Thursday 24 May 2012

Rock art, Loch Nevis

Whilst collecting firewood during a recent trip near the head of Loch Nevis, Dave and I came across an outcrop of rock on the shore which had bee smoothed by wave action. I went back early the following morning to see if I could capture some of the graceful patterns.

I'm not sure of the rock type, it's mainly a grey crystalline rock which has been polished by wave action like a huge pebble.  The whole outcrop had folded strata of paler and darker rocks running through it.  These strata were often just a few millimetres thick and formed swooping patterns where they'd been exposed.

Formed, I'm guessing, by heat, folded by immense pressure then sculpted by water.  Random elements, but the result was truly striking and graceful.

Monday 14 May 2012


Continuing my paddle eastward along the Moray Firth coast, a line of three caves above the shore marks the start of Clashach Cove.  Also along this stretch  is the Sculptor's Cave which has a record of occupation from the Bronze Age to the 19th century.  It is best known for the Pictish carvings which adorn the walls, and also due to the fact that the remains of severed children's skulls were found buried near the entrance and date from the Bronze Age.

The seabirds are returning to the cliffs here; Kittiwakes are already on their nests and the others will soon follow.  Already the clamour and smell of the colonies are beginning to dominate the cliffs.

Whilst passing Clashach Quarry (where early reptile footprints have been fossilised in the sandstone), I could see a periodic eruption of spray from the shoreline.  From closer in the source of the commotion could be seen.

A shelf of rock with a slightly overhanging face in the corner of the cove is normally above the tide line.  The high Spring tide had put the shelf's outer face in the firing line of the swell and a small group of people with cameras were gathered on the shore to watch the fun.  I manoeuvred into a position where I could be safe but quite close......

Showtime!  The larger sets of swells were erupting against the face with impressive force

Spray was being hurled up well over 10 metres into the air and the concussion from each of the big swells  could be felt through the hull of the boat.

The bigger sets of waves were arriving every few minutes and I watched through three or four sets.  The last one included a monster, hitting the shelf with a hollow boom and scattering the folks on the shore as it crashed over the shelf.

The paddle from Clashach Cove to Hopeman was altogether less dramatic, and soon I was landing on the beach inside the harbour which was giving shelter from both wind and waves

Thursday 10 May 2012

A coloured shoreline near Covesea

Having landed on the shore near Covesea (just east of the Sculptor's Cave) I took a stroll along the pebble beach.  It's a favourite spot of mine because of the wonderful colours in the pebbles. 

Much of the shore seems to be made up of pebbles which have been washed down from the Cairngorms by the rivers which empty into the Moray Firth nearby, the Spey and the Findhorn.  A seemingly uniform pale grey when dry, the pebbles are transformed when wet into a range of red, grey, white and blue.

The spring flowers add to the colourul scene; the yellow Celandines have been out for some time and are now being joined by Red Campion (Silene dioica) which is just starting to flower.  Red Campion can form dense, invasive stands (particularly in my garden!) but is an attractive , long flowering plant.  The root contains Saponin which can be used as a soap substitute and is extracted by simmering the roots in water.

At the east end of the shore there is a detached two-legged stack and a large cave system.  Both are formed of sandstone which is easily sculpted by the sea.  Presumably the stack was once part of the cave system until erosion separated it.  The north shore of the Moray Firth near Helmsdale can just be seen through the legs of the stack.

Close up, the sandstone has its own attractive cream and golden shades.  Nearby Clashach Cove is famed for fossilised dinosaur footprints which were revealed during quarrying of similar sandstones.

The spring tide was now just at its highest point.  I returned to the boat and collected a couple of particularly nicely coloured pebbles before launching and continuing my paddle westwards

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Lights out at Covesea

Last weekend saw one of the biggest spring tides of the year, with the full moon very close to the earth. The forecast was for bright weather though still cold for May and for light winds and low swell on the Moray Firth. I headed up to Lossiemouth to do a half day paddle west along the coast to Hopeman. It's a paddle I've done several times and it has some good variety.

I arrived at the West Shore about an hour before high water.  The sandy beach which gives an easy launch had already disappeared and it was a surprisingly tricky launch from the steep rocky area below the sea wall.  After clearing the small dumping surf and pumping out the water from the cockpit I paddled across the bay towards Covesea lighthouse.

First lit in 1846, Covesea was automated in 1984.  Following a review of navigation by the Northern Light Board in 2010 which indicated that modern vessel traffic patterns were further offshore than in earlier times, it was proposed to discontinue the light.  The offshore Halliman Skerries were marked with a North Cardinal buoy bearing an X band radar beacon in February 2012 and the light from Covesea was extinguished for the final time on 2nd March 2012.

Whilst the reasoning behind the decommisioning of lights such as Covesea is understandable, as a seafarer it feels to me like a loss.  The beams from lighthouses on a dark night give more than navigational warnings, they're a part of the fabric of our coasts.

The swell was in line with the forcast at a little under a metre.  The spring tide was allowing swells to hit the rocky areas of shore higher up than normal and producing some impressive conditions.

This small cliff seemed to be at just the right height and angle to throw up a good wave - about ten metres into the air.  I stayed well clear.....

Beyond Covesea is a stretch of pebble beach with a cave system and detached stack at its east end.  It's a nice spot to stop as the pebbles here are beautifully coloured.  The swell was easier to manage and with a bit of timing I was able to land quite easily.

