Friday, 24 February 2017

Eagle and Eigg

 We entered the North Channel which sepearates Eilean Shona from Moidart at about an hour before HW, planned so that there would be plenty of water (which isn't always the case!) and so that we wouldn't be paddling against any appreciable tidal movement.  The view through the channel neatly frames one of the most distinctive silhouettes of the west coast.....

...An Sgurr, highest point of the island of Eigg, which has a presence out of all proportion to its modest 393 metre/1289 ft height and gives the impression of a great ship sailing the Sea of the Hebrides.

The North Channel is bounded on both sides by rugged, steep slopes which fall right to the water.  Above the woods at Bad an Dobhrain (Otter Bay), Lorna spotted movement high up on a crag - a great shape which unfurled itself and soared effortlessly along the ridgeline - a White Tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

A conservation success, the White Tailed Eagle has been reintroduced from 1975 - a programme that is continuing.  The species was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century and there are probably still less than fifty breeding pairs of these huge birds in Scotland - it's always a thrill to see one.  We watched the bird manoeuvring to keep us in sight,its  head swivelling as it wheeled to ride the updraught.  A difference in behaviour between the two eagle species found in Scotland is that Golden Eagles will usually fly away for some distance if they see humans, whereas the White Tailed Eagle usually flies just far enough away to feel comfortable and then will often land again.

We paddled out of the North Channel and onto the open sea of the Sound of Arisaig with a view ahead to the island of Rum beyond Eigg.  Right at the entrance to the channel I knew there to be a considerable amount of driftwood washed up among the rocks- we could use some for the fire we intended to light at our camp.  The tide was now full which would have made for a very awkward landing on the rocks so we paddled on, noting where we might be able to land once it had dropped a little.

Heading north up the coast we were bathed in warm early evening sunshine and just a breath of breeze moving the air - it was a perfect autumn evening and despite the fact we'd had a fairly long day our movement felt effortless.

Our intended camp site was visible from quite some distance, a flash of emerald green grass and dazzling white sand among the rich autumn brown of the heather and bracken slopes.  There can be few better places to have been on this lovely evening.....

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Layered light at Loch Moidart

We paddled away from the mouth of the River Shiel on salt water for the first time on this journey.  Ahead of us Castle Tioram was lit by the afternoon sun ; we paddle this area quite frequently and I've noticed that when the sun isn't shining - a rare occurence on the west coast of Scotland :o) - the castle seems to recede into the background and can be hard to make out when paddling from the mouth of Loch Moidart. No such difficulty today and we aimed straight towards the castle and its small island.

The castle takes its name from Eilean Tioram (dry island) and this probably refers to the fact that at low water the island is connected to the mainland by a sandy spit which disappears at high tide.  A stone built castle is recorded here from the 1200's but the present building probably dates from the 13th century.  For most of its history a Clanranald stronghold, Castle Tioram is currently the subject of a stalemate between its owner who wishes to convet it to a private dwelling and Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) who wish to consolidate the ruin and preserve it for the nation.  It's a difficult situation but there may be a way forward following recent negotiations - lets hope so because while the dispute rumbles on the fabric of the building crumbles.

 At the seaward side of the island is a beautiful little beach of shell sand and coral - complete with a rocky arm to form a sun trap.  Second luncheon was proposed and carried by a unanimous majority...  We took off layers of clothing as we sat eating lunch in the warm sunshine, Douglas took this to the logical conclusion and enjoyed a swim in water which he reported as warm (for a given value of warmth - and as compared to the chill of deep Loch Shiel!).  We three joined Douglas in taking a restorative dram of Jura 10 year old, after all, we were in no hurry as we were waiting for the tide to rise sufficiently to allow up to paddle through the north channel of Loch Moidart.

 The southeastern tip of Eilean Shona still bears scars from the severe winter storms of a couple of years ago which blew down trees, stripped branches and even lifted the thin layer of turf on the shoreline rocks.

 We'd left some of our own layers off in the warm afternoon sunshine and as we passed behind Riska Island and into the wide inner part of Loch Moidart, layers of low inland cloud building in the warmth began to produce an unusual effect......

