Community paper for Glenfinnan, Lochailort, Glenuig, Arisaig, Morar,
Mallaig, Knoydart and the Small Isles
List of Issues online
September 2001 Issue
Contents of the online version:
MINISTERS HINT FINAL STRETCH SOON
The most scenic turf-cutting ceremony ever - so First Minister Henry McLeish described the historic official start to the Arisaig - Kinsadel section of the A830.
Together with Transport Minister Sarah Boyack, he was at Kinloid on the 7th. August to cut the first sod of the next section of the road. Present at the event were Council representatives, road contractors, and many members of the local community
Mr. McLeish continued 'This new road will reduce the journey and will improve safety and increase access for tourists to share these wonderful views with the locals.' For the first time, the 'fitting roads concept' will be employed, making construction wholly sympathetic to the environment.
Mr. McLeish reinforced the Scottish Executive's commitment to improve the transport network across the Highlands and Islands - and a hint was given that plans to upgrade the last tortuous stretch, from Polnish to Arisaig, could be in the offing.
Priorities have been requested for the Special Transitional Programme - which funds key projects - and this last section has been included. Detailed information and bids for the funding will be submitted this month and then we must wait to see if the bid for this last stretch is successful.
Councillor Charlie King said he had great pleasure as Chairman of the Highland Council Roads Committee, and even greater pleasure as the local member, in being present at the ceremony. He said 'I have a cutting from a newspaper, about people campaigning for a new road to Mallaig - and it's dated 1937. We're at the end of a long line of campaigners.'
He thanked not only the ministers present but also Malcolm Chisholm, David Stewart MP who made it a priority, and the communities, who had been the biggest help in achieving this end. Mr Bill Barr, whose firm has landed the contract, spoke of his pleasure in handling this challenging project.
The £11 million road will have fully bilingual signage - more than the local communities wanted and asked for - and wonderful views. It will cut nearly 4 km (2.5 miles) off the journey.
Arisaig will be by-passed but with the measures obtained by the Community Council - a speed limit through the village, entrances at both ends to the village with a 'gateway' effect, lay-bys overlooking views of the village, and the Coastal Route enhanced with signage - passers-by will be able to see what it has to offer and will hopefully want to see more.
Weren't we lucky with the weather! The organisers repeated this mantra in awe as they totted up the results of this three day event. The two days of sailing races has seen perfect breezes, and the fun day at Arisaig Marine of the Friday was a lovely day of warmth and sun. The story twelve hours later was so different, with no visibility and rain that set in for days.
However, lucky we were and the second Arisaig Regatta was a resounding success, with the perfect venue of Arisaig Marine's facilities.
It started on the Wednesday this year with a new race, a 'feeder' from Tobermory to Arisaig. They didn't have plain sailing, with fickle northerly breezes and a tide that didn't co-operate keeping the crews occupied, but after a keen fight the trophy, donated by The Old Forge in Knoydart was won by Robert MacLeod of Tobermory in Mishnish.
Thursday saw a repeat of last year's popular Eigg and Spoon race, in which the yachts race to Eigg, send a crew member ashore (wet or dry) to collect a special wooden spoon from Eigg tearoom, and then return through the challenging channel to Arisaig harbour. Last year's victor Simon was beaten into second place by Trina Coyne in her sloop Aurelia.
Another yacht race on Friday, 'round the cans' into Loch nan Uamh and back had to be postponed to the afternoon because eof lack of wind, but was then performed under perfect breezes, allowing Simon MacDonald of Glenuig in Merry Dancer to carry off the Dolphin Tankard.
The day had a heavy programme of races of every kind of boat imaginable, from inflatable to kayak, with a large number of entrants for each. The youngest contestant of the day was 5 year old Eilidh Armstrong, who entered a kayak race chaperoned by Dad. And an unexpected salute was given by a flypast of Jaguar jets - who know organised that?! The fitting climax of the day's water events was the raft race, worthy of the old TV's 'It's a Knockout', which had seven entrants, from Mallaig, Morar and Arisaig, and even some Venture Scouts who had been camping at Spean and thought they would come over to join in.
