Tag Archives: Outdoors

April challenge: Dunkeld Enduro 

One day into being 40 injury strikes (again) with a sharp hot poker going through my hand, or that’s what it felt like when I woke at 3am thinking my hand was melting. Not good full stop but not good when you’ve got your first enduro race in two days time.

In the morning the burning had subsided but an alterered sensation progressed to pins and needs in both arms/hands and has remained ever since (now at 2.5 months). I cycled to work one handed to try and preserve the ‘worst’ limb. That’s a logical thought process, right? 

So, back to the race. I decided to give it a bash, expecting to bail after Stage 1, but didn’t want to miss out on the banter. The climb to the top of the first stage was a long one hour, one handed mission. 

The first stage was a blinder – straight into a crazy rock garden and it wasn’t long before I was over the bars after a bad line choice. Why on earth did I not see the freshly cut nice smooth berm? Lesson 1: look ahead more! 

I had another tumble further down on a flat bit a grassy traverse and managed to fly through the tape. Jeez, not sure what I can learn from that?! 

Stage 2 was much better and I felt pumped at the bottom. 

Near the start of stage 3 my chain came off and I must have had my race head on as didn’t want to stop and lose time. I rode pretty much the whole stage with no chain…….eat your heart out Aaron Gwin! Lesson 2: was my free hub still wonky? Need to upskill on the mechanical side of things.

Stage 4 and 5 were awesome. Pretty steep, gnarly and I was definitely riding faster than I should have been. Lesson 3: full face helmets = more risky riding. 

The adrenaline of the staged sections obliterated any thoughts of my arm/hand issue. I’d survived an enduro, was pretty pleased with my result and had good banter with my chums on the way round the course. 


I reckon the key to climbing the ladder is avoiding mechanicals (so many punctures around, thankfully not me) and riding slightly slower/more in control to avoid crashing! Not sure the latter is possible if you’ve got a wee racing demon that rears its head?! 

I’m not 100% sold on racing.  I ride my bike to discover new and remote places but guess it’s good to mix things up every now and again! 

Cycling the North Coast 500 when the wind is blowing a hoolie 

The North Coast 500 is a circular route showcasing some of Scotland’s finest scenery. Starting in Inverness the route heads west to the Applecross peninsula and hugs the coast taking in the top slice of Scotland. 

I had a week off work and this was to be my March challenge, riding solo and unsupported. I didn’t give it much thought until it was Friday night and time to pack. Yikes! 

Day 1: Inverness to Kishorn (111km 684m) 

I drove up from Edinburgh slightly apprehensive; there was snow at the side of the road, it was 1 degree celcius and the forecast was grim for the next few days. This was a challenge and no one said it was going to be easy.  

I abandoned my car in a residential street near the canal and set off hoping I’d be back by the following Sunday! 

I followed a suggested route through Beauly and Muir of Ord to reduce the time on busy roads until the inevitable at Contin. I’d also suggest the quiet short cut via Kirkhill on route to Beauly. 

It was a fairly gentle ride and apart from a few showers, the weather was pretty kind. From Garve the scenery started getting more interesting with rolling snow topped hills hugged by low cloud. I kept stopping to take photos of all the stags at the roadside looking on curiously.

As I dropped into Achnasheen I was hoping for a cafe stop but it was still closed and there wasn’t any sign of life at the hotel either. I pushed on to the Sanachan bunkhouse in Kishorn. Watch out for the steep climb out of Loch Carron just before you get to Kishorn. I was exhausted by this point but thought if I can’t get up this wee hill, what hope do I have for the Bealach? This was the longest I’d ever cycled and I was a bit bedraggled by the time I had arrived at the bunkhouse. Wrists, neck and lower back were feeling it and this was only day 1! 
I’d spotted a seafood bar on the map (would surely have a veggie option?) but it was closed too. Note the pattern…….who comes this way in March? Emergency adventure meal no. 1 to the rescue. I had a good chat with the owner about adventures in the hills and their plans to build a log cabin later in the year. Perfect spot for cyclists. 

