Monday, 30 September 2013

Autumnal Avon

At Cock Bridge, start of the "Cock Bridge to Tomintoul" section of the A939 road which features with regularity on the winter road closure reports, a track leads off past the Hanoverian barracks of Corgarff Castle.   I had arranged to meet with a group undertaking a Duke of Edinburgh's Award venture at some point on their route; cycling in would be the best way for me to do this and to perhaps include a short walk too.

An estate road gives quick access westwards along the headwaters of the River Don, then descends steeply alongside a ravine..... arrive at the impressive Inchrory Lodge, now only occupied during the shooting season.  Inchrory sits near a bend in the River Avon (pronounced A'an and meaning "the bright one")

A little way upstream of Inchrory is the beautiful series of waterfalls forming the Linn of Avon.  The water here was clear and the level quite low following the dry summer.  It's one of my favourite spots......

The banks of the river below one of the falls had a tiny beach of warm brown sand formed by granite grains and had interesting patterns.

Early autumn is a fine time to visit; the colours of the vegetation just beginning to turn.  The warm sun made it doubly pleasant.  The volume of water was quite a contrast to my last post about the Linn.

With plenty of time in hand, I decided on climbing the nearby hill of Cnap Chaochan Aitinn (lump of the juniper stream).  My intention of walking up the twisting Glen Loin before climbing the hill had to be changed as there was a grouse shoot underway in the glen and I had no desire to either get in the way or to spoil the shooters day.  Instead, a steady climb up an access track reaches a broad ridge which leads easily to the 715 metre/2346 ft summit.  The scene looking up Glen Loin is undeniably glacial, and the cloud which had closed in robbed the scene of colour.

Across Glen Avon, the impressive and massive Ben Avon dominates the skyline.  The cloudy, cool conditions made it pretty chilly; I didn't linger long before returning back down to Glen Avon to meet the group.

Cycling back to Cock Bridge from Inchrory, the watershed between the rivers Avon and the Don is crossed.  As I came over the rise, a warm wash of late sun lit the slopes to the east - the colours definitely those of autumn.

Friday, 27 September 2013


As forecast, the morning turned overcast as I paddled back towards the mouth of Loch a' Chairn Bhain.  Whilst exploring in a bay which I'd passed the previous day, I found this sheltered beach. Time for second breakfast........

The shore was composed of beautiful banded gneiss pebbles with occasional quartz and red sandstone ones; a fair representation of the local geology.

Immediately behind the top of the shore lay this lochan, a perfectly still reflecting pool fringed with lillies and rushes.  Salt and fresh water are just a few meters apart here, but seem totally separate as there's no obvious outflow from the lochan to the sea.

With the seaward view in one direction and the lochan in the other, this would have made a lovely spot to spend some time except for one small thing  - well actually millions of small things!  The midges waited until I'd got my stove going before making a ferocious attack.  I was sufficiently "motivated" to take my cup of tea and balance it on the foredeck of the boat whilst backing off the shore to leave the biting hordes behind.  I sat in the bay and enjoyed a midge-free second breakfast.....

The still and overcast conditions, whilst ideal for midges, also made for great reflections as I headed back towards Kylesku.

Scree fans reflected in the still water made for interesting patterns......

...including this delta-wing shape.

The sun was beginning to burn away the cloud as I neared the Kylesku Bridge, which itself was making a nice symmetrical reflection.

I arrived back at the old ferry slip at Kylesku just as the sun burned away the last shreds of cloud from Quinag - the mountain which had been my constant companion on this short journey.  Just less than 100 km in the three days, but I could add my own reflections of a superb few days to those on the waters of the loch.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


One of the features of the far north of Scotland which is shared with the Northern Isles and the Hebrides is a remarkable quality of clear, sharp light. This quality is difficult to describe adequately, but it can dominate everything in effects from astonishing clarity to a light which seems almost to penetrate solid objects and light them from within. The view from my camp site had some of this effect.....

The evening shade was  pure and clear and seemed to amplify the warm glow struck from the flanks of Quinag by the dipping sun.  My tent (in the lower right of this image) had a great view, but the real grandstand effect could be had by climbing a small hill.

It was, quite simply, stunning and I sat long into the evening just absorbing the slow change of light.

A glance from the tent first thing in the morning after a cool night puntuated by the sighing of seals and the gentle talk of deer hinds grazing nearby revealed cloud streaming off the flanks of another of Assynt's distinctive mountains, Canisp.

There was the promise of a fair day to come in the early sunshine, though the forecast was for a cloudy morning followed by a brighter afternoon prior to a spell of windy weather.

I took breakfast after packing up the tent, a sequence which proved beneficial.  As the rising sun passed behind a cloud bank, a barely discernible noise started......  it was the sound of tens of thousands of midges reacting to the lower light levels and shouting "Get him!!"  Truly, bright sunshine and a breeze are the kayakers friend!

I still had to pack the boat, so one of these proved once again to be worth its weight in gold......

After finishing breakfast from inside my midge-armour I got on the water as the northern light played another dazzling trick.  Searing sunlight streamed through the thin cloud and fired it with white light,  creating a lace-like effect.

