Thursday 31 October 2013

Loch Enard light show

On my return from Achnahaird towards Loch Kirkaig I took a more or less direct line north-east across Enard Bay. The earlier sunshine had given way to shower clouds which were dipping to brush Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mor with veils of rain.  The quality of light is one of the outstanding features of the north west and showery weather can sometimes produce some lovely and dramatic effects.  I wasn't to be disappointed on this afternoon.........

As the rain passed eastwards over Suilven the hill was temporarily obscured.  When it emerged, the flanks of the hill were washed with a rainbow........

.....which spread right across the width of the hill in a band of colour.  So intense was the colour that it was reflected across the the calm water of the bay.  I was absolutely transfixed by this natural light show, which lasted for some ten minutes before fading.

The passing of the rain was followed by some very clear air as the temperature dipped.  The Coigach hills were now pin-sharp silhouettes on the sky under a defined low bank of cloud, heralding the next element of the light show.......

As the early evening sun dipped below the cloud bank it fired the rocky gneiss shore of Eilean Mor (big island) with an intense warm light which didn't quite wxtend across to the mainland shore.  The effect was to highlight the island as if in a spotlight and to throw the reflection back across the water.  My paddling pace had now slowed to a trickle as I watched the light slowly changing across this huge and ancient landscape.

Turning into Loch Kirkaig, I headed over to the north side of the loch to stay in the sunshine as I paddled the last few kilometers to Inverkirkaig with the western peak of Suilven as my headmark.  It was a truly beautiful evening to finish a very fine day of sea kayaking  :o)

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Abandoned croft, Enard Bay

After all this consideration of "deep time" - it was time for me to move on! Continuing westwards around Enard Bay towards Achnahaird Bay, there is a small bay near Rubha a' Choin (dog point). Within the bay is a tiny inlet.....

......sheltering the ruins of a croft.  I've visited this spot previously but usually at a higher state of tide, and hadn't appreciated the nature of the narrow gap in the rock leading to the tiny bay beyond.

As is sometimes found near crofts on the shore, the boulders have been cleared from the beach to provide a boat "noust" enabling boats to be drawn up above the tide.  This must have been an enormous piece of labour for the folk who lived here, but critical to their ability to operate a boat.

The croft istself is well built, maily from Torridonian Sandstone and is mortared over most of the external walls.  Some large blocks have been used, perhaps an indication that several men worked together to build it.  The windows are comparatively large, so perhaps this ruin isn't so very old.  A low door facing the sea ( but north, so away from the prevailing wind) opens into the interior.

The chimney breast is remarkably intact, even down to the wooden pegs which level the stones above the massive lintel.  This seems to have provided an oven space between the two large blocks above the lintel itself.

Remarkably, the grate is intact.  I have no way of knowing whether the two cooking pots on the grate are originally from the building, or perhaps left here after it fell into disuse.

A quiet and lonely place now, the only signs of life were a Wren scolding me from the Bracken and a Robin looking hopefully from the gable end for scraps from my second luncheon (which it duly received!)

Aside from fishing, the folk who lived here clearly kept cattle.  At the "ben end" is a separate byre space with a door wider and lower than the main door to admit the small black Highland beasts commonly kept on crofts.  There would probably have been some small patches of cultivation too, but these are now hidden by the bracken and brambles.

It's fascinating to imagine the lives and times of the folk who crofted this spot - such ruins always provoke a reaction, whether just a "rickle o' stanes" marking a pathetic attempt by people to scratch a living off unpromising ground, sheilings in the high corries or as here, something more tangible and intact.

Abandoned and overgrown the building may be, but the view from the front door hasn't changed at all.  The Oystercatchers and Curlews still call in the little bay and the boat noust above the rock channel cleared by sweat and toil is still clear.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Gneiss times

Just west of Inverpolly is a small and outwardly unremarkable bay called Lag na Saille (bay of salt - perhaps indicating that salt panning was once carried out here).  It's only when you look at the surroundings that something unusual is seen.

To the east and north the scenery is rugged and rocky, the rock type is the Archaean (Lewisian) Gneiss - pronounced "nice"- which gives Assynt much of its distinctive character.

