Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Wee Stravaig through the Crianlarich Hills

Mike on Cruach Ardrain - silver tint B&W

In the Scots language of Robbie Burns "oo stravaig" means "we wander", and, as our time in Scotland comes to an end, I can honestly say Mike and I have done our share of wandering. One of our favourite areas to undertake a wee stravaig turned out to be the hills above the West Highland village of Crianlarich. There are seven Munros (mtn. over 914m/3000ft) accessible from town and we've been on all of them. From massive Ben More in the east to craggy Beinn Chabhair in the west, hill walkers in Crianlarich are spoiled for choice.

We've been to the area three times and accessed all start and end points via the bus and Shank's mare. Ben More and Stob Binnein brought us out for a beautiful day in early June (reported on in A Scotland Season - June 3). We next visited on Aug 5th, when we bagged three Munros: Beinn Chabhair (meaning Antler Mountain, pronounced Ben Chavir, 933m/3060ft), Beinn a'Chroin (Mountain of Danger, Ben a Chraw-in, 946m/3103ft) and An Caisteal (The Castle, An Cash-tyal, 995m/3264ft). Our third visit was on Aug 17 when we did Cruach Ardrain (High Mound, 1046m/3431ft) and Beinn Tulaichean (Hill of hills, Ben too-leach-an, 946m/3104ft).

The mist starts to leave Cruach Ardrain
Mist rising off Cruach Ardrain
The difference between the June and August visits was huge -- June 3rd was probably the warmest day of the year. It might have got to 15C in the mountains, but was 24 or 25C in the valley. Our August visits, while full of beautiful light, rising mist, and splashing burns, were more akin to hiking in fall -- a chill was in the air.

Another difference - More and Binnein are frequently travelled. Unless one climbs these mountains in a downpour, other hill walkers will be a common sight. Actually, this is Scotland, and just a downpour wouldn't keep the Scots out of the hills. Indeed, on our worst day of hiking (July 5), when we were forced down from Ben Vane (the smallest of the Munros) by poor weather we encountered an older fellow on the trail. He had already scrambled up and was on his way down. On passing us by he noted "Aye, it's a wee bit damp today, but a fine walk for all that".

But, I digress -- More and Binnein, with their ease of access, and straightforward, if somewhat strenuous approaches, are hiking magnets, while the other five are not so busy. Probably because they are difficult to access and have some tricky navigation and/or scrambling components to work through. Indeed, on our Aug 17 trip we saw no one in eight hours of hiking -- and the day was stunning.

Time to put on the full gear - leaving the Beinn a'Chroin ridge
Mary, about to be entertained on the Beinn a'Chroin ridge
Mike and I are getting quite good at navigation and route finding in the Scottish hills. Both the Aug 5th and 17th trips had us hauling out the British Ordinance Survey map (borrowed from the library in Glasgow -- the libraries in Glasgow are OUTSTANDING -- but that is another story), the compass, and the GPS so we could plan how to get from one ridge to another. We even managed to do this a few times in mist and cloud.

People have asked what I find so entrancing about the Scottish hills, especially when we have such majestic mountains back home. Of course, I love the Selkirks, Monashees, and Rockies, the mountains of my youth in British Columbia's interior. And I look forward with great anticipation to reuniting with my old friends, the Sooke Hills of southern Vancouver Island. But I know I'll miss the amazing washes of light through clouds, the blue-on-blue ranks of tops marching into the horizon, and the understated challenge of getting up and down. Sure, these are not high mountains, but, as with so many enjoyable pursuits, size isn't everything! Indeed, when you read in a Scottish mountain guidebook that a steep cliff "provides an interesting diversion", or a narrow ridge "posses little difficulty" get ready to be entertained. Certainly, a few steps on Ardrain and Beinn a'Chroin fell into the "interesting diversion" category.

All in all, Mike and I have been endlessly entertained on our hill walking expeditions thus far, and hope to get in several more jaunts before winging back to BC. I'll be sorry to leave these mountains, but will look forward to putting Scottish-based rambling skills to work in my home mountains. My goal will be to find an interesting diversion on each and every stravaig; get ready everyone, I'll be bringing a wee bit o'the Bonnie Highlands of Sco'land back in both my feet and my heart.

