Thursday, 9 September 2010

It's pretty daunting to try to write up the past ten days, as full of adventures as ten weeks usually is. Besides three lovely day walks, a distillery tasting and consumption of a freshly caught Haggis with Claire, I spent the weekend roughing it on the Knoydart peninsula, which does indeed live up to its reputation as Scotland's wilderness, and climbing what some call Britain's most spectacular summit. In the meantime, I haven't utterly forgotten my career, and checked out the small Music Department at the University of Glasgow, including a brilliant meeting with John Butt and an interrogation of David as to the practise room and 466 mean-tone continuo organ situation. Before leaving Glasgow, mentally and physically exhausted, I sat about David's watching the rain come down, drinking tea and eating hot food followed by the remaining fruit leather, playing improvise a canon at the 5th (it's been a while - what a fun game!) and tossing ideas about, so the past few days I had yet again some energy to visit Frauke Jürgensen in Aberdeen, and to climb onto a horse for the first time in 10 years.

Now you're up to date, if you're checking here for news, you've got it now. But as I sit on the train watching the light change to orange in the glens between here and Aberdeen (and now from Aberden to London), it's been a week that's going to be hard to say goodbye to, and so for the rest of you, it's time to put the kettle on again… and don't worry if you don't read it all in one go!

Before I forget though, a great big congratulations to David for having kept his blog going for 10 years. Also to note, some of the pictures were taken by Claire A. McIntyre, and I wanted to point them out by initialing them, but - a problem we've run into before - we have exactly the same initials.

Shortly after the last post, Claire and her Aunt met up with me at the Canal Station cafe and we headed back to the vast grey stone Victorian house where Claire's avid-hillwalker Aunt and Uncle live with their son. The house itself was beautiful, with very high ceilings and stained glass in the stairwell windows, but a few modern outfitting, like a hot tub in the backyard, very welcome after traveling.

The first day hike was to the isle of Bute, one of the closest island to Glasgow and relatively flat, but we went along the rugged south coast, with gorgeous views across the water to the hills of Arran and it's own grassy cliffs and rocky beaches.

Well, it wasn't so bad.

Arran beckons...

Beware the Rocks.

About halfway through the hike, we came upon the ruined chapel of St. Blane, set in an idyllic glen with views of the sea. The burial ground was divided into clergy on the top level by the chapel, and women somewhere near the bottom.

St. Blane's Chapel (12th Century)

Towards the end of the hike, we wandered along a path on the east coast, which boasts one of Scotland's many apparent microclimates: the forest was lush with flowers and even palm trees lined the road nearby.

Afterwards we went and sat in a remote tea room and I had mint chip ice cream for the first time in years, admiring the presence of Grilled Haggis on the daily specials board:

On the road back to the ferry, we stopped to admire this abandoned church and the tree and brambles growing inside.

Having a small wait ahead of us, we explored the famous victorian gentleman's toilets by the pier (having at one point to vacate so that they could be put to their proper use).

The ferry-ride home was also quite spectacular, and we were privy to a particularly brilliant display of sun dogs.

Left Sun Dog.

The second day hike brought us along the shores of Loch Lomond and over to Loch Long, the foot of a Corbett called The Cobbler, or Ben Arthur. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Scottish hill designations, Grahams are hills from 2000-2500 feet, Corbetts from 2500-3000 (including a 2999 - so I suppose the cairn at the top doesn't count!), and the Monroes start at 3000 feet. But as a steep 2900-foot Corbett with two peaks to climb onto (actually three but the South peak you need a rope for) it made for a full day.

Our first views were of Loch Long, a sea loch stretching south into the Firth of Clyde.

Before long we could finally see the looming peaks of the Cobbler ahead of us:

The Cobbler comes into view, North Peak on Right.

We knew we'd passed the halfway mark when we reached the Narnain Boulders, where early explorers used to camp and which are believed to have fallen off the nearby Ben Narnain.

From the top of the North peak, we could see where Loch Long opened out onto the sea. We ate some snacks on top of the mountain to build up courage for the centre peak, and I took out my new compass to practise orientation by finding the names of the peaks around us. This is how I knew that the mountain looming over the sliver of Loch Lomond was Ben Lomond itself.

