Monday, 19 June 2017

The shining sands of Shian

After amusing ourselves playing boules with fishing floats we cooked and ate dinner then reconvened to light our campfire. Our fires are usually built on the shore below the spring high water mark but at Shian we found a long-established and properly constructed fire pit (rather than a series of ugly scars on the turf).

For those without chairs a couple of fish boxes and two planks served as a bench.  David and Sam were forced to sit ever closer together as the evening progressed; not because it was cold but because we gradually shortened the planks to feed the fire by sawing the ends off them!  Gathered around a camp fire on a remote shore with good food, good company and the odd sports recovery drink is one of life's real pleasures and a real enhancement to sea kayaking journeys for me.  On journeys such as this one time seems extended somehow and the distractions of regular life are replaced by a more simple rhythm - life in the "now", and a chance to spend a little time in a "quiet centre"

As the sun dipped towards the horizon later in the evening we left the fire for a while and drifted over to the top of the beach to take our front row seats for what we hoped would be another great Hebridean sunset......

.....and we certainly weren't disappointed!  As the sun began to set beyond Colonsay, from where we'd paddled that afternoon, the sky began to colour up to rich, warm shades.  But the special feature of this sunset was to be found on the beach in front of us, where wet sand left by the ebbing tide began to shine as it reflected the low sunlight beaming across the surface of the sea and continuing onto the beach.

Douglas and I walked down onto the shore to try and capture the the effect......

...but my photographs really don't do justice to the gorgeous light beaming, it seemed, from the sand itself.  We stood and watched as the beam of light slowly darkened and then, almost instantaneously, disappeared.  In these northern latitudes sunsets are long affairs, especially in summer when the sun only dips below the horizon, so this sudden change was all the more remarkable.

We walked back up to join the others around the fire, below a full moon and a sky of the most delicate pink shade.  A line of pale mist was forming around the hills as the warmth of the day dissipated, it was a truly beautiful evening and a wonderful quality of ethereal light.

Almost a full hour after the sun set beyond Colonsay we stood in the long Hebridean dusk with a full moon at our backs.......

.....and the ember glow of the sunset washing the sky - a scene which seemed to be straight out of a J.M.W. Turner painting.  Once again we sat long into the evening, chatting and enjoying the warmth of the fire,  the shining sands of Shian etched into our memories.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Boules - Hebridean style

The 16 kilometre crossing from Colonsay back to the west coast of Jura took a little over two hours of steady paddling, assisted by a light breeze from astern.  As ever on crossings like this the coast towards which we paddled didn't seem to get any nearer for long periods of time despite GPS showing that we were making steady progress.

Gradually the raised beach backing Shian Bay which we were using as an aiming point grew close enough to see the brilliant white streak of sand below it.  Douglas and I had noted Shian as a good campsite on our visit a year previously and knew that we'd find flat ground for the tents, a good landing on sand and fresh water in a nearby burn.

We were pleased that our memory of the place was accurate!  A sweep of brilliant white sand with cropped turf above it, a view out to Colonsay and in full sunshine made for a great place to camp.  Added extras were that the nearby burn had a deep bathing pool with sun-warmed water and there was plenty of driftwood for a fire........

...which we collected while Douglas used his Japanese folding saw to create a satisfying pile of evenly sized logs.  Normally we would light our fire well below the tideline, but at this beach we found a properly constructed fire pit which had clearly been in use for very many years.

We had arrived at Shian and set up camp in the late afternoon so we had plenty of time for relaxation before dinner.  After we'd taken turns bathing in the pool we found all that we needed on the beach for.......

..... a few ends of Hebridean boules! There were more than enough creel buoys washed up on the beach to provide a jack and six quite evenly sized boules - great fun but a pity that there's so many of these plastic buoys littering the beaches around Scotland.

Douglas climbed up to the raised beach behind the bay and found that he could just about get enough elevation to pick up a mobile phone signal from the mast on Colonsay in order to get a weather forecast.  The outlook was for a less settled period from the following day, but for now we knew we'd enjoy a fine evening in this wild and remote spot.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Stocking up at Scalasaig

It would have been easy to linger at Balnahard Bay but time was marching on and we had most of the length of Colonsay's east coast to travel, plus the crossing back to Jura before the end of the day.

