Last week I volunteered to help out one of our local Primary schools who were taking their pupils on a walk up Bennachie's Mither Tap - one of the most iconic hills of Aberdeenshire.
The whole school apart from the very youngest class (who were having their own adventure in the lower forest) made the walk - 55 kids aged between six and eleven plus "helpers"made for a bright crocodile heading up towards the summit!
The day was quite windy so although everybody made it up to the hillfort immediately below the summit, we brought up only the older ones to the very top in small groups.
The rural Primary school these children attend has a clear view to Bennachie and they see the hill every day - I think the head teacher and the school staff deserve huge credit for taking them to climb it; in these risk-averse times it would be simple to just not do such a walk. Already accustomed to their "daily mile" at school, the children took the whole thing in their stride and there wasn't a single comlaint or grumble to be heard. It was a genuinely fun day and a real pleasure to be helping out.
I climbed Bennachie again as an evening walk in glorious weather a few days later - this is the view from Oxen Craig across to the Mither Tap. Don't get me wrong, I love solitude in the hills, but somehow Bennachie seemed less complete without the chatter and laughter of 55 small hillwalkers.....
Monday, 26 September 2016
Friday, 23 September 2016
The final day of our trip from Campbeltown to Brodick took us around the north of Arran past the impressive boulders at Fallen Rocks and around to the east coast of the island.
Near to the car park at Sannox which is the start of a walk to the Fallen Rocks was what looked like a commercial campsite.... except that it isn't.
It would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast between these folks idea of what "wild camping" is and our own. Set for several days, big tents, barbeques, everything including the kitchen sink. We paddled on....
The cloud and drizzle of the morning cleared with superb dramatic effect at exactly the moment we rounded the corner and entered Sannox Bay - all that was missing was a drumroll followed by a musical "Ta Da!" as one of the best views anywhere in Scotland was revealed. The sweeping ridges of these granite hills really are superb.
This is a favourite stopping place of ours, often after a crossing from the Ayrshire coast via the island of Bute; it was most definitely time for second breakfast! As we enjoyed coffee we watched the wind rising steadily to something more than a fresh breeze, and our decision to re-cross to Arran from Inchmarnock the previous evening proved to be a good one; the wind quickly reached F5. Any crossing in these conditions would have been a real slog; in fact we may not have been able to get away from the exposed shore of Inchmarnock.
This part of the coast is well known for sudden squalls coming down from the hills and although we started out using our sails we quickly dropped them as the gusts were threatening to damage the rigs with heavy boats. Even without sailing we made quick time down the coast to Corrie.....
....with its amusing "sheep" harbour bollards. Three face south and one (the "black sheep" of the flock) faces north.
Another hour or so of steady paddling brought us into Brodick Bay and journey's end - well almost.
From a very uncertain forecast we'd enjoyed a great three night trip in a variety of conditions - all made possible by the use of ferries. We'd paddled 94 kilometres over two full days and two half days and camped for three nights - in a pretty wide variety of conditions.
Having landed on the shore in Brodick we loaded our boats back onto the trolleys and headed along the promenade to buy our tickets and join the queue waiting to embark on the "Isle of Arran" for the return to Ardrossan and our car which was in the long-term secure carpark at the ferry terminal - the same ferry we'd sailed out to Campbeltown on four days previously. We could then sit back in the cafeteria onboard and enjoy a lunch of Piri-piri chicken with fresh salad as we cruised back across the Clyde - definitely a good end to our journey!
Thursday, 22 September 2016
Our camp site on the Kintyre coast had been a comfortable one and we woke to a morning which promised showers but occasional sunshine. After breakfast we packed up and got the boats down to the water.
We intended to cross the Kilbrannan Sound to the island of Arran and head to the north tip of the island, stopping at Lochranza for lunch. At the start of this trip we'd discussed various locations for our third evening, as we were making good progress we'd decided on a crossing to Inchmarnock and a campsite we've used before.
