Friday, 27 November 2015

Winter arrives - a fleeting brilliance

Sunday 22nd November dawned bright and brilliantly white.  Through Saturday evening and into the small hours snowfall had been steady and had resulted in quite an accumulation.  I tried the nordic skis at home, but the snow was just a little "sticky" for good cross country touring - good for walking though.

Just a few minutes drive from home is a hilltop parking area at the start of the Gordon Way.  I set out into a landscape transformed....

...into a winter wonderland.  It was still, cold and quiet in the forest, every branch of the spruce trees  heavily loaded with powdery snow.

Breaking out onto a more open area, the view to the north opened up.  The distinctive sliced-off cone of Tap o'Noth was an unbroken white.....

....alternately lit with a fleeting, brilliant light.  The capacity of snow cover to utterly transform the landscape never ceases to amaze; I have to confess to a childlike pleasure in a good fall of snow!

And there had been a good fall too.  In contrast to the northerly wind of the preceding days, the night had been almost windless and the snow had settled where it fell.

On the higher ground the depth of cover made walking an energetic and aerobic experience, but I certainly wasn't complaining!  My objective was Knock Saul (Cnoc just means "hill"), the broad hill with tree cover in the middle distance of this image.  To get there I intended to drop down to a forest track between Suie Hill and Knock Saul, then effectively walk around the back of the hill to climb it from the far side.

Climbing back out of the forest an hour or so later, the weather to the north looked somewhat different with dark clouds and a banner of snow flying off Tap o' Noth in a strengthening wind.

By the time I reached the summit of Knock Saul the sky to both north and west was full of snow and a bitter wind was blowing.

My eyes were streaming in the cold, so I took a quick look back over to Suie Hill where I'd started the walk.....

...and then turned my back to the wind.  The view southwards from this small hill is really extensive; the distinctive tor on the side of Clachnaben is some 50 kilometres distant but clearly visible in the sharp air.

I didn't linger too long on the summit and was soon back in the shelter of the forest, heading down towards home.  The snow lasted just a couple of days, its fleeting brilliance a brief taste of winter to come - and there's more snow in the forecast over the coming days.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Winter arrives - an evening walk

The weekend of the 21st and 22nd of November was forecast to be wintry in Aberdeenshire with temperatures well below freezing and snow showers.  By Saturday evening it was certainly cold and there was a light dusting of snow.  The first snow of this winter fell on the highest ground at the end of October when autumn was at its most colourful, but as is usual with early snow it was a transient thing.  This was the first snow to low levels and it seemed likely not to last very long either.  Bennachie's Mither Tap looked very fine under a dusting of fresh snow.

On one of my usual evening walks from home the scene was fresh and different....

 ...even a light dusting brings out contrast, detail and feature in the land.  What's more, it promised to be a fine winter sunset.

And it was.  The snow cover raised the light level just enough to enable a photograph long after the sun had set - which is a little after 3.30pm at this time of year.

The moon was well up into a sky rapidly clearing of cloud as the temperature dived below freezing.  A chilly north wind was starting up too, heralding a cold night.  It turned out that the weather forecasters were off the mark about the heaviest snow show having already fallen....

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Solway sojourn - sayonara in the sunshine

The day warmed up considerably as we crossed from Murray's Isles towards Ravenshall Point, so we took the opportunity to land and change out of our drysuits on a tiny (and fast disappearing) beach at Corbie's (Crow's) Cove.  Although it was mid October the weather was warmer and more settled than it had been for much of the cold and windy summer of 2015.

Douglas had mentioned an interesting rock formation at Ravenshall Point, so I was curious to see what might be around the corner....

The rock formation here is really striking, a graceful sweep of pale rock forms an arch as it joins a larger sweeping outcrop with a window right through to the other side of the headland.  Remarkably this great piece of rock architecture is less than a hundred metres from the busy A75 trunk road which runs along the line of a raised beach above the present day shore, yet it could be a million miles away.  We enjoyed reversing in under the arch to get a better view before reluctantly.....

...turning our boats and starting the last leg of our Solway sojourn.  There was plenty of exploration left to do though, the coast between Ravenshall Point and the end of our journey is punctuated by a couple of large caravan sites but also has great stretches of rockhopping.....

...with more amazing rock formations.  The rock of this crag was so contorted that it was difficult to tell what the predominant plane of it might be.  Amongst the paler bands were sections of bright rose pink rock picked out by the sunshine - how many of the drivers speeding by on the road above could imagine what's just below them?

At the back of a sun-warmed cove we saw three lovely Red Admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) which seemed to be actively seeking out the splashes of water on the rocks.  They were probably feeding on the flowers of the Ivy which covers most of the cliffs here.  These butterflies are unlikely to survive the Scottish winter, the species is mainly migratory in the UK with the population topped up by an influx of butterflies from the continent each Spring.

