Thursday 27 September 2018

Knockando colours

Autumn in Scotland can be a riot of colour, and Speyside is one of the best places to experience the change from summer's green to autumn gold.

We visited the Knockando Woolmill last weekend on a bright and sunny afternoon when the colours were fairly "zinging".  There's been a mill here since 1784;  the present buildings have been renovated and the mill is now manufacturing fine designer tweeds and wool using machinery from the 1870's.

Water power is still utilised via a restored wheel fed by water piped from the nearby stream, though the waterwheel was originally augmented by a paraffin engine and now by electric power.

The restoration of the site has been sympathetic and has recreated a piece of industrial history along with a restored wool dealers shop and workers cottage.  There's a small tearoom and a stylish shop as well as a small interpretative display with a film.  Knockando Woolmill isn't a swish "visitor experience" or sterile museum; it's a working, living business and all the better for that.  Off the beaten track (again, a good thing I think) it's well worth seeking out, but check opening times as the visitor facilities shut for much of the winter.

In the surrounding trees, autumn's glory is beginning; Sycamores glowing in rich shades of plum and amber.

Some of these colours are actually reflected in the tweeds the mill produces, a true representation of place

Above us, green and gold against a stunningly blue sky - truly autumn can be the most dazzling of seasons.

Monday 24 September 2018

Creatures great and small, the Mark of a good day

Shielin of Mark is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, and is the essence of the organisation's ethos "To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use of all who love wild and lonely places".  Although you can walk to it in less than two hours, there's a feeling of real remoteness to the place.

A basic single room stone building with a couple of benches, two small sleeping platforms and an open fireplace, it can be a very welcoming sight in poor weather.

A recent visitor had left a paperback; appropriately given that the bothy is in Angus, it was "Flemington and Tales from Angus" by Violet Jacob, herself Angus-born.  I know Violet Jacob for her iconic poem "The Wild Geese" (sometimes known as "Norland Wind") but haven't read any of  her books; one to try by a bothy fire maybe.....

The view from the bothy door is a sweep of gently undulating moorland leading to Mount Keen, the easternmost of the Munros.  I was idly thinking about the routes that could be done from Glen Tanar across the Mounth Road to here and then to Glen Muick, a long loop south starting and finishing on Deeside, then I suddenly had a realisation of where I was.

Shielin of Mark, as the name suggests, lies at the head of the Water of Mark which winds down Glen Mark and so to Glen Esk.  To walk between roadheads from Spittal Glenmuick to Invermark in Glen Esk would be approximately 18km by the shortest route; the distance by road is close to 100km!  Now there's a route for the future.....

Back in the bothy, I heard a rustling sound from a polythene bag of sticks which had been placed in a bucket by the fireplace.  A glance inside revealed a small visitor...

A Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) had somehow got itself into the bag of sticks, but it clearly couldn't get out of the bucket.  I took the bucket outside and laid it on one side; after a short while the vole emerged and looked around.  Despite me standing right next to it, the little creature didn't run and hide but immediately started feeding on grass - it must have been really hungry.

I closed up the bothy and climbed back up onto the moor.  For my return route I planned to go over the low summit of Fasheilach and down the Scouble to Glen Muick.  Gloriously lonely country this, but not devoid of interest.  Near the summit (really just a gentle swell of heather on a broad ridge) A couple of Grouse burst from close by, but unusually didn't fly off - they landed quickly and scarpered into the heather.  I wondered why they'd behave like this, and looked up.....

Two huge shapes banked around overhead, eagles for sure, against the great backdrop of Lochnagar

As soon as the birds circled back towards me, I knew exactly what they were.  Golden Eagles will fly straight away from a human - but White Tailed Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) tend not to fly away.  As the larger bird banked around the unmistakeable silhouettes confirmed it.  I watched the great birds for over twenty minutes, and this was a pair - the smaller male bird was carrying a prey item which looked like the hindquarters of a Mountain Hare.

Circling, gliding and parallel flying, the eagles put on a fantastic aerial display.  I think that these two may well be two of the three birds I saw in the Angus Glens in November 2015; the locations are a few minutes apart as the eagle flies and these birds need large territories.  This is the first White Tailed Eagles I've seen over the hills of Aberdeenshire - I hope it's a sign that they're expanding into the area.

From a Vole to Eagles - creatures great and small and the Mark of a good day!

