#296 – Foel Fras and Drum from Bwlch y Ddeufaen

Foel Fras (left) and Llwytmor (right)

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then close that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The Covid lockdown had prohibited all but local travel in Wales from December 2020 to March 2021, and much as I enjoy my local hills, I was ready for something a bit more impressive. When the movement ban was finally lifted, I knew exactly where we would head for – the magnificent mountains of the Carneddau, just a 40 km (25 mile) drive from home.

The mountains of the Carneddau

Until moving to North Wales ten years ago, I had hardly ventured onto the Carneddau (it translates as ‘Cairns’) but since then it has become one of my favourite Welsh mountain areas and compared with the rest of Wales, there is nothing quite as wild, or perhaps even intimidating to the novice.  The range includes seven out of the fifteen peaks in North Wales that are over 3000ft (915 metres), as well as a couple of major climbing crags – think of it as a mini-Cairngorms.

The route to Foel Fras via Bwlch y Ddeufaen and Drum showing directions of travel

Back in 2011 I wrote, “ It’s the biggest upland mass south of the Scottish border, and you could comfortably move the Snowdon Range and the Glyderau into the space the Carneddau occupies, and still have room left over.  They are surprisingly quiet hills, though.  The reasons for that soon become apparent – long walks in and out, high summits and an almost featureless plateau that in bad weather becomes a navigation trap for the unprepared.”

Closer view of the route with the start point (blue flag) and Foel Fras (red flag) marked

Our plan was to head for Drum (pronounced ‘Drim’ and meaning ‘Ridge’ in English) via the North Wales Path which follows the old Roman Road from Segontium (Caernarfon)  to Deva (Chester).  The Roman Road leads to Bwlch y Ddeufaen (Pass of Two Stones) where we would turn uphill on the slopes of Drosgl (not the better known and more spectacular Drosgl above Bethesda) to meet the track leading to the summit of Drum – there, we would decide if we were going to continue to Foel Fras.

The old Roman Road (now the North Wales Path) heading towards Bwlch y Ddeufaen
One of the two stones at Bwlch y Ddeufaen

Those who know the route will realise that the carpark at the road head is at an altitude of 420 metres (1377 ft), a nice little boost for shoulders that hadn’t been carrying a heavy hill rucksack for several months!  A short distance from the carpark is the Bwlch y Ddeufaen with the two standing stones that give their name the pass.  These possibly date to the Bronze Age or earlier, making them around 4000 years old, twice as old as the Roman Road which followed the same pass.

The Roman Road and the two stones, with the electricity pylons removed using Affinity editing software
Another view of the Two Stones, again without the pylons

Others have followed the same route since, including cattle drovers up to the middle of the 19th Century, but the biggest changes to the outlook came in the 20th Century when electricity pylons were built to carry power lines as part of the National Grid.  The scenery here is so dramatic that the power lines are a minor intrusion and will probably be gone long before the standing stones disappear.  However, for those who can’t wait that long, I’ve used photo editing software to remove the pylons from two images above – think of it as a preview!

View of our route by the stone wall, rising from the valley and climbing the slopes of Drosgl opposite (2015)
Another view of the stone wall, seen from Foel Lwyd – the ridge on the skyline leads to Drum on the left (2015)
The stone stone wall on Drosgl, looking back to Foel Lwyd (the viewpoint for the previous image)
Llyn Anafon (the lake below) and Carneddau ponies seen from Carnedd y Ddelw on the Drum Ridge
The track leading to the summit of Drum, with Foel Fras on the right

From the bwlch, we set off uphill following the stone wall that climbs the slopes of Drosgl – the ascent isn’t unduly steep, but it does go on a bit and it was good when things finally levelled out just before Carnedd y Ddelw (Cairn of the Image or Statue).  From here we had our first sighting of Carneddau ponies (more of which later) above Llyn Anafon, before we reached the track leading to the summit of Drum.

Bwlch y Gwryd seen from Drum, with Foel Fras rising beyond
Chris and Border Collie ‘Mist’ at Bwlch y Gwryd, heading towards Foel Fras
Last of the winters snow, just below Foel Fras summit
Chris and ‘Mist’ at Foel Fras summit

From Drum, the summit of Foel Fras rose above us, 170 metres higher but with a height loss of 50 metres to Bwlch y Gwryd before starting upwards again.  We didn’t spend long reaching a decision and set off towards the eleventh highest summit in Wales, the ‘Broad Bare Hill’, otherwise Foel Fras – well, It would have been rude not to!  There were patches of snow left from the winter and the summit was chilly enough to make a quick turn-round seem like a good idea.

The track down to the Roman Road crossroads on a clear day ….
…. but it’s a misty, moisty day for us on this trip – more Carneddau ponies along the way

The return was initially via Drum, but we opted for the old Land Rover track to reach the Roman Road (see post #219 for the story of the track and the secret ‘Blue Joker’ radar project of the 1950’s).  On the way we saw more of the wild ponies that live on the Carneddau – I read recently somewhere that “if you are lucky, you may see them”, but in my experience luck doesn’t come into it and it’s more unusual not to come across them.

Down on the Roman Road, and still misty – with even more Carneddau ponies

Down on the Roman Road, we made rapid progress back towards Bwlch y Ddeufaen.  The mist we had run into on the track down persisted along the Roman Road, but it didn’t seem to bother a larger group of ponies we met along the way.  The other ‘Mist’ (Border Collie ‘Mist’ that is) wasn’t interested in the ponies, as usual – it was too near to dinner time to waste time looking at the locals.

Panorama of Foel Fras (left) and Llwytmor (right)

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#295 – Ben Lomond

Ben Lomond above Loch Lomond – © Unknown

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Just so you know where you are!

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I’m a creature of habit, and most of my trips to the mountains of the Scottish Highlands follow the same route up country.  On my first visit, a long long time ago, I travelled via the A84 through Callander to Lochearnhead, the A85 through Crianlarich and Tyndrum then the A82 to Glencoe and beyond, and to travel any other way just seems odd – well it does to me anyway.  So, that’s the way I usually go.

