Treasuries for the Wind: Achieving Zero-Carbon Britain

He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries. Psalm 135 v.7

I have an innate suspicion of novel environmental technologies. Too often they seem to be an excuse for inaction: nuclear fusion or carbon capture and storage lurk just around the corner, their concepts inexplicable to the educated general reader (me), giving us the small excuse we need to fail to plant trees, to fail to insulate our loft.

So when in a Friends of the Earth debate yesterday Paul Allen, head of Zero Carbon Britain mentioned something called “syngas” as a key component of his proposal for a Zero Carbon Edinburgh, I was not going to take it on trust.

The Technology

The concept is simple: on a windy Scottish day when electricity from turbines threatens to overwhelm the grid (the mountainous blue ‘surplus’ in the graphic below), switch on a syngas plant; use the electricity to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane; and fill up the nation’s gas holders. Even I understand the chemistry of that. A similar process can also make liquid vehicle fuel.

It sounded too simple. Why isn’t it being done already? A couple of us in the audience pressed him, but the debate was heading in a different direction. So today, with the help of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience in Dundee, I did a bit of investigation.

It does work. It is not a perpetual motion machine. It’s known as power-to-gas, and two years ago Audi opened a pioneering 6MW facility in Germany.

Perhaps it’s too inefficient? Perhaps a whole windfarm in a gale would only heat one boiler in a draughty Victorian villa? But no, Wikipedia helpfully informs me, the conversion rate is 50-60% efficiency, far greater than the “efficient” gas turbine power stations, which achieve less than 40% making the conversion in the other direction.

That wasted electricity could create significant quantities of gas, from atmospheric CO2.

The Economics

So why does every big wind farm not have a power-to-gas facility, so that instead of seeing half their turbines switched off on a windy day so as not to overload the grid, we would see a gas holder filling up?

The brain-sprain for traditional energy economics is: electricity is inefficient and expensive, fossil gas is inexpensive and efficient, so who in their right mind would take hard-won electricity and turn it into gas? We use gas to make electricity! It’s like spinning gold into straw! But this is the economics of the fossil economy.

In the climate change economy, the fossil gas must stay in the ground, at any cost. And in the renewables economy, heaps of electricity is free: that big blue surplus. It’s wasted; is is not even created: the wind turbine stands idle.

But once this brain-sprain is overcome there is a more specific economic barrier. Feed-in tariffs have been vital in creating investment in renewables infrastructure. They have worked by guaranteeing a steady income to renewables generators even when the grid doesn’t need it. This has been great for investment in renewables, but when power-to-gas came on the scene, there was no incentive for wind farmers to invest in such technology, because you were still paid for keeping your turbine switched off.

Make the feed-in tariff for large new wind-farms contingent on including a power-to-gas facility, and the economic problem is solved.

The Politics

But it takes more than technological and economic theory to get a new environmental technology working. There’s the politics.

People object enough to wind farms. Think what they’ll say if they become wind farms with gas holders!

People come to expect subsidies. What will investors do if they have new conditions attached?

Yet what are the alternatives? Will fracking fossil gas, to generate electricity when the wind is not blowing, be more politically popular? I am delighted to say it will not, and I will be as opposed as anyone. The fossil carbon must stay in the ground. Incentivising North Sea Oil? This has iconic Scottish status, but as an energy source it is just as finite, and more importantly just as environmentally disastrous.

On the contrary, doesn’t the possibility of developing a power-to-gas and offshore wind offer a superb opportunity to transform the north of Scotland from an oil dinosaur into a world-leading renewables powerhouse? Aberdeen a granite rival to Dubai in embracing new, sustainable energy technologies? Much of the expertise and infrastructure used in the north sea oil industry — such as platforms, and getting to them — are transferable.

The political barriers are small. The political advantages of power-to-gas in a renewables economy — for economic boost, for an iconic Scottish industry, for social justice for the oil workforce, for the environment — are so enormous that I don’t know whether the Conservatives, SNP, Labour or Greens should be most excited by it.

The Culture

By far the biggest barrier to environmental change is the cultural one. Nobody has yet found an ethical way to change a society’s behaviour. Yet this is where power-to-gas is the biggest winner.

