Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

August Microadventure: Hill Fort Bivvy

We left our monthly microadventure to the last minute last month, squeezing it into the last couple of days in August. But now into our 7th month of our ‘Year of Microadventures’ (we missed out June) and with plenty of camping in between, packing for a bivvy adventure has become a smoother, more refined process, verging on my ultimate bivvying goal of… spontaneity! It took just an hour and a half between arriving home after a full day in the city, and getting packed up and leaving the house for the night and I’d even managed to bake a batch of oaty banana cookies for breakfast in that time! Go me. I’d also managed to drop a bag size; my backpack was the lightest it’d ever been, partially aided by packing some of the lighter but bulky gear into Finn’s pack on the one hand and the realisation that I could make do without always carrying a book or two in my bag for the one night.

Turning off the main road down a rutted farm track, I could hear the loud barking of several dogs from the building nestled out of sight in the forest a mile away. Our route would lead us directly through the farm yard and although I’m a dog-lover, the thought of being nipped at the ankles by a collie mistaking me (or worse, my son) for a sheep made me think twice. We double backed to the road and were just scouting out a possible alternative, involving jumping a metre wide ditch, crossing a field full of cows and scaling a couple of barbed wire fences, when I saw a car emerging from the forest up the track. Racing back to the junction, hauling our bags, we arrived just in time to halt the car and were assured that the working dogs were tucked up in their kennels for the night so we continued confidently along our original intended route.

Sleeping out regularly each month with nothing between you and the elements brings a new awareness, or rather appreciation, of the changing of the seasons. As it became obvious that the sun would set a full hour and a half earlier than our last bivvy in July, it was a bit of a push to persuade Finn to keep up his pace as we climbed the hill in order to set up camp in the last dregs of daylight, especially so as we passed the impressive remains of an iron age hill fort, (cue Finn launching into his own Celtic battle re-enactment). We eventually found a flattish spot between two ramparts of a second extensive hill fort on top of the hill and put our wee orange toilet trowel to good use in clearing away a carpet of sheep poo – a necessary precaution against ending up face to face with the stuff in the morning.

It was a beautifully calm evening and the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different than our July hill top bivvy when it was blowing a hoolie. The night was so still that we could hear with clear precision the everyday noises from miles around; the hoots of a tawny owl, the occasional barking of a dog from a farm and the traffic from the distant A702.

With an earlier sunset we were also perfectly timed to be snug in our bivvy bags but still awake to watch the stars emerge one by one (in unison with the electric lights from the nearby town of Biggar). A we competed to be the one to spot the most stars Finn whispered “It’s lovely mum. I wish we could live outdoors”. “Well, we could pitch the tent in the garden and sleep out” I replied. “No mum, I mean without the tent. In the bivvy bags”. Oh dear, what have I got myself into?

After a blissfully non-eventful night we woke to the sun behind us andthe town of Biggar below us blanketed in a thick mist. One of the benefits of bivvying is that you see your usual, mundane, day-to-day surroundings with new eyes, from a fresh perspective that makes it feel like you’re on holiday. And another benefit of bivvying (particularly up a hill) is that you get to enjoy a glorious morning walk that’s downhill all the way…

The morning warmed up and we basked in what has felt rather rare in Scotland this summer… sunshine. We took the long way home, not meeting a soul, just a hare and the ubiquitous sheep, until passing the farm. “You’re out and about early” remarked the kindly farmer emerging from a tractor. I came clean and told him we’d slept on the hill. He was nonplussed and only wanted to know whether or not we were ravaged by midges. But no, despite the calm evening we’d managed to thwart the biting beasties once again.

A Couple of Days in the Cairngorms

There is a complete dearth of traffic-free cycle routes where we live, which is disappointing when you have a young child who likes to cycle. What a delight it was to spend a couple of days based near Aviemore where we could leave our ‘front door’ armed with a route map and a choice of miles of scenic off-road, family friendly cycle trails to explore.

Cycle and walking trail around Loch An Eilean

Day 1: Afternoon

On our first half day excursion we cycled the Old Logging Way, a linear traffic free cycle route between Aviemore and Glenmore/Loch Morlich (6.5 miles each way). The trail is well-surfaced (manageable for my Brompton folding bike), easy to follow and is signposted. It ascends gently towards Glenmore, with a few short sharp hills to negotiate, but nothing a 6 year old can’t manage. Arriving at Glenmore there’s the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre to visit, a choice of cafes, or as we opted for, a picnic on the shores of Loch Morlich.

