The Lairig Ghru - March 2015

One of my projects this year is to see - and photograph - how a particular walk changes during the course of the year.  I’ve picked one of the UK’s most famous mountain walks, which goes up through the Rothiemurchus Forest in the  Cairngorms National Park into the Lairig Ghru.

My first iteration of the walk was in January when I was forced to turn back at the edge of the forest when the snow was getting up to the top of my legs.  In February I got to pretty much the same point, but on that occasion the wind was strong enough to lift me off my feet. 

By mid-March the weather had warmed up significantly and there wasn’t any sign of snow down in the forest, but higher up there was still plenty of snow around. 
Sunshine on the Lairig Ghru
As in January and February, I started from Loch an Eilein - an outrageously photogenic location a pretty much any time of day (and anytime of year).  I got to the Loch early enough for the wind to be still and the reflections clear, before heading east from the Loch through Rothiemurchus forest and up into the mouth of the Lairig Ghru - where I needed full winter gear a couple of months ago, was pretty close to shirt-sleeves conditions.

Loch an Eilein
Lochan Deo had been frozen across in January, and still showed remains of the ice in February, was now just dark and mysterious.
Lochan Deo
The path threads it’s way south gradually climbing past the Sinclair Memorial (once a mountain refuge, but now just a memorial stone) between Lurchers Crag to the west and Braeriach to the east, and up into the snow.  I saw no one in the upper part of the pass, and the only wildlife were occasional pairs of grouse impossible to spot against the snow, but oh so obvious when they ventured off the snow onto the rocks.


At the top of the pass (835M above sea level) you get to glimpse through towards Deeside, with the way apparently block on Cairntoul.

Looking through the Lairig Ghru
Walking in the Scottish Mountains is a bit of lottery - but when you’ve had to bet on a single day hoping that the weather will play fair it does feel a bit like pushing your luck.

When I did the lower part of the walk in January I did come away with the idea that it was quite likely I won’t see as beautiful a day again.  I’m tempted to make similar assertions after the March walk.  I hadn’t expected to be able to get to the top of the pass this early in the year, and I think it pretty unlikely that I’ll get the place to myself again later in the year. 

I'll be back in the Cairngorms in April - it'll be interesting to see what the post-Easter weather has to offer.

There are a few more pictures from my March day in the mountains on my flickr account.

Exploring Rothiemurchus

In both January and February I've been able to spend time exploring the Rothiemurchus Forest in the Cairngorms National Park.   This is part of the Rothiemurchus Estate, and is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest that spread across huge areas of Scotland.  Last year part of the Rothiemurchus Estate changed hands for the first time in over 500 years, being sold from the Grant family to Forestry Commission Scotland.

One of my projects for this year is to get to know this area better, and to see how it changes through the seasons.

During the first two visits of the year, I've walked three routes (one of them four times over, as I get familiar with it) in the Rothiemurchus and the adjoining Glenmore Forest (also owned by the Forestry Commission).

Walk One is from the Rothiemurchus Estate car park at Loch an Eilein up into the Lairig Ghru.  Walk Two is also from Loch an Eilein up into Gleann Einich.  Walk Three is from Glenmore up to Ryvoan bothy.

Walk One

This is the oft repeated route, and my intention is to do this as many times as is practical through 2015 to build up a ‘local patch’ level of familiarity with it.  I'm interested to see how far up the Lairig Ghru I'm able to reach as the year goes round.  In the winter on Cairngorm one needs to contend with both the short days and the bleak weather.

On the January iteration of the walk I decided to turn back at the point when the snow became too deep to walk through.  In February, I was turned back, a little higher up the route, when the wind made it too challenging to go any further.  Hopefully in the summer months the weather will be a little better, although I did have the passing thought on the first January walk that it’s quite possible that I was seeing the upper reaches of Rothiemurchus at its most beautiful, with temperatures around -7C and a deep covering of fresh snow.

Rothiemurchus in January - Sunshine and Snow
The route for this walk starts at the little visitor centre car park at Loch an Eilein on the Rothiemurchus estate and follows the circular route through the forest around the northeast shore of the loch.  At the second gate the circular path swings round to the west and my route turns east away from the loch, signed to the Lairig Ghru.

Loch an Eilein in January
The Lairig Ghru is one of the traditional routes through Cairngorm linking Speyside with Deeside and it climbs up from Speyside reaching its summit at 835 metres with 1296m high Braeriach looming to the west, and Ben Macdui at 1309m to the east.

