Saturday, 3 February 2018

Celtic Connections , Music

Breakbeats and pipes

Relive our Saturday night in Glasgow last weekend.

The full sets from Bothy Culture and Beyond are now on iPlayer: the storming Gaelic techno/trad/drum&bass support from Niteworks, and the headline GRIT Orchestra.

Unmissable modern "World Music" from our islands.

Posted by pab at 22:54 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Celtic Connections , Personal

Why Scotland?

For the third time we've spent a January weekend in Glasgow for the Celtic Connections festival. Two gigs stood out.

First, on Saturday night was Bothy Culture and Beyond. If the 80-piece GRIT orchestra recreating a seminal Scottish electronic dance album isn't enough, why not add a 10-voice cantor choir, an aerial dance company, and a trials cyclist rowing across the audience before bunny-hopping round the crowd before climbing a model of the Cuillin's Inaccessible Pinnacle in front of an 10,000-strong crowd at Scotland's largest indoor venue? I've not mentioned the metaphysical Gaelic poetry; the Islamic, Scandinavian and Irish musical influences; or the stunning support set from Skye-based techno/trad band Niteworks.

Jaw-dropping, indescribable and utterly bonkers. You owe it to yourself to watch the gig after it's broadcast this coming Saturday night.


The second highlight was an altogether different scale. In the intimate Tron Theatre Northern Flyway brought together harmonious, ethereal music with beat-boxing and stunning videography against a continuous backdrop of birdsong. It'll tour in the Autumn; don't miss it.


Over the weekend I realised: this is why we're moving to Scotland; you simply don't get this level of innovation in the arts elsewhere. Hopefully we'll be able to visit Celtic Connections 2019 by at most a forty-mile train journey instead of the four hundred miles we travelled each way on the sleeper this week.

Posted by pab at 19:04 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

Monday, 1 January 2018


Change Everything

front-door.jpgWelcome to 2018, hopefully the year in which we finally make the big move we've been talking about for years.

We're sorry that this blog has been quiet for most of 2017. We'll fill in the gaps later, but for now we're preparing for the Big Adventure. Step one starts this week: sell the house.

Posted by pab at 21:28 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017


Hilton of Cadboll → Portmahomack

tarbat-ness.jpg Distance: 12.94 miles
Ascent: unknown
Duration: 5 hours 38 minutes

On paths
« Nigg Ferry | Tain »

This is the last "out-of-sequence" walk, sewing together the sections we walked earlier in the week. It's a stunning walk, on excellent footpaths all the way. Unsurprisingly this walk is described in a number of local guide books.

beinn-mhealiach.jpgOn the eastern side of the peninsula the paths were generally beneath the cliffs, but rose to the clifftops as we reached the northernmost point. From here the view to the north opened out and it was startling to realise that the last headland we could see was likely the very last headland: Duncansby Head, just shy of John O' Groats. Our island really does have a limit.

Early on we startled a small herd of deer who were making the most of the lush grass on the coastal fringe. Later on we detoured to avoid a field full of frisky bullocks.

hilton-cross-slab.jpgNear the start of the walk is a replica Pictish cross-slab. We'll have to look out for the original next time we're at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

portmahomack.jpgSince we'd not had enough of old stones we finished off by visiting the Tarbat Discovery Centre — a museum in St Colman's church on the edge of the village. It's crammed full of stones and artefacts from the peninsula, and well worth an hour or two. Don't miss the atmospheric crypt: an ancient space that still bears the traces of an infamous act of violence, provoked by a long-running feud between two rival families. These cold, damp stones have many stories to tell.

Notes for future walkers:

  • There is a good shoreline path/track from Hilton of Cadboll all the way to the slipway just south of Tarbatness Lighthouse (NH 945 871) though in the latter stages it rises to the clifftop (signposted).
  • From the lighthouse road (NH 943 872) there's a signposted route across fields to Portmahomack.
    Posted by pab at 20:48 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

    Tuesday, 25 April 2017


    Nigg Ferry → Hilton of Cadboll

    cromarty-firth.jpg Distance: 10.03 miles
    Ascent: 272 metres
    Duration: 3 hours 27 minutes

    « Cromarty | Portmahomack »

    At last we're picking up where we left off in September.

