Crichton’s Cairn… what’s in a name?

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Just a pile of stones?

What we’re doing here, all this running up hills business, is nothing new. I find it sobering to remember we’re running on – quite literally – well trod slopes. The first recorded hill race took place at the Braemar gathering about 1,000 years ago. People have been running up hills for a long time.

This reality was recently confirmed for me. I stumbled across what you could describe as some local hill running history when I looked up a place name marked on my OS Map: “Crichton’s Cairn.”

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As it turns out, the history of that cairn is fascinating as it is muddled. Is it a monument to athletic prowess and spirituality? Or, conversely, a grim reminder of scandal: murder, suicide, or heresy? It could also be a mixture of all of these things.

But why is it Crichton’s Cairn…? And who was this Crichton anyway?

As it turns out, there are a number of theories, discussed in some detail in an 1860 book by Hugh MacDonald, Rambles Round Glasgow: Descriptive, Historical, and Traditional. There’s a story of a smuggler named Crichton who was overtaken and killed by loathed gaugers.[1] The cairn commemorates the smuggler’s unfortunate death. On the other hand, some say that this was the place that Crichton the smuggler killed himself; unlikely because, as McDonald amusingly puts it, “in such a ‘heaven-kissing’ locality, could manage to fling a coil over the horn of the moon, we really cannot see how this horrid purpose could be at all effected, a blaeberry-bush being the nearest approximation to a tree which he would be likely to find” [p.399]. There’s also a folk story about a local strongman who wagered that he could climb the hill with a sack of meal, but died of exhaustion at the site of the cairn.[3]

The more attested story is that the “Crichton” in question was James Crichton, who was installed as the parish minister in 1623. According to legend, he would grab a peasemeal bannok[3] for sustenance and summit the hill, where he would study his sermons.

The accounts differ when it comes to how fast Crichton could go. James Lapslie said Crichton could summit the hill from Clachan of Campsie in forty minutes,[4] whereas Robert Lee and Hugh McDonald say he managed the feat in twenty.[5] Knowing that hill, I can assure you forty minutes is a brisk but not particularly impressive; on the other hand, twenty minutes is pretty quick. It’s impossible to know what’s true, but I like the idea of a twenty minute ascent for a few reasons: first, more sources cite twenty minutes. Second, McDonald bases his account on hearing local oral history. Third, twenty minutes is surely a more notable time than forty, and thus, more memorable (I – as a mediocre athlete – can not only manage that without too much difficulty, but summit and return to the glen in under 40 minutes). Sure, twenty could be an example of how legends grow in their telling, but I’m more inclined to believe it.

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View on the way up to Crichton’s Cairn

Why? Let me explain. Okay, I know that collecting data via Strava segments isn’t scientific, but go with me here as they give an interesting picture. There are two segments that make up most of the late minister’s route: “Glen run to crow road” and “Crow Rd Climb.” Put together, these segments make up most of the route, with the exception of the final 0.5k and 63m climb to the cairn itself. My best times on these segments adds up to 17:35. The Salmon athlete and 2015 Glen Coe Skyline champion Joe Symonds can do both segments in the blistering time of 10:08! Even with the final 0.5k taken into account, even I am within touching distance of the late Rev Crichton’s fabled time (Joe Symonds on the other hand, can do it in nearly half that time!)

Ascending that hill now, of course, is a different matter to what it was 411 years ago. We have fancy light and waterproof kit, grippy trail shoes, and the befit of four centuries of footfalls that have trod a prominent track to the cairn. The author of the brilliant Welcome to Lennoxtown website casts some doubt on the twenty mintue story commenting, “Although not ruling it out as an impossible task, it would take someone with unbelievable strength to accomplish it.” I’m not so sure about the “unbelievable” part. I’ll go with Nemo on this, who says, “The etymology of the name is traditionally handed down in the… pleasing and very probable manner.”[6] Twenty minutes is impressive, but well within the realm of possibility. No doubt, many modern hill runners could, and can, reach the cairn from the glen within the late Rev’s twenty minutes. Again, I have no doubt it was a much more impressive feat in 1623 than it is now. In order to achieve that time, I’m certain Crichton would’ve needed to break into a run, not just walk as the old Statistical Accounts of Scotland report. Lapslie records that Crichton was “a remarkable stout, well breathed man”[7] — that would make sense if he could summit in twenty minutes and did this regularly! Historical hill reps?

