Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Eric Bibb at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh


Eric Bibb is a legendary acoustic blues and gospel performer who brought his band to Edinburgh last Thursday. I've heard Eric's music many times over the years, notably on a weekly radio show called, "The Gospel Blues Train" presented by my old friend Lins Honeyman. His show goes out over various local and internet radio stations around the UK. We met Lins at the gig, who had just come from interviewing Eric Bibb for his show.

The evening began with a set from Eric's daughter Yana Bibb, who sang a fine set of jazz inflections to the accompaniment of a rich, complex jazz piano. Her father might have been raised in America, and naturally root into Blues - but apparently he brought Yana up in Scandanavia where jazz is hugely influential. As she sang, and chatted, I spotted a proud father (wearing a dustintive hat) sitting a few rows in front of us!

Eric Bibb took to the stage to huge applause and got his set underway with a splendid solo rendition of "Going Down Slow" - a song I will forever associate with Ray Charles, but predates him by some decades. Its been convered by everyone from Champion Jack Dupree to Led Zep. It's a great song for Eric Bibb to re-interpret, as the lyrics are a typical blues lament; shot through with some Black Church infused soul-searching. Ray Charles sometimes ventured into that interconnecting zone between gospel and blues on tracks like Sinners Prayer; but Eric Bibb seems to be rooted in that zone, even when he forays beyond it.

After that initial solo performance, Bibb brought a whole band on to accompany his accoustic guitar and voice. He added lead guitar, double bass, and two backing vocalist for virtually the whole set; and drew on a pianist, and sax/woodwind player for some selections; and added his daughter to the vocal section for the encores. They may have been playing music rooted in African-America, but they were a geneuinely international cast of characers and talent from Sweden, Ireland, South Africa, America and Finland! Hugely talented and able to perform as a tight unit around Eric Bibb's lead, they put on a wonderful show together.

Wayfaring Stranger was a particular highlight for me. In Edinburgh, Bibb described the way in which this hymn-like song had been written 'somewhere close to here', but had been exported to America centuries ago. Someone had taught it to slave children, who had passed it on through generations of curators and performers of Black American music. The song doesn't just lament the losses of life in a cruel and unjust world, as a straight blues might. Rather, it is infused with a gospel hope of reunion on the other side of 'jordan' - that Biblical river, so often deployed in literature and song, as a metaphor for death. The slaves (said Bibb), understood this yearning, longing hope - and adopted, and adapted the song, which he then brought back to the land where it was first written. Here's a version of that song he recorded a few years ago.



In addition to slower songs like that, Bibb and band also ripped through some of his more upbeat numbers. Here's Bibb with a rather different band, doing "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down"  



It's once again at that gospel-infused interchange, where not being turned round, might be a matter of loyalty to the gospel and hoping for heaven; but with an eye on the fact that not being turned around, was the song of the civil rights marchers here on earth too. Black theology never restricted the gospel to being something only effective after death anyway..

Civil Rights and the African American struggle to assert their dignity and achieve equality in a land to which their ancestors were brought in chains, was another significant theme of Bibb's songs on Thursday night. While some songs are straightforward protest songs, sometimes story-songs can be more powerful in connecting an audience with the lives of a distant people. Bibb's song Rosewood, was a breathtaking example of this. Despite studying (and doing some postgrad research) into race relations in American History, I had never come across the Rosewood Massacre. 



The tragic story is of a Florida town which exploded into racial conflict in 1923, was burned to the ground and never rebuilt. The lyrics Bibb assembled for this beuatifully disturbing song are lifted from a transript of the testimony of the last living survivor of the carnage. This song is haunting, sorrowful and all the more emotive for being a first-person account of a microcosm of the tragedy of racial conflict. The lines in the second verse stopped me in my tracks:
Newspapers told how many
Whites an' blacks were counted dead
But the tears had no colour - 
The tears their families shed.
Rosewood.... buried in the ashes of history.
The gig ended with Bibb's most well-known song, "Needed Time", a big full-band singalong to his version of the old spiritual song made famous by the great Lightnin' Hopkins. It's a prayer, born of desperation for the mercy and presence of Jesus - that He might 'come by here', even if only briefly. The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh was originally built as a church. As the sound of Black Gospel swept through it on Thursday night, it was as if those old stones were revisiting their original purpose. There's a great little article about The Needed Time, at Gary Burnett's Down At The Crossroads blog here.



Eric Bibb and his band put on a wonderful gig on Thursday. The self-styled "Happiest Man In The World", delivered a high-class show, full of surprises, joy, hope, sorrow, stories, protest, history, and brilliant musicianship.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Miles in The Mullardoch's

'The Mullardoch's' are the four Munro's which form a set of complex ridges on the North side of Loch Mullardoch. High hills, big climbs, navigation challenges to face, and the real remoteness of these peaks, makes the Mullardoch's a great challenge. My attempts to pronounce Gaelic place-names are often wrong. I had always thought the emphasis was on the first sylabble of Mullardoch; whereas I was appropriately corrected yesterday to Mullardoch. Loch Mullardoch was a natural loch at the head of Glen Cannich in the great inland mountains west of The Great Glen. The addition of a great hydro dam at the eastern end of the loch doubled its length, massively raised the height of the water and changed the glen forever.



Our day began just after 4AM, with a coffee fuelling, then long drive via Inverness, Drumnadrochit and Cannich to the North Side of the Mullardoch dam. There, waiting for us, as promised was Angus with his boat. We had decided against trying to walk the length of the loch, over notoriously difficult terrain, and booked the ferry. (http://www.lochmullardochferry.co.uk/index.html) Many of the hillwalking books do not mention this possibility as the boat service was unavailable for a few years, but is now up and running for six months of the year. It costs £25/person, but speeds down the loch and several takes hours off what is a very long day - especially when long car journey's are also required.

As he took us down the loch, Angus chatted to us about where we were going. He clearly knows these hills very well, and gave us some useful advice about routes and difficult river crossings - and actually took us further along the loch than the website advertises. He dropped us off at the foot of the climb up to the first Munro of the day, An Socach. The boat ride is great, speeding down the loch, surrounded by great peaks and really wild land, in high spirits and with a geat sense of expectation as to what the day might bring.




The loch lies at around 200m, and An Sochach is 1069m high, which gives a vigorous start to the walk. it was warm and humid as we worked our way up the hill's south ridge. One of our number bravely and optimistically went up the first climb in shorts. Many a Munro walk described on this blog are solo walks, in which I trudge around the Highlands like an anti-social grumpy old man! Rumours that a party of friends was assembled for this walk to avoid me paying £75 for the ferry on my own are purely conjecture! I am (contrary to what you may have heard) not 'overly cautious with money' to quite that extent. Happily, for such a long and remote walk, my wife was able to come - along with three excellent friends and neighbours who all happen to have children in the same class at the local school. When the curved summit ridge is made, the top is visible across the corrie - as well as the looming shape of the second hill beyond it.

