Friday, October 13, 2017

Driving the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is a rightly celebrated drive along Canada Rocky Mountains. Mile after mile after mile of amazing scenery unfolds between Jasper and Banff in what is an overload for the eyes, and the imagination. I'd absolutely love to go back and cycle it, despite some of the significant ascents along its length. Top photo is taken through the car window....

Book Notes: Why The Rest Hates The West by Meic Pearse

Sometimes it's great to read a really thought-provoking book and Meic Pearse's "Why The Rest Hates The West" certainly qualifies for inclusion in that category. In fact, this book goes much further than being simply thought-provoking and is straightforwardly controversial and provocative. More disturbingly, though - on several substantive points, I think that Pearse might have a point.

I was recently recommended this book, which I had never come across, even though it was published back in 2003; and one of the things which commends itself to the reader is how well the arguments Pearse assembles have stood the test of time, and how accurate some of his predictions based on his analysis fourteen years ago, have proven to be.

The central thrust of this book is that a huge collision between 'The West' and 'The Rest' is evolving, which in some vases will be expressed violently. Importantly though, according to Pearse, the essential drivers of this conflict are not the usual suspects; economic jealousy, religious fundamentalism and western Foreign Policy. All these, in Pearse's view are elements which get caught up in the drama, and can be used in the conflict; but are not the essential dynamic of it. Rather, the underlying issue is one of the almost incomplete inability for the West to understand the rest; or to really grasp how we are perceived in societies other than those like our own. Pearse traces the roots of this incomprehension, lays the blame at the West's door and suggests a way forward.

Western attitudes to others have frequently been characterised by an assumed superiority, based on the technological advances and educational opportunities which followed early industrialisation and colonial dominance. John Selby Spong's infamous outburst to this effect is duly referenced as but an extreme example of what is but common cultural currency here. Pearse though is more concerned to confront the Western reader with the way in which she or he is perceived throughout swathes of the two-thirds world; and it turns out to be deeply uncomfortable reading.  In short, "Westerners are perceived..... as rich, technologically sophisticated, economically and politically dominant, morally contemptible barbarians." The book explores in considerable depth why this is the case.

Foundational to this is the perception that the West is morally bankrupt, shameless, trivial, banal and valueless; filling the vacuum which faith, values, family, tradition, roots, culture and identity should occupy, with infantile entertainment, and over-consumption. The west values scepticism over belief, and in fact is hostile to value-commitments, but celebrates non-commitment towards normative values. Worse still, the West uses its political, economic and media dominance to seek to export this model to the world; dazzling them with promises of undeliverable prosperity; whilst destroying the structures and values which actually enable the vulnerable to survive. The West's twin obsessions of absolutising rights and rejecting responsibilities on one hand, and pursuing a form of pluralism that is intolerant of beliefs; are viewed by millions as being utterly crass. "Only the hyper-rich, hyper-individualistic can live without values, purpose, meaning, or faith...... most cannot" (p19); and "We're exporting a value-less, hopeless, global culture to those who cannot cope with it, and wonder why they are angry."

The deep cleavage between these two experiences of the world, and views of it, present themselves in a series of interconnected issues which Pearse examines. The West is seen as contemptible as it despises tradition, elders, and ancestors; celebrating youth, innovation and change - in the belief that this is both 'progress' and 'inevitable'. The optimistic view of history whether in older Whig-history, Christian postmillenialism, or Marxism, is despised in much of the world, who see it as simply severing a society from all that makes it authentic - it's collective memory. The displacement of religion by consumerism, also is seen as crass; not least by those for whom the consumerism is simply not available. In most of the world, the family unit is a unit of production, in which marriage as the regulator of sexual relations is an essential element of decency, responsibility and survival. The West is seen as morally decadent, shameless and sordid in its separation of marriage from sex, and the re-making of the family as a non-intergenerational unit of entertainment and consumption; not identity, production and survival. Pearce presents a fascinating account of how we got to this dreadful state of mutual incomprehension.

