Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival

Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival is held annually and has grown from a small event to a large celebration of food, drink, music, coastal rowing and of course traditional boats. This year's event was held on 30th June and 1st July and was the 25th festival, a notable landmark.  The staff of Mountain and Sea Scotland visited on the Sunday with a family group ranging from 8 to 80 something years old.  The festival occupies the whole harbour area, surrounding streets and the village green - and there really was something for everyone to enjoy.

We arrived quite early, and at low water which gave an opportunity to view some of the vessels in the harbour.

There were some absolutely beautiful craft on show, many of which would have been a regular sight when Portsoy was at its busiest as a fishing port.  Fish are still landed, processed and sold here; a fish seller has a shop in the newer part of the harbour.

In the very traditional harbour setting, the boats look entirely "in their place"

The coastal rowing races were a real draw, featuring crews from all around the UK and further afield - a Dutch crew were very much in evidence in the races.  This sport has really caught on and the numerous small harbours of Scotland's north east coast nearly all have rowing clubs and boats.

Boats are crewed by four rowers and a cox'n and race over a variety of distances.  A strong breeze and choppy conditions had limited the races to shorter distances arranged as out-and back legs....

.....which resulted in some close and exciting racing.  Crews are of all ages and compositions, coastal rowing seems to be one of the most inclusive of sports.

In the boatsheds near the harbour examples of traditional boatbuilding and nautical skills were much in evidence.  But the festival isn't all about boats....

It's also a celebration of the best of local food, drink and music.  Two full areas were dedicated to food and drink, with lots of food vendors on site to refuel hungry visitors.  On the harbour side, spars full of haddock tied in pairs await the magic which will transform them into....

.....Arbroath Smokies.  The haddock are cleaned at sea, then salted for a time to draw excess moisture from the flesh before being smoked in a half whisky barrel over a fire of beech or oak shavings, when the time is right the barrel is covered with a hessian sack to retain the smoke.  The result is sensational; tasty, fresh and healthy.

What these images don't show is the crowds of people at the festival.  We'd arrived early to avoid the busiest time but it was still a busy, vibrant day of sights, sounds and tastes. The music stage featured some great performances and by all accounts the Saturday night had been a real party.  2019's festival is scheduled to take place on 22nd and 23rd of June - it's a great day out.

And if all this nautical theme isn't for you.......

...then check out Hamish the "Coo Van" at the Visit Scotland stand!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Cloudy on Cliseam

After a run of brilliantly clear sunny days, it was a surprise to wake up to a grey morning with banks of low cloud hanging just above sea level.  The forecast was for the cloud to lift gradually through the day and, hoping that this would prove correct, I set out to climb the highest hill in the Outer Hebrides, An Cliseam.

Most ascents are made from the A859 road immediately east of the hill, a straightforward "up and back".  This is the quickest and easiest way to climb An Cliseam, but misses out much of what's good about the hill.  I planned to do a full circuit taking in some of the outlying summits - and hopefully something of the view too.

I started out up Glen Bhiogadail on a well made track to reach the Bealach na h-Uamha (col of the cave).  At the bealach a view opens up down Loch Langabhat and across the rugged country to the north.

After crossing the rounded top of Mo Bhiogadail you're faced with a steep climb of some 300 metres to the summit of Mullach an Langa, the northernmost summit of the five which form the Cliseam horseshoe.  I was glad that the views were opening up a little on this climb - there was excuse to stop to look around!  Loch Seaforth is one of the most notable features of this part of Harris, cutting deep into the island.

I was marking the cloud level by surrounding hills, and true to the forecast the clag seemed to be slowly lifting.  Across a dividing glen the 729m summit of Uisgneabhal Mor was almost clear - which I hoped would mean just the top of 799m An Cliseam would be in cloud.

I eventually reached the base of the cloud just below the first of the narrow sections of the ridge, the 720m/2362ft top of Mullach Fo Tuath (the north roof), the cloud streaming in from the north on a cool breeze, quite a contrast to the previous days of heat.

There's a great section of walking along Mullach Fo Tuath and the cloud was continuing to lift, giving at least a clear view ahead and simplifying navigation.

At last, there was a blink  of sunlight and a clearance to the south.  This is a famous view, looking down the Sound of Taransay over Luskentyre - having paddled and walked in this area it was nice to get an elevated perspective.

