Monday, 5 October 2015


Having made some adjustments to the rigging on my Flat Earth Kayak Sail, I'd hoped to give the new components a test during a paddle on the Moray Firth. So, obviously the day I chose turned out to be one of the few windless days in several weeks! I left the sail in the car and set out.....

...from my regular launching spot in the tiny harbour at Sandend.  Although the sky was overcast it was a pleasantly warm end of September day and the Moray Firth was unusually calm.

I headed east towards the West Head (it's the West Head of Portsoy rather than Sandend!), crossing the bay to engage in some gentle rockhopping.  My vague plan was to head past Portsoy to Whitehills before returning to Sandend.

The east side of Sandend Bay offers some good rocky inlets which aren't often accessible due to swell and surf - Sandend is a noted surf beach herabouts.  On this day a combination of calm conditions and proximity to big Spring tide high water gave a rare opportunity to get up close in some of the narrow geos.  A fellow paddler had left Sandend at about the same time I did and followed much the same route - it's good to see other folk paddling this gem of a coastline.

At the West Head there are two clefts through the tip of the headland.  The narrower of these is usually passable in calm conditions but a very dramatic place in a big swell.  As I lined up to paddle through, a gentle but powerful pulse of swell poured over from seaward, the Moray Firth heartbeat of three bigger swells in a pattern of smaller pulses making for some very interesting conditions - what this image doesn't show is the metre high swell travelling along the cleft in tune with the surf pouring in.

My own heartbeat was sufficiently raised.....  I paddled around the outside!

On the Portsoy side of the West Head there are some great cliffs and a couple of tiny, hidden bays.  There's also a tall arch which is surprisingly difficult to identify from seaward and "goes" at most states of tide given calm-ish conditions.

A glance back at the West Head gave no indication of the "interesting" conditions in the narrow cleft - the heartbeat now just a gentle hint of swell.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Daytime viewing

During the first part of September the UK was under a northerly airstream for several days resulting in superbly clear air and pin-sharp views. On a walk up Craig Vallich, a small hill overlooking Ballater on Deeside, a cool morning turned pleasantly sunny and the views gave ample excuse to just sit for a while and enjoy the last of the summer colours.

Early cloud was lifting away from the high ground across lower Glen Muick, the colours of the hill ground contrasting nicely with the varied greens of the glen.

From higher up the stand-out view was across to Lochnagar, particularly given that the morning sun was throwing the features of the mountain's north face into sharp relief.  Through binoculars several of the ridges and gully lines were clearly visible.  Lochnagar lies on Balmoral estate and is occasionally referred to as the "royal mountain".  I've climbed it many times using different routes; it seems always to give me a great day.

To the west the view from this small hill extends for mile after mile, over the fertile Dee valley to the high ground of the Cairngorms.  Another scan with binoculars found some hills which are old friends.

Well satisfied with my "daytime viewing", I turned to descend Craig Vallich towards Ballater, with the town's other hill, the rocky little peak of Craigendarroch prominent beyond the town.

Already the colours of early September are on the turn as autumn approaches - a new season's pallete beginning to develop.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Fortified on Loch Sunart

Emerging from the calm at the eastern end of Loch na Droma Buidhe, I was straight out into a stiff headwind and had an energetic twenty minutes paddling to cross to the north side of Loch Sunart.

My aiming point was a gap between two outcrops to the west of the island of Risga which framed the grand looking Glenborrodale Castle.  The present building, described on the excellent Canmore database of historical sites as "a florid vision in Annan sandstone rising up from sham fortifications" is a country house hotel and replaced an earlier building erected by the diamond magnate Charles Rudd, an associate of Cecil Rhodes.  The hotel website is very welcoming.......

...but not it seems, to everybody.  Welcome to Glenborrodale.  The law of Trespass in Scotland is a difficult one to define in a few words, but essentially if you don't damage property, don't intend to stay permanently and abide by the provisions of the Access section of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act - you are not trespassing.  Perhaps the sign is another "sham fortification"?

On the way back to Salen there's a site which is much older and certainly wasn't built as a sham fortification.  Dun Ghallain is situated on a tiny rocky islet, defended mostly by steep rock, but on one side by a tumbled wall. 

The fort walls enclose a small flat area at the summit of the islet, and the fort builders chose their site well.

