Sunday 29 June 2014

Ewe know it makes sense....

A couple of free midweek days combined with a great forecast for the north west were too good to miss.  An early start from home and the scenic drive over to Aultbea on Loch Ewe and I was ready to set out by 0930.  The weather was gorgeous - warm sunshine and calm; a real "blue sky day". On such days, Ewe know it makes sense to be on the water!

As I was packing the boat, the "Girl Amy" arrived on the slipway. Her owner is a scallop diver and had a nice catch of scallops, fished by hand using scuba gear.  Hand diving for these shellfish is both sustainable and ethical; trawling for them destroys the sea bed and is indiscriminate in nature If enjoying scallops in a restaurant I always look for "hand dived" - more expensive but so much better all round.

Loch Ewe was an important naval site during the Second World War, serving as one of the main  assembly points for convoys to North America, Africa and particularly those convoys destined for Murmansk.  It was also an entry and departure point for Allied submarines operating in the north Atlantic.  There is much WW2 infrastructure remaining in gun emplacements, boom defence sites and lookout posts dotted around the shores of the loch, and Aultbea was commissioned as a Royal Navy establishment, HMS Helicon.

A memorial to the Allied sailors and airmen lost on the Arctic convoys is sited at Cove, near the mouth of the loch.  Today the naval presence is almost gone, though the sheltered and deep waters of the loch are sometimes used during naval exercises, and there is a NATO fuelling jetty near Aultbea.

I headed over to Isle of Ewe, heading around the southern tip of the island, the views to the hills of the Fisherfield hills was superb. 

It's become a bit of a standing family joke to point at the island as it's seen on the road between Poolewe and Laide saying "Oh look, Isle of Ewe" which the reply is, of course, "I love you too!" 

Paddling along the southern shore of the island, I saw this old agricultural implement in a hayfield above the shore and landed to take a closer look.

It turned out to be a Hay Tedder, a machine used to aerate a crop of cut hay by strewing it up in the air. 

Stamped plates on the draw-bar and on the wheel hubs identified this as a Model 10Z Tedder made by Nicholsons foundry in Newark, Staffordshire.  Getting it from Staffordshire to the Isle of Ewe must have been a fair undertaking all those years ago before HGV's and good roads......

Heading across from Isle of Ewe to the western shore of Loch Ewe the water was full of Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita).  These delicately beautiful jellies are the most common around UK shores and occur in vast numbers at certain times of the year.  They have stinging tentacles but the stings aren't powerful enough to penetrate human skin; perhaps as well given the numbers shoaling here!

The sun was now very hot and glaring off the calm surface of the loch.  Ahead of me, a sight of a sandy beach was too tempting to resist; a quick vote was taken and by a unanimous vote of one, first luncheon was called......

......and I paddled in to the warm  coloured sand.......

....of Gaineamh Smo.

Ewe know, there have been worse places to take luncheon!  Note the complete absence of wind in this image; it wasn't to last......

Tuesday 24 June 2014

A ribbon of history - St Blane's, the jewel of Bute

At the very end of the road from Kingarth there's a small parking area. A signpost points uphill towards St Blane's Church, although from the road the church itself is hidden. A short walk climbs a slope and over a lip into a dip sheltered on two sides by rocky outcrops and surrounded by large trees.

St Blane's is a favourite spot; when we lived on Bute we visited regularly and still try to come here whenever we have the opportunity. 

A monastery was founded here in the 6th century by one of the early Celtic monks, Catan, though the monastery and subsequent church are named after Catan's nephew Blane who succeeded his uncle as Abbot.  Blane became one of the best known of the Celtic saintss, his name is associated with several sites but most prominently with the church he and his followers established on the Allan Water at the edge of the Highlands - Dunblane.

There are some remnants of the original Celtic monastery including the outline walls of monk's cells placed up against the rocky outcrop which shelters St Blane's.  The monastery continued to flourish through the 6th and 7th centuries until the violent deaths of two of the Abbots, Maelmanach in 776 and Noah in 790.  This period saw raiding along the western seaboard by the Norsemen and it is fairly certain that the monastery was attacked several times before being destroyed in about 800.

The ruins which can be seen today are those of a 12th century monastery and later church.  There is a lower bank which is faced with stone and known as a "Vallum", a boundary separating the monastery both spiritually and legally from the surrounding land (behind me in this image).  Above are two churchyards - the lower was reserved for lay folk in the Dark Ages and later for women in the Middle Ages.  The upper churchyard was reserved for monks in the Dark Ages and for menfolk in the Middle Ages.

