The Night is dark and full of fear

The night is dark and full of fear

Not if you’ve got a bloody great head torch it isn’t.

Torch
It’s pitch dark as I walk along the side of the loch towards Glas Allt Sheil bothy. As I walk I can hear a familiar sound. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It’s the sound of ice crunching beneath my feet at every step. I can’t work out where I have heard that sound before and then I remember. That’s exactly the sound Jon Snow makes as he and his men march North looking for the Night Walkers.

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I’m a big Game of Thrones fan and walking alone into a bothy at night, through this frozen landscape is a little too close to going beyond the wall than I like to imagine. My head torch beam illuminates the trunks of trees, and I can’t help feeling as though the forest is closing in around me. The torch light picks out the path, a line of gleaming snow, and catches the trunks of huge tree as that line the edge of the path.

Tree
Something moves in the torch beam. I freeze, searching the depths of the forest with my beam. I decide that there’s nothing there and I’m just about to move on when something moves again, like a figure moving out there in the darkness. At this point I start talking to myself, trying to impose the will of my rational mind on the terrifying flights of fancy my mind wants to take.
‘It’s nothing.’
‘There are no wolves in the UK.’
‘There is nothing to be afraid of.’
‘I’m not being stalked by anything.’
‘Dead men can’t walk.’
But it’s pitch dark, the only sounds I can hear are the waves of the nearby lake lapping on the shore and the cries of the geese as they settle down for the night on the loch. My imagination takes flight and I can’t help scouring the woods for movement. Then I see it.
A pair of yellow eyes glowing in my torch light. I am being watched. Then another pair of eyes appear and then more. There is a rustle in the undergrowth and a deer steps out into the path quickly followed by the rest of the herd. I relax, glad that the spectre I had conjured in my mind is now more real than then Jon Snow’s dire wolf. For some reason deer seem to lose their fear of men at night. I often pass so close to them in darkness that I can smell their wet fur and walk through where the mist from their breath still lingers.

Fain fire

By the bothy fire at last.

The bothy fire flickers into life and then roars into the chimney. I am surrounded by candle light and eating my dinner off a wooden table. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the bothy door opened and Jon Snow entered, brushing the snow from his furs.
He looks at me with that dark stare of his. ‘What you doing out here all alone? Don’t you know what’s out there?’

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‘I only saw some deer,’ I stammer.
Snow shakes his head and strokes the carved wolf’s head of his sword. ‘Deer, is that what you think is out there? Winter’s coming my friend.’
‘Is it?’
Snow points at me, his eyes glaring, ‘Aye, a winter so cold it will freeze the hearts of men. You take care, for the night is dark and full of fear.’
With that he storms out of the door, leaving it swinging and I am left staring into the black night.
It’s probably not a good idea to have too vivid an imagination when you are alone in a bothy. I suppose I do live beyond the wall, Hadrian’s wall that is. A wall that was once built by the Romans to keep something dark and fierce out. That might be a great walk , perhaps one day I’ll take a stroll along that wall.
Perhaps it’s me the Nightwalkers fear.

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Ten tips for self-published authors

So, you have a burning ambition to write a book.  The idea gnaws a way at you but you keep it secret in case people will think you’re are being foolish or perhaps you’ve already told people and they’ve put you off the idea by saying no one would want to read your book.

I’m no expert but I can tell you about my experience in the world of self-publishing and what that journey has been like.  I have successfully self-published my book, The Last Hillwalker, and I am about to produce two more.  Bothy Tales comes out early next year and a plan for further book at the end of 2018.  I am an Amazon best seller, I’ve been shortlisted for two awards.

Amazon
Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.
Know who you are writing for.

Interior

Typical Bothy interior and home to many of my readers.
I know my audience. I talk to them on Twitter and Facebook and they contact me through this blog.  I meet them in bothies and have walked and climbed with them most of my life.  I write for people like me, I’m a middle-aged man, interested in mountains and feel comfortable in nature.  Ask yourself a question.
Who is my audience?
If you don’t know do some research, find out who reads adult fantasy for example.  Join forums start talking to people about what they read and why they read it.

