Travels with Jen

Sunshine and snow might make for marvellous views – but not necessarily for great walks, as Jen and I discovered in the Cairngorms, the day after leaving Ardnamurchan.

We decided to climb Cairn Gorm itself from the upper car park – which would have been fine had we found the right path, and had we realised that the alternative route we tried to take instead was in fact the ski run. The walk was more of a grim trudge.

The views at the top were spectacular but we also battled an icy blast the entire time on the top – the photograph gives no suggestion of this! We also recognised that our lack of crampons and ice axe meant that going further would have been foolhardy.

Cairngorm range: Ben Macdui is the far peak on the left.

Cairngorm range: Ben Macdui is the far peak on the left.

The following day we had a mega drive down to Devon, because one of Jen’s cousins was having her son christened in the local church on the Sunday. It was therefore a great opportunity to meet Jen’s wider family.

During the afternoon we had a short walk on Dartmoor. We had lunch by the East Dart river, which provided a photo opportunity that I could not resist…

Jen on the East Dart river

Jen on the East Dart river

We had an awesomely wonderful week together in Scotland and then briefly in Devon – being exceptionally fortunate with the weather. Since coming back we’ve been doing some wedding preparation – which also meant a quick trip into All Souls, Langham Place.

Jen & Rich at All Souls Langham Place

Jen & Rich at All Souls Langham Place

Exploring Ardnamurchan with Jen

Just after Easter, Jen and I had an awesome few days in Ardnamurchan, the region south-west of Fort William which is technically part of the mainland but feels like the Outer Hebrides.We were exceptionally lucky with the weather, which was spectacularly good for the whole time. We stayed at the excellent Ariundle Centre in Strontian, which is a combined craft centre, cafe-restaurant and bunkhouse run by the indefatigable Kate.

Shortly after arriving, we visited the Whitesmith lead mine, where strontium was first discovered (see The Strontium Story). Then on our first full day we travelled to Ardnamurchan Point – the most westerly part of the British mainland, which required driving through increasingly wild countryside. We found afterwards that we had just missed the large volcanic crater whose geological history defines the region – that’ll have to be a future trip! We found an easy path from Portuairk to Sanna which gave some most picturesque views of the coast and islands.

View from Partauirk towards Muck and Skye.

View from Partauirk towards Muck and Skye.

View near Sanna at the end of Ardnamurchan, looking towards Skye and Rhum

View near Sanna at the end of Ardnamurchan, looking towards Muck, Skye and Rhum

On the next day we climbed Beinn Resipol, a peak close to the north shore of Loch Sunart which is renowned for great views from the top. It’s rugged with no clear paths, and it gets steadily steeper as one ascends to the summit ridge: but the views are indeed exceptional. The panorama is dominated by Loch Sunart to the south and Loch Shiel to the north-west, with mountains all round, and sea views to some of the islands of the inner Hebrides. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s become one of my favourite peaks!

Loch Sunart from Beinn Resipol

Loch Sunart from Beinn Resipol

Loch Shiel from Beinn Resipol, with Muck, Rhum and Skye in the background.

Loch Shiel from Beinn Resipol, with Muck, Rhum and Skye in the background.

Jen near the top of Beinn Resipol

Jen near the top of Beinn Resipol

On our final morning – before moving up to Aviemore – we went on a dawn trip to the shores of Loch Sunart to look for interesting wildlife. We stopped for a while at the Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide, and had a clear but somewhat distant sighting of an otter travelling from one of the small islands in front of the hide.

Fair Isle

Last week I had a great few days on Fair Isle: the weather was exceptional, with blue skies for much of the time, and very little wind.

The island is a magnet for rare birds and thus also for bird-watchers: lying half way between the Orkneys and the Shetlands, it’s a staging post for migrating birds as they head south for the winter. Its location makes it the top spot in Britain for rare birds. The only problem was that the weather was not good for blowing rare birds in!

Fair Isle from the air

Fair Isle from the air (click to enlarge)

Red-breasted flycatcher

Red-breasted flycatcher. This is a juvenile – it takes a couple of years for a male to acquire his full colouring.

Probably my best sighting was of a red-breasted flycatcher. A number of birders were watching one in a field; as I left, I noticed another on the opposite side of the field – which then obligingly flew to a nearby fence-post. It remained flitting around the area, often striking photogenic poses in the process.

The main accommodation on the island is the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. It’s a great place to stay, with a strong communal atmosphere as guests share a common interest.

One afternoon I was chatting with one birder who was astonished at the number of Siberian chiffchaffs that were on the island. I therefore asked how one could tell that a chiffchaff is Siberian? Apparently the markings are much more subdued – which thus explained why I’d seen a couple of chiffchaffs with unusually subdued markings!

