My primary reading matter has always been linked to the outdoor and travel. So, any new book on these themes is sure to attract my attention. Here is a selection of book reviews I have completed over the years.


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The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain: A Walk from Cape Wrath to the Solway Firth
Robert McWilliams (Homebound Publications, 2018)
ISBN: 978-1-94700-362-0

A walk in the rain, in Scotland, is a prospect that is never likely to set pulses racing, not with substitutes in the form of excellent whisky and hearty food to side-track even the best of intentions. But into this eclectic account of a pedestrian journey from Cape Wrath to the Solway Firth the author introduces more than one ray of sunshine, and uses to the full his evident journalistic skills to avoid the many pitfalls of recounting a journey in which one day very much resembles the one that went before.

For the author, Scots-born, England-raised, but now exiled in America, the walk is the fulfilment of a persistent dream. It’s the sort of itch that outdoor types must scratch from time to time…usually for no reason that will ever make sense to anyone else. But, as Rebecca Solnit describes in ‘Wanderlust: A History of Walking’, there is a profound relationship between walking and thinking, walking and culture, one that spends its time in the interplay area between the body, the imagination, and the world around the walker…something every dedicated walker comes to understand.

The prototype for this genre of books about walking in Scotland was Hamish Brown’s ‘Hamish’s Mountain Walk’, a masterpiece of under-statement, but it (and its sequels) provided a template that few have succeeded in emulating. What Rob McWilliams has done, and done very well, is to weave around the core of his tale, numerous threads of history, geography, culture and anecdote, including several close encounters of the human kind, to give a rich tapestry of intrigue and enthusiasm. Although not universally accomplished, it is the responsibility of outdoor, nature and adventure writers not only to describe what it is they are writing about, but to use the opportunity to inform and educate, too. And McWilliams does this remarkably well, as an Oxford graduate in history might, although the absence of detail about flora and fauna, of which there is much to highlight, leads the reader to speculate that either the author knows little of these subjects, or has anything more than a passing interest in them.

This is the story of a long, idiosyncratic walk; of highways, boots and blisters, but it never strays far from the heart of essential Scotland: the wildness, the heritage, the history and the sheer breathtaking beauty of its landscapes. Perhaps unintentionally, the story is one of pilgrimage, too, a journey in which the body is made to express the desire of the soul; pilgrimage ‘…unites belief with action, thinking with doing’. But, perhaps, it is less about the symbiosis between journey and arrival that hallmarks conventional pilgrimage, than about the journey itself.

The omission of natural history comment dodges the possibility of touching on controversial schemes for rewilding that are current across large tracts of remote Scotland, and admirably, if contentiously (for some), discussed by George Monbiot in ‘Feral’. And while there is repeated reference to Old Military Roads, and an attempt at explaining them in the context of the suppression of the Clan system, no mention is made of the prime mover – General Wade (they are known as ‘Wade roads’)– and his builder-in-chief, Major Caulfield. The point is that as you cross one of Caulfield’s many bridges, still intact, you really are reaching back into the 18th century (see William Taylor, ‘The Military Roads in Scotland’, and ARB Haldane ‘New Ways Through the Glens’).

More than once, the author recognises the possibility that the journey may be too difficult, that he may not complete it, that he may have to abandon ship and return home, artificial pretexts all long-distance walkers will recognise. Thankfully, he didn’t, and the product as a result is a welcome and worthy addition to the catalogue of quality Scottish nature writing.

The intended conclusion was Portpatrick, south-west of Stranraer, of itself a somewhat illogical end, when, if you were going that far you might as well continue to the Mull of Galloway. Moreover, close by Portpatrick, at Knockinaam Lodge, is said to be the secret location where Churchill met Dwight Eisenhower to plan the D-Day Landings of World War II. It was built in 1869 as a hunting lodge for the Hunter-Blair family from Blairquhan, Ayrshire, and featured in John Buchan’s book ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’. But you can’t help feeling that once Glasgow was passed, the stage down to the Solway lost some of its impetus.

But then, the stated intention was to reach the Solway Firth, and Portpatrick is a long way from the firth. So, maybe wee Annan, or the border near Gretna Green, was a fitting conclusion.

If I have any niggles with this book, they revolve around the use of endnotes, when either footnotes or intext explanations would avoid having to flip backwards and forwards for illumination. A bibliography – the author must surely have read widely for his background detail – would have helped to authenticate the research. And an Index would have been a useful addition to help relocate information to which the reader might want to return.

