Thursday, 9 October 2014

Old Keig stone circle

The north east of Scotland is rich in ancient monuments, standing stones, circles, hillforts and castles.  The most enigmatic, mysterious and impressive are the perhaps the stone circles - voices from our past in stone.

Aberdeenshire has the highest concentration of stone circles anywhere in mainland Britain, many of which are of a unique design found nowhere outside an area bounded by the rivers Don and Deveron - the Recumbent Stone Circles. There are several recumbent circles within a few kilometres of the house, and on a raw and grey spring day we made a short drive to see one circle which we'd not previously visited at Old Keig.

Set on a ridge with views over the Howe of Alford, the circle now sits within a shelter belt of beech and pine trees.  The site was built up to make a level platform for the circle, now bounded by a much more modern drystone dyke.  Excavations have revealed that the interior of the circle had a bank of stones and a central cairn bounded by a semi circle of kerb stones; this was a complex construction.  Dated to the Neolithic, remains of pottery and burnt bones have been found buried near the central cairn.

The characteristic recumbent with its two flankers remain, but only a few of the orthostats which would have formed a circle diminishing in height are still intact.

Massive and impressive, the big stones have a subtle geometric pattern common to every one of the recumbent style circles.  The recumbent itself is misaligned with the circumference of the circle by 15 degrees, tracing an arc-axis towards the centre, making the "circle" a subtle spiral.

This is the view from the centre of the circle looking directly over the recumbent.  The alignment of these  monoliths is very significant - they were arranged with astonishing precision.  The recumbent brackets 27 degrees of arc when viewed from the centre of the circle and the midwinter sun sets directly over the middle of the stone.

This is impressive enough, but there's more.  The celestial phenomenon of lunar standstill occurs every 18.6 years and the circle is aligned to it - the midsummer moonset at the major standstill sets precisely over the left edge of the recumbent in the angle formed by the left flanker while the midsummer moonset at the minor standstill sets precisely over the right hand edge of the flanker in the angle formed by the right flanker.  This is surely not coincidence; I have to believe that this astonishingly accurate positioning was by design.

Old Keig's circle is 20 metres in diameter and is noted for the size of the recumbent - the largest of any of this style of circle.  It's a huge block of sillimanite gneiss and the rock type is significant because it wasn't quarried locally.

This gigantic block was quarried from somewhere in the valley of the River Don - some 10 kilometres from the site.  It was worked to make a completely level top face while the bottom of the stone was worked into a "keel" shape to better sit in the ground.

Then this enormous stone measuring 5 metres long by two metres wide by two metres deep and weighing 53 tons was dragged 10 kilometres to this site - the last kilometre up a slope of 1:14 gradient.  The work involved must have been staggering. 

The flankers are carefully placed against the recumbent - the small rocks under the edge are believed to have been positioned much later.

It's only when one considers the work and care which went into this and so many other circles that the true import of what stands here becomes a little clearer.

Far from being primitive savages, the folk who designed and made these circles in the Neolithic - the Stone Age - must have practiced agriculture; only a settled population could have undertaken such a huge project.  Some of them at least must have been able to perform complex observations and mathematical equations in order to work out the positioning and the subtle geometric arrangements.  They must have been a sophisticated enough folk to be able to organise labour (whether voluntary or forced we'll never know) and to use tools, ropes, levers and all the rest in order to move and position huge stones. They must also have been numerous enough to move the stones; it's been estimated that at least 100 people would have been required - or a combination of people and oxen.  As the circles are comparatively closely spaced there must also have been numerous similar communities.

And they must have had time.  The agriculture practiced must have allowed sufficient margins of time to create monuments such as circles and standing stones.

The purpose of the circles remains something of a mystery; were they observatories, places of worship, places of sacrifice even?  Were they used by an exclusive elite or were they a communal statement of the sense of place of the society which made them? Certainly they were places of power, and of powerful symbolism - they remain that to this day.  There is an indefinable presence among the circles and stones - an echo down thousands of years, a sense of mystery and wonder.  In this, the circle builders were spectacularly successful.

We came away from the Old Keig circle with renewed wonder and admiration for what these folk achieved - and maybe that too was part of the purpose of the circles.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Last of the summer

The Moray Firth has some great stretches of rocky coast cut with channels, outcrops, stacks and arches - it's a super area to paddle and always seems fresh and different.  As this would be the last day of paddling for a good while I was glad of the calm weather which made for a very relaxing day.

