Many thanks to Irene Boston for the following trip blog & photo’s, I hope the binoculars are still ok!
The Shiants in a weather window… or Glynis gets wet, again… and again… and again
As the skipper carried out running repairs on my binoculars, I could hardly refuse when I was ‘volunteered’ to write the trip report, could I? Although I wasn’t about to let my fellow passengers get away without any homework, so the following personal memories are enlivened by highlights from all of us.
But the trip can really be summed up as: wild weather… spectacular scenery… awesome geology… wonderful wildlife… fascinating history… excellent company… lots of laughter… very healthy appetites… nostalgic memories for David and Sue… Hawkeye Glynis’ innate skill in spotting eagles (and getting soaked)… Andrew walking us all into the ground… Martin’s botanising… Molly’s cooking… Craig’s shorts… Seven’s impersonation of a Dyson… good old HB, sturdy as ever… and the spectacle of Mark rummaging around under female passengers’ bunks wielding a bucket.
Saturday – Calm before the storm
Everyone gathered aboard a freshly painted HB on a sunny afternoon in Oban and we were soon heading up the Sound of Mull, passing very familiar and much loved territory for me, with the mountains of Mull looming over us and Ben More still with its icing of snow and Bottlenose Dolphins for company. Anchoring in Tobermory harbour near the Shag colony on the cliffs, it was a relaxing evening and we were treated to yet more Bottlenose circling the boat.
While the first dinner on board can be understandably a little stilted as we all meet for usually the first time, the passengers on this trip were a nice balance of repeat offenders and first timers and we soon gelled. The mixed backgrounds and wide range of interests we all brought with us – from history, geology, wildlife, botany, hill-walking, photography – made for some stimulating and interesting conversations, and a boatload of wacky senses of humour resulted in a great deal of laughter along the way. If, by the end of the ten days, the skipper thought he was in charge of a floating kindergarten, that was merely in his fevered imagination and I’m sure he’ll recover eventually, with suitable therapy.
Sunday – Sneaking round Skye
Yesterday’s good weather didn’t last and we headed out with a cunning plan by Mark to avoid the approaching storm from the west. Sailing past the Ardnarmurchan Lighthouse and the familiar outline of Eigg, we aimed for the Sound of Sleat, eventually dropping anchor in the sheltered bay by Isleornsay.
The rain had really set in after lunch and it’s always a sobering sight watching the skipper and Craig disappearing into full oilskins – it’s a sign you’re going to get very wet, often before you even land. It had seemed like a good idea at the time to go ashore, even in the pouring rain, just to get some exercise. An hour later with water steadily trickling in via every gap in the waterproofs, it was more a case of, whose idea was this?
The state of the tide wouldn’t allow us to walk across to the small island of Oronsay but we made the most of the afternoon by exploring the village and the next bay, although by the time we were picked up, most of us had taken shelter either in the pub or the artist’s studio. Those who had sensibly remained aboard the ‘mother ship’ looked justifiably smug as we sloshed our way back aboard. It’s probably the only day Glynis stayed dry…
Sadly, the continuing rain put paid to the views as we continued up the Sound, past Glenelg and Kylerhea with their sea eagles and otters, but the weather was drying up by the time we halted for the night in the wonderful anchorage of Loch na Beiste. Although only just round the corner from Kyleakin, it was blissfully quiet in our bay and we had crystal clear light as we whiled away the evening trying to identify the distant mainland hills.
Monday – Never take a shower in a Force 10
On a morning of sunshine and showers and an increasing ‘hoolie’, we headed for Plockton for a morning ashore, passing under the Skye Bridge on the way. Maybe it’s me or maybe it was the rain and poor visibility, but I must admit my first view of the bridge was a bit underwhelming … a fairly uninspiring bridge design I thought.
As we neared Plockton on the shores of Loch Carron, the iconic postcard view of the crags behind the village hove into view and we anchored just offshore for a morning’s exploration. Plockton’s sheltered position gives it a mild climate and palm trees flourish in village gardens.
