Wednesday 29 August 2012

mourning cloak & camberwell beauty...

I was interested to discover in our book that the mourning cloak butterfly -Nymphalis antiopa- so admired by myself and Jennifer in a park in New York in June (read more here) is the same species as the camberwell beauty which can sometimes be seen here in the UK, being a rare migrant to our shores.

It's so hard to believe that such seemingly fragile creatures actually can migrate, but they can and do...

The monarch butterfly in Canada and northern states of the USA is the best-known example - it makes a 3,000 mile journey south each year to overwinter in Mexico and California. A number of species that we see here in Britain are migratory too - red admiral and painted lady butterflies and silver-Y and humming-bird hawk moths all travel to us in the spring from as far away as north Africa and southern Europe.

Read more about the camberwell beauty on this excellent website -, in association with Butterfly Conservation.

mourning cloak butterfly, New York, photo taken by Jennifer Alexander, 17th June 2012

Friday 17 August 2012

My Favourite Place in Scotland

I've just posted my entry to BBC Radio Scotland's Out Of Doors Programme and Scottish Book Trust competition to write about 'my favourite place in Scotland' in 1,000 words or under.

Here's my entry:


My Favourite Place in Scotland 

What a difficult task the Out of Doors Programme and Scottish Book Trust have set.

To write about 'my favourite place in Scotland' sounded simple enough, until I actually started to think... Just what is my favourite place?

I know – Orkney! I've been only twice but long to go again: birds, sealife, incredible coastal cliffscapes. Gentle inland farms, numerous small isles. Ancient history, archaeological digs. On the Brough of Birsay tidal island it all comes together as fulmars and rock doves glide and dive around sheer flagstone cliffs. A wheatear flitted amongst the stones of the 12th-century monastry (built atop a 9th-century Viking settlement). There's a Pictish stone there that's older still.

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle - Jennifer and I cycled here aided by a powerful tailwind. Returning to our Bay of Skaill cottage the tailwind became a headwind too strong to cycle in. Mrs Poke's husband collected us in his farm truck. In nearby 3,000 year-old Maes Howe chambered tomb the Historic Scotland ranger mistook us for a married couple, discovered we weren't and offered to perfom the ceremony there and then. The awkward situation was averted when I pointed out that we had no cake.

Rackwick Bay on the Isle of Hoy - Stopping part way at the huge Dwarfie Stane - what apart from faerie magic could possibly have so crisply carved its two-celled interior? The walk from Rackwick to the Old Man sea stack - mountain hares in mahogany-grey-white summer coats watched us intelligently. Great skuas -bonxies- circled overhead. At the headland fulmars wheeled below and beside us.

In Kirkwall we marvelled at the red sandstone of St Magnus Cathedral and had hot chocolate and a kitkat each in a quiet church cafe.

In Stromness we ate wholemeal pasta in the living room of our hostel and played Scrabble as the evening sky darkened outside. Quirky buildings, giftshops and galleries of the cobbled main street. Elegant stringed instruments in a window near the museum. Artist Tim Wootton in his wildlife art gallery - told me of a Sandhill Crane sighted on a nearby island. Cycling out of the town to look at fossilised wave-ripples on a flagstone shore. From a derelict gun emplacement I sketched a distant lighthouse and watched curlews that flew low across the waves.

That's Orkney.

I also rather like the area around Montrose, where my mum has a static caravan. Miles of pristine white beaches, river estuaries, red-earth landscapes. Just walking up the dunes from the caravan you spot eiders and cormorants, guillemots and gulls. In spring and summer terns flap balletically and scree scree their creaking calls as they dive for little silver fish. Come here if you're into birds - the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Montrose Basin visitor centre overlooks the tidal lagoon. One evening they led a dusk walk and a brown hare came leaping and bounding towards our group, closer and closer through stubble field, completely unfazed. We listened to pipistrelle bats on electronic detectors then walked in the dark to the old Bridge of Dun where a tawny owl glided silently away towards a group of barns.

In woodland above the Basin a ruined mill offered its treasures in the stream that bubbled below what must have been a midden. Coloured glass and copper buckles, pitted and greening. Clay marble stoppers to keep the fizz in lemonade and a glass jar with three bears prowling around its sides - one little, one middle, one large. A white doll figurine less than an inch high - to carry in a purse, or hide in a special steam pudding?

Yes, Montrose is the place.

Or... what about the north-east coast, between Aberdeen and Peterhead... The cliffs are what you go here for. Arches and caves and a giant stone-walled cauldron known as 'the pot'. A mile or two north of Cruden Bay are the ominous ruins of Slains Castle. You can see why Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula here. The drop from the tallest tower is the height of the castle then the same again, down near-vertical rockface to crashing waves below. On a spring day I painted here and counted 15 bird species in an hour. Short-eared owls flew to and fro, rising from coarse grasses to quarter over field and cliff. One came directly towards me and hovered above for a few wingbeats before uttering a single shrill shriek and flying back the way it had come. I don't know whether or not I passed its test …

Below the cliffs between Cruden Bay and Peterhead boulder-floored caves resonate with the otherworldly wails of colonies of seals. If any map should still show the words 'here be dragons' it's the Ordnance Survey Explorer 427 of Peterhead & Fraserburgh.

