Missing Glasgow and a Swiss debate on Independence

We had an unscheduled trip to in-law land this week. As the world travelled to Glasgow to enjoy the sun, the atmosphere and the Commonwealth Games, we travelled to Switzerland for absolute torrential, end-of-days rain. Our intended holiday plans were to stay in Glasgow, and the curse of the smartphone meant I could keep up with the fabulous wonderful and swelteringly sunny goings on in that fair city while we’ve been gone.

The commonwealth games isn’t really making waves here, but the Independence referendum seems to have made the news. My Swiss isn’t the best but I’m ok at eavesdropping and today was listening in to a conversation about the Indyref. Two nonagenarian relatives were expressing incredulity to Swiss hubby that Scotland could possibly go it alone.

I found it a little surprising that someone from Switzerland (population 7.9 million; land area 41, 000 sq km; mainly covered with mountains and lakes; no seaboard at all; fiercely independent) could pour scorn on the prospect of Scotland (population 5.2 million, land area 78,000 sq km, much of it made up of mountains and moorland, plenty of seaboard) being independent.

Now I am loathe to come down on one side or the other definitely and in public, but it seemed like a strange to hear an argument against independence coming from a Swiss.

Despite being a natural contrarian, in the interests of familial harmony I managed to prevent myself from pointing out that it was only 150 years ago that the Swiss had one of the lowest incomes in Europe.

20140728-001854-1134521.jpgFigure from ‘When did the Swiss get rich?‘ R Studer, LSE

It has been Swiss independence from ruinous world wars, and independence from banking transparency that has led to Switzerland becoming one of the richest countries in Europe.

Now obviously I don’t think that secret banks and corporate tax shelters (nor the right-tending and generally illiberal politics*) should be the way forward for Scotland, but I would certainly commend a few things: their localisation of taxes and decision making, to canton level and further, to commune level being one. Cheese and chocolate being another.

Switzerland does tourism extraordinarily well, their mountains and lakes bring in visitors by their millions. However looking at the figures I was surprised to see Scotland holding its own: Switerland’s tourism industry brings in 15 billion francs* (£9.8 billion) and Scotland’s brings in £11 billion** (goodness knows whether these figures were calculated in the same way….)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. While I am writing this, twitter is alive with the buzz in Glasgow for the Commonwealth. I really am looking forward to getting home.

* Federation of Swiss Tourism (2012) Swiss Tourism in Figures

** Deloitte (2010) The Economic Contribution of the Visitor Economy: UK and the Nations

*** and the ‘if it’s not banned, it’s compulsory’ approach

A tale of two cycles: Part 2 – Benderloch to a frighteningly fast and un-navigable A-road.

After such a wonderful cycle to Ballachulish we wanted to do some more of route 78 and so, since we were at the beach at Tralee, Benderloch, I arranged to cycle north with the kids for around 10k to meet my husband with the car at Loch Crearen to finish the day.

It started off nicely with a short section down the old railway starting at the old Bendeloch station. However after about 100yrds the disused railway continued, looking inviting and hung either side with drooping tree boughs, but was fenced off, while the cycle track took a dogleg and started to follow the main road on a separate and parallel track.20140714-210831-76111501.jpg

The ambitions of cycle route 78 to follow the old railway is brilliant and, it would surely be one of Scotland’s best cycle routes if that ambition could be realised. However it is evident that the route’s creators and visionaries have come up against many land-owners who have refused to allow the cycle track to continue along the obvious route and so quite large sections have needed to be made on alternative routes, sometimes in fields adjacent (as in Glen Duror to good effect), and in many places alongside the road. When the railways were closed, land across Scotland, and indeed the UK, was practically given away to the landowners rather than being held as strategic routes, and so it irks somewhat that some landowners are not cooperating in the process of creating this beautiful cycle route.

I don’t mind cycling on an off road cycle track alongside a main road. I do mind if that cycle path peters out entirely and I am informed that it continues one and a half miles further along the busy Oban-Fort William road.

Now, I am a hardened Glasgow cycle commuter, daily doing battle with rush-hour traffic along Dumbarton road, but the thought of heading out onto that road where cars were doing upward of 60mph, and numerous scary overtaking maneuvers of caravans/campers/trucks happened as we stood there, was not attractive. There was simply no way on earth we could go any further with the kids.


