Thursday 25 May 2023

Blown away by Knoydart

The second half of April had some really fine weather with high pressure close by the north of Scotland.  Douglas and I watched the synoptic picture carefully for several days before deciding on a trip starting at Mallaig.  we came from opposite corners of the country but arrived within minutes of each other and after a coffee and croissant from the rather excellent Bakehouse, got our boats packed and set off.

Our plan was initially to paddle up to the head of Loch Nevis for the first camp, but we soon modified that.  High pressure close to rather than over the country can, in certain circumstances give really fine, clear weather but with strong easterly winds - and this was the situation on this week.  Douglas and I both have a healthy respect for the conditions which can be created by this weather pattern; some of our hardest battles have been in easterly winds blowing from a clear blue sky.  Lochs Nevis and Hourn which frame the south and north shores of the Knoydart peninsula both have east-west topography and a short paddle to the entrance of Loch Nevis confirmed that the wind was indeed barrelling down the loch....time for a change of plan!

Our pre-trip planning had factored this in, we had a camp spot in mind for the first evening of three, but first we explored a bit around the entrance to Loch Nevis, climbing above a beach near Rubha Raonuill to get a view of the hills beyond Inverie.

We paddled below the statue of the Virgin Mary in the narrows at the entrance to Loch Nevis, an unusual feature.  Officially known as Our Lady of Knoydart, the statue was erected by the Catholic community in the middle of the 20th century.  It's actually made of GRP and is known locally as "Plastic Mary".  I was surprised to note that the last time I paddled through these narrows was over ten years ago!

We paddled north from the loch entrance and were faced with a difficult choice of which of several lovely beaches to camp on....sea kayaking can have these difficulties sometimes!  Having selected our beach we got the tents up, enjoyed a cup of tea and then set about collecting and sawing down sufficient driftwood for a fire below the rapidly receding tide.  

We were quite pleased with our choice of camp site; a slab of rock forming an arm of the bay gave a super place to watch the sun go down after dinner.

The sunset was relatively brief on this April evening, but what it lacked in duration it made up in intensity - a gorgeous wash spread across the sky.....

....which faded to an intense glow, silhouetting the distant Skye Cuillin.  Our plans may have been blown away by the wind, but we certainly weren't complaining about the way the trip was unfolding!

Thursday 4 May 2023

A re-boot

 When I started this blog back in 2009 it was primarily to create a record and to share some of the sights and experiences in Scotland's outdoors.  When things got busy with work or family life, the natural tendency was to post less, but lately I've really let it slip.  The last posts were some eight months ago - and they were recalling a trip in April 2022!  "Retirement" from a long career at sea in March 2022 was quickly followed by setting up a new venture in "retirement", so there has been a lot going on.

In my defence, I've been posting a lot on the Mountain and Sea Instagram page  and while enjoying the ability to post more or less instantly, I have missed the research and reflection that blogging offers.  

It's not like I haven't been getting out and about whether solo or with friends....  There have been some great sea kayak trips.... 

To the west - here on Loch Hourn

On the "home" patch of the Moray Firth in the northeast 

In the very heart of Scotland, here on Loch Ericht.

And in the far northwest, a here in Assynt.

The hills haven't been ignored either, whether in challenging weather

or in fair weather.

And talking of weather, the range of conditions experienced have been simply marvellous!

So that's the re-boot started, and hopefully I can do much better in posting here than of late!

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Pinned on Pabay

The morning weather was as lovely as the evening had been, clear and calm.  The view to the Cuillin of Skye was our constant companion on this trip and one of the highlights with changing light and angles subtly altering the colour and form.  We've all got great memories of climbs on that great arc of ridge - exhilarating and sometimes downright frightening!

We had a leisurely breakfast and got on the water - within a few minutes we were back ashore on a tiny island with a "now you see it, now you don't" sandy beach which disappears at higher states of the tide.  We'd wanted to stop here because it's rather a fine viewpoint; the first image in this post was taken from the beach.

The view near to hand wasn't bad either - vivid orange lichens glowing in the morning sunshine, set off by a few Thrift flowers.

Orange seemed to be the theme of the morning; we returned briefly to Kyleakin to collect some things and whilst preparing to get back underway we noticed a bright orange vessel passing under the Skye bridge.

She's the "Mikal With", a 67 metre long palletised cargo vessel.  On most marine vessel websites she has a blue hull and a different owner than recently.  She's either owned or on charter to MOWI, a Norwegian aquaculture company.

