Monday, 30 November 2009

Black Isle coastal walk: Kilmuir to Munlochy

On Saturday I began my quest to develop my understanding of the landscape by taking a stroll round the coast of the Black Isle from Kilmuir to Munlochy. This is a prime area for raised beaches, formed when the relative sea level was higher than it is at present. The walk also provided an opportunity to test out the GPS on my phone. The image below was created using a combination of the Instamapper phone app and Google Earth. I'm very impressed with the result. I appreciate that this is a touch on the geeky side but the geekiness probably pales into insignificance when compared with keeping a blog and spending Saturday afternoons examining raised beaches.

Saturday's walk round the Black Isle coast from Kilmuir (left) to Munlochy Bay (right)

View towards the Kessock Bridge from the shoreline east of Kilmuir.  Ord Hill is  in cloud towards the centre

I'm not going to go on about raised shorelines, you can read the link above if you're sufficiently interested. Suffice to say that when the relative sea level was higher, this eroded bank of silty soil was  a  tidal mud flat very much like the one in the photograph of Munlochy Bay below

Mud flats in Munlochy bay

As we returned to the car park at the end of our walk great skeins of geese filled the sky. Thousands of individual birds, fat after long days of grazing in the high Arctic summer; literally tonnes of   goose meat on the wing. The formation rippled as they changed course in response to my camera's flash, as if it had emanated from the muzzle of a gun.

A sky full of geese and a few raindrops on the lens.  

Geese aren't the only ones migrating - I'm toying with the idea of migrating this blog over to Wordpress but it's all a bit daunting and I'm not sure I've got the mental strength needed to see the job through at present! If you've done similar yourself and have any tips to share (or want to talk me out of it) please get in touch.


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Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Took a trip to the A'Chuil bothy in Knoydart at the weekend. It's always nice to meet up with friends and to be reminded of their charming eccentricities.  For instance, within 30 seconds of parking my van at the head of Loch Arkaig on Friday night I was reminded of just how wet one of my friend's farts always sound. His ass became badly infected in Tibet a few years ago and he has been afflicted with a tremendously flappy ring ever since.

The view east along  Loch Arkaig from the ruined barracks at Strathan. According to the internet they were built after the '45 Jacobite uprising and occupied for a mere 6 months. 

The selectivity of the human memory is a wonderful thing. Unpleasant events and squelchy farts are quickly forgotten. I had been concerned, therefore, at how fresh my impression of the unpleasantness of interminable single track road along the north shore of Loch Arkaig remained, despite the passing of five years since my first encounter with its endless, hilly bends. I timed it on the way out; the 21.7 miles from Strathan to the commando memorial above Spean Bridge (how do you ascertain whether or not a statue is wearing underpants?) took me a full  hour to drive.

The best aspect of the weekend was that it was spent in a data-free oasis, the ramparts of the Knoydart peaks providing a brief respite from the 3G signal and the incessant river of data that flows through our lives. I wouldn't normally have noticed but I've recently joined the 21st century and obtained myself a smartphone. I feel mildly embarassed to be evangelising about a piece of technology that's been available for so long. I held off getting a normal mobile for some time too, my mind tainted against their benefits by images of yuppies braying into brick sized units with wrist straps and extendable arials. It was the telecommunications equivalent of a bag of smack in the playground - a free bone with 20 quid's worth of credit - that got me hooked in the end.

Thankfully the forecast 100 mph gusts didn't materialise so we got a good day on the hill on saturday before the rain set in. View from Sgurr nan Coireachan towards Garbh Cioch Mhor and the Matterhorn of Knoydart, Sgurr na Ciche. Beyond Loch Nevis you can just make out the Sgurr of Eigg and the Rum Cuillin.

Next week will see me pick up the geological thread thread I started a few weeks back. I've arranged to head out with a local expert on saturday, so my next post will be something of a virtual field trip of the  Inverness area.

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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Fantasy bothying in Norway

Thanks for your comments on last week's bothy post. I have spent the week mulling over the dilemma that the promotion of outdoor activities poses for antisocial types like myself. Having given the matter some more thought I think that I can see why the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) have chosed to publish the locations of the bothies that they maintain. They have presumably realised that in this information age it is inevitable that the locations will be revealed. By doing so through their own website they at least have an opportunity to educate people in bothy etiquette before they arrive.