There’s still whiff of mystery and scandal to cairn. Lee records in the Statistical Accounts that James Crichton “was deposed for what was called corrupt doctrine.”[8] I’ve looked, but I can’t find the content of his particular heresy, but it’s worth pointing out that Crichton was minister during the tumultuous reign of James VI. “Corrupt doctrine” is so general, so it tantalises the imagination even more so.

That “considerable heap of stones, which no sacrilegious hand ever attempts to demolish”[9] is testament to a fascinating muddle of history and folklore. I also think it’s a monument to the fact that people have been running in the Campsie Fells for a long time. It’s cool to be reminded of that on one of my “backyard” runs.

I’ll close here with a nice little poem that Nemo uses in praise of the Campsies, which is a lovely testament to my local “little” hills:

The tow’ring Alps and Appenines can boast

Their lofty summits in the vapours lost;

But lesser hill may have a pow’r to charm,

And yield us pleasure mix’d with less alarm. [10]

PJ

~***~

[1] I had to look this one up: the “gauger” was the Scots moniker for the loathed exciseman who were supposed to clamp down on the illicit trade of spirits; they were awarded a bounty on whatever seized and were known to be ruthless – see this article in Whisky Magazine.

[2] An author by the name Nemo in the 1811 Glasgow Magazine (Vol. II,) appears to amalgamate this story with the legends associated with James Crichton.

[3] Here’s another thing I had to look up – peasemeal is made from milled yellow field peas; it fell out of favour because of its association with poverty. It is, however, being milled again and is actually a nutritious meal, with a good amount of protein and vitamins. I’m sure it’s fair healthier than those polysaccharide gloop you see many endurance runners sucking down. Read more about peasemeal here.

[4] James Lapslie. “of Campsie.” The Statistical Account of Scotland (1795, Vol. XV p.363).

[5] Robert Lee. “Stirlingshire.” The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845, Vol. VIII p.260).

[6] Nemo, “A Panoramic Prospect.” The Glasgow Magazine, and Clydesdale Monthly Register (1811, Vol. II) p.12

[7] James Lapslie. “of Campsie.” The Statistical Account of Scotland (1795, Vol. XV) p.363

[8] Robert Lee. “Stirlingshire.” The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845, Vol. VIII) p.260; Hugh MacDonald, Rambles Round Glasgow: Descriptive, Historical, and Traditional (1860) p.398-399.

[9] Nemo, “A Panoramic Prospect.” The Glasgow Magazine, and Clydesdale Monthly Register (1811, Vol. II) p.12

[10] Ibid.

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Cort-ma Law Hill Race Race Report & some nuggets

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Pre-race briefing.

This comes a bit late as the race was over two weeks ago, but the Cort-ma Law Hill Race is such an experience I still wanted to write about it.

The Antonine Trail 10k was my introduction to trail racing.  The Cort-ma Law Hill Race was my first traditional Scottish hill race. Trail race, hill race. What’s the difference? This article on Fell Running Guide does a good job of describing the differences and overlaps. Of course, that article is about fell running, not hill running. But for the sake of ease, you can read the article on the assumption that fell running is fairly analogous to hill racing in Scotland. It’s hill running up here, fell running south of the border (as well as Northern Ireland, from what I can gather). The nomenclature does lead to some oddities though: the Cort-ma Law Hill Race isn’t a fell race because it’s in Scotland, even though it takes place in an area called the Campsie Fells.

So… it’s a hill race, which is like a fell race, that isn’t technically a fell race because it’s in Scotland and therefore a hill race, but the route traverses the Campsie Fells. Got that? Set me right if I’ve got something wrong.

