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The “merry dancers”

 

 

Like a piece of music that slowly builds to an exciting crescendo, the first three movements of last night’s auroral symphony started boldly and with a real purpose before exploding into a riotous final movement.  This was quite possibly the strongest, most active aurora I’ve seen in Scotland.

As I reached one of my regular spots for aurora hunting just after 8pm a wide arc was beginning to strengthen.  It gradually gained definition, occasionally spawning brief pillars of vertical lights.  It was strong – and stronger than the Kp 5/6 suggested by the aurora forecasts.  In spite of an 84% moon rising brightly in the eastern sky I was able to capture the auroral band on only a 15 second exposure at ISO1600.  (I would normally use a 25 or 30 second exposure).

The bright moon gave great foreground light.  Many people bemoan anything but a new moon for searching out the northern lights but I think on nights like these it’s a real boon to photographers to benefit from some foreground interest.

So the first two movements of this auroral symphony were spirited and purposeful.  The interplay of light and music brought contrasts of light and shadow, with a strong arc dominating the performance.

But at 9.30pm the third movement kicked off with the “merry dancers” making a lively appearance.  An offshoot appeared below the arc, dancing its way across the sky and sending pillars up into the sky before it rejoined the main group.

The fourth and final movement kicked off with a bang.  Nature’s fireworks exploded in the sky, with bright milky-white lights shining brightly to the naked eye.  It was an intense climax to the performance, lasting just eight minutes.

But oh, what a spectacular and jaw-dropping eight minutes!

Curtains of light rippled across the night sky, sending pillars high into the earth’s atmosphere.  The pace and intensity of the lights noticeably quickened.  Up until that point I’d been snapping pictures at 10 or 13 second exposures, and had to drop right down to 4 seconds!  For Central Scotland, this is absolutely unheard of.  And with a three-quarter moon.

The power of this natural performance was incredible.  The fast, moving lights not only show up bright green on these pictures but become yellow and even orange at their most intense.  The “merry dancers” by this point were swirling around the stage in a cacophonous frenzy.  Forget Scotland, this was a performance normally associated with Alaska or Northern Scandinavia!

 

 

 

 

Gradually, this symphonic dance slowed its pace and the dancers changed into bright costumes of green, red and purple for the final few passages.  The performance, at least for this showing, was coming to an end.

It had been a memorable evening.  The “merry dancers” left the stage to wait in the wings for their next invitation to perform.

 

 

Clickbait, fake sites and the outdoor community

For many of us, the web and social media are useful tools to fuel our hobbies.  Getting outside at the weekend to go walking, cycling or climbing is our main focus, but online channels give us information and inspiration, perhaps to discover a new challenge, research new gear or to follow our favourite adventurer.

Sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  But in the murky world of online marketing we’re being actually being stalked, our online activities monitored and our data bought and sold.  To marketers, we’re a sales lead, easily influenced and a lucrative income stream.  Let me explain.

Have you noticed that you sometimes get new Twitter followers from people who describe themselves as “influencers”?  Do you sometimes see website adverts for products you’ve recently been researching?  When you click on links in certain blogs or articles do you sometimes notice that you don’t see the information you expect but instead, are taken straight to a retail site.  Taken individually these incidents don’t add up to much but these are sure signs you’re being stalked.  The online marketeers are after you!

My blogging has taken a bit of a back seat over the last few weeks thanks to a welcome holiday, a busy time at work and a new house extension.  But in that time my mailbox has been receiving a continuous stream of messages.  I’m not necessarily talking about the genuine comments on various blog posts or the many Kickstarter campaigns looking for support.  I’m not even talking about the 43,000 messages previously filtered out by WordPress or the 108 currently in my spam folder.  (But read below if you want a good laugh at some hilarious spam e-mails, produced by online bots).

What I want to focus on here are the messages from marketing companies looking for me to lend credibility to their devious schemes.

Clickbait for cash

One such message asked if I was willing to consider a guest post for my blog.  Great, I thought, and replied to say that as long as the content matched the theme of my blog then I was willing to consider it.  The article duly arrived (on hill running incidentally) and except for a few tweaks and the substitution of American for British English words, it was ready to publish.  However, it contained a number of spurious hyperlinks to various brands of running shoes on a US website that bore no direct relevance to the text in question.  I asked for these to be removed, they weren’t, and so I politely pointed out that I wasn’t willing to publish it.

In marketing terms this is all about affiliate advertising.  So every time an unsuspecting reader clicks through to a website the marketing company gets a small percentage sales commission.

It’s certainly not illegal and perhaps harmless enough.  But it’s manipulative.  These links are everywhere.  Most major retailers with an online site operate them and if you look closely at the small print at the foot of their websites you’ll see them recruiting bloggers and website owners to run ads.  Text taken from a well-known UK outdoors retailer explains how it works:

The system’s really simple. You register as an affiliate with our partner, Webgains, put an ad on your site linking to xxxxxx.com, and every time a visitor to your site uses that link to buy something, you get a share of the price. Meanwhile, we get a sale, so it’s a perfect win-win arrangement.

 

We supply you with all the graphics you could need, regularly updated throughout the year. The links we provide automatically make sure we know which visitors have come from your site.

I did a bit of research of my own and stumbled across a site that explains how to write articles appealing to you and I, people in the “camping affiliate niche“.  Take a look.  It makes for an eye-opening insight into how some individuals seemingly make money out of trying to promote stuff to unsuspecting consumers.  I particularly like his take on the “high traffic, low competition keywords” that would entice us campers in!

