Saturday, August 01, 2015

Celtic, cool, and "Keen"...the Munro.

As we enter the last month of our year and a half locum in Scotland, before returning home to Canada for a little while, it was time to get some elevation. Mmm...yes! Mount Keen (Monadh Caoin, the Gentle Hill) is the most easterly "Munro", a Scottish mountain over 3000 feet. The trailhead was a ninety minute drive to the north, through the lovely Angus Glens. History permeates these hills. Isolated Mount Keen promised solitude, wide open spaces, and a view to be savoured.

The heather was blooming, the countryside lush and vibrant with colour. The vista was simply...Celtic. Last summer, it seemed we were never in the right place at the right time to see the colours...probably because the paddling weather was much better.

The first part of the trail parallels the Water of Mark which joins the Water of Lee (from Loch Lee) to form the River North Esk.

About two miles from the southern trailhead in Glen Esk is the Queen's Well, the location of a flowing artesian well. It appears from a distance, amidst fields of newly shorn sheep.

It's marked by a massive stone crown, erected by Lord Dalhousie. 

On one of the buttressed pillars, there is a marble plaque reminding those who pass by that ''Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, and his Royal Highness the Prince Consort, visited this well and drank of its refreshing waters, on the 20th September, 1861, the year of Her Majesty's great sorrow''. This was the year that marked the death of her mother, and her husband, Prince Albert, who was only 42 years old.

I understood, for the first time, why Queen Victoria chose to wear black, the colour of mourning, for the rest of her long reign, and the remaining forty years of her life.

Leaving the well, the cottage at Glenmark is the beginning of the zig-zag climb up the most direct route to Mount Keen. There are two small burns (streams) to cross, Easter Burn and Ladder Burn, but at this time of the year they present no difficulties.

The colours continued to be wonderfully radiant, especially on the slopes that receive the sun's rays. (I think "summer" in Scotland was on a Tuesday this year!)

To think...this luxuriant carpet of purple and pink and green is whirling though (the minus 270 degrees Celsius) vacuum of space. What a planet!

Navigation is's a well-travelled path.

As elevation increases, the views become increasingly dramatic.

When the obvious trail ends...the "stairway to heaven" begins. It is humbling to think of the time and effort so many have put into maintaining these back-country pathways into the sky - dedicated labours of love, indeed.

Looking down and along the glen, it seems we have walked forever...a cold, west wind has picked up...the chill now requires an extra layer. It has become a very cool more ways than one.

A large stone "tub" offers shelter from the wind, and a place to have lunch.

The triangulation pillar (trig point) at the 3,081 (939m) foot summit is now just above our heads.

The rest of the world is far down below.

Mount Keen offers a good day out, and a little elevation. Elevation always provides a clearer perspective on our "surroundings". It's easy to get lost, or at least temporarily displaced, in life's valleys. The hills and the challenges that rise around us can block out the sun. They sometimes obscure the paths we are searching for. They often disorientate us, and confuse our sense of direction.

Elevation, however, can be gained by simply walking to the summit of a high hill or a mountain. It can also be gained by some quiet time in reflection, or in thoughtful and honest conversation with a good friend. Elevation can be achieved when we spend some time writing down our thoughts and the things that cause us to be anxious. A journal or a diary is a wonderful way to gain clarity. We gain a higher perspective when we dare to explore and push our comfort levels to new heights. The thing is, we humans are usually successful when we "go for it"...and that liberates and empowers us to push even further. Elevation is almost always gained when we leave, for a time, the busyness of life and invite some quiet and solitude into our hearts and minds. Most of the best work we all do comes following times of rejuvenation and refreshment...elevation gain.

This day's activity, surrounded by the blooming heather and the wooded glades, pastured sheep and running streams, was just the kind of thing...we're always rather "keen" to do. ;)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Rock hopping the delightful and sublime mysteries...of castles and caves.

Rock hopping: close quarter paddling amidst rocks and skerries, weaving and manoeuvring through narrow passages and caves.

Castles: large buildings, usually very old, strongly fortified against attack, with thick walls, battlements, and towers.

