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 http://www.seakayakwithgordonbrown.com/Main.html

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!