Thursday, May 16, 2024

Maoile Lunndaidh

It was the ever-entertaining Muriel Grey who used to say on The Munro Show, "This hill features a particularly long walk-in - and you know what that means!" She would then be met with a chorus from off-screen, "A LONG WALK OUT!" Maoile Lunndaidh would more than qualify for inclusion in that little panto-style catch-phrase exchange.

In the good company of my only wife and our only daughter, and with the MET Office promising a lovely day, we parked at the forestry car park opposite the Craig level-crossing over the Kyle of Lochalsh railway line. The yellow signs just along the road saying "Gerry's Hostel" brought back a flood of nostalgia and emotion, great times spent there with the legendary Rogers-character and the late, great Kevin McPhee. It also meant I was certain we were at the correct level crossing, so after breakfast and several runs of coffee through the AeroPress, we took to the track.

Once over the railway-line the rough private road swings left and runs parallel to the railway for a mile before swinging southwards into the wild. As long as you carefully avoid taking the wrong turning, (there are many forestry tracks) it's possible to cover the ground pretty fast, and soon we were amongst high peaks - far from the sound of traffic - and filling our water bottles by the old rope bridge, and again remembering standing at this very spot with Ian and Kev. On that occasion we headed SW, up to the Bealach Bearnais and scaled Sgùrr Chòinnich and Sgùrr a' Chaorachain - but on this trip the route took us eastwards towards the lonely holiday let at Glenuaig Lodge.

Before the end of the 4x4 track, just after a small wooded area, we easterly struck across the bog - and had to walk upstream a couple of hundred metres, as the recommended route on Walk Highlands brought us to a deep, wide swamp of a river. Eventually we found a place where we could cross unscathed and regained our bearing over a large peaty-hump which eventually lead down to a second river to cross. This one was a  delight, we stumbled into a little dell with a gorgeous waterfall and plenty of places to cross - and refill our bottles.

Soon we'd begin the real ascent of Maoile Lunndaidh, which is rough, pathless, steep and unrelenting. We attacked this in dry-weather, and were glad of it - imagining it wet and slippery doesn't bear thinking about. Grass gave way to heather, which gave way to stones, and after 850m the gradient relented a bit too - and views started to pop-out in all directions. Hill-banter on such occasions is somewhat formulaic- but no less enjoyable for that! It goes like this:

a) "Wow, look at the view!"
b) "Wonderful, isn't it- what do you think we're looking at?"
c) "Not sure, I'll get the compass out.... So if that's due South we're looking at Beinn (insert name) there,which means that the one next to it must be "Meall na (insert name) and beyond those the (insert name) group".
a) "Yeah, Beinn (insert name), do you remember the day we climbed that and (insert reminiscence #1)"
b)  "Like when we were in the (insert name) Group with (insert names) and (insert reminiscence #2)
c) etc
a) repeat 

I'm not mocking, merely observing my own behaviour! And the views here provided huge potential for this conversational cycle. An Teallach with Mark, The Fisherfields with Andy, Slioch with the old church walking club, and more... Maoile Lunndaiadh was a hill I had a planned to climb with Kevin, had he lived. In fact we'd sat in the kitchen at Gerry's Lodge with a huge mound of post-walk pasta and few bottles of beer and planned it out. I wonder if that was part of my reluctance to ever go and climb it. Thankfully, as it should be my penultimate Munro in my first round, my wife persuded me to stop procrastinating and just climb the thing!

Once on the summit ridge, whch is spacious and affords massive views in every direction, the brutal climb is soon forgotten and the stroll to the summit across springy grass and mosses, is like walking on air. Posing for the obligatory cairn-photo, we met two guys who were the only other people we saw all day - who took a family photo of us and did hill banter for a while. (see above)

The descent off the hill is far easier than the way up - heading down Northwards until a watercourse is found, then staying on its' left hand side, avoiding a steep gorge brought us down to the lovely dell and the waterfall which marked our way up. Once again bottles were filled, photos taken and a rest enjoyed before we embarked on the aforementioned "LONG WALK OUT!"

Maoile Lunndaidh is a slog, but as it is such a fine slog, I didn't mind at all! We landed back at the car in plenty of time to get back to the pub for food, and slink back early to our tent - where we all fell deeply asleep very quickly. 

I do like my job - but a day off in the hills every so often isn't bad either!

Monday, February 12, 2024

Have You Ever Wondered?

