Walking and biking in Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, near Shenval B&B Walking and biking in Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, near Shenval B&B Walking and biking in Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, near Shenval B&B

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2011 has seen us enjoying walks on day trips in all directions from our little centre of the universe called Shenval  B&B: Handa Island, Fisherfield Forest near Gairloch, Ben Rinnes in whisky trail country, Loch Fleet, Ben Bhraggie and Dunrobin Castle and, of course, Glen Affric and its Munros.


On 8th September, just over one hour's drive from Shenval B&B, Golspie and Dunrobin Castle were our destination and with our guests Sabrina and Daniela we got off to a flying start on top of Ben Bhraggie where very strong winds nearly blew us off our feet at the foot of the "Mannie", the statue of the Duke of Sutherland of notorious Highland Clearances fame. Spread out below, the Moray Firth and Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve and its scores of sunbathing seals. This indeed was a bit of fresh air! Squelching our way across moorland we were rewarded with fine views of dark blue hill lochs overlooking Golspie where we eventually ended this pleasant afternoon walk on the  sandy beach with a glimpse of Dunrobin Castle. Looking down on Golspie from Ben Bhraggie © Sabrina Schreiber
Basking seals, Loch Fleet nature reserve                 Duke of Sutherland Statue, Golspie
                Hill view to Golspie, Sutherland  Dunrobin Castle,  Golspie, Sutherland



Incursion in Glen Affric on 1st July.  Along the way, just by the footpath, two unusual, though not rare sightings: one of a Greater Butterfly orchid and one of an adder sunning itself.  The summit of Mam Sodhail, our favourite local Munro, was cloud free offering 360° panoramic views all the way to Ben Nevis, Torridon, the Isle of Skye and The Moray Firth.

 Ben Nevis (left) and Affric hills from Mam Sodhail


Greater Butterfly orchid, Glen Affric


On 13th July we ventured in an area as yet unknown to us in Moray, the heart of whisky-distilling country. Sure enough, from the summit of the Corbett Ben Rinnes, wherever we looked down, scores of distilleries could be seen. But of more interest to us was our first spotting of ripe cloudberries and of course we could not resist the temptation of tasting these very delicately flavoured berries. The drier climate of the east seems more favourable to these plants than that of our west Highland area where they are rarely seen.        
Ben Rinnes tor ad Moray coutryside                   Ben Rinnes, Moray
Tors, unusual rock formations jutting out of heather moorland, greeted us on our ascent and the surrounding countryside looked very green and cheerful indeed, in contrast with the ruggedness of our Glen Affric area. Ben Rinnes tors, Morayshire


On 2nd June, we set off very early with four of our Shenval B&B guests to the Island of Handa, a birdwatching paradise in north-west Sutherland. The sun was up by 5am and just never left us all day.
Even before we got to the boats in Tarbet, black-throated divers and greylag geese with their offspring heralded our bird watching day just by the road side. A high speed rigid inflatable boat ferried us over to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s bird reserve in a jiffy. The boardwalk snaking across the middle of Handa took us to the western cliffs where most of the 200,000 nesting seabirds take up residence for the breeding season. 
 Handa information point, Sutherland © Martine Dahl
We were rewarded with sightings of great and arctic skua and thankfully we were spared their ominous dive-bombing antics as they were too busy plundering other birds’ nests. The Great Stack was crowded  with thousands of guillemots, razorbills and fulmars while gannets cruised just offshore. A few puffins could also be seen. Greylag geese and goslings, near Handa island © Martine Dahl  Island of Handa bird reserve
             Nesting fulmar, Handa bird reserve  Great skua, Handa bird reserve


Sunday 3rd. First newly-born lamb spotted in Glenurquhart. Our driving takes us to Nairn where a 16kms walk on the shore to Whiteness Head and back allowed us to spot no less than 50 seals basking on sand banks. Other wildlife spotted along the way included 2 mute swans, a flock of brent geese, innumerable quantities of greylag geese. Full sunshine all day and excellent visibility with views as far north as the twin hills of Morven and Scaraben in far away Caithness.


