Wednesday, 24 May 2017

A Supper Club outing

What could be nicer than going out for dinner on a sunny evening?  Of course, the correct choice of venue for a Supper Club outing is important......

...the restaurant should offer a menu spiced with a little colour.

It goes without saying that the surroundings should be fresh and clean.....

...and the entrance should be welcoming and distinctive too.

Any small rooms should be intimate and cosy for those who choose to dine there.....

....but most important of all, there should be good food on offer, and tables with a view.....

Whilst British "fish n chips" might not be strictly an appellation d'origine controlee, eating it in the open air by the seaside just seems to add to the dining experience - food in it's place of orign.

An evening outing of the Supper Club, kayaking from Portknockie to Cullen, with fish and chips by Linda's of Cullen.  Sports recovery drink for the non-drivers, cups of tea for the drivers!  :o)

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Cuil view

The cool northwesterly breeze dropped overnight but the sparkling sunshine of the previous day was replaced by an overcast and murky morning.  The long view up Loch Linnhe from our camp with snow capped Ben Nevis looks cold, but in fact it was a reasonably mild morning.

We decided to paddle straight across the loch before any breeze might start up and create the sort of choppy conditions we'd enjoyed the previous evening.  Landfall of the Morvern shore was made near the Glensanda superquarry, which as ever comes a a jarring intrusion into the loch scenery.

A few kilometres further on we stopped to take a walk around Arigh Shamraidh (the summer shieling).  Visible from across the loch as a green patch lined by trees, there are five ruined buildings and a field system here, the ruins probably date to the early 18th century but earlier maps how a permanent settlement of similar size.

Further along again we passed Camasnacroise (Bay of the cross) with its neatly painted white houses and church on the shore of Loch a' Coire. The church-related names include the hill which towers over the shore - Beinn na Cille (hill of the (monks) cell) In 1890 the village is recorded as having a church, school, shop and smiddy.  The village is quite remote by modern standards, and connected by tiny single track roads.

We enjoyed paddling the wild shore north of Camasnacroise, moving slowly and absorbing the atmosphere of the place.  A couple of potential camping spots came and went before we found a place on a level grassy platform above the shore.  The effort of carrying all our stuff up a steep 20 metre slope was rewarded with a view across Loch Linnhe to Cuil, from where we'd set out.

We could easily have crossed back and ended the trip without camping, but elected to spend another night out and have a short paddle the following morning.

We spent a pleasant evening enjoying the views from our camp, though the morning turned out damp with some drizzle and a thick mist.  I took some bearings and set up a route on my GPS as we packed the boats, as well as putting the VHF radios to "scan" in order to pick up any traffic from vessels moving on the loch which we'd not be able to see.

After travelling up the shore a little way we struck out across Loch Linnhe towards Cuil just as the drizzle stopped and the mist began to break into banks of low cloud.  With such damp, low-light conditions and little wind, we were thankful that the midges hadn't got going by this time in April!

All too soon we were back at Cuil in a rapidly improving morning with a fresh breeze dispersing the last of the cloud. 

 Our two night trip had been relatively short in distance at just over 50Km, but had been really relaxing as we'd deliberately kept our plans to the minimum and just gone with the flow.  It had also been a useful shake-out of our kayak camping kit, which had shown up a couple of deficiencies and necessary tweaks before a longer trip.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Cuil camping

This the first of two catch-up posts from a camping trip Allan and I made on Loch Linnhe in the second half of April.  The plan was for a relaxed circuit and a couple of nights wild camping; for both of us it was the first overnight trip of the year due to work or health reasons.  A bigger trip was in the planning so this would also be a good shake-out of camping kit.

Our starting point was Cuil Bay on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe, where a couple of cars can be parked by the side of the minor road above the shore - taking care to leave access for farm vehicles.  Cuil translates as either "wing" or "back", both of which would be good descriptions for the shape of the bay.

The weather looked good with sunshine and cloud dappling the long view down the loch towards the distant Mull hills.

