Embracing my Inner Aberdonian

“Ye hiv tae ken faar tae look. Ye need tae ken a the different places tae actually see the good characteristics o Aiberdeen.”

This was Leah’s wonderfully positive reply to a pretty negative question which I had tasked her with. It had come towards the end of a practice interview as part of my placement at Scots Radio. I had asked her if she thought Aberdeen had “something gaun fer it?”

My ever patient girlfriend from Keith was helping me sharpen my broadcasting skills as we discussed the idea of ‘A Sense of Place’, using the Scots language. This straight to the point reply took me aback and resonated with me as someone also from another part of the North-East.

You see lockdown and my third year as an Aberdeen resident has given me an opportunity to understand the city better. To realise that there is more to the Granite City than the unerotic shades of grey its nickname conjures up.

Growing up in a rural Aberdeenshire setting I always saw Aberdeen as somewhere I didn’t want to be. A larger dot on the road atlas I obsessed over. Eight capital letters at the end of the red A93. A destination which offered little more than 30 minutes of hell in John Lewis and a cringy secondary school date to Cineworld at Union Square. Snobbish I know.

Fast forward out of my teenage years (thank God) and I now feel more Aberdonian by the day. I’ve even considered changing my Facebook profile home town to Scotland’s third city. Therefore, renouncing the romantic falsification that I originally hail from a small fishing village (I spent my first year of my life in Whitehills, near Banff).

Through running (shock horror) and walking these streets, I’ve discovered parts of Aberdeen that I love. The River Don trail, Bucksburn Gorge, Seaton Park, Northfield Tower, Donmouth Nature Reserve and Girdle Ness lighthouse to name just a few.

Staying here due to lockdown imposed necessity has meant appreciating Aberdeen and it’s less obvious details more. I now search for previously unexposed detours amongst its many streets. I people watch and inspect every day life inside the city limits with an attentive curiosity that I didn’t have previously.

A large part of this is of course my connection with the harbour. This is where my late grandfather worked as a harbour pilot for many years.

At the entrance to the harbour sits the roundhouse, now dwarfed by a larger less aesthetically pleasing maritime operations building. The former is where my grandpa was based.

I often take a seat on one of the marble benches nearby, watching the boats of all shapes and sizes sail peacefully into the North Sea. This is somewhere I visit in search of some headspace. A place of important and joyful memories.

I think my memories are always intrinsically linked with the places I’ve been and the places I’m from and that this can sometimes be detrimental. For example, I realise that I was incredibly lucky to grow up in Deeside with the countryside as a playground and relatively safe adventures a stone throw away.

Unfortunately I feel I have to reconcile these feelings with some painful memories which I’ve tried to leave behind. Its not even events which happened in those geographical places, but more what headspace I was occupying while I was there.

This is course offset by a catalogue of wonderful memories with friends and family. By saying I’m from Aberdeen I feel I’m actually more connected with my family. They come from across the North-East and many have made memories of varying degrees in Aberdeen.

Over the last three years I’ve spent in the Granite City I’ve made an overwhelming amount of happy memories. I’ve stuck at a university course and will hopefully be going into fourth year next year. Additionally, I met my girlfriend here, I’ve shared two flats with brilliant flatmates, experienced the excitement of living in student halls and made good progress towards achieving my dream of becoming a journalist.

I now feel like an Aberdonian. A title I would be disinterested in claiming several months ago. This teuchter is gradually becoming a toonser and I don’t know whether to be pleased, slightly terrified or both.

Pounding Aberdeen’s Pavements with Purpose

Bringing in the distant bells of 2021 atop Creag Choinnich, I felt truly hopeful. I didn’t know what the start of this year would bring, but I did have one definite purpose: To cycle, run and walk 300 miles between New Year’s Day and the 6th February.

It had all started with a message into a family group chat from my Dad. The old man suggested my brother and I join him in logging our miles for the Doddie Aid challenge. This challenge would run throughout January and up until Scotland’s Calcutta Cup clash with England.

