Category Archives: Scottish Highlands & Islands

Noss 22.06.2016

Noss is another of the places that for one reason or another, we’d been unable to visit on our first trip to Shetland.  We were determined that we wouldn’t miss out on seeing its spectacular cliff scenery and abundant bird life a second time.  Even reaching Noss is a bit of an adventure, requiring a ferry across to Bressay, followed by a three mile journey across that island to its wild eastern coastline.  An old track then leads down to a small jetty where a second ferry (just a RIB taking a few passengers at a time) crosses the narrow sound to land on Noss.

A full circuit of the island is only six miles, but I predicted at the outset (correctly as it turned out!) that we would nevertheless be rushing to make the last boat back.  It’s that kind of place.  Walking anti-clockwise seems to be the norm, presumably because the southern coast is slightly more interesting, and also because this direction gives a more dramatic build-up to the scenic highlight, the Noup of Noss.

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Rounding the delightfully named Stinking Geo, near the start of the circuit.  The Noup of Noss can be seen on the far right.

The route begins with fairly gentle walking on grass, above low cliffs.  As elsewhere in Shetland, we found the remains of crabs and sea urchins everywhere.  After rounding Stinking Geo, we began to gain height, and the cliff scenery became more dramatic.

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Tarristie of Setter

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A small natural arch

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The Point of Hovie, with its cave

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Looking back at the Point of Hovie, with Bressay in the background.  Sea pinks in abundance!

In some places, chasms are starting to open up as the cliff edges break away due to the constant pounding of the sea and the winter storms, so the temptation to go right to the edge had to be resisted!

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Feadda Ness

At Cradle Holm, a rockfall on the Noss side has caused the two islands to re-connect at low tide, though it must have been high tide on our visit as there was clear water between the two.

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Cradle Holm from the west

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Looking down the channel that once separated Cradle Holm from Noss, but now only does so at high tide

It was here that we encountered our first puffins, and a comical trio posed obligingly for the camera.

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The old dry stone walls also seem to be popular with the Shetland wrens (an endemic subspecies).

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Shetland wren

As dramatic as Cradle Holm is, nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle of the Noup of Noss.  A towering prow of old red sandstone, it rises sheer from the sea to a height of 592 feet and is home to innumerable gannets, fulmars, shags, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and black guillemots.

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Noup of Noss

Though not in fact the most numerous, it is the gannets that grab the attention most with their amazing diving antics. The ears are also bombarded by the din and the nose by the pungent aroma of guano.  I spent quite some time just enjoying the sensory overload.

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Gannets

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Seabird skyscraper!

The view from the summit is stunning for such a low altitude.  It is apparently sometimes possible to see Fair Isle away to the south, and Foula overtopping the lower hills of Mainland.  I tried, but couldn’t pick either of these out, though it was clear on our visit.

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The view across the island, with Bressay and Mainland in the background

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Looking back to the Noup

The northern side of the island doesn’t quite live up to the drama of the south.  Even so, there are plenty of headlands and geos to investigate.  I can never resist walking out to a headland, which is probably why we were able to take several hours over a six-mile walk!  As it was, we only made the last boat back with ten minutes to spare.  But after all, it would be criminal to rush around such a magical place.

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A few images from the return leg

Some photos by Georgina Collins

Point of Fethaland 20.06 .2016

We’ve recently returned from a fortnight in Shetland, during which we were out exploring its fantastic coastline every day and amazingly, experiencing almost continuous good weather.  I don’t intend to write a post about every single day (because I’m too lazy), but hopefully this will be the first of three posts covering some of our most memorable days.

Fethaland is the northernmost tip of Mainland and somewhere that we hadn’t visited on our previous trip to Shetland.  Like everywhere in Shetland, the coastline here is a chaotic jumble of cliffs, headlands, inlets (geos), skerries, stacks, natural arches, sea lochs and caves.  Every twist and turn of the coast reveals another staggering view, or another headland that just has to be walked out to.  For this reason, even short walks in Shetland take hours.

Our plan was simple – we would set off from North Roe and keep the coast on our right till we reached the Point of Fethaland, whence a good track would return us to our start point.