We all headed off in different directions once let loose and I found a vaguely remembered path up onto the Back Brae above the village, with stunning views over Loch Carron and the Applecross Hills. Martin’s highlight of the trip was finding the scarce Scottish version of scurvy-grass in an unexpected spot on the outskirts of the village.
The weather got even friskier after lunch as we ran for Skye, crossing to Portree in what turned out to be a storm force 10 blow… as Elaine found out the hard way when she went for a shower.
The crossing was fairly lively and I know I’m not speaking for all my fellow inmates here but I loved every minute of it. But then I would as I didn’t have any of the responsibility. I’m also very lucky in that I never get seasick; all of which probably had them wanting to throw me overboard.
From a sheltered vantage point at the stern, a few of us braved the elements and watched the weather hammering in a big swell sending waves over the sides and washing around our feet, strong winds creating ‘Willy-Wars’ waterspouts dashing across the surface, rainbows accompanying us… and even bow-riding dolphins.
As Mark said, dolphins seem to love HB and one of the highlights of any trip aboard is sticking your nose over the bow, peering down at Bottlenoses breaching alongside the boat or racing the old girl. Sometimes you are so close that you can see their blowholes opening and closing and I swear they look you right in the eye.
Everyone on deck got soaked… but some more than others. Pip, standing by the ladder to the upper deck, thought she was cunningly sheltered from all the ‘slop’ coming over the sides, forgetting there was a large hole above her head… until it turned into a water chute and she got deluged. Sadly, I was too busy laughing to get the camera out…
In the lee of Skye, the wind eased… slightly. We finally stopped near Portree in Camas Ban bay, another example of the skipper’s ability to find sheltered overnight anchorages where we’re often the only vessel. After another delicious Molly dinner, we spent an entertaining evening watching the wind whipping the nearby waterfalls uphill.
Tuesday – Hunkered down
The wind dictated that the best plan was to stay where we were, riding out the storm in the hope of taking advantage of an approaching weather window, so we spent the day and overnight at the same anchorage. A small party went ashore to the nearby beach in the morning and those aboard watched Andrew and Margaret head for separate skylines, and it was a close run thing who got there first.
After lunch on-board, another party headed for Portree in the afternoon, taking a long rib ride to the harbour. They all managed to get soaked before they even got ashore when a Buzzard flew overhead and everyone looked up, just as a wave broke over the rib, engulfing them all. Sadly I missed it from HB as I’d felt lazy and spent the day aboard. I was exhausted by the end of the day though – it’s tiring doing nothing.
The more energetic souls who went ashore enjoyed various walks round the town and along the shoreline, logging our first orchids of the trip; most probably, given the location and the time of year, Northern Marsh Orchids. Glynis managed to spot our first White-tailed Eagle that evening and again the following morning, by which time the waterfalls had stopped defying gravity.
Wednesday – Seabirds galore and hardcore geology – it must be the Shiants
This morning our hoped-for weather window arrived and we started north early from Portree with the Shiants firmly in mind. Passing the north-east coast of Skye, the vast stretch of the Totternish peninsula, with its almost continuous line of basalt cliffs, and the splinter of the Old Man of Storr gradually emerging from the shadow of its parent hill, was somehow made all the more impressive when viewed from the sea.
The sun came out for the crossing once clear of Skye, and the Shiants hove into view ahead and were every bit as awesome as I’d hoped they’d be. From the numbers of seabirds all around us as we approached and the densely-packed cliffs and slopes teeming with Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Puffins, as well as seals on the shoreline, it’s easy to see why they are so precious and vulnerable. Several species of gull also breed here, along with Bonxies, all making a good living off their seabird neighbours, and there are now controversial proposals to reduce the Black Rat population.