Caves: hollow or natural passages under or into the earth.

One of the perks of sea kayaking in the "old world", is that it's not unusual to find oneself paddling through history. Anything can appear around a headland...such as a medieval castle, or an ancient cave.

Some castles are fully intact and even occupied, others are in ruins, a magical shadow of a mystery-filled past glory. Findlater Castle is one such castle that occupies a lonely and rugged promontory, near the village of Sandend, on the Moray Firth.

The clifftop ruins date back to 1450 but incorporate earlier works dating back to as early as 1246. (The parish church that I currently serve, arguably one of the most historic Romanesque / Norman buildings in the UK, was built between 1183-1187 and is still in use!)

The Vikings occupied the site for a time but very little appears to be known about that period of the castle's history.

The remains that can be seen from the kayak cockpit, are thought to have been built by Sir Walter Ogilvy. 

In 1560, the castle was passed on to Sir John Gordon, son of the 4th Earl of Huntly. The real estate market must have been hot, the castle was returned to the Ogilvy family in the early 1600's. They then opted for more upscale and modern digs in Cullen. Perhaps the need to "keep up with the Joneses" has been around for some time!

A little rock hopping, in the gentle swell...

...takes the paddler to the next stop, a most inviting and intriguing gully, between steep cliffs.

The high and precipitous walls are home to a community of birds, nestled comfortably into the nooks and crannies.

Nearing the end of the breeding season, they seemed so a peace and at ease with one another, and the two curious sea kayakers below...

...who were about to glide through a natural passage in the headland, and then back to the vast expanse of the North Sea.

It is always a surreal thrill that is granted by Mother be permitted to pass through the cliff walls.

Inside the earth, there is a coolness and a silence, a comfortable and peaceful eeriness that bids welcome to the paddlers of narrow boats...but only on certain days when the capricious and unforgiving sea permits. 

In these brief moments, between sea surface and cavern ceiling, time pauses.

And then we are released, gliding back into the sunshine...emerging almost reluctantly. 

For these moments and places are both precious and rare.

Mystery is a wonderful thing. It can be birthed in the ancient and crumbling ruins of a once fortified building, high on a cliff. It can come to life in a dimly lit space, inside the earth, created by tens of thousands of years of waves and tides.

The mystery of objects and places such as castles and caves can as delightful and sublime as anything else in the world. Both could tell a thousand thousand stories from their static place on the land and seascape.

Rock hopping the North Sea certainly can...well, rock. :)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Kayaks on the beach...the dance-music of the tide, grains of sand, and stars in the sky.

"In every out thrust headland, 
in every curving beach, in every grain of sand...
there is the story of the earth."  
- Rachel Carson

Beaches are places of respite and refreshment, exploration and discovery. They are evidence of how the oceans transfer their dynamic energy to the land, shaping and softening our coastlines. Headlands, composed of rock more resistant to erosion, patiently await their eventual turn. A handful of sand, composed of rock fragments, minerals, and biological precipitates (remains of dead critters), tells a wonderful story of the earth throughout a variety of timescales. 

Continuing our paddle from Cullen, the home of "Cullen skink", a delicious soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions, we were drawn to this isolated and completely unpopulated beach. 

Beaches feel primordial here...and they are one of Scotland's best kept secrets.

Beaches are vast, "groomed" only by the rawness of nature. They offer a delicious sense of aloneness. They are a place to think, to ponder, to meditate, to contemplate...and to simply be. They are an immense amphitheatre in which one can listen to what poet Rabindranath Tagore described as the "dance-music of the tide." A trickling stream contributed a magical layer of harmony. 

It's music that soothes the body, mind, and spirit.

The waist-deep grasslands, beyond the sand, beg exploration...

...and reveal glorious textures and colours. The heather was simply radiant.

Others have been here, enjoyed this special place, and have created cairns and markers...they must surely be a labour of love. I too, made a small contribution.

