Monday, 31 December 2012

Happy New Year

The last sunset of 2012 seen from the hills above our home.  Wherever you happen to see the Hogmanay sun set on the old year, I wish you health and happiness in the new.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The second best way to enjoy Christmas turkey?

At last, the weather seems to have settled for a few days. Boxing Day dawned clear and fine; a good day to walk off the Christmas dinner.

We chose Geallaig, erroneously marked as "Geallaig Hill" on the map.  This fine wee hill would give a good walk with great views and the opportunity to extend the day by descending to meet an old drove road, following it to the River Gairn and making a 16 km (10 mile) circuit.

A good track heads up the hill from our starting point at Braenaloin.  It's a steady rather than a steep ascent and we stopped frequently to enjoy the view south west to Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird.

The temperature was near or just below freezing all day, but with no wind it was really very comfortable.  Even in the middle of the day the midwinter sun is very low at this latitude, we threw long shadows all day.

Less than an hour and a half's walk saw us at the 743 metre (2438 ft) summit, where a circular cairn encloses the trig point.  Despite the lack of height, Geallaig commands fine views, particularly southward over the Dee valley

Undoubtedly the best way to eat Christmas turkey is with family around the table.  But Alan and I agreed that this may well be the second best way to enjoy it, in winter sunshine with a view like this!

South across the valley of the River Dee, Lochnagar had been enveloped in a cloud bank but as we sat and ate lunch the cloud dissipated and the distinctive, graceful silhouette of this great mountain appeared through the frosty haze in the air.

We descended as the sun dropped below the cloudbank.  The temperature quickly dropped below freezing but we still had very pleasant walking along the track to the Gairn and back to our car.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Happy Christmas

                            Wherever you may be,  I wish you peace and happiness at Christmas

Sunday, 23 December 2012


The last few days have seen incessant heavy rain in the north east of Scotland as successive weather fronts stacked up against a high pressure area over Scandinavia.  Unable to progress eastward, the fronts stalled and the rain just kept coming.  On each of the last three days rainfall totals on my weather station have been above 25mm (an inch), with the three day total near to four inches, driven on by very strong southeasterly winds.

On all three days the low cloud level and heavy rain meant that it didn't really get light at all.  Even a short walk was an unpleasant experience in wind, lashing rain and temperatures of about 3.5 Celcius - truly the very worst of all weathers.

The rivers are absolutely roaring, the fields saturated and flooded.  The level at the bridge over the River Don at Montgarrie is very high - further downstream the river has burst whre it enters flatter country.

 The volume of water coming down the Don is astonishing.  There's no massive noise because all the normal features of the river are submerged, just an unsettling sloshing, sucking sort of sound

At last, this morning was rain-free although heavy showers set in later.  In unaccustomed daylight we went to look at the river.  Looking upstream,  it's obvious that much more volume will cause the river to burst here too.  The water coming down the Esset Burn (on the right of this picture) is backing up as it tries to enter the flow.

Looking downstream the width of the river has more than doubled - the flood guage is about three feet below the surface.  The tributary on the right here is actually the riverside path.

Hopefully there will be a respite in the rainfall.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A winter wood

Early winter snowfall had come and gone whilst I was away from home working, washed away by a violent weather system which caused damage along the length of eastern Scotland.  In the days which followed the weather was quieter with temperatures a few degrees either side of freezing.

On a calm, cool morning I took a walk in Murray Park, a mixed woodland bequeathed to the community by the poet Charles Murray.  A pale winter sun was struggling to burn away the mist and dampness.  At first, all seemed to be monochrome - a dead winter woodland.

But there's life in the wood even at this time of year, close to the winter solstice.  Lichens festooning the Birch trees with delicate and complex growth, a signal of good air quality.

Colour too. The conifers retain a rich green colour among the brons and greys of the deciduous trees; a branch of this fir catching the light and glistening with moisture.

Stopping to absorb  the wood and to look around, other colours peep through.  The hips of this wild rose bush caught in a shaft of sunlight were fairly glowing.

And nearby, a leaf still clinging to an oak (Quercus petraea) and beautifully backlit.

