“If we can’t get community empowerment, then who can?”

This is the content of my contribution to the hearing on the asset transfer to the Children’s Wood, a ground-breaking local greenspace and decades-long campaign to retain the space for the local community. After a long fight they are now on the cusp of receiving a 25-year lease for the land but have one final hurdle – to oppose a clause that allows the council to take back all or any part of the land to build an education facility.

It’s been four years since I spoke to the planning hearing on the development of flats on the site of the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. Then I came to speak particularly on the biodiversity of the site and its importance in connecting people to nature.  I talked about its key importance as a place of inspiration for local people, children, teachers and future teachers, parents and grandparents, and, crucially, for other urban communities wishing to improve their own local environments.

Back then I worked for RSPB Scotland, particularly looking at how we can encourage precisely this community-led and community-empowered approach across other parts of the city to improve the quality of greenspace, community involvement, inclusion and outdoor learning. The Children’s Wood was an example of what could be achieved and RSPB saw could be used, not just across Glasgow, but across Scotland, and beyond to RSPB’s work across the UK.

This time I am here to speak to Question 2 on why the area is unique over and above the local playpark and the Kelvin walkway. And I this time I speak as someone working on climate change. I work on COP26 for Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, a coalition of 55 civil society organisations campaigning on climate change (which includes RSPB – as well as other conservation organisations, development charities, faith groups, trade unionists, student and community groups). 

I am here speaking in my own right, rather than on behalf of my organisation, but I see the links between what the Children’s Wood are doing, and the world that we need to make now, so that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis.

Glasgow has an extremely ambitious target to become climate neutral. 2030 is the date set by Glasgow City Council. That is only a little more than nine years away. If we are to achieve that target we need to start now. And this is where the Children’s Wood points us to the future.  The Scottish Government, in their recent programme for government, put an emphasis on creating “Twenty Minute neighbourhoods” where everything people need is within a twenty-minute walk.

If we are to reduce climate emissions in our city we need to look to creating more liveable places, places where people want to spend time and enhance people’s lives. The local community has created a multifunctional space used by all generations that hugely enhance the ‘livability’ of the local area. It provides place for exercise, socialising, growing food, volunteering, outdoor learning (both formal and informal), play, exploration, dog-walking, sport, arts, and ample opportunities to build community.  

The value of having quality flexible and multifunctional greenspace which is open to all was illustrated starkly by the coronavirus lockdown when people could not travel. The children’s wood and the North Kelvinside meadow came into their own, doing what they do best, being at the centre of the neighbourhood, reducing isolation, creating community.     

It is also an issue of inclusion – wild spaces and nature should not only be available for those who can travel out of the city, everyone should have access to these little pieces of wild close to where they live. And the vital importance of this can now be understood by us all – after the enforced months of lockdown where we could not travel.    

But the children’s wood isn’t just a place for leisure it’s a place for growing, growing both plants and people. And although we all support educational establishments, this is already an educational establishment. Schools and nurseries use it for formal learning and youth groups, clubs and families use it for informal learning.   

What schools and children get at the Meadow and Children’s Wood is not a closely managed piece of parkland or, Botanic Garden, it is somewhere wild, where children can dig for worms, build dens and find beetles in a rotten log.  They can climb a tree to get a birds-eye view and dig a hole to see what’s down there.  It is through these investigations that children develop a love and a connection to nature, and not through the formal play areas in our city parks.  What the Children’s Wood does especially well is that they have many organised activities and groups on site to help local people to engage with the nature of the site, which helps people from all backgrounds benefit.  

This place is not replaceable – once it is gone it’s gone

It was interesting to hear what the council had to say about outdoor learning provision – without very clearly acknowledging the work the community have done in exactly this area of work over many years. The council seem to be proposing to remake what is happening so successfully already at the wood, even to the level that they would propose putting in the same facilities – shelter, toilets-  that the community wish to put in, but for exclusive use, rather than as a shared resource and with far less involvement of the local community.

Most importantly this is an issue of ownership –  when I mean owned – I don’t mean in the sense of physically holding the paperwork after a monetary exchange, I mean in terms of an intimate sense of connection and responsibility. This is what is special about the Children’s wood, and is so different from other local greenspaces. Achieving a lease of the land is just the final step in this process of ownership. And this is why it is important to remove the clause – and to value the truly multifunctional aspects of this space, including education.

Even in the Dear Green Place, North Kelvin Meadow and The Children’s Wood stand out as special, because of what the local community have made of it.  

I see the Children’s Wood as a vision of what a sustainable Glasgow really looks like: and we need to learn from what has been achieved here and ask ourselves how we can make this the norm and not the exception and we shouldn’t be hobbling the community’s efforts through an unspecified, threatened clause that the land can be reclaimed by the council.

As they said themselves on twitter – “if we can’t get community empowerment, then who can?”

Just a little misap on a roundabout

The sun is shining and the patch of sky I could see through my window while working on the most dastardly home-admin tasks imaginable is a beautiful shade of blue. Just before I’d finished the critical tasks, the call of the outdoors became too strong and I determined to escape to my happy place, about 15 mins drive away, where the heather would be turning purple all along the winding edge of the Lang Craigs.

I called Tina and , on the spur of the moment, she joined me too and we set off along the great Western road, the sun blazing directly ahead. About 5 miles from home, in the middle of a roundabout on the A82’s dual carriageway section, our plans came to an abrupt halt.


With the screaming of metal on metal and the scorched smoke of burnt brakes we screeched to a stop in the middle of the roundabout in Drumchapel.

At first I thought it was another car that was making the noise and then, when it stopped and, after a moment, the horns started blaring all around me, I realised that it was me. The car was immobilised and no amount of revving the engine could persuade the car to move an inch forward or back.

I panicked and rang 999. “What service do you require” asked the woman at emergency HQ and that was when I realised I hadn’t even thought – “erm police please” I said and added in a stream of consciousness, “But there’s no danger to life here actually – I’m just sitting in a car in the middle of a roundabout”

I had just started to explain the situation and try to describe where I was when a police van came up behind us, put its lights on and pulled up just in front of my stranded car. “Wow that was quick” I said to the woman in emergency HQ “how did you know where I am?”

By this time Tina had managed evacuate the car safely and with Hugo the dog had trotted up to the van to explain the situation. I, meanwhile, had rung off the 999 call thanking them for their help.

It turned out that they weren’t the police at all “we just do the railways, we don’t do roads” said the man, who looked indistinguishable from a proper police man. They were passing on their way to some other incident.

The traffic had now slowed down to look at the spectacle and it was safe for me to clamber out of the car in the centre lane of the roundabout. The police van and its flashing lights had the opposite effect on some though who couldn’t help themselves revving their engine, hooting their horns and spinning their wheels as they passed – I imagined my teenager rolling her eyes and saying ”Glasgow Bams” in a weary tone of voice. Each of the policemen got into the car in turn and tried to move it. Unsurprisingly to me, it stayed exactly where it was.

I started calling my breakdown people. I knew I had some breakdown people, but couldn’t quite remember who they were. At one point their phone number had been written on a piece of paper and Sellotaped to the dashboard – or that might have been a previous car…. whatever…. It certainly wasn’t there now.

It was definitely something to do with my bank so I searched up ‘Bank of Scotland breakdown cover’ on the internet and called the first number I saw. After a while on hold, during which another set of police arrived, this time the bone fide police, and parked their miniscule car directly behind mine on the roundabout, and having given all my personal details to the call handler, almost down to the scale of my first pet, we established that I had called the RBS breakdown cover rather than Bank of Scotland. With obsequious apologies and thanks I rang off.

After a few minutes establishing that the first set of police had called the second set to deal with my problem then driven off, I called BoS breakdown and had a very similar conversation. No I didn’t know my membership number sorry, no I didn’t have my bank details handy sorry, I said apologetically just as a slew of cars jostled past hooting their horns. It wasn’t until I had opened up the banking app on my phone “I hope its OK if I put you on hold” (I’ve always wanted to say that to a call handler LOL! …) to look up my account details, that it dawned on me that my breakdown assistance was actually with the Coop bank and not BoS after all. By this time the police were losing their patience and they called the police pick up people just as I had managed to find the correct number to call.

We waited at the road side chatting about the joys of Glasgow policing of teenagers in parks – Balloch was on their beat and they related their tales of teens congregating in pandemic unfriendly hordes, while I wondered what my kids did on their regular trips to Balloch. Every now and again one of the police would get back in my car and just check to see whether it could be moved. It couldn’t. As we awaited the pickup vehicle one of the policemen retreated to the car to eat his dinner – the MacDonald’s that they had bought immediately before being summoned to my aid.

After 20 minutes there was no sign of the pickup vehicle but some further police had shown up – ah ha these were the roads police. They parked their large landrover thing in the middle of the roundabout along with the tiny police car and came over to get an update. We were just getting started when another of the screeching, wheel spinning, boy racers sped through the roundabout, revved past the two police cars and then stopped abruptly when a nearby pedestrian crossing light turned red and a family started crossing the road. “Aye-Aye?” exclaimed one of the roads police – “Let’s go” said the other as they waved the guy into the next layby and spent the next fifteen minutes booking him at length and in great detail (I presume).

After at least a further 20 minutes of waiting in which Tina got picked up, the rescue vehicle arrived with a driver that looked remarkably like the Anonymous mask man in matching top and bottoms fleecy fluorescent yellow suit (hood up). He was devastatingly efficient. The enormous truck was parked up, ramp extended and he was hammering plastic nylon wedges (sparks flying off the road) in under my back tyres all in a matter of seconds.

Next thing I knew, the car was on the rescue vehicle and I was issued with instructions – it would be at the depot just off the M74 at Polmadie, I would need to attend in person with cash to retrieve it. Hold on Hold on. – Aren’t we in a pandemic? – Aren’t you removing my means of transport to get to locations just off junctions of motorways? – Who on earth is taking cash only at times like this? – Look, can’t I pay you now by card or bank transfer (or even, for goodness sake, cash) and you just drop the car at my garage which just happens to be 4 miles along the road on your way back to the depot?

They were actually rather sympathetic and a lot of time was then spent on phone calls to ‘the boss’. The recovery guy tried first, then one of the policemen, then the recovery man again. No luck. My car was impounded. Can you at least give me a lift home (it’s also on the way). No can’t do that either.

So I’m left at a large roundabout between Drumchapel and Clydebank to make my way home. Look on the bright side Kat, it’s only 5 miles home. It could be worse – this could have happened on Rannoch Moor, and that would be a proper long walk home. But fortunately Tina very kindly came out to rescue me, and a very large glass of wine was waiting for me when I got home.

Of course that isn’t the end of the story because I’ve spent the whole day today intermittently phoning and then emailing the 911 Recovery centre in an attempt to work my way around the ‘come in person, come with cash’ rules. I sent photos of every document I own relating to the car, and my licence and insurance, and that seemed to go down Ok, and eventually they even sent me an invoice. By now the car had been in past 12pm and I had incurred a day of storage costs on top of my recovery costs. So it was a race against time to call the correct breakdown assistance company (it turned out to be RAC) and get the car collected before they shut at 4pm. That was when I hit the final and un-achievable hurdle. I could only get a pickup from RAC if I was there in person. I tried – but there was absolutely no way I could talk my way around this one. I had lost.

So tomorrow morning I will be heading off, again getting a lift from Tina, to Polmadie 911 depot to retrieve my car. Next time, perhaps it will be easier if I just stay away from cars and Tina and I just have a wee walk around Victoria Park …..

Isn’t the EU Marvellous? 

The very marvellous and wonderful EU has been funding an exchange programme for nature professionals in Scotland for over a decade and, this year, I have been fortunate enough to take part in a study visit to Finland. And here’s a blog of the experience …


 Arriving back in Glasgow in the same overcast drizzle as we left Tampere, and with an autumn chill in the air, I reflect on the similarities between Finland and Scotland. Certainly the weather had been very Scottish over the week of our visit – some rain, some sun, and a constant need to pack an extra layer just in case. The forests we saw, too, felt very similar to the remnant of Caledonian pine woodlands, with Scots pine and an understory of the familiar species: cowberry, crowberry, blueberry, the same mosses, and having the same timeless, almost sacred, atmosphere. On the days we visited the old growth forest national parks we could have been wandering in parts of Abernethy Forest, RSPB’s second largest reserve and one of Scotland’s largest fragments of Caledonian forest.

But it is the scale that is different. Whereas Abernethy covers 14,000 hectares, only around 4000 hectares of that is forest. And the Caledonian forests of Strathspey and Deeside represent an absolutely tiny fraction of the forest that once covered Scotland, with only one per cent of the original forest surviving. In Finland, however, the forests go on for hundreds of miles. To get to Seitseminen National Park we drove over an hour without a break in the forest at all. Finland is Europe’s most heavily forested country with forest covering three-quarters of the land area.

Most of Finland’s forests are managed for timber, whether owned by companies, individuals or the state and, in contrast with commercial forestry in Scotland, seems far more suited to native flora and fauna. Rather than dense forests of Sitka spruce with an understory shaded completely out and the chemistry of the soil changed by the needles, as we have in Scotland, the mix of Finnish native trees Norway spruce (Finnish spruce to the Finns), Scots pine and birch allows a natural fauna and flaura in the forests with natural understory trees and shrubs, berries and prodigious quantities of mushrooms.

“We have around 500,000 capercaillie in Finland ” said Tapio Vähä-Jaakkola, our host at a local hunting club, as our jaws dropped. My colleagues Chris and Molly from RSPB work on capercaillie and the population in Scotland is in a pretty sorry state, having dropped to around 2000, from an estimated 20,000 in the 1970s. Capercaillie populations are healthy enough for Finns to hunt tens of thousands of them a year. “Most of the capercaillie hunting takes place in Northern Finland”, Tapio said later. In the 10,000 hectares of forest controlled by the Metsästysseura Haukka Ry hunting club, they hadn’t shot capercaillie for many years “Last year we calculated that there were enough capercaillie for us to hunt two.” Behind him on the wood panelled walls of the Lodge a stuffed capercaillie hung by one leg, perhaps one of these two unfortunates.


photo by Claire Glaister

As we explored, we tried to see the differences from the point of view of a capercaillie. Apart from the scale of the woodlands, there was also a vast amount of blaeberry, capercaillie’s preferred food and almost no heather, which tends to outcompete blaeberry in the Scottish context. With only small patches of open ground and raised bogs where heather could grow it seemed that it couldn’t make headway in the forest, unlike in Scotland’s natural and semi-natural Caledonian pine woods where moorland generally surrounds the much smaller woodlands. RSPBs research has also shown that capercaillie chicks are vulnerable to chilling if there is a wet June when they are moving through vegetation, especially if disturbed, and Finland has a much dryer climate. The heavy declines of capercaillie in the 1970s and 80s in Scotland are attributed to the rise of the deer fence and, apart the motorways, which were flanked with deer fencing, we didn’t see deer fences, even where farmland abutted right next to forest.  


part of the raised bog boardwalk at Seitsemnien National Park

Everywhere we went, we met people who worked in forests or had deep connections to the forest. Of course our hosts, the three students Wille, Jussi and Kati, were studying forestry at the University of Tampere, but most of the people we had a chance to make conversation with also had their own forests. 

We had the privilege of visiting the small patch of forest that Wille’s father, Juhani Soininen, owned to talk about hunting the white-tailed deer (and to taste a particularly succulent slow roasted haunch). This species is native to North American and is a relatively recent invader, five individuals having been brought to Tampere by Finnish hunters in the 1930s. Since then they have multiplied into a population of over 100,000. Kati, another of our student hosts had spent the summer working in her family forest of 100 hectares close to where she grew up. 


Juhani Soininen offers round his plate of roasted venison

One of the most interesting conversations about forestry we had was with the owner of the house we were staying in. Tapio Rautaneva, his eye glinting, revealed that his father was one of the men who had brought the very first five white-tailed deer to Tampere, “He’s got a lot of answer for”, he said. He had also worked with UPM as a senior landscape architect tasked with making the forestry more biodiverse, while also keeping the commercial side healthy. He recommended felling in small units of 1-2 hectares and letting natural regeneration happen which turned out cheaper that clear felling large areas and also is far better for wildlife. He told us of felling done in the 1960s where thousands and thousands of hectares of forest in Lapland was clear felled. “There still isn’t any forest there even today” he said. 


When Tapio left the forest industry twenty years ago, frustrated at not being able to persuade the other forest companies to also do more for biodiversity in the forests, he took 100 trees from his own forest and built the very house that we were renting for the week, milling all wood on site to make everything, from beams and structural wood, to cladding and panelling. “I didn’t build the stair case though,” he said as we admired the handiwork, “that was done by a friend who is an expert in that”.

a fire pit area in Helvetinjärvie National Park. Wood is provided for the fire


Everywhere we went and whoever we spoke to, we found people with an intimate connection with their forests. Our guide at Helvetinjärvi National Park, Reine Kallio, explained how the forest holds a special place for Finns, and that they come to the forest alone to think and to spend time. When he was fifteen he had headed off into the forest for two weeks alone. We met a group of hunters going out together into the forest to practice for a championship for pointing dogs, with three beautiful blue Picardy spaniels and two Hungarian vizlas. They are out in the woods every weekend and some evenings, and it seems to be a very sociable experience. As we left the hunting lodge to head away we saw a family with two small children arrive and head off into the forest: the children wearing bright coloured waterproofs and clutching baskets for collecting mushrooms and berries. 

Our time at the hunting lodge demonstrated another commonality between Scotland and Finland, which is the need to control the numbers of herbivores. Despite Finland still having wolves, and lynx, species that were lost to Scotland in the seventeenth century, and over a thousand years ago respectively, these species are heavily controlled to avoid conflicts with people. “Wolves kill many hunting dogs” said Tapio, which people don’t like. We later learned that hunters in Finland use dachshunds (their legs being so short that they can never run fast enough to catch the deer) to find and herd the deer towards hunters, they will be out in the forest alone and the barking attracts the wolves that will sometimes kill them. “At present we have 300 wolves in Finland and if we were to naturally control the numbers of moose without hunting we would need 10,000” explained Tapio, “and wolves are kept out of the reindeer herding and farming regions of Finland entirely.”

  The combination of commercial forestry, the use of naturally regenerating forest when it is felled in small sections, and the low levels of predators, means that there needs to be a large number of white- tailed deer and moose shot each year. Traffic accidents are an issue too with 5200 traffic accidents related to white-tailed deer in 2017. Unlike Scotland, however, there are no full time paid stalkers in the country. This role is fulfilled entirely by individuals, like Wille’s father attracting deer to a clearing on his land using apples and oats, and shooting them from a hide, and by the hunting clubs. For example, the club we visited that has 10,000 hectares of forest to shoot in, had 150 active members and a target of 1000 white tailed deer for the year.
The membership of the club seemed healthy, but Tapio told us that there were more middle aged and older hunters now, with fewer young people getting involved. He speculated that there will be a need for full-time paid hunters in the future if the trend continues. 

Finland has a very interesting history, some of which we gleaned through visits to the Museum in Tampere and the Serlachius museums in Mänttä. They are proudly independent, having gained their independence in 1917 after more than a hundred years of being part of Russia and previous to that being part of Sweden. 

Our guide at the Gösta Serlachius Museum of Art, was very interested in comparisons of  Scotland with Finland and asked what we thought about Scottish independence (a question we dodged in the interests of group harmony). He told us a little of the story of Finnish independence through the art at the museum. “Finnish artists painted independence at a time when it would not have been permitted to write about it” he explained showing us a picture called ‘Finnish Soldiers in the War of 1808 – 1809’ by Albert Edelfelt, which depicts two young soldiers marching. He explained that the picture was interpreted as speaking about an independent Finland. 

Another painting that could have been painted in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, was also depicting Finnish independence, he said. The light was returning to the land as the clouds cleared to the right of the frame. “The Finnish artists painted Finland and wrote music as if she were already independent and this contributed to the formation of Finland as a nation” he said. We all vowed to listen to Finlandia in the minibus on the way back to the accommodation.

The last exhibition we saw, by American artist Matthew Day, was also the perfect note on which to end my time in Finland. This study visit has marked the my week of working for RSPB on a role leading on all aspects of connecting people with nature: education, media, visitor experience, fundraising. As I look towards the start of a new role working on climate change, the visit has allowed me space to think; to untangle the threads of my mind from the work of the last seven years and to allow me to get into the right place for starting afresh in an area of work that will be new to me. 
Matthew Day’s exhibition was challenging and themed around a post-apocalyptic world where humans have made the world uninhabitable. It was almost entirely unrelentingly grim, however the last piece, as you turn to leave, shows a colourful and beautiful scene. 


 In relation to climate change, holding on to a hope that we can change the future that is marked out as CO2 levels rise, is vitally important, and this is what I took away from the exhibition.


 Lastly, on a different note entirely, one very concrete learning point I am taking home is about the wonderfulness of Finnish sauna culture. Scotland, being a country of wet cold weather, long dark winters and lots of beautiful lochs, seems set up for saunas. And it seems almost unbelievable that Scots themselves would not have independently stumbled upon the concept. We were fortunate enough to have been introduced to Finnish sauna culture by our hosts, and were able to take full advantage of staying in accommodation right on lake Toutonen with a sauna in the garden (as well as one in the house). 


The camaraderie of a sauna, combined with the wellbeing of getting unbearably hot and then plunging into freezing cold lake water surrounded by trees and rocks and stars, is almost beyond description. I believe that sauna is something that Scotland should embrace and I have decided to pioneer the movement by building a portable sauna in a horsebox, to tour some of Scotland’s most picturesque (and freezing) lochs. Watch out Loch Garten, Loch Lomond and Loch Awe,  we are on our way …..

Thank you especially to our three student hosts who put in so much effort and work into making this such a memorable and wonderful trip: Wille Soininen, Kati Hautala and Jussi Hakala.



We were staying here: www.lomamokille.fi 

Let’s make Glasgow a bit more Amsterdam

The week before my Amsterdam holiday I saw a video on social media of a bicycle-priority roundabout: bikes zooming freely around, while cars gave way, clusters of cyclists gliding in formation around the curves, individuals peeling off to different destinations like the lead cyclist in the velodrome when they’ve had enough of leading the pack. It seemed like a special sort of utopia to someone who, on her daily commute, lays down the gauntlet to the buses, lorries and kamakazi taxi-drivers of Glasgow’s Dumbarton road. Or along Churchill Drive in Hyndland where a narrow strip of road painted green and purportedly a bike lane, has nose to tail cars parked in it and you are constantly on the look out for a car door opening road-side.


When I arrived in Amsterdam I was not disappointed by the sheer volume of bike traffic. In two minutes we counted ninety-five cyclists at 7pm in a not particularly busy part of town. That is 2850 cyclists per hour. Everywhere, thousands of bikes on segregated cycle lanes shot past in all directions with not a helmet, nor any lycra, in sight. A woman on a hefty cargo bike, with two kids in the box on the front and one perched on a makeshift seat on the panier rack, chatted animatedly to a friend on the bike next to her, their skirts billowing as they cycled.  Men in suits, teenagers in a chatty slow-moving peloton, women in summer dresses, a girl in a hijab giving her friend a backie. It was all too wonderful for words. And then I got out of the tram and reality struck, or rather I was nearly struck by an extremely fast-moving bike.

Bikes have priority over all other road-users, and the roads are set out to facilitate this, to the mortal danger of tourists who haven’t worked out the system yet. The buttons to operate the pelican crossings are located the other side of the cycle track, which is not subject to the traffic lights, so I have some sympathy for the cyclist who shouted a few choice expletives at me as I stepped right in front of him to press the button.   This priority for bikes and segregated cycke lanes physically separated from the car /tram carriageways on almost eery street meant that bikes are mass transport – virtually no one was in a private car.

After a couple of days of gingerly walking around Amsterdam in constant fear, expecting, at any moment, a bike to shoot out of nowhere to mow down my entire family, I decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and we went off to rent some bikes. I would see what it felt like to cycle, wind in my hair, as cars, trucks, tourists and trams shuddered to a halt before me.

I dived into the melee: it was terrifying. Bikes were all around me and coming at me from all directions. Sometimes bike-lanes were one way, and sometimes two way. I hugged the kerb muttering ‘drive on the right, drive on the right’ as bikes came whistling past my left shoulder overtaking in the narrow space between me and the oncoming bike from the opposite direction. I was concentrating so hard on not hitting any of the other cyclists in my swarm that I didn’t notice the enormous intersection coming up ahead – I didn’t know what to do, cars were coming from left and right, and ahead and there was at least one tram. But the cyclists beside me and ahead of me didn’t even turn their heads – they kept chatting, or checking their phones or just plain cycling. I couldn’t stop anyway, there were 50 bikes on my tail so I put my head down and carried on against all my instincts. And the cars stopped. Like the parting of the red sea, a path opened up and we flowed right on through that intersection. I was ecstatic. Flanked by my herd we took junction after junction. As we came out of the busiest part of town and the cyclists thinned out I attached myself to a pair of teenagers who took it all at a leisurely pace which suited my slightly cautious approach, but when they turned up a different street I was alone and approaching another junction. I saw the cars coming towards me and I felt sick – I slowed and looked frantically around hoping another cyclist would appear to guide me through, but they didn’t. I cycled on with my fingers crossed and my jaw clenched, but as I passed the point of no return, the whole junction came to a stand sill and I cycled majestically through.

I tried to imagine what Glasgow would be like if they instigated a similar scheme of bike priority.  I pictured myself at the junction of Dumbarton Road and Byres Road sailing past on my bike as taxi, bus and LGV drivers waited patiently for me to pass (that took a bit of serious imagining). It seems as likely as a snowball in hell, but the Victorians certainly made Glasgow’s streets wide enough to accommodate the Amsterdam model, with segregated, priority bike lanes on all streets.  It’s the car parking on both sides of every road that precludes it, not to mention lack of political will.  And almost as if to make my point, when got back on my bike in Glasgow I discovered that Glasgow City Council had reconfigured the bike lane along Churchill Drive. Instead of a bike lane along the kerb and a wide carriageway, it now had painted parking bays all along the roadside (soon to become charged-for presumably) and a narrow bike lane painted between the parking bays and the, much reduced, carriageway. This seemed more of a pretendy bike lane, as it would be completely impossible for a bike and a car coming one way to safely pass a bike and a car coming the other, therefore making the whole system far more dangerous for cyclists.

If we seriously want to make our cities more livable, reduce climate emissions, and pollution we need to take this seriously. Amsterdam has shown what is possible, we need a sea-change of numbers of people cycling and that won’t happen unless we stop futtering about the edges of cycle policy and start thinking about how to make Glasgow more Amsterdam.