Aug 5th - Beinn Chabhair, Beinn a'Chroin, An Casteal

View Beinn Chabhair, Beinn a'Chroin, An Casteal in a larger map

Aug 17 - Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean

View Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean: Aug 17, 2011 in a larger map

More pictures from Chabhair, a'Chroin, and Casteal
More pictures from Ardrain and Tulaichean.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Munro Two Step – Hill Walking in the Highlands with Lisa and John

Lisa coming up the Stuc a'Chroin summit ridge
Lisa and John on the summit ridge - Stuc a'Chroin
Saturday July 30th was about as pretty a day as Scotland can produce – sunny, but not too hot; breezy enough to keep the midgies down, but not windy enough to blow you off a mountain ridge; and crystal sharp air for excellent visibility. I’m pleased to report that we did not waste it. Lisa, John, Mike, and I got in the rental car and made tracks for the northern slopes of Ben Vorlich, which rise almost directly out of lovely Loch Earn in the Central Highlands.

We did make one necessary stop before the hill though – the Glenturret Distillery, just outside Crieff. We were driving along, John at the helm, when he stops, executes a highway U-turn in the best Scottish tradition and wheels us into Glenturret. John visited this very distillery many years ago on his first trip to Scotland and had fond, if foggy, memories of the place. Lucky for us, because he did acquire a bottle of fine, smooth 10 year old single-malt, some of which accompanied us up into the mountains that very day.

The ridge trail up Ben Vorlich
Lisa on the north east
ridge of Ben Vorlich
Ben Vorlich and its sister peak, Stuc a’Chroin are both Munros and have been on our radar for some time. Mike and I have seen them from many of our other rambles and hoped to make it up to the top of both. They seemed a perfect fit for Lisa and John too, with Vorlich being a sure thing and a’Chroin being do-able if conditions were good.

Sitting boldly over the south side of Loch Earn, Ben Vorlich (985 m / 3231 ft) is one of the most popular Munros for hill walkers to attempt. It has a number of approaches, all quite straightforward. We came up what is arguably the most direct route – due south from Ardvorlich farm along Glen Vorlich, then taking the sprawling north east ridge to the summit. We shared the route and summit with a number of other hill walkers, children, and not a few dogs.

Coming up the steep bit
John coming around
the buttress on a'Chroin
Stuc a’Chroin (975 m / 3,198 ft), however, was another matter entirely. It was about 2:30 pm when we left the summit of Vorlich and made our way down into Bealach an Dubh Chorein (pronounced Bee-lach an Doo Chorrin, meaning “Pass of the Black Corries”) between Vorlich and a’Chroin. Would we have time to do a’Chroin? The route up was steep and scrambly, heading around a buttress of blocky rock. Would everyone give it a try, or would Lisa and I possibly stay back while the fellows made a dash for the summit?

With an agreed upon drop-dead time of 5:30 (time at which we must stop and turn back) we all decided to give it a go. After a few difficult bits coming up the north east gully around the buttress, everyone was on the summit by about 4:30. We gloried in having the broad top entirely to ourselves. Stuc a’Chroin, which means “Peak of Danger” in Gaelic, is technically a lot more challenging than the wide and accommodating tourist track up Ben Vorlich. We were justifiably pleased with ourselves in making both summits, but a’Chroin was especially sweet. Not only was the view outstanding in the soft light of late afternoon, but I was proud of what we had accomplished – good choices, well executed, in an uncertain situation.

Summit of Stuc a'Chroin portrait
Cheers - on Stuc a'Chroin
Our day called for a celebration so John brought out the Glenturret single-malt, complete with shot glasses. We stood on the summit of a’Chroin and toasted our achievement – a Munro Two Step for John and Lisa, and Munros number 14 and 15 for Mike and me thus far.

