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Beaver dam in Knapdale <em>Picture: Patrick Mackie</em>

Beaver dam in Knapdale Picture: Patrick Mackie

By John Knox

The news from the beaver colony is mixed. We learned from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) recently that the beavers at Knapdale in Argyll are happily chewing their way through 10 per cent of the trees around their ponds. But life for the five beaver families has not been easy this last two years. Of the 16 original settlers, three have died and three more are missing presumed dead. Surprisingly, given their unpopularity in the area, there appear to be no suspicious circumstances.

The SNH study finds that “the beavers are changing the woodland structure but so far they have had little effect on fish in streams”. This should reassure the anglers, just one of the human species which object to the re-introduction of the European beaver to Scotland.

It is not that beavers eat fish – they are strictly vegetarian – it is just that their damn dams prevent fish from swimming upriver to lay their eggs. On the other hand, the ponds and wetlands created by the beavers are providing new homes for frogs, toads, water voles, dragonflies and several species of birds. The felled trees, young willow and rowan mostly, are also re-shooting quickly and producing a nicely coppiced woodland.

Meanwhile, SNH has been trying to catch a number of mixed-race beavers who have been squatting illegally in the woods in Tayside. But there has been limited success: of the estimated 80 asylum seekers, only one has been arrested.

And this rather awkward balancing act over Scotland’s biodiversity is being repeated with other species. There are the famous hedgehogs of the Uists, where £1m was spent removing the invaders but bird numbers continued to decline. In Orkney, they are trying to do the same thing with white-settler stoats. In the fight against the American grey squirrel, a line has been drawn in the sands of Perthshire beyond which the pox carriers shall not pass.

On the plant front, I have spent many an unhappy hour this year pulling out Himalayan balsam on my local nature reserve at Duddingston. It is a nice enough pink flower – called “kiss-me-on-the-mountain” by the hopelessly romantic Victorians who introduced it – but it has a nasty blood-red root which can cling to the slightest suggestion of soil and it simply strangles and swamps all native plants. The Victorians can be blamed, too, for the other triffids: Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and the all-conquering rhododendron.

In the rivers, we are battling against the American crayfish, the Pacific wireweed – and, all the way from New Zealand via our garden centres, the little white-flowered pygmy weed.

But it is not just the invaders who caused us to miss our biodiversity target for 2010. We ourselves have not being doing much to help. The Caledonian forest has been cut down and replaced with Norwegian sitka, peatlands have been drained, farmers no longer do meadows and hedgerows, bracken has been allowed to take over whole hillsides, and we have tarmaced acres of land for roads and car parks. We have virtually fished out the sea and have been filling the atmosphere with carbon which has caused our climate to change, sometimes dramatically.

The result is that 20 per cent of all bird species are in decline. Seabird numbers have dropped by around 40 per cent in the last ten years and freshwater fish by 50 per cent. Three quarters of butterfly species are in decline. Britain has lost three of its 24 species of bumblebee in last 70 years and the Scottish great yellow may be the next to go.

The number of wild mammals has been falling, too. Britain’s 30 million hedgehogs have been reduced to 1.3 million in the last 50 years. The red squirrel population has declined by 50 per cent and we are down to our last 400 wildcats. Over the last few centuries, of course, we have lost our wolves, bears, lynxes and our returning friends, the beavers.

How far the re-introduction programme should go is a moot point. The ospreys, the golden eagles and the white-tailed sea eagles have all been a great success – except among the bird-poisoning fraternity. Tourists have flocked to see the birds. The sea eagles on Mull, for instance, have brought in £8m to the local economy. But the planners are swallowing hard when they hear of Paul Lister’s vision for his Alladale estate north of Inverness, a land of wolves, wild boar, lynx and other megafauna.

There are those who say all this angst about biodiversity is nonsense. Planet Earth, they scream, has always been changing. Heatwaves come and go, ice ages melt, while erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors and moving tectonic plates all change our landscape and our climate and our flora and fauna. We should relax and let the declining biodiversity rip. Let the puffin and the wildcat disappear and welcome the newcomers like the knotweed and the balsam and the grey squirrel. We are never going to bring back the woolly mammoth or the dinosaur, so let’s not stand in the way of the Earth’s progress.

But such free-marketers are wrong. In fact, it’s unusual for them to take such a long-term view. We might not be able to affect the cooling of the sun or the movement of the continental plates, but man is now a major player in the Earth’s progress. Our industrial age has influenced its development and if we are heading for a less diverse world, we are the ones to blame.

It was us men – mostly men – who shot all the wolves and eagles in the first place. So I, for one, now want to keep as many as possible of the 90,000 species we have left in Scotland. As John Donne would have it, “each one’s death diminishes me”.

And, by the way, SNH’s list of over 1,000 threatened species is not dominated by nice furry mammals or dramatic birds of prey, but by obscure lichens, algae, fungi, flowering plants, beetles, and more than 300 other insects on which the chaps at the top of the Mikado’s list depend, including us. “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

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Ben aged 6 on Stob Coire nan Lochan <em>Picture: John Fleetwood</em>

Ben aged 6 on Stob Coire nan Lochan Picture: John Fleetwood

Ben More, the highest peak on Mull, has hosted many Munro-completion events over the years. It is far and away the most popular final-hill choice in rounds of the Scottish 3,000-footers, with somewhere in the region of 500 finishes having taken place there – roughly one in ten of all Munro rounds.

Few if any of those completions, however, will have been as remarkable as the one due to be celebrated this Sunday by a hillwalker and climber from Kendal. Why? Because despite having racked up a full and arduous round of the 283 Munros, Ben Fleetwood will be aged a mere ten years and 91 days.

