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Pentlands

Fleshmarket Close, a sair pech <em>Picture: Richard Webb</em>

Fleshmarket Close, a sair pech Picture: Richard Webb

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Most Fringe fans come to Edinburgh relatively well-equipped for the experience. They have reserved their accommodation and they have either booked and received their tickets in advance, or have been blessed with enough enthusiasm, patience and goodwill to stand in a queue at the booking office.

Many of them have remembered to pack appropriate weather-wear, having been forewarned – either by watching weather reports or listening to the bush telegraph – of our uncertain climate.

But, as one woman said to me the other day, nobody warns visitors about the hills. Here she was talking not about the Pentlands, Arthur’s Seat or the road up to the castle, but about the hilly roads that must be scaled in order to reach many of the Fringe venues. She was, in fact, referring on this occasion to the Mound.

She could have a point. Certainly it is true that a trip to some of the venues will leave the less fit among us red of face and peching. Dedicated couch potatoes may be close to collapse.

To pech in Scots means to breathe heavily, usually after taking exercise. The English equivalent is pant, but this is not nearly so descriptive. The breathy sound of pech more eloquently describes the person left almost gasping for breath. Indeed, the word pech probably came into being because the sound of it so aptly echoes the meaning.

The ch in pech is pronounced like the ch of loch, not the ch of much. For those of you not familiar with the correct pronunciation of loch, try the ch in the composer Bach.

The verb pech can also refer to the process of walking, getting about, working, etc, when this involves more exertion than the body cares for or is up to. Thus, you may find some occasional Sunday afternoon ramblers peching up a hill when the more experienced and fleet of foot trip effortlessly past them.

Pech can also mean to cough in a wheezy way, as though you were asthmatic. It can also refer to letting the breath out slowly and loudly, as when sighing with satisfaction or relief or when groaning. Apparently it can be used figuratively to mean to have an ardent desire for, although to pech for the embrace of a loved one sounds far from romantic.

Pech can also act as a noun. If you are struggling to get your breath back after physical exertion you can be said to be oot (out) o pech, or short o pech. Pech can also be a wheezy, asthmatic cough or a sigh of weariness, satisfaction or relief.

The noun pech can also denote great effort, exertion or struggle. To get over something wi a pech is to get something done only by means of a tremendous effort. If something is a sair (sore) pech it requires prolonged and exhausting effort. This can refer to climbing a particularly steep hill – but, for many, life itself can be a sair pech. What a cheery thought for the day!

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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Out of Edinburgh: the Lang Whang <em>Picture: Richard Webb</em>

Out of Edinburgh: the Lang Whang Picture: Richard Webb

With every passing day, the recent announcement by oor very ain defence secretary, Liam Fox, on the future of Edinburgh’s military bases, looks increasingly bonkers.

To recap briefly, Dr Fox told an astonished audience that Dreghorn and Redford barracks in the south-west of the capital, and Craigiehall to the west, were to be sold off and a new “superbarracks” established at Kirknewton a handful of miles down the A70 – the infamous “Lang Whang” – to the south-west.

The puzzled silence that met this statement has now been replaced by an increasing murmur of incredulity, as both civilian and military commentators seek a logical and intellectually coherent explanation for the decision. Search as they may, all are dumfoonirt.

It can’t be for money, for even the habitually financially inept Ministry of Defence (MoD) could not be party, surely, to such a cack-handed attempt at asset stripping. Best estimates seem to indicate that the combined amount that would probably result from the sale of Dreghorn, Redford and Craigiehall might be in the region of £70 million. The figure being bandied about in the media for the likely cost of the new establishment at Kirknewton is close to £400 million.

That seems to leave a deficit of £330 million, although the MoD has a history of smoke and mirrors when it comes to such sums, usually by allotting them to different budget headings. Even so, it appears to be a pretty poor trade-off.

Then there is the fact that the supporting infrastructure of married quarters, training areas and so on is already in place around the existing barracks – the Pentlands for manoeuvres and small arms ranges and Colinton for MoD housing, for example. And they are close to hand for the Tattoo and public duties at Holyrood Palace. Plus not that long ago considerable sums were spent on Dreghorn, making it at the time the most modern barracks that the army had.

Kirknewton has no such infrastructure and all of it will have to be built from scratch. Yes, we all know there’s going to be a new training area established in the Borders, centred around the unsuspecting village of Greenlaw, but it’s hardly next door to Kirknewton and the roads between the two are not best suited to military convoys and heavy equipment.

And what about the people who will live there? Kirknewton is at one end of one of the most desolate roads in Scotland, in an area of some of the heaviest rainfall in the country. It will be bad enough for married families, but for single soldiers there is nothing to do, bar overwhelm the one local pub which is looking at a potential financial bonanza. Compared to being where they are at present, it’s Nowheresville.