Day 2: Kishorn to Kinlochewe (92km 1481m)

I knew this was going to be a toughie, with the Bealach na Bá just around the corner. It means ‘Pass of the Cattle’ and resembles alpine passes with steep gradients and switchbacks, climbing to 626m. 

The forecast shifted from heavy rain to cloud so I set off just in my shorts ready for a sweaty climb and fine views. I caught my first glimpse of what I guessed must be the route and it seemed the weather had different plans. 

A few minutes later the wind had picked up and it was lashing down. Full on waterproofs and nowhere to hide! 

The climb to the start of the switchbacks is long and relentless and probably the worst bit. At times I couldn’t pedal because of the headwind. 


The plus point of doing it this time of year is the dearth of traffic. Eventually I made it to the top and there was a wee lift in the cloud. 

There’s a viewpoint a bit further up with views over to Skye, Rum, the Outer Hebrides and Wester Ross but I was cold and wet and didn’t hang around too long.  

From here, the descent to Applecross is awesome with sweeping corners and the type of speed that makes me glance down to check my front wheel is on properly. I had to stop and put more layers on, it was flipping freezing! 

I headed straight for the Applecross Inn for coffee, hot chocolate and radiator hugging. I’d gone through 3 pairs of gloves with the rain and was pretty soaked. Clothing is always tricky to predict but I was grateful I’d packed spare waterproof gloves and a jacket.

The next section to Shieldaig follows the coast around the Applecross Penninsula and was actually harder going than the Bealach. It’s a series of short sharp leg zapping climbs that seem to go on forever! 


I decided to keep going to the Torridon Inn and got some fine views of Ben Alligin and Liathach.

 

After a fuel stop I charged on to Kinlochewe as the rain wasn’t far behind. It’s fairly flat up Glen Torridon so a good way finish off a big day. I didn’t quite manage to beat the rain and my heart sank when I arrived at the bunkhouse/hotel and everything was closed up. A quick phone call to the bunkhouse number and fear not, the door is always open! 

It wasn’t the most inviting of places and emergency meal no.2 would be on the cards but it was 5pm, 20 miles to Gairloch and without internet I had no idea if I’d manage to get any accommodation further up the road. I knew the forecast for the next day was horrendous and would have liked to get some more miles in but it was too much of a gamble. I stayed put, dried my clothes off and enjoyed my rehydrated meal. 

Day 3: Kinlochewe to Ullapool (124km 1477m) 

I woke early with the wind and rain battering the window and was dreading the day ahead. This was a big day starting off with 20 miles to Gairloch into a forecasted 40mph headwind. Part of me wanted to hitch a lift and not tell anyone, but I remembered my brother doing an etape in horrendous conditions and decided just to crack on with it. 

The ride to Gairloch was brutal in terms of the wind; I was barely moving in my granny ring. I was battered by rain, snow and hail but there were also moments of sunshine. I let out a whoop when I caught my first glimpse of the cafe down by the pier. I was pretty broken by this point and there was still 59 miles between me and Ullapool. It was the first day of opening for the cafe (Coast Coffee Company) and thank goodness! It’s been taken over since I was last there and has a delicious menu that I would happily have worked through. Unfortunately it was only 10.30am so coffee, smoothie and a date slice filled the gap.

 

I’ve done the Tollaidh loop on my mountain bike before and knew there was a big climb out of Gairloch but thankfully the wind was behind me at this point and it wasn’t too bad. My dodgy knee had taken a hit battling through the wind to Gairloch which was a bit of a worry. Anyway, I kept going with the wind sometimes being a hindrance and sometimes my new best friend. More snow and hail showers and I actually got blown off my bike when I stopped at a viewpoint, not long after this……..


On some descents I had to pedal hard to move because of the headwind. Stunning views though over to Assynt, An Teallach and Sgurr Mor. 

I made it to Ullapool, pretty broken from the wind. I’d booked into the bunkhouse at the Ceilidh Place and took advantage of the log fire, a pot of tea and iced my knee. By now weight bearing was tricky and I was worried it was game over. Guess this highlighted the importance of conditioning. I ride my mountain bike all the time with no issues but this was a different bike and a different type of riding. I was super excited to get some proper food at the Ceilidh Place and not have an emergency meal! Big high five to the veggie options. 

