its quite convenient to sign in this way.

So, if you care about these things, here’s how to circumvent the system (takes about 5 minutes) and, hopefully, provide misleading information to the marketing data collection behind these systems.

  • Start with a private browsing window (Incognito in Chrome)
  • Set up an email address on some free service that you don’t normally use (I used Yahoo but any one will do). You will not use this account for anything else and apart from one post, there is never a need to check it.
  • Set up a new Facebook account using this email address. Choose any name that you like and add some random information about location, education, etc. Best if this is genuine rather than made up names but make sure it is wrong. Pick a password that you don’t use anywhere else (fake-facebook-123 is good).Ignore all automated friend searches and set privacy to the most strict settings.
  • Go back to your new email account and confirm the Facebook sign-up email. You can then either delete this account or just leave it in case you need a ‘don’t care’ email account in future.
  • You can then use your  fake FB account for voting and logging in to sites that use the FB authentication method.

This, of course, breaches Facebook’s terms and conditions. But do you care?

My well-intentioned idea of using public transport to access the Aberdeenshire coastal path and to walk the path in linear sections has not really worked. Short winter days and infrequent buses mean that too much precious daylight would be spent on or waiting for a bus. So, for this bit of the path, I drove to Stonehaven then walked the sections north and south from there. I’ve written it in the reverse order to my walk so the afternoon photos come first.

Dunnotar Castle is easily accessed from the A92. It is an impressive ruined fortress on the cliff tops with lots of historical associations. Covenanters were imprisoned there in grim conditions and a small garrison held out against Oliver Cromwell’s army for 8 months protecting the Crown Jewels of Scotland.

 

Dunnotar Castle

Dunnotar Castle

 

From the Castle, there’s an obvious path along the cliffs to Stonehaven where you look towards the impressive hilltop Stonehaven war memorial. There’s a great view back towards the castle from the war memorial hill.

 

Towards Dunnotar

Towards Dunnotar

 

Stonehaven war memorial

Stonehaven war memorial

 

You then have a few metres on the road before descending the Bervie Braes to Stonehaven harbour. There’s a couple of good pubs here (the Marine Hotel and the Ship Inn) with the Marine having its own brewery and a remarkable selection of different beers. Both serve good food. When I did this bit of the path in early December, Stonehaven was in shadow so I’ve used  pictures here taken earlier in the year.

 

Stonehaven harbour

Stonehaven harbour

 

From the harbour, you cut between a couple of buildings onto the boardwalk, which runs round Stonehaven bay. You then join the promenade passing one of the few remaining outdoor swimming pools in Scotland. The Bay fish and chip shop is award-winning with a commitment to serving sustainable fish.

 

From the boardwalk

From the boardwalk

 

The River Cowie at the start of Stonehaven promenade

The River Cowie at the start of Stonehaven promenade

 

The coastal path restarts at the village of Cowie where you go along the base of the cliffs towards the Highland Boundary Fault.  This is a geological fault that originates in Ireland and separates lowland and highland Scotland. The path takes you up the cliffs where I met one of the usual ridiculous health and safety notices saying the path was closed because it was dangerous. Clearly, everyone had ignored this so I did too – there was a tiny section that had eroded but dangerous it was not.

 

The Highland Boundary Fault, north of Cowie

The Highland Boundary Fault, north of Cowie

 

The path ends at  the ruined chapel (reputedly 13th century) of St Mary of the Storms  and the ‘official’ Aberdeenshire council route is to cut up from there to join the road and follow it to Skatie Shore. Ignore this.

 

Churchyard - St Mary of the Storms

Churchyard – St Mary of the Storms

 

Instead, go through the churchyard where there is a gate leading onto the golf course. You then follow the edge of the course, round the cliffs (helpfully marked by white posts). So long as you keep to the perimeter of the course, there’s no problem and the golfers I met were very friendly.

I am generally of the opinion, as summed up in the old maxim, that ‘golf is a good walk spoiled’ but if I did play, I would want to play in Stonehaven. The course has magnificent coastline views with some holes requiring a shot across an inlet. As one golfer said, when I admired his shot, “there’s a lot of balls down there”. I walked out to Garron Point and sat for a while in the winter sunshine.

 

Garron Point from the golf course

Garron Point from the golf course

 

Skatie Shore is a large sandy bay where I stopped. It looks a great place for summertime picnics but it wasn’t a place to linger in the shade on a winter’s day.

 

Skatie shore

Skatie shore

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