Martians, Millennium & Maitlis: Nine Novels of Lockown

On entering lockdown in March my catalogue of recently read novels was looking pretty sparse. My last fray into fiction being the completion of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, arguably best read onboard a ferry to Shetland.

For the first two months of 2020 I’d been too distracted by Netflix and an unhealthy addiction to Rugby League Live in my downtime which kept me away from literature.

But as the nation was told to stay indoors, a personal silver lining amongst the gathering storm clouds was a pick up in my reading habit. Dropping the PlayStation controller (have resisited its pull since), I buried myself in the first book at hand. Here’s a rundown of my nine lockdown novels:

  1. War of the Worlds by HG Wells

I like making the slightly clumsy comparison between the storyline of this late 19th century fiction with some aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak, particularly when studying the apparent helplessness of swathes of the population when faced with a certain threat. After wanting to read Wells’ masterpiece since I was a child obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s musical version of the story, I certainly wasn’t left disappointed. Additionally, I found the sudden conclusion to the novel satisfying as humanity eventually needs an uncontrolled disease to wipe out the unwelcome Martian invaders. 9/10.

2. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Although I enjoyed this read, I did find it slightly repetitive in Harari’s emphatic description of the future struggle against issues such as the increasing inclusion of artificial intelligence in the workplace. It was however, illuminating and reasonably straightforward, providing clarity to some of the biggest questions in the modern day. Good for getting the brain’s cogs whirring and proved a bit more uplifting than Wells’ descriptions of a burning London. 7/10.

3. Airhead by Emily Maitlis

As the presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, I’d come across Maitlis in passing, but really sat up and noticed her work after she infamously nailed Prince Andrew in a revealing and deeply uncomfortable interview. Airhead emotively details her experiences in interviewing a downtrodden Theresa May following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower and a scary encounter in a Cuban prison cell, while also describing more lighthearted encounters with figures like the Dalai Lama. It was rather reassuring to read about the pre-show nerves that Maitlis still experiences and she provides motivation in spades for any budding journalists out there. 9/10.

4. And yet … Essays by Christopher Hitchens

I flipped through this collection of intellectual essays in a matter of days and in no particular order, in awe of the numerous subjects tackled by Hitchens with ease. Reading this collection made me went to become a better writer. 8/10.

5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

If Hitchens made me want to write better, Larsson’s first of his posthumously published Millennium trilogy inspired me to get more creative with my writing. This proved to be one of those rare and wonderful novels which I flew through and found difficult to put down. The devil was in the Swedish author’s detailed geographical and character based descriptions. 9/10.

6. War and the Death of News by Martin Bell

This account from an aged and experienced war correspondent was another interesting read, yet excluded some of the palpable emotion of Airhead. Perhaps, this is an unfair reflection though, as the realities of how horrendous conflict is described through the eyes of the man in the white suit. Bell takes the reader through his poignant experiences in Vietnam and Yugoslavia, two of several conflicts which have blemishes the fantastical idea that we live in peace times. 7/10.

7. March of the Lemmings: Brexit in Performance 2016 – 2019 by Stewart Lee

As a big fan of Lee as a comedian, this collection of his Observer columns was hilarious and wacky in equal part. I particularly enjoyed his insistence on inserting self-deprecating swathes of abuse which he received online after each article. However, the last section of the book was quite tedious as a full transcript of his Content Provider stand-up routine was included with a meticulous catalogue of asterisks and notes. 6/10.

8. Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

After leaving this book midway through on the first attempt, I’m glad I decided to pick it up again a couple of years later. Flat Earth News delivers a pessimistic and quite shocking account of the direction the newspaper industry is travelling in. A major selling point of this read for me was its deliberate distancing from political point scoring, taking aim at papers which have historically positioned themselves on both sides of the political spectrum. 8/10.

9. The Girl who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson

After picking up the second installment of Larsson’s best selling series in a Moray village shop for £1.50, the follow-up didn’t fail to disappoint. Leaving the reader on a frustrating cliffhanger, I reckon its predecessor has the slightest of advantages when it comes to nail-biting action. Now I just I need to get my hands on the final volume!

9 1/2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

A fascinating and terrifying description of the issues surrounding the intrusions of digital marketing which I’m yet to finish. Not a book to read before bed, but I’ll hopefully return to tackle Zuboff’s enlightening and complex work soon. Uncompleted.

Running is Badass. Period.

While flicking through an issue of Runners World recently I came across images of toned athletic specimens in perfect fitting gear. Beside the images of barely sweating bodies are finely tuned weight loss regimes, 10K training plans and endless lists of foods to avoid.

Although I often envy the kitted out gentlemen in these publications tI have accepted that look isn’t for me. It might be one day, but it isn’t now. This is of course all my decision and I could look amazing if I chose to. I’m just bidding my time before I eventually cut out the digestives from my diet.*

As a man with wide thighs, short legs and a 30-32″ waist, most of my cheap running gear is seemingly either too baggy or tight. This perhaps explaining the multitude of curious looks which I think I receive when running around Aberdeen**, which have been compounded by the recent discovery of a large hole in a pair of my shorts. Not a look I would recommend.

My overthinking mind tells me the looks I receive are either for that or the unusual running style I’ve failed to adapt over the last five years since a p*** in a race told me I was running wrong. To say I was annoyed was an understatement.

Luckily I have come to accept my miss match of risque fashion choices and running style as my own. Running through the city has never really bothered me and it is one of the sole activities which I actually don’t feel socially awkward doing.

Several acquaintances have however, voiced their concern about running in the city. Some prefer the treadmill because they feel self-conscious about being seen on the hoof. Some do run outdoors but will only run at dawn or dusk when there are less people, but more zombies roaming the streets.

