Monday, 6 July 2020

Physically distanced above the Gairn

The gradual easing of lockdown has permitted travel farther afield for recreation and though our local "patch" has been full of interest and given great days of walking, it has been good to have some more freedom.  I met Allan and Lorna for a walk in the final days prior to the travel restriction end - we met up above the River Gairn which is more than the suggested 5 miles from home, but still local - and we have to travel more than 5 miles to shops anyway!

A SWRS sign leaning at a jaunty angle (it sees huge piles of snow here in the winter) indicates the route of a path to Tomintoul via Inchrory and the Avon and to Corgarff - the B976 Crathie to Gairnshiel road where we parked is on the line of a military road constructed in the 1700's.

A 450m high starting point gets you good views right from the start!  An overcast morning was forecast to develop into a very warm day and off to the south the cloud was already lifting from the summit of Lochnagar as we set out.

A gentle climb on an old track through the ruins of a township,over a subsidiary hill and then a couple of kilometres across wind-clipped heather soon brought us to the one hill on our planned route - Tom Breac (Speckled Hill).  I've climbed this hill previously and remarked on the views it offers - and today they were equally special. The sense of space and big sky is a real feature of this part of the eastern Highlands, it really is great walking country.  I was surprised to look back through the blog and see that my last visit here was 2011, where does the time go?

We stopped for coffee and to take in the view near the 696m/2283ft summit, a place which seems to be rarely visited by hillwalkers but more regularly by estate workers, there are a number of vehicle tracks here.  The sprawling mountain in the distance is Ben Avon (pronounced A'an), a giant among hills and which is visible from all across the north east when you get to any sort of height.

We were reversing my 2011 route and can report that this clockwise option is the better  way to climb Tom Breac, it's preferable to the stiff climb out from the valley of the Gairn.  As we descended the weather became very warm and the cloud cleared.  Lorna spotted a large Adder moving off the track just in front of us - sunny mornings are a good time to spot these beautiful creatures as they warm up on the stones of tracks.

We headed down to the River Gairn, a wild and relatively unfrequented river, towards the remains of Corndavon Lodge which must have been quite a place in its heyday - half of the building was destroyed by fire.  What remains is occasionally used as a luncheon spot for shooting parties on the Invercauld estate.  the splendid bridge over the river is new since 2011, my last crossing was on a shoogly wooden affair.  That said, an estate vehicle chose to ford the river rather than cross the bridge as there is some erosion near the ends of the structure.

A last look up Glen Gairn to Ben Avon, and another view full of space.  The plantings alongside the river are mixed native broadleaf and pine, planted has been aided by a charity with the intention of improving the habitat for freshwater molluscs.  Other work has been done on the river itself - large pine tree root-plates and stumps have been strategically placed in the water and backed by boulders with the intention of slowing the flow and creating gravelly pools for Salmon and Trout to spawn.  Years of milder winters have led to changes in the flow of the Gairn, reducing the volume quite significantly.

Our walk back to the starting point was on one of the smoothest estate tracks imaginable, which was welcome as it was now 26 degrees Celsius and pretty warm for walking.  The lower ground is dotted with former shielings and newer, but abandoned, farms, it must once have been quite well populated here.

Our route was 16 kilometres during which we saw just a couple of estate workers and a gamekeeper in his vehicle - a grand walk under blue skies and appropriately distanced from other folk!

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Midsummer gold

The recent warm weather in the northeast of Scotland has been a delight.  Sitting outside until late in the evenings has been the norm,  in warm, still air which at times has been almost Mediterranean - and with no midges, which is why west isn't always best! The evening of Friday 26th June was just such a perfect evening, at 2215 the air was just starting to lose the heat of the day and waves of scent were floating down from the Honeysuckle at the top of the garden.  The light reflected in a window was beautiful.....

....but it was just a reflection of the real thing - a midsummer "sunset".  In truth the sun doesn't completely set at this time of year here in Aberdeenshire, it merely dips below the horizon and the glow travels from northwest to northeast until sunrise a few hours later.  But it was gorgeous......

