THE BIG THREE – THE FLANNANS, NORTH RONA AND THE SHIANTS

Our regular guest and blogger Irene gives her great account of July’s North Hebridean Explorer cruise:

Wednesday 19th July – Shearing to Canna
The welcome sight of Hjalmar Bjorge anchored alongside the North Pier at Oban as I unloaded my bags allowed a closer inspection of the alterations over the winter… about the only time you can say that having a bigger back end is an improvement. This would be my second attempt at North Rona, something that’s been on the bucket list for a while after reading Frank Fraser Darling’s book, A Naturalist on Rona. We’d made it out there last summer in HB but the conditions weren’t ripe for a landing, although it in no way took the edge of what was a superb cruise, and I was keen to revisit  some of the idyllic spots from the first trip and have another chance at actually landing on Rona.

Ian + Glynis + Irene + Elaine1 by Irene BostonOn this trip, I was travelling with three friends, Glynis, Elaine and Ian. We’d all met two years before on the Shiants cruise and had remained in touch ever since… another instance of friendships developing through travelling with like-minded people on HB. We could only hope that two years was enough time for Mark and the crew to recover from the trauma of having all four of us aboard at the same time. Although it was a bit disconcerting to be given a hello hug by a Mark wearing plastic gloves, but he pointed out that at least he didn’t shake hands wearing them. He then compounded it by calling me Glynis. Clearly the skipper was losing it and we weren’t even aboard yet!

Once settled in with Glynis in the spacious Cabin 2, we joined the rest of the group as introductions were carried out for both passengers and our crew of skipper Mark, crew Anna and Rona, and chef Steve. Mark went through his usual safety briefing which we’d nearly all heard before as most of us were returning passengers, but we listened dutifully with only the minimum of heckling. Although Mark couldn’t resist reminding us all that Glynis had ‘form’ when it came to making life jackets explode and cabins flood. He did get his leg pulled though when he revealed that both the first aid kit and the skipper had been seriously upgraded and he could now give injections, stitch a wound and deliver a baby… he looked a bit disappointed at the end of the cruise that he’d not been called upon to practise any of those.

We set off promptly and as we sailed up the rather choppy Sound of Mull, we all made efforts to break the ice (no, not on the water! It’s summer…) and discussed where we hoped to visit, all of us realistic enough to know that the weather would set the itinerary for the next ten days and dictate which route we’d take and which islands we’d visit. Unfortunately, no eagles of either flavour saw us on our way as we headed out from the shelter of Ardnamurchan into the waters around the Small Isles and it was decision time for Mark.

The hoped for aim tonight was to head for Canna but a brisk SE wind, which was supposed to be veering west and dropping overnight, had Mark pondering the options for our overnight anchorage as we sailed along the SW coast of Rum. Rafts of Manx Shearwaters flushed off the sea ahead of HB for a spot of synchronised shearing as we passed, which sounds like something you’d find at an agricultural show but was far more exciting.

The Manxies were gathering offshore waiting for dusk when it would be safer to risk the flight back to their burrows to feed their chicks, darkness minimising the risk of predators. Manxies may be incredible fliers over the sea, but are poorly suited to moving about on land. Their feet are set far back on their body and a clumsy waddle is about the best they can manage and that makes them vulnerable for the short time between landing and reaching the safety of their burrows.

40% of the UK population and a third of the world’s population, around 100,000 pairs, breed on Rum. Usually only one egg is laid as the adults have to travel long distances to find food, and journeys of 300km have been recorded. They’re usually only able to find enough food to rear one chick. However, the richness of the food provided means that the chicks grow rapidly and by the time they fledge, they can weigh up to a third more than the adults. But they are long lived birds, one of 53 years so far being the oldest recorded.

Phalanxes of shearwaters continued to escort us into Canna Sound and I made the unwise promise that this was dolphin alley as I’d never sailed with HB down Canna Sound before without Common Dolphins bow-riding and escorting us in. Of course, we didn’t see a single dolphin… something I was reminded of all week.

The skipper’s gamble paid off and the wind did indeed drop shortly after we anchored in Canna Harbour, a familiar and favourite anchorage. We all relaxed over the first of many delicious meals prepared by Steve, and it was good to be in the top bunk again watching the sunset gild the water outside the porthole and being rocked gently to sleep.

