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We enjoyed a relaxed evening on the shore of Loch Shiel, talking late into a clear evening.  There was a cover of high cloud when we emerged from the tents which merged into mist towards the head of the loch.





Breakfasts of various types were prepared, tents taken down and boats repacked.  We were in no particular hurry but soon enough were getting back on the water.





Not far from our camp site the loch narrows and takes a twist; the water is here between the moraines of the glacier which carved out Loch Shiel.  The shoreline on the north side is used as rough grazing for sheep and cattle, the south shore is quite rocky and forested with spruce.  Gorse was in full bloom, making for a colourful backdrop





As we passed through the narrow twist of the loch a view opened up to Eilean Fhianain (St Finan's Isle).  We wouldn't dream of doing a trip on Loch Shiel and not visiting this fascinating island, so full of interest and history.  You'll notice that in this image it appears greener than the surrounding hills - seen with the eye this is even more marked and the island is a green jewel among the highland scenery.






We landed on a narrow strip of shingle near to the pier on the island to spend some time exploring.  If landing here, it's worth knowing that this little strip of shingle drops very steeply into deeper water really close to the shoreline and can make for an awkward landing if the water level is low.  There's something quite pleasing about the colourful sight of a group of kayaks on a beach!






We left our sails rigged as the breeze was both light and onshore.  All of our small flotilla were rigged with Flat Earth sea kayak sails made in Australia, and we noticed that there was almost a full range of Mick MacRobb's production designs, two versions of the Code Zero, a Tradewind .80, a Footloose .80 and an early prototype sail are all represented in this image.  If you haven't yet tried sea kayak sailing, we can all vouch for how much fun there is to be had!





Our boats weren't the only splashes of colour on the shore of St Finan's Isle - the bright yellow stars of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) flowers studded the grassy shore......





.....while the whole of the steep west slope of the island was carpeted in a mist of Common Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which were just coming into full bloom - a wonderful sight. 
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Passing Glen Aladale gives a very fine view up the glen, which is in the heart of some really rugged mountain country.  On our late winter trip in 2015 Douglas, Mike and I had camped on the shore here - a cold experience. 







We crossed over to the south shore of the loch to explore Eilean Mhich Dhomhnuill Dhuibh (islands of Black MacDonald), tiny rocky islands with more interest than we'd previously thought.





Our pace slowed quite a bit as the late afternoon wore on, we'd had early starts and conditions were now quite warm and still, we didn't feel the need to rush anywhere - and our planned camp was just a few kilometres further on.





The low sun threw the view ahead into a series of silhouettes, there was something of the Japanese painting about the low hills receding into softer focus.





Before long we arrived at our camp, a place we've used before.  A shingle beach with level ground behind, sheltered from most weather by woodland - it has a lot to offer....but will be hideously midgey in the summer months.  No such problems at this time of the year though!





A small breeze got up to assist the last short distance to the beach.....





...Our boats were soon drawn up on the shingle.......





.....and camp was being established on the grassy bank above the beach.  Tents up and kit carried up in the ubiquitous blue travelling luggage favoured by sea kayakers (Indispensable Kayak Expedition Accessory bags), we turned our attention to gathering firewood for the evening.





Lorna meanwhile got the stoves going to heat up a real treat; home-made Venison Casserole and potatoes - there really is no reason we can think of not to eat well on trips such as this; we think of good food as an essential part of the trip.





As dinner was cooking, the fire was lit, which Douglas achieved with a single match and no artificial firelighting aids.





A cheery blaze was soon underway which would be well established by the time we'd eaten our main course and which would warm us through the evening as we enjoyed being in this place. We were delighted that Tony was able to join us during the evening having driven from Glasgow after work and paddled up from Acharacle to arrive just before sunset.  He was in good time for a dessert of poached pears in brandy with clotted cream, accompanied by a dram from a choice of fine distilleries.  I don't think any of us would have swapped this for dinner in a fancy restaurant....life seemed particularly agreeable!
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We left "Mica Beach" and continued down Loch Shiel, the lightest of breezes filling our sails.





Spring seemed to be developing almost by the hour; fresh green leaves opening on the trees and birdsong floating across the water.







Although the mountains begin to fall back farther down the loch, the scenery certainly doesn't fall away; the western shore is an array of rugged rocky bosses above natural woodlands.






