Tuesday, 4 June 2019

12 Bus Buspack to Orkney Part Two

St Magnus Cathedral sits slap bang in the middle of Kirkwall so is useful for using as a landmark to help navigate around the narrow streets. It was founded in 1138 by the Viking Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle St Magnus. It is a regal structure built of red and yellow sandstone and a perfect setting for a folk concert. I booked the tickets late for Lau (Orkney word meaning natural light) so we were in the restricted view area – inside the high ceiling is supported by many stone pillars so the of restricted view is quite large. We joined the queue early and were lucky enough to find seats near the front.

St Magnus Cathedral

We have seen Lau before (guitar, fiddle and accordion), also their guitarist Kris Drever at Celtic Connections. We thought we knew what we were letting ourselves in for – we were wrong. Lau played their new album in the second half and introduced the audience to a new contraption called Morag, a sort of homemade gizmo that produced the weirdest sounds. At one point all three band members were gathered round Morag adding their own twist to their instruments – they looked like three mad scientists. At first I thought ‘oh no’ but then the sound grew on me. Traditional acoustic sounds crescendoed in waves, brewing to full strength before taming and reducing. It was innovative and fresh. The encore was the excellent song Ghosts which sent shivers down my spin.

The Old Library

Next day was rainy. We had a lazy start and made our way back to The Old Library for brunch with Helene and Sandy, two friends from Glasgow who were also visiting for the festival. While we chatted I enjoyed a delicious smashed avocado and poached egg and lots of fresh brewed coffee. Helene and Sandy had tickets for an afternoon event in Stromness while we had tickets for an event in St Andrews.

When I booked the tickets I didn’t realise that the venue was outside of Kirkwall, then when we arrived in Orkney we discovered there were no buses to there on a Sunday. We had no choice but to hire a taxi.
St Andrews is a little community twelve miles east of Kirkwall and the home to Sheila Fleet Jewellery who sponsored the concert. The village hall was a great venue with plenty of seats and not too noisy with the rain battering down on the roof.

First on stage was Benedict Morris (fiddle) with PabloLafuente (guitar) and Conal McDonagh (pipes and whistle). These three young men produced a sound that was quick, slick and very polished. Benedict appeared to be a reluctant singer but his voice is excellent and I hope they keep the song in their set.  Next up was Heisk an all-female sparkly six piece and although I enjoyed them they weren’t as slick as the previous act. Next on the bill was Irish singer Cara Dillon who appeared with husband Sam Lakeman and a mandolin player. Again we have seen them perform before and I had forgotten what an engaging performer Cara Dillon is. I particularly loved her own composition, The Leaving Song.
Things were running a bit late and our return taxi had arrived early but we hung on and watched most of Kinnaris Quintet before heading back.

Sparkly Heisk

The rain was torrential when we left St Andrews so we had the driver drop us off at the Bothy Bar. We grabbed a quick drink before running round to our dinner reservation at Helgi’s, the must visit restaurant in Kirkwall. We both had burgers and chips and it was good but not outstanding so I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. I topped off my Orkeny gastronomy with one scoop of Orkney vanilla ice cream, a fitting end to the trip.

We had an early rise and pack up to catch the 7.00am bus to St Margaret’s Hope. I’m glad we planned to do this round trip because the bus ride allowed us to see the southern part of the islands; to cross the Churchill barriers and pass the Italian Chapel.

Leaving Orkney

The Pentland Ferries boat to Gills Bay is small but efficient – even before we left port we were munching sausage on a roll and coffee. Most of the travellers seemed to be workers heading for a week’s work on the mainland. The crossing was fair with good views back to Orkney. Number 77 bus picked us up shortly after disembarking and dropped us at Wick were we had a short wait for the X99 to Inverness. Unlike the trip up from Inverness, the weather was good so the journey was pleasant. Unfortunately we couldn’t get on two fully booked Megabuses so had two hours to hang about in Inverness. We reached Perth at 6.00pm and had another hour wait for the M8 to Stirling, but that gave Colin the chance to nip down to the nearby Spar and buy a tin of beans.

