Sunday 24 February 2013

A day in the wild west part 1 - Portuairk to Sanna Bay.

We'd seen a forecast for relatively light winds in a three day window for the west coast of Scotland, coupled with bright sunshine.  This was clearly too good to miss!

It will be well worth also following the story of our trip on Douglas' blog - with much better photos than mine!  :o)

Douglas, Mike and I convened at the Glenuig Inn on a Sunday evening, nicely in time for a pint of real ale in front of the fire prior to dinner.  The Glenuig Inn is both perfectly situated and superbly set up to cater for sea kayakers in comfort, with excellent accommodation and food.  The proprietor, Steve, is also a sea kayak guide and has plenty of tips and information.

Our plan was hatched over dinner; to travel just about as far west as it's possible to do, then paddle back along the north side of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.  After breakfast, we left a car at our intended finishing point and drove the 40-odd miles to Portuairk.  If you do this trip, don't underestimate the drive, the short distance takes around 2 hours to drive on a very twisty road.

There's space to park a couple of vehicles at Portuairk and it's a relatively short carry to the water.

We were soon sorted and prepared to set off on our day's paddle.  At Spring tides, a trolley will be pretty much essential for access here.

As soon as we emerged from the sandy channel, a glance to the left showed Ardnamurchan lighthouse a few kilometres to the west, the most westerly point of the British mainland.  We also became immediately aware of the low swell and a quite gusty south-easterly wind blowing down off the higher ground of the peninsula.

Our first destination wasn't far way at all.  We paddled a couple of kilometres to the east and landed on the beautiful white sand beaches of Sanna Bay.

It may seem strange to have paddled less than half an hour before landing, but we were well aware that this would be our last landing spot for a good way along the route.  This is truly the Wild West for sea kayaking and you need to grab every advantage!

Friday 22 February 2013

Lights of the Clyde

On the way down from the old light, we got a fine view of the iconic Stevenson light and its surrounding buildings.  This light was a replacement for the old light and was built much lower down the island to avoid the problems of mist and cloud which regularly obscured the old light.  Beyond the buildings, the Isle of  Bute can be seen across the Clyde.

Thomas Smith was commissioned by the trustees of the old light to design a replacement, and this building was the third design he submitted.  The engineer entrusted with its construction was Smith's stepson,  Robert Stevenson

This was really the beginning of the great surge of lighthouse building by the remarkable "Lighthouse Stevensons", who would design and build lights in the most hostile environments imaginable and would also number among their family tree the author  Robert Louis Stevenson.

The light tower is actually in much better condition than the modern, small tower containing the current light.

A feature of all the Northern Lighthouse Board lights built during this great period of 150 years or so is the exceptional quality of design and construction.  Prexision in both design and execution were hallmarks of a Stevenson light, but amongst the almost mathematical geometry of the buildings, fine features such as this frieze which still has some of the coloured paint attached.

It's possible to climb into the lightroom to see where the lantern would have been displayed; a very evocative place.  This fine light was in operation from 1793 and was originally fired by oil lamps.  These were replaced by an Argand gas apparatus in 1974 and the light was replaced by a small modern tower nearby in 1997.

I've seen this building many, many times when transitting the Clyde on a ship and it was a special moment to actually be inside.

We'd spent a long time exploring Little Cumbrae and the receding tide had left our boats high up a slippery boulder beach.  The extent of  the damage wrought by the recent winter storms. 

Soon after getting back on the water, our ways parted.  Douglas, Phil, David, Jennifer and Andrew headed around the south of Little cumbrae back to Largs whil I crossed the Cumbrae Gap to Bute.  On my way back to Kilchattan Bay I passed yet another of the Clyde lights, Rubh an Eun.  This was built in 1911 and flashes red once every six seconds, reflecting its position at the port hand side of the ingoing route for shipping.

It had been a great day - visiting no fewer than four lighthouses on a short winter outing.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Coals to Cumbrae - the old lighthouse

We set off from the Generator House on a track which leads to the summit of Little Cumbrae, where the oldest of the three lights on the island is located.

First lit in December 1757, this was one of Scotland's first lights and was commisioned by the merchants of Glasgow to aid the passage of ships and was built by James Ewing.  A toll was charged for each ship passing through the Cumbrae Gap.

A plaque on the wall of the tower gives a few details of the history.

From inside the circular tower the remains of the stone stairway leading to the top can be seen.  This was a coal fired navigational aid, the "light" being a fire in a brazier on top of the tower.  The coal was mined in nearby Ayrshire, transported to the coast and shipped across to Little Cumbrae then brought up to the top of the island by pony, and finally to the top of the tower by manpower.

