Tuesday 31 May 2022

Over the sea from Skye

A spell of warm and sunny Spring weather is always so welcome here in Scotland - so when a run of fine days was forecast in the second half of April we made plans for a kayak trip.  Our starting point was to be Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye; and we met up on a sparkling morning.  Allan and I travelled from Aberdeenshire, Douglas from the Solway coast via Glasgow and Taynuilt, where he teamed up with Donny for the journey to Skye.  Our plan was very flexible....simply to spend some time kayaking around the southern part of the Inner Sound.

While we rigged our kayaks Donny got his F-RIB "Guppy" afloat and set off to do a little filming.  You'll be able to see the video of our trip on Donny's Youtube channel here.  

After the usual routine of boat packing and trying to make sure everything fitted in, we got underway and immediately put up our sails to catch a push from the north easterly breeze.  This stretch of water,  Kyle of Lochalsh or more properly Caol Loch Ailse (Strait of the Foaming Lake) has strong tidal streams, particularly at the narrow western entrance which is named separately as Kyle Akin (Haakon's Strait) - named for a Norse king who brought a huge force of longships through here and beached at Kyleakin on his way south where he would be engaged and beaten by a Scots army under King Alexander III on 2nd October 1263.

The building of the Skye Bridge altered the flows somewhat at Kyleakin and the strongest of the stream can be avoided by passing close under the eastern side between Eiean Ban and the mainland shore - that said it's still an energetic paddle against the tide!

We started on Skye and apart from a brief call back at Kyleakin didn't plan to paddle any of the island's coast on this trip - not so much "Over the Sea to Skye" as over the sea from Skye!

We headed north after exiting Kyleakin and stopped at Eilean a' Mhal for first luncheon. Sheltered from the breeze we sat in warm sunshine with a wonderful view across the Inner Sound to the hills of Beinn na Cailleach and Glamaig on Skye.  The colour in the water was marvellous and was the standout feature of this day.

Back underway and we continued north through the maze of the Black Islands, which today were anything but black - indeed there was a riot of colour.  This group of islands usually provides sheltered paddling in a compact area which changes from hour to hour according to the state of the tide.

Conditions were pretty good for early Spring - dry and bright with a north easterly breeze, and we observed this effect of cloud capping some, but not all, of the higher hills several times during our trip.

 As we left the Black Islands we paddled into the breeze and so dropped our sails.  After an energetic couple of kilometres of paddling we came into a lagoon with the most wonderful colour of water as the sun lit the white sand below our boats.  Really - could a day get any better than this?!

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Bridging the gap

This is a catch-up post from a walk in upper Donside in the second half of April.  Lorna, Allan and I have explored many of the area's tracks, especially when Covid restrictions limited the distance we could travel.

We decided on a linear walk from Corgarff at the foot of the Lecht road down to Bellabeg in Strathdon.  By the A944 road this isn't a particularly long route but we intended to use parts of altogether older roads.  We would also link a series of bridges which have historical interest - the "bridge" theme would continue in that our route would bridge a gap between walking routes we know well.


We set off on a lovely Spring morning, heading SE from Ordgarff along the track which is signed as "Old Military Road".  This simple statement has a deal of history behind it because this is a section of road built between 1748 and 1757 as part of  a massive roadbuilding and infrastructure project following the 18th century Jacobite rebellions.

That said, the first of the bridges isn't typical of the "Wade Bridge", being a graceful, slender arch over the Allt Damh - seemingly defying gravity! 

Just under 2km further along the track is Delavine Bridge.  This is much more representative of the bridge construction on the 18th century military roads.  Delavine was one of three bridges repaired and stabilised over three years from 1997 to 2000 to keep these scheduled monuments intact.  A plaque on Delavine bridge records the work, placed on the outer parapet where it is particularly difficult to read without standing in the burn itself!  It is typical of the larger bridges of the period in construction and in being 4 metres wide.

