Home Outdoors Miscellaneous

Someone recently asked me how I created an article from scratch. What was my ‘process’? To tell you the truth, the answer was woefully inadequate and tangential. It should have been easy. Find the story, do some digging, check your facts, write it in the same structure shared by Adie or Waugh or Churchill. Finally, deliver the number one message in a catchy headline: Man bites dog.

I haven’t published for a while. Instead, I’ve spent my time being inspired by others, researching my next projects and thinking. The plan was to write about outdoor superstars. On the final evening of the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, Swiss über-athlete Ueli Steck took the stage. Until recently he held the Eiger Nordwand speed record at a scalding 2h47 from bergschrund to summit. To accomplish such a notoriously dangerous route at speed needs single-minded masochism and 100% conviction.

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

However, rather than discuss those to whom all the accolades filter, I wanted to talk about sport for development. This ties in with planning the legacy from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, as well as a role I’ve taken on as mentor for Sported, which has its origins in the 2012 Olympics and aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people. I’ve also been reading about the use of sport in Rwanda to repair divided communities as the world remembers its massacre 20 years on. In more general terms, I’m fascinated by how group outdoor activities assist individuals and communities to grow stronger, remember their similarities and become more equipped for the future.

My inspiring subject this month is a couple from Leeds who’ve done something very punchy. Like Ueli, their endeavour required devotion, planning and buckets of optimism. I’d like to introduce you to Simon Buckden and Louisa Rodriguez. In March they ran from their home in Leeds to Downing Street, a total of 216 miles in a week.

You may be thinking that yes, this is a long way to run and needs a high level of fitness. Or you may choose to compare it to the headline-grabbing explorers – whether Ranulph Fiennes or James Ketchell – who travel infinite distances across sastrugi-covered poles and mind-twisting deserts with enormously heavy rucksacks. And there’s not even a pub at the end. The classic adventurers inspire because they take something that might seem physically impossible, but try their hardest to destroy everyone’s assumptions including their own.

The couple from Leeds had a different motive for their outdoor journey. It was to bring awareness for their recently-formed charity, Positive Action for PTSD. Simon is a survivor of multiple traumas and is not afraid to stand up and be honest, thereby helping himself and others. He and partner Louisa aim to educate everybody to remove stigma relating to witnessing and surviving traumatic events, to show that it’s not the preserve of the military, and to highlight the amazing things can be achieved by those who’ve suffered. It’s a wonderful mission.

My gran used to say ‘least said, soonest mended’. And my hope for 2014 is that this is no longer the case. The history of enlightenment shows us that ignorance and persecution can be followed by commonality and acceptance. You can trace this path with the ‘C’ word – from stigma, through medical trials of the nineteenth century, past the 1913 founding of the American Cancer Society, to this disease becoming something about which we talk and support openly. A physical impediment cannot be a reason to not be invited to participate, and nor should mental health, sexual preference, colour, race or gender. The only possible reason to exclude is apathy.

Most people can appreciate the physical endurance it takes to run back-to-back marathon distances. A journey of 216 miles is tough, especially without motorcycle outriders and marshals in fluorescent tabards. On the first afternoon, Simon got lost in the rain outside Sheffield. And I can appreciate how, day after day, the impact of each mile, furlong, lamppost and stride really starts to bite. It takes real mental strength.

The couple ran a strong communications campaign. They contacted all the press, used social media continually, met with the lord mayors of the towns en route and were greeted by MPs on arrival to the Big Smoke. And later that day the run was mentioned in Prime Minister’s Question Time. Having since spoken to Simon, I know that this is only the start. Like real sportspeople, they have the passion to take their vision global.

At a personal level, it wasn’t the run or the media effort that inspired me most, nor that they did everything with a small team and very little money. It was a book that they carried. Weeks before, they had asked as many people to share their stories of trauma and survival. Among the writers were ex-policemen and prison officers, victims of domestic abuse and road traffic accidents: a terrible catalogue that makes for grim but important reading. As a survivor of mountaineering incidents, I also contributed. Simon and Louisa ran with that book, showed it to everyone they met and delivered copies to ministers.

