Saturday, 31 October 2009

Some photos of Nairn beach and a little bit of politics

A bit of a departure from the norm this week. I felt compelled to provide some political commentary in place of the usual travel / outdoor material. Normal service will be resumed next week. I'm working on a plan for the second nocturnal mountain bike journey of the winter season. Trains will  feature once again!

Autumn leaves carried to the sea by the River Nairn.  Perhaps some fell from trees high in the Monadhliath .

One thing at least – I smoked the odd jazz cigarette in my youth. In doing so I established that cannabis, a Class B controlled substance, was far milder than society's favourite drug- alcohol. This alerted me to the fact that the official advise about the relative dangers of the two substances was incorrect. In short, the authorities had lied to me. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a discursive essay on the subject as part of my Standard Grade English. Then, as now, the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to the fact that cannabis is far less harmful than alcohol. Accordingly, it is unfair to criminalise those who use cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes. For a while it looked as if an evidence-based policy might be considered seriously. Cannabis was downgraded to Class C, only to be upgraded to Class B soon after amid media hysteria about 'killer skunk'.

I will not go into the details of the argument here. Others have stated the case clearly. In any case, arguing with those who are in favour of the War on Drugs is every bit as futile as arguing with creationists or climate change deniers.

Rusty hinge on the structure at the end of Nairn Pier.

It was with great dismay that I learned that Professor David Nutt had been asked by the Home Secretary to resign as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because of the views expressed in the report linked above. This is an appalling example of the government refusing to listen to an expert who has been appointed to help ensure that policy is based on scientific evidence. He spoke the truth so they got rid of him. The message seems clear – the government are not interested in basing their policies on science. Rather they want scientists to provide evidence to support their existing prejudices and flawed policies.

In doing so they are failing in their duty to protect society from substance abuse related harm. The only positive side of this sorry affair is that the government's dictatorial attitude did not extend to having him disappear; they simply sacked him. It is worth reflecting that they could have used anti-terror legislation to detain him without trial or fly him off to some faraway land for a good waterboarding to the soundtrack of the Bee Gees.

It is dismaying that the politicians listed above have retreated into hypocrisy, admitting their own drug use while implicitly endorsing the punishment of others who do the same. This is human behaviour at its very worst; the power of the establishment is such that the only view that may be expressed openly is demonstrably false.

As always your comments are very welcome......

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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Siberian rats, mass emigration and the Scottish psyche

Might Siberian rats help explain cultural differences between Scotland and the USA? This thought occurred to me as I hunkered down on the slopes of Beinn Bheag, one of the two small hills that are prominent in the view down Loch a'Bhraoin from the A832 past Braemore Junction.

The Grahams Groban and Beinn Bheag, flanked by the Munro A'Chailleach (left) and  the Corbett Creag Rainich (right)

As we squatted on the yellowed autumnal hillside, our backs to the driving rain, it seemed amazing to think that this area had once been populated, that families had lived and worked in the glen's now ruined crofthouses. Perhaps the ground was drier, more fertile and more welcoming in the relatively recent past. Or maybe the lack of any alternative compelled the hardy inhabitants to endure a hungry and miserable existence until the prospect of a new start lured them onto boats bound for the New World?

I read recently of experiments carried out by scientists in Siberia (New Scientist 2728). As part of a 30 year study into aggression in animals they made parallel lines of timid and ferocious rats from the same original stock. They did this by selectively breeding from the more docile and feistier animals in each generation. This fascinating piece of work shows that behavioural traits may be enhanced by means of natural selection over relatively short time periods.

The unusual low angled quartzite slabs of Sgurr Ban and Loch an Nid viewed from near the summit of Beinn Bheag. These Munros had been the original target for the day but windy conditions and a lowering cloud base made the lower hills more appealling.

One could argue that, thanks to successive waves of mass emigration, an experiment similar to that conducted on the Siberian rats has been running in Scotland since the 17th century. While some of our diaspora left unwillingly as a result of forced evictions, the vast majority left Scotland willingly, eager to take control of their destinies, to escape from scraping a living on ground rented from feudal overlords. By these means perhaps as many as a dozen generations have been partially depleted of those more adventurous souls who chose to take the gamble of emigrating in search of a better life.

The question I pose is this - what personality traits may have been amplified as those who remained bred with one another? Might the dourness and stoicism for which the Scottish people are renowned be partially explained in terms of natural selection?

