Thursday, 8 March 2018


Despite the heavy snow and fierce cold of recent weeks, the season is beginning to turn towards Spring.  Winter is often thought of as a dark time with little in the way of colour; but there have been occasional moments of real beauty - as in every winter.

The dazzling, sparkling purity of snow covered hills against a cloudless blue sky is probably the best example of this and there's been more snow than in recent years too, a "proper" winter.  On this day above Deeside we could see for many miles through the clearest of air.

Earlier in the season when there wasn't so much snow but plenty of frost. There was contrast between shaded forest which held a frost haze most of the day, and the warmer colours brought to life by sunlight on the slopes of Lochnagar.  The scene in the mountain's great corrie was altogether more monochrome though.

The winter saw a series of "supermoon" events where the full moon was bigger and brighter than usual due to its proximity to the earth.  The pale blaze of this moonset at home was a beautiful sight, and prompted me to get out and experience the arclight brilliance of this rare event.

One of the features of the winter landscape is the blonde shades of the fields, grasses and barley stubbles bleached by the frost and wind.  Lit by low sunlight, these apparently lifeless fields take on a remarkable shade.

Back among the hills, as a freezing night gave way to a sunny day with a fierce north westerly wind. With a combination of frost haze in the glens and searing morning sunlight plus suspended dust from the wind, the view across the Dee valley towards Mount Keen was one of silhouettes softened into shades of light and shadow, the sky almost devoid of colour.  Processing this image in black and white made it actually more true to the view I experienced.

Days are short in the north of Scotland through the midwinter, the sun remains low for the six or so hours it's above the horizon.  The low angle means that sunrise and sunset can seem quite long, and the delicate lighting of dawn in particular can be quite beautiful.

Even when the cloud is down and there's apparently little definition, the play of shifting light can be quite magical.  We sat on the moors above Glen Gairn and watched as cloud and sun performed a "dance of the veils" - alternately hiding and revealing the hills and moorland slopes.  The eye was drawn to the geometric shapes of field boundaries in the foreground as a point of reference, but all around us light shifted and changed.

Spring is on the way bringing a riot of bright colours, but winter isn't so dark and monotone after all.....

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Twa landmarks frae the sea

It's been some time since I last climbed Clachnaben, a small but prominent Aberdeenshire hill. With a forecast for bright, cold and very windy day, I spent an hour one evening looking over maps for a hillwalk relatively close to home.

My eye kept coming back to Clachnaben - the hill sort of chose itself.  My previous climbs had both been from the north, so I looked for a different route and worked out a circuit that would work with, rather than against the wind.

A small quarried area off the B974 (the Banchory to Fettercairn road over the Cairn o' Mount, which on this day was closed higher up due to snow) has been made into a parking area from where the shortest route to Clachnaben starts.  The first part of the walk rises gently through open woodland and was very pleasant with sunlight dappling the woodland floor.

Emerging from the wood there's the sudden "reveal" of Clachnaben ahead.  The granite tor which forms the true summit is very prominent from miles around, particularly as the hill sits in isolation at the end of a ridge above the lower ground of the Dee valley.  Sheltered from the strong northwest wind, and with views like this, it was a superb morning to be out.

My route diverged from the "normal" path to the summit and continued around the slopes of Netty Hill into Glen Dye.  The view down to the Water of Dye was an unexpected delight, and would make a great short walk by itself. A quicker way to this point is by parking near to the narrow road bridge at Spital of Glen Dye, but parking is limited, and on a difficult bend.

The ground was so frozen that I'd put two sets of boots in the car, plus crampons.  On looking at conditions on the drive over I'd opted not to use my heavy boots and crampons.  This was the right choice for the hill, but further along the Glen Dye track I was wishing for a third skates!  The whole track was covered in thick blue-grey ice...there aren't any photographs from this part of the walk as I concentrated on staying upright.

I managed to reach Charr with only one or two "skitey" moments, one of which had me doing a fair impression of Bambi on Ice.......  

Charr is now an MBA bothy, and sits in a wild and lonely place; it seems much more isolated than the distance from the road would suggest.

The bothy occupies three rooms in part of the building, the remainder is retained by Fasque estate.  There's no fire or stove here but the place is clean, dry and bright.  I've visited previously but not (yet) stayed here.  I met another walker heading home to Fettercairn over the hills having been dropped at Spital, Charr is on a number of potential routes between Deeside, the Mearns and the Angus glens - which is food for thought for future walks.

After lunch and a "brew" of tea in the bothy ("Char" at Charr?!) I headed back out and tackled the steep climb up the track beside the Bracky Burn.  Emerging onto the open hill at the top exposed me to the wind, which was absolutely biting.  This was the only leg of the walk where I'd be heading into the wind; I'd planned the route to have it with me on the high ridge leading to Clachnaben.