Siberian chiffchaff on Fair Isle

Siberian chiffchaff on Fair Isle

Fair Isle - west and east coasts, from Malcolm's Peak.

Fair Isle – west and east coasts, from Malcolm’s Peak.

If there’s one bird that characterises the islands more than any other, it’s the fulmar. Looking rather like a gull but actually more closely related to the albatross, virtually every cliff face on the island has a raucous colony of fulmars.

Fulmar on Fair Isle

Fulmar on Fair Isle: easy to confuse with a gull until you see the bill.

Apart from going down with a bad cold while I was there, it was a thoroughly enjoyable few days and I would be glad to go back!

The end of Britain

This is it: thus far and no further.

Muckle Flugga lighthouse: the rock to the right, Out Stack, is the northern limit of Great Britain.

Muckle Flugga lighthouse: the rock to the right, Out Stack, is the northern limit of Great Britain.

Out Stack, to the right of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, is the northern limit of Great Britain. The next solid surface north of here is the Arctic ice cap. This is a wonderfully wild and rugged area which seems to vividly portray the battle against wind and sea.

When the first lighthouse was built in 1854, it was designed to withstand only the wind and the rain: but the force of the stormy seas during gales soon became apparent, and the sodden light-house keepers were soon requesting a stronger and higher structure. [ref]

Then there are the bonxies (or great skuas): large, brown, gull-like birds which are notorious for bullying other birds into giving up their food. Over half of their global population is in the Shetlands. I’d only ever seen one from a distance before, but as I walked  across Hermaness Nature Reserve to get to the Muckle Flugga view, I found myself being watched by one after another. I knew that I was in their world. At one point there were more than 15 overhead. I might take a few herrings next time to see what happens.

Bonxies (great skuas): two of the many around Hermaness.

Bonxies (great skuas): two of the many around Hermaness.

View from Hermaness

View from Hermaness

The mysteries of Ardnamurchan

What’s the most westerly place on the British mainland? No – it’s not Land’s End; it’s Ardnamurchan Point, half a degree further over at 6.2°W. This small fact is like the area itself: it ought to be well known, but isn’t.

It’s the most prominent part of the peninsula south-west of Fort William. The easiest way to get there is to take the short ferry ride across Loch Linnhe, just north of Glencoe. Although the journey is less than half a mile, it takes one to a land that feels more like the Outer Hebrides than mainland Scotland.

The area is remote – and spectacularly beautiful. It was only mildly surprising to discover that the reclusive wildlife writer, Mike Tomkies, lived here, on the shore of Loch Shiel, a long lake with limited access by road. The area is a stronghold for the Scottish wildcat – with which Tomkies was intimately involved (here).

Loch Doile

Loch Doile

The main village, Strontian, houses about 350 people (similar to Wichenford). This might make it seem like any other small and inconspicuous village – but it is one of only two sites in the world to have a naturally occurring element named after it (strontium). This is another fact about the area that one feels should be better known.

My main motivation for the trip was to see the local wildlife, and it was good to be joined by Dave Doughty for it. One of the highlights was a dawn trip around Loch Sunart. Driving on the road west of Strontian at 5.30, we chanced upon an animal trying to cross the road… it wasn’t an otter, as we’d first thought, but with a white bib and bounding gait it could only be a pine marten. It took a while for it to find a way through, but it entertained us for a couple of minutes before doing so. (I was so excited to see it I completely forgot to take any photographs! Duh!)

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Shortly after we arrived at the Garbh Eilean wildlife hide, Dave spotted an otter swimming along, nose just above the water line, diving a couple of times as well. We hoped  it would land on one of the islands in front of the hide – instead of which it swam behind and we lost sight of it.

Towards the end of the week we went on a widlife safari, guided by the irrepressible Hamza Yassin of West Highland Tours. He’s a professional wildlife photographer who is partly employed as a tour guide by the local laird. We soon regretted not doing the safari earlier in the week, such was his detailed knowledge of the local area.

I enthused about seeing the pine marten. Hamza was unsurprised by the sighting. He explained that here they are as common as the fox would be down south – and are doing so well that they threaten the survival of the wildcat. Wildlife conservation isn’t always straightforward…

My own attempts at photography were much more limited than I had expected – partly due to the weather, partly because the birdlife was much less obliging than I’d hoped. There was an abundance of herons, which is not exactly an unusual species further south! However, they are usually quite difficult to photograph as they are very alert to human presence, so when I saw one on the lakeside from the car I stopped to take a snap. But the heron had other things in mind than standing and posing…

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