If you agree with (or object to) any of these ramblings do leave a comment below.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A bright future for Scottish winter climbing?

We may be standing on the threshold of a period of bumper winters! This glimmer of hope for Scottish winter climbing in the face of seemingly inevitable global warming comes from the recent prediction that, over the next decade or so, temperatures might fall, rather than rise.

The prevailing westerly wind plays a large part in determining the humidity and the temperature of the British climate. The strength of this wind is in turn dictated by the balance between the Iceland Low and the Azores High, two pressure systems that lie to the west, an effect known as the North Atlantic Oscillation

It's important to emphasise that global warming has not ended; the overall warming trend will continue. It is just that the cooling effect of a shift in the North Atlantic Oscillation may briefly overwhelm mankind's effect on the climate.

Will we see more of this over the next few years? Coigach in winter; Stac Pollaidh from Cul Beag.

My appetite for this impending bonanza of winter sport was whetted by Dean Lords' article in issue 27 of Alpinist magazine. I quote a few lines below:

“Our remote mysteries require perfect timing and luck to unlock.......A line could vanish for three years, then flicker back like a ghost.....this landscape rarely reveals its secrets on the first or second visits; it could take a lifetime to know.”

Lords was describing the Lost River Range in Idaho, but to me these lines encapsulate all that makes winter climbing in Scotland's fickle climate such a compelling and satisfying sport. Charming though this unpredictability is, I certainly won't be complaining if the North Atlantic Oscillation dishes up some more reliable conditions in the coming seasons!

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Sunday, 18 October 2009

Beautiful autumn day in Appin

This weekend I attended a wedding in Connel. The views on the drive down on Saturday morning were spectacular. Had I been pedaling down the partially completed traffic free cycle path alongside the A828 rather than hurrying to get to the church I would have taken many more photos!

 View down Loch Linnhe from Corran Ferry slip at low tide. 

The sound of their paddles splashing had me salivating! Sea-kayakers slide past Shuna Island. Kingairloch and Ardgour beyond.

Loch Leven and the Pap of Glencoe from Ballachullish.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Cow-Toilet of Kudle Beach

“I don’t have any toilet,” the Spanish owner explained as we checked into her beach hut complex. “When you need you must go outside into the field. Do not worry. The cow, he is eating everything.”

I'm trying out a new idea for the blog - if you look to the right you'll see a new frame from which you can view and download full length illlustrated travel articles in pdf format. The first one is a personal favourite of mine 'The Cow-Toilet of Kudle Beach'. Have a read but be warned, you may actually piss yourselves laughing!

I'd love to get some feedback on this piece so please leave comments.

If you enjoy it do tell your friends and get them to visit the blog too.

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Monday, 12 October 2009

Lochaber Mountain Biking: Corrour to Tulloch via the Euston Sleeper

On friday night we boarded the 2030 sleeper train at Tulloch station. Had we stayed aboard we could have been breathing the foul air of the Metropolis by 0800 on Saturday morning. Our lungs remained uncontaminated, for it was not the bright lights of the big city that had tempted us aboard. Instead the train provided an unlikely springboard into wilderness and adventure.

The 2030 from Tulloch  (arrives London Euston at 0748)

“Absolutely pishing down out there!” exclaimed the guard smugly as we wrestled our bikes from the train at lonely Corrour station. In truth it wasn't raining that hard, but it was a dark, damp, moonless night. The weather was irrelevant; a splendid night ride of some 28 km through some extremely remote terrain awaited. We swept along the shores of Loch Ossian, down Strath Ossian into the Corrour forest, across the Laggan Dam and down a short section of the A86 to finish.

21 minutes later at Corrour - we weren't even on the train for long enough to finish our lager. First cold can I've had on a train for a long time - the winter's not all bad!

The route was predominately downhill and the tracks were smooth throughout. A first class facility for outdoor recreation has been created quite by accident; forest and estate tracks make a mountain bike route, the railway provides mechanical uplift.

Action shot in the Corrour Forest

Donald has put a Google Earth map showing the route on his blog. Danny has gone one better and made a short film of the journey. There is not much actual cycling in the film – I reckon a helmet can is the way forward!