Despite the downtrend in interest in the topic (camping), there will always be niche markets to get into, and if you are passionate about it, money can be made anywhere online. It’s always possible to put your own spin on it and build a brand based on YOU. Good examples would be camping + technology, camping with disabilities, camping for city slickers, and so on.

For me, transparency is key.  I’m savvy enough to know that if I’m reading an article on a retailer’s website then I know that they’re promoting their products.  But if I read something on another site – a individual’s blog perhaps – I assume that they have a more objective point of view, particularly if they don’t openly disclose at the foot of the article that they have a relationship with any company.

The difficulty really comes when a social marketing company sets up a site specifically designed to look like a blog run by a group of outdoors enthusiasts, but is in actual fact a fairly well-disguised tool for getting access to customer data.  The second example I wanted to share from my inbox was a request for me to be added to a “List of Invited Experts” (their capitals, not mine) to provide advice on setting up a new “Nature-saving Scholarship”.

This is simply a manipulative means of buying content and data that they can then re-use to generate even more affiliate links

It sounded intriguing – as well as flattering.  My initial response was to say that I didn’t regard myself as having any particular expertise in “nature saving” and therefore I couldn’t help them.  However, they followed up with a reply giving further details about the aforementioned scholarship.  It turned out they were setting up a competition aimed at young people, inviting them to produce articles and infographics containing tips on topics such as “How Hikers Can Make Sure That They Don’t Hurt Wildlife” and “Recommendations for Responsible Behavior Near Bodies of Water That Will Protect Water Inhabitants“.  (It must really be important if they’re using So Many Capital Letters).  “Scholarships” (read prizes) of $1000 and $500 are on offer for the first and second best entries.

This is simply a manipulative means of buying content and data that they can then re-use to generate even more affiliate links.  As I pointed out in my response, anyone who knows anything about conservation wouldn’t participate in such an ignorant and clumsily-worded competition (who says “nature-saving” anyway?!), and would instead go to a respected and credible conservation body for information.

But it got me thinking.  While you and I are probably savvy enough to suss out a mediocre article on wildlife conservation without needing to read beyond the first paragraph, there are many people who aren’t.  Perhaps the targets are yet more young people doing a school project on conservation, who find that the interesting link they’ve just clicked on has taken them to some dodgy retail site?  In the jargon, this is “click bait” – enticing people to click on links which earns the owner of that link a few pennies.

Fake sites and fake news

There are two issues here.  First, I don’t like the fact that there are people setting up fake sites and littering the web with spurious links simply to steer us towards particular retail sites, earning money in the process.  It’s akin to the sad guy outside the Apple store on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street who holds a large wooden sign advertising cheap mobile phone repairs in a nearby backstreet.  Except he doesn’t jump out in front of unsuspecting passers by.

The second, and I think most important point, is this.  In today’s digital world, how do we have the confidence to know that what we’re reading is independent and objective?  There’s so much user-generated content – which in itself has to be a good thing – but we need more finely-honed skills to differentiate between authoritative insight and marketing content masquerading as useful information.

Libertarians among you will no doubt say that this has always been the case.  The task of filtering out nuggets of gold from the dirt is as old as the hills.  Understanding that the tabloid press don’t produce the same standard of journalism than the broadsheets is something that everyone is aware of.

… we need more finely-honed skills to differentiate between authoritative insight and marketing content masquerading as useful information

This is true but I also think that in an online world things are different.  Many people these days seem to inhabit online ‘filter bubbles’.  This is when, in selecting the sites or individuals we follow on social media, we reinforce certain streams of information while effectively filtering out contrary opinions and perspectives.  This gives space for this media manipulation to take place, where fake news is presented as plausible and where subjective messaging can be believed.  As someone who spends his day job searching out objective evidence this does concern me.

Do you know which advertisers Twitter sells your data to?

This week I took a look on my Twitter account at my data and ‘advertiser list’.  It was an eye-opener.  It lists the dates and times I’ve been using Twitter, the specific places where I’ve been when I’ve checked my feed, and the 40 or so specific interests matched against my browsing history (including cycling, holidays, men’s shoes and skiing).  The advertiser list then matches my profile and interests to 23 pages of corporate Twitter accounts and has presumably sold this data to any willing buyers.

I know that I signed up to Twitter’s terms and conditions (and couldn’t be bothered to read through all xx pages to understand what it all meant).  I also understand that personal data is a valuable commodity for marketing purposes.  However I just didn’t expect to see how far this approach is being taken.

So if you’re a typical outdoors-y person who uses the web and social media to research new adventures, gear or new skills, should you be worried?  I imagine few people will be surprised to hear that companies see increasing value in getting access to customer/user data.  But hopefully by revealing some of the tactics the social media marketeers are adopting then this will raise awareness about the issue and its potential implications.

And finally … some words of wisdom from bot-generated spam e-mails

Finally, just to lighten the tone a little, I’m sure you’re interested to read some words of wisdom from the next army of social media marketeers.  These are the millions of AI ‘bots that are scouring the internet to somehow make sense of its obsession with cat videos, technology, sport and Kim Kardashian.

A site selling cheap sports jerseys (their description, not mine) has contacted me to let me know that:

The word hockey is possibly derived from the word hooked, middle French word which means a shepherd’s stave. I know it won’t seem for instance it’ll perform, but in case you eat balanced meals PLUS do your vertical step exercises, you’re muscle will get better faster and you will be stronger. You will find plenty of such books written by home organisation experts either in the library of book stores.One good thing about roller shutters artwork is you can paint them without having to remove them however, this is not suggested.