Pearce then notes that the West has an ideal of an impersonal state which is sees an non-corrupt, and which it seeks to impose on the world (having decimated half the world's ancient tribal government systems); whereas the non-western world, which draws no distinction between private and non-private space finds this bizarre. He provides two examples. Only in The West would a customer be totally disinterested in the sexual behaviour of the person selling him a washing machine; as this is in the private sphere. This is a uniquely western view, whereas in most places, business, values, family, friendship and business ties are all interwoven, in a context of loyalties and the struggle to survive. Then, on a larger scale, Pearse notes that in the 1970s Afghanistan was relatively peaceful under a King who had the personal loyalty of virtually all the tribes of the country. The USSR tried to replace these non-Western relational ties with an "imagined community" based upon notions of class consciousness; and failed. The Taliban tried to replace these with an imagined community based upon Islamism; and failed. The West is now trying to re-construct the country on the basis of an imagined community based upon ideological nationalism expressed as loyalty to a western-style impersonal nation-state. If Pearse is right, this is inevitably going to fail too.

In Pearse's view, although the West gets a lot of things right; we are also 'guilty as charged' in many of these accusations. He notes the dreadful statistics of mental illness, self-esteem issues, sexual debasement, family breakdown, self-harm etc etc which mark modern Western life. He notes that traditional societies give their young people a spouse, a heritage, a job, and a place in a community. Western young people are sent out as a blank canvas to find-themselves, and end up being seen by the rest of the world as 'deracinated egotists', severed from the faith of their forebears and family and social structures which transform mere consumers into complete interconnected people. He notes that the Western sexual revolution has produced shockingly low figures for reported sexual satisfaction, and falling birth rates which are already creating a pension time-bomb. The rest of the world is incredulous that across the West we conceive enough babies to balance our population (ie. 2.1 babies per woman); but that we abort so many millions of them that we require mass immigration to stabilise our demographic profile.

According to Pearse, the only way in which a conflict between the West and The Rest can be avoided is by a Western re-think about values, and traditional family structures. Until the West stops acting in ways which the vast majority of our fellow humans see as utterly degraded, the conflict will escalate. At the very least, the West should stop its campaign of exporting its anti-values to the world through  its systems of neo-colonial political/economic and media hegemony. Governments, churches, faith groups and and communities, he says, should work together for a renewed moral vision for the West that can positively affirm the values which will connect and sustain society.

I'm not sure I could subscribe to every one of Pearse's arguments; but there is enough here, which I think is absolutely right to stimulate a re-think in terms of how we relate to the rest-of-the-world. My biggest cause for concern in the book was the lack of Non-western references amongst Pearse's many quotes, and endnotes though. While he has (according to the blurb), lived in a variety of cultures including Turkey; surely a book about the views of the Non-West, should extensively quote and cite non-Western sources; or run the accusation of appearing to assume to speak on their behalf without consultation. The book would be greatly enhanced in a further edition, by engaging more directly with non-Western authors, thinkers, writers, and commentators. Then perhaps it's already rather disturbing effect upon the Western reader would be further enhanced.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Jasper: Love Those Trains

Even visitors who have no interest in trains, like my family, ended up watching and discussing them in Jasper. In Scotland, we live by a railway track, and hear the morning goods train rumbling Northwards every day so it's not that we've never seen a train before. In fact, when they were small, all my children used to take great delight in waving to the passing trains. What was eye-catching in Jasper was the length, weight and enormous size of the trains and the massive power of the locos, hauling them up and over The Rockies. One such train, powered by four huge locos, took more than twelve minutes to go past us, it was that long! The loads were interesting too. Minerals, potash, cars, vans, lorries, and countless containers bearing the logos of manufacturing plants all over the Asian Pacific, and shipping companies all over North America. US and Canadian hunger for manufactured items, coupled with Asia's ability to undercut their production costs, seems to have created a railway boom, on lines serving the Pacific coast. The resulting trains, running just in front of our hotel room in Jasper were quite remarkable.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Bears near Jasper

