Saturday 26 September 2015

Daytime viewing

During the first part of September the UK was under a northerly airstream for several days resulting in superbly clear air and pin-sharp views. On a walk up Craig Vallich, a small hill overlooking Ballater on Deeside, a cool morning turned pleasantly sunny and the views gave ample excuse to just sit for a while and enjoy the last of the summer colours.

Early cloud was lifting away from the high ground across lower Glen Muick, the colours of the hill ground contrasting nicely with the varied greens of the glen.

From higher up the stand-out view was across to Lochnagar, particularly given that the morning sun was throwing the features of the mountain's north face into sharp relief.  Through binoculars several of the ridges and gully lines were clearly visible.  Lochnagar lies on Balmoral estate and is occasionally referred to as the "royal mountain".  I've climbed it many times using different routes; it seems always to give me a great day.

To the west the view from this small hill extends for mile after mile, over the fertile Dee valley to the high ground of the Cairngorms.  Another scan with binoculars found some hills which are old friends.

Well satisfied with my "daytime viewing", I turned to descend Craig Vallich towards Ballater, with the town's other hill, the rocky little peak of Craigendarroch prominent beyond the town.

Already the colours of early September are on the turn as autumn approaches - a new season's pallete beginning to develop.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Fortified on Loch Sunart

Emerging from the calm at the eastern end of Loch na Droma Buidhe, I was straight out into a stiff headwind and had an energetic twenty minutes paddling to cross to the north side of Loch Sunart.

My aiming point was a gap between two outcrops to the west of the island of Risga which framed the grand looking Glenborrodale Castle.  The present building, described on the excellent Canmore database of historical sites as "a florid vision in Annan sandstone rising up from sham fortifications" is a country house hotel and replaced an earlier building erected by the diamond magnate Charles Rudd, an associate of Cecil Rhodes.  The hotel website is very welcoming.......

...but not it seems, to everybody.  Welcome to Glenborrodale.  The law of Trespass in Scotland is a difficult one to define in a few words, but essentially if you don't damage property, don't intend to stay permanently and abide by the provisions of the Access section of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act - you are not trespassing.  Perhaps the sign is another "sham fortification"?

On the way back to Salen there's a site which is much older and certainly wasn't built as a sham fortification.  Dun Ghallain is situated on a tiny rocky islet, defended mostly by steep rock, but on one side by a tumbled wall. 

The fort walls enclose a small flat area at the summit of the islet, and the fort builders chose their site well.

The view extends almost the length of Loch Sunart in one direction....

.....while to the west the view stretches beyond the mouth of Loch Sunart and out to the Cairns of Coll. 

Although accessible at low water when a sandy spit conects Dun Ghallain to the shore, for most of the time the fort was protected by water. It couldn't withstand a prolonged attack, but this little fort must have been a real strategic asset to its builders.

The last leg of my short trip on lay close in on the north (Ardnamurchan) shore of Loch Sunart, and what a pleasant stretch it is.

There's interest in the shoreline rock, as here where a broad viein of quartz is intruded into the darker bedrock, the vein continuing down underwarer as far as I could see.

....while all along the shore the Atlantic Oakwood reaches to the water, interspersed in places with pine and larch.  In the clear air generated by a northerly airstream the colours simply "zinged". 

Arriving back at Salen, I used my trolley to haul the boat back up the shingle slip and got things sorted out and loaded to the car.  There was plenty of time to visit the Salen Jetty Shop for a post-paddle treat of coffee and cake.  The shop and coffee-shop are a new addition to Salen and a very welcome one, the range and quaility of goods on offer is really good and features local produce too.  It's worth knowing that the building also has toilets and showers available for jetty/shop customers.  The coffee was superb and the cake was exceptionally good, I left "well fortified" for the journey home across Scotland - as a sea-kayaking refreshment/resupply point, the Salen Jetty Shop rates 12/10!

This short trip from Salen to Loch Teacuis, around Oronsay to Loch na Dhroma Buidhe and return to Salen was about 45 kilometres.  There are tidal sections to negotiate with Spring rates of up to 3 knots at the entrance to Loch Teacuis, otherwise tidal streams are fairly weak. 

