Fish farmer snaps photo of Nessie

NessieLoch Ness has been getting into the news a lot lately. There’s been a rise in sightings this year, Nessie was photographed in July, and a UFO was spotted over Loch Ness last month.

Now a new photo of Nessie has emerged. You’ll have to go to the link to see it because we don’t get a photo budget here at Gadling and Nessie photos don’t come cheap. Instead you get to marvel at this fine Lego Nessie photographed by David R. Tribble. At least it’s exactly what it looks like.

The “real” monster was snapped by commercial fish farmer Jon Rowe when he got out his camera to take a picture of a rainbow over Loch Ness. Rowe says he, “noticed this really large dark shape in the loch with two humps that were barely out of the water. . .Almost as soon as I took the shot the shape disappeared under the water and out of sight.”

Personally I’m skeptical, and so are the experts. The leading cryptozoology website Cryptomundo opines that the image shows a pair of water birds diving for prey. Adrian Shine of the Loch Ness Project says the same thing.

Rowe insists that they weren’t birds, however, so the mystery continues.

At least all this activity is putting to rest the idea that Nessie is extinct.

Unidentified Falling Object seen over Loch Ness

bolide, Loch NessScottish police are scratching their heads over a mysterious occurrence at Loch Ness this weekend, The Scotsman newspaper reports.

On Saturday night several eyewitnesses saw an object falling into or near the loch. Some describe it as a white light, others as a blue light. People said it was a balloon, or an ultralight, or a parachute. Some people said it didn’t fall at all, merely passed over the tree line.

In other words, nobody has the faintest idea what they saw.

So many people called emergency services, however, that it’s certain something strange was going on in the skies, and the police, the coastguard, a lifeboat crew, and the Royal Air Force went in search of it. Several hours of looking in the water and along the shore turned up nothing.

So what was it? Possibly a meteor. Meteors often cause UFO flaps. Large ones called “fireballs” or “bolides” can light up the sky and even change color as their various minerals get ionized from the heat of entering our atmosphere. Since they streak across the night sky so quickly, it’s hard to judge distance or location. This photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, shows a bolide. It’s not a photo of whatever was over Loch Ness.

Sadly, there were no reported sightings of Nessie this weekend. Some people say the poor Loch Ness Monster may be extinct.

The East Highland Way day six: strange sculptures and cursed castles


It’s the last day of my hike along the East Highland Way and the trail has given me a special wake-up treat, namely this view of Loch Insh in the early morning. I love this photo because it captures the most alluring aspect of Scottish lochs–the way their placid waters reflect and soften the light. Lochs are the magic mirrors of the Highlands, capturing the surrounding trees and hills and turning them into something ethereal.

Like all the villages I’ve stayed in, Kincraig vanishes within minutes of me setting out. I’m soon back in the countryside. Well, almost. First I have to negotiate a farmer’s field made squishy from yesterday’s rain and then stop to admire the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail. This local artist, who sadly died last year, carved eerie human images out of trees. He left much of the tree in its original shape, so it looks like the people are growing naturally out of the wood. Sorrowful faces, giant hands, and struggling bodies rise out of the ground between living trees in a quiet woodland. It feels like I’m in the middle of a forest in which some of the trees have suddenly come to life. Bruce’s work is social commentary too. A grieving Third World mother holds her starving baby in front of some fat rich men, while nearby two patriots are locked in a life-or-death struggle.

It’s effective and more than a little creepy. The images stay in my mind until something more troubling occupies my thoughts. The route is taking me through an undulating, forested valley between several hills. Trails crisscross the area and I have to be careful to take the correct one. Soon I run into trouble. I come across a paved road where none appears on the map. I know I’m on the right spot judging from the relative position of the surrounding hills, so this road is a bit of a mystery. Next a few houses appear, also not on the map. For the past five days the Ordnance Survey maps have been meticulously accurate, yet now they show glaring lapses. The explanation is simple–this particular section hasn’t been fully updated since 1998. I was aware of this beforehand, but what could I do? The land has changed drastically. New trails are everywhere, curving away out of sight into the woods going who-knows-where.