The wildlife tour boat "Sileas" passed us on her return to Glenfinnan, looking very spruce. We last saw her on our winter trip in 2015 when she was being prepared for her annual surveys.  Built in 1940, she's still in very good condition!  We would meet one of the people who'd been a passenger on Sileas two days later, she was thrilled to have got close views of a Sea Eagle from the deck of the boat.  If you're not a canoeist or kayaker, a trip on Sileas would be a great way to see Loch Shiel.






As we continued our own Loch Shiel cruise, the views just kept coming.  Our pace slowed a little as the afternoon became warmer. It was a good idea to look behind us every now and again.........





.....because the views were pretty special in that direction too!
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By the time we'd paddled about half way down Loch Shiel and the mountains had begun to recede on either side, the wind had dropped to a very light breeze.  It was still an assistance though and we would eventually cover the length of the loch at an average 7km/h despite taking plenty of time to dawdle and enjoy the situation.





Second luncheon was on the horizon and we pulled over to the west side of the loch to land at a beach we've passed previously but not landed on.  Stark when we saw it in winter conditions, it seemed a lot more welcoming with fresh green spring leaves opening and birdsong echoing across the hillside.





The glacial nature of the landscape is obvious in the ice-polished rock on the shore.  The geology in this area is quite complex, this looks to be a metamorphic rock type.  Among the pebbles on the beach we found some pieces of mica which were incredibly bright - almost mirror-like in their shine.  We'll know this place as Mica Beach on future trips.






The view back up Loch Shiel was very fine, bright blue water framed by steep hillsides clothed in green and backed by a mountain skyline.





Closer to hand, the spring flowers were in evidence on a grassy bank above the beach, the beautiful flowers of Wood Anenome (Anenome nemorsa) studded the undergrowth; a welcome sight.





Another welcome sight was a small libation of Caol Ila malt whisky, dispensed from Douglas' flask - for we had something to celebrate.....





.....the first day on the water for Douglas' new P & H Cetus MV kayak.  As we were marking h=the vent on fresh water, we would of course have to hold another launch ceremony when "Sula" first felt salt water!
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The head of Loch Shiel is among rugged mountains which enclose Glenfinnan and line both sides of the loch.  You get a feeling of being in a fjiord, and this is exactly what the loch was, a glacial trench carved out by ice which originally connected to the sea at Loch Moidart.  The uplifting of the land of the western seaboard of Scotland following glacial melt (isostatic rebound) has raised the outflow of Loch Shiel by some 5 metres capturing the water and it's now a freshwater loch.





Paddling away from Glenfinan, the mountains get more impressive; tough and rocky hills with bvious signs of ice scouring and plucking.  None of the hills on either side of the loch top the magical 3000 ft/914 m contour which would confer Munro status - though there are some very fine Corbetts (hills between 2500 and 300ft).  The result is that these tend to be much less frequented than other hills - and are further defended by difficulty of access.  Until quite recently there were no roads on either side of the loch but there's now a forest track on the east shore for timber extraction.





After a few kilometres of paddling we pulled around a corner to an idyllic beach of pale sand sheltered in a small bay.  We have used this beach each time we've paddled the loch; for second breakfasts and for the inevitable readjustment of packing to trim the kayaks at the start of a trip.  Douglas also took the opportunity to adjust the rigging on Lorna's sail.





This beach is a very popular camp site for open canoeists - and there were a supply of logs laid up under a carved tree stump with a prepared fire ring - which was at least off the grass and in a place where higher loch levels would wash it away.  While this beach is probably a couple of hours paddling for an open canoe and therefore a logical first camp on a journey, the camp site we planned was some 18 kilometres further down the loch so we didn't linger long after lunch.....





...and were soon on our way again with a light breeze behind us and the sun warm on our faces.





Ahead, the length of Loch Shiel beckoned - and once again we subconsciously moved out into the middle of the loch to align with the convergence point in the far distance, something which has happened on each occasion we've paddled here.





With the sun beaming down on us and the fresh green of new leaves beginning to open in the woods on the west shore, it really felt that Spring had arrived.
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In the week leading up to Easter, Allan, Lorna, Douglas and I rendezvoused at Glenfinnan by the head of Loch Shiel.  Under a pale blue sky there was warm sunshine....unremarkable enough except that for the previous two weeks Scotland had been under bitterly cold easterly airflows with low single digit Celsius temperatures.  A change in the source of the airstream across the country had been well forecast - but none of us really believed it until we stepped from our vehicles into 20 C sunshine!