We set out again from Kyleakin and aimed for the island of Pabay, which we intended to use as a stepping stone on our way to an intended camp on Scalpay.  The breeze had been slowly building and once clear of Kyle Akin it became quite strong from straight off the Skye coast (our port quarter).

We put our sails up to take advantage of the push and were absolutely blasted across towards Pabay.  I found this a really great sailing run, but was certainly not prepared to stop paddling in order to take photos!  Our average speed on this blast was 9.4km/h, or nearly twice cruising speed.....

Although a fast passage, it had been an energetic one - it is paddle sailing rather than just sailing!  We were all ready for a lunch stop by this point.

Approaching Pabay the wind seemed to ease  a little and we dropped our sails to paddle into the tiny harbour area.  Donny had motored along to Broadford in his F-RIB and made a direct crossing from there to Pabay; he had a pretty wet ride!

One of the iconic sights on Pabay (Norse: Priest Island) is this post box.  It seems incongruous since there are only a couple of houses on the island but is here because the island issues it's own postage stamps for mail which is transferred into the Royal Mail system in Skye (from where it needs Royal Mail stamps).

Sheltered from the breeze (which was becoming stronger) we lazed in warm sunshine, surrounded by clumps of Primroses.  The pale yellow of the flowers set against the blue of sky and sea was gorgeous.

Above where we lunched a pair of Bonxies (Great Skuas) watched us warily.  These impressive piratical predators had picked a nest site with a great view over the low lying island.

One of the features of Pabay is its geology which is shales intersected by dykes of harder rocks.  The whole island is almost flat and nearly doubles in size as the tide falls from high to low water, leaving the geometric patterns of dykes.

Another feature is that, despite being flat the island has virtually no wild camping spots accessible from the water.  The rock layers from a barrier and the softer rock gives good growing conditions for brambles and tangled low undergrowth.

This gave us a problem; we were pretty much pinned on Pabay.  The wind had continued to rise and in the Sound between Pabay and Scalpay was approaching a Force 6.  None of us was keen on trying the paddle across unless we really had to, but despite trying along the sheltered parts of Pabay by kayak we could find nowhere to camp.  We returned to the harbour to have a re-think.  Douglas and I walked up to the "big house" which is undergoing renovation by a new owner of the island.  We explained our situation and asked if we might camp near the harbour.  The Access provision in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act is wide ranging but does not cover access near to houses or infrastructure.  The owner was most kind in allowing us to camp for the night and it was really appreciated by us.

We pitched our tents in areas which wouldn't affect access to and from the harbour itself and found a spot out of the wind to cook dinner - preceded by fresh soup.  The day had been recovered but our plans would need to be altered.  The forecast was for the wind to drop almost completely by morning, so we decided on a paddle to the Applecross shore via the Crowlin Islands.

As the sun set, the wind came around a couple of points and seemed to drop by several degrees in temperature - it was pretty cold within minutes.  Dinner done, we retired to the tents (which we'd pinned very securely to Pabay) for an early night.

Friday 1 July 2022

A perfect pitch

It turned out that our day could and did get better!  The camping spot we'd originally planned on was a few more kilometres up the coast, and given the wind direction we realised that it would be right in the wind.  So when a flash of white sand backed by bright green woodland caught our eye at the back of a small bay, we had to take a look.

Landing near low water we found ourselves in an enclosed bay, sheltered from the wind and in full sunshine.  A few folk were enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, indicating that the bay was fairly accessible, but it did look very promising as a wild camping spot.  Our preference is for fairly remote areas which are little used, but never look a gift horse in the mouth!

As the day visitors started to leave, we pitched our tents, Donny and Douglas pitched on the level turf above the beach itself - where there was even a picnic bench......

Allan and I chose spots in a beautiful wood of birches at the back of the bay which was alive with birdsong.  At the time and in the memory, this felt a perfect pitch.

Once we'd pitched up we wandered the bay, just enjoying the sunshine and the location.  We came across this lovely piece of beach art which must have taken both patience and real creative talent to produce.  Transient and perfect, it would be washed away by the evening's high tide.

Much of the beach was covered in pieces of white "coral" - actually Maerl, a corraline algae which when living is a purplish colour.  When they die, the calcereous remains of Maerl are broken and crushed by wave action, then bleached in the sun to form dazzling white "coral" beaches such as this one.  

A rare and fragile environment, Maerl beds have comprehensive protection, but are at risk from scallop dredging - one pass by a scallop dredger's bottom gear can destroy a bed which might be hundreds of years old.   Loch Carron has some of the best examples of Maerl beds and as a result is protected by designation as a Marine Protected Area (MPA).  