To the west there's a wonderful view of wild, open country with the higer hills leading to the Cairngorm plateau beyond.  It is, essentially, a view of absolutely nothing - and that's a precious thing.  There's word that a windfarm is planned near here with giant turbines; if the planning application goes ahead I will be objecting - this is a landscape which shouldn't be industrialised.

The climbing continues to meet a track between Mount Battock and Clachnaben, where I was really glad to turn and put the wind from my starboard bow to my port quarter, it was searingly cold as well as strong.  Clachnaben's tor is well seen from here, but the view is of the shorter side rather than the full height.  The ground on this ridge is bare and broken, and marked by ATV tracks - it's better under snow than not for this reason.

This is one of the hills where the trig point isn't the actual summit.  The scramble up onto the tor is easy in most circumstances but with a combination of ice and the gusting wind I elected not to stand up on the very top block!

On te direct descent (which is the usual ascent path) the tor is seen at its best. A granite plug, the tor has been plucked by ice and from most angles appears as a "wart" on the slope of the ridge.

Away to the north there's a good view of that other much loved Aberdeenshire landmark, Bennachie. The distinctive shapes and proximity to the coast of these two fine hills gives rise to the old rhyme :

"Clachnaben and Bennachie, are twa landmarks frae the sea"

 On the way back down Clachnaben this set me thinking - would it be possible to climb both hills in a day using a bike to get between them?  A long day for sure, but just maybe......

My circular route was 16 kilometres with around 500 metres of ascent.  I took a little over four and a half hours including a brief stop at Charr bothy.  Other circular routes are possible from the north which can take in Mount Battock and the connecting ridge.  The shortest route is a simpe up-and-down from the B974, but in my opinion this fine hill deserves more than that.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Low sun and low swell - winter rockhopping on the Moray Firth

 The first weekend of February brought a brief period of calm weather, so Lorna, Allan and I took advantage by planning a paddle at one of our favourite local spots.  Launching from Sandend on a bright but cold afternoon, we headed west towards Cullen.  The plan was just to enjoy some time on the water and to get in among the rock features of this great stretch of coast.

 We struggled to see landward in the low winter sunshine - but certainly weren't complaining about a sunny February afternoon!

 Closer in we were in the shade; the sun streaming over the top of the cliffs creating some great halo effects.  These north facing outcrops see no sunlight through the winter months and can be very cold places. Despite this, the seabirds are beginning to arrive back for their breeding season.  Gulls were loafing around the skerries, as were Shags - while Fulmars already seem to be occupying territories and threatening all intruders.

 This cave-arch is a hidden gem - we seek it out each time we kayak here.  In the summer it gets the most wonderful lighting - in the winter the atmosphere is a little darker.

 The afternoon sun picked out the ruin of Findlater Castle really well, the calm conditions allowing us to rest a while in the bay below.

 The swell was low, but quite long period and with considerable energy, at times giving sporting passage through narrow gaps - lots of fun!

After a break for coffee and sandwiches on a small beach in Cullen Bay, we headed back towards Sandend with the evening sun on our backs.  The breeze dropped along with some of the swell - a relaxed end to an afternoon of winter rockhopping.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A "once in a blue moon" night

Lunacy - intermittent insanity, formerly believed to be related to phases of the moon. 

The night of 31st January saw a "supermoon", the third in a series of full moon events where the moon would be at a comparatively close distance from the earth. It was also a "blue moon" - the second full moon in a calendar month, which as the saying goes, doesn't come around that often.  Predicted to appear 7% larger and be 15% brighter than an average full moon, it seemed like a good idea to try and experience it to best advantage.

We are fortunate in having very little light pollution at home, so it there might be a good view, but how about getting up into the hills to see the effect amongst winter mountains?

I set out from Crathie on Deeside at sunset, aiming to spend a night out and get the best possible view.

Emerging form the forest onto the open hill well after sunset, I thought that maybe I'd made a mistake.  A snowstorm came sweeping in from the north west and made for some fairly brisk conditions on the walk in.

My destination for the night was Gelder Shiel bothy on the Balmoral estate.  I'd noted fresh bootprints on the track and so was expecting to find somebody else in residence, and so it proved.  Mike and his dog "Sheba" had arrived just before dark and had the stove lit and the place nice and warm.

I've used Gelder Shiel several times; my abiding memories are of a very cold stone building, but a recent renovation by the MBA and the "Ballater Chiels" has transformed it into one of the best of bothies, cosy and warm.  Once settled into the bothy, I took a look outside....

...where the cloud had broken up and the full moon was sailing high in a ragged sky, almost stroboscopic as the cloud alternately obscured and cleared.

In the small wood surrounding the bothy the effect was all light and shade, a zebra pattern on the fresh snow.

Mike and I took a walk up the track above the bothy.  When the cloud cleared, the light levels were truly astounding, our shadows sharply delineated.

All the images in this post were taken on a compact camera with the flash switched out, the light levels really were as portrayed.  Behind Mike and Sheba is Lochnagar, the cliffs floodlit with brilliant light.