The round started on 31 May 2007, the day after Ben’s sixth birthday, when he climbed the central Highland trio of Beinn na Lap, Chno Dearg and Stob Coire Sgriodain with his father John – who has accompanied him on all the Munros and who will, of course, be there on Mull this weekend. Ben’s mother Alison has climbed roughly half the Munros with Ben – but it is, John says, “really a thing that we do together to give mum a break”.

Father and son are both in the Christian Rock and Mountain Club, but by and large it has been a family affair with only “about 30 Munros in wider company”, according to John. The longest day was nine Munros in the Mamores – something any adult could be proud of, especially as father and son had done “Carn Mor Dearg, the Aonachs and Binnein Beag the afternoon before”.

The Munros haven’t just been tackled by their easiest, guidebook-path routes: “We’ve done lots of backpacking, so have linked hills with no path between them and lots of man-eating tussocks”, says John. “Backpacking the 18 Cairngorm Munros in five days was tough, then there’s the backpack aged six over the hills from Stob a’Choire Odhair to Ben Cruachan in mid-February, camping high in temperatures down to –7C”.

John himself is one of the country’s most accomplished mega-day hill runners – a search of the hillrunning forums for “Full Moon Addict” will reveal some of his remarkable outings when away from family duties. But has a lack of strength and stamina been a problem for young Ben?

“Stamina excellent,” John says. “No problem in Skye, and we also did Central Gully on Ben Lui when in grade II condition. He’s managed very well in instep crampons when we couldn’t get any proper ones for him as he was too small – he did Central Gully in these. He keeps going on boring grassy slopes by virtue of playing imaginary games in his head.

“Like any child, there is a fine line between being very happy and very unhappy, but the unhappy bits haven’t lasted that long. It’s just like adults, but children tend to vocalise it more! He especially doesn’t like spindrift lashing him – we sometimes sing songs to keep spirits up, the likes of Ilkley Moor ba’ tat”.

Ben's first Munro day, on Stob Coire Sgriodain <em>Picture: John Fleetwood</em>

Ben's first Munro day, on Stob Coire Sgriodain Picture: John Fleetwood

The wildlife, as so often in childhood, holds a fascination. “He strokes the frogs,” John says, “and likes mountain hares and the like”. An impressive number of Munros – 82 – have been climbed in snow. “I use a long sling and short-rope him in areas where a slip would be dangerous, exposed scrambling such as Skye and on hard névé slopes”.

Ben says his favourite Munros are the In Pinn, Sgurr nan Gillean and Sgurr na Ciche; his least favourite Fionn Bheinn, the Fannaichs outlier above Achnasheen. His father’s favourite hill during the round, however, was “Bidean [nam Bian] in pristine snow… no one else there, knee-deep untravelled snow and blue skies. We had the mountain to ourselves and were down for lunch.”

Mightily impressive though all this is, the inevitable question is whether a child so young is suited to the often harsh, always strenuous and potentially quite dangerous environment of the Munros – something hinted at in the caution expressed by David Broadhead, clerk of the list of Munroists at the Scottish Mountaineering Club. “Over the years I have had a few enquiries about youngest compleater,” Broadhead says, “and have always been very wary of encouraging competition in that area. The issue of pushing young athletes is a whole ethical can of worms. Most Munroists see it as a lifetime’s achievement, so I personally prefer to celebrate that side of things.”

It’s an issue that John Fleetwood is very aware of, having previously encountered it when Ben – then aged six – had a spell as the youngest person to have climbed all 214 Wainwrights in the Lake District. That is a much easier proposition than the Munros, and has seen what appears to be a certain amount of oneupmanship among parents, with children being taken round the hills younger and younger. (The current youngest Wainwright-completer is aged only five.)

“Possibly they [the critics] are right,” says John, “but the same could be said of any challenge. It’s just a different sort of challenge. I think the key thing is that the child has to want to do it for themselves – and you don’t do the Munros if you don’t want to. No amount of coaxing will get you round 283 Munros.”

While there are no formal records or listings for child-Munroists, it appears that the youngest until now has been Lynn Batty of Lochgilphead, aged 11 years 253 days when she completed on Slioch on 17 November 1995 along with her sister Hazel (aged 14) and their mother Patricia, who was finishing a second round. Various other mid-teenagers have been round them all, but the level of the task and the commitment necessary is such that this is unlikely to become as frequent a feat as with the Wainwrights, where the “record” has come down several times in recent years.

Part of the worry is that, were a young child to suffer a serious accident while chasing a target of this kind, quite aside from the individual and family trauma there could also be a significant public and media backlash for the wider hillgoing community, even though the accident might have been of the blameless type that can and does happen to experienced adult walkers and climbers.

In Central Gully on Ben Lui <em>Picture: John Fleetwood</em>

In Central Gully on Ben Lui Picture: John Fleetwood

Happily, however, nothing of that sort has befallen Ben Fleetwood – no doubt greatly helped by the considerable expertise and care provided by his Alpine Club-member father, who says “Not really – or at least none his mum would want to share!” when asked if there have been any accidents or scares.

“Yes and no,” he adds, when asked whether it been a deliberate attempt to break the record for the youngest Munroist. “I wanted to do this before [Ben] lost interest for other things and wanted to go out with his friends instead, so always foresaw doing this before he got to his teenage years. Then it looked like we could do it by his eleventh birthday and I was 11 when I did my first, so that had a sort of symmetry and would make him the youngest.”

As to whether he was excited to become the youngest, Ben said he was “excited to finish but not particularly to be the youngest”.

