Saturday, 14 September 2019

Top to top to Tap

I'm lucky to have Bennachie as a neighbour. One of the most prominent hills in the north east of Scotland, a glimpse of the distinctive outline of the Mither Tap (Mother Top) means "home" to generations of Aberdeenshire folk.  Bennachie inspires a real fondness in people and there's even a dedicated band of volunteers known as the Bailies of Bennachie who look after the hill and its environs.  I climb it regularly by a variety of routes, but there was one which I hadn't done.

Lorna, Allan and I met up on a bright late summer day to do one of the longest routes on Bennachie, a traverse from one end to the other of what's essentially a long ridge with a number of "tops".  They live closer to the hill than me and have a clear view of it from their house - a very desirable feature in any property I feel!

We pre-positioned a car at the end of our intended walk and drove back west to the top of a feature known as the "Lord's Throat", a wooded valley carrying a minor road.  A rough track leads to a sand quarry and after a bit of scratching about we climbed above the quarry and onto the open hill above.  a view opens up straight away to the furthest tops of Bennachie above the valley of the River Don.

The heathers were all in full bloom, the colours stunning.  This is the larger flowered Bell Heather (Erica cinerea).....

...and this is the more ubiquitous Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris).  As we walked our boots raised clouds of honey-scented pollen and one of the dominant sounds was that of the bees collecting pollen - we saw several species on this part of the hill.

This is a corner of the hill I hadn't previously walked and I was intrigued by a line of very old and long-disused shooting butts arranged in a line upslope.  Drystone built, the may have been turfed on top when in use and each had an offset entrance for the "gun".  Interestingly, almost every one harboured a Rowan tree.  Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) seeds germinate in an interesting way; if you plant them they just won't grow.  The seeds are contained in a bright red berry which are irresistible to many species of birds.  the berry and seed must first pass through the gut of a bird in order to germinate; and of course will benefit from having a blob of guano fertiliser to boost its chances.  The berries are irresistible to some humans too - they make a superb jelly to accompany meats and cheeses!

Rowans are one of the most common trees in Scotland, and are the tree which reaches higher altitudes than any other species here - up to 870m/2850ft in a few places.  There's a rich folklore surrounding the tree; it's associated with protection and was commonly planted at the gable end of a house to afford protection from witchcraft in particular.  Rowans rarely live longer than 150 years so it's possible to guess the dates of some ruins by the Rowans near to them.  Here, in a lovely piece of symmetry, the works of man provide protection for the Rowan - the seeds dropped by a bird have fallen into the grouse butts and the seedlings have grown within the circular embrace of the wall, protected from weather and from browsing animals until well established.

From near the summit of the first "top", Black Hill, there's a wide view over the Aberdeenshire countryside.  Due to its relative isolation from surrounding high ground such good views are a feature of the whole of Bennachie.

From Black Hill the ridge proper swings into an east-west orientation and as we continued west the views just kept coming.  We took a slight detour to the "top" of Hermit Seat (who was the hermit I wonder and what was his story?) and past Hummel Craig.  A Hummel is a stag with no antlers and Craig is a derivation of Crag.   From the next "top" of Watch Craig we looked over the valley of the River Don to Pitfichie Hill and Cairn William.  Allan and Lorna were just able to see their house from this point!

Once up on the higher ground the paths on Bennachie are really good going and distance just reels away.  In quicker time than we'd anticipated we found ourselves on the rocky tor of Oxen Craig. At a modest 528m/1736ft this is the highest point of Bennachie but probably visited by only a small percentage of the folk who climb "Bennachie".  Behind us rain showers were strafing the land further seemed we'd probably get wet before the day was done.

A view indicator plaque identifies some of the hills and key features to be seen from Oxen Craig, including some at considerable distance.  The view ranges from the city of Aberdeen in the east, round to the hills of Angus in the south, to the Cairngorm giants almost 70 kilometres away and round north to Peterhead and the Buchan coast - an enormous sweep of the northeast of Scotland.

We sat out a shower below Oxen Craig and once it had passed headed slightly off the main line of the ridge to another "top", Craig Shannoch.

