Thursday, 5 March 2015

A lot going on at Ardtoe

Following our luncheon stop at Castle Tioram we headed out along the south channel of Loch Moidart towards the rocky skerries and islets at the seaward end.

We passed through the channels and out towards the sea.........

.......before pausing behind the outermost skerry to check that everything was secure on our boats.  Conditions beyond were quite different from the calm waters of the loch, almost as soon as we headed out into open water we encountered quite choppy and confused water. 

The ebb was still running hard and the tidal stream pouring northwesterly out from Kentra Bay was opposed by a brisk F4 wind from the northwest. Adding further entertainment was a 1 to 1.5 metre swell running from the west and on our quarter as we headed south towards Ardtoe.  There was a lot going on with the conditions and we had a bumpy ride enlivened by occasional surfing slides down the swell; we were kept engaged and entertained for the 2 km blast into the shelter of Ardtoe.  I took no photographs on this section of the paddle, but Douglas managed a quick shot just as we turned the corner and the conditions began to develop.

We landed in one of the small sandy bays at Ardtoe for a breather and a snack, deciding to postpone second luncheon until we were back up the coast a bit. 

Quite apart from the sea conditions, there seemed to be a lot going on at Ardtoe itself.  Two new buildings have been added to the FAI Ardtoe Marine Laboratory and further works seem to be in progress.  The largest privately owned marine research facility in the UK, staff at Ardtoe conduct research into commercial aquaculture and among their projects are the production of oyster "spats", fish fry and the growing and supply of Wrasse.  The Wrasse are used as "cleaner fish" to rid farmed salmon of sea-lice which are not only a problem for the fish-farms but also for the wider marine environment.  Who'd have thought that there would be so much going on in this corner of Ardnamurchan?

We were soon going on(wards) ourselves and we were pleased to see that conditions were dropping markedly as the ebb eased off and the wind was dropping away. 

It was a most enjoyable paddle back northwards past Eilean Shona, the great finger of Ardnamurchan stretching away over our left shoulder and the view out to the Small Isles and the Cuillin of Skye ahead.  A couple of years previously Mike, Douglas and I had enjoyed a superb late winter journey along the Ardnamurchan peninsula, finishing at Ardtoe in a beautiful sunset.

We had paddled straight past the tombolo beach at Port Acadh an Aonaich during our outward journey in order to get through the north channel of Loch Moidart before it emptied, but certainly weren't going to pass it by twice!

The view back to the impressive seaward face of Eilean Shona made for a great backdrop to second luncheon......

......of home-made Spiced Carrot & Red Lentil soup, complemented by a small dram of Allan's Highland Park Orkney malt whisky.  Winter days so often turn out to be outstanding and this was no exception; but it still had a final treat in store for us......

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A picture of Loch Moidart

We paddled into the North Channel of Loch Moidart, hoping that we'd not have too far to carry the boats as the channel rapidly emptied.  We stuck close to the north (mainland) side of the channel to keep out of the main ebb stream and found that we were in luck......

...we were able to paddle right up to the causeway before lifting our boats over and into the water the other side.  It was then a bit of a race; as we pulled our boats through the very shallow water, it was emptying almost as fast as we walked!  After about 120 metres we gained enough water under our keels to paddle out into the inner part of Loch Moidart.

This isn't the first time we've been in a race against time to get through the north channel !  Our experience is that above half tide the channel should be passable with the possibility of a short portage over the causeway.  Below that there is the distinct possibility of a long and muddy portage.

As often here, the two channels funnel the wind between the mainland and the steep rocky sides of Eilean Shona while the wind is much lighter in the loch itself; exploring Loch Moidart can be a great day when the swell and/or wind make other venues unsuitable.

This was the first day on which I'd carried a DSLR on the foredeck of my kayak in addition to the compact camera in my buoyancy aid.  Having seen just how effective the Ortlieb Aquazoom waterproof camera bag has been in protecting Douglas' very expensive camera, I recently purchased the same bag - secured to the deck elastics of my boat with small karabiners it kept my camera dry and within reach.

I was able to get some pictures which my compact camera simply can't capture, and the greater depth of field from the 28-200mm zoom lens opened up some new options for images.  I did, however find that there's quite a learning process involved in using a DSLR with viewfinder in anything other than flat calm conditions......

Composing and taking an image requires much more in terms of boat positioning, torso rotation and balance when using a DSLR as the hands need to be brought to or above shoulder level and the eyes concentrated through the viewfinder on the image rather than the immediacy of the kayak.  Here Douglas demonstrates perfect balance whilst composing an image; it will take me some considerable time to get the hang of it!