But it wasn’t until they kicked off the physical challenge that I appreciated the symbolism. They had printed very private stories, some of which had never been shared, to be taken on a street-pounding journey to Westminster. Simon and Louisa helped bring the extraordinary tales of ordinary people into the light, and perhaps helped, in some small way, to turn down the volume on the original memories with the new narrative of their odyssey. No speed mountaineer could humble me in this way. Like the daughter who wears a message to her mother as she warms up before the Race for Life, or the family who turns up to watch the returning Royal Scots Dragoon Guards parade from Holland Street to George Square, it felt like the perfect act of redemption.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1964 by Sir Charles Connell, an Edinburgh lawyer and keen ornithologist. He brought together a small team of experts and enthusiasts who were inspired by the wildlife trust movement already under way in England. Within two years it had started a network of local groups and acquired its first reserve, a small woodland in Ayrshire. Since then it has grown to become one of the major environmental organisations in Scotland with 120 reserves, 35,000 members, a staff of about 100, 20 local groups and over a thousand working volunteers.

Puffin on Handa

Puffin on Handa

Most of its reserves are small patches of woodland, marsh, bog or moor, close to where people live, so that wildlife and human life are not seen as opposites but as part of the same natural world.

But the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) also has some large and spectacular reserves – the Loch of Lowes with its famous ospreys, the Falls of Clyde with its peregrines, the Montrose Basin for migrating geese and the isles of Eigg and Handa on the west coast.

This year the Trust is also celebrating the first five years of two important wildlife projects. It has re-introduced native beavers to Scotland after an absence of 400 years. There are now 15 beavers living wild in Knapdale in Argyll, the subject of an experiment to see what effect they will have on the local environment.

SWT LogoThe SWT has also been heavily involved in the fight to save the red squirrel and there are signs that this native species is holding out well against the grey invaders in the marginal lands of the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire and in the more northerly battlegrounds of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

The Trust has also branched out into wider campaigns to save Scotland’s landscape and marine environment. Its “Living Landscape ” project in Coigach and Assynt has recently won a £100,000 lottery grant to plant trees, restore bog and moorland and create footpaths. The idea is to link wildlife territories across a large and diverse area of the countryside. It’s also been campaigning hard to have marine protected areas established around Scotland’s coast.

Rabbit in AssyntSWT volunteers were recently invited to a reception in the Scottish Parliament, acknowledging their role in campaigning and working for the environment.

Along with the other conservation organisations – RSPB, WWF, John Muir Trust, Friends of the Earth – the Wildlife Trust has been influential in driving Scotland’s environmental agenda.

Its chief executive for the last ten years, Simon Milne, is a well known figure on the environmental landscape and has established the SWT as one of Scotland’s most respected institutions. He now goes on to the prestigious post of Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His successor as chief executive is Jonathan Hughes who began as a ranger on the SWT reserve at Loch Fleet in the 1990s. Since 2009 he’s been the Trust’s director of conservation. He takes over with this disturbing thought in the latest edition of the Trust’s magazine:

“ We have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. We are living through an era of profound changes to the planet’s biosphere, changes which are happening almost entirely due to the influence of human activity. It is within this context that the Trust faces its next 50 years.”

For details of your nearest SWT reserve: www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk

Scotland’s wild places need to be protected

The John Muir Trust has welcomed the result of a Scottish Natural Heritage public consultation on its core wild land map, describing it as a “resounding endorsement” of the proposal to step up wild land protection. According to its analysis of the 410 responses received:

80 per cent back the wild land map
14 per cent oppose the map
6 per cent are neutral

John Muir Truse LogoIn the view of Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the John Muir Trust, “the scale of support for the map and the eloquence of the responses underline how passionately people value Scotland’s wild land.

We would now urge politicians of all parties to come together to support the map as the next step towards protecting Scotland’s world famous wild land from unsightly and ecologically damaging development. In particular we would ask the Scottish Government to include a reference to the wild land map in the draft National Planning Framework, which is now being scrutinised by parliamentary committees”

John Hutchison Stop the "mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes"

John Hutchison
Stop the “mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes”

Hundreds of individuals and dozens of not-for-profit organisations, including environmental charities, councils, community groups, and national bodies such as SportScotland and Historic Scotland have thrown their weight behind the wild land map.

