Monday, 21 September 2015

Shieldaig & the Inner Sound: September by the Whale Roads

The last post, from Cairngorm & Spey, explained how the bivi bag is essential equipment in the reading, thinking & writing that’s one aspect of my job - how uninterrupted days & nights on mountains work as a strategy for finding thinking space. (Similar themes have, since then, even been featured in the Times Higher Education supplement.)

Recently, I’ve experimented with a less spartan alternative that permits longer trips, more kayaking & sustained writing. I began by booking the wonderful Achiltibuie salmon bothy for a week at a time (where, in fact, I’ll be at the start of Jan). Made habitable by Peter Muir, this tiny building is the ideal bolt hole: mountains & islands are just outside the door, while within there are all home comforts a stravaiging historian could desire (even down to the heated floor).
This September Llinos & I were kindly given use of a still more luxuriant place in equally spectacular setting: ‘Tilda’s House’ on the shores of Loch Shieldaig, beneath the Torridon mountains. 
We’d have ten days here together, followed by two weeks when I’d be alone to immerse myself in the next historical project. So at the end of August we packed essentials for the month: coffee, whisky & books…
…and drove North with little sense what to expect of our destination. We knew there wasn’t running water except from the burn & so had anticipated – wrongly - somewhere basic. 

After passing Shieldaig and taking the single-track coast road to Applecross, ‘Tilda’s House’ is down a fiendishly steep track surrounded by woods, mainly of downy birch but with scots pine, grey willow, oak & the odd alder, hazel, ash & rowan. During the descent through the trees, a chimney then white-washed walls emerge, before views across Loch Shieldaig to Beinns Alligin, Dearg & Liathach. There’s a bothy of wood for the stove & a rocky launch feet from the door. Without TV/internet/phone coverage, all ingredients were here for blissful productivity. 

Since total isolation might be unwise, I found a couple of remote but excellent wifi-equipped cafés to do occasional admin for the new university term & make sure students-to-be weren’t neglected. These cafés were both astonishingly good: The Bealach was a short drive away (at the foot of Britain’s most mountainous road, Bealach na Ba) while a scenic kayak NW could pass Gille Brighde in Diabaig, a tiny settlement nestled beneath coastal crags: 
Every day would mix slow travel either on foot or by kayak with hours of reading, thinking & - hopefully - writing. One advantage a base like Tilda’s House has over the bivi is potential to really get to know a place: to see landscapes in a host of conditions (like Shieldaig from the desk in cloud…
…and under rainbow)…
...and to discover where sea eagles roost or otters habituate, rather than just catching isolated glimpses. 

Our first kayak from the house showed us what a richly populated world we’d entered. This was a morning of sea mist, sometimes so thick the horizon was nowhere to be seen:
And our view of the barren N coast seemed straight from Hollywood’s repertoire of forlorn, forbidding scenery:
But this was perfect weather for happening upon the loch’s inhabitants. Within minutes of setting out, we’d found the local white-tailed eagle cruising the forest NW of Tilda’s House:
Golden eagles tend to disappear for good when surprised, but these sea eagles are like wagtails: they move 100 yards ahead, let you catch up, then move again. This makes them easier to photograph, even in drizzle: 
Known as Flying Barn Doors, sea eagles are truly enormous, making the herons & buzzards we saw later seem sparrow-like. Here’s a wren of a buzzard flitting between nearby firs & scots pines:
Just under 2 miles from the house, a peninsula known simply as Aird (‘headland’) protrudes into the loch, marking the end of Loch Shieldaig & the beginning of Lower Loch Torridon. Aird is this loch’s greatest asset. Its sheltered side is home to otters: on the first morning, we found one dragging a huge crab from the water, eventually lolloping labrador-like into heather to feed (in the mist, at a distance, the photos were rubbish).
Evening was the best time to see them properly. 
The relationship between otters & kayaks is odd: while they run instantly from humans on foot, they stand their ground or even approach to investigate a kayak. This one sat, raising and lowering its head, as I drifted slowly in its direction:




