Sunday, 19 February 2017

Mudlarks and fossils

We took the children out for the regular weekend wander - Aberlady this week, with the promise of fossils and Kit-Kats, and I found myself wondering: why? And what will stick?

Slipping and sliding in the tidal mud, caught between trust and the anxiety of thinking for yourself as you follow me out to the ancient bones of scuttled boats, rotten ribs spilling their last meal of rocks, hoping the quicksand doesn't get you?

The bubbling call of a curlew is wild music that grips me with a spasm of longing and loss, I don't know why. Oystercatchers carry me back to summer nights far inland, lying in the dark, the sound of a Cairngorm-born river outside. What will they mean for you?

"Where's the sea?" you ask. We can only hear it, far out across the sand and mud flats. You see, the further out the tide goes, the faster it comes in. Maybe approaching walking pace across Aberlady Bay.

It's cold. Your auntie found a coral fossil but you didn't. How much further is it? No, you're too big to carry now.

Did you overhear the joke we made about building a house with bricks foraged from the foreshore? Only half a joke because I'm running out of illusions about where we are and where we're going, and I'm looking for new stories with less cheap comfort and more scope for action.

The world is changing but it isn't coming to an end, and that's the frightening thing. The future doesn't look like it will be an upgraded version of the present. In the same way, evolution is widely misunderstood: it's not about getting better, improving in some objective sense. It's about adapting to the conditions. Nor is it a process of smooth and gradual change; instead, periods of stability are punctuated by times of rapid change, as conditions break down and clever adaptations become useless, redundant. The parameters of the game are reset. Your move.

So we have to choose carefully what to do, what is worth keeping, and what to let go, with an honest eye to what the situation requires, with an eye to the world outside our culture.

Because whatever you think, this is your home for life. Remember that and you might be okay.

More information about looking for fossils at Aberlady can be found here. Please note Aberlady is an SSSI so do read the information in the link about responsible fossil hunting.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


The wind was from the east, so I headed west - far west. It was only at Glen Coe that the grey sheet of cloud started to fray and tatter. A ferry hop at Corran across to Ardgour, then a drive along the coast into Morvern, onto a tiny B-road, hugging the cliffs, landed me at the foot of sunny Glen Galmadale. The biggest mountains in Morvern are here, Fuar Bheinn and, overlooking the head of the glen, the craggy cone of Creach Bheinn, looking every bit of its 853 metres from down here at sea level. It's a late start and I know I'll still be out when it's dark.

Fuar Bheinn first. There's something a little Himalayan about this climb. Steep shoulders rise from the glen to an airy ridge, leading steeply to the snowy summit, white on blue, my favourite colour combo. My route takes me across the Allt an t-Seasglaich, draining Fuar Bheinn's wild southeastern corrie. Holly trees cling to the steep sides of the burn.

The east ridge is corniced to the north, dropping precipitously to the dark, cold boulders and snowfields of the northeast-facing corrie. A short clamber over granite outcrops and I'm at the top for soup and sandwiches and a long view down to Loch Linnhe.

Crampons on for the descent vaguely northwards, curving around to the long, white, bouldery slopes of Creach Bheinn. The wind is ramping up now. The climb seems long and I start to feel exhausted. Not as fit as I think I am, not for these conditions anyway. I need to watch myself here. My mind flicks back to the winter skills course I did last year. I stop, take a minute to myself, pull on a belay jacket, warming up and feeling a little better straight away.

Onwards and upwards, the sun sinking into high clouds behind me. Fuar Bheinn looks fine from here - small but perfectly formed.

I find some meagre shelter on the summit of Creach Bheinn for another glug of soup and to check the map for the safest way off. There are many potential traps for the weary. A serious mountain this one.

Crampons on again to descend a steep and bouldery ridge towards the bealach, cliffs on both sides. The gusts are quite vicious now. A couple of times I feel it catch my rucksack like a sail, try to lift my feet off the ground. I just keep focusing on the safe ground below at the bealach where, fortuitously, the wind is much less.

A final stop to get my breath back. The light is going fast, faintest shades of pink on the massive tent shape of Garbh-bheinn. The drama over, I just feel tired now and impatient to get back down. It's a long descent to the glen, and can't be rushed. I'm all alone so give full voice to my feelings as I fight through huge tussocks and bogs and leg cramps to the burn. Then a torch-lit river crossing and final miles under masses of stars.