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Average speed cameras read car number plates

The A9 is a notoriously dangerous road. Much of it is single carriageway; but sections have been dualled and other parts now have overtaking lanes. Over the years, hundreds of people have lost their lives in accidents; many more have been permanently maimed. Time and again, there have been calls for the road, sometimes called Scotland’s spine, to be upgraded as a matter of urgency; but despite the Scottish Government’s commitment, that won’t be completed for well over a decade.

The Scottish Government plans to upgrade the A9

The Scottish Government plans to upgrade the A9

Now, in what is seen by some as a stop-gap measure, average speed cameras will be installed from Dunblane to Inverness. The announcement comes just a few days after Chief Superintendent David O’Connor, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, wrote an open letter calling on the Scottish Government to give the work a “higher priority”. The £2.5m system will monitor drivers along the route from next summer. The Transport Minister, Keith Brown, announced the move as part of a package of safety measures to be introduced on the road.

Mr Brown explained that the A9 was “…one of Scotland’s most important routes, linking Inverness to the rest of the country, and it is extremely important that it is as safe as possible for all road users. The A9 Safety Group has recommended that an average speed camera system is introduced to help cut down on the number of accidents and Transport Scotland will now take this forward.

“While the Scottish Government believes that dualling will be the long-term solution to the safety issues on the A9 — we are the first administration committed to making the road dual carriageway all the way from Perth to Inverness a reality — we also want to make the immediate improvements that will bring positive changes to driver behaviour.

Keith  Brown Transport Minister

Keith Brown
Transport Minister

“Average speed cameras systems have a proven track record of reducing casualties and excessive speed and their high visibility leads to better compliance of the speed limit. We hope to see the first of the cameras introduced early next year and expect the system to be fully operational in the Summer of 2014.”

Superintendent Iain Murray from Police Scotland added that the organisation was “…committed to making Scotland’s roads safer and any initiative that furthers that aim is welcome. Average speed cameras have previously proved their ability to reduce casualties on other major roads in Scotland and analysis shows that there will be similar benefits on the A9. There is no doubt that this announcement will help to reduce the concerns of a great many people who have made their concerns about safety on the road known in recent days. However, it is clear that the introduction of the system will take some time.”

He went on to say that the Trunk Roads Patrol Group would continue to provide a higher level of patrols on the A9, as well as other strategic routes in Scotland, to influence road user behaviour, encourage better driving and enforce legislation when required.

The system will be the second in Scotland. – the first being on the A77 in Ayrshire between Bogend Toll and Ardwell Bay. It was installed there in 2005 and has been credited with improving safety. According to Transport Scotland, it had delivered a 46% reduction in fatal accidents and 35% cut in serious accidents over the past 8 years. The cameras are part of a number of changes to make the road safer. Other changes have included introducing more consistent signs and lines, safety barriers and variable messaging signs showing journey times.

The move has broadly been welcomed as a step in the right direction. The director of Road Safety Scotland, Michael McDonnell, pointed out that the A9 Safety Group’s objective is to positively influence driver behaviours in a way that helps reduce road casualty figures. It has been demonstrated in other locations that average speed cameras reduce the number of people being killed and seriously injured and this offers real potential to improve safety on the A9 ahead of the dualling programme.”

Looking down on the head of Loch Avon <em>Picture: Callum Black</em>

Looking down on the head of Loch Avon Picture: Callum Black

Late morning was as good a time as any to brave the 100-mile drive up the A9, and by 2pm I was starting up the strange hill that is Creag Meagaidh. It was tackled from Moy, to the south, rather than the trade route from Aberarder via the Window, which I’d done a couple of times previously.

The Moy approach was a different game entirely, both in terms of people-quietness and lower-ground squelchy roughness (the two might well be connected).

Ralph Storer, in his Ultimate Guide to the Munros series, writes that “an ATV track proves useful for a while” – but in my case it proved useful for about 30 seconds before vanishing in the summer-growth jungle.

The first 45 minutes, until across the Moy Burn and starting up the much steeper and easier southwestern slope of the outlier An Cearcallach, wasn’t much fun – but things improved markedly from there, with a steady anticlockwise plod round the various tops to the main summit, then down the south ridge with its wall before another dose of tropical purgatory at the bottom.

Despite the warm-bordering-on-hot weather and clear skies, I didn’t meet anyone – the Aberarder car park had been packed, and a few walkers could be seen across on the main rim, but all had gone by the time I got there. I did however see what at first I took to be a higher-than-usual dipper, but later realised was a ring ouzel, at 1,000 metres in the plateau-edge burn above Coire Choille-rais.

Creag Meagaidh is a decidedly odd hill. It’s mightily impressive to look at, with corries all over the place – in which regard it’s a Highland version of Cadair Idris, both hills being geological Catherine Wheels, with ridges spiralling off in odd directions. But even up top, despite the height of over 1,100 metres, the going isn’t as good as might be expected: springy moss rather than firm gravels or boulders.