But to the west of Lag na Saille the scenery is very different.  Low and flat, the ground is covered with grass and the rock type is Torridonian Sandstone, a sedimentary rock laid down when this part of the planet was an arid red desert. The difference can even be seen on the map, the tighter and more contorted contours of the Gneiss compares markedly with the flatter Torridonian.

In this bay, Torridonian Sanstone and Lewisian Gneiss are found in close proximity, and in geological terms Lag na Saille is a remarkable place.  It is in fact the southern limit of a contact zone between the two rock types which stretches north towards Cape Wrath.  But, it gets more interesting.....

Torridonian Sanstone is very old - it's about 800 to 1200 million years old, which makes it Pre-Cambrian rock formed when only simple life forms like Stomatolites inhabited the earth.

But Gneiss makes it seem like the new kid on the block.  If Torridonian Sandstone is very old, Gneiss is very, very old.  As in 3 billion - 3,000 million years old.

The fact that these two rock types exist in close proximity despite the massive disparity in their age is known as an "Uncomformity".  The most notable unconformity in the north west of Scotland is the Moine Thrust which has in places forced the much older Gneiss over the top of the Torridonian sediments - an idea which taxed the geologists of the 18th and 19th century from both a scientific and to an extent a theological standpoint.

Where it is exposed in outcrops, Gneiss is very distinctive.  Variable in colour and often banded, it is a Metamorphic rock which has undergone considerable change due to the effects of pressure, heat and time. It's been cooked, hammered, squashed and bent into shape and has probably also travelled a long way over vast timescales to arrive here at the western edge of Europe.

The paler bands in the rock are usually feldspars, the darker bands mica.  But Gneiss can be speckled and multicoloured or a combination of all these.  It's impermeable,  doesn't break down easily and forms a landcape of the "Cnoc and Lochan" type found in Assynt and the Hebrides.

Gneiss is, to my eye, strikingly beautiful.  But it is the sheer age of this stuff which fascinates me the most.  Three billion years is a enormous number by anyones standards, except perhaps astronomers.  But in three small ways this enormous number can be placed in a bit of context:

At 3 billion years old, Gneiss does not contain fossils because it predates life on earth.  All life.

At 3 billion years old, Gneiss is two thirds the age of planet Earth.

The "Big Bang" date postulated by scientists to mark the beginning of the Universe is only six times older than Gneiss.

To hold beautiful pebbles of Gneiss in the hand, whether banded......

....or speckled, is to hold something truly remarkable  :o)

Friday 25 October 2013

The passing paddlers of Polly Bay

 A little further around the coast in Enard Bay, the road comes close to the rocky shore.  It's there, really! A hint of where it runs can be seen just to the left of the yellow trees at the right hand side of this image.

I continued around the coast towards Polly Bay where I intended to stop for lunch.  Landing places aren't that frequent on this stretch of the coast and the beach would make an ideal spot.  I'd hoped to be able to land close to the "Dun" (fort) marked on the map to the north of Polly bay to take a look but there was no easy landing on the steep and rocky point.

Approaching the corner of Polly Bay, a sea kayak appeared, then two more.  I hadn't really expected to see any other paddlers out on a weekday in the far north - and in a nice coincidence we'd met before :o)

Barbara, Chris and Matthew were on their way back to Lochinver from a two day paddle trip in Enard Bay.  Remarkably, we'd met in very similar circumstances in October 2012 in the Sound of Arisaig.  We chatted for a while about coincidence, the advantages of paddling outside the summer season and what a great day it was to be on the water.  Where will we next meet I wonder?!

 Barabara, Chris and Matthew headed off north while my route went south west into Polly Bay.  At this low state of the tide there's sand to land on - at higher states of tide it will be on boulders, but still it's a good landing spot with a fine view to Stac Pollaidh (peak of the peat moss).  I've a huge affection for this bristly little hill which has a presence out of all proportion to its 613m/2009ft height.

I found a spot to sit and take first luncheon above the boulders on the shore.  It was a peaceful place with a view out to Point of Stoer in the north.  I made a relatively brief stop here before pushing on, but the quiet rhythm of the waves on the shore and the gneiss boulders at my feet got me thinking on an entirely different scale of time.

Thursday 24 October 2013

The Infinity Pool of Enard Bay

A slender weather window in the building autumnal pattern of Atlantic low pressure areas offered the chance to do some sea kayaking in one of my favourite areas - Assynt.

