Monday, 23 November 2015

Solway sojourn - stories in stone

 We were up and about early at our camp on the shore at Barlocco and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise. Breakfast taken, we dallied a little to allow the incoming tide to shorten the carry to the water, memories of the previous evening's mammoth portage only too fresh!

Back underway and we headed out around the outside of Barlocco Isle threading skerries and channels under sail, which was great fun.

Once out on the open water we set a course for Murray's Isles, the smallest of the Islands of Fleet and consisting of two tidal islands joined together at low water.

 As we approached we could see the stark ruin of a house above the rocky shore.  In the summer this island is teeming breeding colony for seabirds and landing would create a good deal of disturbance, but at the time of our visit in mid October the birds were long gone and it was a quiet place.  Murray's Isles were gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1991 by Mrs Murray Usher OBE; we had our membership cards at the ready, but it's safe to say we didn't have to show them in order to gain access...

 The only practical landing is a rocky inlet on the south west side of the island, open to the prevailing weather and sea. Once again we were lucky to have very calm conditions and landed with no difficulty.

 Approaching the ruin, we found the ground to be very tough going, generations of gull nests have created tussocky, overgrown underfoot conditions which require care.  The ruin itself is completely covered with a vibrant growth of yellow and green lichens.  The house was the Pilot station, a smuggler's residence and an inn - possibly these uses may have been simultaneous....

 As is usual, the house was built with the gable end facing the prevailing weather, the concept of a nice view was always secondary to the practical aim of keeping the weather out.  What is unusual is that there is a window aperture set into the gable end, presumably so that the Pilot could watch for shipping requiring his services, the smuggler could watch out for vessels bringing contraband and the innkeeper could watch for potential customers...possibly all three at the same time.

 What stories these stones must be able to tell!

Down on the cobble beach we found a stone with a much older story to tell.  The fossils most associated with the Solway Firth are those of Graptolites, small free-floating organisms, but in the Carboniferous rocks larger organisms are preserved as fossils.  This piece of sandstone which was some 20 centimetres long appears to contain a fan coral or weed, it was difficult to tell which and we're no experts.  The imprint was quite obvious and the dark stone seems to be the fossilised remains.  There's a great little book and download produced by Scottish Natural Heritage and the British Geological Survey which tells the story of the geology of the southwest of Scotland.

We enjoyed second breakfast and coffee on the beach as the tide continued to rise, leaving just as our boats were beginning to lift in the gentle swell.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Solway sojourn - a staggering sunset

After leaving Castle Haven Bay we pushed on through a series of skerries, hoping that the channel inside Barlocco Isle might still be open. Unfortunately we were too late; the tide had receded leaving a rocky finger connecting the island to the shore, as Douglas' image shows.

We were now faced with a choice of two options in order to reach the top of the beach where we'd camp, neither of which were very appealing.  Either we could paddle around 2.5 kilometres around the outside of the island and undertake a 250 metre carry with each of the boats (and the tide was still receding), or we could try the direct route, which was 320 metres but could be broken into two separate portages.  

After some debate the direct route was chosen; our cargo of firewood was unloaded into a sack and an Indespensable Kayak Expedition Accessory bag in order to lighten the load and these were left on a prominent rock.  The first portage was quite short but tricky, about 20 metres of slippery rocks and into a large tidal pool, through which we waded the boats, saving about 30 metres of carrying.  The portage to the top of the beach was hard going despite splitting it into two separate carries for each boat.  A trolley would have been most useful here and on any future Solway camping trip we will pack one amongst the party.  A portage strap was used so that all three of us could move each boat, but to compound matters my strap failed on the second lift; fortunately we had two spares!  (I have since reinforced the wrist loop attachments on both my portage straps, quadrupling the rows of stitching using a sewing machine).

By the final lift, we were staggering up the beach - later calculations revealed that we carried boats laden with winter camping equipment for over a kilometre that evening.  Douglas found a camping spot at the first available patch of good ground while Mike and I walked a little further to a really fine patch of level ground with a great view.  I hadn't realised just how painful Douglas' bionic knees had become otherwise we could have shifted his tent next to ours, although in truth we were separated by less than 50 metres and we all gathered around the fire later anyway.

The tents were quickly pitched and there was time to admire another fine Solway sunset which developed......

.......into a staggering intensity of colour.  It was one of those west coast sunsets in which we participated rather than spectated.  As the riot of colour faded I went back down the beach to retrieve our precious loads of firewood before darkness fell.  I missed much of the afterglow as the reflections developed.....

