Thursday 31 December 2020

The end of an extraordinary year

Although 2020 ended (perhaps appropriately) with a grim day of cold, grey and wet weather, there have been some beautiful winter days at the back of December here in the north east of Scotland.  Snow has come and gone, then fallen again - transforming the landscape each time.

Hard frosts have created transient and beautiful sculptures.....

......some like pale fireworks, lasting only until the low winter sun melts the frost.  As ever, I've found escape and respite during this most extraordinary and difficult year in the beauty and opportunity of what's close at hand.  We end the year in what amounts to a lockdown with travel and social contact with loved ones and friends curtailed - as has been the case been for much of 2020.  Hopefully 2021 will see an emergence from the pandemic which has so dominated this year.

And so, as the year closes - from these guys and from me, I wish you health, peace and happiness in the coming year


Thursday 24 December 2020

Christmas Eve

In the small hours of Christmas Eve I took a look see heavy snowfall on a northerly wind, just as forecast.  We'll have a white Christmas here in Aberdeenshire!

The landscape is completely transformed to dazzling white - just in time for a Christmas which will be very different for most people, including us, with limits on travel and the family one can meet with.

Chores done, logs split for the fire and a few last minute errands run, I took a long walk around the local area.  It was cold with a biting wind and a promise in the sky of further snow.  Bennachie looked very fine, dazzling white in the low sunshine just before sunset - at 3.25pm.....

The woodburner is lit, the tree awaits a delivery of gifts by Santa Claus.....

So it just remains to wish you peace, health and happiness wherever you may be spending Christmas.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Reflecting on a Loch Etive journey

Sleep was a little disturbed at our camp on the shore of Loch Etive; the Red Deer stags continued their roaring all night, the sound echoing across the loch.  Just as dawn broke they seemed to quieten, allowing an extra hour's sleep for the humans.  

We woke to a morning filled with promise; a light cover of cloud was already starting to be burned off by the rising sun.  We were pleasantly surprised that there was no condensation on the tents and no dew on the ground, allowing us to pack tents away quickly.

We got on the water before 0900 and headed out to the centre of the narrow loch.  Behind us the ridges of Ben Cruachan looked very atmospheric with streamers of morning cloud hanging in the corries of that great and complex hill.

The north west shore of Loch Etive is more wooded than the south eastern side and was beautifully lit by the morning sunshine, gorgeous shades of autumnal colours were picked out wherever sunlight broke through.

We headed over and paddled slowly up the shore towards the head of the loch alongside woods of oak, holly and birch, set off with a deep russet carpet of brackens which had already "gone over".  We felt that the morning could scarcely be better....until we turned a small headland and got the view we'd come for.

Landing on a shingle shore we just stood and stared before reaching for our cameras.  The dramatic hills at the head of the loch were reflected perfectly in the still water and we took image after image after image.  I'm still not sure whether I prefer the images with the shoreline boulders......

......or the ones without the boulders!  The  head of Loch Etive lies between the Blackmount and Glencoe and the hills in view are some of the best of both those grand ranges.  The sharp peaks at the ends of Buachaille Etive Beag and Buachaille Etive Mor are prominent, with the passes of the Lairig Eilde and the Lairig Gartain between them.  In shadow on the right of this image is the base of Ben Starav, a hill I'd put in my top ten of was all pretty special!

We sat for a considerable time just absorbing the views and enjoying the stillness of the morning - after our initial amazed exclamations about the view, words seemed a little superfluous.  Coffee was taken along with snacks to prolong the sitting around, but eventually we knew we'd have to get back on the water if we were to take advantage of the ebb tide further down the loch.

The views as we headed back down the upper part of the loch were hardly poor either!  What tiny breeze there had been had died completely and we paddled on absolutely still water, the only movement was that created by our paddle strokes - and we felt almost guilty when we created ripples on such perfection!

Stands of trees on the shore created great reflections; at times these seemed similar to the fractal patterns in children's kaleidoscopes.  I positioned myself to photograph first Allan..... 

...and then Raymond in the middle of these reflected geometric patterns.

 A wider view shows just how perfect this morning was as we paddled under the sweep of Ben Trillieachan (hill of the sandpiper - though many climbers who've had experience of the famous slabs on the north end of the hill would claim it's "sandpaper"!).

As we left the narrow upper part of the loch we took a last look back at the view.  Our passage back to Taynuilt was assisted by the pull of the ebb tide and we averaged a healthy 8.5km/h without much effort, popping through the narrows on the last of the ebb.

This had been a great overnight exploration of Loch Etive, we'd had great views and amazing wildlife encounters as well as a comfortable camp -  it's a loch I know that I'll return to paddle again.

Monday 21 December 2020

Big birds and big beasts on the shores of Loch Etive

We had little time to dwell on the fact that the brilliant autumnal sunshine had been replaced with a sheet of grey cloud.  As we paddled along the shore we became aware of two Oystercatchers and a gull going absolutely bonkers and dive-bombing a patch of beach.  Such behaviour usually indicates the presence of a predator, and in this case it was two of the most spectacular predators.

