Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Small things on a long walk

The Cairngorms in the north east of Scotland offer some great long walking routes, whether one intends to do a through-route or to do an "out and back" walk.  An appointment with a Duke of Edinburgh's Award team undertaking a Gold venture gave me the opportunity to to a little of both.

More than most wild country areas in the UK, walking the hills of the Cairngorms requires the ethos of the "long walk-in" as most summits are many hours from the nearest road.  The sense of space here is one of the features which defines the region - big views and big skies.

I was bound for the head of Loch Avon (pronounced A'an and meaning bright one), considered by many to be the heart of the Cairngorms and one of the real jewels.  After meeting with the team I intended to camp in one of the high corries to preserve their (and my) sense of being alone in a wild and remote area.

My route went from Linn of Dee and up through Glens Lui and Derry.  The view ahead in Glen Lui is long; I'd bear right at the wood in the far distance, my destination several hours away.  The car park was very busy on an August weekend, but such is the nature of the area that after the first few kilometres I actually saw very few people.

Near the former hunting lodge at the confluence of the Derry Burn and the Lui Burn a temporary bridge has been erected to replace the one swept away in the huge floods of August 2014.  You can read about the extent of the damage caused and about the building of the temporary bridge at Neil Reid's excellent "Cairngorm Wanderer" blog here and here.  The raw power released in just this one flood event serves to show just how small we are in the landscape - and in my opinion that's a good thought to have.

Perhaps this directed my train of thought to things smaller than the human scale, but nevertheless adapted to their place in the environment with all its sudden shocks.  Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) were still in flower.....

..and were joined in the damper ground by the golden flower spikes of Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum), a characteristic plant of high and late summer in the Cairngorms.

At the highest extent of the treeline I came across this Emperor Moth (Satunia pavonia) caterpillar moving purposefully across the track.  A big caterpillar at around 60mm long, it would have started black and orange before changing to bright green with pink spots (often the spots are yellow).  The only member of the Genus Saturnia present in Scotland, the moths have some unusual habits.  Male and female are differently coloured, the males fly rapidly during the day and the females much more sluggishly during the night.

The eggs are laid on food plants (mostly heather) in May, the caterpillars are fully grown like this one by August and spin a fibrous cocoon in which they overwinter, surviving even the harsh extremes of weather in the Cairngorms.  The adults live only a few weeks and don't feed as moths, spending time finding a mate and restarting the cycle.

I was pleased to see that both the tiny bridge and the Rowan tree at the Coire Etchachan Burn were still intact; the Rowan is about the highest tree in the area and has become a bit of an old friend.  It's here that I left the main through-route of the Lairig An Laoigh (Calves Pass) and branched up into the higher hills.

The "Hutchie" is a welcome sight at any time, but I wasn't intending to stay at the bothy on this occasion.  I stopped by to see that everything was in order and made a mental note to remove a couple of empty gas canisters left on the window sill when I passed on my return leg.  I still had a bit of a climb with what now felt a heavy rucsac so after a short rest I set out again up the corrie..... reach a campsite in the upper corrie surrounded by cliffs and high ground.  The forecast was for strong south-easterly winds overnight and into the following day so I chose a site for the tent which would give some shelter from this direction - or at least as much shelter as can be found in this wild place.  I brewed some tea and rested for a while, just enjoying being out here.

Later in the evening I made the walk and steep descent to the head of Loch Avon to meet with the team, who were camped in one of the most spectacular locations possible.  I arrived back at my camp at dusk and ate dinner, aware of the strengthening wind.  Sleep came quickly, but it wasn't to be a restful night.....

Monday, 24 August 2015

Blue boats blasting back from Bute

We woke at our camp on the west coast of Inchmarnock to a bright blue day with a WNW breeze to keep the midges away; it looked a perfect day for sea kayak sailing.  After breakfast we moved the boats down to the water - one portage strap is a really useful aid to allow three people to move a loaded boat - and prepared to get going.  Starting the day in a location like this is one of the real joys of camping from a kayak :o)

Straight from getting launched we hoisted sails to catch the light breeze.  The colour palette on this morning was most definitely blue; sky, sea and Douglas & Mike's boats all in harmony!

A relaxing and gentle sail downwind took us directly to Ardscalpsie Point on the island of Bute and then around Scalpsie Bay with its resident seal population.  The name "Scalpsie" indicates a place where scallops (shellfish) can be found and that's certainly the case.  When we lived on Bute the beach was a favourite walk and there's a seal viewing point on the road above the point.

As we came out of the bay we immediately noted a freshening of the breeze from a F2-3 to much more like F3-4.......

...let the fun begin!  Our speed rapidly increased with the wind strength while the quickly building small swell was the perfect height and length to enjoy some surfing rides.

