Saturday 31 May 2014

An Arran Amble - passage to Pladda

Ater our brush with criminality in Whiting Bay we got back on the water and continued south.  Mike and Douglas hoisted sail in the quarter wind and set a spanking pace.

I kept up reasonably well until we rounded Dippen Head (the south easterly "corner" of Arran) when the increased wind speed meant that they drew steadily ahead.  Being sociable folks, both Mike and Douglas dropped their sails to allow me to keep up.  As we rounded the point, the satellite island of Pladda came into view.

Douglas re-hoisted his sail to draw ahead slightly and check out the run-in to the small harbour on the east side of the island.  It was built by the Northern Lighthouse Board during construction of the light and although theoretically open to wind and swell from an east or northeast direction is so skillfully designed that it provides shelter even when the weather is from this direction.

Our plans remained fluid and we still had in our minds the possibility of crossing the southern Kilbrannan Sound to Davaar or to the Kintyre shore for the nght, but the lunchtime update to the Inshore Waters forecast gave northeasterly F4-5 possibly F6 wind for the following day.  This settled our immediate plans; we would not cross to the exposed side of the Sound.  Instead, we planned to spend some time exploring Pladda, then paddle around the island to land for luncheon at the Kildonan Hotel and and use the adjacent commercial campsite for the night.  This would give us  an option on timings for passing one of two crux points on any circumnavigation of Arran at the most favourable tidal conditions.

As we walked up towards the lighthouse we passed close to a noisy gull colony - camping on Pladda at this time of year would be a less than restful experience.  There are enclosed fields adjacent to the lighthouse which once grew much of the supplies needed by the keepers as well as being pasture for ponies and livestock; the walls of the fields were dotted with wildflowers including Sea Campion (Silene uniflora).  The Gaelic name for this plant is "Coirean na Mara" (little sea cauldron), probably referring to the distinctive sepal tube below the flower head.

Soon we arrived below the two towers of the Pladda lighthouse.

Friday 30 May 2014

An Arran Amble - the Criminal Corvid of Whiting Bay

The stretch of water between the south end of holy Island and Kingscross Point on Arran is very scenic; the view to the Arran hills stunning.

We felt that second breakfast was in order, so a little farther along the coast we landed on the creamy sands of Whiting Bay where benches above the beach offer a comfortable stopping place.We took some kit up to the benches in our trusty IKEA bags and began to prepare second breakfast, but our peaceful stop was rudely interrupted by......

...a hardened criminal.  This Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) walked quite deliberately up to the boats and examined each one carefully as we watched from some 50 metres away.  Selecting Mike's boat as the most promising, it investigated more closely and found an unsecured hatch cover; in an instant it had the cover off and was digging through the hatch to find what might be edible within.

In the time it took Mike to get down to his boat, the Crow had located, opened and consumed most of a bag of trail mix, and, watching Mike's approach with a beady eye, took off and hovered in the breeze just as he arrived.  It then landed on the sand, walked casually to Douglas' boat and began the same appraisal process.  As soon as it was chased off one boat it would alight on another, much to the amusement of folk watching proceedings from a cottage above the beach - this particular bird clearly has "form".

It was certainly no respecter of other people's property and could potentially have done quite a bit of damage to the boats and equipment, but the intelligence and calculated behaviour really had to be admired.  There's a related species of Crow in northern Europe with a slate grey back and belly known as a Hooded Crow - this individual wasn't a Hooded Crow, it was simply a hood! 

In sheer gallus and criminal intent the "Criminal Corvid of Whiting Bay" ranks alongside the kleptomaniac Chickens resident at the car-park at Kinloch Hourn, which operate as an organised gang preying on walker's picnics and are known to my friend Dave and I as the "B*st*rd Chickens of Kinloch Hourn".  Be careful, there are criminals out there!

Thursday 29 May 2014

An Arran Amble - peace and light

The rain passed through overnight and we woke to a beautiful morning, fresh sunny morning.