Lochan Deo in January
Lochan Deo in February
From the sign-post the path meanders its way through thinning forest, and across a couple of fords, to a series of junctions at Lochan Deo. This lochan was completely frozen across in January.  From Lochan Deo we again continue east until we reach the Allt Dubhag river where an iron footbridge, built by the Cairngorm Club in 1912, allows us to cross from the east to the west side and then follow the west bank of the Allt Druidh until we reach another signed junction.  This junction, in some of the guides referred to as Piccadilly, is where we break off wide forest tracks and join a much more modest path that climbs up to the tree line and towards the Lairig Ghru. The wide track lets you walk through to Loch Morlich.

Cairngorm Club footbridge in January
In January, with a deep covering of fresh snow, the Lairig Ghru track is pretty much obscured and navigation really needs to be based on climbing up through the trees keeping the Allt Druidh on your right hand side below you. By the time I was doing the February iteration of the walk, the path was much more obvious.

Looking for the paths, Rothiemurchus in January
Finding paths gets easier, Rothiemurchus in February
One of the attractions of the snow-walk is that it reveals just how much wildlife is around. The route I was following in January was criss-crossed by numerous deer and hare tracks.  Rewalking in February gave very few reminders of the local mammals, although there was more bird life around.

As the path climbs up from Piccadilly at 330 metres to the junction with the path from Rothiemurchus Lodge at 480m it really is clear that you are walking through a natural tree line.  This isn't the hard artificial boundary that we so often see around the Scottish mountains, but a softer blurring from relatively dense natural forest through to open moorland with occasional trees.  In January the climb up out of the forest started to become challenging as the route passed through various hollows filled with up to a metre of snow, and in places a surface crust was almost (but not quite) strong enough to take my weight. This seemed like the right point to retreat back down the path.  My reluctance to turn round was compounded by the fact that otherwise the conditions were beautiful, with plenty of sunshine and almost no wind.  When I returned in February, the conditions underfoot were better, but the vicious wind blowing down through the Lairig Ghru made walking problematic. Standing was just about OK, but doing anything else, like lifting one foot to take a pace forward, was pretty high risk.  I’ll be back later in the year to explore this path again in other conditions, and hopefully to get a bit closer to the top of the pass.

Top of Rothiemurchus in January
Top of Rothiemurchus in February
Walk Two

This is also in Rothiemurchus, this time up through Gleann Einich to Loch Einich. I did this walk in February when the temperature was around 5C, although there were patches of snow on the sheltered areas of the path, and it was still cold enough for the showers to be a mix of rain, sleet and hail (in roughly equal measures).  This walk follows the same route as Walk One up to Lochan Deo before heading southeast through a gateway signed towards Loch Einich. Mostly the route is a land-rover-wide track, although in a few places a footpath is provided away from the wide track.  The forest fades away as you walk up alongside Am Beanaidh river, and you are soon walking in a pretty bleak valley. In most places there are footbridges when the main track fords the streams. But not everywhere. In one or two places you need to hop from slippery stone to slippery stone, and I think getting your feet wet might just be pretty close to inevitable.

Gleann Einich in February
Loch Einich (about 500m above sea level) is surrounded by a dramatic horseshoe of cliffs and peaks reaching up to 1200 metres. As you reach the loch they feel like a series of ancient fortifications, particularly when then are covered in snow and shrouded in mists.   It would be good to redo this walk in clearer conditions, but I'm pretty sure that I’ll still end up with wet feet. Perhaps warm wet feet would be preferable to cold wet feet.

Loch Einich in February


Walk Three

This is a short walk that I did on the January visit.  This started from the roadside at the Glenmore Forest visitor centre and went up past Glenmore Lodge towards An Lochan Uaine through the Ryvoan Pass and on to the Ryvoan Bothy.  One the day I was doing this the temperatures has spiked upwards (to just above freezing) and the paths were a mix of snow, ice, slush, gravel and (in a few places) running water.

An Lochan Uaine in January
Ryvoan Bothy in January
One of the aims of my Cairngorm project is to see how the paths and landscapes change as the year goes by.  I'm interested to see the differences.  Even over a few days in winter the temperatures can wander from -7C to +7C, the winds can go from nothing to blow-you-off-your-feet and the sunshine from almost warm to completely absent.  The path conditions can also go from crisp crunchy snow to dry gravel, via the slush, sheet-ice and water phases. And the people on the paths can range from cross-country skiers and hard-core ice climbers to mountain bikers, dog walkers and half-term tourists.