Standing halfway along the Laggan road, it suffers an identity crisis like no other Scottish hill – part western ridge system, part eastern plateau, without really fitting either format. It’s a hill version of Alan Ross’s celebrated witticism about the New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis: “Funny sort of name, Cunis: neither one thing nor the other…”.

Overnighted with friends Helen and Bill Cook in Kingussie, then headed for real gravel-and-boulder country: the Cairngorms. A plan to meet another friend on top of Braeriach fell through when he texted to tell of being tied down with family duties in Pitlochry, so I took the chance to fill a few gaps in my central Cairngorms CV.

Having lived in Aberdeen, and having done a fair bit of Strathspey-based walking in subsequent years, these are hills I’ve been in and on a lot. But there are always omissions, and today – again in fine weather, although with a steady south-east breeze that picked up for a spell mid-afternoon – it made sense to chalk off a couple of them.

First came the Goat Track – the walking route out of the back of Coire an t-Sneachda that manages to be both direct and sneaky at the same time. The corrie floor is a great boulder-strewn place with a lovely lochan, and the exit route is only at all steep for 50 metres or so – I was sitting at the plateau-rim cairn in little over an hour from the top car park, with a couple of stops en route. In winter it’s grade II, but in summer it’s just a walk with a couple of metres of damp-but-juggy almost-scrambling at a slabby section halfway up the steep bit.

A local friend told later of a mountain rescue contact having mentioned that he recommended a helmet for the Goat Track, and it does indeed go tight in beneath the verticalities. But despite my increasing keenness for helmets in rough, loose corries, I didn’t feel I was taking any untoward risks by being bare-headed (well, baseball-cap-headed). Perhaps I simply trust Cairngorms granite more than I do Cuillin gabbro and basalt.

Then across to Ben Macdui (what a stroll the path now is – at least as far as Lochan Buidhe – compared with three decades ago), and so down upper Coire Etchachan for lunch on Beinn Mheadhoin, very much the middle hill of its name. This was only my second ascent, the first having been on a youthful full-of-bagging-energy trip with a friend when we walked in from Braemar, camped by moonlight in Glen Derry, then did the odd combination of Derry Cairngorm (via an alarmingly loose gully on its north-eastern top), Beinn Mheadhoin and Bynack More. I contrived to fall in at the Fords of Avon both times.

Both that day and this were dry, and the summit tor was easy enough – but in the wet Beinn Mheadhoin could well be the most technically awkward mainland Munro, given the friction-reliant nature of even easy granite scrambling. In ice it would be a serious undertaking, requiring crampons, axe and nerve – it’s worth recalling that this was the only 1,000-metre summit not reached by Mike Cawthorne during the winter round recounted in his fine book Hell of a Journey. (“Attempting to scale the ice-plating and reach the true summit was out of the question.”)

And so down on an easy diagonal line to the Loch Avon shore path, round the head of the loch via the stepping-stone beaches – all tremendous country, and I had seen no one since the Etchachan outflow – and so up the path on the east side of the Allt Coire Raibeirt, again new to me. This – like the Goat Track – has a reputation for unnerving people, as the steep lower 150 metres is blocky and eroded in places. Easy enough in ascent in summer – although it’s interesting that as far back as 1975, the esteemed Adam Watson advised walkers, in his SMC Cairngorms guidebook, to “take care as the steepest part of the path has eroded badly and is loose”.

What was striking was its directness in good summer conditions. I was starting to feel distinctly puggled, but from the Loch Avon beaches to the summit of Cairn Gorm – around 500 metres of ascent and 2.5km distance – took under an hour of walking time, courtesy of the steep ground low down and the firm, dry, un-Meagaidh-like terrain higher up.

Out with my host Bill for a scoot round the pair of Feshie Munros before the weather broke. In training for the Dent Blanche at the end of July, Bill needed a decent yomp, so we went up by the Allt Ruadh path system, then over Meall Tionail and Meall Buidhe. Sgor Gaoith – how many hills have such a great downward view? – was reached just as conditions started to clear and improve, contrary to what we had been expecting all the way up.

Bill got his proper legstretch on the crossing to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, as on the Moine Mhor section between Carn Ban Mor and the plateau track he opted for a direct line rather than follow the path, and we only met the track where it crossed the Eidart feeder, the Caochan Dubh. Because I stuck to the path slightly longer before realising what he was up to, I was about a minute behind him right the way across and couldn’t close it despite trying quite hard – and he’s 11 years older than me.

Then came a close-quarters dotterel sighting as we left the Mullach, followed by lunch in one of the gully-top clefts above Coire Garbhlach, from where the scree-and-heather view across to Meall Dubhag always reminds me of Grasmoor.

At the Achlean road-end, as the forecast rain finally arrived, we chatted with a group of knackered-but-happy Duke of Edinburgh’s Award trainees – the second time I’d seen them or their colleagues, there having been a couple of groups on Macdui. At the car park itself was a minibus – presumably theirs – with Ampleforth Abbey written on the side. This prompted a thought: Ampleforth is one of the great Roman Catholic schools, so how come its pupils can receive a DoE award but then be denied the chance of a hassle-free marriage into the Duke’s family, due to the Act of Settlement?