Climbing over the wall and walking a little way up the field behind the house gave a clearer view of midsummer's gold - just perfect.  The early morning brought another special sight, a spectacular thunderstorm seen through thick mist, the whole scene lit with diffuse purple flashes of lightning amid crashing thunderclaps - a magnificent start to the day!

Saturday, 6 June 2020

A golden path

After a couple of days of really very poor weather, a bright and breezy early summer day.  The colours absolutely "zinged" in sharp air - and warm sunshine returned.

Broom (Cytisus scoparius) is in full,  glorious flower.  Seen against the green of conifers and a blue sky, the effect is dazzling.

To walk along a track lined with gorse and Broom is to walk a golden path - and in the warm sunshine the coconut scent of the Gorse arrives in waves - just a superb early summer day.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

One good thing - 29th May 2020

On Friday 29th May Scotland moved to Phase 1 of the route map through and out of the Coronavirus crisis. Initially, cautious steps have been taken - and rightly so.  The initial changes allow people to meet with one other household at a time in the outdoors, to resume activities where distancing can be maintained like golf, fishing, walking and paddle sports - but with the guidance that this should remain locally based.

These are welcome steps, a sign that there will be a return if not to normal, then to a new normal beyond the lockdown.  And they come as Spring has, in the space of a few days, turned to summer.

Fields of Rape are dazzlingly bright against early summer skies, the heavy scent carrying on a warm breeze.

Along the riverbank and roadsides early summer flowers are emerging everywhere - this is Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) - white stars studding the greenery; when their seeds are ready they explode like miniature fireworks at the slightest touch.

In our garden Azaleas are in full vivid bloom, at twilight they absolutely glow with colour.

When lockdown started the Snowdrops were still in flower; now, as we begin to carefully move beyond lockdown the summer flowers are out.  This seems an appropriate point to conclude this series of 45 posts across 67 days which have been the most extraordinary period of most people's lives.  Looking out for that "one good thing" to balance the tragedy and relentless bad news cycle has helped me to stay positive - and in truth this has been a much more positive time personally than I could have imagined.  In due course I'll be able to reflect on how this period has changed my outlook. I hope, too, that you have found something of interest here.

We have started to move beyond lockdown, to gain control of the CV-19 pandemic - and that, of all the "good things", is the best one.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

One good thing - 25th May 2020

A beautiful, warm and sunny evening tempted me to sleep out under a tarp again - and while lockdown continues in Scotland the only available option remains the most micro of "micro-adventures" in the garden.  The tarp is an Alpkit Rig 7 which offers almost limitless pitching options as it has so many guying and lifter points.  This set-up is a simple one but was very effective on a night which was forecast to be warm but breezy.

Pitched with the foot end into the breeze it offered good airflow and was quite low to the ground whilst giving adequate headroom at the top end.   It's a bit different to the open fronted pitch I've used recently, but is one I'll use again.  all that was left to do at this point was to put my sleeping bag in.

I slept really well until the dawn chorus began at 0312 with our resident Robin,  Blackbird and two Cuckoos first to get going.  By 0400 the birdsong was terrific, a real treat if a little early in the morning for humans!

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

One good thing - 23rd and 24th May 2020

The weekend once again gave opportunity for longer walks - two routes of just over 20km each and both starting and finishing at my front door.

The first route was on Coiliochbhar Hill, a 533m/1749ft wooded hill to the south of the river Don near Alford.  I've climbed this hill several times, but each time from the south.  I took a different route, and found it a very tough day for such a small hill.  This image is the view to Lord Arthur's Hill from Coiliochbhar Hill.  The Correen Hills, and particularly Lord Arthur's Hill have been the mainstay of my long hillwalks during the lockdown period.

Descending Coiliochbhar Hill there's a nice view over the valley of the River Don, with Bennachie in the dstance.

