Saturday, 23 January 2016

There's gold in them thar (Scottish) hills!

Searching for gold in Scotland

I'm sure most people wouldn't associate panning or mining for gold with Scotland and when a ''gold rush'' is mentioned thoughts are more likely to turn to the Klondike in Canada than to Scotland but significant amounts of gold have been found in the Scottish hills.

You're unlikely to get rich quick but gold prospecting and mining has been going on in Scotland for centuries especially in the area of the Lowther Hills in the Southern Uplands, south of the central belt.

Gold dust in a pan taken from a river
Dennis Garrett/AlaskaMining
Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
This area became known as ''God's Treasure House in Scotland'' and some of the purest gold in the world has been found here (22.8 karats) and was used to make the Scottish Crown Jewels (known as the Honours of Scotland) which date from the 15th/16th centuries and are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles.

Commercial gold mining

Many other areas of Scotland have seen gold prospecting, mainly by amateurs, but a commercial company - Scotgold Resources - have plans to open a full-scale gold mine and have been granted planning permission for a mine at Cononish near the 3710ft mountain Ben Lui close to the town of Tyndrum (see on map).

A full-scale gold mine in this location is now thought to be viable because of the price of gold on the international market and, in fact, due to the scarcity of Scottish gold (in the greater scheme of things) gold mined here should attract a premium price and make a good profit. Scotgold Resources also say the mine will provide employment for about 50 people - no bad thing in a rural community.

Panning for gold as a hobby

As hobbies go panning for gold is surely one of the more unusual but a surprising number of people engage in this very activity in Scotland. If you are thinking of taking up a new hobby then, to avoid disappointment, it is advisable to learn something about the subject first. Most panning for gold takes place in rivers and a few tips on where to find gold in a river will come in handy.
A man panning for gold in a river
Photograph by Alan Souter/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
A rundown on the equipment you will need is also necessary and you can buy gold prospecting and panning kits which will include everything you need to get started. It's probably best if you can make the acquaintance of an experienced gold panner and learn from them but there are courses available on how to pan for gold so there is no reason you can't go it alone. This short video will give you an insight into how it's done:

Where to pan for gold in Scotland

There is the potential to find gold all over Scotland (rarely in large quantities) but all the best places are already pretty well-known so take a look at this list of ''best places to pan for gold'' and give it a go.

Remember, you will need the permission of the landowner before you start panning and be aware that a licence is also normally required.
A man panning for gold in a highland burn
Photograph by Bill Henderson/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0

So how much gold can you expect to find in a typical highland burn? There are no official figures collected on how much gold is found by amateur panners but, as with many things, it will depend on how much work you are prepared to put in and how dedicated you are in applying youself to the task. In 2015 one very lucky beginner found a gold nugget worth an estimated £10,000 - whilst on a course on ''how to pan for gold''!

Don't expect to get that rich but, with hard work and some luck, you can expect to find enough gold to make some jewellery for yourself or your other half. In fact, some aspiring bridegrooms have actually panned for (and found) enough Scottish gold to make the rings for their wedding.

How romantic is that?

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Trossachs

Scotland's outdoor playground

Where do lots of Scots and many, many visitors to Scotland go for a fun adventure time in the great outdoors? The Trossachs - or, more precisely, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park - of course!

It was the first national park to be established by the Scottish Government (in 2002) and covers an area of 720 square miles. Its main attractions for those who love the great outdoors are the wildlife, the scenery and the many miles of walking routes for all abilities - from the 21 Munros within the park boundary to the many lesser (but no less interesting) hills scattered in profusion throughout the area.

There are also lots of low-level walks for all ages and abilities from short 15-minute strolls to longer but still easy routes.

Map of Scotland showing the location of the Trossachs
Map by Eric Gabba (Sting)/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 4.0
Located just to the north of the central belt of Scotland the area known as the Trossachs is contained within the national park and is bounded (roughly) by Loch Lomond in the west and the towns of Callander in the east and Crianlarich to the north and the bottom end of Loch Lomond and the Campsie fells to the south.

