Thursday 28 June 2012

Old Man and The Birds

West Orkney's superlative coast runs in a series of cliffs and bays all the way from Noup Head on Westray, down Rousay and the mainland, and along the entire west and south-western coast of Hoy. Having walked Skaill Bay to Stromness, the logical next step was to head south to Hoy and experience some of its amazing cliff scenery.

The Old Man of Hoy:

As well as the seacliffs, Hoy has the highest hills in Orkney, culminating at 479m on Ward Hill. It has one of Scotland's most atmospheric bays at Rackwick. It also has one of the most singular sights anywhere around the British coast - the Old Man of Hoy.

Hoy held something else for me that I did not count on, but we will come to that...

Rackwick bay and Hoy's hills from the Stromness ferry:

From Moaness, where the the passenger ferry from Stromness terminates, I took to the moorland while everyone else took the road. The steep lump of Ward Hill - highest on Orkney - was quickly climbed. A large bonxie crowned the summit cairn. It flew off unhurriedly at my arrival, having eyeballed my approach without fear. It was nesting season, and not the last bonxie I was to see that day.

From Ward Hill I dropped down to the road again near the Dwarfie Stane (to my shame, I was in too much of a hurry to take the short detour to see this remarkable rock-cut neolithic monument), and headed up Trowieglen towards the Knap, small green fish in the burn. The bonxies gathered. Was that bird aiming for me? It was! I ducked. The next time, I swung my camera bag, and it effortlessly tacked away from my feeble swat. The Knap was swarming with bonxies. It was Inchcolm all over again. I spun round to face their attacks. I was not being physically harmed, but a large bird swooping at me at 35mph and wheeling away for another attack with a cold shark eye was intimidating. As I descended from the summit I realised there were four lining up to divebomb me simultaneously. For the sake of my sanity, I simply ignored them. My hair was pulled, but no more than that. A hat would be advisable next time I visited the hills of Hoy.

Bonxie attack!

At Rackwick there was a merciful interlude from the bonxies. This is a remote and wild feeling place, ringed by seacliffs, waves thundering in. Rackwick, according to George Mackay Brown, was where Orcadians went to get a bit of wilderness. It was a favourite place of poets and painters in his day. The holiday homes in Rackwick today are for hardy families whose children were playing in the surf. Longing to linger, but aware of ferry timetables, I headed out from Rackwick along the path to the Old Man of Hoy and back into bonxie territory.

St John's Head and the Old Man from the Stromness ferry:

The 137m Old Man of Hoy is not the highest seastack in the British Isles, but it is certainly the most famous. I sat in the heather and looked at it for a while, and when the other day trippers walked back to Rackwick and the Moaness minibus, I took a different route back, along the seacliffs of St John's Head. While the Old Man is a singular curiosity, the cliffs of St John's Head are truly impressive: over twice the height of the Old Man, towering 350m sheer from the sea. This must be the most spectacular spot in the whole of Orkney.

A boat gives scale to St John's Head:

From the top of St John's Head, two options are available. I could head down and have a look at the unusual corrie of Enegars - the bottom of which ends in a seacliff - or I could head over Cuilags direct back to Moaness. Time was tight to catch the ferry, so I strode across the moor to Cuilags, ignoring the bonxies. And then I nearly stepped on a bonxie nest, the chick white, uncamoflagued, helpless. For a moment I felt a pang of empathy for the parent and its vulnerable chick. This was why they were attacking me, not because they were evil. Well, perhaps that too, a little bit. Back at the ferry waiting room a bird display suggests avoiding walking these moors in summer to give the bonxies peace. I think I will take that suggestion on board and visit Hoy again out of season. Not in summer when the nights never truly darken, but late autumn perhaps, when the wind cuts black on the moor tops and the waves roar white into Rackwick.

The hills of north Hoy from Stromness:

Thursday 21 June 2012

Skaill Bay to Stromness - Part 2

Click here for part 1 of the walk...

Over the next headland we came to Yesnaby. Here a dead-end road reaches the coast and we saw a few visitors, looking for primula scotica or heading out to the Broch of Borwick and Broch of Biggin. Orcadian and American voices mingled with the skylark's liquid song and the sharp cries of the oystercatcher. The sea was as gentle as it ever is in these parts. We continued to the seastack called Yesnaby Castle.

Yesnaby Castle:

Beyond Yesnaby the the cliffs grew higher and the moorland more remote, and we saw no more people until the road into Stromness. Bonxies circled us, walking on short grass high above the snoozing, sun burnished sea. It was always tempting to stray too close to the cliffs... the steep sides of a small burn formed a sheltered suntrap out of the wind, as it stilled to an infinity pool before tumbling sheer into the sea. Tranquility on the edge of violence.

