Our second private charter of the year welcomed back returning guests plus 2 new faces, one of whom (Sarah) gives us her account of the cruise: (photos by Michelle Baron)
Saturday July 9th – Oban to Tobermory, Mull – there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing
We drive through torrential rain, low cloud, and mist on the way north past Loch Lomond. Fortified by soup and cake at Cruachan where even the pine martens had hidden away from the rain, we press on towards Oban. As we arrive into Oban, the cry goes up “ship, ahoy!” The Hjalmar Bjorge is sighted in the harbour – no small feat given the reduced visibility.
We’re all glad to get on board, select our cabins for the next week, and partake of scones with cream and jam. After a short debate on the merits of the Devon v Cornwall methods, we are ready to meet the crew. Tim – our trusty skipper, Michelle – our ship’s mate, and Steve – our cook. Tim gives us a thorough safety briefing, including what to do in the case of man overboard. If you’re reading a book, you should rip out and throw pages in the direction of the person. For a moment, I do wonder what to do if I’m reading my kindle…
Full steam ahead (well near enough) and we are on our way to Tobermory on Mull for the night. It’s pretty wet and murky. The waterfalls we see en route at Ardnamurchan have an interesting feature – some of the water is blowing up hill! With all the fresh air, there are several attacks of yawning, and people feeling sleepy.
The sun breaks through the clouds just as we arrive into our anchorage at Tobermory and see the colourful houses. Time for a G&T then dinner and everyone has worked up a good appetite, even though it’s not long since we had scones. I begin to realize that my shipping knowledge is woefully lacking as some technical talks take place. Also, some of the discussions on which islands to visit are like double Dutch until Tim comes in with the charts to plot a course for the next day. We are going to be affected by strong winds.
Sunday 10th July – Tobermory, Mull to Loch Na Dal, South Skye via Canna and Sanday – some lumpy water
No sign of the sun as we wake in Tobermory harbour, but Hebridean Princess, and Magellan, a cruise ship, have joined us, the Magellan is a cruise ship that goes round the world and we wonder if there’s a trip advertised as Sydney, Cape Horn, Tobermory.
As we head northwards, the cloud comes further and further down the hills, and we hit some “lumpy” water (in the words of Tim). Seasickness claims its first victims with some feeling a bit worse for wear.
Everyone perks up after some hearty soup for a landing on Canna – a new island for all of us. Coming into the harbour, we can already see a couple of churches, one of which is very ornate, for a pair of islands that now only have a population of 21. Fully waterproofed up, we land and set off to explore. A very decorative iron gate, and some beautiful fuschia bushes mark the entrance to the first church we come to, which is Protestant. It’s in the middle of a serious leaky problem, with several buckets on hand.
We head up the hill and are surrounded by some very tame birds, including baby swallows, who are being fed by their parents. Some good close up shots result from the keen photographers. A sandy beach is on the other side of the island, with definite volcanic content, as the sand is swirls of black and grey. We also see the prison built into the cliff where, according to legend, John MacLeod imprisoned his daughter Mor for having an affair. Either way, it looked pretty grim! On the way back down, we also spot a hare having a holiday on the edge of the beach.
Exploration takes place around Canna House, which must have been a beautiful home in its day. Everything is somewhat overgrown, including the archway up to the house, which is decorated with knitted pom-poms. Our route takes us past the (working) red telephone box, and the Canna post office (a small green shed). To everyone’s amusement, there are also two public toilets, so more resources than the average mainland village by far. We pass St Columba’s chapel, which is considerably cosier than the Protestant church, and has some lovely stained glass. There’s also a small museum of various island life artefacts.
As we head towards the bridge to Sanday, we finally see some signs of life, with a few houses, small children, and the school. The bridge is a fairly sturdy affair, and after crossing, there is a shrine to Mary, complete with stained glass, and a couple of whale vertebrae. Finally we’re approaching the ornate Catholic church, but there it’s the opposite of the Tardis – smaller on the inside than the outside. Some beautiful touches, but it feels unloved and like it hasn’t been finished. We can’t get into the tower, but the view from up there must be spectacular.
Back onto the boat from a shingle beach, and it’s time for cake. Sponge with strawberries in honour of Wimbledon. We hear that Andy Murray is one set up, and when we get some mobile reception, he’s won! Everyone is pleased, with none of the stress that comes from watching him play.
Monday 11th July – Loch Na Dal, South Skye to Portree via Rona (South) – pay the landing fee!
The clouds are still low, and practically touching the water in some places. The water at our anchorage is like a millpond, with some good reflections. After some fried egg rolls, we get underway passing through the narrow passage at Kylerhea and through the murk we pass under the Skye Bridge. Full waterproofs are still required to brave the deck.
After another warming soup lunch, we set off on for Rona. Paying our £1 each landing fee, the walk up a steep hill warms everyone up, and layers are being removed as we spot an amazing view back down to the harbour where our boat is nestling with some others. Compared to Canna and Sanday, the island feels quiet, with few birds, and little wildlife.