Image by Douglas Wilcox
...but Douglas kindly took some images with my camera as well as his own, capturing the gorgeous reflection of the late evening light across the wet sand. 

As soon as dinner was finished we set to lighting our fire.  Having gone to some lengths to collect sufficient fuel we intended to use it all!  Placed on the sand below the high water mark, a beached section of pine trunk formed the back of the fire and there were large pieces of sodden wood and a flat stone for the sides.

Thus contained, our fire that evening surpassed any that we've previously enjoyed.  We kept the blaze small and well-fed, quickly building up an intense and welcome heat with very little smoke.  At a suitable juncture we allowed the flames to burn down a little and placed our Sweet Potatoes wrapped in foil into the embers.  While they baked I returned to the boats to resupply our Jura as it appeared to be evaporating in the warmth around the fire.

We sat and chatted long into a beautifully clear evening, toasty warm beside our fire underneath a sky of astounding clarity.  We lost count of the satellites and meteors we spotted as the wash of the Milky Way wheeled overhead - a truly enjoyable evening which will last long in the memory.

But there was a problem.  This fire had exceeded even the recent effort on Cara and we needed some scale of reference against which to rate future camp fires.  We thought initially of a "K" scale as we were camped near Knockbrex, but we already use that designation to represent "degrees Kinlochleven" for comparing cold temperatures.  Perhaps "B" for Barlocco or "S" for Solway would work, but it needs two elements, the first digit to indicate the size of the fire, the second for the heat it produces.  By any standard, the fire we enjoyed on this would rate highly!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Solway sojourn - a stone symbol and a smashing session

 We made good progress out of the River Dee and back out to Kircudbright Bay with the ebb tide behind us.  The morning's wind had died away and it was pleasantly warm on the water - especially so for mid-October.  Ahead lay Little Ross Island where we'd camped above the shore in line with the lighthouse the previous night.

 We called the Dundrennan Range safety boat, the "Gallovidian", to report our intentions on VHF and again got a very positive and pleasant response. Douglas had obtained the range schedule a couple of days prior to our trip and we knew that the range was active with military vehicles firing out to sea to the east of Little Ross.  During the morning and again in the afternoon we heard a variety of light and medium gunfire and what sounded to be a particularly impressive automatic heavy calibre weapon.

A pebble beach on the mainland side of The Sound gave us an opportunity to stop and stretch our legs as the the next section of our journey would be a couple of hours straight paddling.  It was now well into the afternoon and by no means certain that we'd reach our intended camp site before sunset.

We passed back along the outstanding line of cliff scenery between  Slack Heugh and Brighouse Bay with a gentle push from the wind.  To our disappointment we couldn't spend as long as we'd have liked on this section due to the time and the ebbing tide, of which we were acutely conscious - low water on the Solway can result in some very lengthy distances from the water to the top of the beach.

We certainly didn't rush along though - that's not our style unless absolutely necessary.  Keeping close inshore we enjoyed both the scenery and the very warm conditions, we paddled in short sleeved shirts and salopettes and even in this light kit we felt somewhat hot.

There were new angles that we'd not noticed on our outward journey too.....

...this mimetolith bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lion Rampant, heraldic symbol of Scotland - even the yellow background is present!

The noise of artillery fire from Dundrennan Range had faded away as we turned out of The Sound and into the shelter of the cliffs but as we cleared Brighouse Bay we looked over our shoulders......

 ...and wondered just what exactly they were firing back there!

 We indulged in a little more exploration of the caves and clefts on our way to Kirkandrews Bay, were we'd stopped at Castle Haven Dun on our outward journey.  We had noticed a good selection of dry driftwood and a broken pallet washed up above the tide line and set these aside to collect on the way back. 

We landed on soft sand in a narrow inlet, recovered our stash of wood and made use of a "Driftwood Reduction Kit" consisting of:

                                                  Area of flat rock x 1
                                                  Large boulder x 1
                                                  Folding pruning saw with good quality blade x 1 

The technique is relatively unsophisticated but quite effective.  Place the pallet on the flat rock and apply the boulder repeatedly from a working height.  Take the other driftwood pieces and reduce in like manner or by cutting into manageable pieces with the saw.  Place the resulting firewood into a couple of Indespensible Kayak Expedition Accessory bags and stow inside or secure on top of the boats.  Job done!

