Monday, November 19, 2018

New Glasgow climbing wall: The Prop Store

The Glasgow branch of The Climbing Academy (TCA) is just about to open its new bouldering and lead-climbing centre on Glasgow's north side. Its south-side twin ('The News Room')  is already a popular bouldering centre, but the new site will bring fresh inspiration to climbers on the north side of the Clyde. Situated in Maryhill, not far from the West End, this new centre is named after an old BBC prop warehouse, so it's been named 'The Prop Store'.  The centre feels roomy and spacious with a long profile. The holds and panels are super-grippy and there are some free-standing boulders to mantle out as well as an impressive offering of angles, roofs, slabs and subtly sweeping walls.  There is also a section of lead wall with auto-belays for top-roping practice, and a training centre upstairs. They should be open this December, but here are some preview shots.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Timeline Walks: Hallaig to Screapadal on Raasay

'Tha tìm, am fiadh, an coille Hallaig ...'

Hallaig - the lost village of Raasay - is a powerful place. Arguably, it has become a shibboleth for the soul of Gaelic culture. To visit it, to just be there momentarily and feel the resonance of the place, is to know the fragility of place and home, of how kinship can be shattered and how loss can invade a land. Aptly, Hallaig is now a site of pilgrimage for those who value the universal lessons of history. There are terrible reasons for the loss of Hallaig. Its silent mouths of abandoned shielings, the dumb sheep meandering amongst the ruins, whisper with Sorley MacLean's poetry. The place misses the sounds of day-to-day community, and all around the woods and burns and slopes this tough but rich landscape once made this a hardy paradise under the eastern cliffs of Raasay.

Facing east to the dawn and overlooking the peninsula of Applecross and the berry-dark depths of the Inner Sound, the walk to Hallaig leads quietly along a broad walkway under Beinn na Leac to the southern promontory of Rubha na' Leac, from where a series of dramatic Jurassic sandstone cliffs and headlands diminish to the northern shielings of Screapadal, where the story of Hallaig is echoed painfully.

Hallaig was named as a Norse settlement, the 'holy bay', but it would have been a fertile patch of land long before that and medieval run-rigs suggest earlier habitation. Standing by the dedicatory cairn to Sorley MacLean, the broad sheltered bays lap up against steep cliffs. Burns tumble off cliffs into the ocean in great white horse-tails.  Perched above the cliffs and slopes are the greener swathes of the farmed land, surrounded by thickets of alder and birch.

Hallaig is first named in print in a charter of 1596, specifically as a place of human settlement. By 1846 there was a total of 28 recorded houses around Hallaig but by 1871 there is only one shepherd and his family recorded*. What happened in the those few decades is a tale told all over the Highlands: land cleared for the 'new economy' of sheep farming, while the famines and potato blight of the 1840s added to the exodus. The feudal estate system and its imbalanced powers of laird and tenant allowed for the easy de-patriation of lands and expulsion, what we would now call ethnic cleansing. The reasons for doing so were couched in the blase terms of 19th century popular economics, ignoring both natural and human ecologies of place for a blanket profit system. The argument for the clearances can be understood in almost every case as a decision of economy by empowered individuals rather than communities. The older chief/clan system which valued kinship and its support (especially in times of war) could easily be transitioned to a more selfish laird/tenant relationship where the exploitation of the feudal land rights became more profitable than the idea of maintaining community.

To understand the harshness of this land, the rugged walk from Fearns to Brochel Castle, along the eastern coast of Raasay, takes around seven hours of hard negotiation with vegetation, rocks, gorges, burns, tidal shores and steep slopes. The first part of the walk, from the road-end at North Fearns, leads along the pleasant access track of An Leac, along which so many disappeared would have walked to and from Inverarnish and Clachan. The sunny track, under canopies of old willow and rowan trees, leads to the headland of Rubha na' Leac and allows the first spectacular views north along the Jurassic cliffs of eastern Raasay. A cairn to Sorley MacLean subtly announces the territory of remembrance that lies ahead. Ahead, in the silent lee of larger cliffs, the Hallaig burn tumbles noisily off a headland upon which birch, alder and hazel woods cling to crumbling cliffs and gorges. The path darkens and weaves past a silent ruin and on through trees tattooed with vibrant green lungwort.

After crossing the burn the path weaves through a patch of coppiced birch, then opens out onto faint run-rigged slopes now matted with sheep-bitten turf. A walled sheep enclosure, which was built from the evacuated ruins of the Hallaig homes, forces you up and around the slopes to the remaining evidence of older communities. One particular complex of shielings, tucked into a sheltered mezzanine under the 'pass of Hallaig', showcases the architectural subtlety of the homes. Each house has a low wall to support now-vanished thatch roofing and at each corner the walls curve with dense rounded dyking, with an intricate jigsaw of carefully-selected stones, echoing an era of skill and care and kinship with the environment. The older natural laws of living on the land are built intrinsically into this fabric and there are no modern scripts on ecology and sustainability more telling than a Hallaig stone wall.

