Friday 16 December 2011

Preparing for a pleasant shock to the system

After four months working in the heat and humidity of the Middle East, I'll be going home soon to a Scottish winter.  This image was taken in mid December 2010 during a very cold spell which lasted several weeks, bringing severe frost and heavy snow.

It usually takes a little while to re-acclimatise, but I love the turn of the seasons and the variety of weather we get in Scotland.  It may be a shock to the system at first, but I've missed clear, sharp mornings like this one!

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Days like these, a winter day in Torridon

Looking through some images on a memory stick, I came across two from an outstanding day's hillwalking in February 2006.  I'd set off from Kinlochewe well before dawn on a clear, frosty morning and walked down the Torridon road.  Approaching Loch Clair as dawn was breaking, I detoured to the loch shore to take this picture of Liathach (the grey one).  This viewpoint is a popular one with photographers but I had it to myself that morning while the whole mountain was bathed in pinkish sunlight.  In the shadows where I was, my fingers were sticking to the camera in the frigid air - which may have gone some way to explaining why nobody else was around!

Liathach is a tremendous hill, steep and challenging with multiple summits.  It has its standard routes but also some superb quieter routes to the summit ridges.  Composed of Torridonian Sandstone and quartzite, the whole mountain is, in geological terms, upside down with older rock overlaying the younger - an amazing thought.

Liathach wasn't my objective that day though.  I headed past the eastern end of Liathach and up into Coire Mhic Fhearchair (Farquharson's Corrie), also known as Triple Buttress Corrie from the stupendous rock architecture on the corrie headwall.  A very steep climb of a further 550 metres (you earn your hill summits in Torridon as nearly all routes start from near sea level) got me up above 1000 metres on Beinn Eighe (hill of the file).

The view from here is simply breathtaking.  A sweep of bold, primeval looking hills backed by the blue of the Minch and spattered with glistening lochans.  Just magical.

This view shows (from left to right) the end of Sail Mhor (the big heel) which is the western summit of Beinn Eighe and forms one of the arms of Coire Mhic Fhearchair; the Corbett of Beinn Dearg (red hill) and beyond to the distinctive chisel summit of Mullach an Rathain, part of Beinn Alligin (jewelled hill).  Across the trench of Loch a' Bhealaich (loch of the pass) is another Corbett, Baosbheinn (wizard's hill) and on the far right, Beinn an Eoin (hill of the birds).

All evocative names for hills of great individual quality. The memory of that view is as clear as the winter air  near the summit of Beinn Eighe.

I turned northeast to walk the quartzite ridges of the "hill of the file".  Soon I was in a strange mist through which the sun shone, making everything appear soft and pale.  No more photos,but a magical and strange experience.  By the time I reached the base of Beinn Eighe near the road I was very tired and it was just about dark.  All along the final few kilometres of road back to Kinlochewe my headtorch picked out the golden reflections in the eyes of Red Deer browsing the grass at the roadside.

Days like these; they live with you for ever.

Friday 11 November 2011

Armistice Day

I'm away from home at work this November, but last 11th November I was paddling between Kyle and Plockton.  The day was calm and still, perfect for a moment of quiet reflection at 1100, the date and time at which the Armistice brought the carnage of the First World War to a close in 1918.

The Poppy which grew in such profusion on the battlefields of Flanders was adopted as a symbol of remembrance and it continues to be a resonant image both in the UK and elsewhere, worn to remember those who have lost their lives in the service of their countries in all wars.

Today at 1100, our ship in common with thousands of other places and millions of other people will observe a two minute silence ; a simple Act of Remembrance.

"They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary themor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning;
we shall remember them"

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Morning calm at the Cairngorm lochs

Late summer and Loch Morlich at the foot of the northern Cairngorms was mirror calm.  A dawn mist had just about burned off in the sunshine.  It's a busy spot in summer with visitors walking, cycling and picnicking, but for now all was quiet.

