Wednesday, 8 September 2021

A seasonal pleasure

September at Mountain and Sea Scotland HQ brings one of most satisfying of seasonal tasks, the storing of firewood logs to fuel our woodburner.  A big load of beech and elm from our regular supplier Ben at Treelogic arrived on a Friday, giving us the weekend to do the job.  

The first task was to sort out what would be stacked immediately and what could be split to give a variety of log sizes.  There followed an evening's work steadily moving the logs to the woodstore by wheelbarrow and starting the stacking process.  There was no hurry to do it as this load of wood isn't for use in the coming winter, it's destined to be burned in autumn and winter 2022/23.

I left the majority of the beech logs aside to be split.  As it was mainly large branch wood it would split nicely and provide smaller logs as well as making the individual logs easier to stack.  This is a job which has never seemed to be a chore to me but rather an enjoyable, even paced rhythm which is totally absorbing and almost therapeutic.

The job is made especially enjoyable because my splitting axe is a a wonderful tool.  A hand-forged large splitting axe from the small Swedish company Gransfors Bruk, it was a gift from our children a few years ago.  I have never used a tool so perfectly designed for purpose and which feels so absolutely "right" in the hands - it makes me smile every time I come to use it.

The job is finished by stacking the logs in one of our several woodstores.  This is also an absorbing job; there will be a "right" space for each log, no matter how awkwardly shaped.  In Scotland we don't usually see straight birch log firewood cut perfectly to length and diameter to form the wonderfully aesthetic stacks seen in Scandinavia, but its still possible to get a stable stack which doesn't look too much like simply a pile!

 And so, the job is done - for now.  The new load of wood is dry and perfectly burnable, but like malt whisky, firewood benefits from some additional time to mature.  Given extra months of seasoning it's possible to get wood seasoned from a dry 20% to as low as 15% moisture content even in Scotland's climate and this makes a surprising difference to the way it burns.  

In the meantime, of course, there's the satisfaction of walking past the woodstore on most days - it's tempting to build and fill "just one more" store - after all, you never know what the weather might be like next winter!

Sunday, 18 July 2021

A recovery roll on the Sound of Sleat

The final morning of our trip to Loch Hourn was the first day of May, though you wouldn't have known it from the rather chilly early morning temperature.  While the paddlers carried our boats the short distance to the water at our camp site......

.....Donny boarded "Guppy" on the other side of the reef and motored off back towards Glenelg in order to arrive at high water and enable a much easier transport of his boat up the shore.  It had been great to have Donny along on another trip - you can see the film he made on his Youtube channel here, and follow the trip in "trivision" with some stunning images on Douglas' blog here

We'd remarked the previous evening that it was strange not to have seen any Otters, particularly since this area is the setting for Gavin Maxwell's "Ring of Bright Water".  Well, we didn't need to wait long to put that right!  A nice close view of what looked to be a dog Otter moving along the shore, then heading up the rocks was a great start to the morning's paddle.

The morning was beginning to warm up too as the sun burned away early cloud on the hills; all in all it was turning out to be a fine day.

Another Otter popped up in the middle of our group with a fair sized flatfish, which it proceeded to eat, although it was aware we were around it seemed very unconcerned.  This is one of the advantages of moving in a kayak, quiet motion and a fairly low silhouette offer some stunning wildlife encounters.  Watching the Otter eat his morning snack reminded us that it had been a few hours since breakfast - and we had information about a feeding opportunity of our own!

This being Saturday morning, the Glenelg Inn were marking their recent post-lockdown opening with a bacon roll that shouldn't be missed!  The staff were amazing, batting not an eyelid at us arriving in drysuits and ordering six coffees with twelve bacon rolls.  Many paddlers practice recovery rolls towards the end of a paddling day, and we agree that this is a good thing....especially if bacon or sausage is involved......

We enjoyed the view from the Inn's garden along with our second breakfast - the Glenelg inn gets a well-deserved 12/10 rating as a sea kayaking destination!

Refreshed and refuelled, there was just a short paddle back to the beach at Bernera to end our trip.

 Our route had been 62km over two half days and two full days with three nights camping.  In terms of distance this isn't a long trip but there is a lot to explore both on the water and on land.  

