Thursday, 30 June 2016

A Hebridean multimedia presentation

 We love wild camping, but one of the luxuries of using a commercial camp site is the availability of a hot shower at the end of a day - and those at Fidden Farm are excellent!  After trips to the shower block we cooked our dinner; Douglas and I found a scrap of breeze on top of a small rock outcrop which we hoped would deter some of the midges.  It may have deterred only some of them, but the view compensated.

 After dinner we wandered down below the high water mark to light a small fire.  The heat wasn't needed as the evening was warm, but there's something very convivial in having a fire to congregate around.  We chatted about the amazing day we'd enjoyed and plans for the following morning, and just absorbed what was turning into a multimedia presentation around us.....

 ...starting with a visual element as the summer sunset developed in the late evening......

 ....and progressed to a smouldering gold finale beyond Iona......

 ....leaving the most delicate of shades reflected on mirror calm water in the bay.

Apart from our small group of four there seemed to be only one other tent on the camp site.  All the other visitors were either in caravans or in motorhomes and we were surprised how few folk sat outside to enjoy the evening - especially since the midges had vanished as the evening cooled.

As the colours of the sunset afterglow faded they were replaced by the intangible atmosphere of a Hebridean late evening.  It's difficult to describe, but the light takes on a diaphanous quality with soft-focus shades of palest pinks and greys.  This image was taken at nearly 11pm, just as the audio element of the multimedia show began to be most noticeable.

There were the usual the evening calls of shorebirds, and we'd been entertained by trying to spot the careering overhead display flights of Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) by tracking their "drumming" note (well recorded by Hugh Harrop here).  The "drumming" is not a vocal call, it's produced mechanically as the bird holds two very stiff outer tail feathers at an angle to its body in shallow  power dives producing a vibration which has been described as goat-like.  Drumming is mostly crepuscular but can continue all night and most of the day in northern latitudes.  It's quite difficult to spot the birds by following the sound of the drumming as the sound seems to project itself.

An even more iconic Hebridean note was soon added, the calls of male Corncrakes (Crex crex) which really do live up to the bird's Linnaean name.  Corncrakes are migratory summer visitors and were formerly very common throughout the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland.  Changes in agriculture and land use have deprived the birds of much of their very specific habitat of tall flower rich meadows and they are now at very low numbers, perhaps only 1200 breeding pairs.  Despite the rasping calls being persistent and monotonous, it was good two hear two males "giving it laldy" until the small hours of the morning and again from pre-dawn.

It was late when we retired to the tents; the forecast was for an increasing northerly breeze the following day but we hoped to able to visit the Abbey on Iona and explore more of the Ross of Mull.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

On the Market

 We left Eilean Annraidh and ists dazzling colours to head back across the Sound of Iona towards Kintra (Ceann Traigh - head of the beach).  Passing Kintra we then made our way along the rocky northern coast of the Ross of Mull, looking for just one more beach.

 Given the amount and quailty of the beaches we'd already visited on our way around Iona, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we would be "beached out"..............

 .........but when they're as good as this, we felt we could manage one more!

 Traigh na Margaidh (Market Beach) is actually two beaches divided by a rocky outcrop.  The westerly of the two is slightly easier of access from land and a family was enjoying the late afternoon sunshine there; we landed on the easterly part on golden sand fringed by crystal clear water.  Had we gone with our initial trip plan of wild camping on a linear journey around the Ross of Mull, Traigh na Margaidh would have been our likely camp for the first night, but it's exposed to the northerly breeze which was forecast and can be quite prone to swell and surf.

 In constrast to the shell sands of Iona, the sand here is fine grained, a warm gold colour with waves of purple across it when damp - presumably the pink grains from the granite rocks.  Water seepage lines from the ground above the beach formed intricate micro-river patterns.

 We didn't linger too long on the beach as the wind was getting up and we still had to make our way back down the Sound of Iona to our camp at Fidden.  Even the small swell which was being picked up produced clapotis along the rocky coast and there was some interesting water as we picked up the opposing tide at the north end of the Sound......

 ...but once we turned inside the shelter of Bull Hole we were back in calm water.  Donald went out into the Sound of Iona in his F-RIB and reported conditions to be quite sporting.  We'd kept an option to return to Iona and visit the Abbey during the early evening, but the prospect of a bouncy crossing there and back wasn't too appealing - especially since we had paddled 35 km and had been on the water all day..... we decided to postpone our visit and head back to cook dinner at Fidden.

 Bull Hole is a sheltered anchorage and was also used for loading granite quarried locally, there are several stone piers on the mainland side close to quarried rock faces.

 We paused just north of the ferry slip at Fhionnphort to speak with MV Loch Buie on VHF.  She appeared ready to depart and but kindly allowed us to cross before pulling away from the slip.

 The cloud which had been building through the late afternoon was beginning to break as we arrived back at Fidden camp site...... prepare our dinner in warm evening sunshine at the end of a glorious day's sea kayaking on the dazzling waters and beaches of Iona.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Water colours and watercolours

Iona has long been a magnet for artists; indeed it's perfectly possible to imagine how the monks of the Abbey could have gained inspiration for their work illuminating manuscripts from the unique and special light of the island.

In particular Iona has become known for watercolours painted by artists from the "Scottish Colourists" movement including Francis Cadell who had a long association with the island, and Samuel Peploe, who was first introduced to Iona by Cadell and became a regular visitor.

As Douglas has noted, Colourist paintings of Iona became very popular in the second half of the 20th century, and the tradtion of both painting and appreciating views from the cluster of beaches at the north tip continues......