As we approached Stirling the rain started again but we weren’t too worried, we were almost home. We assumed there would be a Unilink waiting but didn’t know that at that time of night the University buses cut the service back so we had a further delay in Stirling.

We arrived home at 8.30pm fourteen hours after leaving the campsite in Kirkwall. The pile of waiting mail and discarded rucksacks were ignored until we’d eaten our beans on toast and congratulated ourselves on a successful mini adventure.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

12 Bus Buspack to Orkney Part One

12 buses, 2 ferries, 2 campsites,1 haircut,  2 concerts, 3 catch-up with friends, 4 library visits, 1 return taxi ride, many ancient sites, a lost water bottle and a new pair of Sheila Fleet earrings.


 These are some of the numbers from our latest bus packing trip to Orkney.  Why Orkney?  I thought it would be fun to see how far we could reach in a day with our bus passes.  We had one free weekend in the calendar and I was delighted to find out it coincided with the Orkney Folk festival.

We planned the travel through Traveline Scotland but have now discovered that is not always the best way. The most important lesson we learned was to book the Perth/Inverness/Perth Megabus well in advance. This proved to be a mega busy route.

And we are off!

We left our home in Stirling at about 9.30am last Wednesday morning, jumped on a local bus then caught the Citylink to Perth which takes about 30 minutes. The bus had come from Glasgow and was busy. The woman in the seat behind had an annoying whiny voice which was bearable until we reached Dunblane (ten minutes out of Stirling) when she proceeded to wail on and on about the tragedy that happened in 1996 as if she had some involvement and had exclusive rights to sympathy. I tried to shut her out but couldn’t and was glad when her travelling companion took over the monologue.

Still not half way

We had a good change over to the Inverness megabus and settled back for the relaxing ride. I had made a picnic so we munched while watching the A9 scenery whizz by. I was surprised when the attendant offered us cake and a drink but it was most welcome. Four hours after we left home we reached Inverness bus station. We were still not half way there.

'Driving the bus'
We had left Stirling in sunshine but the clouds darkened the further north we travelled. The next stage of the journey, Inverness to Scrabster, was long but I knew the scenery would be magnificent. It was a double decker and, like a kid, I jumped in the front seat upstairs pretending to be the bus driver, but it was a bumpy rollercoaster ride and maybe not the best seat. 

When it rained the windows steamed up and it grew cold. 

We were both relieved to reach Scrabster and the warm MV Hamnavoe bar for the last leg of our journey.

A welcome Orkney Ale on the ferry

We disembarked in Stromness at 8.30pm, eleven hours after we left home. It was lashing with rain as we scuttled the mile distance to the campsite. We pitched in the rain but were soon cosy in sleeping bags sipping a dram and congratulating ourselves on the successful journey.

Our Peedie Tent

Rain and wind battered our wee tent through the night but it held well. The Ness Campsite has good facilities; a cosy sitting room and a kitchen with kettle and microwave. This meant we could cook and eat our porridge in luxury. The lounge was also a good place to meet fellow travellers.

The bad weather continued throughout the day. We visited Stromness Library, with its open views and fabulous George Mackay Brown Collection; The Pier Arts Centre, celebrating its fortieth anniversary; braved a walk to the trig point on the local hill, Brinkies Brae which proved a strange experience: as the rain was soaking us, the stiff wind simultaneously dried us. After yet one more cup of tea in a café we gave in and headed for the pub.

Binkies Brae
The Ferry Inn was busy and welcoming and although still early evening a traditional music session was in full swing. We shoehorned ourselves into a corner to enjoy the music and a pint of Orkney’s fine ale. The surroundings were so convivial that we ordered fish and chips and settled for a while. We were just getting ready to leave when two familiar faces appeared. Charlotte and Donald are friends from Stirling, they have a boat and are both excellent session players. We had no idea they were coming to the festival. It was wonderful to chat and listen to their playing. I had brought my whistle along on the trip and was sad I’d left it in the tent. They invited us to stay on their boat but we had made plans and were leaving Stromness next day.