The day's events didn't end there however. Prize giving was conducted by Rev. Alan Lamb outside the Arisaig Hotel at 6 pm and at 8.30 a family dance started in the Astley Hall - a dance which carried on practically non-stop until 1 a.m. to the music and dance-calling of the Wild West Ceilidh Band from Skye.
The Committee's grateful thanks to all who helped to make the three days such successes.
ISLE OF EIGG
The Eiggach have managed to finish hay and silage on the last weekend of a month which really took the biscuit for being so dreich and damp. But summer is not over yet: Minke Whales in the sound of Arisaig are still bringing us a lot of visitors. I may be privileged to live in a place where going home on the Shearwater means frequent meetings with these wonderful creatures, but I cannot believe that Norwegian fishermen want to turn them into bloody steaks, They obviously don't understand the depth of feeling locally for these playful cetaceans. I for one will sign the petition organised by the Whale and Dolphin centre on Mull and forward it to this paper for readers to sign it!
We all find it hard to accept that things must change and never remain the same: many of us will feel sad to bid farewell to the Shearwater whose racy blue and white silhouette has heralded the arrival of the floating bar in the days of dearth and whose leave-taking with cargoes of friends and musicians has become a ritual part of our lives for over two decades. She will be difficult to replace.
The same can be said for our project officer who is leaving us. He brought a lot of professionalism to the operation of the board of Trustees, following on the sterling work done by his predecessor. We wish Andrew and Sheryl the best for their future plans: it has been fun having them sharing our lives for a year and we sure know now where PnG is on the world map! (East Timor-Eigg-Gigha network to be set up any day now.)
Since visitors have now taken to the Sculpture Garden in the Lodge grounds we are now getting a reputation for art and environment and will be hosting a digital imaging weekend on the 23rd of September sponsored by SEPA and funded by SNH: a group of youngsters from Eigg, the Mallaig High School area and Stirling will work with an IT artist to produce images of marine life using IT. This looks promising and as places are limited, those interested locally should contact Mallaig High School or myself.
The Edinburgh Fringe is also coming to us on the 8th of September with Fiona Knowles' one-woman show "Sex and Chocolate," the perfect tongue in cheek tribute to romantic Eigg couple, Marie and Colin Carr who are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. They recently eloped for a week in New York without the kids: romance isn't dead yet! Best wishes for next 25 years from all of us here!
ISLE OF CANNA
Sunday 5th. August saw the island host its OPEN DAY for the finish of St. Columba's church. After much preparation the day finally arrived. Over 300 people arrived by fishing vessels from Skye, boats came from Rum and Muck. But the majority of the people came from Mallaig via the MV Lochnevis, a big thank you to Tony and the crew for such a memorable day. The ship was decked out with flags, they held treasure hunts and games for the passengers and also let people up to see the wheelhouse. Everyone I have spoken to has said that they had a great journey over and had a most enjoyable day ashore.
The Big Shed at the Square was host to many stalls - BBQ, Refreshments, Buffet, Tombola and home baking. There was also a prize raffle. Father James MacNeil held Mass outside the church as there were too many people to fit inside. Father Michael I'm sure would have been proud of us. We raised in the region of £300 which will go towards the upkeep of the church.
The entertainment carried on well into the night after all the boats had left, with singing and dancing!! from special guests who shall remain anonymous - they know who they were.
On the farm side of things it has started to slow down. The clipping long since done, the lambs are getting ready to go hopefully to market soon. They are looking in great shape. Another successful crop of potatoes this year as well.
No signs of corncrake this year, but at the end of the month we had a crane in the harbour - the bird kind! Plenty of puffins and also lots of sightings of basking sharks, even in as far as the mouth of the harbour.
The St. Edward's Centre is now home to Shona Quinn. Until the end of October, possibly longer, she is here to do a report on the church to see how it will run best. She is letting people in to the church to view it and is also letting people, i.e. yachts and campers, use the showers and washing facilities. Showers £5, towels provided and laundry £5 a time.