The Cairngorms in Nan Shepherd’s Footsteps

I am lying with my head in a spray of blaeberry, looking up at the twisted limbs of a Granny pine, my mind wandering over Nan Shepherd’s words that have just been read. “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.  As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid: the body melts, perception remains.” I wonder why my own ventures in the mountains aren’t punctuated more often by stops to observe, to lie down, or even to dose. Why is it always about the summit and the route? Why not stop to notice the baby pines pushing up the hillside, the spring of the lichens tangled in the heather, the sound of the rushing burn. And then I wonder whether there are many ticks in these parts.

I am with a group of people here to take part in the performance of ‘Into the Mountain’, a site specific dance work by Simone Kenyon, dancer, choreographer and artist.  She has taken her inspiration in the writings of Nan Shepherd, particularly her extraordinarily lyrical meditation on the Cairngorms written in 1944, but not published until 1977, ‘The Living Mountain’. Part of the experience is in the approach to the performance site in Glen Feshie.  We crouch to touch the ground, we listen to the changing tones of the Alt Ruadh, as Nan wrote, “The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking.” We are one of three groups taking three different routes and converging on one point in Glenfeshie.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Simone invites participants to “walk out of the body and into the mountain” as Nan describes in her book.  We are invited to take off our boots and walk barefoot on the heather, to dip our feet into the mountain stream.  One of our group braves the rain to stand ankle-deep in a perfectly round basin in the rock.

The site of the performance is between two streams running parallel and we take our seats on the springy heather as a cluster of people in black waterproofs start to sing. Bright spots appear on the distant hillsides: glinting gold are five space blankets held by five dancers who then leap, gallop and zig zag towards us from all directions. The movements of the dancers evoke the wild place we are in and its nature and reflects passages from the book we have read on our approach to the performance space.

The choir’s music, composed by Hanna Tuulikki, is less song and more sound – evoking the wind and the water of this landscape. At times I hear bird calls in it: a red grouse or a the peeping of a wader, once, perhaps a black grouse’s bubbling gurgle.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Later at the Old Post office Café in Kincraig, where hot soup brings us all together at the end of the day to dry out, to warm up and to share our experiences, I meet Simone, and ask why she chose the site for the performance. She explains that she wanted the performers to see the lines of people filing, in their bright mountain gear, to converge on the performance spot. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see people in their lines on a mountain, I wanted to choreograph people’s own walks to the site” she says. Glenfeshie is also the site of an incredible transformation, as deer numbers have been brought down, Caledonian pine forest is regenerating and everywhere we see baby pines. The performance site set on the 600m contour will, in 50 years, be the point at which trees, dwarfed by the harsh conditions at this altitude, give way to the open hill.


The following day I head into the Cairngorms once again, Sgor Gaoith our objective. But our experience is changed by what we have experienced. We stop to sit, we lie with our noses in the lichen, at one point on the plateau my companion dozes off, we listen to the wind and the thin piping of a golden plover and later find a golden plover eggshell among the moss. We reach the summit eventually, but we have taken to heart Nan’s words, “To aim for the highest point not the only way to climb a mountain” in our journey there.


Into The Mountain, the first project of its kind, has been developed over the past six years by artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon, in collaboration with hundreds of women who live and work in the Cairngorm Mountain Range and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Getting a Nan Shepherd view on the Cairngorms.


Nan may have said that heading for the highest point isn’t the only way to climb a mountain, but we went there anyway


Noticing an empty golden plover shell on the ascent we hoped the chick had harvhed successfully


getting a different perspective on the massive Cairngorms in these teeny tiny creeping azaleas


(Another) Good Day in the Office

You know the feeling when something turned out really well and you can’t stop thinking about it? Something where all the hard-work and moments when it nearly didn’t happen were worth it. And where, in the end, after a huge amount of team work and a couple of late nights, it all comes together and is simply amazing. And then you can’t stop feeling maternal and proud and saying to people ‘Have you seen this thing? It’s my baby and it’s amazing’.


I hope I haven’t built it up too much,  but that’s just how I feel about the 60th Anniversary Exhibition at Loch Garten to celebrate the pioneering work of Operation Osprey.


We had a tiny budget of £5000, which shrank further to £3000 once other essential items for the reserve had been purchased. Although Loch Garten isn’t strictly within my geographical area of work, as I cover the Southern and Western parts of Scotland, I’d offered assistance to a stretched team, and I had ideas. IDEAS!

car packed to the gunnels

While I was writing the interpretation plan for the reserve I was simply gripped by the stories from the early years of Operation Osprey: intrigue and mystery, goodies vs baddies, true heroes of conservation, boys’ own adventures and a military operation to protect the ospreys.

And the nostalgia, the NOSTALGIA…..…those photos of the camp from the 1950s and 60s where they lived in and the caravans in which the ‘cook-caterers’  rustled up three hot meals a day (majoring on mince and tatties) for the watchers.   This was an exhibition just begging for the retro/vintage touch.  And how better to create something with a miniscule budget than to be scouring Glasgow’s numerous junk-shops and the famous Barras in search of vintage bits and pieces to create the exhibition. This was definitely a job for me.  


The Barras Market: the place to get absolutely everything

But before we could make an exhibition we needed the content – there was an archive of stuff at The Lodge (RSPB HQ) but we knew that they would be reticent to lend it to us. We needed an ambassador who could read the whole archive, sort the wheat from the chaff and advise on the key documents and objects that we needed for our exhibition.  But who on earth would have the time and inclination to do a task like this?  Enter Alice Shaell, a volunteer who had already gifted me her professional time as an ‘information architect’ to write interpretation for Loch Lomond. Alice became my ‘specialist volunteer’ and got started on the archive. She went to the Lodge and painstakingly transcribed key passages from the log-books, roping in her mother as an expert in 1950s spidery handwriting, and read everything they held at the Lodge.

We knew what we needed for the exhibition but it proved too difficult get them to Loch Garten safely and we were stumped.  What on earth were we going to do? An exhibition isn’t an exhibition without original artefacts to link the viewer with the past.


I found out you could still buy curtain wire. And it comes out of the same tin it did in the 1950s….

And then, a MAHOOSIVE box of documents mysteriously materialised from under someone’s desk at our Scotland HQ, full of Operation Osprey documents dating back to 1954. If I was feeling melodramatic I would say that, if this was ‘Exhibition: The Movie’ then this is the turn in the plot that happens when the protagonist has reached her low-point and simply can’t see a way forward.  It seemed that this box had been passed from trusted staff-member to trusted staff-member down the years and survived various office moves.  The custodian heard we were doing an exhibition and asked if it would interest us.    WOULD IT INTEREST US? DOES A BEAR POOP IN THE WOODS?


  We couriered the box to Alice and she read the lot. She found that most of the documents that were in the Lodge archive had an equivalent in our box and so the exhibition started to take shape. The stories of the heroes (the stories of the women needed a bit more research and digging), the letters and job adverts, the candid (and non HR compliant) comments about the quality of the volunteers, and the need for bikes without cross-bars, George Waterston’s planning documents for the 1959 season, and, most significantly, George’s report from that 1959 season when Ospreys bred successfully for the first time.


 So I got started at creating the set and layout for the exhibition and went out trawling the best of Glasgow’s ample junk shops. I wanted the set to look like the inside of the 1950s caravans of Operation Osprey – a white gloss-painted chest of drawers would contain the documents under Perspex, and vintage photo frames would house the photos of our heroes. And, in my mind’s eye I saw the kind of material you would see in a  1950s kitchen on an Operation Osprey theme. It would be sewn into twee cushion covers and curtains for the caravan windows.

My original thought that we’d be able to get an original caravan interior and use for the set was dashed pretty quickly but Jess, from Loch Garten, mustered a team of incredibly talented volunteers who created the bench seats in plywood and painted the chest of drawers.


 After an intense two days of installation, with further sterling work from expert volunteers (and a late night on a sewing machine by a very kind brand-new member of staff from Cairngorms Connect going WAY beyond the call of duty) we got it done.  And here it is, Please do try and get down to Loch Garten to see it if you can, it will be there until September.


The Women of Operation Osprey: Part 1

In preparing the exhibition to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Osprey, one of the most rewarding things has been uncovering the stories of the women involved. Women were in camp from the very beginning but their voices are, more or less, absent in the archive and accounts of the early days.

The first thing I read to get acquainted with the story of Operation Osprey was the 1971 account of the return of the Osprey to the UK by Philip Brown.  Two names emerged immediately as important: Betty Garden, a camp stalwart, and Isabella MacDonald, to whom the book is so charmingly dedicated.

“Miss MacDonald was a remarkable lady who foster-mothered scores of lucky children, yet still found the time to welcome so many of us who watched over the ospreys, with apparently inexhaustible kindness and a quiet encouragement that gave many of us renewed faith, strength and enthusiasm when the fates were against us”

I was intrigued, especially by Isabella as, despite this dedication, she doesn’t appear within the pages of the book apart from a passing mention. Isabella was the crofter of Inchdryne who gave Operation Osprey Base camp its home in 1959, hosting them until the mid 1980s, and her hospitality is a central part of the story.

My partner in crime in researching the stories for the exhibition, Alice Shaell, who kindly gave a great deal of her professional time in a voluntary capacity, found some correspondence relating to the constant battle to persuade Miss MacDonald to accept some payment for her hospitality.  The letters show how much respect and affection those at Operation Osprey held her in, and how grateful they were of the kindness she showed towards them.

Miss Macdonald letter

Alice and I went to visit Isabella’s niece, who now crofts the land at Inchdryne, and was still a teenager when George Waterston set up Operation Osprey. Marina Dennis is an impressive woman, having a lifetime in crofting, journalism and public service behind her, including twelve years as a Commissioner at the Crofters Commission. Still an active crofter, and young for her age, she writes a column for the local paper and is still involved in an advisory capacity in a myriad of things. Marina welcomed us into her warm, spacious bungalow and we sat by large windows looking over her croft, towards Abernethy Forest.

Marina told us that this land had been crofted by her family since they were cleared from the Braes of Castle Grant in 1809. What is now a patchwork of fields set within birch woodland and Caledonian pine was, back then, a boggy forest where Marina’s forebears would have had to clear the land, build a house, and start to create a new life for themselves.

We started by referring to her aunt as Isabel, as she is named in Brown’s book, and were immediately corrected.  “She was Bella. Everyone knew her as Bella” said Marina.  Isabella [pronounced Eye-sa-bella] had been a common name in the area, there was an Isa, an Isabella and she was Bella.  Marina took down a photo of her Aunt from the wall to show us. Bella, white hair swept back into in a black beret and wearing a navy dungarees was sitting on a grey Fergie tractor. A boy of around 15 sits on the plough behind.  Marina explained to us that was Billy, one of Bella’s foster children.


Miss MacDonald fostered around 40 children over the years, most of which came from Edinburgh and Glasgow. “She always took boys, as she thought girls were too much of a handful” said Marina; and, as the mother of two teenage girls, I nodded vigorously in agreement.  Almost all of the children stayed with Bella until they had finished their schooling and many stayed on in the area, including Billy.

She went on to tell us about how her aunt and George had hit it off as soon as they met, “The osprey nest that first year was on the common grazings” she said waving her hand towards the wet grassland dotted with trees a few hundred metres behind her home. The team had set up watches in a rough hessian tent on the common grazings in 1958. The account of the nest-raid from the logbook inventively describes the ground as, “a bog that was very boggy”.

“George was very good with local people” said Marina, “he really understood indigenous communities, and people round here liked him.  It was the same on Fair Isle” she added. George had set up Fair Isle Bird Observatory after the war, a decade before he started Operation Osprey.

When George was looking for a spot for Operation Osprey base-camp Bella offered a site not far  from her house at Inchdryne “It really was the spark between George and Bella that ignited Operation Osprey” said Marina. George had asked whether she could host base-camp and she said yes. “It was Highland hospitality, she didn’t do it for payment or any gain. It’s just how Highlanders are.”  And it seems from all the accounts of Bella from the archive that this hospitality was far more than offering a place to pitch camp, park caravans, and the all-important water supply; it was hospitality in the fullest sense of the word, offering volunteers and staff at Operation Osprey a kindness and open-hearted welcome that came from her extraordinary generosity of spirit.

When we left, Marina directed us to the spot Bella had allowed Operation Osprey to use for all those years.  In that quiet glade among the pines I imagined the bustle of base camp; caravans, canvas tents, phone lines and George’s famous Dormobile, and I thought of Bella MacDonald’s immeasurable contribution to the project and what a truly remarkable woman she must have been.



60 Years of Operation Osprey

Why would I be packing my car on a Sunday evening with a glass display cabinet bought from the Salvation Army shop for £25 packed with 4 large slabs of foam and 2 second hand pale pink textured curtains? And why have I crammed every nook and cranny of the car with junk shop finds? Inside a 1940s leather suitcase, belted into the passenger seat, is an expanding jewellery box lined with crimson velvet, six books on birds from the 1950s, four metres of curtain wire and a battered stove-top kettle.  An aluminium bucket jammed behind the driver’s seat holds a tea set of four flowery cups and saucers, and a rolled poster print of a pale green canvas frame tent in a pine wood clearing, a young man is lying on the ground by the tent looking up at the sky.

osprey basecamp from slide at SWSRO

This last item gives a clue as to what all these items have in common. The pine wood is at Loch Garten in Speyside, and the tent is part of the camp set up in 1958 to protect the Ospreys that returned to Scotland to breed following their extinction.  This year is the 60th Anniversary of their successful breeding season in 1959 and the assorted items of bric-a-brac in my car are going to become part of an exhibition at Loch Garten to celebrate this very special occasion.


The temporary exhibition will reflect the original camp that early Operation Osprey volunteers would have experienced; the caravans and the canvas tents, the eternal stewpot and the discomfort of the forward hide.    A document from 1959 shows that the camp had 3 kettles, two tin openers, four cups and saucers, but only two spoons, three forks and two knives.  Somewhere among the stash of goodies in my car is a full set of cutlery as listed in the stores inventory, found by sorting through trays and buckets of silverware and utensils in one of Glasgow’s fabulous treasure troves of junk and vintage.

stores list 1959 jpeg

We want to celebrate the Operation Osprey heroes from the early days, and also those of today, with this exhibition. The main hero is, of course George Waterston, who conceived, and led Operation Osprey (and, according to the stores list, lent the project 4 egg-cups, 4 dish cloths and a billycan outfit). However, all the way through Operation Osprey, to the present day, the RSPB, has relied on dedicated volunteers, supporters and of course our members to keep the show on the road.  The debt of gratitude that Operation Osprey owes to these ordinary and extraordinary people is represented in this document found in the archive. Along with this note, to Isabella MacDonald, who hosted Operation Osprey Basecamp and its many wardens, volunteers and cook-caterers from 1959, was a sheaf of correspondence discussing rent, with Operation osprey suggesting she raise the rent and she refusing.

Miss Macdonald letter

The exhibition will be in place from the start of May, and will showcase some of the original documents from the early days to give a candid and contemporaneous insight into the very early days of Operation Osprey.

forward hide from SWSRO slides

Buckets, Biosecurity and Bags of poo 

In the Shiant Islands, it’s nearly time for the fledging of the razorbill chicks and I have the amazing good fortune to be spending a week here as part of a sabbatical from my usual work place of Glasgow. I’m swapping a basement office with bars on the windows for a small archipelago of islands in the Minch with spectacular basalt cliffs and boulder fields crammed with nesting razorbills and puffins.
My two previous blogs on the island stay are Marooned with a Teenager and Geocaching for Rats .

My week begins in the rather less picturesque surroundings of the forecourt of a petrol station on the outskirts of Stornaway. I am here in a large shipping container with Charlie Main, the Shiants project manager, so that she can give me the most essential piece of island expedition equipment, the white plastic bucket.


Charlie gave me three buckets whose lids were labelled ‘carrots’, ‘eggs’ and ‘FRAGILE: horn speaker’. Each snapped closed with an extremely satisfying ‘clack’. Charlie explained the importance of packing all our food into the buckets to ensure no rats could sneak into our bags before the boat left the next day. I looked at the buckets and tried to imagine the mountain of shopping I had done earlier that day fitting into them, let alone the shopping list of food I needed to buy for the current project team in the middle of a 25 day shift on the islands.

I looked around the container, it was almost half filled with plastic buckets remarkably similar to those I’d taken, some piles reaching right to the ceiling. “They’re all the spare rat poison” said Charlie. I made a mental note to line my buckets with bin liners just in case.


Once in camp on the Shiants, the white plastic buckets are ubiquitous. There is no running water on the islands so we use one for handwashing, and one to catch the drips from the water container on the worktop, they are full of field equipment, food, bits and pieces. “The first winter of the project buckets were propping up the shelves in the cabin and we made a whole bed base out of them” says Jonny. Between the Bothy (the Nicholson’s house on the island, where we are staying) and the RSPB camp, directly behind, was a pile of 9 buckets wrapped in duck tape.


 I get my induction on the ways of island life from John, a veteran of one Shiants winter and three summers. Biosecurity is everything – preventing a rat re-infestation – and so we need to ensure that nothing edible remains behind that the rats could eat. It is vital that, were a rat were to make landfall, their presence could be picked up by the monitoring stations left around the island. Back in Stornaway Charlie had shown me the thick brown pucks, shiny and smelling strongly of chocolate, which are used to monitor rats, the early warning system for a new colonisation. Rats find the chocolaty smell irresistible and will leave their gnaw marks on the wax but alternative food on the island distracts the rats from the bait stations. This means that all compostable waste needs to be taken off island in yet more white plastic buckets.


John finishes my induction into island life by introducing the toilet facilities. It turns out that human solid waste can, rather unspeakably, also distract the rats from the bait stations so that needs to be taken off island too. This means that we will be pooing into bags for the duration of our trip. The setup is relatively sophisticated, the system was developed by a charity for their work in developing countries. John takes me into the small gap between the two portacabins where a little tent is pitched. A toilet seat that clips over the biodegradable bag suspended over a bucket. When you’re done you just remove the bag, tie a knot in it and put it in a white plastic bucket. “It’s important to remove as much of the air as possible” says John helpfully.


 I ask about how many white plastic buckets of poo they had removed from the island so far on their mission but, to my surprise, they haven’t been keeping a tally. “At one time we were trying to do a calculation of the weight of food we were bringing onto the island versus the weight of poo going off, but I don’t think we managed” said Jack, another of the Shiants team.


John nods towards the pile of duck-tape wrapped white plastic buckets behind the cottage. The Shiants Auk Ringing Group have just left and they filled an awful lot of buckets” says John. “We’re just going to have to start packing the poo down a bit tighter as we’re almost out of buckets.”

And suddenly I feel extremely glad that we have those extra multipurpose white plastic buckets.  We’ll all be able to avoid the squishing of poo bags into buckets.


* I later asked John whether the poo buckets are the same buckets you used for the rat poison” . “No, no,” he said “They don’t allow us to put anything in the buckets that had the rat poison in, not even poo”.


Marooned with a Teenager 

The second in a series of blogs written while marooned with a teenager on an island inhabited only by bird researchers and 180,000 seabirds. You can read the first here.

For a week I have had the immense indulgence of returning to my long-lost seabird fieldworker past in the most sublime surroundings of the Shiant Islands. Three pieces of rock rising out of the Minch and covered with a dense layer of puffins and other seabirds.

 This week is part of a quinquennial sabbatical (we only get four weeks…. don’t get too excited) and I am here to help out my RSPB colleagues while doing a bit of writing.


I’ve brought my husband, a proper seabird researcher who should be useful, and our thirteen-year old, who may be less useful. And we are trying to immerse ourselves in the life of the field camp.


Over the past week I have observed that many of the typical activities of a field worker on a seabird island should to be familiar to a thirteen year-old. It doesn’t mean they are activities that a thirteen year-old would deign to partake in, they’re not Fortnight, or the Floss, Snapchat or watching endless episodes of Modern Families, for goodness sake. In fact they are activities from the good-old pre-teenage years but, given we are miles from wifi and the means to charge devices, (not to mention running water and conventional toilet facilities) there isn’t much competition. So, for the benefit of those who have been in this situation, or are planning to take a teenager to a seabird island, here are our observations.

 Activity 1: Kittiwake productivity studies: Spot the difference with a bit of where’s Wally

We trek over to the other side of the island with clipboards. We have a laminated black and white photo of the kittiwake cliff with all the nest sites marked and numbered, a telescope and a packed lunch. The task is to find all the nests marked on the map and record whether they have chicks or eggs and how many. This is far from simple where there are over 100 potential nesting sites that were recorded at the beginning of the season. It turns out that, due to a misspent youth of kids comic spot the difference, Naomi is excellent at matching the faint lines on the photo of the cliff to the actual nests. ‘spot the similarity’ with100 of them to find rather than just the usual six.

 The ‘Where’s Wally’ skills come in when we are looking for chicks. It seems that it has been a very poor year for the Kittiwakes and we see only 9 chicks between the nearly 60 active nests. You need a bit more patience for this game though – chicks are often behind a parent Kittiwake, or underneath, and we need to wait until the adult moves. “Can’t we just throw a rock at them” asks Naomi.


Instead we play a whole round of ‘The Minister’s Bird Species’* and still two stubborn kittiwakes stay rooted to their nests, moving after a further 20 minute’s wait.

* an ornithological variation on The Minister’s Cat * (“The Minister’s bird species is an albatross”, “The Minister’s bird species is a Bullfinch” etc…)
Activity 2: Puffin productivity surveys: Feely box Russian roulette

This activity involves a high level of jeopardy, half of the nests are burrows on vertiginous and slightly damp grass slopes and you are wearing waterproof trousers, and the other half are in cavities between stacked boulders on equally vertiginous slopes. The idea is to find the bamboo cane markers and then lie down on your tummy and insert your arm as far into the burrow or cavity as you can. You are not permitted to wear gloves and your task is to feel for the fluff of a baby chick, or an empty cavity. We found that the teenager loved the excitement of reaching through a poo-encrusted burrow to see what she would find, especially when it is the fluff of a baby puffin.


The other element of jeopardy comes in if an adult puffin is in the burrow. If this is the case it is likely to take great exception to your hand invading their nest cavity. And as everyone knows – Puffins have very big beaks….


John and Jack, two of the RSPB team, locating the puffin burrows in the study plots.

Activity 3: Checking Rat Monitoring Stations: Geocaching
This activity is for all intents and purposes identical to Geocaching. You get a geolocation for a number of rat monitoring stations in an area and then use a GPS to find them. The monitoring stations are either plastic boxes with two holes, one at each end, for rats to enter by and baited by a puck of chocolate flavoured wax. The task is to find the box and check the wax block for signs that it had been chewed by a rat. You take away the old wax block and put in a new one.

 On the Shiants there are now permanent rat monitoring stations around the island where rats could make landfall if they reinvade, we checked those in two areas, an old settlement which was reletiveky straightforward and the top of the boulder field colony on steep grass and cliffs, which was rather nerve racking and we were glad that Naomi hadn’t want to join us for that.
Activity 4: Ringing bonxie chicks: Capture the flag

This is one of the most exciting games on the bird island. We didn’t play it in the full version on the Shiants, we just walked through the bonxie territories keeping a look out for chicks to see if we could find any. However we had previously played the full version, nine years previously, taking our 6 year old to help us find all the bonxie nests on Mingulay so we could ring the chicks.


The idea behind this game is you need to seek out a well-hidden and extremely fiercely defended great skua chick in a boggy grassland with cliffs on all sides. The chick will be motionless, hiding behind a clump of grass or within the heather and the parents will fly sorties around your head, menacing you with their deep and blood-chilling “karr-karr”. The close passes and terrifying dives increase in intensity as you reach your target.


The final activity is the best, according to the daughter. And this is the ride back on the RIB, back to civilization and wifi, back to phone chargers and sullen teenagers. I’m not sure we’ve made a seabird ecologist of Naomi quite yet….

Geocaching for Rats

This is one of a series of blogs from a stay of a week on the Shiants with a teenager, helping out (inexpertly) with some of the RSPB’s work in the islands and falling in love with a magical place. 

Today’s task was checking rat bait stations around Garbh Eilean (Rough Island). The island was declared officially rat free in February 2018 after the requisite 2 years since a rat was last detected. But the monitoring effort continues and a number of permanent monitoring stations have been set up on the islands. These consist of a cosy sheltered box with small openings to let the rat in and a round puck of chocolate-flavoured wax with a wire through its middle secured inside.

The rats find the chocolate smell irresistible and if they arrive on the island again will make their presence known through characteristic tooth marks left on the wax. Jonny shows us some examples of rat-gnawed wax blocks from their winter on the island spent with (initially) around 3000 rats. “We had these bait stations laid out in a 50m grid all over the island” he says “but now they are only there to monitor rats in places that they are likely to show up first.”


The team took DNA samples from some of the rats from the Shiants during the eradication. This is so, if rats are picked up by the monitoring stations, they can test whether they are a new invasion or come from a remnant of the original population that managed to hide out somewhere.


Jonny shows us photos of marks made by birds, shrews and mice and then we are issued with our GPS loaded up with the coordinates of each monitoring station and head off.


I’ve never done geocaching but it strikes me that this is a more socially useful version of that popular pastime. We are walking around,GPS in hand, looking for a box within which is an object. (In our case a wax block) and we need to take out that object and replace it with another object (in our case a fresh wax block)

  We are trying our novice geocaching skills on a complex slope of steep boulders, cliffs and slippy, dropping-slicked grass. The footholds in the grassy bits consist of tufts that have become regular perches for puffins and have become flattened and covered with poo. Every now and again a disused burrow makes a secure handhold if you jam your arm right into it up to the armpit. The boulders feel slightly more secure having good sharp edges to hold onto but every now and again a boulder shifts and you are keenly aware that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of boulders are balanced at an angle of 30degrees against a cliff that is still adding boulders to the pile each winter.


Fortunately the teenager refuses to come into the colony again (“the smellllllll. It’s just so discussssting”) so I only need to worry about my own wellbeing. We start up the GPS just before the scamble in to the colony. The GPS tells me our first monitoring station is only 2m away but there is nothing in the short cropped grass and crags despite a good search. After a while looking around we head down the scramble and, there it is, vertically below where we were searching.