The speed of change was highlighted by the ice on Loch Morlich. In January there was ice much all the ways across from shore to shore. In February as the temperatures (and winds) climbed there were fantastic ice mounds on the northern shore. And 24 hours later there wasn't a sign of any ice at all.

Loch Morlich in January
Loch Morlich in February
Interesting stuff change.

Footprints in January

Images also available as a flickr album.

Spot the Difference

Sumburgh Head. Seven days apart.

Tuesday 3rd February 2015
Tuesday 10th February 2015

Wild Scotland


For this year’s Oxford ArtWeeks I'm planning to concentrate on some of the areas of remote Scotland that I've been spending time in recently.

Strath Halladale

 Strath Halladale, Sutherland

One area of northern Scotland I don’t  know well enough is the mainland north of Inverness.  I've got family connections to Tain and have stopped off there a few times, but even further north from there is the enigmatic wildness of the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland.  This is unique country.  I first saw it about 25 years ago from the train line that crosses it, in places far from where the roads go.  There are a few single track roads that intersect with the railway and even a station or two.   The Flow Country is about 1500 square miles of blanket bog, some pretty badly damaged by forestry projects in the 1970s, but now slowly being repaired.  I've been back to the Flow Country, driving up through the wonderful emptiness of Strath Halladale and spending time at the RSPB Reserve at Forsinard.

Eshaness

Eshaness, Shetland

Northmavine is almost an extra Shetland Island.  It’s actually part of the Shetland mainland, but connected by a very narrow neck of land called Mavis Grind.  Fishermen used to drag boats across this neck rather than face the long sail around the north end of the island.  If the fisherman had decided to venture round by sea they would have gone past the cliffs at Eshaness.  When you venture to the little lighthouse on top of the cliffs at Eshaness and look west you won’t see anything.  The next bit of land is the southeast corner of Greenland about 1400 miles away. The coast north from the Eshaness lighthouse is one of the most dramatic coastlines in the Shetland Islands, once you pass the skerries and geos along the headland you reach the deep almost-fjord at Ronas Voe, at one time home to the Shetland whaling industry.

Lairig Ghru

Rothiemurchus Forest, Cairngorm National Park

The poetic sounding Lairig Ghru is one of main passes though the Cairngorm Mountains.  Historically it was the route that people walked and drove livestock along between the Spey and Dee valleys.  It’s been many years since anyone tried to drive cattle through, but the walk between Aviemore (on Speyside) and Braemar (on Royal Deeside) is a popular, if challenging, walk in the summer months.  One of my current projects is exploring how this walk changes through the seasons.  This image is taken in January, when deep snow makes walking to the top of the Lairig Ghru very challenging indeed, and marks the point at the top edge of the Rothiemurchus forest where I decided to turn round and drop back to Speyside.  

St Kilda

Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda

If we don’t count Rockall, St Kilda is the western-most edge of the United Kingdom.  Administratively St Kilda is part of the Outer Hebrides, but it’s been a while since the council in Stornoway needed to provide much in the way of services.  The islands, St Kilda is actually an archipelago, were last properly inhabited in 1930.  For about 1000 years there had been a small subsistence population on the islands, latterly as part of the Macleod estates of Skye but in 1930, driven by a shrinking population and an increasing sense of isolation, the population petitioned to be evacuated to the Scottish mainland.   In August 1930 two ships moored in Village Bay on Hirta.  The Dunara Castle took most of the islands livestock away for auction and the HMS Harebell, a fishery boat, evacuated the islanders to their new homes at Morvern on the west coast of Scotland.  The islands eventually passed into the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland.  The islands remained unpopulated until 1955, when the Ministry of Defence leased part of Hirta  to establish a monitoring station to track of missiles being fired from the ranges on Benbecula.  Today the islands are still owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and there is still a little radar station staffed by the defence contractors QinetiQ rather than the military.   In 1930 one of the challenges for the islanders was their sense of isolation from the rest of Scotland, nowadays there are routine helicopter flights to St Kilda, and regular tourist boats making their way across the 40 miles of exposed water from Uist and Harris.