Infinity pool:

The most spectacular part of this coast is saved for those willing to make the most effort. A couple of miles from Yesnaby Castle, the cliffs overhang at North Galton, forming a high, slim seastack and deep, booming caves. To canoe into these with the sea so calm!

Galton Caves:

I refused to go any closer to the seastack of Galton Castle than this, the movement of the rippling sea and an insistent onshore breeze suddenly unsteadying. Hares lolloped inland away from us. The stack, formed of pancakes of sandstone, drops 215ft to the sea, cosy home of a few brace of fulmar.

Galton Castle:

We were starting to feel the effects of the day's sun on our pasty, rain-softened skin, but beyond the next headland, further views pulled us onward.

Hareopolis - looking north:

Cliffs south of Galton:

What a walk! We were glad to reach Stromness after a day of tramping and being wind and sun beaten. Save this walk for a good day - you want the views, and you don't want blown off the edge of these cliffs!

Skaill Bay to Stromness - Part 1

For a while I've fancied walking the west coast of Orkney. Miles of seacliffs, beautiful bays and iconic seastacks tempted, and after a previous recce it struck me that the entire west coast of Orkney - from Noup Head in Westray to the south side of Hoy - is worth traversing. To start with, I decided to walk the heart of this area - a fine day's tramp from Skaill Bay to Stromness.

The walk started at Skaill Bay. This beach is overlooked by world-famous UNESCO heritage site Skara Brae, hoaching with visitors thanks to a visiting cruise boat in Kirkwall bay. Yet not one person at Skara Brae crossed the low fence and scrambled down the bank to the sands. On the finest day of the year so far this superlative beach remained deserted.

Skaill Bay:

Across the bay oystercatchers roamed the fields and bi-ghlic'ed at our approach. The views opened up north to Marwick Head and south as far as the Old Man of Hoy. Succession after succession of magnificent seacliffs. Occasional geos cleaved the coast, display galleries for cliff-hugging fulmars.

Ramna Geo:

In this area one of the world's rarer plants can be found - primula scotica, which grows only on a couple of headlands in Orkney and Caithness. We didn't see it on this walk, but did on a return visit! A colourful and tiny flower, it must be tough, thriving on the edge of a hostile sea. I can't believe how pleased I was to see this, given its beauty and rarity. The edge of the lowish cliffs here are crumbling, assaulted, naked rock, with the tough grass, growing inland out of the range of the storm waves, littered with the remains of boulders broken from the cliff edge or heaved up from the sea.

Primula Scotica:

At the Broch of Borwick we saw our first people since Skara Brae. This secluded iron-age ruin sits tucked in a bay above a difficult landing site, the arc of its sea view narrowed by more prominent headlands on either side. Not a good site for a watch tower. But perhaps this was no watch tower? Then what was its function?

Broch of Borwick:

This walk was so awesome I have had to divide into two posts. Click here for part 2 of the walk...

Tuesday 12 June 2012

LAMM 2012 - Beinn Mhic Monaidh

For Saturday - click here.

Sunday start:

I mentioned the midges enough in my last post and won't labour the point here. Suffice to say, a few handfuls of dry oats inside our tent, and we were packed and off by 6:10 without a backward look at camp. (We were permitted to start earlier than others thanks to taking 9 hours on Saturday). Today's route: back up the glen we had come down last night to Beinn Larachan, over to the place marked Sligeanach (shielings) on the map, most of the way up but then off to the side of Beinn Mhic Monaidh, down to the forest above Glen Orchy, up and round again to the side of Beinn Donachain, over to the other side of the same hill, then steeply down to the base camp. The initial ascent was unpleasant, the runners before us having woken the midges who feasted on our glowing faces. The cloud was down too, which could have made for testing navigation, but in the end it merely flirted with the tops. We incorrectly aimed slightly off for the first checkpoint, having to drop downhill a bit to find it, runners everywhere as the B and C courses converged. It was exciting to see the competitors in the chasing start with their numbers on, especially when a higher number passed us before the lower did. The chase was on! "Just as well we don't have numbers too," I said to Graham, "or I would be pushing on to overtake C111!" We plodded on in our anonimity, and goggled to see two runners tied together, fore and aft, with string - presumably for the purpose of the stronger front running pulling the weaker rear runner along, but it looked like a good way to cause a slip.


