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........

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Paradise found at Shoe Bay

After our short portage around the tidal fall at the foot of the River Shiel we found an inlet where we could access the salt water of Loch Moidart. As this image shows, around low water there can be quite a distance to the water here.

I was a little slower heading out from the inlet than the others, having sorted out a slight imbalance in my kayak's trim. In the five or so minutes I was readjusting the boat, the southerly wind picked up considerably and was blowing strongly by the time I headed out.  The others were already some distance away, hammering down towards Castle Tioram with sails flying.

The wind continued to gust strongly and I was cautious about putting up my own sail.  Our original plan had been to leave Loch Moidart by the South Channel and head south to camp on the north side of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.  I decided not to cross to Castle Tioram but to stay on the upwind side of the loch and head slowly along to allow the others to get back across.  What I didn't know at this point was that the group had found the wind even stronger near Castle Tioram and had made the decision to leave via the North Channel to avoid the wind rather than slogging back upwind.  We've often found Loch Moidart to be a windy place; the topography funnels wind from the south and east particularly.

Some sea kayakers carry VHF radios solely or primarily for emergencies - we tend to use ours primarily for inter-group communications, though they also have great utility in distress or emergency situations.  Douglas and I exchanged messages and the plan became for the others to exit out of the North Channel while I'd continue out of the South Channel and rejoin them on the seaward side of Eilean Shona.

I continued steadily westward, enjoying the view of the dramatically sited Castle Tioram as a bonus.  You can just about make out the rest of the group at the base of the castle in this telephoto image.  Now that the plan had changed, the camp spot we'd originally thought to use would probably be a little far to paddle to against the wind.  There was a spot I wanted to check out as an alternative though.....

There's something a bit special about a white sand beach above clear water, and this one is a particular favourite.  We stop here regularly and had noted the possibility of camping here in very small groups...but would there be space for four small tents?  We know this beach as "Shoe Bay", a name you won't find on any map.  The name refers to the very soft, fine sand into which many shoes must have disappeared over the centuries.  This image from a previous visit shows just how soft the sand here is!

The sand wasn't the only attraction on this bright late spring day - the beach is backed with rocky outcrops, each of which was packed with the cheerful yellow flowers of Primroses (Primula vulgaris).

Having established that we could get our tents on the cropped turf with some creativity in pitch selection I climbed above the beach to get a bit of a wider's a photogenic spot!

I got back on the water just as the sun broke through and intensified the colours in the water.  I hoped that the others would agree that this small slice of paradise would be worth a few extra kilometres of paddling!

Monday, 10 June 2019

Bridging the gap from river to sea

Shortly after leaving Acharacle we approached the first of two bridges on the River Shiel.  This is the "new" bridge, built in 1935 and formed of a fine triple arch.  This is one of two "Shiel Bridges" and not to be confused with the "Shiel Bridge" in Kintail.

The second bridge is a graceful single arch built by Thomas Telford in 1804 over a point where the river is force through a narrow gap.  The "old" bridge was too narrow to carry road vehicles and was replaced by the "new" bridge in the 1930's.  There's actually a channel to the left of the bridge in this image, but in today's low water level it was completely dry.  We've had a little excitement in much higher conditions here but today we drifted serenely through into a quiet zone of deep, slow moving pools.

After a quiet stretch the river changes again to a broad, shallow flow over banks of shingle which required a bit of careful route choice to avoid.

A steep bank on the right hand side is a good reference point to start looking for options to get off the river prior to the drop into the Sea Pool.  This part of Scotland is still rising after the weight of the ice sheet was released at the end of the last Ice Age and is up to 5 metres above sea level.  In simple terms, Loch Shiel and it's river used to be connected to the sea, but are now up to 5 metres above sea level....which means that the water has a bit of a drop into the sea right at the end of the river.

We chose a spot we've used previously to get off the water; at a river gauging station.  There was just enough space for our five kayaks next to the minor road.  The road may be tiny but it's quite busy as it leads down to the popular Castle Tioram.

We got our boats onto the trolleys and one by one set off down the road. 

After 150 metres or so we could leave the road and take an estate track beside the river, so we weren't holding up the traffic!

Each time we've been on this trip we've taken the time to  take a look at the river's final plunge into the sea.  There was a lot less water here than on previous trips - one autumn visit had particularly impressive volumes of water sluicing down.

A common thread on each visit is that we've not had the slightest inclination to run this rapid in fully laden sea kayaks!  Even in this lower flow there are hazards; there's a couple of big rocks submerged in the line of descent.  That said. if you arrive in low river flow and at high water springs, it's said that the descent is straightforward.  Being of the disposition which plans for envisaged conditions....we bring trolleys!

We'd come from freshwater loch to river, under two bridges and then a short portage which had bridged the gap from fresh water to salt water.  Ahead of us lay the charms of Loch Moidart and the open sea.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Grace and Flavour at Acharachle

After leaving St Finans Isle we had a pleasant run down the narrow "tail" of Loch Shiel.  Indeed, it's hard to know where the loch ends and the River Shiel begins. 