Unfortunately, our social media dominated society has suffered memory loss of what is real anymore, searching for a level of perfection which will always be difficult to reach. When I pass someone jogging around Aberdeen instead of judging their running style or studying their image for blemishes of imperfection, I instantly consider them a badass.

If your still concerned about feeling too self-aware then consider these points: 1.) Who put that person in a position to judge a badass like you? 2.) If they are judging you its because they are probably jealous that your a badass you badass. 3.) They are probably sad they will never be a badass.

Quite often I participate in the same formulaic discussions with non-runners or joggers who are unable to hide their incredulity at my most recent activities. They say: “How far did you run today?”.

And I’ll reply: “Just 7K”

And they’ll go “Just 7K?!”, often in a high pitched voice filled with shock and undeserved awe, before making it sound like I make it look easy when the reality was that I was blowing my arse out for most of the run. Almost collapsing at traffic lights as the blood rushes to my head when I come to a halt.

There’s a reason why several of my recent routes have taken me past ARI, climbing Foresterhill Road while dodging buses and ambulances. Running should be as hard as you want it to be, but the faster among us (not me) are most definitely not finding the experience painless when they run a 5K in under 20 minutes.

I guess I want to get across a point to those who see running as a higher playing field which they will never reach. Lots of people will never be keen on running and that is in itself understandle. Running can hurt dude and can sometimes be pretty miserable if your like me and suffer bouts of athletes foot. Many non-runners are also badasses. I’m just stating that in my book putting on some shorts and trainers is a qualifying factor for becoming a badass.

Gyms seem to be very popular places to visit, but I’m personally not a fan. I can understand the appeal for the more dedicated and disciplined or those who don’t like the Scottish weather. I like my exercise outside and in nature, even if that involves running through Northfield, probably not Aberdeen’s equivalent to the Amazon Rainforest or the Alps.

Some see this form of painful physical activity as pointless without a clear purpose. This epitomised by a passer by in Dundee who asked me: “What are you running from?”. That deeply philosophical question keeping me up long into the wee hours of the next morning after I had descended the Law in a state of existential crisis. I hadn’t been able to give him a straight answer on the spot.

On another occasion in the City of Discovery I was offered a lift. A kind yet misplaced offer which clearly showed a lack of understanding around the idea of running for leisure.

If you have never ran before you may find jogging difficult. We all have to start somewhere and it is the recognition that getting over that first hurdle is the hardest part which is a driving force behind my continuous running. I fear starting out again after a period of rest would be too hard.

I guess I just wanted to get across the point that it doesn’t have to be all about fitness, weight or even aiming to look closer to what this society wrongly assumes is aesthetically pleasing. Rain or shine, my running obsession will always be about my mental wellbeing.

The endorphin rush and sense of minor achievement helping me flush out any lasting negativity for a moment. I love the freedom which comes with a pair of trainers and a complimation of old rock songs on Spotify. Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnston has become a recent favourite of mine.

My message is pretty simple. If you want to go for a run or to get fitter then why not try the great outdoors and get some Vitamin D (not assured in Aberdeen). If you prefer the gym there’s nothing wrong with that either. You’re probably still a badass.

If you choose the outdoor version then why not run a 10K at your own pace? Run a mile. Jog for five minutes and then stop. Whatever you do, I swear you’ll look badass.

*Slight hint of sarcasm here for anyone that missed it the first time round.

**Maybe I’m a bit of an egocentrist?

Birthday Adventures

In past years I’ve often awoken on New Year Day around midday, slightly dazed but with a vague feeling that I want to do things differently in the year to come. Unfortunately, the lazy and dare I say slightly dull resolutions that many of us make at Hogmanay have often failed to come to fruition by February 1st if not before.

Thankfully we aren’t too near the end of an eventful (to say the least) year yet. I did however, find myself having similar feelings on the 29th August, which happened to be my 22nd birthday. Yes you read that right, I’m 22. Its frightening really.

So on Saturday I decided to make one simple resolution to try and seize the moment whenever I could. This thinking was challenged when faced with the decision about whether to make a four hour round trip on the hoof to Eilean Donan castle with Bumble and Leah. I wasn’t keen after making a long journey before, but then reality kicked in. Life is too short.

And so we found ourselves on the road to Kyle of Lochalsh, traversing single track roads and steep inclines on the northern route to this postcard perfect part of the Scottish Highlands. An exhausted Bumble would have probably preferred if we’d given this trip amiss, but being situated in Nairn meant this was too good an opportunity. We had to tick this item of our collective bucket lists.

As an undeserved birthday surprise, Leah and I had been booked into the Great Wagon in Nairn, an old train carriage transformed into a cosy accommodation for two. We arrived late on Sunday afternoon in the bonny Highland town, having made our way up from an Aberdeen recently freed from its personal lockdown.

Masked up, we went for a pleasant, but chilly alfresco meal in the town, before enjoying a quiet wander along the beach. I also needed an early night after accidentally double booking myself for the following morning, travelling the 88 miles back to the Granite City for a flat viewing postponed by the local lockdown.

As I set of down the pretty joyless roundabout extravaganza* which is the A96 with Bumble, Leah headed into Inverness to catch up with a friend the next day.

Viewing done and dusted, I traversed the eternity of the 102 mile trunk route westwards, life endangering crawler lanes and all. That road isn’t much fun and previous driver surveys back this point of view up. Reuniting Bumble with her owner**, we then set off for the Black Isle as I napped in the passenger seat.

Passing through the narrow and twisty streets of Avoch and Fortrose, we eventually reached Cromarty, a quaint fishing village dominated by several nearby oil platforms. It was indeed, bizarre to see these complex structures up close as they loomed over the cream cottages of the village’s sea front. Almost similar to HG Wells’ description of the Martians’ tripods in War of the Worlds I thought.***

We wandered along the coastline for a couple of miles in the afternoon sun, watching a small boat circle the closest rig which whirred continuously from its position near the entrance to the Cromarty Firth. This walk provided impressive views across the Moray Firth, but no dolphins were unfortunately spotted on this occasion.