We planned a journey down Loch Shiel to the sea, then along the Moidart coast.  It's a journey we've done previously a couple of times but Allan had missed out due to illness - all the more reason to do it again!  Our last journey down the long length of freshwater Loch Shiel had been in October 2016 when Douglas, Lorna and I had enjoyed a superb display of autumn colours.  On that occasion we'd rustled through the fallen leaves and "conkers" of a big Horse Chestnut tree to get to the launch, on this occasion the leaves of the same tree were just opening - the wheel of the seasons turning.

We ran two of our vehicles to our expected finishing point and had arranged to park one at the Glenfinnan House hotel for a very reasonable parking charge.  If you do this trip - please make sure to check in advance as we did that there will be space to leave a car; the available spaces are restricted and hotel guests will obviously have priority.  The hotel staff told us of a group of Open Canoeists who had arrived without warning, half filled the car park then returned and left without paying - on a holiday weekend when the hotel was full to capacity.





We were soon on the water in a light breeze which gave Allan and Lorna a chance to accustom themselves to sea kayak sailing - for Lorna this was the first time and Douglas had in fact fitted her boat for a sail in the car park immediately before we got on the water!





The pal ochre colours on the hills behind Glenfinnan were definitely still those of early Spring, but the temperatures spoke of summer - it was so good to be back out on the water.





At the head of the loch you can see the two main attractions of Glenfinnan; the railway viaduct and the memorial to the ill-fated 1745 Jacobite rebellion.  The monument used to be the main draw for visitors to Glenfinnan, with the railway viaduct of interest mainly to enthusiasts of railways and concrete construction; it was completed in 1898 of the then new-fangled wonder material by Robert McAlpine who earned the nickname "Concrete Bob".

All this changed with the appearance of a certain Boy Wizard.  The second and third Harry Potter films featured Glenfinnan viaduct and the "Jacobite" steam train as it took Harry and friends to and from Hogwarts.  The explosion in tourism which followed has been nothing short of remarkable.  Traffic congestion is now a daily event and despite a second car park being constructed to accommodate visitors, both are invariably full with cars parked in all sorts of "interesting" places. 





But the Harry Potter lookalikes and the sound of the traffic were left behind as soon as we headed out into Loch Shiel.  Fresh water under our hulls, miles of empty country ahead of us and the sun beaming down....we were off on our own adventures again!
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A catch up post from late March, when a run of bitterly cold northwesterly winds was established over the north east of Scotland.  Allan and I looked for a half day hillwalk which could accommodate the weather - we didn't intend to walk against a freezing 50mph gale!




We chose the Mona Gowan ridge as we'd be able to use two cars and make a linear walk with the wind at our backs.  It's a hill I've climbed previously and enjoyed; this would be a different route for me.  At 749m/2457ft, Mona Gowan itself is a Graham and there are a couple of other smaller summits along the ridge.





From the west there are a couple of logical starting points, one on the summit of the old military road (now the A939, but don't expect a "proper" main road!)connecting Donside with Gairnshiel.  A long layby on the east side of the road has some granite steps which lead up to a scratch  of path climbing to the summit of Scraulac. 

The other good starting point from this side of the hill is further along the A939 at Glen Fenzie from where one can take a slightly longer route to Scraulac with a bit more ascent .  This starting point could also be used to make a circuit from the south....there's a good circuit from the north too; chacon a son gout!

We were glad of the hill's relative lack of height as the wind was both strong and chilling with a cloudbase just a hundred or so metres overhead.  We put our backs to the wind and plodded on up to the ridge.





The weather forecast had indicated the passage of a cold front during the day.  We thought we might mange to complete our walk before this crossed the area, but it seemed that we'd be right in the firing line as ominous grey sheets of  rain built to the west.





The summit of Scraulac came easily enough and we remained just below the scudding cloudbase.  I think this name translates as "scree place", and there's certainly some marble type scree here which is relatively uncommon in the granite dominated local rocks.  An estate boundary marker adjoins the cairn - I think it marks the boundary between Candacraig and Invercauld estates.





The walk from Scraulac to the next bump on the ridge, Craignagour Hill, gives great going on clipped heather - it's the type of terrain found on many areas of high ground in the area and can allow really long distances to be reeled off. There's a nice feeling of being on a broad rooftop on this walk as the ridge is separated from higher ground by distance and so gives really spacious views.





Continuing east there's a dip to a peaty bealach before a short climb up to Mona Gowan; a fence gives a useful guide down to this bealach in poor visibility.






The cairn on the 749m summit of Mona Gowan is huge and visible for many miles - it was erected in 1887 to mark the jubilee year of Queen Victoria's reign.