Giving people an appreciation of the great outdoors and and an understanding of how to behave once you get there can only be a good thing. You only have to compare Scotland with our near neighbour Norway for an illustration of how ignorant our general population are in the ways of the wild. In Norway it is perfectly normal to be an outdoor enthusiast whereas in Scotland we are regarded as slightly freakish extremists. There are many factors that contribute to this difference in attitude: the Norwegian population is less concentrated in the urban centres; Norway has a similar population but roughly four times the land mass, giving them more outdoors to enjoy; they have no history of access being discouraged by the owners of sporting estates. Possibly most importantly, however, is that their outdoors are made accessible by the Norwegian trekking association, the DNT, who maintain a network of marked trails and mountain huts throughout the country.

This fully serviced DNT hut is right on the summit of Fannaraken (2068 m) in the Hurrungane region of Jotunheimen National Park. View towards the peaks of Skagastolindane.

Many DNT huts are actually more like hotels and this can be rather offputting for the hardship-seeking purist like myself. They also have a range of less luxurious accommodation options, ranging from unserviced open hovels, in which one can doss free of charge, to serviced but unmanned huts that operate on an honesty box system where for a small fee one can avail oneself of gas, firewood, crockery, bedding and sometimes even tinned food and recycling facilities.

One of the best views I've ever had from a toilet (Fannaraken Hut)

From reading bothy books I have established that it is a common fantasy among tired outdoorsmen, fighting their way through bogs in the rain, that they may find their bothy crowded with a Norweigan University netball team, wet and cold and in need of a good towelling down. I have never heard of this dream coming true in a Scottish bothy, but I once came close in an unserviced Norwegian hut in the Jotunheimen National Park. The hut was a former saeter - a summer dairy equivalent to a sheiling. It was a lovely old wooden building which boasted a very low entrance, the purpose of which was to facilitate the smoking of cheeses in the rafters.

This is more like it. The partially serviced Stolsmardalen hut in Jotunheimen NP.

As we were settling down after dinner a pair of lycra-clad lady students entered, stooping low to get through the diminutive doorway.  The watchful eye of my wife, who was pregnant at the time, helped me to keep any towelling urges in check.

It is difficult to imagine an such an honesty box based system of serviced huts working in Scotland, but this may be something of a chicken and egg situation. To sustain such an infrastructure requires a nation of outdoor enthusiasts, but perhaps to nurture a nation of outdoor enthusiasts requires precisely such an infrastructure. In publicising bothy locations the MBA may have unwittingly taken a first, faltering step towards the development of a DNT style system of huts and trails.

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Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Letting the cat out of the bothy bag

I discovered recently that the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) has caved in and published a clickable bothy map on their website. Now this information was never secret, but it was previously freely available only to members. A few years back I joined the MBA, obtained the list of bothies and annotated my OS maps with their locations. What I didn't realise then is that  the MBA list reveals only the tip of the bothy iceberg.

To find out about the privately maintained bothies of which the submerged portion is comprised, aspiring bothiers must serve their apprenticeships. They will slowly discover the true extent of the bothy network through information hoovered from entries in bothy books or drip fed to them by bearded pensioners round the bothy hearth. There cannot be many people who know the location of all the privately maintained open bothies and I would wager that most of those who do would be wary of committing their list to writing. Visiting all the bothies in Scotland is a more appealing challenge to me than that of compleating the Munros.  

A night round the fire in the reputedly haunted Ben Alder Cottage. If cycling in from the south beware the half-dozen locked gates!

A few weekends back I visited one of these 'hidden' bothies. I resisted spilling the beans on my blog, precisely because the place is little known. There are very few references to its existence on the internet and so the chance of passing a quiet night there are high. If I and others were to start dripping this information onto the internet it might be possible for some unprincipled scoundrel to collate it all into a dossier. The publication of such a dossier would remove forever the aura of subversiveness and mystery which is such an attractive aspect of the bothy scene.

This attitude of mine courts accusations of elitism and has a parallel in the moratorium imposed by the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) on the recording of new climbing routes in the Northwest in the 1970s. The stated purpose of the moratorium was to preserve the spirit of exploration for future generations, a strategy that seemed ludicrous to many at the time. The area is now covered by a three volume set of guidebooks, each one bulging with quality routes, yet the remoteness of the Northwest means that even the most popular areas are rarely crowded. Comparing my present attitude to the position formerly held by the SMC makes me feel a shade hypocritical.

