Monday 13 May 2024

Happy returns in Morar

The first few months of 2024 have seen some really poor weather conditions in Scotland.  In the north-east of the country it was the wettest winter for many years and April was the coldest since 1905!  When the forecast for the first few days of May showed warm and settled conditions on the west coast, Douglas and I made plans for a few days sea kayak camping.

We met at Mallaig mid-morning on a glorious day.  A glance at the map shows how well positioned Mallaig is to access superb sea kayaking routes.  Our plan would be very flexible and would largely be dictated by a forecast of variable winds from a generally easterly direction.  Before packing our boats we took second breakfast of croissants and pains au chocolate with coffee from the excellent Mallaig Bakehouse and also bought a large focaccia bread to accompany dinner.

 We were on the water and away shortly after noon and enjoyed a leisurely few hours paddle towards our first planned camp.  As we'd both had long-ish drives to reach Mallaig we had no intention of pushing hard to make distance, it just wasn't that sort of a day.  A light breeze from astern helped push us gently along as we paddle-sailed a shoreline alive with the sounds of Willow Warblers and echoing to the calls of Cuckoos.

Arriving at a camp we've used before is a bit like meeting an old friend; one looks for the subtle changes and reminisces about good times.  We were pleased to see not much had changed here and that the bracken hadn't started reaching up, making for a better range of pitches.  We got our tents up, enjoyed a coffee and then went for a walk.  Douglas and I both enjoy the off-water parts of a sea kayak trip as much as the paddling, exploring and just being in a place adds so much to the experience.

We climbed above the shore and through woods of birch and oak to a stretch of higher ground which had clear signs that this now deserted shore was once worked by a community.  "Run Rig" furrow marks were everywhere, testament to back-breaking work over generations to make something of the poor, acid soils by fertilising with seaweed and dung.

Croft houses, some little more than a gable or a "rickle o'stanes" dot the ground near the shore.  It's likely that the occupants had been moved from better agricultural ground inland to theses far edges to make way for sheep in the years of the Clearances.  The houses had a superb situation, but a view won't feed your family and this was subsistence living at the extreme with starvation an ever-present threat.

Near the ruins of a more substantial house was this tractor which is slowly being consumed by rust and the boggy ground.  We could make out that the engine was a Standard make, but little else - it would be fascinating to learn something of its story.

Just around here we were treated to one of the experiences which really make a trip.  Overhead we heard the distinctive "kyow-kyow" call of a White Tailed Eagle.  looking up we saw not one but two birds flying purposefully overhead.  But things got even better; a third, absolutely huge eagle (an adult female we think) launched from a nearby crag and engaged the two overflying birds.  Twisting in mid-air and presenting its talons seemed to intimidate the two birds which flew quickly off.  Then the third bird was harried relentlessly by a pair of Ravens which mobbed it all the way back to the crag - it was a great wildlife spectacle!

It was only four or so hours into our trip but already it felt that we'd been amply rewarded for making the effort to get out!  Returning to our camp we gathered driftwood and some fallen birch branches for a fire and started to think about getting dinner prepared....

Thursday 15 February 2024

An anything but "dry" January

January can, in some years, be a month of enforced abstinence from most outdoor activities.  Limited daylight, often hostile weather and low temperatures can combine to make things a bit of a challenge.  this year, with more free time, I was keen to grab opportunity where I could, work with the weather and just generally "seize the day".  

I did at least one walk every day, averaging 13km per day across the month in a variety of conditions from the sublime to the downright nasty.


When the snow came in heavily, accompanied by strong winds and drifting....time to switch from walking to skiing!

There were a few days of really good conditions for XC Skiing right from home

A spell of settled weather in the north west of Scotland tempted Allan and I to plan a few days kayaking

...amply rewarded by some superb winter paddling conditions.....

..and some great wildlife encounters.

Generally amenable if breezy weather gave good opportunities for gravel riding in the Cairngorms...

...and several rides closer to home, such as here on Lord Arthur's Hill on the Correen ridge.

So, January proved to be anything but a "dry" month for outdoor ventures; the trick now is to keep it up for the year!

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Winter colours - Wester Ross

On the second paddling day of our trip in Wester Ross Allan and I launched from the jetty at Laide in Gruinard Bay.  This is a handy launch spot but there's virtually no parking at the jetty itself so we parked back up the road a way so as not to block things for any other users.  There's also an honesty box, ingeniously adapted from an old fire extinguisher, for donations towards the jetty's upkeep.

It was another very cold, clear and calm morning - "frost smoke" was rising from the sea as the sun climbed a bit higher.

