Monday, 18 February 2019

A hint of the Spring to come

A run of remarkably mild and sunny days in the north east of Scotland has brought a hint of Spring, in mid-February; and nature has responded.  Birdsong increased noticeably, where there had just been Robins singing they've been joined by Great and Blue Tits, and yesterday a Thrush belting out song from the top of a Birch tree.

The flowers have responded to some warmth too - Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) usually flower in February but have fully opened their flowers in the sunshine.

The Crocuses in a small flower bed next to a south facing wall visibly grew over two days, a couple of weeks earlier than expected they're much more a Spring flower than a winter one!

On a walk by the lower reaches of the River Spey, a sunny and sheltered spot in a wood was full ofa plant which seemed familiar, but not completely so.  We have Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) growing near to home and this was similar but somehow different.

A bit of research revelaed that the plants are White Butterbur (Petasites albus), a non-native variant introduced to Britain in 1683 from southern Europe.  It apparently thrives along watercourses in the north east of Scotland and can be invasive as it spreads via underground rhizomes and can out-compete other species.

There's no doubt more of winter to come, but it was certainly good to feel a hint of the coming Spring!

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

A gem of a winter day at Loch Muick

After Storm Erik had swept across Scotland there was a day of rare winter perfection; cold but not frigid, clear blue skies and crisp winter sunshine.  We decided to take a walk at Spittal of Glenmuick and drove the short distance from home through Ballater and up the single track road to the head of the glen.

Just as you approach the car park at the end of the road there's a great view across to Lochnagar, which was looking very fine under a full cover of snow.

You don't get to see all of Lochnagar from this angle though, the great corrie which is the defining feature of the mountain is hidden behind the upper slopes.  A cloud cap was streaming over the western arm of the corrie and then dissipating into the clear sky.

The term "Spittal" indicates the site of a medieval staging point for travellers on the drove road between Deeside and Glen Clova - termed as a hospital or hospice but having the meaning of a shelter from wolves and robbers.  There are some fascinating remains of quite a sizeable township, described on the Canmore site record.

The end of the road is a car park owned by Balmoral estate - there's a charge for parking which was originally quite reasonable but is creeping rapidly up - £4 per car currently.  There's also a small but very interesting visitor centre in a former cottage and some public toilets.

We'd originally intended to walk around Loch Muick but noticed an information poster indicating that a bridge over a large burn near the head of the loch has been washed away.   There would be no easy crossing of the burn so we decided to walk out along the west side of the loch and return the same way.  The loch is a real glacial feature, wild and surrounded by steep hills for most of its length.  Although a level, loch-side walk it needs to be remembered that Loch Muick is at 400 metres/1300 feet and can experience ferocious weather.  On this day, in the winter sunshine it was a stunning blue jewel among the muted winter hills and a perfect foil for the sky.

The River Muick drains from the end of the loch and flows north to eventually join the Dee near Ballater.  A dark brown yet not peaty, I've always found the Muick an interesting river - it starts sluggish and meandering and picks up speed well below the loch, tumbling and surging down a gorge to join the Dee - almost the reverse of most rivers.

Along the path every bit of moisture had been frozen hard, there were smears of hard grey ice and puddles crazed with beautiful crystal patterns.

On the warm coloured granite sand at the end of the loch there are signs that this was once a well wooded area - historic climate change and changes in land use have left it mainly bare, though the trees are beginining to return along the loch with help from the estate in fencing and reducing deer numbers.  Fifty years from now there should once again be a natural wood all along one side of the loch, extending up the slopes.

The track along the west side of Loch Muick is built to a very high standard with drainage ditches and retaining walls of pink granite blocks.  This was built to service a quite remarkable building and one which is quite unexpected.....

Glas-Allt Shiel was built on the site of a much smaller cottage for Queen Victoria who loved the place for its remoteness and peace.  Built after the death of Prince Albert, she seems to have preferred it because there were no associations with her late husband - she found Balmoral and the small hideaway of Allt-na Guibhsach too full of memories.  The name is taken from the burn which rushes  down off Lochnagar and into the loch - the Glas Allt (grey water)

Still owned and occasionally used by the Royal family, this is perhaps one of the best situated of all the great lodges.  At the rear, an outbuilding is an open bothy cared for by Dundee University and the Mountain Bothies Association.