A contender for the most remote bothy in Scotland, Maol Bhuidhe. This building  boasts a rich social history - Iain R Thomson mentions it in both Isolation Shepherd and The Long Horizon. I will recount his anecdotes of the place (and my own) in a future post.

A further chink in the armour of my consistency is revealed by my enjoyment of Dave Brown and Ian Mitchell's book 'Mountain Days and Bothy Nights'. This is the only book I have read which accurately captures the spirit of the bothy scene. Reading about others' experiences made my own more tangible. The book captured the period where a lack of cars led to the sociable outdoor lifestyle of 'weekending'. I don't know if bothying is on the way up or the way down - is the bothying life that I know, that of twos and threes, a shadow of its heyday? Might the publication of the MBA bothy locations kick start a renaissance of bothying? If it did, I'm not sure that it would be to my liking – see this previous report of an excessively busy bothy weekend.

Probably my fears are unfounded. 'Mountain Days and Bothy Nights' even devoted a chapter to that most prized of hill dwellings, the Secret Howff of Beinn a'Bhuird. The reputation of the howff is such that I knew of its existence long before I knew even of its approximate location. Were it not for a friend who lived for some years in Aberdeen I may never have had the pleasure of passing a night in its cosy confines. In the course of his exile he was indoctrinated into the secret ways of the Aberdonians and learned of the location of the Secret Howff. One night in the Garbh Coire Refuge, high in the Cairngorms, I begged him to reveal its location but he refused. Tradition forbade him from supplying a grid reference, but permitted him to guide me to it at a future date. The Secret Howff has not been ruined by the publicity lavished upon it in Mitchell and Brown's book, but it is a special case; it blends into its surroundings; there is no telltale square on the map to give the game away. There are even a number of decoy howffs in the surrounding area to put aspiring howff dwellers off the scent.

The charming but often busy Sourlies bothy at the head of Loch Nevis 

This post has revealed a fundamental contradiction in my attitude to the outdoors. On the one hand I believe that the world would be a better place if more people appreciated our wild places. To this end I am in favour of promoting the outdoors and increasing participation. On the other hand I prize the solitude that is still so readily available in the Scottish hills in general, and in its lesser known bothies and howffs in particular. For now I will desist from publishing the specific locations of lesser-known bothies. Perhaps this is overly cautious; this blog hasn't yet the circulation required to inundate many bothies simultaneously.

I'd be very interested to hear your views on the subject so please do leave comments below.

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Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Near Miss with Take That Star Mark Owen's Wedding Cavalcade

I really should pay more attention to the Hello magazines that people leave in the coffee room at work. I came within a few feet of Take That star Mark Owen's wedding cortege this afternoon but didn't realise it until later, when I read about his wedding in a dogeared copy of the Highland News while I was waiting for the Magic Wok to whip me up a Kung Po Chicken. 

Still water in an artificial pond passed en route to Carn Maol. The pond makers had also taken the trouble to build a row of Butts in order to maximise their chances of blasting any ducks unlucky enough to stop by for a swim.

A cavalcade of six or so Range Rovers containing men in evening wear swept past me as I returned to my van after a quite family stroll on the moorland above Cawdor. There was clearly something going on when we passed through the village half an hour or so later; a herd of long lenses were corralled opposite the church; men in fluorescent jackets milled about, self-importantly directing the passing traffic. In short, all the trappings of a showbiz extravaganza were present in this usually quiet highland village. Apart, that is, from hordes of screaming teenage girls. Or indeed hordes of any description. 

View from Carn Maol over the Moray Firth. This small hill of 324 m makes a fine viewpoint. The Cairngorms are visible to the south; to the west a panorama unfolds from the Affric hills northwards to Caithness.

I don't mean to play down the occasion. Most of the parking spaces in the village were occupied. There were even three cars parked by the pig field a quarter of a mile along the road.

I have been constantly plagued by celebrity in the great outdoors this year. Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but I did share the bar in the Tongue Hotel with Paxman back in April. At least I managed to recognise him without any assistance from a chow mein stained tabloid.

Perhaps this unusual topic will bring my blog to a new audience, I might get thousands of hits from Take That fans overnight. 