Further past the ivy-choked gullies of the ridge above, old run-rig patches disintegrate into the boggy stretch of  Loch a' Chada Charnaich under the distinctive cap of Dun Caan, Raasay's highest point and geologically the youngest (a new hat on a very old head). A north-flowing burn of sweet soft water is a good spot to fill canteens and bottles.The burn leads down to the fossil-sandstones of the shoreline, where refreshments for the next phase should be taken.

What lies ahead is a strenuous and sometimes claustrophobic walk under spectacular cliffs encrusted with what could only be called 'vertical Atlantic rainforest'. Hours are lost tracking the best way along this shore, occasionally on the tideline, occasionally embedded in bracken, boulder-fields and treacherous gullies. It is a struggle to make any headway in summer and best considered out of bracken-season. High above, the remarkable architecture of the pinnacles and cliffs echoes to the cry of both Golden and White-tailed Eagles, and the flora continually surprises with patches of primitive spore-spread flora such as ferns, horsetails and spleenworts. The sandstones on the shore are imprinted with Jurassic scallops, squid and tubeworms, and the sudden thump of heavy dinosaurs would not be a sound amiss amongst this ancient landscape.

Eventually the giant boulder-field south of the Screapadal ruins is met, with easier sheep-paths meandering into the fertile slopes of the older community lands north and south of the An Leth-allt burn. The largest boulder by the shore, with a caved underbelly, is known on the map as An Eaglais Bhrèige, which translates roughly from the Gaelic as 'the false church'. This is based on old folk-tales of Taghairm or pagan ceremony, easily appropriated as 'devil-worship'. The boulder cave does form a natural arch and altar and is now home to a hard bouldering rock climb by Scotland's most prolific modern rock climber Dave MacLeod, in the ancestral land of MacLeods, and very much a performed mark of respect, a tip of the hat as it were.

Modernity creeps back into the walk with mariner marker poles and spruce forestry, leading to a a landrover track back to the base of Calum's road and Brochel castle. Leaving a vehicle or bike at either end of this walk is a piece of advice worth taking, as the return to Inverarnish is a tale of weary feet, even if the mind is lightened and enriched.

The landscapes featured in this walk have been immortalised in many Sorley Maclean poems, but Hallaig is perhaps the most resonant. His words are a guttural Gaelic roll of keening, of remembrance, of loss and outrage:

Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig’
The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been
between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight, slender young rowan.
In Screapadal of my people
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the stream.
Proud tonight the pine cocks
crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra,
straight their backs in the moonlight – 
they are not the wood I love.
I will wait for the birch wood
until it comes up by the cairn,
until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
will be under its shade.
If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the Sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.
They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive.
The men lying on the green
at the end of every house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.
Between the Leac and Fearns
the road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bands
go to Clachan as in the beginning,
and return from Clachan,
from Suisnish and the land of the living;
each one young and light-stepping,
without the heartbreak of the tale.
From the Burn of Fearns to the raised beach
that is clear in the mystery of the hills,
there is only the congregation of the girls
keeping up the endless walk,
coming back to Hallaig in the evening,
in the dumb living twilight,
filling the steep slopes,
their laughter a mist in my ears,
and their beauty a film on my heart
before the dimness comes on the kyles,
and when the sun goes down behind Dun Cana
a vehement bullet will come from the gun of Love;
and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood,
his blood will not be traced while I live.

Geology of Raasay Map by Morton & Baird

Gaelic Place Names:

Screapadal - the rough/scabbed dale
Hallaig - from the Norse 'Heilag Vik' or Holy Bay
Cadha Carnach - Pass of the Stones
Creag nan Cadhaig - Crag of the Passes
Beinn na Leac - Hill of the Ledge
Dun Caan - The White Fort
Druim an Aonach - The Ridge of the Moor
Creag na Bruaich - the Crag of the Border
Beinn a' Chapuill - Hill of the Horse
Carn Mor - the Great Cairn
Eaglais Briege - the False Church [In the Place-Names of Skye (Alexander Robert Forbes, Published by Alexander Gardner, Paisley, 1923) this is quoted as: 'Eaglais Bhreugach The false or lying church. From a rock, like a church, on East-side, Kilmuir. See  Buachaille Breige. This rock, also known as An Eaglais Bhrèige, the church of the lie or falsehood, has been described as a cave called “the make-believe cave church,” from what was termed an altar beside it in the shape of a huge boulder whereon Clann ’Ic Cuithen performed an awful pagan ceremony of Taghairm, gathering summons (see N.G.P.), vulgarly rendered in English, “ giving his supper to the devil,” and which consisted of— if all tales be true— roasting poor cats alive; this clan, or sept (said now to be absorbed in the Clan Donald), never bore a good reputation, a rhyme referring to them and others of a like kidney being:  Clann 'Ic Cuithen chuir nam briag, Clann 'Ic Cuithen chuir an t-sodail; Clann 'Ic Mhannain chuir na braidè, Ged nach b'fhaid iad na (no) cas biodaig (Clan MacOoian, thievish experts, Clan MacOoan, quick to flatter, Clan Buchanan,* theft promoters, Though as small as shaft of dagger!) ... The word taghairm means primarily the gathering summons of a clan to battle; in connection with the above ceremony, it meant a gathering summons of evil spirits, an ancient mode of divination said to be one of the most effectual means of raising the devil ...']

