Saturday, 17 May 2014

Back to the Bothy: May 2014

After the last post's trip to the Peak District, this one goes back to some more characteristic haunts: kayaking the idyllic coastline of Coigach & Assynt...
...scaling the magnificent peaks of Wester Ross & Sutherland...
...and happening across the region's most characteristic wildlife:
This was another 'thinking trip' to the Achiltibuie Salmon Bothy, armed with kayak, walking boots, coffee pot and a whole shelf's worth of history books.

I arrived to find Badentarbet Bay populated with its usual ranks of seabirds, from Dunlin... ringed plover...
...but this time, there was also something else ranked along the shoreline:
Conveniently, the bothy's availability coincided with the Coigach Coastal Skiff Regatta. Coastal Rowing, in beautiful, hand-crafted wooden boats, has taken off in a big way in the northern reaches of the West coast. Skiffs have proved astonishingly successful focal points for communities, to the extent that the 300 people of the Coigach peninsula are able to put out a dozen or so crews (men, women and mixed, from 13-14 year olds to over 50s) in two boats: the Coigach Lass and the Lily Rose. The Regatta this year featured a film from Coigach's artist in residence (Neville Gabie) chronicling, with extraordinary attention to detail in sound as well as vision, the painstaking process of building the Lily Rose. In an urban age of plastic and fibre glass, these lovingly constructed wooden vessels feel perfectly suited to this rugged, isolated seaboard. 

By mid-morning, nine boats lined the beach right in front of the bothy, with all hands on deck to take them down into the breaking waves.

Here's the Coigach Lass (as I still have to keep reminding myself, the 'g' in Coigach is silent) performing for the home crowd on the way to the start line of the over 40s class.

This stately crew was later awarded best-fitted boat:
I stayed for the first couple of races, but decided I should take advantage of the lower winds after midday to get into the sea myself. (I made it back to the regatta for the last few races, and even made a brief appearance at the prize giving and ceilidh in the evening - was great to meet lots of the local rowers). But inspired by Neville Gabie's mystic invocations of the glories of self-propelled travel through the waves, I headed off for the afternoon to Enard Bay and a very small taster of the wonderful kayaking to come. As so often, the landward views were gloomy but glorious...
...while a little more brightness out to sea helped bring out the spring colours of the Coigach cliffs. These were populated by innumerable fulmars and a few black guillemots while the odd seal and a couple of red throated divers patrolled the shores. 

The sea, with an appreciable but perfectly benign roll, was exactly as you'd want it to feel its power but not its threat. The views East took in Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Foinaven, Quinag and, pictured here, Cul Mor.
Maybe it was subliminal messaging, but after gazing up at Cul Mor and watching a handsome skiff of the same name race the bay, I decided to head up that mountain next morning.
Cul Mor is one of the many lumps of old red sandstone that sit atop the primal gneiss of this region. Unlike most Coigach hills, it's high enough to be topped with a gleaming quartzite cap:
This is a stunning mountain for geology. All directions feature vivid glimpses into the history of Scotland's most fabulous perversion, the Moine thrust. But some of the most obvious oddities come at the peak itself. On few other mountains can the stark line between sandstone and quartzite be seen quite so clearly. This represents a dramatic unconformity: the sandstone was laid down by a massive river flowing from the west more than 900 million years ago when Scotland was still attached to Greenland and N America. The quartzite began to form over 380 million years after the formation of sandstone had ceased. That 380m years is a chunk of lost time confined to the infinitesimal seam between these two dramatically different rock types. This picture shows how the sandstone forms into rounded discs and lenses, while the quartzite (shaped by the same forces) make sharp-edged, angular blocks:
The Torridonian sandstone that reveals its character particular clearly on Cul Mor is also the substance of every iconic peak in this region. So here's a series of pictures in which foreground, middleground and background are all made from this exceptionally time-resistant old red sandstone, laid down a billion years ago as sandbanks in a vast Canadian river bed:


I particularly like this view, with a cloud - the vanguard of a low pressure front - making Suilven into a glowering hulk beneath (an hour later, it was pouring down and the winds were up, if windfinder is to be believed, to 65 mph).
But there was a little time for further exploration before that. Just occasionally, Cul Mor's rocks had eyes:
 There are a surprising number of creatures up here. I heard plenty of snowbunting on the cliff faces, and saw a wader I think was a dotterel wheel away in the distance. But Ptarmigan, who'll only fly away if actually pushed, were the ones who stuck around for photos:

Since the first day ended with a picture of Cul Mor, which became the target for day two, here's Loch Sionascaig (for scale, it's 6.1km from the gap into the inlet at the centre of the picture, to the bottom left of the loch), tomorrow's intended mission. The mission isn't weather dependent, but the existence of photos is.  
The next morning did not dawn with sapphire waters and vibrant emerald shores. It rained all day, so here's what to do with a rainy day in Coigach...