As soon as I landed the boat (and my yellow drysuit) atracted thousands of tiny sandfleas.  Possibley they'd been confined to the narrow strip of moist seaweed being pushed up by the high tide.  Fortunately they didn't seem to be of the biting variety.

The sun was pleasant here despite the cold northerly breeze which has been such a feature of this Spring. After a cup of tea from the flask I set out to wander along the beach.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

The mysteries of Kilmartin Glen

A few kilometres from Dunadd is the remarkable Kilmartin Glen. There are an astonishing 800 historic sites within a 10 kilometre radius of Kilmartin, the vast majority of them prehistoric. They include over 350 monuments, incised rocks, cairns and burial sites.  The nearby Kilmartin House museum has an excellent collection of artefacts and interpretative material and is well worth a visit.

Five of the burial sites form a linear cemetery over 5 kilometres of land.  Also formed in a linear pattern are the Nether Largie standing stones.

The stones are arranged in small groups interspersed with solitary stones and date from Neolithic times.  Many theories have been put forward as to the function of the linear arrangements, but unlike the sone circles near my home in the north east of Scotland, there seems no obvious alignment with either the sun or moon.

Perhaps it's fitting that there should be arrangements that the modern mind just can't fathom.  It's certainly an atmospheric place.

Just a few hundred yards away, two stone circles stand in the appropriately named Temple Wood.  Both are surrounded by a kerb of stones.  Here again, the alignment is not truly understood.  The oldest stones were placed here 3000 BC and there is evidence that wooden posts were in place prior to that.  The trees were planted in Victorian times to give the place more "atmosphere".

The smaller circle has just a couple of standing stones remaining.  There is the intruiging possibility that this circle was buried under a cairn (there are other large cairns close by).  It's fascinating to speculate on the meaning of this - was it an act of decommisioning the circle?  Was burying the stones intended to preserve their power and symbolism, or to smother it?

In Neolithic times Kilmartin must have been a place of immense significance.  It is contained within a long open glen and must have been a visible statement of power and ceremony. Even in the bright sunlight of a spring morning there is something special here.

Friday 4 May 2012

Dunadd - in the footsteps of kings

Continuing our break in Argyll, we visited the historic sites centred around Kilmartin Glen.This remarkable area is sprinkled with historic sites, most dating to or before the Iron Age.

We made the short climb to the summit of Dunadd on a day of sunshine and showers.  Today this small hill stands above marshy farmland and from a distance is unremarkable.  Between AD500 and 900 however, this was the power base of the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada.  The Scots were migrants from Ireland and settled here about AD500.  They were in sporadic conflict with the Picts through much of the period that Dunadd was in use, eventually subduing their rivals and forming the early kingdom which became known as Scotland.

The prefix "Dun" indicates a hillfort and that's exactly what Dunadd was. Sitting above the River Add, the hill is just 55 metres high but has a commanding view over the surrounding landscape and the sea approaches to what is now the Crinan canal and to the Firth of Lorn.  There are clear remains of walls and buildings on two or three levels, a natuarl fissure was exploited to provide a defended entrance and half way up the hill is a well.  The hillfort would have been an easily defended stronghold, but its significance is much greater than that of a "normal" hillfort.  Dunadd seems to have been the coronation place and power base of kings.

On the summit rocks, a slab has a footprint incised in it.  Nearby, a bowl is incised into a smaller slab and a boar symbol and some Ogham text are inscribed on rocks close to the summit.  It is thought that, following the Irish tradition, kings were crowned whilst placing their foot in this footprint.

It's not too difficult to imagine the ceremony and significance of this act, and it is fascinating to speculate on the true meaning of it.  Was it a symbolic joining of a king to the land, or was it an act to demonstrate mastery over it?  The overwhelming feeling I got from Dunadd was that as much as it was a place to defend and to see out from, it was also a place to be seen, an ostentatious mark of power.

Though many visitors place their own foot in this footprint, I didn't.  The simplicity and symbolism invested here seems to echo down the centuries and it just wouldn't have felt right.

The early kings of Dalriada chose their site well, but they also chose a breezy spot!  The north wind was chilly and after exploring the remains around the summit we came down, in the footsteps of kings.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Just swell!

Whilst sorting some recent pictures, I hovered over the "delete" button with the following three as they're a bit fuzzy, grey and out of focus, but it was an unusual day, so.....

On Good Friday, I met up with Morag for a short paddle from Portsoy to Portknockie on the Moray Firth.  The weather forecast was for rain at first then overcast with very light winds.  The swell forecast was for 1.5ft (0.5m) of northerly swell with an 8 second periodicity.

We'd hoped to get close in among the channels and rocks along the way, but it soon became obvious that although the rain and overcast sky were present and correct, the swell wasn't quite as forecast. 

In fact it was more than double the forecast with some quite impressive sets of even larger ones.  This fuzzy image shows one of the larger swells breaking over the outer harbour wall at Sandend where we stopped for lunch. The power of the wave can be seen at the left hand side where it was barely breaking on its way over.

Getting into the harbour needed a bit of timing to avoid the big sets.  This is the side wall of the channel and at right angles to the swell; the big sets were rolling right along the top of the wall.

The conditions were quite strange, there was no wind, the sea surface was almost completely flat and yet these large swells were rolling under us.  Had it been windy the conditions would have seemed much more intimidating, but just swell was, just swell!

We paddled on to Portknockie and managed to get through the Bow Fiddle rock, then had the highlight of our paddle coming back across Cullen Bay when we had a very close pass  by seven of the Bottlenose Dolphins resident in the Moray Firth.