The small church is beautifully proportioned and constructed.  The Nave (the nearest part in this image) is probably original 12th century construction and was important as the only parish church in Bute at that time.

The arch separating the nave from the chancel (the part of the church reserved for the clergy) has fine chevron and dog-tooth carving which were prominent in church architecture of the period.

The chancel was rebuilt in the 14th century to replace the original, smaller building.  One can still see where the stone was interleaved with the original, and inside is an alcove which perhaps was a font or a reliquary.

Walking through the church and out into the upper churchyard, an inconspicuous hogsback grave-slab is traditionally described as the grave of St Blane himself, but is actually thought to be the grave of a Norseman.

A fine curving entrance way separates the lower and upper churchyards, perhaps the method of construction was designed to gradually reveal the church to those who approached it.

In summer the walls are covered with Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), a plant which favours old walls and seems to do particularly well on the walls of churches.

There is something new to discover each time St Blane's is visited; I'd not previously noticed this socket stone in the lower churchyard which would once have held a stone cross.

St Blane's remained in use as a church until about 1590, by which time the struggle between factions of Christianity were raging across Scotland and the centre of ecclisiatical life on Bute had moved to Rothesay.  The view remains the same as it must have been for the early monks, across the sea to Holy Island - probably no coincidence.

St Blane's remains a very special place - there is still an air of calm and tranquility that's hard to define - even in wild weather it's an oasis of quiet.  Whilst not a religious person, I'm fascinated by  places of faith and belief (of whatever kind) - and St Blane's is among the most evocative.  It's a true jewel in Bute.

All that now remained was to walk back along the road to Kingarth, back along the ribbon of history.

The walk as described is approximately 9 kilometres with a couple of short ascents.  I'd recommend returning to the road after visiting Dunstrone hillfort and walking down to Dunagoil along the road rather than traversing above the shore.  Bute is served by Calmac ferries from Wemyss Bay and Colintraive.

Monday 23 June 2014

A ribbon of history - Dunagoil hillfort

From Dunstrone hillfort, the next historical site I intended to visit was the larger hillfort at Dunagoil. If doing this walk again I'd return to the road from Dunstrone and walk down to Dunagoil before leaving it to head directly to the hillfort. On this occasion I chose to head along the ridge above the shoreline which proved tough going through extensive patches of gorse broken by gullies choked with brambles. Although slow, this way did have some attractions.....

Small groups of Heath Spotted Orchids (Dachtylorhiza maculata) were in full flower in the damper ground.  There are seven species of Orchids found in Scotland, and identification can sometimes be tricky as they tend to hybridise quite freely.  Spotted Orchids are the most common of the group, preferring damp ground and acid soils such as peat.  The flowers are variable in colour from almost white to deep pinks.

The term "spotted" refers not to the exquisitely patterned flowers but to the strap-shaped leaves which have purple blotches.  The flowering of Spotted Orchids is a marker that Spring is turning to early summer just as the flowering of Flag Iris always seems to coincide with the emergence of biting midges....

After crossing the sandy beach at Dunagoil Bay it's a short climb onto the summit of the tilted basalt lava ridge of Dunagoil itself. 

At first glance there is little of the hillfort to see, but a closer look shows that what appear to be lines of bedrock are in fact part of the structure, rocks fused together by vitrification.  The name Dunagoil means "fort of the foreigner (or lowlander)", suggesting that the builders were incomers to Bute.  The site is accessible only from inland and measures about 85 metres by 20 metres; a detailed description can be found on the RCAHMS website here.  Numerous artefacts such as finger rings, axeheads and moulds for manufacturing axes have been found here.  The site may have been occupied for a long period before the fort builders arrived as there are some possible prehistoric remains along the ridge, and use continued long after the fort had been abandoned.  The main period of use is believed to have been approximately 200BC to 100AD

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Dunagoil and other similar hillforts is the vitrification of the walls.

Experts still debate what led to the vitrification of so many hillforts.  There is consensus that in most cases the outer walls of such forts were timber-laced (i.e. timber formed the centre of the walls with rocks on both inner and outer faces).  There is also agreement that to create the intense and long lasting heat required to partially melt the rock itself would have required much more than a firing of the fort in a raid.  It would probably have required more timber to have been placed against the outside faces of the rock and firing in a very specific manner over an extended period.

The result can be seen in this image; the rock has partially melted then fused together (vitrified) into a substance half way between rock and very tough ceramic or glass.