Next day I did a circuit of the Correen Hills and looked over to Coiliochbhar from Lord Arthur's Hill.  My route had taken me from left to right in this picture with a descent down a natural woodland slope on the right.  Getting back to the start along the riverbank was surprisingly hard going.

In the two months of lockdown, with walking confined to the local area, I've managed over 700km of walking; almost all this has been setting out from and returning to the house.  I've discovered a lot more about my local area, which is one good thing, and lost over  half a stone (4kg) in the process, which is another good thing!

Saturday, 23 May 2020

One good thing - 22nd May 2020

In a bank shaded by a large Copper Beech tree at the edge of the garden, a clump of English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) have flowered - the second year they've done so after we transplanted a few bulbs some years ago.

These lovely flowers, when seen in large numbers, give a violet glow to woodlands which is actually quite difficult to depict accurately on camera.  they are associated with ancient woodland and can be a good indication of where a woodland once was - good examples are found at Eilean Fhianan in Loch Shiel and Ailsa Craig in the middle of the Firth of Clyde.  In late spring and early summer Ailsa Craig's slopes are carpeted in violet blue - as shown on the visit Douglas made in 2012

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

One good thing - 18th and 19th May 2020

The sunset on the evening of 18th May was nothing short of majestic.  What began as a faint pink blush in the sky suddenly developed into stunning shades of amber and molten gold.  The sunset is now in the northwest here in Aberdeenshire, the bearing approximately 310 degrees or 40 degrees north of west.  In a month, at the solstice the sun will hardly dip below the horizon before it skims up again in the northeast.

The development of colour in this sunset was really quick; presumably an effect of underlighting as the sun dropped below the higher ground. Whatever the cause, the effect was marvellous!

This image was taken at 21.32 - just five minutes later the light show was all over and the colour had drained from the sky.  On a beach facing west with a horizon view on the west coast, the colours would have lingered for hours; here it had been fleeting, but very special.

Monday, 18 May 2020

One good thing - 17th May 2020

The weekends give opportunity for longer walks, and once again routes on the Correen Hills have been the logical choice, walking directly to and from home on long circuits.  Both days had similar weather with early rain clearing to give bright and breezy conditions, flotillas of clouds racing overhead and clear air.  The freedom and space these hills have offered through the lockdown will be long remembered, great striding routes where other people are seldom seen.

One of my routes over the weekend was this 21 kilometre circular walk which could be started and finished from quite a few different points, there's around 500 metres of ascent involved and it covers a nice variety of moorland, wood and farm tracks - there's a good track the whole way around.  One of the features of these hills is that distance just seems to reel away.

Alternating cloud and bright sunshine made for some dramatic lighting effects as in this view from the summit of Lord Arthur's Hill over to Bennachie, the hill dark in shadow and lower ground covered in gorse making for a brilliant contrast - it was all good.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

One good thing - 16th May 2020

I was working away from home through last week and on getting home it was obvious that some garden maintenance was needed; the grass has been growing fast as there's around 19 hours of daylight at this time of year.  I cut the grass then decided to use a petrol strimmer to cut down a patch of nettles and Ground Elder over the fence from the garden.

It was only after this was done that we noticed a pair of  Robins (Erithacus rubecula) repeatedly carrying food down into the area I'd strimmed.  I assumed that there would be a nest in the bank or drystone wall at the other side of the nettle patch, but I was wrong.

On the ground near the base of an old gate, the Robins had chosen a nest site in the remains of a plastic pipe on the ground.  Up until a couple of hours previously this would have been a sheltered, secret site in good cover.  It's clear how close I'd come to killing the chicks with the strimmer......

I took these photographs from a couple of metres away.  Although unharmed, the nest now looked pretty exposed, so to redress the balance and reinstate some shelter we used a broken roof ridge tile and some logs to recreate a site a pair of Robins had used in our woodpile a few years ago.