We were only ashore about 15 minutes, but even in that short time the tide had receded quite a distance.  It was time to head for our campsite by the quickest route......

........back out through the skerries into what was turning out to be a truly beautiful evening.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Solway sojourn - superlative steak sandwiches and a Selkirk saying

We paddled into a steady headwind on our way into Kirkcubright Bay, this would be the only stretch where we'd do so on the whole of our Solway journey.  I wasn't quite firing on all four cylinders when we set out and so just put my head down and paddled until gradually I felt better and the easy rhythm returned.

Kirkcubright Bay pretty much matched my preconception of what paddling in the Solway Firth might be; a wide open bay enclosed by mainly low ground with extensive mud and sand flats at low tide.

We'd timed our departure from Little Ross Island to arrive at Kircudbright about an hour before high water.  This meant we'd have the flood tide in our favour on the way up, we'd land with a minimum of mud-plugging, have time for luncheon and then have the ebb in our favour on the way back out.

As we entered the River Dee (one of two rivers given this name in Scotland, the other rises in the Cairngorms and flows to the sea at Aberdeen) we felt the insistent push of the flood tide overcoming the river flow and passed this trawler wreck - better days indeed.

We tried to land at the slipway in Kirkcudbright, but found it to be a lethal mix of a steep slope overlaid with slippery mud.  I found it difficult to stand when I stepped out of the boat and it was clear that we wouldn't be able to safely move our boats.  Instead we backtracked and landed adjacent to the marina pontoons on reeds and more mud, but at least it was flat!

We removed our paddling outer layers and took a stroll in warm sunshine through the streets of Kirkcudbright (pronounced "Kirk-coo-bree" and meaning Kirk of (St) Cuthbert).  Saint Cuthbert (c. AD634 – 20 March 687) was a saint of the early Northumbrian church in the Cetic tradition and is mostly associated with northern England, though he grew up near Melrose in the Scottish borders.  Cuthbert's remains were kept here for a time after being exhumed from Lindisfarne, they were later re-interred at Chester-Le-Street in the north of England.  The town became a Royal Burgh in 1453, so it's fair to say the place has history.

I really enjoyed our stroll around the town; it's neat, tidy and has a well-kept air.  Several houses were being whitewashed on the day we visited, and their doors and window frames being repainted in bright and cheerful colours.  It's a place I'll re-visit and explore some more.

Probably the most prominent building in the town is the ruin of MacLellan's Castle.  Completed in 1582, it was built  by Sir Thomas MacLellan, Provost of Kirkcudbright partly from stone recycled following the destruction of Greyfriars Convent in one of Scotland's many religious upheavals. Standing at the head of a broad street, it's a fine sight.

We reached our destination, the Selkirk Arms, just as the doors were opening for luncheon.  This hotel has a unique place in history too; for it was here (and not in the border town of Selkirk) that the poet Robert Burns wrote the famous "Selkirk Grace" in 1749:

"Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit."

We were shown to a table with comfortable upholstered seats despite the fact we were clearly in outdoor wear and ordered a round of sports recovery drinks while we perused the menu.  We chose different starters, but all chose the Hot Galloway Beef Sandwich on Sourdough bread.  It was, quite simply, the best steak sandwich I have ever tasted!

The mark we give to truly exceptional food and drink establishments is 12/10, but the Selkirk Arms gets an an almost unheard of 13/10 because the owner and chef Chris is himself a sea kayaker and came out from the kitchen to chat with us about this and other trips.  If you are into superb food, prepared simply from quality local ingredients - the Selkirk Arms should be high on your list to visit!

Replete, we made our way back to the boats just a few minutes after high water.  Other vessels were taking advantage of the tide too, the Belfast registered "Mytilus the Mussel" (B-449) was also departing from Kircudbright harbour.

After she passed, we changed back into paddling outer-wear and got back on the water.  Already the ebb which would carry us back out into Kirkcudbright Bay was gathering pace.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Solway sojourn - shipshape and Stevenson style

We were up and about before sunrise on Little Ross Island.  Douglas kept up the standard in our little group by shaving before breakfast.....  Mike and I elected to remain as passable "Billy Goats Gruff", though when Douglas suggested taking luncheon in Kirkcubright we did wonder just how posh the place he had in mind might be!

