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Skiing the slopes of Les Arcs

It’s been a particularly good year for snow in the French Alps, the best for six years.  Already, Les Arcs has enjoyed over 4 metres of snow, double the snowfall for the whole of last season – and it’s still only mid-February.

Last week I had a great time skiing in Les Arcs with my son.  It was the first time we’d been to this resort and were looking forward to the variety that comes with a large ski area.  It didn’t disappoint.

Les Arcs was built in the late 1960s and has 200km of pistes over 113 runs.  But since the Vanoise Express cable car was completed in 2003 it now forms part of the much larger Paradiski area, connecting Les Arcs and neighbouring Peisey-Vallandry to La Plagne to give 256 pistes and 435km of skiing.  During the week we didn’t even ski all of the runs on the Les Arcs side of the valley, far less venture over to La Plagne.

 

A mix of runs above and below the tree line

Our week got off to a great start.  While some of the highest mountains were draped in cloud at the beginning of the week, the snow was plentiful and in perfect condition.  It was cold, bright and sunny.  There were two almost cloudless days midweek: great conditions for cruising long runs, both above and below the tree line.

Les Arcs is actually a collection of seven, largely purpose-built resorts set high above the town of Bourg Saint Maurice.  We were staying in Plan Peisey, just beside the Vanoise Express, which at 1600m is one of the lowest villages and just below the tree line.  While there are some great high-level runs above the newer resorts of Les Arcs 2000 and 1950, we actually preferred the fast red runs through the trees at Peisey-Vallandry.  On days where low cloud covers the high peaks, and it’s difficult to discern sky from piste in flat, white light, this is definitely the best place to be.  Some may prefer the ‘mountain village’ feel to Les Arcs 1950 but if you want variety and the flexibility to choose between Les Arcs or La Plagne for your day’s skiing, then I think Peisey has the upper hand.

 

A superb tree-lined red run

 

The snow-covered basin above the resorts of Les Arcs 2000 and 1950

We took the cable car to the highest point in Les Arcs, Aiguille Rouge which stands at 3,226 metres.  The peak gives an absolutely stunning panorama across the French and Italian Alps and on a still, clear day this is a place to stop and marvel for a while.

After we soaked in the views we skied down towards the little hamlet of Villaroger, a descent of almost 2km.  Not only did we want to try out the longest continuous run in Les Arcs but we wanted to go for afternoon drinks and cake at Chalet Sollier, arguably one of the best mountain restaurants in the entire resort.  The hot wine and tarte aux myrtilles (blueberry pie) were definitely worth skiing down for, and the view just divine.

The cable car ascending Aiguille Rouge (3226m)

 

The view from the top of the Aiguille Rouge

 

Les Arcs has had over 4 metres of snow so far this season

 

The Aiguille Rouge red run, descending down to Villaroger

 

Le Chalet Solliet had arguably the best view of all the mountain restaurants we ate at

It was a week of two halves though.  After the glorious midweek sunshine a low pressure heralded rising temperatures, low cloud and — horror! — drizzly rain.  The temperature in Peisey reached 8 degrees by the end of the week and combined with the rain, meant that the deep, powdery snow had become heavy.  It’s not much fun skiing in damp cloud either.  Along with the return of my son’s fluey virus he’s been battling over the last month, we spent much of the last half of our holiday holed up in our apartment.

Still, we’d had a great trip and these photos bring back memories of great skiing in a fantastic resort.  With so much of the Paradiski area still to explore it’d be great to go back.

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Chasing the ‘super blue blood moon’

The moon shining through the clouds above the Wallace Monument

For the first time since 1982 this week we were treated to the spectacle of a ‘super blue blood moon’.  It was a chance to see the convergence of three rare events: a supermoon, a blue moon and a total lunar eclipse, which turns the moon a blood coloured orangey-red.

A supermoon is when there’s a full moon that happens when the moon is positioned closest to the Earth in its orbit, and a blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month.  It’ll be 2037 before these three phenomena coincide again.

I decided to use some of Stirling’s historic locations as foreground.  It was a pity that the sky was largely cloudy when I headed out early in the evening but in fact the high cloud simply amplified the effect.  The moon appeared like a huge disc above the Wallace Monument and shone brightly above Stirling Castle.

Atmospheric clouds above Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle, backlit

If you appreciate good photography (not necessarily mine!) don’t forget that the Galloway giveaway competition is still open until Sunday 11th February.  Featuring the fantastic landscape photography of Allan Wright, you could win a copy of one of Allan’s latest books all about his home region of Galloway.

It’s dead easy to enter so please take a look!

 

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Galloway – A photographic portrait

I’m pleased to be teaming up with Allan Wright, a well-known landscape photographer, to showcase a new book he’s published on Galloway.  If you’re a fan of Galloway then read on since I also have free copies of his book to give away to two lucky readers.

Overwintering geese, Southerness, Solway Firth    (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

I’m a fairly recent convert to the quiet charms of Galloway, having enjoyed recent visits to the coast near Kirkcudbright, visiting the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park as well as cycling across the region en route to John O’Groats.

Taking in the Southern Uplands, the Solway coast and fertile agricultural land, its rolling hills and steadfast towns seem to have an understated appeal.  But take the time to discover Galloway and you’ll find a land of real beauty.  From hidden bays, rolling fields and bluebell woods to imposing castles and wide-sky vistas it’s a region that has much to offer.

Allan Wright is a leading Scottish landscape photographer who has captured images of Scotland as well as his adopted home of Galloway for the last 30 years.  One of his recent books, simply called ‘Galloway’, brings the character of the area to life.  His exquisite photographs show the area through the seasons, from dawn to dusk.  I particularly like the way he captures light in his images, including reflections in still rivers, rich sunsets and shadows cast across rough moorland.

If, like me, you’re a fan of high quality landscape photography – or you simply love Galloway – then you’ll be keen to see Allan’s latest book of images.  I have copies to give away (RRP £20) to two competition winners.

Carsphairn Lead Mine (Copyright Allan Wright Photographic)

The competition

To enter the competition and be considered for one of the two prizes please answer the following question:

Which image (from the gallery on Allan’s website) do you think best evokes Galloway and why?