We found a sheltered spot by the loch side in the wood surrounding the lodge and spent a pleasant half hour in the sunshine eating lunch - there was even some warmth in the February sun.  We left reluctantly; Victoria was right about the peaceful setting of Glas-Allt Shiel.

We strolled the 6km back to Spittal of Glenmuick in alternating cold winds and warm sunshine, the wind beginning to pour down from the higher ground.  From the car park we could see that the morning cloud had burned away to reveal the edge of Lochnagar's corrie - it had been a gem of a winter day.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Pale beauty

It's been a weekend of pale beauty here in the northeast of Scotland.  Driving towards Banchory we were in atmospheric mist with shafts of sunlight streaming through the trees - and I hadn't brought a camera!  We stopped on the road which drops from Queen's View towards Coull where there's a wide sweep of the Dee valley below.  A photo on a mobile phone gives an impression of the almost ghostly quality of light.  Beyond the Dee the easternmost of the Munros, Mount Keen, was prominent as a dome of brilliant white against the pale blue of the winter sky.

On Sunday evening I took a walk around the local area and was returning home as the moon rose above the farmland.  Initially a shade of golden yellow, it rapidly became a disc of pale beauty as it cleared the frost haze; the temperature plummeted below freezing and continued down to minus 6 Celsius.  This full moon was a bit of a special one too....

I was up and about before 5am in order to catch a flight for work - but also to try and catch something of the lunar eclipse which reached totality at 0512.  Given the catchy title of a "super blood wolf moon" because the moon was at perigee (closest to earth and so appearing 7% larger than normal), the blood term from the expected reddish colour and "wolf moon" is a name for a January full moon.

The eclipse was so total that the moon appeared for a while as a dark disc - and my camera simply wouldn't focus on it; the image is included here to show the extraordinary colour.  The difference between the conditions during this eclipse and the very special solstice lunar eclipse in December 2010 was amazing - the ambient light from the snow covered landscape on that occasion must have made quite a difference. 

In any case, my images this time mostly showed nothing but a blur of reddish-brown at totality.  What I actually observed was a disc of deep brown with a reddish edge all round - it was incredibly beautiful.

Gradually the terminator (I love some of the astronomical terms!) crept down and allowed pale light to flood around a portion of the moon, just as a haze of cloud arrived and softened the light.

A post of rather dodgy photos, but hopefully conveying something of the pale beauty of this winter weekend.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Bacon rolls, coffee and cake - the art of suffering on Loch Ailort

I slept well in Peanmeanach - a quiet building in a quiet place.  Stepping outside in the evening, it was immediately obvious that our fire wasn't the only glow around these parts. A herd of Red Deer hinds uses the meadow below the bothy and they generally gather in the evenings.  Our headtorches picked out dozens of pairs of glowing eyes staring back towards us - and the animals seemed very unconcerned if we walked close by.

We felt no inclination for an early start and so didn't rise until it was fully light - about 8.30am.  The weather looked to be similar to the previous day with a grey cloudsheet overhead, but it was dry and not too cold which is as much as you can ask from a January day in Scotland!

A leisurely breakfast including bacon rolls (thanks Donald!) and fresh coffee made for a pleasant start to the day, breakfast made easier by being able to cook inside the bothy.  Once packed up we cleaned through the building and cleared the fire ashes for the next visitors, then got dressed into paddling kit.

Back on the water by mid morning, we decided to paddle to the head of Loch Ailort before returning to Samalaman to end this short trip.  The colours on this third day of the year were very muted and the light levels quite low; our boats seemed to be the only spots of brighter colour anywhere. 

Loch Ailort is a shallow "S" shaped sea loch guarded by islands at its mouth and has more interest than is generally supposed.  There are islands, narrow channels which change with the tide height and even some faster moving water in places.  We explored at a leisurely pace up to the head of the loch where luncheon was taken at the public jetty near Inverailort.

