Category Archives: Travel, Trips & Traumas

A Tree Worth Hugging

The surrounding land was flat, and so the hard-boiled eggs were broken in the car, salted and peppered, and devoured with the house lentil and assorted breads.  Beforehand we had wandered into the woods, hugged a tree, and wandered back.  Where to next?  Back to the tree, came the chorus from the back seat.  So back we went.

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For this was no ordinary tree.  At around 1,000 years of growth it pre-dated those Cadzow Oaks by about half as much again.  250 years ago the trunk girth was over 10ft.  Today four of us couldn’t come close to linking arms.  The diameter of the ground covered by branches reached close to 200ft, near 200 years ago, circled, grounded.   And the tree grows on.

We stood under the canopy of that magnificent Ormiston Yew, dappled in spring sunshine.  A summer return beckons, to witness the glory in full plumage, freckled with bright red berries.  There is enormous vitality bursting out of the tree, new growth greening the trunks and the branches and the clefts, like ferns ready to burst.

From the outside view it is hard to imagine this mass of greenery as just one tree, a discrete entrance remaining open to passing visitors.  To reach the tree the walk takes you through the grounds of what once was Ormiston Hall, past the stone erected by the Poles stationed there in the war, through a grove of chestnut trees, just beginning to bud.

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Whilst in the area we thought we should pay a call on old Mr Luca, down the road in Musselburgh.  He makes ice cream yet, his café bustling in the chill sun.  From there we walked another path; one a bit different to those woods filled with the sounds of crows nesting in the high canopies, of chaffies singing in the spring; the woods where the pecker drummed out a greeting.

The Esplanade in Portobello was a walk I had not made since being around Urchin-age.  It doesn’t seem to have changed, and it really is a bright spot in Auld Reekie’s gloom, untouched by the tourist throngs.  In front of the shore-front houses bikes and scooters make a smooth mile each way; pipers and box players entertain.  And a couple of young lads, pre-teen, practiced their shooting skills and tricks, before heading to Andorra with the Scottish basketball team, armed with a few extra shilling for the trip.  Mr Luca was there too, but we resisted.

And if you happen to be down that we way, head along to Ormiston, go hug a tree.  It does you the world of good.  And the kids love it.

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Paps Again

Squealing, with delight I hope, both of them.  Then a third joined in, above and behind.  I sat watching the rising sun glisten the seas as a ferry made the trip back from Islay.  I had the vantage point at the top of Achamore Gardens, jewel of Gigha’s crown.  The buzzards played on the thermals, squealing as they went.

It was a first visit to Gigha, and certainly not the last.  Three ferries took four bikes and a tent for a day away, as we hopped over Arran, reducing the driving time to get to Kintyre, enjoying the little drive that we did have with plenty of time to take in some glorious scenes along the way.  The jagged ridge of Goatfell, which we see in the distance every clear day from home, towers above the pass to Lochranza.

There is common ground between Arran’s northern ferry port and the isle we sought.  The yachties will like this.  For Lochranza has a new pontoon, and Gigha is getting one.  Construction is under way, with new moorings, reflective for night time arrivals, already in place.

The pontoon will be adjacent to the camping field, and the attraction for both campers and skippers alike is the wonderful Boathouse Café, where the chef does some amazing things with fresh-landed fare.  His lamb is pretty special too.

Then a cycle along the island’s spine, gently, slowly, brings views all around.  Those Paps of Jura took up much of the horizon again, but from the eastern side this time, with Islay in the foreground.  Beyond, and before getting to Colonsay where we had been last week, the Corryvreckan churned, waiting on the unwary.

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But to Achamore, a short cycle down the road.  Thse gardens are truly majestic; rammed with prize-winning specimen trees and shrubs from around the globe, thriving in the temperate belt that holds Gigha in a spell, more sun and less than rain than the mainland just a short hop away.  The law of sod applies and the pictures I’d intended were not to be, the batteries giving up after dutifully filling the honesty box for the family visit, with the spare back in the tent.  So you’ll need to go online for more.

Gigha has a good tale to tell, from the standing stone of thousands of years before, to the start of Scotland’s Land Reform, with the community buy-out just a few years ago.

It is the community that now runs the hotel; and maintains those splendid gardens.  There is no gardener at present and it is volunteer hours that strive to keep it in shape.  What a task that is, for these gardens are worth the trip to the island alone.  Mind you so’s the food at the Boathouse, much of it island grown or reared.  There’s two reasons, before we even think of the scenery, the peace and the calming on the soul.  Go on, you know you want to.

