Saturday 28 December 2019

A short day's sea kayaking

Unusually, the winter solstice fell on 22nd December this year rather than 21st.  The forecast was for a cold and sunny day so Allan and I planned a short paddle on the Moray Firth coast.  We met up at Sandend having driven up on quite icy roads; the temperature was barely above freezing when we got onto the water.  Our relaxed planning for the day extended to not having decided which direction to paddle until we actually got into the boats!  We settled on a round trip west to Cullen, a favourite paddle and one full of interest.

The forecast had been accurate with regards to the weather, and also with regard to the swell, which was over a metre with a 10 second periodicity.  These longer period swells are long distance travellers and they carry enormous power.  The Moray Firth is rarely completely calm, and even with no wind and a deceptively flat sea state the swell deserves respect.  Almost straight away we experienced the energy and noise of surging swell thundering across the jagged rocks near Sandend

We managed to get into some of the wider channels which thread behind stacks and cliffs just west of Sandend, but not comfortably.  It all looks serene in this image but the swell was magnified in these confined spaces....... this narrow gap we estimated a 3 metre rise and fall - and felt disinclined to investigate more closely!

Clear of the channels we were able to enjoy the kayaking with bright sunshine on our backs; welcome if not bringing much warmth.

At Sunnyside beach the breakers were "smoking" as they rolled onto the shore.  This beach looks to be an idyllic place to take a break but landings here are rarely straightforward.  There are reefs and boulders studding the gently shelving approach and the surf has a tendency to break quite late.  Even on the calmest of summer days this beach can spring a surprise!

It took us a little less than two hours to make our way around to Cullen where we pulled in to the harbour to take luncheon.  The iconic railway viaduct is a feature of the town but no longer carries a railway.

The outer harbour has a small sandy beach which is an ideal stop.  Benches on the harbour wall face the afternoon sun and there are public toilets close by.  Another very attractive feature of this harbour is the proximity of an excellent fish and chip shop!  We'd brought our own lunches on this day - featuring mince pies of course, given the proximity to Christmas.  After a leisurely lunch it was time to head back to Sandend.  An advantage of doing a winter trip heading west first then east is that we wouldn't have the sun in our eyes for much of the trip - with one significant exception.

Heading back along the eastern side of Cullen Bay we were treated to a nice view of a group of Long Tailed Ducks (Clnagula hylemalis).  these sea ducks appear in small numbers to winter on the coasts of eastern Scotland and north east England and always seem to be very elegant.

Although we saw no other leisure boaters during our short trip, we weren't the only ones out on the water.  This creeler was working a line of creels close inshore near the Logie Head which is near to the boundary between Morayshire and Aberdeenshire.

We enjoyed a steady paddle back to Sandend, arriving at mid afternoon.  This tiny harbour is really difficult to locate in mid-winter when it's a sunny day - the sun streams directly into one's eyes and makes for locating the correct line of approach surprisingly hard work.  We landed in deep shade with the temperature still hovering around freezing, so we wasted no time in unpacking our boats and loading them onto the cars before heading around the corner into bright sunshine for a warming cup of tea above the beach.

The swell hadn't diminished at all and was being enjoyed by numerous surfers, like us they were getting the best of this winter solstice.  Short it may have been, but we'd enjoyed our paddle on this shortest of days.  From now until mid June 2020 the light will increase day on day - now there's something to celebrate!

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Happy Christmas

Wishing you peace, health and happiness, wherever you may be this Christmas

Monday 23 December 2019

"Dark" December

This December has seen some periods of deep frost here in the north east of Scotland. Whilst the south of the UK has been soaked with rain, here it's been dry and clear, the land held in an iron grip; there have been many days when the temperature has stayed below freezing.  I much prefer this dry, brittle cold - it's weather one can really enjoy rather than endure.

On one morning when our home weather station was reading -6 Celsius i took a short walk just as it was getting light.  walking up through a stubble field across from the house towards a line of large beeches and oaks which form the skyline from our living room, I hoped to catch the sunrise - at this time of the year that's not an early start!