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A couple of small geos near the start of the route

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Looking north – the coast of Yell can just be seen on the right

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Looking south across Burra Voe

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Looking right across the peninsula to the west coast

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Another of the many geos – Yell in the background

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Looking back south along our route

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Approaching the Head of Virdibreck

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Wick of Virdibreck

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Kame of Isbister – or as Karen called it, the Dragon’s Head

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Looking back at the Head of Virdibreck

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Another view of the Kame of Isbister and its natural arch

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…and another

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Looking north along the coast

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Trumba and Eislin Geo

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A closer view of Eislin Geo

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Our objective finally comes into view!

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The Isle of Fethaland – the northernmost point of the peninsula (though not actually an island)

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The rock architecture hereabouts was amazing

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You can really see why Shetland is so popular with geologists

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This geo isn’t maned on the map, but the headland has the wonderful name of Fluga Taing

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I wonder how far back that tunnel goes?

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Common seals (I think)

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Wick of Breibister

The Isle of Fethaland was the undoubted highlight of the walk.  The cliff scenery here is almost too spectacular to be true.  It must be an incredible sight when the winter gales bring the waves crashing in.

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Looking south-west from the north tip of the Isle

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Skerries off the northern tip

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The amazing cliff scenery on the west coast of the Isle

On the neck of land that connects the Isle of Fethaland to the rest of the peninsula are the remains of a haaf (deep sea) fishing station, which remained in use until the 20th century.  Amazing to think that somewhere that is so peaceful today was until relatively recently a hive of industry.

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Remains of the fishing station

Some photos by Georgina Collins.

 

 

Ben More (South Uist) 14.07.2015

At 2034 feet, South Uist’s Ben More may not be one of the highest of that name in Scotland, but it is the only Graham and the highest mountain on the island, where we were spending a two week holiday.  This of course made it irresistible to me.  We’d been monitoring the weather forecasts for some time to ensure that we picked a good day for the ascent, and we weren’t disappointed.  In fact, this was to be one of the few days during our stay that the summit was free of cloud for the whole day.

There are very few paths on South Uist, but we did manage to find an old peat cutters’ track that led towards the foot of Ben More and only left us with around half a mile of bog to cross before the going eased as we started to gain height.

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The peat-cutters’ track that leads towards Ben More

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Nameless lochan at the foot of the ascent route (well, there’s no name on the map)

We were surprised to find that there was a faint path leading up the mountain, though it was quite easy to lose it in the heather and peat hags that we encountered at intervals.

As we gained height, St Kilda appeared on the western horizon, and I was surprised at just how big it appeared to be, given its distance.  Both Hirta and Boreray were very clear and seeing them certainly intensified my desire to get there someday.

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Superb retrospective views all the way up

Most of the ascent is really quite easy and pleasant, with improving views all the time.  The view across to Hecla and Ben Corrodale is particularly impressive.  I had really wanted to do a grand traverse of all three mountains from Loch Skipport in the north to Loch Eynort in the south, but the complete absence of public transport to either end of the route meant that I had been unable to organise this, although it did occur to me that this traverse could be incorporated into a longer backpacking route, with an overnight stop at Uisinis bothy.  Food for thought for the future…

Not long before reaching the summit ridge, we had a superb view of a white-tailed eagle soaring directly overhead, though unfortunately it was still too far away for us to be able to take a photo with the camera we were using.

The highlight of the route is undoubtedly the summit ridge.  This offers pleasant easy scrambling in places, with impressive drops on both sides and a traverse path for the cautious.  Never able to resist anything like this, I tried to stick as closely as possible to the crest, which was relatively easy as the day was calm – something of a rarity in these parts!

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Looking back along the summit ridge

The views from the summit were every bit as good as I had expected, ranging from St Kilda in the west to Ben More on Mull in the east, with the hills of Harris, Skye and Rum all clearly visible.  Even the diminutive hills on Coll and Tiree could be picked out.  Closer to hand, the view down into the wild Glen Hellisdale was awe-inspiring, with Ben Corrodale and Hecla standing proudly behind it.  The contrast between the western side of the island with its flat machair and endless sandy beaches, and the wild, uninhabited mountains of the east was really quite striking.

