Saturday, 3 March 2018

Scotland By Rail - Haymarket to Craiglockhart Woods & Hill

Wherever I go I try to work walks into my plans. If I have a meeting or I'm running a workshop or I'm delivering a painting or I'm visiting a friend, I look at the Ordnance Survey to see what green spaces I can find. Nature spots are everywhere and it's so satisfying discovering them, so much nicer walking through and along them than rather than sticking to the most obvious main-road routes.

Each month through autumn, winter, spring, the RSPB Edinburgh Local Group puts on an evening talk at Napier University's Craiglockhart campus, two and a half miles from Haymarket station. From Haymarket I could get the bus, taking half an hour, costing £1.60. Not bad but I prefer to leave home at least an hour earlier and walk from the station instead. I've gradually honed my walking route to maximise nature and minimise road, I use canal and residential streets and nature reserve with woodland, hill, pond. A really interesting varied walk.

The Route:

- exit Haymarket station
- walk briefly along Dalry Road
- up Dalry Place (Where I lived my first two years. Admire the gardens of the colony houses.)
- turn right along Morrison Crescent, cross the busy Western Approach Road (there's a crossing.)
- cross Fountainbridge and walk up Gilmore Park (where the new Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop will be)
- turn right onto Union Canal at Leamington Lift Bridge, keep on the towpath for more than a mile
- exit canal where North Meggetland Road crosses the canal by bridge
- turn right onto Colinton Road
- turn left onto Lockharton Gardens which soon becomes Lockharton Crescent
- on your left pass through a small gate into the trees. This is Craiglockhart Woods and Hill, a Local Nature Reserve (LNR)

Craiglockhart Woods and Hill, Local Nature Reserve

As you enter the woods turn right and follow paths through the trees. Soon you come to a small patch of marsh and then Craiglockhart pond. Look on the pond for swan, moorhen, coot, mallard, tufted duck and - when I did the walk the other week - a water rail padding silently through the reeds. This was 21st February, a pair of swans were already a good way through building a nest. A third, younger, swan seemed almost to be helping them.

nest building on Craiglockhart pond

Spot the water rail. Well, just about. Water rail tail anyway. Just about.

From the pond make your own explorations, there are various footpaths to follow. I usually take a steep path up to a high point looking over city to the west and golf course to the east. I spend some time sitting and watching up there then follow a path downhill towards the university. From my high point further footpaths will take you all the way up and around Easter Craiglockhart Hill, if you wish.

To get to Napier Craiglockhart campus follow the pond-level footpath south until it emerges onto Glenlockhart Road. Ahead you'll see the uni and its spaceship lecture theatre. Alternatively continue your walk by taking the footpath/track immediately east of the uni buildings. This leads up onto more golf course from where you can explore Wester Craiglockhart Hill. Jackdaws nest on the cliffs under landslip-prevention wire and further along there are lots of wild raspberries in summer.


Come to my Edinburgh talk - 20th March 2018, Craiglockhart campus, Napier Uni

RSPB Edinburgh Local Group puts on lots of talks and walks. Details by clicking here

My talk:

Title: Landscapes & Birds of Scotland - An Artist's View

Time: arrive 7pm - 7.30pm, talk starts at 7.30 pm

Price: members £2, non-members £3, under 16s free (includes refreshments)


How to get there

Haymarket is the station immediately before Waverley as your train arrives into Edinburgh.

Timetables and 'Buy Tickets' options on ScotRail website.

Many thanks to ScotRail for enabling my Scotland by Rail work.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Nature of Winter - Jim Crumley (Saraband, 2017)

After Jim Crumley's talk at the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival last August I sat on the train home with my new copy of his book The Nature of Winter. I was trying to begin at the beginning. When Jim gave me the book a few hours earlier I'd persuaded myself not to flick through in search of mention of a Firth of Forth whale watching day we shared in Fife back at the start of the year. More exciting to just come upon it as I read, if it was there at all. I restrained my curiosity through the first page, a painter's eye rendering of a portrait of forty-five little egrets, beautifully described. Got a quarter of the way through the second page, came to the phrase, "an artist's canvas". Artist's. Decided a quick check of the Contents page was acceptable. Chapter Six - Whale Watch (1): The Narwhal in the Sky. Chapter Ten - Whale Watch (2): The Humpback's Back. That second was what I wanted, the whale in the Forth was a humpback. 

But do things in order, six comes before ten. I flicked to page 76, scanned the chapter. Not a du nor a Feu in sight. Chapter ten, starting page 145. The humpback was there. The Forth was there. By the time we reached home I'd finished the chapter and on the second last page - du and Feu side by side in that order and preceded by a Leo. A lot of excitement for one half hour.

