Saturday, July 07, 2007

Inverness to the Orkney Isles

Jaime writes today's entry:

As we motored through the greyness and shallow waters of Inverness Firth it became apparent that the French and Norwegian yachts that were in the lock with us did not have charts of the area. The French boat was following the Norwegians as they motored round in circles and turned abuptly at each sandbank. In true Franco style the French boat swapped sides and followed us instead. That was about the most exciting thing that happened in the North sea, as it is a very dull place. We motored and sailed through the night until we reached Duncansby head (John O'Groats). We had to be there at 5.30am in order to get slack water to pass across the notorius Pentland Firth. Now, you may have been impressed by the description of the Corryvecken, well the racing turbulent waters of Pentland Firth are equally if not more violent as it is here where the Atlantic meets the North Sea. It is a narrow strip of water about 6 miles across scattered with islands and skerries surrounded by vicious eddies and strong tidal races. The tides run faster than almost anywhere in the UK (up to 15mph). Saying that if you cross at the correct time in good weather, there isn't a lot to worry about, and this is exactly what we did.
First view of the Orkney Isles

We arrived in St Margarets Hope, a village on one of the more Southerly of the Orkney Isles called South Ronaldsay. We rested during the day and headed in to the pub later on as it was Saturday night. It was full of young people, fantastic, and there was a pool table. I had a game against one of the local girls who promptly wiped the table with me. Very embarassing. Consequently the next couple of nights were spent in a different pub practising. At eight O'clock the barman offered everyone plastic glasses and we all piled out and on to a waiting bus with our drinks hidden under our coats. This was a local bus taking us to Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Isles. At this time of year it is the St Magnus' Festival and there are lots of cultural events taking place. We ended up in the Spiegeltent to watch some jazz (ed: 'Songs for Unsung Heroes' sung by Liz Fletcher with the Alan Barnes Quintet) and later on in a hotel to watch a couple of local lads play some enchanting folk music. The bus to take us home came at 2am. We embarked with a very drunk bunch of locals and got home as the sun that sat just over the horizon dimly lit the sky.

Gale force winds were forecast for the next day, so we had to move to find some more shelter. We moved up to Burray next to one of the Churchill Barriers and tied up in the lee of a very sturdy looking diving boat. With the boat safe we went to see what was going on in the village. An RNLI fete was taking place. Two lifeboats from Longhope and Stromness were there which you could have a look around. They are impressive beasts; full of high tech electronics and two 1000 hp engines.

We spent a couple of days in Burray visiting touristic sites on bikes kindly lent to us by a friendly local. I didn't realise this, but the Orkney archipelago is a treasure trove of neolithic sites. People actully have real standing stones in their gardens and it is not unusal for a farmer while ploughing to discover a new tomb . They have so many sites, that they don't have enough resources to investigate them all and much remains to be discovered. On the south coast of South Ronaldsay is the Tomb of the Eagles, so called because of the sea eagle talons that were found in the tomb along with the jumble of 16,000 human bones. The tomb is known as a stall cairn as the internal structure resembles cattle stalls. It is a staggering 5000 years old - built before the pyramids. The people back then disposed of their bodies by a method termed "excarnation": The body was left outside on bench type stucture on the cliffs for the birds to feed off. Once the bones were picked clean, those that remained were interned in the tomb. I was suprised that you go to the tomb unattended and we had the place to ourselves, and you can touch what ever you like. To enter the tomb you lie down on what is essentially a large skateboard (called affectionatly the granny skateboard!) and haul yourself through the one metre high tunnel to the main cavern.

St Margarets Hope

Tomb of the Eagles - entrance

Inside the Tomb

The occupants

Excarnation place

South Ronaldsay to Scapa Flow

Further tourist activities took us north crossing the Churchill Barriers. These causeways were constructed under the orders of Winston Churchill following the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 men by a German U-boat in 1939. The U-boat had snuck in to Scapa Flow, a natural harbour through the narrow gaps between the eastern islands. The barriers were built with great difficulty as the tide and vicious weather frequently washed structures away. Italian prisoners of war had to be drafted in to build them. The British allowed them two nissen huts for religious activities and they skilfully converted them in to what is now known as the Italian Chapel, with beautiful frescos, peace being the main theme. The connection with the Italians is still strong and the grandson of the original painter will come and work in the local pub this summer.