Loch Long meets the Horizon

Ben Lomond and Some Brief Evidence of Clouds

The centre peak of The Cobbler is famous for its unusual route to the summit - the highest of the three summits of the mountain. This is the view from the North Peak; the hole on the right is called the Eye of the Needle. To get to the top, one has to climb through this hole, go left upon a ledge with a not insignificant precipice, then shimmy up through the left hole onto the top.

Here is Claire, moving along the ledge...

and victorious at the top.

And me holding a triumphant pose very briefly (but you can't see the terror on my face).

After this moment, we opened the very wee cask strength Glen Farclas that we had bought some weeks before at the Whisky Exchange near the Globe theatre in preparation for the occasion.

Coming down from Cobbler was a moment of truth - were all the preventative measures I took for my knees going to spare them? Claire very patiently agreed to come down on the grass rather than the rocky path, and I fumbled about with my sticks, practising a swaggering walk in which I let my hips loosen up, that I'd gotten from Alison a few days earlier. Verdict? It was fine. I can continue to climb peaks after all!

Going down the grassy hillside meant that in the end Claire and I wound up on slightly the wrong side of the forest, a little road we'd found breaking off at a steep path by a stream. The rocky slopes covered in tree roots, stream beds and lushness of the ferns and moss which, combined with the pines, made for an air so sweet I would have thought myself back in the Adirondacks if it weren't for the stray holly tree now and again.


While the top had greeted us with blueberries, the blackberries waiting for us at the bottom of the hill were the perfect thirst quencher. That evening there was no question of making use of the hot tub...

The third day trip was a difficult choice between heading to the still-beckoning hills (and distillery) of Arran or to the gentler Borders of Scotland. Looking at the travel time to get to and around Arran, we decided to leave it for another time, and so instead went to the Scottish Borders for a walk up Minch Moor before exploring the very old Traquair House.

Stepping out of the car in the Scottish Borders, I suddenly felt like I had entered a foreign country again. The landscape, with its rolling hills, forest and heather was indeed beautiful, but was also somehow so settled, so steeped in both its tight-knit history and its wealth that I didn't feel as welcome to connect to it as I did with the more rugged bits of the country. Even the path we walked along, the Minch Moor Road, was saturated with 800 years of tales: narrow escapes, wandering poets, and of course faeries, which all made the walk very interesting, but I also had the sense of missing a lot because of my lack of study of Scottish history.

Faeries I can well enough understand though: this spot is called the Cheese Well, and has for hundreds of years (we saw it marked later on a map from 1741) hosted offerings to appease the faeries who might otherwise pester travelers in that area. I left a bit of my granola bar and Claire a Polish coin.

Cheese Well

The moors are lower and gentler than the hills further North, but the large exposed sections still make for inspiring views, especially if, like me, you get excited about vast swathes of purple heather:

Aww.... (or "A Wee Bit Quaint")

I Think that A Big Cairn is a Sign of Insecurity

We ate lunch at the top of the hill and meandered down to Traquair House, the 900-year old hunting lodge which became a refuge for the Catholic Stuarts. In its refuge capacity, the house acquired a secret stairwell and other methods of keeping both Catholic priests and evidence of their rituals hidden. In the house one can also gaze upon the cradle which held James VI of Scotland (I of England) before he took the Scottish throne at the age of 13 months so that regents could oust his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. The other most interesting piece of furniture was a rare treat indeed: a not-very-much-altered but playable Ruckers harpsichord from 1651. Other than one recording of mostly inappropriate music though, it is more furniture than instrument.

The House and Lawn

This gate shall not be opened again until another Stuart takes the throne.

Every Estate Needs a Maze

That evening we were treated to a traditional supper of haggis, neaps and tatties - it was my suggestion as a billboard campaign for Scotch Lamb had somehow penetrated all of my advertisement defences and I had a craving for something gamey.

Friday's late train up to Mallaig meant that Claire and I had one last morning for exploration, so we prepared our stomachs with a proper fry-up and headed to the nearest distillery, Auchentauchan. We would have had a tour almost to ourselves had not a busload of very chatty tourists landed there moments before 11, but it was nevertheless quite enjoyable. I can now explain to you what malting is exactly and that the colour of a whisky comes entirely from the cask. It was two minutes to noon when Claire and I downed our complimentary dram - must not make a habit of this!