 .....of alternating light and shade - at first confined to a narrow area.....

 ...but widening gradually to encompass a sweep of tree, water and hill in layers of light.

Tranistory and unusual, my photographs don't really do justice to the alternating effect and it lasted just a few minutes before the clouds moved enough to change the scene.

We paddled on towards what appears to be a closed corner of Loch Moidart, but where we knew the North Channel lay between sun and shadow.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Going with the flow

We left Eilean Fhianain with a brisk easterly breeze at our backs - one of the reasons we'd chosen this particular trip was the predominantly easterly wind which was forecast - it would either be at our backs or we'd be sheltered on the west coast.

A last look back towards the mountains of Loch Shiel.......

...and then steadily onwards along the stretch of water which isn't quite Loch Shiel and isn't yet ruly the River Shiel.  Shallow water lined with salt marsh, this is a great place for waterfowl and waders to feed and to rest.

Talking of feeding and resting.....

....we landed near the jetty at Acharacle in order to check out the options for first luncheon.  Acharacle (Torquil's ford) is named for a Norse leader who was killed here along with all his men in a battle with Somerled, Lord of the Isles in 1120.  Torquil's men found the water too deep to cross and they were killed making a last stand near this spot.

We walked up the small road which leads from the wooden jetty to the village shops......where we had a choice of eating in at the Acharacle Tearoom or purchasing lunch to eat outside the Bakery. 

As we were in our paddling clothes - and it was anyway such a nice morning - we chose to eat outside the Bakery.  The coffee and Foccaccia bread are particularly recommended by your reviewers!

Acharacle is a handy stop in this area, it has a couple of options for food, a shop, and public toilets with a tap outside for topping up water.

Fuelled up and rested, we got back on the water, our boats being drawn along by the now noticeable current towards the fine triple arched road bridge over the River Shiel, built in 1935.  The footings of the bridge supports were clear of the water which certainly hadn't been the case on our winter trip, and the river flow was markedly less too.

Shortly after the road bridge the river narrows quickly and swings into a rocky gorge.  At the end, the old bridge crosses the river at the point of a ninety degree left bend.  Built by Thomas Telford in 1804, it was too narrow to carry motor vehicles and was replaced as a road bridge by the 1935 version.  You can walk from the road to this bridge and cross it, but the south side is private property.

Beneath the bridge is a small rapid where the water runs over a rocky shelf - with more water in the river it can prove exciting, but as the level was quite low it was little more than a quickening of the flow.

The rapid marks the end of the narrow section, the water slows and the river becomes wide and shallow.  A wooded hill makes a lovely backdrop to a very relaxing section of the trip where we were able to just go with the flow in the literal sense.

If making this journey when the water level is relatively high, it's good to know that there are a couple of potential egress points to allow a portage around the tidal fall where the river empties into the sea.  The first is at a gauging station marked by wires crossing above the water - we used this during our winter trip when the river was quite full.

The second point is a small patch of flat grass jutting out into the river, which Douglas, Lorna and I used to land and carry our boats up to the track alongside the water; Mike found a spot further down again, but after that there's just one option immediately above the falls - miss it and you're committed....

We put the boats on the trolleys we carried specifically for this section and portaged along the estate track through woods of beech and pine - despite pulling the boats this was a very pleasant section.  Once again the trolleys (three KCS Expedition models and one Lomo model) proved their worth and performed faultlessly.

A short detour to view the tidal fall is well worth the effort - if only to assess whether you feel it could have been paddled.  The drop from river to sea is the result of isostatic rebound, the continued rising of the land in this part of Scotland following the release of ice from the last ice age.  The fall itself is affected by two things; the amount of water in the river and the height of tide - in simple terms, when the tide is low the river has further to drop.  On neither occasion we've been here have we felt the slightest inclination to run the fall in fully laden sea kayaks......

This is the fall in comparatively low river levels but also a low tide.......

.....and this is the fall on our winter trip with more water in the river but a higher tide. 