And when the otter did finally make for the water…
…it didn’t swim away, but approached the boat to establish what this strange intruder was. 
[An edit thanks to James Roddie's blog post on otters:  

The Small Giant
The otter is ninety percent water
Ten percent God.
This is a mastery
We have not fathomed in a million years.
I saw one once, off the teeth of western Scotland,
Playing games with the Atlantic - 
Three feet of gymnastic
Taking on an ocean
                                Kenneth C. Steven]

 There were at least three otters at this spot; that large dog otter was by far the most curious. Their haunt was picturesque to pass at sunset…
I wished I’d brought my copy of Colin Simms’ wonderful Otters & Martens with me (Simms writes uncompromising modernist poetry rooted in his scientific expertise as a naturalist - niche on two counts, but deeply rewarding if you’re willing to conform to both niches – I suspect he’ll be noticed more by posterity than he is today). 

These otters & the view are just small parts of Aird’s appeal. As this mountain-top perspective shows, the peninsula makes a bottle-neck in the loch, forcing fish together as they ride tides in & out:
And where fish are concentrated so too are their predators. This was the best spot for seeing porpoises, but on our first fog-bound visit, one of our best-ever kayak moments took place.
Llinos & I had paddled round Aird & stopped, looking out onto a bleak rocky scene. By strange coincidence, I commented that these still, dank conditions were like those on Lewis when I’d had my first close dolphin encounter. Moments later we saw distant splashes: dolphins passing up the coast. It took us a while to realise they were heading straight for us. Sat in the middle of the loch at its narrowest point we soon had around 40 dolphins splashing all round:
Some investigated the boat, some headed straight into Loch Shieldaig, others followed the coastline S instead. What was most spectacular wasn’t the incredible speed & agility of these big creatures…
…but that the really tiny dolphins seemed effortlessly able to sustain the frantic pace.
These were several astonishingly noisy minutes.

And that wasn’t the end of the encounter. The dolphins were making a circuit of the loch we’d paddle back along, so over the next half hour they were constantly in view. As we made our slow way back, the sea eagle was still around, making this brief morning paddle (just 2 convoluted miles each way) a ridiculously intense wildlife experience.

Mist & drizzle deserve far more praise than they get.

On later days, we paddled further in the same direction. This coastline is the N boundary of the Applecross peninsula. When the coast veers S the loch opens into the glorious Inner Sound where the islands of Raasay & Rona form a ridge up the deep, wide channel between Skye & the mainland. This map shows Shieldaig on the right, including the bottleneck at Aird (W of Shieldaig), the Applecross peninsula and the islands in the Inner Sound:
And here’s Rona, from the sound at sunset. This had been an intensely gloomy evening paddling out into an ink-black sea, before sudden sunbursts lit the scene:
The houses in the background are Staffin, NE Skye.
In these waters (at 265m probably the deepest sea we’ve kayaked) a few subaqueous ridges provide shallow feeding grounds for gannets, whales & basking sharks. We never saw the latter here, but did manage to get shots of one of the most unlikely birds I’ve photographed – a young long-tailed skua:
 These birds breed in arctic tundra, their main diet lemmings, before migrating to various parts of the Southern hemisphere. The pale-morph adults, with black-brown caps, grey bodies & huge tail streamers, are quite something (though I’ve never seen one & probably never will). In W Europe the Long-Tailed Skua is a scarce passage migrant. This one was chasing common terns, both birds racing through a balletic but relentess pursuit, their elegance distracting from the fact the skua is forcing the tern to vomit its latest meal.