Well here’s a new one for me! I’ve been involved, alongside Andy Bannister, in putting a book together which will be launched in early April — and is now available to pre-order. Have You Ever Wondered? Finding the Everyday Clues to Meaning, Purpose and Spirituality is designed to gently start spiritual conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. I’ve loved working with Andy, 10 Publishing and eight other authors to pull this together!

Beauty. Justice. Identity. Love. Stories. Nature. Hope. These things intrigue us, move us and prompt us to ask big questions. Could there be clues in our deepest desires that point to life’s meaning?

Have You Ever Wondered? invites you on an immersive tour through the issues that matter. This book is for anyone who has looked at a landscape and contemplated why we are drawn to beauty; or wondered why we are so insatiably curious about our universe, or even for those who have simply looked up at a million stars in the vast night’s sky and just wondered.

Have You Ever Wondered? will fascinate anyone who is interested in questions of life, but is searching for answers. It is will appeal especially to anyone who is interested in spiritual questions but perhaps has never considered or thought about Jesus and the Christian faith. Starting from where they’re at and showing how the things they care deeply point are clues pointing to a bigger story, Have You Ever Wondered? is an unusual, perhaps unique book.

How can you get a copy?

Pre-order it from 10ofThose — you can buy a single copy, or get massive discounts for buying multiple copies. Why not give it to all your friends; or if you’re a church leader, give it out at events or to visitors?

Sign up to support the work of Solas for just £3 / month. We’ll then send you a free copy as a thank you when it launched.

Buy it from your favourite (ideally independent!) bookstore

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Back around the Ring of Steall

On a glorious Summer's day, my wife and I drove North - our target for the day, The Mamores. In the classic TV series, "The Munro Show, Muriel Gray said that these are her favourite hill sin the whole of Scotland, and I can see why. It's been almost a quarter of century since I walked around the Ring of Steall, and it was my wife's first trip there. We spent a while trying to work out when I'd been there before, and the clue was that in the photos from that day was one Dr Harvey, a Kiwi who worked with my wife for a year at Perth Royal Infirmary in 1998! I probably agree with the redoubtable Ms gray about these hills, they are really magnificent, with great sculpted ridges, lush glens, incredible views of moors, mountains, glens, lochs, the sea, and rivers and waterfalls - with great access up Glen Nevis and great stalkers paths from glen to peak. I mean really, other than the midgies which lurk in Glen Nevis, these hills are heavenly!

We took the traditional route around the Ring of Steall, parking at the end of the Glen Nevis road, and going through the Nevis Gorge and over the rope bridge at the Grey Mare's Tail before taking  the stalkers path up to Am Gearanach - the first Munro of the day and the start of 'the ring'. The four  Munros (it was five, when I first climbed it) form a ring, the last of which lies over the 'devil's ridge' a wonderful little gnarly ridge with a bad step in it's centre.

Our problem was carrying enough fluid for a long day in a drought. I carried (and used 4 litres, and my wife 3), and yet still when we reached the River Nevis we were really thristy - it really was sweltering. It has been so dry that the air had a whiff of smoke, from big fires burning near Spean Bridge and at Glen Affric.

Last time we made a navigational error on descent, and came down far too far to the east, and over terribly steep ground. This time I was careful to head us NW off Sgurr a Mhaim towards Polldubh. this took us to a delightful riverside track back towards the car, via a footbridge.

The saga of my Munro bagging continues - I still haven't got round to doing the last two I need to complete, but have got further into taking my wife around my favourite walks. This surely is really one of the best - ridge walking at its absolute finest, Breathtaking and wonderful!

Friday, June 09, 2023

Glorious Knoydart

It is many years since I have ventured into that most special of Scottish peninsulas: Knoydart. Even the name Knoydart is enticing, and the glory of the scenery, the remoteness and emptiness of the hills and the romance of the history of the estate and community stir the heart!

My first trip there was with a church walking group, and we trecked in from Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale Bay. Our weekend of hillclimbing was cut short by truly awful weather, lack of visibility and magnetic variations in the rock which made our compasses freak-out alarmingly. My second visit was a lot better, camping at Inverie Bay with my younger son, completing the Knoydart Munros despite battling mixed weather and midgies the size of hedgehogs...