This theme continues through the morning in the complex topography of the Boulder field. Several times we reach an impassable grassy slope or cliff face and have to back track precariously to find another route to get to our quarry. Eventually I declare this three dimensional maze to be too challenging for a pair of novices who don’t know the route and we retreat from the boulder field and head to the old ruined settlement at the other side of the island for another set of monitoring stations which the teenager romps through like she was born to be a rat station geocacher.

We had been tasked with checking around 20 stations, a fraction of the 300 bait stations the eradication team had in the boulder field alone. In perfect conditions we had found the steep slippery grass utterly treacherous and I wondered how the team had made their way across it in winter to check and replenish their bait stations during the eradication.  

Jack and Jonny, who were both there on the project since the beginning, are quietly understated about the privations of a winter on the Shiants. They would spend a week at base camp covering the rat stations on Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Taighe (House Island) and then a week across the kilometer of water stirred by fierce tidal currents on Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island). There they would stay in a single cabin secured down with straps to concrete blocks. “We went out most days” said Jack. “But when it was blowing more than a force 8 the rope access team couldn’t work as it was too dangerous”.


The rope access team were working on bait stations placed across the cliffs of the islands which involved one person abseiling down to them. “It was worse for the one left at the top” said Jack “they just had to be there in case anything happened and it was often very wet and freezing cold. At least the one on the rope was keeping active”


After two weeks on the Shiants the team would have a week in Harris with access to hot water on tap, central heating, flush toilets and Internet access. The teenager perks her head up at the mention of Internet access “where can I get Internet access?” She asks.

It turns out that she could possibly get a 3G signal at the very top of Rough island, around a half hour’s walk. “If you’re lucky” says Jonny.

Do you know that I actually took this photo with my phone while clambering around between looking for bait stations? I was pretty amazed when I saw the result. 

The Corncrake Survey

There was still enough light to read a book as I packed up a few essentials for the night ahead, tagging along on an RSPB Scotland corncrake survey. I would be picked up just before midnight and wouldn’t be back until the light returned again at around 330am. The last rays from the sun, which was skimming just under the rim of the horizon, cast a purple and pink glow, silhouetting three distant croft houses and painting the lochan beside my tent with colour. Behind me, to the south-east, the full mokoon hung over the distant mountains of Beinn Mhor, Beinn Choradail and Hecla. It would be a good night for it.  
South Uist is a land of water and sky, her thousands of pools and lochans range from those a few metres across to Loch Bi, a large brackish loch that divides the island almost in two and across which a causeway carries the main road northward. Looking at a map, there seems more water than land in South Uist, and the arrangement of islands and pools looks, for all the world, as though the divine had cut the intricate shapes of the lochans into the rock and then flung the cut pieces into the sea to form the vast archipelago of low lying islands East of Uist and Benbecular.

 On the west of South Uist, and all along the Atlantic coastline of Eilean Siar, the Western Isles, from Barra to the Butt of Lewis, are long white beaches, mile upon mile of fine white sand. Were the swimmer to turn and head straight out, the first landfall they would make (if they missed the islands of St Kilda and Rockall) would be Newfoundland. Look closely and you’ll see that the sand is not made of angled grains of silca, but tiny flakes of unimaginable billions of sea-shells, crushed by the fierce Atlantic and washed up on these shores over thousands of years. It is this shell sand, which covers not only the beaches but the whole of the west side of the island, which creates the machair (pronounced with a soft ch a bit like in ‘loch’) a unique, wildlflower-rich meadow habitat, which is now the last remaining sanctuary of the corncrake. This is where we would be tonight – counting corncrakes for the second of two annual surveys.


At 1145pm Ben was at the door wearing beige overalls and a beanie hat topped off with head-torch. We made our introductions and I hoisted myself inexpertly into the passenger seat of his Landrover Defender. “She’s 21 this year,” he said tapping the steering wheel affectionately. We set off slowly into the gloaming with our windows open and I leaned out, straining to hear the characteristic krkkkkk krkkkk call of the male corncrake, setting out his territory and shouting out to females to come and get him. This sound was once familiar in every county in Britain and Ireland, but with rapid farm mechanisation and a change to early harvesting crops, corncrakes have been the collateral damage and by the 1930s were absent from most of England and Wales and much of Scotland. The stark reality of modern farming with a summer harvest and machinery driven from the outside of the field into the centre in a decreasing spiral is that any corncrakes and their chicks are herded towards the centre where they inevitably meet their end.


“Crofting offers a much more corncrake friendly system of farming which is why the last corncrakes remained in these machair habitats” Heather Beaton, the conservation officer on South Uist, had explained to me earlier in the day. “Corncrakes love the machair which is sewn in a rotation, with two years of rye or oats for cattle food – and then two years left fallow.” The soil on these coastal crofts is very sandy and delicate so ploughing is very shallow and is very low input, with seaweed being used for fertilizer. In the fallow years wildflowers immediately spring up as the seed bank remains near to the surface and you get lots of clovers and vetches that enrich the soil for the next crop. It’s the vegetation of the machair that is so popular with corncrakes and they generally choose higher cover to call in which means they are seldom seen.


 We stop in a layby on the single track road at the first point Ben expects to hear a corncrake, he gets out a sheaf of large scale maps with annotations showing where corncrakes were seen on the first survey this year and in previous survey years. “We do two surveys a year as corncrakes will stop calling once they have paired up, but as soon as the females is sitting on eggs, he will start calling again in the hope of getting a second female, or even a third” he says. The period they are out of action for egg laying is about two weeks and so the surveys take place two weeks apart to make sure they catch corncrakes that were not calling during the first survey. We strain our ears to listen, I hear the contented sound of roosting geese on loch Bi, and the keeek keeek of an alarming oystercatcher but don’t hear a corncrake.


We move on, stopping every few hundred yards, switching off the engine to listen. Snipe are everywhere, their “chip chip” call rising above the bugle of the island’s few resident whooper swans. Every now and again the low vibration of a drumming snipe drifts over. One of nature’s strangest sounds, it’s made by their tail feathers rubbing together as they perform their airborne dance of climbs and dives. But still no corncrake.

We pass Ben’s own croft and he points out his fields which are home to his three cows and his sheep. In his yard are parked another two landrover defenders, a VW camper and two cars. “You can never have too many landrover defenders” says Ben “and anyway, they stopped making them so their value is going up really fast”. I ask if he’s planning to do them up and sell them and he says “I might do in a few years, they’ll be worth so much by then. Either that, or they’ll be a couple of piles of rust in a field” he laughs. He has a calling male on his croft but it is uncharacteristically silent tonight. We move on.

A few hundred meters later we hear our first corncrake of the evening – it sounds loud to me but Ben assures me it is still a couple of fields away and we drive on. We get out of the landrover just down the road and listen, it is definitely louder, and we pinpoint it roughly on the map, we will need to check it again when we drive down the parallel road and can hear it from the other side . This stop, start, listen, continues for the next three hours, getting a little too exciting when we stop on the main road and Ben shuts off the engine, which also cuts the lights. As we sit dark and unpowered on the main road I look anxiously in the wing mirror, checking for approaching traffic from the rear.

At one croft the corncrake has positioned itself between the croft house and a barn and had managed to create a natural amplifier by reflecting its voice off both buildings. We stand between, listening to the twin echos and feeling grateful that we aren’t the people trying to sleep in the house. By this time it was 2am, Sauchihall Street in Glasgow would just be getting busy.

Just past this house Ben shows me another field that is part of his croft. “These two fields came as part of my croft because the previous owner had bought these off an uncle,” crofts were originally designed to be too small to support a family, meaning that they would need to take paid work on the estate, often harvesting kelp, to subsidise their income so some crofters join crofts together for some economies of scale. But crofting is still only part of an income today: Ben works a couple of days a week for RSPB but also does work off-island from time to time.


We head down onto the MOD land, this land is shared by all the crofters in the township and use of it is decided by the grazing committee. There are agreements about what date cows can go on, what date for sheep and how many of each. This ensures the sustainability of crofting in such a fragile soil. When rockets are being fired into near-space from their common grazings, the crofters are paid a daily rate for their loss of use of the land.

“Oh no that’s the exhaust gone – did you hear it” says Ben suddenly. “I told you that you can’t have too many landrovers, I’ll need to use one of the others on tomorrow’s survey”. The lights blaze from all the MOD buildings but no one seems to be in. There’s some headlights coming towards us, and I look around the landrover at the pairs of binoculars, notebooks and detailed, large scale maps of the area. This could look a little suspicious. But the headlamps turned out to be two floodlights positioned by chance at exactly the right spot.


After mapping several more corncrakes, we are done and Ben drops me back at the tent. The sun hasn’t quite risen above the horizon, but it is almost light. A short-eared owl flits across the bog behind the lochan and the snipe join the other waders in their dawn flights. It’s looking like this is going to be a very short night.


The abundance of birds here is evident even before I’ve unpacked my things into my homely little camping pod in the corner of the Balranald campsite. My arrival is heralded by a duo of corncrakes scratching out their calls in the wildflower meadow, one on either side of the pod. A swallow repeatedly swoops past as I settle myself on the step at the front door, to watch a corn bunting perched only a few feet away on the stalk of a seeding doc, singing its jangling song while being harassed by a couple of house sparrows. The campsite is right on Balranald RSPB reserve and I’m utterly transfixed by the wildlife that is so evident all around me. After a few minutes in my trance I come to and realise that the swallow is desperately trying to get to its nest, which is directly above my head, built on top of the light fitting in the apex of the little hut.
I shift inside the threshold and watch them as they flutter in every minute or so feeding their nearly-grown chicks. Hopefully they will fledge while I am here. I lay on my back on the floor, head just inside the threshold, looking up at the nest from underneath.
The corncrake starts up again. And the second, and then a third. I’m surrounded. The camping pod overlooks the marsh – an exceptionally rich area of the reserve teeming with waders and full of wildflowers. Above me I hear the quiver of a drumming snipe and look up to see it frantically beating its wings as it climbs upwards and then plummets down as its tail feathers make that remarkable noise. I get the feeling it might take me a while to get unpacked.

I’m here to spend a few days of a Sabbatical from RSPB – every five years we are fortunate enough to have the chance to work somewhere else in the society or for a BirdLife partner for four weeks to use our skills, or gain new ones, in the service of the wider nature conservation family. I am here in the Uists to look at how we interpret our visitor reserves, especially a new reserve we have in partnership with the community of South Uist at Druidibeg. But I also have a few days at Balranald to speak to visitors and learn about our work in the Uists and the special interaction of crofting and nature conservation which creates the most species rich agricultural landscape in Britain.


Later I get a chance to explore the reserve, a patchwork of croft land and common machair grazings with the most exquisite wildflowers covering every square inch of land. As I start the walk around the peninsular on the dune above a beautiful sandy bay (taking note that a swim in the incoming tide would be warmed by the hot sand) I look down and see a dead bumblebee. This is the Great Yellow bumblebee, probably the rarest animal on this peninsular – they are highly dependent on machair, the incredibly species rich meadow habitat that grows on the shell sand of the Hebrides, and Orkney. I take it back to show a few people on the campsite and then set aside to pass to the site manager. Everywhere on the walk are redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing. All these species have been fast declining in the rest of Britain but are still common on the extensive grazing systems supported by crofting.

 As I come over a rise a kidney shaped pool comes into sight, shallow and rocky-edged. There is a piercing shriek of a diving Arctic tern and I duck, but it wasn’t going for me, it’s after a small brown shape on the path ahead of me. The otter, slick with water from the pool, lifts its head to the tern, turns on itself and starts up the path towards me. Distracted by the tern dropping again and again almost onto its back, it isn’t paying attention to me and I lower myself quickly onto the ground hoping that it will walk right past me. But when it is 5 metres from me the otter suddenly turns and heads towards the sea, the tern still dangling, as if on elastic, directly above it.

After I had passed the Arctic tern colony, ducking frequently, stopping only for a good look at a fine Dunlin on a rock only a few metres away from me with beautiful black belly and rich brown scallop, edged wing plumage, I stop on a rock just off the path to watch the sea crashing on the rocks of the headland. All around me the grassland is short, and deep purple orchids, the Northern Marsh Orchid, grows in profusion. In the distance out to sea a black shape is moving towards me purposefully and, as it gets closer, I see that it is surrounded by a halo of mobbing terns and gulls. They have good reason to fear, the black shape resolves into that of a great skua, or bonxie. This large, dark brown bird is a little like a gigantic gull with sharper wing tips, and white crescents on each wing. They live less by piracy like other skuas, and more by predation. On a visit to Orkney a few years before I had seen the fearful remains of a puffin that had come into close contact with a bonxie. The little body had been turned inside out, its beautiful beak wrapped in its own skin and the breast muscle neatly cut away. But this bonxie had no intention of lingering at Balranald, it continued its course due North East, the gang of terns still in pursuit.







Remembering Teresa 

Tomorrow would have been Teresa Brasier’s 48th birthday and it seems the right time to reflect, over a breakfast of my first ever batch of home made marmalade (whisky of course), on what her friendship and loss has meant to me.   

I first met Teresa in 1997 when I arrived in Glasgow as a new PhD student and she was working for an orchestra, and I last saw Teresa 10 days before she died at the start of December in her small miners cottage in Leadhills, where she had lived for a decade.  

 She left a legacy in so many people’s lives and hearts, but I want to write here a little of the legacy that she left me. I think that, what stays with me, above all, is the experience of life and death as two facets of a whole: her determination to live life to the full, while accepting death as part of life. And how her experience of death was transformed by her deep and active faith in God. 

I was fortunate to be able to spend some special moments with Teresa over the past year, since her cancer returned in a much more aggressive form. We’d had regular lunches, walks, when her health allowed, and even spent some time up north with her and her partner Mary in their favourite place The Holy Tree Inn, somewhere we had discovered as a warming haven after visits to our bothy. Teresa was inseparable from her beloved black lab Poacher, except for the times I’d seen her in hospital when, instead of a snoring dog and a bookshelf of single malt whiskies, she would be surrounded by a crowd of friends sharing stories, anecdotes and a packet of biscuits. You’d always know where Teresa was in the hospital because you could hear the laughter.   

 Teresa left behind her so much joy and such a legacy. When she moved to Leadhills and heard that the instruments of the Leadhills Silver Band were sitting unused in the Miner’s library, she decided to re-establish the century old tradition. Bringing together beginners and seasoned experts, seven year olds and seventy year olds she brought back to life the historic instruments that had, for years, lain silent. She raised the money needed for new instruments for the band and conducted them until she became too ill to continue. She and Mary worked together to help deaf children learn and play music, and she also worked as a councillor and facilitator. 


Teresa lived the last year of her life as she’d lived all her life – completely to the full. She saw friends, and had many an adventure with Mary: they took an autumn trip to the Canaries, flew in a tiny plane to Barra landing on the beach to visit friends, returned to her favourite places, took a camper van adventure on the Western Isles, and of course, participated in many a communal whisky tasting, always posted by either her or Mary on social media for us to enjoy vicariously. And she printed out the pictures in a photo-book she had beside the sofa labelled ‘Memories’.

   I, meanwhile, was in denial – how could someone so full of life not be alive anymore?


She held a 50th birthday party in Wanlockhead village hall preceded by a service of thanksgiving. “But you’re not even 48 yet” I said. 


I continued to be in denial visiting her in hospital while she was participating in a trial of a new drug, and when, following a sudden downturn in her condition, I visited her still groggy and in the high dependency unit after an emergency operation. Her hand that I held seemed somehow transparent, her voice little more than a whisper and she was very weak. But this was the outside, on the inside was her characteristic enduring strength and a remarkable acceptance of the situation, she was confident of where she was going. 


Spending time with T in those final weeks was an incredible privilege, like being invited to glimpse into mysteries way beyond us. Teresa opened a box full of frightening stuff and didn’t find any fear in it. She was so at peace, lived with such faith and had such confidence in what comes next she simply emanated that to those she spent time with. Sitting with her on the sofa, praying with her or just sitting together, would be like seeing a flash, just out of the corner of your eye, of incredible light and then turning to find the ordinary and earthly.


Two weeks before she died, a mutual friend was looking after her at home and I went over to visit a few times over the course of the weekend. 


We sat and read through some liturgy, praying and singing. It was a beautiful time. It seemed to me that heaven was stooping very close. You could reach out and almost touch it. 

“You missed a career as a vicar” I joked afterwards as we had a cup of tea 

“I know. God was calling me for a long time and I never heeded the call and now it’s too late” she said sadly, thoughtfully resigned to the fact. We sat in silence for a while after that.


When I visited her that last time she was extremely frail but very much herself, down to earth and matter of fact and rooted deep in her faith. We talked about Christmas and her plans and then she asked me if I’d like to have her skis. 


We’d had so much fun together skiing in Scotland and even once in the Alps.

   “I couldn’t take them Teresa” I said “what if you want to use them again?”

   “Kat” she said looking at me half exasperated “just take the skis. And boots. I’ll not be needing them!”

She then asked her brother, Stephen, who was staying for the week, to fetch them for me. I took them obediently, just as I had taken her last pot of her dad’s home made marmalade when I’d seen her the week before. 


On that visit our friend Catherine was making her a marmalade on toast in her own earnest and perfectionist way, ensuring the butter was just the right thickness and the marmalade was spread right to the edges.


Meanwhile, I was musing on how much I love homemade marmalade, “My parents used to give me marmalade and now they don’t” I wailed.

  “Why don’t you make it yourself?” she’s asked perfectly reasonably. As you can imagine I didn’t really have a good answer to that. 

Tired of waiting for the perfect slice of toast and, never backward in coming forward, Teresa said “Just give me the toast Catherine!” then bent down awkwardly and got her other jar out of the cupboard and gave it to me.

I didn’t want to take it “you might want it Teresa, I feel bad taking treats from a sick person”

“Take the sodding marmalade Kat, she said patiently “I am not going to eat it all”.


I took the marmalade and said I’d be back the following Monday. On the Sunday she sent me a voice message saying she wasn’t well enough to see me and on the Tuesday I received a phone call telling me she had died. 


On the day of Teresa’s funeral we drove south from Glasgow and the southern uplands rose on either side of the motorway with the huge arc of blue sky above. As we gained height up to Leadhills, the thin smattering of snow on the hills became thick drifts by the side of the road. We parked on the main road, not daring to stray far from the route of the snowploughs.


In the peaceful burial ground on the edge of the village, deep in snow and encircled by the rounded forms of the North Lowther hills, we said our goodbyes to Teresa and my younger daughter, Teresa’s goddaughter, left her a snow angel. 


The very next day my we took Teresa’s skis to Glencoe and had our earliest season’s skiing since we’ve been in Scotland. The sky was still blue and the snow lay as thickly as I’d seen it in December (I got a couple of new scratches on the skis though – souvenirs of a special day you might say and which Teresa would no-doubt have approved of) “Teresa would love this” we agreed. And I felt that she was somehow there with us. That it all fitted. 


Writing this, something that Julian of Norwich, the 14th century nun and mystic said after a vision of talking with Christ came to mind. 


“All will be well, and all will will well. And all manner of things will be well”


And I did decide to make marmalade at last. Why wouldn’t I? And I put a few giant slugs of single malt whisky in there too (Islay if you’re wondering). 


Why indeed not? Life’s too short. 

Girls are wearing the trousers (at last)

This week we had a letter home from the school, it looked like any other letter the schools sends home to us, this one was entitled ‘Scottish Standardised National Assessments (SSNA)’. Unusually I read the letter immediately, rather than relegating it to the ever-growing pile. It was the usual stuff around updating us on the developing assessment system for school children in Scotland and then, to my surprise, came a very significant announcement thrown in at the end. Our children’s school was lifting their ban on girls wearing trousers.


The school which has stoically held out against the march of progress and female sartorial emancipation was, at last, changing its policy. I actually felt rather emotional. When my younger daughter, who hasn’t worn a skirt or dress since she was old enough to say ‘no’, was about a year away from moving up to secondary school I had a conversation with her. I had heard that other parents and pupils had failed in requests to wear trousers and I was worried. There would be no chance at all that Natalie would be able to wear a skirt – the most upset I had ever seen her was when someone was trying to get her to wear a skirt or a dress, when her identity as a shorts wearing, football playing, wear-a-tie-on-a-smart-occasion, sport-loving girl is squeezed into someone else’s idea of what her identity should be.


I explained that there were two options for us: we could start our own campaign and get the school to change; or we could send her to another school where she would be able to wear trousers. I have to admit I was kind of relishing a bit of a fight, a chance to deliver a small blow for justice and equality. Having delivered many a campaign through work and in my spare time I already had the campaign strategy worked out in my head and it even had a name “Operation Girls Wear the Trousers”. But it would be hard work, could take a while and would mean that Natalie would be in the spotlight and would need to be a full partner in the project.  


She was all for taking on the school – ‘let’s change it’ she said, and I did a little dance. It seemed to me that this should be a relatively easy campaign to win. I looked up other cases of parental challenges to schools that refused girls to wear trousers (and those where boys had campaigned to wear skirts) and they all had something in common, if they went as far as lawyers getting involved, in every case the school had backed down before it reached court on legal advice that the case was unwinnable. This meant that there was no case law on the subject, however I read clear guidance from the Scottish Government to schools that there should not be gender specific uniform policy, and (utterly ignorant on matters of law) surmised that, if Natalie showed up at school in trousers and the school sent her home, thus denying her an education, they could be breaking the law in the form of the Equalities Act 2010 (Scotland) and I could justifiably call the police.


However this was the stuff that would be rolled out if all else failed, the final stages of our campaign. At the moment we needed to get everything else in line – first a direct appeal to the school and then, if that failed, drawing local councillors, MSPs and the media into the campaign. Natalie did some ground work and wrote to all the councillors standing in the local election and asked their views on girls being allowed to wear trousers to school. She had a great response and offers of help with her campaign. Then we heard back from the school, they would meet with me and Natalie to discuss the issue.


We showed up to the school office at the allotted time, Natalie very smart in her primary school uniform: dark shorts (she always wore shorts then), smart shirt and a tie, short back and sides.  The Deputy Head invited me in, for now Natalie would wait in the office. After the starting pleasantries and explaination that Natalie would never, could never, wear a skirt he said thoughtfully, “So….Would you say that this is a gender issue?” (pronouncing ‘gender issue’ in the same, half whisper that Miranda would use when saying ‘sexual’).

‘If you mean that Natalie is a girl who wants to wear trousers and she isn’t allowed to because she’s a girl. Then yes I would say it is definitely a gender issue’ I was thinking, But I said “What do you mean by ‘gender issue’”

   “Erm….what I mean” he said delicately “is whether there is a …erm…gender identity issue”

   “Well Natalie is very happy, she plays football, she wears trousers, climbs trees, hangs out with boys, she’s happy being herself. You could say she’s a tomboy”.

   “Well in that case school policy clearly states that she will need to wear a skirt” was the reply. 


I was a little floored at this so tried to clarify that Natalie absolutely wouldn’t wear a skirt, it just wasn’t a possibility. She couldn’t bring herself to, it just wasn’t, well …it just wasn’t her.


But the policy was immovable. She would just have to wear a skirt if she was attending the school.


   “So you are saying to me that I need to tell Natalie that she’ll just have to wear a skirt, no discussions, unless she wants to be a boy. In which case she can wear trousers?” I said.

   “Do you really think that telling my happy, well-balanced eleven year old that she will have to become a boy if she wants to keep on wearing trousers is in her best interests?” I asked, getting perhaps a little shrill as I thought through how that conversation would go. 


How ludicrous, I thought, that we cannot allow the possibility of a trouser-wearing girl; that someone who wears trousers must actually secretly want to be a boy. We are in the world of 2017 where some of the world’s most powerful people are girls in trousers: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkle. For crying out loud I wear trousers all the time, half the female teachers at the school wear trousers and I am supposed to go home and talk to my daughter about whether she actually wants to be a boy. Even Enid Blyton, hardly the most feminist of authors had a tomboy character in the Famous Five books, the short-haired, shorts and sensible shoe-wearing George.


   “Well, when you put it like that” said the Deputy Head “I suppose it does sound a bit strange.” We brought Natalie in and chatted about her ambitions and plans. She was determined to attend the school she explained because it had such a good reputation and she wanted to be an engineer, or an accountant or perhaps an architect. She chatted a bit about football and why she always wears trousers or shorts ‘just because that’s what I wear’ she said.

We went home, Natalie having had a good meeting, me having had an extremely draining and stressful one, and awaited the verdict. It arrived in a week, bearing news that yes Natalie would be able to wear trousers at school. What a relief. But also a disappointment that it was the end of our campaign. We had won the battle for Natalie to wear trousers, but we hadn’t won the war and I thought of all the people that would come after us having to have that awkward, strange and potentially damaging meeting. However now we had nothing to fight against. I assured Natalie that if she wanted to campaign when she got to the school I would roll out Operation Girls Wear the Trousers with glee, but until that moment, the campaign plan would be mothballed. 


I was still waiting for that opportunity when the letter came through. First I was really happy; I cried a little; I was filled with relief for all the girls and their families that would come after us that wouldn’t have to go to ‘that meeting’*. And then I laughed and laughed when I read those three paragraphs again, slipped in nonchalantly at the end of a letter about something completely different. To announce the news that they were belatedly entering the 20th century, they had chosen to use archaically 19th century language. 


 ‘Some may see trousers as modest, comfortable and practical’. Eh?!!? Do all the others think trousers on women are shockingly provocative? Like women riding astride a horse rather than side saddle, or going out without a chaperone?


And that conference where they met to discuss emerging practice? A friend was wondering about what that conference agenda contained…


“After a short break for luncheon Miss Euphemia Fotheringay-Burnett will discuss “Trousers: comfortable, practical and modest – but not the only option”


Finally, there’s that extraordinary last paragraph where they seem to suggest that allowing girls to wear trousers could be a slippery slope to boys demanding to wear skirts, as if women wearing trousers is some new experiment and hasn’t been common in society for considerably more than 70 years.


And all this in a country where a skirt is the national dress for men. I simply give up….


However I feel Natalie and I won’t be able to hang up our campaigning sensible shoes just yet. As Natalie’s 15 year old sister gleefully reminds her on a regular basis, next year, while the boys are timetabled basket ball coaching, the girls will do cheerleading. It goes without saying that this is anathema to Natalie… I can’t help feeling that compulsory cheerleading for girls may be the next bastion of sexism in the school to fall.


names have been changed to protect the innocent….

*I have, since, discovered another family from the school who had ‘that meeting’ and, judging by their description, it had a similar content to ours.  
I know many, many pupils and parents from the school have campaigned for the right to wear trousers over many years.  Please feel free to add your own experiences to the comments section. 