A day of rest, recuperation and general zonking. Even half a decade ago I could have happily managed another outing immediately after three routine-length hill days bookended by two 100-mile drives – but not now.

Not for the first time I’m struck by the extraordinary effort and energy of Stephen Pyke’s 39-day Munro round, which ended just over a year ago. Plenty of Spyke’s individual days were beyond my own scope in standalone terms (Beinn a’Bheithir followed by all the Mamores, for instance), but the stringing together of them, day on day without a break, is what really stands out. And he’s only four years younger than me. Scary and very, very impressive.

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A9 near Crubenmore <em>Picture: J M Briscoe</em>

A9 near Crubenmore Picture: J M Briscoe

By Rob Edwards

Walkers, cyclists and horse-riders who threatened to blockade the A9 on the west side of the Cairngorms have forced a government U-turn after the personal intervention of the first minister, Alex Salmond.

Transport Scotland has previously refused to provide access for a historic route across the newly dualled stretch of the trunk road at Crubenmore, just south of Newtonmore. But now it is planning to construct an underpass.

The government agency’s change of heart follows an intervention by the first minister during the election. Mr Salmond told campaigners he shared their concerns and, if re-elected, would instruct officials to go ahead with a crossing.

Transport Scotland said it was now determining the feasibility of building an underpass with a view to bringing forward the necessary road orders. “It is expected this work could be completed by mid-August,” said a spokeswoman for the agency.

It may take another two years, though, until the crossing is actually built. Officials met with representatives of walking and horse-riding groups last Friday to discuss what was required.

According to Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland, it was a “productive meeting”. He was “very pleased” that the government had changed its mind after the first minister had met with Ramblers Scotland convenor and former MSP, Dennis Canavan.

“Officials were clearly acting on the first minister’s instructions to investigate the action needed to build an underpass at Crubenmore and we had discussions about the detailed design and location requirements, all of which seemed satisfactory,” said Morris.

“There is an intention to construct an underpass, or bridge if this proves to be a better alternative, which will fully meet the needs of walkers, cyclists and horseriders and comply with disability requirements.”

Ruaridh Ormiston, who runs the Newtonmore Riding Centre, also welcomed the discussions on a new underpass. He was disappointed, though, that it had taken eight months and the intervention of Mr Salmond to reach this stage.

He said: “Earlier discussions would have ensured that an underpass was included in the current works. It will not be ready when the new dual carriageway opens this August so some interim arrangement will need to be made.”

Countryside access groups had been angry that the dualling of the A9 barred them from following one of the old military roads built by General Wade to control the Jacobites in the early 18th century. The route crosses the A9, and has long been popular with pony-trekkers, cyclists and walkers.

“It is vitally important that these ancient routes are preserved and kept safe for future generations to enjoy,” said Candy Cameron, from the British Horse Society. “It would be irresponsible of us to allow them to be closed forever by barriers like the new A9 dual carriageway at Crubenmore.”

In March, campaigners unveiled plans for an escalating series of protests on the A9 this summer which would have delayed motorists. But with an underpass now promised, the protests have been called off.

A spokesman for the first minister confirmed that he had instructed Transport Scotland to undertake further survey work “with a view to promoting new road orders that include establishing an underpass.”

He added: “Furthermore, in making a final decision about the A9 at Crubenmore the Scottish government, and indeed Transport Scotland, will consult with all interested parties, including the Ramblers.”

Rob Edwards, environmental news and comment.

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Glasgow Airport Rail Link terminus <em>Picture: Thomas Nugent</em>

Glasgow Airport Rail Link terminus Picture: Thomas Nugent

Iain Gray launched the Scottish Labour manifesto today with a pledge to create 250,000 new jobs.

    The Scottish Labour leader unveiled a manifesto packed with spending commitments, at the heart of which was a pledge to help youth unemployment, create more training places and protect students from fees.

    Mr Gray insisted that his party’s plans had all been costed and were affordable, arguing that most of the extra money needed would be found through departmental efficiency savings.

    But Labour’s plans were derided as unrealistic and unaffordable by the party’s opponents.

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    Among the pledges made in the Labour manifesto were the following. Promises to:

