Sunday 31 January 2016

Scotland by Rail - Dunnottar Castle - cliff walk from Stonehaven

Dunnottar Castle, a seriously good day out by rail. Only two and a half hours from our capital city to Stonehaven, then an hour walk to the castle.

train sketches - Burntisland to Stonehaven

 A beautiful journey by train up Scotland's east coast - the Forth Estuary and three Forth Bridges - the Fife coast; the wide bay of Burntisland, where I stay; the River Tay and Tay Bridge (look down at the remaining pillars from the collapsed old bridge); the coastline on the approach to Arbroath (look out for the miniature railway on the sea-side just before the town. In summer you often see a train pulling families along it); the red-sand Angus farmland; Montrose Basin - fantastic wetland site with Scottish Wildlife Trust visitor centre (if you're really really really lucky you might spot an osprey or even a sea eagle from the train. I've watched an osprey diving for fish whilst I was standing on platform 1). And then you're alighting in Stonehaven.

Montrose Basin - spot an osprey?

And three and a half hours after leaving Edinburgh you've walked along seabird cliffs above sweeping bay and are looking across to Dunnottar Castle on its almost-island clifftop plateau.

Dunnottar Castle, biro in sketchbook


From Stonehaven station

Take the main road east into the town centre passing lovely old houses, plant-filled front gardens - hardly any have yet been slabbed to replace wildlife with car. Fifteen minutes sees you in the town centre where you can start with a café break or choose which to visit after you've done your walk.

From Stonehaven town centre the walk is under two miles. Other than a first short uphill section out of the harbour it's really not strenuous.

Walk down to the shore path and turn right, following the sea until you reach the harbour. Overlooking the harbour is a 16th Century storehouse building which now houses the Tolbooth Museum - free entry. When you've explored continue along the inner harbour wall, buildings on your right, harbour on your left, until you see a brown sign to Dunnottar Castle on a wall somewhere. Follow the direction it points you in, through housing until you're on the steep path up to the clifftops. The sign isn't totally obvious so if you aren't clear just ask someone.

From up here it's easy. Head towards the hilltop war memorial along a well maintained path between two fields. When you get to the brow of that hill you'll see Dunnottar Castle, two bays away. If you're not keen on cliffs you can follow a fairly quiet country road to the castle car park instead.

Dunnottar Castle is open to visitors daily, currently costs £6 per adult. Check online and by phoning before you make your journey. There are toilets in the castle (though when we were there they closed ten minutes before castle-closing time) and in the summer season there's a picnic van on site (by the car park).

Slug Road

Stonehaven shore

Stonehaven harbour
follow this monument to reach Dunnottar

keep eyes open for peregrines

first glimpse

Dunnottar Castle

pen in sketchbook

The Whig's Vault. Pretty bad. Read the words in the next photo.



Great wildlife all along the shore and cliffs. Here's everything we saw between (and including) the harbour and the castle:

Black-headed Gull
Carrion Crow
Curlew - 30+
Fulmar - 90+
Guillemot - 1
House Sparrow
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Oystercatcher - 70+
Shag - 5
Hooded Crow/Carrion-Hooded hybrid - 2
Cormorant - 7+
Feral Pigeon
Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Peregrine - 1
Rock Pipit

Total number of species -  21

AND - dolphins! Four or more, fins rising and falling in the choppy waves. There for ten minutes or more. (At times whales have been seen from here too)

And quite a few grey seals.

dolphins were out beyond those rocks


A page from my book

We had it typically 'Scottish' this time - wet mist and drizzle. The castle looked stunning in it! But look at pages 35 - 36 of my book for a sunnier scene.

Landscapes & Birds of Scotland, an Artist's View cost s £20 from Jeremy Mills Publishing or ordered through your local bookshop. Signed copies available directly from me or from lovely independent bookshop Far From the Madding Crowd, Linlithgow.

page 36

page 35


How to get there

Stonehaven is two to two and a half hours by train from Edinburgh Waverley, just under an hour from Dundee, and under twenty minutes from Aberdeen.

Find the ScotRail timetable here.

Many thanks to ScotRail for their invaluable support of my Scotland by Rail work.



Saturday 23 January 2016

2016 - January BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow to Philpstoun

Linlithgow Canal Basin - the start of my count
Although I haven't been getting round to blogging it I do still carry out my monthly British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count on the Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun.

WeBS is a UK-wide count of waterbirds, carried out each month by around 3,000 volunteers. The science gathered is vitally important in the conservation of populations and habitat.