 Foula

Gaada Stack, Foula

Not many islands can claim a role as a double in a major motion picture.  Foula can. In 1937 Michael Powell was making a film about the evacuation of St Kilda. Having unsuccessfully sought permission to film there he looked for another island to play the role of St Kilda.  Foula, off the west coast of Shetland, stepped up.  Powell did modify the script a bit so that the geography matched, but didn’t need to do too much.  Both islands have a high rugged western line of cliffs facing out into the north Atlantic and both have a more gentle eastern side.  However, Powell couldn’t resist the temptation to include Foula's most famous landmark in his film.  The Gaada Stack, a three-legged sea stack, appears right at the start of the film.  Like St Kilda, Foula has maintained a pretty independent attitude.  The difference is that this attitude still persists today.  Foula is still occupied by ordinary, rather than military, people.  It’s also still privately owned.  The island was bought by the Holbourn family at the start of the 20th Century, and it’s still owned by the family, who still live and work on the island. Perhaps the difference between the fortunes of Foula and St Kilda is one of distance.  Although Foula is regularly cut off from the rest of Shetland, it is usually still visible.

Sumburgh Head

Fresh Snow at Sumburgh Head, Shetland

Although Shetland is at the same latitude as southern Greenland it doesn't get much snow. The Gulf Stream usually succeeds in keeping the temperatures above freezing, albeit with the caveat that it can get a bit windy.  Occasionally, though, the winds come from the north, the temperature falls and just sometimes the island gets a dramatic fall of snow.  The snow doesn't often stay around for long, and has a nasty of habit of going from a lovely pristine white to a rather mucky slush quite quickly.  This week the snow fell overnight through until about 10:00 am, then the clouds pulled back, the wind stayed and the sun came out.  This gave me the chance to get around the southern part of Shetland while the snow was still fresh.  Sumburgh Head is one of the two southern tips of Shetland.  The headland is about 100 metres high, and adorned by a Stevenson lighthouse built in the early 19th Century.

If you want to see more of my pictures from Wild Scotland - come and visit me during Oxford Artweeks.

I'm based in Headington in Oxford, and I'm open for Artweeks from 9th - 17th May 2015.  For more information see the Artweeks website.

Ski Season Shetland?


I noticed that a number of Scottish ski resorts have been given grants recently to help improve their ski infrastructure.  I don’t think Shetland is likely to be bidding for this sort of development funding in the short term, but the beautiful Shetland Snow Day did this week did provoke me into digging out a few of the recent snowy Shetland pictures I've got in my collection.

Sumburgh Farm
Looking for the Airport
Quendale Bay
Garths Ness & Siggur Ness
Quendale Beach
Quendale Bay, across to Siggur Ness
Dunrossness Church and the Radar Hill
If there isn't a market for a ski resort, may surf-and-ski dual activity holidays? There are usually plenty of waves.


 But, there will probably need to be work on the spa facilities first.


And there are some images from this week's Snow Day on my Flickr site.

Watching the Vikings - Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2015

Around this time of year, the population of Shetland go distinctly Viking.

To keep themselves amused through the dark post-Christmas months the Shetland tradition is to dress up as Vikings and drag a Viking-style longship through the streets of a town or village and set fire to it in a local park or, if possible, in a local bay.  This tradition, while it might appear to have been going on since the Vikings were first resident on Shetland 900 years ago, was actually started in its current form in the middle of the 19th Century when the entertainment of tar-barrelling (dragging a flaming barrel of tar through the streets) was outlawed.  The Victorian Shetlanders dug back into their collective heritage and transformed their tar-barrelling antics into something that more closely resembles a Viking funeral.  Like many things in this country, it's a Victorian invention that we now assume has just always been the way that things should happen.

The biggest Up Helly Aa is in Lerwick at the end of January,but there are similar, smaller, events at 10 other locations around the island during February and March.  In Lerwick the galley, which has been under construction for the last 8 or 9 months, is marched to the harbourside for photographs then left there while the Jarl Squad, the group responsible for this year’s galley, spend the day visiting schools and hospitals around the town.

Guizer Jarl visiting Shetland Museum
Once darkness falls the real festivities get underway.  A junior Up Helly Aa, where a small galley is burned, sets the tone for the evening and allows the school children of Lerwick to get into the Viking spirit that they'll aspire to in later years.

