Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer



In Flanders Fields

2019-10-29 09:31:05

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch, be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

This poem was written by Lieutenant – Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, after the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, on May 2nd 1915.

A plaque containing the poem can be found on the wall of a concrete bunker that was used as a field hospital.

Not far away, in graveyards throughout the area, thousands of simple white headstones carry the names of the war dead.

For those British and Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, is dedicated to them. The walls of this memorial bear thousands of names.

The ‘Last Post’ is played at the Menin Gate every evening.

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River Spey Canoe Trip

2019-09-29 04:46:18

A wildlife guide once told me I should wear a hat with a peak when bird watching. ‘In bright light, if you look up to the sky to focus on a bird, the peak helps shade your eyes’, he said.

With the hope of spotting some rare birds on a canoe trip down the River Spey, I followed his advice and wore a favourite cap, grey with a red band round the peak.

I also wore a waterproof jacket, waterproof over trousers, kneepads, old trainers and the most important addition to my less than sartorially elegant outfit - a buoyancy aid.

Before getting on the water, our group, friends for many years, had met the previous evening to acquaint ourselves with other pieces of necessary kit that included paddles, waterproof storage bags, a rescue rope and heavy blue plastic barrels which were something of a mystery. All of this equipment plus our own individual luggage would be packed into the Canadian canoes.

We were a party of seven which included our leader Dave Craig – a vastly experienced canoe coach, whisky aficianado and sole proprietor of the company Spirit of the Spey. Before heading out to a local hostelry for dinner he had poured each of us a wee dram and we all raised a glass of 12 year old malt in a toast to the success of our forthcoming adventure on the River Spey.

The next morning we met on the banks of the river near the Old Spey Bridge at Grantown-on-Spey. Here, still on dry land, we packed the canoes, tied everything in and practised various paddling strokes that we would need over the course of the next three days. Instructions in case of capsize were listened to with rapt attention!

Then we slid the canoes down the bank and into the water. Now we were ready. We set off in a line.

The river here is some 40 yards wide and appears black with depth. For long stretches it runs rippled but placid with occasional breaks showing white in the flow. When our canoes glance off unsighted half submerged rocks, it’s a reminder we have to be ever vigilant. These rocks could cause difficulties but we manage to steer clear of most of them.

Whenever there is a potential hazard ahead, such as a bridge or rapids, Dave explains how we should tackle it before he goes ahead. We then attempt to follow his line.

Along the river we pass a few fishermen and women. Usually they are standing in the water, sometimes waist deep, casting a fly in the hope of hooking an elusive Atlantic salmon. Here the grass banks have been cut to allow easy access from the huts provided for their comfort. With a shout, Dave attracts their attention as we approach and they let us know on which side they would prefer us to pass to avoid their lines. From time to time large fish rise and fall back into the water.

Beyond the edges, the river banks are thickly tree lined with oak, birch and rowan. Higher up the slopes conifers reach for the sky.

We spot grey herons, buzzards, one red kite, numerous ducks and one osprey. To follow the flight of these birds, I’m pleased to be wearing my peaked hat.

Our first stop is at a fisherman’s hut. We enjoy a substantial lunch, packed that morning in Grantown-on-Spey. Dave gets the primus going. Tea and coffees are followed by a wee 12 year old whisky produced nearby in Dufftown. We sniff and sip the whisky as instructed and listen to our own expert who enthuses about this particular nip. Now we know what’s in the blue barrels!

On this first day of paddling in fine weather we’ve covered about 15 miles. In late afternoon we leave the water and while our equipment is being transported, we walk the short distance to Cragganmore House. Not so long ago these canoe trips involved overnight camping. Now the participants partake of the hospitality, quaintness and excellent home cooking of this family run guest house.

Cragganmore House can be found near the Cragganmore, Ballindalloch and Glenfarclas distilleries. There’s no bar in the guest house but it seems only natural, having brought our own makeshift bar to savour a pre-dinner whisky aperitif in the guest’s lounge.

