Burg, the wild side of Mull

To visit Burg on the Ardmeanach Peninsula is to experience one of Scotland’s most wild and remote stretches of wilderness coastline.

With fossils of tree stumps on the beach, Iron Age farm ruins, a basalt column cave, deserted croft townships, waterfalls and shieling huts, Burg has much to reveal to those willing to stretch their legs on the 6 mile walk to get there.

Of course arriving by kayak is a lot easier. Octane expedition groups cross Loch Na Keal from Ulva to explore the area via island rock hopping stop offs at Little Colonsay and Inch Kenneth.

Horizon battleships

Views out to sea from the cliffs at Burg and from the top of Bearraich are phenomenal. The islands of Iona, Ulva, the Dutchman’s Cap, Staffa, the Treshnish Isles and Coll and Tiree can all be seen like a fleet of battleships gathering on the horizon.

The headland of the Ardmeanach Peninsula really is the edge of wilderness – the road stops 6 miles back at Tiroran and, traveling on foot, the route follows a long path running parallel to the shore. The route passes an Iron Age fort Dun Scobuill, the ruined townships of Salachry and Culliemore facing Loch Scridian and the pilgrim route to Iona a cross the Ross of Mull, Bronze Age burial cairns and abandoned shieling huts, used in summer months by crofters grazing their flocks on higher ground.

Fossilised tree

However, perhaps most remarkable, is the fossilised tree standing in its whole entirety vertical on the facade to a cliff face. Standing forty foot high, the conifer tree was engulfed in molten lava some 50 million years ago with its shape preserved to be first recorded by Scotland’s pioneering cartographer, John MacCulloch.

Cream tea vacuum

The path passes Dun Bhuirg, the remains of an Iron Age farming community, and after this point there are few signs of man, prehistoric or otherwise. The area, wonderfully free of ‘access’, ‘amenities’, ‘souvenirs’ and ‘visitor centres’, is reserved for those prepared to invest the time to get there. For those who do, the rewards are high.

Eagles high

The huge white tailed eagle or sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) lives here and soars from great heights over the grassy headland looking for small mammals, seabirds and carrion. Sometimes it keeps low over the water and takes fish from the surface whilst in flight.

In silhouette it is hard to distinguish from a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) except for the shorter tail, longer neck and shallower wing beats. The golden eagle, also seen around Burg, seems more graceful and delicate in flight with deeper and slower wing beats but surprisingly the white tailed eagle has a wider wingspan (240cm) than the golden eagle (220cm).

If the bird is soaring and the wings are flat it is likely to be a white tailed eagle, if the wings are raised when soaring it is probably a goldie. Likewise if it’s screeching it is probably a white tail as golden eagles are quieter. In better light adults are easier to tell apart as the white tail of the sea eagle is apparent when close. However, a juvenile golden eagle has a tail of the same so it is all rather complicated.

The golden eagle can in turn be mistaken for the buzzard (Buteo buteo), although the latter is almost a metre shorter between wingtips, it is difficult to gauge scale without knowing distance.

Reintroduction

The white tailed eagle was recently re-introduced to the British Isles with stock from Scandinavia, previously being a visitor to the British coast from Iceland and Scandinavia with our naturalised population having been wiped out by gamekeepers and farmers. The process has been a success and there are now 36 breeding pairs (compared with 442 pairs of golden eagles).

Despite Mull being also known as eagle island, the white tail has some catching up to do.

An afternoon cuppa, come hell or high water

Although carry on kayaking sounds very British, to do so at 4pm, simply wouldn’t do.

Tea is as British as some of our most famous exports including punk rock, queuing, fair play, football and hooliganism and, Octane being miles from civilisation is no reason to lower standards. Come hell or high water, the Scottish seas offering much of both, we stop for a cuppa at 4pm.

Boiling water

For its pure simplicity the Kelly Kettle is much loved means of boiling water the world over – it can be fuelled with small twigs and eliminates the need for transporting heavy fossil fuels or prolonged sessions gathering driftwood and boils water more quickly than any camping gas cooker on the market.

