Category: Scotland

Ducky gets a home

Scarcely have I left home for my sailing exploits amongst the Western Isles when Kate gets stuck into building a home for Ducky, our much loved campervan, at the bottom of our garden. She did have a little help it has to be said, with larger pieces of timber and digging the massive postholes, fitting the wooden cladding and climbing up to fix the roof but she tells me that nothing would have happened, nothing at all built, without her being there to make the tea.

I had seen the plans, of course, but seeing the structure in the flesh on my return home was something of a shock because this thing is big. Very big. The roof clears Ducky’s highest point by a clear margin and we have space under the cover all around which will be handy when the rain is pouring down.

Naturally word gets around the village very quickly that something new has sprung up. Suddenly we notice dog walkers detouring down our way, dogs we have not seen before stagger past, no doubt asking themselves why their owners have come this way, have broken their usual routine. The dogs can’t make sense of it but we know what is going on. We no longer have difficulty explaining where we live to those we meet. All we have to say is “The house with the monstrous carport” and understanding dawns. “Oh yes I’ve seen that. Now I know where you are”, usually followed by a strange look, the “That great thing” look. Visitors too, holidaymakers, have suddenly begun using the end of our road to turn in, pretending they are lost, something that has never happened before. We are beginning to think that our carport may be the most exciting thing to have happened in the village since the Vikings left and it amuses us that we might have created something of a talking point.

Our latest foray away in Ducky takes us to Barnluasgan over in Knapdale to see the beavers. Just a short drive north of us, a trialled reintroduction of beavers has been going on since 2009, exploring (at some considerable financial cost I might add) what might happen if we replace what was once a native species all over Scotland. We have it on good authority that there are currently at least ten of the beasts living here although despite setting off at dusk and tiptoeing as quietly as possible for a mile or so along a gravel path (not the best surface for stealth) beside the freshly created loch to the site of the beaver dam, we see nothing but a few ducks. We feel certain that the beavers are there, close by, perhaps chuckling to themselves about our clumsiness, but no way are they going to show themselves. Perhaps this is because they have discovered the strangest thing about this much-publicised species introduction which is that they are not the only beaver population currently living in Scotland. Little talked about is the fact that over on Tayside some one hundred and fifty wild beavers have set up home. Nobody seems clear about how they got there (they may have been released deliberately or else they are escaped pets – but who keeps beavers as pets?) and because they are not part of the trial and are not being so carefully studied we hear little about them. Indeed one senses that their very existence must be something of an embarrassment to those involved in the Knapdale trial. We are intrigued to see what will happen once the trial is over and a decision is made on whether they can stay, a decision apparently already overtaken by events.

Adder3Our beaver spotting being thwarted, we retire gracefully to spend the night camping ‘wild’ nearby and wake to a surprisingly hot summer’s day that tempts us to explore the area some more. Beavers might be shy but apparently adders are less so. The young lady we come across sunbathing close to her home, an iron drainage cover which crosses the forest track, is a little coy at first. She is quite well known to those walkers who come this way often (and that’s not many) but we feel a certain pride in being able to point her out to one passer-by who has never seen an adder before and had just walked by this one. The adder cautiously sniffs the air by flicking her tongue and will disappear very quickly into cover if she senses danger but this morning her need for warmth from the sun clearly outweighs caution and she slides slowly and gracefully away. If only beavers could behave like this.

Time on the water

Arms straining, I pull myself up the sloping foredeck for the nth time and wriggle into position on the windward rail where my meagre seventy eight kilos helps to balance the boat as she accelerates upwind again, crashing and bashing through the waves. The next piece of sea thumps into the bow, jumping up and dousing me with salt water but my body protects the rest of our crew from a soaking, not that their gratitude is particularly overwhelming, I have to say. This wave is one of many I take full on for them, but I’m not complaining. I signed up for a week of racing on Owen’s 10 metre X-yacht, Jochr, and know full well that this is what goes with the territory, it is just part of the experience.

We have a mixed bag of weather thrown at us, fairly typical for any summer in the West Highlands I guess, heavy rain and winds one day and light airs the next, but despite this our fortune in the rankings for our class remains good. For the final passage race, a long southerly beat down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Oban, my role is to ensure that the genoa passes smoothly around the front of the mast on each tack without the sheets catching on the front of the mast or the sail getting hooked on the guard rail. Aside from this I am ballast, the weight of me and the other crew making a minor but significant difference to the performance of the boat. Our skipper drives us across the Sound then back again, against twenty five then up to thirty three knots of headwind, as we fight to keep our place in the fleet of yachts that surround us. For hour after hour we battle on, hardly pausing for breath, until after four hours we find ourselves jostling for position on a finish line beside Lismore Light. The current is running fast here calling for fine judgement in close proximity to other boats but the gun fires at last signalling a good finish to the final race of the week, the end of six tough days.