The most energetic march off ahead, and are quickly out of sight. The rest of us discover the two holiday cottages, and there’s much discussion of who would want to come to Rona on holiday, and how everything would get transported up the steep and windy track. The beach is mainly kelp, and that’s pretty much all that can be said about it. We meet a Dutch couple who have sailed all the way from the Netherlands, and who we’re to spot in various other locations during the week.
As we venture further up the hill, there are lots of deserted stone houses in various states of ruin. The sound of the nearby wind turbine makes it seem like the Teletubbies are about to pop out from behind a grassy mound.
On the way back we meet the energetic ones who are wet and muddy up to the ankles. The “path” to the other side of the island had turned out to be a small stream and not really worth following. Enthusiasm not dampened, they set off for the Cathedral Cave. It turns out that Cathedral Cave and the natural altar was nothing more than a cave, a big flat stone, and a plastic bag containing some bibles. Not quite up to the picturesque churches of Canna and Sanday.
Avoiding the rough conditions and the wind, we anchor in Portree harbour. After dinner, there are some beautiful reflections, and what we can see of the sunset is stunning. It’s time for an early night.
Tuesday 12th July – Portree to South Harbour, Scalpay via the Shiant Islands – puffins galore!
Tuesday dawns and we have been promised some puffins today. We leave early to get up to the Shiant Islands. While we munch on bacon rolls, Tim lets us know that the forecast is looking better. As we sail alongside Skye, the Old Man of Storr on Skye was just visible poking out through the clouds (marginally higher than yesterday). We pass alongside the first of many basalt columns that we’ll see today and get a good view of the Mealt waterfall at Kilt Rock, which I am told is much more impressive from the sea than from the viewing platform on the cliff top.
Glimpses of pieces of blue sky increase throughout the morning, and by the time we approach the Shiants, the barometer must have moved from Change to Fair. As we near the islands, birds appear everywhere – gannets, razorbills, guillemots, and yes, plenty of puffins! The binoculars are out in full force with pictures being taken ten to the dozen. The puffins seem to be a bit shy on the water and dive under just as we get close by.
All aboard the rib and we have a look at landing on a shingle beach between two of the islands, but the swell is pretty high. While we move further along the coast to some rocks, we get some idea of just how many birds there actually are on the rocky cliffs and grass ledges. Everywhere you look there are birds!
The island designers have worked wonders on the Shiants, and built in a dramatic archway beneath the cliffs for us to go through on the rib. As we circle back around, we make a landing next to some rocks. It’s a bit of a clamber onto the stony beach, but well worth it. The keen ones scramble up the rocks and grassy banks to get closer to the puffins, while others break open the packed lunch and take it all in. It’s possible to get really close to the birds and there’s something to look at in every direction. Those who make it to the top meet three RSPB researchers who are looking into invertebrates, so we aren’t quite alone, but it certainly feels that not many people have explored here. The sun comes out just as we load back onto the rib, which makes the day even better.
On the second try, we make it onto the shingle beach without too many wet feet, and set out in search of Adam Nicolson who recently made a TV programme about the islands for the BBC. We find the house, some sleeping pods, a tent, so there are clear signs of life. For those who saw the programme, the most exciting part is discovering the fresh water well, and the actual Prestige saucepan that he used to gather drinking water.
We’re all a little sad to leave behind the birds, but we’re not long underway before a pod of bottlenose dolphins are alongside us! Having watched a video of dolphins from the 2014 trip, I’m really excited, and have never seen dolphins swim alongside the bow in such numbers. It’s even better as the sun is now shining and the water is turquoise blue.
Now, it turns out that the Shiant Islands have been talked about for many years in the family, so visiting them is a long held wish for many. Another place of family legend is the island of Scalpay, but for quite different reasons. We were to see for ourselves when we were put ashore. After passing under the Scalpay bridge – on a smaller scale than Skye, but at least half a dozen cars pass over while we’re on the way. The tone of Scalpay is set fairly early when we pass the Free Church, and then the Free Church (Continuing). Nobody can quite agree on why they split, but it’s clear we are in a very religious place. The Scalpay Play Area is padlocked, and has a huge sign saying “CLOSED ON SUNDAYS”. The concrete ship is the main ‘tourist attraction’ in Scalpay, which probably sums up the island.
Back on the boat, it feels like it’s been such a long day and there are a few moments when almost everyone is reviewing their photos.
Wednesday 13th July – South Harbour, Scalpay to Loch Sgiopoirt, South Uist via Ensay – a whale of a day
After the excitement of yesterday, we’re wondering how Tim can top it today. A few of us had been talking wistfully about white sandy beaches, and it turns out there’s one on order for today. A first for the Hjalmar Bjorge, it’s the island of Ensay.
Straight after breakfast we see our first Minke whale of the day. Another Minke whale follows swiftly when it surfaces really close to the boat and shows us its mouth. We soon learn that when the engine note changes, Tim has spotted something and all rush to the front of the boat, cameras and binoculars in hand. (Coats don’t always make it, which means that the rush outside is followed by a rush back inside for yet another cup of tea or coffee and a raid on the biscuit tin – regularly restocked by Michelle). As the morning passes, yet more Minke whales appear to guide us on our way, by the end of the day more Minkes had apparently been seen in a single day than on any previous trip.
We turn into the sound of Harris as the sun comes out. There are stunning views of the south coast of Harris while we pass Leverborough and see Chaipaval in the distance. The house on Ensay comes into view at the top of a beautiful white sandy cove, with turquoise water shining in the sun. We can hardly believe the weather after the start of the trip, it’s the type of day that has people saying I thought you were going to Scotland not the Caribbean when they see your photos!
When we get into the rib, Michelle does mention that it’s the most varied footwear for a landing she’s ever seen – we’ve got everything from shorts and sandals to wellies and waterproof trousers. The water is so clear, and we can see the sand as we come into land. A quick clamber over some rocks and we’re down onto the beautiful beach.
Apart from some sheep, and some cattle that come into view later on, it’s clear that we’re the only ones on the island. I do toy with the idea of a Scottish island based version of “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie, but there are houses across the Sound that you could signal to, even if the weather prevented a rescue party!
Ensay House is unfortunately in a bad state of repair, despite some patches done to the roof. The trip bible (The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith) reliably informs us that the whole island is for sale for £0.5m, and on a day like today, every one of us would buy it. In the middle of winter, it might look a bit different! The small church has been secured against the elements, and there’s the grave of John Brooke David F.R.C.S. 1912 – 1979 of Ensay House. It reads that “He loved this place” and we could all see why.
A standing stone is visible on the top of the hill, and most of the island is covered in grass with intermittent buttercups and wild flowers. The sheep don’t want to come too close, so we’re free to meander round the island. Michelle impresses us all by running around the island, although has to fight off an army of horse flies as she heads along the other white sandy beach (as if one wasn’t enough for this beautiful place!)
I have a brief experiment with sun bathing with T-shirt, wellies, and waterproof trousers, before I decide I shouldn’t wimp out and go for a paddle. Despite the sunshine, it’s still freezing. The crew put us to shame as they strip down to undies and run into the water. We make sure to record the moment for posterity. Not sure if it’ll make it onto the official website along with the picture of them in their official Hjalmar Bjorge jackets.
Everyone is a little reluctant to leave the island, and we have the feeling that we almost don’t want more people to find out about its charms. The sunset creates some lovely pink clouds to finish off the day.
Thursday 14th July – Loch Sgiopoirt, South Uist to Loch Spelve, Mull via Tobermory – ‘eight’ in the sun (or alfresco dining)
It’s like the holiday has accelerated towards the end. We make an early start again as we’ve got a long trip across the Minch. The weather forecast is good, and we’re spotting whales and porpoises almost before we’ve had breakfast. We stop next to the Hyskeir lighthouse in the hope of spotting a basking shark, but there are only some seals around.
It’s so mild that we’re all sitting out on deck, and Tim gives a warning about the strength of the sun on the water! Compared to being covered from head to toe earlier, it’s a good problem to face. Michelle decides that we’ll christen the new picnic table at the front of the boat by having lunch outside. Tarka dhal with naan bread goes down nicely, made even better by the amazing views.
The difference returning into Tobermory is amazing. I keep on saying – did we pass this on the way out? Lots of the scenery was buried in the clouds or the general murk. It’s a different story today.
Tobermory doesn’t tempt any of us to part with a lot of money (even after being starved of retail therapy), but does do a good ice cream. Whisky marmalade is a particularly niche flavour but goes down well.
Steve’s healthy version of flapjacks also goes down well, and some pre-dinner drinks are called for as our holiday nears its end. A final dinner and the chocolates are finished off. It must be our last evening.
Friday 15th July – Loch Spelve, Mull to Oban – just in case you thought summer had arrived…
The cloud has descended and it’s a grey start to the morning. On the point as we leave Loch Spelve, we spot a golden eagle (well, those who are on deck in time). The eagle is perched on a rock looking rather wet and miserable. We sail up the Sound of Kerrera, and just as we reach Oban, the heavens open. There’s a tricky manoeuvre to tie up alongside the Flying Dutchman and another sailing boat. The weather doesn’t bother us for a while, because there’s the small matter of the end of trip fry up to deal with. Mark (the boss) and Anna (his wife), both of who were on our last trip in 2014, join us for the meal and there’s more than enough to go round.
After that, and all too soon, we’re packed up, and part of a bag passing line across the boats, and up onto the quay. We left Oban in heavy rain, and it’s even heavier now we’ve returned. It’s a fond farewell to the Hjalmar Bjorge and her crew, as we head home after a great trip.
DID YOU KNOW?
Atlantic puffins have penguin-like colouring but they sport a colourful beak that has led some to dub them the "sea parrot". The beak fades to a drab grey during the winter and blooms with colour again in the spring.