Many less dramatic seabirds populate the area and, beyond the breeding season, they’re less skittish than usual. Here’s a turnstone:
At the other end of the Inner Sound, we explored small islands, including the Crowlins, which give glorious views across Wester Ross & support hundreds of seals:
After kayaking on three sides of the Applecross peninsula we had to drive the inland edge, heading through cloud up the mountain pass until we could look across a thick white blanket to the Skye cuillin:
That evening, back at Tilda’s House, we read the Hvalsalen chapter in Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines – a beautiful account of preservation work in the whale room at Bergen museum - our already-pressing desire to see more cetaceans pressed harder. 

Settling in, I’d found myself a spot to work. This window (the kitchen) looks out onto sea, hills & Shieldaig village a mile away. Porpoises, seals & black throated divers sometimes passed slowly by as I sat with books & coffee. 
My reading for this trip relates to my next book, about new conceptions of the human condition between 1870 & 1914, including the increasingly widespread belief at the time that human nature was actually changing (anathema to many previous thinkers). The project features lots about death (and what was thought to survive death), lots about perceived relationships between distant past & distant future, about physics & biology, democracy & religion, about perceptions of the natural world, and British readers of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx & Freud. As well as bringing books, I’d collected a database of relevant nineteenth-century periodical articles: thousands of digitised texts to work through, making it plausible to do research in ways & places impossible a decade ago. I’d been stuck on this book project for a while. It was first planned as a book about ways of conceptualising death, which would’ve made a text I might like to read, but not one I was actually excited about writing. So the purpose of this trip was to formulate not just a book I might write, but THE book I really wanted to. (I was pleased while here to see the first book still getting new reviews).

Before arriving in Scotland I’d been to a three-day event in Leeds where excellent papers by Catherine Charlwood, Trish Ferguson, Jonathan Memel & Roger Ebbatson made me realise that one individual I hadn’t been considering – Thomas Hardy – had enormously significant things to say about my themes. Much of September would therefore be a crash course in Hardy. Intensive reading around a narrowly defined topic is exactly what works best for a trip like this, and Hardy – obsessed with the relationships between landscapes, buildings & the people who live & work them – was especially appropriate. Like combinations of literature/geography from previous trips, Hardy/Shieldaig will be a link that sticks with me forever. 

Clouds clung resolutely to the hills for much of the first week in Shieldaig. In time off the sea I made a few quick mountain forays, including an afternoon in-and-out of mist on Bheinn Eighe. As often happens, soon after I sat in the mist with a book, a gang of Ptarmigan clattered onto nearby boulders:
I also got up several S Torridon peaks where rain, wind & cloud accompanied me through cascade-cut woods onto airy ridges:
After a few wonderful days Llinos & I set out at 4am for her flight from Inverness. This would bring a shift of gear for me, from holidayish relaxation to increased isolation & bookish focus. But a 4 o’clock start also made possible an extremely long day. By 9am I’d paddled out from Skye, across the SW Inner Sound to the island of Raasay, taking a nerve-wracking route across the path of huge ferries…
…but with wind turning Southerly (and stronger than forecast) I decided I didn’t fancy the long battle with a headwind that kayaking back down this 14 mile long island would entail. The southerly wind opened up another, ridiculously enticing, possibility.

Ever since a visit to Skye as a student with Matt Trustram, Luke Taylor & Matt Pritchard (who, years later, would be my best man & ushers) the northernmost point of Skye, Rubha Hunish, has been one of my favourite places in the world. After a couple of mountain nights with the most horrendous midges I’ve known & a tent-flooding storm in Loch Coruisk, we’d headed aimlessly N & somehow found ourselves camped on the sea-encircled promontory of Rubha Hunish. This is a small grassy finger poked into the ocean at the bottom of the clenched fist of cliffs that ring N Skye:
(Rubha Hunish is on the left – the cliffs drop from the marked 114m to a max height of 38 on the peninsula itself, which then slopes gently into the sea).

At the NW extremity of the Inner Sound, Rubha Hunish was the first place I ever saw a Basking Shark. Matt, Matt, Luke & I sat in perfect sunshine and watched Minke Whales feed while bands of cloud passed over the western isles. Multiple weather systems swept the vast area in our view as we relaxed – midge-free for the first time in days – apparently immune from cloud & rain.