From Craig Shannoch there's a good view across to the main attraction of any walk on Bennachie - the Mither Tap.  In fact the Mither Tap is Bennachie for most folk; the name of the whole hill is a derivation of Beinn a' Chioch (hill of the breast) and it's the Mither tap which is the most visible, most prominent feature.  Across a huge swathe of Aberdeenshire you can look for it - the eye instinctively drawn to a familiar outline.  Bennachie, always Bennachie - it's what inspires such affection for the hill.  The Tap is a granite plug from the heart of a long ago eroded volcano and has considerable steep drops on three sides.  I'd guess that only about one in a hundred people who climb the Mither tap go on to walk to the "real" summit of Oxen Craig - such is the draw of the Tap.

We climbed to the summit, almost able to lean on a tearing westerly wind.  We'd traversed top to top to reach the Tap, a fitting end to the high ground of Bennachie.

This place has a long history of use.  Being so prominent prompted the building a hillfort here.  Constructed during the Iron age and possibly occupied as early as 1000BC, it seems to have been developed for a long period and may have been the site of the battle of Mons Graupius (which gave its name to the Grampian region and mountain range) where the Picts were heavily defeated by a Roman army.  The aerial pictures on the Canmore site show the extent of the ruins.

The curving entrance to the upper fort is particularly well preserved - here you can really walk through ancient history.

The descent from the Mither Tap to the Bennachie Centre is knee-jarring, steep and in places rough.  Although the shortest route in terms of time and distance I've always thought this the least attractive way to climb the Mither tap.  There are a number of ways to reach the Tap, as shown on this downloadable map, or you could always do our longer route of around 10kms!  We'd enjoyed a superb day doing this route; it's one all three of us will repeat.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Late Summer in a jar

Over the weekend we noticed that the Blackbirds and Starlings were starting to work over the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trees in the garden.  As the clusters of red berries ripen it becomes a bit of a race for us to gather a basket before they all get eaten!  The berries seem irresistable to all kinds of birds and the Rowan has an interesting adaptation in that the berries need to pass through the gut of a bird before the seeds they contain will germinate.

We cooked the berries with an equal weight of cooking apples until the mixture became a thin orange porridge, then strained the lot through a cloth overnight to extract a couple of litres of rose-pink fluid.  This liquid is then boiled up in a 60:40 proportion with sugar until setting point is reached. The whole process is shown here, and the result looks like late summer in a jar!

Rowan and Apple jelly goes superbly well with meats and cheeses and is the secret ingredient in our venison casseroles.  It needs to mature for a few weeks and will keep for a year, slowly darkening in colour.

It had been a bit of a surprise to see the birds begin eating the berries in the first couple of days of September - we felt it was earlier than usual.  We still had a jar of jelly left from 2018's crop which was dated 15 September, and looking further back over the blog to 2016 and 2012's entries it certainly seems that the "normal" date we've made this preserve has been in the second half of September.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Tarp test - Alpkit Rig 7

This is a catch-up post from early summer, testing out a tarp on the hills above the house on an overnight trip.  These quick trips have become known as "microadventures" - but they're still overnight trips!

Allan and I set out from Terpersie on a lovely evening of bright sunshine. Whilst not particularly warm, the weather was fairly settled with the forecast of a cool and clear night to come.  At just two kilometres from home, there wasn't far to travel!  We set a leisurely pace and climbed the ridge known as the Fouchie Shank on a grassy track.

It didn't take us long to reach a spot I'd noted several times as offering a nice camp or bivvy spot.  At the edge of a wood which covers part of the upper ridge there are a number of decent pitches - in fact the difficulty was choosing the best of them rather than finding anywhere to pitch.  Allan had brought a tent and chose a spot under a large pine tree just outside the wood where there was good flat ground.

I was trying out my new tarp for the first time and chose a spot at the very edge of the wood.  Having tarped a long time ago, for some reason (midges mostly!) I'd switched to tents and not used a tarp for many a year.  My interest had been rekindled not by weight considerations - the combined weight of tarp, groundsheet and rigging isn't that much different to really light tents these days - but by the experience of sleeping in the open again.