John Hutchison, who chairs the Trust, stressed that the map was about protecting wild land from energy corporations and landowners intent on exploiting it for profit. “As one of the main driving forces campaigning for the map,” he explained, “the John Muir Trust would emphasise that this is not about preventing small-scale development of renewables or other infrastructure by communities and local people.

“This is about stopping the mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes under tangles of turbines, pylons, road and power sub-stations. These developments might generate lavish profits for landowners and distant shareholders, but they create few if any jobs for local people.”

All of the responses can be downloaded from this page on the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

The Great Outdoors should be an essential part of education

Outdoor education has been shown across time and geography to be an effective and safe means of learning. It’s relevant equally to participants from challenged backgrounds as for those who are more fortunate. The space beyond the classroom walls is suitable for the transfer of technical content and is the perfect medium for learning soft skills, such as leadership and resilience. As examples, we can turn look to the Scouts, the Outward Bound Trust or the concept of the traditional summer camp, which is a mainstay of youth activities in North America.

Outdoor Education  Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Outdoor Education
Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Over recent months, there’s been increasing discussion in Scotland about greater use of the outdoors in schools. A recent debate led by the Education and Culture Committee in Holyrood looked at the benefits to society in general as well as the potential to satisfy the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence. The country is blessed with a hugely varied landscape and, compared to most of the world, a generous attitude towards access for all and for free. In cash-strapped times, it seems criminal not to use the outdoors more.

The Scouts provide outdoor education (Picture: John Knox)

The Scouts provide outdoor education
(Picture: John Knox)

I believe passionately that everyone should have the opportunity to become the best they can in the domain of their choosing. Achieving self-knowledge is harder for some than for others, and that path can be forced, foiled or facilitated at school. Over the years, pedagogic methods have evolved with technology and fashion – everything from learning by rote (which I received ad nauseam as a student in early 1990s China) to remote, multi-media delivery by Webex. However, despite the internal combustion engine, globalisation and the internet, pupils in Britain are taught subjects indoors just as they have been doing since the Elementary Acts of the late nineteenth century within the same architectural configurations.

The effectiveness of the outdoors as a learning environment is because it is unstructured. Freedom from fixed seating creates liberty of expression; everybody can play director, while the teacher becomes a guide; the whole world becomes the object of study. In the outdoors you can discover physics from watching rivers, improve confidence by climbing mountains, develop communication through recounting stories around the campfire.

Future Shock CoverI don’t believe that everybody has to be academic to reach his or her potential. Using personal wealth as a benchmark, we can look at the education of the 50 richest billionaires on Slate: many flunked college or didn’t bother at all. In a balanced economy there’s a large percentage of jobs that don’t require traditional indoctrination: for the nation to get the best from its human resources, we should be encouraged to achieve possibilities that match our personal interests, drivers, values. We do not need the dystopian (but unfortunately reasonably accurate) vision of the Alvin Toffler Future Shock society. Our sustainability depends on using the positives of our heritage, creativity and human connectedness.

I’m a fan of incorporating as many learning methods as possible to bring knowledge and experiences to young people. There’s a long list of means to achieve this besides indoor school time, ranging from work placements and apprenticeship schemes to ball sports and adventurous trips. Variety is the key, but it’s not easy to get the balance. Application is more difficult than theory, while success is at least 99% perspiration. The Curriculum is challenging for schools to implement when the bricks and mortar reinforce old ways, teachers are trained to oversee single subjects and budget restrictions lead to difficult choices.

Wayne Bulpitt  UK Chief Commissioner The Scout Association

Wayne Bulpitt
UK Chief Commissioner
The Scout Association

Over the past two decades, health and safety culture has reduced the value of many organised outdoor activities. It has warped the definition of ‘risk’ into that of ‘danger’. I interpret risk as an entirely neutral term denoting outcome based on choice and the application of resources. As reported in the Telegraph recently, the Chief Commissioner of Scouting, Wayne Bulpitt, claimed the movement has benefitted in popularity because “schools have taken a more rigid approach to stopping activities”. Consider the risk of not letting young people get wet and be challenged in awkward ways… erm, perhaps a witless, scared society ten years from now?