You will need to leave your answer as a comment at the foot of this post in order to be considered.  Entries submitted by e-mail or social media will not be valid.

There are over 130 images to choose from so there’s plenty scope to find an image that sums up Galloway to you.  How does the image make you feel?  Do you have a personal story to tell related to the scene?  Does it hold memories or aspirations for you?

The rules
  • Entries must be received by 10pm on Sunday 11th February
  • Entries must be submitted as comments to this blog post
  • Two winners will each receive one copy of ‘Galloway’ by Allan Wright
  • The two winning entries will be chosen on merit by the photographer personally
  • Open to UK residents aged 18 or over
  • Only one entry per person
  • The winners will be informed by email within 7 days of the closing date, and must respond within 7 days to claim their prize
  • The prizes will be sent out by post by Bonnie Communications (on behalf of Allan Wright) within 28 days of receiving the winner’s address

Finally, I’ll shortly be running similar competitions featuring Allan Wright’s recently-published books on Glasgow and Skye.  If you want to be in with a chance of winning one of these two books too please follow my blog so you’ll be sure not to miss them!

Good luck!

This competition has now closed.  The two winners were Liz Gettoes and  David McKellar, and their prizes have been sent out to them.

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Lismore’s tranquil charms

My recent excursion to the island of Lismore was book-ended by two encounters with the local Church of Scotland Minister.  A stern chap, he only shared a brief ‘hello’ with me on our second meeting.  Since I was kitted out head to toe in protective gear, bike in hand, I briefly entertained the thought that he might disapprove of people cycling on the Sabbath .  Perhaps that explained the short, gruff meeting?

More likely, though, Reverend Barclay had a lot on his mind.  Where did we meet?  Not in church or near the manse but on the small passenger ferry that plies the short crossing from Port Appin across to the island.  You see, Ministers in remote island communities have not one but many jobs; he was skipping over to the mainland to take the 10am service in Appin before returning to Lismore church for 12.30pm worship.

I was on a fairly tight schedule but had a little more time to play with than the Minister.  I’d woken up in time to get the 9am ferry and enjoyed seeing the sky turn a gorgeous salmon-pink over Loch Linnhe as the sun slowly lifted its head above the horizon.

First light from Port Appin

I reckoned the two ferrymen had also had trouble lifting their heads that morning.  9am came and went.  No sign of any ferry, nor any other passengers for that matter.  Had I misread the timetable?  Did everyone else know something I didn’t?  Just as I was asking the waitress in the hotel a pick-up truck raced past and two overalled workmen jumped out and walked down the jetty.  Ah!  The ferrymen.

Before long I had my bike loaded on to the boat (but only once they’d safely deposited the most important passenger in Port Appin that day, the Minister).  I’m unsure whether 9am means “somewhere round about 9ish” in Argyll time, or whether they’d had a late night the evening before, but once they got going the two ferrymen seemed to run an efficient service.  They were also great company, asking what I was planning to do on Lismore and chatting about their jobs.

I’m sure making the same 10 minute crossing back and forth half a dozen times a day might get a little tedious after a while but on a morning like this I was more than a little envious.  The snow-topped mountains beamed in the cold, crisp sunshine and Ben Nevis stood proud above a thin layer of cloud, lit up by the low morning sun.  There are worse views from your place of work.

The ‘Lismore’ makes its way from Port Appin to Lismore

 

The Corbett Creach Bheinn – the Morvern one, not the Appin one!

 

Ben Nevis a-glow in the early morning sunshine

Lismore is a long, low-lying and fertile island with fewer than 200 inhabitants.  The name comes from the Gaelic ‘lios mòr‘ which means ‘big garden’.  It has one single track road running down the spine of the island and at 19km long, meant that I could plan to cycle down to the southern end and back in a morning.  And with a little luck and careful planning I would still have time for a couple of detours.

It was frosty.  The fields were white, clouds of condensed air hung above cattle in the cold air and occasional patches of black ice covered the road.  There was little danger of getting caught up in traffic though since on this Sunday morning in early January Lismore was very …. very … quiet.  I was the only passenger for starters and the only other people I saw were farmers out feeding their animals.  Quite a few houses seemed to be empty and I wondered if these were second homes; however, the Isle of Lismore website lists 12 self-catering properties for rent.

Lismore must be one of the most accessible islands in the Inner Hebrides.  Sitting right in the middle of Loch Linnhe it has great views north to Ben Nevis and Beinn a Bheithir, east to Ben Cruachan and west towards Mull and the Morvern hills.  I could also see the long snowy ridge of Creach Bheinn that I’d climbed the previous day.  (And very confusingly, there are two Creach Bheinn’s visible from Lismore, both Corbetts, one on either side of the island).

The view from the middle of the island

 

Ben Sgulaird (left) and Creach Bheinn (the Appin one), right

I’m told that the Lismore Gaelic Heritage Museum is a ‘must’ if you’re visiting the island.  It certainly did look worth visiting, with an attractive cafe.  However, it was closed the day I there and so I could only look round from the outside.  I admired the restored cottage, Taigh Iseabal Dhaibh, a late 19th Century ‘cottar’s house’.  It’s a simple dwelling with two rooms, heated by a peat fire and with a stone floor.  It had a thick thatched roof made of reeds made in the traditional style.

A 19th Century restored traditional cottage

 

Close-up of the thatched roof made of reeds

The island has a rich history.  In AD562, at about the same time as Columba settled in Iona,  St Moluag travelled from Ireland to establish the Christian community on Lismore.  It seems he based himself on Lismore while establishing the Episcopal Sees of Lismore as well as in Ross and Aberdeen.  Lismore Parish Church is located on the site of the 6th Century cathedral, and ornate carved gravestones from the Middle Ages are displayed on the roadside beside the church.

The small island also boasts the ruins of an Iron Age broch, two 13th Century castles, Bronze Age cairns and deserted townships.  That’s a lot of history in such a small place!  I cycled down towards the southern end of the island to view Achinduin Castle from a distance, leaning my bike up against a handy standing stone.  On the return leg I detoured down a rough track just south of the church which led down towards Castle Coeffin on the western side.  I didn’t have the time on this trip to walk around the ruins but it’s certainly an island full of atmosphere and many, many stories to tell.

