Thursday 30 June 2016

A Hebridean multimedia presentation

 We love wild camping, but one of the luxuries of using a commercial camp site is the availability of a hot shower at the end of a day - and those at Fidden Farm are excellent!  After trips to the shower block we cooked our dinner; Douglas and I found a scrap of breeze on top of a small rock outcrop which we hoped would deter some of the midges.  It may have deterred only some of them, but the view compensated.

 After dinner we wandered down below the high water mark to light a small fire.  The heat wasn't needed as the evening was warm, but there's something very convivial in having a fire to congregate around.  We chatted about the amazing day we'd enjoyed and plans for the following morning, and just absorbed what was turning into a multimedia presentation around us.....

 ...starting with a visual element as the summer sunset developed in the late evening......

 ....and progressed to a smouldering gold finale beyond Iona......

 ....leaving the most delicate of shades reflected on mirror calm water in the bay.

Apart from our small group of four there seemed to be only one other tent on the camp site.  All the other visitors were either in caravans or in motorhomes and we were surprised how few folk sat outside to enjoy the evening - especially since the midges had vanished as the evening cooled.

As the colours of the sunset afterglow faded they were replaced by the intangible atmosphere of a Hebridean late evening.  It's difficult to describe, but the light takes on a diaphanous quality with soft-focus shades of palest pinks and greys.  This image was taken at nearly 11pm, just as the audio element of the multimedia show began to be most noticeable.

There were the usual the evening calls of shorebirds, and we'd been entertained by trying to spot the careering overhead display flights of Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) by tracking their "drumming" note (well recorded by Hugh Harrop here).  The "drumming" is not a vocal call, it's produced mechanically as the bird holds two very stiff outer tail feathers at an angle to its body in shallow  power dives producing a vibration which has been described as goat-like.  Drumming is mostly crepuscular but can continue all night and most of the day in northern latitudes.  It's quite difficult to spot the birds by following the sound of the drumming as the sound seems to project itself.

An even more iconic Hebridean note was soon added, the calls of male Corncrakes (Crex crex) which really do live up to the bird's Linnaean name.  Corncrakes are migratory summer visitors and were formerly very common throughout the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland.  Changes in agriculture and land use have deprived the birds of much of their very specific habitat of tall flower rich meadows and they are now at very low numbers, perhaps only 1200 breeding pairs.  Despite the rasping calls being persistent and monotonous, it was good two hear two males "giving it laldy" until the small hours of the morning and again from pre-dawn.

It was late when we retired to the tents; the forecast was for an increasing northerly breeze the following day but we hoped to able to visit the Abbey on Iona and explore more of the Ross of Mull.

Tuesday 28 June 2016

On the Market

 We left Eilean Annraidh and ists dazzling colours to head back across the Sound of Iona towards Kintra (Ceann Traigh - head of the beach).  Passing Kintra we then made our way along the rocky northern coast of the Ross of Mull, looking for just one more beach.

 Given the amount and quailty of the beaches we'd already visited on our way around Iona, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we would be "beached out"..............

 .........but when they're as good as this, we felt we could manage one more!

 Traigh na Margaidh (Market Beach) is actually two beaches divided by a rocky outcrop.  The westerly of the two is slightly easier of access from land and a family was enjoying the late afternoon sunshine there; we landed on the easterly part on golden sand fringed by crystal clear water.  Had we gone with our initial trip plan of wild camping on a linear journey around the Ross of Mull, Traigh na Margaidh would have been our likely camp for the first night, but it's exposed to the northerly breeze which was forecast and can be quite prone to swell and surf.

 In constrast to the shell sands of Iona, the sand here is fine grained, a warm gold colour with waves of purple across it when damp - presumably the pink grains from the granite rocks.  Water seepage lines from the ground above the beach formed intricate micro-river patterns.

 We didn't linger too long on the beach as the wind was getting up and we still had to make our way back down the Sound of Iona to our camp at Fidden.  Even the small swell which was being picked up produced clapotis along the rocky coast and there was some interesting water as we picked up the opposing tide at the north end of the Sound......