It was just 7.30 am and the day had already given so much.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Oldany Island and Clashnessie Bay

Immediately west of the Culkein Drumbeg area is the tidal Oldany Island.  My original plan had been to camp here, then to head across to Point of Stoer the following day before heading back towards Kylesku.  Unfortunately the weather was due to deteriorate quite rapidly towards te evening of the next day so my plans would have to be modified.

I decided on a circumnavigation of Oldany Island with a trip along to Clashnessie Bay before camping for the night at wherever looked good.

The channel separating Oldany Island from the mainland is another narrow and shallow affair, but it would be navigable by kayak at all but the lowest tides.  It was quiet here apart from the calls of Curlews and Redshanks, those two most distinctive of bird sounds.

After emerging from the channel, the coast on towards Clashnessie is quite rugged and has some nice features including this arch.  At the low state of tide when I approach, any attempt at passing through it lookedtoo tight for comfort.

A steady hour of paddling brought me to Clashnessie Bay where I was relieved to be able to land and stretch my legs.  I'd already paddled 30 kilometers during the day and still had to find a spot to camp.  Grazing land extends to the shore here and I knew that it wouldn't be a good spot.

Besides, I'd only paddled one side of Oldany Island!  I headed back northeast across the bay,  serenaded all the while by a whole choir of seals on Eilean Chrona.  The west and north coasts of Oldany Island are a complete contrast to the sides facing the mainland.  Rocky and exposed to swell from the Minch, there are no realistic landing places and clapotis can be expected even in calm conditions.

That said, it's a great place to paddle!

This is the view back along the north east coast to Poll na Cuile.  A number of small islands need to be threaded beyond here - the route taken will be very dependent upon the height of tide.......

...... but whichever route is taken there are landings available in sheltered corners.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Culkein Drumbeg, the compact maze

After leaving Loch Ardbhair I turned west, heading towards Culkein Drumbeg.   Yet another aspect of Quinag began to open up, this is the end of Sail Ghorm (the blue heel) which is the northernmost part of the mountain.

 The area around Culkein Drumbeg is a confusing maze of small islands and channels which change almost hourly according to the state of the tide.  At high water it's possible to paddle around most of the islands whilst at low water it becomes challenging to find a way through the maze.  I had about half tide conditions and so had a bit of both here.

 Along the shore there are small headlands......

.......under which caves can be explored.  The low entrance to this one opened into.....

...a green pool and inner grotto.  The sound of waves could be heard though there was almost no water movement on the side through which I entered; I thought that there might be another entrance to this particular cave.

Narrow clefts and channels between the islands frame views of distant mountains.

And there is the odd enticing white sand beach too.  A full day could easily be spent paddling around this compact area while staying within two kilometers of the jetty at Culkein Drumbeg, it's just so full of variety and interest.  The best way to do this would be to time a startfrom the jetty at about half flood tide, to get the maximum options for exploration.

Looking back, the views to the northeast were superb, the ash grey quartzite hills of Ben Stack, Foinaven and Arkle crowding the skyline.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A two thousand year old view - the Broch of Loch Ardbhair

After leaving Loch Shark I crossed back over the mouth of Loch a' Chairn Bhain and along the coast, where the map indicates a channel between the mainland and Eilean Rairaidh.  ou really have to believe in the map, because the channel seems hardly to exist, but it's there!

Beyond the island, the mouth of Loch Ardbhair seems to be blocked by a rocky arm, but this channel is also there and leads via an "S" shaped entrance into a shallow loch about 1.5km long and 600 metres wide.  Right at the head of this loch, the map has marked on it "Broch".  Well, this was certainly worth exploring further....

On a small tidal island, the remains of a circular structure can clearly be made out.  There seems some debate as to whether this structure was a true Broch, or some other kind of building, referred to by the generic term "roundhouse".  Brochs appear all over the north of Scotland and particularly in the Northern Isles, and mostly take the form of a tapered round tower type construction with massive walls with well fitting stones, galleried inside and with more than one floor.  They mostly date from 600BC to AD100, a quite considerable period of development.

This "Broch" (also referred to as "An Dun" - the fort) has a single skin drystone wall 8 meters in diameter and up to 3 meters thick at its base.  The quality of construction isn't that good in comparison with some Brochs, but it seems meant to have beeen a defensive or protective structure of some sort.

A drystone dyke, noted by the surveyors as a "causeway now partly displaced" runs down the hill and into the water, emerging at the base of the outer wall.  Whilst I don't have the level of insight that specialists in ancient structures have, I couldn't see this a primarily a causeway.  When looking at ancient structures or ruins I try to put myself in the place of the folk who built and used it.  While this could have had use as a means of access, it's quite narrow and would have been precarious; perhaps it had another use as a means of keeping back some water at the head of the loch on the falling tide, maybe as a fish trap or holding area?

The site of this structure probably hasn't changed that much since the Broch builders constructed and used it nearly two thousand years ago; this would still have been a shallow, Curlew-haunted arm of the sea, hidden from view to those who didn't know it was here.........

