Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sand, sea, sun and blue sky on Islay!

On the second day of our Islay trip we awoke to find ourselves on an idyllic spread of machair above a white shell sand beach. The sun was shining the sky was blue and only a light breeze ruffled the waters of the bay. The only cloud on our horizon was the inshore waters forecast for Mull of Kintyre to Ardnamurchan Point. Winds west 3 to 4 backing SW and increasing 5 to 6 later (after 5pm).

What do you do on a beach but build sand castles? My little plastic spade doubles up as a sheep shit clearer on the camp site!

We set off to the south leaving the Sound of Islay and the mountains of Jura behind.

After rounding Ardmore Point we would turn to the SW following Islay's whisky coast! In the distance the Mull of Kintyre could just be seen on the horizon. Little did we know that we would be rounding the Mull within the fortnight!

After passing through Caolas Port na Lice we entered an enchanting area of scattered skerries called Plod Sgeirean. In the distance, the Irish hills of Antrim now drew the eye onward.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

God Knows in the mists of Innean Glen

We had left Macrihanish in thick fog at 0930am, just as the south going tidal flow started. An hour later we were paddling along a coastline of bizarre stacks and skerries whose outlines and sizes were distorted by the mists.

As we approached a maze of skerries the fog seemed to leach all colour from the seascape and smother all sounds except for the gentle dip of our paddles.

A blink of sun tempted us through through the maze.

We emerged into the isolated bay of Innean Glen, the only beach in the 23km between Macrihanish and Carskey Bay on the far side of the Mull of Kintyre.

Just above the beach a lonely sailor's grave is marked by a simple wooden cross. On the 6th of May 1917 the unidentified sailor's body was washed ashore. It was found by the local shepherd who buried him here. Over the years several crosses have marked the spot. This one was made by Neil Brown of Campbeltown in 1998. He had also made the previous one in 1981.

The inscription simply says "God Knows".

We paddled on into the fog uncertain of what lay before us.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Mull of Kintyre happened this time!

This weekend saw light winds forecast across the west of Scotland. The tides were right for a 62km paddle round the Mull of Kintyre, one of the most remote headlands in the UK. We aimed to leave Macrihanish at 0930 on Saturday 26th July, just as the south going flow started. We expected to arrive at the Mull of Kintyre (14.5km distant) at 1230 when the tide race would be at its maximum. A light wind is essential for such a plan as the tide race would be a maelstrom in strong winds and there would be no turning back! Last year we turned back because the forecast light winds turned into a force 5 easterly which would have meant wind against tide round the Mull.

The Mull of Kintyre  juts out into the North Channel which separates Scotland from Ireland. The tides are so strong and unusual that when the tide is in on the east side of the Kintyre it is out on the west side! You paddle round on sloping water! Careful tidal planning is required for such a trip and it is sensible to refer to the tidal direction rather than flood or ebb. Indeed the tide we caught started as an ebb on the west side of the peninsula and ended up as a flood on the east side of the peninsula! What a fun paddle.... in light winds!

Light winds sometimes mean fog! The curious rock formation at the Mull of Kintyre is called the "Dugs Lugs" (Canine ears).

After rounding the Mull the fog began to lift so we paddled out into the race for a view back to the lighthouse. The light was established in 1788 by Thomas Smith assisted by his son in law, Robert Stevenson, the first of the Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers. It was rebuilt in 1830 and automated in 1996. The light flashes twice, white every 20 secs.


Pennies from heaven in Kildalton church yard.

After setting up camp, we went for a little walk in the gentle countryside which backs the SE corner of Islay's coastline.

At the crest of a hill we came across the ancient churchyard of Kildalton.

The churchyard contains the Kildalton Cross. This is one of the finest early Christian crosses in the British Isles. It was carved in the 8th century and so is nearly 1200 years old. It is believed the sculptors came from Iona. It is remarkably well preserved for such an ancient sculpture. The nearby church dates from the 12th century.

The east side of the cross has scenes depicting the Virgin and Child with attendant angels, Cain murdering Abel, the Sacrifice of Isaac and David killing the Lion.

The west side of the cross has four carved lions.

At the foot and hidden on small ledges on the cross there is a collection of pennies, just enough for a round of Guinness!.

The church fell into disuse in the 17th century but the graveyard continued to be used until the late 19th century. In addition to medieval grave slabs there are more modern ones such as this one which is covered in rich coloured lichen. The deceased, Robert Cameron, either lived or worked at the now abandoned settlement of Proaig, which we had visited earlier in the day.

We now felt we had learned a little more about the countryside of Islay, which we were paddling round.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Landfall at Claggain Bay, Islay

Travelling down the east coast of Islay, we left Proaig Bay and distant McArthur's Head then paddled SSE to the next headland, Carraig Mhor.

On rounding Carraig Mhor the character of the Islay landscape changed dramatically. Gentle wooded slopes hung over beaches of dazzling white sand.

After we passed the next low headland, Rhuba Liath, we were paddling amongst skerries and more white sand beaches.

On reaching Claggain Bay the shadows were lengthening so we decided to stop for the evening and enjoy the view up the Sound of Jura.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Big skies above Proaig Bay, Islay

Rounding McArthur's head we were sheltered from the northerly winds as we entered the broad sweep of Proaig Bay.

Shadows of clouds chased one another across the empty landscape of the east coast of Islay.

In the distance we cot sight of the abandoned cottages of Proaig.

We made landfall on this delightful little spit of land.

The main cottage and its byre have recently been re-roofed and the cottage is open. It is a very spacious bothy but the pigeons can get in and everything is covered in their shit. The bed has been covered with a polythene sheet but we were not enticed to stay.