Day 4: knee recovery day in Ullapool

It was blowing a hoolie and the sensible thing was to have a rest day to try and let my knee settle. I spent the day eating, icing my knee and taking it easy (actually harder in some ways than riding!)

Day 5: Ullapool to Durness (119km 1489m)

I was nervous starting the climb out of Ullapool. I knew the road and knew my knee would get tested. I road tentatively and enjoyed the views across Ardmair Bay to Coigach, Stac Polly and Suilven.


Approaching Loch Assynt I had a decision to make – the direct route to Kylesku or the longer route via Lochinver and the stunning beaches around the penninsula. From spending a week up here before  I knew the latter was a beautiful but challenging route with short sharp hills and twisty singletrack. My heart said that way but my head said to protect my knee and go direct. I went with my head and while I didn’t capture turquoise coves, I enjoyed riding past the snow topped peaks of one of my favourite hills Quinag. 

I stopped at the Kylesku Hotel for soup and coffee and had a peek at the bridge.

After the climb out of Kylesku it wasn’t long before I was passing through Scourie and getting fine views of Ben Stack, Arkle and Fionaven (another one of my favs).

 I took shelter from the wind behind an old fishing building on Loch Laxford and refuelled in the sun. 

After Rhiconich the road gradually climbed again and my knee started playing up. It was a case of head down and pedal the last 20km to Durness. 

I stayed at the Lazy Crofter bunkhouse which was perfect – comfortable and cozy. The hotel was closed so another adventure meal! 

Day 6: Durness to Thurso ( 119km 1489m) 

The beaches were gorgeous but when you’ve got a lot of miles to put in, there wasn’t really any time for exploring. One of these days I’ll get to Smoo Caves! 

This was the first day of light wind and coupled with a big flat section from Durness tracing the shore of Loch Eriboll I was suddenly experiencing a completely different NC500.

I stopped for a roadside view of Ard Neackie after seeing @loosemooose‘s photo a couple of weeks beforehand. 

After a fast descent to cross the River Hope, there was a big climb up to Á Mhòine and this section is a strong contender for most breathtaking part of the trip. Perfectly still, just me, snow by the road, frozen lochans and stunning views of a snowy Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. I was in a moment for sure and could have spent the whole day up here. 

Another fast descent takes you to the Kyle of Tongue slipway. @belhavenbikes had sent me a message on twitter to visit Weavers cafe just after Tongue and promised it would be open, and so I did. A great refuelling stop and it has a track pump outside which is handy.

The beach at Bettyhill looked inviting but I needed to push on. Pretty much as soon as you cross into Caithness the road flattens. I managed to hit home time as I passed Dounreay and the road suddenly became very busy. 

With the calm conditions I would have liked to get to John O’Groats but by the time I got to Thurso my bum was so sore I couldn’t sit on the saddle any longer and called it a day.

Day 7: Thurso to Helmsdale (121km 1056m) 

It was an easy 30km to John O’Groats with a flat road and light wind. Before long, Orkney was visible and I was pulling in for the obligatory photo.

I stopped for a coffee and to let my back have a rest – by now I was really struggling. Last year I had a pretty bad back injury and was anxious from day 1 that it was going to spasm again. 

If you are doing the pure NC500 there is no choice but to head down the east coast from JOG and join the A9 after Latheron. 

I was back to having a decent enough headwind to make riding tough, and the first section from JOG was fast car territory. I was glad of the high vis vest I donned for this section. 

This part of the route is far less interesting than the West / North West corner and you don’t have the spectacular scenery to distract you when things are hard going. I stopped in Wick for lunch and the rest of the ride to Helmsdale was a sufferfest. My lower back was struggling and I was getting off the bike every 20-30 mins to do release exercises on the ground. 

Watch out for the Berriedale Braes – a steep descent and brutal climb, especially with a headwind! 

I’d booked a B&B in Helmsdale and after doing all my back stretches fell into a deep coma. 

Day 8: Helmsdale to Inverness (127km 704m)

I was expecting to need 2 shorter days for the final stretch because of my back but made good progress to Dornoch. There’s a really nice coastal road that takes you from Golspie to Dornoch and lets you escape the lorries on the A9 


After coffee and cake (definitely back in civilisation now!) at Gordon House in Dornoch I headed back along the A9 to Tain. 