 ...but once we turned inside the shelter of Bull Hole we were back in calm water.  Donald went out into the Sound of Iona in his F-RIB and reported conditions to be quite sporting.  We'd kept an option to return to Iona and visit the Abbey during the early evening, but the prospect of a bouncy crossing there and back wasn't too appealing - especially since we had paddled 35 km and had been on the water all day..... we decided to postpone our visit and head back to cook dinner at Fidden.

 Bull Hole is a sheltered anchorage and was also used for loading granite quarried locally, there are several stone piers on the mainland side close to quarried rock faces.

 We paused just north of the ferry slip at Fhionnphort to speak with MV Loch Buie on VHF.  She appeared ready to depart and but kindly allowed us to cross before pulling away from the slip.

 The cloud which had been building through the late afternoon was beginning to break as we arrived back at Fidden camp site...... prepare our dinner in warm evening sunshine at the end of a glorious day's sea kayaking on the dazzling waters and beaches of Iona.

Monday 27 June 2016

Water colours and watercolours

Iona has long been a magnet for artists; indeed it's perfectly possible to imagine how the monks of the Abbey could have gained inspiration for their work illuminating manuscripts from the unique and special light of the island.

In particular Iona has become known for watercolours painted by artists from the "Scottish Colourists" movement including Francis Cadell who had a long association with the island, and Samuel Peploe, who was first introduced to Iona by Cadell and became a regular visitor.

As Douglas has noted, Colourist paintings of Iona became very popular in the second half of the 20th century, and the tradtion of both painting and appreciating views from the cluster of beaches at the north tip continues......

This large watercolour by Jan Fisher is just such a work. When we saw it displayed at her gallery in the Fife village of Pittenweem some years ago it had such impact that we returned an hour later to purchase a limited print - it's hung in one of the lightest rooms in our home in order to show the colour to its best and has, in our view, captured the essence of Iona's light and colour.

In the upper part of the painting, set in the sea between Iona and the hills of Mull, is Eilean Annraidh with its distinctive spit of white sand.  

Approaching Eilean Annraidh was to understand why artists are drawn to the place - the quality of light was astonishing.  A dramatic banner of cloud streaming from Ben More on Mull added a huge dimension of sky, and itself altered the light as the aftenoon sun was alternately filtered through cloud.....

...and then shone fully, changing the colours in the water from turquoise to an iridescent jade green and lighting the sand to a dazzling intensity. 

Here, solas (light) reached a pitch rarely encountered and after landing on the inner part of the sand bar in order not to disturb a nearby Tern colony, we just wandered about separately, taking it in.

Beyond Eilean Annraidh lay a widescreen view to the "Wilderness" coast of Mull's Ardmeanach peninsula  which we discussed for a future visit........ we sat on the rocks of Eilean Annraidh enjoying the watercolour water colours.....

Saturday 25 June 2016

Sometimes it just seems to be an uphill struggle.....

 After leaving Port ban we paddled up the northwest coast of Iona in sublime conditions of calm sea and in hot sunshine.  Out to sea were the skerries of Sgurr Mhich Mhurchaid (Murchison's Stack) and Reidh Eilean (Smooth Island) and far beyond, a banner of cloud indicated the position of  the island of  Tiree.

Donald was waiting for us at Eilean Chalbha (calf island), the point were we got the first view of Ben More on Mull to the north.  As we approached we began to experience a strengthening tidal flow against us......

 ...caused by the ebbing tide running across a shallow sand spit between rocky outcrops.

 A path of luminous turquoise water above white sand led between rocky patches and combined with the tidal flow running towards us created the strangest sensation.........

 ....that we were paddling uphill on a slope of water.  The effort required to push forward did nothing to reduce the sense of paddling up an incline!

Had we been ten minutes later this shallowest section of the sandbar would probably have dried out and we'd have missed this colourful and interesting little bit of Iona's coast.  Beyond, we were into deeper water towards the northenmost part of the island and beaches which are easily reached by walking across from the Abbey.  We decided not to land on these beaches but to continue past the north tip of Iona to another jewel in the summer sea....

Thursday 23 June 2016

Tempted by a trio of Traighs

After leaving Camas Cuil an-t Saimh we continued up the west coast of Iona, accompanied by a faint rumbling noise....the sound of our stomachs gently reminding us that first luncheon had yet to be taken.