Next morning the weather improved enough to allow us to get the tent down and packed in the dry. We caught the 9.10am bus to Kirkwall, jumped off at Pickaquoy Campsite, put the tent up and headed into town.

We first met Orkney residents David and Pattie in Applecross many years ago and have kept in touch. When we knew we were coming to town we arranged to meet in Kirkwall’s Old Library, now Sound Archive and Groove Records, a wonderful establishment with a fine coffee shop, record store, toy shop and what can only be described as an emporium. After a lovely catch-up we were once again let loose to explore.

Orkney Library's famous balls

Colin went for a haircut while I chose a pair of earrings from the Sheila Fleet store. Kirkwall is larger than Stromness, but although dominated by the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral I feel it lacks the charm of its smaller neighbour. But it is home to the now world famous Twitter star @OrkneyLibrary. A visit was a must.  I took photos of the famous library balls and introduced myself to the staff. They were lovely and very proud of their fame.

In the evening we ate in the authentic Italian restaurant Lucano and ended up in The Wrigley Sister's Reel Bar for another Trad session. This time I carried my whistle in my handbag, but the session was a local affair with much singing and I found I could only play a few tunes so didn’t stay too late.

We discovered, while pouring over bus timetables, that a tourist bus left Kirkwall each day. Because we have our concessionary tickets we could travel for free. Next morning we bought a meal deal from the local Tesco and caught the T11 with other tourists, including some from the visiting cruise ship.  The bus was chilly, and there was no commentary but I wasn’t complaining. It took us past ScapaFlow, where the German’s scuttled their fleet in WWI; through Orphir, the home of the Orkneyinga Saga and onto Skara Brae where we had an hour and a half to visit. Skara Brae is an ancient Neolithic settlement that was uncovered by a storm in 1850. It is fascinating to see how the people lived five thousand years ago. The site is by the sea and very exposed so we didn’t linger and like most of the others on the tour, returned to the bus before our allotted time. The next stop was the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic henge and stone circle. Here we had half and hour to walk around which was perfect for seeing this impressive site and to take photos. The bus returned to Kirkwall early afternoon.
An early dinner in the Bothy Bar was needed before we made our way to St Magnus Cathedral for our first concert of the festival.

More about Orkney and the festival in part two. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Bus Pass Backpack

In July 2018 I celebrated my sixtieth birthday. It was a double celebration because in Scotland when you turn sixty the government gives you an entitlement card free of charge.
This smart card allows citizens access to various public services and facilities. To be honest I am not entirely sure what the many benefits are but I do know that it entitles me to free bus travel throughout Scotland and some discounts on other means of transport. In the past this card has been known as a Bus Pass and that name has stuck.

Sixty used to mean old age. When my granny was sixty I thought she was ancient, confined to a wheel chair and no fun. This did not stop her living a further twenty six year. My own mum seemed old at sixty even though she played curling regularly and had an active life. Now it’s my turn. I am shocked to find my own grandchildren think I’m old when I feel eighteen.

I write every day, I work hard, I exercise and do many activities people half my age can’t manage.
The image of me as a little old lady flashing her bus pass at a dour bus driver as I make my way into town for shopping does not work.

I’ve decided to use my card for adventures.

In Scotland the bus network travels widely, even to remote areas by post bus. I have a backpack, a lightweight tent and gear and I can read a map and compass. I have climbed mountains all over Scotland and this has given me a good sense of the geography of the land and the extensive drove roads and tracks that crisscross the glens and coastlines.  I could join up some of these tracks with bus routes to explore parts of Scotland in a different way.

Being sixty doesn’t need to be about slowing down. I am about to embark on a whole new era of adventures.

The start

One late afternoon in October 2018 my husband, Colin and I had a mini adventure to test the tent and the grand plan. We caught the number 23 bus from Stirling to Dollar. We then climbed Bank Hill and Earl’s Seat to reached the main plateau of the Ochil Hills just as daylight was beginning to fade. The afternoon had started dry but as we climbed the wind whipped up and a light drizzle fell. At the planning stage we picked our overnight camp on the map, but when we reached there we found it boggy and slopping. We wandered around the Maddy Moss area of the hills for a while before we found a spot with water which was flat enough to pitch the tent.