Not too far away, on the Rothiemurchus estate is the beautiful Loch an Eilein (Loch of the Island) with its island castle.  Here too the air was still and the reflections of the surrounding hills were painted across the water.  Mornings like this encourage a slow pace to take in the scenery - but not too slow - calm, overcast conditions in summer bring the midges out in force!

Tuesday 11 October 2011


From the Leopard Man's House in the perhaps appropriately named Loch na Beiste (loch of the beast) we headed back across the Kyle to the ferry slip and the delights of Buth Bheag

We couldn't decide whether it was time for second breakfast or first luncheon, so we opted for coffee and cakes as "elevenses".  Once again your testers can report that the quality, quantity and price from this wonderful wee deli are exceptional; and it's situated just 10 metres from a safe landing place.  As a refreshment stop for hungry sea-kayakers, Buth Bheag scores 11/10!  We'd certainly eaten well, whether from pub, deli or the meals we cooked ourselves.  No need for dried food on this trip!

After passing under the Skye Bridge we turned west and paddled back towards Broadford.  We would finish the trip in similar weather to that we'd started in, a glassy calm.

The bow of Morag's new boat made a nice reflection as we paddled leisurely along, not really wanting our small expedition to end.

We'd done a little over 80km in three days plus an evening's paddling; Janice and I had added about 20km to that during our "pre paddle paddle".  So in terms of distance this was quite a short trip, but distance wasn't the point.  Our trip, dictated as it was by the weather, had been all the better for having no schedule or firm plan. 
Our lives are too much ruled by schedule and deadline.  Perhaps the best thing about this trip was that we'd just kicked back and gone with the flow.

Monday 10 October 2011

A wreck and a life less ordinary

As we paddled towards Kyleakin, the first point of interest we came to was the wreck of HMS Port Napier.  A 9600 ton merchantman, Port Napier had been converted to a minelayer by the Admiralty and was loaded with 550 mines when she began dragging her anchor in a gale on 26 November 1940.  As was common practice, the detonators for most of the mines had been inserted whilst at anchor as it was such a difficult task at sea with the ship pitching and rolling.

To make matters worse, fire broke out in the ships machinery spaces and there was a realisation that if the mines detonated the resulting explosion would probably flatten most of Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin.  The ship was towed well out into Loch Alsh and with incredible bravery a party of sailors returned onboard and began removing detonators from the mines and deploying them down the chutes to get them clear of the ship.  With the fire worsening, the crew abandoned the ship and retreated.

Some time later there was a huge explosion from the engine room which fortunately didn't detonate the mines.  It was big enough to blow out a huge section of the starboard side of the ship and send the superstructure up into the air, it landed on the shore nearby.  The ship rolled onto her starboard side and sank quickly in 20 metres of water.  The remaining mines were removed later and today the Port Napier is a popular dive site.

Our next stop was a place I've wanted to visit for a long time.  On the Skye shore, blending into the landscape is the house built by Tom Leppard, otherwise known as the "Leopard Man".  Tom moved here in 1987 and spent three years building a home constructed entirely of drystone and items beachcombed from the shore.  The media became fixated with his appearance - understandably since he is tattooed in leopard markings from head to foot (he was in the Guiness Book of Records as the world's most tattooed man), and described him as a recluse who shunned human contact.  This isn't really the case though as Tom used a kayak to cross to Kyle each to draw his pension (he is an ex-military man), to do his shopping at the Co-Op and to have a beer.

His lifestyle was certainly unconventional, but he was no survivalist hermit.  The house seems to grow organically from the spit of land he chose, there are gravelled paths, trees planted and nurtured in just the right way, stone retaining walls, a hollow made parallel to a stream bed to serve as a bath.  And decoration too, natural and pleasing. Tom spent much of his pension money on bird food and had feeding stations all around his house.  I've been told that many of the birds were hand tame and that the deer didn't seem to see him as a threat.

The interior of the house is tight and compact but very functional.  An obvious amount of care and thought went into making it as comfortable as possible.