Because of our relatively mild winters a lot of these waterbird species come here from their Arctic breeding territories and either spend the whole winter with us or feed up then continue southwards. Winter is definitely the best time to see waterbirds on my particular count route, because of the flood field. Flood field (my name) lies a kilometre west of Philpstoun and during winter becomes, well, flooded. Birds flock to it. Today it held 153 wigeon, 5 greylag geese, 15 mallards, 1 curlew, 2 black-headed gulls, 2 herring gulls, 1 buzzard, 1 starling.

spot (some of) the 153 wigeon

5 greylag geese

Over the past four years I've counted lapwings, oystercatchers, grey wagtails, pied wagtails, pink-footed geese, moorhens, coots, common gull, lesser black-backed gull, teal, shelduck, pochard, grey heron, all on the flood field, some of them in very high numbers. And snipe. It's the only place I've ever found to fairly regularly see and watch snipe, though they're small and camouflaged and a telescope would be very helpful!

Unfortunately every spring/summer I look at fresh drainage channels being dug and water draining to be replaced by cows which surely often trample the breeding attempts of the lapwings that try to nest there. (On which - aren't lapwings wonderful! Watch the short clip half way down this old blog post.)

I wish there was a way for flood field, even just its flooded centre, to be set aside and developed as a mini wetland nature reserve. There's an ideal spot for a bird hide up on the canal bank and people could leave vehicles in the car park at Park Farm then make the short walk along, finishing off afterwards with coffee and cake in The Park Bistro. Or they could travel by water taxi. Many people use this stretch of canal, by bike and foot - and barge! - and would stumble upon the hide. The hide and reserve could become a feature and a selling point for Scottish Canals and Linlithgow Union Canal Society and The Park Bistro.

mute swan, no ring

Elsewhere along the canal today I saw little in the way of waterbirds:

- 2 goosander, one male one female

- 4 mute swans
(- two unringed adults on canal in area of the first road bridge west of Philpstoun.
- two adults just west of Philpstoun bings. Smaller one unringed. Larger one with light green ring, black letters PLF.)

- 1 cormorant flying overhead following the line of the canal east to west, then veering right to head presumably towards its fellows on Linlithgow Loch.

2 reed buntings (almost definitely several more)

And ALL birds seen along my route today:

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Buzzard - 1
Collared Dove - 2
Curlew - 1
Feral Pigeon
Goldcrest - 3
Goosander - 2
Great Tit
Greylag Goose - 5
House Sparrow
Linnet - 40
Mute Swan - 4
Robin - 2
Song Thrush - 2
Treecreeper - 1
Carrion Crow
Coal Tit
Cormorant - 1
Goldfinch - 5
Great Spotted Woodpecker - 1
Greenfinch - 4
Herring Gull
Long-tailed Tit
Mallard - 17
Pink-footed Goose
Reed Bunting
Wigeon - 153

Total - 41 species

old nest by the canal-side

earthstars are among my favourite fungi. Such alien shapes. I think this is a collared earthstar (Geastrum triplex)...
I think this is a collared earthstar (Geastrum triplex)...

For scale. (Hand is human not hobbit, I don't think he ever wore it on that finger. And we wouldn't see the hand anyway.)

only a second before I pressed 'take' there was a treecreeper on the right of that main trunk and a goldcrest on the stump on the left

from the top of the more northerly Philstoun shale bing, smoke puff trees

Has anyone lost Hamish? I have his tag.

Older WeBS canal count posts by clicking the BTO WeBS wetland bird count link on the left hand side of blog.

23rd Jan 2016

Friday 15 January 2016

on 'stage' with Jim Crumley & Malachy Tallack at the first ever Further From Festival, Linlithgow, 10.30am, 6th Feb 2016

I'm very excited to be appearing with Jim Crumley and Malachy Tallack at the inaugural Further From Festival in Linlithgow on Saturday 6th February, 10.30am.

Jim Crumley
- is long established and highly respected nature writer, journalist and poet. You've probably heard him on the radio and read him in the press. Saraband publish his beautifully produced Encounters in the Wild series, and also his Nature's Architect, about beavers, and The Eagle's Way, about, ah, eagles.

- is a writer, editor and singer-songwriter from Shetland. His first book is Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home. Last year it ran as Book of the Week on Radio 4, and Robert Macfarlane praises it as "a brave book ... and a beautiful book". More than enough to make you go out and buy a copy.

Further From
- is a new venture from Linlithgow's fantastic independent bookshop, Far From The Madding Crowd.

- Liz Lochhead, Tam Dalyell, Ron Butlin, Shirley McKay, Nick Sharratt are some of the others taking part. Full details in the attached programme and online here
- Tickets for our event cost £8. Bookings and queries to Phone - 01506 845 509.

- Join the event on Facebook here.

Happy New Year!