Rubha Hunish is heavily tidal. It appeals to Basking Sharks & whales because the tides of Skye crash together here, forcing nutrients into a concentrated spot. The prevailing westerlies build huge swells that assault the headland, while wind with a northerly component intensifies and complicates that swell until the water becomes a boat breaking, paddle-snapping conflagration.

Although I’d day-dreamed of kayaking Rubha Hunish, I’d never considered it a realistic possibility. But here I was: on Skye, with a weakish Southerly blowing. This most exposed headland might actually be one of the few places protected from the weather: I had to try.
The wind at Port Gobhlaig (the hint-of-a-settlement SE of Rubha Hunish) was veering between Easterlies & Southerlies. Under Easterly influence the water was agitated, but swell was mostly small. I decided to brave it, timing my journey so I’d be at Rubha Hunish at the slack water around High Tide. This is no guarantee of a still sea (my favourite place to paddle in Wales has its worst tidal runs around high water slack) but offered the best chance of (relative) safety.  

I set out in seas I wasn’t quite sure of, under broken cloud & shifting breezes & was soon looking up at weather-beaten cliffs: 
As I passed Trodday Island I began to see my first Minke Whales, their long backs arching over the waves until their tiny fin (surprisingly close to their tail) traversed the black arc & rolled back into the depths. A whale performs this roll one, two or three times in quick succession, each individual appearance taking 2-3 seconds. This sequence provides enough air to dive for anything from 5-15 minutes. I’d guess 4, possibly 5, whales were feeding here during my kayak. The first time a Minke surfaces a photograph is almost impossible. It’s then a case of guessing where the next appearance – if there is one – will be & being ready. 

My closest encounter was lucky in several senses. Paddling through the largest swell of the trip (and therefore hardest work) I heard a noise behind me. Dropping the paddle I peered over my shoulder to see a fin disappear 8-10m from the boat. Wonderful though this was, it wasn’t wholly cause for celebration – given Minke Whales’ habits, its next ascension seemed horribly likely to be under my kayak. I’d no conception of whether Minkes have desire or ability to evade human-sized objects on the surface (was this, like the basking shark that unsettled Norman Maccaig’s mind & rowing boat, a ‘roomsized monster with a matchbox brain’?). But seconds later, that magical long back & its elegant fin rolled by again, three metres or so to my right. Spine-chilling for more than one reason:
Another great moment also occurred in this messy water. I was on the crest of one roll when a whale appeared a few metres away. The swell passed across it so that for a fraction of a second I could see the Minke inside the wave – the water like the glass of a museum display case. Seeing the beast side on like this - its eye & long throat pleats clearly visible - was the best whale view I’ve ever had (I was surprised by how brown it seemed).

I soon had an indication of how unusual my kayak was on this coast as a pair of sea eagles flew out from the cliffs to investigate, circling above (hard to photograph into the sun while rocking on waves) until they’d well-and-truly taken my measure: 
Landing at Rubha Hunish I could afford an hour’s break before the ebb tide picked up to help me round the NW corner. 

The wind had stabilised as an extremely gentle southerly while the tide slowed, the swell flattened & the cloud dispersed: to my surprise I was less in need of a lifeboat crew than of suntan lotion. I got my book out, but failed to get any reading done. The whales continued to appear…
…the western isles became ever clearer against the horizon…
…and I couldn’t resist a clamber up the cliffs for a photo showing the lie of the land. Here’s that finger from its knuckle-like ridge:
Given the increasingly benign conditions, I hung around longer than intended – with the area entirely to myself but for a few hardy sheep…
…so that the sun was climbing down the sky by the time I got back amongst the whales. 
Even with the tide ebbing fast it felt entirely improbable that this area could ever be threatening.
The Shiant Isles (here with seal silhouette) stood out on the skyline…
…as did some enticing skerries to the NW (Fladda-chuain)…
The paddle down NW Skye offered unusual views of landscape & settlement including the diminutive Duntulm Castle:
I’d brought shoes to get back to the car (will I ever have the gall to hitchhike in kayak gear?) and by the time I’d driven back after a very late meal in Broadford, I’d been out from 4am to midnight.