Day 2

You can’t visit the Cairngorms without climbing a hill, so on Day 2 we swapped our bikes for our walking shoes and set off from Glenmore on a narrow ascending path to the Ryvoan Pass. We stopped at An Lochan Uaine (the Green Lochan) intending to have lunch, but no sooner had we unpacked the sandwiches than we were swarmed by a cloud of biting midges, so we abandoned what would have been a very picturesqe picnic spot and headed for more elevated (and windier) ground.

A quick stop at An Lochan Uaine (the Green Loch). Legend has it that the colour is attributed to fairies washing their clothes in it.

We continued to Ryvoan bothy, an simple shelter open for anyone to use, which was packed with people eating their lunch when we arrived. The view was much better outside and the air was midge free.

Ryvoan bothy. A small but popular bothy (even at lunch time) situated within a RSPB nature reserve.

From Ryvoan bothy we took the well maintained mountain path which ascends the heather covered eastern slopes of the Corbett, Meall a’ Bhuachaille (Shepherd’s Hill, 810m), with spectacular views over the Cairngorm plateau.

The summit affords clear 360 degree views, over to Cairn Gorm and Loch Morlich. It was windy on the top so Finn and I took refuge in the large drystone shelter and got chatting to a woman and her two young teenage sons. They were on holiday from Devon and after about 20 minutes of talking we discovered that they knew my keen mountaineer cousin who lives in Exeter. Small world!

Looking out to Loch Morlich

On the summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille with the summit cairn behind

Arrving back at the car park, after plenty of stops on the descent to chat to other families out for a hill walk, Finn was still full of energy so we headed south west to Inshriach forest and the Uath Lochans (via a cake stop at the highly recommended Potting Shed Tearoom at Insriach Nursery).

There is a lovely waymarked circuit of the lochans, which takes you through pine forest and over sections of boardwalk. This is one of my favourite spots in the lowland Cairngorms, imbibed with magical qualities!

The Potting Shed Tearoom at Inshriach Nursery with views of the resident red squirrels and birdlife. The tearoom serves a selection of Norwegian-style cakes and teas and coffee, but note, they have become so popular that from March 2018 they will only accommodate you if with an advance booking by phone or online.

Cycling in the forest around Glen Feshie

Cycling the boardwalk around the Uath Lochans. The 1.5 mile circuit is perfect for little legs (or little bikes) with plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities

Day 3

It was back on the saddles for our final day, beginning with a waymarked circular cycle from Aviemore along one of the Rothiemurchas trails to the popular Loch an Eilean, fringed by pine forest and with a tiny island complete with ruined castle. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic and the local mallards knew it. We circumnavigated the loch, which was no problem for Finn but demanded a bit more concentration for me on my tiny-wheeled Brompton folding bike.

Passing the ruined castle. It also makes a good wild swimming spot. We stopped to chat to the mum of three teenage boys while we watched (and cheered them on) as they swam over to the island.

The trail became rougher after the turn off towards the Lairig Ghru and there were a few rocky sections that required us to dismount and push, particuarly when we took a wrong turn and ended up on a narrow, uneven footpath. But the sun was shining and the scenery spectualar and the accidental detour was well worth it in spite of a few complaints from the wee one.

Finn didn’t really appreciate the extra uphill section after I took us the wrong way.

All smiles after being back on level ground

Trail riding on a laden Brompton folder. Interesting, but not recommended!

We were back in Aviemore by 3pm and wanted to make the most of our short visit and the favourable weather (it felt like summer had finally arrived), so we drove out to Feshiebridge for a walk. The trails here are quieter than around Loch An Eilean and we had a three mile circuit through the forest and alongside the river to ourselves. We spent an additional half hour exploring the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail (easily accessible from the Feshiebridge car park) and were still home in time for a well-earned tea.

Around the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail, Feshiebridge

Our short two and a half day adventure felt a lot longer but you could easily base yourself in the area for weeks with no shortage of places to explore, either by bike or on foot. There are options for all ages from easy short walking trails for little legs to strenous mountain climbs and trail riding for older teenagers, and plenty inbetween.