After just a moment's hesitation while they assessed the new situation, both parents carried on feeding the chicks and have been busy all day and late into the evening.  We'll watch with interest to see the youngsters fledge in a few days, but without doubt the best thing about today was that I didn't strim too low to the ground - and have made a mental note to be more observant before starting the strimmer!

Sunday, 10 May 2020

One good thing - 9th and 10th May 2020

One of the good things about the UK generally and Scotland in particular is that we don't have a climate, we have "weather", and a wide variety of it.

Over the past few days that's been demonstrated fully.  Most of the week was hot and sunny with temperatures regularly reaching 22.5 degrees Celsius.

On Friday 8th there was a change to overcast, but still mild conditions and steady light rain giving a "soft focus" feel to the day and temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius.

Saturday 9th May brought heavy showers of rain but with similar conditions.

Today, Sunday 10th, has seen a complete change as a plunge of unusually cold air for May pushing south over Scotland.  In this spot on Thursday evening I was sweating in a tee-shirt, today it was 1.5 degrees Celsius with a strong and cold northerly breeze.....

...bringing frequent heavy showers of snow, some of which gave quite hostile conditions briefly.  The variety of Scotland's weather, you've got to love it!

Friday, 8 May 2020

One good thing - 8th May 2020

There's a change arriving in the weather, but it's been a beautiful few days of sunny Spring weather here in Aberdeenshire.

The blossom on the Gean trees (Wild Cherry - Prunus avium) opened over the course of a couple of days.  Branches are hung with sweet smelling blossom bunches.

When a whole tree is seen against a flawless blue sky the effect is dazzling.  Standing under one of the Geans at this time of year is a treat for the senses, with the visual of the blossom and the hum of hundreds of bees and other pollinators attracted to this Spring bounty - just marvellous

Thursday, 7 May 2020

One good thing - 7th May 2020

Wednesday 6th May was a glorious day of Spring weather with an equally lovely evening.  Having spent the majority of the day indoors working from home, I decided to spend the evening outdoors and to camp in the garden - another "micro micro-adventure".  Having sat by a fire-pit until quite late in the evening I was preparing to get into the tent when I noticed a pink glow in the eastern sky.

Above the Aberdeenshire farmland a brilliant full moon rose through a pink and purple glow....there was an absolutely gorgeous quality of light.

I slept with both inner and outer tent doors open and was woken at 0430 by a full dawn chorus of birdsong with a Cuckoo leading the way well before daylight.  I was slightly surprised to note more frost than forecast, but it lifted as soon as the sun rose.  The advantage of being so close (20 metres!) to home was that it took very little time to get up, shower and be at my desk working, refreshed by a night in the outdoors.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

One good thing - 6th May 2020

Spring flowers cut from the garden, bringing some of the colour indoors.  Red Campion (Silene dioica) and Spurge (Euphorbia spp).  The first is a much loved native and the second a garden plant, but what they have in common is that we have plenty of them in the garden!

Monday, 4 May 2020

One good thing - 4th May 2020

After a few days of typical Spring conditions, heavy rain showers and sunny intervals, there's been an explosion of green here in the north east of Scotland; leaves are bursting out everywhere.....

The leaves of Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) have emerged from sticky buds - they look vaguely alien at this stage.

There's real variation in the progress of the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trees locally.  Some like this one in a sheltered setting have come into leaf and the flowers are almost open; those in more exposed places have barely begun to open their leaves.

The Beech (Fagus sylvatica) hedges along one part of our garden are just coming into leaf, the young leaves unfurling from the buds which are carried through most of the winter.  Young Beeches are among the trees which keep hold of the spent leaves through the winter, a process known as Marcesence.  The reason why some species of young trees or in some cases regions of older trees do this is not fully understood, though thee are a number of hypotheses.  The explanation which seems to make most sense to me is that the leaves give a degree of insulation to the young parts from winter wind or deep frost.

