Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Month: July 2017

A Hebridean Way Adventure for our John Muir Award

At the end of June Finn and I travelled to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides to walk 40 miles of the newly designated Hebridean Way to acheive our John Muir Family Discovery Award (more information about the award and our proposal can be found here). Although it was F’s first longer distance, multiday hike, our experience was about more than just the walk. We observed and found out about the plants, birds and archaelogy of the island, undertook litter picking along the route to contribute something to communities we were walking through and discovered more about nature and conservation through our studies of John Muir himself.

Day 1: An t-Ob (Leverburgh) to Sgarasta Mhòr (~7miles)

Beginning our walk through Harris at the Leverburgh pier.

As we walked through Harris we collected litter along the way. Thankfully the trail itself was overwhelmingly free of litter but there was a surprising amount of strewn cans, bottles and other rubbish to collect from the roadside, even on quiet, single track roads.

There is good signage for most of the Way.

We always carried a field guide to British Wildlife in our bag in order to identify any wildlife we observed on the way. We’d never seen The Magpie Moth before, but they were nice and easy to identify.

Cutting peat for fuel is still carried out in many parts of the island.

Along many boggy stretches of the trail over peat bogs paths have been constructured using a traditional ‘raised turf’ method, whereby two parrallel drainage channels are dug, with the removed turves placed down the middle to create a section of raised path. Finn increased his daily mileage by hopping back and forth over the channels (and only fell in once).

Stopping for lunch on the newly constructed footbridge over Abhainn Horsa-cleit. Given we had yet to meet a single other walker, it was unlikely we would be blocking anyone’s way. In fact we met very few people walking over the entire five days.

Taking a closer look at the local flora. Our philosophy was to “take only photographs, leave only footprints” but Finn had already picked a frond of this Hard fern by the time he remembered, which provided a good opportunity to reiterate our John Muir Award aims. Thankfully these ferns were ubiquitous throughout the island.

As we climbed over the bealach, or path, between Maodal and Bolabhal Sgarasta we had our first sight of the West Harris beaches, quite a contrast to the peat bog and moor of the morning.

Pausing for thought (and watching the rain showers moving over Ceapabhal in the distance).

Finn enjoyed looking ahead to spot the next Hebridean Way marker post.

The final stretch of Day 1 involved a walk over the beach and a play in the dunes (Finn still had plenty of energy to burn off).

Reconstructing some bones found on the beach.

At the end of each day’s walking, Finn and I would spend some time journalling what we’d seen or how we had felt during the day.

Day 2: Sgarasta Mhòr to Carran (~7 miles)

Leaving Sgarasta at the beginning of Day 2.

Along the way we tried to observe the changing archaelogical landscape and discuss what we were seeing. Here, stopping at a ruined sheiling provided the inspiration for a discussion about the Highland Clearances.

Stretches of walking on rock made a nice change from heather bashing.

After a full day of rough, pathless walking, the final climb up the flanks of Carran were the final straw for Finn. It was particularly hard going through thick heather and he couldn’t even be placated by the extensive views over Tràigh Sheileboist and Tràigh Losgaintir.

One of Finn’s journal entries from Day 2 of a Dunlin and two Heath spotted orchids.

Day 3: Carran to Sgadabhagh (~9 miles)

Day 3 was thankfully considerably easier walking than we had seen on Day 2, beginning on the coast to coast “Coffin Road”, from the fertile machair and white shell beaches of the west to the barren rocky landscape of the east along the route once used to carry the dead to be interred in the deeper soils of the west coast.

Our final view of the west coast beaches.

Spotting a Heath spotted orchid.

As we walked past old, abandoned crofts we tried to imagine what life was like for the people who once lived there.

Walking the The Scholar’s Way, a section of path once used by children in the townships of the Bays of Harris to get to school.

The rugged cnoc and lochan landscape of the Bays area on the east coast of Harris (a cnoc is a hillock and a locan is a small loch).

A typical zinc-roofed croft house in the Bays area of Harris.

In beautiful weather towards the end of Day 3 looking over the mirror calm Loch nan Uidhean.

An extract from my journal on Day 3.

Day 4: Scadabhagh to Urgha Beag (~7 miles)

Beginning Day 4 with a walk around Loch Plocrapoil.