Barley and Water

....and Yeast

Enjoying the delectable Smell of the Angel's Share

After a brief but excellent lunch at Heart Buchannan, I began the careful packing of my bags while Claire headed back to her parent's place in England for a visit. Right as I was about to dash out the door, Alison showed up, back from a concert in London, and decided to walk me to the University - yey! On the way we talked about how easy it is for good musicians to hinder the firing neurons of entire orchestras by giving too much instruction.

The scheduling of my meeting with John Butt meant trekking down the University with all my gear, only to find Prof. Butt a very avid hillwalker himself and plenty to talk about before turning the conversation to possible Ph.D. topics. It's been a project the past few months to become aware of what's been written and who is who and where and doing what and so it was encouraging to hear him list off the same names of people and their work, not to mention impressive that he had all of this information at his fingertips. He then began to advise where the gaps might be and what I, as a performer might have to contribute, and I had to stop myself from displaying my enthusiasm with a Canadian "awesome!" and fired plenty of neurons thinking up a more erudite response to convey my excitement.

Within the hour, the world changed again and I stepped onto a train to Mallaig, soaking up the sunset over the highland lochs until it finally went dark just before Fort William (don't worry - I saw the rest on the way back!).

Upon stepping off the train in Arisaig at 11pm, where I'd camp that night in a pre-arranged cow field (with showers and toilets for the campers), I experienced something I haven't witnessed since the summer of 2004: silence and the stars. The Milky Way, that river which adorned the summers of my youth on Canadian lakes, shone in all its splendour above my gaping eyes... I got to my campsite following the North Star.

Indeed, after other recent posts, you can perhaps imagine how content I was to be walking along a remote highway at midnight, far from anywhere I'd ever been but looking up at familiar stars and feeling more at home than I have in a long, long time.

I hadn't realized that Kinloid Farm campground was in fact situated IN the cow field until morning, when I heard stomping and munching about my tent. Slightly trepidatious of cows, my hoped that merely the sheep I'd seen the night before had wandered over were dashed by a very deep and slightly inquisitive moo in close proximity to my tent.

Kinloid Farm Campground

After they'd wandered away, I got out and collapsed the tent and had my last shower for a bit too long before paying my 6 pounds and heading into town to find some breakfast. I was tempted by these:

But went for some smoked mackerel on a bun instead, which I ate on these benches overlooking the harbour.

Please note the shadow of a cappuccino in my hand.

I got to Mallaig to become suddenly aware that it was Saturday. Normally, thanks to the nature of my job, I'm quite adept at arranging travel, but I'd been so concerned about being prepared to venture into the wilderness that I'd neglected to note crucial things, for instance, that the ferry doesn't run on Saturday. I optimistically and asked where I might find transport, and was advised to ask about on the Pier, and sure enough thanks to a garden fair in Inverie, there were fishing boats ferrying people back and forth all day.

Boats on the Fisherman's Pier, Mallaig

One of the first sights from the pier upon arriving in Inverie was a totem pole. Did I mention I felt very at home here?

I realized there was no point getting to the campsite too early and wandered around a bit, peeking into The Old Forge, famous as Britain's most remote mainland pub, and making a mental note of the venison burger on the menu. Then I checked out the garden festival. While much of the highlands are indeed rugged, Inverie was another patch of lushness and the marrows entered into the courgette competition were very impressive zucchini indeed. After visiting their posh garden outhouse I left the garden with a cone of homemade ice-cream with beetroot syrup and headed for the hills.

Inverie Community Garden

Posh Outhouse. Well, as posh as they get.

About to set off.

The road north into the Knoydart Peninsula was an easy walk, and it wasn't long before I was greeted by a few horses grazing by the edge of the forest. Each of them came up to me and checked me out as I walked by, nuzzling up against me in what I thought was affection but am now told probably had more to do with looking for hidden treats.