And seabirds nest all around - razorbills and kittiwakes, guillemots and shags, lesser and greater black-backed gulls. Fulmar and of course the iconic -and comic- rainbow-beaked puffin. My best ever views of a peregrine falcon - a lone bird sitting surveying the grasslands. I sketched it over and over before it flew to the cliffs to give me perfect close-up views of its cadmium yellow talons and eye ring, its puffed white chest speckled with dark and that wonderful but terrifying hooked bill.

Shortly after the peregrine I heard far below a splashing blow... A whale! I looked just in time to see a long blue-black shape slide below the water, heading north. Rushing that way I saw its dark mass break the surface several more times, ploughing a straight line through calm water. Finally the curved blades of the tail flipped right up vertically before the whole thing disappeared completely. It must had dived.

But wait, I nearly forgot - Linlithgow, my hometown! Our winter starling roost in the station monkey puzzles, and the springtime displays of great crested grebes on the Loch...

Oh dear.

Is it cheating to say that Scotland is my favourite place?

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Loch Awe to Cruachan Dam, castle & kirk

Another great day out on the West Highland Lines can be had from Loch Awe, 40 minutes by train from Oban or two and a half hours from Glasgow. Travelling south from Oban you go through the Pass of Brander where the rails run beside and above deep black water, hemmed in on both sides by steep scree slopes. It reminds me of the Symplegades clashing cliffs that Jason and his Argonauts adventured through & defeated in their quest fro the golden fleece. Loch Awe station comes soon after the waters of the pass start to widen into the sweep of the loch itself.

I spent half an hour absorbing the scene and sketching Kilchurn Castle from a little disused landing stage down by the water. Beside me was a railway carriage used as self-catering accommodation and in a ragged pine above was a raven. Across the surface of the water honking geese flew in ones and twos, and one solitary cormorant. In tree nearby were chaffinches, goldcrests and house sparrows, and two blue tits that flew in a frenzy then came together to consummate their courtship dance.

As this was my first visit to Loch Awe I headed to the village store to see if I could pick up any tips. I was given a very friendly welcome by the woman behind the counter who suggested a well-managed track that runs into the hills to Cruachan Dam. Total distance - 6km from station to dam. This sounded about right considering that I wanted enough time to stop and get some drawing done. I left the shop and immediately bumped into Jim who was busy working outside his cottage. Jim has taken on the upkeep of the Loch Awe station platforms under ScotRail's Adopt-a-Station scheme. We hadn't met before but were aware of each other through our contacts with ScotRail. We had a brief chat then I set off on my walk.

looking across Loch Awe to Kilchurn Castle, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

looking across Loch Awe, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm


The walk 

Head south-west along the A85 road for a little over a kilometre until you come to St Conan's Kirk on your left. If you've got time -and I suggest you make sure that you do- go in for a look around. Entry is free but there's a donation box and an interesting little leaflet to buy that tells about the building. At first glance you think the church is old but in fact it was completed in 1930, less than a century ago. It's an eccentric amalgamation of Gothic architecture ... mediaeval monastic style ... the little sheltered courtyard of an abbey ... it has gargoyles galore, to rival Notre Dame, and a set of eight dark-wood heraldic seats, details picked out in gold. Look for an owl too, and some intricately carved head studies. The eastern end of the church has a smooth curved wall with full height non-stained-glass windows that offer a beautiful sweeping view across railway and loch. It was difficult to drag myself away from such a fantastical place. 

a rather serious-looking person, St Conan's Kirk

looking down & across Loch Awe

a lichened boulder far above the Pass of Brander

approaching Cruachan dam

Directly after the church, on the right-hand side of the A85 a smaller road starts to lead uphill. This is the way to the Cruachan Dam and once you're on it you can't get lost. It isn't open to public vehicles so it's nice and quiet. As it bends upwards along the edge of the hills it offers some quite stunning views across the valley and the Pass of Brander below.

I was surprised that once I was up on the hillside I saw very little wildlife, only a few crows and hooded crows. At least it meant I got quickly to my destination. Walking fast it wasn't much more than an hour before I found myself confronted by the sight of a huge hydroelectric dam nestling in a great corrie, hugged on three sides by typical highland hills. 

I walked to the far end of the dam and did a quick sketch in pencil of the view across the dark lochan waters before retracing my steps to Loch Awe village. If you had all day you could keep walking beyond the dam and high up into the hills. The summit of Ben Cruachan can be reached from here.

the reservoir lochan at Cruachan Dam, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm      

I got back to the village in time for half an hour chatting with Jim. We shared a beer and talked about the wildlife and history of the area. 

Finally, back at the station waiting for the evening train home I stood on the passenger footbridge and sketched the curved rails and old railway cottages.

Loch Awe railway cottages, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x20.5cm

N.B. In summertime Falls of Cruachan station is open, giving access to the Cruachan visitor centre. Directly downslope of the dam, the station is a request stop between Loch Awe and Taynuilt. I hope to go back to visit the centre with its tunnels under the mountain, and to try the steeper walk directly up the hillside to the dam.