Recently abandoned croft at Aird Mhiabhaig, reached by footpath a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. Until recently it was occupied by a lady who had lived there all her life and who in her seventies still carried her groceries and coal in a bag tied with string to her back.

The old corn mill at Miabhaig, later converted into a Free Presbyterian meeting house.

Reaching the milestone of Tarbert, the main port and village on Harris.

Shortly after spotting our first Golden eagle we ended Day 4 at Urgha Beag where the Way leaves the road to head into the more mountainous North Harris.

Finn’s Golden eagle inspired journal entries.

Day 5: Urgha Beag to Beyond the Lewis Border (~10 miles)

No shortage of water in North Harris!

While the rest of the country was apparently basking in a heat wave, on Harris it poured with rain the entire day. As I passed a layby on the road, dripping wet, a kind couple invited me into their motorhome for a cup of tea. An hour later I reluctantly left having felt like I’d met two new friends.

Pummelled by sheets of rain as I walked over the pass below Cleit Ard and Clisham to the west.

And finally, after a stretch of wet road walking I reached the border!

Having completed the four days required to achieve our John Muir Award, Finn opted for a litter picking and a nurdle hunt on the beach on Day 5. Nurdles are small plastic pellets used as a raw material to make plastic products. Unfortunately they can cause damage to wildlife, birds and fish, which can eat them. Fortunately after a half hour hunt, he hadn’t found any on that particular beach.

 

And finally, to end with some words from John Muir…

 

 

 

 

July Microadventure: Bivvy on “The Hill of Fire”

We failed miserably to bivvy in June. I had planned a Summer Solstice microadventure on the west coast of the Isle of Harris where we were already staying to walk part of The Hebridean Way but while the rest of the country was apparently basking in a heat wave, we were inside in front of an open fire sitting out a cold, wet evening. I was exhausted from several days of walking with Finn listening to his storytelling extravanganzas. It works in that it keeps the wee one walking for hours without complaint, but 6 hours daily of non-stop chatter leaves me feeling a little bit mentally frazzled 🙂

Having recently returned from some island camping I’d not thought ahead to this month’s bivvy but with a couple of days of wonderfully warm weather at the beginning of the week I felt a beckoning desire to sleep outside and was inspired to make an impromptu bivvy happen.

I’d had it in the back of my mind for a while to bivvy on the top of our local and iconic Tinto Hill, which stands 707m and is visible from our home. It’s distinctive in the region both for it’s rounded shape and form that’s observable throughout much of Lanarkshire, dominating the otherwise flat Clyde Valley and for it’s interesting history. It’s been a beacon post in Roman times and the place of Beltane fires and it’s name is derived from the Gaelic Teinnteach, meaning ‘Fiery Hill’. The 60m diameter 2000 year old Bronze Age circular cairn on the summit is one of the largest in Scotland.

Having already participated in a full day of outdoor activity I knew that F would be less inspired than I at tackling the hill come evening so I tempted (ok, bribed) him with a Indian take-out for dinner on the way. We ate at the foot of the hill, watching the steady descent of day walkers and fuelled up by his high carb meal of pilau rice and poppadoms his Duracell bunny endurance kicked in, along with a new inspiration for a story and we began our slow ascent. Despite it now being past 7.30pm, it was still warm although a fresh wind was increasing in strength as we climbed. By the time we reached the summit not long after 9pm, Finn’s excitement at sleeping out gave him a second wind and all he wanted to do was to charge around the summit. I consoled myself with not having that kind of energy with a celebratory can of beer. But now the wind chill had supercooled the sweat on my back, the sun was fast going down and the last of the day walkers were heading back to their cars and beyond to their homes and beds. Needing to find some place to lay our own heads for the night we descended a few metres down the lee side of the slope aiming to find some shelter from the increasingly strong gusts. The wind was just as strong but we found a spot that when we laid down kept us out of view from the summit giving us a modicum of privacy from any late night visitors to one of the most frequently climbed hills in southern Scotland.

It’s the midge that usually concerns me most about a summertime bivvy, but they stood no chance against the 35-40mph gusts now battering the summit (and ourselves!) I was glad I wasn’t trying to single handedly erect a tent and trusted Finn to the crucial job of spread eagling himself over our bedding as I unpacked to stop us losing it to the wind.

