Guest Tony has kindly provided the following account of our July Outer Hebridean Explorer cruise, with lovely illustrations by fellow guest Linda:
We embarked from Oban around 4.00 and made a wet and windy passage up the Sound of Mull. While there were plenty of gannets, cormorants and shearwaters around, the low clouds prevented any chance of seeing eagles on the tops. We anchored in the calm shelter of Loch na Drama Buidhe where we enjoyed a welcome dinner.
Sunday 17.7.16 – Loch na Droma Buidhe to North Uist – 70 miles
Leaving the shelter of the loch we were exposed to low cloud, rain and rough sea. Whilst a few of us suffered down below hardier souls on the bow managed to see a pod of dolphins. We stopped at Canna for lunch and then proceeded to North Uist where we anchored on Loch Eport. There we saw red deer on the horizon and a family of cormorants.
Sadly we woke up to another driech day with clouds low on the hills but at least it was drier. On the way to Ensay we enjoyed the spectacle of groups of gannets repeatedly diving like guided missiles, clouds of shearwaters skimming the waves, seals popping their heads out of the water and a sighting of a Minke whale. We went ashore and walked around the derelict Ensay House (for sale if you are interested) and chapel (with a ‘mouseman’ door) up to the standing stone. Round the headland views of a long sandy beach backed with sand dunes opened up.
After lunch we sailed up the choppy Sound of Harris to Taransay. Following a beach landing we visited the derelict bothy and walked round the beach on the far side of the isthmus. The machair was particularly impressive with an abundance of vegetation in the boggy habitat including cross leaved heath, bog asphodel, sundew, butterwort, cranberry, tormentil, silverweed, eyebright, birdsfoot trefoil, ragged robin and bog pimpernel. Returning along the beach we were entertained by a group of sanderlings feeding on the edge of the water running to and fro with each wave in perfect synchronicity.
Tuesday 19.7.16 – Taransay to Harris – 20 miles
Sun glinting through the cabin porthole heralded a more promising day – a blue sky streaked with white cloud. We chugged along the coast with views of more gannets diving and entered an attractive sandy beached bay with all the characteristics of a south sea island except for the heat and palm trees. We went ashore on Scarp at a jetty where there was a small community. A climb to the cairn at the top of the hill revealed impressive views all around, a good place to eat lunch. While some went further to see the remains of a Viking mill others returned to the beach with the opportunity for a swim.
We returned to the boat around 2.00 and moved on to an inlet on the Harris mainland, a beautiful protected cove. We set off on foot with the intention of visiting some black houses but the terrain and general bogginess defeated us. Nevertheless it was an interesting walk along the loch side, over a mountain stream and up on to the top of the crag. On the way we enjoyed a pleasant chat with the local ghillie. The day was nicely rounded by Mark diving for fresh scallop which were expertly cooked by Steve and washed down with white wine. Everyone was in good spirits after a very enjoyable day.
Wednesday 20.7.16 – Harris to St Kilda – 61 miles
Despite dramatic thunder and lightning accompanied by torrential rain during the night the day dawned with a grey but broken sky. Mark announced that today was our best chance of reaching St Kilda. At 6.30 we set a westerly course with spectacular views of the land receding in the distance. There was a lot of bird activity with gannets returning to land in tightly formed squadrons, terns following the boat and puffins on the water suddenly diving or flying off in a laboured takeoff. We went through a fog bank but thankfully emerged into a clearing sky and caught sight of Boreray in the distance. The number of birds returning to the island steadily increased as we approached the western face of the island with Stac an Armin to the right. As we drew near to the base of the towerering cliffs the experience of the height of the island topped with cloud and the cacophony of gannets, fulmers and kittiwakes wheeling above us was overwhelming. Circling close to the steep cliffs we observed lines of birds perched on the white guano dripping ledges. On the far side we pulled close to the mass of Stac Lee below the overhanging top experiencing the enveloping sight, sound and smell of the nesting birds.
We pressed on to Hirta turning the headland to gain our first view of Village Bay. The street of houses was clear to see but dwarfed by the mass of the island sloping up behind to high peaks clouded in swirling mist and the jagged cliffs of Dun to the left. The landscape was littered with cleits, walls and enclosures giving an impression of a once thriving self sufficient community. Ignoring the army base and radar installations we were moved by the actuality of the place about whose history we had all read and endeavoured to imagine the lives of the island’s isolated and ultimately doomed population. We went ashore and while some of our group looked around the village others sought the heights of Conachair. A climb to the top punctuated by being hounded by skuas protecting their nests built on the cleits was ultimately rewarded by the cloud parting to reveal the vista of the tiny village and bay below. After a quick visit to the National Trust shop we returned to the boat to spend the night quietly in the bay.