Most of the walking I've done has been in Scotland. Here I have encountered a range of wild animals that have presented problems; a bull, a Highland Cow with a calf, an angry dog, the goats on An Teallach and of course swarms of deadly midgies. None of these quite makes the adrenaline rush as much as meeting a bear, like this one we saw near Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. Happily on this occasion I was able to take the photo from the relative safety of the car window, and we didn't come face to face with any bears when out on the trails. We followed the instructions, and made a lot of noise, and so our bear-spray was returned unused on every single walk we did. Nevertheless, just seeing a few of these magnificent animals was a bit sobering. They move like a wall of muscle, and could rip you to pieces if they took the notion to do so. Seeing a few tourist running towards a wild bear trying to get a photo with an iPad, while park rangers yelled "GET BACK IN YOUR VEHICLE!!, was a very disturbing sight. Do we really live in an age when people risk their lives for a selfie? Madness. I'd love to get a good photo of a wild bear, but I think a 500ml Canon L lens might be needed first. Having observed these beautiful animals, I have no aspirations to run at them with an iPad and risk my neck for a handful of Facebook 'likes'.

 Not amazing photos, but more than made up for by the amazing beasts. Amazing to see them...

Book Notes: Post Truth by Matthew D'Ancona

What could be a more relevant book for 2017 than one examining the phenomenon of post-truth. Claims that we have moved in our society into a post-truth era are all pervasive, and involve politics, economics, ethics, diplomacy, social media, advertising and more. In this short, easy-to-read paperback, Guardian journalist, and former editor of The Spectator, Matthew D'Ancona examines the issue and proposes a response.

Wading rather nimbly through current affairs and philosophy, and drawing on a wide range of sources, D'Ancona present a powerful, and deftly written perspective. The first thing he argues is that this is a genuine phenomena and not merely a groundless media frenzy surrounding the catchphrase. He really believes that industrial scale lying is affecting our society more significantly than we have previously known. Clearly it would be nonsense to argue that historically politicians always told the truth, but this book agrees that there is an acute truth crisis in our public debate today. 

Secondly, D'Ancona examines the cultural context in which this problem has arises. While his discussion is broad, there are two main things to which he repeatedly returns; post-modernism and social media. His discussion of post-modernity leads him to suggest that the de-construction of certainty, of knowledge, institutions and sources of knowledge has moved beyond the reasonable rejection of undue deference, and into a collapse of any discernment. The post-modern trajectory to see any truth-claim as being a power-play, rather than having any basis in objective reality; might have removed some tyrannies; but created a far worse problem in its wake. 

This deconstruction of the possibility of knowable truth, has been compounded by the development of the internet. Social media, and the complex algorithms which tailor content to the viewers preferences, places people in bubbles of self-confirming views - challenges to which are defined as conspiracies. So, despite the overwhelming medical evidence of the benefits of childhood immunisation, anti-vacc communities exist on online; decrying evidence as plot, and engaging in re-enforcing cycles of confirmation bias. But this is but one example. D'Ancona suggest that whatever the issue, most people exist in self-re-enforcing knowledge bubbles, rarely encountering information which differs from their preconceptions. As such, not only are vested interests currently more willing than ever to lie, but as a population we are more susceptible to manipulation than ever. 'Fake News' delivers results, even once the fakery has been exposed.

"Learning how to navigate the web with discernment is the most pressing cultural mission of our age." p114

Alongside Anti-vaccination activists, D'Ancona attacks politicians such as Trump who score particularly poorly when his utterances are 'fact checked'; The Brexit campaign with it's dodgy bus;  believers in a metro-liberal elite with undue influence in society; and Holocaust deniers. That's quite a list; and a bit of a problem.

