Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Heading out for a fish supper

While the full lockdown and then the 5-mile travel guidance has been in place sea kayaking has been off the agenda.  But, as the restrictions ease, there's opportunity to get out on the water again.  Lorna, Allan and I met on a sunny afternoon at our usual launch spot at Sandend for a short excursion.

Heading west from Sandend brings great paddling straight away with a series of channels and leads behind rock stacks.  On most days the narrower gaps are inadvisable due to swell surging through, but a combination of low swell and proximity to high water offered the opportunity to paddle all of them.  this particular gap is just shoulder width at its narrowest - but went easily.

It's a great little area to weave through, and full of interest..... well as wildlife.  The last time we were able to kayak here the seabirds were just beginning to scope out the cliffs.  The breeding season is now nearly over, chicks like this Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) are well grown and on the way to fledging.  The Moray Firth is rich in seabird colonies and those on this stretch of coast are remarkably relaxed about passing kayakers - provided one moves slowly and quietly there's no agitation at all from the birds.

We continued west and crossed the county boundary from Aberdeenshire into Morayshire before pulling in at our outward destination of Cullen.  A sandy beach in the outer harbour makes for an easy and convenient landing.  we had a particular reason for making Cullen the target of our evening - Allan made a phone call and we walked up to the town's main street..... collect an order of fish and chips from the excellent Linda's Fish & Chips, which we took back down to eat on benches overlooking the harbour; dining out doesn't get much better than this!  Suitably refuelled, we then set out back towards Sandend, but part way back found that we weren't the only ones with eyes on a fish supper.....

Six or seven of the Bottlenose Dolphins for which the Moray Firth is famous treated us to a fairly close pass with much jumping and tail slapping as they hunted their own fish for supper - it's such a treat to share space with these creatures, and seeing them on this first outing back seemed extra special.

What little breeze there was died completely as we approached Sandend making for a tranquil, relaxed end to our evening paddle.  After so long off the water, it was good to be back!

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