Armchair Travel: 10 of the best books about cycling adventures

A selection of some of the best books about cycling adventures and exploring the world by bike.

This instalment of Armchair Travel sets out on a two-wheeled adventure, looking at some of the best books about exploring the world by bicycle. These books capture the beauty and simplicity of a self-propelled adventure, whether you’re planning to take inspiration for your own trip or just travel vicariously and avoid being saddle-sore at the end of the day.

Here are 10 of my favourite books about engaging pedal-power and travelling on two-wheels.
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What I’ve been reading this season | Spring 21

Walking

How 2020 became the year of the walker

In this article, Alan Franks explores how the shrinking of our personal geographies imposed by travel bans and lockdown restrictions to manage the Covid-19 pandemic played out with a deeper, more textured connection built through local walking.

Is walking the most adventurous way to travel?

Leon McCarron shares experiences and lessons learned from many miles travelled on foot, including the idea that walking connects conversations as much as places.

Werner Herzog: ‘The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot’

An interview with Herzog about his friendship with travel writer, fellow walker, and subject of his latest film, Bruce Chatwin. The piece explores the idea that the focus of travel should be on the pursuit of curiosity and ideas, rather than arrival in the destination.

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

A classic essay by Thoreau, first published in 1862. A long and absorbing read from one of the key figures in the development of nature writing.  Make yourself a coffee and settle in, and I’d be interested to hear your take on this in the comments below.

Winter

Having a miserable winter? Go for a walk

A piece by Dan Rubinstein with a Canadian perspective on walking through the winter in a landscape shaped by Covid-19, and the opportunities moving slowly through our surroundings can bring.

The positivity we feel during or after a walk, no matter the weather, isn’t happenstance. Rather, it’s the result of how our brains respond to natural environments, including tiny pockets of urban green space, and how we process information accumulated at a pedestrian four to six kilometres per hour.

Following Footprints

Tracing tracks and trails left in the snow gives Ben Dolphin an insight into the winter habits of local wildlife on a snowshoeing trek near his home in Fife. A taste of what this incredibly snowy winter was like while we languished in lockdown.

Snowshoes in Scotland – More than just a novelty?

A guide to getting out into the Scottish hills on snowshoes by Alex Roddie, including what to look for when buying a pair.

Country Diary: Following in the Footsteps of Nan Shepherd

Winter wanders around Creag Dubh in the Cairngorms connect Merryn Glover with the rich details found in the work of Nan Shepherd.

Women Outdoors

The shocking murder of Sarah Everard, who went missing in London in early March 2001 after walking home alone from seeing a friend, raised a huge amount of discussion in online forums and prompted some thoughtful responses examining the experience of women taking part in outdoor activities, particularly when solo or in isolated locations.

Sarah Everard: Why women shouldn’t have to risk their freedom for safety

Some great analysis of advice given to women, personal safety strategies, and the conflicts and complexities that exist in the discussion and development of solutions from The Conversation.

If anything is going to change, a dramatic culture shift is needed. The widespread prevalence of violence and harassment also needs to be acknowledged – and challenged – without putting the responsibility on women.

Reclaim these Peaks – Women’s Safety Outdoors is Everyone’s Problem

Ruth Keely shares responses from conversations on social media, and examines how the perception of threat from harassment and violence results in women altering or mitigating their participation in activities.

The BAME Women Making the Outdoors More Inclusive

An article from the Guardian profiling three inspiring women, Zahrah Mahmood, Riane Fatinikun, and Omie Dale, who challenge us to recognise additional barriers to accessing to the countryside exist for women of colour, and are challenging perceptions, encouraging participation, and making the outdoors more inclusive.

Our outdoors are for everyone. Safe, enjoyable access to outdoor space should not be a privilege.

What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.

The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.

