Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Cairn William and Pitfichie Hill - wild music

The December weather in the north-east of Scotland has alternated between deep low pressure systems bringing gales and snow, and bright sunny interludes.  The wind hasn't dropped for long so there hasn't been opportunity for sea kayaking, but conditions have been good for walking.

As a first hillwalk since returning home I chose two local hills, Cairn William and Pitfichie Hill.  The starting point at the carpark for the Pitfichie Forest Cycle Trails is just ten minutes from home, but despite this I still got started an hour later than planned due to faffing about finding kit.  After four months away, things seem always to migrate to the furthest corner of cupboards; it takes a couple of walks or paddles for everything to be reassembled to a state where I can just pick up and go!

The morning was bright and sharp, almost brittle and from the sky came the calls of the geese flocks, so evocative of winter.  In small groups, in flocks and in skeins, the geese were writing patterns across the morning sky as they moved from their roosts to feed on the farmland. Predominantly Greylags but the higher pitched calls of Pinkfeet could be heard too, echoing faintly in the quiet of the forest.

There is a walk of a few kilometres through the wood to start this walk and it proved the most challenging underfoot conditions of the day.  Recent snow had partially melted and then re-frozen into hard translucent ice.  The forest roads were lethally slippery and I had to pick a way along the margins to walk safely.

The track heads uphill for some way before swinging north and emerging into a clearing containing Whitehill Stone Circle.  This is a recumbent stone circle of the type found only in the north east of Scotland and appears to have the same alignment as nearby (7.5 km distant) Old Keig circle in being oriented to the major lunar standstill which occurs at 18.6 year intervals - at the standstill the moon appears to move from high in the sky to low on the horizon in just two weeks.

Whitehill circle is well signposted from the road and is one of the more frequently visited monuments despite not being the most complete of stone circles.  One of the flankers has fallen and lies next to the recumbent with just one face above the ground while all but a couple of the circle stones are fallen or missing.

The interior kerb of stones is one of the most complete examples though; the kerb and central cairn were usually built over a burnt area, leading to an interpretation of a part-funerary purpose for these enigmatic circles.

It was cold in the breeze despite the sunshine and I didn't stay too long, returning to the track to continue on towards Cairn William.  We are fortunate in having so many remainders of our ancient past in circles and stones here, however little we truly know of their purpose or the folk who built them.  Some things can't have changed down the millenia though, the December winds would still have been cold and the geese would still have graced the winter skies with their wild music.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Rise and shine

After a week of storms and snow showers, a calm morning.  I headed out from the house just as the light was coming up for a circular walk of an hour or so.  A pale wash of colour to the southeast hinted at a nice sunrise to come.  The night had been cold and the temperature was still minus 5 degrees Celsius, bracing in the still air.  The dominant sounds were the early morning jostlings, greetings and conversation of the farmland specialists, the "caw" of Rooks, the sharper "chack" of Jackdaws and, in the distance, the high call of a Buzzard

I'd just reached the top of the lane from the house when the colours in the sky drew me to abandon the route of my walk and head up the field edge to a wooded ridgeline with a view east.  The crunch of the icy ground and the brush of my boots through the barley stubbles alerted a small party of Roe deer, three does and a calf.  As their heads swivelled up and towards me I stopped and stood absolutely still.  I was treated to a nice close view for some minutes before the deer moved off with graceful bounds.

Up on the ridge and through the trees, the view across the houses of Bridge of Alford and beyond to Benaquhallie was lit by a glorious sunrise shading from brilliant yellow through gold and pink.  I stood and watched for some twenty minutes as the colours lightened to a searing yellow-white as the sun rose above the higher ground.

The low sun gave a very faint pink tinge to the light and the frigid air rendered everything pin-sharp; the frosting of the trees on Coiliochbar Hill clearly visible across a few kilometres.

The snow cover on the Correen Hills appears well established, but this early in the winter a couple of mild days would strip the brilliant white back to more muted shades.  In the early light the hillside fairly dazzled, offset by the warmer browns of larches.

