islands

five go wild on eagle island

We're just back from Mull, a trip with family and friends. Here's one take, another follows in the next issue of OE

The crossing was calm

There is nowhere else like the west coast of Scotland - a mix of the familiar and offworld. Even the shorter water crossings feel like stepping over a threshold.

At Pennyghael the weather was neither here nor there

We spent the night at Uisken beach, I put the kettle on for Ben. The eclipse was not watched but felt. An involuntary rising anxiety as the light diminished, a sense of relief as it returned. The sea stilled.

I met this woman on Iona. She'd come from coast to coast, from Worthing to be precise. Here she is going into the oldest chapel on the island, her very own pilgrimage.

The mighty burg, the eagle's lair, from the Abbey garden. St. Columba was apparently the first to use St. John's Wort as a curative for the disturbed. Iona is marginal, and well described by my friend Tim as 'a thin place'.

Golden hour was pretty golden on our return from Ben More. The straight up and down way... but all for one and one for all, everyone came through the inversion. The little one snored all the way up in the backpack.

At the head of Loch Na Keal, looking towards the Ben, a photo snatched on the way to somewhere else.

Like the bow of a ship on the edge of the world. Rugged coastal walking to the Whisky cave.

The Treshnish Isles, the Dutchman's Cap on the left. We knew we'd arrived at the correct inlet for the cave when the centre of the cap aligned with the tip of the island in front of it. The Whisky Still was still in place, sunk deep enough to hide the fire from prying eyes, now surrounded by a salad of washed up plastic. Crackaig must have been the best party town in the north until Typhoid ruined their day.

Beached giants on the road to Craignure under bright spring skies

And Eagle Island's parting shot - a Duart Castle silhouette taken from the ferry, another shower on the hills behind.

Island life

September in the highlands, the deer grass going over. Mist, russet and rust.

I didn't have much of a plan, just a few pages of OS mapping I'd printed off some weeks before. So the plan evolved on the wing, and that meant deciding to paddle up the loch only once I'd arrived. I'd been up since 5am and the water was millpond clam, so it seemed sensible.

These places where natural architecture meets man made intervention are endlessly fascinating to me. I've taken to seeking out the dissonance. Being physically close to that mix of scale and intent is disorientating, even when the weather is this good. And doing that in a boat even more so. I stopped halfway across the loch to take photos, very aware I was in a single chamber vessel and the water underneath went a long, long way down.

I look up at the trees. So much time holding my breath recently I wonder if I've forgotten how to exhale. I breathe out, in the boat. The inflatable dinghy stays miraculously afloat. I look at the trees again. At shoreside, it's a desert, but up above me on the hillsides, regeneration blooms.

There are tree trunks in the water, skeleton bones. The loch edges are littered with their corpses. Later, I break a dead limb off for the fire, then feel so wrong I put it back, attempting to put it back into the socket, pathetic. I paddle past implacable cliff, boulder, tree and mud. The western end is bare, stripped of all cover.

There's a different rhythm on a loch, to a river. I practice my stroke, working on body rotation and not my arms to pull the craft through the water. I stop often to take photos, spin the boat and lean back, then explore inlets onshore. Later, there's a headwind, and more focus required.

There's an island on the map I hadn't noticed before. I'm still undecided of my final plans as I push north once more to visit. On the lee side, it's heavily carpeted with moss and heather, but on the other there are small clearings between scrubby birch.

Is Mullardoch island a fake island, only here because of the reservoir?  The dam was built in 1951, and it submerged two lesser natural lochs and a number of dwellings. The hydro board promised to restore the right of way after construction, but unsurprisingly have yet to provide the residents of the glen with a submarine. The shores of my island, like the shores on all sides, are fragile, mobile, the soil washed away by the rising and falling of water.

It's a unique feeling to sleep alone on an island, and equally unique to set off from one in the morning. The place is riven with midges. I awake to their hum, lie there for 40 minutes before bracing myself for the inevitable quick strike, relocating to the rocks to relight the fire.

The mists hug the lake, I paddle into a horizonless abyss, features swimming in and out of the murk, a silent and surreal wet desert.