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Typical bothy dweller and reader of my books, well me actually.

Get an editor
My sister won first prize for English at school, so she can edit my book, right?
Wrong. You need a to produce a professional product. Nothing puts a reader off more than picking up a book and finding it full of typos.  A good editor will do a lot more than correct your spelling, he or she will give you important feedback on your book.  Tell you what works and equally importantly what doesn’t.
If you don’t know how to find an editor Reedsy is a good place to start.  A good editor will spend a lot of time on your book and use expertise that they have developed over years, to help you produce a great book.  For all this work they will expect, and deserve, to get paid a decent fee.  You don’t work for free so neither do they.  A lot of authors are reluctant to pay for editing. I take this attitude.  You will invest hours, days and weeks writing your book so it’s worth spending some cash to get it presented in the best way you can.

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Alex Roddie

Here’s my editor, Alex Roddie, Pinnacle Editorial, he specialises in the outdoor genre I write in but also edits fiction.  Alex is half my age.  I like to work with young people because they bring a different perspective. I always think if I can get it past Alex, then it must be good.

Don’t write alone
The image we all have of a writer is someone sitting alone, late at night, tapping away at a keyboard.  That’s right in part but it is also very important that you share your work with other people and get feedback. You could join a writer’s group, post excerpts on the net in forums.  If you have a manuscript that’s spent years sitting unseen in the bottom draw of your wardrobe, it’s dead in the water.

Other self-published authors have been incredibly helpful to me. Keith Foskett is an Indie author with vast experience not only of hiking but also self publishing. He has produced a fantastic catalogue of books based on his travels.  His book Balancing on Blue is currently an Amazon best seller and is a great read for anyone interested in the outdoors.  Keith’s series of books demonstrates the importance of having a number of books out there that draw readers in to your work.B.O.B-frontback.PNG-651x434

I’m not sure if Keith Foskett knows it but he has penned a hiking classic. I just wanted to pack up my bags and head off into the wilderness.’
– Spencer Vignes (The Observer).

Balancing on Blue:
Accept criticism
I welcome criticism of my work and I listen to it; that’s in contrast to a lot of writers who seem to be frightened of it.  I used to work as a joiner, making doors, cabinets etc. I regard writing as very similar process. If someone told me that a joint wasn’t tight enough or my door wasn’t straight, I fixed it.  I didn’t as a condemnation of my soul as some folk seem to.  We can all write better.  It’s a process and you learn all the time. I still cringe at things I wrote only a few months ago, which is good because it means I’m still learning, I hope I always am.
The good critic will be able to say what’s wrong with something and tell you how to fix it.  A bad critic will only tell you what’s wrong, it takes years to tell the difference.
Write a blog
I found writing a blog to be really helpful for several reasons.  It forces you to write regularly and writing, like any craft, requires practice.  Through my blog I found out what people enjoyed about my work.  Found out what aspects of the things I write about were of interest to them.  It also helped me to build a following.  Publishers love writers who come to them and say they have so many thousands of people read their blogs. It means they already have an audience and that is music to any publisher’s ears.
Making money

If you started writing to make money, you are in the wrong business, go work in a supermarket, it’s a much safer bet.  You can make money from your writing as I do.  I won’t be buying a yacht any time soon, but I am just beginning to make a part time income out of my writing.  If you want to make money from your writing remember that you are starting a business and you’ll have to pay a lot of attention to marketing if you want to get anywhere. I paid someone to set up my website and develop and marketing strategy.  Twitter and Facebook are great ways to get the message out and I find paid adverts on Facebook work well.  I’m working on developing a mailing list via Mailchimp.  I’m now planning a series of books as it is very difficult to generate significant income from one book alone.
The truth is that most self-published authors don’t break even with their projects and lose money.
It’s great having a book