This puts it virtually on the doorstep of Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, and within easy reach of much of central Scotland and just 1½ hours drive from my home in the Ancient Kingdom of Fife, on the east coast, which makes it one of our favourite destinations for a day trip and an area my wife and I know well.

View from the Duke's Pass
By John Gibson/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
We usually start off at the town of Callander (known as The Gateway to the Highlands) where we often stop for lunch before continuing north out of the town for a short distance then turning left onto the road which leads to the Duke's Pass - which climbs high over the hills and down again to the town of Aberfoyle (our alternative lunch stop). Care should be exercised when using this road for it is narrow and twisty in places and is well used not only by cars but by cyclists, RVs and tourist buses. This road takes you deep into the heart of the Trossachs and it can be very busy at times.

A view of Loch Vennachar with Ben Venue in the distance
Photograph by Colin Smith/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
Loch Vennachar (above) is one of the scenic lochs this road passes and there are plenty of off-road parking places to stop and admire the views or set up a picnic (we have picnicked on the shores of this loch several times). Further along the road you will come to the turn leading to Loch Katrine which is the main public water supply for the city of Glasgow but the loch is also well used for recreational purposes.

Its main attraction for most tourists is the steamship Sir Walter Scott (named after the 19th century poet and author) which offers cruises on the loch during the summer months and it's a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours (if it rains there's a very cosy bar below deck!).

The SS Sir Walter Scott tied up at the pier
Photograph by Richard Sutcliffe/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0

The SS Sir Walter Scott shares the loch with another steamship The Lady of The Lake - which takes its name from the poem of the same name written by Sir Walter Scott and, apparently, inspired by Loch Katrine.
The steamship The Lady of The Lake
Photograph by Ian Murfitt/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
Continuing over the Duke's Pass (beware of tourist coaches coming the other way) reveals some stunning views of the forest which cloaks a large part of the Trossachs before dropping steeply down to the town of Aberfoyle.

Ordnance Survey Map of the Trossachs
OSGB Map of the Trossachs
On the way over the pass you will find many off-road parking areas and walking routes all of which are worth exploring if you are so inclined - although to explore them all would take a lifetime!.

These paths are well signposted and surfaced but even so it is highly recommended that you don't attempt any of them unless you are suitably equipped with decent walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing (even in summer - Scottish summers can be unpredictable).

If you intend to do any amount of serious walking in the Trossachs you should invest in a suitable map of the area. The Ordnance Survey of Great Britain publish an excellent map for the main area of the Trossachs including the Duke's Pass.

For more specific route detail the OSGB also publish a comprehensive range of outdoor maps covering the whole of Scotland. For more details on OSGB maps read this article:  Ordnance Survey paper maps - are they still relevant?.

Once you are in Aberfoyle you are in the heart of the Trossachs. The town has a large car park (very busy in summer) and, like Callander, has a good choice of places to eat. One attraction you must see is the ''Quack Commandos'' a sheepdog trial with a difference - instead of herding sheep the dogs herd ducks! It takes place in a compound next to the car park.

You will also find a bird of prey exhibition nearby where you can handle the birds and have your photograph taken with raptors ranging from a little owl to a huge eagle owl! Watch this short video:

Head north out of the town and you will find yourself on an increasingly narrow road running past farms and some big houses in spectacular locations as well as several very nice hotels (our daughter was married in one of them) and smaller private properties.

This road eventually leaves civilisation behind (look out for deer crossing the road) and continues north for some miles to a T-junction where, if you turn right, you will come to Stronachlachar on Loch Katrine, where the steamships cruising the loch call, and turning left leads to the Inversnaid on the shores of Loch Lomond where you will find a hotel and a pier from where it is possible to catch a ferry across Loch Lomond to Inveruglas on the opposite shore.

Scotland's premier multi-day walking route, the West Highland Way runs along the shore of the loch here and the area is noted for its feral goats which can, apparently, be smelled long before they are seen (I have seen them but they didn't have any detectable odour to me). There is also a quite spectacular waterfall near the hotel.