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park – Ben Lomond in the centre

I’ve returned south via the A82 on the west side of Loch Lomond on a handful of occasions, but that way takes you via Glasgow, which a poor finish to a Highland trip.  What’s more, until a couple of years ago, I had never turned off the A84 to the Trossachs and the east side of Loch Lomond.  So, the autumn 2020 trip to Scotland was a good chance to fill in that gap, which is exactly what we did.

The route up Ben Lomond (there and back) from Rowardennan on Loch Lomond

After years of being “not really bothered about going to the top”, Chris had become a ‘born again’ Munro bagger after her day on Meal nan Tarmachan (see post #292), so another Munro ascent before heading south seemed like a good plan.  At a height of 974 metres (3195 ft), Ben Lomond fitted the bill nicely – what’s more, it is one of the most popular Munros in Scotland, so a good one for Chris to tick off.

Just about to leave the trees, with a view down to loch Lomond
The view back to the forest
Higher now, with Loch Lomond behind ….
…. but there always seems to be more uphill

Setting out from Rowardennan on the shores of Loch Lomond, the first part of the route is through forest, which isn’t much good for impressive views.  Once out of the trees, things open up a bit, but most of the views are down to Loch Lomond, with the summit of Ben Lomond out of sight for most of the way up.  As there’s little to measure progress against, there seems to be quite a bit of uphill, but steady away gets you there eventually.

Looking towards the top, as the clouds start to move in
The summit with mizzle and drizzle, and a soggy Border Collie!
What the summit ridge looks like in good weather – © Unknown
What the summit ridge looks like in good weather – © Unknown

On our trip, the final summit ridge was clouded over, which effectively killed the views.  Chris and Border Collie ‘Mist’ posed for a summit photo before we turned round to head back by the same route through the mizzle and drizzle.  Photos of the ridge in good weather show a far more interesting scene than the one we had, wrapped up in a big cloud.

On the way down as the mist begins to clear
The view looking from east on the left to south on the right
The collection of small islands at the south end of Loch Lomond
The final bit of descent

Going down was pretty much the same as going up, with the views to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs opening up as we left the clouds behind us.  Perhaps Ben Lomond won’t get your pulses racing with excitement but it’s a good day out and its proximity to Glasgow and the central belt of Scotland makes it a favourite with many hikers. Try to arrange a cloud-free day though, unless you enjoy wandering round in the mist.

The Ben Lomond National Park Memorial

We will probably go back sometime soon, as there’s more to see in the area.  Since 1995, the area around Ben Lomond, including the mountain summit, has been designated as a war memorial (the Ben Lomond National Park Memorial) dedicated to those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars.  There are also some more interesting hills to check out in the area, so it looks like I might have to change my route north in future.

Ben Lomond seen from Beinn Narnain near Arrochar – © Cunikm

Text and images © Paul Shorrock unless stated otherwise – the image above by Cunikm is reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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#294 – The Praying Hands of Glen Lyon

The Praying Hands and the view East down Glen Lyon

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!)

The Praying Hands, also known as Fionn’s Rock

The Scottish historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott, described Glen Lyon as the “longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland”, yet in all my years of travelling in Scotland I had managed to pass it by.  The problem I have with the Scottish Highlands is that there is so much to see and do that I rush on past some real gems.  Not this time though – we were going to Glen Lyon to see “The Praying Hands”, otherwise known as “Fionn’s Rock”.

The Southern Highlands, including Loch Tay with Glen Lyon to the north

The Praying Hands was originally an upright stone that has been split down the centre, the two halves looking very much like a pair of hands pointing to the sky, as if in prayer.  Some believe it to be a glacial erratic stone, deposited by glaciers in an Ice Age long gone, but the precision of the placement makes this unlikely.

Glen Lyon with the Praying Hands location marked

A more likely explanation is that the stones were raised by humans in the Neolithic period, which would make the monument about 5000 years old, but if this is the case their purpose is a complete mystery.  There is another explanation of course – legend has it that the stone was split in two by an arrow fired by the legendary Celtic hero Fingal, or Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool in English).  So, glacial erratic, Neolithic monument or one of Scotland’s myths and legends – Take your pick!

The approach of autumn in Glen Lyon
The leaves starting to turn by the River Lyon ….
….the colours helped by the occasional shaft of sunlight

The trip to see The Hands was a bit of an afterthought when we planned our Autumn 2020 Scottish tour, and as we were passing through the area, we had already decided to include a walk up Meall nan Tarmachan (see post #292).  The day after that we went into Glen Lyon the long way round by Fortingall at the eastern end of the glen – the cloudy morning didn’t add much to the autumn colours, but the occasional shaft of sunlight hinted at what might have been.

On the way up to the Hands – two bunny ears on the skyline
First full view of the stones
The stones with Creag nan Eildeag rising behind

Once parked up, the walk to the hands was little more than our daily dog walk, but Border Collie ‘Mist’ wasn’t complaining.  The first sighting, approaching from below as we did, are the tips of two ‘bunny ears’ – soon afterwards the stones come into full view, looking very much like a pair of praying hands.

The Hands with Glen Lyon behind

The light conditions were not optimal, with bright skies and patches of sunlight fighting against the cloud shadows over what the camera exposure should be set at, but I came away with a reasonable selection of images which were then edited at home to try and make sense of the light conditions.  Rather than bore everyone with some of the technical stuff, here are some more views of the stones that speak for themselves. .

Then it was time to head back, which is normally the cue that the post is winding up to a close, but the sun continued playing tricks, with the light changing every few minutes – I think another late trip is definitely on the cards, to catch some more of those autumn colours, plus another look at those mysterious Praying Hands.

