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.  

A Glen for the Less Cynical

I’m no dentist but as I face Shrek and Donkey with their, bulbous wide open eyes I can’t help but notice their truly terrifying teeth. Fiona is nowhere to be seen and nearby Barney the purple dinosaur looks like he’s been out on the town the night before. His mouth agape in a twisted smile as his beady black eyes stare into your soul.

Thankfully, these characters and their rotting teeth aren’t real, but are also not a part of a deeply weird dream. In reality its a bright Sunday afternoon in the countryside and several excitable kids are running their parents ragged around the 28 acre Den in the Glen. Otherwise known as Storybook Glen.

The three of us felt understandably out of place as we wandered around the grounds as childless adults, but curiosity kills the cat. I think we wanted to discover why this local attraction has received so much attention for ourselves. Receiving plenty of positive and negative recognition since its opening in the 1980s.

A 15 minute drive from Aberdeen, the Storybook Glen is located near Maryculter, a small village along the South Deeside Road to the west of the city. I have little recollection of visiting the park before, although my parents have informed me that I had previously visited as a chubby infant.

The Den includes a restaurant and soft play Centre, both currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, the Glen hosts 94 figures ranging from Humpty Dumpty and his wall to the cast of In the Night Garden. This huge collection of fictional characters are inarguably the most interesting commodity of the attraction.

Don’t get me wrong, several of the figures in the park are very well done. It also feels misplaced for a below par artist like myself to be so critical of the work on display at the Glen. At secondary school level my trees still looked quite dodgy and my hills looked like buttocks protruding into a sky of fluffy sheep. Basically, I’m no Picasso okay.

In truth, Cinderella looks quite resplendent in her well maintained sky blue dress, complete with horse drawn pumpkin carriage. Other highlights include its three miniature castles, a grinning tiger and Puff the Magic Dragon, which coincidentally is one of the only songs I could play on the violin. In a dark twist the tiger was apparently decapitated by a thief in 2012, but seems to have miraculously recovered quite well.

These caveats aside, its not too difficult to see why the well attended attraction aimed at young children has previously been labelled as nightmarish. As mentioned, everyone’s favourite purple dinosaur is quite terrifying and several others could definitely do with a fresh lick paint.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the park Fireman Sam looks like he’s suffered a particularly hard paper round and the Teletubbies look like they been eating too much tubby custard. Nearby, Postman Pat is joined by a red van which he would struggle to fit in with his colossally oversized noggin.

Pat and Sam are child’s play compared to the miniature Emerald Castle though, complete with a worse for wear lion, a tin man with little heart and a scarecrow who’s peeling nightmare of a face topped the lot.

Lisa Simpson does however, offer stiff competition to the Wizard of Oz gang, her saxophone attached to her featureless face for the rest of eternity. The older Simpson sister stands next to her brother, Bart, his eyes bulging out of his head as he balances on a skateboard with his eight fingers outstretched.

In 2011 the site bared witness to the shocking discovery of a dead body amongst its grounds in a darker dose of reality. The man in his 20s was initially mistaken for a vandalised figure by a family, before they discovered something much more horrifying than that on closer inspection.

There is however, a noticeable appeal to Storybook Glen, especially for those children who are easily captivated by the site of their favourite fictional characters all in the same place. We were lucky enough to get a nice day for our wee outing amongst its picturesque grounds, but I don’t think I quite rediscovered my childhood.

The Glen also homes a couple of pigs, some bunny rabbits and chickens, which seem to appear from thin air, in its Old Macdonald’s farm section for any animal lovers. But I’m not sure I would return anytime soon, even to go and see the real highland cow which we somehow managed to miss.

And yet, Storybook Glen was well worth a look around on a day when I didn’t have much else going. If nothing else, the staggering amount of caricatures offer a unique experience to its many visitors who are hopefully a little less cynical and younger than myself.

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.

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!

 

 

 

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/

 

That Road Trip Kind of Weekend

Last weekend was both enjoyable and surreal in equal measure. Over two days my girlfriend and I spent a huge amount of time traversing the North-East. We were able to show each other our local haunts from before we moved to the big city in search of fame of fortune. Well, to the moderately sized Aberdeen in search of a university degree actually but you get the idea.

The weekend, as it usually does, started on Friday evening when I picked Leah up from the slightly underwhelming student halls which we both stay in. Located quite near the city centre, I was pretty nervous at the idea of driving in the city, becoming even more of a country bumpkin when it comes to driving.

However, this part of the journey went relatively well as I carefully negotiated my way through countless traffic lights and lane changes before eventually reaching a nervous looking Leah at the entrance to the halls. I couldn’t tell if it was either getting in a car with me or the looming first meeting with my mum that was making her more anxious. I decided it was a likely a good mix of the two and I didn’t blame her.