So what next for Ben – an only child who doesn’t have any similar-age friends who climb Munros but who does have the usual range of small-boy interests and enthusiasms? (“He likes maths and creative writing. He’s a drummer and likes Green Day and Audio Adrenaline.”)

After the round has been completed on Ben More, it will be time to do something different. “The definite plan is no more peak-bagging for a while,” John says. “He’s done 25 Corbetts but that’s off the agenda. We plan one or two day challenges a year and some backpacks, but not much beyond that. We’ll do something different. We’ve been to the Alps twice and will return. I think both of us are ready to finish now. We’ve spent some time most school holidays bagging over the last couple of years, and we plan to do something completely different after this – maybe tennis!”

Update Monday 29 August – Safely up/down, job done: Ben Fleetwood became the youngest known Munroist at about 12:30pm on Sunday in iffy weather. “John said it was windy and cold with poor visibility. ‘We couldn’t see a thing,’ he added” – see Bob Smith’s piece on grough.

No word, however, on whether the star of the show had a dram on top to celebrate…

Ben’s father John had intended to complete a round at the same time but finished on Ben Klibreck the previous Monday. He then ran up it again and was able to finish a climbed-whenever second round on Ben Wyvis on Wednesday.

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John MacCrone in his Tunnock’s Fiesta

John MacCrone in his Tunnock’s Fiesta

By Stewart Weir

Scots rally driver John MacCrone faces one of the toughest tests of his career this week on the ADAC Rallye Deutschland.

The 22-year-old from Mull knows that the German event – which began in earnest yesterday – is one of the most unforgiving on the world championship calendar, thanks to what are known as “Hinkelsteins”.

For the uninitiated, Hinkelsteins are massive concrete blocks, used to stop tanks from cutting corners on military ranges – the same terrain as used on the Rally Germany.

And Rally Team Scotland ace MacCrone says he has no intention of becoming familiar with the infamous stones.

“I’ve seen and heard about the Hinkelsteins and what they can do to a car, so I don’t intend introducing myself or the Tunnock’s Fiesta to them,” says MacCrone, who has ditched his British Rally Championship ambitions in favour of a few World Rally Championship rounds.

“After four non-finishes because of mechanical problems and a couple of accidents, continuing in the British series would have served little purpose.

“So we’re now competing in the WRC rounds in Germany, Spain and Wales Rally GB with an eye to doing the WRC Academy series in 2012.”

maccron3And MacCrone expects Germany to be a test of car and crew.

“While it’s an all-tarmac rally, the surfaces on each of the three days are very different, from the really smooth asphalt to the concrete of the military ranges – and the heart- and tank-stopping dangers the lie just a few inches from the road.

“Myself and co-driver Stuart Loudon will really have to be on our game if we want to finish never mind get a result. But there is no pressure on us so hopefully we can enjoy the experience.”

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Matthew Shelley on Mull <em>Picture: Ewan Baxter Photography</em>

Matthew Shelley on Mull Picture: Ewan Baxter Photography

By Matthew Shelley

On racy weekends away my wife often calls me the third lady. Odd, I know, but it’s purely a sporting term. Not “sporting” as in, nudge, nudge, wink, wink – more run, run, limp, limp.

It’s all to do with the long-distance running competitions I enter without a hope of winning. Last Sunday I was among the 109 small, tall, thin, podgy, young, old, Scottish, English, European, Antipodean (and other) entrants who lined the brow of a slight hill outside Craignure for the start of the 23rd annual Mull Half Marathon.

Klaxon and off; hammering back into the village, past the ferry terminal (where many competitors had arrived from Oban that morning) and up another incline to where the island’s double-track road runs out.

A U-turn round a mid-tarmac race marshal and we headed back the way we’d come – past the whitewashed kirk, the inn, the Spar, the cottages and holiday homes and into the countryside – pressing for the distant finish, up the coast in the village of Salen.

Doubling back so early in the race initially seemed peculiar, but it was great. It gave a chance to size up the opposition just as they were starting to spread out.

Some were going like whippets on roller skates, others seemed fated to a slow slog past each mile marker. I revelled in the chance to glimpse the faces rather than the heels of the elite who would snaffle the cups and medals.

I was particularly keen to count the leading women. Three of them.

One was young, tall and skinny, with a loose-limbed grace which suggested that she would soon be pulling ahead of me not just by seconds but by big fat minutes.

The next also looked frighteningly quick. Then there was the third – and, if my wife’s usual calculation was right, I was looking at someone close to my own speed.

In the year-and-a-half since I started to drag my former 60-fags-a-day lungs through races, it has become lore that she can judge pretty well when I will appear.

It goes like this. The first few blokes appear – am I there? Lordy, no!

The first woman thunders across the line, then the second. Still a wait.

The issue is whether I will trail or trounce the next female home and earn a pat on the pack and a “Well done, you’re the third lady”. Thanks!

What gave rise to this was that when I first took up racing I was keen to learn from others. Several times I found myself side-by-side with highly experienced bronze-winning women. They tended to be happy to share tactical tips and advice with a clueless novice.

Indeed, these mid-race chats with athletes of a higher calibre than I will ever be are the only coaching sessions I’ve ever had.

Mull was good to me. Gusting headwinds and some drenching rain made the conditions less benign than they could have been, but it was a joy. The terrain was a mix of level ground, slight ups and some long descents – where gravity’s welcome pull exhilarates, making you feel like an express train.

Then, whenever my knackered knee or overstretched hamstring started complaining, there were stunning seascapes to wash away the discomfort.

