Below is my article, ‘Beautiful madness,’ on the Glen Coe Skyline, published in the Scotsman magazine.
Robert Louis Stevenson was no hill runner. Not that such a pursuit would have occurred to the Edinburgh novelist. In Stevenson’s lifetime, running up hills was not a thing, certainly not in the recreational sense. It was not until 1895 – a year after his death – that a man decided to time himself to run from Fort William to the summit of Ben Nevis and back.
But Stevenson was a visionary: he defined a sport that had not even been invented. Kidnapped is set in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising in the 18th century. Believed to be accomplices Continue reading
Some years ago I was running in the Eastern Fells of the Lake District. As I descended a mountain called High Street, I passed a walker. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ he shouted incredulously into the breeze. I smiled. Encumbered by boots and bag, I wondered the same: How do you do it?
I know what you might be thinking: you are with the walker on this one. Running is hard enough. Why increase the struggle by adding hills and mountains? The prospect is absurd. Nonetheless, hear me out.
I was a walker once. When I first started going to high places, Continue reading
This is just a note to say thank you.
I have never told you how much you mean to me. Until now.
I did not want you at first. All those years ago, when I first saw you – in the flesh, not just in those glossy pictures on the web that I couldn’t stop gazing at – I was not sure. I didn’t know then that I needed you. I went away. I left you. But I never stopped thinking about you. I was young and indecisive. I came back. I realised you were worth it.
You were now mine, and, together, we grew. Continue reading
A British expat living in Thailand was visiting a tourist centre on Koh Chang when a photograph, purportedly of the island’s Kai Bae beach, engaged his attention. To the casual observer, nothing was amiss. Here was an illustration of the unerring beauty of the Koh Chang coastline: a white-sand beach, a cobalt sea, a shimmering sky. It was unquestionably a Thai paradise.
Or not, for something was indeed amiss. This was no Thai beach, the expat realised. It was a beach on Berneray, a Hebridean island pitched off the west coast of Scotland, some 6,000 miles from south-east Asia. The hills in the Continue reading
Iain Whiteside was running. What was Whiteside thinking about when he was running? Strava, of course. ‘I realised I had spent the previous 30 minutes thinking about what I was going to name this run,’ he admitted. Whiteside stopped running. He was on Braid Hill in Edinburgh. Inspiration came to him: ‘At a standstill on Braid Hill,’ he would later write on his Strava feed. Literally.
For Whiteside, the Braid Hill moment was the second part of an epiphany. The first half came in a Keswick café after an attempt on a winter Bob Graham round had floundered in deep snow at the Back o’Skiddaw. Continue reading
In the course of researching for my next book I came across the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame. Established in 2002, the hall of fame ‘celebrates and pays tribute to Scotland’s iconic sports men and women from the past 100 years, and inspires future generations’. The aims are noble and – as it led by sportscotland, ‘the national agency for sport’ – it has credibility. In total, 26 sports are represented, from the more obvious Scottish pursuits of football, golf and rugby to the minority sports of shooting, table tennis and water polo.
Furthermore, the list recognises the sports that define what it is to be Scottish Continue reading
I was planning a break from running today. But then I had cause to go to IKEA. And the panorama of the snow-capped Pentlands from the car park of aforementioned Swedish emporium was like gazing up at a hill runners’ nirvana. And my running stuff happened to be in the car just in case. So I drove to Flotterstone and ran uphill. Now at home and poised in front of a laptop, I am searching for an appropriate adjective to describe what I saw. Lots come to mind: scintillating, breathtaking, inspiring, beautiful… They all sound cliché, though. You know what, I can’t grasp the right word, the word I really want. But it was scintillating, breathtaking, Continue reading
When news of the success of the expedition to climb Mount Everest was revealed to the world on June 2, 1953, four days had elapsed since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had stood on the summit. When Jez Bragg reached Glen Nevis youth hostel at the end of a record-breaking Ramsay Round in the Scottish Highlands, the world knew in seconds.
Bragg’s round is symbolic of the technological age. Continue reading
I have been blogging for some years. I was a writer and journalist first. My original purpose was to support the publication of my first book, Heights of Madness, and my second and third books thereafter. Over time, heightsofmadness.com graduated into a running blog – a blog that last week pleasingly surpassed 50,000 visits. Writing permits self-expression, reflection and can be a carthotic process, but writers also write to be read. As I tell my students, writing is meant to be read. Writing must have an audience. Writing must provoke a response.
What is always surprising, however, is what people want to read and what becomes popular. Every blogger will empathise with the time you spent hours crafting the apparently perfect blog, adorned with beautiful images and scrupulously edited, only for very few people to engage with your masterpiece. And then there is the blog that you knocked into shape in 10 minutes while on the bus or the train from somewhere to somewhere that racks up hundreds of visits.
What I have learnt about blogging, particularly in the overcrowded market of running blogging, is that if you don’t shout, no-one will listen. The most successful blog posts – and I certainly don’t mean the best written, most interesting or most entertaining – stem from exposure, be it on social media or the traditional media. The cream does not always rise to the top.
To mark 50,000 visits for heightsofmadness.com and in the spirit of if-you-don’t-blow-your-own-trumpet-you-don’t-get-anywhere these are my most visited blog posts.
5. Mont Ventoux
Write This Run, which, funnily enough, unites writing and running in both an online, virtual community and at real life conferences, is one of those annoyingly good ideas that I wish I’d had. Laura Fountain and Liz Goodchild got their first. Incidentally, I know Laura from university a decade ago. Had I suggested she join a group of four of us running the Paris Marathon in 2004, she would have laughed in my face.
I jumped on the Write This Run bandwagon on Saturday, speaking at the group’s November conference about, funnily enough, writing and running. Conference is a dull word, isn’t it? Let’s call it a convivial meeting of running minds.
