Wednesday, 9 December 2015

FORTH - A grey day under the bridges

The forth rail bridge completed in 1890
For months I’d moved across the open waterlike a wheel under its skin, a frictionlessand by then almost wholly abstract matterwith nothing in my head beyond the blissof my own breaking
From the Wave by Don Paterson OBE.

The next journey was a long time coming, even though geographically it was one of the closest from my home on the West coast of Scotland it was by its very nature highly dependent on the weather.
As we head towards the end of the year time was running out to get to the water before the bad weather became the norm.
Due to the great generosity of Colin Henderson of Edinburgh Boat charters the plan was to head out on the Firth of Forth from South Queensferry at the foot of the iconic crossings joining Lothian to the Kingdom of Fife.
Week after week the weather continued to defeat us with a succession of Atlantic fronts heading in bringing with it high winds and days of rain and more rain. To add to the complication the plan was to match up the visit with an interview with the Glasgow Herald and photo-shoot so each weekend meant planing against the weekly weather forecast, emails exchanged. There are so just many balls to juggle in the air and it seemed that we would never match everything together and the Scottish weather would continue to beat us..

At last the weather gods were kind and we found a slot of a few hours that would be suitable to head out on the Forth without gale force winds and horizontal rain.
The Edgar Marina is nestled between the current Forth road bridge and the construction of the Queensferry Crossing which cannot come soon enough for the travelers and the local economy as days before the journey fractures were found in the road bridge closing the bridge until the end of year. The history of the site goes back to the eleventh century, but it was in the early Nineteenth Century that a pier was built and has continued to have naval connections until the site became a marina in the late 70s.

Edgar Marina in South Queensferry
Sitting close to the marina is the recently fated road bridge and beyond the road bridge is the engineering and architectural wonder of the Forth Rail bridge whose structural dominance has made it an iconic feature of Scotland known around the World.

Colin Henderson my skipper for the day welcomed me on one of their yachts ready for our trip onto the Forth. Colin strangely sharing a very similar career in IT networking, a World I left some years ago to pursue the rewarding, but uncertain career as a full time artist.

Heading out into the Firth of Forth.

It was time to cast off  and we slowly slipped from the moorings and headed out into fairly calm water. The Estuary and sky a uniform slate grey so typical of many November days.

The Queensferry crossing under construction

Its only when you get onto the water you see the scale of the bridges at this end of the Forth, the current towers of the new bridge construction jutting out into the sky. We slowly turned and we headed Eastward towards the road and rail bridges.
The road bridge was built in 1964 and an immense suspension bridge over over 2,500 m and has carried over 65,000 vehicles a day.

Looking out to the North shore in Fife
Colin handed over the control of the yacht to me, the yacht feeling quite responsive, a pleasant change to my journey out on the Thistle from Maldon in Essex when the size and age of the barge was more of a fight for my untutored and inexperienced hands. In the slightly more choppy waters of the Forth I slowly took us under the road bridge and headed towards the iconic rail bridge.

Skipper Colin Henderson of Edinburgh Boat Charters

The huge distinctive red brown structure grew closer, a bridge like no other crossing this the stretch of Scotland since its opening in 1890. 

Historic photograph showing how the cantilever bridge construction.
Looking under the existing road bridge to the iconic Rail bridge

Its quite an experience to see the bridge from the water, the immense construction an artwork of perfect proportion an awe inspiring achievement for British engineering. We continued to out Eastward under my novice steering until a suitable moment to turn and return towards the marina and back to dry land. Heading back under the rail and road bridges I handed the wheel back to Colin to bring her back to her mooring.
A short journey for the FORTH region, but an enjoyable and interesting one. To see the bridges from a new perspective will remain with me even though the grey dreich day tried to defeat the mood, but enjoyable company and a warming cup of coffee on our return made the days travels a great success.

The journey onto the Firth of Forth only making me look forward the next journey out into the wonders and delights of the areas of the SHIPPING FORECAST.