It's a steep and rough climb over tussocky, springy grass to the summit of Little Cumbrae, and full kayaking drysuits are hardly ideal hillwalking kit on a mild day.  We were fairly warm when we reached the top.  Douglas took the opportunity to test the springy qualities of the grass, claiming that the wee lie down was "for photographic composition purposes"!   :o)

The luxuriant growth of both grass and lichens up here on an exposed summit gives a clue to why the original site of the lighthouse was abandoned after less than forty years - and it's something that any mariner could have foreseen.

As for most of the day we were here, the top of the island was in thick mist.  For many days of the year, in conditions when a lighthouse was most useful, it was simply not visible.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Seeing the light on Little Cumbrae

We paddled from Millport across the Tan and down the west coast of Little Cumbrae to make a tricky landing below the lighthouse.  Winter storms have broken part of the slipway and it made for a tight and slippery landing.  Above us were the new lighthouse on the right, and the not quite so new lighthouse on the left.  We felt it was time for second breakfast.

We made a colourful and stylish group - in fact the slipway might as well have been a catwalk!  Breakfast comestibles were ferreted out from the recesses of various hatches.

Our plan was to climb to the very top of Little Cumbrae island, seeing the three lights as we went.  David's breakfast choice of boiled egg and Guiness suggested he was looking for some additional propulsion up the hill!

A little way above the slipway and boathouse we came across this windlass.  It would have been part of the arrangements (including a light railway system) which was used to transport materials up the steep cliff to the lighthouse, and as a testament to its manufacturers was still in relatively good condition.

The first large building we arrived at was the Generator House.  It was gloomy inside and had a distinctive smell of machine oil.  As our eyes became accustomed to the low light levels, we found these two generators.  Although dusty and a bit dirty, they appeared to be in really good condition.  These would have provided power to the houses and to the electric lamp of the lighthouse itself.  Nearby were two large service tanks for fuel.

The maker's plate on the machines shows that they were built in 1967 and provided 30 KVA at 240 volt supply, 50 Hertz whilst running at 1000 rpm.  We wondered at the method of transporting these large machines up a steep cliff to the Generator House - were they assembled in situ or perhaps transported by helicopter, which would have been a very big lift for the time.  55 years after they were built, these machines still looked capable of service....

On the floor was another relic of the industrial past of the west coast.  Wooden fish boxes were once the norm, and must have warmed the toes of many sea kayakers through the years.  Sadly, these have long since been superceded by plastic boxes, which don't degrade naturally and don't do anything to warm the passing kayaker when applied to a fire.  Progress?!

Outside, next to the new light we came across the new way of powering the aids to navigation. Solar panels provide electricity for the much smaller light now displayed on Little Cumbrae. The new light is nothing like its forebears; it has function but absolutely no form. We thought we heard the sound of a Stevenson revolving rapidly in his grave.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

A morning meeting at Millport

The brief window of calm weather lasted into a second day, and plans were made for a day's paddling on the Firth of Clyde.  My good friend Douglas would cross from the Ayrshire coast with a some companions whilst I would cross from the Isle of Bute.

Our meeting point was planned for mid-morning at Millport on the island of Great Cumbrae.  The day was grey and misty with visibilty just a couple of miles.  My route cut across the main shipping channel into the Clyde estuary, so I checked the Ship AIS website to get a look at what shipping might be moving at my planned crossing time.  Launching from Kilchattan Bay at the south end of Bute, I paused to allow the Yasa Scorpion to pass up the channel.  She is an 81000 tonne tanker and was bound from Nigeria to Finnart on Loch Long.

Once the giant ship had passed, I crossed the Clyde and headed across the Tan, the water separating the Great and Little Cumbraes and so into Millport Bay.

I soon collected an escort of Common Seals.  Some of the more curious followed very closely, to the amusement of some folk on the Millport seafront, the cry of "It's behind you Mister!" was heard....

Soon after arriving at Millport, a VHF call confirmed the arrival of Douglas, together with David, Jennifer,.......

.....Phil and Andrew.  This being our first meeting of the New Year, and the morning well enough advanced, the meeting was marked with a small dram of Jura Superstition

After catching up on each other's news we were back on the water, heading south across the Tan towards Little Cumbrae.

Monday 11 February 2013

High and dry on Inchmarnock

There haven't been too many opportunities for paddling since the turn of the year; either I've been at work or the weather has continued its windy, wintry pattern. But a break in the weather coincided with a visit to relatives on the Isle of Bute and it looked good for sea kayaking.

