Heading East

Here’s a quick blog about my latest book, 40 Coast and Country Walks: The Pentland Hills, Midlothian and East Lothian, published by @pocketmountains.

Think of East Lothian and Midlothian and a low-lying, predominantly rural landscape may well spring to mind. Yet on closer inspection it offers much, much more . For starters the Pentland Hills, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, rise to nearly 600m in height and grant some of the finest hillwalking in Scotland with a multitude of exemplary views extending from the summits and slopes. Our capital city, Fife, the Firth of Forth and the Southern Highlands are all visible from the likes of Caerketton and Scald Law.

The Pentland Hills
The Pentland Hills

To the east and the Lammermuir Hills may not have the same appeal as their near neighbours but they still offer some superb hillwalking options. Away from the big peaks and North Berwick Law, Traprain Law and the Garleton Hills make up for what they lack in height with a succession of incredible panoramas.

Even away from the high ground and East Lothian and Midlothian have lots to offer the walker. Lovely pockets of woodland, wildlife-rich country parks and a necklace of stunning beaches along the East Lothian coastline means the opportunities are as beautiful as they are varied.

North Berwick Law
North Berwick Law

Whether this be exploring the hills, moors and woodland, discovering idyllic towns and villages such as Gifford, North Berwick or Swanston, enjoying the views and wildlife along the coast or visiting historic sites at Athelstaneford and Roslin, it quickly becomes apparent that East Lothian and Midlothian are outstanding walking destinations.

Bass Rock from Seacliff

The eastern fringes of Scotland are vastly under-rated when it comes to walking and hiking but the variety of routes, some of the finest scenery in the country, an intriguing and fascinating history and a incredible array of flora and fauna means west is not necessarily best; the east is an outdoor paradise.

40 Coast and Country Walks: The Pentland Hills, Midlothian and East Lothian, pb by Pocket Mountains.




Great Scottish Journeys

Here is a quick blog about my latest book Great Scottish Journeys, published by @bwpublishing and @ScotsMagazine

Scotland is renowned the world over for its outstanding scenery, with millions of people visiting every year to revel in its urban, rural, mountain and coastal settings. Much of this remarkable topography forms the basis of my latest book, Great Scottish Journeys.

Published by Black & White Publishing, in conjunction with The Scots Magazine, and retailing at £16.99, Great Scottish Journeys lets the reader see what is out there, to provide some inspiration to explore the A-roads, the B-roads, the back roads, the paths, the towpaths, our mountains, lochs and coast.

Ailsa Craig from Turnberry

Whether this be the mighty mountains of the Northwest Highlands, the exquisite sandy beaches of Arisaig, the gentle delights of the Crinan Canal, or the wonderful rolling landscape of Galloway, you are never far from these spectacular locations. 

For instance the Crinan Canal, which runs for 9-miles between Ardrisaig and Crinan, in Argyll & Bute, is often referred to as the most beautiful shortcut in Scotland. It is a truly exceptional journey, one that can be taken on foot, bike or by boat. Or for a trip from the Lowlands into the Highlands, where Scotland’s remarkable geology divides the land, then a week walking the West Highland Way is special.

The Crinan Canal

Scotland’s road network comes to the fore on many of the journeys included in this book. The North Coast 500 for example, which has been called Scotland’s Route 66, takes in the spectacular and dramatic scenery of the Highlands, Sutherland and Caithness.

A trip along the East Neuk of Fife, or an excursion over the Road to the Isles to Mallaig bestow a stunning variety of scenery and a chance to sample some of the best seafood in the world. The beguiling coastlines of Ayrshire, Galloway and East Lothian are also visited in the book while, heading inland, Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Lochaber, Loch Fyne and the Arrochar Alps highlight the diversity of the Scottish countryside.

A sense of adventure is also delivered. A Great Scottish Journey could mean taking the ferry across the beautiful Firth of Clyde to reach the dazzling Isle of Arran or driving beneath the spiky mountains of Kintail onto Skye. From here, a passage across the Misty Isle, past the serrated spectacle of the Cuillin, to the unique and striking topography of the Trotternish Ridge, is simply breathtaking.