Ordance Survey Landranger  1:50K sheet 33 (Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel & Loch Hourn) covers the whole area.  There are fast tidal streams near Kylerhea and at both sets of narrows in Loch Hourn.  There are no easy escapes for the majority of the route; this is truly wild country.  The mouth of Loch Hourn can offer conditions ranging from "sporting" to very challenging in certain wind and tidal conditions - a period of relatively settled conditions is best to attempt the crossing of the loch mouth or the Sound of Sleat. Loch Hourn itself is notorious for violent squalls and funnels wind from both east and west, as well as "enjoying" some of the highest rainfall totals in Scotland.  Weather will likely be changeable, and this changeability with the sudden shifts of light and colour can really enhance a trip in this area.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

A toast or two on the Sound of Sleat

We dawdled along until the cloud lifted a little and built into a more substantial sheet, flattening the light. It had been a truly remarkable morning and yet we'd paddled only about six kilometres! Approaching Corran we stopped at the very smart "Ceildh House" which has local information, an exhibition/performance space and toilets. Immaculately clean and well kept, this is a true community hub. We took the opportunity to replenish our supplies of drinking water, and left a small donation. Places like this are really good to see, and there's even an arrangement for a couple of motorhomes to park for a couple of nights for a very reasonable fee. Unfortunately we were a couple of weeks too early for the opening of Sheena's tea hut... 

 At the other end of the village of Arnisdale is a building on an altogether grander scale. Arnisdale House was built in 1898 as a hunting lodge by Valentine Fleming, father of the author Ian Fleming, who wrote the James bond books. So, maybe this is the real "Skyfall".....

On this third and last night of our trip we returned to the same spot we'd used on the first evening, a reef topped with turf with great views up and down the Sound of Sleat.  We got the tents up and had a leisurely few hours in the late afternoon exploring on foot and collecting driftwood for the evening's fire.

The sun went down behind Skye's Sleat peninsula in a pale blaze and the temperature dropped - it was the last night of April after all.  Our tents were pitched on the highest ground so we found a good spot to shelter from a chilly "sundowner" breeze......

...where we cooked our dinner of home-made sweet potato curry.  We all consider good food a key part of any trip and when sea kayaking there's really no need to resort to tasteless processed food on shorter trips.  Each meal had been home-made prior to the trip and made a great end to the day, especially when accompanied by a frothing sports recovery drink and a dram.

Our fire was needed on this evening; although the showers of the previous day were thankfully absent it was certainly not very toasty warm.  We had another use for that fire too....

Baked potatoes in the embers of the fire followed by toasted marshmallows made for a most satisfactory supper!  We finished up with another toast - to the trip and to being back together after the lockdowns.


Saturday, 19 June 2021

Days like these - a spectacular morning on Loch Hourn

I slept really well at our camp on Loch Hourn, waking early as the light grew stronger.  Stepping outside, this was my first view of the day - the majestic Ladhar Bheinn rearing into a flawless blue sky across the loch.  I've climbed Ladhar Bheinn twice, once from each side of the hill, and had remarkably good weather both times.  It's one of the Munro "superstars" in my opinion and anyone who climbed it on this day would have an unforgettable ascent.

The view in the other direction up Loch Hourn wasn't too shabby either!  The low early morning sunshine was silhouetting the tangle of ridges and spurs around Kinloch Hourn, a very different aspect of the same scene we'd watched the previous evening.

Rather than rush away we took our time to enjoy being in this utterly remote spot on such a great morning.  Everywhere we looked was stunning scenery and we found lots of interest all around, including some strange miniature fountains where the tide was pushing water and air up thorough the saltmarsh areas.

But it was Ladhar Bheinn which held our attention.  We had breakfast facing across the loch so that we could watch the light change on the cliffs at the head of Coire Dhorrcail (on the left of this image) and the gullies and faces at the head of Coire Odhair.

Eventually we decided to get underway and enjoy the view from the water.  We took down the tents and erased all evidence of our second fire; the tide had taken care of the remains of the first one!  We paddled out onto a mirror calm loch for a truly memorable morning's paddle.

It was now mid-morning and the warm sunshine had started to form clouds.  These didn't detract from the views at all, in fact the pattern of light and shade enhanced features and gave depth to the whole scene.  Douglas and I blazed away with our cameras and Donny filmed from "Guppy".  

The backdrop of Ladhar Bheinn was hard to beat, the kayaks tiny underneath the bulk of the mountain.  I took a tremendous amount of images and even now I can't decide which I prefer, so here's a few of them....Douglas' bright red P&H Volan providing a real splash of colour against deep shadows....

...a colour and light gradient as a passing cloud accentuated the warm sunshine against the shadow...

.......Lorna and Allan in a perfect reflection of the dramatic skyline of the summit ridges.....

....Donny motoring Guppy along below Druim a' Choire Odhair (ridge of the dun coloured Corrie)....

Already this was an outstanding day, and it was only mid-morning!  Days like these, they stay with you forever.