The problem lies here. The list of people and causes that D'Ancona sees as the fruit of post-truth and news-fakery seem to be anything to do with political positions with which he (and presumably his metro-liberal elite colleagues) disagree! Take the Brexit debate for example. I generally agree with his position, and voted to 'remain' in the EU. I also agree with him that the 'Leave' campaign had a more than flexible relationship with the truth. Boris has just been rebuked again by the Office for National Statistics for recycling the palpably false claims about the weekly contributions from the UK to the EU budget. Daniel Hannan said in the campaign, that it was simply a matter of the UK leaving the EU institutions, and that "no one is talking about leaving the single market." Of course, that's all anyone is actually interested in talking about now. However, as a remain voter, I'm also reminded that George Osborn said that a 'Leave' vote would result in a catastrophic emergency budget the next morning, which also turned out to be fake. Furthermore the Leave claim that Junkers was about to seek a common EU foreign policy and standing army turned out to be true; while their claim that Turkey were about to be granted member status was fake. Obviously there are thoughtful, principled people on both sides; but when a result is a close as this referendum was, perhaps only a few needed to be persuaded by fakery to swing the result. But D'Ancona only seems to focus on the Brexiteers post-truthiness, lumping it in together with a Trump-ish populism which rejects evidence in favour of feeling, and membership in self-affirming thought bubbles. His selection of post-truth fakers which reflect his political opponents, might suggest that as well as being an astute observer of post-truth; he is unwittingly also a casual participant.

A deeper question I suspect, lies unanswered beneath these causes and examples of post-truth which D'Ancona discusses. He hints at it on p112

"Our own Post-Truth era is a taste of what happens when a society abandons its defence of the values that underpin its cohesion, order and progress: the values of veracity, honesty and accountability."

According to writers as diverse as Vishal Mangalwadi, Alister McGrath and Nick Spencer, in our country, these very things have grown from a distinctly Christian set of beliefs and values. It is no great step to argue therefore that the secular project of the last fifty years has failed to adequately ground its aspirations for society in a base which can bear its demands. Just as the fruits of coherence grew from a plant with deep roots in Christian soil, perhaps post-Christian and post-modern society no longer has any fundamental commitment to truth, nor sense of accountability. The truism of historical research is that contemporary historians simply cannot imagine a world in which religious values influenced every sphere of life (that's why they do crass things like measure religiosity by church attendance, when a fallen Victorian drunk might sit in a gin palace using the Christian narrative to understand his predicament and point to his redemption). But I digress. Truth is a central concern of the Christian faith; the prohibition on lying in the 10 Commandments is but a starting point for an arc which culminates in the idea of Jesus Christ appearing on earth as truth incarnate; and that we are divinely accountable for every word we say. If you saturate a culture in such thinking for over a millennia, make it the basis for holding truth as objectively valuable; then strip away such thinking in under fifty years; then some diminution in veracity is perhaps inevitable. That of course is not to say that there are not countless people who are secular in their thought but perfectly decent in the actions. However, it is to say that there are such people who do not realise the roots of, and sources of, the moral universe they have so happily inhabited.

Finally, D'Ancona ends his book with a chapter on how to 'fight back' against fake news. Most of this is fair enough, and contains some useful thoughts in engaging the heart of the hearer along with the head. He notes the way in which the 'remain' campaign wrongly thought that the argument would be won by the sober repetition of economic forecasts, which turned out to be less effective than the appeal to heart to seize control, or cry freedom from Brexiteers. The Scottish Referendum campaign was characterised by significant differences on this score too, albeit with a different outcome.

Another comment worth making at this stage is that there is a role for each of us to fight back against fakery and post-truth in whatever context we find ourselves. Rejection of fake news which supports a cause in which are personally invested might be a significant step. Scare-mongering, lying and news-faking is objectionable, whether the cause is a good, bad or indifferent one. Having argued that the Christian faith is something which places truth-telling in high regard, for Christians we must make sure that our house, 'the church' is in order here. It is not enough for us to argue the historical/cultural apologetic, as I have here, if we are not prepared to call-out the fakers and fraudsters who lurk amongst us. So when phoney TV evangelists, snake-oil salesmen and prosperity preachers some peddling their wares we should collectively disown them as not being part of the Christian faith. Figures of church growth or decline should be objectively analysed and not handed to spin doctors, while any claims of divine healing should be critically examined by real doctors. 