I was complemented by a German site which seems to have something to do with pyjamas (!):

My family members every time say that I am wasting my time here at web, however I know I am getting know-how daily by reading such pleasant posts.

However, a site specialising in something called “runescape gold” seems to be struggling with plagiarism from the very same bots that are spamming my own inbox – not to mention its challenges in spelling and font selection:

Wіth havin so muhch written content do yοu еver run nto any issues oof plagoriism οr copyright violation?  Ꮇy site haѕ a loot of cօmpletely unique contfent Ι’vе either created myself ᧐r outsourced but іt lookѕ like ɑ lot ᧐f it iss popping it uρ all օveг the internet withߋut mү authorization. Ɗo yoou knkw ɑny solutions to help stоⲣ content from bеing stolen? I’ԁ genuinely appreciate іt.

It’s a good point to finish on.  So in this distinctly murky world of online marketing I’ll leave you with a final question: do yoou knkw ɑny solutions to brIng greaeter tra nsparenCy to advertis.ng or st0p inf0rma tion bEing manipul8ted? I’ԁ genuinely appreciate іt.

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Why taxing motorhomes for visiting the Western Isles is a bad idea

Now that Scotland is seeing the benefits of increased tourism in the Highlands and Islands what’s needed is investment, not higher prices.

Time to acknowledge and celebrate success

There have been two big successes in rural tourism in Scotland lately.  The first, the meteoric rise in popularity of the North Coast 500, is well known.  The brainchild of the North Highland Initiative, the way that Scotland’s existing tourism offer has been packaged and marketed as the NC500 – Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – is a masterful stroke of genius.  It’s captured the imagination not only of touring visitors but also of TV crews and journalists in a way that VisitScotland’s Marketing Team could only dream of.

The second is less well known and relates to the subsidy given to ferry operators serving the Western Isles, known as the Route Equivalent Tariff (RET).  RET bases fares on the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by road and was introduced on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree in October 2008, cutting fares by up to 55 per cent. It was rolled out to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha in October 2012, to Arran in October 2014 and will now be extended to Orkney and Shetland from early 2018.

In reducing the cost of ferries for vehicles it’s provided a very welcome boost to the tourism in the Outer Hebrides.  In fact there’s been a ten-fold increase in ferry traffic over the last decade, particularly by motorhomes, with the annual spend by motorhomers now put at £2 million.  According to the research carried out by Outer Hebrides Tourism this year motorhome visitors:

  • spent an average of 7 days in the Outer Hebrides
  • spent over 60% of nights on organised campsite, paying fees to local operators
  • spent an average of just under £500 per trip on food, drink, fuel, goods, arts, crafts and meals with businesses in the Outer Hebrides
  • accounted for around 2% of annual ferry traffic to the Outer Hebrides.

 

So what’s not to like?

This is all great news.  So what’s the problem?

Well, all this increased tourism traffic is starting to put a strain on local infrastructure, including roads, car parks, ferries, toilet and waste facilities.  In a previous post I described how some motorhomers are creating congestion and environmental issues by preferring to camp informally overnight in car parks and laybys rather than in campsites.  This might not be much of an issue off-season when numbers are low.  But when motorhome websites are highlighting ‘free camping’ opportunities – often incorrectly – it’s led to dozens of motorhomes squeezed in like sardines into car parks that were just not designed for this.

I’m all for informal camping, just not when it creates antisocial issues.  Local campsites are losing out when a minority of motorhomes expect to camp for free; existing toilet and other facilities are put under pressure; and some even have the cheek to drive on to campsites to empty waste tanks even when they’ve stayed elsewhere.

A growing number of voices have called for change.  Communities across the Highlands and Islands from Skye to Assynt have been holding public meetings to discuss how they can best manage the growing issues of waste disposal and congestion at local beauty spots and car parks.  But now Alasdair Allan, Western Isles MSP, has written to Transport Minister Humza Yousaf asking him to consider a “motorhome levy” with the proceeds being used to improve local infrastructure.

 

Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have

 

I put my head in my hands when I heard this.  And I wasn’t alone.  This move has been widely criticised by not only Outer Hebrides Tourism and other communities across the Highlands and Islands but also the motorhome community itself.

Right problem, wrong solution

Experiencing strong customer demand is a good problem to have!  And the response by a business when demand grows isn’t to raise prices but to invest in extra capacity, so it can consolidate and support continued growth.

The very last thing anyone needs to do right now is to introduce a “motorhome levy” since all this will do is to choke off demand by visitors to travel to the Western Isles and tour the NC500.  This is already the understandable reaction among the motorhome community.  Why should they bother returning to Scotland when they could have a cheaper experience in France, Spain, Ireland or England?  Just as fragile rural communities in the Highlands and Islands have started to feel the benefit from new jobs and higher incomes what’s needed now is investment, not taxation.

Unfortunately, Scotland (in common with the UK as a whole) often suffers from under-investment.  There’s a cultural malaise that sees many businesses and public authorities reluctant to invest in success, underpinned by a lack of ambition.  But what if things could be different?  What if we have an ambition for Scotland to genuinely be a world leader in rural tourism, and back this up with the proper investment?