Landscapes of Clearance: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Angele Smith, Amy Gazin-Schwartz

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Timeline Walks: Culbin Sands

The Moray Firth’s sand-bitten southern coast, between Findhorn and Nairn, is home to Scotland’s most cautionary tract of land. Now a wilderness of maritime forest, dunes, salt marsh and spits of sand, its human history has been dated to the Bronze Age, around 1300 BC, but it is a territory that since glacial times would have been mobile and mutable.

The Laich of Moray is the fertile strip of plain squeezed between the foothills of the Cairngorms and the Moray Firth’s south coast. In Gaelic it is called Machair Mhoireibh (the machair of Moray), a perfect habitat for golf courses and rich arable farmland, threaded by the glacially-rivered straths of Nairn, Findhorn and Spey.

Culbin is an old parish which is now buried under 28 square kilometres of duneland and recent forestry. Sweeping east of Narin and curving in to rise up to its greatest heights above the estuary of the River Findhorn, it is now managed by Forestry Commission Scotland, but it is notable that this is a humanly retrieved territory, planted on a wilderness of sand which swarmed over once-rich arable land in an environmentally chaotic 17th century, leading to the abandonment of the Kinnaird estate.

The key event came in 1694 when farmers abandoned their fields as a sudden westerly sandstorm blew in on an autumn gale during harvest. Within days the marauding sand had buried the bulk of the estate, further diverting the River Findhorn to flood the blocked land. 19th century historical accounts, when the land was still a wilderness of dunes, say the storm was ruthless, ‘sparing neither the hut of the cottar nor the mansion of the laird’. The fields and orchards of the estate were buried, as was the mansion house of Alexander Kinnaird, its chimney finally appearing from the sand a century later. Stories tell of locals spooking themselves with their own echoes when they shouted into the chimney.

The sand storm of that autumn, and the years hence, was no accident of nature, but a typical and salutary result of hubris mixed with simple desperation. Destabilisation of the older duneland was a slow and inevitable result of human hands: machair turf was ruthlessly stripped for house building; heather and marram uprooted for thatch and bedding. Nairn council banned the practice in the 1660s but evidently this had little effect. This was a time of famine, long winters, rain and wind and failed harvests.

Culbin Sands in 1936

Now Culbin Sands is a quieter place, its echoes muted by the dense forest, the pine needles and moss insulating its historical anguish. The sandy waste, once referred to as ‘Britain’s desert’ and carpeting over 3,500 hectares, is now a fine canopy of Scots Pine, Corsican Pine, and birch (when viewed from the lookout tower of ‘Hilltop 99’). In the nineteenth century a program of stabilisation and reforestation began. By 1900 around 1,200 hectares had been planted, using a stabilising system with marram grass and surface thatching and this continued between the wars. The forest was then felled for the resources required for the Second World War - many of the pine trunks can still be seen embedded in the sand in ‘The Gut’ marshes, to deter the landing of enemy aircraft. The Forestry Commission resumed planting and by the late 1960s there was over 2,500 hectares under plantation.

Today, a discreet brown tourist sign for ‘Culbin Sands’ points north from the busy artery of the A96 between Forres and Nairn, and into a vast and unexpected forest. Geometric arable fields, studded with hay bales and rolling combines in September, suddenly abut a dense wall of dark green pines, shielding a curious and cautionary tale of the embedded impact of humans when the climate turns. Something feels odd about stepping into a pine forest swirled and bedded with sand. Biblical warnings come to mind and a quick googling of the history of the place brings up images of a black and white Victoriana of a quite different character: figures photographed stepping up dunes of sand as though post-carded from the Sahara, the odd wisp of marram grass punctuating grand curves and parabolas of nature’s rule of change and mobility. Now, the car-park maps suggest trails through this sandy-footed maze of vertical tree trunks, gridded plots and straight path lines, its crossroads numbered, thankfully so for the wanderer seeking the way home. It is a wilderness of order and easy to lose one’s bearings in its repetition, and the forest hides any sightline and muffles any directional sounds. The old parabolic curves of the historic sand dunes are lost to time amongst the new forestry, but can still be apprehended in parts where small landslips show bellies of ochre sand under a painfully thin skin of pine needle humus.

