Friday, August 31, 2012

Beinn Dearg (Atholl)

Beinn Dearg (Atholl) is a large lump of a hill which is the SouthWestern corner of the four Munro's collectively known as "The Ring of Tarf". It gets it's name (which means Red Hill), from the pinkish tint in the granite from which its' hard upper reaches are made. Beinn Dearg is not an especially dramatic mountain in shape and throws up no awkward obstacles or demanding climbs to test the walker who wishes to make its bald summit. Climbing this hill still presents something of a challenge though - simply by virtue of its distance from any public road.

We left the car at Calvine, where the landrover track which leads up to the Minigaig Pass begins, and which is used by the Atholl Estates as an access road to their busy hunting lodge in Glen Bruar, known as Bruar Lodge. Other routes in, such as that from Old Blair are reputedly prettier, but needing to cover the eight or nine miles to the foot of the hill within the time-limits imposed by family commitments, we opted to cycle the Bruar Lodge track all the way to the hill.

The track gets off to a brutally steep climb, ascending rapidly on the stony track as it winds its way Northwards, away from the noise of the A9. The constant ascent is broken by one major descent as the track crosses the minor hills of Colrig (446m) and Creag Bhagailteach (492m) before dropping a hundred metres of so to the side of Bruar Water. While this descent is a blessed relief to burning muscles and knees on the way in - it was a cautionary note that the way home would not all be freewheeling later in the day!

Bruar Lodge is an impressive sight, a large, active hunting lodge, nestling high in a remote glen, it is the centre of a little community of houses which gather round it. As we cycled up to the lodge, it became apparent that there was a shoot on. Unfortunately, because our delayed start to the day we had missed the party leaving for the the hills. By the time we had thought to use the HILLPHONES service, we were out of telephone range, and so called at one of the houses to ask about a route which wouldn't interfere with the hunters. I have heard many tales of friction between walkers and estate ghillies - but personally I have never had any problems, wandering up, having a chat and asking where I can walk without getting in their way. The advice from the folks around the lodge was to head on past the normal ascent routes which lie to the south of the summit, and take the pony track up between Beinn Dearg and Beinn Losgarnaich to ascend the final section of Beinn Dearg from the west. This was a significant diversion - but one we were happy to make in order to both allow the shooting party to enjoy their day out, and minimise the chances of spending the night in hospital having lead shot removed from our bodies!

This turned out to be a very straightforward line of approach to the hill. Leaving the main landrover track at a bridge just under a kilometre north of the lodge, a good track soon emerged on the north bank of the burn. This we followed until it petered out just after the 700m contour. The 1:25,000 scale OS map shows this path continuing, but it wasn't obvious where it went. With the top in sight from here we turned westwards across the bogs and peat hags (easily navigable despite the recent heavy rain), and clambered up the boulderfield to the broad summit which is crowned by a large circular cairn built around an old trig-point.

The Tarf and Tilt hills, as they are known, are a wide area of heathclad moors, and rolling uplands - named after the two major rivers which export their rainfall southwards into the River Tay.

The Tarf is hardly breathtakingly spectacular in the way that The Cuillin in Skye arrest the attention. Yet these vast expanses of uninhabited Perthshire have a majesty and beauty of their own - which simply cannot be appreciated through a car windscreen at 70mph on the A9. These are hills which need to be walked, and which need to be climbed; they have vast horizons which need to be gazed at for long periods of time, from the highest of their view-points. As the photos show, the light was poor; clouds billowing through with occasional drizzle - with alternative columns of shade and sunshine chasing each other in successive waves over the undulating heather below. Sitting up there (even in August!) was a chilling experience - and feeling the cold pinching us we decided to make a move - retracing our steps to the bikes we had left at the foot of the Alt Beinn Losgarnaich.

The outward cycle is mostly downhill, and the miles just race by. The one climb, past Colrig, was hard, and at the end of a long day, extremely challenging. The reward of this effort though is a spectacular downhill run, at break-neck speed all the way back to the car. The mapping software tells me that we covered 22miles, 17 of which were on the bikes, enough distance and effort to make this hill feel like a achievement, not just a nice day out.