On the other side of the forest, the valley opened up into a plain of green, tufty, slightly wet grass. Indeed, aside from on the boulders which littered the area, I think there was no square inch where putting your hand down you wouldn't detect that the whole plain grew atop a bog of moss and mud. But the most amazing thing about the valleys were the rivers: they carved their way so deep into the valley floor that in some places you couldn't see them past the grass until you got close.

Hidden Waterfall

When I reached the junction of the two rivers, I took off my pack to explore one waterfall which lay just off the path. It was well worth it: the water had carved unbelievable curves into the rock, including the circle and bridge you see here:

Finding a campsite was a bit tricky - I thought I would go into the woods but the moment I set foot near them, midgies and other biting insects came at me and drove me away, so I decided to camp in the field where there was a bit of a breeze to keep them off. But I didn't want my tent to be seen from the path and there was the extra challenge of pitching my tent on grass with boggy wetness about three inches down. I found a dryish patch on top of a rock, far from the path, and used my extra-large garbage bag as an extra groundsheet, which kept me dry both nights.

My Campsite, Tent to Cooking Rock

Food hung up out of habit

Blending into the scenery

That evening, while I was cooking my spaghetti and meat sauce, the midgies came. The occasional breeze gave a bit of relief from the swarms of tiny black, biting insects, and it was not long before I lathered myself up in insect repellent, which I detest, to escape them. I was extra careful putting my sleeping bag and clothes into the tent, brushing them off and opening the zipper just long enough to chuck them in when a breeze came up, yet when I crawled into bed there were dozens of midges in all corners of the tent. How did they get in? Most of them were too concerned about being trapped to bite, but faced with the choice of being very hot in my sleeping bag or getting my sides bitten I had a difficult night indeed.

Morning was better. The wind had kicked up a bit and were keeping the midges entirely at bay, and my very very tiny one-cup mocha from a Milan street market made a fantastic coffee in about two minutes. I breakfasted on porridge and packed my day-pack to head for Ladhar Bheinn.

A Most Excellent Device

I set off following the river which ran down the North side of Ladhar Bheinn - my campsite was on the other side of this hill:

Once I left the river and climbed up onto the hills behind Ladhar Bheinn, I got a picture of the mountain from its Northern and more splendid face:

Lunch is where I make the exception from bringing dried foods - one needs water anyway on these hikes so an apple is worth its weight. The Stockan's Oatcakes and tablet (similar to fudge) were tributes to Scottish cuisine.

As I got higher up, another view came into sight: Knoydart is a peninsula and I had come via Loch Nevis to the South - now I could see Loch Hourn to my North, its blue water and sandy beaches very inviting and stretching off into the mountains.

To my surprise, the rivers kept flowing even as I went quite high up - I supposed they were the drainage from the boggy ground everywhere, but while that might be a part of it, there were also little lakes, or Lochan, quite near the top of the mountain. This is nearly the highest one, and the mud surrounding it was full of deer tracks. As I approached it, I saw 6 or 7 deer on the hill in front of me. Rather than picking their way across the hillside like sheep, they ran and jumped up the hillside with tremendous energy.


Climbing steeply up from the Lochan, following where the deer had gone, I found myself on a saddle. In case I get the impulse to become a Munro Bagger - that's someone who tries to climb them all - I took the extra 20 minutes to head up the ridge path the other way to a nearby peak (which looks on the map to be Stob a' Chiore but the web decription doesn't line up). Here, for the first time since I had been walking by the river in the valley, I was on a path again - you can see it below as it leads upwards from the saddle.

With suddenly more energy, perhaps brought about by having no more shelter from the gusty wind, I made it to the summit. Ladhar Bheinn offers the reward of having three peaks all in a row, and the views visible from all along the ridge between them.

Three peaks

Cairn and View to the Sea

Cairn, Loch Hourn, and Me

Loch Hourn and the Mountains to the North

Over the Sea to Skye, its Cullins on the Horizon

Isle of Rum

Loch Nevis and Eigg

The Valley Back to Camp

There was another path (none of these on the map) leading in my direction towards the valley South of the mountain - steep sides and nearby precipices made it a path not for the faint of heart:

But my problem with it was twofold: I could begin to feel its rockiness in my knees, and it started going the wrong way, back to Barrisdale on Loch Hourn. I began to pick my way down the tussocky slope, already a bit nostalgic of sitting at the top, when the most breathtaking sight appeared before me: at first a few deer scattered in the valley below, but as they began to notice me, they amassed together and ran.