Around the Uath Lochans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

First Time Family Bivvy – What’s Holding You Back?

Summer. The days are longer, the weather is warmer and unless you live in a particularly midge afflicted part of the country, it’s the perfect time to give a first time family bivvy a go. This time last year I took the plunge and persuaded the family to join me in spending a night without a tent atop a local hill. It was such a worthwhile experience it left me wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. The fear of trying something new and the perceived effort of organisation and persuading the rest of the family held me back for a whole year before I worked up the courage and psychological motivation. What’s stopping you?

Time

There are so many pressures on family time these days, from parents with long working hours and commutes to the kids being involved with structured activities after school, not to mention the general tiredness that comes with caring for babies and children. I appreciate that finding a time when everybody in the family is free is a challenge but like all challenges the lack of time is an obstacle to overcome. It requires commitment to schedule a night out when everybody in the family is free but it is a great opportunity to spend time together as well as introduce little people to the great outdoors little by little (not to mention all the learning, developmental and emotional benefits…).

The beauty of microadventures is you don’t have to go far or for long – it’s up to you how challenging and time consuming you want your bivvy to be. If you’ve got a whole weekend you can travel further, backpacking in to wilder country. If it’s a school night there’s the possibility of a quick bivvy somewhere locally or in the garden. Although Finn and I have ventured further afield, on all our bivvy adventures this year we’ve not actually left the house until around 4pm and we’ve been back home before 9.30am the following morning. Regardless of how close to home we are or what little time we’ve spent away, it always feels like we’ve had such an adventure!

Money

I love microadventures because they’re practically free but the rewards are great. There will be an initial financial outlay for any kit you might need, especially if you’ve never done any sort of camping before but the good news is that you need very little to begin with, especially if you’re sticking to a summer adventure close to home. The fundamentals are a sleeping bag, sleeping mat and bivvy bag. For summer microadventures you don’t need anything fancy, a basic cheap sleeping bag will do (wear more clothes if your bag isn’t particularly warm) or borrow a sleeping bag if you can. You can pick up cheap foam sleeping mats for a fiver and to start with it’s fine to use an orange survival bag instead of a more expensive, purpose built bivvy bag to protect you and your sleeping bag from wet weather (or go without if a warm, dry night is guaranteed). Several years ago I slept in a snowhole in Scotland one freezing February night in a 3 season sleeping bag and an orange plastic survival bag. I’ll admit, I would have had a much more comfortable night if I’d had a winter sleeping bag and proper bivvy bag but I’m glad I didn’t let a lack of fancy gear get in the way of having such a memorable experience!

A stove is a useful addition to make hot drinks and dinner and/or breakfast or take a flask and something pre-cooked wrapped in foil or food you don’t need to cook. Once you’ve got hold of some basic equipment you can enjoy a cheap but cheerful family night out with memories that will last you a lifetime.

Effort

Finding the headspace to come up with a plan and execute it often threatens to hold me back, especially as it’s normally just myself as the sole adult and organiser. A first camp or bivvy can feel like a truly epic adventure; the preparation and packing both for yourself and the little ones, the effort of trying to enthuse reluctant kids to get out the house, especially when the weather is less than favourable, carrying enough kit for several children, getting very little sleep when you’re out and then just the thought of all the unpacking to do when you get home again! Yes, when your children are young it’s a lot easier to stay at home safely within your comfort zone, but keep your adventure simple and it can be a lot easier than you think.

I’ve reduced my preparation and faffing time by making a very detailed list of everything I’ve found it useful to take on a microadventure, which means I can now do my packing on autopilot. I’ve also discovered that it will take me however long I have to pack. If I only have an hour I will take an hour to pack. If I’ve several hours it will take me several hours. So I leave the packing until later in the day and try not to think about it until then. It also helps to keep everything you need for your family microadventure in one place if your storage space allows. Wild camper Phoebe Smith recommends a “Go Bag”, a rucksack which she has packed at all times filled with all the essentials she needs for a night’s wild camping.

Once you’ve been on a few family bivvy adventures and have worked out exactly what you need planning becomes easier and your adventures can become more spontaneous. At the end of the day, there’s no escaping the fact that even a one night microadventure with kids will require some effort but as I’ve discovered, it’s worth it.