%Gallery-100361%Time for a compass reading. I know where I’m headed–a small loch called Loch Gamhna and a bigger one just north of it called Loch an Eilein. From there I head pretty much due north to Aviemore, the final stop on the East Highland Way. Studying the topography (with the reasonable assumption that the shape of the hills hasn’t changed!) I see my route will take me through the gap between two hills ENE of my position. If I follow my compass reading I can get there even if the hills are out of view behind trees.

Just as I finish my reading a middle-aged man appears along the trail with his young daughter.

“Are you lost?” he asks.

“No, thanks. I just needed to take a reading because these maps are outdated.”

“Well,” he says in a haughty voice, “You should spend a little extra for the most up-to-date version.”

“I did, but–“

“Nature is a work in progress, you know,” he interrupts.

“Yeah. I was wondering which of these new trails can take me to–“

“Don’t you have a compass?”

It’s still in my hand. I hold it up.

“I’ve taken a reading, what I’m wondering is–“

“If you’re having trouble reading it I’ll check my GPS for you.”

“Never mind, have a nice day,” I say as I turn and leave.

It’s obvious this guy isn’t going to be any help. He’s playing a game of one-upmanship to impress me and his little girl. She doesn’t look impressed, only bored. I know how she feels.

So off I go following my compass readings. Now and then I get glimpses of the two hills I’m shooting for and I see I’m on track. It would be nice to have confidence in the trail I’m on, though. So far it’s been heading in the right direction, but if it veers off on another course I’ll have to slog through the woods. As I’m taking another reading an elderly man on a mountain bike appears. His face looks about seventy but his body appears half that age.

“Do you need any help?” he asks as he pulls up beside me.

“I’m headed to Loch Gamhna. I’ve taken a reading so I know where I’m going but I was wondering if this trail actually leads there.”

I feel grateful he lets me finish my sentence, unlike the previous guy.

“Yes, the OS maps are all wrong for this area nowadays. I’ve spent many an hour lost around here. If you follow this trail for another mile you’ll come to a cairn at a fork on the trail. Take the righthand path downhill and over a stream. Keep following it and you’ll get there. I see the route on your map has you going on the eastern shore of Loch an Eilein. I suggest following the western shore. There’s a good trail and you’ll get a better view of the castle.”

I thank him and he pedals off. That’s how people should treat one another out in the wilderness. Helpful and no attitude. The first guy was useless. If I had truly been lost, Mr. Superiority could have been downright dangerous.

I follow my friend’s directions and they’re right on target. Over the river and through the woods to Loch Gamhna I go. It’s a marshy little loch with tall grass growing in its shallows. The stalks wave in the increasing wind. Just past it is the large Loch an Eilein. As it comes into view its sparkling waters turn dull. The sky has clouded over. Great gray clouds swoop in from the north. I take the mountainbiker’s advice and head along the western shore to a spot across from a small island. Taking up almost the entire island is a low castle built in the 14th century by Alexander Stewart, the infamous Wolf of Badenoch.

During the Middle Ages he was the terror of Scotland, ruthlessly destroying the opposition in order to assert his authority over much of the Highlands. When the Church opposed him, he even sacked the cathedral at Elgin. This devil in armor is said to still haunt his island stronghold. A local woman tells me that as a child she used to row out to the castle with her family and it always felt uncomfortable there. Someone else tells me the castle gives off a strange echo. I try it, standing directly opposite the gate and giving a short, sharp shout. The shout comes back to me a second later, too slow for it to have bounced off the castle. It must have bounced off the opposite shore, but it sounds like it’s coming from within the battlements. Even stranger, the echo sounds louder than my original shout. I shout again and the echo comes back even louder.

