Knife Edge.

Nov. 2nd, 2013 04:31 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)


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Running along the north side of Glencoe, a deep glaciated valley with a long, sometimes barbourous history, is a long, steep-sided mountain ridge.I like ridge walking; I have climbed many of the ridges in the Scottish mountains - Liatach, An Teallach, and much of the Skye Cuillin - including the Inaccessible Pinnancle, an ill-named, very exposed blade of rock sticking out of (and a very little higher than) Sgurr Alasdair. To climb the Inn Pinn, you need ropes - it is the only one of the 283 Scottish mountains recognised as being over 3,000 feet ("Munros") for which you do need ropes.

But the Aonach Eagach comes close. And it is much, much harder than the rest of the Cuillin: once you have reached the ridge, an hour and a half's climb, there is only one way to go. And the scrambling is incessant for four or five hours, without a break.

It was foggy, as it was when I climbed the Inn Pinn, which I think was an advantage: it stops one thinking of the possible dangers when you can't see down.

It is a narrow path along the top of the ridge, and lots of ups and downs - pinnacles - that require scaling and scrambling. On Liatach and An Teallach, there are ways to avoid the more uncomfortable pinnacles; on the Cuillin, whilst the ridge is precipitous, there are lots of flat bits in between those that require scrambling. The Aonach Eagach lacks both alternative routes around the pinnacles and much space in between. Certainly nowhere to stop.

I quite enjoy scrambling, but the intensity of the Aonach Eagach is just wearing. And it is not an easy scramble - it is the most difficult route before it becomes real mountain climbing (what I do I usually describe as walking!). The guide I and two others hired - absolutely essential, I reckon, and I couldn't have done it without him - had to direct me a fair bit - where to put my hands and feet. There was a lot of stretching between hand- and footholds - my limbs ached for several days after. There were many times when I couldn't see what was below me; the was one moment when I had to stretch my leg down and down a bit more, and I could feel my hands losing their grip, and I couldn't see how far I would fall. It turned out to be about two inches. But timed stopped...

At other points, the path was barely a foot wide on the ridge, with sheer drops on each side. I happily surrendered my dignity and crawled along, one hand and one foot on each side of the ridge.

I am pleased to sat that I shall not be climbing the Aonach Eagach again. I may well climb the first (eastern) Munro again, from the north. The second, westerly Munro I have climbed before. It was actually the first Munro I ever climbed, before I knew any better. I was staying at the Clachaig, a pub at the west of the glen, in 1987 or '88. It was a glorious early summer day. I had had a pint and lunch, and I noticed a path going up the hillside opposite the pub. So I climbed up, right to the top. Several years later, I read "this route should be avoided... a hazard... Not recommended".



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(The cloudy photos were taken on this trip. These sunny photos were taken on a - sunnier - trip last year. I must have many old, black and white photos of Glencoe and the Aonach Eagach amongst my negatives. Another scanning project, perhaps...)


Sep. 8th, 2013 05:54 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
My journey from Unst back to Edinburgh started with a short ferry ride to Yell. I thought about visiting the hamlet of Gloup, where the drowned men came from, but instead decided to see if I could find otters. Despite looking, I hadn't seen otters on Unst. Yell has a lot of otters. When the BBC want to film otters, they go to Yell. Apparently it is otter-central for otters in Europe. (Interestingly, they were extinct in Yell and reintroduced. Though I can't remember where I read this.) So I went to a bit of the coast renowned for its otters. I went to Otter Wick. The clue is in the name.

It also had the White Lady, a figurehead from a sunken boat: she stands on the shore, looking toward the site of the wreck. She is crudely carved, painted white, and frankly spooky.

I didn't see any otters; more irritating, I bumped into a couple who told me they had seen otters on Unst the previous evening. I did see lots of seals in Yell, and had a good walk along the coast before heading to the next ferry, to Mainland.

It was cloudy on Mainland. Rather than head straight to Lerwick, where I was staying, I decided to go north. I drove right to the north, past hamlets and Nordic-looking towns, oil depots and large fjord-like voes.

I stopped and went for a walk. I walked from the east coast of Mainland to the west; from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It took me a minute or so: despite being a fair distance from the north of the island, at Mavis Grind the inlet - voe - to the east and that to the west almost meet, leaving a narrow isthmus barely wider than the road. The Vikings used to carry their long boats from one side to the other, to save the long sail north and then south around to top of Mainland. (The Scottish place name Tarbert - or Tarbet - indicates the same, which is why it is such a common place name around the coast.)

The road sign just south Mavis Grind warns of otters crossing the road. Not when I was there, there weren't.


I drove north, exploring the single track roads, going right to the north of the island, before heading back to Lerwick.

I had booked my b&b sometime before I left for Shetland, and I had been surprised how hard it had been. Most places were booked up - I think I tried six before finding a bed. Lerwick isn't a big place.

In some respects, I like Lerwick, but in others - well it is lacking somewhat. Despite all the b&bs being busy, the town felt pretty dead. I walked about, answering what to do with my evening - where to eat, where to drink. The streets were empty - this on a Saturday night. I decided on the fish and chip shop, eating in. Nowhere else grabbed me. The fish and chips were good, but I had hoped for more. None of the pubs I passed seemed very attractive either - not enough to entice me in. A couple of the bars are renowned for their music sessions, but there want a sound coming from any of them. Most of the bars were on the first floor, over shops at street level. Pushing past a gaggle of smokers deterred me.

The following evening was worse. I decided to eat at the Grand Hotel, a large place near the seafront. I went up the stairs and was directed to the bar, for bar food. The bar was an internal room, with no windows. And no atmosphere. There were two other tables, plus me: a couple at one, and three or four blokes at the other, perhaps guys off the rigs. No one was talking. The food was actually very good - I had some delicious scallops - but the place itself was awful.

I decided to go for a drink somewhere else, and settled on the Queens Hotel, on the water. The pub bit of the hotel was Obb the ground floor. I walked in. It was empty. I was the only pointer there. I walked to the bar; it had exactly the same beers as the Grand, and then I noticed the bar menu - it was owned by the same people as the Grand. The beer hadn't been great, there was no company, so I simply walked out again.