Just as we were completing the packing of the boats and preparing to leave, one of the volunteers from the Samye Ling community walked along the path around the point.  She was friendly and polite and seemed genuinely interested in our journey.  As we had already packed away our camp there would have been little point in her discussing camping, but she did take a discreet glance around our site.  No trace - it's our practice anyway and the fire we'd enjoyed the previous evening had been erased by the overnight high water.  A few minutes later and another volunteer arrived from the opposite direction; surely no coincidence.  Again, she was friendly, and learned a good deal about the island and it's history from a chat with Douglas (who has a female ancestor born on this island and native to Arran all her days).

It's clear that the monks of this community still feel that they can influence access and the right of responsible camping - we have no doubt that had we arrived early in the evening we would have had a visit from a representative asking us to move on.  We would have politely declined and exercised our right (under the law) of responsible access.

Here's what the Scottish Outdoor Access Code says concerning wild camping:

"Access rights extend to wild camping. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures. Take extra care to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting. If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by: taking away all your litter; removing all traces of your tent pitch and of any open fire (follow the guidance for lighting fires) not causing any pollution."

Our camping spot was discreet, out of both sight and sound of the island's inhabitants and we moved on early in the morning.  We didn't experience any difficulty, though others have and indeed two kayakers were "strongly discouraged" (but not prevented) from camping a few nights later.  Douglas blog here has links to previous access issues on Holy Island.

Back on the water, we paddled along the east coast of Holy Island......

...on a bright, glittering sea.

Approaching the southern end of the island we spotted one of the numerous geological features of  the Arran area; the basal New Red Sandstone of the shore overlaid by columnar basalts, the contrast is quite striking.

There is a lighthouse at the south-east tip of Holy Island, at the appropriately named Pillar Rock Point.  We chose not to land and explore either of the lighthouses because, though we like lighthouses a lot, these are in use by the community as spiritual retreats and we had no wish to disturb the occupants.

The south of the island is where some of the monks, including the abbot, live.  A winding path leads to the abbot's residence on the slopes of Mullach Mor.

The houses here are ecologically designed and fit into the environment superbly.  The Buddhist monks aren't the first religious users of Holy Island, as the name might suggest.  In the 7th century a cave on the island was the home of St Mo Las, then in the 13th century a monastery was founded by Ranald, Lord of the Isles.  There is also evidence that the followers of  the Norse King Haakon sheltered on the island on their way home following defeat at the battle of Largs.

Apart from these houses at the southern end of the island, most of the present day infrastructure is in the north of Holy Island where the monks have founded a Peace centre.  Dry stone dykes have been repaired, the orchard restocked and a vegetable garden provides food.  Thousands of native trees have been planted; the presence of the Woodcock we saw is an indication that the woodland is well established.  Environmental considerations are important to the order; water is supplied by springs, heating is by solar panels and sewage is treated in reed-beds.

There is much to admire about the Samye Ling order's stewardship of Holy Island; we hope that in time they may become more tolerant of the occasional sea kayaker passing through on a journey, and abide by the spirit and letter of Scotland's Access law..

Given the Buddhist owners, it's perhaps fitting that the other lighthouse on the island is the Inner Light; and as it is passed a superb view of Arran's hills opens up.  We left Holy Island with our own small sense of peace and light.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

An Arran Amble - Decisions, decisions....

Douglas, Mike and I had really enjoyed our short overnight trip in the Clyde some two weeks previously and had plans for a longer kayak camping journey. We agreed the days which worked for us and then discussed locations and possible routes via email and phone. The weather for our chosen five day period was problematic in planning where to go - a complex series of low pressure systems around the UK resulting in forecasts which changed significantly each six hour period. It looked that the further north one went the windier it was likely to be, so we looked to the south west.

Tiree and Coll have been on our collective list for some time, but although the tidal conditions would have worked, the forecast F5-6 winds certainly wouldn't. Gigha and the north of the Kintyre peninsula was considered, but tidal conditions plus the northerly component of the wind wasn't likely to give the best chance of an enjoyable trip here either. We came to a consensus that we would meet up at Ardrossan on a Thursday evening with options to take a ferry to either Arran or to Kintyre, leaving the final choice of destination until we had the very latest forecast.