    * Create a Scottish Jobs Fund, creating 10,000 work placements for unemployed young people at a cost of £40 million.
    * Introduce a minimum wage of £7.15 an hour, starting in the public sector, at a cost of £20 million a year.
    * Give a guaranteed modern apprenticeship to everyone who wants one.
    * Aim for 60,000 new green jobs in renewables by 2015.
    * Double the Saltire Prize to £20 million.
    * Complete the Aberdeen bypass, the M8 upgrade and the M74 interchange as well embark on continuous improvements to the A82, A1, A9, A77, A75, A95 and A96 and the M8, M73 and M74.
    * Improve the Edinburgh-to-Glasgow rail service, cutting journey times to 40 minutes.
    * Reinstate the halted Glasgow Airport Rail Link at a cost of £200 million.
    * Create new jobs and specialised training for 1,000 teachers.
    * Make sure students have to pay no tuition fees or graduate tax.
    * Introduce free swimming lessons for primary school pupils.
    * Restart Project Scotland.
    * Widen access to music tuition.
    * Protect the health budget.
    * Ensure there are no compulsory redundancies in the health service.
    * Halve the current cancer waiting time.
    * Seek the complete abolition of hospital parking charges.
    * Have no prescription charges.
    * Protect frontline police jobs.
    * Introduce mandatory jail sentences for knife carriers.
    * Create a Victims’ Commissioner, a Victims’ Fund and a new Charter for Victims’ Rights.
    * Keep short-term prison sentences.
    * Start a first-foot scheme to reduce the size of deposits for first-time buyers, indemnifying mortgage payments.
    * Freeze council tax for the next two years.
    * Create a Housing Advisory Service.
    * Create a new City Growth Fund to support cities.
    * Create a Scottish Film Champion.
    * Scrap the Council of Economic Advisers.
    * Scrap the Scottish Futures Trust.
    * Make savings in health by merging special boards and by amalgamating IT services.
    * Create a single police force.
    * Create a single fire service.

    “The choices we make now about where we spend the money,” said Mr Gray, “and – yes – where we cut the money, will set us on our path for the next decade. The question is where we want to go together.

    “By 2020 I want to create a new Scottish economy, built on high-tech engineering and modern green manufacturing. I want a flourishing private sector exporting high quality products to growing markets abroad. I want excellent public services that deal with the challenges of our aging population. I want a confident Scotland, comfortable with its place in the world, that cares for all its citizens, is proud of our past and hopeful for our future.”

    And he added: “I want all of that for a reason, because there is a moral imperative to what we do. Labour believes that a more equal society is a stronger society, that one man, woman or child in poverty is an offence against us all, that our government exists not merely to govern well but to make change for the better, to progress the lot of those who have least and to make this country live up to the potential of all of its people.

    “These are the principles that have guided my politics and have led me to this point, where I am asking for support for my programme to be the First Minister of a Labour Scottish Government.”

    But his opponents were quick to deride the Labour manifesto.

    “Iain Gray’s party threatens Scotland’s progress and Scottish jobs,” said SNP campaign director Angus Robertson. “Under an SNP Government, Scotland is the only nation in the UK with rising employment and falling unemployment. Scotland has lower youth unemployment than the rest of the UK, and Iain Gray voted AGAINST the Scottish Government’s measures to keep driving it down – such as the record 25,000 apprenticeship places this year.”

    And George Lyon, for the Liberal Democrats, said: “It was the Labour party’s failure in Government that caused youth unemployment to soar. Scots will not give them a second chance to make the same mistakes again.

    “Governments don’t create jobs, the private sector does. Labour’s fantasy wish-list of unbelievable jobs numbers is no substitute for a proper plan that creates the conditions for economic growth.

    And he added: “Their only big idea is to lock up 4,000 more people every year in already overcrowded prisons.

    “But nowhere in their manifesto does it say how they will find the money to build the four new Barlinnies needed to house them all.”

    David McLetchie, for the Tories said: “One word was missing from the manifesto – sorry – for creating the financial mess and crisis facing our country.

    “Labour’s wage pledge might mean a pay rise for some, but it will mean a P45 for others.

    “Labour’s aspires to be the next government, but they can’t even produce a comprehensive analysis of their spending commitments for the next four years. Uncosted and incredible.”

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    Snowy Scottish roadFor any motorist in central Scotland, whether long haul or short hop, Monday was memorable for all the wrong reasons. The Caledonian Mercury asked three drivers for their experiences – one in the west of Scotland, one in the middle chunk (which appears to have been the worst-hit area of all), and one in the east.

    Doug Small works at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, and always either cycles or – as on Monday – drives the 13 miles from his home in Langbank. He managed to beat the worst of the morning weather, leaving home at 7:30am and reaching work half an hour later. This was in turn around half an hour before the heavy snowfall began. (It had already been snowing heavily to the east of Glasgow for some hours by this point.)

    The return journey was always going to be the tricky one, and Small left his office early, at 3:30pm, fortunate in being able to do some of his work at home. “There was a brief moment (well, 30 minutes) of panic when I was stationary,” he said, “but the minute I was on the motorway it was plain sailing. It was just getting to the motorway among all the blocked other roads.”

    He adapted his route home to try and miss the worst of the trouble. “Normally I go up to Cardonald station on Berryknowes Road and do a U-turn to get back on to the M8 at junction 25 as quickly as possible. I feared Berryknowes might be blocked, because I overheard a porter at work. So I was for heading along the A8 to the Braehead roundabout system, but realised that was all backed up, so went up Fifty Pitches Road to the Daily Record roundabout. This section is about 400 metres and took 30 minutes. But then I was off and running, because everyone east of me was stuck.

    “I made it home in about an hour,” Small said. “I feel a bit lucky compared with what I know awaited some of my colleagues. I have taken Tuesday off as annual leave.”