    The bus driver was a little surprised when we asked for singles to Nigg Ferry since the ferry won't be running for another three months. He was even more shocked when we told him we were planning to walk in this weather. While the forecast was marginally better than yesterday, in practice it looked worse. The snow had settled across Nigg Hill so after climbing the excellent track to Castlecraig Farm we opted for the inland roads via Nigg village instead of trying to stick to the coast.

    nigg-church.jpgTaking this route gave us the opportunity to look at Nigg Old Church, which is a beautiful building with inventive woodwork. Nowhere else have I seen a raked bank of pews, or pews that can be transformed into communion tables by means of a couple of latches and slides.

    Also in the churchyard is an otherwise unremarkable stone labelled the "Cholera Stone". During the 1832 cholera outbreak (the same one that wiped out half of Inver ten miles to the north), a church elder saw a mist rising from the graveyard and on deciding it was the cholera itself, threw a blanket over it and fixed the blanket in place with this stone. Hugh Miller of Cromarty relates this as an apocryphal tale in his contemporaneous 1834 work Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland but makes no comment as to the method's success or otherwise.

    shandwick-stone.jpgInside the church is a carved Pictish cross-slab. We passed another one in-situ on the hillside south of Shandwick, protected from the elements in a modern glass case.

    shandwick-mermaid.jpgShandwick, Ballintore and Hilton run into each other and are collectively known as the Seaboard Villages. They seem to have a thriving community with an artistic bent; a series of five sculptures in Ballintore reflects the local culture.

    It was in these villages that we picked up a stone of our own, as has become custom when we cross a thousand mile boundary. Gretna is 4,000 miles behind us and possibly only about 3,000 miles ahead. We press on.


    Notes for future walkers:

    • From Nigg Ferry the signposted Castlecraig Circular Walk is an excellent start (NH 797 689). This loops south from NH 807 690 via North Sutor but we stayed on the hard surface to Castlecraig.
    • From NH 811 712 a signposted path leads to Bayfield Loch; it may be possible to follow this through further fields around Hill of Nigg to avoid road walking.
    • We stayed on the roads: NH 804 715, NH 827 738, NH 850 750, NH 858 751.
    • From Shandwick to Hilton we followed the shoreline path.
      Posted by pab at 19:28 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

      Monday, 24 April 2017


      Portmahomack → Tain

      dornoch-firth-storm.jpg Distance: 10.76 miles
      Ascent: 124 metres
      Duration: 3 hours 14 minutes

      Wintery showers
      « Hilton of Cadboll | Dornoch »

      Today's weather forecast was for "wintery showers" so we selected another short route of mainly road walking. We're filling the gap that we opened on Saturday, but not in the "right" order.

      Only a little under half of today's walk was pleasant: the section from Portmahomack to Inver. The remainder was a march along a road trying to ignore the unseasonably cold weather, strong winds, hail, sleet and rain that pounded our faces.

      But that first part — the beach walk — is to be recommended, affording wide views across the Dornoch Firth to the hills beyond. We watched as the sky darkened, obscuring the far shore, an ominous sign of what was to come.

      inver-cholera.jpgInver seems to have had a troubled past. Half the village succumbed to cholera in 1832 and was buried in a mass grave to the east. A cairn marks the spot, its mournful brass plate stoically calling "Let Inver Live". A little over a hundred years later in December 1943 the entire village was evacuated so that surrounding land could be used to train troops for the D-Day landings.

      There is no shop on Shop Road. The Inver Inn was closed. With the weather closing in we couldn't avoid the march to town any longer.

      Before we reached Tain we'd had enough so took the most direct route possible to the nearest tearoom.