We returned off Stuc a’Chroin from a small, steep notch in the north west ridge. It was a bit easier than going back down and around the north east buttress – but not by much! At the bottom of slope we began a relaxed contouring around the Dubh Chorein, over the north west ridge of Ben Vorlich, rejoining our original trail on the lower north east Vorlich ridge.

The light of evening was coming on, and I believe we were one of the last groups off the mountain. The trail that was so busy with people coming up was now busy with birds, sheep, and gurgling water. Loch Earn, and an evening dip to wash off the day’s exertions, drew us downwards. By 7:45 pm we were having a splash in the Loch, and by 8:00 were in the car on our way back to Glasgow. I think I am safe in considering this an officially seized day – Carpe Alba!

Hill walkers on the ridge Bealach an Dubh Choirein

A map of our route:

View Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin in a larger map

More pictures from Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Gambolling with Goats – our Ben Venue Romp, July 27, 2011

Ben Venue summit views - looking west toward Loch Lomond area
Ben Venue summit - John and Mike on top
 Friends Lisa and John arrived in Bonnie Sco’land on the afternoon of Monday, July 25. The weather was glorious so Mike and I didn’t waste any time in getting them out on a Scottish mountain. We selected beautiful Ben Venue for our first outing and by late Wednesday morning we were making our way up the lower slopes.

Lisa on the summit ridge
Lisa on the ridge to the eastern summit
(the Trig Point)
At 729 m (2391 ft) Ben Venue is not up to Munro height (over 3000 ft), but it is a Graham (Scottish mountain between 2000 and 2499 ft). In fact, it is the 53rd highest out of 224 Grahams in Scotland. But don’t be fooled by its small stature, Venue’s rugged character makes everyone earn their summit ridge views. And fantastic views they are too: lovely Loch Katrine wraps around the northern foot of the mountain; to the east are the aquamarine gems of Lochs Archay and Venachar; south are the green and gold plains of Stirling, the snub nose of Dumgoyne, and – if the day is clear – the towers of Glasgow; in the western distance line after line of craggy peaks dance into the blue curve of the sky.

Mike, Lisa, John - Venue summit
Views from the eastern summit looking
south -- Dumgoyne left over Lisa's shoulder
This is the heart of the Trossachs – Rob Roy and Lady of the Lake country. As fine a walk as you could want to serve as introduction to the Scottish Highlands. Mike and I have been eager to get here for some time. Mike’s Grandfather, Ralph Whitney, climbed Ben Venue after the end of the First World War. It, along with lofty Ben Lomond, gave him an appreciation for the mountains that lasted a lifetime. Our hike gave Mike a chance to see first hand the views that must have greeted Ralph when he did this hike over 90 years ago. I wonder if Ralph glimpsed the steamship Sir Walter Scott plying the waters of Loch Katrine? She has been ferrying visitors up and down the loch since 1900.We saw her glide by as we looked on Katrine from the summit.

Even though the walk got a bit scrambly in places everyone made it up and down with no problem. John fairly trotted to the top, while Lisa was a bit slower, but just as sure-footed. This is a popular walk and we shared the lower part of the hill with several people, but we had the top pretty much to ourselves. Luckily, a group we chatted with lower down, but who came up a different way, approached the summit just as we were about to leave. We asked them about their route up the eastern side of Venue and one fellow hauled out his camera and showed wonderful, close-up pictures of goats. He took them on the way up – so, guess which way we decided to go back down!

Feral goats on Venue's eastern slopes
Feral goats on Venue's eastern slopes
We romped down Venue’s rolling eastern ridge and soon enough had goats galore – probably about 20 in total. Apparently, feral goats have been known and written about in this territory since the time of Robert the Bruce. This particular population probably stems from a mixture of old stock roaming the hills and dairy goats released in 1918 after the Great War. As we approached several rather severe looking old billy-goats stood guard over their harems and gave us the eye if we got too close. But we all got a good look and took lots of pictures. Mike even tried to stare one down – guess who won!

About this time I began to worry about letting our B&B know that we were going to be delayed – we spent quite a bit of time enjoying the mountain – so I hurried down to the car park where I hoped to get the lend of someone’s cell phone. Sure enough, a Good Samaritan let me use his phone to call our hostess. While waiting for Lisa, John, and Mike to come down I pulled out my copy of Rob Roy – how perfect to enjoy Sir Walter Scott’s book in the very place it describes!