And if you want some advice on where the future lies. After reading D'Ancona, I'd suggest investing everything you have in establishing a fact-checking agency, with researchers, statisticians and analysts. In a future world in which information-overload will reach ever more unmanageable levels, enormous power and influence will lie with anyone who can gain a reputation as an unbiased, rigorous, incorruptible fact checker.

D'Ancona's Post Truth is far from being the last word on this essential subject, but it is a very good place to start thinking and open the discussion. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017


This impressive beast came over to have a look at us when we were travelling in Canada during the summer.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Notes: Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan

There are several things which can make reading a biography a disappointing experience. The first is that despite the historic events surrounding the central character, he or she turns out to be rather dull. The second, is the opposite, where an author has profiled someone who might have been an unusual character but one who had the fortune to live through rather mundane times. The third hole into which many a biography has tripped, is simply of poor simplistic writing that merely lists events and never gets under the skin of the characters. Happily, Rosemary Sullivan's "Stalin's Daughter" is gloriously free from any of these three flaws. As such it makes terrific reading.

Svetlana Alliluyeva grew up in the Kremlin under the shadow of her all-powerful and toxically paranoid father, Joseph Stalin. Adored, manipulated, controlled, sometimes ignored and totally dominated by Stalin, Svetlana grew up in the strange world of the Purges, Show-trials, disappearances and insecurity of Stalin's Court. Enduring the suicide of her mother, and the personal crises of his henchmen as they rose and fell, the exile and executions from which her own household was not spared; as well as the national crises of WWII, each left their imprint on her young mind. Sullivan's book though estimates that it was the shadow of Stalin himself hanging over her which created the darkness which Svetlana never really outran. Despite chapter after chapter chronicling her tumultuous life, every episode seems to represent her trying some new scheme to reinvent herself; but still being seen by the world as 'Stalin's Daughter'. It is of course telling that the title of the biography is not "The extraordinary life of Svetlana Allilueyeva" (or even Lana Peters as she was subsequently known), but Stalin's Daughter.

Childhood, bereavement, marriages, motherhood, defection to the West, re-defection to the Soviet bloc, escape to the West, India, conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity, friendships, writing, and her bizarre life at the Taliesin architects commune, under the dictatorship of Frank Lloyd-Wright's widow, Olgivanna; are all episodes in an extraordinary life. 

So here is a biography which is an exceptionally well-crafted examination, of a character who turns out to be immeasurably complex and interesting; but who wasn't on the run just from some personal demons; but on a a quest to free herself from one of the central forces of the twentieth century. Just as the spectre of Stalin haunted her, defined her - and especially defined how virtually everyone ever related to her; so the great battle between Capitalism and Marxism framed her experience. It is almost as though the Cold War itself flowed through her veins, just as the DNA of Joseph Stalin did. Sullivan's book is not short, but it is compelling. She seems to have gained unusual access to Soviet era friends, family and archives as well as people who knew her during her latter years in the West; making this an authoritative and informative read, not just another sensationalist write-up, the likes of which Svetlana was repeatedly exposed to during her tempestuous life.

If you are looking for a biography which is well written, highly readable, and paints a picture of a wildly unique character, living in the centre of hugely significant history, then Sullivan has provided the book you are looking for. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Book Notes: Return of a King by William Dalrymple

Having been deeply impressed by Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain", I was delighted to see his epic, "The Return of a King", in the massive second hand book sale in Edinburgh, run annually by Christian Aid. As an aside, I gather that the rather sedate-looking book-sale has been plagued by controversy of late. Apparently professional book-sellers have been accused of buying up the bargains, in order to re-sell them at higher prices elsewhere! If true, that is pretty shameless on the part of the book-traders, considering the good that Christian Aid do around the world, and the bargains that the public are being deprived of, from books which have been donated!

I settled down with this Dalrymple' volume on a long-haul flight this summer, and was transfixed by what I read; almost transported in fact, to another time, and place. This is historical writing at it's very best; a well-researched, beautifully written account of events which have huge resonance with the present time.