When in need of a cup of tea, with no wood fuel available as is often the case on Hebridean islands, the Kelly Kettle comes into its own. So efficient is its conduction of heat the process of making tea can be done with minimum fuel (such as dry sprigs of heather or small twigs) and with minimum time. I know of no other method of boiling water as quickly.

Sheltered flame

Furthermore, the fire heating the water within the kettle is sheltered from wind by the internal chimney shape of the kettle itself – a most useful feature on exposed wilderness Hebridean islands. Once the water is boiled the hot embers can be used to light a campfire which otherwise might be challenging in the wind or rain.

Avoiding dehydration

A 5% reduction in the body’s hydration levels can result in a 50% reduction in paddling performance. In summer months in Scotland an active sea kayaker should not only be drinking about two litres of water a day should also be eating well for dehydration is caused by the loss of water, sugar and salts combined.

Drinking little and often is the best method of avoiding dehydration and two or three litres is quite a few cuppas – not necessarily not a problem for the British who like to busy themselves drinking 60 bullion cups of tea a year.

It started with tea

Many other countries were as technologically advanced as Britain in the early nineteenth century yet the industrial revolution started here – why so?

The manning of industry’s factories required an urban density never achieved before elsewhere because plague and pestilence traditionally limited urban population growth. Accordingly, densely populated areas were often decimated by plague during population peaks. However, because the British started to boil their drinking water first to make new found Indian and Chinese teas, their water was purified killing all harmful bacteria and protozoa. Furthermore, as belt and braces, the tea leaf itself is a natural disinfectant.

Manpower

Empire links with India gave Britain tea and trade links with the West Indies gave the same people sugar soon making a virtuous circle of tea lovers, sugar addicts and shopkeepers. This holy trinity enabled urban populations to increase to unprecedented levels thus supplying manpower to those dark satanic mills.

Food for thought

So, the discovery of a rather modest drink created a virtuous circle of trade, cleanliness and addiction fuelling the industrial machine to define the modern world in which we live today. Worth pondering next time you sip a cup of afternoon Rosy Lee.

 

Campfire cooking – blueberry orange muffins

After a day catching lobster for the pot this simple campfire pudding almost cooks itself and, for entertainment value, these babies are bulletproof.

Don’t beat yourself up over the instant nature of this pudding — after all it’s not often one gets to bake cakes around the campfire.

Ingredients

Muffin mix
– Blueberries
– Four empty half orange skins

Method

  1. Squeeze four oranges, keep peeled halves and put juice aside for breakfast
  2. Fill one emptied orange half with blueberry muffin mix
  3. Cover the filled orange half with the empty half and wrap in three layers of foil
  4. Place on hot embers
  5. Turn aluminum balls every minute, baking may take 10 minutes
  6. Check one after 8 minutes, return to heat until firm at the centre

When these blueberry orange muffins are ready they will emerge from the campfire like victorious steamed puddings that have just been Tangoed.

Unwrap and eat with a spoon.

 

Campfire cooking – shoreline crab linguine and wild garlic

This is a Hebridean pimped version of the Italian favourite so it can easily and quickly be knocked up on a remote shoreline or cliff top.

The original Italian version of this recipe uses a rocket garnish which I normally replace with wild ramsons garlic picked fresh from the shoreline. Attempting to keeping rocket or any other loose leaved salad garnish fresh in the hold of a sea kayak during the heat of summer is only to end in disappointment.

Catching the crab is an entirely separate affair. These underwater battle tanks have strong opinions regarding being taken from their sea bed home – click here to see how to catch a brown crab.

