Friday 24 December 2010

Happy Christmas

                                   I wish you peace and happiness at Christmas, wherever you may be

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Solstice stones

The north east of Scotland is rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments.  There are many hundreds of standing stones and stone circles, including around forty of a type found only in this corner of Scotland and known as recumbent stone circles.

The Winter solstice seemed an appropriate time to visit one of the circles just a few kilometres from home, Cothiemuir Hill.

This circle is approximately 75 metres in diameter and remains almost complete.  Now hidden in a wood on a low hill, it would originally have been a prominent monument with an open outlook.  The circle stones (orthostats) are of granite, mostly red but occasionally grey.

The defining feature of a recumbent stone circle is the great recumbent itself, flanked by two pillars (the flankers).  The recumbent and flankers are always at the south of the circles, and almost always at the south-southwest.  Where both flankers survive, one is always slender, the other stout - and they are of different heights.  The flankers are usually angled into the recumbent to emphasise the circle. Often the orthostats are graded in height toward the flankers. 

Viewed from the centre of the circle at Cothiemuir Hill, the west flanker (the taller of the two) is aligned exactly to the midwinter sunset.

The flankers are 2.9 and 2.7 metres high, and the great recumbent is a 4.2 metre long slab of dark basalt weighing 20 tons.  This stone has been brought to the circle; the work must have been an immense undertaking for a community before wheel and animal power was in use.  Radiocarbon dating for this circle places its construction at around 2700-2500 BC, contemporary with most other recumbent circles.

At the centre of the circle is a large slab with a pit underneath it.  There is also evidence of a paved area leading from the centre to the recumbent.  There was probably a timber circle here before the stones - evidence seems to be emerging that the stones are the closing moment in a long period of use.

It's clear that these circles were places of great importance to the folk who raised them, and beyond.  Most were in use for well over a thousand years after construction for burials and ceremonies- indeed to this day there are sometimes small tokens left at circles, flowers, ash and the like.

It's almost certain that one of the functions of the circles was to mark out the important lunar events of the year - particularly the midwinter solstice.  In this present spell of unbroken intense frost, it isn't hard to empathise with those who looked to the stones to mark the returning of the light and the retreat of the bitter, dark winter.

A visit at this time of year seemed significant, the stones seem to fit their place, to exude permanence and a faint resonance of the meaning they were raised to convey.  And strange, though I've visited many of the circles, I've never once touched any of the stones - I don't know why, other than superstition; which is perhaps part of their power to this day!

Tuesday 21 December 2010

"And the moon shall be as blood" - the winter solstice lunar eclipse

A rare and beautiful natural phenomenon occurred this morning, a total lunar eclipse.  This was to be the first lunar eclipse visible from the UK for 3 years, and the first to coincide with the winter solstice for 372 years, last occurring on the morning of 21 December 1638.

There was a noticeable reddening of the moon at 0532 UTC as it began to enter the earth's shadow.  The air temperature was minus 15 celsius and the sky absolutely clear.  During this eclipse the further north, the better the view as the moon would be higher above the horizon.

                     After 0632 UTC the shadow became much more defined as the eclipse approached totality.

  As the moon moved toward the horizon atmospheric refraction made it look larger, the eclipse even more stunning.

Totality at 0740 UTC.  Photographs just can't do justice to the beauty of this scene, the snow covered landscape a perfect setting for the red moon. 

The north east of Scotland is studded with many hundreds of standing stones and stone circles, and many of these are aligned to the winter solstice sunset.  What would the folk who built the circles have made of this?  At one of the most significant days of their year, would this have been seen as a good omen or a bad one? 

I felt priveliged to be able to touch perhaps an inkling of what was of importance to those folk, and to have such a good view of this beautiful event.

Behind me, the sun was rising on the shortest day of the year.  In another unusual alignment, both moon and sun were above the horizon at the eclipse, the phemonenon of selenehelion.

Monday 20 December 2010

A guaranteed White Christmas

Despite a significant thaw, the previous dump of snow wasn't off the ground when the next cold spell started four days ago.  Initially the snow resembled polystyrene pellets but was pulverised to the powdery consistency of baking powder by a scouring north wind. At first the accumulations were relatively small.

Even small hills like Bennachie - the Mither Tap seen here on the right skyline - became alpine in their apparent scale.

The wind quickly built drifts across the landscape and roads, more challenging conditions for animals and humans alike.

Plummeting temperatures overnight (our neighbour recorded minus 22 celsius on his weather station) brought fresh problems.  Aberdeenshire Council's roads department stopped using salt and spread grit to try and help grip, but roads remained difficult.  Ice was building up around the running gear of vehicles; this lot had to be prised out with an ice axe after a comparatively short journey.

