Thursday, 6 July 2017

Book Review: The Scottish Bothy Bible

by Geoff Allan
This book reveals the location of what many outdoor enthusiasts regard as the 'hidden gems' of Scotland, that network of bothies - simple shelters in remote places - scattered throughout Scotland which offer shelter to all comers.

This isn't the first guide to the bothies of Scotland to be published but Geoff Allan has spent some considerable time on this work and he has done it properly. It is the most comprehensive guide to Scottish bothies anyone could ever hope for!

In his book he gives an insight into the history of the bothy and the work of the Mountain Bothies Association, that organisation which looks after the maintenance of bothies. He has a few words to say about bothy ettiquette and the Bothy Code, hillcraft and safety and how to travel around the highlands, especially in the remote areas.

Set out in logical order Geoff divides Scotland into areas and lists the bothies in each. Northern Highlands, North West Highlands, Western Highlands, Central Highlands, Eastern Highlands, South West Highlands, Southern Scotland and last, but not least, the Islands.

Lavishly illustrated with stunning photographs which will make you want to dig out your hill gear and get out there each featured bothy also has a good description of how to get there and what to expect when you do. How many rooms does it have? Is there a fireplace? What kind of floor is there? Are there sleeping platforms? Is there a handy water supply?

These are some of the important considerations for a stay at any bothy and armed with this information it is possible to make allowances for any shortcomings a bothy may have and help to make your stay as comfortable as it can be.

Some people say this book should not have been published. Why not? Because it may lead to an increase in the numbers of hillwalkers, ramblers, mountaineers and others using these bothies and in doing so lead, through overuse, to a deterioration of the bothy and its environs. But considering the amount of information already published about bothies that particular cat is already out of the bag!

If you are a hill enthusiast then a copy of this book should be sitting on your bookshelf. As well as being an excellent resource for planning a trip to the great outdoors it's a wonderful book to browse through on a rainy afternoon - just what you need to get your hill juices flowing!

For more about bothies read this article The Bothy Code.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Scotland's shrinking!


One of Scotland's most popular outdoor activities, Munro-bagging is set to become a little bit easier - and it's all due to global warming! In case you haven't heard of it Munro-bagging refers to climbing all of Scotland's hills which rise to a height of over 3000 feet (or 914.4 metres if you prefer the metric measurement).

The Munro family coat of arms
It all started with a man who was obsessed by Scotland's hills or more precisely by their height. Sir Hugh Munro, 4th Baronet of Lindertis (that's the family coat of arms you see here) was born in London in 1856 but was brought up in Scotland on the family estate of Lindertis near Kirriemuir in Angus.

Sir Hugh was a keen mountaineer and hillwalker from a young age and in 1889 he helped to establish the Scottish Mountaineering Club - Scotland's second-oldest such club. His list of 3000-foot-plus mountains was first published just two years later in the club journal.

This list caused considerable surprise in the mountaineering world as, until it was published, it was thought by most climbers that the number of mountains exceeding 3000 feet was as low as 30, not the much greater number which Munro claimed. His original list contained 283 hills but this has been revised several times over the years and the current list of mountains in Scotland which exceed 3000 feet has been set by the Scottish Mountaineering Club as 282.

These mountains are now known as Munros and in Scotland it is a surprisingly popular activity (almost an obsession to some) to attempt to climb them all and around 150,000 people try to do just that every year.To date well over 5000 people have officially 'compleated' at least one round of Munros and many have done multiple rounds.

A panorama of several Scottish mountains

So how will global warming affect those who wish to climb all the Munros? Actually climbing these hills won't really get any easier but one thing which might happen is that the number of official Munros may decrease.

How so? Well, global warming means that the ice-caps will melt resulting in an increase in sea levels and since the height of a Munro is measured from mean sea level which will, of course, increase due to the general increase in sea levels, then the Munros will, in effect, 'shrink' a little in height.

Some mountains in Glen coe

Not only that but increasing sea levels will result in the sea shoreline 'creeping' inland thus reducing the land area of Scotland. So Scotland and its mountains are in danger of 'shrinking'!