Stopping by a pool on the riverside in Strathdee, near Braemar, to listen to the frog chorus. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but I counted over one hundred toads in the pool.
A wander up Glen Ey, near Braemar. Despite the low cloud and occasional drizzle, some excellent wildlife sightings from ground-nesting wading birds to soaring raptors overhead.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021”

Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire

Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, is a gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and a popular base for visitors looking to explore the Eastern Cairngorms and Royal Deeside areas. The picturesque town arranged in a grid around a large green on the banks of the impressive River Dee, has longstanding royal connections, a rich and interesting history, and good access to the more wilder parts of the countryside.

The view along the River Dee to the west of Ballater.

The River Dee rises high on the Cairngorm Plateau, tumbling around 137km (85 miles) down to the sea in Aberdeen. It has the reputation as one of the finest salmon fishing rivers anywhere in the world, and is a protected area for wildlife, like the salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels found in its waters. The area on the south side of the river is also protected in recognition of its importance for golden eagles.

This walk shows off some of the most beautiful landscapes of the middle reaches of the River Dee, and had some excellent opportunities for spotting wildlife.

The Seven Bridges Walk from Ballater

  • Route length: 8.7km (5.4 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 126 metres (413′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 – 2.5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

A  circular walk along the River Dee to Polhollick suspension bridge from Ballater, with an optional diversion to Knock Castle. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

The Old Railway Station in Ballater, where the walking route begins and ends.

From the tourist information centre in the old railway station in Ballater, head through the town southeast along Bridge Street, towards the bridge over the River Dee onto South Deeside Road. The Royal Bridge, opened by Queen Victoria in 1885 and surviving a number of great floods on the river, is bridge number one on the walk.

The River Dee from the Royal Bridge in Ballater

Directly across the junction is a fingerpost sign marking a well-surfaced trail into the woods; follow that up a short rise then turn to your right to find the route towards Bridge of Muick, marked with blue waymarks. Do not walk along the roadside here, as it is a winding country road with no safe footway for at least one kilometre.

Follow the trail through the woods for a short distance to reach the huge pink granite edifice of the Mackenzie Monument, with views across the River Dee to Ballater. It commemorates Sir Allan Russell Mackenzie, 2nd Baronet of Glenmuick, who was closely involved in civic improvements in Ballater and a good friend of the royal neighbours at Balmoral.

The Mackenzie Monument overlooking Ballater and the distinctive pudding-bowl shape of Craigendarroch beyond.

After approximately 1km, the route joins the road for a short distance by the cottages to cross the second bridge, over Brackley Burn, before joining a track running parallel to the road for around 200 metres. At the end of the track, the route emerges on a bend in the road just before Bridge of Muick, the third bridge on the route. A large plaque on the corner notes that on this spot in 1899, Queen Vic, in the company of Sir Allan of the monument, inspected the local regiment, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, prior to their deployment to South Africa in the Boer War.

The route follows the straight road for around 700m to a junction with a gravel road just before Dalliefour farm, passing fields often used for grazing heilan coos, those photogenic shaggy-haired highland cattle, both with the more familiar red-dun and traditional black coats. At this point you can make a diversion to Knock Castle, a 16th century ruin with a colourful history, adding an extra 2km to the route, or continue along the gravel road towards Polhollick.

Highland cattle grazing on the riverside, with a view of Craigendarroch beyond.

The gravel road runs almost dead straight towards the forestry plantation of Dalliefour Woods (also spelled Dallyfour and Dalhefour within the space of two grid squares on the OS Map), passing another field of coos, and the tiny wee cottage that is my dream house. The track has great views over to Ballater, nestled under the oak-clad slopes of Craigendarroch, and is always a good location to look out for raptors, hares, and roe deer.

The route through the pine plantation wood between Dalliefour and Polhollick.

At the far edge of the wood the white-painted suspension bridge of Pollhollick comes into view, bridge number five (the fourth is an indistinct culvert on the forestry road, over a small burn running from behind Knock Castle). The bridge was fabricated by Abernethy and Co of Aberdeen in 1892, who produced several similar suspension bridges that cross the Dee, and gifted to the local people by Alexander Gordon of Kent. It was seriously damaged in the extreme flooding that followed Storm Frank in December 2015, but is now fully restored.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge

Over the bridge, the track dog-legs away from the river towards the main A93 road. Cross the road, and follow the waymarking to pick up a track that runs along the top of the embankment parallel to the road. Descend the steps to cross the A939 at the junction, and continue on the track for another 250 metres, emerging on the side of the A93 at Bridge of Gairn. Cross the road, then the sixth bridge on the walk, to find a waymarked track between the houses and farm buildings.