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One thing I hadn’t expected was how satisfying it is to have a book published. I’ve written plays and performed them in the Fringe and across the UK, which is great, but plays are very ephemeral things, once you walk off stage they are gone.  A book is something tangible that can sit on bookcases all over the world.  I’ve found it’s opened doors for me and got me known in places I’d never thought of.  Having your own book is something worthwhile even if you never make a penny.
Get a Graphic Designer
The look of your book is really important, the cover is the first thing your reader sees.  The Last Hillwalker cover is designed by Mark Thomas.  I wanted the cover to tell the reader instantly that my book is a bout hillwalking and mountains and I think it does just that.  I think it very important that it looks good, first impressions count.

 

 

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Mark Thomas

I spent around £1,300 on the design and edit of the book. The edit cost will depend on the length of your book. I think it was money well spent.
Write shorter material first
Don’t start on your great work immediately, write short stories, features, blog posts.  This will help you get feed back and dip your toe in the waters of publishing before you hold your nose and plunge in deep.
Read your competition
See what else is out there, find out who is doing well and who isn’t.  Try and work out the difference between publications, why does one book succeed and another fail?  The answer might not be in the book itself but how it is marketed.
Ask questions
Most authors are happy to help you and some of my competitors have been incredibly helpful.  Feel free to contact me if you think I can help.
I forgot the most important thing.  Write the damn book!

The disease in our hills

Old, well known paths are like familiar friends, unchanging, dependable, there for you when you need them.  I’ve walked this little path many times but as soon as I leave the road I feel uneasy, something has changed. 

There is a plague in the Highland countryside, an infection that is changing the face of the Highlands forever.  Just about everywhere I go, and I go lots of places, freshly bulldozed tracks head up our green and pleasant glens, leaving long wicked grey scars in their wake.  ‘This is progress,’ they will tell you.  The tracks, I am sure they would explain, when you protest at their random wanderings, are there for a purpose and to help the highland economy.  They can tell me all that, and perhaps they are right, but each time I see a freshly bulldozed track I feel a twinge of sadness that another quiet glen has passed into memory.

track

The new highway

 

So today, when I leave the main road near Loch Carron, to head up to the little bothy, Coire Fionnaraich that nestles beneath the hills on the old way over to Torridon, my heart sinks when I notice a shinny steel gate that wasn’t there the last time I walked this way a couple of years ago.  I pass the little house, through the wee wood and then on towards the bothy.  Moments later my feet hit the hard, uncompromising gravel of a newly constructed road.  It’s not tarmac but it’s pretty close.  Half a mile later there is a new bridge across the river and beyond that a building complete with satellite dish that sits in as much sympathy with the landscape as a branch of Macdonalds. 

A newly pained sign gleams at me, telling me that the footpath does not cross the bridge but heads right.  I detest signs on the hills, my love of Scotways, the rights of way charity that peppers the landscape with useless metal indicators, is well known, (if you a reading this in America, you might need an irony alert here.) Although even I must accept that there is a point to this sign as the new path is not yet on any maps.

New path

The new path

I turn on to the newly made path with growing sadness.  What was here only two years ago was a delight of a path.  A path created by the feet of hillwalkers, clansmen and shepherds over hundreds of years. It took a line in sympathy with the landscape.  Here and there it had been maintained as it had to be, but the work that was done had not changed its character.  I knew this path well, have followed it on occasions for 40 years.  I’ve walked it in summer heat and in winter blizzards, been soaked on in torrential heat and tortured by midges in the summer.  It’s a right of way, part of the Cape Wrath trail and a significant path in the Highlands.