Colonsay's east coast is something of a contrast to the wild and rugged sweeps of the west side of the island.  There are natural woods of willow, birch, hazel and rowan above a low rocky shore for most of the way, and there seemed to be a cuckoo calling in every bay.

Maurice had just mentioned that the one Scottish wildlife "big tick" he'd love to see was a Sea Eagle.....

...when his wish was granted!  "What, like that one over there?" we asked.......

..."or how about that one just behind it?".  Two White Tailed Sea Eagles lifted off from a skerry close to us and moved a little way up the shore before settling again - bringing a furious response from a pair of Oystercatchers who were somewhat less impressed by the great birds than we were.  Sea Eagles....Maurice had waited years to see one and then two came along at once!

We arrived at Scalasaig (the main village on Colonsay, but don't expect a busy built-up place...) by early afternoon.  We were well overdue first luncheon, and so made our way up from the harbour..... the Colonsay Pantry where we enjoyed coffee, cakes and other treats.  We'd been disappointed to note that the island's brewery had a "Closed" sign on the outside, but this unfortunate situation was remedied when we spotted that the Pantry sells.....

...a selection of Colonsay Ales!  I purchased a couple of examples of local produce for testing that evening.  We also took the opportunity to top up our drinking water from a tap at the pier - a useful resupply as usable running water isn't easy to find around the island's coastline.

Our time on Colonsay was over - for now.  An island of real contrast, interest and variety with history, wildlife, stunning beaches and super sea kayaking, it's a place I know I'll return to soon.

Pulling out of the harbour, we pointed our bows towards the distinctive outline of the Paps of Jura and hoisted sails to take advantage of a light breeze.  Ahead lay a 16 kilometre crossing to Jura and our intended camp site. 

You'll be able to follow the whole of our journey to Jura and Colonsay in "sea kayak stereovision" by reading Douglas' blog starting here

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Under a perpetual summer sun

Our camp site at Kiloran Bay on Colonsay's west coast had been one of the best; and we woke to another calm and sunny day.  We packed our boats and carried them down to the water, then raked over the ashes of our fire which we'd made below the spring tide high water line.

We set out heading north towards the tip of Colonsay, from where we'd head down the island's east coast.  We were hoping to see some of the Choughs which are resident here, but unfortunately didn't manage to see any of these scarce and charismatic members of the crow family.

The north tip of Colonsay consists of a rocky headland linked to the rest of the island by a slender neck of ground which we wanted to explore for a potential future camping spot.  Finding the correct channel from the west side isn't as simple as it might seem from the map......

...but it was well worth the effort.  Close cropped machair and a choice of landings both from the west and (slightly easier) the east, it would be a good place to stop on future trips.  Recce complete, we paddled around the headland and turned south - initially paddling past the eastern beach.

It was high time for a second breakfast stop....and we had somewhere in mind. Balnahard is a bay of emerald green water backed by golden sand was in full sunshine - just perfect!

Away to the north lay the hills of Mull and the low outline of the Ross of Mull - itself a stunning sea kayaking location.

After second breakfast and coffee Douglas and I took a wander along the shore to check out the remains of SS Wasa, a Swedish ship of 1300 tons which was beached here on 24th May 1920 after having suffered a catastrophic fire whilst steaming about 8 miles west of the Dubh Heartach light.

The weather and  scavenging of the wreck for timber and iron have taken their toll, almost a century on there's little but the keel to be seen.

But even in the little that's left of the Wasa it's possible to see how her keel was constructed in oak and iron.

Whilst enjoying breakfast we'd been entertained by the display and aerobatics of one of the most remarkable migrants to visit Britain.....

Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisea), dazzling white in the bright sunshine, were completing courtship with gifts of sandeels brought by the males and offered to their partners.  The chattering, bowing and aerobatic behaviour is fascinating....but that's not all.

At 25-40cm long and weighing just 85-125 grams, Arctic Terns aren't big or powerful birds.  Their flight is among the most buoyant and graceful in the avian world, their precision as they twist in mid air to snatch small fish from near the surface is a joy to watch.  These amazing birds winter in the Antarctic and breed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic coastal regions including Britain.