Heavier snow has fallen over the last 24 hours and more showers are forecast.  Coupled with the fact that temperatures aren't forecast to rise above freezing by day or night for the next week - a white Christmas is now guaranteed!

Friday 17 December 2010

Wildlife and history, a stone's throw from the city

Moving farther north east along the north shore of the Moray Firth, I arrived at the narrow entrance to the Cromarty Firth.  The rock stacks which stand on each side of the entrance rise to about 140 metres and are crowned by gun emplacements.  Sutor is an old Scots word for a shoemaker; local legend is that two giant shoemakers used the cliffs as their lasts and threw tools between the two.

The gun emplacements were built in the early 20th century and saw service in both World Wars.  Interestingly, the records show that the artillery batteries were operated by Norwegian personnel during WW II.  They stand now as testament to a different time, a different world.

On an altogether different timescale, the folded rocks of the Sutors attracted the attention of the geologist Hugh Miller.  A self taught geologist who was born in Cromarty and was a quarryman before becoming a geologist, he did much important work on both fossils and Old Red Sandstone and was also a somewhat controversial evangelical Christian.  The book "Hutton's Arse" gives an excellent precis of his work.

The likeness to a shoemaker's last is obvious when the South Sutors are seen from this angle.

The cold breeze in the entrance channel was chilling me down, but as I turned to paddle back I noticed the dorsal fin of a Bottlenose Dolphin quite close.  The dolphins of the Moray Firth are famous and very well studied.  The population of around 130 animals is the most northerly in the world and the individuals are some of the largest too.  I've seen them from a distance before but not been lucky enough to be close.

It soon became obvious that there were two females, each swith a calf which never strayed beyond touching distance of it's mother.  They were feeding in the shallows, occasionally "tail standing" to reach among the weeds.  I sat quietly as they approached and then became aware of me.  After circling for a minute or two, each of the females came very close with it's calf - actually to touching distance.  I got eye contact with each of these beautiful animals - a truly amazing experience.  At no time were they nervous or aggressive, merely curious and engaging.

I was so enthralled that I only thought to reach for the camera as the dolphins were moving away - the only photographic record of a truly memorable experience is this fuzzy shot.  The dolphins continued south west along the shore in the same general direction as I paddled back towards Rosemarkie, completely unfazed by the strange yellow creature briefly sharing their world.  I've seen dolphins on the bow wave on ships all around the world - but this encounter was in a different league

On the way back to Rosemarkie I noticed the remains of a couple of stone huts in quite inaccessible parts of the shore. I landed beside a complete example and found that it was a restored "salmon bothy".  A crew of four would operate a Coble out of here from February to August, staying at the bothy all week except Wednesday afternoon, Saturday afternoon and Sunday.  Inside the bothy are information boards about the salmon fishing, geology and wildlife of the area.

This anchor on a nearby beach may well be from either the boats or large nets in use at the time.

I arrived back at Rosemarkie in near darkness.  It had been a memorable paddle with wildlife, history and geology on a wild and rugged coast.  The surprising thing is that I started just 10 kilometres from the centre of Inverness and was never more than 25 kilometres from the city.

Thursday 16 December 2010

An unexpectedly fine day

In a narrow window of calm weather with reasonable road conditions, I managed a short paddle on the Moray Firth.  Initial weather signs weren't encouraging - freezing fog at home and thick mist and drizzle at my launch spot at Rosemarkie on the Black Isle (which isn't actually an island).  However, as I was preparing the boat the cloud thinned to give a view of the coastline ahead.

I planned to paddle northeast along the coast to the entrance of the Cromarty Firth and back, around 15 kilometres each way.

This part of the coast is a series of cliffs and headlands all the way.  There are few landing places and the shoreline is inaccessible by foot for much of the way, with other parts accessible only at lower states of the tide.

Across the Moray firth, the low cloud giving mist and fog was still very much in evidence.  The skyscape was one of contrasts as the moist northerly air was forced upslope and condensed to cloud.

On the north side of the firth, the occasional blink of low winter sun lit up the dead bracken on the slopes and created a lovely warm light. Only the light was warm though; it was still pretty cold!  No snow was lying here at the coast in contrast to the banks still on the ground at home in Aberdeenshire.

I was at least sheltered from the cold wind here, it was calm except for the low swell which is rarely absent from the Moray Firth. 

Near this spot I was surprised to see a Red Kite circling above the shore.  These beautiful birds have been reintroduced to several areas of Scotland after being hunted to extinction in the UK apart from a tiny population in Wales.  Primarily a carrion feeder, they will also take small live prey such as amphibians, voles and small birds. The Black Isle is a stronghold for the species, but I'd always associated them with farmland and wooded areas rather than the shore.

