Tuesday 31 March 2015

A melted fort on a Burnt Island

The final part of our day in the Kyles of Bute was visiting the Burnt Islands, a collection of three small islands at the top of the East Kyle.  We arrived at the largest of the three, apropriately named Eilean Mor (Big Island) just as the tidal stream was turning, but didn't land as the gulls were already in residence and it's a noisy place in the Spring.

The short crossing to the second largest island crosses the narrow navigable channel, marked by red and green conical buoys.  The tide runs strongly here; just five minutes after slack water and the west going stream was already beginning to take effect.

We landed on the smallest of the islands, Eilean Buidhe (yellow island) simply because none of us had done so previously.  The rock on the shore has some wonderful textures and patterns.

The remains of a vitrified hillfort can be found on this island, though the visible evidence isn't too obvious - a low bank enclosing a flattened area.  It must have once been in a very strategic position to control sea traffic through the Kyles although defensivley it doesn't seem to have been very strong.  The main defence now is the profusion of brambles across the whole island - a few weeks later and we wouldn't have been able to reach the fort at all.

In the distance the Colintraive - Rhubodach ferry can be seen leaving the mainland for the short crossing to Bute, a few hundred metres only at this point.  Our cars were waiting at the parking area adjacent to the ferry slip and our short day out was nearly over.   We paddled and sailed just 16 kilometres on this trip, but managed to pack in two luncheons, musical entertainment, great kayak sailing conditions and good company.........

Monday 30 March 2015

An Caladh - the harbour

On the crossing from Kames back towards Bute we got into the wind shadow of the hills at the north end of the island and the wind died away completely.

The Highland Boundary Fault passes through the centre of Bute along the trench of Loch Fad (Long Loch) and divides the island's geology and landforms markedly.  South of the fault line the land is comparatively low-lying with rolling, fertile farmland pierced by volcanic rocks.  North of the fault line the landscape is most definitely Highland in character with steep slopes, craggy hills and much poorer soil.  We kept close along the shore enjoying the quiet atmosphere and the wader calls as we went.

Near the northernmost point of the island stand the Maids of Bute, two large rocks which were first painted over 100 years ago.  When I first saw the Maids they were decorated in simple red and white colour bands but lately the decoration has become garish, the rocks painted to resemble cartoon creatures.  They're still an interesting and unusual feature of the landscape though!

Turning away from Bute as we passed the Maids, our next destination was An Caladh (the harbour), a protected bay near the mouth of Loch Riddon formed by the close proximity of Eilean Dubh (Black or Dark Island).  The island has been overrun by Rhododendron originally planted on the Caladh estate as decorative shrubs, but the larger trees rising above the choking vegetation host a large heronry.  Any visit here in late Spring is accompanied by the unearthly clamour, shrieks, clacking and hissing of the young herons.

The entrance to An Caladh is marked by a stone light tower which once held an oil lamp, again dating from the heyday of the big estates.  Nowadays the bay is a popular anchorage for yachtsmen transiting the Kyles of Bute. 

At one end of the bay is the jetty once used by Caladh estate, which was latterly owned by the Clark family (of Clarks shoes).  The boathouse and harbour cottages are now holiday homes but one former occupant was an inspiration for the author Neil Munro when he wrote the series of stories featuring Peter Macfarlane, the Gaelic-speaking skipper of a Clyde Puffer - better known as Para Handy

As the houses were unoccupied at the time of our visit we landed on the slipway and took second luncheon on the manicured turf of the jetty.......

           ...including the soup du jour, home-made  Sweet Potato, Butternut Squash & Chili

The jetty is complete with a remarkably well-preserved derrick crane.  Aside from Puffers, yachts and kayaks, other vessels have used the shelter of An Caladh.  During the Second World War, Glen Caladh Castle was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS James Cook.  The area around the Kyles and Loch Riddon was utilised to train beach landing and coastal navigation to Landing Craft crews, the name of the establishment is a reference to the new techniques which Captain James Cook introduced to the Navy.

