Ardivachar’s mystery mound

Our Understanding and Recording Coastal Archaeology sessions are now finished, but there was an optional assessment which students could submit; and, of course, I treated it as an integral part of participating. A full .pdf is elsewhere on the blog, but here is a short post both advertising that and providing a blog-length summary of the report (in terms of the word count, this is actually on target whereas the assignment turned out to be twice the required length – funny, that!).

My assignment seeks to bring together what we know about the mound situated at Ardivachar Point (Rubha Àird na Mhachrach) and also includes some basic recommendations about the management of the site in terms not only of the course themes but also with a view to a wider assessment of its value as a community and archaeological resource.

The mound

Nothing is known concretely about the mound: indeed, it has only been ‘known’, in an archaeological context, since 2005 when it was added to the record as a result of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey carried out subsequent to the violent and tragic storm of that January.

The mound measures c. 9.1m x c. 3.6m and appears to have a rather definite heart, or diamond, shape in terms of how the grass falls at the edges and which may represent the limits of the displacement of ground when the mound was constructed.

Photo 1: the mound’s heart shape

The mound is located on the headland at Ardivachar and is around 11 metres from the edge of the rock platform facing a small reef a short way offshore. The site is not a physically obvious one to an untrained eye but there are a couple of interesting features around the site which add to its potential interest.

Firstly, there is a line of stones set into the grass some 15m to the north-east which may form part of a boundary wall (or which, alternatively, may be part of a structure which is nothing to do with the site – for example, boundary walls which pre-date the sub-division of the land into crofts).

Secondly, there are a number of grassy tussocks located c. 11m to the north-west, visible in Photo 1, which may indicate setting points for the sun around midsummer or which may act as some other orientation markers for the site (or which, alternatively, may be just tussocks of grass). Assuming that both of these are deliberate and part of the site increases its footprint quite sizably from the pure dimensions of the mound itself.

Thirdly, there is the issue of what the mound was used for or what it represents. Without more detailed archaeological examination, this is almost completely unclear although we can suppose that the thin topsoil does indicate that there is unlikely to be great depth to whatever may exist below the ground. However, there is an interesting story told locally about it which adds quite considerably to the tale that the site tells.

Erosion

Moore and Wilson’s assessment that the mound is not an eroding site – it is still graded yellow on SCAPE’s sites-at-risk register – remains a fair one: there is no evidence that the mound itself is under imminent threat from coastal erosion except in the very long-term. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the site is free from forces of erosion: in particular, there is the issue of excessive amounts of rainfall amidst the rising number of extreme weather events posing an increasing challenge to a site whose features are low in profile.

However, erosion is threatening the additional features mentioned above: the potential boundary wall; and the potential orientation markers. Were either indeed to be part of the story told at the site, their loss is much more imminent and likely to lead to a loss in its archaeological value. These issues are explored in the series of photographs below.

Boundary wall

The following two photographs look at the potential boundary wall which, if true, might have protected the mound and also served the function of setting it apart in some way. Photo 2 shows the length of the visible stones in a line which runs north-east from this angle – about 6.5m in length; Photo 3 shows the scale of erosion (note the fallen stones as well as the slippage of grass). There is, however, no evidence of a similar wall to the west.

Orientation markers

The largest of these is centre-left in Photo 4, with three others stretching beyond it in a small arc extending towards the deeper area of erosion further back in the photo. It may be that it is the wind that has sculpted these markers to look as they do and that there is no actual function. The mound itself is to the centre right of the picture and can be found between the second and the fourth fence posts leading to the right from the strainer. Arrows point, to the left, to the orientation marker; and, upwards right, to the mound.

Photo 3: proximity of markers and mound to eroding coastal edge

In addition to the erosion around the markers, note also the rough drainage run-off and its close proximity to the site. That drainage channel runs broadly north-south and connects with others in the area, suggesting that drainage may have been put in place deliberately to skirt the mound. This, in turn, would indicate a community awareness that there is something of value here which ought not to be damaged.

Towards a meaning

If the grassy tussocks are indeed markers for orientation purposes, the most obvious explanation is that these mark the setting of the sun around midsummer, which unofficial guesstimates suggest is certainly a feasible one.

However, more likely is a story about the mound related to me locally by a crofter who, as a small boy (around seventy years ago), was told that it was a memorial to a woman drowned offshore when looking for shellfish while her husband, posted as lookout on account of riptides, deliberately looked the other way as he had fallen in love with another. He further said that the story had been commemorated in song. The South Uist version of the song A Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Woman) is set in Ardivachar and commemorates the drowning of a woman at sea off the Point while collecting dulse. This appears to be the song being referred to – and, in the Gàidhlig, pretty haunting it is, too. Here, the story departs a little from the tale as related to me in that the woman had been drowned by the actions of a servant girl who had fallen in love with her husband.

