Monday 28 May 2018

Hebridean holiday

The staff of Mountain and Sea Scotland have just returned from a week in the wonderful Hebridean island of Harris.  there will be much more over the coming weeks - but here's just a taster:

Gorgeous colour at Traigh Sheiliboist, looking over to Luskentyre and the hills beyond.

An Cliseam, at 799m the highest point of the Outer Hebrides.  It isn't always this clear!

Eagle country.  Harris has the highest eagle population density in northern Europe.

The palette of colour when the sun beats down is simply breathtaking - the light in Harris is what makes this place so special.

 Intense Hebridean light in Caolas Scarp....

So, more to come soon.  Meanwhile most of Scotland continues to enjoy fabulous early summer weather; so I'm off to make the most of it!

Monday 21 May 2018

Four seasons in a forenoon

I slept well in my tent, pitched behind Glendhu bothy.  We woke to frozen ground and a dusting of snow which was coming and going in light showers - quite a difference to the warmth of the previous afternoon!

It's often said that in Scotland you can experience four seasons in a day - and we were about to have just such a day. 

Snow was falling steadily on the hills above Glendhu.  Our bothy companions took a look outside and voted unanimously for a late start to see if it would clear.

After breakfast we got packed up, said goodbye to the lads and got on the water in improving conditions.  The wind died completely and the cloud began to break and lift up the crags surounding the head of the loch.  An easy paced paddle took us down to Kylesku in a little over an hour.

Our plan had now evolved a little due to forecast strong winds the following day.  We'd thought of shuttling a car ahead to Scourie and paddling from Kylesku north, using the camp site at Scourie, but the forecast northerlies would have made this a hard slog.  Instead, we decided to drop our camping gear and excess kit at the vehicles in Kylesku, then to explore Loch a' Chairn Bhain, returning to Kylesku to finish.

On the shore opposite the fishing jetty lie the remains of the two-car ferry "Maid of Kylesku".  She served the Kylesku crossing from the 1950's until 1967 when she was replaced by the "Queen of Kylesku" in 1967, which in turn was replaced by the "Maid of Glencoul".  When the Kylesku bridge replaced the ferry service in 1984, the "Maid of Glencoul" was redeployed as a relief vessel at the Corran ferry in Lochaber.

"Maid of Kylesku" was simply beached when she reached the end of her service life in 1967 and it's testament to the strength of her construction that she's essentially still in one piece over fifty years later - although she has certainly seen better days.

Having unloaded most of our kit back into the vehicles at Kylesku, wetook advantage of the strong ebb stream too pass under the Kylesku Bridge at quite a lick.  Rain began to fall steadily as we set out, and soon after we went under the bridge there was a dramatic change in conditions as a squall barrelled in from the north bringing a vicious mix of rain and hail on a suddenly strong wind.

As quickly as it had come in the squall passed through and disappeared over the summit ridges of Quinag, trailing veils of rain as it did so.  The wind dropped, out came the sun and it suddenly felt warm - another of Scotland's weather tricks.

By the time we reached the seaward end of Loch a' Chairn Bhain (loch of the white cairn) we were paddling under blue skies and bright sunshine once more.  I remembered a small pebble beach at the back of a tiny bay where we stopped for luncheon; there are surprisingly few landing places on the north shore of this wide loch.

The colours here were really fine, that alluring mix of white sand under turquoise water, a real treat.  Allan and Lorna were both suffering from heavy colds and decided to go just a little further before turning back.......

.....but first we explored the tiny Loch Shark, a lovely shallow loch enclosed by pine and spruce woods - most unusual for this part of the coast.  As Allan and Lorna began the return leg towards Kylesku, headed north to paddle around the island of Calbha Beag (little calf).

Almost as soon as I turned north the wind began to increase; in the channel between Calbha Mor and Calbha Beag it became a real effort to make progress and I reached the top of the island with some relief.

The north coast of this small island is rugged and steep; the wind had quickly built a swell in the wide open Eddrachilis Bay which was acting against the ebb tide to produce quite sporting conditions - lots of spray, noise and movement.  I was then treated to a fast, surfing run down the west coast of the island taking advantage of the wind-over-tide wave trains....there aren't any photos of this section!