      Notes for future walkers:

      • A signposted path leads from the road end in Bainabruach to Inver.
      • In Inver/Skinnerton, turn right at Main Street to join the Shore Path. On reaching the shore, the cholera monument is a little east of this point.
      • From Inver we walked on the obvious minor road towards Tain. Local traffic is fast here, although one driver stopped to offer us a lift.
      • After crossing the railway on the final approach to Tain, we turned up Kirksheaf Road (NH 789 816).
      • There's undoubtedly a better route to be found, but not in today's weather.
      • The "o" in "Porthahomack" is short.
        Posted by pab at 16:59 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

        Sunday, 23 April 2017


        Dornoch → Golspie

        a9-distances.jpg Distance: 18.12 miles
        Ascent: 182 metres
        Duration: 6 hours 1 minute

        « Tain | Brora »

        As a student in the early 1990s I shared a tiny flat on Sutherland Avenue in London. Back then I didn't know who road was named after, or about the vast region of Scotland that shares the road's name. Yesterday we entered the old county of Sutherland and will not complete its coastline until sometime in 2019.

        ben-bhraggie.jpgFor much of today we've been crossing land owned by the Sutherland Estate, and for the entire walk we've been watched over by "The Mannie" — a statue of the first Duke of Sutherland that dominates the view for miles around. It was erected in 1834 on a hill above Golspie. One hundred and sixty years later persons unknown attempted to blow up the statue in order to destroy a reminder of this exploitative landowner.

        littletown.jpgAt the start of the 19th century the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were responsible for some of the most egregious acts of what became known as the Highland Clearances. In order to turn their land over to large-scale sheep farming they decided to relocate communities of crofters to the coastal fringes and encourage them to take up fishing and arable farming. One of the destination communities was the part of Dornoch now known as Littletown, which became a kind of refugee camp in 1814. Here the Highlanders built homes and "improved" the land, but were ultimately still indebted to the Sutherland estate to whom they continued to pay rent, and whose land they improved. Contemporary records claimed that this was a futile effort, and indeed today it's hard to discern any evidence of arable land use.

        One hundred years before the clearances the site of the settlement was the scene of another grizzly occurrence. The last person in the UK to be lawfully executed for witchcraft was burned at the stake here in 1727. I wonder whether the Sutherlands knew full well what they were up to, and in selecting the Littletown site were sending a not-too-subtle message to those they had evicted.

        loch-fleet.jpgSo on today's walk from Dornoch to Golspie, the Clearances were never far from my mind, particularly when looking up the verdant glens now clear of townships, cleared even of the sheep farms that replaced them and which now wait for the sporting pleasure of the wealthy.

        Notes for future walkers:

        • The Witch Stone is in the easternmost garden on Carnaig Street in Littletown (NH 801 893).
        • In Embo, walk through the caravan park past the last row of houses, then turn left towards the sports ground. The track to the disused railway begins behind the pavilion / community shop (NH 816 930).
        • We left the disused railway where the minor road from Fourpenny turns west (NH 803 947).
        • Look out for seals on the sandbanks at NH 790 957.
        • We followed the A9 from The Mound at the head of Loch Fleet to the road to Pinegrove Contact (NH 794 987). This was a bad move since the track from the cottage to Balblair Wood became difficult to follow at NH 794 981). We ended up retreating and following fields before re-entering the wood at NH 803 977. If we were to walk this leg again we'd either leave the A9 at Kirkton to access the wood at that same point, or try to find our way along the foreshore from The Mound.
        • We couldn't find the track running south on the east side of the Culmaily Burn so walked the road to Littleferry instead.
        • From Littleferry we found it easy to pick up paths and then the beach to Golspie.
          Posted by pab at 19:47 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

          Saturday, 22 April 2017


          Tain → Dornoch

          irn-bru.jpg Distance: 8.42 miles
          Ascent: 65 metres
          Duration: 2 hours 46 minutes

          To the north
          « Portmahomack | Golspie »

          This year we're doing things differently. We've got so far north on our walk that driving all the way from home eats up two days. Instead we took the sleeper to Inverness, have hired a car and are here going to squeeze all of our coastwalking for the year into one long holiday.

          So why haven't we picked up exactly where we left off in September? Buses. The Tarbat peninsula isn't served by buses at the weekend and in order to walk at all today and tomorrow we're leaving a small gap that we'll fill in a few days' time.

          dornoch-bridge.jpgThis approach also means that we've been able to select an easy walk to get us back into the swing of things. Unfortunately most of it was along the road. (This may become a recurring theme of the remaining miles to John o' Groats.)

