Wednesday 25 February 2015

Moonlighting on the Correen hills

"The most difficult expedition to achieve on mountains in this country is a moonlight climb in winter.
Not that the difficulties are technical.  A full moon among snow-mountains will normally provide
visibility of twenty-five miles - if the sky be clear.
And that is the root of the problem : to combine leisure with a full moon, a hard frost, and a clear sky.
Success needs patience, long and persistent patience."

   W.H. (Bill) Murray from "Undiscovered Scotland" 1951

The night climb Bill Murray went on to describe was a traverse of Glencoe's Aonach Eagach  in 1947 on a night when the moon lit the way and the climb was enhanced by a display of the Aurora Borealis.  He and Donald McIntyre finished the climb and waited to watch the dawn before descending.  It's a truly inspirational chapter in one of the two works of mountaineering literature which have most inpired me - the other is also by W.H. Murray - his unsurpassed work "Mountaineering in Scotland" which was written whilst a prisoner of war.
I've been lucky enough to be able to combine all the right conditions twice, once in England's Lake District on an icy round of the Kentmere hills and once on a climb of Lochnagar.  The opportunities are rare and fleeting - hesitate and they're gone.

3rd February 2015 was a full moon.  It had snowed heavily during the day and frequent snow showers fell into the evening, the sky more overcast than clear.  Then, after 10pm when I was just going to bed I took a last look outside.....

The cloud, though not completely cleared, was thin and patchy allowing the moon to shine through with astonishing intensity onto the snowy fields behind the house.  I simply couldn't go to bed and pass up this rare chance.  The roads were snow-covered and untreated so going any distance wouldn't be advisable - I thought closer to home and decided to try for a round on the Correen Hills.  Driving to the top of the Suie road would get me high to start with provided I could drive up there.

I packed a rucksac with full winter hillwalking kit and took food and water sufficient for the night; I was quite prepared to make it a full night walk if the conditions held.  It seemed that I could snatch most of the conditions described above save that I'd be on hills rather than the high mountains.

I got up to the start point on a somewhat tricky road and had to use a snow shovel to dig a parking space such was the snow which had fallen during the day.  Right from starting out my head-torch remained in my pocket, I just didn't need it even in the forest.  The forest tracks were ankle deep in snow; I had considered skis but on unconsolidated snow they wouldn't have been much quicker than walking.

When the moon was in the patches of completely clear sky the quality of light was absolutely amazing, an intense, pure hard white light throwing pin-sharp shadows.  It was cold and breezy but I was getting increasingly warm walking through the deepening snow.  I'd hoped that the snow on the exposed ridges of the Correen Hills would have been scoured clear by the wind but in fact it was even deeper above the forest; and was proving to be unmitigated labour to walk - at times- wade- through.

I decided to scale back my plans and to make the first summit of the ridge, Mire of Midgates, my objective.  The 1.5km traverse from the treeline to the 487 metre/1598 ft summit took well over an hour of hard graft and I was breathing very heavily when I got there - but the view was more than worth the effort.

To the north the distinctive shape of Tap o' Noth with its hillfort was alternately spotlit and thrown into chalky shadow as the cloudbreaks raced overhead.  To the west the big Cairngorm hills were a sweep of white across the horizon - pin sharp across 40 kilometres of space; I was able to pick out the tors on Beinn a'Bhuird although my photographs in that direction didn't expose at all well.  I spent a full half hour just watching the scene as the moonlight came and went; it was a truly great night to be out on the hill.

Eventually the cold started to bite and it was time for me to head back. The tracks I'd ploughed made my return a little easier even though they'd partially drifted-in during the time I'd been on the ridge.

Perhaps the most atmospheric part of the walk was coming back down when I opted to use a route down a narrow firebreak rather than the wide forest track.  The moon lit the way and both trees and snow were sparkling in its hard light.  The air itself was glittering as, sheltered from the wind, frost and tiny snow particles caught the moon's light as they fell.

I'd fallen short of the conditions described by Bill Murray in being on lower hills, on a night less than fully clear and on unconsolidated snow which had curtailed a longer expedition, but I didn't care one bit.  The rare coincidence of conditions had given me a memorable night out.