The book begins with an account of two feuding dynasties in Afghanistan in the early decades of the 19th Century, The Sadozais and The Barakzais. It then explores both British and Russian spying and intrigues in the region; as both jostled in the 'great game' for colonial dominance in India. With an eye for great character sketches, and an eye for detail, Dalrymple demonstrates how the British (Under the guise of the East India Company - the great Colonial Qango) were drawn into supporting Sadozai leader Shah Shuja, and helping to restore him to power in Kabul, with a supporting British invasion in 1842. In return the opposing Barakzais, and their leader Dost Mohammad, were able to unite the disparate groups in Afghanistan under the badge of Islam and jihad, to rally and radicalise against their enemies who ruled with British (ie. infidel) support. The disastrous defeat of the British invasion force, was a massive blow to the proud Imperial British, who acted to re-invade and inflict severe reprisals on the country, for what they saw as its defiant impudence!

What makes this book really live is the sparkling prose, with which Dalrymple delights the reader, and with which he is able to present great details and serious research, without getting bogged down. There's more than that though; it is also the character studies of people such as Dost Mohammad, Shah Shujah, Alexander Burnes, Robert Sale, Lady Sale, William Macnaughten and so many others, are also so well sketched and woven into the narrative, that the reader is instinctively hooked, fascinated and intrigued by their unfolding biographies. Additionally the numerous obvious parallels with the recent western invasion of Afghanistan are the reason Dalrymple went to Afghanistan to research this book in the first place. It seems the lessons the British were taught in 1842 were forgotten by the time Soviet Russia sought to conquer Afghanistan, and forgotten again even more swiftly in the post 9/11 invasion. Failures to plan for the post-conflict era, failures to equip troops properly, failures to understand the local ideology, failures to deal with the geography, failures to understand the complex inter-tribal politics, (and so forth), dogged the British invasion in 1842, exactly as the recent invasion was.

Even though it is now several weeks since I finished reading this book, there are scenes in it which I can still see in my mind; such is the clarity and power of Dalrymple's writing. It is quite simply an outstanding read. Perhaps another reason I so valued this book was that it opened up a whole area of unexplored history for me. There are certain areas of history which I have read a fair bit about (such as Victorian Society, American Civil Rights, Church History); but I am shockingly ignorant about the early stages of The British Empire in general, and about Afghanistan in particular. Dalrymple is a reliable, meticulous and hugely engaging guide to this still hugely relevant subject.

On the dust jacket there is a commendation for the book from Maya Jasanoff, who writes, "Dalrymple researches like a historian, thinks like an anthropologist and writes like a novelist". Too often, such commendations merely set the reader up for an anti-climactic disappointment with the actual contents of the book/ I think though, in this case, such astute praise is well deserved.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Blogging.......... has been slowing down and slowing down - and has all but stopped. I think it's time to give it rest for a while. I might pick it up again later in the year, I'm not sure. It all really depends on what happens work and family wise. Several things have happened. The first is that since I started writing and posting here, social media has arrived, and most of my personal and family stuff now goes on face/twitter etc, where it is sent directly to friends who are interested. The second is that as my kids have grown up, I find myself at home less and less, with fewer opportunities to write here. The third is that Solas Magazine have started to print some of my reviews and articles, while Scottish Christian Broadcast have run some of my interviews. Writing for these formats is more focused, disciplined and structured than ad hoc blogging, and has taken up most of my creative energy. So, a break is in order. I might be back.... probably will, no plans yet!

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Mark Twain explains the 2017 General Election...

Men think they think upon the great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side; they arrive at convictions but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand and are of no particular value. They swarm with their party, they feel with their party, they are happy in their party's approval; and where the party leads they will follow, whether for right or honor, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.