Scotland Dec 2015

Monday, 21 September 2015

CROMARTY and FAIR ISLE from the City of Granite to Hjaltland and Hamnavoe

Fair Isle 50 x 50 cm Oil on wooden panel. 

I had been checking the weather day after day, worried that gales and high winds might scupper my plans and the inter-connected web of journeys from the mainland of Scotland to the Isles of Shetland and Orkney that Sarah from Northlink had painstakingly put together for me.
As the day came, all was well and the forecast of grey skies and light rain seemed a gift from heaven.
Boarding the train from Troon on the Ayrshire coast to Glasgow and then on to the port of Aberdeen - the granite city on the East coast of Scotland the first seaward destination was Lerwick the biggest port on Shetland a 14 hour over night journey on the North Sea traversing my first region of this adventure Cromarty.
My transport for this overnight sea journey was the Northlink Freighter the MV Hildasay a 122 metre long vessel built in Spain in 1999.

Northlink's Aberdeen to Lerwick freighter - MV Hildasay.

On my arrival at Northlink's Aberdeen ferry terminal I was welcomed with the VIP treatment which was to set the tone of the weeks series of journeys across the Northern Isles. Greeted by Stuart Garrett Managing Director of Northlink Ferries and his PA Sarah, a wizard of organisation I was then driven onto the ship by security and welcomed by the predominately Estonian crew.   I was shown to my cabin for the trip by Tina the steward whose job function seemed to be a cross between House Manager and surrogate mother to the passengers mostly made up of truck drivers who make the regular overnight journeys across to Shetland.  Unlike the layout of your average ferry negotiating the decks of a freighter are more akin to mountain climbing as the sheer steepness of the vertigo inducing stairs would be make crossing an alpine cravasse a stroll in the park in rough seas. As Tina ushered me into the drivers lounge, surrealy furnished with a large dinner table and glass cabinet like a 1970s suburban living room she ticked my name off her list of passenger and said with some excitement, "Mr Ian, you're the man we have been waiting for"
After a hearty meal I was ushered up further precarious stairs to the Bridge to meet the Estonian Captain Avo Orar, a calm and softly spoken man who was happy to share his domain with this artist and traveller.

The bridge of the Hildasay.
The Hildsay's skipper Avo Orar on the bridge.

A fascinating array of radar screens and buttons on the bridge seem to have more in common with flying than sailing. The ship once out of harbour runs like a plane on Auto-Pilot, but even a ship sailing itself  to designated channels and equipped with the latest navigational aids the crew need to constantly scan the horizon for hazards in the murky skies as the evening drew in.

Heading to down to my cabin I retired to my bunk bed as the deep rumble of the engines reminded you that we were slowly heading to the Northerly part of the UK.

My cabin on the Hildasay.
Heavy rain greeted the new day as we docked at the port of Lerwick I headed down into the terminal where I was greeted with smiles and a welcome cup of tea until I was taxied down to the Mareel the cinema and art centre of the town to meet up with my first appointment of the day with Adam Guest at the Shetland Times. After a quick interview and first photograph of the day in the Lerwick rain I headed up the BBC Radio studios to meet up with John Johnson a presenter who hailing from Armagh in Northern Ireland who made his home on Shetland.
The Lodberries - Lerwick

A rainy morning in Lerwick

The rain never let up but a wander about the shops in the town and visit to the stylish Shetland Museum it was soon time to return to the terminal and board my second ship, the passenger ferry MV Hjaltland to sail from Lerwick on Shetland to the port of Kirkwall on the main island of Orkney.

The MV Hjaltland 

One of the privileges of this trip was to be able to visit the bridge on the various vessels. Particularly on the Hjaltland where I was allowed to sit in one of the "Big chairs" during the all important "Red zone" when the bridge cannot be interrupted as they manoeuvre out of port.

