Sunday, 31 January 2016

Scotland by Rail - Dunnottar Castle - cliff walk from Stonehaven

Dunnottar Castle, a seriously good day out by rail. Only two and a half hours from our capital city to Stonehaven, then an hour walk to the castle.

train sketches - Burntisland to Stonehaven

 A beautiful journey by train up Scotland's east coast - the Forth Estuary and three Forth Bridges - the Fife coast; the wide bay of Burntisland, where I stay; the River Tay and Tay Bridge (look down at the remaining pillars from the collapsed old bridge); the coastline on the approach to Arbroath (look out for the miniature railway on the sea-side just before the town. In summer you often see a train pulling families along it); the red-sand Angus farmland; Montrose Basin - fantastic wetland site with Scottish Wildlife Trust visitor centre (if you're really really really lucky you might spot an osprey or even a sea eagle from the train. I've watched an osprey diving for fish whilst I was standing on platform 1). And then you're alighting in Stonehaven.

Montrose Basin - spot an osprey?

And three and a half hours after leaving Edinburgh you've walked along seabird cliffs above sweeping bay and are looking across to Dunnottar Castle on its almost-island clifftop plateau.

Dunnottar Castle, biro in sketchbook


From Stonehaven station

Take the main road east into the town centre passing lovely old houses, plant-filled front gardens - hardly any have yet been slabbed to replace wildlife with car. Fifteen minutes sees you in the town centre where you can start with a café break or choose which to visit after you've done your walk.

From Stonehaven town centre the walk is under two miles. Other than a first short uphill section out of the harbour it's really not strenuous.

Walk down to the shore path and turn right, following the sea until you reach the harbour. Overlooking the harbour is a 16th Century storehouse building which now houses the Tolbooth Museum - free entry. When you've explored continue along the inner harbour wall, buildings on your right, harbour on your left, until you see a brown sign to Dunnottar Castle on a wall somewhere. Follow the direction it points you in, through housing until you're on the steep path up to the clifftops. The sign isn't totally obvious so if you aren't clear just ask someone.

From up here it's easy. Head towards the hilltop war memorial along a well maintained path between two fields. When you get to the brow of that hill you'll see Dunnottar Castle, two bays away. If you're not keen on cliffs you can follow a fairly quiet country road to the castle car park instead.

Dunnottar Castle is open to visitors daily, currently costs £6 per adult. Check online and by phoning before you make your journey. There are toilets in the castle (though when we were there they closed ten minutes before castle-closing time) and in the summer season there's a picnic van on site (by the car park).

Slug Road

Stonehaven shore

Stonehaven harbour
follow this monument to reach Dunnottar

keep eyes open for peregrines

first glimpse

Dunnottar Castle

pen in sketchbook

The Whig's Vault. Pretty bad. Read the words in the next photo.



Great wildlife all along the shore and cliffs. Here's everything we saw between (and including) the harbour and the castle:

Black-headed Gull
Carrion Crow
Curlew - 30+
Fulmar - 90+
Guillemot - 1
House Sparrow
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Oystercatcher - 70+
Shag - 5
Hooded Crow/Carrion-Hooded hybrid - 2
Cormorant - 7+
Feral Pigeon
Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Peregrine - 1
Rock Pipit

Total number of species -  21

AND - dolphins! Four or more, fins rising and falling in the choppy waves. There for ten minutes or more. (At times whales have been seen from here too)

And quite a few grey seals.

dolphins were out beyond those rocks


A page from my book

We had it typically 'Scottish' this time - wet mist and drizzle. The castle looked stunning in it! But look at pages 35 - 36 of my book for a sunnier scene.

Landscapes & Birds of Scotland, an Artist's View cost s £20 from Jeremy Mills Publishing or ordered through your local bookshop. Signed copies available directly from me or from lovely independent bookshop Far From the Madding Crowd, Linlithgow.

page 36

page 35


How to get there

Stonehaven is two to two and a half hours by train from Edinburgh Waverley, just under an hour from Dundee, and under twenty minutes from Aberdeen.

Find the ScotRail timetable here.

Many thanks to ScotRail for their invaluable support of my Scotland by Rail work.



Saturday, 23 January 2016

2016 - January BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow to Philpstoun

Linlithgow Canal Basin - the start of my count
Although I haven't been getting round to blogging it I do still carry out my monthly British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count on the Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun.

WeBS is a UK-wide count of waterbirds, carried out each month by around 3,000 volunteers. The science gathered is vitally important in the conservation of populations and habitat.

Because of our relatively mild winters a lot of these waterbird species come here from their Arctic breeding territories and either spend the whole winter with us or feed up then continue southwards. Winter is definitely the best time to see waterbirds on my particular count route, because of the flood field. Flood field (my name) lies a kilometre west of Philpstoun and during winter becomes, well, flooded. Birds flock to it. Today it held 153 wigeon, 5 greylag geese, 15 mallards, 1 curlew, 2 black-headed gulls, 2 herring gulls, 1 buzzard, 1 starling.

spot (some of) the 153 wigeon

5 greylag geese

Over the past four years I've counted lapwings, oystercatchers, grey wagtails, pied wagtails, pink-footed geese, moorhens, coots, common gull, lesser black-backed gull, teal, shelduck, pochard, grey heron, all on the flood field, some of them in very high numbers. And snipe. It's the only place I've ever found to fairly regularly see and watch snipe, though they're small and camouflaged and a telescope would be very helpful!

