MARHOFN 58.03 - MAY 2001

Going the way of all flush brackets

Dave Hewitt

The idea is absurdly simple, and simply absurd: to visit, pretty much in ascending order, one trig point of every different height, in metres, in Scotland. It will involve 749 'ascents' and is likely to take me at least five years, more likely ten. This is how I started...

2m: Rhunahaorine Point, Landranger 62, NR690494, 29 July 2000

It was one of those glazed-grey hot spell mornings, scarcely a nudge of breeze and with the sea gently slopping against the shingle foreshore. In an hour or two the thin cloud would burn off to leave the umpteenth consecutive day of blazing high-summer heat, but for now the light held a dream-like quality, as in one of those bright-white scenes used by Hollywood to portray someone's ahead-of-time arrival in heaven. The world seemed to be spinning in slow motion.

We - Mary Cox, Alan Dawson and I - were halfway down the west coast of Kintyre. Alan had driven from Glasgow the previous evening, kipping in his Everton-blue camper van in a lay-by near Cairnbaan. Mary had stayed behind to party, though 'it was more of a soirée - no one got drunk' had been her comment when collected early on Saturday from Balloch station.

Behind schedule, we had zoomed along the Lomond and Fyne roads to meet Alan in a quiet Lochgilphead. We were, I suppose, the advance party for the Marilynists' weekend, but the bunting and banners that adorned the town seemed to be welcoming a Canadian pipe band, not us.

On through the postcard port of Tarbert and past the Kennacraig slip before turning down a speed-bumped road to the Point Sands Caravan Park. 'Safe beach', the sign read. We parked in a gravelly lay-by over which buzzards mewed, then ambled through the Butlin's-scape, past a brick-built lookout and so to Rhunahaorine Point itself.

It was the most easy-going start ever made to a major expedition. The stroll was short - destination gained inside ten minutes - and flat apart from one slight dip. Neither fierce storms nor pinnacled ridges diverted us. And this target? The summit of our ambitions? A four-sided concrete block just in-shore from the beach-edge grass. A trig point of course - an Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar to give its formal name - and a sight blandly familiar to all who roam the hills of Britain. This trig, however, was significant: one of only two two-metre pillars in Scotland, one of the twin low-points of the surveying network north of the border. There is (unless the cartographers have hidden it unusually well) no Scottish one-metre trig; neither is there a three-metre trig.

The next gaps fall at 56m, 271m and 305m, but there is a choice of twos, the non-Rhunahaorine version standing at the point where Beauly River becomes Beauly Firth (Landranger 26, NH556477). With pleasing symmetry, the two-metre trigs stand on opposing coasts and on mirror-image maps: 26 and 62. Both neatly round off broad bulges of headland. And both sit quietly on their spot heights, driven past, sailed by and generally ignored in countless ways. Innocuous but interesting: a good way to be.

The start of an odyssey: Dave Hewitt and a 2m trig point

Enough of such scene-setting. We reached the Rhunahaorine pillar, touched its bleached-cement sides as one would those of some marbled sepulchre, stooped to note the number on its metal benchplate (S8447, since you ask), took some commemorative snaps and then crunched across the shingle to dip toes in the Sound of Gigha. I tried skimming a pebble or two, but they were the wrong shape and sank like stones. It was 1:17pm on Saturday 29 July 2000. The great trigonometric adventure had officially begun.

4m: Kinneil Kerse, Landranger 65, NS972806, 11-12 August 2000

On paper - or at least on the map - it looked simple. Scotland's five 4m trigs gave a giddying choice of where to go next. The rank outsider was, perversely, the most scenic: Fassfern, halfway along the Loch Eil shore between Fort William and Glenfinnan. This was where most normal hill-lovers would have headed, surrounded by quintessential Highland scenery of steep hills, wave-flecked waters and worryingly unstable caravans. But any presumption of normality, and with it the west coast, could wait. I felt no urge to head that way just yet, idyllic though it could have been.

Instead, I thought about visiting friends in Culloden and using that as a base (or, rather, an excuse) for a tour of three 4m trigs bunched tightly enough to be do-able by bike. One was near Ardersier; the others on opposing sides of the Cromarty Firth. Life complications kicked in however, and the jaunt was abandoned, perhaps to re-emerge later as an extra-curricular low-trig outing for old times' sake. This left just one 4m possibility, closer to home and scenic beyond words. Grangemouth.

For those unfamiliar with heavy industrial hotspots, Grangemouth is one of the biggest petro-chemical plants in Europe. It smoulders on the southern shore of the Forth and has been described by songwriter Michael Marra as an 'old chemistry set'. Strictly speaking, Grangemouth is the small town nearby, but the name invariably conjures up chimneys, acrid smells and a back-of-brain concern that one day the whole thing might blow and take much of central Scotland with it. Grangemouth as boomtown must never happen.