Two months passed, a baby appeared, a few more months passed. A January day of snow came and I picked Jim's book up again, began reading it on my train journeys and sometimes out loud at home to Oren. Jim is one of his favourite authors. As long as I stick my tongue out a lot whilst reading. 

In The Nature of Winter Jim talks about the fact that the nature of winter is changing. It is changing, it has changed, it will keep changing. There's not really very much winter about it any more. How is this shift to unreliable winters (unreliable weather year round! - climate chaos.) going to affect wildlife? How is it already affecting wildlife? Jim has been watching nature for a lot of years, he knows his local territory - and much of Scotland - as well as anyone, more than almost everyone. In this newest book he charts and discusses the changes this intimate knowledge enables him to notice.

Jim's books are intelligent, thoughtful, great reads. They teach you, they make you wonder. They make you feel you're out there, sitting silently beside Jim as you watch that ghostly male hen harrier over the RSPB Insh Marshes, as you storm-shelter with young swallows and martins behind a silver birch in ancient hazel woods on Mull's west coast, as you settle in a February corrie watching that pair of ravens play with a snowbow. And they are witty, funny. I laughed out loud at Jim's silent dismay as he finds himself in a bar, heading towards yet another "a buzzard or an eagle?" conversation with a pint-gulping stranger.

Yesterday morning - snowdrops and lion-headed aconites massed in woods and gardens, daffodils preparing to be next out, chaffinches and tits and thrushes in full spring song - I came to the end of The Nature of Winter and there on the last page were another du and another Feu, side by side, in that order. Preceded by a Leo. Back on that August train it hadn't crossed my mind to flick further, all the way to Acknowledgements. Thanks Jim!

The Nature of Winter and Jim's other inspiring reads:

Whale watching with Jim:

Jim's whale - humpback in the Forth, 18th Feb 2017, oil, 20x40cm

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Scotland By Rail - Dalry Ayrshire - station paintings now complete

Four months ago I was close to completion of my 4ftx4ft paintings for Dalry station in Ayrshire. Then baby came along and caused a quarter of a year pause.

Now at last I'm getting back into it and with just a little help (see bottom of this post) panel six of six is complete. Here are my original mock-ups (above) plus a few details from the finished works (below). More and better photos once the paintings have been installed.

This project was proposed and made possible by Dalry Station Garden Group (DSGG), funded by the ScotRail Cultural and Arts Fund. 

Dalry station is an inspiring example of how much positive change can be made by just a few dedicated individuals - all volunteers. DSGG has planted native berry-bearing woodland, meadowland for pollinators. They've created mini ponds and insect hotels and put up nest boxes. They've brought poetry and sculpture and now painting to the station. Well done DSGG!


Previous Dalry blog posts

Lynn Glen walk 

Hare unveiling & River Garnock walk 

Blair Estate walk 

Nearby RSPB Lochwinnoch 


How to get there

Trains to Dalry take half an hour from Glasgow Central. Mon-Sat there are 3 per hour from Glasgow - 2 going to Ayr, the other to Ardrossan Harbour. Hourly on Sundays.

Double check 'Ayrshire, Inverclyde & Stranraer Timetable' and 'Buy Tickets' on ScotRail website.

Many thanks to ScotRail for enabling my Scotland by Rail work.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Scotland By Rail - Visit Fife - A whale in the Forth (again)

the tale of the tail of the whale

**** NEWSFLASH - as I finish writing this post confirmed sightings of two whales have started coming through. Saturday 20th Jan, 12.30pm. ****

Visit Fife - The Forth Humpback

If you've been considering a trip to the Fife coast I say do it now. For the past two weeks we've had a humpback whale in the Forth, being sighted and photographed almost every day. I've been out looking six or seven times and have glimpsed it or more on four of those occasions. Some days only blows and back and dorsal fin are seen but I've twice seen huge splashes and tail, once three tail slaps in quick succession. Some people have seen full out-of-the-water breaches.

It seems likely that the humpback we've been watching this year is the same individual which spent several months in the Forth in early 2017. Possibly a young male who discovered fine fishing here and has decided to come back. Until someone gets a good tail photo with which those in the know can attempt identification we don't know for sure. 

Click here for sketches and oil paintings from the 2017 whale.

My most recent sighting was on Thursday this week when Jim Crumley and I were out searching. Six hours brought us five minutes of whale. Totally worth it. And a couple of cafes. Listen to Jim with Edi Stark, Karine Polwart and Alan Rowan on Radio Scotland's Winter Weekend programme broadcast on Friday 19th January. Jim talks about our whale in the first few minutes but I recommend the whole programme for Gavin Maxwell, live song, mountains by night. Read about the 2017 Forth whale, and the 1893 Tay whale, in Jim's The Nature of Winter (published Saraband Books 2017).

we didn't just look at whales. birds are good too.
bar-tailed godwits, ringed plover, one dunlin. Burntisland shore

bar-tailed godwits, ringed plover, one dunlin pretending to be a ringed plover, one oystercatcher. Burntisland shore
huge raft of shags, 250+


Come and see!