Folklore is thus making an interesting contribution here towards interpreting and understanding the site. Perhaps it was folklore that informed, with suitable embellishments, a technicolour warning to a small boy not to go into the sea there; or perhaps folklore, in having the song set at Ardivachar, was borrowing from an existing story inspired either by the mound and/or by a real-life tragedy.

Either way, what looks like the heart shape to the mound provides a thoughtful comment on its inspiration.

Conclusions

It is impossible to be definite about the conclusions since we do not know what the mound is, what it was for or anything about its chronology. This can only be known by some sort of further assessment and the use of low-cost, low-intrusive assessment techniques such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and auguring.

Knowing a little more about the site would spark a consideration of the possibility of a range of well-designed remedial actions which should aim to incorporate the community at the heart of the response.

1. the site needs to be better protected against livestock (the well-observed may have spotted that that is indeed a cowpat in Photo 1!) – though animal grazing is also responsible for keeping the grass low and the shape identifiable.

2. existing drainage systems need to be monitored to ensure that water run-off does not damage the site, or that the ground does not become waterlogged as it is around the area of the rough drainage channel.

3. about the potential orientation markers and boundary wall, they are clearly subject to erosion, chiefly from wind and rain washing out the undersoil on the exposed face, although in stormy weather the sea is also likely to present a direct threat. It would appear that little can be done about either of these other than, in the short-terrm, continued monitoring and recording.

Finally, better publicity of the existence of the mound may bring forward more stories and more accounts as to its origins. Working with Uist Community Archaeology Group would seem to be important first steps. Further research also needs to be done not least to assess the alignment of the site. It is also worth making the point that the loss of a mound which has a strong link to a well-known Gàidhlig folk song would represent real loss and that action, at some level, is both warranted and required.

The Loch of Intermittent Appearance

As Storm Eunice rages across Wales and south and south-west England, people have been checking on us, which is very kind – but, up and out here, we’re absolutely fine: it’s us that should be checking on friends and family in the south. Winds are currently gusting to the high 10s (that’s well below normal!); and, while Sunday doesn’t look too grand for a day out, with winds gusting to the high 50s, that’s not even the highest winds this month – the Range got a gust of 70 on 10 February.

It has been very wet, though. The Range was the wettest place in the UK last Friday (although not particularly excessive) and high, prolonged and quite intense rains continued in the days that followed, leading to the re-emergence for a few days this week of what I’ve dubbed the Loch of Intermittent Appearance. This is a low-lying area of ground adjacent to a drainage channel which has an exit under the road and out to the sea. When that fills, either because the exit has been blocked by seaweed or else because of the simple volume of rain on the land, the area floods. There was no seaweed at the exit when I checked, but this was the photo at the peak on Wednesday (at least, in daylight hours), taken from our decking:

You can see the water running across the road and draining across the grass, bypassing the exit under the road – the sea is just off-left. The road was, as they say, passable with care. And the farm gate doesn’t currently seem to be generally usable – at least, not without the use of your wellies. The drainage channel is between the gate and the fence line running down from the top right – here it is in close up last Sunday morning, taken from just left of the gate in the above picture:

The water has now gone – the land is, normally, quite well-draining – though it does remain a little swampy.

But, inspired also by my archaeology course – for which my assignment was handed in (finally!) yesterday (and will be posted here in due course) – prompted me to check the flood maps. After all, if the road is going to get cut-off, it might be a good idea to get that boat patched up and recommissioned.

Dynamic Coast produces a range of maps on the issue of coastal erosion (and as such has been invaluable during the course). For the whole of the Scottish coast it has produced detailed mapping of the impact of rising sea levels under a high and a low emissions future, demonstrating where the high water line is expected to be under both scenarios at the turn of each new decade up until 2021. We’re fine up here on the headland – we’re surrounded by a rocky platform built from Lewisian gneiss, which is both dense and heavy and less permeable to erosion – but the softer, sandier areas either side of the headland are much more vulnerable. The bad news is that the road is indeed going to get cut-off – even under a low emissions future, in which sea levels off the headland rise by 0.37m by 2100 – though not at the Loch of Intermittent Appearance, but where it comes close to the shore of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay (Cill Amhlaidh). Under a high emissions future, with sea levels rising by 1.03m by 210, not only the road is under threat but the seafront properties of our neighbours across the bay are also gone:

Loch of Intermittent Appearance marked on the high emissions map in black, with the drainage channel just to the left.

Some of the impact of this on people’s lives, homes and livelihoods might be addressed by some sort of remedial action, though of course the better thing to do is to address rising emissions properly and cohesively not only to ensure but to deliver a low emissions future.

