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.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A ride down the tide on the Sound of Jura

As we moved out from the Gulf of Corryvreckan into the Sound of Jura the tidal stream was increasing and our GPS confirmed that feeling.  Pretty soon we were travelling south at 10 Kph with very little paddling effort.

At the very end of the trip and the end of a lengthy day of paddling, this was a pleasant way to travel!  We headed across towards the mainland side of the Sound, taking transits as we went to make sure we passed to the east of Ruadh Sgeir (Red Skerry), a small island in mid channel which splits the tidal stream.

As we approached, the true speed of the flow became apparent and we were slung around the north of the island at a terrific rate........

....into flat calm water - but even here we were getting a great ride down the tide.  The view down the Sound to the distant Paps of Jura under a huge cloudscape was very fine.

We passed inside Carsaig Island into a lagoon reflecting the blue of the sky and the vivid green of early summer vegetation.

 A familiar yacht was anchored in Carsaig Bay - we'd last met with "Wild Rose" on the west coast of Iona - and she looked just as good in her home bay!

The last few hundred metres into Carsaig seemed to pass quite slowly, we were out of the tidal assistance and we were all tired at the end of a long day. 

David and Maurice were heading home the same due to work commitments while Douglas, Sam and I had intended to stay on the water and paddle a little way south to find a wild camp for the night.  In the event, we elected to join David and Maurice for dinner at the Tayvallich Inn - which we can heartily recommend - we ordered identical meals - fish and chips all round!  From the Inn it was just a few metres to the Tayvallich camp site which we three stayed on for the night.

What a trip it had been!  We paddled 135 Km over four days and camped for three nights on some of the wildest and most remote beaches on Scotland's west coast.

A second trip to Jura in two years just reinforced my view that it's amongst the very best of sea kayaking destinations  - wild scenery, wildlife, remoteness, grandeur and fast tidal streams make for a potent mix.  Colonsay and Oronsay exceeded the very high hopes I had - this was my first visit to both those islands and it most certainly won't be the last.

As ever though, it's the people who really make trips special. To David, Maurice, Sam and Douglas - thank you so much - and Slainte!

Day 1 - Carsaig to Jura, the Jura Portage and West Loch Tarbert

A change of plan sets the wheels in motion across Jura

A Jura salute for a Jura sunset

Day 2 - West Loch Tarbert to Oronsay and the west coast of Colonsay

Snakes alive

Oronsay Priory - a place of peace

Out on the edge - Colonsay's wild west coast

Day 3 - North and east coast of Colonsay and crossing back to Jura

Under a perpetual summer sun

Stocking up at Scalasig

Boules - Hebridean style

The shining sands of Shian

Day 4 - West coast of Jura, Gulf of Corryvreckan and Sound of Jura to Carsaig

The bones of the place

All in the timing at the Gulf of Corryvreckan

A ride down the tide on the Sound of Jura

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

All in the timing at the Gulf of Corryvreckan

As we paddled out from Glengarrisdale towards the north tip of Jura and the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strip of clear sky broke the uniform grey of the cloud cover; and seemed to point the way to the Corryvreckan.

The island of Scarba gradually emerged as we neared the strait, the sky continued to clear and the temperature soared.  Most of us found tiny bays to land in to remove layers of clothing!

The scale of the west coast of Jura is impressive, and certainly this northern section doesn't disappoint - our kayaks were dwarfed by the outcrops of tilted rock layers.

We had timed our arrival at this critical point of our journey to take advantage of the brief period of slack water at the end of the flood, then the start of the east-going ebb.  The previous night's full moon was an obvious reminder that we were right on spring tides, and that such slack as there was would be fleeting.

We reached a point where we could see into the narrow strait and it was immediately obvious that the last of the flood was pushing through from the east and encountering a larger body of water on the seaward side.  A standing wave was breaking almost from shore to shore on an otherwise flat calm stretch of water marked only by the swirls of tidal offshoots.

Neither Maurice or Sam had been here before, and when Maurice saw the rolling wave, his only comment was "Tell me we're not going through that?!".  His apprehension was well-founded, the Corryvreckan is a very active piece of water, and also features one of the world's most violent tidal whirlpools.

We reassured Maurice that the wave would drop away as slack water occurred, and sure enough it slowly split into two sections and dissipated, peeling back to the shore on each side of the strait.  I think Sam was actually a little disappointed that we weren't hammering through at peak flow with huge seas......maybe some other time!

