Monday, 22 August 2016

Kingdom of the wind - where plants walk

On the high plateaux of the Cairngorms, the wind rules everything. The great open areas of ground above 1100m / 3600ft are exposed to the full force of weather from every direction and are often swept by gales and winds of hurricane force, especially in winter. Gusts of over 170mph/280kph have been recorded and sustained wind speeds in excess of 100mph/160kph are common. Given these sorts of speeds, it's hardly surprising that the wind exerts influence over everything which lives on the high arctic-like plateaux, limiting possibilities and even determining landforms.

When planning walks on the high ground here, the wind is a primary consideration with strength and direction factored into the day's plan. After a run of windy days in mid July abated, I took a long walk on Ben Avon (pronounced "A'an" and named for the river at the mountains foot -the bright one). 

Any day out on Ben Avon will be a "big day"; this is the largest of the Cairngorm hills by area, some 12 kilometres NE to SW and 9 kilometres N to S - really a hill-range rather than a single mountain.  In addition to the large extent of the hill, the starting points for walks are at some distance from the summit.  The most logical starting point from my home is at Cock Bridge to the north east of the hill, and my route would be some 40 kilometres.  The wind was forecast to remain light until evening, when it would once again begin to increase.  Fortunately, a mountain bike can be used on the track leading from Cock Bridge past the source of the River Don and on to Inchrory and the Linn of Avon, meaning that I'd do around 20km on the bike and 20km on foot.

Above Inchrory, this dry ravine cuts steeply down through lime-rich rock, an unusual rock type for the Cairngorms and visible from quite a distance as a bright green patch among the more muted colours.  Ahead, the outlying slopes of Ben Avon beyond the river were still cloud-capped.  The MWIS forecast was for the cloud to lift gradually during the day; I hoped that it would be as accurate as it usually is.

The bike was left near the Linn of Avon and I headed uphill on a stalkers path past grouse butts.....

...towards the start of one of the ridges of Ben Avon at Carn Fiaclach (toothed (or notched) Cairn).  Beyond  and above the wood surrounding the lodge at Inchrory, my route of approach already seemed quite distant, the green slope leading down to the estate track and across the hills to Cock Bridge.

The bald summit of Meall Gaineimh (sandy hill) is passed on a path which winds through gravelly ground and past some of the distinctive granite tors which are such a feature of Ben Avon.  The walking is a delight, fast movement on small mountain paths once the initial ascent is done.

My route took me up to the granite ridge of East Meur Gorm Craig before descending slightly to the wide sweep of the appropriately named Big Brae (slope).  Even in mid summer there are significant snow patches in most years, and this is in part due to the wind.  Snow is either compacted by gales into any depression on a windward slope.....

.....or deposited on lee slopes and in corries to immense depths.  The snow patches irrigate the ground through the summer and give a foothold to alpine grasses and plants.

Up to around 1000 metres / 3300ft there's a mix of plants such as Alpine Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla alpina), a relative of the larger plant commonly seen in gardens.  A combination of grazing by deer and the scouring of the wind keeps the plant low-growing.

Higher up, and only the hardiest of plants can survive the harsh conditions.  Alternately frozen, baked, flooded and subject to drought and gale, plants need to be tough up here.  The Three-leaved Rush (Juncus trifidus) is a real Cairngorm plateau specialist, able to survive on the most exposed ground where few other plants are able to apart from mosses and lichens.  Talking of "trifid", the 1951 Sci-Fi book by John Wyndham, later made into a classic 1962 movie - "Day of the Triffids" - features a species of plant capable of "walking" locomotion.  Here on the Cairngorm plateau, there are species of plants which can do just that, albeit slowly.

This Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum sp) started life in the lee of the small boulder at the bottom of the image.  It has grown away from the prevailing wind, putting out small roots as it goes seeking a more sheltered spot, curving around the boulder near the top of the image.  The original rootstock and stem are now dead and completely detached from the ground.  In some examples of this sort of downwind movement, the track of individual plants over decades and perhaps centuries can be traced by the absence of lichens on the rocks over which they have moved. 

This Crowberry also has a reproductive trick to help it survive the harsh environment, it is of the sub-species hermaphroditum which has bisexual flowers to increase the chances of fertilisation, and smaller, stubbier foliage to resist the hostile weather.  A real life "Triffid" !

A gentle rise to the SW now took me to the highest plateau of Ben Avon, a broad ridge leading towards the tor which forms the summit.  I emulated the plants and sheltered behind a large boulder to rest and eat, there wwas still plenty of walking ahead....