The first time I’ve used a standing stone as a bike stand!

 

13th Century Castle Coeffin

Today, Lismore welcomes visitors for holidays, short breaks and day trips.  While it seemed I pretty much had the place to myself on this short visit I can imagine there’s a bit more coming and going in the summer months.  Judging by the way that the red phone box seems to double as a pop-up cake shop, complete with bunting, it seems like a pretty welcoming place.

I just had time for a warming flask of coffee propped up against the phone box before the ‘Lismore’ chugged over the water from Port Appin once more.  Relaxed, my trip was over. But as the Reverend Barclay stepped off the boat he just had 30 minutes to make his way to the church for his next service.  It seemed that farmers, ferrymen, Ministers and occasional cyclists were the only other people moving on Lismore that day.

Lismore’s pop-up cake shop!

Waiting for the ferry to return

 

Have you visited Lismore?  What did you do when you were there?

 

 

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Appin’s sparkling peaks

Draped in a snowy winter coat the Scottish mountains provide an irresistible allure for walkers.  White-topped hills gleam against a deep blue sky, sparkling in the crisp, cold air.  They invite challenge, adventure and the surefire certainty that a day climbing mountains in winter will provide highs and lows not experienced in the summer months.

If last weekend was anything to go by I was not alone in falling for the charms of deep powder snow.  The laybys along the length of the A82 familiar to peak-baggers  were rammed with cars; as busy as any sunny Saturday in July.

Framed by attractive seascapes and rugged mountains, Appin occupies a quiet corner of the West Highlands overlooking Morvern and Oban.  Most visitors  head south to Oban, the gateway to the islands, or further north to Fort William.  It’s no surprise then that the hills of Appin are sometimes overlooked in favour of larger, more imposing mountains elsewhere.

And this suited me just fine.  What I was after was a not-too-taxing winter walk so I could get back down in daylight.  Ideally I wanted a hill with great views and in a location that would allow a cycle ride the following day.  The Corbett Creach Bheinn fitted the bill exactly.

 

Looking down the track from Coire Buidhe towards Loch Creran

However, initial impressions are perhaps a little underwhelming.  Creach Bheinn translates as ‘bare (or windswept) hill’, and it’s within sight of another similarly-named Corbett across Loch Linnhe in Morvern.  (The more sceptical among you will no doubt be surprised that there are only two hills in Scotland sharing the same non-descript name).  The approach, following a bulldozed track that winds its way up the glen to Coire Buidhe, is also somewhat under-inspiring.  Or at least it would be in summer.  But today, it provided a fast-track to the powdery white stuff and I was only too glad to recover my walking legs before reaching the interesting part.

And it didn’t take long for a so-far mundane walk to be transformed.

Ahead of me were two other parties.  Having left the winding track I swapped the sound of boots scraping on hard-packed gravel for the almost silent ‘swooshing’ of footsteps through soft snow.  I had the easier job, following their single-file path through the snow and critically assessing the line of ascent they’d taken through the rocky outcrops.  The snow smoothed out the hollows, transforming a normally rocky hillside into a carpeted wonderland, and  bringing with it a magical, deadening silence.

Up on the ridge the sun’s rays made a determined effort to escape the clouds, sending sharp tentacles down towards the depths of Loch Etive.  The soft light reflected off the dark water, providing the promise of an improving day.  As the sun topped the clouds its rays washed the snow with a brightening cast, throwing shadows across the frozen hillside.  Then finally, as the bright sun escaped the clouds it illuminated the rime-covered stalks of grass bravely poking through the snow.  The ice sparkled and shone with a brilliance that turned the ‘ordinary’ into a truly wonderful sight.

The sun’s rays began to break though

Icy rime on stalks of grass

Sunshine and shadows

As I gained height the views north to Glen Etive opened up, giving fine perspectives of Beinn Trilleachan, the two Buachailles and the mighty Ben Starav.  Reaching the apex of the ridge Ben Sgulaird also came into view.  In summer many folk combine a walk up this munro with Creach Bheinn but with shorter daylight hours this is much more of a challenge in mid-winter.

While the light winds had so far betrayed the fierce conditions that can so often characterise the mountains in winter the windchill increased markedly up on the ridge.  An arctic north-easterly blew me towards the summit as I donned extra layers.  The wind had also begun to create an icy crust which changed my walking tempo: I much prefer crunching over the surface than wading, ankle-deep through snow.

I passed the two other groups of walkers as I approached the summit.  One couple had three ‘low-rise’ dogs between them.  Don’t ask me to identify the breed; all I can say is that in spite of having to bound energetically through the drifts in their snow-coats they seemed to be in doggy heaven.  Pleasantries exchanged, I soaked up the trig point views before retiring to a sheltered hollow to grab a quick bite.

The view north up Glen Etive

At 810m Creach Bheinn gives an inspiring 360-degree view of mountain and sea.  Not only were the Glen Coe hills laid out in all their snow-topped glory but the sharp summit of Ben Cruachan dominated the view to the south.  Due west my eye was drawn across Lochs Creran and Linnhe, beyond the narrow island of Lismore to the wintery skyline of Mull and Morvern.  Somehow, with expert care, Winter had sprinkled icing sugar over the mountainous peaks to create a particularly eye-catching panorama.

Summit panorama looking west to the peaks of Mull and Morvern (click to expand)

Looking east from the trig point (810m)

Walking back along the ridge directly into the cold, north-easterly blast, I drew my buff up over my nose.  At times like these, function, not fashion, are of prime concern!  It was a straightforward return leg following the now, churned-up path through the snow, spiced up by the need to use an ice axe on the steeper gradients.  Fortunately it was used simply for balance rather than grip on this occasion.

By the time I reached the end of the ridge, shadows were lengthening once more.  The short window of daylight was beginning to close, bringing with it that softer, orange glow that makes routine photographs become utterly magical in winter.  I didn’t stay up high to enjoy the alpenglow but instead enjoyed the clouds turning salmon-pink as I crunched back down the track.