Red pesto (Feeds 4)

– 500g of sun-dried tomatoes, in oil
– 100g of garlic purée
– 20ml of lemon juice
Salt
Pepper
– 500ml of olive oil
– 250g of pine nuts, toasted

Emulsion

– 2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
– 1 onion, sliced
– 3 celery sticks, sliced
– 1 leek, green leaves only, sliced
– 500g of butter
Salt
Pepper

Pasta

– 300g of linguine
– 5l of water
– 200g of table salt

To serve

– 1 red onion, thinly sliced
– 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
– 4 cherry tomatoes, halved
– 50g of wild garlic
– 1 tbsp of crème fraîche
– 10g of pine nuts
– 1 lemon
– 50g of white crab meat, picked and cooked
Olive oil
Vegetable oil
– 1 red chili, sliced at an angle
– 50g of chopped flat-leaf parsley

 

  1. Pesto. Blitz a third of all the ingredients apart from the olive oil with pestle and mortar until a paste forms. It is best to make the pesto in three batches, so only use a third of your ingredients at a time
  2. Slowly pour a third of the oil into the mortar and blitz. Repeat these steps until all ingredients are used then set-aside
  3. For the emulsion, melt half the butter in a hot pan until it starts to foam. Add the carrots, onion, celery and leek, season the mixture and cook until golden brown. Fill the pan with cold water and bring to the boil
  4. Simmer this vegetable stock for 20 minutes, then strain off the vegetables. Return the liquid to the heat, whisking in the remaining butter until smooth and emulsified
  5. To cook your pasta, bring 5 litres of water to the boil in a large pan and add the salt. Separate the pasta as you drop it in and leave to cook for about 4–5 minutes. Strain off the pasta and add a little olive oil to stop it from sticking together
  6. Add a little vegetable oil to a hot sauté pan and add the red onion and spring onion. Once golden brown, add pine nuts and sliced chili. When pine nuts have begun to colour, deglaze pan with 50g of your vegetable emulsion
  7. Squeeze in juice of half a lemon and bring to boil. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of red pesto with the crème fraîche and mix thoroughly. While sauce is coming back to boil, drop the linguini into a pan of boiling water to heat up
  8. Once sauce thickens, add parsley along with drained hot pasta. Toss in pan to ensure pasta is well coated
  9. Using tongs, twist pasta to give it shape and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the white crab meat over the top along with the cherry tomatoes and rocket, then finish with a final splash of olive oil and lemon juice

This pasta recipe is a wonderful source of slow release energy carbohydrate suitable for long paddling stints across open water.


Octane offers gastro wilderness expeditions and, employing Octane’s Eight* methods of sourcing wild food for the pot, we eat the world’s best food, ocean fresh**.

*Octane’s Eight is our philosophy. We believe our travelling guests, being closest to the world’s wildest fresh foods, might quite like to eat the world’s wildest fresh foods.
1. we line fish, 2. we lobster pot, 3. we spear fish, 4. we sea forage, 5. we land forage, 6. we stalk, 7. we seed the sea, 8. we seed the land. Why is it campers and ramblers feel obliged to consume biltong, baked beans and instant coffee?

**The term fresh fish is of course relative. On the high-street, at supermarkets and in city restaurants fresh fish really means days old so, when patiently waiting for your number to be called at the fish-counter, be ready to ask where your fish is from and how many days ago it was likely caught. Supermarkets invent terms to suit their needs and, as a discerning consumer, it really is your right to challenge nonsense. At Octane we have therefore made a new, differentiated and entirely transparent definition – Ocean fresh. Simply put, it means caught, prepared, cooked and eaten same-day.

See ocean fresh in practice with the post ‘Drive through calimari’ – ocean fresh calimari caught, cooked and served in under an hour

Minimum impact coming ashore

Traveling through remote coastal areas, sea kayakers have a responsibility to tread lightly when coming ashore, ironically, it is onshore that damage occurs.

The sea kayak is a low slung silent craft allowing paddlers to get closer to wildlife than otherwise possible. However, it is this very access which requires a level of sensibility.

Coming ashore

In the Scottish Hebrides, when on the shoreline in long grass machair, sea kayaks must be carried and not dragged as birds can sit camouflaged and nests lie hidden beneath a walker’s feet without ever being seen.

Terns, ringed plovers and oystercatchers all nest on shingle beaches and care should be taken in mid May to early July.