This third visit was very different. This time my wife was with me (her first trip there), and we came in via Mallaig and the ferry to Inverie. Just getting to Mallaig proved to be something of an ordeal. A wide load was being moved across Scotland and we got stuck behind it's glacial progress from near Laggan Wolftrax all the way to Spean Bridge - which took over two and half hours!! They stibbornly refused to ever stop to allow the queues to pass and made us miss our ferry - which was very irritating! Thankfully there was space on a later ferry and the tea room had our fish and chips ready when we eventually arrived in Inverie. A load of our friends and neighbours were in Knoydart too, doing a big round of all three of its Munros, camping first at Inverie then at high level near Mam Barrisdale. We had hoped to join them, but I have hurt my neck and the physio advised against carrying an exped pack and not sleeping with proper pillows. So we opted for the b&b and to just doing one Munro.

So early on the Saturday morning we set off from 'The Gathering' and followed the track past the campsite and up the Inverie River towards the Loch an Dubh Lochain with our sights set on Ladhar Beinn. Before the loch we struck northwards up a 400 metre nightmare of a climb. Steep, overgown, wet, slippery and deep in bracken and brambles - it really was unpleasant. However it allowed for access to the high ridges which would prove to be such inspiring company for the rest of the day. Sadly there wasn't enough time to turn westwards from the low point on the ridge (Mam Suidheig) to climb Sgurr Coire Choinichean, the wonderful Corbett which stands over Inverie - so we turned eastwards and followed the many rises and falls of the Aonach Sgoilte.


With sun splitting the skies, the vast bulk of Ladhar Beinn across the corrie and mountains in every direction, it was one of the most incredible ridge walks I have ever done. In decent weather the ridges of Knoydart's great hills are simply unbeatable. Sgurr na Ciche looked suitably majestic inland, Ben Nevis away to the South is always distinctive, and out across the glistening Sound of Sleat, the Black Cuillin of Sky filled the horizon. Stunning!

At the unnamed top at 849m we stopped for a well deserved food and drink break. We could see a group which looked like our friends high up on Ladhar Beinn's summit ridge, working their way along it's rocky and bony finale. The ridge from where we sat, to where they were was steep, bouldery and involved so many great losses of gained height that Ladhar Beinn seemed to be a mountain that you had to climb twice to get up it! My wife doesn't especially enjoy scrambling (though she has done the Inn Pinn!) and didn't relish the couple of scrambly bits of Ladhar Beinn's south west ridge, but bashed up it anyway.

I couldn't help but remeber the appalling weather the last time I walked that ridge over twenty years

ago. This time, the conditions were perfect. The sun blazed (and we carefelly rationed our water supplies) while a gentle breeze blew to control the midgies. The summit of Ladhar Beinn, not only provides one of the greatest views of the West of Scotland's wild places, mountains, lochs, bays, seam glens and islands (and therefore the world's!) but must be the only place from which you can see the whole of the Knoydart penninsula from Loch Nevis to Loch Hourn. All the way in fact from heaven to hell.

We sat up there for ages - it was absolutely stunning. It was one of the finest views either of us had ever seen. In his song, "Knoydart", John Lees sang:

Knoydart mends a broken heart
Heals a tortured soul
Brings new life to tired minds
And brightens eyes that look upon
Sky, nothing but blue sky all around
Sky, nothing but blue sky
Feel the silence calling all around
All around 

The 'nothing but blue skies' line had previously jarred a little, as on my first visit here we couldn't see our feet through ther mist. But now, I understood what he meant! Marvellous.

We had a table booked at The Gathering in Inverie with our friends at 6:30, so we reluctantly had to leave Ladhar Beinn's summit - and continued down the NW ridge to the coll An Diollaid. There we turned southwest down a steep, but straightforward descent down to the floor of the glen, where a bridge in the woods, crossed the river and led to a track which took us back to Inverie. With time to spare we wandered to The Old Forge, to find it was closed for rennovations, but all our friends were sitting on the grsass by the bay - with drinks from the adjacent shop. So we joined them there before a wonderful dinner at The Gathering.

After that we just had the boat ride back to Mallaig tolook forward to the next morning. The end to an absolutelu fantastic weekend.  

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Sgùrr Mòr (Loch Quoich)

Sgùrr Mòr (Loch Quoich) - the bit in the brackets distinguishes it from its namesake in Torridon's Beinn Alligin mountain, or it's almost namesake in the Fannichs, is a hard hill to get to! Apparrently it wasn't always such a difficult hill to access but became more cut-off after the completion of the Glenn Garry hydro-electrcitiy scheme which was commissioned in the 1950s and completed in 1962. It was the Loch Quoich dam which massively raised the levels of the loch, and extended its boundaries into several adjoining glens which buried the access routes under millions gallons of peaty water. The result is that access from the Loch Quoich side is now only for those who have a boat, and are willing to paddle accross the loch in search of the Northen ridges of Sgùrr Mòr.