Storage areas are made from wooden boxes and built flush into the drystone walls.  The floor has drainage channels to allow any rain water to escape.

Tom Leppard left his house in 2008 after nearly 20 years of living close to the land.  He was 73 and had begun to find crossing the Kyle an increasing challenge. He still lives in Skye, in a retirement home in Broadford. His possessions are largely still here though. 

The Leopard Man's House deserves to be kept in good condition - sadly it's seen some abuse recently.  If you visit, pull a few weeds from Tom's beautifully winding gravel paths, or take some rubbish away with you.

Tom Leppard "The Leopard Man of Skye" has lived a life less ordinary; the world is all the richer for folk like him

Sunday 9 October 2011

A Loch Alsh camp

We once again woke to a strong easterly wind, though it was at least dry.  We felt that the weather would moderate during the day and so spent the morning at the bothy, cleaning and tidying, breaking wood for the next visitors and drying out damp kit.  We packed at lunchtime as the wind was quickly easing and set out in the early afternoon to head over to Kyle of Lochalsh

After a slightly bouncy crossing of the mouth of Loch Kishorn we got into the shelter of the Duirinsh peninsula.  This is a cracking area to paddle, the islands between Plockton and Kyle are a great spot for wildlife.  We passed under the Skye Bridge and landed at the old ferry slip at Kyle to buy lunch at "Buth Bheag" (the wee shop), the fabulous deli housed in the former ferry ticket office.  The prawn rolls, coffee and cakes come highly recommended by your testers! 

We'd intended to head back to Gordon & Morag's at Lower Breakish, but as the weather had improved we decided to spend another night out on our trip.

We headed along the south shore of Loch Alsh and found a campsite at the northern entrance to Kyle Rhea, on a grassy shore below Glas Bheinn (the green hill).  The wind which had hampered our plans died to calm during the evening, which brought the midges out. Fortunately enough breeze returned to deter the little devils and we were able to cook and eat our evening meal in comfort.

Another wildlife visitor at this campsite were Earwigs (Forficula auricularia).  There were hundreds under our tents in the morning, and many more hiding around the hatch rims and cockpits of our boats.

I found this bird skull on the shore and thought it would make a nice image against a gnarled log.  The skull was quite delicate - I thought it may have been a Kittiwake or Black-Headed Gull.

After breakfast we headed out in calm conditions to paddle back to Kyle.  Crossing the mouth of Kylerhea we felt the tidal pull of the ebb as it started to run south into the narrows.  It was a relaxing morning, the sky was overcast, but a shaft of sun picked out the Skye Bridge.  We were aiming for a notable wreck and then the former home of one of Skye's most intruiging characters.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Fire and water in Applecross

Returning southwards we stayed close inshore, watching for likely spots to collect firewood.  As the coast here faces west it collects plenty of driftwood washed up by the prevailing weather.  Much of the shore is also wooded with birch, elder and rowan so we were confident of finding enough for the night.  We found more than we could have transported; there was certainly no need to cut wood on this stretch of shore.

The small stuff went inside the empty hatches whilst the bigger pieces were secured on deck.  It's bothy etiquette to leave some wood for the next visitors if possible, so we amassed plenty.

There was a bit of a stability penalty to pay with heavy bits of timber on deck!  Not long after this picture was taken the wind once again increased rapidly as the next weather system passed.  We slogged across every small bay into a strong southeasterly wind and heavy rain.  It certainly didn't feel much like an August day.

Once back at the bothy we spent an hour carrying our haul of timber and stacking it at the door and around the fireplace.  We soon had a fine blaze in the grate and our wet kit hung to dry.  As the fire got going it was drying the next timber to be added.

With a curry cooking on our stoves and a glass of wine in our hands life was good!

Monday 3 October 2011

A rainy day, let's go to the pub!

The rain and strong wind which had battered us overnight showed no sign of easing by mid morning.  I made a dash back out from the bothy to take down my tent and hung it to dry indoors.  A glance over towards the Crowlins and Raasay decided our itinerary for the day - we had shelter from the easterly wind along the Applecross shore.  Along the Crowlin shore we could see the sea crashing against the cliffs; it didn't look a fun place to be in a kayak.

