Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Ring of Rannoch

It was the weather of a West Coast exile's dream. Cool, damp, and dull. We looked across the wastes of Rannoch Moor and I breathed deep the fresh air. What a place!

"It looks like the set of a 1970s horror film," said my companion. "Screw this, I'm going to the pub."

We were at the Kingshouse for a reunion and it seemed that only I wanted a walk. Just as well I like my own company.

On Rannoch Moor:


The walk I had planned would take me a long way along estate tracks towards the heart of the moor, up to the superlative viewpoint of Stob na Cruaiche, down towards Tigh na Cruaiche, and back across a track marked on the map. The first stage was a quick march along the Black Corries Lodge's well-made estate road, the Etive brawling alongside. I know from experience that this is a fine spot for sunbathing or swimming on rare days of midge-free warmth. The lochans in the wedge of moor between the A82 and the lodge are full of sporting brown trout.

The infant Etive:


Fifteen minutes after I began, the rain stopped and the sun even shone briefly. Ha ha! That would teach my companion. A few minutes later the rain returned for the rest of the day. On leaving the track to take a photo I was instantly lost in a wilderness of serpentine standing water, dank oozy drains patterning the tweed-coloured landscape. The estate track makes for easy going, but this is not a landscape to mess about with.

Rannoch Moor: bleak as fuck


At the lodge I was surprised by birdsong. The lodge is surrounded by trees and the wide moor briefly relented to an oasis of feathered chatter. Ducks flew from a lochan and I saw deer, surprised grouse, and even spotted a newt in a pool of black water. Peat blackened stumps of ancient pines glimpsed amongst the hags tell the tale of the forest that covered this land before the dampness and the peat won over.

Peat-preserved pine roots:


So far, so enjoyable. But after leaving the track I was on my own. My target was Stob na Cruaiche, the top of the Black Corries, but the angle of the moor makes for hard going - neither steep enough to gain altitude quickly, nor flat enough for rapid progress. Soon I was in the cloud, views gone, legs aching with the effort of lifting them over tussocky peat hags as I slowly soaked in the increasing wind and rain. "This is shite," I said to myself.

Last view:


I walked amongst frozen turf, sodden fescue, ice on the lochans and sudden vivid mossy greens amongst the browns and blacks of the moor. Where exposed the bedrock was startlingly white, a beautiful speckled granite. But it was a hard darg, and I was wet and not particularly enjoying myself when I finally reached the summit, a viewless pillar of concrete in the pissing rain and mist.

The re-entrant:


But then something magical happened. On descent I found myself in a small fold in the hill, a secret flat area halfway down a steep hillside. A river I could not cross forced me to pause and take stock. I was still soaking and cold, but a single moment of beauty was taking my breath away. We are sensitive to our environment after sustained periods of grind and misery and a different perspective had suddenly opened up. The river running through tunnels of snow, twisting where it will. A place so utterly without human value that the land does nothing except be itself. Just be itself. I stood and absorbed this place, as indifferent to me as only a truly wild place can be. Standing here in the mist and rain, this seemed profound.

The Rannoch Amazon:


I followed the smoothly flowing river, impassable, as deep as it is broad, a collection of elements, of earth, water, wind, gravity and light. The land steepened, and the river roared downhill as I finally broke out of the cloud.

Loch Laidon at the heart of the moor:


I had a rude shock on arriving at Tigh na Cruaiche. There was still a long way back, I'd forgotten that the path marked on the map didn't exist, and it would soon be dark. I was glad I hadn't done the full 'Ring of Rannoch' all the way to Rannoch Station. It was a hard forced march back to the lights of the Kingshouse, where my friends had been wondering where I had gone.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Hoxa Art Deco

There's a great collection of Art Deco architecture on Orkney. The best examples are at Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay. To be honest most people would not class them as Art Deco. Most people would call them wartime gun batteries. But what are these curves, if not pure le Corbusier?

Balfour Battery:


When form matches function so elegantly?

Hoxa Battery:


During WWI and WWII, the Royal Navy's most important home base was Scapa. This anchorage needed defended, and these gun batteries were the result. Now they are crumbling, the steel in the reinforced concrete rusted, the buildings liable to sudden collapse. A shame for such treasures of modern architecture.

Track to Hoxa Head:


The walk out to Hoxa Head from the Hoxa Tearoom is short but fine in winter sunshine. A muddy track leads you to an information board and the first battery. There are views across the Pentland Firth to Caithness, and nearer at hand to Hoy at the other side of the entrance to Scapa Flow. The oil terminal on Flotta is an incongruous sight in such a beautiful area. The battery sits on low cliffs, a tilted sandwich of sandstone strata, jagged edges attacked by the sea. A seal watched us from inshore.

From here it is a short stroll round to the next battery and the track back to the tearoom.

View from Hoxa Head:


In the end the Germans did successfully attack the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow, when Günther Prien took U-47 past the defences and sank HMS Royal Oak. He didn't bother with the front door, guarded by the Hoxa batteries. This southern entrance to Scapa Flow was considered impregnable. U-47 came in via the shallow inter-island channels to the east of Scapa. The Churchill Barriers, sealing these channels to sea-traffic and incidentally linking the islands by road, were the result.

Spot the seal!


We didn't meet any Germans. Just some fulmars, cormorants, and an inquisitive seal.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Broch of Gurness

For years historians debated if it was a transcription error. The 'King of Orkney' who attended a meeting with Roman Emperor Claudius at Colchester surely didn't refer to the remote Orkneys. The unsophisticated, illiterate Caledonians always had been Rome's enemies. It was absurd to believe the remotest of them had been plugged into mainstream Mediterranean politics. And if it wasn't a transcription error, it was probably just Roman lies about their reach stretching to the farthest corners of Britain.

Broch of Gurness:


And so matters lay until pottery from Claudius' reign was unearthed at the Broch of Gurness. This was the most complex broch on Orkney and home of a chief. Historians started to put the evidence together and a story emerged.

Gurness ramparts - old as Rome:


Roman emissaries had arrived at the King of Orkney's broch at Gurness and made the appropriate noises. Emperor Claudius was coming to conquer Britain they said, and it would be in Orkney's interests to submit. They brought gifts and tributes to sweeten the deal. Thus it was that the King of Orkney - alone amongst the Caledonians - was one of the eleven kings of Britain who paid homage to Claudius during his triumphal visit to Colchester in AD43. Most intriguingly, Claudius only spent two weeks in Britain. Given the travelling times involved, the King of Orkney must have had advance notice and planned accordingly.

Entrance ruins:


The currents of world affairs may have ebbed from Gurness, but the riptide of Eynhallow Sound is eternal, a north wind battering us and sanderlings companionably scavenging at the tide edge, a seal watching just offshore. Gurness is a fascinating place. The socket for the door pivot can still be seen next to the anterooms where the guard dogs lived, and there are stone beds, a grinding stone, a stone basin inside. For all that it must have seemed a dirty and uncouth place for a Roman more used to villas in the sunshine. I shivered in the wind and thought that I would accept a little dirtiness in exchange for a roof and a warm fire.

Outside, the broch is surrounded by rings of ramparts and an Iron Age village complex. In winter the site is closed. What this means is that there is nobody to take money. But the gate is unlocked, and visitors can walk around alone with just their imagination and the wind for company.