Thursday 18 February 2016

Red Sky, Eagles & Ember Geese: February on Morvern & Mull

This has been a strange few weeks. I’ve been writing & writing, on so diverse a range of themes that I’m thoroughly confused as to where I’m up to: from a keynote lecture on the history of Egyptology, pieces on animal histories, a chapter on late-nineteenth-century ideas about ‘the soul’, and a project about the concept of time (which takes me to Japan next month), I’ve been juggling projects hour by hour, some more successfully than others.

Amidst that I’ve been putting extra effort into making sure lots of my reading & thinking is done outdoors. So one week I nestled myself between Snowdonia crags, in weather so miserable the camera rarely came out, and spent an evening buried in books and snow:
The next week, in fierce winds, I wandered some glorious old coral reefs in the Peak District, reading 1870s arguments about arcane questions of human nature:
Between these brief jaunts I was seeing the year’s teaching come to fruition, with hundreds of essays to mark. The most challenging questions I set for the 2nd year undergrads (particularly ‘Is historical time Newtonian time?’) produced some astoundingly brilliant results, so work was perpetually pleasurable thanks to interesting people thinking interesting things.

However, while juggling all this (and the actual teaching), I’ve also been thinking about my project of a book about nature, history & travel on the West coasts of Britain & Ireland. Currently called The Frayed Atlantic Edge, this is intended not just as a diverting side project but also to help me change the direction of some of my future research & teaching. The most exciting development this month has been the proposal for that project being submitted: suddenly it feels real. (I was initially intending to explain the project, and ask for advice on it, in this post - something I'll do in the near future - but if anyone does want to know more, please get in touch). With that project in mind, I’m using my usual reading & writing trips to visit places I’ve not been before & places I should know better. This month that meant the Morvern peninsula (a spectacular & strangely underappreciated chunk of the West coast) and, just a 15 minute crossing away, the Isle of Mull.

Given ongoing storms & the likelihood I’d be holed up indoors for much of the trip, I changed my mind about where to stay at the last minute, going for somewhere more luxurious & atmospheric than I’d planned. This was Achleanan farmhouse on the Drimnin estate, set deep in dramatic landscape with views over the sound of Mull & unbroken solitude except for highland cattle, sheep, & an unexpected lama in the next field:
I set off from Birmingham as early as I could bear, in the hope I’d have time to get on the water & kayak past my week’s home before I drove to the door (there was also an evening talk to get to at the Drimnin Village Hall, by a BBC wildlife cameraman, Jim Manthorpe, if I was still awake).

I had the boat on the sea by 3 & was soon finding that Drimnin makes an ideal spot to get on the water. At the head of Morvern, with the sound of Mull to the W and Loch Sunart to the N, it has awesome views of the Ardnamurchan peninsula as well as an abundance of wildlife & history. Here’s the view down the sound, with the chapel of the Drimnin estate on the left…
 …and the view across Loch Sunart:
I’d soon seen a distant sea eagle, as well as, closer up, unusually casual turnstones, oystercatchers, curlews, herons (including one up a 17thC ruin) & a fleeting otter:
Remarkably, many sea birds, such as this tystie at the bottom of Ben Hiant, were already in summer colours:
I stayed on the water until after sunset…
…and landed as the light failed…
…then made my way up the farm tracks to the place I’d be living. Here’s the farm (taken, as the rain cleared, on a later evening): 
The slopes below are places of moss, lichen, birch & willow where wildcats & martens roam among the passerines:
Next day I worked the morning, then began to familiarise myself with the area by driving across Morvern. Passing through the community of Strontian I thought of the historian Jim Hunter’s grandfather’s stories of the clearances. But continuing N I made my slow way to Arisaig for a few hours at sea. Here, the Skye cuillin…
…towers over the string of Small Isles – Eigg, Muck & (in this pic) Rum, site of one of my favourite week's wandering several years ago... 
...while the mainland mountains, such as Sgurr na Ciche, provide a dramatic backdrop to any birds hanging around on the headland.
Arisaig bay contains a host of skerries separated by shallow lagoons. These sheltered waters provide a wildlife extravaganza. All three UK loons – black-throated, red-throated and great northern divers – were here in extraordinary numbers as well as mergansers, various ducks & lots of grey seals. At one point I sat looking across the water as low February sun turned the waves deep blue; just as the light reached perfect intensity, a face, dripping with sea, surfaced from the nearest wave. This was the best view I’ve ever had of the magical rich red eye & thick steely bill of the great northern diver.
The extraordinary aquatic capabilities of this bird – sinuous through surf, elegant afloat & nimble in its long, deep dives – give it the wonderful local name Bun a’ Bhuachaille (the Herdsman of the Tideraces).
This is also the bird known in Norwegian tradition as the Ember Goose – fitting for a bird with these smouldering eyes. (Thanks to Rosalind Maud for making sure I'll never again get a great northern and a black-throated diver mixed up…)

I hung around where a young gannet dived & dived again against the backdrop of the cuillin…
…and then spent a while watching seals & black & red throated divers amongst the lagoons:
Heading S, the changing mountain backdrops never let up. 
But, as the sun set, the view across the islands was the real highlight of the day:
Because I walk/kayak/sleep warm (one reason I love winter) I don’t own anything like a drysuit. Unless conditions are such that I’m likely to roll (when I reluctantly wear a wetsuit), I kayak in wetsuit trousers, a t-shirt & a pair of ordinary light hiking gloves. After sunset in winter, a northerly picking up & wet hands achingly numb, I began to wonder whether I should rethink that strategy until, back at the car, a few minutes with the heater had fingers functioning again. As I drove back, listening to Seamus Heaney read poems from North, two wildcats crossed the single-track road ahead.