It was still raining and blowing quite strongly when we set out.  We planned to head north to Applecross village and have lunch in the Applecross Inn.  Descriptions of various menu items had us hungry before we even set out!

At first we were in pretty wild conditions, particularly crossing the mouth of Loch Toscaig where the wind was coming in violent gusts from behind our right shoulders.  I was finding the short, quartering sea a bit of a challenge, but a piece of advice from Gordon in his usual calm and reassuring manner made all the difference and I became much more comfortable.

Soon we were sheltered by the shoreline again, the rain stopped and the wind eased dramatically.  This was to be the pattern for the whole trip; strong wind alternating with absolute calm as a really complex series of very small but deep low pressure systems passed overhead.

Arriving at Applecross, we landed right in front of the Applecross Inn.  Our chances of getting a table didn't seem great; everyone for miles around seemed to have decided that it would be the ideal place to have lunch on a wet day.  Morag went inside to ask - and we were in!

To their eternal credit, Judith and her staff didn't even bat an eyelid at our wet and windswept state.  We left wet paddling jackets and trousers under a chair near the door and sat down to a fantastic meal.  The food was superb (particularly the half pints of prawns), and though we didn't sample it on this occasion, the selection of real ale looked great.  As a sea kayaking pub, this one gets 11/10!

We left Applecross well fed and started our journey back down to the bothy.  Our plan to either head over to Raasay or further north to Loch Torridon would have been difficult in the forecast weather, so we left our kit in the bothy to await our return.  It's one of the really nice things about bothying; kit can be left in the pretty certain knowledge that nobody will steal it.

Soon after leaving Applecross Bay the centre of one of the low pressure systems arrived. The wind died to a complete calm and the rain just hammered down.  As (unusually in Scotland!) the heavy rain wasn't wind-blown it was actually quite pleasant to paddle along with the hiss of raindrops hitting the sea the only sound.

We intended to gather driftwood for the bothy fire on our way back.  Hopefully we could find some under the rocky outcrops which was out of the rain or it would be a poor fire!

Saturday 1 October 2011

Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown - DVD 2 preview

The preview for Volume 2 of "Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown" DVD has just gone live.  The DVD itself will be launched later this month and pre-orders are being taken at

Rescues DVD, Vol 2 -Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown from Simon Willis on Vimeo.

DVD 2 covers rescues, towing, staying safe in rough water and anticipation, and features footage shot during the St Kilda trip in June 2011.

I should admit to a certain bias here - I'm friends with both Gordon and Simon, and had the great fortune to be part of the team in St Kilda.

Having said that - Gosh it looks good!

Wednesday 28 September 2011

A silver silence

We set out from Lower Breakish at a little after 5pm, heading for the Applecross peninsula across the Inner Sound.  Our destination was the coast just to the west of the Crowlin Islands (just on the map in the link).

The forecast remained for complex areas of low pressure crossing rapidly from the west, they would bring rain and strong winds.  Due to the forecast track of these depressions we expected the strongest winds from the east, hence our modified plan to head for Applecross.  For now we paddled into a still evening as the wind died and a skyscape of towering grey built over a pewter sea.

The colours were monotone with occasional bursts of diffuse evening sunlight.  The air stilled completely until the only sounds were our paddle strokes.  We stopped frequently to appreciate the evening; when we drifted we could distinctly hear the gentle conversation of a raft of Guillemots over a mile away.

The world was reduced to a silver silence - it really was an extrordinarily beautiful evening.

Our destination for the evening was a bothy on the Applecross shore.  We smelled woodsmoke from some distance away so we knew that we'd have company for the evening.  It turned out to be a party of five kayakers led by a friend of Gordon's and a family who had walked from Applecross. 