The weather finally settled down and we had a beautiful day's sailing through Scapa Flow to Scapa Bay, on the south side of Kirkwall. We hitched in to town and stocked up on food. Scapa Flow has some incredible naval history. It was here that the whole surrendered german fleet of 200 vessels were scuttled in 1919. When the ships sank they were fully dressed with flags and the crew in full dress uniform. This action has done much for the diving industry up here.
From Scapa Bay a day's sail took us through the western side of Scapa Flow in to the Sound of Hoy, up to Stromness.


Churchill Barriers and Blockships

Stromness street


Hoy Sound

We were both really impressed with the town. It is small but there seemed to be lots going on by way of art and culture. We arrived in time for the folk night. The musicans passed out song words and the whole pub joined in gaily singing "Cockles and Mussels.....Sweet Molly Malone." I'm all for more singing in pubs. Our neolithic tourist misson continued; we cycled up to Skara Brae, next to the white sandy beach of Skaill Bay. It is really something special. This is the best preserved neolithic village in Northern Europe, incredibly it was alive 5000 years ago for more than 600 years. There are little "houses" connected by a series of tunnels. Each unit has beds, a hearth, a dresser and my favorite; fish and lobster tanks! All fashioned from the local sand flagstone. Its very tasteful and well designed and not so different from the stylish minimalist type furniture of today. Strangly it was built in the stone age equivalent of a landfill site, as such material was supposedly good for insulation. There are laws against such practices these days! As this is a heavily visited site you couldn't go into any of the houses, however we went to a less visited village called Barnhouse. Here you could wander around and go into the buildings.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Skara Brae
The Orcadians seem to have a really nice attitude to their heritage. The vast majority of the sites are unmanned and you can just wander around them at your leisure be it night or day. It's not cornered off as some distant monument, you are encouraged to get involved. Anyway, we then explored the coastline. Most of the sandstone was laid down about 400 million years ago when Orkney was a desert and sometimes a lake near the equator. The photos should give a good idea of the striking layers that were laid down over millenia. You can even see distinct layers of sand ripples. Over recent time the sea has carved the cliffs in to dramatic shapes including precarious looking arches, fragile stacks and inviting cave networks. After a long day of cycling this day ended with a portion of delicious fish and chips overlooking the Hoy hills as the sun went down behind us.

Cliffs at Yesnaby

Cliffs at Yesnaby

Rock Stack at Yesnaby


Well now we had explored the houses and tombs of the neolithic people. What about their religion? Well it's a lot of guess work really, but they obviously had some time on their hands as evident from the stone henge at Brodgar which was originally made up of 60 massive towering stones. The setting is superb. It is in the middle of two lochs on a natural causeway, the whole horizon is framed by gentle sloping hills and in the centre of the ring grows heather which is just hinting at flowering. There were no trees when it was developed so it would not have looked that different 3000 years ago. Now only 27 of the original stones remain. Once again the site is open, the tourguide encourages people to come and dance around naked at night! She did also say that the stones were in fact dancing giants that were turned into stone by the first rays of the sun and that trolls lived in a nearby hillock and who are we to argue. In a field close by was another set of even taller standing stones - the Stones Of Stenness - some 20ft high, also nearby is the largest chambered cairn in Britain called Maes Howe thought to be contemporary to the rings of stones. Once again we crawled through the narrow passage about 20ft long lined with a single slab of stone to get in to the centre of the main chamber. The inside was quite airy with a high ceiling and three smaller side chambers. The tomb was raided by the vikings who also left runic graffiti inscriptions most of them translated in to nothing more interesting than what you might find on a bus shelter today, however there was some lurid desciption of some elicit act that occured between two viking ladies called Helgi and Ingigerd, but the guide wouldn't elaborate. Well enough of lesbian runic graffiti, there are only 365 more scheduled neolithic monuments to visit and we don't have much time. (just between you and me I think Craig is getting fed up with neolithic structures)

The Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar stones

While we were in Stromness we got some practical housekeeping things out the way and we also dried the boat out. We took the boat over to the drying wall at high water, having checked out the bottom at the previous low water (at 4am grhhh). We then secured the boat to the wall and took a rope from the top of the mast to lean it over slightly into the wall and waited for the tide to drop. As it dropped, the keel of the boat settled on the bottom nicely and eventually stopped moving. I got in the dingy and started scrubbing the bottom of the boat, which is a horrible job as the antifoul goes everywhere. But it was made easier by the fact that most of the growth on the bottom had actually died off as we went through the cold fresh water of the Caledonian Canal. Craig took over and finished the job off. We also got the chance to inspect the prop and the anodes which looked fine. By 11 o' clock that night the tide had risen enough to float the boat again and we glided back to the pier with a nice clean shiny bottom.We are still in Stromness, and hope to leave as soon as the weather sorts itself out but it's taking its time, hence the length of this blog entry.

'Today I shall be mostly scrubbing the hull!'

Lady Ayesha drying out

As a new feature there is a competition for this blog entry. Can anyone identify this fish? It was given to us by a fisherman who had a conger eel in a carrybag on his way to feed his cat....?? The prize is a bottle of whisky or a soft toy puffin if you are under 18.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Caledonian Canal (Fort William to Inverness)

Monday June 11th. Awoke late after a good sleep, and radioed the Caledonian Canal office to arrange entry into the Corpach sea-lock at 1300. The canal is 60 miles overall, however only a third of it is actually man made. The remainder is formed by the waters of four natural lochs: Lochy, Oich, Dochfour and the famous Ness. These run along the natural fault line that is the Great Glen, which has long been used for travel and communication. Once inside the sea-lock we are in fresh water again, and initially needed to climb what is known as Neptune's Staircase, a series of eight locks which elevate the water level by 19 metres. It was a hot day, and the staircase took several hours to ascend. Tourists milled about, taking photos and making home movies. We eventually berthed at Benavie, just above the staircase, and the next morning ventured into Fort William to get information about climbing Ben Nevis. Jaime bought an old cloth OS map dated 1947 in a second hand bookshop for £1 that was sure to help us find the way to the top.

Lady Ayesha in the Corpach Lock

We set out rather late on Wednesday with enough food and water to last the day. It may not be particularly high, compared to other great peaks around the world, but you do have to start your climb from sea level - all 4406 feet of it. The views down to Loch Linnhe and up the Great Glen were quite impressive most of the way up. Though once we reached the cloud line there was just a spooky silence. And then we reached snow!

Ben Nevis - half way up

Fort William from above

View to Loch Linnhe

The snow line

The view from the top

Memorial cairn

Survival hut at the summit

View from the top

As you can see from the pictures, visibility was very poor, less than 50 metres, and the view from the summit subsequently leaves everything to the imagination. Quite disturbing really, because your sense of vertigo is completely numbed when you can't see below you. There are various stone ruins there, and a survival hut which we looked into. It would be a pretty bleak place to get caught in bad weather. We also saw a number of quite tame snow buntings which appear to survive on the scraps of food left by visitors. It is a popular climb, and during the day we met at least 100 others along the way. It took us about three and a half hours to reach to top, and we were a bit sore from not having done much walking or climbing for a while. Half way down on our descent we parted from the main path and ventured around to the western side where we took a 'long-cut', following a river back down to the town, stumbling down steep boggy hills, covered in springy heather and wildflowers, ventually finding our way back to the boat at about 10pm.

Ben Nevis descent

Around the back - western approach

Heather and wildflowers

To be quite honest, canal travel is not very interesting for sailors. Having to run the engine like a motor boat is no fun, and the weather, being dull and cloudy didn't help. However, on Thursday, we enjoyed an opportunity to get the sails up in Loch Lochy, where we arrived at Laggan, at the northern end, by evening.