The area was also utilised for the training of X-Craft crews.  Based at Port Bannatyne on Bute and headquartered in the Kyles Hydro Hotel which was known as HMS Varbel, X-Craft miniature submarines were designed to attack shipping in harbours and anchorages, and were used in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz as well as the sinking of two Italian cruisers.  The four-man crews of these 35 tonne vessels displayed incredible skill and bravery both in training and on operations; in total 39 men were killed serving in X-Craft and 68 awards for bravery were made, including four of the Victoria Cross.  A memorial to the service is displayed at St Ninian's church in Port Bannatyne.

An Caladh is a place which nowadays has a calm and tranquil atmosphere; there are woodland walks nearby and it's well worth a visit whether by water or on foot.

Friday 27 March 2015

The Craic at Kames

 Having lifted our boats just far enough up the beach to allow luncheon and a frothing sports recovery drink, we adjourned to the bar of the Kames Hotel.  Recently decorated and very welcoming, the hotel bar has a fine view of the West Kyle and we struck up a conversation with a group of customers who'd observed our speedy crossing of the Kyle under sail.  Remarkably, Phil found that he knew some of the same people and so some lively craic ensued.

Our food order of two vegetarian burgers and two home-made beef burgers was fairly straightforward and before long we were sitting down to luncheon.  The hotel is well used to serving yachtsmen, kayakers and divers so a table of four in drysuits didn't even raise an eyebrow.

The folk we'd been chatting with disappeared temporarily, but soon returned with a treat......

....a musical treat.  All four were folk musicians and an impromtu session started as we finished our meal.  Other diners entering the bar were amused to see a band playing with an audience dressed in drysuits singing along!

Such a spontaneous "session" presented us with some difficulty.  It would be great to have another sports recovery drink and listen to the music for a while, but that's how afternoons can become messy!  We imbibe very sparingly when kayaking, and anyway our tidal rise versus carrying distance equations had been quite precise......regretfully we said our farewells and headed back down to the boats.

The combination of location, the welcome, the ambience, food and range of beers makes the Kames Hotel a great sea-kayaking establishment - we score it 12/10; if you're lucky enough to be in when there's a band staying the weekend, make that 13/10  !

Back on the water, we lost the strength of the wind once we crossed over to the northern shore of Bute, leaving just a gentle breeze to to carry the sound of music across from Kames.....

Wednesday 25 March 2015

A blast in the Kyles of Bute

Whilst visiting relatives on the island of Bute I was able to meet up with David, Phil and Douglas for a paddle.  The weather forecast predicted southeasterly winds of F4-5 so we chose to start our trip at Kildavanan on the west coast of Bute, paddle up the west Kyle and through to finish at Rhubodach at the top of the east Kyle where we'd pre-positioned our cars.  It was a tricky launch through rocks at low water, but this was preferable to carrying the boats for half a kilometre across the sands at nearby Ettrick Bay.

There was already a steady breeze blowing when we started out, so the sails went up as soon as we were clear of the shore.  We made a gentle passage north for a couple of kilometres before I needed to stop at a small sandy beach to adjust the seat in my boat; also the perfect opportunity for a hot drink to warm us up a little....

Back underway and the wind was picking up nicely to give us a good push along. This is sea kayak sailing rather than plain sailing so we kept up a steady paddle cadence but in terms of effort expended it really felt like kiddy-on kayaking in the Kyles!  This seems to me to be the real advantage of a sail on a sea kayak; the opportunity for the sail to assist rather than replace the paddle, increasing speed and decreasing effort in suitable conditions.

We had decided to cross to the Argyll (mainland) side of the west Kyle for a rather specific reason and as the wind continued to rise so did our speed.  Shortly after I took this image we got a sudden increase to the F5 predicted in the weather forecast and simply flew along on a broad reach straight towards the village of Kames.  I enjoyed this downwind blast enormously; the maximum speed we recorded was 14.5km/h or nearly 8 knots; more than twice the maximum sustained speed we could have achieved by paddling alone - and it was such exhilarating fun too!

We sped like arrows towards the Kames Hotel, the large sign outside provides a great aiming point, our speed slackenening only slightly as we neared the shore......

.......indeed David approached at such a lick that we thought he might be aiming to sail straight up the beach and into the hotel....

Once we were landed and the sails were stowed, complex mathematical calculations were conducted to determine just how far up the beach the boats should be carried to allow a relaxed luncheon - conservation of energy being key on a kayak sailing trip :o)

Saturday 21 March 2015

A quiet corner in Kentra Bay

Unfortunately Douglas still felt too unwell to paddle on the final day of our winter trip in the Glenuig area.  Allan and I decided on a short trip at Kentra Bay, from where we could return to meet Alison and Douglas for coffee and cake at the Glenuig Inn.  We chose the location to get some shelter from the F4-5 westerly wind, starting from the small car park at Ardtoe (at which there's a very modest 50p per day charge utilising an honesty box).

Kentra Bay is a shallow enclosed bay backed by saltmarsh at the head with woods along the western side and a rocky channel at the entrance. There are a couple of small islands with narrow channels through which the tide runs. The bay almost completely dries at low water to reveal a huge expanse of sand rich in molluscs, so it's also very rich in birdlife particularly waders and wildfowl and Otters are often seen.  The general topography of the sand is almost flat, so the tide goes out very quickly; when paddling here the timing needs to be good to avoid a long wait for the water to return.....

We paddled clockwise around the bay, our pace slow and relaxed as we absorbed the atmosphere of this quiet corner.  Overhead the clouds racing past indicated the wind out in the open but in the bay there was almost no wind.  Work was going on to fell a birch tree near the shore and at first there was the sound of a chainsaw echoing around, but after a short while it stopped and there was just the sound of waders and ducks calling as the tide began to recede and uncover feeding ground.

In the far west corner of the bay we came across this shingle beach - a quiet corner in a quiet place.  It seemed the perfect spot to take lunch.....

The continuing fall of the tide meant we didn't linger too long after lunch, setting out to enter the channel and paddle out to the western side of the entrance, Sgeir a'Chaolais (skerry of the channel).

We'd decided on a quick visit to the beaches below Torr Beithe before returning to Ardtoe.

This short stretch of coast consists of a dune system fronted by two sandy crescents.  Allan has camped here and I've seen an Otter on the sand on a previous visit.  There were none to be seen this time......

...but there are definitely still Otters here.  A short crossing back to Ardtoe completed our trip and we loaded up and headed back to Glenuig.  This is a great half day paddle if tidal conditions are right ,best done an hour or so either side of high water and can be particularly good when other locations are too windy.  We paddled around 11 km in a little over two hours but it had been a very relaxing morning in a quiet corner.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Shifting mist and disappearing beaches

Allan and I left Port an t-Sluichd and headed across the mouth of Loch nan Uamh (Loch of the caves) towards the Arisaig shore and the scatter of islands and skerries known collectively as the Borrodale Islands.  The mist was shifting constantly, sometimes clearing to allow a little sunshine to light up the scene, at other times drawing a grey veil over the sea.

We stopped on the Arisaig side of the loch to take first luncheon and then to explore the Borrodale Islands, each of which is different from the others in terms of vegetation.  For some reason none of my photographs from this section exposed properly - perhaps due to the lighting conditions but more likely a setting I'd changed on the camera. 

After exploring about half way up Loch nan Uamh we crossed back over the loch to the Ardnish side and began our return to Glenuig.

The south (Ardnish) shore is steep and rocky for almost its entire length and offers few landing places.  I've seen a Sea Eagle here and on another occasion the carcass of a Red Deer stag suspended part way down a narrow rock cleft by its antlers; a perfect hanging larder for Eagles, Ravens and Gulls. 

Today it was a steady paddle back past Port an-t Sluichd from where we intended to avoid the fresh breeze and bouncy conditions of the open water by island-hopping behind Eilean a Chaolais and Eilean nan Gobhar as we crossed Loch Ailort.

Passing between the point of Rubha Chaolais (point of the channel) and Eilean Chaolais was good fun with a building swell pushing us through against the ebb tide pouring out of Loch Ailort; we fairly shot through the metre high standing waves and into the calm water beyond.

Our eyes and our bows were drawn irresistably towards the small silver sand beaches between the point and Peanmenach - time for second luncheon accompanied by a dram of Allan's Highland Park, just lovely.  These beaches (there are two) are sun-traps in the summer as they face south and one can spend a very pleasant hour or so soaking up the warmth with a super view out to the island of Eigg.

If you try to find these beaches for yourself (and you should!), make sure to look when the tide is in the lower half of its cycle; above half tide they simply disappear.

Eventually the cold breeze persuaded us that it was time to leave this lovely spot and we prepared to set out on the last part of our day's paddle back to Glenuig......

                                                   ....passing Eilean nan Gobhar.....

.........all the time treated to a changing view as the mist shifted and the sun lit up patches of hillside.

We had to paddle against a stiff breeze to gain the shelter of Glenuig Bay where we landed at the pier and recovered our boats the short distance to the Glenuig Inn in good time for a frothing sports recovery drink prior to dinner.  We hadn't had a long paddle, the conditions weren't perfect but it had been a really good day to be out on the water.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

A weight of history at Ardnish

We spent a pleasant evening in the Glenuig Inn but unfortunately Douglas became quite ill during the early evening and felt unable to join us on the water. The morning was cold, grey and gusty - a contrast to the previous day and undoubtedly Douglas' decision not to come out was the correct one in the circumstances.

We'd planned to launch straight from the hotel as the tide would be near HW at a little after breakfast time.  It's a very short carry from the car park to the water at this state of the tide; a lot longer at low water!

Given the conditions and a forecast increase in the wid from the south west during the afternoon Allan and I planned to paddle across the mouth of Loch Ailort and explore a little of Loch nan Uamh before returning the same way.  As the tide would be ebbing against a strengthening southwesterly wind as we made our return, our plan was to use first the steep southern shore of Loch nan Uamh and then the islands in Loch Ailort to provide some shelter from the wind against tide conditions we expected to encounter.

After heading east out of Glenuig Bay we headed for the most prominent of the islands of Loch Ailort, Eilean nan Gobhar (Goat Island).  This island has two partially vitrified iron-age hillforts, although the remains are quite difficult to make out.

We headed along the west cost of Eilean nan Gobhar and Eilean a' Chaolais (Island of the channel) to reach the rocky western shore of the Ardnish peninsula which separates Loch Ailort from Loch nan Uamh.  The weather was a strange mix of brightness and low mist and cloud, it seemed a change of airmass was happening overhead.

Ardnish has several abandoned townships, the most westerly is at Port an-t Sluichd (Port of the hollow, or channel).  Often the swell here makes landing difficult as the narrow bay which gives the place its name faces west and directly into the prevailing wind and sea.  Although there was some clapotis around the steeper parts of the Ardnish coast it was easy enough to land on this occasion, and it's well worth doing so.

Paddling in to the shore there is a cleared  landing place; not immediately obvious........

...but the rocks have been cleared from one part of the shore to create a "noust" and the rocks made into a low pier; it must have been quite a labour to achieve and maintain.

Above the shore are the remains of several houses, just the low drystone walls still standing.  There are few documented records of the people who lived at Sloch, but from archaeological evidence it seems that these blackhouses represented the last phase of permanent dwelling.  Given that there are Iron Age hillforts on a couple of nearby islands and headlands it seems possible that Ardnish was at least visited by people during this period.

The next phase of population here were almost certainly Norse settlers - indeed the name "Ardnish" is a fusion of the Gaelic "aird" (point or headland) and the Norse "ness" (also meaning point or headland).  This repeated noun style crops up elsewhere on the western seaboard, for example at Ardtornish on Mull.  There is evidence of a viking boat noust at Peanmeanach further to the east of Sloch - the noust at Sloch is believed to be of a later period.

The records are very sparse until about 1720, though there are fragmentary records of rents being paid in the 15th century.  In the social and economic upheaval which followed the failed 1745 rebellion, sheep were moved onto productive land and tenants were forcibly "cleared" to more marginal areas including Ardnish.  There is firm evidence that the population of the peninsula rose rapidly between 1750 and 1820 and this is likely to be the time which the blackhouses here were built and occupied.

A blackhouse is, or was, typically stone walled with a low roof of thatch or heather which was held down with stones suspended on ropes across the structure.  One or two-roomed, there was no chimney, the smoke escaping through the thatch.  In winter a family would often share the building with their cattle, the cattle being placed in the lower room.  The corners of the walls were often rounded to better resist the wind, there's a good example of this at Peanmeanach.

Life would have been brutally hard with a period of comparative comfort for six months followed by six months of virtual starvation.  Kelp gathering, shellfish and fishing would supplement subsistence farming but the land here, as elsewhere on the marginal coasts, couldn't support the increased population and from the mid 1700's until well into the 20th century mass emigrations took place.  Some of these were forced but others emigrated voluntarily, hoping for a life free from poverty, starvation and the constant threat of destitution.

In 1841 the census recorded 20 people living in three houses at Sloch, the family names were MacEachan, MacDougald and MacGillivray, but by 1891 the township was abandoned.  A very well researched history of Ardnish and its townships can be found here

To the east of the houses at the base of a cliff Allan found a cave, quite dry when we visited but it would probably get very wet in heavy rain.  Loch nan Uamh (pronounced "ooh-a") is "loch of the caves" and there are many around its shoreline.  One of them at least would have been a temporary shelter to Charles Edward Stuart who landed from a French frigate in fine style on 25 July 1745; by April 1746 he was taken off from the same loch as a fugitive by another French warship after the failed rebellion which would change the country permanently.

All this weight of history seemed reflected in the meteorological immediacy; a heavy mist had settled a couple of hundred feet above sea level, sealing off the high ground above Sloch with a grey lid.  On each occasion I've visited Port an t-Sluichd there's been an atmosphere of that's difficult to describe, perhaps one of sadness and loss.  Strangely, Peanmeanch which has much of the same history and was abandoned at about the same time has none of the same atmosphere.

We left Sloch for the six kilometre crossing to the Borrodale Islands across Loch nan Uamh, hoping for brighter skies.....

Monday 9 March 2015

Solas - a winter evening on the Sound of Arisaig

Solas is the gaelic for "light" and the final part of our trip around Eilean Shona and Loch Moidart was all about light in infinite variety.  From our afternoon stop at Port Acadh an Aonaich the view south to Ardnamurchan and the Morvern hills was washed with the bronze light of the sinking sun.  Reluctantly we prepared to leave one of our favourite beaches.

 There was a real subtlety in the sweep of layered cloud and we turned frequently to catch the changing light.  Increasingly though our eyes were drawn ahead.....

                        ....and upwards to the delicate quality of light on Rois-Bheinn and An Stac. 

The faintest tinge of pink suffused the whole sky and was reflected in the sea; our cameras couldn't properly capture this almost-not-there quality, but it was magical and we stopped frequently to just drift and watch the changing light.  We have been incredibly lucky in this area in having been participants in some truly gorgeous sunsets, and it was tempting to stay out on the water to see what developed.  Tiredness and the dropping temperature were against us on this occasion though, and we pulled into Samalaman Bay just as the light was beginning to fade. We arrived back at the Glenuig Inn quicker than expected thanks to owner Steve MacFarlane who very kindly offered to trailer our boats back to Glenuig, saving the time of unloading and putting them on the cars.

Just as we got back to the hotel, there was one final flourish to a very fine winter day......