My phone battery was on 1%, I texted the husband then the phone battery died. We contemplated our options. Either there would be an unusual confluence of circumstances (a) he had his phone with him, b) his phone was on, c) his phone was charged, and d) that he was paying attention to it) and he’d get the text, or (more likely) he wouldn’t. We waited a bit longer than the amount of time it would take him to reach us if he got the text and then headed back to Benderloch.

Fortunately there was Ben Lora Cafe and Books to keep us occupied and the sun was shining. We wondered how long it would take for hubby to realise we were gone.

We all had a drink and a snack, time dawdled. We bought newspapers and magazines to read. Two of the hourly buses passed to Balcardine and I regretted not getting on one of them. We contemplated hitch hiking up the road, and still he didn’t appear.

The man clearing tables asked if we were ok. ‘Sounds just like me’, he said as I explained that it probably hadn’t crossed hubby’s mind to check his phone and that, if he actually had it with him, on and charged, it would be a miracle ‘I never have my phone on, drives my wife crazy’. He helpfully offered to charge my phone.20140714-211758-76678128.jpg

By 530 pm and an hour and a half of waiting later, we were all getting a little bored. ‘They’re closing its road tonight at 10pm for roadworks’, I thought, ‘I wonder whether Ruedi will come back to look for us in time, or whether we’ll have to kip down here for the night ….’

‘He’ll probably come back when he’s hungry’ said the man.

I went inside to pay and the woman at the counter told me that her husband never has his phone on either. She has an anaphylactic reaction to stings and she told me that, when she’s out for a walk and has forgotten her epi-pen, she often muses over, were she to get stung, how long it would take her husband to notice she were gone. ‘Probably not till the next day’ she said ‘perhaps at breakfast time’.

We giggle about husbands for a bit and then she said ‘Mind you, the shoe’s been on the other foot’ and told me her story. One evening her husband didn’t return home and she didn’t think anything of it, when he still wasn’t back the next night she assumed he was visiting his mother and it was only when his mother called to speak to him, she started to wonder where he was. It wasn’t until he’d been gone five days (‘FIVE DAYS??!!’ I echoed incredulously) that he returned as if nothing had happened. When she had finished shrieking ‘where-the-hell-have-you-been-I’ve-been-worried-sick?’ It turned out that he’d been over in Sheffield for work but had omitted to tell her the plan.

It seems that things could be far worse than waiting two hours in a comfortable cafe garden in the sun….

And when did we eventually get rescued? At 6pm hubby eventually turned into the car park. After waiting, and wandering along the shore, and reading, and snoozing he had, at last, started to wonder where we were and had turned on his phone to see what time it was (…dinner time…?)

Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William



A tale of two cycles: Part 1 – Cuil Bay to Ballachullish

20140714-210834-76114055.jpgCycle Route 78 is entirely off road from Cuil Bay to Ballachulish and much of it is along the old Oban- Ballachulish branch line which shut in 1966. The plan is to extend the cycle way off road all the way to Oban but there seem to be some difficult negotiations with land owners along the way (see part 2 of the story) and so there are some bits that are still on the main road.


However the route we took on day one of our family cycle adventures was one of the nicer routes I’ve done and perfect for a bike with the kids, about 7-8 miles each way.

We started at Cuil Bay and cycled along the minor road to a crossing with the main road which took us through fields and across a beautiful new wooden bridge curving elegantly over the river Duror.

Cycling past banks of foxgloves and meadowsweet, the path wove between fields and then onto the old railway, through cuttings and under a viaduct that must have once taken a road or another railway. In Duror a panel told of the connections of the area with the Appin murder the inspiration for Stephehson’s classic novel ‘Kidnapped’. A cycle up the glen would have taken us to the birthplace of James of the Glen, the subject of that most infamous miscarriage of justice.20140714-210827-76107787.jpg

Passing Duror campsite and some gypsy caravan glamping we were back on the disused railway again, following the contours of the vast shoulder of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachulish Horseshoe. The track leaves the railway to climb up for a splendid view of Loch Linnhe and the architectural copses of trees on the Ardsheal estate, before a, rather-too-steep decent takes you to the Holly Tree hotel (the perfect stop for lunch and a swim) and then back onto the old railway now running along the shoreline.20140714-210826-76106674.jpg