Soon after, I spotted an Otter fishing.  I waited to try and get a photograph, but it went ashore to devour a crab - and then had a face-off with a Fox which had been waiting on the beach - a fascinating wildlife experience.

It was turning out to be an unexpectedly fine day!

Saturday 11 December 2010

The roaring thaw

There's been a remarkable change in temperature; a swing of  22 degrees celsius in as many hours as warm Atlantic air has been pulled in over Scotland by a high pressure system.

On Thursday morning, the River Don was at a normal level with frost smoke condensing off the (comparatively) warm water into minus 12 celsius morning air.  The previous night had been minus 14 degrees.

                                                                         However, 48 hours later......

The river level has come up nearly two metres as the warmer air and a strong wind  melts much of the snowpack. It's an impressive sight.

The river is within it's banks, but just.  Fortunately there has been no rain to add volume to the snowmelt.  The ground below the top couple of centimetres is frozen hard so the meltwater is running across rather than into the farmland and open hill ground.  It is simply roaring down every small burn and drainage channel.

With the Don so full, there isn't anywhere for the water to go.  A full kilometre away from the river the small burns are backed up.  There's normally a very small burn here; now it's a deep lake threatening the back of our neighbour's house.

A return to older conditions is forecast, which should ease the flow of water.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

A realm of ice

The continuing cold weather has an undeniable beauty.  For almost two weeks the temperature hasn't risen above freezing, daytime temperatures are hovering around minus 5 Celsius with night time lows around minus 15.  In these conditions, the mass of snow which fell is more or less unchanged. Apart from wind action and a sun-crust, it remains deep and unconsolidated.  It's been possible to dig snowpack test pits on the edge of the house roof!

Only on walls and roofs facing the low December sun is there any real change.  The marginally higher temperatures in these areas are creating some impressive and beautiful ice formations.  To prevent damage to the guttering from the extra weight, we've been removing them daily.

Some are fairly large; you certainly wouldn't want this to fall on your head.

It's been so cold that some rarely seen mythological creatures are appearing in our corner of Aberdeenshire.....

This Unicorn has been created in a garden in the small village of Montgarrie, along with a Gargolyle and two castles.  Someone has a real talent!

Monday 6 December 2010

Snow problem...

In the continuing cold weather, most activities are curtailed by the snow and ice.  Even if I could get a boat out and onto the car, the road conditions are too poor to drive anywhere to go paddling. 

The hills are blanketed in thick snow which would make purgatorial walking and have a considerable avalanche risk.

                                                                  So, what to do?

The rural roads are covered in hard packed snow and make perfect nordic (langlauf) ski tracks!

Friday 3 December 2010

Life in the freezer

Six days of sub-zero temperatures and gradual snow accumulation have transformed the north east of Scotland into a wintry snowscape.

Over a metre of snow has fallen, nearly all of it as powder snow.  The land is completely blanketed in white.

Trees are laden with snow and every twig is outlined with frost feathering formed in the extremely low temperatures.

I drove through through our local village late in the evening; the temperature was minus 17 Celcius - colder than a domestic deep freeze.

The village main street was being cleared of some of the sheer volume of snow by a combination of Council workers and local farmers.  Tractors, silage trailers, diggers and snowploughs were all in use. The Council road workers have been working around the clock to keep the main roads passable - the very Public Sector workers the UK government is trying to get rid of as unnecessary.  We all owe them better.

The village letter box looks to be particularly suitable for posting letters to Santa Claus!

Saturday 27 November 2010

Winter arrives

Just one week ago it felt as if autumn was coming to an end - now it's official; winter is here!

Three days of heavy snow showers and low temperatures have transformed the browns and russets to dazzling white.  The north and north east of Scotland have so far seen the heaviest falls (which is not in itself unusual) but it is pretty early for such heavy snowfall here.

Getting around has become something of a challenge on tiny rural roads, this is the lane outside our house

The whole land is sparkling under more than 45 centimetres of snow which just keeps on coming in great sweeping showers

                                            The whole scene is very Christmas-like, but a month early!

                                                 If you want to go anywhere, first excavate your car.....

Friday 26 November 2010

The hill of timid birds

I was staying at the very comfortable Forest Way independent hostel near Inverlael.  Iain, the owner, is a hillwalker himself and has designed the hostel to suit the needs of other hillwalkers; it's really well thought out and very comfortable.

An advantage of the location is that I was able to climb hills right from the front door.  I chose a Corbett, Beinn Enaiglair (hill of timid birds) which would give a good short route.  The hill just looks like a grassy lump when seen from the road at Braemore junction, but has plenty of interest on it's eastern flanks which are hidden from the road.