However, I’m positive about the future of learning in Scotland. There are many initiatives, private and public, new and old, ready to integrate with schools. Examples include the Adventure Learning Partnerships from WideHorizons Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. In addition, the media seems to be adjusting its bias against outdoor adventures. So with a new year ahead, it’s my hope that the tide of funding for outdoor youth charities and state-run outdoor centres in Scotland will run full flow again.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Life without TV
Adventures on a Shoestring

I just had to write about this story because it made me smile.

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own 'Matterhorn'

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own ‘Matterhorn’

It’s appearing on the inside pages of some the regular suspects. It began with the Daily Mail, was pursued by the Telegraph and who knows what will happen in the future: publishing deals and a slot on CBBC perhaps. It’s a young family from Nottingham, Kerry and Tim Meek, both teachers, and their two girls Amy and Ella, who chose to switch off the TV a bit more often and do something less boring instead. Their website dotrythisathome.com is inspiring, full of ideas from ‘going on a reptile ramble’ to cooking with snow. Yes, adventures don’t have to be epics.

Over the past two decades, outdoor activities have seen bad press. Landmark events, like the Lyme Bay kayaking accident of 1993 or the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 in 1995, helped form public perception that our waters and mountains were dangerous. Regulatory boards sprung into existence. The qualifications industry burgeoned. Proposed school trips were canned. Lord Baden-Powell tussled in his Kenyan grave while our culture forgot that pursuits in the wild are healthy, engaging and developmental.

What makes the tale of the Meeks special is not that they are having adventures, because lots of other normal families do this kind of thing, but that mainstream media is behind them. Furthermore, they’ve been commended for sticking to a shoestring – the Nottingham four enjoyed their first 100 adventures for less than £500. Half a grand won’t buy harnesses, Canadian dugouts and waterproof jackets all round. During times of austerity, the family has tooled up on resourcefulness.

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

When I asked Kerry Meek where the inspiration originated to do the first 100 trips, it was from other adventurers, including Dave Cornthwaite. He’s swum 1000 miles along the Missouri and completed other long journeys, but doesn’t limit himself to the extreme: his current project is finding 50 ways to make £50. Al Humphreys is another favourite: he rowed the Atlantic last year, but he dedicated 2011 to microadventures, like sleeping out on a hill after work: ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ he says… ‘you get a bit wet, get a bit cold… big deal. I think it’s worth the risk.’

The next step forward for the Meeks, in terms of growing the impact they’ve had, is to get more parents involved. Unlike schools, mums and dads don’t have to fill in risk assessments and, once it’s clear to them that getting outdoors is good for concentration, ability and contentment, they’ll be motivated to encourage their children and their children’s teachers.

In Scotland, thousands of people are enjoying the outdoors – walking, paddling, climbing, biking, running … exploring. I’ve not looked at the figures of hours spent outdoors over time and perhaps it’s impossible to measure, but I feel that this has fallen since the 1990s. Rock routes seem more lichenous. The bogs and the forest have subsumed formerly well-trodden paths. Perhaps it’s fear – of the known or the unknown, or being judged for not having the ‘right’ kit, or encroaching consumerism and time pressures. My argument, as always, is that more people should benefit from the mental, emotional physical pluses of getting outdoors.

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

I’ll take intellect for a start. There’s nothing that generates creativity better than challenge. If you cross a stream using a spattering of slimy boulders that protrude from the froth, the brain begins to churn. It recalls similar patterns from the past, calculates how balance will be compromised and ascertains what’s needed if that manoeuvre doesn’t work. In one millisecond, you’ve done risk appraisal, spatial co-ordination, future planning and disaster recovery. This is also possible on the Playstation without getting wet: it’s your choice.

Our emotional state alters when we’re in nature. Broadleaf woodland is particularly calming, perhaps through the diversity of flora and fauna, the wholeness of this type of ecosystem and how light and shade interplay randomly. When we’re engaged in pastimes that require focus, our minds forget the minutiae of problems and deadlines. We can, for some brief period in time, switch off.