The tent was new, so we were pretty slow at erecting it. By the time it was up and the bags unpacked the light had almost gone and it was freezing cold. When we were at last zipped up inside the tent we were in need of some food but too tired to light the stove. We had a quick dinner of precooked lentils followed by cake and crawled into our sleeping bags.

Looking for a perfect pitch in the fading light
Misty morning on Maddy Moss

The wind was pretty fierce during the night but the wee tent held well. Next morning was misty but dry and we were happy to have a hot breakfast of porridge and coffee. It was easier to pack the tent in daylight than it was to put it up in the dark. The track to the other side of the Ochils, on the A9 is good. I believe it was used centuries ago by mill workers walking from Blackford and Auchterarder to the mills in Tillicoultry and Alva. As we tramped under wind turbines and past the reservoir I felt relief and joy that our plan was now under way.

Looking back to Upper Glen Devon Reservoir and wind turbines

In Blackford we discovered we had a while to wait for the number 20 bus back to Stirling so we found a cosy pub and enjoyed a welcome hot chocolate.

Trips can be planned easily by using www.travelinescotland.com

Friday, 12 April 2019


I am ashamed to say that until today I didn't know Discover National Parks Awareness Fortnight was a thing.

But I am delighted to find that I have something to say about it because over the last week I have climbed two very iconic hills in The Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.

The first was last Friday.  My nine year old grandson, James, has recently shown an interest in hillwalking. He has climbed a local hill but I knew that Ben A'an on the side of Loch Achray was a spectacular hill and well within his capabilities. I have climbed it twice before, both times with non hillwalkers at a slow speed. I was looking forward to showing my grandson this gem.

The pointed hill Ben A'an

We had a problem parking the van because the carpark was packed so Colin dropped us off and planned to park in the nearby Ben Venue carpark. He would catch us up. James was like a puppy let off a leash and was soon racing up the path.  There has been quite a few changes since the last time I was here. The path is better and there has been substantial tree clearing. Colin still hadn't caught us when we rounded the bend and had our first view of the hill.

Ben A'an is only 454m high but has a pointed summit that looks inaccessible from a distance.
'That's the hill,' I said hoping he'd share my excitement.
'What! I'm not climbing that,' said James and plopped himself down on a rock. 'I'm not going.'

He wouldn't budge so I kept walking hoping he'd change his mind. A little further up the path I met a family, Mum, Dad, two young girls about 6 or 7 years old.
'Have you been up the mountain?' I asked.
'Oh, yes,' both girls said beaming.
'Was it good?'
'Do you see that boy sitting on a rock? Please tell him that.'  And they did because James was soon back on the track scampering after me.

Ben A'an summit

The walking is easy until the base of the mountain then the path climbs steeply round the back and the rocky summit is reached from a northern shoulder. It was very windy on the summit so we didn't linger too long, just enough to take some photos and catch the breathtaking views.
For such a short climb the views are stunning over Loch Katrine and towards Ben Lomond. It must be one of the most rewarding hills in Scotland and, judging from the number of people on the hill that day, that fact is no secret.

The second hill I've climbed this week is also a short climb for great reward - Conic Hill at Balmaha, on the banks of Loch Lomond.

My friend has just retired and wanted to do a walk. We both had appointments at either end of the day so arranged to meet in the Balmaha carpark at 11.00. Trisha always brings her dog Raasay on walks but for a collie he is very well behaved.

With Raasay on the very busy summit

The carpark is large so no trouble parking this time. The path was very busy and it was lovely to see so many young children out walking. Like the day on Ben A'an, the weather was good, clear skies and not too much wind this time.  Conic Hill is a hump back ridge, with good paths up to the summit and the West Highland Way traversing along it's northern flank. At the high point we looked back to fabulous views of the loch, but the summit was so busy we kept walking the ridge until we found a quite spot for a picnic. We then dropped down and picked up the West Highland Way path for our return route.

The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

Because we had some extra time we veered off the main path, kept to the ridge and walked straight down to the loch. It's then only a short walk along the beach, then road to get back to the carpark.