Thursday 20th July – “Here they come!”
Any overnight rain had cleared and the sun was a Canna8 by Irene Bostonwelcome sight as we breakfasted. A morning ashore was promised and we wasted no time in getting ready to go ashore in the rib, all going our separate ways, with some exploring the bay and visiting the Cafe, or walking as far as Tarbet or Sanday and others heading up onto the plateau and Compass Hill. The flora was as spectacular as I remembered, with orchids blanketing the damp plateau and some of the party had superb views of both Golden and White-tailed Eagles flying over the distinctive basalt geology of the island.

Lunch was eaten on the move as we sailed, aiming for the Sound of Harris and Taransay as an overnight anchorage. We’d hardly cleared the spectacular north cliffs of Canna when the hooter went off, which is usually either Mark’s way of ensuring we’re all awake or that he’s spotted something, and it was like a scene from Dad’s Army as 11 people tried to squeeze through a small doorway all at the same time. It was worth it though as a group of Risso’s Dolphins appeared ahead, a species I’d never seen before, as the Hebrides marks the northern limit of their range. They gave superb views as they swam parallel to us, showing quite clearly the scarring which is a feature of this striking species. They rarely approach vessels or bow-ride as other dolphin species do, so we had to content ourselves with middle distance views.

As if that wasn’t enough, a group of breaching White-beaked Dolphins were sighted ahead but they changed course and pretty much outran us with ease. Heading up the side of Skye with the expanse of the Minch beckoning, the Cuillin off to the east looked magnificent with the Great Stone Shoot prominent in the sunshine. But the dolphins hadn’t finished with us yet and the highlight of the day was a familiar cry of ‘Here they come!’ from one of us at the sudden sight of White-beaked Dolphins converging on us from all sides.

It never fails to amaze me that these magnificent animals choose to change direction and actively swim towards the boat to play in the bow wave ahead of us, giving us all nose to blowhole views that just can’t be beaten. You’re so close when they do this that you can see the white beak that gives this species their name, along with the white flashes along the flanks. They make it look so easy as they pace HB or leap clear out of the water alongside us, even swimming upside down below the bow, or doing a complete barrel roll below you, which is just showing off really. Making eye contact with a dolphin swimming fast on its side looking up at you just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

As we cleared Neist Point, we executed a sharp  left (handbrake turn?) across the Minch aiming for the Sound of Harris… a journey only marginally interrupted by texts from skipper Tim, who we eventually decided was trying to wind us up that we’d just sailed straight past a Humpback off Neist Point. A sail through a calm Sound of Harris led to Toe Head where we turned up the west side of Harris to reach Taransay where a Minke and Porpoise added to the cetacean tally for the day.

Taransay has fortunately survived being used for the famous or infamous BBC Castaway series and is one of my favourite anchorages. A calm evening crowned a superbly relaxing first day and we spent our second night aboard in the sheltered southern bay of Loch na h-Uidhe,  the aptly named loch of the isthmus as it overlooks the low strip of sand dunes which connects the two ends of the island. After dinner, we spent some time identifying the parade of jellyfish around the boat; the delicate Pelagia Noctiluca was a new species for me, together with the more familiar Lion’s Mane and the very distinctive Compass Jellyfish.

Friday 21st July – A scarper round Scarp
Scarp0 by Irene BostonWe left Taransay after breakfast on a bright morning and sailed along the coast of Harris, past the massive sweep of Luskentyre beach and anchored off Scarp, where Mark landed us with a packed lunch to explore for the day; something we all greeted with great enthusiasm as we headed off in different directions. Although we were all distracted on arrival by the slow circuit of an immature White-tailed Eagle which suddenly appeared over the ridge and glided off swiftly to Harris with barely a wing flap.