Looking at various designs and configurations I'd decided on an Alpkit Rig 7 as seeming the best combination for what I envisaged.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a bit of a fan of Alpkit products anyway, but what interested me about the Rig 7 was the lift points along the face of the tarp and the 16 eyes around the edge which are all reinforced with "hypalon" - which seems to be a very tough and strong relative of neoprene, with enough stretch to allow walking poles etc to be used with no risk of ripping the hypalon or the tarp fabric.  The fabric itself is 30 denier PU coated cordura with a ripstop weave, and comes in two colours; "kelp" as pictured here or a "chilli" red shade.  Dimensions of the Rig 7 are 2.4m x 2.8m and the pitching options are limited only by your imagination!  Guy lines and pegs aren't included, but Alpkit do a bundle which includes these items.  I used mainly 3mm guy lines which worked well and carried a long length of 4mm line which could have been used as a continuous ridgeline for rigging between trees.  the Rig 7 is one of a family of tarps with similar characteristics but differing sizes; from small solo tarps to group shelters.

My groundsheet was an "Oooktub" from Oookworks in a 220cm x 90cm configuration which has an ingenious design to form the tub shape when pegged out.  It's made of tough PU coated nylon and looks to be able to really keep the wet stuff at bay. My sleeping mat was an Exped Downmat 7 UL, one of the best pieces of outdoor kit I've ownd.

All up, my rig for this trial run was 1100g for the tarp, rigging, pegs and groundsheet.  As mentioned, this isn't much different from a lightweight tent; though it is noticeably lighter than my usual tent of choice, the full spec Terra Nova Voyager at 2100g.

As the night was forecast dry I chose to rig the tarp with an open frontage to maximise the experience of sleeping in the open.  there are so many ways in which the Rig 7 can be pitched that there should be an option for just about any weather - there are some tips on the Alpkit website for some simple rigs.....there's even a name for the art of pitching - "tarpology"!  I was glad I'd tried out a number of pitching arrangements at home; this gave me a start in deciding where and how to pitch for the trial run.

By coincidence, Allan was also using an Alpkit product; the Tetri; a two person tent with a tried and tested design.  Weight here is 3kg, so quite a difference.  That said, had the evening been very wet or midgy a tent would have been the preferred option!

After a bit of supper I settled down for the night, the sun not quite set on an early June evening.  The feeling of being out in the open is a real contrast to sleeping in a tent; even though I habitually leave the door open on fine nights.  Here, I was immersed in the wood and was able to see and hear the place settling for the night as part of it rather than being sealed away and slightly separated.

I slept pretty well too!  Deer moving past woke me briefly and a cuckoo called intermittently right through the night, but then in June the "night" here in Aberdeenshire is just a couple of hours of dusk rather than darkness.  For the first time, we heard the sub-song of the cuckoo, a chuckling low laugh between the familiar two-note call....probably it was amused by waking us?!

First thing on waking was the realisation that I was still "outside", immersed in the wood with early morning sunshine dappling through the trees.  I had been warm inside a down bag despite the night being quite cool and the tarp had kept any dew off me. There was little or no condensation on the sleeping bag; on colder nights I'd probably add a lightweight bivvy bag to the kit list.  Second thing was one undoubted advantage a tarp has over a tent - the ability to roll over and put on a brew without leaving the sleeping bag!  In fact two cups of tea were enjoyed from the comfort of my bed before getting up.

It was all in all a very successful test of the tarp and groundsheet and a very pleasant "microadventure".  I'll be using this set-up more often once the midges have disappeared and will write a more informed review once I've tarped in less favourable conditions.  For now, it's enough to say that it was a very enjoyable experience.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Theft from St Finan's Isle

There was a sad postscript to our latest trip on Loch Shiel.  On our April visit to Eilean Fhianain (St Finan's Isle) we climbed to the ruined chapel to see the stone cross and the remarkable bell, cast in seamless bronze, which has been here since around 1100.  A visit to the island has been a highlight of all our trips on Loch Shiel.