The gloomy weather forecasters were right. I have often thought that MWIS forecasts are too pessimisitic, but they were exactly right on this one. Not long after we stood on top of An Socach, the clouds swirled in and the rain began. Route finding was fairly straightforward, the well-worn path leads down the Bealach 'a Bholla and into the climb up the western flanks of An Riabhachan. Although we worked hard on this climb the rain poured, the winds picked up and the temperatures plummetted. One of the group started to become very cold indeed, despite being very well encased in themal layers under Goretex, and wearing hats and gloves. We didn't hang around long on the top, but devoured some chocolate and moved on. Even our optimistic shorts-wearing friend gave in to warm trousers!

The long broad ridge of An Riabhachan terminates above the cliffs of Creagan Toll an Lochan, and the descent to the Bealach Toll an Lochan begins. Despite the only occasional visibility, the twisty, scrambly ridges through these hills never fails to inspire and keep the walk interesting. It was also great to extend some of the normal fleeting at-the-school gate conversations into decent chat.

The climb up to Sgurr na Lapaich is hard work. It throws almost 300m of climbing at the walkers already weary legs. Our party member who had got so cold on An Riabhachan needed a good hard work-out to warm up, and Sgurr na Lapaich duly obliged. This is a high and shapely mountain, which as the cloud began to break up, offered us stunning views of hills across Affric, Stratfarrar and further afield. Descending Sgurr na Lapaich also involved negotiating some extensive patches of ice and snow. Throwing all thoughts of dignity to the wind, (most of us) slid down on our backsides at an invogorating rate of knots.

Carn na Gobhar is a pleasant hill, which would fit in well somewhere like Glen Shee, but is outsized and outclassed by the ridges and scale of its Mullardoch neigbours. Yesterday though, it was the one hill which offered us great weather, shining sun and expansive views. Descending via the south ridge and a new hyro-scheme road, we made the dam about 9hrs after we had left the boat. Tired, acheing, hungry and rather pleased about the days work we had accomplished, we made a plan- and met for food in Aviemore on the way home.

A final note of thanks is due to the folks who kept an eye on our kids for th day so that we could get a whole day away in the hills.

How wet was it? You can guage this by the lack of photos on this post.




Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Notes: Talking 'Bout Your Mama by Elijah Wald

I first heard "The Dozens", courtesy of Blues pianist Speckled Red which was featured on a compilation LP I picked up as a teenager. It was a 'Best of Blues, Barrelhouse and Boogie-woogie' selection featuring the likes of Champion Jack Dupree, Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Pinetop Smith and Meade 'Lux' Lewis. Speckled Red's "The Dirty Dozens" stood out on the LP as being..... well a bit odd actually. While many of the other tracks on that old album were instantly enjoyable, I just didn't "get" that 'dozens" song. While many of the other songs on that LP were duly played on my Dad's turntable - and recorded from vinyl onto cassette tape so that I could play them in my room - and then later take them off to University; the dozens remained inaccessible to me. It is perhaps, on reflection, more surprising that a suburban white-kid from London was listening to Roosevelt Sykes in 1985, than that I didn't understand "the dozens"! However, when I saw that OUP had published a book entitled, "Talking 'Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps and The Deep Roots of Rap", I was intrigued. That odd song had stuck in my mind for decades, and the prospect of a cultural study tracing the inter-generational developments of African-American music sounded highly promising. My interest in such cultural links was lit by Martin Scorcese's "The Blues" DVD box-set. The series had many wonderful highlights, and plenty of surprises -  Ray Charles messing around on a grand-piano with Clint Eastwood being but one. The disc I was perhaps least interested in was one which promised to look forward (rather than back) onto music which had been influenced by Blues, rather than on The Blues itself. Never really appreciating rap, I wasn't expecting much from the film. It was, however, a revelation. The Electric Mud band were re-formed by Leonard Chess, and jammed with a series of young contemporary rappers in Chicago. In that exciting and informative session as they explored the musical threads which drew them together, I had my eyes opened to rap. Much to my surprise, and delight, some of my kids watched it with me and seemed to find something in The Blues for the first time too.

Elijah Wald's book on The Dozens promised to link that Speckled Red song I had never understood, with the rap tradition; and so I was naturally fascinated. On reading the introduction of the book, I immediately understood why I didn't get the Specked Red song. For a start, it was a song, loosely based on a verbal tradition. It was referencing a form a spontaneous verbal street combat to which I had had no exposure. Furthermore, while Red had later recorded an uncensored version of the piece, what came crackling from the Vinyl I had, was a highly bowdlerised version, which made oblique references to highly inflammatory jokes/rhymes which African-American audiences in the mid-20th Century would have immediately got. There is a strange parallel with Spike Milligan sneaking obscene WWII Army jokes into The Goon Show, under the noses of the censors - by simply missing out the punchline that half the audience knew already knew; or only saying the punchline - and missing out the joke!

Wald's book is enormously detailed, and covers vast terrain in its exploration of this fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) cultural phenomenon. The fact the book begins with six varying definitions of the dozens, shows how varied both the dozens are themselves, and how wide the interpretive literature has been too. Wald doesn't really attempt a simplistic explanation of the phenomenon - but rather accepts that most of the offered perspectives have something useful to say, because the thing itself is so varied. "To 'slip in the dozens' is to disparage one's family", says one definition from 1928, while another from 1968 intones:
"Dozens, playing the - A contest to see which young brother can remember or make up the greatest number of obscene, rhymed couplets reflecting on the opponent's parents. Sometimes called 'signifying' or 'mama talk'. Sometimes done with finger-snapping accompaniment. Though it may start in fun, it often attracts a crowd of admirers, and it can easily end in a fight. Not approved by parents." (p.xi)
And so Wald begins his book, "The Dozens can be tricky, aggressive, offensive, clever, brutal, funny, inventive, stupid, violent, misogynistic, psychologically intricate, deliberately misleading - or all of that at once in a single rhyming couplet" (p3). It is, by far, the most obscene book I have ever read. This is a fine read, about a cultural phenomenon which is worthy of respect - but not one with which I am entirely comfortable. Which is almost entirely the point. Some of the cited insults are crude, some are unsubtle, while others are very witty and funny. His explorations into the way in which rhyme can make the speaker almost portray himself as being disarmingly compelled to say the appalling last word in his couplet - is part of a great series of observations. The insults aimed at the hearer's Mama are especially interesting, particularly in the African-American context where many families are matriarchal, he notes. Your Mama is so ugly.... is so fat, or is pre-disposed to unusual or obscene sexual deviations are standard stuff. But what is disturbing is when dozens players would say, "Your Mama is so.... black", and mean it as an insult. It is perhaps an important reminder of why the African-American community needed their Black-Pride movement in the 1960s, and that so many of these dozens date from before that significant change.