Sailing on Loch Lochy

We tied up to a pontoon near a number of canal cruisers. These are hire boats, often driven by people with no boating experience, and with unique steering capabilities, somewhat like trying to manouvre a shopping trolley. With any wind, these floating fibreglass boxes become almost uncontrollable and subsequently are usually covered in dents and scrapes. Clearly, they were to be given a wide berth. Although the canal guide gives no reference to a licensed establishment at Laggan, we were delighted to find an Old Dutch Barge which had been converted into a floating pub and seafood restaurant, moored only 100 metres away. They even kept several very nice ales. It was there that we got chatting to a young Corsican backpacker who was travelling along the Great Glen by foot. After a few beers we invited Roberto down to the boat for a whisky (cheers Matt & Ali) and eventually insisted that he join us for a day or two on the boat. When I first saw him earlier in the evening he was wearing a hat with a veil, looking like a bee-keeper, as protection against the midges. He'd been camping in a tiny tent in the damp grass by the loch, eating freeze-dried food, and so I think he appreciated a few days in the warm aft-cabin, with hearty food and no midges to contend with. He was good company and it was nice to have another person aboard for a change to assist with ropes and steering. So off we went the next morning, into Loch Oich and several further locks before reaching Fort Augustus at the southern tip of Loch Ness. This is largely a touristic town nowadays, with quite a few pubs nearby the canal. We chose the Poacher, where a capable group of local musicians were providing the stomping traditional music to some, how shall I put it... enthusiastic and energetic displays of dancing by the landlord and several inebriated punters. Rather than a bell for last orders, a piper walked through the crowd to stand in front of the door to signal that the night was at an end. Nothing like the enormous sound of highland bagpipes bellowing out in a small room to bring the crowd to a respectful hush, all spines a-tingling.

Fort Augustus - entrance to Loch Ness

Fort Augustus locks, with Roberto

About all we saw on Loch Ness

On Saturday we made an attempt to sail up Loch Ness, but with strong northeasterlies persisting, it was almost impossible. The mountains lining the lochs funnel the wind so that it is usually either dead ahead or behind. Unfortunately for us we were heading north. With gusts up to 30 knots pushing us back on each tack, we would be lucky to make 1 knot over ground. So the decision was made to return to Fort Augustus, and cook a tasty beef stew instead. We contributed to Roberto's cultural education by watching the DVD of Monty Python's Life of Brian. On Sunday we set off again into Loch Ness, this time under power, to Drumnadrochit, where we took a temporary mooring and rowed Roberto ashore in the dinghy, saying goodbye. From the boat we could see an historical re-enactment going on in the grounds of the ruined Urquhart Castle, near to where he planned on pitching his tent, so it looks like he had some entertainment for the afternoon. We, however, resisted the temptation to dress up in silly hats and drink mead, and carried on past grim and misty shores, into the final section of canal, and Inverness where we were to stay for four nights, mainly waiting for better weather to continue our passage north. I can't say it was a paticularly pleasant place to stay. Upon arriving, a bunch of bored children were throwing stones across the water as we descended the flight of locks. Then on the second night we were attacked by another group of youths throwing stones over the fence, trying to hit our boat and others. We reported this to the police, and the canal office, who said they had not had any trouble before, but I had witnessed another group of halfwit idiots shouting vile abuse earlier in the evening. So, given three incidents in less that two days, I suspect this is more common than they were admitting. Unfortunately the canal runs through a dirty area of run-down council housing where I suspect these kids have nothing better to do. The town centre is okay though, plenty of interesting old buildings, good shopping, art, bookshops and cafes. While moored there, I reinstalled the windlass which I received back from SL Spares, all repaired and working like new again. What a relief it will be not have to haul the anchor by hand any more. Finally the weather improved and we decided it was time to press on, out into the Moray Firth, the North Sea, and to the Isles of Orkney.