Green, red and gold, here are all the colours of Christmas in a seemingly lifeless winter wood.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Equipment Review - Lomo Kayak Trolley

This is the first gear review to appear on the blog. I hope to post occasional reviews in the  future, so here's a bit of context:

I consider that I'm a fairly average user of outdoor equipment whilst hillwalking, kayaking and other outdoor activities, and my gear does get regular use.  Inevitably, although I try to look after gear, given that I'm out regularly in Scottish conditions, things do sometimes get used to death - usually by simply wearing out.

 My preferences are for uncomplicated items which do a particular job well; if a piece of gear can perform more than one function, so much the better. Durability and useability are more important to me than saving a few grams. Function is much more important to me than the latest colour or version. Unless otherwise stated, I don't have any connection with the manufacturers or retailers of the kit I use other than being a normal customer/consumer.

A sea kayak trolley is a really useful item to move a loaded boat, for example when the launch point is some way from the nearest road access, when the tide goes out a long way (like here at the head of Loch Hourn),  for getting a boat onto a ferry or for a portage between two pieces of water.  A trolley can open up all sorts of possibilities!

The Lomo Kayak Trolley is a folding design made of anodised aluminium tubing with stainless steel fittings.  Lomo recommend a maximum loading weight of 60kg; the construction is both solid and of good quality.  You need to supply the straps for securing the boat to the trolley; I use the same straps which are used for securing the boat to the car roof.  The Lomo trolley retails at £37.99, which is very good value compared to similar designs.

So, is it any good?

In a word, yes. Loading and using the trolley is easy and it has proved robust and practical. The trolley has foam pads on the upper tubes to prevent movement when loaded.  Once secured (I found that just aft of the cockpit was a comfortable position for balance and ease of pulling along), there is little or no movement even over bumpy terrain.

The wheels are 26cm "wheelbarrow" type plastic wheels with pneumatic tyres.  The tyres have Schraeder valves for inflation.  In typical use it's best not to inflate the tyres too hard in order to find a balance between performance on soft sand and rocky ground.

The 26cm wheels won't fit in a typical round kayak hatch, but fit easily into an oval hatch.  The body of the trolley folds flat for storage or transport - it's unlikely that this will fit into any hatch.  When carrying the trolley on a trip, I detach the wheels and put the folded trolley with wheels into a waterproof bag on the back deck, secured with one of the straps. 

A folding arm helps with solo loading of a boat onto the trolley.  Once loaded, this arm is swung back up out of the way.

The wheels secure to the frame using gate hinge pins.  The ones supplied (left) seemed a bit fiddly, so I replaced them with larger items bought from my local hardware store for 80p each.  The larger pins will catch the Schraeder valve on the wheel, to avoid this simply mount the wheels with the valves toward the inside of the trolley.

I've used the Lomo trolley for about two years without problems.  It's a comparatively simple design and like just about all Lomo products is solidly built.  The fittings and tubing look like they will last for a good long time.  In use, the trolley has performed well on a variety of terrain and has gone easily over some really challenging rocky ground.  If you're looking for a trolley, I can recommend taking a look at this one.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Winter sunset, Loch of Skene

Winter is coming.  We've already had a blast of snowy weather and the last week has seen bright, cold days with penetrating frosts at night.  Some of the shallower lochs have already gathered a skin of ice.

Driving out of Aberdeen towards home, we passed the Loch of Skene just as the sun was setting.  We stopped to watch and were treated to the sound of hundreds of geese arriving to roost on and around the loch; it's a true sound of the wild and just a few miles from the centre of a busy city.

Winter sunsets are often the best, the air clear and sharp.  Before we arrived home the temperature had dropped to -5 Celcius.  Winter is most certainly coming.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Reflecting on Loch Laggan

Continuing my paddle north east along Loch Laggan I came to the only proper island in the loch which is near the middle section. It appears to be a piece of ice-smoothed bedrock topped by moraine boulders and is marked on the map as having the remains of an "island dwelling".

Quite often such islands have traces of Crannogs but this is the ruin of a large stone building known as King Fergus' Hunting Lodge and it has a fascinating history.  The small island on which is stands is called Eilean an Righ (King's island) and it seems that the ruins are built on top of a still earlier structure. Various artefacts from dug-out canoes to the remains of a clinker-built boat have been found in the loch.  It was really intruiging to think that folk were paddling this same loch thousands of years before me.