Allan and I ate lunch in the lee of the cairn which gave good shelter from the biting wind.  the view to the south east is dominated by Morven (big hill), a prominent landmark across much of this part of Aberdeenshire. 

The weather caught up with us as we descended north from Mona Gowan, if anything the wind increased and there was a spell of quite heavy rain.  I took no pictures as we hurried down to the shelter of the forest above Culfork on the River Don.





The rain stopped just as we reached the forest track and we sat to have a cup of tea before walking down the pleasant couple of kilometres to Culfork where we'd left a car.  Our route was quite short at approximately 10 kilometres but had given a good walk from unpromising weather.





As we recovered a car from the start, the weather was already clearing after the cold front passage....but the wind certainly wasn't any warmer!
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At a time when farmers are having a tough time with rising input costs, pressure on farm-gate prices and huge political uncertainty, it's really uplifting to see a farm reaching out and engaging with the local community.

We visited Boghead Farm near the village of Lumsden in Aberdeenshire for an open day which would feature their sheep at lambing time. 




The Jacksons have around 150 Vendeen ewes in their flock - a breed I wasn't familiar with and which was only introduced to the UK from France in 1981.  A stocky breed with thick fleece,Vendeen sheep are bred for lean meat and seem to do very well here in the north east of Scotland.








If you want to get children interested in farming and animal husbandry....this is how you do it!  Young visitors got to hold a lamb, to bottle feed some of them and to potentially watch the birth of new lambs.












An interesting talk by Fiona Jackson introduced the breed, the lambing "maternity suite" and the lambing process.  Everything was explained clearly and without either patronising enquiring young minds or glossing over the purpose of breeding lambs.







The ewes were remarkably tolerant of the audience of curious humans and didn't seem in the least put out by all the attention they were receiving.







The lambs had a long day, for some it was just time to have a little nap......

We  also chatted with some of the helpers for the day from the North East Agricultural Society about farming in general, and admired the herd of pure bred Aberdeen Angus cattle which the Jacksons also have.  Originating from the nearby village of Alford, the "black beauties" can be found all over the world, and particularly in South America.







We enjoyed a really interesting visit to Boghead, our thanks to Thomas and Fiona Jackson for holding this open day.  Opening a farm to the public can never be a simple process - there's lots to consider.  Given the tragedy that befell the Jacksons in October 2018 when one of their cattle tested positive for a "spontaneous" case of BSE their decision to open up the farm is both courageous and a statement of hope for the future.  Fiona spoke movingly of the trauma of the whole situation and it was really good to see the farming community of North East Scotland supporting them on this open day.
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An outdoor company's designation of  "Approach shoe" can mean anything from an ultralight trainer style shoe to a semi rigid shoe almost suited to rock climbing.  A good pair of approach shoes (in my view) should sit somewhere between the two extremes and be suitable in a whole variety of situations They should offer day-long comfort, be reasonably hard wearing and offer good support without feeling rigid.

I've used Scarpa products for many years because they just seem to fit me well and although certainly not cheap the brand does make a quality product.  This review  is based on wearing the Moraine Plus GTX shoes for a full year.  Used daily for commuting and travel, they have also been worn on short walks, on long day walks at lower levels, around camp on sea kayak trips, for shopping, casual wear and just about everything else in between.  My original pair have just about got to the stage of being replaced - and I've purchased another pair of the Moraines.



Up to 2019 the colour scheme was a smart grey with blue trim - the 2019 version is brown with an orange trim.  The uppers are 1.6mm Nubuck leather with a Goretex Extended Comfort membrane lining.  For comparison, the R-Evo GTX walking boot from the same company has a 1.8mm upper.  The weight of a UK size 8 (Euro 42) pair is 930 grams, so these shoes don't fall into the lightweight category, but neither do they seem particularly heavy.

Construction is up to Scarpa's usually high standard.  The midsole is bi-density EVA which gives a good mix of shock absorption and support.  Straight from the box the shoes are comfortable and supportive.  Initially the heel strike feels quite firm but this isn't noticeable after a short time.  The walking action is nice and natural and I've experienced no discomfort or "hotspots" at all.  There's a TPU shank in the midsole under the central part of the foot for lateral support and this works very well - it can be seen clearly on airport X-Ray machines if you are required to remove the shoes at the security search area!