So was this done to destroy the fort, or to strengthen it?  There is evidence that some of the vitrified material was re-used during the later period of occupation, which may suggest that vitrification was used to destroy the walls.  But.... the effort required to destroy one fort in this way must have been considerable - that it has happened at many similar forts raises the possibility that if destruction was the motive, it must have been a ritualised and concerted act of removal.  It also raises the possibility that vitrification was used in the construction process, a deliberate act of strengthening the fort walls and creating something permanent and (for the time period) at the cutting edge of technology.

Historians can't definitely say what vitrification represented - and I'm certainly no expert!  But, by trying to empathise with the human motives of our Iron Age ancestors it's possible to imagine both scenarios - that many forts were destroyed in the same manner, or perhaps built this way in the first place..........

From the Iron Age, my next intended site on this "ribbon of history" would be slightly more recent, and perhaps the best of all.

Sunday 22 June 2014

A ribbon of history - Blackpark stones and Dunstrone fort

The minor road running south from Kingarth on the island of Bute is today a quiet and relatively unfrequented stretch of tarmac. It wasn't always quiet though,  this road runs along a ribbon of early history.

From near the cemetry at the road junction the view takes in lush and fertile farmland, beyond is the Sound of Bute and the distinctive Arran skyline. The land here is particularly good, one of the fields is so flat and well grassed that it's in service as the island's airstrip.

The prominent outcrop is Dunstrone (fort on the nose), the first objective for my walk but not the first early site on this route.

Just out of this image is a row of standing stones, a very visible marker placed by the folk who once called this place home.  Nearby and half-hidden in a wood is the remains of another neolithic monument; the Blackpark Standing Stones.

Only three stones remain of an original group of seven; the setting was a neat circle.  The builders chose large stones; those that remain are over two metres high above ground level.  When constructed the monument would have been visible from quite a distance.

Unusually, two of the stones are conglomerate rock.  This is a soft type of rock and has suffered considerable weathering, it's possible that the unusual shape of the base is the result of animals rubbing themselves against the stones over the millenia.  The original seven stones were present in the 18th century and those which remain have required stabilisation to retain the integrity of the site.  The largest stone is a schist monolith, almost split by frost action.  Occasionally one can spot coins inserted into the cracks in the rock, probably left as an offering.

Heading down the side of the airfield and past the end of a small golf course I arrived on the shore.  The going here can be quite marshy so I made my way along at about the high water mark.

The lichens on this rock were visble from over a kilometre away, a really vivid yellow which was almost flourescent.

There are few obvious remains of the hillfort at Dunstrone but the short clamber up brings its reward in a super view.  Northwards lie Scalspsie Bay and St Ninians Bay, both of which are also rich in historical sites.......

...while to the south is the distinctive outcrop of Dunagoil, site of a large hillfort and my next destination along this ribbon of history.  The conical island in the far distance is Holy Island where we'd recently enjoyed a fine wild camp.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

An Arran Amble - Journey's end

Our progress from Sannox Bay seemed effortless on a calm and sunny morning, a contrast to some of the conditions we'd enjoyed during the journey.

Arran's sheltered east coast has a very different feel from the more remote northern coast.  Small villages dot the shore, perhaps the most attractive is Corrie with its neat whitewashed cottages, gardens bright with early summer flowers.

You are pretty much guaranteed a sighting of a seal on this part of the journey!  This one is carved very skillfully from a single piece of timber and fixed to a rock opposite the attractive "Rock Pool" gift shop.

Despite its tiny size, Corrie has no fewer than three harbours.  One of these has the unique feature of three concrete sheep which could act as bollards.  the two white sheep face south and a black sheep faces north - three sheeps to the wind perhaps?!  The seal sculpture and sheep bollards are great additions to the scenery, it's good to know that folk have had the drive to introduce things which make the world just a little bit more fun to live in.

Once past Corrie the view across Sannox Bay to Holy Island opens up, signalling the final couple of kilometres of the Arran circumnavigation.  It seemed a long time since we'd camped on Holy Island at the start of our trip.  There was plenty of time to reflect on what had been a really great journey as we paddled to Brodick; an approaching ferry meaning that we would have a couple of hours in hand to land and prepare for boarding the following sailing.

Even this close to Brodick there's great interest along the shoreline - we've seen Otters previously here and at low tide this rock is some of the strangest you'll see anywhere.  A hard red rock, it looks like something from a science fiction movie; we could only speculate as to how it was formed.

The brightness of the morning was turning to a more overcast afternoon as we landed on the shingle beach adjacent to the link-span in Brodick from where we'd set out.  As MV "Caledonian Isles" approached, we knew our journey was nearly over; already we were forming plans for the next one!

