Sunday, 15 October 2017

Cairngorm contrast - golden time

During the first half of October I had the opportunity to visit several areas of the Cairngorms over a period of four consecutive days whilst assessing two Duke of Edinburgh's Award groups.  The teams would travel from Deeside across to Speyside, covering over 80 kilometres whilst investigating an aim for their venture.

The first two days were forecast to have really fine autumnal weather, the third and fourth days would bring something much more challenging - but more of that later!

I planned to meet both teams in the forest and moors above Invercauld and set out on my bike along the network of estate tracks on a pleasant afternoon.

In position along the route the teams would take, I had plenty of time in had to sit and make a cup of tea whilst enjoying the play of early evening light across the moorland.  The heather has turned from purple to a greenish bronze and the light seemed warm and benign.  It's good to pause and take some time in the hills occasionally; to enjoy some "golden time" just absorbing the surroundings - and it was a great evening to do so.

I spent much of the following day in Glen Derry, and again had plenty of time to just sit and observe.  The autumnal colours are really starting to take hold now, the leaves of this Rowan turning from green to yellow and set off nicely against a background of dark green pines.

Finding a vantage point from where I could  see the teams approaching from some distance, the "brew kit" came out and a cup of tea was soon in hand.  The view to Derry Cairngorm is a fine one; it's been a few years since I climbed this particular hill - something I must rectify soon.  Overhead, the unmistakeable wild music of Pink Footed Geese added a note of autumn sounds.

This Birch tree was visible from some kilomteres as a brilliant yellow firecracker standing out against the muted moorland shades - just beautiful, but perhaps it might be in the wrong location........

........because the corrie at the base of Derry Cairngorm is called Coire Craobh an Oir (Corrie of the tree of gold).  The teams would journey around the base of Derry Cairngorm and below the dark spur of Devil's Point which can just be glimpsed centre left in this image.  Although the weather looked settled, the forecast told a very different story and their day would bring them challenge in plentiful supply.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

A two day Torridon tour - between a rock and a hard place

Continuing our paddle along the north side of Loch Torridon, Allan and I paused at this ruin.  It may have been a croft or a fishing station, but would have been a tough place in which to make a living.

For most of this part of the loch the shore is steep and rocky - difficult to walk along...unless you happen to be perfectly adapted of course.  We saw several goats and I've met with them previously in this area.

Approaching Loch Diabaig, there's a change in the geology from sandstone to Lewisian Gneiss and the scenery becomes suddenly more rugged but with very few landing places......

.....apart from the shore at the head of Loch Diabaig.  The settlement of Lower Diabaig must be one of the trickiest places in Scotland to reach by road, a minor road at the end of a long minor road which twists over the Bealach na Gaoithe (pass of the winds) before descending steeply to sea level again - truly between a rock and a hard place.

Heading out of Loch Diabaig and towards the narrows separating outer and middle Loch Torridon there's another change in the rock type and this time the contact zone is unmistakeable.  On one side of the contact there's a pink sedimentary rock, and on the other a dark metamorphised igneous rock.

We were by now looking at a couple of options for a second night camping.  There are surprisingly few good spots; we checked out one I've used before on a small promontory before deciding on a patch of level ground on the south shore of the loch.  As it was quite early in the afternoon we decided to paddle part of the upper loch before pitching our tents.

As we passed through the narrows by Eilean a' Chaol (Island of the kyle (narrow)) the view up to the head of the loch showed that a change in the weather was approaching.  The big Torridon hills were obscured by thick cloud and we could see heavy rain falling.  As this was headed our way we started back towards our intended campsite, but the rain beat us.

As the rain started the wind dropped to a dead calm - and we knew exactly what would be waiting for us on the shore!  Almost as soon as we stepped from the boats we were attacked by midges which seemed undeterred by the rain.  We now had a fairly easy decision - we were only about half an hour's paddling from Shieldaig and our car; and we could easily get home that evening if we chose to.  The prospect of a night confined to our tents to shelter from both rain and midges wasn't that appealing - after all, our trip ws meant as a relaxed couple of days! 

We arrived at a decision pretty quickly and got back in the boats to paddle across to Shiledaig.  Even on the main street of the village the midges were biting us as we loaded the boats onto the car.

Loch Torridon had given us a good couple of days paddling and had fulfilled the aim of sheltered options in very changeable winds and weather.  When the wind is in the north or south it's a good alternative to more exposed parts of the north west coast, though the topography of hills and the loch does tend to funnel any easterly winds.

Monday, 25 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - big sky morning

Sometime during the night I became aware that the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped away.  Early sunlight heating the tents prompted us to be up and about early, emerging into a bright morning.  Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones to be up and about early and we exited the tents straight into clouds of ferocious midges.  Usually they don't bite much in bright sunlight (see paragraph 2.6.2 in this paper), but the local population on this piece of Loch Torridon shoreline clearly hadn't read the paper!  We scrambled for our midge repellent and I straight away put on my suit of "midge armour" which made things much more bearable........