Beaches are a great place for lunch...the strawberries for dessert rather nicely matched my Valley Étaín 17.5. :)

As we sat listening to the gentle dance-music of the tides, the waves, the wind, the rustling grass, and the marine birds...I wondered how many grains of sand composed this vast beach? What if I was ever tasked to count them?! The thought was overwhelming. 

And then I realised that there are infinitely more galaxies in the skies up above, than there are grains of sand as far as our eyes could see.

Just as every star shines brightly in the heavens, every grain is an essential part of the beach. It would become less than whole, if even one were missing.

Clearly, every person, and all life everywhere is of immense value. We are all an essential part of the tiny and insignificant as we sometimes feel our lives are.

Rested, nourished, and sustained, it was time to launch and continue down the North Sea coast of the Moray Firth.

Paddling out from the shore, I wondered, "How many drops of water there are in the ocean?"

Ah but soon there would be some VERY interesting distractions from these "deep" questions. ;)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sea kayaking Scotland's "Dolphin Coast"...images of strength and fragility.

Is that a "guardian angel" that has appeared above and to the left of Joan?!
When we left our home, in the Kingdom of Fife, the skies were heavily overcast. The air was still, as in the calm before a storm. But...128 miles to the north, on the Outer Moray Firth, the marine forecast for the North Sea promised ideal paddling conditions. Just over three hours later, we were unloading the kayaks in the harbour at Cullen, under clearing skies. 

Ian and Linda at Mountain and Sea Scotland introduced us to the paddling possibilities in this lovely part of the country in the spring of last year. Ian and I paddled from Cullen to Sandend on a day very much like this one. Astonishingly, the Moray Firth has some 500 miles of coastline - cliffs, reefs and skerries, coastal grasslands, expansive beaches and sand dunes, historic harbours, and delightful seaside towns.

Today would be an opportunity to "rock hop" in a very light swell, explore an open-ended cave, float beneath the ruins of a 700 year old castle, walk a beach, examine the bright purple heather...and enjoy a close encounter with Bottlenose dolphins.

Leaving the harbour at Cullen,it's a dramatic and rugged coast.

The massive geological, monolithic-like formations speak of incredible strength, and a stubborn resistance to all that would erode and ablate. They stand resolutely, connecting sea to land.

In the fullness of time, they too will vanish. But for now they remain tall and magnificent, immovable, offering a simple habitat in their cracks and crevices to creatures both delicate and fragile. It is a union of strength and fragility.

Some residents and passers-by take a few moments to enjoy the warmth of the sun, perhaps some good conversation, and an absolutely cracking view over the sea...perhaps it's part of the process of "community building".

Others tend lovingly to the needs of their growing and dependent families - community-building in its very first stages.

There is surprising fertility in this rocky abode. But it's not so obvious at first glance.

On closer is clear that there is sufficient nourishment for a little garden on the "balcony", complete with lovely flowers. It looks very cosy.

The sheer beauty of the natural world humbles us, and that is how it should be. But as we are increasingly discovering, even the natural world is fragile.

We must take very good care of it...for all life, sharing both strength and fragility, is interconnected and interdependent.

The sea is a dynamic environment...and so is each and every day. At times we feel very strong. At other times, we feel very vulnerable.

Either way, we must never give up. We must always "paddle on" will always make us stronger, to face whatever we must.

Sometimes, trying to "fit in" is difficult. But is it always really necessary? Are we not stronger by celebrating who we are...for there is no one else, just like us anywhere in the world.

A single twig is fragile, and breaks easily, but a bundle of twigs is strong. It's why we need one another in this world.

It's clear that "no bird has an island (skerry), entire to itself." (With apologies to John Donne and his Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624.))

This was a gregarious, highly sociable bunch, they called out, joyfully, as we paddled past...and we called back. Then they did a "happy dance". 

Never stop dancing.

The "Dolphin Coast" is one of the most splendid and enchanting places we've ever had the pleasure to paddle...and it inspires the heart, mind, and imagination with it's beauty.

Maybe now is a good time for 1st lunch. Yes, I think so...tortillas with fresh hummous, crisp lettuce, a squeeze of lemon, and lots of coarse-grained black pepper. Mmmm. :)

More to come...