Old path

Old Path

It’s snowing gently, on this cold November day, as the path steepens and begins to rise. All trace of the old path has gone, the new route is twice the width of the old path and ‘engineered’ with steps constructed and drainage.  There has obviously been a great deal of work done here and no little expense but why?  The old path seemed pretty solid to me and didn’t need such a drastic overhaul as to make it unrecognisable.  The old way used to cross a small stream which could be a little tricky after heavy rainfall and might have even meant you got your feet wet.  Walkers with wet feet are totally unacceptable in the 21st century so now there is a nice bridge in place.  Heaven forbid steaming socks by the bothy fire.

Dam

The dam

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Eventually I made it in to the little bothy beside the track and spent a happy few minutes munching cheese sandwiches and reading the bothy book, safely out of the growing snowstorm.  Nobody else bothered to mention the state of the track and the bulldozed order that has been wrought.  Even some bloke called Geoff Allan, who has written some sort of Bothy Bible, had been there.  Who on earth would read that?  Perhaps I am just some elderly curmudgeon moaning, as all old men do, that things were better in my day but these tracks are spreading everywhere.  The Monadhliath mountains, just south of Inverness and straddling the national park border are riddled with them.  What used to be remote moorland is now networked with tracks running through and between wind farms and the linking shooting butts of the tweed wearing grouse haters.  The Monadhliath are now a vast desert populated only by birds awaiting slaughter, a few deer, whose number is also up and few wealthy folk who panic if more than twenty feet from there luxury all-terrain vehicles.

selfie

Struggling to take a selfie in the blizzard.

There is precious little evidence of any attempt to impose planning restrictions on the estates who construct these motorways.  Perhaps one day, men older than me, will look back with misty eyed fondness on the tracks I revile today.  By that stage the whole of the Highlands will have been turned into a car park for access to wind turbines and shooting anything that moves.

CF Bothy

Friendly wee bothy

 

 

     

 

The White Stuff

I am four years old and fast asleep in my bed at home. Suddenly I am aware of being lifted up. Sleepily I realise I am in my father’s arms. It is winter, pitch dark and cold in my un-heated bedroom, I shiver for a moment until he wraps me in warm a blanket and carries me down stairs.

‘I’ve something to show you,’ he whispers.

My mother is waiting at the foot of the stairs and she opens the front door of our house and my father carries me out into the garden. Something magical has happened. Our small suburban garden has been transformed into a sparkling wonderland. The lawn has a carpet of white diamonds and the willow trees beyond are bowed down with ice crystals glowing in the yellow street lights.
Our home is on the Wirral peninsular, a suburb of Liverpool. The murky Mersey flows on one side of this little finger of land and the broad Dee estuary borders the other. The climate is mild and only rarely does the temperature drop below freezing. In my short life it is the first time I have seen snow, I am transfixed in wonder.

snow ness

It’s almost 60 years since I was that little boy on Merseyside, glimpsing snow for the first time, but still it’s ability to transform the landscape fascinates me. That fascination has shaped my life. In the intervening years I have wandered the frozen hills of Scotland, climbed ice in Canada and scaled Europe’s highest peak. I have shivered in Highland bothies and hacked my way up African ice, yet still I am drawn to the white stuff. I have lived in Scotland for the last forty years so I can enjoy the Highland winter.

This year, for the first time in several years, November yields our first descent snow fall and, like the snow bunny I am, I just have to get out in it and spend the day walking the hills above Loch Ness. I meet this cheeky Robin who perches near me as I put on my boots and looks accusingly at me as I have no crumbs to give him.

robin

The woodland trees are festooned with ice crystals. This image appears to be in black and white but it is in colour, the snow has narrowed the spectrum of light in the forest.

Tree

If you are enjoying this blog you might also like my best-selling book, The last Hillwalker, or know someone for whom it would make the perfect Christmas gift. Shortlisted for The Great Outdoors Magazine’s book of the year. Check out it’s fabulous reader’s reviews on Amazon.
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Bespoke book cover art example from coverness.com

Bespoke book cover art example from coverness.com

 

 

Above the tree line the wind and the falling snow above Loch Ness combine to a view of savage grandeur.

Snow ness2

I feel so lucky to have spent the day amongst the snow. The little boy in the blanket is inside me still.

