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Blogging is giving

 

I’ve been blogging now for a  little over four years but I feel I need to welcome a whole new set of people who have just started following my blog from all over the world.  So welcome aboard !

A recent post – Above the clouds – was featured as an Editor’s Pick on WordPress Discover this week, “a daily selection of the best content published on WordPress.  It was a complete surprise to have a post selected,  as well as flattering.  It also sent my blog into a spin: over 300 likes and over almost as many new followers in less than a week… and counting.  I’ve struggled to keep up with the number of comments and notifications flashing up on my screen.

The world wide web

This was a great reminder of the internet’s reach.  My own little blog was suddenly exposed to a worldwide audience, with new followers from across Asia, the Americas, Europe and elsewhere.  The power of the web provided a brief flicker of attention numbering in the millions rather than just hundreds or even thousands.  It was a huge boost to my blog’s ‘numbers’.

But blogging is much, much more than simply a numbers game, right?  We didn’t start blogs to be liked or compete against others: we’re faced with enough of those pressures at work, in our careers or in our social lives.

So why do we blog?  Why do I blog?  And what can those who are new to Wild about Scotland expect?

I went back to WordPress Discover for a browse and came across a post from the chef, food blogger and author, David Lebovitz.  In a Q&A he was asked what keeps him motivated to keep blogging after 17 years.  His answer struck a chord:

Nowadays, so many people start blogging and feel like they need to “get” something out of their blogs. But in fact, blogging is giving.  When you write a cookbook, you are sharing recipes. With a blog, beyond recipes and travel tips, you are sharing more of your daily life with readers, and I think they appreciate honesty, rather than being talked to as if you are trying to get something out of them, like traffic or monetization.

I like this sentiment and it really chimes with why I started blogging.  As I said in my very first post back in 2012 Wild about Scotland is a way for me “to share my enthusiasm for exploring Scotland and its wilder places.  I’ll learn as I go.  In addition to the challenge of starting a blog, I’ll find some new outdoor challenges to address and through its posts hopefully can inform – and be informed – about life’s big adventures”.

So what can readers expect from this blog?

For someone who spends any available spare time enjoying Scotland’s outdoors, I recently designed my site around three themes:

Escape: This is about escaping into the hills, along back roads and byways – hiking, biking, paddling, camping and in my campervan.  In each section you can read posts about recent trips, advice and tips, as well as relevant product reviews.

Explore: In this section you can delve more deeply into some particular interests including seeing the northern lights, owing a VW California campervan and cycling the length of the UK from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

Experience: This section is aimed at visitors to Scotland and focuses on my series of recommendations for the very best places to visit, eat, stay and experience across Scotland.  From my Top 10 Scottish islands to visit to the best beachside campsites, there’s something for everyone who loves Scotland’s outdoors.

Most of the 250+ posts on my blog are shared in a way that others can access and hopefully be inspired.  But much of it’s also just for me.  This might sound selfish but my blog also serves as my “to do” list.  There are lots of trips highlighted here that I haven’t done yet, so I regularly return to particular articles when I’m thinking about somewhere new to go.  When I’m going off backpacking I simply dig out my kit list and select some recipes that I fancy trying.

Having a “to do” list also keeps me inspired and active.  This year, for example, I’ve taken up sea kayaking in a more serious way.  So, expect quite a few more posts this year on paddling escapes around Scotland’s lochs, bays and islands.

But blogging definitely has to be a two-way thing.  You get inspired by finding great new blogs, and getting supportive comments and feedback (as I have this week) is a fantastic way of keeping you motivated and thinking about the next few posts coming up.

So if you’ve had a browse around my blog and you have an idea for a topic I could cover, why not drop me a message?  I’d love to find out what you’d like me to share.  It would be great to hear from you …

 

 

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Taking the plunge

 

 

 

There’s nothing to beat the adrenaline-fuelled rush of a new achievement or completing an activity that involves a degree of perceived risk.  That’s how I feel anyway.  I have a head for heights and think nothing of flying in a small plane, scrambling along an airy knife-edged ridge or even jumping off a bridge with a piece of elastic strapped to my ankles.