We were able to paddle slowly up to get really close views of two White Tailed Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) before the huge birds lifted off.  But, amazingly, they landed just a few metres along and seemed completely unfazed as we drifted past.  We thought that this was an adult and one of this year's young, the juvenile bird was mostly brown....

...while the adult was grey around the wings and mantle with the distinctive white tail of a mature bird.  We were treated to several minutes of very close encounter with these impressive birds and it was clear that they weren't at all bothered by us as long as we kept a comfortable distance and stayed quiet.

Eventually the juvenile bird got fed up of being dive-bombed by an irate gull and took off over the loch, followed by the adult bird which gave us a great fly-by.  Wildlife encounters like this are such a privilege - and to be treasured.  As it turned out, our wildlife experiences were far from over for the day.

We'd started looking for a good camping spot from fairly early in the afternoon; this trip was never about clocking up distance and all about an exploration of a sea loch all of us have walked above and along but not paddled.  We settled on a spot on the shore with good level ground around a stand of Alder trees, got the tents up and split up to scour the shore for driftwood for a fire.  We were surprised at the amount of wood along the tideline this late in the year but reasoned that for months through Spring and Summer there had been no visitors until the lockdown restrictions were lifted.

 After a superb dinner of home-made casserole (accompanied by a rather good red wine - no point in suffering!) we got a fire lit below the high water mark just as darkness was gathering.  As it turned out, I'd put the fire a little too far below the tideline and we had to move the whole thing up the beach as the Spring tide rose and rose!

Our other wildlife experience began as dusk was falling.  This trip was done in mid-October and the Red Deer rut was in full swing, stags roaring all around us.  As darkness gathered the wind had dropped to nothing as can be seen by the sparks and smoke from our fire, and the bellows of these impressive animals echoed across the water and from the hillside above the camp - it was very atmospheric!  We turned in late in the evening thinking that the stags might settle after a while, but the iconic sounds continued right through the night.  The stag with the deepest, hoarsest, loudest roar of them all seemed to be holding ground on the hillside just above our camp - and thankfully stayed there.  Stags fired up during the height of the rut can be a fearsome prospect and we didn't fancy coming up close in the dark!

After a Spring and Summer when we hadn't been able to get out in the kayaks it felt that we were getting the most special of experiences. 

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Autumn on Etive

Of all the seasons, autumn in Scotland is my favourite.  the colours are at their best and there's a tangible sense of change in the air - I've never thought it to be a season of decline or dwelled on the shortening day length.  Allan, Raymond and I were looking for a sea kayak trip during a period of settled weather in mid-October; we decided on paddling on Loch Etive which we hoped would give us a good trip and allow us to experience the autumn colours from the water too.

Loch Etive is a 30km long, fjiord-like sea loch with its entrance into the Firth of Lorn at Connel, just north of Oban.  When the glaciers carved out the loch and then retreated, a sill of rock was left near the entrance.  This sill limits the flow of water leaving the loch on an ebb tide, with the effect that the level of the water outside the loch drops faster than that in the loch.  From quite early in the ebb a tidal fall forms at Connel where the loch is spanned by a road bridge.  On a spring tide, which it was when we did this trip, the Falls of Lora were in full and spectacular flow.  We stopped to admire the spectacle, and to watch the river kayakers who use the Fall as a play spot.  We, however, had no intention of taking 5 metre fully laden sea kayaks anywhere near this spot on a spring tide and planned to stat our trip some way up the loch!

We gathered at Taynuilt where the loch again narrows but without the excitement of a tidal fall to contend with.  We'd need to paddle against the last of the ebb tide for a short while but were confident of finding eddies along the shore to help us past this short section.  It was a bright morning but with a chilly breeze which was forecast to drop during the afternoon.  Loaded and ready, we got on the water for our short adventure.

Approaching the narrows there are tantalising glimpses of the mountains which line both sides of Loch Etive and give it such character.  I've climbed the hills and walked one side of the loch but hadn't previously paddled here, so was looking forward to exploring as much as we could.

We got through the narrows with little difficulty, though against a bit of a breeze as well as the ebb stream.  The play of light on the hillsides, alternately lighting the rich autumn colours, was lovely - though we noticed a cloud sheet was beginning to form over the area.

As shafts of sunlight became less frequent their effect seemed more pronounced, pefhaps also due to the lowering angle of the sun at mid afternoon.

 All too soon the cloud sheet drew right across the sky, and though the scenery ahead was getting more spectacular the absence of vivid colour took something away.  We certainly weren't complaining too much though, this is a great place to explore by sea kayak - and we had an unexpected treat ahead of us.

Sunday 8 November 2020

In Remembrance


In remembrance of all those men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief.