What might have been a boggy and fairly unexciting summer hill walk had certainly provided some inspiring light, sights and sounds in just a few short hours.  In this quiet corner of Appin, the allure of winter walking had lived up to its promise.

Icicles beneath an overhanging rock

A bold boulder

 

 

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Looking back on 2017 and plans for 2018

A Happy New Year to you!

As I look out of the window this afternoon heavy rain is falling on already waterlogged ground.  The fire’s on and instead of being outside I’m spending some time reviewing last year’s outdoor and blogging activities and looking ahead to what might be in store for 2018.

2017 – The ups

Looking back at some of my most memorable photos from last year it seems I got out and about and achieved quite a lot.  This time last year I wrote a similar post anticipating ten likely adventures – and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed all bar two (I’ve hung up my running shoes since I want to preserve my knee joints and the tentative fishing trip didn’t happen).

  • Skiing
  • Camping – in a tent, wigwam and campervan
  • Climbing mountains
  • Sea kayaking
  • Bungee jumping (at night, in the dark, without any lights)
  • Cycle touring
  • Stargazing
  • Island hopping
  • Running
  • Fishing.

Early in 2017 I spent a lot of time upgrading my blog in more of a ‘magazine’ style.  Hopefully it’s not only easier to navigate but it shows off my photos much better.  In terms of blogging stats 2017 was certainly a good year: I published 35 posts, received 535,000 views and Above the clouds featured on WordPress Discover and subsequently gained almost 500 likes from mainly new readers.

2017 – The downs

But you may have noticed I’ve been pretty quiet lately.  House improvements saw me with a paintbrush in hand for most of October and November and a family holiday, a busy time at work and other family-related activities also took up most of my spare time over the Autumn too.  ‘Life’ took over.

So all in all, I haven’t been active on my blog or social media at all for about three months.  At first, this bothered me.  After all, I regularly posted two or three times a week when I first started blogging, falling to once or twice a fortnight in 2017.  But taking a break from social media in particular has put a new perspective on things and now I’m in quite a different place to where I was a year ago.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the whole social media thing.  While Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest can be invaluable sources of news and inspiration you really have to search hard to find the golden nuggets among the sand.  There’s so much in the way of distractions, misinformation and manipulative content (read my recent post on clickbait, fake sites and the outdoor community) that if you let it, it can take over your life.

I agree with the views of Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook vice-president of user growth, who recently said that “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works”, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Much has been written about the way social media creates internally-reinforcing ‘tribal’ communities that reject opposing voices and instill norms that govern behaviour.  At its worst it’s an echo chamber where likes and clicks drive mutually-reinforcing behaviours.  And unfortunately, time away from my devices and PC shows the outdoor community to be no different.

I’ve just examined my own social media feeds:

  • Crowding out the inspiration and insightful thoughts on Twitter are sponsored posts, corporate promotion, automated content posted by bots, trivial musings and the over-posting of self-publicists, obsessives and people waging personal vendettas
  • If you’re in the right mood I find Instagram full of inspiring photos.  But on a bad day I look at it and wonder how many of these people truly live the airbrushed life they portray?  (But that’s what social media does: promote the good and ignore the bad)
  • Despite Facebook generally being regarded as the best way to promote your blog I’ve always found it to be trivial and superficial.  I closed down my original account and now only use Facebook to communicate with my DofE groups using private groups.

Interestingly, my blog receives more referrals from Facebook than any other social media platform, just ahead of Pinterest and with four times as many referrals as Twitter.  Instagram, Reddit, Pocket and Yammer barely feature.  Yet all of these are completely dwarfed by referrals from search engines.  So for me at least, social media is really only a source of (inward) information and not a route for outward engagement: a one-way street, you might say.

So what does 2018 have in store?

So (following this little rant) … what do I conclude and what am I going to do about it?

In short, 2018 is going to be a year of simplifying my life.  I want to get back to basics, to give my time to the things that really provide me with rewarding experiences.  I live a busy life at work and don’t need any additional stress or pressures to ‘compete’ with others.

Here are four things I’m going to be doing differently from now on:

1.  Ditch social media

… well, I probably won’t ditch it altogether but I certainly won’t be posting regularly and will only look at Twitter or Instagram if I’m looking for ideas and inspiration.  I’ve never really used these platforms as ‘social’ meeting spaces – I don’t have the time – and the data shows that 95% of people discover this blog from Google in any case.

By its very nature, social media is restricted to short soundbites and images designed to provide immediate impact.  Sure, it’s accessible and easy to follow a large number of people but these advantages are also its shortcomings: it tends to be superficial, blunt and open to misinterpretation.  I’ve rediscovered blogs as an ultimately much more powerful format, able to communicate ideas and feelings in a way that social media platforms find very difficult.

2.  Focus on quality over quantity

Having take a three-month break from my blog I now feel much less like I’m ‘on a schedule’ to post every so often.  More importantly, having recently passed my five year blogging milestone I’m now much more selective in finding the things I want to say.

Content is king.  That’s always been true and always will be – in spite of what the social media marketeers will tell you.  So I’m going to continue to focus on ideas that have traction, stories that need telling and my personal experiences that are worth sharing.

I’ve also realised after five years of blogging (sometimes things take a while to seep into your consciousness) that it’s the creative writing process that’s therapeutic and rewarding.  Creative thinking stimulates a part of my brain that often doesn’t get enough use in day to day activities, and this is a world away from bog-standard trip reports that seem to be the standard fodder in many people’s blogs.  So I want to focus on improving the quality of my writing in my blog (and any other magazine articles, reviews or book ideas that come my way).

3.  Focus on my main passions

Over the years I’ve never shied away from trying something new.  Whether it’s doing a night bungee, going land yachting or taking up climbing or sea kayaking I get a kick out of new adventures and challenges.  But if the goal this year is to simplify my life there’s no better way to do that than to consolidate what I already enjoy doing.