After seven or eight miles there was the usual slight reshuffling of positions. A few overambitious folk flagged, while some others (typically older males with a secret fifth gear) emerged from the middle and cruised towards the front.

By the time Salen came into view I was feeling the strain from desperately trying to capture ground from a bloke who had overtaken me a couple of miles earlier. I was confounded by his near-ghostly quality. Every time I surged, he drifted off a little further, with no obvious effort. Yet the chase seemed to help us both, pushing me to a personal best of one hour 32 minutes 44 seconds.

My rival’s first act after crossing the line was to turn and shake my hand. We stood for a few moments and laughed.

I then found my wife and dogs – and learned that I was indeed the third lady and had been surprisingly close to the number two.

That has fired up my ambition. I’ll never stand on the podium to receive a gold, silver or even bronze. But, if I train really, really hard, I can go back in 2012 with the dream of becoming the Second Lady of Mull.

For further details see www.mullrunners.com

Photography courtesy of Ewan Baxter Photography.

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By Elizabeth McQuillan

Scotland boasts over 50 beaches that have been awarded flags recognising their safety, water quality and beach cleanliness. Another seven beaches have also been awarded the blue flag, for which the beaches must pass over 30 stringent environmental criteria.

That is a very good starting point for any beach, but for a beach to be special, it should make you draw breath when you first see it.

Wide strips of the finest white sand lapped by pale turquoise (albeit cold) sea water and framed by a rugged coastline must place Scotland’s beaches as some of the best worldwide.

Combine this beauty with a dollop of folklore, some local knowledge or an unbeatable view, and you have a beach worthy of a visit.

Often remote, and requiring a little effort to get there, the following five beaches are definitely worth the effort.

<em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Picture: Anne Burgess

Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Arguably one of Scotland’s finest beaches, here the Atlantic meets a wide stretch of golden sand, backed by dunes and surrounded by towering cliffs and a tall sea stack, Am Buachaille, Gaelic for the Herdsman.

Remote and beautiful, it requires a six-mile round trip that takes you across moorland, past a freshwater loch and the ruin of a croft reputedly haunted by a mariner who would knock on the window on stormy nights.

With the Atlantic breakers crashing into this bay, many vessels were shipwrecked here through the centuries prior to the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse in 1828, and there have been many strange sightings in the bay.

A good many walkers and crofters claim to have seen the ghost of a uniformed mariner, thought to be from a shipwrecked Polish ship. In 1900, a local crofter and his dog were terrified when they saw a mermaid perched upon a rock in the bay – the crofter remained adamant about his encounter throughout his lifetime.

<em>Picture: Wendy Kirkwood</em>

Picture: Wendy Kirkwood

Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan
This picturesque white shell sand beach sits nestled at the most westerly point in mainland Britain. Getting there involves a tortuous drive on single-track roads along the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

Huge dunes and outcrops separate small bays from large sweeping bays on this stretch of coastline, and the outlook from the shoreline is spectacular.

Sitting on the beach you look out to the Ardnamurchan lighthouse as well as the islands of Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna. The Cuillin of Skye can also be clearly seen.

On the approach to the bay there is an anomaly in the surrounding countryside worth noting. Next to the hamlet of Achnaha is a flat circular area, about two miles in diameter, that is encircled by a ring of steep and craggy hills – the crater of an extinct volcano that you drive across to reach your destination.

<em>Picture: Robert Guthrie</em>

Picture: Robert Guthrie

Traigh Ban nam Monach, Iona
Iona has a peculiar spiritual quality. Besides the peacefulness, the light and colours are somehow special: verdant greens against pink granite, and the palest white and pink sands shelving into an azure sea.

Traigh Ban nam Monach (Gaelic for “white strand of the monks”) is one of many fabulous beaches on Iona. Close to the abbey and nunnery, this stretch of white sand, with smooth flat rocks, is a place to quietly sit and contemplate. And to examine beached jellyfish.

On the west side of Iona at Camus Cuil an t-Saimh (Bay at the back of the ocean, pronounced approximately Cam-us cool un tav) is a huge expanse of white beach, with the Spouting Cave next to it. This spews foaming seawater upwards in a jet when the tide is right.

A little further on is St Columba’s Bay. Here, on the glassy smooth pebbles, St Columba landed in his coracle in 563AD.

<em>Picture: Bob Moncrieff</em>

Picture: Bob Moncrieff

Kiloran Bay, Colonsay
Kiloran Bay is an inlet on the north-west coastline of Colonsay and forms a perfect crescent of golden sand. The beach is bordered by Colonsay’s highest hill, Carnan Eoin, and on a clear day Mull can be seen in the north. Looking out to the Atlantic, the next stop would be America.

In 1882, a Viking boat burial was found at Kiloran Bay. The grave dated from between 875 and 925. The Viking man was buried in his boat with his horse, his weapons and a number of other everyday objects.

<em>Picture: John Allan</em>

Picture: John Allan

Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa, Eriskay
Better known to non-Gaelic speakers as Prince’s Bay, it was here on 23 July 1745 that the French ship Du Teillay put ashore a small boat with a famous passenger.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – first set foot on Scottish soil at this white sandy strip, before sailing to the mainland to raise his standard at Glenfinnan.

Rich in history and culture, this bay and the surrounding beaches would have been worked by the crofters and their ponies, collecting seaweed and shellfish in creel baskets.

Eriskay ponies, the crofter’s best friend and most ancient of Hebridean breeds (and critically endangered) still free-range and can be found grazing the machair and wandering upon the sparkling white sands.

When the SS Politician sank off the Western Isles in 1941, carrying a major cargo of whisky bound for New York, the Eriskay locals – once the crew were safely rescued – raced to retrieve the ship’s liquid cargo, hiding the bottles before the excise men could find them.