Now chilled from standing around in the cold air, I turned to head back home.  The sun was yet to reach the houses and a faint waft of woodsmoke was just detectable on the almost still air.  Time for breakfast.......

Wednesday, 10 December 2014


Home again after a long spell working away, and the weather has turned towards winter. A storm system lashing the west coast of Scotland with wave heights of up to 15 metres - described in the maritime forecasts as "phenomenal"- was roaring its way across the country. Whilst the winds haven't been as strong in the north east, there is some significant weather here too.

A popular local walk is around or over Knock Saul, a 412 metre/1352 ft hill surrounded by forestry with good tracks.  I thought that the trees might give some shelter from the frequent snow showers blasting in from the west.  Not long after starting out I could see a heavy shower incoming.  The air temperature had been just above freezing all day and so any snow falling was likely to accumulate on the ground.

I increased my pace a little to try and get into the forest before the snow arrived and just about beat it...

...but "shelter" was a relative term as the air rapidly chilled and the snow whirled down through the trees.

The snow continued heavily for over an hour, coating the trees and producing an appropriately Christmas like effect.  As the shower passed the wind fell and the sky began to show signs of clearing.  I had originally thought to just walk around the hill on the forest tracks but the prospect of a view was temptation enough to make the short climb to the summit.

Even at this modest height winter is incoming.  The wind was chilly and at mid-afternoon the light was beginning to fade.  All the surrounding high ground has snow cover though the lower farmland is snow free so far.

There was a pale sunset blush in the sky as I descended back down to the forest track, a wash of colour in a newly monochrome world.

Heading back down the track there had been a noticeable increase in the snow cover.  A large shower to the south passed clear.....

...but a glance to the west into the teeth of the wind showed clearly what was incoming. I battened down and walked on, enjoying the wild weather.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Equipment Review - Crux AK70 rucsack

The Crux AK70 is marketed as a large mountaineering rucsack suitable for climbs in the Greater Ranges. Crux’s sister company Lightwave market a range of rucsacks aimed at trekking and backpacking, but the simplicity and design features of the AK70 make this sac suitable for backpacking as much as alpine climbing.

 I’ve owned the AK70 for four years during which time it has been used for multiday backpacking trips in all seasons, weathers and over a range of terrain. I should state at this point that I purchased the rucsack at very slightly less than retail price through a climbing shop discount, and have no connection with Crux at all.


The first thing that is noticeable about the AK70 is its clean, uncluttered design, a big plus for me.  There are none of the bells and whistles, attachments or multiple access points prominent in some designs.  When filled with gear the sac has a clean profile and is almost a throwback in being a classic top-loading single compartment rucsack.

The fabric is a Kevlar/Cordura weave which is light but incredibly tough.  The AK70 has survived frequent brushes with Cairngorm granite and Hebridean gabbro with ease, in fact almost without a scratch.  The base is double layer and is looks as if it will survive just about anything.  Although I pack using multiple small drybags inside any rucsack, I haven’t had any problems with water ingress despite all-day use in some really foul weather.  The body of the sac is a single piece of fabric sewn to the moulded back panel so there are a minimum of seams.  Attachment points for the compression straps and ice axe loops are welded to the fabric and seem capable of resisting considerable stress.  Crux point out that the fabric used in their AK range is twice the weight of fabrics used in competing products and therefore much more robust and yet their rucsacs weigh less than rival products due to the minimalist design.  The AK70 weighs in at a pretty light 1630 grams and feels lighter than it appears.

The lid of the sack is “floating” and can be extended to accommodate extra bulky loads or even removed completely (though I can’t envisage me needing to do that).  There are external and internal lid pockets, the outer has a water resistant zip with a useful zip-pull, the external lid pocket is cavernous and fits map, hat, gloves, snacks etc with plenty of room to spare. There is a compression strap across the top of the sac which sits under the lid for securing bulky items such as a rope.

Down the sides of the rucsack are further compression straps in a zigzag configuration which work extremely well to reduce volume when the sac isn’t fully packed.  There are also stretch wand pockets at each side of the base and simple but strong tape gear loops.  The wand pockets could be used for storing snacks or small items but I’ve found them most useful for securing the sharp tips of walking poles whilst traversing steep or broken ground.