Scarp’s history includes an episode in 1934 when Gerhard Zucker chose the island as a venue for an early version of an Amazon drone when he experimented with a rocket powered mail delivery but after the fuse was lit, the rocket exploded. Mind you, I’ve had a few parcels arrive from Amazon that looked as if they’d been fired from a rocket…  

Elaine and Ian headed for the highest point and I was soon treated to my usual view of the dynamic duo… a back view disappearing over a distant summit or as silhouettes on a distant ridge. Carolyn, Alison and Iain were not far behind and I followed at a much slower pace, while others opted for a slow potter along the rocky shoreline indented with sandy beaches, and through the mostly deserted village and the cemetery with its Commonwealth war graves. A Viking mill on the north shore was too far to reach in the time available so that’ll have to wait for another trip.

The view from the summit opened out southwardsIB-Scarp1 by Irene Boston with stunning land and seascapes, the combination of the clear blue waters, striking geology and jagged mountains drawing the eye. It was hard to tear myself away from the view but a relaxing descent and circuit around the northern shoreline led to the bays west of the village, where I joined some of the others and we were privileged to watch a mother Otter and cub, feeding along the shoreline. Sitting low down so our outlines didn’t show against the skyline, we were quiet enough to watch the Otters feeding undisturbed; we could even hear the cub squeaking as it followed its mother onto the rocks to feed.

After a day in the sun, with spectacular far reaching views, it was hard to think of a more relaxing way to spend the day. Having been on six cruises with HB so far, I’ve developed a sort of mental top ten of both favourite islands and anchorages but the order keeps shuffling and having experienced it, Scarp is now firmly on that list… although it’s hard to bump something else off the list to make room for it!

At the end of the day we sailed for our next anchorage in Sunset Loch Tamanavay by Irene BostonLoch Tamanavay, all of us scattered about the deck in various states of relaxed stupor. Once anchored, Mark went over the side and we waited for him to either find the previously lost anchor off the rib or scallops for dinner. We were entertained by more Golden Eagles and White-tailed Eagles, both adults and immatures. Young sea eagles roam for a territory of their own until they’re about five years old and are ready to breed. As the anchor might have been a bit chewy, most passengers were relieved when Mark returned to the boat bearing scallops instead.

Another adult Sea Eagle appeared between the main course and pudding and caused a general exodus onto the deck. We were getting niftier at these mass exits from the saloon tables and through one small doorway. As the only vegetarian passenger on this trip, it wasn’t the first time it was pointed out to me that although I was usually served last, I seemed to finish first every time…

Saturday 22nd July – “We’re going where?!”
Immature WTEs and a pair of Red-throated Divers in summer plumage before breakfast wasn’t a bad start to the day as we left Loch Tamanavay, all very excited at the thought that the skipper was heading for the Flannans, 20 miles west of Lewis. It was a completely unexpected bonus for all of us in an already ambitious itinerary. As the profile of the islands neared in what proved to be ideal conditions, HB moved into the relatively sheltered anchorage on the north side of the main island, Eilean Mor, with its lighthouse. Two landing stages were still there, one on the east and one on the west of the island, which in the past increased the chances of supplies and men being able to land in whatever conditions the sea threw at them.

The lighthouse was built by David Stevenson in 1899 and was the setting for a Marie Celeste type mystery, with the disappearance of the keepers in 1900. A relief tender landed to find the lighthouse empty, a meal untouched on the table and the only clue to a rapid exit being an overturned chair. No trace of the men was found, but damage to the equipment around the West Landing, which is over 110ft above the water, perhaps indicates the likely explanation being a phenomenal sea state which swept the keepers off into the sea.  

Flannan Isles16 By Irene BostonMark and Anna headed off in the rib to see if a landing was possible and fixed a rope, via Ferrata style, along a stretch of the cliff where the steps had been washed away. On their return, Mark asked us all to realistically assess our abilities before deciding to attempt the landing. Carrying a neck injury, I chose the safe option just in case I made it worse, although Anna noted with some glee that they’d never had an air sea rescue before. Half of the guests went ashore, including Rona and Steve, and we were slightly alarmed to see our chef leaving us. What about lunch?!