Wednesday 2nd, while walking within the Corrimony RSPB reserve, we saw a male hen harrier flying overhead, scanning the ground for some furry or feathery prey. First sighting of this bird in our area for about twenty years.

Sunday 13th: 27cms of fresh snow has fallen on Shenval overnight. A reminder winter is far from over yet.



Thursday 25th. Winter not quite over yet. Just when we were sort of thinking that winter might be on the wane, snow started to fall quite heavily this morning and had hardly ever stopped when night fell. And a sizeable dump it was on Friday morning with cars half-buried for the umpteenth time since 19th December 2009 when the first snow came and never thawed. Shovel work required for anyone in Shenval planning to get anywhere. Like our guest Stephen Whitehorne, stranded in Shenval B&B, who took these pictures. Could this be the final dump? Definitely a winter to remember!               Snow gate at Shenval B&B
 Welcome to snowy Shenval B&B Winter spade work at Shenval B&B

Sunday 14th. First primrose of spring seen today during our 2 1/2hour walk above Loch Ness in Abriachan Wood, a place noted for its natural woodland -mostly of hazel, silver birch, aspen, wych elm, juniper, holly and oak -and cared for by the Woodland Trust. Sharp contrast between the Loch Ness side greenery at a mere 15m above sea level and the shieling still smothered in deep snow up in Abriachan Forest Trust at about 350m. The woods in Abriachan gave hidden routes for smugglers to move goods to and from Loch Ness. It is said that whisky was an important commodity in such undercover operations at Abriachan. Actually, there is a mock whisky still up amongst the woods of Abriachan Forest Trust. And you need keen eyes to spot it. We have spotted it. And we are not telling where it is...
Sunday 21st. Made a foray on the north coast of the Highlands of Scotland and no, that wasn't John o' Groats! Quieter destination which proved rewarding with the prolonged sighting of 2 red-throated divers at close quarters and an even longer sighting, in a lovely sun bathed quiet cove, of no less than 44 grey seals, including a massive bull and several juveniles. Just one timid primrose on our cliff walk which revealed hundreds of fulmars seemingly preparing for the breeding season, alongside a few dozen guillemots. Spotted the first frog spawn of the year.

Thursday 22nd. Sure enough it has come : the lambing snow was covering the ground in Shenval early this morning.

Wednesday 21st. One swallow does not make a summer, and even less so a spring. Despite the cold weather, the first swallow and first two house martins have had us look up in the skies with their calls above Shenval B&B today. One way of cheering us up, as we found two blackbird chicks near the house this morning : they had fallen from their nest in the strong overnight winds. Nothing could be done to try and rescue them.

Monday 12th. First lamb born in Glenurquhart : a mixed blessing as it announces better, warmer days to come and is also heralding the notorious lambing snow that still has to come.

Sunday 11th. First daffodil in bloom in the garden today. Highest temperature also recorded so far this year in the garden of Shenval B&B with 21°C in the shade at 5pm.

Wednesday 7th. Rising sap. Went for a lower hill walk with two friends to nearby Glenstrathfarrar and had a mixed bag of weather. Sunny mostly, pleasantly warm to start with, squelchy underfoot with a lot of frantic activity in the pond world of mating frogs and toads. And freezing cold in the bitter winds on the summit of Beinn a'Bha'ach Ard (862m) with the surrounding slopes still hard frozen, concrete like.
Beautiful panoramic views from the shores of the Moray Firth in the east to the alpine looking snow-covered summits of Glen Affric and the Torridon hills in the west. Very little wildlife to report, apart from the calling amphibians : just one newt and two ptarmigan, but this was more than enough to delight Sabrina and Daniela, who had never seen the latter before.
Heavily pared and amputated after the winter snow damage they have had to endure, silver birches were showing signs of recovery although they were "bleeding" profusely with rising sap dripping from every fresh cut. Quite impressive.

Sunday 4th. Our guests from Germany have been rewarded for their early rise out of bed. On their guided outing with the RSPB ranger at Corrimony bird reserve they did observe several lots of black grouse lekking  and they were amused to witness how grey hens looked apparently indifferent to their antics.