    Sandra Hayashibara is a self-employed bookkeeper based in Bridge of Allan. “I more or less did the sensible thing and stayed indoors most of the day,” she said. “The lady I am currently working for, who runs a catering business, informed me that the roads were a nightmare and that I shouldn’t be going anywhere. She had a four-wheel drive vehicle and very kindly offered to bring the paperwork to me, rather than have me venture out.

    “The children set off by foot to school at Wallace High. Several rumours began to fly that the school was closed. I tried to no avail to discover what was actually happening – there was no information on the local radio, nor on the council website.”

    Other members of Hayashibara’s family were less lucky in terms of travelling. “It took my brother Dougie ten hours to travel by car from Motherwell back to Cumbernauld,” she said, “arriving home at 9pm. He had left for work before the snow started in Cumbernauld. As the weather deteriorated, his employer advised employees to return home – that was at 11am.

    “Dougie and his workmate came to the aid of a van driver who had become stuck in the snow. Once the van driver was freed, my brother and friend were rewarded – as, much to their delight, it was a sandwich-delivery van they had gone to the rescue of!

    “Dougie arrived home at 9pm, absolutely shattered, with my distraught seven-year-old niece so glad to see her daddy home safely.

    “My brother-in-law was stuck on the A9 whilst attempting to get to Dundee. He eventually made it back towards Cumbernauld, but had to abandon his van at Haggs and walk back into Cumbernauld via Castlecary.”

    Hayashibara is able to see the positives amid all the chaos. “I enjoy the community spirit at times like this,” she said, “and that’s what life should be all about – helping each other. I took a trip up to the local supermarket and knocked on my elderly neighbours’ door to ask if they needed any shopping. I was embarrassed to see that my neighbour from across the road was clearing my path when I had two perfectly able-bodied children at home, off school. Come tomorrow, if school is closed again, I shall be putting my children to work in ‘community service’ – they can clear the streets or go shopping for my elderly neighbours!

    “On my way back from the shops, I met the elderly gentleman who lives at the end of my street. This was a gentleman that didn’t really know me, but I walked back with him. In just one day I had conversations with two of my neighbours that I had never really spoken to before. You get a sense of appreciation from others at times like these. It’s a pity that the country cannot pull together under normal circumstances like we do in times of inclement weather.”

    Richard Webb – a teacher who lives in Cockenzie – had a similar experience to Doug Small at the opposite end of the M8. He needed to get round Edinburgh to school in Blackburn, never the easiest of commutes even in ideal weather.

    “I got in to Blackburn at 8am on an easy M8 just as the snow was starting. Conditions were good, no dire warnings on the radio except that it was snowing in Stirling and Fife and difficult there. It snowed all morning and into the afternoon. Lots of info was coming in from crafty keeks at mobiles etc. The school remained open, but the kids were worried. We were told that it would be all over by noon, but simply watching the radar said that was unlikely, and the school closed as soon as transport was arranged.

    “I decided to go for it, on the grounds that the A71 was described as ‘slow’. I can do slow, it is stationary that worries me. I left Blackburn at 2:35pm and made it home in an hour and 45 minutes. Got through Livingston OK – lucky, as a BMW got stuck behind me at one point. The A71 was fine, then there was a 25-minute wait to get on to the Edinburgh bypass. The radio (which until 3:30pm was giving little information) said it was gridlocked, but it was clear and easier than an ordinary day. Snow depths lessened as I travelled eastward. All cameras were off-line. I suspect social engineering, scare folk into staying in and hide the evidence.

    “The M8 has been blocked by lorries on many days this time,” Webb said. “Perhaps they should be stopped from travelling until a suitable period of gritting has expired and light vehicles have ground in the salt. I am also fed up with the years of ‘do not drive unless necessary’ during that run of mild winters – usually in good conditions. Trouble is, sometimes there is a wolf. I never believe a word the police say now, and I suspect others are the same – so the genuine recent pleas may have not had a correct response.

    “Meanwhile, north of the Central Belt, far worse conditions are ignored by the media – a mirror of the distorted prominence given to southern England.”

    <em>Picture: Leigh McMahon</em>

    Picture: Leigh McMahon

    By Tom Morton

    Forty years of motorcycling, and I haven’t fallen off once. Now here I am, in the deceptively sloping car park of Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, lying underneath a Triumph Street Triple R. Six hundred and seventy-five cubic centimetres of rampant hooligan motorcycle has just toppled with a sickening crunch onto my legs and torso.

    There’s no pain, not yet. There was a sense of awful inevitability as, swinging my leg over the heavily laden bike to get off, I caught my foot on the tailpack, fell heavily to the ground and watched the Grey Beast (the R in its name, signifying its uprated thrash-punk credentials, standing in my opinion for Ridiculous) teeter on its dodgy kickstand and then descend towards my aged body.

    Gordon, distillery manager, and Rob, travelling companion, saunter (not rush; they’re laughing too much) to my aid. They lift the bike off my trapped body. Gingerly, I try to move my legs. I am Douglas Bader. No, I’m not. Everything works. Ankles, toes, knees. The Triumph’s ungainly rear footpegs, engine casings and protuberant indicators have born the brunt. To the tune, a dismayed Triumph factory will later inform me, of over £2,000 in damage.