 

By now the last of the fire red sun had disappeared over the horizon and any residual heat from the day had dissipated so we lost no time in shuffling into our bivvy bags, no easy feat when you are wearing every item of clothing you have with you in order to keep warm. The wind rapidly chilled any exposed skin and we were buffeted by the gusts all night. This was our first bivvy in very windy conditions and I found it was quite a different experience being blown about in a bivvy bag compared to sleeping out a storm in a tent, although it was not an altogether unpleasant one. I not only felt more secure and stable in a bivvy, but also more connected with and part of the natural environment. I lay awake listening as I would first hear a gust of wind coursing around the side of the hill before it hit us in our bivvy bags.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep as I went from worrying alternately about Finn suffering from wind exposure as he shuffled out of his sleeping bag and suffocation as he unconsciously burrowed down into it. Still, frequent waking through the night allows you to really experience all the sights and beauty that you only experience when you are open to the skies; the appearance of distant twinkling of lights from nearby settlements, the emergence of the first visible stars and satellites, the realisation that the skies never get completely dark at this time of year, the breaking of dawn (which was a lot more spectacular than the sunset) and being transfixed at the speed that the low cloud raced by, both above and below us in the early morning. After Finn woke we huddled in our bivvy bags and enjoyed the last, ever so slightly warm, dregs of hot chocolate from a flask for breakfast and appreciated the peace of having the hill to ourselves before the first early morning hill runner arrived.

As we left the summit we passed a guy laying prone under the shelter of a makeshift wall, eyes closed and sporting a helmet. Finn, not yet understanding the etiquette of discrete speech blurted out his concern that the wall might collapse and kill the man at which point he abruptly woke. Losing my own British politeness, I asked bluntly why he was wearing a helmet (I was sure it wasn’t purely to protect him from wall collapse) and we listened as he explained how he’d finished work in Glasgow at 8pm the previous night but after a few drinks couldn’t sleep so at 2.30am jumped on his bike and cycled nearly 40 miles south, leaving his bike at the foot of the hill and hiking to the summit. Thinking he must be completely crazy it dawned on me as we descended that perhaps, at that precise moment, he was thinking the very same about us.

 

 

Summer Magic and Adventure on the Ross of Mull

As an advocate for budget-friendly explorations close to home and wanting to inspire both my son and others with the adventures you can have “on your doorstep” we headed to the Isle of Mull this summer. Scotland in general has so much to offer families looking for escapades of all sorts and even in the summer season there is the feeling of being intrepid adventurer discovering somewhere new and unexplored (or at least unexploited by highly commercial tourism). I suspect that Scotland’s reputation for poor weather and biting insects deter a lot of people. Of course it depends what you and your family are seeking from your travels, but if you can put up with the rainy days I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets… 1. Providing you stay long enough, you WILL be rewarded with sunny weather (not to mention the incredible sunsets) and when the sun does shine, you will appreciate it so much more! 2. It really is possible to find some Scottish midge-free destinations.

Watching the rain

Breakfast on a sunnier morning

I have been to the Isle of Mull on several occasions but despite it’s famed wildlife and varied landscapes, I had never considered it one of my favourite islands, remembering it mostly for those colourful harbour front houses in Tobermory and some ferocious summer midges. However, it’s one of the more accessible Hebridean Islands and seeking an affordable adventure relatively close to home for me and the wee one, opted for a week on the Ross of Mull. The coastal Fidden Farm campsite sounded like an ideal place to set up base camp; informal, no advance bookings (meaning we could just turn up and stay how long we felt like), right beside a white sand beach with sheltered waters and a westerly coastal location that I hoped breezy enough to deter the midges (it did, we weren’t bothered by a single one of the critters the entire week). We couldn’t have been happier with our choice. Most mornings we spent hanging out on the beach spread out below our tent and over the week we never strayed more than a few miles from the camp site (except by boat to Iona and Staffa!)

Most mornings after breakfast it was straight to the beach!

Approaching the magical island of Staffa

Plenty of clambering opportunities on the naturally formed basalt columns of Staffa.

Getting up close and personal with the island’s avian inhabitants

He’s behind you!

