Sunday 30 September 2012

Bennachie stones

The Aberdeenshire hill of Bennachie makes an excellent short hillwalk. My friend Russ has recently moved to the area and on his day off we took the opportunity to climb the hill, taking in Millstone Hill first.  There are car parks and waymarked paths from most sides of Bennachie, we chose the Donview starting point for our walk.

The initial ascent to Millstone Hill is quite steep but relatively short, going up through lovely mixed woods of conifers, birch and rowan to emerge just below the summit.  We continued down to the bealach (col) between Millstone and Bennachie, known as the Heather Brig, before starting the climb up towards Bennachie itself.  Part way up we came across this millstone not far from the path.  I've climbed these hills many times and must have walked past this stone frequently without noticing it.

It's hewn from the granite of the hill and must have been one of countless stones produced here to grind the barley and oats produced on the farmalnd which surrounds this small group of hills.  Looking back, there's a nice view to the hill named for the stones.

The millstone was a little above the treeline in this view to Bennachie's "Mither Tap", which isn't the true summit of Bennachie but is certainly the best known and most prominent summit on the ridge, being visible from most of Aberdeenshire and beyond.  Bennachie is "Beinn a' Chioch (hill of the breast), for fairly obvious reasons.  It's a hill which I always look for, and one which, once spotted, conveys a sense of coming home.

A feature of the Mither Tap is the well-preserved Pictish hill-fort built around the summit tor. In sections the walls are still partly standing, and the entrance passage is very well preserved.  It seems likely that this fort was in use at least 2000 years ago.  There are the remains of at least ten buildings within the fort site and the walls were up to 6 metres thick and stood up to 5 metres tall - quite an impressive structure.  Most of the stone seems to have been brought up from much lower down the hill.

It has been speculated that the battle of Mons Graupius (which indirectly gave rise to the term "Grampians" to denote most of the high ground of the north east and Cairngorms) was fought here between local tribes and the Roman army.

We had time to speculate on this as we sat out a particularly heavy rain shower.  Bennachie is a popular hill and lots of people climb it from the various starting points, including today some quite small mountaineers enjoying the sense of achievement as five-year-old legs carried them in triumph to the very top!  Although a bit chilly and wet, the rain didn't seem to be putting the little guys off at all.

We continued along the ridge to Oxen Craig, the highest point of the ridge with great views over the River Don and over to the Cairngorm giants before descending back to the Heather Brig and contouring around Millstone Hill on forest tracks back to Donview - walking fast to evade the midges which are still about yet!

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Wind and rain? Try coffee and cake!

The late afternoon sky above Moidart had shown plenty of signs of an impending change in the weather.  The forecast was still for southerly F4 winds at the last update we listened to before turning in for the night.

In the morning a look out to open water revealed a mass of whitecaps and squalls racing along.  As we had breakfast the maritime weather information broadcast came over the VHF - forecasting south to southeasterly F5 to 6 winds, increasing F7 later.  A quick planning session took place - we could use the topography to hop across the mouth of the two sea lochs which lay between us and Glenuig.  If the headland between them proved too difficult, a retreat up to the head of Loch nan Uamh would get us to a road were it would be possible to hitch a lift around to Glenuig to collect a car.

When  we got on the water we had a period of relative calm and pushed across Loch nan Uamh to the shelter of its southern side, where we enjoyed calm water and a blink of sunshine.  This craggy stretch of shore offers only marginal landing places so we headed on up to just before Rubha Chaolais, the headland separating Loch nan Uamh from Loch Ailort.  We'd  hoped to land for a break at Port an-t Sluichd (port of the gut or gullet) but a heavy swell wrapping around the headland prevented that.

As soon as we rounded the headland the fun started.  The wind was strong, but coming in rushing gusts and we could continue to make headway toward Loch Ailort.  As we got to the mouth of the loch, the wind increased slightly and could now be seen to be firmly south easterly.  Our hoped for shelter behind the islands was not to be!  The flood tide was just beginning; we'd pushed on early to avoid crossing this stretch in wind-against-tide rough water but still the odd wave broke onto us as we inched forward into the wind.

It took nearly two hours of solid effort to cover the 2.5km to the south shore of Loch Ailort near Roshven House.  The wind weemed to be pouring down from the corries of Rois-Bheinn in great gusts which at times stopped progress.  The wind strength was a solid F5, the gusts were certainly F6 and we were glad to have made our decision early - if the wind strength had increased "later" as forecast we wouldn't have been able to make progress against it. 


At last into shelter from the wind, we stopped for a break and to wash the salt from our faces and then paddled on towards Glenuig.  Above us the trees were roaring in the wind but it was calm along the shore.  It did seem to be getting very dark overhead though.....

The sky continued to darken as we approached our end point, then an absolute cloudburst drenched us as we were putting the boats back on the cars.  This seemed the perfect excuse to go along to the Glenuig Inn to enjoy excellent coffee and warm fruit cake!  The proprietor, Steve, is a sea kayaker and wildlife guide, the food great and the surroundings cosy - the perfect end to our trip (and we'll be back to sample the selection of real ales very soon!)

Sunday 16 September 2012

Fifty shades, but not all grey

The weather continued to be mostly grey and cloudy - but not without interest and drama.  Occasional breaks in the cloud backlit by the sun produced interesting effects of light and shade.