Junior Galley, Lerwick 2015
For the main event all the street lights in the town are turned off and the galley is marched to the burning site.  The march is led by the Guizer Jarl (the Up Helly Aa chief for the year) and his Jarl Squad, followed by almost 1000 other people in fancy dress formed up as supporting squads.  The squads are all men at the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, although not at the local events.  Every man in the procession will be carrying a flaming torch ready to be thrown into the galley.  A firework marks the start of the procession, and once the procession has marched the streets of Lerwick the squads gather around the galley to cheer the Jarl.  Once he has jumped clear of the galley the torches light up the boat and it’s allowed to burn.

Squads in procession, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
Cheering the Jarl, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
Starting the Burning, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
Burn Underway, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
The squads, with the Jarl Squad as the guests of honour, then spend the next hours visiting the huge number of Halls or parties being held around the town.  This isn't a quick process, and it’s not uncommon to see people wandering home from the Halls well after daybreak on the morning after. In a concession to the festivities, the following day is taken, by most people, as a public holiday.

As one might expect from an event rooted in Viking traditions, Up Helly Aa shows very few concessions to the weather.  I've known one occasion when the morning photocall on the harbour front was moved to a less exposed position, but I don’t think the event has been cancelled at any time since it was restarted after a gap during the Second World War.  The last time the event was altered significantly was 50 years ago when, as a mark of respect for Winston Churchill, it was postponed by a week.

This year the weather was very co-operative.  Heavy showers early in the day cleared away, and by evening it was both dry and (by Shetland standards) windless.  I was in the crowd overlooking the burning site surrounded by lots of visitors seeing Up Helly Aa for the first time.  

Up Helly Aa in 2007 was my first taste of Shetland culture, I don't think I expected to spend quite as much of the next few years around Shetland as I have done. Maybe I should have warned the Up Helly Aa first-timers around me that the place get be rather addictive. 

Or maybe it's better to let them find out for themselves. 

There are more pictures from this years event on my Flickr site.

Dog Days: The 32nd SHCGB Aviemore Rally

Planning an outdoor event in Scotland, in winter, is always a bit of a lottery.  Planning an outdoor event in the Scottish mountains, in winter, is really pushing your luck.  Planning an outdoor event in the Scottish mountains, in winter, that relies on snow? Well that is always going to be a long shot.

Ready to Race - on sledges
The Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain do this every year in late January – when they run their Snow Rally in the Glenmore Forest near Aviemore. This is the one event in their annual calendar when they really do hope to get a chance to let their dogs run on snow, pulling sledges, rather than the three-wheeled rigs that they pull at every other event of the year.

And this year it almost worked perfectly.

The event had been anticipated by the weather gods.  A few days before the event the Cairngorms had been covered by a heavy dump of snow, and after that the temperatures dropped dramatically, down to about –9C.  This left some beautiful tracks around both the Glenmore and Rothiemurchus estates  - the track surfaces were good, the trees decorated in Christmas-card style and the sun was shining.
Forest tracks - Rothiemurchus 
Christmas-ready - Rothiemurchus

Tracks - Glenmore
On practice day there was no question – teams were running on sledges, and the dogs all looked delighted.  Siberian Huskies (and Alaskan Malamutes, Samoyeds, Greenland Dogs and Canadian Eskimo Dogs) were all bred for life running in the snow and it shows.  The weather on the practice day also made for great photographs too.

Practice Day - running with sledges
Then it all started to warm up, overnight the temperatures rose and by Saturday morning the beautiful tracks had all gone a bit slushy.  On the high parts of the circuit I suspect that the conditions would still have been better on sledges, but on some of the lower parts the snow had gone completely so the organisers had no option other than to order a switch to the wheeled rigs.  This didn’t dampen the canine enthusiasm any.







The following evening, the temperatures continued to wander up and down around freezing but there was't any fresh snow to replenish the tracks.  The net effect was to leave even more patches bare, and to also transform the remaining snow on the tracks into ice. The worst combination.  The ice patches were too slippery for the wheeled rigs, and the bare patches meant that sledges couldn’t be used.  This was one of the rare occasions where the organisers were left with no option other than to cancel the days racing.
Not so happy - waiting for the journey home
The Aviemore Rally is a fantastic opportunity to see dogs running, hopefully, in the snow.  I've been to the event before, and I certainly hope to be back again next year.

There are more pictures from this years event on my Flickr site.