There’s a nice route along quiet roads to Dingwall 

My back was holding out with some off the bike releases and I was then on the home straight retracing my route from Muir of Ord to Beauly and the final stretch along the Beauly Firth. 

I made it! 

For me this was an epic challenge. I set off knowing I’d have a tough 4 days with the weather and I sure did! 

People talk about the mental and physical side of things. I ended up talking to inanimate objects at the side of the road and the odd bit of road kill. There were times when I felt like curling up in my bivvy bag under a rock and giving up because of the relentless wind, but I didn’t. Mentally I (just) managed to hold it together. 

Physically my legs were fine and got me up the many many hills but it’s the things that come with conditioning (and possibly a professional bike fit) that would have made the biggest difference. A ride like this exposes the niggles that normally dont bother you. The 20-40mph headwind for the first few days took its toll on my knee. A chronic injury that has never bothered me on the bike, became a big problem. Sitting on a saddle for 7-7.5h on consecutive days, my bum and lower back were crying out.  I ride my mountain bike about 3 times a week for maybe 3 hours at a time and a lot of that is standing up or off the saddle chatting. If I’d done some proper road training would it have helped? Who knows but I do know this is a serious undertaking and a completely different kettle of fish to being mountain bike fit. 

March threw up its own challenge……food. The fickle Scottish weather can catch you out anytime of year but until Easter pretty much everything is closed. This includes the hotels! Apart from Ullapool I had a dehydrated adventure meal every night for tea (can restock in the outdoor shop in Ullapool).

March does have its benefits though. The only traffic you encounter is Highland cows, locals and Tesco delivery vans. You have the bunkhouses to yourself so it’s easy to dry off clothes and there are no midges! 

Good luck to anyone doing it and I hope the wind is your friend. Scotland is a spectacular country and what better way to explore?! 

Going wild

After watching @steamingboots film of his winter camp up Beinn a’ Chrulaiste I had become fixated with a similar adventure. Gill had suggested some ideas for the weekend and then on Thursday I asked if the others wanted to camp up a ‘hill’ in Glencoe. I’ve learned to be suitably vague with details.

So after work on Friday we loaded up the car and headed up to Glencoe. After an electric sunset over Rannoch Moor we packed our bags in the failing light and set off for the summit. It was a clear night and despite no moon, our eyes adjusted and we managed without head torches for a good while.

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We weaved our way up through the patches of snow and managed to find a nice grassy spot near the summit to camp.

I’ve been desperate to see the aurora for years and despite several late night dashes to East Lothian, I’ve always returned disappointed. I missed some spectacular displays the previous two nights and was hoping this was going to be my time. Nothing visible to the naked eye or camera lens but still a magical moment as we watched shooting stars and the milky way.

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We were quickly to bed seeking the warmth of our sleeping bags but it was a cold night and we didn’t sleep too well.

The alarm was set for 5.50am to catch the sunrise. I normally struggle with early rises but peeked out my tent and the start of the orange glow and a beautifully calm morning was a winner.

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We warmed ourselves with coffee as the sun slowly spread through our camp, our frosty tents glistening.

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The moment the sun reached our faces reminded me of the Banff Mountain Film Festival winner North of the Sun, although our journey was one night, not nine months!

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The sun warmed Buachaille Etive Mor and it would have been easy to stay put for the day soaking up the panoramic views but we had to crack on with our next adventure – paddle boarding into Barisdale Bay on the Knoydart Penninsula. If I though the wee windy roads north of Assynt were something, the road into Loch Hourn is on a different level!

We hadn’t timed things too well and the combination of an incoming tide and headwind made it look like we might not reach Barisdale Bay. We couldn’t rest and refuel without being pushed backwards and it was energy zapping. We hugged the shoreline and took advantage of where the rock jutted out creating a welcome haven of calm.

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We arrived at Barisdale Bay exhausted but with a real sense of achievement. It is nestled amongst the towering Beinn Sgritheall, Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buide and has a great sense of remoteness.