Red Deer

They were going my way, so I followed them along the valley for an hour before sadly saying goodbye. One of the advantages to camping on the mountain was that it was of no great concern that the sun was beginning to set:

Indeed, I still made it back in time to cook my Chile con Carne in the light. Not only did the breeze keep the midgies off, it was tunneling through the valley and amassing speed. When I entered my tent, no midgies were to be seen - where had they gone? I though perhaps they died of old age, but they do live 20-30 days. But I had another problem to contend with: my tent was very exposed to the wind and the wind was picking up. All the walls of the tent rattled and crashed and finally at 11:30pm a corner peg was ripped out. Do I re-peg it? Of course I should. Do I need to get dressed? Yes, there are ticks in the grass here. As I moved my foot though, the wall of the tent came closer and I realized that my foot was structural. I couldn't move. So I eventually fell asleep and by the time I awoke in the morning, the winds had reached full violence and I was the only thing holding down the tent. I dressed, rolled up the sleeping gear and tossed everything outside (with the walls of the tent always on my back), and as I got out grabbed hold of the tent as it flew up in front of me, collapsed it, and pegged its material to the ground. Victory. But it was too windy to cook and the wind was starting to drive me mad, so I decided to wait until I was in the shelter of the forest path to attempt to cook or even filter some water.

The way back to Inverie was easy, downhill and mostly along road through the forest. First thing in the morning I saw some deer with fawns, a nice surprise. When I got into the forest, I lost my appetite, and indeed my trust in the local water (filtering can only do so much), as I discovered near the road this pit:

No wonder the deer ran away from me.

Having only another hour to go before Inverie, I finished the water I did have and kept going. I passed the same horses by the road and got to Inverie shortly after the pub opened for lunch. Only I couldn't bring myself to order the venison burger anymore.

The Old Forge

Fish Pie for Lunch

The Ferry-ride back involved a cruise all around Loch Nevis. The gusty wind which had begun to drive me mad earlier in the day I suddenly relished again as it mixed with the salt spray. I did reflect that I'd decided not to attempt kayaking this weekend as was grateful for it.

Loch Nevis and Mountains

Downtown Tarbet

Coming back to the Mainland

The trainride back along the West Highland Line was as spectacular as promised, and included the Glenfinnen viaduct, now famous for its role supporting the Hogwarts Express.

The next afternoon in Glasgow was relaxing: I dropped in on David for lunch and sharing these pictures and the many panoramic videos which I'll show you too if I see you. That evening, I left for Aberdeen to visit Frauke Jürgensen, and the next day encountered a view I hadn't seen in a long time:

The Neck of a Horse Called Tia

My approach to horses has gotten much gentler, and I didn't mind that we never broke into a canter. Rather, I was fascinated by walking, feeling my otherwise tense hips (which I'd never noticed until observing them with Alison the week before) loosen up to follow the movements of the horse.

Me on Tia

Frauke and Benji

That evening we took a walk around Aberdeen, whose grey on grey was broken up by evidence of autumn creeping into the forest, and by this lush garden in the park.

At St. Machar, the graveyard has so many stone tables and cracked tombstones that Frauke reckons the ghosts come out and party at night. I reckon she's right.

All Set Up for a Ghoulish Soirée

Today - ah, we're here! - Frauke showed me first of all the clever program she used to make a statistical analysis of the accidentals in the 15th-century Buxheim organ book and its concordances, the work which got her the title of Dr., then we headed down to the University. The Chapel contained some entertaining choirstall graffitti - this one is from 1622:

After a quick lunch by the beach I hopped on the train and for almost the entire time, thanks to a free wifi connection, have been uploading pictures and writing this blog. That and the scenery made the whole trip pass very quickly. I came out of the bus in London and looked up at the clear sky, only to see a smattering of stars here and there, the North start flickering faintly through the veil of London light.

I miss Scotland already.

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