Thursday, July 23, 2009

What happened next

This is a long one. You might want to make a cup of coffee/tea/hot chocolate before starting...

So instead of camping just south of Kylesku, we spent Wednesday night in a hotel in Inverness. If you've never carried a pack in weather that hot you may not fully comprehend the sheer blissfulness of our first showers; I was also slightly horrified by the salt encrustations on my underwear. Drinking water on tap was also a delightful novelty! Ticks were removed (I use a knife) and we fell into bed. Thursday morning we woke late and set out to explore Inverness and find something to soothe at least some of the insect bites on my legs and my face, which was reacting badly to the mix of cleg and midge bites.
Note the seagull, of which more anon.
I thought I'd taken more photos of Inverness, but the images are in my brain rather than on the computer. It's a delightful place, a pleasant combination of what seems to me to be a peculiarly Scottish 'niceness' (in the sense of neat, tidy and, above all, respectable) and a more modern outlook. The City centre has clearly been renovated recently, with pedestrianised areas and new slate pavement engraved with lines of poetry. Sadly many shops are vacant: the 'credit crunch' is biting here, and I feel so sorry for the Council that must balance the finances. The River Ness flows through the centre, with many bridges including two Victorian cast-iron suspension bridges for pedestrians. Each appears to have been cast in a different foundry. This is the view downriver from one of them.
I booked a bus tour to Orkney(!!!) for Friday at the Tourist Information Centre and, then armed with a streetmap, we set out for Leakey's Secondhand Bookshop on Church Street.
Hidden within this mild-mannered ex-Church is an absolute gem of a bookshop.
And a café, although we didn't sample it. Of course I bought books, but I did at least remember I'd have to carry everything I wanted to keep in my pack all the way home. He then confessed he felt ill, so we returned to the hotel where he fell asleep on the bed, and I spent the afternoon and evening spinning and admiring what seemed to be a constant thunderstorm.
It's raining, though you can't see it. Lightning strikes took out the shopping centre a couple of hundred yards away as well as the East Coast mainline signals. And through all this the seagulls waited. Click that picture for bigger and you'll see some of them. Central Inverness is *full* of seagulls. There's a gull for every chimney pot, every possible vantage point. It's... ominous. What are they waiting for? Who or what will give The Word, and what will happen?

We both skipped dinner Thursday night, settling for soup and crackers from the packs and yet more water, still trying to replace what we'd lost on Wednesday afternoon. And on Friday morning at 0730, we caught a bus to Orkney!

It's not like a car. Can't stop to take pictures.
Which is a shame, as I wanted to record the way the landscape changed as we travelled up the A9 to John o' Groats. Inverness and the area immediately to the north ('the Black Isle') are open, arable landscapes. Fields of barley, wheat and oats glowing green in the sun. Continue north and the green becomes pasture dotted with cows and sheep, and the hills (covered with forestry plantations) to the west crowd closer to the road. Welcome to Sutherland. As the fields shrink, the scrub encroaches. And then falls away from higher ground. The land opens out, gently rolling hills of rough pasture, and the scrub and trees retreat into valleys sheltered from the wind. We're in Caithness. There's something about these landscapes that reminds me of home, of Alberta. I think it's the sense of great space, of sky and light. I love it.
Better photos of this landscape and others are coming, I promise. We hired a car for the next expedition.

John o' Groats was both a disappointment and very exciting. I should have expected the small group of white buildings (a café, some houses, a shop or two and the ferry buildings) huddling on the coast. I somehow had forgotten what the sea would look like. The Pentland Firth was on very best behaviour, doing its level (ha!) best to imitate a millpond.
That's John o' Groats from the ferry. MV Pentland Venture. On an average day she seems to do a trip to Orkney, returns to run a wildlife-watching cruise, then back to being a ferry. Assuming the Pentland Firth is amenable.
Looking across the surface we could see areas where the waves met untidily in areas of short chop, while in others the water boiled and swirled as conflicting currents argued about right-of-way. I love the smell of the sea, the movement, and gazed happily at Orkney (actually South Ronaldsay) materialising out of the haze. And then the wind changed and brought the scent of the land. Orkney in July smells GREEN, of grasses and sweet clover and wildflowers. It's amazing. I suddenly understood how mariners could smell the land, follow that scent upwind to the meadows basking in sunlight.
Another bus, which restricted the photo opportunities. But this view across Scapa Flow shows what it looked like, even if you can't see all the wildflowers. Orkney is famous for wildlife – and now I understand why. Acres of unimproved grassland, full of wildflowers. Wildflowers in all the ditches, ragged robin and meadowsweet and more that I couldn't identify as the bus drove past. It's an utterly amazing place even if you discount its history. (Which we didn't.) For those who don't know, it's a group of islands just north of Scotland (and a lot south of the Shetlands). Google Earth has most of the islands obscured by cloud, but here's the link in case they put a better shot up. The ferry lands at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay, and the bus did a whirlwind tour of the highlights of the mainland. All of it glorious green and sweet-smelling, even if trees were lacking (they can't cope with the wind :-)