The views arcross to Ardgour and Morven were divine, and later there were views of the pap of Glencoe and hints of larger mountains behind in the cloud. We made a short detour up into the forest at Letir Mhor to see the monument at the spot where Colin Campbell was murdered.20140714-210825-76105023.jpg

While we stopped for water we were passed by two ladies on low-slung trikes. Each was holding an umbrella spray painted silver. Kit and provisions were piled on to the back of each bike and while one had a pack of warburtons sliced bread bungeed to the top, the other trailed some Tibetan prayer flags.

The final four miles of the route is alongside the road from South Balachulish to Glencoe. Amazing views of the mountains of Glencoe looming ahead was rather distracting given the very fast and busy road the track runs alongside. However, all in all it was a perfect family cycle ride. We rode back for a very deserved dinner and swim at the Holly Tree.20140714-210828-76108786.jpg

Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William


Mouse trouble

In a bit of a contrast from last week when I was at RSPB Mersehead getting unreasonably excited about some camera trap footage of a mouse bouncing out of a badger set with a stick in its mouth and cooing over a cute little wood mouse caught in a mammal trap set in a stick-pile, this week I am at war with mice.

We arrived with joy and anticipation at the bothy for a week of repose and communing with nature. Our usual 40 min walk extended to one and a half hours by me having to stop every 15 minutes to take a rest from my Herculean rucksac, carrying in the provisions for a week. We arrived to find mouse droppings everywhere: tucked into corners on the fish box shelves, scattered on the kitchen surfaces perched on their fishbox units and all around the piles of fish boxes that make for seating.

After a burst of uncharacteristically enthusiastic wiping and disinfecting of surfaces we climbed the ladder-like staircase to the sleeping platform above, where more mouse droppings lay on the wooden floor where I was about to lay my mattress.

In the night there were shufflings and crashings loud enough to keep me awake for a while. It sounded like a family of mafia mice, or those rats out of the animated film Ratatouille were helping themselves to the food I had lugged in at much personal effort. However When I tried to take them by surprise by switching the torch on suddenly I saw nothing of the perpetrators. In the morning my newly wiped surfaces were covered in mouse poo and, in the final insult, a solitary poo sat atop the sponge scourer.

Tonight I have a couple of mouse traps at the ready. They were bought from the local hardwear store after a 2 hour round trip, and I am sorry to say that, this time, they are not your ecologists’ Longworth Traps with friendly escape hatches for shrews. No. I am afraid to say that I am a frightful mass of contradictions and these traps are the ones that go SNAP.



Wildlife Watching with Gadgets and Gizmos

20140706-081554-29754555.jpgIt certainly seemed like a good idea a few months ago: Let’s get more people engaged with nature using equipment and gadgets more often used for science and let’s train up my fellow people engagement staff at RSPB in the South and West of Scotland.

It seemed less clever as I travelled down to RSPB Mersehead reserve contemplating the inescapable fact that technology seems to sense my anxiety and ignorance and immediately stops working, that vital pieces of gadgets go missing when I am anywhere near them, and that even having to set up a projector and laptop to give presentation can leave me feeling sick with fear.

However we had a boot full of gadgets: go-pros, camera traps, a digital microscope, and some bat detectors; as well as some of the more traditional scientific kit of an ecologist: moth traps, small mammal traps and butterfly nets. We also had a few experimental things: a variety of recipes for treacling for moths, some ink footprint traps and a drone.

The participants came from across the RSPB’s South of Scotland region, all working in face-to-face roles with the public and the idea was a kind of do-it-yourself training. We would all contribute our experience on using the gadgets and also the kind of activities you could use to create an event, or activity to get people ereally excited about nature.

I managed to secure the help of a couple of our RSPB ecologists who could give us the low-down on things such as camera trapping, moth trapping and mammal trapping. All the rest was down to us.

