Monday, 31 August 2009

Paul Theroux in Inverness

I spent part of saturday fruitlessly wracking my brain, trying to think of a dildo-related phrase that might be wheeled out in the heat of an argument. This strange line of enquiry had been occasioned by a comment of Paul Theroux's in which he speculated, based on the content of their quarrels, that the owners of his Inverness Bed and Breakfast establishment may be users of 'what the dirty shops called 'marital aids''. Sadly Theroux, that meticulous note-taker, did not carry through to his final draft the exact words that had conveyed this  impression.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Theroux is a hugely influential travel writer, though nowadays he has been eclipsed in the mind of the British public by his documentary-making progeny, Louis and Marcel. He rose to prominence in the 1970s after writing 'The great railway bazaar', an account of a train journey from London through Asia on the Orient  and Trans-Siberian Expresses. This proved to be the first of many great voyages; a few years later he made a tour of the coast of Great Britain, in the course of which he passed through Inverness.

Finding myself without opportunity to venture any great distance from my house this weekend, I had hatched a plan. I would locate the book in which he described his coastal odyssey, 'The kingdom by the sea', find out what he had said about Inverness, then visit the described scenes to see if any of his observations still rang true.

Theroux devoted part of his short stay in the city to studying his map and debating whether or not Inverness qualified as coastal. In his mind it all hinged on whether or not the Moray Firth was part of the North Sea. I can understand his confusion. If his map lacked detail, the intersecting spits of Chanonry Point and Fort George may have appeared to be joined, making freshwater lochs of the inner Moray and Beauly firths.

He was ignored by the bickering hosts of a cold and unpleasant Bed and Breakfast.  The dampness of the bathmat and the owner's bowling trophies troubled him. The appearance of their diseased dog was so objectionable that he wanted it to be put down. After making the marital aid related observation mentioned above he took the train to Aberdeen.

I was mildly disappointed that there were no footsteps in which to follow, but pleased to find further evidence to support my long held suspicion of Bed and Breakfasts and their proprietors. There is no need for me to try to recreate Paul Theroux's time in Inverness - a quick visit to revealed that similarly dissatisfying accommodation experiences being dispensed in Inverness to this day.

Instead I spent sunday walking up a small hill at Abriachan, where I took the photo that accompanies this piece.

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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Canadian canoeing on Loch Maree

The weekend brought news of a canoeing accident on Loch Maree that claimed the lives of a father and son. This got me thinking about the sport, about its risks and its rewards.
Canadian canoeing has grown in popularity in recent years due to the ready availability of affordable plastic boats. I have been a keen open canoeist for some time and love getting out on the water to enjoy the wildlife, catch fish and just generally chill out. Canoeing is best saved for the rare, windless occasions when it is a joy to slide effortlessly over the water's mirror-like surface. It is a particularly magical experience at sunset, while enveloped in swirling mists or under the light of a full moon.

It is easy to underestimate the seriousness of canoeing, especially in apparently benign freshwater lochs. However, if conditions change and a wind gets up, big waves can appear very suddenly, particularly if they have a long run over which to build. Where a loch narrows the waves can become magnified as they squeeze through the gap. In lochs with lots of islands the formation of interference patterns can lead to unexpectedly large waves.

It isn't absurd to compare open canoeing with climbing. Both demand accurate assessment of the conditions, have little margin for error and the consequences of making a mistake may be dire. The big difference between canoeing and climbing is the perception that the participants have of the risks involved. There can't be many people who don't accept that climbing carries with it a risk of severe injury or death, yet the same cannot be said of canoeing. After all, some canoes have built in fishing rod and beer can holders – even a cool box under the seat.

I was pretty blasé when I started canoeing but after a few scrapes I developed a healthy respect for the pastime. The first such adventure took place on Loch Maree. We had used the canoe to shorten our approach to the crags of Fisherfield, camping overnight on the northern shore before marching in for a day's rock climbing.

On the return journey the wind built steadily, and when we emerged from the shelter provided by the islands in the centre of the loch the situation became deeply uncomfortable. We were some distance from shore and it was a constant fight to keep the boat from going side on to the waves and being capsized or swamped. It was impossible to paddle directly to where I wanted to go, instead I had to maintain a zig zag course, keeping the bow facing predominately into or away from the waves. Changing tack was nerve-wracking. Timing was everything, for the boat became extremely vulnerable when turned momentarily broadside to the waves.