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To the woods

Beside the cottage there is a gate.  Woodland Gardens, the invitation.  And the smell of the woods after the rain is all the invitation I need, whilst the household lies abed.

The woods are part of Colonsay Estate, but open to the wanderer.  They are rammed full with rhododendrons.  I was lucky, for they were not in bloom.  Looking up was not an option, for placing the feet was more important.  The ground was soft, verging on bog, carpeted in moss, layered with leaf-fall.  Beech trees towered above amongst the rhodies, which themselves had reached unimaginable heights.

The path was indistinct.  Every so often a marker sign would appear, low to the ground, pointing to some feature or other, never to be found.  One foot in the wrong place could be answered by deep squelching.

Chesting my way through ferns whilst thorns scraped the lower limbs I wondered if perhaps the path had petered out.  Than the ferns stretched higher towards the light, which yielded above the canopy.  It was the type of wild land where one might have a handy local guide with a machete clearing the path, whilst behind a train of bearers carried the goods for the day, singing a little marching number as they went.  And poison-tipped blow-pipes might poke through the shrubbery.  I listened for the puff of death.

Another soaking for the ankles and it was easy to imagine a tentacle rising from the deep, grasping, sucking, pulling.  A thought occurred.  No one new where I was.  And I had the car key in my pocket.  The path was long lost.  Steps retraced, till something else caught the eye and off I went again, ducking under moss-covered fallen trees, stepping over or round suspect patches of goo.

Downhill seemed a good plan, till the ground got softer yet.  In a clearance, hacked by someone else’s machete-bearing serf a century ago perhaps, making space for planting the rhodies that would explode like triffids, brought good and bad news.  I was blazing no trail, breaking no news to civilisation.  But I might yet break fast with the family.

A wooden bridge took me over a burn I did not know flowed by, and above threatened a canopy of giant hogweed, spreading in all directions, dwarfing the bridge and the explorer fearing the troll below.

Higher ground on the far side.  There is a gate; an adjacent cottage.  Now I knew why it was named Pondside.  That sign on the gate might just read Jungle by the time I leave.

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The Corncrake and The…

… Grasshopper!  Oh, yes the wheels have finally been turning again after an absence due in part to all of injury, ill-health, apathy and weather, but mainly age.  Anyway, what better way to explore a new island than by bike.  And in the process The Urchins too re-discovered their zest for pedal power.

Our return could barely have been more of a contrast to the arrival, with a journey in howling gales and torrents of the wet stuff.  But the memories are all of the first sights, and the ferry putting distance between us and the mainland.  White puffs pecked at the pinnacles of Jura’s Paps, just as Mull’s hills recede.  Then Colonsay appears.  There is a beach, at Balnahard, as the ferry draws closer.  We walk there, later.

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Firstly there is another beach.  Kiloran Bay is often described as the best in the land, and it is spectacular, especially viewed from the higher ground around.  I’m not sure it can surpass Luskentyre, but it is has much that Harris doesn’t have.  And the children loved it, as they walked the length, getting splashed ever higher as they warmed to the gentle surf.

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Then there comes The Strand, the tidal access over to Oronsay, where the centuries old Celtic grave carvings await a later visit.  On the way we passed some of the wild goats, but stopped often to hear the rasp of the elusive corncrake.  Hooded crows frolic on the heights of the rocks and down on the shore, tormenting whatever takes their collective fancy.  The machair is cropped by sheep, though we didn’t get to sample the local mutton, which is another marker laid down for next time.

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Give me a week on the island and the neglected biking muscles will be attuned to the rise and fall of the land.  But there is work to do on that front; much in fact to stop the glee of Boy Urchin racing past on the uphills.  But I got him on the run down to Oronsay, which is all to do with mass and gravity, as The Grasshopper bounced and ran with the wind.

And so to Balnahard, the final day, cottage vacated, a race before the arrival of the tempest.  Three mile walk the guide said, each way of course.  With a brief stop for toes to be dipped in the icy water on arrival the round trip was getting on for half a day.  Rugged and chiselled, soft and gentle, no not I, but the terrain, and wind, rising.  It is all off road, challenging for 4-by-4s, though three family saloons passed by, somehow.