Thankfully the trig stood outwith the actual oil complex, removing the risk of encounters with burly security men: 'Oi, sir, what is the nature of your business in Sector 27B? Are you here to replace the nitrobenzene outflow valve?' 'Er, no, I'm a trig inspector, actually.'

The pillar appeared to stand beside an artificial lagoon between Grangemouth and Bo'ness, but when I met Ken Stewart at Polmont station (with its tree-framed view of cooling towers), neither of us was worried about having brought old maps. Mine, the newer of the two, was dated 1983. This led to problems. At some point we walked past a sign reading 'BP Exploration'. It was prophetic. There is no space to describe our warm-up search for the 78m trig allegedly hidden in one of Polmont's poxy (sorry, boxy) housing schemes. Suffice it to say we found only brambles and broken breezeblocks, and this set the tone for the afternoon.

Access to the coastline was initially easy, a scrabble across a ditch bringing what would probably, in the fens, be called a levee: an artificial raised bank. Ken went along this while I skirted beneath, trying to cut a corner to the lagoon shore. Bad idea. Soon I was splashing through marshland where huge bulrushes towered overhead. There were islands of dry(ish) land, but mostly it was over-the-boot stuff and occasionally worse. Swamp-fear gene-memories welled up, and it was with relief that I reached another raised bank and safety. Not comfort, though: the ridge was strewn with lumps of concrete and snagging coils of wire.

I could see Ken some distance away, scratching around among rubble in vain hope that a trig - even a sledgehammered trig - might lurk there. We met up, sat on a mound of industrial flotsam, and studied our maps. I've been in some poor-quality places in my time - clear-felled forest, rain-sodden peat hags - and have even, perversely, enjoyed some of them. But this was a bit much. It was the antithesis of a nature ramble. We gave up and went home.

All of which, as they say, bugged me rotten. It's one thing to retreat from a snow-swept summit on grounds of life preservation, but to be beaten by one of the lowest spot heights in the land... Of course the trig could have gone the way of all flush brackets and been bulldozed into oblivion, but I had a strong sense that we had simply looked in the wrong place. This was boosted next morning when a new Landranger 65 showed the old lagoon having been filled and re-established half a kilometre farther out into the firth. So the trig had effectively shifted inland by the same half-kilometre. Where there's landfill, there's hope.

Late on Saturday afternoon I raced east along the M9, football blaring from the radio as huge deluge-clouds loomed in the mirror. The previous day's levee was ignored as I walked straight into a field where tyre tracks allowed damage-free access. Ten minutes later, with the rain torrential, I saw it: level with some scrub, a mucky grey trig swaddled in undergrowth. It wasn't on the ridge-crest, as the casual trig-bagger might have expected, but a metre or so above a broad, sluggish ditch. The sight was so unexpected I laughed aloud. With no dry-clad way across, the only option was to retreat and approach from the north. I was thankful for the 'wrong' side sighting however, as any direct attack would surely have missed the gorse-wrapped trig. As it was, I aimed towards a dayglo-orange cable-marking post, then descended to the trig through a thicket of thistles. Unorthodox navigation, but easy in the end.

To say there was little sign of anyone having been here would be a gross understatement: grass grew up the pillar, and the flush bracket had to be scraped clean of moss. But it was the culmination - if not quite the high point - of a strange expedition, and I felt a fine sense of achievement, alone on my post-industrial summit. The rain had stopped, and the trig served as foreground for pictures of a smouldering Grangemouth sunset: part-scenic, part-toxic.

5m: Ardmore, Landranger 63, NS313788, 27 August 2000

After all that palaver, finding the next trig proved pleasantly straightforward. There were three to choose from, Mull and Wigtownshire being rejected in favour of Ardmore, a curious circular headland on the Clyde between Cardross and Helensburgh. Despite having lived for 12 years in Glasgow, the only time I could recall having set foot in Cardross had come while working at a resettlement unit when we transferred a resident here. The youth in question was a deaf-mute cross-dressing 17-year-old given to strolling around in hired wedding dresses - which gives a clue as to why he never quite settled in what must have seemed like Hicksville. It wasn't long before he was back in the hostel's safer, less proscriptive environment.

That was a decade before Tessa and I wandered anti-clockwise round Ardmore as an afterthought to a day on Beinn Ime. We were not alone, being occasionally in sight - and often in sound - of a remarkably obese couple accompanied by a wasted-looking teenager and two rottweiler dogs. The latter completely dominated the fatties' attention, being loudly called to heel every 30 seconds or so. 'Amber, Amber, fucking come here' was the refrain as we strolled round in the early sunset. I was reminded of a train journey some years ago when a well-spoken woman behind me had kept declaiming: 'Saxon, sit down!' and 'Saxon, behave!' Bloody dog-owners, I had thought, they're every bit as attention-seeking as their damn pets. Only as we neared the station did I realise that Saxon was in fact the woman's small son.

For the record, the Ardmore trig was a path-side pillar beside a clump of gorse. Being partially covered in lichen gave it a rusty-red appearance, while a large number 8 had been mysteriously stencilled onto one side.

6m: Lady Isle, Landranger 70, NS274293, 24 September 2000

Grangemouth notwithstanding, the six-metre expedition was always going to provide the first real test of resolve. On compiling the list, there had appeared to be only one 6m pillar. Nothing unusual in this: numerous trigs are 'singletons', 17 in the sub-200m range alone. This one lay, however, on a small, uninhabited island 4km off the Clyde coast. Quite why the OS plonked a pillar here is a mystery: no one at their helpline seemed to know. But be-trigged Lady Isle certainly is, and the necessity of reaching it imbued the place with considerable allure. Even when a friend pointed out that the 7m trig beside Eilean Donan Castle was now mapped as 6m (a result of rejigged rounding), I stuck with Lady Isle as the target. Kintail might be trivial in terms of access, merely requiring an eight-hour round trip from Stirling, but it lacked the thrill and the frisson of a rarely-visited island. As with the 4m choice, attractive scenery lost out to exploration and adventure.

Having said that, after two weeks of failing to fix up a boat, I was tempted to switch northward after all. The island lacked any ferry, and hopes of an easy charter received a blow when Gordon Smith, having spent most of his life close to the Ayrshire coast, commented that he had 'never heard of anyone landing on Lady Isle for any reason'. Hmm.

The first port of call was the port of Troon, where harbourmaster Davy Spiers was to prove helpful throughout. He remained undeterred by what struck me, as I explained it, as an unusually bizarre ambition. Spiers doubtless regarded me as a raving eccentric (fair enough), but said that the Lady Isle lighthouse used to be maintained by Jimmy Wilson, who might take me in his old boat, the Dusky Maid. 'It'll be no use asking the fishermen,' Spiers added. 'It's a gey shallow draft in there.' Sadly, Jimmy's wife told of his being in hospital - and having sold the Dusky Maid. I felt intrusive, but Mrs Wilson kindly dug out the number of the boat's new owners: 'Hugh and Neil, a couple of lads at West Coast Marine'.

Fine, they would surely take me. Hmm again. I rang Neil Anderson's mobile, explained the plan and hoped for a reasonable offer. None came. Anderson chugged out to Lady Isle at the behest of the Northern Lighthouse Board, whom he charged £160 each time. 'I'll take you for the same,' he said, which would have been OK had a squad of friends been able to come along. But although the Dusky Maid seated 12, Anderson added: 'There's no way I'd put 12 ashore for that money'. Asked just how many he would land, he thought for a moment. 'Three,' he said.

I said I'd think about it. If this was the only way to reach Lady Isle then I would, grudgingly, pay £53.33 for the privilege. But chances were slim of finding two trigophilic friends willing to pay this for such a short trip. Uninspired by triangulatory zeal, Anderson was making no distinction between the corporate NLB fee and that which a bunch of happy amateurs would pay.

There was one possibility, however. A maintenance run was overdue - something to do with new padlocks - and Anderson, mellowing briefly, had said I could hitch a ride if this could be coordinated with the NLB. So I phoned Leith and spoke with Richard Owen, an engineer amused by the marathon trig idea.

Dave Hewitt and Robin Taylor admire the elusive 6m trig point

But after checking with colleagues, Owen reported that no maintenance was due until well into 2001 and that the padlocks had already been replaced. Reluctantly, I again rang Anderson and asked, Tarrant-like, if £160 for three people was his final answer. 'Absolutely' he said, 'I've got a business to run'.

The drive to Loch Duich was back on the agenda. The Troon harbourmaster, however, sounded disapproving of West Coast Marine's attitude when told. 'There's one other possibility,' Davy Spiers said. 'You could try Robin Taylor. He sails tugs out of here and might take you. Give him a call: he's a reasonable man'.

And reasonable he was. He and I were soon laughing as we tried to negotiate a price, something at which we both appeared useless. Eventually £100 was agreed for five ashore, sailing on the Sunday of the coming weekend. There was no point risking a change in the tide, maritime or financial.

It was a great little trip. Tessa and I collected Ken Stewart and Rachel Smillie before meeting Richard Webb at Troon harbour. Robin Taylor proved to be the ideal skipper: he knew the waters backwards (assuming water can flow backwards) and seemed genuinely happy to revisit an island on which he had played as a boy. The boat was a beauty, too: a green-cabined, wood-panelled Stromness-built vessel named Papa Westray.

