Saturday, 18 October 2014

Scotland by Rail - Dumbarton, October 2014

Dumbarton Castle 
 - more accurately Dumbarton Rock - stands tall and dramatic on the south shore of the town of Dumbarton. A volcanic plug, a fantasy fortress, sheer cliff sides splitting at the top into two grassed domes. Bits of battlement and building are visible from afar.


I've admired the rock often when travelling north on the West Highland Lines to Oban or Fort William, or to Jennifer's parents' in Garelochead. I was recently speaking to the Helensburgh branch of the Saltire Society and we decided to make a weekend of it, including a visit to Dumbarton by train. If coming from Glasgow you're spoiled for choice - two trains an hour from Queen Street Low Level platforms, and three stations to choose from when reaching Dumbarton: Dumbarton East is a kilometre from the castle; Dumbarton Central about a kilometre and a half; Dalreoch about two kilometres.

We chose Dalreoch, walking briefly south from the station to cross the River Leven by the Old Dumbarton Bridge rather than the modern and heavily traffic-ed A814 bridge. Old Dumbarton Bridge was built in 1765 on the orders of the Duke of Argyll, keen to have access to Glasgow from his nearby Rosneath estate.

After a short distance on riverside path beside lovely winter-plumaged (no black heads - & in fact even in breeding season the 'black' is actually rich chocolate brown) black-headed gulls preening on the railings we joined the High Street and found a nice friendly cafe with soup for Jennifer and scone for me. Rigo's Bistro -

From here Dumbarton Rock is only a fifteen minute walk past what was once a large distillery complex and is now waste ground, then past supermarket superstore, then past recent housing estates. Use a map or if you don't mind a few dead ends just keep your eyes on the castle and navigate by instinct.

Dumbarton Rock, pencil in sketchbook, 15x20cm

Dumbarton Rock impresses in every aspect - its size, its shape, its history. Fragments of wine amphoras suggest that Iron Age residents traded with the Romans; it suffered Viking attacks -and capture- in the 9th Century; William Wallace was a prisoner once, maybe; Mary Queen of Scots was here in 1548, waiting for a ship to remove her to the safety of France; In 1489 James IV had the famous - huge and hugely heavy - Mons Meg canon brought from Edinburgh to assist in laying seige to the castle for the second time that year. The second time was successful; In the 17th and early 18th centuries substantial artillery fortifications were built, largely covering all that had been before. These last are what the visitor sees today.


We saw birds - blackbird, robin, song thrush, blue tit, long-tailed tits, flitting and foraging among healthy amounts of shrub and scrub across the rock. A red admiral butterfly on ivy flowers. Gulls and cormorants, a seal on the water. And from the very top, the most fantastic all-around views of Dumbarton, the Clyde, the Erskine Bridge, the Glasgow skyline, Ben Lomond and a horizon of hills.


'Dumbarton', by the way, derives from the Gaelic 'Dun Breatann' - ‘Fortress of the Britons’. Before that, one-and-a-half thousand years ago, it was known as 'Alt Clut' - ‘Rock of the Clyde’.

Dumbarton Castle is managed by Historic Scotland and costs £4.50 for adults, £2.70 for children, £3 for concessions, free for Members. It's open throughout the year but check full details here -

a walk-in well


 How to get there

ScotRail timetables here -
Click - Central Belt - Glasgow Suburban Routes - Dunbartonshire

Many thanks to ScotRail for their ongoing support of my project to explore Scotland by Rail.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Aberdour - whimbrel, skua, deer & seals. 37 plastic bottles.

Inchcolm Abbey, ink

Finally a return to sketching with Kittie (Kittie Jones artist - Our first day, we think, for six months. We were back at our favourite spot on the Fife coast near Aberdour, travelling by train (two an hour from Edinburgh for Kittie, two an hour from Burntisland for me.)

Four and a half good hours of work in pen and ink, pen and brush, graphite pencil, coloured pencil, watercolour and gouache. An atmospheric day of quite thick fog. Inchcolm was showing, but we never could see as far as Edinburgh and the Lothian coast. A good amount of birdlife around - species seen in total. Also many seals in the water and two roe deer treading through gorse and scrub.

cormorant sketches, pencil in sketchbook

Works in progress...

watercolour, ink, coloured pencil, white gouache

ink and watercolour

ink and white gouache

and where they were created...


Two unusual bird sightings - a whimbrel and an arctic skua. Neither are by any means unheard of in the area but neither are they frequently seen, especially whimbrel. I've only twice before seen whimbrel and only seen skuas up and around Orkney and Shetland. Skuas are well known as using the Forth to cross the country from west to east and east to west. This particular skua was around for many minutes, showing large and dark against the fog and beside the sandwich terns that it chased, twisting turning diving in its attempts at any fish they were carrying.

BTO skua i.d. video.

The whimbrel was close to me on the shore although unfortunately it saw me before I saw it, so I didn't see it for long. Whimbrel are very like curlew only overall smaller with a shorter, more kinked than curved beak and very distinctive dark streaks through eye and along top of the head. BTO curlew v's whimbrel i.d. video here and a photo of the whimbrel we saw in Ireland earlier this year (see Ireland blog post).