However, climate change isn’t just manifesting itself in rising sea levels but also in higher amounts of rainfall and in more extreme weather events. The Historic Environment Scotland Action Plan for 2020-2025 speaks, in somewhat coded fashion, of:

Total rainfall recorded on extremely wet days has increased by c.17% in 2008–17 in comparison to 1961–90. In the west of Scotland, this figure is 36%. (p. 15)

There’s a bit to unpack there, so I went on to the website of the learned folks at the Royal Meteorological Society to dig out their State of the UK Climate 2020 document for a bit of backup. There’s a lot of data in there and quite a lot of it technical in one way or another – but it does have data on rainfall going back to 1862 and for each of the nations of the UK. 2020 was a poor year – especially for our cousins up on North Uist (see Figure 22; p. 21) – but of course it is not one isolated year which is the issue but the overall trend. Looking at the rainfall in each year expressed as a percentage of the 1981-2010 average clearly shows a rising trend. Scotland is the wettest place in the UK (natch) and where the amount of rainfall is rising quickest – 2011-2020 was 11% higher than the 1961-1990 average – but each of the nations are getting wetter:

Figure 25, State of the UK Climate 2020 (p. 26 of the .pdf version)

Furthermore, six of the ten wettest years in the UK series from 1862 have occurred since 1998 (2000, 2020, 2012, 1998, 2008 and 2014, with particular implications for winters with 2014, 2016 and 2020 all in the top five wettest winters (p. 26). Amidst the rain, winter storms and extreme events attracting red alert warnings – like Storm Eunice – are likely to become a lot more frequent.

Archaeology is concerned about rainfall (hence HES’s Action Plan): access paths, sites and buildings are all adversely affected when exposed to all that water and many properties will need specific action to preserve what we know and love. Let alone what we don’t yet know we love.

If all this rainfall keeps up, it looks as though the Loch of Intermittent Appearance will be making more appearances than usual. And might thus need to be renamed. With rising sea levels going on at the same time, that’s quite a pincer action on Ardivachar, and with major infrastructural repercussions, too. It’s not only the archaeological environment but a question of the state of what we’re also handing down to our successors as reminders and nudges about the way we lived our lives. And if we keep going on the way we are, there’ll not be a lot of keepsakes worthy of the name.

In the meantime, stay safe down there.

Corncrakes ahoy

One of the rites of spring is the arrival home of corncrakes, a migratory bird which, despite not looking as though it has the strength to fly from one side of the road to the other, and which seems to prefer running around to flying, actually spends its winters 2,500 miles away on African savannahs.

They’ve been back on the islands for a while, but none had made it out as far west as here until last week when I managed to photograph one seeking a bit of cover among the daffodils – mostly the remains, although some were still not out last Friday. I say ‘back’, but the migration takes a huge toll with only one in five thought to complete the return journey so the ones now here are more than likely to be the offspring of last year’s broods, obeying the mystical call of nature to return ‘home’. I tweeted this out at the time, remarking that a period of ten minutes from first hearing him to seeing him is some sort of record, but, for those who didn’t see it, here he is:

I say ‘he’ though it’s a bit hard to tell. Only the males make the tell-tale rasping noise – like a couple of sharp twists of a nylon pepper grinder which gives the bird its Latin name (‘crex crex’) – although females in captivity have been reported to make a similar sound. The female is, it seems, a bit less grey than the male although when you tend only to see one bird at a time – and that’s if you’re lucky, as they are notoriously secretive – that’s quite a tough call to make.

With the winter being long, and quite harsh, the nettle beds and the marsh iris which give appropriate amounts of cover to a bird that much prefers to skulk around than to show off publicly are very late, although an amount of sunshine and rain in the past week, as May’s daylight hours begin to stretch out noticeably, has improved the picture somewhat. Faced with little cover, the birds have had little chance to do much else than disport themselves in a most uncorncrake-like manner and it was amusing to watch two chase each other around the garden, from daffodil clump to daffodil clump, soon after arriving – whether two males indulging in a bit of territorial debate or an elaborate courtship ritual I can’t say. A neighbour has a wonderful picture of one actually sat on a window ledge looking in, with all the appearance of a bird more than ready to audition for a remake of Chicken Run.

Late this morning, however, I did catch two making their way furtively along the fence line and, by the time I managed to grab the camera, they’d made it to the corner of our stone byre, heading for a gap underneath the fence. The pictures aren’t great – they’re taken through a window, for a start, but they do look like a pair to me either heading off to an assignation or, perhaps, otherwise to a nest site. If the male is ‘a bit more grey’, and indeed a bit larger, then that looks like the male to the left (see pic 1) the browner (and better exposed), and slightly smaller female leading the way (see pic 2). The relatively unhurried, even stately, progress tells me that it’s not two males not quite yet sure about the rules of territorial defence.

To see one is rare but two together is highly unusual – so, not for the first time, I count myself to be very lucky about where I live. That spring 2021, with lockdowns only now starting to be lifted, is – as a result of the absence of cover which nature is now very quickly correcting – among the better ones to be able to see corncrakes is a great shame for the tourists who aren’t (yet) here.

