Sunday, 25 January 2009

Snow and nutella sandwiches

We have just got back from a week on the mainland visiting family in England and spent Friday night in the back of the van on the quayside in Ardrossan. We had to blow away the cobwebs and it was a beautiful snowy day so got straight out on the hill as soon as we docked.
There are a few things that I get really excited about, and these include snow, and nutella, and with a couple of well laden butties the day was looking very promising.... (sorry about the stupid photo, but you get the idea...)

We went over the ridge between North Goatfell and Goatfell called Stacach. It is an easy scramble in summer conditions and in winter a major mountaineering expedition needing axe and crampons. When we got to the ridge, the wind was very strong, so we decided to pick out a cunning traverse that avoids the narrowest part of the ridge. Again, in summer, this is a narrow but simple path to the East, but in winter crosses avalanche prone snowfields above big drops. Avalanches are not regularly recorded on Arran but that doesn't mean they don't happen. Care required! The overhanging cliffs were smeared with icicles. At the top the rocky crest was encrusted with rime ice that had grown weird formations in the damp but icy winter blast of wind that was hammering across the top.
This all added to the fun and we stopped along the way to do Stacach Gully- a grade I/II mountaineering route, with a short ice pitch half way up. Unfortunately we forgot the drive-ins for protecting turf so we top roped it. Wally set up a belay on a sheltered ledge and we took turns to lower each other into the snow filled gully. The gully was fairly open on the right, but the left wall was flanked by blank rock and ice smears, and the ice pitch up the middle was fragile, but bits were banked out enough with snow that it was straightforward on a top rope. I went second, which was a good thing, as I kicked out the bottom a bit and left very little for anyone else. Again, sorry, but it was the kind of sugary ice full of bubbles that didn't like being kicked. Fortunately we are due for a good freeze thaw this week and it should reform. Hopefully a bit better.
After all this fun, we headed for the summit of Goatfell, and enjoyed a chat with a fellow walker on the way. (Hi Tim). The half light of the sun shining through the clouds and on to the icy rocks was absolutely stunning and although it was very windy and cold, we hung around for a bit to enjoy the atmosphere (there was plenty of that!).

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Extreme Weather

The last few days have been truly wild here on Arran! Friday morning saw me out on the hill and tactical retreat by lunchtime, as damaging gusts were starting to blast across higher ground. I took the picture above on the way home at Imachar Point. This is normally a tranquil and sheltered part of the coast where the Kilbrannon Sound begins to narrow. This was a mere ripple however , when compared to the fierce gale that blew in on Saturday night. To the right and below are pictures taken at Blackwaterfoot and in Lamlash Bay that afternoon. Overnight we were battered by 70mph winds and the poor ferry has spent a big chunk of today tied up in Brodick. I have also inserted a chunk of video I took at the pier in Lamlash yesterday. The waves are not breaking on the beach- they are crashing on the concrete hardstanding behind the beach by the yacht club! Apologies for the wobbly camera work, it was kinda windy.... The weathermen are predicting a big dump of snow for tomorrow.....

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Beinn Bharrain

It was a damp and dismal thawing type of day yesterday so we treated ourselves to an new approach and a whole new peak- the last one on Arran for us, which we had been saving up for a special occasion. Beinn Bharrain lies at the southern end of the Pirnmill Hills- rolling whalebacks with spectacular views over the Kilbrannon Sound to Kintyre- when not fogged in with dense clag. The scots word is dreich which is a wonderfully onomatopoeic word that describes the miserable wet foggy weather that encloses west coast islands from time to time. We certainly had plenty of that yesterday. Not quite sure why we saved Beinn Bharrain for so long. We have stopped short on Mullach Buidhe and I have walked around its bouldery lower flanks on many occasions. Perhaps we just wanted to really savour the last hill...
We took a pathless and rocky crest with several awkward granite steps which from below looks deceptively straightforward. The ridge encircles a small coire with Beinn Bharrain sitting at the southernmost end. The top is flat and broad, with scoops of erosion eaten out of the rounded slopes by powerful westerly gales. A pair of ravens circled overhead in the mist. Most of the time we couldn't see them but could just hear their guttoral rhythmic croaking through the gloom. Although these hills are not as high as the main range, there are plenty of mountain plants that grow up here. There are particularly lush and verdant communities of mosses clinging on in the shelter of granite stacks that scatter the coire rim.
The picture shows three common mountain mosses of Arran, in a sheltered hollow of rough granite near the top of Beinn Bharrain. The tall fingery one is known as fir club moss, and produces characteristic wiry stems that grow upwards in defiance of the prevailing weather. It has a small cousin, alpine club moss, which is found only on the highest and most exposed slopes of the Goatfell Range. The fluffy moss at the back is a type of Racomitrium, another classic hillside moss with a dry woolly texture. In front a type Sphagnum, a family of porous and soggy mosses that thrive in damp places and form the basis of peat bogs. The plant has been used as a wound dressing in the past and was gathered during the 2nd world war and send to the front. It is extremely absorbent when dry due to its loose cell structure and is said to have antiseptic properties!
Coming back down we were treated to a lifting of the mist and a wonderful view of the failing light over the Kilbrannon Sound. All in all a wonderful day out and proof that you don't need great weather to have fun in the hills.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

L'ile d'Arran, un ecrin de verdure

Slightly embarrasing, but I was recently involved with french tv company TF1 News who came over to Arran to film this short excerpt about the island in winter. We had a fantastic day filming around the island and topped it off with some folk music at the Catacol Bay Hotel. The highpoint of the day for me was watching an otter fishing in Brodick Bay at sunrise, but see what you think. Apologies if you don't speak French, but you get the idea..... Click on the thumbnail screen if you have problems viewing the video.
Link to TF1.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Happy Hogmanay!

2008 ended very quietly with cold frosty weather and clear skies for several days. Amid the festivities I was able to get out and enjoy a bit of quiet time in the hills. This was a good opportunity to squeeze in a (late) early winter visit to my BTO Bird Atlas tetrads. The plan is to survey these little chunks of Arran four times a year, recording the birds that I see in each region of four square kilmetres. Many others are doing the same across the island, and the data will be collated into a nationwide atlas of bird records gathered over a 4 year period by the British Trust for Ornithology.
Although the weather was fabulous, and the bog for once so well frozen it was (relatively) easy going across the tussocky moorland, I saw very little in the way of wildlife. This is the quiet time of year for upland creatures, with many dispersing to other more fruitful areas to return in the spring, or simply descending to the valleys and coastal farmland. I was surprised at how little I saw, but have never claimed to be a great birder, so perhaps it was my surveying technique, or even sods law, that whatever you are surveying disappears from view as soon as you begin your measurements. There were a few small birds to be seen however, including a couple of very seasonal robins, who looked out of place amongst the heather and a smart little male stonechat. I was also treated to a magnificent close up view of a red deer hind that I startled in the cover of deep red dry bracken. If you would like more information about the BTO and Bird Atlas, please visit their website: If you are generally interested in Arran birds, the following website will be very informative as it is maintained by the local bird recorder:
As for my Hogmanay, it was a little more wild.... with plenty of laughing and dancing. I enjoyed the local dance at Lamlash Village Hall on the 27th, and something quite a bit more expensive at the Auchrannie Hotel on the 31st. Happy New Year and may 2009 bring you happiness and lots of great days out on the hills!