As we crossed the Kilbrannan Sound a lively breeze got up ahead of a shower which looked to be a very heavy one. Fortunately the rain passed up the Kintyre coast we'd just vacated, but we did benefit from a great sailing wind all the way on the 8km crossing. It seems that this piece of water is prone to meteorological interest, one previous crossing gave some of the most remarkable conditions either of us has kayaked in
We arrived on the Arran shore south of Catacol Bay and after a brief leg stretch on the beach continued north past Catacol village and the row of cottages known as " The Twelve Apostles". Built between 1850 and 1860, they were intended to house folk cleared from inland crofts to make way for sheep. There was considerable resistance to living in the row, possibly because the rents would have been comparable to the dispossessed croft ground and there was little land to cultivate nearby. The cottages were known locally as "Hunger row" at this time. The cottages are very similar, but each of the twelve upper windows is different. A local story is that the folk who eventually lived here took to fishing the Kilbrannan Sound, and wives could light a lamp in the window when they wanted their menfolk to return - the men would be able to make out which house had the lamp lit from the window configuration. Well, that's the tale anyway!........
Our next stop was at Lochranza where we took lunch in the Lochranza Hotel with a fine view to the castle. The tide was well on the way out here so we could take a leisurely lunch knowing that our boats weren't going to refloat for a while.
Refuelled and refreshed, we got back on the water and headed up to the north of Arran to start the crossing to Inchmarnock. Initially we had a pleasant push from a light breeze to help, but a glance over our shoulders showed an approaching wall of black cloud....and ahead of it quite a wind started up.
There were no more photographs taken on this crossing, which proved very uncomfortable. The flood tidal streams pouring up Kilbrannan Sound and the Firth of Clyde meet north of Arran and some confused water can sometimes be found here. Find it we did, and in combination with a strong wind from our quarter and some breaking wave trains in the great swirls of water I found this a challenging 11km crossing under sail. A couple of times I was tempted to drop the sail as it was driving the boat forward at a tremendous rush, but I'm glad I persisted.... the conditions in which I'd sail in the future a little extended by the experience. Close to the Inchmarnock side, a Dolphin surfaced in a welter of spray right between our boats and ploughed along with us for a few waves - an experience totally in tune with the wild ride we were having.
We arrived on Inchmarnock at precisely the same time as a quite violent rainstorm heralded the passage of a weather front - it absolutely pelted down. My awkward landing on the rocky shore in breaking water led to a soaking - things were going well! We decided to pitch the tents and to see if the rain would abate before moving our gear from the boats, which was a fortuitous decision. Tents up (if wet) and we took a moment to check the weather forecast online. What we read was quite a surprise.... the forecast had completely changed from that issued just hours earlier. We could expect the wind to drop to almost nothing overnight before becoming strong in the morning, when we planned to cross back to Arran.
One of the keys to good trips is flexibility in planning and being prepared to react to a changing situation. We'd had a difficult crossing and got our tents up - but there wasn't the slightest hesitation in our agreement that we should take them back down and re-cross to Arran straight away to avoid the F5-6 headwind forecast for the morning. As we restowed the tents and took a quick snack the wind began to drop, but the rain certainly did not and we got going again in a real downpour.
By the time we were half way back to Arran the wind had completely gone - the rain alternated between light,as in this image, and very heavy; in the absence of wind the heavier pulses were heard as a hiss of water hitting water (and us!).
We made landfall right at our target of the Cock of Arran, a place we knew we'd find a spot to camp. Strangely enough, the last time Douglas and I camped here was also accompanied by a drop of rain! Readers familiar with a west of Scotland summer will realise what awaited us on the shore given the lack of wind and low light levels.......
Midges. Millions of the little illegitimate insects.... Douglas' expression says it all - but my camera failed to pick up the miasma surrounding him - it was a really bad attack. As time was getting on, we cooked our dinner on the rocky shore in pouring rain and with our own personal clouds of biting insects. We could have camped here, but it would frankly have been a miserable experience. We thought that by paddling slowly along the coast either the rain would ease or the midge attack would abate as darkness fell. Somewhat improbably, the rain did eventually ease and we did manage to evade the midges - and passed a comfortable late evening on the north coast of Arran.
Tuesday, 20 September 2016
The coast north of Carradale is wooded right to the edge of the water and feels quite remote as the minor road leaves the coast and goes inland.
Near to Eilean Grianain (sunny island) we stopped for luncheon and watched the "Ronja Challenger" manoeuvring alongside the salmon cages of a large fish farm. A newly built vessel, the Ronja Challenger is Norwegian registered and is on a five year contract with Marine Harvest Scotland.