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Another stunning sunset (with views over to Skye), another perfect morning.

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We started our paddle back with a glassy Loch Hourn, enjoying the sun on our backs and the tide carrying us along. The wind picked up towards the end reminding us nature is boss.

The best memories are the ones we earn and we certainly did that!

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Great Glen Paddle Boarding

The Great Glen Canoe Trail is described as ‘One of the UKs great adventures, requiring skill, strength, determination and, above all, wisdom on the water’. Sensible people travel the 60 miles (96km) from Fort William to Inverness by open canoe or sea kayak. Silly people decide to do it on inflatable stand up paddleboards (SUPs), which they neither own nor have any experience.

The trail guide strongly advises paddling in the direction of the prevailing wind but the forecast was for north-easterly / easterly for most of the week. After some last minute discussions we decided to stick with our original plan and headed up to Fort William after work. We’d practised towing techniques and made a plan for if the group was split by strong cross winds but I was still pretty nervous about the safety aspect of the trip. Guess there is definitely something in ignorance is bliss. Andy kindly came along in a sea kayak for the first part of the trip.

We had originally talked about doing the trip completed self-powered and carrying camping gear on our SUPs but this would have made things really tricky, especially when you factor the portages and extra weight. We decided to run shuttles and opt for the comfort of dry bunkhouses.

Day 1: Corpach to Loch Lochy

There was lots of excitement as the Tartan Trail Fairies registered and donned our outfits for day 1. Of course we wanted to go from sea to sea and started at Corpach rather than taking the easy option of launching above Neptune’s staircase.

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It took a few portages to master getting the boards and gear on and off the pontoons without risking puncture or skint knees on the rough surface. The sun was shining on our fairy wings as we cruised along the canal to Gairlochy, chatting to the boaters, cyclists and walkers who were curious about our crafts, and outfits.

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After the Gairlochy locks, the canal opened up into Loch Lochy (12 miles) and we felt a true sense of wilderness. We were aiming for a layby about half way up Loch Lochy. The water was like glass reflecting inversions of the surrounding mountains. This is the Scotland we’d been accustomed to over summer and this was one of those moments.

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In our limited SUP experience, one of the problems we had noticed is how the fairly static stance causes your feet become numb pretty quickly. We tried to factor in an off the board stretch and snack every hour with an on the board stretch every half hour in between. We pulled into the shore about 5 km short of the layby and in an instant the calmness broke as a headwind picked up; a reminder of the fickle nature of weather. The last section was a battle and we got off the water just as the light was fading.

Day 2: Loch Lochy to Bridge of Oich

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There was a slight breeze as we set off but conditions were still holding up. The remaining part of Loch Lochy was spent enjoying the views and getting excited about the thought of home baking aboard the Eagle. This is an old barge moored just above Laggan Lock, now housing a restaurant and pub. As someone who is obsessed with eating, the disappointment when we arrived to find it closed was too much and I found myself leaving a rambling message on the restaurant phone number. We continued a short distance along sheltered canal guarded by towering trees before Loch Oich opened before us. We had a quick bite at the Great Glen Water Park before continuing down the most stunning Loch on the trip. At just 5 miles long and the resting place for the ship wreck Eala Bhan there was plenty to explore. Just after Aberchalder Swing Bridge we got off the water at Bridge of Oich.

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Day 3 Bridge of Oich to Fort Augustus

Today was superhero day and while the others had bought outfits, I’d raided my dressing up box and invented Aloha the Hawaiian superhero. This was a shorter day distance wise but one with a lot of portages and a stronger headwind.

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Day 4: Fort Augustus to Urquhart Castle

With tales of the Loch Ness tourist boast shedding 5 foot wakes as they pass and no emergency escape routes on the north shore, Loch Ness had been built (by others) to be our nemesis. We decided to stick to the north shore and had a quick scouting trip the night before looking for get outs. We were feeling good in the morning and decided to be more ambitious with our distance, aiming for a few kilometres short of Urquhart Castle. This proved tricky as every layby was perched above steep and heavily vegetated cliffs. Conscious of time, we abandoned the car in a layby convinced the exit point was manageable with SUPs, and wrapped a fluoro jacket round a tree to avoid overshooting.

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The sun continued to shine as we set off from Fort Augustus with shouts from the Lock Keepers ‘Shouldn’t you be wearing life jackets rather than fairy wings?’ The girls had been so impressed with my Alohoa Hawaiian Princess outfit that we were all in Hawaiian outfits. Of course we had our safety gear in our dry bags but this was our style and why not wear grass skirts?

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After a few miles the tranquillity was broken as jets and helicopters zoomed passed. There seemed to be a lot of flying action that day and laps of Loch Ness must have been in the training mission! We were treated to dipped wings, flashing lights and a rather close encounter with a helicopter. Just what we needed to lift spirits as fatigue started setting in.

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The fluoro jacket was a long time coming and again the light was fading. We must have thought we were an army rescue team when deciding the get out was suitable but there was no way we were going to manage our boards and bodies up to the car without causing damage. The options were to leave the boards at the bottom or paddle another 5km to Urquhart Castle. The latter sounded more fun and with just under an hour of light left we reckoned doable. We felt like pirates landing at the castle at dark, scrambling up the walls and hauling our gear up. We were exhausted but the adventurous spirit prevailed.

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Day 5: Urquhart Castle to Clachnaharry

While the escape through Urquhart Castle at night was exciting, the challenge of an inconspicuous entry was beyond us. After some gentle persuading, a very kind manager agreed to let us launch with a few provisos to avoid any health and safety issues. My mum and dad had joined as support crew for the last couple of days and it was great having their help for getting all our gear down. We were fully kitted out in wetsuits and buoyancy aids as this was the section we were likely to encounter the big tourist boats. Naturally there was a special touch for the day and it was our home made Nessie Monster hats.

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As we passed the Clansman Harbour, there were swarms of tourists about to board for their search of Nessie and we got lots of waves and bewildered looks. It was hot work in the wetsuits and we only had one encounter with a boat’s wake. A dunking would have helped with the overheating so I actively paddled towards it but it’s amazing how stable the boards are and the rollercoaster ride was great fun. We landed on the beach at Lochend without any swims and my mum was waiting with her shoes off and trousers rolled up desperate for a shot on the board.

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It was referendum day. The postal votes had been cast and now that Loch Ness was behind us, we ditched our sweaty neoprene for sequence. The build up to the referendum was exhilarating with passionate debates amongst those in the media spot light and also between friends and family who normally shy away from politics. We were split in our voting preferences generating friendly banter in our outfit preparation.

As we set off on the last section of trip there were mixed emotions. We were exhausted but as we left the wilderness behind and signs of urban life started creeping in, the sense of freedom and timelessness evaporated. We pushed on to Clachnaharry Sea Lock, where the journey ended. We had done what many thought we couldn’t. We’d paddle boarded across Scotland from sea to sea. This wasn’t about being the strongest, the fittest, the best prepared. This was about positive attitude and sense of adventure.

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Thanks to everyone who sponsored us.  We managed to raise over £1500 for Maggies and Cancer Support Scotland which was incredible.

Tiree: beach and beats

The first time I went to Tiree was magical; weather that turned the sea a vibrant turquoise, waves perfect for surfing, and a very small but superb music festival. It was my introduction to the likes of Mànran and Skerryvore – bands from the islands with a large local following and a stage full of trad instruments.  Could a second trip to the Tiree Music Festival live up to my expectations?

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It’s still classed as a small music festival but had expanded considerably. Two campsites, one for families was a nice touch.  Coffee, cake and ceramic painting courtesy of Beachcomber. Beach party on Friday with a live band on the beach and poi a plenty.  Loads more people, some never making it out the campsite.

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What remained was the most spectacular location for a music festival with the white sand of Crossapol, a friendly community vibe, fantastic music from old favourites and the discovery of new bands such as Breabach.

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A day surfing and another paddle boarding.  Blessed to have a Maldives on our doorstep and once again, the island famed for it’s hours of sunshine over the summer lived up to it’s reputation.

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imageAs soon as you step off the ferry Tiree captures you and gets into your soul. I’ve made a wee video of the trip: http://vimeo.com/71196245