The narrow footpath becomes a wide, well-surfaced track leading the last kilometre and a half back into Ballater along the riverside. It was intended to hold the final stretch of the Deeside railway line towards Crathie and Braemar, but due to Victoria’s objection, it was never constructed. The final bridge on the route is a small wooden bridge that crosses a steep drop down to the water, known as Postie’s Leap. According to local legend, a postman fell or leapt to his doom after being jilted the night before the wedding. It’s a beautiful viewpoint back along the River Dee.

Looking back along the final section of the trail through the oakwood at the foot of Craigendarroch.

From the edge of town you have two options: continue on the riverside footpath around the back of the golf course towards the caravan park, or follow the track towards the houses to meet the roads that will lead you back towards the Old Railway Station.

There are several cafes and coffee shops in Ballater where you can find post-walk refreshments, such as The Bothy and the Bridge House Cafe, though some close for winter. There’s also the Balmoral Bar, if you’re in need of something stronger, and Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour, for a sweet treat on a hot day.

Knock Castle Extension:

Knock Castle is a ruined, but still imposing, 16th century towerhouse, in a commanding location below the Crag of Knock, overlooking the River Dee and guarding the entrances to Glen Muick. Knock was home the Gordon family, who held a longstanding blood feud with their neighbours, the Forbes family. It is typical of the homes of the landed gentry of the time, and visible beneath the windows are shot holes for defensive pistol fire to deter raiders.

The ruins of Knock Castle.

On one winter trip to cut peats for fuel, the sons of the families met in a violent clash, which left all seven of the Gordon lads dead. Their severed heads were displayed on their peat cutters as a warning to those that might think to cross the Forbes’. Overcome on hearing the news, their grief-stricken father tumbled down the turnpike staircase to his death, ending the family line.

Rather than following waymarks at the junction near Dalliefour Farm, continue along the road for around 400m to where the road bends to the left. Follow the rough grassy track leading uphill into the woods, where it meets a gravel road and you’ll have a first glimpse of the castle. Follow the gravel road westward for around 300m to find a stile that gives access to the field surrounding the castle. Retrace your steps back to Dalliefour to resume the circular walk. The diversion adds around 2km to the total length of the walk.

What to look out for around Ballater

In town: Impressive buildings constructed from local granite; royal accreditation on shop fronts; numerous connections to Queen Victoria; the sweet scent of Deeside Confectioners, an old-fashioned sweetie shop near the Old Railway Station; the sound of bagpipes.

On the hills: A glimpse of dark Lochnagar beyond the hills that guard the entrance to Glen Muick; the bellowing of rutting red deer stags in autumn; distant golden and white-tailed eagles; the steep track up Creag Dubh used in the Highland games hill race.

In the fields: Charismatic heilan coos (highland cows), both with the familiar red-dun coats and more traditional long black coats; big, glossy black Aberdeen-Angus cows; the flash of white that signals roe deer scarpering into the distance; red kites hovering overhead and buzzards perched on fence posts.

The rounded hilltop of Craigendarroch seen from the Seven Bridges walking route.

In the forest: Old oaks at the foot of Craigendarroch; jays and red squirrels making acorn stashes for winter; fantastic fungi formations; plantations of Scots pine at Dalliefour; buzzards resting on high branches; blaeberries and lingonberries among the heather in the understory.

By the river: Salmon making their way upstream, especially between August and November; ospreys fishing; riverside birds like dippers and kingfishers; sand martin roosts in sandy riverbanks.

Getting to Ballater

Ballater is approximately 40 miles west of Aberdeen and 18 miles east of Braemar. The 201 bus service from Aberdeen bus station connects towns and villages along the A93 as far as the village of Braemar.