Crux take pride in having developed a carrying system which is simple to the point of being Spartan – and when purchasing the sac this was the one doubt in my mind; would it be comfortable when carrying a load? 
Although pared-down to basics, the design and functionality shine through; a great deal of thought has been put into the back and harness.  .  Inside the body of the sac are a 8mm T6 alloy tube frame and a 12mm titanium centre stay, both removable, with a combined weight of just 65 grams.

The back panel is a large moulded panel with the maker’s name recessed into it (the only logo on the sack apart from a small woven one on the lid).  The back panel comes in three sizes, Crux recommend Size 1 for women and smaller men, Size 2 for average sized men and Size 3 for taller men.  At 1.75 metres I fall into the average range but actually found the smaller Size 1 back a better fit.  The back panel sits fully against the back, giving a large contact area for stability and bringing the centre of gravity closer to the wearer.  This would suggest that the Crux would be sweatier to carry than other rucsacks – but since I run pretty hot and generate a lot of heat anyway I haven’t found it to be noticeably sweatier than other backpacking sacs.  The stability from carrying the load close is really quite noticeable; on rough ground or in high wind the sac feels nailed onto one’s back, there is none of the unsteady feeling of a rucsack pulling in its own direction or sliding about when moving across rough ground.  There’s another advantage to the minimalist back panel, it doesn’t absorb water like open-cell foam padding.  This absorption can add noticeable weight to more complex back systems in wet weather.

Intelligent and functional design is also to the fore in the hipbelt, made of 40mm webbing with low profile hip fins.  The arrangement for tightening the waist belt is absolutely ingenious, it also prevents any loose straps around the waistbelt area – vital in a sac designed for mountaineering.  The belt itself is a continuous piece of webbing which wraps around the back beneath the back panel so that strain is transferred to the frame. The fin pads sit comfortably on the hips and support the majority of the load in a comfortable way.
The top tension straps are also continuous retained loops which pull off the frame rater than a row of stitching.  They give good adjustment to either haul in or slacken off the top of the load to suit and again have no loose straps to lash the face.

In use I’ve found the Crux AK70 to be a well-designed, simple but very comfortable rucsack.  Although not primarily designed for backpacking it does the job superbly well.  The quality of material used and the functional design make it stand out, the simplicity and understated features just do the job and do it well.  In hot conditions the back may be a little more sweaty than some other sacs with chimneys, vents and the like, but the trade off in terms of stability and light weight are, to my mind, well worthwhile. I can carry a 20kg load in comfort for long days whether on estate track, hill path or on rough trackless ground.  It is pretty much waterproof and incredibly tough yet weighs a lot less than most backpacking sacs.  The 70 litre capacity is well enough for the great majority of trips, and all of the capacity is usable space.

Is there anything I’d change?  Well, yes, a couple of minor things.  There’s no exit point for a drinking tube on the sac, so the hose has to exit at the drawcord.  A small flap near the front of the sack would be useful to avoid an awkward routing of the hose.  Also (and this really is nit-picking) it would have been useful to have loops for attaching elastic shock-cord to stow crampons on the back of the sac.  It’s relatively easy to add these and I do tie in some shock-cord for this purpose in winter, but some loops would be useful.
The version of the AK70 I own is a second generation model, first introduced in 2007.  A third generation model is due in 2015 and seems likely to feature all-welded construction and new Kevlar fabric claimed to be even lighter and tougher than the present material.

The quality of material, construction and attention to detail on the AK70 don’t make it the least expensive rucsac around, but I feel that you do get what you pay for here. There are much lighter rucsacs around from the “ultralight” manufacturers which have become popular in recent years, but the Crux requires no compromises in packing to compensate for flimsy construction and looks as if it will outlast ultralight several times over.

 If you’re looking for a high-quality, lightweight backpacking rucsack with a minimum of frills which will stand up to hard use then the Crux AK70 is very well worth a look.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Old Keig stone circle

The north east of Scotland is rich in ancient monuments, standing stones, circles, hillforts and castles.  The most enigmatic, mysterious and impressive are the perhaps the stone circles - voices from our past in stone.