You may get wet!!

You may get wet!!

I’m guessing that the closer an activity comes to actual or perceived risk and the nearer it is to something our ancestors might have done and the better your level of skill, the more chance there is to rediscover the sense of flow. That’s a wonderful feeling.

The outdoors is also good for the body. It might be cold and rain often, but being resilient is a really positive attribute. When exerting ourselves, we force our muscles to work and burn off fat. Okay, so there are things that can hurt and cause physical trauma, like slipping on that rock when crossing the burn, but developing the skills over time and resting between adventures is good antidote to this.

When I spoke to Kerry Meek, she sounded very keen to return to Scotland with the family for more adventures. The girls wanted to undertake a ‘source to sea’ journey and sleep on a mountain. Hopefully, she’ll be joined in spirit by hundreds of others doing the same kind of thing. With our wonderful landscape, there’s probably no easier place in the world to get involved.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Assynt – one of the last wilderness areas

They say Scotland has some of the last wilderness areas left in Western Europe. But where exactly are they? And how particular should we be about protecting them? The government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is inviting views on its latest map of 43 “wild land” areas which will be offered some sort of protection under the planning laws. The haggling over this map will pitch conservationists against developers, city dwellers against country folk, romanticists against realists and will define the sort of country we want to live in.

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands

Most of the 43 areas are, of course, in the Highlands and Islands. But there are three in the south of the country – Merrick, Talla-Hart Fells and Broad Dollar-Black Laws. Waterhead Moor-Muirshiel, just north of Glasgow, is also included. The rest stretch from Arran to Shetland by way of the Arrochar Alps, Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms, the Cuillins, Torridon, the Flow Country, Harris and the Orkney island of Hoy. (see full list below).

“Measuring wildness in inherently difficult,” SNH admits. One man’s wildness is another man’s wasteland. But the agency has tried to come up with a scoring system that is scientific. Four factors are taken into account: naturalness, ruggedness, remoteness from public roads, and a visible lack of built developments or “modern artefacts” such as wind turbines, pylons, telemasts etc.

Some compromises have had to be made where features do not spoil what’s called “the wider sense of wildness” eg the General Wade road that runs through the Corrieyairack Pass or the railway line through the Flow Country or an isolated farm building. On the other hand, some borderline areas have been left out of the map that some people might think should be included eg the Lowther Hills, Strathy Forest and North Lewis.

All in all, about 20 per cent of Scotland’s landmass has been classified as “wild” which means that planners will have to take the new designation into account when they are deciding on any new development, whether that be a wind farm, or a fish farm, or radio mast or a hotel or housing estate, or, dare we mention it, a golf course.

We’ve seen that such designations are not sacrosanct. Donald Trump has demonstrated that you can build a golf course on a SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. And there are a dozen other such designations – NNR, SPA, SAC, NSA, AONB, not to mention national and regional parks – where such exceptions have been made. The John Muir Trust estimates that you can see a wind turbine from more than half of Scotland’s land area.

JohnMuirTrustGreenThe John Muir Trust is leading the campaign to preserve Scotland’s wild land and it has welcomed the new map. Other conservation organisations, like the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust are similarly hoping the new map will be widely accepted.

But it is likely to be opposed in detail by local councils, developers, farmers and tourism businesses. An earlier draft of the map was sent back to the drawing board and SNH has had to carry out further statistical analysis to prove that certain areas really are “wild”.

There are those who argue that nowhere in Scotland is wild. All of our landscape, they say, has been influenced by human habitation but grouse moors, farmland, crofts and fishing villages still make for a beautiful, peaceful and spiritually pleasing experience. But even those opposed to wild land designations, or particular lines drawn on the map, admit that there is a balance to be struck between economic gains and preserving the natural wildness that is attracting businesses in the first place.

The Scottish government’s National Planning Framework hints that the presumption will always be against developments in wild land areas. Paragraph 99, for instance, reads: “ Some of Scotland’s remoter mountain and coastal areas possess an elemental quality from which people derive psychological and spiritual benefits. Such areas are very sensitive to any form of development or intrusive human activity and great care should be taken to safeguard their wild character.”

