Thursday 30 May 2019

Grace and Flavour at Acharachle

After leaving St Finans Isle we had a pleasant run down the narrow "tail" of Loch Shiel.  Indeed, it's hard to know where the loch ends and the River Shiel begins. 

Approaching Acharacle we saw a group of five Whooper Swans on the water - winter visitors to Scotland and quite late in leaving this year it seems - though a few pairs do breed in Scotland some years.  Although we tried to give them a wide berth, the wary birds all put their heads up and turned as one to face into the breeze.

A few of the distinctive "whooping" calls and the birds accelerated into the wind....... power up into the air; a graceful and beautiful sight.  we could clearly hear the thrumming noise from their wings as the flight primaries rowed the air.

We cut around the side of the pier at Acharacle to land on a muddy strip next to a small was time for second breakfast!

A short walk up the road to Acharacle village was enlivened with the sound of Willow Warblers and our first sighting of a Swallow this year - it seemed that the summer migrants were arriving in this part of Scotland before some of the winter visitors had left.

Second breakfast was purchased at David's Bakery and Cafe - hot roast beef rolls, beefburgers or home baking - it was all delicious and freshly prepared.  We've used this cafe before and can thoroughly recommend it - there is fish and chips available in the evenings too.  Nearby, a small shop offers the opportunity to re-stock with vital supplies and there is also a public toilet in the village - Acharacle is well worth the short diversion off the water on this trip!

Back on the water after fuelling up, it was immediately obvious from the insistent pull of the current that we'd now left Loch Shiel and were in the River Shiel.

Monday 27 May 2019

The stones and bell of St Finans Isle

We wouldn't dream of making a journey on Loch Shiel and not visiting st Finan's Isle.  The island is named for Finan, a saint of the early Celtic church who was also known as "Finan the Leper" from the disease which afflicted him.  Details of his life aren't completely clear but he is believed to have followed Columba from Ireland and became Abbot of the monastery he established on this small island.  He lived from around 520-600AD and is thought to have died at Clonmore in his native Ireland.

The location of the monastery may seem withdrawn and remote to the modern mind, but in Finan's time waterways were the main method of travel and this island was on a main travel route.  Finan is believed to have carried Christianity into much of Argyllshire and further afield, apart from the nearby Glenfinnan and Kilfinnan his name crops up in places such as St Finzean's Fair in Perth and Finzean in distant Aberdeenshire.  The names of these early pioneers from the Celtic church reach out across what were the Pictish kingdoms as he church made a determined effort to convert the Picts.

The island has been in use as a holy place down 1200 years, firstly as a monastery and then as a graveyard - use which continues to the present day.

One of the most prominent monuments on the island is a celtic cross commemorating the Rev Charles McDonald, priest of the diocese of Argyll and the Isles.  The stonework is really fine (some closer views of this side of the stone are here)......

......and the reverse side of the column is hardly plain.

The oldest of the grave markers are grouped together near to the summit of the domed island, simple slabs of stone, some of which my have borne inscriptions.

Occupying the only flat ground near the top is the ruined stone buildings which succeeded the timber and thatch of the earlier monastery buildings.  It's a simple enough complex of two stone buildings, one of which was a chapel, but there are remarkable artefacts here.

In an alcove at the end of the chapel is a very old cross with a crucifixion image on it.  Worn and weathered, it exudes age.  A wooden boat shaped vessel at the foot of the cross often has coins left on it - today there was the stump of a votive candle.  This cross alone would be an important artefact...but it's what is on the alter stone next to it which makes this such a special site.

This hand bell is cast in seamless bronze and was produced in the 10th century.  For 1100 years it has been here, surviving Viking raids, countless wars and local feuds and the upheavals within both church and state in the intervening period.

Almost anywhere else this might have been removed by theft or taken away to a museum many miles away....but it's still here, secured by a chain to the altar it has been associated with for all the centuries......just remarkable and quite uplifting.  Of course, there's a curse associated with it; whoever would remove it would have a very short and painful existence awaiting them!  Astonishingly, this 1100 year old bell rings as clear and true as the day it was cast and we can confirm having rung it on a previous many modern products will still be fully functional in a century's time?!

As with each visit we make to this special place, we left the chapel with a sense of calm and thoughtfulness. 

Descending around the summit area, one of the older grave slabs bears a vivid representation of mortality - our forebears were somewhat more pragmatic about such things it seems.

Heading back to our boats the path goes through a group of stones which look really old but are believed to date from the 18th century....quite late in the history of this place.  They certainly are a good fit here though.

A little way above the jetty is (to my knowledge) the only war grave on St Finan's Isle.  The stone commemorates Deckhand Dugald Grant, son of Peter Grant of Dalilea, Glenfinnan, who died whilst serving in HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy's torpedo and mine warfare school in Portsmouth.  The record on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website is, as so often, both poignant and fascinating. 