From the still frost of the early morning, to snow, dead calm, hail and rain, bright sunshine and now a barrelling wind; we'd had four seasons in a forenoon never mind a day!  Truly, in Scotland we don't have a climate, we just have weather.......

I spoke to Allan on the VHF radio to let him and Lorna know I was back inside Loch a' Chairn Bhain.  A pleasant paddle took me back towards Kylesku, where the bridge is suddenly revealed when a point which seems to block the loch off is rounded.  This is still one of my favourite bridges, there's a simple grace to it and seen from the ridges of Quinag the curve of the deck seems to fit the landscape really well for a modern structure.

We packed up at Kylesku and consdiered options.  The forecast for the following day was poor and Allan and Lorna decided to head to Scourie to camp before taking a leisurely trip home.  I decided to head home to take the opportunity of seeing visiting family, and started on the journey back across country.

Before I did though, I stopped on the road at a layby with a view up the length of Loch Glencoul - a view familiar to many geology students and one that has few equals from a main road.

Heading over the watershed to the eastern side of Scotland, the higher hills were still plastered white - this is Ben Wyvis, a sprawling giant of a hill visible from a wide area.

A short trip, but a good one in a favourite part of the country; hopefully I'll be back there soon.

Friday 18 May 2018

Light and warmth in the "dark glen"

As there's a track to the door, Glendhu gets more visitors than the bothy at Glencoul so we didn't expect to have the place to ourselves on an Easter weekend.  The two upstairs rooms each had a couple of sets of kit inside so we decided to put up tents behind the bothy for sleeping and share the downstairs rooms with the occupants when they returned.

A deer skull mounted on the wall above the fireplace in one of the downstairs rooms has uses way beyond a decorative trophy; in good bothy style it has multipurpose use as a drying rack and glasses stand.  Unfortunately I'd forgotten to bring the wi-fi code with me........

Soon after we got set up the folk already in residence came back from a long hill day - four lads from Northern Ireland and Scotland having a reunion weekend break.  We brewed up tea and sat outside in warm sunshine, our backs to the warm stone of the bothy - life seemed particularly agreeable.

I took a stroll up the hill behind the bothy to get a view over the head of the loch - this really is a great spot.  As at Glencoul, the call of a Black Throated Diver rang out; this time with a beautiful, eerie echo - a true voice of the wild and so atmospheric and "of its place" here.

We enjoyed dinner in front of the bothy before retiring indoors as the sun sank behind the hills down the loch; the air cooled rapidly, a reminder that it was still April despite the warmth of the afternoon.

The colours of the sunset were enhanced this evening by a pall of smoke hanging over the lower loch, though we couldn't see the source of it.  The breeze died away after sunset and in the dusk we saw an Otter fishing right in front of us, eventually disappearing with a splash when it became aware of our presence.

I went outside to fetch something from the boat after dark to a flood of pale light as a full moon came up into the "V" of the bealach (pass or col) above the head of Glendhu.  We all came out to enjoy this sight, our shadows were cast long and sharp in the moonlight - just magical.

Indoors, we'd got a fire going and with candles lit around the room there was a glow of light here too - perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of bothying. When we went back out to the tents the moon was riding high and a touch of frost was crisping the grass.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Two lochs, two bothies

Just around the corner from Glencoul there's a series of tidal islets guarding the entrance to an extension of Loch Glencoul.  Loch Beag (little loch) opens out slightly before reaching ints head among the hills.  It was a peaceful spot on this afternoon and what little breeze there was died away soon after we paddled in.  The haunting call of a Black Throated Diver echoed around the loch - the only sound apart from our paddles.

A little way from the head of Loch Beag is the Eas a' Chual Aluinn - Scotland's tallest waterfall.  Boat trips bring folk from Kylesku on a tour of Loch Glencoul and to see this waterfall - which has always seemed to me a bit underwhelming as waterfalls go; there's not usually a lot of water in it.  There's an impressive set of falls on the Maldie Burn which drains a hill loch system into Loch Glendhu; in wet conditions they're really something.