The big problem with many renewables scenarios is they involve transformation of our personal infrastructure: electric heating, electric cars, smart-grids that charge us a premium for doing our laundry on non-windy days. If our aim is a speedy transition to zero carbon Edinburgh, or Scotland, or Britain, what hope do we have of persuading everyone to replace their central heating, buy a different type of car, when we cannot even get the nation’s lofts properly insulated?

But with power-to-gas this is not necessary. Our old friend, gas (ah, that nice blue flame), comes into our boilers and our cookers via a carbon-neutral cycle, synthesised by the power of wind. Our transport can still run, not on acres of valuable land intensively farmed for biofuel, but on fuel synthesised by wind. Our heritage streets can be lit with gaslight, if we like.

And for that matter — it’s easy to forget this sometimes occurs around here — it also works with solar, on those days when we aren’t using any electricity at all because we are all outside, basking.

Investigate it

I am no expert. I only heard of power-to-gas yesterday. There may well be important disadvantages or barriers to using surplus renewable electricity to synthesise methane from water and carbon dioxide, which I have not discovered. I would be grateful to hear if you know of them, so that I can update this article.

But there are also times when, in the cataclysm of lobbying, interests, campaigns, partial views, it is simply that no-one has yet put together the jigsaw of technology, economics, politics and culture together to see the workable policy.

I’ve tried to put that jigsaw together. This article gives some more detail on the technology and the economic issues. The zero-carbon Britain project would be the people to contact for further advice.

My aim is simply to inspire policymakers, investors, you noisy lot in our little Scottish public sphere, to investigate it further, and see where it might go.

Treasuries for the Wind? The old Granton gasworks, Edinburgh, drawn by Ian Lutton (

Forty years at Blair House by George Harris


Eleanor’s father George Harris, who taught history at the Edinburgh Academy 1973-2010, remembers forty years of expeditions to the glen.
There’s at least one of my paintings of Blair House hanging in the Staff Room at the Edinburgh Academy. I left it behind when I retired, as a reminder of a great place that was soon to be sold. How wonderful that it is going to be a field centre still, always bustling with folk. I don’t see why not.
The painting shows the building in snow, from the Acharn end with the Doll woods behind, disappearing into wintry mist. It was done in about thirty-five minutes, with big brushes, for it was done from life, and no weather to be standing around outside.
George with daughter Sarah, son-in-law Andrew, and a friendly local in the woods near Moulzie.
Winter is always a great time to be at Blair House. I wonder if anyone who reads this remembers the time we set off on a walk with Maurice Garret before dawn and that evening, in darkness and falling snow, argued about the route. The argument was settled by the fortuitous passing of a car, about twenty yards away, so close were we to the road below the Clova Hotel. Later on there was a great family holiday one Easter when we were able to build the children a working igloo up at the Viewpoint. As for Hogmanay, that was often booked up years in advance. Those feasts can’t have been better than the glorious Christmases we spent there with the Marshes, with a ceilidh in the washroom. The first time I used my crampons in anger was coming from Mayer and then down the Kilbo. Before I was even appointed my interview (Feb 1973) was supposed to include a day in Glen Doll with Rector Mills. Thank goodness we got a phone message that the road was blocked with snow; I doubt if my lack of winter mountaineering skills would have impressed him.
Spring for a long time meant the great Higher Revision Week that Henry Marsh and I used to set up. Other families – Roberts, Trotters, Cowies – often came too, and the most we sat down for dinner was 24. The pupils were guaranteed five hours supervised work as day, interspersed with fresh air and exercise. Only once, I’m afraid, was a wood-gathering party led up the track by a piper. It ought to have been a tradition. Spring comes late to those high glens, and the main flower as I remember was primroses. There always seemed to be frogs in abundance, and great herds of deer on Craig Mellon.
With Henry Marsh at Blair House. “This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present Wall…”
I rarely managed a visit in the summer term, though that was when so many lucky pupils – the Primary 7 that we called Geits – experienced the place. However, there was a time when my A-levels finished well before term ended and there was a chance to take senior pupils for some serious walking. I don’t know if anyone else went up and down and up again to Glas Maol, but that was a great day in remote country. Three times I took parties to Lochnagar, once in mist so thick that the top of the summit cairn was out of sight from its base. The line back to the top of Jock’s Road was the longest compass bearing I have ever managed. Though I do remember someone saying on Tolmount in mist: “Well. I’ve been lost with Mr Boyce, I’ve been lost with Mr Williams, I’ve been lost with the Rector. Now it’s your turn.” For trophy hunters our best such day was the complete horseshoe, starting with Dreish and finishing (still a long way from home) with Broad Cairn. Six Munros in a day.
Climbing the Kilbo Path to Driesh with a much smaller Sarah, one Easter revision week c.1990.
Summer holidays were families and children. What a great experience for everyone. Craig Mellon and Corrie Fee had limitless possibilities for exploration and wonderful flowers. There was the occasional foray down the Glen to castles and gardens and hill-forts and Pictish stones. There was Jeremy Fenton’s wonderful wayfaring course, which took youngsters to strange glades and rocky outcrops deep in the forest. In recent years improved paths and extra bridge-building have made all sorts of easy circuits, and easier access to the rivers for swimming or boating.
Photographing a lizard on the Capel Mounth Path, with Andy Heald, 2011.
In the autumn term (or “Winter Term I” as cynics called it) one was usually glad of the open fire. Autumn spates and autumn colours gave the glen and the corries a different sort of beauty. One never knew what to expect. Blair House is certainly the only house where I have seen a cuckoo and a stoat out of the front window and a red squirrel out of the back. I only once went completely on my own – a heavy pile of marking and an exam paper to set – but while I was sitting on the patio I was able with binoculars to watch deer feeding and two eagles circling. It is not easy to do that from town.
“Eagle!” Veronica Harris, George Harris and Henry Marsh on Jock’s Road, c.1990.
For my last few years of teaching I was officially in charge of the bookings and did my utmost to maximise the field centre’s use. I hope the small bus-load of Geits we took up to explore the history down the Glen still remember the splendid few days. We rehearsed “The Mikado” there, too, I recall. Geographers and Biologists found it ideal for fieldwork. But it could not be denied that there were all sort of problems. So my daughter Eleanor’s decision not merely to buy the place, but to refurbish it and revive it as a place where young and old alike can live more close to nature than most places I know has been really lovely news. My reminiscences need not be “good old days” but exciting ideas for what to plan next.
Looking over Glen Doll Forest from Craig Mellon, 2009.
Stay in touch with the refurbishment by following Blair House on facebook. Until 24 March you can also provide much-needed financial support through a crowdfund. You can also contact Eleanor Harris,, if you are interested in being involved (painting party anyone?).
You can also follow George on Twitter @historylecturer.