There was no one on the streets, either night. I once went to Iceland, where everybody had been making the most of the summer: it had a really busy feel, as if the locals were making up for lost time. It is possible that, like Reykjavik, Lerwick was at its liveliest late in the evening, but I saw absolutely no evidence of it. The place just seemed dead.

Mainland was fog-bound the two days I spent there, which was a pity. My first stop was Sumburgh Head, to look at the puffins. It was foggy, which shouldn't have surprised me. I saw a couple of puffins, but not the great many I had been expecting; I think I may just have been too early (which means next time I go to Shetland, it will have to be midsummer!).

There were however a lot of guillemots and fulmars.

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Whilst the higher land was in cloud, at the water level it was clear. I went for a walk around Boddam Voe (where I had read on the internet there had been lots of otters recently). Several seals - their faces in the water surprisingly otter-like in the distance (though binoculars sorted them out); eider bobbing on the surface; and waders flitting along the sea edge. No otters.

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I went back to Lerwick, stopping just outside the town at Clickminn. There I looked at the broch, a low (now), circular structure, moody in the mist; three thousand years old.




And then, just beyond the supermarket, I watched more seals lounging on the rocks, completely indifferent to the encroachment of commerce.



The next day - the last day - I drove across to the west coast, under and in the cloud. The museum at Scalloway was closed - it had been recommended, and I reckoned my refound affection for small community museums would have appreciated it - so I drove around some of the tiny roads and bridges connecting an archipelago of islands - Trondra, Burra, East Burra, Kettla. I went to Hamnavoe (there are several places called Hamnavoe, some pieces of water, some on land), I went to Bridge End (which, confusingly, is not at the end, but in the middle), and down to Houss (where there is a house), opposite the imposing cliffs of Clift on Mainland.

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I went back to Lerwick, and had another look around the museum, and then I queued for the ferry, and sailed, overnight, back to Aberdeen.




rhythmaning: (sunset)
I went on a couple of walks along the coast near where I was staying, on at dusk, the other, longer, during the day.

I went at dusk hoping to see otters, active around the turn of the tide (apparently). No otters, but a striking sky and a good walk along the shore.

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Haroldswick - "Harold's bay" (those Vikings again) - is a broad bay, bounded on the north east by cliffs leading to the Hill of Clibberswick, the Giant and the Horns of Hagmark. Clibberswick (a place rather than the hill) is home to a large deposit of mica schist, which is mined for use as talc (mica is derived from serpentine deposits).

Along the shore, the sea has cut into the cliffs forming deep geos; the sea has eroded the cliffs, leaving jagged stacks and natural arches.

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No otters, but lots of Shetland ponies - which are very cute. And their foals, which are even cuter. There were few birds, though.

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I could see the cottage I was staying in, in the distance.



Aug. 10th, 2013 06:58 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
There are two small, community museums on Unst, and I waited for the bad weather day to take advantage of them. It is two for the price of one: the same ticket gets you into both. They were both in easy walking distance for me; but it was pissing with rain, and I was buggered if I were going to get drenched again. I drove.

The boat haven is a large shed, full of boats. I wasn't certain; it didn't seem my kind of thing. I didn't think a collection of boats would be interesting.

I was completely, totally wrong. It was fascinating. Not really the boats themselves - though they were quite beautiful, some of them, crafted with great craft and love - but for the stories they told.

I may have mentioned that Unst is an island; archaeologists can trace its history back six thousand years. And it is only in the last hundred or so that roads have been important. Before that, it was boats. Or rather, the sea - and the sea made the boats important, too. People used boats for everything: it was how they lived.

At the boat haven, the history of each boat had been researched. Who built it, who bought it, who died in it - sometimes - who inherited it, who sold it. The social history of the people of Unst was told through the boats they used - to fish, to socialise, to run errands. Even after the coming of the internal combustion engine, people use their boats for food and sport: and the stories of each boat's success in the regattas were told. The boats were also rather splendid objects; all wooden, they had a lot of character - full of wear and tear, and grain.

The same names kept cropping up - the same family names, and often the same people. Sandison. Mouat. Isbister. Sinclair. These people had multiple roles: sailor, fisherman, boatbuilder. Squire. The main race in the regatta seems to have been for the Sandison Cup. And was frequently won by a Sandison, or so it seemed.

These stories were compelling.

There was also a lot about the history of the sea and Unst. Even after the Scottish takeover, Unst had strong links with Scandinavia: it was a major trading stop for merchants of the Hanseatic league, and Scots traders would come up to trade with the merchants.

Then when fishing became industrialised in the 19th century, Baltasound on Unst became one of the major herring ports in Europe, with tens of thousands of people working there during the season, travelling from all over Europe. One of the museum displays described the life of these itinerant workers. Many of the jobs were seen as women's work, allowing women to earn a living outside of service; but it sounded very hard work, gutting and filleting the fish, large quantities incredibly quickly. They used sharp, specially shaped knives and frequently cut themselves. They stayed in dorms, only socialising with men on Saturdays, when there might be dances. Sunday, the one day off, was for church.

The life of fishermen was no less alien. Before industrialisation of fishing, men would sail or row for many miles, following the shoals of herring or chasing a whale - forty or fifty miles into the Atlantic in large open boats holding several sailors. Many were lost, the boats not returning to port and their bodies never found.

It seemed a very rough life, stuck out in the north Atlantic. I could not imagine living on Unst now - let alone one hundred years ago. No electricity or gas; no roads. No vehicles. Ponies - Shetland ponies - did a lot of the work. The community museum also told a lot of stories, most of which were inconceivable.

It was another fascinating place. There was a lot about the geology; a lot about the archaeology; and a lot about crofting and fishing. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon.

The same names that had cropped up as boat builders, sailors, racers and fishermen were repeated here. Stories of disasters at sea and drownings; stories of families left destitute; stories of young men emigrating to New Zealand and Canada: while generations of men from specific hamlets. And men going off to war - the Shetland men were prized sailors, being press ganged into the Navy in the time of sail, and called up in the last century.