The coastline we were journeying along gave plenty of interest with islands, inlets and small beaches dotted along the way.  Our plan was to arrive at the small bothy where we'd spend the night, offload most of our kit then explore the surrounding area by kayak whilst collecting firewood and fresh water.

Along the shoreline there was plenty of rich colour to offset the grey of sky and sea.  The heather was still in luxuriant flower, set off by the intense greens of wet grasses and ferns.  Against the subdued light conditions of the wider view the splashes of colour in the smaller environment were all the more noticeable.

This is Bell Heather (Erica cinerea), one of two common species found across Scotland.  The drier moors of the eastern side of the country are coloured vibrant purple in late summer as Erica and the more widespread Ling species flower.

Close to the bothy a small group of oak trees were hosting this lichen which seemed to be thriving in the Atlantic temperate rainforest environment.

Close up, the lichen resembled miniature lettuce leaves.  Certainly we wouldn't need to experiment by trying some to see if it tasted like lettuce - we were well provisioned with fresh cooked food and wine to accompany our evening meal; one of the small luxuries of travelling by kayak!

We set out our sleeping stuff, made a cup of tea and then set out again to explore and collect firewood and fresh water.  Our small journey was only to be two nights but even in this short space of time, securing the simple requirements of shelter, food, water and warmth provided a pleasant order and structure to the day.

Twards evening the sky to the south showed signs of a change in the weather; still grey but with a steely appearance lowering towards the horizon.  The Inshore Waters forecast from the Met Office predicted south or southwest Force 4 winds for the morning.  We'd be paddling against any wind on the way back to our starting point, but Force 4 would be OK.

We got the bothy very cosy with the firewood we'd collected - in fact so cosy that we slept with the door open all night....   During the early hours the wind got up a bit, but a glance out through the window showed nothing but more shades of grey in the pre-dawn light.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Artists in residence

My friend Dave and I met up in Fort William on a late afternoon to start a two night journey in our kayaks, using bothies for our accommodation. By the time we'd done some shopping and grabbed someething to eat, then driven to our starting point at Glenuig it was about an hour before sunset on a damp, drizzly and misty evening. We paddled out into a marvellous stillness (and away from the midge hordes!). The drizzle died away to leave a world of monochrome, muted light and an almost complete lack of sound. Several times we stopped to experience this enclosed world with all our senses. The light faded quite quickly and we paddled on a compass bearing towards the bothy. Gradually we saw a gentle glow of light above the shore; other folks were already at the bothy so it would be warm and cosy when we arrived. We landed on the beach and wandered up, and were immediately welcomed into the warmth and glow of a warm room and a good fire. We deposited our bag of coal to add to the fuel and got our kit from the boats. Our fellow bothy-dwellers were a group of artists undertaking some transient sculpture projects in the area - a really nice crowd with whom we shared a great evening. These chance meetings are one of the real pleasures of bothying.

After a good night's sleep we awoke to a clearer morning.  It was still cloudy with the threat of rain but otherwise a good day.  This bothy sits on a meadow above a beach and was one of a number of crofts forming a small community.

All the other buildings are roofless ruins, a village of ghosts apart from the one homely hub of the bothy.  No road comes here and life could never have been easy.  The buildings generally have rounded corners to the drystone walls to better deflect the wind and would have been thatched "blackhouses".

The view from the door was pretty good - an occasional blink of sun lit the landscape with vivid colour whilst beyond, towards Ardnamurchan, curtains of rain and low cloud provided a blank backdrop to the colour.

On the shore, low tide revealed bright beds of weed with colours which seemed to glow in the diffuse light against the pale sand.  One of the group of artists was a photographer and was absorbed by the contrasts and the shifting light of the place.

Other colours were more subtle.  After breakfast we packed our boats for a leisurely paddle to our next night's accommodation.  We said goodbye to our artist friends and set off along the coast, enjoying the relaxed rhythm of the day and of the journey.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Harvest Promise

After a tricky year for farming with an early Spring followed by a generally wet and windy Summer, the crops are nearly ripe.  All over the Aberdeenshire landscape there are golden fields of barley and oats - the main crops hereabouts. 

Beyond the fields, the local landmark of Bennachie provides a backdrop of dark green forest and purple heather moor.  The prominent point on the right hand end of the ridge is the Mither Tap, crowned by a Pictish hillfort. The highest point on the hill is actually Oxen Craig which is the centre point in this view. It's a favourite hill for all kinds of folk, even those who would never climb it, and visible from most of Aberdeenshire despite a modest height of 529 metres/1735 feet.

 This field of barley  (Hordeum vulgare) has about a week or so to go before it will be ready to harvest.  The ears are perhaps smaller than in some years, but at least it has reached this stage.  Most Barley will be used for animal fodder for the other Aberdeenshire staple - beef.  Some of the best grain will be used for whisky distillation after it has been malted, which involves soaking in water to start the germination process, then halting it by drying.

Looking towards our house from a small rise the patchwork of green and gold is everywhere. Some of the crops are already beginning to be harvested; the big Combine machines working day and night to get the crop in.

 Last weekend saw the "Hairst" (Harvest) farmers market at nearby Huntly with cookery demonstrations, music and other events supplementing the regular monthly market.  It's a really important time of the farming year.

The farmers will be hoping that the weather stays relatively dry and settled for the next couple of weeks in order that they can get the crucial task of harvesting completed and secure the promise of the fields.