He didn’t have to wait long for my reply and I promised to donate a tenth of the miles I completed to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. This is a charity inspired by Scotland rugby stalwart Doddie Weir following his diagnosis with Motor Neuron Disease a few years ago.

After we had negotiated the treacherous descent of Creag Choinnich, my Mum and I woke early the next morning, setting off to find the Secret Howff. The location of this secret bothy is meant to be kept secret and we battled through deep snow to find it hidden on an outcrop after a five mile walk in.

At several moments during this mini-adventure I felt the cold ease into my bones. Casually chatting with Mum and glancing at Cora dog’s frozen paws warmed me up pretty quickly though. I had barely seen Mum during 2020 due to the sporadic nature of the previous year. This 10 mile walk had been the perfect sociable beginning to Doddie Aid.

I left the natural beauty of Braemar, three furry companions and my mother behind two days later for Aberdeen, just before another lockdown was announced. I added another nine miles in Upper Deeside to my total and then hopped on a bus. I knew I had to try and keep this momentum going in the Granite City.

I walked everyday, trying to discover route variations between Leah’s flat and mine or wandering down to the beach often in the dark. My phone can’t handle GPS, so every mile was being logged manually with the help of Strava’s routes function. Although this process had a time consuming element to it, I love maps so it wasn’t too testing a task.

My running was steady, if not slightly scattered into intermittent blocks of activity. I had habitual routes, but quickly became obsessed with running along the River Don where it almost felt like I was venturing into the countryside again. If only for a short while, I was able to get away from Aberdeen’s cold grey granite and the unnatural right angles of the city streets.

On two successive Saturdays I jogged to the Bridge of Don from my King Street flat, running a 7.4 mile loop around the River Don and timing myself. When I would return around 90 minutes later I was cold, sweaty and clarted in mud. The air felt fresher by the riverside, the trails fun and the nature more…natural. Those two runs were tough and magical in equal measure.

A difficult aspect of the challenge was the weather, with the mercury often plummeting towards freezing for most of the five weeks. This all but put the kibosh on my plans to brush the cobwebs of my bike. I could have ridden it, but I was admittedly nervous to face a potentially sketchy time in the saddle. I hadn’t ridden my stead for nearly six months following a crash at speed in the summer. I didn’t want to dent my confidence and more importantly my body, more seriously.

My original target of 300 miles would have still been reachable, but I unashamedly let this target go. I just wanted to be on my feet and to continue moving. Figures outside my daily totals began to feel meaningless. I took reassurance in taking every day as it comes.

The walking continued and I began to enjoy this less laboured form of exercise more. Towards the end of January the snow was beginning to deepen in areas of Aberdeenshire, but the city remained predominantly icy and sleety. On the penultimate day of the month I ran to the top of Danestone and found some feeble snow underfoot. Sometimes getting that wee bit of altitude opens up the city for those of us who like to explore its many streets.

On Friday 5th February I ran four easy miles around the beach and went straight into the shower on my return, running late for placement. It was only later that I realised my Doddie Aid total was at 190.4 miles. I stared at this figure for a while, in the knowledge that the day after was the final day of the challenge. Surely I had to try and finish on 200 miles?

And so the next day I set off with a 10 mile route planned out. I plodded towards a ominous sky along the Spital, scrambling across the slippery cobblestones of Aberdeen University’s cobblestones. From there I powered up Gordon Brae, breathlessly ascending this longish hill, before joining Whitestripes Road. On the final day of this personal journey I was finally leaving the city by foot. With a dull football playlist on low volume in the background, I ran with purpose in an easterly direction before turning back towards Dyce.

The Raynaud’s in my gloveless hands kicked in without mercy and the pain of having to clasp my phone became slightly overwhelming as I ran on. Continuing back towards the city, I passed a raging River Don which made me feel colder every time I glanced it. For the first time I was able to inspect the paper mills on the other side of the river in more detail. Running is a brilliant medium for actually experiencing your surroundings.