Unfortunately my niece Eilidh doesn’t quite see it that way.  She valiantly climbed ridiculously steep scree slopes up Beinn Sgritheall, my final munro, when she was clearly not enjoying looking down at the steep drop right down to sea level.  So when we both decided to bungee jump off the Garry Bridge at Killiecrankie in 2014 I was impressed.  Despite being knee-shakingly scared she did it.

However, she got her own back by buying me a voucher for my birthday to go bungee jumping again, just by myself.  This is what she wrote: “Since you enjoyed bungee jumping in the light I figured you should try it in the dark too!  This time I definitely don’t want to join you!”  My birthday treat was a black-out bungee at Europe’s only night-time bungee jump.  Families are so nice.

Killiecrankie is the site of a famous battle between warring Scottish clans during the first Jacobite uprising in 1689.  The River Garry has cut a steep gorge down through the rock and so it’s a tricky spot to escape from your enemies.  Today though the National Trust Visitor Centre also shares its site with Highland Fling Bungee, who take advantage of the 40 metre drop from the Garry Bridge.  They built a purpose-built platform under the bridge in 2010 and have been providing jumps ever since.

Five of us were booked in last Saturday night.  It was almost a full moon so we had to wait a while until it was truly dark (no point in cheating, after all …).  We climbed up a ladder to access the gantry that spans the bridge and walked along to the platform to get attached to safety harnesses.  Safety is the number one concern.  Every rope is checked and double-checked.  Everyone is carefully weighed (twice) and the correct bungee checked by several people.  No room for error.

 

There’s a real buzz just before a jump.  The music’s pumping and your heart’s racing with anticipation as you wait your turn.

But having done it twice before I stayed pretty relaxed.  I knew – more or less – what to expect.  I rationalised the fear: it’s a safe sport and all the safety checks had been done.  I figured there’s no point in pussy-footing about in just falling off the platform so I just went for it.  I took a big jump and flew – the “jump of the day” – since you’re less likely to get suddenly jolted by jumping outwards.

 

I guess with a night jump you have a heightened sense of awareness.  I couldn’t see anything below (I wasn’t wearing my glasses for starters) so you’re using all your senses as you’re falling … you hear the rush of the water below … the fall seems to last longer in the dark … and it provides precisely the adrenaline rush that you’re after.

So that was the easy bit.

For someone who gets queasy on any kind of boat I just didn’t enjoy bouncing up and down with my head the wrong way up one little bit.  It took the best part of two minutes for someone to grab hold of me, attach a rope to my waist harness and winch me back up to the bridge again.  By that time all my blood had flowed to my head I’m afraid the sea-sickness didn’t leave me for the rest of the night.  So it was an early night for me!

 

The next morning I took a wander back down to the bridge to see where we’d been jumping.  It’s a pretty impressive sight.  The mixed woodland along the Linn of Tummel walk has some tall, tall pine trees which tower over the bridge.  The colours were a little washed out on a dull March morning but in Autumn this is one of the most picturesque spots in the country.

 

In the calm of the morning it was a peaceful spot: birds singing, the soft rush of the water in the distance and walls thick with damp moss.  It was quite a contrast with the anticipation and excitement of the night before.

If you ever get a chance to experience the River Garry gorge at Killicrankie – day or night, attached to elastic or not – I’d recommend it.

 

 

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My first sighting of the aurora in 2017

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Chances of an aurora were good on the 1st March when a coronal hole was forecast to emit a fast stream of charged particles towards the Earth.  And sure enough it didn’t disappoint, giving sightings across Scotland and northern England.

This turned out to be the only amber level warning issued by Aurorawatch UK in the first two months of 2017.  And unfortunately this will be the pattern of auroral activity over the next five years or so as I described in a recent post.  During the solar ‘minimum’, auroral activity is much more likely to be sparked by coronal holes – holes in the sun’s atmosphere that allow flares of gases and charged particles to escape – rather than increased solar activity due to sunspots.