A sharp dip in the ridge leads to the most technical section of the route, the scramble up and over Mullach Fo Dheas (south roof).  A couple were traversing the bealach, the only folk I saw all day.  The climb up to the summit of this fine ridge is easy and pleasurable, though with a strong wind blowing across the hill some care needed to be taken.

The descent to the bealach (col) betwen Mullach Fo Deas and An Cliseam is altogether more tricky; a steep drop leads to a pitch of about 10 metres which, if taken direct, needs careful downclimbing. I opted for a flanking move to the north side of the ridge where a small scratch of a path slants down before contouring onto the bealach. This flanking path is steep, loose and a little exposed, needing careful movement.

As I climbed the last rise onto An Cliseam the cloudbase had risen to just brush the summit.  The forecast had been absolutely correct and there was even some sunshine breaking through.  From muted tones and grey sky, colour was beginning to emerge.

The summit of An Cliseam at 799m/2621ft is the highest point in the Outer Hebrides and the only Corbett .  While they may not be high, the hills of Harris are rugged, often pathless and generally tough going.  A circular wall enclosing the trig point gave shelter from the wind - a summit view was so close, but the cloud just failed to clear the top whilst I was there.

My descent route went initially south east down the "normal" ascent route, with some great views down towards Loch an Siar (West Loch) and the Tarbert road.

Where the steep ground eases, I cut back left under the north face of the hill to gain a broad bealach, then up onto the domed top of Tomnabhal, which had granite slabs very reminiscent of some Cairngorm hills.  My route back to our accommodation would take me across most of the ground in this image, to the shore of Loch Seaforth.  If it looks a long way off, that's because it was!

An hour or so later I crested a final rise and descended wearily down the Harris Walkway path to the road.  I'd been looking forward to making the final descent on a good path, but the track is very wet underfoot, and this was in a period of prolonged dry weather.

The final 3km of my walk was along the A859 road in weather which had turned from the grey of the morning into a hot early evening.  You really earn your hills in Harris; my route had been 18 km with well over 1400m of ascent and descent - which is a lot for one Corbett - but what a great day out. 

The following day, our last in Harris, dawned fine and we drove along the road to get this image of the hill rearing into a flawless blue sky.

We'd had a superb holiday in Harris and Lewis; my hopes of experiencing the stunning light quality had been amply fulfilled.  It has to be said we'd been fortunate with the weather; apart from a day and a half at the beginning, we'd enjoyed dry, fine conditions.  It's a place towhich we'll certainly return.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The stones of South Harris

Baigh Steinigaidh faces out to the Atlantic at the south end of the Sound of Taransay.  Heading on a straight line westward you would arrive at St Kilda some 70 kilometres distant.  Beyond that, only the wild Atlantic all the way to the east coast of Canada.  Small wonder that this beach gets some big surf, and on the day we visited, a fresh onshore breeze was bringing crashing rollers up the beach.  The settlement of Borve (Buirgh) just above the shore is the site of a ruined broch, and a truly astonishing holiday property based on a broch design.

In a field overlooking the bay is a prominent standing stone, some 2 metres tall.  It's the only remaining stone of a complex consisting of a stone circle, burial mound and circular ditch and has stood here for more than 5000 years.  Intriguingly, this is one of three stones overlooking the Sound of Taransay.  The second is on the headland which can be seen beyond the bay in this image, known as Clach Mhic Leoid (the McLeod Stone) and the third is on the east side of the island of Taransay.  The presence of three prominent megaliths in such close proximity shows that this area was settled and well populated 5000 years ago.

In Borve cemetery, among the stones is this one erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  It commemorates Deck Hand Kenneth Maclean of the Royal Naval Reserve who served on HMS Venerable and who died on 1st January 1919.

The bare facts on the stone only hint at the full story.  1st January 1919 was a full six weeks after the Armistice which ended the First World War, and is one of the blackest days in the history of the Outer Hebrides. On 31st December 1918, HM Yacht Iolaire left Kyle of Lochalsh bound for Stornoway, packed with servicemen who had survived the horrors of the war and were either being demobilised or returning home to the islands for leave.  Just after midnight on 1st January 1919, approaching Stornoway in foul weather and pitch blackness the ship hit rocks known as the Beasts of Holm just off the harbour.