Losing it (again) 

I’ve got quite used to losing bikes. It’s been a theme in my life for the past 25 years. I’ve left a bike in Balloch after a meeting and only realised when I was getting off a train in Edinburgh; I’ve lost more than one bike after a night out at university because I forgot where, in a vast array of parked bikes, I’d left it; I’ve had many stolen – mainly through leaving them unlocked- and one I’d locked up and someone just picked up and walked off with.   

But that was the old days, now I have a Brompton and I don’t let it out of my sight. It really is the apple of my eye, long wished-for over many years for its ability to fold up. I can take it onto any train, even those that only accept bike bookings, and on buses and even into shops. (Though obviously you wouldn’t need to take it into a shop  if they weren’t so sodding valuable- you’d just lock it outside). 


But the joys of having a folding bike are slightly tempered by the challenges: imagine ‘Mr Bean’s Brimpton Bike Commute’ and you’ve pretty much got the picture of my daily struggles. There’s a strict order to do all the folds, rather like origami but without the easy-to-use instructions. If you do something wrong it just doesn’t work and you have to fold it up and start again. So if I’m in a rush, feel like I have an audience, or in mid-conversation I inevitably do it wrong.  


A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in Edinburgh and we walked together into town, me pushing the Brompton and chatting away. Just at the top of the Mound we parted company and as I prepared to get on the bike she asked where my helmet was. “Oh dear I must have left it in Glasgow,” I said, “but don’t worry, you only really need a helmet if you’re a total idiot and fall off, because if you get run into by a bus or a lorry you’d just be dead anyway and a helmet won’t help you”

“Right. Ok then” said Jo uncertainly as she turned to wave goodbye “be careful!” 


I waited for the dense crowds on the Royal Mile to clear and then mounted my bike to take to the steep hill down the Mound. I pressed gently down on the right pedal to start and then the handlebars collapsed over the front of the bike and the front wheel folded around at right angles to the direction I wanted to go in. I went flying over the folded handlebars, hit the road and rolled over. 


Scrambling out of the tangle, part bike part human, some horrified German tourists helped me out of the path of the oncoming traffic. They seemed a bit traumatized and extremely concerned for my wellbeing while I, on the other hand, was more concerned to check whether Jo had seen the incident. Once I was sure she was’t doubled over laughing at my famous last words and posting it all to Facebook, I turned back to the Germans. No I wasn’t hurt (only a little), yes I was fine, no I didn’t need to go to hospital, yes the bike is supposed to do that (just not when I’m riding on it). Then I asked them the all important question “So what did it look like?”


“You flew through the air” said the German woman “like a stunt man”. 

 Reassured that I was more Mr Bond than Mr Bean, I reassembled the bike, tightening the joints I had failed to in the excitement of chat with a friend, and cycled off. 


But this blog is supposed to be about losing bikes, not falling off bikes so back to the subject. 


Despite the care and attention I’d given my beloved Brompton since I bought it second hand from a bloke at Hamilton Station, my tireless folding and unfolding to take it into work, shops, meetings, my attention somehow lapsed and I ended up leaving it on a train. In my defence I was distracted with ravenous hunger and an altercation with a vending machine at Dundee station. It wasn’t until I was home that I realised it was still on the train. The horror. The realization that I had, yet again, lost a bike. The heavy sighs and rolling of the eyes of long-suffering husband. 


A check of the timetables suggested the bike was now well on the way to Edinburgh and there was no point to returning to the station. It was also nearly midnight. 


So what does a girl do? I called lost property but it was, of course, shut. I could have gone to bed and thought about it in the morning but it was my BROMPTON. I tweeted a desperate tweet into the twitterverse. 

I didn’t expect to hear anything. I just couldn’t face the ‘not another bike’ face of the very long suffering husband (who has lived through double figures of lost bikes over the years). 


Then, suddenly and against all the odds, a tweet arrived. “I’ve got your bike” it said. I hardly believed it. It turned out to be the guard on the train I’d been on and she would pass the bike to a colleague coming back to Glasgow. I could pick my bike up from him at 2:10am. It was too good to be true. I raced around the house looking for wine or chocolates to give to the guard but could only found a pack of macaroons hidden behind a box in a kitchen cupboard. I set my alarm for 130am and had an hour of fitful sleep. 

When I arrived at Queen street having negotiated Sauchiehall street at 145am, dodging between hundreds of taxis and trying not to run over drunken revellers spilling all over the street, the station was all shut up. I wandered around until I found a sliding door I could prise open and found the station deserted except for two police officers. 


“How did you get in here?” said a burly station employee who appeared as the train drew in “you managed to pry open a door? An’ with the Polis here an aw”


And all of a sudden I was joyfully reunited with my bike. I tried to hand over the macaroons but the guard refused to take them. I tweeted profuse thanks to the  Dundee train guard who was now off-shift and headed home. 


The next day Ruedi was extremely surprised that I had actually managed to retrieve my bike but rather perturbed at the loss of some macaroons he has secreted away. I directed him to the car, “The guard wouldn’t accept them” I explained. 


“Oh” he said, a little puzzled, fetching them and handing them back to me. “Happy Anniversary.”

Vending Machine Venting

Right. This is going to be a rant. A hypoglycemic rant as it goes. A veritable raging hangry rant.  

I’ve just found out what the most effective way of getting a hungry person off on a rant. It’s a vending machine that just eats money. Yes it swallows it whole and refuses to regurgitate a snack. A vending machine in a station late at night with no prospect of nutriment between here and Glasgow. (With here being Dundee). 

 And not only that, Ladies and Gentlemen, a jobsworth station employee with his jobsworth flourescent tabard and his hipster beard. 

 It’s the perfect storm. 

 So I put in my £1 in and it swallows it. I exclaim to noone in particular that the machine has stolen my money and a man standing along the platform looks round and says “it stole my money too”. So we drag the aforementioned station person over to the machine and he says “not my responsibility mate”

 “But it’s swallowing everyone’s money” said the man. 

 “Can’t do anything about it mate. I can’t touch the machine” says the beard. 

 “You could put a sign on it” I suggest. “It would stop that guy chucking his money into it” I say, pointing at another man with his coin poised over the slot. 

 “DONT PUT YOUR MONEY IN THERE” we shout at him in unison, he looks startled and scuttles away. 

 We turn back to the station employee 

“I can’t touch the machine, it’s not station property” he says. 

 “Would you be able to touch it if you wanted to buy something from it?” I ask, genuinely interested in his philosophical position. “What about if it were about to fall and crush your granny, could you touch it then?”

 “I can’t help you” he continues increasingly desperately. 

 “Ok” I say “How about you just stick a wee notice on it. You don’t even need to touch the machine. Just stick it on with blue tack or double sided sticky tape.” I am beginning to get slightly manic in my sugar-deprived state.  

I decide to take direct action and switch the machine off at the wall. 

  “You can’t do that” the station man says

 “But you haven’t touched it and I solved the problem of you being complicit in this fraud”

 He switches it on again. 

 I spot a couple of policemen with a group of drunken football fans and march over to get their legal advice. 

 “Is the train station responsible if that machine is committing fraud? And they know it and refuse to shut it down or label it out of order?” I ask. 

 But I don’t have time to hear the answer. The train has pulled in and I have to sprint up the platform to fetch my bike and jump on. Switching the vending machine back off again in the dash. 

 But just as the train fires up to leave I spot a man with a beenie hat and a forlorn looking collie dog on a lead by the vending machine. He has switched it back on and is poised to put some money in once he has decided on an item. I throw myself back to the closing doors of the train and shout. “STOP. Don’t put your money in there.” He turns to me with a look of mild surprise then turns back to contemplating the crisp selection. 

“No it will swallow your money. I turned it off to stop people doing it”. 

He now looked as folorn as his dog, “Really? Will it definitely not work? I’m so hungry I actually feel like putting the money in anyway.” He said as the doors closed and the train pulled away.

 By now I really REALLY need some food. But what are the chances that there will be a snack trolley on board. 

But miraculously there is. And I even find enough cash, despite the criminal vending machine, for a packet of crisps and a twix. 

  Back at my seat as I munch happily away I contemplate submitting the conundrum to Radio 4s “Moral Maze” to solve. I imagine Michael Burke’s soporific voice 

 “And today on Moral Maze we are discussing the agency of an out of order snack machine. 

Stay tuned in while we put the case to the panel”








  Kat 24/11/2017 

The mysterious case of the disappearing clothes. 

It’s not often us conservationists get to dress up and go to a fancy meal in an extremely fancy hotel. And that’s what makes the Nature of Scotland awards so special: a fabulous meal with sparkling company and wearing shoes that certainly wouldn’t be practical for the day-job. 

It’s always a memorable event but this year will be memorable for another reason: between arriving at the venue and leaving a few hours ago, I have somehow lost my clothes. Not the clothes I am currently wearing I hasten to add, the clothes I had arrived in before changing into my finery.

When I went to change back into them for the dash to the train they weren’t in my bag. “Why wouldn’t they be here?” I thought, indignantly. Surely someone wouldn’t rifle past my wallet to steal a pair of brown trousers and a top I got 5 years ago from the Salvation Army shop. 

Truly a conundrum. I thought my way back through the evening. I’d arrived in work clothes and gone straight to the toilets to change so I went back to check. The toilet I’d changed in was engaged. I waited. But time was marching on and the last train to Glagsow was going in 15 minutes. I contemplated shouting over the door “Erm excuse me. Have I left my clothes in there?” Then I thought better of it and sprinted off for the train. I stopped on the way out at reception to ask if any clothes had been handed in.

 The concierge kept a totally straight face as he received the information and then turned to a colleague saying “this lady has lost her, um, some, well, items. And wonders if they have been handed in” 


“My clothes” I quickly clarified in case they thought it was something worse. But no-one had seen them. I dashed off.

Fortunately I hadn’t lost my comfortable boots with my clothes as there would have been no sprinting in those shoes: skyscraper platforms. A type of shoe I have neither worn before nor owned (the extent of my previous high heels experience extending to a vertiginous one and a half inches above floor level). 

No, these completely unsuitable and almost unwearable shoes actually belong to my 14 year old daughter who, having discovered it was a black tie event, poured scorn on my choice of shoe. 


“You can’t go out dressed like that mum.” She said, perfectly horrified, in almost the same tone I’d use as she struts out to a party in a lacy midriff-bearing ensemble. “See those shoes, they are just awful. Mum” she says “Awful granny shoes. Yuk”


Well what else will I wear then? I blustered. 

“Theeeeese” she purred appearing cradling a pair of ridiculously high black suede heels.


I squeaked at them in parental shock, demanding what they were and why a 14 year old owned them. My daughter recoiled theatrically.  “My babies” she said defensively as she stroked the shoes like a Bond villain with her cat. “And you certainly won’t be borrowing them them.”

It needed a bit of negotiating but, eventually, after agreeing to pay for a new dress for the school Christmas dance, I got to wear the shoes. 

 Still musing over the whereabouts of my clothes I ran, Cinderella-like, in full length party gown (heels in bag) through Edinburgh in fear of missing the last train. And on the platform, when I arrived in a whirl of stress, I found three people from my table at the dinner. We greeted each other and I casually commented that I wished I was wearing the clothes I’d arrived in but couldn’t find them. 


“Sooooo. You mean you’ve lost your clothes at the hotel?” Asked one of the women slowly, as if to make sure she caught what I’d said correctly and then everyone fell about laughing. 

“Oh I found some clothes in the ladies loo” piped up another woman. 

“When I came in to the toilet there were two women discussing the clothes.” She said “one was asking ‘Is it just a coat?’ And the other said it was definitely a full set of clothes. And socks.”


She said that the three of them were musing over how on earth someone’s clothes got to be in a toilet cubicle and what had happened to the owner. 


“I thought we should take them to reception as lost properly” she said “but then we thought – what if the owner comes back for them and they aren’t there? So we left them. They’re probably still there.”

And perhaps they are still there… It’s now late and the party is over. I think I’ll need to make an awkward phone call to the hotel in the morning to try and retrieve them. The explaining is going to be fun. 










From the Visitor Book

We had a family from the USA to visit Sula recently and when I looked at the visitor book today I found the most wonderful account of their stay. I have transcribed it here as it has so much great information about things to do in the area (and much further afield – Americans must be used to long journeys as it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that Culloden would be a day-tip from Sula – but it turns out it is!)


– by Maureen Minard.

(The Vegetarian Salmon on Facebook)


We dragged a 7 year-old and a 4.5 year-old from the US for a week in the Highlands and could not have chosen a more perfect house for our home base. The kids loved the shared bedroom, the yard with the patio and wild-flowers, the sheep and the beach. The parents loved the view and the wood burning stove and the fire pit, the convenience of the kitchen, the view, and the location of Sula on Cuil Bay for day-trips.


Sunday we arrived later than expected, after a slow morning at the Edinburgh Hertz and some distracted driving on the way here – so much to see it’s hard not to stop here and there and why not stop for an early dinner at Oban Fish and Chips? But it was “Good Scottish Weather” the entire afternoon anyways, with grey skies and intermittent rain.


We were rewarded with a clear and sunny Monday, to explore Glencoe Village and ease the kids into hiking with a stroll round Glencoe lochan (the 4.5 year old shared his snack with the ducks, against the parental advice, and the entire pack of ducks soon knew of his generosity and stalked him around the entire lake).


Tuesday we ventured up to the Highland Folk Museum, which was a gorgeous drive and a wonderful reward for the kids to explore Scottish life at different points in time through experience rather than just seeing objects behind glass. Building the framing for a cottage and having a teacher grade cursive handwriting in a one-room schoolhouse were the biggest hits with the kids. We stayed later than expected so the kids had a late snack/early dinner from the museum café on the ride home and the parents had another lovely dinner at Sula after kids’ bedtime followed by a sit by the fire pit and a visit from one of the neighbour’s sheepdogs.


Wednesday we were blessed again with clear blue skies and we took advantage. You’re never going to get to a summit with small children, so instead we took a gondola ride up and then a short hike to a peak below Ben Nevis. Stunning views from the mountaintop of the surrounding area and we could see the top of Ben Nevis. There’s mountaineering and ropes courses for those with older children. In the afternoon, a trip back down to Oban for a distillery tour (highly recommended) and a few bottles of their excellent whisky. [not sure how you got back to Sula after a few bottles of whisky …Ed (!!)]


Thursday, poor planning on the part of the parents meant no available tickets on the Jacobite Stream train and one extremely disappointed 7 year old Harry Potter fan. So instead it was a drive out to Glenfinnan to at least see the viaduct and the monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie coming ashore for the ’45 (useful for the following day’s planned trip to Culloden). Then a long drive out to the abandoned castle of the seat of MacDonald Clanranald – Castle Tiorum on Loch Moidart. Well worth the trip, in spite of all the single-track road driving to get there. And we timed low tide perfectly so we were able to walk out to the island and explore. On the way back, with some luck and quick-thinking by the parents, we were rewarded with standing on a bridge west of Glenfinnan as the afternoon Jacobite train steamed by underneath – partial parental redemption.


Friday morning we packed up the car early – a pair of binoculars for each child – for the trip to Loch Ness and the search for Nessie, followed by a walk of Culloden battlefield. Stopped for lunch at a nice café in Drumnadrochit. Just past the ruins of Urquart Castle (car park was so full, so visit cancelled). Nessie remains unseen, despite the kids’ best efforts.  We got to discuss many mature topics about war, politics, religion, and the Highland charge, at least with the 7 year-old. The little one just wanted to be carried around the battlefield. A long drive back with naps by all but the driver and an unplanned dinner at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe that was so good, plans were made for a return on Saturday.


Saturday included a deeper drive into Glencoe – to the end of the single–track road to Glen Etive made famous by its beauty and its appearance in “Skyfall” (four miles in at the bridge). We also dug up where Hagrid’s cottage had been built, by a tiny loch neat the Glencoe cottages as further penance to the 7 year-old Harry Potter fan. Lunch down in Oban with old friends who were also visiting Scotland this week. And then back to the Clachaig Inn for dinner. A post-dinner impromptu scramble up some rocks outside the Inn prompted the kids to announce they love climbing (after several complaints about “hiking” and even “walking”) So we’ll be passing through Glencoe again on our way out Sunday, weather permitting. Of course it’s not until the last day of being surrounded by some of the best hiking/climbing in the world that they finally break through.


Scattered throughout the week there were also trips to the beach (rocks and jellyfish and crab-shells) dramatic presentations by kings and queens from the pallet ‘thrones’ at the firepit, and communing with the nearby farm animals (games of guessing which field the cows would be grazing in, and chatting with the sheep each day as we left and returned – those with ‘spectacles’   (horns curling round their eyes) being the most popular, followed by any young lamb.


The kids loved the house and the parents did too. With only a week, and even with each day chock-full of activities, there is still so much to do and to explore. You have a wonderful location, a gorgeous house, and a design of the house that mould make anyone jealous.


We cant wait to be back to the area, and to Sula if possible Kat, you’ve built a wonderful home. We were extremely lucky with the weather this week, but we also juggled the activities each day to accommodate. There are some comfortable sofas, a nice fire, and a glass of whisky each night [writer’s own …Ed] to review the next day’s plans after the kids are asleep. Stocking up on food at the Ballachulish co-op saved us from eating out too much (we packed a lunch most days).


We had a life changing/life –fulfilling visit to Glencoe and the Highlands, and throughout it all Sula was our anchor. We hope everyone who stays here can have a similar experience.


July 2017








Grousing with the Family 

I usually keep Facebook for observations on family life, anecdotes of personal disasters and tales of losing my wallet/keys/phone. It isn’t somewhere I usually post political comment, keeping that for Twitter. Last week, however, the publication of the report on 131 satellite tracked golden eagles showing that a third of them had gone missing in suspicious circumstances drove me to Facebook. It wasn’t long before the extended family had picked up on it. “Something to discuss at the family gathering on Saturday?” posted a cantankerous relative, highlighting it to a cousin who works in the driven grouse business.  

He was probably hoping for a repeat of a discussion at a similar event, five years previously, when, sat at a trestle table in a large marquee, he had watched while the cousin and I had an animated argument pitting conservation against driven grouse moors.


We nearly missed the opportunity to revisit that discussion, when, just before setting out, I realised the family railcard had expired and renewing it seemed to be beyond the capacity of the ticket office. After a lot of faff and an aborted attempt, it became clear that wouldn’t happen. Following a moment of horror when we found they couldn’t sell us tickets to England either, and some very quick thinking we managed to buy tickets to Carlisle and scurried to the train like shrews on amphetamine.  


The journey to Derbyshire seemed even longer than usual given that I had spent much of the week up in Speyside for work. Grouse were on the menu there too in the form of discussions about Capercaillie conservation. There was anxiety that the heavy rain that welcomed our visit would affect the young chicks, which are prone to waterlogging for a couple of weeks after hatching.


At our destination, with children swarming all over a small playpark, I fell into conversation with my cousin, not over our differences, but over our mutual concerns for baby grouse. He was concerned that the wet weather would be doing the red grouse chicks no good either. We shared tales of early mornings watching black grouse leks and it turned out that he could do a very plausible impression of the bubbling sound of a lekking black grouse and that both our hearts are lifted by the sounds of displaying waders. 


We talked about my experiences earlier that week in Speyside where I had been fortunate enough to visit Glen Feshie estate, where deer numbers had been reduced to a level that was allowing the natural regeneration of the pine forests, and trees were advancing in all directions, and wildlife with them. How could grouse estates create a more realistic experience of nature on their moorlands, I asked. Perhaps there would be fewer grouse but there could be more of other wildlife for people to enjoy. But before we could explore this further, as it is so often in circumstances where children outnumber adults, something vitally important interrupted the conversation. 

There really was so much more to talk about. Perhaps we will just need to pick it up again on Facebook.





Collateral damage in the Brexit conflict

From Scotsman 27 March 2017
Last week a small parcel arrived addressed to the husband. It sat by the door forlornly, Husband assuming it was a birthday present which he shouldn’t open. After a few days, when we couldn’t work out which relative it could be from, he opened it to discover his EU/EEA residency card.

This is the first stage of Husband becoming a UK citizen, not that he wants to, but because we fear for our family life. Despite 20 years living in Glasgow, married to a UK citizen and with two Scottish children, Brexit throws our never-questioned security into uncertainty.

My anxiety over our family’s security in this country started, not with the turn in the polls towards Brexit in mid-june, but three years before when Switzerland voted in a referendum to come out of the Schengen agreement.

No free movement of EU citizens into Switzerland would mean no free movement of Swiss into the UK and I became worried. Husband started inching his way towards complying with the bewildering and, as time passed, more and more complex, requirements to apply for citizenship. He took the “Life in the UK test” or as we like to call it, “The date of the Battle of Bosworth Field test”.

Playing mock tests in the evenings he always triumphed, while I would sometimes scrape through. When he took the test he was done and out before they had finished registering the other participants.

Then came the English test, the equivalent of the oral part of a GCSE English exam. For someone who teaches niversity courses in English, edits English language scientific journals and whose main language in the house he has shared with his family for 18 years is English, this is obviously ludicrous.

Next was the application form, a challenge even to our combined form-filling expertise. It was immense and needed spurious information like every single time he’d been out of the country since he moved here.

It was a long time coming and so we were overjoyed, and very relieved, when we opened the parcel, “Well it did turn out to be a birthday present” we joked “victory at last”.

But what a Phyrric victory it is: we have won Husband the right to stay in a country in which he has had the right to live for many years, and we are celebrating the security of knowing that he can live in his home, with his wife and children.

All over the UK 3.5 million EU/ EEA citizens will be experiencing the same worries and insecurities as us, many will be jumping through the ludicrous hoops, deliberately put in place to make becoming resident in Britain as difficult, stressful and hard to achieve as possible, and many will be leaving, not seeing a future in Britain.

This is all a completely unnecessary tragedy as EU citizens become pawns for brokering favourable terms for Brexit.

Beloved partners, irreplaceable parents, treasured friends, esteemed colleagues: these are the collateral damage.

 Kat Jones is passionate about Scotland’s wild-places and wildlife, she works for an environmental NGO and lives in Glasgow.

A walk through St Moritz with an IKEA armchair 

It would have been good to have a camera with us to record the occasion. Myself in the lead carrying an Ikea armchair and an ancient standard lamp through the streets of a swiss ski resort, brother In law in tow with a giant 1980’s TV, of the type that is deeper than it is wide.   

At first the armchair seemed easy to carry, I’d slung the lamp across the arms and carried it underneath down the steep street. Then it all got a bit awkward, the lamp started slipping to the side skewing the weight forcing me to compensate and making it worse. Soon the lampstand was dragging along the cobbled pavement. After a couple of times dumping the chair violently on the ground and slumping into it and two sets of counting myself to 60 twice “don’t put it down til you reach 60”, I reached the bus stop, to the bewilderment and bemusement of a group of ski-bling clad Italians, waiting for the bus to take them into the centre of St Moritz for a bit of glitzy apres ski. 


I set down the lamp and the chair and collapsed into it. Neal put the TV set down in front of me and there we sat waiting for the bus as locals and tourists gawped and giggled. We were clearing out some of the items amassed by the Swiss husband’s family over the past seventy years since his grandfather had bought a flat in St Moritz in the 1950s.  


In the rush to get the detritus out of the house and onto the bus before the dump shut I hadn’t thought to bring my phone to record this strange recreation of a 1980s living room among the rush-hour traffic of nose-to-tail four wheel drive Porsches. As the bus arrived, packed with skiers and skis, husband arrived with a dining chair and a bedside table and sister with a rucksack full of crockery and a wheelie case full of tablecloths and a rug; just what we would have needed to perfect the look of a pop up art installation. But the dump shut in 30 minutes and we needed to get there. 


Julia looked reletively normal (rucksacs and wheelie case) and boarded incognito at the central doors. In contrast I looked exceedingly odd and managed to cram the chair into the back doors just as they closed. The doors shut on the chair pushing it against a woman who was crammed in the corridor. She looked around and her look of annoyance changed to incredulity as she saw what had squeezed her leg. “Would you like to sit down to recover” I offered. She burst out laughing. 


Yet more people got on at the next stop. I offered an elderly man who boarded a seat. “I’d love to but I’m getting off at the next stop and if I sit down on that I don’t think I’d get up for two hours” he said. So I sat in the armchair and looked out of the glass folding bus doors through the legs of other passengers, at the views over the lake. It was frozen and ice skaters and walkers were out in force. A bunch of teenagers were playing a game of ice hockey. 


The bus was crawling through the rush hour traffic. The clock ticked by. We had 30 mins before the dump closed and the traffic was stationary all through st Moritz town centre. It’s always like that in the afternoons: nose to tail four wheel drive Porsches and BMWs. It’s the equivalent to the Italian ‘promenade’ but in cars. A local man had told us that there are some locals who drive up to the dorf in the afternoon just to have a look and see what the traffic is like.


A lady in her 80s wearing a mink coat and lipstick in a bright cerise asked whether I could move the armchair so she could get off at the next stop. We decided to get off the bus too. 

 ‘It’s just a quick walk through the centre then down the escalators’ I told my sister as we dismount, me in reverse carrying the arm chair. 


We started making our way through town, shoppers and skiers parting when they saw me staggering along under the armchair, view dangerously obscured on the crowded, cobbled, icy streets. We took two steep flights of stairs through a shopping area filled with jewellers, designer interiors shops (everything you could want for your home made entirely of antlers – a Christmas tree, chairs, coat-stands, chandeliers) and art shops (anyone for a bejazzled portrait of Donald trump. Or a diamond-encrusted take-off of the Mona Lisa?)

 We panted past Jimmy Choos, Bulgari and on to the Palace Hotel, the headquarters of bling in the town of über-bling. This year the hotel is decked out with a planetary theme for its Christmas decorations, huge floodlit planets hung behind the hotel. A steam-punk-style space rocket with strobe lighting had landed among the Rolls Royces and Bentleys. I dumped the armchair opposite the palace hotel and slumped into it for a quick rest and a view of the lights.

 “How are you getting on?” asked my sister. I flex my arm muscles, ”Knackered”. A woman who had stopped to admire the decorations was giggling, she was British. “It looks just like you’ve set yourself up to wait for the Gucci sale.” She said. I looked behind me, I was sat right between Gucci (full on pink and orange sequin dinner suit, and Andean Blanket with too-short arms masked by foot long yeti-fur cuffs) and Dolce and Gabana. We chatted about swiss second hand shops being too choosy to take our 1980s furniture collection. “It’s all too snobby here” she said. 