 

A positive vision

My vision sees a network of aires right across Scotland similar to those common in France and Germany.  These would complement existing campsites by providing a few hardstanding pitches for motorhomes, including basic facilities of water and waste facilities (many motorhomes have on-board toilets and showers).  For a low overnight fee they would attract people to stay overnight and take advantage of local shops, restaurants and petrol stations.  There are many parts of the Highlands and Islands without a campsite with touring pitches, and aires would enable many more places to benefit from additional income in a way that manages the potential waste and congestion issues.

But we don’t need to look to the continent to see this working already.  The West Harris  Trust has already provided serviced pitches at Talla na Mara and Seilebost.  These community-owned and run pitches have electrical hook-ups, 24-hour toilets, water, waste disposal and recycling facilities.  There’s also the Britstops scheme where 760 garden centres, pubs, churches, gift shops and golf clubs right across the UK offer free overnight stops for motorhomes on the understanding that visitors will contribute to sustainable tourism by spending money locally.

If we had a network of low-cost aires across Scotland, supplemented with campsites and Britstops, we would then have an infrastructure able to cope with a rising number of tourists.

Rather than choke off tourism with a levy what we now need is investment in new and enhanced facilities.  That will consolidate the successes so far and lay the foundations for future growth.

So where could this additional come from?  Of course, we all know that Councils are strapped for cash but it’s local residents who are being negatively impacted at present and so it’s them who should be lobbying their Councillors to put in place a comprehensive investment plan.  That will then generate increased jobs and incomes, for local residents as well as the operators of new facilities.  Highland Council is the obvious authority to oversee any plan for the NC500.  Even if public investment can’t cover the full costs of the upgraded facilities needed then the Councils, in conjunction with local tourism bodies such as the North Highland Initiative, could incentivise local entrepreneurs and businesses to take a lead.

It’s worth remembering that an effective tourism strategy is about development as well as marketing.

 

 

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Campsite Review – Clachtoll Beach Campsite

 

The beach path

In a nutshell

Where:

Clachtoll Beach Campsite, 134 Clachtoll, Lochinver, Sutherland IV27 4JD  Web:  http://www.clachtollbeachcampsite.co.uk/   Tel: 01571 855377  E-mail: mail@clachtollbeachcampsite.co.uk

Cost:

Tents/campervans/caravans £12.00 per night / £5.00 pppn adult & £2.00 pppn age 5-16 / £4.00 per night EHU (20 serviced pitches).   All prices per night during high season (2017).

Facilities:

Clachtoll Beach Campsite is a great site over 25 acres with direct access to the white sand Clachtoll Beach.  The site is also handily located for those people touring the North Coast 500 route.  It’s very well run and popular site, with booking highly recommended during July and August.  There are two flat fields nearer the beach and a third overspill field behind.   The washblock is clean and regularly cleaned.  Other facilities include dishwashing sinks, a laundry, 20 electric hook-ups, a hot drinks vending machine, free wifi and a public telephone.  The waste disposal point accepts environmentally friendly chemical product only.

Not many sites have such a great beach on the doorstep – as well as so many fantastic mountain and coastal walks close by.  Assynt is one of Scotland’s gems and is a haven for hikers (eg Suilven, Ben More Coigach, Stac Pollaidh, Quinag), anglers (river, sea) and wildlife spotters (eg dolphins, whales, otters). Geologically, Assynt is part of the NW Highlands Geopark, a world class landscape boasting some of the oldest rocks in Europe (Lewissian gneiss).  Lochinver, with cafes, a bank and shops, is 6 miles south of Clachtoll along an undulating road with passing places.  There’s a small shop near the entrance to the site, and the award-winning Drumbeg Stores a few miles north.

What I liked:

The white sand beach!  Well-run site and attentive owners.  Great location near mountains and the coast.  Wildlife is regularly spotted off the coast at the campsite including dolphins, whales, sharks, seals and otters.  Large, flat pitches.

Not so wild about:

The wifi is pretty slow and patchy – not the fault of the owners of course, but the s-l-o-w speed of the local exchange which is yet to be upgraded.

 


Review:

Clachtoll is a popular site and deservedly one of my Top 10 Beach Campsites.  If you like Scotland’s remote and spectacular northwest coast then you’ll love this site.  It’s a great base for exploring the coast, with some of Scotland’s best coastal walks nearby.  Hikers will want to climb some of Assynt’s popular hills including Suilven, Stac Pollaidh and Quinag.  For cyclists, there’s a great but challenging route – the Assynt Circular – of around 65 miles on undulating roads.

Clachtoll Beach

 

Unfortunately it was cloudy and wet when I stayed recently – not an uncommon occurrence, sadly!  But a little sunshine transforms the views and as anyone who’s been to the NW Highlands knows, if it’s raining you just need to wait half an hour for the sun to come out again!

I spent a few days climbing some mountains – Ben More Coigach and Quinag – as well as cycling, enjoying some of the spectacular views below.

 

Stac Pollaidh, a popular climb nearby

 

A panorama of many of Assynt’s spectacular peaks

 

The view of Quinag’s ridge from the Lochinver road

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An airy circuit of Ben More Coigach

View towards Loch Broom with An Teallach on the skyline on the right

 

Picking my way up through the steep sandstone cliffs the ‘path’ soon disappeared and the gradient increased sharply.  Soon, I realised the only way up was to grab great handfuls of heather and hope they were well dug in.  I put away my walking poles to concentrate on the task in hand.  I was now committed … to some pretty serious scrambling.