Blair House Plans

As plans for the Blair House refurbishment are now well-developed and as people are so generously supporting it through the crowdfund, it seems a good time to provide a bit more information about what these plans are. I would add the disclaimer that none of them are set in stone, but they are well advanced and I hope work will be complete and Blair House reopened later this year.

Blair House and the adjoining Acharn Farm

The refurbished Blair House will have 20 beds in 7 bedrooms. Its basic rate will probably be £250 per night which works out as £12.50 per bed or £35 per room (maybe less for a week/ more in peak season etc).

These competitive rates are possible thanks to low housekeeping costs: visitors will have to bring their own bedding and towels, and will be expected to leave it clean. This does not mean it is not also homely and luxurious!

It may be possible to book only part of Blair House, but as it will not be staffed this will only be by special arrangement. For the same reason, it will not be possible to book individual beds. For small groups the nearby Clova Hotel has bunkhouse, lodge and hotel accommodation and I can testify to its excellent bar and restaurant.

My aim with the refurbishment is to solve three major problems — fire safety, bathrooms, and heating — while changing the character of the house as little as possible. This is likely to cost around £200,000.

We’ve all fallen down the bunkhouse stairs … They will be replaced, and turned 180 degrees!

Those who remember Blair House from its Edinburgh Academy days will be particularly interested in what this means in practice. The major changes are:

  • Central heating powered by log-burners, replacing the coal fires and storage heaters
  • Solar thermal supplementing the hot water immersion heaters
  • Insulate loft and inside internal walls
  • Five shower rooms (two upstairs) to replace the washroom
  • Old washroom area divided into downstairs ensuite bedroom and new ‘playroom’
  • Old toilet block to become new drying room
  • Dorms and stair on bunkhouse side reconfigured to meet fire regulations
  • Dining room to become kitchen-dining room
  • Clear roof to porch reducing the blockage of light to the dining room
  • Full rewiring and specialist fire alarm system
  • Easily-accessed and hardcored car park for 5 cars
The proposed ground floor plans. Not much change to the house side (right) but a reconfigured bunkhouse side (left).
The upstairs plans. Upstairs toilets, such luxury! And the ‘study’ will be a real library, full of books, and, I hope, a log-burner (not yet marked on the plan)
Site plan, showing non-muddy-slope carpark; solar panels; and clear porch roof. Suncatchers!