    It’s a press bike, one of two borrowed for a long-distance charity ride – the Barnard Challenge – which will take us around the UK and Ireland’s distilleries. Eventually we will cover 3,700 miles. For the moment, though, it’s out with the gaffa tape and off to Cork, then the ferry to Wales, down to Norfolk (again) and up to Scotland (again). 

    It’s over now. We did it all (Norfolk–Leicester–Orkney–Stranraer–Belfast–Bushmills–Cork–Rosslare–Fishguard–Merthyr Tydfil–Norfolk–Inverness) in just over a week. Apart from that incident in Ulster, neither Rob nor I suffered a scratch. I sit now, the autumn howling in, my own bike (a Moto-Guzzi; Italian, rusty, lovely and medieval) securely stored in its winter shed. Thankful for surviving another summer on two wheels. Looking forward to the next.

    Far too many other motorcyclists did not survive this summer. The A9, which Rob and I covered the length of three times in a week, has claimed more than its share of lives, none more affecting than that of 38-year-old mother of two Sharon Topping, from Moodiesburn. Having secretly taken motorcycle lessons as a surprise for her keen biker husband Stephen, the couple had travelled north to collect Sharon’s first bike, bought on eBay. Stephen was following Sharon down the A9 when she hit the central reservation and was killed. That happened the day after Rob and I tore down the road on our way to Stranraer.

    It’s the reality of these personal tragedies that can be too easily forgotten in the reporting of the “yet another biker killed” kind. Bikers become anonymous to other road users, swathed in fibreglass and leather, visored, helmeted, sinister. Colin Rafferty, 51, and his son Keir, who was riding as a pillion passenger, were travelling along the A72 when their BMW bike left the road. They were on their way home from football practice. Both died. They both loved motorcycling, loved motorbikes.

    Peter and Jacqueline Corris, from Leyland, killed on their way home, again on the A9, from the Thunder in the Glens Harley-Davidson rally. Two children survive them. Their funeral was thronged with Harleys, the snarling of poorly-silenced V-twins an ironic and, to many, ugly requiem.

    Why? Why do it? Motorcycling is dangerous. Why put yourself at risk?

    Well, per journey there’s as much chance of dying on an aeroplane flight as on a motorcycle. And, package-holiday fans, vice versa. But that’s not the point. People ride bikes not, on the whole, for necessity – the advent of the Mini in the late 1950s spelt the end of the motorbike as mass transportation, though the moped/scooter commuter market has expanded in recent years. People ride for the joy of it. For fun. For the thrill. For the fact that, balanced at speed on two wheels, every mile covered is two (numbed) fingers in the face of death.

    The dirty secret is this: motorcycling is about death. Facing it, avoiding it. Using your skill and the power of the machine you’ve learned to master to navigate through the constant threat of destruction. It’s better than life. And if it isn’t. It isn’t.

    And it has all this … stuff associated with it. In no other context can a mature man or woman wear leather trousers with impunity. The notion of “gear queer” may offend some motorcyclists, already wrestling perhaps, with the inescapable gay iconography of biker chic. But the term originated among post-Iraq special forces soldiers, for men – always men – obsessed with the equipment of warfare, and its fashionability. William Gibson has based an entire book on the subject.  In motorcycling, you can pay more for a German helmet and some groovy Scandinavian riding gear than for a good bike.

    There is desperately unfashionable equipment, too. I wore a Leatt neck brace for the Barnard trip. This ugly Klingon slave collar was designed by a South African doctor who watched a friend die from a broken neck after a motorbike crash. The cheapest version costs £200. It makes you look stupid, and it did nothing for me in the Bushmills car park.

    I wore a £2 Hi-Viz vest over my expensively black Cordura armour. A yellow flicker in the peripheral vision of some numpty on the M6 may have saved my life. Who knows? I was too busy concentrating. Because that focus is crucial to riding safely. There is no room for dreaming, no space for distractions.

    Motorcycling is about becoming the eyes, ears, brain of the machine – and, as a consequence, it provides a deep sense of satisfaction and, after you stop, euphoria, which is utterly addictive. Somehow, you’re alive. It’s a drug. Even at the age of 54, when I for one should probably know better.

    But sometimes you need to reduce life to its simplest. Sometimes you need to escape contemplation, self-consciousness, self-observation. (I have a theory that too many bad bikers spend too much time imagining what they look like on their bikes, preening. That way disaster lies.) Fail to focus, let your concentration lapse, and you will, at best, fall off. You may be killed. It’s elemental stuff.

    It’s irresistible.

    Rannoch Moor. <em>Picture: Pip Rolls</em>

    Rannoch Moor. Picture: Pip Rolls

    I’m curious about something and could do with a bit of help, if you have a spare minute or two (well, a minute or 30) in which to make a few calculations.