That evening was another quiet one of alfresco dining on the cheap with the eat out help out discount and another wee walk along the beach. This time enjoying the perfectly timed sunset of oranges and pinks.

Thus we come to yesterday when the most exciting adventures and epic travels took place. Waving a sad farewell to the wagon and its generous owners who had provided us with four cans of Brewdog on our first evening, we set off for Eilean Donan Castle.

I was first up in the driving seat, attempting to treat a tired Bumble with care and respect as we travelled north of Inverness before heading briefly towards Ullapool. The roads were an unmitigated pleasure to drive, with plentiful amounts of variation and stunning scenery thrown in for good measure. I’m taken aback at the feat of managing to build a railway out this way to Kyle of Lochalsh.

Two hours later we arrived at the stunning spot, queuing for the toilet and then making our way into the fortress which has its earliest origins in the 13th century. I think I’ll write about the castle and its history in more detail in another post, especially as it was an interesting experience to visit a historical site affected by Covid-19 restrictions. It was though a sign of the weird times that visitors were rightly made to social distance and handwash before entering each room of the impressive island based building.

This is peak postcard perfect Scotland and the surrounding landscape is a definite reminder of what attracts tourists to our shores. Kyle is located eight miles westwards of the castle and this bustling village was where we stopped for lunch following a very brief trip over to Kyleakin to at least say that we had been on the Isle of Skye.

By this time it was late afternoon and we reluctantly decided to head for home. Leah took over the driving duties once again as we trundled through more stunning landscapes. The peaks of the Kintail Sisters rocketing into low cloud above the road towards Loch Ness. This road seemed longer, but eventually we arrived in Inverness, making our way to Keith from there.

It had been a fantastic weekend where Bumble and a decision to grasp an opportunity had done us well. After being stuck in the city several times this year, this was a timely reminder of Scotland’s inherent beauty.

*I counted 37 roundabouts on my journey between Aberdeen and Inverness, nine of which were located in Elgin. I was bored okay!

**To avoid any confusion, Bumble is the affectionate name we have given to Leah’s bright yellow Vauxhall Corsa.

***Although Wells’ imagery is impressive, I’m specifically imagining the artwork on Jeff Wayne’s 1978 album which was one of the soundtracks of my childhood.

English Premiership: Dominant Chiefs restart season with bonus point victory against battling Tigers

Exeter Chiefs 26(12)

Leicester Tigers 13(6)

Exeter Chiefs began the restart with a controlled victory against a competitive Leicester at an empty Sandy Park.

In a match where both sides had plenty of chances, the hosts got the job done against a fighting Tigers side on Jonny Gray’s debut for the hosts.

The second rower put in a 67 minute shift and played a key role at the breakdown for the Chiefs.

Fellow Scot Stuart Hogg’s score was complimented by tries from Charlie Ewers and Lucan Cowan-Dickie as Rob Baxter’s side got the perfect start to the restart.

Both sides also traded penalty tries in a manic five minute period near the hour mark, before a scoreless last quarter.

Exeter get the job done

The visitors had taken a well deserved 6-0 lead 0n 17 minutes, as they attempted to bring the game to last year’s Premiership champions.

George Ford was impressive throughout and followed a penalty kick with a neat drop goal after his side was unable to find a hole in a well organised Chiefs defence.

The ever present Ewers replied on 26 minutes though, the Exeter flanker finishing from close range after Cowan-Dickie was halted just short of the line.

Joe Simmonds missed the tough conversion, but the hosts took the lead on the stroke of half-time when Hogg did well to complete a smooth running move.

Simmonds supplied a perfect ball for his classy back line, the ball finding a speedy Olly Woodburn who then shipped it to the Scottish flyer to finish in the corner.

And this time Simmonds found the posts from an equally tough angle, giving his side a 12-6 lead at the break.

The Chiefs then had the perfect start to the second-half when Cowan-Dickie crashed over, the hooker catching Tigers’ defence off guard with a tap and go.

Simmonds’ conversion provided his side with a 13 point lead and Leicester’s misery looked to have been compounded when the hosts extended their lead with a penalty try.

Tigers flanker, Jordan Taufua was sent to the bin with his team unable to legally prevent an Exeter maul from crashing over the line on 53 minutes.

However, the visitors were quick to reply with their own penalty try under similar circumstances, both sides using the lineout as an effective platform throughout this game.

Jonny Hill’s yellow card also meant both sides were down to 14 men.

Tigers were unable to find the Exeter line again though and the hosts held their 13 point lead until the final whistle.

Sandy Park was always going to be a tough first assignment for Steve Borthwick as head coach of a team currently languishing in ninth, only above a Saracens side relegated by default.

Leicester did show plenty of promise, despite a high penalty count proving to be detrimental while there is a case for keeping the ball in hand more, despite the combined kicking experience of Ford and Ben Youngs.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs international contingent were impressive as always, Henry Slade likely impressing the attending Eddie Jones after missing out on the Six Nations through injury.

Exeter: Hogg, O’Flaherty, Slade, Devoto, Woodburn, Simmonds, Maunder; Hepburn, Cowan-Dickie, Williams, Gray, Hill, Ewers, Kirsten, Simmonds

Replacements: Yeandle, Moon, Francis, Skinner, Armand, Hidalgo-Clyne, Steenson, Whitten

Sin Bin: Jonny Hill

Leicester: Warth, Williams, Toute, Scott, Olowofela, Ford, Youngs; Genge, Youngs(c), Cole, Lavanini, Green, Wells, Reffell, Taufua

Replacements: Kerr, Leatigaga, Heyes, Liedenberg, Wallace, Smith, White, Henry

Sin Bin: Jordan Taufua

Granite City Getaways

There was some faint hope yesterday on a sad day for the North-East that Nicola Sturgeon would announce a lifting in lockdown restrictions for Aberdeen. Alas there was understandably no change in the five mile travel restrictions currently imposed on Aberdeen’s 205,000 odd residents.