Time to head back ….
…. just as the light starts to improve – Càrn Gorm (1029 metres) behind with a small cap of cloud
The farmhouse just below the stones
Autumn colours
Autumn colours

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#293 – Going wild in Scotland – Beasties, mythical and otherwise

Mythical beasts (and public art) – The Kelpies near Falkirk

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Regulars to this blog will know that I mostly photograph landscapes, but recently I’ve been trying my hand at photographing wildlife – with various degrees of success!   Our Scottish trip in September 2020, sandwiched between Covid-19 lockdowns, was the ideal opportunity to try for some wildlife, but my first ‘beasties’ were mythical ones – the Kelpies.

Impressive in the daylight

Even more impressive at night!

A few posts back (see post #285) I told the tale of the Kelpies near Falkirk.   In Scottish folklore, kelpies are mythical water spirits, with a habit of enticing young men to a watery grave.    The Falkirk Kelpies are a magnificent sight on the Scottish tourist scene, and they don’t do that watery grave enticement thing – they are also kind to photographers, as they don’t move around like most wildlife.

Swans in Helix Park – working up to take-off speed (note the poor duck!)

The day after we had admired the kelpies, we were looking for a decent length walk for Border Collie ‘Mist’, and the nearby Helix Park and Lake seemed to fit the bill.   Boating and similar human activity was out of the question due to Covid restrictions, but the water fowl were making good use of the peace and quiet.   I got some practice on my wildlife subjects by tracking a couple of swans in take-off mode.

Finally getting airborne

In flight, or swimming, swans are the epitome of grace and elegance, but the bit in between where they run across the surface of the water is usually not a good look!   It was only after I downloaded the series of images that I noticed the poor duck on the flight path (first swan image above).    As the swans took off, the duck was gallantly trying to outpace them – not a chance!

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The Braemar ‘golf-playing’ deer herd ….

…. looks like a boys day out

It wouldn’t be a complete trip to Scotland without a mountain or two, preferably more.    I described our hill day on Morrone in post #286 and the photos of the ‘boys on the golf course’ amused several readers.   They seem to be doing the greenkeeper a good turn by cropping the grass, but I bet those pointy hooves will add a few extra holes to the course.

*     *     *     *     *

Red deer near Loch Assynt

There was a low ‘deer count’ on this trip, but we weren’t actively seeking them out.   The largest herd I ever saw was some years back – a huge stag with his harem of 20+ casually strolling across the road in Glencoe, just as I came round a blind bend at around 70mph on a motorcycle!    No damage to the deer or my pride on that occasion, thankfully.

They soon become aware of our presence

This small group of four was spotted in the early evening near Loch Assynt when the tourists were heading for their hotels.    Being in the camper often gives the opportunity to watch (and photograph) the local wildlife – the young male on the far right didn’t notice me at first, but it wasn’t long before his head went up, probably after smelling me or my Collie ‘Mist’.     Even then, they were not alarmed, and they just sauntered off quietly.

*     *     *     *     *

 The Isle of Bute was a late addition to the trip.    We had planned to head for home in Wales at the beginning of October, but it was announced that from October 1st, Welsh residents would be restricted to their local area (county).   The four nations of the United Kingdom have failed to employ ‘joined-up thinking’ since the start of the pandemic, each one taking a different approach, but this time the situation was crazy.

On Bute, a big seal catching up on the sun ….

….with his mate, the oyster catcher, also getting some rays

Free movement was still permitted in England and Scotland, but if we returned home, we would have to drive straight to Denbighshire and stay there.   Now don’t get me wrong, Denbighshire is a lovely county, stretching from the sea to the Berwyn mountains, but we didn’t really fancy being trapped there.    The solution was simple – don’t go back!   Which is why we found ourselves on Bute.

Not too far away from the seals, a group of cormorants also enjoying the sun

The only thing I knew about Bute before this visit, was that the main town of Rothsay was the subject of a folk song about a drunken Hogmanay party (New Years Eve for those who don’t understand Scottish) – the fact that we were usually ‘well-oiled’ when we sang it usually added to the hilarity.   This trip was a much more sober affair, with a visit to Scalpsie Bay to see the seal colony being one of the highlights

There’s something in the water in front of this character

It looks like another seal

Then, all of a sudden, it’s time for a sharp exit ….

…. leaving the original seal with a bemused expression

Swimming seals are unbelievably graceful, but on land they are just big lumps!    They do enjoy sitting in the sun though, and why not.    We watched the antics of these two for a couple of minutes – at first it looked like just one seal soaking up the sun, then it became obvious that the one seal was watching another seal (second image above).   Then, the second seal decided enough was enough, and left in a big splash of water.  Yep, a busy day down on the beach!

*     *     *     *     *

The pair of golden eagles we saw near Lochnagar ….

…. keeping their distance …

….but the shape is unmistakable

Several times on the trip we had hoped to spot (and photograph) eagles, but our first ‘hit had been a fluke.    We were on our way back from our hike out to Meikle Pap of Lochnagar (see post #287)  when I saw a pair of golden eagles flying above us.   Chris was unconvinced at first, but there was no mistaking the shape.   The camera lens wasn’t long enough to get more detailed pics, but being there in that moment was more than good enough.

*     *     *     *     *

Over on Mull, hoping to spot a white-tailed eagle (sea eagle)….

…. but in the meantime, the gulls give some practice on photographing a moving target

Straight in for a fish supper

I had been given a recommendation for a good place to see white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Mull, and a happy afternoon was spent there, parked up by the lochside.   This was towards the end of the trip, and I think I was just starting to appreciate that patience is just as important as a good camera or a long lens.    So, as I watched and waited, I practiced panning the camera on gulls who were diving for an early dinner.

Out on the island in the sea loch, one sea eagle isn’t going very far just now ….

…. then the unmistakable shape flying overhead

The largest British bird, the white-tailed eagle, also known as ‘the flying barn door’

A passing photographer pointed out the ‘bump’ on a nearby island – apparently, it’s a favourite spot for one particular eagle to sit.    Then, finally, there was a flypast – yet again it was a bit far for a detailed shot, but no mistaking the shape or size of a sea eagle, also known as ‘the flying barn door ‘ because of its 2-metre wingspan.