If life in the last century was unimaginable, what must it have barren life for the ancient Picts, facing the Vikings; or for the people who left the standing stones? Absolutely inconceivable, at least to me.

I loved both these museums; that seemed labours of love rather than a worthy institution. The somewhat amateurishness added to their charm - they reflected the people of the island, and I liked that.

* * *

The museum at Lerwick - on Mainland - was grander, much larger, and much more professional; but it was also a great place, and I could have spent much more time there. As it was, I went twice, because the weather was - well, foggy, and there wasn't much to see outside. It was an superbly designed building, beside the dock.

What I loved most were the displays of boats. Clearly I was now hooked. There were boats outside, moored at the dock; boats inside, hanging from the ceiling; even a boat shed, where you can watch people working on boats - the museum has a scheme to keep some of the old bodybuilders' skills alive. It was a wonderful place. And better lit than the boat haven - so I took some photos, this time.





Aug. 2nd, 2013 04:13 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
Unst is nearer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Edinburgh, and it was Norwegian before it was Scottish, the result of Viking invasions in the 8th century. Before that, it was inhabited by the Picts.

Nobody is really sure what happened, of course (unlike the transfer from Norwegian to Scottish power in the 14th century, the political shenanigans of which are well documented - needless to say, Norway might have a valid claim to Shetland, even today...).

There are three possibilities.
  1. the Vikings landed in Shetland and specifically Unst and peacefully coexisted with the Picts until the two cultures were completely integrated. Everyone knows how peaceful those Vikings were
  2. the Vikings landed and killed all the male Picts, taking the women for their own
  3. the Vikings landed and basically killed everyone, removing every last remnant of Pictish culture

One clue which archaeologists and anthropologists reckon is pretty telling involves the place names. Unst is full of place names derived, apparently, from Norse languages. No, not "full of"; it consists ENTIRELY of place names derived from Norse and Anglicised versions of them. The are no Pictish place names at all.

They believe that had any Picts survived the Viking invasions, their place names would have survived, too. The most likely scenario is (3), annihilation of the Picts by the peace-loving Vikings.

Unst's Viking history is revelled in today, despite its bloody nature. Viking costumes can be seen (though much more so in Lerwick, where Viking weapons and regalia decorated the walks of the B&B I stayed in). On Unst they apparently elect a Viking chief. Near where I stayed in Haroldswick is a replica longship, the Skidblader, and they are building a Viking longhouse.



There are archaeological remains of Viking settlements all over Unst. A large group of settlements north of Belmont at Snabrough appear as a series of mounds and ridges, stones poking through the soil, the outlines of large buildings and rooms, maybe farms.

There are remnants of Unst's prehistory: there are two large standing stones and, in the field next to where I was staying, were the unmistakable remains of a stone circle. Well I think they were unmistakable, but they do not appear on any map and i haven't been able to find any reference to them. Perhaps they are a more modern creation; perhaps I am just imagining it. But whilst I have looked for stone circles marked on maps many times before, all around Scotland (often fruitlessly), I have never ever found, or believed to have found, a stone circle not marked on a map. Except this once.



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Shetland became Scottish through marriage. Kind of. Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway, was married to James lll of Scotland, and had a big dowry. Unfortunately, Norway was broke, so Scotland took Orkney and Shetland as security: the islands were pawned, basically. Apparently, when Norway later tried to pay, Scotland wouldn't accept, deciding to keep the security rather than the cash. Scotland then just annexed the islands.

They ruled the islands - whose people were basically Norse - via a series Earls, who generally behaved badly, leading to various revolts. So the Earls built castles, like Muness (across the road from one of the large standing stones), built by the people they were designed to oppress.





Aug. 1st, 2013 06:57 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
I still hadn't seen puffins. I went to the Hermaness reserve headquarters to see if the warden could point me in the right direction. The HQ is in the former shore house for Muckle Flugga, where lighthouse keepers would stay during their off periods, and where their families lived the whole time.

The warden want there, but there is very good display, including a map showing where different birds could be seen. Puffins should be - exactly where I had been walking.

So I went back there.

I walked the longer but faster path, west to the cliffs and then north. I met a woman and we chatted briefly; she was keen to see bonxies but hadn't realised that they were the large birds all around. I passed a tall guy carrying a large tripod and a load of camera equipment.

It was a fine day, though rain was forecast. The views, same as before but in reverse, and in different light, were good. I kept my eyes open, scanning the cliffs and the sky for puffins.

I saw several as walked back until I walked back until once more I was the most northerly person in Britain, opposite the lighthouse. On the step grass slopes down to cliffs were a while troop of puffins. Not a crowd, not the hordes that I had expected but quite a few.

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I spoke to many people about the lack of puffins. The consensus seems to be that it was just too early. It shouldn't have been. It should have been early but well into the breeding season, but the inclement weather in March and April seems to have kept the birds at sea. It was the same at Sumburgh, on Mainland, where I went before going back to Edinburgh - just one it two puffins. Out maybe they were all out at sea, fishing. Or maybe they were just hiding from me. There are certainly large numbers of birds around now, just as they are about to return to the sea. (The last time I was in Shetland, this time of year, one day we went back once more to watch the puffins and they had all flown away, overnight.)

Walking back to the car, it started drizzling. It had tried to rain once or twice in the afternoon as I walked north, but the rain had amounted to nothing, so I ignored it now, too. Suddenly it was bucketing down, and I was drenched, and my camera was drenched. By the time I realised how wet it and I were, it was too late; everything was wet.

When I got back to the house where I was staying, my camera had died. Completely. I took out the battery and the card, and left it to dry, hoping it would get better. It was still dead in the morning, leaving me to rely on my small, pocket camera; but by the evening it had fully recovered.

Which is nice.
rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
Its northerly position makes Unst militarily important: RAF Skaw was established during the war to monitor (potentially hostile) shipping traffic; and RAF Saxa Vord joined it and continued after the war as a radar tracking station, part of the cold war effort.