Unfortunately every spring/summer I look at fresh drainage channels being dug and water draining to be replaced by cows which surely often trample the breeding attempts of the lapwings that try to nest there. (On which - aren't lapwings wonderful! Watch the short clip half way down this old blog post.)

I wish there was a way for flood field, even just its flooded centre, to be set aside and developed as a mini wetland nature reserve. There's an ideal spot for a bird hide up on the canal bank and people could leave vehicles in the car park at Park Farm then make the short walk along, finishing off afterwards with coffee and cake in The Park Bistro. Or they could travel by water taxi. Many people use this stretch of canal, by bike and foot - and barge! - and would stumble upon the hide. The hide and reserve could become a feature and a selling point for Scottish Canals and Linlithgow Union Canal Society and The Park Bistro.

mute swan, no ring

Elsewhere along the canal today I saw little in the way of waterbirds:

- 2 goosander, one male one female

- 4 mute swans
(- two unringed adults on canal in area of the first road bridge west of Philpstoun.
- two adults just west of Philpstoun bings. Smaller one unringed. Larger one with light green ring, black letters PLF.)

- 1 cormorant flying overhead following the line of the canal east to west, then veering right to head presumably towards its fellows on Linlithgow Loch.

2 reed buntings (almost definitely several more)

And ALL birds seen along my route today:

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Buzzard - 1
Collared Dove - 2
Curlew - 1
Feral Pigeon
Goldcrest - 3
Goosander - 2
Great Tit
Greylag Goose - 5
House Sparrow
Linnet - 40
Mute Swan - 4
Robin - 2
Song Thrush - 2
Treecreeper - 1
Carrion Crow
Coal Tit
Cormorant - 1
Goldfinch - 5
Great Spotted Woodpecker - 1
Greenfinch - 4
Herring Gull
Long-tailed Tit
Mallard - 17
Pink-footed Goose
Reed Bunting
Wigeon - 153

Total - 41 species

old nest by the canal-side

earthstars are among my favourite fungi. Such alien shapes. I think this is a collared earthstar (Geastrum triplex)...
I think this is a collared earthstar (Geastrum triplex)...

For scale. (Hand is human not hobbit, I don't think he ever wore it on that finger. And we wouldn't see the hand anyway.)

only a second before I pressed 'take' there was a treecreeper on the right of that main trunk and a goldcrest on the stump on the left

from the top of the more northerly Philstoun shale bing, smoke puff trees

Has anyone lost Hamish? I have his tag.

Older WeBS canal count posts by clicking the BTO WeBS wetland bird count link on the left hand side of blog.

23rd Jan 2016

Friday, 15 January 2016

on 'stage' with Jim Crumley & Malachy Tallack at the first ever Further From Festival, Linlithgow, 10.30am, 6th Feb 2016

I'm very excited to be appearing with Jim Crumley and Malachy Tallack at the inaugural Further From Festival in Linlithgow on Saturday 6th February, 10.30am.

Jim Crumley
- is long established and highly respected nature writer, journalist and poet. You've probably heard him on the radio and read him in the press. Saraband publish his beautifully produced Encounters in the Wild series, and also his Nature's Architect, about beavers, and The Eagle's Way, about, ah, eagles.

- is a writer, editor and singer-songwriter from Shetland. His first book is Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home. Last year it ran as Book of the Week on Radio 4, and Robert Macfarlane praises it as "a brave book ... and a beautiful book". More than enough to make you go out and buy a copy.

Further From
- is a new venture from Linlithgow's fantastic independent bookshop, Far From The Madding Crowd.

- Liz Lochhead, Tam Dalyell, Ron Butlin, Shirley McKay, Nick Sharratt are some of the others taking part. Full details in the attached programme and online here
- Tickets for our event cost £8. Bookings and queries to Phone - 01506 845 509.

- Join the event on Facebook here.

Happy New Year!


Monday, 30 November 2015

Scotland by Rail - Stow - sheep, river, well, 5 dippers.

My second trip on Scotland's new Borders Railway.

My first ever visit to Stow.


Stow is third most southerly station on the line. Second most southerly  is Galashiels, most southerly is Tweedbank. See my Tweedbank post here -

It's small, definitely a village, sitting soft in a valley of low round hills. I walked most of the streets, beyond all the houses to the graveyard, along river to a Roman well, then a longer circle to gain height and open the view.

1 - village
Stow has churches, ruined and not; character houses; a grand old town hall. There's an all-in-one village shop & Post Office, and an airy and bright café-gallery next door. Very relaxed. Very nice scones.