The shortest distance between the wintering and breeding grounds of Arctic Terns is around 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometres) - and these birds do the round trip every year of their lives.  An Arctic Tern nesting on the Farne Islands off England's north east coast in 2015 was fitted with a tiny satellite tracker.  The female bird headed south after a successful breeding season and flew down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean to arrive in Antarctica in November 2015.  By the time it returned to the Farne Islands in the Spring of 2016 this individual had clocked up a total of 59,650 miles - equivalent to twice the circumference of the Earth and the longest verified migration journey of any bird.

Given that Arctic Terns live between 15 and 30 years, this means that these incredible long distance voyagers may travel 1.8 million miles (3 million kilometres) during their lifetimes.  The terns need to make these mammoth journeys as they need to find sandeels and small fish which are cyclic in the oceans.  They move with the season - birds in perpetual motion, under a perpetual summer sun......

...and given the weather and the stunning location - we felt as if we might be under a perpetual summer sun too!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Out on the edge - Colonsay's wild west coast

Continuing our journey north, we took a last look back at the long sandy beaches of Oronsay.  We had a camp site in mind a good up the west coast of Colonsay and still had some distance to travel.

Colonsay isn't a high island but it is quite rugged, especially on the west coast.  Rocky headlands between sandy bays slipped astern as we made steady progress in superb conditions.

From Port Mor northwards the scenery becomes wilder, more rugged and has a real "out on the edge" atmosphere.  We counted ourselves very fortunate to be able to paddle relatively close in to the cliffs, despite the near perfect conditions there was a good deal of clapotis from the cliffs and many of my photographs from this section were spoiled by water splashes on the camera lens.

Having only previously seen the sheltered and lower lying east coast of Colonsay, I was pleasantly surprised by the height and rugged nature of the cliffs on the west side of the island - chasms and scarp slopes broke the sheer cliffs in places and we paddled through rafts of Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins with wheeling Fulmars and Kittiwakes filling the sky above us.  The grassy slopes falling to sheer cliffs have something of the feel of Hirta in the St Kilda group; though not as grand or high they share much of the same character and wild atmosphere.

There's a definite sense of scale here too - Sam's kayak is dwarfed by the rock architecture in this image.

We'd enjoyed a long day of sea kayaking and exploring, and superb though the situation was, I for one was happy to turn a final headland and head into Kiloran Bay where we planned to camp.

Rather than the main beach, we chose a smaller bay tucked into a corner at the north of the bay, which was catching the evening sun and offered a good landing.  In heavy swell I doubt that any of the beaches on this west coast would be tenable for a landing, but no such problem on this evening - we landed in the slightest of wavelets.

Camps was soon established on a stretch of level, cropped machair above the shore.  David took a few moments to just lie on the grass and relax before putting up his tent; given that he's well into his eighth decade and we'd just completed 41 kilometres of paddling I think you'll agree at this was entirely understandable!  The good Doctor prescribed a well-known brand of iron-rich sports recovery drink for David, which had a most satisfactory restorative effect......

This was a really great campsite, on good ground facing the sunset above a white sand beach - does it get any better?

Well, yes it did; there's nothing like a good camp fire.....  We'd not lit a fire the previous evening as we were so late off the water so we had several pieces of firewood stowed in spare spaces in our boats and there was plenty of driftwood to be found.  A washed-up heavy pallet was too strong to be easily broken up but made a great base for our fire.  We got things started early and let the fire build up embers for cooking supper later in the evening.

Dinner eaten and camp chores done, we relaxed with a sports recovery drink and watched as the sun dipped towards the horizon - it would be another fantastic sunset. 

A sunset in the Hebrides is an event one can participate in rather than merely watch.  We increased our level of participation by saluting the close of the day with a dram while reflecting that beyond the western horizon there was no landfall until the coast of this wonderful spot we really were out on the edge, not just of Scotland but of Europe .

A most convivial evening was spent around our fire; we sat long into the Hebridean twilight chatting and swapping stories.  Baked potatoes were cooked in the embers as well as a new treat - baked Bramley apples served with clotted cream.  There can have been few more contented groups of folk than we five on this evening......

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Oronsay Priory - a place of peace

 We rounded the south tip of Oronsay and entered the long, narrow bay of Port na Luinge which has a beautiful sandy beach at its head.  The name translates as "Port of the ships", and it is wonderfully sheltered with a gentle slope on which craft could be beached.