Eventually I reached Aberdeen’s city limits again. Ascending Great Northern Road I was buoyed by the deafening weekend traffic and the pain in my hands. I felt privileged to be able to run and more pertinently, to be able to use my legs for my own enjoyment at this time in my life.

And so with just hours to spare until kick-off at Twickenham I finished the challenge on 200.4ish miles. As promised I donated £20.04 to My Name’s Doddie and I hope I managed to raise a wee bit of awareness through my activities. It was a good excuse to be out and about for a worthwhile cause.

On a more selfish note, as I sat with my hands buried in a towel trying to get some feeling into them again I felt a huge amount of satisfaction. For some 200 miles in five weeks on foot will be impressive, while for others it will be less so. For me, I was just glad I rediscovered a lost love for running and as it turned out, for walking as well. I had pounded Aberdeen’s pavements with a feeling of purpose for five weeks.

Six Festive Strolls

Cora pants with unstoppable enthusiasm as she drags me up the side of Carn na Drochaide with ease. Mum follows on behind as we struggle to navigate the slippery path in search of a good viewpoint. As humans we are unable to depend on the natural four-wheel system which dogs have at their disposal.

Eventually we are provided with views across to some of the highest mountains in Britain. The white complexion of the distant peaks of the Cairngorms means that several of them are difficult to make out against a darkening and overcast sky.

We agree to head back to the car instead of pushing onto the summit. It’s the day after the Winter Solstice and the landscape will soon to be pitched into total darkness. I’m tempted to chatter away to Mum about nothing much, but pause for a split second.

As we rest the silence is almost overwhelming. In that moment I realise how much I’ve missed the countryside and how grateful I should be for the opportunity to leave the city over Christmas, especially under the current circumstances.  

During the first unwelcome installment of lockdown, I often found it better to walk instead of run. Primarily, because it was usually a more relaxing form of exercise to slot into my permitted once daily venture out from Leah’s flat.

I suddenly found walking a great activity to slowly release any stress I had in my fragile system. Walks also provided a great opportunity for me to let any creative thoughts flow. Even if they centered on nonsensical nonsense half the time. Thus, I kept a short diary of my walks over the festive period. 

Monday 22nd December:

We left it until early afternoon to hop in the car with Cora, the excitable black and white Greek mongrel who enjoys elegantly posing for photographs. Parking near the punchbowl at the Quoich, we walked around the west side of Carn na Drochaide along a gradual incline to see if we could get a good view of the Cairngorms.

It wasn’t too cold and there was little ice underfoot, but we still had to navigate a couple of sketchy river crossings. From an elevated viewpoint we had a perfect of the east Cairngorm mountains. No one was about and blissfully, there was no unnatural sound. We descended carefully and eventually finished a decent outing as the last light faded in the west.

Tuesday 23rd December:

It was almost a full house for the Braemar Nixons contingent as we clambered up Carn na Sgliat on a chilly afternoon. At 690 meters, it is affectionally referred to by some locals as Coo Hill. The only member of the family missing in action was Skye, a tiring 13-year-old Black Labrador.

Although her fur is greying and she looks a lot slimmer, I don’t think she has run her race just yet. Though sadly, she does seem to be becoming slightly senile in her older age and is unable to come along on the longer walks with us anymore. I think she enjoys being without Cora and Islay’s company for periods though, especially as the former is the equivalent of a jumpy 20 something. Meanwhile, Islay is an 11-year-old Westie with a can do attitude.  

Coo Hill is one of my favourites hill runs. A winding path takes you up through the heather and eventually onto the summit. On a clear day you can get cracking views and it’s a great place to view Braemar village from.

Today it was blowing a hoolie and started to ding down with snow as we turned into the wind to return down the hill. Mags and I reminisced about eating lunch on the summit of every hill we climbed as a family when we were younger no matter the weather conditions. If we had climbed Everest as a family the result would have likely been death by tuna sandwich.