Thursday 21.7.16 – Hirta to the Monach Isles – 49 miles
We started the day by circumnavigating Dun and Hirta. We passed the sharp rocks and cliffs of Dun and sailed round the back Hirta with its soaring cliffs. Through the Sound of Soay we were tossed on the exciting sea race through the narrow gap to emerge in Glen Bay with seals, dramatic rock formations and waterfalls. We saw numerous gannets, fulmars, puffins, black guillemots and black backed gulls nesting and circling. Moving into the open sea the distinctive outline of Boreray with its two stacs crowned with just a dusting of cloud slowly disappeared in the distance.
We sailed on towards the Monach Isles accompanied by a variety of seabirds. Despite flashes of blue sky the clouds increased and by the time we arrived it was driving rain. We landed on the flat expanse of the centre isle which was separated from the other two by the rising tide. Despite the weather we enjoyed the unusual pink and grey striped rock and the lush machair. On the far side of the island we glimpsed the seals in the water. The grasslands were a mosaic of flowers and plants including red and white clover, wild celery, lady’s bedstraw, yellow pansies, yarrow, wild thyme and thistles.
Friday 22.7.16 – Monach Isles to Mingulay – 63 miles
A surprisingly fine day dawned. After breakfast we sailed round the islands and headed off for Barra Sound following the coast of South Uist and Eriskay. The sea was calm but we saw only the occasional gannet or skua. Houses and wind farms on the mainland reminded us of habitation in the isles. Having navigated the sound we passed a series of small islands; Fuday, Gighay, Hellisay, Floday, Fuley. We continued past Vatersay, Sandray and Pabbay until we came to Mingulay, a very handsome and enticing island with a fine beach and grasslands leading up to high cliffs. We went ashore in a strong swell and walked up to the school and the ruined village.
Having no sheep to graze the sward was awash with wild flowers including an abundance of orchids. The puffins nesting on the cliffs beckoned and we found that sitting quietly next to a group of puffins was a magical experience. At close quarters we saw them emerge from their burrows, stand on the ledge in a group and circle in large flocks around the bay and close over our heads. We spend a joyful hour observing and photographing the colourful puffins amused by their ungainly landings and takeoffs and frantic flapping of short stubby wings. Some of our party climbed up to the cliffs at the rear of the island and were in awe of the sheerness of the rocks.
Saturday 23.7.16 – Mingulay to Sandray – 17 miles
Seals were lined up on the beach as the tide came in. We moved on to Barra Head (Berneray) where we made a difficult landing on a high jetty. Passing some ruined houses we walked the path up to the lighthouse at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Beyond the building was a well preserved Iron Age hill fort perched precariously on the cliffs with extensive views along the more rugged and precipitous side of the island. Returning to the boat we took a tour of the far sides of Barra Head and Mingulay. The cliffs and crags were precipitous and sharp with dramatic arches and caves at sea level. We returned to the eastern side through the Sound of Mingulay where the water was running fast and passed Pabbay with a grand arch rock formation that is apparently a severe challenge for experienced climbers. We reached Sandray where we moored at Bagh Ban before transferring to the beach which is said to be the Queen’s favourite spot though we did not see it at its best as the showers turned to rain. After a short walk through spiky marram grass we followed the line of the sand dunes to return thankfully to the boat.
Sunday 24.7.16 – Sandray to Loch Buie, Mull – 90 miles
A fine day dawned for our long journey home. With clearing skies we made good time and Mark decided to take a course through Gunna Sound between Coll and Tiree. We proceeded with the Paps of Jura in the distance passing the Dutchman’s Cap, a distant Staffa and Iona. We saw a Minke whale, some seals and a group of white beaked dolphins who joined us briefly. As we rounded Mull we were intrigued by the banded rock formations and basalt columns in the cliffs. On approaching our night’s anchorage at Loch Buie the rain started but later cleared giving way to sun and rainbows.
Monday 25.7.16- Loch Buie to Oban – 21 miles
We had a quiet and uneventful return to Oban arriving at 9.30 for a final full cooked breakfast. Having covered a total of 432 miles we disembarked and made sad farewells and expressed thanks Mark and his crew, Anna, Steve and Lise for a memorable holiday.
Text by Tony Broadbent, Artwork by Linda Moss
DID YOU KNOW?
Monachs. The main islands of Ceann Ear, Ceann Iar and Shivenish are all linked at low tide. At one time it was possible to walk all the way to Baleshare, and on to North Uist, five miles away at low tide.