    Here’s what it is. The start of March saw a seven-strong bunch of celebs cycle from John o’ Groats to Land’s End to raise money for Sport Relief. The seven were Fearne Cotton, David Walliams, Miranda Hart, Russell Howard, Patrick Kielty, Davina McCall and Jimmy Carr. You may have seen some of these people on your TV screens over the past few years, and you may have reached for the off button.

    The boys and girls done well, however: they cycled the 1,000-mile route as a relay team, taking turn about, in 82 hours. They have already exceeded their fundraising target of £1 million, with money still coming in ahead of the main Sport Relief weekend, 19–21 March.

    Good stuff, fine effort.

    What interests me, however, is the before-the-start statistic that popped up in various places – I first saw it in the Metro newspaper, and it’s also on the BBC website: “The first 24 hours of the ride will see the celebrities take on an overall hill ascent of almost 29,000ft – the equivalent of Mount Everest.”

    This bare, bold statement was backed up by a quote from Radio 1 DJ Fearne Cotton: “When I was told that we would be climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest on the first day alone, I thought it was a joke. But when you look at the route, it’s true – there’s almost 29,000ft for us to pedal up on the Scottish leg of the trip. And a lot of that is in the dark!”

    Now, call me a sad old sceptic (an essential part of the journalistic temperament, I fear), but on reading this something inside me said: Hang on a minute…

    At some intuitive level I find it hard to believe that cycling the length of Scotland by a mainly-in-glens route would involve anything like that amount of ascent. I could of course be wrong, and will happily stand corrected if so. But here’s what my rather sketchy back-of-a-Landranger-map calculations have come up with.

    The first thing is to confirm the height of Chomolungma. The 29,000ft figure quoted is fine: the Encyclopaedia Britannica (never mind any of that new-fangled Wiki nonsense) gives Everest an imperial height of 29,035ft and a metric one of 8,850 metres.

    Next, what route did the celeb JoGLE team take? This is surprisingly hard to ascertain, as despite the screeds of coverage, much has come in the form of Tweetese, eg “#SR_bike@thisisdavina makes it home and finds her husband and children waiting for her. Lots and lots and lots of tears”, or “#SR_bike@patrickielty has nailed his 2 hours. The boy has thighs like a grand national winner.”

    From what I can tell, they used the A9 to Inverness, then headed along the Great Glen to Fort William, before crossing Rannoch Moor and so on down Loch Lomond. What they then did is a puzzle – if anyone knows, do please say – but I’ve assumed they sneaked round the west side of Glasgow and took the A76 through Sanquhar to Dumfries, then across through Annan to the border at Gretna. They could have taken some kind of A7 Borders route (obviously the M74 is off-limits to bicycles), but the overall ascent would be much the same.

    Having done a little cycling in my time, I’m aware of just how many undulations there are in even a flat-looking stretch of road, and I’ve tried to err on the side of over-estimation. So from John o’ Groats (around 30 metres above sea level), down the Caithness and east Sutherland coast road and across the Dornoch and Cromarty causeways, I’ve estimated 1,500 metres total by Inverness.

    Say another 400m along the Great Glen to Fort William, and a further 900m to the Stoneymollan roundabout at the foot of Loch Lomond.

    Then comes the mystery stretch round Glasgow – I’ve allocated 300m to this – followed by 600m to Dumfries and a final 300m across to Gretna.

    That tots up to 4,000m. I’m entirely willing to concede that something close to half as much again could be added on – taking it to 6,000m – but I don’t see where the remaining top chunk of Everest, almost another 3,000m, could come from.

    So, if anyone can be bothered getting out the map and the magnifying glass and working out a really accurate version, please do. Alternatively, there is always the only really reliable method of checking this: cycling from John o’ Groats to Gretna with an altimeter logbook strapped to the handlebars.

    It looks to be a good day out, and you could even do it for charity.

    Eriskay: Where the SS Politician foundered. <em>Picture: Fin'n'Liz</em>

    Eriskay: Where the SS Politician foundered. Picture: Fin'n'Liz

    Edinburgh Castle was recently revealed as the most popular paid for visitor attraction in Scotland. Last year nearly 1.2 million visitors crossed the threshold to see the Stone of Destiny and witness Shannon the Cannon let rip with the one o’clock gun.

    But at £11 a pop for an adult ticket it’s what in our house we’d call a “proper” day out. One that needs sandwiches and flasks, spare socks and money to fritter in the gift shop. Well worth it, but strictly reserved for high days and holidays.

    Which is why, as a family, we are pretty keen on the, let’s call it “free” end of the market when it comes to places of interest. Admittedly we cheat. These locations invariably tend to be at the end of an island ferry or down a very long road so they’re not exactly what would be described in the public sector as “cost neutral”.

    We would also be chary about recommending them to strangers and friends as what constitutes a success to us can often the result of an arbitrary scoring system. That said, in the Caledonian Mercury spirit I offer you a fairly random selection of our stumbled upon gems and invite you to supply more. We might not end up with a “best of Scotland” sample, but it could be a “bizarre of Scotland”.