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Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A little project for the long winter nights

It always feels good to get off your arse and get something done, especially if it's been on the list for a while. Addressing my woeful lack of knowledge of how the landforms around me were formed is one such task that I have procrastinated over. Since school geography classes I have dabbled in the odd bit of geology; I have bought books on the subject and either skimmed them or left them substantially unread. I have read exhibits and signs without really taking them in. I have enjoyed watching documentaries but retained very little information from them. In doing so I have lodged a fair number of geological and geomorphological facts in my brain but have not made much progress in developing the framework of understanding required to connect them.

This is the type of thing I'm on about - the mounds in the foregrounds are morianes of some sort, soil and stone deposited by a glacier, where was the glacier? How thick was it? So many questions. Picture of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Sgurr Ban, taken on this trip

I've been getting to know my brain for a while now and have realised that in order to learn anything I need two things. Firstly, a fairly pressing need for the knowledge and secondly a specific and manageable question to answer.

The manageable question has been forming over the last couple of years as I have explored Strathnairn, the area local to my house on the outskirts of Inverness. There are a number of erratic boulders – large rocks carried by glacial ice and deposited far from where they started out - some of sufficient size to be of interest to boulderers, others near the Culloden Battlefield are of historical interest. Charred remnants appear each April on this Cumberland Stone, presumably present day Jacobites celebrate the anniversary of the battle by burning an effigy of the English Commander on the stone that bears his name. What piqued my curiosity was that these boulders were to be found mostly on low lying ground, the high moorland above contains no such erratics. The rocks are clearly of a type of conglomerate that is found on the south side of Loch Ness, so it was reasonably clear where these erratics had come from. I began to develop a mental picture of the flow of ice.

But the picture didn't add up and I knew that somewhere out there must be an actual map of ice flow at various time periods. So that was satisfied the first precondition for effective learning, the manageable question – what did the area look like when it was being glaciated? Where were these rivers of ice and how thick were they?

The second precondition, the pressing need to learn, came in the form of an idea for a book. I've sketched an outline for a book which will explore connections between landscape and identity. What do you mean by that, I hear you ask. Well I think I know what I mean, but I think it needs a book to explain it properly. In order to write one of the chapters I have in mind I need to develop an understanding of how the Scotland that I see now differs from that seen by the first hunter gatherers that colonised the country after the last ice age and how the vegetation, climate and landforms of Scotland have changed over the last 12,000 years or so. The sensible place to start seemed to be at home. I needed to get hold of that ice flow map.

Thus fortified with a need to learn and a simple question I embarked on a quest for knowledge. Scotland has been subjected to successive waves of glaciation. Since each successive wave obliterates the landscape formed by the previous wave, I needed only to consider the last glaciation event to have affected this area - the Devensian period which occurred between 22,000 and 13,000 years ago. Around 11,000 years ago the climate cooled once more and the glaciers marched again in a short-lived period known as the Loch Lomond re-advance, but as this occurred only in the West Highlands my local investigation can ignore it for now.

I think the feature on the left is a terminal moraine from the Loch Lomond Re-advance. The glacier would have been pushing this earth in front of it, and when it the glacier melted the moraine was left behind. The hill on the right is A'Chailleach (Fannichs)

Much less imagination is required to interpret the landscape when glaciation is still in progress. A terminal moraine in Berg Lake below Mt Robson, Canadian Rockies.

I found a link with a handy Glacial Map of Britain which shows the main glacial features. The map has been drawn to represent the ice coverage at the height of the Devensian period, when only the highest peaks in the northwest (shown in red on the map) poked through the ice sheet like the nunatuks of present day Greenland. The most exciting aspect of this map is that it confirmed that I am lucky enough to live in one of the richest areas of the UK for glacially created landforms. Indeed, almost very ripple in the landscape is featured on the map as a meltwater channel or similar. A bit more digging around on the web provided me with a paper with detailed maps showing how the Devensian ice sheet receded in the Moray Firth , creating landforms as it did so.

I intend to familiarise myself with these landforms and the forces that created them over the winter months. As I do so I will crimp out a blog or two on the topic. My previous attempts to swot up on geology have been hindered by a lack of accessible material from which to learn; the facts that I have been hunting have been  hidden behind obscure language and excessive detail. I hope to make my intermittent musings on the topic accessible, well illustrated and maybe even entertaining. I hope you'll join me for the journey and chastise me if I start to retreat behind inpenetrable geological jargon.

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