On thirty metres of rocky shore I collected thirty-seven sea washed plastic bottles. They went in the recycling bins in Aberdour station car park.

Two Minute Beach Clean -


Two skeins of geese flew over high above. About a hundred and fifty birds honking their low calls. Greylags. Autumn is here.

BTO grey geese i.d. video.

spot the skeins

zoomed in and cropped, to aid spotting

How to get there:
Trains to Aberdour run half hourly from Edinburgh. An adult return is currently £10 on-peak, £7.20 off-peak. Timetable here.

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



Saturday, 23 August 2014

Scotland by Rail - Montrose, Scotland, August 2014

A family and art week in the caravan in Montrose. Me, mum, Roan, Ian. Walking and cycling and a good deal of sketching and painting - including Roan doing his first paintings for eight + years. Peterhead family coming to visit.

There are always loads of gulls and eiders and, in summer, terns, but only ever a few gannets, fishing far out or flying swiftly past. One morning the sea was far in and turbulent and gannets were all over, presumably following a shoal. In an undercount I got three hundred, a mix of browny-plumaged juveniles and white-black adults with their mustard heads. Most were close in and riding the waves or performing semi-horizontal gliding dives to cope with shallows.

gannet dive

lady's bedstraw

The same day there was a bi-plane over the airfield, marking a centenary. Loop-the-looping through grey wet haze.

Cousin and cousin's husband Gemma and Danny visited with the kids.


Cycle through Ferryden village to Scurdie Ness. Locked bikes below the lighthouse and walked along to blowhole point. Last visit Roan discovered it, a miniature cave has collapsed and sea pours in and out of the lidless pot - when tide and level of choppiness are right a plume of spray shoots up. This time it was definitely shooting. Mum was at the other side, taking photos of us. She retreated fast when a thick wave rushed around her ankles.

Scurdie Ness lighthouse


We cycled to Langley Park Gardens, 1 mile from Montrose. Extensive three-tiered walled garden with beautiful herbaceous borders; meadowland; woodlands; standing stone. Tea, coffee and cake by the fountain pond, served on fine china.

Langley Park horse head statue

standing stone, wildlife meadow


It's definitely a tree Roan.

Langley Park Gardens are open Saturday, Sunday, Monday during the season. You'll receive a very friendly welcome. Full details here and on Facebook here.

We returned via the Lurgies at west end of Montrose Basin. A little egret was on the mud and twenty or more grey herons.

count the herons


 A walk on the red cliffs between Arbroath and Auchmithie Harbour. Take a torch for Dark Cave and Light Cave, leading right through the width of a thick headland.

Dark Cave, south entry

kittiwake parents and young. The juveniles are those with streaks and stripes of black.

bird tracks

fossils? sea-worms?

fossils? sea-worms?

miniature world

cave face

Roan dematerialises

Roan rematerialises (eating a leaf)

A wildflower border around a long stretch of clifftop field, absolutely alive with bumble bees, hoverflies, many tens of butterflies - small tortoiseshell, red amiral, peacock, green-veined white, a grayling.

wildflower field margin - why doesn't everyone do this? Hundreds of insects, many tens of butterflies.

sunflowers, poppies, thistles, vetches, Roan's head

wild carrot - note the single purple bloom at the centre of so many white

We stopped and painted - Roan too. Perhaps soon we'll have to think about a Mother & Son & Son exhibition.

mother & son (photographed by other son)

 Brother Roan:

courtesy of Roan du Feu - watercolour

courtesy of Roan du Feu - Boddin Point drawing

 Mother Susan:

courtesy of Susan Smith - Boddin Point mixed media

courtesy of Susan Smith - mixed media

courtesy of Susan Smith - Langley Park horse head

See mum's work at

Read Roan's words at


A cycle to the graveyard above double-sea-arched Elephant Rock. Explored the stones in the bay there and painted a view towards the limekilns.

Boddin Point limekilns

As Calvin and Hobbes say, there's treasure everywhere.

the trunk

Elephant Rock - a rock that looks like an elephant

All the seabirds were around, plus a kestrel, house martins, linnets.



Before breakfast I'd stood on the dunes and watched a group of 12 or more dolphins swimming south, up down up down up down, jumping full clear of the water.


terns on the shore, mostly common

adult feeding young


the Bell Rock lighthouse, taken through binoculars

Waiting for my return train at the end of the week I watched an osprey fly high above the Basin. It was constantly mobbed by agitated terns and swallows and martins at the same time as I was constantly divebombed by a territorial pair of lesser black-backed gulls. I stood by a lamppost so they couldn't have any effect other than to give me really good views. Everyone else kept at the other end of the platform.


caravan self-portrait, to be continued


 How to get there

Montrose is easily reached by rail. It's on the Glasgow & Edinburgh - Aberdeen rail lines and trains are frequent.