If you haven't yet discovered your national parks try and get out this weekend and climb one of these gems.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

New Boots

I needed a new pair of hillwalking boots.

It would have been easy to catch the train to Glasgow or Edinburgh to buy them but we hadn’t been away in the van for a while so we went to Keswick.

We started Friday morning in the usual way; climbing wall for Colin, cardio dance for me. After a short trip to the supermarket across the road from the Sports Centre to stock up we were away. We reached Keswick before the shops shut. First stop NeedleSports, my favourite outdoor shop. The staff are friendly and know what they're talking about. I was soon the proud owner of a snazzy pair of three season Salewa boots with funky blue laces.

New boots with plastic tag still attached

Next stop Braithwaite’s beautiful campsite with its stunning views towards Skiddaw (931 m) and only a five minute walk to the village. After we set up camp we wandered to the Royal Oak for an early dinner. The pub was pretty busy but we soon found a table. The local beer was excellent and so was the food, pork belly with crackling, mash and gravy - yum. Many of the diners were watching the football on the TV that played in the corner - Leeds vs Spurs so we joined them in supporting the northern team. Rain had threatened earlier but it was a clear, cold night as we walked along the small river back to the campsite. The forecast for the next day was for rain coming in at lunchtime so we set our alarm for an early start.
I wanted to test out my boots on Skiddaw, the only English hill over 3000 foot I haven’t climbed. The normal route is from Keswick but we drove the van a little further north and started from Dodd Wood. After paying £6.00 for the car park we took a good forestry track contouring below Longside Edge. We were on our own until we met the path coming up from Keswick and suddenly the hill got busy. The going was pretty good until the col between the mountain and Longside Edge. Here the path turned into a scree slope and proved to be very steep and slippy. The wind had picked up and clouds were beginning to gather in the west.

Looking back to Derwent Water

We reached the broad summit before 11:00 am but didn’t linger because the wind was knocking me over. As I skittered my way back down the steep slope I got a good look at Longside Edge, our planned return route. It looked a narrow but interesting ridge. The wind was still strong. I didn’t fancy being blown off a narrow ridge but I knew from experience that narrow ridges look less imposing close up. We went for it and I’m glad we did because it is an excellent ridge walk, a good wide path with bypass routes for more difficult sections. Because we were parked at the Dodd Wood carpark we came off the ridge early onto a steep grass hillside that led onto even steeper scree that moved like water with every movement. Many times I ended up skiting down on my backside. It was a good test for my boots, my trousers weren’t fairing so well.

Good path on Longside Edge

By the time we reached the forest track again small specs of rain were falling and we almost made it back to the van before torrential rain lashed us.
Back at the campsite I dashed through the rain to the cosy toilet block for a roasting hot shower. We thought we might go back to the pub from a pre-dinner beer but the rain held us captive in the van for the evening, but that is always a treat in itself.
The boots passed the test.

Monday, 7 January 2019

New Year, New Hope

Too much work, so much hassle just before Christmas meant that I was desperate to get away after the family commitments had been dealt with.  We packed up Bessie with leftover Christmas cake, cheese and biscuits and of course those gallons of extra cream that occur at this time of year. At least I'd made a batch of home made muesli as a feeble attempt to get back to some form of healthy eating. Normally I take lots of outdoor gear but I'm injured so instead I filled a bag full of toys; whistles, knitting, two paperbacks and my latest, a small Zoom recorder. We set the controls for Dumfries and Galloway.

Our first stop was Glencaple where the community actively encourage campervans to stay on the quay by the river Nith. There are public toilets in the adjoining car park as well as a water tap. At the quay is a sign showing where five vans can easily park and a small honesty box should you wish to leave a donation. This scheme pays off because the excellent Nith Hotel was open for meals and we were more than happy to forgo yet another meal of cheesy pasta for a good steak and a bottle of finest Chianti.

Glencaple and the river Nith

The weather had been settled since Christmas and looked set to continue as next day we drove the few miles south to Caerlaverlock Castle and Wetland Centre. Again the community had provided an area for campervan parking at the Corner Campsite, this time with the addition of a chemical toilet disposal.

