Monday, 21 July 2014

Big air and deep water at Ailsa Craig

Having looked around the lighthouse and the quarry infrastructure, Douglas and I decided to make the most of our day on Ailsa Craig by climbing to the summit of the island.

The start of the path isn't easy to find but Douglas has been up previously and knew exactly where to look behind one of the buildings to find it.  The path is faint and in summer goes through chest high bracken on the lower slopes.  It also climbs at quite an angle, varying from steep through very steep to vertiginous and requires the occasional use of hands. 

After an initial steep pull the angle briefly relents on a shelf of rock.  Ahead is the Castle, a square peel tower built with local stone and dressed on the corners with blocks of sandstone.  The Castle was almost certainly built by the Hamiltons but no record remains of why it was built or how long it was occupied.  It is said to have links with the monks of Crossraguel Abbey and was also briefly held by Catholic forces on behalf of King Philip II of Spain.

Above the Castle the ascent resumes its steep angle.  A small well, more a tiny spring really, sits above the building and may have influenced the siting of the building.  The steep slopes of Ailsa Craig continue underwater as well as above, straight into the deep water of the Firth of Clyde. 

We paused on a level platform just below the final rocky climb to the summit to watch as FPV Minna cruised by below.  At 42 metres long she's not a big vessel and looked even smaller from up here.

One final pull up and we were on the 338 metre/1109 ft summit of Ailsa Craig.  The small summit area is surrounded by ground which drops away to the sea below, the faint noise of thousands of seabirds and the clouds of white specks we knew to be Gannets with two metre wingspans gave a sense of scale; we were truly in "big air". 

And the views!  From the Ayrshire coast round to County Antrim in Northern Ireland to Kintyre, Arran and the mountains of Argyll there is a wonderful 360 degree view with a foreground of blue sea.  Arran looked close and yet is 25 kilometres away.  We picked out Pladda and Benna Head, highlights of our recent journey around the island.

There was almost no breeze on the summit and the afternoon was warm.  We spent some time absorbing the views and then prepared for the descent, the knee-jarring to come would be as tough as the climb - though Douglas' bionic knees can now cope with a remarkable amount!

We were glad of the dry underfoot conditions on our way down.  The angle is such that for most of the way any slip would have serious consequences; in muddy conditions I would think twice about climbing the hill.  Gradually the lighthouse came into view along with our kayaks drawn up on the storm beach.  It's interesting to contrast this image with one taken by Douglas from a similar point in 2012; the curving shingle spit and a huge pile of rock have been completely erased by storms in the intervening period - a really striking change. 

We were hot and tired on the way down and looked forward to completing the "hat trick" at Ailsa Craig by kayaking, hillwalking and swimming.....

On the lower heathery slopes we saw several beautiful Magpie moths (Abraxa grossulariata).  They feed on the leaves of shrubs, so on Ailsa Craig they must favour the only small trees available, Elders (known as Bour trees and so scarce are trees here that they're marked on the map).  Lovely as this small wildlife spectacle was, our wildlife encounters were shortly to get a whole lot more widescreen....

Meantime though there was the pure pleasure of a swim in the cool waters of the Firth of Clyde.  Instantly refreshing and invigorating, our swim was enlivened by the presence of a couple of nearby Grey Seals who were curious about these pale-coloured visitors to their world and stayed around to check us out, quite a privilege

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Light and heavy stones at Ailsa Craig

As we finished our second breakfast MFV Glorious re-embarked her passengers and headed off for a tour around Ailsa Craig.  We intended to do the same circumnavigation, but Douglas suggested we do it later in the day when the light would be better on the south-west facing cliffs.  Meanwhile, we had plenty of time to explore.

A feature of the area around the quarry and boulder beach near the lighthouse buildings and pier are the shaped offcuts of granite lying around.  They are the clue to Ailsa Craig's world-renowned status as the origin for most of the world's Curling stones.

Curling has a long tradition in Scotland and the Netherlands, and when taken abroad by emigrant Scots became a major sport in Canada.   Known as "the roaring game" from the noise of the stones rumbling down the ice "sheet", it is still a popular pastime with indoor rinks and also (like in my home village of Alford) outdoor rinks used in winter.

The granite stones have to be of a prescribed weight between 38 to 44 lbs (17 and 20kg) and with a maximum circumference of 36 inches (910 mm).  The two principal sources of stones ar Ailsa Craig and Trefor quarry in Wales.  The preferred stone is made from a particular type of microgranite known as Blue Hone from just one area on the island, its characteristic fine grain and hardness resist water absorption and makes long-lasting and true running stones.  Quarrying ceased for a time between 2002 and 2013 because of the bird reserve status of Ailsa Craig, but in 2013 Kays of Scotland, who have exclusive quarrying rights graned by the island's owner the Marquess of Ailsa, quarried 2000 tons of rock - enough to fill anticpated orders until 2020. 