August is of course a time of the year when many Aberdonians would usually be jetting off to enjoy warmer climes or indeed, enjoying some Scottish sunshine while it lasts. This return to lockdown has therefore likely been a bit of blow, especially for those struggling to find or stay in employment.

However, for the former of these setbacks I thought I would maybe look at some of my favourite places to visit in the aptly named Granite City. While compiling this short list I realised the city which I often berated while growing up in rural Aberdeenshire isn’t really a bad place to live.

Kincorth Hill – Lets begin in the south of the city where most Central Belters and lost Dundonians will enter ‘Furry Boots’ city. Kincorth Hill is located just east of a Shell Garage which I spend much of my time in RGU library staring at when I have writer’s block.

There are several viewpoints atop this small gorse and heather covered hillock which provide great views of the city to the north. The hill itself can be quickly accessed via several criss-crossing paths from all sides.

I’d strongly recommend strolling across the hill with a fluffy Golden Retriever, although other dogs are available. Kincorth Hill is also one of several recognised nature reserves in Aberdeen and I imagine it would be a handy spot for those who have a keen eye for birdwatching.

Torry Battery – On the Southern side of the outer regions of the Aberdeen Harbour walls is the Torry Battery. This 19th century fortification was used during both world wars to protect the city from a very real threat. It was last actively used to house residents who were displaced during the resulting housing shortage following WWII.

The Battery is now recognised as a historical site which doubles up as a perfect viewpoint of the busy nearby port and the whole Greyhope Bay area is great for spotting a dolphin or two. These playful animals are often seen dancing in the wake of larger vessels as they pass the South Breakwater.

Girdle Ness Lighthouse – Just along Greyhope road from Torry Battery is the 37 metre tall Girdle Ness Lighthouse. This impressive structure is complete with a rusty fog horn and a cottage which can apparently be rented on Airbnb. To the south the lighthouse overlooks Nigg Bay, where a new harbour has been under construction since 2017.

It was built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the famous Treasure Island writer, Robert Louis, in 1833. Activity on the building site next door is somewhat patchy due to apparent contract issues. This makes it a nice spot to find some peace and quiet away from the rush of the city.

Footdee – Directly across the River Dee’s mouth from Torry Battery is Footdee, an old fishing village pronounced as Fittie. This is a charming part of the city which likely dates back to at least the early 15th century. Its narrow pedestrianised streets give it the feel of somewhere which is almost stuck in time.

However, on my last visit to the village I noticed are signs which recommending against visiting the tight-knit community during the current pandemic. This should therefore be taken into consideration when visiting the area and I’ve ran along the beach when passing through the area.

Out with the village there is the modern Pilot’s House, with its many dimmed windows towering over the older building at Pocra Quay. This is where my grandfather worked for many years and it has recently become somewhere I like to go and reflect on life. A handy place to have in 2020!

Again this is also a great location for spotting the odd dolphin or porpoise along with the ships sailing into and departing the harbour.

Donmouth

At the other end of Aberdeen’s long beach promenade, the River Don enters the North Sea at Donmouth Nature Reserve. This area of conservation encompasses some grassland and sandy beaches on both sides of the river’s mouth.

I often enjoy strolling up the North Donmouth Beach while ensuring to maintain a safe distance from the seals which often congregate here. They seem to stop here for a friendly chat before swimming out to the icy waters of the North Sea again.

Brig of Balgownie & River Don Path

One of my favourite routes to run in the city has quite a rural flavour to it and involves traversing the Don from Ellon Road to Persley Bridge in Danestone. This route begins at the five arch Bridge of Don which was constructed from ganite in 1830, before reaching the Brig of Balgownie, an historic crossing which possibly dates back to the 13th century.

From this stunning bridge I usually follow a woodland track, passing through Seaton Park on my way to the relatively new Diamond Bridge at Tillydrone. Seaton Park is a lovely area to wander around on a sunny day, with a wide green space which is often traversed by students making their way to university.

The riverside trail then continues through the greenery which lines the lower echeleons of the Don. Taking you past the Woodside Sports Complex and through some newly built houses until you reach the Persley Bridge.

Northfield Tower

For anyone familiar with the outer regions of Aberdeen, picking a location in Northfield may seem like a slightly left of field option. I disagree.

Behind the area’s high school is the Northfield Tower which I happened upon a couple of weeks ago while looking to stand at the bottom of the city’s alternative to the Eiffel Tower.

From this landmark of the Aberdeen skyline also great view towards Aberdeen Airport and the northern regions of the city. Additionally, visitors to the surrounding playing fields can look into rural Aberdeenshire, a bonus for a teuchter currently stuck inside the city limits.

So there you have it. If you are currently struggling with being stuck in Aberdeen then perhaps you may want to visit one of the locations listed above for some local light relief. Although, even I’ll admit it will be a relief when lockdown has been lifted and everyone can carefully venture out into the countryside again.

The Spookiest Castle you’ve never heard about

It was a particularly gloomy evening as we made our way towards Dufftown in Leah’s yellow corsa. The bright colours of the car contrasted with the dull greys of the sky above Speyside as we navigated the wet roads.

This was a perfect example of a cheaper and shortened version of a good old road trip. One which had started in nearby Keith and would preferably end up somewhere within a 15 mile radius. Still an enjoyable adventure, but one which lacked the mileage of a Route 66 trip or the Scottish equalivent, the North Coast 500.