Christmas Eve:

Our Christmas Eve walk consisted of the classic Creag Choinnich excursion which is unequivocally the closest hill to the house. At a canter it takes about 25 minutes to traverse the steep path to the summit. It’s a perfect hill to climb if you find yourself in Braemar and are short of time. With enough exertion involved there is still a feeling of achievement when you’re able to stop and admire the several different views from the hill in all directions. Skye joined us this time and did admirably in slippery conditions.

Christmas Day:

Its almost family tradition to go for a decent walk every year on Christmas Day. In previous years the suggestion of an outing into the usually pretty ordinary festive weather is met quite begrudgingly. As a kid all I wanted to do was play with my new Subbuteo set or play with my new rugby ball.

This year it was definitely worth it though as we ventured out to try and find the Colonel’s Bed, a rocky overhang in a ravine in the River Ey. We parked the Corsa at Inverey, a hamlet three miles from Braemar and set off up Glen Ey. There was a smattering of snow on the ground and we had to take great care around the steep sided canyon where the bed lies.

The Black Colonel was a particularly violent Jacobite by the name of John Farquharson who apparently burnt down Braemar Castle in the late 17th century. Farquharson had also earlier been banished for killing a man from Ballater.

In search of shelter the colonel is said to have hidden from the Red Coats on the large overhang when they would pay visits to the local area. It is an atmospheric spot, but I also felt a little spooked when gazing into the tumbling rapids within the deep gorge.

 According to local legend, the colonel wanted to be buried at Inverey alongside his lover, but instead ended up at the graveyard in Braemar after his death. The story goes that on the day after the burial his coffin was discovered on the ground next to his grave. This happened twice more before he was eventually buried for good at Inverey.

This is a far-fetched story which I would love to explore in more depth as a piece of creative fiction. Despite this, I seem to get a shiver up my spine every time I read or write about the Black Colonel. It’s a bizarre feeling which I also experienced this afternoon in the vicinity of the Colonel’s Bed and again as I write this after everyone else has gone to bed.

Monday 27/12/20:

Today we walked from the Linn O’Dee car park to Derry Lodge, a building arguably at the outer edges of where the largest Cairngorm mountains begin. This was a bitterly cold walk which my numb hands and feet can attest for despite my thick gloves and wearing three pairs of socks.

Cora pulled Mags along on the lead with glee. When walking her we would love to let her run free, but she has run away so many times that we can’t really risk letting her off the lead. Her early years involved a tough upbringing on the streets of Athens, before she somehow ended up in the UK. With gas to burn Cora dog will just keep running.

This afternoon we were treated to stunning views of some snow-covered peaks as they almost blended in perfectly with the low cloud which obscured their summits. I again allowed myself to drift into my own creative thoughts as I strolled along. I considered how the weather conditions would-be near perfect conditions for the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui to make an appearance on Britain’s second highest peak, which is relatively close to Derry Lodge.

 Macdui is a monroe which I still haven’t ticked off my list. The fantastical accounts of coming across a giant creature near the summit in low visibility captured my imagination, but also irrational fear when I read up on the subject a couple of years ago. On the way back it started to snow heavily and darkness started to ascend quickly. I was suddenly glad that I wasn’t anywhere near the high peaks.   

Tuesday 28/12/20

This latest walk involved trying to find an abandoned cottage in the middle of a forest in a race against the fading daylight. Mags, Mum, I and the dogs went off the beaten track near Crathie, navigating a substantial forest with several spooky dark patches where the trees were more condensed.

After much map work, we finally found the cottage, apparently used by Queen Victoria during her extensive visits to the nearby Balmoral Castle. More recently planted trees now hem the long-abandoned building in and we had to walk a bit further to find the other end of the forest.

Once outside the intimidating woods we were treated to truly stunning views across to Lochnagar, a mountain which is synonymous with Upper Deeside. Today’s hike was the perfect ending to several festive walks which I was lucky enough to experience in a beautiful part of the world and with my family.

 Wherever you are I wish you the best for 2021 and hope you are also able to enjoy some walking when you need some peace. I would highly recommend it.  