The familiar term is "Wade roads" and "Wade Bridges" in reference to General George Wade, a military Commander in North Britain from 1724 to 1740.  Wade is actually the only person named in the British National Anthem - one of the more clunky verses which isn't used today reads:

"Lord grant that Marshal Wade
may by thy aid victory bring
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God Save the King"

The "Wade" road here is part of a 100 mile (160km) route from Coupar Angus to Fort George near Inverness via Braemar, Corgarff and Grantown on Spey.  The whole route was built in nine years between 1748 and 1757, starting just two years after the final Jacobite defeat at Culloden Moor.  For context, the 26 mile/42km Aberdeen Western Peripheral route took five years to complete in the 21st century!

By the time construction of this road was started Wade had long since left the Highlands and in fact died in the same year work on this route started.  His successor, Major William Caulfeild (note the spelling, not "Caulfield") was appointed Inspector for Roads in Scotland in 1732.  While nowhere near as well known as Wade, Caulfeild oversaw far more of the network: Wade was responsible for 250 miles (400km) of road, forty bridges and two forts; Caulfeild  for 900 miles (1400km) of road and over six hundred bridges - an astonishing series of works.   

The road we now walked is part of the longest single stretch Caulfeild built at 100 miles and the line it took was clearly good because the vast majority of the route is still public road, suitably upgraded for modern traffic. This stretch wasn't absorbed into the road network and remains as a great walking route. 

The ingenuity, effort, endurance and craft of the road planners and of the regiments of soldier-navvies who constructed the military road network is a great testament to one of Britain's greatest engineering feats. 

A little over a kilometre further on the road crosses the third bridge of the section, this one spanning the Burn of Tornahaish.  Here also the bridge required restoration works and all three bridges on the section are now leased from the landowner, Candacraig Estate, by the Gordon Trust on a 99 year lease.  Smaller than Delavine and without a parapet, the span and height above what is a very small burn gives an indication of the volume the Burn of Tornahaish is capable of in spate.

The track climbs up from Burn of Tornahaish to join the A939 road, or more properly become the A939 road.  From here the Military Road goes to Gairnshiel then on over the hill to Crathie on Deeside.  We walked uphill for a short way before leaving the road on a track cutting back uphill, having bridged the gap of several kilometres between our previous walks.  Here we had a choice of routes to reach Bellabeg.  One route would take us over to link with a lower level walk we've done before while the other would climb up onto the high ground to cross the summit of Scraulac - a route done several times previously.

We chose the higher level option as the weather was good and we were in no particular rush.  The summit of Scraulac (which I think may be from the Gaelic for Scree Place) is really wide, though today a bit breezy too.  An estate worker passed us on a quad bike here and was the only other person we saw on the entire route.

We left the estate tracks to descend Scraulac's north east ridge, finding a remarkable hidden building en route.  A good track which became a metalled road soon led us down to the public road at Culfork.  This really is a "road less travelled", a loop of minor road running parallel to the A944 but on the opposite side of the river Don.  A relatively new venture along here is Cairngorms Glamping and Camp Site, which looks to be a super place to spend a holiday!

 Cutting off the road just outside Bellabeg, a track descends around a wooded hill to the last of the historic bridges of our walk.  Poldullie Bridge was constructed in 1715 by Sir John Forbes of Inverernan and crosses the River Don. A remarkably graceful single span bridge, the elegant form is best seen from above as in the images on the Canmore site.  Sir John Forbes made a fatal choice in throwing in his lot with the Jacobites at the 1715 rebellion and was captured following the battle of Sherrifmuir.  He died in Carlisle prison the day before the date of his execution.  It was this rebellion which prompted much of the roadbuilding effort in Scotland in order to "pacify" the Highlands.  Movie buffs might recognise Poldullie Bridge as it featured in the 2019 film "Mary Queen of Scots".

From Poldullie Bridge we climbed a steep bank to the main A944 road and strolled downhill to Bellabeg where we'd left a car earlier in the day.  