We intended to land near Cardoness at about high water to avoid a long portage with the boats so we had some time in hand to explore the intricate rockhopping opportunities.  Douglas is back there somewhere......

...and showing fine style through a narrow channel :o)

As the cliffs begin to peter out there are a series of dry coves cutting back into the level of the raised beach.  This one had pine trees perfectly placed at either end and looked almost like a Japanese coastal scene - perhaps a fitting backdrop as we said Sayonara to our Solway journey!

A last opportunity on this trip for us to use the term "alternating turbidite lithofacies"...........

..and another interesting rock formation - this was a darker rock which appeared to be volcanic and had lines of what we guessed to be gas bubbles fossilised within it.

We slowed down considerably as we approached Cardoness and the end of the journey; a subconscious thing that we've noticed previously - none of us really wanting what might be the last camping trip of the year to end.

Our timing was pretty good, the tide had just turned as we landed.  It didn't take long for us to move the boats (this time with the assistance of a trolley) and unload, then we were treated to a lovely bowl of soup - thank you Alison!

What a trip we'd enjoyed - wonderful cliff scenery, wild camping under the starry skies, memorable camp fires, history, islands, intense sunsets and spectacular sunrises, a fine pub meal and calm conditions below huge skyscapes.  Our Solway sojourn might have ended but we have a host of memories to treasure.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Solway sojourn - stories in stone

 We were up and about early at our camp on the shore at Barlocco and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise. Breakfast taken, we dallied a little to allow the incoming tide to shorten the carry to the water, memories of the previous evening's mammoth portage only too fresh!

Back underway and we headed out around the outside of Barlocco Isle threading skerries and channels under sail, which was great fun.

Once out on the open water we set a course for Murray's Isles, the smallest of the Islands of Fleet and consisting of two tidal islands joined together at low water.

 As we approached we could see the stark ruin of a house above the rocky shore.  In the summer this island is teeming breeding colony for seabirds and landing would create a good deal of disturbance, but at the time of our visit in mid October the birds were long gone and it was a quiet place.  Murray's Isles were gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1991 by Mrs Murray Usher OBE; we had our membership cards at the ready, but it's safe to say we didn't have to show them in order to gain access...

 The only practical landing is a rocky inlet on the south west side of the island, open to the prevailing weather and sea. Once again we were lucky to have very calm conditions and landed with no difficulty.

 Approaching the ruin, we found the ground to be very tough going, generations of gull nests have created tussocky, overgrown underfoot conditions which require care.  The ruin itself is completely covered with a vibrant growth of yellow and green lichens.  The house was the Pilot station, a smuggler's residence and an inn - possibly these uses may have been simultaneous....

 As is usual, the house was built with the gable end facing the prevailing weather, the concept of a nice view was always secondary to the practical aim of keeping the weather out.  What is unusual is that there is a window aperture set into the gable end, presumably so that the Pilot could watch for shipping requiring his services, the smuggler could watch out for vessels bringing contraband and the innkeeper could watch for potential customers...possibly all three at the same time.

 What stories these stones must be able to tell!

Down on the cobble beach we found a stone with a much older story to tell.  The fossils most associated with the Solway Firth are those of Graptolites, small free-floating organisms, but in the Carboniferous rocks larger organisms are preserved as fossils.  This piece of sandstone which was some 20 centimetres long appears to contain a fan coral or weed, it was difficult to tell which and we're no experts.  The imprint was quite obvious and the dark stone seems to be the fossilised remains.  There's a great little book and download produced by Scottish Natural Heritage and the British Geological Survey which tells the story of the geology of the southwest of Scotland.

We enjoyed second breakfast and coffee on the beach as the tide continued to rise, leaving just as our boats were beginning to lift in the gentle swell.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Solway sojourn - a staggering sunset

After leaving Castle Haven Bay we pushed on through a series of skerries, hoping that the channel inside Barlocco Isle might still be open. Unfortunately we were too late; the tide had receded leaving a rocky finger connecting the island to the shore, as Douglas' image shows.

We were now faced with a choice of two options in order to reach the top of the beach where we'd camp, neither of which were very appealing.  Either we could paddle around 2.5 kilometres around the outside of the island and undertake a 250 metre carry with each of the boats (and the tide was still receding), or we could try the direct route, which was 320 metres but could be broken into two separate portages.  