Fear

It took a year of pouring over the ideas in Alastair Humprey’s inspirational book “Microadventures” before I shrugged off my trepidations and instigated my own family microadventure. Whatever your fears, try and find a way that sets you at ease. Lack of experience in the wild? Start close to home or somewhere you know and feel safe (a friend or relative’s garden?) and gradually head further afield. Afraid of going by yourself with your kids? Persuade another parent and kids to go with you. Not sure about “roughing it”? Sleep in the back garden with your duvet, pillow and hot water bottle (and an accessible toilet). Don’t like the rain? Wait for a dry evening. Not sure if your children will cope? Try it and see.

Personally I’m still fearful of sleeping out in new places on my own with F (my post about Bothying in Burley Whag says it all!) but I do my best to face those fears (the dark, wild animals, people wandering about over wild moorland after dark, irate farmers, bogeymen etc) because realistically I know I’ve blown them all out of proportion. Logically and statistically I’m much safer up a hill after dark than on the streets of my nearest city. For women worried about solo microadventures (or taking out children by yourself) this advice by adventurer Anna McNuff is a good read.

A few tips to help you get going

  • Read some inspiring books or blogs. I love Microadventures by Alastair Humpreys,  Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper by Phoebe Smith and 100 Family Adventures by The Meek family. Plenty of inspiration and advice for families of all ages can be found in this compilation of different families’ microadvenure experiences gathered by Alastair Humpreys.
  • Sign up to or pledge to take part in a microadventure challenge or create your own challenge. Alastair Humprey’s summer microadventure challenge was the catalyst for our first family bivvy last year. Commit to this years Summer Solstice Microadventure challenge anytime between 5th June and 9th July or join in with this year’s Wild Night Out on July 1st.
  • Strenghten your commitment by sharing what you’re doing, face to face or on social media, or join forces with another family and hold each other to your word! I’ll admit, if I hadn’t announced publically on my blog that my son and I were going to bivvy out a night each month this year I probably would have given up by February!
  • Weather watch. Dry weather certainly makes for an easier first time bivvy so if you’re able to make your plans flexible, hang out for a good weather window.
  • Start small and local, especially if you’ve not camped out a lot before.

Finally this is my more detailed kit list for anyone who’s interested in that sort of thing!

  • Bivvy bags
  • Groundsheet or tarp
  • Sleeping mats
  • Sleeping bags
  • Extra clothes for night-time
  • Hats, buffs and gloves
  • Waterproof jackets and trousers
  • Stove, gas and matches
  • Food, snacks, tea bags
  • Drinking water
  • Large travel cups, sporks and a sharp knife
  • Headtorch
  • Wet wipes
  • Small first aid kit
  • Small trowel (for digging a toilet)
  • Insect repellent and sun lotion (summer)
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • Map
  • Ziplock bag for rubbish
  • Black bin liner to keep things in if wet
  • A book (if it’s just F and I we like to read stories!)

The John Muir Award via The Hebridean Way

This week Finn and I have been officially registered for a John Muir Family Discovery Award, which to achieve will involve us walking part of the newly designated long-distance footpath, The Hebridean Way.

I first became acquainted with the John Muir Award while volunteering with a wonderful Edinburgh based conservation organisation, The Green Team, through whom I undertook an individual Discovery Award while facilitating a group of young people in conservation work on the Isle of Arran. The philosophy of the award; to encourage awareness and responsibility for the natural environment in a spirit of fun and adventure, continues to resonate with me and is one I want to introduce to my son, so this summer we propose to undertake a challenge together to achieve a family award.

John Muir at Washington Column (Yosemite online)

A bit of background if you’ve not heard of John Muir

The John Muir Award is named after the pioneering ecologist, lover of the natural world and “founding father” of the world conservation movement, John Muir. Although Scots born, his family moved to America when he was a boy. Here, he developed a deep love of the natural world, which took him on adventures including a 1000 mile walk, and it was after his explorations of the country that he became aware of the threats to wild places and encouraged him to help set up the first National Park.

