Sunday 31 July 2016

A pleasure shared on the Sound of Arisaig

This is the first of a few "catch-up" posts from earlier in the summer when I was assessing a team undertaking a Duke of Edinburgh's Award sea kayak expedition from Ardtoe on the north side of Ardnamurchan to Glenelg opposite Skye.

On the evening before the venture I travelled across from home and stayed at the Glenuig Inn.  Whilst enjoying a pint after dinner I got talking to Andy, who was travelling in a classic VW camper van and kayaking at various locations.  We agreed to paddle together the following day after I'd seen the team away from their starting point at Ardtoe.

We planned to paddle from Glenuig across the Sound of Arisaig - Andy was tempted by descriptions of stunning beaches on a wild coast, and I was very glad when the morning turned out sunny and clear; perfect to see this coast at its best!  Once out into the Sound of Arisaig, the familiar outline of Eigg with Rum beyond provide a scenic backdrop to the crossing.

We reached the north side of the Sound and paddled along the coast, soon arriving at one of the best of the small beaches.  I planned to camp here that evening in order to meet the team as they headed in towards their own camp and so put up the tent......

....while we dawdled on the beach in baking heat.

After lunch we continued west along the rugged coastline towards what I assured Andy would be a superb beach.

It's not all sandy beaches here though; one particular pebble strand which appears uniformly grey from a distance has a variety of richly coloured pebbles at closer inspection.  It's a place I can (and have) spent hours photographing pebbles as the tide ebbs back leaving them wet and shining.

But, white sand beaches and aquamarine water had been promised, so after a brief stop, on we went.... arrive at a beach which will be quite familiar to readers of this blog.  It's so attractive and relatively easy of access that it gets plenty of visitors and is heavily used for camping by walkers and paddlers, including some large commercial guided sea kayaking groups.  To do a small bit in reducing impact, neither Douglas or I choose to camp here any more.

It has to be said though, it's a stunning location with a view to match.  The coloured object above the high water mark proved to be a substantial piece of trawl net.  I tried to cut some bits away to remove them but it was way too big to make any kind of difference.

On a sunny day, the water close to the shore at this beach is remarkable, deep indigo blue through shades of aquamarine and turqoise to a quality very well described by my friend Duncan as "so clear, it's hardly there"

I think the colour of Andy's North Shore Atlantic kayak matches the location rather well!

We spent some time on the beach chatting with other folk enjoying the warm sunshine and gorgeous views before getting back into the boats to paddle back along the shore.  Andy would head back across the Sound of Arisag to Glenuig while I would meet the team of paddlers near their camp before heading to my own camp for the evening. 

It was really good to meet Andy and to share some time on the water with him; and it's always a special pleasure to visit familiar places with someone visiting for the first time, to see the place afresh.  I watched until Andy was a speck in the distance heading over towards Glenuig, then landed and climbed to a vantage point where I could watch for four young adventurers who were also exploring this area for the first time.

Thursday 28 July 2016

The Coyles of Muick

When travelling from Ballater on the narrow road up Glen Muick the undulating ridge known as the Coyles of Muick rises prominently on the opposite side of the glen. Despite being only half an hour or so from home, it's a hill I'd not climbed. A day with a forecast of low cloudbases seemed a good one to climb a "wee hill" and retain something of a view, so I took a look at the route possibilities on the map.

The most obvious route is to climb the hill's eastern slopes which can be accessed by walking up the forestry tracks in lower Glen Muick (glen of pigs), but it's not so easy to work out a circular route from this side of the hill.  Instead I decided to start from the north and to include Glen Girnock on the way back.

There's space to park off the B976 South Deeside road near Loch Ullachie, which was an unexpected gem, covered with water lillies.  A track leads past the loch and up through the forestry to emerge...... Crag Liath (grey crag), a small summit at the northern edge of the ridge.  There's a distant view of the highest point of the hill ahead, and the route from here was really enjoyable; a ridge walk with an open pine wood on one side and a heather moor on the other.

