Nobody on the beach…. (yet)

Changes  are coming  fast as spring staggers unsteadily forward; there was  snowfall at the start of this week and temperatures/wind chill such that hat and gloves were  on once again.


 The oak tree I’m following for Track a Tree: buds near the base of the tree, 20th April.

Are my efforts entering a new phase? Maybe I’ll reduce the number of photo points I want to use as part of my John Muir Award about the seasons.  The photo point facing due west is a challenge – I didn’t expect that a great proportion of visits would be in the evenings as is turning out to be the case.   But retaining all the points  would give me the choice to share most of, or just a part of, the story with others.   Pruning things a bit might help, though, and at my next visit I will keep this in mind.  My guiding diagram/map as yet remains the same (much like the song).  See  JMA mind map.  

FP 5


This is a little island just south of Milarrochy Bay.  The first photo was on 3rd April, while the second was taken on 20th April.  There is a big change in the level of Loch Lomond, but you can also see that the positions for each photo are definitely not the same!   Time of day, weather…it all makes a difference to the exercise, as I am learning (slowly). This one is into the setting sun of an evening, just to make things tougher for a total beginner.

I have often used the wee island as a guide to progress when hurrying along the path (why am I sometimes hurrying? I can explain…) and to help locate a little crag of serpentinite, part of the ‘Highland Border ophiolite’, which in turn is part of the Highland Boundary Fault Zone.  See   this leaflet about the geology of the area between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay, from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.  Ophiolites are amazing remnants of oceanic crust which can give a relatively easy view of that assemblage of rocks found beneath the deep oceans. The Shetland isle of Unst is a great place to see ophiolite (see,) as are Oman and Cyprus (haven’t seen these last two myself).   

I found a photo I took a while ago of the little serpentinite crag by the path near Arrochymore Point (GPS for scale) and one of similar rock on Shetland (footprints for scale)

:serpentinite crag  Shetland serp

Update: October 2015.  Here’s another photo of the serpentinite crag by the WHW south of Milarrochy Bay.

Serpentinite crag

Speed of travel?  My evening visit with friend SC was a leisurely time of great discovery for me, and I managed to keep the slow pace on my last solo visit, phoning home a couple of times to say I’d just be a wee while longer….  Maybe the best bit of my learning so far is about different ways of seeing, or trying to see rather than just to look; enjoying being in the trees by the loch and not getting too hung up about the photos or even the details.  “…for going out….was really going in.”  John Muir, quoted in R Macfarlane’s introduction to Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’.  The sounds and sights of this beautiful woodland are a revelation best experienced when I slow down and try to stay still to be among the magic.


Oh Let the sun beat down upon my face

We’ve had some lovely sunny days recently.


I’ve been caught up in how I might better record images and some sound for my John Muir Award project about the seasons, what equipment I should/could get to do so.  Must be careful not to confuse better equipment with better technique!  Not sure I have any technique at present….   I’ve had advice and pointers to various forums (fora?) from friends – thank you!  I recorded my first cuckoo of the year last weekend at Inversnaid – but as a voice memo on my phone as that was all I had!  I did the same to try to capture the sublime sounds at my Track a Tree ( oak tree in the woodland between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay  on Loch Lomondside – and as yet it remains in my phone waiting for a technological epiphany that may not arrive. Never mind, it sounds lovely.

Fixed point photography doesn’t  look simple, and indeed it’s not… I realise I am just not (yet) careful enough in my approach to the detail that makes it work – exact position of tripod legs, making sure the camera is level, repeating the exact bearing etc etc  – and only have myself to blame.  But I am on the case of improvement, as anyone monitoring my internet search and purchase activities will know…..

As part of my regular walking of a transect through the woods in pursuit of my JMA, I had some brilliant support from friend SC, a fellow volunteer at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.  He is very knowledgable and always willing to share his wisdom about the natural world.  He’s also an accomplished photographer, especially of small things such as moths. We visited all my picture points and my Track a Tree oak tree, spotting hairy woodrush, wood sorrel, primroses, the leaves of stitchwort, some violets in flower, the beginnings of yellow pimpernel, some shy bluebells peeking out on the sunnier banks in the woodland, among other wonders.  At my oak tree, we heard chaffnch, robin, wren and wood (?) warbler.

The trees are burgeoning, especially those in the firing line of all the recent sunshine.  I am following the progress of a youthful  alder in the Manse Bay area.  In my typically undisciplined way, I’ve got pictures of the same bud over a few weeks from different angles. I hope they look like the same bud – because they are!  I am very fond of alders, I love their casual disregard for inundation.

alder Buds at MAnse BAy 03/04  SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Alder at Manse Bay

The first photo was on 3rd April, the second on 16th April and the third on 20th April.   I think what interests me here is how long that rather precocious bud will stay ahead of the others, probably not for long now.

