I was relieved to read of other hillgoers' experiences with electric weather in TAC62 (pp2-3). For too long I have assumed I had been unlucky enough (or attractive enough) to have experienced what I thought was more than my fair share of scary moments with noisy clouds and ultra-bright flashes.
Normally electric storms are associated with tropical countries, the Alps or perhaps the mid-US states before the tornado season, but it now seems they are more common in Scotland than previously thought.
I have encountered plenty of storms in the Alps, with perhaps the most memorable on the Tschuggen ridge above the Swiss Yosemite Valley - Lauterbrunnen. A nasty black cloud rolled up the valley with lots of rumbling and growling, so we thought it a good idea to get off the ridge-crest just as it started to fire out some beefy sparks. Naively we abseiled into a cave on the side of the ridge, wrongly thinking it was a good safe place. (This is known as "Doing an Ingram" - Ed.) During a lull we escaped and crossed to the other side of the ridge and descended to the path along to Kleine Scheidegg. Here we sheltered for a while as the storm settled on the ridge we had abandoned, and we were treated to a son-et-lumière show with accompanying burning smells. However, when a big spark zapped a small hut about 150 metres away we decided it was getting a bit too spectacular and headed rapidly down towards Grindelwald.
But most of my electric incidents have been on home territory, particularly in the northwest, especially in the Ullapool area. On one occasion we had walked up Glen Squaib and climbed Cadha Amadan in a hailstorm. As we headed for the top of Beinn Dearg in cloud it got very dark, then for a few milliseconds it got very, very light. There was an almost instantaneous bang and a few seconds later the smell of burnt ground, but by this time we had already about-turned and were striding down the ridge as quickly as possible. Again near Ullapool, on Beinn Eilideach after a heavy fall of snow, we were plodding up in light mist when we became aware of a buzzing sound and I noticed Chris's balaclava, the old-fashioned hairy type, was starting to resemble a hedgehog and he remarked that my beard would go perfectly with a red coat at Christmas. The penny dropped and again we headed off the hill as quickly as possible. On this occasion, though, we never heard or saw any discharge.
These experiences were as close as I would like to get to a hilltop strike, as the evidence I saw on another hill brought home the devastating power of lightning. In October 1990 I was on Bidein a'Choire Sheasgaich and heading to Lurg Mhor in the mist. I was sure I had read about a large summit cairn, so plodded on up the hill and over a bump which I did not remember from the map. The ground fell away quite a bit before narrowing to a greasy slab, then rising along a ridge to a small cairn. Something about the situation did not feel right - I was sure I had descended more height than I had regained - and a quick look at the map confirmed I was on the outlying top of Meall Mor. Retracing my steps, I was soon back at the ignored bump and being a bit more focused now I realised that the stones strewn about had been the "large cairn" until quite recently. Blocks the size of a computer monitor, some with fresh-looking cleavage planes, were scattered over an area about 25 metres in diameter. I then became aware of narrow tracks radiating out from the highest point looking like mouse tracks in grass after the snow has melted, but this was October. They were in fact scorch-marks where the current from what was now obviously a direct hit by lightning on the cairn had spread out. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end when it dawned on me what would have happened to anyone casually eating a piece at the cairn when the strike occurred.
I suppose with the number of people on the hills nowadays, and with the frequency of electrical activity over the hills, there are bound to be occasional tragedies; but I'm not ready to go yet, so I'll give any likely signs the benefit of the doubt and head for safety in future.
Graham Benny, Glasgow
I enjoyed your article on lightning and the dangers thereof. It reminded me of a gamekeeper I knew on the Mar Lodge estate who had been up on the hill with a rifle on his back when a storm broke. Perhaps aided by his .303 lightning conductor, he was struck, staggered around for a bit, straightened himself up and carried on. Only a short time later, another bolt hit him. I was horrified at the news, and inquired of my informant "Was he all right? What did he do?" I was merely told with a Highland shrug and a smile; "Och, he just took to his bed. He didn't know who he was for a few days, right enough."
