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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 29 March 2013

IF A MOUNTAIN biker, a road biker, a trials biker and a BMX-er raced each other up a steep, cobbled street over a distance of 170 metres, who would win? It might sound like a hypothetical question – or the start of a really geeky cycling joke – but we should get an answer of sorts tomorrow, when the Red Bull Hill Chasers event comes to Edinburgh.

Now in its third year, this quirky multi-discipline race will see hundreds of hopefuls battle it out on the slippery cobbles of Victoria Street in the heart of the Old Town for the chance to face off against a group of bona fide cycling legends.

On Saturday, up to 500 amateur racers are expected to take part in an individual timed hill sprint on Cockburn Street. The fastest 30 finishers will then be joined by a group of ten elite cyclists for a knock-out competition on Victoria Street, in which pairs of riders will race head-to-head up a narrow course with a series of pinch-points introduced to impede overtaking. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 23 March 2013

“ONE guy called me a whore,” says Ted Wilson. “I was in a movie line one night with my wife, and this guy saw me and came over and said ‘You, my friend, you are a whore.’”

I nearly choke on my coffee. Polite and softly-spoken, Wilson isn’t the kind of man you’d expect to even say “whore”, let alone have it hurled at him in anger. Then again, the former politician is currently at the epicentre of what must be one of the fiercest debates ever to rock American skiing. Abuse comes with the territory.

A progressive, Democrat mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976 to 1985, Wilson has a strong track record of campaigning on environmental issues, yet now he is heading up SkiLink – a controversial project to connect the neighbouring ski resorts of Canyons and Solitude in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains by running a gondola through an area of government-owned wild land. Local environmental groups – and presumably the man in the queue for the cinema – think he has sold his soul to Talisker, the Canadian company that owns Canyons, but Wilson believes that, overall, the scheme will do more good than harm. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 16 March 2013

TODAY and tomorrow, weather and snow conditions permitting, Glencoe Mountain ski resort will play host to the second edition of the Coe Cup freeride contest – a no-holds-barred carnival of extreme skiing and snowboarding held on the notoriously steep section of the mountain known as the Flypaper.

Like the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Fort William or the now sadly defunct O’Neill Coldwater Classic surf contest at Thurso, the Coe Cup is the kind of dramatic, photogenic sporting event that nobody seems to think can happen in Scotland. But having witnessed last year’s contest from a somewhat soggy vantage point beneath Buttress Rock in the middle of the main run – taking regular facefulls of spray from competitors as they flew past – I can assure you that there will be real skiers and snowboarders launching real tricks off real cliffs and landing them on real snow. Yep, just like they do in the Alps, just like you see on the telly. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 9 March 2013

THE bumblebee tree; Macleod’s Tables; McSomething’s Cave; scrubby clearing; wild iris patch; Huge Supermarket… These are just a few of the landmarks and landforms that feature in J Maizlish Mole’s witty new maps of the Isle of Skye.

Other highlights include “boggy slopes”, “wet and lumpy high ground” and the rather vague-sounding “craggy volcanic peaks, etc”. As you may have guessed, Mole is not a conventional mapmaker. He doesn’t do spot heights or contour lines or little circles with crosses on top to denote churches with spires. Then again, it would be inaccurate to describe his maps as inaccurate. They are drawn to scale and are recognisably of Skye, and while they might not be particularly precise representations of the physical landscape, that’s not really their purpose. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 2 March 2013

THE winter of 2012/13 has been a tragic one for the Scottish mountaineering community. At time of going to press there have been ten fatalities. On 13 January, a climber was killed in a fall in Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms; on 19 January, four climbers died in an avalanche on Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe; on 26 January a climber fell to his death on Ben Nevis; on 11 February a hillwalker was found dead in the Jacob’s Ladder area of the Cairngorms; and on 14 February three climbers were killed in an avalanche in the Chalamain Gap, also in the Cairngorms. These people deserved to be remembered as folk who died doing something they loved, but instead certain sections of the media seem to have used their deaths as an excuse to stage a spurious debate about restricting access to the hills in winter, calling their motivations into question in the process. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 23 February 2013

FOR generations, naturalists and twitchers have tried their darnedest to convert birdsong into written language, but the results, to put it kindly, have been a bit mixed. The difficulties are legion, but the main sticking points were brilliantly summed up a couple of years ago in a book by the poet and author John Bevis. In From Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, Bevis didn’t attempt to concoct any transcriptions of his own – instead, his goal was to track down as many existing efforts as he could and gather them all together in the same place.

