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.....

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Northerly, severe gale 9......

This week has seen some very stormy conditions around the north of Scotland.  The surf forecasts for the Moray Firth coast were indicating swells of 5 metres/16 feet which is very much higher than the norm.  The Shipping Forecast confirmed the conditions would be lively...."Faroes, Fair Isle, Cromarty...northerly severe gale force 9 occasionally storm 10, heavy snow showers, good becoming poor in showers..." - it was definitely weather worth seeing from safely onshore.

Lorna, Allan and I met at Cullen to take a walk along the shore and experience the weather. We managed to find parking spaces tucked behind buildings in the village otherwise we wouldn't have been able to safely open the doors of the cars! The whole bay was a mass of breaking white water and the wind so strong that walking against it was a considerable effort.  For context, severe gale force 9 winds are between 41-47mph sustained - storm force 10 is 48-55mph sustained.  On the beach it was comfortably in the region of 45mph.

This is the Whale's Mou', a long cave-arch that we regularly sea kayak into and through.  On this day it was receiving huge breaking swells right through - surging up the cobbled beach on the shore side - a sobering view.

Even more impressive was the view of the Bow Fiddle.  This graceful arch is a favourite spot to paddle and to see it like this was a real eye-opener.  The scale shouldn't be underestimated - check the size of the rock in these posts - then look at the height of the waves in this image and the video below!

It was such a wild and spectacular experience - the air was filled with salt spray and on the cliff between Cullen Bay and Portknockie we found it really difficult to stand upright in the strength of the blast which was coming straight from the Arctic, bitingly cold and laden with snow and hail showers. The strength of the wind on this headland, accelerated up the cliff, was just incredible.

In bursts of sunshine the Bow Fiddle was creating its very own rainbow as big swells surged through - the bay in which it stands was a maelstrom of seething surf.

Standing square-on to the weather, the stack of the Craig (actually named "Shitten Craig" from the bird guano which covers it in Spring and Summer) was being battered by the swells.  Early nesting seabirds would have had no chance of remaining in place unfortunately, the whole stack was being covered by solid water at times.  At least this early in the season any birds which lose eggs or nests will be able to start again.

 The outer harbour at Portknockie was doing its job!  Swells hitting the outer wall were being flung high into the air, but the boats in the inner harbour remained snug and safe - the impacts of the biggest of the swells could be heard even above the roaring wind - we wondered at the forces that were being unleashed.....

Allan commented later that it was the first time he'd travelled anywhere specifically to see some weather...we all agreed that it had been a very worthwhile experience!

Monday, 1 March 2021

Heralds of winter's end

After a long, cold start to the year some glorious days at the end of February have brought a hint of the coming Spring.  Warm sunshine and clear skies seem to have set everything off - remarkably this "winter" barley crop was under almost a metre of snow just ten days previously.

Even more remarkably, the Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) on the banks of the River Don were not only under huge volumes of snow, but once that melted they were submerged in a torrent of fast flowing icy water as recently as five days ago when the river couldn't contain the volume of snowmelt.

These welcome heralds of winter's end seem to flower as soon as they emerge from the snow - delicate in appearance but incredibly hardy.

The river banks are carpeted with drifts of Snowdrops.  Although some bulbs were torn out by the surge of water, the flood also left lots of rich silt as it receded - perhaps one reason they are able to not only survive but thrive here.

Against a neighbour's south facing garden wall is another very early flower, the White Butterbur (Petasites albus) with its almost alien flower spike.  Later in the year the leaves of this strange plant can reach over 90cms across - it seems to do really well in the north east of Scotland.

A clump of Crocus in a tub against the wall of the house have responded to the warmer weather and simply shot up; in just a couple of days the flower buds emerged and then the flowers opened as soon as the morning sun warmed them.  Within hours, two Honey Bees had visited and taken advantage of this early bonus of pollen.

It's just the first day of March and there will no doubt be more hard weather to come; this month has a reputation as a wintry one in Aberdeenshire.  But for a few days at least it seems that Spring isn't too far away - and that's a great thought.