It was entertaining watching those who went ashore negotiating the iron rungs of the initial ladder and then one at a time moving up the slope with the rope as a guide. As always with these tricky landings, you feel you can trust Mark’s judgement, both in terms of making it as safe as possible for anyone landing and also in assessing people’s abilities. He places trust in you too to be sensible, but I’m sure he also spends time on the first few days of any trip working out who is capable of a tricky landing, who might not want to admit they’re not, and who’s likely to be sensible. He does after all have our lives in his hands but he always manages to instil confidence in you and if Mark says he thinks you’re capable of making it, then I’ve learned his opinion is to be trusted. 

Those who opted not to land were not neglected though Flannan Isles24 by Irene Bostonand we were ferried around the island in the rib into an incredible sea cave. Pure geology porn as far as I was concerned, with the crystal clear water and amazing colours of the different strata, together with the rock looming over our heads. Mark even took us round to the southern side of the main island for a look at the other landing, with its built-up steps and remnants of the old railway and crane platform well above the height of most of the waves. 

It was a very peaceful half hour anchored off the island in the rib, examining  the geology and watching the seabirds carrying food for their chicks… although the peace was somewhat broken by Mark moaning he was becoming faint with hunger. Well, he let the chef escape…  

When we finally picked up Rona and Steve, and then later the rest of the passengers, they all commented on the Puffins and sheer overwhelming smell of wildflowers, with masses of Sea Campion still in flower. A Raven was a surprise, although the prize for the sighting of the most bizarre bird of the day went to a racing pigeon whose sat nav had clearly gone awry.

We’d watched the rest of the party come down the steps in varying degrees of care and caution, some shuffling down on backsides and some like Ian and Elaine, true to form, scampering down at speed and overtaking everyone. Lunch on board in the lee of the Flannans is not a sentence I expected to be typing and can’t be something that’s even possible very many times in the year.

Flannan Isles55 by Irene BostonFlannan Isles51 by Irene Boston

Mark then proceeded to earn himself even more brownie points by heading straight for the gannetry on Eilean a’ Ghobha and Roareim, a group of islets a mile or so to the west. As we neared the rocks, the air became filled with the sight and sound of the colony, a snowstorm of Gannets which poured off the cliffs. We sailed right round the sea stacks, the furthest and smallest of which, Mark assured us, was still twice the size of Rockall. The inspiring setting with the mass of whirling birds, the smell and sound of the Gannet colony, the expanse of the open sea beyond, the rafts of auks on the sea and the incredible geology all combined to reduce most of us to an awed silence.

Turning the bow back towards the mainland, we sailed slowly past the lighthouse again, savouring a last look, with the distant smudge of the mainland ahead and we enjoyed a relaxing sail back to Lewis, heading for Loch Carloway. As we anchored, I nipped down for a quick shower and managed to miss a low flyover by an adult WTE… something which became a habit during the week and led to my fellow passengers asking me each day when I was likely to head for the shower so they could make sure they were on deck for the wildlife show. A breezy but warm and sunny evening all helped a relaxing evening on board.

Sunday 23rd July – A double helping of Berneras
Two juvenile Peregrines entertained us over breakfast and nearly everyone went ashore on the rib to visit the Dun Carloway broch. I’d visited it the year before so I stayed on board to watch the Peregrine family, the juveniles ‘playing’ in the air, which is all part of developing the hunting and agility skills needed to survive and learn to hunt for themselves. Like most raptors, their first winter is often the hardest as they roam far from their natal territory and many youngsters don’t make it to their first spring.

We sailed off into Loch Roag and enjoyed lunch on theLanding Little Bernera By Irene Boston hoof – Steve makes a mean homemade soup. We anchored in sunshine off Little Bernera, another new island for me, where we spent the afternoon ashore.  Mark landed us on the shoreline a short distance from the ruins of a fish factory and I joined Ian, Elaine, Reinhard and Glynis on a walk to an isolated beach of Traigh Mhor on the north side.Ian + Elaine + HB Little Bernera by Irene Boston It was an incredibly beautiful spot bordering the lagoon and not for the first time, it confirmed that Scotland’s beaches are a match for anything hotter climes can produce. We found  the unusually complete remains of a Sea Potato, a distinctive sea urchin with a strikingly marked interior and an exterior that felt almost fur-like. Walking back via the ruins of St Donan’s Chapel and around the headland, we were distracted by a mass of Common Blue butterflies and a treat for all of us in the form of a colourful Garden Tiger Moth nowhere near a garden.