Fogbow at low tide

I proudly tweeted yesterday a picture of a fogbow and people were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d re-post it here for the non-Twitterers who read my stuff.

Here it is, taken at ten to three and just less than half an hour ahead of low tide. I’ve condensed the picture slightly by removing some unnecessary foreground scrubland and compensated by removing some area above the fogbow – with the effect of emphasising it better (and also using the fence better as a pointer). Otherwise, no other editing!

This was the culmination of several days of foggy, misty weather held tight us over locally by the relative lack of wind – today the wind is a little stronger and has shifted everything out. Or, rather, up – it remains overcast, with occasional warm glimpses of shadow.

A fogbow is formed like a rainbow, with the sun interacting with water droplets in the air which, in fog, are much smaller than when falling as rain. This small size means that, when sunlight is defracted, the colours are leached out leaving only a reddish tinge to the outer edge of the ‘bow and a bluish tinge to the inner one. The Met Office website inevitably explains it a lot better than me.

Rainbows we see a lot out here, but fogbows are a little rarer – this was actually the first I’m conscious of seeing in the wild. When they do appear, there is quite a bit of interest in them – the Western Isles Weather website has a collection of brilliant photos. Note in particular the one by Mike at An Solas Oir, which is more or less the same one as mine but from the other side, looking towards the sun whereas the sun is directly behind me in this photo.

As with the Aurora, even cheap cameras like mine can improve the image significantly compared to what the human eye sees. In real life, this wasn’t as obvious as in the photo: my eye was caught by something at first glance and it was only when looking harder (and slightly away) did the shape come together out of the fog and take on a bit of solidity. A few minutes later and the sun had dispelled some of the fog, creating stronger sunlight, a hint of blue sky above and, thus, the opportunity for a photo. Even then, it was impossible to see an image on the camera’s LCD screen – it was somewhat ‘point and hope’, lining up just enough of the headland on the left to ensure some sort of ‘fit’. And – fingers crossed!

Elsewhere, there are signs of spring and of hope, not least with the timetable to Scotland, and these islands, emerging from lockdown becoming a little clearer; and, with no new cases anywhere now for ten days, and the vaccination programme extended now to those aged 40+ likely taking us, on the basis of average age, to a figure of over half the population having at least one jab, a collective sigh of relief, a release of long-held breath, is beginning to become evident. Nature, ever good at supplying symbols – or perhaps it’s just us who are ever good at re-interpreting them – supplied us with the first open daffodil today; the rest remain a breath of spring – but they’re coming. Prospective gale force winds or not.

Spring at low tide

Here we are already – the last day of February. It’s been a fairly tough month with consistent high winds, including a couple of storms that have seen winds of 80+mph here on the Range, with an impact including the destruction of the roof of a neighbour’s polytunnel (pic may be to follow) as well as large amounts of rainfall that have left the ground saturated and animals struggling – though the regular deliveries of hay to the neighbour’s sheep seem to have provided ample compensation for grass that is still brown and lacking in nutrition.

It can’t have been pleasant to be out in, though – and hats off to all the crofters in Iochdar that are out in all weathers, checking on and feeding animals. I don’t have animals (even if we do seem currently to be minding a couple of woolly escapees from a neighbour) so, with lockdown on top, I’ve anyway been staying in – although the lack of posts this month perhaps points to a volume of work (and I have indeed also been busy).

Yesterday and today, though, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the first day of spring, with a warmth to the sun, the sky a healthy tint of blue and the wind dropping below 15mph. Yesterday lunchtime was a low tide – not quite at its lowest but pretty much so ahead of what will be spring tides tomorrow and Tuesday, and it gave us a good chance to get out and blow a few of winter’s cobwebs away. Here’s a selection of snaps taken just about half an hour to an hour after low tide and when we could walk out a long way before hitting the water, where the soft sands of Mol Mòr give way to a more clay-like texture and to limpet-covered rocks that probably don’t get their share of Vitamin D.

Paired-up Herring Gulls (still on the lookout, just in case)

Sanderling in flight

Hollows in the sand, sculpted by the waves

A natural reflecting pool

Surf crashing on the rocks off Rubha Hornais

And back home where Spring is, well, springing

Plenty of time for more bad weather yet – no chickens being counted here and, if it’s true that March comes in like a lamb but out like a lion, there’ll be plenty more to keep the crofters occupied and their minds on their animals.

Western Isles back in full lockdown

As of first thing yesterday morning, the whole of the Western Isles has been placed in Tier 4 – full lockdown – as a result of the rising number of cases not only on Barra and Vatersay, in the south, placed earlier into Tier 4, but further, isolated clusters arising in Stornoway centred on the hospital, in Benbecula and in South Uist.