The trip to Sionascaig would be a bleak one. I decided to spend the morning working, the afternoon touring the loch and get out to sea if things were any brighter in the evening. I was at the banks of the loch (in the little inlet just above and right of centre in the above picture) by midday. Carrying the boat in from a layby on the 'wee mad road', via Loch Buine More and a small rocky ridge, is by far the most difficult part of the trip, but perhaps this is a good thing. It's amazing to visit a place as magnificent as this with absolute certainty  that you won't see another person, vehicle (or even pylon, fence or footprint) all day. As it happened, much of the loch's magnificence - the fact that it's walled on three sides by stunning mountains - had to be imagined today. I set out from 'boat bay', through the gap that can be seen ahead (below) or top centre (above)...
 ...and made for the central island, Eilean Mor, first. This was largely populated by cuckoos, which provided the soundtrack to most of the trip. This link leads to a nice little film made by Wilderness Scotland that ends with a camp on this island.
The pic above is just in case anyone didn't believe me about the winds up here. For most of this trip the rain was falling too heavily to take photos. But one of the few lulls in the drizzle coincided with the closest encounter with another constant presence on this trip: loons. There were numerous black throated and red throated divers in the bays around Sionascaig. Given how notoriously shy these birds are, they were remarkably unconcerned by a giant bright red kayak drifting into their midst. That said, I think they may have been carefully escorting me away from their nesting site (judging by their animated response when I turned the other way). I let them lead me back out into the centre of the loch. You can tell it's been raining when even the loons are shaking off the water:

Divers are so sleek it's difficult to believe they're covered in feathers.
I got back to the bothy at about 4.30, made myself an early dinner, and was back out on the water by 6.30. It was still raining. But as I reached the Summer Isles, there were yet more loons: here's Stac Pollaidh with Great Northern Diver, followed by, as the cloud began to separate, Stac Pollaidh with seal:

There were three Great Northern Divers, one of which - photographed through rain - was clearly young. These impressive creatures are about a metre long and they make the most haunting flutish sound (which they were performing plenty of this evening). Partly because of that sound, and partly because of their impressive size, Great Northern Divers have a vast folk mythology. In some North American folktales it's a GND that created the world, in others they're messengers between this world and the afterlife. Further north, nearer to their Greenland breeding zones, they're traditionally called 'Storm Bringers' or 'Ember Geese' and their call is said to bring rain. On this side of the Atlantic (and a more mundane level), Arthur Ransome's 1947 story 'Great Northern?' is part of his Swallows and Amazons series: a group of children save some rare breeding GNDs in the Outer Hebrides from the attentions of an egg collector. All this means that it's surely only the albatross that is more mythologised and literatured among sea birds.

The islands feature some great rock formations, from split rocks to huge sea caves:

As I rounded Tanera Beg, headlands were increasingly sunset coloured:
Strangely, there were already guillemot chicks (surely c.2 months too early for chicks this age on the water???):
Rather than heading all the way round the islands I decided to head back the way I'd come so there were no big headlands to block sunset vistas. I got back to the North end of the islands, with views of Suilven, just as flocks of eider and gulls were circling to roost.
 This is a flock of eider passing over Tanera Mor (I was very glad the sea fog between the islands and the Dundonnell coast never made it round this side):
By now, the sunset was well and truly underway:

 This photo hints at just how many islands there are here:

Through the gaps in the islands, Lewis and Harris were now visible:

 This oystercatcher was already roosting, best not disturb:
This just left the issue of negotiating the crossing back to the mainland in the dark... Luckily the lights of Achiltibuie led me home, so no need to even get the compass out.

