Moray Coast Trail – Hopeman to Covesea

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The Moray Coast Trail, or Moray Coastal Trail (not even the council can decide what it’s called) stretches from Cullen in the east to Findhorn towards the west, along the coast of the Moray Firth.

Officially, it’s 50 miles but there are some arguments about that…

…anyway, over the past few months we, as in Patches and I, have been tackling it in nice bite sized sections at the weekends. Patches is a mature gentlemen, with a touch of arthritis, and so those bite sized chunks range from five to around nine miles. This is a bit of a misnomer though, as we walk each section as a there-and-back, so we might only cover 2.5miles of the trail, but we do it twice, in both directions seeing it from both views.

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Some sections are easier to walk than others, as it shares the route with sections of cycle trails and on disused railways, so sometimes a nice wide flat path is provided and sometimes you are on the “walkers path” and therefore going around the cliffs (and up and down thin tracks being scratched by scratchy shrub).

I had been looking forward to yesterdays section very much, because the map has the words ‘caves’ printed on it all the way. It did not disappoint, although the scratches from the scratchy bushes on the very enclosed sections might take a few days to heal.

All along the route there are coves and bays, some sand and some pebble. Some are easy to get to, and some are definitely not.

The whole route gives excellent views across the firth to the coast on the other side, depending on the weather of course, and you can often see dolphins, seals, and a large variety of birdlife.

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Not marked on the map is the old Coastguard lookout station, which you get to see from quite some distance when walking west to east, but then it pops up over the gorse and undulating cliff top at you if on the route east to west.

It is a shame that you can’t go in it, or that it hasn’t been co-opted into a bothy like the one on Skye. I image the view from the balcony at the top would be quite something.

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The route does indeed take you past a number of sandstone caves and rock formations, as promised on the map. These ones (above) are not far from the active quarry and are reasonably accessible, although two of the three paths down are much steeper than the west most one and great care is needed.

Popular with photographers, mainly due to the natural arch you can just see at the bottom of the photo (above), and the array of weather worn large round rocks which form a stunning collection of geological complexity (below), it is unlikely you’ll be alone here for very long.

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At weekends, it is possible to park near to the quarry entrance and just visit these caves, although this is certainly not recommended on weekdays when the lorries are going in and out, and care should be taken not to block access at ANY time.

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The quarry produces some very large pieces of sandstone, and whilst it may be a bit of a blight on the landscape, it does facilitate the degree of weekend parking which is helpful, as well as offering much needed employment.

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Towards the Covesea end of the walk, which can be extended easily to Lossiemouth if desired, there is the Sculptors Cave. This feature is clearly marked on the OS maps in the serif type usually reserved for ancient monuments so there is a deeply historical context, obviously. It isn’t actually possible to see Sculptors Cave from the walk, as you’re actually walking over it, but nearby natural arches and caves that you can see give you a teaser of what it could be like.

Luckily, the wonderful Canmore website can shed more light on this;

‘Finds from the Sculptor’s Cave dating from the Bronze Age to the 4th century AD, and including Iron Age pottery, are in the Elgin Museum.’

‘The most striking feature of the cave is the (formerly) substantial assemblage of human remains that was revealed in both programmes of excavation’

‘The possibility may be considered that there were two periods of deposition….the deposition of the remains of children, with some emphasis on the placing of heads at the entrance, and….the remains of several decapitated individuals. Concern with the removal, curation and display of human heads is a persistent trait across prehistoric Europe…’
(edited, removing technical references for ease of reading, by the photographer)

This exciting site certainly warrants a further expedition to photography the carvings at a later date.

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The caves and natural arches extend along the seaward side of the cliff and also under where the photographer is standing.

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The coast of the Moray Firth is still able to enchant and interest, even after more than 13 years of living beside it. The geology itself is varied and interesting, and the human history of the coast is just as fascinating.

The eastern side of Scotland is often overlooked by the rush to the west coast and the isles, and whilst this keeps it from being unpleasantly crowded, it is a disservice to what is a very worthwhile destination. The weather of Moray is far more stable, and frequently warmer and drier than the west, although the residents will still bemoan the lack of a “decent summer”. It also suffers considerably less from the issue of the Highland midge than it’s opposing neighbours.

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Although the walk was only around 5-6 miles in length, ignoring some exploratory detours, Patches certainly enjoyed the outing as much as I did.

Update Sunday 8th October: attempted today to get down to the Sculptures Cave from the cliff above. It was difficult is distinguish the right path and I tried finding a way down and back to it from different points. In the end I found what seems the most logical path but I was only brave enough to tackle the first section and was slipping in the mud from the last few days of rain. As I peered over the precipice and contemplated the leap across the missing rock section onto the second path I am afraid that I bottled it. The caves remain unexplored until I can tackle them from the bottom having walked there from the beach at the far Lossiemouth end. For this, I would want to be there as the tide was going out rather than after it had turned and was heading back in, as being cut off is a very serious proposition. Another time…

 

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A birding walk: Cummingston – Burghead – Hopeman (with a Nikon P900)

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The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.

This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…

I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.

As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.

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A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.

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I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.

The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.

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My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.

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Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.

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The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.

I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.

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We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.

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It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.

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Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.

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As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.

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I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.

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As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…

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It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.

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I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.

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I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.

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Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.

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We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.

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The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.

ST0RM-0313The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.

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As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.

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Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.

The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.