West Highland Yachting Week                           West Highland Yachting Week

Jochr is on the far left of the picture, sail No. 9726

Our boat and crew have sailed through rain and shine, wind and calm, rough and smooth seas, enduring some excellent and challenging racing from which it takes my body some days to recover. At some point I will admit that I am too old for this sort of thing… but not yet.

As things turn out this year all this strenuous stuff follows soon after a family trip south into Yorkshire for a week long holiday on a narrowboat, motoring slowly along the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where the only real exercise is cranking the key to open the sluices on the many locks we pass on Megans Drum With us here are Mike, Eleanor and of course, wee James, for whom this is a first boating experience.

The term narrowboat means literally that and for good reason; these boats are built to fit the canals (or is it the canals that were built to fit the boats). The locks on our canal are just big enough for two boats, each a maximum of seven feet wide, to fit side by side with only inches to spare. The canals were built for working boats which often towed a ‘butty’, an engine-less load carrier, and it was essential that both boat and butty could fit in the same lock side by side. If the lock is any wider then all that happens is that you waste water. The overall boat length is an issue too as any more than fifty feet long and we’d be bumping up against the lock gates on the Leeds Liverpool. But given these restraints, it is quite surprising how much can be fitted in on board. On Megan’s Drum we have separate bedrooms, toilets and a shower, a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, storage for all our stuff plus the convenience of mains electricity for the microwave oven and the TV.

Our days on board consist of chugging slowly westwards through the Yorkshire Dales at no more than four miles an hour, the canal speed limit, so our pace of life slows to accommodate this. Being in charge of steering I get to watch my crew opening bridges and lock gates ahead of me then once through, I manoeuvre the heavy boat to the bank to pick them up again. It becomes routine, eventually, with each member of the team knowing what to do. Steering the long vessel around a tight bend requires forward planning, anticipation of the way the stern will swing, as the boat pivots about its centre rather than its rudder, but generally we manage to avoid bumping the canal sides too often or entangling ourselves with the trees that frequently overhang the water on one side. One can certainly imagine that life has always gone on at the same slow pace on the canals but (not surprisingly perhaps) young James finds it hard coping with the speed the world drifts by. He is often happier sitting below playing games on his ipad and we worry that he misses the herons standing knee deep in the shallows or the amusingly named and brightly coloured narrowboats that are floating homes to a sizeable population on England’s waterways.

At dusk all traffic stops and we too pull over and moor to the bank. The water becomes still, only disturbed by the movements of the odd duck, the occasional swan and fish rising to take flies from the surface. Now the tree-clad banks and the painted boats are reflected almost perfectly by the water creating a surreal inverted image.

Megans Drum on the LeedsLiverpool canal

Sunny Solstice


It is a while since I wrote to this blog. Inspiration temporarily evaporated after returning home from our tour of Scotland a few months ago, home to an increasingly busy life, an important part of which now is James and his mother Eleanor, soon to be our daughter-in-law when our son Mike makes his vows next year. James has adopted Kate and me as his new grand parents, an honour we do not take lightly, whilst we in turn fall victim to his charming ways and try to remember all the mysterious things that small boys like to do, things our own sons taught us when they were growing up but which have faded from our memories. Sensibly we still have a substantial box of Lego stored away and this never fails to inspire a small mind into creativity when tipped out onto the floor. We now live in a world where small plastic bricks emerge from beneath chairs, under cushions and behind radiators but none of this bothers us unduly.

Our jaunt around Scotland having ended, a rapid warming took over delivering more sunshine than we rightly deserve. When this happens the landscape gradually changes into something dryer, the pine forest acquiring a rich, resinous smell which reminds us of our time in northern Italy a few years ago, and the sphagnum mosses cease to weep moisture, becoming paler green in colour and eventually wilting and looking rather poorly. Much of clearingCarradale’s woodland is not natural, having been planted as a crop some sixty years ago, so barely within the memory of many local inhabitants. I know this because the timber is now being harvested so the trunks lie horizontally in heaps awaiting collection and I can count the growth rings, which I do. This extraction process is a massive insult to the landscape, being transformational in the same way as a natural disaster would be. To lovers of trees, as I confess we are, the sight of the forest being torn apart by massive machines is quite shocking to witness and the speed at which the operation can be carried out is frightening. cleared woodlandWhen the trees have been felled whole new vistas open up, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. Such is the timescale here that views remembered only by people reaching the end of their lives are now revealed. Who knows what memories are stirred into life by this.