We convened in the long-stay car park at Ardrossan harbour in good time for either the 1800 sailing to Brodick or the 1840 sailing to Campletown.  The forecast remained very changeable, but was for generally northeasterly winds of between F3 and F6 for the Friday and Saturday.  This meant that our best option was to go to Arran where we'd be able to get some shelter from the worst of the wind on the west side of the island until the forecast drop in wind strength on the Sunday.

Having a trolley means that boats can be easily wheeled on and off ferries; and a kayak on a trolley travels free on Calmac services - a real bonus when planning trips.  The long stay car park at Ardrossan is secure and is just £3 per day to leave a car.

Soon we were safely in the vehicle deck of MV Caledonian Isles and heading up to the cafeteria to take dinner.  As on most longer duration services, meals are available - the food is both good and reasonably priced.

It was raining hard as we approcached Brodick, so we changed into drysuits on the vehicle deck as the cars were disembarking and then wheeled our boats ashore.  Just off the top of the linkspan, a small shingle beach makes an ideal launch site.  It's wise however to check the skeg before heading off, the shingle here seems just the right grade to jam in the skeg slot - each one of us had two jams before getting away.

As we prepared to leave, MV Caledonian Isles left the berth to return to Ardrossan.  Another adventure was about to begin!

We paddled south along the Arran coast in heavy rain, but in calm conditions.  Snug in drysuits, we could enjoy the colours and sounds of the shoreline.

Rounding Clauchlands Point, Holy Island came into view - our intended destination for the night.  There have been some issues in recent years with the Buddhist monks who own the island banning camping and placing unwelcoming notices at likely landing points.  This is not in accordance with the Access provisions of the Land reform Act, but we'd been assured by the Ayrshire and Arran Access Officer that discussions with the owner had resulted in an acceptance that responsible wild camping is lawful.  However, the Holy Island website still states that "we strongly discourage camping anywhere on the island". -  we were unsure of our reception, but relaxed about the situation.  As it turned out, we were met on arrival only by the first few midges of the season....

We chose our landing place carefully so as to camp sensitively (normal practice for us anyway) and soon had the tents up and a hot drink brewing.  The rain was still falling though less heavily; we collected some driftwood from the shore for a small fire, though Mike rated the attempt as "V Diff"!  However, with the assistance of a "Wilcox Ignition Aid"TM we lit a small but hot fire well below the tideline and soon had some baked potatoes in the embers for supper.

As dusk fell the rain eased and we were treated to the sight of an Otter feeding just offshore from our camp site.  Shortly afterwards a Woodcock (Scolpax rusticola) began a series of display flights (termed "roding") overhead, the high pitched rasping squeak of its call the best aid to spotting this elusive bird.

Despite the rain, we enjoyed a very pleasant evening; what would the following day bring?

Note :  You will be able to read about this trip in full "kayak stereovision" by following Douglas' blog posts starting here.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

The intensity of rainfall

Rain. Lots and lots of rain on a day when much of Britain was enjoying warm sunshine but Argyll was under a seemingly static area of cloud and precipitation. The rainfall varied in intensity from merely heavy to truly torrential and it continued for 24 hours. It was tempting to just stay indoors but as ever, once the effort had been made to get out things didn't seem so bad.

The colour of the Wild Hyacinths (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) seemed to be very much intensified by the rain. It could be my imagination but there seem to be many more of these plants this Spring than usual.  Known as a Bluebell in England, this gorgeous plant forms carpets of violet-blue in more open woodland and seems almost to alter the quailty of light in such areas.

Along the shore another wash of colour brightened the grey day - Red Campion (Silene dioica) was growing in profusion along the shoreline and in roadside banks.  It's a favourite plant and we have an area of the garden at home with a dense area of plants.  It's reliable and flowers prolifically, but can take over in a garden!

Along a loch-side road in what is in effect Scotland's rainforest, the greens were incredibly intense due to the high rainfall.  The entire light seemed to be emerald green here; the mosses almost jewelled with sparkiling water droplets and the trunks of the Sycamore trees shining as if polished.  Despite the frankly grim weather, here was a beautiful small landscape.

The rain even seemed to please this chap - there are strange beasts abroad in the woods!