There are scattered signs of early settlements on all three islands and the whole place is a geology lesson come to life. The towering cliffs are formed from magma plugs sticking out of the sea; the last northerly outpost of an igneous rock sill before you hit the Lewisian gneiss. The columnar structures formed as the magma cooled, the rock fracturing into hexagonal columns which now provide roosts and nesting spots for thousands of seabirds.
We were all eager to explore and Mark managed to land us on the easternmost island, Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island); although in a tricky landing, Glynis had an epic exit from the rib by managing to get her foot wedged between a rock and the rib for some time. I’m told Mark was too busy laughing and heckling to help…
It was a rocky exit from the beach and a steady pull onto the plateau, where the handful of sheep on the plateau explained the close-cropped nature of the grass, but you could still see the remains of lazybeds and turf dwellings.
In his traverse of the island, Andrew inadvertently flushed a Short-eared Owl which very handily flew right in front of me, providing wonderful views, before it got well and truly beaten up by gulls as it headed off towards the other island.
Heading back to HB for a swift lunch, Ruth managed to fall at Mark’s feet getting back in the rib… what is this strange effect he has on women, children and animals? And as if it hadn’t been geology overload already for me, we then sailed right round the other islands; Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) first before anchoring off Eilean an Tinghe (House Island), passing scenery that knocks Staffa into a cocked hat.
Luckily, we managed a second landing in the afternoon on the main island, Mark dumping us right by the cottage on the west side, and it was fantastic to see all the features of the islands that I’d only read about in Adam Nicolson’s book, Sea Room. Again we all explored separately and between us managed to cover a fair amount of ground in the time we had; Andrew, this time chose not to leave us all for dead on foot but spent time around the cottage and shoreline indulging his passion for black and white photography.
I’m with Glynis on her trip highlight – watching Golden Eagles, only to look up and see several immature Sea Eagles circling over HB. My favourite moment of the whole trip was sitting on the high point above the cottage looking towards the main seabird cliff of Garbh Eilean, watching the massed ranks of auks, with eagles of both flavours overhead.
Floating Knocking Shop
The change in the wind meant we couldn’t anchor overnight so we crossed a relatively calm Minch, heading for the southern side of Scalpay. Enjoying the sunshine on the upper deck, we were also treated to a fly-by skua passage, with Arctic, Pomarine and Bonxies gliding by at regular intervals.
We sailed past Eilean Glas, the peninsula on Scalpay’s eastern side and home to the first lighthouse built in the Outer Hebrides, and we had brief glimpses of the bridge which now joins the island to Harris. The views from our anchorage at Scalpay were superb and we enjoyed our first clear sunset disappearing behind the hills.
Discussions over dinner turned to the aurora alert that had been issued that night and Mark asked if we wanted to be woken up if it did appear… or as Margaret commented (allegedly innocently), the skipper needed to ‘knock us all up’ if the aurora happened. Being the sober, upright and respectable bunch that we are, of course we did not descend into ribald laughter and completely lower the tone of the whole evening. We behaved ourselves impeccably, and if you believe that…
Although it was noticeable the alacrity with which Mark, the caring sharing skipper, threw his crew to the wolves, volunteering Craig for the onerous task. But sadly, there was no aurora that night… and even less knocking up.
Thursday – Eagles, the sequel and a sunset otter
A splendid morning run in the sunshine saw us sailing past the east coast of Harris and North Uist to approach the narrow channel entrance to Loch Eyport where we would stay till the morning; one of my favourite spots. We all took a packed lunch ashore and headed off for either a long afternoon walk in the sunshine or a potter about the lochans.
From the shoreline in front of Evaal, you could see Ian and Elaine striding up the ridge to the summit; at only 347m it’s the highest point on North Uist but a mere toddler compared to mainland hills. Walking back over Little Evaal later on, the views were incredible, especially across North Uist’s landscape of half-land half-water, a classic Outer Hebridean example of cnoc and lochan – ice-scoured basins now filled with water or peat surrounded by ice-moulded crags.
