Sunday, 2 December 2018

An autumnal gem

On a crisp and sunny mid November day we drove a short distance to the pretty village of Monymusk for a walk.  Monymusk has an interesting history, the estate has been owned by the Grant family since 1712 and many of the cottages in the village square are estate properties.

Sir Archibald Grant inherited the estate in 1719 and set about transforming the agricultural land surrounding the House of Monymusk.  When the Grants took ownership the land was boggy, poorly drained, had little in the way of crop or stock capacity and was almost bare of trees.

Archie Grant had a colourful life.  He was a speculator, sometime mine owner and was expelled from the House of Commons after a financial scandal.  However, he proved to be one of the great agricultural "improver" lairds.  He ordered the clearing of ground with stones being used to make field enclosures, introduced crop rotation to the estate including the use of clovers and rye grasses to condition the soil, he planted millions of trees on the estate and was one of the early adopters of growing turnips - a humble crop today but a game changer in cattle rearing practice at the time.  Using turnips which could stay in the drill until winter, cattle could be fed through the year rather than having to be sold.  All these improvements meant a change to the old subsistence farming methods which had existed in Aberdeenshire, and many folk had to move but this was not a clearance in the sense of evicting people to make way for sheep or sporting estates.  His legacy and that of his descendants is a rich mixture of productive agricultural ground, woodland and the origins of the village of Monymusk we see today.

The most important building in Monymusk isn't the estate "big house" but the church.  A stone church has stood here since the 12th century, and it's believed that this replaced an even older Celtic church.  The origin tale concerning the building of the church records that the future King Malcolm III prayed here on his way to a battle with Macbeth near Lumphanan in 1057.  He stated that if he was successful he would build a church to replace the already old building in Monymusk. Malcolm defeated Macbeth's army, captured and summarily executed him on the battlefield, then honoured his promise to build a church.

The church seems very large for a small rural community but was originally built to serve a nearby priory.  The tower was originally somewhat higher than the present one but has been lowered twice, firstly to counteract an unsound wall.  A spire was added which in turn became unsound so the whole tower was lowered further.

The church contains an important Pictish symbol stone and two 6th century grave slabs.  Despite living just a few miles away, we've yet to see these - something to rectify!

Our walk took us out of the village and up through a wood containing some huge Douglas Firs, perhaps planted by Archibald Grant.  The path through the wood climbs gently up to Clyan's Dam.....

.......which proved to be a bit of an autumnal gem.  A path goes over the earth dam and around the small lake, which was probably a mill pond.  The last of the autumnal colours were reflected beautifully in the still water, it's a peaceful spot and several benches offer the chance to sit and enjoy the setting.

At the dam a small burn emerges out to wind down through the wood to the River Don below, rushing through mounds of beech leaves had been piled up by the wind.  We headed the same way, back down through the wood and along the minor road to reach a track which heads back towards Monymusk alongside the River Don.

As from so many places in Aberdeenshire, the distinctive shape of Bennachie's Mither Tap is prominent above the farmland and woods.

In mid November when most of the glory of autumn is finished, the Larch trees have their moment.  This image doesn't do justice to the intense yellow and gold strips interspersing the dark greens of  the spruces in Bennachie forest.  Add in a blue sky and you have another autumnal gem.

In the three weeks since the images in this post were taken a series of autumnal gales, sluicing rain and a little snow have stripped the trees of their remaining foliage.  The colours diminished, it's more about form now.

We soon arrived back at Monymusk but took a short diversion to get a view of the House of Monymusk.  Originally built by the Forbes family and developed by the Grants, it's one of the grander examples of a Scottish estate "big house" and is harled in the pink shade often used in the castles and estates of Aberdeenshire.

Our walk around Monymusk had lasted less than two hours, but on a lovely crisp day had been something of an autumnal gem!

Monday, 12 November 2018

A flash of gold

By early November most of the glorious pyrotechnic shades of autumn are off the trees, but there's a last flourish from one tree.  Larches (Larix decidua) are a slightly unusual tree, a deciduous conifer.  They aren't native to Britain but have been planted here since the 17th century and have become very much part of the woodland scene.  Here, small saplings line a forest track on the lower slopes of Bennachie with a flash of gold.

In early spring larches form "flowers", the male flowers a cluster of creamy anthers and the female variety a striking pink, which eventually will become the seed-bearing cones.  The needles form on the twigs, first as bright lime green shoots which mature into dark green needles.  In late autumn, after most other deciduous trees have started to shed their leaves, the larches moment to shine arrives......

In a matter of days the needles turn the most dramatic golden shade - against a flawless blue sky the trees make a striking sight.