That doesn’t mean I’ll stay within my comfort zone of course – don’t be daft, life would be boring if we didn’t expand our horizons – but does mean I want to spend most of my time in the outdoors doing the things I love: walking, camping and cycle touring.  I always have a bucket list of challenges on the go and nearing the top of the list is my ‘compleation’ of the Furths (by climbing the 13 3000-foot mountains in Ireland), backpacking in Scotland, cycling in the Western Isles or the Yorkshire Dales, and skiiing in the French Alps.  On top of this I’m also leading a Silver Duke of Edinburgh group for the first time which is going to be a new challenge but really enjoyable.

4.  Give my time to things that give me something back

Talking of enjoyment, isn’t this what it’s all meant to be about?  Life’s far too short to spend it competing with the Joneses or worrying what other people think of you.  Work/jobs/stress will all still be there the next day … so enjoy today while you can.  My wife tends to be more successful in living this motto than I am but I need to get better at it: slowing down, living one day at a time and being more spontaneous.

A big part of this for me relates to mental wellbeing.  I get stir-crazy when I’m cooped up inside too much and the mountains are calling.  As a classic introvert, getting outdoors and enjoying some friluftsliv gives me the solitude I need to recharge my batteries so I return renewed and happy.

Finally, having just asked my wife to review this post, she’s suggested a fifth goal which will help us lead a simpler life.  So it looks like I’m going to have to bite the bullet and finish clearing out the garage and loft this year too …

Tune in this time next year to see if I’ve managed to be true to my word and live a simpler (and clutter-free) life.

Whatever your aspirations and goals for 2018 I hope you achieve them – and have an enjoyable time in the process!

 

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10 memorable photos of 2017

I thought I’d end the year with a selection of memorable photos over the last twelve months.  It’s great to look back on the year and remind yourself of the events and places that have stood out.  While my blogging year ended very quietly – more about this in a future post – I’m actually surprised at the variety of things I’ve got up to.

January started with WildaboutScotland winning ‘Best Camping Blog’ in the 2016 Trespass Blog Awards.  Further recognition came soon after with one of my posts that described a wonderful walk up through a cloud inversion (a local hill, Dumyat in the Ochils) featuring on WordPress Discover.  That brought my blog to the attention of a global audience, with the post receiving the most likes and comments of any post over the last five years – including great comments from all corners of the world.

 

heSheep enjoying the bright sunshine above the cloud inversion

In February I took a ski holiday to Avoriaz with my son.  The lift system straddles the French and Swiss border and on this gloriously sunny day we found ourselves skiing in France during the morning, having lunch at this mountain-top restaurant before dropping down into the Swiss side to enjoy some afternoon runs.  My son loves skiing and for me it’s been a great way to do an activity together that we both really enjoy.

A mountain restaurant high on the slopes above Avoriaz in the French Alps

In 2014 I’d been bungee jumping with one of my neices at Killiecrankie.  I think it’s fair to say she’s not that good with heights and while she successfully completed the jump she was extremely brave to go through with it.  I was obviously far too chirpy and boastful after that jump since she decided to get her own back by buying me a voucher for a night bungee for Christmas …  I duly booked my jump – alone! – in March and the picture shows me flying high, jumping 40 metres above the River Garry into the blackness.  Killiecrankie is Europe’s only night bungee destination.  It was a wee bit more nerve-wracking that a daytime jump but I loved it.  I just didn’t love hanging upside down for a few minutes with the blood rushing to my head.

Taking the plunge, 40 metres above the River Garry in Perthshire

In late April I road tested a Jerba campervan and took it from Jerba’s factory near North Berwick across the Borders to Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway – you can read my review here.  Having previously lived in the Borders it was a great chance to revisit some memorable places on my journey across country, including John Muir’s house in Dunbar, unspoiled Cove Harbour and Scott’s View overlooking the Eildons.  As luck would have it, my long weekend away coincided with an aurora – on two nights! – as well as the Lyrids meteor shower.  I managed to capture this gorgeous purple aurora, the first and only time I’ve seen this.

The northern lights … also available in purple

May saw me taking a sea kayak / wild camping trip with Kenny Lacey of Sea Kayak Scotland in the Sound of Luing.  I really enjoyed the weekend and the chance to get excellent one-to-one coaching from Kenny.  The picture showed our boats on the beach at St Mary’s Bay on the island of Luing, where we camped and enjoyed a fire at night.

Paddling in the Sound of Luing

 

I was occupied leading my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh group in early June but had then booked to go paddling again at Plockton at the end of the month.  Unfortunately the trip was called off owing to high winds so instead I opted to spend the weekend cycling around Loch Rannoch.  It was a blustery weekend with dark, brooding skies and big waves on the loch.  I think this photo captures very well the contrasts; sunshine one minute then the threat of sharp showers the next.

Cycling around Loch Rannoch

The weather gods looked kindly down on me in July when I’d booked to visit Eigg for the first time.  In fact, it was so hot and sunny that I came away with a rare Scottish suntan!  I spent the weekend exploring: discovering the caves at Galmisdale, climbing An Sgurr, sunbathing on the squeaky Singing Sands and walking the circular route around Beinn Buidhe at the north end of the island.  To top it off I enjoyed a cold beer at Laig Bay and watched the most amazing sunset over neighbouring Rum.  It was just such a superb weekend.

The sun setting over Rum, from Laig Bay on Eigg

Early September saw me take another long weekend to go walking and cycling in Assynt in Scotland’s far north west.  I wild camped on top of Quinag, cycled to Lochinver and then climbed Ben More Coigach the next day.  From its summit you get a real sense of this old, ‘elemental’ landscape formed on 3 billion year-old rocks that protrude sharply from around the rocky coastline.  Assynt rightly deserves its place as an outstanding location for geology and wildlife – as well as superb walking and camping.

Stac Pollaidh in Assynt, from Ben More Coigach

In November I witnessed the strongest aurora I’ve ever seen in Scotland.  There was a slow but steady build-up that culminated in a jaw-dropping eight minutes where the northern lights lit up the sky, with pillars and moving curtains providing an amazing show.  It was so strong and bright that this picture below was taken on only a 4 second exposure.  And that is unheard of for Scotland …

November’s incredibly strong aurora from Perthshire

 

So that was my blogging year, featured in some of my favourite and most memorable images.