Just then the sky opens up in a torrential downpour. I’ve woken the Wolf of Badenoch in his lair and he’s seriously pissed! I hurriedly don my rain gear and slosh on to Aviemore.

And there my hike ends, at a friendly little village at the heart of Scotland’s hiking culture. People with backpacks are everywhere, converging on this spot from a dozen different trails. Yet I have seen none of them on Scotland’s newest trail–the East Highland Way.

I always feel a tug of regret when finishing a good hike, especially one that has given me six days of serene nature, historic wonders, and insights into my own past. I enjoyed it even more than last year’s journey along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. I always treat myself to a long-distance hike around my birthday to cheer myself up, and when I turn 42 (ugh!) next year you can bet I’ll be back in the Scottish Highlands.

Coming up next: Hiking the East Highland Way, the practicalities.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on the East Highland Way!

The East Highland Way day five: exploring Scottish heritage


Newtonmore is the biggest village I’ve stayed in since starting the East Highland Way. With a population of 1,000, you could almost call it a town. It’s pleasant, with lots of interesting shops and pubs, yet feels too big and claustrophobic after hiking through the Scottish wilderness yesterday. I need to get back on the trail.

Before leaving town I can’t miss The Highland Folk Museum. This remarkable outdoor museum has recreated shops, homes, farms, and businesses from all eras of Scottish history. Well, they’re not all recreated. They’ve actually collected many genuine historic buildings from all across Scotland and display them on 80 acres of land. Costumed workers who really know their history hang around and tell you about them. Think Colonial Williamsburg with kilts. Sadly, this remarkable glimpse into Scotland’s heritage may close due to budget cuts. Welcome to the Age of Austerity, where the past is discarded and the future uncertain.

I spend all morning exploring thatched roof huts, a one-room schoolhouse, and a sawmill that would never pass modern health and safety regulations. It’s all so fascinating that it’s early afternoon before I set out for Kincraig, my next stop. One problem with the new trail is that some parts are still along paved road, and for a time I’m skirting the edge of a busy thoroughfare. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these stretches. It’s no fun walking along a country road with no shoulder. At least the drivers are understanding. Mostly.

Soon I come to Ruthven Barracks. This old stronghold of English power sits proudly on a hill, its walls still intact although the interior and roof are now gone. During the rebellion of 1745-6 it was nearly abandoned as all available troops went off to fight the Jacobite rebels. Only a dozen men remained to defend it as 200 Highlanders converged on the garrison. Hiding behind stone walls and firing out of the gun ports, the English fought the Scottish off. Then Scots came back with artillery and the English did the smart thing and surrendered.

Not long afterwards on a waterlogged moor called Culloden, the Scottish and English armies met in battle. The MacLachlans, my ancestors, stood on the left flank. About six thousand Highlanders, some Lowlanders, some French soldiers, some Irish, and even a few English stood with them. The Jacobites wanted to put the House of Stuart on the throne and were led by Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The English army, supporting the reigning King George II of the House of Hanover, prepared to meet them with a larger and better-armed force.

%Gallery-100286%My ancestors stood proudly in line as the English artillery opened up on them. They waved their swords in the air and boasted how they were going to kill the English. They must have felt proud that one of their kinsmen, the repetitively named Lachlan MacLachlan, was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s top officers. Some sources say he was in charge of supplies, but if so he did a crap job because the Jacobites went hungry much of the time.

Cannonballs ripped through the Scottish lines. The right flank could stand no more and charged without getting orders. Bonnie Prince Charlie sent Lachlan MacLachlan off to the left flank to get them moving too, but a cannonball decapitated him before he could deliver the message. Eventually the MacLachlans and the rest of the left flank surged forward, eager to kill the English. They soon got mired in boggy ground, and the famous Highland Charge that had destroyed the English army at the Battle of Prestonpans ground to a halt. The Scottish ranks staggered under withering volleys of musket fire. The right flank had reached the English, but soon got cut off and wiped out. Within half an hour nearly a third of the Jacobite army lay dead or wounded on the field and the rest fled for their lives. The MacLachlans never even reached the English lines.