Wald looks at street dozens, locates dozens play within the specific conditions of African-Americans in the early 20th Century, before going on to examine the dozens in literature (where it surprisingly pops out all over the place), and in music. It was here I that I finally understood what that strange Speckled Red song I had heard all those years ago was actually about! Wald looks at links between different styles of dozens, both within the USA and around the world. Fascinatingly, he finds significant links between West African verbal games and dozens, as an almost perfect parallel of what musicologists (and performers like Keb Mo) have discovered about Blues and African music. Wald is exceptionally careful not to overplay these links, and to stress that such correlations do not prove lineage - but the patterns he notes are important nevertheless.

Concluding with a set of observations about the dozens, but not limiting his explanations to just one thesis, Wald notes that The Dozens is: "a puberty ritual", "a cathartic form of group therapy and a valuable social outlet", "misogynist hate speech", "a retrograde expression of African-American self-hatred", "an art at the heart of African American expression" (pp171-80). 
"One can be disturbed or angered by the dozens, but one cannot deny the talent it has honed. African American comedy has been almost as central and influential in American culture as African American music, and much of its improvisational speed and biting edge comes out of th[is] verbal duelling" (p180)
This is a profoundly helpful paragraph when assessing the impact of rap - especially in evaluating the furore surrounding the 'parental advisory' stickers on many rap cd's, because of the extreme language - much of which is distressingly misogynistic. Understanding the links between this and the dirty dozens that Jelly Roll Morton heard in the first years of the 20th Century, helps the hearer to understand and culturally locate the difficult rap lyrics - even while wishing that they had been left behind in 1918. It stimulates a more respectful, and appreciative critique - even where strong opposition to the lyrical offences remains.

Wald has written a large, detailed and thorough analysis of this intriguing phenomenon. It is a highly engaging read, but not one for the faint-hearted if obscenity and sexual insults are not what you want to read. It leaves me wanting to go back and play that old Speckled Red song again, and see if this time I actually "get" it. Then perhaps some Champion Jack Dupree, or some Jimmy Yancey!

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Film Notes: Eye In The Sky


It's a long time since I have been as completely absorbed by a film as I was by this - and I've seen some good films over the last few months too. Eye In The Sky is a political/drama/thriller which seeks to open up debate about the use of drones in war - which is an extremely important issue today. Broadly speaking, in that debate there are 'hawks', who believe that the so-called 'war on terror' justifies such strikes, even if there is 'collateral damage' (ie dead innocent people). Then there are 'doves', who oppose drone strikes, deplore the deaths of the innocent, believe that they bring western governments down to the same moral level as the terrorists - to whom they also hand huge propaganda victories.

Eye In The Sky brings this debate to life, with a tense narrative constructed around one particular drone strike against Al Shabbab terrorists in East Africa. The story is obviously inspired by the infamous shopping centre atrocity associated with British terrorist nicknamed The White Widow. The dilemma faced by military and political leaders is simply this; they believe that the terrorists (if allowed to live), will imminently kill up to 80 people. However, if they kill them, they will probably kill an innocent bystander - a beautiful little African girl, innocently selling bread in the blast zone. The 80 or 1 death probability, is complicated by the fact that
the 80 would be someone else's guilt; whereas the one would be on the hands of the main characters. Worse, the electorate would not worry about the 80, but might object to the 1.

As this situation spirals into more and more morally complex territory, the different personalities around the decision making table adopt differing positions. Helen Mirren is superb as the hawkish army chief, who is absolutely convinced that taking out these would-be suicide bombers is right. Doggedly pursuing her agenda, and arranging the facts to fit her case, she is unflinching in her soldierly belief that killing saves lives. Relaying the military perspective to government is a splendid Alan Rickman (his final film role), who grows weary of having to deal with vacillating politicians. The politicians, such as the defence minister portrayed by Jeremy Northam, continually 'refer-up' the chain of command, trying to pass the buck. Aisha Takow is superb as the Alia, the innocent in the line of fire, as is Barkhab Abdi, as the Kenyan military undercover operative. Other notable acting credits go to Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox, who play the drone-pilots, who have to carry out the orders they are given, even when doing so shatters their psyche.

When I saw that a film has been made about the moral debate surrounding drone strikes, I assumed that it would be a straightforward dennounciation of the practice, with a strong focus on the innocent victims, and an array of gung-ho (yeee-har!) hawks, desperate for blood. In fact, what is presented is a finely balanced, and totally gripping drama; which although contrived, makes the viewer lurch between the two opinions back-and-forth several times in the course of the film. Interestingly, people I have spoken to have not been in
uniform agreement as to which side of the debate the film is ultimately on.

Some of the dialogue is brilliant. One stunning moment is the verbal conflict between the hawkish Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), and the dove-ish junior minister, Angela Northman. (Monica Dolan). She finds his attitude of wanting to order killings from his armchair, "disgusting". He barks back that he's stood next to corpses in the immediate aftermath of five suicide bombings, and that she should, "never tell a soldier that he doesn't know the cost of war."

As time to prevent a suicide bombing ticks away, the tension mounts, as the fateful decision still isn't made. Without giving away the ending, the plot boils to an intense crescendo, as finally someone has to made a
decision to take innocent life; or allow others to take many more. The tension as the knife-edge decision is reached is extraordinary, carried along by intelligent writing, a good script and superb acting. At one point, I found myself gripping the arms of the chair tightly - as if on a roller-coaster.

Stunned, amazed, and perplexed by what we had seen, my wife and I stepped out of the DCA Cinema in Dundee. Blinking into the bright sunlight, we debated the film all the way home. Almost a week later, there are images from this film that seem almost burned into my memory. This is a really very, very good film.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

Beinn Mhanach

Ben Lui from Beinn Mhanach

Beinn Mhanach (pro-nounced byn vanach) is a Munro in the Bridge of Orchy group of hills. While the four main Munros in this group lie alongside the main A82 heading to Glen Coe, Beinn Mhanch sits hidden behind them, mostly out of sight. No-one calls this hill Orchy's hidden gem though - because 'hidden lump' would be a fairer assessment! The hill is a good few miles from the road, and is a large grassy elongated dome, lacking any distinct ridges or towering peaks. 

Beinn Mhanach has three attributes which attract walkers to its summit cairn. The first of these is the fact that it owns mythical Munro status, and so is compulsory for those who need to add ticking lists to their enjoyment of the hills. People like me, in other words! Secondly, it is a good physical challenge. The walk in is quite long and the climb from the floor of the glen to the top unrelentingly steep and hard going. The western end of the hill is in fact steep enough that the hill walking books warn against attempting a descent this way. The greatest thing about Beinn Mhanach though, is its location. The adjacent Glen Orchy hills, stretching from Ben Dorain to Beinn a'Chreachain are only the foreground of a massive mountain panorama.



There are two obvious routes towards this hill, the first is from Bridge of Orchy station, and over the bealach between Ben Dorain and Beinn and Dothaidh. This is the shortest route, but involves a lot of extra ascent. The other is to walk from the main road towards the farm at Auch, and on under the viaduct on the Crianlarich-Fort William arm of the West Highland Railway and then along the track along the Auch Achaid-innis Chaileinn which eventually reaches recently renovated farm buildings at Ais-an t-Sithean. This track fords the meandering Allt Kinglass river repeatedly, but crossing it was never a problem as it didn't reach the height of or boots. The SMC Munro book notes that when the fords are too deep, then the walker can continue up the glen by staying on the SE bank of the stream.