This was the inspiration for Compton Mackenzie’s comedy Whisky Galore!, which was later made into a successful film.

But as well as whisky, it is said that the Politician was carrying eight cases of currency to the West Indies and the United States. In all, there were nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes, worth the equivalent of several million pounds at today’s prices.

Five more great Scottish beaches to consider…
Luskentyre, Harris
Mellon Udrigle, Wester Ross
Achmelvich, Assynt
Cambo Sands, Fife
Burghead Bay, Moray

Iona Abbey cloisters <em>Picture: David P Howard</em>

Iona Abbey cloisters Picture: David P Howard

The Caledonian Mercury has invited some of those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. Alison Hay is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Argyll and Bute.

    This week sees me continuing my “overseas” travel, interspersed with some council business but with ramifications on the campaign.

    Monday 18 April
    What a beautiful Monday morning – where better to be than on a CalMac ferry heading to the Island of Bute, the shortest crossing in Scotland from Colintraive to Rhubodach, time roughly ten minutes.

    I have a date with Bute FM at 10am. They‘re asking all candidates the same question: why should the people of Bute vote for them? Easy question, how long have your listeners got?

    In the evening it was the Bute hustings, and with Argyll and Bute council proposing to put North Bute primary school out to formal consultation the evening looked set to be a bit of a bumpy ride for yours truly – as it turned out to be. The SNP education minister denying he had interfered with the process and me saying he had, entertainment for all.

    Tuesday 19 April
    Education meeting at the council, where the council decides to put 11 schools out to formal consultation – a 12-hour meeting which ended at 10:55pm. Not a good day and all councillors very unhappy to be in this situation, but the education department needs to take its share of the pain of the cuts.

    Wednesday 20 April
    Today I’m stuck at my computer writing answers to questions from the Oban Times, the Argyllshire Advertiser and the Campbeltown Courier. Don’t these journalists realise I’ve got an election to win?

    I just make the deadline with two minutes to spare, raised blood pressure all round. In the evening off to Oban for a visit to Atlantis Leisure, Oban’s swimming and sports facility. I’m there for the opening of the new children’s soft-play area, a great success.

    Thursday 21 April
    Back on the high seas again, this time to Mull and Iona. This evening in Craignure, where Lesley Riddoch will host the Mull hustings, and before that Alan Reid MP, Tony my campaign manager and I have a great day. I meet an old friend on Iona who takes me round and I spend time speaking to the Mull and Iona Community Trust and seeing round their new community and charity shop and centre.

    The hustings evening went better than I feared: the issues discussed were sustaining rural communities and infrastructure, eg roads, health care, fairer ferry fares and inevitably schools.

    Friday 22 April
    Weather continues to be bright and sunny, Argyll and Bute at its best, no midges yet! I caught the 8:45am boat back to Oban and drove home. I have to be at Auchindrain museum today for the opening of the refurbished tearoom and visitor centre.

    The museum is taking down a tattered old saltire flag and replacing it with a new one. The old one is being respectfully folded and cremated. The new tearoom looks fantastic and the museum is now set for a good summer.

    Saturday 23 April
    Went with my husband to Bridge of Orchy to knock on some doors. Bridge of Orchy is tiny and is at the extreme edge of the constituency, and is often forgotten about. I think it important to try and visit every town and village at least once, and the towns more than once, during the election. It’s amazing the number of times people have said to me “You’re the first candidate we’ve seen”. As it’s Easter weekend, I’m having this evening off to visit relatives in Taynuilt.

    Only ten days to go and the pace is hotting up. Next week Oban, Mid-Argyll, hustings in Dunoon on Tuesday evening, across the seas to Islay and Jura with a hustings on Islay on Thursday evening, back to Tarbert, finishing the week back in Dunoon on the Saturday. I’ll write again on Sunday next.

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

    German sailors surrender at Scapa Flow in 1918

    German sailors surrender at Scapa Flow in 1918

    At over 10,000 miles, Scotland has one of the longest coastlines in Europe. This, coupled with the fierce gales that can spring up out of nowhere, has resulted in thousands of wrecks lying on our seabed. Little wonder, then, that we attract serious divers from around the world.

    Some wrecks – ranging from early 16th century galleons to battleships from the first and second world wars – are, depending on their provenance, protected. Currently, Historic Scotland oversees 15 shipwrecks under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. For these, a licence is required if you want to dive – and you “must take only photographs, leave only bubbles”. Other wrecks are designated war graves and fall under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

    Scotland has a huge range of dives – and, tantalisingly, also boasts the possible presence of two magnificent treasure ships. But more than the sand-strewn artefacts, these ships tell a story, and all too often a story that involves loss of life.

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    Scapa Flow
    There are seven wrecks in Scapa Flow, Orkney. This stretch of water, with its shallow sandy bottom, is one of the best natural harbours in the world, and was used by the British Navy as its main base during both world wars. At the end of the first of these conflicts, the German fleet was taken here until a decision could be made about its future.

    In June 1919, rather than let it fall into British hands, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, the German officer in command at Scapa Flow, gave the order to scuttle the fleet. Although more than 50 ships sank, most were salvaged, leaving only a handful submerged. This is a popular site to dive and permits can be obtained from the Orkney Islands harbour authorities.

    HMS Royal Oak
    The Royal Oak, a Royal Navy battleship, first saw action during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. On 14 October 1939, while anchored at Scapa Flow, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-47. Over 800 of the crew of 1,234 were killed, either immediately or as a result of their injuries.

