Saturday, October 31, 2009

The beaches of Loch Tarbert, Jura

We rounded Rubh an t-Sailean (Ruantallain) into the shelter of Loch Tarbert, just as the sun hit the western horizon. The low red light warmed the stones of a huge raised beach. It rises about 36 metres from the current high water mark. At its summit the stones are as clean as if the tide last went out a few hours ago. However, it is 10,000 years since salt water last lapped these stones.

We were keen to get the tents up before nightfall. You can just see the gable of a bothy on the horizon, but it has slipped into disrepair and tents are now a more comfortable option.

It was good to stretch our legs after the long crossing.

David innocently asked, "Do you think there will be any midges?"

Friday, October 30, 2009

Colonsay to Jura by sea kayak

Sadly, it was now time to take our leave of Colonsay. We had our last supper on one of her superlative beaches on the SE coast. The day was getting on, it was now about 2hrs 30minutes to sunset. We had paddled only 21km, since setting off in the morning, and still had a 15km crossing to our destination, at the mouth of West Loch Tarbert on Jura. It looked like we would be setting up camp in the dark again.

At first we paddled on flat water, while we were still in the lee of Colonsay. The hills of Islay and Jura seemed a long way away.

The wind and swell picked up as we left the shelter of the Oronsay reefs and became exposed to the open Atlanic ocean with a force four westerly and swells. I had to put my camera away for most of the crossing.

Fortunately, the wind began to drop, with the setting sun, as we made our final approach to the dramatic coast of Jura. The summits of her Paps were covered with a modesty blanket of cloud.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The superlative beaches of Colonsay

The beaches of SE Colonsay, like this one at Rubha Dubh, are simply stunning.

This is Traigh an Eacaill (Cable Bay).

We then found Port a' Chapuill...

...and decided we had to explore some of its many coves.

I went for a swim at this one but the water was not exactly warm.

In 1977, Scottish Natural Heritage commissioned a survey of the beaches in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The whole area is noted for the beauty of its beaches. Over 250 beaches were assessed for scenic quality on a scale of 1 to 3 for the beach itself, its setting, the view into the beach and, finally, the view out from the beach. Only 20 beaches scored 12 or 11.

Four out of these 20 superlative beaches are to be found on Colonsay and Oronsay...

Ritchie, W. and Mather. A.S. (1977). The beaches of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Commissioned by the Countryside Commission for Scotland 1977. Reprinted 2005 by
Scottish Natural Heritage as Commissioned Report No. 048.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gathering nuts on Colonsay

The day was by now pressing on so we reluctantly left the shelter of Scalasaig's little Port na Feamainn (seaweed harbour). We rounded the low headland of Rubha Dubh with its automatic lighthouse. It flashes every 10 seconds showing a white light to the east and a red light to the north.

We now entered Loch Staosnaig and paddled round Eilean Staosnaig at its head. Gentle hills rolled down to a raised beach which is now covered by farm land. It looks such an unspoiled scene but it was once the scene of food processing on an industrial scale! These white sands have been a landing point for our ancestors for at least 9,000 years.

In 1994 an archaeological dig on the raised beach revealed a large (4.5m diameter) pit, which was full of burned hazel nut shells.

In 2001 Mithen et al published a paper in which they dated the shells to approximately 9000 years ago. They also studied pollen from sediments in a nearby loch and discovered that the hazel nut pollen had all but disappeared over one season. It appears that our hunter/gatherer, Mesolithic ancestors had arrived on Colonsay and cut down the hazel trees, gathered all the nuts then processed them by roasting in this pit.

This is a diagram of how the pit would have been used.

Plant Use in the Mesolithic: Evidence from Staosnaig, Isle of Colonsay, Scotland
Steven Mithen, Nyree Finlay, Wendy Carruthers, Stephen Carter and Patrick Ashmore, Journal of Archaeological ScienceVolume 28, Issue 3, March 2001, Pages 223-234

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Better days on Colonsay...