It is a pleasant and meditative landscape - dragonflies quarter the paths ahead of you, the sea appears suddenly in a firebreak, voices can be heard ghostly-sudden from the invisible trails and lookout tower, and the wind troubles the canopy with the whisper of memories. Perhaps a voice from the past best gives the sense of place:

'The wind comes rushing down through the openings between the hills, carrying with it immense torrents of sand, with a force and violence almost overpowering. Clouds of dust are raised from the tops of the mounds and are whirled about in the wildest confusion and fall with the force of hail. Nothing can be seen but sand above, sand below and sand everywhere. You dare not open your eyes but must grope your way about as if blindfolded.'
John Martin of Elgin describing Culbin during a 17th century sandstorm

Monday, August 13, 2018

Highlands history from Edinburgh University Press

Edinburgh University Press is the home of scholarship for Scottish history, in particular the history of the Highlands, having published the likes of Eric Richards' Debating The Highland Clearances, Tom Furniss's Discovering the Footsteps of Time, Robert Dodgshon's history of the rural environment called No Stone Unturned, and John Roberts' history of the Highland clans Feuds, Forays and Rebellions

A tremendous resource for the lay historian and scholar alike is the journal Northern Scotland, which is moving to two issues a year as of 2019. It is the home for seminal articles on the history of the Highlands and Islands, including such popular issues as land ownership, culture, emigration and diaspora, and biography. It is chaired by Annie Tindley who is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Newcastle University.

Annie is also editor of the new book series at EUP, called 'Scotland's Land' which has just published its first volume:

Title: The Land Agent 
Author: Annie Tindley, Lowri Ann Rees and Ciarán Reilly
Publication: Edinburgh University Press, June 2018
Hardback ISBN: 9781474438865

The first volume in the 'Scotland's Land' monograph series, this book was commissioned to examine the historical personalities involved in the controversial role of the 'land agent' in Britain between 1700 and 1920, darkly linked with the controversies of the Highland clearances in Scotland, but more broadly representing the British use (and abuse) of empirical power.

Land agents were variously known as 'factors', 'commissioners', 'stewards', 'bailiffs', or 'agents'. Today popular mythology might imagine them as Hollywood-style FBI agents exhibiting emotionless power, standardly suited to distinguish them as impersonal messengers of law, holding a hand to their ear-pieces. 'Don't blame the messenger . . .' - was that the case, or was it more sinister?

Agents were tasked with running landed estates, collecting rents, settling disputes, applying estate policy and were seen as the middlemen in the larger relationship between national economic interest and local rural community. The power invested in them, despite being based on legal statute (many were lawyers, such as Patrick Sellar), was in reality interpreted by the whim of personality and this book takes a number of case studies to show how policy was lensed through the personalities of the land agents themselves. These agents were often reputationally despised and set into folk memory as venal characters - there are many 'memories, not histories' of nefarious factors who populated the Highlands, as well as in  lowland Glasgow, for example a famous 'highland' public house The Lismore commemorates the factor/lawyer Patrick Sellar with a suitably positioned plaque in its urinals. But were they all so despicable?

The chapter 'Not a Popular Personage', by the historian Ewen Cameron, discusses various Scottish factors between 1870 and 1920. One poignant example of a compromised man is the Skye factor Angus Mackintosh, who was a Gaelic speaker from Daviot employed to mediate between local tenants and the Kilmuir estate when a lease on land expired. Forced to identify those who forcibly occupied the contested land ('raiders'), he was ostracized by the community, baptised with the contents of a night-bucket, and found himself unable to resolve complexities, powers and promises which were fundamentally irreconcilable.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Landscape Notes: Broad Law


The rolling hills east of the modern motorway of the M74 hold much more character and history than they appear from the west, where they are now flanked by forestries of spruce and wind-farms. In medieval times this was a Scottish royal hunting ground – the ‘Ettrick Forest’.  Further east towards the Tweed valley, there are echoes of a deeper Scottish history in the border towns of Hawick, Selkirk, Galashiels, Peebles and Kelso, all on the banks of the historic River Tweed and famous for their medieval forts and abbeys. 

Looking west from Broad Law to the monoculture forestry and wind-farms of 21st C Scotland

This range of hills, along with the northern flanks of the Cheviot hills, marks the geographical transition to the once-contested border with Northumberland, with its high pass over Carter Bar on the A68. The more useful sense of boundaries are suggested not by the roads but by the watersheds: to the north the waters drain into the River Clyde; to the south and west into the River Annan through Moffat to spill into the Solway Firth; to the south and east into Liddlesdale; and to the east the River Tweed escapes out of the hills to meander north past Norham Castle to the sea at Berwick-Upon-Tweed, marking the border with England for some of its way.

The names of the hills – ‘Law’, ‘Cleuch’, ‘Fell’, ‘Knowe’, ‘Rig’, ‘Pen’, ‘Hill’ – mark a linguistic transition to Anglo-Saxon, Brittonic and Norse influences on the Lowlands, away from the Highland Gaelic names such as ‘Beinn’, ‘Binnein’ and ‘Meall’. A ‘law’ is a rounded or conical hill, a ‘rig’ is a ridge, a ‘knowe’ is a small hill like the English ‘knoll’, and ‘Pen’ means ‘head’ or ‘peak’, from the older Brittonic tongue that still survives in modern Welsh, in which country are many famous hills such as Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons. The strange-sounding ‘cleuch’ is a Lowland Scots term for a ravine or steep-sided valley, a variant of the Middle English ‘clough’.