The view upriver from Royal Bridge in Ballater

There is a large capacity for free parking in the town, making it an ideal base to leave vehicles and explore further afield by bicycle and on foot, especially into rural areas with limited parking like Glen Muick. Electric vehicle charging is available in Ballater.

Route 195 of the National Cycle Network connects Ballater to Aberdeen and other towns and villages on Deeside, on a largely off-road route along the Deeside Way. The multi-use long distance trail follows the route of the old Deeside railway line from Aberdeen to Ballater.

What else do you need to know?

The route is marked along its length, so a map isn’t essential, however it’s good practice to have one with you for longer walks. Simple maps with the route can be picked up from the tourist information centre at the Old Railway Station in Ballater, or you can use OS Explorer 388: Lochnagar, Glen Muick and Glen Clova.

While out walking in the countryside, you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and local landowners on any signs.

Want to try this walking route for yourself? Find the details on ViewRanger.
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The Best Birdwatching Spots in Scotland

My selection of ten of the best birdwatching locations in Scotland.

As I’ve previously admitted on this blog, I’m an avid birdwatcher, and while I’m no expert at identifying different species and interpreting their behaviour, I think there’s something about the curiosity to look, listen and learn a little more about them that builds a deeper connection with your surroundings when you visit a new place.

Thousands of gannets swirling around the seabird city of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Image by Ingi Finnsson from Pixabay.

Across Scotland there are some incredible opportunities to get close to nature, whether you’re an experienced birder, an enthusiastic amateur, or a complete beginner. From sprawling sea bird cities stacked onto coastal cliffs, and wide estuaries and wave-washed shorelines, through native forests and sparkling lochsides, to heather-clad hillsides and wild mountain plateau. I hope this list sparks some inspiration for including birdwatching on your next trip to Scotland, or to try something different next time you explore the outdoors.

So here’s my recommendations for the best places to go birdwatching in Scotland.
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Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live

A selection of my favourite books about other people’s lives: those living traditional lives in remote communities; people living in unique circumstances as a result of conflict or disaster; and ways of life now long gone.

This edition of Armchair Travel is all about those lives less ordinary, experiences often far removed from our own everyday existance. These books explore different cultures from around the world, written by insiders as well as outside observers; lives in a state of transition and those being rebuilt after conflict and trauma; and snapshots of a traditional way of life now irreversibly changed.

Here are 10 books that bring an insight into a way of life that we’ll never live ourselves.
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What I’ve been reading this season | Winter 20/21

A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found or were shared with me over the past few months. This season, it’s mostly been pieces that examine the balance between different forms of recreation and conservation, and the perceptions we hold of certain activities versus their realities, that I want to pass on to you.

Mountain Matters

Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineering?

Reporting on the historic winter first ascent of K2, Mark Horell examines the collaborative summiting by a team of Nepalese climbers, and reflects on the often overlooked presence of Sherpas in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.

Can we see past the myth of the Himalaya?

Akash Kapur explores the notion that our romantic perceptions of the high Himalaya obscure the realities of the people who make the region home, and how histories, geographies, and ecologies or mountain areas are often shaped by expectations.

Is it time to stop climbing mountains? Obsession with reaching the summit is a modern invention

An interesting piece by Dawn Hollis that dives into mountain history, mountaineering, and managing mountain environments against the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Are we prepared to ask ourselves hard questions about factors that drive us to stand on summits, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to do so?

Hard Knocks on Ben Nevis

The remarkable Gwen Moffat shares a valuable lesson on walking the fine line between difficult and deadly.

Killing in the Name of

The Deer Cull Dilemma

A longform essay from 2018 by Cal Flynn on the culling of deer in the Scottish Highlands, that dives deeply into the local and national politics of killing for conservation, slaughter tourism, the culture and tradition of sporting estates, and the long-standing inequalities of land ownership and community participation.

How the Shooting Industry is Exploiting the Legacy of the Clearances

Reducing the number of red deer in the Scottish Highlands is a necessary step in the ecological restoration of the landscape, but can be seen as an unpalatable activity. David Lintern reports on the thought-provoking film The Cull for TGO Magazine.

Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?

A masterful longform piece by Wells Tower, exploring the mindset of those participating in trophy hunting, and the ethics of commercial hunting for charismatic species as a tool for wildlife management in conservation. It includes a powerful description of the death of an elephant.

Staying with a Hunter Showed Me Greenland Beyond the Tourist Brochures

Nancy Campbell writes about living with subsistence hunters in western Greenland as a rapidly-changing world reshapes their traditional knowledge and experiences.

A Dark Miracle in the Forest of Dean

In most of the UK the likelihood of encountering large animals with the potential to cause us harm is very limited. Chantal Lyons explores where potential wildlife encounters are shaped by fear rather than wonder, and the rewilding of our senses.

Remembering Barry Lopez

Best known for the seminal Arctic Dreams, a natural history of northern lives and landscapes, and how these shaped and have been shaped by human experience. Lopez died from cancer in December 2020.

Why the World Needs Barry Lopez

A deeply thoughtful profile of the writer and his last book by Kate Harris. Horizon explores the almost unbearable beauty of our planet through moments gleaned from Lopez’s lifetime, and contemplates the point where true places meet myth and speculation, where earth, sky, sea, ice and sunlight merge.

My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland.

Barry Lopez

Love in a Time of Terror: On Natural Landscapes, Metaphorical Living, Warlpiri Identity

Powerful words from Barry Lopez about turning ecological grief into fierce passion, and passion into advocacy for the natural world on our besieged planet.

What I’ve loved this season | Winter 20/21

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

Well, the best laid plans and all that. At the start of the season I’d had ideas of visiting friends in the south of England for a long-overdue catch up, with perhaps a little holiday on the Isle of Wight. Lockdown in England in November, followed by a national lockdown across the UK from late December onward means I’ve been absolutely nowhere in the last three months, save a short visit to see my parents and sister in south Aberdeenshire on Christmas Day itself.

Sunrise over the North Sea from my parent’s garden on Christmas morning.
And an afternoon sunset later on Christmas day.

I relocated from Braemar to Aberdeen in December, so my activities have been limited to within the city boundaries, but it’s been great to explore parts of the city I haven’t been to for years and make new discoveries. Aberdeen is an incredible place for wildlife watching, and my winter sighting have included otters swimming in the River Don, roe deer in fields near the Bucks Burn and Kingswells, red squirrels in Hazlehead Park, and bottlenose dolphins hunting salmon in the mouth of the harbour.

Last views of Strathdee for the season, looking up towards Mar Lodge.
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Round the World Recipes: Vegetarian Haggis

While international travel has been off the cards for a while now, I’ve been recreating my favourite meals from around the world in my home kitchen, and I’m now feeling confident enough to share some of them with you. 

I thought with Burns’ Night just around the corner, I’d start off with my recipe for a vegetarian haggis.

A vegetarian haggis fresh from the oven.

What the hell is a haggis anyway?

A smallish beastie, endemic to the highlands, islands, and rough country of Scotland, a haggis has been compared to creatures such as lemmings, marmots, and guinea pigs*. With a long, golden brown mane, they are perfectly camouflaged against the heather-clad hillsides of the highlands. Highly adapted to their mountain homes, wild haggis have longer legs on one side of their body than the other, enabling them to traverse the most precipitous of hillsides without losing pace, which could leave them highly vulnerable to predation by eagles (probably).

A wild haggis trail following the contour on the side of Schiehallion.

*By me, just now.

It takes considerable hill tracking skills and many hours of watching to observe a wild haggis in its native environment. The best place to see one for yourself, especially if your time in Scotland is limited, is in the natural history section of the excellent Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.  They’re known to have a particular aversion to bagpipes, which are said to sound like the distress call of an adult haggis caught by an eagle. The skirl of the pipes can cause a haggis to start in fear and tumble downhill, which is why professional haggis hunters often play the bagpipes, and why you never usually see wild haggises on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in August.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking

A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.

A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.

*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.

So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.

Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
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