This is the gist of what I had to say about better blogging and writing.
1. Find the nugget –
As running bloggers we need to decide: do we write about running, or do we write about things that are actually interesting to our fellow human beings? This may not always be about running. Running is tedious. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing to say – by that I mean nothing of interest – and then it is best to shut up. There are some desperately boring blog posts out there. You’ve seen them. You’ve written them. I’ve written them. They go along the lines of: Today I ran the Kidderminster 10k. The alarm woke me at 7. I had a piece of toast for breakfast, with strawberry jam rather than my usual marmalade. The car park was nearly full when I arrived, but I was lucky enough to get the last parking space. On arrival, I met Sandra and Jim who told me that Simon couldn’t race because he had stubbed his toe on a plant pot. And so on.
No imagination. As Einstein said, imagination is more important than intelligence.
I trained as a journalist and one of our lecturers demanded we green student journalists find the nugget. The nugget. Essentially, the most important, exciting, repulsive, evocative, funny, interesting, entertaining detail, the thing you would tell your mates in the pub after saying, you never guess what. And that is where you start. Not when the alarm clock goes off.
2. Give fully of yourself –
A running friend once told me after reading Isles at the Edge of the Sea that I was prone to exaggeration. A reviewer on Amazon wrote of Heights of Madness: ‘Found his constant whinging put me off.’ I also remember Richard Askwith being criticised when he compared his injured, weary plight atop a misty mountain in the wonderful Feet in the Clouds as akin to a soldier at war.
Askwith was giving fully of himself. I was giving fully of myself.
Sometimes, when you are running up that hill or churning through mud or on an eighth three-minute repetition with two to go, life is pure torture. There is simply nothing more diabolical than this thing that you willingly started. This is the moment to capture. Feelings dissipate and disappear very quickly, and you have to remember the purity of those moments. Capture too the contrasting emotions of euphoria, of course. But that’s never as interesting. Besides, I don’t believe evangelical writing about running. You’re clearly not running hard enough if you’ve time for euphoria.
3. Do something different –
The highest number of hits on my blog this year was a race report I wrote on the Box Hill fell race, which went ahead in January in snow. Rather than write a straightforward post, I wrote a satirical report that mocked the news stories of that weekend that spoke about ‘treacherous’ weather when there were just a few inches of snow, and I spoke liberally about health and safety. It was like reading a copy of the Daily Express. Although that’s nothing to be proud of.
You can go even further. If you’re bored of your own voice, change it. Switch the narrator from you to something else. A pair of shoes? A water bottle? Or, be indulgent – write about yourself in the third person. Give your new voice a character, a personality. It is nothing to do with running, but to give a useful non-running example, when asked to write creatively about church and religion (what was I thinking?) one of my less-than-enthusiastic school students proposed the idea of an atheist hymn book. He created a memorable narrative voice: irritable, frustrated and on a mission to convert those who opened him. It was a triumph and all started with a little imagination. Thank you, again, Einstein.
If an 11-year-old boy can make their writing illuminating, you definitely can.
Reviews are important to writers. Although eagerly anticipated, they are feared. The views of a few – be they newspaper or magazine reviewers, or increasingly book sellers and book websites – guide the masses. Few outlets are as important as Amazon. I don’t know what percentage of my total book sales come from Amazon, but I imagine it’s a significant amount.
Prior to last week, Isles at the Edge of the Sea, my second book published in 2011, had been reviewed on Amazon five times. They are all generally positive, containing phrases like ‘a great read’, which cheer me no end. Such positivity ran out last week when a reviewer, called excile9, wrote under the headline ‘More fact than fiction’: ‘I read the three sections covering Lewis, Harris and St Kilda and I had to give up. Inaccuracies were peppered throughout and gave the impression the “diary” format was written from memory. In places it certainly lacked knowledge of the geography and history.’
One star out of five. If he/she could have awarded a zero, I imagine he/she would have done. A link to the review is here.
I don’t mind bad reviews. Honestly. We all hold different opinions. The Harry Potter books didn’t do much for me; I struggled with The Great Gatsby. Does my little judgement discredit Rowling or Fitzgerald? Of course not. It’s simply a point of view – like saying I prefer the colour green over blue. Moreover, I expect critical reviews. They show people are reading the books. They show that your words can provoke a reaction. That’s got to be better than passivity. Some people will like what you do. Others will hate it.
However, this ‘bad’ review left me puzzled. Admittedly, two of the last three chapters of Isles are potentially the most controversial. The Lewis chapter deals with the highly sensitive issue of Sabbatarianism; the St Kilda chapter focuses on the 1930 evacuation of the archipelago, an emotive and much-debated topic some 80 years on. Because of these factors, my greatest care was spent crafting these two chapters. My observations on Sabbatarianism were based on conversations with members of the Free Church of Scotland; I deliberately didn’t insert my own opinions in this section, because, frankly, I didn’t think I was qualified to do so.
As for St Kilda, the entire chapter was proofed by a professor of Scottish history (as were the details about the evacuation of Scarp in the Harris chapter). Indeed, it was on his insistence (and latest research) that I included the Scottish Office’s rejection of a proposal for regular steamship services to St Kilda as a key reason for its decline in the 1920s. If there are inaccuracies in this chapter (and anywhere else in the book), I’d be keen to know them, as would, I am sure, the professor.
I’m going to stop there. I’ve got excile9 off my chest. Except – suffice to say – the book was ‘written from memory’, with, of course, the aid of extensive diary notes, photographs and reams of researched material. Find me a travel book that isn’t written in this spirit.
It’s a too often quoted proverb, but it’s worth hauling out on this occasion: You can’t please everyone.