[NOTE: This review is based on an Advance Reader Copy of the book, the finished version of which may address some of the issues raised.]

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My Good Life in France: In pursuit of the Rural Dream
Janine Marsh (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd., 2017)
ISBN: 978-3-9504218-0-4

Barely a month goes by without the dull thud through my letter box of another literary account of someone’s exploits in moving to live in France. Many are mediocre accounts of tussles with the legendary bureaucracy (as if we don’t have such a thing at home), strained relationships with local dignitaries and neighbours, and, for some, an inevitable surrender and retreat.

More than once on my travels through France I have encountered ex-pat Brits doing their thing: maybe running the village bar, or a B&B, or even producing wine. But a year or two later, the faces have changed; it wasn’t quite the idyll they had imagined.

So, it’s great to read an account of someone who saw the experience less of a triumph over adversity, and more of a blending with the local landscape, its culture, its traditions, and its people. That’s what Janine Marsh (no relation) and her husband have achieved, and Janine’s account is a passionate and warming story of cold Christmas Day’s huddled around a log fire, and the warmth of recognition as someone who stayed and made a success of it.

Sure, there will be red tape and difficulties and builders who don’t understand the concept of keeping appointments. You just have to take that as read, and put it down to par of the ritual of becoming grounded in another country.

What is so often missed is the need to go to live in France as French people, not as Brits (or whatever). At the very least, that means speaking the language, but it also means developing a symbiotic relationship with your new neighbours, and sharing in their way of life.

It would have been so easy for the author to have filled this book with trials and tribulations. Instead, you find happy story after happy story of how that symbiosis has evolved. It’s all about living in France, of being at one with the French people. And what makes this account particularly compelling is that it observes the best travel writing traditions: show not tell; educate; inform. I don’t want to know that there are ‘Some trees at the bottom of the field’; I want to know how many, what species, and maybe a bit of descriptive wafting in the breeze. I don’t want towns disguised as magnets, or views to die for…whatever they might be. I want to be shown through wordy description, I want to be educated about life in France. I want to be informed about the good things of attempting the ‘Good Life’.

I read this book remarkably quickly for me, and realised that’s because it was compulsive reading, hitting the nail on the head, literally and metaphorically, time and time again.

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Only in Edinburgh: A guide to unique locations, hidden corners and unusual objects
Duncan J D Smith (The Urban Explorer, 2015)
ISBN: 978-3-9504218-0-4

Once more the Urban Explorer, Duncan J D Smith, sets off in search of the unusual, the unexpected, the almost forgotten, and the downright bizarre gems of, in this case, Edinburgh. This is very much a lateral thinking approach to travel guides, something the Maltese psychologist, Edward de Bono, would be proud of.

What ‘Only in Edinburgh’ does is to expose unusual perspectives, roaming across a wide gamut of fascinating attractions most conventional guides to Edinburgh either overlook or give scant attention to.

I’ve always maintained that a travel writer’s responsibility is not only to provide a guiding hand, but also to educate and illuminate, and that can be accomplished only by diligent and penetrating research, and in that regard, ‘Only in Edinburgh’ is a masterclass in how to do just that.

Who, for example, would go in search of an Art Deco petrol station, or plague pits, or a Scottish acropolis? How many might willingly enter the world of bodysnatchers without thinking ‘Harry Potter’? – on the subject of which, did you know that it was here, in an Edinburgh café that J K Rowling penned huge swathes of the Potter books.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of commonplace guides, which, for want of space (usually), merely detail the star attractions, and overlook the detail. In this remarkable offering, one of a growing series, the author takes the opposite view by finding the less obvious. And it matters not whether you are visiting for a day or a week or more; with more than 100 entries, there is more than enough to steer you well away from the straight and narrow and into a world of intrigue and fascination.

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Only in London: A guide to unique locations, hidden corners and unusual objects
Duncan J D Smith (The Urban Explorer, 2015)
ISBN: 978-3-9503662-5-9

The trouble with London is that it has such a wealth of fascinating and popular tourist 'Must see' sights that it takes many visits just to get round them all – I’ve been trying since 1963. And then, when finally you think you’ve ‘done’ London, up pops ‘Only in London’, destined to set you off again in search of all the places missed previously.

What makes this latest in an excellent series of ‘Only in...’ titles so outstanding – a series, by the way that includes Cologne, Budapest, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Zurich, Hamburg, Paris and Berlin – is the way it unearths places you’ve probably never heard of, and almost certainly never thought of visiting.