Upper Loch Torridon and Shieldaig

The images in this book have been taken over a number of years, with every trip to every location having imparted vivid memories that I have been lucky enough to capture on camera. Each Great Scottish Journey reminds me what an exceptional country Scotland is and how fortunate we are to be able to rejoice in its incredible beauty.

If you would like to order a signed copy of the book please contact me at scottishhorizons@sky.com.

The Old Man of Storr

Law of the Land

A straightforward but stiff climb leads onto summit of Traprain Law, the whale-backed little hill that rises to 221m above sea level to the south of East Linton, in East Lothian. It stands proud of the surrounding landscape and consequently the outlook is exceptional.

The Lammermuir Hills from Traprain Law

Traprain Law was formed around 320-million years ago by volcanic activity with its profile then left behind after great ice sheets had scoured the landscape some 14,000 years ago.

By 1500BC it is thought that the hill was home to a small community with a tribe, known as the Votadini, occupying the site for several hundred years until the 5th century AD. In 1919 archeological excavations uncovered a huge horde of Roman silver, again dating from the 5th-century AD. Over 250 fragments of objects were discovered including bowls, spoons, flagons, dishes and plates, as well as more personal items such as jewellery and buckles.

North Berwick Law and Bass Rock from Traprain Law

It is worth exploring the summit as the outlook is sublime, extending towards Dunbar, North Berwick Law, Bass Rock and across the Firth of Forth to Fife. Inland and the rolling Lammermuirs rise to the south, while west the familiar outline of the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat are visible above Edinburgh. Ringed ouzel, wheatear and golden plover may be seen in and around the summit during the summer months with skylark’s distinctive song heard throughout the year. 

Traprain Law is also home to a small herd of semi-feral Exmoor ponies, which help with grazing and conservation on the hill.

Wild Ponies Traprain Law

Creag Dhubh and the Argyll Stone

When compared to its bigger near neighbours of Braeriach and Cairn Gorm, Creag Dhubh – which sits a little west of the Central Cairngorm Plateau – is a much more compact mountain. However, with its broad summit rising to 848-metres it should not be underestimated.

Rothiemurchus from above Loch Gamhna

Beginning from the gorgeous setting of Loch an Eilean a good path runs along the lochside to Loch Gamhna. Later, a rougher path then open hillside ascends onto Creag Follais, after which easy ground reaches Clach Mhic Calein – better known as The Argyll Stone – then Creag Dhubh. A steady descent into Gleann Einich provides a scenic return to Loch an Eilean.

Just below the summit of Creag Dhubh is one of several granite tors in the Cairngorm National Park that have been eroded and shaped by the weather over many millennia.

Standing on top of Clach Mhic Calein, The Argyll Stone

Rising to about 15 feet in height, The Argyll Stone is thought to have been named after Archibald Campbell, the 7th Earl of Argyll (1575 – 1638). In 1594 Campbell led his Protestant army to defeat at the Battle of Glenlivet by the much smaller Catholic force of the Marquess of Huntly. It is said that Campbell and his men were then driven south, fleeing through the Cairngorms and pausing for a few moments at Clach Mhic Calein before continuing their retreat.

Sgoran Dubh Mor, Braeriach and Gleann Einich from Creag Dhubh

The view from the summit of Creag Dhubh is exceptional, extending along Gleann Einich towards Sgoran Dubh Mor and Braeriach and out to the Northern Corries and Meall a Bhuachaille.

Glorious Gleann Einich

A Sanctuary For All

The Shelter Stone

The Clach Dhiona (pronounced Clach Yeein) is better known as The Shelter Stone and is, perhaps, the most famous refuge in the Cairngorms. It sits at the base of the spectacular 270-metre high An Sticil – itself more commonly identified as The Shelter Stone Crag – and has provided a sanctuary for walkers, climbers, soldiers and even Prime Ministers (Ramsey MacDonald apparently spent a night here) for over 200 years. The Cairngorm Club, the oldest surviving climbing club in Britain, was also formed here in 1887.