Social Media and Me

Wednesday 11 November 2020

On Tuesday I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix. A docudrama which I would recommend spending 125 minutes of your life watching and by watching, I mean with no social media apps open and no laptop screen blocking your view of your television. As someone who is likely balancing on the periphery of being addicted to social media with a short attention span to boot, I did both and I really wish I hadn’t.

Some who have recommended I view this have proclaimed their visceral distress at the realisation that many forms of social media (if not all forms to some extent) are constructed around the idea of trying to get the user addicted on some level to using their platforms. For me however, I used it more as a much-needed reminder of how easy it is to be addicted to scrolling through endless feeds of posts and videos.

Watching The Social Dilemma also perfectly complimented my most recent reading material. Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media, which does what it says on the tin really. It cites the loss of your volition to technology and the inequitable financial situation which a world absolutely reliant on social media would likely find itself in. These to name just a couple of his most compelling arguments for deleting your accounts.

Lanier also appears alongside Shoshana Zuboff in the Netflix special. Despite Zuboff’s intricate study of Surveillance Capitalism, the former’s work is perhaps easier to understand for someone lacking in a more rounded technical knowledge like me. It also got me thinking about how I could write about my own experiences with social media without straying too far into the technicalities of how it all works. Perhaps, creating an uneducated personal account of social media under several sub-headings. Well here goes nothing I suppose.

Tempus Fugit

It’s another gloomy morning in Aberdeen and therefore, a perfect opportunity to sit down and get studying for an array of fast incoming deadlines. My smartphone is likely sitting on my desk, although I’ve recently got into the habit of laying it on the opposite side of my room to give my attention span a bit more of a chance. I start reading through my notes. Its 10am.

Just as I’m getting into my reading a notification pings loudly on the phone and I fall into the trap of checking my device with the aim of seeing who could possibly be contacting me. Suddenly another notification pings and several minutes later I’m scrolling through videos on Facebook or through various opinionated and outraged posts on Twitter, unforgivably leaving any slight willpower at my desk.

Finally, I switch my phone off, annoyed that I’ve likely eaten into maybe ten minutes off my study time. I check my bed side alarm. Its 10:45 and thus we have a terrifying example of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, in this case confined to a device the length of my index finger.      

No Need to Feel Bashful

We’ve all been there haven’t we. You’re at a party (pre Covid-19) trapped with someone you barely know and there’s a clear stiffness in the conversation or lack of one, which is proving awkward. Instead of asking the person a quirky question which could provide you with a means of reigning in the inherent awkwardness of the moment, you reach for your phone and begin to scroll aimlessly.

There are of course extroverted people out there who are great at creating discussion with someone which they don’t know too well. As of yet, I am generally not one of these people, particularly if I’m sober. It is common for me to enter such situations feeling bashful and uneasy. Feelings which I will regularly counter-balance by reaching for my mobile. A device (in both senses of the word) which has done more damage than good in the long-term because as long as I continue following this pattern of behavior, the less confident I’ll become in handling social situations. Therefore, leaving me in the vicinity of a Catch 22 situation.    

The Fear of Missing Out

In July 2014 I joined Facebook. I was almost 16 years old and had arrogantly thought of myself as some sort of maverick for shaking off the magnetism of social media in my formative years at secondary school.  As I built friends over the following months I was struck by the sudden urgency and seemingly endless desire to know what other people were up to.

By nature, I’m a curious (and perhaps nosey) person and I found that platforms such as Strava feed this personality trait. Strava, for the uninitiated, is an app which allows athletes to predominantly record their runs and cycles through the use of GPS which is then circulated around other athletes’ feeds. I used to be an avid user and it proved a highly effective personal tool for motivating me to go further and faster. On the flipside of this was an unhealthy obsession with comparing myself to other users on a daily basis.