The rest of us have to approach Sgùrr Mòr (Loch Quoich) from the south. That means driving the length of Loch Arkaig, and walking into Glen Dessary, then climbing over the Feath a Chicheannais pass into Glen Kingie, over which Sgurr Mor lies on its far side. Given the fact that the pass between the two glens has only an indistinct path, and is very boggy in places, and the road to the head of Loch Arkaig is long, narrow, steep, single-tracked with grass growing down the middle, and liable to be blocked with inexperienced camper-van drivers; it doesn't sound all that appealing. In fact nothing could be further from the truth - the road from the Commando Memorial out to Loch Arkaig is absolutely magnificent and every mile brings another surprise and delight.

Near the road end, there are countless spots for camping near the car - and my wife and I used one of these for a couple of nights to bring Sgurr Mor within easier reach. When the sun shines, and the wind blows - I can't think of a finer place to camp. It is stunningly beautiful, and very quiet. When the rain starts, there are few places to shelter, and when the wind stops and the midges rise from the heather like a dabolical plague sent to overthrow humanity; there is nothing to do but run!

So we ran, from our little camping spot, to the end of the public road at the car park and on into Glen Dessary. I'd walked further in Glen Dessary on my last visit to these hills, many years ago when I'd been on my way out to Sgurr na Ciche on the edge of Knoydart. This time though we took a northward turn at Glendessary farm and up over the peaty, wet and pathless pass into Glen Kingie. This glen is quite remarkable - a very remote and lonely glen, with no roads, tracks, or buildings other than the truly 'off the grid' bothy at Kinbreak.

Walking books are divided about the best way up to Sgurr Mor from the southern route into Glen Kingie. While they all agree that the delightful River Kingie must be forded (difficult in spate!) there they part company. Some books recommend following the stalkers path to the head of the glen, then up the long SE/NW ridge to the summit. Others suggest attacking the hill directly up it's steep, green sides - reaching the ridge just east of the summit. We took the latter option - and it was a brute of a climb, but which seemed to get us to within a few hundred feet of the summit in great time. 

The entire day we were there Sgurr Mor's summit remained hidden in a cloud that we we ascended into and descended out of. As there was nothing to see at high level, we abandonded our plans to walk the long stalkers path back to the head of the glen and instead descended from it from west of the summit, and followed a similar line to that which we had ascended. That brought us back to the refreshing waters of the Kingie - and the long slog back over rhe peaty pass, to the walk out along Glen Dessary to the camping spot. A big meal later and a glass of wine, was making for a pleasant evening by the lochside, until the rain arrived to dampen our spirits, and caused a retreat to the tent, relieved that I had also brought a good book for the trip! I finsished Sherry Turkle's, "Alone Together" before crawling into my sleeping bag. 

At last, I have also climbed a new Munro. All the climbs I have completed over the past year or so seem to have been repeats! With only two to do to complete the list, it becomes harder to actually get them done. I have only Maoile Lunndaidh and Cruach Ardrain left on my list - and so my thoughts have been turning to what I will do when I have completed the task. I could take up crochet!
Or I could seriously start bagging Corbetts. What is far more likely is that I'll do most of the Munros again with my wife. She didn't used to really like big hill days and when the kids were small she was more than content to send me off to the hills for the day. In the last three years she's got really into hillwalking and has raced to 76 Munros in no time at all. I've already made a list of favourite hills I've love to revisit with her.... Beinn Alligin, The Ring of Steall, The Buachaille, Cairntoul, Ladhar Beinn, and more. Perhaps (in the words of the Average White Band!), it might be a case of "Let's Go Round Again!"  

Return to Carn Dearg

Ah, the Monadliath! These great miles of undulating high country, of wide sculpted hills which somehow lack the 'superstar' status of the Cairngorms. No one seems to write books about these hills, or eulogise them in poetry, no Big Grey Men have chased eminent professors off their slopes, or developers pushed engineered paths or ski tows into their corries. There isn't a cafe for miles.

If you want to walk in the middle of the great interior of the Highlands, and not meet a soul, head to the Monadliath! They are hills which seem to smell of faded glory, where the clearances seem to have only happened recently and glens lie silent, where once there was life. Unlike the florishing of tourist mecca's, or what Alfred Wainwright called "the fleshpots of Aviemore", empty ruins with cold hearths exposed to the Monadliath sky sit here, West of the A9.