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Rockhopping and rainstorms, Part 2

This is the second of two posts catching up on a number of sea kayaking day paddles around the northeast of Scotland during July 2016. Having managed to entice Mike north with tales of the dry and sunny climate of Aberdeenshire, Allan and I rendezvoused with him at Findochty for a trip to Sandend which would take in some of the best bits of the Moray Firth coast. It was indeed sunny and warm when we met up in the morning.......

.... but it didn't last!  A torrential rainstorm hammered down for  an hour or so, and strangely this actually added enjoyment to the day.

The rain passed through soon enough and we were left with calm conditions - perfect for this part of the coast which is prone to swell - and perfect in particular......

....for Mike to experience paddling through this iconic arch near Portknockie and so become a "Bow Fiddler".

A different day but similar weather on the Moray Firth - Lorna heading through one of the hidden channels to the west of Sandend - a rockhopping delight even in the rain.

Another day with outbreaks of rain when one tactic was to shelter in caves from the heavier bursts!  This is one of the many caves near Portsoy , one which which Allan, Lorna and I hadn't previously explored. It turned out to have a blowhole and the landward end and became very tight at the back - the scrape of paddle on rock the only indication that there was a paddler within!

The coincidence of calm conditions with rainy days continued right through July - Allan and I made our way to Collieston on a day of rare flat calm on this exposed part of the North Sea coast.  We drove from inland Aberdeenshire through very heavy rain which continued on and off all day.  Heading north towards Cruden Bay, we took the opportunity to explore close inshore while the conditions were so calm, passing noisy seabird cities and paddling amongst large rafts of Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Fulmars.

This part of the coast has been the scene of many shipwrecks, documented wrecks include the 1594 destruction of a Spanish (actually believed to be from the Spanish Netherlands) sailing ship "Santa Catherina", from which various artefacts have been recovered.

In more recent times there have been numerous wrecks, a combination of wild weather, a rocky coast with little shelter and a busy shipping lane all contributing to the numbers.  This rusted piece lodged at the back of a rocky cove looks as if it may be a ship's boiler.

Just north of Collieston we came across the entrance to a cave which is entered through a curtain of water dripping from the cliff above. 

The rock is quite soft and porous here and the roof of the cave was marvellously featured with calcite formations.  Probably the violence of swells driven in here will prevent the formation of stalactites, but it was still one of the more striking caves we've explored.

We rafted up to get headtorches out and explored deeper into the cave.  It splits into two tunnels deep under the cliff and the left hand branch goes back a good way to where we found a tiny beach of exquisitely coloured pebbles

The air in the cave was markedly cooler than outside and there was a strange absence of the echo normally heard in caves - a remarkable place.  Half-tide and absolutely flat conditions are needed to explore this cave - the roof is quite low and it would be hazardous in even a small's well worth waiting for the right conditions though.

Sea kayaking in sunshine on blue seas is, of course, perfection....but grey skies and heavy rain aren't bad either!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Rockhopping and rainstorms, Part 1

In Scotland we don't really have a climate, we have "weather" and July 2016 was particularly changeable with some warm days but also some periods of heavy rain and thunderstorms.  It seemed that most of the warm days were windy and that the calmer spells coincided with days of showers or rain.  The conditions didn't dampen some good sea kayaking though, and in some ways the heavier rain actually added to the experience!  This is the first of two posts catching up on a number of sea kayak trips around the Moray Firth and North Sea coasts during the month.

It wasn't all rain; Maurice, Mike and I met at Auchmithie and enjoyed a day on the colourful Angus coast.  The morning was calm and warm, which allowed us to explore the rock formations......

......and caves which stud the stretch of coast between Auchmithie and Arbroath.  The largest of them is Gaylet Pot, a long cave which emerges some 150 metres inland....... a spectacular "gloup" or collapsed cave in the middle of a farm field.

That afternoon brought a marked increase in the wind, as forecast, and we enjoyed an exhilarating blast back up the coast under sail at an average speed of 12km/h.

Pulling out of the wind at the arched outcrop of Prail Castle, we stopped for second luncheon.  It's sometimes possible to kayak through the arch, but on this occasion the tide was too low.  As Maurice hadn't visited this feature previously, he and I walked through the arch to the north side.  Just a few seconds after we'd done so a large rock fell clear from the face above and smashed into the ground right behind us - a lucky escape.

There have been several paddles on the Moray Firth too; on a day of alternating hot sunshine and torrential downpours Lorna, Allan and I paddled a favourite section of the Moray Firth coast from Findochty to Sandend.  One of the best known features is the Bow Fiddle Rock, and we were lucky to find it not only calm enough to paddle.....

......but looking very fine backed by an approaching downpour.

The northeast coast in summer just teems with wildlife.  The seabirds seem to have had a pretty successful breeding season and we encountered them in their tens of thousands.