Once past the Ais-an t-Sithean farm buildings, the track bears round to the right, still climbing and reaches a gate, fence and weir system before descending towards the very end of Loch Lyon. At this watershed, there is a deep gully scarring the face of the hill, which leads to the lowest point on the broad ridge between the Munro summit of Beinn Mhanach at its lower top, Beinn a Chuirn. The ascent of the hill can be approached from either side of this gully. The left hand side is gentler, and reaches the summit plateau at its lowest point; but climbing on the right side of the gully (alongside a rusting iron fence) leads directly and steeply, towards the summit. We went up the steep way, and back the more gentle route.



The climb was exhausting! Although I had scraped ice off the car windscreen in Perth at 6:45AM, by 10:30AM. the sun was basting the mountains, the intense heat being held in almost completely still air. Thankfully in April we are still in the pre-midgie phase of the year! Shedding layer after layer, we made the summit, only to have a chill-wind take our temperature imbalance to the other extreme. With icy winds evaporating hot sweat from our faces, we felt our body temperature plummeting and changed in a few seconds from tropical to Arctic clothing!

The views from the top were quite amazing. Ben Lui (Beinn Laoigh) immediately draws the eye, as it is such a beautiful mountain, and is so pleasingly framed by the glen below. 



Westwards, Cruachan's shapely and majestic peaks, still snow-capped, glistened stunningly in the clear, crisp sunshine.  Northwards, the railway line across Rannoch Moor could be seen, along with the Laggan Hills. The Lawers group dominated the eastern view, while to the South the peaks which encircle the strange little village of Crianlarich, looked truly impressive.



The descent was hot and the ground quite slippery. The sun shone and heated up the grass which gave off a distinct odour - which reminded me of childhood. Once back at the head of the path, it is simply a long trudge back to the main road.


Final view of the Orchy Hills, in the wing mirror from an interminable traffic jam on the A82.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Falls of Braan


(click on image to enlarge it)

At The Hermitage, Dunkeld on the last day of the school holidays.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Romantic Seals


Applecross, Scotland.

(Click on image to view fullsize)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book Notes: Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle

"Thatcher Stole My Trousers" is the second part of Alexei Sayle's enormously entertaining memoirs, published this year as a follow-up to "Stalin Ate My Homework", which dealt with his early years. In many ways the books are quite similar, in that Sayle is a superb storyteller and raconteur whose style translates to the printed page with ease. He is effortlessly funny, and has lived the kind of extraordinary life which seems to generate more than its fair share of anecdotes which are improbable, ludicrous, and wonderful in equal turns. Like the first book, in Thatcher Stole My Trousers, Sayle is angry, Marxist, and foul-mouthed! But there are differences between the two books too.

While Stalin Ate My Homework, dealt primarily with Sayle's adventures growing up in Liverpool, and revolved around his complex relationship with his Stalinist, volatile, and almost unbelievable Mother, Molly Sayle; Thatcher..... moves on sees Sayle leave home, move to London and commence adult life. Both books have a central female character, and Molly makes way for Linda - who in the course of this book becomes his wife. While not as unhinged as his mother, Linda is clearly a force to be reckoned with! Here's a snapshot of Sayle's writing, roaming through family life, politics, the state of the economy, and all delivered in steely satirical prose.

"..... friends came up to Liverpool for the party when in 1974 Linda and I got married. We had decided to wed almost as an affectation. All the couples we knew were living together while marriage was considered to be old-fashioned and possibly fascist so we thought we'd be different. It was only slowly that as the date approached that we came to realise that marriage was a actually a huge commitment not to be taken lightly or done as a fashion statement. So by the time of the ceremony at the registry office in Brougham Terrace in Liverpool me and Linda were very solemn and a bit intimidated by the weight of the event. 
After the ceremony we, our parents, Linda's brother Jimmy and Chris Walker went to the Berni Inn in town for a steak lunch. Somebody, probably one of Linda's parents unsure of themselves in a restaurant, asked the waitress what she'd recommend for a suitable wine to accompany the low-quality beef, a badly burnt tomato and frozen peas. The woman, big and beefy herself, with a towering beehive hairdo, thought for a few moments and then replied, 'Well..... they say the rosé very good.'  
We wondered who exactly 'they' were. Perhaps, we thought, a group of worthies - philosophers, lawmakers, playwrights, and politicians who met in convocation to decide what was good and bad in the world, to pronounce accordingly and to ensure that life was free from upset. If that was the case then they'd clearly taken their eye off the ball recently because things seemed to be going to hell in a hand-cart. First of all there was the OAPEC oil embargo begun by the major oil-producing countries in response to American involvement in the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria. The major victims were Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. Flying and boating was banned on Sundays and the speed limit was reduced to fifty-six miles an hour, supposedly the most efficient speed to drive at but which meant that a trip to Liverpool took seven hours. Then there were the high rates of inflation so people's wages didn't keep pace with the cost of things meaning there were a lot of strikes and work-to-rules, culminating in the three-day week in which electricity was rationed to three days a week, so we had to buy our wedding clothes by candlelight. And to add to that there was a stock market crash when the FT 30 lost 73 per cent and a secondary banking crisis forced the Bank of England to bail out a number of lenders, so perhaps 'they' should have been thinking about other things than what wine went with substandard grilled meats in a cellar in North-West England.  
Linda moved her belongings into the horrible little flat in North Kensington. She did her best to try and cheer up the gloomy apartment but really it was impossible." (p89-90)
Much of the book concerns Sayle's various jobs, and the rise of his comedy career, beginning with some slightly odd sounding left-wing theatre and reviews (he apparently had a routine about Albania under Enva Hoxha); on to the Comedy Clubs he founded, and The Young Ones which made him a household name.

Coupled with this, is Sayle gradual disengagement with the political party of his youth, The Communist Party of Britain (Marxists-Lenininst). This Maoist party both was militantly communist enough to satisfy Sayle hard-left politics, but also anti-Stalinist enough to irritate his mother which seemed to make it his natural home. As this book develops however, Sayle grows increasingly wary of the intensely esoteric, dogmatic and theory-obsessed meetings of these groups - and slips out from their membership. His detachment from the CPB(M-L) seems natural and inevitable and not the great tumultuous crisis of faith that Mark Steel's exit from the Socialist Workers Party seems to have been. (which is documented in his book, What's Going On?) Rather, Sayle seems to be passionately aware of the faults, errors and corruption within capitalism - and certain a socialist alternative is credible; but bored by the ludicrous, pedantic theoretical dramas to which the far-left seem especially prone. When Linda explained that she'd never got a pension because she was sure that by the time she was old enough to need one, "Britain will inevitably be a socialist nation led by a vanguard party whose ideology is based on the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, and every worker will have all of their needs taken care of by the state." Sayle replied that he'd never got one because he was convinced that he'd be a famous comedian who could afford anything he wanted!