We shall see whether the government will live up to these fine words when the final map of wild land is written into the planning rules. And then we shall see if we can stick to them. The consultation period ends on 20th December.

Coigach-Assynt Panorama
Picture credit Alex Nail

It’s one of Scotland’s least populated areas. The far North-West – the area from Ullapool to Lochinver and beyond – is special in many different ways. It has one of the most diverse geologies in the world – so much so that it’s one of the few Geo-Parks in the UK. Its mountains – the so-called Inselbergs – are unique in Scotland. Isolated peaks such as Stac Pollaidh, Cùl Mòr, Suilven and Canisp are striking features rising out of the landscape. Its mountains, moorlands, lochs and coastline provide habitats for species such as golden eagles, wildcats, black-throated divers and freshwater pearl mussels.

Stac Pollaidh from Sgorr-tuath   Picture - Alex Nail

Stac Pollaidh from Sgorr-tuath
Picture – Alex Nail

This is a special area which deserves protection; and now the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has announced a grant of £3million, including £100,000 development funding, to do just that. One of the remotest places in Europe, the investment will bring long-term social, economic and environmental benefits to the area.

As Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, explains, “nature lies at the very heart of what makes Scotland special and no where is that more evident than the astounding scenery of Coigach-Assynt,. However, the enormous pressures upon these landscapes mean that we have to tackle their restoration and conservation on a bigger scale than ever before. The Landscape Partnership programme does just that, and more. It brings real cohesion to the natural and built heritage of the region while reconnecting its communities with the nature that lies on their doorstep.”

The area covered is massive – some 606km2. As part of a 40-year vision for the area, a partnership called Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape (Call) has been set up. Led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), the work will involve restoring blanket bog and heath moor, repairing paths and reconnecting fragmented native woodland.

Coigach-Assynt  The least populated part of Europe

The least populated part of Europe

Some of the money will also go towards excavating and preserving Clachtoll broch, an internationally significant Iron Age settlement which was a local centre of power around 300BC. And finds are still being made. Last year, archaeologists reported finding the remains of what they believe was an important Bronze Age site – a pit with a channel to a nearby stream discovered at Stronechrubie. While not entirely sure what it had been made for, there’s speculation that it could have been used for bathing, though it could also have been used cooking and feasting or even brewing.

The Project Manager of the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape (CALL), Viv Halcrow, said that the funding “could have a great impact across the whole Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape. It would not only benefit the natural, cultural and built environment, but could help to increase integration between communities, landowners, and organisations. The CALL partnership is very grateful to have received a stage one pass and are looking forward to developing the project in preparation for a stage two submission.”

Light Pollution threatens the Dark Sky Park

It’s been open for less than a year but astronomers are now warning that the Dark Sky Park in Galloway is under threat. The cause – a glut of applications for wind turbines in the area! In an open letter to the Scottish Government, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Wild Land Group warn about the serious risks to the dark skies that made the park possible. They want a change in planning policy so that the park enjoys the same kind of protection that wild land across Scotland is given.

Scottish Dark Sky Observatory GD Lodge, Architects

Scottish Dark Sky Observatory
GD Lodge, Architects

According to Mark Gibson, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, there are currently nine proposals for turbines at various stages of planning. They include proposals from energy companies such as E.ON and RWE npower renewables, among others. He argued that, while some planning applications had been rejected, there are fears that if even just one is approved, it could open the door for further development.

The Dark Sky Park is the only one in Britain. Opened by the First Minister last October, it’s home to the world’s only publicly accessible, research-grade observatory within a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park. In the opinion of Professor John Brown, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, “Installing any large structures that require illumination (whether visible or infra-red) would be akin to putting a factory in Glen Coe or electricity pylons along the Cuillin Ridge.