Immediately beyond the point where the river ends, we arrived at the shore of Loch Moidart.  We carried our boats down over a patch of saltmarsh to place them, for the first time on this journey, into salt water.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Stones, bones and clear tones on the island of Finan the Leper

We were up and about early at our camp on the shore of Loch Shiel, the cool air of post dawn a reminder that the season was turning.  It was cool rather than cold though and there was no sense of needing to get moving to warm up.

 The morning sun was beginning to rise above the hills on the east shore of the loch as we finished packing, though our beach remained in deep shade. 

 By the time we were about ready the morning clouds were beginning to burn off....

 ....and it looked set to be a fine autumn day. 

 After a short distance we came to the narrow twist which marks the end of Loch Shiel proper, and a distinct change in scenery.  We'd been journeying through rugged and wild mountain scenery, ahead lay lower ground with wider views towards the sea.  The narrow bend as the loch finds its way from the mountains is almost blocked by a small island - the terminal moraine of the glacier which ground out Loch Shiel.

Eilean Fhianain (Finan's Island) may be small and unspectacular from a distance, but it has a wealth of interest and history and there was no way we were going to pass by without exploring a little of it.  Finan was an early Celtic saint who is believed to have lived from around 520 to 600AD.  Details of his life are uncertain but he seems to have followed Columba from Ireland and became Abbot of a small monastery on the island now named after him.  He is believed to have evangelised much of Argyllshire, but considering that his name crops up all over Scotland - as well as the obvious Glenfinnan and Kilfinnan, there is a St Finzean's Fair in Perth and a Finzean as far away as Aberdeenshire, he must have travelled extensively

Known as "Finan the Leper" from the disease which afflicted him, he seems to have favoured small islands on lochs; he is also recorded as the founder of at Inisfallen on Lough Leane in Ireland's County Kerry.  Finan died, it is thought, at Clonmore in his native Ireland.

 We'd visited Eilean Fhianain on our winter trip in 2014 and found it to be a gem of a place.  That visit had been made in brilliant sunshine, this one in quite different lighting, but the place still had an air of peace.  We passed the gravestones which appear very old but in fact are probably 18th century......

 ....and stopped to admire the cross commemorating Rev Charles McDonald, priest of the diocese of Argyll and the Isles.  I hadn't noticed on our previous visit, but many of the trees on the island are Rowans, the tree of protection. 

 The sides of the column bear fine sculptures in the distinctive Celtic style, and there's a clear difference between the weathering on the western side of the cross which faces the prevailing weather.....

 ....and those on the more sheltered eastern face, these tail-chasing beasts and intertwined snakes are still in sharp relief. 

Note: Our friend Leif  has pointed out that the bodies of the snakes seem to form the letters "V" and "M" - it would be fascinating to know whether this was deliberate or a coincidence of pattern; and if deliberate what the letters represent.

 The ruined chapel near to the highest point of the island has an intact altar slab, behind which a very old stone cross occupies the niche, and a wooden boat-shaped object upon which small offerings of coins had been left.  A rummage in our pockets produced some coins to add to the amount.

But it is the bell which captures the imagination -  seamlessly cast in bronze, it has lain here for almost eleven centuries.  It takes a moment for that to sink in....produced in the 10th century, it has survived all the long tumult of history intact.  Nowadays secured by a small chain, one can clearly see the marks on the altar slab where the bell has rested.

Not only is the bell still intact, it remains fully functional -  Douglas' video of it being rung catches the clear tone.

 If St Finan's bell is the jewel of the island, nature has provided a few of her own.  It's amazing how often the walls of ruined churches are studded with the blue flowers of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), here growing intertwined with a fern.

We continued over the island from the ruined chapel and Lorna found a remarkable grave-slab half concealed below the grass.   We cleared the grass a little to find......

 ...a very definite image of mortality carved in stone.  It seems that our predecessors were altogether less reticent about portraying death in this way - it's a fascinating grave if a little startling to the modern eye.

 As we made our way back to the boats we passed a much more recent grave, well tended and laid with flowers, backed with a bush fired with intense autumn colour.

This small island had proved well worth a second exploration - and on future visits we'll stop here again without doubt.

We got back on the water as a breeze sprang up, clearing the cloud quickly.  The mountains lay behind us, and ahead lay a river and the sea.....

