Sunday, 20 March 2011

Forvie Nature Reserve & The Ythan Estuary

Wednesday 16th March

Well for the first time since starting to work part time we never walked on Friday, (11th March). In fact we were down in Ayrshire visiting Mum and Dad with the intention of walking at sometime over the weekend. However dreadful weather put paid to that plan and in the end we couldn't quite work up the enthusiasm to dig out the wet weather gear. On the up side though I had booked a couple of days holiday for this week, (difficult to believe that I still get holidays when I've got a long weekend every week, but there you go), so today looked like a good option. We decided on Forvie because we had also agreed to walk the dogs so it was on the right side of the City and it's a fantastic coastal walk.

What can I say about Forvie and the Ythan Estuary? It's an important conservation area and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, (SSSI). It's an important area for wildlife, (eider ducks, terns and a whole raft of waders), as well as various rare types of flora and fauna, none of which I could list let alone pick out if I saw it. However if you want to know more than try here where Scottish Natural Heritage cheerfully lists everything you might come across as well as a whole load of things you'd probably struggle to find without professional help!

We set out from the visitor centre just outside Collieston at about 11 o'clock and followed the well maintained, if very wet, path towards the sea. After a short distance the path passes close to Sand Loch with a row of old fishermen's cottages on the far side.

Sand Loch & Fishermen's Cottages

The path makes its way around the loch to pick up the main coastal path from Collieston south to Newburgh and it's this path we followed along the clifftops with the sea on our left and the dunes on our right. The Nature Reserve was opened in 1959 and is the fifth largest dune system in Britain. The problem with dune systems though is that they are just that, large almost featureless lumps of sand covered in grass and dotted about with the occasional stunted tree. Now don't get me wrong I much prefer them exactly as they are than see them turned into a golf course by some egotistical American billionaire, but that doesn't get away from the fact that they are, after a while, fairly boring to look at and not terribly photogenic!

Forvie Sand Dunes

Fortunately there are other things to look at, not least the fantastic seascapes and bays that come into view as the path meanders south. It was pretty windy by this time and the path was at time reduced to a muddy and very wet track, so although the walking wasn't difficult, it could be uncomfortable. The dogs, of course, found the whole thing a great adventure and ranged all over the dunes and cliffs getting interested in things only dogs understand!

Coastal View - one of many

Running - no reason necessary!

About halfway between the visitor centre and the Ythan is the beautiful Hackley Bay. Although we had passed a few inlets and even a couple of small sandy areas nothing quite prepares you for sight of the lovely crescent of sand and rolling waves of the bay. It helps of course that the path is high up at this point so you get a great perspective of the whole area.

Hackley Bay, (looking south)

Hackley Bay, (looking north)

The path down to the bay is on the south side, (there is a path on the north side, but it looked decidedly dangerous so we decided that the well maintained path, complete with stone steps, was the sensible option). Here the dogs decided that it was a nice day for a swim while we drank coffee and ate chocolate. Personally I think we made the better choice!

Wet dog - Freddie

After the pick me up of caffeine and chocolate, we continued south until we reached the ruins of Forvie Kirk set amongst the creeping dunes. The Kirk was built in the 12th Century on the site of a chapel believed to date back to AD704. The area is now set out with a network of paths and information boards detailing the history of the place, including the ancient curse of three daughters set adrift by their father, the Laird of Forvie:

Yf evyr madenis malysone
Dyd licht upon drye land
Let nocht be funde in Furvy's gleby's
bot thystl, bent and sand

The village was buried by the sand sometime in the Middle Ages and when it was excavated in 1951 the foundations of 19 circular huts 2000 years old were found under the sand. The legend has it of course that the village was lost to the sand because of the maiden's curse, but we don't believe in that stuff anymore - do we?

The remains of Forvie Kirk

From the lost village we headed inland for a while along an incredibly wet track until we came down onto the banks of the Ythan Estuary just opposite Newburgh. What to say about this area? Well at the very least, when the tide is out, it's a river with great wide mudflats, but it's so much more than that. Every time we drive past it on the way to and from the boys' cottage it looks different depending on the time of day or where the tide is or if it's during the day, or if it's evening. A stunning place that hopefully will be left alone to stay that way.