All very necessary, of course, but it does mean the furthest I’m likely to be travelling for the next few months is the 5 miles to the Co-Op. And back. Travel will return, eventually, as a result of restrictions being eased in time but, for now, the longer lockdown goes on, the less likely I am to want to go anywhere at all. This is an interesting echo of the time before the military came here, when minor roads were tracks, before the causeways, before electricity and other utilities, when travel was much more difficult and, as a result, much less possible. Partly, this is in turn a reflection of the substantial distances involved: forget the number of people for a moment, the distances across the island chain are simply vast: to get from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, to Stornoway, the ‘capital’ up on Lewis, is – literally – a day-long journey: a road trip of 139 miles taking, according to a popular online distance service, no less than 5 hours and 57 minutes. And that’s provided you can time your trip with the two ferries you need to catch: more realistically, setting off just after breakfast on Monday (at 9.45 am), you would get to Stornoway at lunchtime. On Tuesday. And neither is it possible to fly from either end to the other, unless you take a substantial detour down to Glasgow.

It’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent about the extent to which a single Council area can effectively ensure the democratic representation of people on the southern Isles. Anecdotally, there is also evidence of a complete lack of information ‘up there’ about the institutions and services being provided to people ‘down here’; something which Covid-19 has done much to entrench in justification for councils’ desire to save money amidst reports pointing out the evident pressures. A single council covering such a distance, not least in these times, is evidently likely to suffer not only from issues of connectivity but also of understanding and awareness.

Issues such as these, marked and highlighted by Covid-19, are likely to continue long after the virus.

In the meantime, here at the end of January, the only journey I’m likely to be following is that of the sun as it ‘travels’ back across the sky – one of the points of inspiration for the timing of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival, the bill for which was still posted this week in Lerwick’s Market Place, commemorating this year’s (long-cancelled) festival.

With this in mind, here’s yesterday’s post-sunset view (taken out of the office window at 5.15), with the setting sun having ‘travelled’ across the road to set behind the lowest of the farm outbuildings on the extreme left:

And, in contrast, here’s the picture on 21 December, with the sun’s trajectory causing it to disappear to the left of the roof of our neighbour’s house, the view above extending just off the right hand side of the image below:

While we can’t journey ourselves, such obvious signs of progress, and the promise of warmth and positivity and better times to come, with the sun now between one-fifth and one-quarter of its way back from the depths of mid-winter, are a very welcome natural sign that these days too shall end.

A wee bimble* up Beinn Mhor

* Not really. For a fuller explanation, see also the opening chapter of Simon Ingram’s Between the Sunset and the Sea.

Beinn Mhor (= ‘Big Mountain’) is the highest of the three major peaks on South Uist (and correctly called Gèideabhal) – it’s on the right-hand side of this picture I took looking south-east across the machair almost exactly a year ago last August:

South Uist Hills 2

While generally enjoying a bit of hill-walking, the stars are rarely aligned sufficiently to do very much of it; and so, when such an opportunity presented itself last Sunday ahead of a week-long trip down to Perth (where the schedule has been a little hectic), we jumped at the chance. Now, Walk Highlands describes the walk linking all three peaks as a ‘rough, tough but magnificent hillwalk… Beinn Mhor has a spectacular summit ridge…’; while Mike Townsend’s Walking on Uist and Barra describes the ascent of Beinn Mhor itself as requiring ‘the calorific output of many Munros’ (he has also described the journey from left to right, via the south-western slopes of Beinn Mhor, i.e. to Taobh a Tuath Loch Aineort, as ‘not one to replicate in reverse‘ although I think he was thinking more of ensuring that transport was available there rather than having to repeat the journey to the starting point.)

The route that most people take up Beinn Mhor is via Sniseabhal starting from the A865 main road, which essentially follows the broad shoulder seen below the summit in my first photo and then on up the ridge to the top. The view from Loch Aineort, which is the other side, shows it as a sizable wall of some impressive bulk (Loch nam Faoileann – Loch of the Seagulls – in the foreground):

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Note the three landslips on the centre right, to the right of the main summit and the amount of scree and loose rock below the outcrops of the summit ridge. (Pic reproduced by kind permission!)

Beinn Mhor is only 620m above sea level (2,034′ in old money) – a bimble, in ordinary terms – but, secondly only in the Outer Hebrides in height to An Cliseam (799m) and dwarfing Eabhal on North Uist (347m) – which dominates the header pic at the top of this page – this is clearly not a walk to take lightly. Thus advised, we set off, assured by some decent equipment, including map and compass, proper provisions and warm clothing, as well as by a mutual pact of quitting without question should one of us no longer fancy it. Following a short section through a lovely, largely natural woodland out on to the open moor, our route, broadly, was to follow the obvious burn dominating the lower slopes (Allt Bholagair) and then strike a traverse right across the rocky section, hoping to find a grass path, towards the large outcrop on the centre left.