I hope you’ve had a great year too, whatever you’ve been up to.  Thanks so much for all your feedback and comments; I’ve certainly had some great times over the last twelve months and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my adventures too.

Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas.

 

 

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The “merry dancers”

 

 

Like a piece of music that slowly builds to an exciting crescendo, the first three movements of last night’s auroral symphony started boldly and with a real purpose before exploding into a riotous final movement.  This was quite possibly the strongest, most active aurora I’ve seen in Scotland.

As I reached one of my regular spots for aurora hunting just after 8pm a wide arc was beginning to strengthen.  It gradually gained definition, occasionally spawning brief pillars of vertical lights.  It was strong – and stronger than the Kp 5/6 suggested by the aurora forecasts.  In spite of an 84% moon rising brightly in the eastern sky I was able to capture the auroral band on only a 15 second exposure at ISO1600.  (I would normally use a 25 or 30 second exposure).

The bright moon gave great foreground light.  Many people bemoan anything but a new moon for searching out the northern lights but I think on nights like these it’s a real boon to photographers to benefit from some foreground interest.

So the first two movements of this auroral symphony were spirited and purposeful.  The interplay of light and music brought contrasts of light and shadow, with a strong arc dominating the performance.

But at 9.30pm the third movement kicked off with the “merry dancers” making a lively appearance.  An offshoot appeared below the arc, dancing its way across the sky and sending pillars up into the sky before it rejoined the main group.

The fourth and final movement kicked off with a bang.  Nature’s fireworks exploded in the sky, with bright milky-white lights shining brightly to the naked eye.  It was an intense climax to the performance, lasting just eight minutes.

But oh, what a spectacular and jaw-dropping eight minutes!

Curtains of light rippled across the night sky, sending pillars high into the earth’s atmosphere.  The pace and intensity of the lights noticeably quickened.  Up until that point I’d been snapping pictures at 10 or 13 second exposures, and had to drop right down to 4 seconds!  For Central Scotland, this is absolutely unheard of.  And with a three-quarter moon.

The power of this natural performance was incredible.  The fast, moving lights not only show up bright green on these pictures but become yellow and even orange at their most intense.  The “merry dancers” by this point were swirling around the stage in a cacophonous frenzy.  Forget Scotland, this was a performance normally associated with Alaska or Northern Scandinavia!

 

 

 

 

Gradually, this symphonic dance slowed its pace and the dancers changed into bright costumes of green, red and purple for the final few passages.  The performance, at least for this showing, was coming to an end.

It had been a memorable evening.  The “merry dancers” left the stage to wait in the wings for their next invitation to perform.

 

 

Clickbait, fake sites and the outdoor community

For many of us, the web and social media are useful tools to fuel our hobbies.  Getting outside at the weekend to go walking, cycling or climbing is our main focus, but online channels give us information and inspiration, perhaps to discover a new challenge, research new gear or to follow our favourite adventurer.

Sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  But in the murky world of online marketing we’re being actually being stalked, our online activities monitored and our data bought and sold.  To marketers, we’re a sales lead, easily influenced and a lucrative income stream.  Let me explain.

Have you noticed that you sometimes get new Twitter followers from people who describe themselves as “influencers”?  Do you sometimes see website adverts for products you’ve recently been researching?  When you click on links in certain blogs or articles do you sometimes notice that you don’t see the information you expect but instead, are taken straight to a retail site.  Taken individually these incidents don’t add up to much but these are sure signs you’re being stalked.  The online marketeers are after you!

My blogging has taken a bit of a back seat over the last few weeks thanks to a welcome holiday, a busy time at work and a new house extension.  But in that time my mailbox has been receiving a continuous stream of messages.  I’m not necessarily talking about the genuine comments on various blog posts or the many Kickstarter campaigns looking for support.  I’m not even talking about the 43,000 messages previously filtered out by WordPress or the 108 currently in my spam folder.  (But read below if you want a good laugh at some hilarious spam e-mails, produced by online bots).

What I want to focus on here are the messages from marketing companies looking for me to lend credibility to their devious schemes.

Clickbait for cash

One such message asked if I was willing to consider a guest post for my blog.  Great, I thought, and replied to say that as long as the content matched the theme of my blog then I was willing to consider it.  The article duly arrived (on hill running incidentally) and except for a few tweaks and the substitution of American for British English words, it was ready to publish.  However, it contained a number of spurious hyperlinks to various brands of running shoes on a US website that bore no direct relevance to the text in question.  I asked for these to be removed, they weren’t, and so I politely pointed out that I wasn’t willing to publish it.

In marketing terms this is all about affiliate advertising.  So every time an unsuspecting reader clicks through to a website the marketing company gets a small percentage sales commission.

It’s certainly not illegal and perhaps harmless enough.  But it’s manipulative.  These links are everywhere.  Most major retailers with an online site operate them and if you look closely at the small print at the foot of their websites you’ll see them recruiting bloggers and website owners to run ads.  Text taken from a well-known UK outdoors retailer explains how it works:

The system’s really simple. You register as an affiliate with our partner, Webgains, put an ad on your site linking to xxxxxx.com, and every time a visitor to your site uses that link to buy something, you get a share of the price. Meanwhile, we get a sale, so it’s a perfect win-win arrangement.

 

We supply you with all the graphics you could need, regularly updated throughout the year. The links we provide automatically make sure we know which visitors have come from your site.

I did a bit of research of my own and stumbled across a site that explains how to write articles appealing to you and I, people in the “camping affiliate niche“.  Take a look.  It makes for an eye-opening insight into how some individuals seemingly make money out of trying to promote stuff to unsuspecting consumers.  I particularly like his take on the “high traffic, low competition keywords” that would entice us campers in!

Despite the downtrend in interest in the topic (camping), there will always be niche markets to get into, and if you are passionate about it, money can be made anywhere online. It’s always possible to put your own spin on it and build a brand based on YOU. Good examples would be camping + technology, camping with disabilities, camping for city slickers, and so on.