A fine old wooden, clinker built, fishing boat lies well above the HW mark in Scalasaig harbour. She is the Eythorne I like old wooden boats. At least Eythorne still has her name and an old tarpaulin keeping the rain out. I do hope her hull lifts to the Atlantic swells once again.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"The kayaker's have arrived!"

We arrived at Scalasaig with every intention of making a cultural visit, inspecting ancient crosses and buildings. However, we are easily diverted and our boots had barely dried before we came across this sign for May MacKinnon's Pantry! Not only that this Pantry was licenced!

May and her assistant wondered if we had come from one of the (large) yachts which had dropped anchor of the pier.

"Actually we have come in kayaks."

"Oh you must be the canoeists that have come all the way from Islay!"

Word travels fast in these parts!

Well we were hungry and thirsty, so we ordered bowl-fulls of home made soup (potato and leek) and home made bread. As this was second luncheon, we added a variety of pastries including some excellent venison pasties! May wondered if we would like a cup of tea with our pasties but the sun was by now well over the yardarm, so we decided to wash it all down with some local Colonsay Ale.

Phil wondered if this might affect his paddling abilities but we quickly reassured him that it would not, if consumed in moderation, taken with some food and followed by a siesta!

"What do you think of the beer David?"

We did not forget to take notes of our experience and after careful consideration, the staff of award May's Pantry 12/10 as a sea kayaking pub!

After a most pleasant afternoon sojourn in May's Pantry, we made our way slowly back down to the kayaks. We were met by some tourists and a lovely young couple who worked at the hotel. All wanted to know more about these strange craft that had carried us to Colonsay over an open ocean, without recourse to the ferry!

As they say in Scalasaig, "The kayakers have arrived!"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rockpool Alaw Bach in Carbonite 2000

At the Scottish Canoe show in Perth, I saw a very interesting kayak on the Kari-Tek stand. It was a shiny Rockpool Alaw Bach, though it lacked the glitter finish. Closer inspection showed that it was made out of a moulded material called Carbonite 2000 that is used in the aircraft industry. This is a thermoformed trilaminate of ABS plastic and acrylic. It gives a stiff, light hull with a high degree of UV, impact and abrasion resistance. It is said to be easily repairable but I do not have details. Kayaks in Carbonite 2000 are likely to be up to 20% cheaper than traditional, hand lay up, GRP composite Kayaks. Eddyline in the USA first introduced sea kayaks in this material in 1996.

The moulding machines are ultra expensive but the labour cost in producing each kayak is low. Clearly the accuracy with which the mould reproduces the original design will be paramount to the performance of these kayaks but this looks like a glimpse of the future for UK sea kayaks.

Given Mike Webb's acknowledged guru status in the World of GRP kayaks, I think it very significant that Rockpool, of all British manufacturers, was showing a kayak in Carbonite 2000. I understand that other UK manufacturers, like P&H and Valley, are also seriously considering this production method.

Glassard and a wooly welcome to Scalasaig, Colonsay

We continued SE along Colonsay's coast line after leaving the abandoned fishing village of Riasg Buidhe. We came upon the planned township of Glassard (Glas Aird) to which, the former residents of Riasg Buidhe moved. Each new croft house had its own hay meadow and the men folk were able to use bigger fishing boats which were kept in nearby Scalasaig harbour.

A recent survey showed that Colonsay had 89 houses of which, 39 were holiday homes. Some of the Glassard crofts are now holiday homes or lets and gradually the old family links to Riasg Buidhe are being lost. Hay was last cut in Glassard over 15 years ago and now the meadows, with their profusion of wild flowers, are being invaded by bracken.

It was nearing time for second luncheon and we now approached the capital of Colonsay, Scalasaig, with some anticipation.

We paddled between the sheltering arms of Scalasaig's harbour and landed at a little beach at its head. The only fishing vessel currently registered with its home port as Colonsay is CN183 Sea Spray. She is a 7m wooden creel fisher built in 1960. You can just see her red hull at the back of the line of moored boats.

We walked up towards the main road and prepared to meet the locals. Would there be any formalities attached with our arrival? Would carnets need to be stamped?