On day two, suitably rested and replenished we’re back on the water in fine weather. The rapids we will meet today have acquired reputations that have grown with each telling over the years and have been named – the Washing Machine, Knockando and Millionaire’s rapids. These stretches of churning white water are much longer than we’ve met so far. The waves are bigger, but we bounce through – damper but undaunted - to calmer water.

In the afternoon we leave the river by the Thomas Telford Bridge at Craigellachie to visit the new Macallan Distillery. It’s a vast complex where whisky is made on an industrial scale. The tour with a knowledgeable guide includes an impressive sound and light show. When it ends, visitors are then entertained by the guide and offered small tastings of different stages of a final aged and bottled product before exiting by the gift shop.

When we leave the distillery a prearranged taxi takes us to Craigellachie Lodge. After another tasting session where slices of lemon add something else to our whisky aperitifs we walk the short distance to the popular Copper Dog pub in the Craigellachie Hotel.

For the menu here, locally sourced produce features as much as possible. As well as our dinners, we enjoy the pleasant atmosphere, live music and the ‘craic’ (conversation with many laughs) as they say in this part of the Highlands.

Our overnight stay and fortifying breakfast before leaving Craigellachie Lodge sets us up for our last day on the water. The scenery may be glorious but we can’t see much through the mist and heavy rain. It’s cold and we’re buffeted by a wind from the north. We paddle on, under bridges and through rapids. But at a particularly big rapid, our canoe is caught sideways in a standing wave. In the blink of an eye we’re tipped into the water.

Our leader is aware of what’s happening and issues instructions. I leave the now upturned canoe – turn on my back and with an ungainly frog–like leg action, soon reach the shore. Being in the water is actually warmer than being out. Meanwhile my canoeing partner has wrapped the extended rescue rope round a large rock. It’s not long before we’re back in the canoe and paddling once again. However, my hat has sailed on down the river.

Some distance away the hat is rescued. All is well until our friends, in turn, now capsize. Once again the hat is sailing.

Further on we stop to meet old friends who now live locally. They inform us the temperature is a mere 12 degrees centigrade. We stand around, gratefully gulping the hot drinks and munching the chocolate biscuits they have laid out on a picnic bench. Between drinks, time is spent running and jumping on the spot – a futile attempt to get warm.

On this last day of paddling we had planned to meet the sea at Spey Bay on the Moray coast. The weather is still miserable. The wind is now blowing offshore. Conditions could not be much worse so we stop some yards short of our planned destination.

As we’re cold and very wet it’s an effort to get the canoes and other equipment stored safely aboard the trailer. When it’s done, we’re more than glad to feel the warmth of the Spey Bay Café. Once changed out of our sodden canoe clothes and supping hot soup the world appears much brighter. However, I envisage my hat bobbing along, somewhere out in the North Sea by now.

But we are all in agreement. Our leader, though he is also disappointed that the conditions prevented us from reaching the sea, has made the right decision. Better to be safe than sorry.

While we still sit around the table, one of the last of his many kind gestures on this memorable trip is to present each of us with a new hat – blue with a peak and the embroidered wording ‘Spirit of the Spey’.

Further information: photos by Dave Craig


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Slow Food on a Slow Adventure

2019-08-26 13:05:41

The A82 runs north from Glasgow to Inverness. Along much of the route the scenery is magnificent and favourite views are often topics for discussion. Some folk rave about Loch Lomond or the mountains of Glencoe. For others the rushing rivers, woodlands or the watery wastes of Rannoch Moor are most appealing. Yet it’s no secret that at times this road can be frustratingly busy with tourist traffic, especially at popular viewpoints.

Leaving it all behind however, is easy. At Corran, a few miles north of Ballachulish, you can cross the narrows of Loch Linnhe on a Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry. Minutes later, leaving the ferry and the village of Ardgour behind, you’ll appreciate the absence of traffic and the equally magnificent scenery. This is Morvern, a peninsula that feels like an island.