“The idea of transcribing birdsong into human language does seem slightly absurd,” he wrote in his introduction, and the resulting list of words proved him more-or-less right. In several cases there were multiple spellings of the same sound made by the same species. One bird was quoted as making a “wha-wha-wha” sound and also a “wow-wow-wow” sound, begging the question: which spelling is the more accurate? You could get a panel of experts to debate that one for a month, but in the end you can pretty much guarantee that the favoured spelling wouldn’t replicate the actual bird anyway. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 16 February 2013

THIS month, as part of the Fort William Mountain Festival, the pioneering skier and mountaineer Myrtle Simpson will receive the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture, joining an elite group that includes Hamish MacInnes, Richard Else, Jimmy Marshall, Ian Sykes and Adam Watson. When I call Simpson at her home near Insh in Inverness-shire and congratulate her on the honour, she chuckles modestly and says: “I don’t know why I got it, really”. But in truth, the 82-year-old’s achievements are so numerous and varied it was surely only a matter of time before she was recognised in this way.

On the mountaineering front, Simpson was involved in the early days of mountain rescue in Fort William, working alongside the ingenious innovator of rescue kit, Donald Duff. She was one of the first people to act as a mountain guide on Ben Nevis, too, leading visitors up Tower Ridge, and was also a member of the Edinburgh Andean Expedition of 1958, during which she bagged six first ascents of peaks over 19,000ft along with Billy Wallace and Hugh Simpson, whom she would later marry. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 9 February 2013

THESE may sound like the words of a raving masochist to any non-surfing readers out there, which I guess is probably most of you, but surfing in Scotland in the middle of winter has its advantages. The waves are bigger, the crowds are smaller and the sealife that gets washed up on the beach tends to look more alien than it ever does in the summer, presumably because the freaks of the deep like to hide out in hard-to-reach places and can only be dislodged by serious storms. That said, even the most hardcore surfers would agree that winter here can occasionally be a wee bit on the harsh side.

Wetsuits these days are great at keeping you warm, even on the most finger-nippingly frigid of days, but they still don’t stop your face from burning with cold every time you duck dive under a wave. And, of course, you can’t wear rubber indefinitely. At some point you’re going to have to peel off that nice warm second skin and hop around half-naked in a deserted car park, chasing after your clothes as they are blown hither and yon by the wind while trying not to lacerate the soles of your feet on all those tiny pebbles that CUT LIKE KNIVES. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 2 February 2013

SINCE 2008, when it was announced that Schladming in Austria would host this year’s Alpine World Ski Championships, the town has changed almost beyond recognition. I can still remember when the chunk of prime real estate at the bottom of the downhill race course was taken up by a large, unglamorous car park. When you pulled up at the gates, a posse of elderly, ruddy-cheeked attendants in matching ski jackets would micro-manage every stage of the short journey to your parking place with a disarming mixture of Styrian cheerfulness and Teutonic precision. “Left here… Right here… Forward a bit… A little more… A little more… A little more… A little more… OK stop!” BIG SMILE! Space shuttles have been launched with less attention to detail.

Now, in anticipation of becoming the centre of the skiing universe, a gargantuan multi-storey car park has been constructed nearby (little green lights on the floor show you where to go) and the spot where the old car park once stood has been transformed into what must surely be the most futuristic-looking ski stadium in the world. Continue reading →


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 26 January 2013

IN THE wake of Jimmy Savile’s posthumous fall from grace – or perhaps that should be, his transition from harmless idiot to harmful predator – there has been much debate about what should happen to his holiday home in Glencoe. Since its whitewashed walls were covered in graffiti following revelations about his abusive past there have been calls for it to be torn down, but there are also those who believe it should be spared the bulldozer treatment. Only the other week, the mountaineer and journalist Cameron McNeish was on BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye show, patiently explaining to apoplectic callers that, long before it was owned by Savile, the house at Allt-na-reigh had been the home of Hamish MacInnes – arguably Scotland’s greatest living mountaineer and an innovator who developed several key bits of kit that climbers still rely on today. To tear it down, McNeish argued, would be to demolish a place of major significance to the history of mountaineering. Continue reading →