We enjoyed a very relaxed paddle around the central part of Loch Moidart, all the time-pressure of the north channel melted away and we were able to pause to absorb the wildlife and scenery in the loch.  With a virtual guarantee of seal sightings, otters and shorebirds aplenty and, particularly in winter, numerous wildfowl it's a stunning location - and then there's the history....

Passing between the islands and rocks along the shore brought us gradually closer to Castle Tioram, the dramatic and well-photographed 14th century stronghold of Clanranald.  It's an obvious spot to stop and enjoy first luncheon, especially since it's accessible by kayak at any stage of the tide but is cut off from the shore at higher states of the tidal cycle.

Clanranald can claim lineage back to Somerled and the Lordship of the Isles, once on a similar footing to the kings of Scotland.  Somerled's power was based squarely on control of the sea and his descendants rarely strayed from the formula though with varying success. We landed on a small white sand beach were once Birlinns would have beached.

Parts of Castle Tioram have been fenced off or boarded up by the owner following a long dispute with Historic Scotland over the possible renovation of the building.  It seems for now that slow decay of the structure will be the outcome, which is a great pity.

We'd enjoyed a relaxed journey through the picture-perfect Loch Moidart in very calm conditions, the next part of our paddle would be quite different!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Smirisary smirr

In early February I met up with Allan, Douglas and Alison for a few days on and around the Sound of Arisaig. We based ourselves at the very comfortable Glenuig Inn - a favourite location of ours. After a good meal and a comfortable night, Allan, Douglas and I made the very short drive to Samalaman Bay to launch.

The morning was grey and damp but almost windless - a smirr of rain misting us and the camera as we sorted out our boats on the sandy beach.  Just as the Inuit peoples have many different words to describe different kinds of snow, in Scotland there are many different words to describe different kinds of rain; and "smirr" must be one of the most descriptive!

The fine, almost invisible misting of rain (the Scots word is occasionally used to indicate "smoke" too) continued as we paddled west along the rocky arm of Glenuig Bay, but with mild temperatures and a great paddle in prospect we were just happy to be out on the water on another winter trip.

We passed inside a couple of rocky skerries and around a small headland to paddle along the shore below Smirisary. The previous afternoon I'd arrived early at Glenuig and decided to take a walk over to this interesting crofting township.  The public road from glenuig ends at the large Samalaman House, which was once a Catholic seminary.  From here there is no road to Smirisary, nor would it be possible to even get a wheelbarrow across the rough path - everything which can't walk must go by sea or on the back of a human or pony.  The track starts at a gate in the fence......

           It's said that there is only one chance to make a first impression.  Welcome to Smirisary?

The track climbs gently over the crest of a crag which then drops steeply to ground with obvious signs of previous crofting use.  The first buildings come into view, hard up against the crags.

No crops appear to be grown here now but there is evidence of field systems and a network of drystone dykes separating the crofts.  It's known that the township was in full occupation in the 19th century and that at least one of the families who lived here were called McIsaac.  By the mid 1940's the last of the houses was empty and the township fell into disuse.

What marks out Smirisary is that unlike other former crofting townships in this area (there are good examples of deserted townships at Peanmeanach and on the Ardnish peninsula) it has been partially reocccupied.  Sheep now graze the ground where cattle would have been the crofters main livestock and the permanent residents gone. Instead of the unremitting year-round labour of crofting, the occupants and visitors (some of the houses are now holiday rental properties) of Smirisary come here for recreation and an "away from it all" experience - seeking that very remoteness which precipitated the abandonment of crofting townships pushed to the edge of the land.

There are still ruined croft houses and buildings at Smirisary, evidence of how many families once forced an existence in this place.

As we continued our paddle past Smirisary the smirr cleared through and the visibility improved dramatically.  Out to the west the islands of Eigg and Rum dominate the view, bringing memories of a superb winter adventure to the Small Isles.

Our route today took us south and then east to enter the north channel of Loch Moidart with the mainland on our left and Eilean Shona on our right.  Ahead we could see water to the limit of visibility in the channel - a good thing as below half tide this passage partially dries revealing a kilometre of sticky mud and sand. 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Moonlighting on the Correen hills

"The most difficult expedition to achieve on mountains in this country is a moonlight climb in winter.
Not that the difficulties are technical.  A full moon among snow-mountains will normally provide
visibility of twenty-five miles - if the sky be clear.
And that is the root of the problem : to combine leisure with a full moon, a hard frost, and a clear sky.
Success needs patience, long and persistent patience."