The Megget Stone

The walk to the summit is usually shortened by an approach from the roadside Megget Stone. This is a famous boundary-marking standing stone on the watershed of the pass between Talla and Megget reservoirs – supposedly marking the ancient western boundary of the Ettrick Forest hunting grounds. The parish of Megget was originally part of an older Scottish barony of Rodonna and was later granted by Alexander II to Melrose Abbey in 1236. This aged history gives way rather suddenly at the summit of Broad Law to the modernity of the 21st century, with the distinctive phased radio array station known as a 'VHF omnidirectional range' (VOR) which is used by planes to fix position in the local area when passing over.

Broad Law VOR Station

The distinctive mountain plateau is carpeted by short grass and sedges, with flanks of heather. Skylarks nest here in summer and their distinctive improvised song is redolent of any summer ascent of Scottish hills. Also of interest to the botanist is the plateau flora, including the distinctive cloudberry. This can be found amongst the young heather in huge mats on the slopes of Broad Law. This is an arboreal mountain berry of the Rosacea family (Rubus chamaemorus), its red berry appearing in distinctive single fruits above often burnt-looking carpets of leaves in summer. The hard and bitter red berry gradually ripens to an edible golden colour in late summer.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Spring, again

Achray Autumn Arete from John Stewart Watson on Vimeo.

The boulders sit on a small wooded alp under the crag overlooking the Achray Water sliding by below, a ribbon of invisible clarity full of spring's snow-melt. It's early April in Scotland. A dipper's song rings out as it scouts downstream, a metallic squirt of noise like a kid's water-pistol. It's a religiously regular little corner of the bouldering world for me. The big beech tree beside the boulders is still in penitential winter garb, its bare limbs pale and its buds still tight-lipped whorls reluctant to sing any green matins just yet. Wild goats and their kids meander out of the forest onto the road, crossing the bridge in a slow pilgrimage, stopping traffic.

I sit on the mat feeling the familiar hot-ache tingle from the cold morning rock, my tendons tuning up and vibrating in their parcels of flesh. Bouldering can feel very organic at times. Especially in solitude when you're working a problem or two: the adrenaline pump of a sudden tumble onto the mat; the gradual erosion of skin on the rough schist rock; the feeling of the body warming up to its capacity like an old engine full of valves and pumps.

No matter the capacity of that engine, paying attention to the small details of reward is the key to bouldery enlightenment. The stations of attempting any problem are like abandoned prayers, like a hungover monk stumbling half way through a well-known psalm, forgetting it completely, then trying again from the top. But for the climber it's a bodily, embedded prayer, a much more secular thing of matching the pitch of the stone, recalling its geological lyrics. The hidden notes in the stone. I stop between attempts, deliberately resting and recruiting muscle strength for another go, gradually getting closer to linking the whole sequence, just eight hand moves, to the top of the boulder. It may be a small world but it is a big space for a lot to go awry: not twisting the hip enough here; missing the hold's alignment by a pinkie; letting the swing take your feet off ... dropping onto the mat, smacking the chalk ball to the ground in frustration. It rolls off down a muddy slope in revenge.

Then it begins to arrive: the full absorption, the dissolution. The natural world drifts away and the mind conjoins with what the body is thinking, leaving a blank like an interference pattern on a pond. Much as surfers talk about catching a wave, you catch things just right and at the right moments, swimming upwards with the required ergonomics, and the problem is 'sent'. Which sometimes feels like the right word as it is gone from you again, like a letter to an unknown address, unreclaimable, in another's hands. You write another letter, with the same result, but perhaps with not quite the same words. The skin is gone now, slipping off the quartz, not biting, and it's time to fold the mat, pack the kit and let the world in again.

I walk down to the river mouth at the lochside, to dip my stinging fingers in the cold waters. A gull cruises over a gravel bank, suddenly dips and picks up what looks like a dead frog. The bird carries the amphibious little body away to the skies, the frog's long legs dangling uselessly, its arms outstretched in the gull's webbed grip. An aerial crucifixion comedy. The gull drops the frog and a screaming mass of other gulls descend on the oblivious bounty. I shake my head with pity. Religious themes seem to abound today: the endless sacrifice of the body, the way of the world - life and death in discreet places. Spring, again ...

An Eye for a Stone

The finding of a hand-axe, a flint arrow, or any 'lithic artefact' wielded by our ancestors fills the lucky finder with an overwhelming sense of awe and often a rarely experienced emotion of kinship mixed with the vertigo of time. It overwhelms feelings of territory and colony, much like the astronauts report on first viewing our little blue planet from space. Even lifting them from academy storage drawers, or gazing at them behind museum glass, they command awe, respect and a light touch. They prefigure everything: survival, craft, art, technology, and we grip in our hand a stone-age hand axe exactly as we would an iPhone.

