Monday, 25 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - big sky morning

Sometime during the night I became aware that the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped away.  Early sunlight heating the tents prompted us to be up and about early, emerging into a bright morning.  Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones to be up and about early and we exited the tents straight into clouds of ferocious midges.  Usually they don't bite much in bright sunlight (see paragraph 2.6.2 in this paper), but the local population on this piece of Loch Torridon shoreline clearly hadn't read the paper!  We scrambled for our midge repellent and I straight away put on my suit of "midge armour" which made things much more bearable........

Though the midges were doing their level best it was still a lovely morning, and in a superb location. Packing was a little quicker than we'd have liked in order to escape the midge attack, which remarkably continued even as the day heated up. 

As soon as we were on the water and away from the shore we left the midges behind and were able to fully appreciate the morning....and what a morning!  Our position at the outermost part of Loch Torridon had sweeping views - to the west the Trotternish peninsula on Skye lay under an ever-changing cloudscape; while on the horizon we caught a glimpse of the long chain of the outer Hebrides.

It was the majestic cloudscapes (and not the midge attack!) which made the morning so memorable.  Towering cumulus would build over the land and then slowly subside in an ever-changing pattern, dissipating where it drifted over water and never really threatening rain.

We paddled eastward, into Loch Torridon and into patterns of bright sunlight and cloud-shadow.

Each time the sun emerged from the cloud pattern, the water beneath our boats was flooded with morning light, the colour and detail snapped into sharp focus by the intensity of the light.

As the morning grew warmer the cloudscape developed a heavier, more solid appearance, but still didn't really threaten rain.  The Skye shore was in shade, while here on the Torridon shore.....

...we basked in warm sun.  After an hour or so of paddling we decided on a second breakfast and landed on a beach of sandstone boulders.  Thankfully the midges seemed to have given up and we enjoyed a pleasant coffee break propped against boulders warmed by the sun.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - a meteorological beating

On our crossing of outer Loch Torridon we had a very visible aiming point - the sandy beach at Red Point which seemed to have caught any patches of sunlight throughout the day.  A pale patch amongst greys, greens and browns, it stands out well in views from the south.  The swell which had built up behind us as we crossed was broken up by a small island and an offshore reef, making for a relatively easy landing.

Red Point was the site of a fishing station, now abandoned.  The cottages are just gable ends and a couple of walls, the most complete building being a semi-derelict store on the shore.  It's missing substantial portions of wall and roof and was a bit "sheepy" - we would be glad of it soon enough! Slender trunks of pine trees seem out of place in the dunes nearby; they didn't grow here but were dug into the dunes to provide supports for net drying.

I knew from a previous visit that we could find decent pitches behind the dunes, we pitched our tents in comparative shelter from a strong breeze which at least guaranteed no midges would trouble us during the evening.

A blink of evening sunshine provided a flash of colour, but unfortunately it didn't last long........

...before the weather begann to close in.  The wind increased to a pretty strong blow and soon we felt the first spots of rain.

To the south, the shore we'd paddled from looked to be getting some heavier rain; we reflected that place we'd originally planned to camp would have been exposed to the worst of this weather.

To seaward, there was an unmistakeable and menacing bank of rain approaching.  We moved our cooking kit into the derelict shed to take advantage of whatever shelter it offered - there would be no camp fire on this evening!

The next couple of hours saw heavy rain and a strong wind battering the coast, and the shed where we huddled to eat dinner.  The weather was pretty hostile and the evening was one of the coldest August evenings I can recall outside of the mountains.  Soon after dinner we battened down our tents and retired to our sleeping bags.

The view from the tent door just before I closed it up was quite dramatic.  The mountains of Torridon were invisible and the middle part of the loch at Shieldaig was taking a real meteorological beating - the sky was a livid purple shade and the sheets of rain were clearly visible.  Lying in my sleeping bag listening to the rain and wind on the tent, I wondered what the morning might bring......

Friday, 15 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - changing like the weather

 July and August of 2017 offered little in the way of settled weather in Scotland.  Frequent spells of windy conditions limited the opportunity for anything more than brief outings.  In the second week of August Allan and I spotted a couple of days in the forecast which looked like giving a good chance of doing a camping trip - though there was uncertainty about the wind strength.

In general it looked to be from the south for a day before swinging through west to north for the following two days.  Finding somewhere which would offer shelter from opposing wind directions on consecutive days was an interesting conundrum!  We decided on a trip from Loch Torridon, with options to head out to the island of Rona if the weather was particularly obliging, or staying within the loch if it proved less benign.

We drove over to the west coast and prepared to set out from Shieldaig (from the old Norse "Sildvik" - Herring Bay).  The sky looked quite threatening as we packed our boats, we hoped that the forecast of brighter conditions later was accurate.