This ridiculous habit persisted for days. On average, I rose at 5 in order to catch the best of the mornings from sea or mountain top, the fireworks of dawn at their height around 6.45. The best dawn photos were from a jaunt when Ben (a bicycle-conjoined historian & a colleague till he escaped over the border to Glasgow) made a brief visit. Within a couple of minutes of the first hints of sun, skies turned from salmon pink…
…to blue-grey & rich gold:
After such morning ventures I’d usually be back in time to read & write in coffee shops, particularly The Bealach, by early afternoon, and would take the kayak out in the evening. In this way, I had breakfast on Beinn Damh...
...with views to the pointed prow of Sgurr Ruadh (the sharpest of the peaks right of centre):
On another morning I wandered along the majestic boulder-scape of Coire Lair...
…up Sgurr Ruadh itself: cloud below…
…cloud above, and scraps of views towards the Inner Sound.
In similar style, Ben & I were back by lunch from a traverse of Beinn Alligin. Alligin is famous for its huge bowl-like glen, reputedly among the last places in Scotland to harbour wolves, and its series of ‘Horns’…
…sandstone stacks to scramble over with golden-eagle eyries on their sheer northern side.

One thing I’d relished about this trip was the chance to get up hills I’d seen from distance & coveted the climbing of. But such are the riches of this area that every hill climbed just brought new aspirations. For instance, from the Horns of Alligin the exceedingly remote ridge of Baosbheinn, which had never caught my fancy before, set me dreaming of future bivis:
But if Rubha Hunish had been the fulfilment of one lasting ambition, there was another long-term target to address: Beinn Dearg.

Beinn Dearg is a paradox. It’s obscure but notorious, one of Scotland’s finest mountains, but one of the least trodden. Like so many great hills - such as Beinn Dearg Mor in Fisherfield, or Foinaven in Assynt - it benefits/suffers from being more formidable than many Munros but a few cm too small to qualify as one: it’s ignored by most of those engaged in the Munro-bagging round so hasn't developed even rudimentary paths. It’s visible and impressive from the classic Torridon peaks, so every time I’ve climbed something nearby I’ve looked out for people on Beinn Dearg. Never have I seen anyone. Here’s the hill from Beinn Alligin:
And that’s the side you’re supposed to climb up.

Beinn Dearg is notorious because, craggy and forbidding, there isn’t really a way up. The least steep ridges are to the E, but then a mass of treacherous rock, known as either ‘The Enemy’ or ‘The Castle’, bars the route to the summit. Climbing to the west instead, The Enemy doesn’t block the ascent, but the route is phenomenally steep & broken by crags. The description of the mountain in Walking in Torridon contains phrases like ‘unrelenting ferocity’ & passages like this: 

'grass and scree slopes…lead through serrated rows of rock precipices…as one struggles upwards. If you manage to negotiate these and can reach the narrow and somewhat complicated crest of the ridge it will lead you directly to the summit, but it requires some clambering and some nerve. Note that a descent…is far more hazardous because of the rows of rock cliffs which are far easier to see (and thus to avoid) going up than when attempting to come down'.   

There are some good reports of tackling this mountain here & here.  