Salen can be reached either from the south and east by crossing to Sunart at the Corran Ferry and travelling on the A861 past Strontian; or from the north by the A830 from Fort William to Lochailort, then the A861 past Glenuig and Acharacle.  The A861 is a "classic" highland singletrack "A" road with passing places; it's narrow, twisty and always takes longer to drive than the mileage would suggest.  A significant issue is finding somewhere to park and access the water, particularly in summer.  Spaces are few and far between and it may need a degree of flexibility to find a suitable launch spot.  Three Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50K sheets are required to cover the area - Sheet 47 (Tobermory & North Mull) and Sheet 40 (Mallaig & Glenfinnan) cover Loch Sunart, Sheet 49 (Oban & East Mull) covers Loch Teacuis.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Ticked off when camping at Loch na Dhroma Buidhe

After leaving Loch Teacuis via the western channel I paddled back out into Loch Sunart and around the north side of Oronsay. There are several islands of this name around the Scottish coast and in each case the Norse-Gaelic name indicates a tidal island, connected to the mainland or another island at lower states of the tide.

Out in the main loch the northerly wind had picked up to F5 and there was a distinctly bouncy sea running despite the short fetch from the north shore; it seemed that the wind was pouring over the Ardnamurchan peninsula and onto Loch Sunart.  I took no photographs for the next hour as I paddled past the inlets of Oronsay then down the west coast of the island to turn into much more sheletered water..... the mouth of Loch na Droma Buidhe (Loch of the yellow ridge).  The entrance to this offhoot of Loch Sunart is narrow at the western end and very narrow at the eastern end where it dries out below half tide.

Being sheltered from almost all directions and with decent holding ground on the bottom, Loch na Droma Buidhe is one of the more popular yacht anchorages on this part of the west coast.  there were two yachts anchored when I arrived and three more arrived during the evening, including one on which, incongruously, an electric guitar was being played.  Badly.

I landed and set up camp on a grassy meadow, exposed to the midge deterring breeze but in the evening sunlight.  On this occasion, near high water Springs, there was no need to make a decision on whether to move the boat just above the high water mark or to move it next to the tent - here the two were pretty much the same place!  As a bonus, high water the following morning would be just as I was setting out, so no need to move the boat across the pebble shore then either.  As a camp site, it seemed to have lots of advantages.

The guitar player gave up as the sun dropped and the breeze grew distinctly chilly, though there was a lovely warm evening light on the hills.

I retired to the tent just as the last afterglow as fading from the sky to seaward and fell quickly asleep, but in the small hours of the morning I was wakened by the sound of disturbance around my boat.  I asumed it was deer and made a noise which sent everything quiet momentarily before I heard my paddles being rattled about in the cockpit. As I got out of the tent my head torch picked out the yellow glow of a fox's eyes on the shoreline.  My food and a rubbish bag were stowed in the boat and he must have been able to smell, but not find the goodies.  It took quite a long stand-off with some shouting from me before he took the hint and left.  I collected the food and rubbish bag to stow inside my tent and went back to bed.

The short time I was out of the tent may have contributed to the second, less palatable wildlife "experience" at this camp.  Dressing in the early morning light I noticed a couple of black dots on my ankles and removed a couple of tiny Ticks.  On getting home later that evening, the full extent of the problem became apparent - I was liberally covered from midriff down in Ticks - I stopped counting after removing over 30.  Fortunately they were all, except two, at the tiny larval stage and so unlikely to be a risk in terms of being a vector for Lyme Disease, nevertheless it was the greatest number of these pests I've ever picked up.

The breeze died just as I was finishing off taking down the tent in the morning which brought out the midges, but I was quickly on the water and away towards the very narrow eastern entrance to the loch.  The house here is reputed to have once been a tiny brewery as well as a ferry landing, but it's well past last orders these days.  The channel has a series of large rock outcrops with narrow, shallow channels between; no place for vessels much larger than a sea kayak and certainly not suitable for yachtsmen, however bold. 

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Loch Teacuis - a hard place to leave

After passing through Caol Charna the arcing narrow entrance to Loch Teacuis is reached.  It was by now an hour after low water and the flood was firmly underway so I knew that I'd have to paddle back against both the tidal stream and the northerly breeze to get back out of the loch.  The contrast between the narrow confines of the approach to Loch Teacuis and the open head of the loch is quite marked, giving a sense of space as the narrows open out.

Ahead is Benn na-h Uamh (Mountain of the Caves) which is part of a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) due to the plant communities which thrive on the calcereous basalt rock of the hill.  The whole area is volcanic in origin with some spectacular cliffs formed by ancient lava flows. 