 We started out heading north west towards the outer loch.  Loch Torridon is in three sections, the outer loch which is a wide expanse opening to the Minch, Loch Shieldaig forms part of the middle section and an upper loch which laps the feet of the great Torridon rampart, Liathach.

 Shortly after setting out the overcast, drizzly cloud began to break up and allow some warm sunshine to break through.  As so often in Scotland, the speed of the change from grey to dazzling colour was startling......

 ....and we were soon in bright sunlight under blue skies.

 The view up the loch to the distant Torridon hills was particularly fine, rows of shapely summits marching into the distance.  We landed in a rocky bay to take a leisurely second luncheon and enjoy the sun on our backs.

 It was clear that the sunny conditions wouldn't last too long though, and with an approaching cloudbank came a strong southerly wind.  This caused us to revise our plans - the strength of the wind within the shelter of the loch suggested that things would be a lot more gusty in open water. Our plan had been to paddle out of the loch and head south to camp in a bay which faced south - this was in anticipation of stronger northerly winds the following day.  It was clear that we'd have a slog to the intended bay and that it would be exposed to swell and weather.  We rafted up for a quick reassessment.....

Our revised plan was to paddle along the southern shore of the outer loch as far as Rubha na Fearna, (one of two headlands with the same name, less than two kilometres apart, the name means Point of the Alder trees), then to cross the loch with the wind at our backs to the north shore and camp there.  The campsite would be exposed to the southerly weather but I knew a place that we could find a sheltered spot - and we'd be in a good position when the wind did swing to the north.

We weren't the only folk to be wild camping on the shore of Loch Torridon that evening; a pair of fishermen had set up their tent on the turf of a sandstone shelf.  The site was very sheltered, but you wouldn't want to be prone to sleep-walking here!

In the late afternoon we reached the outermost point of Loch Torridon and turned our bows to the north.  A steady breeze at our backs made for good speed as we set out.  Away to the west lay the distant silhouette of Skye's Trotternish peninsula.  As we moved out into open water the swell and wind increased and all my imaes of the crossing were spoiled by water splashing onto the camera lens - it was good fun though and we made cracking speed towards our camp.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Keeping it close to home

A change in work schedule has resulted in more regular but shorter spells at home.  With a focus on shorter ventures, three afternoons on three consecutive weekends have been a good reminder that it's not necessary to travel far to get great outdoor days......

August brings the heather into full bloom and transforms the hills.  In this image there are two types, Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) in the foreground and Common Heather or Ling (Calluna Vulgaris) beyond.  Eastern Scotland provides ideal growing conditions for both species and close up they are bright and vibrant. 

On the landscape scale, even on a cloudy day, the hills are a rich purple.  The dominant sound on an afternoon walk around the Correen ridge was the hum of bees working the heather plants - bees from the same hives may visit the flowers in our garden in the valley below these hills.

A calm and sunny day the following weekend gave some really good conditions for sea kayaking on the Moray Firth coast - it's not far from home and all the better for that!  The Bow Fiddle Rock is the outstanding feature of this part of the coast.......

...but there's so much more to explore.  Hidden channels behind cliffs, a ruined castle, picturesque harbours, sandy beaches......

...and more than a few caves and tunnels, lit with luminous light in the summer sunshine.....all in an afternoon's paddling.

A recent find for us are the Tarland Trails, a series of mountain bike trails just outside the Cromar village of Tarland.  Just twenty minutes away by car, the trails are a super facility with a mix of family-friendly and challenging routes through a mixed wood.

We enjoyed the "Puddock" skills area and the Blue (Moderate) rated "Spiky Hedgehog" run - a fast, sweeping singletrack descent with curves, rollers and berms.....

.....which was huge fun!

As much as I love to explore new places, it's so good to be reminded of what's close to home - and I'll never take that for granted.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

From green to gold

In March at the cusp between Winter and Spring here in the north east of Scotland I started to record the change in the fields as the new growth spread across the land in a green wave.  The change was startling; a complete transformation in a few short weeks which goes almost unnoticed until complete.

I've continued to photograph the fields around the house as Spring became Summer - and have been somewhat surprised that the pace of change has hardly slackened.  From the green blush of the last day of April, the fields have seen great change.

By the last week in May the "green wave" had become a vivid emerald, contrasting with the brilliant yellow of gorse on the hills and the blue of a late Spring sky.  May and early June were very warm and relatively dry, ideal growing conditions as the days lengthened towards the summer solstice.  All around the house there was new life as the cattle calved - a busy time for our neighbours who have several herds of beautiful Aberdeen Angus.

By mid July the ears of barley were forming and the spring green had been replaced with a dazzling shade somewhere between green and gold.  In the hayfields a "cut" of grass was already taken, to be baled and stored as fodder and bedding for cattle during the following winter.  During late May to early July there's virtually no darkness here, and growth accelerates in over twenty hours of full daylight.