At 0200 I arrived back at the car for the short drive back down the hill to home and bed - the xenon glare of the headlights the only artificial light I'd needed during the whole walk.......

Monday 23 February 2015

Scottish Pine Martens - a film by Simon Willis

 I mentioned in a previous post that our friends Simon and Liz have a Pine Marten visiting their garden near Loch Sunart in Ardnamurchan.  Simon has made a really lovely short film of these beautiful and engaging animals, shot mainly on DSLR and of superb quality.  You can  either watch it here:

or at Simon's site at Scottish Pine Martens

 As Simon points out during the commentary, you wouldn't want a Pine Marten family to gain access to your loft or outbuilding as they can cause quite a bit of damage - but seriously, who wouldn't want to have a garden visitor like this?  :o) 

Saturday 21 February 2015

On "irresponsibility, setting a bad example and endangering the lives of others" - and on choice.......

In recent posts on our blogs, Douglas and I have mentioned that we sometimes enjoy a small dram of malt whisky with luncheon during our sea kayaking trips (but never with second breakfasts!).  We also sometimes enjoy a pint of frothing "sports recovery drink" - for which read beer- with our evening meals.

We have both received comments on our posts (here and here) from "Responsible Seakayaker" who is clearly very unhappy about this.  He or she - the contributor has chosen to remain anonymous - placed identical comments:

"I am a responsible sea kayaker and I strongly object to your repeated glorification of the consumption of alcohol on your sea kayaking trips. Have you no insight into the bad example you are setting to impressionable sea kayakers whose lives are endangered by your irresponsibility? You should be ashamed of yourself."

"RSK" is of course entitled to his or her opinion, and for that reason I've chosen not to delete the comment.  I do however feel that some context might be helpful.

We both live healthy and active lifestyles.  The measures we sometimes imbibe at our luncheon stops are tiny.  There is no risk of our getting anywhere near the revised Scottish BAC limit for driving.  Should conditions on the water be at all difficult we choose not to take any alcohol.  During the evening and when safely off the water for the day, we may choose to enjoy a more liberal dram, or a beer, but not to excess. We may very well choose to have a hot chocolate drink or a cup of tea instead......

Malt whisky is in a very literal sense the distilled form of its place and the elements which combine to produce the spirit; in moderation we choose to consider it one of life's small pleasures.

Each and every sea kayaker I've met has been capable of making their own choices and decisions - the very antithesis of "impressionable".  Some of the folk I paddle and walk the mountains with enjoy a small dram, others choose not to. To imply that sea kayakers are so impressionable that lives will be placed in danger by our "irresponsibility" is, I believe, stretching credibility and perhaps mildy disrespectful. 

But, for the avoidance of doubt:

"Alcohol can impair your judgement, affect your coordination, make you more liable to exposure and if you are male, make you impotent. Excessive consumption and misuse of alcohol damages health and ruins lives."

We all have choices and the choices we make shape us and determine the paths our lives take.  "RSK" will very probably choose to disagree with much of this post - and that's fine.  He or she has that choice and many other choices too.

These pages will continue to portray, to celebrate and hopefully even to glorify the Scottish outdoors and the wonderful locations and experiences we are fortunate to share as part of a healthy lifestyle.  This may very well include the mention of an occasional dram...... 

And I'm not the tiniest bit ashamed of that.

SlĂ inte mhath!  (good health!)   :o)

    Spring evening at a camp on the Kilbrannan Sound - "irresponsible, a bad example and a danger to the lives of others" ?

Wednesday 18 February 2015

In the bleak midwinter - lime and coda

From Castle Stalker we used the sails to speed our passage across to Shuna Island.  There's another island called Shuna, somewhat further south at the mouth of Loch Melfort, but the one we were headed for is the Loch Linnhe version.  We paddled up the west side until we found a fine place for luncheon on a small sandy beach at the head of a bay and sheltered from the wind.