But it is unlikely to be the same remembered landscape. What we now have is a devastated field of broken brash timber and stumps which stand out like pale dinner plates. It is a world torn apart by men with powerful machines showing little care for what is left behind. It is a scarred tableau that must now undergo a lengthy healing process that will gradually soften the edges and smooth over the injuries. Mosses will eventually carpet anything close to the ground, bandaging everything up until only a series of uneven shapes will remain visible, dark green mounds, and through this will sprout saplings whose seeds have lain dormant for want of light. Grasses and wildflowers will come first then as the new growth climbs higher the light reaching the ground will once again become dim and competition for what filters through will intensify.

If nothing were replanted then the forest would regrow in its own way; tree colonisers such as willow and silver birch then ash, gorse, bramble and rhododendron would soon form a green carpet. We know this because the land just beyond our own garden fence was once conifer forest, felled within living memory since when it has lain neglected. All it takes is a clamber over the fence and we are in wild place, untamed and unkempt, difficult of access but fascinatingly peaceful once deep inside the tree cover. woods at back being thinned

Then one day we awake to the brrrup, brrrup of chainsaw engines revving up close by and we realise that change has come to our little world. Fortunately, instead of clearing the land completely, forestry workers are just thinning out the trees, presumably to promote thicker growth of what is left. woods thinningSince this is only a narrow strip of land and the soil layer here is thin, a stand of conifer trees would be vulnerable; the chances are that they would be blown over before reaching maturity. And anyway, why re-plant when nature has already done such a splendid job for you.

Through the leaf cover we catch glimpses of men in their protective orange clothing as the trees sway and fall around them. At first we were concerned that our green backdrop might completely disappear but as it turns out when the work is finished the view from our kitchen window has only subtly changed. Through the leaves we can see sunlight now where there was none before and this is bound to stimulate something to spring into life. We can’t wait to see what it will be.

June is now giving us long dry sunny days in a seemingly endless supply. The solstice has arrived, a time of year when sunlight beams through our rear north-facing windows both in the early morning and throughout the evening. We live at a latitude where dusk, a long period of gradual light reduction which we know as ‘The Gloaming’, seems to last forever and where the darkness of night barely exists at all.

Ducky’s meanderings – 3

Perhaps it might have been more sensible had we, prior to setting out on this broadly clockwise trip around ScotlandDunnet Head, researched likely campsites to see which were open and whether they suited our needs. But sometimes leaving campsite selection to chance can be rather fun, adding spice to the whole caravanning experience. It is a gamble that could go wrong of course, leaving us trawling the streets late at night like homeless immigrants, but as things have turned out so far we have struck lucky, always finding pleasant sites or else quiet spots where we can just pull off the road. True, we did pay a £10 premium in Dunnet Bay because we are not part of the exclusive Caravan Club elite, and that did hurt a bit, but we made up for it two nights later by pulling off the single track road beside Loch Brora and sleeping for free (although Kate tells me that the owls were noisy – I was too busy sleeping to notice).

Dunnet Head being the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland, the only way for us now is south as we are saving the Orkneys for another day. So it is that we rumbled into Helmsdale, one of so many tiny east coast fishing ports to have sprung into being when the seas were full to bursting with herring. TimespanWhilst refreshing ourselves in the Timespan cafe we discover a way to explore the town in an interesting way, on a waymarked tour, so off we set on foot. A little over half way round, at the harbour, we meet a man called Jim Mackay, something of a local attraction although not figuring at all in the leaflet we are carrying. There he is standing in the sun at his front door greeting us in Gaelic and before long we are being treated to snippets of his long life story and being shown photos of relatives from his Canadian past. We surmise that some 200 years ago his ancestors, crofters living in the valley of Strath Kildonan behind the coastal town, were being evicted as part of the Highland Clearances. Many crofters from this area travelled to Canada to seek a better life (one ending up as Canada’s prime minister) but many, like Jim’s family, later returned to Helmsdale to live. We have read about and seen evidence of the Clearances in the lonely ruins dotted about the glens everywhere we have travelled in Scotland – it is a shameful part of the history of this country when the urge for profit for a few tore apart a centuries old way of life for the many – and suddenly we are confronted by a living piece of this history who stops us at random for a chat. Full of character and good humour he charms us both and only very reluctantly do we eventually take our leave of this place.

Equally charming and enthusiastic is the holidaying French policeman we meet with his family at Portmahomack on the Dornoch Firth. What brings him to this remote spot we don’t find out but he seems delighted to find two people who both understand and can speak a little of his language, although his own spoken English is exceptionally good. We leave him so he can indulge himself at the nearby Glenmorangie distillery (ah yes, that is why he is there) then drive off to try our camp site searching luck along the Cromarty Firth.