As the plans show, it is an odd building. The whole site is a nineteenth-century farm steading. The ‘house’ side seems to have originally been one-and-a-half of three farm cottages and the ‘bunkhouse’ a barn. I believe it was all acquired in the early twentieth century from the farm by the Forestry Commission, which converted it into a bunkhouse for those planting Glen Doll Forest. It was purchased with the Blair bequest by the Edinburgh Academy in 1970 and refurbished, and the porch added, by staff. I have been visiting it since about 1985 with my father, history teacher George Harris.

Eleanor and George Harris exploring in Corrie Fee in 2006. Silly hats.

Blair House will be run on a social enterprise basis, meaning that after its refurbishment debts and people’s time has been paid for, any profits will go into a fund dedicated to fulfilling its aims which I have summarised as ‘restoring nature by inspiring people’. This might include funded trips for groups which could not otherwise afford to go; subsidising training courses; or supporting other charities or projects with similar aims. My intention is to publish an annual report on this activity.

As part of the social enterprise ethos I also plan to maintain the link with Trees for Life established through the crowdfund, by inviting visitors to plant a tree (£5) for each car that travels up and for each basket of logs used in heating.

I plan to redeploy the washroom sinks in the new bathrooms. Waste not, want not – and they’re lovely!

I hope you like the plans which are the result of many people’s ideas and comments. Please do add your own especially if you have valuable experience or expertise. I would also invite you to make a donation, however small, to the crowdfunder which runs until 24 March. This will not only help directly with the cost of refurbishment, it also means Blair House is re-founded on the basis of a community of support.

Please stay in touch by following Blair House on facebook and following Eleanor Harris on twitter.

Glen Doll Forest

One upon a time, there was a dark, dark moor,
and on that moor there was a dark, dark wood,
and in that wood there was a dark, dark house…

Blair House, Glen Doll, Angus

So began a beautifully-illustrated children’s book. I loved it because after the spookiness its ending is all homely, and because it made me think of Blair House, Glen Doll. I didn’t know one day Blair House would be mine, and I’d be restoring it as a field centre.

Doll is the Angus glen with the forest: the biggest on the Munro-strewn plateau that heaves between Deeside and the Mearns. Glen Doll forest clothes the midway point on Jock’s Road, the ancient drove road from Braemar to Kirriemuir.

Blair House, on the edge of the forest, was acquired from the farm which it adjoins by the Forestry Commission, who sold it on to the Edinburgh Academy after the forest was planted. Its history is entangled in the forest.

I love Glen Doll forest because it has no pretentions. It panders to no human constructs of aesthetics or authenticity: neither “picturesque plantation” nor “native restoration”. It’s a functional timber crop of spruce, larch, fir, and lodgepole pine, yet it has grown so much richer than that. It provides vital shelter and variation in habitat. It covers land which would have been forest originally, now denuded and degraded by millenia of overgrazing, nothing like the pristine bogland notoriously damaged by ill-placed spruce plantations in Sutherland.

Glen Doll Forest with the peak of Mayar (top left) above Corrie Fee, Craig Rennet (centre), and Jock’s Road running left to right.

Parts of Glen Doll forest have grown over-mature and begun tumbling down, creating glades and deadwood. Parts are being clearfelled, parts replanted, parts managed for leisure and biodiversity.

Summer larches and bilberry understory (V’s photo)

Conservationists argue incessantly about how Scotland’s landscape should be managed, but on one thing they all agree: we need more trees. We need them for biodiversity, and we need them for ourselves. Trees are our best renewable fuel and building material, and, vitally, our only effective method of carbon sequestration.

There is nothing ‘wild’ about Scotland’s landscape: humans have been shaping the Angus glens since the stone age. Glen Doll forest is a fine example of how our influence can enhance, instead of degrading it, while making our own living from it. It is practising John Ruskin’s economics: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”.

The woods on the Kilbo Path are strewn with boulders, full of the sound of tumbling water, and rich in mosses, ferns, and starry flowers.