The first people to arrive in Scotland after the intermittent Palaeolithic ice ages crossed into Britain across land bridges from Europe, or simply followed the coastlines up the east and west in simple seacraft, chasing rich and uninhabited territories that had recovered an unexploited flora and fauna after the ice ages. The end of the last major ice age - the Younger Dryas ice age - came around 10,000 BCE and heralded our current geological epoch called the Holocene. Its first human presence saw the Mesolithic culture spread throughout Britain into the Boreal period, based on a nomadic temperament and seasonal hunting and gathering as the weather improved and summer seasons saw animals and plants flourish in a new landscape.

Ardnamurchan is the most westerly peninsula on the British mainland, surrounded by an archipelago of small isles such as Coll, Muck, Rum and Eigg, and the larger mass of Mull. The deep penetration of sea lochs of Loch Linnhe, Loch Sunart and Loch Moidart (with the now fresh-water Loch Shiel which would then have been a sea loch) isolate these peninsulas and create a fractal land fringe that is far better accessed by small boat than by impenetrable coastal forests and bog-mired flats or 'moine' in Gaelic. Morvern, Ardnamurchan, Morvern and Moidart are isolated geologies that became home to our Mesolithic ancestors after the retreat of the glaciers as they melted slowly under the ingress of swelling seas. As the sea lochs encroached the people began to arrive, with an adventurous paddling spirit - a nomadic hunting people utilising small seacraft, taking advantage of an unexploited fauna to be discovered at the foot of estuaries and on islands such as Risga. In Ardnamurchan, confirmed Mesolithic sites have been discovered on Risga, and at the bay sites Camas nan Geall, Fascadale and Sanna, with outlier shell midden sites in Moidart such as Bruach na Maorach in Kentra Bay, and Loch Doilet at Polloch.

One area that always struck me as a possible contender for a summer camp in these ages would have been the shell-rich estuary of Loch Shiel where the river currently exits through a narrow gorge into Loch Moidart (beside Castle Tioram). The steep loch sides are crenellated with schist and psammite crags, providing many natural rock shelters and elevated positions above a river which would have provided not only shellfish but a narrow outlet for trapping salmon. The boulder-strewn oak, birch, hazel, and pine woodlands sheltered elk, wild cattle, red deer, wolf, bear, lynx and wild boar, but with enough natural cover enough to surprise or ambush them. Small hunting parties would have touched the same rocks modern climbers enjoy, to peek round and over boulders, leaning out slowly to motion others into position, wind in their faces, treading softly through an environment as yet unhindered by Rhododendron screens. The boulder-fields also provide natural rock shelters and camp caves, close enough to the shore (then around 10m higher than today's levels) to carry up a haul of shellfish for an evening meal. The remains of these create small middens of discarded seashells and and early stone versions of hand axes, scrapers and improvised oyster shucks which litter the floor of rock shelters and caves.

Loch Sunart is a key site in archaeology circles with the most significant dig unearthing a mesolithic camp and midden on Risga, suggesting people moved into this area fairly rapidly after the ice age retreated. The fact that large swathes of it missed the worst of glaciation and likely saw the seas flood in first allowed a rich fauna to spread up the coasts, with the high ground still under snow and ice. The local schist geology (outside of the volcanic Ardnamurchan gabbro areas), is sometimes a marbled and quartzed psammite, and is very amenable to being split into quartz-edged tools for immediate use. The well-documented mesolithic community on Rum also quarried the famous 'bloodstone' which has been documented at these sites suggesting an archipelago of communities or families and perhaps an element of trading. However, the local geology is just good enough for tools: the pebbles and flakes of quartz found on the shore would do as limpet-hammers and scrapers, so having an environment which doubles as a tool-shed makes the area attractive for settlers. The rich woodland and hazel groves provide fauna and fruits for a hunter gatherer's eye.

Handling a stone hand-axe or scraper, you notice a few key practical things that are not apparent in photos or diagrams - these are the physical keys to the artefact, comprising a mixture of heft, balance, ergonomic design and often ambidextrousness or at least reversibility should an edge break. The axe I hold has a sharp quartz edge on three edges, all planed by a keen eye for the strike of the geology they are handling. The stone has been struck to produce a three-sided longitudinal pyramid, slightly flattened so it settles in either palm. The right hand holds the artefact comfortably with the leading directional forefinger perfectly cupping a niche at the top of the axe, allowing a directional finesse to any scraping or cutting required. Swap the axe into the other hand, reversed on its axis and the left hand has an alternative edge, with much the same balance. This tool may not have been used much before being discarded - the quartz edges aren't too worn, but are very sharp, like a new kitchen knife, whilst other edges have a light patina from wear. The axe was likely set down one day and the owner never came back, or moved elsewhere, and never came back, finding a new geology to shape and strike to the uses of the day.