  But time was marching on and we needed to get to the dump. We headed past Pucci, a bunch of shops with DJ-clad shop assistants holding trays of Champagne, and a shop selling Maseratis which was laid out like a boutique fashion emporium. We reached the top of the escalators, four vertiginous flights sweeping down through the hillside to the lake shore via four stories of car parking inside the mountain. I looked down the escalators holding my armchair and felt a wave of vertigo as imagined the carnage if I dropped the chair. 

 Julia set off with her bags and I waited on the lift – reminding me of Roald Dahl’s great glass elevator, as it moved on the slant. Unfortunately, Unlike the eponymous elevator it moved at a snails pace. Just as it arrived Neal and husband arrived with their loads. “Our bus stopped in town and chucked us all off saying the traffic was too bad he wasn’t going any further” said neal. Did that happen to you? “Erm. No.” I said “we thought it would be quicker” we turned round to see our bus, at last free of traffic, pass the top of the escalators heading to the station. “Ten minutes to closing time” I yelled as they launched down the escalators and I leaped into the lift which had eventually arrived, past some emerging tourists. I am *not* carrying this armchair back through St Moritz if they are shut I thought. 


Julia was way ahead but she didn’t know where the dump was. She’d reached the train station and was running around asking people where the dump was. But in a town devoted to the needs of Bling, hedonism and tourism, nobody knew where such a prosaic place as the town recycling center was. She jumped onto a waiting bus to ask the driver but found he didn’t speak English. 

“Where’s the dump” she said urgently 

“Yes I go to the dorf” he said 

“Not the dorf the dump”

“Yes yes get on the bus. I go to the dorf”

“Does anyone speak English on this bus?” She wailed and two Chinese tourists piped up “we speak English”.

But it turned out they didn’t know where the dump was and they didn’t know what dump was in German. 


Eventually someone on the bus calmly pointed out a sign for the dump and Julia shot off in that direction just as ruedi Neal and I emerged from the underground car park sprinting – as far as one can when laden down with home furnishings. 


I trailed behind on the final furlong. I tried putting the armchair in my head but the seat cushion dropped down over my eyes and then fell out, nearly tripping me up. Neal was way ahead, manhandling the TV set I couldn’t get my arms around, let alone lift. Ruedi with bedside table and two chairs was already at the finish line. But Where was the standard lamp? Wasn’t I supposed to have that? I looked around vacantly, thinking back to when I’d last seen it. It was back at the bus stop, where we had made up an impromptu living room.


But there was no time to contemplate a future behind bars of a swiss jail for fly tipping, we needed to get to the recycling centre. If I didn’t make it in time I wouldn’t be carrying the chair back across town and up to the flat. I would definitely be doing some intentional fly tipping. 


But we had made it .The place was still open, a highly organized affair (as one would expect). Two workers met us and helped us divide our spoils between piles and skips according to type. Incredibly, the TV joined 7 other old fashioned analogue TVs in their own area. 


“Either it’s months between pick-ups from this recycling centre, or there an awful lot of people are doing house clearances over Christmas” said Neal

“Perhaps people got new TVs for Christmas” suggested Jules. 

Neal pointed out that if someone was going to get a new tv they would have got one by now. 

We wondered what had caused the demise of so many of st Moritz’s elderly. 


Relieved of out loads we practically skipped home along the lake. Much later that evening over dinner we related our adventures to my parents, who had declined the offer to join in with our load-bearing magical mystery tour when we’d bumped into them on the bus. 

“Where’s the lamp now?” asked Jules. And then I remembered. It was still at the bus stop. It would have been there for hours drawing comment from Swiss, for whom finding a lamp at a bus stop would be highly irregular.  


“You’re going to prison for fly tipping” chanted the children, who delighted in imagining what would happen to a person who committed this most heinous of crimes against the Swiss people. 


I went down to the bus stop after dinner to collect the lamp. It wasn’t there. 


The British relatives wanted me to report it stolen. “You should pre-empt them and say it’s been nicked, then you’ll be safe. 


Swiss husband suggested that staying completely anonymous would be safest “Don’t report it, they’ve probably picked up the lamp and already registered it as a crime”. 


We never found out what happened to the lamp, but it gave us plenty of entertainment – the rest of the evening was passed in happy discussion about how the police would be examining CCTV footage of a four people carrying the dog-eared contents of a living room through St Moritz.


A classic ensemble of Napoleonic coat crossed with Papa New Gineau Bird of Paradise cape, twinned with camo jodhpurs. 

The Tale of the Camembert

Since the house was finished I haven’t blogged much. Perhaps I need the therapy less, perhaps I’ve found other things to do. I hope I haven’t lost my blogging mojo, though. And that is why I’m making myself blog again. 

In the absence of a house build to generate funny situations and stories, I have found that real life more than amply fills the gaps and, over the past few months I have amassed a glorious variety of ludicrous situations to share. 
I’ll start with a little one from recently. 

We’re driving north for Christmas with a ripe Camembert. It’s a vital part of the Christmas cheese platter (baked with honey). The Kids started making vomiting noises as soon as they got in the car. We’d only managed to make it to Sainsbury’s to fill the car with Christmas food shopping and were just about to pass home again on the way out of Glasgow when I couldn’t bear it any longer and we pulled over. It seemed it was either the Camembert’s company we’d have for Christmas or the 13 year old’s, so I started trying to locate the cheese while parked in a side street in a Glasgow suburb. 

An avalanche of shopping and items packed for Christmas exploded from the boot of the car. Packing is my least favourite activity and mostly we divide labour in the family so swiss husband does the packing and I do things I’m good at like organising the trips. Adventures and holidays. 

The kids pack for themselves and have done since the age of 5. There’s a few anecdotes in that… Mainly around what one does on a winter holiday with a suitcase full of toys and summer clothes and no pants or socks. 

Anyway, in aid of efficiency I’d just shoved everything in. If I’d have taken the pile of wellies and trainers and a panier out and started with the boxes the pile would have been more stable. But we ended up with a load of boxes leaning outwards and bags of shopping full of bottles on the top. 
Despite the mess that the contents of the boot had made on the wet, puddled road, only one bottle smashed and it was the lemon chili sauce. I picked it up and looked about for a bin. There was none to be seen and so, not knowing what else to do, I sat in the passenger seat, hands covered in chili sauce holding the remains of the sauce in the upside down bottle with the bottom broken off. 

Turns out that chili sauce with lemon is an extremely effective deodorizer. And while I sat there, trying to remember not to run my eyes or put my hands near my nose or mouth, the children stopped complaining about the smell. It was either that or the laughing. 

Or it could have been the placebo effect because as soon as they discovered I hadn’t actually found the Camembert they started complaining again. When we stopped at a service station so I could dispose of the chili and wash my hands they bought an official smelly forest air-freshener. 

It was one of those Christmas-tree shaped things that dangle from the rear view mirror of taxis and which makes everyone except taxi-drivers feel distinctly queasy. I wiped the chili off the outside of the bottle and, instead of putting it in the bin, I tucked it into the seat pocket. I needed something to deodorize the smell of the forest fresh   

All went well until a stop for dinner at the Drovers Inn. After an hour sealed into the car, the combination of the Camembert, the Forest Fresh and the chili had fermented into an explosively stomach-churning pong. 

We opened all the windows, and drove, wind in our hair, ignoring the threat of frostbite in our extremities. From time to time the children would complain of the sub-zero windchill and we would close the windows. We’d last five minutes until the smell started to build up again to unbearable levels. 
When we reached Sula and unpacked, the Camembert was refused entry and stayed outside in the mailbox. Since we are still waiting for Jamie the farmer to put up a fence around the house (materials were bought in June) we are at the mercy of Jamie’s band of marauding border collies who pop over a few times a day to check whether I’ve put out a bin bag or some other tasty titbit out by mistake and rip it apart leaving a trail of rubbish in their wake. I put the Camembert out of the way of dogs (I thought). 

When Christmas Eve came it was time to cook the Camembert for a wee party we were having for the neighbours. It had been knocked off the mailbox but I was relieved to find it still in one piece, untouched by the band of dogs. It may have smelled like something had died long ago while in the box but baked, it was really tasty. I resolved that the discomforts of the journey was worth it and went to bed. 

But the Camembert hadn’t had its last word. 

In the morning the 11 year old came downstairs. I was cleaning up the party but the rind of the Camembert still sat on the kitchen worktop where it had been the night before. Daughter look one wiff of it and ran over and vomited in the sink. Between comforting the daughter and cleaning her up, I took the remains of the Camembert out into the garden and buried it. I took the cardboard and plastic wrapper that had been around the Camembert out of the bin and buried them next to the Camembert. 

RIP Camembert…. and my New Years resolution is no Camembert in 2017. For the sake if my family. 

















A day at Springwatch 

After a run of three years at RSPB Minsmere, it’s the last week of the last Springwatch at the reserve and I’ve had a chance, with some of my colleagues at the RSPB, to visit the set and find out some more about how the phenomenon, which is Springwatch is made.


To Springwatch’s millions of devoted fans it may seem like a relaxed and casual event, kicking back in those chesterfield sofas, but Springwatch is anything but. The presenters may exude the calm of the proverbial swan, gliding along on the surface, but beneath the water, a massive and well-oiled and expert machine is frantically paddling away.



There’s a village of people on site at RSPB Minsmere, 120 people decamp to the site for the three weeks of transmission, and take up most of the local accommodation. Four massive trucks housing the outside broadcast equipment jostle for space with tents, marquees, truck diners and gazebos.

 “It costs me a million pounds to rent those outside transmission trucks for the month of Springwatch” says Tim Scoones, executive producer, and the man behind the show, who is showing us around the site.


He takes us into one of the monster trucks which will hotfoot to Glasto after they are finished with Springwatch, then Wimbledon, and every must-see sporting and cultural event after that (it’s the very truck that makes ‘Strictly’ for goodness sake!)

 Before us is a bank of screens pulsating with action: nests and eggs and, of course spineless Si (and Stephen Fry). It’s like a control centre for …. well ….like a control center for the biggest outside live broadcast the BBC does.

“Springwatch is different from all those other shows” says Tim, explaining the ambitions and the sheer brass neck of Springwatch.
  “There are thirty live feeds coming into the main truck, with six at any one time recording”. Tim has story developers watching those screens intently 24 hours a day, ready to catch anything exciting, new or unusual. “we take our inspiration from Big Brother and from the news. These guys are making the stories as they happen”.
I ask what happens if they can’t switch one of the live cameras to record in time. “We have to be ready all the time” says one of the story developers. “If we don’t we can miss something spectacular”. They give an example from the previous day where they had an adder predating on one nest box and, at the same time, a stoat coming into another. They simply couldn’t get to the record buttons in time.
There’s a live broadcast about to start “we like to think of it as Test Match Special meets rolling news” jokes Tim as he ushers us out of the truck to continue the chat.
Tim explains more about quite how innovative and seat-of-the-pants Springwatch is. “There’s no autocue” he says, “This is what makes springwatch different. There’s no script, we are remaking the show as it goes out”. The presenters have a cacophony of voices going on in their ear-pieces as they speak; someone telling them countdowns to items cutting in or out, another person telling them what item is next, or that they need to cut straight to a hatching, or some other exciting happening on one of the cameras “When something happens live like that nightingale singing last night, we just cut straight to the camera and the presenters just have to carry on”.

  They are constantly changing items, cutting items and lengthening items as the show goes out. It’s a wonder that Michaela, Chris and Martin sound as relaxed and unruffled as they do with all that happening around them.
Suddenly a producer appears at the door of the truck. “Breaking news!” he says “those sparrowhawk eggs are hatching”. He pops back into the truck only to appear seconds later with more breaking news.
There is simply never a dull moment on the set of Springwatch.


Later that day we get a chance to see Chris Packham in action. We are part of the audience in Unsprung, standing rather self-consciously around the set trying to ignore the cameras getting thrust right into our faces and hoping that a close up of our faces won’t make it into live TV.

The show is funny, slick, and a bit tongue in cheek. We clap, we cheer, we groan at the rubbish jokes, we boo (when Chris Packham criticizes a fantastic photo of a swimming adder), and before we know it we are shuffling off-set and back into the evening sun of RSPB Minsmere.


We leave awestruck by the energy, the devotion, the skills and the teamwork of everyone working on Springwatch. Our day may be over but Chris, Martin, Michaela and the whole oiled machine of BBC staff still has a run though of the show and Springwatch itself to go before they finish up for the day.
I’ll certainly be watching Springwatch with new eyes, and a large helping of awe and admiration when it goes out from RSPB Minsmere for the last time later this week.

A walk and a coathanger accountant

Part 2 of the Glen Affric Blogs.

See here for Part 1. 


Morning dawned grey and damp. The cloud sat along the base of the hills about a ten minute walk from the youth hostel.

“We could always do just the one Munroe and see how we feel” said Jo.


“There’s bound to be a cloud inversion with blazing sun on the summits” said I, ignoring all possibilities that we would do less waking than we had committed to when we were planning the trip.


We got packed up and headed off, straight up the back of Glen Affric hostel on an excellent path. A couple of men had arrived late and pitched their tent between the main military green corrugated iron hostel and the nearby dorm. They were finishing their packing and headed up just after us with enormous rucksacks. Their plan was to do a few Munros and sleep high, then complete the set the next day. Our plan was to do the same but return to the comfort of the youth hostel for the night.

  Despite my natural inclination to conversation and chat, my plans for the trip had been a quiet, contemplative pacing the hills to free the mind of clutter. This clutter had accumulated during a long period of being over-busy, over-stressed and not having enough visits to the wide open spaces of the hills. Jo, my long-suffering walking companion, on the other hand, sees long walking trips as a chance for lots of chat and catching up. So once we fell into step with the other two walkers (there was no getting away from them, I tried an onslaught of speed but I slowed eventually and they caught up) Jo was in her element, chatting away.


As we traversed the peat hags, just before the final ascent to the coll I overheard the conversation that one of them had driven from Essex via Warrington to pick up the other and then straight through to Glen Affric – and I had thought we’d been in the car for ever coming up from Glasgow.


‘What do you do in Essex?” I asked “I am an accountant in a firm that sells coat hangers” he said.

Well. What do you say to that? I’d never before had the opportunity to make conversation with an accountant from Essex working for a firm selling coat hangers.


“Erm. Do you like it?” I asked

“No I hate it but l can’t leave” he said.

I asked him why not and he told me about the generous benefits that he gets with the role.

“I get free petrol for my own use, as well as work” he said triumphantly, “it helps when you love the mountains so much and you live in Essex”.

No doubt, I thought, but then immediately wondered why he didn’t just leave the job and move to Scotland which would, at once, solve both of his problems. “We get as many free coat hangers as we want too” he continued.


But I wasn’t in a life coaching mood, I had come to find wildness and I couldn’t get to wildness until people and chat and the stuff of civilization, especially thoughts about coat hanger manufacture, were left behind.


We continued on our separate way when we reached the coll and the day began.


The sun started to shine through as we reached the top of the first Munro, An Socach. A misty brightness, as if the light was within the cloud around us. Directly above we could make out a pale, chalky blue but the sun couldn’t burn though to reach us. I imagined that, with another 10m of altitude we’d be in broad sunshine looking down all around us on a sea of cloud with a few of the tallest mountains poking through.


Munro number one done, we wandered down the gentle broad ridge to a coll littered with small peaty-black pools. The two mountains beyond were behind a couple of smaller peaks, and Jo had started talking about possibly fitting in a fourth, Beinn Fionnlaidh, which was utterly miles away.

 I was happy though. The path rose at a comfortable angle across the slope and the sun kept breaking through. We even had a bit of phone contact with the outside world for the first time since stopping in Beauly for lunch. (Where Jo had spent part of the meal whispering “I think I know that woman from school” and “but I haven’t seen her since then” and “should I go and say hi?” Until I had said (rather too loudly) “if you don’t go over and say hi to her then I will!” She did turn out to be an old school friend of Jo’s in the end)


Anyway. The hill was lovely. There was snow. And sun. And those fantastic shattered stone pavements on the summit ridge. I’d got to the point of thinking about nothing in particular, and had started noticing things, like lichen mapping out whole continents on a piece of ice-smoothed rock, and slivers of silver layered through the schist, when I tripped on a bit of rock, coming down really hard on my knee. It was properly, awfully and excruciatingly painful and I lay on the snow in the foetal position screaming intermittently like a  hoarse siren. I could hear Jo in the distance, as if through glass, saying “take your time Kat” and then my own personal opiate supply kicked in. I lay there motionless and silent on the snow wondering when Jo would come over to see whether I was dead. And then I wondered absent-mindedly, if I wasn’t dead, whether a helicopter was going to come and pick me up.


It turned out I wasn’t dead. I just had a grazed knee.
I made a mental note to increase the level of sympathy towards my children when they graze their knees in future.

This was a very strange house with door and window almost on the summit of Mam Sodhail.

It took two dressings and a handful  of jelly beans and then I was back on my feet and we headed to Munro 2 of the day. I had no pain, it was a miracle, I almost ran to the top.  Jo pointed out that the sun was out and it had got quite warm, melt-water was trickling down the hill from the remaining snow on the ridge. I declared it ‘taps aff’ and said we shouldn’t miss out on Munro 3 because of my knee.

“It doesn’t hurt at all at all” I said.


We reached Mam Sodhail and sat down by the an extremely well constructed and enormous cairn for a snack, not expecting to see anyone. But a couple were just approaching from the other side. I hastily put my top back on, and then my knee started to hurt.

The couple regaled us with their experiences of coming up and over the melting cornice, “no we didn’t have any ice-axes” they said. Jo and I paled, as we looked at the route they’d taken. My knee was throbbing. Better get back, said Jo sensibly, and we decided to leave Carn Eigh and Beinn Fhionnlaidh for another expedition. As we walked along the ridge we looked back and saw the woman standing right up at the edge of the cornice to pose for a photo. We stayed watching long enough to be sure we didn’t need to call for the helicopter, or try and effect a rescue, and then we headed back to the Youth Hostel.


Postscript: the sore knee developed two pleasingly large scabs which are currently in the process of sloughing. (Is that the correct word for scabs? I certainly feel like I’m sloughing them). Lovely.






















Where on earth did that poetry spring from?

This is the end of a second day of walking the mountains of Glen Affric, and my mind has, at last, stopped racing and has started to slow down. Two days of pacing the hills steadily: mountain tops the goals but also the means to an end, working out the thoughts constantly running through my mind and freeing up a little space. The constant plod of foot after foot on the uphill imposing rhythm on thought and time to think each one away.  

John Muir wrote beautifully about the human need to connect with nature in the mountains.

 “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long stretch of time in the mountains. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work only two days a week for a whole year. The children were young and in nursery three days a week (so we could keep the space open for when I went back to my ‘proper’ job again). Once a fortnight I would take myself off to the hills to walk. 

It’s now down to one visit a year to a real wilderness space, a few nights bivvying alone in the hills and evening or day hill walks when I can fit them in. But this is a rare and special time in a place far from road, house and phone signal. 

It’s taken a long time to get to a state of not thinking of anything in particular; not my to-do-lists; not conversations to have and projects to begin; not worries about this and that, and to start to notice the world around me. It’s taken two days on the hill 9 hours a day with Jo, my long-suffering mountain companion. 


On these very rare occasions that my mind is actually clear, sometimes I just think about nothing at all, and sometimes I have ideas, make decisions or set out on flights of fancy, but this time, for the first time, some poetry has come out. 

I’ve no idea if it’s any good, I’ve never written poetry before. I don’t even read poetry. But here it is. Each with a photo of the place that inspired it.  





Gettaway to Glen Affric

Heading north. As Scotland’s political commentators, journalists, politicians and activists settled down for some rest after their election night exertions, I was driving past the heather clad and snow-streaked mountains of the Drumochrer pass, with a friend, listening to the radio analysis of seats won and lost, and wondering whether we’d need an ice axe. Blissful isolation of four days in Glen Affric lay before us.

  As we drove past Tiso I suddenly had second thoughts about my pannier rack, which I had rigged up to the bike with a shoe lace and a fruit shoot lid. I stopped to buy some heavyweight cord. The pannier rack came from a previous bike that bit the dust and was deposited outside the bike shop in the sky (also known as the Glasgow a bike station, a social enterprise project that gives bikes new life and also trains people for work). It wasn’t until later I realised I’d left a perfectly good pannier rack and mud guards on the bike and set off into the dark and rain at 10pm to remove them before someone else helped themselves.
It was this, hard won, rusty and ill-sized bike rack that I had been trying to attach at 8pm the evening before our great adventure was due to begin, improvising with what I had in the house. I had actually thought of it earlier in the day and taken it to a bike shop which proclaimed that it didn’t fit as I am still using the kids bike borrowed from my daughter a year previously (in fact it was the day after my previous bike was declared past help). However, even though he wouldn’t fit it, he gave me a couple of screws and I got the bottom fixed onto the frame near the hub. The rest of it waved precariously back and forth as I cycled home to see what I could attach it with.


Materials were sorely limited and so an old shoelace from a pair of long grown-out-of pumps had to do. The fruit-shoot lid was to stop the prongs of the bike rack moving forward past the seat when I braked. A previous itteration involving a bit of wood with two holes in, stuck out too far to be comfy while riding.

 I bustled about the house ineffectively, trying to pack but mainly looking for things that I’d lost. The husband was nowhere to be found when I needed him to help me find the bike pump, or some plastic bags, or my ice axe (should we take it? it could be icy on the mountains, or, actually, should we leave it? It will be a right pain to carry in?).  Eventually I found him in bed

It turned out that it was the only quiet place in the house where he wasn’t being asked to do things. “Am I being annoying with all the packing stuff?” I asked “just a bit” he said.

The rack seemed attached well enough as we set off, loaded up with plenty of luggage, into the glen. After a lengthy debate in the car about the state of the mountains, we decided to take the ice axes. Every mountain we approached seemed snow free “Look, that’s fine we won’t need it” Jo would say, until we passed it and looked back from the north, at the icy peak when we’d say together, “No let’s take them, better to be safe then sorry”. This continued almost the whole journey.


 My ice axe stuck out from my pannier like one of boudiccas wheel sythes “you’ll do someone a damage with that” said Jo. Thoughtfully I tied a trainer onto it.
The track to the youth hostel is 8 miles along what was billed as ‘passable by mountain bike’ on the website we looked at.

“It’s not going to take us long”, said Jo, “I cycle 7 miles to work every day and it only takes me 35 minutes, how long can this possibly take?”


 Turns out it could take a rather long time. My experience of mountain biking extends to my daily commute negotiating the potholes of dumbarton road and a “bonding” trip with my god-daughter – then 11- which involved her screeching with joy down a steep path in some woods in Dumfriesshire and me pushing my bike gingerly down behind her. I was ok on the uphill but skidding uncontrollably down loose gravel interspersed with larger rocks was a bit hair-raising, although after a bit I started to get the hang of it. The shoelace holding my pannier on broke a mile or so into the journey. “Ah ha.” Said I, reaching into my pocket, “This was just the occasion I expected and is why I bought that cord”.  But it was no where to be found.


Facing the prospect of a difficult journey ahead, it was then that the true value of the ice axe became clear, and I took off the strap and used it to reattach the pannier.
We continued on our way, pushing the bikes over slippery rocks in streams and up steep sections with eroded rocky surface. Only last week I’d watched a video of Danny Macaskill mountain biking the Skye ridge. It was certainly harder than he made it look…. I mentioned this to Jo. “He’ll have a proper mountain bike though” she said “and I bet he didn’t have full panniers, a half bottle of whiskey and an ice axe when he was cycling the Cullin ridge”.
 It was a fair enough comment, I was on my daughters bike ‘it’s too small for me mum’ and Jo was on her city commuting bike. Perhaps it really was only our lack of appropriate equipment that was preventing us zooming like athletes along this stony track. Although it’s worth crediting the daughter’s bike with successfully seeing me round the Bealach na Ba circuit (600m of ascent to the pass in driving sleet, snow on the road at the summit   and then another 40 miles and loads and LOADS more ascent) the previous Easter.
Eventually we arrived two and a half hours after we’d set off. One of the clips holding a pannier to the rack fell off only 200m from our destination, but, once again, the ice axe proved its worth and the loop of the strap made a temporary mend.


 The youth hostel, Britains most remote, was clad in corrugated iron painted millitary green and we arrived to a fine welcome and started getting to know our fellow hostellers. One was a woman, recently retired, making a food drop for 13 day across scotland trek she was starting the following week. She would be alone, dropped at start by her husband and camping, bothying and hostelling on route.


“You’re my two daughters” she laughed, a few minutes into our conversation. Her daughters are also called Kat and Jo.


Then there was a filmmaker couple who had taken the sleeper from London and were walking from Strathcarron to Inverness. Sue told us about making a film in a sea cave as the tide rose and fell. She would stay in there with the camera floating in a dry suit for 7-8 hours at a stretch. “It was magical, amazing, so peaceful” she said.


A cyclist bombed past at speed, up the Glen to a broken bridge and then back to the hostel where I was just getting the G&Ts out of the stream, where I had put them to cool. He was out on a quick evening bike trip. So far, out from the car park, up the glen  and back to the hostel had taken him  45 minutes. “But look he’s got a proper bike”, said Jo. “And no luggage”.
 By contrast, a group of eleven self-confessed “old farts” had even more trouble than us on the cycle in as they had brought four kegs of beer, two boxes of wine and three bottles of whisky in on a specially constructed platform attached to a kids tag-along bike. To add to their pain, one of their pedals had sheared off on the journey. They were up from Reading on their annual walking trip and intended  to combine Munro Bagging with drinking.


But despite the bonhomie in the hostel, people took to their beds early, the objective on everyone’s mind was the mountains and we had the prospect of a good weekend ahead.

 This looked like an inviting bench with a view as I pushed my bike up an especially rocky section of path…

  ….but turned out to be part of an old, decrepit bridge 

A tune for Cuil Bay


I don’t know whether anyone has written a piece of music for Cuil Bay before – I’d be surprised if they haven’t because it’s such a beautiful place.  But now it definitely has its own tune. And I’ve put it together in a video with a load of photos I’ve taken on my phone over the last year which pan around in a really cheesy way. I hope you’ll forgive me and it doesn’t distract too much from the beautiful melody.

Cuil Tune by Stuart Killbourn


It was written during a get together of the ceilidh band a week or so ago up at Sula. We may only have three bedrooms but we managed to fit almost everyone and their families in somehow, with one family staying in a wooden wigwam nearby in Duror; 13 sleeping over and 17 for dinner. Stuart the mandolin player wrote the tune.