Next day was windswept, so I spent it in Achleanan farmhouse, by the woodburning stove, with books and a diet of morning espresso & evening Scottish stouts.
But the forecast showed that a gap in the winds was on its way. The first of two better days looked made for mountains: cold & clear but still moderately windy. The second day promised sunshine & snowshowers with just a gentle north-easterly: unexpected kayak heaven. I decided I’d spend the first night outdoors, so scoured my maps for somewhere I could first walk, then kayak without wasting time by driving in between. Fortunately, Mull is the perfect answer to such needs: it’s one huge magical multigym.

If I parked at Dhiseig on Mull’s Ardmeanach peninsula I’d be in a perfect place to climb Ben More, where I could spend a night high in the snow. Next day I’d be in an ideal spot to kayak out past the islands of Ulva and Little Colonsay towards Staffa, site of Fingal’s Cave. This was partly a test. I’ve never done a full day’s winter kayak straight from a tentless night on a peak. Given the future journeys I have planned, I need to know that the numb fingers from an icy mountain night won’t make hands less resilient to the chill of a wintry sea crossing. 

I caught the 10am ferry from Lochaline & set off up Ben More before lunch…
…conditions were more or less ideal…
…except that, knowing a night in the ice was ahead, I’d have preferred less sting in the wind.

This mountain is an exceptional view point; better, in fact, than I’d anticipated. Across Islay, Jura & Colonsay I could see the Mull of Kintyre to the South. Then, turning anticlockwise was Ben Cruachan, and more peaks leading to the Nevis range, where snow was falling. Continuing to turn, the Kintail mountains, Knoydart and Ben Sgritheall made up a rugged skyline before the Skye Cuillin & the small isles, which were also partially obscured by falling snow:
Then Barra and Berneray, the southern end of the Western Isles, could be made out behind long flat Coll & Tiree. Closer, this peak had views of tomorrow’s kayak: Staffa is the smudge on the far left…
I sat and read as the wind slowly died, making the peak an ever more idyllic place to be...
…but what perfected the evening was the presence of two Sea Eagles which, for over an hour, soared at a distance, first far below, then high above. Travelling slowly as a pair they chattered constantly to each other, occasionally tipping at each other’s wings. These are awful photos (sorry!) but I can’t resist putting them in, for the memory of an atmospheric hour on a mountain, silent but for eagle blether:
Fragments of cloud drifted in as the sun set, adding extra colour to the sky. Here the Paps of Jura are in the distance…
…and here are views NW & NE from my sleeping spot (though I moved 5 feet or so further from the edge when I actually went to sleep). This Mammut Shield sleeping bag is one of my favourite possessions, keeping me warm and dry with none of the encumbrance (or noise) of a tent or bivi bag.
The sunset was great, and I then read history & poetry under the stars for several hours, but the really breathtaking moment came at dawn. A few wisps of cloud were still around as the sun - big, dim & deep red - rose. The view from the sleeping bag was simply awesome... of the finest mountain sights I’ve ever woken up to.

February dawn is still late, and I didn’t want to leave before the show was over. Nor could I hurry the icy descent from the peak (always most treacherous first thing in the morning). To add to this, there was a pair of hen harriers quartering the lower slopes. These are a pleasure to see, given their persecution & endangerment in most of the UK. I can’t watch them now without being reminded of Colin Simms’ obsessively-observed harriers, uncompromisingly written into gloriously unsentimental poetry; whenever I see pine martens, otters or hen harriers it’s Simms’ books, not any kind of field guide, that I urgently feel the need to immerse myself in. The female hen harrier flew close by just as I was taking off my crampons, but by the time I had the camera out was too distant to photograph effectively. Still, there’s much to be said for watching them patrol at a distance, unaffected by your presence:
So I wasn’t early getting down: it was 11 o’clock by the time I was on the water. This put pressure on my Staffa trip: I had to be back at the car by 5 if I was to catch the last ferry from Mull to the mainland. More urgency was added by the latest forecast, which I’d been able to check from the top of the Ben: it predicted gentle north-easterlies until around 2, followed by southerlies rising to 22mph by 5. The idea of battling back through a crossing with lots of southerly exposure in a force 5 (not to mention that it would be under time pressure, in winter, and after a cold night on the mountain) was distinctly unappealing. Not quite certain how far the journey was (20km?) I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d make it – this might just have to be a circuit of Little Colonsay. 