Starting at 6am from home and a steady drive with a stop for breakfast saw me on the water at Inverkirkaig before 11am.  The last 20 miles of this journey take over an hour on the twisting and very narrow road which leads north from Coigach.  Inverkirkag is a good launch spot but there's very limited parking on the shore.  Often it's necessary to drop boats and kit and then park at the car park a kilometer to the east up the River Kirkaig.  The other factor to be aware of is that the tide here goes out quite some distance!

It pays to look behind you as you paddle out of Loch Kirkaig.  The presence of Suilven (Old Norse - Pillar Mountain) dominates the bay but is hidden from the shore by a ridge behind the houses.

Rounding Rubha na Breige and heading south, I paddled out into Enard Bay with the silhouettes of some more of Assynt's distinctive hills ahead.  From left to right are Cul Mor, Stac Pollaidh and Beinn an Eoin.

Following the indented and intricate coastline of Enard Bay gives some great kayaking  among lovely scenery and a couple of surprising sights too.  Tucked at the head of a small bay in Loch an Eisg-Brahcaidh, this bridge spans a rocky shelf behind which is a tidal pool.  At this stage of the tide a small waterfall is formed, which on approaching........

......reveals a gorgeous Infinity Pool! 

Friday 18 October 2013

Beyond grey....

It has been a generally damp and grey week in central and eastern Scotland, the hills obscured by mist and low cloud and the light levels lowered. But even in this muted setting there is vibrance and energy in the autumnal days. 

Whether that may be the flash of white and a surge of water stained teak-brown from the peaty hills of Perthshire at the Linn of Tummel.....

...... the delicate shades of pink and yellow in ripening acorns on the oak trees in the campus of the University of Stirling.......

....... the stiking contrast of a glowing yellow aspen between two Caledonian pines at another Linn, this time the Linn of Quoich.......

 ........ the golden yellow of a fallen birch leaf on a gravel path.........

........or the bold red of a rowan (sorbus) seedling in a bed of green heather.  Making the choice to get out in grey, misty and wet weather can be richly rewarded.....

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Enchanted Forest 2013

In what has become something of an annual family tradition, we visited The Enchanted Forest event last weekend as a group of six adults and five little ones aged between 2 and 8 years. Held each October at Faskally near Pitlochry in Perthshire, the event fuses light and sound effects to create a unique experience in a woodland setting around a small loch.

Each year has a different theme and arrangement, which must be challenging for the designers.  This years theme is "absorb" with the emphasis on the "Orb", featuring circles and globes as a linking theme.  That could range from the literal circle or globe to the circle of life and beyond!  Once again, the whole event lived up to high expectation.

Visitors are taken to the site by bus, a five minute journey from Pitlochry, and are then met at the entrance and shown the start of the path.  Once in the site, you can stay as long as you wish with bus departures back to Pitlochry every ten minutes or so through the evening.  The fun starts with a large orb overhanging a circular area - useful for family photos!

We were fortunate to get a dry, clear evening this year, though in truth the weather isn't a major factor in the enjoyment of the event.  In fact sometimes rain and mist can enhance the effects.  The path is well surfaced as ist's normally a popular Forest Enterprise walk.

There are eight main areas to the display, one of which stood out as truly exceptional - an orchestral piece with a stunning lightshow.  The lighting is superb, but really it's the combination with the forest and the loch, the utilisation and blending with natural elements which makes the whole event work so well.

The subtlety of some of the effects this year was a real highlight (if you'll excuse the pun!) .  Aside from the main displays, there are rocks from which mist and light appear to emanate, groups of small blinking eyes watching visitors watching back and much, much more.

A central bridge which last year was lit in ultraviolet shades with water cascading from it was transformed into a shimmering path of light visible from most of the site.  Along the way is a large  Yurt (tent) where a storyteller is in residence, regular sessions are given through the evening at a very nominal additional charge of £1.

The loch itself forms the setting for one of the main displays with globes appearing to float over their own reflections and respond to music and sound, changing colours and pulsing with light.

Away from the main displays, colour and light continually shifts through the trees whilst individual trees are lit around the paths to provide both light and a striking effect.

The route around the site feels like a proper journey but is short enough that little ones can manage it comfortably.  Many folk go around more than once, as we did with the eldest little one.