Gala Water, Stow

jackdaw & church

2 - graveyard
Walk a short way east past the café and uphill to an interesting sloped cemetery, just at the beginning of farmland.


3 - ancient well
Walking south along the nastily busy A7 main road the last building is St Mary of Wedale, Church of Scotland - look up at the spouting gargoyles. Across the road and directly opposite the church is Stow's three-arch packhorse bridge, built by public subscription in 1655. Fences were up when I was there. The bridge seems to be off-limits.

there are very nice gargoyles up there. at the top

since 1655

recognise these sheep? Scroll back up. Same flock.


No matter, immediately beyond the bridge-site you're led to safety over a fence and down to the river. Safe from cars anyway, maybe not from mud. A there-&-back path runs by the water for half a mile to a natural well which has been used since late-Roman times. In lambing season this path may be out-of-bounds.

that trunk! boled over.

"The shadows where the mewlips dwell..."

on rail-side walks - check timetable before choosing toilet spot.

On that short stretch of river was a heron, a moorhen, three mallards, two grey wagtails. (Grey wagtails are the yellow ones. Well, on top they're grey, but it's the canary-yellow unders that you notice. They're birds of water - stream and shore. Pied wagtails are the black & white that you see all over - supermarket car parks, for example. Both wag their tails. Jennifer says it's because they're happy.)

Also five dippers - a surprisingly high number. The next night I dreamed of being on the same walk and counting six. Some would say I shouldn't admit such things. I've seen some seriously exciting owls in my dreams too.
spot the heron

spot the dipper (it's that white spot. well, its chest)

spot the closer white spot (it's a dipper. well, its chest.)

At the well

Our Lady's Well wears a stone cowl and sits within a dry-stone ring. The internet tells me various and conflicting things so I'll stick with the information panel which states that this natural well has been known since late-Roman times. I think that its current dry-stoning was a project for the Millenium.

I sat and made a drawing in pencil, and a really quick one in pen.

a really quick one in pen

Our Lady's Well, a drawing in pencil

At first glance the crystal water seems absolutely motionless in its stone trough but as you look longer you see bubblings and ripplings constantly stir (very gently) the sandy sediment. The surface itself is seldom stirred - only when a bubble or two escapes from below. 

The well. That stuff that you can't see is the water. The sand, stone, sticks - they're below it. The sycamore leaves, beech leaves, fern fragment - they're floating on top of it.

4 - the hills
The longer part of my day took me out of the village and upwards in a three or four mile circle. I wasn't following a laid-out route so I won't describe it in detail. There must be many options for circles in these hills so best use your own O.S. and decide what you fancy. A lot of this land is fieldland so there are gates to be sure you close, and  farm activities & livestock will probably force you to flex route at times.

A sort-of summary:

- start on the road bridge that passes above the end of Stow station platform.

- follow the road a very short way uphill, away from the village.

- turn right, not left. A little blue Sustrans cycleway marker is there on a post.

- follow this quiet road for over a mile, looking down on the railway and the Gala Water on your right. Fields slope upwards on your left. Fieldfares, redwing, mistle thrush and blackbirds were feasting on berries, and two goldfinches on dead thistleheads. A pheasant frighted, flew up only metres from my feet, smashed horribly into the railway fencing before managing to get through and away, wings frantic.


- find a suitable spot to leave the road and work your way uphill. Again, there are fences and walls which need to be followed until they reveal suitable ways across. I ate my lunch up here, sheltered from the fierce wind by a long stone boundary wall, facing a beech that was not sheltered at all.

looking north ish

lunch spot

prevailing wind?

A helicopter flew over while I ate my lunch

a helicopter flying over while I was eating my lunch

- on the very summit is a northwest-to-southeast string of three summits (very small ones!). Follow this line from Cottie Hill (352metres) to Cribbilaw Hill (350metres) to Stagehall Hill (300metres). Down by a stream in the valley on your right are the mounded remains of a castle - Ewes. Hills roll back and back beyond it. All along this stretch were lots lots of fungi. Waxcaps especially, and quite a number of stubby black ones (but not dead man's fingers).

the next valley (south-west of the ridge)

along the ridge, Cottie, Cribbilaw and Stagehall Hills

Not dead man's fingers, because that grows on dead wood... Maybe a "Geoglossum, maybe G. cookeianum, which grows in short turf. However, they have a velvet appearance, which would be more typical of Trichoglossum hirsutum. See Roger Phillips book of Mushroom photos, page 275 in my old edition." ... - Thank you David!

waxcaps - David?

well! Another one.

- find a way back down from Stagehall Hill to the quiet road, then return to the station. Hopefully with time for the cafe.

stile approaching Stagehall Farm


the quiet road, tree tunnel

Train sketches 

pen in sketchbook

pen in sketchbook


How to get there:

There are two trains an hour from Edinburgh Waverley to Stow.
Find the ScotRail timetable here.

Many thanks to ScotRail for their invaluable support of my Scotland by Rail work.