The message of John Muir – that we need to experience, enjoy and care for wild places – is at the heart of the award. Following his lifelong journey of discovering, exploring and conserving wild places and sharing his experience with others, there are four challenges to complete:

  • Discover a wild place for yourself
  • Explore your wild place (find out more about it)
  • Conserve – take some personal responsibility (do something to look after wild places and nature)
  • Share your experiences (let others know what you’ve done, achieved and learned)

I think the award is such a great way for children to not only learn, in a purposeful and active way, about environmental awareness and about taking personal responsibility for a wild place, but also presents a valuable opportunity for kids to spend meaningful time outdoors and really experience the incredible spiritual and mental-health benefits of being in nature. As John Muir described it;

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Our Award proposal

There are three levels of award; Discovery, Explorer and Conserver, each demanding a progressively greater involvement and time commitment to complete. For our Discovery Award we are required to spend a minimum of four days to complete the challenges. After discussion with F, he chose the Isle of Harris in the Western Isles of Scotland as our wild place. We have a family connection with the island so as well as encouraging a general sense of environmental awareness, understanding and responsibility it will be a great way for F to foster a deeper understanding of the home of his ancestors and to appreciate a place we visit regularly in a new light.

One of the many beautiful beaches on the Isle of Harris

We will be walking the 38 mile Harris section of The Hebridean Way, a long distance walking route that in it’s entirety runs the length of the archipelago, over 10 islands from Vatersay to Lewis. The Harris stretch is the most challenging, much of it being across wet and pathless terrain, but as F seems to have a fondness for wandering off the beaten track and getting wet and muddy I’m hoping he will be enthusiastic about his first long distance, multi-day trip. (It was, incidentally, his choice to walk. I suggested we cycle it but F was adamant that we should walk, just so you know it’s not a case of me putting ideas in his head!) On one night of our trip we intend to bivvy or wild camp along the route to more deeply immerse ourselves in the landscape.

In the course of walking we will keep a collective journal of observations, drawings, poems and photos and get more actively involved by litter picking, monitoring plastic pollution, collecting data of wildlife sightings to contribute to various citizen wildlife surveys and by applying a “minimum impact” philosophy to our walk. We will begin our adventure by taking the opportunity to find out more about John Muir himself, his life and work, using a variety of online resources and books before attempting our walk next month.

Wish us luck!

Further information 

If you’re interested in achieving a John Muir Award yourself or with your family you can find out all you need to know here

Information about the John Muir Trust, a charity that aims to make sure wild places are valued by all sectors of society and that wild land is protected throughout the UK can be found here

Mission:Explore John Muir is a unique set of activities to inspire children to follow in the footsteps of John Muir

Further information about walking or cycling the The Hebridean Way can be found here

May Microadventure: On the importance of being flexible

Sometimes even the best made plans fall through. Most of the time if there are children involved. Our plan was to hike up a path beside one of the UK’s highest cascading waterfalls and bivvy by the side of an upland loch. Wild. Tick. Dramatic. Tick. Excellent views. Tick. But when we woke yesterday on the morning of our planned May microadventure (sleeping out one night a month as part of our Year of Microadventures) it was raining. It rained. And it rained. And it hailed. And it rained some more. With each torrential shower, my mind conjured up a new plan, from Plan B (postponing), to camping in a tent (Plan C) all the way to Plan E. By the time we left the house, together with another mother and son, we still hadn’t decided where we were going to sleep that night. But as I’m sure you’ve heard adventurers say before, the most important action is to take the first step, or in our case, just get in the car and figure it out when we got there. Wherever “there” might be.

“There” turned out to be a valley leading into rolling, uninhabited hills down a quiet no-through road that I’d always wanted to explore, despite being barely ten miles from home. We scanned the valley sides for a suitable camp spot and parked up, neatly timing our arrival to coincide with a heavier than ever downpour. Reluctant to leave the warm, dry confines of the vehicle we arrived at a new plan, Plan F. Just in time, as the boys were ready to explore NOW! And they were off, straight into the squall.

We scouted out a spot, only just level and wide enough for four, in a coniferous forestry plantation, sacrificing views for shelter. Not my first choice for a bivvy but with the benefit that we didn’t have to venture far from the road to feel like we were deep in the heart of the forest. The trees were so densely packed we couldn’t feel a drop of rain despite the persistent downpour “outside”.

Having earmarked our bed for the night, we fought our way back out through the impenetrable firs and the boys raced up a small hill to explore (the mums wheezing behind). Reaching a grand, old sycamore we were rewarded as the sun lit up the valley below (for all of ten minutes). We made a meal while the boys made a fire and swung each other from the tree.