This had been a great walk with lots of history and great views.  The route we took is 19km/11.8 miles and it took us six hours at a fairly relaxed pace with a couple of stops.  Ordnance Survey 1:50K Landranger map 37 (Strathdon and Alford) covers the whole route.  As there is no public transport between Bellabeg and Corgarff this route does require two cars and a shuttle.  It would also make for a great mountain biking route with scope for variation.

Friday 13 May 2022

Jottnar Grim Hard Shell Jacket - Long Term Review

A hard shell waterproof jacket is one of the staple items of any outdoor kit list - especially when you operate in Scotland.  I have used a variety of waterproofs over the last 40 years, a period which has seen the development of "breathable" fabrics which have so enhanced comfort and usability of jackets.

This review is based on long-term use of the Jöttnar "Grim" hard shell jacket which was purchased in January 2021 and has been extensively and regularly used for walking, backpacking and ski touring since purchase.

Jöttnar aren't perhaps the best known outdoor brand, but have increasing visibility among mountain users, and for good reason.  The brand name sounds Nordic but Jöttnar are a small British company based in Cardiff.  The company was formed in 2013 by Steve Howarth and Tommy Kelly, two former Royal Marine Commandos who served in the Mountain Leader branch, a specialist group within the Royal Marines trained for mountain, arctic and harsh environment operations.  For more about the company's story, there's a very informative article and short video on the Jöttnar website.

The company philosophy and "house style" seems very much a reflection of the founders' background and of the Commando ethos - the kit they produce is streamlined, tough, designed-for-purpose, innovative and has fantastic attention to detail.  I heard of Jöttnar through word-of-mouth, was shown some of their kit by a friend and was veryy impressed by what I saw.

Conflict of Interest statement:  I own several items of Jöttnar clothing, all of which have been purchased at full retail price or in a limited time sale with a small reduction.  I don't have any connection with the company other than being a very satisfied customer.

Jöttnar describe the Grim as: "a fully featured hard shell technical mountain jacket. Grim protects you in the most severe conditions, without sacrificing those features which lend it versatility for all-year use".  I was looking to replace a very well-used mountain jacket which had started to delaminate and fail after several years of hard use and the Grim seemed to be a good option.

You won't find Jöttnar products in outdoor stores, the company sells directly to customers via their website.  While this does mean that you can't try on garments, the customer advice is very responsive and helpful, and there's free standard shipping on all UK orders.

The Grim, like all of  Jöttnar's full-spec hard shell jackets, is constructed using a fabric called "Skjoldr" (Shield) which is their own fabric developed in collaboration with a japanese fabric technology company.  Skjoldr is a 3-layer highly breathable 80 denier fabric with a membrane and DWR coating.  The full specification and information on this fabric are available here.  The 171gm/m2 Skjoldr used in the Grim has a fairly stiff handle and feels very robust.  I like these characteristics very much - you're left in no doubt that this is a fortress of a jacket, and the slightly stiffer fabric means that it doesn't flap madly in strong wind as lightweight fabrics tend to.

In use, the Grim has been a revelation.  Noticeably more windproof than Goretex XCR, ProShell or the eVent fabric used in kit I've recently owned, it just shrugs off weather.  The main zip has a substantial storm flap behind it (with a very well designed chin guard).  this is a feature I've always looked for in mountain jackets - 3000ft up on a Scottish hill, head down into lashing rain and half a gale is no place to be exploring the difference between "water resistant" and "waterproof"!

The pockets are positioned really well so that they don't get obstructed by rucsac hip belts or climbing harnesses.  The Grim jacket has a near-twin in the range which is the Odin which is essentially the same jacket but with chest pockets.  There's also the Hodr jacket with four pockets.  The Grim's pockets are large and the zips run faultlessly.  On one walk of several hours in truly biblical rain there was slight water ingress to the pockets, but absolutely nothing came in via the main zip.

Photo: Linda Johnston - taken in -15 Celsius weather, hence my expression!