There were several hair-raising moves.  Looking down I could see the waves crashing against the rocks below.  The wind was gusting up the cliffs.  Yep, whenever you see a guidebook that mentions the word “airy”, you know it’s code for knee-trembling, adrenaline-fueled moments like this.

 

The Summer Isles

It wasn’t supposed to be like this of course.  The WalkHighlands route description notes that the approach is “quite intimidating“.  But it goes on to explain that “the initial broken crags are ascended slightly to the right and then the climb continues very steeply up the ridge“.  I did go right, but to the right of what?  It was certainly steep but I’d describe it more as a heather-covered cliff than a ridge.

All I can say is, if you’re approaching Ben More Coigach from the Culnacraig / Achiltibuie side, just take a few moments to suss out alternative routes up through the rocky outcrops!

Having wild camped on Quinag the previous day I opted for a slightly shorter circuit (around 5 hours) of Ben More Coigach.  It’s not a Munro or even a Corbett.  But it’s testament to the rule that in the North West Highlands the best hills are not the tallest.

 

Looking back along the airy ridge of Ben More Coigach

 

There’s a superb sandstone ridge that gives fantastic views to the Summer Isles, to An Teallach’s rocky spires and across the panorama of the glorious Assynt peaks.  If you’ve already skinned your hands clutching on to fistfuls of heather on the way up, the fairly exposed ridge will seem like a walk in the park.  The trickiest bits can all be bypassed on easier paths.

The view north opens out as your approach the summit itself (743m).  And what a spectacular view.  Not a bad place to rest and enjoy some lunch.

Looking north across the Assynt peaks from Ben More Coigach’s summit: Sgurr an Fhidhleir (left centre), Stac Pollaidh (centre) and Beinn an Eoin (centre right)

 

Stac Pollaidh jostling for attention

 

I dropped down to the bealach on a curving line before the short climb up to the slightly lower (705m) summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir.  It gives a rocky promontory with a huge drop below and is arguably the better summit for views.  I stopped for a while to soak in the scenery.

 

A fabulous view north from Sgurr an Fhidhleir

 

The weather wasn’t playing ball that day unfortunately.  The odd patch of blue sky opened up but the rare gaps didn’t become large enough for the sun to break through and transform the landscape.  I gave up waiting and returned to Culnacraig via the subsidiary peak of Beinn nan Caorach; a steep hillside but at least I was saved another heather-grabbing descent.

 

 

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Product review: MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit

 

For convenience and ease of use there’s nothing to beat lightweight canister stoves.  Simply screw in an isobutane fuel canister and within minutes you’ve boiled up a brew.

MSR’s PocketRocket has been a firm favourite among backpackers and campers for many years and has also been my go-to stove for about the last decade.  Recently I’ve been testing out the integrated 2-person MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit.  It’s a well-designed and affordable option if you’re looking for a no-fuss approach to camp cooking.

NEAT DESIGN

The first thing you notice about the stove kit is its ingenious design.  Everything fits within the 2-litre anodised aluminium pot, rattle-free and fastened tight.  Inside there are two 0.7-litre plastic bowls and nested inside these are a pair of insulated mugs containing two folding sporks and the stove itself.

I found the bowls just the right size for hiker-sized portions but not too large so that your food gets cold quickly.  The mugs seem a strange shape at first but then come into their own as effective hand-warmers!

The materials are good quality and I especially like the conductive, non-stick surface of the anodised aluminium pot.

FEATURES

The tiny PocketRocket stove weighs just 85g on its own and as its name suggests is a lively little burner that can boil a litre of water in just 3½ minutes.  Paired with an isobutene canister it’s great for 3-season use.  The lever control is easy to use, allowing you to adjust the flame from a simmer to boiling even with gloves on.

The transparent pot lid allows you to check on your food and doubles as a strainer with its handy holes on one side.  Also useful are the volume measurements (in ounces and grams) on the insides of the pot and mugs.

I didn’t fully trust the folding sporks though.  They’re quite bendy plus I suspect they could be prone to snapping over time after repeated refolding.  For the sake of a couple of quid I’d prefer just to use regular sporks.

USING THE STOVE KIT

The PocketRocket gives a reassuring ‘roar’ when turned up high and is a quick, adjustable and efficient burner.  You’ll want to make absolutely sure that the gas canister is sitting on flat ground so it’s totally safe.  The height of the pot on top of the canister and burner means that it could possibly be knocked off or topple over, and this was one of the main drawbacks for me.

At 732g the weight of the stove kit is the other main downside of the stove kit.  While this isn’t an issue for car camping it may put some backpackers off.  It’s great to have a self-contained kit of course but by replacing the mugs and sporks with lighter weight alternatives, the ‘base kit’ of pot, lid, stove and bowls weighs a much more respectable 450g.  And you could store your gas canister and some spare socks inside!

The MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit is available from Nevisport for an affordable £79.99.  Apart from my minor niggle about the weight of the full kit, it’s a very convenient and versatile option for two campers and well worth a look.

 

Note:  The MSR PocketRocket  Stove Kit was provided to me to review for free by Nevisport.  I am an independent member of the Nevisport gear review team and have no other connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using the stove kit.

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Overnighting on Quinag

 

A mossy oasis among a sea of rocks overlooking the Kylesku Bridge

 

I was in an expectant mood as I drove north.  A large area of high pressure was due to cover the UK and bring fine, dry and settled conditions.  Just perfect, I thought, for a wild summit camp, ticking off three Corbetts followed by an afternoon’s cycling.  Even if the scattered clouds didn’t give a clear sunset there was still the prospect a starry night sky and cloudless views the next morning.