Schools are now back in, what a great job Mike and Joan have made of the new refurbished classroom. So much brighter and bigger looking, a lot of hard work! Also at the school, there was a dyking course which a few of the islanders attended and built up the wall at the front and partway up the side - looks so much better.
Well, I think that's all for this month. Thanks again to everyone for their support on our Open Day and sorry to those that never got.
Games Day at the beginning of August started the month well; the sun shone, the water temperature was tolerable for the raft race and the crowd swelled for the land races. The photo shows the intrepid Camusrory Commandos, Isla and Lynn, setting sail from the beach bound for ??Camusrory; they duly won the raft race, were capsized by a 'friend' who then was dunked fully clothed by the girls. His main concern was to keep his cigars dry!
At the end of the day the band set up amplifiers in the marquee and the music and the beat could be enjoyed not only in the field but at some distance in the hills. This continued until the small hours when a sudden cloudburst caused a downpour which swamped some of the equipment. Fortunately there was a handyman on site who rectified the problem and the dance continued.
A deputation of Knoydart folk set sail for Rum courtesy of CalMac and the Highland Council, to see at first hand the structure and impact of the new pier and to see the Lochnevis in action.
Work on the Hydro scheme continues apace, Murray has laid the foundations for his new building and work has started on the footings for the first group of temporary accommodation units, thanks to funding from the Foundation and initiative and hard work by a group of local people. It is hope this project will go some way to relieving the shortage of housing locally.
We welcome the arrival of Richard and Dorothy Walsh, their children Findlay, Paisley and Olivia, the new resident owners of Inverie House. Despite the daunting task ahead of them to renovate the property, it will surely rise like a phoenix from the dereliction and shine once more as a happy, family residence.
ISLE OF MUCK
On the new ferry terminal work is proceeding apace - both day and night. The slipway itself is almost finished. Though not as wide as some (the slipway at Leverburgh in Harris is as wide as a football field) it is still very broad considering that the Lochnevis's position is controlled by the alignment structure. This is almost covered at high-water springs and one wonders if she will dock when there is so little showing to push against. What is impressive however are the huge boulders which line the approach road on the seaward side; and they are all island rock!
Although the summer started quietly with few visitors arriving, August has been far from quiet. From all directions they came, by yacht, whale-watching boat, RIB, canoe, and of course by Shearwater and Lochnevis. Whenever the weather has been reasonable, the Craft Shop has been really busy, but the younger generation of Mary MacEwen and Sheena Mathers have coped well while Sandra Mathers had been feeding the CCG crew.
On the farm, it has been a stop-go month waiting for the grass to grow for more silage, now at over 600 bales. The farm has not made any more hay, however, but Sandra managed it on the 27th with 200 small bales. There is nothing to beat a bit of hand work in the hay field! It is good news that the live sales are starting again - the first at Ben Nevis Mart on the 14th.
Lastly, for the first time in my life I have bought a puppy - just in case Calac falls off her pedestal.
Sponsored cycle for Drew
On the 18th and 19th of August, 21 of Drew Couplands' friends and family gathered in the main square in Beauly. Last minute preparations were being made for the sponsored cycle to Fort William via Drumnadrochit where they would join the Great Glen Cycle Route.
Drew Coupland is from Mallaig, he has cerebral palsy and is also visually impaired. Drew is now two and a half years old and like all kids this age is growing fast. His continued good progress will be maintained with the provision of the correct equipment and input from outside agencies. Realistically Drew is going to need a wheel chair come buggy to promote good posture and to enable him and his family to get out and about.
It was to this end that as Drew's parents we asked a couple of mates if they would be willing to help raise some funds through sponsorship. The response, interest and turnout on the weekend were to say the least overwhelming.
The Coffee Pot in Beauly had agreed to open its doors early for the Lycra-clad participants, most of whom had arrived by coach from Fort William. Everyone sat down to a breakfast of bacon and egg rolls and somewhat apprehensively discussed the task that lay ahead and more immediately the hill climb out of Kiltarlity and the other hills before the descent to Drum.