On the willow front: most of the buds of 20th April had burst into leaf by 24th April.  This little willow (goat willow, probably, says my expert friend) on the beach at Milarrochy Bay receives a generous dose whenever  we see the sun in the sky (all the time, of course, in the west of Scotland). Apologies to those who read this post before current edit:  I got this tree ID wrong I am afraid!  Suitable quote from Nan Shepherd: “..the thing to be known grows with the knowing.”  For me, this means that I’m beginning to know enough to see just how much there is to know!  So,  too much looking and not enough seeing on my part.

Hazel at MB  IMG_2011

Meanwhile, reading on and around John Muir and his heritage has taken a back seat to struggles with technology and the pleasure of spending time outside in good weather.  But perhaps not: I am reading a little volume by Tom Hunter published in 1979 –  a Guide to The West Highland Way. Those in the know will realise this edition was published before the WHW was opened – and indeed before the route was finalised.  On the cover: …  ‘the first guidebook to Scotland’s first long-distance walking route, parts of which are still impassable…’  It’s a fascinating read about some beautiful places I love a lot.  I’m still referring back to my mind map of the JMA project to keep me on the right track.

Hope in your hands And air to breathe

The exploration of wildness and wilderness in writing is a whole major study topic, so I’ll have just a tiny dip into that massive pool as part of my efforts towards a John Muir Award. History and literature are far from my strong points, sad to say. My favourite ‘nature writer’ is Robert Macfarlane, a Cambridge academic.  This is a quote from “The Old Ways”: “Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them.”   That was a great book for me, his writing is fluid and sure, his explorations of wilderness and wildness speak of the natural and sometimes a near supernatural world. Roger Deakin (wild swimmer and author of  “The Wild Wood”) was, I believe,  a  friend and collaborator of Macfarlane’s.  Both engender a sense of  the value of the natural world and its power to renew which I imagine echoes down the last  hundred years or more and probably finds parallels in John Muir’s own writing – although I have read only little written by JM. I like the idea of connecting wild  with wood whether in juxtaposing the words or in exploring their linguistic origins –  I am looking forward to more language of the landscape when I read Macfarlane’s “Landmarks”.  A copy of  “The Living Mountain” by Nan Shepherd has finally found its way onto one of my book heaps, I wasn’t put off by an amusing lampoon of  Macfarlane, Deakin and Shepherd  – and George Monbiot, too – in a recent Guardian piece.


The Friends of Loch Lomond have published some of the diaries of John Groome on their website, hand written and drawn records of days and seasons from the 1960s to 1981 at JG’s home on the eastern banks of Loch Lomond at  Cailness near Inversnaid.  His life was hard by my standards – self reliantly repairing his outboard, crossing the loch in all weathers and so on;  his recording of and pleasure in  nature, his encounters with people passing by his door on what became the West Highland Way and his richness of culture and friendship make the diaries an absorbing read.  Plunge in to any of the volumes to find something of interest and something likely to engage the emotions too.

Inversnaid is one of those places that’s mentioned a lot and yet consists of only a few buildings (much to the surprise of some visitors who expect something bigger).  It has a wealth of history, though, and enjoys a special mention in the Great Trossachs Forest  Art and Literature Trail.  The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is only one of the many writers  to be enchanted by Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.   “O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”   he wrote as the last lines of his poem “Inversnaid”,  inspired by its ‘waterfalls and tumbling burns’

East Side Story

Part of my John Muir Award (JMA) journey – see my mind map – is to enjoy a walk in the woods (pace Bill Bryson), exploring the changes of the seasons.  Walks on the lovely east side of Loch Lomond  are plentiful and varied and they don’t all involve major mountains or large chunks of  the West Highland Way.  Helpful people in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Visitor Centre at Balmaha (not too far from Drymen) can point out local walks, their location and duration.

These are some short notes on most of the walks in this part of LLTNP; making these notes some time ago helped me to explore the area more fully:

East Loch Lomond Walks

And in French: Balades à pied autour de Balmaha

And in German:  Wanderwege in der Nähe von Balmaha

Thanks to the friends who helped me, especially with the German version.

This was on 21st February: IMG_1889

12th April:                               IMG_1940

With a variety of landscape types on east Loch Lomond, there is plenty of biodiversity to spot. Better ID skills is a continuing target for me but there’s a long way to go: I’m using/have used TCV courses, books and some phone apps.   Getting out and about with very knowledgable and patient people (you know who you are!) really helps. The pictures are of a willow (yes, anyone who read this earlier knows I got it wrong!) near the beach at Milarrochy Bay; it’s one of the plants I’ll try to photograph regularly as the seasons progress. The image quality varies quite a bit I am afraid, but I’ll try hard to improve this as well. Exploring, but in fairly undramatic fashion!

Walk on the Wild Side

The West Highland Way follows the shore on the east side of the loch from  the wide, island-dotted south to the narrow spectacular north.  My favourite bits of the West Highland Way are from Rowardennan north to Inverarnan, especially north of Inversnaid – always close to the beloved loch but away from most of the biz.   You hear the traffic on the main road  (the A82) on the other side but you are in another world and usually a calm one.  Even with just a little time,  you can do these stretches of the WHW as day walks using boats and buses – see this website  (cruises and waterbuses on the northern part of the loch) and this one for public transport in Scotland.