The shelter is fashioned by several boulders, the largest of which is said to weigh over 1500 tonnes, having fallen from An Sticil to fortuitously rest on four other boulders, creating this natural howff. It has room (just) for around six people and its low roof garners a claustrophobic feel. It also has an incredible view across Loch Avon

Loch Avon and Stacan Dubha, Loch Avon Basin

The stunning freshwater Loch Avon sits at the base of a deep u-shaped valley, with the surface of the loch 730-metres above sea level. It is known as a ribbon loch as it was formed during the last Ice Age when a huge glacier carved a deep linear basin. Glaciation also left behind the steep mountain slopes of Beinn Mheadhoin and the vertiginous cliffs of An Sticil and Carn Etchachan.

The Shelter Stone and Loch Avon are not the easiest places to reach although any walk in is spectacular. Perhaps the best routes are via Ben Macdui and Loch Etchachan or the Central Cairngorm Plateau, with a steep descent through either Coire Raibeirt or Coire Domhain.

Descending towards the Shelter Stone from Loch Etchachan

The Peak of the Wind

Braeriach and Loch Eanaich from Sgor Gaoith

The Munro of Sgor Gaoith (pronounced Skor Goo-ee) grants perhaps the finest view of all within Cairngorm National Park. Its sharp summit clings to the edge of cliffs that plunge some 600-metres into the steely waters of Loch Eanaich, with the scoured corries of Braeriach’s huge western flanks rising beyond – it is simply breathtaking.

Sgor Gaoith is thought to mean the Peak of the Wind and this exposed plateau is open to the elements, having been formed, over many millions of years, through natural forces. It is the high point of Invereshie and Inshriach National Nature Reserve, one of nine National Nature Reserves that lie within Cairngorm National Park. The reserve covers an area of 3600 hectares where scatterings of rowan, birch, aspen, alder and juniper sit amongst large swathes of Caledonian and Scots Pine. Other habitats within the reserve include blanket bog, montane grassland and alpine heath.

Sgoran Dubh Mor from Sgor Gaoith

As you would expect the wildlife is incredibly diverse; blaeberry, cowberry, twinflower, an abundance of mosses, lichens and fungi, capercaillie, black grouse, ring ouzel, golden eagle, kestrel, ptarmigan, mountain hare, red squirrel and green hairstreak butterfly, are just some examples. Dotterel is also found here.

Scotland holds all of Britain’s breeding population of dotterel and is therefore specially protected. Nesting begins during May and takes place above 1000 metres, in amongst scrapes of moss and lichen that are prevalent on the vast, barren mountaintops of the Cairngorms. Distinct by its chestnut-coloured breast and white streak above the eye, dotterel is just one of a few species where the male does the majority of incubating.

Autumn gold, Invereshie and Inshriach National Nature Reserve

The Peak of the Fair-Headed Warriors

Loch Leven
Sgorr na Ciche and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh from Loch Leven

The 967-metre high Munro of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh is the westernmost peak of the infamous Aonach Eagach. A traverse of the Aonach means tip-toeing along 2km of chimneys and pinnacles, where mental agility is perhaps even more important than the physical challenge of coping with real exposure. Because of this Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (and the Aonach’s eastern Munro of Meall Dearg) can feel out of reach for many hillwalkers.

For a relatively simple ascent, however, it is feasible to top out on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh from Glencoe Village. If combined with Sgorr na Ciche then a fantastic day on the hills lies ahead, one with a plethora of exceptional views extending from their slopes and summits.

Beinn a Bheithir from Sgorr na Ciche
Beinn a Bheithir from Sgorr na Ciche

Sgorr nam Fiannaidh translates, intriguingly, from Gaelic as Peak of the Fair Headed Warriors. This relates to The Fingalians, who were followers of Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool), a warrior of Irish and Scots mythology. The shapely peak of Sgorr na Ciche – pronounced Skor na Keecha and known to most as the Pap of Glencoe – is a noticeable landmark that overlooks the southern banks of Loch Leven at the western end of Glencoe and translates as Peak of the Breast. At 742-metres above sea level, Sgorr na Ciche’s summit is much lower than Sgorr nam Fiannaidh but the outlook is just as good.