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Download The Last Hillwalker free! From tomorrow until the 12th of Nov you can download my best selling book free. Click here for the book Free to download

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My book has been getting amazing reviews and is already a best seller it would be fantastic if I could win The Great Out Doors magazine book of the year especially as I’m up against some of the big guns in the publishing world.

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Here I am with Indie author Fiona MacBain

If you get the book please return the favour and vote for the book in the TGO magazine book awards, Vote for me in the Great Outdoors reader’s awards

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Torch Warning

Around a year ago I posted this post about my new head torch.  The light’s fantastic My new head torch seemed incredible bright and good value for money so I thought I’d share it with you.

I’ve now discovered there are some issues with these torches you should know about.  I recently tried to charge the torch from the12v power source in my car, the one that used to power the cigarette lighter when people used to smoke.  It’s the first time I’d tried to do that as usually charge the torch from mains power in my house.  After charging the torch for just under an hour I found it to be completely dead and I suspect that the circuits have been burnt so the torch is destined for the bin.  a friend of mine had exactly the same experience, so I don’t think the problem is isolated to that torch.

A bit of research on the net revealed that, in some cases, the batteries on these torches can explode whilst they are being charged.  One feature I read said that the problem is relate to folk overcharging the batteries, especially if you leave them on overnight.  This source maintained that, even if completely discharged, that batteries should require a maximum of six hours charge.

I think that it’s likely that these batteries can over heat and, rather than exploding like a bomb, there is a risk that they might smoulder and give off toxic fumes.  Obviously this is serious if you are in a confined space.

Other sources were very enthusiastic about these torches saying they work well and not relating any problems.  It perhaps comes down to that old idiom, ‘If it looks too good to be true it probably is.’

These torches are very cheap for the amount of light they produce but they are perhaps not manufactured to as high safety standards as much more expensive torches.  You get what you pay for.  If you buy one just don’t charge it in the 12 volt socket of you vehicle and never leave it on charge overnight unattended.  I suspect you could have many years of happy use provided you are careful with them.

I’d be interested to hear of anyone who has used similar torches. Did you have problems?

For this and other hiking tips buy The Last Hillwalker only £1.99 to download until 10th November 2017.

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Fishing with my father

The world is full of giants. They lumber about me and I, at four years, scamper between their legs waiting for the occasional face to peer down at me or a hand to appear bearing a Quality Street chocolate. The green triangular ones are the best and these treasures I unwrap with reverence before savouring their delicious velveteen centres. Beside the little tin fishing hut, I visit with my father every Sunday, grows a tiny cherry tree, little more than a sapling. Small as I am, if I press my thumbs together I can place my palms against the silvery bark and just touch my fingertips together on the far side of the tree. Sometimes I stand like this for a few minutes, listening to the leaves rustling in the wind and feeling the tree sway, fascinated by the enormity of the fact that I am big enough to hold a tree in my hands.

The land of my Merseyside home is rich in clay. In Victorian times men would arrive in the fields with horses pulling carts and begin to dig. Their goal was the clay beneath the soil which they would cart away to make bricks for terraced houses of the growing armies of industrial workers who work in the shipyards of Birkenhead. These clay pits were soon abandoned and in time they filled with water, trees grew around them, and they were populated by fish, water voles and aquatic plants. My father is a member of a small club, The Wirral Angling Association, and spends most of his free time away from his job as a shipping clerk, fishing at the ponds.

As a small boy I roam around the ponds, exploring the trees and bushes, walking across the precarious wooden bridges that lead out on to islands or small pontoons. Here I battle space monsters, have shoot outs with many foes and follow the vivid footsteps of my imagination. Gradually my father introduces me to his world, shows me the Whirligig Beetles and Water boatmen, tiny insects who spend their lives rushing across the meniscus of the water, miraculously balanced on the surface tension. The Whirligig beetles race in circles across the water pursued by the Water boat men who look like tiny oarsmen in miniature boats.