Butterworts (Pinguicula vulgaris) were in flower by the side of the track in the damper parts, a plant I'm always careful to avoid treading on where possible - it eats midges!  Butterworts grow in bogs and on acidic soils which don't provide sufficient nutrients so the plants have evolved an alternative method of obtaining food.  The bright yellow-green leaves secrete a sticky fluid which attracts and traps midges and other small insects, the leaves then slowly curl over to envelop and digest the insects.  While each Butterwort will only "eat" a few midges at a time, it's a start!

On a rocky outcrop just below the summit I had to look closer at this fine fellow, a hare made from tarred papier maché with a long view to Lochnagar.  I've not been able to learn how or why he should be here, or who sculpted him - but he's a unique addition to the hills!

The name "Coyles of Muick" refers to the whole ridge, the 601m/1972ft summit is simply "The Coyle" and has a prominent stone cairn.  It's a surprisingly good viewpoint - in this image Bennachie can be seen away to the northeast.

Across a shallow dip is a second cairn on a small rise which has a fine view of Lochnagar, which on this day had a banner of heavy cloud streaming from the summit.

It looks that a replacement cairn is being constructed on the main summit, the circular base seems freshly placed alongside the existing cairn.

I sat for a while and enjoyed the play of light and shadow across Loch Muick at the head of the glen.

My descent route left the paths to the summit and went west down heathery slopes to the head of Glen Girnock (locally spelled as Glen Girnoc), a somewhat hidden glen, but well worth exploring.

In the wet grassy ground near the Girnock Burn, Spotted Orchids  (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) were quite numerous.  The name refers not to the flowers, but to the leaves of this pretty little marsh plant which have oval purple spots (not visible on this one!).

The clouds broke up and the sun beganto come through as I walked down Glen Girnock, a really lovely glen with wooded lower slopes.  It was once well populated and besides the more recent abandoned farms there are older archaeological sites, it's a glen which would make a fine lower level walk.  The track eventually joins the South Deeside road at Littlemill and I had a stroll back up the road to my starting point.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

A good year for the roses

 It seems to have been a particularly good year for the wild roses - also known as Dog Rose (Rosa canina), at least here in the northeast of Scotland.  The bushes have been loaded with flowers all through June and July, a lovely sight in the hedgerows.

The delicate pink flowers don't have much of a scent but are a magnet for bees and other pollinating insects.  Later in the year the rosehips provide an important food source for birds, migratory thrushes such as Redwings and Fieldfares seeming to particularly enjoy them, and if you can get some ripened rosehips before the birds do, syrup made from wild rosehips contains twenty times as much Vitamin C as orange juice!

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Days like these - Iona and the Ross of Mull

This Google Earth slide shows the track of our three day sea kayaking trip to Iona and the Ross of Mull.  We paddled a little over 100km during the three days, but the distance was really irrelevant - it was the stunning colours, light quality and beaches which really made the trip stand out - below are just a few of the highlights....

The "pink milepost" at Pennyghael, with Loch Scridain and Ben More beyond.

Dinner al fresco at our base - Fidden Farm camp site.

Breathtaking colour at Port Ban on Iona

Afloat on a sea of light......

Traigh na Margaidh, Ross of Mull

Taking in the view after a great day's sea kayaking

Bones of the land - Ross of Mull pink granite

Watercolour light - Eilean Annraidh

St Martin's cross, Iona Abbey

Sunsets at Fidden with the calls of Corncrakes and Snipe - magical evenings.

Days like these...memories to last forever.

Monday 18 July 2016

From grey to gold on the Ross of Mull

The cloud sheet which we'd seen advancing across the Ross of Mull covered the sky as we headed from Eilean a' Chalmain towards Traigh Gheal (white beach), one of two beaches with the same name on this part of the coast.  Along with the cloud came a stiff ESE breeze which cooled us quite quickly.

I took no photographs at Traigh Gheal, after what we'd experienced over the previous days it seemed devoid of colour, and we were concentrating on getting some coffee and putting on extra layers.

Although the brilliant colours were muted without sunlight, there was still a subtle beauty to be seen in the pink granite as we headed back along the coast towards Fidden.