We were looking for the perfect beach - or Traigh in the Gaelic language - on which to land.  There are several excellent candidates and you might reasonably think we're too picky......

This one?  Too much weed near the water's edge so it might be a bit smelly........ we continued on.....

...along a shore composed of rugged Gneiss outcrops and tidal islands, edged with water of stunning clarity, still seeking the perfect Traigh.

How about this one?  Well, it was certainly a white sand beach backed with level machair on which to sit, but we spotted someone walking towards the bay from inland - just one person but it would feel crowded...... on we went....

......and just what we'd been looking for came into view.

Port Ban (white or fair port)- a strand of white sand enclosed by arms of rock, backed by low dunes and machair.  This was it; our third tempting Traigh was pretty much perfect!

While the others explored the shore, Douglas and I climbed up the rocky Cnoc (rocky hillock) above the bay to photograph......

...a small piece of paradise.  The colours were simply stunning; this image is straight from the camera with no processing; the polarising filter has brought out perfectly what we experienced -white sand fringed with water which went from "almost not there" clarity through aquamarine, turquoise and finally shades of deepest indigo.  The emerald green of early summer grasses and the pale greys of the rock added their own shades to the scene.

We rejoined Donald, Lorna and Allan and took a leisurely lunch on the beach - absorbing the special surroundings we found ourselves in.  Douglas took a short swim and I was tempted to join him, but the beach shelves so gently that it would have taken an almighty long run to achieve my "leg it really fast and dive in before you chicken out" approach so I settled for wading a short way into the water, which we can report as refreshing, then took a closer look at the beach itself.

The composition of the beaches here on the west side of Iona is quite different to most of those on the nearby Ross of Mull, where fine silvery white and pink sand is more prevalent.  The sand of Port Ban is shell sand, coarser than the rock sands.  It's dazzlingly white under sunshine and under certain conditions creates a valuable ecosystem.

Gneiss bedrock is pretty much impermeable and supports poor, acid soils because rainwater doesn't drain easily.  What plants are able to grow break down to a thin skin of peat and the resulting soils are acid and lacking in nutrients.  Close to beaches of shell sand however, the wind blows the calcium-rich shell fragments back from the beach to enrich the soil.  Low-intensity grazing and further improvement with seaweed by crofters can result in spectacular meadows of grasses and wildflowers - the machair.  Found almost exclusively on the outer fringes of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, there are just a few mainland sites.  Precious and rich in wildlife, the machair is one of Scotland's most special ecosystems.

If you look closely at the image above, a Groatie Buckie is waiting to be found!

We left Port Ban after luncheon very reluctantly - it's a place in which many hours could be passed; especially in such great weather, but there was so much more to be explored......

...and at times, the colours of this coast would simply defy adequate desciption.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

A Wild Rose in a rock garden

The southwest coast of Iona now opened up to us, a series of headlands, offshore skerries and stacks open to the prevailing weather and swell of the Atlantic.  On this perfect morning all was calm and our pace was relaxed.

Dipping headlands of Lewisian Gneiss give this part of the island a rugged character similar to the far northwest of Scotland.  When we paddled close in to the rocks we could feel the reflected heat of the sun radiating back.

Donald's outboard engine was on bare minimum revs along this section not for fear of catching rocks below the surface, just because this was a great stretch of coast to enjoy slowly.  We reflected on how few days in each year it would be possible to paddle in such great conditions here.

There aren't that many places to land on this part of Iona's shore, but it's said that Columba first landed here at Port na Curaich (Port of the Currach).  A Currach is a traditional Irish boat with a light frame covered in animal hide which was usally rowed but could also be capable of sailing.  The use of Currachs fits with the time of Columba and it seems very likely that he did indeed beach his boat here in 563.  He had previously landed on the Kintyre peninsula but pushed farther north as he could still see Ireland, from which he'd been exiled after a bitter quarrel with another Irish abbot - Finnian, led to the battle of Cul Dreimhe and the death of up to 3,000 men in what has been claimed as the earliest recorded Copyright dispute.

Hopefully Columba and his twelve companions quickly worked out that this steep, shelving beach of shingle exposed to the Atlantic was not the best beach on Iona for boatwork!  We were confident of finding a better spot for luncheon and paddled on past.