Having reached the head of Loch Beag we'd come as far as we could and turned back, out ito Loch Glencoul in mirror calm conditions.  The lovely weather seemed set to last for the afternoon as we made our way back down Loch Glencoul.

Rounding the Aird da Loch (height of two lochs) which defines Lochs Glencoul and Glendhu we came across the empty shells of two sea urchins - very likely the work of either gulls or an otter.  The urchins are often exposed at very low tides and become vulnerable; as we were just after low water a day before Springs these had probably met their end very recently.

The view up Loch Glendhu is as spectacular as that up it's "twin", a narrow fiord hemmed in by high and rugged hills.

A track runs along the north side of the loch, at times clinging improbably to the craggy shoreline;  the retaining wall is often the only indication of the track from the water.

Crossing to the north side of the loch gives a longer view to the hills beyond, a tantalising glimpse of snow capped summits.

As at Glencoul, there's geology on show here on a grand scale - the tilted plane of Cambrian quartzite overthrust by much older pipe rock and Gneiss.

We paddled steadily against a breeze which had sprung up, and gradually our target became more visible.  The buildings at Glendhu are utterly dwarfed by their surroundings - for me that's one of the attractions of this place.

The three buildings at Glendhu are all in good repair - all owned by the Reay Forest estate.  The two buildings on the right of this image are private, the left hand building is open and administered by the Mountain Bothies Association

Glendhu is "dark (or black) glen", which would seem to indicate a place of deep shadow and little sunlight.  In midwinter there's no doubt that the surrounding hills rob it of sunlight for part of the day, but the alignment of the loch allows the morning and afternoon sun to flood the glen at most times of the year- and then it's anything but a dark glen although the name probably refers as much to the narrow rocky valley beyond the head of the loch.  A spot I have good memories of, I was looking forward to staying here again.

Sunday 13 May 2018

From cool to Glencoul

The next few posts are a catch-up of a sea kayak trip to the northwest of Scotland around Easter. A slim window of lighter winds was forecast to follow a period of strong northerlies which we hoped to exploit. We expected cold conditions and planed to use bothies though we were equipped to camp. Our plans were very flexible with no defined goals other than enjoying our first overnight sea kayak trip of the year.

Leaving home at dawn, it was clear that we would probably get the cold conditions we expected!  The temperature was minus 5 Celsius and the road from home a little slippy.  I'd arranged to meet Allan and Lorna at Inverness at 0900, so that we could get into position and be on the water further north by lunchtime.

We arrived at Kylesku after a drive which (visibility permitting) is one of the most scenic anywhere; north of Ullapool the road heads into Assynt, a truly ancient landscape.  You can put in at the former ferry slip adjacent to the hotel, but parking can be difficult there.  We wheeled our boats on trolleys down a rough track near the fishing jetty to launch off a stony beach and parked the vehicles in a layby on the road.

The weather was, if anything, better than forecast and there was even some warmth in the sunshine. Our plan was to head east into the twin lochs of Glencoul and Glendhu, each of which has a bothy in their upper reaches.  This being Easter, we expected others to have the same idea, hence we were fully equipped and prepared to camp elsewhere.

Rounding the dividing headland of Aird da Loch (appropriately "height of the two lochs") an impressive view opens up along Loch Glencoul to the rugged hills surrounding the head of the loch.  The most prominent of these is the Stack of Glencoul, a 494m/1621ft boss of steep rock.

At our right shoulder was a superb view to Quinag, one of my favourite hills - it's been way too long since I climbed it.

Paddling up Loch Glencoul is like moving along a geological text book writ large.  The pinkish rock outcropping in a tilted plane above Allan in this image is Cambrian Quartzite; at the top right of the image you can see the start of another type of rock overlying the quartzite.

The astonishing thing is that the overlying rock is much older than the Cambrian rock below.  This is the Glencoul Thrust zone, a part of the complex Moine Thrust zone.  A good explanation with photographs to illustrate the stacked-up nature of the rock is provided by Oxford University as notes for its students fieldwork (thanks to Allan for pointing me to this resource).

The head of Loch Glencoul is a wild and majestic place, surrounded by rugged hills.  There's no easy access on foot to this spot, the natural way to arrive is by water.