As the cloud thickened once more and darkness descended, we too descended, collected our bags and entered the forest, where under the trees it was already dark. What we’d neglected to consider was how different a once visited place will appear under the cover of night. We had trouble locating our intended site. The situation became farcical as the four of us scurried around and around in circles, head-torches scanning this way and that. We had underestimated the distance in the dark but eventually found the spot (then had to backtrack to find the various baggage we’d put down while we were searching). Setting up the sleeping bags and getting the boys ready for bed was a task not made any easier by one of the boys who wasn’t able to settle down (mentioning no names!)

I was woken early, for once not by F, but by a vocal and persistent cuckoo, joined in a crescendo by a wood pigeon and pheasant. This however is one of my most savoured times of day on a sleep out under the stars; to enjoy the emerging light, stirring wildlife and awakening of a new day.

In conclusion, on microadventures with children it pays to be flexible. In my mind’s eye I’d envisaged a wild bivvy in the uplands of Scotland, with sweeping views and far from the road. But then there wouldn’t have been the boys’ delight of the fire or the swinging from the trees or the satisfaction not only of surviving a bivouac out in the rain but actually enjoying it.

 

Read more about our January microadventure here

Read more about our February microadventure here

Read more about our March microadventure here

Read more about our April microadventure here

The Benefits of a “Nature Spot”

For the past couple of years my son and I have spent regular time at a small stony beach on a stretch of riverbank about a 15-20 minute walk away from our home. It’s a peaceful place, punctuated only occasionally by fishermen and the odd dog walker. It’s been a regular destination for us since we moved to this area, but a couple of years ago I intentionally adopted it as our “nature spot”, which we make a habit of walking to at least weekly. We might pack a picnic to eat there, take the paints and sketchpads to do some drawing, collect some seeds, cones or feathers for our seasonal nature display at home, spend some time just sitting quietly and observing, paddle or throw stones in the river or collect and take home litter discarded by others. We’ve visited for the past two Harvest Moons to see our nature spot after dark and at the Spring Equinoxes for a celebratory fire. Sometimes we’re down there a several times a week although if we’re away or have other plans we might not make it for several weeks at a time.

Collecting leaves, berries and seeds for our indoor “nature table”.

Finn paddling in the river with hundreds of tiny fish stranded in a shallow spot as the water level decreased.

Spring Equinox picnic at our nature spot.

Before having children I would preferentially walk somewhere new and different but not always being able to walk far or fast with a wee one in tow, I began to appreciate the benefits of getting to know our local surroundings in a more intimate way and to enjoy anticipating what we might see on regular walks to the same place. As we observe the exact same wildfowl we saw a couple of days previously we start to form more of a connection with them. We often observe our resident heron, the same pair of swans, a male and female mallard. With more of an awareness of our local geography we’ve started to name and map the different locations we walk through to get to our nature spot; kindling wood, the old Beech, watercolour bay, disappointment wood. We now know where the wild plum tree is hidden, where to find crab apples and a tiny lone gooseberry bush. We’ve become more observant and in tune with the seasons, knowing when to expect the first snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, when the hawthorn, beech and ash leaves come out and when we can first expect elderflower or rowan to blossom. And occasionally I’ve been rewarded with something really special that I never expected to see like the otter who I chanced upon floating down the river a couple of metres away from me when the river was highly swollen last winter. He stared at me inquisitively as he floated past then dived under and swam slightly upriver of me where he floated down to scrutinise me once more before letting the river carry him on his way. On our latest visit to our nature spot last week we spent some time identifying and observing a Dipper that would dive in the river then surface and fly to feed one of it’s young left squawking on a tree branch on the other side of the riverbank.