We paddled around the inner part of Gruinard Bay and landed at the northern end of the big beach which is so popular in summer.  Today we had it to ourselves for a leisurely coffee break.

Heading north we had a view to Priest Island and the Summer Isles, we've had some great paddling ventures there!  Conditions were near perfect and we landed at Mungasdale Bay for a second stop - not sure whether that was third breakfast or first luncheon though.....

From Mungasdale we paddled over to land on the boulder spit at the south of Gruinard Island, infamous for the experiment that was carried out here to test the efficacy of a biological weapon.  The desparate measures under consideration during WW2 are understandable, but not the indifference of the UK government for decades afterward - they were eventually forced to properly (hopefully!) decontaminate the whole island in 1990.  The disconnect between a remote UK government and the north of Scotland is neatly illustrated in the staged image at the end of the BBC news article linked above with a Defence Minister pulling down the "Landing Prohibited" sign....dressed in a pinstripe city suit and immaculate dress shoes.

We stopped but briefly on the bouldery spit - it's hard on the feet in paddling footwear.  Interestingly the island has been recently and intensively planted with forestry, so clearly there is confidence that disturbing the soil won't release any dormant anthrax spores.  Behind Allan in this image, the brilliant white summits of  An Teallach rose into a blue sky .

The view across to Torridon when we arrived back in Laide was glorious - winter can sometimes throw up the most stunning conditions.

Back at our base on Loch Ewe the last of the sun lit the Fisherfield hills s we enjoyed a post-paddle cup of tea, but the best of the colour was reserved for well after the sun had set..... the sky and sea suffused with the most intense and beautiful lilac pink light.  Some winter days are just so perfect!

Sunday 28 January 2024

Beach Life - The Winter Edition

 We paddled along the southern shore of Loch Gairloch (a tautological name which translates as Loch of the Short Loch) and took a coffee break at Port Henderson where a narrow strip of sand allows an easy landing on an otherwise bouldery beach.

Of course, when there are so many excellent beaches to savour, it pays to have plenty of hot water for coffee!  We headed north and made the 4km crossing of the outer loch to a beach which is simply known as "Big Sand"...for the most obvious of reasons!  A landing on the broad expanse of warm-coloured sand was followed by another coffee break.  To get these conditions in winter is a rare treat; it was actually pleasantly warm due to the lack of wind, clear sky and our paddling drysuits. An advantage of this winter beach-life is a lack of biting insects and crowds...though it has to be said tha the air temperature was hardly above freezing all day.

As Allan headed out from the beach I took a short video on my phone to show the "widescreen" situation, which is pretty special.

On our paddle back along the north shore of Loch Gairloch we took time to hang out with the local youth - these two young Otters were curious rather than wary, a real treat.

It seemed a shame to end such a superb day as we headed back towards Charlestown but the views to the Torridon hills went some way to compensating for the shortness of daylight.

After packing up at Charlestown we drove out to a spot above Big Sand to watch the sun set over the north of Skye.  It had been a great day and the bonus was returning to our base on Loch Ewe to a warm house, home cooked food and a sports recovery drink - all in all a fine day!

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Ice, Ice Baby.....

During a winter which had so far been alternately wet or windy, the chance of some sea kayaking in settled weather had Allan and I regularly checking forecasts in mid January.  As a high pressure system built over the UK we made plans to head to Wester Ross - we were disappointed that neither Lorna or Douglas were able to join us for this short notice trip.

A family connection of Allan and Lorna's kindly allowed us the use of a house overlooking Loch Ewe as a base, which made this winter trip very comfortable indeed.  Allan headed up on a frosty morning, I left later in the day and we met at the house.  The view first thing in the morning was very encouraging as pre-dawn light coloured the sky and reflected off mirror calm water - it looked like we had a fine day ahead.

We drove to Charlestown on Loch Gairloch and loaded our boats on the slipway.  there was frost on the boats which made for chilly fingers.

There was also plenty of ice left by the falling tide.  The water in the harbour at Charlestown was free of any ice so the possibility of sea didn't really register with me as we got ready to get on the water.

After paddling out of the harbour we turned south and for a short while paddled straight into a dazzling low sun with reflections from the water - it was really hard work to see where we were headed!  We'd intended to paddle close to the shore past Badachro and around Eilean Horrisdale, but found a large area of sea ice over a centimetre thick drifting towards us on the ebb tide.

 It was pretty obvious straight away that this was hard ice which was probably drifting in and out on the tide, freezing at low water twice a day.  It was too thick to crash through with the boat or the paddle and was, disconcertingly, moving quite purposefully.  I've experienced this just twice before, once on Loch Long and near Kinlochleven - both occasions in similar prolonged deep frosts.