A happy afternoon was spent botanising and a simple list of the flora seen doesn’t begin to convey the sheer variety and abundance of the wildflowers on an island not overgrazed by woolly maggots – Creeping Willow, Fairyflax  Lousewort, Yellow Rattle, Self-Heal, Marsh Marigold, Wild Thyme, Slender and Creeping Thistles, Ragged Robin, Yorkshire Fog, Creeping Soft Grass and Red Fescue were just some of the species identified, with Cladophora, a delicate green seaweed that was quite fern-like, ‘waving’ to us from shallow inshore water. Among the many bird species that day, juvenile Stonechats and Wheatears were breeding highlights, along with Snipe, Rock Pipit and Redshank.

Roundhouse Great Bernera0 by Irene BostonAfter picking us up in the rib, Mark treated us to a trip through the narrows of Caolas Cumhang to Great Bernera, which is not technically an island as it’s linked to the Lewis mainland by a bridge. Mark landed us on the beach – one of his speedy catapult landings – and we walked the short distance along the beach to visit the Iron Age settlement of Bostadh where a reconstruction of a roundhouse gives a flavour of what the dwellings were like.

We walked back to the pier to be picked up and HB weaved its way through the various inlets and small satellite islands which make up Loch Roag, and it was a return to Loch Carloway for our second night there. Mark was planning to take advantage of what looked like the only weather window available to get out to North Rona the next day. Another relaxing evening and Mark and Anna took Barbara and Reinhard ashore in the rib to look at the ruins on the shoreline.

Monday 24th July – North Rona & a landing we’ll all remember, in more ways than one!
Sea to North Rona2 by Irene BostonSetting off at 5am marked the start of what proved to be a very long day for the crew… we just had the easy bit, sitting back and enjoy another amazing day. A WTE on the headland saw us on our way and it was the first morning without sunshine but only a moderate swell as we headed for the main objective of the entire trip, North Rona. Mark had been waiting for this weather window and it looked like this was it, approaching bad weather forecast in a few days meaning it was now or never. But what separates HB from other vessels is that you feel confident of getting to remote islands like North Rona when a chance like this opens up, and not only of getting there but of landing too.

Bacon rolls and mounds of toast kept us going SSula Sgeir6 by Irene Bostonas land disappeared behind us and the first Bonxies appeared, cruising along in our wake, along with Storm Petrels and a brief Minke. After a few hours, the smudge of Sula Sgeir and North Rona resolved  into familiar shapes on the horizon and we aimed for Sula Sgeir first. As we sailed past the multi-storey Gannet colony, the rafts of auks on the sea parted for us as HB motored slowly past and it was heartening to see many ‘jumplings’ amongst the adults, indicating a good breeding season.

Moving on to North Rona, we anchored on the south side, with views of the old settlement and the massive lines of the lazy beds, with the lighthouse on Toa Rona occupying Landing North Rona0 by Irene Bostonthe highest point. After lunch and to everyone’s surprise, Mark and Anna assessed a potential landing spot and most of us were able to land. It was a very tricky but doable climb and Mark fixed a line to make the later descent easier. Although when we all got to the top of the rocks and the steep grassy slope and looked back down at what we had just climbed, there was more than one spluttered remark of, “did we really just do that?!”

Heading off to explore the settlement, we risked being Skua’d as the adult Bonxies divebombed us in defence of their chicks as we walked through their territories. You get really good at timing when to duck! We inadvertently walked right past a Great Skua chick by Irene BostonBonxie chick sheltering in the grass and moved swiftly on to the ruins of the monastery, negotiating the deep runnels of the lazy beds and lush pasture. Given its size and remoteness, it’s hard to imagine how North Rona was inhabited continuously at all, let alone for a significant period of time. St Ronan’s Chapel has claims to be one of only a handful of the oldest known structures of the Celtic church. Fulmars were nesting amongst the clefts in the walls and we kept a safe distance from the chicks, not wishing to be covered in the foul smelling oil they spit at you as a defence mechanism… not least because Mark wouldn’t have let us back on the boat!