Our day in the Trossachs wasn’t finished when everyone got off the mountain. John saw a body of water close by (Loch Achray) and felt compelled to jump in. Nobody else joined in until a few minutes later when a suitable lay-by (Scottish for “place to somewhat safely pull the car over”) was sighted on the shores of Loch Venachar. Then it was John, Mike, and me for the water – Lisa was the official photographer. I won’t go into detail about who wore what into and out of the water – you’ll have to ask Lisa for the photos!

As evening closed we pulled into Lumsdain House, our farm-stay B&B, alongside the Union Canal close to the town of Linlithgow. Our hostess was waiting with tea and shortbread, and we added to the repast with a champagne picnic dinner out in the back yard – hens at our feet and cows lowing over the fence – a perfect end to a fine Scottish day.

Early evening on Loch Achray

A map of our route:

View Ben Venue in a larger map

More pictures from our romp on Ben Venue.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Wee Sail in the Western Isles: Skye, Canna, and Mull

Loch Scavaig views
At anchor in Loch Scavaig - the Darwin Sound is 2nd from the right
 On the morning of Wed, July 13 the wind was perfect for visiting the Isle of Skye. We lifted anchor, left Eigg behind us and sailed to a spectacular mountain-backed anchorage in Loch Scavaig on Skye’s south west coast. Simon and Karen, along with their dog Pippa, sailed with us on the Lola.

I can tell you that eating well at Scavaig was no problem. Simon dropped a line and caught a brace of mackerel that we grilled up for dinner. Karen made a rhubarb crumble for dessert, and we were well provisioned with wine and spirits. Of course, we deserved it after a bracing sail and a fine afternoon’s exploration on shore. Alan, Mike, and I climbed up one of the shoulders of Sgurr nan Eag in the Black Cullin mountains for a view down on the anchorage. Irene, Simon, Karen, and Pippa explored around Loch Coruisk.

Thursday morning we said goodbye to Karen, Simon, and Pippa – they were headed to Mallaig on the mainland and we were off to the Isle of Canna. Another of the Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides, Canna is owned completely by the National Trust for Scotland. It has one of the best anchorages in the Small Isles (that is not really saying a lot though – as we were to find out), and is home to Sea Eagles, Golden Eagles, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Murres, and Great Skua, to name a few. The hiking, history, and archaeology also make this a fine place to spend time.

Looking down on Canna's harbour
The harbour at Canna
 Our first day on Canna involved a brief trip ashore where we visited the Campbell mansion (Canna was the property of John and Margaret Campbell, and in 1981 they gave the island to the National Trust for Scotland), an ancient Celtic cross from the 8th or 9th century, and an even more ancient standing stone. On our way back to the boat we were invited to a wedding. That night, as dinner was finishing, we heard the skirl of bagpipes across the water. One of the other yachts had a piper on board and he treated the moorage to several selections. We all took a wee dram up to the bow, saluted the day and enjoyed the pipes as the sun sank below the horizon.
Irene takes a break in a field of buttercups, Island of Canna
Irene take a break while hiking on Canna

Friday was a bit overcast and windy, but we resolved to stay and give Canna a more complete exploration. We went ashore and visited the remains of an ancient stronghold (small castle), sea cliffs, and high trails. The highlight of the hike was watching a magnificent Sea Eagle swing by us on a thermal updraft. His wingspan looked to be over seven feet. These birds are rare in Scotland with only 33 breeding pairs in the entire country. To see one right in front of my nose was incredible – I went tearing down the cliff top trying to keep it in sight for as long as possible.

Classic "Summer in Scotland" moment
Mary hiking on Canna -- wind in my hair,
chasing Sea Eagles!