After a leisurely lunch stop we headed around the north tip of Shuna and straight into a stiff southeasterly breeze.  It requred a reasonable amount of effort to push against both the wind and the start of the flood tide, but ahead of us was a great view down the Lynn of Lorn to the Garvellachs, the scene lit by occasional shafts of watery winter sunlight.

After circumnavigating Shuna we continued south and made our way to Eilean nan Caorach (Sheep Island) where we landed in front of the cottages and industrial relics.  The base rock heareabouts is lime-rich and was quarried quite extensively.  the cottages would have been occupied by the quarrymen and lime-burners, there is a storehouse, a pier and three single-chamber lime kilns, all of differing designs.

The smallest of the three kilns appears to be the oldest and is in a fairly ruinous state.  given the extensive cracks down the walls we were disinclined to venture within!

The largest of the three may well be the most recent and is in a sound condition.  The rock was quarried and in this style of kiln would have been broken to lumps and layered with coal or coke on a raised grate.  The size of the lumps was important because the fire had to "breathe".  The fire would be lit and at approximately 900 degrees Celcius a chemical reaction (calcination) initiated and quicklime produced which could be raked through the grate. 

Most lime kilns are of a very similar size as a result of optimisation. The aperture was known as the "eye" and the chamber is almost always eggcup shaped.  Usually a batch took a day to load, three days to fire, two days to cool and a day to unload.  Typically 25-30 tonnes of lime would be produced in a batch, requiring about 12-15 tonnes of coal to fuel the fire.  The quicklime which was produced was quite caustic but could be altered to make lime for mortar and for agricultural use.  It must have been hot, dangerous work and it's difficult to believe that life expectancy was very high for the workers.  The kilns on Eilean nan Caorach and nearby Lismore were active from the 1790's until well through the 1800's.

From above, the size of the flue is obvious.......

...and from inside the burning chamber the inticate brickwork is seen to good effect; a fine Victorian engineering job.

We moved on from Eilean nan Caorach a little further south, to Port Ramsay at the north tip of Lismore (Lios Mor - big garden)  No doubt the gaelic name is indicative of the fertility of this limestone-rich island. 

We made a brief coffee stop on one of the small tidal islands clustered just off Port ramsay and enjoyed the view back over Eilean nan Caorach and Shuna to the Appin shore.  Our midwinter trip was almost over, but we had one last treat in store....

Heading out past the north tip of Lismore we were exposed to the full force of the flood tide as it compressed through the north end of the Lynn of Lorn.  We had to PLF for a good ten minutes to get around the small skerries and then set up for a ferry-glide back to Port Appin; it certainly rewarmed us! 

To the south, a vivid streak of sunset colour beyond the Garvellachs developed across the horizon, providing the perfect coda to a great winter trip.

It hadn't turned out to be a bleak midwinter at all!

Tuesday 17 February 2015

In the bleak midwinter - red blood, grey stone and a pink with yellow spots lighthouse...

For the final day of our midwinter trip we decided on a shorter paddle, starting at Port Appin.  We would head north to Castle Stalker before circumnavigating Shuna Island.  We also hoped to visit some of the smaller islands off the north end of Lismore.

This area is justifiably popular for sea kayaking as it packs history, wildlife, numerous islands and a bit of tidal flow into a small area.  Having said that, we once again saw more Sea Eagles and Otters than other kayakers !

The trip can be done from a long layby at Polanach on the A828 road but we chose Port Appin as our starting point.  There is parking here just across the road from the jetty which services Lismore, but in summer it can be difficult to find space to park.  Traditionally the ferry port for Lismore, Port Appin was once a busy steamer port and more recently was the main crossing point for workers at the huge Glensanda granite quarry across Loch Linnhe

We set out northwards against the last of the ebb tide and soon passed the small lighthouse on Sgeir Bhuidhe (yellow skerry - probably named due to the bright yellow lichen which grows on the rocks).  The first light tower here was a 7 metre high iron tower on a brick base designed by David Alan Stevenson in 1903 and powered by acetylene. It marked the passage from Shuna Island into the Lynn of Lorn and exhibited a white flash with a red sector once every six seconds, visible for up to nine nautical miles.