Prof John Brown  "Akin to putting a factory in Glen Coe"

Prof John Brown
“Akin to putting a factory in Glen Coe”

“Our first minister was instrumental in helping to secure funding for the observatory and he opened it with much passion and aplomb in October last, praising Scotland for leading the world with this fine public and educational facility. But Mr Salmond is also an ardent advocate of wind farms and so faces a dilemma. I, for one, would call upon him now to prove his sincere interest in our wild lands and skies by ensuring wind farms and other dark sky contaminants are excluded from the entire Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. This would lay down a benchmark for future decisions on all similar wild land sites where wind farms are wholly inappropriate.”

In a statement, the Scottish Government explained that consultation on the draft Scottish Planning Policy took place earlier this year. These included proposals to guide local authorities in the preparation of spatial frameworks for wind energy development. “We received a large number of responses to the consultation,” it said, “including many views on onshore wind, and will take these responses into account when we publish the finalised SPP next year.”

The reason for the objectors’ concerns is that, under Ministry of Defence and Aviation Authority safety rules, wind turbines must be illuminated by infra-red light and, in some cases, visible light as well. Turbines near the park could fall into the latter category, and would affect both the ability of astronomers to use sensitive equipment, and the current visibility of stars, galaxies, comets and northern lights.

The Falkirk Wheel – a triumph of engineering

I’ve recently found myself wondering how our infrastructure helps to shape our environment and behaviours. We take most of the built networks for granted, mumble when some fall into disrepair and shake our heads when promises of the future are unfathomably delayed.

After long considering the challenge, I decided to run home to Edinburgh after a day at my client’s offices in Glasgow. The Wednesday evening’s prognosis was for fair weather and a near full moon. Butterflies flitted in my stomach. I was relishing the approaching shift in space and time within the confinement of the busy Central Belt and between one workday and the next. At the back of four pm, I gave thumbs up to my colleagues and left the building.

Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow

Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow

Befitting a love of the outdoors, I chose the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals as the route. As my pace began to settle through Lambhill, I thought about how life was before, during and after the construction of the waterways. Without the combustion engine, it would have been an enormous challenge to excavate the dolerite, cart off the debris by horse and bring in materials to strengthen the banks. A temporary society would have congregated by the corridor, with farriers and wheelwrights, tinkers and hookers. Interim bridges might have connected the people between the good and bad sides of the trench.

As the afternoon sun dropped and a six-stride crossing of Kirkintilloch’s Cowgate came and went, I began to imagine the impact of the canal. It linked (the rich), divided (the poor) and enabled interaction between all strata. Furthermore, it influenced the transit of goods, services and ideas, and affected, ever so subtly, the prevalence of flora and fauna. The change was irreversible. The same is true of the creation of subsequent train, tram and asphalt networks and the designation of today’s urban developments. Clever modern routes involve multi-level crossings, like those used in Canada to let moose pass under the parkways. My opinions on the best of planning initiatives are best left to another journey, another post.

Wildlife on the Union Canal

Wildlife on the Union Canal

I ran on and on. Backcasting anglers focused on their translucent lines, which ended in miniature concentric circles on the calm of the drink. Endless reflections of poplars and ash and oak contrasted only with the canalside gardens that spilled out onto the towpath. Assumptions that our canals are ribbons of discarded shopping trolleys and floating Pilsner bottles must be shattered. No, there is pride on the canals of Scotland these days. You only have to read about the Helix by Grangemouth and Falkirk and the fabulous Kelpies sculpture. It’s a M9 white-line drifter between junctions five and seven.

For ten miles I ran along with a friend. We chatted about this and that. Despite the technical difficulties, it might have been easier to get large projects completed at the end of the eighteenth century than it is now. The efficacy of change decreases with increasing democratisation, it seems. In formerly ‘backward’ countries like China, the government can decree that a route shall be built. And it will. In Britain, our multi-layered society lets royalist, religious, feudal, merchant, government and capitalist models dance the Gay Gordons with interest groups and quangos. The result is a cacophony of developmental paralysis. Although it’s frustrating, perhaps this is actually the right path for us and is the price to pay for stability beyond the reach of most nations.

The Union Canal at the top of the Falkirk Wheel

The Union Canal at the top of the Falkirk Wheel

At the Falkirk Wheel, a triumph of engineering that opened after the Millennium, I climbed the grassy bank to join the younger Union Canal. It was immediately darker and narrower. My sore feet pounded the compacted earth. The moon rose. Owls began to hoot. I found it tremendous that, beside the old Lothian coalfield villages, a shaft of water and light and foliage could give such pleasure to the weary commuter.