We paddled south down the loch in perfect conditions, enjoying the reflections of the Morvern hills on the mirror calm water.  To our left the main A828 road follows the shore for several kilometres and there was some traffic noise, but this soon fades when the road turns inland a little.

We took luncheon on a tiny pebble beach at the north tip of Shuna (the northerly of two islands with the same name in this area, the other being in the Firth of Lorn).  The sunlight was picking out the colours of the pebbles below the water beautifully - it really was a very relaxing spot.  Looking over the loch to Morvern, I recalled one of our trips from the previous year when we'd paddled around Movern in late summer warmth.  Loch Linnhe seems to be overlooked a bit by sea kayakers, but it does have the potential for good trips.

After paddling around the outside of Shuna, our next stop was at the ferry jetty on Lismore.  There's a toilet and water from a tap at the ferry waiting room here, handy on longer trips.  We now had a decision to make....our plan was very flexible and we'd not planned in any more detail than a starting point and a basic direction down the loch.  From the jetty we could paddle down either side of the island of Lismore (Lios Mor - the big garden, so named for the fertility of the island which is on limestone).

We chose to go down the outside, west, side of the island as it has plenty of interest and a few more camping options.  Within 30 minutes of setting out, a stiff NW'ly breeze blew up and made things quite bouncy - it seemed we'd made the wrong choice!

A considerable chop built up as we passed beneath the ruin of Castle Coeffin.  Built in the 13th century by the MacDougalls of Lorn, the castle passed into ownership of Clan Stewart through marriage and eventually to Clan Campbell.

We were glad of the opportunity to tuck into the bay below the castle for a breather out of the wind.  This bay must have been a factor in the siting of the castle as the MacDougalls were a clan of sea raiders, the beach must have been a perfect base for operating the highland version of a longship - the Birlinn.

The bay also contains the well-preserved remains of a medieval fish trap.  The fish were held back as the tide dropped and could be caught easily in the confines of the trap. 

We considered making our first camp on the cropped turf below the castle, but a reasonably polite notice asks that folk don't camp here as it's close to the croft house and is grazed occasionally by horses.  We had a quick look at the map and decided to backtrack on our route a bit to a spot we'd noticed earlier.

It was a fairly stiff paddle back up against a strengthening wind to reach the spot we had in mind, but it was worthwhile as it was a good place to camp with a little shelter from what had become a cold NW'ly wind - a "Cuil" breeze in fact!

After dinner we managed to find a spot for a campfire below the high water line and enjoyed a dram or two to mark the first kayak camp of the year.

Monday, 15 May 2017

A wildlife spectacular

On a cold and blustery day at the end of April we drove to Newburgh at the mouth of the River Ythan (pronounced "Eye-than") to do some wildlife watching. Although less than an hour away, we hadn't previously visited and were reminded that we really should do by an article on BBC Radio Scotland's "Out of Doors" programme.

We parked near the golf course and walked a short way along a path through the dunes which are such a feature of this part of the coast to reach the edge of the estuary close to where the Ythan enters the North Sea.  A guided wildlife watching group and some families were already enjoying the sights.

There are lots of birds on the Ythan.  Eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) are simply everywhere; this is the largest breeding colony of these striking sea ducks in the UK with some 1500 pairs nesting in the dunes of the Forvie National Nature Reserve - with non-breeding birds the summer population can be up to 5000 strong.

The heaviest, fastest flying and largest UK duck, Eiders feed primarily on molluscs, especially Mussels which they can swallow whole and crush in their gizzard - crabs are also taken and are similarly swallowed whole once the legs have been removed; a remarkable digestive feat!  The male Eiders are truly beautiful birds; predominantly black and white with pale green napes and a salmon pink blush to their breasts.  They also have a distinctive call - which leads to them being known to generations of children as "woo-woo birds"....try the video on the RSPB page to hear why!