But, having teased you all with tales of eagles, here’s a superb image of a sea eagle by photographer Christoph Müller – great inspiration for me on future trips – no pressure then!

The white-tailed eagle © Christoph Müller

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except the white-tailed eagle image shown above, which is © Christoph Müller and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence.

Posted in 1. Scotland, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

#292 – Meall nan Tarmachan 

Soon after the start – Chris looking back to the cloudy Tay Valley

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Our September 2020 trip to Scotland was destined to extend into October.   There was still no second Covid-19 lockdown in Scotland at the time, so we could move around freely, but back home in North Wales movement was restricted to the local area.  If we went back, we would be stuck in Denbighshire, lovely though it is, whereas staying in Scotland meant that we were still free.   It was a ‘no brainer’ as to what we should do!

The Tay Valley (centre) and the village of Killin

We had been on the West side of Scotland for a while, but I wanted to head for Glen Lyon for a photographic trip (more of that in a future post).   Somewhere to park up with a mountain dog-walk, seemed to be a good plan, so we headed for the Ben Lawers car park above the pretty village of Killin in the Tay Valley.

Loch Tay and the Meall nan Tarmachan route

The weather wasn’t what you might call bad, just a bit ‘iffy’!   It looked as though things could go either way, so instead of the main attraction of the area (Ben Lawers) I suggested that we might do Meall nan Tarmachan.    At an altitude of 1044 metres it wasn’t a tiddler, but our start point was at 420 metres, giving us a bit of a head start up one of the easiest of the Scottish Munros.

Closer view of the route – out and back

For those not familiar with the term, a ‘Munro’ is a mountain in the UK that is 3000 ft (915 metres) in height.   The list of peaks over 3000 ft was first drawn up by Sir Hugh Munro (1856–1919) for no other reason than they were higher than 3000 ft (Sir Hugh’s other claim to fame was possibly one of the earliest known examples of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 😉).   At the time of writing, there are 282 Munros in Scotland, six in England and fifteen in Wales.   I say ‘at the time of writing’ because new surveys are constantly promoting or demoting Munros, a bit of a setback if you have just finished the list to find that a newbie has been upgraded.

Just after leaving the car park – pioneer tree species hanging on in there

I don’t claim to be a Munro-ist, and Chris certainly isn’t.    Although I have huge respect for those dedicated enough to hike over the highest of our British hills, I couldn’t bear to drive or walk past a superb mountain that just failed to reach 915 metres, in order to tick off a distant, but less interesting, Munro.   One thing is certain though – a hiker who has completed all the Munros can claim to have an excellent knowledge of the mountains and wilderness areas of Scotland.

The ‘unlovely’ visitor centre (now demolished) and the old car park (replaced) © Dr Richard Murray

The old National Trust of Scotland visitor centre closed in 2009, later demolished © Gordon Brown

The last time I had been here was about 25 years earlier, when a climbing buddy and I were heading back from a big mountain weekend in Glencoe – we wanted an easy-ish hill day for the Sunday and went slightly off route on the way home to walk up Ben Lawers.  The advantage of the high start point had been marred only by the unlovely National Trust of Scotland visitor centre and car park, so it was a pleasant surprise when Chris and I arrived to hike up Meall nan Tarmachan that the visitor centre and ugly car park were both gone.

Looking back again to the Tay Valley ….

…. and Meall nan Tarmachan poking through on the right

Looking down towards Killin – starting to brighten up?

The skies were leaden and the breeze chilly as Chris and I set out with Border Collie ‘Mist’ for our Munro dog-walk.   A combination of altitude and latitude means that only the hardy pioneer species of trees such as silver birch and rowan have much of a chance of surviving, and most of the ascent was over bleak moorland, made bleaker by the glowering clouds.

Border Collie ‘Mist’ below the small unnamed summit at 923 metres

The summit of Meall nan Tarmachan (1044 metres) on a good weather day © David Brown ….

….and what it looked like for us

Chris (and ‘Mist’) officially claim the summit!

A small false summit at 923 metres gave a vantage point of the final steep and rocky ascent of Meall nan Tarmachan – well, it would have done if the cloud base hadn’t dropped to obscure the last 100 metres of ascent.   Apparently, the views down to the Tay Valley more than justify the ascent, but not today and not for us.    The question was, where next?

Map 1 – Our out and back route in blue, with the continuation to Meall Garbh shown in red

Map 2 – From Meall Garbh, the first alternative could have been the Tarmachan Ridge circuit

Map 3 – The second alternative could have been the south Ridge of Meall Garbh

One option would have been to continue southwest from the summit to Meall Garbh (see the maps above) to continue on the first alternative, which was a traverse of the Tarmachan Ridge.    There didn’t seem to be much point in that in the poor visibility, and I didn’t know at the time that there is another descent route down the South Ridge of Meall Garbh.  That left one final option, to return the way we had come.

On the way back – our ‘stalker’ (type unknown) flying just left of centre

The poor visibility also prevented us from identifying the large bird that decided to check us out – I tried for a photograph, but by the time I had the camera ready, our ‘stalker’ was moving out of range.    I claimed yet another eagle sighting, though Chris wasn’t convinced.  We did agree though that the weather was starting to brighten up, at least for the good folks in Killin.   Things were brightening up even more for Collie ‘Mist’ – heading down meant it was getting on towards dinner time.

On the direct descent from Meall nan Tarmachan with the weather definitely brightening ….

…. and it’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except images tagged Dr Richard Murray, Gordon Brown and David Brown, which are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence

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#291 – Scottish Sunsets

The sun starts to set over Sgurr nan Gillean in the Black Cuillins, just above Sligachan (May 2019)

Same sunset, same location, same time, but looking towards the Red Cuillins (May 2019)

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Map of the sunset locations mentioned in this post

You can’t beat the spectacle of a good sunset!   I once read that you should look at each sunset as if it’s your last, but someone else said that’s rubbish – what you should be doing is trying to see more sunsets!   That was one of our aims on our autumn 2020 trip to Scotland, with another aim to try and come away with some good photos.   The trouble is, sunsets can be awkward little beggars to capture.