My wife has rarely ventured into these hills, and so with a free day to enjoy we drove to Netwonmore and up Glen Road to the little car park and walked West. Our destination was Carn Dearg, which my memory assured me was the finest of the Monadliath hills. Little seemed to have changed up Glen Banchor since I last walked these paths a decade ago. Glen Banchor looked the same, the hills looked the same and only the ruined cottages in the empty glens showed the passing of time.

It's a good old trudge northwards up the Allt Fionndrigh on a track which then climbs over into Gleann Ballach, which gives access in turn to the western flanks of Carn Dearg. The ridge from Carn Ban to Carn Dearg (945) to Carn Macoul is probably the closest thing to a ridge walk in this part of the world, and the views down into Loch Dubh below Carn Dearg's western flanks is particuarly lovely. We dropped down westwards from the ridge to intersect the path that goes up to the lochan - a path which it must be said is clearer on the OS Map than on the ground!

This led us down Gleann Lochain and into Glen Banchor for our walk back to the car. Strangely for the end of May, the temperature dropped dramatically as we walked back, past a ruined cottage and along by the charming river to the car and to home. The busyness and noise of the A9, with its buses, trucks and average speed cameras seemed to come from a different century to lonely Gleann Lochain. 

Carn Dearg is not Lochnagar, or the Buachaille, or Cairngorm - and is all the better for it. If you want to walk all day, from a free car park - and enjoy complete solitude, then the Monadliath awaits! 

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Return to Meall Chuaich

It's well over twenty years since I have been up this rather neglected Munro. After the experience I had back then, it's perhaps surprising that I ever went back at all! While I have three Munros left to do to complete my round, they are all in awkward places requiring overnight stays and so I never seem to quite manage to get up to the far north to do them! On the other hand, my wife is up to around 75 hills ticked off on her list, which means that there are always loads to choose from, within easy reach of our home in Perth. To be honest, we often just reclimb old favourites, and I could have completed the munros a long time ago if I hadn't been up Bern Vorlich at Loch Earn countless times, for example! 

Picking hills to re-ascend is interesting because the ones that grab my attention are those in two extreme categories; the first are memories of incredible days which I would love to relive (like climbing Beinn Alligin in blazing sunshine with the (long-since emigrated) Percy Cowpat. The other extreme are hills on which the weather was so dreadful that I saw nothing, and got cold, wet and grumpy. These hills, it seems to me, should be given an opportunity to redeem themselves for they cannot be held responsible for the weather!

Meall Chuaich (spellings of this hill vary, the OS maps render it differently on the 1:50000 and 1:25000 sheets), is worth reclimbing for the latter of these two reasons. It was before my oldest son was born that I climbed this hill, with David - a pal from Dundee days. He was optimisic that the abysmal forecast was too pessimistic and that we'd get a clear hour or two.... but his optimism was entirely misplaced. His wide didn't join us that daym because she was suffering from plantar fasciitis, and had by far the better day back home nursing her sore foot! We bagan our day cheerfully enough, but spent the latter half of it wrapped up in thermal layers and Goretex, trudging wearily through driving rain. Strangely I don't remember much else about Meall Cuaich! The last I heard, David had emigrated to work somewhere in the Middle East. I'm not saying that the weather was what drove him from the Highlands of Scotland, but perhaps that day in Meall Chuaich was the final straw. 

At the start of this year's walking, my wife and I have been out and about in Perthshire, enjoying some of the lower hills like Birnam and Obney. We especially like the silence, lonliness and wide views from Obney Hill, and had been up that the day before. But she's keen to get Munro-ing again, so a re-visit to Meall Chuaich was in order for me - and an easy start to the year's +3000footer's.

The Dalwhinnie Distillery is a famous landmark on the A9, where the Laggan Road from the West Coast meets the main North-South route. Apparently the distilling tradition here goes back centuries to a time when drovers would trade cattle in these parts. The international drinks conglomerate Diageo continue some of that tradition today, although malting and bottling isn't done here anymore. However a dram of Dalwhinnie 15yo Single Malt is a very acceptable way to end a day in the hills. Light, heathery and honeyed, Dalwhinnie was the malt that converted me into being a whisky drinker when I was young. My first taste of malt whisky was a neat Oban - and I couldn't understand why people liked it at all. Now, I can't imagine not loving the tongue-warming smokiness of a fine malt.