It was a day full of wildlife, from Emperor Moths and fast-flying Fritillaries to Golden Plover and Dunlin on the moorland, yet more Sea Eagles and a smattering of Red-throated and Black-throated Divers and Common Sandpipers on the lochans. I struck lucky coming down the hill, with the spectacle of a Raven hassling a Golden Eagle just below me. Luckily, the eagle then flew towards HB where those already back on board enjoyed good views as the magnificent raptor flew right over the boat.
After yet another fantastic dinner, during which Molly’s chocolate cake mysteriously disappeared within minutes, a sunset developed that just went on and on, triggering a rash of ‘just one more’ photographs. As if that wasn’t enough, two Short-eared Owls displayed across the moorland and we witnessed the wing-clapping of the male but sadly weren’t close enough to hear the female’s ‘barking’ call in response. After such a fabulous day, it was fitting that it ended with our first Otter of the trip, swimming across a calm loch silhouetted against the sunset.
Friday – Glynis goes viral and otter central
The sound of scampering feet above our heads at the crack of ungodly proved to be not Seven but the skipper on pre-breakfast manoeuvres in a bid to leave Loch Eyport early to get ahead of the incoming bad weather. Glynis continued her well-earned reputation of being able to pull an eagle out of thin air by finding two Sea Eagles before breakfast as we left.
A day of sheltering from the wind and rain beckoned as we headed back to Lochmaddy, although after anchoring off Eilean Bhalaig, we were greeted by two Otters which was not a bad start to a soggy day.
Lochmaddy is the only settlement of any size on the east coast of North Uist, as well as the ferry terminal. It also triggered more nostalgic memories for David and Sue, even down to remembering the same two blue buoys in the harbour from a visit 20 years before.
We were all up for an explore, despite the weather, but Seven cannily sheltering behind Pip’s legs on the rib was the driest of all of us by the time we reached the pier. Most of us headed out of the village on a circuit to the Hut of the Shadows, managing to get round most of the walk before the rain arrived in force.
One by one we all drifted soggily back to the café and finally the pier, where we waited for the skipper to wake up and come and rescue us from the deluge. Pier-side life was livened up remarkably though by further antics, which only goes to prove that we were not safe to be let out unsupervised.
One of the life vests hooked over the pier railings decided it was so wet that it must be in the water… and inflated. Of course it had to be Glynis who had the Viagra charged life vest and when she finally put it on, the resemblance to Dolly Parton was uncanny. But what finished us all off was when Pip arrived on the scene with Ruth and Andrew and casually commented, ‘did you know your vest was inflated, Glynis?’ Nope, half of Lochmaddy hadn’t noticed that at all! Next stop Youtube… And a final laugh of the day came when Mark decided to finish off his and my Crème Brulee with a blow torch… as you do.
Saturday – A little light-house-keeping
The next morning saw us hugging the coast as we headed south on a morning of showers and wind with the occasional flash of sun, until we anchored in the bay just north of Ushenish lighthouse. One of the remotest land-based lighthouses in Scotland, the only easy access is from a boat landing and that’s just what we did after lunch, walking out along the track to the headland.
The setting perched on the cliff edge is spectacular with far-ranging views and it was good to sit in the sun and soak up the scene, in between being entertained by a Peregrine teaching the local gulls how to fly and our umpteenth Cuckoo of the trip calling from the heather. On the way back, Margaret and Glynis watched a female Stonechat making inroads into the local butterfly population.
And while most of us walked back along the same track, Andrew (‘I’m just going to take a look at the hill’) set off up said hill at his usual loping pace that no one could keep up with. He was over the top and back down at the landing before the rest of us had even sauntered back on the level path from the lighthouse. Must be all the extra portions he had at mealtimes…
We were aiming for Lochboisdale overnight but the new £10 million harbour facilities proved to be of dubious design for a boat like HB, as Mark found to his cost when we bumped into our mooring, literally, courtesy of the bizarrely designed concrete overhang. With the help of a yachtsman fortunately already there, we eventually tied up to the pontoons which looked flimsy compared to the sturdiness of HB alongside.