This large watercolour by Jan Fisher is just such a work. When we saw it displayed at her gallery in the Fife village of Pittenweem some years ago it had such impact that we returned an hour later to purchase a limited print - it's hung in one of the lightest rooms in our home in order to show the colour to its best and has, in our view, captured the essence of Iona's light and colour.

In the upper part of the painting, set in the sea between Iona and the hills of Mull, is Eilean Annraidh with its distinctive spit of white sand.  

Approaching Eilean Annraidh was to understand why artists are drawn to the place - the quality of light was astonishing.  A dramatic banner of cloud streaming from Ben More on Mull added a huge dimension of sky, and itself altered the light as the aftenoon sun was alternately filtered through cloud.....

...and then shone fully, changing the colours in the water from turquoise to an iridescent jade green and lighting the sand to a dazzling intensity. 

Here, solas (light) reached a pitch rarely encountered and after landing on the inner part of the sand bar in order not to disturb a nearby Tern colony, we just wandered about separately, taking it in.

Beyond Eilean Annraidh lay a widescreen view to the "Wilderness" coast of Mull's Ardmeanach peninsula  which we discussed for a future visit........ we sat on the rocks of Eilean Annraidh enjoying the watercolour water colours.....

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Sometimes it just seems to be an uphill struggle.....

 After leaving Port ban we paddled up the northwest coast of Iona in sublime conditions of calm sea and in hot sunshine.  Out to sea were the skerries of Sgurr Mhich Mhurchaid (Murchison's Stack) and Reidh Eilean (Smooth Island) and far beyond, a banner of cloud indicated the position of  the island of  Tiree.

Donald was waiting for us at Eilean Chalbha (calf island), the point were we got the first view of Ben More on Mull to the north.  As we approached we began to experience a strengthening tidal flow against us......

 ...caused by the ebbing tide running across a shallow sand spit between rocky outcrops.

 A path of luminous turquoise water above white sand led between rocky patches and combined with the tidal flow running towards us created the strangest sensation.........

 ....that we were paddling uphill on a slope of water.  The effort required to push forward did nothing to reduce the sense of paddling up an incline!

Had we been ten minutes later this shallowest section of the sandbar would probably have dried out and we'd have missed this colourful and interesting little bit of Iona's coast.  Beyond, we were into deeper water towards the northenmost part of the island and beaches which are easily reached by walking across from the Abbey.  We decided not to land on these beaches but to continue past the north tip of Iona to another jewel in the summer sea....

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Tempted by a trio of Traighs

After leaving Camas Cuil an-t Saimh we continued up the west coast of Iona, accompanied by a faint rumbling noise....the sound of our stomachs gently reminding us that first luncheon had yet to be taken.

We were looking for the perfect beach - or Traigh in the Gaelic language - on which to land.  There are several excellent candidates and you might reasonably think we're too picky......

This one?  Too much weed near the water's edge so it might be a bit smelly........ we continued on.....

...along a shore composed of rugged Gneiss outcrops and tidal islands, edged with water of stunning clarity, still seeking the perfect Traigh.

How about this one?  Well, it was certainly a white sand beach backed with level machair on which to sit, but we spotted someone walking towards the bay from inland - just one person but it would feel crowded...... on we went....

......and just what we'd been looking for came into view.

Port Ban (white or fair port)- a strand of white sand enclosed by arms of rock, backed by low dunes and machair.  This was it; our third tempting Traigh was pretty much perfect!

While the others explored the shore, Douglas and I climbed up the rocky Cnoc (rocky hillock) above the bay to photograph......

...a small piece of paradise.  The colours were simply stunning; this image is straight from the camera with no processing; the polarising filter has brought out perfectly what we experienced -white sand fringed with water which went from "almost not there" clarity through aquamarine, turquoise and finally shades of deepest indigo.  The emerald green of early summer grasses and the pale greys of the rock added their own shades to the scene.

We rejoined Donald, Lorna and Allan and took a leisurely lunch on the beach - absorbing the special surroundings we found ourselves in.  Douglas took a short swim and I was tempted to join him, but the beach shelves so gently that it would have taken an almighty long run to achieve my "leg it really fast and dive in before you chicken out" approach so I settled for wading a short way into the water, which we can report as refreshing, then took a closer look at the beach itself.

The composition of the beaches here on the west side of Iona is quite different to most of those on the nearby Ross of Mull, where fine silvery white and pink sand is more prevalent.  The sand of Port Ban is shell sand, coarser than the rock sands.  It's dazzlingly white under sunshine and under certain conditions creates a valuable ecosystem.

Gneiss bedrock is pretty much impermeable and supports poor, acid soils because rainwater doesn't drain easily.  What plants are able to grow break down to a thin skin of peat and the resulting soils are acid and lacking in nutrients.  Close to beaches of shell sand however, the wind blows the calcium-rich shell fragments back from the beach to enrich the soil.  Low-intensity grazing and further improvement with seaweed by crofters can result in spectacular meadows of grasses and wildflowers - the machair.  Found almost exclusively on the outer fringes of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, there are just a few mainland sites.  Precious and rich in wildlife, the machair is one of Scotland's most special ecosystems.

If you look closely at the image above, a Groatie Buckie is waiting to be found!

We left Port Ban after luncheon very reluctantly - it's a place in which many hours could be passed; especially in such great weather, but there was so much more to be explored......

...and at times, the colours of this coast would simply defy adequate desciption.