The lower sections are, even after warm, dry-ish weather, slightly marshy in places and, despite a few squishy bits, largely safe to cross. The absence of any sort of path, exacerbated by the lack of (m)any walkers over the five months of lockdown, made it difficult to pick a route and our initial approach to the lower slopes, characterised by knee-deep, tussocky grass, largely ungrazed by sheep, (dryish) peat bog and detours around streams and negotiating deer fences, was long and slow, and which actually meant we didn’t get close to the burn until much higher up. Hearing the call of eagles even in the woodland, no fewer than three appeared, circling above us as we took short breaks (and clearly eying up potential carrion).

But the really difficult bit was the final traverse – rocky, and so precipitously steep that hands and feet were both required to make any progress. While looking to exploit what we hoped were grassy paths, it quickly became clear that going up a grass slope is more difficult than a rocky incline, so we tended to rest on the grass sections, on our backs, rucksacks wedged into rock holds, trying not to contemplate either the drop visible below our feet, given the angle, or that we didn’t know what the top actually had in store for us, before crossing over to the rocky section for the next bit. Not for the faint-hearted, this was a climb – not a hillwalk – in which the higher we went, actually the more impossible it became to keep our promise to call it off if necessary, not because we were nearing the summit but because getting back down again the same way was even more potentially tricky than getting further up.

Eventually, more exhausted and relieved than exhilarated, we reached a grassy plateau just below the main summit, where the main views are pretty spectacular:

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Looking north and a bit west to Beinn Corradail (right of centre) and Thacla (left of centre)

IMG_5807 (2)South over Loch Aineort to Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (though a bit murky) and then down to Barra

Our route down again was intended to take us south along that summit ridge (which apparently presents ‘no difficulties’ according to Walk Highlands) before turning west back to the starting point but, to be honest, we were a little tired and, despite the fine, sunny weather, didn’t really like the look of it, especially the sharp drop to the east (to the left of the ridge):

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Perhaps it would have been different had we not had such a tough scramble over difficult terrain to get up this far. So, proper ‘top’ omitted, we still had the challenge of getting off the mountain safely, which we achieved by heading north-west towards the Sniseabhal route and then walking in a long arc curving south again to omit the worst of the top part of the climb before determinedly following Allt Bholagair’s delightful course (including waterfalls) as far as we could back to base. From a more comfortable vantage point for photographs, here’s the view north over Loch Bi and the machair up to Ardivachar:

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And south to the fish farm (‘caught in the cold waters around Scotland’) – noting the angle of the hill in the foreground, the angle reflecting the one we climbed:

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Ahead of us lay the remaining lengthy yomp downwards over peat bog, uneven ground where a twisted ankle in hollows made invisible by the long grass was a frequent threat (though not as much of a menace as the midges out celebrating a calm evening and, worse, ravenously hungry flies which, evidently, hadn’t had a thing to eat for weeks), before arriving back to the woodland and to the calmness of Loch Aineort (better view of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich in the background):

IMG_5860 (2)Overall, a grand day out – but a long and tiring one (from parking the car at 11.45 until returning to it at 8.15 – much longer than the 5-6 hours expected: it took us five hours to get up!) and one in which disaster could have happened at several points. No phone signal was one thing (though people knew where we were), but the other was that we saw absolutely no-one, and no signs of anyone, all day: eagles, sheep and – I think – a young dotterel were the only living things of note (no deer! no rabbits!).

From the perspective of these enthusiastic, but cautious, amateurs, general advice would be to stick to the Sniseabhal route – less direct it might be, but somewhat less challenging in terms of the final approach to the summit. Do go and visit the woodland, though – it’s ace and offers stunning views over the sea entrance to Loch Aineort from the woodland paths up the lower slopes of Beinn Bheag Dheas.

Just add time

This is probably the last of this sort of post for a while, not because I’m stopping brewing – far from it – but, well, there’s probably more interest in the taste of the beer than in the actual brewdays; and, shortly, I’ll be able to brew much bigger batches of beer (up to 30 litres at a time, rather than the 4.5 litres I’m currently used to) so the brewing posts will anyway be less frequent, and more selective as regards what I’m brewing, while I work my way through each batch that I make. But it’s still quite magical to turn such few, standard, even humdrum ingredients into something that tastes wonderful, and using just a few pots and pans, too.

For those interested in what my beer tastes like, I’ve added a separate page via the links on the left giving some tasting notes (or, otherwise, via this link).