Of course, this won't just happen in Scotland it will happen worldwide but only in Scotland is there this inexplicable fascination with whether a hill is or isn't a Munro. There are some hillwalkers I know of who won't even consider climbing a hill unless it is a Munro - an attitude I just can't get my head around because there are so many worthwhile and spectacular hills in Scotland which are below that magic 3000 feet level.

The Bealach na Ba on a sunny day

There is even a breed of hillwalker who shuns any of the revised lists of Munros and will stick rigidly to Sir Hugh's original list. I can understand this attitude and I lean towards it myself. Sir Hugh didn't have the benefit of modern technologies when he surveyed Scotland's hills but he did a magnificent job to come up with the list he did and any alteration to it would seem to be an insult to his memory.

Global warming notwithstanding there are some things which simply shouldn't be interfered with!

All images are in the public domain

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

It's glorious!

Silhouette of a grouse in a field with the sun behind
CC0 image from Pixabay

No, not the day when we get to moan about all those little things which annoy us in our daily life!

In Scotland the 12th of August is the day the grouse shooting season begins. Known as the 'Glorious Twelfth' this day is eagerly awaited by those of the huntin', shootin', fishin' fraternity who are prepared to pay considerable sums of cold, hard cash for the privilege of bagging a few brace of one of Scotland's game birds - the red grouse.

In fact, there are some eye-watering numbers involved in a day's grouse shooting: up to £180 per brace (two birds) and a two-day shoot for a party of eight could cost their host something approaching £50,000 - definitely a rich man's sport!

A bird of the heather moor, red grouse are regarded as the 'king of game birds' and are found only in Scotland, Ireland and the north of England. There is a tradition that the first grouse shot in a season are rushed to expensive London restaurants with top chefs waiting anxiously for their delivery of the newly-killed birds in a race to see who can get the first grouse dish on the table to be consumed by eager diners who will have booked months in advance at prices approaching £100 per person.

Fast cars, trains, airplanes and helicopters will all be on standby at dawn on the 12th, waiting for the sound of the guns to herald the start of the 121-day grouse shooting season and when the first birds are downed and retrieved by the waiting dogs the race is on! Great excitement is generated by this tradition (it even makes the national news) but it is mainly a public relations stunt because grouse, like all game birds, taste better after they've been 'hung' for a few days (which apparently allows bacteria to do its work and mature the meat - yuk!).

Since grouse cannot be farmed in the same way that chickens are a huge industry (for industry it is) has developed to maintain grouse moors where the birds can thrive and live peaceful lives - until the 12th of August each year that is!

During the grouse shooting season about 40,000 'guns' will come from all over the world to contribute to this industry which employs directly and indirectly about 2500 people and generates in total some £150 million for the UK economy and regardless what we may think of killing animals for 'sport' that is a considerable sum and means that this traditional 'sport' is likely to continue for as long as there are grouse to shoot.

Personally, I'd rather open a tin of soup!

Some information from Wikipedia and in-text links.

Friday, 29 July 2016

The lynx are coming!


A lynx with its tufted ears showing
Bernard Landgraf/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
It's beginning to look possible that the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) is going to be brought back to Scotland after an absence of 1300 years.

Native to Britain and once widespread here the lynx is one of those species which Man drove to extinction in the UK many, many years ago but now the Lynx UK Trust is set to return this medium-sized feline to the Scottish countryside.

This intended introduction is a 5-year trial and if it gets the go-ahead from the relevant government agencies it is planned to release 10 individuals - 5 male and 5 female - into a large forested area on the Scottish-English border.

There are also some public consultations still to take place but so far approval rates from those consultations which have already taken place have been up to 91% - it seems that the public have overcome any reservations they may have had about the introduction of a large predator back into the countryside!

The location

The favoured area is the Kielder Forest which is actually mostly in England not Scotland but much of the northern boundary of the forest park closely follows the border between Scotland and England and part of the park spills over into southern Scotland and it is this border area which is being considered as the primary release site.

At 250 square miles (three-quarters of which is covered by forest) Kielder Forest is owned by the Forestry Commission and is the largest man-made woodland in England. It was chosen over several other possible locations because it is sparsely-populated, has few roads, no railway and doesn't have much in the way of sheep or other livestock farming but it does have a large population of Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus - a smaller cousin of the red deer). They are pretty much the same size as the lynx and would make ideal prey for them - they just love a decent venison dinner!

The cat

The Eurasian Lynx is a medium-sized cat with an average adult male being about 4 feet in length, standing 2½ feet high and weighing in at around 60lbs - about the same size as the average German Shepherd dog. The females are slightly smaller than the males. They are a solitary species which carves out a territory the size of which varies according to the availability of prey. They favour dense forest into which they can disappear and hide from all human contact (wise creatures!). In fact, they are so good at hiding that they are rarely seen and are known in parts of their range as the ghost cat. Footprints and the remains of their prey are normally the only signs that they are present. It is Europe's second largest land predator (after the brown bear) and is quite capable of bringing down a deer twice its own size.

Worldwide there are reckoned to be about 50,000 Eurasian Lynx. They are a protected species through much of their range and their conservation status is ''least concern'' (IUCN). Most of them are in Russia, China, Scandinavia and eastern Europe with a sprinkling to be found throughout western Europe - and eventually also possibly in the UK!  As you can see from the photographs the lynx is an attractive-looking feline with a spotted coat, a short stubby tail and those distinctive tufted ears.

Those individuals which come to Scotland will be captured wild specimens which are likely to come from several sources to ensure genetic diversity - Scandinavia, Germany and Eastern Europe being the most likely sources of suitable specimens. In the wild lynx will live for 10-15 years and are capable of producing up to four kittens once a year and with no competition and nothing to predate on them it is highly likely that they will thrive in Kielder.

A Eurasian lynx showing its attractive spotted coat and tufted ears
mpiet/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0 Germany

The argument for

Humans were responsible for the disappearance of the lynx so do we have a moral responsibility to put them back? Maybe - but there is also a practical reason why we should.

There has been much debate over the years about reintroducing various species which have been wiped out by Man back into ecosystems. The current thinking amongst those who are in favour of doing so is that it is simply a restoration of the balance of nature which Man, through ignorance or greed, has destroyed and doing so has allowed other species to proliferate beyond sensible levels. This ''restoration of balance'' was convincingly seen when the wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1995.

Hunted and persecuted to extinction in Yellowstone in the mid-1920s their loss allowed their main prey species, the elk, to spread to such an extent that much of the park was overgrazed and the whole ecosystem was damaged. The elk no longer had to worry about predation by wolves and could simply graze an area bare and then move on to fresh pastures. This resulted in the decline of certain species of tree and beaver became scarce. Other species also suffered. Bringing back the wolf redressed the balance and led to other unexpected benefits. The elk could no longer afford to be complacent and were constantly moving around to avoid the wolves. Overgrazed areas recovered and tree species began to thrive once more and beavers, and others, returned to the park. This showed how important a top predator was for the health of an ecosystem.

A single roe deer standing in a field
Jojo/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
In Kielder Forest the roe deer population is larger than the land can comfortably support and they are culled regularly in an attempt to keep their population within manageable levels.

Reintroducing 10 lynx isn't really going to have any direct effect on the total number of roe deer in Kielder but it will have the effect of making them ''look over their shoulder'' in the same way the elk in Yellowstone had to relearn to do, keeping them on the move and negating any overgrazing effects on particular areas and if the trial is successful more lynx may follow - and then the roe deer can really start to worry!

Admittedly, the situation in Kielder isn't the same as it was in Yellowstone but it is hoped that the reintroduction of lynx to Kielder Forest will have a similar effect on the environment as the reintroduction of the wolf had on Yellowstone National Park - a ''renormalisation'' of the ecosystem back to something resembling what it was before Man started to interfere. The exact effects of any reintroduction will, of course, only become apparent with time.

The Lynx UK Trust also believe that reintroducing lynx will be of great financial benefit to the local community. Wildlife and eco-tourism is big business and similar introductions elsewhere in Europe have resulted in visitor centres and guided tours along with camera traps and well-positioned observation hides bringing much-needed income into rural areas.

The argument against

Livestock: Understandably, there is some concern in certain quarters about reintroducing a large predator back into our countryside. Sheep farmers in particular fear that lynx will start to prey on their flocks and indeed a herd of sheep fenced-in to a small area would be an easy target for a hungry lynx but this isn't likely to happen in Kielder. Lynx are a forest animal and sheep are creatures of the open moorland - and never the twain shall meet! That's not to say that lynx would never take sheep but consider this: in the UK it is estimated that some 18,000 sheep and other farm animals are killed or injured by dogs each year (National Farmers Union). Lynx aren't going to take anywhere near that number but any loss is unacceptable to the farming community and a compensation scheme has been suggested for sheep losses which can be proved to be due to lynx predation. Such schemes operate successfully in other countries where wildlife comes into conflict with livestock or arable farming (one has been set up on the Isle of Mull as a response to the threat to lambs from the white-tailed sea eagle).

A red squirrel eating a nut
Peter Trimming/Wikipedia CC-BY 2.0
Native wildlife: Although roe deer are the preferred prey of the lynx they do take other animals as well. Kielder Forest is a major stronghold in England of the red squirrel. 10 lynx aren't going to devastate the squirrel population but any loss of Britain's native squirrel is to be regretted and if lynx numbers increase red squirrels and other native species may find themselves under pressure and if the lynx ever make it to northern Scotland they could pose a threat to the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), the largest member of the grouse family, and the Scottish wildcat both of which are forest dwellers like the lynx and both of which are threatened with extinction in Scotland.

Threat to people and pets: No - lynx do no attack people, at least not as a matter of course. It is possible that a lynx which is sick, old and hungry may take whatever easy prey offers itself but that isn't going to be a poodle out for a walk with its owner!

The Law of Unintended Consequences: Sod's Law - ''If It Can Go Wrong It Probably Will'' No matter how well planned it may be there will always be unexpected and surprising developments. What about introduced lynx spreading outwith the area they were originally introduced to? Kielder Forest is a big enough place with sufficient prey species to accommodate quite a few lynx but if the lynx population grows sufficiently large then the pressure on young lynx to strike out and find territory of their own may mean that some will attempt to leave the park and set up home elsewhere.

Actually, this probably isn't very likely. Kielder is isolated from any other large area of forest and a lynx would have to be very desperate indeed to expose itself to open moorland (and roads and people) for however long it takes for it to reach a suitable stretch of forest big enough and with enough prey species for it to survive. In addition, the adults which are released will all have radio collars fitted and their every movement will be tracked by satellite. They couldn't leave Kielder without it being known. Mind you, tracking devices do fail and there is always the possibility that one will slip through the net and disappear into the hills - and don't forget any kittens which may be born. They may be both unknown and untraceable . . . never forget Sod's Law!

Future reintroductions

Given that this trial goes ahead, that it is successful and the lynx thrive and don't cause any major problems how likely is it to be repeated elsewhere? Estimates of up to £15,000 per lynx per annum to the local economy of a reintroduction area have been produced and if all goes well and the communities in Kielder see benefits in terms of jobs and income and if the environment can be shown to have been improved by the reintroduction of the lynx I would say that it's quite likely to be repeated!

Kielder Forest was one of several sites in the UK which were considered as a possible release site for the lynx. One site was in the Aberdeen area so could we see further reintroductions of wild lynx to Scotland? And maybe not just the lynx? There have been mutterings in the glens in recent times about reintroducing the wolf back into the Scottish Highlands but that would be a whole different kettle of fish! Lynx are solitary hunters whilst wolves hunt in packs - and there are instances of wolves attacking people (and their poodles!). The public perception of wolves as dangerous to humans will probably forbid any reintroduction for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, brown bears are unlikely ever to be brought back to Scotland but reintroductions of benign (to humans) species are quite possible. Some have already happened - the recent successful reintroductions to Scotland of the beaver and the white-tailed sea eagle in particular have shown that it is possible. Personally, I believe that sensible reintroductions of lost species can only enhance the experiences of those who encounter them on a walk in a wild area or simply see them whilst driving past in their car. It reminds us that, no matter how much technology we surround ourselves with, the world is still basically a wild place.


A lynx in a snow-covered forest
Aconcagua/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The pressure has been building for some time and it looks like this reintroduction of the lynx to Kielder Forest will happen. It isn't yet a done deal but all the signs are promising. If all goes as the Lynx UK Trust hope then the earliest possible date for the arrival of the first cats is spring next year (2017) but that is an optimistic hope and it's likely to take a while longer.

That would be no bad thing - such a move should not be rushed. Public doubts and the doubts of the farming community should be addressed and allayed as much as possible. There will always be those who are opposed but also there will always be those who are in favour of the reintroduction of long-lost species.

The trick is to reach a consensus on how, when and why to do it but any reintroduction of creatures once common in Scotland but wiped out by Man should be carefully considered and only carried out if there is an environmental reason for doing so. Any other reason would be simple vanity and that would be very wrong!

Sources: Some information from Wikipedia plus in-text links.
NOTES: Dr David Hetherington, Ecology Advisor at Cairngorms National Park Authority has written a very interesting essay on the lynx with particular reference to its reintroduction into areas in which it once freely roamed and human reactions to it - Could we live with the lynx? is well-worth reading; and a commercial company has produced a cost-benefit analysis on the financial case for its introduction (on behalf of the Lynx UK Trust).

Saturday, 25 June 2016

ScotWays shows us the way

You can't get lost on Scotland's hills

Well, actually you can - and I'm speaking from personal experience here! Mind you, I wasn't so much ''lost'' more ''not quite sure of my precise location''. I knew to within less than a kilometre where I was but that sort of accuracy simply isn't sufficient to find a bothy I'd never been to before in an area I wasn't familiar with in misty, near-dark conditions.

I may have been unfamiliar with the area but that doesn't mean I didn't know where I was going. You see, in Scotland there exists a whole network of ''Public Rights of Way'' - paths and tracks which the public (that's you and me) have a legal right to follow at any time of the year and no-one not even a stroppy farmer, landlord or gamekeeper has the right to tell you to ''get off my land'' and almost all of them are signposted by an organisation dedicated to the preservation of public access to the countryside.

For many, many years there has been an implied (historic) right of access to Scotland's wild land but this ''right'' was dependent on the local laird/landlord/farmer turning a blind eye to those walking on ''his'' land. This situation led to court battles over access to what the landowners regarded as ''their'' land whilst the people viewed them more as custodians of a public resource and in the middle of the nineteenth century this came to a head with a series of court cases over public access to the countryside.

This public outcry led to the establishment of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society now known simply as ScotWays. They have their headquarters in Edinburgh and ever since 1845 have been working to protect and develop access to the Scottish countryside for everyone. They are most familiar to most people by the presence of their green and white direction signs, which can be found all over Scotland from urban walkways to wild hill paths, pointing the way to what is usually a ''public right of way'' path, track or bridleway.

There are about 7000 recorded rights of way in Scotland and below is a selection of ScotWays signposts from a recent hillwalking trip I took to the Isle of Skye, accompanied by my Wingman

A collage of ScotWays ''right of way'' direction signposts

As you can see, in the Scottish highlands and islands, the signs are in both English and Gaelic - Gaelic name at the top with the English translation below - and these particular examples can be found at the beginning of paths (all of them public rights of way) leading into the hills on Skye and you have the legal right to walk along these paths at any time of the year. The only time a path can be legally blocked by a landowner is to facilitate essential activities (often relating to farms - lambing time for example) in which case the landowner must provide or allow a suitable alternative route.

These public rights of way do not compromise the rights which we have to access unused wild land (upland hill country for example, ie: Scotland's Munros and other mountains) or most inland waterways or coastal waters. With this ''freedom to roam'' comes the responsibility to use it wisely and not interfere with essential activities being carried out by landowners and to follow any diversions which are put in place.

We in Scotland are very lucky in that we have the legal right to go virtually anywhere in Scotland's wild places we wish provided we do so in a responsible manner and to this end there is a Scottish Outdoor Access Code which everyone who goes to the wild lands of Scotland (or indeed anywhere) should be aware of and should follow.

ScotWays, which is a registered charity, is only one of several organisations which work towards maintaining and improving public access to what might otherwise be ''forbidden territory'' for the public but, thanks to their ubiquitous green and white direction signs they are one of the better known ones!

A red deer stag roaring on a Scottish hillside
CC0 image from Pixabay
PS: As it happens I didn't find that bothy before total darkness forced an unplanned overnight bivvy in the warm and comforting embrace (not!) of a plastic survival bag (which is nothing more than an oversized rubbish bin liner!) on a damp and dismal hillside with rutting stags roaring in my eardrums and ensuring I didn't get any sleep (it was September - the middle of the red deer rut in Scotland).

