Friday, August 21, 2015

Past the siren call of Ailsa Belfast, and "titanic" history.

One of the nice things about Scotland is that it's possible to drive coast to coast in less than three hours - pretty impressive for we Canadians whose similar drive takes about seven days! With time growing short, on this locum here in Scotland, there were a few more places to explore. An overnight in Belfast, Northern Ireland, would fit the bill.

To get to the Stena ferry terminal (at Cairnryan) for Belfast, the route follows the coastal highway through South Ayrshire...permitting a view of the island of Ailsa Craig. It is pure magic - rising dramatically out of the sea. Many years ago when the legendary Wardair flights (featuring branded Royal Doulton china) flew into Prestwick Airport, we would see the island from the air...stunning. Sitting about 10 miles off the mainland, in the outer Firth of Clyde, it calls out...with a "siren" call.

Ian and Douglas, have sea kayaked out to Ailsa Craig a number of times, and detailed this incredible paddle AND hill walk in their postings. It must be a truly amazing paddle. Hopefully, when we return next, there will be a "window" of opportunity. Unlike the legendary Greek king Odysseus (and hero of Homer's epic poem), there was no need to be tied to a mast in order to resist the call of this special place. We'd be back, and besides, we had a ferry to catch...the Stena Superfast Vlll

Urban adventures are definitely fun...but in small doses. We realised quickly, however, a single overnight in Belfast was just going to scratch the surface, leaving no time at all for exploring the lovely countryside and coast of Northern Ireland.

So, here's just a few pics from a late afternoon and morning "walkabout".

There are, indeed, some rather interesting Irish pubs...

...and an ever-present blend of the old and the new.

Many will remember the the very difficult years of the "Troubles", during which over 3,500 people were killed between the late sixties, and the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement of 1998. 

Now, brightly coloured food vans and The Big Fish, a 32 foot ceramic mosaic sculpture of a salmon, reflect a hopeful and progressive future.

The Sunday afternoon indoor market was simply amazing, as was the music!

The frequent graffiti, not so much.

The Belfast waterfront is stunning, with many walking opportunities along the River Lagan.

Colourful boats and barges make the camera smile.

The tall ship Belem, a three-masted Barque, built in 1896 was moored at the Odyssey Quayside. Truly awe-inspiring. Now a sail training ship, registered in Nantes, France, she carries a maximum of 48 trainees who learn to manage the 22 sails.

The Belem is the oldest three-masted sailing ship in Europe - pure elegance.

Belfast, of course, has "titanic" the birthplace of the RMS Titanic, the White Star Line, Olympic-class ocean liner that sank after hitting an iceberg on the 14th of April. 1912.

There's a very tiny personal connection. When I was eight years old and on a return visit to the UK, my mum and I sailed on the Cunard liner, Carinthia, from Liverpool to Montreal. I still remember seeing the massive icebergs, in the waters off Newfoundland.

"Titanic Belfast" is a world class exhibition of everything to do with the Titanic and the city of Belfast during the early years of the 20th century. We spent over three hours there...and could have spent much longer.

The SS Nomadic is in dry dock right next door. She is the tiny sister to the Titanic and built as a tender to both the Titanic and the RMS Olympic. It is the one remaining White Star Liner left in the world.

Standing on the very ground on which the Titanic was built, gives one a connection to a tragic, but compelling piece of maritime history. 

It also makes the lives of those who were aboard ship that fateful night very real, and the acts of heroism very tangible.

I think they would like to know that.

Returning home, driving along the A77 and through the burgh of Girvan, Ailsa Craig called out yet one more time. What a paddle it would be.

One day...

Friday, August 07, 2015

Looking at the "glass" (from the kayak cockpit) as half full...

Gliding between skerries.
A day of sea kayaking on the Scotland's North Sea's Moray Firth allowed lots of time for thought and reflection...the gentle swell massages the body and mind and spirit. 