So my ancestors never got to kill any Englishmen. I can’t say I’m sorry. Why would I wish any harm to the English? They brew such good beer.

Ruthven Barracks had one more chapter to play in the Jacobite uprising. The day after the disaster at Culloden a few thousand Highlanders gathered here, defiantly declaring that they would continue the fight. Soon the sad news came from Bonnie Prince Charlie saying the cause was lost and they should save themselves. Perhaps there were a few MacLachlans among the disappointed men. Perhaps not. Most of them lay dead on the battlefield. They would lie unburied for many days until being heaped into a mass grave.

Beyond Ruthven Barracks the East Highland Way winds through fields and woodland before skirting the edge of Loch Insh. It has finally stopped raining. The clouds break and a surprisingly warm sun glints off the loch’s placid waters. This is typical Scottish weather, what one Scot described to me as “four seasons in one day.” You have to bring clothing for all seasons, and keep your raincoat strapped to the webbing on the outside of your pack for quick access.

I stand looking at the loch and thinking of the folly of my ancestors. To rally around one monarch to overthrow another seems ridiculous to a modern mind, and perhaps it did to them too. Whatever they thought, their feudal clan system did not allow for dissent.

To be perfectly honest I really don’t care that they lost. I’ve never been one for secondhand patriotism. I have Irish ancestors too but I don’t drink green Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. Guinness is an odd choice for wannabe Irish patriots anyway, considering that Arthur Guinness was a Unionist, the brewery is currently owned by a company based in London, and the brewery may have played a willing part suppressing the Easter Uprising. (Interesting photo here)

So no green Guinness for me, and I’m not going to moan about the disaster at Culloden just because a bunch of my relatives got killed there. If they hadn’t been, someone else’s family would have. It’s not like I’m the only person with a mass grave in my family’s past. At least mine has a marker.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on the East Highland Way.

Coming up next: Strange sculptures and cursed castles!

The East Highland Way day three: exploring Scotland’s lochs


The best part of long-distance hikes is seeing the world get bigger.

We spend so much time in cars, planes, and trains that the miles go by in the blink of an eye. Subtle changes in topography and flora aren’t noticed, and little corners of beauty are passed by undiscovered. Walk, and you see the world as it really is.

It’s my third day on the East Highland Way and I’m deep in the Scottish countryside now. The town of Ft. William is far behind (although still only an hour’s drive) and the rare villages now have barely more than a dozen houses. For hours I don’t see a soul.

Heading out from Tulloch I enter a forest. This, like so many woods in Scotland, is managed for logging. Rows of slim fir trees alternate with cut areas where tiny saplings have been planted to make the next crop. It’s a slow process, and not once does the roar of a chainsaw or the crash of a falling tree disturb my peace. After a few miles I come to Loch Laggan, the first sizable loch I’ve come across at seven miles long. The glassy water, unrippled by a single boat, reflects the hills beyond. All is quiet. I sit down to have lunch and enjoy the view.

There the peace ends, courtesy of an army of midges. These little insects are as annoying as they are persistent. They’re like miniature mosquitoes with more intelligence. First one flies around my head. While I swat it away, another sucks blood from my neck. The signal goes out, and within a minute there’s a hundred all around me. I wipe off my arms, neck, and face and my hands become smeared with mashed midges. Time to move. The strange thing about midges is that if you’re moving they have a hard time keeping up, but woe betide the hiker who gets caught while sitting peacefully by a loch. I finish my lunch on the go.