Aberdeenshire has the highest concentration of stone circles anywhere in mainland Britain, many of which are of a unique design found nowhere outside an area bounded by the rivers Don and Deveron - the Recumbent Stone Circles. There are several recumbent circles within a few kilometres of the house, and on a raw and grey spring day we made a short drive to see one circle which we'd not previously visited at Old Keig.

Set on a ridge with views over the Howe of Alford, the circle now sits within a shelter belt of beech and pine trees.  The site was built up to make a level platform for the circle, now bounded by a much more modern drystone dyke.  Excavations have revealed that the interior of the circle had a bank of stones and a central cairn bounded by a semi circle of kerb stones; this was a complex construction.  Dated to the Neolithic, remains of pottery and burnt bones have been found buried near the central cairn.

The characteristic recumbent with its two flankers remain, but only a few of the orthostats which would have formed a circle diminishing in height are still intact.

Massive and impressive, the big stones have a subtle geometric pattern common to every one of the recumbent style circles.  The recumbent itself is misaligned with the circumference of the circle by 15 degrees, tracing an arc-axis towards the centre, making the "circle" a subtle spiral.

This is the view from the centre of the circle looking directly over the recumbent.  The alignment of these  monoliths is very significant - they were arranged with astonishing precision.  The recumbent brackets 27 degrees of arc when viewed from the centre of the circle and the midwinter sun sets directly over the middle of the stone.

This is impressive enough, but there's more.  The celestial phenomenon of lunar standstill occurs every 18.6 years and the circle is aligned to it - the midsummer moonset at the major standstill sets precisely over the left edge of the recumbent in the angle formed by the left flanker while the midsummer moonset at the minor standstill sets precisely over the right hand edge of the flanker in the angle formed by the right flanker.  This is surely not coincidence; I have to believe that this astonishingly accurate positioning was by design.

Old Keig's circle is 20 metres in diameter and is noted for the size of the recumbent - the largest of any of this style of circle.  It's a huge block of sillimanite gneiss and the rock type is significant because it wasn't quarried locally.

This gigantic block was quarried from somewhere in the valley of the River Don - some 10 kilometres from the site.  It was worked to make a completely level top face while the bottom of the stone was worked into a "keel" shape to better sit in the ground.

Then this enormous stone measuring 5 metres long by two metres wide by two metres deep and weighing 53 tons was dragged 10 kilometres to this site - the last kilometre up a slope of 1:14 gradient.  The work involved must have been staggering. 

The flankers are carefully placed against the recumbent - the small rocks under the edge are believed to have been positioned much later.

It's only when one considers the work and care which went into this and so many other circles that the true import of what stands here becomes a little clearer.

Far from being primitive savages, the folk who designed and made these circles in the Neolithic - the Stone Age - must have practiced agriculture; only a settled population could have undertaken such a huge project.  Some of them at least must have been able to perform complex observations and mathematical equations in order to work out the positioning and the subtle geometric arrangements.  They must have been a sophisticated enough folk to be able to organise labour (whether voluntary or forced we'll never know) and to use tools, ropes, levers and all the rest in order to move and position huge stones. They must also have been numerous enough to move the stones; it's been estimated that at least 100 people would have been required - or a combination of people and oxen.  As the circles are comparatively closely spaced there must also have been numerous similar communities.

And they must have had time.  The agriculture practiced must have allowed sufficient margins of time to create monuments such as circles and standing stones.

The purpose of the circles remains something of a mystery; were they observatories, places of worship, places of sacrifice even?  Were they used by an exclusive elite or were they a communal statement of the sense of place of the society which made them? Certainly they were places of power, and of powerful symbolism - they remain that to this day.  There is an indefinable presence among the circles and stones - an echo down thousands of years, a sense of mystery and wonder.  In this, the circle builders were spectacularly successful.

We came away from the Old Keig circle with renewed wonder and admiration for what these folk achieved - and maybe that too was part of the purpose of the circles.