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So, this one was supposed to be the first one of me making small quantities of my own beer, rather than from pre-supplied specific kits, mixing up a bit of this and a bit of that as regards the malt with some of these hops and fermenting it with a drop of that yeast. Beers that will have their own names, and labels, and legends…

Intending to brew a few darker beers, I ordered from my usual supplier some speciality grains (amber malt and chocolate malt; and some crystal malt – all in roughly equal quantities), as well as some flaked oats, on top of a base load of pale malt (the lot totalling about 9kg); but, unfortunately, I ordered through a a ‘recipe builder’ under which my supplier simply assumed that I was making one large batch of beer and mixed all the grains together in one bag. My problem, of course – not theirs; I just didn’t understand how the thing worked. I can work with this mix, alright – but it will make some very dark beers and my idea of drawing on appropriate quantities of different barleys to make a stout, a porter and an oatmeal stout, for comparative purposes, is now out of the window: they will all be oatmeal ‘dark beers’ of one description or another, and no further customisation will be possible, not as regards the grain bill, anyway.

As you can see, I have some hops both from the UK (Target and Challenger) and from the US (Columbus and Mosaic) – some 50g of each; and a few different packets of dried yeast, both new and also with some left over from previous brews, carefully stored in the fridge. And I can attempt other customisations, with the following top of the list. I have enough malt to make probably five 4.5 litre batches, depending on how strong I brew:

1. a basic ‘black beer’, probably with an advanced hop profile, so in line with a black IPA

2. a raspberry oatmeal stout, with the raspberries added as an aroma steep after the boil

3. a porter-style beer with the addition of some chocolate and some coffee, along the lines of Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, which is one of my favourite beers (Target hops should add the liquorice notes, too)

4. a vanilla and bourbon stout, with the late addition to the fermenter of some vanilla pods steeped in bourbon

5. a low-alcohol stout (2% ABV or lower) – something I’ve been researching for some time. Should be possible to lower the amount of malt, while still retaining flavour with the darker malts and judicious use of hops both in the flavour and the aroma.

But – these are just some early ideas: do point me the way of something else you think I should be crafting in this sort of style via the comments!

That 30 litre capacity, by the way, will be via one of these Danish-origin shiny all-in-one systems, selected after some fairly exhaustive research and not least on the back of this Pub Sheds Review. This is now working its way to me – at least, once the supplier gets some more in stock; Covid-19 lockdown having wiped most such systems from the marketplace as a result of the increase of interest in home brewing. You don’t need one of these things to brew beer, essentially – but it does make brewing slightly larger quantities much easier in terms of the handling of the grains and the boil.

But, until that comes, I’ve got a few stovetop brews still left – and probably starting this weekend, after another busy week of editing coming up. Furthermore, I’ll probably still continue to do things that way when I want to try out something new (rather than risk being left with a full quantity of beer that, for one reason or another, doesn’t really work). Just now need to pick some of the beers that I’ve enjoyed the most, and start to dream of a production line in full swing…

Brewday: Hefeweizen

‘Finally!’ say my German readers as I got around over the weekend to brewing the hefeweizen I’ve had in my cupboard (and my plans) for the last two months.

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Hefeweizen is a cloudy beer originating in Bavaria brewed with a fair proportion of wheat (up to fifty per cent) –  although I don’t know the exact proportion between wheat and barley here as I’m using a pre-prepared kit – and with a type of yeast that tends to remain in suspension when it’s done its job rather than fall to the bottom of the fermenter. This gives the beer, once bottled, a fair amount of yeast sediment, as well as a style and ritual of its own when being poured. Legally, apparently, a weizen has to be brewed with a top-fermenting yeast, making it clearly an ale rather than a lager. It’s a light (‘white’) beer which, sat in my fermenter, has a light caramel colour reminiscent of the banana flavours which the yeast will impart – being less keen on these, I’ve under-pitched my yeast since the-bible-according-to-James tells me that this will give me a clove-heavy beer, in terms of aroma, while nevertheless leaving ‘some banana at the back end’. As you can see from the size of the hops sachet – again endearingly packaged in a white pick’n’mix paper bag before being vacuum sealed – there’s not a lot of hop flavour on offer and, for the style, that’s exactly how it ought to be.

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Hefeweizen in the fermenter two days after brewing, with the extent of the krausen much in evidence (especially yesterday evening when the beer got a little warm), although now subsided following intervention. Note my particularly high-tech stopper solution. It’s now back under the office desk and underneath a towel for good measure, alongside my ‘session’ pale ale (which may after all turn out to be a bit less sessionable), which is due for bottling this weekend.

This is the third and final recipe in this current batch from Edinburgh’s Brewstore, and following a bit of e-mail to and fro in relation to the previous kit beer I brewed from there, I’ve learned to treat their recipes as a starting point, as the basis from which to brew, rather than setting out measurements which are particularly precise. (In short: they stand by the hops in their recipe – which gives me an interesting decision to make about dry hopping my pale ale, which stage is due today or tomorrow – while I know that it’s wrong.) But then, a lot of brewing is like that – if you get five brewers in a room you’ll get at least six different ways of brewing the same beer – and part of the enjoyment is the research and the consultation with others who’ve been there before. And, it also matters quite a lot how good is your process and set-up. Furthermore, it absolutely won’t stop me ordering from there again: what matters to the quality of a beer is, apart from your own process management and decision-making skills, fresh ingredients and I’ve been impressed with the quality of the malt and the hops on offer; and the staff also include a fair proportion of brewers too.