In 2000 plans were drawn up to dismantle the old light and replace it with a steel tower with white aluminium panels to a simple but souless design.  A local campaign was started to preserve the style of the light which gained wide publicity when the entire existing structure was painted pink with yellow spots in 2001.   Officials at the Northern Lighthouse Board were less than amused, but some good did come of the prank because the plans were revisited and a fibreglass tower more in keeping with the traditional design replaced the old light in 2002, powered by solar panels.  The original lantern is on display in Port Appin village together with an information board.

We hoisted sails in the freshening breeze and in no time were arriving below the somewhat older landmark of the iconic 13th century Castle Stalker (Stalcaire - hunter (falconer)).  Built on a rocky outcrop at the mouth of Loch Laich it is surrounded by water except at very low tides when mud and sand would have anyway slowed down any assault.  As with many of the castles in the area it belonged to the MacDougalls of Lorn, a half-norse pirate clan who based their power on control of the sea and on their Birlinns - fast, light ships which could be rowed or sailed and were based on Norse longship designs.

The especially bloody history of the castle is well told on the Castle Stalker website, starting with a murder in 1463, and continuing in a litany of bloodshed until a final unfortunate killing as recently as 1949 when the then owner Duncan Stewart was stabbed in Sarawak; he died a week later.  The castle was purchased by the late Lt Col D.R. Stewart Allward in 1965 and restored by his and his family's labour to a fully habitable state - a quite remarkable achievement.  Some images of the interior of the castle are contained in the "Canmore" archives.

Castle Stalker is one of the iconic images of this part of Scotland, and has also been etched into popular culture by appearing as "Castle Aaaaarghh" in the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", notably when King Arthur is taunted from the walls by a defender with an outrageous French accent......

The building is well seen from the road above Loch Laich, but close up the details come alive.  Above the door is a carved coat of arms, heavily weathered but appearing to bear a figure in the centre.

The thin breeze was getting quite chilly so we finished our exploration of the outside of the castle and the island and headed back down to get moving under sail in our own versions of Birlinns!

Friday 13 February 2015

In the bleak midwinter - hearts of oak

After lunch we set off back along the shores of Loch Sunart towards Strontian.  The shoreline is generally rocky and wooded to almost the tide-line with a mix of mainly oak and birch with some holly, rowan and hazel.

The oakwoods here are of international importance as they are one of the largest surviving areas of Atlantic Maritime oak woodland - Scotland's very own rainforest.  The oaks are not the huge English oaks, but Sessile oaks (Quercus petraea) which grow smaller and can tolerate high rainfall.  Rainfall is what really makes these woods so special, the very wet climate favours luxuriant carpets of "lower plants"- mosses, liverworts and lichens - covering boulders and fallen branches in a green profusion.  Clearings within the wood are home to flowering plants and moor grass which in turn provide food for butterflies; the Ariundle woods are among the few sites where Chequered Skipper and Pearl Bordered Fritillaries can be found in Scotland, both species requiring the specialised conditions and food plants found in an Atlantic Oak wood.

Of course an oak wood is one of the most productive of forests.  In Spring and Summer the wood bursts into life and is full of the hum of insects and with birdsong.  This area is also a stronghold for scarce mammals such as Wildcat and Pine Marten; in fact Simon and Liz have a Pine Marten regularly visiting their garden.

It's perhaps in Spring and Autumn when these woods are at their most vibrant and full of colour and life, but winter is by no means a "dead" time in a wood.  These most special, most Scottish woods - the Atlantic rainforests- are a delight all year and it's intruiging to think that at one time most of the western sea-lochs would have been wooded just like this.

Precipitation is what sets the oak woods apart, and as we paddled along we were precipitated on by sweeping snow showers which trailed curtains down the loch, but it was by no means cold.

Between the showers occasional patches of sun enhanced the contours of the hills near the head of the loch; this is Garbh Bheinn, the other flank of the mountain which we'd seen so well a couple of days previously

Part way up the loch Mike noticed a tiny sandy beach exposed by the ebbing tide.  This was too good to pass and we pulled in for second luncheon, this time accompanied by a rather fine dram of Jura.  Malt whisky is of course matured in oak casks, it was very appropriate to be sitting below the living relatives of the casks which contained the spirit that so warmed our hearts!