For me, transparency is key.  I’m savvy enough to know that if I’m reading an article on a retailer’s website then I know that they’re promoting their products.  But if I read something on another site – a individual’s blog perhaps – I assume that they have a more objective point of view, particularly if they don’t openly disclose at the foot of the article that they have a relationship with any company.

The difficulty really comes when a social marketing company sets up a site specifically designed to look like a blog run by a group of outdoors enthusiasts, but is in actual fact a fairly well-disguised tool for getting access to customer data.  The second example I wanted to share from my inbox was a request for me to be added to a “List of Invited Experts” (their capitals, not mine) to provide advice on setting up a new “Nature-saving Scholarship”.

This is simply a manipulative means of buying content and data that they can then re-use to generate even more affiliate links

It sounded intriguing – as well as flattering.  My initial response was to say that I didn’t regard myself as having any particular expertise in “nature saving” and therefore I couldn’t help them.  However, they followed up with a reply giving further details about the aforementioned scholarship.  It turned out they were setting up a competition aimed at young people, inviting them to produce articles and infographics containing tips on topics such as “How Hikers Can Make Sure That They Don’t Hurt Wildlife” and “Recommendations for Responsible Behavior Near Bodies of Water That Will Protect Water Inhabitants“.  (It must really be important if they’re using So Many Capital Letters).  “Scholarships” (read prizes) of $1000 and $500 are on offer for the first and second best entries.

This is simply a manipulative means of buying content and data that they can then re-use to generate even more affiliate links.  As I pointed out in my response, anyone who knows anything about conservation wouldn’t participate in such an ignorant and clumsily-worded competition (who says “nature-saving” anyway?!), and would instead go to a respected and credible conservation body for information.

But it got me thinking.  While you and I are probably savvy enough to suss out a mediocre article on wildlife conservation without needing to read beyond the first paragraph, there are many people who aren’t.  Perhaps the targets are yet more young people doing a school project on conservation, who find that the interesting link they’ve just clicked on has taken them to some dodgy retail site?  In the jargon, this is “click bait” – enticing people to click on links which earns the owner of that link a few pennies.

Fake sites and fake news

There are two issues here.  First, I don’t like the fact that there are people setting up fake sites and littering the web with spurious links simply to steer us towards particular retail sites, earning money in the process.  It’s akin to the sad guy outside the Apple store on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street who holds a large wooden sign advertising cheap mobile phone repairs in a nearby backstreet.  Except he doesn’t jump out in front of unsuspecting passers by.

The second, and I think most important point, is this.  In today’s digital world, how do we have the confidence to know that what we’re reading is independent and objective?  There’s so much user-generated content – which in itself has to be a good thing – but we need more finely-honed skills to differentiate between authoritative insight and marketing content masquerading as useful information.

Libertarians among you will no doubt say that this has always been the case.  The task of filtering out nuggets of gold from the dirt is as old as the hills.  Understanding that the tabloid press don’t produce the same standard of journalism than the broadsheets is something that everyone is aware of.

… we need more finely-honed skills to differentiate between authoritative insight and marketing content masquerading as useful information

This is true but I also think that in an online world things are different.  Many people these days seem to inhabit online ‘filter bubbles’.  This is when, in selecting the sites or individuals we follow on social media, we reinforce certain streams of information while effectively filtering out contrary opinions and perspectives.  This gives space for this media manipulation to take place, where fake news is presented as plausible and where subjective messaging can be believed.  As someone who spends his day job searching out objective evidence this does concern me.

Do you know which advertisers Twitter sells your data to?

This week I took a look on my Twitter account at my data and ‘advertiser list’.  It was an eye-opener.  It lists the dates and times I’ve been using Twitter, the specific places where I’ve been when I’ve checked my feed, and the 40 or so specific interests matched against my browsing history (including cycling, holidays, men’s shoes and skiing).  The advertiser list then matches my profile and interests to 23 pages of corporate Twitter accounts and has presumably sold this data to any willing buyers.

I know that I signed up to Twitter’s terms and conditions (and couldn’t be bothered to read through all xx pages to understand what it all meant).  I also understand that personal data is a valuable commodity for marketing purposes.  However I just didn’t expect to see how far this approach is being taken.

So if you’re a typical outdoors-y person who uses the web and social media to research new adventures, gear or new skills, should you be worried?  I imagine few people will be surprised to hear that companies see increasing value in getting access to customer/user data.  But hopefully by revealing some of the tactics the social media marketeers are adopting then this will raise awareness about the issue and its potential implications.

And finally … some words of wisdom from bot-generated spam e-mails

Finally, just to lighten the tone a little, I’m sure you’re interested to read some words of wisdom from the next army of social media marketeers.  These are the millions of AI ‘bots that are scouring the internet to somehow make sense of its obsession with cat videos, technology, sport and Kim Kardashian.

A site selling cheap sports jerseys (their description, not mine) has contacted me to let me know that:

The word hockey is possibly derived from the word hooked, middle French word which means a shepherd’s stave. I know it won’t seem for instance it’ll perform, but in case you eat balanced meals PLUS do your vertical step exercises, you’re muscle will get better faster and you will be stronger. You will find plenty of such books written by home organisation experts either in the library of book stores.One good thing about roller shutters artwork is you can paint them without having to remove them however, this is not suggested.

I was complemented by a German site which seems to have something to do with pyjamas (!):

My family members every time say that I am wasting my time here at web, however I know I am getting know-how daily by reading such pleasant posts.

However, a site specialising in something called “runescape gold” seems to be struggling with plagiarism from the very same bots that are spamming my own inbox – not to mention its challenges in spelling and font selection:

Wіth havin so muhch written content do yοu еver run nto any issues oof plagoriism οr copyright violation?  Ꮇy site haѕ a loot of cօmpletely unique contfent Ι’vе either created myself ᧐r outsourced but іt lookѕ like ɑ lot ᧐f it iss popping it uρ all օveг the internet withߋut mү authorization. Ɗo yoou knkw ɑny solutions to help stоⲣ content from bеing stolen? I’ԁ genuinely appreciate іt.