View Larger Map

The islands curve protectively around Scapa Flow, an extremely historically significant bit of water. The road is built across the Churchill Barriers, constructed to block channels that might have allowed submarines access to Scapa Flow.
There's a view of one of the Churchill Barriers. Standing clear of the water beside it are the remains of the blockships sunk in 1914 to bar the way in, refloated and moved after the war ended, then re-sunk at the beginning of WWII. When the barriers were built the blockships were simply moved to one side. They're proving popular with fish and marine organisms, and hence with divers. We saw several groups preparing for an afternoon exploring the wrecks.
It's a peaceful green landscape.
And this is what a village street looks like.

We had an hour for lunch in Kirkwall: we bought Orkney smoked salmon in one shop, baps in another and fruit in a third, and ate a picnic on the grass in front of St. Magnus Cathedral.
Just as I said the only thing lacking was some spinning fibre, I saw a sign advertising the Orkney Craftsmen's Guild Show. Where we found quite a lot of knitting and this display of products from North Ronaldsay wool.
The bags contain roving. It's interesting stuff, soft wool mixed with longer guard hairs and a scattering of true kemp. I think a fleece could be fun.

Clutching two bags of roving we returned to the bus, which took on a trainee bus tour driver (sitting up front we had a fascinating overview of guiding bus tours around Orkney, which bus companies are good for what, which are good for nothing... any locals care to guess which one 'makes Rapsons look good"?) and took us to see a fine view of Hoy, which has the only hills, the only peat, and thus the only midges in all of Orkney. I'm very glad they were over there and we were here.
And I had a chance to photograph some of the flowers I'd been admiring as a blur of colour in the grasses.
And then we went to Skara Brae. Now, I've seen more TV programmes about it than I can count, and wanted to see it for real since I saw the first programme. What can I say? It's smaller than I imagined, and yet it's bigger. It stretches beyond measure if you think of what it means, of the people who lived here 4,000–5,000 years ago.
That's the central passageway. Archaeologists think that the stone houses and this passageway were originally roofed with timber and whalebone and completely covered with midden refuse, soil and anything else that insulated and sheltered the homes. You can see the doorways into the houses from the passageway.

The low opening in the far wall is the door. Those upright slabs to the right of the door (photo left) were a bed. The space enclosed by the slabs was probably filled with dry grass or something to make a mattress. There are shelves built into the wall above and beside the door that might have held lamps and other useful or beautiful things.
On the far wall of this house is one of the 'dressers' that might have held food (those slabs are cold) or... anything, really. The small square enclosures edged by upright slabs might have been places to store crabs or other seafood, in seawater if they were watertight, or kept damp in seaweed.

I looked at the houses and I looked at myself and the rest of the tourists and I thought about how very, very far we've travelled in 5,000 years.

And then we saw the Ring of Brodgar. And walked to it across a bog filled with cottongrass and meadowsweet and orchids, with curlews swearing at us :-)

The northernmost and third-largest Neolithic stone henge in Britain, about 4,000 years old. Why and by whom? Scarcely anything is known, as there have been few archaeological investigations here. I did a non-archaeological investigation: I touched one of the stones, held my palm to the rough surface and thought about 4,000 winters, storm-filled darkness, and 4,000 summers full of sunlight and flowerscent.
In the carpark I talked with an SNH representative. He asked what I thought of Orkney and I struggled for the words to describe the way the scent hit like a hammerblow, out on the Pentland Firth, and the green and the history and the flowers and the birds, and he grinned in complete understanding. A kindred spirit. I asked about the wind and the long, long winter nights, and he said it's part of life here. And I understood completely.

We drove past Maeshowe, which appears to be an unassuming lump unless you know what it is. I want to be there on the winter solstice, to fully understand what it means to know the light is coming back to the land.
And then, and then... On the way back to the ferry we stopped at the Italian Chapel. The Churchill barriers were built by Italian prisoners-of-war who displayed the same spirit that created the great cathedrals built in any age. With found materials – barbed wire, tin cans – and paint they created an elegant place of worship from two Nissen huts. The images on the first link are as good or better than mine, but I prefer my picture of Domenico Chiocchetti's statue. Executed in concrete and barbed wire, St George killing the dragon stands here for people killing the impulse to war.

Tune in next time for some spinning, I think, as well as a trip to the Cairngorms. As a member of Team Suck Less on the Ravelry Tour de Fleece, I've spun every day since July 4. And on 12 July, I spun and plied a mile of yarn. Not my best spinning ever (I think that came later in the Tour), but I'm proud nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sutherland Trail again

or, as I prefer to think of it: bad timing, but a good time.
As you read this, bear in mind that I am very, very bad at hot weather. I was born and raised in a cold country and I just can't cope with heat. Unfortunately, our second try for this coincided with an unprecedented heat wave across the UK, with temperatures exceeding 30C in southern England: even Scotland was in the high 20s (unheard of!). Add to this a lingering UTI (me) and lingering viral cough (him) and the end result isn't surprising. But we had a damn good time trying :-)

So. This time we caught the Tim Dearman service to Lochinver, which leaves Inverness at 0850 to arrive at Lochinver at 1150-ish, earlier and more convenient than the post bus from Lairg. Heading cheerfully up the track as before, we discovered a major difference: clegs (scroll down here). As we usually visit Scotland in May or October we'd never encountered them in such numbers before and, like every other biting insect I've met, 9 out of 10 clegs prefer Me. There were midges about, but hot, dry weather reduces the lifespan of adults and the light wind kept them off us except in sheltered hollows. Sadly clegs are much stronger flyers. As are Tabanid horseflies (the big ones) and deerflies (patterned wings form a very obvious triangle when at rest). All of which spurred us to press on at a cracking pace too fast for comfort in the heat. We reached the small cairn marking the track to Suilven at about 1500 (I think), and decided to try for it despite the heat on the grounds that we'd regret it if we didn't. We left the big packs behind a hummock, took the convenient hydration bladder out of his pack - kudos to Osprey for integrating a lightweight backpack harness - and set off, pursued by midges. I made it to the saddle, then decided my pounding heat-headache suggested discretion, and just sat for about 30 minutes while he explored the western summit.
Even from the saddle the views are spectacular. The mountains of northwest Scotland are inselbergs, isolated peaks rising from relatively flat ground. The heat haze almost obscures them, but looking south we could see the shoulder of Cul Mor on the left, with Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh in the distance.

This was the view north, past Loch na Gainimh to Canisp. A light shower cooled the first part of the descent, but lower down it just made the air even more humid. We picked up the packs in a cloud of midges and headed east on the path beside Loch na Gainimh. We hoped to find a good campsite on the relatively flat ground at the eastern end of the Loch, with the added bonus (please!) of a breeze off the water to keep the midges at bay. It almost worked: there was a relatively flat patch, but the breeze didn't last long. We donned our trousers-legs (I love zip-offs), jackets, hats and midge-nets in seconds flat, then sat disconsolately with clouds of frustrated midges whining around our heads. Getting into the tent was an interesting exercise, but we had a pleasant 15 minutes killing those that made it in with us, while sneering at the hordes crawling over the tent inner and mesh.

A light spatter of rain on the fly woke us at 0430 to a morning that remained midge-free as long as we stayed on the beach and the breeze blew our scent out over the water.
By 0515 we were away, heading east toward Lochan Fada and the climb to the shoulder of Canisp.
The path becomes indistinct in places along the shore, but with an OS map we knew where we were even if we weren't on the path. We roughly followed the line of the stream up from the loch at 207167, then west and a bit north for the Bealach na Suileig. The skies were clearing fast as we reached higher ground.
And the sun was getting hot already. We took a break to de-tick: the multitude of deer tracks along the lochside had suggested there'd be a lot, and there were. As I'm usually the pathfinder, I had the worst of it. Ticks are very vulnerable to dehydration; putting my socks on a hot rock in hot sun made the scurrying dots easy to find and remove. The morning was now glorious: cooled by a light breeze we sauntered along and down the hillside, keeping reasonably high as long as possible for easier walking and fewer clegs.
The view northwest to Inchnadamph from low on the shoulder of Canisp; the Loanan is largely hidden by the slope. The path past Inchnadamph climbs the hill rising out of shot to the right.

If you're worrying about crossing the Loanan (here are some keywords for search engines: ford cross wade river depth deep) as you read this, note that buses to Lochinver travel the A837, which has decent views of the river so you can assess the depth before you start the walk. If you decide it's not for you, head westish from the Bealach na Suileig for the footbridge where the Loanan leaves Loch Awe (the stream into Loch na Gruagaich is small and easily crossed - check Google Earth to see the line of the paths across it - and should you need it, there's an unmarked bridge on the outflow stream). The circular walk from Inchnadamph to Canisp and back in the Cicerone guide suggests crossing the Loanan near Stronechrubie, but we read this after we'd done it. We took a line heading for the valley of the Allt na Uamh, and crossed the Loanan at roughly 251179 with no trouble at all: he was dryshod, I miscalculated a step :-). After a week of dry weather nowhere in this wide shallow was more than ankle deep. I'd be willing to bet that it wouldn't be a lot deeper even during a normal summer.
From here we walked through flowering meadows (and clegs) beside the river, then headed for the road verge hoping for more wind and fewer clegs. I'm embarrassed to say we were grateful for the wind of every vehicle that passed us, even *shudder* the, ah, scented breeze following the refuse truck. After an early lunch in the picnic site at Inchnadamph (a couple of cyclists were packing up a tent in the far bay, hidden from the road), we headed uphill. And uphill, and uphill again. No rest. No shade (there are no trees on the hillsides), scarcely any breeze, and the sun was hammering down. If we faltered, the clegs, big horseflies and deerflies pounced... well, actually they don't pounce. They land so lightly you don't feel them until they bite. Hot and hotter, with sweat running from my hatband into my eyes and a headache tapping, then hammering at the base of my skull.

More and more slowly I trudged, pausing briefly at the top of each rise if the breeze was noticeable. Somewhere around 274235, as we topped one rise only to find another beyond it, he said he was out of water. We carry a Katadyn filter capable of purifying even green slime (or so the manufacturers claim), and so far we'd been able to refill our bladders from runnels as we walked... but this hillside was dry. The nearest water was the stream at the bottom of the valley (down that hill and back again?) or a lochan, perhaps as much as a half hour further up the path at
the speed at which we were crawling. I considered my condition and his, the distance/altitude needed to reach even a possible campsite, let alone the point we'd hoped to reach that evening, and decided this was Not Fun. If we pressed on we ran the risk of heat exhaustion and injury simply because we were tired. The logical choice was to return to Inchnadamph, and I felt no regret at all as I said so.

We could have camped there and gone on again in the morning, but we were each favouring one of our knees (the climb up Suilven took its toll on our aged joints)... and the next day was forecast to be just as hot or hotter. So we sank onto the benches in the picnic ground and waited for the Tim Dearman coach to pass (at 1700) on its way back from Durness. We played 'I Spy' (does anyone else think 'green' is not 'something beginning with G'? 'Grass' by all means, but 'green' is a, a quality, not a thing. Hmph). We were rained on. We read the interpretation boards again (Inchnadamph is in the North West Highland Geopark, which celebrates this astonishingly beautiful and interesting landscape). And I took a picture of the memorial to Ben Peach and John Horne, whose names I knew before ever we visited this place. It's difficult to imagine how they achieved what they did, and every time I open the geological maps of northwest Scotland, my eyes are drawn to their names on the corner of the map. Their work lives on; long may it inspire others.
The memorial is the small cairn on the hill in the middle distance.

By 2015 we were in a hotel in Inverness. And it was just as well, because on Thursday he was ill. But on Friday we went to Orkney, and on Saturday and Sunday we drove up to Tongue. Stay tuned for more Scotland. And remember that, despite the midges and the clegs and the deerflies and the heat... we'd be back there like a shot if the chance arose. The land and its people are worth every bite.

PS. We've decided that Day Two of the Sutherland Trail as written is just too long/hard for us: Flatland (East Anglia) just doesn't offer enough opportunities for peak fitness. So... we'd consider camping at Suilven, then taking the route up the western end of Canisp described in the Cicerone guide to come down the shoulder and into Inchnadamph for an early night before hitting the long, long climb to the Bealach na-h-Uidhe fresh in the morning.