The Enchanted Forest runs until 27th October this year.  If you have children, grandchildren or simply a bit of child-like wonder, it's highly recommnded!

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Transatlantic connection

We had the great pleasure yesterday of meeting up with Duncan and Joan from Vancouver Island in Canada. Having followed and enjoyed their Oceanpax blog for some time and having corresponded via blogging and e-mail, it was great to finally be able to meet up properly and spend a day together.

The internet can often be a source of crime, abuse and unpleasantness, but in our case it has brought us, as "information age pen-friends", together across a continent and an ocean - which is surely what the information revolution should be all about.

Despite the Aberdeenshire weather being overcast and wet, we enjoyed a pleasant day sharing experiences and getting to know one another better.

A transatlantic connection which we hope will continue to be renewed

Friday 11 October 2013

A room with a view at Ryvoan

On a recent visit to Speyside, I walked up from Glenmore Lodge to spend the night at Ryvoan Bothy above the Pass of Ryvoan and its famous Green Lochan.  Ryvoan is fairly well accessible from Glenmore, but on a fiercely windy October evening was deserted.  It's a bothy I've often sheltered in and stayed in a couple of times previously - it sits at a crossroad of routes crossing the Cairngorm range and heading north to Abernethy.

An MBA bothy, Ryvoan has a rather unique feature in that a piece of poetry has by tradition been attached to the inside of the door.  Missed by many casual visitors who look in but don't close the door to see it, the poem was written by a lady called A.M Lawrence in the 1950's.  She lived in Cumbria but spent much of her childhood in Nethy Bridge.  The text of this very evocative piece is here

The view down through the Pass of Ryvoan in the late evening was particularly fine, the only drawback being the gale of wind  blowing through the pass which drew tears from the eyes!

The sleeping platform is conveniently sited under the window.  Settled in with a hot drink, I was quickly asleep and slept well apart from hearing occasional ferocious gusts rattling the roof of the building.

In the pre-dawn light, a glance from the window revealed one of Scotland's more intimate wildlife spectacles.  Below the bothy, across the track,  is a small flat green area which is used as a lek (display) site by Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix).  The main lekking activity is in the Spring when the females attend to observe the males dance and parade before pairing, but there's another less intense lek in Autumn attended only by the males themselves.  There are less than 5000 breeding pairs of Black Grouse in the UK and I felt priveliged to watch about a dozen birds soocialising and displaying just a few metres away - all from the comfort of my sleeping bag and with a cup of tea in my that's a room with a view!

Note: The ground on which Ryvoan Bothy stands is at the edge of two National Nature Reserves and is managed by the RSPB.  A polite and discreet sign near the lek site asks visitors not to camp on this seemingly perfect tent site in order to avoid disturbance or damage- a perfectly reasonable request I think, particularly as an alternative location is suggested on the sign.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

October in Glen Feardar

Autumn can be portrayed as a season of decline and decay but I've never felt that way - rather seeing it as a blaze of glorious hues, of change in the natural world, as a preparation for the winter to come and as possibly my favourite of the seasons.

Over the last week the autumnal shades have really developed in the north east of Scotland. An early October trip to the head of Glen Feardar above the valley of the River Dee near Invercauld was a colourful affair.  

The ground below the pinewoods lower down in the glen was a blaze of dazzling red as the carpet of Blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) colours up.  The effect is really quite dazzling and the leaves go through several shades of red as they change colour before falling.

Moving up the glen the habitat changes from pine woods to an open Birch wood with heather and  Bracken (Pteridium aqulinum) covering the ground below, the bracken at generally lower altitudes than the heather.  Almost overnight it seemed, the fronds had changed from faded green to a vibrant yellow - a brief phase before the leaves and stems dry out to a warm russet colour.

The effect when seen across areas of the Birch wood was very striking; the air itself seemed to take on a shade of yellow.  In the next week or two the bracken will turn brown and the birches themselves will blaze with yellow as the palette of autumn moves on.

Above the main treeline the heather moors are already wearing autumnal browns.  I listened for the first signs of the Red Deer rut, but nothing yet.  Perhaps the warm weather is delaying things, or perhaps it's just a little early.

The colours of the wood and the hills above were a pure joy, and yet, even in this riot of autumnal extravagance.......

....some elements of the landscape just seem made to be seen in monochrome