In the late afternoon we met a birder who put us on to a huge colony of Puffins, Murres (called Guillemots here) and Kittiwakes. Alan, Mike and I headed off into increasingly stiff winds to get a look at the birds. Irene decided to return to the boat. She arranged to pick us up with the dingy in a few hours. Our bird watching was a huge success – Puffins and Razorbills galore – to say nothing of Murres, Kittiwakes, and Fulmars. But, the best experience of all was getting attacked by a Great Skua when we inadvertently got too near its nest. The Skua, or Bonxie is a big bird – bigger than a Raven – and it can be very aggressive, making straight at your head with claws outstretched. Mike was leading and was the first “victim”. Needless to say he was quite startled and had to hit the dirt several times before the Bonxie realized there were a couple more of these strange two legged creatures to be seen off.

By now at least an hour and a half has passed since we left Irene. The rain was making itself felt and the wind was blowing very strongly. We made tracks to the agreed upon pickup place, but no Irene. The Darwin Sound was sitting right where we left her that morning, and through the binos we could see the dingy pulled up at the ferry slip – again, right where we left it. We decided that Irene had made friends with someone on her way back to the boat and had stopped to chat. So, we set off around the harbour, a walk of some two kilometres.

Al is attacked by a Great Skua

We met a woman along the way and Alan asked her if there was a “Department of lost wives” on the island, seeing as he had lost his. She said “Och, the Canadian girl. She’s had a wee bit of trouble. Her boat drifted aground”. That set us dashing for the water to check out the Darwin Sound – but there she was, riding at anchor, all safe and sound. I thought the Canna woman was a bit daft.

Turns out she wasn’t daft at all. About 20 minutes after Irene left us she was making her way back to the dingy. In front of Irene’s eyes, the Darwin Sound starts to glide across the harbour heading for the beach. The wind must have pushed the boat strongly enough to have the anchor come up off the bottom, allowing the boat to drift. Another sailor, Steven from the Lady G, also noticed the trouble, put his dingy in the water and headed over to help. He picked up Irene, who by this time was wading out to the boat, and dropped her on board. Irene immediately started the engine, attended to the anchor, and eased the boat back and forth, getting it off the beach and back into position.

The whole process did not take much more than half an hour, but if Irene had not happened by and if Steven had not been on board his boat and ready to help, the Darwin Sound would have been heeled over kissing the Canna sand. The boat did not seem to take any harm, but the same could not be said for Irene. She inadvertently crushed her finger under the companionway door – lots of blood spurting and a very nasty open gash on the finger.

Darwin Sound in Canna Harbour
Darwin Sound - safely moored in the
Canna harbour
Of course, by the time we got to the boat all the drama and excitement was over. Irene quite capably handled the entire emergency by herself -- including dressing her own wound, getting hot water bottles ready for the three of us, and preparing a restorative hot chocolate laced with triple sec for everyone to sip.

That evening we made a huge pasta dinner and invited Steven over to thank him for helping out. We had a fine time chatting about some of the darker moments in Scottish history (there are LOTS), sailing, and storms. All this with the wind wailing through the rigging and the boat rolling back and forth – it makes me a bit dizzy just writing about it.

Mary, Al, Irene - Loch Sunart
Sailing into Loch Sunart
Alan and Irene kept anchor watch that night while Mike and I crawled into our bunks and eventually drifted off to sleep. Overnight the wind calmed somewhat and the next day, after saying goodbye to Steven and the Lady G, we headed south around Ardnamurchan Point to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. It was a long sail and the wind was not as kind as previously, so the motor was on until Tobermory. But, after provisioning in town, and setting out across the Sound of Mull into Loch Sunart, we were able to turn off the motor and let the wind and sails do the work. It is such a treat to hear the engines go silent and feel the pull of the wind against sheet and line.

The anchorage at Loch Sunart was spacious and calm. Even though the wind came up you could have played snooker on deck. In the morning Mike and I would head back to Tobermory on Mull and catch a bus and ferry home to Glasgow. That evening, as we sat back enjoying the play of sunset light over the water, we raised a wee dram of Lagavulin whisky and toasted Al and Irene for a wonderful week sailing in the Western Isles.