By early August there's a definite sense that the crops are ripening fast, despite very changeable and cool weather through most of July and into August.  The "park" (field) at the right of this image is planted with potatoes and the plants are now at full height.  Behind the houses the park under grass for hay and silage is covered with lush growth - it'll get another cut before the end of the summer.

The crops temselves are coming on well if a little later than in an average year - the ears of barley approaching fully ripened.  Most of this will go to feed cattle with some of the best going for malting to make whisky.

Oats are cropped later, sometimes not until October and the stems of this crop are still green.  But it's definitely gold and not green which is the predominant colour now.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A ride down the tide on the Sound of Jura

As we moved out from the Gulf of Corryvreckan into the Sound of Jura the tidal stream was increasing and our GPS confirmed that feeling.  Pretty soon we were travelling south at 10 Kph with very little paddling effort.

At the very end of the trip and the end of a lengthy day of paddling, this was a pleasant way to travel!  We headed across towards the mainland side of the Sound, taking transits as we went to make sure we passed to the east of Ruadh Sgeir (Red Skerry), a small island in mid channel which splits the tidal stream.

As we approached, the true speed of the flow became apparent and we were slung around the north of the island at a terrific rate........

....into flat calm water - but even here we were getting a great ride down the tide.  The view down the Sound to the distant Paps of Jura under a huge cloudscape was very fine.

We passed inside Carsaig Island into a lagoon reflecting the blue of the sky and the vivid green of early summer vegetation.

 A familiar yacht was anchored in Carsaig Bay - we'd last met with "Wild Rose" on the west coast of Iona - and she looked just as good in her home bay!

The last few hundred metres into Carsaig seemed to pass quite slowly, we were out of the tidal assistance and we were all tired at the end of a long day. 

David and Maurice were heading home the same due to work commitments while Douglas, Sam and I had intended to stay on the water and paddle a little way south to find a wild camp for the night.  In the event, we elected to join David and Maurice for dinner at the Tayvallich Inn - which we can heartily recommend - we ordered identical meals - fish and chips all round!  From the Inn it was just a few metres to the Tayvallich camp site which we three stayed on for the night.

What a trip it had been!  We paddled 135 Km over four days and camped for three nights on some of the wildest and most remote beaches on Scotland's west coast.

A second trip to Jura in two years just reinforced my view that it's amongst the very best of sea kayaking destinations  - wild scenery, wildlife, remoteness, grandeur and fast tidal streams make for a potent mix.  Colonsay and Oronsay exceeded the very high hopes I had - this was my first visit to both those islands and it most certainly won't be the last.

As ever though, it's the people who really make trips special. To David, Maurice, Sam and Douglas - thank you so much - and Slainte!

Day 1 - Carsaig to Jura, the Jura Portage and West Loch Tarbert

A change of plan sets the wheels in motion across Jura

A Jura salute for a Jura sunset

Day 2 - West Loch Tarbert to Oronsay and the west coast of Colonsay

Snakes alive

Oronsay Priory - a place of peace

Out on the edge - Colonsay's wild west coast

Day 3 - North and east coast of Colonsay and crossing back to Jura

Under a perpetual summer sun

Stocking up at Scalasig

Boules - Hebridean style

The shining sands of Shian

Day 4 - West coast of Jura, Gulf of Corryvreckan and Sound of Jura to Carsaig

The bones of the place

All in the timing at the Gulf of Corryvreckan

A ride down the tide on the Sound of Jura

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

All in the timing at the Gulf of Corryvreckan

As we paddled out from Glengarrisdale towards the north tip of Jura and the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strip of clear sky broke the uniform grey of the cloud cover; and seemed to point the way to the Corryvreckan.

The island of Scarba gradually emerged as we neared the strait, the sky continued to clear and the temperature soared.  Most of us found tiny bays to land in to remove layers of clothing!

The scale of the west coast of Jura is impressive, and certainly this northern section doesn't disappoint - our kayaks were dwarfed by the outcrops of tilted rock layers.

We had timed our arrival at this critical point of our journey to take advantage of the brief period of slack water at the end of the flood, then the start of the east-going ebb.  The previous night's full moon was an obvious reminder that we were right on spring tides, and that such slack as there was would be fleeting.

We reached a point where we could see into the narrow strait and it was immediately obvious that the last of the flood was pushing through from the east and encountering a larger body of water on the seaward side.  A standing wave was breaking almost from shore to shore on an otherwise flat calm stretch of water marked only by the swirls of tidal offshoots.

Neither Maurice or Sam had been here before, and when Maurice saw the rolling wave, his only comment was "Tell me we're not going through that?!".  His apprehension was well-founded, the Corryvreckan is a very active piece of water, and also features one of the world's most violent tidal whirlpools.