Beinn a'Chuirn was an unbagged Marilyn, and after we laboured up to its shoulder I dropped my pack and ran up and back to claim a tick, feeling feather-light without my rucksack. "I think I packed wrongly for this event!" said Graham, who perhaps had the heaviest pack in the entire race. I thought of last night's bottle of wine and saluted his sacrifice.

On the way up Beinn Mhic Monaidh we ground practically to a halt, running on empty. Dry oats had been no substitute for a Wilf's breakfast, and we stopped early for lunch. Nobody was running at this point. Anyone who has never seen a mountain marathon might harbour the idea that everybody runs the entire thing, carrying nothing but a bumbag, tiny wee shorts, a handful of barley sugars and a cheeky smile, but apart from the very fastest nobody ran uphill (a little downhill trot was another matter). There is not much running on a mountain marathon. Just very fast walking, and as little stopping as possible. I grumbled unmanfully about the course at this point. Having looked at the map the night before and worked out a lovely potential route, I wondered what sort of sadist would send us on a day of mid-altitude bumbling over peat hags and tussocky ground? And what sort of masochist would sign up to it? Orienteering is a crazy thing to do. Aiming for a small, distant target, with hazards defending the route, and frustration on getting close to the targets but missing them? Orienteering is golf on a bigger scale. But then, just before the subsidiary top on Beinn Mhic Monaidh, we contoured round and hit checkpoint 3 dead on. Satisfaction. Getting to checkpoint 5 was going to be unpleasant, but after that we could coast downhill all the way.

Graham on top of the last ascent of the day:

We dropped down to checkpoint 4, where a kind gentleman opened a bag of jelly babies and offered us some. Fortified, we made the best time of the day, and the last ascent was, surprisingly, the easiest. I had been worried about how my knee would hold out but, perhaps thanks to the exercises I have been doing in Chris Highcock's Hillfit download, I ended the day stronger than when we started. By the time we reached the summit of Beinn Donachain to take a bearing to checkpoint 5 the crowds had dispersed, and the day seemed for the first time like a normal hillwalk. Just us and the bogs and the mist. I spotted an antler and Graham an entire deer skeleton. There were plenty deer about, spooked as this unfashionable hillside sees very few walkers and today there were hundreds.

A nice wee bog orchid to end the day.

Did we enjoy ourselves? Occasionally. Will we do it again? Perhaps, if the organisers will have us. We learned a lot about preaparation and packing that would stand us in good stead for future races. Many thanks to the organisers, volunteers, Arrochar MRT and their collie - and the poor sods who are probably at this very moment dismantling the marquee at base camp, midges getting their last LAMM bonanza of the year!

LAMM 2012 - Ben Cruachan

The Midges' Story

The midges of Argyll salute Lowe Alpine for their generosity to the local economy. We feasted on blood in the tents, one the field, by the Kinglass, and in the queue for the toilets. Mmm soft human flesh - more palatable by far than the tough skins of sheep and deer!

Craig's Story

Base camp:

I rarely venture up the west coast these days, and had completely forgotten one of my old golden rules: Don't camp in the west Highlands in summer. Before we even left the car at a field near the head of Loch Awe and saw the race marshalls in midge hats and gloves I remembered why. Our base camp tent was quickly raised - it heartened me to see a few other Vango Force 10s on the site, orange canvas as weathered as the checkpoints we were to seek the next day. I wouldn't want to carry a Force 10 up a hill, but the groundsheet is so solid you could row across Loch Awe in one. We checked in, and although worried our progress might be unacceptably pedestrian for what is, after all, a race, the marshall assured us this would not be a problem, so we stuck with the C course, rather than switch to the D course. A few pints from the bar, the sight of some faces last seen over a decade ago (hello Kirk of the Antarctic), and an early night.

Taynuilt Peak, Saturday:

Saturday dawned dull and breathless, a miasma of midges hanging over the field. The queue for the toilets was like a scene from a circle of suffering in The Inferno, one edited at the draft stage because it made Dante laugh too much. Oh for a midge hood! We expected rain, but by the time our bus arrived to take us to - who knows where? (not having experienced a mountain marathon before, we had naively assumed we would start from the campsite) the sun had triumphed and the weather was superb from start to finish. Navigation was easy as a result. We were decanted at Cruachan Dam - a spectacular starting point - and had a look at the checkpoint coordinates handed out to us as we stuck our dibbers in the start mark. Lots of contouring! The route went, roughly: Cruachan dam, contour up and round the base of the Taynuilt Peak, round to the Lairig Noe and up Beinn Eunaich, then down to Glenkinglas Lodge via Meall Beithe. At the first checkpoint we took a slightly different route to most others which worked well, but thereafter found ourselves largely following the crowd. This method had its risks however, as people wandered up and down the Allt Lairig Lanachan looking for checkpoint 4, 100m lower than it actually was. We were fooled into looking for it in this location as well for a while, until a glance at the map revealed we were wasting time.