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That man Balfour appeared again, Kidnapped in reverse, for there to the north, on Mull’s tip and hiding Iona, lay Erraid, another tidal strand, and another walk for another day.  The Treshnish Isles and Stevenson’s light at Dhu Hartach peppered the horizon.  The lie of the land is similar to Iona, but bigger, more rugged, and without the scourge of the day trippers.

Our time on Colonsay was short.  It was a trip we’d thought of making for some years, though ferry schedules make a long weekend difficult.  There was agreement all around that more time would be welcome.  We ate well, fuelling our bursts of energy by foot or by bike, and enjoyed a cottage with more space than home.  I miss the cats, was heard several times.  But they were fine.

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Spanning the centuries

We’ve covered a few, from the latest World Heritage Site, with three centuries of Scottish engineering; to a Palace dating back to James I; and further back to an ancient abbey.  it’s been fun.

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There’s been plenty wildlife along the way, with red kites in both Dumfriesshire and Stirlingshire; a pair of puffins on the wing and a puffling striving to join the them before they head out to sea till next May; deer and frogs; and  the glorious sight, the full kaa kaa kaa of a juvenile golden eagle flitting between the tops of old Scots pines in the Tay forest.

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We had one Balfour the other day, Scott’s version, down at Crichope,  and now Stevenson’s hero, young Davie of that ilk, at the Hawes Inn.  Time to read Kidnapped once again, perhaps.

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There’s a fine old palace at Linlithgow, and for reasons unknown to me I’d never been before.  It is terrific, with a Young Explorer quiz that has you counting as you catch your breath up the towers, and squinting for horns and thistles, and being Lithgae, the Rose.  A grand place.

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The palace dates back nigh on 600 years, to James 1, though the Royal lineage was not unfamiliar with the site, David 1 having made a home there 300 years previously.  Mary Queen of Scots took her first breath within those walls.  Today the local guides tell the tales in period dress, which must be a better summer job for the schoolchildren of the town than tattie picking or shelf stacking.

From that eagle above Loch Tummel, being so swankie-o we stopped again along the road.  It was the choice of The Urchins, opting for another woodland walk rather than back down the road in time for swimming club.  So where the soldier leapt and the water frothed, we found moss, and more trees.  There were red squirrels around, but they kept well out the way.

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And then the abbey, on old Inchcolm.  We were greeted by a cacophony, the constant calling of the gulls and the fulmars, the terns too.  Up on the hill they auditioned for Mr Hitchcock, protective of their fluffy and flightless offspring.

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It’s that old chap David 1 again, for his 12th century priory was granted abbey status in 1235, and given nigh on 800 years of sodden estuary air what remains today is superbly preserved.  Mind you presence on the isle goes much further back, to the Dark Ages.  Girl Urchin sought the heights of the bell tower, several times.  This was supposed to be a restful-ish day.  But it was another good one.

A tunnel took us to the war defences, and back to Napoleon, though conflict was recorded in the Middle Ages, as marauding English ships plundered.  But it is the birds’ territory now.  The tunnel though was silent, the only respite on the isle.  The Maid of the Forth took us there, by the bridges and the seals.

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Oh where next, and what to see?  It’s really just a quest to update the favourites on the ice cream trail.  And there’s a bit more work needed yet.  Makka Pakka’s been on the trail too.

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Three Wee Gems

Dappled sunlight far above; below black waters gurgled.  I was encased in sandstone, thick with moss, ferns gripping resolutely to every crevice.

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We had found ourselves at Crichope Linn, after a short walk through woodlands.  It was the sort of walk where you wished you had insisted that shorts and sandals may not be ideal for young explorers.  One of those where brambles and wild roses stretch across the narrow path; where, though trampled rarely it seemed, the ground remained soft in all seasons, churned in places.  It is the type of place you keep an eye open for the flash of a kingfisher above the burbling burn, but never catch one.  Above, something shrieked.

At the Linn the water sprites come out to play, in dark polls, under fallen trees, and in those caverns where the light from above catches some of the tumbling waters, but not all.  30m deep, if you take the path to the oak and beech trees above you might never know what lies beneath.  But over the centuries plenty did.

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Walter Scott put John Balfour  there in Old Mortality.  Of the etchings scratched into the soft sandstone one may have come from Burns.  Covenanters hid in a cave in the Killing Times.  The Elf’s Kirk has been broken up for building stone.  It is a place of magic.  And the water sprites play on.