No, the plan to move there just doesn’t pass the common-sense test. What I want to know is whose idea is it? If it’s the defence secretary’s own pet project then we’re in even deeper trouble than I thought. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s the brainchild of some advisor, or advisory committee, deep inside the MoD. In which case I’d like to know who he/she/they is/are, and check whether they’re still on their medication. These people work for us, and we should be told.

The SNP finds itself in an interesting position in all of this. On the one hand, rightly concerned that Scotland is not short-changed when it comes to defence footprint and expenditure, it is keen that the promised brigade is stationed north of the border when British troops are relocated from Germany. And who wouldn’t welcome a brand-spanking-new military barracks as Scotland heads, albeit slowly, towards independence?

On the other hand, we don’t want to be sold a pup. Neither the economic nor the military case for the sale of the Edinburgh bases and the establishment of the new one at Kirknewton seems to hold water.

All of which just goes to persuade me further that they’re making it up as they go along. Desperate to save money, the MoD is now in “any decision is better than no decision” mode. This is merely the latest in the aircraft-carriers-without-aircraft logic that seems to be the new doctrine. There is, in fact, no plan.

Meanwhile, an MoD spokeswoman pronounces to the media: “Much of the criticism is coming from people concerned about the impact on Edinburgh and from former officers. They really need to think about what is best for those who are now serving their country.”

If only her employers would practice what they preach.

Stuart Crawford is a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Tank Regiment.

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Cromarty <em>Picture: Dorcas Sinclair</em>

Cromarty Picture: Dorcas Sinclair

by Elizabeth McQuillan

Kids are fickle little blighters, and will be looking to the impending school holidays in anticipation of being able to both free-range with their friends and be entertained and amused by mum, dad and grandparents.

Parents failing in this task can look forward to long (and possibly wet) weeks of whining sprogs, accompanied by a house brimming with adoptive feral youngsters from the neighbourhood.

It’s a strange fact – if you’re at home and choose not to “do stuff” with your offspring, expect to find all the local waifs, strays and latchkey kids parked in front of your TV with muddy trainers, eating crisps and spilling juice.

Good ideas can prove elusive when faced with petulant and bored weans, so here are suggestions for seven days’ worth of healthy activities and day trips to get you started:

1 – High-wire act
A few hours spent at one of the Go Ape! Tree Top Adventure sites will definitely shut them up. Aside from the odd shriek, expect the kids to be very much focused on their own survival.

Thrill-seeking kids over 10 years old (with the requisite accompanying adult) can enjoy an adrenaline-fuelled high on Britain’s biggest zip wires, stretching over 400 metres long and almost 50 metres above the ground.

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After a 30-minute safety briefing/training session, the family gets kitted out with harnesses, pulleys and karabiners before being let loose into the forest canopy. A three-hour adventure across walkways, bridges, cargo nets and tunnels, high in the trees, will leave your kids suitably impressed at your bravery (as an old person) and completely knackered. Perfect really, as they will sleep like babes when you get home, and you can open that bottle of red.

Go Ape! has courses near Aberfoyle, at Beecraigs in West Lothian and at Crathes in Aberdeenshire. Cost? £20–£30 per person.

2 – Get your skates on
Try to keep pace with the blighters and avoid being an embarrassing parent where possible. With the popularity of Dancing on Ice, there are bound to be some keen members of the family who would love to give it a try. Murrayfield Ice Rink in Edinburgh is a good venue, and remains just as you remember it from your childhood.

For the best family skating, they suggest Saturday morning, or Tuesday and Thursday evenings. For absolute beginners, Sunday afternoons has dedicated group tuition from resident coaches, with time to then go and play on the ice and practice the new skills.

For the older kids (who hate you and wish you would just go away), drop them off at the skating disco on Friday/Saturday evenings, 7:30–10:30pm, and let them skate, pout, pose and flirt to their hearts’ content. You could even go out for a nice dinner. Cost? Between £5 and £8, including hire of skates.

3 – Suck in some sea air
Kids just love the beach, in all weathers, and adults will always benefit from a blustery coastal walk followed by tea and scones in some local café. Try Yellowcraigs beach at Dirleton, the Secret Beach near Achmelvich, the Sands of Morar near Mallaig, or Killantringan Bay near Portpatrick, to name but a few cracking spots.

For clifftop adventures (on a non-windy days unless you really do want to lose a child), try heading to the quaint fishing village of St Abbs where the walk extends from Eyemouth in one direction to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the other. Teeter along the sandstone cliffs, which reach a precipitous 150 metres in places, and enjoy the vertigo.