To a climber, the handling of the geology, the feel of the stone, is key to the art of technique. The technique of climbing is always embedded in the stone, the way some say a surfing line lies in the weft of the wave, and for the heart of the climb the stone's potential lies in the way it demands being handled. Too juggy and straightforward and we move upward without much thought. Deviously curved, subtly featured and counter-planed and we find a dance in the stone that leaves us satisfied and thrilled, resolving questions hidden in the geology. We don't of course advocate chipping of holds, though it is interesting to watch indoor resin holds being designed this way - chipping away at a foam mould may be the climber's equivalent of chipping a hand-axe. To the wilderness boulderer perhap what we find in situ, what we star as excellence, are the same qualities a stone-age hunter may have valued: the way the stone fits in the hand; the directionality of the edge; the ergonomic mix of hand and foot-hold as our body moves through the shapes required. The friction of the sedimentary stone, heavily compacted into a pleasant gripping texture on the skin, necessitates a balance of the body for upward movement without falling, perhaps like the strike of a mesolithic hand as it shapes a strike on the substrate, finding the shape of the tool within. I think of the hunter who squatted in this cave, and myself picking up the tool, separated by 10,000 years, not so very different, both with an eye for a stone, awaiting its movement and utility.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mountaineering in Scotland - Years of Change

The second volume in the Scottish Mountaineering Trust's epic history of Scotting climbing - Scottish Mountaineering: Years of Change - is another essential addition to the mountaineer's bookshelf. Written by author and climber Ken Crocket, who also penned the first volume ('The Early Years'), Ken Crocket's long involvement with the SMC makes him a reliable leader in this complex territory: his attention to detail and evidence exhibits the editorial rigour these volumes require, without losing that sense of drama required for the retelling.

The heady mix of legendary climbing characters who populate this volume give the narrative focus as it takes an intriguing traverse through the various clubs, 'scenes' and individuals who seemed not only to climb the best routes, but who also seemed to rope together the changing generations as Harold Raeburn and Jimmy Bell gave way to Jock Nimlin and WH Murray, who in turn passed the baton to the likes of Jimmy Marshall, Hamish MacInnes, Robin Smith, John Cunningham, and Tom Patey, who are legendary new-routers all given due attention and context. The history of climbing in this 'golden era' from 1914 to 1971 includes the debilitating effects of two world wars, but also includes the revival of exploration on the Scottish mountain crags which began to explore the steeper, blanker walls as the technology changed.

The author gives due attention to the development of new technology such as the ice axe, including Hamish MacInnes' legendary drop-head ice-axe which was christened 'The Message', without which modern technical mixed climbing would not be possible, as well as the invention of the longer, lighter 'nylon' rope in the late 40s (which was dynamic and stretchy, allowing the possibility of safer, longer falls). Boots were still cumbersome and front-points for winter were still some way off, so many summer and winter routes still relied on a bold approach with a requirement for long sieges on walls, a single-mindedness, strong legs and the ability to force technique through steep ground, despite still relying on the intermittent protection of pegs, slings and often no more than a steady head. The epitome of this approach was Robin Smith's ascent of Shibboleth on Slime Wall in Glen Coe in 1958, which required several visits due to onsight setbacks, necessities and accidents (his second Andrew Fraser breaking his leg in a fall and requiring a legendary and impressive rescue). The recounting of these first ascents reminds us how information was received through the fingers, not the internet, and how impressive it was to climb without beta with little sense of what lay above.

The book is divided into both chronological and geographical chapters, with periods of key development attributed to new club scenes and city 'weekenders' as climbing and mountaineering became a popular weekend leisure activity being democratised somewhat by the opening of road routes and the affordability of cars and motor-bikes as much as cheaper public transport. The key introductory chapter 'A Shadow of War' shows the true cost of WW1 on some key Scottish mountaineers. The sheer number of casualties must have included numerous unnamed mountaineers, but key victims included Charles Inglis Clark, T E Goodeve, and indeed Hugh Munro who contracted pneumonia on top of wartime malaria and passed in 1919. Interestingly WW2, whilst just as withering to the climbing populace, paradoxically led to an advance in technology. Many soldiers and navy personnel had used the Scottish mountains and coasts as key habitats for training (rope, axe, navigation, clothing and boot technology all improved whilst rations declined). 'The War Years (1940-1944)' chapter and the 'Post-War Breakthroughs (1943-49)' chapter continue the theme of technology and the opening of the crags to a more technical approach, as well as older climbers (Bell, Mackenzie, Murray) acting as mentors or at least trend-setters for a new generation (Smith, Haston et al).