In July the Moidart History group discovered that the bell had been removed - stolen - using a bolt cutter to cut the chain sometime between the end of June and early July; the story is reported here.  The thief or thieves must also have had a boat to access the island.

The bell has been recorded as stolen just once previously when a soldier looted it in the chaos following the 1745 uprising.  On that occasion the soldier was flogged and the bell returned.  While flogging is probably not going to happen these days, it might be hoped that somebody would have a search of their conscience and return the bell, which has great cultural value but limited financial value.

We live in sad times.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Home run

The wind was already quite brisk when we got on the water, the warming effect of the mid morning sun more than countered by the cool easterly wind pouring out of Loch Moidart's North Channel.  We've found this to be an area which often funnels wind between the mainland and Eilean Shona, most noticeably in a easterly.

Although our day's paddle would be quite short there was still plenty of time for a stop along the way - white sand beaches are hard to pas by!  This one's a regular stop for us and was one of the camping options we'd considered, but not used.  There's good reason for this; any time in the "season" (although for us this is year round!) the place gets over used by groups.  As this was the second day of a holiday weekend we'd anticipated that it would be busy......

.....and we were't mistaken in that guess.  There were at least eight tents, guides with clients, walkers and a couple of dogs, one of which raced up to us snarling and barking.  Any sense of solitude or a wilderness experience would have been absent here and we were doubly glad we'd chosen Shoe Bay for our final camp.

After a break for coffee we continued north, the breeze now at our backs and pushing us up the coast into the Sound of Arisaig.  Douglas was testing the new model of kayak sail from Flat Earth Sails and was driving along at a very brisk rate.  The air seemed very sharp in the southeasterly wind - it was a great morning to be out but we could detect the first signs of the forecast increase in wind speed as whitecaps began to appear to seaward of us.

All too soon we pulled around the corner into the familiar surroundings of Samalaman Bay.  Our trip was over, and it had been another great journey from the head of freshwater Loch Shiel down to the salt of Loch Moidart and the to Loch Ailort. This is a trip we've now enjoyed several times, and it continues to be full of interest.  We've paddled in Spring, late winter and early autumn - and undoubtedly we'll do this journey again, perhaps as a full winter expedition.

We'd run a shuttle down here at the start of our trip and had capacity to take all of us and our boats back to the start at Glenfinnan to recover the other vehicle.  We were very glad we hadn't planned to bring just one vehicle and rely on bringing the others from Glenfinnan.....

...because on the holiday weekend the place was busier than we've ever seen it.  At least two kayak clubs and several small teams were all setting out on their own journeys, there's very limited parking and the road was almost blocked with cars. 

We heard later that the wind had indeed got up during that afternoon and into the following day, pinning some groups where they'd landed and causing others to alter plans, but that all had enjoyed this brilliant sea kayaking area.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

A thin skin over rock

Our camp at "Shoe Bay" had more than lived up to expectation and had been well worth the slog into a stiff breeze the evening before to get to this lovely spot. Our friend Tony was up early to paddle around Eilean Shona then back to Acharacle as he had to return to work in Glasgow.

 Lorna, Allan, Douglas and I had a more leisurely start while discussing plans. We all had an extra day available to paddle, but also all had reasons to head back home too. A forecast of strengthening wind in the afternoon into the following day made up our minds for us - we'd paddle up to the Sound of Arisaig and get off the water before the stronger wind arrived. After breakfast Douglas and I walked up behind the beach into the tangle of rock outcrops and hollows above.

There are clear reminders that this hasn't always been an empty place.  All that remains of this house is a chimney breast and a built up platform - there's little enough flat ground around here. Once the eye attunes to the surroundings the outlines of field boundaries and animal enclosures can be made out among the bracken and brambles which have now largely taken over.

If this house had to be built on a platform built by human hands, in some places it was possible for the inhabitants to use what they found in unique ways....

This well-built house initially appears to be similar to other ruins up and down this part of the coast...but look at the gable end and something remarkable emerges.  The lower half of the gable end across the width of the house is one huge tilted boulder.