With wildlife there of course are no guarantees but come to Fife and spend time sea-scanning - maybe four or five hours or maybe only ten minutes - and your chances are at least half good. Look for big splashes or a dark hump far away or, usually easiest to spot, an unexpected puff of smoke - the blow. Or if you're super-lucky, a dirty great whale rocketing out of the waves. Then get the binoculars and watch more closely. I find removing the distraction of a bright sky by wearing a peaked hat makes scanning much easier. Please be responsible, don't go trying to fly your drone over the whale or getting too close in a boat.

no whale this time


Whale watch from where?

There are lots of places to try. If travelling by train I suggest:


Whale-watch at:
- car park of Carousel Coffee Shop, two minute walk from station. High up, panoramic view
- Pettycur Bay car park, fifteen ish minute walk from station. Sea level
Warm up at:
- Community Centre Coffee Shop - great homebaking, top empire biscuits, incredibly cheap prices
- Carousel Coffee Shop - panoramic sea view


Whale-watch at:
- Lammerlaws headland, ten ish minute walk from station, south of Beacon Leisure Centre
Warm up at:


Whale-watch at:
- Hawkcraig point - ten ish ish minute walk from station, at west end of Silversands Bay
Warm up at:
- Sands, a Place the Sea - cafe with sea view
- McTaggart's - cafe on Aberdour High Street, two minutes from station

People have also reported sightings from Cramond, Granton and elsewhere along the Lothian shore.

Forth Marine Mammal Project Facebook group is the place to go for up-to-the-minute sighting info


Please help save our sea life:

rig Rowan Gorilla VI (the three-legged one) sitting on the deck of heavy lift vessel Blue Marlin (the red one) 

Rowan Gorilla VI on Blue Marlin

spot the whale? me neither.

Inchmickery island. spot the whale? (you really can this time.)

East Lothian lights from Fife - Bass Rock and Fidra


Travelling by train

Thirty to forty minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley, trains twice hourly during the day Mon to Sat, approx hourly Sunday and evenings. 

'The East Coast & Fife' timetable and 'Buy Tickets' options on ScotRail website.

Many thanks to ScotRail for continuing to support my ongoing Scotland by Rail work.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

painting Gaskan - Loch Shiel - Wildernesse - Mike Tomkies (Brigitte Bardot, Doris Day, Elvis Presley?)

Last year our friends Anne and Steve commissioned this painting of Gaskan, the Loch Shiel cottage once lived in by nature writer and naturalist Mike Tomkies and which Anne and Steve now take care of.

In Mike Tomkies' writings Gaskan was renamed Wildernesse. Unfortunately I can't tell you more than that as I've not (yet) read any of his books. I pass you instead to the trusty hands of Jim Crumley (whose wildlife writings I have read and hope you have/will too - click here). Jim wrote Mike's obituary for The Scotsman newspaper. Thanks Jim for being happy for me to paste your words here.


The Scotsman, 21st October 2016
Obituary: Mike Tomkies, nature writer who immersed himself in the wildest of terrain

Mike Tomkies, wildlife writer and campaigner, former guardsman and freelance journalist. Born West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, 25 May, 1928. Died Henfield, West Sussex, 6 October, 2016, aged 88.

Mike Tomkies was a warrior for nature. For the last 50 of his 88 years he championed nature’s cause through an uncompromising series of books set in some of the wildest terrain of Canada and Spain, but most memorably, in the West Highlands of Scotland which he loved fiercely, and where he lived in extremes of isolation.

He returned in later life to Henfield in West Sussex, the landscape of much of his childhood and youth, and where his love of nature was born and nourished. It was there he died after collapsing at a small nature reserve which was in his care. He had been suffering from prostate cancer and pneumonia, but his bond with the natural world was unbreakable to the last.

In his best-known book, A Last Wild Place, he had written: “Great natural beauty is a powerful creative force for thought . . . In the old still silences, intuition, perception and all the spiritual qualities that distinguish man, that make him able to see himself and the universe in perspective, are enhanced.”