Nine forty five saw the last rider depart from Beauly, Thank you to everyone who wished us well and particular recognition to the mums who were being left holding babies for the next thirty-six hours. The greeting in Drum was fantastic with Ian Latto and Grandpa Coupland manning the support vehicle. Why were we surprised to find beer amongst the filled rolls crisps and mars bars? Drew's uncle Johnathan from Edinburgh had had a close one on the big decent however within minutes his bike was repaired and he was returned to the accident spot, Jonathon was not going to have it brought up at a later date that he hadn't completed the route. "Good on you".
The ascent out of Drumnadrochit sorted out the mice from the men. With several squeaks and other mouse like noises everyone arrived at the top ready for the first real mountain biking of the trip, and onwards to Invermorrison and the ever-ready support crew. This was to be by far the toughest section of the weekend and on reflection without the positive encouragement from Betty and Alec MacNeil and the physical and mental support of the crew it could have been a perfect opportunity to retire to the bar.
Onwards to Fort Augustus and another significant hill, then along forestry track through some splendid Douglas firs and down to Alt na Criche. What a superb end to the first day of cycling.
Everyone regrouped at the Caledonian Hotel in Fort Augustus, where anyone who has ever doubted Highland hospitality should go to be refreshed. Compliments alone couldn't do Chris and Johanna justice, their food and hospitality was second to none. Thank you for everything.
Sunday the 19th. After a hearty breakfast, sorting out of equipment, mending a couple of overnight flat tyres and of course various remedies for that famous Highland Hospitality, it was a purposeful 1030 departure. Six miles on the canal path to Oich Bridge let everyone know it was back to business.
Oich Bridge to Invergarry is truly a mountain bike section and not a touring alternative to the A82. Great fun and as two of the three MacNeil brothers participating will testify the decent into Invergarry is tight and technical.
After the much publicised Mandally hill and run to South Laggan there was a very pleasant and welcome surprise in the form of Iain Dempster from Balmaglaster with juice and rolls, enough for everyone and a few more. (Just like your mum, Iain, always plenty food and drink) The run along Loch Lochy was assisted by a good tail wind and reasonable road surface progress was good. Families and Friends had gathered at Clunes to enjoy an afternoon Banquet provided by Shelia Latto. With this onboard it was onwards towards Banavie on the canal bank. The final stop was at the Achintee Inn.
Again a great welcome excellent service and more accommodating staff couldn't have been asked for. After more food and more beer it was time for a final swapping of stories and a farewell to new acquaintances and old friends.
How much money has been raised isn't known as yet, however people's generosity is quite humbling and it is with a lump in my throat that I thank every-single person who has contributed. Thank you to everyone who took part in the weekend and those who helped to make it so memorable, Everyone's support was great.
MODEL EXHIBITION IN THE ASTLEY HALL
While the Regatta was happening down at the Marine, the HMS Ark Royal, complete with complement of aircraft on deck, was moored - in the Astley Hall! It was the centrepiece of an extensive Model Exhibition on show at the Hall. Visitors could have soup and refreshments and wander round marvelling at trains, boats and aeroplanes. Model enthusiasts had come from far and very near to share their passion for made to scale working models.
This 3 - 4 foot high working model of a steam engine, with a plaque inscribed Lochailort Engineering, was much admired.
GREAT DAY FOR ARISAIG'S ORIENTEERING
Friday, 10 August, proved to be a great success when Arisaig hosted over 2,500 competitors from all over the world for its event in Lochaber 2001, the biennial Scottish 6-Day Orienteering carnival.
Many thanks again to all those in the local community without whose help the event could not have gone ahead - especially Mr and Mrs Gillies at Kinloid, Mr Colston of Arisaig Estates and Inspector Souter of Mallaig police. Also, a special word of thanks to Barr Construction for their part in the show, and to Mr and Mrs Coates of Sunnisletter for their constant encouragement during the run-up to the event.