All too soon the needles will drop, covering paths, tracks and the banks of watercourses with a carpet of gold.  Even in November, commonly perceived as a grey and lifeless month, there's colour aplenty in the landscape.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Remembrance - one hundred years since the end of the Great War

In remembrance of all those men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief.

               "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"        

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

A loch within a loch, an island within an island

The combination of sunshine and cloud seemed to intensify the colours in the trees along the shore of Loch Maree as I paddled slowly back out to the islands.

Between the islands there was no wind at all and the reflections were absolutely pin-sharp on the dark water of the loch. After paddling through a narrow gap between two small islands I aimed straight for the largest of the group to land and explore a little.

It took a while to get through the waist-height heather to find what I was looking for, a location which if not immediately spectacular is quite unusual.  On Eilean Subhainn there's a lochan with two tiny islands in it - difficult to see the one in this image.  What makes this an unusual place is that here on  a loch there's an island, which itself has a loch with an island in it!  I don't know of any other place in Scotland where this can be found.  Eilean Subhainn is the second largest freshwater loch island in Scotland, only Inchmurrin on Loch Lomond is bigger.  If you land and force through the heather to the lochan, check yourself for ticks afterward - even at this late stage of the season I picked up two tiny ones on my arm.

Back on the water and I wound my way through some more of the islands - you can easily spend a full day exploring here and not paddle the same bit of water twice.

Emerging from between two of the islands, a great view opens up to the wild hills of Torridon - hills of great distinction which have given me some great days; and i's been too long since I climbed them!

Heading back to Slattadale I nosed the boat in to the burn flowing from Loch Garbhaig (loch of the rough place) over the "other" Victoria Falls - so named because Queen Victoria was taken to see the waterfall which drops over a small crag into a gorge.

I arrived back at Slattadale in lovely late afternoon sunshine.  Having unloaded the boat and put it back onto the car I had plenty of time to make a cup of tea and sit watching the play of light and shade on Slioch - and reflecting on a really good day's fresh water kayaking.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

The penny drops on Isle Maree

Following a stop for second breakfast I headed back among the islands of Loch Maree.  The improving weather had extended to the length of the loch and the flanks of Slioch (the spear) were now lit with morning sun.

My next planned stop would be on Isle Maree, perhaps the best known of the loch's islands, but by no means the largest.  The closest island to the north eastern shore, Isle Maree differs from all the other islands in being wooded mainly with deciduous, rather than pine trees including some very old stands of oak and holly.

Isle Maree has a long history of usage as a ritual site; it seems to have been used for the pre-Christian tradition of sacrificing a bull - which reportedly continued into the 17th century; the crags on the northern shore are named Creag an Tarbh (crag of the bull) which recalls this tradition.  In the 8th century a chapel and hermitage was established by St Maelrubha, centred around a well. 

A very ancient wall encloses a graveyard on the highest part of the island.  Some of the gravestones are very old and there are two grave slabs incised with crosses which date from the 8th century.  It's a peaceful, atmospheric place in which to spend a little time.

One more modern memorials is a broken cross stone with very fine carving which sits in a prominent spot - but seems a little out of place among the more modest graves.  Nearby, and not so easy to find is a relic of the pre-Christian tradition here.

An oak tree has been used for centuries as a "wishing tree" - where people travelled to the island specifically to hammer in a coin as an offering, in the hope of curing illness or fulfilling a wish.  The oak tree died hundreds of years ago due to copper poisoning from all the pennies driven in, but the tradition persists.

I found the tree difficult to find, because a nearby Horse Chestnut tree has come down in the gales which raged across Scotland in early October and landed on top of the wishing tree - I reported this to Scottish Natural Heritage who were hoping to get out and assess what could be done.  If trying to locate the tree, look to the south west of the graveyard.

I'm fortunate to enjoy good health, but two of my good friends are experiencing significant health issues, so on their behalf I tapped in two copper coins, with a wish for full recovery for them both.  Traditionally the island was associated with curing insanity - but I didn't have a third coin for myself!

The tradition warns against taking anything, even a pebble, from the island in case the insanity or illnesses are brought away as well, so I didn't keep to my own habit of taking a small pebble from the landing place.

Isle Maree is one of those very special places where the long spiritual traditions seems to add to an atmosphere of peace and tranquility - I left the island feeling noticably calmer.

Back on the water, the weather was developing; on the north eastern shore all was colour and bright sunshine.....

...while to the south west impressive shower clouds were building over the hills of the Flowerdale Forest.  It was turning into a wonderful day to be out on the water.