It would have been easy to stay indoors and moan about the terrible weather, but when the rain can produce such intensity perhaps it's to be welcomed?

Friday 16 May 2014

The 30 hour adventure - coasting to journey's end

We paddled reluctantly away from the beach at the south end of Inchmarnock; it's a fine spot to spend time in good weather.  The day was still hot and we were all in agreement that we'd dispense with the wearing of drysuits for this final leg of our journey.  For the great majority of the remaining distance we would be close in along the shoreline with just a very short crossing to Bute.

The shoreline of the southern part of Inchmarnock is lined with scrubby willow and birch wood - perfect for small birds and the whole stretch was alive with the sounds of Willow Warblers and Chaffinches.   We also came across our old friend Sammy the Seal - who along with his friends was enjoying a bit of sunbathing on the rocks.  He seemed quite prepared to allow the passage of three kayakers without disturbing his morning's leisure!

Mike and Douglas had brought their sailing rigs but apart from the headwind of the previous evening as we headed along the Kintyre coast our jouney had been almost windless.  The slightest of breezes from astern encouraged them to hoist sail and they did get some "push" on our way up the island.

All too soon we reached the northern tip of Inchmarnock and it was time to make the short crossing over to Bute and our finishing point at Kildavanan.

We had left the beach at Kildavanan less than 30 hours previously - but what a lot we'd managed to pack into our short adventure!  From the castles of Kintyre and Arran to a very enjoyable wild camp to the superb wildlife sightings it had been a marvellous journey.  We'd started and finished less than 40 miles from the very centre of Glasgow and yet it had felt a million miles away.

We paddled some 55 kilometres, took in three islands and a remote peninsula - and yet - Douglas and Mike had left home near Glasgow after breakfast on one morning and were home in time for dinner the following evening!  We firmly believe that it's not necessary to go to the ends of the earth, or even the extremities of the country to find superb journeying and adventure - it can be much closer than you think.....


The Islands of Bute and Arran plus the Kintyre peninsula are served by Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) ferry services.  The timetables and fares can be found here and there's also a smartphone App.  Using a vehicle can prove expensive on the routes which don't yet have a Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme in place - Bute is one such route.  Kayaks on trollies travel free on Calmac services and this is a great way to link up journeys and/or avoid long crossings; make sure you arrive in plenty of time for a sailing if you plan to do this.

The castles we visited in Kintyre and Arran are under the care of Historic Scotland.  It's well worth researching some of the sites online if planning a journey in this area.  There are also numerous historic and prehistoric sites around the area waiting to be explored, including stone circles, hillforts and hidden ruins.

Wild camping is permitted subject to the principle of Responsible Access as defined in the Scottish Land Reform (Access) bill.  This link also has great advice on where and how to "go" in the outdoors  - as does the SCA website here.  There is specific advice about lighting fires - I don't ever light fires in the hills, but we do have fires at camps along the shoreline.  We light our fires below the highest tide mark, don't build fire rings and we disperse the remnants of the fire before departing.  

Midges may be a feature from June to September; bring a head-net, or even better, one of these if camping during this period!  :-)   It's also worth being "tick aware" in Scotland's outdoors during the warmer months.

A feature of the tidal regime in the Firth of Clyde is that high water duing Spring tides tends to occur around midday and midnight.  The implication of this is that  arriving at a destination in the early evening and departing in the morning will be at around low water and involve a long carry.  Trollies are very useful, particularly on the sandy beaches which tend to be quite gently shelving.  It's claimed that there are no tidal races in the Clyde.  We have experienced races at the height of the ebb around the south tip of Inchmarnock, and particularly at the southern tip of Bute.  The tidal flow can also be affected by snowmelt and wind conditions.

The Firth of Clyde area offers some fantastic paddling, walking and exploring opportunities.  In earlier times it was the sea  and sea lochsrather than the road which was the main means of communication and to a great extent the water remains the very best way to experience this area. 

Thursday 15 May 2014

The 30 hour adventure - cooling off, slowing down

As we paddled across the Sound of Bute from the Cock of Arran towards Inchmarnock the heat gradually increased.  Before long we started to get uncomfortably warm and from about 45 minutes into the two hour crossing we simply boiled in our drysuits.

