Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Retreat from Islay, the mysterious case of the disappearing headland.

I slept poorly, partly due to the pain in my knee and partly due to unease about the day to come. I awoke early to the crash of surf on the offshore reefs. It sounded so close that I feared for the kayaks but when I stuck my head out of the tent there were only small waves making it onto our beach and the kayaks were safe. It was a relief to retreat from the chill, grey light of dawn back to the warm sleeping bag.

The morning was dull with thick low cloud. We planned to take the south going tide down the west coast of Islay and either camp at Lossit Bay or carry on round the Rhinns of Islay (at slack water) and into Loch Indaal, if there was too much surf to risk landing at Lossit.

At first there was only a gentle rise and fall over the small swell that made it past the reefs. Our first destination, Ton Mhor, dominated the horizon to the south west. It marked the start of the Rhinns of Islay.

 As we emerged from the shelter of the reefs the swell began to increase...

...until even the great bulk of Ton Mhor disappeared when we were in the troughs. From the crests I could see the spray hanging heavy in the air above the surf beaches at Sanaigmore and Ton Mhor. They were on the sheltered side of the Rhinns, so I knew it was pointless to go on. I had checked the Magicseaweed surf report for Machir Bay before we left and it was predicting 4 foot surf. Later forecasts had updated the prediction to 9 foot surf but we were not to to know that. 

At first Phil was surprised when I said we should turn back. After all, there was hardly a breath of wind in the air. However, he understood completely when I told him what a landing in large surf would be like. I made my decision early because the tide was pushing us strongly towards Ton Mhor. We had been paddling for only one hour when we turned back. Against the tide, it took considerably longer to get back to where we had camped the night before. If I had left the decision too late, the tide would have swept us round Ton Mhor and we would have been committed to paddling down the west coast of the Rhinns and the uncertainty of finding anywhere to land. 

Instead, we were soon back within the shelter of the reefs and looking for somewhere to enjoy a second breakfast. Yes, I am first to admit it, we practice seakayaking lite!

A time for reflection on Ardnave Point.

We enjoyed the view as the low sun's warm light illuminated the north shore of Islay, all the way to Rubha Bholsa, round which we had recently come. As the sun set, the temperature began to drop so we decided to make our way back down to the beach and light a fire. No sooner had I started descending the steep dune than I experienced a severe pain in my knee and my leg buckled under me. I broke out into a cold sweat. It was exactly a year since my accident on Gunna, while descending a similar steep sand dune. The painful events of my last year then all came flooding back, the slow recovery from the accident, the death of my father, the death of my good friend Jim, who had helped me back from Gunna, the inevitable major surgery on my knee and the hard months of rehabilitation afterwards. But despite all these setbacks, I was here and life felt really good. I paused for a little while more, then I felt a hand on my elbow, it was Phil. He helped me down to the shore.

Phil had found a large wooden pallet at the far end of the beach and dragged and carried it all the way back. We lit it with some smaller sticks I found nearby.

We soon had a warming blaze going and we toasted the memory of those we could no longer share our lives with. We felt so lucky to be alive and able to be here in this wonderful spot.

I planned to write an article of our trip for Ocean Paddler magazine (published in issue #25). I had this photo in my mind's eye, with the smoke drifting towards the kayaks. Phil helped me back up the dune,s then he went down again to sit by the fire but the wind kept changing direction.  Phil patiently carried both kayaks, backwards and forward along the beach several times, till I got this photo. Ocean Paddler used it as a double page spread and I hope you think Phil's efforts were worthwhile. Thank you Phil! He then helped me back down to the fire.

As the smoke drifted this way and that, we chatted long into the summer night about places we had been to, places we wanted to go to and about those who had been with us. Suddenly a lump came my throat and tear caught my eye. Maybe it was the smoke, maybe it was for those we have lost...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ardnave Sunset, Islay.

There was quite a swell running up the gravel beach below the chapel on Nave Island. I landed while Phil sat offshore. The island was overgrown with nettles and thistles so we decided to camp in a more sheltered spot on Islay with some closely cropped grass! We found the ideal spot with a white sand beach near Ardnave Point. It was protected from swell by a series of offshore reefs and Nave Island.

A herd of large Islay beasts had closely cropped the sward above the dunes. We set up camp and I climbed a large dune to try and get a phone signal.

To the SW the scene was dominated by the bold headland of Ton Mor, which had been looming ever larger on our horizon. Even though it was 7km away, I could not help but notice the size of the surf at its base. Inland, rolling machair stretched away towards distant hills. A flock of red billed chough could not decide where to settle and a male hen harrier surprised some curlews. 

 Offshore the empty Atlantic was burnished by the setting sun.

When it dipped below the low clouds, the whole scene was illuminated in a wonderful golden glow.

We sat in silence, transfixed by the scene before us.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Smoking in church on Nave Island

We now left the wild north shore of Islay and...

...set off across the broad mouth of Loch Gruinart.  On the far side of the loch low lying Ardnave Point stretched out below the bold headland of Ton Mor. We hoped to round it in the morning when we would be well on the way to the west coast of the Rhinns of Islay.

We were bound for Nave Island which floated on a sparkling sea.