As our own keels touched the beach, a figure with two dogs appeared on the machair and walked down onto the beach - it was the warden/farmer who must have seen us paddling into the bay and probably wanted to check out what we were doing.  Oronsay is owned by Mrs Colburn, an American lady, who has a management agreement with the RSPB.  Visitors to the reserve aren't discouraged by the RSPB, but then again neither are they encouraged - their focus is on managing the island for birds.  Access is of course allowed under the Land Reform Act, and the warden was probably wishing to ensure we didn't intend camping.  We chatted for a while about the island and the Corncrakes for which the island's agriculture is managed (there are five calling males this season, though unfortunately we didn't hear them during our visit).  In order to assist these birds the grass is cut late at the old, traditional time - and unusually the farmer counts nettles as one of his main "crops" because the Corncrakes like to hide in the dense patches.

 Port na Luinge really is a most beautiful spot.  We followed the path up above the beach...........

 ....past the wonderfully situated and very handsome Oronsay House........ the place we'd landed to explore - Oronsay Priory. There are several traditions attributed to the original Celtic monastery which occupied this site - that Columba established a church here in the sixth century, or that St Oran founded a priory on the site in 563, giving the island its name.  Actually the name probably comes from the Norse term for a tidal island and there are a few islands so named along the western seaboard.  Given that there are numerous sites from the Neolithic period on Oronsay and Colonsay, it may be that the first Christian site itself overlaid or subsumed a place of significance or worship.

It seems probable at least that some form of religious site predated the building of what can be seen today - an Augustinian priory endowed (possibly) by John, Lord of the Isles, in the 14th century.

 The ground plan is slightly unusual in that the monastic and domestic buildings lay to the north of the simple rectangular church.

 On the eastern side of the site is a cloister yard with two types of arcading - this angular type and the older, rounded type seen at the left of this image.  This probably indicates restoration of the site at some point.

 Three crosses are associated with Oronsay Priory, the most striking of them is this one at the SW end of the church.  A tall "Celtic" cross bearing a cruxifiction scene and ornate interlacing pattern, it bears an inscription which identifies it as the cross of Prior Colin who died in 1510.

A simple stone cross is said to have stood on the Strand, the area of sand and mud between Oronsay and Colonsay.  This was a "sanctuary cross", which denoted the bounds of the Priory and offered protection from the law to fugitives who could reach it.

Colonsay and Oronsay were MacNeill lands - the clan were Norse-Gaels, the name being related to the Scandinavian Neilsen or Nilsson.  A family mausoleum and many MacNeill graves testify to the family's long association with the island and the priory.

 Two war graves, one from each of the two World Wars are located in the churchyard, erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The first is of Engine Room Artificer A. Fisher of the Royal Naval Reserve who was lost in the sinking of HMS Viknor, a 5386 ton former Blue Star steamship requisitioned by the Admiralty as an Armed Merchant Cruiser.

HMS Viknor was lost in heavy weather off Tory Island on 13th January 1915, and was believed to have struck a mine.  All 291 of her crew plus seven other men were lost, with some bodies later being washed up on the Irish and Scottish coasts; the body of ERA Fisher was found on Oronsay and buried at the churchyard. 

                                                                               Image downloaded from CWGC website

 It's testament to the work of the CWGC that the grave registration document still exists......

 No personal records exist for the other war grave, that of an unidentified Merchant Navy sailor who was washed up on 10th July 1946 - some time after the end of hostilities in European waters.  Each grave administered by the War Graves Commission bears, wherever possible, either a regimental or organisational emblem - in this case that of the Merchant Navy.  At the base of the grave stone there's the simple inscription "Known unto God".

We missed out on visiting the many mediaeval grave-slabs displayed within a roofed building at the priory - reason enough to visit this special place again in the future.

 The last of the three crosses associated with Oronsay is the oldest.  A broken cross base and head are clamped together on a stone plinth - though the two parts may not necessarily be from the same cross.  Simple interlacing on the shaft surmounted by a smiling figure, the cross is marvellously situated......

....looking out over the machair of Oronsay to the distinctive Paps across the Sound of Jura.

There's a sense of peace and great continuity here, similar to other sites with long religious tradition.  Whether you're a Christian, religious or not, this is a special and precious place - I think we all felt calmed and a little humbled by our visit.