    The loss of HMS Royal Oak was a huge blow to morale for a country that had assumed it “ruled the waves”. The ship remains in Scapa Flow, lying upside-down in 100 feet of water. Each year, there is a ceremony to remember the dead. As it is a war grave, access is limited to divers of the British armed forces who have been given specific permission to visit.

    17th century merchant vessels
    There are a number of protected merchant vessels wrecked around our coast, including the Kennemerland, which ship belonged to the Dutch East India Company and was lost on Out Skerries, Shetland, in 1664 as it sailed to the East Indies. Its cargo included treasure, mercury, golf clubs, jewels and tobacco.

    Also off Out Skerries lies the Wrangels Palais, originally a Swedish ship, captured by the Danish in 1677. It ran aground in fog 11 years later en route to Iceland, trying to outrun Turkish privateers.

    There are a number of interesting wrecks dotted around Mull, including two 17th century frigates sent north by Oliver Cromwell. Attempts to take Duart Castle and subdue Maclean of Duart, a fierce Royalist, failed when the ships were scuttled in storms.

    San Juan de Silicia
    A Spanish ship, part of the 130-strong Spanish Armada, sank off Mull in 1588, killing almost everyone on board when it exploded in the harbour. At the time it was commonly known as the San Juan de Silicia, but over the centuries this was forgotten and rumours began to circulate that the ship was in fact the Florida, flagship of the Armada and their treasure ship. This confusion has led to rumours, which began in the 17th century, that off Mull lies a wreck with “over 30,000,000 of money” on board.

    Such was the strength of these rumours that the chief of Clan Campbell was granted the right to search the wreck in 1641 by Royal Charter. The family have periodically continued to do so, right up until the end of the 20th century, in the hope of finding Spanish gold.

    Today, the remains of the ship have been destroyed by these fruitless searches for treasure.

    Blessing of Burntisland
    If it’s treasure-ships you want, then there is still the possibility of finding one: the Blessing of Burntisland, which sank in the Firth of Forth in a storm in 1633. This wooden ferry sailed between Fife and Leith, and, during Charles I’s coronation tour of Scotland, was loaded with the King’s treasure. It is known today as “Britain’s Tutankhamun” because of the tapestries, silks and jewels on board, thought to have a modern value of over £1 billion.

    The site of the wreck was confirmed in 1999 by HMS Roebuck, and it is said that the spot the Navy marked was the very place pinpointed by dowser Jim Longton using his divining rod and pendulum.

    In order to deter bounty hunters, the Blessing of Burntisland has had a Protection of Wrecks order placed on the site.

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

    Rannoch Moor. Picture:Pip Rolls

    It’s the time of year for big, arduous events. Long daylight, reasonable weather, no midges (well, not many – there have been sightings in Assynt).

    Two weekends ago saw the 81-mile Etape Caledonia cycling event centred on Pitlochry, then came the Scottish Islands Peaks Race – sailing and running around Mull, Jura and Arran. The fortnight-long, coast-to-coast TGO Challenge has just ended – and this weekend sees the Long Distance Walkers Association annual 100-miler, based in Dunkeld and branded the “Heart of Scotland 100”.

    The LDWA 100 has been a fixture on the endurance-walking scene since 1973, apart from the foot-and-mouth hiatus of 2001. This year, however, is the first time the 48-hour event has come to Scotland – although it did stray across the Border during the Northumberland 100 in 2006.

    Strictly speaking, it is not a race, and entrants do not compete against each other. “In practice,” says Helen Southall, the event secretary, “those at the front of the field are extremely able athletes, and it would be surprising if they didn’t try as hard to pass each other as to knock a minute or two off a target time. The majority of the field, however, are aiming first and foremost to complete the course, which is a major achievement in itself.”

    “Quite a lot jog on the downhill stretches and on the flat earlier on,” says Ken Falconer, St Andrews-based member of the organising committee and veteran of 27 100-milers. “However, people who overdo the running earlier on tend to slow down later and be overtaken by the faster walkers. The last person in gets far more applause than the first – many regard walking through two nights as more of an achievement than finishing in 24 hours.”

    Walking 100 miles might seem unlikely to attract many takers, but the 500-strong entry list filled up “exceptionally fast”, says Southall. “We had reached our maximum entry by the beginning of February, which is very unusual. There does seem to have been an exceptional amount of interest in this first LDWA 100 to take place in Scotland, with entrants applying from the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Asia, as well as all parts of the UK. Approximately 23 per cent of this year’s entrants are women, which I believe is about par for the course.”

    Walkers must be aged 18 or over, and two of those on the Dunkeld start-line will be aged 80. Everyone enters as an individual, but informal groupings inevitably form. There is plenty of scope to mix solitude and sociability over 100 miles. Somewhere between 300 and 400 of the starters are likely to finish.

    As to the route itself, almost one quarter will be on metalled roads or tracks. There are only a few trackless miles, either side of Kinloch Rannoch, and these sections also see the 600-metre ceiling, south of Loch Errochty and again beneath Schiehallion. The total ascent is just over 4,000 metres – while the distance exceeds the advertised 100 by four-and-a-bit miles, making it a whisker short of a quadruple marathon.

    “The LDWA 100 ought really to be called the ‘100-ish’,” says Southall, “as few if any past events have been exactly 100 miles long. One is rumoured to have been closer to 106.” GPS technology and digital mapping notwithstanding, “there is still plenty of room for debate, as no two people or devices ever come up with exactly the same figure”.