Thursday, 10 June 2021

Time and tide on the shore of Loch Hourn

A leisurely paddle back along the shore of upper Loch Hourn took us back to our intended camp site on the point where we'd sheltered from the worst of the earlier squall.  The kayakers could carry our boats above the tideline, Donny moored his F-RIB "Guppy" in a small bay close by where it would be well out of the tidal stream.  There was plenty of space to camp here and good ground to pitch our tents; we got set up and did the usual sorting of kit after a day on the water.  

I really enjoy this aspect of trips whether by kayak or on foot - a reasonably early arrival at camp with time to enjoy the evening and to appreciate the setting.  This is a pretty remote spot, takes a bit of getting to and is well worth spending some time at.  The flow of the tide past the camp was quite hypnotic, it was fascinating watching the development of boils and swirls on the ebb and then the flood.

Through the early evening and while there was still some energy in the weather we were treated to a wonderful range of light as showers built over Kinloch Hourn.  The area around Loch Quoich gets some the highest rainfall totals anywhere in the UK and is used to "head" hydro power schemes - there's often plenty of energy potential falling from the sky!

We were pleased to see the showers remain concentrated at the head of the loch while we stayed dry and in a light breeze. It wasn't particularly warm, but cool and dry was fine by us.

As the sun dipped, the shadows deepened and increased the contrast with the sunlit hills, the highest of which still had a smattering of white from the earlier hailstorms - it was developing into a lovely evening.

After a dinner of home-made chilli  followed by baked fruit and custard, both kindly supplied by Raymond we secured the boats for the evening and made our way down below the high water mark to light our fire.  This early in the season there was no shortage of firewood - which as things turned out was a good thing.

 We lit the fire right on the previous evening's tide mark, but miscalculated by about 30 minutes of tide....with the result that we experienced "the lost fire of Loch Hourn"!  Managing to rescue some hot embers, we re-lit a fire on the shingle further up, but still below the Spring tide line.  We were glad of that fire, it was a fairly cold evening with a chilly breeze and though enjoyable to sit around chatting after so long apart, we didn't stay up too late.  The cloud began to dissipate as we were heading for our tents and we had hopes of good weather the following morning.  We were certainly not to be disappointed.....

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

To hell in a hailstorm

After a chilly night, we woke to a lovely morning at our camp on the Sound of Sleat.  Handily, as it was Springs the tide would be fairly high in the mornings meaning that we'd only have a long carry with our boats at one end of each day of our trip.

The cool air was very clear and every colour was really "zinging" - Raymond's paddling attire of sea-blue top and grey trousers were in perfect colour coordination with the scenery!

A leisurely breakfast taken, tents down and final preparations complete, we had just a short carry with our heavily laden boats to the water.....

...and soon were off down the Sound in truly glorious conditions.

As we paddled south a view opened up through a gap in the hills to the Cuillin of Skye, the iconic skyline drawing both eye and memory - what days have been enjoyed on that ridge!

Our route took us south across the mouth of Loch Hourn which the previous afternoon had been whipped by a strong wind and raked by steep breaking swells.  No such issue this morning though as we paddled the 4km wide mouth in flat calm conditions.

A glance over the shoulder stopped us in our tracks as a more open view of the Black Cuillin opened up, the main ridge to the left with gars Bheinn prominent at the end of the ridge and the mighty Blaven with Clach Glas on the right.

After a coffee stop on the south shore we turned our bows inwards and headed along the south shore with the sun at our backs and a view across to Beinn Sgritheall (Scree hill) - one of the loosest mountains in Scotland to climb - it does what it says on the tin!

Conditions were very atmospheric, alternating between warm sunshine and chilling air as snow and hail showers passed.  Remarkably, we were missed by all of these through the morning.

After a lunch stop we paddled into Barrisdale Bay where Loch Hourn takes a twist and becomes very fjiord-like.  Initially it's difficult to make out the route through the Caolas Mor (big narrows) but it soon becomes clear as one approaches.  The channel is only a few metres wide and has very strong tidal flow; we'd timed our passage here carefully.  

Loch Hourn has a well-deserved reputation for fierce weather - indeed one translation of the name is Loch of Hell!  Situated on the edge of Knoydart which "enjoys" the highest rainfall  anywhere in the UK with annual totals exceeding 4.5 metres.  The loch's position sandwiched between high mountains, west facing aspect and narrow topography result in fierce winds and we were about to rediscover!  Although the weather here can be superb for many days on end - that's not the norm.....