An Teallach seen from Fain near Dundonnell (May 2019)

Obvious as it is, one of the main ingredients of a good sunset is the light, combined with the clouds and a good background, and those elements don’t always line up – literally!   In 2019, we had a great display over An Teallach from Fain near Dundonnell, but 1½ years later the scene was quite different.

The same view from the same location in September 2020

The light starts to get a bit moody and stormy ….

…. and before long, the ‘weather’ arrives on the mountain

A bit of cloud works wonders in a sunset, giving the light something to play with – however, on the 2020 trip, there was more than enough cloud over An Teallach, and it wasn’t taking any prisoners.    It was certainly a good night for viewing the mountains from a distance rather than close up.

A warm, light sky seen from Altandhu in Assynt ….

…. and a cool, dark sky seen from Staffin on Skye

The slightest possibility of catching a good sunset in a photograph occupies many an hour on our trips, especially when there is a good bit of coast or mountain as a background.  What’s more, it’s another chance for Border Collie ‘Mist’ to check out all the local scents whilst I’m busy checking f-stops and exposure times (don’t worry, just some of the arcane practices that photographers get up to).

Camas nan Geall at Ardnamurchan ….

…. where the day slowly slips away ….

…. without being in any great hurry

Sometimes is nice just to be able to witness the end of another day as it slowly slips away.  We had gone to Camas nan Geall at Ardnamurchan in search of sea eagles – ten years earlier, we had watched one patrolling over the bay for about half an hour but didn’t have a camera.    This time, I was ready for an eagle pic, but it was a no-show by the big bird – the changing light as the day disappeared was good compensation though.

Lochbuie on Mull ….

…. where the cloud starts to slip away to sea ….

…. and the strange cloud formation starts to change ….

…. as it catches the last rays of the sun

Lochbuie on Mull is another location we returned to in 2020.    The cloud out to sea raised hopes for a dramatic light show, but as the sun dipped over the horizon, the cloud decided to follow in the same direction.   Then suddenly, the focus of the action shifted to the strange cloud formation to the east, which was catching the colour from the disappearing sun.  (Hint – if you’re watching a sunset, keep watching the rest of the sky as well!)

Near Ettrick on Bute, and a last view of the sun as it disappears ….

…. but the light show isn’t finished yet ….

…. and continues for some time

At Ettrick on the Isle of Bute, we had most of the ingredients for a good show – it’s a bonus when there’s a last sighting of the sun as it disappears, but a few moody-looking clouds made a great projection screen for the changing colours.    But my all-time favourite for sunsets was the one we saw in 2017 at Elgol – what’s more, those colours are genuine!  As the man said, ‘see more sunsets’.

Probably my all-time favourite – the Black Cuillins seen from Elgol on Skye (April 2017)

Text and images © Paul Shorrock – images all from the September/October 2020 trip except where another date is given.

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#290 – Neist Point on the Duirinish Peninsula, Western Skye

Neist Point, the most westerly point on Skye

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Neist Point location (red flag) in relation to Northern Scotland

Neist Point is one of the most photographed locations on Skye, mostly because of the spectacular sunsets to the west, over the islands of the Outer Hebrides and the Little Minch, the sea strait that lies between Skye and the Outer Isles.    ‘Most photographed’ means one thing in particular though – lots of people!

Neist Point with Skye and the Outer Hebrides

Over the past decade, the Skye tourist industry has done a remarkable job of ‘selling’ the island to visitors travelling from the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond, but has failed spectacularly in providing simple facilities such as car parking space or toilets.    The result is often overcrowding, especially in the summer months.

Neist Point and part of the Duirinish Peninsula

The answer is simple,  go off-season before the rush, but that concept is becoming steadily more challenging.   I guessed that late September should be a reasonably quiet time to visit, but that depends on your idea of quiet!    It was bearable, but I wouldn’t like to see it in high summer – come to think of it, in high summer it’s unlikely that you would even be able to get down the road to Neist Point.

Early evening sun on the cliffs of Moonen Bay

A popular spot! It looks like others have had the same idea

We arrived at Neist just as the light was turning golden, and it looked as though a spectacular sunset was going to be on the menu.    We found a level spot to park the van, so that was us set up for the night – travelling by camper has many advantages, including our own on-board facilities, so after our evening meal and a couple of scoops of ‘red’, we were ready for the light show.

Sunset approaching over the small hill of An t-Aigeach

Closer view of An t-Aigeach – note the tiny figures watching the sunset from the summit

More sunset watchers near the car park

An t-Aigeach still popular as the light fades

Ah yes, the light show – whilst we were eating, a thin layer of cloud had crept across the sky, so it looked as though a spectacular sunset was off for tonight.  No problem really, especially for photographs – the light was still interesting, as was the people-watching potential.

The sun setting over the Outer Hebrides ….

…. as the moon rises over Moonen Bay

A sole observer of the moonrise

The sun finally sets ….

…. but the moon gets brighter (The tiny light on the horizon to the right of the photo is a ship)

The crowds were spread out along the cliff tops near the car park, along with another sizable group on the small summit of An t-Aigeach, all 95 metres (312 ft) of it.   In the meantime, a second light show was starting up, as the moon rose over Moonen Bay to the south.   All in all, it had been worth the trip, and I’ll be back – apparently, the wildlife spotting potential is huge, and includes dolphins, whales and sea birds.

An t-Aigeach and Neist Point the next day on a dull morning

The path leading down to the lighthouse

Neist Point Lighthouse ….

…. with The Little Minch and the Outer Hebrides beyond

The skies were still on the dull side next morning, but that’s no problem to a Border Collie who is ready for a good walk, so ‘Mist’ took Chris and me on a stroll along the sea cliffs to the north.   It turned out to be a muddy excursion, so we turned back after a couple of kilometres and went down to take a look at the lighthouse at the tip of Neist Point.