As part of the John Muir Award (JMA) I have been  reading more/again about wildness and wilderness.  Rewilding is a hot topic, with advocates for reintroduction of the wolf and the lynx  arguing that bringing back top predators would restore natural balance in Scottish Highland ecosystems.  I’m getting through ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot after a few stutters, and really enjoyed Jim Crumley’s polemic ‘The Last Wolf’; I like reading Robert Macfarlane, especially ‘The Old Ways’. Reading into the wild helps put me in the right place to think more about wilderness and wildness and the environment. (Yes, I know I need to do more than just think or be a member of organisations like the SWT, the JMT, the RSPB!) Over the last couple of winters I’ve done MOOCs (massive open online courses) via the Future Learn platform and I’ve written up the notes in blog form as the university staff running these  encourage you to do.  Here  is a link to a blog about a Climate Change course (provided by the University of Exeter).  Other MOOCs I enjoyed were on  Introductory Ecology and Alternative Energy. They were a good introduction to how I might live more sustainably.

Here is a video of approx 15 mins, George Monbiot’s TED talk from 2013.  He refers to the trophic cascade following wolf reintroduction in 1995  in Yellowstone NP, USA, and to the role of wolves, and indeed beavers, as ecological engineers. 

The IUCN (international Union for Conservation of Nature) have a shorter video on the wolves of Yellowstone, a reminder of the landscape scale that is the setting for these creatures’  lives :

The Yellowstone National Park has a short information video by a National Park ranger about the impact of the return of the grey wolf: 

And finally on this, here is a short article by David Robinson, Zoology Professor at the Open University: Top Predators and Ecosystems

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park has papers on its website about relative wildness studies, including a map: see this part of the website of the National Park.  The woodland between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay where I will record the seasons as part of the JMA is not very wild, but travelling north, beside and then beyond the bulk of Ben Lomond the colour on the relative wildness map changes to that signifying higher relative wildness.  It’s all relative: so close to the towns of west central Scotland and its main roads and farmland the character of the area is bound to be mixed, probably part of its attraction for some.

On the trail of John Muir

But not on the John Muir Trail!

The JMT is 210 miles at about 2400 metres altitude in the USA.  The John Muir Way, our lovely Scottish homage to John Muir, is 130 miles from Dunbar, his birthplace, to Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde and goes right across Central Scotland.  There are only a few bits of it I’ve not walked or cycled over the years, and they are in the far east (ie near Edinburgh!).  A friend and me enjoyed a delightfully prolonged visit to the JM house museum in Dunbar, followed by walking part way  – on the Way – back to our B and B in North Berwick (it was winter so we had a cup of tea and got the bus the remaining distance back in the dark).

I put together my John Muir Award proposal after reading through the website and considering some options  with fellow volunteers at the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.   My JMA mind map is my guide! Below is a Wordle thing made from the text of my proposal under each of the four headings for the award: discover, explore, conserve and share.  I see ‘husband’ got a few mentions, and it was a relief to find that ‘enjoy’ was a suitably frequent word!

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.40.35 am

So I took the first steps towards the JMA by choosing places to photograph as the seasons change and also, just to add to the mix, by signing up to Track a Tree – see the website.  That means I also chose a specific tree on the same beautiful stretch of woodland between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay by Loch Lomond, and have begun to enter its details into the site.  This woodland is one of my very favourite places at any time of the year and the trail I’ll be on for JMA purposes, the West Highland Way, is your friendly companion as you walk.

An End has a Start: The John Muir Award

I just love the changing seasons – there’s something brilliant about the first hint of frost in the autumn air, about the first warm day of spring (if you’re lucky – this is the west of Scotland) and, above all, about watching trees change from skeletal and stark to green leafy wonders to orangey brown hallowe’en decorations and back to scaffolding again. So, I’ve chosen seasons as the theme  for my  John Muir Award.


The John Muir quote  that inspires me: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” (in ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’, 1911)

But it’s a close run thing, because  ‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion…..”  (in ‘Our National Parks’, 1901) was bound to mean something to this longterm geography enthusiast!

The JMA  “encourages awareness and responsibility for the natural environment, in a spirit of fun, adventure and exploration.”   I have an ambitious plan which is on this diagram: JMA map.  I intend to observe, record, learn about and continue to enjoy the changing seasons. Sounds easy…. The JMA involves four actions: discover, explore, conserve and share.  Want to know know more about the John Muir Award? Find out about it here.

Glasgow band Deacon Blue wrote a song “For John Muir”: here’s a short quote:

Long live the wilderness way

The high cloud

The long days

Long live perpetual light


Wherever you wander..

This one brings to mind the sheer joy of a summer’s walk in the mountains and the brilliant long daylight hours we enjoy here in the north!