We had considered removing drysuits prior to this crossing, but the sea temperature was still at a Spring value of 7.5 degrees Celsius and as we were to find in due course would quickly become numbingly cold.  The air temperature continued to rise as the morning went by and approaching the end of the crossing was at 18 degrees in the shade, much higher out on the water. 

At last we approached the prominent beach near the southern tip of Inchmarnock (Marnoc's Island - Marnoc was an Irish monk who came to the west of Scotland under the leadership of Columba.  He gave his name to many places in the borders and south west including the town of Kilmarnock.  He died in 625 AD).  A flight of Greylag geese took off from the shore, protesting noisily at our arrival at "their" beach.  At this point our thoughts were concentrated solely on getting ashore and out of our drysuits!

We emerged with real relief from our sweaty clothing, laying everything out on the warm stones of the beach to dry.  Douglas and I decided to take a swim to cool off - Mike pronounced us both insane....  The water was bracing but invigorating - I was fairly "zinging" when I came out to dry off.  No towels needed on this windless morning, we dried quickly by simply sitting in the strong Spring sunshine. 29th April isn't the earliest in the year we've taken a swim off the west coast of Scotland by some weeks! 

We had already decided upon first luncheon in this calm and sunny spot and to spend some time here just enjoying the sense of the place.  This being officially first luncheon and in order to aid the recuperation process following our crossing, a small quantity of Dalmore 15yo was dispensed - we found it a most satisfactory restorative.

The view was dominated byArran, shimmering in a haze across a sea burnished mercury-silver by the heat of the day, a banner of cloud steaming gracefully off the hills.  We had paced ourselves at the lower end of "leisurely" throughout our small journey, but we now hit new levels of dawdling. With  plenty of time to head back to our starting point and no imperative due to tide or weather, this new pace of things seemed to suit the atmosphere of the day perfectly.

Monday 12 May 2014

The 30 hour adventure - conforming to type

We paddled out of Loch Ranza and past Newton Point amid banks of residual mist.  This Heron was intent on finding breakfast; we were intent on finding a place to take second breakfast!

Before long we spied a gap in the rocky shore backed by a pebble beach above which a flat platform of turf was sheltered from the breeze. 

It's been commented that our trips are punctuated with second breakfasts and any amount of luncheons - we're even suspected of Hobbit tendencies in this respect!  We were about to conform to type, in an very unconforming spot....

 A study of the map of this area shows an escarpment above the shoreline, not particularly unusual in itself except that this particular one is famed as one of "Hutton's Unconformities". The 18th century geologist James Hutton saw that the overlying rocks were so very different in age and type to the basal rock that the overlaying process must have taken a period of time considerably in excess of the then perceived age of the earth.  It was controversial stuff at the time but Hutton was correct and is now considered one of the most influential of the early geologists.

We could easily have taken an age over our second breakfast, but after food and hot drinks were consumed we returned to the boats and continued along the Arran coast past the last cottages in this area....

 ...and along a wild shoreline echoing to the trilling of Sandpipers to the Cock of Arran.  Here we were at the closest point of land to our next destination, the south tip of the island on Inchmarnock, a crossing of some 10 kilometres which would take us about two hours..

As we pointed our bows to the north east and headed away from Arran we cleared the mist clinging to the island and moved into full sunshine, pleasantly warm on the face - at least initially.  Our destination was just discernable across a glassy sea.

Sunday 11 May 2014

The 30 hour adventure - Arran arrival

As we approached Loch Ranza, the Calmac ferry MV Loch Tarbert was leaving on her sailing across to Claonaig in Kintyre. This meant that we had time to keep to the southern shore of Loch Ranza as we approached the village without getting in the way of a departing or arriving ferry.

Ahead of us and in the eye of the bright morning sun stood the bold outline of Lochranza Castle, the counterpart to Skipness Castle on the Kintyre side of Kilbrannan Sound.

We were able to land on the spit right next to the castle near the head of Loch Ranza to explore the castle.