I’m not sure whether I’ve told the story of how our band got together on this blog so that will need to be the next blog.


Fun Projects: artists and architecture  

Every now and again work is just amazing. And this week was one of those times – quite a few projects are coming to fruition and things are generally getting exciting.
This morning I was meeting with some Strathclyde Product design students at RSPB Scotland’s reserve at Lochwinnoch. They’ve been working for their forth year project on a structure for a new viewpoint which was created during some recent habitat works. It was so exciting to see how their designs have progressed from our first discussions. 

 The priorities for the designs are that it is an interactive space for families to use, but could also be used to quietly view wildlife and also could be a sheltered meeting point for walks and for school groups.
They had some great ideas that will work really well. Love the rope screens to look through and the modular slottable screens. And the living willow wall.

My budget is somewhat frugal for the construction work so the idea is that some of our talented Lochwinnoch volunteers put the structure together so the students are thinking carefully about design and materials. We also have a lot of larch trees to come down on our Wood of Cree reserve in Dumfries and Galloway which will do really well for the in-the-round posts to hold the interchangeable screens. We’ll look at whether we can also use it for the timber for the structure too. 

Then, this afternoon, I received some photos from the reserve manger at Loch Lomond. Oyster Eco are refurbishing a trailer we were given by SNH, an exhibition trailer rather like those they’d try and recruit you to the army in on Buchannan street. It was a bit of a catch actually. And I’m pretty pleased I bagsied it for Loch Lomond before anyone else did.  

It’s going to be clad in timber and set in the new car park at the reserve. There will be a wee kitchen inside where volunteers and visitors can get a cup of coffee, and there will be interpretation about the reserve. However bagsying the trailer, getting it to the reserve and generally waving my arms about what we’d like it to be for is pretty much all I’ve done. (Apart from a bit of input on the interpretation for inside). But when I got sent the pictures I felt very proud. It feels like my baby despite me not putting in much of the work. Perhaps it’s what being a Dad feels like.


Then we’ve got a team of four Strathclyde architecture students working on another project at Loch Lomond. A look out point a very short walk from the new car park where people can sit and contemplate, picnic or play. And it will be the start of the new pathway we’re planning around the bluebell wood. It is nearing the end of the design stage and it will be built and in place by May to complement the wee visitor facility. Again, most of the actual work, apart from having the initial conversation and getting them involved, and giving them my ample opinion, has been done by Paula and the reserve team.


Then there are the artists in residence about to start at our Mersehead  reserve near Dumfries.

 I have two PhD students from the Scottish graduate school of the arts and humanities taking part in a funded internship project as part of their PhDs and will spend a month living in the volunteer accommodation at the reserve.  My colleague Fiona will also have an artist in residence  working between Glasgow and our Inversnaid reserve, a spectacular piece of western Atlantic woodland and mountain along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond 

At Meresehead we have Roseanne Watt, a poet and filmmaker with a special  interest in cultural history and peoples stories. Her PhD is based in Shetland , where she is from.
Catherine Weir is a digital artist especially interested in stars and unnatural light and landscapes. Studying for a PhD at Glasgow School of Art.
And in Inversnaid we have Luca Nascutti , a sound artist.  He has who created electronic sound prices incorporating natural sounds which he performs in specific places with dancers.


This project started as a conversation around a giant fire of pallets on a beach in Canna (see blog about the trip) where I had gone to see Hanna Tuulikki’s work ‘away with the birds’. It turned out most of the people there were artists themselves and that’s where I made contact with Dee Heddon, who was involved in the graduate programme at SGSAH. And yet again, I may have made the first contact, but again it was Fiona who did the work to set up the project.
I took ‘my’ artists to Mersehead for a recee in December. The weather was stunning and the reserve enchanting. I am ridiculously excited about what will come out of these collaborations, despite a certain level of rather dyed-in-the-wood scepticism from some of my colleagues.    

We had a meeting at the end of last week about what will emerge from the artist in residence programme and how to distribute and promote it. A germ of an idea formed. A pod with audio visual equipment to immerse you in another world, that we could transport from city center location to out of town shopping mall to leisure centre, inviting people in to view and to hear the artworks produces at our reserves, to bring the essence of RSPB nature reserves to people, where they are in our cities and to inspire them to visit or to pique their interest in finding out more.
So where will I get this pod from, that will need to go on the back of a small trailer, or fold down into something we can put in the back of  a van?


Well, in the absence of SNH getting rid of any more trailers, in the near future, I think I’m going to need to call, very nicely, on Strathclyde university again to lend me some of their very fine students for a project next year.

Postscript: What has happened since I wrote this blog?

Roseanne Watt wrote some poems on her artist in residency and made three films. Links to the films are below.

This year (2018) Roseanne was awarded one of Britain’s most prestigious poetry prizes, the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, which was announced at the Edinburgh Book Festival.


Catherine Weir’s pieces ‘Reported Sightings’ and ‘Atlas’ can be seen here. and her blogs about her experiences here.

The structure designed by the product design students for Lochwinnoch has been constructed by volunteers at the reserve and is proving popular with families and birdwatchers alike.

The structure for Loch lomond created by Marc Hillis is now in place

photo 2 - lol structurephoto - Loch lomond structure

The Visitor Hub at Loch Lomond has been in use for three seasons – see the photos.

lol visitor hub 2LOL visitor hub

A later Artist in residence Susanna Ramsay at our Loch Lomond Reserve created a film poem and a projection of her poem at the end of the woodland at the reserve at dusk which was really really special.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOf1tfpYFUA

The woodland dusk walk and film experience is reviewed beautifully here.




Losing it. 

I’ve been holding it together pretty well for the past year while building this house. And actually far longer than that. I didn’t lose my wallet in 2015 or 2014 and I don’t think I lost it in 2013 or 2012 and probably all the way back to 2010. I did lose my phone last year and my house keys a couple of times over that period. Oh… and I dropped my work keys right in front of the front door of work one night (I no longer have a set of work keys…) 


But I’ve been about as together as I’ve ever been with respect to keeping my belongings with me over the past few years. It’s all been military precision and ship shape and Bristol fashion compared to the chaos of my University years. 


However it all seems to have gone to hell in a handcart in the past month. In the past five weeks I have lost my wallet four times. Twice on trains to work meetings (returned via station lost property both times) and then once somewhere in the vicinity of Ballachullish, yet to be found. 

Yesterday I made a temporary wallet out of duct tape and put my third set of brand new cards into it. This was a wallet I wasn’t going to lose. I had a meeting in Balloch followed by a meeting in Edinburgh. It was all going well, an effective meeting and all on time for the Edinburgh meeting. But when it came to cycling from Waverley to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh I realised I had left my bike in Balloch.  And when, after my RBGE meeting, I discovered I’d lost my wallet yet again I had a moment of despair and a flashback to my university days. 

While I was at University I went through nine bikes in nine terms. A couple were stolen, a couple just broke down irreparably, one I wrote off in a head on collision with another bike – front wheel hitting front wheel with such force that my bike buckled, my head made contact with the head of the person on the other bike and I was transported, I remember not how, to Addenbrookes hospital to be treated for concussion. One was jumped on by a fellow student disappointed in love (referenced in previous blog).  And at least twice I simply lost the bike. 


There are a lot of bikes in Cambridge and, when you’ve got a lot of different places to go and people to see, and things to organise and essays to write, keeping track of where you left your bike can be a challenge. 


Fortunately this time at least I knew where I’d left the bike. It was locked up at the station in Balloch and I was due back there the next day for another meeting. So nothing lost. 
However it filled me with despair that I had only had possession of those last bank cards less than 12 hours before I lost them again. 


I turned my entire bag out in one of the Botanics glass-houses after the meeting. As the fact that my wallet wasn’t there sunk in, I heard a beautiful bird-song, that sounded like a robin but a bit different. I looked about and noticed sitting almost on my foot a beautiful robin singing gently to me from inside his little body – not the full-blown-beak-open song I’m used to. It certainly cheered me up. That and the bright yellow papaya lying on the brown earth of the glasshouse, which I picked up to smell to check it was real. So, not the total end of the world then, in the big scheme of things, but to add insult to injury, my return rail tickets were in that duct tape wallet too and I needed to get home for a significant family occasion. 


Simple, I thought, I’ll just blag my way through the barriers at Waverley. After all, while traveling alone in Peru during one of my ‘gap years’ immediately before my PhD, I’d blagged my way all the way back to the UK from a Andean village called Caraz where everything I had with me was stolen: bag, tickets, money, passports, everything. All I had was six bread rolls in a plastic bag that I had just bought. I managed to get back to Lima, find a place to stay, negociate police reporting, replacement passport, replacement tickets, and everything else through pure blagging and persuasion. It was a bit stressful but I did it. However the folks in Peru must have been a bit more tender hearted than the Scotrail guys as there was absolutely no getting through that barrier without a ticket.

Caraz to Lima: that’s a long long way to go with nothing but six white bread rolls in a bag  (google maps tells me it’s 300 miles) 


Eventually I found out that there was a mechanism by which someone I know can buy me a ticket. But they can’t just call up or do it online, no. They actually have to go to a station in person to make the transaction (and pay £10 extra for the privilege). I called long-suffering husband. When he had stopped laughing long enough for me to issue him with instructions on how to release me from Waverley station I went to find a place to charge my mobile. I found £1.20 in small change at the bottom of my bag and went to see what kind of comfort that could buy in M&S food while I waited. It turned out to be one minuscule packet of honey roasted salted cashews. 


I’m rather puzzling to myself why I’m having a spate of losing things now, when the house is nearly completely finished as I surely can’t be as stressed as I was before. I suppose it’s because things I’ve put off are now all crowding in demanding to be done and  work has been even more demanding and rewarding and challenging and wonderful than usual. 



I think the prescription has got to be the following: 

1. Finish everything with the house once and for all – there’s too many odds and ends to keep track of at the moment. 

2 Stop organising new things whenever I have a small breather and a little space to think. 


3. Get a bumbag/wallet that hangs around the neck of the type you’d buy to go traveling on a gap year. In fact, come to think of it,  exactly the item which I had, the day my bag was stolen in Peru, left in my main rucksack, rather than had attached about my person. 

Plus ca change. 

Storms, mud and a pair of pyjamas 

Last week I read an article by Dani Garavelli in the Scotsman suggesting that, rather than pouring scorn on mums doing the school drop off in their pyjamas, we should hail them as counter cultural icons. I’m always one for the the non-conformist approach and idly wondered what people would think If I wore my pyjamas into the office. 

I thought nothing more of it until today. Today has been the 1034th day of consecutive rain on the west coast of Scotland (to my reckoning). And not just a bit of rain: torrential floods, teeming cats and dogs, bucketing. All around Sula the rain sits in puddles, the mud is monstrous. 

We spent the day varnishing windowsills and doing other useful stuff until I couldn’t bear being cooped up inside any more and headed off for a run in a break in the rain. By the time I started my run it was torrential again and, with needles in my face and an ice cream head, I set off into the headwind. After 5 minutes I was soaked through, after 20 a drowned rat would have lent me his towel. 

I headed back to the house to change. The afternoon activity was burning yet more cardboard and waste wood with a few bits of chair and tree that Jamie the farmer had dragged out of the burn as Storm Henry gathered.

Ronnie the digger-driver had excavated us a moat, perhaps more conventionally referred to as a drainage ditch.  I recklessly headed across the garden to investigate how it was working.  It was running with water, which was good, I sunk in nearly to the top of my welly, which was less good. 

I managed to extract myself, with difficulty, and then spotted a stray bit of insulation that had blown into the farmer’s field. I crossed the moat to grab it and sunk in way over the top of my right boot. I tried to rebalance and the other welly went in over the top. As I pulled at one welly and then the other I sunk deeper and deeper into the mud. My shouts for help went unheard. (later I discovered that husband couldn’t come to the rescue as I’d borrowed his shoes to go to the car to get my wellies and left them there.)


 I considered taking my wellies off and crawling to safety but then I remembered how polar bears walk on thin ice – spread your weight- I reached over to the insulation and used it to kneel on while I pulled my wellies out. 


So that was the second outfit rendered unwearable. Pyjamas was all I had left; a good reason to stay inside and buckle down to being useful. It wasn’t until most of the way through the drive back to Glasgow that Dani’s article came starkly to mind. 


I needed the loo. 

As we drove down Loch Lomond side I started weighing up the options. 

How bad is it to go into a service station and ask to use the loo while wearing pyjamas? Quite bad. 

What about the one with an M&S where I actually know the location of the loo and wouldn’t have to ask? Worse.

I remembered that I was also wearing my Icelandic jumper inside out (put on in a hurry in the dark while rummaging in the boot). Even worse. 

 How about a lay by? But it was still pouring with rain. 

What would Garavelli do? I thought. Actually I didn’t care. I wasn’t wearing PJs and an inside out Icelandic jumper in public. 

I remembered the magic toilet cubicle in Balloch. One of those automatic booths that rinses the whole thing down once you’ve been. Genius. We pulled into the dark car park, and I sprinted to the booth and back. Mission accomplished. 


The beneficial byproduct of the episode is that I don’t need to try wearing my Pyjamas to work. I’ve realised I’m just not counter-cultural enough to brazen it out. Just yet. 

Community land in Broomhill

Seeking people in Broomhill, Glasgow to join a group to investigate possibilities for community use of the old Broomhill School Annex site. 


See email below if you are interested 


ReplyTo: Alex Cross <a.l.cross@btinternet.com>Subject: Use of Broomhill Primary School Annex land post school rebuild

I have recently been talking to the Broomhill Community Council about the potential for the land that will be released by the rebuild of Broomhill Primary School (currently annex buildings). This presents an opportunity to take control of the land either by ownership or renting in order to develop a community facility that would be of benefit to Broomhill area.
I am looking to see if there is enough interest to get together a team of around six to eight people who are willing to give some time in order to come up with a number of options for the land with a view to putting together realistic plans for the use of the land. We would then start to investigate what lies within the realm of the feasible and how we could put together a coherent and potentially successful argument for the case to gain control of the land for the benefit the community.
A good example to draw on is the recent community effort to run Portpatrick Harbour – link for info, hopefully this wouldn’t be as complicated!

This is just an e-mail to try to garner interest, I am in the difficult position of not having many e-mail addresses or contact details for Broomhill residents so I am going to rely on electronic word of mouth. I have sent this to you as someone who’s contact details I do have, I would ask you to pass it on to anyone you know in the broomhill area and if they are interested could they e-mail me at a.l.cross@btinternet.com; the intention would be to get together anyone interested at the end of February for an initial meeting to chat over the possibilities.
Thanks in advance for your help

A Cross


Three cops in a boat (Chapter 2)

Chapter 1 of the saga is here.


Chapter 2: in which the party are stormbound and someone abandons ship. 

I was aware of some of the sterotypes about policemen. However, never having actually met one in a social context before and, not being one to judge by sterotypes, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t want to spend a week in an area 3m by 2m with three of them.


They turned out to be really nice guys individually, but in the evenings, the conversation had a tendency towards the unbearable (for a bleeding-heart liberal woolly-jumper-wearing save-the-whales leftie like myself). It was mostly about cars and boats, which was harmless enough, but interspersed with right-trending pontificatons about the welfare state, tree-huggers, and the invasion of foreigners. I found conversational companionship with Willie, the retired engineer.

Robert, the captain’s brother, was the most opinionated and also seemed to do most of the cooking. We had delicious three course meals, and cooked breakfasts all created from the tiny but perfectly formed galley, and I didn’t have to lift a finger. It was a highly unusual situation. Fair to say that on the first day while we were at sea, and before I had started my travel sickness meds, there wasn’t much chance of me lifting a finger, it was all I could do to sit staring at the distant horizon without vomiting. However I wasn’t even allowed to wash up, or fetch things from around the cabin. It was a novelty to start with, and then it started to get irritating. Connor, meanwhile, seemed to have an unattainably high standard for on-yacht cuisine. There was a constant and debilitating low-level of sniping between the brothers.

We had changed the planned route due to horrific weather forecasts and decided to head down the east cost to Inverness, then along the caledonian canal, to Fortwillian and to Mull from there. Our first port was Wick and we arrived in a large swell and onshore wind taking some skilled piloting from Conor. It was certainly hairy stuff and added some thrills to what was, otherwise, an uneventful day. As soon as we arrived it became apparent that we wouldn’t be leaving for a few days as the swell prevented us getting out of the harbour and the wind wasn’t due to change for a few days. We were stormbound in Wick.


The sailors on board were doomladen. I was elated. A chance to spend some quality time in my natural habitat (land): to run along the cliffs, a take a breathtakingly cold dip in the sea, to explore a new place, in fact to do all the things I like doing, in contrast to sitting motionless on a boat and staring at the horizon for hours on end.

The first day of being marooned I took the train to Forsinard, a stunning RSPB reserve in the middle of Europe’s biggest blanket bog. Bliss. Giant horizons, minuscule sundews, sun on peat pools, calling waders. I climbed the new viewing tower to have my breath taken away at the way the architecture and landscape interacted: the vertical with the horizontal.


On my return Robert was in full swing, this time a mysogeny flavoured rant on his favoured subject the Scottish independence movement. Now I love a good political argument; locking horns over the subjects that matter and can change the world; intellectual engagement challenging your own views as well as those of your opponents. I love having someone to disagree with in friendly discussion so much that sometimes, when the wine has been flowing and everyone is in happy political agreement, I come up with a contrarian view just so we can enjoy a good robust argument. *

IMG_0862But this wasn’t really much fun. The rant really didn’t stand up to the rigors of argument, which didn’t go down well. It just caused the offensiveometer to be turned up a notch.

Later that evening I determined to get on the 1120am train to civilization. It was him or me on this boat. I could not spend another waking moment on the Juneflower .

Morning dawned and the boat was quiet. Robert wasn’t industriously making bacon, eggs and black pudding. In fact Robert was nowhere to be seen. Once everyone had emerged apart from Robert, we found out that he had left. Jumped ship. He was on the first train out of Wick back to Glasgow. To my immense surprise it seemed that the war of attrition has been unexpectedly won. I felt elated.
It turned out that Robert actually left after one too many criticisms of his cooking from Conor. However, no matter the reason he left, it was undeniable that the quality of life onboard improved immeasurably. I moved into a cabin of my own (previously I had been sleeping on one of the seats in the lounge, with Willie on the other). Everyone relaxed a bit, and I determined to stay on the boat and see where the adventure of putting myself so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see it with a telescope, would take me.

* Once I got myself into big trouble with my delight in argumentative banter when meeting a close friend’s new man, a credit trader working in the city of London. It was shortly after the financial crash and I started, what I thought was, a good natured but robustly challenging discussion on the role of the bloated global financial industry in bringing down the world economy and generally oppressing the poor and fomenting inequality. It turned out that the boyfriend didn’t come from such a tradition of arguing simply for the sheer fun of it.

After the meal, back at her flat, I was told off in no uncertain terms for putting her eternal happiness in jeopardy. That was when I discovered that I had been invited along to, what was effectively, their second date.

Yes it could have all gone horribly wrong but, if you can survive a second date with your brand new girlfriend’s Uni friend haranguing you about your role in the downfall of the world economy, it is probably a good sign. You will be pleased to know that, despite such a disastrous date, they are still together. And when I see them now, the conversation doesn’t get more adventurous than the intricacies of childcare and where we are going for brunch.


Three cops in a boat (chapter 1)

Three retired policemen. Not the companions I’d usually choose to spend a week with in a confined space, but it sounded like an adventure.


Orkney to mull in a 40ft yacht for the cost of a shared food kitty and enough alcohol to keep an army drunk for a week. I’d signed up to it after an email came round a climbing club email list I’ve been on for years with the intention on going on their weekend mountaineering trips and never quite getting it together. But this time the email was different.


‘Crew sought for sailing trip to Lofoton’. My mind instantly wandered to the icy arctic and the lofty spires of Lofoton, a place I’d visited just after finals while a field assistant for a hapless PhD student from Sheffield studying caterpillars on dwarf willow.


My life of joyful but demanding family, a job I love (most of the time) and the never-dull house build started to seem rather mundane in the face of adventures on the high seas and climbing rock pillars in arctic wildness. A certain melancholy enveloped me when the impossibility of ever having a proper adventure again struck.


I emailed back with not the slightest expectation of a reply ‘How amazing that sounds. Feeling a bit sad that my family commitments mean that I can’t abandon the husband and kids for any length of time worthy of the expedition this year’ I wrote.


But a week later I had an email suggesting that I simply hop on and off for a week of my choosing and, looking at the weeks set aside for our summer holiday, noted that the stint from Orkney to Mull fitted in. So that was our summer holiday destination planned….


I didn’t actually meet Connor, the captain and owner of the Juneflower, until the night before he was due to sail out of Tighnabruaich, destination Lofoton. He was heading there for the longest day and the boat was packed and ready to go. I would be on the homeward leg. If the yacht, and its captain and crew, survived the trip out, then I’d likely be safe was my reasoning.  But even given the assurance of Natural Selection, I thought it would be a good idea to meet at least one of the people on the boat before I shackled myself to him for a week.


I nearly didn’t get to meet Conor at all, with his busy-ness packing the boat, my general busy-ness and basically forgetting to get in touch with him until a few days before he left. We managed to fit in a half-hour drink at the local rugby club on one of the best days of the summer. I didn’t need to worry about how to find him: blue shorts to the knee, a pink and white striped polo shirt, and deck shoes, he was obviously a sailor.  He was also a retired policeman in his late 50s, tall and thin, with a tanned and peeling nose, and he had already bought me a pint of St Mungos lager which sat awaiting my arrival on the bar. Unsurprisingly, I found this rather odd. During the introductions I worked out that he must have seen a photo on my twitter account of a set of albatross scaring lines next to a drink of WEST Brewery’s St Mungos lager. It’s a bit weird to have someone you’ve never met buy a drink for you before you arrive at the pub, but it’s extra weird coming from a policeman.


However, despite the slight weirdness, he seemed personable, and highly competent in matters of how to sail a boat, which was what I needed to know. He told me a little about the other people on the boat: Robert, his brother and also a retired policemen, and Martin, a long-time colleague also from he police. Willie, a retired engineer, and myself completed the crew.


Now I don’t know the first thing about sailing. I’d been on a couple of dinghys, one where husband’s glasses were hit by the boom and sunk to the bottom of the briny without trace (not great when on a holiday in the far North of Scotland with no opticians for 100s of miles) and once on a yacht with a Uni friend, turned boat builder, who took me on a truly terrifying tour round the Summer Isles in a storm as he shouted with glee. But, despite my personal experience, sailing has always seemed adventurous and romantic to me; blame the Swallows and Amazons if you like.


‘I don’t think you’re going to like it’ said husband, who knows me too well, as we ate a final meal in the Kirkwall hotel. A week in a confined space; no possibilty of excercise, my previously demonstrated fear of sailing, and my slight tendancy to travel sickness. And then, added to that, the prospect of spending it with three ex cops.  ‘It’s going to be an amazing adventure’ I said.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent….) 

Swiss Survival Guide: Surviving St. Moritz

The advantage of skiing in Switzerland is that noone would possibly know that you bought your ski jacket and salopettes in Lidl.


They do actually have Lidl in Switzerland, it’s just that nobody goes, or at least they would never admit it. And you can be doubly confident that none of the Bogner/Mongler/Cartier ski suit wearing punters in St Moritz shop in Lidl (yes apparently Cartier make ski-wear….)


If you say something like ‘Wow Lidl costs a third of that duopoly coop/migro that has such a grip on the shopping habits of your nation’ then you are likely to be excommunicated from your Swiss in-laws. But at least a small bag of shopping doesn’t cost £150.


Now there seems to have been some excitement in the financial markets the past few days which, if I’ve got this right, means that overnight our visits to Switzerland will now, not just be a bit more expensive, but 40% more expensive. 


And that got me thinking what kind of things don’t cost the earth in Switzerland?  As specifically, how to not spend too much money when you happen to be in the play-ground of Oligarchs and winter habitat of the English toff, St Moritz. 


I started with food and here’s the blog of a week of Swiss recepies based on a theme of starch and cheese which may be light on the pocket but are certainly rather heavy on the stomach. 


But there’s also lots of things to do that won’t break the bank and here’s a list:

1. Watch the races on the Olympia Bob: 

The world’s only natural ice bob run (there is no concrete underneath). They practice every day in the season but if you are there for a race it is even better. 

You can walk down a really good footpath from the top near the Kulm Hotel all the way to Celerina and get the bus or train back. Stop at the bar on the amazing horseshoe bend to watch the action.


2. Relaxing Sledging:

Top day out. Take the train to Preda, and head down the old road, that is shut in winter, to Berguns by sledge. It is 6km long and really picturesque as it winds over and under the World Heritage Site railway line. When you get there, lots of Gluwein stalls await and the train back up to do it again. 

(It’s not such a bargain day out of you have to hire a sledge though)

3. Oligarch Watching

It is really rather good entertainment to spot outrageous bling all over the place. Lots of furs and lots of diamonds and lots of ridiculously oversized dark glasses. Walk down the main street passing every high end luxury brand you can think of. Look out for heated car-park spaces so they are kept clear of ice. There is a whole road that has under-tarmac heating to keep it ice free between the Palace Hotel and Casa Veliga. Be horrified at how the planet is going to hell in a handcart. And how the world’s elite live. Then wander into Hotel Kulm in your walking boots for a cocktail.

4. Ursli path: 

A lovely walking path themed around the fantiastic children’s book ‘A Bell for Ursli’ taking you up to Salastrains. Take a sledge and kids can sledge down (it’s not officially a sledging route so be prepared to be frowned at by Swiss people). 

The path finishes at the Salastrains nursery slope where the hut that was used to film the original Heidi TV series now lives. Go in. Be Heidi and Geiserpeter. 

…. and read “A Bell for Ursli” before you go.

5. The Cresta Run: 

The last bastion of the English toff at St Moritz, now that Russian Ologarchs have taken over. You can hear the plummy voices from miles away as the announcer calls out their double barrelled names ‘Number four. Lord Thisleton-Lumley’ as they throw themselves headfirst in plus-fours and vintage leather shoes. 

 No women allowed. Which makes them look even more ridiulous if you just head over to the Olympia Bob and see the amazing women from the Swiss skeleton team who would burn them all off in an instant. 