Whether he is covering British manufacturing, the rise of alternative comedy, his own career, Thatcher, Arab terrorists he has known (!), or his own absurd adventures - this book is genuinely funny and un-put-down-able. There are times when Sayle is exceptionally self-deprecating, but yet others in which he indulges in the kind of "See-I-told-you-so!" which is an essential element in any decent autobiography It's a heady mix of reminiscence, sentimentality, satire, comedy, social-history, and very angry ranting. You don't have to agree with all of Sayle's political or social views to enjoy this book either. If your palate is too delicate for swearing and communism, it'd might upset you; but with a story as good as this to tell, and a story-teller this good; what's not to enjoy?


Saturday, April 09, 2016

Gleouraich


(iphone photo!)

My plan for the day was to drive home to Perth from Applecross, and climb a pair of Munros on the North side of Loch Quoich on the way. My plans did not go as expected however. Firstly, I was a little later leaving Applecross than I had hoped - and was always going to be racing to catch up. Secondly, I had great difficulty finding a shop that could sell me a compass, it took three or four attempts - which wasted more time. Then finally, I hit a really rough bit of road - and had a blow out in the car. I reached start of my walk feeling harassed!

The beginning of the track up Gleouraich is hidden amongst a dense patch of infernal rhododendrons. The estate on the Applecross peninsula are investing thousands of pounds in having their rhoddies removed, and burnt. Locals told me that these monstrous plants, which are so ubiquitous, were introduced into the Highland landscape by the Victorians. They presumably had no idea that their lovely flowering bushes would become such a menace. A small metal post marks the spot where a tiny, boggy  path leads through the bushes and out onto the open hill.

It's a remarkable path too, zig-zagging its way up the blunt nose of Sron a Chuillin, and up and over the top marked as Druim Saileach on the OS 1:25 000. The path abruptly ends at a small semi-circular stone wall underneath Gleouraich's steep sides, but although the formal path ceases, a upward stretching line of bootmarks indicates that most walkers continue on towards the summit. 



The climb here is steep, and in snowy conditions like those I had, exceptionally slippery. I was hoping from magnificent views from the ridge. The usually pessimistic Mountain Weather Information Service was suggesting a 90% chance of cloud free Munros, but alas it was not to be. I climbed up into the cloud and stayed there for the duration! The view did not reappear until my descent.

My plan to continue from the summit of Gleouraich along the ridge to Spidean Mialach were thwarted by the weather too. The edges around the summit were decorated with amazing cornices requiring careful navigation. The ongoing ridge looked a bit dicey too; and I was looking along it in two minds as to whether to go that way, when the snow started to fall heavily and visibility reduced to very little. It was obvious that as I was there on my own, it was time to retrace my steps (which as they were imprinted to clearly in the snow is meant literally).

The finest view of the day came along Loch Quioch from the track on this descent, once back under the cloud base. 



Once back at the car, I had to "limp" it home on one of those stupid half sized wheels that are limited to 50mph...... I'm sue losing 3cm of boot space would make up for this!?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Notes: The Counterfeiters


The Counterfeiters is an Austrian film (German with English subtitles), which garnered a host of awards when it was released back in 2007. The film is a historical reconstruction of the Nazi regime's attempt to round up the best forgers they could get their hands on, and in forced labour camps, compel them under threat of death to produce enough counterfeit notes in Pounds Sterling to wreck the British economy. Styled as "Operation Bernhard"; this scheme was based at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitsky based his historical material on the memoirs of Adolf Burger, one of the forgers forced to work on the project.

The story covers pre, and post war material; but the bulk of the film takes place within the concentration camp, and the action centres around Salomon Sorowitch, a Jewish master forger. His skills are seen as essential by the Germans for producing millions of notes of high enough quality to fool the British into accepting the notes into their banks, causing catastrophic inflation. The Nazis longer term aim was to try a similar scheme on the economy of the USA.

Although set in a concentration camp, The Counterfeiters is a far cry from something like Schindler's List, or even The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These prisoners had specialist skills, and were seen as invaluable to the regime who allowed them such so-called  "privileges"  as adequate nutrition and some entertainment. They lived in separate conditions quite unlike the poor victims of the total brutality being exacted upon fellow detainees, just the other side of a fence within the camp.

The film is nicely shot, the acting is classy, and the dialogue compelling. The savagery of the setting of the film, and some very upsetting scenes earn it a (15) certificate; however with some explanation I'd watch it with my kids who are younger than this - as it contains a number of important historical truths - and searching moral dilemmas.

The moral dilemmas come from the fact that the prisoners forced to work on Operation Bernhard are faced with a ghastly choice. If they resist the tasks they are given, or are seen to be delaying or sabotaging the effort, they will be summarily executed. Deadlines had to be met, and failure meant death. On the other hand, if the prisoners co-operate with the Nazi regime they are helping the Reich fight a dreadful war. They knew that their banknotes would be used initially to purchase goods such as petrol for the Reich, and then to assault the Allies' economies. They had to either offer their lives, or bankroll the evil of the Nazi regime.



Primo Levi's staggeringly disturbing reflections on his time in Auschwitz in books such as "The Drowned and The Saved", dwell much on the role of prisoners who sought to extend their lives through collaboration with the SS. This quite understandable, but morally grim, area Levi called "the grey zone". The Counterfeiters is a film set within this 'grey zone'. In the film different characters take on divergent roles. There are those who demand full compliance with the demands placed upon them, who seek personal survival at all costs. They rightly point out that the moral responsibility of the situation rests entirely on the shoulders of the perpetrators, and not on those of the victims. At the other extreme, one dedicated communist prisoner (who had less to lose as all those he loved had been murdered), demands total non-co-operation - and repeatedly sabotages the attempts to forge the US Dollar. Karl Markovitch is excellent as Salomon Sorowitch, the group leader, who ends up seeking to take a middle course; delaying the Nazi scheme as much as possible, while preventing the killing of as many of his group as he can.

When the camp is liberated by the Russians, the counterfeiters have to look the rest of the survivors in the eye. Gaunt, starved, ill and dying - these skeletal shadows assume that The Counterfeiters were Nazi's as they were in reasonable health.

The dilemma of being forced to chose between one's life and the lives of the whole group is pressed home to the viewer with great force. If the forgers resist, they will die. If they comply, many thousands more will die. The viewer is drawn into this dark drama, and into these deeply perplexing questions. The palpable sense of relief one feels when the Germans get what they want and a gun is taken away from a man's forehead, is suddenly offset with a sense that this was also a victory for evil, won by force. Emotionally, the film makes the viewer oscillate between the two options, and alternatively siding with contradictory points of view. You both want the Nazis to be resisted, but for the resisters to live; an option which short of a resurrection is impossible.

This is a brilliant, stirring, significant and thought provoking film, worth watching at any time of year. And this is where I thought this review would end.