Lochranza is, like Skipness Castle, under the care of Historic Scotland.   The original castle was likely a modest fortified hallhouse built by the same half-norse Mac Sween earl who built Skipness and specifically placed to control Kilbrannan Sound.  The ruins which are most prominent now are of 16th century construction and are associated with the Montgomeries.  Plaques on and around the ruin highlight where floors, stairways, fireplaces and individual rooms would have been.  We took a look into the castle dungeon and agreed that it was a pretty unpleasant place to be even for a few minutes, never mind a long period of incarceration!

Back out into the sunshine and we could appreciate the striking lines of this fine ruin.  The ground level entrance in this image is a later addition, made in more settled times; the original defended entrance is on the opposite side of the castle....half way up the wall.

In spring sunshine Locharanza is a pretty village clustered around the head of the loch.  With a ferry link, the castle, a golf course, geological fame and the nearby distillery (the product of which, a non chill-filtered, light whisky is excellent!) it has much going for it.  It's claimed though, that in winter Lochranza ranks as the Scottish village which gets the least natural sunlight due to the surrounding hills.

We were certainly in full sun this morning, but a chilly breeze had sprung up making us rather pleased we'd kept our drysuits on.  If we'd have known how warm it was to get later we probably wouldn't have felt so self-satisfied!

This anchor and cable near to where we'd landed looked as if it had been around for some time.  We didn't linger in this rather pleasant spot, which had ideally placed benches,  for second breakfast due to the breeze and set off looking for a more sheltered location which would "conform" better to our requirements.

Saturday 10 May 2014

The 30 hour adventure - forty minutes of wonder

We estimated that our crossing from Kintyre to Arran would take approximately an hour.   Initially we paddled in thick fog with no visual reference point ahead; always a slightly disorientating process.  Absolute faith in the compass is required - twice I found myself veering to the left and had to correct course on advice from Douglas and Mike who were backing up the compass with GPS.  this was an interesting exercise for me; I'd chosen not to use the GPS and had restricted compass bearing checks to once each five minutes.  Had I stuck to this regime I have little doubt that I'd have made landfall back on Kintyre!

We were accompanied on our way by the haunting calls of Black Throated Divers and encountered several seabirds who appeared a bit surprised when we popped out of the mist in close proximity....

Little by little we detected some thinning of the mist and a faint hint of the outline of the hills of Arran ahead.  To the south, the width of Kilbrannan Sound was washed with the palest blue imaginable as a clearance in the mist began to open.

There was now little sound, though we could clearly hear Cuckoos calling from both the Kintyre and Arran shore; their calls echoing slightly across the still water.

Slowly, the hills of west Arran began to emerge from the mist.  I'm not even going to attempt to describe the quality of light we experienced - my vocabulary simply doesn't extend that far.  Suffice to say that at particular moments the light itself seemed to be lit from within, a sort of double lighting effect.

Above us the cloud sheet was drawing westward in slow majesty, the translucent light changing by the second.  We seemed to be on the edge of something greater; there was a palpable sense of something about to be revealed.  For some minutes I lay along the back deck of the boat and just watched the skyscape.  Lit from the east, the cloud sheet was slowly allowing the light to spill onto the water as it moved west.  I had the strangest sense of being drawn upwards and had to sit up after a few minutes to regain my balance.

All too soon the sun emerged from above the receding cloud sheet and illuminated the whole of Kilbrannan Sound in that special clear morning sunlight.  The scene was gorgeous, but somehow couldn't match what we'd just experienced.  We paddled on in silence; lost in thought.  Any words would have been utterly superfluous.

From the first hint of a clearance in the mist to the emergence of the full morning sun had taken just forty minutes.  Those forty wonderful minutes will not soon be forgotten by any of us.

Postscript: Back at home I looked out my well-thumbed copy of W.H. Murray's peerless book "Mountaineering In Scotland" to search out a passage in which he describes a clearance of mist on a mountain top and his spiritual response to it.  Although I don't have anything remotely akin to Murray's spritual perception, for brief minutes on the Kilbrannan Sound I feel that I came close to understanding the essence of what he was conveying in this passage.