And yes, I was following a public right of way signposted by ScotWays at the time but not even one of ScotWays green and white signposts can mitigate for the ''thumb in bum - mind in neutral'' attitude I displayed on that particular occasion. That'll teach me to waste time by wandering off the path and stopping for too many photographs!

Photo collage by the author

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Midges - the highland terror!

The west highland midge - devils with wings

Anyone who lives in or near the West Highlands of Scotland or who has holidayed there during the summer months will be familiar with the midge, that biting nuisance which can blight anyone's holiday or day trip. Visitors to Scotland are often caught out by the midge even though they may have been warned beforehand. This tiny terror with a wingspan of about 1.4mm (16th inch) is known as 'the scourge of the Highlands' and is quite capable of sending even the strongest man running for cover, a gibbering wreck. They swarm in huge numbers and can completely ruin a pleasant walk turning it into a nightmare from a Stephen King novel.

WHAT ARE THEY? (apart from the devil's disciple)

One of the smallest of the biting flies the West Highland midge belongs to the Order Diptera, the true flies (six legs and one pair of wings). There are believed to be about 35-36 different species in the UK with five or six of them known to attack humans. The species which causes the most problems in Scotland is Culicoides impunctatus which can be translated as 'the small fly which bites' (notot the 'sabre-toothed midge' as one of my friends called it!). Culicoides impunctatus begins to hatch towards the end of May - depending on the weather.

They gradually build up their numbers until they are at their peak in early July through to late August - which just happens to be the middle of the holiday season - and then their numbers decline until they are all gone by late October as it starts to chill for the coming winter.They are at their most active on calm, balmy evenings without bright sunlight, wind or heavy rain - a typical Highland evening in fact. This is when they actively hunt down their victims, swarming by the hundreds of thousands. All sensible people will be indoors at such a time with the windows firmly shut. But don't think you are safe at other times of the day because there is a morning feeding frenzy, a mid-day feeding frenzy and an afternoon feeding frenzy. Fortunately they are not active during the hours of darkness.

MIDGE FACTS (know thine enemy)

  • Their name in Gaelic is meanbh-chuileag - 'tiny fly';
  • They find their prey by following the trail of cardon dioxide in exhaled breath;
  • They only attack mammals - deer, cattle, sheep, you;
  • It is only the female midge which bites. She needs a meal of mammalian blood to produce the next generation of midges;
  • The itchy, irritating spot after a midge has bitten is caused by the human body's reaction to a foreign substance injected under the skin - midge saliva;
  • No-one is immune to midge bites but reactions vary. Most people have a normal reaction of a few day's itchiness;
  • Some people have a very nasty reaction to a bite. The affected area swells up into a half-inch diameter angry-looking red lump which is intensely itchy and can last for 2-3 weeks;
  • There is some evidence that climate change is causing the midge to extend both its range and active season.

CAN I AVOID THEM? (yes, if you are sensible)

Midges can be avoided and I do not believe they are a reason not to come to Scotland, after all some five million people live in Scotland and some 12 million tourists visit every year. Many of these are repeat visitors and they seem to manage OK. Even when they are at their worst at the height of the tourist season there are several things you can do to minimise your contact with midges.

  • Stay indoors during those times and weather conditions when midges are most active, ie: calm evenings with overcast skies;
  • If you do go out wear long-sleeved tops and long trousers to minimise the area of skin the midges can get to;
  • Avoid wearing dark colours as they seem to attract midges. White or other light colours are best;
  • Use midge repellents. There are some very good ones on the market. The best place to go for advice is the local tourist office or pharmacy;
  • If all else fails wear protective clothing such as a midge head-net which covers your head, face and neck. There is even a midge-proof jacket available.

a midge biting

Public Domain image from Wikipedia


The Scottish weather is your best friend when it comes to dealing with midges. The wind in Scotland (especially on the hills or exposed places or on the coast) can be quite brisk much of the time and the midges don't like that. Any breeze above about 5-6 mph sends them scurrying back into the cover of the undergrowth so don't curse the wind - if it drops you'll be the one scurrying for cover. They don't like bright sunshine either although, admittedly, that is less common in Scotland than the wind. Nor do they like rain more than a light drizzle. They are creatures of the damp. Long dry spells keep them down and a humidity of less than about 60% doesn't suit them either.