Kate’s father was at one time stationed in the RAF at Evanton and fortune once again shines on us by guiding us to an excellent site here. Then no sooner have we staked our claim to a pitch when we spy a small sign saying ‘Forest Walk’ on the edge of the site, pointing towards the dense skyline of trees. Now as it happens these two words are something we invariably find irresistible, and especially when need to stretch our legs after a long drive, so after a quick spot of lunch, off we go again.

This forest, however, has an amazing surprise waiting for us just a short climb away.Kate on gorge bridge A geological anomaly seems to have caused the river flowing down from the hills to fall into a narrow chasm whose weakness the river then exploited by making it immensely deep without any significant broadening. Black Rock Gorge is the result, a natural phenomenon hidden away in dense forest just a short distance from us. Black Rock gorgeA wooden bridge built to enable walkers to cross from one side to the other, gives no impression of the chasm beneath until one is precisely half way across, when finally the narrow cleft below, leading apparently, into the bowels of the earth, opens up. Looking down, the vegetation on both sides is lush and green, right to the bottom where there is a glint of silver from the river as it rushes through far below. Here, hidden away modestly, is a tourist goldmine par excellence, reserved only for the few who venture forth in a disorganised fashion, taking in whatever comes their way. We know that by travelling about so randomly we must miss a lot but somehow this is compensated for by what we do discover, on our own, by following our instincts or our noses, helped only by serendipity.

Ducky’s meanderings – 2

How do you define’ ‘bad weather’?north atlantic gale In the mind of the manager of the Durness campsite, bad weather is when it is too windy for the ferry across the estuary to the Cape Wrath headland to operate, this being largely because the ferry is part of his small business empire, and no doubt a nice little tourism earner too. In many people’s eyes if you have come this far then the last few miles to Cape Wrath itself are almost essential, despite the headland being entirely devoted to the military so that there’ll be no stepping out to explore without someone in uniform shooting at you. So a windy day is bad news for some then.

Our van has been shuddering all night, buffeted from side to side and lashed with rain. However in the morning with the wind still howling, building in strength, when we finally peep our noses outside Ducky’s warm interior after our almost sleepless night we find the rain has stopped, the sky is blue and the sun beams down. So despite the fact that standing upright outside is a struggle and anything light enough to carry will fly off at speed downwind if let loose, to us this is good weather.

But we have had enough of the ‘windiest campsite in Britain’ and have resolved to find somewhere more sheltered for the night ahead as this promises to be equally windy, if not more so. Our eastward journey begins with an awe inspiring cliff-top drive which gives us views down onto golden sandy bays where the sea is a turquoise blue and the wave-tops are blown off into dazzling white mist. Kate and erraticThe strength of the wind is quite staggering, but nothing prevents us from stopping to examine the ‘erratic’ perched on a hillock close beside our road. It may seem selfish but in some ways we are grateful that this wild place is not everybody’s cup of tea so we get to enjoy it without having to share the experience. The roads are almost empty of traffic (which is just as well as ‘A’ roads in this part of the world are single track) and the tourist season is barely underway anyway. Of course this can have its drawbacks too, as we discover when trying to find a site for the night ahead. Each village (Sutherland has no towns) we pass proudly advertises the facilities it offers, many boasting caravan and camping facilities to die for, but finding them proves impossible; they are either closed or too well hidden. At Talmine we are tempted away down a tiny lane by a large brown sign and discover an empty field, close by the sea, with a sign on the gate that reads ‘Site Full’. Our intelligence insulted we drive past and soon pull up beside the tiny village harbour to make ourselves comfortable for the night. We have everything we need on board so if our money is not needed through lack of enterprise then the loss is not ours.

Kyle of Tongue rainbow

From our own private site we gaze out across the Kyle of Tongue and watch the battle between the Atlantic swell rolling in around the headland and the fierce south-westerly wind coming down the Kyle. A mist hangs over the sea, fine spray being picked up from each wave crest, and a distant rainbow hovers above the horizon supporting an arch of clouds like some unearthly bridge. An obliging visitor cavorts in the sea close by so we can sit inside with our eyes glued to binoculars. Bird No.1 in our Pocket Guide is a Great Northern Diver, something of a rarity it seems, but one has chosen this spot to grab a bit of dinner while we cook ours. I always find it hard to understand how such small creatures can survive in what is to us such a hostile environment but he seems to spend more time beneath the waves than above, suggesting that his perception of the world is vastly different from ours. Oblivious to the wind above, his world is perhaps calmer and more predictable than ours.

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