The route up Meall Chuaich begins just after the famous distillery. The highways people have recently taken to numbering the layby's which is very helpful and to start this particular walk you want #94 on the South bound side btw. Many years ago while climbing the two other Munros on the east side of the Drumochter Pass, I had a navigational nightmare which began because I started in the wrong layby and nothing made any sense! According to my very old OS map, I was to start by a phone box - which I did. But either the OS made a rare mistake, or BT had moved their phone! Either way, it was only when I got to the top and surveyed the whole scene that the problem became obvious and the dilemma solved!

No such problems faced us starting at Layby #94, and walking a hundred yards North and taking the bulldozed track east into the moors, and turning left and following the concrete hydro-aqueduct up the glen, almost to the foot of the hill. Despite having to scrape ice from the car in Perth, the sun was shining and warming the earth as we walked past the turbine house and up towards the dam. Heather fires were burning in various parts of the landscape, and there were plenty of grouse running about in the heather too. 

Turning right just before the dam and loch, we turned east again and followed the track to a bridge over the river after which a footpath struck steeply into the sides of the hill. It's quite a hard pull up in places, but the views open up, and up and up - in all directions as you ascend. Hillwalking books are somewhat dismissive of the merits of Meall Chuaich as a hill, but all rightly note that the views it provides are impressive. After a long slog, and few bogs to hop, a large flat topped hill is reached, capped by a massive cairn - which was hard to find in poor visibility last time but was visible from miles away this!

The gleaming white distillery was clearly visible to the SW, in front of a wonderful view down Loch Erivcht into the Ben Alder group of mountains - still clearly snow-capped. Then, the magnificent Creag Meagaidh on the Laggan Rd looked massive, and it's famous "window" still holding a lot of snow and looking very hard to climb. The villages of Kingussie and Newtonmore mark the route of the A9 North, and the Monadliath Hills looks great from up there too. Only when you reach the summit do the central Cairngorm Mountains come into view. Being a thousand foot or more higher than the other hills, these high plateaus still had a look of Arctic tundra about them. 

With a chill wind picking up, after the obligatory summit photos (including a nice one of my wife and I, taken by the only walker we set eyes on all day), we headed back the way we came, Once out of the wind, down by a locked bothy, we finished the flask of hot coffee and tore into the huge slab of Fruit and Nut we'd got left from our lunch - before the hour long walk back alongside the aqueduct.

To kick off a year in the bigger hills, this was a wonderful start! 4 hours of walking, a good workout on the climb, and views to savour for a long time. The aim for the year for me, is to do some (if not all) of the elusive three munros I have left. My wife hopes to get from 75 up to 100. With the kids now being self-sufficient, its easier to get away to the hills together than it ever was. I just wish I had the knees I had when I was 30!

Friday, October 28, 2022

A Balkan Odyssey

There are some song lyrics which have rested heavily on my mind over these last few weeks as I’ve travelled through the Balkans. In his 1993 song, “Cold War” Les Holroyd of Barclay James Harvest issued a plaintive cry, “Nothing’s going to change”. The song was written and released for his cousin in Yugoslavia as it fragmented into violent ethno-religious wars. Marshall Tito had many faults -  he was no liberal humanitarian, but he had managed to keep a lid on the underlying tensions which had repeatedly ripped through the Balkan states since at least the time of the Ottoman Empire’s incursion in the 14th Century. Following his death in 1980s and the fall of communism across the continent a decade later, the old rivalries and hatreds boiled up. Travelling through these lands of staggering beauty and shocking savagery, the words “nothing’s going to change” wailed like a lament in my mind.

The beautiful old city of Mostar, was once the place where Serbs, Croats and Bozniaks mixed the most. They went to school together, and married each other in surprising numbers. With effectively two wars ripping through the city in the 90s, it was first encircled, and then divided. As an ancient city, snuggling on the banks of the Neretva – where rocky bluffs facilitated the construction of the iconic Ottoman bridge – it is ringed by hills. These sweeping landscapes are beautiful, and where mine-clearance has been completed, provided us with some stunning hillwalks. “They echo the  songs of the Partisans” – Holroyd sang. And the hills of Bosnia – Herzegovina saw Partisan action in WWII. Croatia was an Axis power, but the Serbs were Allied. WWII ended for most of Europe in 1945, but the collapse of the Third Reich didn’t bring peace here; the Partisans and Chetnicks then turned their fire on one another – Tito’s communists, finally gaining power. The things these hills have witnessed…

There is vegetable seller in Mostar with haunted eyes. He says to my friend, “I have seen things no man should see.” In the second round of fighting in Mostar the front line ran through the city – and is still visible in shattered buildings, bullet holes and mortar impacts that rained down from the hills, still evident a quarter of a century after the Dayton Accords silenced the guns – and postponed the next round of bloodshedding. Our guide, an Englishman who has lived here for a decade tells us that London recovered quickly after the Blitz because rapidly rising population created huge demand for land, and housing. But here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the population is dropping. The highest unemployment rates anywhere in the European continent ensure that a steady exodus continues every year. It means the skyline is still haunted by unused buildings. I tried to imagine growing up thinking that bullet-ridden buildings are normal. They are not.