Manoeuvring a sea kayak in ice even a centimetre thick is difficult and unstable, the paddle has to be crashed through and sometimes glances off, destabilising things.  Add to that ice moving on a tidal flow with the possibility of constrictions and it's not a place to be....coming out of the boat would have serious consequences.  Allan and I reversed away from the ice and found a lead of clear water to take us back out into the open.  Just an hour into our winter day and it was already packed with interest!

Saturday 6 January 2024

After the rain....

 December 2023 and into January 2024 saw some exceptionally wet weather in the north east of Scotland - Aberdeenshire received three times the average monthly rainfall in December as storms tracked more to the south than usual, resulting in a run of what felt like weeks of south easterly wind and rain for us.  This part of Scotland is usually the driest place in the country, but there have been only two dry-ish days in the last 20!

But, at last, the rain pulled away early afternoon on the 5th January with a forecast of much more settled weather for the next week or so.  As the sky cleared the temperature fell sharply and a ground mist spread across land saturated by rain.  the effect was very atmospheric as the sun set, the mist suffused by a gorgeous glow.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

A Winter Light Show

In late December there was a wonderful display of Nacreous Cloud in the skies over Aberdeenshire.  From before sunrise the ethereal colours and effects were evident and continued to varying degrees all day.

Nacreous (mother of pearl) clouds need really specific conditions and are consequently rare phenomena:  the cloud needs to be very high at 10-20 miles above the earth's surface, the air at that height needs to be very cold (below -80 degrees Celsius) and a very low sun angle.  They're also known as Polar Stratospheric Cloud (PSC) and the particular ice crystals forming the clouds refract the low sun at an angle down to earth.  Because of these specific conditions, nacreous clouds are usually only seen in northern polar regions in winter, or when the polar upper atmosphere vortex sinks south, which was what gave rise to this lovely display.

The ice crystals in Nacreous clouds are smaller than those in lower cloud types and can often be composed of atoms of nitric acid and water ice - this combination can combine to release chlorine atoms, so they're not entirely good things!

That said, as the sun began to set in mid-afternoon the colours of the clouds intensified and the shapes was a captivating sight.

 The most intense colours happened well after sunset when the clouds were still being lit by the sun which had left the surface and was shining at just the right angle - simply stunning!

Thursday 25 May 2023

Blown away by Knoydart

The second half of April had some really fine weather with high pressure close by the north of Scotland.  Douglas and I watched the synoptic picture carefully for several days before deciding on a trip starting at Mallaig.  we came from opposite corners of the country but arrived within minutes of each other and after a coffee and croissant from the rather excellent Bakehouse, got our boats packed and set off.

Our plan was initially to paddle up to the head of Loch Nevis for the first camp, but we soon modified that.  High pressure close to rather than over the country can, in certain circumstances give really fine, clear weather but with strong easterly winds - and this was the situation on this week.  Douglas and I both have a healthy respect for the conditions which can be created by this weather pattern; some of our hardest battles have been in easterly winds blowing from a clear blue sky.  Lochs Nevis and Hourn which frame the south and north shores of the Knoydart peninsula both have east-west topography and a short paddle to the entrance of Loch Nevis confirmed that the wind was indeed barrelling down the loch....time for a change of plan!

Our pre-trip planning had factored this in, we had a camp spot in mind for the first evening of three, but first we explored a bit around the entrance to Loch Nevis, climbing above a beach near Rubha Raonuill to get a view of the hills beyond Inverie.

We paddled below the statue of the Virgin Mary in the narrows at the entrance to Loch Nevis, an unusual feature.  Officially known as Our Lady of Knoydart, the statue was erected by the Catholic community in the middle of the 20th century.  It's actually made of GRP and is known locally as "Plastic Mary".  I was surprised to note that the last time I paddled through these narrows was over ten years ago!

We paddled north from the loch entrance and were faced with a difficult choice of which of several lovely beaches to camp on....sea kayaking can have these difficulties sometimes!  Having selected our beach we got the tents up, enjoyed a cup of tea and then set about collecting and sawing down sufficient driftwood for a fire below the rapidly receding tide.  

We were quite pleased with our choice of camp site; a slab of rock forming an arm of the bay gave a super place to watch the sun go down after dinner.

The sunset was relatively brief on this April evening, but what it lacked in duration it made up in intensity - a gorgeous wash spread across the sky.....

....which faded to an intense glow, silhouetting the distant Skye Cuillin.  Our plans may have been blown away by the wind, but we certainly weren't complaining about the way the trip was unfolding!