A little farther along and set in woodland on the north shore of the loch is the somewhat grander Ardverikie House, built in the Scottish baronial style in 1870. The house and estate became well known recently as the fictitious "Glenbogle" for the TV series "Monarch of the Glen" and also as the location for much of the  film "Mrs Brown".

The wind had by now died completely and patches of warm autumn sun lit up the sandy beach at the head of the loch where I landed for second luncheon.

 On my way back towards Aberarder the hillside and woods were reflected perfectly in the mirror of the loch. 

I arrived back at Aberader as the sun was getting low in the late afternoon.  Paddling on a fresh water loch is just, well, different than paddling on the sea, or even on a sea-loch.  On the minus side there's none of the energy of the littoral zone and a lot less wildlife in the cold, peaty loch.

On the plus side, the woodland along the shore was stunning in the autumnal sunshine, and when I arrived home a few hours later, well after dark and with temperatures well below freezing, there was no need to "dook" my kit in fresh water to rinse out the salt.  Now that is a bit of a bonus!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Kayaking Loch Laggan

Loch Laggan is in the central highlands between Speyside and  Lochaber. I drive the A86 road along the shore frequently on my way to and from the west coast of Scotland and have often thought that it would provide a good day's paddling.

In the winter the loch can freeze over and so an autumn day with the bonus of the woodland colour on the shore seemed like a good bet.  The forecast was for almost no wind and good visibility.  Emerging from thick fog at the north east end of the loch to a chilly and quite strong breeze was unexpected.

I launched from near the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve car park at Aberarder and headed south west down the loch with the wind at my back.  I thought that this way the sun wouldn't be in my eyes too much as I made an anticlockwise circuit of the loch.

The colours of the woods fringing the loch were really rich and vibrant, the mix of birch, rowan pine and larch each adding their own shade to the whole.  Remnants of the morning mist were still hanging in some of the lower corries.

Above the shore the flanks of Creag Meagaidh drop steeply towards the loch.  I could hear stags roaring occasionally, the rut is still in full swing. When I was last on this hill we had a full-on winter day with driving snow, today was a lot different!

I found a small bay sheltered from the breeze and landed for first luncheon - a cup of hot tea and some cake was just the ticket.  A yellow boat in a yellow bay, perhaps I should have eaten a banana to keep the colour theme going?

At the bottom (south west) end of the loch it's possible to continue through the meandering River Spean to  a lower part of the loch which is damed for a hydro electric scheme.  This would have been a noe-way trip though s the flow was too strong to paddle back up to Loch Laggan. 

Instead I turned near Moy Lodge and began paddling back up towards the head of the loch on the quiet sothern shore.  The glacial origins of Laggan are plain to see, lots of smoothed bedrock bearing striations from the passage of the ice.

There are boulders left in place too, just as they settled when the ice melted.  The wind had conveniently dropped just as I began to paddle against it and my paddle was a relaxing one accompanied by birdsong and the sounds of the red deer rut.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Golden October

Driving to the central Highlands, the sun rose as I crossed the Lecht hill road.  By the time I reached  Bridge of Brown the low sun was flooding the valley mist with a gorgeous golden light.  The effect was quite fleeting, soon afterward the light became harder and the mist dazzling white.

As I continued my drive, I saw a Brocken Spectre as the sun threw the car's shadow onto the mist in the valley bottom.

A really beautiful morning to be out.

Friday, 26 October 2012

As I cam' in by Fiddichside..

Auchindoun Castle lies off the Dufftown to Rhynie road in Morayshire.  We've driven past many times and recently took some time to visit the castle properly.  From the road you just get a glimpse of a gaunt tower, but from the top of the short walk to the site the scale of the ruin becomes readily apparent.

The castle is in the care of Historic Scotland and has recently undergone extensive work to make the ruins safe and allow access inside the outer wall. It seems to have had a consistently violent history even in the context of the bloody feuds of 15th and 16th century Scotland.  It seems not to have been held by anybody for very long, and slightly unusually it was bought and sold during its history.  Mostly associated with the Earls of Huntly, Auchindoun dominates the approaches to Speyside by Fiddichside and to an extent Glen Rinnes

An old song, "The Burning of Auchindoun", commemorates one incident in the castle's long story when it was attacked in 1592 by Clan Mackintosh in retaliation for Huntly's murder of "The Bonny Earl o' Moray".  Truly turbulent times....