Following weeks of heavy rain, the day itself was blessed with perfect weather (once a sharp mid-morning shower had passed through!) It was the ideal culmination to several years of hard work - the technical challenge of the terrain complemented by the panoramic views in all directions. Many competitors were overwhelmed by the beauty of the Arisaig area and undoubtedly will be back to savour it at their leisure.
FASTEST POSTMAN IN THE WEST WINS UK'S TOUGHEST MARATHON!
David Rodgers, once known for running the ten miles into Mallaig from Arisaig to start his postie round, has found new fame as this year's winner of the race up and down Ben Nevis. David, 34, finished the race in 1 hour 29 minutes 34 seconds, ahead of 500 others, and 9 seconds ahead of last year's winner, Ian Holmes. Conditions were poor, with mist and drizzle, and freezing cold at the 4406 ft top of the Ben. Morar's own John Stewart finished the race in 1 hour 49 minutes. Congratulations to both!
MALLAIG - CHRISTIAN AID
Event organisers, Jessie Corson and Ann MacGillivray, are delighted with the support of the community for their year 2001 efforts to raise funds for the Christian Aid charity. This support is evident via the sum raised - the splendid sum of £2,020. This amount was raised by various means including A Sponsored Knit by Mallaig Primary School pupils; a Coffee Morning in Mallaig's new Village Hall; Church of Scotland envelopes; Plant Sale in Church Hall; and a stall at the Mission Weekend.
Ancient Rating Arrangements
by Denis Rixson, Mallaig Heritage Centre
Most would agree that rates are boring. Every year Highland Council sends us an assessment notice. This gives us the valuation of our property, and how much council tax we are going to be charged for the privilege of being here. The letter is then ritually buried at the back of a drawer full of similar letters. Apart from complaining about the rate of tax - or what it is spent on - many of us give the whole system little further thought. The only thing likely to rouse us to action is a steep upward valuation. Few of us enjoy paying taxes.
Property taxes are very old. In the West Highlands we can prove they have been in existence for at least a thousand years and quite possibly a great deal longer. Most houses in this area were pretty impermanent until the eighteenth century. They were 'creel' huts made of turf and timber, on a stone base. They probably only lasted a few years. Accordingly the basis for the taxation system was land rather then buildings. Furthermore it was measured by productivity rather than area - so an acre of rich land would be valued more highly than an acre of poor land. This district - The Rough Bounds - was particularly rugged and barren which explains why land-valuations were so low in relative terms.
On the basis of his assessment a farmer would be expected to produce some money and various renders in kind. These might include cattle, sheep, poultry, eggs and grain. In Islay some of the rent was paid in geese, in St Kilda in feathers. The precise proportions of each type of rent depended on the agricultural circumstances of the region. In this area, (where little grain was produced) the rent in kind meant butter, cheese and sheep. Other obligations were linked to the land-assessment system. It could also be the basis for taxes paid to the church, for hospitality to the lord and for service in his galleys.
In the early mediaeval period very little money was in circulation. Rent was largely paid in kind and then consumed locally as the lord travelled round his estate. Over the centuries the landowner became concerned to convert rents in kind into cash. He could then spend this where he liked - often outwith the Highlands. Today of course the process is complete. Highland Council no longer favours payment in butter and cheese. Taxation became reckoned in £ Scots, then in £ Sterling and soon it will be in Euros.
We have no idea how old the land-assessment system is. The Scots certainly used it - but the Picts may well have had an equivalent method before them. The Vikings then came and laid their own system on top. The various strata became so intertwined that it is now difficult to separate what was Norse, what Scottish and what Pictish.
How do we know about these arrangements? - through written records and place-names. In lots of old documents we come across references to pennylands and ouncelands which were components of the Norse system.
An ounceland was a large area of land - thought capable of rendering an ounce of silver by way of rent. This was then subdivided (on the West Coast) into twenty pennylands. Because the ounceland was so large we seldom see it in place-names. Pennylands however represented individual farms and we meet them in names such as Peanmeanach (Ardnish) or Glen Pean (Loch Arkaig). Pennylands themselves were divided into smaller fractions of half-pennies and farthings. The Norse word for farthing is feorlig which we see in names such as Feorlindhu (the black farthing-land) in Ardnish.