The only sound was the brush of my boots through the stubbles left from the barley harvest.  I stopped to listen to the stillness, and slowly began to hear the sounds of the morning.  Bird contact calls almost at the top of my hearing range indicated a flock of mixed Tit species moving along the line of trees, then a sharp bark drew my eye along the top of the field line where a small family group of Roe Deer had spotted me.  I angled away, unwilling to force them to use precious energy, but as soon as I moved they bounded gracefully away and out of sight.

From the ridge the view to the south east over the Howe of Alford was all about the glory of the sky; the farmland and hills still in deep shade.  I settled down to wait for the sunrise and sat with my back against one of the large oak trees.

Close at hand there was beauty too, each fallen leaf edged in delicate and perfect frost crystals.  To sit still was to start to hear the place - with almost no man-made sounds to distract.  Small birds calls, the call and flutter of a cock Pheasant and, thrillingly, heard but not seen - the thrumming wingbeats and wild calls of a party of Whooper Swans, the graceful angels of winter.

At last, around 0905 the sun rose beyond the ridge of Correnie Moor.  The sun rises well south of east at this latitude and the high ground leading to the hill of Benaquhallie delays sunlight reaching the Howe.

Once the sun rose, everything changed.  Searing light flooded across the land and brought colour and definition, if not much warmth. 

As I strolled back down the field to the house the sunlight reached across to the hills beyond.  Our house is in a slight dip and often the temperature dips significantly around sunrise as the hills above warm up and cold air sinks downslope.

At my feet each barley stalk was tipped with a flower of frost, the rows looking like miniature icy forests.

above, the Pink Footed Geese were on the move from their roosts, great skeins straggling across the sky trailing their wild music.  The geese are a real feature of winter and Aberdeenshire often hosts huge numbers.

During another period of really intense frost we took a walk to a narrow valley where we hoped to see the real beauty of the conditions.  The sun doesn't reach here much during the short winter days and the frost hadn't lifted for days.  It was really frigid and completely silent.

Dead grasses had been transformed into stunningly beautiful works of natural art - the glittering light better than any expensive crystal glass.  We took lots of images, these are just a few of them

The dead head of a cow parsley plant had become something quite special, every tiny surface edged with the most perfect frosting.

The December days might be short with barely six hours of daylight, but when winter is a stunning as this, it's as good as any other season!

Friday 20 December 2019

A look back to Loch Maree

We left Isle Maree feeling very relaxed and emerged into bright sunshine and a freshening breeze.  We paddled across to the north shore of the loch to check out a potential site for a future camping trip; the autumn colours were very fine, especially against the magnificent backdrop of Slioch.

We turned downwind to paddle along the north shore and enjoyed a relaxing paddle among stunning autumnal shades; oak, aspen, beech and birch all at different stages of turning.

After threading our way back through Loch Maree's islands we returned to Slattadale to find that in the deep shade of this part of the loch there was still a hint of frost smoke over the water - kayaking through this was a really special experience.

As we loaded our boats onto the cars we watched the light slowly change on Slioch - the name translates as "the spear" and it's very appropriate when seen from some angles, the buttresses rearing into clear air.

As you drive the A832 road back towards Kinlochewe the view of the hill across the loch is foreshortened and somewhat compressed, though still very impressive.

Our route had been a short one, but the day had been superb - for the second successive year Loch Maree had given a day of autumnal brilliance.

Climbing out to the head of Glen Docherty, we paused at "The Viewpoint" to take a look back along the length of Loch Maree and out to the distant sea - it was the end of two cracking days of kayaking, one on salt water and one on fresh water; both special days.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

A wish fulfilled on Loch Maree

All but one of Loch Maree's islands are vegetated either with Caledonian Pine or with low wet-ground scrub. But one island is strikingly different...

In autumn, Isle Maree positively glows with colour.  Birch, Beech, Oak and Holly predominate on this small but special island.