My father shows me the criss-crossed tracks left by water voles, mice and other creatures. These little pathways fascinate me and I spend hours following them and wondering what animal made them. Merseyside is a crowded place, crammed with people, industry and intensive agriculture. The Mersey river is so polluted it is toxic to life and even capable of bursting into flame. Around these few ponds however, in a small, sometimes almost microscopic world, my father and I cling to these tiny outposts of nature surrounded by a man-made jungle.

Beneath the water there lies a secret world full of myriad lives. Some days, when there is enough sunshine, I will climb a tree and look down into the water from above. On days like these I watch as underwater shapes rise from the depths. I see bulbous carp basking below the surface and feeding beneath the lily pads. Shoals of silvery roach flit nervously between the shelter of weed beds in cloud like formations. Sometimes my pulse quickens when I see, the long, streamlined shape of a Pike sitting motionless amongst the weeds waiting for a careless Roach to swim too close. When a fish comes within range, the Pike, the stripped tiger of these small waters, explodes with lightening like speed to hurtle through the water and close its many toothed jaws about its hapless prey.

My father’s only transport is an old sturdy bicycle, he is unable to afford motorised transport on a clerk’s wage. As a child I climb into a small seat on the back and, with me on board, he cycles the three miles to the waters of the angling club. As I get bigger he teaches me the art of angling. We spend hours watching the quills of the floats he has made from birds feathers sit motionless in the water. The only fish of any size are Tench, slimy green bottom feeders, but even these are rarely caught.
When it rains or becomes too cold we retreat to the shelter of a few small wooden huts which keep away the winter winds. The huts are full of fishing rods and nets. Dusty and dank they smell of damp and the paraffin that leaks from the small stoves that my father lights to offer some warmth. In the dim light of the huts, when the weather is foul, we sit together, my father and I and few old men who have been fishing here for over twenty years. As the heat from the stoves rises from beneath the table the old men sit, drinking tea and swapping stories of the great fish that they believe lurk somewhere beneath the murky waters of the ponds. The roof of the tin hut reverberates to falling acorns and the rattle of twigs.

In the summer we rise early and walk across the meadows laced by a million spider’s webs sparkling in the early morning dew. The hours just after dawn are magical times, caught in the moment before the world wakes when it is easy to believe that we are alone. After hours fishing, we return to the hut and feast on sausages and the mushrooms we pick along the way. Anyone who has eaten in the outdoors will know that there is no taste richer than a meal eaten in the fresh air and spiced by hunger.


In the winter, when the icy wind blows, we would build fires in old oil drums to warm out hands whilst we fished for the elusive pike. Short winter days and cold winds gave these days I spice I grew to relish. Once I a while, even on mild Merseyside, temperatures would sink low enough and long enough for the small ponds to freeze over. Even then, with all pretence at fishing gone, we would spend our weekends walking round the ponds and marvel at the ice crystals and the changed white landscape.

My father died last year at the age of 90, only months after catching his last fish in those ponds. That gentle man had spent over 70 years beside those waters. They had been his companion, his source of peace, a place away from the pressures of life. He had a connection with those few acres of land that is rare in the modern world and something precious

It has taken me many years to realise that the sense of belonging I feel when sitting in a Highland bothy comes from those days, many years ago, when I sat in that fishing hut listening to the acorns bouncing off the roof. Even today, as I walk into bothies, that habits he planted in me persist and I find myself scouring the ground searching for the tracks of animals. In nights beside the bothy fire part of me is still a boy surrounded by giants.
If you go to those ponds now, you will see that the cherry tree still grows beside the hut. It is mature now and even my adult hands can reach only halfway around its trunk. It is more than fifty years since I first held that tree in in the palms of my hands. In all those years a half a lifetime has passed by. Perhaps that cherry tree will live another fifty years, in a time when no one will remember the small boy who placed his hands around its trunk.