Moonlight is often described as "silver", but this went beyond that - it was arc-light bright.  Every feature in the landscape was picked out sharp and clear - an utterly brilliant night to be out.

The contrast between moonlight and shade was as marked as that between sunlight and shadow.

Bright it may have been, but it was also searingly cold in a strong northerly wind.  We three returned to the bothy and banked up the wood-burner.

I took a walk out just before getting into the sleeping bag, there was a corona around the moon formed by ice crystals in the lower atmosphere.

As the moon moved across the sky it shone through the skylights in the bothy.  A brief turn out in the small hours to answer a call of nature had me diving back for the camera - the bothy washed by light.

I had to leave early to be home and do a day's work.  All night the wind had roared around the building, making some weird noises as the gusts built.  I headed out into what would normally have been pitch blackness, but on this morning was still lit by a super supermoon.  Truly this had been a "once in a blue moon night".

By the time I reached home just after dawn, the day had turned very nasty - a northerly gale and stinging showers rattled in as February roared in.  But what a great night it had been.....

Monday, 29 January 2018

A glimpse ahead at Glen Tanar

January has seen some very wintry weather; periods of snow and deep frost interspersed with deep Atlantic low pressure systems bringing wind and rain.  The last few days have brought that sort of cycle in miniature, and created conditions in which a hillwalker became disorientated and lost his life on Lochnagar.

The very day after that tragic event there was a brief gap, just a morning, when it was possible to get a glimpse forward towards the end of winter - although for sure there's plenty of winter still to come.

We took a walk in the beautiful pine forest of Glen Tanar, near Aboyne.  In many respects a traditional estate, Glen Tanar is also a National Nature Reserve and is administered by a charitable trust.  There's a car park signposted off the south Deeside road (with a daily charge) from where a number of waymarked walks radiate.  We decided on one of our favourites; a 10km route which goes up the glen towards Mount Keen.

Adjacent to the fine packhorse bridge just across the road from the car park there's a small visitor centre with information about the estate and its wildlife.  Outside, we chatted to the ranger who was enjoying a coffee in the sunshine.  We remarked that this was the first day since November when it's been warm enough to do that! The birds seemed to have felt it too - Great Tits and Blue Tits were calling away as if it was early Spring rather than the middle of winter.

The chapel of St Lesmo's was lit with warm sunlight;  benches placed along a south east wall catch the best of any morning sun.

The lochan near to Glen Tanar House was almost completely iced over even though in full sun; it will have been this way for several weeks.

The pine forest is a real joy to walk through at any time of year and maybe especially so in winter when the evergreen pines are a contrast to the bare branches elsewhere. 

The Water of Tanar drains the corries below Mount Keen and the Mounth, giving its water to the River Dee at Aboyne.  There was sufficient warmth in the morning to spend some time just watching the water flow (time doing this is never wasted!).  We heard, then glimpsed a pair of Dippers zipping down the river, and in another glimpse ahead, singing their bright song.

By the afternoon rain and wind had arrived as another low pressure system passed overhead, and 24 hours later the temperature has fallen from double figures to near freezing, with a raw northwesterly wind.  Yes, there's plenty of winter to come, but it was good to get a glimpse ahead!

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Memories of 2017

The turn of a year is a time to look forward to the possibilities and challenges ahead, but also to reflect on the year just ended. I've once again been very lucky to have enjoyed some superb days and nights in Scotland's great outdoors. As in previous years, I've absolutely failed to select just one memory from 2017 - so here are a few.... :o)

A change of work routine during 2017 has resulted in fewer longer trips; instead there have been more "local" adventures........

.....and really, there's plenty to go at - even very close to home!

The colour palette as the seasons turn has been a joy; one of the highlights of my year has been to be at home regularly enough to notice the subtle changes.....

...and some frankly jaw-dropping natural light shows.

There were some cracking hill days in 2017, spanning all the seasons (sometimes in the same day).  Whether on the bigger hills or the smaller ones, easy days or tough battles, mountains continue to be a gift that just keeps on giving.

I had no difficulty selecting the year's outstanding multi-day trip.  A wonderful journey to (and over!) Jura and then around Colonsay by sea kayak would have been a highlight of any year...... the very best of the early Summer weather when we seemed to travel under perpetual sunshine....

...and in majestic surroundings.  The story of this trip starts here, and you can follow our journey in "Sea Kayak Stereovision" on Douglas' blog (with much better photos than mine!) starting here.

But, if pushed, I'd have to say that the single outstanding memory from a year in the outdoors during  2017 is.....

...a truly fantastic encounter with a pod of dolphins on the Sound of Arisaig.  These captivating animals actively sought us out and played with us for hours; it was the most thrilling and intimate of wildlife encounters and all the better as we didn't seek it out......'s left us with memories to last a lifetime

But once again the year was made by people and by shared experience.  A huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone with whom I've enjoyed the outdoors in 2017 - from struggles in tough conditions to nights around the fire - these experiences are all the better for sharing with friends - Slainte Mhath!