I’d – for reasons I can’t reconstruct – attempted Beinn Dearg in snow, on my birthday (late December) a few years ago as part of a beautiful few nights in the bivi bag: a mountaincoastriver birthday treat. On that trip I climbed Beinn Eighe from the N, spending a sublime, starry but bitterly cold night at the bottom of the triple buttress:
Beinn Dearg is on the left of this early-afternoon view from that spot:
During that visit I attempted Dearg’s East ridge, which stretches out towards Beinn Eighe’s western-most limb, Sail Mhor. Although I was soundly defeated by snow that slid over steep heather (against which my crampons were useless) I’d had another exceptional night on a shoulder looking out to Liathach, with a golden eagle for company as the sun came up:
Determined not to be rebuffed again, and without winter conditions to contend with, I set off through the heather & scabious of Coire Mhic Nobaill (which provides passage behind the mass of Liathach) and made for the Beinn. 
I thought I’d decided to take the NW ascent, but (as so often) at the key moment my feet set off in the other direction without appearing to ask my brain’s permission. I found myself to the SE of Beinn Dearg, looking up at the mountain & picking a gully to clamber through: 
I dragged myself up a tumbling burn, populated by frogs, lizards & midges: extremely hard work, but almost idyllic. It didn’t take long to hit the lowest of the ridges, which – green in some lights, golden in others – felt like September epitomised:
A few minutes after that, I was confronting ‘The Enemy’ (left): 
This was less troublesome than I’d expected, though it must be tougher in bad conditions. Views from The Enemy’s scalp show off Liathach & Beinn Eighe to great effect: 
Although there’s no complex scrambling, The Enemy does require a head for heights: plunging vistas are, after all, the great attraction of so steep a mountain. Here’s the southern view – that river 800m below:
And here’s some Beinn Dearg lichen in front of Liathach’s grandest corrie (as I tried not to lean to my right):
The ridge then meanders up & down...
...with more straightforward scrambling, before views open up to the W. Alligin’s horns loom in front of the Inner Sound & Skye, and Tilda’s House is down on the left:
This N side of the horns is where eagles roost, but no sightings today; still, I think I was more likely to see a golden eagle than a person.

As you work your way along the twisting ridge, there are views into the N corries of Beinn Eighe...
...and you can look back on The Enemy, dwarfed by the northern pinnacles of Liathach:
The route skirts more ridiculous plummets…
…and a vast expanse of NW Scotland can be surveyed, including Isle Ewe & the distant Summer Isles…
…and the many fine hills of Fisherfield:
I spent a couple of hours at the summit, by turns gazing across the mountains & reading Barry Bullen on Hardy’s post-Darwinian vision of nature/humanity (until the Torridonian bog below began to morph into Egdon Heath).

Then it was time to career off the edge, seeking out green chimneys between the crags & precipices. Alligin, Skye & the western isles dominate the descent: 
On previous days, even when I’d paddled miles in the morning & climbed Munros in the afternoon, I’d read into the night. Today I was totally wiped out: Beinn Dearg hadn’t been the mega-challenge I expected, but I didn’t realise till later how much more concentration it demanded than most Scottish summer routes.

On the way back to Tilda’s House something odd happened that accentuated the charmed feel of the day. I popped into Torridon Stores, just as it closed, and spotted a solitary miniature of Rosebank on the shelf. With its light, aromatic, almost-Turkish-delight-ish style, this used to be my favourite non-phenolic whisky, but distilling stopped in 1993 & the stills were dismantled for good in 2002. Since then, Rosebank has been scarce & increasingly expensive: it had been at least five years since I tasted any. A 1991 Rosebank, bottled in 2008, was selling here for £5. Found on any other day, I’d have saved this for when I’ve forgotten the taste of Rosebank entirely, but this improbable bottle seemed to belong to the moment: the Beinn Dearg/Rosebank day. Perhaps that’s what put me, contentedly, to a very early sleep. 

Work-wise, this stay couldn’t have been better. I now have a book title, chapter themes, a finished preface, the first 2,000 words of my introduction & the bones of the proposal I’ll send to press: The Battle for Britain’s Soul: Remaking Human Nature, 1870-1914. This is undoubtedly more than I’d have without this September mind-clearing exercise. I’ll now throw myself into the rewarding tasks of a term’s teaching, knowing I have a plan to take back up when I next get among the sea-beasts & sgurrs…

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