On our way and out of the "red zone" leaving Lerwick

One of three control desks on the Hjaltland

Arriving at 11 at night, I was due to be picked up by taxi to take me to Stromness from Kirkwall another gesture of kindness from Northlink not seeing my name outside the terminal I asked one of the inundated staff on the Information desk who promptly vaulted over the desk to find me my taxi.
The driver was already there, but waving a blank name card. As we headed across the dark interior of the island I asked about the blank card, he said, "I hadn't a felt tip to hand to write your name. In the short and rapid journey across the main island he told how a Yorkshire-man got to be working on the island.
A jovial character from outside Barnsley explained that he had sold up, bought a transit van and planned to move to the West of Ireland and lead a hippy lifestyle. What stopped you I asked? "Bad weather", replied. He told me that he continued to drive north to Stranraer and because of traffic jams he just kept on going until he arrived in Scrabster, liking the look of the ferry and thought lets get on and see what happens.  The rest is history and like many I met that the magnetic pull of the Northern Isles was simply too much and with his wife following him up to the island he's there to stay.

On arriving at the Stromness terminal I was welcomed by the terminal security with a joyous and welcoming attitude I was handed over to Nicky on the MV Hamnavoe to sleep the night the harboured ship, a night seemed like an exaggeration as I only had 4-5 hours before I had to depart before the ferry sailed for Scrabster the following morning.  I soon escaped a lively group of bikers in the ships lounge to get to my bed to get up just after 5 am.  Leaving the ship I spent a few hours with the Stromness team who plied me with welcome cups of tea and more evidence of Orkney powerful pull on people from the mainland, Lauren from Aberdeen and another Ian, an ex policeman from Bristol.

As the sun came up in Stromness we were greeted with a clear dawn and the sun soon appeared for the first time for several days.

I was determined after the interviews of the previous day, dodging the rain I would take advantage of the better weather and try and visit the ancient sites of the island.
Orkney has some of the most important neolithic sites in Europe and was awarded World Heritage status in 1999. The greatest of these is the stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar

An amazing upright stone at Brodgar 
Part of the circle that consists of 27 standing stones

Close to Brodgar, the Standing stones of Stenness are equally impressive in their own way and seem to attract a little less attention. As I walked back to the main Kirkwall to Stromness road I had the stones to myself that would be unheard of at Stonehenge and Avebury in England.

Two of the Standing stones of Stenness. 
Stromness is a well established sea port centred around a huddle of houses and cottages off winding narrow lanes which reminded of the Cornish fishing ports of St Ives and Mousehole.  A stop off for the early Hudson Bay Company of Canada and  whaling industry of the 19th Century.

Stromness has been a major centre of the arts, home to the Pier Arts Centre a wonderful haven of 20th century art. The centre was established in 1979 due the foresight and generosity of philanthropist Margaret Gardiner who donated a collection a body of work from the St Ives School to sit alongside local artists such as Stanley Cursiter. 
Stromness was home of late poet and novelist George Mackay Brown. GMBs work is part of the DNA of Orkney and particularly Stromness which was his home for most of his life. 

The winding lanes of Stromness
The rich stone architecture of Stromess

Almost deserted , adds to the town's other Worldliness

For this project I have asked for literary contributions to sit along side the visual art for all the areas traveled. I have asked a number of leading contemporary writers to contribute to the project, but I felt that the work of George Mackay Brown justly complements the essence of this project and these lines match the Fair Isle wonderfully. This work is thankfully reproduced through the kindness of George Mackay Brown's friend Elizabeth Bevan.

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,

Puffing red sails, the tillers

Of cold horizons, leaned

Down the gull-gaunt tide

From the poem Hamnavoe by George Mackay Brown.

'With permission from the estate of George Mackay Brown'.