From both peaks a huge portion of the Central and West Highlands is visible – the Mamores (including Am Bodach and  Binnien Mor), Ben Nevis, Beinn a Bheithir (comprising the two Munros of Sgorr Dhonuill and Sgor Dearg), the long finger of Loch Leven, the rugged mountains of Ardgour and the great peaks of Glencoe, particularly Bidean nam Bian, are all on show.

Sgorr nam Fiannaidh
Sgorr na Ciche and the distant mountains of Ardgour from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

Caerketton – Fort of the Refuge

To see more of my images please click here

Castlelaw and Allermuir Hill at dawn from Caerketton

The shapely peak of Caerketton is one of the finest peaks within the Pentland Hills range that rise above Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. Caerketton translates from Brittonic as Fort of the Refuge and its 478m top grants one of the finest views in all of the Pentland Hills Regional Park – the summit also holds the remains of a Bronze Age cairn. Scald Law, Castlelaw and Allermuir Hill are just some of the neighbouring hills on show while on a clear day Ben Lomond can be seen in the distance.

It is the view across Edinburgh, however, to Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags and Edinburgh Castle, onwards along the East Lothian coastline and across the Firth of Forth to Fife’s twin Lomond peaks that really sets the heart racing.

Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat from Caerketton

Tales of the #Tweed

To see a selection of this month’s ‘Focus On’ images please click here

At 96 miles in length the River Tweed is the fourth longest river in Scotland – a portion of its journey also crosses the border into England.

It is this close proximity between the two countries that has bestowed the River Tweed with much of its intriguing history but it was a double-edged sword; trade links were strong but Edward I of England looked longingly at Scotland.

Glensax from Newby Kipps
The Tweed Valley from Newby Kips, Glensax

He arrived with devastating effect in 1296, leaving a litany of destruction in his wake. Major battles, like those at Flodden and Philipshaugh, and the Border reiving of the 16th century, led to a succession of government proclaiming that the Borders was becoming as problematic as the Highlands.

However on the flip side the gorgeous rural countryside that the River Tweed travels through means the scenery, wildlife and sense of tranquillity is on a par with the celebrated Scottish Highlands, which the lowland landscape of the Scottish Borders has always been unfairly judged as a poor relation.

The term ‘lowlands’ is essentially a misnomer as the Border country has an abundance of high ground granting some superb walking, panoramas and wildlife. The stunning Glensax Horseshoe and the iconic Eildon Hills are two such examples.

The Eildons, above Melrose, were home to a community of around 2000 people for many years. The Romans too were attracted to their shapely outline and when Julius Agricola led his army across the border in AD79 they paused near Melrose at Newstead (reputedly the oldest inhabited village in Scotland) and ended up staying for the next 150 years, setting up their fort of Trimontium at the base of the Eildons.

Eildon Hills
The Eildon Hills

The derivation of the name Tweed is vague but possibly stems from the Brythonic tau or teu, which mean strong, silent or flowing, unquestionably three words that could be applied to this amazing river.

It rises amongst the untamed moorland backdrop of Tweed’s Well, near to the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway border. It is a lonely setting and a number of little burns trickle down from the surrounding hills to join the infant but ever burgeoning Tweed as it travels north and then east.

Several significant rivers, such as the Teviot, Ettrick, Yarrow and Lyne, then flow into the River Tweed, eventually entering the North Sea at the magnificent walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

En route the Tweed runs through bustling and historic towns and villages such as Peebles, Melrose, Dryburgh, Gala and Kelso and through a landscape that has been lived on and exploited for several millennia.

This exploitation reached its peak during the Industrial Revolution when the River Tweed provided the source to a remarkable economic expansion along its banks.

Although the Borders were far removed from the heavy industry of Central Scotland, the textile industry proved to be an unqualified success, employing thousands of people and putting many of the towns along or near to the Tweed, such as Peebles, Galashiels, Innerleithen, and Selkirk, on the map.