Thursday 20 September 2018

A navigation Mark

A recent overnight trip to the "Tarf Hotel" set me thinking about one of the other relatively unfrequented bothies in the north east of Scotland.  I drove to the end of the road at Spittal of Glenmuick where there's a pay and display car park - the price for which has recently been increased further to £4 per visit, which seems a step too far.

The main paths and tracks all head past the estate visitor centre and head south to Loch Muick to access walks around the loch, to the popular Munro of Lochnagar and over the mountain path of Jock's Road to Glen Doll.  My route left the path before the visitor centre and headed south east into the mouth of a twisting glen; from this point on I didn't see another person until I arrived back at Spittal, despite the car park being very busy - proof that quiet routes can be found even in popular areas.

A narrow path follows the Allt Darrarie up the glen; the water quite low on this day but usually this burn has a significant volume of rich brown water, stained to a coffee shade by the peat moorland where is rises.

A simple bridge crosses the burn half way up the glen, placed high above the water level so it isn't washed away.

At a stream junction the path swings left and climbs, giving a good view back down the Allt Darrarie.

Emerging onto flat and featureless moorland, there's a splendid view back to Lochnagar, the steep crags a contrast to the ground near at hand.  From here on, accurate navigation and a certain faith in map and compass were essential to reach my destination.  Two kilometres of wet, peaty ground climbs very gently with little in the way of features to mark the way.  When the ground starts to drop, it's a case of trusting your navigation.........

........because the small bothy at Shielin of Mark doesn't come into view until you're about a hundred metres away and just above the patch of flat ground it occupies at the head of the Water of Mark. Just across the boundary from Aberdeenshire, the bothy is the first building in Angus for quite some way.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

A touch of autumn in Morrone Birkwood

We spent a pleasant afternoon walking above the village of Braemar last weekend.  To the south west of the village on the lower slopes of Morrone is the Morrone Birkwood ("Birk" is the Scots name for Birch).  Although named for the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens), the wood has been designated as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the good amount of Juniper Juniperus communis) in the understorey of the wood.

Climbing from the village, a road goes up past a duck pond and becomes a track which climbs to a viewpoint. There's a good view back to the village, which sits in a hollow above the River Dee at 340m/1115 ft.  The relatively high site in a bowl between big hills is part of the reason that Braemar has (twice) recorded temperatures of -27.2 degrees Celsius (-16.9 Farenheit) - a record low for the UK.

The viewpoint has an indicator post mapping all the summits which can be seen - near at hand the main Cairngorms massif looms large.

THere's a definite touch of autumn colour on the high ground now; the heather has turned to rich brown and patches of bracken are bright yellow. 

On the birks, the first sprinkle of gold is among the leaves as this lovely tree starts to colour up towards its climax in early October.

On the woodland floor fungi are numerous and some make for patches of vivid colour such as this Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

Poisonous and hallucinogenic as it is, the Fly Agaric is quite beautiful in its own way - and an early sign of  the purple of late summer beginning to give way to the reds and golds of autumn.

This short walk is about 5km in distance with 120 metres of ascent and takes a couple of hours.  There are sign boards in the village and some waymarking along the path itself - a good short walk with great interest and super views.

Sunday 16 September 2018

Sunshine in a jar

Late summer is beginning to feel autumnal, the farmers have their harvest safely home and this week saw some cold mornings with the temperature hovering just about in positive territory.  The rowan trees in our garden are laden with bright red berries; so we planned a busy day taking advantage of this bounty.....

In batches, we collected a kilo of berries at a time - planning to preserve the berries in two sessions.  Rowan berries are way too bitter and unpalatable to eat if you're human, but the birds absolutely love them, particularly thrushes and starlings.  In fact, a rowan seed won't grow if you plant it, and won't germinate until it's first been through the digestive system of a bird; a remarkable adaptation.  Even taking a kilo at a time from the trees we hardly seemed to affect the amount of berries. A good rowan crop is supposed to presage a hard winter - and we've found this to be borne out in previous years.  As for this winter, well...we'll see!

A neighbour gifted us two big bags of apples - nature has been very abundant after this warm and settled summer.

Rowan berries and apples went into a huge preserving pan, leaving the apple cores in for extra pectin.