They breed them tough in Braemar...
now exiled to Sydney
I've just read the letter in TAC60 (p17) from Ian Smith of Lochgair regarding his experience in the Cairngorms. Around eight or ten years ago my late father-in-law and I were also in the Cairngorms on a blustery but generally dry day. We stopped for a teabreak at the head of a corrie when we heard a loud whoosh. On looking round we saw a cylindrical object disappear into the sky vertically. At first we thought that it had been a solid object but then realised it was water. It had appeared only about six metres away, so we walked over to see where it had come from.
Our first theory was that water lying underground had been blown up and out by the force of wind blowing into a hole in the side of the corrie, but there was no sign that this had happened. We then decided that a mini tornado or twister must have sucked water from a puddle and sent it skyward.
We walked back and resumed our sandwich-eating and further discussed the phenomenon. No sooner had we sat down than we heard noises moving along at ground level which sounded like a discarded plastic supermarket bag rustling along. Although we could follow the noise, we could see nothing. There were several of these one after another and then no more. We could only assume that these were more mini-twisters.
I've never tried to look into this to see if mini-twisters are a recognised occurring phenomenon, so would hope that anyone else who has had a similar experience could write in too.
Colin McKinlay, Pumpherston
Over the last few issues (eg see TAC40, p15) there have been letters regarding a sudden feeling of fear whilst in the hills. I have only experienced this phenomenon once in nearly 20 years of hillwalking. In July last year I was descending the Shank of Drumfollow after a walk over Mayar and Driesh and feeling just fine. It was quite late in the evening and I felt happy and at peace with the world. That morning I had climbed Mount Keen and now these two meant I had completed Section 7 of Munro's Tables. However, as soon as I entered the Glendoll Forest, I was gripped by a real sense of fear. I knew that at all costs I must not look into the woods on either side of me or even look back. I wouldn't say I sprinted, but I certainly jogged fast all the way down. Once I crossed the White Water these feelings disappeared and I was quite happy to look back up at the hills with the last of the sun's rays on them.
I have no idea what caused this fear. Although it was nearly nightfall, that would not normally bother me as I am quite used to walking or sleeping in the wilds at night, be it moorland, woods or misty hillside. I had really enjoyed my day up until that point and I have to admit that although I would like to do that walk again, I would be worried about experiencing that terror again. I would be curious to know if anybody else has experienced anything similar in Glen Doll.
The only other "ghostly" episode I have encountered in the hills was whilst staying at Sail Mhor Croft hostel in May 1987. For two nights in a row I woke to see a ball of light in the dormitory just hanging there. It was about half the size of a football and about three feet off the ground. Although I coughed loudly a few times, nobody else in the dorm woke up. On the second night I actually got out of bed and walked around the ball waving my arms under and over it. Needless to say I did not attempt to touch it.
Satisfied that it was not light reflected from some other source, I got back into bed and as on the previous night turned over and pulled the covers over my head. Any explanations?
Kevin Palmer, Leicester
I had been intending to let it lie as regards the smoking debate, as it is a bee in my own bunnet and not necessarily TAC's. But the last two contributions have left me unable so to do. We've got people contesting the evidence that not even the tobacco companies contest any more. Taking them in order, Catherine Moorehead (TAC62, p19), says "why did the nation not suffer widespread premature deaths?" Credit for the discovery of the dangers of smoking is universally given to Sir Richard Doll and his BMJ paper of 1954. Doll was investigating the statistic that lung cancer deaths had increased every decade of the last century. There is a very striking graph I could provide if required. In short, the lung cancer rate which was almost non-existent early last century (before the mass production of cigarettes) was rising at rates as high as 100% per decade. I think that constitutes "widespread premature deaths". Doll's own pet theory had been tar on the roads, as tar is a known carcinogen. He gave up smoking himself two-thirds of the way through analysing the data.