 Strava became like a shrine of better cyclists and runners for me to worship and this soon fed into increasing anxiety which I was already starting to feel as a teenager studying for their Highers. This being comparable to a feeling of missing out or not being invited which I know many people, especially teens, experience on a regular basis through shared events and the subsequent pics on platforms like Facebook.    

Indestructible Bubbles

It is almost common knowledge that social media can feed the issue of becoming trapped in an echo chamber of your political views and values. This is one of the aspects of it which I think concerns me the most. After choosing to study Media Studies in my last year at school, I became fascinated with the idea of bias and started to question whether any news outlet could ever really exclaim that it was either truly fair or balanced.

I started reading newspaper articles online and read The Guardian on a regular basis, leaving other publications and news sites at the wayside in my quest to become more knowledgeable about news gathering and production. It wasn’t until we were shown Outfoxed in class one day that I became more aware of being sucked into a so-called news bubble and after attempting to make myself aware of alternative news sites, I realised that The Guardian was comparable to drawing a warm bath for someone whose values predominantly lean to the left (shock horror).

This has of course been amplified since then, following my decision to join Twitter two years ago. My Twitter feed quickly became largely dominated by a steady feed of left leaning articles, comment and a lot of faux outrage at the other side of the political spectrum. If and when a post from the likes of Nigel Farage does appear on my feed, I’ve developed the unhealthy habit of screenshotting it before sending it into a group chat where we can all become suitably outraged without actually taking any action outside ticking a box in a polling booth.    

Need to Know Now

One of the slight fears I have about trying to become a full-time paid journalist is the seemingly super human ability which many in the profession have for keeping up with an endless and ever-changing news cycle. It genuinely frightens me.

In order to keep across the news, we’re encouraged as journalism students to be across social media, checking local citizen news pages such as Fubar News, while most experienced journos seemingly find the time in their hectic workday to send out handfuls of fresh tweets.

As a form of practice for what may be to come, I find myself trying to keep up to date with the news at all times through a messy combination of social media feeds, news websites, rolling TV news and podcasts. This relatively recent drive for journalists to be across all forms of online media is also likely the very last bastion preventing me from quitting my social media if I ever actually took that action.    

No Sleep for the Wicked

In recent months I’ve discovered an unsurprising correlation between late night screen time and an interrupted sleep pattern. I would make a case that flicking through social media late at night not only makes me feel more awake in that moment, but also increases an anxiety which often visits when I’m lying in bed tossing and turning.

When the now denounced Louis CK commented on the inability of humans to sit still in a world with so much amazing technology at hand, it wasn’t just comedy. It is this struggle to be stuck with nothing but my thoughts and a dark room which leaves me teetering on the edge of panic and needing a distraction in the form of my phone.

Fortunately, I’ve gradually becoming better at swapping the sleep intolerant device for a book. When struggling to sleep as a child visiting my grandparents, my late grandfather would often hand me a novel and tell me to read it until I was tired. I find myself sleeping for longer and better after drifting off with a book in my hand.   

Keep in Touch

Last but not least, is what I would argue is the most significant hurdle for many social media users who have considered quitting their platforms. The need to keep in touch with those closest to you and to develop new contacts.

In the modern day, it is arguably a lot easier to give someone a quick follow and direct message than to exchange mobile numbers. Indeed, my mobile phone would be almost futile without its capacity for applications like messenger, my grandparents now being the only people I primarily contact without the use of an app.

This also feeds into the previous need to know now category, with it being of importance to me that I can comment or react to experiences which people are having and sharing on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. I think this can also be viewed as a method of trying to keep in touch in an increasingly digital world.

Conclusion

I realise this meandering essay of a blog post has solely focused on which negatives I associate with social media without the obvious positives which many platforms bring collectively and for me as an individual. For example, the irony that I will likely share this piece on three different accounts at a specific time of which I calculate most people will view it, is not lost on me.

There is however, more perceived downsides of the digital world which I would have preferably mentioned, but this essay of sorts is already too long. I’ll probably try and present the other side of the argument in another blog post in the near future. I hope you retweet this.    

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.

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.

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!