Map of our sailing adventures:

View Sailing in the Western Isles in a larger map

More pictures from Arisaig and Isle of Eigg.
More pictures from Skye, Loch Scavaig, and Canna.
More pictures from Mull and Loch Sunart.

Loch Sunart in the evening
Sunset on Loch Sunart

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Wee Sail in the Western Isles - Arisaig to Isle of Eigg

The Rhu of Arisaig
The opening to Loch nan Ceall, Arisaig
In 1773, Samuel Johnson joined his Scots friend James Boswell in a tour of Scotland’s Western Isles (the Hebrides) that lasted several months – both wrote popular books on the trip. Mike and I got a wee taste of that journey when we joined Irene and Al Whitney on the Darwin Sound, their Dufour Classic 45 yacht, for a week of sailing through the Inner Hebrides. We saw the Small Isles of Eigg, Rum, Canna, and Muck, the southern section of Skye, and the north eastern section of Mull.

Like Boswell and Johnson, Mike and I were both unaccustomed to sailing – the last time we hauled on a rope was in 1991 on the Darwin Sound sailing in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the BC coast. I wish I could say Mike and I were quick studies, and effortlessly picked up the ways of a good sailor, but I don’t think that would be exactly the truth. However, like Boswell, we stood firm to our post, rope in hand, ready to haul when called upon. Actually, let me make a correction: we never hauled on a rope – there are no ropes on a yacht – we stood ready to haul on a line when called.

Mike was much better than me with the lines. I would say my biggest claim to nautical fame was helping get the cover back on the spinnaker sail – kind of like stuffing a giant sausage into a flapping casing. I was also adept at helping get the anchor up. But that was just about the extent of my sailing prowess.

Irene and Al - Rùm in the background
Irene and Al on top of An Sgurr, Eigg
Scotland gifted us with four lovely days out of seven – blue sky, warm temperatures, fair wind, and safe anchorage. The other three days were a bit more tempestuous, with grey skies, a spot or two of rain, less favourable wind, and one anchorage that turned difficult in a matter of minutes.

An Sgurr rising over Eigg
An Sgurr on Eigg

We began our adventure on Monday July 11 with a train trip out from Glasgow to the port village of Arisaig on the west coast. We travelled over the West Highland Line – one of the most scenic train journeys in Britain. The day was sunny and bright and highlights included the windswept crossing of Rannoch Moor, passing by the imposing locks of Neptune’s Staircase in the Great Glen, and chugging around the huge curve of Glenfinnan Viaduct (of Harry Potter fame – although quite famous before the boy wizard came along) 100 ft above Loch Shiel.

We met Irene and Al in Arisaig and spent the evening moored in its calm harbour. After a chance meeting with Simon, a friendly sailor from Eigg, and a bit of time ashore for an early morning hike, we weighed anchor and made for the Isle of Eigg.

Eigg was on my “to-do” list – or, more accurately, An Sgurr, a 58 million year old abutment of pitchstone lava – was on the list. Although not a very high hill (393 m /1,289 ft), its impressive prow of glass-like rock soars above the ocean. After mooring alongside Simon’s wooden boat (the Lola), we took the dingy to shore and headed up. The views from on top of An Sgurr were outstanding – Skye and the Black Cullin mountains blanketing the north, the shaggy volcanic remnants of Rum to the west, the low blue-green Isle of Muck, and the rugged Ardnamurchan peninsula to the south. It was just as beautiful as I had hoped.

IMG_4516The day was very warm and back on board Mike and I took our first dips of the trip – yes, the air temperature was about 18C and the water was 14.5C – summer in Scotland. In we went – I went in several times. We caused something of a stir on other boats moored in the area. That is, until they looked at the stern and saw we were flying the Canadian flag. Somehow, it was almost expected that Canadians wouldn’t feel the cold. Indeed, as I bobbed around with the jelly fish I heard one woman remark “Och, she’s from Canada so she will’na mind the chill”.
Full moon over the ocean - Isle of Eigg

Map of our sailing adventures:

View Sailing in the Western Isles in a larger map

More pictures from Arisaig and Isle of Eigg.

To be continued in the next post .....