The consequence of a capsize in the middle of a loch would have been extremely serious. Lochs are generally very cold and it the righting of a capsized canoe is far from trivial. Even with a bouyancy aid it is debatable whether or not we would have been able to swim to shore before hypothermia set in. In the end we made it to shore, excited and unharmed. I recall someone posting on about a similar trip, again on Loch Maree, during which two boats containing six people capsized. Only one of the occupants didn't need airlifted to Raigmore.

I don't know details of the accident that occurred at the weekend, but it is likely that they were simply caught out by changing conditions; an exciting adventure turned to tragedy. 

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Monday, 17 August 2009

A local skitour for local people

The middle of August marks a turning point in the year: the days become shorter; the ending of the school holidays congests the roads; people resume their constant droning about football after the summer ceasefire. About this time my mind begins to wander towards the coming winter and the sporting opportunities it may present.
Last winter I enjoyed a truly local adventure, a circular skitour beginning and ending at my front door, taking in the great area of moorland bounded by the River Nairn to the north, the Findhorn to the south, and the A9 to the west.
In the comfort of my living room I tightened my ski boots, shouldered my pack, then cast my skis out the front door onto the garden path. The time was just before eight and the streetlights still glowed orange. My skis slid easily on the fresh snow. I crossed the main road to gain access to the expanse of fields leading down to the sheer sandstone arches of the Nairn viaduct. The orange walls stood out thanks to their steepness, shedding the snow rather than allowing it to accumulate. The river was a ribbon of black, chugging slowly beneath the snow arched branches of the alders, its edges blurred and squeezed by sponges of slush, slow to melt in the chilly water, the current close to the banks insufficiently strong to sweep them seaward.
Past Clava House I cut over a field, once again in the shadow of the great arches of the viaduct. Casting my eyes backwards I was delighted by the twin trenches snaking behind me. The low sun lent them depth, the only features in this carpet of white. I affixed my climbing skins and set off up through the larchwoods. The woods were still and calm, a great silence having descended along with the snow. Animal tracks became commonplace, birds, roe deer and hares. The fine powder had the appearance of having been dusted straight from the sky, like icing sugar onto a mince pie, but here among the tall trunks of the larch the half-coated trunks revealed the direction from which it had come. The mass of accumulated snow had caused several boughs to shear from their parent trees onto the track. I negotiated my way round them, eager to escape the confines of the forest and break out onto the wide open moorland beyond.

Pylons carried crackling power cables above my head as I struck out onto ever deepening snow. The full extent of the snow cover became apparent, in front of me stretched a panorama of white, Saddle Hill to the left, Beinn Bhuidhe Beag and the distant heights of Beinn Bhuidhe Mor in front.
Huge erratic boulders are much in evidence in the straths, but are conspicuous by their absence here on the moor. Save for the small granite crags that cap the southern flanks of Saddle Hill, these hills are primarily composed of sandy gravel, the plateau having presumably been beyond the reach of the great glaciers that flowed from the coires of the Monadhliath down the straths during the last ice age. A few wizened Scots pines grace the steep banks of the burns which radiate out like the spokes of a wheel. Recent, sympathetic, planting of young trees mean that in future a small revival of Caledonian forest will be nurtured on these slopes. Twisted remnants of bogwood hint at what may be their eventual fate. I admired the panorama that presented itself across the deep blue waters of the firth to the north: the great hulk of Ben Wyvis and the jumble of the Fannichs rising beyond the Kessock Bridge; the pointy peaks of the Strathconon Corbetts; the long, triple-summitted ridge of Beinn a' Bha'ach Ard that guards the entrance to the long lonely reaches of Strathfarrar; a glimpse of one of the Affric hills peeping above the Scandanavian forests of Abriachan.
While these distant peaks drew the eye, it was the rounded hills to the south, the ones that were actually within striking distance, that captured my imagination. The snow had been settled slightly by the wind and my skis sank less deeply into it. I eyed what I now suspected to be tremendous fields of firm packed snow extending into the wild, committing terrain to the southeast of Beinn Bhuidhe Mor, the high plateau beyond Carn Dubh Mor containing the Graham, Carn nan Tri-tighearnan. As it had taken me well over two hours to make it this far, such an itinerary would have to wait for another day, perhaps on lightweight Nordic touring kit.
The city of Inverness and the jumble of houses at Culloden Moor were still in view. In the still conditions I could hear a plane taxiing at the airport. So close to civilisation and yet, up here on the snowfields, in a different world.
I crossed the tracks of a fox, laid out in a straight line as if the animal was walking a tightrope. Periodically he had paused to excavate small holes, perhaps hunting for mice below the snow in the same way that a polar bear would for seals below the ice. Grouse appeared as black sentries silhouetted against the snow. They strutted indecisively backwards and forwards, both feet and wingtips tracing their progress on the white canvas.
A sandwich and the dregs of my flask sustained me on Beinn Bhuidhe Beag's 460 m summit as I rested my legs in preparation for the descent down its steep northern flanks. There was a boundary fence to negotiate but the snowcover was sufficiently deep that I was able to slide over the top wire without stopping. Deep powder awaited and inspired me on this delightful but all too short descent. Euphoric, I reaffixed my climbing skins in the depths of this normally boggy hollow and decided to pick my way up through the dwarf pines onto the west ridge of Saddle Hill. The sinking sun coloured the sky a deep azure as I made my way across the flat fields to home. My legs were weary after seven hours on ski but my heart was light, an ambition had been achieved. I had seized what, in the uncertain and changing climate of the future, may turn out to have been a once in a lifetime opportunity.
We live in an age of lists. Our shops are full of coffee table books of one hundred things to do before we turn thirty, or before we die. All too often these are commercially based activities in far flung countries: jet boats and bungee jumps in New Zealand; hot air balloon rides over the Serengeti at dawn; rafting the Zambesi. Our worship of these exotic dreams implicitly devalues those which are more local or commonplace. In truth the ordinary may be extraordinary, and if we search deeply enough each one of us will find our own dreams lurking. Many of them will be local, attainable, affordable and doubly satisfying because of the creative spark needed to visualise them in the first place.

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Saturday, 15 August 2009


A legless beggar loomed from the crowd on an improvised skateboard, his stumps wrapped in revolting bandages. His hands, filthy from propelling himself through the unpaved streets, pulled at mine in an appeal for pity, for a donation.

When my friend Martina revealed that she had booked a flight to Delhi, such memories of my own subcontinental forays came flooding back. How the polluted air permeated the cabin even before the plane had touched down. The seething mass of humanity that filled the roads, the pavements, the tops of the walls and the branches of the trees.
Litter-chewing cows lurked in the shadows of the dimly lit, otherworldly streets of the Paharganj, the main area for budget backpacker accommodation. I squeezed to the side of the street to allow a heavily laden truck to inch past, its load piled so high that a team of wallahs crouched on top, lifting the telephone and electricity wires so that it could pass underneath.
In the light of the next day, the baking April heat enhanced the smell of India, an indescribable mix containing hints of excrement, rotten fruit, burning tyres, spices and incense. Touts of all descriptions delivered a constant stream of hassle: traders; salesman; beggars; scam artists.
On the strength of these recollections I had advised Martina to prepare herself for non-stop harassment. Her reports, delivered via a stream of emails modestly entitled 'Spam from India', painted a different picture. Her impressions were overwhelmingly positive.

This apparent contradiction lured me to my bookshelves to find the handwritten journal in which my true recollection of that arrival in India had lain, dormant and unread, for eleven years. All the images I recalled were present. What distinguished the written record from that in my memory was a wealth of qualifying statements: that it wasn't as bad as people had made out; that the actual frequency of encounters with nuisances was very low.
It seems that the myth of Delhi is so strong that, even after having personally debunked it, I found myself engaged in this act of negative revisionism, allowing my own recollections to be displaced by cliché.

The photos that accompany this post are Martina's.

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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

On Toilet Humour

Curiously, almost all of the positive feedback I have received about my blogging to date has been related to the toilet humour content.

I did briefly consider blogging exclusively on matters lavatorial. The thing that dissuaded me was not any concern about my ability to crimp out sufficient words on the topic each week, it was the surprising fact that toilet humour is not enjoyed by all. Like yeast-based spreads, people either love it or hate it.

Toilet humour transcends cultural barriers. In my view, it comes as close as one can get to a universally recognised form of comedy. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that stone age man – perhaps even early hominids such as homo hiedelbergenis - played the old trick of asking their friends to pull their finger when they felt a fart brewing.

Shakespeare famously wrote words to the effect that the man without music in his soul is fit for treason, stratagems and spoils. I contend that those who do not appreciate the humour of the toilet should be viewed with a similar level of suspicion. Their mock horror is a vestige of Victorian era repression, they are not being true to themselves. Like vegetarians, they have turned their back on an essential aspect of their humanity and in so doing they have degraded themselves, becoming mildly sub-human in the process.

Depending on your point of view, the website is either outrageously funny or sickeningly depraved. The site first came to my attention in the late '90s. Back then it was called, a tremendous piece of innovation using the format pioneered by the then popular My all time favourite shot from that site featured not only a huge jobby bobbing in a pan but also its author, crouched down low so that he could get his face into the shot, grinning and giving his turd an enthusiastic thumbs up.

It is of course possible to have too much of a good thing and it is some years since I last 'logged on' to Needless to say, in the course of researching this post I had a peek. As I typed into the address bar I felt a slight trepidation, what if the site no longer existed? What if the world had moved on?

Thankfully there was to be no disappointment. To save you the trouble of clicking through any mediocre toleys I have included a link to the current top twenty. Enjoy.

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Monday, 10 August 2009

The Quiraing:Trotternish, Isle of Skye

Wild places are in a perpetual state of flux, yet they appear constant when considered on the timescale of our short human lives. On the eastern flanks of the Trotternish Ridge on the Isle of Skye lurks such a timeless place, the Quiraing. Its towers of kidney-textured volcanic rock enclose a collection of chasms and amphitheatres. We picked our way up steep paths, enjoying the novelty of carrying an infant through the type of scenery more usually found on a rock climb or in a winter gully. Bright images of island and sea presented themselves unexpectedly, framed between the pinnacles.
By contrast, it is rare to revisit an urban area and find it unchanged, even a tiny conurbation like Uig, the port from which the ferries linking Skye to Uist and Harris sail. My first visit to Uig was in 1993, courtesy of an audacious hitch that bordered on car-jacking. In the car park outside the village shop in Staffin we had found an elderly woman and her dog sitting in a car. She planned to drive over the hill to Uig to procure a tin of paint. We asked if we could have a lift and while our request was being considered we loaded ourselves and our packs into the back of the car. When the husband emerged from the shop he found his car fully loaded.

Fifteen years ago the shabby pub on Uig pier was typical of the Scottish hostelries of the era. The choice presented at the formica-topped bar was a simple one - lager or heavy. It has now been freshened up and re-branded. Extensive signage invites the passing tourist to enjoy good food, local beers and freshly ground coffee.
Looking back from the smoke free 21st century it seems ludicrous that joints were openly smoked as we played pool in that bar while waiting for the ferry to arrive. It is easy to think of travel only in terms of distance covered and places visited, yet our journey through life is a voyage through both time and space. Revisiting a place can suddenly bring home how much the world has changed in the intervening years. Suddenly I felt old, and my mind drifted back to the eternal spires of the Quiraing.

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Monday, 3 August 2009

A busy bothy weekend

There is something wonderfully subversive about drinking in the great outdoors, free from the roving eyes of CCTV cameras and the influence of authority figures. When you strip away the commercialism and regulation of city fleshpots – the queues, the curfews, the dress codes, the cover charges - all that remains is a raw, primal drinking experience. Now I enjoy a night round the campfire as much as the next man, but for the long nights of winter, or for wet and midgey summer evenings, the bothy hearth provides the best focal point for banter and storytelling. Of all the outdoor activities I indulge in, bothying is probably my favourite.
A bothy