....and this view to Quinag from the narrow entrance way can hardly have changed at all in two millenia.  This continuity of place occupied my thoughts as I left the tiny island and headed back out of Loch Ardbhair to the sea.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Taking lunch with a Shark

Near the mouth of Loch a' Chairn Bhain is the house and garden at Kerrachar.  This was the site of a remarkable garden project for over ten years where the owners proved that with patience and imagination, a prodigious range of plants could be grown in the sheltered site despite the northerly latitude and exposure to salt laden wind.  Over ten thousand people visited the gardens during the period it was open to the public, which is all the more notable as the place has no road leading to it and is only accessible via a 30 minute boat trip.

Eventually the workload in maintaining the garden in a condition to be a visitor attraction became too much, and though much is still grown here it is no longer open to the public.

Across on the north side of the entrance to Loch a' Chairn Bhain is another sheltered location, also only accessible by water and this time via a narrow channel.......

....which opens out into an almost completely enclosed lagoon with the intruiging name of Loch Shark.  Enclosed, sheltered and surrounded by trees, I imagine that on a calm, overcast summer evening, naming the loch after another fearsome predator might be more appropriate - "Loch Midge" perhaps?!

I managed to find a spot to land on weed covered rocks for first luncheon - the colours of the weed were really zinging in the sunny conditions.  Out of the breeze, the sun was warm and pleasant.

To the south,  Quinag had completely changed appearance from this angle.  When I got back on the water I would heading out of the shelter of the sea lochs and into more open water in Edrachillis Bay, but not for long as my next destination had given shelter and protection for millenia........

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The most beautiful bridge?

After paddling from the bothy back down Loch Glendhu and past the hotel, the Kylesku Bridge comes suddenly into view as a corner is turned.  The ebb tidal stream had just started in my favour and I had a gentle push into the narrows (Kylesku is Caolas Cumhann or Cumhang - the narrow strait).

Can a thing of concrete be beautiful when placed into a landscape like that of Sutherland?  I would say that in this case, it most certainly can; and that actually for me this is the most beautiful bridge anywhere......

Seen from drectly up the narrows it certainly looks slender and perhaps graceful, but from this angle the bridge hides its true nature until the last moment.

Passing underneath shows the graceful arc of the deck which forms a single sweep across the Kyle, but even here the best view is denied.  For that, and to understand the designers (Ove Arup Partners) vision, you have to see it from above.  The graceful arc compements the setting perfectly; any straight-line industrial style bridge like the one at Ballachulish would have spoilt this spot.  Both the designers and Highland Council, for whom it was built, deserve huge credit for their vision increating something truly beautiful.

Work began on the bridge in 1978 and it was opened by HM Queen Elizabeth in 1984.  It is 275 metres long and carries a continuous box girder section deck 24 metres above the water of the kyle.  The bridge replaced a ferry service here, one of the two final vessels on the service, the Maid of Kylesku. was simply beached at the north side of the kyle, the other vessel, Maid of Glencoul, remains in service as a relief vessel on the Corran ferry on Loch Linnhe.

My own favourite view of the bridge is from high up on Sail Garbh of Quinag, where the fit into the landscape is even more striking - I've no good images of this view; surely a reason to climb the hill again?!

Heading out of the narrows and into Loch a' Chairn Bhain (loch of the white cairn) another stunningly beautiful view opens up, this time the natural beauty of Quinag.  Really a mini range of hills with three Corbett summits (those hills between 2500 and 3000ft with a 500ft drop all round).  The most striking and obvious is Sail Garbh (rough heel) which gives the whole hill its name of Quinag - the milk stoup- as it's said to resemble a milking pail.

With this view for company and a gentle wind and tide behind me, the paddle towards the mouth of the loch and the sea beyond seemed effortless.....

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Blazes of light in "the dark glen"

 The Mountain Bothies Association sign on the door of a bothy is always a welcome sight.   Then there's the anticipation - what will the bothy be like, will there be other folk staying?  One of the joys of bothying is in the people met, pretty much always like-minded outdoor enthusiasts.  Each bothy represents a leap of faith by the owner and continuous effort by the MBA to keep the place in good condition. Glendhu was one I'd not previously stayed in and I found it in great condition with four clean, dry rooms.  There were no other visitors staying that night so I picked  a room upstairs to sleep in and settled in.

As I unpacked the boat and carried my kit the few metres to the bothy from the loch shore, the western sky was ablaze with a glorious sunset.  I gatthered driftwood from the shore and spent twenty minutes with the saw to produce.......

A different kind of blaze in the grate. Although the evening was pleasantly mild, a bothy isn't quite the same without a companionable fire.  All done and I prepared my dinner of home-made cicken and corgette casserole featuring green and yellow courgettes gifted from a neighbours garden at home accompanied with saffron infused rice.  A small dram of Jura 12yo malt went very well with the food.

Before going to bed I took a walk outside to find a third blaze; that  of a dark sky full of stars with a huge swathe of the milky way overhead - just beautiful.  I slept soundly and comfortably.

The morning was bright and fresh, the southeasterly breeze would be at my back down the loch.

After breakfast I repacked the boat, tidied the bothy and cut some more driftwood for the next visitors.  Glendhu can be anything but "the dark glen" and I'll be back to visit this lovely spot soon.......