-Mark Twain ('Corn-pone Opinions')

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Ben Avon & Beinn a’Bhuird

With the weather forecast cheerily estimating "No Rain" in the Cairngorm National Park, along with "90% chance of cloud free Munros", Saturday had to be a hill day! Ben Avon  and Beinn a’Bhuird are two large Munros which mark the eastern edge of the Cairngorm range, and are accessible from the Braemar/Deeside Road, where the Invercauld Estate has provided a walkers car park, but require £2.50 for a 'pay and display' ticket. These two mountains are not the most popular hills in the Cairngorms, and see only a fraction of the footfall of the likes of Ben Macdui, or Cairngorm; but this is not because they lack interest - far from it! Ben Avon is crowned with a series of idiosyncratic granite tors, which are a landmark for miles around. The summit of Beinn a Bhuird is an unremarkable plateau; but the mountain is graced with a simply breathtaking cliff-line, as its' eastern flank plummits thousands of feet in a massive corrie linking its' 'North' and 'South' tops. The emptiness of these hills is due in fact to their distance from the road; any outing to these two sizeable mountains requires a long, and difficult, walk or cycle in. A round of both of them, pushes the days' total to well over 40k, the length of a marathon - over hard ground with a heavy pack! This obstacle almost entirely explains why these two magnificent hills were still on the 'to-do' list of both Stewart and myself - and why my car headed out from an icy Perth as early as 6AM with two mountain bikes on the roof. An undertaking of this size required plenty of time!

The first obstacle of the day was navigating the paths of the Invercauld Estate, in search of Glen Sluggan, which leads out to these hills. A couple of wrong turns on forestry tracks that were unclear, led to our only resort to GPS of the day - and once the correct track was found, route finding was simple, and mostly pathed.
The Sluggan path

The Sluggan track is mostly cycleable, although the steady ascent and rough surface makes going slow and tiring. The glen runs westwards for several miles before a ruin is reached (allegedly there is a hidden bothy here too - but I didn't spot it!). The journey is an enticing one, as the central Cairngorms are visible and identifiable for the first half; and then the massive cliffs of Beinn a Bhuird loom overhead for the upper part.  The middle section, where the track bifurcates for a mile or so by a ruin, is not cycleable; but better tracks further up make dragging the bikes through this section worth while. Thankfully some climbers we met at the car park told us about this, meaning we were able to get bikes far further up the glen than we would have otherwise have realised. The route up the 'The Sneck' (the col between the two hills), is a long slog, and the sight of the weird crenellated rock formations that decorate the ridge seems to take ages to come into view. It is simply wonderful when it does, and the views explode around the walker in all directions.
The Sneck

While it is probably a better walk to dump bikes further down the glen and make the walk a circuit, by including Beinn a Bhuird's south top - including a magnificent cliff-top walk; we elected to join both summits by the Sneck, and shift the balance in favour of more cycling. This was largely because I was still suffering from a badly blistered heel from Seana Bhraigh on Monday.

The Sneck

The Sneck is worth savouring. From here we turned right (NE), up the steep ridge and onto the Ben Avon plateau. The tors, which look intriguing from adjacent hills, look utterly surreal from the plateau itself. They look as if they have been dropped from the sky, random lumps of rock dumped on the surface. The highest and finest tor, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe is the summit of Ben Avon, and it presents a nice little scramble over rough, grippy rock to the top. In wet weather when the moss would be slippery, or when it is icy - this could present the walker with an awkward finish to a long ascent. In blazing sunshine however, it is a simple matter of scrambling up and taking photos. It had been -2'C at Invercauld, but by the time we had lunch on Ben Avon, it must have been approaching 15/16'C, it was certainly sun-screen weather. Incidentally, Ben Avon is pronounced 'Ben A'ahn', which according to walkhighlands, is derived from the Gaelic for 'river'.

Ben Avon Summit Tor

Looking from the summit of Ben Avon back to The Sneck

The treck back to The Sneck is beautiful as it provides views not only of The Sneck itself, but also of Beinn a Bhuird's cliffs. The descent is straightforward enough, and we elected to dump our heavy packs there, and climb up Beinn a Bhuird and back without the heavy load. I seem to dehydrate easily, and so carry a lot of water on days predicted to be hot. I dragged 4litres up this walk  - and needed every drop if it. So an hour or so without the full pack, just a few essentials, was bliss!
Ben Avon from Beinn a' Bhuird

The climb up to Beinn a Bhuird from 'The Sneck' is a bit of a slog, but once the top 'Cnap a Chleirich' is reached, the summit is visible. Finding the cairn is not a problem in bright sunshine, but looks as if it could be a challenge in bad visibility, and not falling over the nearby cliffs (which still hold beautiful cornices into Summer) is also a consideration. Although we had elected to return via 'The Sneck', we couldn't resist exploring the cliff top of Beinn a Bhuird, time well spent indeed! Beinn a Bhuird, is pronounced 'Byn a Voorsht', and according to the guide books means 'The Table Hill' - an apt name for such a flat-topped, and vertical sided hill.