If a plucky bird with a red bill and red socks flies away from you and lands very close making a kleep-kleep, p’keep you are likely to be near an oystercatcher nest, eggs or young – she is trying to distract you and you should walk away. Be careful where you tread – eggs and chicks are well camouflaged.

Move on

When coming ashore it is important to avoid beaches with breeding seals – it is much better simply to choose another beach unless in an emergency situation.

There are two species of seal in the Hebrides – the common seal and the grey seal. Half of the word’s grey seal population is found on the British coastline and many remote islands are given protected status as a result. The common seal is in fact not so common as the grey seal and its numbers are in decline.

The two types of seal have very different looking faces – the common seal has a sweet little face with big eyes, a forehead and a head that looks too small for its body whereas the larger grey seal has a roman nose like a bull terrier and looks more like he means business.

Indeed recent research has revealed that grey seals are responsible for the many dead common seals washed up on our beaches.

Wild camping – sand dunes

If camping in sand dunes it is best to located the fire on the high tide mark – campfires in the dunes damage the layer of live soil, which takes time to recover.

Fires built on the high tide mark are made in a pit about a foot deep, food scraps are burnt and the hole should be filled in afterwards with all burnt embers buried. When leaving a wild camping site it is important to leave nothing more than a flattened area of grass.

Dunes are important in stabilising the shifting sands and, in the Scottish Hebrides, provide ideal location for a unique Scottish habitat called machair. Machair supports wading birds such as the lapwing, ringed plover and dunlin. All care should be taken to avoid treading on or bird nests in these environments.

Wild camping – sea cliffs

Cliff-nesting birds such as guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes are vulnerable whilst with eggs or chicks (mid May to early July) and puffins nest in burrows that are easily collapsed under foot so it is important to always be careful and to stick to paths.

Wildlife experiences

It is hard to get closer to wildlife in any other scenario than on a kayak.

However, knowing about the seasons and breeding times is important so as to avoid being dive bombed by angry and protective Skuas or indeed out manoeuvred by a protective maternal whale.

It is always sensible to keep a respectful 50 metre distance from all wildlife and to let them come to you not visa versa.

Safety, risk prevention in the wild

With closest A&E located 50 miles by sea, 3 hours by quad on rough track or, as last resort, by helicopter – ‘hope for best and plan for worst’ is the best practice.

Prevention being better than cure, all sensible precautions should be taken when far from the nearest town or cellular reception. During any sea kayak expedition Octane remains in communication with one person on the mainland. However, for anyone planning to do the same on an expedition it is vital they have the correct equipment guaranteeing the communication plan is feasible.

Promises of daily phone calls, although well intentioned, can lead to concerned family members if unfulfilled. This in turn can set the ball rolling for a man-hunt which is the last thing anyone wants.

Cellular coverage

Once on a week long kayak expedition, group members were advised that they would be out of cellular coverage for stretches of the route. Unknown to the expedition leader, one of the group had a private agreement to text home to his wife each day. As predicted, our group soon ventured outside all cellular network coverage and a daily message home failed to send.

Although the group arrived at its objective on time, we were greeted by a concerned farmer who had been searching for us because we had been reported missing. Even the coastguard was involved. Although the expedition had notified the coastguard of its departure time, intended route, number of people in the group and estimated time of arrival, this unforeseen spanner in the works had scuppered well-laid plans.

On time

Despite the expedition being some 60 miles long, taking five days to complete and arriving at its destination to the hour agreed, it took some time for the expedition leader to shake off his nickname ‘the missing kayaker’.

Comms procedure

Preceding each Octane expedition departure we brief the coastguard detailing all necessary information concerning intended route, group size, group names, expedition duration and ETA. We also inform one dedicated person at the expedition destination who we report to on arrival.

During expeditions Octane is in touch with civilisation daily and more often if it so chooses. We use a sat phone which has reception everywhere in line of site if the sky which, in the western isles, is just about everywhere except in Fingal’s Cave.