Creating minibeasts from beeswax plasticine based on our observations of bugs found at our nature spot

Finn’s observational drawing of a daisy found close to our nature spot

Exploring Nature With Children

Something which inspired us to incorporate an intentional nature spot into our weekly rhythm was reading Lynn Seddon’s e-book Exploring Nature with Children. I’ve found this to be a practical, comprehensive and inspiring resource for becoming better aquainted with our local natural environment. Although we’ve not followed Lynn’s curriculum as intensely or regularly as I would like (particularly in the summer when we’re away on other adventures and with Finn still being quite young) we’ve found it helpful to use Lynn’s suggestions to give a purpose to even a short walk or winter picnic. Last year we participated in an organised nature swap, which involved being paired up with a family living on the outskirts of London and sending them a selection of natural objects and information about our own nature spot. In return we received a parcel from our paired family containing pressed flowers, cones and sticks from their local trees. We were particularly surprised to compare the difference between the sparse pollution tolerant lichen on a stick from a London plane with the richly lichen covered branches from our local oaks.

What’s special about a nature spot?

Our nature spot is similar to the concept of the “sit spot”, which I first came across in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Evan McGown and Ellen Haas, inspired by the American wilderness awareness schools in the tradition of Jon Young and Tom Brown and their mentors. They highlight the importance of a sit spot as a location where you go regularly to observe and study what you see on a day to day basis. Going regularly is important as it means you’ll get to know this spot at different times of the day and through the seasons. Ideally you would visit every day, but realistically I know our family would never manage that! Even just visiting once a week you’ll get to know the trees, the plants and when they flower or when you can expect to see migrating bird life. After a year you can compare from season to season and with the previous year and begin to form a connection between climate conditions and the animals’ behaviour.

Our children are taught about caring for the environment in an often abstract way, in relation to far away places like the Amazon rainforest or to endangered species like Arctic polar bears, yet have next to no understanding of their own local environment and what wildlife they might find there. Environmental awareness and stewardship should really start on our own doorsteps as observing, forming connections and understanding our local wildlife and environment makes us more likely to want care for our own local environments as well as further afield.


How do I choose a nature spot?

Ideally your nature spot might comprise an area of open grassland with woodland or trees and a river or lake to take advantage of maximum biodiversity. More importantly though your nature spot should be close enough to home where it’s not too much trouble to get to on a regular basis, so a spot in your local park, wasteland or back garden is just fine.

When you’ve chosen your nature spot, it’s really just a matter of observing as attentively as possible. Observe any wildlife and what they do and keep a journal which you describe your observations and further questions. Encourage little ones to draw or paint what they see as this encourages them to observe them even more carefully. Draw and measure any animal tracks you find. Pay particular attention to the birds who react most visibly and audibly to anything going on in the area and learn to recognise their calls. Encourage young children to sit and listen quietly, even if just for a few seconds at first! For inspiration get a copy of Lynn’s e-book and integrate some of her ideas and suggestions into your week. Or if all this seems too much, just use your nature spot as a habitual excuse to get outside, even if just for a short while to immerse yourself or your family in nature on a more regular basis.

Observational drawing and painting of autumn leaves found at our nature spot.

Our nature spot in winter. Still ideal for picnics but we do most of our drawing inside!

April Microadventure: Beach Bivvy in Photos

Another month, another microadventure. Each month, joined by another mother and son (or father and son on this occassion), Finn and I plan to bivvy in different environments as suggested by the boys. Last month we slept in a wood. This month we had been invited to a wild camp out to celebrate the birthday of a friend of Finn close to the beach, so it was a perfect opportunity for a beach front bivvy.

Our room with a view for the night. You can just about make out Bass Rock in the distance.

Who needs a Theme Park when you have the freedom of the beach and woods? Sliding down the dunes, rock pooling, paddling, climbing trees. No opportunity for boredom here!

A discussion of the best fire lighting technique between the boys.

This wagon kept Finn occupied for, literally, hours.

The campers had already set up camp in the woods while the bivviers got organised and made up the beds on the beach to save doing it in the dark. Top tip from Mark to fold over the top of the bivvy bags to prevent the sleeping bags getting wet in the event of rain. Although in the end this was the driest bivvy of the year so far.

All together around the fire in the evening.

The hypontic effects of fire.

The birthday girl gave us a wee light show with her new poi.

 

And a couple of the adults treated us to a bit of a fire show.

 

After an exciting afternoon, we finally persuaded the boys to their bivvy beds at 11.30pm.

As usual I was woken up by Finn several times during the night and woke again to the sun rising.

A fine show of “bed hair” by the boys.

Popcorn for breakfast!

And back to play in the wagon again for a few hours more.

Another successful microadventure and two happy, if tired, boys already looking forward to the next one.

 

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