This view from above shows the size of the boulder.  Apart from giving something to build against the boulder is at the west end of the house, in other words at the weather side, which must have helped to windproof it to a degree.  The drystone work on the other three walls is really fine work and features quite large window apertures and the rounded corners which are a feature of many of the old buildings on this part of the coast.

This could never have been an easy place in which to scratch a living.  The ground is either boggy or a thin skin of peat over rock, the coast exposed to gale and storm and access is less than easy.  Some of the former inhabitants may have been pushed off better ground to make what they could of this place....their fields and houses are now part of that thin skin of history over the rock.

The view is superb, but a view won't put food in your family's bellies.  As ever when among these remnants of communities my mind tried to imagine what life was like for the people who called this home...for all the distance in time and the trappings of the modern world, the motivations, emotions and hopes of their lives are surely not too far removed from our own at a fundamental level.

We returned thoughtfully to the beach and finished packing our boats.  We've stopped here many times and will do so's a small jewel of a spot.

Monday, 1 July 2019

A cinematic event at Shoe Bay

From our camp at "Shoe Bay" Douglas and Tony climbed a nearby rocky hill to watch the evening's cinematic entertainment.

The show began as the spotlight came up behind us......

...and cast a lovely pale light over Loch Moidart.  Beyond the loch, Beinn Resipol seemed almost translucent in the evening light.  But the rise of the full moon was just the curtain-raiser - the main event was underway in the opposite direction. a smoky sunset coloured up the western sky.  As it set beyond the low outline of Muck, we speculated as to whether the sky would develop into technicolour shades or not.

A little further along the horizon, the silhouette of Eigg sailed the western sea - it's always reminded me of the outline of a ship.  Eigg and Muck have given such superb days, whether on the sea or on foot - they really do feel like old friends I'm privileged to have an acquaintance with.

There would be no technicolour blaze across the horizon on this evening, but we weren't complaining....every sunset is subtly different and this one was a slow, smouldering affair.

Below the rocky perch I'd chosen, the sand of Shoe Bay turned ghostly pale in the evening light and the colour of our boats seemed to really glow.

We created our own blaze and glow as the evening progressed....sitting around our fire and reflecting on just how fortunate we are to be able to experience evenings such as this in special places like these.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Five go to dinner

I paddled out of Loch Moidart and headed up the rugged seaward face of Eilean Shona, with a steady breeze at my back.  This breeze would of course have to be paddled against if the group decided to camp at "Shoe Bay"!

We reassembled at the mouth of the North Channel of Loch Moidart and had a quick discussion about where to camp for the evening.  One option involved a short downwind run to a camp we've used before, but we knew that we wouldn't have that place to ourselves on a busy holiday weekend.  The decision to paddle south into the wind for a few kilometres was really quite an easy one, though it was certainly an effort to make progress at the end of a long day.

Soon enough we arrived though.  I'd been a little unsure whether we'd get our four tents on the rather confined turf above the beach, though there were some other options fairly close by it would be good to all be together.

As it happened, with a little bit of creative thinking we got all the tents pitched comfortably.  We spent a pleasant hour int the relaxed routine of sorting out gear, drying damp kit and general faffing that makes such a nice rhythm at the end of a paddling day in good weather; though it's a different feeling in stormy or midgy conditions!  The view south across to the Ardnamurchan peninsula was a great backdrop to what is a really stunning wild camp site.

It was my turn to produce dinner, and this evening's fare was Mince and Tatties - with some added vegetables and a dash of red wine in the mince and butter to accompany the baby tatties, it hit the spot quite well!  Dessert was stewed Bramley apples with clotted cream and brandy....we had no intention of resorting to dried packet food on this short trip!

We five sat back in our chairs and enjoyed dinner with the best view imaginable; we wouldn't have swapped our mince and tatties here for any Michelin-starred meal in a fancy restaurant.....

After dinner Douglas and Tony climbed to a nearby high point to get an elevated grandstand view for the evening's entertainment, which was already beginning........