However, it was only when I sat, mesmerised, watching the final credits role - that something struck me. I watched the DVD on Thursday March 24th, the day before Good Friday. I, along with millions around the world would then spend a day remembering a Jewish man, who was imprisoned and tortured by a brutal oppressing empire, with the complicity of his fellow countrymen. Christians believe that Jesus' death wasn't a mere travesty of justice, or work of evil; but was also an act of redeeming self-sacrifice. The Gethsemene narrative records Jesus wrestling with the same dilemma that The Counterfeiters did, namely should I give my life to preserve the group - or save my own life and lose the greater war? Jesus is pictured as praying "is there any way that this cup (of suffering) can be taken from me?" But yet finally saying, "yet not my will but yours". In other words, he preferred to save the group, and not his own life. His life he gave, so that the whole group could live. Staggeringly, the group he chose to save, includes us.

Quite a film to watch at Easter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The "Tour de Tay"!

Anyone who lives in Perth, Dundee (or intervening points), who owns a bike should have a go at this! The "Tour de Tay", is a well known circuit to local cyclists, who have been recommending it to me for years. Today I finally had a crack at it, and it really is a splendid ride.

This ride is a circuit of the tidal Tay estuary, a loop with the Tay Road Bridge in Dundee at one end, and The Queen's Bridge over the Tay in Perth at the other. The two cities are connected by a series of marked cycle routes for the entire length of the Northern leg through Perthshire and Dundee City, and for about half the Southern leg through Fife.

I had a dilemma about whether to do the circuit clockwise or anti-clockwise. I was starting and ending the route in Perth and knew that (i) the hardest climb on the route was around Kinnoull Hill near Perth on the southern leg; (ii) a strong Westerly wind was blowing all day; (iii) the Southern leg was more undulating and forested, whereas the Northern route was very wind exposed. Putting all this together I elected to go anti-clockwise.

Attacking the Tour de Tay anticlockwise from Perth necessitates a big climb to start proceedings. Coming from the East of the city, I worked my way up steep Manse road, through the new housing, before joining the official cycle route over the Jubilee, past Balthayock and down to Glencarse. Here the A90 is crossed and the 'B' road to Dundee via Errol picked up. I was blown along this road at a rate of knots by a delicious tail wind that would become a menacing headwind on the return journey.

The massive redevelopment of Dundee's waterfront, means that the cycle route to the Tay Bridge is a bit convoluted, but it is reasonably well marked, Bizarrely, cyclists are required to take a lift up onto the Tay Bridge, where they are greeted with a very strange surface to cycle on. It seems to be a series of wooden boards coated with tar, which creak and rattle as you cycle over them!

Once off the bridge, I turned to face the wind, and realised that getting back to Perth would take some concerted effort. While in terms of raw speed, this was obviously bad - there is a plus side. Last week I was informed that I am overweight, and that my cholesterol is too high. Coupled with my family history of cardiac related issues, I was told it was time to take some action. A headwind then is my friend - akin to turning up the resistance on an exercise bike! I tried to tell myself this, but of course in truth I was dreading the thought of the ascents in Fife being into the wind! The worst of this was on the hard climb from the delightfully named Bottomcraig up to Hazelton Walls, after which the terrain became much easier. Cholesterol issues or not, such effort required some chocolate!



The cycle routes are all well marked on this ride, and take the rider from Dundee all the way to Newburgh, where the waymarked route dives South towards Auchtermuchty. Along the South side of the Tay the views beyond Perth to the snow-capped high mountains are stunning. Ben Vorlich to the west and Bheinn a Ghlo to the North were especially impressive. Road-wise, the route back to Perth from here is pretty grim, its fast, busy roads with little scope for admiring the lovely views. The Baiglie Straight, leads into Bridge of Earn, which in turn leads into Perth over a final climb, before dropping into the town via the Edinburgh Road.

54 miles in 4hrs isn't a fast run - but it's a lovely route!

Gig Review: Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro at Edinburgh Blues Club at The Voodoo Rooms

I've seen Martin Harley in concert three times, and each time has been completely different. The first time in London on the "Drumrolls for Somersaults" tour he performed in multi-instrumental trio, then more recently in Perth he did a solo show at Inchyra. It's very hard to say which format was better; if anything the more folky numbers like "Winter Coat" were better with the band, but some of the blues numbers on Harley's trademark trademark horizontally-held, lap-slide Weissenborn guitar, came over wonderfully well at the solo gig. This time however, Harley teamed up with double-bass player/vocalist Daniel Kimbro for a series of gigs as a duo. They weren't selling an album of new songs done together - but were reinterpreting Harley's live set, and classics from his splendid back catalogue, as they did on the "Southern Ground" album. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, or how it would compare with previous gigs - but past experience of Harley indicated that a great night of entertainment, would be delivered through unusually good songwriting, fine musicianship - and plenty of banter and repartee to keep the show moving.

Together, Harley and Kimbro delivered a great show - which had an entirely different (but very welcome) dynamic than previous Martin Harley gigs I'd been to. Harley is a superb, and very distinctive, guitarist - with a great voice to match. Daniel Kimbro is a wonderfully creative and expressive double-bass player, and the two of them seemed to feed off each other; the interplay between their instruments and voices added an exciting new dimension to Harley's songs.


Edinburgh Blues Club is using a central venue called The Voodoo Rooms for its gigs these days. The Voodoo Rooms are an interconnected set of function rooms, with a pub and restaurant a stone's throw from Waverley Station. We were there on a Thursday night, and the place was absolutely packed, the various bars and other functions were doing a very lively trade- while the gig room was bursting at the seams. Curiously, the mixture of seating and standing was arranged so that if you sat - you saw nothing, because the standing area was in front of the chairs! This oddity aside, the place was buzzing, a really great gig atmosphere. Again this was rather different from previous Harley gigs. The solo gig at Inchyra was all seated at tables, with a very restrained, crowd. The Half Moon in Putney was standing - but the crowd were really noisy  - and seriously detracted from the music, which at times was hard to hear. The Edinburgh Blues Club managed to assemble a large, enthusiastic crowd who nevertheless were there to hear the music and not talk over it!

Highlights of the set included Harley's "Blues At My Window", Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene, a rip-roaring angry and defiant reading of Blind Willie Johnson's, "Nobody's Fault But Mine", which evolved into an extended improvised jam session, of duelling guitar and bass. Kimbro's country and western flavoured Laketown, added another element to proceedings which was also very welcome. "Automatic Life" was given an airing, and proved to be one which sounded particularly great in the Harley-Kimbro arrangement, as did "Drumrolls for Somersaults". "Winter Coat" was effortlessly charming and heart-warming, even though nothing can beat the band version featuring Mr Swatton's strange "stringed triangle"! "You're gonna need somebody (by your side)" was a great old bluesy standard, which had a former life as a spiritual known as "You're gonna need somebody (on your bond)". "Honey Bee" always lightens the mood, and the infectious gypsy swing feel of "Love in the Afternoon" is always a crowd pleaser - but which has never been as good live as when performed by the whole band. Unsurprisingly, it was the solid bluesy numbers which appealed most strongly to the Edinburgh Blues Club, who clapped and cheered, and demanded more!