I was out last Wednesday evening and so wasn’t able to look for the aurora until late.  But driving north I saw a tell-tale milky-grey band low in the sky and sure enough, a quick photo out of an upstairs window once I got home revealed a nice green arc with faint pillars reaching upwards.  I grabbed a coat and headed out to a good north-facing roadside just near home.

It turned out that I’d missed the best of the aurora earlier in the evening – the lights had been dancing for a short 15 minute period – and so by the time I got out at about 10.45pm the arc gradually faded.  This photo was the best I got, with some pillars just faintly visible.  Had it not been midweek I might have been tempted to stay out longer (for the next ‘wave’ of the lights came back out just after midnight) and so it was just a brief trip for me.

Did you manage to see the lights this week ?

 

 

 

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Where are Scotland’s dark skies?

Can you remember the time you first looked up at the sky and were just amazed at the number of stars ?  I’m not talking about seeing a few dazzling stars on a cloudless night but about a star-studded panorama of the Milky Way that seems to reach right down to ground level.  In a really dark sky we could see as many as 7,000 stars – but this is just a small fraction of the 70 thousand million million million stars in the universe ! Today, we sadly experience this all too infrequently: it’s estimated that 85% of the UK population has never experienced a truly dark sky.

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Awareness of the importance of dark skies is higher than it’s ever been, led by the successful campaigns of the Commission for Dark Skies and the International Dark Sky Association.  Light pollution has increased so much over recent decades such that skyglow, the glare that comes from urban artificial lighting, affects around 80% of the world’s population – and up 99% of people in the US and Europe.  So much light energy is wasted, never reaching the ground, and much of it is far too bright and unnecessary.  (Read more about the misconceptions associated with lighting here).  Light pollution isn’t just a problem for astronomers but it affects the nocturnal habits of wildlife – as well as the generations of people growing up without developing a rich interest and understanding of our place in the universe.

Where can I go to experience dark skies in Scotland ?

To get a sense of the light pollution where you live look at this interactive map or view the NASA Blue Marble Navigator map. Google Earth users can download an overlay also created from the World Atlas of light pollution.

There are now seven UK locations recognised by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and you can identify the best places to go stargazing in the UK on this map:

Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park was designated first, back in 2009, and scored 23.6 on the IDA’s scale of darkness (out of 25), later joined by Coll.  (For comparison, the readings in Glasgow and Edinburgh city centres are around 8 and a photographer’s darkroom is 24).  It’s also worth remembering that just over the border, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park was also awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the IDA in 2013, its highest accolade.  Having visited the Kielder Observatory recently I can vouch for its fantastic experience and facilities (now being extended).

You might want to take a visit to an observatory or attend one of the many events they host throughout the year:

  • This leaflet provides a good overview of where to view the night sky and what stars and constellations to look for in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park.  Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre has good views and facilities but there are panoramic viewing points at other locations within the Park.  A range of public events are also organised.
  • The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is located at Loch Doon, near Dalmellington.  This new observatory is open to the public and includes a 20” Corrected Dall Kirkham telescope in a 5 metre dome and a 14″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for a more hands-on, open air observing experience.  Advanced booking for evening events is recommended.
  • Coll Dark Sky Island is blissfully remote from artificial light but still only a ferry ride away.  You can even visit for Coll and the Cosmos stargazing weekends, staying at the Coll Bunkhouse.
  • Moffat is the first Dark Sky Town to be designated by the IDA in Europe
  • Kielder Observatory is the best place to visit in Northumberland International Dark Sky Park.  However, there are a number of other Dark Sky Discovery Sites (listed here) with off-road car parking, toilets and nearby refreshments at Walltown, Cawfields and Stonehaugh’s  Stargazing Pavilion.  There’s also an observatory at the Battlesteads Hotel and Restaurant in Wark which organises a regular programme of events
  • The Crown Estate’s Glenlivet Estate in Cairngorms National Park became a Dark Sky Discovery Site in late 2016 and events are also held at The Acorn nearby (the former Cabrach Primary School)

The Milky Way, taken from just north of Moffat

What else do I need to know before I go out stargazing?