Tuesday 22nd. The Affric hills have been beckoning for weeks now and today is the day when we can leave the house behind as we only have two guests-friends from Germany who are themselves very keen to explore the heights of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve. Not an early start however as we only set off shortly before mid-day from the end of the tarmac road at Affric Falls car park. Warm and sunny weather with enough wind to keep the midges at bay.
This promises to be a fine hillwalking day with Sabrina and Daniela very eager to add another Munro to their newly-started hobby list. The views west, beyong Loch Affric, are very clear and the skyline of Ben Attow (also known as Beinn Fhada) forms the background of a Glen Affric resplendent in all its shades of green, as if spring is not quite yet over in this part of the Highlands.
Soon we leave the forest floor track, just short of Affric Lodge and start to go uphill on a very well maintained stalking track. Dragonflies darting here and there and numerous butterflies of the fritillary species feed on nectar. Warmer weather than expected, sun hats and water bottles soon have to come out of the backpacks. It is unusual for us to be in the hills at this time of year and we discover dwarf cornel in flower, a plant we had never seen before. Along with the carnivorous sundew and butterwort, various species of orchids carpet the peaty bog while the occasional cloudberry throws up its single pink flower. Further up, on the last pull up the south east shoulder of Sgurr na Lapaich, we encounter an abandoned golden plover nest: three perfectly camouflaged hatched eggshells on a bed of short heather and crowberry, hardly anything you might consider as a properly built nest.
Vistas open up wider as we reach the summit of Sgurr na Lapaich (1036m) where we settle for a well deserved lunch break. The skyline reveals all the hills of Kintail and Cluanie, Ben Nevis, the Monadhliath and Cairn Gorm, the Moray Firth and the north Affric hills to our next summit: Mam Sodhail (1181m) and its sister summit Carn Eige (1183m), these two being the highest Scottish hills north of the Great Glen.  
We set off for Mam Sodhail by its undulating south eastern ridge above the at times precipitous slopes down to Gleann nam Fiadh, the aptly name "glen of deer" where numerous red deer are browsing or basking in sunshine. Dense carpets of pink moss campion catch the eye while the occasional delicate starry saxifrage pops its head in the stonier wetter ground.
The next sharp pull brings us to the bulky hollow cairn on Mam Sodhail inside which we find shelter as cloud has suddenly come down, swirling around us and bringing the temperature down significantly. We nevertheless get glimpses of the landscape to the west of Carn Eige, but the Cuillins of Skye and the Applecross and Torridon hills will remain out of sight today as the cloud base is too low.
As we leave the summit, the clouds clear and a better view of the Cluanie and Kintail Munros can be had while, further down, bright yellow splashes of marsh marigold do not fail to attract our gaze. Down on the path on the south side of Loch Affric, another first encounter with the striking white/silvery foliage of one single lonely whitebeam, a tree we have never seen before in Glen Affric. Unusual sighting, we wonder? A fine day, indeed. And all of it has been captured on camera by our tired but amazed walking companions. The good news for our readers is that they can share these moments on THIS SLIDESHOW.

Fritillary © Sabrina Schreiber



Orchid © Sabrina Schreiber



Heath Spotted-orchid © Sabrina Schreiber



Greater Butterfly-orchid © Sabrina Schreiber


Sunday 7th. Not had a real hill walk since 22nd June. If for no other reason, we should check on how rusty we are. Why not try a west coast Corbett with panoramic views? Such as Sail Mhor (767m) above the shores of Little Loch Broom? The forecast is fair until early-mid afternoon when strong southerly winds and rain are expected. Blue skies along the way adorned with the mighty and immaculate flight of 20 whooper swans above the Lovat Bridge near Beauly.
In Ardessie, folks are clearing the shore of the previous night’s bonfire while we get our gear on. Within minutes we hit hard frozen ground, a blessing considering how boggy it is underfoot. Magnificent succession of waterfalls of the Allt Airdeasaidh in the deep gorge below the faint footpath. More frozen-over boggy ground below the wide western corries of An Teallach as the skyline gradually opens southwards towards the dramatic hill summits of the Fisherfield Forest wilderness. At last we head more steeply up the side of the south eastern ridge of Sail Mhor. All is quiet until we hear the calls of a group of about 20 golden plovers who have not yet made their way south to warmer climes.
As we reach the rim of the corrie below the summit, the sky gets progressively overcast and the wind picks up significantly. We are indeed a bit rusty as it takes us 20 minutes longer than is predicted in our guide book to reach the summit. We find shelter behind the summit cairn in the crunching snow and enjoy views stretching well over 110kms away to Caithness and its iconic sharp pointed Morven and neighbouring multi-topped Scaraben. Already low lying Lewis is fading from view on the west horizon as the cloud and wind take over the north-west coast. We head back down the way we have come up in a biting, freezing wind. And we have to give up fording the river further down as an alternative return route to base. Welcome hot cuppa back at the car before heading home. Happy. Now in the mood to resume regular weekly hill walks…