There are no words for this place.

More dead trees hug the shore, spiders with their heads removed. The price paid for all mod cons. Are we not gods? Frank Herbert had it right.

There is the ruin, once a croft or a stalkers cabin?  I get out, collect water, make tea, and pack down the boat.  I have rafted my pack. It's now time to pack my raft.

Reaching the top of An Socach takes nearly 2 hours. It's less a hill, more a spectacular coire circled by an enormous pie crust. I stop for lunch, snoozing a little whilst grasses sway in the sun.

The next day or so is spent on a fine ridge walk, with 2 my paddle poles whistling in the wind like milk bottles or the soundtrack to a Samurai movie. I zen out. Compared to trips in the last year the pace was relaxed, yet the risks of boating, especially solo and this far from a road, are much higher.

I camped at the bealach, the midges departing as the temperatures drop. Sitting doing nothing takes patience, and practice. I was out of the latter, but remembered the former, but it took me a while to slow down… then stop… to appreciate where I was.  Silence. Just the burn carving a line down the hillside, the stags calling their readiness to mate in the middle distance. And a gentle breeze as night fell, somewhere between cool and cold. I brew tea, pick up my notepad, and the present moment edges by.

I awake to two more stags in the coire, I can hear their harem clattering about on the rocks above me. A raven misjudges it's landing and narrowly misses the shelter, a ptarmigan chatters a few metres away. Otherwise, stillness. The isness of rock and moss. I stare unthinkingly at the remains of insects glued to the shelter from yesterday's hasty lowland evacuation. You know it's bad when they form a sort of morbid patè on your tarp.

I cross another munro, a big one I think, over 1100metres, in the fog, but it's no trouble starting from a bealach, just a straight forward hillwalk with the need to take bearings. Lower down, I bounce along springy tundra dry as tinder, grey wagtails and wheatears flitting and darting amongst the glacial debris, the perfect basecamp for a future adventure - next time with another boat and the girls?

I make good time and then it's time to come off not long after lunch, passing by a drystone wall of all things, looking completely out of place in the highlands. I go the stupid, off trail, hard way of course, which means finding a way through steep crags. Follow the deer paths, they'll steer you right, and no other souls pass through here. This place is entirely theirs, I'm only passing through, an idiot carrying expensive toys sweating in the afternoon haze.

There's no doubt that traveling with a boat is fussy - blowing it up, letting it down, securing it to the bag or the bag to the boat - the pfd, the boatknife, the bloody straps and buckles! It's heavy and takes time, but the rewards are immense. How else could I sleep on an island one night, and a hilltop the next?

Old Hat, new hill

I managed a flying visit to Skye last week, where funny enough the weather was decidedly Scottish.

No pictures of the sheet rain that continued for 12 hours on the first day, but a few of a brief wander up Garbh Bheinn in fine spring weather before hometime the following.

Those who know a little about Scotland's hills will know that the tall ones are named after the compulsive list maker and red cross volunteer Sir Hugh Munro, wheras the slightly lesser ones with long drops between them are named after a diminutive TV comedian from the 1970's. Yep, the old ones are indeed the oldest.  I think we drew the short straw.

That's Marsco above left, and I've not even turned the contrast up. I've yet to visit that one, but from the shoulder of our corbett the long undulating line of red cuillin rise and fall, elegant and tempting, joining one coast to another.

Talking of old, here's Tony's hat. He told me proudly it had cost him £2.99 from C&A, and seen him through 26 years of hills on 6 continents. The kind of thing that cries out to be documented. Never mind Mallory's axe, what of all the other stories, the untold ones?  A few were shared this time out.

After last month's outdoor hiatus, my thighs were burning on the scree slope descent, but this is a fine wee mountain. At the shoulder the benign approach turns into something slightly more characteristic and demanding. The summit ridge is brief but pretty exciting.

It doesn't matter how many times I return, I still can't get over Skye. Now that I've started to get on top of one or two of the pointy bits here, I can't see the fascination going away. I'll return in the summer for a MCofS scrambling course with Heather Morning - bored of my own excuses, a bit more confidence with rope and crabs is overdue.

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