Glen Doll forest has got into my Blair House refurbishment. I investigated biofuel pellets and ground source heat pumps; I was recommended oil; but I came back to log burners. I’ve contacted the foresters, and they can supply me. Instead of switching a switch to keep warm, people staying at Blair House will feel the roughness of Glen Doll timber in their hands, smell its scent, see it glow and hear it crackle. That’s being in touch with nature.

Loving the trees at Blair House. That’s me in green.

But we must plant more trees. And it is no good to say; we’ll do that later. The ease with which we can spend nature’s resources while so busy with our own thing is our downfall. There is no economics too costly, no politics too urgent, no religion too true, to delay restoring nature. The World Wildlife Fund as calculated that when Blair House first became a school field centre in 1970, there was twice as much nature in the world as there is today. Unless we put more back into nature than we take out of it every day of our lives, we will lose, catastrophically and soon. We need to write restoration into our every act.

This is why I have teamed up with Trees for Life for my Blair House fundraiser. For every £25 donation, £5 will plant a tree. When Blair House is open, guests will be invited to plant trees for the cars they drive and the wood they burn. This is not a gimmick, or a distraction, or a romance. This is writing restoration of nature into the down-to-earth running of Blair House.

Pines at Bachnagairn. (V’s photo)

Trees for Life are restoring the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once reached as far as Angus, but their work currently focuses on Dundreggan further north. You can find scraps of it around Glen Doll at the steep corrie-ends and amongst the boulders out of reach of deer: Corrie Fee, Bachnagairn, and one above the treeline above Jock’s Road which we christened ‘the magic wood’.

‘The Magic Wood’, Jock’s Road, showing the natural treeline should be far above the extent of the planted forest.

These are my tales of Glen Doll forest. If you like them, please help me restore Blair House, and plant a tree: here’s the link.

I love the larch because it is deciduous, marking the seasons like a Japanese garden. In spring it bursts out in pink flowers…
… and in autumn transform to gold. (V’s photo)

In autumn the forest’s fungus community puts on a glorious display of mushrooms: if one isn’t enough, here is an album.

In winter spruce and fir make far better shelter than larch. Looking down from Craig Mellon in December, the woods look like warm woollen rugs on the landscape.


“You struck off from Dundee, up through Angus, heading deep into the glens and up and over, aiming for Deeside. Snow covered the higher peaks. […] You were in amongst a circle of pines, gently brushing the upper inches of the thick needle blanket into a deep, dry bed. […] When you awoke you had been there long enough for a white sheet to have drifted down over you. You stood and shook yourself. […] and soon you were on a track across a moor, climbing into the dimming light. The wind rose and the snow came on more densely, piling up with astonishing speed. In a while you realised you’d made a mistake by leaving the shelter of the trees.” James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still.

When I was very little, we used to make little houses for mice amongst the tree roots, inspired by Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter: a slate table and log benches, a carpet of fine red beech leaves, a feast of shiny mast, with their cuppy shells for candelabra, and lichen flames.

Mum used to organise treasure hunts through the woods for me and my sister and my friend Lucy. Look, there’s a clue in that tree! And we’re deep in the woods on our own!

When I was twelve, Lucy, her friend Vicky and I were sent off by our parents to do the Edinburgh Academy wayfaring course right round the forest. We were into Eternal Flame, unrequited love, ghost stories, and, in my case, developing my arty photographs in darkrooms. It was October, mists rose out of the trees, and stags were bellowing on the hills all around us. We worked ourselves into an exquisite gothic terror, especially at one particular marker post, Number Ten, deep in a ride in the darkest part of a fir plantation.

I went back in 2012 to see how many of the wayfaring posts were still there, and found about half of them. I was excited to revisit Number Ten and approched it from the direction we had come almost twenty years before. But forest had been felled, and I found myself crossing a hundred yards of windblow. I thought I might never get out.

As I remembered how we had imagined Number Ten was enchanted, or cursed, it occurred to me that if I impaled myself or broke my neck here, no one would ever find me. Number Ten, when I eventually found it, was well outside the forest, amazingly still there. No, I’m not telling you where.