There are pit zips under the arms to vent the jacket if required.  I've found that the breathability of the Skjoldr fabric is so good that I've very rarely got warm enough to think about using these, but they're available if needed and very easy to operate on the move. Jacket length is perfect for me, fairly short at the front but with a scoop back to protect the bum. There are hem drawcords which are snag free (i.e. not loops which could catch on gear or rocks).

A small zipped pocket is positioned on the left forearm.  This would conveniently fit a ski pass and I've used it to stow a wipe for goggles and a small laminated card with route notes.

The sleeve lengths have extra built in so that the wrist isn't exposed when reaching up (climbing/scrambling) or forward (nordic ski touring).  When I was looking at the jacket I did think that the measurements given would make the sleeves too long for me at slightly below average height, but this isn't the case at all in practice because of the design and the cuffs themselves.  these have reinforced Hypalon tabs and velcro closures at the front, and a lightly elasticated cinch underneath.  this means that the cuffs can be pulled over gloves without faffing with the velcro (which on previous jackets has had a tendency to freeze and be difficult to fasten in wet/just below zero conditions).  It's another feature of the Grim which just works.

The fit is streamlined, clean and uncluttered, but with plenty of space to layer underneath.  I'm 5ft 8ins (173cms) tall and 41in (104cm) chest and the Medium size is a perfect fit.  There's plenty of room in the shoulders to aid movement like placing axes, long reaches with walking poles or whilst ski touring.

What I can't easily show on these images is the design and cut of the jacket, which is exceptionally good and a reflection of the attention to detail and ethos of the company's founders.  Everything is there for a reason, and if it's there it adds to the jacket and is incorporated really well.  

My initial impression was that this would be a jacket I would use mainly in winter but the performance has been such that I used it right through the year on the hill in "Scottish summer" weather.  I have to really be working hard to generate even the slightest moisture inside the jacket and this soon dissipates - the Skjoldr is very, very impressive stuff and seems to this user to out-perform anything I've previously used.

Inside there's a smaller stretch chest pocket which just about takes a smartphone and a larger internat mesh "dump pocket".  This fits a pair of gloves nicely, would accommodate touring ski skins and is a great size to keep a 500ml water bottle in.  The internal taping is absolutely flawless and here too the design effort is really evident.

The hood is helmet compatible but adjustable to cinch it down.  It moves with the head faultlessly and has a very well designed stiffened and mouldable laminated peak.  This image was taken on a ski tour in very cold conditions when it really showed how protective a hood can be.

The one minor criticism I have of the Grim is that the hood can't be stowed or retained when not in use.  This means it can blow up against the back of the head if not being actually worn. A flap or retaining arrangement would be the only thing I'd change about the jacket -  it's a very small criticism though!

The Grim weighs in just over 550grams for a Medium size - not ultralight and that's a good thing as far as this user is concerned.  But neither is it heavy and the jacket rolls down neatly when not being worn.

Jöttnar jackets are all single colourways, most of which are understated (though there are some brighter options available).  I like the understated colours!  A women's version of Grim is also available.

After 15 months of very regular use in Scottish conditions hillwalking, backpacking and ski touring as well as general walking the Grim still looks like new, the DWR has remained effective and it has performed faultlessly.  Conditions of use have ranged from 20 degrees Celsius to minus 20 degrees Celsius and have included dry gales, wet gales, rain, sleet, hail, snow, ice, drizzle and freezing fog.  In all these conditions I've remained dry and comfortable when wearing the Grim.  The term "bombproof" is a little over-used, but is genuinely applicable here. Add in superb design, form and function and you get an outstanding piece of outdoor kit.  Put simply, this is the best waterproof jacket I've ever owned - in 40 years of outdoor activities.  

There's no getting away from the fact that Jöttnar products are high performance kit designed for sustained usage - and the £449 price is reflective of that.  The price was certainly a factor when I chose the Grim and it required delaying the purchase in order to save up, but I haven't regretted the outlay one little bit.