Low winds were forecast next day, so I decided to venture a real expedition: Handa Island. This is a bird reserve with huge, seabird-infested cliffs on its northern side. It's usually reached by a small ferry (ie 12 person rib) to its gentler southern end. The unfortunate thing about taking the ferry is that visitors are persuaded into following a boardwalk around the island, placed far enough inland to make sure it's very, very safe, but too far inland to actually see most of the island's best attractions. Obviously, by far the most important principle is minimising any disturbance to seabirds; but the boardwalk does feel like a slightly conservative interpretation of that goal. Not that I'm really complaining - it's clear the Handa wardens and volunteers do a great job of making this a spectacular place. It just means this is an island best visited by kayak, where you can skirt the cliffs and beaches, seeing everything they have to offer. The reefs and Atlantic-exposure of the N and W make it a fair-weather prospect, so the plan was to see whether a circumnavigation was plausible, and just to paddle the south if not.

I got up early and loaded the car accompanied by one of the most Assynt-evocative sounds: stonechats.

Driving to Tarbet (N of Scourie) the boat was on the water by 9.30. Winds were stronger than forecast: the north of the island was being battered by a huge swell. So I aimed for the sheltered south. Here the weather was comfortable enough for seals to bask on rocks:
 I made my way towards the beaches that make up a southern peninsula on Handa...
...accompanied by seals and a small flotilla of razorbills:
 After rounding the first headlands there were great views of Foinaven and other Assynt mountains:
I put in, for a bite to eat, to an idyllic little cove a short way up the W coast, the kayak can be seen on the beach, bottom left:
Moments after I dragged the boat ashore a large flock of dunlin and ringed plover wheeled in:

 As always at this time of year, all these birds were in their finest regalia:

Just to show what was going on here, the dunlin seemed fascinated by the back of my boat and showed no fear at all in approaching - I think pulling it up the beach must have made access to the worms they feed on easier:
Only after a while did I realise how many sanderling were scattered among the dunlin. These aren't British breeding birds (although they pass through Britain on the way to their arctic breeding grounds in the spring) - quite what they were still doing here in late May I don't know:

After more food than is socially acceptable at mid-morning, I set off again towards the north of the island (fully aware that I'd probably have to turn back). Things were deceptively serene around the first headland...
...but then the swell began to make its presence felt. This made for a fun paddle: the unbroken swell was easy to negotiate, but whenever there were rocks beneath the surface, huge waves broke on them. Here's what was happening at an underwater reef (the scale can be judged from the fulmars circling round this breaker and the razorbill crossing in front of it - it's many metres tall):
As the tidal flow and wind increased after midday, the sea became an ever-changing tapestry of relative calm and violent surges. It was unpredictable enough for large waves to surprise arctic terns off their rocks, leading to spectacular, screaming flocks overhead:

The terns weren't the only ones beginning to think the breaking swell was a bit much. Like an out-of-shape cyclist going up a steep hill, I decided to get off and walk. From the safety of the cliffs, the full scale of the tidal/swell mess on the north coast could be appreciated.

Very, very glad I hadn't decided to brave it. But the cliffs were covered with seabirds: guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and, on the grassy tops, the Vin Diesel of the seabird world, great skuas.

I didn't stay on the cliffs too long (the afternoon was slowly getting windier) but headed back to the coastline between Scourie and Tarbet to hug the cave-riddled cliffs for the return journey:
 After several days down amidst the waves (with the blisters and stiff arms to show for >50km in the last two days) I felt the need to get up as high as possible for the day. I got up early enough for Suilven to just be clearing of morning fog and morning colour as I passed.
I was aiming for Beinn Eighe, but changed my mind at the last minute and turned towards an even bigger beast, An Teallach (pronounced An Chelak, with the emphasis very firmly on the Chel). After beginning the approach up Glenn Chaorachain from Corrie Hallie, chunks of the huge ridge begin to come into view: everything seen here is part of the same mountain:
 Soon, bits of the most enticing parts of the ridge - the Corrag Buidhe Pinnacles - can be seen through the trees.
 ...and it's not much longer before their context begins to take shape:
After leaving the birch, hazel and alder that line the first corrie on the ascent, and turning off the path that leads to Shenavall bothy (and into the glorious realms of Fisherfield and the Great Wilderness) it's a long slog up quartzite boulderfields to make Sail Liath, the first of An Teallach's dozens of peaks. This is taken from the second of the day's many tops.
The views into the Great Wilderness are usually truly spectacular, but today was so hazy that only the closest mountains could be seen in any detail. The first picture shows the two Beinn Deargs. Beinn Dearg Mor, on the left, is among my favourite Scottish mountains. It's just a few feet too short to be a munro, which means it's rarely visited (with all the benefits in terms of wildness that brings). It's also a nightmare to get to, involving wading through two substantial rivers. You have to be absolutely certain before taking it on that no rain is coming, because the first of these crossings - Abhainn Strath na Sealga - is utterly impossible when in spate: people die attempting it (rather than get stuck on the other side where there isn't a building or road within a day's walk). I almost considered tackling this mountain today, but given what happened later, I'm very glad I didn't.
This picture shows the two rivers that require broaching as well as several classic munros, including Beinn Tarsuin, A'Mhaighdean, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, and (just over Beinn Tarsuinn's shoulder) the vague silhouette of Slioch:

But back to the matter in hand... There's an escape path to avoid the pinnacles if you want to, but that seems like madness: having made the great effort to slog your way up to the highest, airiest place around, why anyone who can handle a little effort with the arms would choose to avoid the most exhilerating section is beyond me (like entering a competition but refusing to accept the prize). This - straight ahead - is the wonderful 'path' over the pinnacles; there's one stretch of graded climb to negotiate, otherwise just fun hands-on scramble:
It truly is a dream for a climber as incompetent and malcoordinated as me. The sandstone provides excellent hand and foot holds all the way, never creating any problems that would make a fall likely. The only complication is the 2,000+ feet of plummet that a slip could lead to. It's this, rather than any inherent difficulty in the climbing, that gives An Teallach one of the highest fatality/climber ratios in Scotland. The left-hand side of this picture, taken from the first pinnacle, shows the view across the next three. Hidden behind is the outcrop known as Lord Berkeley's Seat. Although easier to get up than some parts of the pinnacles, this overhangs the drop into the huge cauldron-like corrie, Coire Toll an Lochain, and is therefore one of the most entertaining parts of the circuit.
Here's another point at which to savour the route ahead and the great sideways plummet into the loch below should gravity get the better of you:
It's never possible to capture dizzying downwards views in photos but here's a vain attempt - leaning over the edge of the last pinnacle (the height difference from lens to loch is c.1,730ft):
After crossing the pinnacles and leaving the peak of Sgurr Fiona, it's possible to look back and survey the imposing ridge you've just negotiated. Lord Berkeley's Seat is on the right:
On the way up I'd passed a group of three who seemed nervy about the prospect of this mountain. They'd decided to avoid the pinnacles, but to take a detour back from Sgurr Fiona, going up the less-steep side of Lord Berkeley's Seat in order to look off the edge. Here they are coming back down - I like the way she seems to be showing him where to put his feet (note the third person clinging to the rock on their left too):
It's at this point that the really classic views of the range open up and you reach the highest point of the mountain, Bidean a Ghlas Thull. You're now 2/3 of the way round and over almost all the tricky stuff, so you can take a deep breath and survey the scene in all its glory. I sat here for a while, read a couple of great John Burnside poems (two sequences, 'Ports' and 'Settlements' from The Asylum Dance) and ate a smoked mackerel.

What happened next was astonishingly odd: a great opportunity to see how the climatic conditions here operate. I was a mile or two into the long descent when the temperature suddenly fell (I almost expected dementors to appear). This cold air didn't seem to be bringing lots of cloud with it, but it had a huge, instantaneous impact on the weather. Suddenly, low clouds began forming everywhere. One moment it was relatively bright, with the same patchwork of sun and cloud that had been around all day. In the space of about 30 seconds, clouds like that in this picture coalesced from the valley floor as if someone was sending smoke signals from the ground:
Two minutes later, I was engulfed by thick cloud from below, so that this was my last view of the mountain:
Five minutes after that, it was raining very, very hard. It was the shift from bright but hazy sunshine to beating rain and near-zero visibility, all in the space of under ten minutes and without any visible weather front arriving, that was so remarkable. I'm really glad I got off the mountain when I did. Navigating up there in thick fog and heavy rain would have been miserable to say the least. If I'd braved Beinn Dearg Mor (which would have taken several hours longer than this trip) the crossing back might well have been close to impossible, even if I hadn't got lost long before I reached the river. The rain that began at about 5 this evening continued through the night and is forecast to dominate tomorrow too. The prospect for tomorrow is therefore writing my talk on the history of archaeology for the Hay Literary Festival next week. Assynt soon began to feel like the scene vividly captured by James Harpur in 'Roscommon Rain' (a poem I tried, but largely failed, to extract from my memory on the cloudbound descent from An Teallach - I really want to make a mountain/coast/river anthology...):