We also used to love going for late night walks in the dark, letting the forest enwrap us. And when Lucy published her first novel last year, there it was:

“We let our eyes adjust to the dark, agreeing we would only use the torch if we got lost. Sound and touch became everything: the roar of the river, the crack of twigs under our feet, Jonathan’s strong, warm hand taking mine. […] After ten minutes’ steep climb we came out of the trees at the viewpoint. There was a narrow bench and we sat down. The mountains were just traceable against the sky. They seemed to have a presence in the darkness. […] “Look at the stars!” Lucy Lawrie, Tiny Acts of Love.

The landscape is always changing: the trees have grown up so far at Lucy’s “viewpoint” that it is a name one can only pronounce now in inverted commas. When she came back with her own children last year, I showed her a new path through the woods along the river, where once we had struggled like pioneers in jungle. Her children were enchanted, like we were.

It’s time for a re-enchantment of our landscape, of our society. Plant trees.
Or it’s time for an evidence-based, long-term economic policy. Plant trees.
Or it’s time to take practical action to mitigate climate change. Plant trees.
Plant trees.

Blair House will enable hundreds more people to encounter the enchanted, humble Glen Doll forest. Please follow this link to support its refurbishment – and plant a tree. You can find out about the Trees for Life Caledonian Pine Forest restoration on their website.

Eleanor Harris @eleanormharris.

Photos mainly by me except for those by V who prefers to remain anonymous.

Red and green.


Looking across the forest to Craig Mellon from the window of Blair House in summer.
Larches and Scots Pines (V’s photo).
Rainbow over a forest road.
The Whitewater in summer.
I love walking in the woods in heavy rain. You are sheltered and the trees turn to diamonds.
The woods immediately behind Blair House are not Forestry Commission, but associated with the old hunting lodge, and are full of ancient treasures and mossy riches.
V’s photo.
Larches and fir at Lucy’s Viewpoint.
Fern, sorrel, anenome: rich shapes in the forest understorey.
Blair House behind a licheny bough.


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The Great Glen Doll Meadow

I’ve rescued and am refurbishing an old independent school field centre in Angus. It’s a super house with which I have a long connection, but Glen Doll is even greater: a forest surrounded by a mighty Cairngorm plateau with thirteen Munros within reach. But greatest of all are its flowers.

One corner, Corrie Fee, is a site of global importance, which has inspired botanists for centuries, from the Forfar botanists who pioneered plant surveys of the British Empire, to modern Forfar botanist Alan Elliott of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, to Mum, me and forester Andy Heald, armed with a field guide, no Latin names, and not much head for heights.

Corrie Fee waterfall, Andy being brave, and all we found was a globe flower, but it was a triumphant one!

Botany forms an important part of my vision for Blair House. The house is right in the glen: all my photographs on this page were taken within a few miles’ walk of it. Learning to recognise flowers is one of the easiest ways for people of any age to reconnect with the diversity and beauty of nature. With a great variety of landscape types — forest, lowland pasture, protected and degraded upland, cliff, alpine and wetland — and good existing records, there is great potential for field trips and research.

This is why in raising the funds necessary to reopen Blair House I decided to create the Great Glen Doll Meadow. Everyone who pledges £10 or more to the crowdfund for refurbishment will receive enough seeds to plant a square metre of wildflowers – poppy, mayweed, bugloss, teasel, marigold, yarrow, knapweed, bedstraw, scabious, campion, ragged robin, vetch and more. You can sow these in your garden or a windowbox or perhaps in a neglected patch outside your office or school. I’d like you to post a photo of your flowers on the Blair House facebook page which I can collate into an album. The seeds are a mix of Scottish varieties from Scotia seeds based in Brechin, not far from Glen Doll.

So thanks to you, Blair House will not only be a place from which to look at flowers: it will also start out as a place which planted flowers, supported bees and other invertebrates, and inspired people with the wonder of the natural world — before they even arrive. Make your pledge of £10 now, and get your bit of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Bedstraw predominating in a summer riot of flowers and grass above the tree line on Jock’s Road


Anemone in the deep dark woods; sneezewort on the high mountain pasture.


Last April it was still all grey mist, rock, lichen: then I spotted the pink treasures: larch flowers, and high on the grey hillsides tiny purple saxifrage.


Little wild pansies, and tiny tiny eyebright: each one painted like delicate watercolours or ladies’ eyes, to draw in the bees.


Frances hunting the perfect botanical photograph in the woods on the Kilbo Path.