And cold it must have been. The tracking station itself is the top of the highest hill on the island; it is the site of the highest recorded wind speed in the UK - 197 mph. At which point the equipment was blown away. So it might have been even stronger. (Two people died in Hermaness in the storm when the hut in which they were sheltering was blown away.)

The radome apparently blew away with some frequency, turning up in different places down the hill. The station is now unmanned, the last personnel leaving in 2006. (Though many didn't leave, staying on as civilians.) The hill on which the radome stands is called Saxa Vord, as is the base which housed the personnel, which is basically in Haroldswick. The staff quarters were sold off (several being bought the ex RAF people, apparently) and the offices have been turned into a business park and "resort" (with bar and restaurant! Which opened the weekend I left!). You go in through the medical wing; there is a good cafe (though serving Nescafe!) where they make good chocolates, and an interesting display of the history of the base. There is a brewery next door, too - called Valhalla. One for all you Wagner fans. "Britain's most northerly..." etc. (Also, I would guess, Britain's most remote!) I enjoyed several of their beers during my stay...

The thing about the military is that they have infrastructure. And lorries. Which need roads. The main road on Unst is a decent width double-track, probably because of the lorries. And the road up the hill is still in pristine condition, presumably because the RAF patch it up.

And so I walked to the end of the road.

The north end of every British road, that is. Marginally further north than the road at Skaw. (No more "most northerly" after this, I think. Though I won't promise.)

The sign at the bottom of the road clearly states "No Entry", but everyone seemed to ignore that: despite only going up the hill, it was surprisingly busy. I saw three vehicles in two hours.

There were great views of Muckle Flugga, Burra Firth (the stretch of water) and Hermaness. There were scores of bonxies, and larks singing above me as I climbed.

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The hill is covered in peat, and piles of freshly cut peat lay beside the road.


The entrance to the radar station itself is secured, and I had no wish to set of any alarms (it being a very large observation post, it was hard to imagine that I wasn't being watched - albeit remotely); and beside the road went past the main station down to a remote weather station near the edge of the cliffs. I followed the cliff top around to the Noup and above Brei Wick before heading back.

Another great walk, with great views.

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But still no puffins.


Jul. 31st, 2013 08:03 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
There isn't a great deal to do on Unst. This didn't come as a surprise. I knew there were no restaurants (I was early in the holiday season: the two hotel restaurants opened the weekend I left), nor a pub I could get to without driving (the nearest bar to me is in the hotel which would be opening the weekend, etc).

What there was a lot of was walking. Which I did; on six out of the seven days I was there, I walked about ten miles out more. (On the other day, it rained, and I went too the two - excellent - community museums.)

Unst is an island, which means almost every walk - at least every walk I did - involves the coast. There was Hermaness, of course, its dramatic cliffs dropping precipitously; and the following day I went on another coast walk, this time on the west coast; and more cliffs.

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It was another great walk; blowy, with birds. Up the coast from the ferry terminal, with Yell to the west. The coast was full of inlets, as costs are; Shetland has many deep sea lochs, as if to emphasise its Scandinavian heritage. ("Voes" in Shetland - fjords in Scandinavia...) Lots of smaller cuts in the cliffs, too - "geos".

Shags (fnaar) and terns were the predominant birds - large gathering of shags sunning their wings on the cliffs. There were a lot of shore birds as well - waders, mainly. And some terns. A seal watched lazily from the sea as a followed the line of the beach.

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The walk took in several ruined buildings. Unst is full of ruins. Standing stones. Viking ruins. Medieval ruins. Abandoned crofts and cleared settlements. Ruins, and lost history, abound. (Later, in the Lerwick museum, I read of an excavation of a cleared settlement, which indicated that the inhabitants had left quickly and in a hurry - their pots and pans still over the fire, nothing packed away.) My amateur eyes could not discern one ruined settlement from another: I accepted what the guide book said were Viking ruins from Celtic ones and Christian settlements. (Ok, I could identify the standing stones...)

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History lurks within the soil: you can see the boundaries between ancient fields left by generations, the trees that weren't cut down (ok not in Shetland, no trees except those planted by Victorian landowners!). The whole of Britain has been shaped by man. The history of Unst is one of change. The Vikings replaced the Picts, the Scots replaced the Vikings, and landowners replaced the crofters. The ruins on the peat moors were very dramatic and evocative.

I walked by ancient and ruined chapels, one still used as a burial ground - a strange mix of ancient and modern (albeit dead).


I walked back past Belmont House, a fine Georgian building on the machair - it looked as if it were transplanted from Edinburgh.


* * *

There are a lot of northerly places on Unst: the most northerly Post Office in Britain, the most northerly road, the most northerly house... Which I walked by. I started from Norwick beach - a very fine, broad beach of golden sand; it looked Mediterranean, but for the breeze. The track to Skaw rises from the north of the beach and climbs the cliffs (imaginatively named "The Cliffs"). The gate was locked, a notice saying the track was closed because of the danger of landslips. Instead, I just head straight up the hill to meet the road, and walked - well, north, over Swartling to Skaw.


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I don't know what Swartling is, but it is marked on the map. Actually, there are many features shown on the OS map of Unst that I couldn't really work out what they were. I know I was there, but couldn't tell what the map referred to. For instance, I'm pretty sure that "Horns of Hagmark" are cliff stacks that I walked along; but "The Giant" - just south on the map of the Horns of Hagmark - what is it? I was looking for it - I mean, who wouldn't go looking for "The Giant"? But, well there wasn't anything very gigantic there. Still, I wasn't sure what I was actually looking for, so it could have been anything.

On the other hand, the map is full of great names. Like "The Horns of Hagmark".

At Skaw I said hello to the woman who was cleaning her stream (she had passed me in her LandRover and offered me a lift, and smiled when I said I wanted to walk) and walked on the beach. There is a farm at Skaw (the most northerly...), and a traditional "haa" - a hull-roofed dwelling. I climbed the cliffs to the south and followed them, undulating up and down and in and out, watching terns fish and fulmars somehow sitting in their nests on the cliff-face. And I saw a Great Northern Diver.