The half-miles clicked by in the half-darkness. Across Britain there are dozens of canals, with just a handful in Scotland. The Caledonian stitches up the magnificent fault line of the Great Glen. Meanwhile, the Crinan gives light work for sailors otherwise rounding the Mull of Kintyre. The Monkland is a smaller resource that links with the Forth & Clyde. So that’s a total of five, each extremely valuable for nature and recreation.

Less known is the planned-but-never built scheme to move Dreadnought-class battleships from the Clyde to the Forth. Two routes were proposed before the Great War, either of which would have matched the Panama in depth and breadth. The finances meant that those chipping their influence into the arms race had to pick between more boats or a new shipping mechanism. If the canal had been started, it’s my guess that the imperative would have galvanised the mission. You can look at the Alaskan Highway to understand what people can do when the cause is unequivocal.

The Union Canal near Winchburgh

The Union Canal near Winchburgh

At Linlithgow, I caught the sound of church bells on the water and the bogeys of the 21:59 for Waverly departing a minute late. The railroad was, of course, the next era in our transport history and must have caused headaches for those who were making their life from the canal. It’s hard adapting to change, that’s for sure. We only have to compare our own situation, as society copes with pressures from all sides, not least in the movement of information. But by this point, approaching 40 miles on my run, I was too tired to engage in philosophy.

Finally, a light from afar cut a swathe through the night. It was a friend who’d ridden out from Edinburgh. After high fives, he turned to pedal behind me and illuminate my figure. It created a giant running man whom I could never quite catch up. I boosted my stride length and stoked my arms, but still I wasn’t quick enough. At Winchburgh, I stopped running. We left the water’s edge and immediately found houses, pavements, roads, taxis and kebab shops. I’d had an adventure that seemed on another planet, yet suburbia had never been more than fifty yards away all night.


Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Tough Mudder is a 10-12 mile run. Sounds feasible? But with 20 to 25 military-style obstacles designed by British Special Forces with (this year) double the mud, double the obstacles and double the events, it’s an event to make even the toughest quail.

Brave the electrified fields

Brave the electrified fields

The endurance phenomenon started in America before moving on to take Australia by storm. It came to the UK last year with three events in London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Now, following an overwhelming reception and huge demand, 2013 sees the amount of events in the UK double to six nationally.

The brainchild of Englishmen Will Dean and Guy Livingstone, the event started with three events in the US. In 2013, that’s risen to with 53 events in a grwoing number of countries. Home to the most innovative courses and 700,000 inspiring participants worldwide to date – and over 750,000 expected participants this year alone – Tough Mudder is the premier adventure challenge series in the world. And indeed, unlike any marathon or mud run, Tough Mudder is not a race, but a challenge – a challenge to test mental toughness and physical endurance whilst emphasising teamwork and camaraderie. A number of the course’s grueling obstacles can’t be completed solo, and all participants are required to recite the Tough Mudder pledge before starting each event.

To get through mud, fire, ice water and 10,000 volts of electricity, you’ll need teammates to pick you up when morale is low. To get over 12-foot walls and through underground mud tunnels, you’ll need teammates to give you a boost and a push. Tough Mudders are team players who make sure no Mudder gets left behind.

It's all about teamwork

It’s all about teamwork

The event is not about competing against peers, racing for the fastest time or winning a medal, but about taking part and completing what is “Probably the Toughest event on the Planet.” Simply completing a Tough Mudder is an achievement in itself and a badge of honour. And after a demanding, physically and mentally draining 12 miles, who needs a medal when you can have an ice-cold pint?

The first UK events took place in ‘London North’ in May and then ‘London South’ in June. But now, it’s coming back to Scotland in August, before moving on to Yorkshire and the South West in September, finishing with the North West event in October. The Scottish event will take place on the 24th and 25th August on a special course near Dalkeith.

All Tough Mudders who think they are tough enough to meet the challenge can register now HERE!