Adjacent to the lighthouse building is the narrow guage tramway which ran from the quarry to the pier to transport the quarried rock.  Remarkably, the points on the tramway still function.

We like lighthouses a lot - and Ailsa Craig is a fine example of a Stevenson light built for the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners.  The buildings and surrounding area are in separate ownership to the rest of the island, there was a plan to turn the keeper's cottages and storerooms into holiday accommodation but nothing seems to have come of it.  Some of the buildings are open and are showing the signs of neglect and exposure to the elements.

The best view of the lighthouse is from a little distance away.  Completed in 1886 under the supervision of Thomas and David Stevenson, the light is 18 metres above sea level, flashes white once every 4 seconds and is visible for 17 nautical miles.  Prior to the installation of wireless telephone equipment in 1935, the keepers relied upon pigeons to carry messages ashore to a loft at Girvan on the Ayrshire coast.  Ailsa Craig was automated in 1990 and converted from gas to solar-electric power in 2001.

We had seen such a lot during our short exploration around the landing area - it was time to get a bit of a higher view!

Friday, 18 July 2014

Ailsa Craig - big rock, small boats

Douglas and I had a plan to do a day's paddle "somewhere in the Firth of Clyde area" - which gives considerable scope! When our available days coincided with a short period of light winds we exchanged texts and a phone call during one afternoon and arranged to meet the following morning....... head out somewhere pretty special.  Our starting point at Lendalfoot is a four hour drive from home for me, but the opportunity to get out to Ailsa Craig seemed well worth the effort.  Having been on my "must do" list for so long but with timings or conditions not having previously worked, it was great to be in position with a good forecast.

If you are a sea kayaker and the name Lendalfoot seems vaguely familiar, it's because this is where Alastair Wilson developed Lendal Paddles.  The brand has been sold on a couple of times and is no longer based in Scotland but Alastair still lives in Lendalfoot.

From the shore, Ailsa Craig looks temptingly close but it's a 14 kilometre open crossing each way, with no guarantee of being able to land on the bouldery shore when you arrive.  Any trip out to the island needs careful planning both to get out and, more importantly, to get back.

We had a great forecast and set out soon after 0900.  There isn't too much in the way of tidal stream (although we experienced some tidal movement on our return leg) so our transit was a little to the left of the rock itself.  At the half way point you start to get a sense of the size of the place and the distance still to paddle.  I've passed Ailsa Craig many times onboard ships, a prominent navigational mark which gained the nickname "Paddy's milestone" from its position on the sea route midway between Belfast and Glasgow but ships steer well clear; in kayaks we were aiming straight for it.

The weather had been pleasant if a little cool when we set off but gradually the cloud drew away to leave a hot and sunny morning with almost no wind, which suited our leisurely outward journey perfectly.

Detail began to emerge as we drew closer.  Ailsa Craig is the remnant plug of an extinct volcano, the rock which once would have formed the magma chamber cooling to form hard micro-granite and columnar basalt.  The cone of the volcano has been eroded away by glaciation and post-glacial processes to leave the distinctive shape we see today.  The micro-granite from Ailsa Craig has some unique characteristics and this has allowed glaciologists to trace the routes taken by the glaciers which flowed down the Firth of Clyde and onwards as far as Wales.

At last we arrived under the lighthouse after two and a half hours steady paddling.  The only landing places on the island are found here, either to the right of the pier or below the lighthouse.  Grey Seals often use the pier area to haul out, but there were none on the beach today so we were happy to land here.

 Either way its a bouldery landing on a steep storm beach, but welcome after the long-ish time in the boats.  We soon had the kayaks and gear moved up to the top of the berm formed by last winter's storms and walked up to the lighhouse wall to enjoy second breakfast.

Our arrival coincided with that of MFV Glorious, the tour boat operating out of Girvan on the Ayrshire coast. Her passengers disembarked to take a walk around the lighthouse buildings with some curious glances at our little boats, no doubt thinking that the "Glorious" was small enough a vessel to venture out here!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Living the high life on Ben MacDui

The summit areas of the Cairngorms form the most arctic-like environment in Britain, winter here can last for nine months of the year and the conditions for any plant or animal are extreme.  Winds scour the plateaux, the ground can be frozen, buried in snow, subject to heavy rain and endure drought conditions during the course of a year.  To live the "high life" on these plateaux you have to be tough.  But there are a surprising amount of  species who choose this environment.  Birds like Ptarmigan don't do well at lower altitudes, while scarce breeders such as Dotterel and Snow bunting find the Cairngorm tops much like their core sub-arctic ranges.

The boulderfields look bare at first glance, just granite boulders, some moss and a few lichens - and even these need to be very resistant to extremes.

But look around a bit and you start to find other species.  On the granite gravel patches are tufts of Deer Grass (Tricophorum cespitosum).  The plant isn't particularly favoured by deer, the name coming from the warm brown and orange colours of the shoots as they die back in late summer and autumn.