Scotland has a seasonal midge forecast just like it has a weather forecast. It has proved to be as accurate as the weather forecast or the pollen index forecast for hayfever sufferers. The midge forecast is available during the summer months and it gives the lowdown on midge activity for the next five days and you can sign up for email alerts which should give you a fighting chance to avoid these little pests.

We in Scotland are lucky when it comes to being out and about in our beautiful countryside. There are no dangerous predators to worry about and no venomous reptiles but just in case you haven't encountered the west highland midge before and are a little sceptical about them take a look at this short video:

Sources: some information from Wikipedia, in-text links and (unfortunately) personal experience!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

She's on the money!

The two new faces of Scottish banknotes

Anna (Nan) Shepherd, a Scots-born poet and novelist and Mary Somerville, a Scottish science writer who studied mathematics and astronomy have been chosen as the ''faces'' of the Royal Bank of Scotland's new polymer £5 and £10 banknotes - the first time that women have appeared on Royal Bank of Scotland banknotes. The new notes will be printed on a polymer plastic, with enhanced security features, making them harder to forge and more durable than the traditional cotton-based banknotes - up to 2½ times more durable in fact. They will also be about 15% smaller than the banknotes currently in circulation.


Photograph of Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville: 1780-1872
Public Domain image from Wikipedia

After her death Mary Somerville became known as ''The Queen of 19th-Century Science'', having been elected to the membership of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Irish Academy, the Italian Geographical Society, the American Geographical and Statistical Society and the American Philosophical Society. She was also awarded the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and was an honorary member of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève. Considering that the times in which she lived frowned upon women having more than a basic education that is a very impressive list of accomplishments for anyone, let alone a woman!

Mary was born in Jedburgh, in the Scottish borders but spent much of her childhood in the small town of Burntisland, on the east coast of Scotland (not much more than a stone's-throw from my home) and it was here that her interest in science was kindled - collecting shells and stones and gazing at the stars glittering in the night-time sky. As a science writer she was noted for her ''clear, crisp'' style of writing. Her choice as the face of the new £10 note, which will be issued next year, came after a public poll chose her over the other two famous Scots who were on the shortlist - James Clerk Maxwell (a scientist most noted for his theory of electromagnetic radiation which led to the discovery of radio waves) and Thomas Telford (a civil engineer and architect noted for building roads, canals and bridges).

Photograph of Nan Shepherd
Nan Shepherd: 1893-1981
© the estate of Nan Shepherd

Anna Shepherd (known as Nan Shepherd) was a novelist and poet who spent all of her life in her native Aberdeenshire. Her writings dealt with life in the small communities of the north-east of Scotland with which she was so familiar but she was also something of an outdoors girl being (like myself) a keen hillwalker and the only non-fiction book she wrote The Living Mountain is about her perceptions of the hills she climbed and obviously loved so much. Nan wrote this book towards the end of WW2 but for some reason did not publish it until 1977 just four years before her death.

Nan was a noted feminist (in the days when that phrase was not commonly used) and a radical who lived an unconventional life. She never married but undoubtedly had several lovers, not all of whom were male - or so it was said. This was reflected in her poetry and her books some of which contained ''eyebrow raising'' amounts of sex. She spent 40 years as a teacher at Aberdeen College of Education where she imparted a distinct feminist edge to her lectures. Being a feminist she had sympathy with the suffragette movement and in later life she turned towards Buddhism reading much on the subject.

Not well known in Scotland, neither in her lifetime nor after her death, her appearance on the new Scottish £5 note (due to be issued later this year) will surely change that. I, for one, have just ordered a copy of her book The Living Mountain and I suspect I won't be the only one seeking to know more of this intriguing Scottish woman.

PS: The introduction of polymer banknotes is not without controversy. There are people who are allergic to the polymer plastics used in this type of banknote and there is some evidence to suggest that polymer banknotes can carry and retain germs for longer than conventional cotton-based banknotes - definitely a case of ''filthy lucre''!

Some information from Wikipedia (in-text links)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Has the Loch Ness monster been found?

Well, one version of it has!