Puffins, Kittiwakes, Shags, Oystercatchers, Rock Pipit were all expected but the rarest bird seen was probably a Swift and the rarest plant, Cornish Pennywort which has arrived by means unknown but was present in large numbers. Rona, including Sula Sgeir, was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956 for its importance as a breeding ground for all these seabirds, and the island also hosts both Leach’s and Storm Petrels. It’s also one of the largest breeding grounds of Grey Seals; over 7,500 breed here, with more than 2,000 calves born annually.

Then it was time to leave and with everyone helping each other down the first section of rock, we reached the top of the rope Mark had fixed. With the skipper supervising and shepherding everyone down the rope carefully, we all made it back to the rib safely…. some with more style than others. I think Elaine and Ian strolled down with hands in pockets. Much cheering from everyone accompanied and encouraged each safe arrival in the rib, although Glynis did her best to dislocate Mark’s shoulder as she stepped down the final bit by taking his advice to grab his shoulder to steady herself a bit too literally. I took his mind off the pain in his shoulder by landing solidly on his sandaled foot in my final jump. Oddly enough, he was wearing steel -capped wellies the next day… can’t think why.  I believe Glynis’ descent and Mark’s grimace have made it onto film.

We then set off on the return leg of our longest day but one I’m sure none of us would have wanted to miss a minute of it. It was more tiring for the crew of course, who didn’t even have much of a break in the middle of the day as they had to ensure the landing was rigged with rope and they spent time getting us all on and off North Rona safely.

It wasn’t long before a few Storm Petrels fluttered across our bow and White-beaked Dolphins accompanied us, followed by a swift shift change to Common Dolphins as we headed into the northern end of the Minch. Sailing down the eastern side of Lewis, dinner was eaten swiftly on the hoof and with many interruptions. As the light began to fade, more White-beaks escorted us past Tiumpan Head but we couldn’t rustle up the Humpback which had been the highlight of last year’s trip at the same spot. It was pretty gloomy by the time we arrived off the Eye Peninsula at around 11pm, the last half hour of increased concentration spent looking for buoys as the light faded, the extra pairs of eyes on deck doing their best to help the skipper.

Tuesday 25th July – Unexpectedly smooth sailing across the Minch
A calm but cloudy morning greeted us as we breakfasted in the bay. The plan was to aim for the Shiants, with the prospect of a swift crossing of the Minch to get ahead of the bad weather arriving from the west. The impressive basalt cliffs of the Shiants loomed closer, the columnar structures had formed as the magma cooled and then fractured into hexagonal columns. We anchored on the eastern side of Garbh Eilean as the skies filled with a blizzard of Puffins.

Shiants4 by Irene BostonA morning treat was a few hours ashore on House Island, which completed an almost unbelievable hattrick of landings on what are difficult to reach islands. We were ferried ashore on the rib, with Mark doing his best impersonation of Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, as he sported wellies and shorts. He only needed a string round his waist to complete the fetching picture.

Glynis and I wandered to the top of the island, the flora richer than I remembered with no sheep around to graze it to the level  of a bowling green. We clocked up Sneezewort, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Asphodil and early Scabius already in flower, Eyebright, both Bell and Ling Heather, English Stonecrop, Common Reed and Flag Iris in just a short visit. And the eradication of the rats seems to have had an impact already on the numbers of ground nesting small birds, which seem to be thriving in larger numbers than before (I can hear Mark’s cries of phooey from here!). We saw Stonechat, Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Twite, Bonxies, Skylark, Snipe, Raven and Peregrine.

After lunch, we started our crossing from the Shiants towards Skye and it soon became apparent that the threatened bad weather was delayed and as the sea calmed and the sun came out, Mark treated us to a leisurely sail along the north west coast of Skye with its incredible geology. The sheer spectacle of this volcanic coast can only really be appreciated to the full from the sea, as one massive cliff face followed another as we passed Dunvegan Head and the airy perch of Biod an Athair. Next up was Neist Point and its lighthouse on Skye’s most westerly point, with Waternish, Waterstein and the Macleods Maidens drawing the eye. Apparently skipper Tim was watching us from dry land – if we’d known, we’d have waved!