Though Morvern is connected by ferries to the mainland and the Island of Mull to the south, there is a sense of remoteness. Should you ever long for serenity such as you’ll find here, you might consider driving some twenty odd miles more to Ardtornish House near the southern end of the peninsula for a slow food adventure.

Ardtornish House is the focal point of Ardtornish Estate which extends over a large area of Morvern. Here, like other proponents of the Slow Food movement, it is believed food should taste good and be produced in a way that fully respects the environment, human health and animal welfare. Where possible, as Ardtornish Estate is also a working farm, food is grown and sourced on the estate and failing that as close as possible from like - minded providers.

Should you visit Morvern to take part in an Ardtornish Slow Adventure you’ll have opportunities to eat well while escaping the pressures of modern living – at least for a few days.

On arrival you’ll be offered home baked cake and coffee before a stroll through the estate kitchen garden to select salad leaves, vegetables or fruit in season for your dinner.

There are different Slow Adventures on offer. One might involve a walk from Ardtornish House of less than three miles to Leacraithnaich Bothy (more easily pronounced Tearnait Bothy) which stands on a hillside overlooking Loch Tearnait. Like other bothies on Ardtornish Estate it belongs to the Mountain Bothy Association whose members volunteer to maintain their properties.

The accommodation at Tearnait Bothy is basic. There’s no running water, electricity or toilet – just two rooms of rough stone walls beneath a corrugated iron roof. A fitted platform raised a few inches covers the larger area of floor. Bothy goers claim their space on the platform by unrolling and laying out their sleeping bags.

The living room boasts a dining table and two benches, three chairs and another table where food can be prepared in front of the window. When logs are burning fiercely in the fireplace and candles and tea lights are lit the room is cosy, though still somewhat other worldly.

After lunch and more coffee and cake mid - afternoon, adventurers can attempt to catch fish from Loch Tearnait for their supper. Should fishing lessons be needed, an Ardtornish Estate ghillie and a deer stalker/fisherman will demonstrate the fine art of casting a fly. Chances are they will also tell tales of the ones that got away.

You may also hear about the seemingly unconcerned otters that swam back and forwards over the fisherman’s wellington boots while he stood in the shallows of a loch, concentrating on casting.

But fear not. If the fish are not biting, your alternative dinner will already have been a major consideration for someone else. On my evening in the bothy, along with two other adventurers and our guide Karl Bungey, we dined on a pre-prepared Ardtornish Estate venison casserole, lentil stew and potatoes with a side salad. Water from Loch Tearnait was filtered. The convivial evening passed with conversation and a ‘wee dram’ of whisky round the fireside.

Next morning Karl cooked a leisurely breakfast. The freshly baked bread, new laid eggs and small batch sausages with herbs had been sourced locally mere miles away. At the moment there are nine local businesses involved in this Slow Food venture.

After breakfast, as we walked back down the track to Ardtornish House, we learned a little about our natural surroundings and the wildlife of these hills including red deer, otters and golden eagles.

The walk took us to a slipway on Loch Aline, a short distance from Ardtornish House where we enjoyed a picnic lunch of sandwiches thickly spread with mackerel pate and chicken liver pate on home baked bread. There was fruit and nuts and cake flavoured with whisky. The hamper had been packed with considered care at the Ariundle Centre, Strontian, another of the local, Slow Food enterprises.

After lunch we paddled Canadian canoes on Loch Aline under the watchful eye of our guide, Karl, a canoeing coach and experienced outdoor education teacher.

Canadian canoes are designed to carry large loads and be stable. With two seated paddlers, one at the front and one at the back on opposite sides, the skills required to travel safely on the water can be learnt fairly quickly under instruction.

Loch Aline is a sea loch that opens into the Sound of Mull. Before the tide ebbed too far we returned ashore and were soon walking back to Ardtornish House where our bedrooms in the South Wing were in marked contrast to our bothy accommodation the previous night.

The present Ardtornish House dates from 1884 and was built to replace an earlier house that was knocked down. Bedrooms are spacious with period fittings such as heavy mahogany furniture and marble fireplaces. To keep these fires burning, servants would have been summoned by the ringing of bells which are still in place, high up on the wall of a back door entrance.