Arran is the perfect size for a circumnavigation to be a "proper" journey without feeling like a major undertaking.  We took five days (four nights) of which we camped wild three nights and at the "Seal Shore" campsite at Kildonan on one night.  It's perfectly feasible to do this journey over four days (three nights) by omitting the Holy Island camp and going straight to Kildonan on the first day.  Wild camp sites are surprisingly tricky to find, the road comes close to the shore for long stretches and  some landings/sites which look good at high water are anything but at lower states of tide.  The Scottish Outdoor Access Code for wild camping gives guidance on how and where to camp - there are generally few problems if this guidance is followed but note that there continue to be some issues at Holy Island.  Should you be pressured into moving on from Holy Island you should contact the North Ayrshire Access Officer with details.

Our "Arran Amble" had been anything but an amble during a couple of sections, notably the rounding of Bennan Head in windy conditions and the long grind against the wind from Drumnadoon to Lochranza.  As ever, flexible planning is the key.  We'd planned to cross to the Kintyre shore and head up the west of Arran on the far side of the Kilbrannan Sound but the northeasterly wind would have made this a difficult option.  We delayed the decision over which direction to circumnavigate until the very last minute - finalising the plan on the ferry.  It's sometimes claimed that there no tidal races in the Firth of Clyde; we find that there are often races at the southern tips of the islands on the ebb - and the stretch of water inshore of Pladda also has overfalls.

Ordnance Survey Landranger sheet 69 (Isle of Arran) covers the whole island plus parts of the Kintyre shore.  Pilotage and general information can be found in the "Admiralty Sailing Directions - West Coast of Scotland", in yachtsman's pilots such as Imray's "Clyde to Colonsay" and in Hamish Haswell-Smith's indispensible guide "The Scottish Islands".  Detailed tidal stream information can be found in NP 222 (Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas - Firth of Clyde and Approaches), tide tables are widely available on the internet and in booklets available locally.

The mainland ferry port serving Arran is Ardrossan - allow at least an hour to travel from Glasgow.  Ferries leave here for Brodick daily, and in summer there's a limited service to Campbeltown - timetables can be found on Calmac's website.  there is a large, secure car park adjacent to the ferry terminal at a very reasonable £3 per day.  Kayaks travel free on Calmac services, but note that a trolley is pretty much essential to move loaded boats on and off the ferry.

I hope that this series of posts and those on Douglas' blog starting here will encourage others to do this trip - it really is a fine journey!

Tuesday 17 June 2014

An Arran Amble - Sannox scenery

The view approaching North Sannox is, provided it can be seen through mist or low cloud, breathtaking.  The effect can be sudden as the headland to the north is rounded, or more gradual when approaching from the east across the Sound of Bute.  Here the Arran hills come close to the shore  arranged around Glen Sannox and are seen to best advantage from just offshore. 

The early morning cloud was boiling off the hills as we approached, making the view even better.  The names of these fine granite mountains are as striking as their forms: Ceum na Cailleach (witch's step), Casteal Abhail (stronghold of the Ptarmaigan), Cioch na-h Oighe (the maiden's breast) and, highest of all, Goatfell (possibly a Norse-Gaelic compound - Gaoith Fjell - hill of the wind)

Here is yet another layer of Arran''s amazing geology, the hills are a part of a huge Tertiary granite mass intruded into the Devonian sandstones.  For the hillwalker and mountaineer these hills give superb days out on dramatic mountains and yet are of quite modest technical difficulty.

We passed by North Sannox as the grassy area by the car park was quite busy with motorhomes and camper vans (though it's worth knowing that there are toilets here and informal camping is permitted).  A short distance south is Sannox Bay itself where we stopped and enjoyed second breakfast in the warm sunshine.  I changed from my drysuit into a lighter two piece set-up here; there was now enough space in the boat to stow the drysuit as the food had gradually been consumed!

It was still quite early in the morning when we left Sannox for the final leg of our journey around Arran.  We had no need to hurry for a particular ferry sailing so now our pace definitely hovered towards the lower end of "leisurely"......

Monday 16 June 2014

An Arran Amble - the wild coast

We were woken early by the dawn chorus of birds on the wooded hillside above our camp near the  Cock of Arran.  After breakfast we got on the water for 7am on what looked to be a grey and misty morning.  Almost as soon as we were underway we were treated to a close view of an Otter; one of several during the day.  We saw Otters on each of the five days of this journey around Arran, they do seem to like the habitat here.