For the uninitiated, a bothy is a basic cottage in a remote location, often originally built as a croft, or to house a shepherd or a stalker. They are maintained as open shelters for the benefit of hillgoers. The bothy system is unique to the UK, having arisen as a consequence of two facets of our culture. Firstly, our feudal system of land ownership means that the upland in the UK is generally owned by sporting estates. Secondly there is – in Scotland at least – a tradition of free access to the hills. Formerly, the needs of estates and hillgoers were very similar – before the days of bulldozed tracks and all terrain vehicles, those wishing to shoot or fish were obliged to travel on foot, either their own or those of a pony. Consequently accommodation was required in the farflung corners of the estates. Bothies were provided for this purpose. As technology advanced and fitness declined through the 20th century, it became easier for shooting clients to repair back to the comfort of a lodge after their day's sport. Many estates felt disinclined to continue incurring the expense of maintaining bothies. In stepped the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), a member-funded, charitable organisation that today co-ordinates a network of volunteers who maintain bothies throughout the UK. The buildings themselves remain the property of the estates on whose ground they stand. Not all bothies are under the control of the MBA, many are still maintained by estates for the benefit of their staff and are generously left open for the use of other passing hillgoers.
Each bothy has its own character but all are basic. The more luxurious examples may have a couple of rooms downstairs with a hearth in each and further wood-paneled sleeping accommodation upstairs. A more basic example may be a single damp, fireless room with a floor of stone or earth. Some are truly awful – one particular example that sticks in my mind had plaster crumbling from the walls, a pile of piss-soaked mattresses in the corner and a stinking bucket in which floated the bloated corpses of two drowned mice.

A scene of third world squalor, barbequeing meat in the chimneyless wood shed.

Running water is provided in the form of a burn outside. The toilet is, in all but a few exceptional cases, a spade. The etiquette is that when the brown dog starts to bark, one should retreat an appropriate distance from the building, excavate a square of turf and then unleash the snarling brute like a ferret down a rabbit hole.

Because of the variable standard of the accommodation, bothying is not for everyone. Additionally, getting to a bothy is often an adventure in its own right. I have spent many a dark night stumbling through bog and burn, hauling a heavy pack laden with coal, food and beer. Even some pretty ardent outdoor enthusiasts balk at the prospect of subjecting themselves to long marches and enduring a night without their luxuries.

A common question that I am asked is what one would do if, after arriving at a remote bothy, one found it already occupied by undesirable types. The answer is that you simply take your chance and get on with it. You cannot book a bothy and everyone has an equal right to be there. However, a tolerance of, if not actually an enthusiasm for, hardship and squalid living conditions are prerequisites for the enjoyment of a bothy weekend. It is therefore usually a pretty safe bet that bothies will either be unoccupied, or else occupied by agreeably eccentric characters. Indeed I have only shared bothies on a handful of occasions, having the run of them is a more usual outcome.

Last weekend was my stag doo and as a lover of the bothy life I decided to host the occasion in a carefully selected, little known and out of the way bothy. I felt confident that at most I would find a couple of elderly gents in woolly jumpers, smoking pipes and sucking on their beards. The reality could not have been more different. When we arrived around 2200 hrs we were greeted by the chatter of excited children. A family group consisting of three adults and half a dozen children between the ages of six and ten had ensconced themselves in one of the rooms. As we chatted it became clear that we were both planning to stay for two nights. This was a potentially troublesome scenario all round. Noisy children aren't high on my wish list of bothy attractions, but I think most people would prefer to be gatecrashed by a few youths rather than a roaring, drunken mob.
I'll say you've had enough. A reveller is dragged to his tent after getting slightly out of hand.

Fortunately the layout of the bothy made it easy for two parties to coexist without disturbing one another. Many of my party had brought along tents which eased the pressure on the floorspace in our part of the building. It is perhaps not surprising to find that people who were prepared to take a group of small children to a bothy to be both laid back and tolerant. Acceptance of the bothy ethic by both parties meant that good relations were maintained throughout.

We are at the age now where many of us have young children, so it will not be long before the boot is on the other foot. I hope that in years to come, when my own family bothy trip is invaded by a brigade of beer-swilling buffoons, I can repay the friendly tolerance we experienced last weekend by accepting the situation with good grace.

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