Just down the road we stopped at another of Burns’ haunts, the much over-looked Ellisland Farm, where he tried in vain to plough the rubble, to gather apples, and where his Bonnie Jean brought the children of the marriage to nine, and more beyond.  We wandered the river walk, where the words of Tam O’Shanter first took shape.

Ellisland is rammed full of memorabilia from the days of the bard; days brought to life by our resident expert.  A herd of cows came over, much to the delight of the children.  But it was Burns and his life that held them more.

We touched briefly on more of the Burns trail in Dumfries, before chancing upon our third wee gem on the homeward leg, the long way round.  The Raiders Road is open through the summer; 10 mile or so of dirt track and hard-core, through the forest, along the banks of the Black Water of the Dee.  There is an Otter Pond, something never to be resisted.

This is a very special place and those good folk of the Forestry Commission, busy harvesting the slopes around, have laid on facilities, from parking to picnics, barbecues to washrooms.

And out on the black waters we watched and we waited.  But the only movement was of the ever-increasing circles of the raindrops and the birling of the midges, the occasional fish rising for supper.  It is though a place for children to play, rain or no rain.  For the waters are shallow, tumbling over flat rocks, layered between the banks, upstream and down.

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But the only otter was cast in tablets of stone, replacing a bronze effigy nicked some years ago.  It is another place of magic, though we were perhaps too early in the evening to hope that the otter just might come out to play.  And so the only otter I have seen in the wild remains a memory from Jura, despite the quest continuing.

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But it was a Grand Day Out, water sprites, otter strikes, and Rabbie.  And they were all picked out from Peter Irvine’s Scotland The Best, though we really need to update our 1998 edition.  Where next, one wonders….

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Permission

to come aboard skipper?

He might be regretting replying in the affirmative, though I had thought the lower ratings might just be piped aboard when the Captain was present.  Maybe he saw how much luggage they brought and feared a voyage to some far and distant land, instead of a day’s jolly doon the watter.

Mind you he didn’t do too badly from the deal, with the decks being swabbed until near worn through, and, more importantly, his nearest and dearest not turned into a vomitarium.  And he witnessed the first ever albatross on the Clyde Coast since Gene Saracen’s hole-in-one at The Postage Stamp back in 1973.  Some of us are old enough to remember it well.  It might have been an eagle, the Saracen one that is.

Oh yes, The Urchins have taken to the ocean waves, and dragged their parents with them.  We survived.  Sundry ferries plied their trade from shore to shore, and we managed to miss them all.  Squalls chased their way up the estuary, on both shores, yet we stayed dry.  Clouds hid the hills from view, yet the sun shone.

And when the sun shines on eryngium it thrives.  And so it was with novices at the tiller of Sea Holly.  From the north shore at Rhu we tacked our way (see, getting cocky and technical now), down to Kip, south and west, against the wind, through the lumpy bits, without even getting prickly.

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The rain bounced through the night, wind was forecast, heaps of it.  Stomachs churned at the thought.  But again the day was kind, and the weather gave the lubbers a wide berth.  And so back to Rhu, wind astern.

The pride of the Clyde, the old Waverley paddled by, blades churning, brave souls on deck waving.  There might be a picture of that one to come.

That was great, will we still be in time for swimming club?

And we still had time for fishing, though Boy Urchin had his first experience of watching absolutely nothing take an interest in his hook.  And Girl Urchin scrubbed again, finding a gene that must have skipped a generation.  Maybe one day she’ll iron.

Anyway, that albatross.  We all saw it.  Swooping past, feathers ruffled, eyes on the waters below.  Big bill, black-tipped feathers, yellowish head clear for all to see.  Related to boobies, it says on the wiki-tin.  Of course it was a gannet, and it wasn’t an Urchin who called it otherwise.  More a howler than a booby, but my lips are sealed.

Twelve hours earlier I wasn’t even thinking of going along, after another day of fast following a night of, well you really don’t want to know.  But the ante-dote for stomach gremlins and hernias, for reactions to medication, has been found, alive and well on the waters of the Clyde.  Take one bouncy boat ride, then get yourself a haggis supper.  It soaks up everything that rumbles down below.  Might need another one tonight, for the remedy doesn’t seem to last long.

But huge thanks all round to Favourite Uncle, and to the star of the weekend, Sea Holly.  Even managed to pinch the skipper’s picture.  But there’s new crew in training, and they’re off school for at least another six weeks with little to tempt them away from their bad habits.  What a blast.  Maybe auntie will come along too…

 

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