A little farther along the coast we passed Laggan, a private cottage belonging to the estate and which can be hired, though the only ways to reach it are by boat or by a rough footpath from Lochranza.

There was almost no wind during our journey along the wild north coast of Arran; a real bonus as the wind had been strong from the north for the previous few days.  The absence of wind and swell gave us a leisurely paddle and the opportunity to absorb the atmosphere of this special part of Arran.  Of all the sections of the Arran circumnavigation, this stretch from Newton Point near Lochranza around to Brodick (the northeastern section) was my favourite.  There is no road here and the island drops steeply to the sea, while the views across to Bute and beyond to the Argyll hills are enchanting.  It's everything a wild coast should be....and astonishingly it's just 60 kilometres from the very centre of Scotland's largest city.

A couple of kilometres beyond Laggan is Millstone Point, a boulder beach backed by crags.  On the shore is an almost intact millstone which looks to have been damaged while being prepared for transport - it's easy to imagine what the reaction of the stonemason might have been when the stone he'd painstakingly shaped was broken at the last moment!  Not easy to spot from the shore, it's worth landing here if you can to find this and possibly other relics.

The next point of interest on this superb stretch of coast is the prosaically named Fallen Rocks.  My image does the tumble of boulders little justice, the blocks are about house sized and have come right down the 200 metre slope.  The rockfall is on a contact zone between millstone grits and the conglomerates and sandstones of Arran's east coast. Alternate bands of pebble studded conglomerates and warm brown sandstone can be clearly made out in the blocks, evidence of an arid climate alternating with devastating floods in the distant past.  Local tradition has it that this rockfall occured during an earthquake sometime around the 17th century and the noise could be heard on the Isle of Bute.  Near to the rockfall is a set of beacons arranged vertically up the hillside; one of a pair marking the "measured mile" used by ships to establish their maximum and service speeds after building - I've several times been on ships which have completed runs of this mile.

The view beneath our boats into the clear water was absolutely stunning, but as we rounded the next point and started to head south........

.....a wider and more dramatic view opened up above the water.

Monday 9 June 2014

An Arran Amble - weathering the Cock

As we paddled out of Loch Ranza towards Newton Point, the rain simply pelted down.  Visibility was dramatically reduced and background noise was drowned out in the static roar of raindrops hitting the water - and us.

There's something quite nice about paddling in heavy rain like this; snug in drysuits and enclosed in boats we stayed dry and comfortable through 40 minutes of torrential downpour.  The rain certainly flattened out the sea surface; we'd been expecting difficult conditions here as the wind had been from the north for the previous two days, but we passed this potential crux point with no difficulty.  Remarkably, the rain stopped, the sky cleared and the sun came out just as we....

....arrived at our intended camping site at the ruined settlement of Cock.  Named after the nearby point of Cock of Arran, the tiny inlet we landed at has some scattered ruins which we were keen to explore once we got our tents pitched.

In the early 18th century a deposit of low grade coal was discovered here, and despite the somewhat confined and unpromising location, the Duke of Hamilton decided to try and establish a salt works.  He already owned a large and successful salt enterprise based at Bo'ness on the Forth and imported some workers from there to establish the works.  The coal was used to boil seawater in a large "pan" located in a building close to the shore in order to extract the salt.  The other ruins here are of buildings and shelters for the salters.  Several water filled depressions are believed to be collapsed mine workings and there is the ruin of what appears to have been a water mill.  The venture operated between 1710 and 1735 before the coal was exhausted and is a good example of many such small scale saltworks around the coast.

This day of our journey had an amazing variety of weather.  Having been in strong wind, cold showers then pelting rain we now were baked in an enervating heat as the afternoon sun broke through.  There were a couple of heavy showers as we collected firewood and sorted our kit, which gave us a neat excuse to take a small rest in the tents- we may even have closed our eyes briefly!  We were grateful for a small breeze which arrived and kept the midges at bay.

We took a good look around the ruins before lighting our fire and starting dinner.  This could never have been anything other than a hard place to carry out coal mining and salt panning, particularly given the restricted space between the shore and the steep hillside above.

There is little left here to mark the labours of those 18th century workers, nature is fast reclaiming the site.

Our view to the west was to the mouth of Loch Fyne, where there appeared to be some pretty intense weather happening......

Fortunately it seemed to avoid us and we enjoyed a comfortable last evening of the journey.  Our four campsites had in some ways been very different, but all had been enjoyable.  There is no better way to connect with the landscape through which one travels than sleeping out on it, and our wild camps had been a highlight of the trip.