We reassured Maurice that the wave would drop away as slack water occurred, and sure enough it slowly split into two sections and dissipated, peeling back to the shore on each side of the strait.  I think Sam was actually a little disappointed that we weren't hammering through at peak flow with huge seas......maybe some other time!

The narrowest part of the channel is less than 2km long, but takes a huge volume of water through on each tide.  We reckoned that the actual slack water was less than five minutes before we began to feel the insistent pull of the ebb drawing us into the narrows.  A few swirls and hydraulic cushions began to appear as the ebb started to establish but in the absence of swell things were very gentle.

Our timing had been good - we drifted through with little drama under a clearing blue sky.  Just before we entered the channel Douglas had stopped at a small bay on the Jura shore where he met some Dutch sea kayakers who'd passed through in the opposite direction at the last part of the flood tide.  Remarkably, they didn't seem to realise where they'd been paddling.....or the state of the tide.

Emerging from the narrowest part of the Gulf, we felt a small breeze at our backs and hoisted our sails.  Just ten or so minutes after slack water, and we were being propelled into the Sound of Jura at 8kph without was what we hoped would be the start of a fast ride down to our finishing point at Carsaig Bay.

Friday, 23 June 2017

The bones of the place

After three days of cloudless blue skies and warm conditions it was a slight surprise to wake to a grey, cool and breezy morning - even though it had been forecast. 

Our plan for the day was to head up the west coast of Jura and position ourselves ready to transit the Gulf of Corryvreckan at slack water.  As slack water wasn't until late afternoon and we only had 23 km to paddle, we had plenty of time in hand.  Unfortunately, on the one morning that we could have lingered over breakfast the weather had other ideas!

We struck camp and packed relatively quickly, dressing much more warmly than we'd done on the journey thus far.  The forecast was for an improvement in the afternoon, but right now it didn't feel much like a late Spring day!

The Jura coast north of Shian Bay is a wild and rugged place.  Landing options aren't that plentiful and there's a lot of crags falling straight to the sea; the bones of the land are laid bare here.  Ahead we could see the dark shape of the island of Scarba; the Gulf of Corryvreckan lies between Jura and Scarba. 

We paddled past a couple of bays, at one headland we were treated to a marvellous view of a Sea Eagle soaring off the cliffs above us.  We stopped for second breakfast at Corpach (place of the dead), so named because it's one of the places where bodies were kept in caves awaiting passage to Oronsay or Iona for interment.  It was quite cold on the beach so we decided to make it a brief stop and to head on to Glengarrisdale where we could utilise the bothy whilst we waited for the flood tide to slacken in the Corryvreckan.

We paddled steadily north from Corpach and after an hour or so arrived in Glengarrisdale Bay, the bothy here is one of the very few buildings on the west of Jura - and none of those that do exist are permanently inhabited.

We carried our boats a good way up the beach because the flood still had three hours to run and, as the previous evening's full moon had reminded us, it was right on Spring tides.

Maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, Glengarrisdale is a gem of a bothy; there often seems to be a correlation between the degree of remoteness and the quality of a bothy.  I had really good memories of the last time we visited, it was good to find the place still in excellent condition.  We had a good two hours to wait before setting out for the Corryvreckan and so lit a fire with the last of our firewood to help dry damp kit while we enjoyed first luncheon in comfort.

One of the alternative names for Glengarrisdale is "MacLean's Skull Bay"; a skull and femurs reputedly belonging to a MacLean slain in a clan skirmish sat in a prominent place on the shore until they disappeared in the 1970's. There may no longer be human bones here, but there are plenty of others.....we called David from the bothy to seek his Veterinary surgeon's opinion.......

.....on these bones,a pair of metre and a half long blades with curious marks and channels on and through them.  David confirmed our amateur guess that they were likely to be the jaw bones of a Minke Whale - unfortunately his professional opinion was that this particular specimen was beyond help!

There were plenty more skulls and bones in an old fish box outside the bothy and we spent a while identifying which species they were - mainly deer and goats.  Some folk may think of a skull collection as macabre, but I just find them interesting from a naturalist's perspective - though I doubt if such a collection would be that welcome at home!

And speaking of macabre, an inventive bothy dweller had modified one of the skulls to make one of the most remarkable candle holders I've yet seen......

......but which, it has to be admitted, has a certain style!  We lit the candle to gauge the effect; on a dark night with just candlelight inside the bothy this centrepiece above the fire would be doubly effective.....

As our two hour stop at the bothy drew to a close we extinguished the fire, cleared and secured the bothy and headed back down to the boats.  It was time to head for the Corryvreckan - a passage with a fearsome all thoughts of skulls and bones were very firmly left behind us.