We returned to our boats, each of us with our own thoughts and memories of Eilean Fhianain, for all of us it remains a compelling place to visit.  For now though, our thoughts turned from the past to the future - it was time to get back onto the water.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

The colours of St Finan's Isle

We enjoyed a relaxed evening on the shore of Loch Shiel, talking late into a clear evening.  There was a cover of high cloud when we emerged from the tents which merged into mist towards the head of the loch.

Breakfasts of various types were prepared, tents taken down and boats repacked.  We were in no particular hurry but soon enough were getting back on the water.

Not far from our camp site the loch narrows and takes a twist; the water is here between the moraines of the glacier which carved out Loch Shiel.  The shoreline on the north side is used as rough grazing for sheep and cattle, the south shore is quite rocky and forested with spruce.  Gorse was in full bloom, making for a colourful backdrop

As we passed through the narrow twist of the loch a view opened up to Eilean Fhianain (St Finan's Isle).  We wouldn't dream of doing a trip on Loch Shiel and not visiting this fascinating island, so full of interest and history.  You'll notice that in this image it appears greener than the surrounding hills - seen with the eye this is even more marked and the island is a green jewel among the highland scenery.

We landed on a narrow strip of shingle near to the pier on the island to spend some time exploring.  If landing here, it's worth knowing that this little strip of shingle drops very steeply into deeper water really close to the shoreline and can make for an awkward landing if the water level is low.  There's something quite pleasing about the colourful sight of a group of kayaks on a beach!

We left our sails rigged as the breeze was both light and onshore.  All of our small flotilla were rigged with Flat Earth sea kayak sails made in Australia, and we noticed that there was almost a full range of Mick MacRobb's production designs, two versions of the Code Zero, a Tradewind .80, a Footloose .80 and an early prototype sail are all represented in this image.  If you haven't yet tried sea kayak sailing, we can all vouch for how much fun there is to be had!

Our boats weren't the only splashes of colour on the shore of St Finan's Isle - the bright yellow stars of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) flowers studded the grassy shore......

.....while the whole of the steep west slope of the island was carpeted in a mist of Common Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which were just coming into full bloom - a wonderful sight. 

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Fine dining in a fine setting on Loch Shiel

Passing Glen Aladale gives a very fine view up the glen, which is in the heart of some really rugged mountain country.  On our late winter trip in 2015 Douglas, Mike and I had camped on the shore here - a cold experience. 

We crossed over to the south shore of the loch to explore Eilean Mhich Dhomhnuill Dhuibh (islands of Black MacDonald), tiny rocky islands with more interest than we'd previously thought.

Our pace slowed quite a bit as the late afternoon wore on, we'd had early starts and conditions were now quite warm and still, we didn't feel the need to rush anywhere - and our planned camp was just a few kilometres further on.

The low sun threw the view ahead into a series of silhouettes, there was something of the Japanese painting about the low hills receding into softer focus.

Before long we arrived at our camp, a place we've used before.  A shingle beach with level ground behind, sheltered from most weather by woodland - it has a lot to offer....but will be hideously midgey in the summer months.  No such problems at this time of the year though!

A small breeze got up to assist the last short distance to the beach.....

...Our boats were soon drawn up on the shingle.......

.....and camp was being established on the grassy bank above the beach.  Tents up and kit carried up in the ubiquitous blue travelling luggage favoured by sea kayakers (Indispensable Kayak Expedition Accessory bags), we turned our attention to gathering firewood for the evening.

Lorna meanwhile got the stoves going to heat up a real treat; home-made Venison Casserole and potatoes - there really is no reason we can think of not to eat well on trips such as this; we think of good food as an essential part of the trip.

As dinner was cooking, the fire was lit, which Douglas achieved with a single match and no artificial firelighting aids.

A cheery blaze was soon underway which would be well established by the time we'd eaten our main course and which would warm us through the evening as we enjoyed being in this place. We were delighted that Tony was able to join us during the evening having driven from Glasgow after work and paddled up from Acharacle to arrive just before sunset.  He was in good time for a dessert of poached pears in brandy with clotted cream, accompanied by a dram from a choice of fine distilleries.  I don't think any of us would have swapped this for dinner in a fancy seemed particularly agreeable!

Wednesday 1 May 2019

Loch Shiel cruising

We left "Mica Beach" and continued down Loch Shiel, the lightest of breezes filling our sails.

Spring seemed to be developing almost by the hour; fresh green leaves opening on the trees and birdsong floating across the water.

Although the mountains begin to fall back farther down the loch, the scenery certainly doesn't fall away; the western shore is an array of rugged rocky bosses above natural woodlands.

The wildlife tour boat "Sileas" passed us on her return to Glenfinnan, looking very spruce. We last saw her on our winter trip in 2015 when she was being prepared for her annual surveys.  Built in 1940, she's still in very good condition!  We would meet one of the people who'd been a passenger on Sileas two days later, she was thrilled to have got close views of a Sea Eagle from the deck of the boat.  If you're not a canoeist or kayaker, a trip on Sileas would be a great way to see Loch Shiel.

As we continued our own Loch Shiel cruise, the views just kept coming.  Our pace slowed a little as the afternoon became warmer. It was a good idea to look behind us every now and again.........

.....because the views were pretty special in that direction too!