Could I take this chance to offer Catherine a bet? She proffers the probability that the odds on the sun rising tomorrow are 50:50. Thus the odds that the sun will rise on every single day between the time of me writing this and TAC coming out are 1.26 x 10 to the power 30 (1.26 million million million million million). Quite long odds, but amazingly I am willing to bet on it. If I am asking Catherine to be my bookie I suppose I need to allow her to shorten the odds in the classic bookie's tradition. Let's take 24 of the zeroes off and call it a cool million to one. Will Catherine take a tenner on it?
Robin Campbell at least has given up half of his argument. I note he appears to be no longer contesting that smoking kills the actual smoker. If he is, I have all sorts of stuff from Doll's 50-year prospective paper with no meta-analysis (BMJ 2004). Robin claims that his original piece was "justifying my habit of smoking". Slight moving of the goalposts again. He was in fact justifying his habit of smoking all over the rest of us in general and the SMC in particular. He is right in saying that evidence on passive smoking and cancer relies on meta-analysis. I shall simply quote Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco: "The real killer from second-hand smoke is heart disease, not lung cancer. Heart disease kills about ten times more people than lung cancer. Not even the tobacco industry has contested the evidence on asthma."
Yours, Perkin Warbeck
TAC Towers Annexe, Glasgow
Ed. - Did Sir Richard Doll ever go for a walk (or get spooked) in Glen Doll? Or, for that matter, has anyone from Tebay ever bought or sold anything on eBay?
When I read the letters by Catherine Moorehead and Robin Campbell on how nice environmental tobacco smoke is (that's irony, by the way), with their misleading use of scientific language to give an air of authority to unscientific nonsense, I was at a loss as to where to begin to reply. It would take a book. And they would still not be persuaded.
Then I paused to reflect and realised that what really, really annoyed me was that I read TAC to get away from all this. Public health is my professional life. Getting outdoors is my escape. TAC is part of that escape. This misplaced rubbish was intruding into my escape.
So two simple thoughts. (1) TAC is not the place for a debate on the health risks of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke. (2) Smokers are very much in the minority in the population. They create a stink that most of us don't want to inhale. In my hill club, the few smokers are mature enough to recognise that and simply absent themselves to smoke outside.
David Gordon, Dunblane
Ed. - OK, no more squabbles about smoking unless it's directly related to hills or huts and suchlike. On the subject of smoking on hills, however, it's worth quoting (if only because it's one of my favourite passages from any hill book) Ben Humble on the subject of how Messrs Naismith and Douglas once tackled the "fearsome gendarme" on Sgurr nan Gillean: "[we] camped in full view of the difficulty, discussed it leisurely, smoked a pipe over it, made fun of it and finally strolled across without much difficulty." - The Cuillin of Skye, p59 of the 1986 edition.
And an amusing visual observation on the subject can be found at http://www.sghurol.demon.co.uk/chris_tyler.htm (the smoker is TAC's very own Chris Tyler, and the location is the top of the In Pinn - on which mighty summit more in TAC64).
Re TAC61, p8, Bitburger German beer, sold in Tesco, comes in a strong, re-useable, screw-top plastic bottle which is very handy on the hill, even after the beer has been drunk.
Regarding Trail magazine, when and why did "gear" become "kit"? I don't know why it matters to me, it just does.
Andy Beaton, Dingwall
Ed. - When I worked in a Glasgow homelessness unit in the early days of TAC, gear and kit were both euphemisms for heroin. Maybe Trail and TGO are really just junkie mags.