Luckily, I was able to put her mind to rest (I think) as we reached my home village of sorts in good time. In fact, Braemar was looking very bonny in the fading light as the sun struggled to stay above the still snow covered Cairngorms mountains. We had made it in one piece.

The next morning the weather had changed drastically as even the smallest of local hills disappeared in low cloud, as heavy rain welcomed anyone who was brave enough to go outside. The next journey was to Banchory, my brother’s cricket being cancelled for obvious reasons. These reasons being weather related and not in relation to how dull cricket is (please write in).

Driving to Banchory involved some aqua planning at first, but the weather improved slightly as we travelled further down the Deeside Valley. I enjoyed pointing out the places I had worked along with both my primary and secondary schools to Leah. This in itself felt pretty bizarre as there had been a sudden blurring between my life in town at university, and my life at home.

Picking up my brother from my dad’s flat, I decided to give my poor girlfriend a more detailed tour of the Deeside Valley. If travelling through the rain soaked villages of Torphins, Lumphanan,Tarland and Ballater wasn’t exciting enough, the usually stunning views from the subtly named Queens View (near Tarland) weren’t at all visible.

Again, we made it back to Braemar in one piece, my driving duties for the weekend finished already. The only hiccup being an unfortunate change into third instead of fifth gear followed by a slight panic. My two unsympathetic passengers enjoyed this greatly, as my ego, bolstered by some good recent driving, was significantly deflated.

That evening we left Braemar for Huntly, my mum driving as she insisted it was the only way she would be able to stay awake. Are my only one who’s always found that logic slightly concerning? Anyway, we travelled the long road to Huntly to a party as I tried to convince myself I wasn’t feeling car sick. Nothing to do with mum’s driving of course.

So far, I’ve made it sound like we were forever on the move last weekend and although this isn’t totally accurate, we found ourselves awaiting a train to take us from Huntly to Keith later that night. Ourselves being my girlfriend and I, as my mum and brother made the winding journey back to Braemar. Their only company the darkness of the night and Magnus’s likely below par chat and tunes.

Arriving in Keith at just after 11 pm, I struggled to gather my bearings as Leah’s grandmother kindly gave us a lift back to her home village. Keith and its surrounds aren’t an area I know well at all, although all became clear the next morning as I peeked a look out an easterly facing window.

I could see the railway and many distillery barrels piled high beside the Inverness-Aberdeen line. There were some hills, but in comparison to Braemar the surrounding area was relatively flat. I found the fact you could see for a further distance quite refreshing. There’s something comforting about an open sky, even if the dull weather had continued from the day before.

It was after a lovely meal in Keith that we hit the road again. My girlfriend (not Jesus) taking the wheel for the second part of the road trip. We decided to go north towards the coast, with the small village of Sandend being the designated destination. After maybe ten minutes on the beach, with the wind blowing a hooley, we made the executive decision to return to the car. You wouldn’t have thought we were both raised in the North-east of Scotland.

After some thought we continued east along the coast, driving through Portsoy before I sent Leah along a nightmarish back road that I seemed to remember led to Whitehills. The road was winding, with little passing places but I was able to relax the driver with some well-timed Mcfly. While on the subject I feel pretty guilty I had control of the music, realising afterwards that someone controlling my music while I drove would likely be classed as a cardinal sin in my car.

Anyway, I wanted to show Leah Whitehills because that’s where I had spent the fist year of my life, in a house supposedly so close to the sea that the sea spray used to collect in the window frames on a stormy day. The only issue being that I hadn’t been to the small picturesque village in about ten years. So unable to identify where my old house was, we continued to the nearby Banff Links.

This is a place which has an equal amount of resonance for me as I remember spending many a happy day with my parents and grandparents here on family day trips back in my heyday (circa. 2006 maybe). My late grandfather pushing my brother and I on the swings. In those days I was a lot younger and I actually get motion sickness when going on a swing nowadays. I live a very crazy lifestyle.

We also managed to fit in a short trip across the bridge to Macduff, before heading back. My girlfriend wanted to show me the school she had attended and I was surprised to discover it has a smaller enrolment than Aboyne Academy (my school). I guess Aboyne must have a much larger catchment area.

Leah was even good enough to give me a lift back to Aberdeen that evening as a hugely enjoyable weekend came to a close. For the first time I had brought my life at university home and she had done the same. Surreal perhaps, yet there was a level of comfort in it. I think it was interesting for us to be able to pinpoint where some of our past individual memories were made. The places which likely shaped our two different backgrounds.