Some sights from around the Royal Mile, during the melee that is The Edinburgh Festival season.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Sailing into Oban on the CalMac Ferry.

Cal-Mac's Shiny Ferry

Giving the ferry a nice new red funnel requires a paintbrush on a long stick, apparently!

Waiting for my ship to come in

Quite literally in fact....

The Sight of the Sound of Mull


"Look at all the coloured houses......." To those of us who had our children around the millennium, we will always expect to meet Miss Hoolie or Archie the Inventor when we visit Tobermory, whereas our parents probably think of an ingenious Womble...

The Cal Mac Ferry

No holiday in the Western Highlands would be complete without the iconic (& obligatory) photo of a CalMac Ferry! This one is the Oban-Craignure (Isle of Mull) ferry.

Camping at Craignure, Mull

Craignure Cut 'n' Paste

Nice view from the campsite at Craignure - Isle of Mull

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ben More (Mull)

Ben More on Mull (not to be confused with its namesake near Crianlarich), is the only island Munro not found on Skye. It's a shapely mountain with expansive views, whose 966m summit lies at the centre of a collection of ridges which sweep up from the sea.

It's a fine looking hill, visible for miles around and one which I have seen many times - but only recently managed to climb. My wife and I managed to get a few days away without the kids this summer (thanks to the grandparental support services - London branch). After exploring Ardnamurchan we went to Mull, a place we had visited on our honeymoon back in 1996. Just as in 1996, Mull looked fantastic, the sun shining on  great mountains, sea-eagles hunting over the lowlands, and seals in the lochs. And just as in 1996, I fancied a day in the hills and my wife had her eye on a series of pottery shops!!

This time - the hills were the winners! And after a brief mishap with the car (it turned out to be nothing more than a stone trapped very noisily in the brakes), we went in search of Ben More.

The access road to the central westward thrusting peninsula of Mull (B8035) leaves the main road at the village of Salen. After Gruline it skirts the delightful Loch na Keal - a quiet, single-track road through gorgeous scenery. The usual access route for the hill is at Dhiseag, where a track heads southwards past a high-set house. Recent flooding has washed away some bridges on this road, which are currently being repaired in a series of major roadworks. We were forced to abandon our car about two miles before Dhiseag and walk along the road to the access track. 

The climb from Dhiseag is a long drag, hard work and quite boggy in places - even though we were walking after a spell of prolonged dry weather in West. Paths of various quality come and go as thousands of walkers have worked their way up these slopes. The path on my OS map peters out after a mile or so, but later editions of the map indicate that it continues high onto the mountain's ridges.

The climb from Dhiseag contains no technical difficulties (all these are on the other side of the hill - where adventurous hill-walkers can seek their thrills); but the middle section of the climb is relentlessly steep and hard work. The 'path' bifurcates numerous times amongst scree and boulders, but re-unites on the ridge leading to a huge cairn.

From the summit, the eyes are immediately drawn to Ben More's other top, A Chioch (top photo), over which is an alternative ascent route, then over the curving southern ridge (middle photo), and westwards down Loch na Keal over the cluster of small islands to the Isle of Ulva, just of Mull's coast.

The car-problem earlier in the day meant that we were quite short of time and needed to head straight back down the route we had come up, and in beautiful evening sunlight we trudged down the hill to Dhiseag. Our initial thought had been that the road closure was a pain, an inconvenience, and an annoyance. How wrong that turned out to be. Rather than cursing the enforced road-walk, we found ourselves walking in warm evening sunlight, in the silence of a closed road, with view to our left of the beautiful loch, and to the right - constantly changing glimpses of the ridges and peaks of Ben More which had been our conquest of the day.