The Birch (Betula pendula) we planted in the garden as a tiny seedling some 15 years ago is now an elegant young tree.  Birches bear both male and female catkins before the tiny, vivid leaves emerge.  the female catkins, if pollinated, will turn crimson and release their seeds in the autumn.  I've a real affection for birches generally, and this one in particular.  Although we planted it in a less than ideal position, I can't bring myself to cut it down, I'd rather enjoy its light shade and graceful shape.

We planted a mixed hedge along a 50 metre boundary a few years ago and it's now well established.  The species were chosen based on their suitability for the soil and climate and also for their value to wildlife.  There are a good number of Hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna) in the mix along with Blackthorn, Hazel and Beech.  The Blackthorns have had their second year of blossom this year, but so far none of the Hawthorns have blossomed; maybe we'll see some this Spring.

All this fresh Spring green is surely a good thing!

Sunday, 3 May 2020

One good thing - 2nd and 3rd May 2020

One good thing about the weekends is the opportunity to take longer walks without the time constraint of working from home. These longer routes have averaged around 15km and are usually circular, although one of the walks this weekend was linear.

Setting out from home I revisited the route which runs from Alford to Rhynie over the Correen Hills.  Once used as a cattle droving route, it was also used as a path between kirks.  The parishes of Forbes on the Tullynessle side of the hills and Kearn to the north shared a minister and services alternated between the kirks, so on Sundays this route would have been busy with one or other congregation making a return journey over the hill.  This route remains a right of way between Alford and Rhynie and is relatively easy to follow.

From Terpersie a track climbs gently up on a broad spur to a long-disused quarry.  The soundtrack was all moorland birds, the constant backing stream of Skylark song, the sudden "squelch" call of a Snipe zig-zagging away from close by, the chuckle of Red Grouse, the wild call of  Curlews in display flight, and - as expected this weekend the familiar pirate call of a Cuckoo, the first of the year.

The view back down to Tullynessle opens up as height is gained, moorland and forest bounded by rich farmland. 

The highest point of the walk is at a shallow bealach (col) near Badingair Hill from where a wide view opens up to the north with Tap O'Noth crowned by its massive hillfort prominent.  The previous time i walked this route I turned east (right in this image) near the solar array to finish at the village of Clatt.  Today I wanted to follow the traditional route to Rhynie - which goes along the strip along the side solar panels towards Tap O'Noth.

Close up the renewable energy plant is quite impressive.  I had a fascinating chat with a mole-catcher who was checking his traps around the base of the solar panels.  He's one of the last people to specialise in mole catching locally and I learned lots in a short conversation.  The moles here are clearly very numerous judging from the amount of molehills and are presenting a problem not just around the infrastructure but in the livestock fields nearby.

The three turbines at Carnmore are 81 metres tall and each of the blades is 25 metres long, rotating at a nominal 26rpm, each has an output of 850Kw which is claimed to be capable of powering 600 homes.  The whooshing of the blade tips was noticeable but not as intrusive as some.

Nearby is the remains of Cairnmore hillfort - a Pictish site dated to around 500AD.  Not as immediately spectacular as the forts on the summits of Tap O'Noth or Bennachie, it is nevertheless thought to have been a site of high status in the Pictish era and has a wide outlook over the surrounding country and a direct line of sight to Tap O'Noth.

Tap O'Noth was built many hundreds of years before Cairnmore but it's possible that both were in use at the same time for a period.  At this time of year it's likely that huge fires would have burned near both sites at the celebration of Beltane, which has roots very early in history.

An information board gives a good impression of what the site may have looked like based on a series of archaeological digs.

The route from Cairnmore follows a farm road downhill to a quiet country road leading to the village of Rhynie.  If time allows there's an outstanding collection of Pictish symbol stones at the kirk in the village.

This route was a little over 15km and takes around 4 hours including stops. I feel that the finish in Rhynie is a better one than the finish in Clatt. It's another added to my exploration of walks straight from home, and has lots of good things to recommend it.