Beinn a' Bhuird, cliffs

The long miles back to the car were eased by the bikes, which eased the last half of the descent considerable, once the rough tracks of the upper reaches of the glen had been negotiated. Stewart is a marathon runner, and is both lighter and fitter than me. I hold him back speed wise, and he pushes my performance out of the slow ambling which is my norm! All in all, this was a 9 hour trek for us, which wasn't too bad! 
The Sneck

These are big hills, set a long way back from the road, which require huge efforts to get to. It's undeniably effort well spent however, and it's almost tempting to cover the long miles again just to sit in the magnificent, massive surroundings of 'The Sneck', and soak in the grandeur.

Photos all from phones, mine and Stewart's!


Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Seana Bhraigh

Seana Bhraigh is a wonderful mountain. Although it is huge, it is well back from the road, and hidden from sight. Certainly nearby Ullapool has no view of it, and yet from it lonely summit, An Teallach is visible to the west, as are the distinctive peaks of Assynt to the North, and the adjacent Beinn Dearg group. While Seana Bhraigh is a lovely hill, it is a one which requires a long walk, from whichever direction it is approached, the summit is miles and miles from any road. Aesthetically, it might be best to attck it from the North-West, but I was bike-less, which ruled that out, as that is the only practical way to get through the long miles on the estate tracks which lead in. 

Instead I took the route from Inverlael on the Ullapool Road. The acces point for these hills is marked by a stone bridge, a phone box, and a new walkers car park which has been added since my last visit to these hills in 2008. When I last walked this glen, there were significant forestry and hydro works underway, which meant sinificant diversions, and mess. The glen has started to recover from the works now, and the trees re-growing over the industrial scarring. 

Navigating this section of the walk is now far easier than it once was. With the trees felled, and the works gone, it is easy enough to follow the track on the right of the river, until it crosses to the left, just before the ruin of Glensquaib - an old house set inside a large stone-walled garden. Access to the Dearg Group continues up the glen, but I turned sharp left at Glensquaib, following the track by the stone wall. Many hill reports recount people getting lost here, looking for the Seana Bhraig path, but it was well marked by a little cairn a few hundred metres beyond the ruin. This steep four-wheel-drive track, zig-zags up through the new forestry planting, to reach the only gate in the very high deer fencing, so it is worth finding.

From here, a long, long, path leads eastwards across the heathery expanses, crossing streams and bogs, until rounding a ridge, the path turns Northwards and ascends into the hill via a series of lochans; the Coire an Lochain Sgeirich.

The trickiest section navigation wise, is the pathless area at the head of this glen, round to Seana Bhraigh itslef. I didn't stay close enough to the cliff edge of Cadha Dearg, which would have been a useful guide. As such, I had an awkward navigate through some cliffs, to get to the col. The sight of a pair of Golden Eagles descending into the glen below, was sufficient compensation however!

It was on this section that I met some members of a small walking club, and spent much of the rest of the day chatting to them. My trusty Mammut boots, which have served me well for years, suddenly began to hurt and blister my feet, and one of them handed me a compeede heel plaster - which was a life saver. I have never needed it before, and never carried it. I think it wil always be in my pack from now on!

The summit is a wide, grassy, (cold and windy) spot miles form anywhere. The views are enormous and expansive and well worth the hours of trudging to reach. As I walked out, with the folks I'd met, th eday got hotter and hotter. Layers were shed, water consumed, and the hills looked amazing. Seana Bhraigh has been on my to-do list for a very long time. It is a long day, but one very well spent. I have to say, I wouldn't fancy doing it on my own in bad weather though...