The train to Sarajevo rolls through the most amazing scenery; rivers, gorges, lakes forests and mountains. The brutal communist-era stations at either end stand in stark contrast the flowing beauty found between them. Communist architects (of all types) seemed to love huge statements in concrete – and to prefer function over form. Clearly beauty was seen as an unnecessary decadence. In Tito’s day trains left for all over Yugoslavia, but current attempts to revive some of the connections falter at the boundaries of bureaucracy and mistrust. The vast stations sit empty for much of the day – miles of trackbed rusts silently all over the former Yugoslavia.

In Sarajevo; Mosques, Orthodox Churches, Synagogues and Catholic Churches rub shoulders in the old city – the capital of Bosnia. The city looks like an archaeological dig turned on its side. The Ottoman city is old, the Hapsburg city is next to it and vast – the communist architecture next – followed by the mixed variety typical of free markets after that. The place where Gavrilo Princip fired the shot that launched WWI is in the centre of the town, as are constant reminders of the awful siege that the city endured in the mid-1990s.

In 1984 Torvill and Dean had stunned the world with their ice dance routine. The first ‘communist’ Winter Olympics, had been a triumph. The ice arena in the city-centre is now a gig venue (Sting was there last month), but the ski-runs and toboggan tracks are up on the hills which overlook this ancient place. Easily accessible hills, overlooking the city make the perfect set-up for Olympians, and military commanders who wish to pound populations into submission

Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into two parts. The Bosnia-Herzegovina federation and Republika Srpska. Crossing from Bosnia to RS has no international boundary and no passport control – it is all ruled from Sarajevo. Yet it the “Welcome to Republika Srpska” sign is in English, Russian, and several other languages – but not in Croatian/Bosnian. This is chilling because it was here that Karadzic and Mladic pursued the worst of the so-called ‘ethic cleansing.’ We saw a village where a mosque was left, but surrounded by smashed and overgrown houses surrounding it. What horrors happened here?

Driving across Republika Srpska we paused at the genocide memorial at Srebrenica. Here, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered by the Bosnian Serb Army, which the international tribunal at The Hague called the worst genocide in Europe since WWII. The Srebrenica UN 'safe enclave' proved to be nothing of the sort, the women and children were abused and transported, the men executed - while the international community did too-little too-late. The sight of elderly women still there mourning the loss of sons, brothers and husbands was a stark reminder that this was so recent an atrocity. I am used to reading of these things in history books, where ancient facts are appropriately recorded. But here, the sorrow is as palpable as the evil present. I saw a dew covered spider's web hanging from a tree there, trapping insects in the cloudy morning breeze. It struck me as a poignant image of sorrow hanging in the air, catching memories.

Travelling across the Balkans is to visit countless memorials and museums remembering violence, horror and depravity; cycles of hate and retribution stretching back centuries. 8,372 is an enormous number, but each individual life lost matters greatly, and no amount of 'whataboutery' can reduce the truth of that - or should reduce the life sentences of those (wretchedly few) who were convicted of war crimes.

As a Christian, standing quietly paying my respects in this Islamic cemetery I felt physically sick at the thought that the perpetrators of these crimes claimed loyalty to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Utter disgust. Followers of Jesus must 'love their enemies' and 'bless those who persecute them' - according to Jesus. It is a stark reminder that "christianity" without Jesus can become monstrous. “I'm baptised in your prejudice, I'm confirmed with your hate, I'm ordained into violence” John Lees raged in his lyrics.  "Jesus Wept".

Simply as a human, I could not comprehend the stories. "we grew up with them, we went to school with them, we traded with them, and played football with them - and then they rose up and slaughtered us". I read stories like this, across the Balkans from all sides of the wars of the 1990s. How can this be? How can you murder half your own school football team? The depths of the wickedness of humanity is greater than I had faced since I stood in Berlin's Jewish Holocaust Memorial. Lord have mercy.

I will never forget Srebrenica.