We headed for the broad beach on the north side of the loch, just below the house of Glencoul. The building on the shore is a boathouse and storage shed, the house and adjacent bothy is just above the beach to the right.  We were arriving near low water one day before Springs - the water goes back for some 100 metres as the beach is fairly flat.

Nobody was about when we landed, but three open canoes drawn up near the bothy indicated that folk were in residence.  We thought we'd be able to camp and share the bothy during the evening, but......

...on opening the bothy door it was clear that it was absolutely rammed with kit and gear.  A single party of eight had taken every available inch of space.  Even if we'd camped there wouldn't have been space for us to cook or share the evening in the bothy.

This was a little disappointing, the bothy code is pretty straightforward concerning group size and duration of stay - and this group intended to stay a while.  They were a "Song of the Paddle" members group and left the bothy book right below a notice asking groups of six or more to neither use the bothy or to camp nearby......  It was undoubtedly a fabulous adventure for the kids, just too many folk at one time for a wee bothy.

Above the head of the bay, a prominent white marble cross commemorates the Eliot brothers, two lads enlisted in highland regiments and both killed in the slaughter of the western front in 1917 and 1918.

Their bodies aren't here, but the spot chosen for their memorial has a view which has few rivals.

The afternoon sunshine was warm and there was almost no breeze, quite a difference in temperature from the "cool" early morning back in Aberdeenshire! We ate a late luncheon with our backs to a warm drystone wall the bothy and discussed plans.  Adding our three to the eight folk here would detract from the wild feel of this spot; and we decided to spend the night elsewhere.  But before heading back down Loch Glencoul there was somewhere else we wanted to explore...

Thursday 10 May 2018

A year in the fields

During spring 2017 I took some images showing the rapid change as a "green wave" of fresh growth spread across the farmlands close to home, developing into summer gold. I hoped to continue a series of images taken through the year from the same viewpoint to show the change as the wheel of the seasons turned.

21st April 207 and the "green wave" was just starting; the fields changing almost daily as barley began to push through the soil.  All the fields in this image apart from the two at lower left had been sown a couple of weeks previously, the other two were kept under gras through the winter.

Just over a month later, in the second half of May and the change is really noticeable.  Lush growth despite a somewhat cool spring had given a good start to the season.

By mid June the barley was fully formed and beginning to take a slight golden colour; a cut had been taken from one of the grass fields.

Mid August and the barley was ripening fast, a litlle later than in an average year as the summer remained cool and changeable.  The field (fields are known as "parks" here in the north east) at lower right contains potatoes.

Most of the barley crop was cut in mid to late September - by 4th October the harvest was home and the fields were dotted with "tractor eggs" waiting to be stacked as winter feed and bedding for the Aberdeen Angus cattle.

November brought the start of winter, sweeping showers of hail trailing across the landscape.  The "tatties" were all harvested and the stacks of hay bales can be sen close by the farm.

The top field in this image had contained barley, undersown with grass.  Once the barley was down the grass could continue growing, giving an early start for grazing.

Late November and all was quiet as the winter shutdown began - the sun dropping lower by the day.

Early December and winter's grip tightened; spells of snow becoming more frequent.  Late December into January had less snow than usual, but the winter had still plenty of bite to come.

By mid February the farming year had begun again, fields gradually going under the plough to start the turn of the wheel again.

February and March brought the worst of the winter, as is often the case here.  Falls of snow built up rapidly - this image was taken at the start of a run of bitter easterly weather which lasted most of the month.

On 28th April, there wasn't much growth to be seen, just the green of the grass parks breaking the bare brown palette of the area.  It's interesting to contrast this image with the first in this post - taken a year previously and a week earlier.  The effect of a cold, prolonged winter is clear to see, the crop about three weeks behind already at this early part of the year.

The migrant birds have been affected by the cold conditions too, we usually see our first Swallows and House Martins on about 20th April, this year it was 28th April, and just a day later we had Willow Warblers and heard the first Cuckoo on 30th April - all very compressed compared to a "normal" year.

On 6th May the change is in full swing though, the green wave washing across the land.  A warm spell has helped to bring things on after a really slow start.

So that was a year in the fields, and the wheel continues to turn.......