The ship foundered and sank quickly and in the dark and cold, 205 men died less than 200 metres from the shore.  It was a disaster which touched just about every community in Lewis and Harris - and the graves of the dead lie in cemeteries close to their homes across the islands.

We were thoughtful as we left the cemetery and headed to Traigh Niosabost, our favourite beach in Harris and a place Kenneth Maclean would have known well.

On our way back towards Tarbert, we passed what's arguably the finest view in Harris - and there are many fine ones to choose from!  Between Horgabost and Seilebost the road climbs steeply to pass over a rocky headland.  The view looking over Seilebost to Luskentyre where we'd been that morning is simply stunning.

The day had one final flourish; having been out for dinner we drove back towards our accommodation and were treated to a slow-burn sunset across the hills and the Atlantic - a super end to a super day.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

A shimmering at Scarasta

After visiting the beach at Luskentyre, we headed south towards Leverburgh. Along the way we came to a broad inlet near Northton bounded by salt marsh which is an uncommon habitat in Harris. 

The tide had receded and across the partially flooded flats the hill of Ceapabhal near to Toe Head seemed to float on the water.  More remarkable was the view back towards Traigh Sgarasta (Scarasta beach).....

Bordered by saltmarsh turf, a broad sweep of white sand led the eye out to the dunes, visible as a line on the horizon shimmering in the heat haze.  Beyond, and not picked up by the camera, was a subtle optical effect with the surf rollers appearing to be above the dunes.

Whichever way we tried to capture this view, we failed to match the image we could see in front of us.

A line of wet sand reflecting the blue of the sky added another element, emphasising the refraction of the dunes into the air and the mirage effect.

The sense of space here was really remarkable, the view so broad that the eye had difficulty resolving the horizontal elements - we even thought we could detect a slight curvature to the horizon line - or was that an optical illusion too?

Monday, 9 July 2018


With yet another superb sunny day in prospect during our stay in Harris, we headed out early to visit one of the places which draws people to the island.  Luskentyre beach (Traigh Losgaintir) is probably the most visited of the many beaches of Harris.....

......and it really isn't hard to see why.  You approach the beach from a car park near to a cemetery, sited on machair behind a dune system; presumably the cemetery is here because all the other nearby ground is too rocky for burials.  Emerging from the dunes, you find yourself on a broad beach of flawless white sand......

.......which forms a broad arcing sweep reaching out to the Sound of Taransay, with a view of the island of Taransay beyond.

We were early enough to have this wonderful beach almost to ourselves, with just the company of terns overhead and the regular sound of the waves for company.  One or two folk who were dots in the distance gave scale to the scene, and they continued out of sight as we strolled along the edge of the waves.  The "proper" name of this 2km long beach is Traigh Rosamol, but it's almost universally known as Luskentyre from the crofting settlement nearby.

In a fresh breeze the surf was piling in, the water turning from turquoise to emerald green as the rollers heeled over, "smoking" spray as they did so, then to dazzling white as they broke with a roar.  We could easily have stayed just watching this play of light and sound all day.

We strolled along an empty beach, absorbing the atmosphere and the light of the place.  Turning around, the view if anything was even finer with the morning sun lighting the hills of North Harris beyond the surf and the blue, blue sea.

Luskentyre is one of the "must do" places in the Outer Hebrides for many people and consequently sees lots of visitors - but this is comparative, it will never really feel crowded.  We did think that we'd seen it at it's best though, a huge sweep of beach bathed in light and colour - we felt absolutely privileged.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Cast up on Taransay

We took our picnic to Traigh Niosabost (also known as Horgabost), which of all the beaches we visited was by far our favourite and one we returned to several times.  A small campsite nestles in the machair behind the beach, it has a nice atmosphere and a stunning setting.

You can wake up to this view, and really, how could one tire of it?!

A crescent of pale sand, Niosabost faces the Caolas Tharasaigh (Sound of Taransay) and has the stunning colour so typical of this area.  A stroll along the strand gave plenty of interest, and we can report that despite the tropical appearance of the surroundings, the sea temperature was on the refreshing side of cool......