 Photo: Simon Willis
Simon suddenly laughed and pulled out his camera - his snapshot caught Mike, Douglas and I looking very much like the three characters from the TV series "Last Of The Summer Wine", though perhaps "Last of the Winter Whisky" might be more appropriate.........  :o)

Suitably refuelled we got back in the boats for the last few kilometres to Strontian.  The wind had died completely and a luminous mist lent an ethereal quality to the light, it was a very relaxed paddle.

Approaching Strontian we had a most marvellous view ahead.  The mist had put a lid across Loch Sunart and the eye was drawn to the only clear air, through the trench of Glen Tarbert to the brilliantly snow-covered hills of Glencoe across Loch Linnhe.  It had been great to catch up with our friends Liz and Simon and the day had been winter at its most gentle......heart-warming among the oaks.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

In the bleak midwinter - friends reunited on Loch Sunart

The third day of our winter trip would start with the ferry crossing from Lochaber to Ardgour at Corran.  It's only a short distance across Loch Linnhe but a vital link for those who live in Ardgour and Ardnamurchan and avoids a very lengthy road route around the head of Loch Eil.  We'd loaded the boats onto the cars the previous evening and left in good time to ensure that we caught the planned ferry.

After disembarking on the Ardgour side we drove over to Strontian where we'd arranged to meet our friends Simon and Liz at the jetty just to the east of the village.  Launching is easy here, but parking is limited and needs to be done considerately to avoid inconveniencing other jetty users.  The weather looked to be shaping into a fine day with light winds and there was a lovely delicate quality to the morning light.

We were delighted that Liz and Simon were able to join us, particularly as this is their local paddle.  The last time that Simon, Liz, Douglas and I were all on the water together had been during a wonderful trip to St Kilda in the summer of 2011 and though we'd met up since we'd not managed out on the water.

We set out down Loch Sunart in really great conditions with sunny skies and snowy hills all around - a really super morning to be out on the water.  There was no target which had to be reached; we planned to just paddle until lunchtime, then wherever that found us we'd head back up, exploring along the northern shore with its very special Maritime Oak forest.

An occasional breeze sprang up to give a little gentle kayak sailing practice.  This was a useful opportunity for me to experiment with the sail for a few minutes, then recover it as the others caught up.

Loch Sunart is a narrow, fjord-like sea loch with a number of twists and turns along its length.  The upper (eastern) part is dominated by Beinn Resipol which was looking splendid under a covering of snow.

After threading through the narrow part of the loch at Laudale and threading through some of the tiny islands here we began to look for a lunch spot.  The tide was quite low which meant that some of the beaches which would normally be ideal had weed covered rock exposed, but soon we pulled into a bay which Simon pointed out - time for lunch!

Thursday 5 February 2015

In the bleak midwinter - blowing in the wind

We left Eilean Balnagowan heading back north, the wind from over our right shoulders.  I thought I'd try the Flat Earth Kayak Sail in something a little more, well, breezy than we'd experienced in Loch Leven.  Although very much a novice sea-kayak sailor I do have a good bit of dinghy sailing experience from - let's say some years ago.....

The sail deployed with a satisfying "whuff!" and immediately the boat started to accelerate.......

 A quick photograph over my shoulder shows the wake of the boat beginning to increase.  You will notice that Mike hadn't deployed his sail; the reason for which became rapidly apparent  As I moved out of the wind-shadow of Eilean Balnagowan the wind increased almost instantaneously and what had been a pleasantly quick ride became a whole lot more involving as I was driven down the wind with a choppy quarter sea quickly building.  After some minutes of trying to ride out these awkward conditions I admitted defeat and let the sail fly before turning into wind and recovering it.  Douglas shot past on an impressive plane, his P & H Aries alive and surging in the strengthening wind.  My ambition had markedly exceeded my skill but at least now I had a frame of reference for future sailing!