It’s well worth checking the phase of the moon before you make any plans since even Dark Sky Parks aren’t dark when there’s a full moon.  The lunar calendar will help you plan your visit at the right time.

If you want to learn a bit more about the night sky why not attend a stargazing event?  There are events held every weekend at observatories but also including star camps and star festivals.

Stargazing tends to involve a lot of time standing or sitting about and so it makes sense to dress up warm.  Wear layers – fleeces, hats, gloves and so on – to regulate your body temperature.  Take a flask to help warm up on colder nights.  And rather than take a normal torch, take one with a red beam (many headtorches have these) which allows your eyes to readjust more quickly than normal white light.

 

 

 

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Skiing in Avoriaz

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With the lack of snow here in Scotland this winter it was great to be able to go skiing at Avoriaz in the French Alps this week to experience some superb conditions.  To be fair, the Alps hasn’t exactly had much snowfall so far this season either; by all accounts the slopes were pretty bare until into January.  But 50cm of new snow fell the week before last which meant for great skiing this week.  And to cap it all, we had cloudless, windless weather on five out of six days.

I took my 12 year old son to Avoriaz, a purpose-built resort at 1800m on the French/Swiss border.  Avoriaz is actually celebrating its 50th birthday this year – and has aged well.  All of the buildings are constructed using similar wood and wooden slate materials which gives a soft uniformity that blends in well with the surrounding cliffs and mountains.  Avoriaz is also car-free, with only the occasional skidoo and horse-drawn sledges to dodge.  Last year we skied in Flaine, also built in the late ’60s but in a modernist, concrete design … which has its own charm but is not nearly as attractive fifty years on.

We saved a lot of cash by booking everything ourselves.  The apartment, booked via a local property agent, was great and occupied a superb location looking down the valley towards Morzine.  The panorama below was taken from our balcony.

 

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Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil ski area, a huge area linking 12 separate villages straddling the French/Swiss border.  With the relatively mild and very sunny conditions we stayed high and still only sampled a fraction of the available runs.  The crisp, dry air gave superb views, here to the aptly-named Dents du Midi (3257m).

 

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The Portes du Soleil boasts something like 70 mountain restaurants.  It makes such a difference to be able to have lunch and snacks out on the hill, and to sunbathe over a lazy lunch in a deck chair.  I couldn’t help comparing the experience with that of Scotland, where the height of culinary tradition amounts to a hastily-eaten pie in a crowded cafeteria complete with steamed-up windows.

 

Another contrast with Scotland was the lack of wind last week.  I guess this is the effect of a continental climate, contrasting markedly with the familiar blowy weather that greeted us off the plane back in the UK.

 

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My son was keen to say that he’d been able to ski over the border into Switzerland (it’s kind of cool to say that !).  The Swiss side was quieter, the buildings and villages more traditional and the scenery even more stunning.

 

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We spent a lot of time on the blue runs near Les Lindarets, skiing in among the trees.  These long runs gave great skiing down towards the traditional wooden chalet restaurants in the valley.

 

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The sun streamed into our apartment every afternoon.  In fact, it was so warm we didn’t have any heating on all week and had to open a door or window to cool it down at the end of every day.  It was great to watch the sunset over the mountains beyond Morzine from our balcony before venturing out around Avoriaz to see the trees and nearby cliffs lit up.

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We’re entering solar minimum

 

If you have an interest in aurora watching you may have heard that we’re entering solar minimum: but what does this mean ?

The sun doesn’t provide a constant stream of energy but exhibits phases of higher and lower intensity.  It tends to operate on an 11-year cycle and it is this cycle which has a significant bearing on the chances of seeing an aurora on earth.  Sunspot cycles have been observed since 1755 and we’re currently in Cycle 24, which started in early 2008 and peaked in April 2014.