When the rain stopped the rain began
And clattered beads of runny light against the panes
Decreased and crept inside the ghosts of sheep
And seeped inside the warmth of prostrate cows.
Then pelted bogs to syrupy peat
Made gravelly lanes glitter again
Beneath the melting greys of cloud and cloud
Pierced the puddles with a thousand stings
Tumbled silver through the hedges
And off the skinned shin-bones of trees;
Swept, soft again, like a haze of locusts
Across the ridge, then shifted shape in sudden wind
Drifting, finer than chimney smoke,
Like a passing pang of some great loss
Away from where more rain was coming in
From somewhere else beyond the world’s rim
Erasing gradually the misconception
That the world had ever not been rain
And rain would cease before the end of time.

The rain did indeed seem like it would last forever but luckily, after one day buried in books (made more interesting by the appearance of a couple of new book reviews, here and here) there was no need to think of mountains or writing for a while. It was the weekend after all - and when in Birmingham I work 7 days every week (at least, this was my justification for getting less writing done on this trip than I intended, or did on the last one). For the last few days of the trip attention was turned firmly to the sea. I was joined by Llinos, who likes nothing better than being surrounded by seascapes, seals and cetaceans, and is far, far braver than me about where to go in a kayak - if she'd been there we might even have plunged headlong into the Handa maelstrom (that might be exaggerating):
On two windy, rainy days our marine focus involved huge meals of langoustine, mussels and oysters-by-the-dozen in Lochinver or the Summer Isles Hotel. The local speciality - which really is superb - is squat lobsters (a.k.a spinies) best served hot and shell-on with implements that crush and break until the table looks positively medieval. We brought the local scallop diver (this fine fellow) back to the bothy for a few glasses of Talisker one evening and were rewarded with twelve beautiful fat scallops for the next day's lunch. He also introduced us to a great pie shop in Lochinver - I'll raise many a Talisker toast in his honour back in Birmingham. For two days, every meal we ate was an elaborate extravagance from the local sea: all this would have made a joy of a monsoon. 

So it was a couple of days (down, I promise, to weather rather than indigestion) before we could spend any extended time on the sea. Our one attempt - a short trip round Oldany Island - had been so fierce that it took every ounce of effort just to stop the kayak weathercocking into northerly wind and swell: not a day to risk getting the camera out, but a day to enjoy the spectacle of gannets and fulmars playing the breeze. All I really photographed, in the one very sheltered bay of the trip, was some red throated divers:
Soon enough the wind fell away, the skies cleared and we were exploring Assynt's headlands and islands:

It almost felt like summer: the sea so abundant with creatures enjoying unaccustomed warmth that moments with nothing swimming by the boat were few and far between. The main feature was seals:
Particularly at low tide, they were heading up onto...

...and down off...

...any exposed rocks flat enough to occupy.

There were also musically-courting eider ducks in such perfect plumage they looked like the inspiration behind art deco:
The sound, with lots of eider calls echoing around the straits between islands, was much like being accompanied through the trip by an imaginary John Casken clarinet quartet composed for St Mark's antiphonal Cathedral (couldn't help thinking, too, of the eerie sonic seascapes of Maxwell Davies' glorious fifth symphony).
Great Norther Divers, Guillemots, Black Guillemots and Razorbills also made the most of calmer conditions:

This was the last day we had before normality beckoned us back. As usual, the drive down to Birmingham would be like the transition between two worlds. But regret at leaving would be mitigated by plans for the next trip. This will involve at least some time on Harris & Lewis: vast, intricate coastlines and spectacular islands (particularly the Shiants) we've not yet explored. By then it might also be basking shark time...

PS for more on the wonderful Bothy itself, see this post.

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