This is the beach at Port nam Ron (seal port) and, appropriately, we were escorted through the bay by numerous curious seals which did the usual seal thing of popping up just behind us then splashing off when we turned around.

The breeze which had chilled us down at Traigh Gheal did have one advantage - it was blowing in the direction we were paddling so our speed was very satisfactory as we passed inside the cluster of islands south of Erraid, then back north through Tinker's Hole...... arrive back at our camp site at Fidden.  To the north, signs of an improvement in the weather were encouraging, and as we made dinner the cloud sheet slowly broke up and the wind eased...... allow us one more stunning sunset.  Our paddling on the Ross of Mull and Iona was over, but what a great trip it had been!

Friday 15 July 2016

Thunder and light

After an extended luncheon stop at Balfour's Bay on Erraid we got back into the boats to continue along the south coast of the Ross of Mull.  We had no specific goal in mind, just to explore the coast and then turn around to head back to Fidden.  If you visit this bay on a sunny day such this - you'll find it a hard spot to leave!

As we headed east along the rocky shore there were intruiging glimpses into other small sandy bays - it's a stretch of coast where many hours can be spent; short paddles between stunning beaches.

Donald went ahead in his F-RIB, intending to visit a couple of the larger skerries which form the inner part of the Torran Rocks.

As we followed at a slower pace, Douglas and I spotted a familiar silhouette through the haze on the horizon.....

 ...beyond the skerries and the low-lying shape of Colonsay rose the unmistakeable outline of the Paps of Jura. Our memories of a superb Spring trip to Jura still were still fresh - a place I'm very keen to return to!

In the foreground are some of the innermost skerries of the Torran Rocks.  This scattered group of rocks, islets and reefs lies to the south of the Ross of Mull to an extent of some 25 square kilometres.  They're well named - Torran is "Thunder" in Gaelic and a hint of the nature of the reef system can be found in some of the individual rock names such as "MacPhail's Anvil".  The largest of the rocks are up to 10 metres above high water but many are hidden and for every rock and hazard which shows above the surface there's as much shoal water below.  Hamish Haswell-Smith, in his indispensable guide "The Scottish Islands" describes the Torran Rocks as "scattered over a wide area like dragon's teeth.  They lurk menacingly just below the surface, occasionally showing themselves in a froth of white spittle".

Part of the reason that the Torrans are such a hazard to shipping is that they lie right in the track of vessels heading to and from the Firth of Lorn and up and down the west coast of Mull, as can be seen from this large scale map.   It was in response to the mounting toll of shipwrecks in the 19th century that the Northern Lighthouse Board authorised Thomas Stevenson to build the Dubh Artach light, one of the great "sea lights", it bridges the gap between the lighthouses at Rhinns of Islay and Skerryvore.

There is a passage between the Torran Rocks and the Ross of Mull, normally used by smaller vessels.  Coming up over our right shoulders, a rather larger vessel was rapidly overhauling us.....

 ..she's the Northern Lighthouse Board's tender "Pharos", one of two large vessels operated by the NLB.  She's 84 metres long with a beam of 16.5 metres, but a shallow draught of just 4.5 metres which enables her to operate close inshore.  We figured that if any vessel would have knowledge of the intricacies of the coastal routes around Scotland, it would be "Pharos"!

 We next came to Eilean a' Chalmain (Dove island), a rocky place where we found this rock formation resembling a frozen wave.

 Hidden on the east side of the island, Douglas knew of a possible landing place, and sure enough a flash of white sand backed with grass was tucked into in a corner of the island.

 At first the landing appeared to be blocked by boulders.......

 ...... but we found a strip of sand just large enough for us all to land and stretch our legs.

We now decided to head a little further along the coast to visit one of the two beaches named "Traigh Geal" (white beach) - there's always time on a  sunny day for another beach!  As we left Eilean a' Chalmain though, the sky to the north told of a coming change in the weather as a cloud-sheet reached across the Ross of Mull towards us.  Perhaps our luck with the sunshine had run out....