The book chronicles a year in the mountains and woods around his home on Loch Shiel. It was an isolated cottage whose only access was on foot or by boat. Its name was Gaskan, but, characteristically, he changed it to Wildernesse, for in his books he often renamed the features of the landscape and creatures wild and domestic. So there is a Guardian Mountain, a Heron Island, the Killer Trek; and that sense of theatricality extended to the names he gave to the creatures he admired most, the golden eagles. Of one of these, a huge dark female, he wrote: “I felt as might a mountain hare, rabbit or grouse on first catching sight of her – here was the veritable shadow, the dark angel of death . . . She was moving like some ethereal goddess of the aerial chase, and in that brief moment I thought of a good name for her – Atalanta, after the fleet mythological Greek goddess of the Calydonian Hunt, who, as is also true in the eagle world, could outdistance and more than had the measure of any male of her species!”

The detail of his observations in that singularly demanding landscape and the sheer physical slog his fieldwork entailed are ingrained in the minds of every reader. He was never the most lyrical of nature writers, but he had an unfailing narrative sense, and a talent for immersing his readers deep into his own world; he made them care about the creatures whose company he kept.

Our paths first crossed in 1982 when I was a feature writer on the Edinburgh Evening News and he was promoting his book, Golden Eagle Years. I was writing a lot of wildlife and environment-based journalism, and from that moment until we lost touch more than 20 years later, he took great interest in my work and encouraged me relentlessly.

Mike Tomkies was first of all a soldier in the Coldstream Guards, serving in the Middle East and then (incongruously to anyone who came to know him in his Wildernesse years) at Buckingham Palace. He became a newspaper journalist, firstly in and around London, then in Paris and Madrid, and then in Hollywood where he wrote about and sometimes befriended a whole galaxy of movie stars. His first two books were about Robert Mitchum and John Wayne.

He briefly dated Ava Gardner, he claimed to have saved Elvis Presley’s life by stopping him from falling off a fairground carousel, he went motor cycling with Steve McQueen, and he knew Sophia Loren, Doris Day, Claudia Cardinale and many others. He fondly recalled a conversation he once had with Brigitte Bardot about loneliness.

But it was the English actress Alexandra Bastedo who won his heart. When they eventually parted after a filming contract forbade her to marry for three years, he went off to the Canadian west to write a novel, and the experience would change his life forever.

The novel was written but never saw the light of day. Instead, his head was turned by wilderness. He built himself a log cabin, and became entranced by the bears, bald eagles and whales of Canada’s western seaboard. The book he wrote about that, Alone in the Wilderness, gave nature a new disciple, and a new and persuasive voice.

A chance find on a Canadian rubbish dump re-shaped his destiny and its landscape. It was a battered copy of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. He was so taken with it that he moved back to Britain with the idea of meeting Maxwell and working with him, only to discover when he got here that Maxwell had died the previous year.

He looked for his own Camusfearna, and found something like it on Eilean Shona, a tidal island on the Sunart coast. His time there was the basis of Between Earth and Paradise, but by the time he had written that and Golden Eagle Years, he had gone in search of wilder surroundings and found them at Gaskan, and it was there that he wrote the books that cemented his reputation, from A Last Wild Place in 1984 to Last Wild Years in 1992.

When he finally left there, it was to find a new base in the Scottish Borders, but something irretrievable was lost, and it was probably true to say that a drinking habit as uncompromising as so many other traits of his life had begun to take its toll. His writing career went quiet and he made wildlife videos and TV films. But in 2001 he met Caithness-based publisher Keith Whittles and since then new editions of his out-of-print works, and two volumes of autobiography revived his fortunes. What proved to be his final wildlife book, Running Wild, was published in 2014 when he was 86.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Exhibition - Postcards from the Line. Linlithgow, until 21 Nov

a square of rainbow, watercolour, 15x21cm

Every year my hometown gallery and first gallery I ever exhibited with runs Postcards from The Line. An exhibition of (357!) artworks, all A5 or under, all £100 or under, all unframed. From 35+ artists across Scotland, UK, overseas.

The exhibition runs until 21st November at:

The Line Gallery
238 High Street, Linlithgow, EH49 7EF

Tues - Fri 10 - 5
Sat 9 - 5
Sun 1 - 4

If you're interested in buying any of my ten postcard artworks please contact Gail and Elizabet at the Line by emailing or phoning +44 (0)1506 670 268.

Torry dolphins - 2, watercolour, 15x21cm

Torry dolphins - 1, watercolour, 15x21cm

Torry dolphins - 3, watercolour, 21x15cm

puffin day, 5.30pm, pencil, 15x21cm

razorbills, 5.30pm, pencil, 15x21cm

wheatear, two winter guillemots, ink, 15x21cm

oystercatcher camouflage, rockpooling, watercolour, 15x21cm

red boat, watercolour, 15x21cm

and to warm up after all that Scottish sea, a touch of Italy...

Castelforte prickly pear, watercolour, 15x21cm