Though the midges were doing their level best it was still a lovely morning, and in a superb location. Packing was a little quicker than we'd have liked in order to escape the midge attack, which remarkably continued even as the day heated up. 

As soon as we were on the water and away from the shore we left the midges behind and were able to fully appreciate the morning....and what a morning!  Our position at the outermost part of Loch Torridon had sweeping views - to the west the Trotternish peninsula on Skye lay under an ever-changing cloudscape; while on the horizon we caught a glimpse of the long chain of the outer Hebrides.

It was the majestic cloudscapes (and not the midge attack!) which made the morning so memorable.  Towering cumulus would build over the land and then slowly subside in an ever-changing pattern, dissipating where it drifted over water and never really threatening rain.

We paddled eastward, into Loch Torridon and into patterns of bright sunlight and cloud-shadow.

Each time the sun emerged from the cloud pattern, the water beneath our boats was flooded with morning light, the colour and detail snapped into sharp focus by the intensity of the light.

As the morning grew warmer the cloudscape developed a heavier, more solid appearance, but still didn't really threaten rain.  The Skye shore was in shade, while here on the Torridon shore.....

...we basked in warm sun.  After an hour or so of paddling we decided on a second breakfast and landed on a beach of sandstone boulders.  Thankfully the midges seemed to have given up and we enjoyed a pleasant coffee break propped against boulders warmed by the sun.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - a meteorological beating

On our crossing of outer Loch Torridon we had a very visible aiming point - the sandy beach at Red Point which seemed to have caught any patches of sunlight throughout the day.  A pale patch amongst greys, greens and browns, it stands out well in views from the south.  The swell which had built up behind us as we crossed was broken up by a small island and an offshore reef, making for a relatively easy landing.

Red Point was the site of a fishing station, now abandoned.  The cottages are just gable ends and a couple of walls, the most complete building being a semi-derelict store on the shore.  It's missing substantial portions of wall and roof and was a bit "sheepy" - we would be glad of it soon enough! Slender trunks of pine trees seem out of place in the dunes nearby; they didn't grow here but were dug into the dunes to provide supports for net drying.

I knew from a previous visit that we could find decent pitches behind the dunes, we pitched our tents in comparative shelter from a strong breeze which at least guaranteed no midges would trouble us during the evening.

A blink of evening sunshine provided a flash of colour, but unfortunately it didn't last long........

...before the weather begann to close in.  The wind increased to a pretty strong blow and soon we felt the first spots of rain.

To the south, the shore we'd paddled from looked to be getting some heavier rain; we reflected that place we'd originally planned to camp would have been exposed to the worst of this weather.

To seaward, there was an unmistakeable and menacing bank of rain approaching.  We moved our cooking kit into the derelict shed to take advantage of whatever shelter it offered - there would be no camp fire on this evening!

The next couple of hours saw heavy rain and a strong wind battering the coast, and the shed where we huddled to eat dinner.  The weather was pretty hostile and the evening was one of the coldest August evenings I can recall outside of the mountains.  Soon after dinner we battened down our tents and retired to our sleeping bags.

The view from the tent door just before I closed it up was quite dramatic.  The mountains of Torridon were invisible and the middle part of the loch at Shieldaig was taking a real meteorological beating - the sky was a livid purple shade and the sheets of rain were clearly visible.  Lying in my sleeping bag listening to the rain and wind on the tent, I wondered what the morning might bring......

Friday, 15 September 2017

A two day Torridon tour - changing like the weather

 July and August of 2017 offered little in the way of settled weather in Scotland.  Frequent spells of windy conditions limited the opportunity for anything more than brief outings.  In the second week of August Allan and I spotted a couple of days in the forecast which looked like giving a good chance of doing a camping trip - though there was uncertainty about the wind strength.

In general it looked to be from the south for a day before swinging through west to north for the following two days.  Finding somewhere which would offer shelter from opposing wind directions on consecutive days was an interesting conundrum!  We decided on a trip from Loch Torridon, with options to head out to the island of Rona if the weather was particularly obliging, or staying within the loch if it proved less benign.

We drove over to the west coast and prepared to set out from Shieldaig (from the old Norse "Sildvik" - Herring Bay).  The sky looked quite threatening as we packed our boats, we hoped that the forecast of brighter conditions later was accurate.

 We started out heading north west towards the outer loch.  Loch Torridon is in three sections, the outer loch which is a wide expanse opening to the Minch, Loch Shieldaig forms part of the middle section and an upper loch which laps the feet of the great Torridon rampart, Liathach.

 Shortly after setting out the overcast, drizzly cloud began to break up and allow some warm sunshine to break through.  As so often in Scotland, the speed of the change from grey to dazzling colour was startling......

 ....and we were soon in bright sunlight under blue skies.