    Am Politician
    Random choice number one is this tiny pub on the island of Eriskay, itself off South Uist. The reason for inclusion is that on a wet day in North Uist when the joys of the local Co-Op have been well and truly explored then it could conceivably sound like a good plan to drive to Eriskay for a “trip”. It’s a pleasant enough journey; all brooding, cloud laden hills to the left, machair and houses on the right.

    Once across the causeway in Eriskay we found the beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in 1745 to begin his unsuccessful rebellion. It’s just a shame the torrential rain got there before us. Which is why when we saw a sign for the pub “Am Politician” my heritage heart rose. What could be more romantic/interesting for kids than a quaint public house dripping with atmosphere and presumably liberally sprinkled with dancing Highlanders (think the Drinking Song from the 1949 film Whisky Galore.)

    In Jackanory-mode I filled the backseat occupants in on the story of the SS Politician who ran aground off Eriskay leaving the islanders to pillage the thousands of bottles of whisky.

    We got to the pub. It was a concrete bungalow.

    We were close to driving away, but were strangely drawn by the tartan carpet and a promise of some SS Politician artefacts indoors. One tepid gin and tonic (no ice, no lemon, it’s not the city here) and a Hebridean beer later and we warmed to the weird magic of the place.

    The Hermitage
    This National Trust for Scotland site is just off the A9 at Dunkeld. It is a glorious forest walk in all weather with huge Douglas Firs and a thundering river. Ossian’s Folly is a great place for a breather, before heading off to Ossian’s Cave. Never truly occupied by a hermit (although we tell the kids it was), this is a strange wee place, both arch and mystical and a perfect spot for playing “wild man of the wood” and hitting each other with sticks.

    Seil Island
    Just down the road from Oban, Seil, whilst technically an island, is now linked to the west coast by the Clachan Bridge – known romantically as the Bridge Over the Atlantic. It’s littered with quaint white houses – pretty enough for part of “Ring of Bright Water” to be filmed there, and, for a long while home to Princess Diana’s mother, Francis Shand Kydd.

    But it is only when you arrive at the conservation village of Ellenabeich that you understand why it has fond memories. There, at the end of the road, you are met with the most glittering display of craft shops known to man. The kids go mad. We sigh loudly under our breath and wonder how the Bridge over the Atlantic can lead to this.

    By Val Hamilton

    View from the Drumochter webcam

    View from the Drumochter webcam

    My husband and I were down south last week seeing family, and after waiting for more than 24 hours for the A9 at Drumochter to reopen on Friday we were expecting an epic journey home through whiteouts and towering cliffs of snow. Instead, even as we approached the summit of the pass, the tarmac was black. Both lanes were clear on the dual carriageway and traffic was easily doing 70mph.

    Once over on the north side, there was a haze of drifting snow for a brief spell and a section of cuttings near Dalwhinnie had probably required a snow-blower. But had it been necessary to get the road cleared to quite such a pristine standard? It was difficult to see why it had been closed for so long.

    The journey home to Nethy Bridge had started, long ago, in Shropshire. Luckily, news of the Dunblane A9 chaos broke just as we headed up the M73 on Thursday, so we cut across to the M8 and over the Forth Road Bridge for an uneventful journey to Perth. There, at 3pm, we learnt that Drumochter would not reopen that day.

    It was hard to believe that conditions could be so different just 40 miles away, but even though we had a Land Rover with good tyres, snow chains and two shovels, there was no point going further. We phoned a friend in Bridge of Earn to beg a bed for the night.

    Come Friday morning, most of the lying snow had thawed, the forecast seemed benign, and we were ready to head north as soon as the road reopened. The next five hours passed very slowly, half-listening to Radio Scotland for traffic news.

    Eventually, at 1pm, we could thole no more discussion of an independence referendum and set off to Pitlochry. There, the woman at the police station told us to come back in an hour, and our return at 3pm was greeted with a broad smile and good news.

    After a few miles of eerie quiet, we caught up with the traffic queue – but it was moving freely and the expected difficulties never materialised. We have driven the road in far worse conditions over the years. Of course, there had been a huge snow fall with drifting – Cairngorm ski centre reported a further two metres, and we have 40cm at home – and the deepest sections would have needed to be cleared. But could not a convoy behind a snow plough have been considered, or access restricted to four-wheel drive vehicles or those with chains?

    It would be interesting to see the criteria for opening the A9, but Northern Constabulary have not made these public and have not, as yet, responded to my request for information.

    Perhaps the police were being particularly cautious through having a realistic view of the motoring standards which the A9 seems to attract. There were plenty of drivers who appeared not to have grasped the concept of “passable with care”. They seemed oblivious to our being, in effect, in a very long queue, and were determined to make up for their lost hours: squeezing past at the end of every dualled section and even overtaking at the Kingussie roadworks traffic-lights.

    Before leaving England, the forecast had shown bands of snow sweeping up and down the UK. It was a relief to see that the snow would be sitting quite far north for our journey. “That’s fine,” I had said. “Scotland can cope with snow.” But just like the less accustomed and less well-equipped southerners, perhaps that isn’t the case.