It’s a good point to finish on.  So in this distinctly murky world of online marketing I’ll leave you with a final question: do yoou knkw ɑny solutions to brIng greaeter tra nsparenCy to advertis.ng or st0p inf0rma tion bEing manipul8ted? I’ԁ genuinely appreciate іt.

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Why taxing motorhomes for visiting the Western Isles is a bad idea

Now that Scotland is seeing the benefits of increased tourism in the Highlands and Islands what’s needed is investment, not higher prices.

Time to acknowledge and celebrate success

There have been two big successes in rural tourism in Scotland lately.  The first, the meteoric rise in popularity of the North Coast 500, is well known.  The brainchild of the North Highland Initiative, the way that Scotland’s existing tourism offer has been packaged and marketed as the NC500 – Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – is a masterful stroke of genius.  It’s captured the imagination not only of touring visitors but also of TV crews and journalists in a way that VisitScotland’s Marketing Team could only dream of.

The second is less well known and relates to the subsidy given to ferry operators serving the Western Isles, known as the Route Equivalent Tariff (RET).  RET bases fares on the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by road and was introduced on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree in October 2008, cutting fares by up to 55 per cent. It was rolled out to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha in October 2012, to Arran in October 2014 and will now be extended to Orkney and Shetland from early 2018.

In reducing the cost of ferries for vehicles it’s provided a very welcome boost to the tourism in the Outer Hebrides.  In fact there’s been a ten-fold increase in ferry traffic over the last decade, particularly by motorhomes, with the annual spend by motorhomers now put at £2 million.  According to the research carried out by Outer Hebrides Tourism this year motorhome visitors:

  • spent an average of 7 days in the Outer Hebrides
  • spent over 60% of nights on organised campsite, paying fees to local operators
  • spent an average of just under £500 per trip on food, drink, fuel, goods, arts, crafts and meals with businesses in the Outer Hebrides
  • accounted for around 2% of annual ferry traffic to the Outer Hebrides.

 

So what’s not to like?

This is all great news.  So what’s the problem?

Well, all this increased tourism traffic is starting to put a strain on local infrastructure, including roads, car parks, ferries, toilet and waste facilities.  In a previous post I described how some motorhomers are creating congestion and environmental issues by preferring to camp informally overnight in car parks and laybys rather than in campsites.  This might not be much of an issue off-season when numbers are low.  But when motorhome websites are highlighting ‘free camping’ opportunities – often incorrectly – it’s led to dozens of motorhomes squeezed in like sardines into car parks that were just not designed for this.

I’m all for informal camping, just not when it creates antisocial issues.  Local campsites are losing out when a minority of motorhomes expect to camp for free; existing toilet and other facilities are put under pressure; and some even have the cheek to drive on to campsites to empty waste tanks even when they’ve stayed elsewhere.

A growing number of voices have called for change.  Communities across the Highlands and Islands from Skye to Assynt have been holding public meetings to discuss how they can best manage the growing issues of waste disposal and congestion at local beauty spots and car parks.  But now Alasdair Allan, Western Isles MSP, has written to Transport Minister Humza Yousaf asking him to consider a “motorhome levy” with the proceeds being used to improve local infrastructure.

 

Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have

 

I put my head in my hands when I heard this.  And I wasn’t alone.  This move has been widely criticised by not only Outer Hebrides Tourism and other communities across the Highlands and Islands but also the motorhome community itself.

Right problem, wrong solution

Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have!  And the response by a business when demand grows isn’t to raise prices but to invest in extra capacity, so it can consolidate and support continued growth.

The very last thing anyone needs to do right now is to introduce a “motorhome levy” since all this will do is to choke off demand by visitors to travel to the Western Isles and tour the NC500.  This is already the understandable reaction among the motorhome community.  Why should they bother returning to Scotland when they could have a cheaper experience in France, Spain, Ireland or England?  Just as fragile rural communities in the Highlands and Islands have started to feel the benefit from new jobs and higher incomes what’s needed now is investment, not taxation.

Unfortunately, Scotland (in common with the UK as a whole) often suffers from under-investment.  There’s a cultural malaise that sees many businesses and public authorities reluctant to invest in success, underpinned by a lack of ambition.  But what if things could be different?  What if we have an ambition for Scotland to genuinely be a world leader in rural tourism, and back this up with the proper investment?

 

A positive vision

My vision sees a network of aires right across Scotland similar to those common in France and Germany.  These would complement existing campsites by providing a few hardstanding pitches for motorhomes, including basic facilities of water and waste facilities (many motorhomes have on-board toilets and showers).  For a low overnight fee they would attract people to stay overnight and take advantage of local shops, restaurants and petrol stations.  There are many parts of the Highlands and Islands without a campsite with touring pitches, and aires would enable many more places to benefit from additional income in a way that manages the potential waste and congestion issues.

But we don’t need to look to the continent to see this working already.  The West Harris  Trust has already provided serviced pitches at Talla na Mara and Seilebost.  These community-owned and run pitches have electrical hook-ups, 24-hour toilets, water, waste disposal and recycling facilities.  There’s also the Britstops scheme where 760 garden centres, pubs, churches, gift shops and golf clubs right across the UK offer free overnight stops for motorhomes on the understanding that visitors will contribute to sustainable tourism by spending money locally.

If we had a network of low-cost aires across Scotland, supplemented with campsites and Britstops, we would then have an infrastructure able to cope with a rising number of tourists.

Rather than choke off tourism with a levy what we now need is investment in new and enhanced facilities.  That will consolidate the successes so far and lay the foundations for future growth.

So where could this additional come from?  Of course, we all know that Councils are strapped for cash but it’s local residents who are being negatively impacted at present and so it’s them who should be lobbying their Councillors to put in place a comprehensive investment plan.  That will then generate increased jobs and incomes, for local residents as well as the operators of new facilities.  Highland Council is the obvious authority to oversee any plan for the NC500.  Even if public investment can’t cover the full costs of the upgraded facilities needed then the Councils, in conjunction with local tourism bodies such as the North Highland Initiative, could incentivise local entrepreneurs and businesses to take a lead.

It’s worth remembering that an effective tourism strategy is about development as well as marketing.