Described as a "wellboat", her job is to transport live fish from fish farms for either transfer to another location or to a processing plant. She is 70 metres long and has a capacity of 1800 cubic metres - that's a lot of fish!
Beyond the fish farm the hills of Arran remained resolutely in cloud, but we thought we detected a slight lifting of the cloud base as the afternoon went on.
Our next stop was on the inviting sand of the beach at Grogport - great name but sadly no grog seemed to be available other than that safely stowed in our kayaks for the evening.
The mica rock on this beach is featured in thin layers almost like scales - this half buried boulder resembled a huge seashell.
Underway again, the seabed beneath our boats was lit with beautiful shades of green in the pale sunlight. During the next hour or so we looked at various camping spots on the shore which we'd marked as "possible" on our maps, settling on a rather fine spot.......
...where we could land on a shingle beach usable at all states of the tide......
...with a good bit of level ground behind on which to pitch our tents. The ground was a little stony for the pegs but we both got good spots and put up the tents, the green colours blending unobtrusively with the vegetation.
Before dinner we gathered a quantity of driftwood, and after dinner we lit a fire below the highest tide line utilising a "Wilcox Ignition Aid" TM
Keeping the fire small and contained meant that we could generate a good heat.......
...and sit in comfort in our Helinox camp chairs with a Sports Recovery Drink and warmed by both fire and a small dram of our favoured Jura whisky - life seemed particularly agreeable!......
....and continued to be agreeable as we chatted long into the evening. Baked potatoes were placed in the embers at "Log Mark 6" for the requisite 40 minutes and eaten with salt and butter under a sky which had cleared to show a swathe of the Milky Way. All in all it was a pretty perfect evening, and it was as well that we enjoyed it as the following evening would be quite a contrast....
Sunday, 18 September 2016
When we arrived back at Saddell Bay after walking up to the Abbey the view across the Kilbrannan Sound to Arran was obscured by heavy rain showers.....
...but there were signs of the weather improving with blue sky and sunlight giving an almost strobe effect as alternate light and shadow passed overhead.
We got on the water and almost as soon as we set off had a wonderful wildlife encounter. As I paddled through a gap close to the rocky shore an Otter surfaced quite cloe ahead of me. Rather than diving immediately or showing alarm, it swam quite deliberately almost to my boat, then dived and swam past to one side; I could clearly see it underwater as a silver shape with bubbles trailing from its coat. Having surfaced behind me, the Otter took a look back then just went on hunting - a great close-up view.
The weather continued to improve as we headed north and by the time we stopped for second breakfast at Torrisdale Bay we were able to enjoy our coffee in pleasant sunshine.
Across the bay is the site of a hillfort situated on the headland of Carradale Point. We paddled across and climbed up to explore the fort - little can be seen apart from the shape of the walls, now overgrown.
The place was built with a view though - right up and down Kilbrannan Sound and beyond to the Firth of Clyde.
Like many of these hillforts, there are signs of vitrification at Carradale Point, the most obvious section was just outside the main wall; we could clearly make out the joints of individual boulders had been fused by intense heat.
It's a short paddle from Torrisdale Bay to the harbour and village of Carradale, but we planned to stop again at the harbour to use the public toilets and to replenish drinking water. Douglas had warned me that Carradale might not be what I imagined, and he was right........
Approaching the harbour, we paddled below an absolute eyesore of jumbled wreckage. Old caravans, furniture, derelict Portakabins and cars were piled up at the edge of the water near a grim looking house. It was a jarring sight and we later found out by chatting to a local that all this rubbish and more had been caused by one individual who owns a property at the harbour, and that there was little the community were able to do about it. The village itself lies uphill from the harbour and is neatly kept, so it's doubly unfortunate that the harbour is such a mess.
The breakwater and pier were built in a curving sweep, originally in stonework. This became very expensive and labour-intensive to maintain so a these days the stone is encased in steel sheet-pile, less picturesque but an effective way to maintain the operation of this working harbour. Aside from Creel boats we saw a couple of modern and functional fish farm work-boats leave the harbour to service the large fish farms to the north. Carradale village has undoubted charm, if only the "car" bit could be tidied up......