Closer view of the lighthouse

The lighthouse was built in 1909 and was fully automated in 1990.   In recent times it was also used as holiday accommodation but is now abandoned and slowly becoming more derelict in appearance.   A more recent addition to the Point is a ‘stone balancing’ collection – it’s easy to see why people feel compelled to add another stone pile, but I sometimes wonder who started the first one.    It won’t be the locals – apparently, they are not at all keen on the little rock towers.

The inevitable collection of balanced stones

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#289 – Cùl Mòr – A bit more Assynt

Cùl Mòr above the small lake of Lochan an Ais at Knockan Crag

(For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in, then use your browser return arrow to go back – go on, it really does work!)

Assynt in North-West Scotland

The mountains of Assynt

It was a bit of a wrench to leave Assynt after several days stravaiging (a Scots word meaning ‘wandering’) but we hadn’t quite finished yet.   I fancied a longer mountain day, so it was time to visit new ground, and to grab a new peak – Cùl Mòr would do nicely, thank you!

The Cùl Mòr route – clockwise round the two summits

I usually go solo for the bigger, higher days, so Chris decided to take a wander around the nature reserve at Knockan Crag while I set off with Border Collie ‘Mist’ to Cùl Mòr – on the solo days I aim to go for ‘Further, Faster’, to pinch the Montane motto and, as usual, ‘Mist’ also seemed up for it.

Cùl Mòr seen from the A835 – proof that the sun does shine occasionally in Scotland! © C Mackay

Not quite as sunny on my trip – soon after setting out from Knockan Crag

The stalkers path

First view of Suilven from the stalkers path ….

…. and the first view of Cùl Mòr since setting out across the moor

Cùl Mòr looks good seen from the A835 road, though the weather started dull at first, with the skies starting to clear as I went on.   From the parking at Knockan Crag, a great stalkers path gave rapid access – the guys who first trod these paths were not heading out for fun, they were working, and they didn’t waste effort wandering about.    Before long I was enjoying views of Suilven, before Cùl Mòr came back into view.

The stony ascent of Meallan Dìomhain with Suilven (left), Quinag (distant centre) and Canisp (Right)

My route from Meallan Dìomhain to the col between Creag nan Calman and Cùl Mòr  © Nigel Brown

The stony little lump of Meallan Dìomhain (609 metres/1998 ft) gave a good view of what was to come.   Another hiker caught me up there, and we had a chat about the route alternatives.    I was heading west into the broad corrie between Creag nan Calman and Cùl Mòr, whilst he was going around the north shoulder of Cùl Mòr, going the opposite way round to my route.

Border Collie ‘Mist’ next to the stream, heading up to the broad corrie

Up past the steeper stream section, entering the broad corrie with the col ahead

The col and the first view of Stac Pollaidh in the distance

The view from Creag nan Calman summit to Cùl Beag (left) and Stac Pollaidh (right)

An obvious line led me on a traverse of the hillside before heading up a steeper section next to a stream – it looked like this route isn’t used a great deal, but the way was always obvious.    The steeper stream section eventually opened out into a broad corrie, leading up to a col.   The lower summit of Creag nan Calman (828 metres/2716 ft) was a mere 45 metres higher than the col, so it made sense to collect it – my reward at the summit were great views across to Cùl Beag and Stac Pollaidh.

Heading for Cùl Mòr summit with Suilven (centre) with Quinag in the distance (right)

From Creag nan Calman I could also see a tiny figure on the summit of Cùl Mòr (849 metres/2785 ft)  and as I retraced my steps to the col and headed up to Cùl Mòr summit, it turned out to be the solo hiker I had chatted to earlier, heading in the opposite direction to me.    From the top of Cùl Mòr, he had also seen me and the dog on Creag nan Calman and asked if it was worth the detour – I assured him it was.

The boulder field descent

Closer view of Suilven on my descent, with Quinag in the distance

Before we parted, he added that there was a beast of a boulder field on the north side of Cùl Mòr – as the only way for me to avoid it would be to return the same way I had hiked in, I decided to give it a go.    It was an absolute monster, though as I was looking down the slope, I was better able to pick out a sensible route than the other guy would have been going up – I was glad to get clear of it though.

On the descent looking east towards Elphin

Once free from the boulders, it was an easy enough route back towards stony little Meallan Dìomhain, where for the last time that day I saw the solo hiker – apparently he also believes in the ‘Further, Faster’ motto, and the only view I had of him was the rear view, as he pulled away until he was finally out of sight.

Must be time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock, except where stated otherwise, and which are taken from the Geograph Project and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence

http://www.geograph.org.uk/

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#288 – Assynt assignations (and dog walks)

The mountains of Assynt – left to right Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh

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Assynt in the far North-West of the Scottish Highlands

If you ask me what my favourite part of the Scottish Highlands is, be prepared to hang around whilst I try to decide. In my early rock-climbing days, my favourite area was Skye (plus Glencoe because that was on the way to Skye). When I discovered Torridon and Wester Ross in the 1990’s I was completely bowled over, and in the past couple of years, I rediscovered the Cairngorms and wondered why I didn’t go there more often.

Closer view of the Assynt area

I first discovered Assynt about twenty years ago and started kicking myself for not doing so earlier. Our Autumn 2020 Highland trip in the camper took in most of the familiar places I know and love, plus some new ones besides, but Assynt grabbed us, so we stayed and mooched around for a while. It’s good to have a mountain day as an objective, but sometimes just mooching around on a long dog walk with ‘Mist’ is more than good enough.

Dolphin at Chanonry Point, the Black Isle – © Craig Wallace

After our East Cairngorm outings (see posts #286 and #287) I had tried my hand at wildlife photography at Chanonry Point on the East Coast, but it was a ‘no show’ by the dolphins on the two mornings I tried for a photo. ‘Mist’ had enjoyed the extended dog-walks on the beach, but the West Coast was calling, so it was time to take the A837 road through Strath Oykel to Assynt.