Amid seals bobbing like big grey corks, we put ashore, skidded around on encrusted rocks and explored for a happy half-hour. It was an odd place, covered in thick, snagging grass interspersed with ankle-trapping clefts. Shags, eiders and oystercatchers apart, the attractions comprised the automated lighthouse, a tall stone pillar that had served as a marker in the era before lights, and a pair of abandoned birders' huts. One of these carried a sign in memory of Johnny Warren, 'honorary warden Lady Isle Sanctuary Troon who died 24th May 1958'. Another sign read: Social Security Appeal Tribunal.

As for the trig, it stood tight beside the huts, not even on the highest point. Pictures were taken, then we slithered back to the inflatable and turned for Troon, content in the way that only a visit to an awkward island can bring. And we were just in time: west-central Scotland was struck by a cloudburst within the hour, such that the drive home required diversions to avoid floods and aquaplaning hatchbacks. Not that we cared: the 6m trig was in the bag.

7m: Glasgow Airport, Landranger 64, NS469667
30m: Broom Hill, Landranger 64, NS464685
27m: Florish, Landranger 64, NS489690, all 2 October 2000

The 7m trig was instructive: it looked utterly trivial on the map, just a step from the A726 west of Glasgow airport. There might be a fence to climb, but surely that would be all. Ha. After half an hour Ken and I were still raking around in scrubby woodland, straddling and restraddling rusted fences and muttering as nothing was found. Eventually I came across it: camouflaged under ivy and no longer on open ground, nor even on the highest ground. Trees had sprung up since the pillar's construction - as had, somehow, a mound-like hillock, such that the next remapping might well show a 10m contour. Another non-trivial trig, again not often visited.

We had parked in the Yonderton lane beside the airport perimeter fence, where a few other drivers (solely male - funny, that) were eating their lunches while watching the jets take off and land. But rather than returning straight to the car, we headed northwards for the first chance to exploit one of several 'rules' built into the round to prevent it from being unrelentingly linear. Today it was the '3km rule': if another trig lies within 3km of the target, then it can be walked to and duly chalked off. This, along with the 'open ground rule' (trigs can be linked if no public road is crossed), will provide plenty of unorthodox expeditions over time. The first 3km ploy should really have been the 67m Waukmilton trig 2.7km south of the Grangemouth pillar; but, short of daylight and dripping wet, I'd declined to play the game that day.

This time, though, in good conditions and with time to spare, we strung a few together. Broom Hill (1.9km from the airport trig) was a neat, grassy mini-hill, while Florish (2.55km east again) stood stark in the middle of a recently ploughed field, with fine views over the old shipbuilding basins of Clydebank. A naval vessel slid up-river as we ate our lunch on top of this 27m hill. We could have headed back from there, but opted to wander into Erskine for the 55m Craigend Hill pillar tucked in beside a small reservoir, even though this didn't count, being a whopping 3.4km from Florish. It still gave a good wander, apart from the intervening estate lacking any pavements - a depressing modern trend.

The rule could have been applied differently, with Craigend counting rather than Florish, as that was also within 3km of Broom Hill. But I was thinking ahead, aware that three of the five alternative 55m trigs stood on the mainland whereas the only other 27m options were at Lochboisdale on South Uist and - a potential Lady Isle re-run, this - on tiny Eilean nan Coinein off the east side of Jura. Both would be good to visit, the latter especially, but I preferred to remove the constraint of having to visit one of them - and this the Florish add-on achieved. Complicated business, trig-bagging.

8m: Redkirk Point, Landranger 85, NY302651, 29 October 2000

The last of the year's trigs was taken in on the way home from my sister's place in Accrington. It had been a weekend so wet that intentions of Ingleborough had been replaced by a Saturday afternoon squelch round some Ribble Valley trigs. Tessa, perhaps wisely, had stayed indoors with a book. She was however game for Redkirk just west of Gretna, although the sight of a huge, sea-scooping storm billowing in from the Solway meant we hurried there and back, having parked near the end of a rutted road. The only other cars contained a courting couple and two (presumably non-courting) fishermen, none of whom paid much attention as we scrabbled up a bouldery breakwater and over a barbed fence.

Redkirk is the lowest in a sequence of Solway-shore trigs, including 10m stations at Newtown on the Cumbrian coast and the optimistically named Saltcot Hills at Caerlaverock. Double-figure trigs could wait, however. As we scurried back to shelter with the rain sheeting down, we knew that Redkirk would be the last expedition for a while. Next up was 9m: a straight choice between South Uist and Sanday in the outer limits of Orkney. Whichever was preferred, it would be into the new year before time and logistics could be organised.