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The path leads out to the Garths (what? What?!) and Lamba Ness, the point which is almost cut off - the track fills the width of the isthmus. The Garths and the Ness are dotted with abandoned, derelict military buildings; there is a sketch map on the road identifying their different functions. It was the site of a large RAF radar installation in World War 2 - RAF Skaw - which kept watch over the route from the North Sea into the Atlantic. (Presumably the gap between Shetland and Orkney was patrolled by the Navy.) It has an odd feeling, this huge site returned to nature.

I walked back to Norwick, getting to the road where the closed track met it; there was a guy walking up the track, so I thought I'd risk it. After a couple of hundred yards, there was a large crack in the tarmac; a bit further on, the road had slipped about a foot. I could see more cracks in the track, too, the tarmac hanging onto the edge of the Cliffs. I decided to give it a miss, returning to the road and then back down the hill, the way I had come.

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rhythmaning: (sunset)
I was staying in Unst, the most northerly (inhabited) of the British Isles, in Haroldswick, the second-most northerly hamlet on Unst; Norwick, as the name suggests, is further north (and there is a house at Skaw which is Britain's most northerly habitation).

Pretty far north, then. So what I did on my first full day was go as far as I could. I walked to the end of the British Isles; at least, the end you can get to.

The most northerly point on Unst is Hermaness; a nature reserve. Just off Hermaness is Muckle Flugga, one of the lighthouse Stevenson's lights built on one the largest of a chain of skerries; the end of the series, the end of the line, is the literally named Out Stack. (The BBC can get permission to land on Muckle Flugga, but for most people it is prohibited. It also seems quite dangerous, so whilst one can get a boat around Muckle Flugga, I chose not to.)

I walked out across Hermaness Hill, climbing through the heather (avoiding the breeding area set aside for the birds) to the brow of the hill, when the lighthouse came in sight. It was a lovely morning with bright blue skies. The hill slipped steeply down to the sea, with tall cliffs dropping down to the water. There were large numbers of birds - Arctic Great Skuas ("bonxies") on the heath, gannets and fulmars on the cliffs. (And lots of little brown jobs - lbjs - on the heath too, but I could only recognise a few.)

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Walking along the cliffs was very bracing. Looking north, with nothing beyond the light and Out Stack, somewhat daunting. I was the most northerly person in Britain. Everyone was south of me. It did feel a bit special.


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I walked back along the cliffs, on the west coast. There were large colonies of gannets clinging to the steep sided cliffs and skerries. Gannets are vary beautiful - but the fulmars are the most graceful flyers. Both were a joy to watch. Their numbers were impressive, their flights hypnotic. I spent a long while just watching.

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What I didn't see were puffins. I had expected many: Hermaness is famous as being one of the largest puffin colonies in the world. Last time I visited Shetland, I saw large numbers of puffins at Sumburgh; they are captivating birds. They were so impressive when we visited in mid July, we went back the next day, and watched them flying - and clowning! We went back a third time; and there were none: overnight, they had flown away, not to return to dry land until the next spring.

But this time, at Hermaness, there were none. I met a group of six or seven walking the other direction - the only people I passed the whole day. I asked if they had seen puffins, keen to know where to look as I took the long walk back; they hadn't seen any either. At least this meant I wasn't just being thick! They were a group of geologists: Unst has an interesting geology, half of it derived from north America (the result of continental drift - the Highland fault that separates the ancient north American rocks in Scotland from younger European rocks runs through Unst), the rest from the Atlantic floor, including a large chunk of very rare serpentine soil. I have travelled half way around the world looking at plants growing on serpentine (namely, New Caledonia) - ironic that a large area of serpentine is found in old Caledonia, too.

It was, though, a glorious walk, following the cliffs; warm (not hot!), sunny, a bit breezy. The birds I did see were so impressive and beautiful.
rhythmaning: (whisky)
I got the time of the boat wrong; fortunately arriving early, not late. I had two hours to spend in Aberdeen; I wandered around, had a coffee, had some chocolate. The centre of Aberdeen seemed badly hit by the downturn, with many shops closed out vacant; yet oil money was meant to keep the city buoyant whatever happened in the broader economy. It might be that the petrol dollars are not evenly distributed, and that the centre suffers whilst offer parts boom.

I went to the Maritime Museum, down by the docks. It is an excellent museum, though full of images of disaster. Oil paintings of wrecked vessels and drowning sailors abound; one display after another recount tales of bravery and folly at sea: while fishing fleets destroyed by a turn in the weather. Fishing families, poor at best, devastated as all the men drown. (This must be why so much of the folk music is full of despair.)

Worst of all was the detailed exhibit on the Piper Alpha disaster. Twenty five years ago, the drilling platform caught fire, killing 167 men (including some rescuers); the 61 survivors were scarred physically and mentally. (The father of a friend of mine was a psychiatrist who worked with survivors at an Aberdeen hospital - and apparently he found it traumatising enough.) It is hard to comprehend the horror. On a rig, there's nowhere to escape to. Even today, the disaster hangs over the city, which is dependent on oil.

After this litany of disaster - all of it heart-rending - I was surprised not to see an RNLI collection box anywhere. They'd have cleaned up. The museum is excellent, well put together and engaging, if a little depressing. That's life at sea, I guess.

Shetland is a long way, nearer Norway than Scotland; the Arctic Circle is nearer than Edinburgh. The ferry takes twelve hours to get there, ploughing through the rough waves and calamitous North Sea swells that caused so much of the damage described in the museum. Or, fortunately, not. On this occasion, the sea was flat as a pancake.

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Aberdeen harbour is busy, full of oil support vessels and large rescue craft (in part a legacy of Piper Alpha). The quays are crammed with oil storage tanks and steel containers (everything is taken onto and off the rigs in containers). There are even ice-breakers.