The view extends almost the length of Loch Sunart in one direction....

.....while to the west the view stretches beyond the mouth of Loch Sunart and out to the Cairns of Coll. 

Although accessible at low water when a sandy spit conects Dun Ghallain to the shore, for most of the time the fort was protected by water. It couldn't withstand a prolonged attack, but this little fort must have been a real strategic asset to its builders.

The last leg of my short trip on lay close in on the north (Ardnamurchan) shore of Loch Sunart, and what a pleasant stretch it is.

There's interest in the shoreline rock, as here where a broad viein of quartz is intruded into the darker bedrock, the vein continuing down underwarer as far as I could see.

....while all along the shore the Atlantic Oakwood reaches to the water, interspersed in places with pine and larch.  In the clear air generated by a northerly airstream the colours simply "zinged". 

Arriving back at Salen, I used my trolley to haul the boat back up the shingle slip and got things sorted out and loaded to the car.  There was plenty of time to visit the Salen Jetty Shop for a post-paddle treat of coffee and cake.  The shop and coffee-shop are a new addition to Salen and a very welcome one, the range and quaility of goods on offer is really good and features local produce too.  It's worth knowing that the building also has toilets and showers available for jetty/shop customers.  The coffee was superb and the cake was exceptionally good, I left "well fortified" for the journey home across Scotland - as a sea-kayaking refreshment/resupply point, the Salen Jetty Shop rates 12/10!

This short trip from Salen to Loch Teacuis, around Oronsay to Loch na Dhroma Buidhe and return to Salen was about 45 kilometres.  There are tidal sections to negotiate with Spring rates of up to 3 knots at the entrance to Loch Teacuis, otherwise tidal streams are fairly weak. 

Salen can be reached either from the south and east by crossing to Sunart at the Corran Ferry and travelling on the A861 past Strontian; or from the north by the A830 from Fort William to Lochailort, then the A861 past Glenuig and Acharacle.  The A861 is a "classic" highland singletrack "A" road with passing places; it's narrow, twisty and always takes longer to drive than the mileage would suggest.  A significant issue is finding somewhere to park and access the water, particularly in summer.  Spaces are few and far between and it may need a degree of flexibility to find a suitable launch spot.  Three Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50K sheets are required to cover the area - Sheet 47 (Tobermory & North Mull) and Sheet 40 (Mallaig & Glenfinnan) cover Loch Sunart, Sheet 49 (Oban & East Mull) covers Loch Teacuis.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Ticked off when camping at Loch na Dhroma Buidhe

After leaving Loch Teacuis via the western channel I paddled back out into Loch Sunart and around the north side of Oronsay. There are several islands of this name around the Scottish coast and in each case the Norse-Gaelic name indicates a tidal island, connected to the mainland or another island at lower states of the tide.

Out in the main loch the northerly wind had picked up to F5 and there was a distinctly bouncy sea running despite the short fetch from the north shore; it seemed that the wind was pouring over the Ardnamurchan peninsula and onto Loch Sunart.  I took no photographs for the next hour as I paddled past the inlets of Oronsay then down the west coast of the island to turn into much more sheletered water..... the mouth of Loch na Droma Buidhe (Loch of the yellow ridge).  The entrance to this offhoot of Loch Sunart is narrow at the western end and very narrow at the eastern end where it dries out below half tide.

Being sheltered from almost all directions and with decent holding ground on the bottom, Loch na Droma Buidhe is one of the more popular yacht anchorages on this part of the west coast.  there were two yachts anchored when I arrived and three more arrived during the evening, including one on which, incongruously, an electric guitar was being played.  Badly.

I landed and set up camp on a grassy meadow, exposed to the midge deterring breeze but in the evening sunlight.  On this occasion, near high water Springs, there was no need to make a decision on whether to move the boat just above the high water mark or to move it next to the tent - here the two were pretty much the same place!  As a bonus, high water the following morning would be just as I was setting out, so no need to move the boat across the pebble shore then either.  As a camp site, it seemed to have lots of advantages.

The guitar player gave up as the sun dropped and the breeze grew distinctly chilly, though there was a lovely warm evening light on the hills.