We'd only briefly visited the lighthouse the previous evening, and as we're all very much pharophiles, we walked back up the hill....... explore the lighthouse a little more.  Built at the mouth of Kirkcudbright Bay to close the gap between the lights at Mull of Galloway and Southerness, Little Ross Island light was lit on 1st January 1843, and flashes white once every five seconds.

The mechanism here was at the cutting edge of the technology of the time as it was the first light of catadioptric type, with metallic mirrors above and below the lenses.  The huge lens was removed after the light was automated and is now on display in Kirkcubright museum.

An inscription above the door identifies that the building contractor was Robert Hume and the Engineer (the title used by the designer and overseer of the lights of the Northern Lightboard) was Robert Stevenson.  Founder of the formidable dynasty of lighthouse builders (and grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson), Robert had made his name with the building of the Bell Rock light off the coast of Arbroath, an astounding technical achievement.

His designs would set the standard for those who followed. Architecture was symmetric, geometric and precise, almost austere.  It reflected the character of the man, but also laid out in stone Robert's vision for the Northern Lighthouse Service, everything should be ordered and "shipshape" to a high degree; nothing less would be tolerated.  The Latin inscription at the door is the NLB's motto "In Salutem Omnium" (For the Safety of All) and Robert believed with all his being that the NLB was a vocation rather than a job.  The story of the "Lighthouse Stevensons" and some of their most notable lighthouses is told in an excellent book of that title by Bella Bathurst, well worth a read.

Indiscipline and slackness were rare among lighthouse keepers, they were a breed of steady and patient men of routine and habit. I'm fortunate to have known a man who worked at several of the sea-lights and he was the archetypal keeper, a man to respect.  Of course, there were occasional incidents and where these did occur they tended to be remarkable.  In August 1960 there were two keepers at Little Ross instead of the usual three as the light was about to be automated.  One of the keepers, Hugh Clark, was found murdered, with the only suspect being the assistant keeper Robert Dickson.  Dickson fled to England but was arrested and found guilty of the murder and sentenced to hang, this was later commuted to life imprisonment.  To this day there are sea kayakers who won't camp on Little Ross, believing it to be haunted, but we felt that the ghost of a man who spent his working life assuring the safety of mariners would harbour no ill to us. 

Nowadays the light tower is locked and barred, with the familiar bronze plaque of the NLB affixed to the gate.

The keeper's cottages are now in private ownership and the new owners have added some nice touches such as this boot-remover in the shape of a beetle......

...and a suitably lighthouse-themed doorbell.

On our way back down to the boats we explored the surroundings of the lighthouse.  A row of cottages built on quite a slope lie just outside the walled garden which would have provided the keepers with fruit and vegetables.

The angle at which this reclining row is built can be seen in the door lintels.

Either side of the fireplace in one cottage which appears to have been a smithy there are symbols inscribed into the worked stone blocks.  We were at a loss as to what they might represent, but our friend Duncan has identified them as "mason's marks", the signature in stone of the stonemason and a tradition stretching back over a thousand years.

Within the walled garden the new owners of Little Ross have constructed a ship-shaped shed, although "shed" doesn't really do it justice.  A comfortable summerhouse on the deck of a boat heading for who knows where, it must be a great place to while away an afternoon.

The garden itself is still tended; some vegetables and flowers are being cultivated, alongside rows of teasels.

Back at the beach, we paused to inspect the island's only vehicle, an Alvis FV620 Stalwart.  Dating from the late 1960's the Stalwart was an amphibious military transport vehicle which saw service with the British Army and with oil exploration companies - I remember having a "Matchbox" model of this vehicle as a small boy....

With six-wheel drive and an amphibious drive system which could propel it at 6 knots, the Stalwart was designed as a go-anywhere transport.  It was, unfortunately very complex and required huge maintenance effort.  The amphibious drive was usually removed unless it was absolutely required and the six-wheel paired drive system was very prone to transmission wind-up if use on normal roads.  Oh, and there were no doors either, the crew had to enter and exit through hatches on the roof.  Small wonder this example has seen better days!

Just offshore the Dundrennan range safety boat had moored.  We knew that the firing range was active, and that the coast to east of Little Ross Island was out of bounds.  To avoid causing any inconvenience, we spoke to the range boat on VHF and outlined our plan to keep well clear of range activity by heading directly into Kirkcubright Bay, and arranged to call again when we were heading outbound.  This information was acknowledged by the crew and we got a cheery wave as we headed out on the second day of our Solway sojourn.