After some debate the direct route was chosen; our cargo of firewood was unloaded into a sack and an Indespensable Kayak Expedition Accessory bag in order to lighten the load and these were left on a prominent rock.  The first portage was quite short but tricky, about 20 metres of slippery rocks and into a large tidal pool, through which we waded the boats, saving about 30 metres of carrying.  The portage to the top of the beach was hard going despite splitting it into two separate carries for each boat.  A trolley would have been most useful here and on any future Solway camping trip we will pack one amongst the party.  A portage strap was used so that all three of us could move each boat, but to compound matters my strap failed on the second lift; fortunately we had two spares!  (I have since reinforced the wrist loop attachments on both my portage straps, quadrupling the rows of stitching using a sewing machine).

By the final lift, we were staggering up the beach - later calculations revealed that we carried boats laden with winter camping equipment for over a kilometre that evening.  Douglas found a camping spot at the first available patch of good ground while Mike and I walked a little further to a really fine patch of level ground with a great view.  I hadn't realised just how painful Douglas' bionic knees had become otherwise we could have shifted his tent next to ours, although in truth we were separated by less than 50 metres and we all gathered around the fire later anyway.

The tents were quickly pitched and there was time to admire another fine Solway sunset which developed......

.......into a staggering intensity of colour.  It was one of those west coast sunsets in which we participated rather than spectated.  As the riot of colour faded I went back down the beach to retrieve our precious loads of firewood before darkness fell.  I missed much of the afterglow as the reflections developed.....

Image by Douglas Wilcox
...but Douglas kindly took some images with my camera as well as his own, capturing the gorgeous reflection of the late evening light across the wet sand. 

As soon as dinner was finished we set to lighting our fire.  Having gone to some lengths to collect sufficient fuel we intended to use it all!  Placed on the sand below the high water mark, a beached section of pine trunk formed the back of the fire and there were large pieces of sodden wood and a flat stone for the sides.

Thus contained, our fire that evening surpassed any that we've previously enjoyed.  We kept the blaze small and well-fed, quickly building up an intense and welcome heat with very little smoke.  At a suitable juncture we allowed the flames to burn down a little and placed our Sweet Potatoes wrapped in foil into the embers.  While they baked I returned to the boats to resupply our Jura as it appeared to be evaporating in the warmth around the fire.

We sat and chatted long into a beautifully clear evening, toasty warm beside our fire underneath a sky of astounding clarity.  We lost count of the satellites and meteors we spotted as the wash of the Milky Way wheeled overhead - a truly enjoyable evening which will last long in the memory.

But there was a problem.  This fire had exceeded even the recent effort on Cara and we needed some scale of reference against which to rate future camp fires.  We thought initially of a "K" scale as we were camped near Knockbrex, but we already use that designation to represent "degrees Kinlochleven" for comparing cold temperatures.  Perhaps "B" for Barlocco or "S" for Solway would work, but it needs two elements, the first digit to indicate the size of the fire, the second for the heat it produces.  By any standard, the fire we enjoyed on this would rate highly!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Solway sojourn - a stone symbol and a smashing session

 We made good progress out of the River Dee and back out to Kircudbright Bay with the ebb tide behind us.  The morning's wind had died away and it was pleasantly warm on the water - especially so for mid-October.  Ahead lay Little Ross Island where we'd camped above the shore in line with the lighthouse the previous night.

 We called the Dundrennan Range safety boat, the "Gallovidian", to report our intentions on VHF and again got a very positive and pleasant response. Douglas had obtained the range schedule a couple of days prior to our trip and we knew that the range was active with military vehicles firing out to sea to the east of Little Ross.  During the morning and again in the afternoon we heard a variety of light and medium gunfire and what sounded to be a particularly impressive automatic heavy calibre weapon.

A pebble beach on the mainland side of The Sound gave us an opportunity to stop and stretch our legs as the the next section of our journey would be a couple of hours straight paddling.  It was now well into the afternoon and by no means certain that we'd reach our intended camp site before sunset.

We passed back along the outstanding line of cliff scenery between  Slack Heugh and Brighouse Bay with a gentle push from the wind.  To our disappointment we couldn't spend as long as we'd have liked on this section due to the time and the ebbing tide, of which we were acutely conscious - low water on the Solway can result in some very lengthy distances from the water to the top of the beach.

We certainly didn't rush along though - that's not our style unless absolutely necessary.  Keeping close inshore we enjoyed both the scenery and the very warm conditions, we paddled in short sleeved shirts and salopettes and even in this light kit we felt somewhat hot.

There were new angles that we'd not noticed on our outward journey too.....

...this mimetolith bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lion Rampant, heraldic symbol of Scotland - even the yellow background is present!

The noise of artillery fire from Dundrennan Range had faded away as we turned out of The Sound and into the shelter of the cliffs but as we cleared Brighouse Bay we looked over our shoulders......

 ...and wondered just what exactly they were firing back there!