The Cort-ma Law Hill Race is memorable, in that “it’s so miserable, it’s fun” way.  The official description of the Cort-ma Law Hill Race captures this well: “The highlight of this race is the section of man-eating emerald green bog between Cort-ma Law and Lecket Hill…”

So, to the route. It’s an difficult race though “only” being 10k. It starts on a steep incline (a 17% grade hill for the first mile, if Strava is to be trusted) then levels out – i.e. runnable, but undulating — from a big pile of rocks called Chrichton’s Cairn across to the summit of Cort-ma Law. This part is pretty straightforward. There’s an easy hill track to follow and, though squidgy, is fairly firm underfoot. The route then takes runners across a bog to the summit of Lecket Hill. From the summit of Cort-ma Law, you can see the faint outline of track, but it’s a different thing when you’re in the bog itself. It’s very wet up there and the bogs are deep.  The track looks less defined when you’re on it and it splits in many  directions at the boggiest bits. It’s tricky running and picking a good line is tough — what can look like a foothold can easily give way to slimy green nothing. After the initial bog, runners reach the summit of Lecket Hill and make a steep decent.  Not down the main and well-known track that leads to the Crow Road off Lecket, but off-piste down a tussocky fence line. There’s a burn at the bottom (in full spate this year!) that needs crossed and then another steep and rough climb.  There is no clear track at this stage so it’s a slow process of picking your way up through tussocks. I don’t know if it’s possible to run this section and for me, it’s the toughest part of the race.  After a slog to the top, there is yet another bog crossing (complete with decomposing sheep) and then runners rejoin the main route and have a quick descent back to the Crow Road carpark.

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Race route and elevation profile.

In recent races, I’ve been firmly in the middle of the midpack. Not so with this race, I placed 59 out of 69, even though I ran a course PB by 8min 43sec. I’m guessing this race attracts particularly fast runners or those who are just really adept at this kind of terrain, or maybe they’re just really skilled at both. Or possibly just more people run trail races  than the more fringe and hardcore hill racing crew?

The weather on race day was fine – clear skies with stunning views over Glasgow and the highlands. This was pretty good luck because two weeks before the race it had been raining constantly. Last year, there was two weeks of sunshine before the race. The course, especially the Cort-ma Law to Lecket section, was totally sodden. Conditions were more challenging than last year (not that last year was a cakewalk), which made me feel even more pleased with my 8:43 course PB. Course marking seemed a bit clearer this year – wee metal stakes with red and white ribbon at crucial points – and the marshals did a sterling job showing the way, noting our numbers at summits, and offering encouragement. All of this is done while persevering through some truly awful midge clouds.

As with the ARTX in May, it was interesting to run this race again, one year after more disciplined running and training. Though I was one of the last finishers, I felt that I ran  the best I could. I expected that I would run the race quicker this year, but not by 8 minutes. Off-road races are more unpredictable than their tarmaced counterparts, but they can still provide a marker for personal progress.  Looking at the stats for the two races side by side can show the things that are going well, or not so well. So, after thinking about 2017’s Cort-ma Law Hill Race compared to 2016, here are a few nuggets:

  • Running with a regular training plan has worked for me. Mixing it up with long runs, speed sessions, and hills seems to be working. My placing was back. 10th from last, but cutting more than 8min off my previous time is something to be proud of. All of this said, I don’t think my progress will stay on the same upward arc.
  • Power hiking can be as fast as running. Or faster. I felt like took it easier up the first hill and didn’t kill myself trying to run it. As it turns out, my power hike was quicker than my run on that first steep incline. Still much room for improvement here, more hill sessions are on the cards.
  • Don’t do stupid things like trying to cycle to the race when I don’t have enough time. Prepare my bag with the mandatory kit well before the race. Show up with time for a warm-up. The last-minute cycle to the start last year killed my legs.
  • Storm the downhills. I’m a slow climber, but I can go at a decent speed downhill and actually pass a few people. I should play to my strengths and save something for a pace kick on the downs and not ’t fully deplete my tank on the ups.
  • Compression leggings look stupid on me. Fact. That said, they seemed to work on this rough terrain. I felt less fatigued afterwards (maybe psychological?) and my legs weren’t as torn up at the end.  Function over fashion.

It will be interesting to see what happens if I do this race next year…

PJ.

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Smiling at the start — thanks to Norry from CVTR for this photo.
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Agony at the finish — photo from Westerland CC’s Facebook Page.