As we made progress back up Loch Linnhe the wind dropped and we enjoyed an altogether more leisurely paddle.

We'd passed by Kentallen Bay on our outward paddle but explored the extent of the inlet on our return.  A narrow natural harbour, Kentallen Bay once had a railway station and pier which was used to extract slate.  It also has a type of biotite rock named after the village and found almost nowhere else.

The rotting remains of another pier lie further up towards Ballachulish, the timber piles all that remain..... provide some manoeuvring practice to passing paddlers!

All too soon we were paddling up towards the slipway at Ballachulish.  With the flood behind us this was an effortless last few kilometres.  The light was fading as we passed the Ballachulish Hotel; we could virtually see into our rooms!

It had been amost pleasant day, despite the grey skies. After restorative baths, we reconvened in the hotel bar for a round of pre-dinner frothing sports recovery drinks and planned the next day of our trip.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

In the bleak midwinter - blood on the beaches of Loch Linnhe

The second day of our midwinter trip dawned cloudy but not as cold as the previous morning.  We were on the water before sunrise and took advantage of the ebb tide pouring out from the Ballachulish narrows and of an easterly breeze, both of which sped us out of Loch Leven and into the long expanse of Loch Linnhe.  The snow had settled and receded noticeably overnight and undeniably the view wasn't as stunning as the previous day, but we certainly weren't complaining!

Our loose plan was to use the ebb to help us down Loch Linnhe before using the flood tide later on to assist us back up to Ballachulish.  We also hoped that a forecast increase in the southeasterly breeze might give us conditions for kayak sailing back northward.  We had no definite goal but thought that it would be good to visit Eilean Balnagowan and possibly the north tip of Shuna before heading back.

It was a pleasant and quiet morning as we paddled along the Appin shore below Ardsheal Hill, the little hill with the big view.  Here on the eastern side of Loch Linnhe there is farmland and some houses and small settlements on the gently sloping ground.  Across on the western side the ground is much steeper with wooded slopes falling straight to the water.  Surprisingly, none of us had paddled this stretch before; we reflected that often Loch Linnhe is overlooked en route to other destinations, but it does make a pleasant paddle in calm conditions. 

We considered using Cuil Bay as a luncheon spot but quickly realised that it would be exposed to the southeasterly wind which was slowly increasing as forecast.  So when a nice shingle beach with shelter from the wind appeared, the vote was unanimous - second breakfast!

Whilst we brewed coffee, Douglas noticed quite a quantity of blood on his drysuit.  It turned out that he had cut a finger in two places whilst landing, possibly on a sharp stone as there are some beds of particularly jaggy rock at the top of this beach which seems to break readily into fragments.  Due to the cold he'd felt nothing of the cuts and only became aware of them from the steady drip of blood.  A dig into our boats produced three first aid kits and the cut was soon patched up.  Back on the water and our leisurely pace seemed very appropriate for what was an altogether quiet day.

As we came out of the shelter of the Appin shore and into Cuil Bay things got a little less quiet.  Shortly after taking this photograph the wind increased markedly from ahead.  It took a bit of effort to paddle up the F4 - F5 wind to gain the stony beach on Eilean Balnagowan, especially for Mike who found the bow of his boat being constantly blown downwind.  A quick restow of kit on arrival at the island transformed the handling of his boat.  We also re-dressed the cut on Douglas' finger, one cut being on the joint of the knuckle meant that movement on the paddle was opening it constantly.  At least his boat is red so it didn't show up too much!

After second luncheon we took a quick look around the island which has some fresh infrastructure in the form of a landing place, a track and a new house.  Eilean Balnagowan is "Island of the goat town", but we appeared to be the only semi-bearded occupants present!  the words "Gobhar", "Gowan" and "gown" in place-names all hint at association with goats which were much more numerous in the past.

The wind was now quite fresh from the southeast and we decided that it would be quite hard work to make it down the loch as far as Shuna (beyond Eilean Balnagowan to the right in this photograph) so we prepared to head back up Loch Linnhe.  Helpfully the flood had started so we'd have a tiny bit of tidal assistance, I was about to get more than enough wind assistance....