Friday, 17 February 2017

A roaring fire on the shore of Loch Shiel

Moidart's Loch Shiel is a wild place with steep slopes falling to the straight to the water- a typical glacial form.  Native deciduous woods of Oak, Rowan, Birch, Alder, Aspen and Holly clothe the lower slopes on the western shore.  The eastern shore has dense conifer forests in the upper part of the loch and mixed woodland farther down.  We kept to the western side and enjoyed warm sunshine and rich autumnal colours as we made our way down the loch.

 Passing Glenaladale, the view extended through very clear air to the hills at the head of the glen.  It was near here that Douglas, Mike and I had camped on our late winter trip in 2014.  That had been a particularly cold evening and we all added camp chairs to our kit afterward - there's a lot to be said for getting one's beam end off the ground when winter camping!

We were passed by the Glenaladale estate launch near the mouth of the river as it set out to cross the loch carrying the estate stalkers.  October is the end of the Stag stalking season and a time for estates to realise much of their annual income from guided stalking.

Looking up, we caught sight of the distinctive shape of a Golden Eagle circling in a thermal above a patch of sunlit hillside.  Douglas caught a nice image of the bird as we watched it rise effortlessly, circling coil over coil until it crossed the summit of the hill.  We could clearly see the up-tilt of the wings and the tail "feeling" the air as the eagle soared.  For all the power and impressive size of a White Tailed Eagle, the grace and mastery of a Goldie in flight is a better spectacle, I think.  In all likelihood it was searching for the "gralloch" - the intestines and stomach of the deer which had been shot.  The carcasses are usually brought from the hill but the gralloch is left.

All afternoon there had been an almost stroboscopic effect as bright sunshine alternated with fast moving clouds and one such cloud bank obscured the sun as we approached the tiny Eileanan Comhlach (possibly Islands of the Council or Meeting-place, small islands were often used as neutral meeting points in places where friction existed between neighbouring clans as any attempt at ambush was limited). 

The lighting we experienced in this spot on our winter trip had been quite different; on that day the islands had appeared to float on the water in the exceptionally calm conditions. Today couldn't match those conditions....

...but as we watched, a gap in the clouds allowed the sun to light up the island - it seemed to glow against the darker background.

One possibility for our evening camp had been a bay on the western shore of Loch Shiel, but last time we'd passed there had been cattle grazing there.  We discussed the options and decided to head for a bay on the eastern shore.  Although we'd not previously been there we felt we'd find some suitable spot to pitch our tents.  Crossing the loch gave a long sight-line back up towards Glenfinnan from where we'd set out some hours previously.

The wind began to drop in the late afternoon and we slowed down to enjoy the colours of the trees, the sun warm on our backs.

With the breeze now gone, the sounds of rutting Red Deer stags became more noticeable; an atmospheric and wonderful autumn sound.  Despite the fact that evening was rapidly approaching we felt no need to rush and stopped frequently just to absorb the wonderful light and sound show all around - it was a great evening to be out on the water.

We reached the bay we'd seen on the map with an hour or so of daylight remaining.  We found the only difficulty in finding a camping spot was choosing between a number of possible options!  Decision made, we pulled the boats a little way out of the water (no tide here, though the level of the loch can change a bit) and pitched our tents. One of the advantages of  camping in October is that there are no midges - a still evening in July or August on this spot would be a much less comfortable experience!  Prior to dinner we spread out to collect firewood, which we added to some of the logs we'd stowed in our boats........ make a small but hot fire, around which we gathered to cook our dinner.

As we intended to be out on this trip for just two nights there was space in our boats for plenty of food options.  Dinner on this evening consisted of an aperitif (a beer or glass of wine according to preference), a main course of home-made venison casserole, then potatoes baked in the embers of the fire and served with butter and salt, followed a little later by a dessert of pears, poached in brandy and served with clotted cream.

Sat around our fire, we listened to the stags roaring from the hillsides above us and from across the loch - a roaring fire in one sense.  We enjoyed the warmth of the fire long into the evening before retiring to our tents as the temperature dropped.  I slept deeply, waking just once when a stag bellowed from the opposite shore.