1. Autumn on Royal Deeside

    A bright but breezy day spent showing off the delights of Royal Deeside to a visitor from the States.

    Our first stop was the Falls of Feugh where the tremendous amount of rainfall over the preceding days turned the always exciting series of rapids into a churning maelstrom of white water. There was no sign of any salmon leaping today but the bright autumn colours and the power of the river were spectacle enough.

    Falls of Feugh

    Falls of Feugh

    Falls of Feugh

    Next up was a pub lunch at the Boat Inn at Aboyne. Very tasty food, pleasant surroundings and the pleasures of introducing the lager shandy to new people!

    The Boat Inn, Aboyne

    Pub lunch at the Boat Inn, Aboyne

    The water levels at the Falls of Feugh had us a bit worried that we wouldn’t be able to get into the Burn o’ Vat, but our fears were set aside (along with shoes and socks) when it was just a cold paddle to get through the narrow entrance. The waterfall was impressive this time and it was a delight as always to marvel at this natural spectacle.

    Burn o' Vat

    Burn o' Vat

    We did the round up through the woods and along to the viewpoint before crossing the road and making our way along the trail towards Loch Kinord. The late afternoon sun caught the lichens, mosses and fungi beautifully and it was especially nice down by the shore of the loch with the water choppy from the breeze.

    Loch Kinord

    Loch Kinord

    Loch Kinord

    Our final stop was the Cambus o’ May bridge, a suspension bridge spanning the River Dee which was running full and fast. The last light was illuminating the trees as we enjoyed the fresh air.

    Cambus o' May

    Cambus o' May

     

  2. The Heretic by Lucas Bale

    I’ve been a long time reader of the excellent outdoor blog by Andrew Mazibrada, The Journeyman Traveller. Over the last year or so Andrew has transitioned into professional writing and, under the pen name Lucas Bale, on Monday 7th July he launched his debut science fiction novel, The Heretic. As a subscriber to his mailing list I received a copy of the book a couple of weeks in advance of the official launch and really enjoyed reading it, tearing through the book in just a few days. I’ve subsequently purchased the book (the introductory price is just 99p on Amazon for the Kindle edition) and added my review, reprinted here.

    Lucas Bale’s debut novel is a pacy sci-fi thriller set on a quiet outer rim planet in a grim future where humanity has been decimated and the remaining scattered few are controlled by the powerful Magistratus. The arrival of a freighter with a cargo of smuggled medicine starts off a chain of events that seems destined to re-kindle humanity’s belief in an old idea - that of freedom.

    Anyone familiar with Joss Whedon’s brilliant ‘Firefly’ will recognise several of the elements at play here - the freighter pilot with a penchant for illicit cargo and his own skewed moral compass, an ageing freighter that is a character in itself, a Preacher figure with a less than devout past, outer planets with local leaders a law unto themselves. Far from being derivative though, Bale weaves these elements into his own rich world and delivers a fast paced story set against a much more grandiose mythology of his own devising, rooted in some of the problems we face today. The Beyond The Wall series promises to tell this story in full.

    The Heretic is beautifully written, the winter-gripped planet of Herse coming to life in a beautiful, often brutal way. His characters are fully realised, drawing us into their struggles as they seek to make sense of an existence suddenly upended. Bale builds his world convincingly, with the future technologies believable and without gimmicks, though it is perhaps his naturalistic descriptions of the forests and mountains of Herse where he is at his most atmospheric and best. There is a sense of wonder here, of looking up at the night sky and seeing beyond the stars.

    An excellent debut novel - I look forward to more in this series.

    I can highly recommend this book, particularly for fans of the genre, and encourage you to try out the first chapter or dive straight in whilst the price is low! All the myriad purchasing options are detailed on the book’s official page.

     

  3. Aurora Borealis

    Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014

    Over the last couple of years I have had several complete misses and, luckily, seen a couple of weaker displays of the Aurora Borealis from north east Scotland. I was still waiting for the true storm event, like those that happened back in 2003 and 2004 during the last solar maximum (which I saw from Durham). Therefore it was with a certain amount of scepticism that I viewed the amber alert from Aurora Watch UK waiting on my phone for me after we came out of the cinema on Thursday evening. After dinner though I had a quick look on Twitter and the place had gone mad with images streaming in from all over the British Isles: from Scotland, north-east England, Northern Ireland and in Wales. Will Gater even posted a shot from just off the M4! We quickly got ready and were heading west, hopeful of seeing something given all the positive sightings.

    Usually out beyond the final houses of the village of Echt the sky noticeably darkens, the car head beams pushing outward against a deeper, truer sort of darkness than the orangey skies closer to Aberdeen. But on Thursday night something was different: the sky wasn’t darker, it was brighter. As our eyes grew accustomed to it we could see the whole western and northwestern sky shimmering with an ethereal light. There was a yelp of delight as a red beam sprang up directly above us through the trees. It was hard to keep even one eye on the road as we wound slowly up the hill past Midmar kirk pulling into the parking spot at the crest with a rush of tyres on gravel. We almost fell out of the car in our excitement, laughing with delight at the incredible sight that greeted us.

    Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014

    The sky was incredible. To the west a broad red ray rose into the sky whilst to the north curtains of greens and yellows punctuated by diagonal streaks shimmered in an ever-changing pattern. In the north east more rays rose into a hazy red.

    Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

    Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

    At one point a meteor streaked westward behind the bands of light. The whole experience was magical and we watched in awe as pulses of light raced silently overhead. In the north a more uniform green arc appeared and through it came ripples and waves as energy filled the sky above us.

    Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

    Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

    By 11pm the display had faded in brightness, though the occassional ray still appeared in the northern sky. We reluctantly called it a night, driving back to the city with the hazy green arc in the north a reminder of the spectacle we had been lucky enough to witness.

    Aurora Borealis I

    Aurora Borealis II

    All photos taken with a 17-40mm lens at 17mm, f/4 on a Canon 450D, ISO 800, 20 second exposures.

     

  4. Ten Favourite Albums of 2013

    The Bones Of What You Believe by CHVRCHES

    Always, we can sing, we can make time
    Old songs, flood and flame, you could be mine
    But you got to show me, both knees, skin and bone
    Clothe me, throw me, move me

    CHVRCHES at The Garage, Aberdeen, April 2013

    Early in the year, or perhaps even late last year, I heard a couple of their songs getting radio play and a little bit of exposure on blogs, then saw them at the Garage in Aberdeen in April. Whilst ostensibly a new band, CHVRCHES have Scottish indie credentials stretching back years and though they played one of the shortest headline sets I’ve ever seen, there was no doubt that every single song was an extraordinary electro-pop gem full of the musical passion felt by each of its contributors. I came home with their 10” Recover EP under my sleeve and played it to death, waiting for the album to come out. It came out, and it was magnificent, and then suddenly they were EVERYWHERE. And watching them live you fall in love all over again. And listening to them whilst walking home from town, all over again. And in the library tapping out this blog post, all over again! This is an album that cannot fail to put a smile on your face.

    Visit their website

    If You Wait by London Grammar

    And all foundation that we made
    Built to last, they disintegrate
    And when your house begins to rust
    Oh it’s just, metal and dust

    It’s fantastic that 2013 produced a debut album from not just one female-fronted electro trio, but two! And where CHVRCHES is upbeat and rapacious, London Grammar have captured that 2am groove with a series of smouldering tracks set around Hannah Reid’s heart-achingly beautiful and other-worldly voice. Definitely the first album I’ve bought on the Ministry of Sound label, and although they are hip and trendy and of the moment this feels like a timeless album that could, in years to come, stand up against the likes of Portishead. A confident debut that belies the fact they wrote and released their first song together just a year ago.

    The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars

    You’re like a mirror, reflecting me
    Takes one to know one, so take it from me

    After an acrimonious split that came mid-tour last year we were still treated to new album this year; The Civil Wars certainly live up to their name. With incredible production and songs that smoulder with the lingering tension of a relationship gone south the album better demonstrates the duo’s range than their debut Barton Hollow. The vocals are utterly heart-wrenching at times and the musicianship rises to meet the lofty heights that Williams and White reach when they meet each other in the midst of a song like Same Old Same Old. It’s a dark, tense album that opens up more with every listen.

    Inform - Educate - Entertain by Public Service Broadcasting

    Two very small men cutting steps in the roof of the world

    An album guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I’ve capered around the kitchen listening to this whilst cooking food on a Saturday night (waiting for Craig Charles on 6Music, of course). Taking sound clips from old BBC recordings and crafting them into wonderfully fresh, modern sounding songs the album is full of moments of utter delight. You might expect that the concept would become tiresome after a while, but except the slightly stressful sound of Signal30, this is an album that more than holds its own on repeat listens.

    Quickbeam by Quickbeam

    lover, when you crossed the sea for me, I cried

    Quickbeam Poster Outside Peacock Gallery, November 2013

    I had the pleasure of hearing Quickbeam for the first time at an open mic night at Cellar 35 in Aberdeen a few summers ago. Via a mutual friend I heard a few of their early performances as they developed from a quiet two piece into a three piece with the introduction of a cellist. Their songs were soft and folksy but even then it was clear that they had a unique sound and talent. After keeping us happy in Aberdeen for a while they headed to Glasgow for bigger and better things, and there they attracted Creative Scotland funding to assist with the recording of their debut album. The band expanded again, adding a drummer to the line up. The album came out on Comets & Cartwheels in June 2013 and has rarely left my listening pile since. The original elements are still there - the atmospheric vocals, the beautifully effective guitar - but the bigger band has brought a more developed and fleshed out sound. Their songcraft is excellent; wonderfully melancholic songs filled with the misty atmosphere of a Scottish glen, and they reach for the atmospheric heights of the best post-rock at moments, bringing welcome moments of noise to complement and contrast the more intimate songs.