The idea of the training had been born in an evening, night and morning spend in a tent with the family near to RSPB’s Loch Lomond reserve where we were partaking in the Big Wild Sleep Out. I had been involved in planning and arranging the event but wasn’t due to be helping deliver it and so I went along with the family to take part as it sounded like just about the most fun one could possibly hope to find. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was like being in an episode of spring watch, nay, it was like being Chris Packham himself.20140706-081406-29646519.jpg

We went bug hunting, set moth traps and camera traps, heard bats through our bat detectors, baited our mammal traps then finished the evening with a campfire, stories and marshmallows. In the morning we rose early for some bird ringing following by checking the traps. It was so exciting seeing what you had caught in your mammal trap and with the camera trap. My younger daughter’s camera, set under some bird feeders, discovered a hungry hedgehog snuffling around the peanut butter bait. We were hooked.

I wanted the training to recreate the feeling and excitement for people and so those who could be persuaded, camped out in the garden of beautiful RSPB Mersehead. Although, with all the distractions of teeming wildlife, there wasn’t a lot of time for sleeping.

The first night, clear and deathly still, we walked down to the shore, the air still so warm we were still in t-shirts at 11pm. There was no need for torches, the sky to the north was still bright. We were thrilled to see a barn owl quartering the wet grasslands in search of food. Later on, however, while asleep, I was less thrilled to be shocked awake and bolt upright, by the bloodcurdling shriek of the owl who appeared to be resident in the tree right by my tent.20140706-074724-28044051.jpg

We set the camera traps, the small mammal traps and an embarrassment of moth-traps (no fewer than three mercury vapour lamps within a few yards of the tents) and then we started on the moth treacling/sugaring. Everyone you ask seems to have their own secret recipe for attracting moths. So I decided that what we needed was a battle of the moth mixtures.

Everyone brought their own in jars or made them up on the stove, the heady fragrance of red wine, sugar, ale and banana wafting through the centre. They were delicious (the ones I tried) even the one that had been sitting around at RSPB Loch Lomond for a few weeks – apparently it had improved as it matured. If the moths had any sense they would be starting to queue for a taste of this moth ambrosia.20140706-073856-27536503.jpg


While we waited for the moths to gather we headed down to the dunes to look for Natterjacks toads. Natterjacks are our rarest amphibian and you need a licence even to go looking for them, touch them or photograph them. So we were incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in an official natterjack survey with our ecologists. They only come out at night and so, in midsummer, it has to be pretty late to see them and it wasn’t until past 1130pm that we found our first animal, a female, and one, according to the individual dorsal wart pattern, that had been caught by the team before.

It was an incredibly brief night before we were all up again on a (not quite) dawn walk, chatting through games and ideas to engage children with listening to and learning birdsong. What struck me was how differently people hear birdsong. The chiff-chaff which, for me, is a simple ‘chiff-chaff-chaff-chiff’ was, to one colleague, ‘a little girl skipping along with pigtails’ and another ‘a bouncing ball’

I got everyone to listen to the skylark and describe exactly what they heard and there was an amazing variety of descriptions, the best of which was ‘a video game shoot-out killing the aliens’

We picked up the camera traps as we passed; a couple by a badger set in the woods, and one on a gate post past which everything bigger than a rabbit would have to move to get from the field into the woods.

20140706-074005-27605795.jpgBack at base we opened moth traps, and mammal traps, looked at camera trap footage and ink print traps. We had deer, a badger, a fox and a tiny mouse that dashed into a badger sett entrance only to bounce out a few seconds later carrying a stick three-times it’s own length in its mouth.20140706-081406-29646850.jpg

The excitement of seeing what the results of your own camera trapping had brought was really palpable. The camera which was only few yards from the tents captured some great footage of a fox and some stills of a badger.

Later we played with a digital microscope which projects highly magnified images to a laptop screen, the go-pro cameras and our area reserves manager demonstrated the drone, a quadcopter, which creates incredibly stable ariel images and video.

When I arrived back in Glasgow that evening, utterly exhausted, a fox passed me in the street. Unconcerned, and in broad daylight, It hopped off the pavement to let me past and then eyeballed me when I briefly stopped. I pretty much ignored it and went on my way. Perhaps I should set up a camera trap here to rekindle the excitement of having wildlife so close in the city.

PS. The moth treacling mixtures might have tasted delicious to me, but the moths didn’t seem to like them. All we found, when we came back after the natterjack survey, was a red tailed bumblebee slurping the mixture off a tree. 20140706-074000-27600771.jpg