Sedge, Rush or Grass?  I see this species a lot on the hills and haven't definitely identified it, so if anyone knows what it is please let me know!

The undoubted superstar of the high plateaux in summer is Moss Campion (Silene acaulis).  Occurring in clumps sheltered behind boulders up to about 1150 metres, the dense cushions of green dotted with jewel-like purple flowers are a startling sight on the bare slopes.

The flowers are just 6-10mm across and sit tight on the cushion of the plant.  Superbly adapted for the high life, Moss Campion has a deeply penetrating tap root and a compact cushion which give it a good degree of wind resistance.  Up here, the wind rules everything, even eroding the rock itself by blowing gravels around.   Plants have adapted though.......


This heath has grown prostrate from a crack on a granite boulder.  The plant has grown downwind and as the wind has damaged the part nearest the root it has found  a toehold on the lee side of the boulder and put down roots.  Soon the original root will die and break off as the plant finds a better position in the shelter of the rock.

 My descent to Glen Luibeg took me down off the summit boulderfields and onto the grassy ground a bit lower down.  Lochan Uaine (the green lochan) in its wild corrie was one of the places I'd considered camping.  Maybe next time.....

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The big grey view of Ben MacDui

I woke briefly some time in the pre-dawn to hear light rain on the tent but on waking a couple of hours later the rain had stopped, though it was overcast.  That didn't detract much from the pleasure of waking up and taking breakfast in such a great location though!

It was just a short climb to reach the domed summit plateau of Ben MacDui (Macduff's hill - MacDuff is the family name of the Earls of Mar),a sub-arctic landscape of granite flats and rock.  Ben MacDui is haunted by it's very own apparition - Am Fear Liath Mor (the big grey man), "something" seen and heard by normally level-headed folk which has scared them witless.  Whatever you make of the legend, it's pervasive, unexplained and in bad weather adds a certain something to any ascent of the hill!

The route from the Etchachan (east) side has some great views down gullies of red granite scree into Coire Sputan Dearg (corrie of the red spouts).  Remarkably, although it was raining in the corries and glens below it remained dry in the summit; an unusual occurrence in Scotland.

A little below the summit is the ruined "Sapper's Bothy", the story of this building is told on Neil Reid's Cairngorm Wanderer blog.  Easy to find on a clear day, a sight of the bothy in the clag is usually a very welcome confirmation that you're on route.

From the Sapper's Bothy it's just a stroll to the summit of Ben MacDui, crowned by a large cairn, trig point, view indicator and numerous low stone walls.  Despite this evidence of man's hand the summit of MacDui never feels as invaded as the top acre of Ben Nevis.  Although a well-climbed hill it gets a fraction of the ascents of Ben Nevis, due mainly to the length of the walk in and out- it's big and comparatively remote.

At 1309 metres/4294 ft MacDui is the second highest summit in Scotland (and in all Britain).  At this early hour there was nobody else around and so I could (for once) claim to be one of the highest paid men in the land!

Dotted around the summit area are low horseshoe shaped walls forming bivouac shelters.  Many of them are said to have been made by Commandos training in the area during World War 2.  I've often thought of a camp or bivvy up here, but the weather really needs to be good for that to be enjoyable.

the summit of Ben MacDui has a well-deserved reputation for being a very difficult place to escape from in bad weather.  The gently domed summit is surrounded by steep ground with only a few defined routes to get off the highest ground; and then there's the issue of finding the "right" descent in the conditions - which may well leave the walker a very long way indeed from the intended destination, attempting to walk against some of the ferocious weather found in the Cairngorms hardly ever ends well.  I have had an "interesting" few hours battling off the high ground here in strong wind and blowing snow having failed to reach the summit - it's a humbling experience as well as an exhausting one....

From the view indicator there's a fine panorama across the Lairig Ghru to the Breariach/Cairn Toul group of hills.  But on a clear day, there's much more to be seen from here.

In 1897-98, Mr A. Copland, first chairman of the Cairngorm Club, noted which hills could be seen from the summit of Ben MacDui and published the list in the Cairngorm Club Journal.  His findings were checked by Mr J. Parker and in 1925 the club built this indicator on the summit.  It has survived remarkably well given conditions up here, most of the damage is likely to have resulted from people chipping at ice to see what's beneath in winter conditions.

The furthest hills on the indicator are the Lammermuirs at 150 km to the SSE and Ben a-Chielt in Caithness 140 km to the north.  On exceptionally clear days many further distant hills can be glimpsed including those in Knoydart and Torridon.

After spending a little time just enjoying the summit view (though few of the hills on the indicator were on show today!) it was time for me to head down towards Glen Luibeg.  Even in good visibility gaining the top of the Sron Riach (brindled nose) ridge needs careful compass work across the boulderfields surrounding the summit.

No Big Grey Man this time, but there had been a big grey view to enjoy!