Documents such as charters, sasines, tacks and rentals tell us who held what land and from whom. They are full of references to the old valuation system. Keppoch for instance was 4d, Mallaigmore ½d, Scamadale 1d, Kinloid 2d and Borrodale a 4d land (d = pence in pre-decimal money). The whole of North Morar came to 12d, South Morar 12d and Arisaig to 30d. If we then compare these values with other areas we can see why our district was known as The Rough Bounds. Eigg, a relatively fertile island, was reckoned at 100d. In the early fourteenth century Robert Bruce gave Gaodeil and Beasdale and what was probably Torr a Bheithe to Roderick Macruari. The lands were classed as a half davach or 10d and probably included some of the other settlements in Rhu.
Pennylands weren't just a measure of land. They were also the basis for souming arrangements which governed how much stock an area of land was thought capable of supporting. It was important not to overgraze a hillside in such a fragile environment and the capacity of every slope or glen was carefully assessed. When Pennant visited the Small Isles at the end of the eighteenth century he found that all the grazing arrangements were fully worked out. They may not have been formalized in writing - but they were part of the established pastoral system and there was even a local officer elected to enforce them.
The pennyland system was also linked to the offices of the clan. The chief's local representative or ground officer might hold his portion of land free in return for his services. The bard, the piper, the harpist, the doctor would all be given land in lieu of a salary.
The system was active into the eighteenth century. There are numerous references to it in David Bruce's rental for Arisaig in 1748. But it was on the verge of extinction. With 'improvement' came acres - a new measure of area rather then productivity. The old system was wonderfully flexible in allowing comparisons between areas of different productivity. The new measure was not. Pennylands were swept aside and now only survive in place-names. Taxation though lives on !
Mallaig Canoe Club's Trip to Gwaii Haanas
A year ago Paddler reported very briefly about Alex Turner's and Suzanne May's adventures paddling the waters around Vancouver Island. This Summer they returned to British Columbia with five other members of Mallaig Canoe Club to visit the Queen Charlotte Islands, a Pacific Ocean archipelago one hundred miles to the west of mainland Canada, at the same latitude as central England. Our goal was to journey by kayak for thirteen or fourteen days in an area known to the "First Nation" of the Haida as Gwaii Haanas. If you would like to read a full account of the trip, this will shortly be posted on the club's web site.
For younger readers who really want to know what Mrs. Smith and Miss May got up to on their hols; well, you'll have to ask them, Paddler's lips are sealed. What follows are just some recollections of, and reactions to, this wonderful trip.
For all seven of us, this was new territory in one way or another. None of us had been to the Gwaii Haanas National Park before and none of us had paddled continuously for the best part of a fortnight, let alone in wilderness which required us to carry all the food and supplies we would need for the duration plus some to cover emergencies. We had read, and learned from Alex and Suzanne, about the need for minimum impact camping and we had been amply warned about the precautions we would need to take, but hearing about this and coping with the reality were two separate things. It is said that travel is meant to broaden the mind and question the assumptions of your own culture. We certainly found this to be the case, so far as the camping was concerned. In Scotland, we only have to think of coping with the midges and the weather, but in Canada we had larger, fiercer beasts to consider (as well as the midges and the weather). Black bears like human food if they can get it and they have noses that can detect it from afar. So every night we had to haul all our food, together with the clothes we wore while cooking and eating, up into trees well away from the tents. The bears are even attracted to the smell of toiletries, so they had to go aloft as well. This doesn't sound like something to make a fuss about, but we needed at least ten ropes cast over tree boughs 15 feet high ready to cache a fortnight's worth of food at the beginning of the trip. Hauling that lot up each night was not easy. Also, for Paddler one of the joys of light weight camping is waking in the morning and not getting out of the sleeping bag whilst morning coffee is brewed. On awakening in Canada everything one needed seemed to be up the trees. It was just a little thing, but every morning it reminded us that we were in a strange land.