          The obvious route from Tain is to follow the A9 across the Dornoch Firth. We were able to avoid some of the road by dropping to the foreshore between Glenmorangie Distillery and Dornoch Bridge.

          dornoch-cathedral-windows.jpgDornoch itself is a charming small town, a cluster of distinctive buildings grouped round a small cathedral. We can heartily recommend the Carnegie Courthouse Tea Room for a post-walk cuppa.

          Notes for future walkers:

          • glenmorangie.jpgWalk through Glenmorangie Distillery's grounds to reach a bridge under the railway and gain access to the foreshore (NH 767 838). The beach can be readily followed all the way to Dornoch Firth Bridge where you'll have to clamber up the embankment to reach the road. We think this route should be passable at any state of the tide.
          • At the north end of Dornoch Firth Bridge, you can escape the A9 again by scrambling down the west side of the bridge (NH 747 863) then under it to reach a track leading past a bird hide to a minor road at Cuthill (NH 749 876) which leads in to Dornoch.
            Posted by pab at 20:40 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

            Thursday, 13 April 2017


            Ghost in the Shell


            There could be an interesting story in here, but I was distracted by finding the "futuristic" visual style unconvincing. Meh.

            Posted by pab at 21:11 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

            Sunday, 2 April 2017


            Over the Rhine, Cecil Sharp House


            "Every American act is on an apology tour right now," said Karin Bergquist before continuing, "but I guess you have your own problems." Indeed. But hopeful music can heal and that's why I'll always try to catch Over the Rhine when they cross the Atlantic to play on our shores.

            Posted by pab at 23:33 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

            Friday, 31 March 2017


            Nadine Khouri


            After seeing Nadine Khouri in a support slot in Glasgow we were keen to her headline a show. Tonight at St Pancras Old Church she didn't disappoint. Opening with the first two tracks from her album set up the gig perfectly.

            Performing as a four-piece gave more depth to the sound, but I think I'd preferred her solo set. Either way she's an artist we'll be keeping an eye on in the future.

            Posted by pab at 23:40 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

            Monday, 27 March 2017


            Pick a number

            Remember those "pick a number" mathematical games children play on each other? Here's one.

            Pick a number between 0 and 76. Now multiply it by itself 17 times. Subtract 77 from the result, and keep subtracting 77 until the number you get is less than 77. Done? Excellent.

            For example, 2417 = 290,797,794,982,682,557,415,424. You'll need to subtract 77 a total of 3,776,594,740,034,838,407,992 times reaching the result of 40. (I didn't promise you could do this trick in your head.)

            You've just encrypted a number. In the example, 24 has become 40.

            Take the resulting number and repeat the process, but this time multiply it by itself 23 times and then subtract 77s. You should end up with the number you first selected.

            Continuing with the example, 4023 = 7,036,874,417,766,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Making 91,387,979,451,511,688,311,688,311,688,311,688 subtractions of 77 gives the original number, 24.

            This is an example of RSA encryption: an algorithm first described publicly in the 1970s. It's at the heart of many so-called "strong encryption" systems. The pairs of numbers 17,77 and 23,77 are the encryption and decryption keys.

            Whenever you browse a secure website, or send a secure message, this is pretty much the kind of thing your computer's doing. (Except that rather than encryption keys a couple of digits long, you're using keys hundreds or thousands of digits long.)

            I've been able to describe the encryption algorithm in just a couple of sentences. The magic is in how to select the encryption and description keys, but even that uses only basic maths and could be implemented by anyone with a pretty basic level of programming experience.

            This is why it's futile to insist that WhatsApp or Apple "assist" Governments by making their encryption breakable: if they do, those who want strong encryption will just get a teenager to re-implement strong crypto for them in about a dozen lines of code.

            The maths can't be uninvented. Dissemination of the knowledge could be outlawed, but is that really feasible? If this blog post ever disappears, you'll know that's what's happened.

            For the curious, RSA relies on carefully choosing three numbers — d, e and n — such that this property holds:

            m, m<n: mde mod nm

            Such numbers can be found like this:

            1. Think of two prime numbers; call them p and q.
            2. Multiply p and q together; call the result n.
            3. Calculate λ: the least common multiple of p-1 and q-1.
            4. Now invent a number, greater than 1 but less than λ, which has no common factors with λ other than 1; call this d.
            5. Find e, such that d multiplied by e modulo n is equal to 1.