I wish to share with the readers an unpleasant experience I had today (29 August) whilst attempting to climb Tinto. I had parked at the car park to the north of Tinto at Fallburn and was planning to climb the hill by the well-worn path which follows its northern ridge over Totherin Hill to the summit. It was quite wet and windy and I was the only person around, and as I walked towards the wooden gate which gives access to the beginning of the path I discovered to my surprise there was a chain and padlock on the gate. However, I ignored this and climbed over it and was about ten minutes along the path approaching the hillside when I reached the next wooden gate and to my complete horror I suddenly noticed that there were about six huge bulls and many more cows on the open hillside and on the path! My heart sank and I felt it would be too dangerous to attempt to walk past them. I turned back to the car with a heavy heart, my plans for the day thwarted.
I wonder if the locked gate and the bulls were intended by the landowner to discourage walkers from venturing on to the hill? This is my opinion. I was surprised to encounter this on such a popular hill and I have also noticed recently when walking on Tinto that a "Keep Out" sign has appeared on the other path leading to the easterly ridge over Scaut Hill to the summit, as well as high fences at the roadside discouraging access. It would seem that the owner of this hill wishes to keep walkers out.
Jim Martin, Glasgow
Mike Dales, access and conservation officer at the MCofS, writes: I exchanged emails with Jim Martin about his incident and then spoke about it with Simon Pilpel, one of the South Lanarkshire access officers. His colleague Phil Glennie had been there sometime after Jim and everything was OK - it always is when the official goes to visit. Anyway, the local authority now has the date when it was not OK, and the nature of why it was not OK. There's no saying how long the gate was locked and the cattle were on the path, but it shouldn't happen at all on a popular path like that. I'd certainly welcome any future reports of similar incidents so that I can get straight back to South Lanarkshire and get them to address the problem.
Ed. - I walked the Fallburn route on 13 October and there was no problem: gates were open and no bulls or cows were to be seen (although there was some residual cattle crap on the path). But, as Mike Dales says, this path should never be closed in this way, certainly not unilaterally by a farmer, so if any other readers have encountered problems here, please let TAC know and we will forward details on to Mike.
As regards the access problem on the eastern side of Tinto, this has been around for a while (see TAC37, p7), but is again something that simply shouldn't be happening. Some kind of route, ideally wide open but at worst briefly corridorised, should be available given that this has been a traditional ascent/descent option on Tinto for decades. It's to be hoped that the Scottish access act, once it "goes live" in February, will enable such situations to be resolved swiftly and painlessly.
For some months, perhaps even longer, the John Muir Trust and the Forestry Commission have been staring at the awkward problem of the car park at Braes of Foss, on FC land and maintained by them, but used almost entirely by JMT Schiehallion addicts at no cost to them. The JMT's new path starts there and has made the car park even more popular, to the extent that it can't cope at busy weekends. In their latest journal, July 2004, JMT management say "they are not in favour of car parking charges at this car park". So far, so good. But the problem is still there, namely access to the iconic Schiehallion, its popularity, and its general accessibility from Scotland's main residential towns.
It would be really good to see the JMT giving a lead here. Their chairman, Dick Balharry, needs the support of all of us if he is to re-establish the upkeep of wild land on the JMT's curriculum - after all, that was its original remit and raison d'être. A short-term solution (enlarge the car park, make the toilet block available year-round, etc) would be easier than the long-term (rethink the car park arrangement, talk to the well-intentioned neighbours, come up with a joint plan, cost it, etc). Expect this to take some time. No quick fix. Schiehallion needs to become "wilder", otherwise it will just become a honey-pot with the essential toilet block being the main reason for stopping off there!
Balharry defines wild land as that which eagles inhabit. Since eagles avoid people, people need to be less visible there. So, in discussion with the FC and Highland Perthshire Community Land Trust aka the Dun Coillich Group, JMT should consider how to encourage eagles. The main car park for the area needs to be further away than at present, likewise the toilet block, with screening (trees) and the involvement of Perth and Kinross Council. There needs to be a full-blown plan, with costing, and funding.
Charging for use of the car park seems almost trivial in this scenario. But without the grand plan - no possibility of eagles!