Soon it was time to leave the beauty and mystery of Orkney to journey to  Scrabster and return back to sleep my final night on the MV Hamnavoe in Stromness harbour before my return to the Scottish mainland.
As we left Stromess you get wonderful views of Orkney's Hoy island and its famous Sea stack "The Old man of Hoy". These images were taken from the bridge of the MV Hamnovoe as we headed out towards the Pentland Firth and the mainland of Scotland.

The spectacular Old man of Hoy from the bridge of MV Hamnavoe

A table cloth of cloud enveloping the cliff tops of the Island of Hoy.

It had not seemed so long since I started this sea journey from the commercial modern port of Aberdeen that I was leaving Stromness for the last time.  

Looking over to the sunrise across Dunnet  Head as we heading back to the mainland.

Arriving at Scrabster port on Friday morning at 8 o'clock I opted to walk into Thurso the most northerly town in UK. An unexpected longer jaunt up hill with bag over my shoulder than I had expected!
I knew that I had a long wait for my nine hour journey back to home to the West coast Ayrshire town of Troon. Sustained by a welcome hot cup of tea I headed for Thurso's seafront so I could take my last look at the Northern Isles across the indigo Pentland Firth.

Looking out to Hoy across the Pentland Firth.
Leaving a packed train we slowly winded our way down first to the Highland city of Inverness and then onto the still bustling Friday of Glasgow and my connection back to my home town of Troon.
Ample time enough to reflect on a journey of the sea, beautiful scenery, neolithic monuments, but above all kindness of strangers.

This journey was made possible by the generosity of Northlink Ferries and its MD Stuart Garrett who "understood" from the outset the possibilities of these journeys in using Art and travel to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.
I particularly wanted to thank Sarah Young at Northlink's headquarters in Aberdeen for her patience and tireless efforts to make the logistics to come to together. the crews, the staff of all the terminals, security and a special thanks to Nicky who works on the Hamnavoe often on the night shift for taking care of a weary traveler during my stay on board.

REMEMBER If you want to support the fantastic work done by Macmillan Cancer Support you can give directly, or via my JUSTGIVING page at:

Troon - Ayrshire Coast - September 2015

Monday, 13 July 2015

MALIN - between a rock and a hard place

MALIN 50 x50 cm Oil on wooden panel

MALIN from the North West coast of Ireland to the South West coast of Scotland - this journey is a small adventure in the Firth of Clyde.

It seems like a lifetime since the first journey, I always knew that it would take some time to build a momentum with areas. Some months later I found myself on relative home turf on the Ayrshire coast. Since the back end of 2014 I see the area MALIN out beyond the relative shelter of Ayr Bay every day. Out on the horizon from the coastal town of Troon where this artist is based is the mysterious rocky outcrop of Ailsa Craig. A volcanic plug of rock half way between Glasgow and Belfast.
The mysterious rock play tricks on you, fading further into the horizon as you travel closer to the coast or disappears all together in a distant sea mist.

MALIN  a new journey a new vessel. Due to the kindness of skipper Mark McCrindle the owner of the MFV Glorious a lobster boat working out of the small coastal town of Girvan famous in part as the once home of Alex Cubie one of the illustrators of Rupert Bear.

As this summer's heatwave scorched the the South of England the hot weather front from SPAIN brought heavy seas to the waters of the Forth of Clyde which prevented the journey out to the island. After several days of morning telephone calls to Mark on weather and sea updates the third day brought cooler and calmer seas and we were set for an early afternoon sailing.

Ominous dark clouds started to shroud the summer sun as my train rumbled along to the small railway station at Girvan. A short walk brought me down the small, but neat harbour. Slowly two by two the Glorious's passengers arrived for the approx  hour journey out to the rock that sits prominently on the horizon on this part of the Ayrshire coast.

Ailsa Craig from Girvan beach.

Mark McCrindle our skipper , Girvan born and bred, lobster fisherman by trade started up the Glorious, her diesel engines slowly started to pull away from the Harbour's gravity out into the open waters of the Firth.  To the relief of everyone the heavy clouds remained land-bound and clearer skies greeted us as we slowly chugged towards this mysterious uninhabited rock.

