Sunday, 1 May 2016

Going in at Shian

We left Corpach Bay to continue south down the west coast of Jura.  A small northerly breeze was encouragement enough for us to hoist sails.

 At Traigh a' Mhiadair (beach of the meadow) there is a large sand dune which appears to have formed in a dry cove enclosed by rocky arms - we thought that the topography had probably allowed windblown sand to accumulate and form the dune.  It's certainly an unusual feature and has unusual wildlife; Tom and Frances who we'd met at Glengarrisdale had told us to look out for the rabbits - which in this one area seem mostly to be black rabbits rather than the normal grey.  The "meadow" which gives the beach its Gaelic name is actually above the dune and can be seen as a brighter green strip against the uniform heather and moor grass.

 It's just over 6 kilometres from Corpach Bay to Shian Bay - but there was no way we were going to miss out on another stunning beach..... and since second breakfast had been taken at Corpach, it must therefore be time for first luncheon!

The name "Shian" translates as stormy but on our visit nothing could have been further removed from the name.  The settled weather was being put to practical use on Colonsay where the south end of the island was undergoing muirburn - the smoke dispersing slowly in light winds.   Calm sea and blue sky are an alluring mix on any beach.......

 ...but when combined with a view like this it seemed we'd landed at another small piece of paradise. Across 15 kilometres of superbly clear air the white sand beaches on Oronsay were virtually shining in the sunshine.

Douglas and I had considered a swim in the sea to freshen up, but the northerly breeze was quite chilly, so we set off with our wash things and towels to the Sruthan Glac na-h atha, one of two burns which join to run into the sea here. We got ready and enjoyed a brief and bracing immersion in a deep pool wherein the water was not warm - it was on the exhilarating side of cool but we emerged after our brief "dook" and wash absolutely refreshed.  Sheltered from the breeze we were able to sit in the sun and dry ourselves and our baselayers on sun-warmed rocks beside the stream.  The translation of the name is "burn of the narrow valley by the drying kiln", but we could substitute "skin" for "kiln"....  readers will be relieved that we left our cameras with Mike, who thought dooking in mid April to be a sign of madness :o)

Zinging from our dip, it was time to push on.  The cloudscape over Colonsay told of good weather for the remainder of the day and we still had a fair way to travel to our intended destination for the night.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Full of life at the Place of the Dead

Our paddle along the wonderful NW coast of Jura continued under the pure blue of a Spring morning sky, the wild scenery a constant delight.

Conditions were idyllic and in contrast to the previous evening when we'd had to fight our way clear of the tide in the Corryvreckan strait, out boats seemed to be moving effortlessly through calm, clear water with barely any exertion required.  I think that on this stretch we all fell into a bit of a daydream, but what a location in which to dream......

Mike's call of "eagle!" from behind brought me sharply out of my daydream; the great bird swept along the cliff, landing almost directly above us to examine these strange floating objects.  Huge and impressive birds, a sighting of  a White Tailed Eagle is always a thrill.

Our first goal of the day was Corpach Bay - the name translates as "place of the dead" and indicates that this was one of the places where corpses in transit to the burial islands of Oronsay and Iona were temporarily kept if the weather was too rough for the crossing.  Corpach seems to have been associated with Iona and there's a cave behind the beach where the dead would have been placed while waiting for suitable conditions.

We'd had an early start from Glengarrisdale and it was definetely time for second breakfast!  Our landing was a very easy one on the sandy part of the beach in calm conditions - but this wouldn't be an easy place to land with any swell; there are concelaed boulders and a steep berm of pebbles at the high water mark.

From our seats on clipped turf above the beach we had a super view north to Mull with Ben More very prominent.  Iona was a low smudge on the horizon, the destination for many a final voyage from this beach.  Such sombre thoughts weren't uppermost in our minds on this lovely Spring morning though, the soundtrack to our breakfast was that quintessential sound of Spring, the songs of Skylarks cascading and tumbling from the blue above us.

Surf washed boulders made for interesting patterns on the shore as we made our way back down to the boats......

...past the tracks of Red Deer which showed that we weren't the first visitors to Corpach beach that morning.

Corpach may indeed be the "place of the dead", but on a morning like this it seemed to us to be simply full of the joy of life.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The wild and lonely coast of north west Jura

 We slept well in Glengarrisdale bothy, rising early to a sparkling Spring morning. After breakfast we cleaned out the bothy and laid the firewood ready for the next occupants before saying our goodbyes to Tom and Frances.  Our Iindispensable Kayak Expedition Accessory bags were carried down to the boats - lighter by some food, firewood and a couple of containers of sports recovery drinks each.

 We set out onto a flat calm sea under a cloudless sky of intense blue - the colours of the land fairly zinging in the clear air.

 The northwest of Jura is a wild and lonely coast. Whether on foot or on the water one needs to be self-reliant as well as self-propelled as no paths penetrate the area for a full 25 kilometres of coastline, moor and hill.  Often beset by heavy swell and bad weather, we felt privileged to be able to experience this special place in such benign conditions.

A short distance out from Glengarrisdale we passed the first of several mimetoliths encountered on this side of the island - promptly christened "Iguana Rock" !

 Fifteen kilometres distant, the island of Colonsay lay low on the western horizon.  Our plans had included the possibility of crossing to Colonsay to explore a little of its east coast.  At the fireside planning session the previous evening we'd voted unanimously that both Jura and Colonsay deserved longer exploration than the weather window of around four days we had available - and therefore that we'd stay on the Jura coast and save Colonsay for a future venture rather than paddling out to "tick" the crossing - it was an easy decision to make.

 Headland after headland of wild coastline lay ahead of us awaiting exploration.  The underlying rock of Jura is mainly metamorphic quartzite; in fact it's the largest area of this rock north of the Highland Boundary Fault and shows up on the coast in beaches of bone white pebbles.  A characteristic of quartzite is that it produces poor, peaty soils and rough terrain pretty unsuitable for agriculture.  Only on the east side of the island is the quartzite varied by a narrow strip of schist which breaks down to much more fertile and abundant soil and that's where almost all the population (and the distillery) are.  The prevalence of metamorphic quartzite is part of the reason why there are some 6000 Red Deer and only 200 people on Jura, the eighth largest of the Scottish islands but one of the most sparsely populated.

 Along with there are numerous wild goats and we saw small groups right along the shore and above on seemingly inaccessible cliffs - animals completely at home in their environment.

We paddled at a very relaxed pace, taking time to absorb the view and the situation.  The first of a series of raised beaches came into view, the level of the shore at the end of the last Ice Age.  Since then the land has been rebounding from the release of the ice sheet in a process known as isostatic rebound, we could trace the former high water mark along lengthy sections of the coast.  What a place this was to sea kayak!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Shared warmth at Glengarrisdale Bay

Once clear of the Corryvreckan we set off to paddle southwards along the northwest coast of Jura.  The tide on this section of coast doesn't conform to the usual reversing flow, it runs constantly NE'ly so we knew we'd make fairly slow progress.

The northern part of the island is rugged and folded, indented with rocky bays, landing places are mainly marginal and prone to swell.  Our destination for the evening was Glengarrisdale Bay, one of the few sandy bays offering easier landing - with the added advantage of a well maintained MBA bothy for our overnight accommodation.

As we pulled our boats up onto the strand at the end of a 24km paddling day we could see that the bothy door was open and that a tent was pitched outside.  Tents outside a bothy often indicate that the place is busy so we thought we may need to camp after all - not a problem as there's plenty of flat ground for tents.

When we reached the bothy we found that in fact the only folk staying were Tom and Frances who'd pitched their tent outside for sleeping but were using the bothy on a rest day from a backpacking adventure up the west coast of Jura (having previously walked the east coast).  This is a quite remarkable route - there are no paths at all along Jura's west coast and the going is very rough, to say nothing of having to detour around a sea loch which almost bisects the island.  Tom and Frances' adventure put our short 4 day trip in real perspective!  They'd so far been out for over a week and had a couple more days to go - some food left by previous occupants had enabled them to take a rest day and maintain sufficient supplies for the rest of their route.

While Tom and Frances went for a walk up one of the hills at the back of the bothy to watch the sunset and to collect additional firewood, we cooked and ate our evening meal outdoors before turning our attention to things combustible.

We had each brought a Wilcox Ignition Aid (TM) and a quantity of dry firewood inside our boats.  At the bothy were a collection of larger logs and branches, perhaps left by the estate or salvaged as driftwood.  Attempts had been made to saw some of these up, perhaps when they were wet.  Tom and Frances had borrowed our folding "bothy saw" to cut up driftwood on the shore, so we got to work with a bow-saw from the bothy.  When we had reasonable chunks we were able to use a felling axe and a rock "sledgehammer" to produce a satisfying pile of wood for the evening and for the next occupants too; the work involved meant that we'd be twice warmed by the firewood!

Before long we had the fire away and "the lum reeking", a great sight at any bothy.  Our post-dinner dram was, naturally, a Jura whisky - "Superstition"

When Tom and Frances returned they brought driftwood and some peat to leave for the next bothy-dwellers.  We all sat in the main room and enjoyed the warmth of the fire, chatting about how good it was to be here; and reflecting that we were almost certainly the only five people on the whole 40km west coast of Jura. 

We allowed the fire to burn down a little in order to bake sweet potatoes wrapped in foil in the embers.  We found an extra potato for our friends - who had actually been dreaming of baked spuds the previous evening!  Chatting with Tom and Frances gave the additional warmth of our shared love of these special places - and made for a really pleasant evening in front of the fire.

Douglas, Mike and I decided to sleep upstairs in the bothy; the attic space is boarded out and makes for a spacious sleeping area which by the time we retired been warmed by the heat of the chimney breast.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Corryvreckan - "a depe horlepoole quhairin if schippis do enter thair is no refuge but death onlie".....

At 1525 we launched from Port nam Furm to make our transit of the Gulf of Corryvreckan, intending to take advantage of the slack water period as the flood tide subsided.

This narrow channel running between the islands of Scarba to the north and Jura to the south has a fearsome reputation - the quote in the title of this post is from a 16th century "rutter" or pilot book compiled by Alexander Lyndsay, the pilot on James Vth's voyage around his kingdom.  In the days of sailing ships the Admiralty Pilot warned against attempting the passage and even today in the age of powerful vessels and GPS, the current Admiralty West Coast of Scotland Pilot states that it is "very violent and dangerous" and that "no vessel should attempt the passage without local knowledge".

The Corryvreckan (speckled cauldron), third largest tidal whirlpool in the world, is only part of the problem.  Huge volumes of water pass through the channel on both flood and ebb tides, on the north-going flood the water pours up the Sound of Jura and is forced through narrow passages to the north and west, the Corryvreckan taking a significant part of the stream.  On the south-going ebb the process is reversed and water is forced through the channel from west to east.

The seabed in the channel approaches and the channel itself is very complex and accelerates the flow of water, producing tidal streams of up to 8 knots (16  kph).  A complicating factor is a pinnacle on the north side of the channel which rises from a 219m deep "hole" to within 29m of the surface, with a very steep face on its eastern side.  On the flood tide particularly, this topography combined with the speed of the flow causes a massive upthrust of water which surges past the pinnacle and sets up an enormous whirlpool with vortices spinning off downstream to the west.  If you then combine this dynamic water with a wind and swell from the western entrance to the channel, the resulting conditions can be truly elemental with standing waves of up to 9 metres and a roar which can be heard up to 20 kilometres away.

As we set out, we met the tour boat "Sea Leopard II" coming eastward from the channel.  As soon as he saw us, the captain throttled right back to minimise his wash - a courtesy we were grateful for; a wash in confused water can produce quite difficult waves.  The video embedded on Craignish Cruises website is an excellent explanation and film of the Corryvreckan - and if you don't fancy kayaking the strait then the Sea Leopard II would be by far the best way to experience the whirlpool and the wildlife of the area.  To get an idea of the power of the tidal stream at Spring tides, this video shows the RNLI lifeboat in the main flow.....

We were very cautious because from Port nam Furm it isn't possible to see what conditions are like in the Gulf itself.  We expected some swell from the west due to strong winds in the preceding days, so it would have been unseamanlike and foolish to have attempted the passage when the flood tide (3 days before Springs) was running strongly.

As we entered the channel and gained a clear view to seaward we were relieved to see quiet conditions and no breaking swell - it appeared that our prospects would be somewhat brighter than "death onlie" !  As if stage-managed, the sunny conditions were replaced with a grey cloud sheet as we entered...

In the narrowest part of the channel the water was swirling and forming gentle hydraulic cushions, but our timing had been good and we passed through easily on slack water.  One factor in our planning of time and tide for this passage was that if we encountered nasty conditions at the west side of the Corryvreckan we could wait a short time for the ebb to build and push us back through the channel to safer water in the Sound of Jura.

However, the timing needed to be calculated accurately - slack water lasts just minutes and the flow picks up very quickly.  By the time we reached the west entrance the east-going flow could already be felt and paddling became a bit more strenuous.

On the Jura side of the western entrance are a couple of small islands and skerries.  We passed inside Eilean Beag (little island) as the ebb began to really get started and had to PLF for a good 15 minutes to escape being drawn back through the Corryvreckan.  For a good five minutes we were paddling at maximum output but making good just over 1kph against the strengthening tide.  To see how strongly this section can run at full flow, the same bit of water is featured from the 9 minute mark in the HebrideanWild video.

After a strenuous pull we won safely clear of the Corryvreckan.......the wild west coast of Jura was now ours to explore.