After an initially very steep start, a superbly built stalker's path runs right around the hill.  These old paths are a joy to walk, taking elegant lines on the hill and gaining height almost effortlessly.  There was a jarring contrast with an ugly vehicle track which has been crudely bulldozed into the face of the hill above the road by Braemore estate.

This eastern side of the hill doesn't get much sun in the winter and I was glad to climb into bright sunshine higher up.  The view to the east is dominated by the Munro of Beinn Dearg (Red hill).  The massive drystone wall which is such a feature on this hill can be seen running up into the snowline on the left hand skyline.  This wall was built as a "destitution wall", one of a number of roads and walls built to give men work in return for food during the famine of the 1840's

From the 889 metre summit of Beinn Enaiglair, the views are extensive and very fine.  To the south the Fannaichs range stand out on the horizon

To the west, there's a view over Loch a'Bhraoin to the tangle of mountains and ridges in the Fisherfield forest

While to the north west, An Teallach catches the eye.  Strangely, this hill had far less snow than most

In an eastern corrie of the "hill of timid birds" I found this superbly camouflaged grouse doing it's best to remain unnoticed and neatly illustrating the hill name!

Thursday 25 November 2010

Into the shadows on Loch Broom

It seemed likely that the south shore of Loch Broom would give more sheltered conditions than I'd experienced along the north side, but this would involve an open crossing of 8 kilometres.  I felt that conditions were OK to make this crossing, and that it would be better to make it before the flood tide started and opposed the wind, which would make things more difficult.

An hour and a half of steady paddling in choppy conditions and I was looking back at Ben More Coigach from the shelter of Annat Bay.  The cloud had lifted from the summit ridge, which looks completely different from this angle.  Although I was now getting good shelter, I was to be in the shade for the rest of the day and it was chilly!

Beinn Ghobhlach (Forked Hill) is a small but prominent hill on the Scoraig peninsula which separates Loch Broom and Little loch Broom; it looks very fine from Ullapool.  Beinn Ghobhlach is also a hill particularly suited to being climbed by paddling to the base.  The hill itself and the long ridge below the western end were blocking the low angle sunlight.  One pleasant surprise was a close view of a Sea Eagle on the cliffs, such grand birds.

I crossed the narrow mouth of inner Loch Broom to Ruba Cadail (Sleep Point!) as the sun was setting.  The sunset was firing the clouds above Beinn Ghobhlach with lovely purple colours and I landed to take some of images on the SLR camera.  Only when I got home did I realise that the memory card hadn't been in the camera......

So the only photograph I have of a beautiful sunset is this one from my compact camera.  The afterglow lasted a long while, but the temperature was rapidly dropping as I arrived back at Ardmair. 

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Light and shade in Loch Broom

I'd decided on a paddle in outer Loch Broom near Ullapool with a hillwalk the following day.  The forecast was for cold but relatively settled conditions prior to a wintry spell of weather.  I hoped to get some shelter from the predicted northeasterly wind by paddling along the north shore of the outer loch from Ardmair Bay to Achiltibuie.

Ardmair Bay is a perfect lauch site; a curving shingle beach with car parking right above it and a campsite in the summer.  It's sheltered by Isle Martin and has the impressive backdrop of Ben More Coigach (big hill of Coigach).  Arriving at about sunrise, 0800 at this time of year, I wasted no time in getting moving as it was cold in the shade.


The low winter sun was illuminating Isle Martin beautifully whilst Ben More Coigach was enveloped in a sea of cloud which washed over the ridge.  It seems to be a feature of this hill that it forms these washes of cloud.  Normally they form from the southwest (left edge on this picture) and dissipate to the east but today the reverse was happening.

The vibrant colours are a total contrast with the greens of summer - this variety is one of the wonderful things about the changing seasons in Britain.

There aren't too many places in Scotland where mountain cliffs drop straight into the sea, but Ben More Coigach is one such.  Close in, the mountain drops very steeply to the water and landing places are very limited.  The cliffs are formed mainly of sandstone which was glowing in the low sunlight.

It's heavily featured and eroded rock and has some interesting shapes.  There seemed to be a Norse warrior staring out from the left edge of this outcrop!

The forecast northeasterly wind was actually blowing from the south east and increased rapidly to F4-5.  This made for uncomfortable and wet paddling along the cliffs and shore on the north side of the loch.  I was glad to pull into the shelter of Horse Sound and land on the sandy beach at Achininver.

The skyline had become a monochrome sweep of mountain and cloud.  The prominent domed hill in the centre of this photograph is Sail Mhor (Big Heel) which I'd climbed a couple of weeks previously.

Time for a cup of tea while I decided what to do next; once back around the point and into the wind it would be a slog back to Ardmair.