John Allen, Killin
It is a pity that Nick Aitken (TAC62, p15) only quotes Alan Blanco's last sentence from TAC60. Earlier, Alan says "Respect the wind and the waves and rock and wildlife, take care where you tread and leave no trace of your presence, but, please don't be put off by the bullies with the power." I totally agree with Alan. We should climb any mountains we fancy. The land morally belongs to all. Any historical study will show how it has been "acquired" by the few, often very dubiously.
St Kilda was easier of access in the 19th century when it had a resident population served by a regular steamship service from Glasgow. Moreover, then there were no restrictions or nonsense about permission. The older mountaineering journals contain several accounts of clmbing the stacks. Climbers just waited for suitable weather conditions and off they went with a local boatman.
Nick Aitken says we should listen politely while the warden explains the dangers of St Kilda. Is St Kilda the only place in Scotland with dangerous cliffs and hills? Of course not. Perhaps Nick thinks we should have wardens stationed at the trail-head of every mountain to lecture us and forbid us the joys of walking alone.
Were I young with climbing expertise, I would wait for the perfect day outside the nesting season, find a friendly boatman, and go to the stacks without announcing my attempt to anyone.
No, Alan Blanco is not talking piffle, nor does he have tongue in cheek. He is expressing very well what most dedicated hillwalkers feel about access bans on any moutains.
Rowland Bowker, Portinscale
Ed. - Thanks go to Thomas McEldowney for pointing out that the wrong URL was given in TAC62. It should have been http://www.kilda.org.uk/ rather than www.kilda.org (which, as Thomas says, leads "to some kind of pop-up hell").
A friend and colleague of mine had an interesting experience in Glen Coe recently. Having stravaiged the mighty Bidean from peak to peak, she dropped down into the legendary Lost Valley, intent on savouring the beauties of the rock-strewn gorge as the splendid finale to a satisfying day out. Tired but happy, she enjoyed a last glimpse of the Corrie of Spoils before taking the path back to her car and the cares of the world. But what was this? There appeared to be some commotion below, on the bridge over the River Coe. What was it? She screwed up her eyes. A strange creature ... no, two heads ... two people ... fighting? Imagine her surprise when, on closer inspection, she discovered that the bridge had been rendered temporarily impassable by two naked men engaged in an act of vigorous buggery!
My friend, soul of discretion that she is, retreated out of sight and proceeded to stamp her feet and yodel to alert the transported twosome to her imminence. No whit abashed, the homo-erotic Horatians instead redoubled their efforts, apparently excited by the prospect of the public gaze!
This tale came to mind the other day as I was reading a report (as you do) of the conference of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. Delegates at this learned assembly were treated to a paper splendidly entitled The Socio-sexual Use of Public Recreational Space: Managing the Public Sex Environment in Country Parks. The lecture was delivered by Dr Richard Byrne, an expert in (ahem) rural affairs. According to the good doctor, the most pressing management problem in country parks is not access, nor litter, but "organised multi-partner sexual contacts", more vulgarly known as "dogging".
Perhaps for some readers, the term "dogging" conjures up an image of Hamish Brown and Kitchy striding out on another Munro round: nothing, alas, could be further from the sordid truth. A dogger is one who spies on a couple who are having outdoor sex; the spying is however expected and welcomed by the couple, who will often invite the dogger to participate.
The practice is almost as old as the hills: there is an entertainingly obscene Latin poem on the subject (Google Catullus 56 if you've ever wanted to know the Latin for rigid tool). More contemporaneously, the activity has been taken up by various sexually jaded celebrities, most of whom cannot be mentioned here for fear of m'learned friends. One self-confessed practitioner, however, is footballer Stan Collymore - and what better name for a dogger?
Stan's favoured recreational area was Cannock Chase in Staffordshire; but my friend's experience would suggest that the practice is moving out from the country park to the wilder areas. Perhaps readers encountering such activity in the Scottish hills could report the details to the Editor, the information to be retained in a Dogger Bank?
Gordon Smith, Kilmarnock
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