Perhaps the strongest point in favour of the Moraine Plus GTX is that I simply forget I'm wearing them.  They are comfortable even on long days and unlike some Goretex lined footwear I've not felt them to be over warm.  Within the limitations of a low-cut shoe they've also been waterproof; the only times I've experienced a wet foot is when water has come in at my ankle.





The style of the shoe is more substantial than a trainer and probably closer to a walking boot in design -in fact there's a mid height version available too.  The rubber rand at the toe does the job of protecting the Nubuck from bashes and scrapes.  The Vibram Dynatech 3 sole gives great grip on most surfaces (but be careful on shiny floors when they're brand new!) and the well defined heel breast is very effective when going down steep inclines.

After a years wear, I felt that it was time to replace my original pair of Moraines and after saving up a bit (see last paragraph!) I had no hesitation in purchasing another pair. 





In this image the new pair are nearest the camera with the well-worn pair farthest away.  Some abrasion and fading on the uppers is obvious but the shoes certainly aren't damaged in any way - all stitching is intact and there isn't even any fraying on the laces.





The soles have worn pretty well - I walk approximately 50km on a variety of terrain during a typical week (excluding any specific hillwalking) and the Moraines have been in daily use - so the wear shown here represents over 2500km of walking.  I wear the heel of my left foot more than any other part of a shoe due to my gait and (as expected) this has worn significantly; otherwise the level of wear is certainly not excessive.





I've found the Scarpa Moraine Plus GTX to be a well-designed, quality approach shoe which is comfortable on a range of terrain.  They've lasted well - the old pair will be relegated to gardening and will probably still be going for a long time to come.

Retailing at £155 in the UK for the 2019 version, the Moraines are pitched as a premium product.  For me, the quality, performance and comfort of these shoes outweighs the high price. 

Conflict of interest statement:  I purchased both pairs of shoes at retail price (less a small club discount) from a national outdoor equipment retailer and have no connection with Scarpa or the retailer apart from being a satisfied customer.
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I've driven past the sign on the A96 road near Huntly which points to the Bin forest car park literally hundreds of times and yet not visited - feeling that a walk close to a busy road would be spoiled.  I'm pleased to say I was totally wrong.

On a really windy Sunday morning we parked and headed out on one of the waymarked trails which climbs steadily up through the forest. 





The Bin was originally planted for timber using seeds brought to Scotland by the great plant collector David Douglas, and while still worked partly as a commercial forest there's much more to it.  It's been a long time since I've visited a forest with quite some much variety; open areas alternate with denser woods and mixed stands of wood are much in evidence.  In this image there are Spruce, Scots Pine, Birch and Rowan all within a few square metres.






There was plenty of interest in the small scale too, miniature forests of lichen and mosses with just as much variety as the big stuff.





We saw the first frog spawn of the year in a pool beside the path, possibly laid the previous week in the very warm (for February) conditions.  Whether this spawn will survive is questionable with sub-zero temperatures and some snow forecast for the first week of March.





A small group of Ladybirds, probably 7 Spot Ladybirds (Coccinella septemunctata) were sunning themselves in a sheltered spot on an old pine branch.  We've seen a lot of these bright little creatures this winter, our Christmas tree proved to have large numbers hibernating among the branches which we carefully took outside and placed in similar spots in the garden!





Near the top of the forest the view opens up and our attention switched from the small things at our feet to the wider landscape - this is a view to the Buck, a prominent hill above the Cabrach.






The high point of the Bin forest is the hill after which it's named, the Bin is 313m/1026ft.  "Bin" is probably a variant of "Ben", the Gaelic term for hill or mountain - there's another so named close by, the Bin of Cullen, which is almost exactly the same height.  There top is an outcrop surrounded by trees offering good views through breaks in the canopy.  A nearby pool is known as the "Gallon of Water" and was supposed to have healing powers, especially for children with Whooping Cough.  The walk to the summit followed by a "dook" in freezing water probably would have some effect, one way or the other!





We descended back down to the main track through a wood which little ones would recognise as good habitat for Gruffalo, and half glimpsed a strange creature through the trees....we're still not sure, but it may have been?





Other strange sights were present in this part of the wood - great mushrooms of mosses........





....and a split boulder through which the path winds.  Our route took the Yellow and White trails through the forest, the longest of the options and circling the hill to arrive back at the car park.  In total our walk was 10km and has around 200m of ascent, mostly on good forest rack with some smaller path sections.  For variety and interest the Bin has lots going for it - and is certainly not rubbish!  As a bonus, the nearby town of Huntly has a number of places to eat.
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