The interest continues underwater too; in 2006 small communities of Serpulid Worms were found in 3 metres of water near to the head of Loch Teacuis.  These reefs are pretty uncommon, the only other Scottish location is at Loch Creran, which is reckoned to be the largest such community worldwide.  As a result, Lochs Creran and Teacuis have been designated as Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) and in Loch Creran, fishing activity and yacht anchoring are restricted to certain areas.  Restrictions are under consideration for Loch Teacuis too, including one option to ban yachts from anchoring throughout the loch.  The Yachtsman's pilot guides describe the approach to Loch Teacuis as "very tricky" so the number of yachts will not be great; hopefully a balance can be arrived at to protect the emerging Serpulid reefs whilst allowing fishing and yacht anchorage in areas of the loch which don't contain the reefs.

My own departure from Loch Teacuis was likely to prove "very tricky" as the flood tide was now at it's strongest.  Flow rates in the pilot guides indicate 2.5 knots at Springs, but particularly in Caol Charna around some of the rocky features this rate is exceeded by a margin.  In this image I'm in relatively quiet flow behind a rock outcrop in mid channel.  The distance to the shore of Carna ahead is not great, but it required a steep ferry angle and a brief session of PLF to reach......

Once on the shore I climbed up a little to check out the movement in the channel.  I intended to use the western channel to pass Carna rather than try here, particularly given the fact that I couldn't see much in the way of eddies to help in this narrows.  It was acually possible to detect a slight slope to the water as it poured from Loch Sunart through Caol Charna - a good hint to try elsewhere!

The place where I'd landed on Carna would have made a good wild camp, having a decent area to pitch a tent, nice views and being exposed to a breeze to deter midges.  I did consider stopping early and camping here, but decided to press on - a decision I would come to regret later!

In the meantime the tide was rising quickly so it was back to the boat and out to try........

...the western channel past Eilean nan Eildean ((Deer) Hind Island).  I paused in an eddy to check out the flow then pushed out, finding a few more eddies to assist on the way up against the flood.  Actually it was possible to make progress against the full flow in the channel here, the rate indicated in the yachtsman's pilot seems pretty accurate.

Looking back past Eilean nan Eildean on the right towards Loch Teacuis - it's a beautiful loch to explore and can be hard to leave in more ways than one!

Monday 7 September 2015

Sailing and not sailing on Loch Sunart

A forecast with enough of a break in a run of poor weather set me looking at options for an overnight sea kayak journey. One of the places I had in mind was outer Loch Sunart and Loch Teacuis; on my previous visit to this area I'd paddled through but not really explored to any degree.

 I launched at Salen, which has a commercial yacht jetty, though sea kayaks can launch from the shingle slipway without charge. I managed to negotiate a place to park nearby, and offered a small donation to do so - parking has long been a significant issue right along the shore of Loch Sunart and suitable places are few.

Once on the water I crossed to the southern side of Loch Sunart near the dog-leg angle around Gearr Creag.  The weather was pretty much as forecast, a northerly breeze which would increase during the afternoon, initially cloudy but brightening up.  In this image Salen can just be seen above the bow of the boat.

A little further south west is the former settlement of Camas Salach (which seems to mean "foul bay" in Gaelic, perhaps referring to the rocky seabed).  Although there are now just two small holiday cottages here, there has been a settlement on this spot since at least 1560; remains of eleven buildings and a section of field wall have been identified in archaeological surveys, with a collection of charcoal burning platforms on the hillside above.  The tall cairn on the shore includes granite plaques with family names, perhaps of the current owners and their family.

As I continued south west along the shoreline a rather unusual jetty came into view.  Incorporated into and forming most of the structure is an old barge.

Which, it's safe to say, will not be sailing again anytime soon!  The barge was placed as a temporary jetty to facilitate the loading of timber extracted from the Glencripesdale estate, which is a long way from even a minor road.

In recent years the owner of the estate, a Mr Hugh Whittle, has been involved in a long-running planning application to build a large and very grand estate owner's house and an almost as grand "estate worker's dwelling" on the estate.  Initially refused, the second planning application was successful subject to a number of conditions - such as not subsequently subdividing the estate (to safeguard against their subsequent sale on a "parcel" of land), both buildings had to be occupied only by the persons referred to in the planning application (to prevent their use as sporting lodges/hotels) and a new jetty was to be built, removing the current temporary one - this condition was because all building materials were to be taken in by sea as a further condition of the planning consent.  Mr Whittle had claimed in the press to be the only estate owner in Scotland not to have a house on his estate.... however, he also owns Glenfeochan estate which has a pretty nice bijou home sited on it as well as a rental "cottage" sleeping eight - perhaps an indication of Mr Whittle's real intention for Glencripesdale.

As the barge remains in place, filled with rocks and with a road surface (and trees) on top, it would appear that this condition hasn't yet been met.  It would be quite a considerable task to remove this "temporary structure"!

The northerly breeze was picking up as I left Glencripesdale, so I hoisted sail and fairly birled along past the fish farm at Camas Glas (green bay) where the freighter "Harvest Caroline II" was unloading part of her cargo of fish food to the service spar module.  If you drive on highland roads, you may well have noticed Ferguson's timber lorries, part of a very successful independent business based in Spean Bridge dealing mainly in timber and aquaculture haulage.  Perhaps less well known is that the company is a maritime business too, with its own fleet of ships as well as port services.

As "Harvest Caroline II" completed her cargo discharge and prepared to sail (you can check out her current voyage here) I continued my own sailing, turning into the narrow Caol Charna.........

.....with a last look back up Loch Sunart to cloud-capped Ben Resipole.

I had now left the open water of the loch and was approaching the real interest of this trip, the narrow waters around Carna, Oronsay and Loch Teacuis.  On almost the only flat ground on the island of Cara lie a couple of neat traditional houses now used as holiday cottages, but on a much less intrusive and very different model to that envisaged at Glencripesdale!

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Evening variety show - take a bow

Allan and Lorna arrived soon after I got back into Findochty harbour and we wasted no time in getting out onto the water.  We decided to head east towards Portknockie and the Bow Fiddle Rock, returning to Findochty by sunset.  The distance between the two harbours is only about 5 kilometres, but due to the indented nature of the coast here the distance actually paddled is much more. The rockhopping starts straight away, we threaded through narrow channels.....

...and between rock stacks and skerries.  The absence of a swell is an uncommon thing on the Moray Firth coast and we made sure to explore all the intricacy of the rocky coastline which is so often not possible.

Arriving at the Bow Fiddle Rock from an unusual route behind a rock outcrop, we found it absolutely calm and each paddled it a couple of times......

                                                                                                                Photo: Allan McCourt

....making the most of the benign evening conditions.

Continuing east brought us to a series of big caves, each with a similar diagonal formation and each possibly on the way to becoming the next Bow Fiddle.  A faint gurgle from a long way back in this cave leads us to suspect that it joins to another one nearby, but it was too narrow to explore the full extent.

As we turned the headland into Cullen Bay we passed from warm sunshine into shadow, but there was one last cave to explore.

By far the largest here, not marked on the OS 1:50K map but well known locally as "The Whale's Mou", it's a 100 metre long tunnel which at HW can sometimes be exited at the rear.  I've paddled in this cave numerous times and even used it as a shelter from heavy rain, but it had a surprise in store for us on this occasion.

As Allan passed under the centre section, along with the usual Pigeons and Shags resident in the cracks of the roof, one narrow diagonal fault erupted into noise and movement as hundreds of Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) emerged and flew out of the cave.  When Lorna and I followed, yet more emerged from the same crack - it must go a considerable way back and it was packed with the birds.  As we paddled out into the evening light again the flock of Starlings took off from the cliffs and performed a small version of a "murmuration" before heading back towards the cave.

We'd spent longer on the outward leg of our evening paddle than intended - which is often the case on this varied bit of coast!  As we headed back towards Findochty, MRV Alba Na Mara was steaming into Cullen Bay.  Although looking like and indeed mostly performing like a fishing trawler, Alba Na Mara has information as her primary catch as she is the smaller of the two Scottish Government fishery research vessels which gather data on fish and shellfish stocks as well as carrying out environmental assessments for the FRS laboratory in Aberdeen.  Her crew of eight can be supplemented with up to five sceintists and she has onboard laboratories and work areas.  While she works on both west and east coasts, Alba na Mara is quite close to home here in the Moray Firth as she was built at Macduff, just 20 or so kilometres from Cullen Bay.

We decided that due to the time we'd spent rockhopping and exploring caves on the outward leg, our return paddle would need to be pretty much straight back to Findochty if we weren't to arrive well after dark.  By the time we passed Tronach Head the moon was already bright in the evening sky......

....and ahead the embers of a slow sunset silhouetted the houses of Findochty as the Moray Firth took a bow.  We'd been on the water only around three hours and paddled less than 14 kilometres, but what variety we'd enjoyed!