It’s a long, scenic drive along 40 miles of single track road to get to the campsite, with many travellers straying this way purely to reach the small village of Fionnphort in order to take the ferry across to Iona. Whilst Iona is certainly deserving of it’s popularity and well worth a visit (or several), the result is that the Ross of Mull area feels relatively quiet and unexplored, although those who stay long enough to experience it’s delights tend to return year after year. I met several extended families on the campsite who’s enthusiasm for the area had never waned and who have continued to visit every summer for 20-30 years first with their children and now grandchildren.

There are a great many stunning white shell beaches scattered across the Hebrides but I’d say the beaches on the Ross of Mull are among the best and there is an overwhelming choice within a relatively short stretch of coastline. They are beaches to be explored in all weathers. We spent hours searching the rock pools and digging channels on rainy days, and paddling and swimming on the sunny days. The pink-granite rock, the turquoise waters and the white sand beaches give the landscape a bright colourful appearance on even the dullest of days. And even on the sunny days and despite it being the Scottish school holidays we had most of the beaches we visited to ourselves, at least for a while, even on bustling Iona.

Leaving the crowds behind on Iona.

Exploring the Ross of Mull coastline on a rainy day.

Watching the tide come in on Iona.

OK, so we didn’t always have the beach to ourselves.

After some intermittent days of very wet weather during the week, our final day dawned sunny (although rather windy) and the Ross of Mull had saved the best for last as we visited the magical island of Erraid. Erraid is a small island accessible from Mull at low tide across it’s tidal sands. It was used as the location in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and many of the small number of present day residents are part of the Findhorn Foundation community based in Moray. Making a careful study of the tide times, Finn and I began our walk across the sands and around the populated side of the island, passing the study former coastguard cottages and the white communication tower built to relay signals to offshore lighthouses. We picked our way along a rough, boggy path to the small cairn marking the top of the island. We surveyed the scene spread out before us; the numerous skerries of the Ross of Mull, the whole length of Iona and further afield to Staffa and the Treshnish isles, but my draw dropped when I spied the sandy cove some way below us.

I haven’t read Kidnapped but seeing that hidden cove with two small yachts at anchor in it’s turquoise waters and not a soul to be seen it was like being transported to a scene straight from a book. Feeling as though I was in a fictional adventure story myself with the opportunity of discovering a secret cove and perhaps pirates lying in wait on the boats I urged Finn to follow me as I looked for a sheep track that would take us through the thick heather down to the shore. At close range it did not disappoint and although absent of pirates, the only other inhabitants of the beach were a gaggle of kids straight out of another book, Swallows and Amazons. The five of them sailed and rowed ashore in their tiny wooden boat and busied themselves with adventures of their own while Finn got to work diverting and damming the small stream running through the sands and out to sea. Returning to the campsite and staying with the theme of tales of seafaring adventuring we read a few chapters of Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea while watching the sun set over Iona.

On the top of the island of Erraid

Our first sighting of the secret cove…

Island paradise?

Ending the day with a suitable adventure story and a spectacular sunset.

The practicalities

  • Getting to the Ross of Mull requires a 45 minute ferry crossing from Oban to Craignure followed by 40 miles (about an hour and a quarter drive) along a single track road.
  • Fidden Farm campsite is an informal site where you can just turn up and find your own pitch with modern clean facilities including toilets, showers and an indoor washing up area. It costs £8 per adult and £4 per child per night (rising to £10 per adult and £5 per child in 2018) and you just pay at the farm house on arrival. If you can nab a spot overlooking the beach it’s a perfect spot to let your kids roam free for hours with new found friends while keeping an incospicuous eye on them!
  • The small village of Fionnphort is 1.5 miles from the campsite along a quiet single track road (perfect for young cyclists!) and has a small shop, seafood shack, pub/restaurant and is the departure point for the regular passenger ferry to Iona.
  • The coastal landscape is mostly low-lying but with beautiful sandy coves that if you have children who can spend hours digging in sand could keep you occupied for weeks!
  • The offshore island of Staffa is well worth a visit (£30 for adults, £15 for children for a 3 hour round trip including an hour onshore to explore), both for the scenic boat trip and for exploring Fingal’s cave and the puffin colonies. There are a couple of companies operating boats from both Fionnphort and Iona to choose from.

Exploring the quiet roads of Iona by bike.

On top of Dun I on Iona, with the Abbey in the background and just across the sea and the Fidden Farm campsite.

Exploring the incredible geology of Fingal’s Cave.

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