Inversnaid Hotel, boats tied up at pier and a waterfall
Photograph by John Fielding/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
A well-known early 18th century Scottish outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor is reputed to have used a nearby shoreline cave as a hideout from the authorities. The cave can be accessed from the shore but it is awkward and dangerous and I've never been brave enough to attempt it! It is best seen from a boat on the loch (there is a Waterbus service which cruises Loch Lomond during the summer months).

At the southern end of Loch Lomond you will find the town of Balloch where Loch Lomond Shores, a large retail park and visitor centre which offers upmarket shopping and restaurants and information about the Trossachs and the local area is situated (the waterbus terminus is there). There is much to see and do at Loch Lomond Shores and it's worth a visit if you are down that way.

Hiking, Munro-bagging, wildlife spotting, water sports and more are all available in the national park and if you're not in a playful mood then simply go for a drive and marvel at the spectacular scenery in and around the park from the mountains to the lochs to the wildlife. Find a small cafe or restaurant (there are some absolute gems hidden away in odd corners) have a coffee, relax and steep yourself in the atmosphere of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park - Scotland's outdoor playground!

Watch this short video of my Wingman and I hillwalking on Ben Vane (821m, 2694ft) which lies in the heart of the Trossachs:

Sources: Wikipedia, in-text links, personal experience

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Thistle do!

Scotland's national flower is a prickly customer

A single thistle flower
CC0 public domain image from Flickr
When most people think of Scotland they think of three things: whisky, tartan - and that flowery emblem of Scotland the thistle.

You would think that a flower chosen to represent an entire nation might reflect the beauty, the culture and the friendliness of that nation but not so for Scotland's national flower - the thistle!

Whilst beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder (and the thistle has a certain ''rough beauty'') it cannot in all fairness be called ''friendly'' as anyone who has encountered its prickly presence will attest.

But it was that very ''prickly presence'' which led to the thistle being chosen as Scotland's national flower - or so the legend goes.

As for the culture it represents, the legend also connects the thistle with invasion, battle and warlike pursuits - hardly friendly at all!

So how did this jagged and unwelcoming plant come to such prominence in representing a nation?

A thistle plant against a black background
By Walter Baxter/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
Well, depending on which authority you refer to, the thistle was responsible for alerting a sleeping Scottish army to the hostile intentions of an invading army of Norsemen who thought it a good idea to creep up on them at night.

When one of the invaders stood on a thistle with his bare feet his resulting cries of pain alerted the Scots who promptly fell upon and defeated the invading Norsemen.

Some versions of this story give a different origin for the invading army but, since there is no historical evidence for any of them, let's just say it's a good story and leave it at that!

A thistle by any other name . . .

There is one slight problem when we say that the thistle is Scotland's national flower. No-one is quite sure exactly which thistle we are talking about - there are several species and sub-species which could qualify as candidates.

The spear thistle, the stemless thistle, the cotton thistle, our lady's thistle, the musk thistle and the melancholy thistle (and others) have, at various times been proffered as the ''true'' thistle of Scotland but no-one really knows which was the original thistle.

A big clump of thistles growing on a hillside
Photograph by Richard Dorrell/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
The most likely candidate is probably the spear thistle Cirsium vulgare (above and at the head of this article) and when you see it growing as a clump you can understand why it had the affect it had on that poor invading Norsemen. Just imagine stepping into a thistle plant like this with bare feet and legs - ouch!

The spear thistle (which is native to Scotland - some of the others are introduced species) is very common and can be found all over the country  (I have some in my garden) and it is not restricted to Scotland so many of you may be familiar with it and its prickly nature.

Today images of the thistle can be seen used in many ways - on Scottish foods and other products, sports logos, etc., and is one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Scotland throughout the world.

Interestingly it is also the logo of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that well-known English language font of knowledge on just about everything. Why? Because the encyclopaedia was first published in the late 1760s in Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city - I'll bet you didn't know that!

Emblem of the Order of the Thistle
Public domain image from Wikipedia
The Order of the Thistle, created in 1540 by King James V, is the highest honour of chivalry in Scotland and the emblem of the Order is the thistle.