"Chocolate Jesus", is a firm favourite in Harley's live set - and has featured in each of his shows that I have been to. It's a Tom Waits cover, which begins with some explosive Harley slide guitar, before the grimly sarcastic lyrics begin. I have to say - I prefer Harley's version to the original. Martin Harley commented that this song goes down very badly when he plays it in the American Bible Belt (not surprisingly, really!). At one gig Harley commented that this isn't an offensive song, just a funny song. I think he's probably right. As a lover of sarcasm, satire and slide guitar, but also a Christian, I'm always in two minds about this one. I suppose ultimately for me the question is whether Waits is satirising belief in Jesus per se - or merely the abuse of it. I think that there's a good case for saying that Waits is savagely dissecting the kind of saccharine nonsense that so often passes as Christianity, but is a mockery of the teachings of Jesus. The Christian satirical website "Ship of Fools" features a page called "Gadgets for God", a gallery of similar horrors to the chocolate Jesus (with Bible verse in the wrapper), which inspired Waits to write this number. There's a great article about this "immaculate confection" (which is Waits' joke btw) which can be found here.

I didn't get a chance to speak to Martin or Daniel at the end of the gig which was a shame! I'd be interested to know if the "Martin Harley Band" as was, is on hold or has been permanently disbanded. We had to run quickly out of the venue and off to try and catch the last train out to the car at the park and ride - the other side of the Forth Bridge. Sadly we had missed the last train out of Edinburgh that night - and had a very expensive taxi ride back. However, with entertainment this good - with performers as dedicated to their art as this, (and at only £12 a ticket), it was a price well worth paying, even if it meant an exceptionally late night.


Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor (Mamores)

The clocks have gone forward, Easter has passed, and Perth seems to be entering Springtime, with longer, warmer days, and plants and trees awakening from their inactivity. However, high on the ridges of the Mamore mountains in Lochber, winter is still in control. Temperatures are low, and ice and snow cover the ground down to a remarkably low altitude. Icicles are strung from boulders around the burns, drifted snow is waist deep in places, ice patches perilously are slippery, and the ridges are crowned with cornices.

I have done very little winter walking on the higher mountains. This is largely due to the fact that I mostly walk alone, and have never felt that I understood the conditions well enough to assess the risks for myself.  I have a couple of friends who between them have huge amounts of experience, both in the Scottish Highlands, and in the Alps. When they offered to take me to the hills in Winter and show me the ropes (well, the ice-axes, anyway), I was delighted.


(Many of these photos supplied by my walking companions)


The hills they selected for this adventure are amongst my favourites: The Mamores. I climbed all of these in summer conditions about 16/17 years ago. I was impressed by their massive size, steep sides, beautifully sculpted peaks and breathtaking ridges. The Mamore range lies sandwiched between the row of hills stretching from Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries (to the North), and the line of hills in Glen Coe (to the South). If The Mamores were a single isolated cluster of mountains, like say Snowdonia's peaks, they would be well worth visiting. The fact that they are encircled by such overwhelming mountain architecture on every side means they offer walkers amongst the finest days out in Scotland.



On my previous trips I had always approached these hills from Glen Nevis. This time however we left the car in the village of Kinlochleven. A small car park by the Episcopal Church has a track (signposted for the Grey Mare's Waterfall), which leads up past the (still closed) Mamore Lodge Hotel towards open country. This hotel looks worn and dilapidated which is a great shame as it occupies a stunning high-level location with views down the length of Loch Leven, to the Pap of Glen Coe and on to Beinn a Bheithir. Sadly the hotel gained an unenviable reputation for poor service and facilities, and was condemned to ignominy courtesy of Trip Advisor. Friends who stayed there have told me that the place's notoriety was well earned! If I had money to gamble, I'd love to buy a place like that and see if it could be made into a viable walkers hostel.

Leaving such thoughts behind, we turned right on the track leading up the glen between Am Bodach and Na Gruagaichean. Although snow- covered, the path was visible for most of the way up to the head of the glen, but disappeared a couple of hundred metres below the ridge. Kicking into the snow we climbed the very steep pull to the ridge, joining it at 783m. before turning westwards and climbing the very steep and tricky ridge up towards Na Gruaigchean at 1055m. One steep pitch of about 20m was icy, and this presented a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was safely getting up it, the opportunity was for me to be given my first lesson in the correct handling of the ice-axe I had borrowed for the day.





Cloud had engulfed up during our ascent, but by the time we reached the top of the first Munro of the day, the sun was beginning to burn through the cloud and we were confident that the weather forecasters had been accurate in their predictions and that we were in for a great afternoon. Despite the fact that Easter Monday is a public holiday across Scotland, and the weather looked promising - it was amazing how few people were out in the hills. We didn't meet a soul all morning!

Striding along the snowy ridges between Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor via the subsidiary summit, has to be amongst the greatest stretches of hill walking I have ever done. The descents were very slippery and the ascents very hard work, but in terms of sheer beauty, it was almost too much to take in! Another lesson for me on this section was about avoiding cornices, walking downhill of the crest of the ridge, and using the ice axe handle to check that you were  on solid ground, not standing on the overhanging snow. 



The descent from Binnien Mor presented us with our first real problem of the day. Although we had met some people who had come up the route we intended to descend (Sron a Gharbh Mor), in practise the ice-covered rocks and the tricky downward scramble looked just too dangerous - forcing us to descend the more Northerly ridge over Gualainn a Bhinnien Mor. Fearing that we would need to descend all the way to the glen floor, and have to regain hundreds of metres of height, our party leader searched for a safe traverse route across the steeply sloping snowy sides of the Achlais a Bhinnien Mor. His old-fashioned long, wooden-handled ice-axe came into its own here. Walking out onto these slopes, he dug into the snow, pronounced it stable and beckoned us out to make our way round the upper slopes of the corrie to the bealach between Bhinnien Mor and Binnien Baeg.

Binnien Baeg had been considered as a possible extension to the walk, but the diversion off Bhinnien Mor used much of our time - and the weather had begun to deteriorate. A hour or so previously I had been removing layers of thermal clothing, and cursing myself for not bringing an sunscreen, hats and gloves were by this stage required clothing. It also became apparent that one of our number had not just had a fall on the previous descent, but had probably broken his thumb. The painful, discoloured and throbbing digit was clearly rather uncomfortable, and discovering this confirmed our decision to head for home. 

The walk out was long, and involved another ascent, up and over the plateau holding the Coire an Lochain, before following the horribly eroded An Cumhann path all the way back to Kinlochleven and the car.

I have only climbed one Munro in Winter before. To stride across the Mamore ridges while they are glistening white, under a blue sky, in clear sunshine, was exhilarating. I hope I can get out again before it all melts and turns to mud!