The River Drina is a stunning water-course, one of the great rivers of South Eastern Europe. Its huge catchment area funnels masses of water down towards the Adriatic through a vast, spectacular gorge. It’s not as well-known as some rivers – but it should be. Here, today Serbia borders Bosnia. Over countless centuries it has also been the boundary between Catholicism and Orthodox – and between Christendom and Islamic power. It is said that it is foolish to live on a geographical fault-line, and what is usually meant by that comes from the world of physical Geography. It is probably more true in the world of political geography – for this fault line has seen many tremors and crises.

In Visigrad, a town famous for its beautiful and ancient bridge – the 1990s seem like very recent history indeed. Our communist-era hotel was stark in its’ aesthetic-free functionality – and was full of tobacco smoke, old men and suspicious looks. Old enmities die hard, but so do old friendships and Croatia is full of German number-plated cars, but in Serb areas, Russian cars were everywhere. Ivo Andric’s Nobel-winning “The Bridge on the Drina” is set here – and one can only think it is a mercy that he died before seeing the bridge become a slaughterhouse for Bozniaks in the early 1990s. It’s said the river ran red, and the hydro-electric power station got clogged with bodies at the height of the carnage. Yet, in a juxtaposition perhaps indicative of the contradictions in the human condition, we had a charming meal out – at scandalously cheap prices, from smiling friendly staff, joyful to teach us some of their language – while we passively smoked a thousand cigarettes.

Our first attempt to make it into Montenegro was unsuccessful. The mountain road that Google maps insisted was the correct route got increasingly precarious. As it narrowed and contorted, the surface fractured and our progress slowed to such a rate that we gave up and hammered our way South on better roads within BiH. When we finally found a remote border crossing post, the guard looked at us incredulously and said, “You want Montenegro?!” Indeed we did – and after stamping our passports on the wrong page, he let us through; far more quickly we noted than the huge shiny Russian number-plated Range Rover before us. Tiny Montenegro we soon discovered was much more wealthy and touristy than Republika Srpska, its beautiful Adriatic coastal towns having stunning old cities and garish resorts at every turn. The mountainous interior is very sparsely populated, the rocky ground is hard to farm, and the gradients severe. It is a stunningly beautiful country too. At the apartment the landlord welcomed us with plum Rakija and we soon discovered that we spoke a language in common….. football. Walking is a delight in Montenegro too, because while it was firmly allied to Serbia throughout the wars of the 1990s, there was very little fighting there, and so almost no risk of mines. The Adriatic in these parts is teeming with fish, and the seafood restaurants are wonderful. Even in the harbours, we watched small children and old grandpa’s pulling good fish from the water simply by lowering a single baited line off the side.

Our Balkan odyssey came to end with a long drive through Croatia, tracing its’ stunning coastline past Cavtat, Dubrovnik, Split and to our final destination in Zadar. Tito, of course, had been a Croatian – and it was interesting to speak to two older ladies who recalled him with a fondness that bordered on idolatry. His propaganda department had not wasted their efforts on these two, when they were girls. While acknowledging that he’d murdered many opponents, especially in the 1940s, they had both been to his grave to pay their respects to the man and his ‘golden era’ of their childhood. “I thought the world would end when he died” I was told. Titograd has long been renamed Visigrad, but the man lingers on as a living myth. 

As I lookback on our Balkan exploration, so many images jostle for my attention. The bomb damage in Mostar, the old bridge there too. The stunning mountains. The Bridge on the Drina. Sarajevo City and the Olympic Park. The mountains of Monetenegro. Sunset over the Adriatic. The little church we went to in Mostar where our friend from Burnley led the singing in Croatian. Srebrenica. And in the background, Les Holroyd’s voice lamenting, “Nothing’s Going to Change, Nothing’s Going to Change”. But is he right? Optimists point out that Croatia is booming in the EU, and is a stable, wealthy tourist destination. Montenegro appears to be heading that way too. Serbia’s desire to enter the EU would further promote integration. Bosnia Herzegovina has enjoyed the peaceful stalemate for a quarter of a century. Pessimists want to assert that conflict in the Balkans is never extinct, only ever dormant and that the historical tensions will inevitably boil over into violence again one day.

There is a prayer on a plaque in Srebrenica that says, “May Srebrenica happen to no one else, ever anywhere.” If the optimists are right, then these lessons will be grasped. But if the pessimists are, then “Nothing’s going to change”.  Another John Lees lyric sums it up, “Please lay down your pistols and your rifles…… God alone knows how we will survive”.

Saturday, October 22, 2022