Approaching Acharacle we saw a group of five Whooper Swans on the water - winter visitors to Scotland and quite late in leaving this year it seems - though a few pairs do breed in Scotland some years.  Although we tried to give them a wide berth, the wary birds all put their heads up and turned as one to face into the breeze.

A few of the distinctive "whooping" calls and the birds accelerated into the wind....... power up into the air; a graceful and beautiful sight.  we could clearly hear the thrumming noise from their wings as the flight primaries rowed the air.

We cut around the side of the pier at Acharacle to land on a muddy strip next to a small was time for second breakfast!

A short walk up the road to Acharacle village was enlivened with the sound of Willow Warblers and our first sighting of a Swallow this year - it seemed that the summer migrants were arriving in this part of Scotland before some of the winter visitors had left.

Second breakfast was purchased at David's Bakery and Cafe - hot roast beef rolls, beefburgers or home baking - it was all delicious and freshly prepared.  We've used this cafe before and can thoroughly recommend it - there is fish and chips available in the evenings too.  Nearby, a small shop offers the opportunity to re-stock with vital supplies and there is also a public toilet in the village - Acharacle is well worth the short diversion off the water on this trip!

Back on the water after fuelling up, it was immediately obvious from the insistent pull of the current that we'd now left Loch Shiel and were in the River Shiel.

Monday, 27 May 2019

The stones and bell of St Finans Isle

We wouldn't dream of making a journey on Loch Shiel and not visiting st Finan's Isle.  The island is named for Finan, a saint of the early Celtic church who was also known as "Finan the Leper" from the disease which afflicted him.  Details of his life aren't completely clear but he is believed to have followed Columba from Ireland and became Abbot of the monastery he established on this small island.  He lived from around 520-600AD and is thought to have died at Clonmore in his native Ireland.

The location of the monastery may seem withdrawn and remote to the modern mind, but in Finan's time waterways were the main method of travel and this island was on a main travel route.  Finan is believed to have carried Christianity into much of Argyllshire and further afield, apart from the nearby Glenfinnan and Kilfinnan his name crops up in places such as St Finzean's Fair in Perth and Finzean in distant Aberdeenshire.  The names of these early pioneers from the Celtic church reach out across what were the Pictish kingdoms as he church made a determined effort to convert the Picts.

The island has been in use as a holy place down 1200 years, firstly as a monastery and then as a graveyard - use which continues to the present day.

One of the most prominent monuments on the island is a celtic cross commemorating the Rev Charles McDonald, priest of the diocese of Argyll and the Isles.  The stonework is really fine (some closer views of this side of the stone are here)......

......and the reverse side of the column is hardly plain.

The oldest of the grave markers are grouped together near to the summit of the domed island, simple slabs of stone, some of which my have borne inscriptions.

Occupying the only flat ground near the top is the ruined stone buildings which succeeded the timber and thatch of the earlier monastery buildings.  It's a simple enough complex of two stone buildings, one of which was a chapel, but there are remarkable artefacts here.

In an alcove at the end of the chapel is a very old cross with a crucifixion image on it.  Worn and weathered, it exudes age.  A wooden boat shaped vessel at the foot of the cross often has coins left on it - today there was the stump of a votive candle.  This cross alone would be an important artefact...but it's what is on the alter stone next to it which makes this such a special site.

This hand bell is cast in seamless bronze and was produced in the 10th century.  For 1100 years it has been here, surviving Viking raids, countless wars and local feuds and the upheavals within both church and state in the intervening period.

Almost anywhere else this might have been removed by theft or taken away to a museum many miles away....but it's still here, secured by a chain to the altar it has been associated with for all the centuries......just remarkable and quite uplifting.  Of course, there's a curse associated with it; whoever would remove it would have a very short and painful existence awaiting them!  Astonishingly, this 1100 year old bell rings as clear and true as the day it was cast and we can confirm having rung it on a previous many modern products will still be fully functional in a century's time?!

As with each visit we make to this special place, we left the chapel with a sense of calm and thoughtfulness. 

Descending around the summit area, one of the older grave slabs bears a vivid representation of mortality - our forebears were somewhat more pragmatic about such things it seems.

Heading back to our boats the path goes through a group of stones which look really old but are believed to date from the 18th century....quite late in the history of this place.  They certainly are a good fit here though.

A little way above the jetty is (to my knowledge) the only war grave on St Finan's Isle.  The stone commemorates Deckhand Dugald Grant, son of Peter Grant of Dalilea, Glenfinnan, who died whilst serving in HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy's torpedo and mine warfare school in Portsmouth.  The record on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website is, as so often, both poignant and fascinating. 

We returned to our boats, each of us with our own thoughts and memories of Eilean Fhianain, for all of us it remains a compelling place to visit.  For now though, our thoughts turned from the past to the future - it was time to get back onto the water.