On a paddle from Sandend to Whitehills Allan, Lorna and I were given a real wildlife treat when a pod of the Moray Firth dolphins shared the water with us, I completely fluffed the photographs of three adults which raced straight to our boats and dived right in front of us, examining the boats closely from below before moving on - the only image I managed was this dolphin which repeatedly leapt out of the water in the middle distance.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

In the company of trees

Whilst assessing a Duke of Edinburgh's Award team undertaking a venture through (and over) the Cairngorms I'd thought to camp high on the plateau after meeting the team.  The weather wasn't conducive to a high camp though, the evening brought evening lowering cloud and torrential rain after a bright day.

As the worst of the rain was forecast to pass through, I kept walking late into the evening to postpone the task of setting up camp and cooking in wet and midgy conditions.  Well after 10.30pm I found a good spot to camp in upper Glen Derry, put up the tent, cooked a quick meal and took a cup of hot chocolate inside.  In the half-light of a wet evening the surroundings were incidental, but in the early morning......

...things were quite different.  Woken by the calls of Crossbills and Siskins, I emerged from the tent into a sunny, breezy morning.  It's been a while since I camped in the pine forest here - too long.  I'd pitched on a patch of dry ground below a large Caledonian Pine, surrounded by a carpet of blaeberry.  The morning was filled with birdsong and the sound of the breeze in the tree canopy and the buzz of bees among the blaeberries.

As I'd walked further than intended on the previous evening I had plenty of time to sit with my back against the trunk of a pine and just enjoy a slow morning with several cups of tea. I left in the late morning, utterly refreshed by a wild camp in the company of trees.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Time well spent - an evening on the Sound of Arisaig

My camp on the Sound of Arisaig was on a stretch of short grass above a curving white sand beach; it's a great spot.  I was in sunshine for most of the evening and also in a breeze which kept away any midges - always a consideration in summer.

Having met with the team undertaking their Duke of Edinburgh's Award expedition I had time to spare and so after dinner climbed up above the bay to get a wider view.

From the top of a grassy hill behind the bay there's a great view across the Sound of Arisaig to Moidart and Ardnamurchan. The island in the foreground has a raised beach from when the land was much lower at the end of the last Ice Age and built onto the raised beach are the remains of a stone fort, one of several in the Arisaig area.  The shape of one of the walls can still be made out, but little else remains.  The name of the site is Eilean a'Ghaill (island of the foreigner (or stranger)) and it's possible that this indicates occupation by fort dwellers from outwith the area.

The plants prominent in the foreground are Bog Cotton (Eriophorum angustifolium), a member of the Sedge family and also known as Cottongrass and Hare's Tails.  It's a common plant of damp, peaty soils and is pollinated by the wind, an ideal method on the west coast of Scotland!  Once pollinated, the bristles of the "cotton" grow longer and really do resemble cotton wool.  The seeds are eaten by a number of heathland birds and the "cotton" heads were once used as candle wicks, for stuffing bedding and for wound dressings.

Back down near the shore, with the island of Eigg as a backdrop there was a colourful display of Thrift (Armeria maritima) contrasting with the bright yellow and pale grey of lichens.......

Thrift (also called Sea Pink) is one of my favourite plants; if Primroses herald the Spring, then Thrift is the flower I most associate with early Summer.  It seems to prefer the most hostile of environments and grows on salt-lashed shorelines and mountain tops equally well.

A closer look again at the boulders near the beach revealed the variety of lichens which covered them.  The brown and green areas here are Map Lichens (Rhizocarpon geographicum) which thrives in cold climates with exposed rocks and only in areas of low air pollution.  The lichens grow incredibly slowly and each lichen has a line of black spores on its perimeter; when lichens grow adjacent to each other the appearance of a map is created.

Biologists have used the known growth rates of map lichens to estimate the age of glacial deposits - the growth rates of each lichen were calculated by measuring examples on gravestones to get the diameter of plants of a known age, then compared to growths on glacial moraine rocks. In a more dynamic experiment, Map Lichens which were exposed to space in an open capsule for ten days were found to have suffered no ill effects when they were returned to earth - an incredibly tough plant.

Whilst I'd been wandering around looking at rocks and small plants the time had moved on, and when I climbed back to the hill behind the beach......

...a blazing sunset was lighting the clouds above Eigg.

I sat with a coffee and watched as the sun set and a delicate purple afterglow washed the sky, etching the Cuillin hills of Rum in sharp silhouette - it was another west coast sunset in which to participate rather than merely spectate.

I'd spent several hours within a hundred metres or so of my tent, just wandering around slowly and absorbing the place in which I was camped - it felt time very well spent.