The motto of the Order is Nemo me impune lacessit (no-one provokes me with impunity) more commonly translated into broad Scots as Wha daurs meddle wi' me - which is probably how the thistle sees itself!

How dare they!

According to an Act of Parliament of the UK Government (the Weeds Act 1959) the spear thistle is designated as an ''injurious weed'' which gives the Secretary of State the power to enforce control measure against this thistle on private land and if the landowner does not comply they could be subject to a fine of £1000!

I ask you - is that any way to treat Scotland's National Flower?

Sources: Wikipedia (in-text references)

Monday, 11 January 2016

'Doon the watter' on the Waverley

Take a trip on the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world!

The paddle steamer Waverley is well-known to most native Scots and many visitors to Scotland as ''that wonderful old paddle steamer which sails up and down the River Clyde'' and if you are on vacation in the Glasgow area a trip aboard her is definitely something which should be on your ''to-do'' list

Head on view of the paddle steamer 'Waverley'
Photo by Manhattan Research/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0
Built in 1946 she spent her early years sailing from Glasgow up and down the Firth of Clyde ('firth' is Scots word for a wide river estuary) under various owners until 1973 when, due to the changing holiday habits of the public, she became uneconomical to run and was withdrawn from service by her then owners Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. In dire need of an extensive refit her future looked bleak (the breaker's yard beckoned!) but CalMac decided instead to sell her to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for a nominal sum (£1 apparently!) to join another paddle steamer the PSPS already owned and, after a public appeal to raise funding for her refit, her future was secured.

Today, PS Waverley is well-known in many countries due largely to the large numbers of tourists who have had the pleasure of sailing on her and have spread the word - and the photos and videos (her owners claim that she is probably the most-photographed ship in the world) in their home countries.

Side view of the PS Waverley tied up at a pier
Photo by Manhattan Research/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0
The PSPS have been very active in promoting and showing off the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. During the summer months she is still based in Glasgow and runs excursions to the Clyde ports of Greenock, Ayr and Largs but for much of the rest of the year she cruises the River Thames, the Solent and the South Coast of England and the Bristol Channel. She has featured in many television documentaries and is even a film star with a part in the 2011 Sherlock Holmes movie A Game of Shadows. The Waverley is also available for private charters.

A view of the Waverly sailing a sea
Photo by David Spender/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

Final note

The destination board at the dockside naming her ports of call
Photo by kanu101/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0
My one and only encounter with PS Waverley was as a young child (I think I was 9 at the time) when my parents decided to take me ''Doon the Watter'' to Largs for a day trip on her. I remember the weather wasn't very good (an unfortunate possibility in Scotland in July) and I think I spent most of the time sitting in the lounge staring at the misty landscape in the distance as we sailed down the coast towards our destination.

My family left Glasgow for pastures new when I was 14 and I have never had an opportunity to reprise my voyage on her - an omission I fully intend to rectify this year (minus the rain hopefully!).

Note: The phrase ''Doon the Watter'' (down the water) was a colloquial west coast term for a day sailing trip down the Firth of Clyde (not necessarily on the Waverley) - an expensive treat for a working-class family. I haven't heard it uttered for many years but I will certainly say it loudly when I renew my acquaintance with this grand old lady of the Clyde!



Sources: Wikipedia; personal experience

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Scotland's weather: why is Scotland so warm?

Warm? Are you kidding?

Actually no, I'm not kidding, but anyone who lives in or has visited Scotland will think I'm mad asking such a question. Scotland has a reputation of being a cold, wet, windy country and, speaking as a native, I know that Scotland isn't the warmest nor the driest of countries but, considering its position on the globe it is surprisingly warm - a lot warmer than it should be in fact. Why is this?