    It might seem curious that the LDWA 100 has never fully come to Scotland until now, but the distinction between hillwalking and rambling (even serious, 100-mile rambling) means that things tend to be done differently north of the border, where many walkers prefer the open ground of the high tops to the corridor access of lowland paths and tracks.

    “LDWA 100s are usually organised by a different local group each year,” says Southall, a member of the “Merseystride” branch. “Each group already has an established organising committee, owns things like tents and cooking equipment for checkpoints, and usually organises several smaller events on an annual basis. Running a 100 in Scotland, where the LDWA has members but no established group, has always looked even more hard work than organising a similar event further south, simply because this infrastructure all had to be put together or borrowed before we could even start.”

    Events such as this can be seen as a very focused form of tourism, and bring considerable benefit to the local economy. Exactly how much will enter the coffers of Highland Perthshire courtesy of this year’s LDWA 100 is impossible to say, but Falconer estimates “at least £300,000”.

    In turn, the Dunkeld organisers have received support from local agencies, such as Perth 800 – which supplied a grant – and the Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust. Southall cites the key organiser as committee chairman John Stewart, “a Scot who knows the area very well. Without his determination, diplomacy and powers of persuasion we would probably all still be waiting for the first Scottish LDWA 100.”

    Although not intended as profit-making, any surplus will go to charities such as mountain rescue. There is also considerable focus on the old imperative for walkers to leave nothing but footprints. Litter-picking “sweepers” will follow the backmarkers, and one of the glutton-for-punishment committee members will give the route a further tidy in late June.

    First, though, come Monday, there will be a need for recovery, for walkers and organisers alike. “I think a long sleep will be in order,” says Southall – while Falconer, who completed the early May “dress rehearsal” known as the Marshals’ 100 in an impressive 30 hours 17 minutes, expresses “mixed feelings” about the imminent end of the real thing. “It will soon be time to start thinking about the Housman 100 in Shropshire next year,” he says.

    Spyke on the Cluanie hills two years ago

    Spyke on the Cluanie hills two years ago Picture: Chris Upson

    A fortnight ago, we reported on the start of Gerry McPartlin’s attempt to climb all 283 Munros within four months. It’s a remarkable effort – McPartlin is aged 66 – and it has started well.

    At 6am yesterday, however, while London was awash with marathon hype, an even more audacious Munro round began, on Mull. Stephen Pyke – a Staffordshire Moorlands runner known as Spyke – is attempting to complete the list self-propelled: on foot, on bike and in an occasional canoe. It’s something only 20-odd people have done – and he’s aiming to get round in just 40 days, an average of more than seven Munros per day.

    Arguably his real target is 48 and a half days, the current record for a Munro round. This was set in the soggy summer of 2000 by Charlie Campbell from the Westerlands running club, and has not been challenged in the subsequent decade.

    Spyke has good Munro-going pedigree, having done a Charlie Ramsay Round, the huge Lochaber hill-running test-piece, in 2006. He also holds the record for the traverse of the Scottish 4,000-footers, and had a pop at the Munros-in-a-day record in 2008 before foul weather forced a halt. These were all one-day pushes, however, and keeping fitness and commitment going for six or seven weeks is a different game.

    Spyke made a pretty smooth start, climbing Ben More, cycling to Fishnish, then paddling across to Lochaline before “a quick porridge stop”. Another 50 miles on the bike preceded the two Glenfinnan Munros – although in weather described by one of his support crew as “pretty grim” he had to omit Gulvain, which will now be tackled later, from the Glen Dessary side. (Campbell had to make a similar adjustment in 2000.) Today comes the great ridge along the north side of Glen Nevis.

    He began on Mull for two reasons: Ben More is an outlying Munro, and starting offshore reduces the number of sea-crossings. Campbell also started here (he swam the watery bits), and seven weeks later finished in glorious high-summer weather on Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro.

    Spyke is targeting the same finish, but his intervening route is markedly different. The traditional approach on continuous-round attempts has been to operate in Lochaber and the south in the early days, then swing across the central and eastern Highlands before starting the arduous west-coast zigzag of what Hamish Brown called “the big glens”.

    By contrast, Spyke’s provisional schedule tackles the 18 Munros of the Cairngorms as early as days five and six. Given the amount of late-lying snow in that part of the country, the crux of the entire trip could well come in the first week.

    Should he drop a few half-days early on, then not only will the 40-day target be unrecoverable (he has only lined up one “rest day”, and even that involves the long cycle from Kintail to Sligachan), but Campbell’s record will start to look problematic.

    There will be no let-up. Day 21 is intended to take in all 13 Munros of the Cruachan, Etive and Blackmount groups, a massive effort in rough country. Days 27 and 29 each target a dozen Munros: Quoich/Cluanie, followed by the full Skye set, while another daily dozen comes near the end, with three Fisherfield Munros and all nine Fannaichs.

    Asked how he sees Spyke’s chances, record-holder Campbell says: “Fair to middling, maybe aye, maybe naw. You just can’t tell in this game when you are pushing the limits.”

    Campbell has long believed a 40-day round to be feasible – he set off in 2000 with the same figure in mind – “but only if everything goes 100 per cent perfect.”

    He has concerns about the early Cairngorms raid: “[Spyke] could be dropping days in his first week”. By contrast, he feels that starting as early as late April need not in itself be a problem. “Manny Gorman last year started at this time when setting a Corbett record,” he says. “Twenty years ago, Hugh Symonds [who ran round the Munros in 66 days] started on 19 April with snow on the tops.” Campbell himself didn’t begin until late May in 2000, but says he would start earlier if ever trying again.