My fellow traveller wanted to see another castle, inspired by our visit to the dramatic Slains Castle during the previous week. Stopping in Dufftown, a small village surrounded by hills and several whisky distilleries, we had a look to see which historic sites were within our reach.

It didn’t take long for Leah’s beady eyes to spot Auchindoun Castle, an innocuous place name found on Google Maps. The digital generation’s version of a reliable coffee marked AA road atlas.

I recognised the name and swore I’d visited the site when passing down the nearby Cabrach road (A941) in years gone by. This undulating and winding road takes the traveller through a pretty barren and desolate landscape, linking Dufftown with Rhynie. It’s a road I know well from childhood visits to the Moray Coast when travelling over the hills from Deeside.

From the clock tower in Dufftown’s small square, it took us little over five minutes to reach the castle. The only hurdle along the way being a deeply eroded and steep track up onto the hillside from the road. I imagine this would be likely impassable in the wintery conditions which will often grace this area in the colder months.

A corsa or similar make of car isn’t likely an ideal vehicle for this track, but thankfully the makeshift road doesn’t last too long. Parking is supplied for visitors on your right when you reach the top of the short hill.

On this occasion no other visitors were apparently brave enough to visit the eerie ruin at 7.30 on a Thursday evening and we found the car park empty. Walking past fields of cows we first sighted the castle’s highest tower, peaking above the nearby trees.

Leaving the corsa there was a 10 minute stroll to the castle itself. This involved traversing a grassy and slippy path through a sheep field. If visiting its especially important to close every gate which you pass through. The local farmer will probably not take kindly to one of his woolly friends going for a jaunt in search of greener grass.

There are seemingly two or three entrances to the ruin, with a larger one on the North facing side of the castle. From this side there are good views down to the River Fiddich and beyond, although care should be taken not to fall into what remains of the moat.

The 15th century fortification was most likely built by Thomas Cochrane, an ally and architect of King James III. Cochrane received the Earldom of Mar in 1479 as reward for his hard work, but the castle was more infamously owned by Sir Adam Gordon.

The Gordons likely occupied the castle from the mid 1500s onwards and Sir Adam wasn’t a man you’d want to come up against. In 1571 he launched an awful attack on the nearby Corgarff Castle, burning 29 of its occupants to death following a feud with the Forbes of Towie. Corgarff was heavily affiliated with the Mackintosh clan and this slight overreaction didn’t go down too well with them.

Diplomacy was obviously quite sparse back then and Auchindoun Castle faced a similar fate when William Mackintosh took it upon himself to seek revenge. He taking it upon himself to burn the Gordon owned castle down several years later.

Some historical accounts suggest Mackintosh was later beheaded at Auchindoun for this crime. This being one of numerous harrowing unlisted incidents at the spooky site, which unsurprisingly played host to even more brutal clan warfare.

In its heyday the castle would have stood at three stories high, but the site has actually sat derelict for almost three centuries. The Oglivy family left the site in the 1720s before materials were removed en masse from the tower house to construct a house for William Duff of Braco.

Despite the distint lack of human activity at Auchindoun in recent years, there’s something which sends a chill down the spine when standing inside the ruin’s ancient walls. As a cynic of ghost related spirituality there is something about the castle which I just couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Maybe the low light helped create this atmosphere of mystic . Whatever the case, I won’t be returning at night anytime soon, but would highly recommend a visit to this rather atmospheric remote (and free!) castle.

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Dracula

In the midst of an overcast Scottish summer there are wonderful days where this country is literally shown in it’s best light. I think us Scots quite often deliberately forget about these days, feigning for some average conversation starter about how the weather is always rubbish.

Thursday was definitely one of those days, the type you dream about while out in a sleet storm in the darkest depths of a diet failing January.

Waking to wall to wall sunshine in Leah’s new Aberdeen flat, I knew the opportunity of getting out into the Shire was too good to miss. Though Cruden Bay maybe wouldn’t have such an adventurous or large hobbit population.

We set out in the Mitsubishi for Ellon at around lunchtime in search of some fish and chips by the seaside. My morning had involved a dehydrated run in the 21c heat. Maybe not the best running conditions for a Scotsman with poor temperature control.

It took all but 25 minutes to reach the market town where we found a one way system implemented in the name of social distancing. Passing the Tolbooth pub, we found the Bridge Street chippy closed, perhaps a sign of the lasting impact of Cornonavirus on small businesses.

I had last visited the Tolbooth in March, sharing pints with my Dad and Grandad as we watched Scotland overcome Italy in the Six Nations. This must have been amongst the last days of recent normality for most in this country. Although a Scottish away victory was pretty abnormal.

And so we tried nearby Cruden Bay for some greasy, salty, heart stopping battered cod. Having visited the coastal village several times with both grandparents as a child, the village was smaller than I remembered.

With no chippy in sight, we eventually settled for a chicken sandwich and an ice cream from the newsagents. I happily gobbled on my Feast after my trademark poor attempt at parking.

Our destination by foot was Slains Castle, a 16th century ruin 3/4 miles north of Cruden Bay. Not the old church transformed into a dimly lit watering hole on Belmont Street in Aberdeen.

Emerging from a pathway surrounded by woods and into the piercing sunlight we had our first sighting of Slains Castle.

Often referred to as New Slains Castle due to the Old Slains castle which formerly existed south of Cruden Bay, this one was built in 1597. It was lived in by the Errol family until the early 20th century, this surname being a namesake for the nearby primary school.

The castle itself sits impressively upon some sheer cliffs, almost jutting out into the North Sea. Even on a windless Thursday afternoon it is easy to imagine this spot on a dark and stormy night with slight fear and intrigue. The sound of the waves mercilessly pounding the rocks below in the pitch darkness.