In the wood, Primroses were in flower on sunny banks - perhaps my favourite of the early Spring flowers; such a cheery sight at the back of a long winter.

After dinner we wandered over to the edge of the bay and climbed a rocky outcrop to photograph the setting sun - it was a really lovely evening.

Our fire below the Spring tide mark was lit to get going while we took our photographs and brought snacks and drinks down from the tents.

 Across the sea, beyond Skye and Raasay, the setting sun slipped down to the horizon to end a truly great day on the water.  We sat with a dram by our fire and chatted into a glorious evening.

Note: Since we camped here, the bay and its beach have been featured in a national newspaper and on a well known travel website as "one of the most beautiful and accessible in Scotland".  This is undoubtedly going to increase it's popularity and perfect as it is, we will avoid camping here for the foreseeable future in order to go a small way to reducing future pressure.

Tuesday 31 May 2022

Over the sea from Skye

A spell of warm and sunny Spring weather is always so welcome here in Scotland - so when a run of fine days was forecast in the second half of April we made plans for a kayak trip.  Our starting point was to be Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye; and we met up on a sparkling morning.  Allan and I travelled from Aberdeenshire, Douglas from the Solway coast via Glasgow and Taynuilt, where he teamed up with Donny for the journey to Skye.  Our plan was very flexible....simply to spend some time kayaking around the southern part of the Inner Sound.

While we rigged our kayaks Donny got his F-RIB "Guppy" afloat and set off to do a little filming.  You'll be able to see the video of our trip on Donny's Youtube channel here.  

After the usual routine of boat packing and trying to make sure everything fitted in, we got underway and immediately put up our sails to catch a push from the north easterly breeze.  This stretch of water,  Kyle of Lochalsh or more properly Caol Loch Ailse (Strait of the Foaming Lake) has strong tidal streams, particularly at the narrow western entrance which is named separately as Kyle Akin (Haakon's Strait) - named for a Norse king who brought a huge force of longships through here and beached at Kyleakin on his way south where he would be engaged and beaten by a Scots army under King Alexander III on 2nd October 1263.

The building of the Skye Bridge altered the flows somewhat at Kyleakin and the strongest of the stream can be avoided by passing close under the eastern side between Eiean Ban and the mainland shore - that said it's still an energetic paddle against the tide!

We started on Skye and apart from a brief call back at Kyleakin didn't plan to paddle any of the island's coast on this trip - not so much "Over the Sea to Skye" as over the sea from Skye!

We headed north after exiting Kyleakin and stopped at Eilean a' Mhal for first luncheon. Sheltered from the breeze we sat in warm sunshine with a wonderful view across the Inner Sound to the hills of Beinn na Cailleach and Glamaig on Skye.  The colour in the water was marvellous and was the standout feature of this day.

Back underway and we continued north through the maze of the Black Islands, which today were anything but black - indeed there was a riot of colour.  This group of islands usually provides sheltered paddling in a compact area which changes from hour to hour according to the state of the tide.

Conditions were pretty good for early Spring - dry and bright with a north easterly breeze, and we observed this effect of cloud capping some, but not all, of the higher hills several times during our trip.

 As we left the Black Islands we paddled into the breeze and so dropped our sails.  After an energetic couple of kilometres of paddling we came into a lagoon with the most wonderful colour of water as the sun lit the white sand below our boats.  Really - could a day get any better than this?!

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Bridging the gap

This is a catch-up post from a walk in upper Donside in the second half of April.  Lorna, Allan and I have explored many of the area's tracks, especially when Covid restrictions limited the distance we could travel.

We decided on a linear walk from Corgarff at the foot of the Lecht road down to Bellabeg in Strathdon.  By the A944 road this isn't a particularly long route but we intended to use parts of altogether older roads.  We would also link a series of bridges which have historical interest - the "bridge" theme would continue in that our route would bridge a gap between walking routes we know well.


We set off on a lovely Spring morning, heading SE from Ordgarff along the track which is signed as "Old Military Road".  This simple statement has a deal of history behind it because this is a section of road built between 1748 and 1757 as part of  a massive roadbuilding and infrastructure project following the 18th century Jacobite rebellions.

That said, the first of the bridges isn't typical of the "Wade Bridge", being a graceful, slender arch over the Allt Damh - seemingly defying gravity! 

Just under 2km further along the track is Delavine Bridge.  This is much more representative of the bridge construction on the 18th century military roads.  Delavine was one of three bridges repaired and stabilised over three years from 1997 to 2000 to keep these scheduled monuments intact.  A plaque on Delavine bridge records the work, placed on the outer parapet where it is particularly difficult to read without standing in the burn itself!  It is typical of the larger bridges of the period in construction and in being 4 metres wide.