We were met by a small welcoming committee, who were sheltering in the shade of what we presumed to be the custom house. They appeared to be taking a siesta, so we moved forward slowly to pass. Their leader cast a disdainful eye over our salt encrusted Goretex paddling gear but, without comment, slowly stood aside to let us through.

We had arrived in Scalasaig!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A little bowed but still standing at Riasg Buidhe, Colonsay

From the beach we made our way up the hillside to the abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe on Colonsay.

The street which had once been flagged with paving stones was now covered with grass. empty windows and doors looked out over the sea to Jura. The roofs of the houses were long gone. Only the first two houses had gables with stone chimneys.

A little apart from the other houses, this cottage still had a tree growing at the bottom of its yard.

This view from 1900 was taken from the hill behind the cottage in my photo above. At this time the first two cottages in the main street had thatched roofs without stone chimneys.

Some houses had plain dry stone walls like this one with children outside.

Others, like this one, were whitewashed. The prime occupation in the village was fishing. The village was abandoned in 1918 and the inhabitants were resettled at Glassard, which is near Colonsay's capital, Scalasaig. It reminded me of St Kilda, but unlike that island, little is published about the history of Riasg Buidhe.

This photo was taken in 10 years later in 1910. You can see houses 1 and 2 now have corrugated iron roofs and the thatched roof of house 4 has collapsed. You can see a tree in the front yard of the isolated cottage in the foreground. If, as I suspect, it is the same tree we saw, it is a little bowed but still standing after 100 years!

As we made our way round Colonsay, we realised that we were landing at the same spots as our ancestors had chosen. They after all were also journeying by small craft. Some had lived relatively recently, such as the fisherfolk at Riasg Buidhe. We were shortly to discover where some had lived 9,000 years ago!

I think it is important when sea kayaking to keep a look out for landing sites. Don't just pass them by, on a headlong, headland to headland, dash. Take time to stop and explore, your voyage may take longer but you will be all the richer for it.

Bibliographic footnote:
The bottom photo was taken by by Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson (1876-1958). She published a number of books of photographs and writings including:

"Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands:recounting Highland and clan history traditions, ecclesiology, archæology, romance, literature, humour, folk-lore, &c. " in 1920 and...

"Further wanderings, mainly in Argyll: recounting Highland history, traditions, ecclesiology, archaeology, romance, present conditions, crofters' life, and wild life, humour, literature, folk-lore, &c" in 1926.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The last tennant of Riasg Buidhe, a spider.

We spied a ruined village at Riasg Buidhe on the NE coast of Colonsay.

It looked an interesting spot to explore, so we landed at a little gravel beach at the end of...

...a narrow channel, which in places had been hewn from the rocks to create a little harbour.

The rocks rose steeply from the shore...

...and there was only room for a tiny building which looked like it had been a store.

The only sign of life was this spider, which had spun its web in a nearby cave.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Armada and Spanish goats on NE Colonsay

Our little Armada of kayaks made its way down the NE coast of Colonsay in the most glorious of conditions.

In the distance, the hills of Islay floated above a limpid sea.

As the kilometers slipped gently by, we passed Eilean Olmsa. It was quite difficult deciding which side to pass it on.

A large yacht resorted to its engine after drifting in the tide, its limp sails had produced no propulsion.

We rounded a headland to discover that our progress was being observed by these goats. Although they are now feral, they are reputed to be descendants of a flock of goats that survived the wrecking of one of the great ships of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Better days: the wreck of the Wasa

We spent some time exploring...

...the magnificent strand of Balnahard beach on Colonsay.

Below the high water mark we found the remains of a wooden steamship, the SS Wasa. In 1919 she caught fire and was being towed to safety when she stranded here and was lost.

In this view you can see Scarba on the left, the Gulf of Corryvreckan and Jura to the right. We would have liked to have stayed all day but we knew we had to get to the south end of Colonsay and cross the 15km to Jura before night fall. We prepared to put to sea again, unlike the Wasa, which has seen better days.