Wondering around the roof less ruins it’s not difficult to understand where Bram Stoker’s apparent inspiration for a setting of Dracula came from. During an 1890s visit to the North-East, the Irishmen apparently imagined the vampire taking flight from the castle’s dramatic surroundings, perhaps sailing to the location from the far off Transylvania.

Our stay was far less dramatic as we enjoyed our chicken sandwiches in peace, before carefully strolling around the building’s remains. At one point it would have housed 14 bedrooms, although I didn’t quite trust the structural integrity of the building to venture upstairs.

The inherent lack of any roof makes Slains Castle look more weathered than it perhaps would have otherwise. Though apparently the roof was removed for economical reasons, the second owners of the castle being unable to pay their taxes in the 1920s.

In one room facing the North Sea is a huge gap where a window would have once been. Not daring to go to close I admired the view, trying to consider just how far it really was to Norway and how long it would have taken the Vikings to get to Scotland’s shores.

On the other side of the castle there are also impressive views, with a patchwork of fields giving way to the distant humble beginnings of the Grampian Mountains. With grandparents in Ellon and formerly in Newburgh, this is a scene I grew accustomed to in my childhood. Bennachie and its distinctive shape being the standout feature in a landscape of farms and wind turbines.

It was therefore with a bittersweet feeling that we wondered back to the faithful Mitibushi and travelled back into the Granite City. It’s no secret that I love this part of the world, Aberdeenshire that is.

It’s no surprise then that I’d highly recommend a trip to Slains Castle. From Aberdeen it takes less than 30 minutes to reach by car and if travelling on public transport there are usually buses to Cruden Bay on an hourly basis.

And if you do find yourself at the precarious yet impressive ruin, do mind the drop and don’t expect to sight Dracula. I hear he holidays around these parts at Christmas time and isn’t the sociable type. Though maybe the prospect of a potentially hard Brexit has put him off from visiting this winter.

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually read Dracula, but its definitely on my reading list now!

 

 

 

A Crash Related Ramble

Never do I feel so confident as when I’m going great guns on a bike or tearing down a technical hill side like an ungraceful mountain goat, just about managing to keep my balance. Those moments are blissfully rare insights into a fantasy life which could resemble total self-belief while anxiety remains absent.

Reality does however bite when I dismount my bike or fling of my trail shoes. With this in mind, I hold those blissful moments before with added value. Only now as I relapse through a period of being anxious about those very activities do I realise how significant a role they play in my quality of life.

A wide spectrum of situations will undoubtedly make different individuals anxious and for me personally there are many. Public speaking, meeting strangers, driving in the city and visiting the dentist to name just a few.

Many of my anxieties need to be overcome if I’m serious in the long term about becoming a journalist or to indeed enjoy a good quality of life. And in truth many of them have been overcome several times. But life isn’t that simple unfortunately. So often its a case of one step backwards to make two steps forward and I’ve come to accept that.

Feeling anxious about an activity you’ve held as a remedy to detrimental mental health though? That’s a bit tougher to accept.

For so long riding a bike has been the love hate relationship which I’ve always enjoyed coming back to. I can’t exactly pinpoint my first experience on two wheels, but I can almost create the images in my head of a chubby blonde haired four-year-old on a bike with oversized stabilisers.

Likely pushed along gently by an incredibly patient parent or grandparent until eventually reaching that pleasing moment when I could ride unassisted. Sounds of encouragement coming thick and fast as I wobbled along at a snail’s pace.

Fast forward 20 years and the bowl haircut is gone, replaced by an even more horrendous hair style. This time inflicted by yours truly in a late night cider fuelled haircut session with some full sized scissors and a sink full of damp hair.

On a more serious note, that came last week when my anxiety felt as out of control as my ever growing lockdown mullet. Cutting my hair, however poorly, felt like one of the only things I could control on a visual level.

My legs are also thankfully stronger nowadays and I’m able to propel myself along at a much faster pace, thanks in part to getting rid of the stabilisers. Unfortunately however, in another addition to a comedy of errors I discovered I maybe still needed them.

It had been a surprisingly warm June day after the week previous had proved there isn’t really a Scottish Spring weather wise. It just seems to jump straight from winter to summer. Must be a baptism of fire for those poor calves and lambs.

Anyway, on a pretty depressingly unproductive day last week I decided to brush of the cobwebs, aiming for a wee spin out to Linn O’Dee. I wanted to add a few mild evening miles to the cyclometer. I wanted something, however small, to show for when I lay my head on my pillow later that evening.

I sped up to the Linn O’Dee Bridge, brushing past a father and son with an arrogant greeting as I sped past. I felt like Bradley Wiggins if he had a shit hairdo and no side burns.

I felt so good I decided to extend my ride slightly to the Linn O’Quoich. A car park further down the road heading back east where the tarmac comes to an end.

The road was unsurprisingly devoid of traffic and pedestrians until I glanced a couple leaning on their grey vovlo after reaching the brow of a slight hill. On seeing a potential crowd to my incredible Tour de France cycling skills, I decided my gratification levels needed an unnecessary boost.

As an inconsistent user of Strava and social media in general, I feel like I don’t look for that gratification and justification quite enough. Even if I guiltily concluded recently that this very blog is also seemingly often geared towards lazily gaining those two elements.

And so I hit the accelerator, pummelling my way down the other side of the slight incline, imagining I was time trialling.

Suddenly I wasn’t peddling anymore. There was no saddle beneath my lycra cladded buttocks. I lay sprawled on the tarmac, my long suffering bike slightly mangled beside me as a sat like a startled ugly deer for a split second. I had crashed good and proper.

Regaining some sense quickly, I leapt to my feet praying that the nearby couple hadn’t seen my wee incident. There prayers weren’t answered.

“Are you alright?”, asked the woman as I followed her voice to see the concerned Volvo owners giving me discerning looks from a safe distance. Fuck.