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The sky and the sea were the same gun metal grey. I spent a lot of time on the deck, watching the north east coast slip by until we were out of sight. The occasional splodge of bright orange set against the grey showed where the rigs were, the gas flames flowing unnaturally. (You can see the same from Edinburgh, from gas processing works in Fife, across the Forth.)

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The ferry goes overnight, leaving Scotland in the evening and arriving in Shetland - Lerwick - in the morning. You can book cabins, but not wanting to share, instead I booked a "sleeping pod" - a kind of deluxe chair - largely because the idea of having to share a cabin really didn't appeal. Really bad plan! Firstly because the boat was pretty quiet, so I doubt I'd have had to share; but mostly because it was very hard to sleep in the ill-named sleeping pods.

It barely got dark. Six weeks before the solstice, the sun hardly dipped below the horizon. There was a strip of bright sky in the north throughout the night. At 2am, the darkest, the clouds have enough glow to cast a (very weak) shadow; a week later, it was possible to read outside at that time, without a torch.

There were distant lights on the horizon. Ships that pass in the night.
I was wide awake by 5am, full-Scottish breakfasted by 6, when the canteen (and bar!) opened, and on deck to watch us arrive in Lerwick at 6.30. Low cloud hung over Mainland as we passed the long spur that starts with Sumburgh and ends in Lerwick.

I first stocked up with food, as soon as the supermarket opened, and then drive north. Further north. Unst is a further two ferry rides from Mainland - Yell lies in between (home to its own fishing tragedy - 58 men drowned, 36 from the small village of Gloup). I took the back road over Yell, following the south and then east costs. I stopped at the community museum, which had some interesting displays (not least about Gloup, but also paintings and a bit about the wildlife), and had a coffee. Kind of. Nescafe, in fact, which I hadn't had for years. For reasons I don't understand, no one seemed to make real coffee on the islands. Everywhere I went, they had Nescafe. Good thing I bought ground coffee at Lerwick.

I was the only passenger on the ferry between Yell and Unst. It would be a quiet week.
rhythmaning: (sunset)
We stayed overnight just south of Fort William. In a pub, conveniently enough.

We had no specific plan for the next day, but I had asked the jovial guard on the Jacobite what time the train left Fort William the following morning.

We decided to go back and watch it cross the Glenfinnan viaduct.

I had walked in the area (there are a couple of munros at the head of the glen) and had explored the monument, so I knew some of the paths up the glen.

It was a dreich morning, with low cloud and a gloomy threat of drizzle. We parked in the NTS car park and walked up the glen, trying to work out (ie arguing) where we'd get the best view. We walked past the viaduct and climbed the hill.


We waited a while, later than we expected it. We had seen the engine in Fort William as we drove past the station on out way north, so we knew they were running

And then we heard the rhythmic chugging and the hiss of the steam. It was a while before we saw the engine. It slowed as it reached the viaduct, almost as if it was showing off.




It was a real treat, standing on the hillside watching the train pass: a giant train set. It might almost have been better than being on the train itself. (On the train, you rarely get to see the engine, of course.)

The driver waved as the engine went by. As did most of the people in their window seats.


After the train had passed, we walked back down to the car, and drive the short distance to Glenfinnan station. There is a small museum there, celebrating the West Highland line. Small, but great fun. I liked it a lot.

Then we went to the Glenfinnan dining car. This is a cafe set up in an old dining car on a bit of track. I have been past so often, and never stopped. My loss. It was a great place, and it felt very right. It will become the second obligatory coffee point on the road to Mallaig. (There is also a sleeping car, converted to a walkers' hostel!)

We decided to head towards Oban for lunch. Just south of Fort William, we got caught up behind the massive earthmovers again; in over 24 hours they had moved maybe fifty miles. It took a while to pass then again, and by then we were too hungry to wait until Oban, so we went to the Seafood Cafe outside Kinlochleven. This was very good - absolutely delicious! - and highly recommended if you're in the area!

Indeed, the only thing missing from the journey back was a pint at the Clachaig. But then, I was driving...


Jul. 18th, 2013 03:32 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
My brother was in Scotland over his birthday, and, lacking ideas for a suitable present, I was prompted to steal one from Michael Portillo after watching the rerun of a rerun of a rerun of his travels through Britain by train. I booked two tickets on the Jacobite. Actually, since my brother had never travelled first class on a train, I booked first class tickets. (This was true at the time of booking; but by the time of the trip, he had travelled up the East Coast route to Edinburgh first class, since it was as cheap as second standard class.)

First we had to get to Fort William, a great if apparently dangerous drive. Strangely, the two possible routes (north then west, or west then north) take almost the same length of time (according to Google maps!), so having been through Glencoe several times in the last year, we went north up the A9. There were still patches of snow on the hills. At one point we were stuck behind a convoy of two massive transporters carrying huge earth movers and their police escort; the vehicles were wider than a single carriageway, so even on the dual carriageway bits the police wouldn't allow overtaking. They pulled over into one of the large parking areas just past Drumochter to allow the mile-long queue of traffic to pass.

We turned off ourselves at Dalwhinnie, stopping for coffee at Laggan before heading west in the shadow of Creag Meagaidh and the ridge of mountains to the south, leading to Ben Nevis. We were early at Fort William, and wanted around the town a while. I haven't stopped at Fort William fit several years, despite driving through many, many times; but there isn't actually much of a reason to stop.

The train was in the station. Steam trains are very beautiful. I can't explain why, but there is something about a stream engine that is attractive in ways that other locomotives are not. I went to a steam rally a few years ago, and it was the same there - steam traction engines have an allure that modern industrial power doesn't. (Unless, perhaps, you are a young child obsessed by tractors and lorries.) Perhaps it is simply nostalgia.



Either, the large black engine (my brother knew the type, but it's not really important to me) was at the platform, breathing fire. We took our seats, plush, broad seats designed for the Fat Controller. The train was full, mostly of middle aged men, many with their wives or partners. Needless to say, everyone was a tourist.

The train was going from Fort William to Mallaig. And back again. I have made this journey - the West Highland line - several times, most recently by rail a year ago; I know the road well too. The town of Arisaig is one of my favourite places, and I love this bit of the north west Highlands.