A sandy bay near to Portsoy with crystal clear water gave some great reflections as I paddled through.... find one of the hidden arches.  Narrow and in any kind of swell very committing, it's one of several concealed delights on the stretch between Portsoy and Findochty.  Difficult to spot from most angles, it's worth looking out for on the Portsoy side of the West Head (Redhythe Point).

At the West Head itself are a series of channels which cut through the end of the headland and can provide some fun, but are more often than not too full of swell for me to attempt.  Today all was calm and I was able to paddle the medium-sized one.....

.....and the narrowest of the three which is only just over shoulder width at its narrowest.  Even in calm conditions the water rises and falls quite markedly in here!

On the way back to Whitehills I stopped for a leisurely second lunch, deliberately taking my time and enjoying the warm sunshine.

 The next time I paddle here it will be deep winter, kayaking opportunities snatched in brief calm days between storms.  There will be bitter cold and fleeting daylight on days when going out on the hill or kayaking - mountain or sea - bring much greater challenges together with the frustrations, rewards and stark beauty of a northern winter.

It can't come soon enough for me!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Under escort

On a day of perfect summer weather I set out from the tiny harbour at Whitehills for what would be my last day of kayaking prior to a four month spell at work.  There are two harbours at Whitehills, a large one built originally for fishing vessels and now the largest leisure craft harbour in the Moray Firth, and this very small one which served Blackpots brick works which operated between 1786 and 1971 and produced clay pipes and tiles along with bricks.  Part of the works occupied the ground which is now an outstanding children's play park, the rest of the site is occupied by a caravan park.  Brick fragments can still be found on the beach next to the harbour.

My plan was very simple, a few hours rockhopping west past Portsoy, then return to Whitehills with no specific goal other than to enjoy the weather and the paddling.  Rockhopping on the stretch of coast immediately west of Whitehills can sometimes be difficult, the rock here is jagged black stuff running out to sea in sharp ridges which can easily damage a boat.  There is variety though, the small headland of Stakes Ness is a large tilted bedding plane - an interesting place in a big swell!

About half way to Portsoy is a beach of pale sand which would make an ideal spot to stop for a while except for one small thing; actually many large things.....   This beach is much favoured by Atlantic Grey Seals, in part because access by land is not so easy.  I could see seals hauled out on the beach itself and the surrounding rocks so headed well out in order not to cause any disturbance.  Despite giving the beach a wide berth I was spotted and a group of seals crashed into the water to investigate me more closely.

Several of the seals surfaced nearby and did the characteristic thing of throwing themselves sideways as they dived again, making big splashes.  One young bull was, however, determined to make an impression and made a couple of fast runs towards me before surfacing and snorting noisily.  Grey Seals(Halichoerus grypus) are Britain's largest carnivore and bulls can reach well over 3 metres in length and weigh over 300 kg - they deserve respect.  The cows give birth from September to November and the bulls can be very territorial.  The young bull wasn't the biggest of the seals present, but persisted in trailing me, on one occasion he crashed into the water close enough behind for me to be splashed and to smell his breath.  Although I didn't feel threatened at any stage, it was abundantly clear that I was being escorted off his patch; as soon as I passed the rocks at the far end of the beach he pulled alongside, gave one last snort and disappeared.

A little farther on is another sandy beach, this one not favoured by the seals - a much better luncheon spot!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Colours and caves - an Angus cruise

After lunch at Auchmithie we did some calculations and decided that we'd not have time to complete our original intention of paddling up to Lunan Bay before returning to Arbroath. The interest and quality of the coast we'd travelled along is such that any journey here in good conditions will take much longer than anticipated - and this is a good thing!

We settled on going a few kilometres further north to Prail Castle before turning back which would give us an unhurried return leg.

The bold headland of Prail Castle is another fort site; in fact there are no fewer than five fort sites to explore between Arbroath and the headland forming the south end of Lunan Bay, a remarkable concentration.

For sea kayakers there's additional interest too. The headland is pierced by two through-caves, both of which can be paddled at higher states of the tide.  Another cave?!   Oh, go on then.......  :o)

As we made our way through the larger of the two arches, we realised that we weren't alone - there was plenty of activity on the pebble beach beyond.

A flock of what appeared to be Soay sheep were feeding and resting on the shore.  They moved off in a purposeful manner as we approached, rising as one and walking steadily rather than running. It's intriguing to speculate whether the inhabitants of the various forts might have kept sheep of a very similar type here thousands of years ago.