The still evening did of course mean that the midges were truly awful.  We hurriedly unpacked the boats and headed indoors.  The evening was very sociable, but the heat from the fire made the bothy very warm; I decided to sleep outside in my tent, as did one of the other party of kayakers.  During the night we regretted this a bit as a gale of wind and torrential rain sprang up very quickly.  I was confident of my tent but got little sleep as it was battered by weather that was a complete opposite of the previous evening

Sunday 25 September 2011

A pre-paddle paddle

In the first half of August, four of the St Kilda team (Gordon & Morag, Janice and I) had arranged to get together for a three or four day trip.  We met up at Gordon & Morag's house in Skye on the evening before we were to set out.  We planned to leave at the evening high water so that we could paddle straight from the back garden.  While Gordon & Morag sorted some stuff during the day, Janice and I met up with Simon and Liz and their friends for a few hours paddling on Loch Eishort, a sort of pre-paddle paddle!

As we set out from the beach and slipway at Ord, the morning's low cloud was lifting off the Cuillin summits across the loch

The forecast windy conditions hadn't yet materialised and it was pleasantly warm as we paddled off southwesterly towards Tarskavaig

After about an hour and a half we stopped at this small beach south of Tarskavaig for lunch.  The boats made a colourful sight against the white shell sand.  As Janice and I had to be back to set out on our trip, we headed back after a short break.

The breeze had got up a little on our way back to Ord, but the cloud was off the Cuillin and we had a very pleasant trip back up, chatting about life and having a good view of an Otter on the way.  Gavin and Shona couldn't quite believe we were heading off on a multi-day trip the same evening, but when the weather, the view and the company are this good, we wouldn't have missed our pre-paddle paddle for anything!

Friday 2 September 2011

A black Adder

Whilst assessing a Duke of Edinburgh's Award group in June, I chanced across this Adder (Vipera berus) close to a track in the eastern Cairngorms.  At first glance it looked like a mountain bike tyre had been discarded at the side of the track.  Adders have the most northern distribution of any snake as well as being the UK's only venomous snake.  They are relatively common in the Cairngorms if you know where to look, but this one is a bit unusual in that it is almost completely black.

Melanistic individuals are well known and recorded but this was a first for me.  The usual colouration is olive and buff shades almost to yellow with a characteristic diamond pattern on the back.  Although very dark, the diamond pattern is still visble and was actually more prominent than this image shows.  At about 80cm this was a good sized Adder, I guessed at it being a female as they are larger than the males.  I kept a respectable distance so as not to cause any disturbance; and also because the rare occurrences of Adder bites are said to be very painful! 

After taking a couple of pictures I moved quietly away, well pleased with my encounter with this beautiful creature.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Shoreline artwork on the Moray Firth

Further along toward Hopeman, there is an unusual sight on the shore - a pineapple made of wood and stone.

A long-dead, bleached pine stump has been upended and stones carefully arranged in a cairn around it to support the stump and create a striking pineapple shape.  I've no idea how long this has been here or whether it was done as an art installation or just spontaneously.  Perhaps more intriguingly, how long will this transient naturalistic artwork resist the winter storms?

An equally bleached and battered tree trunk nearby provides a leading line to the main piece.

Nearby are several "chorten" style slender piles of small pebbles, but this simple arrangement caught my eye.  the contrast between the smooth sea-washed rock and the featured sandstone boulder plus the colours of the stones separated by vibrant yellow lichen had a striking simplicity.

These pieces were most unexpected and added a lot to the day's paddling.

There is a long tradition of art along the Moray Firth coast.  Nearby is the Sculptor's Cave, a dry cave famed for Pictish carvings.  Burghead was a Pictish power base, fort remains and numerous symbol stones can be seen in the area. 

Monday 15 August 2011

Pebbles on a beach

It's a simple, everyday sort of thing; a pebble beach below a cliff.  The beach is near Hopeman on the Moray Firth, and I've taken pictures here before.

Landing here can be tricky in any swell but on a recent paddle there was the rare experience of a flat calm Moray Firth.  Once on the beach, I spent a good hour just looking at the pebbles as they emerged from the ebbing tide.