There are a few satellite telephone systems for the sea kayaker to ponder:

Thuraya Satellite Phone

Thuraya is best for Asia, Africa and southern Europe. They have some great products such as the iPhone SatSleeve which clicks onto the back of an iPhone to extend all that it does into any location in sight if the sky. Unfortunately it is no good for Scotland as the satellites, at about 20 degrees high from the horizon, are too low in the sky for a reliable service

Iridium Satellite Phone

Iridium caters for North and South America, the oceans, Europe and the poles. Indeed, with Iridium, it is possible to call from or to anywhere in the world as long as you don’t want a chat with a North Korean due to some frosty trade embargos.

Apart from all the usual sat phones Iridium have some interesting products such as the Iridium GO! – it connects to the satellite and offers itself as a wifi terminal, which a smart phone can connect to. Iridium handsets are probably the most robust and the price reflects this but the data transfer speeds are not, in Scotland, comparable to Globalstar.

Inmarsat Satellite Phone

Inmarsat coverage claims to be global but their satellites are in the same orbit as Thuraya so I am told its not much good for Scotland

Globalstar Satellite Phone

Globalstar is only good for the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Russia and, for Scotland, it offers the quickest data transfer and the best voice quality. Globalstar also have a wifi terminal point that links your smart phone, pad or laptop to the satellite network. An app enables the user to use voice data.

Clean beaches make economic sense

Octane expeditions are reliant upon Hebridean natural wilderness, a landscape passed down through generations of crofters and the rich biodiversity within.

As a result of violent storms, pollution and dumping at sea, beaches can be littered with flotsam, often hundreds of metres beyond the high tide line onto the machair wild grassland habitat.

Perhaps naively, visitors to the Hebridean coast expect pristine beaches perhaps not realising that even the remote Galapagos beaches are now strewn with the clutter of our material world.

Beach flotsam

From Nike trainers and Bic razors to Samsonite suitcases and Mobil oil drums – nobody wants to accept responsibility for the tonnes of rubbish on our shores, least of all the manufacturers.

Swapsies

On 13 February 1997 the container ship Tokio Express was hit by a wave knocking 62 containers into the Atlantic, one of them containing 4.8 million pieces of Lego. The pieces, which strangely had a maritime theme (octopus, pirates, divers, scuba kit, ship rigging net, life preservers and spear guns), are washed up on British beaches every year and there is even a popular Facebook Lego Flotsam collectors’ page. Apparently the octopus is the most rare and considered the Holy Grail of swapsies.

However, there is a darker side. The estimated 165 million tons of plastic debris in the world’s oceans are worn down by sea action and enter the food chain as micro-particles, firstly being ingested by small seabed roaming organisms and then rising through the food chain the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are finally consumed by humans.

Garbage patch

Larger meso-particles are eaten by albatross and turtle and are fed directly to their offspring – it is estimated that one-third of all albatross chicks die as a result.

There is a floating island of plastic in the Pacific called the great Pacific garbage patch. It is estimated the island weighs 100 million tonnes in plastic particles. There is a vague and equally ambitious plan to clean it up using floating filters and booms to harvest the plastics for their recycled value.

Shipping container companies deem it safer to keep cargo loose on deck and, accordingly, one errant wave results in many taking a tumble. The Captain of the Tokio Express happily brushed the issue under the carpet saying the culprit wave was a “once in a hundred-year phenomenon”.  The BBC estimates the number of containers lost at sea in 2014 alone was 2,683.

Meanwhile, manufacturers wash their hands of the issue – Lego spokeswoman Emma Owen simply said the incident “had nothing to do with the Lego Group activities”. The company then had the audacity to launch a PR campaign leaving life sized Lego men, called Ego Leonard, on beaches around the world.

Consumer problem

Clearly the responsibility for beach clean-ups has been left in the hands of consumers – for it is they who create the demand. Martin Dorey has started a national campaign encouraging beach goers to pick up plastics at the day’s end.

The campaign is called the ‘2 Minute Beach Clean’