Near Stac an Aoineidh (appropriately "Stack of the Cliff") we felt some tidal flow against us and needed to paddle quite hard for a short stretch........

.......through the gap andout to the west coast of Iona.  Ahead in the distance lay more rocky outcrops but first we paddled into the broad bay of Camas Cuil an-t Saimh ("Bay of the back of the Ocean" - a wonderfully descriptive name).

This bay has wonderfully coloured water under sunshine, the sandy bottom was clearly visible many metres below our boats.  The sun was by now hot and it was pleasant to drift along cooling the hands in the water.  A broad beach of sand lies at the head of the bay, but as can be seen from the 1:25K map there are many reefs and hazards - in fact it's a complete rock garden.

But in the rock garden was a Rose.  "Wild Rose" is a lovely wooden sailing vessel based at Carsaig on the Sound of Jura and built by her owner over a period of five years. We'd seen her the previous evening in Tinker's Hole at the Ross of Mull.  She is beautifully fitted out and maintained and is used for what she was designed for; coastal cruising and exploration.  Her owner should be very, very proud of her.

The stern davits of "Wild Rose" were hanging empty, her crew had gone ashore in the tender to enjoy the beach (though perhaps they could have swum?!)

Heading north from Camas Cuil an-t Saimh, we too were looking for a was high time for first luncheon.

Monday 20 June 2016

Finding our marbles on Iona

The second day of our sea kayaking trip to Iona was forecast to be another sunny day with a fresh breeze towards late afternoon.  We were on the water soon after breakfast and headed north a little way up the coast of the Ross of Mull before heading out across the Sound of Iona.  This crossing isn't a long one but has a reputation for rough water due to a combination of tidal movement and shallow depth.  When the wind is against the tide here overfalls and rough water can be expected.

We crossed in calm conditions with a light breeze and we were able to enjoy the views up the Sound to Iona's famous abbey church.

We headed straight for the prominent white sands of Traigh Mhor (big beach!) for our first landfall on Iona, and as we began to enter shallower water........

....the colours of the seabed began to appear beneath us - what a morning it was to be out on the water!

We climbed up onto a grassy mound forming the north end of the beach to look down on our boats drawn up on white sand above crystal clear water.  This was to be the first of many beaches we'd land on during the day and each one had this jewel-like quality.

The Iona coast south of Traigh Mhor is rocky with some cliffs and geos.  We took our time and explored wherever it was possible to paddle......

...and took time to enjoy the view below, the colours of the sea and the warm sunshine.

The geology of Iona is completely different to that of the Ross of Mull just a couple of kilometres across the water.  The Ross of Mull consists of pink granites while Iona consists of older rock, any pink granite boulders found on Iona are erratics moved from the Ross of Mull either by glacial ice or by storms.

On the east coast of Iona the bedrock is Precambrian sedimentary rock, mainly heavily metamorphosed sandstones, siltstone and limestones of a similar age to the Torridonian sandstones of north-west Scotland, while the southern end, the west and north is formed of ancient Lewisian gneiss.  There's a useful guidebook to the geology of Mull and Iona produced by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) which can be downloaded free here

The crumpled rock forms slabby cliffs, grey in colour and streaked with white from the many seabirds which nest on the ledges.  It's a complete contrast in colour to the bright pink rocks of the Ross of Mull.......

...but has its own attractions - especially for the seabirds.  We paddled slowly southwards, looking for a type of rock long associated with the island of Iona......

...and finally "found our marbles" in this small bay.  One of the constituent rocks here is a limestone  metamorphosed into a fine marble containing streaks of white and green.  It was quarried from mediaeval times until the early 20th century and was often used for ornamental pieces - a large slab forms the communion table in Iona Abbey church. We could still see remains of the quarry machinery, cranes and wires among the jumble of blocks.

 "Iona Marble" souvenirs are found for sale on the island and elsewhere, but almost all of the rock used for these today is from Connemara - perhaps appropriate given that Columba himself came from Ireland!

All too soon we found ourselves at the south end of Iona and the lure of seeing what might be around the next corner or headland drew us on.  The rock type had changed to Gneiss, but the sea kayaking was better than "nice"...........