The cliff above is a soft sandstone which doesn't form pebbles although there are strata of pebbles within it in places, evidence that there was an ancient river here.

Mst of these pebbles seem to be granites, perhaps washed from the high Cairngorms by the powerful rivers of the Spey and Findhorn which both empty to the sea along this coast.  The rich colours of the wet stones simply shone in the diffuse light

The variety of colour and form kept me fascinated in this pebble collectors paradise

Sunday 14 August 2011

Note from the edge

As a postscript to the our trip, the first banknote I got in change when I got home was this Clydesdale Bank £5 note featuring St Kilda on the reverse!

Monday 8 August 2011

The team

Cuma passed us as we paddled back to meet her in her home port of Miabhaig.  There's no doubt that without Murdani, Gary and Louise, our adventure couldn't have happened.  

We'd seen some fantastic sights and paddled in the most amazing locations, but really it was the people who made this truly "the trip of a lifetime".

Team St Kilda!

Front left to right:  Janice, Sue, Morag, Liz and Gordon

Back left to right: Douglas, Callum, Anne, Donald, Simon, Ken and Ian

A blue lagoon and a deserted island

The lagoon between Pabaigh Mor and Pabaigh Beag was astonishingly beautiful in the sunshine.  The colours of the water and the sand were a riot of blue, turqoise and shimmering white.

There is an upper, tidal lagoon which was emptying into the main lagoon.  with a bit of effort we managed to paddle up into it - here Liz shows the way uphill!

Whilst we played around doing balance exercises (including a rather impressive cockpit headstand by Callum) and rescue practice in the upper lagoon, Simon set up a camera on the shore. 

We took our turn at having our thoughts on the trip recorded, Simon asking each of us about diffferent aspects.

As a location for filming, this was pretty special!

Pabaigh Mor has a ruined kirk, the origin of the name "big island of the priests".  In 1827 the crofters were cleared from the island to make way for sheep - a familiar story.  In 1861 two Banffshire fishing crews totalling fifteen fishermen and two female cooks were living in one of the caves during the fishing season.  A fish holding trap made of an arc of stones is visible in the upper lagoon.  At the 1871 census there were nine men from Uig living in a tent on the island, but it has been uninhabited since.

After the First World War it was claimed that boxes of provisions were found on the island and that  a German U-Boat had made secretive visits to resupply.

By the time the interviews were completed and we left the upper lagoon the tide had turned and the flood was entering from the main lagoon.  It wasn't as hard to paddle against as on the way in, but Pabaigh's beautiful blue lagoon is a hard place to leave in more than one respect!  If you go there, save it for a sunny day and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this special place.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Kayaking the west coast of Pabaigh Mor

Our last day onboard Cuma started with sunny spells.  After breakfast, Gary weighed anchor and Murdani took us out of Loch Reasort and turned north up the west coast of Lewis.  There was a heavy swell running all the way up, especially rounding Gallan Head.  We anchored again in sheltered water off the village of Bhaltos, our plan was to kayak around the north end of Pabaigh Mor (big island of the priests) and make our way back to meet Cuma at her berth in Miabhaig.

We were soon on the water, launching from Cuma for the last time on our trip.  Heading across The Caolas Pabaigh we were drawn to some of the caves on the west side of Pabaigh Mor.  The swell finding its way in from the open ocean meant that there were cave monsters lurking at the back of these!

Heading north we soon met the full force of the Atlantic swell roaring onto the rocky north coast of Pabaigh Mor.  It was exciting paddling for a short distance, then we turned and made a slightly awkward, surfing approach to a narrow channel.  The channel contained rocks over which the swell was surging so good timing was needed to pass safely.

The change was immediate and dramatic.  Between Pabaigh Mor and Pabaigh Beag is a lagoon of calm, sheltered water fringed with sandy beaches.  As we entered, the sun came out and we were treated to a wonderul sight