I'm by no means an experienced paddle sailor but do have some dinghy sailing experience from many years ago.  My immediate impression of the FEKS Trade Wind sail was that in these conditions it pulls hard and strong and with a bit more drive than the Code Zero I'd previously borrowed from Douglas.  The drive was steady and predictable...and a whole heap of fun!  This is when sea kayak sailing really comes alive - continue to paddle hard and the boat speed can be adjusted to catch each swell.  The blue boats blasted back past Bute.....

......flying past the distinctive volcanic outcrops at the south end of the island; this one reallylooks like the dorsal fin of the porpoises we'd seen the previous afternoon.

The swell had built quite quickly as the wind blew across the Sound of Bute.  Mike had recently completed some rather skillful fibreglass repairs to his Cetus MV, and although at times we lost sight of his boat, Douglas and I were confident that he was just temporarily between swells!

As we rounded Garroch Head at the south end of Bute we came into the wind shadow and out of the swell - thins slowed from the exciting run we'd enjoyed and we paddled ashore at Glencallum Bay for second breakfast.  As we left, a couple of folk camping on the shore were lighting their fire using what appeared to be a fairly incendiary material....

The wind dropped to a very light breeze as we headed past Rubh'an Eun (point of the birds). The small light here marks the port hand side of the main channel for vessels bound for the upper Clyde and flashes red every six seconds.

The blue theme of the day continued as we headed across the Clyde towards Great Cumbrae in what had become a glassy calm and very warm afternoon. A large submarine headed down the Clyde and out to sea as we paddled along the coastline.  It had an escort of two large RHIB's which we thought might be manned by Royal Marines.  This thought was reinforced when both boats roared back up the Clyde having escorted the submarine out of the Cumbrae Gap with Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" blasting from a speaker system!

Our final stop was on the pebble shore of Fintray Bay where we enjoyed first luncheon before rounding the north end of Great Cumbrae for a final gentle sail down to the marina at Largs.

We'd been out for a fraction over 24 hours but what a great mini-trip!  In twenty four hours we'd enjoyed the wildlife of the Clyde with porpoises, Gannets and Shearwaters aplenty; had a super wild camp in a place which seems utterly remote from the bustle of a big city just 45 kilometres distant; we'd visited four islands and had the most superb "blue day" blast under sail. You'll be able to read about this trip in "Sea Kayak Stereovision" at Douglas' blog starting here.

To just head out with a couple of like-minded friends on small trips like this is absolutely one of life's joys.  I'd been away a long was so good to be back.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Give them an Inch.....

We landed on the west coast of Inchmarnock about 30 minutes before sunset and wasted no time in getting our tents up and camp established.  There are easier places to land and camp at the north and south ends of the island but we hoped that the spot we chose would be exposed to any breeze which would keep the midges away.

Inchmarnock means Marnoc's Island and is named for the Celtic monk Saint Marnoc (the name also cropping up in other place-names of the south-west of Scotland such as Kilmarnock).  At the north end of the island, a stone "cist" (burial container) was excavated to reveal a female skeleton buried with a jet bead necklace and a dagger.  The remains were carbon dated to 3500 BC, and the Bronze Age lady re-interred behind a pane of glass.

Across the Sound of Bute, the Arran hills were lit with a warm glow from the low evening sunshine.  It really was quite idyllic, and as a bonus the expected midge attack was thwarted by a "sundowner" breeze which started up as we finished putting up our tents.

The sun was setting in a blaze of golden light over the Kintyre peninsula by the time we'd finished making camp.  We decided to cook our evening meal on the pebble beach where we could light a fire below the tideline so that all traces would be erased at the next spring tide.

When it comes to moving boats at wild camp sites there seems to be two types of sea kayaker - those who move their boats right up to the tents, and those who only move their boats above the expected high water mark.  We definitely fall into the second category - we carried our boats onto a level patch of pebbles above the high water line - and not an Inch further!

 Douglas and Mike had used this camping spot some weeks previously and Mike was concerned that they may have used up most of the available driftwood - but it turned out that they hadn't tried nearly hard enough as there was plenty of wood along the shore.  Within ten minutes we had a good pile and with the help of a Wilcox Ignition Aid (TM) we soon had a satisfying blaze going.

Local stories claim that Bute's 19th century drunks were dropped off on Inchmarnock to be cured by "isolation and deprivation".  We felt no inclination to emulate these unfortunate folk and enjoyed a frothing sports recovery drink as we cooked our evening meal..... 

After eating we sat back and just enjoyed being in this place - so near to a big city and yet really quite remote.  The only sounds were the gentle crackling of our fire and the water on the pebbles of the beach; there was no man-made noise and very few lights visible on the surrounding coasts.

 The afterglow of the sunset was a long and drawn-out affair, an hour after the sun had dipped below the Kintyre hills there was still a band of intensely coloured light on the horizon.  The air was warm and the heat from our fire meant that we only needed jackets as it got dark.

Give us an Inch and we'll take a mile!