    In all probability, the eight-day difference between 40 days and the record will allow some slack as rest breaks and rejigs are needed. “Spyke has some huge days planned,” says Campbell, “especially later in his schedule, and I just can’t realistically see some of these days happening, especially when he is jiggered and the wheels are starting to come off. However, he may be a totally different beast to me, and by that point he’s mega strong and healthy and holding it all together.”

    Amid all the exciting uncertainty, however, one thing seems guaranteed. Ultra-distance hill running is the most comradely of sports, and Campbell is unlikely to be content with cheering on his rival from afar. There is every chance that he will, at some stage, play an active role in offering support for Spyke.

    Campbell’s own round saw him aiming for the previous record of 51 days nine hours set by Andrew Johnston and Rory Gibson in 1992 – and they duly showed up to offer encouragement and to stash a bottle of Macallan in the Ben Hope cairn. “All records are there to be broken,” says Campbell, and he will surely help to consign his own to the history books – provided the next few weeks go well and it starts to seem a possibility rather than just a dream.

    An Tobar mastheadWells in folklore are often magical places, be it for making wishes, invoking saints, as sites of healing or home to sundry eldritch beings. Mull’s multidisciplinary arts centre An Tobar – Gaelic for “the well” – has certainly worked plenty of its own magic since it set up shop 13 years ago in Tobermory’s Victorian former primary school. Its opening concert, for which it commissioned harpist/composer Savourna Stevenson’s Iona-themed Calman the Dove, was a highly emblematic statement of intent, both in the cross-genre eclecticism of Stevenson’s talents – An Tobar’s subsequent programming having ranged from contemporary classical to indie pop, folk to free jazz – and the commitment to fostering new music, alongside similarly wide-ranging work in visual art and crafts.

    A particularly fruitful series of musical commissions was prompted by An Tobar’s tenth anniversary in 2007, of which two are about to hit the road as a double bill, courtesy of the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune Up touring programme.

    Fiddler Aidan O’Rourke – formerly of Blazin’ Fiddles, currently one-third of the multi-award-winning Lau – borrowed the venue’s name for his five-part suite, drawing inspiration from various aspects or layers of his experiences when visiting the island.

    “I had a pretty open brief, which was great,” he says. “There was an initial idea of it having something to do with all these different ancient wells on Mull, which I did go and visit, but that really became a way for me to get out and about to places there I hadn’t seen before, so the landscape generally was a big inspiration. But I was also trying to convey the essence of An Tobar itself, how it’s such a conducive place to write and perform – their outlook is so open and encouraging, and they’re really up for stuff that’s non-genre-specific; just the whole way it’s run and the people involved give it a really special atmosphere.”

    He duly seized the opportunity to experiment and innovate, in a sequence of brilliantly original music that allies his roots in Highland fiddle tradition with elements of minimalism, jazz and electronica, also incorporating specially-written Gaelic text by modern-day bard Aonghas MacNeacail. Following its premiere at An Tobar, it was recorded and released as O’Rourke’s second solo album in 2008. He’s joined on tour by four fellow musical adventurers from that first performance: Lau bandmate Martin Green on accordion, harpist Catriona McKay, saxophonist Phil Bancroft and percussionist Martin O’Neill.

    In contrast, the seven short pieces that make up Shops, by pianist David Milligan’s jazz trio – with bassist Tom Lyne and drummer Tom Bancroft – derived from a highly specific remit. In the last of three anniversary jazz projects tied to key Tobermory landmarks, Milligan and his sidemen were assigned by An Tobar to make music describing, celebrating or otherwise capturing the long-established, often family-owned shops that distinguish the town’s high street from its mainland counterparts. These include such proudly independent retailers as Duncan’s Outdoor Clothing Emporium, Brown’s Hardware Store and Tackle & Books, all of which lent their names to individual tracks. Preparatory research comprised visiting each establishment in turn, chatting to staff and customers while Bancroft checked out the percussive possibilities of its wares and fittings, recording these sounds and conversations to interweave in snippets through the ensuing compositions. Writing and rehearsal were both completed, from scratch, in the space of a week, before an afternoon promenade performance around the town, premiering each piece in its respective shop.

    “It was all pretty surreal,” recalls Milligan, “especially when we started off, in Catriona’s Unisex Hair and Beauty Salon – they were just trying to carry on cutting hair; the people waiting were sat there reading magazines, presumably wondering why there was a jazz trio playing the middle of it all. But we kind of gathered an audience, Pied Piper-style, as we went along Main Street, until finally in the hardware shop Mrs Brown was actually telling customers they’d have to wait to buy their light bulbs till we’d finished.”

    Despite the singularity of its origins, however, Shops – which is also available as an album – has been warmly received by audiences far removed from its birthplace, up to and including the London Jazz Festival, where it won glowing praise from several leading UK critics. “If ever it wasn’t going to go down well, you’d think it would be there – but they loved it,” Milligan says. “I suppose the idea behind the commission is one a lot of people can relate to – celebrating the character of these sorts of local, independent businesses, and the kind of community where they exist.” It might also have something to do with the wonderfully evocative, mercurially complex yet wittily approachable character of the music itself, brimming with virtuosity and playful in the fullest, richest sense. And if that doesn’t tempt you, to sample some of the An Tobar magic somewhat nearer your doorstep, the touring show culminates with a new collaborative piece jointly created by both line-ups, which adds up to a truly mouth-watering concentration of outstanding musical minds.

    Ten Years at the Edge: The An Tobar Commissions, is at the  Perth Theatre on Monday, 19 April, and at An Tobar, Tobermory on 20 and 21 April before touring to Dunfermline, Drumnadrochit, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Banchory, Findhorn, Stirling and Stornoway until 15 May.