Auchindoun was clearly a very grand design; and what surprised us was the amount of the structure which is still in existence.  Here part of the outer walls and a gated entrance with signs of additional buildings inside the wall.

 The main tower commands a great view and would have dominated the surrounding countryside. Parts of the outer earthworks are thought to have been a much earlier hillfort, possibly neolithic and in turn, Pictish.

The main tower still has upper floors intact and portions of vaulted ceilings, and there is a basement carved out of the bedrock of the knoll on which it stands.

Today the castle is a peaceful if dramatic place with views over the whisky country of Morayshire.  Control of trade probably played a big part in the choice of site and with the close proximity of present-day distilleries like Mortlach, Knockando, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Glenlivet to name but a few it would be trade worth controlling today!

Auchindoun was facinating and an unexpected gem with real atmosphere; it's somewhere we'll no doubt revisit - maybe next time with a dram in hand.....

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Kerloch evening

Having walked around to the south west side of Kerloch, my route turned towards the summit via the Builg, part of the Mounth path of the same name.  Part of this was quite boggy and I was glad to reach the forest road climbing towards the shoulder and drier ground.  It's a steady climb of about 350 metres to the summit, mostly through tall forests which conceal the view until quite near the top.

But what views!  Kerloch is just 534m/1752 ft high but being isolated above large areas of lower ground has absolutely huge views in every direction.  To the north east Durris and Fetteresso forests stretched away in a carpet of dark green; to the east the haze just permitted a view of the city of Aberdeen and the North Sea.

But the best views were in the south and west.  The late afternoon sun was low on the horizon and the mist already beginning to re-form in the glens of the Mounth.

The swelling heather domes enclosing the Angus Glens stretched away, the haze producing a soft focus effect.  I lingered on the summit for a good half hour just enjoying the changing light and an almost complete absence of sound.  I still had a good distance to go to get back to my starting point so all too soon it was time to head off; this time taking the direct route north towards Feughside on a good track which joined the Stock Mounth track.

Sunset came and went on my walk out, the few clouds briefly fired with pink and then gold.  Reaching the road, all that remained was a 2km walk back up the hill to the car as darkness settled.

What might have been a short walk "there and back" to the summit turned out to have been 28 kilometres and a full 8 hours, and what a super day it had been.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Circle of gold

On a beautiful autumn day I set out to climb Kerloch,  a heathery dome rising above the forests south of Banchory in Aberdeenshire.  A straight up-and-down ascent would have made for a short day; it was a lovely day so I planned a longer route which would take me almost completely around the base of the hill before climbing over it on my way back.

I started from a small forest car-park near to the Mulloch stone circle, also known as the Nine Stanes.  The circle is just off the road in a forest plantation and is one of the recumbent circles which are a distinctive form of monument found the north east of Scotland. The Nine Stanes circle is one of three quite closely grouped monuments and is about 3,500 years old.  Although now in the forest, it would have commanded a wide view and was probably used in part as a lunar calendar.

 The northern side of Kerloch is mostly open moorland with wide views; the distinctive tor on Clachnaben stands out in the view to the south west.  After crossing the moorland approach I entered the forest to the north east of Kerloch, planning to link forest roads and footpaths to make a large clockwise arc around to the south west of the summit.

A feature of the forestry plantations hereabouts is that the spruce blocks are edged with larch (Larix decidua), some obviously planted and others seemingly self-seeded.

I've always been fond of larches, a deciduous conifer which turns the most brilliant shades in the autumn before dropping its needles.  The branches were glowing in the bright sunshine, the trees forming a circle of gold around the hillside, edging the deep green of the spruces and the rich plum shades of the higher moors.

In places this "circle of gold" was simply dazzling; the intensity of the colour changing the light completely.

There were other bright colours in evidence too; in the warm sunshine a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was feeding on a late flowering Ragwort

Several sections of my route used rights of way.  Scotland doesn't have public footpaths in the sense that England and Wales do, but rights of way are often marked by the Scottish Rights of Way Society; and many of these have usage going back many centuries.  I used sections of the Stock Mounth and Builg Mounth paths, both mounth roads once used for cattle droving, trade and smuggling.

After nearly six hours of walking, I'd made my way right around the south of Kerloch and now was able to climb to the summit from almost exactly the opposite point to which I'd started - a strange but somehow satisfying way to climb a hill!