On a grey but calm afternoon, I arrived at Kildavanan on the west coast of Bute, aiming to paddle around the small island of Inchmarnock which can be seen in the centre of this image, the hills of Arran beyond.

A steady 45 minutes paddling on glassy calm water got me to the north end of Inchmarnock where I landed on a tiny shingle beach.

A nearby brown "rock" turned out to be a Golden Eagle - I'm not sure which of us was more surprised to see the other appear at close quarters!  One cool glance at me and the bird took off effortlessly, circling once before moving off down the east coast of the island.

Inchmarnock has a interesting history.  It is named for the Celtic monk Saint Marnoc (the name also cropping up in other place-names of the south-west of Scotland such as Kilmarnock).  Near where I landed on the north end of the island, a stone "cist" (burial container) was excavated to reveal a female skeleton buried with a jet bead necklace and a dagger.  The remains were carbon dated to 3500 BC, and the Bronze Age lady re-interred behind a pane of glass.

More recently, local stories claim that Bute's 19th century drunks were dropped off on Inchmarnock to be cured by "isolation and deprivation" - an early form of rehab clinic!  In keeping with these unfortunates, my small bottle of malt whisky remained in the boat....

Heading off down the west coast of Inchmarnock, a short reef lies offshore.  the falling tide was just exposing the rocks, named Traigh na h-Uil.  This reef is home to a rare type of habitat - a maerl bed.  Above the water, this seemed to be the wreck of a vessel, the large section being riveted iron.

Inchmarnock is, in some ways, a smaller version of Bute.  It has a similar shape, and like Bute has a wooded east coast and a west coast featuring raised beaches and occasional shingly beaches.  Also like Bute, there is a rocky beach in a bay at the south end of the island, and I stopped here to explore a little.

This lichen on the granite rock had a very delicate lilac colouration.  I wondered how long it had taken to grow to its current size of about 10 centimetres across - maybe a century or more.

On a heavily featured granulitic rock a little farther up the beach the lichen was a vibrant yellow; the colour all the more vivid in the subdued light of an overcast day.

The bay in which I landed is a peaceful, bird-haunted spot.  I saw Eider, Red Breasted Merganser, Shag, Purple Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Turnstone and gulls on the shore itself, whilst Wrens and Rock Pipits were singing further up in the brambles.  The view across to Arran is particularly fine; the bay between the low headland and the higher hills beyond is Sannox Bay, the destination for a crossing to Arran a little over a year ago.

The Spring tide was still dropping towards low water, I didn't linger too long before getting back on the water so that my boat wasn't left high and dry on barnacle-covered rocks.

On the way back down to the shore I came across this fish skull, also high and dry.  It was quite a size; I could have fitted my fist into the fearsomely-armed jaws.  I thought that it maybe belonged to a Conger Eel (Conger conger), but I've since had advice that it is in fact the skull of a Cod (Gadus morhua).  It's good to know that there are such large specimens still around the Firth of Clyde waters.

The light breeze dropped to nothing as I made my way back up to Kildavanan in fading light, the only sounds the odd wailing of Red Throated Divers and the small splashes from my paddle.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

A windy day on the Correen Hills

With the wind swinging into the north and frequent heavy snow showers, a day out on hills close to home seemed a better bet than travelling.

The Correen Hills fitted the bill perfectly, and I was dropped off near the summit of the road which crosses the high ground to the east of this fine group of hills.  This was a bonus as my walk would be mostly downhill !  The snow on the high forest tracks was just not quite consolidated enough to bear weight, making for slow progress.

Out of the forest and onto more open ground and the going got a bit easier where the wind has scoured the broad ridges.  And what a wind!  A northerly blast coming all the way from the Arctic, this ridge is virtually the first high ground it will have encountered since crossing the pack-ice.  Blowing at 30-40mph it was searingly cold.

Passing the cairn of Peter Prop, the snow showers seemed to be passing me by

But not for long......  An ominous black line beyond the summit of Tap o' Noth looked like it was heading my way. 

Ducking down to the south side of the ridge line did little to ease the wind; the sky blackened and shortly after this I was hammered by an intense snow shower for twenty minutes or so.  The temperature dipped and the wind increased - fairly hostile conditions for a time.

But it soon passed and shafts of sunlight reappeared.  The view here is across to Lord Arthur's Hill on the left, my final top of the day.

Snow showers came and went on the strong wind as I worked around the broad ridge on which Badingair Hill, Brux Hill and Edinbanchory Hill are little more than undulations. Heading up Lord Arthur's Hill, this long dead pine sapling was outlined perfectly by the snow blown against it.

Another heavy shower crossed overhead as I skirted the summit of Lord Arthur's Hill and arrived at the top of the Fouchie Shank - home not quite visible in the valley below. 