I retired to the tent just as the last afterglow as fading from the sky to seaward and fell quickly asleep, but in the small hours of the morning I was wakened by the sound of disturbance around my boat.  I asumed it was deer and made a noise which sent everything quiet momentarily before I heard my paddles being rattled about in the cockpit. As I got out of the tent my head torch picked out the yellow glow of a fox's eyes on the shoreline.  My food and a rubbish bag were stowed in the boat and he must have been able to smell, but not find the goodies.  It took quite a long stand-off with some shouting from me before he took the hint and left.  I collected the food and rubbish bag to stow inside my tent and went back to bed.

The short time I was out of the tent may have contributed to the second, less palatable wildlife "experience" at this camp.  Dressing in the early morning light I noticed a couple of black dots on my ankles and removed a couple of tiny Ticks.  On getting home later that evening, the full extent of the problem became apparent - I was liberally covered from midriff down in Ticks - I stopped counting after removing over 30.  Fortunately they were all, except two, at the tiny larval stage and so unlikely to be a risk in terms of being a vector for Lyme Disease, nevertheless it was the greatest number of these pests I've ever picked up.

The breeze died just as I was finishing off taking down the tent in the morning which brought out the midges, but I was quickly on the water and away towards the very narrow eastern entrance to the loch.  The house here is reputed to have once been a tiny brewery as well as a ferry landing, but it's well past last orders these days.  The channel has a series of large rock outcrops with narrow, shallow channels between; no place for vessels much larger than a sea kayak and certainly not suitable for yachtsmen, however bold. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Loch Teacuis - a hard place to leave

After passing through Caol Charna the arcing narrow entrance to Loch Teacuis is reached.  It was by now an hour after low water and the flood was firmly underway so I knew that I'd have to paddle back against both the tidal stream and the northerly breeze to get back out of the loch.  The contrast between the narrow confines of the approach to Loch Teacuis and the open head of the loch is quite marked, giving a sense of space as the narrows open out.

Ahead is Benn na-h Uamh (Mountain of the Caves) which is part of a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) due to the plant communities which thrive on the calcereous basalt rock of the hill.  The whole area is volcanic in origin with some spectacular cliffs formed by ancient lava flows. 

The interest continues underwater too; in 2006 small communities of Serpulid Worms were found in 3 metres of water near to the head of Loch Teacuis.  These reefs are pretty uncommon, the only other Scottish location is at Loch Creran, which is reckoned to be the largest such community worldwide.  As a result, Lochs Creran and Teacuis have been designated as Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) and in Loch Creran, fishing activity and yacht anchoring are restricted to certain areas.  Restrictions are under consideration for Loch Teacuis too, including one option to ban yachts from anchoring throughout the loch.  The Yachtsman's pilot guides describe the approach to Loch Teacuis as "very tricky" so the number of yachts will not be great; hopefully a balance can be arrived at to protect the emerging Serpulid reefs whilst allowing fishing and yacht anchorage in areas of the loch which don't contain the reefs.

My own departure from Loch Teacuis was likely to prove "very tricky" as the flood tide was now at it's strongest.  Flow rates in the pilot guides indicate 2.5 knots at Springs, but particularly in Caol Charna around some of the rocky features this rate is exceeded by a margin.  In this image I'm in relatively quiet flow behind a rock outcrop in mid channel.  The distance to the shore of Carna ahead is not great, but it required a steep ferry angle and a brief session of PLF to reach......

Once on the shore I climbed up a little to check out the movement in the channel.  I intended to use the western channel to pass Carna rather than try here, particularly given the fact that I couldn't see much in the way of eddies to help in this narrows.  It was acually possible to detect a slight slope to the water as it poured from Loch Sunart through Caol Charna - a good hint to try elsewhere!

The place where I'd landed on Carna would have made a good wild camp, having a decent area to pitch a tent, nice views and being exposed to a breeze to deter midges.  I did consider stopping early and camping here, but decided to press on - a decision I would come to regret later!

In the meantime the tide was rising quickly so it was back to the boat and out to try........

...the western channel past Eilean nan Eildean ((Deer) Hind Island).  I paused in an eddy to check out the flow then pushed out, finding a few more eddies to assist on the way up against the flood.  Actually it was possible to make progress against the full flow in the channel here, the rate indicated in the yachtsman's pilot seems pretty accurate.

Looking back past Eilean nan Eildean on the right towards Loch Teacuis - it's a beautiful loch to explore and can be hard to leave in more ways than one!