My go to response was nervous humour as I tried to mount my poor bicycle with some urgency. I joked about the number one rule of crashing being to always crash with an audience, before quickly realising my front brakes were jammed.

While fixing it I noticed the blood pouring profusely from my left knee and found some solace in my right knee’s rare avoidance of harm in an accident. I was likely fairly lucky not to break anything. Especially after coming down at some speed.

Instead of the fulfilment I’d hoped I would have felt after my ride, I spent the rest of that evening cleaning my wounds and trying to figure out why I’d so unexpectedly ended up on the tarmac.

Only once previously had I bailed from a road bike. That occasion being seven years ago and occurring in an almost comically controlled and deliberate manner. A swinging tractor’s trailer resulting from a mistimed overtaking attempt forced me to fall into a soft verge in slow motion.

There hadn’t even been any bruises that day and it hadn’t at all discouraged me from going out and doing the same the next day. This time however, was different.

This time there had been no obvious risks. I was sure I hadn’t pulled my brakes and the accident had taken place on a fairly straightforward section of road. Perhaps a pine cone laid by an evil squirrel had been the culprit. Maybe my front brake had jammed before the crash, but this seemed difficult to explain if I hadn’t touched the lever.

A week on and my bruises are now healing well and I’ve realised this crash shouldn’t have really been that big a deal. Yet, I also realised I’m now worrying about my recurring cure for worry. That in itself is worrying!

Forgivable confusion from that last statement aside and I’ve now suitably recovered from my bruising encounter with the tarmac. I’ve left the bike and its buckled wheel alone for the moment and am focusing on the running.

After saying I would, I eventually made it up the mighty Morrone on Tuesday and plan to do the same tomorrow after laying low for the last few days.

Hopefully I’ll be back on the bike soon. Able to banish any nervousness which comes with riding it. Wish me luck!

 

 

Weekly Ramblings

Issue 9 – Wednesday 10th June

The Good

A slightly late Weekly Ramblings comes to you from a fifth week of lockdown spent in a slightly colder and cloudier Braemar. Later this morning I’ll be leaving the village to perform a socially distant visit of my Granny with my brother.

Armed with muffins, I’ll be taking Dad’s diesel Mitsibushi on a proper spin for the first time after embarrassingly being unable to figure out how to pop the fuel cap open earlier last week.

Apparently the car itself is slightly top heavy, meaning I’ll have to take the many corners between here and Ballater with care. This week it was finally given its MOT and is now road ready. I just need to remember it takes unleaded? No, diesel!

This week has also seen less lycra action out with a weetabix fuelled ride over Glenshee on Thursday in unseasonably cold temperatures. That ride definitely doesn’t rank as being one of the more enjoyable ones.

Indeed, neither was it one of my finest moments as I often loudly cursed the existence of a moderate North-Westerly wind all the way home.

As always though, there was a recognisable overriding feeling of achievement after completing a Rule Five ride for the first time in a while. More obviously enjoyable at the  however, has been my strive to find my hill running legs again.

Starting of relatively small, I’ve started going further and finding some more challenging climbs to test myself on. The Morrone Birkwood and forest beyond it has proved a good testing ground, with a multitude of climbs amidst colourful heather providing a strong backdrop to several outings now.

Next week I’ll be targeting a rare attempt at Morrone Hill itself and lets hope the Old Women of Winter doesn’t leave me needing temporary stitches in my knee this time. I’ll also be attempting once again to improve my poor diet habits in the hope of making the load I need to carry with me up the Corbett a bit lighter.

The Bad

In order to avoid making this segment a weekly rant, I’ll try and cut to the chase as quick as possible. As the title of this segment suggests that alone can be difficult for me at times.

On Thursday evening I sent a letter to the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Andrew Bowie. Within the short-ish (for me anyway) essay I asked Mr Bowie about his views on: (a) The Black Lives Matter Movement and its significance in his constituency.

(b) What he thought about Donald Trump’s dangerous and perverse reaction to George Floyd’s death and the ongoing protests in his country.

(c) Whether he would be willing to call out cases of institutionalised racism in the House of Commons.

Now there has yet to be a reply, but I want to give my local Westminster representative the benefit of the doubt on this one. Maybe he’s been flooded by similar letters and is replying to them when he can. Maybe my email landed in his spam folder.

I also realise he’s likely been heavily involved in the political response to the Covid-19 outbreak, amongst other localised and national issues. It is therefore unfair to locate Mr Bowie in this week’s bad section purely for his failure to reply to my email.

Although, I would be interested to find out how many of those who have written to their local MPs have received a reply. Perhaps an Instagram poll later in the week will provide a vague idea of their response to those who did put pen to paper.

That being said, I have been slightly irked by the general response amongst Conservative Mps (and others) to the growing movement behind Black Lives Matter. This response from some MPs local to Aberdeenshire seems to be either pretty meagre or actually focused on choosing a different issue of the here and now.

This issue being the violence which has been perceived as marring the UK based protests. Protests which have been largely peaceful, with the tearing down of statutes and defacing of others being widely reported.

At this point let’s be clear. In no way I’m I defending the vandalising of the Cenotaph, an important war memorial to those who bravely fought and died for this country.

Instead, I’d suggest that many who have a political platform and a clear voice aren’t doing enough to back this pivotal movement and the toxic rhetoric and behaviour of those who still base suppression on a person’s skin colour.

Its arguably easier to discuss violence on the streets and protest related social disorder rather than attempting to tackle an ugly racist undercurrent within our society. I just feel this isn’t a time to pick and choose issues.

Some have clearly decided to give more airtime to the unfortunate and indeed, unforgivable incidents where British police officers have been harmed. They seem to have given this issue prominence over the systematic killing of black people at the hands of American police for generations. This to me seems slightly puzzling, if not a tad inconsistent.