However, rounding the corner near Ardvreck Castle I realised not everything was going to go to plan.  For while every other summit had been cloud free, my first view of Quinag was of the great hulk of a mountain draped in low cloud.  As I parked up the rain started and I spotted miserable walkers in full waterproof gear returning to their cars.

Ever the optimist, I trusted the forecast; every mountain and general weather forecast had promised clear skies after the possibility of scattered showers.  And sure enough, by the time I’d crossed the heather moorland on a well-constructed path, the showers had indeed passed and the clouds parted.

I eventually found a space to pitch my tent on the flattish bealach just west of Sail Garbh, at about 700m.  In gaelic the name is translated as the “rough heel”.  Not a particularly appealing name but very apt: I struggled to find a patch of tent-sized, vaguely soft, green ground on this stony perch.

But just as soon as my tent was up the wind started to blow, the clouds descended and the rain came on again.  It was clear that, rather than giving a still, clear night with great views, I’d be holed up in my tent having an early night.

It was a fitful sleep.  I woke up at 3am disturbed by the tent wall in my face and a loud flapping sound.  I found and replaced three tent pegs temporarily displaced by the gusty wind, then poked my head out of the tent door at 6am just before sunrise.  It was overcast.  OK, I thought, time to go back to sleep …

 

View to Spidean Coinich, with Suilven, Canisp and Cul Mor behind

 

While it was still cloudy and windy by the time I finally emerged at 8am it wasn’t raining.  My original plan was to walk out to the two northerly peaks of the Y-shaped mountain before returning to pack up my tent.  But since I wasn’t at all confident that my tent wouldn’t blow away without me in it (!) I instead packed everything up into my rucsac and just took a camera with me to climb Sail Garbh (808m) and Sail Ghorm (745m).

The views were impressive.  The landscape of Assynt really is quite distinct from other parts of Scotland, built on a foundation of Lewissian gneiss which, at 3 billion years old, makes them the oldest rocks in Europe.  The mountains are of Torridonian sandstone and have steep, seemingly impenetrable sides, rising up sharply above the peaty, loch-splattered landscape .  There’s something very raw and ‘elemental’ about this landscape.  Over the next two days I had rough plans to climb other peaks in Assynt mixed with some cycling.

 

Cliffs of Torridonian sandstone with Loch Assynt and Suilven beyond

 

I think my body posture tells you how I’m feeling about standing on this narrow ledge!

I met up another chap and we walked out to Sail Ghorm, taking snaps along the way.  There were great views out along the rocky coast, with the Outer Hebrides just visible in the distance.  I retrieved my pack and hauled myself up the steep ground to Spidean Coinich, crossing its lower top first of all.  By mid-morning the wind was starting to let up and patches of clear sky began to appear.  The forecasters clearly hadn’t anticipated a weather front crossing the NW Highlands and so, about 12 hours later than advertised, the ridge of high pressure was now starting to take charge.

 

Another walker captured on a sub-peak of Spidean Coinich

 

View to Spidean Coinich (left), my campsite (centre) and Sail Garbh (right)

 

The walk in – or out

By the time I descended the long, stony SE-facing shoulder of Spidean Coinich patches of blue sky appeared and it was now a very different day.  I had lunch and a short rest in the van before getting on my bike to explore Assynt at a slightly faster pace.  The plan was to complete a 37-mile circuit of the headland via Lochinver, Clachtoll, Drumbeg and back to the car park near Quinag.

It was a fast, exhilarating descent south to Loch Assynt and a great ride along Loch Assynt, with gorgeous views.  I dropped down the steep hill to Lochinver for an ice cream in the sunshine before heading north along the B869 towards Clachtoll and Stoer.  But by the time I was cycling north I began to feel my tired legs.  Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have to cycle another 25 miles on a tough, undulating road, conscious that I still needed to find a campsite that night?  So I changed plans, turned back just about at the Achmelvich turn-off and cycled back the way I came along the shores of Loch Assynt.  Except this time, the fast descent from the car park was a long, slow slog uphill.

Plans change.  Forecasts change.  The lesson?  Stay flexible.

Scots pines on Loch Assynt. Conival and Ben Mor Assynt are the peaks on the left

 

Perhaps the most impressive view of Quinag’s many humps and bumps, see from the road to Lochinver

 

 

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Exhilarating Eigg

I was fortunate to enjoy superb weather for my weekend on Eigg and, as I described in my previous post, I was blown away with the island.  Having climbed An Sgurr, Eigg’s prominent peak, in the morning I ventured to the north of the island for the rest of the day.

An Sgurr, the prominent peak on the southern end of the island

Cycling is a great way to get around Eigg.  There’s one hill over the island, so there’s a bit of huffing and puffing involved, but it means that you can cross the island on essentially its only road in around 30 minutes.  I stopped by the former post office for a breather, which now serves as a museum with an interesting overview and artefacts of the island’s past.  Staying on a ‘communications’ theme, the old and weathered postbox at Cleadale is still in use, and its pealing paintwork hints at the many stories it could tell from events over the decades.  It’s not altogether when the next collection might be (but I’m sure the locals know when the postie is likely to call past anyway) but I liked the contrast with the telecoms dishes you can just see further up the hill.

Eigg’s communications, old and new

I followed a marked trail from near the road-end in Cleadale to the famed ‘Singing Sands’ beach.  It occupies a fabulous view looking out to Rum and is a beautiful white quartz sand beach.  When it’s dry the sand ‘squeaks’ as you walk on it, attributed to the uniform size of the grains of sand apparently.  It really is an weird experience.

The ‘Singing Sands’ beach

 

Singing Sands beach, looking out to Rum

My plan for the afternoon was to do the circular Beinn Bhuidhe walk, climbing up above the cliffs at Eigg’s northern end.  This meant for a fairly steep climb up from the beach for just over 300m.  It was very warm and sticky so I was glad to reach the top and gain a breeze.  Of course, there were plenty stopping opportunities en route to take photos.  With the views of Rum and the south end of the island, the bird’s-eye view of the tiny crofts in Cleadale, as well as the purple heather and other wild flowers, I was in no particular rush.  It’s just such an unbelievable beautiful setting – and I’m sharing just a fraction of my photos from the walk!

Incidentally, you can find my circuit of the Rum Cuillin a few years ago described in a previous post – and this is what Eigg looks like when looking back from the opposite direction.

Eigg from Askival summit

 

Wild flowers overlooking Rum

 

 

Beinn Bhuidhe’s cliffs rise steeply above the small crofts in Cleadale

 

Looking south towards An Sgurr

The path follows the line of the cliffs, which create a spine down the northern half of the island.  It gives superb views west towards the beaches and Rum beyond, south to An Sgurr as well as east, back to the white sand Morar beaches and mountains on the mainland.  With an Atlantic gale and showers blowing in this wouldn’t be a place to linger, but today it was like a stroll in the park.  I only saw two people to speak to the whole afternoon, and I met them just at the end of the walk.

Panorama from Dunan Thalasgair (336m)

Looking through the pinnacles to Cleadale and Rum

 

Panorama from Beinn Bhuidhe, looking west

I descended a steep path through high bracken back down to the road and returned to collect my bike.  Next stop was the beach at Laig for a refreshing drink (embarrassingly, from neighbouring Skye rather than the local microbrewery on Eigg – the community shop didn’t seem to have the local stuff in stock).  Several other groups were also spending the evening at the beach, swimming, camping on the machair or having a campfire.  For me, it was a chance to cook my evening meal and soak in the view.  (I did dip my feet into the water but it was far too c-o-l-d for me to swim …)

Time for a well-earned drink!

 

I’ve had worse spots to cook an evening meal …

 

Swimming in Laig Bay

West-facing Laig Bay is a well-known location for photographers and I have to say that you could not fail to take a good shot on this absolutely stunning beach (two of the photos below are simply iPhone snaps).

On the northern side of the bay there are several large, almost circular sandstone boulders, with some up to two metres across.  They’re apparently formed by the migration of calcite within the sands over a period of up to five million years, and have become eroded out of the cliff like giant marbles.  They certainly make for interesting foreground, alongside with the sun slowly setting over the Rum Cuillin which sets the clouds on fire.  The colours, reflections and silhouettes made for a memorable evening.

The last of the sun’s rays setting over Rum

 

 

 

I sunbathed and read a book the next day until the ferry arrived late afternoon.  There was hardly a cloud in the sky for much of the day – and I know this isn’t always the case!

Eigg really is a fascinating and hugely enjoyable island, and this was one of my favourite trips for some time.  If you get a chance, please do climb the hills and explore the island.  For even on a supposedly busy weekend, I pretty much had the best of the island to myself.

The ferry returns

 

The beach at Eigg pier

 

 

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An eagle eye’s view of Eigg

There’s something about islands.  Maybe it’s the wistful sense of adventure that comes with travelling by boat.  Or perhaps the physical and psychological separation that gives islands their unique character, setting them apart from the familiar mainland.  Even, perhaps, it’s the feeling of ‘commitment’ in the sense that having arrived – come rain or shine – you’re there to stay …  Eigg was all of these things.

I’m catching up with blog posts after a busy summer and this is the first of a two posts on my short, two-night stay on Eigg.  I’d planned a birthday trip away with my Mum – neither of us had previously visited – but a brief illness meant that I arrived alone.

In fact the influence of ‘island life’ started in Mallaig harbour.  Eyeing up other passengers I noticed a mixed assortment of families, luggage and personalities.  Some were Eigg folk returning; others heading out on holiday.  Friends and family were reunited and parted in between ferries arriving and leaving.

The jagged outline of the Skye Cuillin and the slightly more rounded Rum Cuillin provided a superb backdrop for the land and seascapes on my journey to Eigg.  The Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Canna, Muck – were all transformed by intense volcanic activity about 55 million years ago.  The basalt lava and gabbro rocks give the islands their unique and bold character, most notably with the Sgurr on Eigg being formed by an ancient lava flow.

 

I stayed in one of the camping pods owned by Eigg Adventures.  They’re literally just a stone’s throw from the harbour, the café and community-run shop and have a fantastic view looking back out to sea to the mainland.  While just providing the essential amenities I found them comfortable although it would be good if that the plans for new community hub include dedicated toilet and dishwashing facilities for campers.

Eigg Harbour

 

Eigg camping pods

That evening I ventured along a cliffside track west from the harbour at Galmisdale, following a marked footpath to investigate the two large caves.  It was here in around 1577 that the massacre of around 400 islanders of the Macdonald clan took place at the hands of the warring Macleod clan from Skye.  It’s said that after a series of skirmishes the Macdonalds hid in a large cave, thinking that the Macleods had left the island.  But the Macleods spotted a lookout and followed his footsteps in the snow to the mouth of the cave, then lit a fire.  Almost all of the islanders perished in the cave, now called Massacre Cave.  Over the years skulls and other bones have been found and even as recently as last year more than 50 bones were discovered.