Look for the Queen Charlottes in an atlas and you might be forgiven for thinking the page was turned to the Outer Hebrides: for the land is aligned in a similar fashion with the major islands to the north, the deeper inlets lying to the east and a steep continental shelf to the west. Look more carefully and the contours tell of a land with fjords, lakes and mountains carved by glaciers to Caledonian proportions and shapes. But there the similarities end, for some of the place names speak of a land still affected by seismic and volcanic activity and once in the Gwaii Haanas National Park one sees trees and yet more trees, massive sitka spruce, cedars and hemlock which grow right down to the inter-tidal region. Indeed, on a number of occasions we had little choice but to camp on the shore just above the high water mark. For most other camp sites we were thankful for the existence of the introduced Sitka black tailed deer who appeared remarkably tame and unafraid of our presence. Like our red deer at home, these have no natural predators, have multiplied greatly and now threaten the native ecosystem. Selfishly, we were grateful for their grazing depredations as these created clearings which we were able to utilise to pitch our tents on carpets of soft mosses and lichens.
Gwaii Haanas encompasses a wide range of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, but as kayakists, we experienced a relatively narrow swathe consisting of coastal water, inter tidal beach and coastal temperate rain forest. For the Haida people, the islands were divided into three realms, those of the land, sea and sky. We were fortunate to view chieftains of each of the realms, the black bear, the killer whale (orca) and the bald eagle. It seemed strange to have travelled from a homeland, where every sighting of an eagle is a notable event, to a land where on our first evening we looked out at a dozen or more eagles perched on roadside trees and in small flocks on the beach. The field guide of birds promised some familiar species of sea bird and many exotics. Pigeon guillemots, looking very like our blacks, were perhaps the commonest sea bird, whereas the two species of gull were relatively uncommon. It was wonderful to see large flocks of tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets fly off in the mornings to their off shore feeding grounds and strange to see completely black oyster catchers - doing what all oyster catchers do well - making a lot of noise and fuss.
One either arrives in Gwaii Hanaas under one's own steam, by float plane or, as in our case, is ferried in by a fast RIB. Apart from one small enclave of four or five private houses, this forested wilderness is uninhabited and unblemished by maintained tracks or roads. Indeed, we were made to feel that our North West Highlands were gentle, occupied and cultivated, which is quite the opposite of the usual reaction to our home patch. Of course, the land had been occupied, foremost by the Haida who thrived in close symbiosis with this remarkable landscape for over ten thousand years.
When "those from away" (Europeans) arrived so did their diseases and by the late 1800s small pox had reduced an estimated population of 20,000 to fewer than 500. Those that survived gradually vacated the southern islands and congregated in Skidegate and Old Masset on Graham Island in the north. In 1981, worried about the impact of visitors to deserted villages of the south, the Skidegate Band Council established a "Watchmen" programme to provide an "elder" and maybe two or three young Haida to act as guides and guardians to five of the most important cultural sites. We managed to visit all five of these sites and found our interactions with the Haida there as fascinating as the many memorial and mortuary poles and the pits left from long houses. It felt good to Paddler to meet representatives of a minority group on their territory where their pride in their past was as strong as their sense of present destiny.
So what was it like to paddle for thirteen days in this wild territory? Well, the weather we experienced was much as at home, everything from gales and days of rain showers to warm sunshine and gentle breezes, with about everything in between. This meant that by about the fifth day into the trip the height of luxury that could be imagined was a long enough break from the rain when we weren't paddling to enable us to hang out our kit to dry. That moment did eventually arrive and it certainly lifted our spirits. Two days later, an equally dry, bright day gave us a wonderful experience at Hot Springs Island.
Paddler certainly found the physical challenges of paddling and camping day after day demanding, for the gales we experienced early in the trip swallowed our planned rest days, requiring us to maintain a respectable mileage each day if we were to complete the projected route. In the final analysis, co-operation and team work spread the load and every member of the party paddled the complete distance and earned real satisfaction from the achievement.
Watch this space for extracts from next month's issue!
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