When the sun’s activity is at its highest, sunspots on its surface spew out plasma – charged protons and electrons – which escape at several hundreds of km/h.  The number of sunspots on the sun’s surface is a pretty good guide to the sun’s relative activity.  Some sunspots are relatively stable but others erupt violently, emitting plasma containing incredible amounts of energy.  As the sun rotates, so too do the sunspots.  When sunspots are facing earth it is these ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs) that create the aurora,  typically taking about three days for the strong solar winds to reach earth.  The charged particles interact with the gases in the earth’s atmosphere, following the magnetic lines around its poles and creating light shows in the polar skies at night.

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Image credit: aurora-service.eu

 

I’m frequently asked by people visiting Scotland what are their chances of seeing the northern lights.  There are lots of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.  Quite apart from the local weather, the phases of the moon and whether there have been any recent solar flares (CMEs), the phase of the solar cycle also makes a big difference.

In simple terms, solar minimum refers to the phase of the solar cycle when there are fewer sunspots.  As you can see in the diagram below, we’re currently on the ‘downward slope’ of Cycle 24, expected to reach its ebb around 2019-20.  At that point we would expect Cycle 25 to begin.  However, you can also see from the diagram that Cycle 24 was much weaker in terms of solar activity (as indicated by the number of sunspots) than the previous two cycles.

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Image credit: Bitsofscience.org

Looking at the solar cycles over a much longer timeframe you can also see (below) that there is significant variation in the relative intensity across cycles.  So while solar activity peaked in the 1950s it’s been much lower in recent cycles.  Some commentators are even suggesting that Cycle 24 could see a ‘Grand Solar Minimum’ of sustained low activity, where sunspots may be absent for months and possibly a year or two.

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Image credit: Washington Post

 

But before you give up hope of seeing an aurora over the next few years, it’s not quite as straightforward as this.  During solar minima, gaps in the sun’s atmosphere – called coronal holes – tend to drift towards the sun’s equator from its poles and become larger.  These coronal holes then allow solar flares to escape and when they’re pointing towards earth, they can create geomagnetic storms and auroras.

So all is not lost.  Even in the current period of lower solar activity there’s still a chance of seeing an aurora – just keep an eye on aurora forecasts to identify whether there are coronal holes facing earth.  But as with CMEs, the further north you are the better the chance of seeing an aurora and so those skywatchers in the Arctic and Antarctic zones are best placed.

In the meantime, there’s plenty time to save up for that trip of a lifetime to see the northern lights during the next solar maximum in 2023.

 

 

 

 

VW California Roof Corrosion Update

 

Members of the VW California Club will have been following the voluminous pages of forum chatter on the topic of the dreaded ‘roof rot’ for several years now – and the issue shows no sign of going away.

For the unitiated, there’s a design flaw in the manufacture of the aluminium elevating roof in the VW California campervan.  At least, all of the owners who have experienced bubbling paintwork along the perimeter of the roof and on the front panel between the roof and the windscreen are absolutely certain it’s a design fault.  Only VW themselves are refusing to admit this and instead, have offered to repair affected T5 vans up to six years old at no cost to their owners “as a gesture of goodwill“.

I’ve recently updated my Key Facts document which summarises the 150+ pages of forum posts on the issue affecting T5 vans.  This has become a central point of reference to help bring owners up to speed on the issues, possible causes and remedies.

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But over the last year the roof rot has been spreading …

The significant development is that not only are many (most?) T5 Californias produced during 2005-15 are affected, but now some new T6 Californias also have bubbling paintwork.

Let’s just take a step back to consider this for one moment.  We know VW had to introduce three different methods to repair the front panel VW here in the UK and presumably used this knowledge to change the design of the front panel for the T6.  But despite many, many thousands of T5 Californias across Europe receiving repairs to the paint bubbling around the roof perimeter paid for by VW, they still didn’t know how to rectify the manufacturing process for the T6.  This is just staggering.