For those wanting something less challenging, how about pottering around a historic Scottish seaport such as Cromarty? Young kids will love the harbour and the “pirate graveyard” – lots of skulls and crossbones on the gravestones.

For big kids, there are some worthy 18th-century buildings – including the oldest Protestant church in Scotland – and the history surrounding many Highlanders having started their journey to faraway lands from here during the Clearances. The narrow lanes and vennels of Fishertown offer a leisurely stroll.

4 – The Cairngorms and Rothiemurchus
It’s hard to beat the Cairngorms for a visit – it’s a beautiful area bursting with outdoor activities and pursuits for adults and kids.

Rothiemurchus estate, near Aviemore, caters brilliantly for visiting families, with super picnic spots and wonderfully maintained tracks. Wander around scenic Loch an Eilein and see the haunting castle in the middle of the loch. If you shout, there is a triple echo as the sound-waves bounce from the castle walls to the surrounding hillsides.

The remnants of the native Caledonian pine forest are home to red squirrels and pine martins, with ospreys frequently spotted fishing the loch.

For grumpy teens who bore easily, there is potentially an activity to fill each day and keep them quiet (and out of your hair): clay pigeon shooting, pony trekking, jeep safaris, river kayaking, gorge walking, whitewater rafting and wildlife photography.

Parents will appreciate the homemade and locally sourced nosh at the Ord Ban Restaurant Café. Obstreperous offspring can sit outside and sulk with an ice-cream from the farm shop.

5 – On yer bike
There is certainly no shortage of tracks and cycle routes in Scotland to take the kids biking – but for something a little more interesting, why not head to Glentress forest in the Scottish Borders?

Trailquest is a type of orienteering by bike using checkpoints to keep you on the right trail. It’s popular with families and is a really fun way to learn more about the forest and surrounding area. Glentress has a number of different Trailquest routes, ranging from about one-and-a-half miles to four miles.

Described as “tough, steep, technical, long but loads of fun”, there is also a 19-mile graded black trail that offers excitement and a challenge for competent older teenagers – but this is not for the faint-hearted.

Red and green graded trails do bridge the gap in abilities, but some basic technical ability on a bike is recommended to avoid tears, snotters and grazed knees.

6 – Climb every mountain
It was a normal holiday activity during my childhood to be marched across the Pentlands, from Bonaly to Flotterstone. Which, in the absence of “technical gear”, meant wearing wellies, corduroy trousers (that soaked up the rain) and a mackintosh which channelled the drips of rain on to said cords. Good character-building stuff. Sadly, now most kids can barely walk the length of themselves without getting out of puff.

Take the opportunity to find some local hills, and go for a bit of a hike and a picnic. Obviously, don’t take small children up Ben Nevis in a pac-a-mac, but go for something smaller and achievable. Arthur’s Seat, the Whangie, Dumgoyne, the Pentlands and the Ochils have routes suitable for all the family.

If the weather is bad, take it indoors and challenge the litter to a clamber up a climbing wall or attempt an aerial assault course. Parents have to do it too. The Edinburgh International Climbing Arena can oblige, and is well worth a visit.

7 – Combine good grub with adventure
This one is for the parents, and basically means incorporating fun stuff for the kids with some adult favourites. It might be a great eatery, tearoom or pub. The aim then is to plan a day trip around the chosen adult pit-stops.

Here is an example in the Stirlingshire area: come off the M9 at junction 10 and head to historic Doune, where there is a fabulous and partially ruined 14th-century castle, with grounds, where the kids can run riot. Nearby, the Scottish Antique and Arts Centre is a barn of a place filled with such bizarre gear that both you and the kids will love it. Look at German war helmets, top hats, weaponry, books and house contents from the late 1800s. An interesting collection of precious junk and antiquities.

Head on to Callander for a peek at the shops, including the year-round Christmas shop, then try Mhor Fish, where you can get the best fish’n’chips, with bread-and-butter and tea, or something fancier if you want.

Next, take a cruise on the steamship Sir Walter Scott along the length of Loch Katrine. The lochside Katrine Café can provide a platter of homemade scones and traybakes to avoid blood-sugar dips.

After that, a short drive to the David Marshall Lodge in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park above Aberfoyle, where the family can walk part of the Highland Fault Line which divides the Highlands from the Lowlands. Markers with explanations and diagrams educate the kids on the subject.

Onwards to Drymen, Killearn and Buchlyvie to peruse the art galleries, pottery shops and gift shops.

Picturesque Kippen also offers a top-notch deli, a great pub and a fabulous restaurant and bar with an admirable selection of fine wines and spirits which, by now, you might be more than ready for. The Inn at Kippen is kid-friendly and has a pizza oven.

And if you imbibe a little too much, there are a few rooms too…

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Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.