Take, by way of examples, Tyburn near bustling Marble Arch where many of London's public executions were carried out until the late 18th century; or Doctor Johnson’s House in Gough Square – which I proudly admit I have visited; or where you can go to hold a bar of gold, or visit a Buddhist temple, or see the famed Ashes of cricketing fame. It’s all here, and so much more; no fewer than 103 entries, when, I must say I would have stopped at 100.

It’s only when you start delving into this well-designed. well-produced and well-illustrated book that you begin to realise what you’ve been missing. One place I did find missing though was the so-called ‘Tin Pan Alley’ off Denmark Street at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, which once played host to the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, the Sex Pistols and the Stones., but that isn’t the author’s fault...the whole area is currently being redeveloped.

Written in an easy style, with abundant historical background, this guide should be the one ‘essential’ guide to London. Throw away the conventional tourist guides to London, and follow this instead...you will see so much more.

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Wendy Mewes (Signal Books Ltd., 2014)
ISBN: 978-909930-06-3

Forty years of visiting Brittany on a regular basis left me with a sense that I had a fair grasp on the place, its people and its culture. But then along comes Wendy Mewes excellent book, serving very effectively to put me in my place and let me know how much I had yet to learn.

What is immediately evident in the author's keen interest in the relationship between historical reality and story creation, and what she calls the 'psychology of landscape'.

Applied to this book, the result is a synergy of intrigue, myth, folklore and anecdotal legacies bound up with history and life in the 21st century. Quite a mélange...and a beautiful one at that...a masterpiece of meticulous observation and research.

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Only in Paris
Duncan J D Smith (Brandstatter, 2013)
ISBN: 978-3850337106

If you love Paris...and idiosyncrasy, and off-the-beaten-track, and weird and wonderful, and 'I never knew that' and 'Did I really see what I thought I saw?' - then you must not go to Paris without this book.

This borderline-bizarre compendium of nooks and crannies gives you far more than you could ever hope to gain from a conventional travel guide; it does what it says on the tin, and then some.

Moreover, Duncan Smith is just the person to lead you by the hand, metaphorically at least, into a world where you can enjoy mint tea beneath a minaret, search for the bones of Louis XVI, or check out the curse of the Chateau de Vincennes.

Discover wonders of the East, a counterfeit museum, concealed courtyards and secret squares and even Monet's Soleil Levant...a Paris, in fact, of ancient ruins, eccentric museums, hidden communities and underground worlds....more than enough to organise your own expedition through the City of Light, in 98 easy chapters.

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The Making of a Cultural Landscape: The English Lake District as Tourist Destination, 1750-2010
Walton, John K and Wood, Jason (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2013)
ISBN 978-1-4094-2368-3, also available as an eBook.

In spite of a massive volume of writing about the Lake District, there have been remarkably few deeply researched books that cover the history of the region, once called 'The Odd Corner of England'. Not since Collingwood's 1925 '...little history primer of the English Lakes' and Nicholson's 1955 book 'The Lakers' has any attempt been made to bring the history of the region into the pages of a single work. Thompson's 2010 book The English Lakes: A History, while paying homage to Nicholson, makes no advance on his work and is somewhat under-researched and seemingly mainstream in its target readership.

But all who love the Lake District, indeed any student of landscape history, will find Walton and Wood's long-awaited book essential reading, and a depth of research into which it is easy to sink joyfully.

The central focus of the book addresses a number of issues that relate to the Lake District's merit as a World Heritage Site, a prospect made all the more feasible by the introduction of a new criteria, 'cultural landscape'. Yet the book revolves around key issues that question how a complex cultural landscape like the Lake District might be appropriately protected and yet continue to evolve? And, as Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director-General of the National Trust, questions in her Foreword, whether the possible designation of the Lake District as a World Heritage Site, with its concept of Outstanding Universal Value, can reconcile the competing tensions of people, beauty, nature and the economy.

As a starting point, Susan Denyer asks whether the Lake District landscape is cultural or natural; whether if the farmers left the valleys, allowing scrub to return to the high fells and fields to revert to un-drained bogs, tourists would still be drawn to the area? George Monbiot (Guardian, 3rd September 2013) argues that the Lake District we see today is 'one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe', one in which the 'celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheepwrecked'. Denyer argues, however, that 'hefted' sheep, i.e. those that always return to the place where they were weaned, play a crucial role in the collective management regime of the fells, and themselves form part of the intrinsic culture of the district.