Walking instead of driving, or being driven, is the norm on a slow adventure and an evening stroll along the woodland path by Loch Aline is a pleasant way to arrive at The Whitehouse Restaurant in the township of Lochaline in time for dinner. The Whitehouse, no distance from the loch, is an award winning restaurant with close links to Ardtornish Estate. As well as having its own kitchen garden behind the restaurant, products sourced from the estate include beef, venison, lamb and mutton. Sea food and fish at their freshest come from local waters.

The restaurant has two smallish rooms. The waiting staff bring a board with a chalked - on menu to each table and explain the ingredients of each dish. The list is not long – from two starters, two main courses and two desserts the staff recommend you pick four taster dishes.

Your choice of a starter course might be - Smoked salmon, Lochaline quail egg, cauliflower crema, avruga, samphire and backyard beetroot.

Your choice of a main course might be - Sea water poached cod fish, roast Mull scallop, Fishnish geic, seashore botanics, sheep yoghurt, potted tomato and herring roe.

Your choice of dessert might be - Morvern Tart - a rich concoction of fruit and nuts soaked in whisky and baked in a caramel and pastry casing.

Now replete, the soft adventurers were grateful for the offer of a lift back to Ardtornish House. The rest of the evening was passed discussing the highlights of the previous days while seated in the comfortable armchairs of a lounge.

Breakfast in the South Wing of Ardtornish House next morning was followed by a gentle cycle to end our Slow Adventure.

For further information: Ardtornish Estate: www.ardtornish.co.uk

Ariundle Centre: www.ariundlecentre.co.uk

Karl Bungey Otter Adventures: www.otter-adventures.co.uk

Whitehouse Restaurant : www.thewhitehouserestaurant.co.uk

Slow Adventure contact: Jane Stuart – Smith 07884361545 info@thewhitehouserestaurant.co.uk

First published in The Peoples' Friend magazine

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A Walk in Stirling

2019-08-10 02:59:20

Leading towards Stirling Castle, a circuitous path known as the Back Walk rises from Dumbarton Road and follows the line of the old town wall. Historical information boards along the way offer insights into features such as the watchtower built into the raw rock. On the lower slopes where trees and shrubs flourish look out for the wood sculpture of a howling wolf. Legend has it that in the 9th century a howling wolf saved Stirling by alerting the townsfolk to the midnight approach of Viking raiders. Now Stirling’s coat of arms includes the figure of a wolf.

A stroll here was not always pleasant or safe, however. The Royal Court in Stirling was forever being attacked and as an outer defence, the wall was constructed in 1547 when King Henry VIII of England was seeking to force a marriage between the infant Mary, Queen of Scots and his son Edward.

Further up the path, a gate in iron railings gives access to a rocky knoll known as Ladies’ Rock. Some believe it was so called as the extra height allowed ladies of the castle a better view of medieval tournaments being held on flat ground, now called the Valley, lying between Castle and town. More likely the name derives from Our Lady’s Hill, the site of a pre-Reformation shrine.

The Valley has been a cemetery for years and predominant amongst many impressive gravestones is the Star Pyramid, a smaller version of the structures more usually associated with Egypt. Another headstone, the so-called Service Stone, is pitted on both sides with musket shot possibly from being utilised as a shield during General Monck’s siege of Stirling Castle in 1651.

Continuing along the path and up a few steps leads to the Castle esplanade where a statue of King Robert the Bruce is a popular subject for camera toting tourists. Their photographic efforts might also include the memorial tower to Sir William Wallace on tree clothed Abbey Craig in the middle distance and the Ochil Hills in the background.