At the back of the bothy these ancient cottage walls still stand against the elements. Their empty and roofless rooms are filled only with nettles and fleeting memories of their past.
We pressed on to the south as the shadows lengthened.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

McArthur's Head lighthouse and the mouth of the Sound of Islay

We launched again into the Sound of Islay. This is the view back to the north from whence we had come. The distinctive mounds of the Paps of Jura are lost in the evening clouds above Jura on the right.

We were now paddling SE below the cliffs of Beinn na Caillich towards the distant McArthur's Head lighthouse.

Looking back up the Sound of Islay, past Mair and Billy, to distant Port Askaig.

We approached McArthur's Head using a variety of paddling techniques.

On a lively following sea, the sun sparkled against the lengthening shadows of the dark cliffs behind.

McArthur's Head lighthouse was built in 1861 by David and Thomas Stevenson. It was powered by acetylene then propane gas and the last keeper left in 1969 when the light was automated. In 2005 it was converted to a solar powered electric lamp. It flashes twice every 10 seconds, white then red. While manned, the lighthouse was serviced by boat from Port Askaig due to the remote nature of this wild part of Islay making land access very difficult.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Of an Islay bothy, fishing rods and buoyancy aids.

After breaking out out of the tide we followed the coast and came across this wonderful bothy under scudding white clouds. Its remoteness has protected it from the vandalism that has afflicted many mainland bothies.

The view from the bothy door extended to the distant Mull of Kintyre.

This well equipped bothy has airbeds and a pump. It also has mask, snorkel and flippers and a fishing rod! On this occasion it was only 17:30 so we decided to press on further before making camp. We promised we would return! Both the estate and the MBA are due thanks for this wonderful place.

As we launched, David had dropped his rod into the sea just offshore. Fortunately he was wearing his dry suit and recovered it. It took several attempts as he forgot to remove his buoyancy aid. This must have made a deep impression as over the next four days Tony and I found several BA's, just like David's, on many beaches we stopped at. Usually just after David had paddled on!


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tragedy in the Sound of Islay

The BBC Scotland News has just reported a tragic accident in the Sound of Islay. Yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, a sea angler was swept away by strong spring tide currents in the Sound of Islay. The RNLI Lifeboat from Port Askaig and a helicopter were in action within minutes and the man was rescued. He was airlifted to hospital in Oban but very sadly he died later.

My heart goes out to his bereaved relatives.

It just emphasises the power of the sea. We had enjoyed kayaking in these strong currents just a few days before on our holiday. Now someone else on holiday, in the same place, has lost their life.

We cut our holiday short and stayed on the sheltered side of the island due to the wind conditions, which made kayaking difficult. I am glad we did. We are fortunate, we will be able to return to Islay.

The Sound of Islay

After disembarking from the ferry at Port Askaig, we wasted no time, in getting onto the water. We did not even stay to sample the ales of the Port Askaig hotel, whose beer garden conveniently overlooks this little jetty. It has been a licensed premises since the 16th century.

With the hills of Jura just a short distance away over the narrows, at 3 hours past the turn of the tide, the south going ebb was running strongly down the Sound of Islay. Even though it was neap tides, the current was sweeping past the mouth of the harbour and it was quite a sight to see a 3,000 ton ferry break out into the current. The combination of tide, wind and forecast made our decision to go south with the flow an easy one. We were on the water by 16:00 hours.

Although the spring rate in mid sound is 5 knots, we hit 10 knots in the current just outside the harbour. The wooded slopes of Dunlossit estate made a gentle introduction to the wild and remote east coast of Islay beyond. The south going ebb in the Sound of Islay starts at +05:15 HW Dover and the North going flood starts at -00:50 HW Dover. The spring rate is 5 knots.

We then made our way into mid channel to take maximum advantage of wind and tide. We averaged 12km/hour (6 knots) down the upper part of the Sound of Islay.

The tide slowed as we approached the entrance of the sound with Am Fraoch Eilean on the left and McArthur's Head on Islay straight ahead. The distant Kintyre peninsula can just be seen on the horizon. We now turned west and made for Islay's lonely eastern shores.

This map shows the GPS track of our route over the 4 days of our visit.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Over the sea to the fair isle of Islay

As we crossed the Sound of Jura, towards the Sound of Islay, a force 5 wind was blowing from the north west. The air was very clear and to the north the Paps of Jura heaved above the horizon. However, the wind meant that we would need to plan our sea kayaking adventure carefully. Initial plans to paddle against the tide and head north towards the island of Colonsay were put to one side.

Mair and Billy had met David and myself at Kennacraig, on the west coast of the Mull of Kintyre. We had promised ourselves a trip to Islay for too long, now it was a reality! We were to meet Tony on Islay at Port Askaig. He had already enjoyed a family holiday for a week on the island.

The MV Hebridean Isles docked right on time as we were putting the final bags into the kayaks.

We used trolleys to wheel them onto the car deck. The kayaks travel for £10 return on any Caledonian Macbrayne crossing. Note the strap restraining the kayaks for a windy crossing. Normally they do not bother.

Our excitement mounted as we approached the tiny Port Askaig. It lies at the foot of steep cliffs. Rather I should say lay at the foot of steep cliffs. The port is midway through a 13 million pound redevelopment that has carved a new approach and waiting area from the cliffs (destroying two of the villages few houses) and constructed a new roll on roll off jetty.

Also noticeable is the Islay Severn class lifeboat Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit II. This has been on station since 1997. On 18 December 1991, the previous Thames class boat, Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit, was involved in the dramatic of nearly 50 souls from the Russian fish factory vessel Kartli.

Port Askaig is one of Islay's two ferry terminals. The other is on the south of the island at Port Ellen. Port Askaig is also the terminal for the MV Eilean Dhiura which crosses 0.9km of the Sound of Isla to Feolin on Jura.

We had arrived on Islay!