An hour of simmering and mashing later and you have a not very attractive thin orange "porridge".  When all the fruit and berries are rendered to pulp, the mixture is strained through a cloth to extract a couple of litres of juice.  Add some sugar, boil rapidly until a "set" is achieved ...........

....and the result is sunshine in a jar.  Beautifully bright pink rowan and apple jelly which goes very well with cold meats and cheeses; and especially well with vension - we use it in casseroles and as a glaze for roast venison.  The new jelly needs to mature for three to four weeks before eating and will last until the berries are ready next year.

Now, it's on to the plums and the rest of the apples!  Jams and stewed fruits were the order of the day, nature's bounty stored for the winter to come.

Monday 10 September 2018

A "mamba" Munro and the simple joy of a path

I slept deeply and long at the Tarf Hotel, waking 8am, an unusually late hour for me. A combination of tiredness after a long day and the deep silence of these empty miles on a calm night, plus the absence of the usual bothy mice rustling about were all factors.  I felt refreshed but a bit slow when I got up, and it was after 9am when I set out into a morning with a lid on it.  Cloud levels were down to just above the bothy, the air was still and had that heaviness which often characterises the month of August in the Highlands.  A look back at Feith Uaine; splendid isolation and a haven in truly wild country.

I followed the Tarf Water downstream for a short distance before striking off up a side stream.  A little way up the hill I passed a ruined shieling, evidence that this hasn't always been an empty landscape.  Shielings were summer dwellings used in the traditional transhumance of people and beasts to higher pasture in the summer months.  Sited in the crook of a burn (stream) on relatively level ground, its interesting that the surrounding ground is an area of grass among square miles of heather and moss - I wonder whether the site was chosen for this characteristic, or if the ground was cleared of heather to provide better grazing for the cattle?

Continuing uphill on increasingly rough and difficult terrain brought me to a huge area of peat hags and wet ground.  scattered through the peat hags were the bleached roots and stumps of a long-gone pine forest which once covered the land.  A combination of a cooling climate and felling for timber destroyed these forests - allowing the build up of peat which has left vast areas of empty country.

Soon after this image was taken I walked up into the cloudbase and visibility was reduced to less than 50 metres.  I continued to follow a tiny burn uphill until I reached a bealach (col) between the Munros of Carn an Fhidleir and An Sgarsoch - and also on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary.  I now had a decision to make.  My next destination was a path which reaches high up the Geldie Burn and lay 3 kilometres to the north of the bealach.  I could either continue a traverse across steep, rough, wet and pathless terrain in low visibility to locate this path, or go over the summit of An Sgarsoch.  The latter route would add a kilometre in distance and 300 metres/1000ft of climbing but would make for easier walking and navigation, despite the additional climb.  After a little deliberation I chose the route over An Sgarsoch and began the steep climb up a broad ridge of grass and moss.

The challenge of accurate map and compass navigation in poor visibility is something I enjoy to a certain extent.  Although carrying a GPS receiver in my kit I resisted using it and was pleased to arrive right at the summit cairn.  An Sgarsoch (the place of sharp rocks) is 1006m/3300ft and one of the more remote Munros.  The last time I climbed this hill I recorded in my journal having a good view, but no such luck this time; the inside of one cloud looks pretty similar to the inside of another!

Unusually for a Munro there's very little in the way of paths on the hill so my navigation still had to be accurate.  I elected to head due north to reach the bump of Sgarsoch Beag (little place of sharp rocks) from where I'd be able to head straight for the path.  This descent proved to be not straightforward as the ground falls away at unexpected angles.  Just as I was tempted to check my position by GPS the ground started to rise and I found the summit of Sgarsoch Beag.

I came out of the cloud just above the path and dropped wearily down to it.  I'd had over four hours of pathless and rough ground, much of that time in poor visibility.  The simple pleasure of being able to relax and walk on a path felt really good, despite the long miles still to go with a full backpacking load.

The path leads to the ruing of Geldie Lodge, another former shooting lodge in a remote spot.  In contrast to the atmosphere of Bynack Lodge, I've always found this place to be an austere setting.  Just below the lodge there's a crossing of the Geldie which leads to the start of a track heading back towards Linn of Dee.