Welcome Here!

Caerlaverock sits on a estuary and the tidal mudflats provides food for a thousands of migrating seabirds that visit here from the Arctic Circle each year.

We laced up our our boots and tramped through the grounds. I took my recorder hoping for some bird calls but all I managed to capture was the sound of my boots squelching along the muddy path. At a hide we stopped for a picnic and spotted a lesser white egret among the barnacle geese. and then a curlew entered the mix and we felt like real birdwatchers despite our pathetic binoculars. I ventured back out at dusk for another attempt at recording but a nearby car park seemed to be a haunt for local (and noisy) boy racers so I gave up.

I love Dumfries and Galloway. I have been many times before but never to the Mull of Galloway which is the most southerly point in Scotland. On this trip I was determined to get there. Why there? I suspect it is because 2019 is set to be a rough time in the UK. We are due to leave Europe which will definitely be cause for another call for Scottish Independence.  I wanted to be where I'd feel closest to Scotland, England and Ireland.

The sun sets on 2018

 The scenery in this area is spectacular. The sun was shining and as we reached the lighthouse at the end of the road the dying sun was sparking on the sea.  The Mull of of Galloway lighthouse was built by the Stevenson family and became operational in 1830. It is 26 metres high but because it sits on a cliff it stands 99 metres above sea level. It was automated in 1988. There is a good size car park which is fairly flat. Although the wind was howling in from the north west we parked up for the night. Earlier in the night I saw lights from the Isle of Man and from Ireland (possibly Belfast) but at the midnight the sky became overcast and the only New Year fireworks I saw came from the surrounding Galloway homes. I will try to remain optimistic for 2019 but at midnight I admit to feeling rather sad.

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

Dark Sky Park - It was very dark!
Another gem in Dumfries and Galloway is the Dark Sky Park, an area of land surrounded by forest with low light pollution so perfect for seeing the stars. A clear sky was forecast on the 1st of January so we headed for a good spot. We were not disappointing. Wrapped up against the biting cold I stood outside the van  staring into the skies. It was possible to see the Milky Way as a backdrop to bright constellations and my heart filled with joy. My camera was not up to the task of recording this wondrous event so, while I cooked more cheesy pasta, Colin headed out to capture the night sky.

Before we left this fabulous area there was one last thing I wanted to do - attend and play in a traditional music pub session.

Through playing traditional music we have made friends all over the country and some live in D & G. We drove a short distance from the park to our friend Wendy's small holding. She fed us delicious food before taking us to a session in a cosy pub, The Clachan in St John's Town of Dalry. Most of the regulars played Irish tunes, of which I know only a few, but I did manage to play along to a couple of tunes.

Traditional music session in The Clachan

Dumfries and Galloway has something for everyone. If I had not been injured I would definitely have climbed some of the fine hills there. But despite not hill walking we managed to fill five days with different activities. But best of all, unlike other parts of the UK, Dumfries and Galloway made us welcome as campervan owners. That makes a difference and I will definitely be back there soon.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Let's Go On An Adventure

You will notice that the blog post before this one was posted in January 2015. There are a couple of reason for this. The first was because someone said to me that as a writer of fiction, some of which is aimed at the young adult audience, my Not About Bessie Blog was maybe a bit 'old'. Foolishly I listened and lost heart in writing the blog. Another reason was that in 2016/17 I had some health issues and although I did manage to go on some adventures, most of my time was spent travelling to hospital appointments. 

As my health improved my lust for adventure increased and my outlook on life completely changed. I still write fiction, some for adults, some for young adults, but I also travel and keep journals of those travels. So, I have dusted the cobwebs off this blog and I plan to update it regularly with some interesting travels, book reviews and recipes.

I also want to explore different subjects. I am interested in exploring my own local landscape. I run regularly around the University of Stirling and in the Ochil Hills and each time I see new aspects of the environment.

Not About Bessie Blog is for everyone, young and old. I am really excited about relaunching and to once again connect with what I love best.