Sunday – Shelter from another tempest
We spent the next morning at Lochboisdale and Pip and I went for a walk north of the village where Pip enjoyed her highlight of the trip – superb close views of an Otter playing around on the shoreline. Massed ranks of Cuckoo Flowers brightened the fields surrounding the village, although a less welcome addition was the invasive Gunnera plant overflowing a nearby ditch.
Our overnight destination was the sheltered bay at Vatersay where we sailed in past the remains of an RAF Catalina seaplane that crashed in 1948. As Mark said, we were running out of shelter and Vatersay, being the most southerly inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides, was our last stop before decision time. While we wanted to finish off with Mingulay, the forecast was not promising.
Monday – A frisky sea
In the morning Glynis had clearly found another new way of getting wet as she and Margaret woke to a wee bit of water in a corner of their cabin. Once that was ably sorted by the man with the bucket, we set off, and I’m with Martin in believing that sausage butties should always precede a rough crossing.
Mark was aiming to head south in the direction of Mingulay and see if the swell would allow us to visit but the sea was too frisky so we headed across the Minch, clipping the end of Coll towards the Sound of Mull in a long day’s crossing. I hope I wasn’t the only one enjoying another rolling crossing in the sunshine and showers.
One completely daft habit some of us developed on board was happily taking any amount of sea spray coming over the sides, (especially when Glynis got most of it). Us land-rats put all that in the category of fun but the minute it rained, we all scurried to get indoors…
As we returned down the Sound of Mull, passing Tobermory, a call of ‘porpoise’ from Craig on the upper deck competed with calls of ‘eagle’ from Glynis in the bow. Elaine didn’t know which way to look and missed both…
Seven finally did a ‘productive’ circuit of the boat while we were all enjoying the view or, as Glynis said, now we know why it’s called the poop deck. In cleaning up and in keeping with tradition, Mark managed to chuck most of a bucket of seawater in Glynis’ direction.
The sun had come out by the time we sailed into Ardtornish Bay for our last overnight; another favourite anchorage of mine tucked under the cliffs, with the ridge of Dun da Gaoithe on Mull behind us and the sparse ruins of Ardtornish Castle on the headland on the Morvern shoreline.
We had a glorious evening of calm water, rainbows and distant views and a last Molly special, with the rather forlorn thought that we were all catering for ourselves from tomorrow. We would clearly starve…
Tuesday – Fond farewells
We made an early start on the final leg into Oban, where we had brunch on board before bidding farewell. It was a rather subdued group that enjoyed the last calm and sunny run. As Glynis rightly summed it up, we were all a bit deflated that the voyage had come to an end. Glynis suggested we mount a mutiny and sail straight back out again which we all greeted with enthusiasm but then we remembered we were nearly out of food…
… which was entirely Molly’s fault for being such a superb cook and she was once again single-handedly responsible for an on-board mass shrinkage of trouser waistlines. She fed us too well… and we were all doing our very best to eat the boat bare. And is it my fault I kept being ‘given’ a second pudding? I had to keep Andrew company after all.
But in all seriousness, how she manages to feed 17 people three meals a day and to always be ringing the changes with imaginative menus and coping with a multitude of dietary restrictions is nothing short of amazing – she’s a national treasure. We all decided that on the booking form where it says ‘dietary requirements’, we need to put ‘Molly’s cooking’!
As we staggered off through Oban trying to re-find our land legs and collect our respective cars, it was good to reflect on a superb trip despite indifferent weather curtailing some days. Mark did a brilliant job of making the best of the difficult weather conditions and Craig and Molly looked after us all above and beyond the call of duty.
DID YOU KNOW?
A small bothy on Stac Lee was formerly used by St Kilda fowlers. It is big enough to accommodate two people and is dry inside.