From the esplanade, stout wooden gates allow a way inside the castle’s defences. As well as being a fortress of great strength enclosing a palace that was a place of safety for generations of Scottish kings, Stirling Castle was almost a self-contained village. Visitors can wander through well-preserved kitchens and in the footsteps of royalty. The restored Great Hall, built for James 4th around 1503, is especially impressive. After years of neglect, an entirely new hammer beam ceiling crowns a room of lofty proportions complete with wall hangings, embroidery, stained glass and thrones. The so-called Stirling Heads that cover the ceiling of another room are portraits carved in Polish oak and painted. They were created to show the wealth, status and connections of the Scottish monarchy with the intention of impressing guests.

Outside on the battlements, a view indicator helps in identifying distant hills and sites of battles, including Bannockburn in 1314 and Stirling Bridge in1297 that influenced the course of Scottish history.

Before heading down into the streets of the old town nestling below the castle, it’s worth stopping off in the visitor centre at the end of the esplanade. In the comfort of the small cinema, a potted history of Stirling from the 1100s onwards vividly unwinds.

Back out in the daylight tread carefully on the cobble stones of Castle Wynd leading past Argyll’s Lodging. This nobleman’s town house is now refurbished to show how the nobility lived in 17th century Stirling. Furniture and fittings are based on the original inventory of house contents at that time.

Further down the brae Cowane’s Hospital built between the years 1639 – 49 offered charity to unsuccessful merchants. Work on the building will see it restored to its original glory.

Nearby, on the edge of Valley cemetery is the Church of the Holy Rude whose oak roof timbers were shaped by adze 600 and more years ago. Here in 1567, preceded by a Protestant sermon preached by John Knox, James 6th, a mere infant of thirteen months(baptised a Roman Catholic seven months earlier in Stirling Castle) was crowned King of Scotland. Meanwhile his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, languished in Lochleven Castle in Fife.

In 1651, during a campaign to subdue the Highlands, General George Monck, who was Oliver Cromwell’s Commander-in-Chief in Scotland, set up his guns in the tower of the church for the last successful attack on Stirling Castle.

Further disruption of a different kind took place in the 17th century when the church was divided into two parts for two different congregations. Rival ministers would then voice their religious disagreements over a wall. The wall is long gone and stained glass windows symbolise more enlightened times. In 1935 the Church and congregations were re-united.

Changes for the better would have topped many wish lists of those unfortunates who landed in the Old Town Jail on St. John Street where Victorian punishments were meted out in an attempt to correct ‘the sinning ways of those lacking morals’. In 1844 one cell held 24 prisoners. A visiting judge described the conditions as ‘wretched’ and ‘fearful’. The new prison, opened in 1847 had a modern design which allowed for solitary confinement, constant observation and hard work. As well, the chaplain could preach to all the prisoners whilst they were still in their cells. A tour of the jail can be taken with guide/actors who recreate the harshness of these times.

Markets took place on Broad Street. The Mercat (market) Cross that stands at the lower end is topped with a statue of a unicorn known locally as “the puggy”. Under it, proclamations were read out and important occasions celebrated. On royal birthdays, town officials drank copious toasts round bonfires while pipers or trumpeters played and church bells were rung. Rioting also took place here such as the one in December 1706 in protest at the proposed Union with England.

Continuing downhill past narrow buildings with crow stepped gables leads to the modern centre of Stirling. There is a choice of pubs, cafes and restaurants but if the weather is fine it’s worth considering picnicking about a mile away at Cambuskenneth Abbey and leaving the bustle behind.

Head past the railway station and cross the road-bridge over the railway lines. At the end of a street of terraced houses fronted by neat gardens, a pedestrian bridge spans a bend in the River Forth. On the far side, Cambuskenneth village has won Britain in Bloom Awards four times over the years.

Of Cambuskenneth Abbey (the abbey of Stirling founded around 1140 by David 1st) only the restored bell tower still stands. Where kings stayed as guests and Scottish parliaments met, low lines of stone above the grass are all that remain of the once impressive abbey. Behind railings there is a reconstructed tomb of King James 3rd (1452-88) and Queen Margaret of Denmark.

A return to the starting point of this trip back in time will take you through Stirling’s thoroughly modern temples to consumerism.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

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