We landed on a gravel shore below a very old but vigorous Holly tree, which had a fine crop of berries.  The fruits will provide food for birds as winter begins to tighten its grip, but there are stranger fruits on Isle Maree.

On a west facing slope near to the highest point of the island is the remains of a "wishing tree". Coins have been inserted into the tree for hundreds of years in a tradition that goes back way longer.  A famous visitor was Queen Victoria, who hammered in a coin in 1877. The wishing tree on Isle Maree is associated with curative properties, of all kinds of ailments including what as formerly known as "madness".  The tradition is that the unwell person's illness was transferred to the tree by the offering of a coin, particularly if combined with bathing the person in the water from a well on the island or in the waters of the loch.

The tradition also cautions against taking anything from the island, including pebbles in case the illness is brought back out into the wider world.  It may be folklore, but I refrain from my usual habit of taking a souvenir pebble from beaches when visiting Isle Maree.

On a previous visit I found that a storm had brought down a large branch which had broken what remains of the wishing tree into sections; the tree was an oak but is long dead from copper poisoning from all the old pennies inserted into the trunk.  I reported this to SNH who sent out a work party to clear away the branch and place the parts of the wishing tree in one place; they've done a great job.

In the space below the trees oak saplings are beginning to emerge, taking advantage of the space and light.  In time, this sapling or one of its neighbours may become the next wishing tree........

That previous visit had been in autumn 2018 and I left two coins in the tree for two friends.  Douglas had been suffering from a debilitating condition and Allan was in hospital with a very serious illness.  The care both received from the NHS and the medical technology available in diagnosis and treatment of both have been very successful, but maybe, just maybe the wishing tree helped too....

....which made it even more special that Allan was able to visit Isle Maree having spent many months of the previous twelve hospitalised.  Douglas is back in action too, but unfortunately couldn't make this trip, so there's a good reason to visit again.

Bright blue sky above a canopy of gold and green - this was autumn at its very best

Isle Maree has a very old burial ground at its highest point, surrounded by an even older wall.  A chapel here is believed to have been associated with the seventh century abbot St Maol Rubha (from which the name "Maree" is derived).

It's a fascinating place to explore with some very old grave markers and more recent gravestones.  A rich carpet of leaves and moss covers the whole area.  Having spent a very pleasant hour exploring Isle Maree and walking under the tree canopy......

....the sudden view of the oakwoods on the northern shore of the loch seemed ablaze with brilliance - what a day to be out on the water!

Monday 2 December 2019

Sight and sound on Loch Maree

There was absolutely no wind when we headed out onto Loch Maree.  Our pace matched the feel of the morning and we spent long minutes just drifting on miror-calm water and absorbing the place.

Our plan was to simply explore a few of the islands clustering the north west end of the loch, so we headed slowly over to the nearest of them.  The westernmost islands have good cover of Caledonian Pine with an understory of  Birch and Rowan, those to the east have little in the way of tree cover, and there's one island which is quite different to the others.  Autumn is a great time to visit these islands; the area is a National Nature Reserve of great importance for the pines themselves which are a genetically intact relic of ancient pinewood and for the rare Divers (Gavidae) which nest here.  In autumn there's no risk of disturbance to the birds.

As we paddled between the islands new sightlines opened up at every turn.  So complex is this area that one could paddle it dozens of times without taking the same route.  A group of kayakers had got on the water after us, but we didn't see them at all in the maze of islands and channels.

Along with sights, there was sound.  Although the Red Deer rut was just about finished we heard the occasional powerful roar of a stag from the rugged hillside on the north side of the loch.  The primal challenge carried right across the water; it's a most evocative sound of autumn in Scotland and I can testify that close to, the roar of a stag is a sonic experience not to be forgotten!

Sight after sound, a fine view opened up towards Slioch, the light subtly changeing on the hill as the morning wore on and the autumn sun swung through the southern sky.

We felt very lucky to be paddling the loch in conditions like these and to be enjoying colour, scene and sound.....