Aching feet were removed from boots (my wife's had some nasty blisters), and aching limbs were put in the car - and we drove back; feeling sore, weary and content; towards hot showers and then some food at the splendid Craignure Inn. The best day of the summer, maybe?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gig: The Martin Harley Band, at The Half Moon in Putney

There is no doubt that my musical discovery of the summer has been "The Martin Harley Band" - a three- piece in which bass, drums and harmonies encircle Harley's guitars, vocals and songwriting. The band are effortlessly versatile, moving seamlessly from humourous 'old-time' music like, "Love in the Afternoon" (above) to the gourgeous acoustic balladlry of "Winter Coat", before diving headlong deep into the Delta Blues. In their blues numbers Harley often swaps his standard acoustic guitar for a lap-steel, on which he slides with immense gutsy, emotional power. Pete Swatton is a wonderful drummer who also contributes some backing vocals, as does bass player Jay Carter.

I came across this great band almost by accident! I was in London for a few days in the summer, in the week prior to the Olympics - and so googled about a few places to see if there were any gigs on. The Half-Moon in Putney, West London is easily reachable from my parents house, so my Dad and I went out for the night, so see if the band on were any good. It turned out to be a really fantastic evening. The band were on top-form, and clearly able to deliver very high-quality live performances of songs - injected with that harder, more exciting edge that comes from the immediacy of facing an audience. This was absolutley first-rate live music, delivery by three highly talented individuals who must play together a huge amount to gain the tightness and togetherness they achive as a trio. I can't wait to hear them live again.

Their most recent album "Drumrolls for Somersaults" is a wonderful collection of songs, in turns jaunty, funny, bluesy, sombre, delicate, poignant and fun - it is a finely produced and rather wonderful album. It seems to be the least blues-orientated of Harley's works, and blues lovers might wish to start with the "Money Don't Matter" album which contains the stunning "Blues At My Window" track which sounds like John Martyn singing and Peter Green playing guitar - and that is very high praise indeed.

Here's a short (non-musical) promo for Drumrolls for Somersaults!

Here's a few more links to Martin Harley band stuff:

Three videos from Drumrolls for Somersaults here
Blues At My Window (audio) here
Money Don't Matter (live video) here
Official Website (including tour dates) here

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Notes: The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter

"The Inklings" were an informal literary group of Oxford academics and writers who met in various room and pubs in the city, and was focused around the writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Charles Williams, but whose evolving membership also saw a large number of less well-known figures. It was at weekly "Inklings" that first drafts of works such as The Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia series were first aired, and discussed.

Humphrey Carpenter was a tremendous biographer whose easy-prose contains an ability to probe his subjects, gently yet perceptively. He writes neither as an assailant nor a sycophant, but as a sympathetic biographer prepared to deal with his subjects flaws and foibles as much as their triumphs. His other great strength was his ability to address the context of a subject's narrative in a way which was neither patronising nor unintelligible. So, in this instance where he deals with some of the academic debates about the nature of the English Literature curriculum at Oxford, he opens up the scholarly debates of the time in which they were embroiled, with clarity and depth, to the reader who is a stranger to them.

Carpenter previously applied these skills to biographies such as that of Robert Runcie, and a wonderful book about Spike Milligan. He was also the biographer of J.R.R. Tolkein, and it was on the basis of that book that he was invited to chronicle The Inklings. Writing the biography of a group is a difficult proposition, which Carpenter handles by focussing his attention in turn on the major players of the group, and allowing the overall story to bend around these chapters. As such, nice little potted biographies of the likes of Tolkein and Lewis emerge alongside the startlingly idiosyncratic figure of Charles Williams.

This is a fascinating book, which opens up a past-world, a picture of British Academic life in the mid-Twentieth century which is now long gone. The lives, beliefs, battles, joys and struggles of this eclectic group of scholars is told with style and is remarkably informative, of both their lives and their times.  Certainly reading it adds an new dimension to reading about Middle Earth or Narnia.

This was another excellent book recommendation from my old friend Dr Stumpy Greenisland, whose suggestions on such matters rarely disappoint!