%Gallery-100127%Continuing along the southern shore of Loch Laggan I spot the spires of a Disney-style castle poking above the greenery. I’ve come to Ardverikie House, a stately home built in 1870 that recently gained fame as the setting for the BBC series Monarch of the Glen. I don’t own a TV, so I’d never even heard of this hugely popular show until I came to this part of the country. Now I sometimes feel like I hear of nothing else. The estate has become a pilgrimage site for fans, and locals tell me that people even peer through the windows and knock on the door. I can understand why there are Private Property signs everywhere.

Sadly, this means I can’t see the wonder of Loch Laggan, the ruins of a castle on a tiny island. The wooded, rough shores block the view from everywhere except the estate. Luckily there will be no shortage of castles on this hike.

I have another problem. The lone accommodation in this area, a B&B in the village of Feagour, has recently shut down. It’s 17 miles from Tulloch to Feagour, and the next place to stay is in Laggan, another five miles. I can walk 22 miles, but somewhere between 17 and 22 miles it stops being fun. So I’ve arranged for the folks at The Rumblie B&B in Laggan to pick me up at Feagour. Lazy? Sort of, but I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.

They’re meeting me at a waterfall on the River Pattack near Feagour. I arrive early (having, ahem, walked 17 miles in an hour less than I thought I would) so I have plenty of time to admire the falls. The fast-flowing river has cut a narrow gorge through the rock. The water, brown from the peat upstream, rushes down it. I scramble up the rocks to get a better view and to my surprise discover a wooden platform and railing, plus a path down to a parking lot on the other side. This rugged view of nature has been made safe for those who want to appreciate nature without actually being in it. Nothing can spoil the beauty of the falls, however.

Right on time a car pulls up and I’m whisked off to Laggan, a booming metropolis with two shops, a school, a public telephone, and some houses. I arrive at The Rumblie to a hero’s welcome. A Spanish couple is staying there who don’t speak any English. Their poor 14 year-old daughter has been doing all the translation on their vacation, using her high school English to book hotels and rent cars from people with heavy Scottish accents. The owner of the B&B knows I live in Spain and told the family that help is on the way. As soon as I get there the kid heaves a sigh of relief, all English stops, and I become translator for the evening to give her a well-deserved break. You never know when a foreign language will come in handy!

Next to The Rumblie is the Laggan community center, and I hear there’s a céilidth on tonight. A céilidth (pronounced “Kay-Lee”) is a traditional gathering to perform folk dances and sing songs. I’m exhausted from a long hike and two beers, but I can’t pass this up. I find the céilidth in full swing. Locals of all ages are gathered around tables in a long hall with a stage at one end. Old photos and children’s drawings about farm safety adorn the walls. A slim young woman is dancing to the accompaniment of a fiddle. I grab a beer and sit down. Everyone seems to know everyone else and the common greeting is, “What are you performing tonight?”. Not “are you performing” but “what are you performing”. Singers perform a series of Gaelic songs before a man with an accordion gets everyone out on the dance floor. I know nothing about the history of dance, but I think I’ve discovered where square dancing comes from. Scottish dances involves the whole crowd dancing together, making lines and circles and moving with each other in complicated patterns.

Then comes the next surprise. A crowd of Spanish and German teenagers come in, volunteers from a local farm where they do manual labor in exchange for learning English. Ironically the Spanish press reported a couple of weeks ago that farmers in Spain can’t find Spaniards to help out in the fields, despite a good wage and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Instead the farmers have to hire Africans on temporary work visas. Good deal for the Africans, because they need and deserve the money more, but it’s weird to see these Spanish kids working for free in the Highlands when they could be making 1,000 euros ($1,271) a month back home.

Hey, if they stayed home they wouldn’t be seeing this! Every one of them seems to have acquired a local boyfriend or girlfriend and soon they’re doing the dances like they were born here.

It’s getting late and my eyes are getting heavy. As an old woman mounts the stage I stumble to my bed next door. I fall asleep to the lilting sound of her clear, strong voice singing in Gaelic.

Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on the East Highland Way.

Coming up next: Prehistoric forts and empty wilderness!