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Looking down into Glen Hellisdale

An enormous cleft splits the north face of the mountain, and it looked as though it was possible to walk round the head of it and up to a promontory to its east, so I decided to go and take a look.  Walking away from the summit, we were accompanied by a couple of golden plovers for some time, both of which came obligingly close enough for photographs.

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A golden plover poses for a photo

Looking down into the cleft was really quite awe-inspiring, and it looked to me as though it would be possible to climb up it from the glen below, though I doubt that anybody ever does as there are no doubt easier routes even from this side.  Apparently the cliffs on the northern side hold some interesting climbs, first recorded in the 1930s, and given their isolation, probably little repeated since then.

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Admiring the view into Glen Hellisdale

I usually dislike going up and down the mountain via the same route, but on this occasion I was more than happy as it allowed me to repeat the summit ridge and to enjoy uninterrupted views across the machair and over to St Kilda.

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Returning along the summit ridge

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It seemed to take no time at all to reach the bog at the bottom.  As we were passing the lochan again, we noticed a diver out on the water.  Although it was too far away to be absolutely certain, we decided that it was probably a red-throated diver, a first for me.

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Looking across to Eaval on North Uist, with the hills of Harris in the background

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Ben Corrodale and Hecla

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The views on the way down were just as good as on the way up

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The (presumed) red-throated diver with chick

Some photos by Georgina Collins

Mingulay 09.07.2015

Lying 10 miles south of Barra, Mingulay is the second most southerly island in the Outer Hebrides and this relative isolation has led to it being dubbed by some ‘the near St Kilda.’ On the calm day that we visited, it took little more than an hour to reach by boat from Castlebay, but there is no pier and I imagine that in any but the best weather, it must have been a very isolated existence for the people who once lived here, the last of whom left in 1912. Even in good weather it can be tricky to land as I demonstrated only too well – we had to transfer to a smaller boat to take us to the island itself and as I was disembarking from this onto the rocks, a sudden swell made me lose my balance and almost fall into the sea! Luckily I managed to keep hold of the rail and disaster was averted.

A steep scramble brought us to the one intact building on the island – the old school house, which is now used by the National Trust for Scotland warden. From here, a path runs north towards the remainder of the village. This path is in better condition than most of the buildings and it is easy to imagine the schoolchildren running along it to and from classes. Most of the buildings in the village are in an advanced state of disrepair. They would have been of the traditional blackhouse design, so of course the thatched roofs are long gone, leaving the rest of the buildings at the mercy of the winter gales. The beach is also encroaching upon the village now, and some of the old houses are partially buried in sand.

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The remains of the village, slowly being engulfed by the beach

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All that’s left of one of the blackhouses

As there isn’t a great deal to see in the village any longer, and we were keen to visit the high western cliffs for which the island is famed, we headed straight for the hills. We aimed initially for a prominent cairn in the bealach between McPhee’s Hill and Carnan.

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Looking back to the village from the cairn at the belach

From here we got our first sight of the awesome cliffs of Biulacraig, which rise straight from the sea to a height of around 750 feet. It was a dizzying spectacle looking down at the sea far below.

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The awe-inspiring cliffs at Biulacraig

 

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The deep inlet at the base of the cliffs

Disappointingly, it seemed that many of the birds had already left for the year; although there were still probably many hundreds of fulmars and guillemots about, it wasn’t quite the sensory overload that I had hoped for.

It was hard to leave the awesome cliff scenery of Biulacraig behind, but with time limited and much still to see, I headed for Carnan, the island’s high point. Although only 896 feet above sea level, it is a fantastic viewpoint, giving spectacular views of Pabbay, Berneray and Barra in the near distance, and towards Skye, Rum, Mull and Tiree further afield. I wished I could have stayed for much longer.

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Looking north from Carnan; Barra in the background

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Berneray – the southernmost of the Outer Hebrides

The descent towards the village was surprisingly tricky as the vegetation grows in such a way as to conceal any holes that might be lurking in the ground. Mindful that this would not be the best place to break or sprain my ankle, I proceeded with care. The bonxies were also eyeing me suspiciously though, so I was keen to move as quickly as I safely could!