Even as a very amateur naturalist, by learning to recognise the common flowers I can spot something a bit more unusual. This scrap of canary-yellow crumpled silk in its cherry-coloured crinoline, prancing high up the mountain, turned out to be a rock-rose.


My enduring favourite flower is one of the commonest: harebells. They look as if spiders have been constructing an orchestra on principles of gothic architecture from scraps of summer sky.


Orchids on the mountain and by the stream. Marching armies, of whirling dervishes.


No Scottish glen would be complete without heather and ling. Tons of it.


I think this is Alkanet, in the Blair House carpark.

The historic flora of Corrie Fee is symbolic of the need to restore biodiversity and people’s connection with nature. Please make your pledge today, and invite a friend to be part of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Knapweed, thistles and scabious: so tough, bright, profuse, Scottish.

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The Spirit of Glen Doll

In the early 1970s, the Edinburgh Academy were given a bequest. With a vision and drive which has become legendary, the headmaster, Bertie Mills, bought one-and-a-half farm cottages and an attached Forestry Commission lodge in Glen Doll, beyond the end of the road, high in the mountains of Angus.

They named it Blair House after the donor, and the teachers fitted it out as a field centre. My Dad was one of a new generation of teachers for whom the new Blair House was the most exciting part of their induction to the school. Adventurous year-group trips for juniors, camping, climbing, bouldering, wide-games; biology, geography and botany field trips for seniors; music, art and drama trips for the quiet aesthetes. My introduction to Blair House was the Easter holiday revision trips led by Dad and his colleagues for Higher students: studying in the morning, and walking up Driesh or Jock’s Road in the afternoon. For the children of the staff, it was all holiday: it was all our lives.

Blair House was less suitable as a twenty-first century outdoor centre. It is too small for a whole year-group. It is inconveniently remote from specialist instructors, and has no opportunity for watersports. Its design did not envisage that the Academy would become co-educational. It required a great deal of staff and curriculum time. It needs major work to meet new fire safety standards and this eventually closed Blair House at the beginning of last year. To the sorrow of the biologists and geographers, staff and their families, and of generations of alumni, the school decided to sell the beloved Blair House and develop a more diverse outdoor education programme.

And I decided to buy it, and make it the educational field centre Blair House again.

I knew people would be delighted, but I hadn’t expected the torrent of support from the wider Blair House diaspora, and the excitement amongst all my acquaintances. I felt as if I’ve gained an enormous extended family, and it made me dare to think that, even though I could only just pay the purchase price and couldn’t get a mortgage for the refurbishment, and even though I have no experience of running a business or managing a refurbishment, that it might really be possible. A crowd-sourced funding scheme and viable business plan looked possible.


I want Blair House to have the educational use for which it was designed, but no longer restricted to the privileged Edinburgh Academy. Why shouldn’t it be available to all children taking Higher Geography or Biology? Glen Doll is within easy reach of all the Scottish Universities: why can’t I invite all the students to botanise in the globally-important Corrie Fee, or bag their first Munro on the Cairngorm Plateau before lunch, as I’ve invited my friends over the years?

The eyes of my printmaker friend lit up as she said, ‘Residential art courses!’ My sister, whose church Destiny has a youthful and culturally diverse urban congregation, said, ‘congregational retreats!’ My friend at the Botanics said ‘it’s time we revived the student botanical surveys in Angus: it would be the perfect base’. I hadn’t even started advertising.

People always came back from Blair House changed for the better: generations of tiny children explored woods for the first time, teenagers fallen in love for the first time, students saw real mountains for the first time, shy people made lasting friendships, hesitant people discovered their creativity, city people discovered the mighty scale and intimate intricacy of the natural world. My friend and I, in late night bunk-bed discussions, used to call it ‘the spirit of Glen Doll’. It’s time the spirit of Glen Doll was revived.

My ‘grand designs’ adventure began on Thursday when I got the keys. This was already the culmination of three years’ planning, negotiation and uncertainty, ever since the future of Blair House came in doubt. There’s a great deal of work to be done before Blair House can open again, all of it new and challenging for me, but I’m beyond excited. This is all my first and best dreams come true.

Update! The plans are now in place and a timetable for the refurbishment to be completed by the summer, but I will need to find around £200,000 funding to achieve this. I’ve launched a crowdfunding site with more information about the plans and exciting rewards. Please have a look.

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