Ardvreck Castle location on Loch Assynt (the red flag marks the spot)

The coast road through Assynt is part of the now famous (or should that be infamous!) NC500 road trip. For years, the road around the west and north coasts of Scotland was known to just a few of us enthusiasts and had been ‘undiscovered’ by the masses. Well, they’ve been discovered now that’s for sure, and over the summer months the roads are rammed with campervans, many of them hire vans with inexperienced drivers, who don’t have a clue how to drive on narrow Highland roads.

Loch Assynt, with Ardvreck Castle in the middle ground and Quinag beyond

The ruins of Calda House ….

…. near to the ruins of Ardvreck Castle

I was ready for the possibility that Assynt could be busy, and as I’ve no more right to be there than anyone else, I was prepared and ready to have to share the joy with the hordes. Luckily, the tourist season seems to correspond loosely with the midge season, and by the time we arrived at Loch Assynt, the number of vans in the area was nearer to the way things used to be twenty years ago.

Calda House with Beinn an Fhurain (left) and Conival (right) rising behind

Ardvreck Castle with Calda House behind

The ruins of the castle

We spent a short half-day around the ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House, places we had previously driven past, but never had a close look at. The castle was built in 1590 by the MacLeods of Assynt, but the Mackenzie clan took the castle in 1672, later taking control of the whole of Assynt. In 1726 they decided to go ‘upmarket’ and built a modern manor house at Calda, but this was burned down in 1737 and both now stand in ruins.

The route out to the Anson crash site near Loch nan Cuaran

Setting out near Inchnadamph

Heading up the narrow stalkers path

Loch Assynt was also a convenient base for a walk out from Inchnadamph. The stars of the show in this part of Assynt are Conival and Ben More Assynt (so named to distinguish it from other Ben Mores), but our objective was to take a trip out to an aircraft crash site dating back to 1941. We took the stalkers path out from Inchnadamph and set off for Loch nan Cuaran, which made a good place to take a break.

Loch nan Cuaran – as far as we went (route shown in blue on the map above)

Various sections of the walk had been quite wet, and the next bit looked like being even worse. Time was also moving on, and the cloud base was coming down to meet us, so a decision was made to bale out and return to the valley, leaving the visit to the crash site for another day – we made it down before the rain started.

* * * * *

Avro Anson training aircraft © Oren Rozen

The Avro Anson was used as a training aircraft all through WW2 and beyond. Because of its use as a trainer, the aircraft type is frequently found at crash sites in the hills and mountains of the UK, not because it was an unsafe aircraft but because there were a lot of them flying in the war years. On 13th April 1941, Anson N9857 set out from RAF Kinloss on a long training flight out to the Isle of Lewis. On the return leg, the aircraft was forced to climb to avoid bad weather, and a message was received by a ground station, saying that the aircraft was losing power due to icing.

The crash site and grave (route there shown in red on the map) © Jim Barton

The Anson was posted as overdue later that day, but searches failed to locate the aircraft, which was eventually found by a shepherd over a month later. Of the crew of six, at least three appeared to have survived the initial impact and the body of a fourth was found near to the wreck, possibly after trying to go for help – they all appear to have died from hypothermia, during what had been the most severe blizzard in the area in 100 years. The task of recovering the bodies was beyond the resources of the time and they were buried at the crash site, at what is now the highest grave in the UK.

* * * * *

Assynt with Stoer Head and the Old Man of Stoer at the top left

The lighthouse at Stoer Head

A couple of days later found us out at Stoer Head at the northwest corner of Assynt, after a drive along some of the narrowest roads in Scotland – it must be chaos in the height of the tourist season, as this is part of the aforementioned NC500. The lighthouse at Stoer Head is the most obvious attraction on arrival, but the reason most tourists come here is for the walk out to the Old Man of Stoer.

A muddy walk over the moor

The Old Man of Stoer comes into view

Closer view of the sea stack

The Old Man is a 60 metres (nearly 200 ft) high sea stack, which appears to defy gravity as well as the West Coast storms. As well as being a good dog walk (well, ‘Mist’ seemed happy enough) it is also a popular rock climb, with the first ascent in 1966 by Brian Henderson, Paul Nunn, Tom Patey and Brian Robertson. Getting to the foot of the stack can be a bit of an epic apparently, requiring either a swim or a rope traverse. No, we didn’t bother.

The route out to Suileag Bothy

Setting out towards Glencanisp Lodge with Canisp (centre) and Suilven rising in the distance

Canisp (left) and Suilven (right) – plus a certain Border Collie!

The track to the bothy with Canisp behind

Suilven rising above, looking very impressive

Our Scottish trips wouldn’t be complete without at least one bothy visit, with Suileag Bothy in Assynt being a contender (for those who don’t know about bothies in the UK, follow this link). Suileag is ideally placed for trips up Suilven and Canisp, and many hikers use the bothy overnight to make the ascent day shorter – both summits are about three miles from the bothy.

The approach to Suileag bothy, seen in the shadows just left of centre

“Welcome” (After the end of lockdown that is!)

Entrance room with sleeping platform

Border Collie ‘Mist’ checking out the fireplace

Suileag is a popular bothy with hikers, cyclists and mountaineers, but during the Covid-19 emergency, all bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association have been placed off-limits. So, after a quick peek inside for a couple of photos, we turned round for the return to the car park near Glencanisp Lodge. Suilven was just as impressive on the way back as it had been on the way out to the bothy, but ‘Mist’ was much more impressed by the sound of her dinner dish being topped up when we arrived back at the van.

One final view of Suilven, then it’s ….

…. time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where otherwise indicated. Images tagged Craig Wallace and Jim Barton are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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#287 – Loch Muick and ‘Dark Lochnagar’

The crags of ‘Dark Lochnagar’

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“Gasherbrum, Masherbrum, Distighil Sar,
All are good training for dark Lochnagar!”

Tom Patey

Loch Muick and Lochnagar in the Eastern Cairngorms (red flag marks the start point for both routes)

We were properly in the mountains now, and as it was mid-September (2020), we were not to be troubled by the dreaded midge, and the ones we had encountered the night before our day out on Morrone (see post #286) were the only ones we came across on our six-week Scottish trip.