Skull, near Allt Lairig Lanachan:

Speaking of wasting time - did any other teams stop for lunch or was that a tactical mistake? Having brought sandwiches we stopped and enjoyed them at the top of Lairig Noe, watching a brave pair attempt a contour around to checkpoint 4 instead of dropping 100m and taking the landrover track.

Checkpoint 4 was the fulcrum of this day, as just before and afterwards we slowed considerably, watching the trail of pain ascend the slopes of Beinn Eunaich. A great view from the top when we arrived, and relatively easy ground all the way back. What a fantastic area this is in good weather. We chatted to an Irish team who had done the C course four times and claimed this was the hardest yet. I heard a distant crackle of a walkie-talkie near checkpoint 5 but couldn't see the source. Later, a helicopter arrived, and on reading the LAMM website I realised this was for Thijs De Jong. Get better soon Thijs!

Beinn Eunaich view:

It was all downhill from checkpoint 6, though we were reluctant to arrive, conscious that the longer we spent on the hill, the less time we would have to spend at a midge-infested midcamp. But miraculously, a small breeze greeted us on arrival and we were able to get the tent up and have a dip in the river Kinglass unmolested! How fine it was sitting outside the tent, chatting to friends on the Score course, whose eyebrows raised as my partner Graham produced a bottle of wine from his rucksack to go with dinner. Unfortunately at that point the wind dropped, and we retired early to our borrowed tent, midges circulating freely within.

Checkpoint 6:

A word about camping. I have heard it bandied about by people who don't know what they are talking about that camping is supposed to be fun. This is missing the entire point about camping. Surrounded by 400 snoring runners and ten million midges, and hoping nobody completely unconnected with the race had decided, purely by chance, to have a nice remote camp in this exact area, I drifted off to sleep thinking of the great improvement this experience was bringing to our characters.

For Sunday - click here.

Thursday 7 June 2012

LAMM Practice on the Buchailles

For some reason - I must have temporarily forgotten damaging my knee and being out of action for months after 2010's Island Peaks Race - I recent signed up to this year's Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon. Concerned about our ability to do a long walk, at the weekend we went for a training trauchle over the two Buchailles in Glencoe. Glencoe is one of those rare places that looks good whatever the weather, but what a tremendous place to be on a fine day!

Impressions: newts, bog myrtle, trickling water, sun, sweat, banter, other walkers, orchid, rhyolite, crampon marks, dust, cloud, gravel, snow, pain, ptarmigan, mighty views, jelly legs.

Buchaille Etive Mor's second top:

The Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon is held in a different Highland location each year, with the location being kept secret until midday on the Thursday of the event weekend - by the time you read this, we should know where we will be over the coming weekend!

Buchaille Etive Beag from the Glencoe road:

As we were driving back my companion Graham mentioned that Scotland was in negotiations to have the Tour de France prologue in 2017. Imagine the Tour de France crossing Rannoch Moor on a morning of sunshine and promise like today! They'd be beating the tourists off with a shitty stick.

Glen Etive from the wee Buchaille:

Monday 4 June 2012

Orcadian Spring

It had been raining every day for a month and a half, the heatwave of late March a distant memory. It wasn't looking good for a holiday on Orkney in May. "Summer is going to start the day we go on holiday," I told people who asked. And do you know what? It did.

Stromness Harbour on arrival:

One of the great things about Orkney as a visitor is the variety of things to see and do. There aren't high hills, but there is great coastal scenery, fantastic beaches, wildlife, friendly people, boat and plane trips, a couple of characterful towns, and of course an incredible amount of historical remains. And one of the things worth enjoying when in Orkney is the distinctive food - Orkney cheese, beer, oatcakes, beef, seafood, and mutton. Armed with a book called Orkney Spirit and food from Kirkwall fishmonger Jolly's, I made Dark Island marinaded beef, crab mayo and mushrooms, spoot bree, and my favourite, grilled North Ronaldsay lamb (wild ranging and fed on seaweed, North Ronaldsay mutton tastes more like game). All the better to power us round the next few blog entries...

Stones of Stenness, 10pm: