Hill skills and mountain environment book reviews over at ‘Hills of Hame’

You can check out some book reviews I’ve been working on over at the ‘Hills of Hame’ blog. https://hillsofhame.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/printed-material-reviews-physical-books-maps-and-pamphlets/

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Edinburgh Geological Walks starting in mid-August

Hills of Hame, the outdoorsy company that I run, will be shortly offering geological and palaeontological walks in Central Edinburgh. I look out of the house window as I write at the southern flank of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags with the Crag-and-Tail of the Castle Rock and Royal Mile to the left.

I will be offering two walks close to Central Edinburgh. One uses the buildings and pavements to introduce fossils; the other is a more general geological walk. I will be putting PDFs of the guides I have developed to support those walks for those of you who would like to self-guide around the streets and wee hills or who cannot visit Edinburgh.

You can follow developments on the blog and through the @hillsofhame Twitter account and the Hills of Hame Blog

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New blog site and first post on ‘Hills of Hame’

I’ve decided that, in the current university and research institution climate, that it is better to be freelance, so I’ve gone back to the wilderness and set-up a company to share my love of natural history and hillcraft. Hills of Hame is slowly taking shape. It deals with my outdoor and fieldwork skills, including my far-from-help medic work. I took, but failed my Mountain Leader (Summer) Assessment but gained a lot from trying and plan to do my Hill and Moorland Leader Assessment sometime in 2015 as a stepping stone to re-assessment. I’ll be writing about those experiences soon.

I do have a first paid project coming up for Hills of Hame but I did my first gig in the Pentlands last week for some assistant leadership experience and a night out on the hills.

You can follow what is happening with Hills of Hame and read my first blog post here


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Fossil fish in Haddington

Possible Dipterus skull

Maybe the skull bones of a 400 million year old lungfish.

Fossil fish fragments

Possibly Dickosteus, similar to material found outside the Scottish Parliament by Tom Challands and Jeff Liston in 2012

Save the Fishes! continues as a side project and I was able to locate around a dozen slabs with fossil fish remains in Haddington over the weekend, ranging from individual scales to articulated material.

I noticed that the central area around the John Gray Centre was being repaved with Caithness Slabs when I was down in late March to give a talk on fossil recording and citizen science to the local U3A group. The work of laying the slabs is now complete, leaving us the task of finding the fishy remains. Not quite the silver darlings that the fishing fleets were after but fun to look for nonetheless.


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AT-ME project: please fill in the web survey if you have ANY first-aid background

I am involved in an interdisciplinary research project, sponsored by the Scottish Crucible, to investigate how it might be possible to use medical sensor data to help first-responders in pre-hospital care (this catch-all covers everything from first-aid to the doctors who ride in Medic 1 or an air ambulance).

Essentially, if you have had ANY first-aid training, your responses would probably help us. I’d stress there are no RIGHT answers, the point of the survey is to work out how best to give brief written/spoken summaries from a smartphone or similar device to help first-responder teams.

The survey should not take very long (15 minutes) I’d also be extremely grateful if you could forward the survey link on to other people who might be able to help.


You can follow the project on Twitter @ATMEproject. We had 51 responses at the last count and we are hoping to get over 100 responses.

Best, Al

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The 2012 Hallowe’en Taphonomy Experiment: five versus the decay

CF Braban, J H Braban and, AJ McGowan,


In 2011 and 2012 the early pioneering experimental work of McGowan et al. was repeated with a  wider, and more interesting variety of vegetables and fruit to begin a systematic assessment of which may be most suitable for use as a Hallowe’en Tumshie to strike fear into neighbours most and create a long-lasting sense of unease for the longest period under Central Scottish meteorological conditions. The 2011 experiment pitted the neep agin, pumpkin and celeriac – as the celeriac is a fine vegetable and yay it won. The 2012 experiment expanded into taxa not routinely grown in Scotland. Five taxa comprised the starting field o’ 5: turnip, pumpkin, celeriac, pineapple and melon. The turnip probably won as it became old wizened and scary and sat on the shed for the longest, though the celeriac was a close second.  The pineapple was fab as after an initial period of watery decay it became a type of leather which weathered almost as well as the tumshie lantern and the celeriac.  The melon proved to be quite fragile and showed  brittle fracture properties after falling off the shed early in the experiment. It also then proceeded to decay rather quickly. As ever the pumpkin decayed into a pile of splat before all the other competitors (except the melon) were even looking particularly aged. This raises significant ethical questions about the sale of pumpkins for anything other than soup-making by retailers in Scotland.

Key words

Silly, vegetable, fruit, taphonomy, experiment, Halloween


After much whinging by Braban & Braban (lengthy personal communications 2011 onwards) that the experimental set-up was biased against any attractive, edible subjects, the methodology established in previous work (McGowan et al. 2010) was usurped, as McGowan was out of the country.

In 2011 a minor expansion of the 2010 McGowan et al. experiment with but in 2012, Braban & Braban took it upon themselves to blow the consumables budget, while using unauthorized suppliers not on the procurement system, to obtain five specimen taxa. In addition to the previously studied neep (Brassica napobrassica), [Linnean taxonomy is required due to the lack of clear geographical localization of the use of ‘neep’], pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) and celeriac, a fine vegetable [P. Griffiths.personal communication] and (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum), fruit were added to the experimental matrix. A watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) and pineapple (Ananas comosus). AJM seeks to distance himself from these regrettable choices, especially given the lack of comparability in the structure and chemical composition of the fruit. You don’t grow watermelon to feed sheep on the fell over the winter. The tenuous selection criterion for these candidates was that they were of appropriate size and shape for carving a tumsie lantern from, although this assertion was unsupported by morphometric analyses. The array of lanterns looked great on Hallowe’en.


On the 31st October all the taxa had a  transverse cut made to expose the inner tissues of the subjects. The innards were scooped out, a ghoulish visage cut out, and a tea light placed inside.  The edible materials were devoured using the ‘Cannibal Ferox’ protocol . The finished lanterns are then placed on the relatively flat Braban/McGowan experimental site (aka the shed roof). On the evening of the 31st October, the candles were lit until JHB’s bedtime (about 2100 on this exciting night). Then the candles are removed and the tumshie lanterns left to decay. CFB is less than rigorous so if subjects got blown off once or twice they got put back up on the shed.  At the end of the experiment the remains were put in the Braban/McGowan compost bin.  Well, except for the turnip, which is now in AJM’s study, looking all too like a shrunken head (see SOM). The heads, you’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far, he’s the first one to admit it..

Results and Discussion

2010: See McGowan et al. blog post ~2 years ago…

2011: The photos from this experiment are on a broken camera, they will be published at a future date. However the result was that the celeriac won! Turnip second and the pumpkin last.

2012: The results are summarised in the photos. —

Decaying sujects

Figure 1: Time series of decay of subjects. Dates from top to bottom: 1) Day 1: 31/10/2012; 2)Day 36: December 6th; 3)
Day 46: December 16th; 4) Day 54: December 22nd; 5) Day 68: Jan 4th;
6) Day 82: Feb 16th

Final photos: The end to the experiment was called on the 16th February 2013, with the turnip tumshie declared the winner!

Conclusion and Future work

The neep rules supreme for a second run of the experiment, calling in to question the 2011 results. CFB has put in some appeal about the celeriac being too big this year, which only strengthens AJM’s comments about the lack of morphometric data included in the set-up of the experimental array. JHB was impressed by the durability of the pineapple, which is more than can be said for AJM about her choice of a watermelon as subject five.  Braban & Braban report that the pineapple was significantly more eerie than any of the other subjects. However, AJM notes that the limited sample size (n=2 and CFB is easily scared). CFB sees a potential boom in the Scottish aged Pineapple skin leather industry after this report.

The collapse of the pumpkin  for a third year running calls in to question whether this taxon should be sold in Central Scotland for the purposes of making lanterns.

The 2013 experiment is now in preparation and the critical shortcomings in data need to be addressed. An  experimental array of multiple specimens of each taxon, with morphometric and mass data, should remove confounding variables and settle this once and for all (AJM is down to do mot of the prep this time!!! CFB)



You can’t be serious.


CFB and JHB were greatly assisted by J. Neumann in preparing the subjects

Declaration: CFB declares no competing interests, but well she would, wouldn’t she? AJM has seen the letters from celeriac marketing board offering seeds. JHB declares that she thinks the pineapple was the scariest. AJM declares that this sort of abuse of scientific method is becoming rife and something must be done.

CFB and JHB designed the experiment. CFB took a lot of geotagged photos, that revealed the GPS unit on the phone was very confused about altitude. CFB, JHB and AJM wrote the paper. AJM procrastinated.

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Igor, release the pterosaurs! It’s BGS Doors Open Day!

Sign for BGS Open Day with pterosaurs

Fly my pterosaur beauties, fly!

The Edinburgh office of the British Geological Survey, where I am a visiting scientist, is holding its annual Doors Open Day on Saturday 28th September at Murchison House. Feel free to come along between 10 and 1700. We’ll be working from the core lab on Level 1. http://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/newsAndEvents/events.html

I’ll be there to showcase our ongoing work on Save the Fishes!, a project to locate and rescue scientifically important fossil fish specimens that have ended up in paving slabs around the world. Some specimens were recovered last year from Edinburgh, including from the very doorstep of the parliament. Read more here on Tom Challands site http://geovertical.co.uk/geology/science/. Tom is actively researching the anatomy of these specimens with a range of techniques. http://britgeopeople.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/hospital-appointment-for-fossil-fish.html

I’ll be helped by Claire Noble and Jordan Wright (School of Geographical and Earth Sciences) and Sally Wild, collections manager of the fossil collections at BGS in Edinburgh.

We now have our mobile fossil preparation lab in the final stages of assembly and we hope to be using chemical and mechanical preparation tools to start preparing the specimens soon. The equipment was bought with support from the University of Glasgow Chancellor’s Fund and BGS.