So where does this leave owners of T6 Californias ?

Well at present, VW Commercial Vehicles don’t officially recognise the issue – although half of the T6s completing a California Club forum survey have reported bubbling paintwork.  The existing “goodwill” offer by VW to repair affected roof panels beyond the standard three years to six years currently only relates to T5s.  And last but certainly not least, VW don’t appear to know what’s causing the issue let alone how to repair it.

It’s all a bit of a mess really.  And it does VW’s already-tarnished reputation no good at all.

Fortunately, behind the scenes the VW California Club are talking to VWCV and putting a strong case to get this whole saga cleared up once and for all.  It’s VW’s issue and they need to take responsibility for clearing it up.

In the meantime, the best advice I can give is to check your van thoroughly and take it to your local VW dealer to get any roof corrosion registered and ‘in the queue’ for repairs.  But please don’t let it stop you from getting out and enjoying your Cali.

New site design

I hope you like the new look to Wild about Scotland !  My blog has been offline for the last week while I’ve been updating it to give it a more modern look and feel.

The site has had a fairly comprehensive makeover:

  • the homepage now features much larger images and a new ‘featured posts’ section
  • while most of the content is still there the site structure has been updated.  There are three main sections:
    • Escape – describing my current and planned adventures around Scotland by foot, bike, paddle, tent and campervan.  All my articles are indexed on the sub-pages
    • Explore – spotlighting some key interests, guides and projects
    • Experience – my Top 10 Scotland series of tourism recommendations

I’ve tried to simplify the site structure and give more emphasis to photography – as well as high quality writing – throughout.

Inevitably, there will be teething issues.  Things may not look right, some links may not work as expected and the site might not work correctly on all browsers and devices.

So I need your help !

Please, if you come across an issue with the site layout or structure can you please get in touch using the ‘Contact’ form ?  I can only get things fixed if I know about them – and there’s only so much testing you can do offline with a site of over 250+ articles !

 

 

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Above the clouds

When high pressure’s in charge and there’s a foggy murk that casts a dark shadow in the valleys, it’s often a different world higher up.  Just climb a few hundred metres and you emerge from the darkness into the light: the sun shines brightly in a deep blue sky and there below lies a sea of fluffy white cloud.

A quick jaunt up Dumyat in the Ochil hills was enough to reveal a different world above the clouds today.  Not many people ventured uphill though.  Only those who truly believed the sun would triumph over the clouds higher up persevered.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking …

 

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Best Camping Blog !

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I’m absolutely delighted to say that thanks to your votes of support, my blog has won the Camping category in the Trespass Blog Awards 2016 !

After being nominated back in December the shortlisted blogs were put to a public vote.  My blog was up against some really stiff competition and so I’m completely bowled over that Wild about Scotland came out on top.  It’s all thanks to you – and I really appreciate the fact that so many people took the time to cast their vote.

This is the second time Wild about Scotland has won the Camping category in the Trespass Blog Awards, also winning back in 2014.  I’m not a professional blogger, journalist or marketer – just passionate about my hobbies and not shy about telling everyone else about what I floats my boat !

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Talking about floating boats … as the saying goes, there’s always something new under the sun.  Whether it’s camping out under the stars, climbing a new mountain, cycling a new route or learning to sea kayak (as I am right now), there’s always a new adventure around every corner.  So as I mentioned in my last post about my goals for 2017, my blog gets me motivated to get outside and try something new.

So if you find inspiration from my blog, please do let me know – it’s always great to receive this feedback.  Or if you have an idea for something you think I could blog about – or you have your own perspective to share – then also please get in touch.

In the meantime, Wild about Scotland has also been shortlisted in the GO Outdoors Blog Awards, one of five receiving the highest number of votes from a (very) long list of excellent blogs.  The public vote has now closed – and again, thank you if you took the time to vote for my blog.  The winners are being chosen by a panel of GO Outdoors staff on the 12th January … fingers crossed !

 

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