Moments before I set off, I was stood at the car, a few metres from the kayak, when a Sea Eagle flew into view. I grabbed the camera, thinking I might get a distant shot as it veered away once it saw me. Instead, completely oblivious, the eagle came closer & closer until it made to land right next to the kayak. I was still switching the camera on as it realised its mistake & turned, but I was just in time to get a couple of shots, albeit on entirely the wrong settings, as it headed off over the water. Some kind of augury for the trip ahead? (The morning so far had been a bizarre story of amazing birds of prey & incompetent camera fumbling.)
I set out towards the islands, with a patchwork sky of sun, rain & rainbow. There were more loons around, and for the first time I heard an ember goose cackle. They only make their evocative sounds near the breeding season, and they don’t breed in Britain. This is the sound referred to in a jazz standard (‘Wanna cry, wanna croon, wanna laugh like a loon, it’s that Old Devil Moon in your eyes’) and the term ‘loon’ itself is derived from the Old Norse lomr, meaning ‘moaning bird’; in Iceland they’re known as him-brimi: ‘surf roarers’. Within half an hour I had views across the Isle of Ulva (some of its many peninsulas lit up in this photo), as well as Little Colonsay & Staffa, with various Treshnish Isles popping up in the gaps between them:
This is an exceptionally beautiful bit of broken coastline, full of riches like isolated historic blackhouses & (as I heard from some people I met the previous day) bays of scallops for summer picking: I intend to make it back soon. But with skerries & reefs along the way, care had to be taken. Here Staffa peeks over the left of a large unexpected breaker near the islands of Inch Kenneth:
Before long, looking over my shoulder gave me more views back to Ben More…
...and as I edged across Ulva & past Little Colonsay, the weather continued its coquetry. Here’s Little Colonsay:    
There was plenty of wildlife along the way – lots of razorbills & guillemots – but this was a different kind of journey from usual. I didn’t have time to hang around with the camera out. I made one exception, when I saw two razorbills in a scene that also featured Staffa & the Treshnish Isle known as the Dutchman’s Cap. 
Then I paddled on. Soon, Staffa was coming close to its classic summer appearance as an emerald outpost in a sapphire sea.
Conditions were still good as I got close enough to see the strange hexagonal basalt columns that make this island famous. 
But the closer I kayaked the livelier the sea. The swell was increasingly substantial, and the confusion caused by its impact on the island was immense. I needed to keep one hand on the paddle as I took my first glances into Fingal’s Cave:
These basalt columns are what inspired the eighteenth-century poet James Macpherson (he who wrote/collated Ossian poems & who has too readily been dismissed as a 'fraud' by literary history), to give the cave its name. Fingal was intended as a Gaelic rendering of Fionn, the legendary Irish figure said to have built the Giant’s Causeway. (By coincidence I was here for the 220th anniversary of Macpherson’s death on 17 Feb 1796.) After its popularisation, thanks to Joseph Banks, in 1772 this cave became a weird fetish for the 19thC people I write about – every self-respecting artist, poet, musician or monarch had to make it here by any means possible. Here’s Turner’s version…
...and here’s Thomas Moran’s from 1884:
Photos like this…
…do no justice to the movement of this water. For that, I needed to take a pic in the other direction:
 This made it impossible to get near the cave, which requires truly perfect conditions. Its Gaelic name is An Uaimh Bhinn – the melodious cave – because of its unique acoustic properties. I could see inside during brief moments between the driving surf…
…but today was more roar than melody.

With time running out & the wind already veering S, I couldn’t hang around (I wish I'd been able to). The way back was much tougher than the outward journey, and sunset colours were beginning to show by the time I had my last views of the Ross of Mull. The book I’d taken on this kayak trip was A Song Among the Stones by the highland poet Kenneth Steven. These poems evoke, in spare style intended to echo a medieval manuscript, the journeys of 6th century pilgrims setting out from the mainland in search of solitude. With the Isle of Iona in sight, this seemed fitting. Despite the pressures of time I felt it’d be wrong not to stop, bobbing about on the waves, and read. This was the view as I did, Iona the last land on the right:
And there was plenty of wildlife around as the sun set, including the famous Mull otters:
I made my ferry, and by the time I was on board, even the water in the sheltered sound was beginning to bear witness to the coming gales. Timing had been perfect, as the next day – constant gales & heavy rain – confirmed. I sat by the 270 degrees of windows in the farmhouse, wrote my keynote lecture on Egyptology, knocked back more black coffee than is probably advised, and watched the weather sweep the sound. I did manage one more kayak, from Drimnin into Loch Sunart & the island or Oronsay, but the wind & rain made conditions too messy to get the camera out (at least until the sun briefly appeared at the end):
Also during these last two days, I saw the first publicity for two publications I have some writing in:
 These to go with my new (but not very mountaincoastriver) book, out this month:

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