It is insight of this type, whether you agree with it or not, that brings colour to the role that the Lake District has played in the evolution of our preoccupation with and love of landscape, here since the latter part of the 18th century. Throughout the book there is a strong narrative about the history of landscape and the influential roles played by luminaries such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and the National Trust in articulating the special qualities of the region.

There are numerous sub-themes ranging from the villa-fication of the Lake District and the importance of sport to the rise of tourism and the growth of place identity, to the fascinating but locally focused development of rock climbing and upland tourism. Although they seem somewhat less main theme, concluding case studies on Furness Abbey (Jason Wood), 'Claife Station and the Picturesque in the Lakes' (Sarah Rutherford), and a well-written essay on marginalised Millom (David Cooper), add scope for further thought about the complex dilemma of a pastoral landscape threatened by industrialisation and tourism.

What is absent from the book are the voices of the people who lived there, the 'ordinary' people, those who made their living here either as resident and transitory work forces from hoteliers, lodging-house keepers and others who catered for visitors, to those 'tramping artisans' and craftspeople who stayed for varying periods of time, building the infrastructure of the towns and villages. Whether they were significant enough to be regarded in a broad sense as part of the cultural landscape is open to question; just one more question to the many that this outstanding book addresses in its unique and valuable analysis of the Lake District's history and identity.

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The Blind Man of Hoy
Red Széll (Sandstone Press, 2015)
ISBN: 978-1-910124-22-2

Only a few weeks ago – it seems much longer – I took the ferry from Houton in Orkney across to Lyness on Hoy, and drove the 12½ miles to Rackwick Bay. From there a jaunty path crossed the slopes of Moor Fea and above Rora Head to the edge of west coast cliffs to look down on the monolith that is the Old Man of Hoy.

Not for the first time I thought, 'Anyone who sets out to climb that, must need certifying'.

Then I recalled that this red sandstone stack, perched on a plinth of basalt rock, and currently the tallest sea stack in Britain, was first climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonington, in the company Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie. Bonington and Patey repeated their ascent the following year for The Great Climb, a live BBC three-night outside broadcast, which had around 15 million viewers, including me. Two new lines were climbed by Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis and by Pete Crew and Dougal Haston. There are today no fewer than seven routes up the stack, and as many as fifty ascents made each year.
But I stand by what I said: anyone who willingly subjects themselves to such an ordeal – one such later becoming the cause of Tom Patey’s death when he fell while abseiling from The Maiden, a sea stack off Whiten Head on the Sutherland coast – must have a screw loose.

So, why would anyone who was virtually blind want to do it?

The answer to that lies in Red Széll’s atmospheric and moving account of just such an exploit in 2013. Despite suffering from retinitis pigmentosa that left him with 5 per cent vision, and therefore registered as a blind person, Red Széll set out with assistance from Martin Moran and Nick Carter to fulfil what for him had been almost a lifelong dream.

His account will appeal not only to rock climbers, but to anyone who loves the excitement and challenges of the outdoors, whatever form they take. It was Doug Scott who said ‘At its finest moments climbing allows me to step out of ordinary existence into something extraordinary’. Those of us who have tackled rock climbs or prepared for some equally gruelling challenge will know exactly what he means, and have no difficulty in empathising with Red Szélls torments, trials and tribulations...all of which merely heightened my appreciation of the fact that my personal level topped out at the old-fashioned ‘Severe’ grade and so never had to face the nagging pull of something like the Old Man.

The Blind Man of Hoy is no ‘ripping yarn’, but it’s a story that will inspire others and deter quite a few, or at least send them back to the comfort of armchair rock climbing. But if all it does is to encourage you to take the trip to Hoy and walk out to look on the stack, then that’s no bad thing; it’s a great walk.

The Old Man is less than 250 years old, and may soon collapse. It is not mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga (c.1230), and on a map dating from 1600, a headland exists at the point where the Old Man is now. The McKenzie map of Hoy of 1750 similarly shows a headland but no stack, but by 1819 the Old Man had been separated from the mainland. Sometime in the early 19th century, a storm washed away part of the stack leaving it much as it is today. By 1992, a 130ft crack had appeared in the top of the south face, leaving a large overhanging section that will eventually collapse. So, if you do want to climb it, you’d better get a move on.

But I still think that you have to be mad to take on this ascent...with apologies (and respect) to all those who have.

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