The Eastern Cairngorms showing the Lochnagar area

Things were not entirely trouble-free though – on a couple of occasions on the trip, the starter battery for the van had let us down, and we had been saved by the solar panel topping up the battery while we went on an extended dog walk.   We would have to get it fixed, which is why one sunny morning we were driving to Aberdeen rather than the hills.

The routes – Red (clockwise) round Loch Muick and blue (there and back) to Meikle Pap, Lochnagar

By lunchtime we were sorted (thanks Kwik-Fit), with half a day still available.   ‘Plan A’ had been to drive to Ballater in the Dee Valley, then up Glen Muick to walk out to Lochnagar. Half a day wouldn’t give us enough time for ‘Plan A’, especially as we were still in Aberdeen, but it would be long enough for ‘Plan B’, which was to walk around Loch Muick. Which is exactly what we did. (Red route on the map above)

The Spittal of Glenmuick car park, full to bursting!

Over the summer, the road through Glen Muick (pronounced ‘Mick’) had been closed by the police on several occasions.   The lifting of the national Covid-19 lockdown had seen tourist attractions throughout the UK absolutely mobbed – people who had never shown the slightest interest in remote places and mountains suddenly swarmed there like lemmings, infected not with Covid but with the ‘Fear Of Missing Out’, and the Glen Muick road had been blocked by traffic more than once.

Loch Muick from Spittal – our route started by the track just visible on the far left

Reports of big crowds and anti-social behaviour was another reason why we had waited until September to take the trip, but kids were now back in school and parents were heading back to work.    So, we set out up the narrow Glen Muick road travelling hopefully. The road itself was quiet enough, but the car park at Spittal of Glen Muick was full to bursting, at a time of year when it could be expected to be less busy.   Fortunately, there were no buses making the trip and the coach car park had been made available for overspill parking.

The lodge and wood at Glas allt Shiel seen across Loch Muick

Having lost more than half a day having a new van battery fitted, we didn’t waste much time hitting the trail for a hike around Loch Muick.   Going clockwise, we initially had the advantage of a good Landrover track to speed things up – as time was limited, we left the track before it rises up towards Broad Cairn, and instead followed the narrow path that follows the edge of the loch to the broad delta at its head.

Glas allt Shiel viewed from the far (west) side of Loch Muick

From the path we had a view across the loch to the lodge at Glas allt Shiel.   The original lodge, built in 1851 for one of the estate gillies, was a simple two-room affair.   Soon after it was built, the estate was leased to Queen Victoria (yep, that one!) who fell in love with what she and Albert called their “little bothie”.   There was a room set aside for royal parties, and the queen so loved it that she arranged to re-home the gillie and family near to Balmoral Castle.   The “little bothie” she loved so much was then demolished to be replaced by the current fifteen-room building!

Looking from Spittal along the length of Loch Muick with afternoon turning to evening

The lodge is now part of the Balmoral estate, and is owned personally by Queen Elizabeth II.   As well as the usual estate facilities, it includes a building set aside as a free bothy for climbers and mountain walkers (out of use when we passed, due to Covid-19 restrictions). From Glas allt Shiel lodge we had a steady walk back to the car park at Spittal, just as the afternoon was turning to evening. Having rescued what could have been a wasted day, we decided to return a couple of days later for our original Plan A to walk up to Lochnagar.

* * * * *

This wouldn’t be the first time I had walked up to Lochnagar from Spittal.   In 1975 I was a member of 45 Commando Royal Marines, stationed at Arbroath on the East Coast of Scotland.  When the unit wasn’t deployed, weekends were free for recreational climbing and mountaineering, and as 45 was the premier British Mountain and Arctic Warfare unit at the time, this was actively encouraged.

The crags of Lochnnagar, Eagle Ridge in the centre © Unknown

In June 1975, four of us left Spittal in the early evening, to bivouac overnight on Meikle Pap.   The next day we crossed the corrie to climb Eagle Ridge, one of the finest rock climbs in Scotland.   The four smaller images above show (clockwise from top left) – The view of the crag from the bivi site (me in the centre with hair!), Brian climbing the snow slope (snow, in June!) to the foot of the climb, yours truly on the first pitch of the climb and Graham on the final pitch.   Happy days!

* * * * *

Setting out from Spittal to Lochnagar, with the woods and buildings at Allt na Giubhsaich ahead

The track gets a bit rougher ….

…. before we left it to take the path up to the corrie

First view of Lochnagar from the col below Meikle Pap

The start of the track from Spittal of Muick car park was pretty much as I remembered it from 1975, passing the buildings and woods at Allt na Giubhsaich on the way.   From there the track became a bit rougher as we started gaining height, before reaching a col where the track started descending towards Balmoral, and we branched off on a narrower path after a brew stop.   From there, a steady 1½ km climb brought us to the col below Meikle Pap.

Leaving the Meikle Pap col behind ….

…. and heading for Meikle Pap summit

Border Collie ‘Mist’ out front as usual

Sheltering from a chilly breeze on the summit

Our mountain trips in 2020 had been limited by the Covid lockdown, so Chris and I had decided that on this trip we wouldn’t push things too far and would only go as far as the summit of Meikle Pap, where we would have a good view of Lochnagar across the corrie. As it was, we would have been fine going on to Lochnagar summit, but our route for the day was a respectable 12½ kms with over 600 meters height gain – a chilly breeze made sure we didn’t hang around too long on the summit.

Time to head for home ….

…. but we have company!

A pair of golden eagles ….

…. who stay with us for a few minutes

Then it was time to retrace our steps and head for home.   We had only just left the col when I saw that we had company – a pair of golden eagles.   I did my best to get some photos, but working with a focal length equivalent of 80mm, I was never going to get any pics with good detail unless the birds decided to land in front of us!   Still, the shots I did get shown the unmistakable silhouettes of these magnificent birds.  Even better are the memories of them soaring overhead – I think even Border Collie ‘Mist’ was impressed!

Then it really is time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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