We planned to arrive back at our starting point near Glenuig at or shortly after sunset so didn't linger too long before setting off back down the loch.

On the way we stopped at a spot I've paddled past may times but hadn't previously landed.  A glimpse of flat turf aroused our interest and we got out to investigate.  Aside from Peanmeanach there are few decent spots to wild camp in Loch Ailort, or so we thought.  You'll need to find the place for yourself, but we felt that two or three tents could be pitched here on good, level ground - a useful recce!

We paddled back out of the loch past Eilean nan Gobhar and out onto the Sound of Arisag; An Sgurr of Eigg ahead of us was streaming a cloud banner as moister air streamed past it - quite different to the conditions on the summer day when Mike and I last visited!

The last hour of our paddle passed pleasantly as we upped the pace a little to arrive back at Samalaman Bay in the gathering dusk.  We landed at almost high water so didn't have too far to move our boats, which is always a nice bonus at the end of a day.  Kit packed up and boats loaded, we couldn't resist the lure of coffee and cake at the Glenuig Inn before heading home - an other nice bonus at the end of a paddle!  we'd topped and tailed the day with good food and with fresh coffee....who said sea kayaking  trips mean "roughing it"?!

This first overnight trip of the year had been just 32km of paddling over two short days.  In familiar waters and benign weather we'd enjoyed a pleasant and relaxed introduction to another year of sea kayaking - and shared with our friends Allan and Lorna a return to kayaking after enforced lay-offs.  Here's to lots more trips in 2019!

Friday, 18 January 2019

An orange glow on Loch Ailort

Having said our goodbyes to Lorna and Allan at Samalaman Donald and I headed back out onto the Sound of Arisaig.  Th high pressure weather had introduced a cloudsheet which almost obscured the whole sky, but not quite.  Donald's distinctive orange Nordkapp was caught in a shaft of sunlight and fairly glowed against the muted shades of sea and sky.

You'll notice that even when I was close by, the light continued to pick out Donald rather than me....truly the sun must shine on the righteous!  Ahead of us lay the entrance to Loch Ailort with the outer set of islands which guard the approach.  To the right the familiar outlines of the Rois-Bhein (Roshven) hills form the southern skyline.

The largest island at the entrance to Loch Ailort is Eilean nan Gobhar (Island of the Goats) which was briefly lit by a patch of sunlight - the last blink we'd see on this winter afternoon.  The island has the remains of two vitrified hillforts on the highest parts, though you need to look quite carefully to find the fused sections of wall.  The outer (west facing) shore of this small but rugged island is subject to quite rough conditions from the swell which rolls in from the Sound of Arisaig and from the tidal stream which forces around the island but there's a boulder beach on the eastern side which offers a landing in reasonable conditions.

Passing inside Eilean nan Gobhar brought us to the outer part of Loch Ailort and to a beach on the Ardnish peninsula below our destination for the night.....

...Peanmeananch bothy.  One of the larger and more popular bothies,we were surprised to find we were the only "guests" - though another couple arrived about 30 minutes later having walked in from the north.  Peanmenach is looked after by the Mountain Bothies Association and as for all the bothies in the organisation's care exists "for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places".  I've been a member of the MBA for many years; the whole concept is a remarkable one - a place which belongs to the landowner, cared for by volunteers and open to all without charge or booking, subject only to a common sense code of practice.  The MBA plaque on a door is always a great sight at the end of a day!

Peanmeanach has two downstairs rooms and a floored loft upstairs.  Donald and I moved our kit upstairs and left the downstairs "bedroom" for Ollie and Leanne.  Over dinner we shared stories and experiences with our new companions.  Winter camping is a joy in itself, but it was likely on this cold night that all of us would have retired to our tents soon after dinner if we were camping.  No such requirement on this evening though...... we'd all brought fuel for a splendid fire!  Sea kayaks have great carrying capacity and we'd brought lots of wood and offcuts of oak casks left over from handcraft work.  Ollie and Leanne had carried in wood too, so we soon had the main room toasty warm and lit with another orange glow on Loch Ailort.