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The AT-ME project: blog and Twitter feed: coming soon

One of my other interests is far-from-help first aid and medicine. I’m involved in a project to explore the potential of using smartphones and light-weight sensors to help first-responders, especially those with on first-aid training, to deal with emergency situations. A sobering estimate made by St John Ambulance in 2010 is that around 150,000 preventable deaths occur in the UK because of a lack of basic first aid skills in the general population. http://www.sja.org.uk/sja/about-us/latest-news/news-archive/news-stories-from-2010/july/first-aid-on-csr-agenda.aspx

This interdisciplinary project arose from the Scottish Crucible 2012. We have an eclectic mix of researchers and practitioners, including computer scientists (Dr Verena Rieser and Dimitra Gkatzia of Heriot-Watt), a telemedicine specialist who has already adapted exercise heart rate monitors for use as lightweight ECG monitors (Dr Alasdair Mort, University of Aberdeen), a cognitive psychologist (Dr Michaela Dewar, University of Edinburgh) and myself and Sandy McSporran of the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow. Sandy is a first-aid trainer for the British Association of Ski Patrollers (BASP) http://www.basp.org.uk/ and a member of Oban Mountain Rescue Team. I am not doing any palaeontology on the project but am the second, less experienced, ‘far-from-help practitioner’ on the strength of my training in remote first and and wilderness medicine through BASP and Wilderness Medical Training. My blog avatar shows me brushing up on my anatomy during break on an first-aid course at Glenmore Lodge (http://www.glenmorelodge.org.uk/) being run BASP. I’ll be renewing my qualifications soon. You can see that the conditions for outdoor first aid, even in the carpark, are a pretty realistic training environment in winter.

First-aid training

Practicing outdoor first-aid skills in the January snows at Glenmore Lodge

We are hoping to run both ‘real-space’ and virtual workshops in the next few months, so if you are interested in this project, please get in touch and our AT-ME blog and Twitter feed should be going live soon.

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Alternative Carnethy 5: successful if slow completion

Last Saturday was a fine day for fell running, as atested by my clubmates who ran on the same day but a bit later. I had a good run up to Caerketton and then the descent on the long grassy rake from Allermuir to Swanston was fantastic. I even got a couple of moments of having the speed and co-ordination to briefly experience the sense of ‘take-off’ on the downhill stretch.

Sunday’s race along the beach at Portobello was held in the first ‘storm’ of the autumn but we set off to steeplechase our way across the groynes down to the Leisure Centre ramp and then out and back along the prom. I am the idiot in the running vest in the photos that accompany the race report.

You can read a set of reports of the various races on the Carnethy website.

The club has an eclectic mix of people who do a variety of things on the hills and off them, and sometimes manage to mix the two. The philosophical investigation by club members as to why the moon looked so large on the Wednesday night training run was worthy of the Lunar Society, although I suspect the dinner afterwards in KB was not as lavish.

We expect a fair turnout for the award of prizes this Wednesday evening after the training run. Although my times were not fast, I did complete all five races, which is an achievement in itself.

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Running with the Carnethies

The Alternative Carnethy 5 started yesterday, so I was able to find out whether all the tramping across Svalbard with heavy packs and four-season boots translated into better hill-running.

The event consists of five races to be run between 0700 on the 11th and midnight on the 15th. The races are self-timed and can be done in any order within the time period. We get a handicap of our age squared divided by 60 (for me this means about 28 minutes is subtracted from my combined time).

Last night I took to the Blackford Hill area, where Agassiz found the first evidence of glacial striae, revealing that at some point glaciers had formed in Great Britain. However, last night I could only see as far as the headtorch’s beam. I could definitely feel improvements in my performance on the flat and climbing the sides of Blackford Glen.

Today I returned to my old haunts around Penicuik by bus to do a couple of the hill sections in the Pentlands. The Pentlands are a fantastic range of hills just south of Edinburgh. These are Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Hills of Home’ and sometimes I run in his footsteps to Swanston. I worked on a footpath round the back of Carnethy during my time with Team 06 in Pathcraft, so it is appropriate that I belong to the Carnethies. http://www.carnethy.com/

Pentland Hills coverd with snow

Although small hills, the Pentlands can have a real mountain feel to them

I had to jog a couple of miles to the start point of the Turnhouse Uphill race, which went off OK and again, I felt pretty good. Didn’t manage to run the whole way but was pretty pleased with my time of 24:19.

I then had a rather wearying walk from Flotterstone along the A702 to Boghall, where I ascended up to the summit of Caerketton. I’d not been this particular route to Caerketton before but it lacks the amazing views of the routes across from Allermuir or up from Hillend.

The descent from Caerketton was definitely the most fun I had. It is a pretty steep descent on grass, so some bumsliding was in order and I did get a couple of good runs. Made it down in 15:41. However, the course record for the 1.8 km, 300m descent is 5:04! I see a load of new age category records were set last night but I was glad just to get down in time for the bus.

Two more to do. Back on the North Pentlands skyline for Allermuir and Caerketton and then the grand finale on Sunday morning at Portobello beach.

Thanks to the course designers: Mark Johnston (Caerketton), Helen Bonsor (Braids), Andy Fallas (Turnhouse), Jim Hardie (Allermuir) and Digby (Portobello) and Bob Johnson (Club Secretary) for doing the sums prior to work out how we all did.

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