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Monday, 5 October 2009

The White Shepherd: Walking the Strathfarrar Hills

The weekend saw the appearance of the 'white shepherd', a name for the first snows of winter derived from their effectiveness at flushing grazing sheep from the high tops. The phrase dates back to a bygone era; it was the roaring of stags rather than the bleating of sheep that provided the soundtrack to Sunday's traverse of the ridge separating Strathfarrar from Glen Orrin.

The 'white shepherd': the first snows of winter on Sgur na Lapaich at the head of Glen Strathfarrar

I read about the white shepherd in the book 'Isolation Shepherd', Iain Thomson's delightful account of the years he spent as a regular shepherd in the upper reaches of Glen Strathfarrar. He was to be the last to experience this lifestyle, for the glen changed forever when Loch Monar was dammed as part of a hydroelectric scheme in the 1960s, consigning his Strathmore croft and its few acres of arable land to a watery grave. Even if the loch had not been dammed it is unlikely the softened population of today could produce people hardy enough to live the life that Thomson described, capable of working the land and raising a family so far from the comfort and convenience of civilisation.

View west along the Strathfarrar ridge to Loch Monar

Even before I became captivated by Thomson's prose, the glen captured my imagination by virtue of its inaccessibility. Vehicular access is strictly controlled by a gatekeeper who lives in a cottage beside the padlocked gate. She grants access only during British Summer Time, and even then only between particular hours, lending to the glen the air of a forbidden kingdom. This medieval arrangement is a legacy of the public money used to upgrade the glen's 20 odd km of single track road during the construction of the hydro scheme. Under the terms of a deal brokered by SNH the estates are obliged to grant access to a maximum of 25 cars per day.

Snow flurries over Glen Cannich

When walking through this country it is easy to become sentimental about the past, to lament the passing of a simpler and less commercial age. I prefer to celebrate the fact the the human dimension of this splendid tract of country has been documented and preserved. What I do regret is that not all our hills and glens have been blessed with a chronicler of Thomson's eloquence; as their rich social histories fade the lands become barren, gradually turning one man's home to another's wilderness.

Up to date information regarding access arrangements can be found on the Mountaineering Council of Scotland's website.

I was accompanied on this outing by Donald. He has put some good photos on his blog.

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Friday, 2 October 2009

Running, Grouse, Windfarms and National Parks

Frequently updated blogs can easily become annoying, but Will Gadd's is an exception. Reading his thoughts on training made me feel slightly lazy, so I decided to convert my guilty indolence into useful action. I enlisted Tam the dog to accompany me on my favourite hill run, taking in the rounded summit of Beinn Bhuidhe Beag. It's about a 10 km circuit of landrover tracks with an invigorating 300 m of ascent. I wrote about ski-touring this route a couple of months ago.

Having such a facility on my doorstep makes me glad to live in Scotland where our tradition of free access to the hills is enshrined in law. Our access situation contrasts sharply with that elsewhere the world, notably in North America. I've been researching a trip to the National Parks of Utah next year; Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Arches. Like most people nowadays I suffer from terrible carbon guilt and the reason I've been able to suppress this enough to justify a long haul flight is because of the unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation provided by the US National Park system.

Looking down the Allt Carn a'Ghranndaich towards a cloud shrouded Ben Wyvis

In many ways North America provides an ideal location for the establishment of national parks; large areas exist that are devoid of development, allowing the land managers to draw a boundary and impose rules to protect the land both for nature and for outdoor recreation. In our crowded island the situation is very different. Both the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Parks contained landowners, settlements and peoples' livelihoods long before they were designated as National Parks. Protecting the land from insensitive development has to be balanced with the desire to maximise the economic benefits brought to an area by national park classification.

Tam strains at the leash as we approach the summit of Beinn Bhuidhe Bheag

It is often difficult to decouple the recreational value of a piece of land from its economic value. My morning's run over the grouse moor is a case in point. If this land was in its wild state of trackless heather and peat hags it wouldn't be an attractive venue for running or for biking.

An aspect of running that I enjoy is the way it allows apparently disparate thoughts coalesce into communicable themes. Today's insight was that my continued enjoyment of this running route may be reliant on the economic benefit that grouse shooting brings to the landowner continuing to outweigh that which they could gain through alternative land uses. One such alternative use might be covering the land in windfarms. I'm not as violently opposed to these developments as some, but all the same I prefer viewing them from a distance to running in their shadows.

This unprotected, but accidentally recreationally useful, state is all too fragile. I'd like to see the National Parks Act used to protect a far greater proportion of Scotland's wild lands.

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