Skipper Mark McCrindle owner of the MFV Glorious.

Heavy clouds hang over the small neat harbour of Girvan.

Heading out towards the Craig on the Glorious.

We landed on the Ayrshire coast side of the rock at he small abandoned jetty. The only sounds to break the eeriness were the thousands on seabirds that call the Craig their home. The remnants of the islands industrial past still litter this the only accessible part of the island. Pulleys, rails and machinery slowly rusting on the rock outcrop

Map of the 99 Hectare Volcanic plug.

The Glorious tied up as we head off to explore the accessible parts of the island.
Probably better times?
As my fellow passengers headed off in search of Gannets and Kittiwakes, my interest was drawn to the abandoned buildings around the Craig's automated lighthouse.  The detritus of human activity still litters the empty buildings, open to the harsh elements the interiors feel as bleach dry as the stony beach that runs down to the waters edge.

Abandoned and open to the elements
The island industrial past is also its future as one of two sites to source granite for curling stones. The last time stone was removed was back in 2013, and enough was taken to meet expected demand until 2020 so the islands solitude is assured for some years to come. The low lying part of the island is littered with broken stone and seems to provide ample nesting opportunities for those birds not looking for the "high-rise" option of accommodation.

Our short hour stay quickly came to an end and on returning to the boat we started our majestic circumnavigation of the rock. Thousands of birds filled the sky, telephoto lenses pointed into exact positions guided by what seemed decades of instinct. My fellow passengers without obvious signal would swing from one side of the board to another to catch glorious white gannets dart into the grey waters for their next feast of fish. The "far side" of the island sheer cliffs of nesting birds, the sky above us reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie.

Parts of island are remarkably green.

One of the Islands obsolete fog horns
Sheer cliffs the nesting sites of thousands of seabirds.

As we slowly steered for home to the skies started to darken and bright summer sun became a memory. Taking a last look back we headed back to the Ayrshire coast.

The skies redden beyond the lighthouse.

The mists and low clouds start to re envelope the island as the darkening clouds are soon to bring rain.
As Ailsa Craig grew smaller and smaller and we headed towards the mainland the seas became choppy and the small fishing board started to swing from side to side as we rode the waves. Drizzle soon changed to more persistent rain. The sunshine that greeted us on the island seemed a distant memory as waves would periodically inundate the boat and soak us.
As we slowed and entered Girvan habour all my fellow passengers shared smiles even as we disembarked like a procession of drowned rats. It was fantastic to experience, a small wonder so close to the mainland shores.

A wonderful inspiration for the artwork called MALIN.

To experience this fantastic small adventure yourself the details are to be found on Mark's website.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

THAMES the adventure begins

THAMES -sunrise across the Blackwater 50x50 cm oil on wooden panel

The first journey had come round so quickly after the initial enquiry which came out of a chance result of google search for Thames sailing barges. I had always loved the Thames barges and their
brick red sails. To me they are part of the mystery and legend of the Thames estuary, the earthy coloured waters, mists and salt marshes. A land of the hulks and Great Expectations.
The peaceful picturesque River Blackwater

Waving good bye to my wife and our cheeky dog Hector at Troon station I boarded the train to Glasgow to pick up my overnight bus to London, I was ready, if not a little hesitant for the first adventure, but excited to get started.  A journey that would take me from my home of nearly seven years in the West Scotland to a small picturesque corner of the East coast of England. It would take me to early afternoon the following day to get to Maldon the home of the Thistle, the only Thames barge built in Scotland some 120 years ago. A fine warm day greeted me, the Thistle moored within a huddle of barges and small commercial boats. 
The barge is owned by local Maldon business Topsail Charters since 1987 and its to their credit that the Thistle doesn't feel or look her 120 years on the water.