The Ythan Estuary

We followed the banks of the estuary until the path cuts inland again to chop off the end of the peninsula. Although it's possible to go right out to the point at this time of year, it's cordoned off during the tern breeding season in an effort to protect the ternery. There a four species of tern that breed here although the most numerous is the Sandwich Tern - upwards of 1500 pairs - as well as a colony of 50 pairs of Little Tern, one of Britain's rarest breeding seabirds. At this time of year however we didn't see any breeding seabirds but we did see some seals basking in the sun!

Seals on the beach

The path from here wanders through some huge, bare sand dunes eventually leading out onto the beach at what looks like a weather vane in the shape of a flying bird, (I'd guess Oyster Catcher or some other small wader). Once on the beach we turned left and started on the way back towards the lost village, way back along the beach at a place called Rockend.

Bird Weather Vane

Looking north to Rockend

At Rockend, (marked this time with a weather vane of a fish, probably a salmon), we turned back up towards the lost village past the ruin of a building that was probably something to do with the salmon fishing that that went on here until recent years. From the village it was a case of retracing our steps back along the cliffs, Hackley Bay and Sand Loch to the Visitor Centre. I think even the dogs were getting tired by the time we arrived back at the car just before 4 o'clock.

Again I'd like to thank Robert Smith whose book 25 Walks in and Around Aberdeen was invaluable for some of the historical and other detail I've used in this post.


Saturday, 5 March 2011

Cairn Lick via Loch Lee

Friday 4th March

I was on my own again today and had no particular destination in mind when I set off. After last week's climb up Millstone Hill and Bennachie I fancied another, similar climb so decided on Cairn Lick. The weather was pleasant but overcast when I set off and the forecast was promising some blue skies later in the day. The walk starts at the Glen Esk carpark at the end of a minor road from Edzell. We had of course been here a couple of weeks ago when we walked into Queens Well but this time I'd be walking the length of Loch Lee and beyond. I set off from the car just after 9 o'clock and, as promised, there was a hint of blue sky and it was pleasantly mild, (6.5 degrees according to the car). As ever in the early morning, Loch Lee is very photogenic and, with the low sun shining down the length of the flat calm loch, the reflections were to die for.

Reflections on the loch

This is the right way up - honest!!

The walk along the loch was very nice, if uneventful, with a slight breeze in my face and more blue sky appearing all the time. Normally when we walk at the weekend we only rarely see estate workers but I've noticed over these last few weeks that there is a tendency to come across more people working. It makes you wonder of course what it would be like to be outside working on the estate. On a morning like this it would be great I guess but what about a couple of weeks ago when it was cold and wet and windy? Maybe where you work isn't the problem, maybe it's having to work at all that's the problem!

At the head of the loch I got the first look at the goal for the day, or at least one of the goals.

Craig Maskeldie, (Hunt Hill behind).

As I walked along the length of the loch I had been debating with myself as to what I should aim for today. I had pretty much decided to head up past the Falls of Unich to the Falls of Damff and then on to Cairn Lick, but there was always the possibility of going up Hunt Hill, (705m and Graham number 94 of 224), and Craig Maskeldie as well. In the end I decided against Hunt Hill so that I could do it with Mo and thereby tick it off at the same time, so I crossed the bridge over the Water of Lee and headed towards the Falls of Unich and the first uphill section of the day.

Bridge across the Water of Lee

Towards the Falls of Unich

The climb up past the falls is quite sharp and through high heather. The path, especially at this time of year I guess, is overgrown and difficult to follow but after only a short time you break out into a sort of hanging valley with the cliffs of Hunt Hill on your right and those of Craig Maskeldie on your left. The path flattens out and becomes more distinct for a while as it meanders towards the head of the valley.