   W.H. (Bill) Murray from "Undiscovered Scotland" 1951

The night climb Bill Murray went on to describe was a traverse of Glencoe's Aonach Eagach  in 1947 on a night when the moon lit the way and the climb was enhanced by a display of the Aurora Borealis.  He and Donald McIntyre finished the climb and waited to watch the dawn before descending.  It's a truly inspirational chapter in one of the two works of mountaineering literature which have most inpired me - the other is also by W.H. Murray - his unsurpassed work "Mountaineering in Scotland" which was written whilst a prisoner of war.
I've been lucky enough to be able to combine all the right conditions twice, once in England's Lake District on an icy round of the Kentmere hills and once on a climb of Lochnagar.  The opportunities are rare and fleeting - hesitate and they're gone.

3rd February 2015 was a full moon.  It had snowed heavily during the day and frequent snow showers fell into the evening, the sky more overcast than clear.  Then, after 10pm when I was just going to bed I took a last look outside.....

The cloud, though not completely cleared, was thin and patchy allowing the moon to shine through with astonishing intensity onto the snowy fields behind the house.  I simply couldn't go to bed and pass up this rare chance.  The roads were snow-covered and untreated so going any distance wouldn't be advisable - I thought closer to home and decided to try for a round on the Correen Hills.  Driving to the top of the Suie road would get me high to start with provided I could drive up there.

I packed a rucksac with full winter hillwalking kit and took food and water sufficient for the night; I was quite prepared to make it a full night walk if the conditions held.  It seemed that I could snatch most of the conditions described above save that I'd be on hills rather than the high mountains.

I got up to the start point on a somewhat tricky road and had to use a snow shovel to dig a parking space such was the snow which had fallen during the day.  Right from starting out my head-torch remained in my pocket, I just didn't need it even in the forest.  The forest tracks were ankle deep in snow; I had considered skis but on unconsolidated snow they wouldn't have been much quicker than walking.

When the moon was in the patches of completely clear sky the quality of light was absolutely amazing, an intense, pure hard white light throwing pin-sharp shadows.  It was cold and breezy but I was getting increasingly warm walking through the deepening snow.  I'd hoped that the snow on the exposed ridges of the Correen Hills would have been scoured clear by the wind but in fact it was even deeper above the forest; and was proving to be unmitigated labour to walk - at times- wade- through.

I decided to scale back my plans and to make the first summit of the ridge, Mire of Midgates, my objective.  The 1.5km traverse from the treeline to the 487 metre/1598 ft summit took well over an hour of hard graft and I was breathing very heavily when I got there - but the view was more than worth the effort.

To the north the distinctive shape of Tap o' Noth with its hillfort was alternately spotlit and thrown into chalky shadow as the cloudbreaks raced overhead.  To the west the big Cairngorm hills were a sweep of white across the horizon - pin sharp across 40 kilometres of space; I was able to pick out the tors on Beinn a'Bhuird although my photographs in that direction didn't expose at all well.  I spent a full half hour just watching the scene as the moonlight came and went; it was a truly great night to be out on the hill.

Eventually the cold started to bite and it was time for me to head back. The tracks I'd ploughed made my return a little easier even though they'd partially drifted-in during the time I'd been on the ridge.

Perhaps the most atmospheric part of the walk was coming back down when I opted to use a route down a narrow firebreak rather than the wide forest track.  The moon lit the way and both trees and snow were sparkling in its hard light.  The air itself was glittering as, sheltered from the wind, frost and tiny snow particles caught the moon's light as they fell.

I'd fallen short of the conditions described by Bill Murray in being on lower hills, on a night less than fully clear and on unconsolidated snow which had curtailed a longer expedition, but I didn't care one bit.  The rare coincidence of conditions had given me a memorable night out.

At 0200 I arrived back at the car for the short drive back down the hill to home and bed - the xenon glare of the headlights the only artificial light I'd needed during the whole walk.......

Monday, 23 February 2015

Scottish Pine Martens - a film by Simon Willis

 I mentioned in a previous post that our friends Simon and Liz have a Pine Marten visiting their garden near Loch Sunart in Ardnamurchan.  Simon has made a really lovely short film of these beautiful and engaging animals, shot mainly on DSLR and of superb quality.  You can  either watch it here:

or at Simon's site at Scottish Pine Martens

 As Simon points out during the commentary, you wouldn't want a Pine Marten family to gain access to your loft or outbuilding as they can cause quite a bit of damage - but seriously, who wouldn't want to have a garden visitor like this?  :o)