Our crossing was 5km but it passed quickly in the outstanding conditions.

Geologically Nave is interesting because it is split in two by a narrow cleft, some 6m wide. It was created by the erosion of a basalt dyke and it is almost completely impossible to cross due to its vertical sides.

There are interesting ruins on the south side of Nave. The ancient walls of an early thirteenth century chapel sprout a tall, 18th century brick built chimney! At first we thought we had found an illicit whisky distillery but the truth is less exotic. In 1785 the abandoned chapel was taken over to burn kelp. A broken section of a fine stone cross found in the floor of the chapel is believed to date from the 5th century. Clearly kelp burners had little thought of conservation. Until the development of the chemical industry in the 19th century, kelp burning in Scotland was the principal source of sodium carbonate for the manufacture of glass and soap.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Archeology and the passage of time on the north shore of Islay.

 The coast of Islay that lay ahead looked so fascinating that we decided to move in...

 ...for a closer look and we were certainly not disappointed. We came across a number of stacks and caves then...

 ...some amazing arches.

 We tried to get through this one but it was low tide and dry beyond.

 The water was crystal clear  and we seemed to be suspended in both space and time as we drifted above the equally interesting rocks and weeds below the surface.

We lost count of the arches and of the passage of time in our new hobby of archeology!

You can read more about this fascinating part of Islay's coast in sections 18 of this pdf review of the coast of Islay from the Scape Trust.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sea lions and elephants on Islay's north coast...it's like Jura on steroids!

 Leaving Port an t-Sruthain we continued our exploration...

...of Islay's north coast in mirror calm conditions.

We were paddling within the shelter of the extensive reef system at the base of Rubha Bholsa. In the distance beyond the reefs, lay low lying Oronsay and Colonsay. Something wasn't quite right though. This was when the first niggle of doubt entered my head. Even at 10km away, the extensive reefs, to the SW of Oronsay, were visibly white with breaking swell. Yet at our feet, round the northern rocks of Islay, all was still calm. Despite the forecast, a swell from the south of west had got up....

Leaving the shelter of the reefs we rounded Rubha Bholsa to see the most amazing scene. Huge headlands of rock rose up from the sea, with their precipitous sides facing inland. In profile they looked like the heads of great rocky sea lions trying to climb onto the land. One after the other they disappeared into the distance. Between each headland there were more raised beaches, caves and arches. We were lost for words and appreciated the scale of the seascape in silence.

We now paddled south towards the distinctive peak of Mala Bholsa.

The raised beach below the hill has one of the finest collections of sea arches I have ever seen.

They looked like stone elephants, with their trunks extending down to the sea. All in all the north coast of Islay is like the outstanding west coast of Jura on steroids!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A lonely sheiling on the north coast of Islay.

Above the beach at Port an t-Sruthain on the North coast of Islay, we found a natural amphitheatre surrounded by the cliff line of the raised beach. At the focal point are the remains of an old sheiling. The tinkling of a stream, cascading down the cliffs, explained the Gaelic name of the beach, “Port of the Stream”.

It would have been a hard life eking out a living here. In the distance, low lying Oronsay and Colonsay are backed by the higher mountains of Mull on the far side of the Firth of Lorn.

Today the only residents were oyster catchers. Their nests were simple scrapes in the ground but their eggs were almost invisible. We were delighted to see the owner of this nest circle round and land on the nest as soon as we moved on a little way.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The dykes of the north coast of Islay.

All too soon, the tidal assistance came to an end when we rounded the point below the Rhuvaal lighthouse.

Sadly, the original lantern and rotating lens of this beautiful lighthouse has been replaced by what looks like a 100 Watt bulb on the end of a pole! However, the stonework of the tower has recently been painted and it was looking very well maintained. 

From Rhuvaal we turned westwards along the wild north coast of Islay.  Great basalt dykes emerge from the sea and march straight up the hillside...

...some 65km from their origin in the Tertiary volcano that once erupted on Mull.

Huge caverns, many now dry, hark back to a time when sea levels were higher and the coast was being battered by sea ice.

We founds a dramatic break in the rocky fore shore at Port an t-Sruthain. 

A narrow channel, just wide enough for a small boat...

...cuts straight through fangs of rock and emerges below a steep storm beach of cobbles. Was it man made or the result of natural erosion of a dyke?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The start of another Islay adventure.

It was with considerable anticipation that Phil and I viewed Port Ellen as the ferry from Kintyre...

...approached the terminal on Islay's southern coast. Islay's characteristic whitewashed buildings with black painted windows crowded round the bays on either side of the jetty.

We then drove north to Islay's second terminal, Port Askaig. As we launched from the little harbour, the flood tide was already surging north through the Sound of Islay.

No sooner had we crossed the eddy line, than we were being propelled northwards, at a very respectable 15km/hour.

After we passed two big, white washed buildings called Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain (with pleasantly intoxicating aromas emanating from both) we were surrounded by wilderness. Only the pipping of oystercatchers and the gentle rippling of the tide disturbed the silence.

The magnificent Paps of Jura, towered over the far side of the Sound ...

...but at this speed, we soon left them behind.

Learn more about this fabulous island at Islayblog.com and Islay weblog