The Ugly

My hair is pretty ugly right now, floating between a poor attempt at a surfer dude and a 1980’s lower league footballer. Getting a haircut is definitely one of the items on the post-lockdown priorities list.

A slightly ugly scenario also played out on Tuesday’s run when an oyster catcher became anxious about the threat a bedraggled bandanna sporting runner poised to its nearby nest.

Running down towards the Games Park I was suddenly bombarded by a flood of bird shit. This being accompanied by several rounds of good old fashioned dive bombing.

Although, this was an unnerving run in, my similar experience with a buzzard in a field a few years ago was definitely more intimidating. During that encounter I could feel the bird of prey breathing down my neck as I breathlessly sprinted towards the nearby trees. I will however, consider an alternative route next time for the angry oyster catcher’s benefit.

Hoping that this relatively harmless bird anecdote has distracted you from the slightly politicised section beforehand its time to go and fill up the car. I realise I’ve broken my unwritten rule of not being political on this blog, but I hope you realise these are unprecedented times. Stay safe everyone.

 

Like Riding Through Treacle

It’s always difficult to get out of bed when you can actually hear the rain and wind battering your bedroom windows. Friday morning was no exception to this rule. Awaking early for my planned ride I thought, ‘it’s June, it can’t be that cold outside.’ Spoiler alert: it was pretty cold.

Not only was it unseasonably chilly, but cycling the strong northerly wind forecasted was also an ominous sign. I would be heading northwards back to Braemar after being dropped off in rural Perthshire.

Eventually hauling myself outside and into the car later than planned, my raynaud’s was already starting to kick in. On reaching the summit of Britain’s highest A-road I noticed with some anxiety that the temperature reading was hovering around a balmy 3 °C.

After being dropped off I was soon on my way. The first section of the 30 mile ride was deceptively easy. Me and my sexy lycra were sheltered from the wind with a kindly gradient to boot.

Even the first climb was relatively simple. I started to convince myself that it was going to take no time at all to cycle home as I powered up the incline like a heavy set Nairo Quintana. That being if the Colombian regularly barely digested three soggy Weetabix before a Tour de France stage. This was going to be a piece of piss.

On reaching a less sheltered section of the road this arrogance was deservedly dashed by a strong northerly wind rearing which finally reared its ugly head. I enjoy a cool breeze on a hot June day as much as the next guy. When its cold and I’m trying to ride a bike however, I’m not as much of a fan.

The long and winding road to Spittal of Glenshee ascends and descends repetitively and it was on these small bumps that I realised I should of sorted my lazy lockdown sleep pattern out. For all intent and purpose my legs felt like they were still snoozing.

Passing the remote village across the modern looking McThomas Bridge the ride became tougher still. On the approach to the steep Cairnwell Pass, a section of road known locally as the ‘Slide’ for the direct route it takes to the valley floor, there was now no shelter at all from the incessant headwind.

The road over this hill used to be infamous for being one of the toughest routes in Britain. The now retired Devil’s Elbow included a double hairpin which unsurprisingly  proved a challenge for many motorists before a newer road was completed in the 1960s.

Looking down at the hillside below where this sensational road formerly lay, I grinded away in my smallest ring like a persistent snail, trying to ignore the lactate acid screaming murder in my cold legs.

It was on this pain inducing incline that I began to do some thinking. Not an unusual pastime for me, but not a particular strong point of mine when there is a distraction such as palpable lower leg pain.

I started to draw some clumsy comparisons between life and my sudden realisation at that precise moment there was only one objective which I wanted to achieve. All I wanted to do in that moment was to keep turning the pedals. That was of a crucial importance if I wanted to reach the Ski Centre two kilometres up the road without coming to an anti- climatic halt. 

Keeping it relatively brief, there are two clear trains of thought which entered my head as I traversed the hillside in the rain and wind. The first is that life can be a real grind.

That patience and a persistent effort is likely to be key in achieving personal goals and finding a fulfilling happiness in your lifestyle, even if the process towards succeeding in these areas can be slow.  This can also definitely be discovered in another person’s happiness.

Secondly, I considered how it takes a sustained and often slowly building effort to change your views. To educate yourself or others. To constantly bat away any ignorant or outdated views that you may have held for a while, perhaps years.

As an individual and a wider society we should always aim to make progress. Even if that progress is difficult, painful and slow, perhaps often frustratingly so. There is always progress to be made.

Weaving across the now 10% gradient road I considered this second point especially and thought about how weak the old arguments of ‘how it wasn’t like that in my day’ are. Similar worn-out excuses equating to the mentality that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Everyone, no matter their age or experiences has the ability to change their views. Everyone should have the ability to arrive at a different less thought out conclusion than they have previously reached. Even a huge amount of patience, humility and effort.

Bike on the bike, it took me all but 17 minutes to reach the summit. My reward? The king of all eye hurting headwinds combined with icy rain. Cycling past the empty chairlifts of the ski centre I could barely keep my eyes open as icy rain blasted my frozen facial features.

Eventually I completed the descent into Braemar and this was where I experienced my highlight of the day, maybe the week. Earlier in the ride I’d been passed by a Co-op lorry and before entering the village I met the same green vehicle again, heading southbound this time.

The driver promptly flashed his lights at me, giving me a heart warming thumbs up as he sped past. This gesture was the perfect remedy to a life which has often recently felt similar to being in a social bubble, sporadically interrupted by a pandemonic social media feed.

During the current events an innocuous glance at my multiple digital feeds presents many voices in favour of positive change. However, many others seem to enjoy disregarding or shutting down the important debate and issues which have almost became all encompassing right now.

Obviously, these negative voices can often drown out the helpful and pragmatic voices of the moment. I guess, perhaps naively, that driver’s simple gesture helped restore some faith on humanity on a visual level. If that makes sense?

Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.com/