Cartoon drawing of the loch ness monster
CC0 image by ArtsyBee/Pixabay
Deep, deep down in Loch Ness something intriguing has been found. The monster? No, at least not the one everybody is looking for! The ''monster'' which has been discovered lying at the bottom of the loch is an old 30-foot-long movie prop used in a Sherlock Holmes movie filmed in 1969. During filming it sank to the bottom of the loch and was never seen again until recently when images of it were captured by an autonomous underwater vehicle - Munin - which has been commissioned to search Loch Ness in yet another attempt to prove the existence of the world-famous Loch Ness Monster.

graphic of the great glen fault line
For anyone who hasn't heard of the legend, the Loch Ness Monster is an (as yet) unidentified creature which is said to inhabit the depths of Scotland's second deepest loch, the largest volume of fresh water in the British Isles. Loch Ness is a long, narrow loch lying within the confines of the Great Glen Fault, a fault line which virtually cuts Scotland in two (see on map). The loch runs between Inverness and Fort Augustus and a well-used main road follows its northern shore.

''Nessie'' to give her her colloquial name (everyone assumes the monster is female but there is not one shred of evidence either way) made her first documented appearance in the early 6th century but since then there have been very few reports of appearances by Nessie until modern times that is and the advent of the motor car, the camera and tourism. The most famous time she was photographed was in 1934 (the so-called ''surgeon's photo'' which has now been revealed as a hoax) and there have been a number of photographs taken since then claiming to be of the monster
but none of them offer definitive proof.                                                                                       Image by Hellinterface/Wikipedia
                                                                                                                                                                               CC-BY-SA 3.0
There are many theories as to what Nessie might be. A relict population of the marine reptile the Plesiosaur perhaps. This seems to be one of the more popular theories based on the reported shape of Nessie - a long-necked, humpbacked creature as she appears to be when swimming at the surface.

skeleton of a plesiosaur
Photography by Kim Alaniz/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0
Other theories say that she is a giant eel or a giant catfish (or even an elephant!) but all of these theories (guesses, more like!) can't explain how a population of any such creature could survive in Loch Ness and where did they come from? They can't have been in the loch for millions of years because Loch Ness hasn't existed for millions of years and how do we account for them surviving through the last ice age which finally ended in Scotland about 10,000 years ago? It wasn't just the land that was frozen. Even the deepest lochs (which did exist by then) were also probably frozen from top to bottom. No creature could have survived tens of thousands of years locked under an ice-bound land and they can't have arrived in the loch after the ice age because Loch Ness has no outlet to the sea.

The cynical amongst us might question how it is that sightings of Nessie have really only been in the last 80 years or so. Actually, that's not hard to explain. It's only in the last 80 years or so that large scale tourism has come about with the growth of a more affluent population, the easier availability of cars and cameras and improvements in the road network leading to an increase in the numbers of people visiting Scotland and looking for the ''monster in the loch'' which they have heard about from other tourists with cars and cameras!

The really cynical amongst us might question why Nessie is often spotted at the beginning of the tourist season. She seems to be strangely absent during the winter months (or maybe she is hibernating!) and why, despite the constant surveillance of the loch by Nessie hunters, no good quallty photograph has ever been taken of her.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness
CC0 photograph by Bruce777/Pixabay
The above photograph is of the ruins of Urquhart Castle, a popular Nessie-spotting place on the north shore of the loch and one from which she has been spotted frequently. Yet there is still no definitive photographic proof nor indeed any other kind of proof - no footprints, no remains washed up the shore, nothing except blurry photographs and eyewitness accounts with no proof to back them up. Is it any wonder that belief in Nessie's existence is, ummm, patchy?

Mind you, whether she exists or not she does still bring some benefit to the Scottish economy. I doubt if there are many tourists who come to Scotland specifically to search for Nessie - most are likely to include a trip to Loch Ness as part of a general touring visit - but there is sufficient interest in her to support a number of ''Nessie-spotting'' tours both on and around the loch. Although I have spent a fair amount of time in the area of Loch Ness I have never seen the monster but there are over 1000 recorded sightings of Nessie and this Key Sightings website contains some interesting photographs of what may or may not be the monster.

Perhaps one day the mystery will be solved but in the meantime I won't hold my breath!

Some information from Wikipedia (in-text links)