The familiar term is "Wade roads" and "Wade Bridges" in reference to General George Wade, a military Commander in North Britain from 1724 to 1740.  Wade is actually the only person named in the British National Anthem - one of the more clunky verses which isn't used today reads:

"Lord grant that Marshal Wade
may by thy aid victory bring
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God Save the King"

The "Wade" road here is part of a 100 mile (160km) route from Coupar Angus to Fort George near Inverness via Braemar, Corgarff and Grantown on Spey.  The whole route was built in nine years between 1748 and 1757, starting just two years after the final Jacobite defeat at Culloden Moor.  For context, the 26 mile/42km Aberdeen Western Peripheral route took five years to complete in the 21st century!

By the time construction of this road was started Wade had long since left the Highlands and in fact died in the same year work on this route started.  His successor, Major William Caulfeild (note the spelling, not "Caulfield") was appointed Inspector for Roads in Scotland in 1732.  While nowhere near as well known as Wade, Caulfeild oversaw far more of the network: Wade was responsible for 250 miles (400km) of road, forty bridges and two forts; Caulfeild  for 900 miles (1400km) of road and over six hundred bridges - an astonishing series of works.   

The road we now walked is part of the longest single stretch Caulfeild built at 100 miles and the line it took was clearly good because the vast majority of the route is still public road, suitably upgraded for modern traffic. This stretch wasn't absorbed into the road network and remains as a great walking route. 

The ingenuity, effort, endurance and craft of the road planners and of the regiments of soldier-navvies who constructed the military road network is a great testament to one of Britain's greatest engineering feats. 

A little over a kilometre further on the road crosses the third bridge of the section, this one spanning the Burn of Tornahaish.  Here also the bridge required restoration works and all three bridges on the section are now leased from the landowner, Candacraig Estate, by the Gordon Trust on a 99 year lease.  Smaller than Delavine and without a parapet, the span and height above what is a very small burn gives an indication of the volume the Burn of Tornahaish is capable of in spate.

The track climbs up from Burn of Tornahaish to join the A939 road, or more properly become the A939 road.  From here the Military Road goes to Gairnshiel then on over the hill to Crathie on Deeside.  We walked uphill for a short way before leaving the road on a track cutting back uphill, having bridged the gap of several kilometres between our previous walks.  Here we had a choice of routes to reach Bellabeg.  One route would take us over to link with a lower level walk we've done before while the other would climb up onto the high ground to cross the summit of Scraulac - a route done several times previously.

We chose the higher level option as the weather was good and we were in no particular rush.  The summit of Scraulac (which I think may be from the Gaelic for Scree Place) is really wide, though today a bit breezy too.  An estate worker passed us on a quad bike here and was the only other person we saw on the entire route.

We left the estate tracks to descend Scraulac's north east ridge, finding a remarkable hidden building en route.  A good track which became a metalled road soon led us down to the public road at Culfork.  This really is a "road less travelled", a loop of minor road running parallel to the A944 but on the opposite side of the river Don.  A relatively new venture along here is Cairngorms Glamping and Camp Site, which looks to be a super place to spend a holiday!

 Cutting off the road just outside Bellabeg, a track descends around a wooded hill to the last of the historic bridges of our walk.  Poldullie Bridge was constructed in 1715 by Sir John Forbes of Inverernan and crosses the River Don. A remarkably graceful single span bridge, the elegant form is best seen from above as in the images on the Canmore site.  Sir John Forbes made a fatal choice in throwing in his lot with the Jacobites at the 1715 rebellion and was captured following the battle of Sherrifmuir.  He died in Carlisle prison the day before the date of his execution.  It was this rebellion which prompted much of the roadbuilding effort in Scotland in order to "pacify" the Highlands.  Movie buffs might recognise Poldullie Bridge as it featured in the 2019 film "Mary Queen of Scots".

From Poldullie Bridge we climbed a steep bank to the main A944 road and strolled downhill to Bellabeg where we'd left a car earlier in the day.  

This had been a great walk with lots of history and great views.  The route we took is 19km/11.8 miles and it took us six hours at a fairly relaxed pace with a couple of stops.  Ordnance Survey 1:50K Landranger map 37 (Strathdon and Alford) covers the whole route.  As there is no public transport between Bellabeg and Corgarff this route does require two cars and a shuttle.  It would also make for a great mountain biking route with scope for variation.