It would have been tempting to have thought the route to be just about finished, but it's 12 kilometres from Geldie Lodge to Linn of Dee, a long way when already tired.  My usual routine on the hill with day kit is to take a short rest every couple of hours or when exploring something interesting; if carrying backpacking kit it's usually a short rest each hour.  My pace dropped on this route back and I found myself having to dig deep.  On the last stretch from White Bridge to Linn of Dee I was resting every ten minutes - I've rarely been so utterly done at the end of a two day route.

This trip into "mamba" country had been a real pleasure, apart from at the start and end I saw not another person in 55 kilometres of walking.  If solitude is your thing - you'll usually find it at the headwaters of the Tarf and Geldie.

Thursday 6 September 2018

Checking in at the Tarf Hotel

After a 24 kilometre walk, parts of which were on trackless and difficult ground, it was good to arrive at the "Tarf Hotel".  The actual name of the place is Feith Uaine (green channel or marsh) and it's a bothy maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association.  One of the most remote and difficult to reach of the hundred or so buildings maintained by the charity, Feith Uaine is some 15 kilometres or 10 miles from any public road and lies at 650 metres/1750 feet altitude among country which can fairly be described as "mamba" (miles and miles of b*gger all).

The alternative name for the building of "Tarf Hotel" comes in part from the Automobile Association (AA) hotel sign which adorns the front door - in fact it seems that at one point there were two of these signs which must have been "liberated" from a hotel somewhere.

Neil Reid has written a very comprehensive history of the place on his excellent Cairngorm Wanderer blog - very well worth a read.  The renovation of this bothy has left it in perhaps the best condition since its glory days as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Atholl, and arguably drier than at any time in its existence.

"Checking in" at a bothy is uncomplicated....find a space and unpack.  Each time I use a bothy it strikes me what a unique and precious institution they are - simple shelters, free to use, not bookable and open to all who need them - operating on trust and the goodwill of the owners of the estates on which they lie. In a quite remarkable relationship, estate owners make the buildings available and the MBA keep them in good order. I'm a member of the MBA and have been for many years, though this isn't any kind of condition for using bothies; and confers no privileges other than the knowledge that one is helping to keep the institution going.

Unsurprisingly I was the only occupant and so was able to spread out a bit in the west room.  Basic though bothies are, you'll notice that there's a smoke detector above the window; there are also a carbon monoxide detectors through the building.  I tested all these so that I could include the fact that they were working in the bothy report I would submit.  It's helpful for the MBA and particularly the Maintenance Organiser (MO) for each bothy to receive reports from users; it's a simple online process which can be done here on the MBA website.

In comparison to most, the Tarf Hotel is quite a big and well equipped bothy - let's take a tour.......

There are three main rooms in the main building and one attached at the east end.  The three internal rooms are accessed via the main door and an internal corridor. The room at the west of the building is the largest, this is the one which would have been occupied by the Duke of Atholl and his wife when visiting the lodge.  Originally dry-lined with wooden planking, it now has stone walls which are fee of damp, and a large window.  This room and the middle room have had their timber floors re-layed. There's also a substantial multifuel stove - but if you want heat from it you'll need to bring the fuel all the long miles on your back!

The middle room is somewhat smaller and may have been the kitchen.  A bit more spartan than the other rooms, it is nevertheless dry and clean.

The eastern internal room has retained the timber lining, paited white to increase the light levels.  Tables and chairs plus a small sleeping platform complete the furnishings.  This seems to have originally been the room occupied by the Duke's retainers, then refurbished for use by the Duchess with the "hillmen" being moved to an external building.

A metal roof and new chimney pots were installed by the MBA in 2013 - and the bothy is completely dry and weathertight.  Perhaps the most significant change is the external room at the east of the building, accessed by a door on the north side.  This is shown in old photos as originally being an open porch, though it did have a fireplace.  The transformation is quite remarkable.....

The new room is of wood construction above the original stone wall and seems very well insulated - it felt warmer in this room, perhaps partly due to the windows catching sunlight.  The last time I visited Feith Uaine it was in fairly poor condition, but all is now changed. The work that's been done here, given the location and the logisitics of getting people and equipment in (there are no roads or tracks for many miles) is nothing short of heroic.

I returned to the west room and prepared dinner whilst reading through the entries in the bothy book.  Tales of epic walks and that recurring theme, the navigational difficulty of locating a bothy door in remote country and in challenging weather.  Turning in for the night, I considered myself pretty privileged to be in this place.