The marked trail (with the pink dot) towards the coastal caves

 

Looking towards Muck, with the entrance to Cathedral Cave middle right

 

The next day I set off to climb An Sgurr, fortunate to have fine weather forecast for the whole weekend.  (Not really believing the forecast, I hadn’t bothered with sun cream and forgot to take my sunglasses … The shop was sold out of sun cream and needless to say I returned a fine, sunburned colour …).

The track from Galmisdale emerges from woods to give a great first view of An Sgurr, the hill that dominates the southern end of the island and that clearly distinguishes Eigg from the mainland. The prow of the Sgurr rises vertically and from a distance it seems impenetrable, but a narrow defile half way along the northern side gives easy access.  It’s hexagonal rocks and twisted shapes are a geologists’ dream and there’s much to see if you’re into rocks.  55 million years ago what is now the Sgurr was part of a river valley.  After the massive volcanic eruptions hard lava (called pitchstone) flowed along the valley.  Millions of years of weathering wore away the softer rocks around the valley until eventually, the ‘valley’ became a shapely hill protruding boldly above the island.  Fascinating!

The track towards An Sgurr

 

The tall eastern face of An Sgurr

Although the weekend I visited was the busiest of the summer so far (in terms of ferry and accommodation bookings) I was puzzled to know where everyone was.  I didn’t see a soul all morning, which is quite strange since I would have thought that climbing the Sgurr would be near the top of the ‘to do’ list for most visitors to Eigg.  No matter: I had the hill to myself.

Superb views to Rum and the northern end of Eigg opened up.  To the south the Ardnamurchan lighthouse was clearly visible with Mull beyond, and past Muck I could see out to Coll and Tiree with the Outer Hebrides showing up through the haze.  I stayed on the summit for almost an hour taking photos.  I could never tire of the view to Laig Bay and the croft houses at Cleadale; this must surely be one of the finest viewpoint in all of Scotland.

Looking towards Rum

 

View north to Laig Bay and Skye beyond

 

Panorama from An Sgurr, looking to Rum and Skye

 

Bog cotton on the summit of An Sgurr

 

Looking towards Laig Bay and the crofts at Cleadale

I was thrilled to spot a large raptor – I think, a juvenile golden eagle – soaring on the thermals above An Sgurr before flying north to the cliffs above Cleadale.  I’ve shared mountain ridges before with eagles, just me and these magnificent birds, and it’s really an amazing sight.

 

The circular route from An Sgurr descends via a very steep path to the south (from the same bealach that gives the easiest access from the north).  Guidebooks warn that this route is only for experienced hillwalkers and I’d echo that: it’s steep and potentially dangerous in wet weather.  But this route does give the best close-up view of the amazing geology (click on the photo below for better detail), and comes out at Grulin bothy which was in the process of getting a new roof.  From the bothy it’s an easy walk along the Grulin track back to Galmisdale, giving fine views out to Muck and the Ardnamurchan.

Fascinating twisted, hexagonal columns of lava on An Sgurr’s southern side

 

 

Grulin Bothy

 

The vertical prow of An Sgurr, formed by hard, volcanic pitchstone

 

There’s been so much to say, and so many photos to share on this post, but after my walk up An Sgurr it still wasn’t lunchtime ..!  In my next post I’ll describe my afternoon’s sojourn, a walk around the beaches and cliffs on the northern end of the island, ending with an amazing sunset.

Nature’s fireworks

A meteor streaking above Ben A’an

Streaking at break-neck speed across the sky, it’s easy to miss a meteor.  Blink and they’re gone.

For a brief instant a speck of dust emitted from the Swift-Tuttle comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere.  It’s travelling at 37 miles (59 km) per second.  At this incredible speed the comet debris heats up the air around it, generating a burst of light as it hurtles across the sky.   In only a fraction of a second it burns up and is gone.

And this amazing sight is caused just by a tiny speck of dust the size of a grain of sand.

During this 15 minute period I captured two meteors on the camera

Meteors are nature’s fireworks.  The Perseids meteor shower provides the best show each year, when the Earth passes through the dust and debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet, the largest known object that regularly passes by our planet.  It peaks this year on 12-13 August when, if you’re lucky, you can spot up to 100 meteors an hour.  This year, owing to the bright three-quarters moon, it’s more difficult to see weaker meteors when around 40 – 50 meteors an hour can be seen.

In spite of the bright moon some vivid meteors could still be seen

I spent an enjoyable couple of hours last night stargazing beside Loch Achray in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.  The night was clear and still.

Others were there too, camping beside the loch and enjoying a fire, and the sound of voices and laughter drifted across the water.  In a place that’s usually very quiet I looked around and spotted no less then four fires around the loch – and it’s one of Scotland’s smaller lochs.

There’s a real moral dilemma for the National Park authority.  People should have the right to enjoy the outdoors by camping and lighting a fire – it’s a fantastic thing to experience.  But their concern is the cumulative impact of all of the scorched areas of earth, impromptu campsites and litter left behind.  Loch Achray is within the newly-designated Camping Management Zone but I have no idea whether any of these campers had a permit or what state they left their campsites this morning.

Just as meteors make a brief appearance before they disappear without trace can we humans do the same?

Others were enjoying the clear, still evening by firelight