Day 3 – Going home

We packed up in a hurry, there were moths from the trap to be Identified, the thermal imaging equipment to be taken down from the hill, and our bags and bags of kit to be transported down to the pier.  We didn’t pour away the water we hadn’t used. Just in case we didn’t get picked up – the supply of freshwater is a shallow sink-sized reservoir half way up the hill, on a seepage line. And it’s a favourite haunt of the gulls who have adorned it with  poo and feathers. 



The weather had changed to perfect blue skies and gentle winds and we headed out to survey the nests on the bird cliffs.

As we circled the island the cliffs rose up covered with gannets. Birds were everywhere. Gannets hanging like saltires in the air twisted briefly and then dropped from the blue sky, hitting the surface of the sea like an torpedo. We saw an immature one, a dark cross folding to an arrow and then a line and I wondered what it feels like to dive out of the sky at 100 Kmph for the very first time.  


Small stacks beneath were crowded with guillemots, stock upright with white tummies and chocolate backs, like miniature penguins on an iceberg. Then suddenly they launched into the water all at once towards the boat rowing their wings like a frantic oarsman in an attempt to take off.  When a couple realized that they wouldn’t make it before the boat passed them, they dived suddenly into the smooth oily water.

All to soon it was all over and we were heading back to Girvan, and real work: computers, meeting rooms, and hundreds of emails. 






  Bye Ailsa.  See you next year. I hope.


Ailsa Craig – evening day 2

Waiting for dark and the arrival of the storm petrels. It’s after eleven but the sky is still bright in the west. As the sky changes from deep blue to paler blue the moon appears, full and round, and the wind blows steadily. It isn’t going to be a dark night.


 ‘Everything is conspiring against us’ said Bernie, as he adjusts the mist net. ‘and to make things worse, they never come until the first week of July’ 

Bernie Zonfrillo is a veteran of 35 seasons of Ailsa bird research. He spent a wild winter on the rock in 1991 while leading the work to exterminate the rats and sleeps in a cottage slightly less derelict than the other island wrecks. 


We are sitting in the gloom along makeshift benches of driftwood balanced on granite blocks that had been cored for curling stones and then left as waste. Before us the sea shimmers silver in the moon and from the loudspeaker beside us comes a loud whirring sound punctuated by the odd Donald duck-like ‘ahh’.  The sound of a storm petrel calling from a colony. Every storm petrel on the west coast of Scotland will be able to hear us, I think, as the super-charged petrel blares out of the speakers.


And despite the bright moon, and despite the wind billowing the mist net so it looked like the black and tattered sails of a ghost ship, they came. Little black birds flitting like bats around the net and then, suddenly caught in a fold in the fine black mesh. Bernie’s deft fingers release a bird and she is in the hand.

Small and delicate with a steep quiffed forehead rising up from its little beak, the storm petrel may be small but it is a relation of the mighty albatrosses.  Petrels and albatrosses are ‘tube noses’, a name coming from the tube above the beak.

After the ringing I turn to Bernie to say that he was too pessimistic about the prospects for the night. 

‘Actually I was right about one thing’ he said. ‘We didn’t catch any in June.’  We’d  caught the first at quarter past midnight on the first day of July.  


Image courtesy of Portlandbirdobservatory.org


Ailsa Craig – Morning Day 2

I’m perched on an angular boulder at the base of a scree slope, binoculars raised, scanning the cliffs above for a peregrine nest.  My shoulders are tensed uncomfortably and there’s a crick in my neck. The air is full of gannets and the cries of gulls.


I was just thinking that a deck chair would give me the optimum angle for this kind of work, when the female peregrine launches from the cliff-face into the clouds of soaring gannets beating short sharp wings and calling furiously.  



Round and round she flies until she nearly alights on the cliff, wheels round once more and settles on the highest tip of rock to survey us suspiciously.


The clouds surrounding the steep summit mean we cant climb the rock to survey the colony of gulls at the peak and so, this morning, we have walked along the shoreline – past gull chicks, heads thrust into clumps of ragwort or under rocks, furry bottoms peaking out, and piles of boulders containing hissing, snake-headed young shags.



From where we sit, under the gannet colony, the rock rises precipitously from sharp grey boulders. On every ledge a shining white gannet sits and, up at the cliff’s rim, hundreds of birds balancing on the wind sway, black wingtips almost touching each other, and the rock.


They hang on invisible wires gently swaying while we are buffeted by the fierce winds and struggle to keep our balance on the boulders.  Every now and again one dives down past us, heading out to sea and is gone.


Ailsa Craig – Day one

History is strewn across Ailsa Craig in the twisted rails and rusted cogs winches and cables, and in the ruins of smithy, gas house, and lighthouse keeper’s cottage.  Rusting sheets of corrugated iron lie in the base of the huge gas storage tanks and across the heather. The lighthouse cottages are ghostly shells with beds turned over, broken cupboards and some 1940s easy chairs we borrow to make our camp more comfortable 

 I am on Ailsa Craig as party of an RSPB Scotland group surveying the islands bird, plant and invertebrate life. We make camp in the midst of the industrial decay then set off for our first task. 

The route of the old railway bringing stone from the North quarry to the pier makes a rather unsafe footpath to the cliff we want to survey.   Rusted iron and rotten wood bridges over rocky chasms give us visions of a Hobbit-style chase across crumbling stonework and we retreat to walk along the shore. We pass a cave strewn with dead rabbits, broken eggs and limpet shells where JM Barrie had once stopped to carve his name into the wall. 


My task, when we reached the seabird colony on the steep cliffs that run from the north foghorn, round the west, and almost to the south foghorn, was to look for bridled guillemots. This part of the cliff is the only one that can be seen from the shore, and it is where the regular detailed counts take place.  Bridled guillemots are the rarer form and they have a delicate white monocle around each eye. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack – but harder.

And then I find one.  A beautiful creature to seek in my ornithological Where’s Wally? My colleagues count kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars razorbills and then we get started on puffins. I used a little silver clicker that ticked satisfyingly in my hand with every count.  

Canna, Gaelic birdcalls and a lost car key

20140901-215643-79003568.jpgWell it was slightly annoying to loose the car keys. But the train journey back to Glasgow from Mallaig has been wonderful. It is one of the world’s great journeys and I can see why. As I yelled ‘wow look at the amazing view’ ‘it’s the Harry Potter viaduct’ and ‘Britain’s highest mountain’ the kids sat and read the magazines I had bought them as the necessity of the five hour train journey ahead started to sink in.

It’s not the first time that I’ve lost a car-key, or indeed all sorts of other important items like wallet and house keys, but it’s the first time for a while it has necessitated drastic action. I’ll be on the 820am train back to Mallaig in the morning with the spare.

However perhaps it’s a fitting ending to a weekend visit to see a piece of music which has encompassed the whole experience, especially the journey.

The concept of a piece of music exploring the imitation of birdcalls in Gaelic song fascinated me since I heard about it last spring. Being an ornithologist (or a lapsed one at least) I was captivated when I first heard Gaelic songs for bird calls on a soundpost at Kilmartin museum, and the thought of a piece of music written for performance on Canna seemed irresistible.

Now, as I said, the peripheral stuff – travel, accommodation, feeding – were an integral part of the event. And if I were organising an ideal weekend trip away it would look pretty much exactly like this did: a remote and exquisite island teeming with wildlife, camping by a beach black with basalt sand and overlooked by an ancient and crumbing bastion on a tower of basalt columns; a start to the event in a marquee filled with scones and cakes of all kinds; and choice of tea coffee or whiskey (I admit to scrounging a second dram); and ending with the camaraderie of a bonfire on the beach until the early hours. It also included a rousing sing-along to ‘the rattlin’ bog’, but I think that was entirely spontaneous….

But of course these were just the bookends to the work itself. We sat on folding chairs or cushions on the dirt road by the old pier and waited in silence (yes even my children) for the performers in dark tweed dresses and scarlet neoprene to begin. I used to be quite good at bird song ID but this really challenged my knowledge. The programme, containing a reproduction of the hand written scores and translations of the Gaelic which could have helped me was buried deep beneath waterproofs, plastic bags and other russtley things in a very rusttley bag. This was the kind of silent expectant audience where a single creak from a buttock moving on a chair would draw looks like daggers from those about. I decided to forgo the cheat-sheet.20140901-214240-78160454.jpg
Each movement was preceded by a sound recording evoking a habitat and bird assemblage: a machair with calling waders and skylarks, a seabird colony with guillemots, shags and fulmars, and mountain slopes ringing with the haunting and bubbling calls of manx shearwaters.

20140901-224152-81712946.jpgAs the sound of a gull in full defensive mode swooped across the loudspeakers my husband and I instinctively ducked; two field seasons in a colony of 50,000 pairs of gulls makes you wary like that. I was excitedly elbowed in the arm when he realised that the next movement was on a theme of gulls (we met in a gull colony). The sound of the guillemots took me back to a summer spent in the arctic below an enormous colony of auks. Happy days

The singing beautifully imitated bird calls as the singers placed themselves about the shallows, rocks, or up behind us, depending on the habitat they were evoking. The sound soothed, washing over in waves, the feeling akin to lying on a real machair looking up at the sky and hearing the waders display above, or laying belly-down peering over at a seabird colony, smelling that ammonia smell of dried guilimot poo (I love that smell). When I recognised a call in the music I felt elated. The kittiwake ‘Hu-ru rui’ was a recurring theme as was the cry of the oystercatcher, an ululating ‘Pil- il-il il il il il’. I feel I would have so much more to gain on another listen.

Later around the fire we shared experiences of the piece, among other things (including an artist’s response to the killing of the first sea eagle to fledge from the East Scotland reintroduction). Everyone I spoke to had connections to the arts, most had been to art school and were practicing artists. They seemed to have a very different experience of the piece to me, none seemed to feel the need to know what sounds were representing which birds. When I met one of the performers on the ferry homeward and enquired as to whether I might have heard a curlew in the piece (which on inspection of the programme I think was a gull’s laughing cry), she confided that she didn’t actually know which sounds were which birds, she had learned the music and read from the score.

There were evidently far fewer ornithologists in the audience than musicians and artists and, as I walked through the woods and up to the heathered escarpments above with the family later, listening out for the birds we could hear, as we always do, I pondered on a theme I have pondered before. I wondered whether there is more enjoyment in being able to name the species we share our surroundings with, than in simply enjoying a natural sounds for their own sake. Does being able to know how many species are singing, what they are and why their sing, and how they live their lives enrich ones enjoyment of the chatter of a seabird cliff, or the uplifting sounds of a woodland in spring?*

I do go along to arty things when I can, but I often feel that I don’t quite ‘get it’, the time I went along to see Hertzog’s ‘Antarctica’ at the GFT leaps to mind: I sat utterly bewildered as I saw, around me, the knowing nods and of a generation of students from the Glasgow School of Art oozing understanding. But this time I did feel that I got it, in fact surely this was a piece where ornithologists could enjoy it just as much as the art people. (And, presumably to a Gaelic-speaking ornithologist it would be even more enlightening). Perhaps I’m just always seeking understanding, because that’s what I like, I’m a scientist after all and finding out how the world works makes me happy.

The work was perfect, just as it was, of course, but I just couldn’t help wanting to take all those artists there on a walk to see and hear the real thing: the oystercatchers, the gulls, perhaps a night walk to hear the manxies. Probably because it’s my job and passion to get people excited about nature and because, for me, a performance like that drives me, at least, to want to find out more about the birds and about the Gaelic.

Canna, for example, is a real conservation success story. In a superhuman and vast effort, the NTS has freed the island from rats, while conserving the endemic Canna mouse, and Manx Shearwaters and other ground and hole nesters are starting to recolonise. A tremendous good news story in the midst of so much bad news for nature.

I am starting to see the advantage of losing my car key, we have been forced us to throw ourselves further into the experience of the journey as part of the piece, returning on the train via the wild landscapes of Morar, Lochaber and the vastness of Rannoch Moor and then gradually decompressing through the oak and birch woodlands of Loch Lomond and Loch Long until we started to enter the towns of West Dumbartonshire, and, only when we were ready for it, arriving back in the city. A far more enriched experience, especially with a glass of prosecco, than driving through the landscapes focussed on the road, head down….

Now I just need to get that train back to Mallaig with the spare key….

For information about the performance and a video click here
* (however any metaphor with art breaks down irretrievably on a cursory interrogation….)

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



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







Day 6: Ballachulish Horseshoe – a bit of botany and geology

“You seem to be in a great hurry,” said a man with a thick German accent as I brushed my teeth while filling my water bottle in the Glencoe YHA kitchen “Do you have some information that the mountains will disappear today in a sudden movement of the tectonic plates?” I tried to explain that I had a taxi due as I ran to the fridge to retrieve my faithful companion the French cheese, but it’s hard when you have a mouthful of toothbrush.

In the end the taxi was late and before we could get into it my Dad had appeared to join us for the day. He’d left Dundee at 6am but it was too late for me to cancel the taxi. In the end I travelled with the taxi driver and Jo travelled with my Dad, the two miles to the car park at Ballachullish. Dad had tried to pursued the taxi driver to take us up as far as the school but he was unwilling to run the gauntlet of the Glen Coe mums on the school-run (and I suggested that an additional 300m in a vehicle was a rather negligible distance compared to the traverse of the Ballachullish Horseshoe that we were planning.)20140624-000320-200168.jpg

Beinn a’ Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, towers over the entrance to Loch Leven, its vast granite west flank dominating the skyline from Cuil Bay. The rounded shoulders of the great mountain rise from sea level up to two munros, Sgorr Dhearg at 1024m and Sgorr Dhonill (1001m) linked by a great ridge. The geology of the mountain changes very distinctly between the two main summits – the east is quartzite, a hard, white metamorphic rock and this forms a delicate, white curving sharp ridge with steep scree slopes falling into the corrie below. The west mountain is granite, warm, red and rounded and forming a pile of scrambly blocks and boulders rising up from the ridge to the summit and then a wide lumpy and knobbly plateau with high level lochans. It would have been tricky terrain to navigate if the cloud had come in.20140623-234241-85361762.jpg

As this was the last day of our walk from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay we took the most linear route over the mountain. Most people walk the horseshoe from South Ballachullish to start and finish at the same spot, but we set off from the field just south of Ballachullish primary school and headed through a field of sheep, over a fence and into a trackless and near vertical bog. There was lovely cotton grass, and sweet smelling bog myrtle but there was no path.

I had been planning this walk since last summer and this wasn’t my route of choice. I had planned to ascend the beautiful steep and scrambley ridge that starts a bit further south of the primary school and rises almost directly to the summit of Sgorr Dhearg but my dad had other plans. He had been on the internet, he had printed out detailed maps on matt photographic paper (I’d recommend this actually). He had gadgets and he had annotated his map with GPS grid references on the line of best route, in case of poor visibility.

And so we went with his route.

We fought onward up the ever steepening heather and bog myrtle slope, me rapidly losing my sense of humour and wondering why one of the most popular mountains in Scotland speared to have no path up it whatsoever. Fortunately, just before we had a family crisis, Jo found the path, cutting across the slope above us and all was saved.

Once on the path the ascent was superb taking us onto the skyline giving fabulous views inland to the mountains of Glen Coe and the Mamores and westward out over Loch Linnhe and into Morven and Ardgour. Dad is a botanist and enriched the walk with talk of alpine plants (even though the mountain didn’t have some of the species he was hoping for). As we reached a wide part of the ridge at around 550m we came across an area of tiny, and entirely flat juniper bushes, growing to an altitude of only 2cms. I learnt a few other plants too – alpine ladies mantle was all over the place and, once the geology changed from quartzite to granite, so did the botany. There were little patches of fern growing between granite rocks which has the curled appearance of parsley, and indeed, this was the parsley fern.20140623-234817-85697858.jpg

At one point on the ridge dad disappeared over a precarious cliff perched over the top of a vertiginous scree slope. I scurried to the edge to check he was alright and found him bent over a patch of tiny white flowers. Starry saxifrage apparently. Other botanical highlights were the dwarf campion, and the exquisite dwarf cornell.20140623-234651-85611462.jpg

We wandered over the knobbly granite landscape until we came across a surprisingly large lochan at 750m altitude (obligatory swim) and then about a kilometre further on we started down the steep hillside, following dad’s carefully laid out trail of marked GPS locations, leading directly to the treasure of the Holly Tree Inn. It was here that the real botanical highlight of the day came. A celebratory, end-of-six-day-walk Gin and Tonic made with the wonderful Botanist gin from Bruichladdich Distilery on Islay.

I borrowed the gin bottle from behind the bar for a Botanist playoff. Could dad tell us the common names of all the ingredients embossed on the glass bottle in Latin?

Of course he could! (and I even knew a couple of them too)20140623-235045-85845213.jpg











Day 4: Traverse of the Black Mount: the snack mountain

20140622-224330-81810806.jpgI really have planned this walk to within an inch of its life. And, so far most things have gone to plan. Every night’s accomodation was booked, arrival and departure times of every bus and train to bring companions to join me was noted, routes planned, and baggage booked into a company that transport luggage for West Highland Way walkers.

However the weak point was always going to be Day Five. We’d need to leave Glencoe ski centre for a traverse of the Aonach Eagach before the cafe opened at 9am and with no chance of a packed lunch.

Food planning is always quite high on the priorities. I had evening meals and packed lunches booked and we had ‘the snack stash’ a mountain of goodies a couple of feet high (and the main reason for needing to book the baggage transport in the first place.)

I have recently come to the conclusion that hill walking (once you have a basic fitness level) is mainly about the snacks and the psychology and not at all about fitness. Continue reading

Day 3: Sunburn, a Saunter and Soil risotto

20140617-225225-82345706.jpgOur rest day on the birthday walk has been to take the West Highland Way from Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy. After day one of unrelenting bog and drizzle and day two of Munros in the blazing sun, each day finished and preceded by vast amounts of food and wine, this was to be a rest from route finding, uphill slog and wet feet but also a rest from overindulgence. No wine at all today. No late night, and certainly no prosecco chilled in a snowdrift. We need to prepare physically and mentally for the towering task looming ahead (literally looming over me as I write this on the remarkably midge free banks of the river orchy). Continue reading

Day 2: Ben Tulaichean – Overindulgence and Overexertion


I suppose it was my plan in the first place.

A walk across part of Scotland, taking in some of the hills I’d like to climb and one of the hotels I’d really like to visit.

It sounds lovely but wrenching oneself away from the white sheets and white paneled walls of ones room (steam room included) at Monacyle Mhor hotel is almost as big a feat of self will as climbing the subsequent two Munros. Add in the wine consumed, the gin sipped and the heat of the sun inviting a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, and you have a bitter internal conflict to contend with.

However, it was my idea and we did have a bottle of prosecco secreted in the rucksac, and so, off we went. Continue reading

Ten reasons why we love holidaying in the West Highlands (even when it rains)

20140409-110902.jpg1. Weather.

You might have heard that the weather in the West Highlands isn’t always balmy, sunny and dry. The weather forecast prior to our current Easter at a rented house suggested that we were due for more than our fair share of rain. But did this put us off?

Of course not. Because this is part of the attraction: you never know what the day will hold. No matter what the weather forecast says, you will get some sun, some showers, some wind to dry you off and you will get some picturesque clouds and stunning light.

The quality of the light is special in the west Highlands: bright sunshine slanting in from under clouds to flood the golden mountainsides with light. Weather is a spectator sport. Find a window seat, look out at the mountains reflected in the loch, and wait for the weather to start the show.


It might be pouring with rain, but the light is like a Landseer oil painting: Eileen Donan Castle from Letterfern (spot the rainbow)

2. Waterfalls

Due to the West Highland weather, particularly, it seems, on this holiday, there is always water aplenty rushing down the mountains. White ribbons of water flow down every hillside, braiding around rocks and heather. Almost everywhere are waterfalls, from the small, to the mighty. Gorges with rowans clinging to the side and leaning into the spray are where you will find a miniature forest of incredible lichens, mosses and ferns. Smoothed rocks for basking on during a dry summer day, transform into torrents of wild water after a night of rain.

3. Watersports

We used the rain to advantage the last couple of days to explore the burns flowing down the hill behind the house. An ordinary burn is made extraordinary once you step into it and start to follow the course of the water, scrambling over mossy boulders, balancing along dead trees washed down and wedged across the stream and ducking under tree branches growing over the vertiginous bank. Mosses and lichens cover everything and it felt like we were the first people to discover this lost world.

We were out with six children aged between 6 and 11, and it became a real adventure for all of us, helping the children up little waterfalls and bigger waterfalls, until we were halted by a 10m long chute of water. It’s not usually the children begging to go on while the adults suggest a retreat to the house for tea, but this time the kids dragged us onto the bank and around the obstacle to continue the adventure.

They returned today to conquer the waterfall, with ropes and harnesses, and every child climbed through the rushing torrent, made it to the top and declared themselves victorious.

4. Wetsuits with Wellies (and waterproofs)

Wetsuits, wellies and waterproofs are the essential outfit for kids on holiday in the west highlands. They were all dressed like that for the 20140408-233403.jpggorge ascent. A friend introduced us to this stylish and functional holiday wear on another Easter holiday: wetsuits to keep warm, waterproofs to keep off the wind, and wellies. Children will be happy on the beach all day dressed like this. As the maxim says ‘there is no such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing’.

5. Wildlife

There are a few species that everyone wants to see: I am always looking out for eagles. I know there should be white tailed eagles around and I am hoping to see a golden eagle. It wasn’t too far from here, when climbing a ridge, a golden eagle appeared just below me, rising on the up-draft.  For a few moments, it was only a few wing-spans from me and then suddenly banked, soaring out of sight over the ridge.


unfortunately in a glass case in the house, haven’t seen the real thing yet this holiday.

6. Walks

Isn’t north west Scotland just the very best place for walking? I love low level coast and loch-side walks, but I especially love the mountains, I never get bored in the mountains. Not least because weather and conditions make every walk one-of-a-kind.

While the children were ascending the waterfall, I took the chance to get into the mountains. We were rained on (a bit) we were blown on (which dried us out) and we had a constantly changing vista as clouds passed, drew in, and then parted.


Cloud and light on our walk up Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais in Kintail

7. Wilderness

We climbed up over a bealloch (coll) along a path that was once used by soldiers and those droving their cattle. It was high, around 700m at the top, but we were surrounded by higher mountains. We met no-one all day, and we looked over into a glen, completely remote. If we had carried on walking down the glen and southwards we would have reached Knoydart, the largest area of uninhabited land, wild land, in Britain.

On the second day of the trip,  we visited Sandaig, the site where Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bight Water. It is a deserted place, the house is gone and two monuments, one to Maxwell and one to Edal the otter, bear testament to the lives that were lived in that place. It certainly felt wild, with a derelict cottage and an expanse of rock, sand, shingle and sea. 20140409-105021.jpgThe poignant air of the place brought to life in the book, now deserted, reminded me that most of the wild glens, and coasts of the West Highlands, places that we now call wilderness, were once filled with dwellings. Thousands of people living off the land, with homes by lochs and in the glens, and sheilings where, in the summer, women and children stayed with the cattle at the high pastures.

The house we are staying in has a few ancient browning photographs of blackhouse settlements on the walls. The houses are made of woven hurdles and stone and thatched with heather.  In one photo a group of children, barefoot  and dirty, stand with their mother at the door to the house. I think I recognise the place as just around the cost from here. There is nothing left there now but stones.


A photo on the wall of the house we are staying in shows some of the communities in areas of the coastline now deserted.

8. White-Water crossings.

Because the West 20140408-233205.jpgHighlands are wild, and untamed there isn’t always a bridge to hand, even on marked paths. This isn’t strictly something that I love about the West Highlands, but I crossed a freezing and rocky mountain burn today, in bare feet to keep my boots and socks dry.  It was very sore and there were patches of snow on the ground, and I am proud of it, so I thought I’d put it in….

9. Warming up

Part of the joy of the wild, the wet and the windy is the warming up at the end. After the day at Sandaig we clustered wet-suited and wet children round a driftwood fire and they toasted themselves and their marshmallows.blog warming up west highlands

10. Whisky

Obviously, good for warming you up, especially in front of a wood-burning stove. And also, as I have found out, good for cooling down. On our second night I was tasked with the communal meal and made whisky and honey ice cream. Having forgotten the key ingredient I borrowed some from the bottles brought by my friends and so discovered my two favourite flavours of ice-cream: Talisker and Highland Park.


Monument to Edal, the otter of Ring of Bright Water at Sandaig. ‘Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature’





Swiss Survival Guide Part 4: Be a bit more Swiss if you want to get on the pistes early

Everyone wants to make that first beautiful run down: snaking tracks down the newly-groomed pistes. But, given my recent(ish) experiences, I think that I need to work on cultivating my inner Swiss before I try again.

On the third day of the holiday I determined to carve some new tracks in the snow and rose before everyone else, pulled on gear, gulped down a breakfast, donned boots, picked up skis from the boot-room and was off. The walk takes about 10 minutes on a rising gradient but when I reached the slope to ski down to the lift I found that my boots had shrunk and were far too small to fit the bindings.

I had brought the wrong skis.

Quick back to the flat.
Quick hobble in ski boots down an icy road past the reams of folk now emerging to head to the slopes.
Arrive at lift at exactly the time I would have done without all the extra effort.

Next day I tried again, this time heading out even earlier. I shuffled to the ski slope in double-quick time, but before I could feel smug I realized that I had dropped one of my mittens on the way so had to trot back and found it lying in the road nearly back at the flat. ‘Oh well, still ahead of the pack’, I thought, and set off, once again, to the slopes. This time I found that, again, my boots wouldn’t clip into my skis. ‘But I definitely have the right skis’ I wailed to a group of teenage snowboarders who had been observing me hurry backwards and forwards… I had the wrong boots! I dragged myself and the pair of boots belonging to someone I was hoping hadn’t needed them in the past 20 minutes, back to the flat. On my second walk back to the flat I passed the rest of my party heading to the slopes with a leisurely breakfast in their tummies and a set of self-satisfied looks on their faces. I can’t say that a vision of the Hare and the tortoise didn’t swim before my eyes.

You might think that I would be annoyed at this experience but in fact I was rather delighted to find that the ex-rental boots that I bought for £5 in Aviemore in 2009 were pretty-much indistinguishable (at least to my eyes) from a pair used by an actual Swiss person in St Moritz. And there’s nothing like knowing that, for the price of a coffee in a mountain cafe, I have at least as good a pair of boots as anyone….