 The view up the loch to the distant Torridon hills was particularly fine, rows of shapely summits marching into the distance.  We landed in a rocky bay to take a leisurely second luncheon and enjoy the sun on our backs.

 It was clear that the sunny conditions wouldn't last too long though, and with an approaching cloudbank came a strong southerly wind.  This caused us to revise our plans - the strength of the wind within the shelter of the loch suggested that things would be a lot more gusty in open water. Our plan had been to paddle out of the loch and head south to camp in a bay which faced south - this was in anticipation of stronger northerly winds the following day.  It was clear that we'd have a slog to the intended bay and that it would be exposed to swell and weather.  We rafted up for a quick reassessment.....

Our revised plan was to paddle along the southern shore of the outer loch as far as Rubha na Fearna, (one of two headlands with the same name, less than two kilometres apart, the name means Point of the Alder trees), then to cross the loch with the wind at our backs to the north shore and camp there.  The campsite would be exposed to the southerly weather but I knew a place that we could find a sheltered spot - and we'd be in a good position when the wind did swing to the north.

We weren't the only folk to be wild camping on the shore of Loch Torridon that evening; a pair of fishermen had set up their tent on the turf of a sandstone shelf.  The site was very sheltered, but you wouldn't want to be prone to sleep-walking here!

In the late afternoon we reached the outermost point of Loch Torridon and turned our bows to the north.  A steady breeze at our backs made for good speed as we set out.  Away to the west lay the distant silhouette of Skye's Trotternish peninsula.  As we moved out into open water the swell and wind increased and all my imaes of the crossing were spoiled by water splashing onto the camera lens - it was good fun though and we made cracking speed towards our camp.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Keeping it close to home

A change in work schedule has resulted in more regular but shorter spells at home.  With a focus on shorter ventures, three afternoons on three consecutive weekends have been a good reminder that it's not necessary to travel far to get great outdoor days......

August brings the heather into full bloom and transforms the hills.  In this image there are two types, Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) in the foreground and Common Heather or Ling (Calluna Vulgaris) beyond.  Eastern Scotland provides ideal growing conditions for both species and close up they are bright and vibrant. 

On the landscape scale, even on a cloudy day, the hills are a rich purple.  The dominant sound on an afternoon walk around the Correen ridge was the hum of bees working the heather plants - bees from the same hives may visit the flowers in our garden in the valley below these hills.

A calm and sunny day the following weekend gave some really good conditions for sea kayaking on the Moray Firth coast - it's not far from home and all the better for that!  The Bow Fiddle Rock is the outstanding feature of this part of the coast.......

...but there's so much more to explore.  Hidden channels behind cliffs, a ruined castle, picturesque harbours, sandy beaches......

...and more than a few caves and tunnels, lit with luminous light in the summer sunshine.....all in an afternoon's paddling.

A recent find for us are the Tarland Trails, a series of mountain bike trails just outside the Cromar village of Tarland.  Just twenty minutes away by car, the trails are a super facility with a mix of family-friendly and challenging routes through a mixed wood.

We enjoyed the "Puddock" skills area and the Blue (Moderate) rated "Spiky Hedgehog" run - a fast, sweeping singletrack descent with curves, rollers and berms.....

.....which was huge fun!

As much as I love to explore new places, it's so good to be reminded of what's close to home - and I'll never take that for granted.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

From green to gold

In March at the cusp between Winter and Spring here in the north east of Scotland I started to record the change in the fields as the new growth spread across the land in a green wave.  The change was startling; a complete transformation in a few short weeks which goes almost unnoticed until complete.

I've continued to photograph the fields around the house as Spring became Summer - and have been somewhat surprised that the pace of change has hardly slackened.  From the green blush of the last day of April, the fields have seen great change.

By the last week in May the "green wave" had become a vivid emerald, contrasting with the brilliant yellow of gorse on the hills and the blue of a late Spring sky.  May and early June were very warm and relatively dry, ideal growing conditions as the days lengthened towards the summer solstice.  All around the house there was new life as the cattle calved - a busy time for our neighbours who have several herds of beautiful Aberdeen Angus.

By mid July the ears of barley were forming and the spring green had been replaced with a dazzling shade somewhere between green and gold.  In the hayfields a "cut" of grass was already taken, to be baled and stored as fodder and bedding for cattle during the following winter.  During late May to early July there's virtually no darkness here, and growth accelerates in over twenty hours of full daylight.

By early August there's a definite sense that the crops are ripening fast, despite very changeable and cool weather through most of July and into August.  The "park" (field) at the right of this image is planted with potatoes and the plants are now at full height.  Behind the houses the park under grass for hay and silage is covered with lush growth - it'll get another cut before the end of the summer.

The crops temselves are coming on well if a little later than in an average year - the ears of barley approaching fully ripened.  Most of this will go to feed cattle with some of the best going for malting to make whisky.

Oats are cropped later, sometimes not until October and the stems of this crop are still green.  But it's definitely gold and not green which is the predominant colour now.