As well as Eiders, the Ythan estuary is home to four species of terns; largely Sandwich Terns and Arctic Terns, but we were delighted to get close views of a Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) which was fishing right in front of us.  Forvie has between 15 and 35 pairs of these lovely little birds breeding each year - and this is a quarter of the entire Scottish breeding population.

Sand Martins were whizzing along the shore and we watched a pair finishing a nest burrow in a sand dune right next to the path.  The birds at Forvie make for a great wildlife experience in their own right, but it wasn't birds we'd primarily come to see....

 Now, I can get close views of seals every single time that I get in a sea kayak, so why come to a beach on a raw day to see them?  Well, just across the channel Atlantic Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) haul out onto the sand to rest, to moult and to pup and they can be seen at quite close quarters without disturbance.

The UK's largest land carnivore, Grey Seal bulls can reach 2.6 metres in length and weigh up to 350Kgs - they're an animal to be respected, especially when in a sea kayak!  The bulls are generally dark grey, brown or black with some lighter blotches whilst the cows are usually lighter grey with some darker blotches.

 The pebbles on the shores of the North Sea and Moray Firth coasts are actually quite similar colours to the seals.

But what makes the seals at the Ythan such a spectacle is that there are a lot of them....... awful lot of them!  Over 1000 animals haul out here; the sight and noise is extraordinary - and if the wind is blowing from the north we're assured that the smell is too.   One of the presenters of the "Out of Doors" radio programme described this as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles not just in Scotland or the UK, but in Europe.

We'd agree - it's a truly world-class wildlife experience and very accessible too. The north side of the estuary is now an area of special protection and this designation means that it's a criminal offence to recklessly disturb seals which are hauled out here.

To get the best sighting, visiting near to low water allows a fairly close approach from the south side of the river, but doesn't disturb the animals.  If they raise their heads or start to move - you're too close.  From the main road through the village of Newburgh, turn onto Beach Road (near the Newburgh Inn) and drive to the car park near the golf course.  A five minute walk will bring you to the water and this remarkable wildlife watching location.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Nothing to see here.....

There's no question that the west coast of Scotland possesses world class sea kayaking locations - and it's been said that the east coast of the country "would be great if the west coast wasn't there".  Faint praise indeed...... 

Here's a look one of our local paddles, a Moray Firth outing from Gardenstown heading east to Rosehearty.

A feature of the Moray Firth and indeed much of the east coast is that there are plenty of small harbours from which to launch.  Gardenstown (also known as Gamrie) is one such, and close by is Crovie - so tightly packed against the cliffs that there isn't space for road access.  Some of the harbours are administered by Trusts - if you use them at the start or end of a trip there's usually an honesty box and it's worth contributing to help with the upkeep.

Most of the houses in these former fishing villages stand gable end to the sea and have small windows fitted with shutters to protect them from the violence of gales.  Big windows and the desire for sea views are modern phenomena!

The main feature on this trip is Troup Head, Scotland's only mainland gannetry.  The Gannets are evident long before the headland is reached, brilliant black and white shapes wheeling above on two-metre wingspans.

The gannetry itself is an assault of sound, sight and smell.  On this visit the birds hadn't begun to lay eggs - later in the season it's best to keep well out to avoid disturbance.

Not just Gannets here....there are Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins, Shags and Cormorants in their hundreds of thousands.  The east coast has truly vast numbers of seabirds and this is one of the better places to experience them from a kayak - whirling masses filling the sky.  Top tip: wear a hat and be careful when you look skyward!

There are beaches of golden sand and beaches of wonderfully coloured pebbles - hours can be spent searching for particularly nice examples. 

The cliffs along much of this stretch of the Moray Firth drop sheer into the sea - and some have unusual rock architecture such as this mimetolith known as the Lion's Head.

Each corner turned brings a fresh view, headland after headland marching into the distance along a wild coast.  There's a sense of scale and a definite exposure to the North Sea here, choose settled weather to get the best from this trip.

The verticality is punctuated with pretty villages such as Pennan.  There's a good pub here if it's all getting a bit much.....