As I descended the Shank, I got great views of several Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) in the larch woods, sheltering from the wind and able to feed under the open canopy.

I'd been out barely four hours, though it seemed longer.  A great short day on the hill!

Saturday 2 February 2013


Returning home following a few weeks away during which heavy snow had been followed by a spell of deep cold, then a thaw as Atlantic low pressure systems swept across Scotland.  And now, the cold has returned.

A Friday evening flight into Aberdeen, the small turboprop aircraft making a bumpy approach as the pilot evaded a snowstorm.  Stepping out of the airport terminal building into a whirling world of white; the air sharper, colder.  A tricky drive home on snowy roads, just enough grip to be safe.

After the bustle and noise of the south of England, waking to stillness.  A look out of the window showed another snow shower; time for another cup of tea before getting up.  Then a blink of sunshine - the day too good to be indoors.

Out into a morning of patchwork sun and snow showers. The land returned to winter in one night, the ground still cold so the snow lies easily.

A walk on one of the higher forest tracks abandoned; calf-deep snow not quite consolidated enough to bear weight making for heavy going.  Returning to the valley for a walk along the river and through the birch woods instead, the snowfall lighter here.

Winter seems to have returned here too.  But, amongst the tiny, quiet contact calls of a flock of Tits moving through the wood a new sound, familiar but half forgotten.  One Blue Tit  (Cyanistes caeruleus) belling a territorial call; not quite yet the exuberant call he'll use in Spring, but nevertheless, one small brave voice confident of Spring's return, his calls lighting up the wood.

Appropriate today too because this is Imbolc, one of the four Celtic seasonal festivals, this one falling half way between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  Some stone circles and standing stones are thought to have alignments to this time of the year.

Along the river, two Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) were flying low over the water, their sharp "Zzip!" calls a familiar sound. But here too, something else. Barely audible above the sound of the river, one bird singing; a chattering, burbling song which sounds so reminiscent of water over stones.

Feburary here is normally the hardest month of the winter, the weather can be savage.  But; the sun is now above the horizon for eight hours a day.  The birds know it, and soon there will be other signs.

Spring will return, but not quite yet.

Friday 1 February 2013

Equipment Review - Fourth Element Arctic Socks

I don't suffer from cold hands and feet whilst hillwalking or doing other activities, but have found that whilst sea kayaking in winter conditions my feet end up very cold, often to the point of feeling numb and when I get out of the boat.

My drysuit has latex "feet" which tend to amplify the cold effect; I've tried various combinations of socks underneath with mixed results, but still my feet have ended up colder than I'd like.

The Fourth Element Arctic range includes full base layers in one piece and two piece formats as well as socks, and come highly rated by Douglas amongst others.  My existing base layers have been absolutely fine at keeping me at a good temperature, so I decided to give the socks a try to see if they would make a difference to my cold feet.

The manufacturer's description of the Arctic base layer range highlights the low bulk, thermally protective nature of the materials used.  The outer fabric is a closely woven material with flat seams whilst the inner material is a dense fleece with excellent wicking properties. 

The inner is secured at the ankle cuff but is separate from the outer fabric further down the sock. This means that the inner can be pulled from the body of the sock to improve drying time.  The separated nature seems also to improve the wicking quality of the sock as a whole.

So, do they work?  Worn on a recent very cold paddle on the Moray Firth the socks were a real improvement, my feet were much warmer over the course of a six hour paddle which included a few landings when I was knee deep in the cold water.  On this occasion I wore a very thin liner sock underneath the Arctic Socks, and on future paddles I'll vary this.

The bulk of the socks is no more than a thick pair of woollen socks so there was no issue with getting a fit inside my normal footwear (Lomo Aquaboots).  The fit is less precise than a pair of woolen socks due to the nature of the construction, but was comfortable all day.

 One thing to be aware of if ordering these socks is that the sizing is a bit odd.  The fit may contribute to this, but they do seem to be sized smaller than expected.  I'd noted customer reviews on the supplier website which mentioned this aspect, and accordingly ordered the Large size, which the manufacturer recommends for UK size 9 to 11.  In fact, this was a very snug fit on my UK size 8 feet; the recommendation for a Medium (UK 6 to 8) would have been much too small.

The socks are priced around £20, making them a little more expensive than good quality woolen hillwalking socks.  However, the performance of the socks merits the extra in my view.

Apart from the odd sizing, the Fourth Element Arctic Socks are recommended; if you suffer from cold feet inside a drysuit they are certainly worth considering.  I will post an update to this review at the end of the winter season to assess long term performance and durability.