These ships were designed to handled by only two people. The crew for the journey to Ipswich were ex BBC man and journalist Rob, the Thistle's skipper who now spends his life sailing.  Reassuringly calm and naturally at ease on the water. His mate, Lyndon 21 going on 40, a part-time freelance photographer and regular member of the Thistle crew who has sailed the local waters of the Thames estuary since he was 11.  I knew I was in good hands.

On board on the Thistle moored at Maldon
After a day of press photos, a hearty supper and a relaxed pint at the Queens Head pub it was bed early to catch the 4.30 am tide.
Waking at 4am Rob and Lyndon already hard at preparing for departure, going on deck a cold , dark, heavy fog greeted me. A faint hazy light hung on the horizon as we cast off and slowly chugged up the estuary. Rob in the wheel house and Lyndon strategically positioned at the bow as look out for the marker buoys that would safely leads us out of the estuary. A confident shout from Lyndon "Red Buoy starboard three barges length" we headed out on the sailing channel almost on as much by “feel” and “instinct” as by the marker buoys leading us out towards the sea.

An atmospheric morning in the fog 
Sunrise on the Thistle
The fog laying heavy around us it was decided that we would anchor up for an hour and have breakfast and wait for the sun to come up. As the sun rose in the sky the fog and slowly lifted to reveal an beautiful clear sky. 
Skipper Rob at the Wheel

A fine day out at sea 
As we headed out to sea a number of boats and platforms would reveal themselves from the haze including our relatively close encounter with the Radio Caroline ship the Ross Revenge an enormous trawler who found a new life as a pirate radio station in 1983.

The Ross Revenge ex Trawler and home to the pirate Radio station Caroline
Leaving the River Blackwater we motored up the coast past Clacton and Frinton-on-Sea towards the port of Harwich. As we headed past Walton-on-the-Naze pier I was asked to take the wheel as Rob headed down to the gallery to make a cuppa. Feeling the weight of the Thistle in my hands I steered, if not a little nervously along the coast. With no point to steer to other than on the SatNav and more importantly I was told by looking ahead I realised that “following the coast” is not as easy as it sounds. Keep a straight line became a zigzag course which would have made a World War 2 merchant ship avoiding U-boats proud.
Looking out to Frinton and Walton-on-the-Naze

As we started to see the cranes of Harwich port on the horizon, Rob felt there was enough wind to raise the sail. Everything on a Thistle is a sturdy and reassuring, which means "heavy" and maybe twice as heavy when your not experienced and know the techniques to use your body weight to its best advantage. One by one the individual sails took the wind and the regular chug chug of the diesel engine was replaced by the almost silent way we started to slip through the water.
Lyndon hard at work raising sail on the Thistle.
As we reached the mouth of the estuary at Harwich you couldn't notice to feel the change in scale. Modern container shipping is on such a large scale that it can't help but dwarf even a substantial vessel as the Victorian Thistle.
The giant cranes at Harwich port
Slowly but surely heading up the River Orwell towards Ipswich Port our destination. The entrance to the port is by the Prince Philip lock which was separates the marina from the open river. 
Reaching Ipswich Port
Reaching the key side some 10 hours after we set up a little drained, but elated the first sea journey was completed.
Bags packed I left my companions who showed me so much kindness and headed off into Ipswich to catch my bus back into London. Arriving back at Victoria I was confronted by a chaotic 2 wheeled demonstration and struggled across the road into the terminal to greeted by the noise and crowds of a Friday night. With an hour to wait and with sea air replaced with that of diesel fumes, DELAYED popped up on the screen. My seated neighbour looked up smiled and said "don't worry it happens every week."
A restless uncomfortable night I awoke from my drowsiness to a wet and dark M74 , within the next couple of hours I would be back on the West coast and my own bed, drained, weary, but still buzzing from a great if only small adventure of the Shipping Forecast.
Early Saturday morning on the M74 back in Scotland

REMEMBER you can give to Macmillan Cancer Support through my Just Giving Page for the Shipping Forecast Project at :