Over the centuries writers and painters like Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg and JMW Turner all depicted the River Tweed in a favourable light, drawing tourists into Scotland’s southeast corner and this continues to the present day.

Royal Border Bridge
The Royal Border Bridge and the River Tweed, Berwick Upon Tweed

Today, like much of rural Scotland the Scottish Borders has used the landscape to boost its economy and create jobs. Fishing plays an integral role (the Tweed is one of Scotland’s great salmon rivers) while activities such as cycling and walking have made the region a major draw for outdoor enthusiasts.

The Restless #RiverSpey

To see a selection of this month’s ‘Focus On’ images please click here

The River Spey is a restless river, one filled with salmon and sea trout, bounded by vast tracts of woodland, backed by several of Britain’s highest mountains and surrounded by a staggering diversity of wildlife.

Garva Bridge
The River Spey and Garva Bridge

Its voyage results in an ever-changing landscape as each year the river, swollen with snow melt, unleashes a massive volume of water, which subsequently carves new channels and islands, generating its own course and one that is perpetually evolving.

Lonely little Loch Spey, which sits above Loch Laggan in Lochaber, beneath the big, rounded Monadhliath, marks the beginning of the River Spey and a wild and wonderful 107-mile journey.

Scotland’s fastest and second longest river quickly descends alongside General Wade’s historic road then underneath Garva Bridge, the oldest bridge spanning the Spey.

It then carves its course through the scenic splendour of Badenoch & Speyside, one dominated by the remarkable barrier of the immense Cairngorm plateau.

The hills reduce in size as the River Spey enters Moray, renowned the world over as whisky country.

From here the backdrop is more understated as the river twists and turns towards the coast, eventually spilling into the North Sea at Spey Bay, in-between Lossiemouth and Buckie.

Creag Bheag
Speyside from Creag Bheag above Kingussie

It has taken a long time for the River Spey to find its path – four ice ages, or several hundred million years, to be a little more precise. Over this almost unimaginable timescale the river system has slowly weathered and moulded its course over a bed of schists, gneiss, granite and sandstone and this amalgamation of rock types makes the River Spey one of the cleanest in Scotland.

As it hits the wide alluvial plain of Strathspey the riverbed is looser with the Spey pushing soil and sediment along. When Spey Bay is approached the river begins to pick up speed, dragging enormous amounts of shingle with it, altering its shape and route to whatever the Spey decides.

The derivation of the name Spey is unclear with several suggestions as to its meaning, including Hawthorn river or, perhaps more pertinently, Vomit or Gush. Certainly the speed at which the River Spey travels means this may be the appropriate label.

Like much of Scotland the Bronze and Iron Ages saw people lay down more definite roots and by the time the Romans marched northwards around the 1st century AD, several small settlements existed.

It was The Picts who were most successful in settling in the region, particularly in the great Caledonian pinewoods of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy. Along with the Gaels they were the dominant race in the northeast and formed a redoubtable force against the Roman advance.

Many of the hill and place names along the River Spey reflect the languages of the Picts and Gaels. Aber translates from Pictish as ‘mouth of the river’ and so Aberlour and Abernethy have their roots in the Pictish language, whilst Gaelic can be seen in the likes of Braeriach, Meall a Bhuachaille, Craigellachie and Buckie.

Whisky has become synonymous with the river and pumps millions of pounds into the local economy annually, and Moray is its spiritual home.

The River Spey
Spey Bay

Originally hailed for its medicinal qualities whisky has now become one of Scotland’s major exports and fundamental to the survival of the towns and villages along much of the River Spey, particularly when it travels through Moray.

The mild climate, pure, clear spring water and abundant supplies of fragrant golden barley provide the ideal ingredients for the ‘water of life’.

The Spey supports a plethora of whisky distilleries (over half of all the distilleries in Scotland) including Glenfarclas, Cardhu, Aberlour and Craigellachie as well as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the 2 biggest selling whiskies in the world.