Hanging valley

The respite of flat walking in the valley is only temporary and I was soon climbing again. Although the path was now more distinct it was becoming increasingly wet and muddy. It was good to be climbing up out of the shadow towards the now blue sky but, right at the top of the climb, I was stopped in my tracks by a wide patch of snow that lay across the path. I was forced to retrace my steps down the hill for a bit then walk up the small watercourse that made its way around the snow, so it was with wet, muddy boots that I cleared the head of the valley and out onto the high moors.

Last look down the valley

From here it was an easy, but very muddy, walk high above the river until I reached the Falls of Damff. It's quite tricky making your way down to a position where you can get a look, but well worth the trouble. Unfortunately there's no obvious spot to take a photograph that shows the full height of the falls and although this one gives you an idea of the amount of water coming over the top it doesn't give you any idea of the noise.

Falls of Damff

From the top of the falls it was back up onto the path and ten minutes or so of plodding through mud, bogs and the occasional patch of melting snow until a branch of the path drops down to the second footbridge of the day. It had been my intention to stop off at the bridge, maybe even sit on it, and have a cup of coffee but two steps onto it convinced me that getting to the other side quickly was a better idea! Although it looked pretty solid it felt distinctly wobbly underfoot.

Wobbly Bridge

With my plan to sit on the bridge thwarted, I decided to head upwards in an effort to find somewhere drier to stop for coffee. This is a strange part of the walk because although this it's shown on the information board at the carpark, and there's a bridge across the river, there is no obvious path to follow after that. Anyway I knew where I was going and, by following the small water course running down the hill towards the bridge, I started to come across bits and pieces of a path leading generally upwards. Slowly but surely the path becomes more obvious as it winds its way between bogs and bits of standing water, eventually topping out on the ridge between Cairn Lick and Craig Maskeldie and giving me the first high view of Loch Lee straight ahead, with Mount Keen on my left.
From here it was a relatively easy uphill walk of 30 minutes or so to the top of Craig Maskeldie, (687m), and a view back down to where I'd taken the photo showing my goals for the day. It was also interesting to see on the O&S map that parts of the cliffs have different names "Brides Bed" and "Smith's Gutter". Wouldn't it be great to know why?

Loch Lee

Mount Keen

The high walk back from Craig Maskeldie to Cairn Lick was great with views down the length constantly on my left. I even managed to find a fine sheltered spot for a quick cup of coffee and some chocolate! Just as I came up to the cairn of Cairn Lick, (682m), I spotted a couple of mountain hares, still in the white winter coats, sitting by the side of a patch of snow. Unfortunately by the time I'd changed lenses on my camera one had ran off but I managed to get a photo of the other one.

Mountain Hare

I decided that I'd drop down a bit before stopping for a while. The wind, although not strong, still had a chill to it and the top of Cairn Lick is quite exposed so I moved on to join the estate track that makes its way down from here. After about 10 minutes I came across the perfect spot and settled down for some lunch.

Lunchtime View

From here it's a steady downhill plod along the wonderfully named Shank of Inchgrundle where you get the first look at the hidden lochan of Carlochy. It nestles under the cliffs of Cairn Lick and Craig Maskeldie and still had ice on the surface, which makes sense since the chances are there are parts of it that never see direct sunlight during the winter months.


It was just after this point that I had a visitor. I'm not a great one for naming birds on the wing. I need them to be perched somewhere, (preferably on a feeder in the back garden!), so I want this to be a golden eagle but I'm open to being corrected. It was certainly big and I would argue bigger than a buzzard, but as I said, I wanted it to be an eagle.

Golden Eagle?

The last of the downhill section is through a pleasant stand of trees to the final footbridge of the day past Inchgrundle farm and back to the head of the loch.

The last footbridge of the day

It was a nice walk back along the lochside. The wind had picked up a bit since the beginning of the day but it and the sun was at my back so it was great. For the first time since I set out I began meeting other walkers and the carpark was busier than it had been when I left. All on all it had been a great day and both the weather and the route had turned out very well. I had left the car just after nine o'clock and arrived back just before four o'clock.

More photos