So, the beer shelf in the store cupboard is now bare (though there’s a mini collection of opened packets of dried yeast sealed up and happily chilling in the fridge). Next step from here is the capacity to brew larger amounts of beer than 4.5L in one go and, given the practical difficulty of boiling more than about 10L of liquid on a stovetop, that means a bit of investment in a system of one type or other. Final research is still being done on that, while Covid-19 is evidently causing a few complications to manufacture and delivery there, too. So, watch this space.

In the meantime, all my beers up to now have been straightforward ones. They’ve placed different technical and processual demands at different points, but there have as yet been no customisations. So, while I’m finishing off my research and waiting for delivery, I’m quite tempted to grab a load of dark malts to brew a few short-run (4.5L) stout/porter specials and (fans of the Reinheitsgebot look away now) use some fruit, chocolate, coffee, etc. to extend my skills there, too. Food for thought, anyway.

Brewing up a storm…

I chose yesterday as a brew day (though actually, on looking at the calendar, as well as at the weather forecast, I ought to have used a rare day off work to have been bottling my Belgian blonde, instead).

This was the second of my three 4.5 litre kits from Edinburgh’s Brewstore – the third may follow next week (oh, the joys of having two fermenting vehicles!) – and which bills itself as a ‘session pale ale’: a beer which, with the ABV being a tad lower, you can drink by the bucketload. This one’s in the American style and so packed with ‘zesty, floral American hops’ – almost certainly Amarillo and, I think, also Chinook (there’s two varieties in the pack).

As before, the packaging is admirably no-frill (especially around the milled barley), although this also extended this time around to the recipe instructions, whose glorious incorrectness required a fair bit of on-the-spot thinking as well as reference to the bible according to James Morton in order to magic these base ingredients into something wonderful.

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Specifically, the recipe called for a pre-boil volume of 8 litres, whereas 7 was expected; and with a hop addition schedule which identified usage of about one-third of the quantity supplied and which looked, to my semi-experienced eye, seriously underweight for a beer of the style. Now, it’s not unusual to get a degree of over-supply – but usually with the yeast (a 10g packet is about twice the volume required, providing (among other things) that you’ve kept it properly and you’ve not put off your brewday too far beyond the delivery). Over-supply of hops is a different matter though – and, indeed, I will be using them all, simply scaling up the amount specified in the recipe (both in the boil and, ten days or so down the line, for dry hopping) to the quantities actually supplied.

Expecting to get 4.5 litres into my fermenter, I was, some 45 minutes into a 60 minute boil, faced still with c.7 litres of wort in my boil pot and a further 2.5 litres wasn’t going to boil off any time soon, so I decided to extend the boil for a further 30 minutes. A 90-minute boil isn’t a bad idea with paler malts, not least since it facilitates greater caramelisation and therefore produces a maltier flavour – but it does concentrate the wort a little more: at the end, I still had 5L to squeeze into the fermenter, and that’s even after allowing for the extraction of a testing sample whose gravity was, as a result of the concentration arising from the extended boil time, way over target. So much for this turning out to be a ‘session’ beer, then: provided the yeast is allowed to do its job as expected, this is likely to pack a punch more higher than the expected 4.3%.

The background to my decision to extend the boil time was growing thunder and lightning arriving, as expected, but a little earlier than scheduled and with voltage dips already briefly dimming the lights on several occasions. Thunderstorms are not so usual here on the islands although power cuts are; and putting 2 and 2 together made the decision a somewhat fraught one. Indeed, no more than five minutes later, a brighter flash outside was accompanied by lights going off inside – although, as it turned out, the power was only off for a minute or so. If it had been for longer, I was faced with the difficult decision of tipping a lot of wort down the sink, eventually proceeding to feed the nettles.

As it turns out, the power going off almost exactly coincided with the time this picture was taken, from just north of the Creagorry Co-op, on Benbecula, the South Uist hills a faint outline and only a few miles from our house/brewery:

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Photo credit: @RossMcClenaghan

It was indeed quite a storm which lingered until bedtime but whose crescendo was very much earlier in the day, as Western Isles Weather also faithfully reported, and coincident with my brewing. Full credit to all the workers at SSE who kept us going through the strength of all that.

But, no harm done – and, indeed, from tasting the wort in my sample jar, I have again high hopes for this one: very bitter but already (ahead of dry hopping) with a powerful, piney-yet-zesty hop aroma and citrusy flavour. Just need the yeast to do its work now: and, as I type, there’s a steady rhythmic thud from the airlock, which is a good sign that it’s happily munching its way through the sugars, turning my wort into beer.

And, after those little successes in working over somewhat-faulty instructions, time to think afresh about a little investment in some bigger kit (and more beer) 🙂