I would be surprised if many of you were not also familiar with much of the area, though you may not know it. Large chunks of the Harry Potter films were shot here; the Jacobite is the Hogwarts' Express. (During the school holidays, they rebrand the train for some rides, just as other steam trains become Thomas the Tank Engine on occasion.)


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Most famously, the line traverses Glenfinnan on the Glenfinnan viaduct. (In the movies, it's where the car is flying, trying to catch up with the train.)

The whole thing was pretty wonderful, but the Glenfinnan viaduct was particularly memorable, a broad curve with mountains on one side, and a sea loch (where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed - hence the train's name, and the reason for the Glenfinnan monument, and much of the historical interest in the whole coastline. There are a very many caves marked as "Bonnie Prince Charlie's cave") on the other.

All along the route, the views are excellent - Ben Nevis at the start (head in the clouds), various lochs and sea lochs, forests and mountains; empty beaches and views across the sea to the small isles and the mountains of Skye. It is all wonderful.


We had fish and chips in Mallaig, and a pint, and walked along the quay. And back. There's not a lot to do in Mallaig. We are our fish and chips sitting on the quayside under the watchful eye of greedy gulls.

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Travelling by steam is very different from more modern forms of rail. The rhythm of the pistons, the noise of the steam, the very chuffing from the chimney, all add to the experience.


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May. 19th, 2013 10:09 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
I think I have just been in the most depressing bar I have ever been in. Still, the food was good.

The Grand Hotel, Lerwick.

They serve food in the lounge bar, which has no windows. It felt like purgatory. Only with less life.

Bad selection of beer, too.

I thought I'd go for a pint elsewhere after I'd eaten to wash away the gloom; the two pubs in town didn't look at all inviting, so I went to the Queens Hotel. Turns out it was owned by the same people as the Grand. I went into the bar - I was the only person in there, awful choice of beer, so I turned around and walked straight out.


May. 11th, 2013 09:04 pm
rhythmaning: (violin)
I am in the north.

I'm about a mile or two from the place where the highest wind speed was recorded in the UK. It got up to 172mph. Then the apparatus blew away.

There is a Viking longship down the road. And an ancient stone circle in the field next to the house.

I'm going to say that again. I have my own stone circle!

The stone circle isn't marked on the OS 1:50000 map, so it was a surprise.

Actually, the longship was a surprise too. I drove passed it without noticing, and only saw it when I looked out of the window.

I have seen oyster catchers, eider duck, plover, gannets (lots of gannets), fulmars, several kinds of gull, and several seals. Other things too, but I can't remember...

I sometimes have a phone signal, sometimes not. I can barely get Radio 4. But barely means I can still get it.

Tomorrow, I intend to be the most northerly person in the British Isles. For a short while.


May. 4th, 2013 07:48 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
I am going away.

I am going as far north as it is possible to be and still be in Britain.

Well, nearly. I am going to Unst, the most northerly inhabited of the Shetland Isles. Muckle Flugga, an island which is home to Britain's most northern lighthouse, lies just off the coast, and there are a few rocks just north of that, too.

I am staying in Britain's second most northerly hamlet, Haraldswick (Saxa Vord is a mile north east) for a week. It is barren and, at this time of year, light; this time of year, there are 16 hours of daylight in Edinburgh (at least, there would be were the sun shining) - when I am in Shetland, there will be nearly 18 hours of daylight.

I had thought of going in April, but given the weather we have had for the last month I am glad I didn't. The attraction of April was, paradoxically, the long evenings: more chance of seeing the aurora. (Not if it is cloudy, obviously; which it probably has been.) The downside of April is that it is early in the season for birds. This is also an upside, since it would have meant that the bonxies would be less likely to attack me.

But still, the nearer the solstice, the better (with some chance of aurora...!).

So - lots of walking, though no big hills; lots of birds - I've even bought some binoculars; a fair bit of wine, beer and whisky - although it is still out of season on Unst, and the pub doesn't open until the end of May, so it shall be very much self-catering.

What I hope to see

After Unst, I have three days in Lerwick before getting the ferry back to Aberdeen.

I am really, really looking forward to it.


Dec. 22nd, 2012 04:57 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
Climbing Ben Vorlich in mid December meant a short day but lots of ice. The path was treacherous (though easily avoidable), the ground rimed and the burns, though free-flowing, had iced their edges.

It was very beautiful.

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rhythmaning: (sunset)

Ben A'an and Loch Katrine.


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Ben Vorlich.






A friend's final Munro.


Nov. 17th, 2012 04:23 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
I really liked the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall. I thought it was intelligent, modern, and at the same time retro. I loved the references to previous Bonds movies - the car, Moneypenny. I thought Daniel Craig was great, Judy Dench really earned her pay, and Javier Bardem made an excellent, scary villain. And so on.


Here be ***spoilers***. If you want to keep your suspension of disbelief, don't read this. )
rhythmaning: (Default)
Islay is a special place. It is an island – so you have to really want to be there: it takes some planning and effort to actually make the trip. It is famous for its whisky – it now has eight distilleries, producing a wide range of spirits – and its bird life. And for one weekend each year, it is home to a jazz festival.

Which makes it a very special event indeed.

The island is large, but has a small population – 3,000 or so; and it has no ordinary venues – no jazz clubs or concert halls. Instead, concerts are housed in unconventional surroundings – previous years have seen gigs in the Round Church and the bottling room of a distillery (one of my favourite all time venues!); this year they went to several distilleries and the island’s bird sanctuary.

The festival starts on a Friday evening; but it really starts on the Friday lunchtime ferry across. The boat was packed with punters, musicians, and the festival’s organisers, waiting anxiously to make sure the musicians actually make it. There was a audible sigh of relief when, with moments to spare, the last musician on the list turned up. (Though one musician was stranded on the island for the return trip, having gone to the wrong port!)

Others fly to Islay, though they miss the grandeur of the trip, leaving the hills of the mainland, passing islands before the ferry sneaks through Caol Ila (the strait, not the whisky) between Islay and Jura. It is a wonderful way to travel.

