Monday, 28 February 2011

West Coast Kayak Challenge starts today

Bruce Jolliffe set out from Largs today to start the West Coast Kayak Challenge, a solo, self-supported and self-funded kayak journey round the Mull of Kintyre and up the west coast, culminating in a  crossing of the Minch to Stornoway. His fabulously aesthetic route will take him from Scotland's densely populated central belt to the outer reaches of the country's ragged fringe. He'll be travelling through Scotland's greatest scenery right when it is at its most scenic; the sun climbing higher in the sky each day, the first stirrings of spring low down, beneath the snow-capped hills.

The route is not only beautiful, it is also logical. Bruce is paddling to raise funds for cancer charities, from his own home in Largs to Stornoway, the hometown of a friend who recently died of the disease. Bruce's will be a thoroughly modern, electronic journey. I am looking forward to watching his adventure unfold. Follow his blog and see if it inspires you to donate a few quid.

There's a quote in Greg Crouch's 'Enduring Patagonia to the effect that as modern humans, every one of us is in possession of a body capable of extreme endurance, of pushing hard for days without food; yet we have become so soft that we expect praise if we walking half a mile instead of driving to the shops, or use the stairs instead of the lift. Nowhere is this cult of praising the insignificant more prominent than in the name of charity, where often we are asked to sponsor people to carry out mundane or trivial challenges like running 10 km or even walking a shorter distance.

To be worthy of sponsorship, an activity should be sufficiently gruelling that success is not a foregone conclusion, like Will Gadd's  Endless Ascent, a 24 hour binge of continuous ice climbing. Or Eddie Izzard's  1000 mile run round the UK, televised as 'Marathon Man'. Or Bruce Jolliffe's West Coast Kayak Challenge.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Prehistoric bothy trips

Kiloran Bay, Colonsay. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of large scale hazlenut processing by mesolithic hunter-gatherers
I've always been more interested in prehistory than in history. Up until quite recently there has been very little reading matter on the topic, however  recent advances in science are allowing us to build up a far more complete picture of our ancestors and the world they inhabited.

The good old BBC is currently dishing up two excellent programmes in this area. Long-haired historian Neil Oliver is half way through his BBC2 series 'A History of Ancient Britain', while on Radio Scotland Alistair Moffat is fronting  'The Scots: A Genetic Journey'.

In the year and a half since I started this blog I've been getting my head around the geology of Scotland, so the timescales of human interaction with our landscape are staggeringly short in comparison. 

70,000 years ago: modern humans leave Africa
50,000 years ago: modern humans colonise Europe
11,000 years ago: end of ice age allows Mesolithic humans to colonise Britain
6,000 years ago: the New Stone Age (Neolithic period) reaches Northern Europe
4,000 years ago: Bronze Age
3,000 years ago: Iron Age, arrival of Gaelic culture in Scotland

I love the way that considering such long periods of time emphasises our position at the leading edge of the human journey. We are the first generation able to accurately assess our position in the scheme of things, able to consider what lies ahead in the context of what has already passed.

Neil Oliver visited the Hebrides; Col and Tiree; Colonsay; Islay and Jura. He painted a picture of mesolithic hunter gatherers sailing between these islands, harvesting the seasonal bounties of the land.  Alistair Moffat visited Scotland's oldest house, a few postholes on a site near Torness dating from 9,500 years ago. So the experts are telling us that Scotland's earliest inhabitants  were people who migrated regularly between sites on which they would have had either natural shelters or bothies.

Perhaps prehistoric bothies looked something like this reconstruction at Abriachan
I'm not really one for romanticising the past, but this mesolithic lifestyle doesn't look at all bad. Indeed it appears to have consisted wholly of the elements that us modern men use to counterbalance our stress-filled lifestyles of indoor work and consumerism: boating, bothying, fishing, fires and eating.

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Monday, 14 February 2011

Gleann Dubh Lighe

I'm not exactly sure how, but a haemorrhoid roll call ritual has become an integral part of our winter bothy trips.All it takes to be counted among the afflicted is to have admitted to a single previous offence. One of our number slept in a doorway about fifteen years ago. This reckless act caused his vascular structures to make a break for it,  charging headlong down his anal canal. Fortunately he was able to arrest them before they achieved external status by breaching the anal verge. He has been dormant on that front ever since but there is no going back; he knows that he is obliged to raise his hand during the bothy bum grape census.

It is always a relief when the show of hands reveals that none amongst us have succumbed since the last trip. Happily the weekend past at Gleann Dubh Lighe was such an occasion. 

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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Animal Rescue on Stac Gorm, Loch Ruthven

My heart sank as I watched Tam, my faithful border terrier, disappear from view, silently swallowed by the heather. I knew that we were in the vicinity of a deep cleft in the rock. Clearly it extended further than I had realised, overhanging heather completely obscuring its upper reaches, a fiendish trap lurking on the seemingly innocuous summit of Stac Gorm.

A frozen Loch Ruthven from the windswept summit of Stac Gorm.  Danger lurks to the right, just off camera.
With some trepidation I peered into the rift in the rock. It was close to five metres deep but only about twenty centimetres wide. A big enough drop to seriously injure a dog and so narrow that recovery would be extremely complicated, impossible without specialised equipment. As I scanned the gloomy depths, a distant corner of my mind was imagined how the birch branches by the lochside below could be cut to make a hooked pole of sufficient length to hook his collar. A wave of relief surged through me as I made him out walking unsteadily along the floor of what to him was a slot canyon. The far end of the cave was partially filled in with a ramp of earth and his fall had been no more than two meters. 

 I remembered from a previous visit that the slot had an accessible front entrance, making the evacuation of an uninjured dog a distinct possibility. As I slid down into the crevasse Stephen cautioned me not to get stuck, likening the developing situation to the recently released film 127 hours, the story of Aaron Ralston, who hacked his own arm off with a pen knife after it became trapped by rockfall during a canyoning trip. The entrance was a short dogleg, so I wriggled my way down and along between the tapering rock walls to get a look into the main chamber. Tam was about ten feet back, hesitating on the cusp of a constriction, fearful of  getting stuck as he squeezed himself through. I knew exactly how he felt. He panicked and managed, with some difficulty, to stand on his hind legs and turn round, ending up facing the wrong way. No amount of cajolling would convince him to reverse the maneuver. There was no way I could reach him, and even if I could get him to walk up to me getting him out would be very difficult. I was thoroughly wedged in and could not get two hands into the same place to lift him towards the exit. 

I eventually enticed him from the depths by jangling his lead, then somehow managed to bring him with me as I wriggled awkwardly towards the entrance. I handed the lead to Stephen and took the dog's weight with one hand as he was hauled to the surface, squinting like a Chilean miner.

Returning to the surface after a successful rescue, dazzled by the light after spending so long underground.

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