The narrowest part of the channel is less than 2km long, but takes a huge volume of water through on each tide.  We reckoned that the actual slack water was less than five minutes before we began to feel the insistent pull of the ebb drawing us into the narrows.  A few swirls and hydraulic cushions began to appear as the ebb started to establish but in the absence of swell things were very gentle.

Our timing had been good - we drifted through with little drama under a clearing blue sky.  Just before we entered the channel Douglas had stopped at a small bay on the Jura shore where he met some Dutch sea kayakers who'd passed through in the opposite direction at the last part of the flood tide.  Remarkably, they didn't seem to realise where they'd been paddling.....or the state of the tide.

Emerging from the narrowest part of the Gulf, we felt a small breeze at our backs and hoisted our sails.  Just ten or so minutes after slack water, and we were being propelled into the Sound of Jura at 8kph without was what we hoped would be the start of a fast ride down to our finishing point at Carsaig Bay.

Friday, 23 June 2017

The bones of the place

After three days of cloudless blue skies and warm conditions it was a slight surprise to wake to a grey, cool and breezy morning - even though it had been forecast. 

Our plan for the day was to head up the west coast of Jura and position ourselves ready to transit the Gulf of Corryvreckan at slack water.  As slack water wasn't until late afternoon and we only had 23 km to paddle, we had plenty of time in hand.  Unfortunately, on the one morning that we could have lingered over breakfast the weather had other ideas!

We struck camp and packed relatively quickly, dressing much more warmly than we'd done on the journey thus far.  The forecast was for an improvement in the afternoon, but right now it didn't feel much like a late Spring day!

The Jura coast north of Shian Bay is a wild and rugged place.  Landing options aren't that plentiful and there's a lot of crags falling straight to the sea; the bones of the land are laid bare here.  Ahead we could see the dark shape of the island of Scarba; the Gulf of Corryvreckan lies between Jura and Scarba. 

We paddled past a couple of bays, at one headland we were treated to a marvellous view of a Sea Eagle soaring off the cliffs above us.  We stopped for second breakfast at Corpach (place of the dead), so named because it's one of the places where bodies were kept in caves awaiting passage to Oronsay or Iona for interment.  It was quite cold on the beach so we decided to make it a brief stop and to head on to Glengarrisdale where we could utilise the bothy whilst we waited for the flood tide to slacken in the Corryvreckan.

We paddled steadily north from Corpach and after an hour or so arrived in Glengarrisdale Bay, the bothy here is one of the very few buildings on the west of Jura - and none of those that do exist are permanently inhabited.

We carried our boats a good way up the beach because the flood still had three hours to run and, as the previous evening's full moon had reminded us, it was right on Spring tides.

Maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, Glengarrisdale is a gem of a bothy; there often seems to be a correlation between the degree of remoteness and the quality of a bothy.  I had really good memories of the last time we visited, it was good to find the place still in excellent condition.  We had a good two hours to wait before setting out for the Corryvreckan and so lit a fire with the last of our firewood to help dry damp kit while we enjoyed first luncheon in comfort.

One of the alternative names for Glengarrisdale is "MacLean's Skull Bay"; a skull and femurs reputedly belonging to a MacLean slain in a clan skirmish sat in a prominent place on the shore until they disappeared in the 1970's. There may no longer be human bones here, but there are plenty of others.....we called David from the bothy to seek his Veterinary surgeon's opinion.......

.....on these bones,a pair of metre and a half long blades with curious marks and channels on and through them.  David confirmed our amateur guess that they were likely to be the jaw bones of a Minke Whale - unfortunately his professional opinion was that this particular specimen was beyond help!

There were plenty more skulls and bones in an old fish box outside the bothy and we spent a while identifying which species they were - mainly deer and goats.  Some folk may think of a skull collection as macabre, but I just find them interesting from a naturalist's perspective - though I doubt if such a collection would be that welcome at home!

And speaking of macabre, an inventive bothy dweller had modified one of the skulls to make one of the most remarkable candle holders I've yet seen......

......but which, it has to be admitted, has a certain style!  We lit the candle to gauge the effect; on a dark night with just candlelight inside the bothy this centrepiece above the fire would be doubly effective.....

As our two hour stop at the bothy drew to a close we extinguished the fire, cleared and secured the bothy and headed back down to the boats.  It was time to head for the Corryvreckan - a passage with a fearsome all thoughts of skulls and bones were very firmly left behind us.

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.