First, let's take a look at the northern hemisphere and Scotland's position relative to the north pole. This graphic looks down from above the northern hemisphere. The outer edge of the graphic is the equator and Scotland (the bit at the top of the UK) is marked by the red arrow.
The northern hemisphere looking down on the north pole
Image by Chen-Pan Liao/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 4.0 International
This can be better seen in the graphic below which shows the position of the equator better. The northern hemisphere is in blue and the southern hemisphere is in beige. Where the two hemispheres meet is the equator.
Map of the world showing the equator
Image by DLommes/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
It is obvious from these graphics that Scotland lies significantly closer to the north pole than it does to the equator. Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city, lies almost on the same line of latitude (ie: the same distance from the north pole) as the town of CHURCHILL in Canada and there polar bears roam the streets during autumn (fall) - it's a big tourist attraction.

Scotland doesn't have that particular problem (or advantage - it depends on how you look at it!) but the point is that the climate in these two places is far different despite their similar distance from the north pole. Russia's capital city, Moscow is also a similar distance from the pole with a similar climate to that of Churchill (minus the polar bears). Scotland's climate/weather is far milder than either of these places. Why is this?

Polar bear walking on ice
Photo by Alan Wilson/Wikipedia (via CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
One factor is that Scotland is part of a small island country and being a small island country nowhere in the UK is far from the sea and that means that there is no large landmass over which temperatures in winter can fall really low - the seas surrounding the UK help to keep the land warm.

Another, and more important factor, is the Gulf Stream; that warm water current which starts off near Florida, heads north and crosses the Atlantic Ocean sending its northern offshoot, the North Atlantic Drift, towards Europe and the UK. This major ocean current bathes the western coast of the UK all the way up to Scotland and beyond and it is this which is largely responsible for the mildness of Scotland's climate and weather - even during wintertime.

The gulf stream current in the northern hemisphere
Image by RedAndr/Wikipedia via NOAA CC-BY-SA 4.0 International
This has a most unexpected result in terms of some of the flora and fauna which can be found in Scotland. In the town of PLOCKTON and in other places grow what look extraordinarily like palm trees! They are Cordyline australis, the Cabbage Tree (or Cabbage Palm) which is endemic to New Zealand. They are not a tropical plant but are a most unexpected sight in a small Scottish town!

The (relatively) warm waters off the west coast of Scotland result in some unexpected marine visitors during the summer months including the Leatherback Turtle, the Basking Shark (the world's second-largest fish) and the occasional visit from the deep sea Sunfish whilst whale-watching tours are popular in the inner hebridean islands. All these marine creatures are attracted to the west coast of Scotland in summer by the warming influence of the Gulf Stream.

It isn't all rosy!

Just in case you get the idea that Scotland is almost a tropical paradise I should point out that on Scotland's highest hills can be found plants and animals which are more normally found inside the Arctic Circle!

The CAIRNGORM Plateau provides a habitat which is very close to arctic tundra with species of moss and lichen there which are also found in habitats outside Scotland much closer to the arctic. The UK's only herd of reindeer are here as well as ptarmigan (regarded as an indicator species for climate change). Lapland Buntings have also been reported.

At 57 degrees north the Cairngorm Plateau is an unusually cold area of mountain in what is basically a maritime climate - the highest windspeed ever recorded in Scotland (165 mph) and the lowest temperature  (-27.2 centigrade - which has also been recorded elsewhere in the UK) were both recorded on the Cairngorm Plateau.

The Cairngorm Mountain Plateau
Public Domain image from Wikipedia
And don't forget the rain (anyone who has spent any time in Scotland won't forget it!). The western highlands is one of the wettest places in Europe with an average annual rainfall of 4577mm (180 inches) but the east coast (where I live) is much drier with as little as 550mm (21 inches) - pretty much the same as warmer places like Morocco, Sydney and Barcelona.

Despite the rain, tourists still come to Scotland in droves! According to VisitScotland (the Scottish tourist body) tourists stayed for 19.13 million nights and spent £1.170 million in Scotland in 2014 - that's almost half of the tourist traffic for the entire UK!

All in all, thanks largely to the influence of the Gulf Stream, Scotland isn't a bad place to live, weather wise - but then, maybe I'm a little biased!

By the way, did you know that Scotland's national animal is the Unicorn?

Sources: Wikipedia