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The village bay from my descent route

Reaching the village with a little time to spare, I headed across the beach to see if I could take a quick look at the puffin colony. I thought I saw some of them flying out to sea, but my watch told me I was due back at the boat in ten minutes, so I had to content myself with that.

Some photos by Georgina Collins

Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa 05.04.2015

The through route between Glens Sannox and Rosa, via The Saddle, is often said to be the best walk on Arran that doesn’t actually ascend to a mountain summit.  It’s still a mountain walk though – The Saddle is at an altitude of 1417 feet on the ridge that connects Goat Fell with Cir Mhor, and given that both ends of the route are at sea level, there’s a fair amount of ascent and descent.  There’s even a short section of scrambling to add a bit of excitement to the outing. Throughout the ferry crossing, we’d been in thick fog, though given the excellent forecast we were optimistic that this would either burn off or that we’d climb through it and witness a cloud inversion.  It was still pretty foggy as we left the bus at Sannox and headed up the bottom of the glen, so we didn’t rush, in the hope that the clouds would begin to part.

Cascades in Glen Sannox

Cascades in Glen Sannox

Luckily, our optimism wasn’t misplaced, as the clouds started to clear the tops after we’d been walking for a couple of miles, so for the first time we were able to see the mountains that enclose the glen: Goat Fell, Cir Mhor and Caisteal Abhail.

Cir Mhor emerges from the mist

Cir Mhor emerges from the mist

A thin belt of cloud hanging below Goatfell

A thin belt of cloud hanging below Goat Fell

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Retrospective view down the glen to the fog-covered Firth of Clyde and the Ayrshire coast beyond

Just before we began the climb out of the glen, the path crossed the Sannox Burn, from which we were able to refill our water bottles and enjoy some of the tastiest water I have ever drunk.  As we began to climb, exciting views opened up towards Caisteal Abhail, and we were still able to catch glimpses of the fog hanging over the sea.

Slabs below Coire na h-Uaimh, with Caisteal Abhail behind

Slabs below Coire na h-Uaimh, with Caisteal Abhail behind

Just before the summit of The Saddle is reached, there’s a short scramble up Whin Dyke, though it’s fairly straightforward (grade 1 at a guess).  There is some loose rock though, so you do have to be careful, as I found to my cost!

Ascending Whin Dyke

Ascending Whin Dyke

The summit of The Saddle made a superb picnic spot and gave us ample time to take in the magnificent views.  My interest was also aroused by a curious looking rock formation that I took to be some kind of volcanic intrusion, but so far I have been unable to verify this.  Perhaps some kind geologist will be able to identify it for me?

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The (as yet) unidentified formationThe (as yet) unidentified formation

Looking towards Goat Fell from The Saddle

Looking towards Goat Fell from The Saddle

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Another view along the ridge leading to Goat Fell

The only problem with walking over a pass is of course that as soon as you get to the top, you have to start going down again!  Thankfully the descent into Glen Rosa is fairly kind on the knees, and the views back up to the peaks are equally as stunning as those from Glen Sannox.  The burn running through the glen also offers plenty of interest and beautifully clear water.

A rock pool in Glen Rosa

A rock pool in Glen Rosa

Looking back to Cir Mhor

Looking back to Cir Mhor

In its lower reaches, the burn enters a narrow rocky gorge and the National Trust for Scotland has erected a deer fence around an enclosure here to allow the natural woodland to regenerate.  It was heartening to see that the scheme is already reaping rewards, with birch and pine trees starting to return, even if the fence itself is something of an eyesore. It was around this area that we saw a golden eagle, a life tick for me and consequently a matter of great excitement!  We watched it for some time as it soared above the Goat Fell ridge, though unfortunately it was too far away to get a decent photograph.  Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly a highlight of the walk.

Waterfall at the head of the rocky gorge

Waterfall at the head of the rocky gorge

DSCN0246Even after the excitement of seeing a golden eagle, the day had one last treat in store for us – a glorious sunset as we sailed back to the mainland.

Sunset over Arran

Sunset over Arran

Some pictures by Georgina Collins