This a detailed and absorbing history of a multitudinous activity, involving a variety of geologies, areas, clubs, individuals, even, and perhaps especially, social classes (but maybe that theme is more for the sociology textbooks). The character of Scottish mountaineering is not something that can easily be pinned down to a unique epithet or single approach - indeed the classic 'mixed' territory of Scottish mountaineering (winter ice, snow and 'mixed' ground; summer 'trad' and cragging) is perhaps its overarching if slightly elusive characteristic in this era, when free adventure and exploration was still the kick, and the Scottish mountains were largely untouched by the information overload and the refined styling of modern climbing. Crocket also does a fine job of showing how Scottish mountaineering had such an impact on the development of modern international climbing (in the Alps and beyond).  This a book which rewards rereading and will become a key reference work for those looking for a little more detail and context than found in the first ascent listings and sector introductions of guidebooks. The focus on some key routes and their first ascents provides an entertaining rope for us to follow, and the knowledge of the differing geologies and characteristics of these routes is something no-one other than a climber dedicated to Scotland would be able to recreate.

The production of the book is clean, rugged and functional, and hefty at 374 pages - so it's great value for money at £25 and fits snuggly into the growing list of the SMT's general reference works. The photographic plate sections provide some rarely-seen or indeed exclusive shots from the archives, such as Roger Robb's 1960s early colour shots of Skye; a cracking Narnain boulders bivi shot of the 1925 JMCS;  and some interesting 'Creag Dhu' photos of John Cunningham on Punster's Crack and Eric Taylor on Gallows Route. In this image hungry era, it may have been good to see more photographs in print (though granted it's an expensive luxury) but perhaps an SMC online appendix could be created for these books, showcasing the many images from the archive?

Ken Crocket brings a black and white era into a Kodachrome era without losing any sense of colour for the older generations, indeed his lithe writing style and his magpie eye for a shiny detail brings a light touch to what could be a heavy wade through the deep powder of historical record. Thankfully the author has blazed the trail for us, leaving us the luxury of considering where we are now with all these remarkable ghosts climbing beside us. A tremendous achievement and a challenging lead for the the author of the 'modern' volume to follow!

The book is available on Amazon of course, but also on the SMC website here.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Scottish Classic 7a Boulder Problems: Craigmaddie

Thinking of the best lines in Scotland around the classic grade of 7a, which is rapidly becoming something of a warm-up for the indoor-honed youth these days, the usual qualities apply: aesthetic line, rock quality, features, moves, technique, trickery. However, sometimes not all of these need apply and the problem is classic despite being somewhat camouflaged from the standard qualities of a 'classic' boulder problem. There are many such problems at the sandstone venue of Craigmaddie where the rock quality is never perfect, the lines are generally not striking and are merged into vegetation, and to be fair many boulderers have just walked on by. But the outlook is superb and the climbing is often terrific. The best 7a at Craigmaddie? Many might say Abracadabra, but I find its lip-lunging a little repetitive and a bit morpho. My favourite would be Easyjet Direct - a butch roof problem on the higher tier which has a lie-down start in sheep shit, has no distinct 'line' and ends in a scruffy beg to the top on a lichenous slab. However, the moves on the solid rock roof section are superb and the whole thing is satisfying for some reason, plus it seems to be a popular problem as it exhibits two key markers of bouldering technique: finger strength and core strength. Plus a spare shoe or two for the ruinous heel-toe lock.

Craigmaddie: Easyjet Direct (Font 7a) from John Stewart Watson on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


It's an elusive juice - sporting inspiration. Athletes talk of 'form' and how difficult it is to peak to their optimum performance, as well as the mental glass ceilings they need to break through to achieve these goals. It's a lonely affair too. In the dark Scottish months when it's hard to feel motivated, some stories just show what's possible and perhaps how weak most of us are at forcing the issue (why we're happy to be bumblers!). Dave MacLeod has always inspired me, not because he is the 'strongest' climber or sends the hardest lines (he freely admits he isn't and doesn't). After a long recovery from a shoulder injury, he has just climbed Catalán Witness the Fitness which has to rank as one of the most intricate (and powerful) problems in Europe. Dave is used to roofs - he cut his teeth at Dumbarton on the likes of Pressure, and more recently the long roof problems at Arisaig Cave such as 4th Wave. Dave has written a terrific piece in Rock & Ice magazine about this experience. Time to set some goals for the season!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Mountains, Risk, and Volume

Many volumes have been written on risk from the point of view of Economics, Evolutionary Theory, Society, etc.but risk on the hills is becoming a lot more topical with the sheer volume of people approaching mountains as something akin to 'instant freedom' from the urban world or as a monetised escape. The recent criticism of mountaineering as rich people building their CV and measures to limit ascents of Everest, for example, have brought this issue to the fore. What are our mountaineering responsibilities and rights in a 'post-exploration' world?

Our author Francis Sanzaro (author of 'The Boulder'), now editor of Rock & Ice, has written an intriguing piece for the New York Times on our right to take risks in the mountains.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Boulder Scotland bouldering app

We've just signed a deal with Vertical Life to license Stone Country guides on their terrific app. Check it out and download to IOS or Android. Buyers of the book will soon find a stickered code inside the book which allows them a free download of the app. It's very functional, clean and easy to use, plus they have dozens of other guidebooks available to use on the app. We hope the app is available from January 2018. Those who have purchased the book already can email us for a code to unlock the app.