Wednesday 12 May 2010

78 years young

The 'Western Isles'
My birthday fell on Polling day this year - May 6th - when all radio, TV and newspaper coverage was about the country electing a new head of the Westminster Mafia. To escape the election hype and literature - and 'discreet' Funeral Pre-payment Plans that sneak through my letterbox from people who seem to think I'm getting old - I got well away from it all among the hills of Knoydart, Mull and the beautiful little island of Ulva.

From Mallaig we took Bruce Watt's 'Western Isles' ferry to the isolated little village of Inverie which, according to the Guinness book of Records, boasts Britain's remotest pub - The Old Forge. We resisted it's temptation, ignored the comforts of the bunkhouse, and took the primrose lined path for seven miles/1,500ft to the head of Mam Barrisdale where we found a delectable spot for the tent facing Meall Buidhe (3,107ft), one of Knoydarts most impressive Munros. A Red Deer stag gave nervous little barks, resenting our intrusion into his territory. From far below, by the Loch an Dubh-Lochain, came the incessant call of the Cuckoo, a sound we'd have to get used to for the duration of our holiday.
Facing Meall Buidhe
We'd arrived in glorious sunshine but our ascent of Luinne Bheinn (3,083ft) found us scrambling around in clouds and rain on compass bearings that were not always reliable due to the presence of magnetic rock. After a quick photograph we left the summit cairn on a dodgy bearing but thankfully when the clouds briefly parted the compass was pointing in the exact direction of our tent. We returned to Inverie, scattering the deer down Mam Barrisdale, closing our ears to the insistent Cuckoos and howls of resident Inverie Peacocks, and caught the ferry back to Mallaig.

At Loch na Keal
For many years we've kept returning to one of our favourite wild camping spots on the gorse scented shore of Loch na Keal where eagles fly. On this occasion some untidy louts had left unsightly litter all over the place and burnt brown rings in the grass where they'd thoughtlessly placed hot pans. After putting up the tent we spent a good couple of hours bagging up all the rubbish and burning whatever was combustible. A local farmer kindly took the rubbish away for us and order was restored.
Birthday treat
We went for a five mile run, as far as the Gribun Rocks, to work up an appetite for a gorgeous Italian meal at the 'Mediterranea' restaurant in Salen, a birthday treat courtesy of my wonderful partner. We opted for local seafood, Mussels in a wine and garlic sauce for starters, seared scallops with red peppers, strips of streaky bacon and Mediterranean salad for the main course, mixed berry pavlova for sweet, and all of this made more appetizing with a rich red Sicilian wine. My partner was also given a complementary dish of black and green olives. I don't ever recall a nicer birthday meal. We returned to camp, watched a blazing red sunset over the Western Isles and slept like babies.
On the A'Chioch Ridge
We arose early next morning to warm sunshine, filled ourselves with porridge and set off up Gleann na Beinne Fada to a col below the towering A'Chioch ridge. The adrenalin flowed thick and strong as we clambered upwards, making the height and exposure all the more pleasurable. From the summit cairn of A'Chioch (2,770ft) we descended 300ft to another col before the long airy ascent of Ben More (3,169ft). At an exposed section near the summit we were joined by a happy little Jack Russell terrier jumping from ledge to ledge on its way down. Then it's owner appeared accompanied by a rough coated Deerhound lurcher both of whom were equally adept in negotiating the steep, rough terrain. On the sun warmed summit there wasn't a breath of wind. We lingered a while, over a bite to eat and mouthful of juice, wallowing in nostalgia while chanting a litany of well loved names of all the beautiful islands and places we'd visited together in the past - the sacred Isle of Iona with its shining sands, Staffa with it's basalt pillars and famous Fingal's Cave that inspired Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture', Bac Mor like a giant sombrero floating on the sea, Lunga with it's incredible population of nesting Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and Shag. Beyond the Treshnish Isles floated the white fringed island of Tiree and the more rugged island of Coll. We descended Ben More by its easy north west ridge and were back in camp by lunchtime. After a well earned brew and a bite to eat we packed the tent and drove west along the coast to catch the ferry to our 'secret camp' on the island of Ulva.

Welcome to Ulva
After days of running, walking, scrambling and Munro-bagging we went to Ulva for a weekend of relaxation. We've been to this island on many occasions before, always camping at the same spot, just yards from the sea and a large colony of seals that usually swim across to investigate our arrival with great interest. This time they didn't. There was a waning moon and tides were unusually low so that skerries, where the seals bask and rest, were always clear of the water. The seals hardly moved until our third and final day when, after a somewhat higher tide, the whole colony vanished. I suppose if they'd been human they'd have left a notice saying 'Gone Fishing'. On a grassy islet beyond the skerries wild geese were cropping the lush vegetation. Curlews were calling and a Grey Heron was stalking around the seaweed shore in quest of a seafood supper. Soon a delicious smell of cooking was wafting from the tent and a gradely bottle of Australian Shiraz made it all the more enjoyable. Well, half a bottle!
Note. I wish they didn't put screw tops on wine bottles. Hearing the 'Pop' of a cork was all part of the pleasure, arousing the senses to mouth watering anticipation of the gastronomic delights to follow.
Ben More from Isle of Ulva
In truth, not a lot was done on Ulva. We sauntered around the 'Livingstone Trail' and took photographs of the ruined house where the grandparents of the famous explorer, David Livingstone, once lived. It was tiny, making it hard to believe whole families lived and slept there in such a small dwelling. We found a huge cave, excavated recently by a group of archaeologists from Edinburgh University who found human infant remains that indicated people lived there as far back as 5650 BC. Farther along, monolithic basalt pillars rise from the shoreline and on the grassy top of one of these we stretched out to sunbathe among a myriad flowers.
Ulva is a botanist's paradise. We strode among millions of Primroses and Celandines with lesser numbers of Violets, Wood Sorrel, Wood Anemones, Sea Pinks, Bugle, Milkwort, Lousewort, Lady's Smock, Speedwell, Tormentil, Marsh Orchid, Wild Strawberry, Dandelions and Daisies, Herb Robert, Ramsons, Lady's Mantle and Birdsfoot Trefoil. As summer progresses, hundreds of other different varieties will burst into flower.
Deer peered warily from the safety of crested hill tops like bands of renegade Red Indians ready to descend at dusk. One hundred and twenty three different species of birds have been recorded on Ulva and some of these were hardly ever out of our sight. At times we could have done without the noisy Cuckoos that called non-stop until darkness fell, then began again as dawn faintly tinged the eastern horizon as early as 3.45 am. Fearless black-faced sheep leapt about the rocky heights with the agility of mountain goats, their tiny bleating lambs keeping close at heel.
'Secret camp' on Isle of Ulva
We visited two Standing Stones of seemingly unknown origin and an overgrown graveyard, Cille Mhic Eoghainn, with ancient weather-worn headstones recording the final resting places of MacQuarries, MacNeills, Blacks and MacArthurs, amongst others.
Since leaving the ferry, on arrival, we saw only two other people, gentleman walkers striding out purposefully on a circuit of the island. For the duration of our jaunt we'd no contact with the outside media world whatsoever, which is just what we'd planned. We returned happy and refreshed - not to mention a little sunburnt - went for a five mile run to loosen our mountaineering legs, then indulged in a fabulous pork casserole with a rich red Shiraz all the way from Namaqualand - wherever that is - to nicely round off my wonderful birthday gallivantings! Roll on my 79th!
A  Loch na Keal sunset