The geology is fascinating; you'll travel along a wide variety of rock types.  At times the colour can be turned up to the maximum in Spring and Summer; the contrast of vivid red sandstone, brilliant yellow gorse and deep green water near Pennan is stunning - and on warm days the coconut scent of the gorse drifts down to the water.

The Moray Firth is one of the best places in Scotland to see Bottlenose Dolphins; a well known pod hunts regularly right along the coasts of the Firth.  These are the most northerly population of Bottlenose dolphins, the largest individuals of the species and some of the best studied - it's always a thrill to catch sight of the distinctive dorsal fins close by.

It's quite possible to be paddling along a wild shore with Gannets overhead, dolphins close on one side of the kayak and Puffins on the other side!

Another rock type and another change of scenery; sheer cliffs towering above deep bays.....

....stacks, towers, arches and caves linked by narrow channels......

...along with the odd secluded bay, totally inaccessible except by water......

All this, and the chances are high that you'll meet more dolphins than other sea kayakers.  Really, you wouldn't like it....nothing to see here folks!   :o)

Monday, 1 May 2017

The green wave

Spring is a season of rapid changes, but sometimes the pace of the change isn't noticed until a complete transformation has taken place. With the vernal equinox past, the daylength in northern latitudes increases noticeably each day and in tandem with warmer temperatures sparks an outpouring of new growth.

 Here in the northeast of Scotland Spring comes later than in other parts of Britain, but once it does arrive the change sweeps quickly through the landscape. This year I decided to try charting the progress of  Spring in the the fields above home. The seed drills were busy in in late March, previously ploughed ground smoothed out and sown with barley.

On April 6th, ten days after the fields in the middle distance had been sown and a day after the nearest field, the ground remained bare and brown.  On the rough hill ground above the farmland the russet tones of last year's heather growth dominated.

By 12th of April a faint blush of green was evident on the lower "parks" (fields) which had been sown first, tiny 2cm green shoots forcing up through the soil.

On 21st April the lower fields were fully green, the blush of early growth was appearing in the higher fields, but the nearest field to the camera, sown ten days or so after the first, remained bare.

On 30th April the "green wave" had changed the view in the space of four weeks.  The earlier fields are well-greened and the later sown barley is coming on well.  A pulse of snow late in the month had watered the ground after a drier than usual month and on the hill ground there's a bright yellow swathe of gorse, vibrant despite overcast and murky weather.

I hope to be able to continue to document this view through the farming year as the barley grows, ripens and is harvested - with luck it will be a good harvest.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Under a Spring sky

I'd planned to do jobs around the house, but a bright early April morning was too tempting.  The Correen Hills form a curving sweep of broad backed ridges and are accessible straight from home - perfect for a half day's hillwalking.  A track above the farms at Terpersie leads to open ground below the ridge.

 There are lots of Larch (Larix decidua) trees in this area - an interesting tree as it's the only deciduous conifer native to Europe, though not originally native to Britain. Larches are a really colourful tree, the bright pink female "flowers" eventually become cones, the male flowers are tight clusters of cream coloured anthers.  The needles start out a striking bright lime green, mature to a bottle green and in the autumn turn stunningly golden yellow before falling.

 In an old quarry on the end of the ridge, this old shooters hut seems to throw off whatever the weather throws at it.  It's almost taken on the russet and brown shades of the hill it stands on.....

 ...and reflects the sky too.....

Once on the ridge there's a sense of great space and distance.  Though not high, the Correen Hills offer some good views over to the Cairngorm giants of Beinn a'Bhuird and Ben Avon, unusually snow-free at this time of year.   The other feature of the ridge is that it's great walking country, distance just seems to reel away effortlessly underfoot.

 There are also great views over the farmlands of Cromar to Morven and beyond to the crags of Lochnagar.

My descent went back down through the trees, with a view to Tap o'Noth crowned by its distinctive hillfort.  Further down again and I could pick up a farm track leading around the hill to right above home.

A half day under a big Spring sky and a half day well spent - I should walk it more often......