            The encryption key is e,n; the decryption key is d,n. Don't share p, q or λ — the security of the crypto system revolves around the fact that d is difficult to derive from e if you don't know p, q or λ. Of course in practice the original prime numbers will be very large, with hundreds of decimal digits.

            For my example, p=7, q=11, n=77, λ=30, d=23, e=17.

            Rivest, Shamir and Adleman's 1977 paper that introduced the RSA cryptosystem for the first time is surprisingly simple and well worth reading.

            Posted by pab at 20:27 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!



            odeon-ceiling-lights.jpgIf Hollywood made a sinister Doctor Who episode called "Squids in Space", eliminated the title character and pushed it into a downbeat register they'd end up with something very similar to Daniel Espinosa's film "Life".

            It's a big-production, brainless, box-ticking space melodrama but nevertheless a reasonable way to while away the last afternoon of a two-week holiday.

            Posted by pab at 17:48 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

            Wednesday, 22 March 2017

            Offa's Dyke Path

            Bodfari → Prestatyn

            end-stone.jpg Distance: 12.02 miles
            Ascent: 679 metres
            Duration: 4 hours 7 minutes

            Completing the circuit
            « Not walked | Colwyn Bay »

            Frankly today's been a bit of a disappointment. It started last night when I saw the weather forecast which turned out to be depressingly accurate: after a week of reasonably dry walking, I was in for another soaking.

            laughing-horse.jpgBut more than that, there were no real thrills to the walk. It felt as though all I was trying to do was get to the finishing line on Prestatyn prom, plodding on along country lanes and across increasingly muddy fields.

            llamas.jpgThere were a few notable moments: watching the clouds lift from the snow-capped summits of Snowdonia to the west; meeting two llamas who were grazing freely on a farm track at Tyddyn-y-cyll, and chatting with the woman who was out reconnoitering the route for her six-day assault on Offa's Dyke Path in August.

            I suppose I shouldn't be too down though. Today was always going to be about the end, and when the rain stopped I slowed my pace to savour the last high walk on Prestatyn Hillside before dropping down into the town.

            So that's it. The final Welsh National Trail complete, and my eighth overall.

            Where to next? I currently have two further National Trails partly complete so I'd like to knock off the rest of the North Downs Way and Cleveland Way this year. That would just leave one southern National Trail (the Cotswold Way) and four in the north (the Pennine Way, Pennine Bridleway, Yorkshire Wolds Way and Hadrian's Wall Path). It's time to set myself a challenge: I'd like to complete all of these by the time the England Coast Path officially opens in 2020. I'd best get planning.


            Notes for future walkers:

            • After you've finished, pop in to the leisure centre right next to the end marker. At reception they hold a visitors' book for completers to sign. I was only the second in 2017.
              Posted by pab at 16:46 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!

              Tuesday, 21 March 2017

              Offa's Dyke Path

              Llandegla → Bodfari

              moel-famau.jpg Distance: 19.31 miles
              Ascent: 1507 metres
              Duration: 7 hours 2 minutes

              The end in sight
              « Not walked | Not walked »

              The theme of today's walk was set by the fingerpost sign right at the start. "Prestatyn 29" it said. This is only the third signpost I've seen with a distance to my final destination. Under thirty miles. The end is in sight.

              And then a short while later the end was literally in sight, since on attaining the Clwydian Range I saw the sea for the first time since leaving Chepstow.

              It's been a gloriously sunny day, but the cold wind hasn't quite made it t-shirt weather.

              moel-arthur.jpgThe sun has brought people out in numbers. Over the succession of hillforts that cap the Clywdian Mountains I met more people than I have for the rest of the week combined. Most popular seemed to be the walk to the Jubilee Tower that dominates the summit of Moel Famau ("mother mountain").

              From here I could see many familiar places: Prestatyn of course, but also the mouth of the River Dee at Talacre, the entire Wirral peninsula with Liverpool beyond, and way in the north the forest at Crosby. My focus though is the first of these: Prestatyn and the end of the walk.

              Posted by pab at 16:14 | Comments will be back one day. Please email me instead!