More bow-riding White-beaked Dolphins distracted Loch Harport to Cuillins2 by Irene Bostonus from the scenery and we logged Porpoises and Minkes before turning into Loch Bracadale and then swinging into Loch Harport where we anchored off Carbost. This immediately made it onto my list of top ten anchorages, not least for the presence of the Talisker distillery on the shoreline but chiefly for the breathtaking view of the Cuillin at the head of the loch. Another very tasty dinner was followed by a slumber party on the back deck as the Cuillin turned pink in the setting sun, although a duvet had to be produced to stop Mark whingeing about his cold knees. It was a real privilege and very fitting to listen to the Rona’s haunting playing, accompanied by Glynis singing.

Wednesday 26th July – The weather breaks, briefly
The night before, Mark had dangled the promise of a morning visit to the Talisker distillery if the weather cooperated, which perked us up, as you can imagine, but sadly the weather gods heard us and cruelly snatched away our chance to top up on essential fluids. The forecast was actually worse than Mark had hoped for and we had to cut and run. We’d been incredibly lucky with the weather so far, so it was with only mild disappointment that we left, with good views of White-tailed Eagles on the way out in the rain, our first rain of the entire trip. While the rest of the country had been deluged with rain and strong winds, we were bathed in sunshine and dry weather, as I found out by ringing home to Norfolk regularly where all I’d had week was a tale of woe. Whoever tells you that Scotland is wet the entire time has never been there…

Enjoying the rolling seas, we passed the Small Isles between Canna and Rum, rounding Eigg and Muck before heading for the shelter of the Sound of Mull. The rain off Ardnamurchan Point cleared enough for us to see more WTEs as we approached Tobermory and we were lucky enough to get onto a pontoon in the harbour, which gave us the chance for a wander round civilisation in the afternoon.

Thursday 27th July – A fitting finale in Loch Spelve
We set off promptly after breakfast and a chorus of Happy Birthday for Carolyn and sailed down the Sound of Mull in a mixture of sunshine and showers, with a choppy turn around Duart Castle out into a fairly wild Firth of Lorne. The conditions eased, the rain stopped and the sun came out as we sailed through the Croggan Narrows and into the relative calm of Loch Spelve.

After lunch, Mark landed us by the pier in the rib and we headed off for one of my favourite walks along the shore at Croggan and round to Portfield, all very familiar territory as a regular devotee to Mull. We couldn’t find the usual Croggan Otters but the walk was enlivened by Grey Wagtails, Swallows, House Martin, Redpolls, and a recently fledged Spotted Flycatcher. The sandy bays near Portfield produced Common Tern, Rock Pipit, Dunlin and Ringed Plover and we watched a Hen Harrier quartering the slopes of Carn Ban, along with good views of Golden Eagles.

We were picked up from the same spot and an adult WTE perched on a rocky outcrop in mid loch watched as we headed back to HB. We sailed to a more sheltered anchorage and moored off Inverlussa, with two adult WTEs giving great views as we went. As we waited for our final dinner, we had occasional views of Otter, and it was fitting for our final evening that we had cake for Carolyn’s birthday and broke out the champagne to celebrate chef Steve’s new winter job with the British Antarctic Survey.

Friday 28th July – Over too soon
An early morning departure out of Loch Spelve and across the Firth in calmer conditions passed all too quickly and we headed up the eastern side of Kerrera, which is always a more scenic return route to Oban, where we were lucky again with space on the North Pier. After a valiant effort to eat up every bit of leftover food on board, we all set off to collect our cars and as always, the crowded streets of Oban were a bit of a shock to the system after ten days of hardly seeing anyone but our fellow passengers. After loading the cars, we all departed in various directions and addresses were exchanged as more than one new friendship had been forged on this very memorable trip.

Even though it was technically the same trip I’d undertaken last year, we only repeated two overnight anchorages and visited a completely new group of islands, as well as some old favourites. Our total tally of White-tailed Eagles was 23 and we saw four Golden Eagles. It’s easy to run out of superlatives to describe the islands, scenery and wildlife we’d experienced and we’d have been happy with a landing on just one of the islands we visited but we got three, four if you count Scarp. It was a dream list. And Glynis didn’t explode or flood anything… so Mark reckons we got off lightly!