 We indulged in a little more exploration of the caves and clefts on our way to Kirkandrews Bay, were we'd stopped at Castle Haven Dun on our outward journey.  We had noticed a good selection of dry driftwood and a broken pallet washed up above the tide line and set these aside to collect on the way back. 

We landed on soft sand in a narrow inlet, recovered our stash of wood and made use of a "Driftwood Reduction Kit" consisting of:

                                                  Area of flat rock x 1
                                                  Large boulder x 1
                                                  Folding pruning saw with good quality blade x 1 

The technique is relatively unsophisticated but quite effective.  Place the pallet on the flat rock and apply the boulder repeatedly from a working height.  Take the other driftwood pieces and reduce in like manner or by cutting into manageable pieces with the saw.  Place the resulting firewood into a couple of Indespensible Kayak Expedition Accessory bags and stow inside or secure on top of the boats.  Job done!

We were only ashore about 15 minutes, but even in that short time the tide had receded quite a distance.  It was time to head for our campsite by the quickest route......

........back out through the skerries into what was turning out to be a truly beautiful evening.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Solway sojourn - superlative steak sandwiches and a Selkirk saying

We paddled into a steady headwind on our way into Kirkcubright Bay, this would be the only stretch where we'd do so on the whole of our Solway journey.  I wasn't quite firing on all four cylinders when we set out and so just put my head down and paddled until gradually I felt better and the easy rhythm returned.

Kirkcubright Bay pretty much matched my preconception of what paddling in the Solway Firth might be; a wide open bay enclosed by mainly low ground with extensive mud and sand flats at low tide.

We'd timed our departure from Little Ross Island to arrive at Kircudbright about an hour before high water.  This meant we'd have the flood tide in our favour on the way up, we'd land with a minimum of mud-plugging, have time for luncheon and then have the ebb in our favour on the way back out.

As we entered the River Dee (one of two rivers given this name in Scotland, the other rises in the Cairngorms and flows to the sea at Aberdeen) we felt the insistent push of the flood tide overcoming the river flow and passed this trawler wreck - better days indeed.

We tried to land at the slipway in Kirkcudbright, but found it to be a lethal mix of a steep slope overlaid with slippery mud.  I found it difficult to stand when I stepped out of the boat and it was clear that we wouldn't be able to safely move our boats.  Instead we backtracked and landed adjacent to the marina pontoons on reeds and more mud, but at least it was flat!

We removed our paddling outer layers and took a stroll in warm sunshine through the streets of Kirkcudbright (pronounced "Kirk-coo-bree" and meaning Kirk of (St) Cuthbert).  Saint Cuthbert (c. AD634 – 20 March 687) was a saint of the early Northumbrian church in the Cetic tradition and is mostly associated with northern England, though he grew up near Melrose in the Scottish borders.  Cuthbert's remains were kept here for a time after being exhumed from Lindisfarne, they were later re-interred at Chester-Le-Street in the north of England.  The town became a Royal Burgh in 1453, so it's fair to say the place has history.

I really enjoyed our stroll around the town; it's neat, tidy and has a well-kept air.  Several houses were being whitewashed on the day we visited, and their doors and window frames being repainted in bright and cheerful colours.  It's a place I'll re-visit and explore some more.

Probably the most prominent building in the town is the ruin of MacLellan's Castle.  Completed in 1582, it was built  by Sir Thomas MacLellan, Provost of Kirkcudbright partly from stone recycled following the destruction of Greyfriars Convent in one of Scotland's many religious upheavals. Standing at the head of a broad street, it's a fine sight.

We reached our destination, the Selkirk Arms, just as the doors were opening for luncheon.  This hotel has a unique place in history too; for it was here (and not in the border town of Selkirk) that the poet Robert Burns wrote the famous "Selkirk Grace" in 1749:

"Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit."

We were shown to a table with comfortable upholstered seats despite the fact we were clearly in outdoor wear and ordered a round of sports recovery drinks while we perused the menu.  We chose different starters, but all chose the Hot Galloway Beef Sandwich on Sourdough bread.  It was, quite simply, the best steak sandwich I have ever tasted!

The mark we give to truly exceptional food and drink establishments is 12/10, but the Selkirk Arms gets an an almost unheard of 13/10 because the owner and chef Chris is himself a sea kayaker and came out from the kitchen to chat with us about this and other trips.  If you are into superb food, prepared simply from quality local ingredients - the Selkirk Arms should be high on your list to visit!

Replete, we made our way back to the boats just a few minutes after high water.  Other vessels were taking advantage of the tide too, the Belfast registered "Mytilus the Mussel" (B-449) was also departing from Kircudbright harbour.

After she passed, we changed back into paddling outer-wear and got back on the water.  Already the ebb which would carry us back out into Kirkcudbright Bay was gathering pace.