One of the places I'd hoped to visit whilst in Harris was the island of Taransay.  This was a holiday rather than a kayak trip, so my visit would be an acquaint rather than an exploration.  I carried my kayak down the beach and set out across the Caolas Tharasaigh.

My aiming point was a white sand beach near the settlement of Paibeil, facing Niosabost. It's just 3km across the Sound and in calm weather a relaxing paddle.  In rougher conditions though, this stretch of water is a very different prospect.

Taransay has recorded habitation from 300AD, but was probably occupied much earlier than that.  The "ay" suffix is Norse and the name means "Taran's Island".  The most probable source of the the name is that the island was named for St Taran (the Irish St Ternan) who may have established a chapel here.  An alternative is set out by Abbot Adomnan of Iona who stated that Taran may have been a Pictish nobleman.

There were once three main settlements on the island; Raa, Uidh and Paibeil and two chapels at Paibeil, those of St Taran and St Keith.  Women were buried at St Taran and men at St Keith and a tradition stated that if this were reversed there would be a rising of the dead!  The outline of St Keith's chapel can still be seen but St Ternan's has been destroyed by coastal erosion.

In 1853 large rent increases reduced the population of the island, compounded in 1883 when the landlord forbade families to keep livestock, or to grow oats or barley.  Abandoned completely by 1942 then re-inhabited, in 1961 there was just one family remaining on the island and they departed in 1974.

On 1st January Taransay hit the news and television screens worldwide when the "Castaway 2000" series began.  Billed as a social experiment for the new millenium, the concept was that 36 men, women and children would occupy the island for a full year, tasked with building a community.  Arguably the start of the reality TV boom, the show had its controversies but was a rating success.  The "pods" used to house the participants were removed after the series and have been relocated to a number of west coast sites, including Port Mor on the island of Muck.

The island was sold in 2011 to the Kelliher family, who own a large pharmaceutical company and some pretty impressive holiday properties on Harris, and Taransay is now part of their Borve Lodge estate.

Approaching the beach, I was lulled into a relaxed state by the colours and the gentle swell.  A little too late, I realised that the beach was a little steeper than I'd expected and that the swell was actually surging up and across the shore.  I initially did OK in torquing hard on the paddle to avoid being broached or going into a "bongo slide" up the beach.  As the bow ploughed up the sand, the receding swell dropped the stern and I was still struggling to extricate myself from the cockpit when the next, bigger swell broke over the boat, twisted it, filled the cockpit with water and sand and put me off my feet.  Two more waves re-filled the cockpit as I used my hand pump as fast as I could trying to remove enough water to move the boat clear.

Not "Castaway", but I'd certainly been "cast up" on Taransay!  I took out handfuls of sand from the cockpit, and weeks later it was still emerging after every paddle.  My undignified arrival was witnessed only by some Red Deer and an irate Oystercatcher, and what a place to arrive!

The view back across the Caolas Tharasaigh to Harris is sublime, grey hills above a turquoise sea, bounded by the dazzling white line of Luskentyre beach.  I decided straight away that the next time I come to Taransay it will be for a full exploration.

After a break to eat and to absorb the view and the place, I launched with a tiny bit more grace than I'd landed with; heading north towards the thin white line of the Corran Ra.  "Corran" in Gaelic conveys a meaning of something sharp, pointed or crescent shaped, and this remarkable spit certainly fits the bill.

A feature of the Corran Ra is that it receives swells from both north and south; and when they meet the result can be very impressive.  On my approach the conditions and tidal state resulted in lots of surf and noise, but nothing threatening.  My friend Douglas has also experienced the fun which can be had here, but it's definitely a place to avoid in strong winds or a big swell.  On a subsequent windy day  the impact of the swells was both very visible and audible from Harris some 2km away and I estimated the height of the boomers to be over 6 metres.....

I'd intended to land at the inner end of the spit and walk out to the end, but on my approach it was clear that there was a colony of Little Terns nesting so I landed well away from them so as not to cause any disturbance.  Interestingly, another sand spit I've visited recently also had a colony of these uncommon and characterful birds on it, at Eilean Annraidh just off Iona.

Once again, it was the intensity of light which so impressed, the colours a constant amazement.  I'd been so struck by this quality of light the previous time I'd visited Harris, and had been so excited to be returning but a little apprehensive that my memory wouldn't be matched on this visit....I needn't have worried!