I thought about the fact that there is so much beauty in the world, so much. Sadly, however, it is the expression of negativism that makes the headlines - and sells the newspapers, magazines, and draws the morbidly curious to special televised docu-disasters. Litanies of "what's wrong" are heralded from every corner. 

It's overwhelming at times. We know what's wrong...beginning with our carelessness with our precious environment.

We know what's wrong, and good and concerned people suffer "compassion fatigue" and end up throwing their hands up in despair, believing that it is all too overwhelming. Those who would call us to direct our energies and passions to good works simply end up turning people away...succeeding only in giving the impression that it is all too much.

Energies spent, warning us of impending doom, distract us from the beauty. So many profoundly moving sources of inspiration go virtually unnoticed.

This is not to suggest that we bury our heads in the sand and ignore all that needs fixing in the world. Far from it. It's not about becoming "Pollyannas" either...although would it be so wrong to have a positive world view or cognitive understanding of life? Frankly, I think it would be refreshing, inspiring, and motivating to focus on optimistic outcomes.

I'm so tired of the negativism and of all the doomsayers who simply appear to be unabashedly "intoxicated by the exuberance of their own verbosity" (quoting my late dad). I so yearn for inspiration. 

I think we all do.

A rock of ages.
There is the wonderful, and inspiring, story of several days ago about a newly married couple in Turkey, Fethullah Uzumcuoglu and Esra Polat. They decided, that rather than treat their friends and family to a lavish wedding reception and dinner and celebration, they would share their wedding feast with 4000 Syrian refugees. 

Their reward: the visible and immense happiness in the eyes of countless children and their parents. Fethullah and Esra will be enriched forever by their selfless act of kindness and generosity. Pretty inspiring - but not a story that one will find on the front page of many publications. And the thing is, most folks want to emulate that which inspires them. It won't be surprising to find similar wedding stories taking place around the world.

It's about looking at the world as a glass "half full"...because despite all that is wrong - and there are obviously a lot of critical issues to address - there is a great deal that is right. And it gets forgotten, shunted off to the's inspiration lost. 

I just needed to share that.

So, what a day on the Moray Firth...castles, caves, tunnels, birds, marine life.

Endless sea.
Did I mention the dolphins? 

We were so fortunate to have several pods pass by. Our small waterproof cameras, and our excited hands, struggled to get a clear image of these Bottlenose Dolphins - the largest anywhere. 

They seemed so happy, so inspired as they leapt out of the water so close to our kayaks. They seemed to celebrate life. Perhaps they know that they bring great delight to their human relatives. They inspire us to do all that one can to take care of the ocean, their habitat. No dire, doomsayer warnings from them...just pure inspiration.

They are simply marvellous...and magical.

Bottlenose dolphins...and lots of them on this day!
Beaches await the exhilarated paddler.

Beach time.
They allow a time of rest, a second (even third!) lunch, an opportunity to stretch legs...

...even enjoy a short run, just for the fun of it - and to get the kinks out of stiff lower body muscles.

Off and running.
Beaches invite exploration...a place to touch the mystery of timeless erosion on the planet's surface.

Resisting erosion.
And then, as the dynamics of the ocean quickly change, as the tide's time to head back to the launch site.

Surf's up coming up.
Paddling can be a contemplative exercise, focussing only on each paddle stroke, one at a time.

It can be productive thinking time.

The Moray Firth coast - stunning features.
It can be a time to absorb the astonishing beauty of nature...and be reminded that there is, indeed, so much loveliness on this planet, and that we need to take much better care of both it, and one another.

Paradise found.
In order to carry a positive action, 
we must develop here a positive vision.
- Dalai Lama

Whether we choose, in life, to see a "glass" half-empty, or half-full determines our world view. We can choose to focus on what's wrong...and risk becoming overwhelmed and eventually burnt out. Or we can choose to balance our perspective, with an advantage to the good and to the beautiful that already exists...and be motivated, inspired, energised, and enthused to help fill the glass, all the way to the top.

It's always a choice. I'm partial to a world view that finds beauty...and calls us to find and discern the ways and means to create even more.

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. :)