We arrived at the narrows just as a squall gathered at the head of the loch and swept down towards us.  Donny had already gone through in his F-RIB and pulled into the shore to sit it out.  Douglas and I were already into the throat of the channel, which is just a few metres wide, when all hell broke loose.  

The squall arrived with an instantaneous rise in wind and a frightening roar.  We simple bowed our heads into lashing hail and tried to hold position by paddling hard.  For fully ten minutes we were battered by wind, hail and spray - then just as suddenly as it had arrived, it passed.  We all gathered on the shore of the spit at Caolas Mor, a little battered and more than a little chilled.  We decieded that the best course of action would be to warm up by doing some more paddling and so got back in the boats and headed farther into the narrow upper loch.

 We made it as far as another narrows leading to the tiny Loch Beag and the road end at Kinloch Hourn.  This is one of the more remote spots in Scotland...although we were just 2km from the end of a road, that twisting, precipitous and narrow ribbon of eroded tarmac goes through totally empty country for fully 37km/23 miles before reaching a main road.  The ebbing tide was pouring out from here and the whole area dries out at low water - we could go no further.  Turning back, we headed down the ebb tide towards our intended camp site.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Away and underway

Through both lockdowns I've been exploring local hills and routes and there will be a whole series of "catch-up" posts at some point.  Great as this was, it was a relief to get to the point where travel restrictions could be lifted and we could get "away".

In the week that Covid-19 restrictions were lifted sufficiently to allow travel outwith our own local authority area, Lorna, Allan and I met at Inverness and drove on to meet up with Douglas who'd travelled from south Glasgow, Raymond who had travelled from north Glasgow and Donny who had come up from Taynuilt near Oban.

You'll be able to follow this trip in "Sea Kayak tri-vision" by checking out Douglas' blog starting here, and Donny's Youtube channel here.


Our rendezvous at Glenelg takes some getting to; down the main road towards Skye and then a twisting drive on the single-track road over the 339m/1112ft pass of Mam Ratagan.  Mind you, it's a lot closer than the twinned location on Mars!  The strange association was instituted in 2011 when NASA was looking for a palindromic name for a location on the Martian surface which the "Curiosity" rover would visit twice - and Glenelg is Scotland's only palindromic place-name.

We parked our cars at Bernera beach and checked with a local lady that they'd not be in anyone's way for a few days.  We took our time packing, it's been over a year since we last packed boats for a multi-day adventure!  Finally all was ready.  Our friend Donny was using his 2.75m folding RIB (F-Rib) "Guppy" and set off a little ahead of us to play in the tidal stream at Kylerhea.  We'd timed our departure to take advantage of the last of the south going tide which would push us down the Sound of Sleat (pronounced "Slate") towards our intended camp site for the first night.

We'd deliberately scheduled a short first day as we didn't set out until early afternoon.  A couple of hours of steady paddling got us back in the rhythm of travelling in fully laden kayaks and it wasn't long before we reached our intended camp.  

As it was low water and Springs, we had a fair carry to get the boats up - as there were five kayakers we were able to lift even the laden boats and move them in two stages; firstly up to the beach to give us time to sort our camp.  We moved them to the same place as our tents later on.  Donny anchored "Guppy" in a lagoon around a sheltered point on the other side of our camp.

We pitched our tents and got a cup of tea on....we'd arrived and another adventure was underway!

Our camp was sufficiently spacious that we had choices of where to put the tents...which is not always a good thing as several pitches looked equally promising!  To get our boats above the Spring high water mark we moved them up to the turf - which was actually a little higher than mine and Douglas' tents!

Our camp looked across a sheltered bay to a ridge, above which the upper slopes of Beinn Sgritheall (scree mountain) soared.  A couple of heavy showers blew through, sending us into our tents temporarily - and each one left more snow on the mountain.

While the temperature was on the cool side, it was undoubtedly Spring.  Bright clumps of Primroses (Primula vulgaris) dotted our camp, splashes of colour among winter-bleached grasses.

The play of light was really quite special and the occasional shower was well worth sitting out to watch the change of colour and form during the late afternoon.

A rainbow stretched across the bay; too broad for my camera lens to get it all in as it arced up over one side.....

.....and back down to the other side of the bay.

 Dinner was a superb chicken casserole followed by home-made carrot cake - both courses courtesy of Lorna.  I was unsurprised to find that there were large quantities of driftwood along the shore; the absence of people around to collect it for over a year meant that we could gather what we needed from close at hand, and even to just collect the driest pieces.   The fire was lit below the high tide mark which meant that by the early hours of the morning all trace of it would be erased.  We sat long into the evening around the fire, catching up with each other after not having been together as a group for so long.  It felt so good to be away and underway.....