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A summer evening on the Firth of Clyde

After a long work-enforced break from paddling and walking I was very keen to get back out on the water, and if possible to do a short overnight trip.  A good forecast for two consecutive days in the Clyde area (a rarity in the poor summer of 2015) and the availibilty of Douglas and Mike settled the deal, location and start time sorted by two texts and a brief phone call.  We met at Largs Marina on a gloriously warm afternoon and loaded our boats for a two day trip among the Clyde islands.

Douglas kindly helped me set up my new FEKS Trade Wind 80 sail before we set off, though it didn't look too promising for a test given the windless calm!  We paddled out from the public slipway and past the "Pencil Monument" which commemorates the 1263 Battle of Largs during which a Scots army under King Alexander II beat off a Norwegian force under King Hakon of Norway.

It was so warm that we'd set out in shorts and T-shirts, stowing our padde kit inside the boats, but even lightly dressed it was a warm afternoon.  The initial few kilometres south through Fairlie Roads between the mainland and Great Cumbrae is an industrial scene with the Hunterston ore terminal, Hunterston nuclear power station and two gigantic wind turbines dominating the view.

 In contrast to the modern industry on the shore, we passed this beautifully maintained sailing craft whith her varnished hull and graceful rig.

 After an hour so we detected a faint breeze and hoisted our own sails for a short while.  Although we'd only been on the water for an hour, a stop for afternoon tea below the 16th century Little Cumbrae Castle seemed very much in order.  A keep with royal connections, Little Cumbrae castle was in the possession of the High Steward of Scotland and is very similar to Portencross Castle over on the Ayrshire mainland.

 As we passed around Gull Point at the southern end of Little Cumbrae we got our first view of the distinctive outline of the Arran skyline some 15 kilometres across the Firth of Clyde.  We also saw two groups of Porpoises in this area, their sharp exhalations clearly audible on the calm air.

 The west coast of Little Cumbrae is a long series of lava flows.  These are best viewed from the south end of Bute where three distinct flows can easily be picked out.  A Peregrine Falcon zipped along the cliff edge before landing on the skyline and as we paddled out a little farther we were treated to a series of close passes by squadrons of Manx Shearwaters.

This rugged and quite remote coast with its wildlife is, amazingly, just 45 kilometres from the centre of Scotland's biggest city - but a world away.

As we'd not set out from Largs until mid-afternoon we would be paddling into the summer evening before reaching our intended camp site.  The sun wouldn't set until late and it was a lovely evening to be on the water, we had no sense of hurry or a schedule to keep; we just enjoyed being out here.

 We made a brief stop at a tiny pebble beach near Garroch Head on the south tip of the island of Bute to stretch our legs and to put on paddling clothes.  It wasn't that the temperature had dropped much, more that we knew we'd be landing next just as the midges were getting most active and thought that covering our legs would be best- it pays to plan ahead!

A crossing of a little over 10 kilometres of paddling lay between us and our camp site as we paddled away from the coast and out onto a mirror calm Sound of Bute.  It was truly great to be out on the water again......

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Kelpies - "stretch up your long necks to greet the sun"

Since they first rose out of the regenerated industrial landscape of the Helix Park we’d been intending to visit the much talked-about sculptures at the heart of the project.

On a bright day early in the Spring we travelled to meet family and visit the park.  Approaching from one of the car parks, the Kelpies are an astonishing sight….

At 30 metres tall, they simply dominate the landscape, towering over their surroundings.

Close to, the scale and ambition of these wonderful horse head sculptures is really impressive.  They face the canal system running through the heart of Scotland and welcome visitors to both the canals and to the Helix.  The intention was to reflect both folklore and the industrial heritage of the area – the Clydesdale horses used as the models for the Kelpies were once the prime movers of the industrial revolution.

Each piece is made up of individual stainless steel panels fastened to an intricate framework. The sculptor, Andy Scott, and the construction firm have done a superb job.

Although architectural and even industrial in scale, there is real grace and intricacy in the design and construction – and realism too.

The panels are sufficiently spaced to allow sunlight to stream through the structure, adding texture.  At night they are floodlit and I’m assured that they are quite a sight looming through the mist alongside the motorway!

In Scottish folklore, a Kelpie is a water-horse; a shape-shifting spirit inhabiting lochs and rivers.  In the sculptures this legend is intertwined with the strong industrial heritage of this part of Scotland.   Sculpted stone panels around the Helix are carved with phrases connected with folklore and with the sculptures – the one which struck me as most appropriate reads “Stretch up your long necks to greet the sun”

Scotland, and particularly the Stirling/Falkirk/Clackmannanshire area has been gaining a reputation as the home of some great recent works public sculpture.  There’s the elegant “Arria” (also designed by Andy Scott) alongside the M80 between Glasgow and Stirling, the many sculptures on traffic roundabouts through the “Wee County” of Clackmannanshire and now the jewel in the crown, the Kelpies

The Kelpies are a real achievement and are becoming, rightly, a great attraction.  But there’s more…..  the stretching of the necks, the latent power and the scale of these works is something for the Falkirk area and the whole of Scotland to be proud of.  

We'll certainly visit again!