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"

Monday 5 October 2020

Coming back to Ewe

We left Camas Mor with some reluctance.  It's a wild and beautiful spot and we'd been lucky enough to experience the place at its best in calm, sunny conditions.

We had a good distance to paddle back to our starting point in Loch Ewe and it was now hot in the afternoon sun. Our pace was steady, and why would we rush in such superb conditions?

Our friend the White Tailed Eagle was still in the same spot as we passed one of the higher points on the coast, taking off to become a huge shape just after we passed below.

At the mouth of Loch Ewe we landed on a skerry to take a break; it wouldn't be possible to land here on most days with swell running onto the angled slabs.  It was near here that the American liberty ship "William H Welch" was wrecked in a gale and snowstorm in the early hours of 26th February 1940.  Of her 74 crew only 12 survived.

We saw several other kayakers on our way back, like us taking advantage of a lovely summer afternoon.

The last leg into Loch Ewe was made much easier for us when an onshore breeze started up.  We had our sails up immediately and were soon scooting back towards our launch pint at a very satisfactory 8km/h with very little effort.

 Our route had been 27km and we'd enjoyed a simply superb day's sea kayaking in a fantastic location.  At the fourth time of trying I'd managed to paddle out to Rubha Reidh, and it had been so worth the wait!

Monday 14 September 2020

Stacks of colour at Rubha Reidh

The point and lighthouse at Rubha Reidh marked the extent of our outward journey on this superlative summer day.  We turned and headed back around the point, pausing to investigate the tiny jetty at Port an Amaill which was used to supply the light with paraffin and stores for many years - the narrow, twisting road from Melvaig to Rubha Reidh was only completed in 1962.

Seen from the west the stacks are even more impressive than our initial view from the east as they stand out from the cliffs.  It's a great place to explore with a sea kayak and one can paddle in and around the narrow channels at the base of each stack - so we did!

A last run between tow of the larger stacks in perfect conditions brought us back out to the eastern side....

...and back out into the riot of colour in the bay of Camas Mor.  I'd rate this pace, in these conditions, as one of the best places I've ever explored by kayak - just superb.

Image by Allan McCourt

We took turns to pose in our boats for photographs, seemingly suspended on brilliant aquamarine water which would grace a tropical island.

After spending time just absorbing the intensity of the colours we headed in to a small beach we'd spotted on our outward leg.  If Camas Mor is difficult of access on foot, then this beach takes it to another level.  At spring tide high water it will pretty much disappear and is guarded by rocks and reefs, but if you make it here, and it's possible to land, we recommend that you do so.....

 ....we promise you won't be disappointed!  An utterly superb beach, surrounded by dramatic rock architecture and lapped by a sea of stunningly intense colour; it's a great place.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Smooth headland, smooth going

We left Camas Mor with some reluctance, it's a lovely spot and one that's usually difficult to land on.  Ahead of us the sea shaded from aquamarine to indigo and every shade of aqua blue in between.  The cliffs are high here and we began to pick out the stacks near to our destination.

A glimpse of another strip of pale golden sand caught our attention - and if Camas Mor is difficult of access then this beach takes it to another level.  Backed by rugged, loose cliffs it would be a tricky scramble down and back.  The scale of the place is put in perspective by the group of walkers on the skyline near the lowest cliffs......

We were now paddling in emerald green water - an indication of some depth over a sandy seabed.  The sandstone stacks rose up in front of us, intricate and challenging.

When we came to shallower water the sea colour changed again - bright turquoise alternating with a deep green where patches of laminaria weed grow from the seabed......

...while behind us the emerald green was stunning - flashes of light darting across the seabed as the bright sunshine was refracted off the ripples on the surface.

As if this couldn't get any better, the colour of the water intensified close to the stacks, which added their own warm red shade to provide contrast.

Against an intensely blue summer sky, the contrast of the sandstone's red was startling.

 Suddenly, we were past the stacks and the height of the land fell quickly to Rubh Reidh (the smooth headland).  Rubh Reidh is named for the appearance of the sloping slabs.  These are of a different type of sandstone, termed autoclastic (made of itself) and are understood to have been sediments broken and tilted 30 degrees to the northwest, possibly by earthquakes.

Across the headland, Rubh Reidh lighthouse stands tall and distinct, visible from many miles up and down this northern coast.  Built by David Alan Stevenson between 1908 and 1912, the tower stands 25 metres tall (37 metres above the sea) and shows four white flashes every fifteen seconds.  I've travelled this coast in large vessels and the intricate chain of lights is perfect, each distinct and in just the right place - one of the great engineering and navigational feats.

To be here, at the Smooth Headland, in smooth conditions was a real treat.  I've walked to the light and tried three previous times by sea kayak to turn this point; each time conditions were too big for me.  the tide sweeps around at 3 knots, it's absolutely exposed and despite it's lack of height is described in yachtsman's pilot books and the sea kayak guide to the north west as "the most dramatic and challenging of the Wester Ross headlands".  We felt pretty lucky!