The way it works – more or less – is that a couple of more famous musicians are booked – people from the London scene, Europe or the States – and then a load of Scottish musicians come across (usually from Glasgow or Edinburgh). The ferry is a bit of a jazz Ark, because essentially there are two of each instrument. The programme basically mixes everyone up: lots of scratch gigs, and by the end of the weekend one has seen most of the musicians several times. Musicians and punters hare around the island from venue to venue.

The first gig was a duo between (Scottish) pianist Paul Harrison and the visiting US alto player Jesse Davis at the Lagavulin distillery. Lagavulin were sponsoring the festival this year, which meant they handed out ample drams at each gig – this is a very good thing! (Though I’d have been as happy if it had been Bowmore, or Bruidladdich, or Buhnnahaven, or… well, they’re all good whiskies!) Davis and Harrison opened with “I Want To Be Happy”, which seemed like a pretty good philosophy for a jazz festival. Davis, who’s been to Islay before and seems to like it there, is an altoist in the bebop-Bird mold, bringing a soulful, bluesy feel to the slower numbers; Harrison can play in a lot of different styles (from funk to free), and his accompaniment was suitably bluesy, too. A great start to the festival!

The other “guest” was pianist Zoe Rahman, up from London. All her gigs were in the Bowmore gaelic centre, which housed a grand piano for the weekend. It seemed a bit like she sat there as a stream of some of Scotland’s best jazz musicians flowed through. First up later on Friday evening were bassist Mario Caribe, drummer Stu Brown, tenor player John Burgess and trumpeter Colin Steele. Caribe is a bit of an Islay fixture, the only musician to have been at every jazz festival – this was the twelfth. This quintet had only met an hour or so before the gig but they quickly built a rapport. Caribe and Brown became Rahman’s rhythm section for the weekend. Brown took a bit of warming up, but he got better with each gig. Caribe was excellent throughout, combining subtlety with energy – a great passionate player. Rahman was great throughout the festival, too. Burgess brought his muscular toned saxophone, whilst Steele added the pyrotechnics. They played several of Caribe’s numbers, including a couple from his Islay suite, written for the 10th anniversary of the festival. An interesting combination.

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Saturday lunchtime saw John Burgess leading a quartet at Lagavulin, with Harrison on piano, Caribe on bass (looking very cool in his dark glasses – the lights were pointing straight at him!) and Doug Hough on drums. Burgess played both tenor and clarinet. A set of standards with a couple of Burgess’s tunes thrown in, this was a fun, slightly light set. Harrison played some great solos, Caribe really swung, and Burgess tried the set the gig on fire – in a shirt to match.

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I skipped the afternoon gig, choosing to walk in the rain instead (not a great decision…) before getting to Bowmore for a trio gig with Rahman, Caribe and Brown. Playing a bunch of standards as well as Caribe’s and Brown’s tunes, this was a lovely gig. Caribe shone once more, and he and Raman worked really well together – there was real musical chemistry going on. A couple of the tunes came from a suite written by Brown for Islay last year (I wasn’t there…), about the birdlife – a drunken swan, a lonely egret. It was all lovely stuff.

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The late night show on Islay is a thing of legend. I’d not been before, but I decided to stay in Bruichladdich so I could sample Colin Steele’s Melting Pot. The gig started later than its usually late start because so many people were trying to cram into the village hall. It was packed until there were no more chair, and packed a bit more. It was wonderful to hear Steele and co in such a different vibe: this time they were playing the most soulful of soul jazz. Subie Coleman sang, and she’s got a really bluesy voice, way down low. Andy Sharkey’s bass was simultaneously solid and funky – his sense of soul-time was immaculate. Steele and Phil Bancroft were a fiery frontline. I left at the interval, missing out on the party as the space cleared by those heading to their beds was apparently filled by dancers.

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Sharkey was back on bass fort Davis’ quartet lunchtime outing at Ardbeg, another enjoyable set of standards.

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But it was the following gig, Caribe, Rahman, Steele and Bancroft back at Bowmore which was the highlight of the weekend. Caribe opened with an exquisite, slow solo piece bearing a melancholy beauty; I’d love to hear him play an entirely solo set. Then he was joined the other musicians in a variety of combinations – bass and piano, then trumpet added, then sax. Rahman played a couple of solo numbers, and then the quartet finished their session together. This was marvellous music making.

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There were two more gigs, a lively trio set by altoist Martin Kershaw with Andy Sharkey and Doug Hough, and a great tribute to Cannonball Adderley with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, featuring Steele, Kershaw, Caribe, Harrison and Hough. They make the musicians work hard at Islay…

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rhythmaning: (sunset)
After my long day’s walk, I took a rest day. I had intended to spend the afternoon in Royal Lochnagar distillery, or perhaps a bar, but instead I went off hunting stone circles.

I went first to Midmar, one of the strangest circles I’ve seen – I had been there before: the circle is in a churchyard, which was built around it. It is quite bizarre, and feels quite wrong: Christianity appropriating an ancient sacred site.

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On the way back – towards Lochnagar – I noticed another circle marked on the map near Tarland, so I diverted and sought it out. Almost destroyed by quarrying in the 19th century, Tomnaverie is on the brow of a hill, where the setting sun in mid summer apparently sets over the peak of Lochnagar (the mountain, not the whisky!).

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Tomnaverie is managed by Scottish National Heritage, and they had a map of other sites nearby; and so I hared off around Aberdeenshire, looking for a couple of others. Next up was Easter Aquhorthies, which took a while to find (not least because of obscure signs marking the “Gordon stone circle trail”).

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Last up was a circle at Daviot. Like Midmar, this had also been appropriated: the circle at some point had been filled with stones, after the main circle had fallen into disuse. Another curious place!

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All these circles were easily accessible: more alive than Stonehenge, say, and far less crowded than Avebury.

(I recently came across negatives from Callanish, my all-time favourite group of circles and a magical place; sometime I shall scan them, and post them here.)


rhythmaning: (Default)

June 2017



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