The headland of Prail Castle curves slightly nortwards from the shore and in winter must receive very little sunlight.  On this bright and sunny summer day the quality of light in the cool shadow was quite beautiful - aquamarine water and deep red rock made a striking combination.

The through-caves wouldn't be at all obvious if approaching from the north, passing through the smaller cave looks like a bit of a vanishing trick from this direction.  Prail Castle was a great turning point for our day's paddle; it would have been difficult to top.  We now had the run back to Arbroath in warm sunshine and calm sea to enjoy....

There's a perception that the North Sea is predominantly grey and a bit uninteresting, but this couldn't be further from the truth.  Our boats slid through brilliantly clear water and over the most beautifully coloured pebbles........

....and yes, this really is the North Sea!  We all commented on what an effortless paddle the return journey was.  We stopped to investigate a couple of the caves we'd not seen on the way out as we enjoyed the cruise back to Arbroath.....

....along this wonderfully coloured coastline..... complete a great day on the water under the Bell Rock Signal Tower which until 1955 was the shore infrastructure for the Bell Rock lighthouse, and is now a museum.

The Angus coast is a real unsung gem.  I'm really grateful to Duncan and Joan for highlighting the superb sea kayaking available here.  Also, now that the Pesda Press guide to the North and East coasts of Scotland has been published (this section is included) more paddlers will discover the secret!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Colours and caves - Deil's Heid to Auchmithie

After passing the sea stack of the Deil's Heid we entered Carlingheugh Bay where the cliffs become a little lower.  A series of dry caves lie above the shore, again these would have been sea caves prior to the isostatic rebound effect as the weight of ice sheets unloaded.  Much of Scotland is still rising as the rebound continues at a slow rate, while the southern half of Britain continues to sink at a corresponding rate.  We were about to find a cave which is most definitely at sea level though....

The entrance is very obvious, a large square with undercut strata heading back into the gloom.....

...but once inside the space opens up into a large cavern.  Some of the rock strata have been prised away by the explosive hydraulic pressure of big swells and have formed a flat ceiling.  This view is looking into the cave; the light source behind Joan is from Gaylet Pot, a collapsed section of roof forming a "gloup" 140 metres into the cave.

The mechanics of its formation are really remarkable; the hydraulic pressure which prised away the strata to form the cave would have forced air along one of the fault lines of the Lower Devonian sandstone, compressing still further until it found a weakness where the repeated and concentrated compressive force was able to shatter the rock above, collapsing the roof and forming the gloup.  The forces involved must be truly enormous and we could only imagine what this place must be like in an easterly storm.

Today was very calm and the only thing streaming thorough the cave entrance was the late morning sunshine.  Duncan was able to land at a boulder beach in the gloup itself to get a further perspective on the feature which emerges in the middle of a farmer's field! After spending some time exploring the extent of the cave we headed back towards the light.

There's an angle from which the whole length of the cave can be seen, though not the extent of the interior.  Duncan and Joan can just be made out at the gloup end, giving scale to the place.

If you kayak this section of the Angus coastline on a calm day, Gaylet Pot is a real "must do"!

The next point of interest on this remarkable paddle is  Lud Castle, an Iron Age promontory fort site.  The site would have been defended by fortifying the narrow neck of land leading out to the headland; it would have mad a great vantage point but appears to have no natural source of water.

Since setting out from Arbroath in the morning, the 6 linear kilometres we'd paddled had taken well over two and a half hours such is the constant interest along this stunningly colourful and featured coast.  We must have added half as much distance again in exploring the various geos, caves and channels around the cliffs  though!  We put some extra energy into the short distance from Lud Castle to Auchmithie in order to land for coffee and first luncheon on the beach adjacent to the harbour.

The harbour itself is delapidated, almost ruinous, but was once a thriving fishing harbour.  At lower states of tide the easier landings are on the beach as the harbour bottom has some rocky obstructions.  Auchmithie is the home of the "Arbroath Smokie", a local delicacy.  Haddock are cleaned then dried for a period before being split and tied by the tail over a slow burning fire of beech and oak (usually in a barrel lined with slate) and covered with hessian.  After smoking for 30-40 minutes the fish are cured and ready to eat hot or cold.  The result incredibly tasty and very healthy too - a real treat.  Unfortunately we didn't have smokies with us, maybe next time it would be fun to bring one back to Aucmithie by sea.....