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Creag na Criche

A long time ago, in a fit of the 'folly of youth', I was once heard to say something along the lines of, "If it's not a Munro, it's not worth climbing". How little I knew. The smaller hills that surround Perth allow some wonderful short walks, some great views - and have a charm all of their own. It's not that when I am pottering around on a little hill, that I wouldn't far rather be clinging to some rugged ridge in Wester Ross, with the sea 2000feet below me, and towering peaks everywhere else. It is simply that there isn't always the time and money to travel to such far-flung sensations, and that the real choice is to stay at home and waste a day on chores, or to get out and see the hills, and breathe the air.

Last Saturday, with our young daughter off maintaining her hectic social calendar, and our sons showing no interest in leaving the house; we escaped for a few hours, and headed for one of Perthshire's little hills. Little Glenshee is well-named, as it is rather little in comparison with it's namesake. It is a place we both know fairly well, having both driven and cycled there in previous summers. The glen has a road which loops in one end and out of the other, making it a popular route for Perth cyclists wanting to clock up some rural miles. At the end of the loop is a ford over the Sochie Burn, which is a nice splash on the bike in dry weather - but could be a real problem when in spate. A small car park next to the ford, allows access to the hills, as does a footbridge, which spares walkers the discomfort of water-filled boots which wading the ford would inevitably cause.

Driving northwards into the glen from near Chapelhill, a ridge of hills fills the skyline, with Creag na Criche forming a distinctive summit directly behind the ford. A huge stile over a deer-fence, leads to an obvious bulldozed track zig-zaging through the heather. Once this track levels out, and the views broaden out, a small barely distinct footpath turns left away from the track and heads westwards, just underneath a series of small rocky crags - the tallest of which is Creag na Criche (456m). 


Obney Hill


Beinn a Ghlo


Obney and Birnam Hills

We had a stunningly clear day, and sat in the summit, picking out the mountains all around us; the Paps of Fife, Obney and Birnam Hills, Beinn a Ghlo, Ben Vrackie, Deuchary Hill, The Glenshee Hills, Farragon and Schiehallion too. 

It is perfectly possible to do a little circuit, descending over Glenshee Hill to Little Glenshee itself, and walking back along the farm track to the car. We chose instead to sit on the summit for an hour, and soak in the incredible silence, and doze on the heather - before returning by our route of ascent. 



Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Bishop's Hill

East and West Lomond, which togther are sometimes known as 'The Paps of Fife', are the most distinctive landmarks in that part of the world. While they both look quite dramatic from some angles, they are remarkably easily to climb from the car park at the head of the pass above Falkland, which separates them. As a result they are extremely busy hills, with the trade-routes up each of them being well-worn and on summer weekends being as busy as Sauchiehall Street.  

Bishop's Hill, is Fife's third hill - and lurks in the shadow of West Lomond, it's bigger brother. Despite this, it is well worth a climb, for its expansive views, sense of remoteness and sense of remoteness from people - as there are virtually none up there!


The kirk in the village of Scotlandwell allow use of their car park for hillwalkers, with the proviso that Sunday mornings, and any other events such as weddings and funerals are avoided - which seems more than reasonable! A hundred yards or so southwards along the road from the kirk, a signposted track leads away from the road and twists and turns its way up the flanks of Bishop's Hill. There are in fact, many more paths on the ground than the OS show, even on their detailed 1:25,000 map of the area. There is a lower path which goes left through the woods - and the ascent path which veers to the right, before a series of zig-zags. I went right, and once through the tree-line, was rewarded very quickly with wonderful view out over Loch Leven and beyond.



The climb is probably the best part of Bishop's Hill, as the summit area is vast, boggy, grassy and hummocky - and is crossed by a dizzying network of paths which seem to lead in all directions. Navigation across this in bad conditions could be an entertaining proposition. A more significant path traverses the hill, which follows an old stone wall. The summit lies beyond this, a lovely view point, about 400m higher than the car-park. Sadly I was faced with a dreich, misty, cold day - and didn't linger long.



A return by the same route would be easy, but a more interesting prospect is to head along the top towards Glen Lomond (the rift that separates Bishop's Hill from West Lomond and which contains the geological feature known as John Knox's pulpit). Dropping down into Glen Lomond is steep - but pathed, and then a return track winds back towards the starting point underneath the cliffs of Bishop's Hill.

The return track seems to peter out, midway back along the journey, only to reappear further along - above the village of Kinneswood. I had to pick my way through a few fields (occupied only by sheep), and through several very aggressive thorn bushes to progress. Once the track re-appears it meets up with the track back down to Scotlandwell, just underneath the zig-zags of the ascent route.

All in all, this makes for about a 3.5/4 hr circuit of most enjoyable countryside, with great views and a good bit of exercise on the surprisingly challenging ascent.


(W & E Lomond from Bishop's Hill)

Benarty Hill,

While some of my more 'heroic' friends don crampons and axes in the Winter months, I have spent a little time appreciating some of the lower hills which I have never climbed. The first of these was Benarty Hill, a pleasant little ridge near Kinross, which I have seen countless times from the M90 (Perth-Edinburgh) Motorway. As it is so close to the carriageway, it's charming features can easily be appreciated from there - but somehow I'd never managed to climb it. It makes for a very pleasant two-and-a-half hours walking, with lovely views from clearly defined paths.

An unclassified road runs from near junction 5 on the M90 towards the village of Ballingry, from which there are two possible ascent routes of the hill. Near the village is a car park, with a sign, and a path leading into the woods, I chose the route at the western end of the hill. There's a layby with spaces for one or two cars, and a gate with an orange barrier leading to a track which marks the start of this route.

This end of the hill is dotted with distinctive flag-poles, which belong to the adjacent firing range. When red flags are raised on these, this route is closed as it runs behind the targets on the range. However, when the flag-poles are empty, there seems to be no objection with using footpath which links the poles, as a means of access to the ridge.

The track passes the firing range then turns steeply into the hillside, eventually becoming a narrow, muddy footpath up though the woods. The thick forestry clings to the sides of the hill, while the top is open grassland, and the path reaches the top of the woods by a stile, from where the paths along the broad grassy ridge are obvious.



At times the path doesn't provide the best views, but by bearing left and following the edge of the ridge, the panorama is consistently wonderful. As the ridge turns sharply right above the Mulla Craig cliffs at a summit of 327m it narrows and turns, passing an ancient fort site. The ridge is easily followed across a series of hummocky summits until the trig point at 356m is finally seen across a fence, over another stile. 

This hill provides a nice steep pull up over a few hundred meteres, and expansive views over Fife, The Ochils, over the Firth of Forth, and towards the distant Perthshire hills to the North.





I retraced my steps back past the rifle range to the waiting car - but it would be equally possible to continue along the path and down towards Ballingry, and use the road to complete a really pleasant circuit. While the high mountains have their drama and challenge - when time is short, or conditions severe, a little hill like this can be a great way to spend a morning.