Spot the difference:
I admit one is purple and one gray, but in the dim morning light with eyes fogged with sleep, it’s surely an understandable mistake. The skis less-so, the ones I carted out were utterly different and 30cm longer than mine


Chocolate orange fudge icing


I am quite proud of the chocolate orange cake I just made for my daughter’s birthday.

Well, to be more honest, my daughter made the cake, and I just made the icing. But it is really lovely icing.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve based it on the choc cake from the typed sheets of basic survival recipes that my mum sent me off to university with. I’m not sure how often I made that cake at uni, but barely a month goes by now, when I don’t make it. This is the latest variation.

1.5 oz of caster sugar
4 table-spoons of water
2.25 oz of butter
4.5 oz of icing sugar
1.5 oz of cocoa powder
Grated zest of one orange
4 segments chocolate orange

1. Sift together the icing sugar and cocoa powder
2. Heat the sugar, butter and water in a pan and bring to the boil.
3. Add the orange zest and pour over the icing sugar/cocoa mix
4. Beat with a whisk until smooth. If it is too dry, add another tablespoon of boiling water, or two.
5. Stir in the chocolate orange segments until melted
5. Wait for the icing to cool a little so it can be spread onto the cake
6. Use the remaining chocolate orange segments for decoration.

As for a cake to spread the icing on (I used my damson jam spread between the two layers of cake with the icing on the top and sides) ….

6 oz butter
6 oz sugar
3 eggs
6 oz self raising flour
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp boiling water
Grated zest of one orange

1. Cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy.
2. Add the eggs one at a time and beat
3. Mix the boiling water with the cocoa powder in a mug until smooth and add to the mixture
4. Sift flour into the mixture and fold, add the vanilla essence and orange zest.
5. Bake in two round tins at 180deg for about 20 mins.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 3: The Swiss don’t ski in total white out conditions


When the cloud is down and the snow is falling you’ll be alone out there on the slopes with the other Brits (and they’ll probably be a few Germans and Poles ricocheting about too)

This is obviously a good thing, especially if you can use as your reference point a day on a Scottish mountain. Even the windiest lift-shutting blizzard in the alps pales into insignificance against the raging hurricane that is a normal day at Glen Shee. All those pomas and t-bars seem immune to wind, perhaps that’s why they have so many of them in Scotland and not just to test the endurance of your thigh muscles.

We had a couple of white-out blizzard days. The only reference points for the vertical were the piste markers, and the other skiers (well the few that were still upright). At one point, while showing a lost skier back to her route, expert Swiss skier hubby somehow mistook the poles marking the left-hand-side of the run, for poles marking the right hand side and shot off into the deep snow that had settled in a wee burn. It’s not that often I get a chance for a hysteric belly-laugh as my husband wallows about in neck-deep snow searching for his skis.

Had we been skiing in Scotland, this would be the best day out of the year: amazing snow conditions, wide slopes totally devoid of people, no lift queues, hardly any wind, and a total absence of rock and heather on the run. We felt like we were doing something real, an expedition, an adventure, something to be survived.

It also means that you will get a seat at the über-cool Raclette Stube where you will be able to make full use of those floor-ceiling windows to observe your ski sticks blowing over and rolling away down the mountain. There will also be none of the usual hip-crowd there which means your shabby Gore-tex and bobble-hat will look less out of place.

After all that, the tame, sunny, smooth perfect resort that returned the following day was almost a disappointment. I just can’t wait to get back to Glen Coe and test my rock and heather-avoidance skills.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 2: Don’t make a Noise

The Swiss might make their apartments of concrete with tile floors in all staircases, corridors and communal areas but this isn’t because the Swiss love to hear the sound of children’s singing/fighting/wailing echoed and amplified throughout their apartment blocks.

No it is not.

In Switzerland please be quiet. Not just on the stairs and communal areas, but please take care not to run out a bath after 9pm. It’s OK to run the bath, so long as you wait until after 8am to run out the water – God forbid that you run a dishwasher at night, and I am still unclear as to whether one can flush a loo in the evenings. I think once or twice is acceptable, just don’t go OTT. And hoovering is a complete no-no.

You won’t have to worry about the washing machine though. There will be a communal washing machine for all flats in the block in the basement which you will forget to book the necessary week in advance and so you will be washing your smalls in the bath. Just make sure that you don’t take the plug out after 9pm.

Swiss Survival Guide: Sharpen your elbows for the lift queue

This isn’t Aviemore or Glencoe where skiers form an orderly queue stretching far up the slope from the ski lift, shortening the already rather short run considerably. This isn’t where people say ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry for tripping you with my pole accidentally on purpose’ or where people would be horrified if you stepped all over the backs of their skis in the lift queue. On no, this is all out ski-lift war.

Try and find a person who looks like a ski-queue veteran, elbows sharpened, ski sticks at the ready, and stick by them, they will find the path of least resistance. Shuffle your ski tips into any gaps that open up, those that say ‘after you’ and ‘women and children first’ will be trampled.

I happen to prefer this method to the all-too-polite Scottish ski slope etiquette. One wonders how a Swiss would fare in a queue at Aviemore.

Swiss Survival Guide: This is where we start


I am a regular visitor to Switzerland, being married to a swiss, and so when visiting, I occupy the privileged position of being able to observe the swiss at close quarters. I am now (almost) able to understand what is being said in swiss german after many years of my GCSE- level German being utterly useless in the face of the sing-song gobbledygook that is ‘Sweetzer Dooch’. A couple of years ago I thought things were looking up when, sitting on a plane leaving Amsterdam for Zurich I had a breakthrough.

‘Hey! I can understand everything that flight announcer is saying!’ I chirruped enthusiastically to my husband.
‘He’s speaking Dutch’ he replied dryly.

Anyway, I do, mostly, get the gist of what’s being said, (especially if I already know what they are talking about) and I’m pretty good in the emphatic tense as applied to kids:
‘Get dressed!’ (Aar-lekke) ‘Get your shoes on!’ (Lek deenie shua ah) ‘Sit down’ (ab sitze) ‘Eat your dinner’ (is deeser snacht) ‘Go to bed (gang ins bet)

The spelling appears to be mostly arbitrary in Swiss German, as they use High German for written documents, so I feel justified in using my own form of phonetic written Swiss here, I hope you are saying each phrase out loud to yourselves, don’t they sound funny?

We regularly visit the same places each year and each visit I feel a little like an amateur anthropologist, trying to understand Swiss people and Swiss culture, and trying to fit somewhat into a place so utterly alien from the comfortable chaos of life in Scotland.

I thought I should write a few observations of Switzerland and the Swiss to help me get through the visits. In the spirit of ‘if you can’t laugh, you’d just cry’. It might also act as a bit of a survivors’ guide to visiting Switzerland.

I hope you enjoy….

Swiss Survival Guide part 1: ‘HOW Much??!!’

After many years of fretting about the cost of buying anything at all in Switzerland from the smallest postcard to the shopping for a week, I now realise that things get much easier once you reach a state of acceptance I call ‘wallet zen’. When you reach this state, rather than coming to every transaction with a rising blood pressure and an impending sense of doom, you can just open your wallet and say ‘Really, just take it all, I have no need of it’

It is almost impossible to overestimate how much things are going to cost you in Switzerland. So here are a few survival pointers:

1. Food
A couple of years ago we met up with my parents in Switzerland and my mum kindly made a meal for 10: her usual speciality- a beef stew with baked potatoes. It was very delicious and warming after a day in the snow, but the constant refrain during the meal, and indeed the rest of the holiday, stays with me to this day.

“Do you know how much this stewing steak cost? FOURTY FIVE POUNDS! thats £45, not 45 Swiss Francs….. and that was just the steak!”

But panic not! there is a solution. All traditional Swiss food seems to be based on a theme of starch and cheese, with a bit of cured meat if you are lucky. This is presumably because it was not so long ago that the very smartly besuited and be-booted Swiss were all peasants, living off their höflies (pron. herflees – meaning little farms).

So if you stick with tradition you can eat pretty much as cheep as you can get in Switzerland (so long as you don’t eat up in a mountain restaurant where your fondue will cost you £45 – and that’s per person…)

So here’s my survival guide menu for a week in the mountains:

Day 1: Rosti and fried egg
Rosti (pronounced Rer-shti) is grated potato fried in a pan. It’s the authentic Swiss egg and chips

Day 2: Pizzocheri
This is stodgy buckwheat pasta with boiled potatoes, sage and cheese.

Day 3: Spazeli and fleishkäse
This is egg pasta fried in a pan with something rather like sliced spam (though I would recommend to eat spazeli with baked ham but that’s less the budget option)

Day 4: Fondue
Melt three cheeses (a good melter like Raclette or vachrain, a tasty one like Appenzeller or mature gruyere/comté, and a bulk one like a milder gruyere or cheddar) with lots of white wine, add kirsch, nutmeg, pepper and then fight the folks sitting either side of you with long pointy forks to get your fait share.

Day 5: Käseschnitte
This is the leftover bread from the fondue in the base of a casserole soaked in white wine with the leftover fondue mixture on the top. Then you bake it in the oven – yum!

Day 5: Raclette
This is basically melted cheese on potatoes with some picketed gherkins and onions.

Day 6 : Mac cheese.
An obvious mainstay if we are talking starch/cheese combos. With some chopped ham mixed with the cheese sauce. The Swiss will have a fancy name for it but it escapes me.

It will still be expensive, but perhaps not quite so crippling on the wallet. The food expense doesn’t help that there is a pretty effective duopoly of supermarkets in Switzerland (co-op/migro) and that there aren’t many independent food shops to speak of but you might be lucky and come across one of the excellent farm gate stalls or farmers’ markets which can be cheaper. (Which will be the subject of another blog)

Things to do near Arrochar


I happen to be arranging a get-together in Arrochar and so here’s my I’ve list of things I’d like to do if I had a bit of free time in the area. I hope you like them too.

1. Hill Walking
The Arrochar Alps offer superb walking with the Cobbler, Ben Ime and Ben Narnain all accessible from the village itself. A drive up to the aptly named Rest and be Thankful, the pass at the head of Glen Croe, gives access to further spectacular mountains.
Ben Donich is only a 90 minute walk to the top and has unparelled views to the Clyde and beyond. And there’s a fabulous ridge walk on Beinn an Lochain

2. Boat Trips and a walk on the wild side
Cruise Loch Lomond have a number of boat trips around the loch. From Tarbert you can take a boat to Inversnaid and walk through the wild and beautiful atlantic oak forests of the RSPB reserve, or take the boat to Rowardenan and walk one of the loveliest sections of the West Highland way north to Inversnaid for the return boat. There are numerous other options on the boat-trip including an RSPB cruise and guided walk every Tuesday April-Oct (which I can personally recommend!) 20131018-001430.jpg

3. Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Fyne Ales and Ardkinglas forest garden
A drive over the Rest and be Thankful and down the other side takes you to the small community of Cairndow and the beautiful Ardkinglas woodland garden There lies the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, which has the dubious claim to fame of being the site of the notorious agreement between Blair and Brown, but also does a fabulously good value ‘Bradan Rost trimmings’ along with a lot of expensive goodies. The brewery is open seven days a week and does tours and tastings. On the same site there is also a tree nursery run by Ardkinglas woodland garden with a tea-room.

4. A visit to Inveraray
Too picturesque for words with a castle, historic jail, a tall ship with the fabulous name ‘ArcticPenguin’ (no longer open to the public unfortunately) and rows of whitewashed Georgian houses. We love fish and chips on the pier and watching children catching crabs with bits of bacon rind. But there’s also a good cafe ‘Brambles’ and there’s always the George Hotel for a salubrious evening meal. The best thing of all, though, is the fabulous Inverary Jail. Especially if you go there on a day when they have actors all dressed up as jailers. The castle, though interesting, is expensive and small, but I would recommend the beautiful and steep walk up to the folly, no one will charge you for that and the views are priceless.


5. Cycling
There are quite a few off road cycle paths around. You can cycle all the way to Balloch (16 miles) along Loch Lomond side, or you can take the Three Lochs Way to Helensburgh and Gareloch head (where you can return by train if you time it expertly). In the woods between Arrochar and Ardgarten there are marked cycle routes: five and seven mile loops and a 20 mile circuit of the peninsular.

Eight Steps to Wild Thing Nirvana


In a couple of weeks ‘Project Wild Thing‘ will be launched. It’s a film documenting one man’s attempt to get his kids to play outside and thus inspire a nation that would rather be on their X-boxes than out in the woods getting muddy.

So it’s fitting that we’ve had a weekend of living the Wild Thing dream.

I’ve written before of the challenges I’ve had getting my own offspring to venture forth into the wide and wild open. So it is with great joy that I can document here, with delighted smugness, the kind of weekend that would make a Guardian lifestyle features editor drool.

So here are my very own 8 steps to Wild Thing Nirvana.

Step One: Find your spot
Obviously this can be anywhere – park, woodland or wild place, but we happened to be on a raised beach surrounded by hazel and birch woodland on the shore of a Scottish loch. And the weather was OK.

Step Two: A wild swim.
After a long, hot walk-in, the sea was startlingly cold. Daughter managed a few strokes then stood waist-deep looking for sealife in the weed. Ignoring the pain of constricting capillaries in the extremities I paddled frantically until a warm glow started to spread over my body. Slowing to a more stately neck-out breast stroke, I parted the seaweed clad in an invincible tingling aura. Anyway I think the aura was from the cold water, it could have been from the smugness.

Step Three: A wild swing
A sure-fire way of warming up, the kids sailed out over the 20ft drop and nearly into the branches of the (hopefully sturdy) oak tree. Fighting over whose turn it was must have been warming too.

Step Four: Make a den and have a picnic
Absolutely standard fare for being a Wild Thing. Our den was built with the help of a length of blue fishing rope found on the beach and some twigs from the woods. It was a pretty good lunch spot and we plucked a few trefoils of wood sorrel to have in our sandwiches.

Step Five: Watch the sunset.
Sitting still and watching anything for more than one minute is not something that myself and my older daughter have ever managed before. Sitting on the beach together, listening to the sea and watching the colours of the sky change was actually a very special experience. However soon the urge to shout out bizarre names for the cloud formations became overwhelming and the spell was broken. ‘half chicken half worm!’
‘A horse wearing deely-boppers’
‘Pig’s head on a skeleton’

Step Six: Star gazing
In the uncharacteristically warm late September evening we sat outside and watched the constellations gradually appear. We also happened to be listening to radio 3 and a performance of Tintagel by Arnold Bax, which is obviously too pretentious for words but daughter wanted a soundtrack and this was the only one we could agree on. In any case, it suited the occasion, the lapping of the waves on the beach and the wind in the grass.

This is where a bit of that evil screen-time hugely increased our enjoyment of the experience. The wonderful Night Sky app showed us the names of the constellations and significant stars and satellites. We even saw a few shooting stars.

Step Seven: Phosphorescence

I’ve only experienced phosphorescence once before and it was under similar conditions: a warm autumn night after a long hot summer. We wandered down to the water’s edge, splashed our hands and, sure enough, a few sparks of phosphorescence shot into the dark and disappeared. It took a lot of splashing for a couple of sparks but, what magic sparks they were.

Step Eight: Sleep out under the stars.
This is obviously the absolute pinnacle of Wild Thing achievement. It wasn’t really something we intended but the idea had started germinating last week when I received an email telling me that someone had sponsored me to sleep out in my garden.

This wasn’t a phishing scam from a criminal gang-turned environmental education collective. It was related to a test page I set up on JustGiving while organising the RSPB Big Wild Sleepout in August. Somehow, someone had tracked down my page and felt moved to sponsor me, but they hadn’t left any contact details, leaving me in a bit of a dilemma.

I was fretting about the morality of being unable to contact my benefactor to tell them I was a fraud when the inevitability of a night out au naturel dawned.

We dragged camp beds and sleeping bags down to the beach – daughter categorically banned me from taking an actual bed and mattress down. I had planned to just lie and look at the stars and listen to the waves for a while but almost immediately we were both asleep.


We didn’t manage a whole night though. The night sky had rotated around the North Star by about 60 degrees when I was awoken by a frozen cold daughter and we sprinted back into relative warmth.

So, I hope that puts my sponsorship dilemma to bed so I can sleep at night again (sorry couldn’t resist). Next year I think I’ll go the whole hog and get properly sponsored for a proper sleepout.

I think the world is ready for Disco-ceilidh

Postscript: I now have a dedicated website for Disco Ceilidh www.DiscoCeilidh.net

I’ve been spending a few spare moments recently puzzling out what disco tunes would go with which ceilidh dances. It must be one of the things that you can’t find on the internet (I did try) so you’ll be pleased to know that I am adding to that fabulous open source project by documenting my findings here ….

In choosing these tunes I have considered tempo, how the pattern of the dance matches the tune, and boogie-value.

These have not been definitively tested yet so bear with me, I’ll update once I have rounded up some experimental dancers ….

Gay Gordons
American Boy – Estelle 118 bpm

Dashing White Sergeant

Disco Inferno – The Trammps 128 bpm
I’m sexy and I know it – LMFAO

Canadian Barndance
Dancing in the Moonlight – Toploader 124 bpm

Circassian Circle
Up all night to get lucky – Daft Punk 130 bpm?
Works especially well with a bit of a disco conga instead of the promenade.

St Bernard’s Waltz
Perfect Day – Lou Reed
The times are changing – Simon and Garfunkle

Virginia Reel
Car wash – Rose Royce but think I’ll go with the Christina Aguillera version from Shark Tale (with a tweak to the dance itself)

Strip the Willow
I am convinced that Born Slippy (140-145bpm) – by Underworld will make a fabulous Strip the Willow but I will need to try it out with a full set of dancers to see how it works ….

The background to this eccentric exercise is that I am a novice caller in a ceilidh band. It’s a band made up of parents from the school, formed by a note I sent round via school bag post, seeking a group to play local, family-friendly ceilidhs for fun. We soon assembled a full team, but no-one stepped forward to do the calling. So after a few web-searches and a bit of a brass-neck, I’m exploring a whole
new world.

In getting to know the dances, it’s been fun working out which tunes would suit which dance. And now I’m thinking of having half a traditional ceilidh set and half a disco set when we play. That way the band will get a chance to party too!

This is sooooo the next Zumba.

Post Script
The very first disco ceilidh was a barn-storming success and so I’m setting out in business – check out DiscoCeilidh.net for all the news.

Naming the animals: the key to happiness and saving the planet


mini cuttlefish love

I’ve just spent a very happy evening with a couple of field guides to the seashore and the internet. I’d forgotten how fun a spot of low water fishing is. It’s something we were always taken to do on our childhood summer holidays on the costa del English Channel but it’s an activity I have sorely neglected over the past quarter century (unless you include a freezing cold undergrad field trip from which I retain my only remaining knowledge of littoral ecology: Ascophillim nodosum, and Fucus serratus – seaweed to the likes of you and me)

But now I’m back walking miles out on the exposed shore, next stop France, making childhood memories with my own children. Despite considering myself a zoologist (of sorts) I was all at sea with this task of identification. Here were creatures (some probably aren’t strictly even creatures ) with a bewildering variety of body plans and phylogenetic weirdness, in contrast to the rather conventional stuff that I’m used to (ie vertebrates, namely birds).

We caught all the usual stuff: prawns, crabs, and fish of all kinds: baby pollack, gobies and little tiny flatfish, invisible against the sand, but which flapped tickling around our feet as we walked through the shallows.20130728-134649.jpg

But my favorite was a darling cuttlefish in miniature (Sepiola  atlantica) caught by my daughter in a limpet shell. There it sat with enormous eyes and sporting a lovely leopard print design which rapidly changed to a deep purple when rudely prodded by its captor. When we put it back in the sandy pool it shoogled itself down into the sand and left nothing but a pair of eyes showing.

We also caught a straight-nosed pipefish (Nerophis ophidion) – that cross between a sea-horse and a bootlace, hanging out among the long brown strands of Chorda filum seaweed.

A brown blob covered with exquisitely beautiful yellow stars caused some consternation during my battle with the field guides and I have, at last, identified it as an Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri), a colony of tiny sea-squirts. Improbably the larvae of this colonial blob, which resemble little tadpoles, are thought to be what gave rise to the very first vertebrates. I unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of this distant relative for the family album as it was lost in the excitement of clearing a bucket for the cuttlefish.

We also found a pale hairy lozenge, around 10cm long which must have been a long dead and bleached sea mouse – Aphrodite aculeata – a seriously weird kind of worm

And an orange spongy thing with a structure a bit like a brain, or a tightly wrapped intestine, remains completely unidentified as it, too, was lost in the scramble to contain the cuttlefish.

The weirdest was a blob of transparent jelly, roughly cylindrical and attached to the sand with a kind of stalk. It appeared to have absolutely no internal structure at all so I ruled out the usual IDs the Internet offers for blobs of jelly on a beach – comb jellies, jellyfish or sea squirts. However I did read a passing reference in a website about bait digging, that there is a ragworm which catches its prey using a transparent jelly-like net….. I wonder.

All this is grist to the mill of my recent ponderings about people’s connection with the natural world around them. I have been asking myself whether the ability to name a species (or in this case find out their names with a great deal of effort), adds to the pleasure of experiencing nature. Do people who can name the trees they pass on the way to work, or the weeds growing from a wall, or the birds they hear in the morning gain more pleasure than those who pass them in blissful ignorance. If you don’t know the name of something are you less likely to even notice it is there?

I am wondering whether knowledge of the unconventional domestic arrangements of the dunnock, or that swift chicks go into torpor as their parents search for food for up to three days at a time adds to the experience of seeing another brown bird in the big city. I certainly believe that it adds a huge richness to my own experience of my immediate environment, whether in the city or at the seaside.

While I was scurrying about at low water looking under fronds of seaweed, my colleagues have been doing a bioblitz at a brand new reserve purchased as an extension to RSPB Inch marshes. Scores of them, with partners from BugLife and other NGOs were finding as many species as they could on the site from mushrooms to mites and from mammals to moths. This is both serious conservation, and training for staff, but it is also pleasure.

As Bob Dylan sang, quoting from its origin in Genesis, ‘man gave names to all the animals‘. It seems to me that humans really do have a drive to name the living things we share our planet with. And that, by knowing their names, and something about them, we increase our pleasure in our everyday encounters with nature and find a connection with it.

And if we start to notice more of nature around us, and take pleasure in it, won’t it be that little bit harder for it to be lost?

Postscript: if anyone out there knows what the orange spongy thing was, or the cylindrical jelly blob, please do put me out of my misery.


I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know what this is. Could it be a rock goby?

Backing up my Blog

I wanted to backup my blog just in case, and have a copy that I could edit and print out too. After a bit of research I found out this really easy way to get my WordPress blog with all the pictures etc. into a word document. So I thought I’d better record it before I forget if I ever need to do it again.

1. In WordPress export the file:
Go to tools and click on Export. I just downloaded posts but you can download all content, or choose particular posts.

When its downloaded as an XML file, save it onto your computer.

2. Open the file in Blogbooker
Go to Blogbooker.com and download the file as a PDF by clicking on the type of blog, entering the location of the saved XML file and clicking on ‘create your blogbook’. Save the resulting PDF onto your computer.

3. Convert the PDF to word
I used www.pdfonline.com to convert the PDF to a word document.

Et voila!!

A private pool with a view


A perfect clear sky has coincided with a complete lack of child-ferrying commitments and enough daylight hours after work for an escape to the hills.

I’m the only person on the mountain and it’s still roasting hot at eight o’clock. I know that, almost at the summit of this hill, is a still, black and perfectly oval pool ringed with sphagnum moss and cotton grass.

And there I shall stay, looking out at the mountains of the Arrochar Alps, over to Ben Lomond and down the Firth of Clyde as far as Arran, until the midges, or the gathering darkness chase me back to civilization.

The imagined pool can never live up to the reality, especially when you are slogging up a mountain in the blazing heat. The pool tuned out to be shallow, and the black peaty bottom had heated the water to the temperature of a baby’s bath, so there was none of that refreshing tingle and gasp as I got in.

However the view from Ben Donich is one of the best, with a path that takes you past some fantastic rock formations, so the walk itself was very much worth it. And I might have not made it to the top if I hadn’t been thinking about plunging into that pool.

Access and route information from WalkHighland website.*
Ben Donich is a perfect mountain for a short day or an evening as the start at Rest and be Thankful is already at 200m. And added to that is that, despite the ease of access from Glasgow and all the delights of the mountain you hardly ever meet anyone on it.


* PPS: on any mountain come suitably prepared with footwear and waterproofs and always bring a map and compass and know how to use them

Surprised by Nature in West Dunbartonshire


What a picturesque place. Can you believe that it is directly under the carriageway of the Erskine Bridge?

With the summer holidays round the corner, the shackles of cubs, choir and other after school activities are being gradually loosened and I am starting to breathe a little easier.

One day last week I had no commitments to get the kids to and the sun was shining. We decided to have a bicycle adventure; a magical mystery tour. Continue reading

Enjoying the peace and quiet of Colonsay


Colonsay might be touted as a place of quiet; peaceful and relaxing but we’ve been camping and I can testify that it is anything but.

Our tent has been pitched at the hostel, a stone lodge and a couple of bothies with the woodlands of Colonsay House to the north and sweeping views to Loch Fada over meadows of flowers to the south. At midnight, with a sky still bright enough to see, the incessant croak of the corncrake was accompanied by the ghostly kee-wick of the lapwing.

Continue reading

Fires and Wild Food: 10 things to do outdoors (part 1)


There’s lots of things telling us that kids should get out more, that natural play is great and it will make our children happier and healthier. In fact I wrote an angst-filled blog about just that.

Here’s my top ten things to get kids outdoors and enjoying playing in the wild. Each of these items deserves a blog of its own, but until I get round to that, here they are (the first five). Continue reading

Making playing wild in nature natural

kids on beach 2Lately there seems to be more awareness of the need for children to have freedom, especially to play in nature, and the growing disconnect between children and nature. There was the Natural Childhood Report, and I’ve come across loads of articles, policy papers and the odd book aimed at showing the malaises that result from this generation’s separation from their environment.

I don’t need articles in colour supplements and reports by consortia of NGOs to have angst about my kids getting out to play – I already have it in spades.

Today I am fretting over a magazine article in the Guardian. Continue reading

A day out in Speyside

Apart from Cuil Bay, one of my very favourite places is Speyside. When I haven’t been there for a while I start pining for the ancient forests (‘scuse the pun), the wild hill-tops, the cake-shops and the reindeer.

It’s a great day-trip from Cuil, about 1.5 hours drive to Kingussie, and this trip we took in the Autumn gives an idea of my perfect day. Continue reading