Sunday 14th.  Keep it up. Low cloud and poor visibility are not going to stop us having our self-promised weekly walk. Need to check up on the rumour that a hill just south of Inverness offers superb views over the Moray Firth. A short drive and we are soon walking up a very well maintained and in parts newly built moor track. There must be loads of money to be made from grouse shooting as there is no other reason for this very costly track building operation leading nowhere. Hide and seek at the base of the clouds to try and capture the views down below. The summit of Beinn Bhuidhe Mhór (548m) is in cloud and we can only make out the white circle of a pallid sun peeking through swathes of mist. Fleeting glimpses of vast expanses of wet moorland. Coming down just 50m allows us to gaze at the whole Moray Firth while the sun is setting above the guessed at Loch Ness trough.

Sunday 21st. Bird enigma. Low cloud and rain/sleet over the Great Glen are no incentive to hang around Shenval today. Weather forecast is more promising towards Fort William and the Isle of Skye so we set our sights on a Corbett named Sgurr an Utha (peak of the udder, what a strange name) just west of Glenfinnan on the Road to the Isles. Sure enough, when Spean Bridge is reached, the cloud cover disappears and we find ourselves in full sunshine. This sunshine accompanies us on our walk up with glorious views down loch Eil and further east on to a snow-smothered Ben Nevis, all the way to Fraoch-bheinn, a 790m Corbett top just east of today's goal. The first few snow patches reached at the 700m contour have now given way to hard-packed snow and very strong icy winds from the north-east spur us to carry on to the lofty cairn atop Sgurr an Utha. At 796m this is not a mighty hill but the views west, as far as the Uists, beyond the isles of Eigg and Rùm and the southern tip of Skye's Sleat peninsula, reveal a west coast basking in full sunshine as the eastern clouds are catching up with us and start to envelop us. After a shivering lunch break, spent overlooking the rarely seen loch Beoraid and interspersed with a few snow flurries, we head back down, startling our first wildlife sighting of the day: a pair of angrily calling ptarmigan flying away down the slope and scattering a small group of three hinds and their calves. Half an hour of squelching ground later we are back on the track that led us up earlier. The next sighting of wildlife leaves us beaten: ten yards from us sits a small black and white bird never seen before that we have not yet managed to identify, neither in our books nor on the Internet. We'll have to call in the experts...

Sunday 28th. No additional overnight snow following the dump of 10cms on Friday. But numerous small birds are desperate for food at the bird table. While we are filling the feeder a strong call way up above Shenval has us lift our heads to see and marvel at a group of 9 whooper swans led by 23 greylag geese in a V formation heading due west where the temperature is said to be milder and where there is apparently very little snow. When the whoopers stopped calling, the greylag picked up where the 'conversation' had just stopped. Was it all about the next summer holidays up in Iceland?


Sunday 5th. Depite the cold, ice and snow (-5° at 11am in Shenval) decide to venture out and have a walk from Nairn beach to Whiteness sand bar,  hoping to spot some wildlife. Soon have to abort the walk, because of black ice right down to the high tide water mark with the temparature getting up to only 0° on the beach. Nonetheless, this short outing has proved rewarding as we have seen a group of about 10 brent geese on the shore, just below the golf links. Had never seen any of these geese before.

Thursday 9th. Weekly shopping in Inverness. Walking along the River Ness, we catch a glimpse of four goldeneye ducks feeding on the river bed.


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