    Listen and buy on Bandcamp

    Holy Fire by Foals

    It was just a dream,
    The most beautiful place I’ve seen.
    The white caps and the pines,
    Ripped our nations in the sea.

    Far more accessible than their previous albums, Holy Fire is laden with catchy guitar hooks and singalong melodies which contrast nicely with its heavier moments. The edgy math-rock remains in places but the overall intent is directed much more at filling large venues and this was more than evident in their electric performance at Glastonbury during the summer. The songs are brilliant layered creations which build and draw you into an ever expanding aural experience. Astonishingly good whether on the stereo, on headphones or driving through the Highlands in the car.

    No Selfish Heart by Rick Redbeard

    Through the mask I can see your eyes
    There are no tears falling

    I could have felt mildly irritated that a side project might be delaying the release of the much anticipated third album from The Phantom Band. However, it’s hard to feel in any way aggrieved when their frontman, Rick Redbeard, has put together something so lovely. I bought this on vinyl and its opener, Clocks fades into light out of the soft crackle and pop of the needle traversing the first, quiet grooves. The album is a wave of heartfelt moments and Rick’s wavering, fragile voice backed with spartan but atmospheric arrangements. The songs tackle the universal themes of love and heartbreak and fractured relationships. This is perfect music for those long, dark winter nights where the warmth of the analogue recording suffuses everything in a comfortable glow.

    Buy it from Chemical Underground

    Antiphon by Midlake

    Winter came and I was old and alone
    Time set’s gone under the mad skirts
    Onward further to a land unknown
    With only hope of the sea’s ago

    It’s always been clear that Midlake inhabit a slightly different universe to the rest of us. This was emphasised when singer and songwriter Tim Smith left the band part way through the process of recording the fourth album. Antiphon emerged as a response to the loss of Smith. The album is beautifully produced, taking some of the best folksy aspects of The Courage of Others, whilst dialling back up some of the rockier elements of Van Occupanther and its instrumentation is sublime. Its weakest side is the lyrics. Where Smith’s were offbeat and other worldly, these lyrics are just plain strange, and mostly indecipherable. The album does have a number of highlights though including the fabulous melodies on Provider and the thrumming middle eight of Corruption.

    The Dark, Dark Bright by There Will Be Fireworks

    Their second album, released on Comets & Cartwheels came late in the year but has risen quickly to the top of my listening pile. Whilst I enjoyed the first album I thought it suffered from a slightly drab production that failed to do their sound justice. This has definitely been addressed on the new album and it allows their songcraft to shine. They retain their post-rock stylings but have diversified into more introspective territories. Nevertheless for me it is on pounding tracks like South Street that they really reach their potential and the album soars.

    Buy it from Avalanche in Edinburgh and support local music shops!

    Until The Colours Run by Lanterns On The Lake

    it’s getting hard to breathe round here, to think round here
    and we’ve been sold a thousand lies this year
    we just want the quiet life
    but they won’t stop until they see us in the ground

    Lanterns On The Lake, Tunnels, Aberdeen, 2013

    A brilliant second album from atmospheric, post-rocky Newcastle band. Not a million miles from their debut but Until The Colours Run manages to be simply better in just about every way. Hazel Wilde now takes charge of vocal duties and the music is warmer, the overall tone a little more melancholy. There are catchy hooks and stunning melody lines, and the lyrics are dark and brooding; songs very much of our time. Seeing them live in November crystallised this new album for me and I’ve had many happy listens to it since then.

    Music in 2013

     

  5. The Hunt for Comet ISON

    My alarm went off at 5am and I roused myself from a warm bed. Downstairs the stove had long died out. I pulled on my warm winter layers and, loaded up with a camera, tripod and binoculars, stepped out in to a deep cold night. Over the hill above the cottage shone the Moon and Jupiter whilst a star speckled sky stretched from west to east and north to south. A few faint patches of cloud drifted slowly through high up on a chilling wind but for the most part it was clear.

    Comet Lovejoy R1

    I headed down to the stony beach by Loch Linnhe and enjoyed the cold views out across the loch to the distant lights of Ballachulish and the dark, skulking shapes of the Glencoe hills. With the binoculars I scanned the sky above me and soon picked out the fuzzy spot of green light that marked Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy’s position close to the constellation of Ursa Major. With the 50mm lens on my camera I took a series of photos that I could later stack and crop to create a pleasing image of this comet which has recently developed a stunning filamentary tail.

    Comet Lovejoy R1

    It was still too early for a chance of seeing Comet ISON so I headed back to the house and got out the 80mm telescope to have a sweep around the sky, examining a few objects including the Moon, Comet Lovejoy, the Double Cluster and Jupiter.

    Stars over Ballachulish

    After another brief warm up inside I saw that the bright star Spica in Virgo would soon be above the horizon and so headed back down to the lochside. As dawn approached a little cloud had appeared on the eastern horizon. I scanned the eastern horizon and continued to take photos but unfortunately I fear that the mountains may have been obscuring the potential views of ISON. Although Spica rose and was easily visible I didn’t see Mercury and eventually the approach of the sun washed out all detail in the sky.